Chapter 20: Avalon, S.C.

Although I’m basically a city boy, you can’t grow up in South Carolina and not experience the salt water, at least a little.  It’s a very small state, so even if you live in the Piedmont area—the foothills, well named in South Caroline because they’re about as high as your foot—you’re still only a couple hundred miles away from the Atlantic.  I’d ogled babes on the beaches that are among the best in the country, been out deep sea fishing compliments of a big advertiser with the newspaper, water skied, that sort of stuff.  What I’d never done before is been out in a boat alone.

Changes the game considerably.  Even if you’re never out of sight of land, you’re still alone.  Alone as in all by your freaking self.  Depending on your rented motor running, and if it stops, depending on somebody to answer your call and come tow you in before you die of thirst.  Lucas had told me about sand bars and how to watch for them, but basically you had to know where they were not to run over them and get stuck.  And if you did, maybe you could raise your motor and pole yourself free, and maybe you had to sit it out until the tide came in and floated you off.

So my first day out in the ocean I was an old lady behind the wheel of her Oldsmobile, both hands on the wheel, driving 20 mph below the speed limit.  Except out in the water—it wasn’t even the ocean, just estuaries and bays and creeks—there wasn’t a speed limit to guide you, just good sense.  So I tightened up my life jacket and took it easy.

It was unbelievable.  Glorious, exhilarating freedom in a way I’d never experienced before.  And very macho.  Like some sort of Viking, or maybe a Polynesian on my very own balsa-log raft.

I didn’t go out to the island that first day.  Just putted around, checking out the tides and the mud flats.  Cut the motor and drifted for almost an hour, watching three dolphins playing their joyous games a mere hundred feet away.  Seagulls dove into the water with an ungainly splash, coming up with a squirming fish every time.  That afternoon I managed to net enough bait to try my luck fishing.  Actually caught a couple, although nothing stupid enough to end up on my hook was worth keeping.  Still, if I’d been abandoned on a desert island with nothing except a power boat, cast net, fishing rod, a couple of hundred bucks worth of paraphernalia, and a gas pump, I wouldn’t have starved to death.  Made me proud of myself, all out of proportion to my actual accomplishments.

* * * * *

“Missed you for breakfast yesterday.  Wedding coming up soon and already you’re two-timing me?”

“Sabrina, you know I’d never run around on you.  I was out fishing.”

“Good lord, that’s even worse.  If it was only a woman I’d kick her ass and have you back before your head stopped spinning.  But the river, she’s tough competition.  That’s the only reason I agreed to marry you, I figured you were too much of a city boy to spend your mornings out drowning bait.”

“When in Rome, you know.  Besides, there’s not much appeal in lolling around in bed all day by yourself.  Remind me what day our wedding’s set is for again?”

“Next Monday.  That’s always my day off, next Monday.”

“But we just missed out on Monday.”

“Yes, but that wasn’t next Monday.  Here, try these hash browns.  I know, I know, they’re Yankee food.  But Wanda’s been trying them out, perfecting the recipe while seeing if the customers would like some as a change from grits and biscuits.  We’re serving them on Tuesdays and Thursdays now.  Figured it’d be easy to remember that way.  A day that start with a T means “taters.”

“I thought you were going to tell me it meant, ‘T’aint grits.”

“Wise ass.”  She ruffled my hair, to which one of the customers responded by yelling, “Get a room.”

When I left Peckerwoods I headed straight for the boat ramp.  Hadn’t even packed my fishing gear: today I was going to Avalon.

I put the coordinates Lucas had given me into the GPS, but it didn’t show anything there except open water.  I understood: Avalon was not on the map they’d downloaded.  But it spooked me a little nonetheless.  Like science didn’t want to acknow­ledge the presence of the island either.  Somehow you expected better in the electronics age.  More data, less magic.

With my old lady driving style, it took me considerably longer to get there than it had taken Lucas.  But eventually I got close enough to see the island, only it wasn’t there.  Fortunately I was prepared for that and just kept heading toward where it was supposed to be.  And eventually, there it was.  Sort of appearing out of a low mist that wasn’t even all that noticeable.

The misty isle of Avalon.

I rode around the island like Lucas had done.  It was pretty big; took me more than an hour to complete the circuit at maybe five miles per hour (the speedometer was thoughtfully calibrated in MPH rather than knots, whatever the hell they were).  It was a lot rougher on the outer shore than the landward side.  A steady stream of waves rolled in although they didn’t break which, if I recalled my high school physics correctly, mean that the water there was pretty deep—waves only break on beaches when the height of the wave was 1/3 the depth of the water, or something like that.

Avalon looked more like a chunk of the mainland than it resembled the other islands I’d passed.  They were flat and forested by scrub; this island had real trees, mostly live oaks with branches that reached out over the water in places.  And although you could pull up to the shore of the other islands, there was nothing on any of them that you’d call a beach.  Avalon had a flat place maybe fifty yards long that definitely qualified as a beach, out toward the ocean side.  It wasn’t beach sand white, although it clearly wasn’t mud either.  And in the middle was the hill, hard to make out for the trees in between, but rising twenty or thirty feet above the shore line.

Not exactly a welcoming place, but I felt nothing like the antipathy that Lucas had described.  With my limited perspective from down at the water level, I wasn’t able to get a good picture of what it looked like.  Couldn’t even tell if it was round or more elongated.  I would have liked to have seen it from the air, get a better overview.  Maybe I could charter a plane for an overflight.

Finally I headed straight for the beach, cut the motor, and let my momentum carry me up onto the shore.  Climbing over the gunwale, I just stood there for a minute before lugging the anchor up from the waterline and sinking the prongs into the sand.

After the steady noise of the motor, the silence was—what, deafening?  At least freaky quiet.  The only sound was the calm wash of the waves hitting the shore.  Looking out toward the ocean and away from the boat, there wasn’t a trace of civilization as far as I could see.  No boats, no channel markers, no power lines, no beer cans washed up on the island.  It was primordial solitude, and I a latter day Robinson Crusoe standing on the shores of Avalon, S.C.

The beach was steep and firm beneath my feet, at an angle to the ocean so that the waves ran along the shore at an angle.  Now that I was standing on it, I could see that it was moderately dark sand covered with bits of shells.  My probing finger revealed that the shells were at least a half inch deep.  Apparently the angle of the waves meant that more were deposited than were washed away.  The woman in the painting that George had left unfinished could have been standing right on this spot—except there weren’t any rocks, only bits of shell.

I walked the entire length of the beach, my shoes barely leaving tracks in the shelly sand.  On both ends it just tapered away so that the bank itself touched the water.  The bank was almost exactly as high above the beach as the distance between my knee and foot, making it a perfect bench from which to watch life go by.  I did exactly that, slipping into a reverie—or perhaps a hypnotic trance driven by the relentless precision of the wave.  But I received no visions about George, the golden-haired woman, Sabrina, or the meaning of life.  Just a peaceful calm.

Hey, maybe this was enlightenment.  Maybe I was the next Buddha and Avalon, S.C. was my bo tree.

Yeah, right.   And maybe the fish would grow wings and fly up out of the sea to perch at my feet seeking wisdom.

