The dead are prone to secrecy. Eighteen years ago, my best friend Colleen took the outbound train to the next world. She’s seen behind the curtain, knows the answers to a great many questions. But since she’s been back in her role as guardian spirit, she can’t share this information with me. It’s against the rules, that’s what she tells me.
And then there are times when she keeps things to herself just for the pure-T fun of it—to toy with me. Colleen will be forever seventeen, the age she was that Friday night she drank tequila and went swimming in Breach Inlet. For all her insights into the universe, she won’t be getting more mature.
The morning I first laid eyes on Poppy Oliver, it was Colleen’s idea to eat at Toast on Meeting Street. It wasn’t unusual for Colleen to make restaurant recommendations. She enjoyed food more than you might imagine given that she’s passed on and all. At the time I didn’t give it much thought. But had my sister, Merry, and I chosen any other restaurant for brunch that morning, our paths would not have crossed Poppy’s, and a great many things might be different.
For weeks, Merry and I had planned on having brunch downtown before heading over to King Street for some shopping. She was in the midst of preparing for what our family had taken to calling Merry and Joe’s Excellent Wedding Adventure—a three-week trip to Patagonia from which they would return married. Our parents were still sulking about being excluded. Okay, so was I. She was my only sister and she would only get married once. Well, that’s always the plan anyway. I digress.
It was a girls’ day in Charleston, but, as usual, Merry had no idea there were three of us. I’ll always wonder if Colleen knew then where helping Poppy would lead. Colleen’s a stubborn spirit. Her lips are sealed.
We were in a booth up front by a window looking out over Meeting Street, sipping mimosas. The cheery air of the restaurant—soft yellow walls, cream-colored pressed metal ceiling, and terra cotta tiled floors—stoked our festive mood. It was midmorning on a Saturday in August, and despite the sultry weather, both the streets of Charleston and Toast were humming with activity. The clop-clop of horseshoes on asphalt and the raised voice of a tour guide floated through the window pane as a horse drawn carriage filled with tourists rolled by.
The waitress had just set plates in front of us, and Merry and I were busy divvying up our food so we could each have some of our two favorite things on the menu. I served her some of my Classic Breakfast—scrambled eggs with cheese, country ham, Carolina stone ground grits, and a massive buttermilk biscuit—while she sliced off some of her Deluxe French Toast with peaches and peach cider syrup for me. Colleen waited none-too-patiently beside me for her to-go order—ham biscuits.
No one but me—and since the day of our wedding, my husband, Nate—could see or hear Colleen when she was in ghost mode, which was her default setting. Nate and I weren’t allowed to tell anyone else that Colleen still inhabited our world. As Colleen’s skill set had grown, she’d gained the ability to solidify when she needed to be seen, or when it suited her. The catch to that was she could never appear to anyone else who’d known her before she died. Guardian spirits can’t eat in ghost mode either. But when she solidified she had the appetite of a horse and a particular fondness for country ham biscuits.
“I swear,” said Merry, “you are always carrying a to-go order for somebody. If it isn’t Nate, it’s Blake or Sonny or Daddy. You need to start charging for food delivery service. You know that’s going to be ruined before you get it home. After we’ve shopped all day….” She gave me a look that suggested I hadn’t thought this through.
What she didn’t know was how often I told people the to-go order was for her. I shrugged. “Nate loves the biscuits here. What can I say?”
I raised my mimosa and chose my words carefully.
The food forgotten, sisterly love shone in Merry’s eyes. She raised her glass.
I smiled, tried not to think about how I would miss her wedding. “To a once-in-a-lifetime trip and—”
The door blew open and in strode Sonny Ravenel. Sonny has been our brother Blake’s best friend since forever. He’s also a Charleston police detective. Preoccupied by the mail carrier fast on his heels, he didn’t even notice us at first.
“Please. If you’d just listen—” Her voice was earnest.
I lowered my glass. Merry set hers down and turned in her seat to check out what was going on.
Sonny smiled, nodded hello to the hostess, then turned back to the postwoman. Sporting twin brown ponytails and bangs, she looked like she was maybe twelve years old.
“Miss Oliver.” Sonny’s voice was patient, kind. “I promise you, I heard everything you said. But I’m off duty right now, ma’am. I’m hungry, if you don’t mind. And I wouldn’t want to keep you from your appointed rounds. You have a nice day now.”
“I’m sure we’ll talk again soon.” He turned to the hostess. “One, please.”
“Sonny,” I called.
He caught my eye, lifted his chin. “I’ll join my friends.” When he walked towards our table, the mail carrier followed. Sonny stopped a few steps away, held two hands up in a halt gesture. “Enough. Please.”
