“So you called this Cammie … and?” Artie asked.
“Voice mail,” said Taylor.
“Why not call the cops?” Artie said. “I can’t believe I’m saying that.”
“If the cops could help her, she’d call them herself.”
They stepped aboard the Poke Island ferry, a decrepit launch that carried only pedestrians and cyclists. On this foggy May weekend there were few passengers.
Artie and Taylor await the Poke Island ferry.
The ferry backed away from the dock, rousing a flock of a gulls, who rose fluttering and screeching. The oily stench of diesel overwhelmed the sweet salty aroma of bay water. Artie leaned over the rail, watching the wake.
“Man, you’re a magnet for the ladies,” he said. “I’m home beating my meat seven nights a week. You go the spa, and boom.”
He was a chubby guy with a big nose, a born comedian whose birth was an insanely lucky event, financially. Artie would never work a day in his life.
“I’m still wondering why she came on to me,” Taylor said. “Maybe it was an accidental … “
“Accidental, ha ha ha,” said Artie. “There are no accidents.”
Cell service was spotty on Poke Island, so from the ferry, Taylor gave Cammie’s number one last try.
“Yes?” said a male voice.
“I’m calling for Cammie,” Taylor said.
“She is not taking calls,” the voice said.
“Sir,” Taylor said, “are you … is she in trouble, she …” He meant to say texted me for help but in a flash of instinctive caution, held back.
Whoever the guy was, he clicked off.
“Well?” Artie asked.
“Father? Boyfriend? I don’t know. Not friendly, let’s put it that way.” Taylor tapped the screen to begin a new text. “I’ll invite her. If she doesn’t show … what if she’s a sex slave? What if she’s afraid of her pimp and can’t call the cops?”
“Nah,” said Artie. “It’s a ploy, man, to get you to call for a $100 date. She’s just a ho.”
“You’re hot for her, Sir Galahad, admit it. Leave the good deeds to the Boy Scouts, okay?”
Artie Buchanan, an only child born to a family fortune , has never had a job, or needed one.
The only bridge to Poke Island, bearing a single-track railroad, fell into the bay long ago, leaving only four stone pilings, coal-blackened monuments to the Golden Age. The neighbor island, East Poke, had an auto bridge to the mainland and so developed a gaudy boardwalk, and streets lined with motels. Both islands were originally named for that master of the land-grab, President James A. Polk. But after the Civil War, a mapmaker’s error became their permanent names.
In 1939, Poke Island’s extensive Victorian resort burned to the ground. After WW II, wealthy people “discovered” Poke Island. They quashed plans to build an auto bridge. They banned cars and turned the ferry into a passenger-only service, claiming they were protecting the island’s “unique natural habitat.”
Now there was nowhere to stay overnight on the island, unless you owned a cottage or rented one from the elite. Ordinary folks had become, in the view of Poke Islanders, day-tripping pests.
When the ferry docked, Taylor stepped off, turned and looked over that rusting boat. The night his mom disappeared, the ferry had failed to make its final run, trapping her on the island. That mystery had never been explained, and the captain, Marco Gonzalez, had skipped town after a single police interview.
“What I’d give to get my hands on Marco now,” Taylor muttered.
“What?” said Artie. He was busy resurrecting two rusty bicycles from the under the pier. Poke Island had any number of feral bikes. They’d been brought over by tourists, were quickly degraded by sand and wet salty air, and abandoned as the season passed.
“Marco,” Taylor said.
“Never liked him,” Artie said.
“I can’t …” A few honest answers from Marco might have eased his suspicions. But if the cops and immigration agents couldn’t find Marco, what chance did Taylor have?
She drowned, he told himself. It was an accident.
Fighting off a morbid mood, Taylor said: “I’ll race you to the cottage. Last one there’s the beer butler.”
“No racing,” said Artie. “Exercise is the prime cause of heart attacks.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“A doctor told me.”
“I thought you swore off doctors.”
Taylor dismissed his joker friend with a wave of the hand and pedaled down the narrow gray boardwalk. There was no gasoline on Poke Island, and people got around on bicycles, golf carts and electric dune buggies. Taylor, followed by Artie, pedaled jittery boardwalk toward the south tip of the island and into the Buchanan Shore Bird Wilderness. In its sandy scrubby midst stood the Buchanan Cottage, raised on pilings to oversee a lonesome but privileged spot, surrounded by weedy dunes, overlooking the intersection of calm bay and turbulent ocean.
The two friends tilted the bikes against the cottage’s sea-damp pilings and climbed steps to the elevated gazebo. Artie zipped into the kitchen and returned with two frosty glasses and two bottled beers: A 3 Floyd’s Imperial Stout and a Lone Pine Tesselation. Artie’s “beer guy” delivered mixed cases with no duplicates, honoring Artie’s quest to sample every brew on Earth.
Artie and Taylor, in the gazebo of the Buchanan Cottage, await the first guests.
They sat drinking quietly until Artie said: “I gotta make an appointment at that spa. You know how many girls grabbed my dick this week?”
“Two hundred and forty six.”
“Asshole. Seriously. I remember Cammie Vang from high school.”
“They kept me back a semester, remember? She was a freshman last time I saw her. The shy ones you’ve gotta watch out for. They’re tigers underneath.”
“We’ll see if she shows up tonight. If she doesn’t come out …”
“Proves nothing,” Artie said.
“Artie, your parties are notorious. People at Console have begged me for an invite. Even Rhonda the Stiff keeps asking me. I think she’s hoping to meet a rich guy out here.”
