Read an Excerpt
So this is how a marriage ends, thought Julia Hamill as she rammed the shovel into the soil. Not with sweet whispers goodbye, not with the loving clasp of arthritic hands forty years from now, not with children and grandchildren grieving around her hospital bed. She lifted a scoop of earth and flung it aside, sending rocks clattering onto the growing mound. It was all clay and stones, good for growing nothing except blackberry canes. Barren soil, like her marriage, from which nothing long lasting, nothing worth holding on to, had sprouted.
She stamped down on the shovel and heard a clang, felt the concussion slam up her spine as the blade hit a rock—a big one. She repositioned the blade, but even when she attacked the rock at different angles, she could not pry it loose. Demoralized and sweating in the heat, she stared down at the hole. All morning she had been digging like a woman possessed, and beneath her leather gloves blisters were peeled open. Julia’s digging had stirred up a cloud of mosquitoes that whined around her face and infiltrated her hair.
There was no way around it: If she wanted to plant a garden in this spot, if she wanted to transform this weed-choked yard, she had to keep at it. This rock was in her way.
Suddenly the task seemed hopeless, beyond her puny efforts. She dropped the shovel and slumped to the ground, rump landing on the stony pile of dirt. Why had she ever thought she could restore this garden, salvage this house? She looked across the tangle of weeds and stared at the sagging porch, the weathered clapboards. Julia’s Folly— that’s what she should name the place. Bought when she hadn’t been thinking straight, when her life was collapsing. Why not add more flotsam to the wreckage? This was to be a consolation prize for surviving her divorce. At thirty-eight years old, Julia would finally have a house in her own name, a house with a past, a soul. When she had first walked through the rooms with the real estate agent, and had gazed at the hand-hewn beams, spied the bit of antique wallpaper peeking through a tear in the many layers that had since covered it, she’d known this house was special. And it had called to her, asking for her help.
“The location’s unbeatable,” the agent had said. “It comes with nearly an acre of land, something you seldom find anymore this close to Boston.”
“Then why is it still for sale?” Julia had asked.
“You can see what bad shape it’s in. When we first got the listing, there were boxes and boxes of books and old papers, stacked to the ceiling. It took a month for the heirs to haul it all away. Obviously, it needs bottom-up renovations, right down to the foundation.”
“Well, I like the fact that it has an interesting past. It wouldn’t put me off buying it.”
The agent hesitated. “There’s another issue I should tell you about. Full disclosure.”
“The previous owner was a woman in her nineties, and—well, she died here. That makes some buyers a bit squeamish.”
“In her nineties? Of natural causes, then?”
“That’s the assumption.”
Julia had frowned. “They don’t know?”
“It was summertime. And it took almost three weeks before one of her relatives discovered . . .” The agent’s voice trailed off. Suddenly she brightened. “But hey, the land alone is special. You could tear down this whole place. Get rid of it and start fresh!”
The way the world gets rid of old wives like me, Julia had thought. This splendid, dilapidated house and I both deserve better.
That same afternoon, Julia had signed the purchase agreement.
Now, as she slumped on the mound of dirt, slapping at mosquitoes, she thought: What did I get myself into? If Richard ever saw this wreck, it would only confirm what he already thought of her. Gullible Julia, putty in a Realtor’s hands. Proud owner of a junk heap.
She swiped a hand over her eyes, smearing sweat across her cheek. Then she looked down at the hole again. How could she possibly expect to get her life in order when she couldn’t even summon the strength to move one stupid rock?
She picked up a trowel and, leaning into the hole, began to scrape away dirt. More of the rock emerged, like an iceberg’s tip whose hidden bulk she could only guess at. Maybe big enough to sink the Titanic. She kept digging, deeper and deeper, heedless of the mosquitoes and the sun glaring on her bare head. Suddenly the rock symbolized every obstacle, every challenge that she’d ever wobbled away from.
I will not let you defeat me.
With the trowel, she hacked at the soil beneath the rock, trying to free up enough space to pry the shovel underneath it. Her hair slid into her face, strands clinging to sweaty skin as she reached deeper into the hole, scraping, tunneling. Before Richard saw this place, she’d turn it into a paradise. She had two months before she’d have to face another classroom of third graders. Two months to uproot these weeds, nourish the soil, put in roses. Richard had told her that if she ever planted roses in their Brookline yard, they’d die on her. You need to know what you’re doing, he’d said—just a casual remark, but it had stung nevertheless. She knew what he’d really meant.
