THE LITTLE BOY WAS LOOKING FOR HIS FATHER. He went from room to room in the old house, only vaguely aware of the flames in the windows, the heat building up around him. He was not scared. He is never scared. From somewhere outside the house, his mother screamed, telling him to turn around, to come back, to flee to safety, but he paid no heed. He knew that his father was in the house somewhere, and he would not leave without his father. He walked from the third floor to the second, from the second to the first. The house was his family's, the only house he had ever known. Yet it was unfamiliar-looking, with strange furniture he had never seen before. And the basement was still unfinished, not the playroom he used in the daytime, filled with toys and games and gadgets. This was a dark, creepy place with a cold stone floor, no furniture, and no electricity. Upstairs the fire crackled happily, making a sound like Jiffy Pop. He still was not afraid. Jiffy Pop was nothing to be afraid of. Maybe his father was making it for him. Only his father could make it right, so every kernel popped, just like it said on the bag.
And then he saw his father lying on the basement floor, dressed as if for work, his gray suit surrounded by a burgundy stain. Had Poppa spilled something? Cranberry juice or Hawaiian Punch? Would Mama be mad at Poppa for making a mess? There was a gun, his father's gun, which he had to carry for work. But the gun was in Poppa's right hand, and his father was left-handed, like him. Why was the gun in his right hand? Someone else must have killed him and tried to make it look like his father did it to himself.
The boy took the gun away and put it in his toy chest, which had suddenly materialized, and now the basement was the rec room he remembered, with the cast-off sofa and pine paneling and the old black-and-white RCA in the corner, because his father just bought a big color television for the den. Would they have to give the color television back, now that his father was dead?
Zeke willed himself awake, an essential trick to master for those prone to nightmares. He had thought the dream was the by-product of his old life and assumed it would end when he finally got out. But here it was again, more or less the same. Some details varied, but the fiery house remained constant. It always started off as a surreal approximation of the shingled Forest Park home his family had owned before his father's death, then reclaimed itself at the end, taking on its true contours in case Zeke ever made the mistake of thinking his father's suicide could be confined within the boundaries of a bad dream.
And the young Zeke always had some petty thought upon finding his father's body. Would they get to keep the color television? The new Cadillac? Strange, the one question the dreamworld Zeke never asked was the one Zeke had asked in real life: Did this mean they weren't going to the Orioles game? Zeke didn't beat himself up too much over that. He was only five when his father died-in the basement of what was left of his business, as a matter of fact, not at home. And he was discovered by an employee, not his son, so the event had seemed unreal to the little boy. After all the rabbi's vague talk about journeys and God's fate and being summoned by the Angel of Death, Zeke came to believe that his father had gone to a place from which he might return. So he had asked what a five-year-old boy would have asked in those years, the glory years of McNally and Palmer and Brooks: "Does this mean we're not going to the Orioles game?"
The rabbi took their tickets. Or so Zeke always assumed. At any rate, Zeke didn't go to the game that night.
He stared at the ceiling, taking in the sounds around him. Life on the outside was at once louder and quieter than he remembered, the sounds more varied and less predictable. Natalie didn't exactly snore, but she whistled a bit as she slept, curled into his side like a kitten. The children, who shared the other double bed, were mouth-breathers and snufflers. The twins slept in a tangled jumble, while Isaac hugged a narrow strip along the side. Once or twice so far, Zeke had awakened in the night and found Isaac's brown-black eyes boring into him in the dark, full of hate. The boy slept so far on the side of the bed that it was amazing to Zeke he didn't end up falling every night, but he had an unnatural rigidity. Again, just like his father. The Rubins were very rigid men.
Spoiled, too. At every stop Isaac asked if he could have a rollaway bed, but Zeke had said a motel double was big enough for three kids. The truth was that he just didn't want to draw attention to the fact that they were traveling with three kids. Bad enough that they sometimes drove with the luggage on the roof, although that sometimes worked as an optical illusion. Now you see it, now you don't.
"What makes you think motels even have rollaways?" he had asked Isaac once.
"The Waldorf-Astoria did," he said. "We had a suite, and I slept on the rollaway in the living room part, and the twins shared the other double bed."
"The Waldorf, huh?" Even when Zeke's father was alive and the business was thriving, Zeke had never taken material things for granted, never assumed the world was his oyster, never even understood that puzzling expression. If the world was your oyster, what were you? A grain of sand being pounded into a pearl? "You stay at the Waldorf a lot, Lord Fauntleroy?"
"Just once. Daddy had business in New York, and we went up for the weekend. He took me to the museum with the dinosaurs and the big planetarium. He said he finally understood black holes after going there. Do you know what a black hole is?"
"Of course." If he said no, Isaac would launch into a long, tedious explanation. The kid was in love with the sound of his own voice. It was an unexpected bonus of locking him into the trunk, not having to listen to him yak. You, he wanted to say. You're a goddamn black hole, a mother-fuckin'maw, demanding attention.
Too bad the boy didn't take after his mother, a woman with the rare ability to keep still. Natalie's beauty was remarkable, but it was her composure, her need not to fill silences, that Zeke prized above all. Most women were so busy, never at rest. They puttered, they frittered, they fussed. The spark between Zeke and Natalie hadn't been so much love at first sight as it was the thrill of recognition, two aliens trapped on an unfriendly planet, the only members of their species. Natalie, like Zeke, knew she deserved whatever she could wring out of this world.
