Murder Once Removed: New Excerpt
By SC Perkins
S.C. Perkins’ Murder Once Removed is the cozy debut in the Ancestry Detective series, in which Texas genealogist Lucy Lancaster uses her skills to solve murders in both the past and present.
Except for a good taco, genealogist Lucy Lancaster loves nothing more than tracking down her clients’ long-dead ancestors, and her job has never been so exciting as when she discovers a daguerreotype photograph and a journal proving Austin, Texas, billionaire Gus Halloran’s great-great-grandfather was murdered back in 1849. What’s more, Lucy is able to tell Gus who was responsible for his ancestor’s death.
Partly, at least. Using clues from the journal, Lucy narrows the suspects down to two nineteenth-century Texans, one of whom is the ancestor of present-day U.S. senator Daniel Applewhite. But when Gus publicly outs the senator as the descendant of a murderer—with the accidental help of Lucy herself—and her former co-worker is murdered protecting the daguerreotype, Lucy will find that shaking the branches of some family trees proves them to be more twisted and dangerous than she ever thought possible.
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 said 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.”
“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 white 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! 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.”
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,” she’d said before asking, “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 while 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 was 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.
Copyright © 2019 by Stephanie C. Perkins.