The door was opened by a house keeper wearing an all white pantsuit.
“Ms. Baylor?” she asked to which Debbie nodded. “Mr. White is just taking care of a few details. I’ll show you to the great room.”
Debbie followed her through a marble floored foyer that had a square staircase ascending around it wrapped in gilded railing. Entering the great room was like walking into an airplane hangar. It was eighty feet long and thirty feet deep. The back wall rose up to an exposed walkway lined with doors. The opposite side of the room was a large wall of plate glass windows framing the Gulf view. Wait staff and caterers were still hustling trays and flowers to two large tables, one in the great room, the other on the balcony outside the windows. From a bar in the corner Andrew called to her, “Debbie, you’ve arrived!” he said raising a wine glass for her.
“Hi, Andrew, it’s good to see you,” she said taking the glass. “Do I look like I need this?”
“I promise not to be presumptuous as long as you don’t. My wife swings between burdening me with last minute details and ordering me to get out of her way. I figure if I stand by the bar, she knows where to find me.
“This looks like as good a place as any to be. Are we early?”
“Oh, no. The guests won’t start arriving until after eight. We’re on beach time, you know.”
“Well, I’m glad I’m not the only one. For a moment, I thought all this was for me.”
“All wha . . Oh, no . . . It’s kind of a celebration for the gallery. Five years in business. We invited our best clients and some close friends.”
“So, I guess I need to come down Monday and make a large purchase?’
“Why wait until Monday? We’re open tomorrow. I’m only kidding. You know Walter wanted to invite you. We’re all very glad he did. Mrs. White passed away years ago and he considers himself a bit of a playboy, in a social sense only, I assure you.”
“Good. Because I’m not sure he’s my type,” she said in a low voice from behind her raised glass.
“Who’s not your type?” White said entering from a hidden door in the wall behind them. Debbie’s face broke into a visible blush. “Ms. Baylor, you may have attempted to follow my request for dressing, but you still have managed to outshine me.”
“Thank you, Walter. But I doubt anything or anyone could make an impression in this room. It’s spectacular.”
“Well, it’s home for now. I’d like to show you my new home, still under construction. Will you step into the library?”
He motioned with his arm for her to enter the hidden door he just emerged from. Andrew turned to follow her but was stopped by White.
“Andrew, make sure we’re not disturbed.”
“Walter, I could help with the . . .”
“That’s appreciated. But, I need you to make sure we have a little privacy. Debbie, after you.”
She hesitated, then continued through the doorway. It led to a mahogany paneled library also with a two-story ceiling. It was big enough to hold a master suite in most houses but a closet compared to the great room. There were hundreds of books in the recessed cases, but they were all above reach, accessible only by a swinging staircase against one wall. On the lower portions of the walls were framed design plans. There was a desk fit for a king on another wall facing out to them, two leather chairs and a sofa. Along the third wall was a large table upon which had been placed a model of a postmodern structure.
“This is a wonderful library, but no fireplace?”
“We don’t really need them down here. It hasn’t snowed enough in my time to fill up a bucket. I’ve never believed in convention for convention’s sake. Here I’ll show you.”
They walked over to the table with the model. The edge closest to them was framed in blue glass to simulate the sea. From above, the main structure was in the shape of a propeller with both blades curved out in opposite directions, one facing the Gulf, the other facing inland. The center shaft was a cylinder of curved glass wall on the sea side and poured concrete on the other.
“I call it Landfall. It took ten years to get the German architects and American engineers to get the design right. You’d think they could speak each other’s language with greater dispatch. It’s been under construction now for three years, but when it’s finished, it will be without equal.” He went silent and stared at it as if he were gathering a prayer.
“Is it being built here?” she asked.
“No, just on the east side of Panama City. I bought a half mile long stretch of beach there in the late Eighties. I was tempted to develop it a couple of times, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Now I know what that little voice was telling me to wait for. But that’s the future, let’s talk a little about the present.”
“Ok. What would you like to talk about?” she asked.
“Well, it seems Andrew has this idea. He’s been pestering me about it for months. Normally, I’d pay him no mind, but the little bugger’s really done his homework on his one.”
He walked over to his desk, picked up a roll of plans and laid them out. It was a master design for some sort of neighborhood.