 

The Triple Goddess

My pagan friends–I have a disproportionate number of pagan friends, considering that Neopagans only make up about 0.4% of the U.S. population–would immediately recognize the pendant that George designed and Mr. Stedman crafted for him.  “Oh, that’s the Triple Goddess.”  The rest of you probably read with your typical delight and amazement but didn’t know what you were reading about. Continue reading

Chapter 19: Avalon, S.C.

Stedman’s Jewelry was housed in a classy turn-of-the-century building in Old Town Charleston, not some chain in the mall that sells $99 earrings in identifiable boxes for Christmas and Valentine’s Day.  It immediately reminded me of the Low Country Gallery: elegant just to the point of snooty or maybe a little beyond.  They didn’t have a sign over the door, “We cater to the wealthy; if you’re not, don’t bother coming in,” but then again, they didn’t really need one.

The woman behind the glass counter eyes me with a guarded expression.  Well, I didn’t look like I had money, but then a lot of rich people my age don’t.  She was wearing a brocade dress, as if that were the most normal way in the world to dress in the retail business.  Hair carefully up, make-up perfect, jewelry spare but elegant.

I didn’t give her the chance to speak first.  “Hello, my name is Rick Whittaker, journalist and investigative reporter.  I have been hired to supplement law enforcement’s efforts to find a missing person, and I am following up on a large purchase that he made here in March, 2004.”  I realized that she might mistakenly draw the impression that I was working for law enforcement from my introduction, but oh, well.  I pulled out the credit card statement as well as one of my old business cards.

“Ah.”  She looked from card to the statement to make sure I wasn’t pulling some scam.  “I was on maternity leave at that time, but I’m sure Mr. Stedman will have it on file.”

She stepped into the back and reappeared a moment later with Gandalf.  Well, he was clean-shaven and his hair wasn’t long even though it was same pure white, and he was wearing a dark suit instead of a wizard’s robe.  But the ancient face was the same, as well as the calm serenity.

“Mr. Whittaker, so pleased to meet you.  His smile was warm, and his handshake was literally warm, like he’d been holding molten gold.  Well, not that warm, but you know the type.  He didn’t know me from Adam, although there was a slim chance he’d recognized my name from a byline.  But my guess was that he treated everyone this way.  Probably why the lady in front had appointed herself as guardian to protect the great, innocent man from the world.

When I repeated why I was there, his face lit up.

“Yes, Mr. Foster.  A distinctive man of unique tastes.  He commissioned one of the most unusual custom pieces I’ve ever done.  Here, I have a photograph I can show you.”

He was gone only a couple of minutes and returned with an 8”x10” photo and a sketch.  The photo showed a magnificently-worked golden pendant with three figures intertwined below the waist flowing into individual women above.  The left one was young and held a flower whose center was a lapis lazuli.  The right figure was elderly but warm and dignified, staring into a jade orb.  The center woman, scaled somewhat larger than the others, was middle aged.  Set just below her breasts and extending down into the joining was a magnificent teardrop-shaped moonstone, half again as long as the quarter lying beside the pendant.  A heavy gold chain indicated that the piece was intended to be worn as a necklace.

The sketch was a pencil drawing of the pendant.  Mr. Stedman confirmed that George had brought it in to show what he wanted.  “He also brought a painting of the woman that it was for in order that I might capture her essence as much as possible in the piece.  That was why I suggested the moonstone as the central gemstone.  She just looked like a moonstone sort of woman.”

“And did she have golden hair?”

“Ah, of course.  You must have seen the painting as well.  I asked why he didn’t just bring a photograph and he said they were impossible to come by.  It made me wonder whether she was real or just someone imagined.  Although it would be extremely eccentric to commission a piece of expensive jewelry for an imaginary woman.”

“It is truly magnificent.  He must have been very pleased.”

Mr. Stedman merely nodded, as if the compliment was to be expected.  “All of my customers who purchase custom jewelry have been pleased, of course.  That’s why I’m still in business when I should have retired long ago.  What would I spend my time doing, if not creating beautiful things that bring people joy?”

A loud sigh came from the direction of the as yet unnamed woman.  I thought it would have been unacceptably rude to look so I didn’t.

I asked if I might have a copy of the picture and he made me one on an office printer/copier.  Wasn’t the best quality, but good enough for anything I might ever use it for; at the moment I couldn’t think of a thing other than to show it to Adeline.

Which I did an hour later, as we sat down to cocktails and an antipasto platter.  Adeline stared at the pendent, and then at the painting I’d brought from over my bed.

“This is her?”  She studied the painting for another five minutes before speaking again, during which I savored the bite of good gin and its perfect compliment, a kalamata olive tapenade.  When she looked up there were tears that this time she made no attempt to hide.

“I didn’t know him at all, did I?  He had this whole other side of his life and I was so wrapped up in my own shit, I never even suspected.  Do you have any idea who this woman is?”

“Not a clue, to tell the truth.  I have it from a good source that she isn’t Lacey, unfortunately.  Andrea, who works in a gallery where Lacey’s work is displayed, laughed when I asked, although she didn’t tell me why.  I haven’t been able to track Lacey down yet, but I did leave her a note with Andrea and hope to hear from her soon.”

“I thought he was mild-mannered fix-it guy who dabbled in art for a hobby and had mostly withdrawn from the world.  Instead, he was sleeping with a woman named Lacey while producing magnificent paintings of an ethereal pregnant goddess, paintings that sold for high prices.”  Her choice of words—ethereal and goddess—startled me, but they seemed to fit.  “And designing custom jewelry for her.  Well, I’m glad I hired the best.  You’ll just have to keep digging until you can answer these questions.”

“Wait, that’s only half the strange things without answers I’ve uncovered.   The island your father painted so often has a bonfire every Halloween, although nobody lives there.”  I went on to describe my trip with Lucas, including his eerie feelings about the place.

“Have you been back to the island during the daylight?”

“Not yet, but I took boating lessons Saturday and rented a boat yesterday.  I’m running up quite a tab for business expenses, but nothing that I don’t think is necessary to get to the bottom of this.”  Adeline waved her hand as though the expenses were inconsequential, which in her scheme of things, I supposed they were.

“I also had lunch on Sunday with, um, I’m not sure how you’d describe her, let’s say an expert on New Age religions.  She told me that it wasn’t Halloween; it was Samhain, one of the great pagan feast days when the Britons always lit bonfires.   She believes that the island is, how did she put it?  Something like: a special place where our world and the Otherworld are very close, and on Samhain, when the boundaries between worlds are poorly defined, you can actually look across the boundary into the Otherworld and see the bonfire.”

Adeline looked at me with wide eyes.  “Do you believe that?”

“Hardly.  More likely a group of old hippies that goes out to the island every year to smoke weed and party.  Still, there’s something strange about the place.  I’m heading out there tomorrow or Thursday.”

Adeline laughed.  “Well, if you disappear, at least I’ll know where to start looking.”

Something about the way she said that made me shiver, but she didn’t notice.

I showed her the sketchbooks, and thirty minutes later left her still pouring over their mysteries.

Free Advertising

As I’ve mentioned before, I love T-shirts with pithy sayings on them.  Now that I’m retired, T-shirts are 90% of my wardrobe (not gloating or anything, just saying).  My wife and kids shop for them and give them to me for Fathers’ Day and Christmas instead of neckties (which I don’t need) and after-shave (which I do, but I can buy my own).

