Creeping sunlight woke me up. The bedroom had an uncurtained French door opening up onto a patio where you could sit and look out through the trees and watch the tide come in. So I pulled on a robe and took a cup of coffee out to the veranda to appreciate the morning.
Just kidding. That’s what I would have done if I hadn’t had my head so far up my ass I couldn’t even see the water. I’d given away all the food in my cupboard to my neighbor in the apartment next door so I wouldn’t have to bother hauling it down here and ended up without so much as a teabag. Rick, you can be such a total idiot at times. What I need is a good woman to keep me straight. Ha. If women didn’t get you in so much trouble, maybe.
But the water pressure was good and the water heater had a big tank, so at least I got to indulge in a long, hot shower to start the day. Well, I knew I could find a cup of coffee at Peckerwood’s.
Sabrina, ten years younger and thirty pounds lighter than Darla, flirted with the customers that filled half the tables as she passed out menus and delivered steaming plates. She didn’t even bother to ask what I wanted to drink; she just took one look at my face and poured me a cup of coffee. Cute as a button with her chestnut hair pulled back and her nose turned up—and she wasn’t wearing a wedding band.
“You must be that guy staying over to George’s old place. Know what you want for breakfast, or you need to see a menu?”
“What do you recommend?”
She closed one eye and pretended to peer out the window. “Looks like a biscuit and sausage gravy kind of morning to me.”
Wow. A woman who poured coffee first and asked questions later and knew exactly what I wanted for breakfast. Maybe she was the one destined to keep me straight. Thought I’d try my hand at the flirting game. “Sounds perfect. Bring me some, and will you marry me?”
“Sure. I’m off Monday if you can wait that long. Or will you have forgotten me by then and gone on to the next girl?”
“Woman, I’ll still remember you a week from Monday.”
While I savored the perfect flakiness of fresh buttermilk biscuits and a cup of coffee much better than I would have made, I started making lists of things I needed to do. Two lists: one personal, one professional. The personal list was short: buy groceries, get the satellite fixed, and make sure my tux was clean and pressed for Monday (I assumed Sabrina would be handling the rest of the details).
The professional list was a little longer. Well, I had up to six months without prior approval to get it done, assuming the TV got fixed; otherwise, I’d need to wrap everything up by the middle of next week. Unfortunately, lists tend to get longer during an investigation, not shorter.
- Talk to sheriff
- Talk to gallery owners
- Talk to lawyer
- Talk to people around town
- Search cottage for clues
- Go through bank statements
- Find out who Lacey is
- Golden-haired woman?
“Sabrina, where do people shop for groceries around here?”
“Oh, I’ll take care of all that once we’re married, darlin’. But for now, you can get most anything you need at Hanson’s. Selection’s not so hot, but there’s one of everything. Otherwise, you go to Beaufort.”
“Bad selection or a bad road. Hmm. I’ll have to ponder on that, beloved. How about getting my TV satellite working?”
“Call George Foster. Man can fix anything. Ma said he got her washer working in twenty minutes, didn’t even order a part, charged her twenty bucks for labor and a penny for the paper clip, thought he was taking her to the cleaners.” Sabrina laughed. “Oh, wait. You haven’t found out where he went to yet. Maybe that’s your answer. Put up some billboards, maybe take out a classified ad. ‘TV satellite needs repairing, call anytime, I’m desperate.’ George couldn’t possibly resist such a challenge.”
My proposal had of course been sheer tomfoolery, but I was liking this woman more and more all the time. She could banter with the best of them without ever missing a beat. “Everything else at his cottage is in tip-top shape. Wonder why the TV doesn’t work?”
“Maybe because nobody bothered to pay the bill and turn it back on?”
“Sabrina, you’re a genius. Can’t wait ‘til Monday; perhaps we should elope. What time will you get off?”
“I’ll probably get off about fifteen minutes after we get married, depending on how long it takes you to get me home and out of my britches.” She opened her mouth in a big exaggerated O. “But I got to pick up the kids from Ma’s after work. So maybe you should order some fruit to go with your meal. I’m sure we have some…wait for it…can’t- elope.” Another big O.
Holy shit. Rick Whittaker, the fastest wit in the Palmetto State, and I’m no match whatsoever for a peckerwood waitress in Backwater, South Carolina. I did a couple of half bows before her, acknowledging her as the master of the day.
“OK, one last question. Two, actually. Know anything about a woman George may have been dating named Lacey? And what do you think happened to him?”
“There’s nobody named Lacey around here. I didn’t know George—I got here about a month after he disappeared—but I never heard any gossip about him with any woman. According to Darla, he was way below average on the flirting scale.”
“So where am I?”
“If you’d been less than a solid seven I’d have never agreed to marry you.”
