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Chapter Two

TESS FOUND A TOEHOLD ON A METAL HANDLE JUTTING from the side of the Dumpster, scrambled to the top, and swung her legs so she was perched on the lip. She was now staring down into, if not the abyss, a reasonable and pungent facsimile. Even in hip waders and the decontamination suit she had acquired from a friend in city Homicide, she was less than eager to take the plunge.

"Baruch ata Adenoid, Mark Rubin," she said, pronouncing the blessing as she had misheard it in her childhood, when she believed her Aunt Sylvie was offering a prayer to cure her cousin Deborah of her allergies. "If working for you means no more Dumpsters for a while, I won't complain about what a deluded tight-ass you are."

Meanwhile, a girl had to eat, although at this exact moment it seemed unlikely that food would ever interest Tess again. The Dumpster was one of three behind a popular Fell's Point bar, and it smelled strongly of stale beer, processed cheese, and rancid meat. As a bonus there were bright yellow and blue newspaper wrappers tucked among the dark green garbage bags, knotted in a way that any responsible dog owner would recognize.

Feeling only mildly ridiculous, Tess secured a surgical mask over her face and scooted down the interior wall in her best Spider-woman fashion, landing as softly as possible. The garbage bags were packed closely, and the effect was not unlike a Moonwalk ride at a small-time carnival, albeit one with occasional crunchy sounds underfoot that she tried not to ponder. Bottles? Crack vials? She took small, tentative steps, hoping to feel something relatively solid beneath her. She walked the perimeter, circling toward the center. No, her quarry was definitely not here.

On to the next Dumpster, which smelled more like secondhand margaritas under the late-afternoon sun.

"Divorce," Tess said, speaking out loud to keep herself company, "makes people do some weird shit. Or hire those who will do it for them."

To think she had been cocky enough to imagine matrimonial work was behind her forever. But a string of clients, stung by this strange hit-or-miss economy, had told her to line up behind their other empty-handed creditors. So Tess found herself with no choice but to take on the soon-to-be-ex of a city official, a harridan who swore that her husband had ordered sanitation workers under him to remove incriminating files from his office and leave them in these Dumpsters.

Like most novice criminals, the public-works boss had been a little too in love with his cloak-and-dagger maneuvers. Because these Dumpsters were privately owned, their debris should have ended up in a private landfill. He must have figured that no one could tie the king of public waste to trash serviced by private contractors. But he had chosen a bar that had a habit of stiffing hauling companies, so the garbage tended to sit for a few days. Hard on the nose, unfortunate for the neighborhood, but very good for Tess and the soon-to-be-ex-wife.

Assuming that the documents were actually here. The wife could be wrong. Divorcing spouses were often clueless about each other. Hence the impending divorce. Tess was almost to the center of the third Dumpster before her foot hit an unusually solid bag that neither cracked nor oozed. Crouching down, she made a slight tear in the plastic with her gloved hands and saw reams of documents on Baltimore City letterhead. Score.

The bag was heavy enough that the seams might pop if Tess heaved it over the side. Resignedly, she ripped it open and ferried the papers out an armful at a time, which took almost a dozen trips but allowed her to skim some of the documents as she worked. They did make for interesting reading.

It was all here, just as the wife had promised, a history of bribes and kickbacks that helped explain how a midlevel city bureaucrat had come to own a vacation home in Rehoboth Beach and a timeshare in Steamboat Springs. Sure it was graft, but even graft was marital property under Maryland law. If the IRS could tax ill-gotten gains, the wife's slicky-boy lawyer was going to argue, then a spouse could claim half of it, too. The argument was a bluff, but one her husband would never dare to call. A settlement would be reached quickly and quietly once Mr. Public Works knew that his wife had these documents in her possession.

The bottom of the bag yielded an unexpected bonus, a memo that was small potatoes for the divorce but a big find in the annals of city folklore-the official plowing list. Here was the shifting hierarchy of city power brokers, with names crossed off and reinstated according to how the political winds blew in any given year. There was even an enemies list, stipulating which streets should not be plowed, such as the cul-de-sac of a former mayor.

Tess put that aside, reserving it for her one friend left at the Beacon-Light, Kevin Feeney, a throwback who still cared about good old-fashioned politics. She loaded the rest in the trunk of her ancient Toyota, while the dogs, who had been tied to a nearby utility pole, began panting and pulling at their leashes, anxious to leave.

"Good girls," she cooed as they sniffed her legs, intrigued by the smells that clung to her. No anthropomorphizing here-dogs really did grin. Better yet, they loved you when you stank of garbage, loved you just for coming through the door at the end of the day or putting down a dish of food, which made it easy to love them back. "Just let me scald myself in the office shower, and we'll convene to the branch office for our coffee break."

