"Sure I do," said Jane. "There is no way that you could have learned that Celia knew me unless Celia told you." The girl had really seen Celia, but that didn't mean Celia was right about her. There had to be some other way, some sensible solution that Celia simply hadn't thought of. Jane wanted to say, "I'm not Jane Whitefield anymore. People who are about to die don't come to me anymore and ask me to make them vanish. I can't leave my husband and take on your problem. I made a promise." Maybe if she knew more, she could figure out a way to help this child without risking her own chance for a new life. "What made you go to Celia?"
The girl said, "I went to her because she was nice to me once a few years ago, when my mother had a fight with her boyfriend and the police came. Celia said that if I was in trouble I should come back."
When Jane heard the word "mother," she felt a half-second of hope-that's right, she's a kid, so there's a mother-but the rest of the sentence dampened it. "Where are your parents now?"
"My father ... I don't know about him. He was just another boyfriend, and he took off when I was a baby. My mother, she had some trouble a couple of years ago and. . ." The girl shrugged placidly. "You know. She's a doper."
So much for the mother. "How long has she been in jail?"
"A year and a half, about, counting the trial. They won't make her do the whole five."
"What about you? Who has been taking care of you?"
The girl shrugged again. "My mother lied to them and said I had an aunt that was taking care of me. I asked her to, and it was the least she could do after something stupid like that: set me free. Otherwise, they lock you up in a county home, or they farm you out to foster parents, who lock you up at their house, and I wasn't the one who did anything to get locked up. So I bought some ID from a guy I used to watch in a park selling driver's licenses and Social Security cards to Central Americans who came to pick fruit. I went all the way to Tampa to search for jobs, so the ID didn't look too familiar."
Jane kept probing, listening for some statement that had to be a lie. "What was the job?"
"Hotel maid. You work pretty hard, but it was just cleaning and making beds, and I knew how to do that much."
Jane said, "All right, Rita. Let's get to your problem. Exactly what kind of trouble are you in?"
"It's hard to say."
"You mean you don't know, or just that it's hard for you to tell me?"
"I don't really know. I was working at the hotel. There was this man who stayed there a lot. He was nice. Kind of handsome for an old guy, and funny. His name is Danny."
"At least thirty." She saw Jane's eyes begin to look as though she'd heard the story before, and said hastily, "It's not that kind of trouble. Danny never touched me. He had a girlfriend. She never even pretended she wasn't married. The first time I saw her she had a wedding ring on, with a great big diamond. He would meet her at the hotel about once a week around lunch time, and they would do it for about an hour. Then she would slip out the back entrance and go to a parking ramp a block away where she put her car. Fancy."
"The car too, but mostly her. Very expensive clothes, a lot of jewelry, big hair. The car was a cream-colored Mercedes convertible. Danny was there on some kind of business, and for the rest of the day, other men would come to his room, some with briefcases and some with nothing, but all kind of... not quite clean, you know? Like they didn't get a shower that day, just put on their clothes and combed their hair."
"Danny knew that I knew what was going on. One day I'm on his hall when she leaves in a hurry, practically running. He came into a room I was cleaning and gave me twenty bucks to give his room a quick clean-up first. The man who was going to be there in about fifteen minutes was this woman's husband."
"He told you that?"
She smiled and shook her head. "No. He kind of gave me a sheep-face grin, like I was the one who caught him at something. A few minutes later I couldn't help knowing. It was the car. The man drove up to the front of the hotel with a car so the valet would park it, and it was the same one the girlfriend had used the week before. Anyway, I had just cleaned the room, got rid of everything that had her lipstick on it or smelled like her perfume." She frowned. "It was a good thing, too. Her husband was scary. He was maybe sixty, and he wasn't big, but he had eyes like one of those turtles at the zoo they tell you is four hundred years old-and how they found that out, I'd like to know. I mean, who was there? But you get the picture about him. He had three guys with him. Two came in a different car, but they were all wrong. You know how you can see somebody and something inside you says, This isn't normal? The three were all young-late twenties or thirties-and they were just wrong. They wore suits, but they didn't look like men who wear suits. They were all big, like weight lifters, and the suits looked like they all bought them in the same store on the same day, and it was yesterday. You see men like that, but not usually three of them."
"So what happened?"
"Nothing. They came and left in about a half hour. My friend Danny came out looking like he just got to the end of a tightrope, and smiled at me again. Next time he came to town, he offered me a job."
"What kind of job?"
"It was the same thing-cleaning. He offered me three times what I was getting at the hotel. There was this house in the Keys, and I was supposed to clean it. That's all."
