As Taylor stepped out of his condo lobby he expected to see his MyRide, but a dark maroon sheriff’s car waited at the curb. Against its fender leaned Deputy Bonnie Blanchard, looking smug. Taylor felt like he’d grabbed a live electric wire.
“We need to talk,” she said. “Downtown.”
Taylor rode in the back, where the criminals ride. The deputy didn’t say a thing on the way in. Once in the sheriff’s office, she escorted him through a grubby corridor that looked like it belonged in a deadbeat high school. She opened the door to a gray interrogation room, and locked him in, all by himself.
He fidgeted. He checked his phone. But the cell service was blocked. Great! He played chess on the phone, lost to the computer in 22 moves. He looked at the clock. He drummed the table. No doubt the deputies were watching him. If you’re ever in custody, his father had warned, remember: The police are your enemies.
He paced the room, sat down, looked up at the spy cam and shouted: “Am I under arrest or what?”
Finally he lay his head on the table like a kindergarten kid taking a nap. He looked up when he heard the door open.
In the hallway, Deputy Bonnie whispered something to the gruff-looking Sheriff Joe Walter. Then the deputy walked in, alone, holding a thick folder.
“So,” she said, “Taylor Burns, on the day of your mother’s disappearance …”
“Is this being recorded?”
“Would you object to that?”
He cleared his throat. “All right. I took the ferry to Poke Island.”
“No, I was with my fiance, Karen Slater.”
“Interesting,” Bonnie said. “The scrapyard family, right?”
“Uhm-hmm,” Bonnie said.
“What does that mean?”
“Why were you on Poke Island that day?”
“Well, it was crab season. Karen and I wanted lunch at Aunt Crabby’s. So … It’s not criminal to run a junkyard, is it?”
“Do you know Butchie Block?”
“I know who he is.”
“We’ll come back to that. Let’s talk about what you were doing on the island. There are seafood restaurants on the mainland.”
“Sure, but, there’s something about eating crab with the waves lapping at your feet.”
“I don’t eat seafood,” she said.
“So Karen and I had lunch. She ordered a crab salad. I ate a crabcake sandwich. We drank one cocktail each, walked the beach, went home.”
“Did you see your mother at any time during that day?”
“Did you know she was on the island?”
“Not specifically, no.”
“What did you do when you left Aunt Crabbys?”
“I told you. We walked the beach. We caught the ferry. We went back to our condo. Period.”
“What time did you catch the ferry home?”
“Two thirty maybe.”
“And what time did you catch the ferry that took you to the island that morning?”
“Eleven thirty? Karen can vouch for all this. You can call her in California.”
“Uh huh.” The deputy wasn’t interested. “What did you do when you got back to the mainland?”
“Karen went to work …”
“I asked what you did.”
“Went home. Kind of napped. Did a computer work out on the deck.”
“You can work from home?”
“I made a sandwich. Streamed a couple of videos. A night off, you know.”
“What did you watch?”
“I couldn’t really find anything, just a bit of this and that.”
“A little after 11 I got a MyRide out to Diner24. I have a record of that ride, I turned it over to detective Townsend …”
“And what did you do at Diner24?”
“Had a late snack with Karen. We got home via MyRide at exactly 12:37.”
“When did you learn your mother was missing?”
“About seven in the morning.”
“How did you learn that?”
“My father called.”
“And what did he say?”
“The whole family has been over this many times.”
“What did he say?”
“He said, I think she’s finally done it.”
“What did he mean by done it?”
“He meant she had left him.”
“And what did you say?”
“I was terrified. She sometimes surfed after sundown. It’s risky but with a big rising full moon … the ocean swells pick up at sundown.”
“Is that so?”
“But it was 7 a.m. when your father called.”
“Well, of course she wasn’t surfing all night. Moonlight surfers take a couple of rides, that’s all. It’s so dangerous. But yes, I knew something was wrong the minute my Dad called.”
“Are you a surfer?”
“No. My mom tried to teach me when we lived in Hawaii. It just didn’t take.”
“One more thing. Do you ever socialize with Butchie Block?”
“Did you ever have a drink with Butchie Block? Or any kind of personal transaction at all.”
Taylor shook his head.
“Is that a no?”
“That’s a no.”
“Can you identify this?”
From out of a Manila envelope she shook a tiny item encased in a plastic bag.
