The news that he was a prime suspect in his mother’s murder sent Taylor searching for a trusted friend. And that meant Artie. The friends Taylor had made in high school, gaming nerds all of them, had moved on to college and then scattered around the world, selling themselves to the highest corporate bidder. Console Graphics didn’t even exist back then, and there had been no big tech employers in Shipwreck Bay. Most of the guys who stayed in town just weren’t in his crowd. So when he returned to town after almost five years away, it was pretty much him and Artie.
They’d become friends in high school because Taylor helped Artie understand probability, and especially Bayes’ Theorem, essential for any gambler. In return, Artie helped him acquire mind-altering substances. But they had long since become true friends, in mutual appreciation.
Artie was the last person known to have seen Liz Burns alive, and was on the sheriff’s suspect list. But Taylor could not imagine a motive, and goofy Artie just didn’t seem like a killer.
Taylor rode the ferry across the bay to Poke Island, never able to make this trip without feeling spooked by the ghost of Liz Burns. Surfer, wife, mother and late-blooming free spirit, she’d loved life but never made it to her 46th birthday. On the jitney ride out to Surfer’s Rockpile, he felt himself sink into a swamp of dark despair. The sight of Butchie in the dunes made him want to vomit.
Butchie had climbed the dunes with Artie’s telescope. You couldn’t see all of the nude beach from Artie’s deck. But from the dunes you could scope it all.
Butchie waved him over.
Taylor said: “The dunes, man, you’re supposed to …”
“What?” Butchie called. “It’s fuckin sand. Get over here. Take a gander.”
“Go,” Artie called from the cottage deck. “You’ll be surprised what you see.”
Taylor climbed the dune, peered through the scope.
“Not the blondes,” Butchie said behind him. “Keep going. Way down there. Way down. See? Behind the boat. Dark meat. You like the dark meat, kid? Artie says you know that one.”
He did know the nude women revealed by the scope. They were in the “shy corner” where an old lifeboat upturned on the beach gave them some illusion of privacy.
“Okay,” he told Butchie, “we should get off the dunes.”
Butchie scoffed. Taylor hiked down the sandy dune and climbed the stairs to Artie’s deck, Butchie behind him carrying the telescope.
“I told you, man,” Artie said.
“Yup, it’s her,” Taylor said. “And I know the other one too, the pregnant one. Gita. She’s the big kahuna in Human Potential.”
“Corporate management!” Artie said to Butchie. “Down there naked. Ain’t that sweet.”
Artie rolled a big fat sloppy doobie, slipped it between his lips, and fired it up with a cheap plastic lighter. He blew smoke. “Uptown Special,” he said.
It smelled like ordinary marijuana to Taylor.
“Dipped in mule shit,” said Artie, “sprinkled with star dust, and cured in a Russian salt mine. Try it?”
Taylor shook his head. Artie handed the joint to Butchie, who sucked down an enormous lungful, then coughed smoke out. “Who’s the naked babes?” Butchie asked.
“They work at Console Graphics,” Taylor said.
“Tech whores!” said Butchie. He sprawled in the adirondack chair, a pint of bourbon resting precariously on its arm. He leaned in to hand Taylor the joint. “It’s mellow,” he promised.
It was not.
Even in one toke, Taylor felt like he was lifted from the deck, his feet not quite able to touch the ground, head empty and light, ears ringing. Suddenly the salty sea air seemed a magic elixir as he sucked it like pure joy into his lungs.
“Pretty good shit, eh?” Butchie said.
All his muscles seemed to turn to Jello. He grabbed the deck rail because he had to hold on to something. He seemed to enter a world of light, freedom, and eternal kindness, and he wanted to live there for the rest of his life.
In this fantasy world, his mom seemed alive, behind some kind of foamy, glowing pink barrier. One more toke and he could get there, but Butchie had run off with the joint. Smoking it, Butchie called out: “I’m going down there, see if I can get me some dark meat. Fifty bucks says I can lure ’em back here.”
He stomped down the stairs.
“No bet,” called Artie. To Taylor he said, “Butchie, crude as he is, is magic with women.”
Taylor’s reflexes were wading through a swampy fog, so his protest was way too late. “Artie, those women just fired me. I don’t want them up here.”
Randall, roused from his 23-hour a day sleep, trotted over, slumped at Taylor’s feet, and sighed.
“He doesn’t eat any more,” Artie said. “I don’t know how he’s alive.”
A beach patrol siren, on a vehicle behind the dunes somewhere, began to wail and Taylor’s beautiful spacey high turned into a terrified nausea. He was losing his grip on space and time and felt he would sail away on the wind if he didn’t hold tight to the deck rail. Randall seemed like a wolf waiting to devour him.
“Artie” he muttered, “what was in that joint? What the hell did you spray on it?”
“Pretty good, eh?” He slapped Taylor on the back.
Taylor pushed him away.
“Hey, asshole,” Artie said, “I’m your friend.”
Suddenly, Taylor wasn’t so sure about that. Gripping the rail, he eased down into an adirondack chair. The ocean, the waves, seemed menacing. The points of sunlight on the water all seemed blinding, overwhelming, horrible. He swung the chair around, turned his back to the ocean. That evil sea had swallowed his mother and turned her into food for the fishes.
“Artie, help me.”
