So sorry about the rough ride. Let me buy you dinner at LaFontana. Tuesday @ 7. Please do note massage or call.
“She’s my friend now?” Taylor said.
”What are you going to do?” Artie asked.
“I’m gonna go.”
“Go heavy dude.”
“Armed you mean? I don’t have a gun.”
“Yeah,” Artie said in a disappointed tone. “Me neither.” He brightened. “You can buy one at Wow Mart, though. Which is kind of a shame, you know, that any maniac with $300 can buy a gun.”
“I thought you were a Libertarian.”
“I’m failing at that too. My Dad always told me: Artie, you’ve failed at everything you ever touched.”
“And what did your mom say to that?”
“She ordered the maid to make another pitcher of cocktails. Look, man, you should turn down this crazy rendezvous.”
“Don’t worry, Artie, Adora’s not going to kill me in front of 100 well-fed witnesses.”
They were playing billiards at the East End Club. Artie fancied himself a pool hustler. Artie may have been a much better than Taylor, but not good enough for it to matter. There is hardly anything as useless as skill in billiards, which may be why Artie pursued the hobby. He sank three in a row and then the 8-ball, which clanked into the table’s innards. He stepped back, nodded at Taylor, and began to twist apart his custom-made Predator cue-stick.
“Don’t go,” he said. “Simple as that.”
“I’ve gotta meet her,” Taylor said, and set a warped cue in the rack.
“I’m curious. Aren’t you?”
Artie laughed. “Curious, that’s one way to put it. You’re horny dude. You’re obsessed with Cammie. Karen really fucked up your mind. She left you like a wounded animal in the forest. Cammie is trouble, man. Stay out of it. You’re getting laid left and right. I hear you’re getting it on with Freckles the Barista.”
Artie truly envied Taylor’s luck with women. Artie was like a puppy whom no one had ever picked up and cuddled. His childhood had been lived in luxury, but a vacuum of love and affection, and it was too late now to overcome that.
Taylor was oblivious to this truth. He could not hear the desperation in Artie’s teasing jokes. To him, Artie lived an enviable, carefree life as a trust fund baby.
”Adora wants something,” Taylor said. “Her cousin’s trapped in sex slavery and maybe she is too. Maybe she wants to find a way to get free of the Bulgarian. Adora is the key, I’m telling you.”
“The key to getting your ass kicked. Maybe Cammie wants to be a ho, did you ever think of that? Hey, I’ll bet Butchie’s got a Glock. Maybe he’ll loan you a gun.”
“Artie, what world do you live in? People don’t loan guns.”
Taylor went alone, afraid, and unarmed.
La Fontana occupied a rehabbed yacht club across the bay from Poke Island. It was at the ocean inlet to Shipwreck Bay, along the barely-navigable channel kept open only by the mighty, constant and expensive efforts of the Corps of Engineers.
Since this taxpayer-financed channel was the one safe way across the treacherous bay, many of La Fontana’s patrons arrived in boats. The restaurant offered a view of Poke Island, although all you could see at night was a string of dim lights. LaFontana is all big windows, candle light and white table cloths. Karen had found LaFontana inspiring. Taylor thought the price of its hamburgers, $19, proved its diners were being hosed, if not outright horsewhipped.
As Taylor mounted the stone steps past the fountain, bells rang on boats moored in the bay, and fresh breezes blew in off the ocean. His mind was fogged by an anti-anxiety drug. It wasn’t one from Artie’s stash, but had been prescribed for the panic attacks that began at his mom’s funeral.
Even in his drug-calmed state, when he saw Adora at a window-side table with Nick the Bulgarian, Taylor felt a rising panic from his gut. He turned to run.
“This way, sir,” said the headwaiter, and grasped his elbow. “Mister Smith has been waiting for you.”
Taylor froze a smile on his face and approached the table. Nick and Adora sat side by side, candles ablaze, plates and silverware gleaming. It all looked so disarmingly civilized.
“Whatever young man wants,” Nick told the waiter. “Double strong. And make it good.” Then Nick wagged a finger at Taylor. “No girly drinks now. Sugar, bad for body.”
“Mountain Man light beer,” Taylor said. “In a bottle. Unopened please.”
“As you wish,” said the waiter.
Nick raised what looked like bourbon in a short glass, and Adora clinked that with her tall narrow glass of water. Or was it vodka?
