Back | Next

Part 1: Pink Slip


Ten and a half hours before a mounted knight with a machine gun tried to kill her, tech journalist Miriam Beckstein lost her job. Before the day was out, her pink slip would set in train a chain of events that would topple governments, trigger civil wars, and kill thousands. It would be the biggest scoop in her career, in any journalist's career—bigger than Watergate, bigger than 9/11—and it would be Miriam's story. But as of seven o'clock in the morning, the story lay in her future: All she knew was that it was a rainy Monday morning in October, she had a job to do and copy to write, and there was an editorial meeting scheduled for ten.



The sky was the color of a dead laptop display, silver-gray and full of rain. Miriam yawned and came awake to the Monday morning babble of the anchorman on her alarm radio.

"—Bombing continues in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, in business news, the markets are down forty-seven points on the word that Cisco is laying off another three thousand employees," announced the anchor. "Ever since 9/11, coming on top of the collapse of the dot-com sector, their biggest customers are hunkering down. Tom, how does it look from where you're sitting—"

"Shut up," she mumbled and killed the volume. "I don't want to hear this." Most of the tech sector was taking a beating. Which in turn meant that The Industry Weatherman's readers—venture capitalists and high-tech entrepreneurs, along with the wannabe day traders—would be taking a beating. Her own beat, the biotech firms, were solid, but the collapsing internet sector was making waves. If something didn't happen to relieve the plummeting circulation figures soon, there would be trouble.

Trouble. Monday. "I'll give you trouble," she muttered, face forming a grin that might have frightened some of those readers, had they been able to see it. "Trouble is my middle name." And trouble was good news, for a senior reporter on The Industry Weatherman.

She slid into her bathrobe, shivering at the cold fabric, then shuffled along stripped pine boards to the bathroom for morning ablutions and two minutes with the electric toothbrush. Standing before the bathroom mirror under the merciless glare of the spotlights, she shivered at what she saw in it: every minute of her thirty-two years, in unforgiving detail. "Abolish Monday mornings and Friday afternoons," she muttered grimly as she tried to brush some life into her shoulder-length hair, which was stubbornly black and locked in a vicious rear-guard action against the ochre highlights she bombarded it with on a weekly basis. Giving up after a couple of minutes, she fled downstairs to the kitchen.

The kitchen was a bright shade of yellow, cozy and immune to the gloom of autumn mornings. Relieved, Miriam switched on the coffee percolator and made herself a bowl of granola—what Ben had always called her rabbit-food breakfast.

Back upstairs, fortified by an unfeasibly large mug of coffee, she had to work out what to wear. She dived into her closet and found herself using her teeth to tear the plastic bag off one of the three suits she'd dry-cleaned on Friday—only to discover it was her black formal interview affair, not at all the right thing for a rainy Monday pounding the streets—or at least doing telephone interviews from a cubicle in the office. She started again and finally managed to put together an outfit. Black boots, trousers, jacket, turtleneck, and trench coat: as black as her Monday morning mood. I look like a gangster, she thought and chuckled to herself. "Gangsters!" That was what she had to do today. One glance at her watch told her that she didn't have time for makeup. It wasn't as if she had to impress anyone at the office anyway: They knew damned well who she was.

She slid behind the wheel of her four-year-old Saturn, and thankfully it started first time. But traffic was backed up, one of her wiper blades needed replacing, the radio had taken to crackling erratically, and she couldn't stop yawning. Mondays, she thought. My favorite day! Not. At least she had a parking space waiting for her—one of the handful reserved for senior journalists who had to go places and interview thrusting new economy executives. Or money-laundering gangsters, the nouveau riche of the pharmaceutical world.

Twenty minutes later she pulled into a crowded lot behind an anonymous office building in Cambridge, just off Somerville Avenue, with satellite dishes on the roof and fat cables snaking down into the basement. Headquarters of The Industry Weatherman, journal of the tech VC community and Miriam's employer for the past three years. She swiped her pass-card, hit the elevator up to the third floor, and stepped out into cubicle farm chaos. Desks with PCs and drifts of paper overflowed onto the floor: A couple of harried Puerto Rican cleaners emptied garbage cans into a trolley laden with bags, to a background of phones ringing and anchors gabbling on CNN, Bloomberg, Fox. Black space-age Aeron chairs everywhere, all wire and plastic, electric chairs for a fully wired future.

