St. John's Folly
Bella Rosa Books
ISBN 978-1-62268-041-2 print
ISBN 978-1-62268-042-9 e-book
“‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’”
I tried valiantly to control a snort, but a hint of it must have risen above the soft shushing of the waves.
Dr. Nedra Halloran jerked herself upright on the chaise. “Lydia Baynard Simpson Tanner! Don’t you dare mock me!”
That made me laugh out loud. “Oh, for God’s sake, Neddie. Just because you had one required English lit course sprinkled in with all that psych stuff doesn’t mean you get to be offended on behalf of Charles Dickens. A Tale of Two Cities. It’s just so . . . predictable.”
My old college roommate grunted and flopped herself back down. I noticed a couple of pimply teenagers, boogie boards tucked under their arms, slowing down to admire the view. Red-haired, thoroughly Irish, and even in her forties sporting a voluptuous figure, Neddie often turned heads during our infrequent sojourns on the beach. The fact that the straps of her green bikini top dangled alongside a generous spill of bosom didn’t seem to faze her in the least, but it certainly could draw a crowd.
“Okay, smartass,” she said, pulling her wide-brimmed straw hat down lower to shelter the delicate skin of her snub nose, “what’s yours?”
We’d been fiddling away a glorious late October afternoon, sipping on warm iced tea and edging back away from the incoming tide at regular intervals. By all rights, I should have been at work, overseeing my staff of three at Simpson & Tanner, Inquiry Agents. But being the boss had its perks, including screwing off on a Thursday if the spirit moved me. I felt guilty about it, of course, because I tend to feel guilty about pretty much everything, sooner or later. The truth was I had an ulterior motive, one I knew Neddie had probably seen through about thirty seconds into my call inviting myself over to the Sea Cloisters off Folly Field Road. As Savannah’s leading child psychologist—and one of my oldest friends—she was pretty quick to spot bullshit, especially mine.
“‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ It’s an easy one,” I said, just to goad her a little more. From that first encounter at Northwestern, more years ago than I wanted to count, our relationship had relied on jabs and taunts to cover our embarrassingly deep feelings for each other. Neither one of us was very good at feelings. At least not our own.
Neddie hummed when she was thinking, an annoying habit she’d retained from our early years on campus.
“If you ever got your nose out of medical journals,” I said, stretching my long frame out to its full five feet ten, “you’d recognize that in a heartbeat.”
I rose up on my elbows and checked the gently rolling Atlantic. Hilton Head Island sits sheltered in the wide curve at the bottom of South Carolina’s meandering coastline. It’s a lousy place for surfing, but hurricanes tend to slide on by us and slam the poor folks on the Outer Banks to our north. Even Kitty, which had come way too close for comfort the previous month, had done us relatively minor damage.
“Give up?” I asked around a swallow of tepid tea.
“No, I don’t give up.” Neddie’s hand fumbled in her beach bag, and I swung my legs
over the side of the chaise.
“Oh, no you don’t! Put that phone down. Googling is not allowed. The Judge would have a cow.”
My father, Judge Talbot Simpson, and I had played a similar game with quotations, points being awarded for a correct citation of both author and source. His recent death had left a void in my life that had surprised me with its depth. Our old antebellum mansion on St. Helena Island just off Beaufort had become the repository of both my late mother’s horde of antiques and generations of family junk as well as a hollow place of both terrible and wonderful memories. Only the comforting presence of our longtime housekeeper, Lavinia Smalls, made my visits home bearable.
And the reason for my need of Neddie’s professional advice.
“Rebecca. Daphne Du Maurier. It’s a classic gothic mystery,” I said, mostly to move things along.
“Trust you to come up with something gory. Next time I get to pick the category. Famous first lines is too obscure.”
I let it go and turned to face her. “Listen, I need to ask you something.”
Without even glancing my way, she said, “I know. You hardly ever call me unless you’re in trouble.”
That stopped me, mostly because she had a point. I wiped a drop of sweat from the end of my nose and stared over her shoulder at a flock of pelicans riding the soft breeze in loose formation.
Neddie let the silence linger a moment before she said, “Julia?”
