Firecracker P.I. Fina Ludlow returns in the next hard-driving entry in the acclaimed series by Ingrid Thoft.
It’s been a couple months since Fina’s last big case—the one that exposed dark family secrets and called Fina’s family loyalty into question—but there’s no rest for the weary, especially when your boss is Carl Ludlow.
Renata Sanchez, a single mother by choice, wants to learn the identity of her daughter Rosie’s sperm donor. A confidentiality agreement and Rosie’s reticence might deter other mothers, but not Renata, nor Carl, who’s convinced that lawsuits involving cryobanks and sperm donors will be “the next big thing.” Fina uncovers the donor’s identity, but the solution to that mystery is just the beginning: within hours of the case going public, Rosie’s donor turns up dead.
Fina didn’t sign on for a murder investigation, but she can’t walk away from a death she may have set in motion. She digs deeper and discovers that DNA doesn’t tell the whole story and sometimes, cracking that code can have deadly consequences.
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Blood trickled out of her nostril onto her upper lip. It tasted metallic when the tip of her tongue instinctively swiped at it.
“Really?” Fina asked.
“Oh my God. I can’t believe I just did that.” Haley stood rooted to the floor, her gloved hands limp at her sides.
Fina freed her hand from the sweaty glove and grabbed a towel to blot her nose. “At least we know you can get in touch with your inner anger.”
“Aunt Fina, I’m so sorry.” Haley wrestled off her gloves and followed Fina over to a bench at the edge of the gym. “Should I get some ice or something?”
Fina gingerly palpated her nose with her fingertips. “It isn’t broken.”
Haley leaned back against the exposed brick wall. “I’m so sorry.” She looked genuinely distressed.
Fina swatted at her with the towel. “I’m fine. You think one errant punch is going to do me in?”
“I guess not.”
“Hey, you’ve thrown your first punch and drawn blood. I’m proud of you, sweetie. You’re a true Ludlow now.”
Haley looked doubtful. “If you say so.”
“How about a clean towel? That would help,” Fina said.
Haley made a beeline for the desk near the front door of the small bare-bones gym. Fina didn’t frequent the establishment, but it was in her neighborhood, and the signs for self-defense and kickboxing classes had piqued her curiosity. Her brothers had taught her to fight, and she didn’t understand why it wasn’t an equally valued skill set for girls and young women. Certainly it was more useful than sewing a button onto a shirt.
At the desk an older gentleman with cauliflower for ears handed Haley a fresh towel. Fina was dabbing at her nostril with it when her phone rang.
“Yes, Father?” she said when she answered.
“What are you doing?” Carl asked.
“Teaching your granddaughter essential life skills.”
The line was silent for a moment. “I’m not sure I like the sound of that.”
“Trust me, I’m doing you a favor.”
“Well, wrap it up. I need you in the office.”
“What’s going on?”
The phone went dead.
Ahh. Another satisfying father-daughter interaction.
• • •
Fina Ludlow was the private investigator at the family law firm. Ignoring her boss—her father, Carl—wasn’t an option. She walked Haley to the T, then grabbed a quick shower at home, where she pulled on some jeans and a fitted T-shirt and put her hair in a bun. When actively working a case, Fina opted for sensible shoes, but not knowing the nature of the summons, she grabbed a pair of black strappy sandals. It was the end of August, and the Boston weather couldn’t make up its mind: Summer? Fall? Summer? Fall? It had settled somewhere in between; cool breezes alternating with humid, still air.
Carl was sitting behind his desk when Fina arrived, a remote control pointed at the TV. A fifty-five-inch version of her father stared back, urging them to call the 800 number at the bottom of the screen.
“You make a habit of watching your own commercials?” Fina asked.
“I approve everything before it airs.”
As a teenager, Fina had been embarrassed by the television ads hawking Carl’s talents as a personal injury attorney. It was bad enough that her friends saw them between episodes of 21 Jump Street and Cheers, but a family trip to San Diego revealed the true extent of her father’s reach: his ads ran nationwide. People she’d never met had formed a likely negative opinion of her family. When Fina and her brothers complained about the notoriety, Carl reminded them that there would be no fancy trips or designer jeans without the ads, which was true, but Fina couldn’t help but notice that her classmates got the same spoils from parents performing arthroscopic surgery and building skyscrapers downtown. Over the years, though, Fina grew to understand that the family firm had its redeeming qualities. They were the top dogs who represented the underdogs. Sometimes, Ludlow and Associates was the only option for poor souls down on their luck.
Carl gestured at his doppelgänger onscreen. “That tie is bothering me.”
Fina shrugged. “Looks fine to me.”
“Not that I should be taking style advice from you,” Carl commented, hitting pause, freezing himself. “You couldn’t bother to dress up a little?”
“For what? You wouldn’t tell me what’s going on.”
“We have a potential client. She’ll be here any minute.”
“Who is it?”
“Renata.” She contemplated the name for a moment. “Renata from the Ramirez case?”
“That’s the one.”
Renata Sanchez had been a peripheral witness in a lawsuit a few years earlier. Fina had done some basic background on her and a phone interview, though they’d never met in person. She was the director of the Urban Housing Collaborative, an organization dedicated to addressing the housing challenges of the poor. She was a heroine or a pain in the ass, depending on whom you asked, and she didn’t shy away from controversy.
Fina walked over to the bar tucked into the corner of the office. She pulled out a cold diet soda.
“That stuff is crap, you know,” Carl commented.
“You think?” Fina asked, eyeballing the bottles of booze on the bar. Carl took good care of himself—his broad shoulders and flat stomach belied his age—but he had a selective memory when it came to his own vices.
Carl ignored her and clicked his mouse. Fina popped open the can and sat down across from him. She took a sip.
“So, tell me about Renata.” Fina put her soda on the desk and rocked onto the back legs of the chair. The furniture in Carl’s office was high-end and contemporary. Glass and leather dominated and symbolized his approach to the law: Carl was interested in breaking new ground, not upholding the traditions passed down through generations. The space was dotted with sports memorabilia and black-and-white photographs of Boston’s twenty-first-century landscape. An antique map of Boston Harbor would never adorn these walls.
“You break it, you buy it,” Carl said, gesturing at the precarious tilt of his daughter’s chair.
Fina rolled her eyes. “The case?”
“It’s a doozy.” He brushed the lapel of his jacket. “She wants to sue the cryobank that provided the sperm for her kid.”
“Why? Is there something wrong with the kid?”
“No. She thinks she and her daughter have a right to know the sperm donor’s identity, despite signing off on an anonymous donation seventeen years ago.”
Fina gently squeezed her nose. “There’s no way she can win.”
“So why are we even meeting with her?”
“I want to see how it plays out.”
“Sounds like a waste of time to me.” Fina dropped the front chair legs back to the floor.
“Let me worry about that.” Carl narrowed his gaze. “Is that blood?”
“What?” Fina reached up to her nose and dabbed at a lone drop that had materialized. “Damn. I thought I stopped it.” She rummaged in her bag for a tissue and blotted her nostril.
“Very classy,” Carl remarked.
“Ms. Sanchez is here,” Carl’s assistant, Shari, said, poking her head into the office before Fina could respond.
Carl nodded and straightened his tie. Shari returned with a woman who couldn’t have topped five feet two, her short stature only reinforced by her bottom-heavy physique. She had short wavy hair that was rich dark brown and skin the color of light brown sugar. Her pantsuit was black and looked inexpensive, but any lack of sartorial prowess was compensated for by her posture. She stood erect and looked Carl in the eye when he got up and shook her hand.
“Carl,” she said.
“Renata. This is my daughter, Fina.” Fina stood and offered her hand. Renata’s grip was beyond firm, but short of crushing. It was clear this woman meant business.
Carl gestured to the empty seat next to Fina. “Please have a seat. Did Shari offer you something to drink?”
“Yes. She’s bringing me coffee.”
They sat, and Carl leaned back in his chair. “Fina is the firm’s private investigator. As I mentioned on the phone, I think she could play a role in your case.”
Renata placed a beat-up leather tote bag at her feet and turned in her chair to face Fina. “I assume your father has given you the details?” She wore a thick gold ring on her right index finger. Her hands were small and doughy, almost like a child’s.
Fina glanced at Carl. “Yes, but I’d like to hear it from you.”
Renata pursed her lips in annoyance.
“I know it may seem like a waste of time,” Fina said, “but there are things I’ll hear in the telling that a third party just can’t convey.”
Renata placed her hands on the arms of the chair and crossed her legs. “Fine. I want to sue Heritage Cryobank.”