"'Lo, Emily," she nodded, passing the departmental secretary.

"Hi! With you in a sec." Emily lifted her finger from the "mute" button, went back to glassy-eyed attention. "Yes, I'll send them up as soon as—"

Miriam's desk was clean: The stack of press releases was orderly, the computer monitor was polished, and there were no dead coffee cups lying around. By tech journalist standards, this made her a neat freak. She'd always been that way about her work, even when she was a toddler. Liked all her crayons lined up in a row. Occasionally she wished she could manage the housework the same way, but for some reason the skill set didn't seem to be transferable. But this was work, and work was always under control. I wonder where Paulie's gotten to?

"Hi, babe!" As if on cue, Paulette poked her head around the side of the partition. Short, blonde, and bubbly, not even a rainy Monday morning could dent her enthusiasm. "How's it going? You ready to teach these goodfellas a lesson?"

"'Goodfellas?'" Miriam raised an eyebrow. Paulette took the cue, slid sideways into her cubicle, and dropped into the spare chair, forcing Miriam to shuffle sideways to make room. Paulie was obviously enjoying herself: It was one of the few benefits of being a research gofer. Miriam waited.

"Goodfellas," Paulette said with relish. "You want a coffee? This is gonna take a while."

"Coffee." Miriam considered. "That would be good."

"Yeah, well." Paulette stood up. "Read this, it'll save us both some time." She pointed out a two-inch-thick sheaf of printouts and photocopies to Miriam, then made a beeline for the departmental coffeepot.

Miriam sighed and rubbed her eyes as she read the first page. Paulie had done her job with terrifying efficiency yet again: Miriam had only worked with her on a couple of investigations before—mostly Miriam's workload didn't require the data mining Paulette specialized in—but every single time she'd come away feeling a little dizzy.

Automobile emissions tests in California? Miriam squinted and turned the page. Failed autos, a chain of repair shops buying them for cash and shipping them south to Mexico and Brazil for stripping or resale. "What's this got to do with—" she stopped. "Aha!"

"Nondairy creamer, one sweetener," said Paulie, planting a coffee mug at her left hand.

"This is great stuff," Miriam muttered, flipping more pages. Company accounts. A chain of repair shops that— "I was hoping you'd find something in the small shareholders. How much are these guys in for?"

"They're buying about ten, eleven million in shares each year." Paulette shrugged, then blew across her coffee and pulled a face. "Which is crazy, because their business only turns over about fifteen mill. What kind of business puts eighty percent of its gross into a pension fund? One that bought two hundred and seventy-four autos last year for fifty bucks a shot, shipped them south of the border, and made an average of forty thousand bucks for each one they sold. And the couple of listed owners I phoned didn't want to talk."

Miriam looked up suddenly. "You phoned them?" she demanded.

"Yes, I—oh. Relax, I told them I was a dealership in Vegas and I was just doing a background check."

"'Background check.'" Miriam snorted. "What if they've got caller-ID?"

"You think they're going to follow it up?" Paulette asked, looking worried.

"Paulie, you've got eleven million in cash being laundered through this car dealership and you think they're not going to sit up and listen if someone starts asking questions about where those beaters are coming from and how come they're fetching more than a new Lexus south of the border?"

"Oh. Oh shit."

"Yes. 'Oh shit' indeed. How'd you get into the used car trail anyway?"

Paulette shrugged and looked slightly embarrassed. "You asked me to follow up the shareholders for Proteome Dynamics and Biphase Technologies. Pacific Auto Services looked kind of odd to me—why would a car dealership have a pension fund sticking eight digits into cutting-edge proteome research? And there's another ten like them, too. Small mom-and-pop businesses doing a lot of export down south with seven- or eight-digit stakeholdings. I traced another—flip to the next?"

"Okay. Dallas Used Semiconductors. Buying used IBM mainframe kit? That's not our—and selling it to—oh shit."

"Yeah." Paulie frowned. "I looked up the book value. Whoever's buying those five-year-old computers down in Argentina is paying ninety percent of the price for new kit in cash greenbacks—they're the next thing to legal currency down there. But up here, a five-year-old mainframe goes for about two cents on the dollar."

"And you're sure all this is going into Proteome and Biphase?" Miriam shook the thick sheaf of paper into shape. "I can't believe this!"

"Believe it." Paulette drained her coffee cup and shoved a stray lock of hair back into position.

