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Chapter Forty

TESS COULDN'T DECIDE IF SHE SHOULD BE RELIEVED OR in despair when she saw that Mark's Cadillac was the only car at the storage facility. What if I'm too late? What if he's dead inside? She drew her gun and entered a small anteroom, a makeshift office created by cheap plywood siding, a door in the center. Cautiously, she tried the knob, waiting to see if anyone would respond to that motion.

"Nat?" a voice asked. A man's voice, not unlike Mark's, but definitely not Mark's. Tess backed up and kicked the door, on the off chance that the man had positioned himself behind it, then crossed the threshold with her gun firmly in both hands.

"Put your hands above your head," she told the man, who stood no more than ten feet from her, pacing a narrow corridor with two heavy, vaultlike doors on either side.

The man complied, clasping his hands to the crown of his head, sizing her up as she sized him up. The descriptions of him in the random sightings had always been so vague that Tess had never been able to get a clear picture in her mind.

Why hadn't people mentioned how handsome he was? Of course, not everyone might have found him so, but even those who didn't care for this type-tall, lean, with dark skin and light eyes-should have noticed he was a striking man.

But the oddest fact of his appearance, by far, was how strongly he favored Mark. If Tess hadn't known otherwise, she would have taken them for blood relations. The coloring, the features, were all very similar. This one was taller, true, with the kind of body that a disciplined man can sculpt over a long prison sentence. His eyes were a cold, hard blue, whereas Mark's were brown and soft. But there was a resemblance.

"Nathaniel Rubenstein," she said, her gun aimed at his midsection. He kept his hands on his head, making no attempt to reach for the gun tucked into his waistband. She recognized the distinctive grip of Mark's SIG Sauer.

"I prefer to be called Zeke," he said.

"Where's Mark? Is he alive?"

"Well, he's either behind Door Number One or"-he jerked his head toward the other door-"Door Number Two. Are you ready to play Let's Make a Deal?"

"And the children? Are they here, too?"

"You the chick he hired? Lana told me about you." He smiled, sure of his charm even now. Oh, this one had been talking his way out of trouble for most of his life.

"Let him out."

"No can do."

"Excuse me?" She wondered if she could get away with shooting him while his arms were raised.

"I need to keep him there, just for a few hours. Him and the kids. This is a business deal, plain and simple. It doesn't involve you-or wasn't supposed to. I made him promise to leave anyone else out of it, including his private detective, and he was happy to oblige."

"Are they alive?"

"Absolutely. But since you showed up, I need to put you in there, too, for safekeeping. Really, it's just business. Don't take it personally."

"No," Tess said, backing away from him, making sure she was not within reach.

"Well, I guess it's a standoff, then." He flashed her a smile, then started to lower his hands.

"Don't," she said in her sternest voice.

He shrugged, backing up. Tess heard steps in the anteroom and pressed her back against the wall, so she had the best vantage point possible. Natalie appeared, hugging Isaac to one side and cradling a shoe box in the right hand. It was disorienting, seeing the human versions of the people Tess had been seeking, almost like meeting celebrities in the flesh.

"Good girl," Zeke crooned. "You found Isaac. Look, Isaac-I told you that your dad would be here."

He opened the door to his right, revealing Mark Rubin on the floor of a vault crowded with coats, the twins curled up in his lap, clutching him like little orangutans.

"Daddy!" Isaac threw himself at his father. Under different circumstances it would have been a touching reunion.

"Now I really need you to go in there, too," Zeke said to Tess.

"No."

"Do what he says." Natalie had dropped the shoe box to the floor and was now holding a gun on Tess. She didn't look particularly comfortable with it, but she seemed awfully determined.

"Good girl," Zeke said again. "Good, careful Natalie. You always have my back."

"I got nervous when I saw the strange car," she said, tossing her head like a teenager accepting a compliment. "I wasn't sure what was going on, so I thought I should get my gun."

"I'm afraid you're outnumbered," Zeke said to Tess with that same insistent, phony charm. "But it's really not so bad. You'll just be in there an hour or two, and then Lana will come to let you out. That's all. We just need a head start. Oh, and your cell phone. You do have one, right?"

When Tess hesitated, Zeke pointed his gun at Mark and the children. Tess threw him the phone with her left hand, keeping her gun steady in her right.