“Okay.” Fina took a sip of her drink. “And why do you want to do that?”
“To learn the identity of the sperm donor I used to conceive my eldest child.”
“Why?” Fina asked after a moment.
Renata looked puzzled. “What do you mean, why?”
Shari tapped on the door and entered bearing a tray. She set a small French press coffeepot and the necessary accoutrements on the corner of Carl’s desk. She depressed the lever and then poured a cup for Renata before taking her leave. You’d think Carl was Queen Elizabeth II the way she backed out of the room.
“Why do you want to determine the donor’s identity?” Fina asked. “Presumably you went into the arrangement satisfied that he would remain anonymous.”
Renata stirred a spoonful of sugar into the hot liquid and added a liberal splash of cream. Fina waited as patiently as a Ludlow could and took comfort knowing that however eager she was to get things moving, her father was even more so.
“Things have changed.”
“What things? Unfortunately, changing your mind isn’t going to cut it in court.”
“I signed those papers seventeen years ago. There was no other way for me to start a family, and I was naïve. I didn’t think the identity of Rosie’s father mattered, but it does. It’s a fundamental human right to know where you come from.”
“Not everyone would agree,” Carl said.
Renata took a tentative sip and placed the china cup back onto its saucer. “Did you know that they recently outlawed anonymous sperm donations in British Columbia? They ruled that keeping that information secret is unconstitutional.”
“So, what now?” Fina asked. “They’re opening all those files for the world to see, despite the promise of confidentiality?”
Renata sniffed. “No, but they’ve acknowledged it’s wrong.”
“That’s Canada.” Carl looked unimpressed. “This is the United States.”
“And there are lots of kids who don’t know their biological parents because of adoption or abandonment or being the product of an affair,” Fina noted. “Not knowing a parent’s identity doesn’t doom them for life.”
“You’ve done research on the matter?” Renata asked testily.
“Anecdotal research,” Fina said, and took a long drink, struggling to swallow her annoyance. “I interact with a diverse population in my line of work.”
“If you’re not interested in the case,” Renata said, rotating the coffee cup on the saucer, “I’m sure I can find someone who is.”
“That’s not what we’re saying,” Carl assured her, “but as Fina said, changing your mind isn’t the basis for setting a new precedent.”
Renata leaned forward in her chair. “Does a day go by that you two don’t consider your blood connection?” Her stare volleyed between father and daughter.
Fina and Carl both squirmed.
“Our connection is hard to ignore,” Fina said after an awkward pause.
“Exactly. Whatever the nature of your relationship, it’s a vital part of your identities. I’m only asking that my daughter be given the same basic information. Times have changed. A piece of paper shouldn’t stand in the way of progress.”
Fina raised an eyebrow in her father’s direction. Renata would have to be kept on a tight leash if they were going to take on her crusade.
“I’ve told Renata that the only legal precedent for breaking the contract is in the case of medical necessity,” Carl said.
“Which doesn’t exist in this case?” asked Fina.
“Correct,” Carl said.
“But what if something were to happen to me?” Renata asked. “My daughter would be left with virtually no blood relatives. And what if she has a medical condition that we don’t even know about? Medical testing has made leaps and bounds in the last two decades.”
Fina touched her nose. “I don’t know. It still sounds like a reach to me. Dad?”
“Renata, the chances of winning this case are practically nonexistent.”
“That’s what they said about the low-income housing the Collaborative built in Dorchester. They said it couldn’t be done, that we would drown in red tape. One hundred and fifty families moved in last year.”
“Be that as it may, we’re not talking about politics,” Carl said. “We’re talking about the law. You could fight a long, public battle and still end up with nothing to show for it.”
She straightened up in her chair. “That’s a chance I’m willing to take.”
Carl drummed his fingers on his leather blotter. “We can approach it from two angles,” he said after a moment of contemplation. “We can research the feasibility of filing a suit against the cryobank on the basis that maintaining the donor’s anonymity is a violation of Rosie’s human rights, and in the meantime, Fina can figure out the donor’s identity, which might give us leverage.”
Fina looked at Renata. “Why don’t I just try to find out his identity? It could be done under the radar with the same result as a messy lawsuit.”
Renata waved Fina’s suggestion away with a flick of her wrist. “It wouldn’t be the same result. As I’ve said, this isn’t just about my daughter’s father; it’s a human rights issue. All cryokids have a right to know.”
“How does your daughter feel about this?” Fina asked, draining her drink.
Renata licked her lips before speaking. “She understands that I think it’s important.”
Fina tilted her head. “Okay, but what does she think?”
Renata fiddled with the ring on her finger. “She’s fine with it.”
“Renata, anything you say is protected by privilege, but I can’t be effective if I’m operating in the dark.” Fina looked at Carl. He nodded ever so slightly. “What does your daughter really think?”
Renata met Fina’s gaze. “She’s reluctant, but Rosie’s always been very independent.”
Fina gaped at her. “We can’t take this on if Rosie isn’t on board.”
“Why not?” Renata said. “She’s seventeen. She’s a minor.”
“Because it’s unethical, and frankly, it’s creepy.”
“Excuse me?” Renata peered at her. “How is my fighting for her rights creepy?”
“Because you’re talking about digging around in her life, into her personal information. She may be a minor, but she’s old enough to decide if she wants to pursue this.”
Carl held up his hand to silence the women. “Fina and I will discuss this further, Renata. Did you bring the documents I requested?”
Fina opened her mouth to speak, but Carl shot her a warning look.
Renata reached into her tote bag and pulled out a dog-eared manila folder. “Here are copies of the relevant paperwork. I have more in deep storage.”
Fina took the file and mustered up a sour smile. “Great. Thanks.”
Carl walked Renata out of his office. When he returned a moment later, Fina was flipping through the file.
“You’re kidding, right? Even Mom wouldn’t do something this insane.” Fina and her mother, Elaine, had a contentious relationship that was fraught with resentments and grievances. Fina seemed to perpetually disappoint her mother, which tapped into her inner adolescent. Annoying Elaine had developed into a hobby of sorts.
“You heard her.” Carl settled back into his leather chair. “It’s a human rights issue.”
“That’s bullshit. There’s no way the cryobank is going to give up the name, and Rosie will be in the news regardless. The PR is going to be a nightmare.”
“That’s not our problem.”
Fina closed the file. “I don’t like this.”
Carl studied something on his computer screen. “I don’t pay you to like things. You find out who this guy is, and I’ll worry about the lawsuit.”
“I don’t know, Dad.”
His gaze fell on her. “What? You’re not interested in the work I’m giving you? You’re done with the firm, too, not just the family?”
Fina felt the blood creep up her neck. She’d broken ranks with Carl during her last case, and he wasn’t going to let her forget it. “I’m not done with the family or the firm. Stop being so dramatic.”
He glared at her. “Then get on with it.”
Fina slipped the folder into her bag and stood. “Why are you taking this on? There’s no money to be made.”
Carl shrugged. “I have a hunch. I think sperm banks are the next big thing. Just you wait.”
Carl smelled blood in the water and just had to swim closer.
• • •
Ten minutes later, Fina sat in her car in the Prudential garage and mulled over her first move. She needed to talk with Rosie Sanchez at some point, but wasn’t looking forward to that conversation. Fina glanced at the folder Renata had provided. She’d do a much better job digesting it lying on the couch at home, with a snack.
As she pulled out of the garage, her phone rang.
“I don’t have anything to report yet, Dad. I’m leaving the parking garage.”
“Your mother wants you at the club for dinner.”
“You just gave me a case; I can’t make dinner plans.”
Fina jammed on the brakes to avoid hitting a car that was cutting her off. The driver gave her the finger. How did that work exactly? Someone cuts you off and flips you the bird?
“You can take an hour for dinner. I thought you wanted to do right by Haley. What’s one dinner?”
There was no question that her fifteen-year-old niece needed all the help she could get. Fina’s most recent case, the one that had brought the Ludlows to the brink, involved the murder of Haley’s mom, Melanie.
“Fine. What time?”
Fina ended the call before Carl could.
Ludlow family gatherings had never been relaxing or carefree, but they’d taken on a new level of awkwardness given recent events. Fina was still struggling to digest the dirt she’d dug up about her brother Rand, Haley’s father. If that weren’t enough, the normal reactions people were supposed to have to death and depraved behavior seemed to be absent from the Ludlow emotional toolbox, at least on the parts of Carl and Elaine. Fina had hoped that her parents would rise to the occasion when faced with Melanie’s death and its fallout, but she was starting to believe that they were emotionally bankrupt. They couldn’t give what they didn’t have, and the flashes of anger she felt were interspersed with moments of sadness. No family was perfect, but some seemed more broken than others.
