By Monday morning Tess was on the road, her breasts safely stowed beneath her usual turtleneck and a perfectly acceptable cocktail dress parked in her closet-black, halter-necked, and sleeveless, showcasing the shoulders and deltoids instead of the pectorals. Meanwhile, Uncle Donald had spent the weekend pulling strings, old and frayed as they were. Tess was now on the visiting list for Boris Petrovich, a process that normally required weeks of back-and-forth with the Department of Corrections.
"Who else is on the list?" she asked her uncle's DOC contact, curious to see if Natalie had gone behind Mark Rubin's back and continued to visit her father all these years.
"His lawyer, his wife, and someone named Lana Wishnia."
"Yes, but she hasn't been to see him since he was moved to the Eastern Shore six months ago. Probably too far for her to go."
"I guess inmates learn who really cares about them when they end up on the Eastern Shore."
Petrovich had been transferred to Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County. It was a long trip, made longer by the lack of an interstate past Annapolis. And because it was an autumn weekday, as opposed to a summer weekend, Tess didn't even have the consolation of grabbing a barbecue sandwich or buying fresh produce from a roadside stand. Not that she had much appetite this morning. Her stomach had clutched while crossing the Chesapeake, but she reminded herself that neither the bridge, the bay, nor the islands it contained were the source of her troubles last spring, just the routes she had taken to find them.
The orange DOC jumpsuit is unkind to most Caucasian complexions, but Boris Petrovich looked particularly yellow, as if he had liver trouble. Uncle Donald's state contact said Petrovich had been transferred here after abusing the privileges granted those inmates in a special program for older prisoners at Jessup, which fit with what Tess knew about the man. His foxlike face even looked shifty, with its flat cheekbones and narrowed eyes. Most likely he had agreed to meet with Tess because he was curious to see how he might manipulate her toward some end, even if he hadn't figured out what that end might be.
"So my daughter has run away and my son-in-law suddenly wishes my help. Interesting."
"He doesn't want your help," Tess said. "He didn't even want me to meet with you, but I insisted. He said everything you say is a lie, so it's useless to speak to you."
"Well, not everything. What would be the point in that? If you always lie, it's the same as always telling the truth. You have to mix it up to be effective."
Although Petrovich was serving a twenty-year sentence for second-degree murder, he was not in a maximum-security cell block, and he was allowed to meet visitors in an open area, sitting across a table instead of on the other side of a glass. So he was able to lean forward and place a finger on Tess's nose, the way a man might playfully chide a curious child. She tried not to flinch, but it was hard for her to succumb to a stranger's touch, especially a man. Especially a man with this sour, tainted smell.
"You're not just a liar, you're a would-be blackmailer, too."
He wasn't an easy man to insult. "I didn't see it that way. All I was trying to do is make sure my daughter didn't forget me, that she put some money away for me when I get out of here. After all, she made this wonderful match because of me, right? You think she would be grateful. Right? Or at least willing to pay a finder's fee? Right?"
The question was mocking in a way that Tess couldn't quite analyze. The repeated "right"s suggested the opposite, that something was quite wrong.
"Do you want to tell me what it was that Natalie was so desperate to keep from her husband?"
"What if I offered to pay you? Put money in that account that means so much to you? Plus, my uncle has pull with the state. I might even be able to get you back to Jessup."
He grinned at Tess's surprise, showing teeth as yellow as his skin. "Everyone thinks I'm so crooked. But I have ethics, too, you know. I can't sell you what you want to buy because I've already promised it to another buyer."
"Is it Natalie?" Tess asked, thinking of the flurry of withdrawals Natalie had made in the week before she left.
He shook his head, pleased with himself.
It was Tess's turn to score a point, however small. "Lana Wishnia?"
"You know Lana?"
"Oh, yes. I know she's on your visitors' list, and I've spoken to her at length."
