Fool Me OnceHarlan Coben
"What do you mean?"
"We, uh, we don't have an official death certificate."
"He's been dead almost two weeks," Judith said. "We had a funeral."
Closed casket, Maya suddenly remembered.
It hadn't been Maya's decision. She'd let Joe's family handle that one. It hadn't mattered to her. Death was death. Let them perform whatever ritual eased their pain the most. Closed casket had, of course, made perfect sense. Joe had been shot in the head. Even with the best work a mortician could do, you probably wouldn't want to see that.
Judith's voice again: "Heather?"
"Yes, of course, I know, I mean, I was at the funeral. But this probate requires a death certificate, some kind of proof. It is an unusual case here. I'm having one of my associates check through the case law. Because Joe was, well, murdered, we need verification from official authorities within the police department. I was just informed that it will take a little more time to secure the proofs."
"How long?" Judith asked.
"I really can't say, but I hope it won't be more than a day or two now that we are on it."
Neil spoke for the first time. "What do you mean, proofs? You mean like proof Joe is dead?"
Heather Howell started fiddling with her wedding band. "I really haven't gotten all the facts yet, but before we can enter probate, this . . . Let's call it a snafu, shall we? . . . This snafu just has to be untangled. I have my best people on it. I'll be in touch soon."
With everyone momentarily stunned silent, Heather Howell quickly spun and left the room.
It's nothing," Judith said, leading Maya back toward the foyer.
Maya did not reply.
"This is how lawyers are. Everything has to be just so, partially for your protection, mostly to up the billable hours." She tried to smile at that, but it wouldn't hold. "My strong belief is that there is just some red tape due to the circumstances . . ." Her voice faded away then, as though she was just realizing that she was talking about Joe, not some legal matter.
"Two sons," Judith said in a hollow voice.
"No mother should have to bury two sons."
Maya took her hand. "No," she said, "no mother should."
"Nor should a young woman have to bury a sister and a husband."
"Death follows you, Maya . . ."
Maybe it followed Judith too.
Judith held on to her hand another moment, then let go. "Please stay in touch, Maya."
They headed outside into the sun. Judith's black limousine was waiting. The chauffeur held the door open.
"Bring Lily around soon."
"And please work it out with Isabella."
"The sooner I can see her," Maya said, "the sooner we can put this misunderstanding behind us."
"I'll see what I can do."
Judith slid into the back. The chauffeur closed the door. Maya stood there until the limo was down the drive and out of sight.
When she got to her car, Caroline was waiting.
"Do you have a moment to talk?" Caroline asked.
Not really, Maya thought. She was eager now to be on her way. She had places to go. Two to be exact. First, she wanted to stop in the servants' area again and maybe surprise Rosa. If that didn't work, she had a backup plan to locate Isabella. Second, she needed to go to Leather and Lace and see what connection there could possibly be between this "gentlemen's club" and her late sister.
Caroline put her hand on Maya's arm. "Please?"
"But not here." Caroline's eyes darted about as she said, "Let's take a walk."
Maya bit back a sigh. Caroline started down the stone driveway. Her little dog, Laszlo, a Havanese, followed. The dog was off leash, but really, when you owned this much land, where could Laszlo go that would be a danger? Maya wondered what it must have been like to grow up here, in a place of such opulence, beauty, and tranquility, where everywhere you looked, the grass, the trees, the edifices, everything belonged to you.
Caroline veered to the right. Laszlo stayed with them.
"My father put that in for Joe and Andrew." Caroline smiled in the direction of the soccer pitch. "The tennis court was my domain. I liked tennis. I practiced a lot. My father saw to it that the best pro from Port Washington came out and gave me private lessons. But I never loved it, you know? You can practice all you want, and I had some talent. I was first singles in my prep school. But to reach that next level, you have to be obsessed. You can't fake that."
Maya nodded because she didn't know what else to do. Laszlo walked with his tongue out. Caroline was working up to something. Maya couldn't push it. She would just have to be patient.
"But Joe and Andrew . . . they loved soccer. Loved it. They were both great players. Joe was a striker, as I'm sure you know. Andrew was a goalkeeper. I can't tell you how many hours the two of them would be out there, Joe practicing shots while Andrew practiced stopping them. That net is, what, a quarter mile from the main house, would you say?"
"You could hear their laughter rolling up those hills and right through the windows. My mom would sit in the parlor and just smile."
Caroline smiled now. It was her mother's smile, and yet it was also a facsimile, somehow not nearly as magnetic or powerful as the original.
"Do you know much about my brother Andrew?"
"No," Maya said.
"Joe didn't talk about him?"
He had, of course. Joe had revealed a huge secret about his brother's death that Maya had no intention of sharing with Caroline or anyone else.
"The world thinks my brother fell off that boat . . ."
She and Joe had been at a resort in Turks and Caicos, lying naked in bed. They were both on their backs, staring up at the ceiling. Joe's eyes glistened in the moonlight. The window was open, and the ocean breeze made her skin tingle. Maya had taken his hand then.
"The truth is, Andrew jumped . . ."
