St. Martin's Minotaur
Coming May 2, 2006
By Kathryn R. Wall
Erik Whiteside, his lean, boyish face flushed with triumph, filled the doorway of my tiny office. Behind him, midafternoon light drifted through the narrow windows in the reception area and bathed his white-blond hair in a soft halo.
I set aside the financial reports I'd been studying and tossed my reading glasses on the desk. "Got whom?"
My partner crossed the gray Berber carpet in two strides and dropped his six-foot-plus frame into the single client chair pulled up to my faux mahogany desk. "You're the only person I know who uses 'whom' in conversation," he said with his trademark grin.
"So I'm a grammar geek," I said, smiling back. "Get over it, and answer the question."
"Impatient as usual. This one's so good I'm tempted to make you work for it."
"Perhaps you might like to recall whose name you see on the bottom of your paycheck, such as it is."
"I believe that would be you, Lydia Baynard Simpson Tanner, for which I and my landlord are eternally grateful," he said.
Though I called him my partner, Erik hadn't managed to accumulate enough cash to buy an actual interest in Simpson & Tanner, Inquiry Agents, but he assured me he was close. My father, retired Judge Talbot Simpson, and I had provided the initial investment enabling us to rent the small suite in a recently completed office complex mid-island. My late mother's trust fund and the recovering stock market provided operating capital, supplemented occasionally by an actual paying customer. Erik earned his keep by providing a level of computer expertise unequaled outside a government agency.
I leaned back in the swivel chair and pinched the bridge of my nose. Time to get my glasses changed, I thought, another depressing reminder of my looming milestone birthday. "Are you going to answer me, or do I have to beat it out of you?"
He laughed. " 'They also serve who only stand and wait.' "
"Milton," I responded, "from 'On His Blindness.' When are you going to learn you don't have a prayer in this game? I practically had to memorize Bartlett's just to keep up with my father. Now knock it off and spill."
His brown eyes sobered. "I found Win Hammond. After nearly two years, I finally tracked him down."
"My God," I said, jerking upright in my chair. "How? Where? Is he still alive?"
"Pure dumb luck is how," he said, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the desk, "and yes, he's still very much alive." Erik consulted his watch. "And if everything works out, he should be landing in Savannah in about four hours."
My hand reached of its own volition for a nonexistent pack of cigarettes, although it had been nearly a year since I'd kicked the habit for the second time. I sighed in frustration and picked up a pen to keep my fingers occupied.
"Well, you remember the postcard Miss Hammond got from her brother, right about the time . . ." His voice trailed off, and his eyes found mine. The events of that summer two years before-and the rippling aftershocks they'd created-had culminated in a number of deaths, some of which had struck very close to home.
"Of course I remember," I said. "He sent her the card after she got attacked. Postmarked from St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands."
Adelaide Boyce Hammond, frightened by her brush with death, had asked me to find her black sheep brother. Edwin Hollister Hammond III had abandoned family and country nearly twenty years before and had not been heard from until the mysterious communication which had provided neither return address nor any other useful contact information. Erik and I had been searching for him-off and on-ever since.
"Why is he coming here? And how . . . ?"
"A long time ago I put out a call on several of the message boards originating in the Caribbean, asking if anyone'd heard of him. I got a couple of responses early on, but they turned out to be false alarms."
My mind kept wandering to the scene where I actually told Miss Addie her beloved younger brother was coming home, to the joy on her weathered, octogenarian's face when I announced . . .
"Earth to Bay, come in please. Are you actually interested in hearing this, or should I just cut to the chase?"
"Sorry," I mumbled. "Of course I want to hear it. Caribbean message boards. False alarms."
The phone jangled in the outer office, and Erik half rose. "Let the service get it," I said, and he subsided back into his chair. "Go ahead."
"I got back on the trail yesterday when I heard from a woman in the British Virgin Islands, asking if I was still looking for information about Hammond. We exchanged several e-mails before I finally convinced her to do the right thing." He laughed. "I can be very persuasive when I put my mind to it."
I returned his smile. In his late twenties, with a long, rangy body and more than his share of blond good looks, Erik Whiteside oozed Southern charm. I couldn't imagine too many people of the female persuasion resisting him, even long distance. Still, it seemed strange the woman hadn't asked for some sort of reward.
"So what has Win been up to all these years? Where's he been living?" I tossed the pen back onto the desk and leaned forward.
Miss Addie's wish to see her brother once more before she died had seemed an impossible request, my failure to grant it a nagging guilt that had been quietly eating at me for months.