"But not at such length that you found out what you want to know. Or maybe not at all. Maybe you lie, too, to get what you want?" The last was asked with admiration, as if Petrovich could not respect someone who told the truth all the time.
"Sometimes. Lying's the only way to level the playing field with liars. But I do know Lana, and I believe she's a link to Natalie's disappearance. Does she know Natalie's secret as well?"
"I'll tell you this much: The person who bought my silence did it on a promise. I haven't been paid yet. And if the money doesn't come soon, maybe I will put that information back on the market, and you and I could still make a deal."
"Does this have anything to do with the man you killed?"
"That one? No. Trust me on this, no one's ever missed that man, not even his own mother." This matched what Tess had been able to learn. Boris Petrovich's victim had apparently been an unsavory type, a small-time criminal who had quarreled with Petrovich.
"I can always go back to Lana, ask her what's going on."
"She's tough, tougher than any American girl. She won't answer your questions."
Tess had a moment of wanting to impress Petrovich with just how tough this particular American girl was. She couldn't show him her gun-the prison had been quite adamant about holding that for her-but she could yank up her pant leg and display the scar on her left knee, still purplish and a little swollen three months after she fell on that broken bottle, the night she was almost killed. She could tell him what she had found the will to do, when she had to choose between her life and someone else's, the reserves of strength and violence she had discovered in herself. The nightmarish memory had faded somewhat over the past three months, so it was now bearably surreal-a flash of silver finding its target, her victim almost robotic in his agony, like a machine run amok. But the image was never far away when she was angry or upset.
Instead of saying or doing any of these things, however,
Tess willed her adrenaline to ebb. Her instinct had always been to run straight at things, but her instincts were far from reliable. That, too, she had learned the hard way. She needed to be quiet, still, disengaged. Direct questions wouldn't work with Petrovich.
"Hey, do you miss the other men?"
"What other men?"
"The ones from the group."
"I wouldn't call them friends."
"Still, they're back in Jessup right, and now you're here. That's kind of a burn."
He shrugged, indifferent to the topic, seeing no profit in it and therefore no point. "Most of them are gone from Jessup anyway, their time served."
"Right. I hadn't considered that fact. After all, there were only five or six."
"Eight to begin with."
"Right, eight. And you're the only one still inside."
"Me and Yitzhak. The others are all long gone."
"Yes," Tess said. "The others. Remind me of their names. There was you, and Yitzhak, of course, and Abraham."
"Amos, you mean."
"Amos and… Andy?"
Petrovich scowled, furious that she had tricked him into yielding any information for free. "I won't tell you the others' names."
"I don't need you to. Someone-the DOC or the Associated-has to have a record because Mark Rubin and my Uncle Donald were put on a visitors' list, just as I was with you today. Or Mark will remember their names. It simply never occurred to him to connect anyone in the program to Natalie's disappearance-and it didn't occur to me until you said you had another buyer. Thanks a lot, Boris. You've been a huge help."
"You don't know anything. You haven't learned anything. You're on the wrong track."
Perhaps because he was frustrated and angry, Petrovich stood abruptly, and the guards stationed throughout the room took notice. Tess was reminded that the man before her had committed a crime of passion, killing another man in a quarrel. But she wasn't scared.
She wasn't scared. The realization was akin to noticing that a toothache had disappeared, or that one's head had finally cleared after a long, miserable cold. She stood, too, feeling as if she had reclaimed a piece of herself-the chunk of skin carved from her knee, the long braid sliced from the nape of her neck the same night. Her "noive," as the Cowardly Lion would have it. There was no reason to have recovered those things here, in the drab visiting room at ECI, yet she had. Seeing through Petrovich had reminded Tess how much of the world was run on bluff and bluster. She might not be as strong as everyone she met, or as fast, or even as smart. But she could bullshit with the best of them. Combine that quality with a license to carry, and a girl could more than get by in this life.
"It's been a pleasure not doing business with you, Mr. Petrovich."
"You know nothing," he called after her. But Tess knew enough.