I met Tara through her twelve-year-old son, Alex. When I stumbled over Alex building a tree house in a wooded corner of my friend’s lot, I figured it was my custodial duty to march him over to the authority in charge—his mother. She greeted me with a vulnerable and beckoning smile.
She served up a mean cup of cocoa while the adult-light music station crooned gooey love songs. I invited her over for mixed drinks. I barely finished crushing the mint for the juleps when she grabbed me by my collar and pulled me on to the sofa.
After she finished dressing, she asked, “What do you do for a living?”
I selected among various half-truths. “Lately, I’ve been house-sitting for my friend, Russ,” I told her. “He’s a private detective. On vacation in Mexico.”
“When’s he due back?”
“Last Sunday.” Russ let me hole up in his cabin, an escape from my Southern Cal existence. As a get-away, this place, Redmond Ridge, a ski resort, made for a chilly paradise. I was far away from everything, a nobody here. The main danger in a place like this was going snow-blind from the smiles of bleached-toothed snow bunnies. “I’ve been pinch-hitting for him, doing a little detective work.”
“Is that a fact?” She straightened out a cuff as she finished dressing. She looked chic and dynamic in a burgundy pant suit, button-up shirt with a flair collar. “Maybe you can do me a favor?”
Uh-oh. After-sex favors rank nearly as dangerous as commitment.
“My husband,” she began, and until now she hadn’t mentioned that she had one, “my ex-husband, that is, I was wondering if you could run him down.”
I experienced a film noir frisson. Okay, she probably meant run down his address. “He’s behind on child support?”
“No, he’s very supportive. That’s the strange part. He’s just ... gone. Twelve years now. Shortly after Alex was born, my husband skipped out. Every week since then he’s sent a letter with a polite note and a generous money order—and absolutely no explanations.
“Not knowing why he left. That’s what’s killing me. And there’s never a return address. They’re postmarked San Francisco, but I’ve checked the directory. He must be unlisted or living under an assumed name.”
“Have you considered the usual suspects? He fell for someone else? He resented responsibility? He had a secret desire to pursue his rock and roll dream?”
She pursed her lips and shook off each option. With the last suggestion on my list she crinkled her brow. “You’re not taking this seriously. As for finding someone else or escaping: I don’t believe it. He was sweet, level-headed and loving—until the day he vanished. His letters always end by saying how much our separation torments him.”
Curiouser and curiouser. “What do you suspect?”
“My current theory? I believe he’s a hit man,” she said. Her tone carried an element of would-you-believe?—but only a trace.
“A rare profession, and not one I associate with sweet, level-headed or loving.”
“Hear me out. Redmond Ridge has always maintained a mob presence. Gambling bosses who seek to lie low, just outside the reach of Nevada law, have built hideaway homes up here. The same week my husband disappeared there was a major mob hit, a car exploded right on Ridge Boulevard. I’ve saved up a collection of newspaper clippings.”
I was sufficiently intrigued to agree to investigate the matter. What else was I doing? Better than allowing my ass expand while waiting for my friend, P.I. Godot.
I visited her place and Tara unpacked her files. She was quite proud of her album dedicated to the mob hit. She said, “The victim—from San Francisco. The one witness—from across the bridge in Oakland, he just happened to be passing through Redmond Ridge. My husband’s family—from the Bay Area and that’s where I get monthly checks. Coincidence?”
Yes, a coincidence. Ten million people live around Frisco, and I’ve heard several of them are not paid assassins. I supposed the Crest County ski resorts attracted most of their business from that area. She was desperately connecting random dots.
“Redmond Ridge got too chancy, so it was eighty-six skidoo,” she said, slipping into mob-speak.
“Wouldn’t it be more likely that he was a second witness?” I asked.