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Chapter Thirty-two

IT WAS WELL PAST DUSK BY THE TIME LANA PULLED INTO the shopping center outside Martinsburg, West Virginia, and the children were tired and cranky. The limited wonders of the mall had ceased to entrance them hours ago, and the twins whined in their incoherent babble, demanding to know when they might eat dinner, go to bed, or watch television.

Isaac was quiet, but his stoicism bothered Zeke even more than the twins' whining. The kid was unnatural. Be a kid, he wanted to shout at him, loosen up. He wondered if Isaac had been more boyish before this began, just as Zeke had been more of a kid before his father's death and his mother's remarriage. If he had known that the boy existed, would he have even tried to carry this off? For there was no escaping it: He was going to do to Isaac exactly what had been done to him, which had never been the plan. Worse, actually. Yet he wasn't a monster, he wasn't a bad guy.

He wasn't, as he kept reminding Natalie, the person who had changed everything by killing a cop.

It was true, he thought, staring idly at the things for sale in the mall. Nothing left to lose was a kind of freedom. Nothing left to lose meant you had everything to gain.

Lana looked grim and unhappy when she finally arrived.

"I don't know what you want me to do," she said. "The money I wired you this morning is all I had. I'm tapped out. I won't be able to pay for the cash advance when my credit-card bill comes due."

"Maybe Amos will leave you something in his will, for old times' sake."

"Don't joke about that." Her voice was sharp and fierce, as if she had actually cared about the guy. "Do you realize who was on his property when he died? Mark. Mark and some woman. So he's dead because of me, because Mark somehow figured out I took Natalie there when she decided to leave."

"Really? Mark was there?" That made no sense. Zeke had chosen Amos for the job because he'd been assured the two had had no contact since Amos left prison. Had Amos lured him there, instead of doing the job when Mark was transporting furs? That had been Zeke's plan, a nice little robbery that made perfect sense. Killing Mark on the farm was stupid beyond belief. "But I thought you said the police told you two people were there. Who was the other one?"

"All I know is that it was a woman."

"Really." The apple sure didn't fall far from the tree. Maybe Mark was as big a dog as his own father, taking up with another woman the moment Natalie disappeared. Maybe before. Wouldn't that be sweet? "Any idea who she is?"

"I don't know for sure, but there was that private detective he hired to find you. She knows about the post-office box, too. I got a certified letter saying I should call someone who knew everything, but I ignored it. There's no law against having a mailbox."

"Good girl." Lana needed a lot of stroking, almost as much as Natalie, if such a thing were possible. "Does she know about me?"

"She didn't when I talked to her. But they found Amos, they went to Amos. Natalie's father may have told."

"No. Boris would never tell. Besides, I wasn't in the stupid group, remember? The last thing I wanted to do in prison was sit and play Passover. I've had my fill of bitter herbs."

Of course, Lana had no idea what he was talking about. She knew even less about Judaism than Natalie had, before Zeke had taken Natalie in hand and taught her what she needed to know to snare Mark.

"What's going on, Zeke? You said something bad had happened, something else, and you needed the money for a car, but I had to come, too-"

He held up a hand. "You don't want to know, Lana. Trust me. But it's bad, really bad. Natalie and I will spend the rest of our lives on the run. That's why we need you to buy the new car, over in Hagerstown. Your name is clean. You can buy a car with the cash you sent us, title it, then give it to us with a notarized note saying we have permission to drive it. No one's going to connect a car purchased in Hagerstown with a car abandoned in West Virginia. This car just takes them back to Amos, who's dead."

"But if they find the car and they do connect it to whatever you've done, then I'll be in the middle of it."

"If you don't know anything, you haven't done anything. Like I said, it will all go back to Amos, and dead men tell no tales."

Only Zeke's father had. Zeke's father had come to him over and over again, insistent as the old ghost in Hamlet. As Zeke grew older, he tried to argue with him. The autopsy report said suicide, Pops. Why would I commit suicide? Because you burned down the building and killed the watchman, the one you didn't know was there. Why would I do that? Because the store was going down the tubes. Your partner went off and grew rich selling furs in suburbia, while you tried to make money selling designer dresses in downtown, six blocks from the department stores that got them first and sold them cheaper. It was good old-fashioned Jewish lightning, Dad. Yes, but who threw the lightning bolt? Who gained? Who truly gained? I was dead, and my reputation was ruined. Aaron Rubin ended up with everything, and I ended up with nothing. Suicide or homicide? I pulled the trigger, but someone guided my hand.

"Look," Zeke said, his voice harsh in spite of his best efforts, "you have to convince Natalie to send the goddamn kids back with you. Tonight."

"No. The cops will ask me questions if I show up with the kids, try to give them back to Mark. I don't want to get involved."

"Drive them to Vera's, ring the doorbell, and run. It's about time she met her grandchildren. Besides, it will be nice for Mark to have his kids around."

"Since when do you care about what's nice for Mark?"

Again, he couldn't tell Lana that he wanted the rest of Mark's life, short as it was destined to be, to have a pleasant ending.

"Anyway, Natalie's not going to let those kids go for anything now. Look at her."

Natalie and the children were sitting on the edge of a lackluster fountain. She held Penina in her lap, clutching her so tight that Zeke could see how the fabric of the girl's dress wrinkled beneath her mother's grasping fingers. Efraim was leaning over, trying to fish coins from the murky bottom. Isaac reached out and held his belt so he wouldn't fall in. Something about the almost-unconscious brotherly affection between the two boys made Zeke feel sad, then angry.

