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BLOG TOUR – Pluff Mud Murders

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New Release: Pluff Mud Murders
by Ann Carpenter
 
 

Book
Description:

Riley Jordan has come home to Charleston to begin a new life—a life interrupted when she was a young child, and still haunted by vague memories of danger and mystery. After years of living the fast-paced life of New York’s publishing world, Riley will be the editor-in-chief of Charleston’s Premier
Health
Magazine.

It should be the perfect life. But things are not what they seem. Soon, Riley, who has suffered amnesia since a traumatic event in her childhood, finds herself embroiled in the past history and current
events of the powerful Radisson family, a family whose evil deeds have evaded the long arm of the law, and whose influence reaches far
beyond the city limits. When Riley is confronted with three tinycoffins upon a visit to the former Radisson Estate, she begins a journey into the past that will bring her into contact with Summer Radisson and her sister Hayden. Forced by current events to return to
her tortured past, Riley is confronted with long-buried secrets that
have an impact not only on her life, but on the lives of Alex Keys, a
detective who is trying to find out who she really is, and his former
partner, Phil Leatherman, who was forced from his position in the
department because he knew too much. Under suspicion herself, Riley
vacillates between wanting to remember whatever may have happened,
and a desire to put the past—whatever it might reveal—behind her,
and start life over. But the past is imposing itself upon her very
life. As she learns through a series of revelations, “Death is the
key that opens the door to the past.” This epitaph from Jefferson
Radisson’s grave may indeed provide answers to the secret that has
been buried too long—and that will finally set Riley free.

Book
Excerpt:

What was she going to do?” She sighed, releasing a shaky moan.

A look of uncertainty crossed her long face as she searched for an answer.

Was she going to give up—or go on? She felt her life slipping away. She knew there was no time left.

Ellie Radisson, a widow, was at the end of her rope; her deep-set eyes turned sad and her bottom lip quivered. Her anxiety built as her formerly imposing six-foot frame, now hunched with age, wandered aimlessly back and forth across the scarred wood floors of this once beautiful mansion. She peered into the dimly lit, neglected rooms with their sheet-covered furniture and peeling wallpaper.

As the first pelts of rain hit the house, eerie creaks and groans, suggesting ghosts, could be felt roaming the rooms of Radisson Hall. She sighed. She was suddenly too tired to fight off the haunting memories of her lost family and home. So many years filled with sorrow and pain have slipped away.

How could her father sell her to a man like Jefferson Radisson? A man she barely knew, she wondered, her eyes filling with tears. She was only twelve when he snatched her from her mother’s arms.

Her memory embraced the scene as if it were yesterday. It was always the same blurred image swirling in her head, the tear-streaked face of the screaming and crying child, as she clawed at the stranger’s face, trying to escape. She couldn’t shake the horrifying scene. Even after all this time she would get a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach; her mom and sister, gone, their faces a faded memory.

For the briefest moment, she thought she could smell him, Jefferson’s essence, as if it somehow lingered in the very fabric of this house. Without warning the suffocating thick musty smell stung her. It felt as if she had swallowed a spoonful of filth, one that left a bitter taste in her mouth as her mind swirled around the memory of his smell, a force almost within reach.

She envisioned him lingering in the shadows, the image of an unapologetically masculine man-whore with his neatly trimmed mustache and steamy dark-complexioned good looks. She shuddered. His affairs—and the fruits of those affairs—were always kept under wraps, his image untarnished. Oh, how she longed for an exorcism of his very presence from her life.

Now it is just a matter of time, Jefferson, her husky voice whispered, until the rest of your dirty little secrets, tucked away within these walls, will tumble out into the open for all to see.

She was unaware of the fast moving storm outside until the wind caught a loose shutter on an upstairs bedroom window. It banged and slammed against the fragile glass, sending bits and pieces flying against the billowing window covering. The sound echoed and bounced from wall to wall and down the darkened staircase into the hall below. For a moment it startled her as she stood beneath the dimly lit chandelier with its broken strings of crystals.

Her eyes darted back and forth, searching through the darkness above. In a dream turned upside down she half-expected to see her daughter, Summer, standing at the top of the stairs: her angelic face, her long white-blond hair, braided into pigtails, her dream-like innocence when she mischievously released the ball in her hand. Ellie dreamily watches it come bouncing down the stairs, one at a time, and land at her feet. Then Summer’s impish laugh echoes in the hallowed halls as Ellie clasps her hands over her ears in an attempt to block out the painful sound.

Finally Ellie averted her eyes. She quickly walked across the marble floor and flung open the rain soaked door. To escape. The wind blew and howled through the trees as the earth darkened like a warning of doom; the fast-moving clouds continued to roll in at low altitude across the Lowcountry. Ellie stood silhouetted against the raging wind as the rain intensified. She watched the shadowy tall trees at the edge of the woods sway and bow.

The sky, black as pitch, was pierced with roaring thunder and jagged bolts of lightning. She was so numb she didn’t feel the sheets of rain biting at her bare skin. But she heard the murmurings swirling through the trees. There was no escape. Once again her thoughts traveled to the little cemetery hidden along the banks of the Ashley River, under the gnarled branches of the old Angel oak tree.

There were no headstones. No markings. Buried beneath the soft earth, tiny nameless angels slept in their little beds of velvet. Tiny round faces and small thin cries of the innocent echoed in her ears, their faint wails of torment traveling across the rain soaked land. What have I done? She screams, and runs back into her house of horrors.

Suddenly exhausted, she grasped the newel at the foot of the staircase, lowered her slim, weary body down upon the bottom step, to wait. It was time, she thought, to abandon the pretense, and reveal the remaining secrets that had haunted her and had made her fearful. The emotional strain of the past had left her once beautiful face ghostly with a tapestry of fine wrinkles and lines, and turned her short black hair into an eerie white. Unaware that within her boney hand she grasped the damp photos, she turned her weary eyes to the door, and they were fastened there, waiting. Waiting for her house of cards to tumble down, all around her.

* * * *

Summer emerged from her car, walked across the street, and into the Charleston County Courthouse. A moment later she entered courtroom number five and slipped into a seat on the back row. She kept her covered head lowered in hopes of not being recognized. Every once in a while she would glance around the room and cringe when she saw a familiar face. The room was packed with spectators and news media that held their seats, and chatted quietly. An hour passed, then two, and still no word from the jury. Summer was getting fidgety. She kept glancing at her watch and playing a word game on her phone to pass the time and calm her nerves.

Roberts sat at a table next to Hayden, his client. He leaned in her direction and looked at her closely, as if trying to read something in her face. “This is the hardest part,” Roberts told her haltingly, “waiting on twelve average everyday people, to make sense of this mess.”

Hayden took a deep breath and looked at him. “Do you really think I am crazy enough to believe those eight Southern women on the jury are going to find me not guilty?” she asked in a hushed tone.

There was a long silence. “Yes, I do.” He was trying to sound positive. “It’s crazy I know. Juries are right ninety percent of the time.”

During another long silence she had the sinking feeling she was going to prison. She blinked and felt warm tears against her lashes; unrestrained, they trickled down her cheeks. Anger and frustration rushed through her. She felt deserted and alone.

