Tell No OneHarlan Coben
I parked at the lot two blocks from the clinic. I never made it past block one.
Sheriff Lowell materialized with two men sporting buzz cuts and gray suits. The two men in suits leaned against a big brown Buick. Physical opposites. One was tall and thin and white, the other short and round and black; together they looked a little like a bowling ball trying to knock down the last pin. Both men smiled at me. Lowell did not.
"Dr. Beck?" the tall white pin said. He was impeccably groomed - gelled hair, folded hanky in the pocket, tie knotted with supernatural precision, tortoiseshell designer glasses, the kind actors wear when they want to look smart.
I looked at Lowell. He said nothing.
"I'm Special Agent Nick Carlson with the Federal Bureau of Investigation," the impeccably groomed one continued. "This is Special Agent Tom Stone. "
They both flashed badges. Stone, the shorter and more rumpled of the two, hitched up his trousers and nodded at me. Then he opened the back door of the Buick.
"Would you mind coming with us?"
"I have patients in fifteen minutes," I said.
"We've already taken care of that. " Carlson swept a long arm toward the car door, as though he were displaying a game show prize. "Please. "
I got in the back. Carlson drove. Stone squeezed himself into the front passenger seat. Lowell didn't get in. We stayed in Manhattan, but the ride still took close to forty-five minutes. We ended up way downtown on Broadway near Duane Street. Carlson stopped the car in front of an office building marked 26 Federal Plaza.
The interior was basic office building. Men in suits, surprisingly nice ones, moved about with cups of designer coffee. There were women too, but they were heavily in the minority. We moved into a conference room. I was invited to sit, which I did. I tried crossing my legs, but that didn't feel right.
"Can someone tell me what's going on?" I asked.
White-Pin Carlson took the lead. "Can we get you something?" he asked. "We make the world's worst coffee, if you're interested. "
That explained all the designer cups. He smiled at me. I smiled back. "Tempting, but no thanks. "
"How about a soft drink? We have soft drinks, Tom?"
"Sure, Nick. Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, whatever the doctor here wants. "
They smiled some more. "I'm fine, thanks," I said.
"Snapple?" Stone tried. He once again hitched up his pants. His stomach was the kind of round that made it hard to find a spot where the waistband wouldn't slide. "We got a bunch of different varieties here. "
I almost said yes so that they'd get on with it, but I just gently shook him off. The table, some sort of Formica mix, was bare except for a large manila envelope. I wasn't sure what to do with my hands, so I put them on the table. Stone waddled to the side and stood there. Carlson, still taking the lead, sat on the corner of the table and swiveled to look down at me.
"What can you tell us about Sarah Goodhart?" Carlson asked.
I wasn't sure how to answer. I kept trying to figure out the angles, but nothing was coming to me.
I looked up at him. "Why do you want to know?"
Carlson and Stone exchanged a quick glance. "The name Sarah Goodhart has surfaced in connection with an ongoing investigation," Carlson said.
"What investigation?" I asked.
"We'd rather not say. "
"I don't understand. How am I connected into this?"
Carlson let loose a sigh, taking his time on the exhale. He looked over at his rotund partner and suddenly all smiles were gone. "Am I asking a complicated question here, Tom?"
"No, Nick, I don't think so. "
"Me neither. " Carlson turned his eyes back at me. "Maybe you object to the form of the question, Doc. That it?"
"That's what they always do on The Practice, Nick," Stone chimed in. "Object to the form of the question. "
"That they do, Tom, that they do. And then they say, 'I'll rephrase', right? Something like that. "
"Something like that, yeah. "
Carlson looked me down. "So let me rephrase: Does the name Sarah Goodhart mean anything to you?"
I didn't like this. I didn't like their attitude or the fact that they had taken over for Lowell or the way I was getting grilled in this conference room. They had to know what the name meant. It wasn't that difficult. All you had to do was casually glance at Elizabeth's name and address. I decided to tread gently.
"My wife's middle name is Sarah," I said.
"My wife's middle name is Gertrude," Carlson said.
"Christ, Nick, that's awful. "
"What's your wife's middle name, Tom?"
"McDowd. It's a family name. "
"I like when they do that. Use a family name as a middle name. Honor the ancestors like that. "
"Me too, Nick. "
Both men swung their gazes back in my direction.
"What's your middle name, Doc?"
"Craig," I said.
"Craig," Carlson repeated. "Okay, so if I asked you if the name, say" -he waved his arms theatrically- "Craig Dipwad meant anything to you, would you chirp up, 'Hey, my middle name is Craig'?"
Carlson flashed me the hard eyes again.
"I guess not," I said.
"I guess not. So let's try it again: Have you heard the name Sarah Goodhart, yes or no?"
"You mean ever?"
Stone said, "Jesus Christ. "
Carlson's face reddened. "You playing semantic games with us now, Doc?"
He was right. I was being stupid. I was flying blind, and that last line of the email -Tell no one- kept flashing in my head like something in neon. Confusion took over. They had to know about Sarah Goodhart. This was all a test to see if I was going to cooperate or not. That was it. Maybe. And cooperate about what?
"My wife grew up on Goodhart Road," I said. They both moved back a little, giving me room, folding their arms. They led me to a pool of silence and I foolishly dived in. "See, that's why I said Sarah was my wife's middle name. The Goodhart made me think of her. "
"Because she grew up on Goodhart Road?" Carlson said.
"Like the word Goodhart was a catalyst or something?"
"Yes," I said again.
"That makes sense to me. " Carlson looked at his partner. "That make sense to you, Tom?"
"Sure," Stone agreed, patting his stomach. "He wasn't being evasive or anything. The word Goodhart was a catalyst. "
"Right. That's what got him thinking about his wife. "
They both looked at me again. This time I forced myself to keep quiet.
