The dead are audacious sorts. Take my best friend, Colleen. I’m not saying she’s brave. She is, of course, but you’d expect that, I suppose. The thing virtually all mortals fear most is death—either their own or someone else’s. Colleen cleared that hurdle our junior year in high school, when she downed a bottle of tequila and went swimming in Breach Inlet. She’s fearless, all right, but what I’m saying here is that Colleen has abandoned all sense of decorum. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that she’ll forever be a teenager. But her behavior at times is more fitting that of a six-year-old.
By way of example, on a Monday morning in late October, Nate and I were meeting with a client, Darius Baker, and his attorneys, Fraser Rutledge and Eli Radcliffe, in their elegantly appointed offices. Rutledge & Radcliffe is one of the most distinguished law firms on Broad Street in Charleston, South Carolina. The furniture in that office is museum quality, the sound so utterly dampened by luxurious rugs you almost feel the need to whisper like you’re in church. Colleen sat cross-legged like a child on the corner of Fraser’s massive desk. In her ankle-length tangerine dress with Swiss polka dots, her long red hair loose about her shoulders, she brought to mind a big orange tabby cat.
Talbot & Andrews Investigations—that’s the name of our PI firm—had an arrangement with Rutledge & Radcliffe. We didn’t work for them directly, though they’d tried to hire us many times.
But Nate, my husband and partner, and I had an open-ended contract, and lately, a sizable chunk of our workload came through Rutledge & Radcliffe. In a switch, we’d referred Darius Baker to them recently when he had an unfortunate run of luck and a pressing need for a highly skilled local criminal attorney.
That particular morning, Darius, our celebrity client, had requested the meeting with both his legal and his investigative teams. Darius always covered his bases. The five of us, Nate, me, Darius, Fraser Rutledge and Eli Radcliffe, congregated in Fraser’s office to put our heads together regarding the developing situation with Darius’s long-lost love child. Let me tell you, between the colorful personalities present, the sensitive subject matter, and the unconstrained teenaged guardian spirit, it was a potentially combustible situation.
Fraser Alston Rutledge III may have been the most comfortable person in his own skin I’d ever met. A study in contrasts, he clearly came from very old Charleston money. His seersucker suit was light blue, his bowtie and suspenders navy. The oil painting on his cypress-paneled office wall featured him with his Brittany spaniels. But his gelled hair, spiked on top, was not a style favored amongst the South of Broad set.
Fraser sat back in his executive leather chair and gave Darius a look that called his common sense into serious question. “Mr. Baker, Eli and I have deliberated over the developments you outlined by telephone, but for the sake of ensuring we are all on the same page here, let me see if I have the details of your predicament straight.”
Wearing jeans, a white button-down, and a navy blazer, Darius looked the part of a modern Lowcountry gentleman, which he was.
His smooth skin was the color of fine milk chocolate. He wasn’t quite forty, but he was completely bald. Darius closed his eyes, sighed, moved restlessly in his chair. “Fine.”
Fraser said, “A suspicious fire wiped out Brantley Miller’s entire adoptive family up in Travelers Rest back in March. In August, Mr. Miller contacted you online and indicated that he believed you were related. Subsequently, you ascertained that he is your son. He arrived in Stella Maris in September. Today is October 26. Mr. Miller is living in your home, and you have invested in his business venture with two other young men to grow hemp commercially.” Fraser tasted the word “hemp,” seemed to find it disagreeable.
“Last week,” continued Fraser, “another potential investor in that enterprise, Dr. Murray Hamilton, a beloved local college professor, who is coincidentally the uncle of one of Mr. Miller’s business partners, was murdered in his home over on Montagu Street and his house was subsequently blown to kingdom come, the remnants burned to a pile of ash. His nephew, one Tyler Duval—Mr. Miller’s friend and business associate—has been questioned by the police, and Mr. Miller is concerned that Mr. Duval may be arrested at any moment. Am I in possession of all the salient facts?”
Darius flashed him a pained expression. “Yeah. Sounds like it.”
Fraser leaned forward. “I would not be fulfilling my responsibility to you as a client of this firm if I failed to acquaint you with the many potential exposures you face here.” He proceeded to hold forth for the better part of ten minutes, which he was prone to do.
Bored, Colleen commenced standing on her head. “I wonder if I can hold this as long as he can talk?” Through some magic of hers, her dress defied gravity and didn’t flip over her head.
