Past Malice: An Emma Fielding Mystery - By Dana Cameron

Chapter 1

TO MOST PEOPLE, I’LL BET THE OLD PLACE LOOKED nothing at all like a battlefield. To most casual observers, the Chandler House was the epitome of what they imagine the past to have been: a big colonial house by the ocean, a wind-swept lawn leading down to a dramatic cliff, romantic to the nth-degree. The reason that so many people think the past really was the good old days is because of the fine, lovely things that survive. These are the very best, the very richest things that would have inspired pride and a desire to preserve them. Seeing these objects causes people to confide in me how much they’ve always loved history, how they’ve always wanted to be archaeologists, how they would have loved to have lived “back then,” whether back then was ancient Egypt, imperial Rome, or, as it was in this case, colonial New England.

I have to smile when I think that they’re imagining big skirts, wigs, and courtly manners. They are not imagining a world without antibiotics or indoor plumbing or the hope of democracy and equal rights. They are forgetting that they might be lost without supermarkets or instantaneous global communication or electricity. They are not thinking of a world where, to paraphrase Monty Python, the king was the only one who didn’t smell like crap, which isn’t such a bad summary for most of history.

It wasn’t even the neat row of trenches by the side of the house that reminded me of a battlefield: I would never have allowed my students to let things get that messy. No, our trenches were orthogonal, hell, even the back dirt piles were clean, made of well-sifted loam, filled with fat worms and sorted pebbles, the sort of thing that sends gardeners drooling. If we didn’t have to put it all back when we were finished, I would have brought it back home with me myself. And it wasn’t the fencing we’d put up around the site to keep the unwary, the unthinking, and the dim-witted from falling into one of our nice, square units and breaking a neck, or worse, disturbing my carefully exposed stratigraphy. We’d even deliberately chosen the portable wooden fencing to blend in with the scenery, so you couldn’t even claim that it resembled a military picket. No, I’m afraid it was the general background hum of negative emotions that made me feel like I was digging in for my own protection as much as I was trying to learn about the Chandler family.

I’m not usually so misanthropic; it’s just that I was tired of trying to fight to do my job properly and we still had another two weeks of work to go. It would have worn the patience of a saint down to a nubbin, and I’m no saint for all my sister claims I am a Puritan. I just knew that I had to bide my time and pick which battles to fight, and which ones to avoid. Anyone who tells you that the Ivory Tower is a quiet retreat from the dirty old “outside world” doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

I sighed and stood up from the bench, telling myself that I would be better off for another walk around the property, and another long look out at the ocean behind the house. I was waiting to be invited into the Stone Harbor Historical Society’s board meeting to tell them all about the archaeological research I’d talked them into letting me do on their property at the Chandler House. I figured there’d be another half hour or so of their private business—to which I was pointedly not invited—before I had to go in.

The main part of the Chandler House was an early example of a brick Georgian structure, two floors with four rooms each, and an attic with dormers. As I faced the front, there was a small brick addition to the right; there was none on the left. When I walked around to the rear, there was another, later addition, also in brick; its two large cube-shaped rooms faced the ocean that relentlessly crashed against the Massachusetts coast.

I picked up a flat pebble from the path and slung it sidewise, making it skip three times before it lost momentum and sank. The one that followed it only brushed the water twice, then hit a wave with a plop. The next pebble I picked up ached to be thrown at the fat seagull I saw perching on a white-stained piling