Slightly turning in her chair Hayden glanced over her right shoulder. Where was her mother? she wondered, the question exploding in her head. She was not strong enough to face this alone. Then she saw Summer. Their eyes met. Summer looked at her coldly and steadily. To her horror Hayden knew she was about to cry. She quickly turned back around. She lifted both hands to her face to gain control. Now she felt powerless, unable to separate her hurt from the fear running through her body. She was alone.

Roberts dropped his gaze and pulled a pen from his pocket and started making notes on the pad in front of him to pass the time. Every now and then he would glance toward the door on the right side of the courtroom. He knew that any minute now the jury could return with the verdict.

He would be lying if he said he wasn’t worried. There were too many unexpected twists and moral dilemmas attached to this case. Hayden had pleaded not guilty to more than one hundred counts, including engaging in prostitution, tax evasion and theft by deception. The latter charges were serious felonies that could send her to prison for up to ten years.

Investigators alleged that Hayden ran a prostitution operation out of her art gallery located on King and taped her encounters on video tape. He knew this was true but had argued that South Carolina’s statute regarding invading a person’s privacy doesn’t apply in this case because prostitution is illegal, a crime.

He glanced in the direction of the prosecuting attorney, Madison Dean. He was famous for his unscrupulous showboating and he used the courtroom expertly as his stage. In Dean’s closing argument he referred to Hayden as a black widow spider who lured other Southern women’s husbands into her web, while stripping them of their dignity, and secretly filming the very act. That wasn’t the half of it. He knew Dean was chomping at the bit to get his hands on the now infamous list with the names of Hayden’s clients. The judge refused to keep the information in the case sealed. It’s only a matter of time, he reasoned, until that can of worms explodes, revealing names of some of the most powerful men in South Carolina.

They’ve taken a small case and blown it into a nightmare, he thought. It was then he caught sight of the bailiff walking toward the closed door, and behind it, the jury.

* * * *

The storm, now just a light drizzle, had turned the land into slippery goo, when the SUV turned onto the dark deserted road. It pulled up to the closed gates of Radisson Hall and stopped. Summer Radisson pressed the remote control button and waited between two lions, guardians who stood at a portal between time and eternity, until the massive iron gates slowly swung open. Her car proceeded past the empty gate house, as the gates automatically closed behind her.

Built over a century ago, Radisson Hall was a former plantation situated on a forty-acre ocean-to-lake estate along the coastal waterways of South Carolina. The long narrow entrance leading to the great house was curvy and dark. Huge oaks and underbrush encroaching along the edges of the lane blended into the marsh, the home of many imposing creatures that roamed the Lowcountry.

Summer began the slow crawl up the drive, now a surface of slippery earth with occasional patches of gravel that crunched beneath the tires. Suddenly, in the halo of lights shining within the mist rising from the warm earth, a dark image appeared and darted across her path. She slammed on the brakes and the SUV slid sideways toward the edge of the drive, barely missing the marsh, then coming to a stop. Overcome with emotion, Summer bent over the steering wheel, sobbing uncontrollably. The trial of her sister, Hayden, was now over and she was spent.

Her life had been a nightmare for the last few months. She couldn’t pick up a newspaper, or turn on the television or even get a cup of coffee at Starbucks without hearing about the trial. She was so sick of everything and the trial was the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as she was concerned. How was she ever going to show her face again in Charleston’s elite circle with everyone whispering, behind her back? It wasn’t fair, she cried, as heart-wrenching sorrow swept over her, leaving her life in shambles on the side of the road. She and her mother had become an act in a circus side show, not of their choosing. They had been imprisoned behind a wall of media, who had set up camp outside of the gates, hoping for an interview. It was not until her mother had given them one, that they finally realized their efforts were futile and they packed up and left, leaving just a few behind to stand guard, just in case.

Now Summer, at twenty-five the youngest daughter of Ellie and Jefferson Radisson, felt blindsided by the tragic events of the past two years. She just knew Hayden’s past would one day destroy the Radisson dynasty. Could that be happening now?

* * * *

Summer’s memory floated back to the time when she was only seven years old. She would never forget that hot and sultry night of Hayden’s sixteenth birthday and the night of the Charleston Debutante Ball, held at the estate.

The lacy wrought-iron balustrades of the marble staircase beneath the grand plastered ceiling were bathed in light from the massive crystal chandeliers. Summer sneaked quietly down the sweeping staircase, careful not to trip on her dress, and hid in the shadows beneath the wide steps. She was so mad; they wouldn’t let her come to the party; they all said she was too young. I’ll show them, she thought, as she put on her glittering princess crown and ran her hands over the soft silk of her sister’s sea green prom dress that dragged the floor when she walked. They are so busy they won’t even notice me; where’s Hayden, she suddenly wondered, looking around the grand ballroom ablaze in light, for her sister.

Then from behind her a click, a door softly opening…

Summer turned and saw Hayden standing in the narrow opening of the doorway to the library. She was confused; why was Hayden in the library and who is that man with her? She blinked at the two figures shadowed in the soft glow behind them. His arm slipped around her sister’s waist. At first she thought it was Mark Hampton standing behind Hayden until she got a good look at his face when he turned his head in her direction. She couldn’t believe it! It was Henry Collier, the president of the College of Charleston with Hayden. She watched them, her eyes big as saucers, as Hayden quickly looked up and down the empty hall. She quickly turned around in his arms placed a hand on the back of his neck and kissed him hard on the mouth.

“Hayden, please don’t go,” he pleaded, still holding her hand as she slipped from his grasp and down the hall. Her footsteps, soft on the marble floor, vanished, while the door quietly closed behind her.

Summer’s eyes were wide. She was confused. Wasn’t Mark Hayden’s boyfriend, she wondered. She didn’t even want to think about the images of Hayden and Mark rolling in the hay, kissing and doing other unmentionable things. “Gross,” she said under her breath.

Hayden paused in front of the tall gold-framed pier mirror in the hallway to admire her strapless couture gown and check her make-up. Hidden in the shadows, Summer mimicked Hayden’s facial expressions in the mirror. Hayden applied lip gloss to her perfectly shaped mouth and ran her fingers through her bleached blonde hair. She eyed her perfectly shaped body in the mirror then turned and strutted down the hall. The white chiffon flowed softly around her ankles as she moved effortlessly into the fifty-foot ballroom to join the party, where the music swelled and floated and couples danced.

I know what you were doing in there with that old man, Summer thought angrily. I’m gonna go in there right now and tell Dad…Mark…on you…she thought, but as badly as she wanted to, she knew she couldn’t; she would be in big trouble. And the last thing she needed right now, was trouble.

Hayden, the perfect daughter, she silently sang to herself while strutting about, mocking her sister. She doesn’t know that I know. Summer sang and sang while she twirled and twirled to the music in the shadows. A big smirk formed on her face, as thoughts of blackmail flowed in and out of her mind. She looked into the crystal ballroom with its floor to ceiling windows reflecting brilliant shimmering lights and couples dancing. Where was Hayden? Then she caught sight of her dancing to the music in her father’s arms, the sequins and crystals on the bodice of her dress like diamonds catching light.

The sudden pounding at the double paneled wood entrance startled her. And without warning a terrified servant, his face void of color, stormed through the door. “Help, we need help…there’s a dead body in the rose garden,” he yelled, running and leaving a trail of dirt across the mirrored marble floor. Oh, Mom is going to really be mad when she sees this, Summer thought, glancing at the soil he left behind. Her princess crown askew on her bouncing curls, she ran after the servant. The scene she encountered was pure chaos from the house and into the garden.

