What had I expected, coming back to Charleston? I twirled my Waterman pen between my fingers, watching the engraved Avery Andrews catch the candlelight. I tossed the pen onto the table, stared out at the sliver of orange-red sun that lit the still marsh grass, and pretended not to notice the waitress glaring at me.
I’d monopolized her best table too long, waiting on a date who had obviously stood me up. The look on her face said it all: Wise up, honey. He ain’t showin’, and sittin’ here ain’t gonna make it happen. Take your portable office and cruise for guys on somebody else’s rent money.
When she finally deigned to once again approach my table, I offered her my jury-winningest smile and asked for a cup of she-crab soup. She flounced off. Maybe I ought to abandon ship. No telling what she would do to my soup between kitchen and table.
Where the heck was Mark Tilman? This dinner—and this marsh-bound restaurant on stilts—had been his suggestion, when he’d hunted me down earlier in the day at Jake Baker’s law office, pestering Jake’s receptionist until she brought him back to my temporary office.
It had taken only a blink for me to recognize him, even out of context. Mark Tilman, Gregg Tilman’s little brother.
He was too young for the worry lines that creased his forehead, but they looked fresh, temporary. He repeatedly apologized for interrupting but insisted he had to talk to me. About something terribly important. This evening, as soon as he finished his medical clinic rounds.
Was it his pleading-puppy look or the fact that his eyes were identical to Gregg’s? Or because I’d have to explain to Mom if I ignored his plea? I’d agreed to meet him at this restaurant off Folly Beach Road, where we could eat early and avoid the crowd. So here I sat, perched above the marsh grass in a weather-roughened seafood restaurant known mostly to locals, wasting time Jake Baker was paying for, waiting on some kid who only looked like somebody I once dated.
For the past hour, I’d alternated between calling Mark’s cell phone and staring out the window, sipping iced tea. Deep pink and purple sunset clouds framed a skimming, awkward egret. The stillness of the water-footed grass belied the teeming wildlife nursery beneath it—a nursery dying because too many of us want to live in stilt houses or eat in stilt restaurants and pretend we belong here.
It felt odd to be back in Charleston, the site of my ignominious defeat. No, not defeat—self-realization. My ignominious self-realization. Three months earlier, I’d gotten disgusted with an expert witness for lying to help me win a medical malpractice case. A case even my client knew we shouldn’t win. I’d decided—inopportunely, considering it was the middle of the trial—that I didn’t want any part of his lies, and I’d goaded my expert until he exploded, which blew the trial. Threatened with disbarment, I’d headed back to my upstate hometown, out of a job and needing some time to process what had happened. And why.
For the last three months, since Thanksgiving, I’d been hiding in Dacus, but it was now February and I was getting a bit antsy. A small town doesn’t offer much in the way of pickings. Divorces, property transfers, wills, car wrecks—all boringly routine. Some numbskull had scrawled my name in the Dacus Law Enforcement Center’s intake cell, which had provided not-quite-equal measures of hilarity and heartbreak over the last few weeks. Now that I was here in Charleston, I realized how much I’d missed the energy of a pending trial—and how much I’d missed Charleston.
Jake Baker had offered me the only thing that could have lured me out of my self-imposed lethargy and isolation—a high-stakes case. Lawyers aren’t noted for their humility, and they never ask for help, so when Jake actually pleaded for mine, I admit I was intrigued. He had been trying to talk me into joining his practice since I’d quit—or, more accurately, been forced out of my former law firm. He said he wanted me for my wit and charm, but he really wanted my insider’s view from the defense side.
I’d repeatedly said no to a permanent job. Jake isn’t used to hearing the word no, so that only made me more attractive. Two weeks ago, when he called me about the Uplift case and invited me to Charleston, I turned down his first offer—a room in his house. Jake had a reputation. When he offered the master suite at Two Meeting Street Inn and some tantalizing tidbits about his case, I packed my bag.
