Taylor heard the locks click and knew he was trapped with the Bulgarian. As the driver sped through the streets of downtown, the streetlights revealed him to be an Asian male of middle age, with a severe military haircut. Beside that driver sat Adora.
She didn’t turn or even glance sideways.
“So where are we going?” Taylor asked. He hoped his voice didn’t betray the state of his nerves.
“All depends with you,” said Nick. “And how nice you are. In Bulgaria, our people act very nice. You’ll see. We are known for warm friendship welcomes. Isn’t that right, Kenner?”
The driver grunted.
“Sit back, relax,” said Nick. “Have coffee. Free gift from us.”
From a door pocket he removed a bottle labeled Peace Love & Coffee. He handed it to Taylor. Then he popped the lid on another one, for himself.
“Black cold brew,” he said. “No cream. Cream is for wimps, right Kenner?”
Kenner only stared into the windshield glare.
“Drink coffee,” Nick said. “Healthy good for you. Proof in article I read on Drudge Report.”
“I’m not drinking this.”
“I’m insulted,” said Nick as the car bounced over a pothole. Chilled coffee spilled on Taylor’s trousers. Nick grabbed the bottle. “You are suspicious, no?” He put his lips to the bottle, made slurping noises, and handed it back to Taylor.
“All right,” Taylor said. Yes, he was suspicious but knew now the coffee couldn’t be poison. He took the tiniest sip just to mollify the bruiser. The coffee was sickeningly sweet, a Cubano.
The car was leaving downtown, headed along Airline Road, with all its failing businesses. Taylor wondered: Are they going to put me on a plane? Order me to get out of town and never come back?
“Why don’t you just tell me what the deal is?” he said.
Nick wrapped his bulging, muscular arm around Taylor’s neck. He could have snapped it, easily.
“Young man, so bright, such future!”
He held a fist to Taylor’s face. It wasn’t a punch, just a suggestion. “Finish you coffee, then we talk.”
Taylor “accidentally” spilled most of the coffee on the car floor.
Nick shook his head. “Too bad for you,” he said.
Kenner recklessly passed another car, driving nuts in the wrong lane, and then whipped around a corner and braked to a stop.
“Out,” Nick said.
Taylor stumbled out and Nick followed. They were outside the chain link fence of Slater’s Auto Salvage. A German Shepherd barked furiously on the other side of the fence. It was joined by a bigger even more vicious mutt.
“Finish this coffee or you will be hurt very bad,” Nick said. “I feed you to those dogs.” He handed Taylor the half-empty bottle.
“In Bulgaria, we hate peoples who say questions.”
Taylor gagged some down, spit some out.
“No manners, this America of yours,” Nick said. He gave Taylor a stinging punch to the chest that knocked him into the fence. Two dogs tried to devour him despite the chain link barrier, little bullets of their saliva hitting his face. He struggled to stand, then fell down along the fence, driving the dogs into a frenzy. Nick knelt beside him, held the bottle to his lips, pinched his nose and said, “Finish.”
He gasped, gagged down coffee.
“Do not stalk my fawking woman, you hear me?”
“I didn’t. I wasn’t…”
“Shut up or I hurt you.”
Taylor shut up.
“Leave her alone, you gets it?”
Nick slapped his face, not so hard. “Ha ha ha,” said Nick. “Bulgarian hospitality.”
And then he hopped into the car, and it peeled off, stinging Taylor with little stones.
Taylor awoke in the place of his dreams: Lisa Lange’s bed.
He deduced that the bed was Lisa’s when he sat up and examined the family photos on the dresser, which rose amid a forest of candles and bottled lotions. Then he noticed the giant Wiccan star hung over the bed.
He’d first noticed her when she waitressed at Diner24. She dressed like a strumpet, smoked dope in the alley during her breaks. On her nights off she drank in Monroe Street’s taverns, and was sometimes whisked to The City on the backs of motorcycles or in flashy cars.
Wild Lisa followed her own star.
Taylor had walked the path laid out by parents and teachers. Taylor, the Good Boy, the Teacher’s Pet, the Math Nerd, no wonder he developed a hopeless crush on Lisa. She was his Inner Rebel, cast into female form.
