In the South, family is the one thing worth dying--or killing--for...
The Mercy Oak
St. Martin's Minotaur
April 29, 2008
THE MERCY OAK
By Kathryn R. Wall
If I'd taken time to read the paper that morning, I might have been better prepared for my involvement in the Montalvo girl's death. Or maybe not.
But with Christmas less than two weeks away, I'd simply skimmed the front page, then grabbed the Belk's ad from among the dozens that nearly doubled the usual girth of the Sunday Island Packet, and raced off to join the pre-holiday madness.
I generally despise shopping, especially as a recreational activity. Living on a subtropical island off the southernmost tip of South Carolina allowed me to spend most of the year in shorts and T-shirts. I ran the office on a pretty casual basis as well, so I had no professional wardrobe to worry about, either.
My business -- Simpson & Tanner, Inquiry Agents -- was still hanging on by its fingernails. My late mother's trust fund and my own investment portfolio had been keeping us afloat, with the occasional request for a background check providing a meager supplemental income. The local attorney I'd worked for briefly on the Dumars murder case had also thrown a couple of things our way, but we'd yet to attract another major paying client.
After the events of the past summer, I'd kept my promise to my brother-in-law, Red Tanner, and backed off from any potential case that even hinted at the possibility of personal jeopardy. That suited my associate, Erik Whiteside, just fine. His own close brush with death had unnerved him, and for a while I'd been afraid he might decide to abandon our struggling enterprise altogether. His uncanny ability to coax information out of the most stubborn computers and databases made him highly employable, and I knew he could make a lot more money somewhere else. His personal loyalty to me kept him showing up three mornings a week at our tiny office near Indigo Run, and I was more than professionally grateful. The bond we'd forged in the heat of danger had made Erik as much family as my one remaining partner, retired Judge Talbot Simpson, who also happened to be my cantankerous father.
The Mall at Shelter Cove lies about midway down Hilton Head Island, screened from busy Highway 278 by a narrow belt of trees. The cars in the parking lot near the big department store overflowed onto the landscaping. I wandered the lanes for a few minutes and finally lucked into a spot when a gray Mercedes backed out and pulled away. I slid my new Jaguar into the narrow space and hoped my neighbors would be gentle with their doors. I'd managed to total three vehicles over the past few years. Though none of the incidents had been technically my fault, my insurance agent had stopped taking my calls.
I tucked the newspaper ad under my arm and drew in a deep breath, preparing for battle. I had my fingers wrapped around the door handle when my cell phone chirped. Although it carried our coastal area code, I didn't recognize the caller's number. I hesitated for a moment before pushing the button.
A short pause. "Mrs. Tanner?" The words came out in a terse, choked whisper.
"This is Bobby Santiago."
Caught completely off guard, I slumped back in the seat. Why would one of my housekeeper's children be calling me on a Sunday morning? My first thought was, Why isn't he at Mass? And then I remembered that Roberto, Americanized to Bobby, had been the second of the very Catholic Dolores's children to head off to college. He wouldn't be the first freshman to backslide once out from under his parents' thumbs.
"Is something wrong, Bobby?" I asked.
"Yeah. I mean, I think so. I mean-"
"Slow down. Is it your mother?"
Dolores Santiago had been attacked a couple of years before by intruders in my beach house. Through perseverance and fortitude, she'd managed to overcome her injuries, but the effects still lingered. I felt the familiar flush of guilt creep up my throat.
"No, Mom's fine as far as I know. It's . . . Did you see anything in the paper this morning about a hit-and-run? On the island?"
Dear God, I thought, not Angelina or Alejandro. Dolores would die if anything happened to one of her kids.
"Just tell me, Bobby. Quickly. Is it your brother or sister?"
"No! I- Infierno! I'm making a mess of this!"
I heard him draw a deep, shuddering breath.
"I think a . . . a friend of mine died last night. I thought maybe you might have seen something about it."
"I didn't read the paper this morning. I'm sorry about your friend." I waited, but Bobby didn't rush to fill the silence. "Is there anything I can do?"
His voice, when it came, was soft, almost apologetic. "I think maybe it wasn't an accident."
I had hoped to spend a productive hour of Christmas shopping, grab some lunch, and be home in time for the one o'clock kickoff of the Carolina Panthers football game. Red had promised to try and make it over by halftime. Instead, I found myself pulling out the chair from the desk in my cramped office at the agency. I'd stopped at the drugstore and bought another copy of the Packet along with a couple of packs of cheese-and-peanut-butter crackers to tide me over. I pulled a Diet Coke from the mini-fridge and spread the front section of the paper out on the glass-topped desk.
I would probably have skipped right over the brief mention on page three if I hadn't been looking for it. The accident-which was what the paper was calling it, despite Bobby Santiago's shocking suggestion of murder-had occurred shortly after one that morning, which explained the lack of details. A female had been struck and killed while crossing 278 on the north end of the island. No witnesses, at least none that had come forward by press time, and no description of the vehicle involved. A passing motorist had nearly run over the body in the road and called it in. Again, no name given.
I pulled up the Packet's Web site, then moved on to those maintained by the local TV stations, but none of them had anything new to report. I had just retrieved my personal address book from my bag when the rattle of the doorknob made my head snap up. My hand groped automatically for the tiny Seecamp pistol before I remembered it lay nestled in the floor safe in the walk-in closet in my bedroom. Another promise I'd made to Red.
"Hey! What are you doing here?" Erik Whiteside stepped around the door, his tall, lean body clad almost identically to mine in jeans and a gray Panthers sweatshirt. "Did I lose a day somewhere?"
