“The society I always hated,” said Butchie Block, “has took great care of me.”
Butchie made this pronouncement from the deck of Artie Buchanan’s seaside cottage. His face wore a benign look, as if he had dog-paddled through an ocean of ignorance to wash up, at last, on the shores of wisdom.
Butchie relaxed in umbrella shade, overlooking the ocean, which was as calm as a duck pond. The weather-beaten boardwalk felt warm under his tough, bare feet. This summer he’d endured he most painful months of his life. But today, a sunny September Saturday, the doctor’s drugs were working, and Butchie began to sense the glow of a future.
Across from Butchie sat freelance journalist Tasha Wolf. Her hair was long, tangled, a garish purple. She wore a loose camisole top that revealed her cleavage. That gave some guys a hard-on, but not Butchie. It would be a while until Butchie’s male equipment worked as God intended.
On a glass-top table lay a sweating pitcher of ice water, a Bloody Mary, and Tasha’s cellphone, recording their conversation.
“Just tell me what you remember,” Tasha said.
Butchie scoffed. He squirmed in his chair. That movement aroused lightning bolts of pain, which seemed to shoot from his red ugly scars. A long scar ran down the center of his torso, screeching to a halt at his belly button. A smaller round scar, the size of a quarter, lay just under his left armpit. He removed his t-shirt so Tasha could photograph those scars, and, what the hell, gawk at the manly Block physique.
“You’d think I’d remember the bad stuff,” Butchie said,
“but mostly it’s all good.” He lit a cigarette. “Except that I took up smoking. Shit’s bad for me, but I still do it.” He coughed. “I woke up, sort of. It was like a hazy dream. This beautiful blonde was bent over me. I thought, man, I have died and she’s a female Jesus. See, I hadn’t … I was still all doped up. The pain hadn’t started yet. I didn’t know all this shit was coming at me.”
He blew smoke into the still air, and turned to look down the beach. Artie Buchanan and his girlfriend were picking their way along the hot sands. His girlfriend waved, cheerful. Artie was carrying long white paper bags. Sandwiches! Ever since he’d been shot, Butchie had endured episodes of ravenous appetite, followed by nausea, vomiting and again by hollow, pulsing hunger.
“No, I meant,” Tasha said, “the day you were shot. The exact moment. What do you remember?”
“Girl, I already told you. I was blasted on some heavy shit, I don’t remember.I was doing a lot of dope in those days.” He laughed, which sent ripples of pain through his chest. “I still am, but now it’s legal. I remember getting off the ferry that day, and riding the jitney, and a big party. Next thing, blonde nurse, blue blouse, gigantic tits.”
Tasha’s free hand rose as if to shield her breasts.
“They don’t know how long I lay on the beach bleeding,” Butchie said. “I have no fucking idea. They said I held used my t-shirt to hold in my own guts. A chopper came to pick me up? I have no fucking clue.” He tapped cigarette ashes over the rail. “Now what are you going to put in your article? Careful, because that’s not what I told the cops.”
“What did you tell the cops?”
“Didn’t you do your homework, girl? Itold the cops it was a black guy. Just to throw them off.”
“You lied to the cops?”
“Of course I lied to the cops.” Butchie laughed. “You’re supposed to lie to the cops. I told them check out the Black Brotherhood from Stateville. Those guys’ll kill you, in or out of prison. Hey, don’t make faces, baby. Even if I can’t remember, chances are, it really was a Brotherhood dude. Never forget, never forgive, that’s their motto. You think America’s a racist nation? Huh. Go to prison. You won’t have to think. You’ll know.”
He stubbed the cigarette out on the wooden railing.
“My money’s on the Black Brotherhood. That’s all I’m saying.” He tried to stand, winced, and shouted over the railing: “Hey Artie! Dying of hunger up here.”
Artie Buchanan and Cammie Vang climbed the steps from warm beach sand to shady cottage deck. Arties slapped a grease-stained white bag on the glass-top table and said: “Whatcha drinking?”
“For now? Ice water,” said Butchie. “You know what the doctor told me? You feel a panic attack coming on, drink a beer. Can you believe that? I gotta be told to drink beer now?”
“I’ll take another Bloody Mary,” said Tasha. “Reminder. No Worcestershire.” She wrinkled her nose. “Contains anchovies.”
Artie looked up as three brown pelicans glided over the cottage.
“My favorite birds,” Artie said. “They just glide on the breeze. You hardly ever see ‘em flap.”
He opened the French door to the kitchen, and Cammie followed him in. Butchie appraised her. Yep, she was a hot babe. Adorable pixie haircut. Cute innocent face. Shy and quiet, she could hardly look you in the eye.
“Artie finally done all right for himself,” Butchie told Tasha. “About time, too. Guy with all that money ought to be drowning in babes.”
Butchie tore into the torpedo-shaped sandwich like he hadn’t eaten since he’d been shot. Tasha made grim journalist-on-a-mission faces as she typed into her cellphone.
