Tess's Uncle Donald winced when he entered the Kibbitz Room at Attman's Delicatessen. The pained expression puzzled Tess. He normally doted on the restaurant, one of two holdouts on the once-thriving block known as Corned Beef Row, and he loved the food. "More than it loves me," he often said, for his doctor despaired when Donald indulged in things like corned beef and Matjes herring.
"Why the long face?" she asked. "It's a beautiful day, you have a pastrami sandwich and a Dr. Brown's celery soda. What more could you want?"
"I feel like I'm visiting a ghost town when I come here," he said, unloading his tray. "Thirty years ago you couldn't move three paces down the sidewalks here on a Saturday. Now you could drive your car along them and not hit anything, except the occasional rat. Corned Beef Row indeed. Don't you need more than two places to make a row? It all just makes me feel old and sad and tired."
"Still, the food is good." Whenever Tess came to Attman's, she wondered why she wasn't there at least once a week. "Best deli in Baltimore, by my lights."
"Which is great if you're a healthy bundle of metabolism like yourself. My blood pressure goes up just looking at this food." He took a mournful bite of pickle.
"Do you really have to worry?" Tess was still of an age where high blood pressure, cholesterol, and bifocals were no more than rumors from a distant country, one she honestly thought she could avoid visiting.
"We live in a world of measurement, where everything is judged by whether it's going up or down. The stock market goes up, that's good. Your blood pressure goes up, that's bad. The stock market goes down, and that's bad. So your blood pressure goes higher, and that's bad, too."
Tess laughed. "I've noticed that whatever state agency you're posted to seems to shape your latest theories on life. When you were at Human Resources, you were talking a lot about the safety net, the social fabric, and the myth of empowerment. Now you're at the Department of Licensing and Regulation, and suddenly it's all about measurement."
"Well, given that I never have to think much about what I do at work, is it so wrong for me to think about it in a wider sense, to try and find meaning in the meaningless?"
"Damn, Uncle Donald." Tess gave the no-longer-profane profanity the full Baltimore pronunciation, so it had two syllables and a distinctive twang. "Are you angling for a transfer to some newly formed Department of Existentialism and Despair?"
"I'd like that," Donald said, chewing hard. The sandwiches here required huge, snapping bites, like those seen in nature documentaries about lions. One had to open jaws wide, stretching the hinge, and then chomp down with determined ferocity as if to break the spine of a small beast. "We have a state folklorist. Why not a state philosopher? If the new governor weren't a Republican, I bet I could get a job like that, maybe even use it to promote the case for slot machines. But it would probably be an at-will position, and I don't want to give up my PIN."
While most people associate PINs with ATMs, the Monaghan-Weinstein clans, steeped in generations of civil service, used it as shorthand for the Personal Identification Numbers in the state civil service. Keep your PIN, keep your job. Not necessarily the same job, as Uncle Donald's career illustrated, but some kind of post. Thirty years ago, when his state-senator boss had gone away for mail fraud, Donald's consolation prize had been a lifetime of full employment, moving from state agency to state agency as needs and budgets dictated. Wherever he went, the two constants were his clipboard and his frown. With those two, Uncle Donald said, anyone could survive in a bureaucracy.
"Anyway, what's your agenda this morning? It's a cinch you didn't call your uncle for his company, excellent though it is."
Uncle Donald's tone was light, but it made Tess squirm. She did have a bad habit of reaching out to her family only when she needed something. And she had been especially scarce in recent weeks, ducking dinners and get-togethers, citing the extra work she had taken on to make up for her layoff. She just hadn't been in the mood for family gatherings and the interrogations they inspired.
"This is a thank-you lunch. I really appreciate you steering the Rubin case to me."
"I find myself waiting for the 'but.' "
"No 'but.' Maybe a 'however,' or a 'yet.' Mark Rubin seemed to go out of his way to keep me from learning something. Did you know that Rubin's father-in-law is in prison for second-degree murder?"
"Sure. That's how we met."
"Because you know his father-in-law?"
"Because we visited prisons together. Rubin and I were in the same Jewish men's club, and we organized an outreach program for Jews in Maryland prisons. It was his idea, in fact."
Your uncle, Rubin had told her, is quite active in Jewish causes. She had assumed he was talking about B'nai B'rith.
"Jews in prison? What, for accounting crimes?"
"You know, you may qualify for citizenship in Israel, but I'm not sure a girl named Monaghan should traffic in those stereotypes. Someone who didn't know you so well could take offense."
