Also by Molly MacRae
“But where will we find the real story? Where will we find the dirt? Where . . .” The end of Phillip Bell’s question disappeared as he paced the stage in the small auditorium at the Holston Homeplace Living History Farm, hands behind his back. The two dozen high school students in the audience tracked his movements like metronomes. I watched from the door, where I could see their faces.
Phillip, who couldn’t have been ten years older than the youngest student, screwed his face into a puzzle of concentration as he continued pacing. He brought one hand from behind his back to stroke the neat line of beard along his chin. If he hadn’t been dressed in a mid-nineteenth-century farmer’s heavy brogues, brown cotton trousers, linen shirt, and wide-brimmed felt hat, he would have looked like a freshly minted junior professor. The students’ reactions to him were as entertaining as Phillip himself.
Without warning, Phillip jerked to a stop, swiveled to face the students, and flung his arms wide. “Where?” he asked. “Where are the bodies buried?”
Startled, the teens in the front row jumped back in their seats. The boy nearest me recovered first. He slouched down again, stretching his long legs out so his feet rested against the edge of the stage. He smirked at his neighbor, then turned the smirk to Phillip.
“In the cemet—” the boy started to say.
Phillip flicked the answer away. “No, no, no. Not the cemetery. Boring places. Completely predictable.”
“Unlike Phillip Bell,” a woman’s voice said behind my left ear. “Full of himself, isn’t he? What a showman.”
I glanced over my shoulder to smile at Nadine Solberg. She’d crossed the carpeted hall from her office without my noticing. She didn’t return my smile. She was watching Phillip as raptly as the students and gave no indication that she expected an answer to her comment. I turned back to watch, too.
“No,” Phillip said to the students, “there’s someplace better than cemeteries. That’s besides the fact that no living Holston—or anyone else—is going to let us dig up his sainted Uncle Bob Holston or Aunt Millie Holston from the family plot. And you can bet that is chiseled in stone. Not chiseled on a gravestone, though.” The students laughed until they realized Phillip wasn’t laughing with them. When their laughter died, he turned and stared at the boy who’d brought up cemeteries. “You aren’t a Holston, are you?”
The boy started to open his mouth, then opted for a head shake. Under Phillip’s continued stare, the long legs retracted and the boy dropped his gaze to the open notebook in his lap.
Phillip looked around the room. “Are any of you Holstons? Last name? Unfortunate first name? Anyone with a suspicious H for a middle initial?”
Students shook their heads, looked at one another.
“Just as well,” Phillip said. “The Holston clan might not like what I’m about to tell you. Have you got your pencils ready? Take this down. Two words. Two beautiful words describing some of the most interesting places on earth. Some of my favorite places. Much less predictable than cemeteries.” He turned a pitying look on the formerly smirking boy. “And that makes them so much better than cemeteries. Where are we going to find the real stories? Two words. ‘Garbage dump.’ Yes sir, I love a good old garbage dump. ‘Old’ being the operative word.”
“Will your ladies and a crazy quilt be able to compete with Phillip and his garbage dump?” Nadine asked in my ear.
“I think we can hold our own, although ‘crazy’ might be the operative word in our case. Is Phillip always ‘on’ like this?” We watched as he described the contents of a nineteenth-century household dump in loving detail.
“You should have seen him when he interviewed for the assistant director position,” Nadine said. “He wore a purple frock coat. He looked like the Gene Wilder version of Willy Wonka, and he gave the search committee a tour of the Homeplace like they’d never heard before. As I said, quite the showman.”
“And it worked. You hired him.”
“Yes, I did.”
There was something in her voice that made me turn my back on Phillip Bell’s theatrics and look at her more closely. What I saw was the usual impeccable Nadine Solberg, director of the state-owned historic farm—a site people in Blue Plum liked to describe as Colonial Williamsburg on a personal scale, ignoring the fact that it was a nineteenth-century farm instead of an eighteenth-century town. Slim, silver, successful, and sixty, is how my friend Ardis Buchanan described Nadine. Sparkling would usually suit Nadine, too, but the sparkle was missing today.
“How’s he working out?” I asked. “Are you happy with him?”
“I am,” she said. “He’s only been here six weeks, though, and the Holston jury is still out.”
Nadine’s unease was easy to understand. She was new at the site, too, though not as new as Phillip. She’d been the state’s solution—plucked from a position with the Historical Commission in Nashville and dropped into this job in tiny Blue Plum—when the former director had resigned without notice four months earlier. Not only had Nadine taken over without benefit of a transition period, but she’d inherited a search already in progress for the site’s first full-time professionally qualified assistant director. It was a search fueled by private money raised by well-heeled Holstons from Houston, Texas, who knew how to make things happen.
“They’ve been miracle workers,” Nadine said. “They’re kind and generous people.”
“But that generosity comes with hidden costs?” I asked, thinking of the strings a powerful family might attach to the money they donated.
“You will never hear those words from my lips,” she said.
“Ms. Solberg?” Phillip called. “Ms. Rutledge? Coming on the tour?”
