Artie’s parents were born into a historic pool of dark money. Tim and Darla Buchanan were not just husband and wife, but distant cousins who shared a common ancestor, the 18th-century smuggler Salty Sam Swenson.
Shipwreck Bay got its name because many a smuggler’s craft had come to grief on its foggy banks, shoals and rocks. The age of steam relocated shipping and smuggling from the bay islands to the Destiny River docks, and gave birth to the Warehouse District. In the 1960s, when container ships debuted, all the action moved 90 miles north, to RiverPorts in The City. Thus ended an era, and Shipwreck Bay became a tourist destination. But the Swenson-Buchanan clan had already amassed a fortune smuggling liquor, weapons and tobacco, and if you looked back far enough, slaves.
Among the prizes of the shadowy Buchanan fortune was “The Cottage” on the south tip of Poke Island. Artie’s clever grandfather, joining in a scheme with neighbors, had donated the surrounding acres to the Shipwreck Bay Shore-Bird Society, thereby relieving themselves of both taxes and pesky beachgoers. The few grandfathered south end cottages were now surrounded by a private sanctuary. No mansion on the mainland was so envied as a humble cottage on Poke Island.
Although the elite had gift-wrapped the South end of Poke Island, and given it to themselves tax free, in the percolating imagination of Billie McGinn, the North end, near the ferry dock, was the future site of her luxury resort. Although commercial real estate was the source of Billie’s wealth and power, lease negotiation was a dull game. The Billie Resort and Hotel? That dream glowed.
“Steffie,” Billie said, “how well do you know Artie Buchanan?”
Steffie, wrangling a spread sheet, looked up from her computer.
Billie slowed it down, as if talking to a child. “How well … do you know … Arthur Buchanan?”
Steffie wasn’t hard of hearing. She needed to buy herself a bit of reaction time. She was well aware that Billie and Artie had gotten it on last weekend, and had been prepared to pretend that it had never happened.
“Because I’m asking,” Billie demanded.
“You know who they are, right? The Buchanans?”
“Everybody knows who the parents are. I’m asking about the son.”
Billie broke away, strode across the polished floors of Summit Realty, passing her harried and intimidated minions. She dropped a binder on the desk of a sub-agent, returned to the reception counter, peered at Steffie’s screen.
“Is that the Crosstown Block?” she asked. “Hmmm. Get me a printout. I’m driving over there this afternoon. Why don’t you want to talk about Artie Buchanan?”
Steffie looked up. “I don’t know him that well. Class clown in high school. Sold weed. I think they expelled him twice but his parents got him back in.” She shrugged. “Recent years, I don’t know, I don’t see him that much. Cops raided his apartment once or twice, all sorts of gossip about that, but it never went to trial. Hasn’t had a job as far as I know and probably doesn’t need one.”
“Text me his phone number.”
She gave Billie a look. “Artie’s?”
“Don’t give me that look, Stephanie.”
“That judgment look.”
“I’m not. Me? I …”
“My private life is private. I’ll be at the Savoy until after lunch, then I’m showing that penthouse and then … “
“You’re getting your hair done at three.”
A warm sense of satisfaction settled into Steffie. She loved to make herself useful. This trait she inherited from her mom, an emergency room nurse, a compulsive lifelong helper.
“Thank you, Stephanie,” Billie said. “You are a treasure. What would I do without you?”
You say that, Stephanie thought, but if you meant it, you’d give me a raise.
Billie, glamorous as a TV host in white crochet dress, swept out the door that led to the underground garage.
Stephanie felt crushed whenever her boss treated her in an offhand manner. She admired Billie, who had been raised in an orphanage, and had leaped the barriers of race, class and gender to become the powerhouse of local real estate. There were rumors that Billie had poisoned her husband, but Steffie didn’t believe them. Instead, she believed that a mixed-race orphan had showed all these privileged white male slugs how to do business in Shipwreck Bay. All those whispers about her being a murderer were simply the rotten fruits of Tree of Envy, as far as Stephanie was concerned.
Since Billie had been an abandoned child, she ought, in Stephanie’s view, to have a natural sympathy for her beaten-down clerk. All Stephanie ever got from Billie were barked orders followed by vague hints that she might be promoted some day. Steffie looked around her shabby cubbyhole and then out into the bright, clean, cheerful room where the licensed agents worked. What was the Universe trying to tell her?
Billie burst back into the office.
“Wrong keys!” she huffed, and flung open a desk drawer.
“Ms. McGinn?” Steffie ventured. “I’ve been wondering whether I’ve earned a raise.”
That stopped Billie as if she were in freeze frame.
“Earned a raise?” Billie said.
Steffie gulped, unable to find voice.
