“Is it fluke season or flounder season?” Tasha asked.
“Flounder,” said Artie.
“I can never remember.”
“I hope I don’t catch any,” said Artie. “I don’t know what to do with them now that Taylor’s not around to cook them. Where the hell is Taylor, anyway?”
He reeled in a slack line, and swung its red lure onto a grotty old beach chair.
“Weirdly warm, ain’t it?” he said. “Freakish. Ocean temp is 68. Bay is warmer, like bath water. I guess global warming’s here to stay.”
Tasha stood her rusty beach bike against a crude wooden gazebo..
“I came over because I need to confide in you, Artie.”
“Confide?” Artie shut one eye and glared at her with the other.
“You’re Taylor’s best friend.”
“Where do I know that name from? Italian girl with an Irish first name.”
“She was the last victim of the Jeff Road killer.”
Artie snapped his fingers. “Right.”
“She was a prostitute.”
“And a BCC student.”
“And Daniel Burns was her teacher, customer and boyfriend.”
Artie crouched to lay his rod across the chair. He looked up at Tasha. “Customer as in…”
“Sex for money.”
“Oh boy. Is that true? Really? Where did you find that out?”
“Not important. I’m working on three scenarios now. Even the most benign is shocking.”
“Go,” said Artie, shielding his eyes from the glaring sun.
“One. Joseph Garland was a customer of Maureen Antonio. He abducted and murdered her, his sixth and final victim. Dan Burns followed the trail of his missing prostitute lover, and that led to Joseph Garland, and the famous fatal confrontation.”
“Wow,” said Artie.
“No, don’t say wow yet. That’s only Scenario One. Scenario two: Maureen Antonio threatened Dan Burns, and said she’d go public with their affair. Dan killed her. Bringing down Joseph Garland, and making it seem like Maureen was his sixth victim, was a cleverly staged coverup.”
“There was something weird about that Jeff road thing all along,” Artie admitted. “The coincidence, I mean. Dan Burns just so happened to…”
“Scenario Three: Dan Burns was the Jeff Road killer. Period. Joseph Garland was the patsy, the sacrificial lamb. Remember the big question mark, Artie. Garland was in county rehab on the night of Ms. Antonio’s murder.”
Artie donned a fishing hat, closed his tackle box and nudged it aside, and, in silence, stared across the bay. A pelican, gliding by, suddenly did a kamikaze dive into the water.
“I’ve done my homework,” Tasha said. “I’ve come up with at least four suspicious ligature murders of prostitutes in Honolulu during the time Dan Burns lived there. All of those women ended up in the ocean.”
“Daniel fucking Burns?” Artie said.
“Yes, Daniel Burns.”
“Serial killer?” Artie said.
“You’re out of your fucking mind, Tasha.”
“I just came from talking to your girlfriend.”
The pelican, floating in the waves, gulped down a fish.
“About this. Cammie worked for Nick and Adora, right? She was a cleaner at the Airliner. For three years, she cleaned up the rooms between clients, right?”
Artie shurgged. “She doesn’t talk about it much.”
“She told me she remembers Dan Burns calling on Maureen.”
“At the motel?”
“At the motel.”
“And all this time she didn’t say anything?”
“She lives in her own world. Come on, you know that. Nobody ever asked her directly. I showed her pictures.”
“Ask her yourself.”
“Daniel fucking Burns. Asshole, yes. But monster?”
“He is a killer Artie. He killed Joseph Garland if nobody else, stalked him and killed him. What if Joseph Garland was an innocent victim of a clever frame?”
“See that’s the part I can’t wrap my head around.”
“Artie. Every serial killer in history, his friends and acquaintances were taken by complete surprise.”
“Whatever you do, leave Cammie out of it. She is not of this world. There is no evil in her.”
He stood up and looked over the sand dunes and toward the cottage. “But put me down as like a skeptic. A big skeptic.”
“Just follow me down this road to the first stop,” Tasha said. “Joseph Garland was one of a dozen suspects for Jeff Road. Cops could never think past his rehab alibi. Dan Burns was not getting along with Liz Burns. For sexual release he turned to a student, who dropped out and became a prostitute. That student, Maureen Antonio, fell into the clutches of Joseph Garland. That’s how Dan came to focus on Garland. Maureen’s frantic parents, thinking Dan was only her police science teacher, hired him to investigate the case of their missing daughter. He figured out her last date was with Garland, broke into the house, found the sick stash of souvenirs, shot it out with Garland. But he couldn’t reveal his relationship with Maureen. So that’s why he played the modest, reluctant hero. All he’s really guilty of is porking a student, and covering it up. Can you buy that?”
“Sure. He was always a prick to me. Sure, I can go there.”
“Good, because I have two witnesses linking Maureen and Dan Burns.”
Artie stared seaward for a long time. “Tasha, come with me,” he said.
