The dead are serene, joyful characters. That’s been my experience, anyway. Since my best friend, Colleen, came back into my life—thirteen years after her funeral, mind you—the import of this has gradually permeated my brain, giving me a deep-seated sense of peace I hadn’t known before. I’m truly grateful for this gift.
That’s not to say there aren’t still days when Colleen works my very last nerve and I want to throttle her—like the day last September when I was trying to have a civilized conversation with Moon Unit Glendawn at The Cracked Pot over a Cobb salad.
It was the Tuesday after Labor Day. The lunch rush had slowed enough at our island diner that the waitstaff could manage things. Moon Unit, who owned the place, took a seat across from me in the pink gingham-backed booth, something she typically did when she wanted to milk me for gossip, or share some. This was no ordinary day. Moon had called me the night before and said she needed to talk, which was somewhat akin to her telling me she needed to breathe. She was universally acknowledged as our town’s Chief Information Officer.
Colleen popped in beside Moon. My guardian spirit wore a green gingham sundress. Her long red curls shimmered with golden highlights. The thick mane draped loose well past her shoulders. Heat and humidity had no effect whatsoever on her since her death. I’d pulled my own hair into a ponytail to get it off my neck. Colleen flashed me an impish grin and propped her elbows on the table. She was up to something, no doubt about it.
I glanced at the ceiling, took a deep cleansing breath.
“Liz? Is this not a good time?” Moon clutched her chest with both hands.
“Of course. It’s fine.” I grabbed something from thin air. “I was just thinking about Daddy.”
Moon twirled a finger through her own ponytail, it a more golden shade of blonde than my multi-toned version. She flashed me a knowing look. “Your poor mamma is a saint walking this earth, and that’s all there is to it. Nothing harder to deal with than a sick man. Every little sniffle, they think they’re ’bout to die.”
“Well, his ‘little sniffle’ has now turned to bronchitis.”
“Bronchitis?” Moon gave me an incredulous look. “He sneezed twice at the pool party week before last.”
“You know Daddy. He was running a fever that next night.
Wouldn’t go to the doctor. Refused to take care of himself. He had a miserable cold within a couple days. By the time Mamma got him over to Warren Harper, it was bronchitis.”
“I am so sorry to hear that,” said Moon. “Is there anything I can do? I know—I’ll whip up a pot of chicken soup and run it by.”
“That’s sweet of you, really, but Mamma’s got a sixteen-quart stock pot full of soup on the stove. She’s trying to feed it to all of us to ward off the germs. I told her it’s too hot to be eating soup. She’s going to end up freezing some of it as it is. Doc Harper wrote Daddy four prescriptions, gave him strict orders to rest in bed, and sent him home with Mamma.”
“I hope you know I didn’t mean to sound unsympathetic to your daddy’s suffering. Bronchitis can be serious business. Even a cold is a misery in this blistering hot weather. It’s just…your poor mamma.”
“I know.” Everyone on this island knew my daddy was a piece of work. “He’s turned the corner, we think. But you’re right, he’s not an easy patient, to say the least. Anyway, how’s your family?
Everyone doing okay?”
Moon waved a hand dismissively, “They’re fine.”
“Sonny?” I hadn’t talked to Sonny Ravenel since we wrapped up the Drayton case about a week ago. Sonny was a Charleston Police detective. My husband, Nate Andrews, and I were private investigators. Our paths crossed professionally on occasion. Sonny was also my brother, Blake’s, best friend. I’d known Sonny forever.
Colleen leaned in.
Moon glanced over her shoulder, like maybe she was verifying no one had sat down behind her. Her eyes slid around the room.
She leaned in. “Sonny?” she said casually. “Oh, he’s fine.”
I scrunched my face at her. Something was off.
“Y’all still dating?” I asked.
“Four months now.” Happiness shone from her eyes.
