Chapter 16: Date with Penny

School was out, summer was in, and Penny texted Taylor from the Thirsty Hog. This was the sports bar at the edge of the Holy Trinity campus, where her classmates were deep into the woozy end of a post-semester bash. She texted:

Save me frm this Papish Mob

He arrived at the tavern by MyRide, she got in, and they were driven downtown to Scotty’s Green Lantern.

Scotty’s was a plush hotel bar, a relic of the 1920s, serving grilled seafood, dry-aged steaks and monster cocktails. No college student could afford to eat there, so this would be a treat for Penny.

Penny at Scotty’s Green Lantern.

Or so Taylor anticipated.

The waiter, angling for a tip, pretended he didn’t notice her ID was fake. She and Taylor drank Finnish Gin & Tonics. Penny admired, but didn’t share, Gulf Shrimp Cocktail.

“The texture,” she said, and wrinkled her nose.

Penny, looking over the menu, said: “They used to have turtle soup on the menu, can believe that? Making a soup out of those poor, noble creatures? For Christ’s sake.”

She blessed herself. “I shouldn’t curse. But the Guardians put a stop to that. Like five years ago. Picket lines, remember?” 

Taylor shook his head. “I was off in college, I guess.”

“Rich guys, look at all those pictures on the wall, is that Bob Dylan, you’ve got to be rich or famous to even eat here I think. Thirty six.”

“Thirty six what?”

“Pictures on the wall.”

“They had a picture of my father up there once. He made them take it down.”

“He’s so … macho, your dad.”

“Strack,” Taylor said.

“What?”

“Strack. It’s military slang. It mean, disciplined, squared away, by the book, no nonsense.”

“Strack,” Penny said. “If I ever see him again, I’ll tell him he’s looking very strack. That’s such a weird word. Hey, speaking of weird, Green Lantern is an odd name for a fancy restaurant, don’t you think?”

“It’s from The Great Gatsby. The Green Lantern is like the … did you ever buy something that looked great in the store, so wonderful you felt compelled to buy it? And then when you got it home, it didn’t seem magical at all? That’s the Green Lantern. It’s that thing you’d give everything to have, only it’s not worth the price. Anyway, Artie, he’s a freak on the writers of the Golden Age. In college he took literature classes only, until they kicked him out. He swears that Scott and Zelda stayed in his parents’ cottage one weekend.” 

“Scott and Zelda?” Her eyes went to the menu. “That’s weird, they have a Steak Zelda on the menu, oh my God, the prices, salmon, I don’t eat much fish these days, do you think the salmon’s good here, doesn’t that come like from Canada?”

Papa’s Salmon, supposedly Hemingway’s favorite, was grilled and encrusted with pecans at $37. What the hell, Taylor was in massive debt anyway. He ordered like he was a hedge fund manager. 

When the entrees arrived, Penny tried to be subtle about pushing her plate away. It was a beautifully grilled salmon steak, surrounded by lemon wedges, topped with crushed pecans and bourbon sauce, with a flourish of parsley.

“Sorry,” said Penny. “I didn’t expect … the smell. I don’t know what comes over me sometimes.” She leaned toward him and whispered: “I think I might be crazy.”

Taylor watched a pat of butter disappear into his baked potato. It was melting like his hopes for a fun evening.

“Send the salmon back,” he suggested. “You can get something else.”

“Didn’t you hear me? I said I think I might be crazy.”

“Well, you don’t seem crazy to me. Just a little scattered, that’s all.”

“I want another cocktail. If I have another cocktail I can eat my dinner.”

After another Finnish G&T she did nibble at the salmon, repeatedly apologized to Taylor for her scant appetite, and then had the waiter wrap the meal in foil. When the desert cart was wheeled around, she ordered a Kahlua and Cream, and Taylor did too.

“Well, I chose my internship,” she said. “Bayside County.”

“Bayside County what?”