Nadine stepped past me into the room. “Unfortunately for me, there’s a meeting I can’t miss. But I’ll see you all back here in an hour or so. We’ll have snacks and cold drinks in the education room, and then we’ll get down to the nitty-gritty of Hands on History.” She paused. “Unless by then you’ve buried yourselves in Mr. Bell’s garbage dump and can’t pull yourselves out.”
The students laughed. Phillip didn’t ask again if I planned to join the tour and didn’t wait to see if I tagged along. Without looking back, he led the students out the door on the opposite side of the room. I turned to Nadine, but she’d already disappeared across the hall into her office and shut that door. I turned back to the auditorium in time to see the door closing there, too.
“Yes, thank you,” I said, feeling grumpy, “I’d love to take your tour.”
“That’s not what I was going to ask you,” a voice said from the stage. “But I’ll be happy to show you around if you want.”
I looked and saw a young woman standing in the middle of the stage, hands in the back pockets of her jeans, short dark hair pushed behind her ears.
“Are you one of the students with . . .” I pointed to the door Phillip and the students had gone through. But the room had been empty. I’d watched them leave.
“I’m a volunteer,” the woman said. “You’re Kath Rutledge, aren’t you? I recognize you from your shop. I’ve been in a few times. I love the Weaver’s Cat.” She looked down at the front of her T-shirt. “And I forgot my name badge again. I’m Grace Estes.”
“Where did you just come from?” I asked, ignoring her pleasant greeting and proving to myself, once again, how graceless my manners could be when something puzzled me.
Grace didn’t seem to mind. She looked over her shoulder at the wall behind the stage, hands still in her back pockets. I followed her gaze. Of course. There was a discreet door in the wall for back-of-stage entrances and exits.
“The education room’s through there,” she said. “I was setting out the refreshments.”
She hopped off the stage, and I made my way along a row of seats to meet her at the side door.
“Someday,” she said, “if Nadine gets money for renovations, it would be great to bump this wall out, add seats, and improve the traffic flow in here.” She grinned. “Do I sound like I’m doing a building usability study?”
“Practicing, anyway. I took a class in building and design for historic sites last semester and I’m still psyched. Were you serious about taking a tour?”
“Believe it or not, I’ve never taken the official tour.”
“Come on, then. We’ll catch up with Phil.”
She opened the door and we started through at the same time, shoulders and hips colliding. I reached out to steady her. Grace laughed, then caught at my elbow when she heard my sharp intake of breath.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “Are you okay?”
“Fine.” I put a few steps between us. And tried to ignore the feeling of her shirtsleeve on my fingertips. Only a spark of emotion had passed through me—Longing? Loss? A stab of love and pain—it had been enough to startle me, not enough to make me stagger. Not enough to look her in the eye and know more about her than I should. I still didn’t understand these occasional odd flashes. How was it possible that I could brush up against someone else’s emotional state merely by brushing against a fabric they wore? I didn’t like it, and I didn’t know why it had been happening since Granny died and I’d moved here to run the Weaver’s Cat—her shop that was now mine. It was crazy. No, not crazy; I was no crazier than Granny had been. And even if I didn’t like the flashes, maybe I was getting used to them.
Grace still looked concerned.
“Really, I’m fine.” I held out my hand and made myself smile. “It’s nice to meet you, too, by the way.”
Up close it was easy to see she was closer in age to Phillip than one of the high school students I’d mistaken her for. Her warm smile and the hands slipping into her back pockets again made her look confident and comfortable. I liked her. I liked the humor in her eyes.
We followed a brick path across an expanse of lawn toward the site’s dozen or so historic buildings. The two-story antebellum clapboard house—the centerpiece of the Homeplace—sat on a rise to our left. I spotted Phillip and the students straight ahead of us, leaving the log corncrib and heading for the barn.
“So you’re studying site management?”
“On again, off again,” she said. “Small problem with cash flow, but I’ll get there eventually.”
“Stick with it. Of course, the cash-flow problems will stick with you, too, if you stay with the public-servant side of sites and preservation.”
“Oh yeah,” she said. “I’ve got firsthand experience with that. I worked part-time for a couple of years at a site in West Virginia. So, yeah, I’ve been there, but it’s what I love, so I plan to keep doing it.”
“Good. That’s what it takes. Were you really looking for me earlier? You said you were going to ask me something.”
“When I put the program handbooks together, I saw that you’re talking about signature quilts.”
“Signature quilts and crazy quilts. We’ll work with the students to piece a quilt combining both forms, although I don’t know how far we’ll get in two weeks.” When Nadine had described her plans for Hands on History, an enrichment program for high school students, I’d told her it sounded ambitious but exciting. Then, when she’d asked me to be one of the volunteer instructors, and told me I could introduce the kids to nineteenth-century textiles—my professional area of expertise—I could hardly say no.
“I’d like to sit in on the quilt discussion, if you don’t mind,” Grace said. “Or if you have room for extra hands, I’ll be happy to help with the quilting. I’ve done a few small pieces of my own. Nothing fancy, but if nothing else, I can thread a needle.”
I laughed. “And that’s not always a given. Sure, if you have the time, TGIF will be happy to have you.”