You need to know what you’re doing. And you don’t.
She dropped onto her belly and hacked away. Her trowel collided with something solid. Oh, God, not another rock. Shoving back her hair, she stared down at what her tool had just hit. Its metal tip had fractured a surface, and cracks radiated from the impact point. She brushed away dirt and pebbles, exposing an unnaturally smooth dome. Lying belly-down on the ground, she felt her heart thudding against the earth and suddenly found it hard to take a breath. But she kept digging, with both hands now, gloved fingers scraping through stubborn clay. More of the dome emerged, curves knitted together by a jagged seam. Deeper and deeper she clawed, her pulse accelerating as she uncovered a small dirt-filled hollow. She pulled off her glove and prodded the caked earth with a bare finger. Suddenly the dirt fractured and crumbled away.
Julia jerked back onto her knees and stared down at what she had just revealed. The mosquitoes’ whine built to a shriek, but she did not wave them away and was too numb to feel their stings. A breeze feathered the grass, stirring the sweet-syrup smell of Queen Anne’s lace. Julia’s gaze lifted to her weed-ridden property, a place she had hoped to transform into a paradise. She’d imagined a vibrant garden of roses and peonies, an arbor twined with purple clematis. Now when she looked at this yard, she no longer saw a garden.
She saw a graveyard.
“You could have asked for my advice before you bought this shack,” said her sister, Vicky, sitting at Julia’s kitchen table.
Julia stood at the window, staring out at the multiple mounds of dirt that had sprung up like baby volcanoes in her back garden. For the past three days, a crew from the medical examiner’s office had practically camped out in her yard. She was now so accustomed to having them tramp in and out of her house to use the toilet that she’d miss having them around when the excavation was done, and they finally left her alone again, here in this house with its hand-hewn beams and its history. And its ghosts.
Outside, the medical examiner, Dr. Isles, had just arrived and was crossing toward the excavation site. Julia thought her an unsettling sort of woman, neither friendly nor unfriendly, with ghostly pale skin and Goth-black hair. She looks so calm and collected, Julia thought, watching Isles through the window.
“It’s not like you to just jump into something,” said Vicky. “An offer on the first day you saw it? Did you think anyone else would snatch it up?” She pointed to the crooked cellar door. “That doesn’t even shut. Did you check the foundation? This place has got to be a hundred years old.”
“It’s a hundred and thirty,” Julia murmured, her gaze still on the backyard, where Dr. Isles stood at the edge of the excavation hole.
“Oh, honey,” Vicky said, her voice softening. “I know it’s been a tough year for you. I know what you’re going through. I just wish you’d called me before you did something this drastic.”
“It’s not such a bad property,” Julia insisted. “It’s got an acre of land. It’s close to the city.”
“And it’s got a dead body in the backyard. That’ll really help its resale value.”
Julia massaged her neck, which was suddenly knotted with tension. Vicky was right. Vicky was always right. Julia thought: I’ve poured my bank account into this house, and now I’m the proud owner of a cursed property. Through the window, she saw another newcomer arrive on the scene. It was an older woman with short gray hair, dressed in blue jeans and heavy work boots—not the sort of outfit one expected for such a grandmotherly type. Yet one more queer character wandering through her yard today. Who were these people, converging on the dead? Why did they choose such a profession, confronting every day what most people shuddered to even contemplate?
“Did you talk to Richard before you bought it?”
Julia went still. “No, I didn’t talk to him.”
“Have you heard from him at all lately?” Vicky asked. The change in her voice—suddenly quiet, almost hesitant—made Julia at last turn to look at her sister.
“Why are you asking?” said Julia.
“You were married to him. Don’t you call him every so often, just to ask if he’s forwarding your mail or something?”
Julia sank into a chair at the table. “I don’t call him. And he doesn’t call me.”
For a moment Vicky said nothing, just sat in silence as Julia stoically stared down. “I’m sorry,” Vicky finally said. “I’m so sorry you’re still hurting.”
Julia gave a laugh. “Yeah, well. I’m sorry, too.”
“It’s been six months. I thought you’d be over him by now. You’re bright, you’re cute, you should be back in circulation.”