“Sheriff. Male cops give me the shudders. So they’re putting me with a female, isn’t that great!”

“What female?”

“She’s rough and tough, and really smart too.”

“What female?”

“Bonnie Blanchard. You don’t know her, do you?”

Taylor lied by shaking his head, and tried to keep the shock and dread from showing on his face. He wasn’t sure what to do with this new information. 

They ordered a second round of Kahluas, and, bombed, wobbled out to the flower garden, which was dark, the sun setting behind the big hotel. On the far side of Author’s Park, the sidewalk was jammed with well-dressed people waiting out a theater intermission.

“Have you ever been to a play?”

“Sure,” Taylor said. “Haven’t you?”

“Nope. Dad says … plays are Heathen, he says. They’re a bunch of atheists doing the Devils work, Dad says. He prays every day for the conversion of China.”

“The conversion of China?”

“To Roman Catholicism, he says that’s a pre-condition to the Second Coming, now if there were Catholic plays, you know, with nuns and priests and crucifixes and the Pope delivering encyclicals left and right …”

“Penny, you’re nineteen or maybe twenty, right?”

She shrugged. She put an arm around his waist. “Oh Taylor, you’re so practical.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’m not used to guys like you.”

“What kind of guys are you used to?”

“You’re like, not that much older but you’re really more mature, you know? Let’s call for a ride.”

They ordered a car and in the backseat held hands like school kids on a first date. “Eight point six,” she said.

“Eight point six what?”

“Miles to your place. Look at the app.”

She hummed a tune he’d never heard before. They were both booze loopy and didn’t say much for the few minutes it took the driver to wheel to Taylor’s condo.

They walked upstairs, Penny wobbling. “Twenty four,” she said.

“Twenty four what?”

“Steps to your floor. That rhymes, doesn’t t. Do you have gin?”

“Sure.”

“Because gin and sin rhyme, don’t they”

“What admixture of gin do you prefer?”

“See, that’s why I appreciate you. None of the guys I know talk like that. They’re like, Blow me, bitch.

“I don’t have blueberries, so Finnish G&Ts are not on the menu.”

“Martini,” she said, “stirred not shaken.”

“It’s the other way around, but sure okay.”

Taylor assembled two martinis including mega-olives as Penny watched the city from the windows, mesmerized. “It’s a whole different world over here,” she said. “It’s nothing like Holy Hill. It’s so, snooty up there.”

When he delivered the drinks, she sipped, put hers on the bookcase, lifted both hands to her neck and gently removed a golden chain, pulling it carefully free of her long blonde hair. She handed that golden chain to Taylor: at the end of it was a cross with Christ nailed to it.

Penny tries on one of Taylor’s shirts.

She blessed herself. “Hide it somewhere dark,” she said. “I can’t let Jesus see me.”

He shut it into a desk drawer. Martini in one hand, Penny slipped into the bathroom.

“I’ll be a while,” she called through the door. “Don’t try to come in here, okay?”

“I wasn’t going to,” Taylor shouted.

“Don’t rattle the door or anything, okay?”

“Okay.”

He ducked into the bedroom, picked up clothing he’d carelessly shed, smoothed the rumpled bed, cracked the window to admit fresh air. Did he hear the sound of gagging or puking coming from the bathroom? Whatever was going on in there, she’d warned him not to interfere, so he stepped into the living room and put Miles Davis on the stereo.

Penny emerged wearing one of Taylor’s shirts, unbuttoned.

“I’m kind of drunk,” she said. “I’ve never been this drunk when you know, what I mean. Oh God.” She stumbled into the bedoom and flopped onto his bed, a pale blonde freckly vision on the quilt.

“I’m feeling so like loose, I don’t know if I’ve felt like, you know, giddy.” She giggled. “Oh Taylor, you’re going to find out.”

He sat on the bed, spread the shirt so he could see her whole body.

“What am I going to find out?”

“About me.”

