The light lunch that Priscilla laid out was a cup of blue crab stew, a shrimp remoulade over fresh greens, and cranberry-almond rusks, served with a crisp chardonnay. A big step up from the turkey sandwich I’d packed yesterday (despite being an enthusiastic foodie, I limited eating out to Tuesdays and Fridays and brown-bagged the rest of the time, unless I was on expense account. Which had been a whole lot more often as an investigative reporter than the local sports desk guru), although at heart I’m a whoa-not-quite-so-healthy eater. I mean, I’m young enough—hey, thirty-two is still young—and active enough not to dwell on such abstract metaphysical concepts as cholesterol and fiber. But whatever Ms. Foster was doing clearly worked well, so I dug in with gusto.
Subsequent conversation confirmed that indeed it had been Priscilla, a pleasant if reserved young black woman in a mid-thigh grey dress trimmed with white, who had shown me in as well as preparing a restaurant-quality meal. When I complimented her on the remoulade, however, Ms. Foster frowned as if speaking directly to servants was a social faux pas. Well once upon a time, here in the Charleston burbs, it may have been considered gauche, but those days were long past. Except apparently not at the Foster plantation. She also didn’t correct me with a, “Oh, please just call me Adeline,” and so with financial matters yet to be determined we remained Ms. Foster and Mr. Whittaker throughout lunch. At least that put the kibosh on Mr. Lust so I could concentrate on the potential business at hand.
Halfway through dinner we had thoroughly discussed the current warm spell and wasn’t it a nice change from the chill last weekend and didn’t I think the chardonnay had just the right hint of oak and had I driven in by way of the road construction with all those barrels but where nobody was ever working and wasn’t it refreshing to enjoy a fall without a political campaign, all those ads were bad enough but when they started calling you, why that was too much, didn’t I think there ought to be a law? So when there was a break in the conversation, which meant a break in her monologue since my side of the discussion was mostly nodding vague agreement and mumbling with my mouth full, I brought up the business at hand.
“So tell me, Ms. Foster, what this extended investigative project is.”
“Ah.” She took a slug of the wine—quite a contrast from the dainty sips she’d employed the rest of the meal—blotted her lips with a napkin, and looked me in the eye. “What I would like is for you to investigate what happened to Daddy.”
I should have had some idea what she was talking about, but the morgue had not mentioned anything about Daddy. I kicked myself for not being better prepared.
“I’m sorry to say that I don’t know anything about your father. Perhaps you should start by giving me a summary of what you know.”
“After Mother left him, Daddy sort of retreated from the world. Gave Mother the house I’d grown up in and moved to White Sands, a little town at the end of a long badly-paved road out in the middle of nowhere. Said he didn’t want to be around people anymore.”
“And when did that take place?”
“I had just started my junior year at Furman, so it would have been in 1990. In fact, my leaving for college is when their problems started.” Ms. Foster drained what was left in her glass and poured herself another without offering me any. “Daddy was never much of a talker. I guess after I left home for college, Mother just couldn’t stand the silence. It just took a couple of years for her to finally decide to do something about it.”
“What did your father do? And where is White Sands, by the way?” I pulled out my notebook to make some notes, although she hadn’t formally offered the job.
“White Sands in down in that tangle of islands and marsh on the Intercoastal Waterway between Beaufort and Savannah. Daddy walked away from 23 highly successful years in the business world to work odd jobs. He started off as an enthusiastic amateur and got to where he could fix anything. I guess there was enough repair work on the cottages in the area to pay what few bills he had.”
“How did he spend his spare time? Golf from his days in the business world, maybe?”
Adeline snorted. “Daddy despised golf. He bought a little bateau and for a while fished all in and around the little inlets and oyster shoals. Eventually he got bored with that and took up painting. Packed his easel and canvases and whatnot in his boat and painted whatever he found. Herons and dead trees and sunsets over the marsh. His stuff became pretty popular with the tourists. Ended up with paintings hanging in galleries on Hilton Head and in Beaufort both.”
“And so what happened?”
“It was back in May of 2007. The sheriff called me to find out if I had heard from Daddy or had any idea where he might be. He hadn’t gotten his mail for a few days and the postman had called the sheriff. That was the first I’d heard that he’d disappeared.”
“What did the police decide happened?”
“They never got too excited about it. His cottage was clean, with the dishes washed up and in the dish drain. His boat was gone, but his painting stuff and his fishing tackle were all still at the cottage. They did a search for his boat, but called it off after a couple of days. The sheriff said it was possible he’d had an accident and drowned, but not really all that likely, what with the weather calm and the tides running normal. And since he hadn’t taken anything out in the boat with him, Sheriff Tate speculated that maybe he’d just decided it was time to move on. He knew Daddy pretty well, figured he was capable of just leaving if he got it in his mind to do so.”
“But you don’t, I take it?”
Ms. Foster picked at her salad for a minute without answering. Off in the distance I heard the sound of a boat horn, one of those with the big lonesome sound. You couldn’t see the water from here, but obviously we weren’t very far away.