Miriam whistled tunelessly. "What's the bottom line?"

"'The bottom line?'" Paulette looked uncomfortable. "I haven't counted it, but—"

"Make a guess."

"I'd say someone is laundering between fifty and a hundred million dollars a year here. Turning dirty cash into clean shares in Proteome Dynamics and Biphase Technologies. Enough to show up in their SEC filings. So your hunch was right."

"And nobody in Executive Country has asked any questions," Miriam concluded. "If I was paranoid, I'd say it's like a conspiracy of silence. Hmm." She put her mug down. "Paulie. You worked for a law firm. Would you call this . . . circumstantial?"

"'Circumstantial?'" Paulette's expression was almost pitying. "Who's paying you, the defense? This is enough to get the FBI and the DA muttering about RICO."

"Yeah, but . . ." Miriam nodded to herself. "Look, this is heavy. Heavier than usual anyway. I can guarantee you that if we spring this story we'll get three responses. One will be flowers in our hair, and the other will be a bunch of cease-and-desist letters from attorneys. Freedom of the press is all very well, but a good reputation and improved circulation figures won't buy us defense lawyers, which is why I want to double-check everything in here before I go upstairs and tell Sandy we want the cover. Because the third response is going to be oh-shit-I-don't-want-to-believe-this, because our great leader and teacher thinks the sun shines out of Biphase and I think he's into Proteome too."

"Who do you take me for?" Paulette pointed at the pile. "That's primary, Miriam, the wellspring. SEC filings, public accounts, the whole lot. Smoking gun. The summary sheet—" she tugged at a Post-it note gummed to a page a third of the way down the stack—"says it all. I was in here all day yesterday and half the evening—"

"I'm sorry!" Miriam raised her hand. "Hey, really. I had no idea."

"I kind of lost track of time," Paulette admitted. She smiled. "It's not often I get something interesting to dig into. Anyway, if the boss is into these two, I'd think he'd be glad of the warning. Gives him time to pull out his stake before we run the story."

"Yeah, well." Miriam stood up. "I think we want to bypass Sandy. This goes to the top."

"But Sandy needs to know. It'll mess with his page plan—"

"Yeah, but someone has to call Legal before we run with this. It's the biggest scoop we've had all year. Want to come with me? I think you earned at least half the credit . . ."



They shared the elevator up to executive row in silence. It was walled in mirrors, reflecting their contrasts: Paulette, a short blonde with disorderly curls and a bright red blouse, and Miriam, a slim five-foot-eight, dressed entirely in black. The business research wonk and the journalist, on their way to see the editorial director. Some Mondays are better than others, thought Miriam. She smiled tightly at Paulette in the mirror and Paulie grinned back: a worried expression, slightly apprehensive.

The Industry Weatherman was mostly owned by a tech venture capital firm who operated out of the top floors of the building, their offices intermingled with those of the magazine's directors. Two floors up, the corridors featured a better grade of carpet and the walls were genuine partitions covered in oak veneer, rather than fabric-padded cubicles. That was the only difference she could see—that and the fact that some of the occupants were assholes like the people she wrote glowing profiles of for a living. I've never met a tech VC who a shark would bite, Miriam thought grumpily. Professional courtesy among killers. The current incumbent of the revolving door office labeled editorial director—officially a vice president—was an often-absent executive by the name of Joe Dixon. Miriam led Paulette to the office and paused for a moment, then knocked on the door, half-hoping to find he wasn't there.

"Come in." The door opened in her face, and it was Joe himself, not his secretary. He was over six feet, with expensively waved black hair, wearing his suit jacket over an open-necked dress shirt. He oozed corporate polish: If he'd been ten years older, he could have made a credible movie career as a captain of industry. As it was, Miriam always found herself wondering how he'd climbed into the boardroom so young. He was in his mid-thirties, not much older than she was. "Hi." He took in Miriam and Paulette standing just behind her and smiled. "What can I do for you?"

Miriam smiled back. "May we have a moment?" she asked.

"Sure, come in." Joe retreated behind his desk. "Have a chair, both of you." He nodded at Paulette. "Miriam, we haven't been introduced."

"Oh, yes. Joe Dixon, Paulette Milan. Paulie is one of our heavy hitters in industrial research. She's been working with me on a story and I figured we'd better bring it to you first before taking it to the weekly production meeting. It's a bit, uh, sensitive."

