Chapter 27: Safe at home

Taylor considered his lousy options. He couldn’t stay in his condo unless he paid off Butchie. Contact with Artie was out. Steffie offered to take him in, but her connection to Billie made that a dicey option. Lisa also was connected with Billie. Tasha could not keep a secret and had roommates anyway. And Maggie, bogus owner of the Wonder Bar, had dark connections he didn’t understand. So, essentially, his options were: Skip town or go to Dad’s. He called first.

“Is Dad there?”

“He is flying,” Mariana said.

“I thought I’d come over and grill tonight. I know Dad really likes that New York Strip …”

“Okay, Taylor, I’ll tell him if he calls.”

Nobody was home when Taylor arrived. He let himself in, set the steaks on the kitchen counter, unwrapped the butcher paper and salted them. Then he crept into Dad’s den, opened a closet and crouched. Yes, Dad still had the gun safe. 

Dad had sold his hunting gun collection, every long rifle he had, with the exception of his pellet rifle. He was a safety nut when it came to his only remaining firearm. It was sort of a souvenir, for it was the gun that had killed the Jeff Road Strangler.

The safe was cheap, but its lock was a three-number combination, so that meant about 40,000 permutations. There was no way to get that Walther without Dad’s permission. Still, Taylor felt reassured just to know it was there, and if Butchie pulled into the driveway, it could be retrieved in under a minute.

If Dad was home.

Mariana arrived with the kids and a load of groceries, and Taylor helped carry in the bags.

“Taylor,” Jamie said, “when is New World Order coming out?”

“What?” Mariana asked.

“He means Console’s new video game,” Taylor said. “I don’t know, Jamie. I don’t work there anymore.”

“Mari said you got fired.”

“Jamie!” Mariana snapped.

“Dad said you’ve got your head in the clouds, that’s why.”

“Go!” Mariana chased him off.

He stopped at the doorway and turned. “When you going to take us to FunSide Pier? You promised, remember?”

Taylor did not remember. Annie led Taylor into the living room to show off the newest addition to her aquarium: A Rainbow Fish.

Annie’s aquarium.

“She’s from Australia,” she beamed. “Isn’t she gorgeous?”

Taylor said she was. All fish were females, at least according to Annie. She scattered food into the tank and watched her many beautiful fish rise to it. Taylor fought off the thought: food for the fishes.  

Annie asked: “How come you’re here on a Monday?”

“I don’t know. It’s summer. Cookout. I know you don’t eat meat. I bought a portobello mushroom to grill for you.”

“Eh,” she said. Annie didn’t like to eat much of anything.

“Jamie said you’re going to take us to FunSide Pier.”

“Jamie is very clever,” Taylor said.

“What do you mean?”

“He knows how to set me up. Okay, I’ll take you.”

“Yay! When?”

“Let me talk to Mari first.”

Taylor was pacing the yard when he heard the tires of Dad’s car crunch in the driveway. Dan Burns looked pleased. He’d logged two hours of flight time, and performed three touch-and-goes up at Pierce County Air Field.

“What would you like to drink, son?”

“What do you have?”

Dan Burns was thirty years behind the craft-beer revolution, but not forty. “I like that Sam Adams,” he said.

“I’ll go for that.”

“Mariana,” Dan shouted into the house. “Two Sams out here.” His tone rankled Taylor. Dad sometimes treated Mariana as if she were still the paid help. Taylor set down a bag of charcoal and started for the kitchen to fetch the beers. His father arrested him, hand on arm.

“Son,” he said, “stay and talk.”

It’s Dad’s backyard, and don’t you forget it.

Dan loaded the kettle grill with coals, and then stood with Taylor like they were he-men consulting on the proper way to start a fire.

“I talked to Bonnie Blanchard and Judge Mercer and, bottom line, the domestic battery charges will go away. But … big but here. This is the last time I’m bailing you out, literally or figuratively.” He whirled to look Taylor dead in the eye. “You’ve got to keep your hands off women, son. That principle is the foundation of civilization.”

Taylor nodded. Was his father a hypocrite? Or had he mellowed into a genuine understanding of his faults as a younger man? Taylor could not decide what to believe, nor could he challenge him. He could not seem to change this relationship. Dan was the Alpha dog and Taylor was the Beta.

“I wasn’t really fighting with Lisa, Dad. We’re good friends. But she has a wild temper. It was she who knocked me off the step and into the sand. I was just trying to …”

“Son, please. There’s one thing you learn in police work. Things are what they seem to be, and explanations are bullshit.”

Taylor deflected his father’s questions about his job search. Mariana brought out two beers in frosty mugs, and they drank, Father and Son in temporary truce.

