Whitney was waiting in Tess's bare bones office when she returned from the ladies' room. Sitting in Tess's chair, scrolling through files in Tess's computer. Tess had nothing to hide, but still.
"So did Reganheartless try to shut you down?" Whitney asked, without lifting her eyes from the computer screen.
"She did shut me down. I'm still getting paid, but she's arranged it so I won't be able to talk to anyone on staff. Yet if I don't put in my hours, she'll say I've breached the contract and stop payment. I'm fucked. I have to come in here every day and sit at this desk doing nothing."
Whitney tapped a few keys and Tess heard a modem's rasping beeps and gurgles. She hadn't known the Blight's computer was equipped with one.
"Didn't Dorie tell you about the on-line capabilities built into the system here?"
"You mean the electronic library? I tried to use it over the weekend, but it's a fussy little program. Make one mistake and you have to start all over. The court files aren't much easier to use."
"Yeah, well, Marvin Hailey had a hand in designing our computer network, so that's to be expected. It's as jumpy as he is. But there are other things on the computer, too. Nexis, MVA records, Autotrack."
"I know about the first two. What's the last one?"
"A little program that allows you to find all sorts of stuff. Social Security numbers, past addresses, mortgage histories, current and former neighbors. Might be interesting to put Rosita through it."
"You know where Feeney has been the last twenty years of his life. And you know where he was that night." It was hard, to hear one friend's lie in another friend's mouth, as casual and uncontested as a passing comment on the weather. Why had Feeney told Whitney he and Tess were together that night? Now it was Tess's lie, too, and it was too late to disown it. "Rosita's the mystery woman."
"Not so mysterious. I talked to her over the weekend. Pretty routine r'esum'e-last job was in San Antonio, she's from Boston, wants to move back there. No husband, no boyfriend."
Whitney picked up the receiver and held it out toward Tess. "You don't need Colleen's permission to dial long-distance. Just an access code and I'll give you that: five-four. Sheer coincidence, I assure you, nothing to do with our beloved publisher. What's the paper in San Antonio, the Eagle? No harm in checking out Rosita's reputation down there."
Tess took the phone and placed it back in its cradle. "You got me the job, Whitney. Now let me do it. My way."
Unlike most blunt people, who tend to be extremely tender about their own feelings, Whitney was nearly uninsultable "Okay. Just trying to be helpful. I'd ask you to lunch, but I have a squash date with Sterling, assuming it hasn't been overtaken by recent events."
Perhaps Colleen Reganhart wasn't so paranoid after all. Tess was surprised to feel a little stab of jealousy on her own behalf. "Lobbying for Japan? Or something bigger?"
" Japan is big enough. For now. And yes, I'm working all the angles. Luckily, Sterling is a better player than I am, when he isn't having problems with his back, or his carpal tunnel. It's hard to throw games without being too obvious about it."
Tess waited about five seconds after Whitney left, then pulled out the phone book and looked up the area code for San Antonio.
Newspaper bureaucracies are as byzantine and hierarchical as any government office. It took Tess almost an hour to find a San Antonio editor who would talk to her about Rosita Ruiz. Rosita's supervisor, the sports editor, seemed the obvious choice, but he referred her to the managing editor's office, where she learned the assistant managing editor for administration handled all such queries. It turned out this editor had an assistant who oversaw the two-year intern program, in which Rosita had been employed, and only he could serve as her reference.
"Edward Saldivar." His was a soft, young-sounding voice with a slight accent, one Saldivar seemed to try and minimize, anglicizing his first name as much as possible. Quite the opposite of Rosita, hitting her consonants with hurricane force.
"My name is Tess Monaghan and I'm checking Rosita Ruiz's references. She listed you as the contact there."
"Ah." When stalling for time, Saldivar made a singing sound, as if he were warming up his vocal cords for a chorale performance. "Our policy is to confirm the position an individual held here, and verify dates of employment, no more, no less."
"That's not exactly a reference."
"Ah." A little higher this time. "I see your point. But recent litigation by, uh, disgruntled workers, suggests companies should adopt uniform policies, lest they be accused of slander. Unfortunate, but that's the way everything is going today. Besides, Rosita left here more than six months ago, for a job at the paper up in Baltimore. Why don't you call them?"