“Sonny and Moon,” said Colleen, like she was about to follow it up with sittin’ in a tree. “This might stick after all. That’s like, totally awesome.” Of course, no one but me could hear her. She was in ghost mode, her default setting. Colleen, like me, was a teenager in the nineties. But while I grew out of that, Colleen would forever be seventeen, the age she was when she drank tequila and went swimming in Breach Inlet, which everyone in town knew was suicide, but no one mentioned in polite conversation.
I was thinking how four months was a record for both Sonny and Moon. I smiled back at her. “Y’all sure seem to make each other happy.”
She kept smiling, tucked a nonexistent stray lock of hair behind her ear. Then she glanced around again.
“Spit it out already,” said Colleen.
I waited for Moon to speak her piece. She called this meeting.
“It’s just…” She licked her lips, took a breath. Her shoulders rose and fell.
Moon tilted her head. “You know how when you really know someone, you can read between the lines?”
“Sure,” I said.
“I’m almost positive Sonny intended for me to tell you this.
But he’d never, ever admit that. I’ve got to figure out a way to tell you, without tellin’ you.”
“Tell me what, exactly?”
“Well, you know about Trina Lynn Causby, of course.” Moon shook her head. “Just heartbreaking.”
“Did Sonny catch that case?” Trina Lynn Causby was Troy Causby’s oldest sister. My sister, Merry, had an unfortunate lapse in judgement and dated Troy Causby for a while, but that was a whole nother story.
Moon nodded. “Mmm-hmm. Him and his new partner.”
“Sonny has a new partner?” I caught myself furrowing my brow and responded instantly to Mamma’s voice in my head admonishing me about wrinkles. I smoothed the skin between my eyebrows.
“Didn’t I mention that?” Colleen’s eyes glinted mischievously.
“Detective Jenkins,” said Moon.
I pondered that. I’d met Detective Jeremy Jenkins a time or two. He was a decent enough guy. Seemed like a good detective. He probably wasn’t my biggest fan, but still. “Reassignments aren’t all that uncommon.”
“That’s what Sonny said,” said Moon. “But Detective Jenkins—
Jeremy—he’s one of those that’s a stickler for policies, protocol, procedures—all such as that.”
“This’ll be trouble,” said Colleen. “Hey, don’t forget my ham biscuits. You didn’t order them when you ordered your salad.” One of the benefits of being departed was that Colleen never had to count calories. She did have to materialize to eat, something she couldn’t do in public. I ordered enough takeout with my meals to make folks wonder if maybe I suffered from an eating disorder.
I said, “So there’s something about the Trina Lynn Causby case Sonny wants me to know, but he and I can’t have coffee and discuss it. Why doesn’t he just call me?”
Moon studied something over my shoulder. “I’m not a hundred percent certain? But I think he doesn’t want to have to lie to his partner. And he knows Jenkins wouldn’t cotton to discussing an active case with a PI.”
“Maybe especially this PI.”
“Maybe so,” Moon winced. “Or a local small-town police chief.”
Sonny couldn’t get Blake to tell me, so Moon Unit was up. My brother was the Stella Maris chief of police. Something seriously unusual was going on here. Sonny had a burner phone specifically to talk to Blake when he technically couldn’t. “Trina Lynn was shot in Philadelphia Alley Sunday night. The news made it sound like a robbery gone bad. Do they already have a suspect?”
“So not what happened,” said Colleen.
What do you know about this? I threw the thought at her.
Usually she could read my mind, which was how I communicated with her when other folks were around so they didn’t have me carted off to the nervous hospital.
“I know it was cold-blooded murder, but that’s all the information I’ve been given at this point,” said Colleen. “The fact that I know that much means there’s a connection to this island.”
Colleen’s afterlife mission was serving as the guardian spirit of Stella Maris, our island home just north of Isle of Palms, South Carolina.
“I think they might…have a suspect in mind. More iced tea?”
Moon picked up the pitcher and filled my glass. “By the way, have you seen Darius Baker since he moved back home?”
“Darius Baker?” The question seemed completely random. I drew a blank.
