It is my pleasure to present to you the first of two 3rd place winners from the March 2018 Word Weaver Writing Contest, “Excavation Murder” by Victoria Clapton
There was a lot to like in this story! Victoria’s main character was interesting on many levels, the first which – for me – was an Indiana Jones-type setup, but with a relatively young woman as Indy. Not a Laura Croft bad@ss, but a thoughtful and somewhat flawed character. The theme interested me and I wanted to know more – always a good thing in any story!
Obviously, it was a fave of the celebrity judges, too.
Have a good time reading this story. I’ll give you my reasons for why I liked it, as well as including comments by the celebrity judges, at the bottom of the post.
Word Weaver Writing Contest Winner
Over a week ago, I’d received a call from Eugene Bryan requesting that my archaeological team join him immediately in America at some field site in rural Tennessee. Curiosity got the better of me. Eugene’s request to pull my team out of Spain and rush them to some pasture in the States, well…it caught my attention. And being that he was a friend who had once pursued ancient ruins with my parents when they were younger, I now felt an obligation to honor his summons.
I arrived in the middle of the field and discovered Eugene pushing around what looked to be a fancy version of an old-fashioned mower with a computer attached. He clearly wasn’t cutting the grass. It was an expensive ground penetrating radar system, and it could create a map of what rested beneath the surface.
“Dr. Whitcomb!” He offered one wave of his hand but did not pause in his slow walk across the field in his garish-patterned sweater and 1970s era corduroy pants.
I walked through the grass towards him. The countryside should have been bustling with life, but it felt lonely, like that of a crypt. I brushed away the thought and tried not to laugh at the ludicrous appearance of my sponsor. He was an eccentric rich man though I’d never heard my parents mention how he’d achieved his wealth.
“Mr. Bryan, thank you for having me.” I didn’t bother offering my hand as I fell into stride with the man. He didn’t shake hands.
“Call me Eugene, Ally. There is no need to stand on formality. We are family.”
We weren’t family. This man, who didn’t shake hands, had always seemed weird to me. Knowing that things could quickly fall into uncomfortable silence around him, I continued, “What have you discovered that prompted you to invite me all the way here?”
“Take a look.” He gestured towards the screen of moving images that sat atop the contraption he continued to push, covering every bit of ground. “There is something there, a large something, and I’m hoping this machine,” he patted the handlebar, “and your expertise will tell me what lies beneath the dirt.”
I frowned at the screen and could make out what appeared to be a long continuous straight line and then something solid. He had made enough passes back and forth across the area that I could see that something square or rectangular-shaped sat waiting several feet below the dirt and grass. However, with every pass he made, the structure grew bigger. “I think you have some sort of building, Eugene.”
“Precisely, but of what sort?”
I scanned the open pasture. There had been no digging here. The ground remained undisturbed. “How did you find this?”
“I had a hunch.” He explained no further as he finished scanning the area. “Well, would you look at that? It’s a large rectangle.”
“Who owns this property? We will need permission and permits before we go any farther.” I’ve been told many times that I am all work and no party. That may be true, but my current grumpiness derived from a feeling of being misled. Over the phone, Eugene had implied that I was coming to an active site, but no earth had been upturned here.
“I’ve taken care of all that.” He waved my questions away as he walked me towards a sturdy canvas tent.
I sighed, inwardly knowing that I would have to go into town the next day to make sure he’d done just that. My reputation depended upon my forthrightness and my respect for the land.
“This will be headquarters for us, and you and your crew can set up your tents in that area right there.” He pointed to the empty clearing beside a large open-sided tent.
I nodded and checked my watch. My crew consisted of Joe, who explained every mystery away as proof of alien existence, and Kaylee, a young woman who always complained about dirt but had made digging in dirt her profession. They would arrive soon with our tents and the most rudimentary of exploratory tools.
While I waited, I veered away from Eugene to do a proper walk of the site and surrounding area. This place felt off, or maybe it was the job itself, and I could not put my finger on the problem. The land was beautiful. The wide open field was surrounded by walnut and cedar trees. Wild blackberry bushes mingled with wild roses and honeysuckle vines, creating what I imagined would soon be a fragrant natural border. I found no clues as to what could be lurking beneath the ground here, and so, when my crew pulled into the muddy makeshift entrance, I abandoned my fruitless search and headed towards them.
“Eugene, these are my assistants, Joe and Kaylee.” I introduced everyone as they were swiftly unloading the gear in an attempt to beat sunset.
They were well trained. Neither of them needed direction from me on how to set up camp.
