Tuesday morning found me ensconced at my “regular” table at Peckerwoods’ with Sabrina pouring coffee and ready to take my order.
“Hmm, I’ve been away so long, I think I’ll order the Rick special.”
Sabrina peered over my shoulder. “Which one is the Rick special, luv?”
“Why, whichever one you choose for me, darlin’. Might as well get used to it if I’m going to spend the rest of my life that way.”
“Well, I don’t know. Rumor has it you were away the whole weekend. I’ll bet you went back to Charleston to have one last fling with all those easy city girls in your little black book.”
Now how the hell did Sabrina know that I wasn’t in White Sands for the weekend? The efficiency of the small town grapevine is a divine mystery to those of us who didn’t grow up in one. The FBI and the CIA and all those alphabet agencies should figure out how to tap into it. “Oh, you don’t know the half of it, my peach. I was in the swinging metropolis of Walterboro, where I spent the whole weekend with a woman who waited on me hand and foot.”
“Why, you silver-tongued, two-timing bastard. I knew you were too good to be true.”
“Only trouble is, she’s old enough to be my mother. In fact, she’s exactly the same age as my mother, to the millisecond.”
“Oh, her. Darlin’, I’m the woman your mother warned you about.”
“Well, she did advocate caution. Not tying the knot until I found out more about you, specifically. Here’s what she wanted me to inquire about.” I put my hand over my heart, hummed a note, and broke into:
Can she bake a cherry pie, Ricky boy, Ricky boy?
Can she bake a cherry pie, Charmin’ Ricky?”
“But I reassured her. ‘Mom,’ I said:”
Oh, she can bake a cherry pie in the twinkling of an eye,
But she’s a young thing, and cannot leave her mother.
“You’re half right about that. I can bake the down-home blue-ribbon smithereens out of a cherry pie. But if it’s my cherry you’re after, you’ve gonna have to find you a time machine, luv.” She held her mouth in her signature O, like she does whenever she’s scored a good one.
A little while later she brought me a crab and mushroom omelet with toast and in a little dish off to the side on a tiny leaf of lettuce, a cherry. Canned, to be sure; not even Sabrina the television witch could conjure up a fresh cherry in White Sands in October. But it’s the wit that counts.
There’s not a bit of seriousness in our flirting, just pure delight in the matching of wits. But this last coup made me wonder: why not? Hmmm. Have to ponder on that a little before doing something stupid. Of course, not doing something stupid where women are concerned is way tougher than that whole camel through the eye of the needle thing. But even knowing I’m doomed to failure, I still feel obliged to try. Hubris, I suppose.
Back at the bungalow, I got after the top task on my list: finding Lacey. So I made a fresh pot of coffee, took a cup out to the back patio, and got on the phone to do my investigative reporter thing. Started with the offices of the Island Packet, which were located on the mainland in a town called Bluffton. This time I got hold of Jerry Snyder, the editor for the local entertainment section (I suspect that job wasn’t exactly a stepping stone to the New York Times, but then again, neither is the local sports desk at the Charleston newspaper that will still remain nameless). Introduced myself, told her (yes, I too was surprised when the operator said she would connect me with Jerry and then a woman answered) what I was looking for, swore my lifelong devotion and a cut of my Pulitzer Prize winnings if she could help.
Jerry told me that Bluffton, not Hilton Head, was the hot spot for local artists in the area. She’d never heard of Lacey Simpson, but said that didn’t mean much, she wasn’t all that into the art scene. Scanned and emailed me the page out of the Yellow Pages that listed all the galleries in Bluffton, but told me it might not be current— they changed around a lot with the economics of art being what it is. I asked if I could buy her lunch when I came to check out the galleries; she said sure, should she bring her five kids or come alone? But I’m guessing that was just her subtle way of telling me she wasn’t available in case I wanted to back out. Although she didn’t say she was married, only that she had five kids. Well, never form a mental image of a woman you’re talking to over the phone; it never works out like you imagine. But if I kept two-timing Sabrina, eventually she’d make me order my own damned breakfast. Women can sure get you in a lot of trouble. And keep you there.
One of the galleries—it wasn’t Low Country Fine Art, although I swear there was one—said that they had several paintings by a Lacey Simpson if I wanted to come check them out. But again, no address or phone number was forthcoming. At least this time the woman on the other end of the phone didn’t immediately dislike me.
“Ms. Simpson is a very private person, Mr. Whittaker. We always sign a contract with our artists, and hers was modified specifically to stipulate that we were never to give out her personal information. But I would be happy to take a message and relay it to her.”
