The WoodsHarlan Coben
Raya Singh was waiting for me in the restaurant parking lot. She had turned in the aqua waitress uniform for jeans and a dark blue blouse. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. The effect was no less dazzling. I shook my head. I had just visited my wife's grave. Now I was inappropriately admiring the beauty of a young woman.
It was an interesting world.
She slipped into the passenger seat. She smelled great.
"Where to?" I asked.
"Do you know where Route 17 is?"
"Take it north. "
I pulled out of the lot. "Do you want to start telling me the truth?" I asked. "I have never lied to you," she said. "I decided not to tell you certain things. " "Are you still claiming you just met Santiago on the street?"
"I am. "
I didn't believe her.
"Have you ever heard him mention the name Perez?"
She did not reply.
I pressed. "Gil Perez?"
"The exit for 17 is on the right. "
"I know where the exit is, Raya. "
I glanced at her in perfect profile. She stared out the window, looking achingly beautiful.
"Tell me about hearing him say my name," I said.
"I told you already. "
"Tell me again. "
She took a deep, silent breath. Her eyes closed for a moment.
"Manolo said you lied. "
"Lied about what?"
"Lied about something involving" - she hesitated-"involving woods or a forest or something like that. "
I felt my heart lurch across my chest. "He said that? About woods or a forest?"
"What were his exact words?"
"I don't remember. "
"Ј Paul Copeland lied about what happened in those woods. '" Then she tilted her head. "Oh, wait. " I did. Then she said something that almost made me turn off the road.
She said, "Lucy. "
"That was the other name. Hesaid, 'Paul Copeland lied about what happened in those woods. So did Lucy. '"
Now it was my turn to be struck silent.
"Paul," Raya said, "who is this Lucy?"
We took the rest of the ride in silence.
I was lost in thoughts of Lucy. I tried to remember the feel of her flaxen hair, the wondrous smell of it. But I couldn't. That was the thing. The memories seemed so clouded. I couldn't remember what was real and what my imagination had conjured up. I just remembered the wonder. I remembered the lust. We were both new, both clumsy, both in experienced, but it was like something in a Bob Sager song or maybe Meat Loaf's "Bat Out of Hell. " God, that lust. How had it started? And when did that lust seemingly segue into something approaching love?
Summer romances come to an end. That was part of the deal. They are built like certain plants or insects, not able to survive more than one season. I thought Luce and I would be different. We were, I guess, but not in the way that I thought. I truly believed that we would never let each other go.
The young are so dumb.
The AmeriSuites efficiency unit was in Ramsey, New Jersey. Raya had a key. She opened the door to a room on the third floor. I would de scribe the decor to you except that the only word to describe it would be nondescript. The furnishing had all the personality of, well, an efficiency unit on a road called Route 17 in northern New Jersey.
When we stepped into the room, Raya let out a little gasp. "What?" I said. Her eyes took in the whole room. "There were tons of papers on that table," she said. "Files, magazines, pens, pencils. "
"It's empty now. "
Raya opened a drawer. "His clothes are gone. "
We did a pretty thorough search. Everything was gone-there were no papers, no files, no magazine articles, no toothbrush, no personal items, nothing. Raya sat on the couch. "Someone came back and cleared this place out. "
"When were you here last?"
"Three days ago. "
I started for the door. "Come on. "
"Where are you going?"
"I'm going to talk to someone at the front desk. "
But there was a kid working there. He gave us pretty much nothing. The occupant had signed in as Manolo Santiago. He had paid in cash, leaving a cash deposit. The room was paid for until the end of the month. And no, the kid didn't remember what Mr. Santiago looked like or anything about him. That was one of the problems with these kinds of units. You don't have to go in through the lobby. It was easy to be anonymous.
Raya and I headed back to Santiago's room.
"You said there were papers?"
"What did they say?"
"I didn't pry. "
"Raya," I said.
"I have to be honest here. I'm not fully buying the ignorant act. "
She just looked at me with those damn eyes.
"You want me to trust you. "
"Why should I?"
I thought about that.
"You lied to me when we met," she said.
"You said you were just investigating his murder. Like a regular detective or something. But that wasn't true, was it?"
I said nothing.
"Manolo," she went on. "He didn't trust you. I read those articles. I know something happened to all of you in those woods twenty years ago. He thought you lied about it. "
I still said nothing. "And now you expect me to tell you everything. Would you? If you were in my position, would you tell everything you knew?" I took a second, gathered my thoughts. She had a point. "So you saw those articles?"
