Chapter 17: Flex time

Chamber of Commerce, did Adora say? Taylor wanted to find out what “legitimate” business she and Nick ran. And who exactly owned the Wonder Bar? And how much property Billie McGinn owned on Poke Island? He bought Tasha Wolf the LumberJack Special Double Meat breakfast at Diner24, and then they trooped down to City Hall.

Tasha led him into the City Clerk’s office and there on a computer they found Adora Vang and her business, Flash Entertainment. Adora had paid a $50 filing fee and described the business as an “Agency for Models and Dancers.” They were required to list four officers: President Adora, Vice President Nick Katranjiev, and then two names Taylor copied down but didn’t recognize.

Maggie Hughes was listed as owner of the Wonder Bar, which was certainly a lie. Tasha confirmed that Billie McGinn owned the building and lot next to the Burns family’s property on Poke Island, and the land underneath an adjoining business, the Isle Be Seaing U Cafe.

Tasha meets Taylor at City Hall.

With that info gathered, they stepped from the dank sour clerk’s office into the sunny park in front of City Hall. Taylor asked Tasha: “How much do you know about Butchie Block?”

“Butchie Block? I thought they slammed him back into Stateville on a parole beef.”

“Nope, he’s free. Why did they lock him up in the first place? Don’t give me that look, Tasha, I haven’t lived here my whole life.”

“Some low-life comes down to The Sunshine Peninsula to go fishing. Gets beat up, drowned, Butchie claims he was trying to save the guy, dragged him up onto Bay Beach. Jury did not believe Butchie was in rescue mode. Slam go the electric doors. Butchie says bye bye.”

She shrugged. “That’s all I know.”

“Drug deal?” Taylor asked.

Tasha shrugged. “At the time, Butchie made his living stealing motorcycles. Anyway, Butchie’s trial was a big story at the time. I was like in high school. What year did your family move back here anyway?”

Taylor didn’t answer because he was processing the notion that Butchie had killed someone by drowning. Maybe he’d heard that before, but it hadn’t taken. Now he found it even more disturbing that Butchie seemed to know a lot about his mother.

“Where you going?” Tasha asked.

“Gotta walk,” he said. “Gotta walk and think.”

“The least you could do is thank me.”

All he did was wave.

“Thanks for breakfast,” she shouted. “Prick!”

Console Graphics offered flex hours, and it was time for Taylor to slip through those golden revolving doors and attend to his work, which was to track down glitches in the company’s software. He didn’t make it to his cubicle, though. Rhonda slid out of her office and blocked him. 

Rhonda was HR manager for the Systems Division. She was a young, attractive black woman in the whitest of all work environments. She had risen into junior management by putting in long hours and following corporate dictates, hence her whispered nickname, Rhonda the Stiff.

“Taylor,” she said, “we need to talk.”

Uh oh. He had lost track of time, there were few people around, maybe it was lunch. No!

“Big meeting,” said Rhonda.

“Okay, down in Conference One?”

“You missed it.”

“Sorry Rhonda.”

“Don’t apologize to me, I’m not taking notes. But Luke did ask me where you were. Look, it’s not good news, Taylor. They’re looking to cut headcount.”

His hand flew to his chest like it was protecting his heart from a spear. “Me? My job?

Rhonda shook her head. “Nobody knows who. There’ll be a form in your E-Basket. J-U-S-T. Job Utility Survey Template. Fill it out by Friday morning …”

“I’ve got to justify my paycheck?”

“Taylor, don’t shoot me. I’m a very reluctant messenger.”

There were no other mega tech firms in Shipwreck Bay, and if Taylor lost this job, his immediate prospects were limited to freelance or temp coding or maybe math tutoring.

He sat at his cubicle unable to work. He imagined himself on the Titanic, going down, a pitiful helpless math nerd about to drown in an icy sea of self-created debt. What a frightening notion it is, that your time is worth $50 an hour until, flash, it’s worth worth nothing. After a two hours of pointless fidgeting, Taylor slipped out, avoiding his frightened gossiping coworkers.