• • •
Walter Stiles stroked his goatee and studied the brochure. It was high quality—thick paper, bright colors, and appealing photographs. Still, something about it bothered him. The idea that you could choose your donor based on a resemblance to a celebrity wasn’t the problem; maybe the problem was that it had been Ellen’s idea. Ellen was his second in command, well liked by the staff and increasingly a driving force behind new initiatives at Heritage Cryobank. Walter knew that she had strong marketing acumen and her ideas would benefit the bank, but her insistence on pushing her agenda irked him. Heritage had done just fine—better than fine—before Ellen came along. It would do just fine if she weren’t there now.
In the thirty-six years that Walter had been at the bank, he had watched it grow from a small, unassuming operation to one of the most respected cryobanks in the country. Walter liked to think that he was largely responsible for that growth. True, it was the nature of the industry, but without him at the helm, he found it hard to believe that the bank would have a national reputation. Ellen was obsessed with data and algorithms and marketing surveys, but at the end of the day, Walter knew, it was about a woman holding her newborn child, beaming down at him or her. There was no better marketing than that.
Walter put down the brochure and leaned back in his commodious leather chair. He tidied the small stacks of paper on his desk before swiveling around to the window, where he studied his reflection. Perhaps he wasn’t the most handsome man in the world, but Walter put time and effort into his appearance and felt he looked young for his sixty-three years. He’d recently upped his swimming schedule to four times a week. There was no doubt that his metabolism was slowing down, just one more tide he’d have to stem.
The management team was scheduled to meet tomorrow to discuss the new brochure, but Walter decided he had a conflict. He would call a meeting for this afternoon instead. Too bad Ellen would miss it; she had a prior engagement, away from the office.
• • •
Fina drove back home and took the folder up to her condo, which overlooked Boston Harbor and Logan Airport. Technically, it really wasn’t her condo. Her grandmother, Nanny, had lived there until her death nine months ago. Fina had become a de facto squatter, and the arrangement satisfied her nomadic approach to life. Privacy and comfort were her only requirements—not that she didn’t appreciate the view—and she achieved both of those at Nanny’s without changing a thing. The blue velvet sofa, the glass-topped coffee table with wrought-iron legs, the wall of Ludlow family photos—they were all Nanny’s touch. A visitor might conclude that the condo was the home of a sentimental octogenarian who wasn’t big on housekeeping. Fina did spring for a better TV, but the rest of the decor remained the same—except that now it was buried under a layer of Fina’s belongings.
Renata had given her a lot of paperwork, but not much information. After wading through the standard forms used by the cryobank, Fina found a two-page profile of the donor consisting of basic data about his education, interests, physical attributes, and the like. In terms of facts, it was slim pickings. Donor #575651 was born in Joliet, Illinois, in 1951, graduated from high school in 1969, and from UMass in 1972. Fina started with a search of all the high schools in Joliet and came up with four public high schools, two Catholic and two private. She’d have to cross-reference birth records, high school graduation records, and UMass class lists. It would be tedious, but presumably she would end up with a somewhat abbreviated list. The whole thing sounded like a snooze, but at least she would be paid good money for her efforts.
Fina decided to take a trip to Cambridge, where, seventeen years earlier, Rosie Sanchez had been just a dot on a petri dish. She probably wouldn’t glean much from a visit, but in her experience, it always made sense to start at the source, and you couldn’t get any closer than the cryobank.
After a few wrong turns and a one-sided argument with the GPS, Fina found Heritage. Located in a nondescript concrete low-rise office building practically in Harvard University’s backyard, Heritage looked like an academic building or a lab, not ground zero for the conception of countless children. Fina sat in her car and took stock of the situation for a few minutes. There were a dozen cars in the parking lot, and she saw a handful of people come and go. These were mostly women, and nothing distinguished them from those you might see in the grocery store parking lot. The foot traffic on the sidewalk was dominated by young men and women, presumably students, who were most likely doing everything in their power to avoid pregnancy.
Fina pulled down the mirror in her visor and checked her appearance. She applied some lip gloss and ran a hand over her hair to smooth the frizzy strays. She couldn’t complain about her looks and considered them one of the perks of being a Ludlow. A clear complexion, high cheekbones, and a wide smile served her well, not to mention her rapid-fire metabolism. Her appearance gave her an advantage, not only in her job but in life in general, and she tried to use her powers for good, not evil. Sometimes, though, it was hard to keep the two straight.
Inside the lobby, Fina shivered from the air-conditioning and approached the desk where a young woman sat. There was a small waiting area with couches and potted plants, the walls painted a soft yellow. Enya drizzled down from the speakers mounted in the ceiling. Beautiful babies with puffy quilted arms and thighs smiled out from enlarged photographs. There were no pictures of crying babies or babies covered in their own shit. None of them were ugly. So much for truth in advertising.
“Can I help you?” the receptionist asked.
Fina tried to appear hesitant, which isn’t easy when assertive is your middle name.
“Well, I think so. A friend told me about you guys, and I just wanted to get some information.”
“Of course.” The woman stood and revealed her extremely pregnant belly as she reached into a cabinet and pulled out a glossy folder. Did they always have a pregnant woman manning the desk?
“We’re the second-oldest cryobank in the nation. We offer the latest technology in reproductive science and state-of-the-art facilities. Our director, Walter Stiles, serves on the board of the National Reproductive Medicine Society.” She opened the folder and began pointing out the different inserts. “Here’s general information about our services: choosing a donor, sperm and egg banking, shipping and storage. You’ll find lots of details, including staff bios and testimonials from our satisfied clients. We’ve helped thousands of families.” She smiled widely.
“When are you due?” Fina asked.
“In a month,” the woman said, and ran her hands over her belly. “I’m so ready. This little guy won’t get off my bladder.”
Gosh, that sounded like fun.
“Well, you look great,” Fina said. “Very healthy and . . . glowy.”
“You’re so sweet. I’m a beached whale, but it’s all worth it in the end.”
Fina closed the folder and began to slip it into her bag.
“Would you like to sit down with one of our client liaisons? She can answer any questions you might have.”
“Thanks, but I’m just getting information at this point.” She leaned toward the mother-to-be. “I’m not quite ready to take that next step.”
The receptionist squeezed her hand. “I totally understand. You take all the time that you need. We’ll be here.”
Fina returned to her car and pulled the folder out. She glanced through the materials. If you were desperate for a baby, Heritage Cryobank certainly gave you hope. But the hope came with a hefty price tag. Fina thought people who wanted babies should have them—whether the potential parents were single, married, gay, or straight. Adoption and sperm donation were two different roads to the same destination, and she didn’t think one was better than the other. But when people profited from the desperation of parents-to-be, things got dicey. Parenthood really wasn’t for the faint of heart.
• • •
In the Whittaker Club parking lot, Fina shut off the car and leaned her head back against the headrest. She took a few deep, hopefully cleansing breaths and felt no better. Under the best of circumstances, Fina’s relationship with her parents was fraught, but since the debacle with her brother, she’d been on parental probation with no clear end to her sentence.
“What are you doing?” Her brother Matthew stood outside her window. Matthew was two years older than Fina, and in her opinion, the best-looking of the Ludlow bunch. His wavy brown hair hadn’t yet succumbed to any gray, and his right cheek boasted a dimple that women practically fell into. He wasn’t in any hurry to settle down, and who could blame him? Being Matthew Ludlow was a pretty good gig.
“I’m trying to gather my strength. You know, center myself.”
“Why bother? Your blood pressure soars at the mere sight of Mom.”
“I know, but I can’t change her, so I’m trying to change myself.”
Matthew laughed. “Oh God, I love it. That’s hilarious.”
Fina glared at him. “Seriously, I leave every family gathering with a throbbing headache. They act like everything is hunky-dory.”
Matthew leaned against the open window frame. “Would you prefer chaos and breast-beating?”
“No, but doesn’t it bother you? It’s like Melanie never existed and Rand is on sabbatical.”
“Well, we can’t talk about it all the time. That would be weird, too.”
“There’s no happy medium?”
“We’re not good at this stuff, you know that.” A caddy walked by, a large golf bag slung over each shoulder. He threw out a greeting, which Matthew and Fina returned. “Mom doesn’t know about Rand and Haley, right?” Matthew asked.
“Right. Even if she knew, I don’t think it would make much difference. Her unwillingness to accept reality drives me crazy.”