Taylor fingered the bag. Bonnie held it tight.
“Is that … ?” he said.
“You tell me,” she said.
Taylor sighed. “Looks like it.’ He leaned in to get a better look. The ring was inscribed inside but through the plastic he couldn’t be sure.
“Looks like the filigree. If it says DRB and EPB, then yes, it’s her wedding ring.”
Bonnie nodded. “That’s how it’s inscribed.”
“Where did it turn up?”
“A scuba diver found it.”
“Near a shipwreck about fifty yards from the Poke Island dock.”
“A week ago.”
Taylor sat for a moment, pondering.
“So, we’re re-opening,” Bonnie said.
“As a missing person’s case?”
“As a murder investigation.”
She slipped the evidence back into the envelope.
“Excuse me, but don’t you need a body to launch a murder investigation?”
“Normally,” she said. “But not always.”
“How did her ring get in the water?” Taylor asked.
“That’s what we want to know. What kind of relationship did she have with your father?”
“Contentious, okay? All couples argue. Look, every cop in town knows my father.”
“Oh yes,” she said, in a tone ringing with irony. “The hero of Jefferson Road.”
Taylor decided he really didn’t like this woman. “My father and I have sat for hours answering questions.”
“But I’m running this case now and I’m asking new questions.”
“Okay, you already know then that they were headed for a divorce.”
“Do you know why?”
“She was a free spirit. A year-round surfer. She learned to surf when we were stationed in Hawaii. Dad didn’t like it. He hated Hawaii. His career went to hell in Hawaii. He blamed her for that partly. She wasn’t a Good Air Force WIfe, he said. And Dad didn’t care for the ocean. He never learned to swim. She lived for the salt water. Once we moved back, she was on Poke Island all the time. Maybe she was out here too much.”
“There have been accusations of infidelity.”
“Yes,” it hurt Taylor to admit it. “There were.”
“Did you know anything about that?”
“Really? If you’re a cheating mom, do you tell your son?”
“What was your relationship with her like?”
“I adored her. She was a goddess mother. A Buddha. Quiet. Strong. Purposeful. Dedicated to her family. When her sister died, my mom took on the care of her two children.”
The deputy cocked an eye at him. “Your family owns a lot on this island, correct?”
“Mom does, yes. But it’s hard to get a building permit over there now. The Planning Commission’s got it all locked up. You’ve got to be a millionaire to build.”
“I see,” said Bonnie. “You are a person of interest in my investigation. I’ll need you to notify me if you plan to travel out of state.”
“Me?” Taylor sat back in shock.
“My predecessor worked a very heavy case load. He’s retired now. You’ll be hearing from me.”
Bonnie opened the door, escorted him out into waning afternoon. Taylor stood dazed in front of the police station. He pulled out his cellphone and tapped the MyRide app, sat on a bus bench and waited.
He reassured himself that Karen, and his ride receipts, were solid alibis for that terrible night. Dad had been home or on campus all day. Artie was a suspect for a while, being the last known person to have seen Liz Burns alive.
Nobody knew exactly what time Liz Burns disappeared. Artie said he’d seen her at sunset and then never again. The window of time in which someone might have harmed her was hours wide. In theory, any of the suspects, including him, had the opportunity to do her in.
Poke Island had no boat landings. That too was part of the islanders’ exclusion strategy. There was one four-slot public pier behind Artie’s house, almost exclusively used by duck hunters to tie up their shallow-draft sneakboats. The bay was treacherous, especially at night, and few pleasure boaters wanted to risk their craft navigating its murky shallows. So except for kayakers and sneakboaters, the ferry was the only practical way on and off the island. Nobody in the Burns family owned a boat. No boat owner would be reckless enough to rent one for use at night on this treacherous bay.
The MyRide arrived, interrupting Taylor’s dark thoughts.
“Pickle’s Market,” Taylor said to the driver. “Then Poke Island Ferry.”
“Wow,” said Artie. “Babe Beach season has officially begun.”
He was planted on the deck at his telescope. It had cost $7000, and was a gift from his parents. He’d wheedled it from them, claiming he’d developed a passion for astronomy. His parents believed that tale, blindly hoping that Artie’s sudden interest in science would send him back to college.
“Take a gander,” Artie said.