Her large brown eyes flooded with tears, her expression forlorn. She was in trouble. My protective instincts switched on.
“Aww, c’mon now.” Sonny’s voice took on a plaintive note. “Please don’t cry.”
“Wouldn’t you cry?” she asked. “If the police thought you’d killed someone and you knew you hadn’t done such a terrible, horrible, despicable thing? You’d cry too.” She nodded, sniffled, and blinked back the tears.
I felt my eyebrows creep up my forehead. She was trim, fresh-faced, and neatly dressed in her blue shorts and light blue collared shirt. A ponytail touched each shoulder.
“Surely to goodness Sonny is smarter than that.” Colleen employed the universal teenager-of-superior-intellect tone. She knew it all, just ask her.
Sonny is plenty smart. I threw the thought at her. This was how we typically communicated when others were around. She frequently jabbered at me in public and liked nothing better than for me to forget who I was talking to and respond to her out loud. She could read minds, and if I focused my thoughts, we could carry on a conversation.
If Sonny thought this woman was dangerous, she’d be locked up. Anyway, murderers don’t always look the part. I could recall a few surprises in my career as a private investigator. Still, the mail carrier seemed the poster child for wholesomeness.
“Miss Oliver,” said Sonny, “perhaps it would be best if you went ahead and retained that attorney after all.”
“I already told you I can’t afford one. And I didn’t do anything. Why do I need an attorney if I didn’t do anything but try to help a man who someone else ran over?”
“Because an attorney can answer questions, advise you on the process. And perhaps he can convince you how it’s a bad idea to stalk the detective assigned to your case,” said Sonny.
“You think I’m stalking you?” She straightened her shoulders, drew back her chin.
“I am not stalking you. I’m on my route. I bring the mail here six days a week. Are you stalking me?”
“No ma’am. I’m just trying to have some breakfast.”
“Fine.” She swiped at her cheeks. Her voice swelled with indignation. “You just enjoy your breakfast. I hope you savor ev-ery single bite. And while you’re chewing your eggs, I hope you think about how you’re ruining the life of an innocent person who was trying to help. And you think really hard about what I told you. Mr. Drayton…he wasn’t a good man. There might’ve been a reason why someone wanted to run over him, but it wasn’t me, okay?”
“So you’ve told me.” Sonny stared at her, his look telegraphing how his patience was all used up. “Several times now.”
“Fine.” She slapped two envelopes down on the counter and stormed out the door.
Sonny muttered a curse, hovered on my side of the booth waiting for me to slide over. He and I were both partial to the side of any booth that faced the door. Colleen popped out and reappeared beside Merry just as he dropped onto the bench next to me.
Our waitress stared at the retreating mail carrier as she handed Sonny a menu. “Bless her heart. It’s no wonder the postal workers are snapping, as hot as it is.”
He waved the menu away. “Coffee, please. And I’d like the Eggs Meeting Street. And a Bloody Mary, extra bacon.”
“I’m surprised to see you here,” I said. “Does Moon know you’re having breakfast at other restaurants?” Moon Unit Glendawn owned The Cracked Pot, the diner on Stella Maris, the nearby sea island my family called home. Sonny had been dating her for the past few months.
“It hasn’t come up” said Sonny. “But I imagine she knows I eat breakfast on days I don’t take the ferry over first thing.”
Our waitress set Sonny’s coffee in front of him. He downed half a cup. “Y’all go ahead and eat now. Don’t let your food get cold.”
“What’s up with the mail carrier?” I put together a bite of eggs and ham.
Sonny winced. “She was involved in a hit and run Thursday night.”
“How awful,” said Merry.
“She was just trying to help,” said Colleen. “She neither hit nor run.”
“She said she only tried to help the victim,” I said.
“Yeah, well,” said Sonny. “Might be she’s just too scared to admit she hit the guy. It was pouring down rain—streets were flooded. Maybe he walked out in front of her, who knows? But he’s dead, and she was on the scene.”
“You said it was a hit and run,” I said. “But clearly she didn’t. Run, I mean.”
“To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t know what happened,” said Sonny. “Yet. I’m calling it a hit and run for the time being because I do know the victim was hit by a car. If it wasn’t her car, and so far I haven’t proven that it was, then it was a hit and run.”
“We need to help her,” said Colleen.
“Where was the accident?” I asked.
“Near the Lower Battery. Murray Boulevard and Lenwood. Outside the victim’s home,” said Sonny. “Phillip Drayton is the deceased.”
Phillip Drayton. That name rang bells. “Banker of some sort? On the boards of several local charities?”
“You’re thinking about his father,” said Sonny. “One of the pillars of our community. He passed five years back. Phillip junior was more a professional man about town. Restaurant critic on the side.”
