Tasha Wolf worked exhausting hours, rewarded by shameful pay, local fame and the illusion that she was a music insider. Her broadcast studio was a cramped little dump loaded with brick-a-back, souvenirs, ruined electric guitars, pennants, stuffed toys and framed photos of drugged-out touring bands. The radio pulses it beamed over Bayside County were generated from a plywood table stained with beer mug and coffee cup rings. Its salient feature was two microphones wired to a soundboard that was obsolete when Elvis was topping the charts. At the end of every shift, Tasha signed off, programmed the overnight shows, and departed for the Wonder Bar.
On this particular evening she had a date to meet Taylor Burns. Here was a guy who made five times her salary, and he was buying, so she gave herself an upgrade from house red, ordering an imported Valpolicella. Taylor was gulping a Moscow Mule from a copper mug. He seemed glassy-eyed already.
Sitting with Taylor at a quiet corner table, Tasha raised her glass for a toast and said: “My sympathies.”
“Your ass whopping. I heard you got into some sort of fight outside Lisa’s place. Were you defending her honor?”
“We’re old friends.”
She smirked. “I’m sure.”
“She quit drinking.”
“We’ll see. So. I dug up some dirt for you. Ready?”
Taylor scanned the room for eavesdroppers.
“Nick Katanjiev. Entered the US on a work visa. Six years ago. Citizenship in process, legal and legit. Scratched out a living as a personal trainer up in the City until three years ago. Moved to our precious little town with no visible means of support. Police contact? Plenty. Arrests? None.”
“How do you know?”
“I’m a cop whisperer. Nick runs a quick and dirty at the Airliner Motel. You know, that dump on the highway? There’s no body count out there, so the cops let him be. Looks like the secret handshake to me.”
“The secret handshake?”
“Yeah, Nick keeps the peace, cops appreciate the reduced workload, they let him milk the johns. What do they care?”
Tasha pushed her glass along the table. “I deserve more wine.”
When Taylor came back with half-carafe of wine, Tasha refreshed her glass.
“Is it good?” Taylor asked. “I don’t know my wines.”
“A little disappointing,” Tasha said. “Especially for what they charge. Thank God you’re buying. Now, let’s talk Adora. Dropout from SBCC, didn’t even finish a semester, how pathetic is that? Chronic shoplifter since high school. Lucky for her, they only give 30 days in jail for that nowadays. On and off probation until three years ago, and then poof, our light-fingered lady saw the light. Apparently.”
“When she went to work for Console, I take it.”
“She’s been at Console for not quite three years. What happened three years ago when she quit stealing? Nick moved to town. My wild guess? She hooked up with Nick and found something more profitable to do than boosting lingerie from the Wow Mart.”
“Most pimps have a so-called Bottom Girl, a female who keeps the other ones in line. Think of, like, Mother Superior in a convent.”
“If Adora’s working for Nick, why is she at Console?”
“Okay, what about Cammie?”
“Breaking news? She was born. That’s all the county knows. State’s got nothing on her either. She’s a ghost. No police record, not even a driver’s license.”
“But we know she drove a truck to the ferry dock. At least once.”
“So, she’s a scofflaw.”
Taylor drained his Moscow Mule.
“So I’m going to guess now,” Tasha said, “sweet little Cammie got a job at the spa, looking to find upscale clients for her whore gig at the Airliner. Does Billie McGinn know her spa’s being used this way?”
“Right,” said Tasha. “Who knows?”
“The state requires a license for masseuses, right?”
“And Cammie doesn’t have one, right?”
“But Billie hired her anyway.”
“No hire. Independent contractors. It’s gig economy, Taylor, you might be the last guy in America with a full-time job.”
“For the time being. There are rumors flying around Console right now. Lost accounts. Stock price tanking. Everytime I see Rhonda the Stiff walk by my cubicle, I get the shivers.”
“Who’s Rhonda the Stiff?”
“Console HR. The hatchet lady. She’s kind of their bottom girl. But look, what about the Airliner Motel?”
“You can do some of this yourself,” Tasha said. “Property tax records, easy as pie. City Hall. Absolutely positively public record.”
She sipped wine. “The documents will reveal the owner of record, but that’s not always the true owner. A dump like the Airliner, the real owner probably doesn’t care to have his or her name attached.”
“I just walk in…”
“To the City Clerk’s Office. Don’t let the bitch at the window intimidate you. Lean into her space until she buzzes you in.”
“What about police records?”
“You march into headquarters, take a right turn, just past the dispatch office, there’s a grubby window. It’s manned by whichever cop has pissed off the chief this week. Rouse this uniformed loser from his taxpayer-financed nap and he’ll probably help you.”
“Feeling wobbly,” Taylor said. “Need a burger.”
He stepped over to the bar, grabbed a menu.
Supposedly, Taylor was a “catch,” but for Tasha, he wasn’t all that. He was geeky, timid, cautious, and worst of all, listened to jazz. Taylor was a good-friend kind of guy. Tasha liked her lovers wild, rock ‘n’ roll wild.
However, it had been quite a while since she’d been treated to dinner. She joined Taylor at the bar, bringing her glass and carafe.
“Maybe you’re right,” she said. “Maybe the Bulgarian’s a slaver. Maybe. Or maybe he’s just a common pimp. I’ll make you a deal. I’ll keep digging dirt for you, and if I come up with something good, you buy me dinner at La Fontana.”
“It’s got to be La Fontana?”
“Come on. I’m worth it. I could help you.”
