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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Murder Once Removed

Ancestry Detective (Volume 1)

S. C. Perkins

Minotaur Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

ONE


The knife had pierced Seth Halloran’s heart, exactly at the spot that would stop it cold. Poor guy would’ve dropped right where he stood.

I hit speed dial and tucked the phone between my ear and shoulder.

“Got a report for me yet, Lancaster?” Gus asked.

“Our witness,” I said, not taking my eyes off the body. “The portrait photographer. He heard yelling and ran to investigate.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Gus said.

“I’ll do you two better,” I replied. “One, the witness finally has an ID. His name’s Jeb Inscore.”

“Inscore, huh? Not a name you hear often.”

I agreed. “Secondly, Jeb hid in a nearby alley, where he saw two unknown men standing over the victim. One of them was holding a knife. Jeb saw blood on it.”

“That’s not what he said the first time.”

“Nope,” I said. “At least not on the official record. Gus, this wasn’t an accidental death. Seth Halloran was murdered.”

Gus snorted, though I knew he was intrigued. Murder had certainly been the rumor. “How do you figure that?”

“Because I have proof,” I said. “I found his body.”

There was a pause on the other end and I pictured Gus’s bushy gray eyebrows dropping into a glower.

“Lucy, what the devil are you talking about? How could you find his body? My great-great-granddaddy Seth died in 1849.”

“He was murdered in 1849,” I said. “Thanks to Jeb Inscore and his photography skills, I’m looking at a photo that shows us the real truth. Hang on and I’ll email you a copy.”

TWO

“This is why I call my company Ancestry Investigations,” I said as I attached two jpeg files to an email and hit send. “Like a detective, I know the truth doesn’t die because the person has. You simply have to be good at following the trail—and I’m pretty damn good at it.”

Gus said, “Winnie Dell knows I always hire the best, Lancaster, so if she recommended you, I’m hardly surprised you’re talented. Now if you’re going to keep yapping, tell me how you found this Inscore fellow’s photo I’m about to see.”

I grinned, moving the phone from my right ear to my left. Dr. Winnie Dell was the curator at the Hamilton American History Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the person to pass along my name to Gus when he was looking for someone to research his family genealogy. Winnie was also my former boss from five years ago, when I worked part-time at the Hamilton Center while studying for my master’s degree in information science and honing my lineage-hunting techniques on friends and coworkers. Her recommendation had been an honor, to be sure. Winnie knew more talented genealogists than you could shake a stick at, yet she’d felt I had what it took to work with the patriarch of one of Texas’s most powerful families.

“Thirty’s still relatively young in the world of professional genealogists,” she’d reminded me before my first introduction to Gus, “but you’ve got both the talent to handle Gus Halloran’s project and the personality to handle Gus himself.”

When I asked her what she meant by that, Winnie said, “I mean that man is a stubborn, opinionated old coot.” Patting her salt-and-pepper bob, she added, “I should know, being a proud old coot myself.”

Minutes later, I was holding my hand out to a big bear of a man in a three-piece suit. At seventy-five, Gus still had a full head of gray hair, matching bristly mustache, and dark blue eyes that were hypnotizing in their confidence. It was the stare of a businessman who’d made a lot of money by not being easily impressed. I shook his hand, saying, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Halloran. I understand you’re a stubborn, opinionated old coot.”

After a brief moment of shock, he’d roared with laughter, kicking off one of my biggest ancestry projects to date, as well as a lovely grandfather-granddaughter–like friendship.

Though at present, I felt he might disown me if I didn’t get on with my explaining.

“Okay,” I said, “as you know, the newspaper clipping you showed me said Seth had been trampled to death by a loose draft horse.” The yellowed, three-paragraph article from The Western Texan gave the time and date of Seth’s demise as the early morning hours of February 17, 1849. The place was Commerce Street, then but a dirt road in the still-young city of San Antonio, Texas.

“My great-great-grandmother never believed that cockamamie story,” Gus said. “She went to her grave saying he was murdered.”

“We now know Jennie Halloran was right.” Mostly, I thought, glancing at another piece of evidence I had yet to reveal. “Regardless, we also know that article called the witness ‘a local portrait photographer, aged thirty-six years,’ but he was never named outright.”

“Always thought that seemed strange,” Gus said.

“I did, too, and I’d been wondering ever since if being trampled by a horse in nineteenth-century San Antonio was suspicious enough to have warranted an inquest. You and Phyllis were in Napa when I called you to talk about looking into it further, remember?”

Winnie Dell had encouraged me to ask Gus for permission to keep investigating, reminding me that he had been wanting someone to dig into the mystery his whole life.