People notice T-shirts.  There are some that I can’t wear in public without people stopping me to read or comment, or at least smiling as they finish reading.

I haven’t generally worn my writer T-shirts out in public–I save them for writers’ group, book group, places where my literary friends hang out.  But on a recent trip to a wedding in California, for some reason I wore writer T-shirts most days.

Total strangers would come up and ask, “Is that true?  Are you really a writer?”  I had an opportunity to hand out 2 dozen or more business cards just in the airport–except that I’d packed them.  Duh.

In the world of publishing today, unless you’re one of the biggies, you have to do most of your own promotion.  Wear a T-shirt and carry a stack of business cards (or flyers promoting your latest book, or whatever).

There are a lot of T-shirts out there.  I don’t have enough, but for a reasonable investment I could wear a different one every day and still make it to laundry day.

Here are some of my favorites.

writer t shirt 15Simple, easily read . . . and people do.

writer tshirt 3 Lots of versions of this shirt.  Another one that people will stop and ask, “Is that true?”

writer t shirt 8This one was designed especially for SusanH.

writer t shirt 9Not that you’re gloating or anything.  But still.

writer t shirt 12I didn’t know these existed.  But I’m ordering some today.  And getting a new back of cards ready.

OK, that’s enough for now.  Except that I have to share one more shirt with you.  My minister (she’s the coolest minister on earth) gave me this one on Sunday.  Made my week.  Not exactly a writing T-shirt, but it’s my new favorite.

writer t shirt 14

Chapter 18: Avalon, S.C.

Writer’s Note: Thanks again for all the suggestions for names to replace Bessie.  The last cut was Clarissa/Issa, Ellie, Nettie, and Dee.

* * * * *

Down the long road to hell—or was it the long road from hell?—for the second day in a row (and I’d be driving it again the next morning, something I carefully kept hidden from Jay-Lo).  Armed with Ellie’s list of things I needed to become a boater, along with a note for Lacey.  Written by hand on actual stationary purchased for the occasion, although my handwriting is problematic at best.  After working it over for a half hour on my word processor to iron the bugs out, of course.

Dear Ms. Simpson,

My name is Rick Whittaker, journalist by trade.  I have been commissioned by Ms. Adeline Foster to investigate the disappearance of her father, Mr. George Foster, six years ago.  Since I understand you were a friend of his, it may be that you have some light to shed on this matter.  My hope is that you would be willing to accept my telephone call, or even better, a short visit.  I understand your desire for privacy, and will respect your wishes in that matter to the utmost.

Sincerely,

I addressed the envelope “Ms. Lacey Simpson, c/o Windows to the Soul Art Gallery,” and included my address and telephone number.  Even my email address, although I was certain that she would not just drop me an email.

Andrea—the polite Bluffton gallery lady who’d been scornful of her discourteous Hilton Head counterpart—turned out to be in her fifties and thin as a rail.  With lovely hands, embellished with three or four delicate rings each, that never quit moving when she talked.  Having nothing to go on but her voice and word choices during our brief conversation, I’d pictured late twenties and mildly plump.  Just goes to prove once again the Rick Whittaker adage: never form a mental image of a woman over the telephone.

“Oh, Mr. Whittaker, this is beautiful.  I’m certain that Ms. Simpson will be moved to respond.”  Hands briefly pausing across the heart before taking flight again.  “I will be more than happy to present it to her when I see her next.  I expect her to be in sometime by the end of the week or certainly no later than next Tuesday.  Go ahead and seal it up.”

“I appreciate all your helpfulness, Andrea.”  I felt a little silly calling someone twenty years my senior by her first name while she called me by my last, but Andrea was all I knew.  “And I know you can’t violate her privacy, but perhaps you can answer this question without doing so.”  I pulled out my copy of the painting of the golden-haired woman that hung over my bed.  “Could you possibly confirm or deny if this could be Ms. Simpson?”

The hands stopped fluttering long enough for her to examine the picture, then flew to her mouth to pat back a giggle.  “Oh, no sir.  That is definitely not Ms. Simpson.”

I’d pretty much decided that on my own, but it was nice to have it confirmed.  Or more accurately, while it would have been nice if Lacey were the woman in the painting, barring that outcome, knowing for certain was the next best thing.

Andrea showed me the half dozen original paintings by Lacey that were on display, along with some less expensive prints of the same pieces.  These were all still lifes that featured driftwood, old bottles, fishing corks, and similar flotsam and jetsam that one finds along the coast.  But each one had an incongruous element.  The smiling head of a Barbie doll in one, hair caught up in a bit of fishing net.  A horned toad lurking between two brown glass bottles in another.

“Yes, she’s quite popular, in her own way.  There’s a certain type of customer that, once they’ve been charmed by the warm goofiness of Ms. Simpson’s work, can hardly get out of here without owning one.  Unfortunately, art buyers with that offbeat sense of humor are in the minority, or Lacey would have made herself and us both a lot more money.”

* * * * *

A mile down the road I found the place Lucas had recommended for boat rental.  Since it was the off season, I got a good deal leasing by the month, along with a 20% discount when the guy learned that Lucas himself had given me lessons.  The boat looked a lot like Lucas’, although to my still very inexpert eye that mostly meant the motor was an outboard and the steering wheel was in the middle.  It also met my only two nonnegotiable requirements: GPS and depth finder.  I bought an inexpensive rod and reel, a cast net that cost way too much, a bait bucket, plus a tackle box containing exactly what Ellie had listed and various other odds and ends.  The total of all the fishing gear came to about $400, which I wasn’t going to hit Adeline up for.  But looking at it another way, it was almost exactly the same amount as the six months of cable I didn’t buy.  I hoped I didn’t get sick of fishing before I finished my assignment.

On the way home I stopped and bought a real flower for Sabrina.  Remembered to put it in water, so it still looked good when I presented it to her on Tuesday morning.

“Why, would you look at this.  A rose.  Nobody’s given me a rose since high school.  Mister, you’re a lot better catch than I thought I was getting when I agreed to marry you.”

“Sabrina, if nobody’s given you a rose since high school, you’re hanging out with the wrong group of people.”  I thought better of my choice of words as soon as they came out of my mouth, but by then it was too late.

“Boy, you just said a mouthful.  Think I’ll set it there on the counter, and if Mr. Wrong notices before all the petals drop off and asks where it came from, I’ll tell him there are people in the world who think I’m worth buying a rose for.”  She must have seen the brief look of worry that crossed my face because she added, “Nah, I’ll just tell him I picked it out in the garden, God thinks I’m worth a rose.  If he wants to get jealous of somebody, let him try getting jealous of God.”  She laughed at the ridiculousness of what she was saying.  “Maybe he’ll get drunk and take a swing at God and get a little nip of lightning for his trouble.”

“Good thing it’s Yahweh and not Zeus, or he really would get fried.  On the other hand, Zeus does more than sends roses to women he’s attracted to—he visits them in the form of a swan and knocks them up.”

“That’s exactly what I need.  I don’t suppose you can just politely ask, ‘Mr. Zeus, would you slip this here condom on?’”