Taylor swung the scope around. The cute freckled blonde attended the Catholic college and worked at the coffeehouse. Her name was Penny something. She was chatting with Maggie, both of them nude on a blanket.
Adora, behind a ruined rowboat, stood drying her skinny body with a towel.
“Maggie I expected,” Taylor said. “Maggie’s at Babe Beach all the time. But…”
“You ever hit that?”
”Maggie? She was Karen’s best friend.”
“So? You never heard of a menagerie?”
“Menage a trois, you mean.”
“Maggie’s like, old, right?”
“Maybe 33, 34.”
“When Maggie was a teenager, she baby sat Karen.”
“What I don’t get,” Taylor said, as Artie took over the scope, “is Adora. Here’s a woman who avoids eye contact, and now suddenly she’s flashing the flesh in public?”
“Public? Dude, this is as close to a private beach as you’ll ever find in this police state.”
“A pimp’s girlfriend, out here by herself,” Taylor said. “She’s trying to get away from him, I know it.”
In the kitchen, Taylor began unloading the politically-correct canvas bag he’d filled at Pickle’s Supermarket .
“Boulangerie potatoes,” he said.
Since Artie didn’t cook, Taylor had provided every ingredient: Yukon Gold potatoes, a sprig of fresh thyme, canned beans, boxed vegetable broth, a stick of butter.
“Karen was right,” Artie said. “You both shoulda gone to chef school. It’s not too late. Get out of the software game before them flashing screens drive you blind.”
“Do you know what line cooks make? I couldn’t pay my mortgage on that. You have no concept of a budget, do you?”
“No meat in this dish?”
“Potatoes and white beans.”
“What are you, a vegetarian now? Don’t start eating seaweed, okay? You’re my last link to a human diet.”
Taylor sliced potatoes. It was better to simmer the beans from scratch, but at Artie’s, he’d compromised. It was a very simple recipe. The beans melted into the broth and made a thyme-scented gravy.
“So tell me,” Artie said as Taylor sliced potatoes. “What kept you?”
Artie lit a joint. Beset with hunger and anxiety, Taylor found the smell nauseating.
“You won’t believe it.”
“Try me,” Artie said.
“The freakin sheriff snagged me.”
“The butch? What’s her name?”
Taylor filled Artie in about the discovery of the wedding ring, and the deputy’s determination to change the case from missing person to murder.
“She’s got it in for you man,” Artie said. “I’m telling you. It’s like when they kicked my door down, the fuckers. Scared years off my life and threatened Randall. It ain’t fair, man. You ain’t no killer. You loved your mom.”
Taylor loaded sliced potatoes and beans into a buttered baking dish.
“And from the questions she asked, I’m suspect Number One and Dad is Number Two. I know what you think. You’re going to point the finger of suspicion on my Old Man.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“This new detective is all over that angle, buddy. And she’ll come up empty. They’d been arguing, but Mom was set to go for counseling. She knew she was a wild child.”
Artie swallowed smoke, coughed and said in a froggy voice: “How did her ring get into the ocean? I’ll bet she threw it in there. The marriage was over. She went home to deliver the news to your Dad and …”
“Artie, how much pakalolo have you smoked this morning? You’re in the deep end now. Paddle your canoe downstream, okay? You never liked my Dad, so…”
“He’s like a cop …”
“Not really. Air Force and TSA.”
“All the cops ever done is persecute me for getting high. I ain’t hurt nobody, have I? And be honest, your Dad was always a little bit of a prick to me, okay? Like you were an angel and I was some kind of criminal.”
“Artie, you are a criminal.”
“Gambling on basketball?”
“Hell it’s legal in Vegas.”
“Distributing controlled substances?”
“Dude, my stuff’s legal. The laws can’t keep up with the chemistry.”
“Artie, the deputy is all over me, but the only one with the answer is Marco the Ferryman.”
“Why doesn’t Lady Sherlock go find him?”
“Because she can’t, and she’s taking it out on me. Let’s talk about something else.”
“The blonde on the beach,” Artie suggested.
“I don’t know her, she’s at Trinity.”
“Holy girls love to fuck. In my very limited experience.”
