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A Bay Tanner Mystery
By Kathryn R. Wall
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Kathryn R. Wall
All rights reserved.
I had no idea when we set up our informal inquiry agency that one of the first clients my father and I would have would be one of my own shirttail relations. Life is strange that way sometimes, or so I've found.
Mercer Mary Prescott had the relationship down pat, from each third and fourth cousin by marriage twice removed, back through an incredible tangle of ancestors, all the way to our mutual great-great-something grandmothers who were half sisters. At least I think that's how it went. She lost me somewhere after the second "great," and I decided then and there I'd just take her word for it.
It was certainly hard to believe, looking at her through the glass partition that rainy afternoon in mid-November, that we could be related by any but the most tenuous of blood connections. Huddled in the too-big orange jumpsuit that leached any remaining color from her already sallow skin, Mercer Mary Prescott resembled nothing so much as a bedraggled owl. Muddy brown eyes, magnified by a pair of functional drugstore glasses mended on the left temple with grungy adhesive tape, made brief contact with my own bright green ones, then slid guiltily away. Poker-straight hair — dirty blond in both senses of the word — was pulled back with a thick rubber band into a drooping ponytail, and her nails, on surprisingly long, tapered fingers, were bitten down to the skin.
She did have a sweet smile, or so it seemed in the one brief flash I'd seen of it when I first strode into the visitors' room at the Beaufort County Jail. The effect was ruined, however, by the yellowing, purplish bruise mottling the left side of her narrow chin. Mercer Mary Prescott had said little beyond her recitation of our common lineage, an attempt to explain, no doubt, why she used her one allotted telephone call to reach my father. About her injury she remained stubbornly mute.
"Look, Mercer," I said as she attacked her already shredded fingers. "I don't understand what else you expect me to do. I've called a local attorney, a friend of my father's, and he should be here soon. If bail is granted, I'm sure the Judge and I would be happy to help you out. You being family and all," I added with a touch of sarcasm that seemed completely lost on the child.
"Oh, no, Cousin Lydia, please!" It was the first sign of animation I'd seen out of her since she'd stopped spouting her genealogical mumbo jumbo. "I won't mind it here, truly I won't! I'll probably have a cell to myself, and the food is bound to be good. I've been in worse places."
"Recently?" I blurted out, then mentally kicked myself.
What is your problem? I demanded silently and could find no reasonable explanation for this instinctive antagonism toward my newly met cousin.
"And no one calls me Lydia anymore," I plunged on, consciously softening my tone, "at least not since my mother died. It's 'Bay' now."
Somewhere in elementary school I had abandoned the burden of Lydia Baynard Simpson for the sleek simplicity of Bay. The Tanner was added after a short, love-at-first-sight courtship led to nearly a decade and a half of solid marital bliss, cut short over a year ago by my husband's yet unsolved murder. Dealing with Rob's death was a daily exercise in self-control and acceptance. Some days the pain receded to a dull ache just behind my breastbone. On others ...
Mercer sat quietly, her chin dropped so low I found myself staring at the crooked part on the top of her head.
"So why did you call us then? And what are you in for, anyway?"
Maybe I would have to revise my generous offer of bail money if she'd been accused of an ax murder or something equally reprehensible. Besides, I was getting tired of badgering her. The dull afternoon was fast fading into twilight, and I didn't relish the thought of navigating the narrow, two-lane road back to Hilton Head Island on such a rainy, miserable night. I wanted out of there, family duty be damned.
"Mercer?" I tried hard for patience. "What did you do?"
"Vagrancy," she finally mumbled into her chest.
"Vagrancy? You mean you were sleeping in the street or on a park bench or something like that? Why? Where are your parents, for God's sake?"
I didn't get an answer to any of my questions, at least not then.
"Time's up, ladies." The guard was a deputy I didn't recognize, even though my brother-in-law, Sergeant Red Tanner, had introduced me over the years to many of his colleagues in the Beaufort County Sheriff's Department. This guy probably worked for the city police, who, now that I thought about it, no doubt had jurisdiction. Our county was still peaceful enough that everyone shared the same jail.
I bristled a little at his remark until I registered his soft brown eyes and realized he had meant no disrespect. Mercer Mary Prescott might look like trailer trash, but our great-great-whatever grandmothers had been half sisters, and I would demand she be treated accordingly. "Miss Prescott's attorney will be along shortly," I informed him. "He'll want to speak to his client."
"No problem, ma'am," the deputy said, as Mercer and I both rose in our chairs. I felt a rush of relief that mine was on the right side of the partition.
