Lowcountry Book Club Excerpt
The dead are not abundantly sympathetic to their own. My best friend, Colleen, passed through the veil and into the great mystery eighteen years ago next month. She shed no tears over Shelby Scott Poinsett Gerhardt.
The photos of Shelby sprawled lifeless as a rag doll in the brick courtyard of her Tradd Street home would haunt me. I passed them to Nate, who was seated on my right in Fraser Rutledge’s office. Fraser was the senior partner at Rutledge and Radcliffe, a prestigious Charleston law firm.
“She’ll be much happier now.” Colleen’s tone rang casual to my ear. She should be ashamed of herself.
Colleen read my mind, literally.
“What?” Her jade green eyes telegraphed impatience. “Shelby was taken before her time. She’ll be back with a mission soon enough. I hear tell helping others is what this woman lived for. Leaving this life is not the tragedy you mortals think it is. It’s true what they say. She’s in a better place.”
I closed my eyes in an effort to shut her out. She was a distraction in her blue polka dot sundress, a wide-brimmed hat atop her long red curls, perched as she was on the corner of Fraser Alston Rutledge III’s heirloom desk. Of course only Nate and I could see or hear her.
Nate cleared his throat, muttered something.
I made out the words “control” and “ghost.” I gave my head a little shake. As if. Nate was still coming to terms with Colleen. Right up until we’d said our “I Dos” in December, he’d been blissfully unaware of her presence in our lives. It was early May, and he still had a ways to go.
“Am I somehow failing to hold your interest?” Fraser elongated each syllable, his honeyed drawl spiked with irritation.
My eyes popped open. I felt at a disadvantage. We sat on the other side of his desk in his elegantly appointed Broad Street law office. Everything about the man and his surroundings, from the oil painting of him with two Brittany spaniels hanging on the cypress-paneled wall, to the black and white striped bowtie he wore with his grey seersucker suit, testified that his bona fides were in order, his Charleston heritage long and storied.
Fraser studied me.
“Quite to the contrary.” Nate’s easy tone sought to diffuse Fraser’s pique. “We’ll hold our questions for when you’ve finished outlining the case against your client. We’re eager to help, if we can.”
“Please continue,” I said.
“You appear somewhat distracted.” Fraser looked from me to Nate. “We cannot afford to piss away any more time. Our former investigator twiddled his Johnson for four months, billed us a sultan’s ransom, and found not one solitary shred of information we can use. Jury selection begins in two weeks.”
I looked past Colleen directly into Fraser’s eyes. They were tiger eyes, gold and speckled with brown. “You were telling us about your client.”
“Clint Gerhardt.” Eli Radcliffe didn’t quite spit the name out of his mouth, but he managed to convey his disapproval of Clint Gerhardt and all his ancestors. Eli, Fraser’s partner, sat to my left in one of four deep leather visitor chairs. “Naturally, we want to be as prepared as possible.”
“He doesn’t believe Clint Gerhardt is innocent.” Sometimes Colleen could read other minds besides mine. “He’s mad as blazes at his partner.”
You think? I threw the sarcasm-laced thought in her direction. Apparently, the message was also inscribed on my face.
Fraser caught my expression. He drew back, his visage
washed in incredulity.
Let him interpret that look however he pleased. I was exhausted from listening to him talk. Why was Eli so mad at Fraser?
“Eli.” I rolled my voice in sugar sprinkles. “I’d love to hear your take on the case. Is there an avenue you think we should pursue first?”
From the corner of my eye, I caught Fraser’s raised eyebrow. “By all means, Eli. Enlighten them.”
Eli inhaled deeply, averted his soft brown eyes.
I scrutinized his profile. Flawless skin, the color of milk chocolate truffles, high cheekbones, and a strong chin made for a noble countenance. They were a study in similarities and contrasts, these three Southern men. All were well-educated, well-groomed, and fit. All spoke the native language of our people, understood the context words carried here. All had lovely drawls. Nate was the blue-eyed, blond-haired, laid-back prototype; Fraser the wealthy, eccentric, Old Charleston model; and Eli the self-made, cautious, black man.
Eli said, “It doesn’t matter what I think. Our client is innocent until proven guilty. We need to mount a vigorous defense, with a credible theory of the crime that does not include Clint Gerhardt throwing his wife out the second floor french doors of their home. Confidentially, Mrs. Gerhardt was prone to taking in strays. Most people, certainly the police, think Mr. Gerhardt is one she should’ve left at the pound.”
Fraser slammed his palm on his desk. “Dammit, Eli.”
Fraser’s wild-eyed expression was that of a street-corner preacher with his soul on fire for The Lord. His brown hair, combed back on the sides, sported sufficient gel that every strand on top stood straight up on end, giving him the look of someone who’d suffered a recent electrical shock. The overall effect announced he was a character. But he was an extremely successful character. At forty, Fraser Alston Rutledge III had a winning record that rivaled that of any Charleston attorney.
He stood and went to testifying. “Shelby Poinsett was an angel put on this earth by God Almighty himself. She had a heart as big as the Atlantic. Yes, dammit, she took in strays of all kinds, animals—hell, her house is a damn petting zoo—people…It didn’t matter if you were looking up to catch a fading glimmer of rock bottom, Shelby cared about your po-ten-tial. When I was a pimply thirteen-year-old geek whose daddy went to prison for securities fraud, Shelby took me
under her wing and double-dog dared anyone at Porter-Gaud Middle to make fun of me. I, Eli, am one of Shelby’s strays.”