" 'My appetite comes to me while eating,'" Tess announced upon taking one of the outdoor tables at Pearl 's, dogs still in tow. Her apt quotation of Montaigne did not seem to impress the sullen waitress, much less the dogs. The attitudinal blonde simply disappeared inside to place Tess's usual order-a chocolate-pumpkin muffin, a latte, and two large bowls of water. Tess's usual orders were known all over Baltimore, from the mozzarella en carozza at the Brass Elephant to the lamb lawand at the Helmand and the veal scallopine at Pazza Luna. Ruts weren't ruts if you varied them, Tess had reasoned.

Pearl's was new to Baltimore, and Tess had been prepared to object to it on principle, the principle being that three-dollar muffins might be the final straw in a wave of gentrification that would price her out of her Butchers Hill office. But the small cafe, which was as cheerful as its waitstaff was sullen, was simply too convenient to ignore. And it wasn't a franchise, Tess reminded herself every time she dropped six dollars for her afternoon snack. She was supporting a local merchant, a dog-friendly one who served bird-friendly coffee and appeared to have a thing for shorthaired German pointers. How else to explain the small bookshelf that held nothing but Robert B. Parker novels?

She spooned up a bit of frothed milk, then held her face up to the sun, trying to be mindful of her good luck. She was outside, unlike Baltimore's office-bound drones. She was her own boss. She was alive, and she had learned the hard way not to take that for granted. Persuaded, she turned on the clam-shaped plastic monster that ran her life and, through a technology she couldn't begin to understand, grabbed an open line from thin air and jumped into cyberspace via WiFi.

Her e-mail was the usual mix of spam and people eager to grant her the privilege of doing things for free. Today it was an invitation to teach a course in self-defense, something about which Tess knew nothing-and she had the scar to prove it, a purple-red checkmark on her left knee. She sent a form-letter reply from her "assistant," S. K. Chien, which stated Miss Monaghan's fee structure-five thousand dollars for public speaking, five dollars per word for articles (minimum fee of one thousand dollars), and first-class travel arrangements for out-of-town gigs. That usually ended the queries, although some of the pushier types asked if the fee could be waived. S. K. Chien, however, was never moved by such pleas; she simply sent the same form letter until these supplicants gave up. Greyhounds are stubborn that way.

Her mailbox culled, Tess settled down to the messages from people who actually knew her. There was a political petition from Whitney, who had awakened one morning and decided she actually cared about the world. And an oddly formal invitation to lunch from Tyner Gray, a lawyer who had helped her get started as a PI and still threw her work. He had, in fact, vetted Rubin and hooked Tess up with Mrs. Public Works, so Tess probably owed him a lunch. She typed back her RSVP.

She saved for last the daily SnoopSisters Digest, a networking service for female private investigators that was fast becoming the highlight of Tess's working day.

Dear Sisters, the first entry read. Weather fine and clear in St. Louis this a.m., almost too warm to my way of thinking. I am trying to figure out where a prominent local man may have stashed assets prior to wife's divorce filing. Usual trails all dead-ended. Any thoughts? Letha in St. Louis .

Dear SS'ers: There's a good seminar on computer-related investigation in Houston in January. I'm enclosing a link to the program sked. I'll put you up if you don't want to spring for a hotel room. By the way, here's a link to one of those quiz sites that helps you figure out whether you're a hobbit, an elf, or a troll. I'm an elf. JR, your Texas Tornado.

The digest was the brainchild of Tess's onetime partner, Gretchen O'Brien. Baltimore born and bred, Gretchen had slipped on the ice last winter and suddenly decided she wanted to live in… Chicago. "They do winter right there," Gretchen had said with her usual conviction. "If you're going to have winter, you might as well have it in a city that can cope." Tess suspected there was a man involved in this western trek, but closemouthed Gretchen seldom yielded such personal information.

Soon after she returned to work in late August, Tess had scored a lead on an identity thief she was pursuing. The guy was in Naperville, Illinois, but moving fast. Tess's client, already facing bankruptcy because of her former fiance's credit-card shenanigans, couldn't afford for Tess to buy the pricey last-minute plane fare. (She was one of the clients who ended up stiffing Tess, but ever so apologetically.) The guy was such a small-timer that the Naperville police couldn't be bothered to pick him up in a timely fashion. Enter Gretchen, who had already made contacts with several Chicago-area bounty hunters. She had the guy hog-tied on his own motel-room bed within three hours of Tess's e-mail, and DuPage County was happy to extradite him once he was caught.