Still laughing, I held up my hands to acknowledge defeat.  Then, before the opportunity went away, I looked her in the eyes.  “Sabrina, if you should ever find yourself in a position to accept, just know that I would very much like to take you to dinner.”

Another brief look of sadness before the smile rolled back in.  “Why, that’s real nice, kind sir.  Suspect for now we should just be platonic fiancés, but I’ll keep it in mind if, like you say, I ever find myself in a position to accept.”

Well, I hadn’t totally accepted Lucas’ advice, but at least I’d cheered the lady up while avoiding a violent encounter with the psychopathic J.D.  For now.

Chapter 17: Avalon, S.C.

For a witch, Chai Fox looked 95% normal when she opened the door.  Long colorful print dress set off by a huge pewter and crystal amulet and another couple of coral and turquoise bead necklaces.  Long straight dark hair held back with an ornate hair pin that if it wasn’t ivory was a damned good plastic imitation.  A single piercing in her nose with a plain emerald or another good imitation; a gold ring in the corner of her right eyebrow.  Large earrings sporting real feathers.  Tattoo on the inside of the ankle but none visible above that.  Chai might have been slightly on the wrong side of forty, but the wild get-up made her look young rather than silly.

“Ah, Rick.”  She took my hand in both of hers, much more of a caress than a shake.  “Tatum told me that you had an open mind and a first class wit, but she didn’t mention the word, ‘hunk.’  Guess I’ll have to get on her about that.”

Up close the distinct smell of patchouli with a gentle hint of orange teased my smell buds.  Chai had a spray of freckles across her nose that added a touch of innocence at odds with the rest of an impression that screamed, “No innocence here.”

While Chai fetched a wrap I made the acquaintance of her Shih Tzu, Valentino—a prissy, silken prima donna who demanded adoration.  When she returned to find me cross-legged on the floor, Valentino sprawled across my lap, she noted, “Why, he’s never like this around men.  You must have an old soul.”

I peered down at the bottom of my shoe before replying.  “No, he must be mistaken.  I got these shoes less than a year ago.”

Chai rolled her eyes.  “Oh, you.  Well, I can’t say I wasn’t warned.  About the wit, at least.”

When she saw my car she positively gushed.  “Oh, my.  A vintage Mustang.  I haven’t been in one of those since I was a girl.”  She ran her hand lightly over the dashboard before fondling the stick shift.  “I do so appreciate original equipment.”  Fortunately, Jay-Lo’s original equipment included bucket seats so my date wasn’t tempted to scoot over next to me this early into our relationship.

Chai chatted easily and effortlessly about nothing while we made the ten minute drive to a seafood restaurant on Bay Street.  The place was filling up rapidly, but Chai managed to score us a table with a view of the water.

“I’ll have a martini, dear,” she told the waitress, who was young but not young enough to qualify as “dear” to most 40-year-olds.  “Bombay Sapphire if you have it.  Dry but not bone dry.  Please tell me it’s after noon.”

“Make that two.”

“And a martini drinker as well.  What was that I said yesterday about destiny?”

“I believe it was, ‘The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.’  Or wait, maybe that was Winston Churchill.”

Chai shook her head.  “I don’t know who said that, but it definitely wasn’t me.  I would have said something like, ‘You can make your own bed, or you can make your own destiny, but only the truly great can make their own destiny in bed.’”

“Bravo.”  I clapped in appreciation.

Chai studied the menu for about a minute before closing it.  “Tatum is always badgering me about becoming a vegan, but I swear I don’t see the point.  Surely the goddess would not have put prime aged beef on earth if she had not intended for her devotees to savor it.”

“Nor would Prometheus have bothered bringing mankind fire if he knew we were only going to use it to boil water for tea.”

“Well, maybe Chai tea.  Chai is a taste that everyone of taste loves to taste.”

I surreptitiously checked under the table to make sure my equipment was still original.

She ordered the surf and turf, a filet mignon and three grilled shrimp.  I settled for crab au gratin.

“We could order wine, but I’m not having red wine with my crab.”

“Martinis work for me, dear.  Work on me, too.  Why don’t you order us another?”

Where Sabrina’s word play carried the subliminal message of “I’m not available,” I was getting a different message loud and clear from Chai.  I attempted to tone down the sexual overtones while we accomplished our business.  “So, let me tell you about why I need your guidance,” I started in as soon as we had ordered.

I launched into what I’d run across in White Sands, and Chai’s interest in the physical aspects of the investigator were quickly replaced by her interest in the metaphysical aspects of my investigation.  And there were quite a few.  Not only the mysterious island that George had christened Avalon, with its fire that glowed on Halloween, but also Lucas’ curious reaction to it that I hadn’t felt.  Plus the sacred wheel, the golden-haired woman with the many names, the collection of Arthur books and the New Age library.

But of all of the mysteries, curiously it was the brooch that piqued her interest the most.  “What you are describing is Celtic in design, and very authentic.  As you noted, modern pins always include some way to protect the wearer from the pin.  A replica that authentic must have been expensive.”

“$6,000 worth of expensive?  I found a credit card receipt from a jewelry store for that amount.”

“No, not that expensive if it is bronze or brass.  You’ll have to let me see it.”

Our meals came about that time and Chai demonstrated with relish on a chunk of very rare steak how truly vegetarian she wasn’t.

“That was outstanding.  I do my best work with a bit of prime beef, and you’ve definitely earned my best analysis with that filet.  So let me speculate a bit on the Halloween fire.”  She caught our waitresses’ eye and signaled for another round of martinis.

“Thousands of years before the Christians stole our pagan holidays, the day that you call Halloween was the feast of Samhain.”  She showed me how it was spelled, nothing like she the way she pronounced it, Sow′—in.  “One of the four great feasts in the wheel of the year, all of which were celebrated by the lighting of bonfires.”

A shiver ran up my back at the mention of the word bonfire, like somebody had walked on my grave.  Chai noticed and touched my arm.  “There’s more.  At Samhain, the boundary between our world and the Otherworld becomes weak and ill defined.  Druids and priestesses would open doors between worlds and invite the souls of the dead, or sometimes even other powerful beings who lived in the Otherworld, to cross over into our material reality.  Food and drink were laid out for them, and their powers invoked on behalf of the living.”

“So you think there’s a pagan cult that celebrates Samhain out on the island every year?  Makes sense, except we searched everywhere for boats and found nothing.  I guess someone could have dropped them off, but why wouldn’t they just leave their boats?”

“That’s certainly the easiest explanation.  But here’s another.”  Chai’s eyes were blazing.  “Suppose the island is at a convergence where our world and the Otherworld are very close.  There are a number of those in the British Isles, although I’ve never heard of one here.  And so on Samhain, you can actually look across the boundary into the Otherworld, at least enough to see the bonfire.”

“I guess I’m gonna have to have that proved to me before I buy it as an explanation.”

Chai shook her finger at me.  “Open-minded, remember?  That’s what Tatum promised, and the only reason I agreed to get involved.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.  “OK, open minded.  I promise.  Although peering across a boundary into another dimension is pretty far ‘out there,’ if you know what I mean.”