Suddenly she stopped with her fists clinched by her side. She gave her sister a look of hatred before darting under the gazebo. Here she could watch and not be seen.

 * * * *

Blue lights flashed and sirens screamed as officers approached the estate in respond to the 911 call. The skeletal remains of a body had been partially unearthed in the formal rose gardens and discovered by James Davis, the security guard checking the grounds, behind the great house.

Deputy Pete Mason, of the Mt. Pleasant highway patrol, was the first responder to the scene. While he waited for Roy Brown, the forensic pathologist of Charleston, to arrive, he secured the area. He only paused briefly to speak to Del Milford, the forensic photographer for Charleston County who just happened to be moonlighting that night, as he tied yellow police tape between the trees.

Uniformed figures struggled to control the curious crowd, pushing them back behind the neon tape flapping in the hot breeze that was blowing in from the sea.

Jefferson Radisson, tall and lean, remained calm amid the chaos. As he talked with Deputy Mason, he pulled a silver lighter from his pocket and flicked it. The flame caught, lighting his handsome face and green eyes. He inhaled and let out a plume of white smoke. Mason thought he looked a little too calm, considering the occasion. Frank Jordan, Radisson’s business associate, approached them while they stood off to the side. Radisson walked a short distant with Jordan, talking in hush tones. Minutes later Jordan disappeared into the darkness.

Del Milford watched the exchange while he dispatched a call to the Charleston County Sheriff’s Department, Homicide Division (CCSD) for Detective Phil Leatherman. He had twenty years of gut- wrenching investigative experience with the department. Leatherman quickly arrived on the scene. Forty-five and a former New York City special agent with the FBI, he was a striking man, six foot four, and with a thick mustache and thinning salt and pepper hair.

He parked his unmarked car some distance from the house. He observed the crowd of spectators that had gathered; some in formal attire, obviously party guests, and some in street clothes, talking to a reporter from the Post and Currier. He spotted two policemen trying to keep a path open for the crime scene investigators to pass through the midst of debutantes in white dresses and young men in tuxedos.

He had only walked a short distance when he noticed their faces—the faces of the curious, he thought, with their surreal looks of disbelief, pushing against each other in hopes of seeing the dead body.

He wandered up to a uniformed officer and exchanged a few words. The officer led Leatherman to where the body had been buried and where the investigative team was assembled.

They walked past the gazebo, where two bright eyes hid in the darkness taking it all in, and stopped. Leatherman eyed the rose-covered landscape with its cobblestone pathways. He smelled the roses. The sickening sweet smell, not quite like decomposing flesh, contaminated the night air, and his nostrils. He was beginning to wish he hadn’t eaten that leftover pizza for dinner.

Leatherman slowly moved toward the oppressive crime scene. Roy Brown was stooped over, working around a rose-covered bush that had been unearthed and pushed aside in the sandy soil. His latex-protected fingers were cautiously moving around the body’s remains, collecting samples of insects and placing them in containers. Del Milford, the forensic photographer, was at his elbow snapping pictures.

“Hello boys.” Leatherman said. “What do we have here?” He looked at the decomposed body in the shallow grave.

“Female, I would say in her mid to late thirties, Detective. Body’s in the final stage of decomposition. Whoever killed her bashed in her skull with a sharp instrument.” He pointed to a deep gash in the back of the scull, where she lay face down. “If you look here,” he said pointing, “you can see where a piece of the skull’s missing.”

“Any signs of the murder weapon, Doc?”

“Nah, we haven’t found it but I suspect it might be a garden hoe. The boys are checking the area as we speak.”

“Strange positioning for the body,” Leatherman stated. “What do you make of it, Doc?”

“Not sure, Phil…could mean that she was murdered at another location and her body dumped and buried here. You might want to take a look at this,” he said picking up the tattered remains of a moth- eaten wool blanket. “Found it half buried in the dirt. First thought it had been wrapped around her, but there’s no trace of fibers beneath the body.”

“Are you sure, Doc? Maybe it slipped out from under her when the animal dug her up.”

“Nah I don’t think so, Phil, but I will be able to tell you for sure once I get the body to the morgue for examination.”

For years Summer had lived that day over and over in her mind. It was at that precise moment she knew that it was her father’s fault. If he hadn’t hired that idiot…or was it Frank Jordan’s fault? She wondered. She didn’t like Jordan. He was always sneaking around watching her.

Yes, it had to be his fault, she thought. He was the one who brought that woman here.

 

 

* * * *

Moonlight struck the giant oaks as Summer turned from the main road. Her car pulled between the two lions, the entrance to the estate. She banged her fist against the steering wheel. “I can’t believe I have to do this!” She cried.

“I have been covering for Hayden all my life,” she thought. But now everyone knew Hayden’s secrets that she had kept all these years. Here she was the only one left. She realized there was nothing she could do to stop the unstoppable.

Emotional turbulence churned within her as she turned, sobbing, toward the guest cottage.

A few hundred feet from the cottage stood the empty stable, a handsome brick structure covered with creeping fig vine. The car slowed as the house came into view. The fog had rolled in from Ashley River, cloaking the house. This once beautiful estate, a three-story brick mansion, had flourished in its day. Now it stood neglected, its stone façade dimly lit by her headlights flashing in the sixteenth century arched windows.

A few hazy lights shown inside the house and two exterior lights shone dimly on each side of the front door. Reflectors on both sides of the driveway marked the turnoff that led up to Radisson Hall.

Summer turned left from the main drive into the courtyard in front of the mansion, parked and shut off the engine. She gripped the wheel, her knuckles white. She focused on her breathing, with her heart racing like waves crashing on the shore. Sitting very still, she gathered her courage. She knew what her mission was and she knew that it had to be carried out in haste.

She could not help the tears that stained her face. She walked quickly up the dimly lit double stairs leading to a landing and the massive double doors. Grabbing the tarnished brass knob, she flung open the door to reveal the dimly lit great hall.

Ellie, bathed in the dim light, stood abruptly. The photos in her hand dropped to the floor, fluttering and scattering at her feet.

Startled, Ellie quickly looked down. Her green eyes widened with fear as she surveyed the pictures of her children and the picture of a blond child scattered about. Moments passed, her eyes fastened upon the child with blond hair. Her brain plunged deep into the abyss of the past.

Ellie’s beautiful eyes glassed over with tears. She was visibly upset. She looked at her outstretched arms and in her mind’s eye she saw her blood-stained hands. She shook her head and violently rubbed her hands against her thighs. It was utterly unthinkable, she groaned. She was at her wits’ end. Nothing could change the past.

Ellie breathed deeply before she spoke and her eyes darted toward her daughter. Summer’s eyes fastened upon her mother’s somber, tear-streaked face.

“I have had enough of all the corruption. The lies!” Ellie angrily blurted, drawing a jagged breath. “This has gone too far, Summer. It is over!”

Startled by her mother’s sudden burst of anger, Summer tried to speak. The urge to go to her mother overcame her. She reached out for her mother’s hand. But Ellie slipped from her grasp, and turned to the door. “Mom, please, we need to talk.” she pleaded. “I have wanted to explain—I—I tried to tell you, but I just couldn’t hurt you.”

