Taylor messaged Cammie, said he wouldn’t be coming home, and asked her to let no one into the condo. He had decided not to buy a security cam for his home, a decision he now regretted. But then, he never envisioned being invaded by a raging Bulgarian and sobbing sex slave.
Mari, Dad and Jamie were gone all day to The City, taking Jamie to a baseball game. This was Dan Burns’ attempt to prove to Jamie that baseball was a real thing, and not just a video game. Annie disliked athletic contests of all sorts, and spent the day with the neighbor’s daughters.
That night, Taylor slept again in Mom’s room. Mom and Dad had started sleeping apart when they moved to Shipwreck Bay. She blamed his snoring, but Taylor always felt there was more to it.
At 3:31 a.m. precisely, Taylor awoke from a vivid dream: Mom, swallowed up by a furious ocean, one hand waving. It was like she was waving at Taylor to swim to her. He awoke with a headache, shaky nerves and a sour stomach and stumbled into her bathroom in search of painkiller, antacid or both. But someone had cleaned her medicine cabinet out, as if trying to erase all traces of her.
He sat up for three hours, playing cellphone chess, then reading from the books in her two-shelf library. Everything Liz Burns read later in life was about the ocean, including her favorite novel, Moby Dick.
When Taylor walked out of the bedroom that morning all the family was back home. The kids had self-served their breakfast. Jamie was absorbed in a video game, interrupted by a spat with Annie over who stole whose oatmeal bar. Dad and Mariana had not emerged from their bedroom and Taylor saw a chance for a graceful if sneaky exit.
He’d have hung around for some family time but Dad could be harsh on The Cousins. He seemed to be a constant critic and disciplinarian, as if a father had no other role. Taylor’d had a full load of that military crap growing up, so he messaged Steffie:
What’s for breakfast?
She wrote back:
Waffles. Bring MAPLE syrup.
Steff had paid her hairdresser $90 to restore her natural hair color, and looked much better minus the green-freak hair. She stirred up waffle batter and heated the iron. Steffie was a “carbotarian,” living mostly on pasta, bread, pancakes and potatoes. It was a lifestyle that suited her budget and appetite.
Taylor told Steffie the dream, as she believed herself to be a skilled dream interpreter. All she said was, “Hmmm.”
“I think my Mom, in the end, stayed for The Cousins,” he said. “Her sister Jean was her lifelong best friend. After Jeannie died, my Mom felt she owed it to her to raise those kids, but she didn’t have the money to do it. Mom never had a career, her real estate earnings were pitiful. Dad gets a salary from the college and a federal pension. She needed his earnings.”
“Marriage,” Steffie said. “It’s so romantic. My father, on the other hand, bought a used Jaguar and drove off into the sunset. Poof! I guess raising three girls was more than he could handle.”
They ate waffles. Taylor had brought not only maple syrup, but a bag of Peace, Love & Coffee beans. Over a second round of strong java in Steffie’s jumbled kitchen he said: “So what’s happening at the spa?”
“What do you mean?”
He decided to squelch the fact that Cammie had been shoved into his condo by the Bulgarian. “I hear Cammie’s gone, Lisa’s quit …”
Steffie leaned over a syrupy plate. “I’m thinking of going to massage school.” She sat back. “I could never be a nurse, like my mom. The blood. Ugh. What do you think? Think I could make it as a masseuse?”
Her face darkened. “Takes six months, though. There’s tuition and what about groceries and rent?” She sipped coffee. “I just don’t have faith in myself.”
“Why not just get your real estate license? I mean, Billie would help you, right?”
“Taylor, I’m not a shark, okay? I’m a sunfish. You’ve got to be a shark to win the realtor game.”
“You don’t want to do tech, either, take it from me. It sucks the life out of you. The only break from boredom is corporate intrigue.”
“So,” she said. “You had this dream in your Mom’s bedroom? You slept in her bed?”
“What was your feeling when you woke up?”
“I felt like I was drowning in nasty dark liquid. Stef, I know I can trust you. Do you know my most paranoid secret thought? That Dad and his housekeeper…”
“What do you mean you know?”
“I thought of it long ago. Taylor, where was your Dad the day your Mom went missing?”
“Home. It was exam week, classes were done for the semester. He was puttering, you know how he is about the lawn.”
“Aha. The Cousins, did they see him home too?
“Well, he wasn’t home all day.”
“And nobody knows exactly what time your mom went missing.”
“Except she was alive around sunset, when Artie saw her.”
“So really, alibis don’t mean much, unless they covered the whole time after sunset. You can get to the island by boat, right?”
“There’s not a good dock, though. The bay is really shadow at that end.”
“Sneakboat?” suggested Steffie.
“Possible I guess. With the flat bottom.”
“So if you used a duck hunting boat, you wouldn’t have to take the ferry, where there’d be witnesses. You can sneak on to that island, Taylor, it’s long and there are all those wild parts, and a strong man could just shove a sneakboat up onto the beach. Or what about a kayak?”