The mention of my half-sister sent shivers dancing along my spine, in spite of the warmth of the autumn sun. “Yes,” I said softly. “What do you think?”
“Damn it, Neddie, you know about what.”
I had hoped she wouldn’t make me spell it out. My poor sister, her intellectual development stunted by a horrifying trauma that touched too close to home, seemed not to have progressed much beyond that of a ten-year-old. She had been cared for by her late mother’s best friend for decades in an old rice plantation outside Jacksonboro on the Charleston road. But time and financial worries had worn down the aging Elizabeth Shelly, and a few weeks after our brush with Hurricane Kitty, she and Julia had come to live at Presqu’isle, my old family home.
Where, just a few days later, Elizabeth had tumbled down the grand staircase. To her death.
“You’re going to make me say it, aren’t you?”
“Look at me.” She pulled her sunglasses down to the end of her nose and studied my face. “If I seriously thought Julia had anything to do with Miss Lizzie’s accident, don’t you think I would have said something already?” When I didn’t immediately respond, she added, “Don’t you?” with a flash of anger in her dark green eyes.
“She’s changed.” I squirmed a little and dropped my gaze. “Julia, I mean. Haven’t you noticed?”
The sigh was a combination of indulgence and annoyance.
“Of course I’ve noticed. She’s much more relaxed. She and Lavinia seem to be getting on well, and I’m hopeful she’s going to continue to make progress with her PTSD. Give it some time, Bay. She’s undoubtedly, in her own way, still mourning her loss.”
I resisted the urge to fire back. Sorrow was not the look I’d seen on my sister’s face as she spied on me from the doorway into the attics. Self-satisfied would have been more accurate, at least in my estimation. But Neddie was the expert. And I trusted her. Mostly.
“I worry about Lavinia,” I whispered, startled to hear myself actually put it into words.
“Bay, listen to me. This is crazy, and that’s not a word I throw around lightly. Julia loved her Miss Lizzie. She may not have been able to articulate her feelings properly, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. You’ve seen her with Lavinia the past few weeks. I’d say those two have bonded pretty well, under the circumstances.”
She paused, and I knew she expected me to validate what she’d just said. Hell, I hadn’t spent all those dorm years cooped up with a psych major without picking up some of the jargon, even though I had a difficult time buying into a lot of it.
Neddie’s voice dropped. “Are you sure there’s not a little jealousy thing going on here? After all, you’ve had Lavinia to yourself for a long time now.”
I could feel my anger boiling, a hard knot in the center of my chest, and it took considerable effort to speak calmly. “I’m not even going to dignify that with an answer.”
“Okay, okay. Maybe I’m out of line there. Occupational hazard. Look, honey, I don’t know how you got fixated on this notion that Julia is somehow responsible for Miss Lizzie’s death, but you need to put it out of your head. Your sister needs you. You’re the only living relative she has left.”
That stung. In a strange twist of karma or fate or whatever, my mother had been at least marginally responsible for the death of Julia’s and the trauma that had trapped my half-sister’s childish personality in a middle-aged woman’s body. Not to mention our mutual straight-arrow father who had slipped off his charger big time all those years ago. When I laid it out like that, it sounded like some tacky Southern soap opera, and I was in it up to my eyeballs, like it or not.
Without making a conscious decision, I jumped up and slid my feet into my beach sandals. “I have to go.”
“Oh, come on, Bay, don’t get pissy on me. You wanted my professional opinion, and I’m giving it to you. Lighten up and try to establish a good relationship with Julia. I’ll keep seeing her, and I think you’ll be amazed at how much progress she makes over the next few months. At least give her a chance.”
Put like that, I didn’t seem to have much choice. But my misgivings and suspicions were going to be a long time receding. Neddie hadn’t seen Julia’s face in the half-light of the attic or that cat-that-ate-the-canary smile. I’d back off, but I would keep my eyes open.
“I’ll try,” I said, stuffing the towel into my bag and hefting it onto my shoulder. “Thanks for listening. Your new condo is fabulous, by the way. I’ll call you.”