"'Sensitive.'" Joe leaned back in his chair and looked straight at her. "Is it big?"

"Could be," Miriam said noncommittally. Big? It's the biggest I've ever worked on! A big story in her line of work might make or break a career; this one might send people to jail. "It has complexities to it that made me think you'd want advance warning before it breaks."

"Tell me about it," said Joe.

"Okay. Paulie, you want to start with your end?" She passed Paulette the file.

"Yeah." Paulie grimaced as she opened the file and launched into her explanation. "In a nutshell, they're laundries for dirty money. There's enough of a pattern to it that if I was a DA in California I'd be picking up the phone to the local FBI office."

"That's why I figured you'd want to know," Miriam explained. "This is a big deal, Joe. I think we've got enough to pin a money-laundering rap on a couple of really big corporations and make it stick. But last November you were talking to some folks at Proteome, and I figured you might want to refer this to Legal and make sure you're fire-walled before this hits the fan."

"Well. That's very interesting." Joe smiled back at her. "Is that your file on this story?"

"Yeah," said Paulette.

"Would you mind leaving it with me?" he asked. He cleared his throat. "I'm kind of embarrassed," he said, shrugging a small-boy shrug. The defensive set of his shoulders backed his words. "Look, I'm going to have to read this myself. Obviously, the scope for mistakes is—" he shrugged.

Suddenly Miriam had a sinking feeling: It's going to be bad. She racked her brains for clues. Is he going to try to bury us?

Joe shook his head. "Look, I'd like to start by saying that this isn't about anything you've done," he added hurriedly. "It's just that we've got an investment to protect and I need to work out how to do so."

"Before we break the story." Miriam forced another, broader, smile. "It was all in the public record," she added. "If we don't break it, one of our competitors will."

"Oh, I don't know," Joe said smoothly. "Listen, I'll get back to you in an hour or so. If you leave this with me for now, I just need to go and talk to someone in Legal so we can sort out how to respond. Then I'll let you know how we're going to handle it."

"Oh, okay then," said Paulette acceptingly.

Miriam let her expression freeze in a fixed grin. Oh shit, she thought as she stood up. "Thanks for giving us your time," she said.

"Let yourselves out," Joe said tersely, already turning the first page.

Out in the corridor, Paulette turned to Miriam. "Didn't that go well?" she insisted.

Miriam took a deep breath. "Paulie."


Her knees felt weak. "Something's wrong."

"What?" Paulette looked concerned.

"Elevator." She hit the "call" button and waited in silence, trying to still the butterflies in her stomach. It arrived, and she waited for the doors to close behind them before she continued. "I may just have made a bad mistake."

"'Mistake?'" Paulette looked puzzled. "You don't think—"

"He didn't say anything about publishing," Miriam said slowly. "Not one word. What were the other names on that list of small investors? The ones you didn't check?"

"The list? He's got—" Paulette frowned.

"Was Somerville Investments one of them?"

"Somerville? Could be. Why? Who are they?"

"Because that's—" Miriam pointed a finger at the roof and circled. She watched Paulette's eyes grow round.

"I'm thinking about magazine returns from the newsstand side of the business, Paulie. Don't you know we've got low returns by industry standards? And people buy magazines for cash."


"I'm sorry, Paulie."

When they got back to Miriam's cubicle, a uniformed security guard and a suit from Human Resources were already waiting for them.

"Paulette Milan? Miriam Beckstein?" said the man from HR. He checked a notepad carefully.

"Yes?" Miriam asked cautiously. "What's up?"

"Would you please follow me? Both of you?"

He turned and headed for the stairwell down to the main entrance. Miriam glanced around and saw the security guard pull a brief expression of discomfort. "Go on, ma'am."

"Go on," echoed Paulette from her left shoulder, her face white.

This can't be happening, Miriam thought woodenly. She felt her feet carrying her toward the staircase and down, toward the glass doors at the front.

"Cards, please," said the man from Human Resources. He held out his hand impatiently. Miriam passed him her card reluctantly: Paulette followed suit.

He cleared his throat and looked them over superciliously. "I've been told to tell you that The Industry Weatherman won't be pressing charges," he said. "We'll clear your cubicles and forward your personal items and your final paycheck to your addresses of record. But you're no longer allowed on the premises." The security guard took up a position behind him, blocking the staircase. "Please leave."