“Sorry. T-G-I-F—Thank Goodness It’s Fiber. It’s the needlework group that meets at the Weaver’s Cat. Some of the members are quilters, and they’re going to do most of the work with the students on the quilt. I’m just giving the kids historical background.”
“Oh, right. Just,” Grace said. “Nadine told me about your background in textiles and museums. It’s very cool. Did you consider applying for the assistant director job here? I know you still get your hands on fibers and textiles at the Weaver’s Cat, but they aren’t historic. They don’t have the stories.”
“The timing wasn’t really right.”
Grace shook her head, maybe thinking I lacked drive or ambition. I could have told her about the personal and professional pain of losing my dream job at the Illinois State Museum because of massive state budget cuts. But there wasn’t time to tell that sad story—what I’d come to think of as my professional yarn—before we caught up to the tour. I didn’t feel the need to justify my professional and personal decisions on such short acquaintance, anyway.
“I’ll tell you what,” she said. “You’re a heck of a lot more unassuming than Phil’s ever been. As soon as he saw the position posted, he owned it.”
“How long have you known him?”
“You could say I’ve been there and done that, too. He’s my ex-husband. Look, he sees me. See the look on his face? Now watch this.” She waved her whole arm and called over to him. “Hey, Phil! Honey, I’ve got a straggler for your tour.” She nudged me again with her elbow. “He hates that I’m volunteering here,” she said, with a wicked chuckle. “And he hates being called Phil. See you later. Have fun.”
“Limbs lost and battles won are of no particular consequence to Ms. Rutledge,” Phillip said when I caught up with the group at the barn. “A textile conservator doesn’t need to know that Carter Holston, patriarch of the esteemed family, fought in the Battle of Kings Mountain and left his left arm behind.”
The students hung on Phillip’s every macabre word. He sounded scolding, but then he raised his hat and smiled, and I decided his tone wasn’t personal. It might be a lingering effect of seeing Grace.
“It’s nice to have you with us, Ms. Rutledge.” To the students, he said, “Don’t let her mild manner fool you. Ms. Rutledge is a highly skilled professional when it comes to matters of life and death.”
The teens turned to look at me, and I did my best to appear more impressive than the average, short, thirty-nine-year-old woman.
“That’s the life and death of carpet beetles, clothes moths, and various fungi,” Phillip explained. “But pest and mold control isn’t a trivial issue for historic sites and museums. Ms. Rutledge will introduce you to quilting during Hands on History and, because you’re very lucky, she’ll let you in on the secrets of linen production.”
“Which will introduce you to the smell of retting flax,” I said. “That’s something you’ll never forget and kind of goes along with Mr. Bell’s garbage-dump theme.”
“Rancid and rotting,” Phillip said. “Excellent. All right, time’s wasting. Next stop is the garbage dump. We’ll take a shortcut through the barn and stop to meet our heritage breed livestock.”
The students crowded after Phillip, except for a tall, thin boy I recognized as the smirker who’d mentioned cemeteries. He’d stayed behind, looking toward the mountain ridges to our east. He wasn’t wearing one of the lanyard name tags the students had been given, but the end of a lanyard stuck out of his pocket.
“I love that blue in the mountains,” I said, “and the way it deepens with each receding ridge.”
“I love the way this town recedes in my rearview mirror every chance I get.” He kicked at a pinecone and trailed the group into the barn.
I followed, wondering about Nadine’s assurance that the teens in Hands on History were avid, eager overachievers looking forward to working alongside professionals. Maybe this guy was having a bad day. Or maybe an overeager parent had applied to the program for him. He did join the group, though, gathered around Phillip in the barn.
“Mules have a long and glorious history in Tennessee agriculture,” Phillip said. “This is Alice.” Alice pressed her long nose into Phillip’s hand. “And Fred is standing over there in the corner with his back to us. He’s jealous.”
“What’s the pig’s name?” a sandy-haired boy at the front asked.
“The pig is a sow.” Phillip shifted his attention and ours to the pen where a large black pig suckled her piglets. “This is Portia. She’s an elegant example of a Poland China, an American breed dating back possibly as far as 1816. The exact date is disputed and isn’t important. More important is understanding that ‘facts’ sometimes change, and . . .” Phillip paused, and it was interesting to see that the students turned from watching the captivating pigs to look at him. “And more on facts later.” He smiled, pleased with either the students’ attention or his own magnetism. “And for a treat, if you come back during our fall harvest festival, you can have a portion of Portia’s piglets. They’ll be a good size then and delicious when roasted with sage and apples.” There were a few gasps and a few squeals. “The Holstons living here in the 1850s didn’t keep pigs as pets,” Phillip said, “and neither do we. Shall we move on?”
The tall, thin boy lagged behind the others again, stopping at the barn door. I stopped beside him.
“Now you know the mules’ names, the pig’s name, and my name,” I said, “but I still don’t know yours.”
With a toothy, insincere smile, he made a show of pulling the lanyard out of his pocket and dropping it around his neck.
I liked him for that smile. “Zach Aikens. Nice to meet you. Shall we join the others?”
Without so much as a grunt, he slouched after them.
