chapter 26

TESS WAITED IN HER CAR OUTSIDE DAHLGREN’S DISTRICT office, a plain storefront in a part of South Baltimore that didn’t even pretend to be fashionable. A few yuppies had tried homesteading here, but the rowhouses in this block still leaned heavily toward Formstone and painted screens. The businesses were mundane as well. No chic or funky restaurants, just a shoe repair and a corner liquor store, which was enjoying a pre-Christmas run on Big Game lottery tickets.

Tess was on a side street that afforded an unobstructed view of the district office’s front door. Unfortunately, she had to move her car every two hours. Because of Federal Hill’s night-time attractions and the proximity of both Camden Yards and Ravens PSINet Stadium, South Baltimore was death on parking. Being in one’s car was no protection against the overzealous meter maids who patrolled the area. Twice already, Tess had been forced to drive around the block and find a new spot, just to stay within the law. Surveillance was a cruel mistress; it brooked no lapses. For all she knew, she had lost Adam Moss in one of those quick swings around the block.

Campaign finance laws had made watching Adam Moss more complicated than Tess had realized when she made that first call to Whitney. He worked for the senator, not the unofficial congressional campaign, and the two had to be kept as separate as possible. So while Whitney was in another storefront in an Anne Arundel County strip center, stuffing envelopes and enduring paper cuts, Tess was following Adam Moss through his average day. It was so average as to be mind numbing: Baltimore to Annapolis to Baltimore and back again. All he did was work, as far as she could tell, but she continued to follow him. He was the only lead she had.

He lived in a small rowhouse on Grindall Street, within walking distance of the district office. Most mornings, he stopped there about 7:30 A.M., then left for Annapolis after grabbing coffee at the 7-Eleven on Light. Tess would have thought Adam Moss was a Starbucks kind of guy, or at least a Sam’s Bagels kind of guy. Normally, she would have liked someone better for being a 7-Eleven coffee-and-cruller man, but since Moss might be an accessory to a murder her goodwill toward him was tempered.

Once in Annapolis, Moss was largely inaccessible, closeted in the inner rooms of the senator’s office. Dahlgren had ridden the hobby horse of the ethics probe as far as it could go. Senator Hertel was history-he had finally and abruptly agreed to resign just before the vote for explusion, which meant the Democratic Central Committee was hand-picking his replacement. Dahlgren had no official role to play in this process, but his opinion was suddenly valued, and would-be kingmakers came and went, eager for an audience with the rising star. Tess tried to linger in the halls of the senate office building, but strangers were too conspicuous with the General Assembly out of session, and the security guards kept asking what she wanted.

But if she stationed herself outside, Adam Moss could bypass her by using the subterranean passages that linked the buildings in the State House compound. So she ended up spending a lot of time on Lawyers Mall, waiting for him to pop out of any number of doors. She felt as if she were engaged in a large-scale version of the boardwalk game Whak-a-Mole. Whak-a-Moss, actually, and how she longed to. She wanted to grab him by the lapels and demand to know how he had come to have that phone list, and who else might have seen it.

But she couldn’t. If Adam Moss realized she was following him, it would get back to Arnie Vasso and, before too long, her father would get another call. Perhaps just a courtesy call this time, an acknowledgment that since he had failed to keep his nosy daughter at bay, Gene Fulton was going to be history, and so was he.

So she waited and watched, grateful for the boring, predictable routine that was her subject’s life. Adam Moss was all business. If he went out for lunch, it was always takeout-sushi from Joss Caf? or the Marvin Mandel sandwich from Chick ’n’ Ruth’s deli. If the senator had a committee meeting, Moss was there by his side, the first to arrive and the last to leave. The senator cut out early, headed for his campaign office or various fund-raisers, but Adam Moss stayed long after the December sun set. He sometimes cruised through a Burger King drive-in on West Street on his way out of Annapolis, or grabbed dinner-to-go from Matsuri, the sushi restaurant back in his own neighborhood. Adam Moss had a taste for raw things. Then he disappeared into his house and didn’t come out until the next morning. Tess knew, because she had spent one cramped and cold night on his block.

Today, he had left Annapolis at three, but he had been here, sequestered in the district office, since arriving in Baltimore. A man and woman had been waiting for him. Constituents, small business owners, judging by their simple, neat clothes, and cheap briefcases. They probably needed a law tweaked in the next session.

Her cell phone rang.

“I’m bored, Tesser.”