“No, Summer.”

This angered Summer. She went on the defensive, her face turning beet red. “Mom, look at yourself. You haven’t slept for weeks. You can’t sit down and even talk to me. Why are you doing this? Tormenting yourself? You can’t change the past.”

“Don’t be naïve, Summer.” Ellie spoke sharply. “Do you think I don’t know that? It’s time to stop the pretense; I know, I know what Hayden has done…the secrets…the lies, and deceit…She is after all, her father’s daughter.” Ellie turned back to Summer. “What was the verdict?”

“Guilty.”

Summer looked at her mother’s wax-like face shadowed by the dim light. Her eyes had in them the darkness of a ravaged soul, deep and unreadable. Summer knew there was nothing left for her mother. Her mother’s grief was eating her alive. Summer knew it would be useless to speak out now.

She was somewhat responsible, Summer reasoned. Her mother had been an unwilling accomplice in her father’s evil deeds. So some guilt should be hers.

Ellie quickly turned, then brushed past her daughter and out the open door. She stood on the porch in the drizzling rain, turning once more to stare at Summer’s face. She mouthed words that Summer couldn’t quite understand before she turned and ran down the steps, toward the path that ran along the banks of the Ashley River, and the little cemetery hidden beneath the gnarled branches of the Angel Oak.

Summer stood motionless, watching her mother disappear into the darkness. She knew she was powerless to stop her. She shrugged her shoulders and resisted a moment of weakness, the urge to run after her mother. Summer was suddenly overwhelmed with grief as a wave of sadness rolled over her. It was a loss she thought she had conquered. It was so intense it weakened her knees, causing her to collapse onto the rain-soaked boards of the porch as the emptiness repeatedly stabbed at her heart.

Her eyes stung from peering into the mist. It made her mother look insubstantial: it turned her into a ghostly figure disappearing from sight and into the night.

It’s God’s will and it’s hard, but I must go on, Summer reasoned. She closed the door against the darkness.

CHAPTER ONE

 

b> The beginning of uncertainty and the end of a dynasty.

Riding down from Vanceboro toward New Bern, North Carolina, Riley Jordan traveled along the Ocean Highway. The Spiral gray metallic Corvette skirted the highway that cut a straight line through the marshy bottomland overgrown with cypress and pine. Riley shifted the car into second and with a low throaty roar it entered the tunnel of moss-covered trees that had woven a canopy over the road. Streaming sunlight flicked to the rhythm of the funky jazz of Steely Dan belting out: So, I shifted left for out of town. Then I clicked my heels and doubled down…

 

As the highway veered to her right, the forest gave way and the blue waters of the Neuse River appeared in the dazzling morning light. Riley’sbreath caught at the sight of a horizon dotted with steeples and spires of New Bern huddled along the banks of the Neuse River.

With the gas gauge near empty Riley pulled into the Fuel Market to fill the car and grab some coffee. Her stomach growled—it had been hours since she had last eaten.

People came and went as she walked across the checkered black and white tile floor of the convenience store and paid the sleepy-eyed man behind the counter for her coffee and a hot chicken biscuit. Outside, a breeze flowed around her, smelling of water. She breathed deeply. The sea was near. It brought back the painful memory of Stuart and the pristine beauty of the Hampton Beaches along Long Island. Often they would leave the city behind for a relaxing weekend of sun. Putting on her sunglasses she fought off the painful memory. Shifting into gear she pulled out of the parking lot.

Back on Highway 17 she continued south to Charleston. The coastal highway ran pass Victorian, Federal and Georgian homes, giving her a glimpse of her past. She found herself searching for buried secrets suppressed deep within her.

Dr. Clark, her psychiatrist, spoke of DSM-IV or dissociative amnesia, an inability to recall personal information, usually of a traumatic nature. Even now she shuddered at the memory of struggling to regain the repressed memories. . .to stop the nightmare plaguing her young life.

It was a perfect March day, mid-seventies, a few clouds in the now-deepening gold-to-pink-to-blue sky in the Lowcountry. With the top down and music blaring, Riley Jordan felt free as the wind blowing through her hair.

Just on the outskirts of Mount Pleasant, she caught a glimpse of a road in her peripheral vision. She suddenly whipped the Corvette around, and moved down the once familiar road.

In her traditional slave clothes an old Gullah lady sat in front of her roadside stand, offering sweet grass baskets in various shapes and sizes, for sale. In her lap she patiently worked on an unfinished basket. A big smile spread across her face as she watched Riley slowly approach. Riley waved to her and was tempted to stop. Another day, she thought. The old woman returned the greeting but Riley could see the disappointment in her face beneath the white turban she was wearing. Riley moved on.

Christ Church built in 1707, was surrounded by an old iron fence, rusted to the color of clay. Riley could see the small cemetery in the background through the spikes of the fence. The iron fence was partially covered in vines of honeysuckle and the aroma filled the afternoon with a heady and intoxicating air. Riley breathed deeply.

The paved road abruptly ended. Moss-laden trees shut out the sun. She knew she was closer to the salt marsh. She could smell the bold aroma of pluff mud indigenous to the Carolina Lowcounty waterways.

Riley suddenly slammed on the brakes, causing the car to fish-tail. Startled, she thought she was seeing a mirage. Massive iron gates which seemed to appear from nowhere blocked the way. She crawled to a stop.

Perplexed, she realized the massive gates were familiar. The wheels of her mind began to turn. At that moment she knew. “This is the Radisson Estate!” She said it aloud, though there was no one to hear.

The former plantation, now the private home of Ellie Radisson, had been in the Radisson family for generations. Riley had heard that the estate was being run by an overseer, Mark Jennings. He took over after the sudden death of Jefferson Radisson, the patriarch of the family who had suffered a deadly stroke in his early fifties.

Riley had heard that Ellie, his widow, had become a recluse rarely seen in public. She had become an enigma to the locals, a woman around whom mystery and gossip swirled like honey bees.

Riley eased her car close, and cautiously stepped out. Aware of the silence around her, she approached the gates, confused; the only sound was the gravel crunching beneath her feet. A NO TRESPASSING SIGN hung from the rusted gate. It read KEEP OUT, Property of Hampton Properties. The sign shocked her.

The estate had been sold! She grasped the rusted iron and, peering beyond, caught sight of the yellow bulldozers parked where once beautiful shrubbery and spring flowers grew. Urbanization now threatened their demise.

What had happened to Ellie Radisson? According to network news, Hayden, the eldest Radisson daughter, was soon to be released from prison on good behavior. Prior to her conviction Hayden had been involved in prostitution. During the investigation strange connections emerged, leading to unanswered questions, and the drama of a scandalous crime.

The thoughts of Hayden stirred memories as she let her mind travel back to the time when she was eight years old, and her father had brought her here for the first time. Mentally, Riley was in her youth, running the banks of the Ashley River with nine-year-old Hayden, their blond hair wet from the damp humidity and the suffocating heat of the day. Her father’s voice seemed to echo in the distance. But then a rustling in the bush brought her back to reality.

Without warning she felt a chill sweep over her, even though the day was warm. She felt she was not alone. Her eyes began to shift from side to side, while her heart pounded wildly in her chest. She scanned her surroundings, and spotted a deer standing in a clearing just beyond the gate house. Relieved, but overwhelmed with a sudden impulse to get out of there, she quickly hurried back to her car, jammed the Corvette into reverse, and sent gravel flying from beneath the tires as she got back on the road.