"I'd be more convinced of your good intentions if I didn't know you're a criminal who's already tried to kill your stepbrother at least once."

"That hurts my feelings, I admit. But at this point I can't really worry about what you think. Mark and the children are safe, as you can see. But if I have to kill you, then I'll have to kill them to keep from having witnesses. So please-" Again he gestured toward the vault.

"Let us go," Tess said. "Give us the head start. Mark is more trustworthy than you. He'll give you his word that we'll walk away and wait a day before we tell the cops what happened here."

"Mark lies, too. All Rubins lie. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree." Zeke looked at Natalie. "Right, honey? Like father, like son? Like father, like daughter, too, come to think of it."

Natalie's expression was pained. Did she not want to leave her children? Her husband? But she wouldn't even meet Mark's beseeching gaze.

"We're wasting time," Zeke said. "Please get into the motherfuckin' vault, or I'll kill you, then kill Mark, and take the children with us. How's that for incentive?"

Tess looked at Mark, desperate for guidance, but he was just staring at Natalie, as if she were an apparition, the embodiment of a dream he never really expected to come true. Isaac shook his father's shoulder, and Mark put an arm around his son, but he didn't seem to be focused on the events crashing around him.

"It's death either way, isn't it?" Tess demanded, wanting to force Zeke to state his intentions, in hopes it would jar Mark into action. There were two of them. If Mark rushed Zeke and she went after Natalie, they might have a chance, if only because no mother could be monstrous enough to risk shooting her own children. "You'll shoot us or leave us here to suffocate. Frankly, I'd rather be shot."

"No one's going to suffocate. These vaults are huge. It would take a day for the five of you to use up the oxygen in one, and I plan to send someone here within the hour. You're just being melodramatic."

"Then why," Isaac asked, "did you turn off the fan?"

All the adults turned to the little boy. His face was crumpled and creased, and there was a streak of dirt on one cheek, flaky bits of dry leaves in his dark hair.

"What are you talking about, partner?" Zeke was trying to sound jovial again but not quite pulling it off. "You'd freeze if I left the air on."

"We keep the vault at forty-five degrees," Isaac said, and the plural pronoun just about broke Tess's heart. "That's cold, but not so cold as to make people freeze. But there's a system that makes the air move in and out as well. It's off-I can't hear it humming. You don't want the air to circulate. You want us to die."

"Zeke?" It was Natalie's voice, perplexed yet hopeful, sure he could explain it.

"The little know-it-all is wrong, Nat. It's a cool night. I'm only thinking of them. It doesn't matter if the air is off for a few hours."

"But we're just going to be in here for an hour," Isaac persisted. "You said. And if we got cold, we could wrap ourselves in the coats. So why are you turning off the air?"

"Isaac's right, Natalie." Mark had finally spoken. "There's only one reason to turn the air off."

Her loyalties were still with the other man. "Zeke?"

"We're up against a wall, Natalie. Because of Ohio." He hummed the refrain of Neil Young's "Ohio," mystifying Tess. "We don't have a lot of options. But you have my word. I'll send Lana to get them as soon as we're over the state line."

"I don't know what Ohio has to do with this." Natalie's tone was bitter and petulant, the voice of a person who had been reminded once too often of some failing. "I need you to promise me right now that they'll be okay."

"Have I ever lied to you?"

Of course he has, Tess wanted to scream. He's a liar and a thief, and he's about to become a killer. But Natalie, after a few seconds of intense thought, just shrugged and motioned Tess into the vault. She didn't take Tess's gun, though. Perhaps it was an act of kindness. The five hostages might prefer to shoot themselves rather than claw for air in the final minutes of their lives.

"Mommy?" Isaac asked, and it was a dozen questions at once. The twins rubbed their eyes, mewling like kittens, but too floppy and boneless to stand.

"I love you all," Natalie said. "Never forget that. I love you more than life itself."

With that she closed the door on them.

Tess waited no more than thirty seconds, then pulled out her second cell phone, the one she carried for outgoing calls only. No signal-the vault was too well built. Foolishly, she had counted on the second phone to save them. If she had known it wouldn't work, she would have thrown herself at Natalie, taken the chance that she could overpower her before Zeke got a shot off. Too bad that Mark Rubin didn't have a little more gonif in him, hadn't tried to get by with a shoddier storage facility. A place as leaky and air-riddled as his father's might have saved their lives.

