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.