"What's going on?" Paulette demanded, her voice rising toward a squeak.

"You're both being terminated," the HR man said impassively. "Misappropriation of company resources; specifically, sending personal e-mail on company time and looking at pornographic Web sites."

"'Pornographic—'" Miriam felt herself going faint with fury. She took half a step toward the HR man and barely noticed Paulette grabbing her sleeve.

"It's not worth it, Miriam," Paulie warned her. "We both know it isn't true." She glared at the HR man. "You work for Somerville Investments, don't you?"

He nodded incuriously. "Please leave. Now."

Miriam forced herself to smile. "Better brush up your résumé," she said shakily and turned toward the exit.



Two-thirds of her life ago, when she was eleven, Miriam had been stung by a hornet. It had been a bad one: Her arm had swollen up like a balloon, red and sore and painful to touch, and the sting itself had hurt like crazy. But the worst thing of all was the sense of moral indignation and outrage. Miriam-aged-eleven had been minding her own business, playing in the park with her skateboard—she'd been a tomboy back then, and some would say she still was—and she hadn't done anything to provoke the angry yellow-and-black insect. It just flew at her, wings whining angrily, landed, and before she could shake it off it stung her.

She'd howled.

This time she was older and much more self-sufficient—college, pre-med, and her failed marriage to Ben had given her a grounding in self-sufficiency—so she managed to say good-bye to an equally shocked Paulie and make it into her car before she broke down. And the tears came silently—this time. It was raining in the car park, but she couldn't tell whether there was more water inside or outside. They weren't tears of pain: They were tears of anger. That bastard—

For a moment, Miriam fantasized about storming back in through the fire door at the side of the building, going up to Joe Dixon's office, and pushing him out of the big picture window. It made her feel better to think about that, but after a few minutes she reluctantly concluded that it wouldn't solve anything. Joe had the file. He had her computer—and Paulie's—and a moment's thought told her that those machines would be being wiped right now. Doubtless, server logs showing her peeking at porn on the job would be being fabricated. She'd spoken to some geeks at a dot-com startup once who explained just how easy it was if you wanted to get someone dismissed. "Shit," she mumbled to herself and sniffed. "I'll have to get another job. Shouldn't be too hard, even without a reference."

Still, she was badly shaken. Journalists didn't get fired for exposing money-laundering scams; that was in the rules somewhere. Wasn't it? In fact, it was completely crazy. She blinked away the remaining angry tears. I need to go see Iris, she decided. Tomorrow would be soon enough to start looking for a new job. Or to figure out a way to break the story herself, if she was going to try and do it freelance. Today she needed a shoulder to cry on—and a sanity check. And if there was one person who could provide both, it was her adoptive mother.



Iris Beckstein lived alone in her old house near Lowell Park. Miriam felt obscurely guilty about visiting her during daytime working hours. Iris never tried to mother her, being content to wander around and see to her own quiet hobbies most of the time since Morris had died. But Miriam also felt guilty about not visiting Iris more often. Iris was convalescent, and the possibility of losing her mother so soon after her father had died filled her with dread. Another anchor was threatening to break free, leaving her adrift in the world.

She parked the car in the road, then made a dash for the front door—the rain was descending in a cold spray, threatening to turn to penetrating sheets—and rang the doorbell, then unlocked the door and went in as the two-tone chime echoed inside.


"Through here," Iris called. Miriam entered, closing the front door. The hallway smelled faintly floral, she noticed as she shed her raincoat and hung it up: The visiting home help must be responsible. "I'm in the back room."

Doors and memories lay ajar before Miriam as she hurried toward the living room. She'd grown up in this house, the one Morris and Iris had bought back when she was a baby. The way the third step on the staircase creaked when you put your weight on it, the eccentricities of the downstairs toilet, the way the living room felt cramped from all the bookshelves—the way it felt too big, without Dad. "Ma?" She pushed open the living room door hesitantly.

Iris smiled at her from her wheelchair. "So nice of you to visit! Come in! To what do I owe the pleasure?"

The room was furnished with big armchairs and a threadbare sofa deep enough to drown in. There was no television—neither Iris nor Morris had time for it—but there were bookcases on each wall and a tottering tower of paper next to Iris's chair. Miriam crossed the room, leaned over, and kissed Iris on top of her head, then stood back. "You're looking well," she said anxiously, hoping it was true. She wanted to hug her mother, but she looked increasingly frail—only in her fifties, but her hair was increasingly gray, and the skin on the backs of her hands seemed to be more wrinkled every time Miriam visited.