“Good, good. Everyone is here. In the morning, we will break ground.” Eugene rubbed his hands together with excitement.
“We need more information before we begin. What is the history of this property?”
We were far enough away from town that I doubted we’d run into gas or water lines, and I hadn’t seen any electric lines, but it didn’t hurt to have facts. Not to mention that the large rectangular shape could simply be the foundation of a house or where someone built a basement but never built a house. Eugene was loaded with money, but I saw no reason to spend it until we knew what we were dealing with.
With a jolly smile, he insisted. “We have all the information we need. This property has been owned by the same family for two hundred years. Before that, no one is known to have lived on it except maybe the Cherokee.”
“So, we could be dealing with a house foundation.”
“Absolutely not. I’ve done all the research. There has never been a house here.” His insistence caught my attention. I suspected that Eugene was withholding information.
Joe, having overheard the conversation, looked at me in earnest when he approached and said, “This could be it. The proof I’ve been looking for.”
“Proof, my boy?” Eugene’s eyebrows rose.
“Aliens,” I sighed. He thinks that every unexplained occurrence relates back to aliens.
“It’s going to rain,” Kaylee snarled as she, too, approached where we all stood in the main tent, looking out over the field. “I suppose tomorrow will be a muddy work day.”
Normally, I would laugh at both Joe and Kaylee, but I didn’t have the heart. I felt a little paranoid.
We had supper around a fold-out card table and listened to Eugene tell stories of his adventures around the world. Several times we attempted to bring the conversation back around to the excavation at hand, but he had a way of diverting our questions off to some other topic. After several fruitless attempts, we all readied for bed.
Later that evening, while sleeping fitfully in our tents, a terrible cry wrenched into the night, jerking me from my sleeping bag. Grabbing a flashlight, I quickly unzipped my tent as a bone-chilling wail permeated the silence. Disheveled, my crew joined me.
“What the bloody hell is that? Is that a woman screaming?” Kaylee asked. Her teeth chattered as she shivered at the chill in the air.
Joe opened his mouth to reply, but I held my hand up to him and spoke instead. “I am not sure. It isn’t aliens, Joe.”
“It sounds like a woman. We should…” the screeching ended abruptly, and Kaylee’s words fell short.
We stood there, trying to decide what we had just heard when a cracking of limbs sounded off to our left. Kaylee inhaled so sharply it made an audible sound.
“Hello,” I peered out into the darkness, shining my flashlight in the direction we’d heard the rustling.
“Don’t shoot!” Eugene joked as he walked into the beam of my light with his hands held up high.
“Did you hear that?”
“It sounded like a woman screaming, like a woman being murdered.” Kaylee muttered.
Eugene shook his head and laughed. “I didn’t hear a thing.”
I did not believe him. The sound had been so loud that I could still hear the haunting screams ringing in my ears. The echo of it could have been heard quite far away.
“You really didn’t hear it?” Joe looked Eugene straight in the eyes.
“No, my boy. I heard nothing but night crickets.”
Joe’s eyes grew wide. “Then it must have been…”
“Joe!” Kaylee and I both exclaimed.
I wasn’t in the mood for theories. Instead, I debated on going to investigate the sound.
Eugene must have seen it in my face. “I wouldn’t worry about it, dear. The sound you heard was probably coyotes. We have them here, you know.”
Coyotes were a perfectly plausible explanation, but I didn’t believe it. “Maybe, but I’d rather have a look around to be sure. I’d hate to think that anyone was in distress, and I did nothing.”
“No, no,” Eugene emphatically insisted. “It’s much too dangerous at night. If you must search, do so in the morning.”
I shook my head. His warnings made sense, especially if it was coyotes out there in the dark, but I hadn’t heard a pack of animals. I’d heard a woman screaming, and I didn’t believe that he hadn’t heard the sound. I couldn’t rest until I was sure.
Joe and Kaylee must have been in the same mindset as me, as they were already tugging on boots and grabbing head lamps and lanterns. If it was animals, maybe all the lights would deter them from thinking we looked tasty.
Within moments, we were ready to set out on our trek through the dank darkness. A slow drizzle began to fall. Eugene remained unusually quiet as he followed behind us. This, too, felt strange to me. He knew this property better than we did, yet he did not lead the way.
Our way through was hindered by wet slosh, grass and mud. The rain made visibility poor. I’d stopped along the way to pull my honey-colored hair back into a messy bun. I didn’t think sleep was in the near future for any of us, so I fastened it out of my face and out of my mind in order to get down to business.
“We should really go back,” Eugene urged as we ignored him and trudged on in the muck.
