“What happened to your face, dude?” Artie asked.
“It was three against one,” Taylor claimed.
“I can’t look.”
“Stay out of them Monroe Street bars.”
“It was at Lisa’s. Her asshole neighbors were getting rowdy.”
“You were at Lisa’s?”
Taylor filled him in on the kidnapping and its aftermath, upholding his dignity with evasions. His story was punctuated by the clink clank and woosh of Peace Love & Coffee at high buzz.
When Taylor finished his story, Artie, sitting across from him, sipped at his cappuccino and said: “World Tour.”
“I don’t know what it was.”
“I’m telling you, World Tour. They’ve flooded the market with that shit. It ain’t what it used to be. There’s no trademarks and copyrights.”
“Copyrights?” Taylor said. “I thought you were a Libertarian?”
Artie ignored that tweak. “Who knows what’s in it these days. You can buy it in gas stations now.”
Artie, notified by a buzz from his cellphone, began punching in bets. Taylor twirled a bottle of sparkle water and lifted it to his fat, sore lips.
“Russian hoops, man,” Artie said. “I should never bet against BC Samara. But if you don’t bet for the underdog, you got no soul.”
“They’re like the Lakers of Russia.” He put down his cell phone. “World Tour,” he said. “Your liver will be flip-flopping for days.”
Taylor knew all about World Tour. He had not been completely honest with the police about the day his Mom disappeared. He and Karen had taken a hit of World Tour that day. They’d tripped over to Poke Island. It was a fantastic high, for Taylor, full of light, bestowing goofy blessings on all creation. But then it crashed. He and Karen got into a vicious argument and she claimed a couple of college boys intervened when he threatened to beat her up.
It seemed Taylor went from nerd to lunatic sometimes on drugs. It was like the drugs lifted a cover on a boiling cauldron. He didn’t remember much about that afternoon. According to the original police report, he also got into a shoving match with a Mexican guy at the taco stand.
But, like a magician, his Dad had made those police reports disappear.
“Whatever this Bulgarian fed me, it wasn’t so much like World Tour,” Taylor told Artie now. “No roller coaster. Mostly down. And then, blank.”
“Black Cooties?” said Artie, and twirled his phone. “Well, there’s all kinds of formulations out there. The labs come and go. If the fucking DEA would just get off our necks, we could have pure drugs, regulated, you know. That’s why I’m Libertarian all the way. Okay, firemen we need, but cops? I don’t think so.”
“Wait. You’re a Libertarian calling for regulated drugs?”
“You know what Ralph Walnut Emerson said?”
“I’m kidding. But really, he said contradictions are okay. They’re teaching that in college now, right? The Theory of Relativity. There’s no such thing as a right answer.”
Artie has his own interpretation of the Theory of Relativity.
“Artie, I never know when you’re serious.”
“So here’s what the thugs wanted. They warned me to quit stalking Adora.”
“You going to squeal to the cops?”
“And tell them what? What crime?”
Artie shrugged. “Your Old Man can help.”
“I’m keeping him out of this. I’m an adult, Artie, I can handle my own affairs.”
“So Adora told the Bulgarian you were tailing her?”
“I’d ding her, wouldn’t you?”
“Adora? God no.”
“For some crazy reason, tall women appeal to me. I’ve never dinged a tall woman, have you? I dream about lady basketball players all the time.”
Taylor gently touched his sore face.
“What are these weird people up to?” Artie asked. “What’s the deal? What’s the scam?”
“And the cops are grilling me again about Mom.”
“Oh, I knew they would.” Artie leaned in to whisper: “Do they know you were stoned out of your mind that day?”
“Hey man, you never know, a guy like you, Mister Honor Role, you might crack and spill to the cops. You’ve heard that saying, right? There’s no honor among cops.”
“Help me figure this out.”
Penny the Barista swept by on a mission to wipe down tables. They’d just seen her yesterday, at Babe Beach, sunning naked with Maggie. Artie’s babe-hungry eyes followed her every move. Taylor tried to butt in to his fantasy life: “Why does Adora hang at the Wonder every time Nick puts on a show?”
Penny walked behind the espresso machine, and with her legs out of view, Artie returned his attention to Taylor.
“Let’s go with the obvious,” Artie said. “Adora is Nick’s girlfriend. That’s why he didn’t wring my neck the night I put the Buchanan Meat to Billie. Billie is not his girlfriend. They just showed up together.”
“Why would Nick and Billie …”
Artie shrugged. “Ox Man’s Razor. The simplest explanation is the best.”
“You mean Occam’s Razor. And what does Occam’s Razor tell you?
