With his guts feeling clamped tight, Taylor let himself into his unit. The door to the smaller bedroom was closed, Cammie in there, presumably, and silent. Nothing seemed to have been disturbed. In the work room he checked the router logs. No one had sneaked in a web session.
He wanted to leave Cammie alone, to reassure her that he was neither customer nor pimp. He grabbed binoculars and decided to rent a car and drive out to her family’s farm. He’d have taken Artie along, but he and Butchie were out on Poke Island, getting high and awaiting another stoner sunset.
Although Shipwreck Bay is urban at its core, it’s not all that big, and most of its residents live close to the bay shore. On the drive inland, it’s only a few miles to reach the countryside.
The first settlement past Shipwreck Bay’s exurbs is called Jefferson Estates, named in an excess of realtors’ enthusiasm. It’s a township built on land that was too muddy to farm. The lots were sold cheap beginning in the 1950s, and soon filled with manufactured homes and trailers. Seven years ago, a series of murders began, the victims all female residents of this squalid neighborhood, the killer becoming known as the Jeff Road Strangler. With the police stymied, after the fourth murder, Dan Burns had been hired as a private investigator by one of the families. Dan did what police couldn’t. He broke into the home and garage of Joseph Garland, the main suspect, and searched it.
Garland arrived home during this search, drew a shotgun on Dan Burns, who killed him with a single pistol shot that severed an artery. A police search of Garland’s home post-mortem found jewelry that had belonged to some of his victims. Dan Burns had discovered, in a toolbox in the garage, the panties of all six victims, ghastly souvenirs. The Jeff Road murder case was closed. A year plus later, the case became subject of a book and there were rumors of a movie. Dan Burns had turned down all interviews, and refused to play the role of hero in public or in private.
Taylor’ drove past the Jefferson Road intersection, glanced at that rural slum and shuddered. The victims had all been in the sex trade. Cammie was making herself vulnerable to any maniac who had cash or a credit card. Taylor had been helpless to save his mom from murder, but Cammie, she was like a second chance.
So he drove with purpose. According to the City Clerk’s records, a 12-acre farm that belonged to Edward Vang lay just beyond the squalor of Jefferson Road. Taylor pulled off the highway into a dirt driveway that was gated with rough fencing, and marked with a big black-and-red sign:
The farmhouse, about fifty yards in, was a white-painted classic with a lot of windows. The typical farmhouse is surrounded by hay wagons, tractors, trucks, ATVs, junker cars. But not this one. There wasn’t a vehicle or a person in sight. The fields behind the farmhouse seemed untended since last years harvest, here and there a rotted pumpkin, row of weeds, or tangled vine.
Taylor did see shadowy movement in the house itself, but certainly nobody he could identify. He peered through the binoculars. Off to one side was set of four clotheslines, laundry hanging limp in the heat. There was a lot of it: underwear, bras, dresses, blouses, skirts and slacks.
It occurred to him that this was the flophouse, that the girls probably never did business here, but out in the sleazy motels. Here, the women would be violating no laws, and safe from police harassment.
He put down the binoculars and stared at the house. He began to hatch a plan. Artie needed a girlfriend, right? Cammie was cute and she’d probably be safe on Poke Island. In their own ways, Artie and Cammie were both innocents, and maybe a good match. But then, Butchie. He might be out at Artie’s all summer. And that “make them eat dirt” comment he’d made, that was still ringing in Taylor’s dark places.
As Taylor was trying to work that out, the back door of the farmhouse opened and a man appeared. He seemed to focus on Taylor’s rental car. He was a tall and slender Asian man with a crew-cut, wearing a white T-shirt. That was all Taylor took in before the man broke into a run, vaulted a wooden fence, and ran straight at his car.
Taylor put it in reverse and spun out, spitting dust and gravel as he sped away.
He drove half-a-mile down Harrison Road, then ripped a U turn and parked on the shoulder, facing the Vang farm in the distance. There was nothing around but fences, telephone poles, and fields so newly planted it was impossible to tell what would crop up. He took out his phone and began to take notes. A sheriff’s patrol car pulled up behind.