Eli, Darius, Nate, and I occupied the four deep leather visitor chairs in front of Fraser’s desk. Nate and I were the only ones who could see Colleen, and we ignored her completely. We’d discovered this was often the best strategy. Colleen loved nothing more than to provoke me in front of others, make me respond to her and look like a lunatic to everyone else in the vicinity.
Fraser droned on, oblivious to Colleen’s antics. “Eli and I have discussed this at great length. It is our considered opinion that you, Mr. Baker, and all of your interests, would be best served by keeping Mr. Miller and his friends—this hemp business and the recent untimely death of Professor Hamilton—at arm’s length. Your own legal troubles are not that far behind you. To become embroiled in another murder case at this juncture would be highly imprudent—”
Darius raised both palms and shook his head until Fraser stopped talking. As a relatively new client at Rutledge & Radcliffe, Darius was unaccustomed to listening to someone else talk for such extended periods. He had little patience with Fraser’s affection for the sound of his own voice. Darius looked at each of us in turn, wide-eyed and solemn, first Fraser, then Eli, then Nate, and then me. “I’m gonna be real with y’all.”
Until recently, Darius was the star of a hit reality TV series, Main Street USA. He traveled to a different small town each week, sampled the local food, attended festivals and whatnot, chatted with the local folks, and offered colorful commentary. He was a character, is what I’m saying. And his character spoke in “down home, easygoing, funny, Southern black guy, with a bit of Hollywood,” a patois that was his brand. Darius could no doubt turn that off if he wanted to. But it was rare for him to break character, even now.
Fraser sat back in his chair, raised an elegant eyebrow, and gestured magnanimously. “Well, by all means, Mr. Baker. Do be real with us.”
For her part, Colleen came down off her head and settled back into a cross-legged pose.
Darius continued, “Now, I know y’all have my best interests at heart. And I appreciate that, I do. But we’re talking about my son here. Brantley is my son. You feel me? Family is family. Now, I’m not stupid. I know he might’ve originally got in touch with me ’cause he was all excited about maybe he was gonna get himself some of my money. But we’re gettin’ to know each other. We’re buildin’ a relationship here. And he came to me for help. So I want to help. Now, can y’all help me help him…or not? ’Cause there’s more than one high-dollar law office and more than one set a private investigators in this town.”
Fraser’s brown-and-gold-flecked tiger eyes went hard, but he was silent, an unusual situation to say the least. I liked Darius more all the time. He respected Fraser’s abilities, or we wouldn’t have been there. But Darius wasn’t going to suffer Fraser’s high-handed manner in silence either. I was torn because I agreed with Fraser’s assessment if not his style.
“Darius,” I said, “does it not worry you the teensiest bit that we haven’t been able to rule out Brantley’s involvement in the house fire that killed his entire adoptive family barely more than six months ago?”
“Naw,” he said. “Uh-unh. I believe you tried your best to find something… anything…that would incriminate him in that horrible fire that killed that poor family, but you can’t.”
Nate said, “You make it sound unsavory—like we were trying to frame him, Darius. We’re just doing our due diligence, trying to protect you. You and anyone else on Stella Maris Brantley becomes involved with.”
Stella Maris is the island north of Isle of Palms where Darius and I grew up. He’d recently retired from the Hollywood high life and moved home. Brantley, a son—now twenty years old—had shown up fast on his heels, thanks to the marvels of DNA testing and its use in ancestry research.
“I understand that,” said Darius. “That’s why I continued to pay your bill this last month while you went up to Travelers Rest and looked into all a that. But if I understand what y’all are tellin’ me, you can’t find one thing to tie Brantley to that fire.”
“We can’t,” I said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s innocent. It may mean he’s very smart.” Brantley had turned up in our hometown out of the blue the second he learned his biological father was an international celebrity. Would he have come lickety-split if Darius had been a busboy? We’d never know. But I was keeping a close eye on him for the foreseeable future.
“Y’all just cynical,” said Darius. “Probably comes with the job. But I refuse to think the worst a him. If y’all had come back and told me you thought he set that fire, even if you couldn’t actually prove it, I could see sending Brantley packin’. But that’s not what you told me.”
“I am afraid I must agree with Miz Talbot and Mr. Andrews,” said Fraser. “Best to err on the side of caution. Especially given this latest development.”
“That’s not a development,” said Darius. “The fire over on Montagu has nothing whatsoever to do with Brantley.”
“As far as you know,” I said. “But he is connected to Professor Hamilton’s death. That’s the only reason you want us to get involved. Hell’s bells—think, Darius. One brand-new son. Two fires involving deaths.”