Colleen burst out in her signature bray-snort guffaw. “When you draw your chin back like that and squinch your face up, you remind me of your Uncle Cecil.”
Hush up. Mamma’s youngest brother Cecil took a Greyhound to Florida a few years back. The last we heard he’d started his own church somewhere near Orlando. He sent Mamma a postcard once with a picture of him, shaved bald, cloaked in a white robe, standing in front of a statue of Mary that wept blood. He had an albino boa constrictor draped across his shoulders as big around as a cat. I guess no one told Cecil that the snakes handled in religious services were generally the venomous kind. We didn’t discuss Uncle Cecil. It upset Mamma.
Moon examined her manicure.
“What does Darius Baker have to do with Trina Lynn being robbed and murdered?” I asked.
Moon shrugged, looked innocent.
“No,” I said, “I haven’t seen Darius Baker since he moved home. He’s only been here a week. The moving trucks have barely unloaded his furniture at the Devlin homeplace. And it’s not like Darius and I were ever close friends or anything. He’s four years older than us. By the time you and I were at Stella Maris High, he was already on his way to Hollywood. I hadn’t planned on taking him a casserole. Have you?”
“Me?” Moon raised her eyebrows. “Why no, I haven’t seen him. I hadn’t even thought about a casserole. Do you think we should take him a casserole?”
“No. No, I do not.” I searched my brain for anything I knew about Darius Baker. “He did date Trina Lynn in high school, but good grief—that was more than twenty years ago.”
“Did you ever hear anything about him maybe being rough with her?” asked Moon.
Colleen stared at Moon. “They think Darius killed Trina Lynn.”
“Wait,” I said. “What? I always thought he was like the court jester of his class. He wrapped the principal’s car in a ton of cellophane so he couldn’t drive to school the last day of final exams.”
“I don’t think they actually proved that was him,” said Moon.
“He and a couple of his buddies rearranged everyone’s Christmas yard decorations so that the reindeer were being frisky with each other. Mamma had a fit over that one.”
“That was back before everyone had cameras in their doorbells, so no one was actually apprehended,” said Moon.
“But everyone in town knew Darius was behind it,” I said.
“Well, that was the rumor,” said Moon.
“He was a clown,” I said.
“Umm.” Moon shrugged, made a face that said she conceded the point. “A very handsome clown.”
“He was a football player,” I said. “I seem to remember he had a reputation for being a bit of a tough guy…never backed down from a fight. But I never heard he hit Trina Lynn.”
“It was probably just talk,” said Moon. “Everyone said she broke Darius’s heart and that’s why he left like he did, with barely a word to anyone.”
“She kicked him to the curb,” said Colleen. “I remember that much.”
“But again, Moon,” I said. “That was more than twenty years ago. They both moved on a long time ago.”
“It’s interesting they both ended up on television, isn’t it?” asked Moon.
“I suppose,” I said, “but there’s no connection at all. Trina Lynn was an investigative reporter at WCSC. She was a local celebrity, sure. But Darius…Darius is a household name. I doubt they’ve seen each other since the day he left town.”
“I wonder if that’s true,” mused Moon. She gave me this encouraging look, like maybe she was steering me down the right track.
“Sonny thinks after all this time Darius was jealous of some boyfriend of Trina’s or something?” I was highly skeptical of this notion.
“I’m sure I wouldn’t know,” said Moon.
“And a week after he moves home, he tracks her to Philadelphia Alley and shoots her?”
“There’s that Cecil look again,” said Colleen. “Kinda like a turtle. I always thought Cecil looked like a turtle after he shaved his head.”
While Moon stared into space, I cut Colleen a warning look.
“You know,” said Moon, “I don’t think he’s been home a single solitary time since he left. His poor mamma left not long after he did. I’m kinda surprised, to tell you the truth, that he came back here.”
“There’s no place like home.” I shrugged. “It’s remote enough.
I guess I can see the appeal for a semi-retired celebrity. Plus, he was always close to his aunt Nell. She and Bill practically raised Darius.”