"Did your wife ever use the name Sarah Goodhart?" Carlson asked.
"Use it how?"
"Did she ever say, "Hi, I'm Sarah Goodhart," or get an ID with that name or check into some hot-sheets under that name-"
"No," I said.
"That the truth?"
"Don't need another catalyst?"
I straightened up in the chair and decided to show some resolve. "I don't much like your attitude, Agent Carlson. "
His toothy, dentist-proud smile returned, but it was like some cruel hybrid of its earlier form. He held up his hand and said, "Excuse me, yeah, okay, that was rude. " He looked around as though thinking about what to say next. I waited.
"You ever beat up your wife, Doc?"
The question hit me like a whiplash. "What?"
"That get you off? Smacking around a woman?"
"What. . . are you insane?"
"How much life insurance did you collect when your wife died?"
I froze. I looked at his face and then at Stone's. Totally opaque. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "What's going on here?"
"Please just answer the question. Unless, of course, you got something you don't want to tell us. "
"It's no secret," I said. "The policy was for two hundred thousand d
Stone whistled. "Two hundred grand for a dead wife. Hey, Nick, where do I get in line?"
"That's a lot of life insurance for a twenty-five year-old woman. "
"Her cousin was starting out with State Farm," I said, my words stumbling over one another. The funny thing is, even though I knew I hadn't done anything wrong - at least not what they thought - I started feeling guilty. It was a weird sensation. Sweat started pouring down my armpits. "She wanted to help him out. So she bought this big policy. "
"Nice of her," Carlson said.
"Real nice," Stone added. "Family is so important, don't you think?"
I said nothing. Carlson sat back down on the table's corner. The smile was gone again. "Look at me, Doc. "
I did. His eyes bore into mine. I managed to maintain eye contact, but it was a struggle.
"Answer my question this time," he said slowly. "And don't give me shocked or insulted. Did you ever hit your wife?"
"Never," I said.
"Not once. "
"Ever push her?"
"Or lash out in anger. Hell, we've all been there, Doc. A quick slap. No real crime in that. Natural when it comes to the affairs of the heart, you know what I mean?"
"I never hit my wife," I said. "I never pushed her or slapped her or lashed out in anger. Never. "
Carlson looked over at Stone. "That clear it up for you, Tom?"
"Sure, Nick. He says he never hit her, that's good enough for me. "
Carlson scratched his chin. "Unless. "
"Unless what, Nick?"
"Well, unless I can provide Dr. Beck here with another one of those catalysts. "
All eyes were on me again. My own breaths echoed in my ears, hitched and uneven. I felt light-headed. Carlson waited a beat before he snatched up the large manila envelope. He took his time untying the string flap with long, slender fingers and then he opened the slit. He lifted it high in the air and let the contents fall to the table.
"How's this for a catalyst, huh, Doc?"
They were photographs. Carlson pushed them toward me. I looked down and felt the hole in my heart expand.
I stared. My fingers reached out tentatively and touched the surface.
They were photographs of Elizabeth. The first one was a close up of her face. She was in profile, her right hand holding her hair back away from her ear. Her eye was purple and swollen. There was a deep cut and more bruising on her neck, below the ear.
It looked as though she'd been crying.
Another photo was shot from the waist up. Elizabeth stood wearing only a bra, and she was pointing to a large discoloration on her rib cage. Her eyes still had that red-tinged rim. The lighting was strangely harsh, as though the flash itself had sought out the bruise and pulled it closer to the lens.
There were three more photographs - all from various angles and of various body parts. All of them highlighted more cuts and bruises.
My eyes jerked up. I was almost startled to see them in the room. Their expressions were neutral, patient. I faced Carlson, then Stone, then I went back to Carlson.
"You think I did this?"
Carlson shrugged. "You tell us. "
"Of course not. "
"Do you know how your wife got those bruises?"
"In a car accident. "
They looked at each other as though I'd told them my dog ate my homework.
"She got into a bad fender-bender," I explained.
"I'm not sure exactly. Three, four months before" - the words got stuck for a second- "before she died. "
"Did she visit a hospital?"
"No, I don't think so. "
"You don't think?"
"I wasn't around. "
"Where were you?"
"I was doing a pediatric workshop in Chicago at the time. She told me about the accident when I got home. "
"How long after did she tell you?"
"After the accident?"
"Yeah, Doc, after the accident. "
"I don't know. Two, three days maybe. "
"You two were married by then?"
"For just a few months. "
"Why didn't she tell you right away?"
"She did. I mean, as soon as I got home. I guess she didn't want to worry me. "
"I see," Carlson said. He looked at Stone. They didn't bother masking their skepticism. "So did you take these pictures, Doc?"
"No," I said. As soon as I did, I wished I hadn't. They exchanged another glance, smelling blood. Carlson tilted his head and moved closer.
"Have you ever seen these pictures before?"
I said nothing. They waited. I thought about the question. The answer was no, but. . . where did they get them? Why didn't I know about them? Who took them? I looked at their faces, but they gave away nothing.
It's an amazing thing really, but when you think about it, we learn life's most important lessons from TV. The vast majority of our knowledge about interrogations, Miranda rights, self-incriminations, cross-examinations, witness lists, the jury system, we learn from NYPD Blue and Law amp; Order and the like. If I tossed you a gun right now and asked you to fire it, you'd do what you saw on TV. If I told you to look out for a "tail," you'd know what I'm talking about because you'd seen it done on Mannix or Magnum PI.
I looked up at them and asked the classic question: "Am I a suspect?"
"Suspect for what?"
"For anything," I said. "Do you suspect that I committed any crime?"
"That's a pretty vague question, Doc. "
And that was a pretty vague answer. I didn't like the way this was going. I decided to use another line I learned from television.
"I want to call my lawyer," I said.