“Welcome to detective work, Whitney. I hope you’re not calling me from headquarters.”

“I’m on a pay phone, outside a Royal Farm. I volunteered to make a soda run. You know, we probably shouldn’t be talking on a cell phone. It’s not a secure line. It can be picked up by shortwave radio.”

“Whitney, you called me.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Have you found out anything?”

“Only that the money is pouring in. Dahlgren himself came in and dialed for dollars for a few hours this afternoon, then took off for some Christmas party. He asked me if I wanted to come with him.”

“The happily married senator asked the young blond volunteer to go to a Christmas party with him? That’s interesting.”

“Actually, it’s not. Dahlgren’s only passion is money, far as I can tell. He thought I could help shake some loose just by standing there, eating hors d’ oeuvres. You know how some men mentally undress you with their eyes? Dahlgren makes me feel as if he’s assessing my jewelry. It’s my mother he really wants. Not very likely, given his voting record on AIDS programs. Give Mother her due-she still believes it’s respectable to be a liberal Democrat.”

Tess was only half listening. The lights in the office had gone out, the couple had left, and now Adam Moss was locking the door behind him.

“Gotta go,” she told Whitney. “Work hard, and maybe you’ll be promoted to answering phones before the week is out.”

She followed Adam Moss’s car up Light Street. Do cars give any insight into character? Adam Moss, who looked as if he should be behind the wheel of a sports car, drove a Geo, the American-made cousin to Tess’s Toyota. The navy blue car was clean, outside and in-Tess had crept up to its windows the night she waited outside his house. There was nothing inside, not even a road map. The radio was a good one, the high-end kind with a detachable face. He had a Club, but almost everyone in South Baltimore did.

He took her past the harbor, onto President Street and the JFX beyond that. He turned off at the Falls Road exit, heading into the heart of Hampden, a working-class neighborhood enjoying a burst of popularity in the city’s suddenly, inexplicably hot real estate market. Here, yuppies and rednecks coexisted peacefully. Most of the time.

He parked around the corner from Caf? Hon, a place where Tess indulged her frequent need for comfort food. She found a parking spot a block up, then sprinted toward the Avenue, as 36th Street was known here. Adam Moss’s tall figure was on the south side of the street, heading east, his navy wool coat open despite the chill in the air. She let him stay a block ahead, trying to look as if she were window shopping, then trying not to be distracted by the Avenue’s wares. Antiques left her cold, but how she yearned for a painted screen scavenged from one of her East Baltimore neighbors, or one of those old tins from the sausage company that shared her dog’s name. It would be even better than a neon sign that said Human Hair. But $75 seemed a bit high just for the honor of owning an Esskay can that boasted its contents were made with pure lard.

Adam Moss was not a window shopper. He walked purposefully, without a single sidelong glance for the people or places he passed. He was almost to Chestnut Street before he turned into a small shop, one of the galleries that had begun springing up in the neighborhood. In Tess’s experience, a neighborhood could not pretend to hotness until galleries began to open there. This gallery had no name, not that Tess could see, but it was brightly lit and its front windows had two large, abstract oil paintings on display-angry, red-hued triangles that reminded Tess vaguely of mountain ranges. Or knives.

She crossed to the other side of the street and found a convenient bus stop bench. People still waited for buses, didn’t they? Plus, she had the advantage of being in shadow, while the gallery was so bright it was like peering into a diorama. It was empty, except for a striking young woman. Thin, confident enough to wear her hair cut close to the scalp, like a feathery cap-together, she and Adam Moss were almost unbearable in their pulchritude. Yet there was no sexual buzz between them. The kiss Adam gave her was light, almost fatherly. And while they stood very close as they spoke, their body language revealed only matter-of-fact comfort.

They talked for no more than five minutes. Another light kiss, and Adam was gone, heading back down the Avenue. Tess was torn. She had intended to follow him as long as he was out. Yet here was a lead, someone who knew him, and had no idea who she was. What if the girl wasn’t there when she came back another day? It would be much harder to track her down outside the gallery, without giving herself away.

Time to become an art lover, her gut told her.

She waited a few minutes, giving Adam time to find his car and leave the neighborhood. She tucked her braid down the back of her coat. Later, if this visit got back to Adam Moss, she could imagine him asking: “Did she wear her hair in a pigtail?” Tess knew people were not naturally observant, because she was still learning how hard it was to get details right. The woman she was about to meet would remember Tess’s hair as being collar length, or short. She also would remember Tess’s tortoiseshell glasses-she had a pair with clear glass that she carried with her, for moments just like this.