Lurking in the bush, a man who had been shrouded by shadows beneath an old oak tree, suddenly stepped out into the clearing.

Why is she back? he wondered. One way or another he had to find out. If she has remembered—he knew what he would have to do. He watched as her car vanished in a cloud of dust, then slipped back into the underbrush.

Moments later she was having difficulty regaining her composure. Was I alone? Uneasy, she felt as if her past was threatening to gobble her up.

What was she going to do?” She sighed, releasing a shaky moan.

A look of uncertainty crossed her long face as she searched for an answer.

Was she going to give up—or go on? She felt her life slipping away. She knew there was no time left.

Ellie Radisson, a widow, was at the end of her rope; her deep-set eyes turned sad and her bottom lip quivered. Her anxiety built as her formerly imposing six-foot frame, now hunched with age, wandered aimlessly back and forth across the scarred wood floors of this once beautiful mansion. She peered into the dimly lit, neglected rooms with their sheet-covered furniture and peeling wallpaper.

As the first pelts of rain hit the house, eerie creaks and groans, suggesting ghosts, could be felt roaming the rooms of Radisson Hall. She sighed. She was suddenly too tired to fight off the haunting memories of her lost family and home. So many years filled with sorrow and pain have slipped away.

How could her father sell her to a man like Jefferson Radisson? A man she barely knew, she wondered, her eyes filling with tears. She was only twelve when he snatched her from her mother’s arms.

Her memory embraced the scene as if it were yesterday. It was always the same blurred image swirling in her head, the tear-streaked face of the screaming and crying child, as she clawed at the stranger’s face, trying to escape. She couldn’t shake the horrifying scene. Even after all this time she would get a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach; her mom and sister, gone, their faces a faded memory.

For the briefest moment, she thought she could smell him, Jefferson’s essence, as if it somehow lingered in the very fabric of this house. Without warning the suffocating thick musty smell stung her. It felt as if she had swallowed a spoonful of filth, one that left a bitter taste in her mouth as her mind swirled around the memory of his smell, a force almost within reach.

She envisioned him lingering in the shadows, the image of an unapologetically masculine man-whore with his neatly trimmed mustache and steamy dark-complexioned good looks. She shuddered. His affairs—and the fruits of those affairs—were always kept under wraps, his image untarnished. Oh, how she longed for an exorcism of his very presence from her life.

Now it is just a matter of time, Jefferson, her husky voice whispered, until the rest of your dirty little secrets, tucked away within these walls, will tumble out into the open for all to see.

She was unaware of the fast moving storm outside until the wind caught a loose shutter on an upstairs bedroom window. It banged and slammed against the fragile glass, sending bits and pieces flying against the billowing window covering. The sound echoed and bounced from wall to wall and down the darkened staircase into the hall below. For a moment it startled her as she stood beneath the dimly lit chandelier with its broken strings of crystals.

Her eyes darted back and forth, searching through the darkness above. In a dream turned upside down she half-expected to see her daughter, Summer, standing at the top of the stairs: her angelic face, her long white-blond hair, braided into pigtails, her dream-like innocence when she mischievously released the ball in her hand. Ellie dreamily watches it come bouncing down the stairs, one at a time, and land at her feet. Then Summer’s impish laugh echoes in the hallowed halls as Ellie clasps her hands over her ears in an attempt to block out the painful sound.

Finally Ellie averted her eyes. She quickly walked across the marble floor and flung open the rain soaked door. To escape. The wind blew and howled through the trees as the earth darkened like a warning of doom; the fast-moving clouds continued to roll in at low altitude across the Lowcountry. Ellie stood silhouetted against the raging wind as the rain intensified. She watched the shadowy tall trees at the edge of the woods sway and bow.

The sky, black as pitch, was pierced with roaring thunder and jagged bolts of lightning. She was so numb she didn’t feel the sheets of rain biting at her bare skin. But she heard the murmurings swirling through the trees. There was no escape. Once again her thoughts traveled to the little cemetery hidden along the banks of the Ashley River, under the gnarled branches of the old Angel oak tree.

There were no headstones. No markings. Buried beneath the soft earth, tiny nameless angels slept in their little beds of velvet. Tiny round faces and small thin cries of the innocent echoed in her ears, their faint wails of torment traveling across the rain soaked land. What have I done? She screams, and runs back into her house of horrors.

Suddenly exhausted, she grasped the newel at the foot of the staircase, lowered her slim, weary body down upon the bottom step, to wait. It was time, she thought, to abandon the pretense, and reveal the remaining secrets that had haunted her and had made her fearful. The emotional strain of the past had left her once beautiful face ghostly with a tapestry of fine wrinkles and lines, and turned her short black hair into an eerie white. Unaware that within her boney hand she grasped the damp photos, she turned her weary eyes to the door, and they were fastened there, waiting. Waiting for her house of cards to tumble down, all around her.

  • * * * *

Summer emerged from her car, walked across the street, and into the Charleston County Courthouse. A moment later she entered courtroom number five and slipped into a seat on the back row. She kept her covered head lowered in hopes of not being recognized. Every once in a while she would glance around the room and cringe when she saw a familiar face. The room was packed with spectators and news media that held their seats, and chatted quietly. An hour passed, then two, and still no word from the jury. Summer was getting fidgety. She kept glancing at her watch and playing a word game on her phone to pass the time and calm her nerves.

Roberts sat at a table next to Hayden, his client. He leaned in her direction and looked at her closely, as if trying to read something in her face. “This is the hardest part,” Roberts told her haltingly, “waiting on twelve average everyday people, to make sense of this mess.”

Hayden took a deep breath and looked at him. “Do you really think I am crazy enough to believe those eight Southern women on the jury are going to find me not guilty?” she asked in a hushed tone.

There was a long silence. “Yes, I do.” He was trying to sound positive. “It’s crazy I know. Juries are right ninety percent of the time.”

During another long silence she had the sinking feeling she was going to prison. She blinked and felt warm tears against her lashes; unrestrained, they trickled down her cheeks. Anger and frustration rushed through her. She felt deserted and alone.

Slightly turning in her chair Hayden glanced over her right shoulder. Where was her mother? she wondered, the question exploding in her head. She was not strong enough to face this alone. Then she saw Summer. Their eyes met. Summer looked at her coldly and steadily. To her horror Hayden knew she was about to cry. She quickly turned back around. She lifted both hands to her face to gain control. Now she felt powerless, unable to separate her hurt from the fear running through her body. She was alone.

Roberts dropped his gaze and pulled a pen from his pocket and started making notes on the pad in front of him to pass the time. Every now and then he would glance toward the door on the right side of the courtroom. He knew that any minute now the jury could return with the verdict.

He would be lying if he said he wasn’t worried. There were too many unexpected twists and moral dilemmas attached to this case. Hayden had pleaded not guilty to more than one hundred counts, including engaging in prostitution, tax evasion and theft by deception. The latter charges were serious felonies that could send her to prison for up to ten years.

Investigators alleged that Hayden ran a prostitution operation out of her art gallery located on King and taped her encounters on video tape. He knew this was true but had argued that South Carolina’s statute regarding invading a person’s privacy doesn’t apply in this case because prostitution is illegal, a crime.