“Come on.” Matthew tapped the door. “I’m hungry. We’ll figure it out.”
“Okay, Suzy Sunshine, if you say so.”
They walked up the path that skirted the landscaping and ended at a large swimming pool. Much of the Ludlows’ childhoods had been spent at the Whittaker Club. They passed idyllic summers swimming in the pool, working on their tennis serves, and getting up to no good on the golf course. The next generation of Ludlows was being raised in a similar fashion, and the club continued to be the destination of choice for family celebrations and events. It also served as neutral territory where they could meet despite whatever battles were raging.
Chaise lounges littered the grass, and tables dotted the patio. The waitstaff, dressed in khakis and white polo shirts, hustled between the eating area and a swinging door leading into an enormous shingled clubhouse.
“They’re over there.” Matthew nodded toward the patio, and Fina followed him as he picked his way through fluffy towels carelessly dropped and small children careening with ice-cream cones in hand.
Carl was seated at the end of a long table, and Fina’s brother Scotty anchored the other end. In between were Scotty’s wife, Patty, their three sons, and Rand’s daughter, Haley. Elaine, Fina’s mother, sat to the right of Carl.
“I heard you had quite the morning,” Scotty said, grinning. He and Matthew shared the same good looks and were softies at heart, but the energy that Matthew devoted to dating and sports, Scotty poured into his family. He was one of those people who were meant to be parents, who enjoyed watching their children develop and grow. Fina thought soccer games and band concerts were torture, but to Scotty, that was the good stuff.
“Hale and I had a great morning,” Fina said. “Patty should come next time.”
“I’ll leave the boxing to you two,” Patty commented. “As soon as you want to do a spa day, I’m in.”
Scotty and Patty took Haley in when her immediate family imploded and provided a steadying force that had been sorely absent from Haley’s life even when her parents were on the scene. Scotty and Patty were good parents, and being an older sister to her three younger cousins seemed to be having a positive effect on Haley.
“We’re just about to order,” Elaine said, and pushed menus in front of Fina and Matthew. “There’s a salad special, Josefina.”
Fina looked at her sister-in-law, who was struggling to suppress a smile. “I don’t like salads, Mom, remember?”
Elaine sniffed. “They’re good for you.”
The waitress arrived and called them all by name, the usual deference from the country club staff. Fina ordered a bacon cheeseburger with fries, and her niece followed suit, much to Elaine’s chagrin.
“What did you do the rest of the day, Hale?” Fina asked.
“Not much. Risa took me back-to-school shopping,” she said.
Risa Paquette had been Melanie’s best friend and known the Ludlows since childhood. She’d stepped up since Melanie’s death and tried to fill the gaps that Patty and Fina couldn’t. None of them would ever replace Haley’s mom, but the women were doing everything they could to get Haley back on track.
“Not really. It means I have to go back to school.”
“True, but you’ll be back with your friends.”
“I can be with my friends during the summer, without homework and getting up early.”
Fina inquired about the crappy reality TV that seemed to captivate her niece, while her nephews blew bubbles in their lemonades until Patty put the kibosh on that. Carl, Scotty, and Matthew discussed a case, which left Elaine unoccupied, a status that always put Fina on edge. Her mother usually cycled through a list of topics, most of them negative and invasive, including Fina’s eating habits, Matthew’s romantic prospects, and anything in life that wasn’t up to snuff. Interacting with her was like letting a camel into your tent: All it took was one toe and then the whole thing stormed in, wrecking the place.
“Are the boys all set for school?” Fina asked Patty in an effort to avoid an inquisition. Patty detailed the exhaustive list of required school supplies as their food arrived and everyone dove in.
“Romance Renovation was awesome last night,” Haley commented, whacking the ketchup bottle with her open palm.
“I’m behind,” Fina said. “Don’t tell me who got the wrecking ball.”
“Is that the one with the renovation dates and the kitchen remodels?” Scotty asked.
“Yes,” his niece remarked. “It’s awesome. Even Aunt Patty is getting into it.”
“One episode,” she protested. “I watched one episode.”
“But admit it: You’re hooked.” Haley smirked.
Fina shared a look with Scotty. Maybe some kind of normalcy really was within reach for Haley.
“Okay, maybe I’m a little hooked,” Patty admitted.
Fina enjoyed every bite of her juicy burger and distributed most of her fries to her nephews. Elaine looked annoyed across the table, but who wouldn’t be if they’d chosen a garden salad for dinner?
“I don’t understand the appeal of those shows,” her mother stated, throwing out the handiest gauntlet. “They just seem dumb to me.”
“That’s part of the appeal, Mom. They’re escapism,” Scotty said.
“It seems like a waste.”
“Speaking of a waste, which did you think was more impressive on The Next Superstar?” Fina asked Haley. “The fire-eating or the hula-hooping with the chain saws?”
“Neither pays the bills,” Carl commented.
“They’re not looking for a job, Pap,” Haley said.
Carl grunted and let the wave of conversation wash over him. He pulled out his phone. So much for being there for the family.
Once the plates were empty and cleared, Haley and the boys returned to the pool, and the grown-ups were left around the large table.
“Did you make some progress this afternoon?” Carl asked.
Fina glared at her father. “I started. I’ll let you know when I have something to report, Dad.”
Her mother was peering at her. Uh-oh. “You need to go see your brother, Fina.”
Fina squirmed in her seat. “We’ll see.”
“What’s there to see? He’s your brother.”
Fina was silent. It was true that Elaine didn’t know the full extent of Rand’s crimes, didn’t know that he’d molested Haley, but a lack of information never stopped her from having an opinion. She couldn’t trust that Fina had her reasons for her choices and that adult children should be left to navigate their own relationships with one another. Fina remained silent, as much as it pained her.
“Someday, your father and I will be gone, and you children will only have one another.”
Fina opened her mouth to respond, but Patty beat her to it. “That’s not going to be for a long time, Mom. No need to worry about that yet.”
“That’s exactly what I was going to say,” Fina said, grimacing.
• • •
Back at Nanny’s, Fina flipped on the Red Sox game and reclaimed her spot on the couch.
“Who is it?” she hollered when there was a knock on the door thirty minutes later.
She swung open the door to Milloy Danielson, her best friend, massage therapist extraordinaire, sometime operative, and occasional friend with benefits. He held a plastic bag out to her.
“And you’re bearing gifts? Come in, come in.”
They passed the next hour watching the Red Sox and discussing Renata Sanchez in between innings while Fina nibbled on the Mallomars he’d brought.
“So what’s your first move?” Milloy asked as he stretched his arms over his head, revealing a sculpted abdomen.
“Put myself up for adoption? Seriously, the whole thing is crazy.”
“You could opt out of this one.”
Fina gave him a withering look. “I’m running out of free passes, and I’m not worried about the family stuff. It’s the work that concerns me.”
“What? You think Carl might fire you?”
“But you’ve had other clients in the past. You could go out on your own.”
“Maybe, but he could make my professional life very unpleasant, and more importantly, I like working for the firm. The cases are interesting. On my own, I’ll spend my time following chumps around with a camera hoping to catch them reshingling their roofs while on disability.”
Milloy patted her knee. “Then I guess you need to take this case.”
“I guess so. If I find the donor quickly, maybe Renata will stop pursuing the lawsuit idea.”
“Where are you going to start?”
Fina thought for a moment. “The offspring. I need to talk to Rosie Sanchez and get a DNA swab.”
“What?” Fina asked.
“I’m just imagining you in a nurse’s uniform.”
“Yeah, ’cause I’m going to show up in thigh-high white stockings and a low-cut white top.”
“A boy can dream.”
The next morning, Fina ventured past Cambridge’s leafy streets and sizable single-family homes to Somerville. It was formerly a working-class town, but artists, professionals, and members of academia ushered in gentrification in the 1990s, recasting the densely packed city as a place to be. As she navigated the narrow streets, the mid-rise brick buildings and triple-deckers seemingly crept toward Fina. She had grown accustomed to Nanny’s extensive vista and appreciated a sight line that encompassed more than the neighbor’s clothesline.
Yesterday she’d reviewed her old file on Renata and done a cursory background check on her in preparation for this visit. Renata and her daughters lived in a two-family house Renata had purchased more than twenty years before. The house wasn’t anything special from the outside, but its proximity to Davis Square and Harvard Square made it a fruitful investment. She’d make a hefty profit if she ever sold, but in the meantime, the rental unit probably paid her mortgage.
Fina rang the bell twice before it was answered by a girl who looked to be a tween.
“Is your mom home?” Fina asked.