Where Tess saw a fortuitous coincidence, Gretchen had seen the future of the small businesswoman.

"The thing is, independents like us could save money if we had a network operating in key hub cities," Gretchen had decreed. "Not so much with collars, but with paperwork, the various bureaucracies. Everything's still a long way from being online, and there's always stuff you can only get in person, with a little persuasion. Why not have a cooperative, with women working out of key cities, exchanging work on a barter basis?"

And so the SnoopSisters Digest was born. Tess loathed the name. "Why not Miss Marple's Tea Party?" she had suggested. "Or the Redheaded League?" The literal but never literary Gretchen had pointed out that their only flame-haired member was Letha in St. Louis.

Even with the unfortunate name, the network was an unqualified success. There were still some wide-open places to be filled-they had no one to cover the vast swath west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies, and an Atlanta connection would have been helpful. But they were otherwise solid along the eastern seaboard and could do most of Texas and the Pacific Coast in a pinch. They shared information, brainstormed tough problems, and, as they got to know one another, divulged more and more details about their private lives-boyfriends, husbands, teething children, rambunctious dogs, garden pests (except for Gretchen, who got very impatient with what she called the "damn chitchat"). A typical digest might contain information about a handy new database followed by a recipe for those overwhelmed by the summer bounty of tomatoes and zucchini.

And Tess loved it, somewhat to her amazement. The digest was a virtual kaffeeklatsch, with all the chummy camaraderie of an office and none of the backstabbing politics. The group was also genuinely helpful-no one-upmanship, no macho posturing, no disdain for simple questions.

Dear S-Sisters , she wrote that morning, refusing to use the full name on principle and eschewing "SS" because of its unkind historic associations. I have scanned three photos into the shared files, part of a missing-persons case. To say that the information is sketchy would be generous. Natalie Rubin, nee Peters, disappeared three weeks ago with three children-a boy, Isaac, 9, and boy-girl twins, Efraim and Penina, 5. Police have ruled out foul play, but husband insists he never saw it coming and thinks-hopes-her flight may have actually been done for his benefit. What's the emoticon for skepticism? I'll enter DOBs for all four into the shared files. No known aliases. No known anything, really. Assumption is they're traveling together, but who knows?

It pained Tess a little, adding this cynical bit of doubt, but, out of Rubin's sight, she had to be tough-minded, entertain the possibilities he could not. There was the notorious Pennsylvania case of almost two decades ago, where a woman and two children had disappeared. The woman's body was found within forty-eight hours, the victim of a bizarre plot by her charismatic lover; the children had never been found. And if everyone was alive… well, it was hard to travel with one child, much less three. Harder still when there was no money and no vehicle. Whatever Natalie was running from or to, she'd run faster alone, to paraphrase Kipling. Would appreciate any ideas about how to proceed.

Tess then added a few lines about Baltimore's glorious Indian summer, described the muffin she was eating, and asked, almost as an afterthought, Anyone here know much about Orthodox Judaism? I'm curious because my client-Modern Orthodox, not Hasidic-refused to shake my hand. I knew; but forgot, about the prohibition against men touching women 'who are not their wives. Still, shouldn't the religion have evolved beyond this concept by now? What's the point in this day and age?

Tess disconnected and tilted her face back to the sun, trying to convince herself that she felt like Goldilocks. Everything was almost just right-the weather, her work. Rubin's job alone would make her fourth quarter, and now there was a possibility that Tyner was going to throw something lucrative her way. Why else would he summon her to lunch at Petit Louis? Meanwhile, she would start the Rubin case tomorrow by visiting Vera Peters, Natalie's mother. She imagined a Pikesville matron, a more devout version of Tess's Weinstein aunts. Perfect nails, perfect hair, shining house. Really, how estranged could any Jewish mother be from her daughter?

Then again, perhaps the reason that Natalie Rubin had exploded, taking her whole family with her, was that she had kept everything from everyone. Tess could see that happening. She had been accused of doing the same thing, but the way she saw it, a girl just couldn't win. You either talked too much or too little. There was denial, that old river in Egypt, but there also was a place called Laconia, the aptly named land that had once contained Sparta. Tess was determined to live in Laconia for a while, a place where there wasn't so much yakking about feelings and emotions.

And, yes, she knew all about the little Spartan boy who had let the pilfered fox nibble his internal organs rather than cry out in pain, but she wasn't worried. All you had to do to avoid that fate, Tess figured, was not steal any foxes.

Chapter One | By A Spider`s Thread | Chapter Three