Nick Katanjiev was a 6-foot-4 muscleman. He wore casual sweats, and he’d either stuffed a sock in his pants or had a giant dick bulge. Steffie knew Nick from his occasional back-door visits to Billie’s office. He was Billie’s rent-collector and all-around tough guy. The town’s gossips claimed he was also a pimp.
But Steffie was delighted that Nick had come to the party. For her it was win-win. Win one: He was a real hunk of man and might pay her some attention. Win two: Her flirtations might arouse jealousy in Taylor.
Steffie’s mood iced over, however, when she saw Lisa Lange climb the gazebo steps. Lisa wore a sexy blue party dress that showed off her bitch-skinny legs. Taylor had been mooning over this flamboyant strumpet since high school.
“I took the beach way up,” Lisa said, and kicked sand off her bare feet. A disappointed look soured her face. “You call this a party?”
“Just getting started,” said Artie.
“Nobody else was on the ferry?” Taylor asked.
Lisa bit her lips and shrugged. That shrug covered an evasion, but Taylor wouldn’t discover that until morning.
Taylor was disappointed by the scant attendance at the party. Perhaps it was the foggy drizzle, or maybe it was too early in the season. After Memorial Day, these parties would be crazy popular. But tonight, there were still a few more ferry runs, and maybe Cammie would be aboard, or so Taylor hoped.
Lisa had brought two bottles of cheap champagne. Nick fished a pint of vodka out of his pocket. Artie’s parents had a locked liquor cabinet, but Artie had copied the key. They all, Artie, Taylor, Lisa, Steffie, Billie and Nick, sat in the cozy living room, toasted with champagne, and started seriously boozing.
Artie poured Billie a glass of wine and ogled her like she was a movie star.
“So you’re the little man who throws all these big soires,” Billie said.
“Yup. That’s me. I put the Artie in party.”
“Bird sanctuary,” Billie said. “What a clever ruse. Did your parents think that up?”
“I’ll bet it chopped the tax bill by a million.” She sipped. “Is this the very best wine you have?”
The few girls Artie had dated were as homely and provincial as he was. Billie’s worldly cynicism and glamour hit Artie like a thunderclap. He rushed to his father’s wine room and retrieved a dusty bottle.
“Chateau Simone Rouge,” he said, and uncorked it. “My father had a wine guy.”
He tilted a generous pour into a fresh glass, handed it to Billie, and stepped back, expecting praise.
Billie sniffed. Billie swirled. Billie sipped. “How old is this?” she said with a grimace. “Was the cork intact? It seems off.”
Thump, thump, thump, Artie’s heart began to sound in his ears.
It began to rain in earnest, and that was Taylor’s excuse to put off firing up the grill. Maybe if dinner had been served, the booze wouldn’t have gotten the best of the party.
Lisa, half-sloshed when she came in, now sat back against the arm of the couch, giving Steffie, on the other end, a provocative crotch view.
Since Lisa had been known to take female lovers, Taylor’s spirits sagged. He’d been hot for Lisa since he’d first seen her, back when she was a waitress at Diner24. She was a skinny Scandinavian blonde who liked to show off her hot body. But it wasn’t just her looks that attracted Taylor. She was a bad girl, living a reckless life that scandalized the moralists of Shipwreck Bay. She brought out wild urges in Taylor. He’d sometimes imagined fleeing to the Caribbean with Lisa, and living rough, raw, sunburnt and carefree under the sun and stars.
Lisa and Stephanie get comfy.
But now Taylor could feel the night going sour. He assumed it would be Billie and Nick the Giant screwing in one bedroom, Lisa and Steffie snuggling in the other. That would leave him and Artie, two lonely jackoffs, talking sports and sleeping in the gazebo.
“The fawking bastid,” complained Nick, vodka bottle to his lips. “They don’t speak English. Fawking signs all over. Speak English or I kick you ass. My ferry boat, that’s the way it would be.”
He was talking about Jules the new ferryman, who’d posted safety warnings on the boat in Spanish and English.
