Lowcountry Boil Excerpt
The dead are patient.
I know this firsthand. My best friend Colleen drowned in Breach Inlet the spring of our junior year in high school, and I didn’t hear a peep out of her until last March—a month after my thirty-first birthday. It was a Friday night, a few minutes past nine, and I had just chased a rabbit into Falls Park, in the West End of Greenville, South Carolina. The rabbit was fast, for one so big. At the foot of the rock steps that led down from the street, he darted under the Liberty Bridge. We’d had a cold snap, and while the sidewalks of downtown Greenville bustled with restaurant traffic, the park was deserted except for me, the rabbit, and my partner, Nate Andrews.
Nate stopped one level up and sprinted towards the bridge. He passed the rabbit, cut through a planting bed, and jumped off the rock retaining wall into the rabbit’s path. Nate raised his hands in a stop motion. “That’s far enough.”
The hare hesitated. He took a step towards me, and then glanced into the Reedy River. For a few seconds, we all listened to water rushing over rocks.
“Don’t be stupid,” I said.
Naturally, the rabbit pulled a gun.
He pointed it at me, then at Nate, waving it back and forth. “I’m not giving that bitch a dime.”
Nate said, “Hey, buddy, we don’t care.” He reached towards his jacket.
The rabbit lunged in Nate’s direction, pointing the gun like a sword.
Nate raised his hands.
While the rabbit was distracted, I grabbed my Sig Sauer 9 from the holster at the waistband of my jeans. “Put the gun down. Now,” I said, as though bored with the routine task of whipping out a nine mil. I wasn’t nearly as nonchalant as I sounded. It was rare for me to draw my weapon.
The rabbit swung back to me, waving what looked like a .38 caliber. “How ’bout you drop yours, blondie.”
Nate slipped his gun from his shoulder holster and pointed it at the rabbit’s foot. “You can’t shoot us both.”
The rabbit heaved his furry shoulders and burst into muffled sobs.
“Lower the gun, slowly,” I said. “Put it on the ground and step back.”
The bunny complied.
“Now take off the headpiece to that costume,” I said.
That evening, our subject had been playing Harvey in a local production of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play about a six-foot-three rabbit visible only to gentle soul Elwood P. Dowd.
Nate and I had staked out the theatre. We’d thought we’d be there another couple hours, but we caught a break when the rabbit stepped outside for a smoke. Harvey doesn’t get much stage time.
He pulled off his furry mask.
“Peter Tyler?” The rabbit’s name really was Peter. Once the mask was off, I knew it was him. His wife, our client, had given us a photo.
“Yes,” he spat. He wiped his cheeks with his paw.
Nate handed Peter the subpoena. “You’ve been served.”
I picked up his weapon, removed the bullets, and handed it back to him. “Have a nice evening.”
Peter sat heavily on the low rock wall and dropped his head in his hands.
When I walked towards the steps, my long-dead best friend Colleen appeared on the swing that hung from a trellis beneath the bridge. I stopped short. I almost didn’t recognize her. She looked fantastic, for a ghost. Her skin was clear and luminous, her long red hair a cascade of molten curls. She looked like a perfect version of herself, as if she’d spent a month at a high-dollar spa. But I’d known Colleen Stevens my entire life. It was her–-her funeral fourteen years earlier notwithstanding.
Tears pooled in her eyes. “Liz, come home.”
Nate walked up behind me. “Let’s grab a drink.”
“I think I need one.” I wasn’t ready just then to own the truth that Colleen’s presence signified.
“Come home,” Colleen repeated. Then she vanished.
I shuddered and blinked.
Nate and I climbed the steps to Main Street. A guitar player set up by the fountain was covering Amos Lee’s Arms of a Woman. Foot traffic was steady, and he’d drawn a small crowd. Nate and I waded through. We crossed the street and headed down to our favorite bar. The executive chef might object to my calling it a bar. The Mediterranean food was excellent, but for us it served as a neighborhood bar.
