Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Vol. 112, No. 3 & 4. Whole No. 684 & 685, September/October 1998
The Archaeologist’s Revenge
© 1998 by Janice Law
Nothing would have been managed without the road, but fortune favors the prepared, as well as the brave, and I’d been preparing for years. Ever since the afternoon Eva “disappeared,” I’ve lived for two things, work and revenge.
I’m an archaeologist, not a famous one, but I think I can say I’m well respected. Solid and tenured, with the requisite two books under my belt, I’ve reached a pleasant academic plateau. My specialty is the burial customs in the Late Riverine Archaic, and while the eastern woodland tribes are not really a glamour area in Native American studies, I have found my researches deeply satisfying — and useful, too, as you will see.
“Useful” is, perhaps, the proper word for me. I’ve been a useful teacher, a useful researcher; Jane, my wife, might say I was a useful husband, but a life of pure utility robs the soul. That was where Eva came in; Eva was social danger, emotional extravagance, pure poetry. I adored her from our first meeting, when I walked into the Feingolds’ living room prepared for the usual round of academic gossip and one-upmanship, and saw her sitting by the fireplace. She was fair and plump, a woman bewitching in that peachy mode the old Flemish painters loved so much. When she saw us approaching, she smiled a big, open-mouthed smile and devoured my heart.
“Come meet Eva, Eva and Andrew Donaldson,” said Chloe Feingold, who knows everyone’s rank, tenure status, dissertation subject, and grant prospects. “Andrew’s just gotten the Renaissance appointment in the English department.” She beamed with unfeigned delight at a thin, focused-looking chap with lank brown hair and wind-burned skin, a poor specimen next to his blooming wife. “And,” Chloe added, as if announcing a special treat for us, “he’s a Renaissance man himself, running a marathon next week.”
Fool, I thought, as I shook his hand, what are marathons, what is the Renaissance, that you should neglect this treasure? But he did neglect Eva, though they were just moving in, though the old Burdine farmhouse was a wreck, though the lawn was too long for their little suburban mower. Fortune, as I said, favors the prepared. I brought over our riding mower — my wife, Jane, insisted — and while I circled the yard, leaving swaths of hay on the lawn, Eva raked up the cuttings and smiled as I went past. I was as happy that afternoon as if I had been orbiting the outskirts of paradise.
Five years. If you know the nosey, gossipy ways of academe, you won’t believe me, but Eva and I had five good years. I even came to love the marathon, particularly the requisite training runs, which provided us with hours of happiness. I remember those afternoons in the pasture back of the old farm: summer heat, wild berries, the Glassian repetition of locusts and cicadas, my darling’s faintly downy cheeks, the dimples on her knees, a certain blessed avidity. Then fall, the smell of wild grapes and leaf mulch; and spring, spring! after the logistical difficulties of the winter, spring with woodcocks mating, thrushes singing, skunk cabbage and marsh marigolds bursting from the swamp. Each spring, I understood why captives of the old Iroquois and Algonquins were reluctant to return to the stiff Colonial world of floors and chairs, of stays and ruffs and high leather boots.
I would push off in my canoe, paddle along the rim of the large pond, thread my way through the marsh on the little streamlets I came to know so well, and land at the foot of the old Burdine, now the Donaldsons’, pasture. Simplicity itself, when you think about it. I always had excuses: prospecting for fish weirs, looking for campsites, immersing myself in the habitat of the archaic woodsmen. Believe me, I understood them much better after I went hunting for joy in my own canoe, stealing along the pale of settlement to pounce on my own fair darling Eva.
If my wife Jane knew, she was indifferent; wisely so, I think. We had two children, both in college at the time, and our marriage, if no longer inspiring, has its own fidelities and foundations. We understand each other; that’s an important point, and Jane has her own interests, the writing of romance novels chief among them. I’m told that her last three are quite the best she’s ever done. I’ve wondered if suspicions of my affair inspired her, but Jane keeps her own counsel.
Andrew was a different sort, possessive but neglectful, the very worst matrimonial combination, and he cast the tolerant, sophisticated spirit of my wife in a very handsome light. Andrew didn’t deserve Eva. While he thought his wife was faithful, he ignored her; as soon as he suspected she had a lover, he transferred some of his compulsions from distance running and obscure textualities to interfering with the happiness of others.
I’d have enjoyed having it out with him; physical violence, scandal, statements libelous and actionable sometimes have a deep visceral appeal. But, besides the fact that I had fifteen years on him — fifteen years at least! — there was my family to think about, and, as a very ancient anthropologist once said, the price of a good, or at least a tolerable wife is beyond rubies. So Eva and I were careful. It is my nature to be cautious, to prepare my ground — you’ll see proof of that — but Eva revealed a sly discretion that, considering her spontaneous and uninhibited appetites, was as surprising as it was delightful. For a couple of years, Andrew quite unfairly suspected Gerry DeSentis, a rising young theorist in the English department, and contrived, I’m told, to keep him from tenure.
In certain moods it almost annoys me that I was never a suspect. “Old Bones and Feathers,” with his gimpy knee and gray hair, wasn’t thought to be up to such pranks, but maybe that was just the chauvinism of literary people. I did worry a little when
Oh yes, we were happy, very, very happy, until one fatal afternoon in mid April. We’d had a long, wet winter, one of those inconclusive and unsatisfactory seasons too mild for skiing, too wet for walks. Her children were quite small then, and arrangements were difficult. Her husband’s graduate students, if good babysitters, were eagle-eyed and loose-tongued, so Eva and I fell back on the Westbrook Mall, where the huge parking lots and food courts allow an anonymous rendezvous. We planned to meet that day in the south lot and take my van for a quick run to the state forest, a mixed deciduous woodland almost deserted in the dreary weather. We would have returned to the mall later, to meet, as if by chance, in the food court, where we could talk back and forth between the little tables like casual acquaintances.
This was a scenario we’d used before with complete success, for neither of us liked to lie. “Where did you go today?” Jane might ask. “I bought some socks at Penney’s,” I’d say honestly, or, “Stopped by the bookstore in the mall. Not a damn thing there but bestsellers and weight-loss books.” And if she mentioned that Chloe Feingold or Pat Meyer had seen me at the mall, I’d say, “Half the university was out today; I ran into Eva Donaldson in the food court.”
When Eva did not show up that afternoon, I was disappointed but not worried. She had, on occasion, to cancel at the last moment: the failure of a sitter, the illness of a child, the odd sprain or strain that brought Andrew home prematurely from his interminable training. If anything, this occasional disappointment and uncertainty added a piquant note to our relationship. I’m a great believer in regularity in marriage, but in affairs of the heart a certain suspense, a certain irregularity in what is, after all, an irregularity itself, opens the way for serendipity.
I hung around the magazine racks for a while, then went home with a handful of novels for Jane. I had supper, read two chapters of the dissertation I was supervising, and went to bed. I had no idea that my life had been drastically altered until the next evening when Gus Phillips called with the news that Eva Donaldson, my Eva! was missing. I only understood snatches of what he was saying, “car abandoned at the mall,” “sitter worried,” “Andrew frantic,” “police.”
“Police,” I said, uncomprehending. It’s odd how, at certain moments, you’re unable to fit together the pieces of the universe.
“Of course, he called the police,” said Gus, the half-horrified, halfdelighted bearer of news. “She’s been gone over twenty-four hours. Everyone’s alarmed.”
Only when I got the whole story again from Chloe Feingold, whose narrat ...