He walked her down one flight of stairs and pointed to a door on the left. As she closed the door, he leaned against the corridor wall and found himself staring almost through a group of pictures on the wall. He quickly came out of a near trance and carefully removed a small picture. It was taken at Eden’s high school graduation. She had asked him to come. He tried to politely decline because it wasn’t his place but she had insisted and he had relented. In the photo Jake stood wearing a white shirt, khaki pants and a tie that Eden bought for him. It was the first one he had worn since moving to Florida and he still kept it. It had probably long since died of boredom in his closet draped over a nail beside a couple of button down shirts and dress pants which he kept for the rare occasions he needed them. He heard the toilet flush and the bathroom door opened too quickly for him to get the photo hung again straight. He recovered as best he could.
“This is Eden,” he said holding the picture up for her to see.
Debbie took the framed photo from his hands and studied the two of them. Eden was glowing, both arms around Jake’s ribs, head turned towards the camera.
“That was really her day. It was like she had finally been given freedom. Everyone could see it.”
“Yes, I can remember my graduation, to escape from all the rules, feeling the excitement of the impending freedom of college.”
“She had already decided she wasn’t going to college. During Christmas break her senior year, she came down to the market. It was a busy day, which was pretty strange for that time of year. She asked me if I could tell her why I left school. So we went out front and sat down on the bench to discuss it. I told her it wasn’t so much that I left college as it was that college left me. You see, my grades were not really that great and my parents and my faculty advisor had had a little discussion and decided I wasn’t cut out for it.”
“Yeah, I knew some guys like you walking in to morning class smelling like a brewery.”
“No, not the fraternity flu, more like a lack of respect. Anyway, the way the conversation was going, I could tell she was looking for a good reason to give her mom for the decision she had already made. I tried my best, but I really couldn’t come up with a convincing argument, so I told her she would have to talk to her parents. I guess that’s where I screwed up.”
“You were right.”
“Not really. Sheila and David never could say no to her. No one could. There’re some people in this world who are just too good to say no to.”
He tried to take the picture out of her hand, but she wouldn’t let go. Jake leaned back against the wall and put his hands in his pockets. Just as he was settling himself into the comfortable silence, the phone rang. He excused himself to go answer it. Debbie didn’t seem to acknowledge him, being so lost in that moment in time that once could have been.
“Debbie!” Jake called from downstairs.
“Uh-huh?” she called back through the side of her mouth while still looking at the photo.
“I’ve got to go work the market. It’s time for Ashley to go to class.”
“Ok, I’ll just pop upstairs and clean up.”
“What, the food? Don’t worry about it.”
But she was obviously intent on being a good guest.
“It’s no big deal.”
She heard him climbing up the stairs so she quickly snapped back to the present and replaced the photo on the wall.
“Look,” he said, “you’re at the beach. Try to act like it.”
“Well, ok, but first you gotta let me clean up.”
“Sure . . . fine.” He rolled his eyes then was surprised by her kiss on his cheek.
“What was that for?” he asked.
“It was for the living.”
Jake entered the store at just the right time. Mrs. Jones was leaning over the counter arguing over a list of purchases her son, Brent, had picked up and charged to her account. Over the years, she hadn’t changed much, a few more wrinkled lines on her face, a bit more gray in her hair, but inside she still loved the gossip. It was unfortunate for her that her grown son managed to stir up a little too much gossip himself. He had run into the law more than once and each time he had used his mother’s name as an escape. Ashley replied with an exasperated, “I don’t know” each time Mrs. Jones asked a question. They both looked up at him as he walked through the door.
“Now, Jake, are you sure Brent has been making all these charges on my account,” Mrs. Jones asked in a disbelief that if not real was convincing.
Ashley took the opportunity to bolt out the door with a, “see you later.”
“Yes ma’am. If you’d like I could go pull the charge receipts out.” It was a bluff. His record keeping was worse than his housekeeping, which was bad enough to make a mother cry.
“Well, no, you don’t need to do that. It just doesn’t seem like him.”