“Who’s Rhonda the Stiff?”
“HR flunky at Console. Also, my neighbor.”
“Eh,” said Artie. “No corporate climbers, please. They’re enemies of the people.”
Taylor crossed the boardwalk and entered the cottage. It was a humble shack, and if moved to a suburb, could have been bought by anyone with a steady income. But as the most secluded property on a privacy-obsessed island, it was worth millions. Its ownership was tangled in the divorce proceedings of Artie’s parents, Darla and Tim Buchanan. They hated each other almost as much as they loved money. Their dissipated lives had wasted two elite educations (Princeton, Brown). They distrusted Artie, their only son, because he’d embarrassed them with his scholastic failure (community college dropout) gambling (basketball) and drug use (designer.)
Taylor opened the refrigerator and yes, it had been stocked with wagyu burger patties by Artie’s “meat guy.” Artie grew up with maid service, and had never so much as fried an egg. He left Chef Taylor in charge of party food.
Artie approached the fridge, knelt like he was worshipping it, handed a bottle of Lost Abbey Duck Duck Gooze to Taylor. “Go ahead, I’ve had that one,” he said.
Taylor grabbed that bottle and glanced out the salt-stained windows toward Surfer’s Rockpile, where his Mom was last seen alive. When Artie had first invited him here a decade ago, this wild end of Poke Island had become Taylor’s favorite spot. Now he imagined, with a shudder, a black casket floating away on the tide. It made him feel hopeless, the whole world in funeral mode.
“Sometimes I wonder,” Taylor said, and carried that frosty beer out to the deck.
“Wonder what?” asked Artie, right behind him.
“I never cried,” Taylor said. “Isn’t that strange? I mean, maybe that’s because there’s nothing final. We’ll never be sure, I guess.”
“There’s a statute of limitations right?” Artie asked. “A year? Maybe now that a year’s passed …”
“It’s not a statute of limitations. Five years, though, until the missing can be, you know, declared …”
“You’re not alone, brother,” Artie said. “That’s all I meant to say. I miss her. She was a fine lady.”
But Artie had mixed feelings about Liz Burns and rather than reveal them, he asked Taylor: “Should I drink a Funky Buddha or a Toppling Goliath Dorothy?”
With fresh, cold beers, they played blackjack on the deck, using scallop shells as casino chips. Artie played recklessly and lost. He understood the laws of Probability and was determined to defy them. As the declining sun got swallowed by foggy skies, he bolted upright in the adirondack chair.
“Who’s coming up the path? Oh shit. Steffie! Hide the Ouija board. She’ll be holding seances. That girl’s the death of any party.”
Stepanie Voss has gone goth for this party.
Taylor turned to see Stephanie Voss doddering up the path in the salt-spray gloom.
“I can see her future,” Artie said. “Reading palms on the East Poke Boardwalk.”
“The mystic thing,” Taylor whispered, “it’s goofy. But she’s a sweetheart underneath.”
“You’ve boned her too?” Artie asked.
“Wrong again, Arthur.”
Artie shook his bleach-blond locks. “She’s after you, pal, I can feel it.”
Steffie climbed the stairs in black goth outfit and heavy makeup. She’d had her hair dyed a weird, nuclear green.
“You’re alone?” asked Artie.
“Billie’s behind me. Her date was arguing with the ferry captain.”
“Billie McGinn?” Artie said. “You invited Billie McGinn?”
“You said bring somebody.”
Artie huffed. “A real estate agent? In my house?”
Taylor asked Steffie: “Her date got into an argument on the ferry? About what?”
Steffie shrugged. “I don’t know. I just got the hell out of there.” She slipped behind Taylor and ran her fingers through his hair.
“I take it, Arthur,” she said, “that you’re holding the weed.”
“Oh, he’s the stud,” Artie complained, “and I’m the drug mule?”
“That’s right,” teased Steffie.
Artie saw a skinny figure approaching alone: Billie. The sight gave him the chills. Billie, ruthless by reputation, owned Summit Realty. The town gossips say she poisoned her husband to get her hands on his properties.
But the gossips say a lot nasty things in Shipwreck Bay. For instance, they say Liz Burns was cheating on her husband in the months before she died.
Wilhelmina “Billie” McGinn, queen of Shipwreck Bay real estate.
Following Billie into the living room, Steffie marveled at how spare the cottage was. But she should have expected that: Shabby chic was a thing on Poke Island, all the millionaires pretending to Zen humility. The value of this cottage was owed to its seclusion inside the bird sanctuary. There’d been decades of legal challenges over public access, but the Buchanans and their Shore-Bird Society had better lawyers than the state did. Bottom line: Artie would inherit the most private property on this island.
But Artie never took himself seriously, and women didn’t either. Steffie wondered whether he might live out here, a partying bachelor into old age.
Billie McGinn posed in the living room like a movie star. Steffie worked at Summit Realty, and both feared and revered Billie, her brash and brazen boss. Steffie only wished she had Billie’s supreme confidence.
Billie wore a glittering white outfit, definitely designer, complete with knee-high boots. She was striking, a gorgeous mix of Euro-Afro-Asian with dark skin and a wild, red-tinged hairdo. She was in her 40s, but had the body of a younger woman. She walked from window to window, casting an appraiser’s eye at the property.
Steffie gazed out those same windows, but not at the real estate. She was hoping to see more guys trekking up from the beach. This party definitely needed more guys. “There’s Nick,” she called out.
“Nick,” Billie said. “I’ve already had it with Nick.”
“Who’s Nick?” Artie said. “I didn’t invite any Nick.”