Artie returned with a Bloody Mary. Butchie, in between attacks on that sandwich, sipped ice water as he downed pills from three prescription bottles.
“I mean, until I got shot,” Butchie said, “I never realized people could be so good. Think of it, man. Medics flew airlift me to the hospital. Doctors operated. Nurses, therapists, all trying to help a no-good criminal like me. A whole lifetime, I thought people sucked. Cops still suck. Lawyers still suck. But I gotta say, lame motherfucker that I am, living on pain pills and government disability, it took getting shot to wake me up to what do they call it, the milky human kindness.”
Artie sat across from Butchie. He tore off a hunk of tuna sandwich, walked to the end of the deck and set it on the rail.
“Pelican bait,” he said. “You’ll see.”
“Free lunch,” said Butchie.
“Every meal’s free when you’re a pelican,” said Artie.
“By the way, Artie” Butchie said, “I ain’t seen our wimp friend Taylor around. He don’t need to be afraid. Remind him Butchie’s not playing the game no more. That geek don’t owe me no money, even though I squeezed a confession out of Marco. But remind him that I was right all along. I knew before the cops did. And where’s Marco now? They shipped him to … Honduras, right?”
“Let’s talk about that,” said Tasha, and pushed her cellphone across the glass toward Butchie. “Let’s talk about the murder of Liz Burns. I should say, the presumed murder.”
Butchie popped a hot pepper into his mouth, swallowed and said: “No matter what people say, I didn’t do nothing to Liz Burns. We had a thing a long time ago. She was a real hottie. Then she married the Air Force dude. Over and done with. I did some shit things when I was younger. Who didn’t? But Liz was good people. Didn’t have an enemy in the world.”
He lifted his chin toward Artie. “There’s a man who knows I didn’t do nothing to Liz.”
Artie, jawing down a sandwich fragment, nodded, but wasn’t so sure. Butchie was one mean son of a bitch back when he ran with the Monroe Street Gang.
Butchie said:“Marco was telling the truth all along. It was the Bulgarian tricked him into skipping that ferry run. Why? To trap Liz on the island and do her dirt. Trace that back. Who does it go to? Who’s the Bulgarian’s boss? Billie McGinn, looks to me, but I ain’t no detective.”
He twisted the white sandwich paper into a tortured shape. “Way I figure it was all about your friend Taylor. He inherits that lot up near the ferry pier, right? Happens to lay between two properties owned by Billie. Liz would have never sold the land but different story if Taylor inherits it. Taylor could be talked into selling it, tight? Bingo. Bulgarian’s got no motive, but Billie’s got the crown jewel. Put that in your story.”
“I can’t print unfounded accusations,” Tasha said.
“Unfounded?” Butchie said. “What’s that mean? People kill people for a reason. I just gave you a reason. The Bulgarian tricked Marco. The Bulgarian was Billie’s stooge. Both Marco and the Bulgarian left town. Why? Because they’re guilty as sin. The Bulgarian might turn up some day or they might find him in a shallow grave. Don’t forget Billie poisoned her old man back in the day. Why? To get her cold, cold hands on his real estate.”
“See,” said Artie. “I told you Butchie’s got good in him.”
“Damn right,” said Butchie.
“He’s trying to help,” said Artie, “and the cops just blow him off.”
Butchie groaned. “Man, the fucking pain. Any bad things I done, whew, what do you call this, karma? I’m getting mine now. That’s okay. Fair’s fair. I gotta live without a spleen and half a pancreas. I’ve put the hurt on a few people, I admit it, although they fucking deserved it. But bygonners are bygonners. I got pain they tell me might never go away.” He winced. “Whatever you do, don’t get gut-shot.”
A pelican landed on the deck rail, scooped up the hunk of tuna sandwich, and flew off.
“I think I recognize that one,” claimed Artie. “She lives over behind the dunes.”
“Would you …” Tasha asked Butchie, and sipped her Bloody Mary, “do me a favor and walk out to the rocks. To the place where you were found? I think it would make an awesome photo.”
“I don’t do that,” said Butchie. “It’s bad voodoo. The old Butchie, he died in that sand, he bled, shit his pants, puked and died. That whole bad week, I don’t remember nothing from it too much, and I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t want to.”
“Okay, then…” Tasha said.
“I don’t want to be the bad guy anymore. I don’t want people to say I drowned somebody’s mother. I don’t care whether the cops help me or not. I’m going to track down the asshole who killed Liz Burns. I say it was Billie McGinn, but whoever it was, I’m going to march their sorry asses up the courthouse steps. Okay? Print that. Call me Butchie the Avenger. Print that and I’ll make it happen.”
He spun his pack of cigarettes on the table like it was the pointer in a wheel of fortune. It pointed toward the mainland. “And don’t forget Liz’s husband. Dan. He’s a prick too. I wouldn’t rule him out, neither.”