“And yet physicists generally agree that other dimensions are ‘out there,’ as you say.  Under normal circumstances, light can’t cross between dimensions.  But who’s to say what normal circumstances really are?  There could be a perfectly quote rational,” Chai made quote marks in the air with her fingers, “explanation.  It doesn’t even have to be New Age Woo-woo.”  She winked.  “Although it probably is.”

“I agree that an irrational explanation is more likely than a rational one.  Would you like dessert?  Or coffee?”

“Chai tea, of course.  After all, I have a reputation to live up to.”

“That must be a full-time job.”

Chai shook her head.  “You, sir, are a hard man to stay ahead of.”

We ended up splitting a trifle with my coffee and her tea.  They didn’t have chai tea, but of course she’d brought an emergency back-up tea bag; there was plenty of room in her big, brightly-colored, woven bag.

“There’s something else I just thought of, if you like evidence,” she added as she toyed with her steeping tea, gauging the water temperature with a fingertip before a teaspoon of water from her glass. “Lucas’ reaction to the island.  He’s probably sensitive to the presence of ghosts, most likely from his Vietnam War experiences.  He would have felt their presence and wanted nothing to do with the island.  You, on the other hand,” she patted my hand, “being an unenlightened Norman—although open-minded, I must admit—didn’t feel a thing.”

I hated to admit that made sense, but couldn’t find any fault with the argument.

“What exactly is a Norman?”

Chai laughed.  “It’s a word we use to mean, like a barbarian.  The Normans under William the Conqueror brought all their fancy French words and governing practices and Papal bulls to Britain, but they hadn’t a drop of respect for the old ways.  Considered them demonic.”  She added milk to her cup, plus the tip-of-a-teaspoon of sugar.  “Of course, the druids had long since disappeared from England by 1066.  But there were still a few surviving out in the wilds of Wales.  However, the Normans were nothing if they weren’t thorough.  Thoroughly Norman, in a word.  By the turn of the century, the old religion was totally dead.”

“Until revived by you and yours in the 20th Century.”

Chai made a small bow.  “New Agers at your service, world.”

“Well, I’m going over to the island next week, as soon as I get a boat.  But what you’re telling me is, we’ll have to wait until Samhain comes around again to see the fires?”

She stared down into her cup before answering as if reading the leaves, although I knew there weren’t since she’d made her tea from a bag.  I might be open-minded, but I wasn’t a total rube.  “The next high feast is Imbolc, which happens on February 2nd.  It is a fire feast, so maybe.  But the boundary is weak at Beltane as well as Samhain.  Beltane happens on May 1st next year.”

“Well, here’s hoping for Imbolc.  My contract runs out before Beltane.”

“Pity.  Beltane’s a much, um, earthier occasion.”

On the ride back to her place we made loose arrangements to get together the next weekend if my trip to the island turned up anything interesting.  Then, as I turned the ignition switch off at her place, it hit me.

“Wait a minute.  George Foster disappeared right around May 1st.”  Chai nodded as if to say, I told you so.
At the door she brushed her lips over mine without making a big production of it.  “I was going to invite you in rather than risk letting you get away.  But I see that destiny has us firmly in her grasp.  So I think I’ll just let you fantasize about me until next weekend.”

A Rose by Any Other Name . . . Part II

“What’s in a name? That which we call a turd
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

     –  Willie “the Snake” Spear

Sorry, I’m totally into my new novel where the “I character” is sarcastic, anachronistic, misquotes writers who haven’t even been born yet, etc.

Anyway, now you’ve met “Bessie,” as she was called in the original version.  Another warm, fun character.  My sister christened her Clarissa; SusanH added “but called “Issa.”  So that’s where she is . . . for now.

As promised, you now get a chance to live on in history (or perhaps infamy) by giving her a new name.  You did such an outstanding job with Amos/James–a total of 41 names suggested (culling down to 20 was pretty easy; every discard after that was painful)–that I’m delighted to give you another opportunity.

Clarissa was born in 1970, so there are more name options open–although it was still in backwater, S.C., so the distinctive names for black women that were beginning to appear in the cities were still a few years away.  “Sassy, but not cute and not too new-fangled,” the name should suggest.

Incidentally, Bess is the soprano star of Porgy and Bess, my favorite Operetta.  “Porgy, I’m your woman now” still gives me goose bumps.  But still.

Incidentally, Tuesday was the biggest traffic day for this web site (still hasn’t come close to the other one yet–wonder where all those readers disappeared too?).  That was the post on the Medicine Wheel.  I’m sure that says something, but I’m not going to speculate on what it is.

porgy and bessA very young Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald in one of the most famous versions of Porgy and Bess

Sierra Exif JPEGMy personal favorite rendition ever.  I owned it on vinyl, but it’s never been reissued in digital format.  I keep hoping (in case you were looking for a Christmas present for me)

Chapter 16: Avalon, S.C.

Despite putting “getting back to the island” at the top of my priority list, it took awhile to get there.  I couldn’t exactly just drive and didn’t know squat about boats.  Lucas had no intention of visiting the island, and while I could pay him to dump me on the shore and pick me up later, it didn’t seem like the smart way to go about it.

I thought about the problem while I walked the wheel.  Then I called Lucas.

“Carter’s Fishing Guide Service, Clarissa speaking.  How may I help you?”  The voice on the other end sounded wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, even though it was barely eight.

“Um, hello.  This is Rick Whittaker.  I was calling to schedule an outing with Mr. Carter.”  My brain was still moving sorta slow, so it took about that long to remember from our lunch that Clarissa was Lucas’ wife.

“Ah, Mr. Whittaker.  You must have had a good trip last night.  Lucas is out today but is free on Saturday.  What sort of outing were you looking for?”

“Well, after last night, it seems clear that I need to learn to handle boats myself.  So I was hoping he could spend a day teaching me.  Maybe even throw in a little about fishing while we’re at it.”

“I’m certain he would be most delighted to do that, Mr. Whittaker, although it’s a little outside of his normal charter.  I’ll put you down for tomorrow and have him call and confirm when he gets in, just to make sure.”  The consummate professional, both efficient and friendly.

It had been my observation that African-Americans in small town South Carolina were at the bottom of the social ladder, with the hardest climb toward economic opportunity and educational equality.  Lucas and Clarissa had thoroughly stomped that stereotype into the ground.  Or more likely, they’d indeed had a difficult climb but had managed it by virtue of attitude and hard work.  I silently toasted them with the last of my coffee.

I had one more call to make before breakfast: I cancelled the satellite installation.  Well, it wasn’t like I was committing to a monastic lifestyle for the rest of my time in White Sands.  I could always change my mind.  But honestly, I was relishing the quiet.  Sitting on the porch with coffee every morning, listening to the birds and the breeze through the oaks instead of Sports Center.  Reading at night rather than thumbing through 157 channels to confirm that nothing was on, then starting over just to be sure. 

During breakfast Sabrina was a little off her A-game.  A bit distant, although she dutifully went through the motions.  I wondered what that was all about until it hit me: Duh!  She’s a woman, dumb ass.  It’s her job to change just when you think you’ve figured her out.  It’s in their genes, relentlessly reinforced by mothers and grandmothers and sisters and aunts from infancy.

