‘Harry,’ Whit said, ‘the doctors give my dad four months. For years he’s wanted to know what he did to drive my mother away, to make her leave a good life and six sons who loved her. I want you to find her so I can drag her sorry ass home to face my dad before he dies. I want her to explain herself. I don’t care if she’s got a perfect life now and I mess it up.’

They sat in a back corner at the Whitecap, a small seafood restaurant overlooking Corpus Christi Bay, and in the midafternoon of a February weekday, the restaurant was empty, the sky the color of burned charcoal. The bay lay empty before them, wind-whipped. The restaurant was a converted bright yellow house, the tables close together, but they were alone in the back, the lunch crowd evaporated back down Ocean Avenue to the small towers of downtown Corpus Christi or to the regal mansions that lined the street.

Harry Chyme spread files on the restaurant booth’s table in a loose jumble. ‘Okay then,’ Harry said. ‘I know your father hired investigators to look for her for several months when she initially disappeared.’

‘Yes,’ Whit said. ‘Then he started drinking and stopped caring.’

‘The investigators weren’t terribly creative in their search.’

‘Harry’s got game.’ Claudia smiled. ‘You found her, you genius.’

Harry ignored the compliment. ‘Your mother’s disappearance was treated, for the most part, as that of a woman who was simply tired of being married, tired of having six kids to raise.’ Harry folded his hands on a folder. ‘They looked at her as a woman who had packed a bag, hired a lawyer to end the marriage, and driven off. To have a calculated break from her life. But even a divorce meant she might want to see her kids again. And when she didn’t come back and she never got in touch again, then something bad must’ve happened to her. That theory’s crap,’ Harry said. ‘Because she didn’t leave alone.’

Whit shook his head. ‘No one else took off from Port Leo the same time she did, or from any other nearby town. She didn’t run off with a boyfriend.’

‘I looked at every person in Texas who went missing the same month your mother did. There were nineteen people, not counting Ellen Mosley. Fourteen turned up later, safe and sound. The other five didn’t turn up safe. Two were kids, kidnapped and killed, one in Fort Worth, the other in Houston. A third was a young woman in Texarkana, raped and killed and found on the banks of the Sabine River three months later. A fourth was an elderly man with senile dementia who wandered off from a nursing home in El Paso and was found dead in the desert from stroke. The fifth was James Powell.’

‘I don’t know that name,’ Whit said.

‘James Powell was a Dallas banker. He embezzled over a half million in cash from his bank and ran. He committed suicide three weeks later in Bozeman, Montana. He actually disappeared the week before your mother did.’ Harry Chyme opened a folder. ‘James Powell fished regularly in Port Leo.’

‘Lots of people do,’ Claudia said. ‘What proof of a connection do you have?’

‘The woman who was living with James Powell in a Bozeman motel and took off after he died matches your mother’s description, except for hair color.’

Whit thumbed the base of his glass. ‘Really.’

‘So I started going back through the files, in Dallas and in Bozeman, about James Powell. He’d told a friend at the bank he’d gotten involved with a married woman. Said nothing about Port Leo. But he fished in Port Leo nearly every month.’

‘A woman with six young children hasn’t got the energy for an affair,’ Claudia said.

‘Six kids underfoot could give her every reason for an affair,’ Whit said. ‘We were left to our own devices a lot, Claudia. Or left with our grandmother or friends. My mother could have met up with a guy now and then. But it would have been difficult to keep it quiet for long.’

‘But easier with it being a tourist,’ Harry said. ‘Much less chance he’d be recognized. He could stay at different hotels, or stay in Rockport or Port Aransas or Laurel Point, where Ellen would not be recognized or known.’

‘This James Powell. No question it was a suicide?’ Claudia didn’t look at Whit.

‘That’s a nice suggestion,’ Whit said.

Harry pulled a photocopy of a faded police report from a file. ‘There was no sign of struggle, and he was drunk according to the tox reports. No prints on the gun other than his.’

