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04 Lowcountry Bordello

By´╝ÜSusan M Boyer


The dead are not altogether reliable. Colleen, my best friend, calls herself a Guardian Spirit. I can’t argue with the facts at hand: She’s been dead seventeen years, and she watches my back. I’m a private investigator, so situations arise from time to time wherein my back needs watching. Technically, Colleen’s afterlife mission is to protect Stella Maris, our island home near Charleston, South Carolina, from developers and all such as that. Since I’m on the town council and can’t abide the notion of condos and time-shares on our pristine beaches, protecting me falls under her purview.

Solving my cases, however, does not. She’ll tell me that in a skinny minute should I happen to mention how she could be more helpful. But she has been known to toss me the occasional insight from beyond that provokes a train of thought, which, upon reflection, proves useful. Here’s the thing: Colleen shows up when she detects I’m in danger. Sometimes she warns me in advance. Occasionally she drops by just to chat. But she doesn’t come whenever I think of her or call her name. It rarely works like that.

One Monday in December, I really could’ve used Colleen’s perspective. We were closing in on Christmas, and I was getting married on the twentieth—in five days. I was a teensy bit distracted, is what I’m saying.

It was a little after ten in the morning, and I was at my desk in the living room of my beachfront house, which doubles as my office. I was deep into research on a criminal case Nate, my partner and fiancé, and I were working for Andy Savage. Andy was a high-profile Charleston attorney, and while this case didn’t amount to much more than fact-checking, we hoped it would lead to a lucrative relationship for Talbot and Andrews, our agency.

I stared at my computer screen and reached for one of Mamma’s Christmas cookies. My phone trilled out the ringtone named Old Phone. Old Phone was reserved for old friends. I grabbed my phone instead of the cookie.

Robert Pearson. He’d been a year ahead of me in high school, the same age as my brother, Blake. He’d married one of my best friends. Robert was also our family attorney, and he and I were both on the Stella Maris town council.

I tapped the green “accept” button.

After we exchanged the usual pleasantries, he said, “I wondered, if you’re not too busy, could you drop by this afternoon? There’s something I want to run by you.”

“I have an appointment at one that’s going to take most of the afternoon.”

Multi-toned highlights are a maintenance issue, especially with hair as long as mine. My natural sandy blond would turn Tweety Bird yellow if Dori looked at it wrong. She always took her time, but five days before my wedding she’d be excruciatingly meticulous. I couldn’t walk down the aisle with yellow hair.

“Noon?” he asked.

“Sure. See you then.”

“Thanks, Liz. I really appreciate it.” He sounded way too grateful for such an ordinary request. This is what should’ve tipped me off that something was up.

Stella Maris has a lovely park right in the middle of town. Main Street and Palmetto Boulevard, the island’s two main thoroughfares, both spill into a traffic circle that borders the park. Robert’s office was in the professional building on one side of the traffic circle, next to the courthouse. It was unusual for both his receptionist and his paralegal to be out, but when I walked into the reception area, no one was there except the three-foot-tall Santa Claus by the Christmas tree. LeAnn Rimes’s remake of “Hard Candy Christmas” played through the office sound system.

“Robert?” I walked towards his private office. The door was closed.

“Coming.” Footsteps. The door swung open. “Sorry about that. Everyone’s at lunch. Come in. Have a seat.” He made his way back to the other side of his massive desk, settled into his chair, and leaned forward, hands clasped on his desk. Robert was a good-looking man—chiseled face, brown hair, blue eyes, and a movie star smile. The smile was absent today.

I made myself comfortable in one of his guest chairs. “What’s up?”

His eyes closed for a moment, then popped open and locked onto mine. “I need to retain you.” The words tumbled quickly out of his mouth, like they had to escape before he lost his nerve.

A thousand things went through my head. I’d known for years that Robert, who was probably in the dictionary under “upstanding citizen,” was hiding something contrary to everything I knew about him. Something that might’ve made him vulnerable to blackmail. I’d dug into his affairs back when I was working my Gram’s murder but had never found anything. I was all atingle with excitement.