Big Trouble on Sullivan’s Island Excerpt
Sunday, June 6, 2021, just before noon Mount Pleasant, South Carolina
Hadley Scott Drayton Legare (luh-GREE) Cooper
Driving through the Old Village of Mount Pleasant always takes me right back to my childhood. “We Are Family,” by Sister Sledge, played on the sound system, then and now, though back then it was via one of my mother’s cassette tape mixes. Two blocks from the harbor, I turned off Royall Avenue and pulled into the driveway at the Kinloch house. As I climbed out of Jolene— my 1966 teal blue Ford Fairlane convertible— I drew a deep breath, savoring the sweet blend of star jasmine and magnolia blossoms seasoned with the salty breeze off Charleston Harbor.
The thing I loved best about this neighborhood was the sprawling live oaks that offered shelter from the Carolina sunshine. By June, it was plenty warm. Later in the summer, the Lowcountry sun would fry you up like bacon in a cast iron skillet. But beneath the canopy of gnarled limbs, you could find refuge. Interspersed with the venerable grande dames grew a mix of crepe myrtles, pines, palmettos, and all manner of trees, shrubs, vines, and flowers. All that vegetation seemed to soak up the unrelenting rays, keeping them at bay. There’s respite here in the shade.
I was home.
I’d grown up in the house next door.
Massive round blue blooms drooped from overripe hydrangeas that have flanked the Kinloch’s front porch steps since before I was born. Maribel, Gavin’s late wife, planted them when they first moved into the hundred-year-old cottage built by Gavin’s grandfather. Standing in Gavin’s front yard, enveloped by the flamboyantly lush landscape, I’m ten years old again, and the biggest problem I have is finishing my homework before I can ride my bike down to Pitt Street Bridge to meet my friends.
I slogged through the simmering June air and climbed the steps to Gavin’s front porch. The couple who’d bought our house— the one my mother was raised in, the same one she raised me in— had remodeled it into a sprawling affair I barely recognized. But the Kinloch house appeared as it had throughout my childhood. The bungalow sported robin’s-egg blue paint, a color originally chosen by Maribel. Twenty-five years after a drunk driver killed her in a hit and run, Gavin still kept the robin’s-egg blue paint and everything else about the house exactly the way Maribel liked it. There were more stately homes in the Old Village of Mount Pleasant, but none more welcoming. A gust set the wind chimes to jangling.
I would turn forty tomorrow. Not for the first time, I wondered if I was officially “a woman of a certain age.” I stopped celebrating my birthday in 1998, when my mother died on my seventeenth. The next year, Gavin made me lunch and a cake the day before my birthday, on June 6. That’s been our custom ever since. At some point, Gavin’s best friend and my mentor, Joe Vincent, started joining us.
Gavin and Joe are my family, and I know exactly how lucky I am to have them. I don’t mention that to them often. They make these godawful faces, like maybe they’re trying to pass simultaneous kidney stones, at the first sign of emotion. They don’t fool me, these prickly old codgers. Gavin had no doubt been cooking for days for my prebirthday, and I’d bet my mother’s pearls Joe had bought me a present, likely some personal-protection gadget. Joe worried about me too much. They both did.
It was sweet of them to want to make a fuss over me. And hey, not every girl gets to spend her prebirthday with two crazy widowers and a foul-mouthed parrot. As was his custom, Gavin’s military macaw greeted me as I walked through the door. “Bonjour, bitch.”
He’d called me worse, so much worse. His favorite word of all is one I’ve never in my life said out loud— I don’t even think this word. It rhymes with runt.
“Can you say taxidermist?” I asked the bright green, blue, and red-plumed rascal.
“Rudi, that’s it. Say night night.” Gavin dove for the black cage cover and quickly draped Rudi’s six-foot tall wrought iron cage.
“Night night,” said Rudi.
