Taylor drove that rental car to Jackson Falls and rented a rustic cabin in the woods. He was already thinking like a criminal. In the event of police inquiry, he’d say he needed the solitude of this quiet retreat to assemble his complex job applications.
Carrying the rogue pistol was a risk, so he left it home. Standing at the bedroom mirror, using a Coke bottle as substitute gun, he practiced his confrontation with Butchie. He planned it for Saturday. He knew where he could catch Butchie alone and out of sight. He held that coke bottle steady, and said: Tell me everything you know about Elizabeth Burns. And then maybe I’ll let you live.
He settled it in the supreme court of his mind. Butchie had seen Liz on the island this summer and had become obsessed. She obviously told him to get lost. So just before the holiday weekend, Butchie had paid Marco the ferryman to skip the last run. Knowing she would hike back to Artie’s cottage, he ambushed her in the dark and lonely bird sanctuary.
And last week, Butchie had made a big show of tracking down Marco, as a way to shake Taylor down for cash and deflect blame to the Bulgarian. Of course Marco had lied, it was obvious now, either in fear of Butchie or in return for a secret payoff. It was Butchie who’d done in Liz Burns, motive: revenge for her rejection.
Taylor wandered the banks of the Destiny River and soaked in the natural pool at Jackson Falls, brooding and worrying. He made himself simple meals in the knotty pine kitchen, and failed to finish eating them. At Friday noon he packed out of the cabin, figuring that by the time he got back to town, the first guests would be arriving at Artie’s.
That evening, back in his condo, using a VPN to hide his web activity, he plowed through self-defense sites. The universal advice was, not even God could reload a revolver under the adrenaline stress of a gunfight, so there was no point in bringing extra ammo. Two, or maybe three rounds would do it, and firing at close range was imperative. But not too close. A mortally wounded man could, in a final fit of rage, strangle you, or grab the gun and turn it on you. Taylor practiced in his home mirror with the real gun, standing six backward paces from the Devil. Finally satisfied, he loaded five rounds into their chambers, and slipped the gun under his mattress.
On Saturday he took the 11 a.m. boat, avoided Jules the Ferryman, and saw nobody he knew on board. Had anyone greeted him, the plan was off, but he was lucky, and wandered off the ferry, head down, backpack slung, treading the winding boardwalk behind the dunes, the other passengers splitting off for the ocean beach. The rogue pistol in his backpack felt as heavy as a bowling ball.
He trekked along the deserted bay side of the dunes, floppy hat slouched over his head, and picked an isolated shady spot, spread a towel, dropped the backpack, and waited. He had deliberately left his cellphone home. To give himself something to do, brought a coffee-stained copy of Moby Dick, and sometimes could actually concentrate on reading it.
Melville’s White Whale. Fitzgerald’s Green Lantern at the end of the dock. In each case, the characters were chasing something even to their own destruction. The point was not lost on Taylor but he could not simply shrug and pay off his mom’s murderer.
The wait was excruciating, but the plan was simple. At day’s end, Butchie often walked to Surfer’s Rockpile, saying he wanted to watch the sunset. But he was no Nature Boy. That walk took him past the nudists at Babe Beach. He’d been known to squat at the edge of a sunbather’s towel and make crude suggestions.
Taylor, sweating from the heat and anxiety, imagined how he would follow once Butchie disappeared into the rocky, ocean-splashed warren.
Oh my God, it was Annie, carry a red pail. Big eyed with excitement, she pointed past the dunes.
“Aunt Mari is right over there.”
Why? Why? Why? Taylor asked himself. He tried to force a happy face. Annie in her naïve excitement huffed and sat next to him, that pail rattling with seashells.
“Wow,” Taylor said. “Great. Day at the beach! Lucky us!”
“Where’s your girlfriend?”
“The radio lady.”
“Who? Tasha Wolf? Is that who you’re talking about?”
“Mari said you were dating the radio lady. I listen to her show. She’s funny.”
“How the hell … I’m telling you, there are no secrets in this town.”
“What does she look like? She sounds like a cat. Does she look like a cat? She purrs.”
“We’re friends, that’s all.”
“I think you’re fibbing, Uncle Tay.”
Taylor stood up. “Let’s go see Mari.”
Taylor followed Annie along narrow boardwalks, through the dunes, and to the ocean side. The Pink Jitney passed, Steffie among the passengers, on her way from the ferry to Artie’s cottage. The sight of her awoke in him the reality of what he was planning. Was the universe trying to tell him something? Is that why he’d happened to meet Annie on the calm side of the dunes?
Crazed with conflicting thoughts, Taylor followed Annie across hot sands. Mariana was parked on an Air Force blanket, watching the ocean, a fog bank way out there.
“Jamie didn’t come along?” he said, and sat beside her.
Mariana shook her head. “He’s afraid of the ocean now.”
“He’s afraid he’ll see Aunt Liz in the waves,” Annie said.
“Stop that Annie,” Mariana said. To Taylor she said: “He has nightmares.”
Annie said: “He’s needs a pyschiatrist, Dad says.”
Taylor put a calming hand on her hot sunburned shoulder.
“Everybody misses her,” he said.
