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The Woods, Page 22

Harlan Coben

Chapter 23


  Lucy looked fabulous. She wore a green snug pullover that clung exactly as it should. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail. She tucked a strand behind her ear. She wore glasses tonight, and I liked the way they looked. As soon as she got into the car, Lucy checked out the CDs. "Counting Crows," she said. "August and Everything After"

  "You like it?"

  "Best debut of the past two decades. "

  I nodded.

  She slid it into the slot. "Round Here" came on. We drove and listened. When Adam Duritz sang about a woman saying you should take a shot, that her walls were crumbling, I risked a glance. Lucy's eyes were wet.

  "You okay?"

  "What other CDs you got?"

  "What do you want?"

  "Something hot and sexy. "

  "Meat Loaf. " I lifted the CD case into view. "A little 'Bat Out of Hell'" "Oh my," she said. "You remember?"

  "I rarely travel without it. "

  "God, you always were a hopeless romantic," she said.

  "How about a little 'Paradise By The Dashboard Light'?"

  "Yes, but skip to the part where she makes him promise to love her forever before she gives it up. "

  "Gives it up," I repeated. "Love that phrase. "

  She turned so her body faced me. "What line did you use on me?"

  "Probably my patented seducer. "

  "Which is?"

  I put a whine in my voice. "Please? Come on, pretty please?"

  She laughed.

  "Hey, it worked on you. "

  "But I'm easy. "

  "Right, forgot that. "

  She playfully slapped my arm. I smiled. She turned away. We listened to Meat Loaf in silence for a little while. "Cope?" "What?" "You were my first. " I almost slammed on the brakes. "I know I pretended otherwise. My father and I and that whole crazy free-love lifestyle. But I never. You were my first. You were the first man I ever loved. "

  The silence was heavy.

  "Of course, after you, I boinked everybody. "

  I shook my head, looked to my right. She was smiling again.

  I made the right turn per the perky voice of my navigation system.

  The Perezes lived in a condo development in Park Ridge.

  "Are they expecting us?" Lucy asked.


  "How do you know they're home?" she asked.

  "I called right before I picked you up. My number comes up private on caller ID. When I heard Mrs. Perez answer, I disguised my voice and asked for Harold. She said I had the wrong number. I said I was sorry and hung up. "

  "Wow, you're good at this. "

  "I try to remain humble. "

  We headed out of the car. The property was neatly landscaped. The air was syrupy with some kind of blossom. I couldn't place it. Lilacs maybe. The smell was too strong, cloying, like someone had spilled cheap shampoo.

  Before I knocked, the door opened. It was Mrs. Perez. She did not say hi or offer up much of a greeting. She looked at me with hooded eyes and waited.

  "We need to talk," I said.

  Her eyes moved toward Lucy. "Who are you?"

  "Lucy Silverstein," she said.

  Mrs. Perez closed her eyes. "Ira's daughter. "

  "Yes. "

  Her shoulders seemed to sag.

  "Maybe come in?" I said.

  "If I say no?"

  I met her eye. "I'm not letting this go. "

  "What go? That man was not my son. "

  "Please," I said. "Five minutes. "

  Mrs. Perez sighed and stepped back. We entered. The shampoo smell was even stronger in here. Too strong. She closed the door and led us to a couch.

  "Is Mr. Perez home?"

  "No. "

  There were noises coming from one of the bedrooms. In the corner were some cardboard boxes. The inscription on the side indicated that they were medical supplies. I looked around the room. Everything, other than those boxes, was so in place, so coordinated, you would swear they bought the model unit.

  The unit had a fireplace. I stood and walked over to the mantel. There were family photographs. I looked at them. There were no pictures of the Perez parents. There were no pictures of Gil. The mantel was full of images of people I assumed to be Gil's two brothers and one sister.

  One brother was in a wheelchair.

  "That's Tomas," she said, pointing to a picture of the smiling boy in the wheelchair graduating from Kean University. "He has CP. Do you know what that is?"

  "Cerebral palsy. "

  "Yes. "

  "How old is he?"

  "Tomas is thirty-three now. "

  "And who's that?"

  "Eduardo," she said. Her expression said not to press it. Eduardo looked like a hard case. I remembered Gil telling me that his brother was a gang member or something, but I didn't believe it.

  I pointed to the girl. "I remember Gil talking about her," I said. "She was, what, two years older? I remember he said that she was trying to get into college or something. "

  "Glenda is a lawyer," Mrs. Perez said, and her chest puffed out. "She went to Columbia Law School. "

  "Really? So did I," I said.

  Mrs. Perez smiled. She moved back to the couch. "Tomas lives in the unit next door. We knocked down a common wall. "

  "He can live on his own?"

  "I take care of him. We also have nursing. "

  "Is he home now?"

  "Yes. "

  I nodded, sat back down. I didn't know why I cared about that. I wondered though. Did he know about his brother, about what had happened to him, about where he'd been the past twenty years?

  Lucy had not left her seat. She remained quiet, letting me take the lead. She was soaking in everything, studying the house, probably put ting on her psychology suit.

  Mrs. Perez looked at me. "Why are you here?"

  "The body we found belonged to Gil. "

  "I already explained to you-"

  I held up the manila envelope.

  "What's that?"

  I reached in and slipped out the top photograph. It was the old one, from camp. I put it on the coffee table. She stared down at the image of her son. I watched her face to see the reaction. Nothing seemed to move or change, or maybe it was just happening so subtly that I couldn't see the transformation. One moment she looked okay. Then, seamlessly, everything collapsed. The mask cracked, laying the devastation bare.

  She closed her eyes. "Why are you showing me this?" 1 he scar.

