Artie chose that weekend to begin his Gatsby Parties. This was to be a summer-long event, just like in the novel, except that most of Artie’s invitees would be, not wealthy socialites, but the babes of Shipwreck Bay. The attraction: free drugs and booze, sumptuous barbecue, romps on the deserted beach, nude swim in a moonlit lagoon. Taylor would be grillmaster, his reward being rights to the smaller bedroom, and whomever he could lure into it.
Taylor phoned and said, “Artie, wake up.”
“I am awake.”
“I can’t come to your party if Butchie’s there. Butchie wants to break my legs.”
Artie sputtered into the phone. “Butchie? Come on. Negotiate, man. Give him $50 and a bottle of Jameson.” Into the silence of Taylor’s hesitation, he said, “I’ll do it for you. What are you willing to pay the man for a day’s work?”
“Nothing. I cannot explain it to you, Artie. Nothing. Ever. If he was drowning, I’d throw him an anvil. Okay? Got it?”
Taylor clicked off. Artie rang back. “I’ll pay him, okay? I’ll pay him $500, and then you owe me a whole shitload of rib eye steaks and a lifetime of gratitude.”
“I don’t know,” Taylor said. “Let me think.” He hung up the phone, and eased open the grimy curtains on his room at the Airliner Motel.
He’d chosen the Airliner because he needed a place that would not demand ID and would resist police inquiries. He’d paid for a week’s stay, cash, to a clerk behind smudgy bullet proof glass. The room was on the second floor, away from Nick the Bulgarian and his whore operation. He had biked out to the motel and kept his bike in the room.
The Airliner Motel was the last one on Airport Road, and the closest to the Jackson Foothills Forest. Taylor intended to follow Paul’s advice: Avoid public gun ranges. Don’t drive or take a public ride. Walk deep into the woods until you reach the river. In the unlikely event a game warden approaches, dump the pistol in the drink. You could do five years if they catch you with this gun.
Taylor chained his bike to a tree and backpacked toward the river. There in a sunny grove he shot off a box of ammo with the gun Paul had sold him. It was a beat-up 38-caliber Ruger revolver, untraceable, and outrageously priced at $2,500. He targeted dead trees, pretended they were Butchie Block and blasted away, getting a sore wrist, damaged hearing and a sense of how bad he was at shooting. His shot patterns seemed almost random. He’d have to be pretty much in Butchie’s face if he wanted to hit him.
But after two days of target practice, Taylor was at least accustomed to firing the weapon. On the bike ride back after the second day of shooting, he stopped at a gas station convenience store, sucked down an energy drink, bought a refrigerated sandwich, and called Artie.
“So,” Taylor said, “how’s the party plan going?”
“Great,” said Artie. “I’m showing the ladies around the bird sanctuary.”
“Taylor, Butchie is pissed.”
“Where the fuck you been? He wants his big 5. He says he’s got bills to pay.”
“I told you he wouldn’t negotiate.”
“He’s chest bumping me. Like: Where’s the punk? I don’t think you should come to the party. I’ll find somebody else to grill the steaks. Don’t ask, man. There’s no way I can disinvite him. He’s like foaming at the mouth right now. He wants a piece of you, Taylor. Where are you? Never mind. Stay there. If I were you I wouldn’t go home right now.”
Taylor biked the quieter back highways, crossing Jefferson Road on his way to the motel. Not much had changed at the so-called Jefferson Estates, that housing tract built into a depression, a giant ditch really, beside a scrub forest. Cheap houses and mobile homes were scattered across a landscape that flooded after any big rain. Beat-up vehicles and toys littered every yard. In this forlorn cluster, six beautiful young souls had been deprived of life by a madman. It turned out he’d lived among them, a trusted old bachelor who’d pretended to be everybody’s friend. Joseph Garland brought meals to his sick neighbors, took care of dogs while they went on vacation, wheeled out the trash for old fragile ladies. The neighbors all loved him, until Taylor’s dad discovered the murdered girls’ panties in his garage.
When Taylor reached the Airliner, he wheeled his bike up the stairs and into room 222. His phone flashed Artie’s number.