“Mom!” the girl yelled over her shoulder. “There’s a lady here to see you.” She stared at Fina.
“Are you Alexa?” Fina extended her hand. “I’m Fina.”
The girl shook her hand firmly and leaned on the open door. She had light brown skin and curly hair to her shoulders. She was creeping from plump to fat, a trajectory that Fina hoped would be halted for Alexa’s sake. Kids were cruel.
Renata came to the door. “Alexa, finish getting ready for camp.” She gently nudged her daughter’s shoulder. “You’ve caught us during our morning mad dash, Fina.”
In Fina’s experience, even the most organized households had morning mad dashes, especially if there were children present. It was just one of the reasons she relished her solitude. She could barely feed and clothe herself, let alone small, moody people.
“Sorry about that. I assumed you wanted to get the ball rolling. I’ll be quick.”
Fina followed her into the kitchen. It was a modest space overlooking a back porch and yard. The cabinets were white laminate circa 1985, and the appliances were also white. The granite and stainless steel de rigueur in today’s kitchens were nowhere in evidence. Alexa sat at the small round kitchen table slurping up a bowl of cereal.
“Alexa, sit up,” Renata said.
Fina pulled out the chair across from the girl and sat down.
“Would you like some coffee?” Renata held up a pot.
Fina would have preferred a diet soda, her caffeine delivery system of choice, but part of being a PI was making people feel comfortable. Generally, people felt most comfortable when you made the same choices they did.
“Cream and sugar?”
Renata poured the steaming liquid into a mug that read GIRL SCOUTS BUILD BRIDGES and handed it to Fina. A sugar bowl was already on the table, and Renata plunked down a small cardboard carton of cream. Fina doctored her drink and took a tentative sip.
“Alexa, could you please get your sister and your backpack?”
Alexa sat up straight. “Rosie!” she yelled.
“I said ‘get her,’ not ‘scream her name,’” Renata said in exasperation.
Alexa pushed her chair back from the table and left the room.
“That used to drive my parents crazy,” Fina said.
Renata nodded. “We did it, too, although when you live in a tiny space, you’re usually already in the same room.”
“Did you grow up in Somerville?” Fina asked. She knew Renata hadn’t, but it was always interesting to ask questions to which you already knew the answer.
“Lawrence, with four younger siblings in a three-bedroom apartment.”
“Sounds like a lot of together time.”
“Yes, but it wasn’t all bad. Sometimes I think kids today have too much of everything.” She looked at Fina pointedly. You didn’t need to know much about the Ludlows to know that they fell into the “too much of everything” category.
Fina shrugged. “I don’t have kids, so I really can’t say.”
The smacking of flip-flops interrupted the conversation, and Rosie Sanchez entered the room. She was extremely pretty, with long curly brown hair. Her features were delicate and free of makeup. Cutoff shorts flattered her lean, smooth legs, and a stack of woven bracelets encircled one wrist.
“Rosie, this is Fina Ludlow, the investigator I told you about.”
Rosie looked at Fina, then back at her mother. “Mom, I’m late for work.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll call them and tell them you’ll be late.”
“What?” Rosie asked.
“It’s not a problem,” Renata said, and drank her coffee.
“You’re going to call the animal shelter? Mom, I’m an adult. You can’t call my work.”
Renata gripped her coffee cup. “Rosie, this is important, and they’ll understand.”
Rosie threw open the refrigerator door and bent down to scan the contents. “You don’t get it. It’s not your place to call my work or manage my schedule.”
“I was just trying to help.” Renata looked hurt.
Fina’s heart sank. She knew this dynamic well: the complete lack of boundaries that felt like a constant violation to the daughter, and the apparent lack of appreciation that felt like ungratefulness to the mother.
“You know what?” Fina said. “We can do this later.” She took her coffee cup to the sink, then reached into her bag and handed her card to Rosie. “Why don’t you call me, and we’ll set up a time that works for you.”
Rosie eyed her skeptically. “Fine.”
“It won’t take long. I just wanted to ask you some questions and do a quick swab.”
Rosie’s eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about?”
Fina looked at Renata, who avoided her gaze by studying the carton of cream. “You didn’t tell her?”
Rosie slammed the fridge door closed. The cereal boxes on top swayed. “Mom, what’s going on?”
“She knows all about the lawsuit,” Renata reassured Fina. “We talked about this, Rosie.”
“We didn’t talk about any swab.”
“Fina is trying to identify your donor while we proceed with the lawsuit. She needs a DNA swab to get started.”
Rosie stared at her mother. “You have lost your fucking mind,” she finally said.
“Rosie!” Renata stood up from the table and glared at her daughter. “Watch your mouth, young lady!”
“There’s no way in hell I’m giving a DNA sample. I can’t believe you would even ask. I’m not some science experiment, you know.”
“It will help our case.”
“Your case. This is your case, Mom. I don’t want any part of it.” She turned on her heel and flip-flopped out of the room.
Renata walked over to the sink. She took a deep breath and then looked at Fina. “She’ll come around. We just have to give her time.”
“This is a terrible idea.” Fina looked at her. “Pursuing this could seriously damage your relationship with your daughter.”
Renata turned her back to Fina and twisted the faucet on. The vigorous hand washing that followed would have met the surgical standards at Mass General. Renata flicked the excess water off her hands before rubbing them with a dish towel. She turned back toward Fina.
“Didn’t you just tell me you don’t have children?”
“Well, then, I appreciate your concern, but your parenting advice is not required.”
“All righty then.” Fina headed to the front door. “I’ll be in touch.”
Back on the sidewalk, Fina kicked an empty can with her toe and watched as it clattered across the street and into a storm drain. If Renata wasn’t going to listen to reason, maybe Fina should stop wasting her breath.
• • •
“What can I do for law enforcement this fine day?” Fina asked Cristian when he joined her at a diner in the South End.
“Actually, I have a favor to ask, strictly off the books.”
Cristian Menendez was a detective with the Major Crimes unit of the Boston Police Department. He and Fina had met at a crime scene more than a decade earlier and had been friends and occasional adversaries ever since.
“I need you to run a background check on this guy.” He pushed a slip of paper across the table and righted his coffee cup so the waitress could fill it. Fina looked at the name.
“Who’s Brad Martin?”
Cristian nodded his thanks to the waitress, whose gaze lingered on him. His Spanish and Puerto Rican ancestry melded into a pleasing package of cinnamon-colored skin and wavy hair. Haley had once categorized him as a hottie, and Fina had to concur.
He had some coffee and cleared his throat. “Marissa’s seeing him.”
Fina grinned. “You want me to run a check on your ex-wife’s new boyfriend? I thought you always took the high road.”
“I couldn’t care less who Marissa dates, but I want to know who’s hanging around my son.” Matteo was Cristian’s three-year-old.
“That seems reasonable, but why not just look yourself?” She sipped ice water from a clear plastic cup.
“Using city resources to snoop on your ex is frowned upon.”
“As it should be, but I’m happy to do it.”
“I don’t want to hire you officially, though.”
“No problem. I’m too busy for any other official jobs right now, so it won’t be in my records. Just the usual stuff?”
Cristian nodded. “I owe you.”
“Hardly.” Cristian had saved her butt more than once.
“What are you working on that’s keeping you so busy ‘officially’?” he asked.
“Just a total clusterfuck of an investigation related to one of Carl’s cases. It has the potential to blow up in everyone’s faces.”
“Sounds like business as usual at Ludlow and Associates.”
“How’s Haley doing?”
Fina unconsciously touched her nose. “She’s fine.”
Cristian didn’t say anything. He looked at Fina.
“I think she’s fine,” she conceded. “Okay, I really don’t have a clue. I took her boxing yesterday, and she nailed me in the nose.”
He leaned toward her and examined her face. “Since when do you know how to box?”
“Since practically the day I was born!”
“You know how to hit. That’s different from boxing. If you want her to learn some skills, I’ll take her.” Cristian was one of those cops who could actually run after a suspect and pitch himself over a chain-link fence. His father had died young from a heart attack, and he was determined to avoid the same fate, so he took good care of himself.
“I wanted to give her an outlet for her anger, blow off some steam. Plus, everybody should know how to defend themselves.”
The waitress stopped by and expertly topped off Cristian’s coffee, the two steaming pots like appendages on the ends of her arms.
“She’s probably got anger to spare,” he noted.
“That’s why I think she needs an outlet. I don’t want her to snap one of these days and shoot up her school or plant a bomb in her underwear.”
“Is she seeing someone?”