"I'll wait around and see about your bail," I said, looking down on my newfound relative. At just under six feet I towered over the diminutive young woman, who couldn't have been much over five feet three inches even if she stood up straight.
"Not much chance of that, ma'am," the deputy interjected, "beggin' your pardon. Judge Pinckney's up in Columbia today at some conference, and he isn't expected back until tomorrow."
Being the daughter of retired Judge Talbot Simpson, I've kind of gotten used to throwing his weight around. Crippled by a series of debilitating strokes, my father has been confined to a wheelchair for the past several years. Despite an almost pathological fear of being pitied, which has kept him housebound as well, his power remains undimmed in local jurisprudence circles. There isn't a member of the northern Beaufort County bar or bench who hasn't at one time or another shared whiskey and cigars around his poker table, or shucked oysters on our back dock, or fidgeted through one of my mother's interminable formal dinner parties. The same went for law enforcement. If my father couldn't ultimately bust Mercer Mary Prescott out of jail with a couple of judiciously placed phone calls, I'd be very much surprised.
"We'll see about that," I began, but Mercer cut me off.
"It's okay, really, Cousin ... Bay. Tomorrow will be fine. I really don't mind staying here tonight. I don't want to be a burden to anyone." She looked almost panicked at the thought of getting out of jail.
What did this poor, bedraggled child think? — that I would spring her from the slammer and toss her back out into the street? Had I made that bad an impression?
"Let's wait and see what Law Merriweather has to say," I replied, certain my father's old friend could arrange it somehow so I could just pay her fine and whisk Cousin Mercer back to Presqu'isle. Lavinia Smalls, my father's housekeeper-companion and the woman who, for better or worse, had been primarily responsible for rearing me, would bluster and shake an accusing brown finger at me, complaining about unexpected guests in the old antebellum mansion where I grew up. But in the end she would attack this problem as she did most others — with food and herbal tea and a deep compassion for those in need.
I could dump this problem on Lavinia and my father and retreat back to my beach house on Hilton Head with only a slightly muddy conscience.
Mercer Mary Prescott nodded, apparently used to taking as an order any suggestion made by someone who spoke with the least degree of authority. "Thank you," I saw her mouth over her shoulder as the deputy led her away. Even he seemed to recognize her frailty, guiding her by a hand placed gently under her scrawny elbow.
I wove my way down the halls and out into the gloomy darkness settling over the covered walkway outside the jail. The wind had switched around to the northeast, coming straight in off the ocean now, forcing me to zip up the battered leather aviator jacket I had pulled from Rob's closet. As I shoved my hands into the deep, warm pockets, I promised myself I would get his things cleaned out. Soon.
The fingers of my right hand fondled the loose cigarette, the last of my daily allotment of ten. Trying to quit was a mountain I was only partly sure I wanted to climb, but every exercise in self-control was another foothold up the slope. I inhaled a lungful of damp night air and peeled the foil from a piece of nicotine-replacement gum. I grimaced at the sharp peppery taste, then tucked it against the inside of my cheek. As I waited for the familiar comfort of nicotine hitting my needy bloodstream, I wondered who had left that long, ugly bruise on Cousin Mercer Mary Prescott. And why.
The old house lay shrouded in mist, the light from its windows muted in the steady, dreary downpour, as we emerged from the long avenue of live oaks which had once been the main drive up to the plantation great house. The magnificent trees, whose dark leaves and gray clumps of Spanish moss usually provided a welcome canopy against the oppressive heat of the South Carolina Lowcountry, now dripped heavily from the assault of two straight days of relentless rain.
I spared a glance at Mercer, huddled in the bucket seat of my BMW, as I negotiated the squishy mud road in my low-slung sports car. I am firmly convinced that many of these same potholes I was weaving my way around have existed since horses and carriages first picked their way up to Presqu'isle a hundred and fifty years before.
My cousin had been strangely quiet on the short drive from the jailhouse to the Judge's home on St. Helena. She'd shown little emotion when Law Merriweather emerged from a brief conference, which had included the expected phone call from my father, to announce that she would be released into our custody until such time as Judge Pinckney returned.
Mercer Mary Prescott disappointed me by her lack of response to her first view of the ancestral homestead, a house most viewed as one of the finest examples of antebellum architecture on the South Carolina — Georgia coast. Built high off the ground on an arched foundation of lime-and-oyster-shell tabby, the split central staircase and wide, columned verandah gave the solid old place a touch of elegance without the ostentation so typical in other structures of the period. Its location on a spit of land jutting out into St. Helena Sound had given my Huguenot ancestors the inspiration for its name: Presqu'isle, French for peninsula.
