By Jeff Abbott
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She's a liar.
She's a thief.
She's a killer.
She's his mother. And he'll take on the world to save her.
With his father near death, Judge Whit Mosley launches a search for his mother, who abandoned the family thirty years ago and vanished into the criminal underworld. Hoping to heal the wounds of the past, Whit finds Eve–framed for murder and for stealing five million dollars from a Houston crime cartel desperate to regain their lost power.
He has one impossible chance to save his mother: take her on the run, outsmart a gang of sophisticated killers, and find the missing millions. Caught in a nightmare of double crosses and vicious schemers, Whit turns his back on law and order for the one person he most wants to trust but knows the least–a dangerous woman who may be plotting the cruelest deception of all.
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ELLEN WHO BECAME EVE
THIS IS HOW you disappear.
First you make sure you don't go anyplace where you ever went before, if you can help it. You like Vegas? Forget about slots and Wayne Newton for the next five years. Love shopping in New York? Uh-oh, no way, baby, your shadow don't darken Broadway. Because when you step out of life, when you step away from the world you made, you don't step back into any old footprint. No. That's where they look first.
So those many years ago, when I left Babe and my sons behind in Port Leo, I went to Montana. I can't stand cold weather, never liked it. I'm a coast girl, love the kiss of the sun on my skin. But coasts were forbidden to me right off. Babe knew I loved to fish and lie on the warm sands. I don't think I had ever said the word Montana out loud before I ran. Not sure I could find it on the map, although I wouldn't mix it up with Wyoming, because I know Wyoming is square.
I changed my hair color to red, because back then nobody ever thought you dyed your hair red on purpose. You usually dyed it brown to get away from red. And I dropped the Texas drawl, fast. Tried to talk like a newscaster. Said "you guys" instead of "y'all," which was harder than it sounds. Told people I was from California, because it's full of people originally from somewhere else. And hid a loaded gun in an old suitcase because insurance is a necessary evil in this world.
Jim was useless and he didn't like the cold. He said it made his balls hurt. He was afraid to look for a job, saying that the Dallas papers would have put his face all over the news wires and the TV. I sure never saw jack-squat about him in the Bozeman paper. Twice I drove over to the university library, where they took the Dallas Morning News, but after the first week of headlines like MISSING EXEC ALLEGEDLY EMBEZZLED HALF MILLION there was no talk of him, no pictures of him. The one picture they ran of him was when he got made senior vice-president at the bank and his smile's too tight, his hair a little too big. And never a word about me. The library didn't take the Corpus Christi paper, where I might have been mentioned. So I wrote the headlines in my own mind: MOTHER OF SIX MISSING. It's less glamorous than embezzling. And ten times worse.
But, in those Dallas papers, never a mention of me in connection with Jim the embezzling banker. Which was how I liked it.
After reading the paper in Bozeman, I would drink a cup of coffee and smoke and try not to think about the boys. Not think about my four oldest going off to the movies with my friend Georgie, me kissing them for the last time and them not knowing it. Not think about my littlest babies, Mark and Whit, running around in the backyard, chasing each other and laughing, trying to get them settled for a nap in their beds, Whit standing on the stairs, saying he didn't want to nap, asking me where I was going. I put him back in the bed and I didn't look back. Cried once on the drive north, for twenty minutes, all I allowed myself.
If Whit had asked once more where I was going, maybe I would have stayed. I thought walking away from the boys would be easy, the shackles of their grasping little hands falling off my wrists and ankles. Hardest thing I ever did. I wanted for one terrible second to take one with me, take Whit, he was standing right there, a little mirror of my face. Finally one who looked like me after five copies of Babe. But then the police and Babe never would have given up on looking for me. Ever. And Jim wouldn't have wanted a toddler making the most of his terrible twos with us on the run.
Popping out six, you think that'd be seared into my head, pain and happiness hot to the touch, but with each passing day they seemed more like little ghosts, boys who belonged to someone else. I tried not to remember them because it's easier. I had a new resolve to make my life easier.