“Fawking Mexicans, pretty soon we all be working, one buck an hour. I say take the Spanish signs down. Fawk the life vests. If you cannot read English, you drown.”
Billie rolled her eyes and smiled at Artie as if they shared a secret.
“Phhh,” sputtered Nick. “I spit on your Mexican tacos stand. Dog food.”
A Mexican family did run a taco stand at the ferry landing, but only in season. A crude tumbledown shack, it allowed its privileged patrons to pretend they were peasantry.
Artie opened an aluminum foil packet to reveal a pinkish powder. With his forefinger, he spread some across his tongue.
“What is that?” demanded the giant.
“Which is?” Billie asked.
“Try it. It’s safe,” Artie said.
“If you bought it on the Dark Web,” Taylor said, “you have no idea what it is.”
“Taylor the TImid,” said Artie. “My source? His initials are B.B.”
Artie meant Butchie Block, a legendary badass who’d terrorized Shipwreck Bay until he got locked up in Stateville Prison. Butchie tales still echoed in the town’s dive bars and dark alleys. But Butchie, out on parole now, had at least one virtue: he’d never sold Artie a batch of bad drugs.
Billie dabbed pink powder on her tongue.
“Takes a few minutes,” said Artie. “It’s fantastic.”
“You know, Nick, honey,” said Billie, “you should … be kinder to immigrants. You’re new to this country yourself.”
Nick huffed. “But I do not ask people to speak Bulgrarian.”
“Touche,” said Billie.
“That’s French,” joked Artie. “I thought this was an English-only party.”
The giant was being mocked, but he missed it. He said: “And I have a green card, 100 percent real.”
He pulled what looked like a driver’s license out of his pocket, waved it around, pointed at Billie. “Americans! You commit suicide, open the gates to criminals. Even you, Billie, hiring cheap immigrants.”
Like a mom explaining an irrational father to his children, Billie said: “He means the new girls at the spa.”
Taylor perked up. “Cammie? That one?”
“Cammie, no, she’s … left us,” Billie said. “Her replacement. Suzanne. She’s from Thailand.” She glared at Nick: “Nicky, the masseuses are private contractors. They pay me for table time and office help. They are not my employees.”
“Rice peasants don’t belong,” groused Nick. “America eats no rice. They should go back to their water-buffalo. Do you think at farmers market I would buy even one stupid potato from them? Pfff. Bulgarians know potatoes.”
He passed the drug foil to Taylor.
“Drugs, I do not need them,” he declared. “Bad for you body. Make you fat.” He pounded his chest.
“So what happened to this Cammie?” Taylor asked Billie.
“Billie’s business, not yours,” Nick growled. “Strictly business matter.”
“You know her?” Taylor asked Nick. “You know Cammie?”
“Sometimes,” Nick said, “shut up is best policy.”
Taylor hadn’t intended to take a swab of Artie’s drug, but the prospect of spending the evening with a crude muscleman made him reconsider. Taylor snorted the powder. He wandered onto the deck and stared at the ocean. The night was particularly dark, as was his soul. Out there in bleak profile stood the rocks where his mother’s battered yellow surf board had washed up.
Steffie embraced him from behind.
“It’s been a year now,” Taylor said. “She was murdered, I know that, l’ve been denying that for a year now. What kind of man allows his mother to disappear, without seeking vengeance, or justice, or even just an answer?”
He sighed. “I’m a spoiled, overpaid math nerd, living in the reflection of a computer monitor. That’s all I am. I took my father’s advice, to let the police solve the case, and did they?”
Steffie massaged his shoulders.
“Come back to the party,” she whispered.
Artie was a Tom Petty freak and played Damn the Torpedoes through speakers that had cost more than his Subaru. In about ten minutes, music and drugs combined, Taylor wasn’t himself anymore, and there was no such place as Shipwreck Bay, USA.
Freed from the bounds of reality, Taylor became a pirate on the high seas. A modern pirate, in command of a sleek yacht. Flying the Jolly Roger. Not sailing the seas exactly but scooting over them, free as the wind. He closed his eyes. The wind lofted him. Lifting him like he was a kite! When he looked down, he was flying, but his pirate ship had disappeared, the world at his feet like a globe in the night, all its cities lit up in unbearable beauty.