“Sorry about that, Twinkle.” Gavin lifted his large palms and shrugged. He flashed me an expression that said, What are you gonna do?
I’d known Gavin Kinloch my entire life. He and Maribel had lived here when my mother’s parents bought the house next door. Contemporaries, the two couples became fast friends. Gavin was a Marine before he became a Mount Pleasant police officer in the early seventies. Rudi had belonged to one of Gavin’s buddies. Rudi had lived all over the world with a bachelor Marine. When Gavin’s friend passed away, he bequeathed Rudi to Gavin. Rudi had the foulest mouth imaginable.
“Ah, no worries.” I pulled Gavin in for a hug. “Thank you for making lunch.”
He hugged me hard, then patted me on the back. “Nothing to it. Come sit down. It’s almost ready.”
“Hold up there now.” Joe stepped around Gavin and opened his arms wide. “I’d best get a hug too before we take our lives into our hands eating whatever mess that one threw together.” He crushed me to him.
Gavin moved through the dining room towards the kitchen. “Nobody said you have to eat it.” Friends since their paths crossed on a case in the late seventies, the two of them bickered like an old married couple.
“Do I smell fried green tomatoes?” I asked.
“Is it June 6th?” Gavin called, in a tone that notified me I’d asked a ridiculous question. He knew how much I loved his fried green tomatoes with pimento cheese.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” I asked.
“Sit, sit,” said Joe. “I’ll pour the tea.”
I settled into my customary spot at the pine farmhouse table, facing a fireplace flanked by long double windows. All three of us preferred to sit facing the door, but we observed a pecking order.
Joe set a glass of iced tea in front of me. “Hadley, it’s so good to see you. Happy Birthday, Darlin’.”
“Idiot,” Gavin yelled from the kitchen.
I pulled back, gave Joe a mock-exasperated look. “The whole point of celebrating today is that it’s not my birthday … yet.”
Joe threw up his hands. “I know, I know. Sorry about that. It’s just … aw, screw it.” He slid into the chair across the table. “Talk to me, while Gav puts his apron on and rattles his pots and pans. What’s new with you? Any interesting clients lately? I haven’t heard from you in weeks.”
“Let’s see,” I said. “I told you about the workers’ comp case.”
“Cleaning woman with migraine headaches from the chemicals moonlighting as a stripper over at the Cheetah Club?” asked Joe.
“Yeah, you would’ve enjoyed that one. I did not. And I’ll likely end up having to go to court to testify because the Cheetah Club was hyperalert to cameras, so I got zero incriminating photos. Fun times.”
“Umm, umm.” Joe shook his head, a gleam in his eye.
“I just wrapped up a couple domestics. Things are pretty quiet at the moment,” I said.
“You need me to make some calls?” Joe asked.
Joe was an FBI agent before leaving to open his own PI firm. I’d interned with Vincent Investigations for three years, then worked for him another three prior to opening Cooper & Associates Investigations. Joe was retired now, but he still had friends in several Charleston law offices.
“Thanks,” I said, “but I’m fine. Middleton, Bull & Vanderhorst has been keeping me busy. I’m actually grateful for the break.” I had a loose arrangement with the high-dollar Charleston law office. I worked cases important to them, and they occasionally sent me the kinds of cases I preferred, the ones involving clients with neither blue blood nor trust funds. Also, Middleton, Bull & Vanderhorst paid me well. Oh— if you’re not familiar, Vanderhorst is pronounced VAN-dross in the Lowcountry. Crazy, I know. Lots of historic family names— and thus, street names— aren’t pronounced the way they’re spelled at all.
Joe shrugged. “Just say the word.”
“Thanks, Joe. I appreciate you.”
With the flair of an experienced waiter, Gavin carried three plates from the kitchen and set one in front of me. It was piled high with all my favorites: Swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes and gravy, macaroni and cheese, squash and onion tart, and fried green tomatoes layered with Gavin’s homemade pimento cheese.
