People who grumble about life being unfair have it all wrong. It’s life’s alter ego, death, that isn’t fair. Pick up the paper. Turn on any of the twenty-four-hour news channels. See what I mean? Every day we hear of innocent people suffering horrible and senseless deaths. Vacationing prom queens disappear from tropical islands. Drivers rage against one another, ending their commute prematurely. Families slaughtered by homicidal misfits foraging for money, drugs or payback. And I hate to think about the gawd-awful things perpetrated on innocent children. Not that I don’t have personal experience in that area.
I was sitting in the welcoming shade of Trinity Episcopal Church in the Nation’s Oldest City shaking sand from my shoe. My back scraped the rough coquina wall flanking Artillery Lane, one of the narrowest streets in a city known for its challenging roadways. I should be enjoying my sabbatical from the office; instead my mind skewed uncontrollably toward the dark side. Maybe the smell emerging from my sweat-soaked sock was playing tricks with my brain chemistry. Maybe digging up 500-year-old bones gives you a sharper view of life’s fragility. More likely, it’s my naturally gloomy nature reminding me that in the end we’re all history.
In front of me, five other volunteers were mucking around in the shallow pit next to the church. We called ourselves amateur archaeologists, but amateur may be too generous a word. We’re just grunts, doing the backbreaking work of digging and screening a fifteen by thirty piece of real estate before progress, in the form of a new parking lot, paved over this particular slice of history.
I didn’t know about the others, but I welcomed the grunt work as a distraction from what paid the bills—my regular job as a private investigator. My name is Mitchell, Quint Mitchell. I was enjoying one of my mental health days, sitting here sweating and emptying sand from my size twelve-and-a-half shoe when my cell phone rang.
I checked the Caller ID and took a deep breath. Him again. My dark mood had suddenly become blacker. Slipping the shoe back on my foot, I moved around the corner of the old church, away from the others. I didn’t say anything. He’d start when he was ready.
“Are you there, you goddamn murderer?”
I wasn’t shocked; instead sadness consumed me, nearly taking my breath away. The image of a girl’s face convulsed in terror sprang into my head, and I bit my lower lip in an effort to drive away the picture flashing through my brain.
“You should be put down like a mad dog, Mitchell. You’re not even worth the breath it takes for me to call and remind you that every day you’re alive is one day too long.” The man’s voice broke; his anguish a serrated blade slicing deep into my chest.
The vision of the doomed girl remained with me, a morbid souvenir of a tragic accident. Consumed by her death, the girl’s father called me at all hours of the day and night. Although I was cleared of any blame for my part in the accident, he won’t let me forget I was driving the car that killed his daughter. As if I could forget.
I knew I shouldn’t answer his calls, save myself the misery. Hearing the utter grief in the poor man’s voice, though, I told myself this might be his only comfort. But each call added to the weight I carried, often unleashing darker and bloodier images than that poor girl’s death. The slide show in my head, if I let it, would make the leap from last year’s traffic accident to a summer’s day twenty-three years earlier.
The day my brother was murdered.
“Don’t you have anything to say?” the girl’s father shouted into my ear, interrupting my morbid train of thought. “Don’t you want to explain to me and God why you’re alive and …” He choked back sobs.
I slumped against the church wall, eyes closed, stomach aching. Instinctively, my hand rose to my chest and touched the medallion hanging beneath my shirt. I peered around the corner at the other volunteers. They were still absorbed with their tiny piece of real estate, digging up artifacts from generations past while I dealt with more recent ghosts.
Finally, I found my voice. “I’m sorry.” It was all I could say to the man sobbing on the other end. I closed the phone and returned it to my pocket.
“Is everything all right?” Jeffrey Poe’s question startled me back to the present. His long face, usually alive with the possibility of discovery each time he supervised these archaeological digs, was set in a serious mask of concern. It made me wonder how I must look to him.
“Just some boring business from the office.” I tried to dredge up a tone of lightness I didn’t feel. “I’ll start on the trash pit now.” He watched me step over the twine surrounding the survey area, pick up the trowel and kneel by the depression.
Dr. Jeffrey Poe, St. Augustine’s archaeologist, had a sharp eye and didn’t miss much. A tall man with perpetually tousled brown hair, a ruddy complexion and a ready smile revealing a gap in his front teeth, Poe took me under his wing after I approached him about volunteering with his archaeological surveys. Over the ensuing months and years, we became close friends.
Seemingly impervious to the searing August heat, Poe wore his standard uniform of long-sleeved denim shirt and floppy, wide-brimmed canvas hat tattooed with the imprint of dozens of digs. As city archaeologist, he followed up on construction permits within the city limits to determine if the site might add to the knowledge of St. Augustine’s storied past. If so, he surveyed the site, retrieved artifacts, and recorded as much data as possible before asphalt obscured the past.
Poe acted as ringmaster of our little circus, directing the six volunteers—four elderly retired professionals, a long-haired Flagler College freshman, and me. Together we’re grubbing around in a shallow rectangular pit slightly larger than a boxing ring.
I studied Poe a moment before turning my attention to the trash pit. The city archaeologist walked to the screening table and picked through the scattering of debris searching for anything of value. His face had taken on a nearly beatific look as he lost himself in the pursuit of clues to the old city’s past. I can’t see any hint of the pressure I knew he’d been under since his bitter encounter with William Marrano, St. Augustine’s vice mayor. For a while after the two of them clashed over a new development on the San Sebastian River, it looked like Poe might lose his job.
Kneeling in the dirt, I turned my attention to the trash pit. Poe discovered the depression in the corner of the excavation when he arrived today. He explained the heavy weekend rains probably caused the soil to settle. We added it to the collection of other holes dotting the area. The phone call still buzzed inside my head like an angry wasp, but I brushed it aside, concentrating on the task at hand.