He was flying for who knows how long before he encountered turbulent dark skies. In the ocean below, flash-lit by a monster electric storm, floated the wide-eyed body of his drowned mother.
Taylor grabbed the couch like he had to keep it from flying away. A nasty ache spread from skull to neck, bile rose in his throat, along with a feeling of heavy sadness, as if he weighed five hundred pounds.
Billie sat beside him, flirting with Artie. The Bulgarian Giant had disappeared. Steffie sat alone on the opposite couch, looking forlorn. Where was Lisa? Had she caught the last ferry home?
Billie and Artie started smooching and petting. Billie slipped off her jacket and revealed full cleavage. Artie removed his shirt.
Taylor could not focus enough to say: Hey, Artie, a guy twice your size is out on the deck fuming.
Taylor can’t bear to watch Billie and Artie’s outrageous flirtation.
Trouble seemed all but certain. Billie and Artie were high and had lost all sense. Taylor wondered what kind of cloud ship they were sailing on, and when Nick was going to charge in and torpedo them both.
Everything seemed to be happening in stop-motion as Taylor recovered from the rush-and-crash of Artie’s dope. Billie and Artie began licking each other. Artie led Billie by the hand into the bedroom. Lisa popped into the living room and walked out with Steffie, holding hands, to join the Bulgarian giant on the gazebo deck.
Nick, Lisa and Steffie on the gazebo deck.
Taylor heard Steffie laughing out on the windy deck. Lisa had her back turned, trying to make a cell phone call, but gave up. “Come on,” she shouted at the Bulgarian, “you do it every week.”
The giant dropped his trousers, kicked them aside. Nope, that was no sock stuffed in his trousers.
Lisa joined the strip show on the deck, removing puffy dress and panties. Steffie shed only her blouse. Her breasts were her best feature, or so she’d been told, but her chubby body was no competition for Lisa’s.
Everyone could see Artie and Billie through the bedroom window, and hear their orgasmic gasping and moaning. Taylor, afraid of trouble, stepped into the deck shadow. The clouds had blown off, revealing a moonless, starry night.
In the bright-lit master bedroom, Artie and Billie were going at it atop the bedspread. He was riding her good. Nick was watching from the gazebo as his date fucked a guy ten years younger, and half his size.
Poke Island relied on the Sheriff for police services, but there was no deputy stationed there during off-season, and bad cell service anyway. Taylor imagined that even he and Artie together would have lasted less than a minute in a fight with Nick.
A strip show.
Nick stomped down the gazebo steps and into the star-lit night.
Taylor was spooked. He’d have been less worried if the giant had simply stalked into the bedroom and punched Artie. Was Nick going to sleep on the beach? Walk off his anger? Plot to murder them all? Hoping for an ally, Taylor called out: “Hey, Lisa.”
Swigging vodka bottle, Lisa sauntered along the deck, headed for the shadows to drink and brood. “Have fun,” she said.
That left Taylor and Steffie staring at the dark ocean. Taylor was hypnotized by the lapping waves, soft salty air, the breeze, a million bright stars. For Steffie, the sight of the magnificent Milky Way confirmed her belief that the Universe, that Great Mother, gave her children all the gifts they might need. What the grieving Taylor needed right now was comfort.
“Such a sad look on your face,” Steffie said. “I can tell you’re thinking about your mom.”
“Well sure. Every day.”
“It’s hard for you to be out here, I know.”
“It was her favorite place, so … happy and sad.”
The sheriff’s deputy had found his mother’s surfboard. Taylor knew exactly where it had washed up, all dinged from its pounding on the rocks.
“I could get the Ouija board.”
“It won’t help.”
“She was doing what she loved, Taylor. How cool, that you had a surfing mom.”
“You don’t have to be kind, Steffie. I’ve heard all the rumors. Sharks. Riptides. Maybe she had a heart attack while paddling out there. Maybe she ran away with a surf bum to start a new life in Peru. Maybe she got hit by a speedboat. Maybe somebody murdered her. The tongues never stop wagging.”