Not one to welcome interruption when he and his wife were on vacation, though, Gus had replied, “Lancaster, do whatever you like, and put it on my tab,” before hanging up on me.

“Anyhow,” I said, “a couple of weeks back, I went to the Archives and requested the Bexar County inquest records for the time period surrounding 1849. The records are on microfilm and it took a while to get them through interlibrary loan, but they came in a few days back.”

Austin’s Texas State Library and Archives Commission, also known as the Lorenzo de Zavala State Archives and Library Building, was located a couple hundred feet east of the state capitol, and both buildings were within walking distance from my office on Congress Avenue that I shared with two other self-employed friends. The massive federal depository, with its treasure trove of genealogical resources, was so much my second office that I knew many of the staff by name and spent free time there volunteering, helping to organize programs for the public on topics relating to genealogy, history, and historical-documents preservation.

I told Gus, “There was indeed an inquest and Jeb Inscore was listed as the sole witness. He’d even written ‘photographer’ as his occupation, which sealed it that I’d found the right man. As you mentioned, it’s not like the surname Inscore is one you hear of every day, so I took a chance, did my thing, and tracked down his descendants. Two of his great-granddaughters are still alive. One of them, Betty-Anne Inscore-Cooper, is eighty-two and still lives in San Antonio. I called her, explained who I was, what I was researching, and asked if she might be willing to talk to me about her great-grandfather and any stories regarding Seth.”

“Initiative!” Gus crowed. “Just what I like to hear.”

Oh, yeah. High-five to me! In my mind, I raised my palms overhead and quietly smacked them together.

Betty-Anne Inscore-Cooper had welcomed my initiative as well, saying she’d be honored to tell me about her great-grandpa Jeb.

“If you’d also like to see some of his photographs—the kind where no one is smiling because they’re afraid the camera will steal their souls—my hall closet is filled with boxes of them,” she’d said with a tinkling laugh. “There’s also two more boxes I’ve never looked through because they’d been stored at my great-aunt Hattie’s house until she died, and then with my aunt until she recently passed as well. Would you like to help me go through them? I happen to be free tomorrow, if a Saturday is to your liking. I can make us a nice chicken salad for lunch.”

“I love chicken salad, and tomorrow would be perfect. Thank you.”

A hint of seriousness then came into her sweet-sounding voice. “Though I have my mah-jongg group at five thirty. We’re playing the ladies from the Thousand Oaks Retirement Center and I can’t be late. They’re some tough old biddies, but none of us need walkers yet. We plan to walk in as a team for that mental edge. Would coming in the morning work for you?”

While I was born with the early-riser genes of my father’s side of the family, I’d also gotten a healthy dose of morning grumpiness from my mom’s side of the family that made me a less-than-ideal breakfast companion. Still, the ninety-minute drive from Austin to San Antonio, coupled with twenty ounces of something hot and caffeinated, and I’d be ready to take on as many boxes of old photos as Betty-Anne and I could pull out of her closet.

“How does nine A.M. sound?”

Now I was talking to Gus as I sat at Betty-Anne’s glass kitchen table on Saturday afternoon. A small plate with the remains of a slice of homemade coffee cake sat next to my laptop on the red-checked cloth placemat. A glass of iced tea was within easy reach, but not where it could accidentally spill on any of the photos and documents that were laid out across the rest of the round table. The mid-October temperatures in San Antonio were still in the high seventies, with pristine blue skies visible out the small bay window behind me. It overlooked a modest grass yard shaded on one side by a huge pecan tree and graced on the other side by a little white gazebo encircled by one last flush of deep-red Chrysler Imperial roses, a handful of which were being cut by Betty-Anne to go in a vase on her coffee table.

Glancing out, I could see her fluffy gray hair lifting slightly with the breeze as she leaned over, colorfully embroidered Mexican dress billowing, to cut another stem. She was a wonderful storyteller and as sweet as I’d imagined, with lovely brown eyes that sparkled when she laughed, and an infectious, impish smile. Proving herself a true Southern grandmother as well, she constantly called me “shug,” fed me like I was a starving street urchin, and smelled permanently of Shalimar, leaving behind a gentle waft of it wherever she went.

I’d learned a lot about Betty-Anne’s great-grandfather as I helped her organize and catalog the detritus of his life. While the story she knew of Jeb witnessing Seth Halloran’s death was as short and unilluminating as expected, I’d soon found that Jeb had left behind an impressive body of photographic work, capturing images of both the citizens of San Antonio and the city itself as it was growing.