“There’s a market for what you do, Stephanie, and that market determines your salary. You want a raise? Throw off those shackles, get out there, and kick some ass. Hustle up some leads. Take the Realtor’s exam. Because I will not reward inertia.”
Billie dropped a key ring into her purse, stood tall, punched numbers into her cellphone. “Call me, sugar,” she said into her phone, and hustled out the door.
Taylor was looking for distraction on Saturday night, so was happy to get a text from Tasha Wolfe, inviting him to a nightclub. Taylor danced a little but mostly drank wine and schmoozed with friends on the riverfront patio. Tasha took X or something like it and danced for hours. Deep into the night, when she’d worn herself out, she linked arms with him and said: “Forward, my good knight, into the breach.”
“Hungry?” he asked.
“What is this food you speak of? Do you humans need it to live?”
“You will when you crash.”
“Take me to your leader,” she said.
Taylor wanted to go to Diner24 for a late night breakfast, but Tasha seemed eager to get laid. So he hailed a car and escorted her back to his condo.
Upstairs, he made Bloody Marys while she wandered out to the fire escape. It overlooked the old warehouse district along the river. So many of these places had gone condo now, the lofty windows lit here and there, the moonlight giving a bright wash to all that newfound prosperity.
Tasha rested her drink on the ladder steps, ran her hands through Taylor’s hair.
“So lovely, so very, very lovely.”
She was riding high. There was nothing special about Taylor’s hair.
She wrapped him in her arms. She was a strong woman, and her squeeze was not all pleasure.
“Take me inside,” she said.
She ripped off her clothes and lay on his bed, casual and happy, like she lived there. The look on her face was drug-goofy. “Put WartHogg on the speakers,” she muttered.
When Taylor got the music going she shouted over it: “Oh God, I’ve never. This is such a lovely bed. You have such gorgeous lights in this room. Did you ever really look at an LED bulb? I mean really, really look at it? How do you stand it? Doesn’t the beauty of life drive you insane?”
She pulled him into bed and leaped on top. “You know what men like?” she said. “Horny women.”
“You know what women like?” Taylor asked.
“Neither do I.”
Taylor kissed her warm luscious lips. She wouldn’t let go, smothering, her hand at the back of his head, like she hadn’t been kissed for years.
When she finally came up for air she muttered: “Taylor my Taylor, I love you so deeply. We’ll always be friends. Tell me we’ll always be friends. Don’t do anything bad, Taylor, promise me. Be good and we’ll all live forever, I know it now.”
Then they got deep into it. His hands to her soft breasts, lips locked on hers, her purple hair spilled over the bedclothes. She twisted and turned, grabbing his dick, wanting to cram it inside her. He fingered her, gently, she was wet and easy.
“Make me last a long time,” she said. “If only we could stay high and fuck always eternity.”
She came once with a blood-curdling scream, clamped herself to Taylor, breathing like she’d run a marathon.
Eventually she let go, exhausted and sweaty, and pushed him away like he was a leftover meatloaf.
“Oh my God,” she said. “Don’t touch me okay?”
He rolled over, grabbed his Bloody Mary. It had since melted into an orange slop, but he drained it anyway. Tasha jumped up and took a shower.
Taylor fell asleep and didn’t wake up until daylight.
In the morning, Tasha wondered whether an evil chemistry professor had experimented on her body. When she showered, the water cascading over her felt like needles. Her clothes stank, so after she toweled off, she wrapped herself in one of Taylor’s dress shirts and stepped out onto the balcony to refute the dawn.
She was overcome with waves of nausea and self-loathing. Taylor was only her age and look at this jazzy condo, anchored in the heart of the hipster district. Waking up here only made Tasha more aware of her profound failures.
She had followed her father’s vainglorious career path, and not her own impulse to be a serious, ask-kicking journalist. Broadcast was an utterly vapid medium but she meandered into it anyway, with a half-ass Associate’s degree and ambitions of being a female version of her TV-famous dad. Six years later, her dad was dead by his own cowardly hand, and Tasha was eking out $12.25 an hour, enduring one crazy roommate after another. The love of her life, Joey, front man of WartHogg, was permanently on tour. Tasha was haunted by a recurring dream that she was a child wandering in a dark, wet forest, crying Daddy, where are you?
A sudden urge to vomit sent her rushing to the bathroom. She heaved and heaved, then rose to her feet, wriggled out of Taylor’s splattered shirt, rolled it up, stuffed it in the hamper. She backed out of the bathroom wearing only panties, fell to her hands and knees and dry heaved.
“When can you take me home?” she gasped.
“I don’t own a car, remember?”
She arose, wobbly, and plopped on the bed next to him.
“Oh, God, I am so depressed. Look at the weather. I’m gonna be late going in. Look how gray it is out there. Why do I live in this fucking burg anyway?”
Taylor hopped into shorts, sat next to her.
