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Chapter Thirty-one

The Roy Rogers at the rest stop wasn't kosher, not that it mattered. Mark Rubin had no appetite after Mary Eleanor's last call, in which she confessed she had lost the family in Wheeling.

"She said everyone looked good," Tess said, not for the first time. She was feeling guilty for being able to enjoy food, much less taste it. But she was famished, and the last Roy Rogers in Baltimore had closed its doors months ago, so this meal was a treat for her. "She saw all the kids, especially Isaac, who kept peering over the backseat and waving at her."

"They looked happy?" Mark traced the lines on the place mat on the tray that held his bottle of water. It was a cartoon showing a family's fun-filled day-capped off with a stop for Roy Rogers fried chicken, of course.

"She didn't say happy. Just healthy, intact. All present and accounted for."

"And the man?"

"I told you." Mark had been asking the same questions again and again. "She described him the same way the McDonald's crew did-tallish, thin but muscular build, dark hair. He was wearing a baseball cap, so she didn't get a good look at his face. Besides, she was staring at the back of his neck most of the time."

Mark didn't look up, just kept tracing the cartoon's family trip, from home to swimming pool to the movies to Roy Rogers and back again.

"Did she say if he was… handsome?"


"She's with him by choice. He left her and the children in the car for ten minutes and walked away, with mis midwestern librarian parked across the street from mem. All Natalie had to do was drive off, or walk over to the woman and ask for help."

Tess bent over her fries. She had thought that Mark had come to accept the idea that Natalie had left of her own volition and remained away for her own reasons, whatever they might be. Perhaps Tess should not have withheld the information about Natalie's past. But Mark so clearly didn't want to know the worst about his wife. Tess could kill a man, but she still couldn't break bad news to one.

"Mark-we've placed them for the second time in a week. We have a description of the car and the temporary tag numbers. We know they're moving around, probably to escape detection. But they have to light somewhere eventually. Lana's money is only going to tide them over for so long, and she can't have that much socked away, even if she's the best manicurist in the whole Mid-Atlantic region. Plus, they were headed east, closer to us."

"So we should go talk to Lana, demand to know what she knows."

"I'm not a cop. I can't hold a private citizen in a room and interrogate her."

"No, but you can do what you did to the guy at the convenience store."

"Show her my gun and bluff?"

That actually won a halfhearted smile from Mark.

"You could use the same kind of threats. She's a manicurist, right? Threaten to turn her in to the IRS for underreporting her tips if she doesn't talk to you. Or I could run a credit report on her, see if she has any bad debts. A young woman like that tends to get carried away from time to time."

"I don't know, Mark. Her devotion to Natalie seems unshakable. I don't think she's going to fall apart if we find out she was delinquent on a department-store account."

"Then let's go pay her a visit at her place of work. People don't like that. I know I wouldn't be pleased with one of my employees if a private detective and a distraught father came to my shop and started making a lot of noise."

Tess studied Mark Rubin. He was, as always, impeccably dressed, wearing a lightweight gray suit, white shirt, and a silk tie in a conservative pattern of navy and maroon. When they had pulled into the rest stop, he had told Tess he needed to say his evening prayers and walked away from the complex, finding a quiet spot near a copse of trees. He was dignified, a man of what Tess's mother would call good bearing, but his dignity was beginning to fray. She saw the signs of wear in his red-rimmed eyes, in the hair that was at least a week past its normal trim.

"Tomorrow," she said. "I'll go to Lana's salon first thing."

"We will go to the salon first thing in the morning."

"In the morning," Tess agreed. "First thing."

"And tonight?"

"Tonight," she said, her voice gentle, "you should do whatever it takes to get some sleep, whether by prayer or pill."

Tess did not take her own advice. In bed, the greyhound all but wrapped around her in a fit of separation anxiety, she began making lists, free-associating. French Lick, she wrote, adding the date that Natalie had been spotted there.

Zanesville . Wheeling. There was no pattern to discern, geographical or otherwise. The towns just boiled down to three not-big places in the Midwest. Sighing, she checked her e-mail, which included a reminder that the SnoopSisters had their weekly "chat" tonight-or brainstorming session, as Gretchen insisted on calling it. Tess normally skipped the chats, which were held late to accommodate those in the Pacific time zone, but she wanted the others to know how hard the new recruit had worked.