"I could ask you the same thing."
A smile creased his boyish face and crinkled his soft brown eyes. "I'm working on something at home, and I forgot one of the disks I need."
He crossed the narrow strip of carpet and perched on the corner of his desk, which would have doubled as the receptionist's if the amount of business we generated had justified another employee.
"I got a call this morning," I said, leaning back in my swivel chair. "You remember meeting any of Dolores's kids?"
"No, I don't think so. Why?"
I told him about Bobby's strange call.
"How did he know about it? I mean, if he's at College of Charleston, and the name didn't even make our local paper."
"A friend of his-whose name he won't divulge-called him about it."
"And the friend knew how?"
In the few years Erik and I had been working together, I'd come to admire the way his mind worked. Maybe it came from his fascination with computers and with unraveling their mysteries and secrets. Whatever the reason, he had the ability to zero in on the heart of a matter.
"Another good question to which I don't have an answer. All Bobby would tell me was that this girl-" I checked the notes I'd scribbled on the back of a deposit slip from my checkbook, the only paper I could put my hands on when I took the teenager's call. "Serena Montalvo. She was killed by a hit-and-run driver early this morning. Bobby thinks it was deliberate."
I shrugged. "I don't know. I mean, I think the kid's got an idea, but he didn't want to talk about it."
"So what are you supposed to do?"
"Check around and see how the sheriff is handling it. Bobby's aware of my . . . connection to Red. So far all he wants to know is if they're treating it like an accident or not."
Erik stood and paced the short stretch of gray Berber carpet between his desk and the door. "I take it this won't be a paying gig," he said.
"Probably not. The kid doesn't have any money, and I wouldn't take a cent from Dolores if she tried to hold me down and force it on me."
Erik nodded. He knew as well as I did that Dolores Santiago had saved my life. After I'd witnessed the explosion of my husband's plane and been severely injured by the rain of hot metal, the tiny Guatemalan woman had cared for both my body and my spirit, urging me back into life when all I wanted was to curl up and hide from the world. Rob's murder had nearly killed me as well-emotionally more than physically-and I had Dolores's calm faith and stubborn determination to thank for my deliverance.
"Have you talked to Red yet?" Erik asked, and I shook my head.
"I wanted to get a little more information before I broach the subject with him. If I even hint that we're investigating something that might involve violence . . ."
I let the thought trail away. Sergeant Redmond Tanner of the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office and I had come to an understanding of sorts. Part of our decision to explore the possibilities of a relationship had included my swearing off putting myself in any more danger, and I had succeeded so far in keeping my end of the bargain.
"So what's the plan?" Erik's voice broke into my thoughts. "Anything I can do?"
"I was just going to call Gabby Henson at the Packet, see if she had anything to share."
"Or you could just ask Red to check it out. That would be a lot simpler."
"Maybe. But with Red there are always strings attached." I glanced at my watch. "Speaking of which, I need to finish up here and get home. He's expecting to be fed during halftime of the game."
"We're a demanding bunch, aren't we?"
"Definitely high maintenance." I sobered. "Can you take a few minutes and check the girl out? See if there's anything on the Net about her?"
I printed the name on a slip of scratch paper and handed it over. "Don't go to a lot of trouble."
"No problem. I'm settling in for the game, too." He paused. "Stephanie might drop over later on."
I nodded, unwilling to rise to the bait he'd just dropped into the conversational waters. Ben Wyler, my late partner, and his daughter were subjects I didn't want to discuss, and he knew it. Erik and Stephanie had developed a friendship that appeared to be blossoming into something more, but it was none of my business, and I intended to keep it that way. Irrational probably, but we all deal with grief in our own ways.
"Tell her I said hello." I avoided his eyes and flipped through the pages of my address book.
"Sure." I heard him pull open a drawer, and a moment later he added, "I'll let you know if I find out anything."
"Thanks. Enjoy the game."
The door closed softly behind him. I exhaled deeply and punched in Gabby's cell phone number. She answered on the second ring.
"Bay Tanner! Long time, no hear. What's up?"
"Hey, Gabby. I need to pick your brain."
"Sorry, I leave it at the office on Sundays. Unless, of course, you've got something juicy to trade?"
I had to smile. Gabby fancied herself the Lowcountry's version of Bob Woodward. If there was a scandal brewing, especially in the rarefied strata of the high society into which I'd been born, Gabby considered it her moral duty to ferret it out.
"Not yet. I just want to ask about a blurb in this morning's paper. About a hit-and-run on the north end. A girl was killed."
"Nothing much more to tell you. She hasn't been identified yet, at least not according to our night reporter who got the initial call. It isn't technically my story, but I'll probably end up with it. Why? You have something I can use?"
"No. And they're sure it was an accident?"
"What else would it be? Bay? If you're holding out on me, I'll-"
"A client heard about it and called me. That's all I can say."
I'd learned from past experience not to give Gabby even a millimeter of an opening or she'd drive a Mack truck through it, mowing down anyone who got in the way.
"And this client implied it wasn't an accident? You can't just leave that hanging."
"Sorry, Gabby, that's the best I can do right now. Can you give me a call when you confirm an ID on the victim?"
For a moment I thought she was going to refuse, but finally she said, "Yeah, I can do that. Just remember our deal. Quid pro quo. Right?"
"Thanks. I'll be home all afternoon."
"Tell the handsome deputy I said hey," she quipped, and I hung up on her wicked laugh.
I should have known there would be no keeping secrets from Gabby Henson, even about something as personal as who I was sleeping with these days.