“My Dad? In a kayak? He hates the water. Especially the ocean. Kayak? No way in hell. He never could swim. God did he hate Hawaii, surrounded by all that salt water. His father threw him off the pier at Jackson Lake, or so he said. My grandfather was a hard case, a tough Irish bastard from the old country.”
“And nobody saw your Dad on the ferry that day.”
“No. I don’t know if Dad ever went to Poke Island. He saw it as Mom’s place.”
He’d had too much coffee already, but he drained the cup anyway. “Look, Steff, this is the road to the nut house. There’s a 12-hour window from sunset to the first morning ferry. Practically anybody could have sneaked over to Poke Island between sunset and dawn. Guy from Siberia, anybody.”
“The Bulgarian, you mean?”
He shrugged. “Anybody.”
Steffie arose from the table, returned with Tarot cards.
“The Bulgarian gives me the creeps,” she said.
“Don’t you have work today?” Taylor asked.
“Eventually. But Billie’s not in the office today.
“How’s the Mistress of Mean?”
“She’s out gallivanting, usually. That’s why she’s got drudges like me. I’m sorting her web contacts today. Do you think Console might hire me?”
“I’m $10 an hour, Taylor, and living in a basement.”
Taylor was too absorbed in his own troubles to take in hers. He said: “I left the family this morning thinking my Mom’s ghost would be happy that Mariana was taking care of the kids. But what if … you see why I can’t go there? My little cousins being raised by my mom’s murderers? Steffie, these children are on their third mother, and they’re not even in high school.”
“Oh my God, I hadn’t thought of that. What happened to their father?”
“Motorcycle crash up in the hills. He was a wild man. So think about that. Their father died when they were five and three. A few years later, cancer carries off their mom. They clung to their Auntie Liz like she was a life preserver, and then … It just can’t be, Steffie. Those kids can’t lose Dad and Mari. And goddamn it, it was Butchie, I know it. Butchie’s the one who … we know he drowned a guy. Butchie had a thing for my Mom even back in high school.”
“Let’s consult the Tarot.”
Steffie laid the cards out in some configuration, the purpose of which escaped Taylor. Then she had him pick a card from the deck. He came up with The Hanged Man.
“What does that mean?” he demanded, feeling a hot a flash of panic and paranoia.
Her face rigid, Steffie bolted up straight. “I’ve gotta go to work, I’m late already. Stay here. Heat up the casserole.”
Taylor walked to her sunken windows and watched the legs of Shipwreck Bay walk by. He felt bad for this woman, living in an apartment that got no sunlight at all. She was a good soul and deserved better.
She emerged from her bathroom with a touch of makeup and bright lips.
“You could do me a favor,” Taylor said. “You’ll be in Billie’s office all day, right? She owns a couple of properties, I believe, adjacent to my Mom’s lot on Poke Island. Can you, you know, take a peek at the records and see maybe if she’s got any plan drawings …”
“Done,” she said. “I’m a fantastic snoop.”
Taylor was so reluctant to go back to his condo that he considered taking the train to The City and just goofing off for the day. He had to steel himself just to get the courage to open the front door. He thought, Oh my God I’m going to find Cammie dead and it’ll be life in prison.
But Cammie was gone. There was nothing left of her, no note, no phone message, no item of clothing, only her tea-scent. She didn’t bother to make the bed she’d slept in. Oh well, Taylor thought, we all have a fate of our own and if Cammie doesn’t want my help, she’s not a child.
He checked his computer to see that severance pay had showed up in his bank account. It was a substantial sum, good for a few months’ living, but it only reminded him that cash was a finite resource. Along with everything else, he had to start looking for a job.
He dripped another cup of coffee and carried it out on his balcony. Looking over the busy, gentrified part of town, he felt he was observing a life that was already slipping out of his grasp. Meanwhile, this thing with his Mom was absorbing so much energy. Its distractions had cost him his job.
Mom is dead, he told himself. She won’t come to life even if her killer goes to Stateville. It won’t help. It will make nothing better. She does not demand justice, it was pretty clear from that dream. If anything she was waving because she was lonesome out there, dying for company.
He should let it all go, leave it to the incompetent police. He might be their target but they’d need evidence, and it just wasn’t there. But this one paranoid idea would give him no rest: What if his little cousins were in the custody of his mom’s killers? He had to find the guilty man … or woman, if he ever wanted peace again. He had to prove it wasn’t Dad and Mariana. It couldn’t be.
Just as he was finishing that thought and that coffee, Adora alighted from a MyRide car, looked up at his unit, apparently didn’t see him on the deck, and entered just beneath.
It was Adora and only Adora. Taylor made sure of that at the spyhole. She looked serious and upset. He opened the door before she could knock.
“Where is my cousin?”
“Have a nice day,” he said. “I have no clue.”
She barged in.
“Not here,” Taylor said. “I’m telling you.”