“We drink to you,” Nick said.
“Thanks,” Taylor said.
“Anything you want,” said Nick, “whole menu, order up. Is yours for free, on us. Steak tartare, I recommend. You know what it is? Cow sushi. Best in state, right here.”
“Actually,” Taylor said, “I didn’t come for dinner. I thought I was coming to meet Adora.”
She studied her pink fingernails.
“She tells me you are good man,” said Nick. He sat back, spread his arms over the red leather booth. “You don’t know Bulgarian hospitality.”
“Bulgarians most hospitable people in this world. No kidding.”
“We want to apologize,” Adora said. “For the last time. We should have treated you with more … what’s the word I’m looking for?”
“Nice,” said Nick.
“Respect,” finished Adora.”
“I’ll say. Drugging me. Leaving me by the side of the road. Threatening me.”
Adora pursed her lips, shook her head, glowed with shame.
“But now is different,” proclaimed Nick. “We had you wrong, it’s mistaken.”
“I came here to ask about your cousin Cammie,” Taylor said directly to Adora.
“Yes!” Nick shouted. “Yes. Is the point exactly. Come, my friend, let us talk in a manly way.”
He coaxed Taylor away from the table and toward a dark corner of the bar. “I can buy you best Kentucky whiskey.”
“I’m not going to drink with you,” Taylor said. “Not after what you did to me. That’s serious business man, doping people?”
Nick clapped Taylor on the back. “We can be best friends, you’ll see.” He ordered both of them a double bourbon, and when the drinks were delivered, said: “Bulgarian hospitality. Drink up.”
“Not a chance. Bulgarian hospital, that’s more like it.”
Nick laughed. “You I don’t blame. But trust, soon you will learn.”
“What’s the deal? Why am I here?”
“Big business venture, you see?” Nick tapped his head. “You think showing my penis is American Dream? No. I don’t think so.”
“What is the American Dream anyway?”
“You get rich, everybody hates you, you laugh at world.”
Nick sipped bourbon. “And together we can do it. You see, what I need is the app. A so-called app you download from the American Internet.”
“Yes, for our pleasant business.”
“I just told you. Not to discuss in front of women. You want a nice girl, you touch the app. Get pictures of girls you can meet. Very nice, clean girls, no bugs.”
He looked alarmed. “Shh. Don’t say those word. Contractors.”
“As reward, we pay you, and, big bonus, fix you on dates with your sweetheart Cammie.”
“You want me to write to you an app?”
Nick swatted Taylor on the back. “You can do this yes, poof, like magic show, easy for brains guy like you. American education! Best in world.”
“Find somebody in Bulgaria to write the app. I’m sure they work cheap over there.”
“Yes, but would not be American. And Americans like American things, yes? Must be all-American app, I say. Beautiful and clean in American language. Otherwise people will think: Russian. The Russians, nobody trusts. In Bulgaria, Russians are how do you say it politely? Worse that pig shit.”
“I’m not going to write a prostitution app.”
Nick acted as if he hadn’t heard that. “Good idea no? My wife came up with it.”
“Your wife, Adora?”
“I have many girls, broken hearts back in Ruse. Bulgarian women, they like the muscles guy.”
“Back in where?
“Ruse. You’ve never heard? Don’t tell me! Famous Bulgarian city. Known for nice culture. On Danube. You’ve heard of Danube, surely. We even have University in Ruse. Very big. Extra top deal. You have never heard opera until it’s sang in Bulgarian.”
“Prostitution is illegal,” Taylor said. “I’m not going to write an app that puts me in jail. Furthermore …”
“You know what else is illegal? The drugs your little fat friend passes around. I’ll bet both you have drugs in home right now. Hopes to God police don’t search your house. So you see, illegal, not really the problem.”
“The answer is no. Good night.”
Nick grabbed Taylor’s elbow.
“We pay,” he said. “We give you money and Cammie, you can do her as you wish. Slap her, she obeys, kind of girl she is. She can make money for you, or simply pleasure, your choice.”
He let go. “Is big sacrifice for me. Cammie is cutest young girl. Many happy customers.” He winked at Taylor. “Call my wife when you change your mind, she likes you.”
Artie wasn’t at his apartment, his satellite phone seemed dead and his cell phone went straight to voicemail. This was typical for him when he was meeting drug dealers or gamblers. Ever since the cops had kicked his door in, he regularly yanked his sim cards to keep the cops from tracking him.
