But why would Nick the Bulgarian want to harm Liz Burns? As far as Taylor could tell, he’d never met her.
At the light rail stop, Artie, Butchie and Taylor shook hands. “I get paid in cash,” Butchie reminded Taylor. “In 24 hours, max.”
That Sunday night Artie and Butchie offered Taylor the Murphy bed at their hotel suite but he shagged that off with an excuse about an aching back. In truth Taylor wanted to be alone. He didn’t trust anybody anymore, not even Artie. He booked a room at the Extraordinaire, overlooking the river.
He took a riverfront room so he could watch the Destiny River run by, as if it might help him think. He watched it all the restless night, flowing under the harsh lights and spooky cranes of the container port. Everything seemed menacing, and his thoughts were morbid. How many people had drowned in that river over its history, going all the way back to a tribesman paddling his canoe? How any murder weapons were tossed in there? How many unwanted babies and murdered corpses? The Jefferson Road strangler had dumped six young bodies in that river, where it meets the salt water at Shipwreck Bay. Like Taylor’s mom, those young women became food for the fishes.
He was in an awful deep funk by 3 a.m. and guided by drunken judgment, opened the mini-bar and got into the tiny $10 bottles of bourbon. Finally, as the first pink shards of dawn peaked through the skyscrapers, he fell asleep in a recliner on the deck.
He awoke in the sunlight with an insight: His most trusted friend was Stephanie. On the train ride back to Shipwreck Bay, he realized why: Steffie had a years-long crush on him. He was the green light to her Great Gatsby. Steffie would marry him in a snap. She would make him a home. She would have his babies. Whatever evil had happened to his Mom, Stephanie certainly had no part in it. He texted her.
When RU free 2day?
As the train pulled into the Shipwreck Bay yards, she answered:
Not free, but reasonable.
At Peace&Love this AM.
Stop by, need a break from realtor shit.
Indeed, Steffie was working at a sunny table at the coffee shop, with a laptop that was duct-taped at its edges. Spread all around her was paperwork, accountant-ruled. She pushed it aside to make space for Taylor and his mocha.
After briefing her on his trip to The City, he said: “Here’s what I know about Nick the Bulgarian. He’s the muscle behind a sex slave operation. He’s been in Shipwreck Bay only a few years. He says he’s from the city of Ruse, originally. He claims Adora is his wife. She denies that. Your boss uses him as a sometime-boy-toy, escort, muscleman or goon.”
“Rent collector, basically,” Steffie said.
“And it was your boss, yes, the infamous Billie McGinn, who had the financial motivation to murder …”
He looked around after he said that, maybe too loud.
Stephanie loaded the paperwork into a black valise. “So finding Marco cost you $5,000?”
He nodded in shame. “I was desperate, Steff.”
“And you trust Butchie?”
“Maybe you were set up, Taylor. What if this was all a scam to fleece you of five grand, split by Artie, Marco and Butchie?”
“Artie? Not Artie. The last thing he needs is more money.”
“Marco could be lying. I’ll bet they find his body in the river. Five thousand dollars? You know how long it takes me to make that much?
“Tell me more about Nick and Billie.”
“He’s her stooge. Billie’s in charge of every relationship in her life. She is the Supreme Being of her Universe. That’s why she went for Artie. He’s a harmless, feckless dope. And fucking him at the party proved that Billie does as she damn well pleases.”
“Summit Properties Group. The name gives you a clue, doesn’t it? If you paid the rent on time, all was well. But if you were late, a nasty Bulgarian came knocking. To a tenant, he looks like Russian Mafia. It was pretty effective.”
“So you’re suggesting that if the Bulgarian is guilty, he was operating on Billie’s orders.”
She leaned in and whispered, with sugary breath: “I don’t think Billie had your mom murdered.”
Taylor sat back. “Why not?”
She shook her long locks. “Too much to lose. She’s rich, Taylor.”
“Okay, but you’ve checked out the properties, right? I’m not mistaken, she owns the lots on either side of mom’s.”
“Okay, the Isle B Seaing U café? Three years ago, Billie bought the land and building. Assessed at just over $3 million. Steep mortgage. The café’s rent does not cover her payments.”
“And on the other side…”
“Aunt Crabby’s. Harold McGinn, the husband Billie supposedly poisoned? He leased that land to the restaurant decades ago. Lease expires in two years. Negotiations already underway. Lawsuits likely. Billie’s hair stands on end whenever she talks about it.”
Taylor sat back. “Okay. So. How can she solve both problems? Buy my mom’s lot. That property would be the keystone to make one big lot, for a hotel. Can you imagine? The first and only hotel on Poke Island since the 1920s?”