Underneath all that anxiety lay a fear, about his mother, and Butchie. How well did they know each other long ago? He certainly couldn’t ask Dad, but Mariana would know. He called her. She said she was on her way to the ferry.

Mariana had lived in Shipwreck Bay all her life. Her husband had died long ago, and her rough-neck son had been bounced out of the Marines. When the Burns family moved back to town years ago, Taylor’s mom declared she was finished being a housewife. This was a tactical victory in her war with Dad, who had never “allowed” her to work. She didn’t have a college education or much work experience, so she began selling real estate part-time. Dad hired Mariana to come in for housework two days a week.

When Taylor’s mom went missing last year, Mariana took over all the housework, mothering Jamie and Annie in the process. As it evolved, she moved into Dad’s bed as well.

And now that Poke Island was coming to life for the season, Mariana was picking up extra work preparing beach cottages for the summer. Dan Burns, under pressure of his flying expenses, had finally yielded to the notion that women could occasionally work outside the home.

Taylor had long wondered whether Mariana knew more than she was saying about Marco the Ferryman, and his disappearance after a single police interview. The Hispanic community in Shipwreck Bay is not very big, and there was a chance they knew one another. But right then he had Butchie in mind. He leaped out of the MyRide car and hailed Mariana at the ferry dock.

Mariana at the pier.

“You look … you look wild,” she said. “Did you sleep well?”

“It’s been, uhm, Mariana I know you’ve got to catch the next boat so let me come out and ask you. Butchie Block is back in town. You know him, right?”

She nodded.

“Back in the day, how well did he know my Mom?”

“Butchie,” she said. “He is in prison, no?”

“On parole. I saw him last night and he seemed to say that he knew my mom well back then.”

Mariana’s face glowed with embarrassment. She looked down at her feet. “He went to Shipwreck Bay High School for a while. Same class as me.”

“I know.”

“And was expelled.”

“For what, do you remember?”

“Fighting in the hallways. Bringing weapons to school. Then his parents sent him up the hill to Catholic school.”

“But what about him and my mom?”

“Taylor, please, honey.”

“You don’t want to tell me?”

“Some girls, they liked the tough guy.”

“He dated my mother?”

“I don’t know, Taylor, it wasn’t my crowd. I used to see them sometimes, that’s all. On Monroe Street. I don’t know any more, please, you are hurting me with that look.”

Taylor backed away. He didn’t want to alienate Mariana. She was a savior to The Cousins, who needed and adored her.

“Your mom is gone, Taylor. We cannot bring her back, even though we all want to so badly. I know it hurts so bad in your heart but please, do not torture yourself.”

Maggie Hughes was sexy, smart and had unlimited access to alcohol. So that night Taylor found himself at the Wonder Bar.

“Layoffs gonna begin,” he muttered into his Moscow Mule.

“So I heard.”

It was hard to break news to Maggie, who seemed wired into every segment of Shipwreck Bay.

“Once they start paring the payroll,” she said, “that’s it for the real estate in this burg. I can hear the creaky sound of condo prices crashing.” She looked straight at him. “You’re not in the crosshairs, are you?”

He shrugged.

“Maybe you too will end up in Silicon Valley.”

“Have you heard from Karen?”

“She’s having a rough time, Taylor. Don’t ask, honest. I have to honor her secrets.”

It was Cowboy Night, Country and Western dancing, and Taylor had a hard time hanging in there, a loner at the bar, and no fan of the music, but the Moscow Mules made it easier. During a break in the music Maggie shouted over the crowd murmur: “Want to spend the night?”

He nodded.

“Don’t sit here all night drinking. Go to my place and put some good music on. I have to listen to this trash all night, I want Beethoven playing when I walk in, okay?”

So he hailed a ride to her apartment. He didn’t need keys, just the code to her door lock. Maggie was a big reader, and was also deep into classical music and progressive jazz. Taylor played a Pat Metheny album and searched her library for The Great Gatsby.