He glanced in the direction of the prosecuting attorney, Madison Dean. He was famous for his unscrupulous showboating and he used the courtroom expertly as his stage. In Dean’s closing argument he referred to Hayden as a black widow spider who lured other Southern women’s husbands into her web, while stripping them of their dignity, and secretly filming the very act. That wasn’t the half of it. He knew Dean was chomping at the bit to get his hands on the now infamous list with the names of Hayden’s clients. The judge refused to keep the information in the case sealed. It’s only a matter of time, he reasoned, until that can of worms explodes, revealing names of some of the most powerful men in South Carolina.

They’ve taken a small case and blown it into a nightmare, he thought. It was then he caught sight of the bailiff walking toward the closed door, and behind it, the jury.

* * * *

The storm, now just a light drizzle, had turned the land into slippery goo, when the SUV turned onto the dark deserted road. It pulled up to the closed gates of Radisson Hall and stopped. Summer Radisson pressed the remote control button and waited between two lions, guardians who stood at a portal between time and eternity, until the massive iron gates slowly swung open. Her car proceeded past the empty gate house, as the gates automatically closed behind her.

Built over a century ago, Radisson Hall was a former plantation situated on a forty-acre ocean-to-lake estate along the coastal waterways of South Carolina. The long narrow entrance leading to the great house was curvy and dark. Huge oaks and underbrush encroaching along the edges of the lane blended into the marsh, the home of many imposing creatures that roamed the Lowcountry.

Summer began the slow crawl up the drive, now a surface of slippery earth with occasional patches of gravel that crunched beneath the tires. Suddenly, in the halo of lights shining within the mist rising from the warm earth, a dark image appeared and darted across her path. She slammed on the brakes and the SUV slid sideways toward the edge of the drive, barely missing the marsh, then coming to a stop. Overcome with emotion, Summer bent over the steering wheel, sobbing uncontrollably. The trial of her sister, Hayden, was now over and she was spent.

Her life had been a nightmare for the last few months. She couldn’t pick up a newspaper, or turn on the television or even get a cup of coffee at Starbucks without hearing about the trial. She was so sick of everything and the trial was the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as she was concerned. How was she ever going to show her face again in Charleston’s elite circle with everyone whispering, behind her back? It wasn’t fair, she cried, as heart-wrenching sorrow swept over her, leaving her life in shambles on the side of the road. She and her mother had become an act in a circus side show, not of their choosing. They had been imprisoned behind a wall of media, who had set up camp outside of the gates, hoping for an interview. It was not until her mother had given them one, that they finally realized their efforts were futile and they packed up and left, leaving just a few behind to stand guard, just in case.

Now Summer, at twenty-five the youngest daughter of Ellie and Jefferson Radisson, felt blindsided by the tragic events of the past two years. She just knew Hayden’s past would one day destroy the Radisson dynasty. Could that be happening now?

* * * *

Summer’s memory floated back to the time when she was only seven years old. She would never forget that hot and sultry night of Hayden’s sixteenth birthday and the night of the Charleston Debutante Ball, held at the estate.

The lacy wrought-iron balustrades of the marble staircase beneath the grand plastered ceiling were bathed in light from the massive crystal chandeliers. Summer sneaked quietly down the sweeping staircase, careful not to trip on her dress, and hid in the shadows beneath the wide steps. She was so mad; they wouldn’t let her come to the party; they all said she was too young. I’ll show them, she thought, as she put on her glittering princess crown and ran her hands over the soft silk of her sister’s sea green prom dress that dragged the floor when she walked. They are so busy they won’t even notice me; where’s Hayden, she suddenly wondered, looking around the grand ballroom ablaze in light, for her sister.

Then from behind her a click, a door softly opening…

Summer turned and saw Hayden standing in the narrow opening of the doorway to the library. She was confused; why was Hayden in the library and who is that man with her? She blinked at the two figures shadowed in the soft glow behind them. His arm slipped around her sister’s waist. At first she thought it was Mark Hampton standing behind Hayden until she got a good look at his face when he turned his head in her direction. She couldn’t believe it! It was Henry Collier, the president of the College of Charleston with Hayden. She watched them, her eyes big as saucers, as Hayden quickly looked up and down the empty hall. She quickly turned around in his arms placed a hand on the back of his neck and kissed him hard on the mouth.

“Hayden, please don’t go,” he pleaded, still holding her hand as she slipped from his grasp and down the hall. Her footsteps, soft on the marble floor, vanished, while the door quietly closed behind her.

Summer’s eyes were wide. She was confused. Wasn’t Mark Hayden’s boyfriend, she wondered. She didn’t even want to think about the images of Hayden and Mark rolling in the hay, kissing and doing other unmentionable things. “Gross,” she said under her breath.

Hayden paused in front of the tall gold-framed pier mirror in the hallway to admire her strapless couture gown and check her make-up. Hidden in the shadows, Summer mimicked Hayden’s facial expressions in the mirror. Hayden applied lip gloss to her perfectly shaped mouth and ran her fingers through her bleached blonde hair. She eyed her perfectly shaped body in the mirror then turned and strutted down the hall. The white chiffon flowed softly around her ankles as she moved effortlessly into the fifty-foot ballroom to join the party, where the music swelled and floated and couples danced.

I know what you were doing in there with that old man, Summer thought angrily. I’m gonna go in there right now and tell Dad…Mark…on you…she thought, but as badly as she wanted to, she knew she couldn’t; she would be in big trouble. And the last thing she needed right now, was trouble.

Hayden, the perfect daughter, she silently sang to herself while strutting about, mocking her sister. She doesn’t know that I know. Summer sang and sang while she twirled and twirled to the music in the shadows. A big smirk formed on her face, as thoughts of blackmail flowed in and out of her mind. She looked into the crystal ballroom with its floor to ceiling windows reflecting brilliant shimmering lights and couples dancing. Where was Hayden? Then she caught sight of her dancing to the music in her father’s arms, the sequins and crystals on the bodice of her dress like diamonds catching light.

The sudden pounding at the double paneled wood entrance startled her. And without warning a terrified servant, his face void of color, stormed through the door. “Help, we need help…there’s a dead body in the rose garden,” he yelled, running and leaving a trail of dirt across the mirrored marble floor. Oh, Mom is going to really be mad when she sees this, Summer thought, glancing at the soil he left behind. Her princess crown askew on her bouncing curls, she ran after the servant. The scene she encountered was pure chaos from the house and into the garden.

Suddenly she stopped with her fists clinched by her side. She gave her sister a look of hatred before darting under the gazebo. Here she could watch and not be seen.

 

  • * * * *

Blue lights flashed and sirens screamed as officers approached the estate in respond to the 911 call. The skeletal remains of a body had been partially unearthed in the formal rose gardens and discovered by James Davis, the security guard checking the grounds, behind the great house.

Deputy Pete Mason, of the Mt. Pleasant highway patrol, was the first responder to the scene. While he waited for Roy Brown, the forensic pathologist of Charleston, to arrive, he secured the area. He only paused briefly to speak to Del Milford, the forensic photographer for Charleston County who just happened to be moonlighting that night, as he tied yellow police tape between the trees.