Dad was from the generation that insisted on using lighter fluid, and he soaked the charcoal with about a cup of it, stood back and flung a match. In the flare-up, a look of sadistic pleasure reflected from his face. Taylor remembered, during their Hawaii days, a boat ablaze in Pearl Harbor. His father watched from the Hickam shore, rapt, silent, hypnotized, as the boat burned to the waterline.

“This will sound like a weird question,” Taylor said. “But do you know if Mom ever had anything to do with Butchie Block?”

Dan Burns’ lips barely moved. “Your mother,” he muttered. Taylor felt a chill run through him, gulped beer in self defense.

“In your eyes, your mother was a saint, and that’s a good thing, Taylor.” He clapped his son on the shoulder. “A very good thing. I loved the woman with all my heart, but she had many flaws.”

“In your eyes, your mother was a saint, Taylor.”

Taylor deflected that. “We all do.”

“Your mother had a hard time with honesty and fidelity, son. I should never have allowed her to persuade me to move back to Shipwreck Bay. She fell in with old friends, and not all of them were upstanding citizens.”

“Butchie Block, you mean?”

“I don’t know who all her friends were, Taylor. These last few years, she shut me out. We weren’t man and wife anymore, not truly. I paid the bills, Mariana watched the kids and Liz went out partying, surfing, like a rebellious teen, doing just as she pleased. She shrunk me down into a little toy soldier, and I went along. Because Annie and Jamie loved and needed her, I went along.”

Dan drained his beer, and lobbed the bottle over the fence into the neighbors’ yard. A look of smug satisfaction took over his face. The neighbor’s two barking dogs were a longstanding irritation.

“I think, to be honest, Taylor, it was her rigid childhood upbringing. All those rules over at Holy Trinity. I mean, Catholic is one thing, I was raised Catholic too, but that bunch is stone crazy. Your mom never had a normal childhood. And those fanatic parents of hers? So … when you reached your teens, she felt her job as a mother was done, and the rebellious girl in her burst out. That’s what it was, the goddamned Opus Dei cult. Her parents ruined her, and made her a rebel.”

“Your mom never had a normal childhood.”

Taylor was certain Steffi’s mom had told the truth about Butch’s beating and humiliation of his mother. Mellie Voss had been a nurse since she was a candy-striper in high school. She worked at the Emergency Room where Liz Burns would have been treated after Butchie’s assault. But did Taylor want to bring that up now, with Dad so volatile, and obviously headed for a drunken evening?

But a drunken evening was just the relief Taylor needed. It would give him an excuse to sleep at his father’s place, safe, for the night at least, from Butchie Block.

Taylor arose at dawn, beer-weary and sticky. It was already warm and humid. He was forced to brew “cowboy” coffee, since Mariana was perhaps the last person in Shipwreck Bay who used a percolator. He wandered into the yard, cleaned the grill of the remnants of their steak-and-potato fest. Sober now, he fully realized that Dad’s Walther would do him no good if he couldn’t get to it. And he certainly couldn’t stand to live in this house for very long. Sooner or later Dad would start hectoring him about selling the beach property, showing him Cessna brochures, offering to pay for flying lessons. We could have something in common again, he’d say, love of the air.

Taylor had heard it all fifty times, and didn’t want to hang out for number 51. Jamie was in the game room playing GODS OF WAR, with all it blood-curdling bombast. Had he been up all night? That’s the kind of fanatic gamer Taylor had been as a boy. He ducked into the game-room on his way out.

“Mari said you could take us to FunSide Pier. I asked her last night.”

“Let me see then.”

“‘Mari said she’d buy the tickets. ‘Cause you don’t have a job anymore.”

“Tell everybody I said goodbye, okay?”

Jamie grunted and slaughtered bad guys.

Jamie’s war.

Taylor walked along Bayshore Road on a glorious breezy morning he could not enjoy. His mind kept churning: Dad had  confirmed that Mom was carousing during her last years, and now Taylor knew there was a chance she’d reconnected, for some dark reason of her own, with the Monroe Street crowd, maybe even Butchie Block himself. 

Absorbed in thought, he was almost run over by a semi rounding the curve behind him.

He stopped at a coin laundry, the only business in sight, and tapped for a ride. He texted Maggie.

On the ride to her apartment he settled on certain assumptions about Maggie. The most important was her relationship to Paul. He was a rich guy in his fifties, who wanted Maggie as a showpiece, Taylor supposed, to prove to his buddies that he was still a powerful, attractive man. In return, he spent lavishly on her. Maggie seemed flattered by the attention.