“What about you?”

He put one hand on her belly and eased it up toward her breasts. She closed her eyes and sighed.

“I can’t give you what you want,” she said.

He kissed her, it was more innocent than lusty. He could feel her inhibition as taut muscle. He rested his hand between her flattened breasts.

“I’m so drunk and yet … I’m never going to be normal, Taylor. I’m ruined.”

“I didn’t expect you to be a virgin,” he joked.

“I’m not.”

“I’m not either so we’re even.”

Her face grew stiff, it was like she was staring at a horror film shown on the ceiling.

“I am so sorry to disappoint you,” she said. “I’m an awful person inside. I’m a dirty filthy tease is what I am. I’m terrible Taylor, I’ve got the Devil in me and if I don’t pray more, I’m probably going to hell for sure.”

Penny can’t give Taylor what he wants.

Taylor woke up alone, and restless. He showered, and out in the bedroom stood a long time staring at a photo of Mom. Penny’s mysterious behavior had come between him and sleep. They had cuddled in the bed and fallen into drunken slumber but Penny woke up screaming sometime after midnight. Shaking and crying, she called for a MyRide and ran out.

Now in the morning, Taylor was spooked by that, and dimly recalled noises from his childhood, his father shouting, his mom crying out in muffled pain. He shoved her, he slapped her, he bruised her, but always out of Taylor’s sight, and they all conspired to hide the evil truth from each other. His father’s anger smoldered in Hawaii, where his career was going to Hell, while his wife turned into a hippie surfer, spurning the supporting role of Officer’s Spouse.

Who was Elizabeth Powell, really, deep in her soul, before motherhood irrevocably changed her life? What did she think in her most private moments? What were her darkest desires and brightest hopes? Taylor would never know now. Mom was dead and there was no more to reveal. As a young woman, in rebellion against strict parents, she’d refused to apply to college. She worked as a secretary in the Warehouse District when it was truly full of warehouses. Her plan was to live cheap, save money for a year, and then travel. But that Fall she met Daniel Burns at a music concert in The City. He was a young aspiring policeman, working event security. He pulled her aside, apologized, and searched her handbag. It was a rare reminiscence when she confided to Taylor: He was tough, but had a nice smile and was very, very sexy. 

She got pregnant that night, or soon after. Taylor was named for the headliner at that concert, singer James Taylor.

As a surprise father, Dan Burns figured his best chance to support a young family was in the Air Force, and so it was off to Colorado soon after Taylor was born.

But during all her time as an Air Force wife, some dream of freedom lay like a big seed inside Mom, only to burst open the first time she got on a rental board at Waikiki. Once she’d said: Taylor, we make our choices young, too young sometimes. That notion had haunted him ever since, applied to her life, Dad’s and his own as well. He was just 19 years old when he settled on Karen, the wrong choice, obviously, in hindsight. In some ways, his Mom and Dad were wrong for each other too. But by the time they discovered that, it was already too late. 

He picked up his phone, intending to text Penny and ask if she was okay. But it buzzed with a message.

Cammie Vang: Can we meet?

He gave himself time to think by making coffee in his Chemex. He drank it on his deck, relished the morning air, and wondered  whether he was being set up. Just as he finished his coffee he noticed Nick’s dark sedan down in the street, the same car he’d been kidnapped in. Were these people really that obvious?

He replied to Cammie’s text:

It’s a work day for me

He told himself Nick could hardly snatch him if he took a MyRide to work. It was three steps from his front door to the curb, and Console Graphics had a big, and quite nasty, Physical Security staff.

Cammie Vang: I can offer you a ride. We should talk

Taylor began to see this as a chess game, and was curious about their next move. So he texted:

Can you meet at Jordan Baker’s for lunch? Just you and me, though, okay?

Cammie Vang: Yes

Not even a minute later, the dark sedan pulled away.