Taylor shoved the potato-filled pan into the oven, shut the door. But he could not shut the door on his thoughts. Throwing her wedding ring into the ocean, that was something his impetuous Mom might have done. It was easier to think of that than the more gruesome alternatives. Taylor’s Dad was a rough tough guy but would he murder the mother of his only child, and the substitute mom of the two needy Cousins? Really? Taylor found it hard to imagine. Still, the question sometimes nagged at him. Husbands killed wives every day in America. Was he so special that it somehow couldn’t happen in his family?
What did Taylor really hope for? That his mom was somehow alive? It was insanely unlikely, but not absolutely impossible. Did Liz Burns feel that with her only son out of the nest, she was free at last? That she set her surfboard free, heaved her wedding ring off the pier, and deliberately disappeared? To find her hippie soul somewhere in the world, maybe surfing in Bali or off the Chile coast?
And never contact her son again? Or her niece and nephew?
Those ideas were too crazy to take seriously, but the alternative was a stupid, pointless, random accident: She drowned and the ocean swallowed her up.
He paced out to the deck to peer through the telescope.
The bathing beauties were out of sight.
Artie and Taylor drank beer on the deck. It was a glorious sunny spring day, turning toward true summer heat. Taylor couldn’t help but stare at the rocky spot where his mom’s surfboard had washed up.
“Maybe,” he muttered, “I should just move to The City and never come down here again.”
“Your mom would hate that,” Artie said. “Excuse me,” he said and rose from his lounger. “More beer.”
Two women in beach clothes walked up the sands: Penny, and Maggie. Taylor called out, they both looked up, but only Maggie held the gaze. He waved her up. She bid goodbye to Penny and climbed up from the sand.
“Where’s the gambling fool?” Maggie asked.
“Inside. Hey, I need to ask you something.”
She sat on the steps in the sunshine.
“Did you come here with Adora?”
Maggie smiled. “I thought you were going to ask for an intro to Miss Thing, the freckly blonde.”
“Did you three take the ferry together?”
“Penny and I drove. Adora got off the bus. I don’t know if you noticed, Taylor, but Adora’s antisocial.” She sighed. “Too soon, it’ll be summer, and there’ll be a bunch of leering jerks on that beach. Nudity can be innocent, you know. Ask any baby.”
“So you three just happened to take the same ferry.”
“Seems so, why? Don’t tell me you want to screw that gnarly string bean Adora. My God, Taylor. You can do so much better. I heard you slept with Tasha, by the way. I got the impression you didn’t make an impression.”
“Tasha, if she did spend the night, was high on X. Anyway, so tell me, what is an introvert like Adora doing on a nude beach?”
“Do I look like God? It’s not my week to be omniscient.”
“And why is she so adamant about keeping me away from her cousin Cammie?”
“I don’t know, dude. Make a date at the happy ending palace and ask Cammie in person.”
“She’s not there anymore.”
“Right,” said Maggie. “So take the hint. She’s not into you.”
“But Cammie,” Taylor said, “is not acting of her own free will. It bothers me.”
Maggie patted his shoulder. “I’ve got my own problems.”
“I look in the mirror and see an 80 year old hag tending bar, okay?” She shook her head. “No pension, no husband, no family, still renting, still mixing weak drinks and cadging tips at the Wonder Bar.”
He sat beside her in the strong sunlight. “You’ll find your way.”
“Yeah,” she said, then gazed down the beach. “I hate when people say stuff like that. There are millions of lives where things just don’t work out. When’s the next ferry?”
“Catch a later one. Come in for brunch.”
“What’s on the menu?”
“We’re eating French this morning.”
“France,” she said. She brushed sand off her bare feet. “Some day I’ll get to Paris.”
The sun had already sunk behind the bay when Taylor, pleasantly drunk, walked the warm boardwalk that led to the ferry dock. This ferry run had only three other passengers, all sunburnt strangers. Taylor found the thrum of the engines and the ocean breeze soothing. This was his life, and for this moment at least, he found it satisfying. He’d partly grown up in Hawaii, just a bike ride away from the beach. He shared his mom’s love of the ocean. It’s what had brought him back to Shipwreck Bay, despite better financial prospects in The City. And coming back here after college had been a good decision, he told himself, because he’d been able to share bits and pieces of the last years of his mom’s life.
He stepped off the ferry and a dark car rolled up. Taylor assumed it was the ride he’d texted for. He got into the backseat, noticing too late that he was sitting beside Nick the Bulgarian.
“Wonder Boy,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.”