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A Bay Tanner Mystery
(13th in the series)
Author: Kathryn R. Wall
I didn't recognize
the name that had appeared overnight in the 2PM slot in Monday's
electronic calendar: Sylvie Reynaud. Exotic. Obviously French,
I thought. My late mother's roots could be traced back to the early Huguenot
migration to the South Carolina coast, and our antebellum home on St.
Helena Island just off Beaufort is named Presqu'isle, so I had some background.
Later, I felt a little embarrassed that I hadn't
made the connection immediately.
At the time, however, the appointment simply seemed
an annoyance, another example of the Universe piling on. I guess I should
have expected it since my life had been purring along quite well of late,
thank you very much. My husband's ex-wife had successfully completed her
round of chemo with very hopeful results, so things were sort of back
to normal for his two kids. Their weekend visits had resumed, with a lot
of the tension having eased over the past couple of months.
After the defection of Stephanie Wyler the previous
fall, Simpson & Tanner, Inquiry Agents had been prospering, relatively
speaking, on a number of fronts. Our clients had been mostly white-collar
or institutional, a little boring sometimes, but also devoid of anything
resembling danger. I figured that would make my partner Erik Whiteside
very happy, not to mention my husband and somewhat reluctant employee.
As a former sheriff's officer, Red had had his fill of drug deals, Saturday
night bar brawls, and the general mayhem created by the annual influx
of over two million tourists to our home base, Hilton Head Island.
On that particular Monday morning, Red and I had
arrived together as we usually did, although in separate cars. It often
fell to my husband to do the legwork if a case required it, so we tried
to make sure we were both mobile at any given moment.
Sharese Thomason, our new receptionist, greeted
us with her customary pleasant smile and steaming cups of caffeine. When
Stephanie had suddenly bolted to Arizona, Sharese's had been the first
name that popped into my head. I'd encountered her working at a bank that
employed a teller who had come under scrutiny in the disappearance of
one of our clients. I'd been impressed with her appearance and demeanor,
and it hadn't taken much to woo her away from a job that, at least on
the surface, had appeared both boring and unchallenging.
I smiled back and picked up my chai tea latte.
"Good morning." I took a sip, realized it was still terrifically
hot, and headed for my office.
"Good morning, Mrs. Tanner. Sergeant."
Sharese felt Red's former title a suitable one
for his position in the firm, I guessed, and she used it unfailingly.
"How was your weekend?" My husband always
stopped to chat, inquiring about our new employee's boyfriend, an earnest
young man we'd met on a couple of occasions. He was just finishing his
business degree at the USC campus at New River, out on the highway between
Hilton Head and Beaufort, and a summer wedding had been hinted at. Providing
he found a job after graduation, a dicey proposition in these challenging
"Fine. Byron needed to work on a paper, so
we just hung around his condo. At least it was warm enough for me to get
in a nice long walk on the beach."
"Good for you. It's been a nasty winter."
Red followed me into the office and settled on
one of the client chairs. A few seconds later, Erik wandered in and took
up residence on the other.
"How're you doing?" I always asked,
although I could tell that Stephanie's desertion still weighed heavily
on him. Lanky and thin by nature, Erik had lost some weight he couldn't
afford along with the ready smile that had always seemed a large part
of his boyish charm.
He shrugged. "Okay, I guess. Played tennis
most of the weekend. A couple of guys I knew in Charlotte were down visiting,
so we batted it around a little. Nothing special."
Besides being our receptionist and part-time operativenot
to mention the daughter of my late partner Ben WylerStephanie had
also been Erik's fiancée. Even after all these months, he still
hadn't recovered. I'd counseled him to give her time, but as far as I
could tell, she had yet to be in touch. Other than to return the ring,
an act of honesty that gave me hope.
I mentally shook myself and turned on my iPad,
a Christmas gift from Red. Being a confirmed technophobe, I had at first
resisted. It had taken me only a couple of days to fall madly in love
with the little gadget in a way I never had with my laptop or smart phone.
That's when I noticed the appointment that had been added to my calendar
app. It for sure hadn't been there on Friday, the last time I'd allowed
business to intrude.
I buzzed the front desk.
"Who's this Sylvie Reynaud, my two o'clock?"
"Oh, sorry, I meant to tell you about that
the moment you walked in. She left a message with the service, and I picked
it up first thing this morning. She sounded pretty upset, and you didn't
have anything scheduled, so I just slotted her in." A pause. "I
hope that was okay."
I sighed. I'd planned to put in an appearance
and then head up to Presqu'isle. I'd had a very unsatisfactory conversation
with Lavinia Smalls, my caregiver since childhood and now the old mansion's
sole resident. Except of course for Julia, but that was another story
entirely. Our weekly Sunday chat had been strained, and the lump of anxiety
that never wandered far from the center of my chest had slipped easily
back into place the moment I hung up the phone.
Still, business was business, as my late father
the Judge had often reminded me. We had founded the agency together, more
as a lark than as a serious endeavor, but it had quickly become a source
of livelihood for both Erik and Stephanie. And now Red and Sharese. Our
reputation for integrity had been hard-won, and we gave every case we
accepted our full effort and commitment. Even the ones I secretly wanted
to slither out from under.
"She couldn't come in any earlier? I had
plans to be out of the office this afternoon."
"I can call and ask. She left her cell number."
I glanced at my watch. "Yes, do that, would
you please? If she could make it before noon that would be great."
"I'll call her now."
"Thanks." I turned to the men waiting
patiently in front of my desk. "How about you two? Anything shaking?"
Erik forced a tentative smile. "I'm still
working on collating the information for the women's shelter's attorneys.