The rest of the morning was spent on George’s computer.  I found his Turbo Tax files and went through his returns for the seven years before he disappeared.  In 2001 he made $13,700 on his repair business and took a loss of $900 as an artist, although he listed $280 in income.  Through the subsequent years his handyman income remained about the same while his artist profits grew to a peak of $16,800 in 2005 and about the same in 2006.  I also found supporting spreadsheets listing his paintings sold.  Nothing of particular interest there except for the names of some of the paintings at the Low Country Gallery:  Apparition One, Two, and Four; Madonna and Child One through Five; Psyche as a Young Mother One through Seven; Our Lady of the Sea One and Two; Fantasy One and Two; Venus Ashore; The High Priestess One through Four; and N.  There were also another couple of dozen with Avalon in the name.

Most curious.  The Greco-Roman Venus and Psyche, the Christian Madonna and Our Lady, the tarot’s High Priestess—maybe—George’s own Apparition and Fantasy, and most mysterious of all, N.  Not L, so there goes the Lacey theory.  

I made a pot of homemade chili—in my book it qualifies as homemade as long as it doesn’t come out of a can, even if you get your seasonings out of a bag.  After lunch, fortified by a martini, I called the witch.

“Ah yes, Rick Whittaker.  This is Chai Fox.  Tatum said that you’d be calling and that you were a rung higher on the enlightenment ladder than your average Norman.  She gave me the most delicious hints about mystical apparitions and spiritual guides.  So where is it that you wish to be guided?”

I could tell right off that I hadn’t had enough gin.  I originally started drinking martinis because that’s what James Bond drank.  Figured if they made him suave and sophisticated and irresistible to the ladies, it couldn’t hurt my chances.  Although mostly they just made me drunk.  At least I didn’t subscribe to the whole shaken but not stirred shtick.  Even after a decade, there’s still something about ordering a martini instead of, “I’ll have a Bud.”  But I needed to be a lot more debonair if I were going to take on—and put up with—Chai Fox.

“It’s far too complicated to explain over the phone.  I was hoping we could get together for lunch.  How does Sunday work for you?”

“As it turns out, I happen to be free on Sunday.  So we must be destined.  Besides, we wouldn’t want to disappoint Tatum, would we?”

She gave me her address and we agreed to a time. 

I should have resisted—James Bond would never have asked—but perhaps it was the martini speaking.  “So how many rungs are there on the enlightenment ladder?”

“A most wondrous mystery.  One never knows until one reaches for the next rung and finds nothing there.”

After we hung up, I made myself that second martini.

* * * * *

Lucas showed up with Clarissa in tow on Saturday morning.  “Issa said you were a charmer on the phone, wanted to meet you in person.  Doesn’t cost extra if she comes along, and she thought she might be useful to help keep it simple enough for a rookie.”  He looked at her sideways before continuing, “‘Bout all she’s useful for these days.” 

Clarissa gave him a whack before shaking my hand.  “You keep that up, Lucas Carter, it’ll be your turn to update the web site.”  She gave me a big smile and a little wink.  “Lucas still thinks he’s the big dog, has to do all that pissing to mark his own territory.  Honey, you marked me up plenty with those four kids.  Think by now all the other dogs got it figured out.” 

Lucas gave her a little whack of his own.  Around Clarissa he seemed to have lost a layer of the reserve I’d encountered the other times we’d been together.  She was consider­ably younger than him, mid-forties, chatty where he was quiet, a little rounder where he was lanky although nothing you’d call plump.  It took about thirty seconds to see through their act and figure out they were quite the lovebirds. 

My lesson started right on the boat ramp, where Lucas insisted I back the trailer down to the water.  “You’re going to have to do that twice every time you take a boat out, you might as well start getting used to it.”  Of course I made a complete hash out of it, so bad that Clarissa couldn’t help but giggle.  But Lucas never lost his calm patience, and eventually I figured out about turning the opposite direction from what is natural and if you did it early, you wouldn’t wander all over the ramp like a drunken would-be sailor.

It was a long, exhilarating if exhausting day.  I learned how to drive the boat in open water and maneuver in tight quarters.  How to set an anchor, start the motor by hand in case the battery gave out, work the GPS and the depth finder.  How to gauge the wind and estimate the depth by the slope of the shore line and the way the waves ran along what might be a shoal.  How to row a boat that wasn’t designed to be rowed—that was another experience where we went in circles for a while before I got the hang of it.  Lucas kept up a steady flow of instructions, Clarissa a steady stream of encouragement.  They should have charged more with her along.

Lunch time we anchored on a little island and went ashore.  Clarissa had brought fried chicken, potato salad, and iced tea—sweet, of course, but I drank it without a word.  And a batch of oatmeal cookies like my grandmother used to make only better, although I’d never admit it out loud, even if she’s dead.

While we were sitting there finishing up, I figured they were as good an audience for my question as any.  “What can you tell me about Sabrina?  We seem to have hit it off, but maybe that’s just my ego talking.  I get the distinct impression I shouldn’t ask her out.”

The two of them exchanged a curious look before Clarissa answered.  “You’d likely be the best thing that’s happened to her in a while.  But no, you didn’t get the signal mixed up.”  She glanced at Lucas again before continuing.  “Miss Sabrina’s in what you might call a troubled relationship.  She’s fallen hard for a bad man.  Treats her like dirt, runs around on her, disappears for weeks at a time.  Doesn’t hit, but gets a real nasty mouth on him when he’s been drinking.  Every time he goes off she swears she’s through with him.  But when he shows back up and crooks a finger at her, she can’t seem to help herself.” 

Clarissa shook her head sadly.  “Don’t know why some women are like that.  In this day and age, you’re supposed to be strong, sister.  And Sabrina seems plenty strong otherwise.  If Lucas pulled that shit, why he’d be out on the curb with his belonging packed in Hefty bags.  But my Lucas is a gentleman, through and through.  Whereas J.D.’s just a miserable excuse for a human being.”

“So what should I do?”

Lucas fielded that one.  “Plug the son-of-a-bitch in the back with an untraceable pistol when nobody’s there to see you do it, then be around to pick up the pieces when Miss Sabrina falls apart.  Hell, I’m not sure anybody’d testify against you if they did see it.  Either that or stay the hell out of it.  That’d be my advice.”

Sounded like good advice, too.  Stay the hell out of it.  Women can get you in a lot of trouble, and this one might earn me that tombstone to carve it on.

After lunch I learned the basics of fishing.  How to cast for bait fish and shrimp, although there weren’t any shrimp this late in the year.  How to rig a cork and a bottom rig.  “There’re a lot more ways, of course, but that should do you for anything you’re liable to catch.”  How to read the shore line, where to try for fish.  We even caught a couple of bass too little to keep and a croaker that I decided was more trouble than it was worth, all by his lonesome.

My ass was dragging when we got back to the landing, but I still had to back the trailer and take the boat out of the water.  “There’s the most important lesson of the day, son.  Don’t stay out all day.  Come in while you’ve still got something left.  Otherwise, you won’t look forward to going out tomorrow.”

I gave him a check for $500, shook his hand, and thanked him profusely.  But he shook off my thanks.  “This is what I do, so anytime you want to hire me, you just give me a call.”

Clarissa had been taking notes during the day, and had a list of all the things I needed to buy or rent.  She gave me a hug instead of a handshake when I thanked her all her help and the fried chicken.  “Why do I have the feeling you’re not going to take Lucas’ advice about J.D.?  You be careful, Rick.” 

