“What if I told you,” Taylor said, “that I was asked to write a prostitution app?”
Sheriff Bonnie Blanchard, sitting at her desk, her body in the very shape of a question mark, eyed him suspiciously.
Taylor added: “There’s a sex slavery ring operating out of the Airliner Motel.”
“You don’t say?” She stared. Taylor stood at her desk like a dork, like a dufus.
“What if I told you,” she said, “that guilty people have a way of coming in on a pretext … when what they really want to do … is confess.”
He turned to leave.
“Sit down,” said Deputy Blanchard.
He grabbed a chair in front of her compulsively clean desk, turned it around, sat backward in it, leaned in at her. “You’re not going to arrest me, are you?”
“Someday. Maybe. We’ll see. I’ve seen a copy of your mom’s will.”
“The will gives you and you alone clear title to one-quarter acre on Poke Island. The suggested retail value, and I’m being sarcastic here, is a minimum of $513,000. Which means you will benefit from your mother’s death. Financially.”
“What about that prostitution? Are you interested or not, because I have all the details you’d need.”
“I am a homicide investigator, not a vice cop. So let’s focus. You do not have to be on the scene to have someone murdered.”
“What exactly are you saying?”
“How well do you know Butchie Block?”
“Butchie Block? Friend of a friend, I guess.”
“Do you socialize with Butchie Block?”
“But he’s a friend of a friend.”
“My friend Artie,” it was out before Taylor could stop himself, “sometimes meets him up in the city. To go to basketball games, I think.”
“Are you aware that Butchie Block is a convicted felon currently on parole?”
“Vaguely. I don’t know all the details.”
“Were you in a drugged state on the day of your Mom’s disappearance?”
“A drugged state? Where’d you get that?”
Jangling a huge ring of keys, she led him down a corridor, around a corner, and opened the door of a holding cell.
“In,” she said.
“Am I under arrest?”
“That depends on you.”
She shoved him in and closed the barred door.
“Maybe you’ll be writing that app from a county facility.”
“I need to talk to my lawyer.”
“What? I don’t hear so well.”
Taylor kicked the bars, and all he got out of it was a stubbed toe.
“We have information that you were under the influence of a designer drug and had not one but two hostile encounters on Poke Island the day your mother disappeared. We have a link between you and Artie Buchanan, a known, unemployed drug dealer and gambler, and this Block dude who went to prison for manslaughter. A manslaughter by drowning.”
Drowning. She let that notion linger.
“Beach property aside, your Mom’s life insurance pays you, not your dad. He gets a mortgaged house on the East End, the darling gets everything else.”
“I’m the darling?”
“Okay, I want out of here.”
She unlocked the door, and it creaked as she swung it open.
“Enjoy your freedom,” she said, “while it lasts.”
On the way out, Taylor glimpsed Butchie Block, alone, in the interrogation room, sitting in a posture of bored contempt.
Steffie was the most sympathetic listener Taylor knew, so he messaged her and then showed up at her door.
She lived in a comfortably messy apartment. None of these Italian leather sofas for her, the place was jammed with old soft chairs. She was a quilter, and had them hung from the walls, spread on the sofa and chairs. Every surface held a framed photo of somebody from Steffie’s complex web of cousins. Her apartment was in the basement, feet and legs passing the windows, heating pipes overhead.
Taylor sat at her kitchen table. Steffie rubbed his shoulders, mussed his hair, fixed him tea.
“Her theory,” Taylor said over tea and sweet icing cakes, “is that I’m a drug addict and in a raging blackout, I hired Butchie Block to kill my mother. Then I just blanked it all out. I don’t remember, she thinks, because it’s too horrible to remember. My motive? An inheritance.”
He didn’t wait to be asked how much was at stake. “Altogether, maybe $700,000.”
Steffie pursed her lips. “People have been killed for a lot less.”
“Don’t tell me you believe it too?”
“No! I’m talking about motivation, in general. You have it. It doesn’t make you guilty.”
She opened an Altoids tin and removed half a marijuana cigarette. She sat beside him at the table, lit it and passed it for a toke.
“No thanks, I’m paranoid already,” he said. “Karen betrayed me. She’s the only possible source of me being stoned that day.”
“Except for Artie.”
“Artie? No. He hates the police. He’s totally paranoid since he was busted. Never, I’m telling you.” He sighed. “Give me that.” He smoked and held down a lungful. “Worse, my father. It’s a pretty good bet Dad talked to the Deputy as well. She seemed to know an awful lot about mom’s will.”
“Which is public record, right?”
“Once it gets to the courts … look, I guess the cops can find that stuff out, I don’t know.”
Steffie rose from the table to check on a macaroni and cheese casserole. She closed the oven door, turned and said, “You’re staying for supper. Don’t argue.”
“On second thought,” Taylor said, with another toke, “I don’t know if I can trust Artie anymore. I mean, maybe he gets weak-kneed when the sheriff comes down on him. Could be he’s afraid the cops will search his apartment again. Maybe he talks too much. Out of fear, nothing else. I know he’s my friend, and he does hate the cops, but fear ….”
“Taylor, I have something to tell you.”