We were nearing the edge of where I knew the rectangular shape rested beneath our feet and would soon be to the hedge of blackberries. I began weighing the dangers of proceeding into the woods and was startled by a manlier scream.
“Ladies, don’t look,” Eugene commanded. “Don’t take one step closer.”
I realized he’d been the one to scream, and rather than listen to him, I focused the beam of my flashlight down onto the ground in front of where he stood. There, just at Eugene’s feet, was a woman, bruised and battered, and most definitely not breathing.
I dropped my flashlight as I lowered to the woman to listen for her breath, preparing to administer CPR. At the periphery of my conscious, I heard Joe placing a call to 911. Kaylee had come around to the body, ready to help me keep up the rhythmic compressions should I tire out. In the background, Eugene mumbled to himself. His words were unintelligible.
It seemed like it took hours for the first responders to arrive. We were in the middle of nowhere Tennessee, so maybe it did take longer than usual, but it didn’t matter. Even with Kaylee’s help, we’d been unsuccessful in reviving the woman, and she was declared dead before her poor body was placed into the ambulance.
I was still sitting back on my knees on the wet ground when an officer approached me.
“I’m Chief Hawkins.”
“Dr. Ally Whitcomb.” I answered as I stood up and made a useless attempt to brush off my sopping pants. I cast a glance over to see that my crew and Eugene were being interviewed by detectives.
“You’ve had quite a night,” the police chief observed. He was a quiet sort of man, the kind whose presence instantly calmed a situation.
“You could say that. It’s not exactly what I expected to find on a pastoral dig.”
“Yes, I heard that old Eugene asked y’all to come down and plow his old place up. I’m not sure what he is hoping to find. Would you mind telling me what happened tonight?”
“Not at all,” I complied. I began the story with the loud screaming, and I paused after I got to the bit about the coyotes. Chief Hawkins just nodded as if coyotes could have indeed made those kinds of screams. So, I continued telling every minute detail I could recall until a thought occurred to me. “Wait! Did you say this property belongs to Eugene?”
“Yes, it’s been in his family for a very long time.”
“Why would he ask me to come excavate his own property? Wouldn’t he know what is here?” I asked no one in particular. Chief Hawkins nodded as if he’d wondered the same thing all along, but he made no comment on the matter.
“When are you supposed to break ground?” Chief Hawkins asked.
He nodded again and then took his leave from me without giving me any reassurance on how or why the woman had been murdered.
As dawn approached, we’d all been told to stay close to town, so as much as I wanted to grab my crew and head back to Spain, it wasn’t possible. Until we were given clearance by the police, we could not go anywhere.
“I suppose we should all get some rest.” Now that the body had been removed and the sun rose in the sky, Eugene had stepped back in as the authoritative figure at the site.
“I don’t think I will be sleeping for a long time,” I admitted. “Might as well get to work.” I wanted to ask him about his property, but hesitated. Previous attempts to gain that information had been thwarted.
“Come now,” Eugene said with an unusually bright smile. “Don’t you come across dead bodies all of the time in your line of work?”
Suspicion rose within me at his blasé response. After his initial scream upon finding the body, Eugene hadn’t seemed bothered in the slightest that someone had been killed on his property.
“Sure, but they aren’t usually murdered within earshot,” Kaylee snapped. She was covered in mud. The rain had dissipated, but everything was a begrimed mess. Her mood would not improve until she got somewhere warm and dry.
Eugene scoffed at Kaylee and chuckled. Grabbing the keys, he winked at me and tossed them to Joe. “Start her up. We marked the edges yesterday, so you won’t hit the structure. Let’s see what we are working with.”
His excitement worried me more than anything we’d encountered so far, including the dead woman. Eugene already knew what was under the ground. I could see it all over his face. We were a part of a game, his game. I just didn’t know what that was yet.
Soon, smooth concrete came into view, and not long after that, Joe was able to hop down off of the bulldozer and use a smaller version of the ground penetrating radar to confirm that it was a hollow structure, like that of a building.
This should have thrilled me. Even my crew had that tell-tale gleam in their eyes that only occurred right at the brink of discovery, and Eugene had grown quiet, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet rather than speaking.
“There must be an entrance,” Kaylee spoke as she looked to me.
“No, Joe… no.” I half-hoped that someday we did stumble upon proof of alien life forms, if only just to fulfill Joe’s dreams.
I turned to Eugene to implore, “Thoughts?”
“I’m not sure what you mean. I agree that there must be an entrance, but I’ve no idea where that could be.”
I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from telling him to cut the crap. And then I realized what he’d just said. Where that could be…but not what side the entrance was located? Full on panic struck me. Eugene knew where the entrance was located. He knew what waited beneath the ground. I needed answers, now.