"Apparently he's been running a charter service out of Virgin Gorda. Sailing and fishing cruises for wealthy tourists. He's been going by the name of James Holland."
"No wonder you couldn't track him down. Why's he coming back to the States?" I glanced at the clock above my framed PI license on the side wall. "And how do you know he's on his way to Savannah?"
Again the phone rang on the desk of our phantom receptionist.
"Sure you don't want me to get it?" Erik asked.
"They'll call back if it's important. That's why we pay a fortune for the answering service. Go ahead."
The long and short of it was that Erik's informant, a sometime girlfriend of Hammond/Holland, had dropped by to find him stripping his place and throwing clothes into an old suitcase. When she'd asked Win where he was going, he'd become abusive, calling her names and literally throwing her out into the street. She claimed to have known for a long time about his real name and background. Apparently Win was like lots of people who sought refuge in the scattered islands of the Caribbean: He had a past he'd just as soon forget. They'd even laughed together about Erik's Internet inquiries the previous year. And, since there was nothing in it for her, she'd let it ride. But she'd written Erik's contact information on a slip of paper and tucked it into her wallet. Just in case.
"And she volunteered all this because . . .?" I watched the red flush creep up my partner's neck. "You offered her money, didn't you? I thought we agreed-"
"I wired her five hundred dollars, okay? There was no way she was going to tell me anything without it."
He raised his head, and we stared at each other for a long moment.
"Your own savings, I take it?"
I sighed and leaned back in my chair. "Okay. I'll reimburse you out of the company account. But just this once. Next time, we need to discuss things before you go running off half-cocked."
"Thanks. You're right, but it seemed too good a lead to pass up."
And it had been. A quick check of the airline databases, only secure against amateur hackers not even remotely in Erik's league, had revealed Win Hammond's flight and its approximate arrival time.
"So did this mystery woman have any idea what's sending the long-lost black sheep of the Hammond family running for home?"
Erik shook his head. "She claimed not to know."
"I don't like the sound of this sudden decision to come back to the States after all these years. Five'll get you ten it's got something to do with money. Miss Addie isn't rich, but she's certainly comfortably well-off. This guy sounds like he could be nothing but trouble for her."
"Didn't you say they had other sisters? Maybe he plans on hitting them up for room and board or a fresh stake or whatever it is he's got in mind."
I shook my head. "Not likely. One of them's in a nursing home, and I remember the other one seemed to have gone through whatever inheritance she'd received. No, I think Miss Addie's the target. His flying into Savannah pretty much clinches it."
I ran a hand through the tangled mop of my hair. It had grown out to nearly the length it had been before they'd hacked it all off in the emergency room that awful summer I first got involved in Adelaide Boyce Hammond's problems.
"How am I going to tell her the brother she's idolized all these years may be dropping back into her life just for a handout?"
"You don't," Erik said, and my head snapped up. "Don't get all riled up, Bay. I'm just saying it's really none of our business. We tell her he's coming, give her a little warning so the poor old thing doesn't have a stroke when she opens the front door, and let it go at that. What happens afterward is between the two of them."
I knew he was right, but the idea of anyone's taking advantage of Miss Addie set my teeth on edge. She and my late mother had been the cream rising to the top of local society, both of them products of family trees stretching back to the founding of the country. Having withstood the humiliation of the War of Northern Aggression, both families, along with so many others in our little corner of the South Carolina coast, had retained the casual arrogance that went with old money and older lineage. Despite it all, Adelaide Boyce Hammond remained one of the kindest women I'd ever encountered. Her sleazy brother would have me to deal with if he thought he could just show up after all this time and run any sort of scam on the old lady.
"So what's the plan?" Erik's voice cut across my reminiscences.
"I need to go talk to her in person. I don't think this is something I should do over the telephone."
"I agree. What do you want to do about the brother? Want me to meet him at the airport?"
I thought about it for a moment. "No, I can't see any point to that. I do think it wouldn't hurt, though, for you to tail him and keep me posted. If he doesn't head straight for Hilton Head, I'll need to know where he's going. Maybe I should hold off alerting Miss Addie until we actually see the whites of his eyes."
"Good thought. That way we won't get her hopes up if he doesn't actually intend to contact her."
"I can't believe it isn't the whole point of this sudden trip home. That's what your e-mail lady implied, right?"
Erik shrugged. "Yeah, but remember she's an ex-girlfriend, so her information may not be entirely reliable. A woman scorned and all that."
If he intended to get a rise out of me or engender another quotation contest, I had to disappoint him.