Just before they drove off, Lucas handed me a piece of paper.  “Here’s the GPS coordinates for that island.  I know that’s what this was all about.  You can’t fool the big dog.”

He was right about the island, but she was wrong about the woman.  I had no interest in getting into it with a psychopathic boyfriend.  Not this kid.

 

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The Medicine Wheel

For some of you , this novel will be your first introduction to the Medicine Wheel.  So today I’m going to give you a very brief overview of the Wheel.

Caveats: the Medicine Wheel means different things to different people.  So virtually NOTHING that I can say will be true for everyone.  To those of you to whom the Wheel is a significant part of your spiritual practice I say, please be open-minded and gentle with me.

WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?  The Medicine Wheel, as most of us experience it first, comes from Native American spirituality.  There are many very old–even ancient–structures throughout the United States that were built by Native American people, as well as many thousands that are new, constructed by the current owners or users.  Here is one of the best known, located at the summit of Medicine Mountain, nearly 10,000 feet above the Bighorn Range in Wyoming.   medicine_wheelThis wheel is 80 feet across and with 28 spokes emanating from a central cairn, and was built by Plains Indians 300-800 years ago.  This particular wheel is aligned with the movement of the sun.  Other important medicine wheels include one at Moose Mountain in Saskatchewan and one in Majorville, Alberta that is believed to be 5000 years old, making it coeval with the pyramids in Egypt.

Note, however, that similar structures exist in Europe as well, although not nearly as popular as stone circles or standing stones.  So it is not a uniquely American invention.  The Wheel has also been adopted by Neo-Pagans and other New Age spiritual groups, so it can no longer be considered the unique property of Native Americans.

WHY A WHEEL?  The compass points–north, south, east, and west–each have a particular spiritual meaning and are associated with a particular animal (but not the same animal for different tribes and cultures).  In addition, the directions are associated with the elements Earth (North),  Air (East), Fire (South), and Water (West), with the myriad of images and connotations of those as well.

SO WHAT IS IT FOR?  Again, answers depend on the particular spiritual practice of those who built it.  For some, it is a sacred locale where the power of the directions and the elements is focused.  An outdoor temple, a place to pray or meditate or merely seek peace.  To others, “walking the wheel” is an essential part of their practice.

MY FIRST ASSOCIATION WITH A MEDICINE WHEEL came at a retreat center in East Texas called Earthsprings, near Crockett, Texas.  I spent 3 days there in solitude, gently guided by Glenda Little Hawk Taylor, one of the wisest women you’ll ever meet.  A significant part of my weekend was spent walking a medicine wheel.  And even though calling me an “open-minded Norman” is charitable, each time I was rewarded with some revelation or insight.  I was the only visitor on the land that weekend, but the center is open for retreats and workshops as well.  http://earthsprings.net/wp/

This picture is not from Earthsprings, but is very reminiscent of the Medicine Wheel there.  Nothing fancy, but very much a part of the land and the nature around it.???????????????????????????Here is an example of a Medicine Wheel built into an herb garden.  This is from a beautiful website named World Wide Wheel, and includes instructions on how to walk the wheel.  Their URL is:

http://www.worldwidewheel.org/medicine-wheel-garden/medicine wheel 3

  • Purification before entering sacred space is done through smudging (burning sage, sweet grass, cedar, or tobacco) or using a rattle or drum.
  • Centering: Breathe deeply and slowly – allowing thoughts to flow through. Become calm and peaceful. Merge with the balance of nature around you.
  • Form an intention for your Medicine Wheel walk: PRAYER, CLARITY, OFFERINGS.
  • Offering: a way to give thanks for life, for abundance – for all ones blessings. Given to the 6 directions, take a pinch of tobacco, cornmeal, a strand of hair, etc. – raise the offering to Father Sky, making a prayer of thanks to Creator.
    Many tribes believe following the movement of the Sun is the Trail of Life. Walk from East to South – South to West – West to North – and finish the Sacred Circle at the beginning of the east. Envision your own Trail of Life. One offers a prayer at each directional stone and then acknowledges Eye of The Creator, Father Sky and Mother Earth.
  • Ending your Ceremony: Think about the ceremony and the energy generated. Ask for the rebirth, clarity, peace, calmness, etc to follow you into your daily life. Give thanks for this process that is already happening. Send this energy out from your body into the space around you…and then become aware of a more beautiful world around you.

You can build a wheel in your backyard, much as George did in the woods behind his house.  It only takes a small investment in a few rocks at the nearest landscaping supply store if, like I, you live in a place that has no rocks of its own (you can collect your own rocks on trips and carry them home in your airline baggage, but you’ll end up paying more than if you bought them locally).

One more picture, this of a very picturesque Medicine Wheel overlooking the sea.

medicine wheel november 11

Chapter 15: Avalon, S.C.

Writer’s Note: It took me a while to decide on the name to replace Amos, with all the great suggestions you submitted–thanks for that.  The last cut was James, Lucas, Abe, and Jake.  The deciding factor of those was I liked a 2-syllable name best.

* * * * *

 A little cold front had blown through during the night.  I had to take a blanket out on the patio to enjoy my coffee, but that made it special.  All these years I’ve lived in the South, I’ve never grown to love the heat like so many Southerners do—or even begrudgingly tolerate it like most of the rest.  I feel a spiritual connection with Yankees in that one way: what the hell were people thinking when they decided to live here during the summer months?

It was Halloween.  I had my little bag of candy, although I doubted I would have a single trick-or-treater this far out in the boonies.  I’d also made up little bags for Sabrina’s kids—I’d found out she has two, a nine-year- old boy and a daughter she described as “five going on fifteen.”  I had a niece that fit that description, so I at least understood the concept.

As promised, I cleared my mind as best I could, then tried to concentrate on Sabrina as I walked the wheel.  But I couldn’t hack it.  The upcoming trip with Lucas was too present to be ignored.  The golden-haired woman walking among a cluster of huts on some desert island, hand-in-hand with the girl I assumed was her daughter, kept intruding into my consciousness.  The little girl was costumed as a princess, of course.  What else?

Sabrina was delighted I’d thought of her kids.  “Well, lookee here what my silver-tongued fiance’s made up for his step-kids to be.  Won’t Samantha be surprised?  She’s going out tricker-treating as a princess, needless to say.”

A little shiver ran down my back.  “I always liked it when it got chilly for Halloween.  But my costumes tended toward the heavy and exotic.”

“Somehow I’d have guessed that.  But not so great for princesses.  And of course her gown is light and flimsy.”

“Handmade too, I’ll wager.”  Sabrina nodded.  “And I’ll bet Samantha would rather freeze than allow a sweater to mar the perfection of her costume.”

Sabrina nodded again.  “Definitely got herself a little stubborn streak.”

“From her mom, I suppose.”

“And don’t you forget it, buster.  After we’re married good and proper, I get the remote on Tuesdays and Fridays, ‘else the wedding’s off.”

“Oh, no.  Tuesdays and Fridays sounds more than fair.  And if you’re a good little girl, maybe Sunday mornings too.”