“I assume you mean a therapist and not a boyfriend. Yes, Patty takes her twice a week.”
“Does Haley talk to you about it?”
“Which ‘it’? Her mother dying? Her father being a pedophile? Her brief foray into the world of escorts?”
“Any of it.”
“Cristian.” Fina put down her water and looked at him. “I think we can agree I’m way out of my depth on this one. So I asked myself, ‘What would Oprah do?’ and the answer I came up with was ‘Listen, but don’t push.’”
He gave her a pitying smile. “At least you’re trying. What about the rest of the family?”
“Scotty and Patty and Matthew are on board. Carl and Elaine are on another planet.”
“What about him?”
“What’s his status?”
“I’m ignoring his existence right now.”
“That sounds like a very mature approach.”
“I thought so.”
Cristian finished his coffee and reached for his wallet. Fina waved him away.
“Fine, but when you get the info, I’ll take you out to dinner,” he said.
“On a date?” Fina asked teasingly. Cristian and Fina hooked up occasionally, but their relationship was largely undefined. For the time being, both of them seemed to like it that way.
Cristian stood and shrugged. “If you want to call it that.”
She watched him walk away and noticed a table of twenty-something women checking him out.
Maybe she should call dibs on such a catch.
• • •
After eating some leftover Chinese food at home, Fina started digging into the details of Brad Martin’s life. Arrests and convictions, job history, education, driving record, civil court files, and property ownership were the pillars of a basic background check. That information was part of the public record and relatively easy to access now that so much could be found online.
Next, she turned to the Sanchez case. Fina called a friend at UMass and tried to finagle a list of graduates from 1972. Apparently, the class list was a closely guarded state secret, but her contact promised to do his best.
Since free information wasn’t a sure thing, Fina went online and signed up for a few paid sites that promised to connect her with her long-lost classmates. She searched Joliet, Illinois, for male high school graduates in 1969 and watched a long—albeit incomplete—list unfurl from her printer. Fina considered looking for online yearbook pictures, but it would be a waste of time until she had pictures of the cryokids for comparison.
Fina poked around the online single mothers’ community, in which Renata Sanchez was very active. Twenty years ago, it wasn’t easy to find a like-minded group of single women craving motherhood, but today, all you had to do was hop online to do everything short of the actual insemination. Information on cryobanks, advice for choosing a donor, referrals to open-minded doctors, support networks for dealing with the questions posed by donor offspring—it was all there. Fina thought research and careful consideration were good policies, but it was a wonder anyone had kids after surfing the Net. Sleepless nights, saggy cervixes, vaccinations, play-group politics. It was a jungle out there.
Renata was the president of a local group of SMCs, single mothers by choice, and it seemed to be an active community. Fina clicked through a monthly calendar filled with potluck dinners, apple-picking outings, and discussion groups for tweens before landing on the list of other board members. Renata had suggested she speak with those women, particularly the one whose children shared the same donor as Rosie, Marnie Frasier. It wasn’t unheard of for half-siblings to live in the same area, particularly in the early days of sperm donation when most sperm was acquired locally. It was only in the past decade or so that prospective parents had culled swimmers from a nationwide marketplace courtesy of the growing cryobank industry and FedEx Overnight.
Marnie’s home was in Arlington on a pretty street lined with oak trees and single-family colonial-style houses. Fina rang the doorbell of her yellow house and peeked through the glass panel on the front door. After a moment, a pair of legs trotted down the stairs from the second floor, and Fina was greeted by a cute young man. He was tall and muscular with a swimmer’s body, and his hair was growing out from a Mohawk.
“Hey,” he said, and surreptitiously gave Fina the once-over.
“Hey. Is Marnie Frasier home?” She handed the young man her PI license and watched him scan it.
“Ahh, sure. She’s out back.”
“I’m Fina Ludlow.” Fina offered her hand.
He had a firm handshake. “Tyler. Come on in.” He held open the screen door for her, and they walked through the house toward the back. His walk was loose and confident. Coupled with his sandy blond Mohawk, he looked like he should be paddling a surfboard in the Pacific.
“I’ve never met a PI before. What’s it like?” he asked.
“It’s great. Never boring. I don’t have to work in an office. I carry a gun.” Fina patted her bag.
Tyler turned to her and laughed. His teeth were bright white and straight, and when he smiled, dimples emerged on his cheeks. Fina knew from the background info that Tyler was nineteen. Good thing; it was creepy when you started admiring the physical attributes of the underage.
A door in the kitchen led outside to a landing and a short flight of stairs. The steps ended at a brick patio on which a table, chairs, and a grill sat. The small lawn looked freshly mown and featured beds of hydrangeas and dahlias and other colorful blooms that Fina couldn’t identify. In one corner of the yard, a woman was kneeling on a pad, her hands encased in gardening gloves, attacking the soil with a small hoe.
“Mom, this is . . . a private investigator.” Tyler smiled at Fina. “Sorry. I’m terrible with names.”
“Fina Ludlow. I’d like to ask you a few questions, Ms. Frasier, if you don’t mind.”
Marnie sighed deeply and sat back on her heels. “Questions about what?”
Fina glanced at Tyler. “Renata Sanchez.”
Marnie gave Tyler a look that seemed to indicate her displeasure with his gatekeeping and brushed a lock of ash brown hair away from her face with her wrist.
“Fine,” she said. “Do you mind if I keep hoeing?”
“Be my guest.” Fina sat down on the grass, and Tyler walked back into the house. Fina studied Marnie for a moment as she dug into the earth with her hands. She was an attractive woman, her shoulder-length hair intermittently streaked with gray and loosely held back by a black fabric headband. She was wearing jeans that were obviously reserved for gardening, as evidenced by grass and dirt stains, and a faded T-shirt celebrating an event at Lesley University.
“So what can I help you with?” Marnie looked at Fina.
“Renata has hired the law firm Ludlow and Associates to sue Heritage Cryobank. Did you know she was planning this?”
“Yes, because she tried to get me on board. Has been bugging me for months,” Marnie said as she stabbed the hoe into a clump of dry dirt.
“You’re not interested?”
“In suing the cryobank? No.”
“Because I signed a legally binding contract ensuring that the donor’s identity would remain anonymous. Because I don’t want to put my children through the wringer.”
“We’ve told her the chances of winning are slim to none, but that hasn’t deterred her.”
“I wouldn’t expect it to. Renata has fought the powers that be on more than one occasion and won. She believes she can defy the odds.” Marnie paused in her digging. “Why does she need a private investigator for the lawsuit?”
“She wants to sue the cryobank, but she also wants me to try to uncover the donor’s identity through other means.”
“Standard investigative techniques. Records searches, that sort of thing.”
Marnie shook her head. “She’s really outdone herself this time.”
“What do you mean?”
“Renata has a talent for setting things in motion with little thought for the consequences.” Marnie plunged her hoe into the earth. “Say you discover his identity. Then what?”
“She didn’t say.”
Marnie grinned. “Exactly. She probably has some fantasy about one big happy family. That the man will embrace Rosie as his own.”
“You don’t think that’s likely?”
“Who knows? But she shouldn’t toy with Rosie’s emotions, and I don’t appreciate her involving my kids. If they want to find their dad, it should be their decision when they’re ready.”
“She seems to think they have a fundamental right to know. Like she’s doing them a favor.”
“So this is typical Renata, stirring things up?”
“Yes, and don’t get me wrong; I like her, and many people have benefited from her zeal, but she has boundary issues.”
Fina nodded knowingly. “When did you learn that you two used the same donor?”
“About four years ago. I didn’t seek out the information. My son has a bad habit of digging around online.” Marnie frowned and flicked a worm away with her gloved hand. “We already knew Renata and her family through the SMC community, but when Tyler got involved with a sibling registry, the biological connection came to light.”
“You didn’t support his research?”
Marnie shrugged. “I just worry, that’s all.”
“Is it a pretty tight-knit group, the SMCs?”
“You can be as involved as you want to be. When the kids were babies, those women were lifesavers, and I’ve met some of my best friends through the group.” She hesitated.
“But for some people, being an SMC becomes a cause of sorts, which is fine as long as that’s in the best interest of your kids.” Marnie struggled, to no avail, to pull a thick, gnarled root from the ground.
“Let me,” Fina said, and got to her feet. She tugged at the growth and finally loosed it from the earth, nearly falling backward in the process. “You don’t think Renata has the best interest of her kids in mind?”
Marnie slowly stood up. Her knee popped loudly.
“Yikes,” Fina said.