“He wants to call it Endymion Springs. I’m not sure about the name, mind you, I’ve got some marketing people looking at it now. It’s ambitious enough for anyone, especially him. Eleven hundred acres, good bay frontage and generally easy to secure for those with special needs: Alzheimer patients and such. I tell you I was surprised that he came up with all this and doubly so when he said he not only wanted to develop it, but to run it also.”
Debbie listened as he described the plans to her, going over assisted living, domiciliary, gyms, entertainment centers and so on. As he pointed to a building he called the director’s residence, she stopped him.
“I’ve seen this place before,” she said but not able to place it.
“Looks familiar to you, eh?” he asked with a slight smile on one side of his face. “You’ve been a busy girl down here. As much as I love seeing suspense, I’ll tell you. It’s for the site where Eden State Gardens now stands.”
He watched her reaction then frowned when he saw it hit her.
“But that’s a state park,” she protested.
“Hardly,” he grumbled, “it’s got no real cultural significance. It was a timber mill. There’s no real history there, a bunch of old oak trees and azaleas around a termite rotted farm house. We’ve already done some exploratory work with the people from the state and they have no objections. They’d much rather have an exclusive enclave for well off retirees than some under used field for ho-downs.”
“I thought it was used for weddings and parties,” she said, deciding to use a logical defense.
“The people that want to be married down here want to do it on the shore, not some mosquito infested forest. Think about it, would you rather your wedding portrait be with a backdrop of the sun setting over the ocean or a slightly drained swamp?”
“Why are you showing me this?” she asked.
“Well, we’ve got one hurdle to get over.”
“A group that calls themselves The Friends of Eden Preservation Society. They’re not very worthy as far as adversaries go, but they do have some support.”
“So, you’re offering me a job?”
“I think it’s perfect for you,” he said. “The work that you did up in Maryland at the Bay Basin Project. . .”
Her face betrayed her shock. The Bay Basin Project was her last job before going on her extended vacation that was now in its fourth month. It was very similar to what White now offered. The Bay Basin was a hundred million dollar development in the Washington, DC suburbs. An investment group had managed to get several landowners and the state to sell a large plot of acreage on the Chesapeake Bay. They had come up with a master community that was to be the beginnings of a new city built on the waterfront. There was a traditional city square with a town hall, shopping and dining districts and acre after acre of waterfront home lots. The problem was that a key element was situated on a marsh. There was a local historical group that believed the marsh was the site of a small but vital skirmish during the Revolutionary War. They argued that it was likely that some Colonial soldiers had been buried in the area.
Debbie had been hired to coax them into approval based on the good that it would do for the community in property values and local jobs. Representatives of the investment group had shown her exhaustive reports and surveys of the area that made the historical group’s claims all but impossible. She worked on them, using her skills and charm for months until a compromise was accepted. The historical group would be deeded ten acres to use as a memorial for the colonial soldiers that were killed. The project was finally given the green light. Two weeks into site preparation the graves were found. It turned out that they had been buried in what was to be underwater moorings for a town marina. There was a meeting which Debbie attended where options were presented. It was quickly and unanimously decided that the location of the graves be kept undisclosed. Debbie was bound by a confidentiality clause that would have ruined her professionally and financially had she disclosed what she knew. So she quit without quitting, unable to bring honor to the most important of U.S. veterans and unwilling to continue.
“The Bay Basin Project was very complicated, difficult,” she said trying to convey her desire to be disassociated with it.
“Yes, it was,” White agreed knowingly.
“I’m on vacation.”
“I understand. But this party tonight will be attended by some people who you can get to approve this project.”
“I don’t think I’m the P.R. you need.”
“The job pays eighty thousand dollars. If I know you, and I’ve had an awful lot of checking done, it will take about two weeks of your time. That works out to one thousand dollars an hour.”
“Walter, Mr. White, I don’t think . . .”
“Hold on before you decide. Just let me introduce you to some people tonight. Do a little talking. I want you to decide for yourself, but with all the facts.”
“Good,” he said checking his watch, “I believe guests should start arriving any minute now. Shall we go mingle?”
Debbie turned and exited the library not waiting for Walter White. Andrew was waiting just outside the door for her, talking to a woman who overcompensated in ornamentation for what she clearly lacked in attractiveness.
“Debbie Baylor, this is my wife, Barbara,” he said practically grabbing her from the door.