‘Did that half million turn up?’ Claudia asked.

‘No. That obviously concerned the investigators.’

‘And this woman who was with him was never a suspect?’

‘Sure she was. But the trail died. She and Powell weren’t actually living together. They were renting rooms in a dive motel, her room down the hall from his. She arrived at the motel a week after he did and, according to the motel maid’s statement at the time, they seemed to not know each other and then hit it off. The maid saw them going to each other’s rooms a couple of times. But no proof that they had a connection beyond acquaintance. The stickler is this woman – her name was Eve Michaels – left the night Powell died.’

‘Eve Michaels. Ellen Mosley,’ Whit said.

‘Yep. According to the investigator files on Powell’s case, a woman named Eve Michaels bought an airline ticket to Denver from Bozeman. Rented a car in Denver, used a fake credit card. The car was found abandoned in Des Moines, Iowa. Then the trail went cold, and the Bozeman police didn’t have luck pursuing it further.’

‘So my mother, if she’s the same woman, is a killer and a thief,’ Whit said. ‘I think I know enough now.’

‘But maybe she isn’t,’ Harry said. ‘Here’s the second part of my theory, and it gets ugly. James Powell cleaned money through his bank for a couple of small businesses in Dallas that were fronts for an alleged organized crime family in Detroit. The Bellini family. The money he stole was from the accounts he’d set up for them. These guys might have caught up with him in Bozeman. But being mob, they would have roughed him up before killing him. No sign the guy had been beaten or tortured.’

‘Unless there was no need,’ Claudia said. ‘They found the money, took it, and killed him.’

‘A faked suicide’s not their style,’ Harry said. ‘And unlikely they would have left the body in the motel.’

Whit pulled the old police report across the table and studied the description of the woman. Five-foot-six, around 140 pounds, attractive face, green eyes, red hair. No picture attached but a sketch. It sort of looked like his mother. ‘It says she had a bartending job at a beer joint. Why would she work if they had a half million in cash to blow?’

Harry said, ‘She wanted a cover. Not draw attention to herself.’

‘And she had red hair. My mother was a brunette.’

‘Safe to assume she would change her appearance if she was on the run, and with an embezzler,’ Harry said. ‘Do you remember anyone else asking about your mother after she vanished? Strangers?’

‘No. My father would know.’

Harry’s face softened. ‘How’s he doing?’

‘The chemo is hard.’ Whit glanced back out at the bay, no longer empty in the winter afternoon. One brave sailboat plied the waves, racing along the edge of the bay in a sweeping turn, its wake a slurry of white foam and gray water. ‘So he feels horrible, he knows he’s dying, and I tell him my mother ran off with a Dallas embezzler with mob ties who ended up dead?’ Whit shook his head. ‘Maybe the Bellinis caught and killed them both but dumped her body elsewhere.’

‘And a woman who looks like her happens to leave Bozeman the same day?’ Claudia said gently. ‘Let’s say she took the money. She killed Powell, or guilt or fear ate him up and he killed himself, and so she ran with the money.’

‘Yes,’ Harry said. ‘Great minds, Claudia. She had a few choices. One, come home.’

‘She didn’t do that,’ Whit said.

‘Two, run. Always waiting for the Bellinis to catch up with her.’

‘That seems the logical choice,’ Claudia said.

‘Yeah, and y’all might never find her again,’ Harry said. ‘Or three. She went to the Bellinis to return the money, to take the heat off of her, to cut a deal.’

‘Huge risk,’ Claudia said.

Harry slipped another set of stapled papers from a file. ‘Yes. Tony Largo was a loan shark in Dallas who’d been close to James Powell. He turned to the Feds about ten years after Powell died. Said word on the street was the Bellinis were looking for Powell but never found him. And the Bellinis fell from power a few years back.’ Harry opened another file. ‘The Feds could never get the hard financial evidence against them for racketeering charges.

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