Jane sighed. "And it turned out there was more to the job than cleaning."
"No," said Rita. "That was it."
Jane decided not to make more guesses aloud. Maybe this Danny just figured that if he could bribe her to keep his secret, the husband could bribe her to reveal it.
Rita said, "It was a beautiful house, on the ocean. The one who lived there was a nice old man. I was there for a year. It was great."
"When did it stop being great?"
"Three days ago. The old man went away for a little trip. My friend Danny took him to the airport at four in the morning. I figured this was a great chance to show off, so I spent the whole day giving the house a real cleaning. There's nothing in that place that can be polished or waxed or shined that wasn't that day. I didn't stop until about nine at night. I took a shower and fell asleep as soon as I was off my feet. The next thing I know, there are eight or nine big guys. They come into the house in the middle of the night-not like burglars. They were talking loud and stomping around like they were in a big hurry. For a second or two, I thought it must be firemen coming in because I left something plugged in and started a fire. Then three of them come into my room. They look wrong, like the ones at the hotel. They haul me out of bed. One starts asking me all kinds of questions-where the old man kept this, or that. I don't know any of the answers. When they figure that out and go down the hall, I go straight to the closet and start packing. One of them comes in again, and when he sees the suitcase, he flips it over on the bed and says I'm not leaving. I'm going with them."
"Did he say where?"
"He said 'To see Mr. Delfina.'"
Jane's jaw tightened. "Do you know who that is?"
"No. But it sounded like I was supposed to. You know: Mister."
Jane stopped listening, but the girl didn't notice. "So I left the suitcase there on the bed where they could see it, and left my clothes and everything, and I put my money and ID and my mother's picture and stuff in my jacket pockets. After daybreak, most of them left. There were only three of them searching the closets and the attic, and one in the back yard. I went out the sliding door off the patio on the side, went over the wall, and walked to the bus stop. . .
Jane watched the girl's lips move, and she knew she should be listening, or should tell the girl to stop because she would have to hear it all. The girl didn't know that she was thinking about the husband she loved so deeply, and that her eyes weren't focused on the kitchen window because she was concentrating on the story. She was looking at it because she was getting used to the idea that she might never see it again. The girl didn't know that she had said the only word that had needed to be said: Delfina.
After a moment, Jane turned and switched off the burners on the stove and closed the window, then walked through the house checking the others. When she came back the girl was standing beside the table, her skinny arms now crossed on her chest so each hand gripped the opposite elbow as though she were protecting herself from the cold. Jane said, "Does anyone besides Celia Fulham know you came here?"
"No," said the girl. "I never heard of you before yesterday, and I didn't get off the bus until I got to Celia."
"What about after that? Where did you sleep last night?"
"A hotel." She reached into her pocket, pulled out a pack of matches, and handed it to Jane. "I kept those so I'd know my way home."
Jane's eyebrows knitted as she looked at the matchbook. The girl had called it home, and it was probably as much of a home as anywhere. Jane knew the hotel, and it wasn't the sort of place she had expected. It wasn't a cheap, obscure cluster of wooden buildings on a little-used highway. It was a big, respectable hotel. Jane returned the matchbook. "I know where it is. What name did you use to rent the room?"
"My name?" It was a question.
Jane needed to be sure. "You used your own name. Rita Shelford."
"Well, almost. My mother called me Anita, and that's what it says on my birth certificate. Her name is Ann, and she decided I was like a miniature her. Really dumb, huh?" She didn't detect a reaction from Jane. "So that's what my credit card says too."
Jane hid her uneasiness. "Have you checked out yet?"
"No," said Rita. "I had to have some place to sleep in case I didn't find you. And I brought some stuff with me that I didn't want to carry around, because I might lose it."
"Is it important?"
The girl hesitated, confused.
"Let me explain," said Jane. "If it's anything that money can replace, or that you can live without, it's not important. If finding it will tell someone who you are and where you went next, it's very important."
The girl looked down at her feet, then at Jane. "It's important."
Jane picked up her purse from the little cloakroom off the kitchen and checked to be sure her keys were in it. "Let's go get it and check you out."
"Now?" The girl had sensed the urgency.
"Now," said Jane. She stopped to scribble a note on the pad stuck to the refrigerator where she had written shopping lists. "Something came up. Dinner's ready on the stove. Just heat it. I'll call you later. Love, Jane." She considered writing "Don't worry," then put the note as it was on the dining room table. It was hard to imagine how lying to Carey would make it any easier for him to accept what she was going to have to tell him.
From the Hardcover edition.