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Party & Signing
Oct. 29, 2013
Jump & Phil's
Hilton Head Plaza
Hilton Head, SC
Barnes & Noble
20 Hatton Place Suite 200
Hilton Head Island, SC
A Bay Tanner Mystery
(12th in the series)
Author: Kathryn R. Wall
"'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 psychologistand
one of my oldest friendsshe was pretty quick to spot bullshit, especially
"'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
And the reason for my need of Neddie's professional
"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.
"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
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
"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
"You don't think this is anything to be concerned
about, do you? I mean, really, it's just some goofball playing games,
"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
"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
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
"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
"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.
Kathryn R. Wall