“Everything’s a scam, that’s the simplest answer, that’s what Ox Man comes down to.”
“Okay, Steffie gets an invite to our party and for some reason, invites Billie …”
“Steffie’s motive? To butter up her boss. Hey, speaking of butter, did you ever see Last Tangle in Paris?”
“… Billie drags a Bulgarian thug along.”
“The Bulgarian thug is Adora’s stud, and you pissed him off because … they’re paranoid. You did confront Adora at the Wonder, so…
“Okay, who’s the Asian guy, the driver?”
“Simple. A friend? One of Adora’s cousins, a brother perhaps? Nick couldn’t bully you and drive at the same time. Adora was along so he could impress her with what a stud he is. Ox Man’s Bottom Line: You threatened the hunk’s manhood and he had to prove himself in front of his lady. Think of two knights jousting, man. Only he had a horse and a lance, and all you had was a cue stick.”
Artie sipped his drink. “They slipped you a designer drug so you wouldn’t be a credible witness. Easy answer? Stay away from Adora. She’s kind of creepy anyway.”
“But you’d like to sleep with her?”
“Yeah, she’s taller than me.”
“And where does that leave Adora’s cousin, Cammie?”
“Cammie, Cammie, Cammie. That girl’s gonna get you killed. Do you want to die, is that it? Dude, you have so much babe opportunity, it’s ridiculous. Take last night. Do you know what would happen to me if I pounded on Lisa’s door at midnight? You get laid. I’d end up in the hoosegow.”
“I did not get laid.”
“You’d never admit it if you did. I’d love to hear just one of your bedtime stories. Forget Cammie. Go on your merry way, you lucky bastard. Why wasn’t I born charming instead of just rich?”
Penny whirled by.
“Are you doing okay, Taylor?” she asked. “Do you need anything?”
He shook his head. She smiled and whirled away.
“See that?” Artie squealed. “Are you okay Taylor. Like I’m not sitting here too. You could probably hit that right now. She’d do you in the back room.”
“She knows me because of Dad,” Taylor said. “She’s taking his police science class.
“She wants a pound of your flesh, pal. How do you do it? What’s your secret?” He sniffed the air. “Do you wear cologne?”
Artie called out to Penny. She stood at the register, absorbed in counting the cash in her tip jar. With a horny grin on his face, Artie said: “My friend here is sweet on you. He wants to take you to lunch.”
“Oh well,” she said, “I get off in a few minutes.”
“Jesus!” cried Artie, and turned to face Taylor. “What do I gotta do?”
Feeling like he’d never get laid again, Artie watched Taylor huddle with Penny, then he checked his cell phone. Not the green one he used for gambling, the black one. Buried beneath messages from prostitutes and fraudsters was an invitation from Billie McGinn.
Penny and Taylor strolled down Madison Street toward Downtown, where modest structures from the 1920s were dwarfed by tall glassy banks and insurance companies. The center of Downtown was Authors Park, a grassy, tree-shaded square surrounded by the Old Courthouse, The Main Stage Theater, and the Savoy Hotel, built in 1919 and still the most luxe sleep in town.
At lunch time, Authors Park was encircled by food trucks and mobbed with office workers and pigeons, two species with much in common. Taylor lobbied for pulled pork sliders. But Penny didn’t eat meat on Fridays, and waiting in two long lines would have been awkward, so Taylor gave in to a plate of Thai Veggie Noodles. They scampered to claim a bench near a bronze statue under a huge shady oak tree.
Penny flashed him a coy smile. “Your dad is such a cool guy.”
Taylor nodded. He wasn’t going to correct this girl he barely knew. Dan Burns could charm people, but had a temper, a mean streak and a cold cynicism that not many outside the family had seen. There were stories Taylor could tell, but not without betraying his family.
“He’s really popular on campus,” Penny said. “These noodles are cold, I didn’t realize that, on RateMyProfessor? He’s off the charts. Who is that?”
It took Taylor a moment to realize she meant the statue, which was inscribed on the opposite side. This Penny seemed scattered.
“F. Scott Fitzgerald,” Taylor said.
“He was a writer, right?”
“I guess you never read The Great Gatsby.”
“I mean, I do read, it’s gonna get hot early this year, don’t you think? I hope you don’t think I’m illiterate, I just, fiction books, they’re not my thing, I mean, they’re just made up stories, right, they’re not real.”
“What exactly is real?”
She looked at him sideways. “You’re deep, aren’t you, don’t you just really love this time of year, I find you a little scary, the Great, what, Gatsby? Is it online? Maybe I’ll give it a try. Sixteen.”