Without waiting for a reply, I slogged through the small strip of loose sand back toward the tall building that housed Neddie’s fourth-floor hideaway with the spectacular view of the Atlantic. Originally, she had planned it as an occasional weekend pied-à-terre, but her stays had gotten longer and longer. Good for me, as it made it easy for her to drive over to Presqu’isle, mooch a meal from Lavinia, and spend her allotted hour with Julia. Driving into Savannah wasn’t my favorite outdoor sport, especially with my phobia about suspension bridges.
I tossed my bag into the back of the Jaguar and changed into un-sandy shoes. As I slipped behind the wheel, I spotted the envelope, the same pale blue as the previous ones. I flung open the door, reached out, and snatched it from beneath the windshield wiper.
I’d shown the first one to Neddie, expecting her to laugh and come out with something like, “Oooooo, a secret admirer!” Instead, she’d looked at it for a long while, chewing on her bottom lip before handing it back to me.
“Creepy,” she’d said. “Any idea who it’s from?”
“Not a clue.”
“Has Red seen it?”
My husband, employee, and former sheriff’s deputy has a great sense of humor but a low tolerance for anything that remotely threatens our sometimes shaky relationship. I was pretty certain I didn’t want to open that particular can of worms with him.
Neddie had seen my point, cautioning me to be careful.
“You don’t think this is anything to be concerned about, do you? I mean, really, it’s just some goofball playing games, right?”
“Maybe,” she’d said, “but don’t make assumptions. There are some serious weirdoes out there. You of all people should know that. Just keep your eyes open.”
I’d sloughed it off, only marginally more aggravated when the second one appeared just a week later. I’d been trying to track down a deadbeat father, and the search had led me to an office building just off New Orleans Road. It wasn’t one of my usual destinations, so it occurred to me that this creep had to have followed me. I’d checked the parking lot, looking for a familiar vehicle, but nothing clicked.
Now he’d found me at Neddie’s condo. I looked over the top of the Jag to survey my surroundings, mostly high-end imports and SUVs scattered among the palms and lush landscaping. If anyone sat waiting to observe my reaction, I couldn’t spot him. I slid back into the car and tossed the envelope on the seat beside me. If he was out there somewhere, watching, I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing me read his latest drivel.
As I moved sedately out of the parking lot, my phone beeped.
“Hey, it’s me, which you’d know if you bothered to check Caller ID.”
Erik Whiteside, my partner in the inquiry agency, was a confirmed and unrepentant geek. Lucky for me, as anything more complicated than a microwave tended to tax my extremely limited techno-skills.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. What’s up?”
“New client. From Atlanta. Stephanie took the call. He’s going to be in town for a couple of days. Are you and Red still on sabbatical, or do you want in?”
My husband and I had planned to take a few days off, maybe head up toward the mountains to do some gawking at the fall foliage. Our last case had put a bullet through his arm. Maybe it wasn’t exactly the right time, what with Miss Lizzie’s death and all, but I felt an overwhelming need to escape, just for a while. I had confidence Erik and his fiancée Stephanie Wyler could handle things while we were gone.
With me it was always the puzzle, the challenge. I left the more routine and mundane to the others, including my husband. Red had recently joined us after retiring from the Beaufort County Sheriff’s department, and he regularly rode me about my penchant for danger and mayhem.
“I’m not completely sure. Steph said it’s about his uncle and some beach property.”
“Sounds as if he needs an attorney.”
“Strangely enough, he is one. Hubbard—‘Call me Hub’—Danforth. I’m not sure exactly what he wants us to do, but it will involve surveillance and reporting. I think we can handle it.”
The name, in light of Neddie’s and my recent battle of the opening lines, made me smile. Not exactly Danvers, but close enough. Maybe it was an omen. Or not. Sometimes life is just strange that way.
“Okay. I’ll let you know where we’ll be. Call if you need us.”
I hung up and pulled out onto the narrow pavement. I turned right at the light onto William Hilton Parkway, known to locals simply as 278, and headed for home. I spared a moment to feel bad about how abruptly I’d bailed on Neddie, but I knew what I knew. Maybe being out of town for a few days wasn’t such a good idea.
Lavinia Smalls was my last connection to my childhood.
I didn’t intend to lose her, too.