He walked off toward the cottage.
“Come on,” he said and beckoned her.
Artie led her along a creaking boardwalk to the cottage, and then slipped into the shade underneath its piers.The sun hadn’t shone here in the 96 years since the cottage had been constructed. The sand was damp and moldy underfoot. The only structure inhabiting that dark forest of piers was a set of tall lockers with rusty hinges.
He opened one of the doors. It creaked. “Her wetsuits. Her boards. Still here. Sometimes I expect her to come back for them.”
Artie sat on a wooden bench, and looked down at his bare feet.
“I didn’t like her, to be honest.”
Artie shook his head. “You can smell the rot down here, can’t you?”
Tasha leaned on a pier for support. Oh my god, she was thinking, Artie Buchanan is going to confess to the murder of Liz Burns. She slipped her hand into her purse and fumbled for her cell phone, hoping to turn on its audio recorder.
“Liz was a straight arrow. She told the cops I was a drug dealer. That drug raid took like ten years off my life. But she was Taylor’s mom so I pretended I didn’t suspect her. And even though she believed I was leading her son to ruin, still, she needed somewhere to store her boards. It really is hard to lug a board out here in the off season, and a good surfer needs different boards for different conditions.”
“Okay,” Tasha said. “And…” She flicked on her cellphone recorder.
“Tasha I have something to tell you. It’s all going to come out now.”
Tasha moved toward him, stood behind him, hands on his shoulders, gentle massage.
“I never told the police everything,” Artie said.
“I know. Tell me now and get it all out.”
“I told the cops I last saw her at sunset. But she came around later. Much later. She’d been trapped on the island when Marco skipped the last ferry run. I didn’t know that then. I was here alone, watching West Coast hoops. Randall started barking like crazy. It was just about 11 at night, dark as hell. I wasn’t scared because I was loaded. I didn’t even get off the couch. She came to the door.”
“What was she wearing?”
“I don’t know, clothes. It was dark. I was stoned. She said she missed the ferry, did I have my satellite phone? You know how I hate to pay bills. I told Liz I forgot to pay, the satellite company cut me off. She seemed angry about that. Like it’s just the kind of incompetent thing she expected from me. I said you can have the spare bedroom. She said no thanks but is it okay if I sleep in the gazebo? I love listening to the waves, she said. I gave her a quilt and a pillow. I went back and like passed out on the couch.”
“Keep going, Artie, don’t lose courage now.”
“I woke up with Randall barking again. I heard voices out there. Liz Burns and a man. Were they arguing? Hard to tell. The voices faded and I walked out there. It was foggy. I saw two figures underneath the pier lights. A couple of minutes later I heard oars in locks. Then I saw a sneakboat slipping away from the pier and into the fog.”
“That’s really truly the last I saw her.”
Tasha let go of his shoulders, walked around and stood angry in front of him. “You kept this information to yourself because…”
“Jesus, Tasha don’t be so judgmental.”
“Your tone. I never figured which of them hated me more, Taylor’s mom or his dad. They broke into the house like I was a terrorist.”
“Who broke in to your house?”
“The cops! I’m talking about the drug raid. They ripped the place up and almost shot Randall. I had every reason to hate her. I had every reason for revenge. How would it look if I told this story to the Sheriff? Oh yeah sure she came here around midnight and then went away with a dark stranger, disappearing into the fog. You know what the cops would have said? Sure pal, you’re under arrest.”
“So if you claim you last saw her at sunset, it would seem like Marco was the last to see her alive.”
“Something like that.”
“Arthur Buchanan,” Tasha shook her head, for a moment speechless.
Artie stood up, walked out into the sunlight, looked up at his cottage. Tasha came up beside him, her purple hair flying in the sea breeze.
“Who was the man who took Liz Burns away that night?”
“I honestly don’t know.”
“Somebody paddled over to the island, and on the pretense of rescuing her, rowed her out into the bay and killed her. Now think, Artie, who would she trust enough that she would get into that boat.”
“I know what you’re thinking.”
“Or, one of her boyfriends. Everybody said she was spreading herself around.”
Artie shrugged. “Can’t be sure. Heavy fog on the bay that night. Even if I’d told the real story to the cops, it wouldn’t have helped. There’s no way I can be sure who she went off with.”
“Have you paid your satellite bill?”
“I’m on the annual plan now.”
“Can I use the phone?”
“Not if you’re going to call the cops.”
“Oh, Artie, you know how I feel about cops.”
Artie climbed the sun-bleached wooden stairs to the gazebo. Tasha overheard a brief mumbled conversation between him and Cammie, then he returned with the satellite phone, handed it to Tasha, and lit a doobie.
“Stephanie? It’s Tasha. Yes, I’m out on the island but … is Taylor around?”
“Have you heard the news?” Stephanie asked.