Darius said, “Brantley ain’t got nothing to do with that professor’s house catching on fire. If Sonny Ravenel thought for a second that he did, Brantley would be sitting over at the jail in North Charleston, just like I was for four long days and three long nights not very long ago. Sonny, he ain’t shy about locking people up.”
Sonny Ravenel was a good friend and a Charleston police detective. Back in September, he’d had no choice but to arrest Darius in the case of his high-school girlfriend—Brantley’s mother’s—murder, but that’s a whole nother story, and all behind us now, thank goodness.
“You’ve got to admit, it looks suspicious,” said Nate. “Brantley and his buddies meet with the professor, Tyler’s uncle, right?”
“That’s right,” said Darius. “They were there last Monday evening.”
“They need money for their hemp business,” said Nate. “The professor is skeptical. He doesn’t give them any money. Then the professor dies and leaves a substantial sum to his nephew, Tyler Duval. And then Murray Hamilton’s house explodes into flames, possibly destroying evidence.”
What was the protocol? Was Murray Hamilton properly referred to as Dr. Hamilton or Professor Hamilton?
Colleen consulted the ceiling, the way she does when she’s using the cosmic version of Google. “Professor Hamilton. Students would address him as Dr. Hamilton. Outside the classroom you use Professor to differentiate him from a medical doctor, though you’ll hear it both ways.”
“I never said it don’t look suspicious,” said Darius. “Of course it looks suspicious. I know all about suspicious, believe you me. If it didn’t look suspicious, I wouldn’t need y’all to help Brantley’s friend out of this mess. Suspicious don’t mean that boy killed nobody. And it definitely don’t mean Brantley burned somebody’s house down.”
Colleen blew a stray lock of hair off her face, looked annoyed.
“I tried to tell y’all…if Darius was in danger, I would know. Right now he’s not.”
As a guardian spirit, Colleen’s mission was to protect the people of Stella Maris by safeguarding the island from developers and all such as that. Overpopulation was a huge risk for us, as the island was only accessible by boat. Colleen’s primary method was to ensure the town council consisted of people who loathe the idea of condos and high-rise resorts on our pristine beaches. I held one seat on the council. Darius was the newest member, handpicked by Colleen for his conservationist views.
And he gave Brantley money to invest in this hemp project.
Brantley doesn’t need Darius out of the way as long as he’s willing to hand him money. I threw the thought at her. This was how we communicated when others were around.
“You’re awfully suspicious of Brantley,” said Colleen.
And you could put my mind at ease once and for all where he’s concerned if you’d simply tell me whether or not he lit fire to a house with his entire family inside or not.
This was my problem. Colleen could often read other people’s minds, not just mine. When she couldn’t read a person, sometimes it meant they were just plain evil. Other times it didn’t mean anything at all except Colleen wasn’t privy to whatever was on their minds. But it always gave me pause when she couldn’t read someone.
“Apparently that falls under the heading ‘Information not Needed for My Mission.’ It’s not my job to solve your cases for you.”
So you tell me. Frequently.
“But like I said,” said Colleen, “if Darius was in danger…that I would know. And since I’m getting nothing on Brantley at all, I have to suspect that means he’s harmless. I think I’d know if Darius had a firebug living in his house. That would be mission critical.”
“Did I understand you correctly?” asked Fraser. “These boys believe they can make supercapacitors from hemp? Replace the graphene?” Skepticism drew an odd look on his face.
Darius said, “I don’t think they’re gonna make the supercapacitors themselves. They’ll sell the stems to a manufacturing facility for that. Look, it’s brand-new technology, and it’s over my head too, to be honest with you. But what they tell me is the part used for these supercapacitors is normally waste. They’ll sell the rest of the plant, the leaves and the flowers and so forth, for CBD oil.”
“If that is indeed feasible, it would be quite lucrative,” said Fraser.
“That’s what they tell me,” said Darius.
“And you invested how much in their proposition?” asked Eli.
“A hundred thousand dollars,” said Darius.
“And yet they still needed money from Tyler’s uncle?” I felt my face screw up in that expression Mamma is always warning me will cause wrinkles. “What for? They have the land, right?”
“Yeah, uh, Will Capers,” said Darius, “one of the other boys—his grandfather owns a big farm over on Johns Island. A hundred and twenty-five acres. He’s letting the boys grow there. But they’re putting up greenhouses so they can grow year-round. Greenhouses cost money. They need some other equipment too. They’re doing most of the work themselves. Few of Will’s grandfather’s field hands are helping out. They have to be paid, of course.”