Sabrina shook her head emphatically.  “No chance of that, ‘cause I ain’t no good little girl.  But then again, that’s probably OK since we won’t be watching TV on Sundays mornings.”  I’d been waiting for it; this time I got my mouth into an O before she did.

Mrs. Ellis, a frail, white-haired lady in a cotton print dress, came up to my table before I’d finished my last cup of coffee.  “Mr. Whittaker, I have a problem, maybe you can help me.  George Foster fixed my water heater back six years ago and I didn’t have the money to pay him.  But he disappeared before I saved it up.  It’s been bothering me every since.  It’s $40.  Would it be OK if I paid it to you?”  She carefully pulled a folded stack of bills from her sweater pocket.

“Certainly, Mrs. Ellis.  He left some instructions that I found going through his papers.  Let’s just see.”  I pulled out my pocket notebook and pretended to examine a couple of pages.  “Ah, here it is.  ‘Mrs. Ellis.  Tell her that after all this time, she only owes me ten dollars.’”

“Are you sure that’s what it says?  It doesn’t usually work that way.”

“Positive.  It’s written right here.  Well, one thing we can both agree on about George Foster, he didn’t figure things the same way other people do.  So I have to go by what he wrote down.”

“Well, that was sure nice of him.  I hope you find him so I can tell him myself.”  She gave me a five and counted off five ones.  “There.  Now I can quit fretting about it.”

This bit of deception, although in theory financially deleterious to my employer, didn’t cause me a moment of angst.  But I hadn’t realized I’d been observed.  As I rose to leave, Sabrina sidled up with a funny look on her face.

“Know what, Rick Whittaker?” she asked in a low voice.  “You’re a nice guy.  Who would’ve suspected.”

“Me?  Nice?  Nah, you must have me mistaken for somebody else.  George Foster, maybe, although he’s a little older than me.”

She just smiled at me without answering and waggled her fingers in a small wave as I left.

I should have planned something active to fill the day, since I was way too jumpy to be sitting down.  Tried to go through the computer files but couldn’t stay with it.  Walked the wheel twice, which helped—for about twenty minutes.  Had a martini with lunch, another at four.  Read the same two pages in my book a half dozen times.  The hours passed somehow; not sure exactly.  I was at the boat ramp much too early for our 8 pm appointment, pacing.  Good thing I didn’t have easy access to a pack of cigarettes, I’d have started smoking on the spot.

“Been here long?” were Lucas’ first words to me.  I just shrugged.

“Have you ever seen anything that you couldn’t explain?” he asked me as we launched the boat and settled in.  I had to confess I hadn’t.  “I did one other time, in Vietnam.  A woman walking on the deck of our boat, bending over the sailors who were dozing at their guard positions.  She would look carefully at the face of each one, then sort of shrug and move on.  She was small like a Vietnamese woman, but with decidedly Caucasian features.  I watched her for about fifteen minutes, scared shitless and yet excited to be watching, before she wandered to the end of the deck and sort of disappeared.”  Lucas shook his head as if clearing the memory.  “Vietnam was supposed to be full of ghosts.  The men who’d been there awhile talked about them occasionally, if there was a group together late at night and an excuse.  But for some reason, they never seemed to be the ghosts of soldiers, even gook soldiers.  Usually women.”  He pulled a cross on a chain out from under his shirt.  “I’ve worn this ever since.  Don’t know if it helped keep me safe the rest of my tour, but one time we were heading upriver and it starting getting warm on my chest and five minutes later we triggered an ambush.  But we were in other ambushes after that, and it never warned me again.  Maybe because I didn’t do anything with the advice the first time.”

After that the noise of the motor made conversation impossible, so I huddled down behind the windshield.  The wind had more bite than you’d expect in October, even considering the little cool front.  Made my eyes water and my nose run.

Being out on the water at night for the first time was a strange experience.  You can’t really see much of anything.  The moon was up but small, and that plus the scattered clouds made it damned dark.  Forms that were probably islands just showed up, slid past, and disappeared.  I hoped nothing was out there to run into, because no way could we have seen it in time to stop.

We ran hard for more than an hour.  A little more than halfway there we rounded a point—or at least we made a sweeping turn around something, although I couldn’t see what it was—and the waves picked up noticeably.  Still, it was a smooth and easy ride; as a lifelong landlubber, I was intensely grateful.  In a car the drone and gentle motion would have made me sleepy, but I was too keyed up to even consider nodding off.

I was just about convinced Lucas was like one of those taxi drivers in a city where you’ve never been who takes you around the corner by way of the airport to drive up the fare when he cranked back on the throttle.  The boat settled onto its hull—we’d been seriously planing this whole time—the breeze dropped off, and the night got quiet and still.

We were heading toward a dark mass that looked just like all the other dark masses we’d passed.  I searched everywhere for a light but saw nothing.  “Is this it?” I finally whispered.  No reason to whisper, of course, but it just seemed like the right thing to do.

Lucas just shook his head and pointed vaguely off to the right.  We angled closer to the land until I could just see the waves from our wake rolling up onto the bank.  Something splashed maybe ten feet away, but I didn’t spot what it was.

Up this close to shore and moving this slowly, there was very little wind.  Lucas pulled a thermos out from under his seat and poured us each a cup of coffee.  In real mugs, not plastic or polystyrene.  The heat felt great on my hands and even better on my lips.

“How do you know how deep it is here?”

“Oh, long as I’ve been doing this, I guess I’ve memorized every contour of the ocean floor in a fifty square mile area.”  He waited a few beats before chuckling low and pointing to a depth finder.  “I’m a firm believer in technology.  With a depth finder and a GPS, as long as your motor runs and you pay attention to the weather and your fuel gauge, you’re not likely to get in too much trouble.”

He put the boat into a gentle turn around the island, and a couple of minutes later pointed just off to the left.  And there it was.

From that distance I wouldn’t have recognized it as a fire.  But as we moved closer and settled into a course where there were no obstructing trees, it quickly because obvious that’s exactly what it was.  A big fire, fairly high up on the island.  None of the other islands we’d passed had any noticeable elevation.

Maybe fifty feet off the shore, Lucas idled the motor and put the boat in neutral. We just sat there without speaking, rocking gently on the slight waves.  There was absolutely nothing to see other than the fire, probably several hundred yards inland although it was hard to judge the distance.

Finally I spoke, still in a whisper.  “And no one lives on the island?”

“As far as I know, no.”  Lucas wasn’t whispering, and his voice seemed shockingly loud under the circumstances.  “But who knows for sure?  I’ve never actually explored it.”

“Why not?”

“Don’t you feel it?”  He studied me for a long time, eyes narrowed.  “You don’t, do you.  That island is telling me loud and clear it’s not a friendly place and I’m not welcome.  But it’s not telling you a damned thing.  Isn’t that something?”

“How do you know it’s not a bunch of kids who come over for a Halloween party every year?”

“I don’t for sure, although I’ve never seen a sign of anything like that.  But we can check for boats if you want to.”

We spent the next hour circling the island slowly.  In the end, I had to admit he was likely right.  No huts either, needless to say, much less a golden haired woman walking along the shoreline.

I didn’t say anything, but I knew I’d be back during daylight.  Wasn’t sure the best way to make that happen, but making it happen had risen to number one on my list.  Even ahead of finding Lacey.