Taylor rolled down the window.
“What ya doing here, pal?”
“Oh, just, pulled over to use the phone. State law, you know.”
“Yeah, funny, I know that law. License and registration please.”
Taylor handed the cards over. The cop examined them. His lips twitched.
“You any relation to Dan Burns?”
He handed the documents back. “Tell him Matty Murphy said hello. And get going. Don’t hang here, okay? You’re a road hazard out here. Stay safe, son.”
Back in his cruiser, Officer Murphy talked into the radio while Taylor drove off. A minute later he drove past the Vang farm and there was nobody to be seen. What had become of Edward Vang, the supposed owner?
And who was that guy who’d leaped the fence and chased him off? He figured it was the mysterious Kenner, who’d been the driver the night Nick kidnapped and drugged him.
Taylor had the car for 24 hours, so decided to drive down and visit the family. Dad was in the yard, at his meat smoker, which he’d made out of an old pot-belly stove. It was a warm evening, and he was shirtless, and unlike a lot of guys his age, he had kept in top shape.
“Brisket,” he said. “But it won’t be ready for a couple of hours. What brings you by, son? I’m always glad to see you, but … did you finally buy a car?”
“Rented.” Taylor saw the disappointment in his face. When Dan was a young man, buying your first car was a declaration of manhood and American freedom. He could not understand why his son had failed this macho test so miserably.
It was just Taylor and Dad in the yard, so Taylor grasped the opportunity. He couldn’t tell Dad he had a prostitute stashed in his spare bedroom, so he said, “Dad, I ran into this strange situation, one thing led to another and, well, I was driving out on Harrison Road and I think somebody out there is keeping sex slaves in a house.”
Dan fixed his son with a suspicious look.
“I know you must be lonely, son, after what Karen did to you, but don’t take up with any of these filthy prostitutes.” He shook his head. “They’re vectors for disease, all of them.”
“I’m not …”
“Taylor, you don’t have to tell me everything about your life, but please, don’t lie to me, son. I won’t have lies in my house.”
” … consorting with prostitutes,” Taylor insisted.
“I don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into, but my strong advice is to leave these people alone.”
He focused a stern look directly into his son’s eyes. “They are not the kind of people you mess with.” This was Dad code for the fix is in. Dad had little respect for the local police, whom he saw as corrupt bumblers.
He put an arm around Taylor and walked him toward the shady patio.
“One of these girls,” he said, “can bring in a thousand dollars a day. A day! Do the math, son. If the pimp is running ten girls, you’re talking about an operation worth millions per year. It’s big money, and they’ve got cash to spread around. You take your average street cop with kids, a mortgage, maybe alimony, and … do you see where I’m going with this? Somebody is on the take, no question, or these criminals wouldn’t be able to operate as brazenly as they do.”
Mariana slipped through the gate and onto the patio. “Taylor,” she said, “will you be here for supper?”
“We’ve got enough to feed an army,” said Dad.
Mariana laughed. “We’ve got an army.”
She kissed Dad and put an arm around him, and Taylor was struck by a lightning bolt of paranoia. For years, Mariana had been their housekeeper, and that’s how he thought of her. Until this moment he’d never fully absorbed the idea that she and Dad were actually hot for each other.
“Dan, do you …”
“Oh yeah,” he said, and dug into his wallet and handed her a sheaf of bills.
“Be back soon,” she said.
Taylor watched her, but what remained in his crazed mind was Mariana and Dad with their arms around one another. He saw it in all its spinning, horrible logic. These two together had strong, multiple motives to do away with his mom. If Mariana had been hot for Dad all along, and Dad for her, that was enough right there.
But Mariana was a peacemaker.
But then again, there was money. A divorce would have separated Mariana and Dad from the island lot, because it had been an inheritance, and not subject to community property laws. But Liz’s disappearance would give them a five year opportunity to hire a lawyer and weasel-claim that land. Mariana’s son was a thug who’d joined the Marines to stay out of jail. And maybe he knew Marco the Ferryman well enough to enlist him in the plot.
