‘I know that.’

‘You more than know it, you liye it.’ He took a hit from the bottle, worked the hooch along his gums and teeth like mouthwash, and he looked so sad and ugly and pathetic I nearly laughed at him.

‘I don’t want nothing to happen to those kids,’ he said.

That burnt-smell silence got thick again. I quit rubbing my wrist.

‘You threatening my kids, Jim?’ I said it soft like I didn’t quite understand, like it was an idea too left-field for human talk.

‘You get an idea, Ellen, about calling the Feds, going back to Texas, I call a buddy of mine in Corpus. He’s good at’ – a pause – ‘creating situations. Beaches are real dangerous for little kids. Cramps while swimming. Riptides.’ He even gave me a smile, the drunk.

I may be a bad mother, but I’m still a mother, and I stared at him in rising horror as I rubbed my wrist. ‘Don’t do that, Jim. Please.’

‘Then don’t you screw with me, okay?’ he said.

I let him believe I was afraid of him. They’re little kids.’

‘And you’re the mother of the year.’ Now I heard a twitch in his voice, shame that he’d had to resort to threatening children. He favored himself with another big gulp of Tennessee juice. ‘So don’t talk Texas. We stay here. The Bellinis aren’t ever going to find us here.’

‘Okay,’ I said. But not okay. I headed for work and left him drinking. I wondered, what if he’s not bluffing. The thought preyed on me like a fever. I decided to call Babe, tell him to take the boys away from Port Leo. Picked up a pay phone, dialed. No answer. I couldn’t decide if that pissed me off or not. Shouldn’t they all be sitting at home, waiting for me to call? I hung up, went to the bar, the start of one piledriver of a headache working underneath my forehead.

I didn’t want to deal with Babe. You should solve your problems directly. That night was quiet at the bar and I had time to think, to construct four different plans and decide on one while I collected beer mugs and ignored a Giants baseball game showing on the television through a thin haze of cigarette smoke.

I returned to the dumpy motel, smelling of cigs and beer. Jim wasn’t in my room. We have separate rooms. I insisted on it, trying to keep our new identities separate, too, but he liked to lie on my bed and wait for me.

I had a key to his room. He lay sprawled on his bed, passed out, reeking of whiskey and onion and hamburger. A globby mess of French fries, greasy on a paper bag, lay on the table.

‘Jim,’ I said. ‘You awake?’ Poked at him with my fingers. In his cheek, his throat, his stomach, his crotch. Let my fingers linger on his sweet spot, see if there was any response to my tickle.

Nothing; a little dribble of spit tracked down from his mouth, drying on unshaven cheek.

‘Don’t you threaten my kids, you asshole,’ I said.

He didn’t move, gave off a rough, sour snore.

So I went back to my room. I opened the little suitcase under the bed and got the gun I’d bought on my way to Dallas from Port Leo, paying cash, using an assumed name. Wiped the gun carefully with an old T-shirt, then wrapped the material around the grip but not the barrel. I walked back down the hall. The silence of the motel pressed against my ears, the quiet of empty rooms. I stuck the gun in his slack, open mouth, nestled it between his teeth and gave the trigger a little squeeze.

I jumped at the sound, more than he did.

I carefully put the gun in his hand, unwrapped the T-shirt from around it, pressed his fingertips on the grip. I went back to my room. It was one in the morning. I waited for someone to respond to the shot, but the motel was still.

No distant whine of sirens approached. I took a shower, washing the bar smells out of my hair, and packed. We’d paid cash for the rooms, a week in advance each time, and were still good for two days. So I took the money Jim stole from the bank and the mobsters, and I drove the car we’d rented to an all-night diner. I ate fried eggs and toast heavy with strawberry jam, and drank coffee, watching the night against the windows go gray, then orange. Pretty, but not as pretty as the sun rising out of the Gulf. Once I thought I saw my sons’ faces in the glass, little ghosts again, but it was all the nerve juice pouring through me. Missing the boys really badly but at the same time not wanting to see them, knowing that chapter of my life was closing. I smiled at the boys and their little blank faces vanished in the dark glass.

At seven that morning I drove to the Bozeman airport, left the rental car in the lot. On the radio there was nothing about a suicide – or a murder – at the Pine Cone Motel. Jim is apparently sleeping in late. The maid won’t show up to straighten the room until ten or so, and I’d left the DO NOT DISTURB hanger on Jim’s door. She won’t knock until two. Perhaps not until tomorrow. Our maid was not the poster child for initiative.

An hour later I was on a plane, flying to Denver under the name of Eve Michaels, the name I’d used since leaving Texas, with five hundred thousand in cash in my checked luggage, praying to God they don’t lose my suitcase. It’s mostly businessmen on this flight, not as crowded as I would like; I might be remembered more easily. A gap-toothed man next to me asked me what I do, flirting way too early in the morning. I want to say I abandoned my family and killed my rotten mean lover and stole his money. You? You sell insurance? That’s fascinating.

But I don’t, of course. I said I work in a bar and I’m flying to Denver to see my boyfriend, who’s on the semi- pro wrestling circuit. Gap-tooth lost interest and I closed my eyes. Part of me still wanted to go home. Part of me didn’t. And part of me worried that the men from Detroit Jim stole that money from won’t stop because Jim’s dead. They could come after me. It’s funny, looking back now, I wasn’t really too worried about the police. But this Tommy Bellini guy Jim was afraid of, he scared me.

A half million is a lot of money. But not enough to live on for the rest of your days, not in style. So I wonder if there’s a deal I can cut that will open the right door for me, into a life a hell of a lot more up my alley than raising six kids.

I sat that whole flight with my eyes closed, playing out the different twists and turns my life could take in the next few days.

I didn’t stay long in the Denver airport. Grabbed my precious checked bag and fixed my makeup, and rented a car.

I headed east through the morning Denver traffic. For Detroit. Babe and the boys know I hate the cold. But the cold’s where Tommy Bellini’s at. And I needed a new best friend.

Thirty years ago, I thought Montana would be the last time I would ever need to disappear. I was wrong.


‘Stop the search, Judge,’ Harry Chyme said. ‘That’s the best advice I can give you.’

Whit Mosley wrapped his fingers around his bottle of beer, felt his friend Claudia Salazar inch closer to him in silent support.

‘I don’t give up easily,’ Whit said. ‘Are you telling me you’ve hit a dead end?’

‘No,’ Harry said. ‘I’m telling you that finding your mother might not be a good idea. It might be, well, dangerous.’

‘Dangerous. You’re kidding, right?’ Whit asked.

‘I don’t often deal in hunches but I have one about where your mother ended up. But I need to know how risk-tolerant you are before I proceed.’

Claudia put her hand on Whit’s arm. ‘Whit’s tough, Harry. Throw your worst at us.’

Harry dragged a hand through his short, dark hair. He didn’t look the part of a private investigator: bespectacled, wearing a tweed coat and a yellow silk tie, with the casual rumple of an English professor. Harry had a kindness in his face Whit trusted, and Harry had been Claudia’s instructor at the police academy before she joined the Port Leo police department. Now he sipped at his iced tea and set the glass down, studied Whit as though measuring his strength.

‘You may not like what you hear, Judge. This information gets out, could be you don’t get elected next time around.’ His voice lowered. ‘And I know the situation with your father is delicate, but…’

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