Lisa had dismissed his first schoolboy flirtations with a haughty laugh. She was a woman of almost 20 with a job, he was 15, coming to the diner with his nerdy buddies. What did he expect? When she became a masseuse, he showed up regularly at the spa, but Lisa was strictly professional, and claimed she never dated clients.
Now Taylor arose from Lisa’s bed, feeling wobbly. If that was him in the mirror it was a hungover fellow with a bruised cheek and fat lip. He touched those wounds, gingerly. His lip bled. He looked back at the dark purple bedclothes. Yes, he’d bled into them, not much, but spots here and there.
It came up on him suddenly, the recall of a dark and powerful dream. In the dream he was guilty of an unspeakable crime. This crime had no name, but was the darkest, most violent, evil, shameful and despicable act imaginable. It had left a dark stain upon his soul which could never be erased. He would never again claim a place among respectable citizens but would slink along in dark alleys, afraid of the light. This dream, only now remembered, seemed to suck him back through the boundaries of this world into the despondent darkness some called sleep.
He stared into the mirror trying to shake that nightmare off. What time was it? Had he actually committed some crime he couldn’t remember? There was no clock in the room, but the sun suggested midday.
His clothing was folded on an antique chair. He slipped into trousers, tiptoed to the door, opened it, and from a raw throat croaked: “Lisa?”
“You’re alive?” she said.
Taylor wobbled into the living room, touching the wall for balance. His shoulder felt sore, almost dislocated, as if he’d fallen on it.
“What the hell…?”
“What are you doing here?” Lisa said. “That’s a question I’ve been asking myself since oh, two o’clock this morning.”
She wore a tight top and shorts, as if she planned to spend the day sunning on the roof garden.
“Wheaties or cornflakes?” she asked. “I don’t cook, remember? But I do have English muffins.” She scrunched her nose. “With almond milk. We’ve got to have mercy on those poor cows.”
“Do something stupid, yes. But good things happen when blondes smile at policemen. So here you are, instead of in jail, and a cute cop has my fake cell number.”
Taylor leaned on the kitchen island for support. Desperately thirsty, he grabbed a tall narrow pitcher of water and gulped from it.
“I was …”
“I know, kidnapped. You told me. In fact, you told the whole building. Loudly. Repeatedly.”
“I don’t remember … “ he touched his face. “I got in a fight?”
“The neighbors objected to your histrionics.”
Taylor prowled the dark alleys of his memory in vain.
Lisa said: “Coffee?”
“God no. That’s the last thing I remember. They drugged me with coffee.”
“I’ll get you almond milk, then. I don’t have orange juice. All that sugar.”
She set a glass of almond milk on the counter and stooped to look into Taylor’s eyes. “That’s about what I thought you’d look like.”
“You put me to bed?”
“I slept on the massage table. And yes, you stripped your own clothes off. You claimed they were burning you.”
Taylor sniffed the almond milk. “I can’t imagine eating breakfast ever again.”
“What we know is,” Lisa said, “You were fed a date rape drug by the Bulgarian, and warned to stay away from his girl. I guess you got here by MyRide, but your cellphone can tell you that. You caused a fracas in the hallway, and it took my two nice quiet gay neighbors to wrestle you into submission. Actually, the husband is a hockey player, so … now, I need to buy those guys a good bottle of wine and you need a massage.”
“I must have been out of my mind.”
“Drink more water, and then the massage. You’ll be my first private client, and that will be 80 bucks, or 75 if you pay cash.”
“I quit the spa, I told you, you just don’t remember.” She patted his shoulder and he winced.
“I’ll meet you in the incense room,” she said. She wagged her finger. “After you shower.”
He stepped into her shower and turned it up as hot as possible. That dark, unspeakable guilt dream came back to him with great and convincing power. He could not shake this conviction that he was a vile criminal but it helped when he stepped into Lisa’s front parlor, which smelled like roses. Cheerful, colorful towels were folded in a case that took up a whole wall. In the middle of the room stood a sturdy massage table, and Taylor removed a towel from around his waist and hung it on a hook. He slipped under the pure white linen drape. He lay on his back and sighed. His tongue felt like it was covered in thorns, his throat was rough like he had the flu, his head throbbed and he felt sore all over.
Lisa entered, having changed from flirty shorts into loose fitting masseuse garb, covering her neck to ankle.
“Face down,” she said, and when he rolled over she eased the drape down to his waist. She lay her hands on his head.