“Don’t listen to them. I don’t.”
Many lies are told in kindness, and that was one of them. Gossip thrilled Steffie. The rumors about Liz Burns had gotten soap-opera crazy. Liz had been banging surf bums half her age, people said. She’d had a years-long affair with Marco the ferry captain, they said, screwing in the wheelhouse after the night’s tie-up. The nastiest gossip held that she’d re-lit an old flame: the notorious jailbird Butchie Block.
Surely some of those rumors must have found their way to Taylor’s ears. Poor boy. Steffie put an arm around him.
“At least I was grown up,” he said. “It’s harder on my little cousins. She’s like a mom to them. The kids haven’t lost hope and sometimes I … until they find …”
“Poor sad boy. Let Steffie cheer you up.”
She kissed him.
“I’m on the rebound, Stef. I don’t want you to …”
She put a finger to his lips, led him inside to the couch. She pulled the Ouija board out from Artie’s stack of games, and held it in her lap. She lit a candle, closed her eyes, and the flame flickered in the breeze, casting odd shadows. The crashing ocean waves sounded like a background symphony.
“The dead speak to us, Taylor, they do.”
Taylor sat back on the couch, passive, unable to focus.
Steffie muttered and moved the Ouija marker.
“Your mom, I can feel her. She just …” Steffie said with tears in her eyes. “She just wants her son to be happy.”
She unbuckled his belt. He tugged at her goth pants. Pretty soon they were going at it on the couch, quiet but urgent. It was Taylor’s first time in the sack since Karen had dumped him. Steffie’s warmth made him realize how shut down he’d been.
Steffie grunted to an orgasm, almost like he’d hurt her. “I need this so much,” she muttered. She was immediately ashamed of that confession. It revealed the depths of her desperation. She had a million dollars in her love bank, and no one to spend it on.
She and Taylor lay there sweaty and happy until there was a tap on the window above them. Taylor sat up. Steffie did too.
It was Lisa tapping on the window. She was on the deck, naked and alone.
“Such a cute couple,” she said. “You know I’m a Wiccan priestess, right? I could marry you right now. You’d be legal and all. How would you like to be married by a naked drunk witch?”
Steffie whispered to Taylor: “Let’s get married, just as a joke. She won’t remember in the morning.”
“You’d better grab him,” Lisa advised Steffie, “before that little spa tart gets her hands on him.”
“What does that mean?” Taylor demanded.
“Good night to the lovely …” Lisa said and belched … “Couple.” She sat back, out of sight, against the cottage wall.
Steffie sank into the couch and pouted. “The little spa tart?” she said. “Cammie Vang? Are you carrying on with her, Taylor?”
“I have no idea what Lisa’s talking about,” Taylor said. He shouted out the window: “Lisa?” Getting no response, he rummaged the hall closet for a sleeping bag. He removed the cushions from both couches and made a bed on the floor. He zipped open the bag, lay atop it and patted it.
“Down here,” he said.
Steffie curled up next to him and the warmth of his body put her into a hypnotic sleep. She dreamed of flying babies, little angels with wings.
After a while, Taylor, suffering from the drys, got up, stumbled in the dark to fetch a glass of water. He stepped out onto the deck to take a last look at the glorious stars. There lay Lisa, naked, snoring, passed out in the yellow light of the deck lanterns, empty vodka bottle beside her.
Taylor snatched a pillow from the living room and positioned it underneath her head. She began breathing easier. He covered her with a sandy beach blanket, retreated to the living room, and settled in beside the sweetly sleeping Steffie.
When Taylor woke up to daylight, Steffie was gone. There in the tangled sleeping bag lay the Ouija board. Taylor picked it up, stepped out onto the deck. Staring at the ocean, he began to once again convince himself that his mom had drowned, pure and simple. Okay, Marco the ferry captain, who’d never become a citizen, got spooked when the cops questioned him. The town gossips wanted a juicy murder and focused on this single fact: The lazy captain had skipped the last ferry run that night.