Phillip was crouched, talking to a man who was standing chest deep in one of four squares laid out for excavation. Presumably this was the archaeologist Nadine had recruited for the garbage pit project. He would have been more obvious in an Indiana Jones-ish hat, but the hat he did wear looked well worn and often washed. Judging from the smear of dirt down his nose and the elbows of his shirt planted in the dirt at the edge of the square as he talked to Phillip, he was wise to go with washable. He didn’t appear to feel at a disadvantage carrying on a conversation while standing in a hole up to his armpits.
To my textile-loving eyes, the symmetrical and crisply defined excavation squares looked like quilt blocks. They measured a good six feet by six feet each, and they were laid out to make a larger grid of two and two. The squares were separated from one another by a yard or so of untouched grass and soil—like borders of quilt sashing—and the squares’ sides were outlined by wooden stakes at their corners with string wrapped around the stakes and pulled taut between them. One square—behind the currently occupied square—hadn’t been dug yet; it was nothing more than an outline of stakes and string in the grass. The next square over had been stripped of sod, and the fourth square was dug evenly to a depth of about a foot and a half.
“I kind of thought it would smell,” a boy said.
“Up to our waists in waste?” the man in the pit said. “Sometimes it works out that way. But you find that more often if you go rooting through a Dumpster or your neighbor’s trash bags. Do you know what that field of study is called?”
“That’s a study?” the student asked.
“It’s garbology, dude,” Zach said. “It’s cool.”
“A golden garbage bag to the dude on the end,” the archaeologist said. “Nice job. So, what we have here, by contrast, is a good clean site.” He stood up straight, spread his arms, and inhaled slowly and deeply through his nose, closing his eyes and expanding his chest. When he exhaled, he opened his eyes, the satisfied look of a connoisseur of soils on his face.
“Yup,” he said, “a clean site. We do have a layer of clay over the original dump that’s acted as a seal, of sorts, over what lies below. The clay might have been put down for that purpose when they quit using the dump. But it’s been an imperfect seal, and we get a lot of precipitation in east Tennessee, and water takes a toll on organic matter. That means most of what you’re going to find when you dig will be inorganic—ceramics, glass, metal. I’ll show you examples, but first I want you to watch something very important. This is not optional.”
He bent over, disappearing from view, and reappeared with a ladder that he leaned against the edge of the pit.
“When I climb out of this hole that I’ve dug myself into,” he said, “I’m not going to do it by showing off my arm strength.” He flexed an impressive set of biceps. “I’m not going to boost myself out of here like I’m in a swimming pool. I’m also not going to scramble up the wall by digging in with my fingers and knees and toes. I want to preserve the profile of each side in every square. And you do, too, as long as you’re here digging for me. Has everyone got that?”
The students nodded. Despite the fact that I wasn’t part of his new crew, I nodded, too.
“Climbing out of excavation pits is the whole reason ladders were invented,” he said. He climbed out and used his hat to beat the worst of the dirt from the knees of his jeans. When he straightened to his full height, it was immediately clear that if he’d been chest deep in the hole, the hole was deeper than I’d thought. The students nearest him stepped back.
“Come on over here.” He put his hat back on, tugging it low on his forehead, and headed toward the barn. Several long folding tables were set up against the wall, in the shade.
I fell in beside Phillip, walking behind the students. “That’s an impressive amount of digging you guys have already done.”
“Not me,” Phillip said. “Hicks and a herd of Holstons.” Then, in answer to my raised eyebrows, “Herd of Holsteins, herd of Holstons, get it?”
“I was wondering more about who you’re calling hicks.”
Phillip laughed. “The archaeologist. That’s Jerry Hicks. He works for the state. He supervised a group of Holstons here for a reunion a couple of weeks ago, and they were ecstatic about digging up the family’s petrified refuse . . .” His voice faded as something over my shoulder caught his attention, then it flared. “What’s he doing?” he asked.
“He” was Zach Aikens. He’d stayed behind at the excavation—surprise, surprise. He was in the yard-wide grass strip between the pit Jerry Hicks had climbed out of and the undug square behind it. He was on his stomach, lying at the edge of the hole, worrying at something he could barely reach, even by stretching his arm as far as he could down the face of the wall.
“Blasted kid,” Phillip said. “I don’t care if he does know what garbology is—didn’t he just hear Hicks telling everyone to leave the walls alone?” He shot a glance toward the barn. Hicks and the other students were engaged and apparently hadn’t missed Zach or noticed what he was doing.
Phillip started back to the excavation. I followed—whether to act as Phillip’s backup or as a buffer between the two, I didn’t know.
“I knew this one was going to be trouble,” Phillip said.
“If he falls in, he could break something.”
“His neck would be good for starters.”
Zach continued working intently at whatever he’d found in the wall. He didn’t stop or look up as we approached.
“It’s my fault,” Phillip muttered. “I shouldn’t have mocked him back there in the auditorium. He’s obviously overly sensitive. Hey, Cemetery Dude.”
Zach didn’t answer. Delicately, deliberately, he continued scratching, scraping, and brushing at something in the earthen wall. Phillip and I stopped on the opposite side of the square.