But easy was not Jim.
He started drinking one afternoon in my motel room, crying after the fifth of whiskey was half gone, moaning and bitching about missing the warm sun of Dallas, missing his favorite Mexican restaurants, missing his big house in University Park, missing his old comfortable life he'd stolen from himself.
I watched him sip his whiskey. I lit a cigarette. I quit smoking when I had the boys and now I liked a little knife of flame in my hand.
"This is messed up," Jim said. He had the soul of a poet.
Jim lacked, always, a certain self-control required for living in the world. He stole a half million from his bank, and now was too consumed by guilt and regret to move. If you're gonna take an action, be ready for your own reaction. I'd agreed to go on the run with him and I'd left a family behind. He'd left a coke-snorting bachelor life behind. I was coping a lot better than he was.
"I got to go in a few minutes," I said. I worked at an old neighborhood bar, serving beers to Bozeman's inert. Nothing to do with money or bookkeeping, my old job from before I got married. My bar-crows were not question-askers. I liked it. Gave me a few hours' escape from Jim and his moods.
"Go," he said. "Go and I'll be fine."
"Fine at the bottom of the bottle."
"I'm depressed, Ellie."
"I noticed." I got up and made instant coffee for him, knowing he'd let it cool in the cup and then pour it down the sink.
"The money," he said. "I didn't just steal it from the bank."
I waited, the instant coffee jar in my hand.
"I stole most of it from the Bellinis," he said. "Sort of."
"Who are the Bellinis?"
"People I worked for. On the side. They're from Detroit." He swallowed hard, ran a hand along his lips. "I cleaned up money for them at the bank."
"People from Detroit," I said, "with an Italian surname. You better be kidding me."
"I'm not. They're gonna be looking for me."
I sat down on the mattress. "Why didn't you tell me this before?"
"I… thought you wouldn't come with me." He took a deep swig from the whiskey bottle, left a little amber drop sitting on his lip. He had the palest lips I'd ever seen on a live person.
"The money was evidence," he said. "Of me making it legit for them, transferring it through a series of accounts. The Feds would have nailed me. So… I took it."
"Jim, maybe we should go back to Dallas, then. Give the money to the Feds. The mob's gonna chase you harder than the Feds ever will."
He looked at me, and an ugly silence hung in the air and the frown on his face turned mean. He grabbed my wrist and flexed his thin fingers back and forth, digging his nails into my flesh, my veins and bones.
"Jim, stop. That hurts." I kept my voice calm.
"You want to go back to Texas? That what you saying, Ellie?"
"It's one option. Let go of my hand, please."
"You know what Tommy Bellini will do to me?" He tightened the vise grip on my wrist, grinning, like nothing would give him more pleasure than to break my bones. "I won't be a smear on the wall when he's done."
"Please let go."
"You don't care about what happens to me." He pulled me into his sour breath. "You missing those brats of yours?"
"No." A cold sharpness slid along my ribs, my guts.
"You are," he said. "You're missing those brats of yours, you want to go home. You go home, you're gonna talk. About me."
"You're drunk." I grabbed the bottle of whiskey to bring it down on his head.
He stood, yanked the bottle away from me, let go of my wrist. Pushed me down onto the bed and I thought: This doesn't do, not for one minute.
"You get this straight, Ellen," Jim said. "You made your choice, you aren't going to see your kids again."
"I know that."
"You more than know it, you live 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 pile driver 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," 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 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 semipro 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 much 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…"
"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 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 rested 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 junk," 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 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, and he won a million-dollar settlement, and so I don't know how hard they looked at him afterward." 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's car ends up in Des Moines. It's on the way to Detroit from Denver. She wasn't running away, she was running toward something."
"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."
"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 tonight."
"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 Sale
- Apr 29, 2014
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Grand Central Publishing