"Is there any way out?" she asked Mark.

He shook his head. "No, I'm afraid not. It's pretty impenetrable. I used to be proud of that."

"Is there any reason someone-Paul, anyone-might come here before?" She didn't want to be too explicit about their fate, not in front of the children, although Isaac clearly knew what was going on.

Another sad, mournful shake. "No. I made sure no one would know I was here. I'm sorry."

"Me, too."

She also was sorry that Vera and Lana hadn't stonewalled her longer. If she had been just a few minutes later, Natalie and Zeke would be gone, and she could have been the Rubin family's great rescuer.

"He told me he would give me the children in exchange for whatever cash I could raise. I couldn't imagine I never thought I mean, how could Natalie agree to such a thing?"

"I don't think Natalie knew, until a minute ago, what he had planned. She probably still believes he'll call Lana."

"She never loved me," Mark said. "Everything-all of this-was just a ruse, a game. From the first. Nat played Pygmalion and created my perfect woman, knowing all along he was going to take her back. He enjoyed telling me that tonight. He said I took his bride, not the other way around, which marks me as the true sinner in our family."

"I'm sure Natalie came to love you, in her own way," Tess said. She might as well say what Mark wanted to hear, given their circumstances. "As much as she can love anyone."

She was glad that she had never told Mark Rubin about his wife's past. It didn't matter if Natalie had sold sexual favors to one man, one hundred, or even one thousand. She had chosen Mark's stepbrother over Mark, chosen a man over her children. That was enough pain for a husband to shoulder in the final hours of his life.

"She loves her children," Mark said. "She couldn't fake that."

Tess shrugged. Perhaps Mark was right, but Natalie had left her children to die.

She paced the small area, determined to find a way out. She had no intention of dying, not today. Perhaps it was ridiculous to think she had a say in it, but that was how she felt. A tantrum did not seem out of the question. Let Mark pray, as he seemed to be doing now. Tess wanted to throw herself on the hard floor and beat her fists, drum her feet. Wouldn't someone miss her before their time was up? Could the room really be that airtight? The dogs would know she was gone, perhaps start a mournful cry that would irritate the neighbors, nothing more. Otherwise, there was no one in the world who kept track of her, who checked in with her every day. Even the SnoopSisters wouldn't notice a silence of a day or two.

The door to the vault was suddenly wrenched open. Natalie hugged the jamb as if she were too weak to stand. Her face was as green as her eyes. She still held her gun.

"I don't want the children to see," she said. "But Zeke I'm afraid I think you need to call someone."

Tess, taking no chances, pried the gun from Natalie's fingers before she ran down the hall and out into the air, the wonderful, cool, breathable air of which she had been deprived for no more than five minutes.

She was no coroner, and she didn't want to touch the body she found slumped over the steering wheel, but she was pretty certain that Nathaniel Ezekiel Rubenstein had never seen it coming. He had turned away from Natalie on the dangerous presumption that he had enjoyed the last word.

Death was not instantaneous, but it was close enough. Zeke had felt the shock of the bullet's trajectory, cutting upward through his torso. Natalie, firing a gun for only the second time in her life, hadn't been able to control the kick. He swore he could trace the bullet's exact path, knew which organs it sliced through on the way to his heart, which it missed by a millimeter or two. But it had done its job well enough, ripping through enough arteries and veins to guarantee his demise.

As he hung over the steering wheel, Zeke's last thoughts were for Natalie. They did not follow the five classic stages, but they were close. Surprise-he never saw it coming, literally and figuratively. Anger-stupid Russian bitch. Amazement-who knew she had it in her? Grudging respect. She'll tell them I killed the cop, back in Ohio . She'll blame everything on me and get away with it, because of that angel face of hers.

In the end Zeke had just enough time to lose faith in everything he had ever believed-in his own power and brilliance, in the steadfastness of Natalie's love, in the destiny of the birthright he had been denied. He didn't have time, however, to replace those beliefs with anything else.


Chapter Thirty-nine | By A Spider`s Thread | Chapter Forty-one







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