“Can you see what it is?” I asked, craning forward and squinting.
I started around the square. Phillip took a shortcut. He climbed down the ladder, crossed the pit, and got to Zach first. The depth of the pit put them eye-to-eye.
“Hey, Dump Dude,” Zach said. “Check it out. I think I’ve found where your bodies are buried.”
“I’m thinking elbow joint,” Zach said.
Phillip Bell snapped his mouth shut on whatever he’d been thinking and moved closer for a better look. Zach was still lying in the grass. I stepped around him and got down on my knees. A knobby tree root was a more likely discovery than an elbow, I thought. I’d seen plenty of eerily bonelike roots washed clean along creek banks. Given the number of trees surrounding the farmyard and the complete lack of gravestones, a root made more sense, too.
Zach had scraped a small concavity in the wall. He reached his hand toward it again.
“Stop.” Phillip’s own hand was fast, but he stopped short of grabbing Zach.
“But look,” Zach said. “It’s simple anatomy.” He pointed without touching. “Ulna along here, ending in the olecranon.” He tapped his own elbow, then pointed back at what he’d uncovered. “Radius here, and humerus. If we dig it out more, I bet we see the lateral epicondyle.”
An ominous flush crept up Phillip’s neck.
Zach, apparently a savant in anatomy but not in the warning signs for impending volcanic eruptions, kept talking. “It’s an elbow joint, all right. Hey, maybe it’s that Holston dude’s lost arm and I found it for him. You think?”
“Is it?” I looked more closely at the “elbow,” an uncomfortable feeling oozing into the pit of my stomach.
“Carter Holston’s arm?” Phillip scoffed. “Of course not.”
“But is it an elbow?”
Phillip looked at the discovery more closely. “Yeah. I’d say it’s an elbow at least. Maybe a whole arm.”
“Told you,” Zach said.
“And if it’s an arm attached to a whole skeleton,” Phillip said, “wouldn’t that be a kick?” I’d been wrong about the flush on his neck. It wasn’t a sign of ominous threat. It was excitement.
“Cool,” said Zach. “So who is it?”
“At this depth and in this location,” Phillip said, “it isn’t going to be anybody who’s supposed to be here, that’s for sure. So, Cemetery Dude, that’s the multimillion-dollar question—who is it?”
“Geneva?” Her name popped out of my mouth, and in that instant I wondered if this could be her and why I hadn’t thought of that immediately. Or maybe I had and that was why I had the sick feeling in my stomach. But was this her elbow? Her body?
There was so much I didn’t know about the ghost in my life, starting with why she was in my life. Mine and no one else’s. But we’d met up here at the Homeplace, and she seemed to think she’d lived here. So, was she a ghost because she hadn’t been properly buried here? Because she’d been . . .
I felt cold and short of breath. But if I felt that way, how on earth would Geneva feel when I told her what we’d found? How on earth or . . . or wherever. How strange my life had become. I was crouched next to a spotty teenager who’d just made a fairly major archaeological discovery where he shouldn’t have been digging. I was thinking about the ghost whom only I saw, heard, or knew existed. And I was wondering how to tell that ghost—a scatty creature who wasn’t entirely sure of her name or when she’d lived or died—that I might know where her body was buried. People who said life in a small town was simple and straightforward had no idea what they were talking about.
All of that zipped through my head faster than it took to sigh the words “Oh, Geneva.” And those were two more words I wished I hadn’t said out loud.
“Who’s Geneva?” Zach asked. He and Phillip were looking at me.
I meant to say “No one.” But too many other thoughts were still racing through my mind and different words came out. “Any idea how old the bones could be, Phillip, or how long they’ve been here? And they’ll be able to tell if it’s male or female, won’t they? I mean, if there are enough bones left—” I stopped and shook my head.
“Hey.” Zach shrank back. “You aren’t going to hurl, are you? Because, you know, you can’t do that here. We need to preserve the perimeter of the excavation.”
He’s right said Phillip.
I started to move away from the edge of the hole. And stopped. “Wait a second. That’s all you’re going to say? He’s right? What about how he violated the perimeter of the excavation in the first place?”
“In light of his discovery, I think you’re being a tad harsh,” Phillip said. “Don’t you? She has a point, though, kid. Whether or not there’s more to this skeleton than meets the elbow, you’ve undoubtedly dug up a nest of red tape along with it. So let’s go get Hicks. He needs to see this. And he’s a stickler for people behaving, so you need to apologize for the trouble you’ve caused. Are you cool with that?”
* * *
Jerry Hicks was cool, too. After an intense minute of staring into Zach’s eyes so that Zach couldn’t have misinterpreted a single nuance of his feelings about people who messed with his site, Jerry climbed down into the pit to see the bones for himself. Then he pulled out his cell phone, made a call, and climbed back out.
“Here’s the drill,” he said. He’d rubbed a broader smear of dirt down his nose, but that didn’t stop the rest of us from standing straighter at the authority in his voice. “The excavation is off-limits until further notice.”
“But we can help dig it up,” one of the students said.