Tasha was long gone, out for an evening of grunge rock ‘n’ roll, when Maggie rounded the bar and whispered to Taylor. “Champ, I have to cut you off. It’s closing time.”
She walked Taylor across the Wonder Bar floor to the wine-stained sofa and sat him down. “Now you just wait for Aunt Maggie and we’ll get some food into you.”
Even in his drunken state, Taylor knew he’d been kicked by too many Moscow Mules. He was now in the self pity stage, going over what he had done wrong to drive Karen away. Their arguments about money had gotten tangled up in whether to have a baby. He wanted a family, she dreamed of starting a sidewalk café “just like in Paris.” Later for babies, she said. She would cook in Karen’s D-Lightful Cafe. He, with his middle-class manners, would run the front of the house.
Taylor hated that plan. Just what we need, he’d argued, more debt. And I don’t want to be a maître d’.
They’d been a couple for so long they seemed inseparable. But one day last year, while late and speeding to work, Karen literally ran into Rick Lowe, knocked him off his motorcycle and into her life.
Taylor fell into a drunken nap on the office sofa and Maggie woke him, led him into a dark alley and sat him in her tinny white Toyota. “What you need,” she said, “is a Mother Magee.”
“What’s a Mother Magee?”
Maggie rented in the Southwest, a neighborhood whose suburban look belied its history of drive-by shootings and gang fights. Her apartment, though, was modern, scrupulously clean, and had a view of a lit-up urban park where drug buyers and dealers met after dark.
“Mother Magee,” she said. “Is corned beef, pan-fried potatoes, and eggs. Used to be served at the bar, but then we healthied up the menu. Nothing will prevent the hangover you’ve worked so hard to procure, but all this grease and protein will soften the morning for you.”
He slumped in an easy chair in a drunken haze while she banged around in the kitchen.
“What about you?” he said when called to the kitchen island. There sat a lone plate with enough breakfast for three people.
“I don’t eat in the middle of the night. I live on tips, remember? I get fat, I’ll end up working the drive-thru at Want-A-Burger.”
Taylor sat across from her. “Tips? Really? If you don’t mind my asking,” he said, “exactly what percentage of the Wonder Bar do you own?”
“Exactly zero,” she said.
“But isn’t your name on the …”
“Taylor! Don’t go there.”
“Okay,” he said and held up both hands in defense.
“People like you are smart,” Maggie said, and sipped from a cup of herbal tea. “You acquire a rare skill, and make the corporate bastards pay you for it.”
Taylor picked at the breakfast. His drunkenness was fading to an unpleasant thrum, but hadn’t reached the ravenous stage.
In the wayback, Maggie had been Karen’s babysitter. She knew secrets, including ones that Karen hadn’t revealed to Taylor. Karen had confessed to Maggie that Taylor was too cautious, too willing to take the easy way, too eager to yoke them both into the corporate tech harness. Having a baby would only lock them both in for decades. It had also worried Karen that Taylor was the only serious boyfriend she’d ever had, and she wondered if she owed it to herself to look around.
There were people who suspected Karen right away in the disappearance of Liz Burns. Taylor’s inheritance approached a million dollars, and would have enabled Karen’s dream of Parisian-style café. She had crashed into Rick Lowe in early April of 2017, almost two months before Liz went missing. While it was possible that Rick and Karen had cooked up a murder-for-money scheme, Maggie found it hard to believe that the little girl she’d babysat had grown up to be a cold-hearted killer.
Liz Sharp had not-so-quietly despised Karen Slater, and her low-life scrapyard family. Liz came from a distinguished family that lived up on Holy Hill. Her disapproval may have been one reason that Karen and Taylor, after years together, had not married. Karen had motives, Maggie decided, but not the cold-blooded character, to kill Liz Burns.
“You can’t beat yourself up over Karen,” Maggie told Taylor. “Relationships go sour every day. Look around you. Do you see anybody who’s happy, really happy?”
He toyed with his breakfast.
“Get back to me on that,” she said. “If you’re not hungry, at least drink the tea.”
He lifted the teabag out of the cup, held it in the air, dripping.
“Taylor, all relationships fail. Because each one of us is alone in the universe. You know how there’s all these astronomers listening for aliens? You know why? Because of the basic loneliness of the human being.”
“Then why did I feel so much better when Karen …”
“Illusion,” said Maggie. “Life is a big magic trick designed to distract us from the horrible, empty truth. We’re an entire planet of nobodies, going nowhere, making a pathetic little squeak on the way to the silent eons of our destinies.”
“You see, my friend, that’s the mistake Karen’s making. She fell for the illusion that Rick was her soul mate. She had you, but you were dull reality and this guy Rick was like the master of illusion. She lived with him for what, six weeks, and he whisked her out to California and ruined her life.”
Taylor dropped the teabag onto the saucer. He’d suspected that Rick and Karen had been carrying on for longer than she’d admitted. Two tears leaked out and he wiped them.
“Yeah,” said Maggie. “It’s sad. But once you accept that we’re alone, we’re meant to be alone, then you can live big and brave.” She scoffed. “I should talk, look at me, manager of a stinking gin mill … but I’m living the best pathetic life I can, and I don’t need anyone’s help, either.”
“You need Paul, though.”
She glared at him. If he wasn’t drunk he probably wouldn’t have said that. He knew her dependence on Paul, her sugar daddy, was a sore wound.
“You’re spoiling my mood,” she said, “and I was just about to throw you a good hot sympathy fuck.”