“Hello, it’s nice to meet you,” Debbie said, composed.
“Likewise. You have something going on with Daddy?” she asked with one eyebrow raised.
“Pardon me?” Debbie asked unsure of the intention.
“Are you working on a project for my father?” she annunciated in a slightly mocking tone.
“Oh no, he was just showing me the model of his new house,” Debbie replied. Her respect for client confidentiality was so ingrained that she sometimes found herself covering up points that were too trivial to worry about.
“Ah, the San Simeon of the South,” Barbara said. “Did he tell you how many fortunes he has sunk into that mausoleum?”
“No, but it is one of a kind.”
“Just like Daddy. So, Andrew tells me you’re thinking about moving down here?”
“Well, it certainly is a wonderful place. Although, I wonder how distracted I would be from work.”
“What do you do?”
“Consulting, mostly public relations.”
“Well, I can tell you that there is no shortage of people down here that could use you. It seems so many people have discovered our little paradise that even old goat farmers can become a Rockefeller with the right piece of land.”
One of the wait staff, pardoning himself for intruding, whispered something in Barbara Troy’s ear.
“Andrew, do show Ms. Baylor around while I go see what Erica has done to the hors d’ouvres,” she said turning and walking towards a swinging door.
“It would be my pleasure,” he said to Debbie, holding out an arm for her. “We’ll start with an easy one, that man over there with the silk Hawaiian shirt untucked.”
“An antique client?” Debbie asked as they walked past small groups of people clustered throughout the room.
“Yes, a good one, too. He hasn’t an idea what he is buying. He just comes in, says what type of furniture he is looking for and always finishes with ‘but I don’t want anything too old.’”
They approached the man from behind as he was reaching down for a boiled shrimp. “Richard,” Andrew called startling the man. He turned face and hand frozen with the shrimp halfway out of his lips.
“Hey, Andy, how you doin’?” he asked gulping down the shrimp.
“Good, now that Barbara has the party going. Richard, I’d like you to meet Debbie Baylor, Debbie this is Richard Stacey.”
“Is it Ms or Mrs?” Richard asked looking down at her ring finger as he shook her hand.
“It’s Ms,” Debbie replied.
“Divorced?” he asked.
“Nope, never married.”
“Lucky you. My wife left me when my first company went down the tubes. Said it was a dead end relationship. Good thing she didn’t stick it out.”
“You didn’t like her?”
“Why, hell yes, I loved her. Woman broke my heart and she was pretty too – Miss Kentucky 1984. No, it’s a good thing she left me when she did. I don’t think she ever really loved me. If she had stuck it out, you know thick and thin and all, then she could’ve taken me to the cleaners.”
“You recovered. Good for you!”
“Nah, not really. I had some property down here that I sorta got to keep. It was a paperwork error. Ol’ Walter bought it from me some years back and it’s been all champagne and caviar since then.”
“Well, maybe you should give Miss Kentucky a call, see if you can still patch things up,” Debbie offered optimistically.
“What for? I told you she broke my heart. I’ve had to put everything back together again on my own, and on my own I will stay.”
“That’s a scary way to look at it. Are you sure you don’t want a Mrs. Stacey?”
“Why, you interested?” he asked then started into a loud laugh. “No ma’am, I’m doing just fine like I am. I think Destin is a good town for a bachelor, no matter how old and country he is. It’ll definitely beat Hendersonville any day of the week.”
“Debbie’s thinking about moving down to the beach herself. I believe she should. A woman with her qualities would enjoy life down here. Don’t you agree?” Andrew asked.
“I think a woman with her qualities would enjoy life anywhere God put her,” Richard said. “If she decides this is the place, then good on her.”
Richard took a drink of his wine that he nearly choked on as he was slapped on the back by a man who could have passed for his twin. He had the same ruddy complexion, a very similar Hawaiian shirt and a boisterous attitude.
“Hiya Dickie, you ready to catch some fish in the A.M.?” the man said.
“You bet, Shorty. I’m going to win that hundred bucks back too,“ he replied. “Let me introduce you to this cute little lady. Ms. Debbie Baylor, this is Shorty Andrews.”
“It’s Tim Andrews,” the man said holding out his hand, “People call me Shorty because of my temper.”
“Hello,” Debbie replied shaking his offered hand.