“Pigeons in the garden.”
She lifted the plate to her lips, employed her chopsticks, but briefly.
“These are really good,” Taylor said, slurping noodles. “It’s not too spicy for you, is it?”
“I think I’ll take them home. I get … it’s hard to swallow sometimes, I have this … oh, it just comes and goes.”
“Hard to swallow?”
“Seriously,” she said. “It’s nothing.”
”So yesterday, on the island,” he said. “How do you know Maggie?”
“Oh,” she said, and blotted her lips. “Isn’t Maggie fantastic? She’s like my aunt, like the mom I never had, I mean I have a mom, actually, but she’s, well not sick really but she’s in a wheelchair because, it was a diving accident at the country club pool when I was a little girl, and she really hasn’t had a chance to be much of a, I mean I don’t blame her, don’t get me wrong, but she can be cranky and I mean major league cranky I do love her but at the same time…”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“You have a sad mom story too, I heard.”
“We believe she drowned while surfing. Last year.”
“Oh, I’ve heard that. I’m so sorry.”
“You get used to it. You get used to her being gone. Kind of … It’s like there’s a big empty space where she used to be.” He needed to change the subject. “Where’d you grow up?”
“Shipwreck Bay High?”
“Holy Trinity. I’m still there. It’s crazy, isn’t it, to go to high school and college in the same place? It’s so incestuous.”
“That’s where my mom went, too, but only to the high school. You’re in what, sophomore year college?”
She nodded. “I go over to CC for courses Holy Trinity doesn’t offer. Like police science, they don’t have police science at Holy Trinity, because, like, they don’t believe in the 21st Century. At all.”
“So what are you studying?”
“I want to be a lawyer because I really, there’s so much injustice in the world today, you could do so much more about it as a lawyer than like, my father, his answer to injustice is the Tridentine Church.”
“Well, maybe Holy Trinity isn’t so great, but at least you get to stay in town. You didn’t have to uproot yourself and go to State. It’s so anonymous up there.”
“Pff. This place is dog town, Dad wouldn’t help me worth a dime if I went to State. Nothing like a Catholic Education, he says.”
She looked at the plate in her lap. “I’m going to ask them to wrap this. It’s a Venial Sin to waste food.”
She made the Sign of the Cross over herself, touching head, lips, shoulders.
Penny carried a greasy white bag containing her lunch as she and Taylor strolled the riverfront, downtown traffic at their backs. He said, “Maybe we should see a show sometime. At the Roxie, the midnight thing, have you done that?”
“I don’t … Oh no not me, not the precious daughter, I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend in high school.”
She stopped at the overlook, stared down at the Destiny River where it flowed toward the bay. “Anyway, this weekend, I’m busy with the Turtle Guardians, you know about the Turtle Guardians, don’t you?”
He shook his head.
“Oh, I’m a such a do-gooder,” she said. “I’ve fallen in with some Quakers. Dad would have a fit if he knew. I’ve never been anywhere or done anything. You know where I’ve been? Orlando, when I was twelve, with my mom, her nurse and my dad, Mickey Mouse, and that’s about it.”
“So what is this Trident church?”
“Tridentine. It’s so Middle Ages, Latin Mass and all that, and sex, there’s only one purpose for sex, making baby soldiers for the Pope’s next crusade against the Moors.”
Penny turned and looked over downtown. “All those statues in the park, don’t look at me funny, I’m sheltered, that’s the whole thing about being True Catholic, you know, my dad wants to keep me apart from the wicked world, like a nun, only you know I’m not holy inside. Not really.”
“A couple of generations back, Shipwreck Bay had a famous writer’s colony. It was all about cavorting on Poke Island, which was a Victorian Resort then. Before it all burned down.”
She shrugged. “To me it’s just, you know, the nice island, the only one without all the honky-tonk.”
“I have a friend who has a cottage over on Poke. We have parties sometimes. I’ll call you.”
“Text me, though,” she said. “Dad says I spend too much time yakking on the phone.”
They called for separate cars, and Taylor didn’t kiss her or even touch her, but they exchanged numbers at the curb.
“He is so … admirable,” Penny said.
“Your dad. Professor Burns.”
“He’s not really a professor, actually.”
“Everybody calls him the hero of Jeff Road, I’ll bet they make a movie about it someday, but he never mentions it, at all, which makes him even more, like, mysterious. Can you imagine him just bursting in there and shooting it out with a serial killer? Jesus! I guess you can, I mean he’s your dad, but it’s just like, most middle aged guys are lame wimps you know, but …”
Her ride car pulled up.
She winked. “Send me a text.”