"I won't break—at least, I don't think so. Not if you only hug me." Iris grimaced. "It's been bad for the past week, but I think I'm on the mend again." The chair she sat in was newer than the rest of the furniture, surrounded by the impedimenta of invalidity: a little side trolley with her crochet and an insulated flask full of herbal tea, her medicines, and a floor-standing lamp with a switch high up its stem. "Marge just left. She'll be back later, before supper."

"That's good. I hope she's been taking care of you well."

"She does her best." Iris nodded, slightly dismissively. "I've got physiotherapy tomorrow. Then another session with my new neurologist, Dr. Burke—he's working with a clinical trial on a new drug that's looking promising and we're going to discuss that. It's supposed to stop the progressive demyelination process, but I don't understand half the jargon in the report. Could you translate it for me?"

"Mother! You know I don't do that stuff any more—I'm not current; I might miss something. Anyway, if you go telling your osteopath about me, he'll panic. I'm not a bone doctor."

"Well, if you say so." Iris looked irritated. "All that time in medical school wasn't wasted, was it?"

"No, Mom, I use it every day. I couldn't do my job without it. I just don't know enough about modern multiple sclerosis drug treatments to risk second-guessing your specialist, all right? I might get it wrong, and then who'd you sue?"

"If you say so." Iris snorted. "You didn't come here just to talk about that, did you?"

Damn, thought Miriam. It had always been very difficult to pull one over on her mother. "I lost my job," she confessed.

"I wondered." Iris nodded thoughtfully. "All those dot-coms of yours, it was bound to be infectious. Is that what happened?"

"No." Miriam shook her head. "I stumbled across something and mishandled it badly. They fired me. And Paulie . . . Remember I told you about her?"

Iris closed her eyes. "Bastards. The bosses are bastards."

"Mother!" Miriam wasn't shocked at the language—Iris's odd background jumped out to bite her at the strangest moments—but it was the risk of misunderstanding. "It's not that simple; I screwed up."

"So you screwed up. Are you going to tell me you deserved to be fired?" asked Iris.

"No. But I should have dug deeper before I tried to run the story," Miriam said carefully. "I was too eager, got sloppy. There were connections. It's deep and it's big and it's messy; the people who own The Weatherman didn't want to be involved in exposing it."

"So that excuses them, does it?" asked Iris, her eyes narrowing.

"No, it—" Miriam stopped.

"Stop making excuses for them and I'll stop chasing you." Iris sounded almost amused. "They took your job to protect their own involvement in some dirty double-dealing. Is that what you're telling me?"

"Yeah. I guess."

"Well." Iris's eyes flashed. "When are you going to hang them? And how high? I want a ringside seat!"

"Ma." Miriam looked at her mother with mingled affection and exasperation. "It's not that easy. I think The Weatherman's owners are deeply involved in something illegal. Money laundering. Dirty money. Insider trading too, probably. I'd like to nail them, but they're going to play dirty if I try. It took them about five minutes to come up with cause for dismissal, and they said they wouldn't press charges if I kept my mouth shut."

"What kind of charges?" Iris demanded.

"They say they've got logfiles to prove I was net-surfing pornography at work. They . . . they—" Miriam found she was unable to go on speaking.

"So were you?" Iris asked quietly.

"No!" Miriam startled herself with her vehemence. She caught Iris's sly glance and felt sheepish. "Sorry. No, I wasn't. It's a setup. But it's so easy to claim—and virtually impossible to disprove."

"Are you going to be able to get another job?" Iris prodded.

"Yes." Miriam fell silent.

"Then it's all right. I really couldn't do with my daughter expecting me to wash her underwear after all these years."

"Mother!" Then Miriam spotted the sardonic grin.

"Tell me about it. I mean, everything. Warm a mother's heart, spill the beans on the assholes who took her daughter's job away."

Miriam flopped down on the big overstuffed sofa. "It's either a very long story or a very short one," she confessed. "I got interested in a couple of biotech companies that looked just a little bit odd. Did some digging, got Paulette involved—she digs like a drilling platform—and we came up with some dirt. A couple of big companies are being used as targets for money laundering.