“Brantley met his partners at school?” A contrast to Fraser, Eli Radcliffe listened more than he spoke.
“Yeah,” said Darius. “They’re all agriculture majors at Clemson. Will Capers, he’s in agri business. I guess you’d call him the mastermind of the project. He’s the one with all the facts and figures.”
“So it’s Brantley, Tyler Duval, and Will Capers. The three of them?” I asked.
“That’s right,” said Darius.
“Did anybody else’s family give them money?” I asked.
“Not cash money,” said Darius. “But Will Capers’s grandfather, he’s heavily invested. Had to cost him something not to grow tomatoes or somethin’ on that land.”
Sea Island tomatoes in general were special. Mamma’s were prize-winning. But Johns Island tomatoes were practically legendary.
“Indeed.” Fraser cast Darius a thoughtful look. “What sort of agreement do the boys have with him? Let us assume they are wildly successful with this venture. They make millions of dollars. What is the landowner’s share?”
“Twenty-five percent,” said Darius. “And they pay me 25 percent a year beginning the third year they make a profit, until I’m fully repaid, plus 5 percent. I figured the first few years they’d need to reinvest that money back into the business.”
“Five percent?” Fraser looked like he had a very bad taste in his mouth. “Five thousand dollars over four years, best-case scenario? That is your return on your investment?”
“Like I said…” Darius drew “said” out to five syllables. “He is my son.”
Fraser closed his eyes, shook his head. “It is your money to do with as you please. I hope you are fully apprised as to the changing nature of the laws governing hemp farming, both at the federal and state level.”
“It’s my understanding that the recent changes are in favor of the growers,” said Darius.
“It is a fluid situation, to be sure,” said Fraser.
“How are they going to work a farm on Johns Island and go to class in Clemson?” asked Eli.
“Tyler and Will graduated in May,” said Darius. “Brantley’s a junior, but he’s decided to take some time off. He’s had a rough patch, with his adoptive family being killed in an accidental house fire and all. Now he and I are getting acquainted. I’m all the family he has. We need some time. That school’s not going anywhere. While he’s here, he’s going to do a little farming. Won’t hurt him a bit.”
“Back to Professor Hamilton,” said Fraser. “Did the boys meet with him just once?”
“Nah, the three of them were at his house a lot,” said Darius.
“He was real interested in what they were doing. Unfortunately, the last time they were there was the day before he died. That just looks bad.”
“And when did the police talk to Tyler?” I asked.
“Sunday—yesterday,” said Darius. “The medical examiner did a tox screen on the professor’s body. Said somebody poisoned him with antifreeze. They think it was in some green vegetable juice. Another reason not to ever drink anything green right there.”
“So they’re looking at Tyler,” I said. “What about the other boys?”
“Sonny has an appointment to see Will Capers and his grandfather this afternoon,” said Darius. “I imagine he’ll get to Brantley soon enough.”
“I will contact Mr. Capers and offer my assistance,” said Fraser.
“Let me handle that, Fraser,” said Eli. “I know Gideon Capers.”
“Very well.” Fraser eyed Darius pointedly. “We will attend to this matter unless and until your interests diverge from those of the boys. In the meantime, none of them speaks to the police without either Eli or me present. And no one speaks to the press but me.”
“Fine by me,” said Darius. “You can handle the press for me from now on, if you want to.”
“Miz Talbot, Mr. Andrews,” said Fraser, “do you have everything you need at present?”
I mulled that. Ultimately, Fraser and Eli were our clients. Through them, because Darius was their client, he was also ours.
But we were being hired on behalf of Tyler Duval. He was also now our client. Because he was Brantley Miller’s friend. Brantley wasn’t technically our client, but he was the client’s son, whose interests Darius would want protected. That was a lot of layers of clients.
The thing we bypassed when we took on business through Rutledge & Radcliffe was our contract directly with the client. This unsettled me. I preferred being able to ask questions like “Do you own any firearms?” of the people we worked for. It paid to be careful in our line of work.
“I think we’re good,” said Nate. “Can we get Sonny’s meeting with the Capers moved? Have it here, in the conference room?”
Eli nodded. “Of course. I’ll arrange that.”
“But, Darius,” I said, “you need to be prepared. If we chase this rabbit on behalf of Tyler Duval, we may well come up with something that incriminates Brantley.”
“If you find out for sure he’s killed somebody, or had any part in killing somebody, I’ll drop him off to Sonny Ravenel myself,” said Darius.