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.
as long as it doesn’t come out of a can
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