"Would you feel better if I assumed everyone you visited was a murderer?"
"We've always had some very tough Jews, you know, for good and bad, throughout history. Gangsters, of course, but there's also the story of the Warsaw ghetto-"
"I'm sorry, Uncle Donald," she said, hoping a quick apology would derail him, but he was too wound up.
"Not to mention Sandy Koufax."
"How did we get on the subject of Sandy Koufax?"
"I'm just saying, he was a Jew, one of the greatest baseball players that ever lived, and when he didn't play in the World Series on Yom Kippur, he showed the world a little something. People talk about Jews being money grubbers, but it wasn't Sandy Koufax who was pushing Mr. Coffee, was it? No, he retired with some dignity, although he hardly made a tenth, a hundredth, of what a player like him would make today."
Uncle Donald normally spoke with a slight Baltimore accent, an almost Cockney-like inflection distinguished by its odd-shaped o sounds. But as he warmed to this topic, he began to sound more and more like his immigrant forebears. It was only a matter of time before Yiddish broke out. Tess decided to mollify him.
"What did your men's group do?"
"We visited Jewish inmates once a month and led them in an informal service. And we observed major holidays. Passover was my favorite."
"How do you do Passover in prison?"
"Well, they can't leave the door open for Elijah and there's no wine, but they chant 'Next year outside' instead of 'Next year in Jerusalem.' Very touching, actually."
"I didn't know you cared about religion. You never talk about it."
"Jews don't proselytize," Donald said. "Your parents decided to raise you with virtually no religious education, so who was I to interfere? Besides, I'd be suspicious of anyone who did so-called good works, then ran around talking about it. Sort of misses the point."
"I wouldn't say I was raised without a religious education. Dad told me his version, Mom told me hers, and I was free to make my own decisions. I opted for being a nonobservant Jewish Catholic who believes in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny but can hang with the bitter-herb crowd at a seder. Remember last year? I kept the horseradish in my mouth longer than anyone except Crow, and he has an asbestos tongue from his time in Texas."
"He's a nice boy. How's his mother doing?"
"Fine, all things considered. They're Episcopalians, by the way. I mean, as long as we're taking inventory of who believes what."
"Do you believe in God, Tesser?"
Tess squirmed on the molded plastic chair, which had probably been in the Kibbitz Room since President Jimmy Carter's visit, which was featured on the wall above her in a series of newspaper articles, some framed, some shellacked to pieces of wood. She didn't want to talk with her uncle about her love life, but she was even more reluctant to discuss religion.
"Sure," she said. "Why not? So did Rubin get involved in this group because his father-in-law was in prison?"
"Oh, no. He met Natalie at the prison because her father was one of the men in our group. You see, she sought Mark out, very keen that her father embrace his faith, eager to know what she could do to help. She had found great comfort in Judaism after her father's arrest. But Boris Petrovich… well, Boris couldn't have been less interested in the program. I think he signed up because it was a nice diversion and we brought in good food. The man knew nothing about his own religion."
"Not unusual for a Soviet Jew. In fact, I'd say Natalie's the odd one, from what I know, choosing to live an observant life after almost twenty years of being wholly ignorant of Judaism."
"True, but Boris always seemed to be working some angle." Uncle Donald frowned at the memory. "It's a funny thing, charitable work. You might not go in expecting people to be overwhelmed with gratitude, but you think they'll be polite at least Petrovich was a bit of a jerk, a schemer through and through, whether he was asking for an extra macaroon or wheedling one of us to write a letter to get some privilege reinstated. But the daughter-the daughter was nothing but lovely."
"She wasn't part of the group, though? Rubin met her through the prison connection?" So there went the touching little story about the Carvel stand, a lie through and through.
"Yes. I admit I thought it was one of Petrovich's schemes at first. He may not have known how rich Mark was, but he had him pegged as a mark, a prosperous prospect. Hey-try saying that three times fast. Prosperous prospect, prosperous prospect, prosperous-"
"You're the king of the tongue twisters," Tess agreed.
"Anyway, Natalie contacted Mark about her father, and they ended up getting married. Then Mark dropped out of the program, saying he didn't have time for it anymore. That was at least eight, nine years ago, so maybe that's why he didn't mention it to you."
Tess rescued a few pieces of fallen corned beef from her plate.
"Only here's the part that's bothering me, Uncle Donald. Rubin's the one who keeps saying he thinks his wife disappeared for some reason she can't tell him. So why withhold the information that her daddy is a convict who killed a man?"
