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.

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