“Oh no, I hate when people say that.”
“It’s about Artie. Your mom, I think two years ago, she complained to the police about him, about his drug dealing.”
“She was worried about you. I think she felt Artie was a bad influence and the two of you were…”
“How do you know this?”
“… getting high all the time.”
“Stef. How do you know?”
“A cop told my mom. Don’t look at me like that. She works in the ER. Nurses and cops talk. Do you remember that time the cops raided Artie’s apartment?”
“Sure … that was because of my mom’s complaint?”
“Did Artie know who …?”
Steffie shrugged. She cleared the dining table. She brought out a single candle, one she had purloined from the spa. She lit it, sat back, invited Taylor to sit opposite her, folded her hands, closed her eyes.
“Entering Aquarius,” she murmured, “means placing a high priority on the thoughts you think and the messages you send. Speak to me from the soul, Taylor James Burns.”
He arose from the table, pushed the chair away.
“You know I’m a mystic, Taylor.”
“I’m afraid,” he said.
“Enter your fear.”
“A few nights back, I had just tapped for a ride when a big dark car pulled up. I thought it was my ride, but Nick the Bulgarian pushed me into the back seat. He forced a drugged drink on me, threatened me, slapped me around, dumped me on the edge of town.”
Steffie’s eyes were closed, lips murmuring.
“He told me to stay away from Adora, who was in the front seat. The two of them are running a sex slave outfit, I’m sure of it. They know I’m on to them. And Steffie, you’ve got to keep this to yourself or we’ll never be friends again. But young Cammie is one of their slaves.”
She still hadn’t opened her eyes.
“You keep the books. How much do you know about what goes on at Inno-scents Spa?”
She sighed. She opened her eyes. She blew the candle out. “Somehow I just knew we’d end up talking about Cammie.”
“Does Billie McGinn know what her masseuses are up to?”
She shrugged. “I’m a mystic, not a psychic.”
“What’s the difference?”
“I thought we were going to have a soul-to-soul, Taylor. I’ve been mad about you since we were 12. I will marry you right now on the spot, and be yours forever. But you, you sleep with me once, when we’re high, and then toss me like trash. Is that it? Is that all I get?”
Taylor walked to the windows, watched Shipwreck Bay’s feet and legs walk by on a purple-sky summer evening. “Sometimes I wonder,” he said. “The unthinkable. Nearest and dearest, isn’t that what the police always say?”
She came up behind him, encircled his waist with her arms.
“Sorry, Taylor, don’t think about it, if it hurts so much. She’s gone. She was a lovely person. She lived her life and did a lot of good things for her family. That’s all any of us can ask, Taylor, a good and decent life, and then it ends.” She added: “Really? Your Dad? For money, you think?”
“No. He thought she was cheating on him.”
“Yes. But her lover was the ocean. She had no time for him anymore. This town is so gossipy, you’d have heard if my mother had another guy.”
“Taylor, people tell me things they won’t tell you.”
He eased out of her grip, turned to face her.
“Your dad and Billie.”
“My father and Billie McGinn?”
“At Scotty’s Green Lantern.”
“In public? At a saloon?”
“Once or twice, maybe. Recently.”
“Doesn’t prove anything. Oh shit, yes it does. Billie went to Dad wanting to develop the Poke Island lot. Maybe he’s the one who told her it was willed to me.” He thought about that and whistled. “Billie McGinn and my father. Holy mackerel. That would be something. Two tigers in a cage. And speaking of cages, the sheriff had Butchie Block in the baseball room.”
“The interrogation room. In the old days, the cops kept a miniature baseball bat in there. They’d bang it on the table to scare shit out of the kids they brought in.”
“Why was Butchie in there?”
“I told you. Deputy Sherlock thinks I hired Butchie to kill my own mother.”
“No it’s really not funny to have the sheriff put you under a microscope. She draws some easy conclusions if you ask me, and then she’s like a bulldog to prove herself right.”
Steffi put an arm around him.
“I don’t know if I’m up for it tonight, Steff.”
“I don’t care. Just stay here. Let me hold you in my arms. Am I too much of a freak for you, Taylor, is that it? Is it the goth clothes? The green hair? Because my hairdresser says it’s not that hard to reverse.”
Taylor knew she loved him deeply. He kissed her. It was warm and good but right then, nothing was sexy.
“Taylor, all these other girls, they just think you’re a hot guy who makes lots of money. But I know your soul. I loved you back when you were just a skinny math nerd. My soul loves your soul, and I don’t know why, because you can be kind of a jerk.”
He backed toward the door. “I’ve gotta walk. I’ve gotta think. I don’t know.”
“I’ve seen it in my mystic eye, Taylor, take this from someone who adores you. She drowned. Your poor mom, maybe she just drowned.”
He closed the door, and took a slow walk home. Steffanie, he figured, was in her own big-hearted way trying to make him feel better. But he didn’t believe in ghosts, mumbo-jumbo, or voodoo. His mom was the strongest swimmer he’d ever known. The ocean was calm that day. Taylor was a math guy, and now that some remains had been found, he could no longer live in denial. The chance that she accidentally drowned was close to zero.