“Oh, don’t worry about him, the only thing that gets him upset is fishing. You could run into his car, steal his girl and kick him in the crotch and he’d be as quiet as a spinster in church. But when it comes to fishing, phew, I’ve seen him smash a five hundred dollar rod to pieces over a snapped line,” Richard said.
“So you all go deep sea fishing. Do you enter many tournaments?” she asked.
“I used to when Doris, my wife, was still living. I found she was more willing to let me spend time out if there was a chance to make some money on it. The day I bought my Bertram, woo, she was hot at me. But she got over it. In fact, in the hospital the second to last thing she said to me was ‘Tim, I know you love that boat. After I pass away, I want you to put the urn with my ashes on board so I can finally enjoy it with you.’ She was a sweet lady, but had no stomach for the sea.”
“She sounds wonderful,” Debbie said
“Hey Shorty, why don’t you tell her what the last thing she said was,” Richard said with a big grin.
“If you don’t mind,” Debbie said to him.
“Not at all,” he replied starting to blush. “The last thing she said was ‘Tim, you’re a grown man with a grown daughter. I’ve told Leslie that if you start dating girls younger than her she’s got my permission to blow your boat up.’”
They all laughed for a moment then Richard tapped Tim on the shoulder and pointed to a group of men making the most noise of the party.
“If ya’ll will excuse us,” Richard announced, “we’ve got to go see a man about a fish.”
“Of course. Richard, Tim, it was nice to meet both of you,” Debbie said smiling.
“Likewise,” they chimed.
“Lively bunch you have down here,” Debbie said to Andrew.
“Yes they are,” Andrew agreed.
“So, if those are the easy ones, what’s a hard one like?” she asked.
“This,” he said from the corner of his mouth while looking at an older lady walking directly towards them.
“Andrew, you’ve been avoiding me,” she said sternly, “I expected some word on that table by now.”
“I have been working on them the best I can. They just don’t seem ready to part with it,” he replied.
“You told me they were ready to sell.”
“They are. But they have had it in their family for four generations, these type of transactions take time.”
“Three months should be ample time. It belongs at Eden. I don’t understand why they can’t see that.”
“They’ll be ready soon. Patience always defeats panic.”
“Never lecture an old lady about patience. I’ve spent more time being patient then you’ve spent living.”
“Yes ma’am. I hope you are enjoying yourself tonight.”
“Oh, I am. It’s such a fine reason to celebrate. Your shop has been a godsend to the area. You know I still get calls every once in a while from Mr. Smith up in Richmond. I try to be nice by telling him I’m just too old to make the trip anymore. I know it’s because I haven’t the heart to tell him I found you.”
“Mrs. Worthington has been a great customer for us. She walked in about a week after we opened and became our patron saint,” he said to Debbie.
“Don’t mind Andrew’s tendency for exaggeration, I just like to support noble ventures. I don’t believe we’ve met, my name is Gail Worthington.”
“Debbie Baylor, its nice to meet you Mrs. Worthington.”
“So are you a customer of Andrew’s?”
“No, just an acquaintance.”
“Ah, one of his secret scouts he finds such marvelous pieces through.”
“I’m afraid not. I have a very limited knowledge of antiques.”
“But she has a terrific eye,” Andrew said.
“That’s all it takes, really,” Mrs. Worthington nodded. “I remember when I first became interested in antiques. I was in Richmond visiting some relatives and they took me to a shop. We were chatting with the owner, Mr. Smith, about a desk he had. It was a very plain colonial American piece. But as he told it, it was identical to one the great George Mason had used to write the document that was used as a sort of precursor for the original Bill of Rights. He told us that it was probably made by the same craftsman that made Mason’s. I was just in awe that something so simple could be so important.”
“You know he passed away. The city practically had a day of mourning for him,” Debbie said.
“Who?” Mrs. Worthington asked.
“Robert Smith. He was very highly thought of. Always involved in charities: fundraising, benefits and the sort.”
“So you’re from Richmond, how about that. What on earth are you doing here?”
“I’m on vacation.”
“And the party?”
“Oh, just lucky, I guess.”
“As my husband Dennis says ‘I’d never bet on those odds.’ Truth is he’d bet on anything he could.”
“So, I heard you two talking about a table for Eden. Are you the curator there?”