"I'm calling for them, from their offices. Did you provide a reference then?"
"I don't recall being asked, and I don't know if someone else was contacted. But whoever was called would have given only the dates of employment. That's our-"
"Your policy. Yes, I understand, Mr. Saldivar. But Rosita has the job and she knows I'm calling you." A harmless lie. "Surely you should be able to speak freely about her work at the Eagle. She covered minor league baseball, right?"
"She worked here for nineteen months, leaving last October to join the Baltimore Beacon-Light."
"I thought she had a two-year internship. Why did it end in nineteen months?"
"It's not unusual for our two-year interns to leave for permanent positions at other papers before their terms are up. Rosita Ruiz resigned on October first after securing a job at the Beacon-Light, a larger paper that could afford to pay her much more. We were very happy for her. Good day, Miss Monaghan." Saldivar was not the type who would slam a phone down to end a conversation. No, he slipped the receiver back into place, almost as if he regretted breaking the connection. That was something she could learn from Saldivar, Tess decided, without the benefit of a two-year internship: Good manners are a great way to be rude.
It was almost 7 when Tess left the Blight, a lonely time in that forsaken neighborhood, especially on a rainy March night. Her shoulders ached, as did her neck, and she had a splitting headache. Doing nothing was hard work, and she had done little more than play solitaire with the computer after running into the dead-end known as Ed Saldivar. Out of sheer perversity, Tess had stayed even later than Colleen Reganhart had specified, forgetting she would have to walk back to Tyner's to get her car. On top of everything else, the Blight had forgotten to provide her a parking place, and the Nazi who supervised the lot had told her the visitor spaces couldn't be used by an employee, even one as tenuous as she.
Head down against the wet wind, Tess shuffled along the sad, deserted blocks of Lexington, bricked in during the 1970s, when downtown "malls" were thought to be the secret to urban renewal. There were still stores here, discount chains and cheap clothing boutiques, but they closed along with the state offices at 5 P.M. Even the Nut House was shuttered, much to Tess's disappointment. A handful of pistachios would have made a big difference in the quality of her life just then.
She was crossing Park Avenue when she noticed a long, brown-colored car with bits of salmon paint peeking through. It made a sudden U-turn on the one-way street, fishtailed to a stop with a great squealing of brakes, then made another U and headed back in the right direction. Downtown Baltimore, with its warren of one-way streets, often had that effect on out-of-town drivers.
Two blocks later, as Tess turned north on St. Paul, the same car passed her again, heading south. Again the brakes whined and the car almost spun out on the slick road. But even at this hour, one-way St. Paul was too busy for the car to dare going the wrong way. She watched it turn left at the next side street, suddenly overtaken by a sinking sensation that these might be her hospital-bound buddies, in another untraceable vehicle.
"As long as I'm walking against the traffic, I should be okay," she told herself, speaking out loud from nervousness. She started up St. Paul, and although she walked quickly, she hadn't covered an entire block before the same car-an old Buick, she saw now-passed her again. She looked for a license plate, but there wasn't one, not on the front, and the back plate was thick with mud.
Tess stopped for a moment to think. She'd never make it to her car, not along these increasingly desolate blocks north of downtown. She could disappear into the Tremont Hotel just ahead, or turn around and go south, vanishing into the shops at the Gallery or Harborplace. Even on a Monday night, the restaurants would be busy enough to offer her some protection while she waited for Crow, or a taxi. But she had to be sure it was the same men. There had to be a way to confront them without putting herself at risk.
To the east, City Hall's gold dome shone in the misty dusk, all the inspiration she needed. She checked her wallet. Forty dollars in small bills. Should be enough. She sprinted for South Street, but not so quickly that her friends in the brown-and-salmon-mobile couldn't see her.
