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Chapter Twenty-seven

The Garrett County authorities were polite, almost painstakingly so, to "that girl and that Jew who killed Amos," as Tess overheard one deputy say to another. The tone was innocuous, the meaning clear: They were outsiders who had killed a local. Just their luck, Amos Greif was well liked in his hometown, if only because he kept to himself and paid his property taxes. And if he had come out of prison less than rehabilitated, as a cursory examination of his house seemed to indicate, at least Grantsville was only a staging area for his auto-theft network. Amos Greif was a good neighbor. He left the local cars alone.

Luckily, Tyner knew a Cumberland lawyer willing to safeguard their rights on short notice. Tess had learned through sorry experience that there was no percentage in talking to authorities without a lawyer present, especially when she was innocent. The lawyer arrived quickly, and by the time the sun went down over West Virginia, the sheriff had decided to let Tess and Mark Rubin leave, although he reminded them that they would be expected to return for grand jury proceedings. ButTyner's friend said she knew the state's attorney and he was likely to recommend no indictment under the circumstances. Tess and Mark were licensed gun owners on legitimate business, and their stories meshed with the physical evidence at the scene.

"It would have been better," said the lawyer, Gloria Hess, "if you hadn't gone inside his house after you shot him. But I still think you'll both be okay."

She was a tall, striking brunette, gorgeous enough so that even Mark seemed to register the fact, shaking her hand with a faintly dazed look. It occurred to Tess that Tyner's legal contacts all tended to be lookers.

"I had to call 911, and it's hard to get service on my cell out here," Tess told Gloria. "You have to admit, Greif's behavior made more sense after the deputies saw what was in his house. Clearly it wasn't trespassing he was worried about."

The deputies had opened a closed door off the central hallway and discovered a state-of-the-art forger's shop, with a gleaming photocopier and templates for all sorts of documents-temporary tags, titles, driver's licenses. There also were meticulous files, kept in restored oak filing cabinets, showing price lists for certain parts and in-demand vehicles, broken down by region. Another folder yielded voluminous correspondence about firearms, but this appeared to be legal-up to a point. Greif was the registered owner of hundreds of handguns, but the only weapon the deputies turned up was the shotgun he had died holding.

The deputies were impressed by their find, so Tess had pretended to be, too, despite having seen it all, and more. She wished she had thought to shut down Greif's computer-with the flick of a finger, the deputies could have traced her frantic path through it in the minutes before they arrived. She had searched documents for references to Natalie and the children, started and quit all the recent applications. The last thing she did was click on Greif's America Online account.

"What's the use?" Rubin hissed from the door, where he was keeping watch. "You can't get into his e-mail without his password."

"But I can get into his address book." She opened it up and was grateful to discover that Greif had stored only five addresses.

The first four, all Hotmail accounts, meant nothing to her. Tess jotted them down, knowing that a computer-savvy type could discern a lot from mere addresses.

The last address was for Wishnia, Lana, with an AOL user name of SlavicBeautee. And the comment box included the P.O. Box at the Reisterstown mail store where Tess had followed her that first day.

Tess quit the program, scooting out of the room and into the front hallway just moments before the deputies climbed the porch steps and began walking around the considerable corpse left there. Contemplating the lifeless form, Tess had felt nothing, or close to it. Her only regret about Greif's death was that he had taken whatever he knew with him.


"I'm sorry." They were passing the ballpark outside Frederick, home to the Keys, dark this time of year.

"Sorry for what?" Mark said, glancing longingly at the park. "I took Isaac there once. It's a great little stadium."

"I'm sorry you had to kill a man today. You should have let me do it, given that I already have one on my scorecard."

"There really wasn't time to sort it out. I've gotten so used to the fact that you carry a gun that I forgot about it. I suppose we could have done the Alphonse and Gaston thing: 'After you. No, after you. No, I insist, after you.' But we'd both be dead by now."

Tess smiled, feeling through her jeans for the bumpy scar on her knee. She had bruised it when Mark threw her down, and she couldn't help feeling it might burst open once again, exposing the bone. Of all the things she had seen in her life, few had made her queasier than a glimpse of bone inside in her own knee.

"Any idea what he meant, about the mountain coming to Muhammad, or a job done being a job done?"

"I'm not sure he knew what he meant Maybe he had just taken an order for some hard-to-get Jaguar parts. It does seem that the only thing Amos learned in prison was how to run his criminal enterprises with more technological finesse."

"Are you disappointed that he didn't change? You spent all that time visiting Jessup, trying to help these guys, and he goes right back to his old ways."

"I did it as much for myself as for them. That's the nasty little secret about charity. We do it for ourselves."

"Well, sure, if it's just some onetime thing. I read in the newspaper once that the local soup kitchens dread Thanksgiving because all these dilettantes come out of the woodwork, determined to hand out platters of sweet potatoes so they can then go home and watch football while enveloped in a saintly glow. The writer called it 'the one-day philanthropy fix.' But you're not one of those people."

"Still, my motives were largely selfish."

"How so?"