The sisters were already engaged in fast and furious talk, their "voices" falling over each other like dialogue in a Howard Hawks film. Mary Eleanor was not on the log of participants, so Tess waded in, described their newest colleague's valiant efforts, then proclaimed herself stumped. She expected only sympathy, not solutions. But Jessie Ray in Texas piped up.

JR: I have a theory.

TM: Have at me.

JR: What if your runaway wife is using social services?

TM: How can she? She's always moving. She can't settle down somewhere and get AFDC.

SF (that was Susan Friend in Omaha ): They don't even call it AFDC anymore, Tess. That went out with the Clinton administ ra tion. It's a whole new world of acronyms out there.

GOGO (Gretchen liked the look of her initials squared): More acronyms, but fewer dollars.

JR: True. But some states do have discretionary emergency funds. We're talking tiny amounts-$200 here, $400 there. Enough to check a family in to a cheap motel for a couple of days. Others will cut you a check to buy a used car, if transportation is the thing standing between a woman and a job. The idea is to get a family settled, then start the more onerous paperwork for real services. But you could take the money and split, and they wouldn't do a darn thing about it. No one's going to chase you down and make you take more government aid.

Tess typed: Interesting. But would it leave a paper trail?

JR: Possibly. There's a little-known child-support enforcement program that searches federal databases for deadbeat dads, which are my specialty. It has a lot of flexibility-it can do sophisticated Boolean searches with variables, using suspected aliases in combination with data the applicant is less likely to fake. Downside is, it can take months because it searches millions of records. Veterans, federal employees, anything the feds have access to. But if you know you only want to look at social-services programs in a handful of states, it might go a little faster.

Worth a try , Tess typed, although she doubted Mark Rubin would be placated by something so passive. He didn't want search engines crawling along millions of entries in government databases. He wanted to get in his car and just start driving until he found his family and brought them home.

A virtual door creaked audibly, and the log at the bottom of the screen showed that M'E-Mary Eleanor-had entered the room.

M'E: Hey, gang. I'm the new girl.

TM: All hail Mary Eleanor. She did amazing work today.

The Sisters responded with a variety of hip-hip-hooray emoticons.

M'E: I'm not sure I deserve to be saluted. Gosh, those kids are cute, tho. The one little boy kept giving me a thumbs-up, and doing a sort of Zorro thing, like he was cheering me on. Makes me feel worse for losing them.

TM: Please, no girly self-deprecation here. You tracked them to Wheeling . You told us they were all safe and well. It was-she stopped for a moment, trying to find the right word, one that would be positive but truthful-meaningful to their father, to know his children are well.

She bade the sisters good-bye, her fingers exhausted. The phone rang at almost the precise moment she disconnected from the Internet. It was silly to think the phone's peal was angry and insistent, as if someone had been trying to get through for a while. Yet that's exactly how her caller sounded.

"You missed the appointment with the caterer," Kitty said without preamble. "We waited and waited for you at the Brass Elephant, but you never showed up. I need to know what you think about quail."

"Given the way this country is going, I think anyone can be president."

"Tesser." In thirty-two years Tess's Kitty had never once raised her voice to her niece, or anyone else. Her low, sweet tone was as much a part of her charm as her reddish curls, peachy skin, and perfect figure. Even now she didn't sound exactly loud, but there was an unaccustomed edge to her voice. "This is serious."

"So I'm guessing what was once described as nothing more than a large party where a couple of people happen to get married has turned into a big-ass nightmare of a wedding."

There was a sharp intake of breath on the other end of the phone, and Tess wondered if Kitty was so far gone that she might take offense, or even start crying. Tess was really getting sick of making people cry. To her relief, Kitty laughed instead. A rueful laugh, to be sure, but the laugh of a woman who still had some perspective.

"I'm sorry. PMS."

"You still…"

"Tess, please. I'm only forty-five. The thing is, I worry when you don't show up for an appointment, and I can't find you at home or in your office. I should carry your cell phone number, but I never remember it and you don't always answer it. You didn't used to be so hard to find."

"You didn't used to worry about me so much."

"No, not really. But last summer was a… bit of a jolt."