We settled into chairs at a table on the patio overlooking the Reedy River. Neither of us minded the chill, and my brain needed fresh air. I ordered pinot noir, Nate a Sam Adams.
I stared into space, wondering why in hell Colleen showed up in the park. I never questioned what I’d seen. I was born and raised on Stella Maris, a sea island near Charleston, South Carolina. If you grow up in the South Carolina Lowcountry, you’re generally tolerant of ghosts, haints, spirits, and the like. Charleston County has more supernatural entities per capita than anyplace else in the country. Still, a ghost I’d played Barbie dolls with shook me in a way that specters rattling around antebellum homes didn’t. I pondered what she might want from me. Ghosts haunt folks for a reason, right?
“Something about that guy bother you?” Nate asked.
“Peter? No, case closed. Why?”
The waitress laid down cocktail napkins and set our drinks on the table. When she stepped away, Nate said, “Something’s bothering you.”
Nate knew me well. For six years we’d sold information by way of discreet investigation out of our office, Talbot & Andrews, based in Greenville, South Carolina. Greenville is near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains—on the opposite corner of the state from Stella Maris. We interned with the same Greenville private investigator before opening our own agency. Nate wasn’t just my partner. He was my friend. I didn’t want to lie to him, but I wasn’t ready to tell him I was seeing ghosts. I shrugged.
Nate took a sip of his beer. “I thought since the guy was trying to screw his wife over, he’d dredged up unpleasant memories.”
I threw Nate my most dramatic oh puh-leeze look.
He drew back, looked away. “Sorry.”
I’ve never held it against Nate that his brother was my ex-husband, Scott the Scoundrel.
Scott owns a private equity firm that devours other companies for breakfast, has team-building meetings over lunch, screws one of their wives over cocktails, then fires half the team before dinner. He is the progeny of Satan, but disguises it behind a perfect smile and a good-ole-boy manner.
Nate is the same flavor of blond-haired-blue-eyed handsome, but Nate’s a good guy. We handled criminal defense cases, insurance fraud, and an endless variety of romantic indiscretions. We’d also been hired to do such sophisticated tasks as locate a trailer missing from a trailer park, determine who left an old goat grazing in a judge’s front yard, and track suspected UFOs.
We had bills to pay.
“It’s nothing,” I said.
Nate nodded and drank his beer. He knew I’d talk when I was ready. One of the things I loved best about Nate was that we could talk over a drink, or not.
I sipped my wine. Come home, Colleen had said. Home.
I’d built a life for myself in Greenville, four hours away from the island paradise that spawned me, where all the people who mattered most to me still lived. If you added up all the hours I spent trying to explain to my family how I could do that, I probably have years invested in justifying my presence in the Upstate.
After college, the reason was Scott’s budding career. After I saw through his polished veneer, discovered what I’d married and divorced him, I stayed because my own career was established. Those were the lies I told myself, anyway.
The dirty little truth was I stayed away because my cousin, Marci the Schemer, had tricked Michael Devlin into a train wreck of a marriage, and they still lived on Stella Maris.
Michael was the man I should have married. And you can bet your mamma’s pearls I would have married him had Marci not intervened. Stella Maris is a small town. The prospect of running into Michael and Marci at town picnics and Friday night football made me a little crazy. It was easier to live elsewhere and visit often. But Stella Maris would always be home.
Marimba music announced an incoming call on my iPhone. I pulled it out of my pocket and looked at the screen. My brother’s picture smiled back at me. I slid the arrow on the touch screen to the right and raised the phone to my ear. “Hey.”
“Liz,” Blake said. The tone of my name told me something was very wrong.
I sucked in a lungful of air. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Gram,” he said.
Someone turned down the volume on the world. A giant bird beat in my chest, trying to get out. I stood, ready for flight. “What? What?”
“Liz, she’s dead.”
Like everyone else, at first, I assumed it was an accident.