I inhaled deeply, closed my eyes. “Gavin, you have outdone yourself.”
“There’s biscuits in the bread basket.” Gavin set an extra bowl of gravy by my plate and took his place. He sat closest to the kitchen, facing the row of windows along the front porch. Through the pass-through to the living room, he had a view of the front door.
I reached for a biscuit, opened it on my plate and poured gravy all over it. Gavin watched with a grin on his face as I took my first bite. I picked up a spoon and the bowl of gravy and ate it like soup, savoring the decadent umami flavor. My eyes may have rolled back in my head from pleasure. After a moment of silent appreciation, I sighed. “So insanely delicious.”
When I opened my eyes, both men were shaking their heads at me.
“That’s not real gravy, is it?” Joe made a face like he had a plateful of mud pies, but he nevertheless picked up his fork and dug in.
“It’s utterly divine,” I said.
“Why certainly it’s real,” said Gavin. “What’s the matter with you?”
“You know what I mean,” said Joe. “It’s got no meat drippings whatsoever in it, like proper gravy.”
“Yeah,” said Gavin, “I’m real sorry it won’t make your heart explode.”
“You need to work on a more nutritionally balanced menu,” said Joe. “Get this girl to eat a steak. We’ve prob’ly all got anemia.”
“This is a celebratory meal. I’m serving the celebrat-ee’s favorites. Doesn’t matter if it’s balanced or not. If you’d rather not risk it, I’ll save yours and have it for lunch tomorrow.” Gavin reached for Joe’s plate.
Joe scowled at him from under bushy eyebrows and slid his plate out of range. “Getting a little sensitive, aren’t you?”
“What I thought.” Gavin flashed him a knowing look.
Since I was sixteen, I’ve eaten a whole-food plant-based diet. Most days, I don’t eat any animal products at all, nothing processed— no oil, no sugar— and I limit my salt intake. Gavin learned to cook this way to support me and my mother, and he’d fully embraced the lifestyle. Everything on our plates was made from plants, even the macaroni and “cheese,” which really didn’t have any cheese at all, but could fool most people. He was an excellent home chef, and he made a lot of things with plant-based substitutes that were so delicious we stopped making the distinction. We’d stopped calling it fake pimento cheese because it didn’t taste fake. The fried green tomatoes were made in Gavin’s oven on the air-fry setting, and they had no oil in them at all. Joe cleaned his plate every time Gavin cooked, and he always asked for seconds. But his story was that we were both nutty and in dire need of a cheeseburger. Joe only ate this way when we were together.
“What have you two been up to?” I put together the perfect bite of fried green tomato and pimento cheese.
“We’re too old to be up to anything, dammit,” said Joe. “We live vicariously through you.”
“Oh, I think the two of you have a few tricks left up your sleeves,” I said.
“Speak for yourself.” Gavin looked at Joe. “I’m what they call an active adult. I engage in various hobbies to keep my mind and body sharp. I’m a regular Renaissance man. Dylan taking you to dinner tonight?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m meeting him at Hank’s at seven.” Okay, I did occasionally eat seafood. And if I were having the odd meal at a nice restaurant, I didn’t ask a lot of inconvenient questions about what they put in the sauces and the sides. But this was a rare indulgence.
“Meeting him?” Gavin looked like he’d taken a bite of something sour. “A gentleman picks up a lady and escorts her to dinner. Opens doors for her, like that.”
Joe wore a disgusted look.
I shrugged. “Yeah, well, he asked me to meet him there.”
“You know he sells insurance.” Joe tossed a look at Gavin that said, I bet he posts porn videos from his parents’ basement.
“Yeah, I recall that,” said Gavin. “You ran background on him, right?”
“You know I did,” Joe said. “No clear indications he’s a psychopath. But that’s the thing about psychopaths. They’re clever.”
I swallowed a bite of meatball. “You cannot be serious. Please tell me the two of you did not go digging into Dylan’s background.”