"Then you know that I was at that camp that summer. "
"I do. "
"And you know that my sister disappeared that night too. "
I turned to her. "That's why I'm here. "
"You're here to avenge your sister?"
"No," I said. "I'm here to find her. "
"But I thought she was dead. Wayne Steubens murdered her. "
"That was what I used to think. "
Raya turned away for a moment. Then she looked right through me. "So what did you lie about?" "Nothing. " The eyes again. "You can trust me," she said.
She waited. I waited too.
"Who is Lucy?"
"She's a girl who was at the camp. "
"What else? What's her connection to this?"
"Her father owned the camp," I said. Then I added, "She was also my girlfriend at the time. "
"And how did you both lie?"
"We didn't lie. "
"So what was Manolo talking about?" "Damned if I know. That's what I'm trying to find out. " "I don't understand. What makes you so sure your sister is alive?" "I'm not sure," I said. "But I think there's a decent enough chance. " "Why?" "Because of Manolo. " "What about him?" I studied her face and wondered if I was getting played here. "You clammed up before when I mentioned the name Gil Perez," I said. "His name was in those articles. He was killed that night too. " "No," I said. "I don't understand. " "Do you know why Manolo was looking into what happened that night?" "He never said. " "Weren't you curious?" She shrugged. "He said it was business. " "Raya," I said. "Manolo Santiago wasn't his real name. " I hesitated, seeing if she would jump in, volunteer something. She didn't. "His real name," I went on, "was Gil Perez. " She took a second to process this. "The boy from the woods?" "Yes. " "Are you sure?" Good question. But I said, "Yes," without any hesitation. She thought about it. "And what you're telling me now-if it's true-was that he was alive this whole time. " I nodded. "And if he was alive. . . " Raya Singh stopped. So I finished it for her. "Maybe my sister is too. " "Or maybe," she said, "Manolo-Gil, what ever you call him - killed them all. "
Strange. I hadn't thought of that. It actually made some sense. Gil kills them all, leaves evidence he was a vic
tim too. But was Gil clever enough to pull something like that off? And how do you explain Wayne Steubens?
Unless Wayne was telling the truth. . .
"If that's the case," I said, "then I'll find that out. "
Raya frowned. "Manolo said you and Lucy were lying. If he killed them, why would he say something like that? Why would he have all this paperwork and be looking into what happened? If he did it, he would know the answers, wouldn't he?"
She crossed the room and stood directly in front of me. So damn young and beautiful. I actually wanted to kiss her.
"What aren't you telling me?" she asked.
My cell phone rang. I glanced at the caller ID. It was Loren Muse. I hit the On button and said, "What's up?" "We got a problem," Muse said. I closed my eyes and waited. "It's Chamique. She wants to recant. "
My office is in the center of Newark. I keep hearing that there is a revitalization going on in this city. I don't see it. The city has been decaying for as long as I can remember. But I have gotten to know this city well. The history is still there, beneath the surface. The people are wonderful. We as a society are big on stereotyping cities the way we do ethnic groups or minorities. It is easy to hate them from a distance. I remember Jane's conservative parents and their disdain for all things gay. Her college roommate, Helen, unbeknownst to them, was gay. When they met her, both her mother and father simply loved Helen. When they learned Helen was a lesbian, they still loved her. Then they loved her partner.
That was how it often was. It was easy to hate gays or blacks or Jews or Arabs. It was more difficult to hate individuals. Newark was like that. You could hate it as a mass, but so many neighborhoods and shopkeepers and citizens had a charm and strength that you couldn't help but be drawn in and care about and want to make it better.
Chamique sat in my office. She was so damned young, but you could see the hard written on her face. Life had not been easy for this girl. It would probably not get any easier. Her attorney, Horace Foley, wore too much cologne and had eyes spaced too widely apart. I am an attorney, so I don't like the prejudices that are made against my profession, but I was fairly confident that if an ambulance drove by, this guy would jump through my third-floor window to slow it down.
"We would like to see you drop the charges on Mr. Jenrette and Mr. Marantz," Foley said.
"Can't do that," I said. I looked at Chamique. She did not have her head down, but she wasn't exactly clamoring for eye contact. "Did you lie on the stand yesterday?" I asked her.
"My client would never lie," Foley said.
