Every day since he’d shot Butchie Block, Taylor Burns had lived in a personal dungeon, cowering in fear of a phone call. When it finally came, a climax to two months of paranoia, guilt and shame, he felt almost relieved. His phone rang from a blocked number and somehow he knew: this was it.
So he let it go to voice mail.
“Taylor Burns, this is Deputy Blanchard with the Bayside County Sheriff. We have obtained new information that we need to assess. Call me as soon as possible.”
“New information?” Steffie Voss said.
“It’s a trick,” said Taylor, and flung his cellphone.
Taylor was lying in her bed, mostly under quilt. He had not worked, nor spent much time in his own home, in the last two months. His companions in the bed were a bottle of expensive bourbon and the TV remote control.
Steffie is getting ready for work. Taylor, not so much.
Steffie, getting dressed for work, hoped to rouse him before she left. He was absolutely capable of staying in bed all day.
She rolled sheer stockings up her legs. Dress for success, her new theme for Fall. If you dress like a clerk, you’ll always be a clerk, but if you dress like an Executive …
“Whatever you do, Taylor, don’t go down there without a lawyer.”
She locked eyes with him, serious, determined. She had schemed since 7th grade to claim this man, and she wasn’t going to let the Sheriff take him away in handcuffs.
“It’s Artie,” Taylor guessed. “They caught him with drugs, and he’s cutting a deal. I can feel it.”
Steffie sat on the bed, lay her left hand on his chest.
“Artie doesn’t know. You didn’t break down and tell him, did you? No? So he can’t cut a deal, can he?”
The logic of that seemed to almost penetrate Taylor’s frightened psyche. He sighed. “What does she mean, new information?”
“Get a lawyer. I’ll ask Billie for some references, she knows every shark in town. Taylor, look at me. There’s only four people who know, and two of them are right here in this room.”
“He’s going to remember, Steff. Sooner or later …”
“Taylor, pull yourself together. Cook me a nice low-calorie dinner. I’ll be home at five sharp. Whatever you do, do not go down there without a lawyer.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
She leaned over to kiss him.
He played with her long hair. It smelled like flowers. From a bedside table drawer he lifted a bottle of Xanax.Artie had obtained a huge supply from a crooked doctor in The City. With Artie’s help, Taylor could stay numb until this whole nightmare passed. He popped the bottle’s lid and said, “Want one?”
“No and you shouldn’t either.”
Taylor put the tiny pink pill on his tongue, then swallowed with a pull of bourbon straight from the bottle.
She slapped his hand. “Not when you’re drinking!”
Steffie lay across the quilt and held him tight. Here in her arms was a man who made her feel something special, she was unable to say exactly why. She had first noticed Taylor when they both were twelve, roaming the boardwalk at East Island, she with her gang of girls and he with a group of nerdy boys. The East Island Boardwalk was a teenagers paradise, lined with rides and game arcades, and storefronts that sold pizza, candy apples, fried clams, steak sandwiches, tacos, frozen custard.
As the boys taunted the girls that day, Taylor stood apart, quiet, and some mystical spirit moved within Steffie. She walked up to him and boldly asked:
Don’t you like girls?
Of course I like girls.
Well, don’t be so shy, then.
She was heartbroken to learn he lived in Hawaii with his Air Force family, and was only in Shipwreck Bay for the summers. Four years later, the Burns family moved back to Shipwreck, which thrilled Steffie until Taylor took up with the brazen skinny loudmouth, Karen Slater. Junkyard Karen! From that awful family!
Although Steffie had attracted occasional admirers, none touched the core of her being. She was a mystic at heart, and trusted her feeling that she and Taylor were destined to be together.
And now, the love of her life was slipping into a drugged slumber beside her. She would monitor his breathing. If it got ragged she would call her mom, who’d been a nurse for thirty years. But it would take an emergency to prompt that call. Mom was no fool, and Steffie did not want to answer her inevitable questions.
As long as Taylor was breathing okay, Steffie would just watch. She removed the bottle of Xanax and slid it under the bed. Yes, there were only two other people who knew the Big Secret, and those two had good reason to keep it. If Taylor didn’t break down and confess, he’d never be caught.
She slipped out of bed, retreated into the kitchen area of her cramped, messy basement apartment, and phoned Penny LaFero. “Where are you?”
“Downtown, in the Annex, why?”
“Are you busy?”
“Is Deputy Bitch there?”
“What do you want, Steffie?”
“Who has she got in custody? What’s she up to?” Steffie lowered her voice to a whisper. “We got a phone call.”
A bolt of fear hit Steffie. Penny and Taylor had been spotted together around town, earlier in the summer. Was it more than flirtation? Would Penny be jealous if she learned that Taylor had more or less moved in to Steffie’s apartment?
“I just bumped into Taylor,” Steffie lied.
“I don’t know, Steffie, why do you … I can’t be … never mind, I’ll call you back, okay?”
Steffie returned to the bed, clutched Taylor’s wrist, timed his pulse, 56 and strong. He flinched, swatted at something invisible, turned on his side.
Steffie finished dressing, in gray business tones, and walked out into the hallway, then up the stairs to the daylight, where people hustled by on their daily missions. She felt the need to be in the light, the air. She crossed the busy street and stood at the windows of a drug store, looking at her own reflection. She turned and looked toward her apartment. The love of her life, in the most serious possible trouble, drowning in sorrow, guilt and depression, how could she help him?
Her phone rang.
