They met at Aunt Crabby’s, Poke Island’s best restaurant. They sat oceanside at salt-spattered windows. She dressed like a country club hostess, he like a beach bum. She picked at a lobster salad. He crushed spidery crab legs, with a nut cracker, and sucked out the sloppy, buttery meat. She sipped iced tea, no sugar, no lemon. He was draining his third beer when she made her first probe.
“In my business,” she said, “you hear all the rumors.”
Artie wiped his buttery fingers on his white plastic bib.
Billie flashed an indulgent smile. “They say somebody on this island is playing Doctor Feelgood.”
Artie feigned surprise. “Me?”
“It was a nice ride, your pink powder. Very nice.”
“It’s happy powder,” Artie said. “Strictly speaking, I’m not, you know, a merchant. I mean I’m not in it for the money, it’s just personal and sharing. Money corrupts everything it touches. But you know.” He looked around as if the DEA might be listening. “I’m not admitting anything.”
Billie laughed. “A lot of people in my business, it’s a go-getter’s business you understand … they need a boost. It can be a long day. It’s ruthlessly competitive. It can be very draining. Sundays especially.”
“Cocaine,” said Artie, and cracked a crab leg. “Has the reputation as a realtor’s drug.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Billie. “But colleagues of mine, they’ve become …”
“Addicted?” asked Artie.
“Disappointed,” said Billie. “Jaded, maybe?”
“They’re tired of snorting $300 hits of laundry powder?”
“Adulteration is a problem,” said Billie. “A dangerous one. Trust is very, very important in business, Artie. Every business.”
“And I feel I can trust you.”
She reached across the white table cloth, took his hand, looked into his eyes.
“Can I?” she asked.
In those blue eyes she saw need. This feckless young man needed someone to take him seriously.
“I have a feeling,” Artie said, “You know, I’m not a big time merchant, like I said. I can’t supply … for like a whole agency … and anyway, the product I might have access to, on occasion, is lab formulations. Perfectly legal, at least until the next session of Congress.”
“Pink powder?” Billie asked.
“The supply is spotty,” Artie said.
“Hmmm,” said a skeptical Billie.
Artie shifted in his seat, held his empty beer glass up, impatient for the waiter’s attention.
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “You’d be much better off going legit. Adderall. It’s basically meth. But you get a doctor’s prescription, and the cops can’t bust you.”
“Is that so?”
“Why are you laughing? It’s good advice.”
“Adderall is crap. You get one bounce, and never again.”
Artie sighed. “I don’t need money and I don’t need risk. I got busted two years ago. They broke in on me. They almost shot Randall. That was enough for me.”
“Okay. I understand. You’re cautious. That’s good. Could you possibly do me a big favor and put me in touch with your source for pink powder? I don’t need a lot.”
Artie shook his head. “It’s all … delicate. Most quote unquote research chemicals are made in Chinese labs. You never know what’s in it. Boric acid? Rat poison? My pink stuff is made in an American compounding pharmacy, where exactly even I don’t know. There’s only one middleman. If I put anyone in touch with him, he’d …”
The waiter snatched the empty beer glass out of Artie’s hand.
“Trout Fishing in America,” Artie called. “You’ve got that on tap, right?”
He returned his attention to Billie. “See, the lab chemist trusts my middle man because he’s proven. He’s stood up to the cops, let’s put it that way. Every contact the chemist has is a potential threat. So, he keeps it to a trusted minimum. As does the middle man. Like you said, it’s a whole business about trust.”
“I see,” Billie said.
“The supply chain is spotty. I might have something, I might not, but it’s never crap. And I don’t sell. Never. No money changes hands. Selling is how they bust you.”
He produced from the pocket of his tattered cutoff jeans a plastic bag just big enough to hold a coin. In it were a few grains of pink powder.
“It’s what I have left … for now,” he said.
“You’re a doll,” said Billie, and palmed the bag. “Lunch is on me.”
Together they walked into the sunshine. It was only a few steps to the ferry dock, and on the way, they passed a seaside lot, it was like a missing tooth in the mouth of Poke Island’s commercial strip.
Billie stopped to stare at its weedy dunes. She deliberately stood there until Artie spoke up.
“Taylor’s mom,” he volunteered. “That was her lot. I guess it’s Taylor’s now. I don’t know. The legal stuff and all.”
