Harry Truman reportedly once said that if you want a friend in Washington you should get a dog. Here’s my corollary: if you want someone in law enforcement to stick by your side in D.C., show up at a national monument with a camera and try to appear nonchalant as you ask the park ranger about security arrangements . . . at night. Sure, you know it’s research for a book and you want to get your facts right because readers care about these things. But now you’ve got the undivided attention of someone wearing a uniform and a badge and you can hear the gears whirring because he’s wondering, “Who is she really and why does she want to know how many people guard the Jefferson Memorial at night?”And you’re thinking, “Do park rangers carry guns?”
Let me just say that it’s not the first time I’ve been in a situation like this, so now I’m prepared. I successfully calmed down a Capitol Hill police officer who found me with a map and my camera as I was trying to locate a little-known pavilion on the Senate grounds. I also placated a Capitol tour guide who finally stopped our group in the middle of Statuary Hall and said to me in an ominous voice, “What’s up with all the questions?”
When I ‘fessed up, she seemed disappointed. “Oh,”she said, “I thought you were one of those Dan Brown fans looking for the lost symbol.”
But today at the Jefferson Memorial, I decide I’m going to throw caution to the wind and tell this ranger the truth up front. I hand him my business card, explain that I’m a mystery author researching my next book, and I need to know if it’s possible to get away with murdering someone at the Jefferson Memorial at night, or does someone patrol the grounds at all hours. Unfortunately for me—or fortunately for you, if you happen to be a nocturnal tourist or an insomniac who visits monuments at 3am—it’s not possible. There are lights and guards and patrols and, yes, guns. Twenty-four seven.
So now I’m stuck. I’ve already ruled out Hains Point, the southernmost tip of East Potomac Park, a 300-acre man-made island between the Potomac River and the Washington Channel. It’s got great scenery and it’s the perfect place for an edgy late night date to watch the planes fly over your head as they skim across the Potomac and land at Reagan. But the park closes at night.
Well, I’m writing fiction, aren’t I? Don’t I get some latitude, so I can rearrange the facts to suit my purposes? I don’t think so—at least not this time, because it’s the Jefferson Memorial. If I start taking liberties with iconic places you know, love, and more importantly, have visited (and you’ve all been here, just ask us locals), I’m going to lose credibility with readers who say, “If I can’t trust her to get the Jefferson Memorial right, what else did she get wrong in this book?” Maybe you agree with me or maybe not; either way, I’d like to know, so please chime in with your comments at the end of this post.
But back to my story, which has a happy ending because my park ranger has a secret. Once we establish that I’m not a terrorist who needs to be turned over to Homeland Security, he confesses. He’s got an unfinished manuscript at home in a desk drawer. Where it has been gathering dust for years. Now he has questions for me—about publishing and writing and what to do with that manuscript. So we chat and I’m still trying to figure out where to stash a dead body while giving him the best advice I give any would-be author: finish the thing. Afterwards he disappears, but a few minutes later he’s back with a map of the Jefferson Memorial . . . and environs.
“I’ve been thinking,”he says. “There are better places to murder someone. What about the George Mason Memorial?”
I’m a transplanted Virginian and I know all about George Mason, even though he was one of the lesser-known Founding Fathers. But he did write the Bill of Rights, along with James Madison, plus he was George Washington’s good buddy until they had a falling out when Mason wouldn’t sign the Constitution. A university bearing Mason’s name is practically in my backyard in Fairfax, Virginia.
I am dumbfounded. “There’s a memorial to George Mason?”I ask. “Where is it?”
My ranger points vaguely across the street. “Over there, through some bushes. It’s not one of the better-known D.C. monuments. Thomas Jefferson is guarded night and day, but George Mason only gets a drive-by every now and then.”He hands me the map, winks at me, and says, “Think about it.”
Then he takes off to help another tourist. Just as I’m leaving he’s back again and this time he looks pleased.
“I need to thank you for being an inspiration,“ he says. ”When I leave here today, I’m going home to finally finish that book.”
I tell him he’s welcome and head across the street to find those bushes and the previously-unknown-to-me memorial to George Mason. Where I’m also sure to find another park ranger.
Though the odds are probably against me that he or she will have a manuscript in a desk drawer.
Image of George Mason Memorial from Rhodeside & Harwell
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Ellen Crosby is the author of six books in the Virginia wine country mystery series, as well as Moscow Nights, a standalone mystery based loosely on her time as Moscow correspondent for ABC Radio News. Before writing fiction, she also worked as a freelance reporter for The Washington Post and as an economist at the US Senate. After living overseas for many years in Europe and the former Soviet Union, Crosby, who has an undergraduate degree in political science and a masters in international affairs, now resides in the D.C. suburbs of northern Virginia.