At his cubicle, Taylor found it hard to concentrate and he was all nerves by 11:30. He reasoned: Jordan Baker’s is crazy popular with the tech crowd. A  kidnapping or worse would have a lot of witnesses, each of whom carried an average of two recording devices. 

His next move was to have MyRide drop him off around the back, near the entrance to the Garden Room. To his surprise, Adora, followed by Cammie, popped off a garden bench and approached. There was no Bulgarian Bruiser in sight.

“I need to ask about the app,” said Adora in a choked voice.

Cammie stared at her feet. She was dressed demurely, all covered up, even though it was summer sunny.

“And I need to know,” he said, “whether Cammie is free.”

Adora scolds Taylor. Cammie turns away.

“What do you mean, free?”

“As opposed to a sex slave.”

Adora choked out a bitter laugh. “Slave?” She turned to Cammie. “Are you a slave, my little cousin?”

Cammie shook her head. Her body language emitted shame, though.

Taylor pulled out his cellphone, flicked to the ride app. “Well, if she’s not a slave, then she’s free to leave with me, right?”

“Not if she doesn’t want to.”

“Cammie?” he said. “Would you like to have lunch, just you and me?”

“No,” she said softly.

“I get it,” he said.

“We are sorry to cause you trouble,” Cammie said.

“Don’t listen to her,” snapped Adora. “She is not right in the head.”

“If Cammie comes with me,” Taylor said, “I’ll write the app. If not, no chance. That’s my deal. Take or leave it.”

Adora spit at the ground. “You don’t make the terms,” she said. “You owe us, that’s the deal.”

“I owe you?”

“You made a bargain. First we get the app, and only then, you get Cammie.”

“So Cammie’s yours to give?”

Adora drilled him with a look of pure animal hate.

“If you’re giving her away like she’s a stray cat,” he said, “then she’s your slave.”

“I am not,” Cammie said.

“Shut up,” Adora said. “This man is not worth talking to. He has bad hearing.” She turned to Taylor. “We try so hard to be nice people.”

“I am calling the police.”

“Go ahead. We are members of the Chamber of Commerce.”

She stomped off, holding Cammie by the wrist. As Taylor turned to watch them, he saw they wee headed for a dark Range Rover, the same car he’d been kidnapped in. Standing at the driver’s door was Nick.

Whatever you do, don’t upset Nick’s wife.

“You have upset my wife, smarts guy,” Nick said as Adora and Cammie slipped into the back seat. “In Bulgaria, we hate a smarts guy. What’s matter, you don’t want pretty girl? Maybe you like boys, eh? You have one week. You break this deal, I break your face.”

Artie returned from Vegas in the company of Butchie Block. Those two sat around at Artie’s Cottage getting high and dissecting the huge losses they taken on the Stanley Cup playoffs. It was the workweek, so Taylor so he didn’t join them on the island. But when Artie returned to the mainland, Taylor dropped over to that messy apartment.

Artie was watching a golf tournament. “Why do I do this to myself?” Artie said. “This is not a sport. Look at these guys. It’s like a bunch of accountants out there. I’m surprised they don’t carry calculators in their golf bags.”

“They do. They’re called range finders.”

“Oh, that’s right, you’ve actually played this stupid game.”

Artie doesn’t like golf, but he will bet on it.

“So how’s Butchie?”

“He blew even more than I did. I don’t think I’m his favorite guy right now.”

“Do you think Butchie could get me a gun?”

“Well! That came out of the blue.”

“Not really. The Bulgarian’s closing in.”

“Taylor, Wow Mart will sell you a murder machine.”

“That can’t be traced?”

“Oh man, that’s a dark alley.”

“Look, Artie, hiring a lawyer to defend assault charges would push me over the edge. Even if I avoided prison, I’d end up homeless and probably jobless. I can’t afford to be arrested for shooting the Bulgarian. That’s what it comes down to.”

Randall ambled over and threw himself down at Artie’s feet. Artie sighed.

