Excerpt from The Beach at Painter's Cove


Summer 1962
The Painter’s Cove Gazette

Muses by the Sea, ancestral home of the Whitaker family and reknown artist colony was the scene of a public garden party last week where local residents were invited to meet and greet those artists currently in residence. Hosts Wesley and Leonore Whitaker greeted new arrivals and mingled among the guests. Their children, Maximillian (Max), Jillian and George were charming in their roles of junior hosts to the children of Painter’s Cove, while their aunt, Fae Whitaker, entertained them with face painting and story telling.

 

The Present

Jillian York adjusted her sunglasses and dashed off her signature with a flourish before handing the tablet back to the cabana boy. She smiled slow and sultry in an attempt to recapture the feeling of stepping off the red carpet to a horde of autograph seeking fans, scribbling her signature before she was whisked off to someplace famous by someone rich and handsome.

Well, at least that last part was still a reality. Henri was handsome enough, frightfully rich, and moderately intelligent. But the tab at the beach front bar was the only thing she’d been signing for quite a while and the exclusive image of St. Tropez was beginning to dull along with her reputation as one of Hollywood’s most desirous and desired actresses.

She hated to admit it, but it was about time she called her agent and had her start looking for an appropriate role.

She lifted her hand languidly, flashed her recently manicured finger tips. The waiter appeared. He was more dutiful than her public—or Henri for that matter.

“Un telephone, sil vous plait. J'ai besoin de faire un appel des Etats Unis.”

He made a sharp nod and walked away. Jillian watched his progress across the poolside, his neat little butt tightening with each step. Sun glasses were a wonderful invention. Jillian leaned back in the chaise and sipped her daiquiri.

Unfortunately it was time she got her own butt back to work or she’d wake up one day with nothing but character parts on her dance card.

“Stephanie Bannister, you pick that up and do what you’re told. I don’t need this attitude from you.”

Stephanie snatched her duffle bag from the carpet and scowled at her mother. “It’s not fair. What about the dance? What about my new dress? It’s my first dance ever. I have to go.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m not sure when I’ll be back. And you know we always visit Grammy Leo during the summer.”

“But in August right before school, because Dad makes us—Wait. You’re leaving us there? But why? Where are you going?”

Steph turned on her whine voice. It usually worked for her drama queen little sister, Amanda. It never worked for Steph. “Why can’t I stay here with Jackie? Her mom won’t mind.”

“Just hurry up.”

“But when are you coming back?”

“I don’t know. You kids always have fun with Grammy Leo.”

“No, we don’t. Grammy’s okay, but she lives in that creepy old house. And crazy Aunt Fae lives in the cellar and never comes out.”

“No she doesn’t. She has her own house. She just doesn’t like children. Go.”

Her mother gave her the look.

She’d better move it or she’d be stuck at Grammy’s without her cell phone. Steph dragged her duffel bag into the hall.

“Don’t forget your swim suit.”

Yeah, right. Like she was going to waste her new bikini on Grammy’s private beach.

 

Fae Whitaker straightened up and arched her back. The concrete was getting hard on her knees, even with the gardening pad Adam suggested she use. She’d collected a crowd of people, mostly day trippers who were just passing through town or had heard about her drawings and had swung out of their way to someplace else to take a look.

Her chalk paintings stretched out in three directions down the sidewalks that trisected the town square park. She chose a dark yellow stick, leaned over to add another layer of hair to the Little Mermaid. It made the tresses dance across the concrete, swirl as if it really were hair and not something that would start to disappear with the first footstep, the morning dew, an afternoon shower. Fade until it was no longer recognizable, and finally became a blank palette for her next drawing.

Most folks thought she was eccentric. BJ Tuttle at the Beach Junque Store called her bat shit crazy. Of course he was the one that started the whole ad campaign. Come see the crazy old lady and her disappearing pictures.

He wanted her to put a hat out like the musicians in the subway stations in Manhattan. She’d refused. Though there were days when she’d get home and find bills stuck into her knapsack or even in the pocket of her art smock. It was amazing what people were willing to pay for.

After she became a “legend” thanks to BJ’s hype in several local newspapers, he’d wanted to charge admission. He’d even gone to the town fathers to suggest it as income for the town, with BJ of course taking a healthy commission. Fae refused.

That’s all she needed, publicity.

 

Chapter 1

Isabelle Whitaker never carried her cell phone to a museum opening. Besides being gauche and self-important, there was no place to conceal it. And she couldn’t hold it. Gallery receptions were two handed affairs.

But tonight her crew was in the basement of the Cluny Museum packing out an exhibit they were transporting to the Washington Modern. Isabelle was curating the move and overseeing the installation, but she was also responsible for a current exhibit being feted this evening.

Not being able to be in several places at once, she’d admitted defeat and tucked her phone inside the wide elastic belt she’d stretched around the waist of her little black gallery dress.