“Look,” Artie said, “I can scrape up the five grand, okay? But unless we pay now he wants vig, a thousand bucks a week. So six G if he gets it before the weekend. Otherwise…”
“You can pay me back when you get a job. So let me…”
“No,” Taylor said.
“I’m offering to bail you out, man.”
“Look, I feel guilty, I’m the one who hooked you up with Butchie.”
“I just can’t.”
“What’s wrong with you, man?”
“He pisses on people. I can’t just let him keep … I don’t want him to piss on me. Nothing, Artie, not a cent, not a dime.”
“I’ll call you next time I cross the bay. We’ll work it out. You need to get your head straight, Taylor.”
“He killed my mother.”
“You don’t know that, Taylor.”
“Don’t you dare pay him in my name.”
Taylor clicked off. Closing the motel room door, he turned a sunny cheerful summer day into a malodorous gloom.
Depressed, and tired from the long ride, Taylor napped and awoke in early evening, peeked out the curtains, and ate that gas-station sandwich, which tasted faintly of copper. He wrestled with the devilish details: If he was going to confront Butchie, he had to be ready to pull the trigger. If he did, he’d have to get away with it. No prosecution, no trial, and certainly no prison.
It was certainly possible. About half of all killers, his Dad had told him, never get caught.
But Taylor couldn’t let Butchie corner him at his condo. Or in front of any witnesses. Or at any place where Taylor would be seen coming and going. He had one prime opportunity in mind, and it would come this weekend.
In the meantime, he endured imprisonment in this mold-stinking motel, where he watched TV, read paperback detective novels, played cell-phone chess against a computer. At night he used binoculars to spy on the prostitutes who monopolized the one corner of the ground floor. He did not see the Bulgarian. He did see Kenner, the man who’d chased him away from the whore farm house, and who was Nick’s driver on the night Taylor was kidnapped.
He saw a variety of working girls. One chubby older blonde seemed to be a mainstay, but the prostitutes mostly kept to their rooms, and none of them was Cammie. She had obviously run away. Taylor hoped he’d played some role in her escape.
Taylor ported into the programming of the app he’d built for the Bulgarian. He disabled it, and made it show, instead of sexy pictures, dead links and the photo of a stern policeman. Blowing up the the app diminished both his feelings of guilt and his legal jeopardy.
Later that night he got an angry message from Adora demanding that he reveal where he had hidden Cammie. That reminded him that his phone was a tracking device, and he yanked its sim card.
On Friday, the first night of the party, Taylor sneaked in a phone call to Artie’s satellite phone.
“Is Butchie around?” he asked.
Artie whispered. “He’s already on the island, man, don’t call.” He hung up.
Taylor felt like a big stinky black hog had been lying on him all week, and now it got up and waddled off. Butchie would be over on Poke Island tonight. Freedom! He pedaled back to his condo, as exuberant as a 10-year-old on a downhill bike ride. He took a long hot shower to wash the slime of the Airliner off him, and changed into clean clothes. He left the oily gun and grimy backpack on his night table. He celebrated with a hot-beef sandwich at Mike Fink’s, and dessert and coffee at Peace, Love.
Penny was behind the espresso machine.
“Hey,” Taylor said. “I thought you had another job?”
“Uh,” she said. “They can’t get help on summer Friday nights. They begged me.”
“And they’re paying time and half.” She stopped to calculate. “Sixteen fifty. So! You’re not at the big party?”
This thing with Butchie was turning Taylor into a sneaky liar. “I’m staying home this weekend, working on the resume, you know. Big push for a job next week.”
“Here? Or in The City? You’re not going to move out of town, are you?”
He shrugged. “Well, you’re done at nine, right, I take it you’ll be on the 9:30 boat?”
She scrunched her nose. “You know how it is over there, you end up sleeping on the floor, or on the beach.” She shuddered. “If you’re whacked out on Artie’s drugs it probably doesn’t matter but … I’m just not into that.”
“Because of Jesus?”
“Don’t mock the Church. I could hate you very easily.” She stood on tiptoes and over his shoulder called, “Be right with you sir.”
Taylor whispered: “Buy you a drink next door.”