By all accounts we were digging up a large rectangular building. It stood to reason that the entrance would be on one of the four sides. I recalled how undisturbed everything had been and looked to Eugene once more. “The entrance isn’t on the building. It is somewhere else. Where is it Eugene? You went through all of the trouble of having us fly to America. Why did you have us come all the way here?”
I expected him to brush my questions off as had been his way since we’d arrived, but he only met my gaze with that infernal smile he always had plastered on his face.
“My, aren’t we impatient! I thought you, Ally, would be the one to understand, the one to take the time to uncover the beauty the way it should be, to discover it as it was meant to be discovered.”
The hairs on my arms and the back of my neck rose high.
“Very well, follow me, children, and all shall be revealed.”
I should have refused.
Eugene bid us to follow him into the woods past the inviting tree line and thorny wild rose bushes. Longing for clarification, I motioned for my team to follow me, and, feeling cautionary, I simultaneously reached into my pocket and pressed the emergency button that would dial the Chief of Police on my cell phone. I’d saved the number as an icon on my screen. Being careful, I did not pull my phone out of my pocket as we followed dutifully behind him, and I prayed to all of the gods I’d unearthed in previous shrines that there was enough signal that Chief Hawkins could hear us walking, that he would somehow sense that I wouldn’t call him by accident. I had a bad feeling. Since my arrival, Eugene’s behavior had been strange, and now, I had this inkling that we could possibly be in some danger.
“Where are you taking us, Eugene?”
“You’ll see, soon.”
I cursed inwardly. I’d hoped he’d reveal something for the Chief to go on, but he’d not. “You are taking us pretty far into the woods.”
I said this loudly, hoping it would help the Chief. I didn’t dare say more.
“Mr. Bryan, erm Eugene,” Joe began. “It’s an awful mess today. Perhaps we should go back to camp and get some rest and start again tomorrow.”
Joe’s voice shook a little, which further validated my worries. Until now, it had been only me who had been suspicious, but now I could tell by their demeanor that both of my crew were also concerned.
“Why would we do that? We’re here.” Eugene announced with a chuckle.
The entrance consisted of two leaning old rusted storm cellar doors surrounded by leaves, twigs and bracken curling and spiraling across them, like a crypt long forgotten. Eugene easily opened the dilapidated entry, creating even more anxiety to course through me. This entrance to the supposed “unknown” structure had been used recently and often.
Without a word we followed Eugene down into the darkness as the cellar doors closed behind us. We were forced to creep in the silent oppression, listening only to the sounds of our racing hearts and ragged breaths while smelling what surely was the awful, unmistakable scent of death. Along the way, I had begun to beat myself up for not having the foresight to put a stop to this charade earlier. We should never have followed him down to this pit. I’d had a bad feeling from the beginning, and now, we were underground in the middle of nowhere, walking into what I imagined would be a horrific death. I opened my mouth to shut this mission down. For the first time ever, I did not care what waiting in the unknown. I did not even care if my suspicions were unfounded. “It’s time we…”
“We’re here.” Eugene’s excitement filled the cold space. “This isn’t the way I’d hope you’d discover my treasure trove, but, Ally, I’m so glad it is you. I’d always hoped your parents could come here. But alas, they were the ones who got away. Not you, Ally. I knew I could depend on you.”
Darkness thickened around us, and I fought an urge to tell my crew that I was sorry, though I didn’t know for what, when Eugene struck a match and lit a couple of old oil lanterns, casting an eerie, dull light around a large chamber illuminating an unimaginable sight.
“What the hell?” Joe wrinkled his face in disgust. “Ugh, the scent of death.”
“Eugene? What is this?” I looked around at what must be thirty, maybe forty concrete cavities, exactly like a crypt, filled with bodies crammed into each one. There were no coffins, nothing to preserve or decompose the bodies, just dead people shoved carelessly into cold caverns. I’d entered many such places in my line of work, but nothing compared to this horror. These weren’t bodies from the past. In various examples of modern clothing such as blue jeans and t-shirts, these dead were relatively fresh in my way of thinking. All had died within the last thirty or so years.
“Bodies are everywhere,” Kaylee whispered. I could hear frightened sobs building in her chest.
“My masterpiece,” Eugene’s laughter caused my heart to skip a beat. “I wanted to leave this so that, someday, when an archaeologist such as you broke ground here, I would be remembered, immortalized.”
His voice was steady.