Roy Don Rymer's trial starts next week."
The wife beater, abuser of his own children. I'd
been so pleased when Erik's computer skills had enabled him to backtrack
the threatening emails to this moron's home computer. Almost simultaneously,
Rymer had confronted the shelter's founder, demanding to know where she
had hidden his family. Having 911 on speed dial had probably saved the
woman from a beating of her own, and prompt response from the Beaufort
police had put the slimeball behind bars. Erik's testimony would cement
the case against him, and he'd at least go down for menacing and some
as yet unspecified computer crimes. Certainly not anywhere near what he
deserved, but maybe it would give his wife and children some breathing
space, a chance to relocate while Rymer cooled his heels in jail.
"If you need help, you know you can call
on Sharese. She certainly isn't in your league when it comes to the cyber
stuff, but she's a whiz on the keyboard." I cut off what I knew would
be some reference to his vanished fiancée. "I know she's not
as good as Stephanie, but you need to give her a chance, Erik. We're paying
her good money. You might as well make use of the skills she brings to
"You're right," he mumbled. "Anything
"I guess not."
With a nod, he rose and moved back toward the
screen that provided him some privacy from the comings and goings in the
main reception area. One of these days, I thought, watching his bent shoulders,
he's going to have to get over her. I voiced as much to my husband once
Erik was out of earshot.
"Give him time."
"He's had time. That was November, and it's
nearly St. Patrick's Day. I don't think she's coming back." Red didn't
respond. "Do you?"
"Probably not. But hope dies hard."
He smiled up at me. "As it should."
I knew his reference was to his own dogged pursuit
of me after his brothermy first husbandwas murdered by the
drug cartel he'd been investigating for the state attorney general's office.
Sometimes the vivid nightmare of his plane exploding on takeoff, showering
me with hot metal and anguish, seemed as real as the day it happened.
"I suppose. But I miss the old Erik. He has
to force himself to smile. It makes me sad."
Red reached across the desk and took my hand.
I squeezed back, glad of his understanding.
"I'm going to head out in a few minutes,"
he said. "I'm meeting Malik for coffee when he takes his break, see
if he's come up with anything on that guy we're trying to run down for
"The gardener? I was hoping she'd decided
to let it go. I told her she's going to end up spending more on our fees
than he supposedly took out of her wallet."
"You're not convinced it was even him, are
you?" My husband ran a hand through his thick brown hair in an unconscious
gesture that always reminded me of his dead brother.
"Nope. You haven't met her son. Or his friends."
"Well, you could be right, but there's no
way she's going to accuse Junior. Much easier to try and nail the Hispanic
laborer than her snotty kid."
"Let's just drop the case. I don't much like
My husband laughed. "Really? I'd never have
I returned his smile. "I get that we don't
have to like the client. My rule, if you recall. There's just .
. . something sort of smarmy about her, know what I mean? She's perfectly
willing to lay the blame on some poor working guy when the problem is
almost certainly closer to home. You said the kid's been in trouble before."
"According to Malik. That's one of the reasons
the sheriff has been dragging his feet a little about trying to locate
the gardener. But you know what they say: Money talks and bull"
Red bit off the rest at Sharese's sudden appearance.
"Sorry to interrupt, but I have Ms. Reynaud
on the line. She wants to know if she can come right now."
I checked my watch. Even if it took an hour, I
could still get to Presqu'isle by early afternoon. Maybe I could even
mooch lunch from Lavinia.
"Fine. Tell her to come on in."
Red and I exchanged a grin as Sharese returned
to her desk.
"I hate being called ma'am. It makes
me feel about a hundred years old."
"What can you do? Her mama raised her right."
He rose. "Anyway, I'll see you later on. If we don't make connections,
I'll be home probably before you are. What's happening for dinner?"
"Your call," I said, stacking the file
folders on my desk into a couple of neat piles. "Surprise me."
"Be careful what you wish for," he said
and waved on his way out.
At least that part of my life was back on track.
I spared a moment to think about what I might find at Presqu'isle, then
shoved that into one of my convenient mental compartments when the front
door opened. I caught a glimpse of a tall, willowy woman in baggy cotton
trousers, a brightly jeweled T-shirt, and sparkling gold flip-flops. A
mane of startling red hair cascaded down her back as she turned to close
the door behind her.
She must have been lurking in the parking lot,
I thought, and leaned back in my chair.
"Sylvie Reynaud for Mrs. Tanner."
"Of . . . of course," Sharese replied
Who was this woman that the voice of my usually
imperturbable receptionist should be quivering in . . . fear? Awe? I craned
my head a little, trying to see without being seen, when Sharese stepped
into my line of vision.
"Mrs. Tanner, your appointment is here. Shall?"
The tall redhead expertly inched her way past
and displaced Sharese in the doorway. I opened my mouth to protest her
rudeness when she stopped me in my tracks.
"Hey, Bay Rum, what's shakin'?"
A hearty laugh followed, one that took me back
a few decades. To middle school. To three or four gawky preteens huddled
in the girls' bathroom, sharing a forbidden cigarette.
For a moment, I refused to believe this exotic
creature filling my doorway could be
"Pudge?" I almost couldn't get the word
out, it seemed so impossible.
"In the flesh. And a lot less of it than
the last time I saw you, n'est-ce pas?"
And Sylvia Reynolds, aka Pudge, apparently also
aka Sylvie Reynaud, pirouetted once, then plopped into the client chair.
Sara Paretsky, and Marcia Muller come to mind as the quintessential writers
of the modern female private eye novel. Wall, in a quiet and unassuming
way, has produced a body of work of equal quality. Highly recommended."