“I know. It doesn’t hurt, but I imagine it’s only a matter of time.” Marnie took off her gloves and smacked them against her jeans to loosen the dirt. “I think Renata is a wonderful mother in many ways, and she loves her kids very much. But do I think involving your child in a lawsuit related to her sperm donor is a good idea? No. Not under any circumstances, but particularly not when the child has no interest.”
“Rosie. Right. I met her earlier today. She was pissed at Renata about the lawsuit. She seemed like a fairly private person.”
Marnie shrugged. “Maybe she gets that from her father. She certainly doesn’t get it from her mother.” Fina watched as Marnie put her gardening supplies into a basket and grasped the handle. “I get the sense that you don’t think this is a great idea, either,” Marnie said.
“I try not to let my feelings come into a case, but it’s not the best idea I’ve ever heard,” Fina admitted.
“But you’re going to do it anyway?”
Fina ground her toe into the soil. “Let’s just say I have my own family-related reasons for taking this on.” Fina swatted a bug from her face. “You aren’t at all curious about the donor’s identity?”
Marnie looked toward the house. “I think it might be Pandora’s box. The only thing that matters to me about the donor is that he made it possible for me to have two wonderful children.”
Fina handed her card to Marnie. “Thanks for talking to me. I’d like to talk to your kids, too.”
“I’d rather you didn’t, but they’re adults.” She smiled ruefully. “Even if they weren’t, I couldn’t stop them.”
“If either of them is amenable, I’d also like to get a DNA swab.”
“I’m sure Jess, my daughter, won’t have any interest. I don’t know about Tyler.”
“I won’t ask this minute. You can try to talk him out of it if you want.”
Marnie snorted. “You think I can sway his behavior? That’s the curse of raising independent, self-sufficient children: They really do have minds of their own.”
“I’ll be in touch,” Fina said, walking away. She opened the side gate and returned to her car.
It was a short drive to Heritage Cryobank, and most of the spaces in the parking lot were occupied. Fina consulted her notes about the bank before heading to the front door.
The same heavily pregnant receptionist was behind the desk, but this time, the waiting room chairs were filled with an assortment of clients, and a few toddlers played on the floor.
“You’re back!” the receptionist chirped as Fina approached the desk.
“Ready to talk with one of our client liaisons?”
“Actually, I was hoping I could speak with Ellen Alberti.” Fina had done a little digging, and Ellen’s name figured prominently in the coverage of the bank.
The receptionist frowned. “Our associate director? She doesn’t generally meet with new clients.”
“I know, it’s just . . . a friend gave me her name, and I’d feel more comfortable speaking with her.”
“I don’t know . . .”
“You know what? It’s okay. I’ll just—I’ll try some other time.” Fina fiddled with her bag.
“Well, hold on there. It’s just a little unusual.”
“I don’t want to put you in an awkward spot. Really. I’ll figure something else out.” Fina turned toward the door.
“Just wait one second,” the receptionist said, picking up the phone. “Have a seat, and I’ll see what I can do.”
Fina took a seat in a stiff-backed chair covered in a nubby mauve-colored fabric. The magazine options on the side table were limited:Fit Pregnancy, American Baby, Pregnancy and Newborn, Parents. Fina picked one up and flipped through the pages. Poor expectant mothers: Even they weren’t given a pass when it came to meeting a ridiculous physical ideal. The women gracing the pages were beautiful, with perfect bodies boasting taut round bellies, nary a stretch mark in sight.
Fina was halfway through an article about keeping her nipples moisturized when the receptionist waved at her and smiled brightly.
“Ellen can see you now. Go through the door on the right, and her office is all the way back. Just keep walking. You can’t miss it.”
Fina thanked her and pushed the door open.
She couldn’t believe access to the offices and labs wasn’t restricted; allowing visitors to wander through the place unattended was sloppy. As Fina moved down the hallway, most of the doors were closed, but had signs identifying their purposes. There were client-counseling offices, exam rooms, labs, and client lounges. Fina poked her head into some kind of small waiting room, which could have passed for a nondescript living room or a shrink’s office. It looked inviting, yet impersonal. The art on the walls looked to have been chosen for its soothing color palette and inoffensive subject matter—boating parties, fields of flowers, and café scenes. There was nothing state-of-the-art about it, but Fina assumed that claim applied to the actual medical facilities. She passed a nurse in teddy-bear-patterned scrubs in the hallway and kept walking until she reached an open door with the placard ELLEN ALBERTI, ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR affixed to the wall.
Fina peeked around the door frame. Ellen Alberti leapt up from behind her desk and dropped a stack of files onto the floor. Fina could see a disposable coffee cup on its side and dark liquid spreading across the surface of the cluttered desk.
“Dammit.” Ellen mopped at the coffee with a small napkin.
“Here. Let me help.” Fina stepped into the room and pulled a package of baby wipes from her bag. Baby wipes were a panacea.
Ellen looked at her and took the proffered wipes. She mopped up the liquid and tossed the used wipes in the trash can.
“I knew that was going to happen,” Ellen said. “Do you ever do that, where you tell yourself, ‘Don’t put your coffee there, you’ll spill it,’ but you do it anyway?” She pulled a small package of tissues from her desk drawer and blotted the wet files.
As Ellen, who looked to be in her early forties, finished the cleanup, Fina took in her surroundings. The office was small, but a large window brightened the room. The bookshelves were stuffed with books and thick journals, and piles of folders covered every inch of surface space. Fina hoped that the Heritage labs were tidier than Ellen’s office.
“I know what you’re doing,” Ellen said, and grinned. “You’re judging a book by its cover, but you shouldn’t. I subscribe to the ‘messy office, brilliant mind’ school of thought.”
Ellen had medium blond hair that grazed her shoulders and a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose. Her makeup was tastefully applied. She wore a navy blue pantsuit, its tailoring a touch conservative, but that was offset by her funky dangly earrings. Her teeth were straight and white, and there were small wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and mouth. It looked like she smiled a lot.
She gestured toward the chair in front of her desk, inviting Fina to sit down.
Fina held out her hand. “Fina Ludlow. I’m a private investigator. I have a few questions.” She settled into the offered seat.
Ellen sat down and picked up her coffee cup, forgetting she’d just spilled its contents. “I thought you were a prospective mother.” Frowning, she put the empty cup back down.
“Well, aren’t we all?”
She raised an eyebrow. “A prospective insemination candidate.”
Fina tipped her head side to side. “I’m still on the fence about that one.”
Ellen glanced at her phone.
“Wait,” Fina said. “Before you call security, here’s my ID.”
Ellen studied it. “It concerns me that you got back here under false pretenses.”
“I’m sorry about that, but it should concern you. Your security is seriously wanting.”
Ellen smiled ruefully. “I’ve been saying that for months,” she muttered under her breath. She tapped a manicured nail on her blotter. “So, what can I do for you, Ms. Ludlow? I’m a busy woman.”
“You’ll want to hear what I have to say.”
“What is it you want to say?”
“I’m working on a case for an attorney, Carl Ludlow. He’s my father, actually.”
“I know who your father is, and I know your brother Scotty.”
“We worked together on a fund-raiser for the MetroWest Children’s Foundation.”
“Great. Well, one of your clients is exploring the option of suing to learn the identity of her donor.”
It was a tiny motion, but Ellen’s shoulders seemed to rise ever so slightly.
Then she smiled. “Like pregnancy and childbirth aren’t stressful enough. Throw in assisted reproduction and life really gets turned upside down.”
“Meaning that sometimes our clients go through stages of uncertainty or ambivalence about the process. It would be odd if they didn’t, but that’s what it usually is—a stage.”
“So the possibility of a lawsuit doesn’t concern you?”
Ellen leaned forward and clasped her hands together. “What concerns me is the possibility that one of our clients is unhappy. We want all of our moms and dads to be completely satisfied with the Heritage experience.”
Fina shook her head slowly. “I don’t think she’s satisfied.”
“If you could tell me who it is, I could speak with her directly.”
Fina smiled. “I can’t do that. I’m covered by the attorney-client privilege that my father has with the client. But it doesn’t sound like you’re particularly worried anyway. It’s all good.” Fina stood to leave.
“I assume your father realizes that whoever the client is, she signed a confidentiality agreement, which is legally binding,” Ellen pointed out. “You’re welcome to talk with our attorneys, but they’ll tell you the same thing.”
“Every client signs a standard confidentiality agreement?”
“Of course. Potential parents either choose a donor who wants to remain anonymous or a donor who is willing to be in contact once the child reaches eighteen. Most clients think anonymity is a reasonable trade-off for a baby.”
“But people must change their minds over time.”