But who was Paul? All Taylor had was a name and a bunch of assumptions. He didn’t know how this Paul fit into Shipwreck Bay. The exact source of his wealth was never identified, except that he’d made his fortune up at the RiverPorts. Money laundering? Might have been something like that, given that his occupation was secret. As the driver let him off, Taylor concluded that Paul was the real owner of the Wonder Bar. Perhaps he had a criminal record that precluded him from obtaining a liquor license, and Maggie was his front.

But all this was speculation.

Maggie’s apartment was surround by black iron fencing, and as he approached the gate, Taylor saw her and Paul in the lush garden, at a concrete table, drinking coffee. Paul was a shambling bear of a man, pale with pale hair, wearing a pale suit, black shirt, no tie. He was partly hidden by a potted plant. Maggie shook her head, a subtle sign to Taylor and he backed off.

He sat on the steps of an apartment building up the street and in a few minutes saw Paul cram himself into a black MyRide car, which pulled away.

Maggie was leaning into the steel gate when Taylor arrived. “Thank you, Taylor,” she said. “He’s kind of jealous.”

Maggie’s garden.

“You jolly him along, I see.”

“You’re going to be an asshole about it?”

“No, it’s too early for that.”

“And it’s too early for a fuck, if that’s what you came over for.”

Taylor led her into the garden, deeper into the leafy shadows, where nobody could see them from the street.

 “Butchie Block,” he said, “is after me.”

“Seriously? Why?”

“He thinks I owe him money.”

“Do you?”

“It’s a scam, Maggie, I’m not going to pay.”

“Well, you’re not employed. You could skip town.”

“And what? Sell my home? Send all my stuff to Goodwill?”

She shook her head. “Butchie. That whole Monroe Street gang? I wouldn’t mess with any of them, and he’s the worst. I’m sorry to hear he’s hanging around this summer.”

“What do I do?”

“You’re looking at me?”

Taylor paced the yard. “I need some place to hide out. For five days.”

“Well, you can’t stay here. What happens after five days?”

“That’s the waiting period for a handgun.”

She scoffed. “Paul can get you one of those tomorrow. No paperwork.”

“And no serial number?”

“That’s the idea, isn’t it?”

“But Paul will know who it’s for, so he’s a potential witness right there.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Taylor. Why not just pay Butchie and get rid of him? You must have the money.”

Taylor just shook his head, unwilling to reveal his mother’s humiliation.

“Paul will have a fit if he finds you here. He pays the half the rent, and has a key.” She sighed. “I can put you up for the night, Taylor. I’m working late anyway. But tomorrow, you’ve got to figure something out. Okay?”

That night Maggie trekked in for her shift managing the Wonder Bar. Taylor wandered through movies on her Netflix, and found nothing to watch. He was on beer five when he heard the front door lock turn.

Had Butchie tortured Maggie for the door code?

Taylor bolted off the couch. Instinct told him to hide in a closet, but he veered for the kitchen and its knife block. As he whirled around with a chef’s knife in hand, a drunken Paul stumbled through the door.

“Who the hell are you?” Paul demanded.

Paul barges in.

“Taylor,” he said, and put the knife behind his back, trying to pretend he hadn’t been alarmed. “Maggie said I could stay tonight.”

“Maggie said, Maggie said,” Paul muttered. He looked around at the beer bottles, the blaring TV. “Hell, I’m half-drunk. I’ll join you.”

He was wearing khaki trousers and a fedora, as if he’d spent the day on the East Island boardwalk, trying to win kewpie dolls. The sideboard was a forest of liquor bottles, and from it Paul plucked a dark green bottle of Jaeggermeister. He held it up to the light. “You enjoy this stuff?”

Taylor shook his head.

“Me neither, but at least you know you’re drinking something.”

He retrieved a low cocktail glass from the freezer, poured a couple of fingers of Jaeger, and sat next to Taylor on the couch. He flicked off Netflix.

“You’re the kid whose father …”

“Yeah, the Jeff Road strangler.”

He sipped and shook his leonine head. “The Devil You Know,” he said.

“I never read that book, actually.”

“No?”

“Well, I read a few excerpts. By the time it was published, I was sick of the whole thing.”

“I can imagine. But your father came out quite well in that book. A regular dragon slayer.”

“He did. But he didn’t like that book, didn’t cooperate with the author, didn’t want it to come out.”

“Should have been a movie.”

“Maybe someday.”

“What’s your pleasure?” said Paul. “Let’s drink to slaying dragons.”

Paul’s specialty was bourbon Old Fashioneds. He enjoyed fussing with the muddling, and measuring the exact proportions. He knocked back his Jaeger, then made strong cocktails in enormous glasses. They talked about Maggie, and what a fine, funny woman she was. Did Taylor like baseball? The Cubs were in The City this weekend, and Paul had tickets, right behind the on-deck circle. 