I ignored him, met Chamique's eyes. She said, "You're never going to convict them anyway. " "You don't know that. " "You serious?"
I am. Chamique smiled at me, as if I were the most naive creature that God had ever created. "You don't understand, do you?"
"Oh, I understand. They're offering money if you recant. The sum has now reached a level where your attorney here, Mr. Who-Needs-A-Shower-When-There's-Cologne, thinks it makes sense to do it. "
"What did you call me?"
I looked at Muse. "Open a window, will you?"
"Got it, Cope. "
"Hey! What did you call me?"
"The window is open. Feel free to jump out. " I looked back at Chamique. "If you recant now, that means your testimony today and yesterday was a lie. It means you committed perjury. It means you had this office spend millions of tax dollars on your lie-your perjury. That's a crime. You'll go to jail. "
Foley said, "Talk to me, Mr. Copeland, not my client. "
"Talk to you? I can't even breathe around you. "
"I won't stand for this-"
"Shh," I said. Then I cupped my ear with my hand. "Listen to the crinkling sound. "
"I think your cologne is peeling my wallpaper. If you listen closely, you can hear it. Shh, listen. "
Even Chamique smiled a little.
"Don't recant," I said to her.
"I have to. "
"Then I'll charge you. "
Her attorney was ready to do battle again, but Chamique put her hand on his arm. "You won't do that, Mr. Copeland. " "I will. "
But she knew better. I was bluffing. She was a poor, scared rape victim who had a chance of cashing in - making more money than she would probably see again in her lifetime. Who the hell was I to lecture her on values and justice?
She and her attorney stood. Horace Foley said, "We sign the agreement in the morning. "
I didn't say anything. Part of me felt relief, and that shamed me. Jane Care would survive now. My father's memory-okay, my political career-wouldn't take an unnecessary hit. Best off, I was off the hook. It wasn't my doing. It was Chamiques.
Chamique offered me her hand. I took it. "Thank you," she said.
"Don't do this," I said, but there was nothing left in my try. She could see that. She smiled. Then they left my office. First Chamique, then her attorney. His cologne stayed behind as a memento.
Muse shrugged and said, "What can you do?"
I was wondering that myself.
I got home and had dinner with Cara. She had a "homework" assignment that consisted of finding things that were red in magazines and cutting them out. This would seem like a very easy task, but of course, nothing we found together would work for her. She didn't like the red wagon or the model's red dress or even the red fire engine. The problem, I soon realized, was that I was showing enthusiasm for what she'd find. I would say, "That dress is red, sweetie! You're right! I think that would be perfect!"
After about twenty minutes of this, I saw the error of my ways. When she stumbled across a picture of a bottle of a ketchup, I made my voice flat and shrugged my shoulders and said, "I don't really like ketchup. "
She grabbed the scissors with the safety handles and went to work.
Cara started singing a song as she cut. The song was from a cartoon TV show called Dora the Explorer and basically consisted of singing the word backpack over and over again until the head of a nearby parent exploded into a million pieces. I had made the mistake about two months ago of buying her a Dora the Explorer Talking Backpack ("back pack, backpack," repeat) with matching talking Map (song: "I'm the map, I'm the map, I'm the map," repeat). When her cousin, Madison, came over, they would often play Dora the Explorer. One of them would play the role of Dora. The other would be a monkey with the rather interesting moniker "Boots. " You don't often meet monkeys named for footwear.
I was thinking about that, about Boots, about the way Cara and her cousin would argue over who would be Dora and who would be Boots, when it struck me like the proverbial thunderbolt.
"One second, kitten. "
I ran upstairs, my footsteps shaking the house. Where the hell were those bills from the frat house? I started tearing apart the room. It took me a few minutes to find them-I had been ready to throw them all away after my meeting this morning.
Bang, there they were.
I rifled through them. I found the online charges, the monthly ones, and then I grabbed the phone and called Muse's number. She answered on the first ring.
"When you were in college," I asked, "how often did you pull all-nighters?" "Twice a week minimum. " "How did you keep yourself awake?" "M amp;Ms. Lots of them. The oranges are amphetamines, I swear. " "Buy as many as you need. You can even expense them. " "I like the tone of your voice, Cope. " "I have an idea, but I don't know if we have the time. " "Don't worry about the time. What's the idea concerning?" "It concerns," I said, "our old buddies Cal and Jim. "