"Good news, bad news," Gretchen said over the unreliable line of a cell phone. It was 4:00 p.m., and she had already seen and conquered French Lick.
"They were here. In fact, they made quite an impression. One of the employees remembered the mother because her little girl had an accident in the playground-you know, in one of those ball rooms-and it got a little ugly. They yelled at the woman for letting her daughter go in there, knowing she wasn't toilet trained, the mother said the girl was, that it must be diarrhea from the food, and it went downhill from there. They roared out of there, leaving no forwarding address and, its being McDonald's and all, no telltale credit-card slip. Not that this woman ever uses a credit card. But it was definitely her."
"If it was Natalie, she was telling the truth about Penina's being toilet trained. The twins are five."
"Okay, great, I'm glad to know who was telling the truth in the great poopie-diaper debate. Anyway, the manager told me they were clearly passing through. They were in some big old car."
"And the car was…?"
"Green. Old. Didn't notice the tag, just that it wasn't local. One worker thought they had suitcases on the luggage rack when they pulled in, but another was adamant that the car didn't have anything on the roof when it pulled out. So big, green, and old, not from Indiana. Think we can get state police to give us a roadblock based on that information?"
"I'm sorry, but it kills me how unobservant people are. You know, our government's been telling us since 9/11 that we gotta pay attention, that we're their eyes and ears on the front lines of the war against terrorism. Meanwhile, the average Joe wouldn't notice someone building a dirty bomb at the corner table in Starbucks."
"But they were sure it was Natalie?"
"What? Oh, yeah. Apparently men remember that face. Which brings me to the most important piece of news-"
Gretchen's cell phone picked this moment to go out. Tess waited a few seconds to see if Gretchen would wander back into a good cell, then hung up, knowing she would call again.
"Sorry. Anyway, I did learn something else, but it's not going to make your client happy."
"Natalie's traveling with a man."
Tess wished she were more surprised. "Description?"
"About as helpful as old and green. Thirties or forties, tall, blue eyes, dark hair, cropped short. Muscular, but not muscle-bound. No facial hair. Dressed in what the cashier called a cowboy kind of way, which apparently translates to jeans, boots, and a denim jacket in this part of the world. She said he was good-looking, but I'm not sure the McDonald's cashier and I have the same taste in men."
"No, it's pretty much the land of generic one-syllable adjectives. Although Natalie probably would have been noticed even if her daughter hadn't flamed out in the ball room."
"Because she's so pretty?"
"And she has dark hair. You don't see a lot of brunettes in this part of the world."
Tess hung up the phone and got out an atlas, an old one, but its version of the world was good enough for her purposes as long as she wasn't tracking someone through Natalie Rubin's country of origin, still listed here as the USSR.
French Lick was in southern Indiana, and it wasn't on a major interstate. It was-Tess worked backward, using the mileage charts for Evansville and Louisville-almost seven hundred miles from Baltimore. The Internet provided the helpful information that it had a golf resort and something called the Antique Hair Museum.
But on what route did it lie, why would someone pass through there? That's what had Tess stumped. If Natalie was heading west, why was she traveling so far from the interstate, and why had she made so little progress? Gone three weeks, she could have reached the opposite coast by now. Tess knew that movies often showed people trying to hide out in small towns, but it was a ludicrous plan in practice. A strange family would be more noticeable in a small town, not less. French Lick had only two thousand people, the nearby county seat of Paoli a mere twenty thousand. It was no place to hide, and no place to go, unless Natalie was a fervent Larry Bird fan paying homage to the basketball legend's hometown.
This was one drawback to the SnoopSisters network. Gretchen had swept in and done exactly what was requested, with concrete results. She had gotten there faster and cheaper than Tess ever could. But this job-share arrangement was no substitute for seeing a place with your own eyes, for walking the streets, for getting lost and then found again. Tess often made her best discoveries as the result of wrong turns and tangents.
She had promised Rubin to call as soon as the Sabbath ended. But such news would have to be delivered in person. It would be too coldhearted to drop it on him in a phone call, to pretend the news was anything less than devastating. Natalie was traveling with a man. He probably paid the bills. That answered one question, but it raised a lot more.
The September sun was strong, and Tess decided to sit on the deck and watch it go down, dropping in and out of a novel as her attention span allowed. Too keyed up to read something new, she chose to reread, picking the guiltiest of guilty pleasures, Peyton Place. She considered pulling Marjorie Morningstar off the shelf but decided she'd rather hang out with Metalious's repressed New Englanders, who did such shocking things when they thought they were unobserved. Marjorie, on the other hand, was just a tiresome virgin who had to learn the hard way to give up on rascals and settle down with a nice Jewish boy.
In Wouk's worldview this left Marjorie with a minor deformity, not unlike the crippled arm of the man who had despoiled her. For Tess, Marjorie's mistake was the only quality that made her bearable. Choosing the wrong man was an essential step on the road to finding the right one. Or so Tess had heard.