Taylor felt dizzy and top heavy, as if he might fall over.
Dad came at Taylor with a cold Sam Adams beer in his outstretched hand. “You’re thinking too much, son, I can see it.”
Mariana whisked out the side door and settled Jamie and Annie into Dad’s car.
Jamie lowered his window and shouted at Taylor: “Where’s Karen?”
“Jamie!” scolded Mariana.
“She’s still in California,” Taylor said.
“What did you do to her?”
“I didn’t do anything to her.”
“I liked Karen,” Jamie said, and raised the window. As Mariana backed out, he gave Taylor the middle finger.
Taylor drank another beer with his father. Then he headed in for the bathroom and on the way noticed the light was on in Dad’s den. He stared into the gleaming dead eye of a buck shot long ago in Colorado. That was his biggest trophy, but Dan Burns had souvenirs from all their Air Force habitats. A South Carolina sweetgrass basket held mementos from their time at Shaw. A bottle of whiskey shaped like a derringer served as a souvenir of Colorado. A black kukui nut lei was a reminder of their seven years on Oahu. Pinned to a cork board were three Air Force rank insignias, along with medals and commendations and a Master’s Degree certificate from Hawaii Pacific University. At bottom right were a career service certificate from the TSA, along with his expired federal ID. Absent was any memento of his heroics in bringing down the Jefferson Road killer.
No, Taylor would never measure up to Dad’s manliness, never bask in all that civic admiration as the modest hero who’d risked his life to take down the Jeff Road Strangler. Taylor had sometimes wondered: Was he going to end up living in his father’s house, another jobless, broke comebacker? Now he knew the answer was no. Dan Burns took up this entire house, and he could not live in the man’s shadow.
He slept, fitfully, in his Mom’s room that night and blamed his restlessness on a bellyful of spicy brisket. He woke up so late that everyone was out of the house but Annie.
Annie was a different kid, with a kind, pure heart, who could abide no cruelty. She adored her fishes and held solemn funerals for them when they died. Twelve now, she’d been a vegetarian since she was a toddler. She could not understand how anyone could eat a creature so beautiful as a fish or a chicken. Everyone in the family teased her about her odd eating habits, which included a standard breakfast of canned vegetable soup with saltine crackers.
Taylor sat with her at the sunny breakfast table, he with coffee and a stale bagel, she with her soup bowl. She was the slowest-eating kid he’s ever known, and that morning was even pokier, flipping through the pages of a splashy colorful Cessna brochure.
“Dad says he’s going to give me a ride some day.”
She’d taken to calling him Dad, although he was her uncle. Mariana, though, had not been promoted to Mom.
“When he gets his new plane,” she added.
“He … he didn’t order one, did he? A new plane?”
Annie shrugged. “He and Mari had a fight last night. About the plane.”
“Mari says we can’t afford a plane.”
“She’s right,” Taylor said. He didn’t want to burden Annie with the impossible math, but a new Cessna Skyhawk would cost $3000 a month just in payments, never mind hangar fees, maintenance, fuel costs and landing fees. That would have consumed Dad’s entire paycheck.
“How come Dad wants the plane so bad?” Annie asked. “He cursed and swore at Mari.”
“Well, you know, long ago, when you were just a little girl, he was in the Air Force. He joined wanting to be a pilot but they wouldn’t let him fly.”
She sipped soup. “How come?”
“I don’t know. He just didn’t qualify, I guess. So he became an Air Force policeman but he was never happy with that. And now I guess he wants to make up for that. He wants a new plane so he can fly around the country, visit his old Air Force friends, and prove something to them.”
“That he can fly. A new plane, with all its snazzy instruments, will help him an IFR rating. Have you heard of that? No? It would mean he could fly anywhere, through clouds, in any weather. That’s what he wants.”
“You know what your aquarium means to you? How much you love it? Well that’s what a new plane is to Dad. Flying is the love of his life right now.”
With tears rimming her eyes, Annie said: “But does he have to be, so mean to Mari?”