I pulled up into the circular drive at the foot of the steps and turned to Mercer. "Legend has it this is pretty close to the spot where Francisco Gardillo first waded ashore and claimed the island for Spain," I said, hoping to engage her in what appeared to be the only subject in which she had any interest. "It was August ..."
"The eighteenth," she provided without looking at me, her voice so low I could barely hear her, "in 1520. St. Helen's Day, which is why he named the island St. Helena. In her honor."
I whipped open the door and reached for Mercer's battered duffel bag jammed behind her seat on the rear floor, but she beat me to it. It was the one thing about which she exhibited any real emotion, insisting on carrying it herself. It would be a relief to get the thing out of my car. Hopefully the sour odor of unwashed socks and overripe fruit wouldn't linger on the upholstery.
Lavinia must have been watching for us. As we dashed through the rain and up the steps, the heavy oak door swung open, spilling welcoming light out onto the dark recesses of the verandah. Mercer, following my lead, wiped off her scruffy Keds on the welcome mat before stepping gratefully into the wide center hall.
I tried to see the place through her newcomer's eyes: the sweeping staircase, its oak banisters gleaming, as it curved gently to the upper story and its many bedrooms; the heart pine floor scattered with genuine Persian rugs; the glass-fronted cabinets displaying my mother's precious antiques. I had no real emotional attachment, either to the house or to its contents, the museumlike sterility of it having contributed to my less than idyllic childhood. But I have to admit to a fleeting flash of pride watching Mercer's dull brown eyes take in all that splendor as she stood dripping in the front hall.
"Come along, child," Lavinia commanded in that voice that brooked no opposition. "We need to get you out of those wet things."
Recognizing an irresistible force when she encountered one, Mercer allowed Lavinia Smalls to relieve her of the drab green duffel bag, then followed meekly up the stairs.
"The Judge is waiting for you in his study," Lavinia called over her shoulder to me. "And don't give him a cigar. He's already had one today. Dinner will be ready in half an hour."
"Yes, ma'am," I answered meekly.
Lavinia Smalls had been a permanent fixture in my life for as long as I could remember. She and my late mother had maintained an oddly formal relationship, always excruciatingly polite, referring to each other as Mrs. Simpson and Mrs. Smalls, despite the fact that each knew the other intimately, warts and all. Amid the chaos that was my early life at Presqu'isle, I don't think I would have survived without Lavinia's calm, unflinching presence and staunch defense against my mother's erratic behavior.
I turned toward the rear of the house and went to join my father.
After his second stroke left him partially paralyzed, we had turned his former study into a bedroom suite, complete with wheelchair-accessible bathroom and a ramp to the back verandah so he could wheel himself outside on fine days. The view out across the Sound was magnificent, and the wide lawn rolled down to a narrow salt marsh that provided a communal gathering place for all manner of wading and shore birds. It was one of the most peaceful spots in the whole of the Lowcountry. I had done some of my best thinking out there, curled up in a weathered rocker, gazing out toward the sea.
I felt the warmth at about the same time I smelled the sweet, fruity smoke drifting out of the Judge's room. Lavinia must have laid a fire in the narrow, brick-fronted hearth. Although almost every room in the house, including the kitchen and the bedrooms, had working fireplaces, we rarely had occasion to use them except on stormy November nights like this one.
My father's wheelchair sat in front of the flickering fire, and for a moment I thought he might have fallen asleep. His full head of thick white hair bent forward, as if he dozed, but I quickly realized by the motion of his one good hand that he was reading. Probably one of his legal thrillers, I thought, maneuvering around him to plop myself down in one of the wing chairs to the side of the hearth. He devoured them as fast as I could pick them up from the East Bay Book Emporium or the library, whichever could promise faster service.
But the papers spread out across the plaid lap robe covering his withered legs were not a bound, hardcover book. They were standard letter-size pages once held together by a length of coarse brown twine now curled in a heap on the floor. They appeared to have been written in a formal, dainty hand.
"Tea still warm?" I asked, indicating the blue-flowered pot resting on the butler's table near his elbow.
"Should be. Pour me one, too, will you, sweetheart?"
I retrieved another cup and saucer from the sideboard and poured, one finger resting lightly against the lid of the pot, as I had been instructed. Some of the most harrowing moments of my young life had been spent in attempting to master these maidenly skills under the ever-critical eye of my socially prominent mother. Emmaline Baynard Simpson would never have been convinced that my master's degrees in accounting and finance were as important to my future as how to pour properly from a centuries-old teapot into equally delicate and ancient, thin-handled cups.
Excerpted from Perdition House by Kathryn R. Wall. Copyright © 2003 Kathryn R. Wall. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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