Rubin hesitated. "You've heard me speak of a shanda?"

"With Natalie's father, right. It means 'shame.' "

"It's bigger than shame in some ways. I grew up surrounded by relatives who really did evaluate everything on the basis of whether it was good for the Jews or bad for the Jews. Hank Greenberg? Good for the Jews. Michael Milken? Bad for the Jews. We were responsible not just for ourselves but for every Jew, and the bad always outweighed the good. When I became aware of the Jewish men in Maryland's prison system, I felt I should do something. My own father" His voice trailed off.

"Was your father in prison?"

"Oh, God, no. No. But there was gossip, ugly gossip, about his business and his money. My stepmother was very well fixed. And, truth be told, my father had a little gonif in him. That means-"

"Thief," Tess said. "I've read everything Philip Roth has ever written."

"Roth. That self-loathing monster, projecting his own problems onto an entire people."

"Read The Ghost Writer and American Pastoral, then get back to me. What about your father?"

"I told you it was my dad's idea for us to offer lifetime storage to his customers at a discounted rate. What I didn't tell you is that the original building was just an old, crummy warehouse in downtown Baltimore. No climate control, nothing. He figured that most people wouldn't know if their coats had been properly stored, and if one got damaged, he would just replace it and still be ahead financially. It was a gamble, and it paid off. But it was dishonest, taking money from people to put their furs in that nasty old building. When I came on as his partner, I insisted on the new warehouse. It was a big capital expense, but I wanted to make up for all the years my father ripped people off."

"You're not responsible for your dad."

"You're wrong about that. I'm responsible for my dad, and my family. As you pointed out this morning, everywhere I go, people see a Jew, first and foremost. So I have to live an exemplary life."

"Is there an element of shame in the fact that Natalie left you?"

He nodded, his eyes on the road. "Absolutely. If I were a good husband, she never would have gone. Clearly, I failed her in some way."

"Not necessarily."

"Necessarily. I've told you we had no problems, and that was true. But if she left me to keep me from learning something about her well, that's my failure, too. Somehow she came to believe that she couldn't be completely honest with me, that she couldn't trust my love for her."

"Maybe Natalie isn't the person you thought she was. Maybe she's concealing something far worse than you could ever imagine."

"She's the mother of my children. What else matters? We're the adults, we can work out whatever we need to work out. But children are better off when their parents stay together."

They drove for a few more miles in silence. Tess saw an ad for a real-estate agent, one in which two giant hands shook and sealed a deal for a little piece of the American dream.

"You touched me today," she said.

"What?"

"You pushed my head down. Before you-"

"Any Jewish law can be suspended if a person's life is in danger."

"Yeah, but you shook Gloria Hess's hand, too. Didn't hesitate."

He had the good grace to blush. "In business a man has to shake hands sometimes."

"So why did you make such a show of not shaking mine the first time I offered it?"

"You offered it and withdrew it before I could do anything. In that moment well, I didn't think it would be such a bad thing if you were a little off balance."

"You mean you thought it would be good if I felt tentative enough that I didn't ask too many hard questions. What else are you keeping from me, Mark?" Tess realized with a start it was the first time she had used his first name. He had been "Mr. Rubin" to her in conversation, "Rubin" in her head. Nothing like a little justifiable homicide to bring two people closer.

"Nothing. Absolutely nothing. What are you keeping from me?"

"Nothing. Absolutely nothing."

Tess wondered if Mark were lying, too.

The countryside was fading away and the suburbs, with their diffuse, fuzzy lights, came rushing toward them. Mark Rubin was not as delusional as Tess had once thought. He had sought the assistance of a private detective, insisting there were no overt problems in his marriage, convinced that some secret had cost him the life he knew. Almost everything Tess had learned so far supported this original theory. Natalie did have a secret. And her father, used to getting a cut of whatever Natalie made, had tried to blackmail her. Mark Rubin had been stalwart enough not to peek under the lid of that Pandora's box. For a decade, that had granted Natalie a reprieve from her scheming father. But now Boris had a new buyer for his information. If Natalie cared for Mark, would she rationalize that leaving him was the only way to save him?

Then where did the mystery man fit in? And was a desire to protect his criminal enterprises the only reason that Amos Greif had produced that shotgun, clearly ready to kill them both? The mountain had come to Muhammad. Mark was the mountain. Greif had been expecting to see him, only not today, not on his property.

"Lana's the key," Tess said, thinking out loud. "I'm going to follow her tomorrow, see where she leads us."

"Can I come along?"

"You have a business to run. Besides, that's not very professional. You hired me to do this stuff. I don't need anyone riding shotgun." Mark grimaced. "Sorry, poor choice of words. You know, you should see someone."

"I should start dating while I'm still looking for my wife?"

"No, I mean what you did today. It will stay with you in ways you might not expect. Even when there's no choice, when it's you or him, it leaves a mark."

"So you think I should go to counseling?"

"Yes."

"Is that what you did?"

"More or less." Tess had already been in counseling, for unrelated reasons, but she'd been smart enough to realize she needed the therapist's help.