Wow. I felt flattered, and at the same time totally ridiculous that I felt flattered.
“As to where he is, up to now I couldn’t even speculate. But you being a high-power investigative reporter and all, you’ve already found the answer more than likely. He’s with Lacey, that’s my guess.”
I left her a $5 tip, already looking forward to tomorrow. If she does that well with all the guys, she probably lives in a mansion and drives a BMW.
Driving back to the ranch…hmm, need a better description, that one’s not quite accurate, although it’s served me for years. Fortunately, George had left me a thesaurus. How about…Driving back to the bungalow, I decided to work on “Search cottage for clues” as the order of business for the morning, then get on to personal stuff after lunch. Which of course meant that I would have to eat out again, and I couldn’t afford to do that every meal, even with my fiancée giving me the family discount. So I turned back around and dropped by Hanson’s to pick up some bare essentials: bread and cold cut sandwich makings, chips, some sodas, at the last minute a bottle of olives in case it somehow managed to make it to martini time before I made it back to town. Threw in a bag of coffee, just in case my day really got out of whack.
First thing I did was pull the painting of the golden-haired woman down off the wall to see if there was anything written on the back. But no clues there.
Next I searched George’s desk. Found neat files with exactly five years worth of credit card and bank statements. Apparently George was very systematic, throwing away a month every time he filed one. Wow, he and I were even less alike that I’d suspected. A ledger where he logged all his income from odd jobs, presumably for income tax purposes. The last entry was April 26, 2007, $64 from Ethyl Summers.
In the back of the top drawer was an address book. Aha. Rick, you clever investigator. I indulged in a momentary fantasy of finding Lacey’s phone number, calling up and asking if George was there, savoring that sweet moment of victory when the husky voice on the other end answered, “Hold on, I’ll get him.” Then writing up a one-paragraph final report and exchanging it for twenty-five grand. After all, Sabrina had been right about everything else. Unfortunately, no Lacey, not even an entry under L. In fact, there was practically nothing in the book at all, maybe two dozen entries including Adeline and her mother. Well, who keeps up an address book in these days of cell phones and email? Guess I’d have to work a little harder for my bonus.
So I fired up his computer, which demonstrated its obsolescence by how quickly it was ready. Why is that the newer your PC is, the longer it takes to boot up? Maybe they’ve sold us a bill of goods and labeled it progress. But still no Lacey. And no “Darling, last night was fantastic, you were amazing” emails, either. In fact, there were a grand total of six emails in his Inbox, seventeen in his Sent folder, none in his Deleted Items, and nothing interesting in the slightest. OK, this guy was either a total paranoid or an OCD neatnick. Weird in any case. I mean, who cleans out their email? Apparently George did. His contacts listed the same two galleries that I’d gotten from Adeline.
While I had it up I scanned through his files but nothing jumped out. No folder marked “Lacey.” No photos of the golden-haired woman in his “My Pictures” folder. No porn sites in his browser history. Totally boring, George. I knew I’d have to come back and go through his saved files one by one, but not today.
I’d already confirmed that the cupboards were bare; no reason to ransack the kitchen.
On the studio wall was a 16”x20” oil painting of an island. The entire seascape was shrouded in fog, with the sun trying unsuccessfully to burn through just above the right side of the island. It was hard to speculate what the scale was. What may have been large oak trees were maybe a half inch tall, which would have meant a pretty substantial island. Or they could have been shrubs and the whole thing would have fit in the creek outside the patio (the studio had a window opening up onto the patio; I confess that I peered out to see if it might be right there, but no). The island had a low hill—reckoned it couldn’t have been from around here; there weren’t any hills until you got inland nearly a hundred miles—and on top was a scattering of little 1/4” by 1/8” objects lighter than the general green of the island. The painting should have been boring, but somehow it wasn’t.
Next to the painting was a 1:50,000 scale Corps of Engineering map showing a section of the Carolina coastline. I located White Sands, then traced the road out to where I was standing. That gave me a good idea of scope of the twisting, turning estuary I’d called a creek before, with little fingers of water and marsh islands on the opposite side from the mainland. I could also hazard a guess where the town got its name: there were three large sand bars just past the town in the opposite direction from George’s place.
Several miles downstream the estuary opened into a little bay, protected by a string of islands, the largest maybe a mile-and-a-half long and half-a-mile wide, the smallest about fifty feet in diameter. Probably the mapmakers just ignored anything smaller. Toward the south the islands stopped and there was a five-mile wide passage to the ocean, before the next cluster began.
A red map pin was stuck about a third of the way across the passage. Curious. Maybe that’s where Lacey lived.
Just to be thorough, I took the picture down to see if there was anything on the back, not really expecting to find anything. But I did. The name of the picture was painted on the frame in neat half-inch black letters.