I had meetings scheduled with Sheriff Tate on Thursday afternoon and both galleries on Friday. Which meant braving the road from hell—making damned sure I got home before dark—on subsequent evenings. Home. I actually used that word in my head before I realized what I’d just thought. Couldn’t be home, the fucking TV still didn’t work. But it was as close as I had right now, and the therapeutic benefits of the back porch went a long way toward compensating for the lack of TV. Nonetheless, I decided to pack a bag and make a weekend of it.
I spent an hour before I left going through five years’ worth of bank statements. George wrote checks for his bills, withdrew cash in hundred dollar increments most weeks, and had a balance of $3,476.27 as of the date of his last statement, 4/22/2007. He had a deposit of $1000 coming in every month from Merrill Lynch. Income from the two galleries averaged about $1400 a month in 2007. Not bad for someone who’d started his artist career out of boredom at the age of fifty with a couple of how-to books.
There was a check for $100 every month to the South Carolina Wildlife foundation, and $25 to a place called Support Smiles.
Most months there was a check to Visa, usually between $100 and $200, occasionally bumping up to $300. Except in March 2004, where he’d made a payment of $6147, coupled with an extra deposit of $4000 from Merrill Lynch. I added “go through credit card statements” and “check to see if deposit from Merrill Lynch stopped” to my list of things to do.
Since I’d be eating lunch in Beaufort, it made sense to forego breakfast at Peckerwoods. But then I worried that Sabrina would think I didn’t love her anymore. I could drop by on the way out and give her a flower, except where the hell would I get a flower? No wildflowers to pick in October, and certainly no place to buy any. Even Hanson’s, which attempted to stock “one of everything,” wouldn’t have fresh flowers. I could give her the book from Lacey. Leave the inscription “For those nights when I’m not there,” just scratch out Lacey and replace it with Rick. Think she’d notice?
In the end I settled for drawing a flower. Sabrina was tickled all out of proportion to the ninety seconds of effort it took. “Lord, have pity on my womanly weaknesses and protect me from a man who plies me with flowers.” She looked up at me sternly. “Rick Whittaker, are your intentions here honorable? Or is the raging lust in your heart driving you to take advantage of me before our honeymoon?”
“Darlin’, you know I respect you far too much for such vile tricks. Note that I have not even tried to wheedle a kiss out of you. No, this is merely a token of my admiration and esteem.”
“Well, I’ve surely been wondering about that. Here.” She gave me a resounding smack on the cheek, to the cheers and applause of everyone in the restaurant. “Don’t worry, we’re engaged,” she assured them, to another round of applause.
* * * * *
In my experience, Sheriffs in the south are mostly large. Tall and beefy, with a little roll around the waist to add gravitas. But Sheriff Tate didn’t fit the mold. 5’6” at the most, neat and slender with delicate hands and long fingers. His greeting was businesslike, although there was a hint of warmth in his smile.
“So how did you decide that Mr. Foster’s disappearance was deliberate rather than an accident?” I asked after he had given me basically the same summary that Adeline had.
“Lots of reasons, actually. First of all, George Foster was the most capable man I’ve met in a long time. Careful, deliberate, always planned for contingencies and emergencies. Never drank when he was going out in his boat; didn’t even take a beer along for the trip home. I don’t know of anyone less likely to do something stupid that would kill himself.”
He leaned back in his chair and held up his hands as if ticking off his points. “Plus if he’d had a boating accident, there would have been debris. Fiberglass boats don’t sink without a trace unless somebody deliberately weighs them down. That happens once or twice a year when somebody tries to cheat their insurance company. George Foster wouldn’t cheat his insurance company or anybody else, plus he didn’t file a claim. In fact, no one has ever filed a claim against his life insurance; there’s a note in his file to call me if anybody ever does.”
He looked down a moment at the open folder on his desk before continuing. “But here’s what sealed the deal for me. George always drank milk in his coffee. Not artificial creamer, milk. But there wasn’t any in his refrigerator, just a rinsed-out carton by the sink. Yes, he could have used it all up that morning and not bought any more yet. But that’s not really like George. I think he poured out what was left and rinsed the container before he left because he knew he wasn’t coming back.”
“That sounds pretty thin to me. Yes, it could have happened that way. But it seems a stretch to conclude that he left on purpose.”
