Lowcountry Book Club by Susan M. Boyer is book #5 in the Liz Talbot Mystery series (Available July 5, 2016).
Somebody pushed Shelby Poinsett out her second-floor library window and it wasn’t her husband. At least that’s what Charleston’s most prestigious law firm wants Liz Talbot to prove. Liz must run the spectrum of Southern society, from the local homeless shelter where Shelby volunteered to the one-hundred-year-old book club where Charleston’s genteel ladies are dying to join, to bring a killer to justice.
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 to my right in Fraser Rutledge’s—a senior partner at Rutledge and Radcliffe—office.
“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?” Fraserelongated each syllable, his honeyed drawl spiked withirritation.
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’tbelieve 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 face 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.”
Eli’s shoulders rose and fell. “Fraser, I’m well aware of your history with the victim and her husband, our client. Which is one of the many reasons I believe taking this case was a mistake.”
Eli struck me as one who was careful with his words. He must’ve wanted this noted on the record between us.
Fraser placed his palms on his desk and leaned across it. Like the best Southern preachers, there was a cadence in his speech as it rose and fell. It was hypnotic, poetic, regardless of the words. “Clint Gerhardt adored his wife. He was as devoted to her as any man who ever walked this earth has ever been to a woman. He would’ve died protecting her. I am telling you. I know. Clint did not kill Shelby. And I will be damned if I sit idly by while he is railroaded to death row because he is from, saints preserve us all, off. And because some folks hear the words Army Ranger and are convinced he is a violent man.”
Charleston natives often referred to those who’d arrived after birth as being from off. The farther away you came from, the more of your history they’d need to know before they fully accepted you. Unless of course they knew your people.
Eli stared at the wall of bookcases behind Fraser’s desk looking like maybe he’d heard this sermon a time or two. He was neither intimidated nor impressed by his partner’s theatrics. “Bottom line. The Gerhardts were at home alone on December 28. At approximately nine p.m., Mrs. Gerhardt was pushed from the French doors of the second-floor library. She died of head injuries. Mr. Gerhardt maintains he was in his third-floor study listening to music. He discovered Mrs. Gerhardt’s body when he came downstairs at eleven. He then called 911. Mr. Gerhardt has no knowledge of anyone else being inside the home. Mrs. Gerhardt had no known enemies, and Paul Baker, our erstwhile in-house investigator, uncovered none during hisinvestigation.”
Fraser stared at me, taking my measure. “Wally Fayssoux up in Greenville says the two of you are the best investigators in the state. High praise. You have certainly been in the Charleston news of late. However, I remain unconvinced that is an advantage.”
Nate leaned back in his chair, likely forming a thoughtful response.
I said, “We’ve been in the news, Mr. Rutledge, because we solve cases.”
“MizTalbot, all due respect, but if I did not know that, we would not be having this conversation.”
I resisted the urgent need to liberate him from his burdensomely high self-regard. “The only way being in the news could hamper our effectiveness,” I said, “would be if our faces were familiar. You may have noticed how our photographs are missing from the occasional mention in the Post and Courier. Very few people in this city could pick us out of a lineup. Why, I’d lay odds you yourself had no idea what we looked like before we walked in.”
“As a matter of fact, I did not.” Fraser tilted his head in consideration. “All right then. Show me what you can do. Impress me, and this could turn out to be a very lucrative situation for you long term. It will save time if you read through the case file before we get to your questions.” He tapped his index finger on the thick stack of documents and photos in the folder lying open in the center of his desk. “What say we meet again tomorrow morning, ten o’clock.” He raised his voice. “Mercedes.”
Mercedes glided into the room. Tall and pale with a long neck, her blonde hair, an array of shades similar to mine, was pulled up into a smooth chignon.
Fraser said, “Mercedes, get Mr. Andrews and Miz Talbot a copy of everything we have on Clint and Shelby.”
“It’s waiting for them out front,” she said.
“Why, of course it is,” Fraser said. “You keep this place running, don’t you, darlin’?” He flipped through the retainer agreement in front of him, initialing where indicated, and then dashed a signature on two copies and handed the documents to Mercedes. “File one of these. The other belongs to our potential investigative team.”
Mercedes handed me our copy and was back out the door as we stood.
Fraser watched her go. “She prefers women. Damned unfortunate waste, but it keeps things simple around the office. My wife purely has no patience with me sleeping with the help.”