“And you can teach us the proper methods, so we don’t screw it up,” another one said, aiming a pointed look at Zach. The look was wasted. Zach was still cool.
“Not an option,” Hicks said. “There’s legal procedure to follow anytime human skeletal remains are accidentally exposed. I’ve called the site director. She is placing the required calls to the medical examiner and the sheriff’s department. This guy”—he pointed at Zach—“needs to stay here and answer questions when the authorities arrive. And you”—he pointed at me—“will take the rest of your students out of this area. Back to the visitors’ center will do fine.”
There were disappointed noises from most of the students, and I felt like adding my own. But Jerry was right. When the authorities arrived, they wouldn’t want the site cluttered with two dozen curious teenage extras. Besides, a couple of the students had been looking peaky since hearing about the bones.
But I didn’t want to go. Part of me was excited about the possibility of uncovering—literally—more about Geneva. The other part of me felt as though I’d be abandoning her if I left. That was a fairly off-the-wall reaction considering that even if these were her bones, she wasn’t here. She was back at the Weaver’s Cat, haunting it more or less happily. Even so, I could imagine the conversation we might have about the situation later, if she decided that I should have stayed to keep some kind of vigil. And because I had a decent imagination, I could imagine the volume of Geneva’s end of that conversation as wide open and her tone as fully aggrieved. So much so that I cringed in real time.
Phillip saw and gave me an interesting look. I pretended not to notice.
“That’s okay. The students are my responsibility,” he said, to my relief. “We’ll take a short break for refreshments, but then there’s no reason we can’t continue the tour and see the rest of the site. We have the house, the summer kitchen, and the outhouse all waiting for us. Plus the gardens. My friends, you have not lived until you’ve pulled weeds in a historically accurate herb garden or explored the charms of a nineteenth-century privy.”
The students were back under Phillip’s spell. He made gathering motions and they fell into a neat group, ready to follow him to an outhouse or to outer space. Before they left, he crooked a finger at me.
“I know the kid isn’t your responsibility,” he said, “but can you stay and keep an eye on him until Nadine gets here?”
I glanced at my phone. Still time before I needed to be back at the shop. “Sure. He isn’t in any kind of trouble, is he?”
“Nah. Hicks is just crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s in his legal procedure. But they’ll have to do a complete excavation to find out what we’ve got going on here. With luck, we can be part of that, so we’ll be back in the digging business in a couple of days. And that’s going to make it a much more interesting project than we planned. Oh—” He snapped his fingers. “That name.”
“You mentioned her. Geneva, right? We need to talk.”
* * *
Phillip swirled the students away, and after they were gone, I let myself blink. We needed to talk about Geneva? He knew about Geneva? What did he know? He couldn’t know anything about her current nonexistence. But maybe he’d run across the name in site records. Maybe I would have, too, if I’d spent more time digging around. Digging around. Geneva would love that. Or be insulted—it was hard to say which.
* * *
“If someone’s been found dead, could you be far behind?” Deputy Cole Dunbar was the first of the authorities to arrive, and his greeting illustrated why he would always be “Clod” Dunbar to me—although only in my mind. Besides carrying a gun, he was built like a bull and acted like a mule. He joined me where I’d moved into the shade of a poplar, his fists on his hips and his sunglasses shielding his eyes as effectively as blinders. He had enough starch in his uniform and in the lines of his face to meet the world at his own specified level of safety.
“Who’s Hicks got in the hole?” he asked.
“We don’t know. It’s just arm bones so far.”
He turned the sunglasses and a condescending nose toward me. Of course he hadn’t meant the bones. Zach was in the pit watching Jerry Hicks take pictures of the wall.
“Sorry. Zach Aikens is one of the students. He found the bones.”
“And what’s your part in all this?” he asked. Annoying connotations dripped off his question onto my—admittedly—easy-to-push buttons. “Meddling civilian” was chief among them, followed by “little lady.”
“Phillip Bell, the assistant director, asked me to stay with Zach until Nadine Solberg gets here,” I said, proud of myself for letting his connotations roll off my buttons without causing a short circuit. “I’m a volunteer.”
“Not if he told you to stay, you’re not.”
I should have known Clod would be the first to arrive, and knowing that, I should have apologized to Phillip and hightailed it back to the Weaver’s Cat. That way I could have avoided annoying conversations like the one we were having.
“I’m a volunteer for the Hands on History program here at the site,” I said as pleasantly as I could through clenched teeth. “Zach is one of our students. Phillip thought you might want to talk to him.”
“Huh.” Clod rocked on his heels a few times, but otherwise showed no inclination to move. I was tempted to ask him what his part in all this was, other than standing around, but my better judgment wasn’t that foolhardy.
“Are you expecting the medical examiner anytime soon?” I asked.
“I thought I’d wait for him,” Clod said unhelpfully. “This shouldn’t take long, though. I’m hardly going out on a limb when I say ancient arm bones aren’t going to be a front-burner case.” He followed that with a stiff “heh-heh.”
I was wondering where Nadine was and what the heck was taking her so long. What could possibly be more important than unexpected human bones? Or than letting me get away from Clod? I finally saw her coming across from the visitors’ center with a man I didn’t recognize. By the time they arrived, I must have been flushed from containing Clod-based irritation.