Uniformed figures struggled to control the curious crowd, pushing them back behind the neon tape flapping in the hot breeze that was blowing in from the sea.

Jefferson Radisson, tall and lean, remained calm amid the chaos. As he talked with Deputy Mason, he pulled a silver lighter from his pocket and flicked it. The flame caught, lighting his handsome face and green eyes. He inhaled and let out a plume of white smoke. Mason thought he looked a little too calm, considering the occasion. Frank Jordan, Radisson’s business associate, approached them while they stood off to the side. Radisson walked a short distant with Jordan, talking in hush tones. Minutes later Jordan disappeared into the darkness.

Del Milford watched the exchange while he dispatched a call to the Charleston County Sheriff’s Department, Homicide Division (CCSD) for Detective Phil Leatherman. He had twenty years of gut- wrenching investigative experience with the department. Leatherman quickly arrived on the scene. Forty-five and a former New York City special agent with the FBI, he was a striking man, six foot four, and with a thick mustache and thinning salt and pepper hair.

He parked his unmarked car some distance from the house. He observed the crowd of spectators that had gathered; some in formal attire, obviously party guests, and some in street clothes, talking to a reporter from the Post and Currier. He spotted two policemen trying to keep a path open for the crime scene investigators to pass through the midst of debutantes in white dresses and young men in tuxedos.

He had only walked a short distance when he noticed their faces—the faces of the curious, he thought, with their surreal looks of disbelief, pushing against each other in hopes of seeing the dead body.

He wandered up to a uniformed officer and exchanged a few words. The officer led Leatherman to where the body had been buried and where the investigative team was assembled.

They walked past the gazebo, where two bright eyes hid in the darkness taking it all in, and stopped. Leatherman eyed the rose-covered landscape with its cobblestone pathways. He smelled the roses. The sickening sweet smell, not quite like decomposing flesh, contaminated the night air, and his nostrils. He was beginning to wish he hadn’t eaten that leftover pizza for dinner.

Leatherman slowly moved toward the oppressive crime scene. Roy Brown was stooped over, working around a rose-covered bush that had been unearthed and pushed aside in the sandy soil. His latex-protected fingers were cautiously moving around the body’s remains, collecting samples of insects and placing them in containers. Del Milford, the forensic photographer, was at his elbow snapping pictures.

“Hello boys.” Leatherman said. “What do we have here?” He looked at the decomposed body in the shallow grave.

“Female, I would say in her mid to late thirties, Detective. Body’s in the final stage of decomposition. Whoever killed her bashed in her skull with a sharp instrument.” He pointed to a deep gash in the back of the scull, where she lay face down. “If you look here,” he said pointing, “you can see where a piece of the skull’s missing.”

“Any signs of the murder weapon, Doc?”

“Nah, we haven’t found it but I suspect it might be a garden hoe. The boys are checking the area as we speak.”

“Strange positioning for the body,” Leatherman stated. “What do you make of it, Doc?”

“Not sure, Phil…could mean that she was murdered at another location and her body dumped and buried here. You might want to take a look at this,” he said picking up the tattered remains of a moth- eaten wool blanket. “Found it half buried in the dirt. First thought it had been wrapped around her, but there’s no trace of fibers beneath the body.”

“Are you sure, Doc? Maybe it slipped out from under her when the animal dug her up.”

“Nah I don’t think so, Phil, but I will be able to tell you for sure once I get the body to the morgue for examination.”

For years Summer had lived that day over and over in her mind. It was at that precise moment she knew that it was her father’s fault. If he hadn’t hired that idiot…or was it Frank Jordan’s fault? She wondered. She didn’t like Jordan. He was always sneaking around watching her.

Yes, it had to be his fault, she thought. He was the one who brought that woman here.

 

 

* * * *

Moonlight struck the giant oaks as Summer turned from the main road. Her car pulled between the two lions, the entrance to the estate. She banged her fist against the steering wheel. “I can’t believe I have to do this!” She cried.

“I have been covering for Hayden all my life,” she thought. But now everyone knew Hayden’s secrets that she had kept all these years. Here she was the only one left. She realized there was nothing she could do to stop the unstoppable.

Emotional turbulence churned within her as she turned, sobbing, toward the guest cottage.

A few hundred feet from the cottage stood the empty stable, a handsome brick structure covered with creeping fig vine. The car slowed as the house came into view. The fog had rolled in from Ashley River, cloaking the house. This once beautiful estate, a three-story brick mansion, had flourished in its day. Now it stood neglected, its stone façade dimly lit by her headlights flashing in the sixteenth century arched windows.

A few hazy lights shown inside the house and two exterior lights shone dimly on each side of the front door. Reflectors on both sides of the driveway marked the turnoff that led up to Radisson Hall.

Summer turned left from the main drive into the courtyard in front of the mansion, parked and shut off the engine. She gripped the wheel, her knuckles white. She focused on her breathing, with her heart racing like waves crashing on the shore. Sitting very still, she gathered her courage. She knew what her mission was and she knew that it had to be carried out in haste.

She could not help the tears that stained her face. She walked quickly up the dimly lit double stairs leading to a landing and the massive double doors. Grabbing the tarnished brass knob, she flung open the door to reveal the dimly lit great hall.

Ellie, bathed in the dim light, stood abruptly. The photos in her hand dropped to the floor, fluttering and scattering at her feet.

Startled, Ellie quickly looked down. Her green eyes widened with fear as she surveyed the pictures of her children and the picture of a blond child scattered about. Moments passed, her eyes fastened upon the child with blond hair. Her brain plunged deep into the abyss of the past.

Ellie’s beautiful eyes glassed over with tears. She was visibly upset. She looked at her outstretched arms and in her mind’s eye she saw her blood-stained hands. She shook her head and violently rubbed her hands against her thighs. It was utterly unthinkable, she groaned. She was at her wits’ end. Nothing could change the past.

Ellie breathed deeply before she spoke and her eyes darted toward her daughter. Summer’s eyes fastened upon her mother’s somber, tear-streaked face.

“I have had enough of all the corruption. The lies!” Ellie angrily blurted, drawing a jagged breath. “This has gone too far, Summer. It is over!”

Startled by her mother’s sudden burst of anger, Summer tried to speak. The urge to go to her mother overcame her. She reached out for her mother’s hand. But Ellie slipped from her grasp, and turned to the door. “Mom, please, we need to talk.” she pleaded. “I have wanted to explain—I—I tried to tell you, but I just couldn’t hurt you.”

“No, Summer.”

This angered Summer. She went on the defensive, her face turning beet red. “Mom, look at yourself. You haven’t slept for weeks. You can’t sit down and even talk to me. Why are you doing this? Tormenting yourself? You can’t change the past.”

“Don’t be naïve, Summer.” Ellie spoke sharply. “Do you think I don’t know that? It’s time to stop the pretense; I know, I know what Hayden has done…the secrets…the lies, and deceit…She is after all, her father’s daughter.” Ellie turned back to Summer. “What was the verdict?”

“Guilty.”

Summer looked at her mother’s wax-like face shadowed by the dim light. Her eyes had in them the darkness of a ravaged soul, deep and unreadable. Summer knew there was nothing left for her mother. Her mother’s grief was eating her alive. Summer knew it would be useless to speak out now.

She was somewhat responsible, Summer reasoned. Her mother had been an unwilling accomplice in her father’s evil deeds. So some guilt should be hers.