Just then I was thinking how Mrs. Rutledge must have the patience of a saint. My mouth itched to open and opine as much. Nate read my mood, reached out and touched my arm. “It was a pleasure meeting you both.” He offered Eli his right hand.
Eli nodded. “I look forward to working with you.”
Fraser walked around the side of his desk. He smiled at me with genuine warmth, then took Nate’s hand and patted him on the back. “You have got yourself a tiger by the tail, don’t you, son?”
“Mr. Rutledge, I don’t have a grip at all,” said Nate.
On the Broad Street sidewalk, less than a block from East Bay, we turned away from the Old Exchange and headed west. We’d parked on the street between State and Church. Nate and I each carried two file boxes worth of the Gerhardt case. We’d have to work all night to get through this and be back by ten the next morning. Whatever it took. Fraser’s poignant recollections of little Shelby sticking up for him in the schoolyard, coupled with the photographs documenting how her life had been abruptly cut short, had stirred my need to set things right. As right as they could now be set anyway.
Colleen trailed behind us.
Nate said, “Colleen, it’s not my intention to sound ungrateful for your help, but there are times when I would be in your debt if you could just stay in the background. Behind me, where I can’t see you, would be ideal.”
“There’s no connection to my mission here,” she said. “I’m going to be of limited help. Strictly protection.”
Colleen’s mission—what she was sent back from beyond to do—is to protect Stella Maris, the barrier island northeast of Charleston, South Carolina, where our hometown by the same name was situated. Stella Maris chiefly required defense from those who would like to line our pristine beaches with hotels, condos, and all manner of commercial enterprise. Since I was on the town council and heavily invested in maintaining the quality of our small-town life, protecting me was part of Colleen’s job.
Nate said, “We’ll holler if we need you.”
“Yeah, try that sometime,” I said.
Colleen appeared in front of us, sitting cross-legged on the rich Charleston breeze. “That’s not fair. I’ve always been there when you needed me.”
“Yes, you have,” I said. “And we’re grateful. But you have to admit, you rarely show up if we simply call your name.”
“I stay busy,” she said. “And I’m not your dog.” She disappeared like someone flipped her switch, not her typical fade out.
“She’s going to be seventeen forever, you know,” I said.
“It’s like having a teenager no one else can see. We’ll be lucky if we don’t both end up in an institution, either because people think we’re mad as sunbathing raccoons or she drives us that way.”
We reached his brown Ford Explorer, put the boxes in the back, and climbed in. As Nate pulled into Broad Street traffic, I pressed the button to open the moonroof. The sparkling clear Carolina blue sky and warm May air wereirresistible.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“About Fraser Rutledge or about the case?”
“It’s worrisome that Paul Baker couldn’t find anything. I don’t know him, but I would venture a guess that our new friend Fraser doesn’t suffer incompetence. Sounds like Baker worked for Rutledge and Radcliffe a while. He must be a decent investigator.” Nate turned left onto East Bay.
“But if he’d found something we wouldn’t have this opportunity.” Part of our business plan was to develop relationships with Charleston attorneys. We had ties with several firms in Greenville, in the South Carolina Upstate near the Blue Ridge foothills. We’d established Talbot & Andrews there right after we’d finished our internship fourteen years earlier. But we needed to build our Lowcountry clientele. Although we still owned a condo in downtown Greenville, Stella Maris was home.
“Fair point. My concern is what if there’s nothing to find? Given Fraser Rutledge’s high regard for his client, if we fail him, I don’t think we’ll get a second chance.”
I sighed, looked out the window at palm trees and storefronts passing by. “We can only do our best and pray that if there’s something to find, we find it. I can’t bear to think he’s innocent and there’s no way to prove it. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work.”
“If he’s innocent, all they have is circumstantial evidence,” said Nate. “But those are some hellacious circumstances.”
Copyright © 2016 Susan M. Boyer.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Susan M. Boyer is the author of the USA TODAY bestselling Liz Talbot mystery series. Her debut novel, Lowcountry Boil, won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel, the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense, and garnered several other award nominations, including the Macavity. Lowcountry Boneyard, the third Liz Talbot mystery, was a Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Okra Pick. Susan loves beaches, Southern food, and small towns where everyone knows everyone, and everyone has crazy relatives. You’ll find all of the above in her novels. She lives in Greenville, SC, with her husband and an inordinate number of houseplants.