“That’s very kind of you to offer. I think I’ll drop by this week and leave a personal note.”
“Certainly, sir. We would be most pleased to help.”
“Oh, and one other thing, Andrea. I asked these same questions to a saleswoman at a gallery in Hilton Head, and she was a snippy discourteous . . . hmm, what’s the correct term . . . bitch. So I was wondering if you might be able to give her a few tips in proper manners and how to deal with the public if I can persuade her to swing by.”
“Well, sir, I’d be happy to try. But between you and me, they hire a lot of Yankees over on the island. She likely wouldn’t know polite if it bit her on her tight Yankee ass.”
“That probably explains it. I was afraid that for some reason she just didn’t like me.”
“No sir, they don’t much like anybody. Must be growing up in all that snow and such with no grits to warm ‘em up.”
I could already see that when I had lunch with Jerry, I’d have to order a dessert to go for Andrea.
Resigning myself to not being able to find Lacey today, I went on to the next task. Sometime during the night I’d woken up dreaming of a group of figures in white holding hands and chanting while Avalon slowly sank into the ocean behind them. It took me a while to go back to sleep, and during that time I’d realized that I needed someone to guide me through the New Age hodgepodge that might be an important piece of this investigation. In the light of day, it still seemed like a splendid idea. I simply don’t have the patience—or tolerance—to winnow the kernels of truth from the mountains of bullshit, oops, I mean mounds of chafe, on my own.
Fortunately I had a contact at my old newspaper: Tatum Pruett-Levelle. Tatum worked entertainment, headed the society desk, and kept up the social calendar for the paper. She was also “out there,” and into every fad that might bring on a new spiritual awakening. While I worked there, Tatum had always been trying to get me to hang a crystal up in my cubicle over the trash can to focus my vital qi on romance, bringing me yogurt mixed with cleansing clay, fasting, drinking nothing but bottled water with a single rose hip crushed in it, or telling me about her angel card or animal card or vegetable card or whatever marker she’d used to foretell the way the day would go.
“Ricky, you prick. How could you just leave us in the lurch like that? They shifted the intern over to cover sports, and now we all have to take turns rewriting everything he does until we can find somebody permanent, or at least competent. You may be a snake with the morals of a tom cat, but at least you can write coherent English.”
“I miss you too, Tatum. Every time I sit on my patio drinking a martini and watching the sun going down over the water, I think about all the good times.” That was a bald-faced exaggeration, of course: at the cottage, the water is to the east. But martinis sounded more exotic than coffee, and if I confessed to drinking martinis while the sun came up, she’d think ill of me.
I gave her a quick summary of what I was doing and what I’d found, with emphasis on the weird stuff: the island that had a mysterious fire on Halloween, the Sacred Wheel that I had even walked myself, the article on the sinking of Avalon next to the illustration that George had painted, the collection of books, and the Celtic brooch. Tatum asked a few questions but mostly just listened.
When I wound down she asked, “Ricky, what the hell have you gotten yourself into?”
“I have no idea. I don’t even know if any of this is relevant, or if it was just George experiencing a little middle age crazy, once he got away from the professional world.” Tatum cleared her throat to let me know I was on thin ice. “No offense, of course. It’s just nothing like the orderly, logical George Foster that his daughter knew.”
“Maybe he got to White Sands and found enlightenment.”
Tatum had let me off the hook and I went for it, to hopelessly mix my metaphors. “That’s what I meant, of course.”
“Sure you did.”
“Anyway, last night I dreamed I needed a spiritual advisor to guide me through all this. And you were always telling me to honor my dreams. So I was hoping you could recommend someone a little closer than Charleston.”
She was quiet a minute. “Well, if you ask it that way, actually I can. She’s a little older than you, but a whole lot wiser. Which isn’t difficult, by the way. And she’s currently unattached, which should make it less of a hassle than trying to explain to some jealous husband or boyfriend why she’s spending so much time with you. Lives near Beaufort, so she’s pretty close.”
“Sounds perfect. How do you know this lady?”
“I was in a coven with her for years.”
“You mean, she’s a witch?”
“Well, of course she’s a witch. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“I didn’t realize I’d asked for a witch, but now that you mention it, of course it is. I won’t be in any danger, will I?”
“Nah, she’s a lot more tolerant of you unenlightened Normans than I am. And very easy going. She probably won’t use any magick on you at all, much less turn you into a toad or anything.”