Gavin squinted at me, gave his head a small shake. “Na, na. We just told you. Joe did the background check. He’s got access to much better systems than I do.”
“That’s not the point,” I said. “Do you do that for everyone I go out with?”
Joe waved a hand at me. “Course not.”
“We never checked into Cash Reynolds.” Gavin raised his eyebrows innocently.
I rolled my eyes, closed them, and shook my head. Cash Reynolds was a Charleston police detective. He and I dated for four years. We’d broken up a year ago in July, and Gavin and Joe were still in mourning. The biggest problem they had with Dylan was that he wasn’t Cash.
“How long you been seeing this Dylan anyway?” asked Joe, the expression on his face making it clear he considered Dylan a dime-store knockoff.
“Since January.” I popped a bite of macaroni and cheese into my mouth.
Gavin turned to Joe. “If he’s having her meet him at restaurants, and she’s going along with that, it’s not serious.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “What’s wrong with me meeting him at a restaurant? This is the twenty-first century for heaven’s sake. Besides, it could mean he has something special planned.” I was still trying to convince myself of this.
Both their brows lowered.
“Something special?” asked Gavin.
“Like what, for instance?” asked Joe.
“I don’t know.” I searched the ceiling for an idea. “Maybe he had to stop and pick up a gift.”
Gavin laid down his fork. “You don’t think he’s fixin’ to propose do you?”
“Of course not.” Was I having heart palpitations? I gulped my iced tea.
Please God, don’t let Dylan propose. He probably wasn’t going to. I mean, if this were a big night, surely, he would pick me up and take me to Hank’s Seafood— hands down my favorite mainstream restaurant— instead of arranging to meet me there. But that was the thing. Dylan was a reliably mischievous sort, taken with frequent bouts of whimsy. Sometimes he surprised me in ways that warmed my heart and made me smile from the inside out. Other times, he annoyed the pure-T-fire out of me.
“I wish you would carry the Glock I bought you in your purse,” said Joe. “Do you at least carry a stun gun with you at all times?”
This was an ongoing argument. They wanted me to carry a gun. I hated guns. They scared me. I had zero confidence that I could use lethal force if push came to shove. “You think I should shoot him if he proposes?”
“Answer the question,” said Gavin. “Streets of any city aren’t safe anymore for a lady to be walking alone at night.”
I closed my eyes. “Yes. I carry a stun gun in my purse. Y’all do remember that I’m well trained in self-defense?”
“I gotcha something else too.” Joe laid his napkin by his plate, stepped into the living room, and returned with a gift-wrapped box sporting a huge yellow bow.
“Let the girl eat,” said Gavin. “We’ll open gifts before we cut the cake. I got you a little something too. Eat. Your dinner’s getting cold.” In our part of the world, dinner was often referred to as the midday meal. We had supper in the evening most days, yet the evening meal on fancy occasions was also called dinner. I would have dinner twice that Sunday.
Later, after we’d cleared the table and done the dishes, after I’d opened my gifts— a pepper spray gun with a fifty-foot range from Joe and a gift certificate for Krav Maga lessons from Gavin, Gavin brought in a tall birthday cake decorated with daisies, streamers, and four candles. He set it in front of me. “Now, it’s not your birthday, of course, but by the power vested in me by the South Carolina Old Coot’s Association, I officially confer upon you one prebirthday wish.”
They were both watching me, waiting.
What to wish for? I had my health. I loved my job. I had good friends.
“Hurry up now, before we burn down the house,” said Gavin. “That’s lemon blueberry pound cake with cream cheese frosting, by the way.”
“Of course it is.” I smiled at him, tearing up a bit. Since I was six years old, that was my favorite cake. I closed my eyes and wished for the same thing I always wished for. Sometimes it was a wish, sometimes a prayer. I wanted to help someone who felt hopeless, someone whose back was slammed flat against the wall.