The Long Beach Gallery was pretty crowded when we got there around seven. Half of the eclectic “horde of adoring followers,” well-to-do or doing a good job of pretending to be, formed groups of four or six around the middle of the room. Bored middle-aged or older men in dark, tailored wool suits, white shirts, conservative silk ties. Most accompanied by chatting matrons in cocktail dresses and jewels and furs, calling each other darling and distributing air kisses. A smattering of trophy wives, plunging necklines showing off perfect tans, smiles revealing dazzling white teeth behind scarlet lipstick. The other half of the clientele, in jeans and pullovers, stood around the walls, focusing on the paintings rather than each other.
A neat woman in a suit—the only woman so dressed in the place—welcomed us warmly when we entered, poured us a glass of wine, and handed us a sheet with the names and prices of the art on display. The conversations died down briefly as the patrons in the middle paused to evaluate our dress and social status. We clearly weren’t members of either group. I’d worn a jacket sans tie over slacks; Chai sported a startling dress of many colors with flouncy sleeves and a matching headband. Could we be rich and eccentric?
Most didn’t think so, writing us off as the underclass and turning back to their socializing. But one of the matrons, perhaps unwilling to be wrong about something so significant, sidled over to where we were standing.
“Hello. Welcome to the Long Beach. My name is Cynthia Barrows, president of the Hilton Head Art Appreciation League.” She held out a hand to Chai. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before?”
“Hello, Cynthia. I’m Chai Fox, a principal with the Met down on vacation. Thought I’d see how the other half lives while I was here.” Chai smiled winningly and took the woman’s hand in both of hers. “Such a quaint little place.”
I turned away to cough, both to cover my surprise and keep from laughing out loud. Only a total Norman would give the game away within the first few seconds. “Rick Whittaker here. I’m a journalist.”
“Goodness. I had no idea there’d be celebrities here tonight. Can I introduce you around?”
“Thanks, but we’ll just mingle. I always take time to get the overall aura of the collection first.”
Cynthia scurried away to spread the word.
“A principal with the Met?”
Chai winked. “Well, I manage the orders for Meta Life products in the store. Do you think she may have misunderstood me?”
“Which do you think is Lacey?”
“None of these, dear. Lacey is an artist, she wouldn’t dress like a socialite. Her public would be so disappointed.
We made a pass down an hors d’oeuvre table for a little nourishment, since we hadn’t had dinner yet. There was a large smoked fish as a centerpiece, with cheeses and tartlets and shrimp on ice, along with a silver plate of miniature cheesecakes garnished with chocolate shavings. I didn’t see anybody buying anything, but supposed that the showy food offerings were a hopeful investment in the patronage of the wealthy. Then we worked our way into the next room.
“There,” Chai pointed discretely.
Andrea’s comment, “Oh, no sir. That is definitely not Ms. Simpson,” made immediate sense. Lacey was a tall, slender woman that I guessed to be in her late fifties, although of the type that epitomizes the term, “ageless.” Her features were too thin to be considered beautiful, but the overall impression was striking. And as Chai had predicted, she looked like an artist in a long grey skirt, cream-colored cowl-necked sweater, and chunky turquoise jewelry. Lacey was surrounded by a flock of a half dozen admirers, with another arranged in a pseudo-line waiting their turn.
“George Foster had good taste in women, I see. Well, I’m not really surprised.”
We clearly weren’t going to have a private conversation for some time, so we refilled our glasses and toured the gallery. Chai confessed to not knowing much about art except the standard, “I know what I like.” I’d taken a semester course in art history, but that didn’t put me far enough ahead to quality as a guide. So we just looked and talked about which pieces we liked and why, which left us unmoved, which we considered awful. Nothing in the place could have hung in Jerome’s Low Country gallery, but the food was good, the wine acceptable, and the conversation a delight. Seasoned with the gentle but pervasive undercurrent of sex.
Chai used the English language in a much different way than I did. Or rather, she used what I consider to be ordinary, well-defined words in a much different way, and matter-of-factly expected me to understand what she was talking about. “Energy” was one of those words. If I remember my high school physics correctly—it’s been a few years and I was never one of those science-and-math geeks; I was always a language geek—in classical physics, energy is the same as work which equals force times distance (all of those definitions go to shit when you get to the realm of relativity. My understanding of physics went to shit too, which is why I’m a journalist). Kinetic energy = mass times velocity squared. Et cetera.
To Chai, science be damned: energy was some metaphysical ethereal substance that powered psychic phenomena without having to obey the laws of physics. Or something like that; I never did quite get the breadth of her concept.
Another word was consciousness. She was telling me how a particular work of art elevated the consciousness to a higher plane where she could sense the energy manifestations of the artist. And I was telling her that my alarm clock elevated my consciousness from a state of unconsciousness, and that if I wanted to go to a higher plane I had to do it by way of the airport. Good natured kidding; we both knew we were going to end up in bed regardless of whether or not we spoke the same cosmic language.
“So what are the energy manifestations that emanate from the artist’s collective subconscious through this work directly to your consciousness?” The voice from over my shoulder was soft, with a delightful musical quality, reminiscent of Adeline’s bell-laughter except gentler. I turned to discover that Lacey had slipped up behind us.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Simpson. When it comes to consciousness, I’m a total Norman. You’ll have to get my friend Chai to explain it to you.”