A forklift operator with a semiautomatic arsenal had gone berserk, killing several coworkers and then himself. Tragic, but hardly news. I pictured Jake sizing up the case as would any lawyer looking to sue. He had sharked his way through the list of potential defendants: the shooter? No money. The company? Not much money and protected by an earlier settlement and by workers’ compensation payments. The gun manufacturer? Too expensive and unlikely to be successful in South Carolina, a state full of gun-toters. Ah, how about the pharmaceutical company that made the antidepressant the poor schmo was taking? And, for good measure, maybe his psychiatrist. Nobody much liked drug companies, and drug companies and doctors had money.
I balked at first, cynically seeing the case as little more than a bunch of injured folks looking for somebody rich to blame—and a greedy plaintiff’s lawyer looking to pay off his beach house. Jake finally hooked me when he explained he wanted me to sit in the courtroom and whisper in his ear. The chance to stage-manage a case intrigued me. He didn’t want a jury selection expert with a psychology degree. He wanted somebody who’d been on the firing line, who knew what it meant to fight for a client in court.
Selfishly, I realized it would give me a rare close-up view from the plaintiff’s side of the courtroom. I’d spent ten years as a defense attorney, defending companies and doctors sued by guys like Jake. While I was unemployed, why not take this chance to see the other side? Along with this chance to eat she-crab soup.
Good she-crab soup, too, that tasted like Lowcountry South Carolina: salty, slightly muddy, buttery, foreign. Nothing like the Upstate—especially my hill country, where the air smelled cinnamon-dank and, at this time of year, held a crisp bite.
I’d been absentmindedly staring at a partially submerged log floating in the water, lit by the floodlights, when one of the bumps on the log winked at me and the log sank out of sight. That’s another thing we don’t have back home: alligators peering up out of the creeks. Nor do we have waving, waist-high fields of marsh grass, deceptively landlike, which hide miles of gooey black “pluff” mud, worse than any quicksand, full of strange creatures I’d missed eating.
The waitress swooped in for my empty soup bowl. “I’ll have the salt-and-pepper catfish,” I told her. She stopped just short of rolling her eyes.
Still no sign of Mark, but I couldn’t keep from glancing at the dining room door whenever someone entered. No point in trying the cell phone again.
He’d probably had an emergency at the clinic. That’s what doctors do, after all. Emergencies. Still, he was the one who’d insisted on dinner. He could have called. For all I knew, he was a scatterbrained twit who routinely arrives an hour late with no apology.
Night had completely swallowed the reddish purple glow on the horizon by the time I found myself debating how much tip to leave. I erred on the side of unmerited generosity since I’d seen no signs of sabotage to my food. Not that I could easily detect spit.
The seashell–tabby parking lot crunched underfoot as I crossed to my vintage red Mustang convertible. Rising behind the restaurant, an apocalyptic moon lit the marsh in a subtly shaded caricature of daylight. I’d never seen a moon so huge. Maybe the full moon had brought Mark an emergency room full of new babies and knifing victims.
My headlights picked out the unpaved road, running along a dike built across the marsh. After a few hundred yards, the marsh road dead-ended in another road paved in the dark gray sand and crushed seashells common to “dirt” roads in the Lowcountry. I waited on a couple of cars turning toward the restaurant before I turned right onto the road that ran alongside a creek, hidden from the moonlight by a tunnel of oaks. At night and alone, this stretch looked primitive and eerie.
The road crooked slightly as it followed the creek and ahead, under the arching oaks, the hysterical circling of police and ambulance lights startled me, popping through the trees and slicing the blackness into bright, frenetic ribbons. The scene would not have been startling or out of place in Columbia or Charleston, but here a simple car accident looked out of context.
Even out here, the accident had attracted looky-loos, including one heavy-set guy standing too far out in the road, dragging on a cigarette and watching someone at work below the embankment. The sight of guys slouching around hoping for some gore always irritates me beyond words. My mind flashed again to Mark and I felt guilty. He was probably occupied with life-and-death drama like this while I pouted about being stood up.
Doctors may have to stop at accident scenes, but I don’t like to be confused with the kind of bottom-feeder lawyers who would. I eased onto the right shoulder of the road, past the wrecker with its winch at the ready, and pointed my headlights toward the hard-topped road and Charleston’s lights.
Copyright © 2005 by Cathy Pickens All rights reserved.