I told Gus, “He’d even taken several photos of the Alamo, just a few years after the 1836 battle for Texas’s independence had taken place. They’re all amazing, truly. I’ve already talked to Winnie Dell about them and Betty-Anne is letting me bring a few to the Hamilton Center for Winnie to see. I’m hoping she’ll think the photos are as special as I do and want the entire collection for an exhibit. Then the whole world will be able to see Jeb’s photos, in person or online.”

“Yes, yes. Lancaster, you know I would think this was fascinating at any other point…”

“Getting off topic, got it,” I said. “So, early this afternoon Betty-Anne and I finally got to the two boxes that had been at her great-aunt Hattie’s. One was full of photos, all small portrait stills of local San Antonians, each in a hinged case that kept out the light. He’d labeled most of them, too, so we know who they are. Anyway, Betty-Anne and I were talking away about little things, like the way the women dressed in the late nineteenth century and how fashion has changed so much over the years, when I pulled out the last case and looked inside. What I saw was…”

I paused. “Well, you should have it in your email now.”

Gus’s reply was unintelligible, which meant he was concentrating on peering through his reading glasses at his computer screen. The creaking sound I heard told me he was sitting in his leather office chair on the top floor of the all-glass Halloran Incorporated Building in downtown Austin, where, despite being past normal retirement age, he was still president of the international corporation that bore his family name.

I heard the double click of his mouse, a sharp intake of breath, and a whispered, “Holy blue blazes,” as he finally saw the photo of his great-great-grandfather, dead in the San Antonio dirt.

For several long seconds, there was nothing but stunned silence on the other end of the line.

I couldn’t believe it. I, Lucy Lancaster, humble genealogist, had rendered speechless one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Texas.

Hot damn! I did a little happy dance in my chair until Gus clicked on the second file and said, “Lancaster, this wide-shot photo is terrible. The leather frame is clear all right, but this infernal glare on the photo is making it impossible for me to see my great-great-grandfather.”

“What you’re seeing is the reflection of my camera onto the photo,” I explained. “The photograph Jeb Inscore took is called a daguerreotype—”

“Repeat that, will you?” Gus demanded. “It sounded like gobbledygook the first time. Spell it for me, too, so I can write it in my notes.”

“Dee-gare-oh-type,” I said, emphasizing each syllable before I spelled it out. “Daguerreotypes are known for being incredibly reflective since they were processed onto super-shiny, silver-coated copperplates. It was the most advanced form of photography in the mid-nineteen hundreds, especially for portrait photographers like Jeb Inscore.”

“How’d you get the close-up shot, then? It’s dang near perfect, no reflection at all.”

“I read online to cover a piece of cardboard with a black cloth and cut a hole for my camera lens to go through,” I said. “It worked great when I zoomed in, but didn’t help at all for the wide shot.”

“Interesting,” he said, and I knew he meant it. Gus liked learning new information as much as I did. It had been another shared connection we’d discovered once I started working with him.

“The frame you mentioned is actually one of the hinged cases I was telling you about,” I continued as I repositioned my cell more securely between my ear and shoulder and put on a pair of white cotton gloves. “They’re metal cases covered in leather and the lining is a burgundy-colored velvet. There’s also glass covering the photo to keep the air out, and it’s sealed with paper tape. Removing the tape and letting in air could cause the daguerreotype to oxidize, so Betty-Anne is letting me take it and the Alamo photos to Winnie. The Hamilton Center has experts in photo restoration to make sure everything will stay in tip-top shape.”

Picking up the case, I ran my gloved finger gently over the protective glass and the image of thirty-four-year-old Seth Halloran.

His clear eyes were fixed and ghostlike as they stared lifelessly up to the sky, and his dark coat was flung open, revealing the portion of his white linen shirt over his heart to be ripped and stained with blood. His felt top hat, common for a gentleman of the time, had tumbled down off his head and lay on its side at the edge of the photo. One of his legs was straight while the other was bent at the knee, yet his dark woolen trousers and suspenders were still perfectly in place. Only a small amount of dust had dirtied them.

On the other end of the line, Gus cleared his throat. “Lancaster, this photograph find is exciting, yes, but it doesn’t offer a great deal of solid proof that my family’s legend of murder was true.”

“You’re right, Gus. The photo might not be able to prove murder,” I said, excitement bubbling in my stomach at getting to reveal my other find, “but Jeb Inscore’s journal sure does.”

That got me another two full seconds of silence. I was on fire!

“Inscore left behind a diary?”

