Taylor put in a lot of face time at Console over the next week, but no new work orders filtered into his feed. He was pretty sure he knew what this meant. So rather than play video games while awaiting genuine work, he coded and debugged the FlashGirl app for The Bulgarian.
Every time Rhonda passed his cubicle, she looked the other way. Obviously, he was on The List.
Maybe there was a future in pimp software? That prospect frightened him so much that he made an excuse to sweet talk Rhonda, and slipped in a pathetic mention of his student loans. She responded with a look of sympathy and contempt.
He tested the app. Users would get a photo, a video link, a few words, choose a girl and a meeting place, for a “date.” Nobody could prove it wasn’t just another cheesy dating app. Taylor felt like he had descended into a swamp, and couldn’t wipe the slime off.
He tapped for a ride to Peace, Love & Coffee, and texted Adora.
But just as he shut down his computer, Rhonda appeared at the door of her office and said, very softly: “Taylor? Can we see you?”
Her office glowed behind fogged glass and up close Taylor could make out another person in there. Gita Joshi, Chief of Human Potential, sat behind Rhonda’s desk, hands folded, eyes looking off somewhere else, somewhere happy perhaps, and far away. Taylor walked into that office, stiff, as if he had wooden legs. Rhonda closed the door and it was just the three of them and white noise.
Gita was pregnant, and squirmed in that office chair. She had an orange folder on the desk in front of her, and her red fingernails began tapping it.
“Taylor Burns, please sit down,” Gita said.
Rhonda pushed a chair into place, and he plopped into it.
“Your employment with Console is terminated,” Gita said.
Taylor nodded as if he’d known it all along.
“This folder …” she pushed it across the desk toward him “explains the benefits included in your severance package.”
Taylor felt a shadow looming just outside the glassy office, and turned to see a security guard, gold badge gleaming on his uniform.
“Ronald is out there to help you collect your personal belongings,” Gita said.
“It’s a tough business, Taylor,” Rhonda said. “It’s competitive. We’ve had two losing quarters in a row. Economically, it just can’t be …”
Gita cleared her throat and Rhonda got the message and trailed off.
Rhonda’s attempt at an apology bounced off a stunned Taylor.
“Should you have any questions,” Gita said, “there’s a web site specifically designed to assist terminated employees. You will leave the premises immediately. The severance bonus will be deposited in your personal bank account within five days.”
“Did I do something wrong?” Taylor asked. “Because, I mean I know I wasn’t at all the meetings.”
“Business is very slow, Taylor,” Rhonda said. “That’s all it is.”
“This is not personal, but very Big Picture,” Gita said. “The company is adjusting.” She shrugged. “That’s all I can tell you.”
Rhonda opened the door. Taylor shuffled to his cubicle. Into a box that once held Console’s video games, Taylor deposited pictures of Mom, Jamie and Annie, a dead cell phone, a coffee mug, water bottle and two pairs of ear buds, one black, one white.
He took the escalator down to the lobby. Console Graphics had once been Nobles’ Department Store and kept all the old escalators and elevators, all the filigree ironwork and big display windows. Taylor remembered taking this escalator up for the first time, in the rising direction, to his dream job, working on video games. Now in the lobby he pushed out the revolving doors and got into a MyRide car, with a lump in his throat and a fear that, if he glanced back, he might cry.
He directed the driver to the Wonder Bar, but as the car pulled up he changed his mind. Next door at Peace, Love & Coffee, Penny, like she was on display, steamed espresso with a cheerful smile.
Taylor had a revelation: She’s an actress. On a coffee-house stage. She’s acting the innocent cutie-pie cheerleader. In private, in the darkness, she’s a terrified, wounded soul, guarding an unspeakable secret.
This inisight, and his need to put a brave face on his own fresh misery, made him realize he, and maybe everybody he knew, had something in common with Shipwreck Bay. Beneath those placid waters, the wreckage of ages lay unseen. In such shallow waters, those unseen shipwrecks were a danger to all who passed above.
He grabbed a bottle of Idolatry Pilsner from the cooler, scanned it at the auto-pay machine, and sat in the darkest corner waiting for Penny to hit a lull. She had confessed some of her secrets to him. They’d been naked together. He craved sympathy right now, and there she was ten feet away. He sipped at the bottle of lukewarm beer and tried to grasp the impact of losing his job and income. Was it even possible that fifteen minutes ago he …
“Taylor, have you got a moment?”
He looked up, so deep in worry that he’d forgotten where he was.
“I’m on break,” Penny said. “Let’s go outside.”
They walked out the alley exit and Penny said: “Are you feeling okay? Because you look weird, well, never mind, because, boy do I have news for you, Taylor Burns.” She bit her lips.
“I’m re-organizing case files, and I sneaked a look at it, your Mom’s case I mean, I’m not allowed to do it but Taylor, I’m getting a very good idea where Deputy Blanchard is going.”
His head began to tingle, his ears rang in a thousand frequencies.
Penny looked around to ensure that they were alone in the alley. “Bonnie is very suspicious of Marco the Ferryman and she believes he was paid off, or scared off maybe, to skip the last run on the night your mom, you know, disappeared, meaning your mom would have been purposely made to miss the ferry.” She stopped to take a deep, panicked breath. “Her theory is Marco was an unwitting accomplice, and fled back to Honduras when the police began to question him.”
“Okay.” Taylor felt as if he had swallowed an electric eel, and it was squirming through his innards.
“Also, Marco is suspected of having some connection to an illegal lottery that mostly Hispanics played, anyway, well, you know how there’s flaky cell service on Poke Island, so Bonnie thinks that after missing the ferry your mom trekked back to Artie’s Cottage, where she always left her surfboards and wet suits. She went back there thinking maybe Artie or his parents were home. But they weren’t. And here’s where it gets weird, I don’t even want to tell you, are you up for it?”
“Sure,” he said, just barely able to utter that word.
“Bonnie is focusing on your housekeeper’s son, Benito, the one who went into the Marines, he had a long juvie record and was known around town as a real punk. Bonnie thinks somebody hired him, and that he did something very bad to your Mom, and then joined the Marines as a way to skip town.”
“And last,” she rested her hand on his forearm, “and worst of all, Taylor, she is focusing on you as the most probable … oh, I don’t want to say it.”
“She thinks I hired Benito to … drown my own mother?”
“Where does she get this idea?”
“Say that again?”
“From your ex-fiance. Karen told Bonnie that you’re a Jekyl-and-Hyde, that Artie was a bad influence on you, with his drugs and all, and that you became a mean and violent person when you took drugs. She said when you were high you were a monster.”
Taylor fell back against the wall. “Karen said all this to the sheriff?”
Penny nodded. “Deputy. And more but Taylor don’t make me tell you.”
“No, tell me. Tell me now.” He whirled and trapped her against the wall, his arms a cage.
Penny looked up at him, frightened.
“Karen said you did it for the money. That Artie was a real bad influence on you, with all his drugs. That you couldn’t keep up with Artie’s reckless spending. That you wanted to live big and couldn’t until you paid off all your bills.”