It was the only empty lot in the tiny commercial zone of Poke Island.
The lot itself was nothing but weeds and sand.
“What is he… your friend, Taylor, what does he plan on doing with this lot, do you happen to know?”
“Don’t know,” Artie said. “His mom, you know that awful story, but she wanted a house for her … she’s raising her dead sister’s kids … she wanted a beach house so the kids would grow up near the ocean.”
“I see,” Billie said. She kissed Artie on the cheek. “We’ll be in touch, sugar.”
Taylor respected his Dad for being an honorable provider and strong paternal presence. But as Taylor grew older there didn’t seem to be room in Daniel Burns’ house for another male. Sometimes it felt like they were two boxers circling each other in the ring, each reluctant to throw a punch.
The Burns home was in the first ring of curving suburban streets bordering the gritty East Side. Its most remarkable feature was its squared-off, obsessively trimmed lawn. Dad had zero tolerance for crabgrass or dandelions. That lawn seemed like a giant echo of Dad’s military haircut.
The MyRide driver left Taylor off and he knocked on the back door. “Dad?”
Dan Burns was home a lot, especially between semesters. Taylor had phoned, but got no answer, which was typical for Dad. He ignored technology, except when it came to airplanes. Then he wanted the latest and the best. Dad didn’t do anything half-assed, and now that he had his pilot’s certificate, he’d become obsessed with getting a license upgrade, and more hours in the air.
Taylor stepped in. “Dad?”
Dan Burns’ heavy footsteps sounded on the basement stairs. “Taylor,” he said, and it was clear from his face he wasn’t happy to see his son. “Why didn’t you call?”
He bulled past Taylor to the kitchen sink to wash his hands, then turned around.
“What happened to your face?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Bar brawl?”
“It was three against one.”
“You acquitted yourself well, I hope.”
“Dad, has the sheriff talked to you?”
The water was running. He didn’t answer.
“The sheriff,” Taylor repeated.
“Walters? What about him? Put a steak on that bruise, it actually works.”
“I mean his deputy. Bonnie’s her name. Has she talked to you?”
With a bar of rough brown soap, Dan washed his hands as thoroughly as if he were a surgeon.
He pursed his lips, shook his head. “What about it?”
“Ever since they found the wedding ring …”
“For someone who majored in math, you seem short on logic. Your mother’s disappearance and that wedding ring are not necessarily connected. Maybe she had one of her fits of pique and threw that ring into the ocean.”
“A week, maybe two before she went missing, she stopped wearing that ring.”
“You had a fight?”
Dan huffed. “I noticed it missing, let’s put it that way. Taylor, there are some things …
“The deputy keeps quizzing me about my alibi, about Butchie Block, and Artie.”
Dan shrugged. “I don’t much care what they do at the county sheriff’s office, Taylor. Their incompetence is exceeded only by their corruption.”
“Yeah,” Taylor said. Over the years he’d learned it was just easier to agree with Dad.
“Butchie Block?” Dan said. “Our parole system leaks like a sieve. So. What brings you by, son?”
Taylor wasn’t warmly welcomed at home because Dad had built a new, and somewhat embarrassing, life. He had taken in Mariana, who’d been the family’s part-time housekeeper. They were not married, but you’d think they were. Mariana was now house-mom, keeping up with The Cousins, and sleeping in Daniel Burns’ bed.
“Just … well,” Taylor stuttered, sensing his father’s impatience. “I wanted to ask … do you think there’s sex slavery in Shipwreck Bay?”
He scoffed. “Of course there is. This is the real world, son, not a computer game.”
“Do you know anything about it? Is there anyone on the SBPD who specializes in it?”
Dan put his arm around his son’s shoulders and walked him out of the kitchen and into the blinding sun of the backyard.
“Taylor, don’t step in shit, and you’ll never have to clean your shoes.”
Taylor ducked out of his embrace and faced him.
“What does that mean?”
“It means,” he said with an exasperated look, “it’s a waste of society’s resources to chase these filthy worthless prostitutes from one street corner to the next.” He walked into the shade of a big spreading oak and into the garage. “Those girls have chosen to throw their lives away, remember that. I don’t feel a bit sorry for them.” He unlocked a rack and removed an air rifle from its place on the wall. Taylor followed him out of the garage and, standing at the trimmed edge of his perfect lawn, Dan took aim at a cat perched on the fence. He fired, hit the cat, maybe in the ribs or rump. It yowled and leaped into a neighbors’ yard.