Vicky would say that. Suck-it-up Vicky who, five days after her appendectomy, had charged back into a courtroom to lead her team of attorneys to victory. She wouldn’t let a little setback like divorce trip up her week.
Vicky sighed. “To be honest, I didn’t drive all the way over here just to see the new house. You’re my baby sister, and there’s something you should know. Something you have a right to know. I’m just not sure how to—” She stopped. Looked at the kitchen door, where someone had just knocked.
Julia opened the door to see Dr. Isles, looking coolly composed despite the heat. “I wanted to let you know that my team will be leaving today,” Isles said.
Glancing at the excavation site, Julia saw that people were already packing up their tools. “You’re finished here?”
“We’ve found enough to determine this is not an ME case. I’ve referred it to Dr. Petrie, from Harvard.” Isles pointed to the woman who had just arrived—the granny in the blue jeans.
Vicky joined them in the doorway. “Who’s Dr. Petrie?”
“A forensic anthropologist. She’ll be completing the excavation, purely for research purposes. If you have no objection, Ms. Hamill.”
“So the bones are old?”
“It’s clearly not a recent burial. Why don’t you come out and take a look?”
Vicky and Julia followed Isles down the sloping yard. After three days of digging, the hole had grown to a gaping pit. Laid out on a tarp were the remains.
Though Dr. Petrie had to be at least sixty, she sprang easily to her feet from a squat and came forward to shake their hands. “You’re the homeowner?” she asked Julia.
“I just bought the place. I moved in last week.”
“Lucky you,” Petrie said, and she actually seemed to mean it.
Dr. Isles said, “We sifted a few items from the soil. Some old buttons and a buckle ornament, clearly antique.” She reached into an evidence box sitting beside the bones. “And today, we found this.” She pulled out a small ziplock bag. Through the plastic, Julia saw the glint of multicolored gemstones.
“It’s a regard ring,” said Dr. Petrie. “Acrostic jewelry was quite the rage in the early Victorian era. The names of the stones are meant to spell out a word. A ruby, emerald, and garnet, for instance, would be the first three letters in the word regard. This ring is something you’d give as a token of affection.”
“Are these actually precious stones?”
“Oh, no. They’re probably just colored glass. The ring isn’t engraved— it’s just a mass-produced piece of jewelry.”
“Would there be burial records?”
“I doubt it. This appears to be something of an irregular interment. There’s no gravestone, no coffin fragments. She was simply wrapped in a piece of hide and covered up. A rather unceremonious burial, if she was a loved one.”
“Maybe she was poor.”
“But why choose this particular location? There was never a cemetery here, at least not according to historical maps. Your house is about a hundred thirty years old, am I right?”
“It was built in 1880.”
“Regard rings were out of fashion by the 1840s.”
“What was here before 1840?” Julia asked.
“I believe this was part of a country estate, owned by a prominent Bostonian family. Most of this would have been open pasture. Farmland.”
Julia looked up the slope, where butterflies skimmed across blossoms of Queen Anne’s lace and flowering vetch. She tried to picture her yard as it once must have been. An open field, sloping down to the tree-shaded stream, with grazing sheep meandering through the grass. A place where only animals would wander. A place where a grave would quickly be forgotten.
Vicky stared down at the bones with a look of distaste. “Is this—one body?”
“A complete skeleton,” Petrie said. “She was buried deep enough to be protected from scavenger damage. On this slope, the soil’s quite well drained. Plus, judging by the fragments of leather, it looks like she was wrapped in some kind of animal hide, and the leaching tannins are something of a preservative.”
“Yes.” Petrie looked up, sharp blue eyes narrowed against the sun. “This is a female. Based on dentition and the condition of her vertebrae, she was fairly young, certainly under the age of thirty- five. All in all, she’s in remarkably good shape.” Petrie looked at Julia. “Except for the crack you made with your trowel.”
Julia flushed. “I thought the skull was a rock.”
“It’s not a problem distinguishing between old and new fractures. Look.” Petrie dropped to a squat again and picked up the skull. “The crack you made is right here, and it doesn’t show any staining. But see this crack here, on the parietal bone? And there’s another one here, on the zygomatic bone, under the cheek. These surfaces are stained brown from long exposure to dirt. That tells us these are pre- morbid fractures, not from excavation damage.”
“Pre-morbid?” Julia looked at her. “Are you saying . . .”
“These blows almost certainly caused her death. I would call this a murder.”