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Chapter Twenty-eight

ZEKE WAS DISTRACTED WHEN THEY ENTERED THE CITY limits of New Troy, Ohio, not that the fact would have registered with him even under normal circumstances. The only thing that announced the town was a small sign, the paint faded and battered, with the usual Lions Club and Knights of Columbus insignias fastened to the post. The old state highway continued as rutted and cracked as it had been outside the town's limits, and the scenery was the now-familiar mix of broken-up farms and fast-food places, interspersed with the occasional nondescript warehouse. Even if he had been focusing on the world around him, he wouldn't have noticed New Troy, and it wouldn't have mattered if he had. Later he would remind himself of this fact over and over again. It wasn't his fault. There was nothing he could have done.

As it was, he was barely aware that he was driving, that he was in Ohio or even on planet Earth. Natalie was haranguing him about the early start, asking what the rush was when they didn't have to work that day, but he just tuned her out.

The twins were gibbering in that weird-ass secret language, which usually drove him up a wall, but their noise could have been birdsong this morning. He had been in a fog since eight-thirty last night, after stopping at a library right before closing and checking the e-mail account Lana had set up for him on Hotmail. Under a blank subject heading, Lana had written these words: Amos is dead.

It was a punch to the gut, another fucking contingency to roll with, when he'd been doing nothing but rolling since Natalie showed up in Terre Haute with three kids in tow. He wished he could talk it out, share his troubles with someone. Amos dead, everything ruined. But how could he explain to Natalie that the plan to kill Mark was now hopelessly fucked, when Natalie didn't even know there was a plan to kill Mark? Not even Lana knew that part. All she had been promised was that she would eventually be repaid for all the favors she had done Zeke over the years.

He had a thousand questions for Lana, but he made it a rule to never send e-mail from the account. He was no Luddite, but the Internet was one of those things that had sprung up while he was inside, and he didn't know how much of a trail it left. He didn't want to call Lana collect either, given that a private detective was already nosing around asking questions about Natalie. If he really needed to talk to her, he could always buy a phone card, use it, and throw it away. But with money tight, he hated to part with even ten miserable dollars.

Amos dead. Unthinkable. It was like some huge tree coming down in a storm, or a mountain collapsing. Amos shot to death on his own farm, which seemed even more unlikely. The Garrett County authorities were carrying it as a homicide, Lana had written in her dry, just-the-facts style, but it was expected to be ruled self-defense. A man and a woman had been questioned, and they were quite persuasive in their insistence that Amos had tried to kill them. The sheriff's office wouldn't release the names to Lana-her status as an ex-wife didn't give her that much clout-and the online version of the Cumberland newspaper hadn't posted anything as of last night. So Zeke was left to figure it out on his own. Had Amos panicked, believing that the pair were undercover cops onto his illegal enterprises? But Amos, much as he had hated prison, would have gambled on short time rather than risk big time for killing someone in law enforcement. Plus, he knew his rights. He wouldn't have feared anyone who didn't show him a warrant.

"The speed limit is thirty-five here," Natalie said. "You better slow down."

They had found Lana's name in Amos's papers. Messy and disheveled as he was about his appearance, he had always been meticulous about his affairs. Apparently he kept a folder with all the paperwork pertaining to their brief union. They had stayed friendly, if not friends, because Lana had been gracious enough to claim it was the farm she couldn't live with, not Amos. But even thick-skinned Amos must have known that Lana just couldn't hack sleeping with him. It was one thing to help a guy out in prison, to get so carried away with Zeke and Natalie's romance that she ended up marrying some poor geek so she wouldn't be left behind. Lana was always trying to do what Natalie did, and always getting it a little bit wrong. But it was quite another kettle of fish, as Zeke's father would say, to live with the guy once he got out, especially in godforsaken Grantsville.

Shit, what else was in Amos's papers? Did he keep records of the jobs he did, computer templates for the various things he forged? What if they found copies of the driver's license he had manufactured for Natalie, or the title to this car, or information about the contraband that now sat in a shoe box between Natalie's feet? Even the strictly legal stuff, like the temporary tags, could be a problem if Natalie's real name surfaced anywhere. Then again, it wasn't an open investigation. With Amos dead, there was no real reason to look into his business. That would just be more paperwork for everybody.

Only with Amos gone, who was going to kill Mark? It was another body blow to Zeke's perfect plan. First Natalie shows up, which was bad enough, but with the kids as well, which was a fucking nightmare. Still, Zeke had figured that when Mark was finally killed, he could send Natalie and the kids back with a carefully rehearsed story, one that omitted any mention of him. A runaway wife, even one who claimed to be brutalized in order to get welfare checks, would go home to bury her husband properly. It would have been tricky-the more Natalie had to do, the trickier things got-but it would have worked.