“Four seats. I can’t go, just take ‘em,”he said. “Treat your friends.”

Taylor said he was committed for the weekend. 

Two more giant cocktails were created and consumed while they talked about the decline of baseball, which in Paul’s opinion had begun the first time a designated hitter had walked to the plate. Taylor didn’t argue. He’d formed a habit of just agreeing with older guys. Paul flipped on the TV and caught the tail end of a Giants-Rockies contest beamed from San Francisco. Taylor wondered whether, as the camera panned the crowd, he might glimpse Karen and Rick out in the stands, framed by a golden sunset and the Bay Bridge.

The ball game ended and Taylor and Paul started on yet another mega-cocktail. Paul broke out the playing cards and chips and they engaged in a friendly small-stakes round of blackjack.

“You’re staying tonight, right?” Paul asked. Taylor had already told him this but Paul was drunk beyond memory. “You’re not going home in your condition.”

“I’m in the spare bedroom,” Taylor said.

“Kid,” he said, “you don’t have to lie to me. I know you’re shagging her.”

Taylor flushed, sputtered, what could he say?

“I know Maggie has her boys. She thinks she’s fooling me but she’s not. Hey, I don’t give that much of a shit, to tell you the truth. A guy your age, what’s he interested in? Pussy. A guy my age, what’s he interested in? Money. These are the two stages of a man’s life.”

“So Maggie makes money for you?”

He laughed so hard he gagged on his cocktail. “Hell no! She costs me a fortune.”

He began repeating, as drunken people will, his fascination with the Jefferson Road murders. 

“Friend of mine from the Knights, good guy, was the uncle of the fifth victim. Megan Barth. Sweet girl of 16, not quite right in the head, little bit of trouble with drugs. Shock to me that she’d been recruited by these awful pimps. She’d been living with her mother in exile-land, with all its shacks and trailer-homes.

“I went to that child’s funeral,” he said. “Jesus, you never heard such keening and wailing. Unbelievable monster, would take the life of an innocent child. Imagine, choking the life out of her while staring into her innocent blue eyes? What fiend could do that?” He looked at his cocktail glass, and with it, made the Sign of the Cross over himself. “What a shit world. I don’t need another drink, but I’ll have one. How about you?”

“Sure.”

“You’re a good kid,” he said. “Maggie’s got good taste in men.”

He stumbled over to the sideboard and began, with fresh glasses, picking cherries out of a jar for yet another Old Fashioned. “Your father’s a hero,” he said, for about the sixth time that night, only now it was slurred to Yer faw-wash ahera.

“When your father’s a hero,”  Taylor said, “you get tired of hearing about it.” 

Paul shrugged, turned to look at Taylor, and said. “I guess that’s right. Forgive me, kid. Look how drunk I am.”

While he was mixing the cocktails, Taylor said: “Maggie suggested that you knew where I could buy an unregistered firearm.”

He turned to Taylor again, with a look of genuine, almost sober, curiosity. “Oh?”

“For self-protection.”

“Who the hell do you need protection from?” Paul demanded in a sudden burst of anger.

“Have you ever heard of Butchie Block?”

“Heard of him?” He set down the cocktail shaker and approached. Breathing cocktail fumes in Taylor’s face, he said, “Now look here, kid, you steer clear of Butchie Block.”

“Too late.”

“He’s after you? Now? Right now? Why?”

“He thinks I owe him money.”

“How much?”

“Five thousand.”

“Pay him.”

“I can’t. Even if I paid up, he’ll see me as a mooch and I’ll never be rid of him. He’ll latch on to me like a giant leech and suck me dry.”

Paul nodded, and a sad look, almost teary, overtook his world-weary eyes. “Scum of the earth has hit me up too,” he said. “Asshole that he is. No talent, except for extortion. No brains, no ability, and he knows it. Fear is his only asset. Fear and money, that’s all the man knows.”

He rested a big paw on Taylor’s shoulder. “Can you skip town? Is that an option?”

“Becoming a homeless bum is not an option. I can’t sell my condo in this market, I’m upside down in it.”

“Tell me about it. We’re in the game, Maggie and me.”

“She never mentioned …”

“Aw, just a couple of cheap spec units. They built too many too fast in the Warehouse District. I’ve got units going to mold over on Jackson Road.” He sat next to Taylor on the couch in a defeated heap.

“Do you know where I can get a weapon?” Taylor asked.

Paul sighed.

Taylor said, “I don’t think Butchie carries a gun. He’s a convicted felon and weapons possession would send him back to prison. If I show him I have the means to defend myself, maybe he’ll go play his game somewhere else. But if … “

“I understand, kid,” Paul said, and with that he put his head back and dropped into an instant sleep.

chapter 28: into the shadows