He should have had a little brother, a real one. He should have gone to New York and Montreal on buying trips with his father, then had a son to take with him on his. He should have had a nest egg to build his business. Then he wouldn't have pushed so hard and been forced to take shortcuts to stay afloat. He wasn't a bad guy. He had wanted a legitimate life. He never set out to cheat anyone, much less hurt people.

One day you're a guy on the phone making deals that are shady but legal. The next day the cops are coming through the door wanting to know where you got the shipment of Steve Maddens at ten cents on the dollar. And he had no idea his little credit-card scam was a federal offense. The big boys on Wall Street stole billions and gave up 8 percent of their profits. Zeke took the only kind of float anyone would give him and gave up 100 percent of his life for ten years.

"Let's go buy a car, Lana, you and me. I'll drive over to Hagerstown with you, help you pick it out. You can go home from there."

"And when do I get paid back?"

"When I do." He put his hand on her cheek. Natalie was too gone to catch the gesture, which normally would have sent her into spasms of jealousy, but Lana liked it. Lana had always liked him a little more than she should, a fact that had come in handy all these years. "You'll get back every penny, with interest. Just be patient."

Natalie awoke in the middle of the night and went into the bathroom, but not because she felt any need. She just couldn't sleep, and she didn't want to lie in the dark listening to all that breathing. She understood why the children could sleep-Isaac had not seen the man fall, the twins did not really understand what happened-they had been told it was all a game. But how could Zeke look so peaceful? How did he sleep so contentedly?

Because Zeke was not a killer. She was. She was her father all over again. And if she were her father all over again, what would her children be?

The light was sickly here, a greenish yellow, and she leaned toward the mirror, touching the lines and shadows in her reflection, as if they were a part of the reflected Natalie but could not be found on her own face. So beautiful still. It was not vain to say so, only realistic, a fact. This was her dowry, and it had been sold over and over, with varying results.

What would become of her? Her mother's face bore the sad testimony of what age and a hard life did to a woman. Not even Natalie would always be beautiful. Even if she took good care of herself and didn't smoke, age would come for her. Zeke said he loved her for more than her looks, but she wasn't sure she believed him. After all, she loved Zeke for his.

If she had it to do over again, would she have forgotten Zeke and learned to love, really love, Moshe? He was kind, he was loving, he provided for her. If she had loved him just a little more, she would not be here, and she would not be a killer. But the fact was, he had never stirred anything in her. And while the children had created a powerful bond between them as parents, her feelings for Zeke simply could not be denied.

So here she was, in a motel in West Virginia, with a man who had yet to make love to her in a complete way. All that talk about things being perfect, a honeymoon suite at the Ritz-Carlton, room service and white fluffy robes and Egyptian cotton sheets. Natalie didn't know how to tell him she had already been in the honeymoon suite at the Ritz-Carlton and, while it was all very nice, you didn't get to take the robe home unless you paid for it.

They weren't going to make it. She wasn't sure where they were going or what they were doing, but her heart told her they were doomed. She should have sent the children back with Lana tonight. Zeke had urged, cajoled, wheedled, and finally shouted, shaking her for her refusal to do what he said was best. So he was like her father, too. But she could not bear to give them up. She felt safer with them for some reason. As long as she had her children, she was still a good person, a mother. A woman who loved her children could never be in the wrong.

Disgusted with her, Zeke had gone to Hagerstown with Lana, determined to buy a car before the evening was out. Hagerstown was only an hour away, yet they had been gone five hours, with Zeke returning in the new car well after midnight. He and Lana were giggling, clearly buzzed from something. Probably Sex on the Beach cocktails, if Natalie remembered Lana's drinking preferences. Strange, she didn't even know what Zeke would drink in a bar, because she had never been in one with him. It seemed unfair that Lana would have an opportunity with Zeke that Natalie had never had, but she was too tired to work up a rage about it. Lana would leave tomorrow morning, after sleeping off her drunk on the floor of the motel room.

But if Zeke had cheated on her and she found out-she would cut it off. Why not? She had killed one man and destroyed another. For Natalie had no doubt that Mark's life was empty without her.

She sank to the toilet seat, cradling her head in her arms, longing to cry but worried that even muffled tears might be overheard. She wouldn't mind if Zeke came to comfort her-he owed her that much-but the children would be upset if they saw her crying for the second time in a day. Since they'd left home, she had been very conscious of being happy, of making everything seem as if it were a wonderful adventure. Even today, when that strange car began to follow them, she had not let the children see how nervous she was.

It was odd, almost a letdown, when she realized that the driver was a woman. Did she want it to be a police officer? Was there some part of her that simply longed for this to be over? No, she had been surprised because she'd expected to see Moshe at the wheel of that car. Every day since she left, Natalie realized, she had expected to see him.

She knew him so well, perhaps better than she would have if she had truly loved him. No one was allowed simply to walk away from Mark Rubin. She had listened to him on calls, haranguing people long past the point of winning an argument, insistent on being heard. His voice ground people beneath it the way Natalie might squash a bug under her shoe. Zeke didn't understand that part of Mark, but it was why Natalie had run, taking the children with her, instead of waiting for Zeke to send for her. She knew Mark Rubin-how thorough he was, how determined he could be about getting his way.

She knew him, she realized, better than she knew the man in the other room.

Chapter Thirty-one | By A Spider`s Thread | Chapter Thirty-three