"Why don't you grab some dinner and head on out to the airport? I've got paperwork to finish up on the Matheson file. I'll probably be here another hour or so. After that you can reach me at the Judge's or on my cell. I should be home by eight."
I answered his rhetorical question with a smile. When my father asked me to stop by at Presqu'isle, the old family mansion on St. Helena Island, I generally didn't have the option of saying no. Besides the fact I'd spent most of my life dancing to his tune, his health had deteriorated over the past few months, especially after his harrowing ordeal the previous year. He'd been looking more frail than usual lately, and I'd made it my business to keep a close eye on him. Not that Lavinia Smalls, his companion-housekeeper and the woman who had practically raised me, didn't guard him like a fierce old bird with her hatchlings, but still . . .
"Take some money from petty cash for expenses," I said, "and bring me back your receipts."
"Aye, aye, Captain," he said, saluting as he rose. At the door, he paused and looked back. "By the way, what's the verdict on Matheson? Is he messing with his partner?"
"About money? Probably. I don't have that nailed down yet. Literally? Again, it's hard to say. What do you think? You've been following him off and on for the past week or so. Any indication he swings both ways?"
Erik shook his head. "They spend a lot of time together, but it's mostly in public places-restaurants, bars, the golf course. I've never seen any indication they're more than business associates, much as Mrs. M. would like to believe he's in the closet."
I shook my head. "I swore when we got into this inquiry agency stuff I wouldn't mess with anything remotely resembling a divorce, and now look at us." I couldn't keep the disgust from my voice. "I thought it was a straight case of cooking the books, something I could verify with half my brain tied behind my back. I did a ton of those when I had the CPA practice in Charleston. Then all of a sudden we're following potentially philandering husbands all over the damn island. I'm almost inclined to give Grace Matheson her retainer back and tell her to find someone else."
"That'd be a shame considering all the time we've both put in on it," Erik said in the maddeningly reasonable tone he sometimes adopted when he felt I was about to go off the deep end. "What does Ben have to say about it?"
I could feel my ears turning red as Erik studied me from the doorway. Most of the time I tolerated his teasing and ragging, almost as if he were an annoying younger brother. Since I'd grown up without any siblings to practice on, I sometimes didn't know quite how to deal with it. His mention of Ben Wyler, our silent partner and former New York City homicide detective, had been meant to aggravate me, and it worked. We'd needed someone with police experience to allow us to obtain our investigator's license from the state, but that had been the sum total of Wyler's involvement, and I intended to keep it that way. I still hadn't sorted out my feelings about the man who had tried to have me arrested for murder.
"Get your butt in gear, Whiteside," I said, "or the plane'll be on the ground before you get off the island. You're going to hit the late afternoon traffic."
With tens of thousands of tourists streaming across the bridges for the start of the summer beach season, our rush hour had become more than its usual nightmare.
"You, too," he said, ignoring the jibe and glancing at his watch. "If you're headed for Presqu'isle, you'd better get moving yourself."
He had a point. I heard him unlock the drawer in the receptionist's desk and lift out the petty cash box. I stuffed the Matheson papers into my briefcase just as the outside door opened. I looked up to see a statuesque blonde in a raspberry silk shift that did nothing to disguise the contours of her body. She paused just across the threshold. I couldn't see Erik's face from where I sat, but I could almost guarantee his jaw had dropped at least a couple of inches.
"May I help you?" I heard him say, his words followed by the soft closing of the door.
"I don't know," the woman answered, her voice low and hesitant. "Is this the detective agency?"
I shifted around in my chair trying to get a better view of the outer office without being too obvious. I could just make out the line of Erik's shoulder as he stood facing the newcomer.
"Inquiry agency," he said, and I smiled. We were very firm about dispelling the notion we were your average sleazy husband-chasers, although Grace Matheson was making it very difficult to maintain that illusion. "I'm Erik Whiteside."
I watched the handshake, the woman's fingers seeming to hesitate a little as they met Erik's, a tremulous smile lifting the corners of her wide mouth. She nodded, but didn't reply.
"Something we can help you with?" Erik asked. "Why don't you have a seat over here?"
He guided her toward the single easy chair across the room from the small desk, and for a moment they both stood framed in the doorway to my office. She looked to be in her early twenties, not beautiful in any classic sense, but striking, her long, tanned legs thin and shapely beneath the short hem of the shift, her long pale hair falling in soft waves to her shoulders.
I moved from behind the desk. I wanted Erik on his way to Savannah, and I figured this would turn out to be just another cheating man scenario, when the woman said, very succinctly, "I want to report a rape."