Instead of a bell, the gallery door had a rainstick attached, so it made a soft, whooshing sound when Tess pushed her way in and began browsing.

For all Crow’s tutelage, she was still the sort of museum goer given to tiresome pronouncements that she might not know much, but she knew what she liked. The abstract and minimalist work here struck her as worthy of admiration, but it didn’t engage her emotionally. Everything-the paintings, sculptures, the jewelry in a small glass case at the front-was cold and metallic, perfect yet mildly cruel looking.

As was the proprietor, close up. No one that young should look that hard, Tess thought. Her face was like a well-cut diamond, with sharp cheekbones, pointed chin, and eyebrows waxed into stiletto-thin arches. Amber eyes and a full lush mouth gave the face the flashes of yellow and red that diamonds sometimes have, but added no warmth.

“May I help you?” she asked, in a tone suggesting Tess was beyond anyone’s help.

“I’m in this neighborhood all the time, but I never noticed this shop before,” Tess said. “Couldn’t help wanting to check it out.”

“The gallery has been open only a month,” the woman said.

“Are you the owner?”

The question threw her, but only for a moment. “I’m in charge, I make all the selections.”

“I have a friend who owns a gallery in San Antonio. Carries all this wild Day of the Dead stuff. It’s creepy, until you get used to it.”

“Day of the Dead? Oh, you mean folk art.” Her tone was derisive.

“What do you call this place? I didn’t see anything outside.”

“It doesn’t have a name,” the woman said. “Names are essentially phony. I won’t carry artists who insist on naming their work.”

Tess looked around and saw the art was all labeled by numbers. Not sequentially, of course-that would have been too easy. The numbers appeared to have been chosen at random, although Tess supposed the proprietess would insist the #17 canvas could never be, say a #9 or #131.

“Do you have a name?”

“I call myself Jane Doe,” the woman said.

It stung, hearing that name, especially when it was used so casually, so carelessly. Jane Doe was Gwen Schiller; Gwen Schiller was Jane Doe.

“Not very original.”

“That’s the point.”

“No, I mean calling yourself Jane Doe as an artistic statement isn’t original. Didn’t the lead singer of the old punk band X call himself John Doe, way back in the 1980s?”

The woman shrugged ever so slightly. Her thin arms were loaded with bracelets, so the movement made her ring like a wind chime. “Jane Doe is only one of my names. It fit my mood today. Come back tomorrow, and I’ll be someone else.”

Like Princess Langwidere from Ozma of Oz, Tess thought. Born with a detachable head, the princess changed heads daily, according to her whim. Her heads were numbered, not named, as Tess recalled. Sometimes, Langwidere picked a bad head, and she became unbearably peevish.

“You know, I’m in business for myself. So is my aunt, and one of my best friends. Can I give you some advice? This snotty attitude might work in some other cities, but people in Baltimore are not going to buy art from someone who makes them feel stupid. So thaw, okay? Where are you from, anyway, that you have so much ’tude?”

The last question had been the whole point of Tess’s little monologue, tucked in so it would seem casual, impromptu. It didn’t work.

“Biography doesn’t interest me. People are boring. Including me.”

“That guy who was just in here didn’t look so boring. Boyfriend?”

“Jane Doe” retreated behind the sales counter, a too-precious little desk with spindly legs and a frosted glass top.

“Who are you?” she asked, her voice stripped of its snotty veneer. “Who sent you here?”

“I find names boring,” Tess dead-panned.

“I fulfilled my contract,” the woman said. “We’re not supposed to be hassled, after. It’s not my fault, what happened.”

She had pulled a pair of scissors from the desk, but her hand was shaking so hard that Tess felt more pity than fear.

“I’m not anybody. I’m just a Christmas shopper trying to make conversation. Who do you think I am?”

“Please leave,” the woman said. “Once it’s over, it’s over. That’s what they promised.”

“I’m not affiliated with any ‘they,’” Tess said, trying to make her voice as neutral as possible. “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know anything about you, or what you’re talking about.”

“Get out, get out, get out, get out.” The woman’s voice rose until it was a feral shriek. Shoppers on the Avenue glanced up, startled. Public brawls were not unknown in Hampden, but they were usually confined to side streets, on hot summer nights, when too much beer had been consumed.

Tess left, making a mental note of the number painted on the transom over the gallery’s door. Sometimes numbers were more important than names.

Sometimes numbers led to names.