“Great Goddess, Mother of All Life, send your healing wisdom to this body to restore its sacred balance.”
She worked his scalp.
“That doesn’t hurt, does it?”
“Feels good,” Taylor muttered.
“Spread the word then,” Lisa said. “I’m on my own now. I’m sick of paying half my earnings to Billie McGinn. I’m the Visiting Masseuse. Starting Monday.”
“You’re going to peoples’ houses?”
“Isn’t that dangerous?”
“Client reference only. Not all blondes are dumb. I’ve been building a list for four years now.”
“I didn’t say …”
“Shhh,” she said. “Be present for this massage.”
She worked his shoulders and Taylor let himself go, entertaining a flood of pleasurable images. He remembered the family’s arrival in Honolulu, when he was nine years old, and that first awesome glimpse of Diamond Head, thrusting out into blue-green tropical water, looking just as it did on a billion postcards. He remembered family picnics at Ala Moana, and how his mom adopted the local ways, ditching the burgers and potato salad in favor of bento boxes. He remembered his mom’s hulking beginner’s surfboard, green and yellow, looking like it should be strapped to the roof of a ’59 Buick.
Then he flinched at the vision of his beautiful mother, drowning off Poke Island, crying for help that would never come.
“Easy,” said Lisa. She flipped the drape and started on his glutes and thighs.
“I can’t,” said Taylor. “I can’t, I can’t.”
He sat up, legs dangling over the side.
Lisa backed away.
“Panic attack?” she said. “Breathe. In. Out. Focus.”
He had a sudden attack of modesty and pulled on his undershorts. She sat and watched him with intent eyes. He was bathed in sunlight as if he were an angel. She’d known him since he was in high school, and liked him, but in a big-sister way.
She sensed that beneath a fragile, glib and happy façade, there lurked something much darker. The fight he caused last night in her hallway might have been triggered by drugs, but the ammunition had been there all along. His mother’s drowning had hit him much harder than he could admit. But even that, she sensed, wasn’t all he was burying.
The panic attack passed and he seemed to be breathing normally, sitting at the edge of the table, clinging to it, head hung in misery.
“I’m going to make a suggestion,” she said. “You can stop me at any time and tell me to mind my own business. Here it is: Stay away from Adora, Nick, Cammie, all of them. If you believe Cammie is being held against her will, tell the police what you know and let them handle it.”
“Lisa, tell me the truth. At the Inno-Scents, were the spa masseuses trolling for …”
“Are you kidding? If the girls tried that happy ending stuff, Billie would bounce them off the walls.” She leaned forward in earnest. “Billie is paranoid. She figures the cops in this burg would love to humiliate a successful black woman. So, no Taylor, the spa is not a whorehouse, and is never going to be as long as Billie owns it. That woman makes way too much money to risk it in a bordello.”
“I’m sorry if it seemed … I didn’t mean you. I didn’t mean I suspected you personally were, you know … a prostitute.
Her face turned a darker shade.
“Look, I can’t blame people for gossiping about me, I guess. I mean I’ve kind of encouraged that. I admit I got a thrill out of being a girl with a reputation. And that is why… I’m off the sauce for good.”
“You’ve quit drinking?”
“Buddy, when you wake up naked with goose-bumps all over, and your only companion is an empty vodka bottle, then you know it’s time.”
“Good. I’m happy for you.”
“Don’t you dare patronize me.”
“What can I say then?”
“How about: Good luck, bitch, you’ll need it?”
Taylor opened his mouth to say something but Lisa cut in. “You’re over your head with the Bulgarian and his girls. They’re criminals, you’re an office worker. Okay? End of lecture.”
She stood. “No charge for a failed massage. There’s a robe on the back of the door.”
Lisa left the room, closed the door quietly, but stood at it, realized she had not said everything she’d wanted to. Taylor had been powerless to save his mother from drowning. Lisa believed he was trying to compensate by rescuing this ditzy waif Cammie, who was nothing to him, whom he barely knew.
Could she tell him that, bluntly?
No. It was just too heartless of a thing to say.
She cracked open the door and without looking in said, “I’m really sorry about your mom, Taylor. She was a wonderful woman and everybody loved her.”
She closed the door and was visited by another thought she dared not voice. Like most people in Shipwreck Bay, she believed Liz Burns had been murdered.
So obviously, not everybody loved her.