"Turns out that The Weatherman's parent company is into them, deep. They decided it would be easier to fire us and threaten us than to run the story and take their losses. I'm probably going to get home and find a SLAPP lawsuit sitting in my mailbox."

"So. What are you going to do about it?"

Miriam met her mother's penetrating stare. "Ma, I spent three years there. And they fired me cold, without even trying to get me to shut up, at the first inconvenience. Do you really think I'm going to let them get away with that if I can help it?"

"What about loyalty?" Iris asked, raising an eyebrow.

"I gave them mine." Miriam shrugged. "That's part of why this hurts. You earn loyalty by giving it."

"You'd have made a good feudal noble. They were big on loyalty, too. And blind obedience, in return."

"Wrong century, wrong side of the Atlantic, in case you hadn't noticed."

Now Iris grinned. "Oh, I noticed that much," she conceded. "No foreign titles of nobility. That's one of the reasons why I stayed here—that, and your father." Her smile slipped. "Never could understand what the people here see in kings and queens, either the old hereditary kind or the modern presidential type. All those paparazzi, drooling after monarchs. I like your line of work. It's more honest."

"Harder to keep your job when you're writing about the real world," Miriam brooded gloomily. She struggled to sit a little straighter. "Anyway, I didn't come around here to mope at you. I figure I can leave job-hunting until tomorrow morning."

"Are you sure you're going to be all right?" Iris asked pointedly. "You mentioned lawsuits—or worse."

"In the short term—" Miriam shrugged, then took a deep breath. "Yes," she admitted. "I guess I'll be okay as long as I leave them alone."

"Hmm." Iris looked at Miriam sidelong. "How much money are we talking about here? If they're pulling fake lawsuits to shut you up, that's not business as usual."

"There's—" Miriam did some mental arithmetic— "about fifty to a hundred million a year flowing through this channel."

Iris swore.


"Don't you 'Ma' me!" Iris snorted.


"Listen to your old ma. You came here for advice, I'm going to give it, all right? You're telling me you just happened to stumble across a money-laundering operation that's handling more money in a week than most people earn in their life. And you think they're going to settle for firing you and hoping you stay quiet?"

Miriam snorted. "It can't possibly be that bad, Ma, this isn't goodfellas territory, and anyway, they've got that faked evidence."

Iris shook her head stubbornly. "When you've got criminal activities and millions of dollars in cash together, there are no limits to what people can do." For the first time, Miriam realized with a sinking feeling, Iris looked worried. "But maybe I'm being too pessimistic—you've just lost your job and whatever else, that's going to be a problem. How are your savings?"

Miriam glanced at the rain-streaked window. What's turned Ma so paranoid? she wondered, unsettled. "They're not doing badly. I've been saving for the past ten years."

"There's my girl," Iris said approvingly.

"I put my money into tech-sector shares."

"No, you didn't!" Iris looked shocked.

Miriam nodded. "But no dot-coms."


"Most people think that all tech stocks are down. But biotech stocks actually crashed out in ninety-seven and have been recovering ever since. The bubble last year didn't even touch them. People need new medicines more than they need flashy Web sites that sell toys, don't they? I was planning on paying off my mortgage year after next. Now I guess it'll have to wait a bit longer—but I'm not in trouble unless I stay unemployed over a year."

"Well, at least you found a use for all that time in med school." Iris looked relieved. "So you're not hard up."

"Not in the short term," Miriam corrected instinctively. "Ask me again in six months. Anyway. Is there anything I can get you while I'm here?"

"A good stiff drink." Iris clucked to herself. "Listen, I'm going to be all right. The disease, it comes and it goes—another few weeks and I'll be walking again." She gestured at the aluminum walking frame next to her chair. "I've been getting plenty of rest and with Marge around twice a day I can just about cope, apart from the boredom. I've even been doing a bit of filing and cleaning, you know, turning out the dusty old corners?"

"Oh, right. Turned anything up?"

"Lots of dustballs. Anyway," she continued after a moment. "There's some stuff I've been meaning to hand over to you."

"'Stuff.'" For a moment, Miriam couldn't focus on the problem at hand. It was too much to deal with. She'd lost her job and then, the very same day, her mother wanted to talk about selling her home. "I'm sorry, I'm not very focused today."