Taylor didn’t challenge him. Dan explained anyway. “You don’t scare ‘em off, the flower beds will smell like cat piss.”
He propped the rifle against the garage wall. “Taylor,” he said, “there are some very bad dudes in the pimp trade. There’s more going on there than meets the eye. Really, it’s best for an unarmed amateur to keep out of it. Let the authorities do their job, son.”
Unarmed was a poke at Taylor, who had failed to embrace Dad’s enthusiasm for firearms.
Taylor looked around the yard, at its bicycles and toys. “Kids around?”
“They’re at the mall,” Dan said.
“Okay, well, you’re busy I see…”
Taylor tapped the MyRide app.
“Have you thought about buying a car?” his father asked.
“I don’t care what Lisa says,” Taylor told Artie. “I think she’s mistaken. I think Billie and Nick are in the whore business. And the cops are in on it too.”
“The cops in this town truly suck,” Artie said, “which your old man proved, big time. It was what, three years ago? I’ll bet they’re still embarrassed.”
They were sitting in Artie’s Subaru Forester, parked in the night shadows. They watched the Airliner Motel. There wasn’t a lot happening, if all you did was gawk from the parking lot.
But Artie and Taylor had combed through the FunnyPages that afternoon, and had narrowed down the choices under females looking for fun. The article said: Young innocent Asia babe, fresh off boat, lets give massage in alright places.
It seemed like it might have been written by a Bulgarian.
“How you feeling?” Taylor asked.
“Horny,” said Artie. “I know this is supposed to be like an undercover investigation and all, but my dick has a mind of its own.”
“So there’s a very small brain in your dick?”
Taylor clapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll owe you big time.”
“This is the kind of job I’d like. I should have been an undercover cop. Except for my psychotic hatred of police. I’ve been looking all my life for this. Wanted. Young man who needs to get laid. Benefits galore.”
They watched in silence for a while.
“You’re not actually going in there to fuck her,” Taylor said. “Remember that.”
“Uh huh. STDs, I know all about ‘em.”
“Cash, right. Don’t trade drugs or any shit like that. You don’t want to fall into a trap. You’re not holding any drugs, right?”
Artie’s phone flashed with a message.
“I’m going in,” he said. “That’s her.”
He sneaked out of the car, crossed the dark parking lot and tapped on a door. The Airliner was a cheap, 1950s dump that was only a couple of hot pillows away from the wrecking ball. When they built a bigger airport, and moved it out twenty miles, all the nearby businesses failed, with a few suspicious exceptions.
The door to an end unit opened in a shaft of light, and Artie slipped in. When the door closed, a dark figure walked by, paused at the door, and then stood in front of it like a guard dog.
Taylor could only slump in his seat and watch nothing. He’d shut off his cell phone so it wouldn’t light. He drank tepid coffee from a cardboard cup. He tried to meditate, but couldn’t focus. Whenever he closed his eyes he saw a rough sea, his Mom in it, raising one arm in a last desperate call for help. Oh God.
He risked turning on his phone to play a distracting game of chess. In less than twenty minutes, Artie was back.
“So…” Taylor said.
“It was her, your hot girl, Cammie.”
“What did you find out?”
He shook his head. “Quick fake rubdown and blow job,” he said.
“Taylor, it’s a whorehouse.”
“I mean, she just seems so shy.”
He spread his hands and shrugged. “Maybe she was into me.”
Taylor sputtered. “I find it hard to imagine that a woman so shy is taking on any stranger with $100 in hand. Who’d you pay?”
“Kung Fu Panda, on the way in.”
“Asian guy. Didn’t get a good look at him in the shadows. All he did was hold his hand out, grab my money and grunt.”
Taylor looked toward the Airliner, didn’t see that shadowy pimp. He assumed it was Kenner, the driver on the night he was kidnapped.
“Question asked,” Artie said, “Question answered. She’s a ho.”
“By choice? Or is she a slave? That’s the question.” Taylor sat back as Artie started the car. “My dad told me to stay out of it. He thinks it’s organized crime.”
“He would know,” Artie said, and wheeled out of the lot.