Maya said, "He didn't talk about him much."
"Too painful, I suppose. They were so close." Caroline stopped walking. "Please don't misunderstand me, Maya. Joe and Andrew both loved me and, well, Neil was the annoying little brother they tolerated. But really, it was the two of them--Joe and Andrew. They were both at the same prep school when Andrew died, did you know that?"
"Franklin Biddle Academy down near Philadelphia. They lived in the same dorm, played on the same soccer team. We have this huge house, but Joe and Andrew still wanted to share a bedroom."
"Andrew killed himself, Maya. He was in that much pain and I never saw it . . ."
She turned to Caroline.
"What did you make of today? Of this . . . postponement?"
"I don't know."
"Your attorney made it sound like it was a bureaucratic snafu."
"And you believe that?"
Maya shrugged. "I was in the military. Bureaucratic snafus are practically the norm."
Caroline looked down.
"What?" Maya said.
"Did you see him?"
"Joe," Caroline said.
Maya felt her entire body stiffen. "What are you talking about?"
"His body," Caroline said softly. "Before the funeral. Did you see Joe's body?"
Maya slowly shook her head. "No."
Caroline raised her head. "Don't you think that's odd?"
"It was a closed casket."
"Was that your choice?"
"I assume your mother's."
Caroline nodded, as if that made sense. "I asked to see him."
Forget peaceful and tranquil--the silence of their surroundings started to feel suffocating. Maya tried to take deep, even breaths. There was always something in the silence, all silences, so
mething she both cherished and feared.
"You've seen your share of dead people, haven't you, Maya?"
"I don't understand what you're getting at."
"When soldiers die, why is it so important that you bring the bodies home?"
Caroline was annoying her now. "Because we don't leave anyone behind."
"Yes, I've heard that. But why? I know you'll say it's to honor the dead and all that, but I think there's something more. The soldier is dead. You can't do anything more for him--or her, I don't mean to be sexist. You bring the body home, not for the dead but for the family, don't you? The loved ones at home, they need to see the deceased. They need the body. They need that closure."
Maya was not in the mood to explore this subject. "What's your point?"
"I didn't just want to see Joe. I needed to see him. I needed to make it real. If you don't see a body, you don't quite get it. It's like . . ."
"Like maybe it didn't happen. Like maybe they're still alive. You dream about them."
"You dream about the dead too."
"Oh, I know. But it's different without closure. When we lost Andrew at sea . . ."
Again that stupid phraseology.
". . . I never saw his body either."
That surprised Maya. "Wait, why not? They recovered it, didn't they?"
"That's what I was told."
"You don't believe it?"
Caroline shrugged. "I was young. They never showed me his body. Closed casket again. I have visions, Maya. Daydreams about him. Still. To this day. I have these dreams where Andrew never died and I wake up and he's standing right there, by that soccer net, and he's smiling and making saves. Oh, I know he's not here. I know he died in an accident, but I also don't know. Do you see? I could never accept Andrew's death. Sometimes I think he survived the fall and swam off and he's on an island somewhere, and one day I'll see him and it'll all be okay. But if I could have seen his body . . ."
Maya stood very still.
"So I knew. I knew this time I couldn't make that mistake again. That's why I asked to see Joe's body. I begged really. I didn't care if he looked messed up. That might have even helped me in a way. I needed to do it so I'd accept that he was really gone, you know?"
"And you didn't see him?"
Caroline shook her head. "They wouldn't let me."
"Who wouldn't let you?"
She looked back toward the goalie net. "Two of my brothers. Both dead so young. It could just be bad luck, you know? It happens. But in both cases, I didn't see the body. Did you listen to Heather? No one will officially declare Joe dead. Both my brothers. It's like . . ." She turned and stared straight into Maya's eyes. "Like they could both be alive."
Maya did not move. "But they aren't."
"I know it sounds crazy--"
"It is crazy."
"You had a fight with Isabella, right? She told us. She said you were screaming about seeing Joe. Why did you do that? What did you mean?"
"Caroline, listen to me. Joe is dead."
"How can you be so sure?"
"I was there."
"But you didn't see him die, right? It was dark. You were running away by the third shot."
"Listen to me, Caroline. The police came. They've been investigating. He didn't get up from the two shots I saw and walk away. The cops even arrested two suspects. How do you explain all that?"
Caroline shook her head.
"You won't believe me."
"The officer leading the investigation," Caroline said. "His name is Roger Kierce."
"Caroline, what is it?"
"I know this is going to sound crazy . . ."
Maya wanted to shake the information out of her.
"We have this private bank account. I won't go into details on it. They aren't important. But let's just say you'd never trace it back to the source. Do you know what I mean?"
"I think so. Wait. Is it called WTC?"
"It's not out of Houston?"
"No, it's offshore. Why were you asking me about Houston?"
"It doesn't matter. Go on. You have a private overseas account."
Caroline stared at her a beat too long. "So I started going through some recent online transactions."
Maya nodded, tried to look encouraging.