Now Amos was dead, killed just days before he was supposed to kill Mark. Did Boris know anyone that Zeke could use, much less trust? Zeke couldn't risk getting in touch with him, not while he was in prison. Besides, Boris would just want to know when they were going to deposit the money they had been promising him, ever since he threatened to tell Mark about Zeke and Natalie. He couldn't turn to Lana, because she told Natalie everything. The bottom line is that being an outlaw wasn't Lana's gig, despite her association with Boris, her marriage to Amos. She was just a follower. Left to her own devices, Lana would have been content with her dull life, painting fingernails and toes, having a Friday-night splurge at some tacky chain restaurant on Reisterstown Road. Acting as Zeke's intermediary had been the little bit of spice she'd needed. She was the eternal plain girl, the second banana, one of those strange women that always seemed to pop up in the movies, living only to support and bolster the star.

"Do I have to work again today?" Natalie demanded, her voice somehow piercing the fog in his head.

"Got to do your bit at least. We're scraping bottom."

"It's so hard, remembering all those dates. And you know how these women look at you, when you can't say your babies' birthdays bam, bam, bam? Like you're a bad mother, that's how. Last time I forgot, I used the real ones by mistake."

"You have to use the fake ones, Natalie," he said, pretending a patience he didn't feel. "Fake names and fake dates. We've been over this."

"Why? What difference does it make?"

Angry, he began to press on the accelerator, then caught himself. Too late-a motorcycle cop emerged out of the gray, misty morning, red and blue lights flashing. It all came back to Zeke in that moment. He was in New Troy. New Fucking Troy, a speed trap so notorious he had heard about it up in Terre Haute, where an Ohio insurance agent was doing a stretch for his own little money-laundering scheme. The guy was always complaining that what he had done was small-time compared to the shakedown the cops in his hometown had perfected. New Troy, Ohio, an incorporated city that provided no services except a police department that wrote speeding tickets.

"Don't say a word," he told Natalie.

"I told you to slow down-" she began, biting off the rest of her sentence when he glared at her.

He wasn't speeding, not really. But okay, no sweat, he'd take the ticket, no matter how bogus. Pay the fine up front, in good American cash, and thank God they had some. No-thank Amos, wherever his soul was wandering. The car's title was clear, the temporary tags clean, Natalie's bogus license untraceable. Even Zeke's license was legal. He had gotten it fair and almost square his first week, through the state-to-state reciprocity program. After all, his Maryland license had lapsed only five years ago.

"You've got a brake light out," the cop said after looking at the registration and license. "That's a two-hundred-dollar fine."

"Really?" He should let it go at that, he knew he should, but it was so goddamn infuriating to be gouged by a yokel cop, a guy that Zeke could rook in almost any other situation. "The funny thing is, I don't even remember hitting the brakes in the last mile or two. I was just driving at a nice steady"-he glanced at the speed limit sign-"thirty-five."

"Yeah, you kept to the legal limit, but you definitely hit your brakes at one point. Right one's working, left one's out." The guy's voice was dry, robotic. "We collect our fines in cash. Two hundred dollars. If you don't have the money, I'll escort you to our lockup, and you can wait there until someone wires it to you."

The amount of money gave Zeke pause. It was most of what they had left. Even fast-food restaurants and cheap motel rooms added up, and this old clunker drank about thirty dollars of gas per day. And there was no guarantee they'd make a nickel today. Still, easier to pay the fine than prolong the encounter or give out any information.

He couldn't have taken more than fifteen seconds to think the problem through, but those fifteen seconds proved disastrous. Natalie, who had never paid a traffic ticket in her life, leaned across Zeke and smiled at the cop. "The brake light was working yesterday, Officer, so perhaps it just wiggled loose while we were driving. If we promise to get it fixed as soon as we can, could you just let us go this time?"

The young cop was charmed, like almost every man who had ever looked into that face. Which was piss-poor luck in this case, because he said, "Well, let's pop the trunk and see if I can fix it for you right now."

Zeke and Natalie knew better than to look at each other then, not that they needed to. It was easy for Zeke to guess what she was thinking. Her: Isaac is in the trunk. How will we explain that? As for him, he hoped she couldn't decipher his thoughts: Stupid bitch, now he wants to open the trunk. Happy now?