He read the book, but didn’t make it very far in. He stopped to ponder the hotel scene in which the brute Tom had given his girlfriend Daisy a fat lip. Why didn’t Daisy leave him? He fell into a restless booze snooze on Maggie’s big soft sofa.

Maggie woke him up by shaking his foot.

“I said Beethoven, not the sounds of a drunk snoring.”

Taylor awoke to the drunken illusion that he was in love with her. Maybe Maggie was The Answer he’d been seeking in a woman, part lover, part mother, part best friend.

She put a Beethoven sonata on the speakers and said over her shoulder, “Shower and brush your teeth if you expect to get in bed with me.”

He followed orders, exited the shower with the music still playing, and joined Maggie on the couch.

Maggie’s got a soft spot for Taylor — sometimes.

“Much better,” she said. “Thank you. I hate to sleep alone.”

“Alone? What about Paul?”

“Paul,” she sputtered. “He’s out buying containers somewhere.”

Maggie had no suitors her age. She had Taylor, nearly 10 years younger, and Paul about 20 years older. Paul was the No.1 horse in Maggie’s stable, but Taylor didn’t know much about him. Paul had made himself rich by buying and selling shipping containers full of who knows what. He spent most of his time at RiverPorts up in The City.

“I’d be up for a morning fuck,” Maggie said, “but right now, I’m exhausted.”

He snuggled up to her, warm and soft.

“Do I detect a hard-on?” she whispered.

“It can wait.”

“Where’s my diary? Did a man just tell me he can wait?”

“Maggie, clear something up for me. Just between us. Who really owns the Wonder Bar? And why does it have to be secret?”

“Taylor,” she said. She caressed his face. “Karen, what a dope. If I were your age …”

“What’s with the age thing? You’re always … What if I said I could be happy with you?”

“You are sweet. And a desperado on the rebound. Never trust a man with a broken heart.”

“I’m kind of into you.”

“Oh are you? And what exactly do you find so charming? Is it the smell of stale beer, the sagging tits, my dependence on a sugar daddy to pay the rent? What is it about me?”

“You’re wise.”

She laughed. “Okay, sugar, you’re drunk, you can pass out now.”

The promise of morning sex was broken because Maggie got a 6 a.m. phone call. Paul had just arrived in town, and demanded she join him for breakfast at Scotty’s. It would be a $100 breakfast, starting with mimosas.

Maggie kissed him on the way out, “Sorry love, I’ll make it up to you, promise.”

But she had again evaded the question of who really owned the Wonder Bar and why it was such a big secret.

Taylor brewed coffee and sat at Maggie’s kitchen table alone, doing the mental sorting of the morning after. Maggie had set herself up well. She had Paul to pay the bills, but Paul could no longer get it up. He apparently wanted Maggie as a showpiece, a glamorous younger woman to display to his friends and clients up in The City. Sex she got from Taylor and a few other well-chosen men.

Browsing Maggie’s library for something to read over coffee, he came upon a whole section of mother and baby advice. Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy … The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding … The Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby and Child Care …

And there were many more.

On the bookshelf above were propped two framed photos: One of Karen taken on Maui, and the other of Penny at the coffee shop. These two, Taylor realized, were substitutes for the daughters Maggie would never have.

Penny LaFore at the coffee shop.

For all her world-weary pose, Maggie was deep down a frustrated mother. Taylor felt he had stumbled on a powerful secret, and instinct told him he must never let Maggie know he’d discovered it. 

He had frustrations of his own. He stood at Maggie’s bay window and watched The Warehouse District wake up. He wondered how long he’d be part of it. Rhonda was the key. She  lived in his condo, but being her neighbor earned him no points.  She was a company loyalist, and if ordered to throw him overboard, she would.

But the morning’s sober light also brought him important insights.  Butchie had drowned someone. His mother had also drowned. Butchie had some kind of mysterious relationship with his mother. Was it possible that Butchie Block and Marco the Ferryman somehow conspired to do in Elizabeth Burns?

Taylor needed protection from Nick, but he knew now he wouldn’t be hiring Butchie.

Chapter 18: Penny’s news