“How?” Artie crouched in front of the chair. “You want a beer? You look like you could use a beer. We brought sandwiches from Mike Fink’s. You want a ham sandwich?”
Taylor gripped the chair. He wanted to throw up but was afraid he’d choke. Even though it was bright sunshine out there, it suddenly seemed he was living in the glow of a single, faint, wavering candle, and surrounded by darkness.
“Dude,” Artie said, “I don’t like your color. You’re looking green.”
Taylor put his head in his hands. “Artie, the Deputy is hovering like a vulture.”
“She is a vulture. Let her hover, man. She needs evidence.”
It seemed now to be a world of pure dark evil, outside this little circle including only Taylor and Artie.
“I think the worst, Artie.”
“What do you mean the worst?”
“The unspeakable. My Dad. I think he hated my mom. I mean he loved her until she declared her freedom. He can only love a dependent woman. Like Mariana, see? He hated my mom, he felt she was holding out on him, keeping her inheritance for me and The Cousins. He desperately wants to buy an airplane, so he’s trying to get his hands on the beach property and sell it, and now he’s chumming up with Billie McGinn, and he’s lying about it. It all makes sense, Artie, but I’m afraid to know. What if it’s my father? What if it’s my own father?”
Artie sat on the arm of the chair, rubbed Taylor’s head, and said, “Oh man, we’ve got to get Lisa out here. You need a massage.”
“My own father. How can I face that, Artie?”
“Dude, stay in your own skin, okay?”
“And worse, he knows all the cops, what if he’s the one … trying to sik the Deputy on me?”
“You’re Dad’s a hard ass Taylor, but come on, he’s not the devil. I hate to bring it to you, dude, but a lot of people had motive. Marco the Ferryman? Ask around. Women warned each other not to ride alone with him.”
Mom had said several times that Marco gave her the creeps, or so Taylor seemed to remember. Time was passing strangely, and all these notions were still clunking through his brainpan when Artie appeared with a bottle of Coke and a wrapped sub sandwich. He set them on the table in front of Taylor.
“I’ve been thinking,” Taylor said, “motive, you know, using the old gambler’s brain here. Who’s got motive? Even Mariana!”
“What’s her motive?”
“To get your mom out of the way and move in with your dad. Her troublemaking son, Benito, right, didn’t he break a guys’ ribs down on Monroe Street? Yeah, and all of a sudden he joins the Marines, like two weeks after my mom … Ask yourself why.”
Taylor picked up the bottle of Coke and it slipped out of his hands, spilled on the deck.
Artie retrieved it, all foamy. The foam itself seemed fascinating to Taylor, weird, other-worldly, frightening. Was he out of his mind, he wondered, or finally in his right mind?
“Butchie,” Taylor muttered.
“What do you mean, Butchie?”
“I think they were a thing in high school.”
“Butchie’s reformed, he’s just about moving product, man.”
“Look,” Artie said, “when you come down from this, we’ll work it out. The key is Marco the Ferryman. Somebody paid him or tricked him or threatened him to skip that last ferry run. Whoever arranged that, killed your mom, Taylor. The whole key is to find Marco the Ferryman.”
“Yeah. All we have to do is search every town between Fairbanks and Tierra Del Fuego.”
“There are no secrets, brother. Somebody knows.” Artie picked up the sandwich, tore off an end for himself and said, with it poised at his mouth: “Butchie? Fuck no. I’ll give you a suspect. Karen.”
“You said she loves money, right? Loves money, hates tech work, always wanted to open a cafe. Right? If you get your mom’s inheritance, suddenly you have a lot on the commercial end of the island. So what if Karen arranges the evil deed, secretly, with that bastard Rick. When they realized the missing persons case would drag on, and the will would never be executed, they bolted.”
Artie swallowed his chunk of sandwich. “The answer is Marco, I’m telling you. And you know what? I’ll bet Butchie can find Marco, and here comes Butchie now.”
That ugly tough guy mounted the steps.
“I scared ’em back into their clothes,” he said, looking over his shoulder. “They don’t ah ah ah appreciate the older white male.”
He picked up what was left of the sub sandwich and began gnawing like a beaver. “We out of beer?” he shouted at Artie.
But Artie was somewhere in the house, maybe the bathroom, and didn’t answer. The two women and Gita, wrapped up in bright beach shifts, walked around the corner of Surfer’s Rockpile and onto the path. There was no way to get from the nude beach to the Pink Jitney stop without passing Artie’s cottage.
Taylor’s paranoia had slipped away like a receding tide, but now washed back in. He moved into the shadow of the deck.
“You afraid of ’em?” Butchie asked.
“That one in blue, there? She just fired me. Well not her, really but she delivered the message. Her friend is Chief of Human Potential .
“In the old days they called it Personnel.”
Butchie eyed them. The women avoided looking toward the cottage, walked as if they were sharing a secret.
“That bitch fired you?”
Butchie scoffed. “They did that to me, I’d make ’em eat dirt.”
Taylor watched the women. He could not seem to breathe. He choked, rushed into the kitchen, gulped water like he’d been lost for a week in the desert.
Where was Artie? Artie, come save me from this monster. In his paranoia, Taylor felt helpless.
Butchie was behind him. “You okay man?
Taylor managed to shake his head no.