Undaunted, Chai launched in. “The seagull is representative of man’s longing for flight, which is just a physical manifestation for our soul’s desire to achieve higher consciousness.”
“That’s very close, I would say. When I painted that, I was thinking something along the lines of, “Ooh, look! A seagull!”
Chai laughed. She could speak New Age effortlessly, but never let it be said that she took herself too seriously.
“You’re so out of place here, you must be Rick Whittaker. I’m Lacey Simpson.”
“With my clever journalistic senses, I deduced that from the signature on the painting and your word choice, “When I painted that.”
“Being the center of so much adoration can be tiring when one is a hermit by nature. Shall we walk away from the madding crowd and see if I can answer your questions?”
“Outside is cold and wet. Would you rather go someplace, or maybe just sit in the car?”
“After the hell that is South Carolina in August, I find the cold refreshing to the collective consciousness. We can stay relatively dry under the overhang.”
“You two go ahead,” Chai said. “I’m going to stay in the cloying warmth of artificially heated air and expand my consciousness with some more artistic energy emanations.” I interpreted that to mean that Chai was giving us some privacy, confident that I would share with her later what I learned.
Once outside, Lacey immediately lit a cigarette. “I know, dreadful habit. It’s going to kill me someday, sooner than later more than likely. But it’s really just a physical manifestation of our soul’s longing to return to a state of higher consciousness through death.” She slapped her own hand a couple of times. “Bad girl. I shouldn’t make fun of your friend behind her back. Remind me to say that to her face later.”
“I haven’t known her all that long, but I’m certain that she wouldn’t mind, as long as it’s in fun.”
“So what do you want to know about George Foster?”
“As I said in my note, I’ve been hired by George’s daughter Adeline to investigate his disappearance. Six years later, which makes it tough, but she wasn’t in a marital or financial position at the time to do it. In any case, I don’t have a lot of clues. The evidence most strongly suggests that he left willingly and purposefully.”
I looked down at the railing to be as discrete as possible. “I found the book with the inscription that you gave him. Made me think that the most likely explanation is that he was living with you. But I suppose you’re going to tell me that’s not true.”
“No, you’re right. George is not living with me.” She took a deep drag on her cigarette and looked up at the dark sky. “But yes, we were lovers. For a long time. Four years.”
Lacey looked me squarely in the eyes. “I’m not ashamed of that. We weren’t Romeo and Juliet or anything. Both of us were too scarred by life to just let ourselves risk it all like that. But we were as good together as two introverts can be. We could sit in the same room for an hour without saying a word. Or we could lie in bed and talk the night away. Both of us were fumbling amateur artists, and that gave us another connection.”
“So what happened?”
“He met something else.” When I looked puzzled, she continued, “I would say he met somebody else, but I’m not sure that’s correct.” She shook her head and took another deep drag, then pinched the cigarette out and cupped the butt in her hand. “One day he showed me a painting of a pregnant woman that surpassed anything either of us had ever done before. I was stunned, and so was he. ‘Who is she?’ I asked him. ‘Truthfully, I don’t know,’ he told me. ‘A dream vision, a specter from my own haunted subconscious, a wraith from another place and time that has come to torment me. I really have no idea.’ He wasn’t willing to discuss it much further. In a month we had broken up.”
“Wow. I’ve seen that painting, and she haunts my dreams as well. You never learned who she was?”
Lacey shook her head. “I saw him a few times over the years, and he was always alone. But that doesn’t really mean anything, does it?”
“When did you break up?”
“It was December of 2002. Maybe a fortnight before Christmas. I remember that because I had already bought his Christmas present and had to return it.”
“The following spring, he sold a painting of the woman for $2500 at a gallery in Beaufort. The proprietor, Jerome Collins, told me that he’d sold perhaps three dozen of her altogether, although she was only pregnant in two. Plus the one hanging over George’s bed.”
“Well, there you go. Find her and that’s where he’ll be.”
“If she’s a dream vision, a specter from his own subconscious, or a wraith from another place and time, that’s going to be pretty tough to do.”
“Perhaps. But he found a way, didn’t he?”
I shrugged, but her words resonated deep within me. “It doesn’t make sense, but somehow I suspect you’re right.”
At dinner I did indeed bring Chai up to date on what I had learned. “Another place and time gets my vote,” she proclaimed. “At Beltane, when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld is the most tenuous, he crossed over on our island.” I noted but did not comment on her use of the possessive pronoun ‘our.’
“So this mystery woman is from the Otherworld? How in the world—how in this world, I should say—did George meet her? And how did he learn to cross over?”
“Ah. I’ll bet your client is so glad she has such a go-getter journalist on the trail.”
Chai’s house was borderline normal until we entered her dark bedroom and she began to light the candles. Probably a hundred candles of all sizes and shapes. Chai lit every single one, so the room slowly took form by the growing glow of all those little points of fire. There was a four-poster bed with something over it that resembled a giant spider web. A totem pole in the corner that stretched from floor to ceiling. An altar with statues and incense and cards and stones and I don’t remember what else on it. The smell of incense combined with the odor of patchouli and Chai’s own delicious scent, not to mention a lot of wine, to make my head spin.
And what of my soul searching about surrendering too much control to Chai? Well, in the context of getting laid, that turned out to be just so much macho bullshit. It still wasn’t like sex on the island—I suspected nothing would ever be like that. But it was damned good. Even with a small prissy excuse for a dog watching from a corner of the bed.