“I’ve gotta go home, get respectable,” she said.
“Tasha, it’s Sunday.”
“Can’t be late.”
“You go to church?”
“Hot line,” she said. “Gotta get there.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Suicide hot line. I volunteer.”
“On Sunday morning?”
“That’s one of the worst times,” she said. “People get desperate when they realize that there’s no God, and pretty soon it’s gonna be Monday.”
“I can tap out a ride for you.”
“I didn’t say I love you last night, did I? Please tell me I didn’t say that. You know who my heart belongs to.”
“Yeah, I know, WartHogg. But what kind of relationship can you have with a touring rock star?”
Her lips curled. “You don’t know the first thing about Joey. He’s from here, for Christ’s sake. We finally have somebody famous from Shit-Wreck Bay.”
Taylor turned his back to the windows and faced her. “There’s something going on between Adora, Cammie, and the Bulgarian. I can’t figure out what.
“Cammie? Who’s that? Remind me. My head is spinning.”
“Steffie gave me a gift card for Billie’s spa. I went in there and Cammie came on to me like she was a prostitute.”
“Then she texted me a cry for help. She doesn’t work at the spa anymore and doesn’t answer her phone. I’m wondering if Billie is a sex slaver.”
“At the Inno-Scents Spa?”
“Doesn’t it all fit? Billie’s running a whorehouse, and Nick does the dirty work. The spa is a recruiting grounds. Cammie’s one of their slaves.”
“Can’t you poke your cop buddies and see what they know?”
“You know I loathe the cops. After what happened to my father? The bullshit they leaked out? They humiliated the whole family.” She sighed. “Why did he do it, Taylor? Why did the Great Leonard Wolf do that to us?”
“I’m sorry,” Taylor said.
“Sorry? I hate that,” Tasha said. “You know what it means? It means: Fuck you, bear your pain alone, I’ve got plenty of my own. Why can’t people just be honest about it?”
“I don’t know what to …” Taylor blurted.
“Look, Taylor, you were away at college, so let me fill you in. Fact: The spa is owned by Summit Property Group, aka Billie McGinn. She poisoned her husband to get her hands on his real estate. Okay? Get it?”
“That’s just a rumor.”
“Years ago Summit owned empty storefronts on a potholed road, now all of a sudden it’s the hip part of town. Just when the properties became valuable, Old Man McGinn developed … gastro-intestinal complications.”
She huffed. “I wouldn’t put anything past Billie. Sex slavery? Yeah, maybe it fits. Okay, give me a few days. Tasha Wolf, girl reporter. I’d love to show up the lazy-ass cops in this town.”
Adora Vang felt dismayed when the blonde and the redhead boarded the ferry. They were chatting away, care free in the sunshine. Meanwhile, Adora, all she ever did was worry.
The redhead was Maggie, that 30-ish cynic who managed the Wonder Bar. The pale freckled blonde was horribly attractive, and cheerleader-perky. Adora believed herself ugly, awful, undesirable, and cursed by the gods. She did not want to be seen by these beautiful women, or by anyone.
She turned her back on both of them, studied the marshy mainland shore, which was receding just like her luck. It was a Tuesday, a week before tourist season, and she had taken a day off work in the hopes of quiet privacy, at the beach tucked into the bird sanctuary.
She let the two women disembark, and then slipped into the sandy shadows of the boarded-up businesses clustered near the dock. She allowed time for those two to walk down the beach, then plodded, head down, along the boardwalk path between the dunes.
Her purpose was to lay down a nice overall tan because this was the summer, Nick promised, that he would deliver her to the shores Varna, Bulgaria. On those storied Black Sea beaches, he claimed, men and women sunbathed without clothing or shame. Tan lines, Nick warned, would reveal her as a clueless American tourist.
She hated attention of any kind. A gangly, shy misfit, Adora hoped at last to belong in Varna, which as Nick described it, was a sunny Asia/Euro paradise, where people were kind and generous. Even her simpleton cousin Cammie would be safe there, Nick promised.
When she finally reached the beach, she was sorry to see that it had also been the destination of Maggie and the Blonde. They were already naked, sharing a blanket and the gentle sunshine. An overturned lifeguard’s rowboat, partly buried in sand, and offered a privacy shield, and Adora settled down behind it. She flapped open a giant towel, stripped, and offered her pale body to the sun.
Through her prescription shades she studied her library book, Beginnings in Bulgarian. She doubted Nick’s claim that everyone in Varna could speak English. She had learned basic phrases of Bulgarian from Nick, but the real horror was the alphabet. It looked like a disastrous collision of Russian, Hebrew and Arabic. She was determined to sound this language out. There was a fair chance she’d spend the rest of her life along the Black Sea, and she didn’t want Bulgarians laughing behind her back.