THE MANICURIST STILL HAD THE UPPER HAND. "She didn't come in this morning," the Velvet Frost informed Mark and Tess, frostier than ever after seeing Tess's PI license. "And she didn't call, which is not like Lana, especially with a full day of bookings. We've tried calling her home, and there is no answer. I'm terribly worried about her. Instead of making trouble for her, you might want to wonder if she is in trouble."
Tess decided not to argue about who the troublemaker was in this scenario. "Has she been acting strangely the past few days?"
"She was upset the day before yesterday. When I asked her why, she said someone she knew had died unexpectedly in an accident."
Tess and Mark exchanged a glance, but neither one said anything.
"But she continued to work," the Velvet Frost said. "Then today-no show. Completely out of character."
Mark looked more discouraged than ever, but Tess immediately saw an opportunity in a missing Lana who wasn't answering her home phone. She called the Owings Mills barracks for the Baltimore County Police Department from Mark's car, identifying herself as a frantic employee from Adrian's, concerned about a missing worker.
"She didn't come to work, and she has a full day of bookings, and she just never, ever does that," Tess told the dispatcher, helping herself to the Velvet Frost's words, if not her tonalities. "And she's been really down lately about the death of someone close to her. I'm worried she might have done something drastic."
"I'm not sure what we can do in this situation," the dispatcher said in the clipped manner of a government employee keen to cut off a request outside the normal parameters.
"Couldn't a patrolman meet us and authorize her landlord to open the apartment, just so we can make sure something hasn't happened?"
"I'm not sure we can do that."
"Why not, if the landlord agrees? Landlords have the right to enter the premises if they think something is amiss."
Tess had to keep laying it on thick, but it was a slow morning in the northwest district, and the dispatcher finally relented.
"Great. We're about two miles away, so we'll meet the patrol cop out there."
The cop was everything Tess could have asked for. First of all, he was young, so young that he insisted on calling her "ma'am." Normally, this would have sent her to a mirror, moisturizer in hand, but it was a godsend in this situation. He was even more deferential to Mark Rubin. Only the landlord seemed skeptical of them, and Tess inferred a touch of anti-Semitism in Mr. Hassan's attitude.
With Hassan leading the way, they entered Lana's apartment. It was neat, almost depressingly so, a place that spoke of a lonely existence with few real interests. No books, no art, not even posters. The only personal touches were two photographs of Natalie, including one with Isaac as a baby. Mark stopped for a moment, transfixed by the images, then shook his head as if reminding himself to keep his focus on the very particular mission he and Tess had devised.
"Hello?" the young cop called, heading deeper into the one-bedroom apartment, opening doors and peering into the bathroom. "There's no odor-" he began, then stopped, as if remembering just in time that his tour group was made up of a distraught coworker and Lana Wishnia's rabbi. For less had told him that little lie as well, deciding that it gave them even more credibility.
Tess and Mark played their parts well, tiptoeing around, stealing glances at the things they had agreed ahead of time they must absorb-notes on the kitchen counter, a flashing light on the phone. Using the sleight-of-hand trick Mark had shown Tess at their first meeting, he palmed a key lying in a shallow bowl on the kitchen counter. Perhaps it would open her box at the mail store. When Tess saw that the phone in the bedroom had a built-in answering machine and caller ID, she shot Rubin a look. She then walked out in the hall, dropped her knapsack, bent over to pick it up-and promptly let out a bloodcurdling scream.
"My back. Shit, I threw my back out again. I won't even be able to walk down the steps without someone's help."
The young cop was all sympathy, standing next to her and trying to help her straighten up, while the landlord looked away, indifferent. Tess continued to groan and whimper.
"Why don't I take one side and your friend can take the other, and we'll help you out," the cop suggested.
"Mark can't touch me-as an Orthodox Jew, he's not allowed to touch a woman who's not his wife. He was bending the rules just to be here with me today, unchaperoned. But you can help me, can't you, sir?" Tess appealed to the surly little Hassan, who didn't seem inclined to help anyone. "If you just get me down the steps, I can lie on the ground with my knees to my chest. Five minutes like that, and I should be good enough to get in the car and go home to bed."
"Does this happen a lot, ma'am?"
"Just since I turned thirty," Tess said, and the young cop looked even more sympathetic.
Slowly they righted her, but Tess stayed in her bent-over crouch, hobbling like a crone, a man at either elbow. She called back over her shoulder, "Mark, grab my knapsack, okay? But make sure nothing fell out. I'm afraid some things scattered when I dropped it."
She felt she deserved an Oscar, or at least a Golden Globe, for her oh-so-slow descent down the stairs. Once outside, she allowed the young cop and the sullen landlord to lower her to the grass, where she brought her knees to her chest and hugged tightly. It was a pretty day, and it was pleasant lying on the ground and looking at the sky. Tess had to remind herself to whimper every now and then. By the time Mark Rubin came out with her knapsack, she had almost persuaded herself that she had, in fact, thrown out her back. She eased into the backseat of the Cadillac, holding her knees to her chest, and stayed in that position until they were several blocks away.
"Anything?" she asked Mark.
"Nothing on the answering machine," he said. "But there were long-distance calls logged on the caller ID- Ohio, then West Virginia."
"Did you call the numbers?"
"First I hit the redial button, just to see what number she called last." Tess was impressed. She had not thought of that detail. "A woman with an accent answered, but I couldn't think of anything to ask her, so I hung up."
"An accent? It could have been Natalie's mother. Did you dial the numbers on the caller ID?"
"The Ohio and West Virginia numbers just rang and rang. Pay phones, I guess. We should have stayed with her. She probably would have taken us straight to them."
"Not straight. Based on the geography, the second phone call came only after Mary Eleanor had trailed them to Wheeling. Lana sent them money in Zanesville, but that wasn't good enough for some reason. They need something else from her, something that couldn't be wired."
"Maybe," Mark said, "they're going to send the children back with her. Maybe they think I'll give up if I have the children back."
"Probably not." He sighed, as if disappointed in himself. "I'd have to see Natalie, just to ask why. And I can't cut her out of our children's lives, whatever she decides to do. She's their mother, after all."
"Do you think she would fight you for custody?"
"If it comes to that, absolutely."
"If it comes to that. You still think reconciliation is possible?"
"Until I know the cause of the problem, I have to assume it's a problem that can be solved."
Again Tess found herself wondering if the information about Natalie's past could change Mark's view of his wife. The problem is… your wife used to be a whore. But that didn't explain why she had run away, nor did it shed any light on the identity of the man with her. Natalie was a willing participant in this odyssey, but what was its point, its purpose? If she wanted to be with this other man, why not divorce Mark and take whatever money she could get? Even if his inheritance wasn't marital property, she'd still be better off than she was now.
"Another woman in my network suggested something," Tess said, by way of changing the subject. "A needle-in-the-haystack solution, but it might yield some info. The only thing is, it involves going through government agencies, and you know how slow they are."
Mark actually seemed intrigued. "Ah, but I also know how to grease them so they go a little faster. I've given generously to politicians at every level of government. It's time to call in my favors."
"I never give to politicians," Tess said. "Not that I have any money to give. It's like being shaken down by the Mafia-give me money and I'll take care of you."
"Exactly," Mark said. "Exactly."