Because of the parking problem in downtown Baltimore, an underground economy of de facto valets had taken hold in the more congested areas near City Hall and the district court building. Homeless men earned money by feeding parking meters for people who "tipped" them. Even if one didn't plan to stay beyond the meter's time limits, it was smart to offer a dollar or two, if only to protect one's car against the men offering protection. Tess, who had patronized these attendants while on various errands for Tyner, knew they scorned the local shelters, preferring to sleep near their place of business. They should be settling down for the evening just about now, having scored some sandwiches from the nearby missions. The trick was getting them to emerge from the cubbyholes and doorways where they slept.
"Anybody want to make a few bucks?" she called. "Easiest five dollars you'll ever make in your life!" She heard a rustling noise, then three men appeared out of the shadows. Three large men, she noted happily. She pulled out her wallet, showed them the cash, then slipped the wallet back into her knapsack.
"All you have to do is stand around me and look mean. Think you can do that?" The three nodded, unfazed by the strange request. They huddled close to her and Tess caught the bitter scent of sweat dried on old wool, the too-sweet grape of bad wine.
"You do something wrong?" asked one man, a white man who was brown all over-brown hair, brown clothes, brown eyes, skin the color of a pecan from what must be years of living outdoors.
"Not that I'm aware of."
Within a few minutes, the brown-over-salmon car turned onto South Street, stopping short of where Tess stood. Even without a valid license plate, it would be an easy car to recognize. The windows were one-way mirrors, the job done so cheaply that strips of the reflective material were already peeling away. The paint job was new but cheap, a flat shade of dung-brown. The fenders were pitted with dents and scrapes, one headlight was cracked, and the muffler appeared to be loose. But these guys had a habit of changing cars-first a bright blue AMC Hornet, now this Buick. Or was the Hornet the first car, after all? She suddenly remembered the high beams of a car behind her on Franklintown Road, the car she had lost by running a red light the night she had acquired Esskay. The night Spike had been beaten.
The front passenger window rolled down slowly and a familiar pair of oversize sunglasses studied Tess. The concerned friend of Joe Johnson, the one who had wanted to give her a lift the other day. Then the rear passenger door opened, creaking horribly.
"Miss Monaghan?" The voice, thin and reedy, came from the backseat. Tess did not reply.
"It is Miss Monaghan, isn't it? Spike Orrick's niece? He has always spoken so highly of you. We saw him just the other day."
"Did you go see him when you visited your pal Joe?"
"For various reasons, we didn't have a chance to stop in and visit. But we did see Spike before he went into the hospital." A low, rusty chuckle. "Just before."
Her paid protectors drew closer, as if they understood the threat implicit in this exchange. Or perhaps they wanted to be sure to grab her knapsack if someone bolted from the car and dragged her away. In the space between the door and the car, Tess could see a leg, a beefy one in tight black denim. A brown leather jacket, styled like a blazer, hung over the jeans. But she couldn't see any faces. Somewhere deep inside the car, a small dog yapped.
"Hush, Charlton," the reedy voice admonished indulgently. The voice was colder, steelier, when it addressed her again. "Miss Monaghan, your uncle has something that belongs to a friend of ours. It has no real monetary value, but it is his, and he wants it back. Do you know where we could find this…item?"
Tess shook her head. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Are you sure?"
One of the homeless men, the nut-brown man, stepped forward. "She said no. Isn't that good enough?" There was just enough light to catch the short blade clenched in his right hand.
The man in the front passenger smiled and held up a gun. Paper beats rock, rock beats scissors, scissors beat paper, gun beats knife, Tess thought. But the rear car door slammed shut and the old Buick took off, accelerating so quickly it bounced off one curb and then the other. Her bodyguards stayed close to her until the car disappeared, and Tess was touched, until she remembered she owed them money. She doled out five dollars to each. The first two said nothing, but the third one, the one with the knife, was curious.
"You owe them money?"
"I don't, but my uncle might. He's a bookie."
"That's a bad business. Stay away from that." With those words of advice the brown man was gone, melting into the dusk. A taxi pulled up as he vanished, and Tess, who had already spent fifteen dollars on her trip home, decided to spend another five dollars to reach her car. Shifting her weight to avoid the bad springs in the cab's backseat, she thought of how Spike had always kept the family at arm's length from what he called "my little sideline." Until now, she had assumed he was being dramatic, indulging his proclivity for mystery and secrets. Until now.