As he revealed his thoughts to me, I froze in disbelief. Standing before me was not the man that I’d considered a family friend. “You want to be remembered in the annals of time as a serial killer? Where is the glory in that?”
Suddenly, my disgust with him banished my fear of imminent death, at least temporarily. This ghastly crime scene made a mockery of my life’s work.
“Killer?” He seemed honestly stunned. “No, look around. These are all different, but perfect, specimens of the 21st century. Once they decompose, scientists and other archaeologists will have examples of every age and culture currently in our world to study.”
Bile rose in my throat. I didn’t want me or my team to become part of this macabre exhibit. “I see.” I said, but I didn’t. “They aren’t ready yet. Why did you have me come now?”
“You are a top-notch archeologist, famous in your field. You, my dear Ally, complete the collection.”
The fear returned instantly. My heart thumped so loud my ears pulsed. I looked around for an escape and noticed Joe and Kaylee. “Let them go. They have nothing to do with your masterpiece,” I begged.
“So that they can go and tell the authorities? Now, Ally, dear, why would I do that? Wouldn’t that ruin this experiment?” Eugene’s smile disgusted me.
He began walking towards me, his hands outstretched as if he planned on just grabbing my throat to choke the life out of me. Without moving, I glanced around. There were no weapons that I could see. For that matter, none of the dead bodies looked as if they’d been assaulted beforehand.
Keep him talking, I thought.
“What happened with that woman last night?”
For the first time since we’d arrived the night before, his grin faltered. “She was suspicious. They never suspect a gentle old man.”
Eugene froze, staring behind me. His hands still held in the position to reach out and choke me, when a shuffle from behind caught my attention.
“Drop your hands, Mr. Bryan, and step away from Dr. Whitcomb.” Chief Hawkins spoke calmly as other officers filed into the room, moving Joe and Kaylee back through the tunnel to escape.
A prayer of thanks ran through my mind. Chief Hawkins was a dull, quiet man, but Eugene’s strange behavior must have made him apprehensive as well. I hadn’t been sure he’d pay attention to my call.
“Dr. Whitcomb, step back, please. Go with one of my detectives.”
I didn’t hesitate to obey Chief Hawkins’ orders and quickly made my way out of that macabre cavern
“Ally!” Kaylee and Joe rushed over and embraced me.
We stood silent for a minute, absorbing the atrocious twenty-four hours we’d just had. Soon, Chief Hawkins came up from the opened cellar doors with Eugene handcuffed before him. Two of the detectives then took the disturbing man, who was no longer smiling, off in the direction of where I supposed their police squad vehicles were waiting on the outside edge of the woods.
Chief Hawkins walked over and handed us a business card, “Here, this local bed and breakfast will have rooms available. Hot showers, food, and rest wait for you. Come to the station tomorrow to give your statements.”
He turned to face us once more.
With a brief nod, Chief Hawkins motioned for us to follow him out of the woods back to where our belongings could be found.
We walked in silence for a few minutes, too stunned to make any real comment on what we’d just witnessed. The ground was still muddy, but this time, Kaylee made no complaint.
“Geesh!” Joe shuffled disappointedly.
We all stopped. Even Chief Hawkins paused.
“What, Joe?” I asked, knowing what his reply would be.
“Why couldn’t it have been aliens?”
What did I like about this story?
What spoke to me?
DAN ALATORRE: For me, I loved the Indiana Jones element, a dusty scientist who finds herself in pretty deep, and by her own hand. I found the main character very likable, which is key. Victoria has a good storytelling voice, which is a big plus. I think the story moves along well, a fun story that anyone can enjoy!
ALLISON MARUSKA: The mystery of the underground building was compelling. The MC using her phone to get out of her predicament was smart.
JOHN WINSTON: Show not tell: Perfect blend of show and tell = 10. Beginning, middle, and end: This was a great short with well-defined and executed beginning, middle and end, that flowed seamlessly = 10. Rising Tension: Great gradual escalation from beginning to the end. (If I were the author, I’d try a darker ending with maybe the Chief not making it in time. Yikes!) = 9. Clear goal: The goal was clear early on; Ally knew something was wrong and that was reveal to all at the climactic end = 10. Setting and description: Good descriptions of setting, which I think were important to this piece. I could see everything clearly as it unfolded.
This was a terrific story, as I’m sure you agree.
Join us Saturday for the second of our two 3rd place winners, Dreamers by Heather Kindt
- Next week, we’ll feature the profiles of our two 3rd place winners.
and much more! We have other stories you need to read, plus additional profiles. We’re just getting started!
Right now, please join me in congratulating our first of two 3rd place winners, Victoria Clapton.
See you tomorrow!