Adora looked in all the rooms, as if she owned the place. “She is in trouble, then. She cannot take care of herself.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“You cannot see? Where is she? I demand to know or I will call the police for rape and kidnapping.”
“That’s pretty funny because you kidnapped me.”
“Not me. Nicholas, it was his idea. Did she say where she was going? Did you see her leave?”
“She barely said a word to me, Adora.”
“We must find her.”
“She is a vulnerable child.”
“How old is she?”
Taylor spread his hands. “Not a child.”
“That’s how much you know.” She sat in the leather swivel chair, batted out messages on her phone while Taylor watched. “She was in your care,” she said over her shoulder. “You stupid man. You let her go?”
“Look, I don’t know anything about her. She texted me a message once. Once! Your husband shoved her into my living room. I made her a cup of tea. That’s it.”
“We are going out to look,” she said. “You and me. Or else, the police.”
“Okay, you and me.”
She sighed. “I tried to get her married. I really, really tried.”
“Where do we start?”
“The Coffee houses. Not taverns. She does not drink. Even one glass of wine makes her throw up. You drive.”
“Don’t own a car.”
“I knew you were stupid.”
He tapped MyRide.
Cammie was not among the sad-sack characters at the bus depot. After they checked the train station, Taylor, sitting in the back seat of an SUV next to the crazed fidgeting Adora, asked himself: What am I doing? Helping catch a runaway slave? What the hell? Still, Cammie was missing and Adora’s anxiety was real. Cammie was somehow vulnerable, he believed it.
He texted Penny at Peace, Love & Coffee. Youngish Asian woman, short, with dark skin, round face and salt-and-pepper pixie hair?
“I count seventeen people here,” Penny said, “and she’s not one of them. You want me to ask around?”
Taylor told her to forget it. He directed the driver to Arabica Cafe and said to Adora: “I happened to rent a car yesterday and I pulled over near a farmhouse, out on Harrison Road.”
“County records say it belongs to your uncle, Edward Vang. He’s Cammie’s father?”
“That’s an answer?”
“I hate you.”
“What happened to Edward Vang?”
“You are the most mean-spirited man I have ever known.”
“Who was that skinny young guy who came running after me?”
“You are not just stupid but hopeless.”
Taylor stayed in the car while Adora rushed into the Arabica Cafe. When she returned disappointed she said: “She can sit for hours drinking tea and reading love stories.”
“Romances. She is a very dreamy girl.”
There were 22 coffee houses in Shipwreck Bay, not including the places that are more like diners. It was going to be a long morning.
“She could have been picked up by a stranger,” Taylor suggested.
“She is not meant for this bad world.”
“Wasn’t it you who turned her into a blow-job machine?”
“You are the crudest man I have ever met.”
She slammed the door on her way out to check Do Re Mi Coffee & Buns. When she got back Taylor picked up the argument. “There’s nothing I can do to help a girl I barely know who wants to hide from me.”
“There is something you can do.”
“Okay, what, because…”
“Let me stay at your place awhile.”
“Just for a while.”
“Who do you need to hide from? Nick? Kenner? Who is this Kenner dude, anyway? Is that his first name or his last name? And why wouldn’t Nick come looking for you?”
“Oh, he will.”
“Get a hotel.”
“I cannot afford it. I cannot live with Nicholas, and I cannot leave town while Cammie is lost to me.”
That night, Taylor had a hot, hot session with Adora. It started when she gave him a glimpse of herself, purposely, in the shower.
So there he was, Taylor Burns, sucker for women, getting such great pleasure out of slow-fucking with his kidnapper and the meanest woman he knew. He and Adora screwed like they’d known each other for years, both of them moaning, squirming, clutching, two people who, a half hour before, hated each other, now lips locked, tongues out.
My god, Taylor thought, what species are we?
After two orgasms, or was it two fakes, Adora curled up and said: “I love sex. It is my weakness.”
“You have many more weaknesses, I can tell. Sex is my only weakness.”
“Well, some people might count being a pimp as a weakness.”
She slapped his face. Not that hard, but still, it stung. “I am her mother, not her pimp.”
“You’re not Cammie’s mother.”
“In a way of speaking. Her birth mother is dead. I am doing what’s best for her.”
“Yeah? What about Nick? What about Kenner? Are they doing what’s best for Cammie?”
“You think I like those awful men?”
“Nick says you’re his wife.”
“Nick lies like normal people breathe.”
“Okay, you’re not his wife but his mistress then.”
“Mistress?” she snarled. “Ha! Nicholas is a failure in bed.”
“All his pills and powders,” she said.
Adora found the roach of a doobie in a bedside ashtray, and lit it. She offered Taylor a toke.
“Not me,” he said. “I’m paranoid enough.”
Somehow, exhausted by the long day, with a dangerous, beautiful and hostile woman in his bed, Taylor fell asleep.
In the morning, Adora was only an imprint in his bed.