I used the trowel to outline the pockmark of recessed soil, then carefully skimmed away the dirt as Poe had taught us, one layer at a time. My dig partner, a retired attorney named Rachel, hovered over my shoulder with her grid map and a spiral-bound notebook, taking notes as I widened the pit. I shoveled the loose dirt into a five-gallon plastic bucket, surprised to find the soil falling away easily beneath my trowel.
In the branches of a nearby oak shading our site, a mockingbird called, probably searching for female company. I paused a moment to look for the bird and wiped away a trickle of sweat burning my eye.
“This sure looks different from the other trash pits,” Rachel said.
“Now that you mention it, I wondered why we weren’t seeing the same striations and layers of clay.” I’d transferred about eight inches of topsoil from the depression to the bucket, and instead of the hard-packed dirt we found at the other holes, this felt like newly-turned soil.
My trowel scraped against something hard and unyielding. Not surprising. Sometimes when we’re lucky, we find intact artifacts like cannonballs or the foundations of ancient structures, usually made from coquina. Poe said this site probably dated back to the first buildings erected in the mid-sixteenth century. I may have found the remains of one of St. Augustine’s first homes or a military wall, like the Rosario Line uncovered in 2007. Postholes, trash pits and soil stains are all good indications of early habitation, often leading to the recovery of historically valuable artifacts.
Carefully, I used the edge of my trowel like a brush so as not to damage the buried object hidden below the surface. But there was no telltale sound of metal against rock. Instead something softer, organic.
“What the hell is this?” I asked.
Poe and the others turned around and moved toward me.
“Let me see.” Poe leaned down to peer into the hole. “Maybe you’ve made a real find, Quint.” His gray-green eyes sparkled with curiosity.
“I was just saying something seemed different about this pit,” Rachel said.
Poe handed me a brush. “Careful now. Careful.”
Slowly, I brushed away the last layer of soil covering the object.
“Look at that,” Rachel squealed.
Instead of coquina or a corroded cannonball, I’d unearthed the top to what looked like a large wicker hamper. Reed baskets were used by the early settlers, a craft learned from the Indians, but this looked too modern and well preserved to date back to the 1560s. I’m only an amateur, but I thought it was a good guess since the top of the basket was secured by two brightly-colored bungee cords.
Seeing it wasn’t an artifact, but obviously contemporary, Poe lost interest. “Probably somebody’s idea of a joke,” he grumbled. “Get it out of there.”
I tossed the brush aside and took the shovel someone handed me. Tim, the college student, grabbed another shovel and together we cleared more than a foot of dirt from around the hamper. As we dug deeper, I estimated the hamper’s dimensions to be at least four feet tall by perhaps two-and-a-half feet wide.
An odor like three-day-old roadkill oozed from the basket. Stepping away, I felt my stomach rev into overdrive, my gag reflex fully engaged. The stench brought back memories from my days in the Gulf War, and I pushed away the image of bloated bodies lying in the desert and told myself that the basket contained the remains of someone’s old dog.
Wiping the sweat from my face, I took the bottle of water Rachel handed me and took a long swallow.
“God, that smells horrible,” Rachel said.
Tim took his cue from me, stabbed his shovel into the ground, accepting the bottled water.
“What do you think it is?” he asked me. His face seemed to have lost some of its summer tan.
“Probably garbage.” I took another swallow of water trying to wash down the taste of my cheeseburger lunch working its way into my throat.
Poe shook his head in disgust. He took his work seriously and didn’t appreciate anyone corrupting his research. Tim and I bent over the basket intending to pull it out of the ground. The smell was now almost unbearable, and I noticed more color draining from Tim’s face.
“Let me see if I can manage it.” I’m a fairly big guy, six-one-and-a-half, and I work out regularly, but when I tugged on the basket I barely budged it. Instead of garbage, I decided the basket must contain concrete blocks.
Tim held a handkerchief over his nose and mouth, but bravely leaned over and grabbed one side of the basket with his other hand. “On three,” I said between clenched teeth, feeling the cheeseburger making a comeback appearance.
With a series of grunts, we hauled our discovery out of the hole and set it carefully on the ground.
“I have a basket like that at home,” Rachel said. “I bought it at Pier One and use it as a clothes hamper.”
We all laughed, and I tried to imagine how many dirty clothes would have to be compacted into the basket to weigh what must be well over a hundred pounds.
Poe gestured toward the basket. “It’s your discovery, Quint. Why don’t you do the honors?”
I fumbled with the bungee cords for a minute. They were stretched to their limits and I strained to disconnect the hooks. As they fell away, I cut my eyes to Poe. He nodded and I reached over to lift the cover from what might be someone’s clothes hamper.
My participation in this dig was not a selfless act. I hoped to lose myself in the physical work of scraping and digging as a momentary escape. A form of penitence. Just as Poe reconstructs people’s lives by the detritus they left behind, the phone call was a reminder that my life is built on crumbling splinters of guilt still embedded beneath my skin like pieces of shrapnel in a combat veteran. One day there will be a final accounting, but until then I’ll have to live with a grieving father’s phone calls, with his daughter’s death, and, even worse, the terrible knowledge of my responsibility for my brother’s murder on a Long Island shore so many years ago.
I breathed deeply through my mouth and heard the mockingbird call again. When I looked up, I saw the bird lift from the tree and fly away. With Poe and the volunteers surrounding me, I removed the lid and stared inside. Immediately the thought occurred to me that my search for penitence must have taken a wrong turn somewhere.
Staring back at me was the bloody head of William Marrano.