Authors: Jeff Abbott
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 …’
‘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
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
‘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. Big Tommy Bellini, the head of the ring, cleans
up after himself better than an anal-retentive maid. The meanest,
baddest, most vicious SOB in Detroit crime circles, but the one who maintained the lowest profile. Until two years ago. Then
he kills another boss without permission, books himself on freaking
Good Morning Detroit
and disclaims any knowledge about the killings. Grabs way too much attention. So he basically gets kicked out of the mob.
The other families can’t whack him, but they can’t work with him any further because he’s damaged goods. His wife used to
be a Texas debutante, came from old money, so they head back to her home turf in Houston. He sets himself up as an importer
of fine textiles, rugs, art, and so on. Totally legit, and he was being watched very carefully. He’s probably importing white
powder and hash, but what do I know? Houston police roughed him up once, and he sued their asses into the ground, and he won
a million-dollar settlement, and so I don’t know how hard they looked at him afterwards.’ Harry pulled out a newspaper clipping.
‘A month ago he had a stroke at the wheel of his Jaguar on the Gulf freeway and crashed. Badly. Two of his buddies were killed.
Tommy Bellini’s been in a coma ever since.’
Whit tore the wet napkin under his beer in strips.
Harry leaned back. ‘Eve Michaels’ car ends up in Des Moines. It’s on the way to Detroit from Denver. She wasn’t running away,
she was running
‘Or the Bellinis caught up with her and killed her,’ Whit said. His voice was hoarse.
‘And she’s long dead. Or they might be grateful to her. And possibly she wanted something from them,’ Harry said.
‘What?’ Whit said.
‘A new life,’ Harry said. ‘You want me to see if there’s a connection between Eve Michaels and the Bellinis? It’s a thin chance,
but it’s about all I got left to check.’
‘This could be worse than Pandora’s box,’ Whit said. ‘The mob. Jesus.’
‘I’m not afraid of these people, Judge,’ Harry said. ‘Okay, well maybe a little. Because I’m not foolish. I can go to Detroit
‘Detroit? What about Houston?’
‘She might have stayed in Detroit once his organization fell apart there. But I’ll try Houston as well.’
Whit nodded at Harry. ‘Find her. Please.’
On the way back to Port Leo, they stopped at the Nueces County morgue for Whit to pick up autopsy results on a drowning victim
who had been pulled from St Leo Bay. As justice of the peace for Encina County, Whit also performed coroner’s duties, ruling
on cause of death and conducting death inquests, but the autopsies were performed by the pros in nearby Nueces County. Whit
read the report as Claudia navigated through the traffic heading north out of Corpus Christi. The dead man was Lance Gartner,
a young grad student from Austin who had gotten raving drunk visiting cousins in Port Leo, taken a rowboat out in the bay
in the middle of the night, free-based heroin, fallen overboard and drowned. He was twenty-three. A life wadded up and thrown
‘Shame about that man,’ she said as he put the autopsy file away.
‘Yes. I don’t think his family knew about the heroin use.’ Sad silence hung between them. ‘Busy day tomorrow. I’ve got a full
docket in small-claims court and then two days’ worth of juvenile court coming up this week. Get to have surly teenagers attempt
to explain idiot behavior for hours on end. Time I could be spending with my dad instead.’
‘I know. Why don’t you take time off from work, be with him more?’
Whit said, ‘And not waste time trying to find my mother.’
‘Your father only has a while, Whit. Who cares about your mother? She’s hardly more than a concept to you,’ Claudia said.
‘If Harry’s theory is true, she was bent if she wanted a life with embezzlers and mobsters. If she is still with these people,
then she won’t want contact from you and they won’t want you bothering her. She’s not worth five minutes of your time.’
‘I don’t care what she or anyone else wants,’ Whit said.
‘Whit, end this now. Tell Harry you changed your mind.’