The only way Taylor could be sure Artie wasn’t at his cottage was to trek out there. The morning after his dinner meeting with the Bulgarian, Taylor stood on the deck of Artie’s cottage, watching the sea. He told himself it’s been more than a year, it was time to get over it.
He used his cellphone to let himself in to the cottage, opened the fridge, selected a beer that said Lost Abbey on its label. He found Artie’s satellite phone on the kitchen countertop, sim card lying beside it. He inserted the card and called Penny.
He said what a beautiful day and there was nobody out there and she promised to take the next bus to the ferry. Some old guy in a golf cart gave her a ride through the Bird Sanctuary.
Taylor met her on the deck. She didn’t want a beer: too fattening. They walked toward the beach, Penny wearing her outfit from Holy Trinity.
“I recognize that,” he said. “My mom went there.”
“You told me.”
“She never went to college. I came along when she was pretty young.”
“I love these beaches,” Penny said. “I don’t get to this island much, but the other ones, well, I am with the Guardians and all.”
“The Turtle Guardians, didn’t I tell you about them? We’re trying to save those creatures. Global warming has done horrible things to them.”
They reached the seawall and Penny slipped out of her loafers and stripped off her knee socks. Taylor was already feeling the heat. She had the body of horny cheerleader and Taylor figured it was going to be his lucky day.
They walked along the beach, barefoot.
“I am so ready for this semester to be over,” she said.
“I can imagine.”
“No you can’t, the nuns run that place like a prison, and speaking of prison …”
“I thought you were proud of that school.”
“I am, I mean, I love being Catholic, but sometimes it’s hard. Aren’t you, didn’t you, your Mom was Catholic, right?”
“Irish Catholic, the worst kind. Her parents, whew, you don’t want to know. But I was raised military brat. It’s kind of its own religion.”
“Anyway, I’ve got to choose my summer internship. One, they can attach me to a local cop. Two, Parole Division up in The City. Three, a summer in the delightful confines of Stateville Prison, Jesus I don’t think so, so I’ve got two options, which means I only have one option if I want to stay home for the summer and really I do because Dad gets depressed and he needs me.”
She scuffed along, stopped, wiggled her toes in the wet sand, looked toward the soft blue horizon.
“And once I get past this summer, boom, I’m on to pre law, and no more of these bullshit classes although I enjoy Latin if you can believe that, amor vincit omnia and all that crap.”
“Love conquers all.”
Taylor kissed her. She barely reacted, her lips as cold as the ocean.
“I want to be,” she said.
“Want to be what?”
“I just want to be,” she said. “You know, alive. I feel dead sometimes. I’m tired of being a Catholic girl. I just want to be whoever I am.”
Taylor unbuttoned her blouse. She had not worn a bra. Her tits had a schoolgirl bounce, and perky goosebumped nipples. Taylor locked lips with her and suddenly it was like they were trying to swallow each other whole. Then she pushed away and turned her back.
From around her neck, and over her blonde locks, she lifted a golden cross on a golden chain. She removed her blouse, buttoned the holy chain into its pocket, folded it carefully and left it behind a rock.
“That’s what you wanted to see, right?” she asked. “This is not my first time, you know.”
She slipped off skirt and panties, Taylor dropped his drawers and then they waded the ocean.
“Being naked in the water,” she said, “is like, you know, cleansing, it’s like being cleansed by God. I feel dirty sometimes, don’t you feel dirty?”
“Yeah,” said Taylor, his voice hoarse with lust. He dropped his shirt into the sea. He kissed her hot and wet. They were deep into sea water and went at each other standing up for a while, salty, wet, breathing heavy. They wrestled each other back to the beach, kicked towels into place and fell on them, locked in embrace.
“I can’t,” she said. “Don’t.”
She lay on that towel, enticing, and Taylor rested on one elbow in the sand, admiring her.
“Okay,” he said. “No hurry.”
She touched his face tenderly. Her lips trembled when she said: “Maybe someday okay, we’ll talk about it, I like you, okay? But my life is so, it’s complicated right now and I just don’t have… don’t make me explain please. I do like you, I really do. I mean otherwise, I wouldn’t be out here and I sure wouldn’t let you see, you know, what a dirty filthy girl I really am.”