“Kath, you should go back inside and get a glass of lemonade or iced tea,” Nadine said, putting her hand on my arm. “There’s plenty. But before you go—” She moved her hand from my arm to the arm of the man with her. “I want you to meet Wes Treadwell. Wes is our newest board member.”
Wes Treadwell looked as polished as Nadine, with the kind of shiny veneer that success and plenty of money provide. He wasn’t as tall as Clod, and he was bulkier, but it looked like well-toned bulk. Interestingly, he and Clod wore similar sunglasses.
“Kath Rutledge,” I said. “Nice to meet you.” The hand I shook was softer than I expected.
“Kath who knows quilts and coverlets,” he said. “I’m a complete idiot about that kind of thing.” He dropped my hand and looked toward the excavation. “I am interested in these bones, though. I’d like to get over there, take a look.”
“And this is Deputy Dunbar, Wes,” Nadine said.
Clod and Wes nodded their sunglasses at each other, and then Wes turned his attention back to the excavation.
“What do you think, Deputy?” Nadine asked. “I told Wes that we should wait for the medical examiner to arrive before going closer. That’s appropriate, isn’t it? Do we have any better idea how old the remains are? And is it acceptable for the student to be down there with Jerry?” She smiled at Clod and it was his turn for her hand on his arm. “I’m sorry, I’m asking too many questions at once, but the situation is new for me and for the site. I can’t help running worst-case scenarios through my head. Jerry said it doesn’t look like a Native American burial, but we don’t want to take any chance of stepping over a line, if that could possibly be the case.”
“We’ll be fine,” Wes said, his eyes still on the excavation. Then, as though to soften what had sounded curt, he gave Nadine a quick smile over his shoulder. “Any problems that crop up, the board will handle.”
If Wes’ smile had come with more than a glance, he might have seen Nadine’s frown. But the frown was quick, too. I got the feeling Clod caught that interplay. It was hard to tell, because of the sunglasses, but he stepped into the slightly awkward silence that followed, with an offering of stolid reassurance.
“The ME should be here any time, Ms. Solberg. In the meantime, the situation is under control. Hicks and I have worked together on previous recoveries of unexpected remains.”
“Have you?” Nadine asked. “How interesting.”
Clod showed the extent of his interest with a shrug. All in a day’s work, apparently.
Work. Oh no. I pulled my phone out and looked at the time. Barely enough to make it back for a meeting I’d scheduled with a sales rep.
“Nadine, I’ll see you tomorrow morning. The TGIF quilters are raring to go.”
“Not sticking around to give a hand with the arm?” Clod asked.
“Sorry,” I said. “Appointment. Already late. Must dash.”
“Well, then, watch your speed,” he shouted after me.
Clod Dunbar had issued my first—and only—speeding ticket six months earlier. That was also the first time we’d met. The ticket was humiliating, but really only a minor blip of an experience, and it would have been nice if Clod would let the memory of it slink away. He liked bringing it up, though, saying it was for my own safety, as well as the public’s. Because I’d been brought up to be polite, I never told him what I thought every time he delivered his public service announcement.
I made it to the Weaver’s Cat in good time, without going so much as a hair over the posted speeds. When I turned onto Main Street, I got stuck behind a tourist bus, so speeding wasn’t an option, anyway. Funny, I thought, if I still lived in the big city of Springfield, Illinois, poking along behind a bus would have had me fuming as much as the bus. But this was a hybrid coach, clean and quiet, letting several dozen folks loose in town. And their pocketbooks would carry them in and out of the shops, including mine, and there wasn’t much about that to make me fume
Ardis Buchanan, longtime friend and longer-time manager of the Weaver’s Cat, made an art of our front window displays. She knew how to combine colors and textures that drew eyes and then feet through our front door. I enjoyed looking at her displays as much as our customers did, but recently I’d started bypassing them and taking the less scenic route down the alley behind the shop, to go in through the kitchen. It was all about the door. Our new electronic chime didn’t ring—it bleated. “Baa” was what most people heard when they opened the door, but to me it sounded like “welcome home.”
One of the reasons I loved that chime was the guy who made it for us—Joe Dunbar. Joe was something of a Renaissance Blue Plum man. He could paddle a canoe, knit a baby hat, and toss a pizza. He painted beautiful miniature watercolors, had an open and curious mind, enjoyed old movies, and read contemporary mysteries. Parts of his life were still a mystery to me, but I was working on that. One unfathomable mystery was how he could possibly be the brother of the lamentable Deputy Clod. That relationship wasn’t something he could help, though, and it would have been unfair to hold it against him.
Ardis, Geneva, and Argyle, the cat who’d retired from a rough life to live at the shop, were waiting for me in the front room, each in her or his own way. Argyle made happy cat eyes, then curled into a skein of orange tabby fur near the cash register for another appointment in his never-ending schedule of naps. Ardis sat on the tall stool behind the sales counter folding a stack of fat quarters she’d cut from a new line of printed cottons. The fabrics reproduced 1920s patterns and were proving popular with quilters. Geneva perched on top of the button cabinet, watching Ardis and kicking her ghostly heels. There was no sign of the sales rep.