“That’s the truth,” said Mariana. She sighed. “My poor babies,” she said.
Which reminded Taylor that she’d helped raise these children since they were pre-schoolers. Mariana was a peacemaker, a quiet, dignified woman who’d transitioned from hired help to the bedrock of this family. He felt stupid for ever imagining she’d had a part in his mom’s demise. Mariana, plotting Mom’s murder with Dad? Ridiculous.
“Are we poor, Mari?” Annie asked.
“No baby, it’s only an expression.”
Annie laid her seashells on the dark blue blanket and began comparing them with pictures on her tablet.
“Are you ready for tacos?” Mariana asked.
“No,” said Annie, focusing on her seashells.
“She’s still not eating,” Mariana whispered to Taylor.
The jitney rolled behind them, empty on its way back to the ferry pier. Mari slathered her arms in sunscreen. She glanced at Taylor, who took the hint, rose, and spread sunscreen lotion over her shoulders and neck. The soft warmth of her flesh only invoked in Taylor the sense of her common humanity. This woman was no monster, he knew it.
As Taylor capped the sunscreen, he glanced down the beach, and was seized by a panic of fear.
Butchie Block was walking the surf-line, along with Steffie. His head felt wobbly, his ears rang with a high-voltage noise. Through that electric hum, it was like he could hear his mom say: You can’t run away from everything, Taylor.
Steffie waved, and after a few strides she and Butchie stood casting long shadows on the beach blanket.
“Hey, buddy,” Butchie said.
Taylor didn’t introduce Mariana. Butchie didn’t seem to care who she was. “Missing a guh guh good party,” he said.
Then Steffie and Butchie walked on, and she turned and gave Taylor a wink. What did that mean?
“Come by later,” Butchie called over his shoulder. “We got business.”
“Who’s that girl?” Mariana asked.
“Stephanie Voss. I went to school with her.”
“I know who he is,” she said. “I hope you don’t really have business with that man.”
“No,” Taylor said. “He’s … I don’t what the hell he’s talking about.”
Taylor grabbed his backpack, heavy with its murderous cargo, and waded the surf line. Then he cut up toward the dunes and looked for Butchie and Stef. They had walked only as far as the jitney stop. They sat in a shaded shelter on a green wooden bench, Butchie talking, waving his hands, Steffie listening. The space between them said they were friends, not lovers. But Taylor worried. Steffie’s big heart had room even for jailbirds like Butchie Block. Where did Steffie lie on the spectrum that ran from saint to fool?
Taylor backed off, padded back through the hot sand where Mariana and Annie were rolling up their blankets and towels.
“We’re going for ice cream,” Annie said.
Mariana sighed. “It’s the only thing she’ll eat.”
Mariana and Annie caught the 5:15 ferry, and Taylor watched the battered old launch chug away into the burbling bay. A young sunburned sheriff’s deputy riding past on his ATV gave Taylor a sour look. Taylor could just imagine being frisked by this punk cop, and the sadistic delight on Bonnie Blanchard’s face when she learned he was in her jail on weapons charges. Taylor was spooked enough to consider throwing that rogue pistol into the bay. But the cop rode away through the dunes and the jitney lumbered by and he rode it to the last stop, Surfer’s Rockpile.
He was losing his nerve, asking himself too many questions, imagining too many scenarios. Fear and failure seemed utterly certain. The smartest thing he could do maybe, was throw it in the drink right here.
He wandered through the rock pile maze, out on the rocky arm that reached toward the oceanic horizon. This was where his mother had met her demise, and where Butchie might too. That would be justice, a year delayed.
It was like Taylor could see Mom riding her board out at the spot surfers called Twos, where the waves split, left and right. He wended through the rocks brooding, worrying, climbing, slipping, sliding, wading tide pools.
Out there in the surf, a young blonde wiped out and surfaced, clinging to her board, like a heartbreaking ghost of that determined, lovely, high spirited Liz Burns.
As the sun lowered, Taylor wandered back to Artie’s cottage. Confused and rattled, he climbed the steps to the gazebo, soft-footed along the short boardwalk and opened the back door to the cottage.
It was deserted. But Taylor could hear that the party had moved down to Babe Beach. Tasha must have been down there, because WartHogg was being played loud. Taylor stepped to the telescope, swung it around, and saw people down there, sunning in various stages of undress.
Some he knew, some he didn’t. Artie was sitting on a surfboard flirting with Lisa. Butchie was crouched way too close to a sunbathing Penny, who wore shorts and a tank top. Steffie in a one-piece bathing suit, waded in the the lagoon. Tasha sat neck deep in shimmering green water, her purple hair floating around her. Billie stood naked looking off at the Rockpile, as if something out in the ocean worried her.
Taylor joined the party. Surrounded by people, he felt utterly isolated. No one here understood him or could see into his wounded heart. He wasn’t a murderer but a boy crying for his mother. If he could force a confession out of the evil man that had killed her, her spirit might return to Earth, satisfied.
If only Taylor been able to catch Butchie alone, with no witnesses to his presence on the island. But his simple plan had been spoiled by chance meetings.
Or maybe, as his Mom believed, there was a mysterious God in a hidden Heaven.
Was there a God? Was He telling Taylor not to do it?