“Taylor, I haven’t seen any plans for a hotel. I haven’t heard her talking with architects, or anyone about it. If it is her dream, she keeps it to herself.”
“But … ” he said. “With her political connections, Billie could swing it. She tricks me into a partnership, bait and switch, boom. Every banker in the county would beg to finance it. The foundation of a Poke Island empire.”
Steff crossed her arms. “But what if Marco’s lying to you?”
“Why would he do that?”
“Well, the Bulgarian was known for insulting Hispanics. Maybe this is Marco’s revenge. He’s gotta say something, right, or Butchie breaks his legs? Maybe it’s Marco and Butchie conning you, with Artie a naive fool.”
Taylor sighed. “I thought I had this all figured out. And now I’m in debt to Butchie.”
Steffie covered his hand with hers. “Taylor, darling, you need to talk to my mom.”
The Voss family lived in the East End, and Taylor had grown up across the Destiny River in the suburb. Taylor had rarely seen Stephanie’s mom, mostly because she was always at work, having been abandoned by a husband so long ago.
“My mom, just so you know,” Steffie said, “is a compulsive helper. If you tell her you’ve got a headache, she’ll fetch sixteen remedies from the medicine cabinet. If you say you’re thinking of buying a car, she’ll jump up and scour Craig’s List for you. So watch what you say, unless you want to be overwhelmed by love.”
As chubby as Steffie is, her mom is bony. Her house is a tumbledown wreck alongside the railroad tracks. Its backyard had been reduced from lawn to dirt by two neighbor boys, thugs-in-training, riding ATVs. She did’t have the heart to complain about them.
Stef and Taylor entered through the back door, the family way, and found her mom sitting in the kitchen in weary despair. Lately she had been working double shifts, the ones nobody wanted, starting at 3 p.m. at a nursing home, and then another at midnight at the emergency room at Shipwreck Bay Hospitals and Clinics.
When did she sleep? She didn’t from the looks of it.
“It’s been a long time, Taylor,” Melanie Voss croaked. She shoved herself back in her chair. A pink pastry box lay open on the counter and she rose to fetch it. “Have a scone. From Nanny’s. They’re good.” She looked around. “Stephanie, don’t let the man stand there, get him a chair and a cup of tea.”
They chatted over tea and scones for a while. Melanie Voss, Mellie to her friends, was worried about the State of Our Nation. The Supreme Court, she felt, was full of cranky old men who had no sympathy for Working America. The White House and the Congress had long ago sold their constituents down the river. And the governor? Of this corrupt state? Pfffff. An over-fed, glorified loan shark.
“Mom,” Steffie broke in, “we wanted to ask you a question. About the old days. About Shipwreck Bay High.”
That brightened Mellie up. She dove in for a fresh scone. Steffie ran the interrogation.
“You remember Butchie Block, right?”
“Oh, everybody knows him,” she said.
“Did he ever do anything bad to you?”
A dark, embarrassed look crossed her face. “Why would you ask a question like that?”
“Well, you remember Taylor’s mom, right?”
“She went to school across the river.”
She meant Holy Trinity Catholic High School.
“Were they ever … seen together? Butchie and Elizabeth?”
“Your poor mother,” Mom whispered, looking at Taylor, then away. “Drowned like that.”
“Back in the day,” Steffie said, “did Liz know Butchie Block? That’s what we’re trying to find out, Mom.”
Mellie’s hand, breaking off a piece of scone, shook. She nudged her chair back, rose, stepped over to the kitchen sink, and stared out its smudged window at the sparse woods that stood between her home, the railroad tracks, and the half-abandoned factories beyond.
“He was a bully. I don’t know what the girls saw in him.”
“But him and Liz, Mom, that’s what we need to know.”
Her back turned, she said so Taylor could barely hear: “He beat that girl up. But in those days, nobody cared, certainly not the rotten police.”
Taylor joined her at the sink. “He beat her? Butchie hit my mother?”
“It was so long ago, Taylor.”
“In the alley behind the deli. He saw her in the deli with another boy. Butchie knocked her down and she was bleeding, people said. We never saw Elizabeth on this side of the river again.”
Steffie put an arm around her mom’s shoulders.
“So Elizabeth and Butchie were dating?”
Steffie’s mom couldn’t face Taylor, could only talk into the windows. “I don’t know. I saw them together once or twice. Honey, she was over there in the Catholic school.”
Taylor couldn’t say beating, he just couldn’t. “So he roughed her up and after that she avoided him?”
Mother Voss shrugged.
“What year was this?”
“I don’t know, Taylor. It was such a long time ago.”