“He certainly did,” I said. “That was what was in the last box belonging to Hattie Inscore, a journal from every year of her father’s adult life. They were all the definition of tame, except for the one from 1849. In that one, Jeb explained exactly what he saw that day in February. I’m sending you scans of the journal pages now, but they’re a little hard to read, so I’m also sending you the audiobook version.”

“The what version?”

“It’s my little joke,” I said, pulling my iPad onto my lap. “I recorded myself reading the excerpts from Jeb’s journal so you can listen to them as well as read them.”

Placing my thumb on the tablet’s fingerprint-recognizing home button made the screen light up. Barely glancing down, I attached the recordings and hit send.

“They’re on their way,” I said.

“I’m an impatient man, Lancaster. Give me the gist.”

“One gist, coming up,” I said, switching the phone back to my right ear. “Jeb wrote that he was around the corner of a building, hiding, when he witnessed the two killers standing over Seth’s body. After the bad guys left, that’s when Jeb brought his camera from his nearby studio and got the photo—which wouldn’t have been a quick process, mind you, because a daguerreotype’s exposure could be several minutes long. Then once he took his gear back, he was leaving to find the sheriff when the killers returned, this time with a draft horse. They walked the horse over Seth’s body to let the horse’s hooves and weight make enough damage to hide the knife wound.”

“There actually was a horse? They made it trample Seth after they…” He paused. “Ye gods.”

“My sentiments exactly. Anyway, this time the killers saw Jeb, grabbed him, and took him to their boss. He—the boss—was the man who’d ordered Seth killed and who coerced Jeb into lying at the inquest.”

“Hang on. Are you saying this was a hit?”

Before I could answer, Gus roared, “Then who was this yellow-bellied, lily-livered, no-good son of a biscuit who had my great-great-granddaddy murdered?”

It took a moment for the ringing in my ear to subside so that I could hear my own reply. “Well, that’s the odd thing. While Jeb does give a few clues in his journal from 1849 about who ordered the hit, he was too scared to even write the guy’s name and only referred to him by the initials ‘C.A.’”

“He gave clues? What clues? Do you have any idea who this C.A. character is?”

I hesitated for the first time, wondering if I should tell him absolutely everything I’d found. Then I told myself I was being ridiculous, that Gus would handle it with the maturity of his years and experience.

“No, I don’t know who C.A. is. Or was, rather. But I did some research based on the three main details that Jeb gave us about him and I was able to narrow down the field … I think.”

When I didn’t continue, Gus said, “Lancaster, I don’t do well with waiting or suspense.”

“All right. It’s important that you take this last bit of research I did with a few grains of salt, though. Just saying.” Before he could give me a crabby reply, I launched into my findings.

“There were three main things Jeb mentioned about the man he called C.A. First, he said C.A. was a veteran of the Texas Revolution in 1836. Next, that this guy served in the Texas Legislature—at least those of the Second and Third Legislatures, and possibly more—but Jeb didn’t specify if it was in the House or the Senate.”

“A soldier-turned-politician, huh?” Gus said. “They were a dime a dozen back then.”

“True,” I replied. “Still, I have to say, the third clue was the most unique—and amusing—identifier. Apparently this C.A. had a big ol’ nose.”

“Did you say nose?”

“Yep, and his honker was passed down to his children. In fact, Jeb’s exact words were hilarious.” I opened the small leather-bound journal to the page I’d marked. “He said that it was ‘a most unfortunate trait, which even allows for the quick recognition of C.A.’s daughter from across a crowded—’”

“Lancaster,” Gus interrupted, “I would sincerely appreciate it if you would get to the part that I need taken with a few grains of salt.”

“Right,” I said. “Anyway, Jeb often wrote down the names of his customers who came in for their portraits, so Betty-Anne and I went back through all the journals, before and after 1849, and I wrote down any mention of a man whose initials happened to be C.A. I also ran some searches for men living in San Antonio in the 1840s with the same initials, just in case. The grand total was higher than you would think, actually, but most were easily ruled out by their age or being unmarried. By adding in the detail of the Texas Legislature, I was then able to narrow the field to three men. One of the three I was able to eliminate due to the fact that he never had kids and Jeb specifically mentions children, plural, with at least one daughter. Then that left two men. One was Cantwell Ayers, who was a member of the Texas House of Representatives.”

“And the second man?”

I paused, then said, “The second was Caleb Applewhite, who served in the Texas Senate.”

I heard Gus suck in air, then his voice sharpened. “Was he…?”

“The great-great-great-grandfather of current United States senator Daniel Applewhite? The man running for reelection against your son, Pearce? Yes.”