But there was a simple explanation: Maybe Marco had assumed there was nobody left on the island, and just didn’t bother with that last run. Then, when Liz Burns went missing, Marco went to ground in fear of the immigration police. That did not amount to murder.
Liz Burns spent hours in the ocean every day, and she drowned. That’s what Taylor could accept, and that was heartbreak enough. He flung the stupid Ouija board toward the ocean.
When Taylor walked back into the cottage, Lisa was emerging from the shower, wrapped in a green towel.
Lisa’s recovery begins with a morning shower.
“How’s your head?” Taylor asked.
“Fuck you, Taylor.”
“Good morning to you too. Where’s Artie?”
“Down at the pier, fishing.”
“How about …”
“The lovely couple?” She barged past him and lunged into the kitchen, desperate for coffee. “I woke up to Billie and Nick, bickering. They walked out to catch the first ferry. Gee, I wonder what they argued about?”
Taylor scoffed. “I guess Billie does as she pleases. The big galoot is just a play toy.”
“The big galoot,” Lisa said, “is Billie’s enforcer.”
“If you’re Billie’s tenant, and you’re late with the rent, you get a visit from Nick. And nobody wants a second visit from Nick.”
Taylor opened the refrigerator door. “I’ll grill burgers for breakfast.”
“I’d prefer Eggs Benedict.”
“Oh, would you?” Taylor said. There was no shop open during the off-season on Poke Island. Hefting a sack of cold burger patties, he said: “So that explains why didn’t Nick crush Artie’s skull last night. He and Billie aren’t a romantic couple.”
“The Bulgarian’s only part-time with Billie. His full-time job is pimp.”
Taylor set the paper-wrapped meat on the table and poured a cup of coffee. “What do you mean pimp?”
“I mean pimp. Google the word, see what pops up.”
“So he runs a whorehouse?”
“Could have been worse.”
“What could have been worse?”
“The party. Imagine if Cammie had showed up.”
“Okay, Lisa, stop with the hints. What’s up?”
“Last night, somebody was sitting in a rusty red pickup truck on the mainland side of the ferry dock.”
“My former colleague, Cammie, the innocent little spa whore. Hey, get busy, I’m starving. Millionaires. And no eggs in the fridge?”
“Cammie was sitting in a truck at the ferry parking lot?”
Lisa nodded. “Alone. She apparently drove to the ferry, was scared off when Billie and Nick boarded.”
“Why didn’t you tell me last night?”
“With Billie sitting right here? Huh. Billie’s furious at Cammie. She walked with no notice.”
“So Billie owns a spa, Cammie gave happy endings, and Nick is a pimp?”
“Grill those burgers, Sherlock. My stomach’s roaring.”
“How much vodka did you drink?”
“Not enough. I’m still me.”
She flashed a serious, pained look at Taylor. “Seventeen months since my last bender. You know how they say you’re going to hate yourself in the morning …?”
Taylor swilled coffee, took a breath of lovely oceanic breeze. His head was only beginning to clear from last night’s booze-drug fest.
“Lisa, I got a massage from Cammie on Tuesday. A few minutes after I left the spa, she texted me, begging me to help her. But she never answered my call or texts.”
“I see,” Lisa said.
“And now poof, she disappears? And Billie’s thug tries to shush talk about her?”
“I think I can help you,” Lisa said. “You know I’m friends with Maggie at the Wonder Bar, right?”
“Yes, I know Maggie.”
“So I’ve heard,” said Lisa.
“What does that mean?”
“Never mind. Look, Wednesday is ladies’ night at the Wonder. Nick’s one of the dancers. When he, uhm, performs, Cammie’s cousin Adora sneaks in. Never talks to anyone. Sits way in the back. Leaves when the show’s over.”
“Adora’s a messenger from the zombie apocalypse. You might want to show up on Wednesday and corner Adora. If anybody knows what’s happened to Cammie, it’s Adora. She’s Cammie’s minder.”
“Yes. She brought Cammie to work and picked her up, like a Mom taking a kindergartner to school. Minder. And that dopey kid needs one.”