Ellie quickly turned, then brushed past her daughter and out the open door. She stood on the porch in the drizzling rain, turning once more to stare at Summer’s face. She mouthed words that Summer couldn’t quite understand before she turned and ran down the steps, toward the path that ran along the banks of the Ashley River, and the little cemetery hidden beneath the gnarled branches of the Angel Oak.

Summer stood motionless, watching her mother disappear into the darkness. She knew she was powerless to stop her. She shrugged her shoulders and resisted a moment of weakness, the urge to run after her mother. Summer was suddenly overwhelmed with grief as a wave of sadness rolled over her. It was a loss she thought she had conquered. It was so intense it weakened her knees, causing her to collapse onto the rain-soaked boards of the porch as the emptiness repeatedly stabbed at her heart.

Her eyes stung from peering into the mist. It made her mother look insubstantial: it turned her into a ghostly figure disappearing from sight and into the night.

It’s God’s will and it’s hard, but I must go on, Summer reasoned. She closed the door against the darkness.

CHAPTER ONE

 

The beginning of uncertainty and the end of a dynasty.

Riding down from Vanceboro toward New Bern, North Carolina, Riley Jordan traveled along the Ocean Highway. The Spiral gray metallic Corvette skirted the highway that cut a straight line through the marshy bottomland overgrown with cypress and pine. Riley shifted the car into second and with a low throaty roar it entered the tunnel of moss-covered trees that had woven a canopy over the road. Streaming sunlight flicked to the rhythm of the funky jazz of Steely Dan belting out: So, I shifted left for out of town. Then I clicked my heels and doubled down…

 

As the highway veered to her right, the forest gave way and the blue waters of the Neuse River appeared in the dazzling morning light. Riley’s breath caught at the sight of a horizon dotted with steeples and spires of New Bern huddled along the banks of the Neuse River.

With the gas gauge near empty Riley pulled into the Fuel Market to fill the car and grab some coffee. Her stomach growled—it had been hours since she had last eaten.

People came and went as she walked across the checkered black and white tile floor of the convenience store and paid the sleepy-eyed man behind the counter for her coffee and a hot chicken biscuit. Outside, a breeze flowed around her, smelling of water. She breathed deeply. The sea was near. It brought back the painful memory of Stuart and the pristine beauty of the Hampton Beaches along Long Island. Often they would leave the city behind for a relaxing weekend of sun. Putting on her sunglasses she fought off the painful memory. Shifting into gear she pulled out of the parking lot.

Back on Highway 17 she continued south to Charleston. The coastal highway ran pass Victorian, Federal and Georgian homes, giving her a glimpse of her past. She found herself searching for buried secrets suppressed deep within her.

Dr. Clark, her psychiatrist, spoke of DSM-IV or dissociative amnesia, an inability to recall personal information, usually of a traumatic nature. Even now she shuddered at the memory of struggling to regain the repressed memories. . .to stop the nightmare plaguing her young life.

It was a perfect March day, mid-seventies, a few clouds in the now-deepening gold-to-pink-to-blue sky in the Lowcountry. With the top down and music blaring, Riley Jordan felt free as the wind blowing through her hair.

Just on the outskirts of Mount Pleasant, she caught a glimpse of a road in her peripheral vision. She suddenly whipped the Corvette around, and moved down the once familiar road.

In her traditional slave clothes an old Gullah lady sat in front of her roadside stand, offering sweet grass baskets in various shapes and sizes, for sale. In her lap she patiently worked on an unfinished basket. A big smile spread across her face as she watched Riley slowly approach. Riley waved to her and was tempted to stop. Another day, she thought. The old woman returned the greeting but Riley could see the disappointment in her face beneath the white turban she was wearing. Riley moved on.

Christ Church built in 1707, was surrounded by an old iron fence, rusted to the color of clay. Riley could see the small cemetery in the background through the spikes of the fence. The iron fence was partially covered in vines of honeysuckle and the aroma filled the afternoon with a heady and intoxicating air. Riley breathed deeply.

The paved road abruptly ended. Moss-laden trees shut out the sun. She knew she was closer to the salt marsh. She could smell the bold aroma of pluff mud indigenous to the Carolina Lowcounty waterways.

Riley suddenly slammed on the brakes, causing the car to fish-tail. Startled, she thought she was seeing a mirage. Massive iron gates which seemed to appear from nowhere blocked the way. She crawled to a stop.

Perplexed, she realized the massive gates were familiar. The wheels of her mind began to turn. At that moment she knew. “This is the Radisson Estate!” She said it aloud, though there was no one to hear.

The former plantation, now the private home of Ellie Radisson, had been in the Radisson family for generations. Riley had heard that the estate was being run by an overseer, Mark Jennings. He took over after the sudden death of Jefferson Radisson, the patriarch of the family who had suffered a deadly stroke in his early fifties.

Riley had heard that Ellie, his widow, had become a recluse rarely seen in public. She had become an enigma to the locals, a woman around whom mystery and gossip swirled like honey bees.

Riley eased her car close, and cautiously stepped out. Aware of the silence around her, she approached the gates, confused; the only sound was the gravel crunching beneath her feet. A NO TRESPASSING SIGN hung from the rusted gate. It read KEEP OUT, Property of Hampton Properties. The sign shocked her.

The estate had been sold! She grasped the rusted iron and, peering beyond, caught sight of the yellow bulldozers parked where once beautiful shrubbery and spring flowers grew. Urbanization now threatened their demise.

What had happened to Ellie Radisson? According to network news, Hayden, the eldest Radisson daughter, was soon to be released from prison on good behavior. Prior to her conviction Hayden had been involved in prostitution. During the investigation strange connections emerged, leading to unanswered questions, and the drama of a scandalous crime.

The thoughts of Hayden stirred memories as she let her mind travel back to the time when she was eight years old, and her father had brought her here for the first time. Mentally, Riley was in her youth, running the banks of the Ashley River with nine-year-old Hayden, their blond hair wet from the damp humidity and the suffocating heat of the day. Her father’s voice seemed to echo in the distance. But then a rustling in the bush brought her back to reality.

Without warning she felt a chill sweep over her, even though the day was warm. She felt she was not alone. Her eyes began to shift from side to side, while her heart pounded wildly in her chest. She scanned her surroundings, and spotted a deer standing in a clearing just beyond the gate house. Relieved, but overwhelmed with a sudden impulse to get out of there, she quickly hurried back to her car, jammed the Corvette into reverse, and sent gravel flying from beneath the tires as she got back on the road.

Lurking in the bush, a man who had been shrouded by shadows beneath an old oak tree, suddenly stepped out into the clearing.

Why is she back? he wondered. One way or another he had to find out. If she has remembered—he knew what he would have to do. He watched as her car vanished in a cloud of dust, then slipped back into the underbrush.

Moments later she was having difficulty regaining her composure. Was I alone? Uneasy, she felt as if her past was threatening to gobble her up.

About
Ann Carpenter:

Ann Carpenter is the author of three novels, Pluff Mud Murders, Circle of Player, and The Mystical Doll House. She is the founder of Kidz By Dezign, and lives in Atlanta, Ga with her husband and granddaughter.

 

 
 
 
 
 

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you for hosting 🙂

  2. Great Post
    Thank you for hosting 🙂

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