“I don’t know what I think. I guess I don’t. Walking away from his little cottage and his paints and what was left in his bank account, maybe. But not ever say a word to me in six years? No, I don’t think he’d do that.”
“Were the two of you close?”
She hit the wine hard again, but this time blotted her eyes instead of her lips.
“Not as close as we should have been, obviously. But he was a hard man to be real close to. Growing up I never felt unloved. He obviously adored me. Expressed love often and in a lot of different ways. Special gifts, leaving little notes stuck to my mirror. Going out to eat with just the two of us. But he wasn’t easy to talk to, and when you’re adults that’s mostly what you do. So I visited him three or four times a year, called about that often.” She laughed. “Emailed him regularly once I finally badgered him into getting a computer.”
“So why have you decided to investigate now and not six years ago?”
“Because I was still married to Ari then, and the two of them did not get along. I asked him for the money and he said no. Bastard.”
I had a fleeting thought of her husband and the two athletic young women.
“Ah, I can see from your face that you’re familiar with Ari’s peccadilloes, even if you didn’t know about Daddy. There’s modern journalism for you. A juicy sex scandal with teenagers is so much more interesting than a good man disappearing.”
“Whoa, lady. In May of 2007, I’d been working at my first real newspaper job, a weekly community rag, for maybe 3 months. We didn’t even cover news outside of the Florence city limits. I did what the hell they told me to do and kept my mouth shut.” A lesson I’d obviously forgotten.
She held up shapely hands with long fingers. “Sorry. Sorry. Just an automatic bitchy reaction. Ari and his two little playthings did me a great big favor. Being his trophy wife meant being kept on a very short leash, given just enough money to stay suitably attractive, put down constantly, and left to amuse myself while he did whatever he pleased. Being his ex-wife, well, let’s just say that I don’t have to wonder if Priscilla’s paycheck will bounce or beg for money to find out what the hell happened to my own father.” During this diatribe her voice became louder until she finally stood up. At the end she glared at me, as if she expected me to defend Ari, because we were both men I suppose. Well, I didn’t need to prove myself by winning a staring contest. Instead I shrugged, poured myself the last of the chardonnay, and leaned back in my seat until she sat back down with a shake of her head that didn’t displace any locks.
“Six years is a long time, particularly when they didn’t uncover anything the first time. What do you really expect me to find?”
Ms. Foster propped her feet back up and stared out over the green expanse of perfect lawn for a couple of minutes. I gave her plenty of time. It’s not like I was all that eager to interview some high school receivers coach so he could recite a half dozen clichés for me to turn into a six-inch column, which is what I’d be doing once I got back to work. The wine was quite good, although I was no expert.
Finally she answered. “What I want, Rick, is some goddamn closure. I want to know that we did our best to find out what happened. That there’s not an answer sitting right out there if only we’d looked a little fucking harder. If you don’t find an answer, I want to be confident there isn’t one to be found. I can live with that.”
In and around the unexpected burst of profanity, it didn’t escape me that she’d used my given name for the first time. And not even Ricky, Tricky Ricky as I’ve lived most of my life being called. Rick, like it said in my byline whenever I got to claim credit for something I’d written. Made me feel all warm inside. Although when Mr. Lust began to speculate that maybe she was warming up to us I told him to shut up, I was running this show. Even if we both know that is never totally true.
So then we got around to the negotiating the financial terms, or we would have if her opening offer hadn’t been so attractive. $3200/month for a period not to exceed six months without prior approval, plus reasonable work and travel-related expenses and a place to stay for free. At the end, a $5000 bonus when I completed my final report, which went up to $25,000 if I actually discovered what happened to her father. That was substantially more than I was making now, not even counting the rent savings on my apartment. Plus I wouldn’t have to suffer through the high school basketball season.
I love investigating even more than I hate basketball. So I accepted without dickering.
“I’ve never gotten around to cleaning out Daddy’s cottage so I could rent or sell it. Thought it would be the perfect place for you to stay while you’re conducting your investigation. I sent down a housekeeping team last week to spiffy it all up. It’s not fancy, but everything works.”
I spent another few minutes gathering up names and addresses of anyone we could think of who might shed some light on the disappearance. The sheriff, her father’s lawyer, contacts at the galleries where he had last displayed paintings. Even her mother, although I doubted she’d have anything to offer after more than twenty years.
“Next year I can petition to have him declared missing presumed dead and execute his will. Not that he’s worth much, I’m sure. He gave Mother pretty much everything, keeping only enough to buy the cottage.” That brought another little tear which she angrily wiped away. “Not that I want or need his goddamned money. I just want to know where the son-of-a-bitch went.”
That broke the flood dams completely. She turned away before I could see the damage she was inflicting on her mascara and hurried into the house. Not running, exactly—that would have been just too undignified. But moving too quickly for us to offer condolences, as Mr. Lust eagerly but tardily suggested.
When she came back out ten minutes later, she was back in control with no trace of the emotional outbreak. She apologized briskly, then gave me a check, a key, and a map.
“Call me in a week and tell me how you’re getting on.”
I promised I would.