“Good, she’s not here yet?” I gave Argyle a kiss between his ears, then moved around to the front of the counter so that I was more or less facing both Ardis and Geneva. Ardis might not know Geneva was there, but she was, and it seemed a simple courtesy to make her feel included. Especially because she didn’t like being snubbed—didn’t like being a euphemism for became weepy, petulant, huffy, and louder than was necessary or pleasant. “I didn’t want to miss her.”
“The rep?” Ardis asked. “She called. She had a flat on the way out of Asheville.”
“She said she’ll try to reschedule in a week or two.”
“It could’ve been worse. She could’ve had the flat up there on that bridge with the mile-high legs in Sams Gap.”
While Ardis talked, Geneva floated over to sit on the shoulder of the mannequin to my right. I shifted around to keep her in the conversation, noting that Ardis had dressed the mannequin in the beautiful quilted jacket one of our customers had designed and brought in. Geneva’s damp gray form did nothing for the jacket’s predominant color scheme of watery oranges and green.
“That bridge used to give me the willies,” Ardis was saying.
Geneva yawned with noisy exaggeration and rested her chin on the mannequin’s head. Together they looked like a stumpy totem pole.
Ardis raised her voice. “But now I just close my eyes when I reach the crest, and I scream on the way down. Works every time.”
“I knew you weren’t listening,” she said. “You’re wearing your preoccupied and puzzling-something-out face. So tell me all about the bones.”
“Bones?” Geneva sat up straighter.
“‘The Bones in the Barnyard,’” Ardis mused. “It has a definite ring to it. And now you’re wearing your surprised and puzzling-something-out face, and if you ask me, that’s one of the reasons you’re such a natural-born amateur sleuth. You’re always puzzling things out. Even when you give me that less-than-attractive slitty-eyed look you’re wearing now.”
I kept the slitty-eyed look for Ardis’ benefit and held up an index finger for Geneva’s. In the human-to-haunt sign-language system Geneva and I were constantly working to refine, a raised index finger was supposed to mean hold on or please be patient.
“Are you scolding me?” Ardis drew back, looking and sounding hurt. “Why so touchy?”
At the same time, Geneva waved her arms wildly and shouted, “Read my arms! I want to hear about the bones!” Her contributions to our system sometimes gave me a headache.
“Sorry, sorry, there really isn’t much to tell yet.” I massaged my forehead.
“Oh, hon, no,” Ardis said, picking up on that sign immediately. “There’s nothing in the world to be sorry for. The heat of the day and unexpected human remains? They’d be enough to send anybody off-kilter.”
“Kilt her?” Geneva said. “That does not sound like ‘not much to tell.’ Perhaps Ardis is right and the shock and the heat were too much for you.” She left the mannequin and floated closer. “Would you like me to hold your hand?”
“Do you need to sit down?” Ardis asked.
I looked at Geneva, then at Ardis. Two unlikely peas in a pod, both sweetly concerned.
“I’m okay, but I’ve got three sleuth-type questions for you, Ardis. Who, when, and how?”
“Did I hear about the bones? Oh ye of little faith in the Blue Plum jungle drums and texting service. You had two dozen teenagers, on the spot, with phones and itchy fingers. By now it might be quicker to guess who hasn’t heard about the bones.”
“I haven’t,” Geneva said.
“Good point,” I said, covering both of them, “and no telling what embellished information is flying around out there because of that. So here are the bare bones.” I paused for Ardis to groan. She sounded uncannily like Geneva. “One of the students, Zach Aikens, found an elbow joint. It might be a whole arm. It might be a whole skeleton. They won’t know until they excavate, but they can’t do that until they get the okay from the medical examiner and the sheriff’s department. That’s according to the archaeologist, Jerry Hicks.”
“How deep did he find it?” Ardis asked.
It was Geneva’s turn to groan. “Please do not turn this into a philosophical discussion, deep or otherwise. Death and bones go together quite naturally, and that is the end of the story.” She paused. “Although, as in my case, it is not always the end of the story, because here I am. Don’t you find that fascinating and worth pondering at greater length? But here are my naturally occurring super-amateur-sleuth questions. Who is this Zach and where did he find these bones?”
“I’ll run and get you a glass of water,” Ardis said. “I don’t like the way you’re standing there staring at nothing.”
“I am insulted,” Geneva said with a huff.
I closed my eyes. “Thanks, Ardis.” As soon as she was gone, I crooked a finger at Geneva.
“A secret confab?” she asked.
“Shh, yes. This might be hard, but I’d like you to be my ears and memory while I tell Ardis about the bones. Listen carefully and quietly. Think about it, and try to think back—”
I motioned zipping my lips.
“Sadly, I do not have a zipper and I am fairly certain that I have never had one.”
“Really? Do you mean totally silent?”
“Yes.” I heard Ardis coming back down the hall from the kitchen. “Silent. Please. Can you do that?”
“Watch me,” she said with a ghastly wink. “I can be as silent as the grave.”