“We’ll see,” she said.
It was hip-hop night at the Wonder Bar, so Taylor and Penny lasted exactly one drink. Maggie had the night off. Elroy, a chubby bald black fellow, assumed her duties behind the bar. Taylor walked Penny down the road to his place. He was exulting in freedom. It was like Butchie Block was temporarily dead.
Taylor had already made a guess about why Penny was sexually frigid. Somebody had done something evil to this girl. Father? Uncle? Schoolmate? Priest? On the walk to his condo he put his arm around her and she flinched.
“We’re just friends, right?” he said. “Pals. Buddies.”
They ended up cuddling on his couch. Deeper into the night with both of them groggy, Taylor held her close, precious. It felt like in this moment something beautiful, not needy, greedy, lusty or mean. There was a sort of a glow, holding onto her like that. It was like being in the sunshine on a mellow day, a sunny spot in the window. He didn’t want to break the spell, but she rolled off the couch to use the bathroom, gulped a glass of water, and wandered out to the deck, gawking at the city view. Taylor joined her. She had her hands folded in front of her like she was an angel.
“Are you praying out here?”
“No,” she said, and then admitted it. “I was. I guess I was praying for you. Taylor, I saw your father choke you in the chat room.”
This, he’d learned from Penny, was the cops’ ironic name for the interrogation room.
“He just lost it for a minute,” Taylor said. “No harm done. He still considers himself a cop, kind of. You know a cop’s always going to be pissed to find his son in jail. And speaking of that, can you tell me anything about your mentor? Is she still determined to pin …”
“Oh no. Your mom’s case? That’s on hold. It’s the Jefferson Road strangler now.”
“Yeah! A bunch of law students from State are down for the summer, going all through it.” She tolled on her fingers. “There’s nine of us.”
“But the case is closed.”
“This is all about numbers and predictions and how you can catch a serial killer. Bonnie’s going to lead it. She’s getting her Masters, did you know that? It’s like a seminar. The University is paying her.”
“So she gave up on my mom’s case?”
“She’s just put it aside for now, I said. You’re lucky, Taylor. Detective Blanchard had some kind of like hatred toward you. I can’t explain it. Anyway, it’s going to be a fun summer. I’m going to work with honest-to-god law students and computer geeks too.”
She looked around as if she just realized it was deep into the night. “I have to get home,” she muttered.
In the hallway she stumbled over Taylor’s backpack. He picked it up, intending to slip it into the hall closet, but out tumbled that stubby black revolver.
It lay there on the floor like a black steel tarantula.
Penny jumped away as if it would bite her. She stared at it, and then at Taylor. He tried nonchalance, picked up the pistol, ducked into the bedroom and slipped it into the nightstand drawer.
“Been burglars in the building,” he said, feeling lame.
Penny gave him a skeptical, maybe frightened look. Taylor began counting the number of ways in which he was now screwed. Here was a girl who’d be working in the Sheriff’s Department all summer, was only nineteen, and prone to gab. Now she was a witness to his possession of a black revolver. If it ever came to courtroom testimony, she would remember his stupid lie about burglars, a lie easily disproved by someone with access to police logs.
Oh my God, there’s no way you can do this without fucking it up. You’d make a lousy criminal. Pay Butchie.
But the image of Butchie pissing on his bleeding mother in a putrid alley would not leave his mind, not now, not ever. He walked Penny to her MyRide, and then was up most of the night squirming, tossing, trying to read, rat-caging, listening to Miles Davis, but not even “Peaceful” could calm him down.
In the morning, at the Wow Mart sporting goods counter, he filled out one state and one federal form requesting a permit to pay $475 for a legal .38, similar to the rogue gun Paul had gotten him. If he had to pull the trigger on Butchie, and Penny squealed to the cops, he could ditch the rogue gun and produce this legal weapon, and there’d be no ballistics match. If Penny ever turned out to be a witness against him, he told himself, he could argue that she’d simply misremembered the date she’d first seen that gun.
From the Wow Mart, he called for a ride out to the airport, rented a car, and beat it out of town to wait out the five days until he could pick up his legal weapon.