“Isabelle, come meet Irwin Frazier.” Delmont Feinstein, the Director of the museum motioned her over. “Isabelle is one of our brightest and most requested young designers.”

Isabelle shook Frazier’s hand and felt the vibration at her waist. “And on call this evening. I’m afraid I’m being summoned.”

“Nothing wrong downstairs?” Dell asked.

“I hope not. Excuse me.” Issy stepped away and reached for her phone.

“Very committed,” she heard Dell say. “Always on top of things. Things don’t go wrong when Isabelle is on the job.”

She sure hoped he was right. She headed for the freight elevator as another vibration drifted above the laughter and conversations of the art patrons.

“This is Isabelle.”

“Aunt Issy?”

Isabelle covered her ear with her free hand. Three women passed by coming from the ladies room. “Lovely exhibit,” one of them mouthed in Isabelle’s direction. Issy smiled, nodded. “Excuse me? Paulo? I can barely hear you. Do we have a problem down there?”

“Aunt Issy?”

“Who is this?”

“It’s me, Mandy. Amanda Bannister.”

“Amanda?” Why was an eight year old—nine year old?— calling her this late. It was almost ten.

A burst of laughter rose above the general conversation. Isabelle looked for a quieter corner. She strode toward the double glass entry doors. They swooshed open ahead of her. And closed just as swiftly behind her. She was caught in the totally sound proof entry foyer of the museum.

“Amanda?”

“Can you please come? Grammy is in the hospital and there’s no one to take care of us.” Amanda started to cry.

“Amanda! Stop crying and tell me what’s going on.”

“Miss Whitaker?” A deeper male voice came over the line. “This is detective sergeant Al Griggs.”

Police, Issy echoed, as thought processes slammed shut and she waited for the worst. “What’s happened, what’s going on?”

“Is Leonore Whitaker your grandmother?”

“Yes. What is wrong?”

“She’s in county hospital in stable condition. However, I have three children here, Stephanie, Amanda and Griffin Bannister, who say they are living with her. With Mrs. Whitaker in the hospital, there is no one to care for them. If no family member comes forward, I’ll have to turn them over to social services.”

“Social services? They have parents.” Dread encircled her, tied her up. She and Vivienne had never gotten along, but — “What happened to their parents?”

“At this time we don’t know. We're attempting to reach them but have had no success.”

“There’s my great aunt, Fae Whitaker. She lives with—near—my grandmother.”

There was silence on the other end, then, “They say they haven’t seen her.”

Isabelle glanced into the museum. Caught Dell’s eye. Gave him a thumbs up.

“The housekeeper? Mrs. Norcroft?”

“There didn’t appear to be a housekeeper. How long has it been since you’ve talked to your grandmother?”

“Last . . .” Isabelle thought back. “Month . . or two maybe. I’ve been busy.”

“There was no one home besides the children and Mrs. Whitaker. Do you have a number where your great aunt can be reached?”

“No, I’m afraid she doesn’t have a phone.” And even if she were home, they’d never find the path to her cottage.

Delmont was giving her the eye from the other side of the glass. He was getting impatient.

And how would she explain this. Her grandmother was in the hospital, her sister Vivienne had abandoned her three children—like mother like daughter—and Issy had to take the first shuttle out tomorrow morning to install a mid-Century modern retrospective at a Washington museum.

“Detective . . . Griggs, could I talk to Amanda please?”

She heard the policeman call Amanda over.

“Can you come? Please.” The please was more of a wail.

“Amanda, where’s your mom and dad?”

“I don’t know. Can you come? Steph says she’ll run away if we go with those other people. They’re going to put us in jail.”

“No they aren’t.” Though that hardly was comforting to a frightened nine year old. Ten year old? She couldn’t even remember how old her nieces and nephew were. Not the closest family on the east coast. Or anywhere for that matter.

“They will!” This also ended on a wail.

Delmont had excused himself and was walking her way. What a mess.

“Where did they go? Why did they leave you with Grammy? Are they coming back tonight?”

“I don’t know. She packed up our suitcases and said we had to stay with Grammy.”

“When was this?”

“Three days ago and we’ve eaten all the soup. We could starve.”

“Mandy, stop crying. I can’t understand any of this. Where is your mom?”

Amanda gulped back a sob. “I don’t know. She said she’d call, but she hasn’t. And her phone is turned off and she went to look for daddy.”

A faint voice echoed in the background. “Shut up, stupid.”

That had to be Stephanie.

“Does Stephanie know where they are?”

“No.”

“Let me talk to her.”

A faint argument in the background while the phone exchanged hands.

“Steph, this is your Aunt Issy. Do you know where you mother is?”

“No. She just left us here, and I was supposed to be at the dance. And—Ugh. Never mind.” There was a clunk. Steph must have put the phone down.

Isabelle shot her fingers through her asymmetrical haircut. Of all the times for her sister—the perfect homemaker and country club wife—to pull a bunk. It didn’t make any sense. Except maybe it did. Could deserting your children be hereditary?