Granted, he found himself wishing that she had been a little more communicative when she showed up in Terre Haute. Surprise! I've left Mark, I didn't want to wait anymore, not even a month or two. Oh, and I have three kids. Guess I forgot to mention that in all the letters. Zeke had never even suspected the kids existed, although it struck him in hindsight that Lana had dropped a spiteful hint or two over the years. He wasn't an idiot, he knew Natalie had to have sex with Mark, but she had told him she couldn't have kids. Truthfully, he hadn't minded the idea of Mark's being denied the children that an Orthodox man would consider his due. He had even hoped it might make Mark question his faith, or God's love. He yearned for that prig to question something, anything, but that was the Rubin secret to survival: Never look too closely at the source of all that good luck.
Even as Zeke processed the inconvenient fact of the children's presence-in Terre Haute in particular, on the planet in general-he understood why it never would have occurred to Natalie to leave them behind when she bolted. What was hers was hers; Natalie was almost crazed on this point. It had killed her, having to leave so many of her possessions back in Mark Rubin's house. But the children were hers, and hers alone, according to Natalie's bizarre logic. Motherhood had gotten under Natalie's skin in a way Zeke never could have predicted. She still put him first, above all others, but she didn't see why she couldn't do that while tending to the children she had conceived with another man. If only Zeke's own mother had been committed to such a paradoxical idea. But Zeke's mom had always put her happiness above his.
He had tried to convince Natalie to go home, to wait just a month or two more, although her disappearance and reappearance would make Mark inconveniently suspicious. Failing that, he urged her to put the children on a bus before they had seen too much and knew too much, although he didn't phrase it quite that way. "Don't you see he's going to do a full-court press to find you? A wife runs away, a man might come to accept it. But when she takes his kids, it's like throwing down a gauntlet. He has to hunt for you now."
Natalie had just stared at Zeke blankly, not getting it. Her English was flawless, unaccented, yet riddled with holes of willful incomprehension. She knew twenty-seven different ways to describe red lipstick, but she wouldn't know a gauntlet, whether thrown down or run down.
"With or without the children, he was going to look for me," she said. "He loves me. You told me to make sure of it, and I did. He adores me."
"Yeah, but…" Useless to explain. Although generally pliable, Natalie could be thick when it suited her. By leaving early and taking the kids, she had screwed up everything, forced him to improvise. Zeke preferred not to improvise. Then again, Natalie didn't know the particulars of his plan-he had needed her to be plausibly bewildered when the payoff came-so she could almost be excused for throwing a goddamn monkey wrench into the works. Natalie didn't have the benefit of ten years of planning, thinking, dreaming. She had gone about her reasonable facsimile of an Orthodox mama's life, driving her kids to school and Gymboree, shopping at the kosher markets, marking time until the day that Zeke would summon her and their real life would begin.
And then, with only a few weeks to go, she had bolted, no longer able to wait. He was still trying to process the mere fact of her presence when she led him into that motel room and showed him the three solemn-faced children waiting there, three little Rubins, three goddamn contingencies to be dealt with.
Short term, Zeke had figured out how they could use the kids to their advantage, make them pay their way. So they drove from town to town, masquerading as a family, telling a lie, getting a check, using the check to case the banks, which allowed them to get even more money if the security proved to be as nonexistent as Zeke had heard. Amazing how many places skimped on things like cameras and guards, content to let Plexiglas carry the day. But then, that's what he had learned, back in Terre Haute. It may be a federal charge, but it didn't have to be that risky, not if you were careful. The feds had bigger things on their minds these days. Too bad it was such a small score, but what could a man do? He'd get his big payoff soon enough, and he'd be hundreds of miles away when it all came down.
Because here was something else that Zeke had figured out in Terre Haute: The best schemes weren't in the minds of other inmates out on the yard but in the prison library, and in the novels at that. The nonfiction books were written from the point of view of the cops or the losers, but the novelists were a larcenous lot at heart, devising criminal enterprises that they themselves then foiled. Elmore Leonard, James M. Cain, Donald Westlake-Zeke might have been the first person to read these men for their plots, making careful notes. In Zeke's view there was no reason that Walter Huff and Phyllis Nirdlinger shouldn't live happily ever after on the largesse provided by Mr. Nirdlinger. The trick was not to get greedy and go for the double-indemnity clause. And to roll with the punches when necessary. That's what Zeke had done when Natalie showed up with those damn kids, and so far it was working.
Besides, Zeke's scheme might have been born of necessity, but it had a certain serendipity. The lies that Natalie told would become the truth, as lies often did. There was even a pleasing symmetry. His father's name had been smeared, and he had taken his life out of despair over the unfair accusations against him.
Now Mark Rubin's life would be destroyed-figuratively, with the loss of his wife and children, and then literally, by one of the poor souls he had deigned to help. The self-righteous prig. Zeke almost wished Mark could be alive when his widow returned to town to bury his body and claim the life insurance, not to mention his sizable estate. Those who consoled her would be treated to her whispered confidences: Mark Rubin had beat her, that's why she had run away. Look, she had the welfare handouts to prove it, emergency checks given by trusting social workers, appalled by the old-fashioned patriarchy of Orthodox life. Another bit of luck from Terre Haute-Natalie couldn't have pulled this act in, say, Chicago, where Zeke had planned to settle short-term. But in the rural hamlets of Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio, sympathetic souls couldn't wait to raid their emergency funds for the abused Orthodox wife on the run. So yeah, he had made it all work for him thus far, rolled with the punches, handled every unplanned contingency.
Except, of course, for the children. But he'd figure out what to do with them, too, and sooner rather than later. Zeke wasn't going to raise Mark Rubin's bastards. As he fell back to sleep, he found himself wondering if Mark was the kind of man who insured his children. Possibly. Probably. He was that tight-assed-and that clueless. Mark Rubin thought he could anticipate every contingency, but he would never see what Zeke had planned for him.