“Heavens no. The state of Florida is entirely too cheap for that.”
“They can’t afford it. They need to close some of their parks and concentrate on the ones that have real significance,” Andrew interrupted.
“Can’t afford to, my foot. If they can pay for not one but two ballot recounts statewide, they can afford to keep parks open. We don’t even have sales tax for groceries down here, don’t tell me they can’t afford it,” Mrs. Worthington said with a scowl on her face. She then stopped to take a breath and a polite smile appeared. “Anyway, what were we talking about?”
“The table you want for Eden,” Debbie said.
“Yes. It’s identical to one in an old photo of the place. The group I represent, The Friends of Eden Preservation Society, handles most of the restoration for the house.”
As she described the society, Debbie’s eyes shot to Andrew who avoided looking back. He just stared politely at Mrs. Worthington. She then scanned the room for White. He was standing just outside the library door in a group of men. He nodded to her.
“Is everything alright Ms. Baylor?” Mrs. Worthington asked.
“Oh yes, I’m sorry. I just lost myself for a moment. Will you excuse me please? I think I need to step outside.”
“Of course,” Mrs. Worthington replied.
“Would you like for me to come with you?” Andrew asked
“No, I’ll be fine.”
She walked across the crowded room and through an open door to the gulf front balcony. She made a direct path to the bar.
“Bourbon and ginger ale, please,” she said to the bartender.
“Bourbon and ginger ale,” he repeated getting a clean glass and filling it for her.
“If I tip you, will you make it strong?” she asked half joking.
“Ma’am, I’ll make it strong whether you tip me or not. You not enjoying the party?”
“Who doesn’t like a party?” she asked back.
“A good woman who wants a heavy drink.”
She hadn’t even started drinking until right before she left the Sierra Club. Her boss at the firm she went to work for had spent several weeks courting her to come to work for him. His company had a history of generously supporting environmental organizations. They had first met at a sponsor gala. He had been impressed with her negotiating skills and, as he put it, her high sense of values. From then on, whenever she called asking for support he would insist that they meet over dinner to discuss it. She assumed his interests were personal as they were both single and he was a desirable guy.
But four weeks into their routine he let his true intentions be known. He explained that his company had been hired to promote an environmentally sensitive project. He made an offer so generous it was unrefusable. Doubtful of her capability, she asked what type of training she would get. He told her that their dinners were her training and that the keys to the job were congeniality and a willingness to connect. She took the job and, as predicted, was successful. However slowly over time, she began to feel like her values came second to his objectives. Now, standing on the balcony, looking at the Gulf of Mexico sparkling with moonlight, she saw the last several years of her life as lost travels.
“It’s a good spot for people who don’t know where they belong,” said a woman standing nearby. It was Shelia Brockwell.
“So it helps?” Debbie asked her.
“If you can understand the answer it tells you.”
“If I could understand the question then I probably wouldn’t need the answer.”
“A long time ago I thought the point was to live fully in the moment. Then, later I thought it was best to plan for the future. Now I am stuck in the past,” Shelia said.
They stood together strangers in complete silence while the party sang behind them.
“It seems what we need here is a good hurricane,” Debbie said.
“What good would that do?”
“What a hurricane does best. It throws everything upside down and washes life back to a clean slate. At that point there’s no use worrying about the past because it doesn’t exist anymore. There’s only the present and the future,” Debbie said.
She finished her drink and put the empty glass back on the bar. The bartender picked it up and asked if she wanted another. She declined.
“Enjoy the party,” she said to Shelia
“It’s too early to leave.”
“Not for me. I should have never come at all.”
She walked inside and found Mr. White.
“I’m no longer on vacation,” she told him
He smiled saying, “So you’ll take the job.”
“No. I am now retired.”
“Be careful young lady, you’re throwing away a terrific opportunity.”
“No, I’m not. I’m finishing what I should have never started.”
She left him standing by his library door. He looked like a guard who has realized the vault he had been protecting was empty. She passed through the crowds and out the foyer to the front door. Outside it was a warm clear night, good for along walk. She tried calling Jake but only got his answering machine. From the darkness she heard a car door close.
“Need a ride?” Darryl the driver asked.
“Please and thank you,” she said with a smile.
RETURN TO TABLE OF CONTENTS CONTINUE TO CHAPTER 19