In hushed tones, Penny said: “It’s Marco Gonzales. Remember, the ferry man? They brought him in last night. He’s been in federal lock-up. He was in the chat room for three hours. That’s all I know. I’m going back to the Annex now. Don’t call, don’t text, don’t get me in trouble, okay?”
Marco Gonzales. Whose negligence or worse had stranded Liz Burns on Poke island on her last night on earth. Marco, who, everyone assumed, had slinked back to Central America.
Marco Gonzales. The women of Crosstown knew what so many of its men were blind to. Marco was a leering, grabby jerk who believed he was sexy, who came on to women he barely knew, and was full of crude suggestions. The ferry was a small launch, really, and sometimes ran nearly empty, and some women would not ride it alone with Marco. It had been a great relief last summer when he’d been replaced by the good-natured gentleman Julio.
Marco Gonzalez. Steffie could imagine it. Taylor’s mom, Liz Burns, surfing fanatic, staying late on the island for the sunset swells. Liz riding alone on the last ferry, the 10:15 run. Some kind of heinous assault and then Marco pushing her body overboard into the outgoing tide.
Marco Gonzales, confessing to murder now, more than a year later.
She ran to her apartment, unsteady in high heels. She pushed in and shook Taylor awake. “It’s Marco they’ve got in custody, Taylor. It’s not about Butchie. It’s Marco. It’s about your mom.”
Sheriff Joe Walter stood for election every two years, and had survived the last one by a margin of 173 votes. He was always surveying the political landscape for rivals. The latest was his deputy, Homicide Detective Bonnie Blanchard. She’d made no overt moves, but obtaining a Master’s Degree and making progress on high-profile cases were two flashing red lights.
Sheriff Joe made a gray, gruff, deep-voiced, macho figure, dressed in rough sweater, looking like a football coach, which he was before he ran for Sheriff. He sat across from Taylor Burns in the “chat room.” Deputy Blanchard, in her leather jacket, stood off to one side. The sheriff played a video on his beat-up laptop, without comment, a neutral look on his face. The laptop showed, in black and white, the looming figure of Deputy Blanchard, and the lumpen face and body of Marco Gonzalez.
So on the night of May 23, 2017, you did not make the scheduled 10:15 ferry run?
Yes you made it or no you didn’t?”
I did not make it.
What did you do instead?
I went into a camper van.
You docked your ferry for the night??
You locked the ferry up and secured it with ropes?
As you would ordinarily secure it after the final run?
What time did you tie up?
Just after the 10 o’clock run.
And then what did you do after you tied up?
I went into the camper van like I told you.
Where was this van when you entered it?
In the parking lot. At the edge under the trees there by the old warehouse.
Why did you go into the camper van?
She asked me.
Who asked you?
What was this girl’s name?
I never asked.
What did the camper van look like?
It was white, and nice inside.
Did it have a bed inside?
Yes. A bed, very fancy, like a nice motel.
Was there anyone inside this van when you entered?
Did the girl enter the camper bedroom with you?
What did you do then?
I had a drink.
What kind of drink?
Whiskey and coffee, very strong, Irish coffee, I think.
Where did you get this drink?
The girl gave it to me.
Did you know this girl?
Describe this girl.
She was a dark Chinese girl. She had black hair. That’s all I remember.
Then what did you do after you had a drink in the van?
I made love to this girl.
What time did this happen?
Like I said, after ten.
What did you do after you made love to this girl?
I stepped outside of the van.
And what time did you step out?
I don’t know.
Did you pay this girl money?
Had you ever seen this girl before?
Let the record reflect that Mr. Gonzales has been shown photos of known prostitutes, and failed to identify any of them as the female in question. Mr. Gonzales, what did you do after you made love to this female and then left the van?
I don’t know. I felt sleepy. I let myself into the waiting room and slept in a chair.
You slept in the ferry terminal waiting room? For how long?
Until 1 a.m. or so.
What happened to the camper van?
It drove away fast.
Did you see who was driving the van.
Did you know the driver.
Did you know him by name.
Sheriff Walters tapped the computer and it went dark in mid-interview.
“Your father hasn’t heard this,” he said. “I heard he’s flying …”
“Yes,” Taylor said. “Air Force reunion in South Carolina.”
“What do you have to add to this?” asked the Sheriff.
“You mean, what I ….”
“Have you had any contact with Marco Gonzales in the last six months?”
Taylor felt like he’d taken a wrecking ball in the gut. The true answer was yes, but Taylor was afraid of the truth. The Sheriff sat back and crossed his arms. Deputy Burns shuffled behind him.
“Take your time,” said the Sheriff. “Think over your answer very carefully.”
“I think I need a lawyer,” Taylor blurted.
The Sheriff’s face sagged into a tired, cynical smile. “I suppose so.”
He gave Deputy Blanchard a look that said: Mission accomplished, and walked out of the room. The Deputy plopped herself in that seat, opposite Taylor.
“When is the last time you saw Butchie Block?” she asked.
“At a party.”
“At Artie Buchanan’s, the night he was shot.”
“What was Mr. Block doing when you last saw him?”
Taylor threw up his arms as if that were an absurd question. “Drinking a beer, talking to people, I don’t know.”
“Look, I was kind of bombed, okay? I’ve answered all these questions twice.”
“The sheriff asked to examine my Ruger pistol, and I gave it to him voluntarily, and he still hasn’t given it back. I don’t think you people have treated me fairly, and if I’m not free to go, I want a lawyer.”
“You can go for now,” Bonnie said. “Stay in touch.”