Ellen shrugged. “It’s been known to happen, but that’s why there’s a legal document—to protect everyone involved.”
“What about the sibling registries?”
“What about them?”
“Doesn’t it put the bank in a vulnerable position if siblings connect with one another and compare notes?”
“Our mission is creating families. I think it’s fine if half-siblings want to connect with one another, and it really doesn’t have anything to do with the cryobank.”
“Except it’s a bigger data pool, and maybe kids have a better shot at identifying their donors that way.” Fina knew of some cases where the donor babies had done their own sleuthing and discovered not only their half-siblings but their donors as well.
“A resourceful child might be able to ferret out his donor’s identity whether or not there are half-siblings.”
“Digging up that information doesn’t worry you? In terms of the reproductive industry?”
“Not in the least. Some people say we’re doing God’s work here. What could be wrong with that?”
“Some people? Not you?”
Ellen smiled. “Whatever you believe in, I’m sure the powers that be would approve of our work creating happy families, and we can’t ban the Internet, right?”
“Maybe anonymous donation will soon be a thing of the past,” Fina ventured.
“Maybe.” Ellen reached into a drawer and pulled out a card, which she handed to Fina. “Our attorneys. Feel free to call them. It’s why we pay them such exorbitant fees.”
Fina put the card in her bag. “Thank you for your time.”
“Don’t mention it. If you ever decide to get off that fence and have a baby, let me know.”
“Just as soon as you create one that self-diapers,” Fina said, and left the office.
• • •
“You’re supposed to take me shopping for jeans,” Haley said when Fina answered her phone.
“Like, now—unless you’re too busy, say, shooting someone.” Fina had shot a man a couple of months before in the course of Melanie’s murder investigation. It was a fact that Haley revisited too often for Fina’s taste.
“I only shoot people if they’re trying to kill me, remember? And I didn’t kill him. And you shouldn’t be thinking about that.”
“Whatever. Can you pick me up?”
“Yes. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
Fina put a quick call in to Marnie Frasier and asked for cell numbers for Jess and Tyler. She left a message for Jess and made a plan to stop by Tyler’s workplace later.
“How’s your nose?” Haley asked after climbing into the car.
“It’s fine. I told you not to worry about it. I’m a tough old broad.”
“The good news is that Cristian has offered to teach us some real boxing moves.” Haley looked out the window. Fina glanced at her. “I thought that idea would appeal to you.”
“I like him, but I don’t know if I want to spend a lot of time with a cop. After everything, it just seems kind of weird.”
Fina nodded. “I get that, but he’d be there as a friend, not as a cop.”
Haley shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Think about it. You could bring a couple of friends. That might lighten the mood.”
The Good Jeans boutique in Newton was small but crammed with denim and huge photos of beautiful people and their sculpted bodies. Fina and Haley had barely stepped over the threshold before a tall, impossibly skinny salesgirl confronted them.
“I help you?” she asked, a strong Russian accent making her offer of service more like a threat.
“She needs jeans,” Fina said to “Vera,” and found a comfortable seat by a three-way mirror. Vera interrogated Haley about her size and style preferences and amassed a stack of options. She carried them into a dressing room and directed Haley to start changing. While Fina scrolled through her messages, Vera tidied shelves nearby that already looked perfectly ordered.
Even after Fina had typed a few e-mail responses, Haley still hadn’t emerged. “Hale? What are you doing in there? Do you need help?”
“One sec,” she called.
“She need help?” Vera asked, straightening her spine.
“No, she’s fine,” Fina said.
A moment later Haley emerged, encased in a tight pair of skinny jeans, which she studied in the three-way mirror.
“What do you think?” Haley asked.
“What happens when you have to go potty? Call the fire department for the Jaws of Life?”
Haley rolled her eyes. “You’re hilarious. I like ’em.” She turned this way and that. Her long shiny blond hair blanketed her shoulders.
“Those good fit,” Vera commented.
Fina ignored her. “They do look good, but did it take all that time to get them on?”
Haley bit the inside of her cheek. “It took some effort.”
“I don’t want other areas in your life to suffer because it takes you an hour to get your jeans on every day. When will you get your homework done?”
“You really do crack yourself up. Hold on. There’s more.” She disappeared behind the curtain.
Fina tapped her fingers on the arm of the chair. “Are these for school?” she called to Haley.
Haley reappeared in a pair that barely qualified as low-rise. The zipper only required half a dozen teeth.
“Those are obscene,” Fina commented. “They barely cover your business.” Fina looked at Vera. “Really? There’s nothing that’s a little more family-friendly? Not to start a family—to be around one?”
“You don’t want her look like old lady.”
“No, but I don’t want her to look . . . inappropriate.”
Haley looked down at her feet.
“I don’t want people to only notice her physical attributes,” Fina clarified. “And we need to keep Aunt Patty happy,” she said to her niece.
“Fine,” Haley said. “I’ll try some others.”
Forty-five minutes and ten pairs later, they settled on one acceptable skinny pair and one boot-cut pair. Fina handed over her credit card and nearly swooned at the $450 total. “Jeans used to cost about fifty bucks a pair.”
“And people used to ride in stagecoaches,” Haley said, reaching for the bag. “Do we really want to go back to the good old days?”
A couple of doors down, they went into an ice-cream shop and ordered frappes. Haley was slurping on her black-and-white when Fina spoke.
“You know, if you ever want to talk about . . . stuff . . . I’m happy to listen.”
Haley shrugged. “I know.”
“I don’t want you to feel that any topics are off-limits, and I don’t want to pretend that things that happened didn’t. I know that’s Pap and Gammy’s favorite approach.” Fina stirred her coffee frappe with her straw. “Talking, not talking, whatever approach your therapist thinks is healthiest, that’s the approach we should take.”
“Oh my God. Just have your frappe, Aunt Fina.” They sipped in silence. “Aren’t you going to ask me about my dad?” Haley looked at her pointedly.
“I hadn’t planned to, but we can talk about him if you want.” Why, oh why, had she said nothing was off-limits?
“Everyone else wants to know when I’m going to see him.”
Fina took a long draw of her frappe and was instantly rewarded with a cold headache. She squeezed her eyes shut until it passed. “That’s up to you. I would understand if you didn’t want to see him for a while.”
“Did you watch last night’s episode of Relationship Rematch?” Haley asked after a moment. Fina had never been a big fan of reality TV, but in the past few months, she’d found the horrendous programming provided a common point of interest with her niece. And it turned out that watching other people’s misery was surprisingly healing.
• • •
Fina parked in a lot a few blocks from Harvard Square and ducked into a coffee shop. She sat in a small booth, sipping a diet soda and reviewing a recent newsletter from Renata’s single mothers’ organization. These women were active and organized, but that didn’t really surprise Fina; you had to be to take on single motherhood. She could see the wisdom of a supportive, like-minded community, but Fina wasn’t much of a joiner. None of the Ludlows were. Sure, they were members of the Whittaker Club and some professional organizations, but Ludlows were their own little cadre with secret codes and handshakes. Membership in the family generally precluded membership in other groups.
She left some money on the table and walked to Astral, one of the hot new restaurants in the Boston area. Tyler Frasier was enrolled in a culinary arts college downtown and was spending the summer as a prep cook at the restaurant. He’d agreed to meet Fina before the dinner crunch.
Fina tapped on the glass door, and a bartender motioned that they were closed. After a small game of charades, he admitted her to the space, which featured lots of bamboo and enormous hanging lanterns. The menu was a fusion of French, Vietnamese, and various cuisines from the Pacific Rim. The bartender directed her to a set of swinging doors that led to the kitchen.
The kitchen was spotless, with shiny stainless-steel prep areas and enormous multi-burner stoves. Fina walked around a corner and found about ten Hispanic men in chef’s whites seated around a table. They were eating family-style from large platters. There were bowls of tortilla chips and dishes of what looked like salsa in front of them. When she asked for Tyler, one of the men directed her to a counter at the other end of the room.
“Tyler.” He looked up when she said his name. He was wearing a chef’s coat and those baggy black-and-white-checked pants that you never saw outside a professional kitchen. A blue bandanna was tied around his forehead, and his feet were encased in black Crocs.
“Hey, Ms. Ludlow,” he said, pausing his chopping.
“Please, call me Fina.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Loyalty
“Fina Ludlow is my hero.”—Catherine Coulter, # 1 New York Times bestselling author
“Fina returns the female detective to the heart of the hard-boiled tradition: hard-drinking, hard-loving, moody.”—Sara Paretsky, New York Times bestselling author