Last summer. Kitty made it sound so far away. Tess glanced at the scar on her knee and remembered sitting in the vacant parking lot waiting for an ambulance. If it had been a horror film, the man she had left for dead might have risen again in the endless minutes it took for her 911 call to be answered. But when Tess Monaghan killed a man, she was nothing if not thorough. The cops who arrived at the scene had been almost perverse in their admiration for her work. At least the shooting part. She could tell that the other wound, the one that had been truly defensive, made even the cops queasy.

Kitty had come with Crow to the emergency room at Harborview Hospital. The three had agreed to protect Tess's parents from the full knowledge of what had happened to their daughter in the warehouse. For once Tess had been thankful for the dulled-down newspaper prose, which reduced the most horrific night of her life to a simple construct. Miss Monaghan followed the suspect to an abandoned warehouse, where she managed to kill him after he inflicted fatal injuries to her associate. A grand jury declined to indict, deciding she acted in self-defense and discharged the full clip only because she was panicky.

Tess could not fault the newspaper reporter for rendering the event dryly and somewhat inaccurately. She had refused repeated attempts to enlarge the tale, to participate in what the more persistent reporters promised would be empathetic narratives. The only reporter to whom she would have entrusted the full story was her old friend Kevin Feeney. And he, to his eternal credit, wanted no part of it-and not just because it was a conflict of interest to write about a friend. "I don't need to know, Tess," he had said. "If you want to confide in me, I'm here for you. But I don't want the Blight's subscribers to read about the night you almost died while they're chomping on eggs and sausage with their mouths open."

If only Crow could have been spared as well. But he knew everything, and this had made him intent on protecting her in every way. He had started working longer hours at the Point, the bar that Tess's father ran, so Tess wouldn't fret about neglecting her own work. He began speaking of the business degree he hoped to earn, his always-accessible enthusiasm as engaged by the bar and restaurant business as it had once been by music and art. He called her countless times a day and demanded she check in. His marriage proposal, Tess believed, was his last-ditch attempt to protect her from herself. He thought he could keep her safe.

But no one could keep anyone safe in this world. And Tess didn't want a bodyguard. She didn't want people peering at her, faces anxious and voices low, as if she were an invalid or an unpredictable animal. She wanted to be who she used to be, before she'd killed someone. She wanted that mark off her permanent record. But that couldn't be and would never be, so she soldiered on. Let time do its magic act. When people told Tess that time healed, she knew it was true. But she also knew that time could use a little Neosporin in its kit. It left some unsightly scars.

"I really do take fewer chances," Tess told Kitty, thankful that Amos's death would never make the papers this far east. Baltimore, with its two hundred-plus homicides a year, didn't have any attention to spare for other towns' shootings. "I'm much more careful than I was."

"If you say so. How's Crow?" A non sequitur, and yet not. Had Kitty's intuitive brain made the connection?


"He'll be back for the wedding?"

"I'm sure he plans to be." Damn, she shouldn't sound quite that vague, as if she never spoke to him. Luckily, Kitty was too wedding-addled to catch the slip.

"His mother's doing well?"

"Very well. And it's nice for them, being together as a family. They like each other."

"Tess, we all like each other."

"Now. More or less. But aren't Uncle Jules and Uncle Lester feuding?"

"I speak only for the Monaghan side. The Weinsteins have to keep track of their own craziness. But you should be grateful to have so many relatives, complicated as they are. Tyner has virtually no family, just a first cousin, and he's a Baltimore bachelor from way back."

"You'd think that euphemism would die out, as society becomes more open-minded about homosexuality."

"Society is becoming more open-minded? What country are you living in, my dear? Today's Baltimore bachelors continue to mingle with all those oh-so-happily married Baltimore husbands, the closeted men with houses in Guilford, society wives, and beautiful children at the city's best schools. Right now I'm trying to figure out if I should invite an old friend, his wife, and his boyfriend, who's also a friend of mine. Separate invitations, of course, but still. What's the etiquette?"

"It's hard, isn't it?"

"Planning a wedding?"

"Being human."

"Tesser, is there something you want to tell me?"

"No," she lied.

Chapter Thirty | By A Spider`s Thread | Chapter Thirty-two