"Well, if you had a God, maybe you could have talked to him and prayed to him. And saved yourself a little money in the process."

"God is great, and God is good," Tess intoned. "But he can't get you prescription drugs."


It was after ten when Tess arrived home, and the dogs were almost hysterical, although she had arranged for a neighbor boy to walk and feed them when she realized she wouldn't be back until late. They were probably scared she had simply left, never to be seen again.

After all, Crow had.

He had been gone less than a month, but even a day was an eternity to Esskay and Miata. Or perhaps they had sussed out, from the tenor of the conversations in the house in the days before he left, that Crow didn't plan on coming back.

Sure, he had left some clothes behind, along with various objects that he would want eventually-CDs, art supplies, a Swiffer. But he wasn't going to come through the door at 2:00 a.m. anymore and slide into bed next to Tess, pirating her warmth. He wasn't around to take over the kitchen, impulsively swept up in his need to make a souffle or risotto. Crow being Crow, he wasn't the type of boyfriend to wreck a kitchen and leave the mess to his girlfriend. He cleaned up as he went, so there was relatively little to do at the end of one of his meals. When Tess once asked why he was so considerate, he said, "After I've made someone dinner, I don't want her expending all her energy on the kitchen. I want her to focus her goodwill on me." He was, as her friend Whitney had once observed, the perfect postmodern boyfriend.

So why had Tess balked when he suggested that she promote him to perfect postmodern husband?

The proposal, such as it was, had come on a perfect summer night late in August, as they walked the dogs through the deepening dusk. There had been a sudden change in the air, and although the nights were still warm, it was clear the sultry summer was losing its grip. Tess had been meandering along with Miata, so docile and easy to walk, while Crow had been holding on to Esskay, who had a major chip on her bony shoulder when it came to all other living creatures. Squirrels, rabbits, cats, other dogs, fast-moving pieces of paper-Esskay lunged at anything that moved.

"She's like that cartoon character-the little cat-who's always saying, 'Let me at 'em, let me at 'em,' " Tess observed, then felt stupid for having such lowbrow cultural references. Why couldn't she allude to Dickens with the same alacrity with which she cited cartoons?

"She's like you," Crow said.

"That's nice."

"Just an affectionate observation. Actually, you're not quite as thin-skinned as you were when we met. But you used to go at the world that way, always expecting dissent and antagonism."

"And I was right, most of the time."

"Do you think I've been good for you?"

Esskay had dragged Crow from the path, intent on sniffing the base of a tree, so Tess could not see his face just then.

"Probably."

"Do you think we should get married?"

Perhaps it was the fact that Tess could not see his face, or perhaps it was the near dark, which seemed to make everything portentous, so that the consequences of a lie seemed more grave than usual. At any rate, she said what she was thinking, swiftly and regretfully: "No."

Three days of arguing followed, disputes notable only by the universality of the cliches thrown back and forth: You're afraid to commit. Marriage is just a meaningless legal construct, in which two people agree to pool all their stuff, so they can pay lawyers to split it up seven years later. If it's so meaningless, why not just humor me and do it?

It would be wrong to say they were relieved when the call came from Charlottesville with the news that Crow's mother had a cancerous lump in her breast. But the family emergency did grant them a reprieve from their own problems. Within a week Crow had called with the glad news that his mother had received the best possible prognosis, but he wanted to stay with his parents for a while, perhaps audit a few courses at UVA. Tess had accepted the decision for the gracious, passive cease-fire she assumed it was.

Was she happy, was she free? The question was not so absurd. She was free, but miserable. She didn't want to live without Crow, but she didn't want to live with him if that meant being a wife. She wasn't sure she wanted to be anyone's wife. She tried to graft the details of marriage and family onto her life, and they just didn't fit. She imagined herself on surveillance, a fractious baby in a car seat. She saw herself trying to tiptoe out of the house in the morning, en route to her 7:00 a.m. row, only to have a child demanding its due. Unlike a dog, a child would not be content with a quick walk and a biscuit.

But in the end Tess said no because she suspected that Crow had asked for all the wrong reasons. Frightened by her brush with death this past spring, he wanted to protect her, care for her, keep her safe. Which was admirable, lovable even. It was not, however, a good reason to get married. That's what she had been trying to figure out all along, but Crow had run away before she could find the words. Now she was too proud to pick up the phone and ask him to come back, and he was well, who knew what he was? Crow's enthusiasms had always come and gone so quickly. Why should she trust his love for her, when he had a mandolin and a bread machine gathering dust in various cupboards?

So on the night of the day she watched Mark Rubin kill a man, Tess walked her dogs down that same dark path and wondered if she was ever going to get her life right. It was beginning to seem like a Rubik's Cube, in which the colors-love, work, family, self-never lined up.

And unlike the toy she had owned as a child, her life couldn't be pounded into the floor until it was a satisfying pile of multicolored plastic.


Chapter Twenty-six | By A Spider`s Thread | Chapter Twenty-eight







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