I didn’t have a clue what James Carter was going to be like. When Joe and Ollie had told me he was a local black fisherman who’d been working these waters for more than forty years, I’d formed this mental picture of a grizzled old-timer putting along the shores in a wooden bateau powered by an ancient Mercury outboard, taking whatever the river offered that day: fish, shrimp, crabs, or oysters. The breed was a lot more common when I was growing up than now, but there were still plenty on the Carolina coast. Then when I’d found him in the phone book under “James Carter, salt water fishing guide,” I’d had a hard time replacing that picture with something different. That had been further confused by our phone conversation, when he’d readily agreed to let me buy him lunch the next day since he didn’t have a charter: I wouldn’t have known he was black from his speech.
I got to Peckerwood’s a little early to avoid the lunch rush, but James was already waiting at the front entry. Ramrod straight in weathered khakis, hair clipped so short that it screamed ex-military. Which indeed turned out to be the case: retired Navy.
James told me a bit about himself over oyster po’ boys and iced tea (I’d gotten the nickname, “The Yankee from Charleston” because I didn’t drink sweet tea, but Sabrina now managed to come up with a glass of unsweetened for me). “I’ve been in love with the water since we were kids tagging along with Pa. Then when my draft number came up 32, I figured I’d better enlist in the Navy if I ever wanted to get home to see it again.”
Still a teenager, James had spent a tour in ‘Nam in what he called “The Riverines,” fighting from heavily armed boats along the Mekong. He’d gotten a bronze star and for reasons even he couldn’t articulate clearly and when his tour was up, he decided it was as good a career as any. His second decoration had come during a nasty little fight with a pair of Iraqi gunboats as they were trying to get the oil fires under control.
“Funny, I somehow got out of ‘Nam without a scratch. But that night I took a pair of slugs from Saddam’s half-assed sailors in their pissant, homegrown Boghammers. That was plenty for me. Turned in my papers after 21 years. Hell, I was still only 39. Plenty of time to find a young wife and a start a brood of my own. Plus I had enough saved up to buy a boat. Something I could have never done if I’d been married and in the Navy both.”
“So where are most of your charters from?”
“I’ve got an ad in the phone book in Charleston, Beaufort, Hilton Head, and Savannah. Plus a web site. You can’t be in business anymore without a web site. Clarissa takes care of that for me, now that our youngest is a teenager and doesn’t listen to her anyway. But mostly repeat business and word of mouth. Got a man and his grown up son coming down from Virginia for the weekend, this’ll be their third year going out with me. First time we lit into a mess of big reds that had them hollering every time they hooked another one.”
Sabrina flirted a little, but was a lot more reserved with James around. At first I thought it might be your typical Southern small town racism, but I quickly discarded that theory. She was too respectful. Genuinely respectful, not that all-too-common “I’ll call you mister because it’s politically correct but I’m still thinking of you as a nigger.” ”Mr. Carter, you’ve let your food get cold. Can I pop that in the microwave for you, bring you some fresh hushpuppies?”
“Why, that’d be real nice, Miz Sabrina. This young man has got me talking so much I’ve hardly had time to eat. He’s sure got the knack, doesn’t he?”
“He’s a sly, silver-tongued devil, that’s what he is. Why, no more than thirty minutes after the first time I laid eyes on him, he’d already proposed. And worse, I accepted. You better watch out for that one.”
“Well, I’m sitting on my wallet and it has less than twenty bucks in it anyway. And I think you’re more his type than Clarissa is. So what else could I have that he’s after?”
It was the perfect segue, so I took it. “Information, Mr. Carter. Like I told you, I’m investigating the disappearance of George Foster at the bequest of his daughter. I found this painting on his wall, along with this map.” I showed him the copies as I spoke, and pointed out where the location of the red map pin had been. “Nobody around here recognizes the island or has a clue why the spot would be marked. Joe and Ollie thought you might know.”
James stared at the copy of the painting for a long time, his face absolutely inscrutable (although he was clearly not Asian). Then he looked up with his lips pursed and stared at me for a while before answering.
“Rick, do you believe in the supernatural?”
His question took me totally by surprise. Fortunately, Sabrina appeared at just the right moment. “Dessert, gentlemen? Wanda’s just pulled a pecan pie out of the oven and it smells so good I almost ate the whole thing myself.” She pronounced pecan in the correct Southern way, Pee-can, not that affected Yankee pә-cahn¢. It was looking more and more like I’d found my soul mate.
By the time we’d ordered pie and coffee, I’d recovered my aplomb. “If you mean supernatural like God, yes, maybe, I guess so. If you mean supernatural like ghosts, ESP, UFO’s, not so much. My journalism classes trained me to have an open mind but not to believe anything without a second source, and I have yet to find a good first source.”
“Open-minded will do.”
I took the last bite of po-boy and pushed my plate away, transitioning simultaneously into dessert mode and open-minded reporter mode.
“My grandmother called this island, “Devil’s Den.” She had tales a’plenty about fishermen stumbling across it, being lured to shore by dancing women, and never being seen again. Growing up black, you hear lots of tales from the older folks and mostly believe what they tell you. But 21 years in the navy makes you pretty skeptical, and by the time I moved home I’d mostly forgotten.”
He stared at the picture again as Sabrina came with the pie. “What’ya got there, Mr. Carter?” He showed her without speaking. “If he’s selling real estate, I don’t think I’d buy it. Looks kinda creepy.” She shook her finger at me. “Don’t you try to con Mr. Carter, or the wedding’s off and I mean it.”
After she’d left he took up his story. “Then one night I was gigging flounders off Big Crab, and out through the darkness I could see what looked to be a fire. Except there shouldn’t have been anything where it was burning. I figured it must’ve been St. Elmo’s fire or something like that. After awhile the wind came up and ruined the gigging, so I started up the motor and eased over there. And there was an island, with a big fire burning somewhere toward the middle. Somehow I knew that it was Granny Smith’s Devil’s Den.”
“How can there be an island where there never was before?”
“That’s the same question I asked myself. I didn’t have any inclination to poke around at night. But by the next morning I’d gotten my nerves back and went to check it out.” He toyed with his pie. “And knowing exactly where to look, I found it. Fogged in pretty heavily, maybe that’s why I hadn’t noticed it before. But here’s the strange thing. I still didn’t want to go there.”
James looked up at me as if daring me to challenge his courage. “In Nam I learned you damned well better trust those feelings. Something feels not quite right, something’s probably not right.” He laughed. “Not that I thought I’d get ambushed by deranged natives or anything. In fact, I pretty much didn’t think anything. I just left.”
I’d already decided that I needed to check out that island for myself, particularly if
George didn’t turn out to be living with Lacey a few miles up the road. “So can I charter you to take me there?”
He shrugged. “Sure. Chartering is what pays the bills. But I can do you one better than that.”
“OK, I’ll bite. What’s better?”
“The first time I saw the fire it was Halloween night, 1998. I gigged that same shore a few times over the years, never saw anything unusual again. But five years later, for some unknown reason I decided to go out on Halloween and see if it was burning again. And it was.
“I’ve been back every five years since, and by now it’s a ritual. I’m due to go again a week from tomorrow, and I sure don’t mind if you buy the gas.”