“I agree. A lot is based on how it feels to me rather than evidence that would stand up in court. Here’s some more thin evidence. His truck was unlocked with the keys on the floorboard. The kitchen trash was taken out, with a fresh bag in the trash can. And his daughter thinks he might have taken an overnight bag, although she wasn’t really sure what he owned in the way of luggage.”
“But no goodbye notes, no letter left with his lawyer to be opened in the event that he disappeared, nothing like that? From how you describe George, I’d expect there to be something.”
Sheriff Tate appraised me with fresh interest. “You’re sharper than the average newspaper man, I have to say. They don’t usually impress me all that much. His lawyer does have something, but he wouldn’t show me or tell me what it was. Said ‘conditions weren’t right yet,’ whatever the hell that means. Dave Rickles might not be the sharpest shyster in the county, but he wasn’t a bit intimidated when I threatened to get a court order. ‘You get Judge Westin to bypass client-attorney privilege, it’ll be the first time. Sorry, Johnny. Legally, I have to follow my client’s instructions.”
“So the lawyer thinks he’s alive?”
“I asked that question, and got a funny answer. ‘I honestly don’t know,’ he told me. ‘I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he killed himself. He had a sense of fatality about him, if you know what I mean.’”
“Do you think that’s possible?”
“With somebody like George, pretty much anything’s possible, as long as it didn’t involve dishonesty of any sort. No way he would have committed suicide because he was depressed or bored. But if he found out he had untreatable cancer? Absolutely.”
This investigation was getting more complicated by the minute. “Any evidence of anything like that?”
“Physician-patient privilege is every bit as respected as attorney-client privilege. But it didn’t get that far. I never found a doctor he might have talked to about it.”
When I told the sheriff about the big credit card payment in 2004, he took it in stride. “We didn’t find that, but I not surprised the investigator didn’t go back that far. Quite frankly, it wasn’t a high priority case. Suicide’s a crime in South Carolina, but it shouldn’t be. The State’s got no damned business telling a man whether or not he can kill himself. And outside of that, I can’t see that any crime was committed.”
“And you’re in the crime business, not the missing person business.”
Sheriff Tate nodded at my understanding, particularly since I hadn’t put a bit of sarcasm in my voice. “In a word, yes. I’d like to have been able to tell his daughter what happened to her daddy, but I didn’t think spending another couple of hundred hours of the department’s precious manpower would’ve accomplished that. If George wanted to disappear, there’s a damned good chance nobody’s going to find him except by accident.”
“And you don’t subscribe to the theory that he ran off and is living with Lacey?”
“Lacey? Who’s Lacey?”
When I told him about the book with the inscription, he looked a little grimmer. “We probably should have found that. I’ll have to talk with. . .” he glanced down at the folder. “Ah. Detective Marshall. Mr. Marshall is no longer with us.”
“I’ve asked around town and nobody will admit to knowing any Lacey. But I intend to continue to pursue it. Don’t see how I can give a complete report to Ms. Foster unless I do.”
Sheriff Tate nodded. “That’s good, because I don’t really have anybody I want to put on a cold case right now. Shall I deputize you, or will you tell me if you find anything?”
I promised I would keep him informed without the necessity of an official title.
By the time I left the sheriff’s office, it was late enough to check into a hotel. I confess that I selected my lodging, in large part, based on the number of TV channels. Well, I didn’t go to every hotel for a price and a cable listing and calculate $/channel. But almost. After all, I had been seven nights without the soporific influence of mindless entertainment.
Anticipating this exact situation, when packing for the trip I’d included all the essentials for a comfortable overnight stay: gin, vermouth, olives, and a shaker. There was ice at the end of a short hall and a Chinese restaurant that delivered. It was like being on vacation from my vacation home.
Around 9pm—three stiff martinis, two egg rolls, and a big container of General Tso’s chicken in a pear tree later (and Christmas still two months away!), not to mention ten thousand and one channel changes—I found myself thinking, “These channels aren’t as good as the ones in Charleston.” But of course they were exactly the same ones. Had I really lost the ability to watch two sitcoms, an old movie, and a football game at the same time in just one sorry week? Maybe it was because the game was boring—they never put the good ones on Thursday nights. Forty-five minutes later I switched it off and read a few chapters in the third book I’d borrowed from George’s King Arthur collection.