Nell Cooper, née Baker, Blake’s dispatcher and administrative assistant, was Darius’s aunt. Her younger brother, Marcus, had a wild streak a mile wide, and an out-of-wedlock baby with Jasmine King. By all accounts, Jasmine tried to be a good mother, but she was only seventeen when Darius was born, and Marcus didn’t stick around.
“Hmmpf. They sure were good to him,” said Moon. “If you ask me, he coulda made life a lot easier for them. He must be right up there with Oprah in the earnings department.”
“I wouldn’t go that far. Why do Sonny and his partner suspect Darius?” I asked.
“That’s not entirely accurate?” Moon wore a pained look.
I tilted my head, looked at her sideways. “Am I going to have to guess every single bit of this story you’re not telling me?”
“Uh-huh.” She nodded, a pleased look on her face, as if she was proud of a slow student.
“Hell’s Bells, Moon. Can’t you just tell me, in strictest confidence, of course, what it is you think Sonny wants me to know? I won’t breathe a single word of it. Although, if he wants me to know anyway—never mind. Just tell me for Pete’s sake.”
“I can’t do that.” Moon reached across the table and grabbed my hands. Her large eyes pleaded with me to understand. She vibrated with tension. How much had the strain of not talking raised her blood pressure? “I’m so sorry.”
“All right. Fine.” I stabbed my fork at my Cobb salad. “So, Jeremy Jenkins suspects Darius, but Sonny’s not on board? Or is someone pressuring both of them?”
Moon beamed, nodded quickly.
“Was Darius in Charleston Sunday night, around the time Trina was killed?” I asked.
“That’s my understanding,” said Moon.
“Was he with anyone?” I asked.
“Exactly.” Moon made a rolling motion with her hands, the way people do when you’re on the right track in charades.
“He was with Trina Lynn?” I asked.
Moon clapped twice and pointed at me.
“Where? Where was he with Trina? What time?”
“Well…maybe you should ask Darius about all of that?” Moon had a hopeful look on her face.
“Moon. The man is a celebrity. He probably has bodyguards. I can’t just waltz over there and interrogate him regarding the murder of his high school girlfriend.” When Darius left for Hollywood, he probably had dreams of being the next Eddie Murphy. He’d had a decent run as a standup comic, but his big break didn’t come until he landed the role on Main Street USA, a reality TV show where he visited a different small town each week, eating at local restaurants, visiting festivals, and interviewing old men swapping lies at the hardware store. He’d filmed ten seasons before retiring. He was also the brand ambassador for Best Dang Drawers, a high-dollar line of men’s underwear.
“Sure you can.” Moon nodded emphatically. “And you’d better hurry.”
Colleen stared at Moon Unit.
What’s going on in there? Can you read her mind?
“Sonny and Jeremy Jenkins are on the 1:30 ferry from Isle of Palms,” said Colleen. “They have an appointment with Blake at 2:15.”
The only reason I could think of that both Sonny and Jeremy Jenkins would have an official appointment with Blake was they were coming to make an arrest. There’s no other reason they’d involve Blake in their case. Darius had been gone too long for Blake to have background information they needed.
I stood, grabbed my tote. “I need my check, Moon.”
“It’s on the house,” she said. “Go.”
“Don’t forget my ham biscuits,” said Colleen.
“Don’t forget your ham biscuits.” Moon jumped up, ran behind the counter and grabbed a takeout bag from under the hot lights on the pass-through bar to the kitchen. “Here you go.”
“Thanks.” I took the bag from her and headed for the door.
I stopped, pivoted back towards her. Moon’s face was washed in uncertainty. “Just in case I misunderstood…please don’t mention anything I said unless you absolutely have to, okay? I don’t want to mess this thing up…me and Sonny, I mean.”
I grinned, shook my head. “Moon, I honestly can’t recall you telling me a solitary thing.”
Copyright © 2019 Susan M. Boyer. All rights reserved.