“I think I’ve read his blog,” said Merry.
“Since when do you read blogs?” I asked.
“What’s a blog?” Colleen looked through the ceiling and into the vast database in the sky where she submits such inquiries. Her resource was far superior to Siri or Alexa.
Merry shrugged. “It was a fluke. One of my kids is working at a restaurant he reviewed.” Merry was the executive director of a local non-profit that provided all manner of services to at-risk teenagers.
“What was that the mailwoman was saying about someone having a reason to run over him?” I asked.
“Who knows?” said Sonny. “She’s certifiable.”
I looked at him for a long moment.
“What?” he asked.
“That’s a little harsh, don’t you think?” Merry said.
“The woman makes me think of bunnies,” I said.
He ran a hand through his hair. “I guess you’re right. It’s been long couple of days. I haven’t slept more than three hours since Thursday night. She’s just…she keeps showing up. Everywhere. I’m waiting for the forensic reports to see if we can tie her car to the accident. But she won’t leave me be.”
“Does she have any connection to Phillip Drayton?” I asked.
“Oh yeah.” Sonny raised both eyebrows, nodded. “She was his mail carrier.”
“That’s it?” I asked.
“Poppy Oliver is not your average mail carrier,” said Sonny. “She takes a keen interest in the folks on her route. But I haven’t found evidence of any other connection.”
“Why does she think someone had a reason to hit him with a car?” I asked.
He closed his eyes.
“She imagines he abused his wife.”
“She imagines that?” I asked. “That’s a pretty serious allegation. What does the wife say?”
“No. No. No.” Sonny shook his head, then looked around in desperation. “Where is that waitress? What the hell is wrong with me? I need more coffee. And some breakfast.”
“What?” I gave him an innocent look. “I’m just making conversation while we wait. Merry and I are downtown to find her some hiking boots for her wedding trip, not fiddle with your hit and run.”
“That’s right. It’s my hit and run. This is not your case.” Sonny turned to Merry, studied her like she was a puzzle he was trying to solve. “I never figured you for a woman who would want to rough it on her honeymoon. Or anytime, come to think of it. Isn’t that trip a bit…rustic for your tastes?”
“What? You think I can’t handle an afternoon hike?” Merry asked.
“Most high maintenance women want five-star hotels and room service on their honeymoons,” said Sonny. “Not tent camping and communal showers.”
Merry, Colleen, and I burst out laughing. My sister was definitely not the tent type—neither was I, for that matter. Not that there was anything wrong with tents. Colleen’s unique bray-snort laugh got me even more tickled.
The harder I laughed, the harder Merry laughed. Soon tears ran down both our faces. I reached for the tissues in my purse, handed one to Merry, and dabbed at my eyes. Finally, we composed ourselves.
“The tour company we’re going with has us booked in very nice hotels.” Merry managed to get the words out as she caught her breath.
“Huh.” Sonny raised his eyebrows. “I thought visiting that part of the world was all about exploring untouched nature.”
“Well, it is,” said Merry. “We’ll get to see plenty of the great outdoors.”
“They’ll have front row seats to nature,” I said. “In the lap of luxury.”
“Hey now,” said Merry. “It’s not a bus tour. We’re going kayaking, biking, hiking, horseback riding—all that. We’ll see plenty of flora and fauna during the day. Then go back to a hot shower and a nice bed.”
“Except on spa days.” I grinned at her.
“Exactly,” said Merry.
The waitress approached with Sonny’s egg platter. He moved his arms off the table and sat back to give her plenty of room.
I eyed his breakfast. “I haven’t tried the Eggs Meeting Street. I may order that next time.” The fried green tomato, crab cake, and poached egg with remoulade sauce concoction was served with a biscuit and a side of grits. I may have looked at his plate with longing.
He picked up his fork and crowded his food. “Stay back.”
“Are you feeling territorial about everything this morning?” I asked.
He ignored me and delivered a bite of breakfast to his mouth.
Colleen said, “That girl’s in trouble and we need to help her.”
“I guess it’s hard to afford an attorney on a mail carrier’s salary,” I mused.
“They have this new thing called public defenders for folks who can’t afford attorneys,” said Sonny. “If she’s charged, the judge will appoint her one.”
“Yeah, I guess a public defender could look into the wife abuse angle,” I said. Like that would happen. Public defenders didn’t have the resources to run down alternate theories of a crime. That was the province of high-dollar defense attorneys with in-house investigators.
Colleen stared at me, smirked. What was she up to?
“I hope they have better sense,” said Sonny.
“The wife say she wasn’t abused?” I asked.
“So far she’s been too upset to discuss the wild imaginings of her letter carrier. Her relatively young husband just died suddenly. I haven’t bothered her with Miss Oliver’s theories.”