"Well, for one thing, people sometimes forget that others don't know what they know about themselves. Maybe he thought I'd tell you about Natalie's father. Besides, Mark's always been… an elliptical man. Formal and reserved. I think it comes from spending a lifetime of telling overweight women that they don't look fatter in a fur coat."
"His mother-in-law suggested he's not always truthful."
"Really?" Donald picked up a pickle from his plate and sucked on it before taking a bite. "I never had that sense. He's extremely reticent with most people, but he's charming when you get to know him, funny even."
"Not a jokester. No lamp shades on the head. But a very-I don't know-dry wit. Like Mort Sahl."
"No, Mort Sahl. He was a Jewish comedian-"
Tess patted her uncle's forearm. "I'm teasing you. I'm much better on the details of our cultural history than I am on the religious stuff. Why did Mark come to you when he needed a private detective? Are you two close?"
Uncle Donald shook his head. "Not particularly. He's a wealthy businessman, living up in the county in some Architectural Digest house, with a wife and kids. I'm a state employee, with my little rental in Mount Washington. He says his prayers three times a day. I go to shul on Rosh Hashanah, fast on Yom Kippur, and try to find a relative to take me in on Passover."
"So why did Mark Rubin come to you with this very delicate matter?"
But now she had offended him. "Your uncle is still known as a man who can get things done, Tesser. Maybe I can't do things directly, but I know who to call."
"He didn't know I was a private investigator, then, he just asked for your help in finding a PI?"
"When he came to me, he wasn't even talking about private investigators. He thought the police were putting him off, not taking him seriously, because… well, because, you know…" He made a strange, helpless gesture with his hand.
"I don't know."
"Because he's Jewish. I mean, Jewish-Jewish, really Jewish, not just Jewish-surname-Jewish. Different-Jewish."
"Oh, Uncle Donald, that's paranoid beyond belief." Tess had already forgotten how quick she had been to take the other side of this argument with Nancy Porter.
"Yeah? One detective even asked him if this was an arranged marriage or a mail-order bride."
"So? There are still arranged marriages of sorts among the Orthodox, and there are mail-order brides from Russia, where Natalie was born. They were just doing their jobs, asking those questions."
"Oh." He chewed with intense concentration, as if the act of grinding his molars also helped his brain to work. "At any rate, when I determined that the police weren't being obstinate, that they really couldn't help him, I told him he needed a private investigator-and I knew just the person. The idea of a female investigator was a bit of an obstacle for him, but I persuaded him that you were more discreet than anyone else he could hire." He wiggled his eyebrows in best Groucho fashion.
"Thanks, Uncle Donald. It's nice for a family member to steer me toward a wealthy client for once. But if he doesn't start being more forthcoming with me, I'm not sure how much I can help him."
"Are there other things he's not telling you?"
"I don't know. Something. Maybe it's just, you know…" She shrugged, unsure how to broach this topic with her uncle. "Maybe his wife wasn't, um… fulfilled in their relationship."
"Fulfilled? Oh, you mean sex. No, I never got that impression that was the issue."
"So there was an issue?"
"I'm just assuming. She left, so something must have been wrong. Right? No one walks out on a perfect relationship."
"One person's perfect could be another person's hell." Tess took out a pad and pen. "What about the other men you visited, particularly in Jessup where Petrovich was held? Do you have a list of their names?"
"I don't, but the organization might keep such records. I'm sure we had correspondence with the Department of Corrections, to get clearances and the like. Why?"
"A man's wife and children disappeared. Now, I'm still betting she just took off, for whatever reason, but he's adamant that there's something more sinister involved. Looking at known criminals in his past makes sense. I also need to find out who his father-in-law killed, don't I?"
"Oh." He furrowed his brow. "You're not mad at me, Tesser, for making this referral? It's good money, isn't it?"
"It's great money. But one of the stinky things about my line of work is that the longer it takes me to solve a problem, the more money I make. Doesn't that seem a little backward to you?"
"So you asked me here today to talk about Mark, this case?"
"Well, yeah. But to see you, too," she added. "And to gossip about Kitty's wedding."
"But mainly to talk about work?" He seemed adamant about scoring this point, which was not Uncle Donald's way. He was one of the few relatives who never tried to make her feel guilty.
"Yes, okay? Yes, I asked you here to talk about the Rubin case."
He pushed his check across the table. "Then you pay for me and put it on your expenses, mameleh. I would hope you should know that by now."