“If you’d like I could tell him that he needs to pay for his own things?” Another bluff, Brent Jones was a thirty two year old man who was well known as still being attached to his mother via umbilical cord. Strangely, she still allowed it. If not for the respect she commanded, Brent would have probably been run out of town long ago.
“Oh no, don’t you dare. Until he finds a wife, I’m all he has!”
This slid the chances of Brent Jones finding a wife into the distant future. It would be impossible for him to ever find a woman that would allow him to mistreat her as he mistreated his mother.
“Well then, I guess that’s the way it is;” Jake didn’t show any sympathy for the situation, but he hadn’t relied on his parents for anything since he was given the market all those years ago.
“He’s just trying to be nice to his friends, I’m sure. He loves to have parties,” she said.
“Yes, he does. I hear they sometimes out-do a night at the High Tide.”
“Jake, don’t you compare anything my son does to what goes on in that place. It’s common knowledge that Lars person is selling drugs out of the back door.”
“Mrs. Jones, there’s a fine line between passable gossip and outright slander,” he said looking up from totaling her charge balance.
It was no secret that Lars had done well since opening the High Tide and he was generally over the top on how he chose to spend his money. But, he had also been a very generous supporter of an emerging cultural scene on Thirty-A. Everyone knew and appreciated how important that was. White sand and an emerald gulf can get people to visit, but it takes a good identity to make the right ones want to stay.
“I’m not the first one to say it,” she said innocently. “I understand. You’re probably still pretty shaken up.”
“You know, the accident,” she said glancing back to where his house stood.
“Oh, oh yes. I think we’re all pretty shaken about that.”
“It’s ok, I know how close you two were. You know, Eden always looked up to you. She once told me you were the most righteous man she knew, in a figurative sense I’m sure.”
It was probably something Eden had said in defense of some rumor Mrs. Jones was trying to spread about him.
“Her only fault might have been thinking more of people than they really were.”
“It’s a shame she wasn’t a little more careful about the people she chose to associate with.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know. The investigation. Tommy said that they had gotten help from a forensic team with the Florida Bureau of Investigation at the request of Mrs. Brockwell, of course.”
“Forensics team? For what? She’d been drinking and had an accident. There’s really not that much to investigate,” he said in a strange voice that was both serious and doubtful.
“That’s not what Tommy thinks.”
Tommy Allen was the Sheriff’s Deputy that had interviewed Jake yesterday. Being the Sheriff’s Deputy for South Walton County was probably the easiest law enforcement job outside of Mayberry. There were a steady stream of speeding tickets to write. There were the occasional domestic dispute calls from Santa Rosa that needed negotiating. Besides those, not much happened. Tommy had a good reputation in the area because he had so much free time for visiting.
“And what did Tommy tell you?” Jake asked Mrs. Jones.
“Well, of course, we haven’t discussed it directly. But Lee Stanley said she had talked to him the night of the accident.”
Mrs. Stanley was one of the original homeowners of Seagrove Beach. Her house, a beachfront ranch style, was only sixty feet east of the intersection where the market stood. She was the elderly widow of Colonel Morris Stanley, a retired pilot who had earned several medals in air combat over Korea and Vietnam. Although well respected, she had been a self-imposed shut-in for the last dozen years or so.
“She had heard something that night?”
“Yes, she said she heard two cars.”
“She told you that?” Jake confirmed.
“Yes, she did. Go ask her yourself if you don’t believe me!”
“I think I will,” he said as he shuffled her to and out the front door. He locked the door and made a quick jog across the road and down to Mrs. Stanley’s garage. He rang the bell and looked back down the street to the blue tarp covering his demolished wall. The night of the accident, he had arrived before they had removed the car. It was lodged at an almost perfect ninety degree angle to the wall and there had been thick ruts through the parking lot that separated it from the road. Jake had brought in fresh crushed oyster shells to fill the ruts that made them still visible. He had speculated in his interview with the deputy that Eden had misjudged the turn off at the intersection and lost control trying to compensate. Now his speculation wandered.
RETURN TO TABLE OF CONTENTS CONTINUE TO CHAPTER 11