“Murder is expensive,” Taylor said. “Unless you kill my Mom, then there’s no penalty at all.”

“Bitter,” said Artie. “But I can’t say I blame you. As for the Bulgarian, why not tip off the cops on his whore operation? I know they’re Keystone Cops but they can probably bust a whorehouse.”

“The cops know about the Airliner Motel and all the other dumps like it. It’s County jurisdiction out there, and my Dad seems certain that the Sheriff is being paid off. Even if the they make an arrest, Cammie will deny being a slave. At most, it’ll be a catch and release, and Nick will be even more determined to break my neck. Or, as he says, my face.”

“Yeah,” said Artie, and petted Randall. “It’s like dogs, you know. You’ve got your alpha dog, he senses weakness, he attacks the weaker dog. Like Randall. That’s why I never take him to the dog park. The pit bulls have a nose for him.”

“Oh, I’m weak?”

“We all are, brother. We’re civilized We didn’t grow up fighting off thugs and gangs. America’s success has made us a nation of softies. Soft-serve nation, that’s what we are. We melt in the slightest heat.”

“Maybe you’re right, but that doesn’t help me.”

“There’s a better way,” said Artie.

“Shoot.”

“No! No shooting needed. Why do it yourself? Call 1-800-Let-Butchie-Do-It.”

Butchie was the dumbest gambler Artie had ever known, and so was always looking to pick up extra cash. That’s what Artie told Taylor when he dropped him off that night at the alley behind Scotty’s Green Lantern.

Butchie was already lurking in the shadows. Taylor offered a hand. Butchie just stared.

Butchie: “I’ve been in state prison. And I found it lacking in, ah ah ah amenities.”

“So you grew up,” he said. “I had my doubts.” He made kissy lips. “You don’t remember me? I kissed you when you were a baby.”

“Well, I’ve seen you around.”

“I mean from the old days. The last time I seen you, you was four years old.”

“I don’t remember being four.”

“No?” he laughed. “I do. Your mother and the old man came home on leave from somewheres.”

“South Carolina, probably.” Taylor moved on to business. “I asked to meet you because Artie suggested …”

He scoffed. “Artie suggested?

“He said you might offer protective services.” 

“Could be,” Butchie said. “But only if they’re strictly within the law.”

“I understand.”

“Because unlike you I’ve been in state prison. And I found it lacking in, ah ah ah amenities.”

“Perfectly …”

“It’s not your turn to talk. My services start at $20,000, payable upfront, plus ex ex ex expenses as we go along. My services come with an ironclad guarantee. We’ve got nothing to talk about unless that’s good with you.”

“In theory maybe I could scrape up that much money,” Taylor said. “But I’m not committing …”

“Here’s what you get for your money. A lifetime guarantee of protection from this threat. If he causes you trouble, even years from now, I will straighten him out. You see, certainty of punishment works. Society ought to try it. Instead of the half-ass justice system we have now. We ka ka coddle our brats, and that’s why we have so many losers out there today.”

He jammed his hands in his pockets. “Who’s the target?”

“Nick Katranjiev.”

Butchie nodded.

“You know him?”

“I know of him. Big pimp, hard muscles, soft target.”

The surprised look on Taylor’s face caused Butchie to say: “Just another immigrant.”

“When do I deliver the money?”

“Whenever you want my services to begin.” He laughed. “We can work out an installment plan but, no, I don’t take credit cards.”

“Cash, I understand. And if I decide not to … engage you?”

Butchie shrugged. “My feelings won’t be hurt.” He clapped Taylor on the shoulder. “It really is too bad about your mom. A shame. She was a wuh wonderful girl when I knew her.”

“I didn’t realize …”

“I hear the local Sherlocks are reopening. I wouldn’t put too much hope in their so-called investigation.” He sighed. “She was so beautiful. Such a shame, the way it turned out.”

chapter 17: flex time