"Not very—" Iris snorted. "You're like a microscope, girl! Most other people would be walking around in a daze. It's not very considerate of me, I know, it's just that I've been thinking about things and there's some stuff you really should have right now. Partly because you're grown up and partly because it belongs to you—you might have some use for it. Stuff that might get overlooked."

Miriam must have looked baffled because Iris smiled at her encouragingly. "Yes. You know, 'stuff.' Photograph albums, useless things like Morris's folks' birth certificates, my old passport, my parents' death certificates, your adoption papers. Some stuff relating to your birth-mother, too."

Miriam shook her head. "My adoption papers—why would I want them? That's old stuff, and you're the only mother I've ever had." She looked at Iris fiercely. "You're not allowed to push me away!"

"Well! And who said I was? I just figured you wouldn't want to lose the opportunity. If you ever felt like trying to trace your roots. It belongs to you, and I think now is definitely past time for you to have it. I kept the newspaper pages too, you know. It caused quite a stir." Miriam made a face. "I know you're not interested," Iris said placatingly. "Humor me. There's a box."

"A box."

"A pink and green shoebox. Sitting on the second shelf of your father's bureau in the guest bedroom upstairs. Do me a favor and fetch it down, will you?"

"Just for you."

Miriam found the box easily enough. It rattled when she picked it up and carried it, smelling of mothballs, down to the living room. Iris had picked up her crochet again and was pulling knots with an expression of fierce concentration. "Dr. Hare told me to work on it," she said without looking up. "It helps preserve hand-eye coordination."

"I see." Miriam put the box down on the sofa. "What's this one?"

"A Klein-bottle cozy." Iris looked up defensively at Miriam's snort. "You should laugh! In this crazy inside-out world, we must take our comforts from crazy inside-out places."

"You and Dad." Miriam waved it off. "Both crazy inside-out sorts of people."

"Bleeding hearts, you mean," Iris echoed ominously. "People who refuse to bottle it all up, who live life on the outside, who—" she glanced around— "end up growing old disgracefully." She sniffed. "Stop me before I reminisce again. Open the box!"

Miriam obeyed. It was half-full of yellowing, carefully folded newsprint and elderly photocopies of newspaper stories. Then there was a paper bag and some certificates and pieces of formal paperwork made up the rest of its contents. "The bag contained stuff that was found with your birth-mother by the police," Iris explained. "Personal effects. They had to keep the clothing as evidence, but nobody ever came forward and after a while they passed the effects on to Morris for safekeeping. There's a locket of your mother's in there—I think you ought to keep it in a safe place for now; I think it's probably quite valuable. The papers—it was a terrible thing. Terrible."

Miriam unfolded the uppermost sheet; it crackled slightly with age as she read it. unknown woman found stabbed, baby taken into custody. It gave her a most peculiar feeling. She'd known about it for many years, of course, but this was like seeing it for the first time in a history book, written down in black and white. "They still don't know who she was?" Miriam asked.

"Why should they?" Iris looked at her oddly. "Sometimes they can reopen the case when new evidence comes to light, or do DNA testing, but after thirty-two years most of the witnesses will have moved away or died. The police officers who first looked into it will have retired. Probably nothing happens unless a new lead comes up. Say, they find another body or someone confesses years later. It's just one of those terrible things that sometimes happen to people. The only unusual thing about it was you." She looked at Miriam fondly.

"Why they let two radicals, one of them a resident alien and both of them into antiwar protests and stuff like that, adopt a baby—" Miriam shook her head. Then she grinned. "Did they think I would slow you down or something?"

"Possibly, possibly. But I don't remember being asked any questions about our politics when we went to the adoption agency—it was much easier to adopt in those days. They didn't ask much about our background except whether we were married. We didn't save the newspapers at the time, by the way. Morris bought them as morgue copies later."

"Well." Miriam replaced the news clipping, put the lid back on the box, and contemplated it. "Ancient history."

"You know, if you wanted to investigate it—" Iris was using that look on her, the penetrating diamond-tipped stare of inquisition, the one Miriam tried to think herself into when interviewing difficult customers—"I bet a journalist of your experience would do better than some doughnut stuffed policeman on a routine job. Don't you think?"

"I think I really ought to help my real mother figure out what she's going to do about not going stir-crazy while she gets better," Miriam replied lightly. "There are more immediate things to investigate, like whether your tea is cold and if there are any cookies in the kitchen. Why don't we leave digging up the dead past for some other time?"

Back | Next