Cammie pushed through the French door and handed Artie a note on a scrap of white paper. Whatever it said made Artie’s face light up in pleasure.
“Oh yeah,” said Artie, and kissed her hand. “I almost forgot, honey.”
“You two,” Butchie said, “make a cute couple. Don’t they Tasha? Don’t they make a good couple?’
Tasha, cellphone to her face, snapped photos of Butchie Block, the Wounded Avenger.
Penny LaFero led Tasha to the spot. She stood on that magic border, neither land nor ocean, where wave after exhausted wave bubbled and foamed, the mighty Atlantic defeated by a sandbar. Penny’s pale, bare feet made deep footprints in sand so warm it felt tropical.
“Right here,” said Penny. “I thought it was a turtle. The water was so cold then. That was in like July, right? Fifteen, forty-five, sixty, sixty-nine days ago. I was looking for turtles. Oh my God. I’m a lieutenant in the Turtle Guardians. Didn’t you do an article on the Turtle Guardians once? In Shipwreck Currents right, didn’t you used to work there?”
Tasha checked to make sure her cellphone was set to audio recording. She didn’t want to have to interview this airhead again.
“So you shined your infrared flashlight down and…”
“There he was, crawling on the beach, it was dark, he was all lit up in red, just like a turtle but without the shell.”
“And you recognized him?”
Penny’s hand rose to her freckled chest. “God no, I ran back to get Artie.”
“And the whole gang of us rushed out here, and Artie, you know, he has a satellite phone so he ran off to make a call and the rest of us stood around gaping and finally you know Stephanie Voss, right, well Stephanie sits down in the wet sand and puts Butchie’s head in her lap and strokes him and purrs like she was a mother cat and then I realized it was Butchie Block.”
“Did he say anything?”
“He was choking and gagging oh my God you should have heard it I thought his guts were going to come up and then I saw he was bleeding into the sand and I thought my God he’ll never make it and then I saw the winking red light of the helicopter and it got bigger and bigger and then the noise and the wind it was like a sandstorm and then everything lit up bright and I had to turn away or go blind. You know what I mean?”
“So the helicopter took him away … he didn’t say who’d shot him?”
Penny shook her head.
Artie and Cammie relax in the Love Tub.
“You worked with the Sheriff’s department this summer, right?”
“Oh, you mean the Jeff Road study? We were kind of focusing on the data, like how come the pervert had four victims before anyone knew or cared that he was killing those…”
“The whole Jeff Road thing,” Tasha said, “Something bothers me about it. You studied it. Does anything bother you?”
“Because the girls were all prostitutes, you mean?”
“No, that’s not it. It’s been three years since I broke that story and, still sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night, thinking. I have those dreams, the kind where you’re going to college and you missed an important lecture.”
Penny’s blank look suggested she’d never had one of those dreams.
“Okay, on the Butchie thing,” Tasha said. “Do you think the cops have any theories …”
“The Sheriff, I don’t think he gives a goddamn, excuse my French, I went by the break-room one time and they were toasting with coffee cups to whoever shot Butchie Block,the shooter is like a secret hero to the sheriff, saves the sheriff a lot of aggravation, Butchie was nothing but trouble to them.”
“There’s a couple of guys out on parole they’re looking at. I kinda lost track.”
“I don’t think Butchie’s telling us everything,” Tasha said. “He seems pretty shrewd to me. Here’s what I think about. Liz Burns disappeared from this very shore. Butchie Block was shot on those rocks. When the Jeff Road killer was on the loose, the corpses of six young women washed down the river and …” she whirled to look … “surfaced in this bay right behind us. Why so much mayhem in this one little spot?”
“So they have no suspects?”
“I want to call this Tragedy Point in my article. What do you think?”
Getting no response, Tasha tried again. “Think of all the ships that went down in this bay. There’s something weird about it.”
“It’s like, there’s so many, you know, you’ve gone to Artie’s parties, there’s so much drinking and drugging and wild things going on out here, I’m kind of surprised it isn’t even worse I mean at least this summer nobody drowned. Five, six, seven. I went to seven parties here this summer.”
Tasha thanked Penny for the interview, tapped her phone to halt the recording, and dropped it into her beat-up straw beach bag. She padded through the sand and up to the narrow boardwalk, where a rusted beach bike lay against a post. She turned to look at Penny. Hardly more than a child, Penny was the perfect, perky, blond cheerleader type, with a model’s body. Studying at an expensive Catholic college. Rich parents lived up on Holy Hill. A blonde magnet for guys. She had everything Tasha lacked, and she didn’t know it. Penny was headed for a comfortable life, the token pretty blonde at some law firm, complete with six figure lifestyle. Tasha was a freelance desperado, hoping to pick up a quick $100 writing a spec story for a give-away newspaper.
Make that $150 if they put it on the cover.
Tasha huffed and sweated, pedaling hard on a rough sandy boardwalk.
Overhead, a flight of pelicans glided easy on the breeze.