"Most of the transfers went to numbered accounts or offshore holdings, stuff that bounces to various places so it can't be traced back. Again there is no reason to go into details. But there was a name in there too. Several payments made to a Roger Kierce."
Maya took the blow without so much as blinking. "Are you sure?"
"That's what I saw."
"You have online access to the account," Maya said. "So show it to me."
Caroline tapped in the password. The same message--"ERROR: UNAUTHORIZED ACCESS"--popped across the screen for the third time.
"I don't understand," Caroline said. She sat in front of the computer in the library. "Maya?"
Maya stood behind her and stared at the screen. Don't rush, she told herself. Think it through. But this part didn't take much thought. She quickly whittled down the possibilities and realized that one of two things was happening here: Either Caroline was playing her or someone had changed passwords so Caroline could no longer access the online financial records.
"What exactly did you see?" Maya asked.
"I told you. Money transfers to Roger Kierce."
"I don't know. Three maybe?"
"How much were they?"
"Nine thousand dollars each."
Nine thousand. That made sense. Anything below ten grand could go unreported.
"What else?" Maya asked.
"What do you mean?"
"When was the first payment made?"
"I don't know."
"Before or after Joe was murdered?"
Caroline put her finger to her lip and thought about it. "I don't know for absolute sure, but . . ."
"But I'm almost positive the first one was before."
Two ways for Maya to play it.
One was the obvious. Confront Judith. Confront Neil. Confront them immediately and demand answers. But there were problems with the direct approach. Logistically speaking, neither one of them was home right now, but more than that, what did she hope to find? If they were hiding something, would they admit it? Even if she somehow forced them to log into that account, wouldn't they have gotten rid of the evidence or covered it up somehow by now?
And cover up what?
What did Maya think was happening here? Why would the Burkett family pay off the homicide cop who was investigating Joe's death? Did that make any sense at all? Let's assume that Caroline was on the up-and-up. If the payoffs had started before the murder, well, again, how could they possibly know he'd be the detective who'd catch the case? No, that made no sense. Caroline hadn't been sure about the date of the first payment anyway. It would make more sense--"more sense" was in this case just a hair above "absolutely no sense at all"--if the payments started after the murder.
But to what end?
See several moves ahead. That was the key. And when Maya looked several moves ahead of directly confronting either Neil or Judith, assuming they were the ones behind the alleged payments, she saw nothing substantially beneficial. She'd be revealing herself to them without getting any valuable information in return.
Be patient. Learn what you can first. Then, if need be, confront. They say an attorney should never ask a question unless she already knows the answer. In a similar vein, a good soldier doesn't attack unless she's already calculated and can counter the most likely outcomes.
She'd had a plan before all this: Get hold of Isabella and make her talk. Figure out why Claire was secretly c
alling Leather and Lace.
Stick to the plan. Start with Isabella's house.
Hector answered the door.
"Isabella is not here."
"Mrs. Burkett thinks she and I should talk."
"She's out of the country," Hector said.
Bullshit. "Until when?"
"She'll call you. Please don't come back."
He shut the door. Maya had expected this. As she headed back toward her car, she circled around Hector's truck and, without breaking stride, slapped a magnetic real-time GPS tracker under his bumper.
Out of the country, my ass.
The tracker was simple: You download the app, you bring up the map, you can see exactly where the vehicle is now and where it has gone. They weren't hard to get. Two stores at the mall sold them. Maya didn't believe for a second that Isabella had left the country.
But Hector, she bet, would eventually lead Maya to his sister.
Some might figure that Leather and Lace would be closed until the nighttime. They'd be wrong. Located in the shadow of MetLife Stadium, home to both the New York Giants and Jets, Leather and Lace opened at 11:00 a.m. and offered a "deluxe sumptuous lunch buffet." Maya had been to strip clubs before, mostly during leaves. The guys blew off steam there. She'd gone once or twice. They obviously weren't for her, but you'd never guess that from the star treatment female clients received. Every pole dancer hit on her like mad. Maya had theories--less to do with the dancers being gay than being anti-male--but she kept them to herself.
Leather and Lace had the prerequisite meathead at the door. Six four, probably three hundred pounds, no neck, buzz cut, black shirt so tight it worked like a tourniquet on his biceps.
"Well, hello," he said, like someone had offered him a free appetizer. "What can I do for you, little lady?"
Oh boy. "I need to talk to your manager."
He narrowed his eyes and looked her up and down--beef inspection--and nodded. "You got references?"
"I would like to speak to your manager."
Meathead gave her the once-over for at least the third time. "You're a little old for this line of work," he said. Then he nodded again and awarded her with his best smile. "But me, I think you're smoking hot."
"That means a lot," Maya said, "coming from you."
"I'm dead serious. You are hot. Great tight bod."
"It's all I can do not to swoon. Your manager?"
A few minutes later, Maya passed the surprisingly extensive buffet. The crowd was still light. The men kept their heads down. Two women danced onstage with the enthusiasm of middle schoolers waking up for a math test. They couldn't have looked more bored without prescribed sedation. Forget your morals, this was Maya's real problem with clubs like this. They had all the eroticism of a stool sample.