On the other end of the phone came a silence like I hadn’t yet heard from him. Deafening would have been a good word for it. When it went into its third second, I teased, “Hey, now. It’s all conjecture, you know. Remember? A few grains of salt?”

“I’m on a salt-free diet, Lancaster.”

“Yes, but Gus, the clues fit both men. Either of them could be C.A. It’s likely Seth knew these two men, but there’s many miles between your great-great-grandfather knowing a man and having that man put out a hit on him.”

“We still own land south of San Antonio adjacent to Applewhite lands,” Gus was quick to remind me. “Even Daniel Applewhite told me our families were once neighbors, so there’s no doubt Seth and Caleb knew each other well.”

I countered with a couple of facts of my own. “True, but did you know Cantwell Ayers also had land in that area and he was a sheep farmer when he first moved to Texas, just like your ancestor? Heck, one of Cantwell’s daughters sold some Ayers land to Caleb years later, so it’s likely they all three knew each other, but that doesn’t make it clear which of the two men was the man Jeb called C.A.”

Gus didn’t reply, so I reminded him again that more searching was necessary, adding, “There’s no guarantee we’ll ever know, Gus, so you mustn’t jump to conclusions.”

Now I wasn’t liking the silence I was getting from him, and I was worried he was focusing on the Applewhites because of recent bad blood. The Applewhites and the Hallorans were two of Texas’s oldest families and, while I didn’t know of any feuds back in Seth Halloran’s and Caleb Applewhite’s time, the last two generations of each family had done their best to one-up each other in every theater their name had clout, from business, to philanthropy, to politics. Things hadn’t been too nasty, though, until recently, when Gus’s son Pearce decided to run for office against Senator Daniel Applewhite and both teams had mounted smear campaigns that had them slinging mud like two bratty little boys in a pigpen after a rain. Thankfully, Gus and I had steered clear of politics in our relationship, but I knew he felt the Applewhite campaign had gone too far a few times, which was made worse since Pearce was behind in the polls. Relief washed over me when Gus finally let out a tired sigh.

“You’re right, blast it all. Well, is there anything else?”

Once more, I gently flipped through the journal from 1849 belonging to Jebediah Francis Inscore. Near the end, I again came across the almost imperceptible gap in pages where the entry for October tenth had been torn out. I glanced at the surrounding entries one last time, reminding myself they were all day-to-day stuff, his biggest drama being that his mercury supplies for processing his daguerreotype photos were running low because his assistant had not ordered them on time. The chances that the entry for October tenth held anything fascinating were minimal.

“Nope, I’m done dazzling you for now.”

But Gus’s thoughts were still in the past. “Lancaster, what this boils down to is that Jeb saved his own hide and kept the secret of how Seth really died at the expense of my great-great-grandmother, who by then had a reputation as a grieving, raving widow for trying to convince the town her husband had been murdered.”

“You might view it differently once you read Jeb’s journal entries, Gus,” I said. “He felt terrible about lying. Anguished, in fact. But a psychopath had threatened his family, so what could he do?”

Gus groused a bit more and I murmured a few words of understanding. You wouldn’t think so, but it was part of my job to be compassionate. Even though a client’s ancestor might have died long ago, it didn’t mean that subsequent generations had let go of injustices to the family, be they real or perceived.

“On the bright side,” I told Gus, “your great-great-grandmother Jennie took Seth’s textiles business, expanded it, and created Halloran Incorporated as we know it today. She was one hell of a lady, Gus. Tough and smart. Left your family a hell of a legacy, too. If it weren’t for her ending up in the situation she did, your family might be middle-class average Joes instead of the Vanderbilts of Texas.”

I only got a harrumph, but in it I could hear his good humor had returned.

“When will you have my full Halloran family tree ready for me?” he asked.

“This coming Friday,” I replied. I planned to take tomorrow off and then put my nose back to the grindstone during the week to complete my written report that would go in the front of the book full of photos, letters, pedigree charts, census reports, DNA analysis, and the full family tree as far back as I could trace with certainty. The whole book—I called it the family record—would then be professionally bound with a cover of my client’s choice. As requested, Gus’s cover would feature the Halloran family crest, as would the website I was building for him that contained all the same information.

“Good,” he said. “Eleven o’clock on Friday. My office. You’ll present your findings to my sisters, children, and whatever extended family can make it, and then we’d like to take you out to lunch.”

“Gus, not even a yellow-bellied, lily-livered, no-good son of a biscuit could keep me away.”


Copyright © 2019 by Stephanie C. Perkins