Zeke eased himself out of the car, taking his time, praying that inspiration would strike him as he walked the short distance. He was lucky, he supposed, that it wasn't a newfangled car with a trunk that could be popped with a latch by the driver's seat. But what would he do, once he reached the back of the car? How do you explain a kid sleeping in the trunk? That was probably a five-thousand-dollar fine in New Troy, and a trip to family court. He would lie, that was it, pantomime trying to open the trunk, then say the lock was fussy, they hadn't used it for weeks. That's why the luggage was on the roof. Beautiful. No one ever said he couldn't think on his feet.

And if the cop didn't buy it-God knows what Zeke would do if the guy didn't buy it. Had he called in the plates? Had their presence on this road, in this spot, at this time, already been recorded somewhere? Zeke wasn't sure. He thought every cop called in his traffic stops, but maybe this podunk speed trap didn't bother. He tried to remember if he had seen the cop making the call into the radio unit on his shoulder. Had he or hadn't he? It didn't matter. Zeke was going to talk his way out of this, give him two hundred dollars, and get the hell out of Dodge at a perfectly legal thirty-five mph.

He inserted the wrong key in the lock, using the one for the ignition and thanking God that old cars like this still used two keys instead of a universal one. What if Isaac shouted or tried to call attention to himself? But he wouldn't. He would just assume Zeke was taking him out, that it was time for breakfast. He had probably fallen back to sleep in the trunk. Unless-what if the little pisher had fiddled with the brake light, hoping for just this occurrence? Oh, fuck him. Fuck him.

"Man, this lock is such a pain in the ass. Um, rear. That's why we're not even using the trunk for most of our stuff, because I can't get in here most of the time."

It was going to work, the guy was buying it, Zeke saw that instantly, and relief flooded his body. Once he was out of Natalie's view, the cop's goodwill had evaporated. He just wanted to write up the infraction, get the cash, and let Zeke go. Who knows? Maybe some New Troy cops pocketed the occasional fine. He was almost positive the guy hadn't called in their tags.

"Look, don't mind the missus. The light's clearly out. I'll pay the fine and get it fixed up the road. If you'll just-"

The sharp report of a gunshot made Zeke jump straight up in the air, and he wondered for a moment if the cop had killed him and he just couldn't feel it yet. He waited for the burning pain he was sure would follow, felt his middle to see where the bullet had hit.

But it was the cop who sank to the ground, his bland, white-boy Ohio face registering no emotion at all.

It was only then that Zeke saw Natalie, standing by the car's right rear fender. She had taken the gun from the shoe box at her feet and shot the poor guy through the back. Well, the apple didn't fall far from the tree. Just his luck that Natalie was as impulsive and crazy and, yes, stupid as her old man. You try and try to be someone other than your old man, but it's always the same.

He thought she might start screaming, but Natalie surprised him by returning quickly to her seat, subdued and chastened, as if waiting for him to yell at her. Instead he got behind the wheel and did a neat U-turn. They had passed a sign for I-70 not too long before, and the interstate suddenly seemed worth the risk. They would go the opposite direction, east toward Columbus. He'd stop at the first rest area, put the luggage in the trunk, and get Isaac out. Little mud on the tags, just in case, and they might be able to escape notice for a while. But that was a temporary fix. They had to get rid of this car, buy a new one, and they didn't have enough cash on hand to do that. Should they chance going to work, or should they take care of the car first? Car first. He'd have to spring for a phone card now, call Lana, get her to wire them as much cash as possible.

The twins were weeping in the backseat. They had seen everything. Great, just great. Two little witnesses to a capital crime. Another kid in the trunk, doing his damnedest to get them caught at every turn. Amos dead, but Mark still alive. A plan ten years in the making, shattered with two gunshots, one on a Maryland farm, another in an Ohio town that he never should have driven through. Zeke thought of himself in the prison library, reading and taking notes, using his time to devise a foolproof scheme to end up with Mark's wife and Mark's money. Twenty-four hours ago, he was still on target. Now it all seemed impossible. He should abort, dump the whole family out on the side of the road, head for the border, save himself. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Natalie was murmuring to the twins, telling them that everything would be okay, that the man fell down because he and Zeke were playing a game. Her voice did have a soothing quality, and he found himself getting a grip, reassessing. Car first. In a different car, with three kids in the backseat, no luggage on the roof, they'd be much harder to make. New car, then a new plan.

And if it came down to it, Zeke would drive straight to Baltimore and kill Mark Rubin himself, if only to prove that he was capable of doing what he set out to do.

Chapter Twenty-seven | By A Spider`s Thread | Chapter Twenty-nine