“So, she could be right as far as you know,” I said.
“Can’t imagine what difference it would make, is my point,” Sonny said. “Phillip Drayton is dead. If he ever abused his wife, he won’t be doing it anymore. It’s not like she ran him over.”
“You sure about that?” I asked.
He chewed thoughtfully for a minute. “Would you pass the pepper?”
I slid the salt and pepper shakers across the table. “Did the mail carrier see the accident?”
“You see where that new tropical depression became a storm overnight? Idell,” said Sonny.
My heart stuttered. I couldn’t catch my breath. That made three storms churning in the Atlantic. Most of my life I’d taken tropical storms in stride. They were simply a fact of life on the coast. But recently I’d been having nightmares. And Colleen’s cryptic warnings had heightened my awareness.
I took a deep breath, gathered my wits. “Sonny? Did the mail carrier see the accident or not?”
“Could I please just eat my breakfast in peace?” asked Sonny.
I raised an eyebrow at him and forced a bite of the French toast Merry had slid onto my plate. It really was in a class by itself—a hunk of currant bread stuffed with peaches, fried up, dripping with butter and peach cider syrup.
“Save me some of that,” said Colleen.
We ate in silence until my natural curiosity got the better of me. “It’s a puzzlement.”
“What’s that?” Sonny smeared butter and strawberry preserves on half his biscuit.
“Why that mail carrier would harass you. Looks like she’d want to stay on your good side, hope you’d take her word for what happened.”
“I told you, she’s nutty,” said Sonny.
“You know her well, do you?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “But most people don’t hound police detectives when they want to be taken seriously.”
“Maybe she’s just trying to do the right thing,” said Merry.
“How’s that?” asked Sonny. “By showing up at the department unannounced, hanging out near the Draytons’ house, waiting for me, following me to breakfast? How is any of that the right thing?”
“What is she trying to convince you of?” I asked.
“That Phillip Drayton abused his wife, so someone probably ran into him on purpose. But it wasn’t her.”
“Why don’t you believe her?” I asked.
He was silent for a few minutes. Then he said, “You coming tonight? To The Pirates’ Den?”
“Of course we are.” Sonny and my brother Blake were in a band, The Back Porch Prophets, that played at The Pirates’ Den on Stella Maris once a month. “There must be a reason why you don’t believe her.”
“There is.” He nodded and took another bite of his breakfast.
“You see,” said Colleen. “She needs our help.”
I pondered that. I couldn’t argue with Colleen. And I had strong instincts to do what I could for Poppy. But Sonny was a skilled detective and he was my friend.
It’s not that I’d never stuck my nose into his cases before. But I’d only ever done that because someone hired me to do it. Jumping in pro bono felt like me saying I didn’t trust him to do his job.
Sonny’s got this.
Colleen’s green eyes flashed. “He’s made up his mind already. He’s mule-headed. And he’s wrong.”
What do you know about this?
“I know Poppy is telling the truth,” said Colleen.
“If you’re not going to eat that, can I have it back?” Merry stared at the French toast on my plate.
“I’m eating it.” I cut off a bite, swirled it in syrup, and popped it in my mouth with a look that said, See?
The blues rift ringtone on my iPhone announced a call from Nate.
“I just got a call from your favorite attorney,” he said when I answered. His tone alerted me that he was being facetious.
“Do tell,” I said. “And what does Fraser Rutledge, Esquire, want?” I had ambivalent emotions about the Broad Street attorney we’d worked a case for a few months back. His tendency to patronize me worked my nerves.
“To hire us.”
“We’ve already turned him down.” Fraser and his partner had offered us a spot as their in-house investigators. Nate and I liked our independence.
“He wants us to look into something for one of his clients—contract work, like before. What do you think?” Nate asked.
I sighed. “I think Rutledge and Ratcliffe pay their bills promptly, we need to set aside money for taxes and insurance on the house, we’re going to have to paint soon, and we need a new roof. Why are you hesitating?”
“The man has a habit of antagonizing you, which I don’t care for,” said Nate.
“I can handle Fraser Alston Rutledge the third.”
“He wants to meet with us at one p.m.”
“Today?” I asked.
“It has to be today?” My eyes met Merry’s. We’d planned this day for weeks.
“If we want the case,” said Nate. “That’s what he says, anyway. If I tell him we’ll be there Monday morning, I’m betting he’ll decide that works for him.”
“See him today.” Colleen went to glowing. That was usually a sign something was important.
I telegraphed regret with my eyes to my sister. “Better tell him we’ll see him at one.”
Copyright © 2019 Susan M. Boyer. All rights reserved.