  Her eyes stayed closed.

  "You said Gil's scar was on the right arm. But look at this photo graph. It was on the left. " She didn't speak. "Mrs. Perez?" "That man was not my son. My son was murdered by Wayne Steubens twenty years ago. "

  "No. "

  I reached into the envelope. Lucy leaned in. She hadn't seen this picture yet. I took out the photograph. "This is Manolo Santiago, the man from the morgue. "

  Lucy startled up. "What was his name?"

  "Manolo Santiago. "

  Lucy looked stunned.

  "What?" I said.

  She shook me off. I continued.

  "And this"-I plucked out the final photograph-"is a computer rendering using age-progression software. In other words, my lab guy took the old photograph of Gil and aged him twenty years. Then he matched the shaved head and facial hair of Manolo Santiago. "

  I put the pictures next to one another.

  "Take a look, Mrs. Perez. "

  She did. She looked for a long time. "He looks like him maybe. That's all. Or maybe you just think all Latinos look alike. " "Mrs. Perez?" It was Lucy, speaking directly to Gil's mother for the first time since we entered. "Why don't you keep any pictures of Gil up there?" Lucy pointed to the fireplace mantel. Mrs. Perez did not follow the finger. She stared at Lucy. "Do you have any children, Ms. Silverstein?"


  "Then you wouldn't understand. "

  "With all due respect, Mrs. Perez, that's a load of crap. "

Mrs. Perez looked like she'd just been slapped.

  "You have pictures up there from when the children were young, when Gil was still alive. But not one photograph of your son? I've counseled parents who are grieving. All of them kept a picture out. All of them. Then you lied about which arm was scarred. You didn't for get. A mother doesn't make that mistake. You can see the pictures here. They don't lie. And lastly, Paul hasn't hit you with the coup de grace. "

  I had no idea what the coup de grace was. So I stayed silent. "The DNA test, Mrs. Perez. " We got the results on the way over here. They're just preliminary, but it's a match. It's your son. "

  Man, I thought, she's good. "DNA?" Mrs. Perez shouted. "I didn't give anyone permission to run a DNA test. " "The police don't need your permission," Lucy said. "After all, according to you, Manila Santiago is not your son. "

  "But. . . but how did they get my DNA?"

  I took that one. "We're not at liberty to say. "

  "You. . . you can do that?"

  We can, yes.

  Mrs. Perez sat back. For a long time she didn't speak. We waited her out. "You're lying. " "What?" "The DNA test is wrong," she said, "or you are lying. That man is not my son. My son was murdered twenty years ago. So was your sister. They died at your father's summer camp because no one watched them. You are both chasing ghosts, that's all. "

  I looked over at Lucy, hoping she would have a clue here.

  Mrs. Perez rose.

  "I want you to leave now. "

  "Please," I said. "My sister disappeared that night too. "

  "I can't help you. "

  I was going to say more, but Lucy shook me off. I decided that it might be better to regroup, see what she thought and had to say before I pressed. When we were outside the door, Mrs. Perez said, "Don't come back. Let me grieve in peace. "

  "I thought your son died twenty years ago. "

  "You never get over it," Mrs. Perez said.

  "No," Lucy went on. "But at some point, you don't want to be left to grieve in peace anymore. "

  Lucy didn't follow up after that. I headed back to her. The door closed. After we slipped into my car, I said, "Well?" "Mrs. Perez is definitely lying. "

  "Nice bluff," I said.

  "The DNA test?"

  "Yeah. "

  Lucy let that go. "In there. You mentioned the name Manolo Santiago. " "That was Gils alias. " She was processing. I waited another moment or two and then said,


  "I visited my father yesterday. At his, uh, home. I checked the log book. He's had only one visitor other than me in the past month. A man named Manolo Santiago. "

  "Whoa," I said.

  "Yes. "

  I tried to let it settle. It wouldn't. "So why would Gil Perez visit your father?" "Good question. " I thought about what Raya Singh had said, about Lucy and me lying. "Can you ask Ira?"

  "I'll try. He's not well. His mind has a habit of wandering. "

  "Worth a try. "

  She nodded. I made a right turn, decided to change subjects.

  "What makes you so sure Mrs. Perez is lying?" I asked.

  "She's grieving, for one thing. That smell? It's candles. She was wearing black. You could see the red in the eyes, the slump of the shoulders.

  All that. Second, the pictures. "

  "What about them?"

  "I wasn't lying in there. It is very unusual to have pictures dating back to childhood and leaving out a dead child. On its own, it wouldn't mean much, but did you notice the funny spacing? There weren't enough pictures for that mantel. My guess is, she took away the pictures with Gil in them. Just in case something like this happened. "

  "You mean if someone came by?"

  "I don't know exactly. But I think Mrs. Perez was getting rid of evidence. She figured that she was the only one with pictures to use for identification. She couldn't have thought that you'd still have one from that summer. "

  I thought about it.

  "Her reactions were all wrong, Cope. Like she was playing a role. She's lying. " "So the question is, what was she lying about?" "When in doubt, go with the most obvious. " "Which is?" Lucy shrugged. "Gil helped Wayne kill them. That would explain everything. People always assumed that Steubens had an accomplice- how else did he bury those bodies so fast? But maybe it was only one body. "

  My sisters.

  "Right. Then Wayne and Gil staged it to look like Gil died too. Maybe Gil has always been helping Wayne. Who knows?" I said nothing. "If that's the case," I said, "then my sister is dead. " "I know. " I said nothing. "Cope?" "What?" "It's not your fault. " I said nothing. "If anything," she said, "it's mine. "

  I stopped the car. "How do you figure that?"

  "You wanted to stay there that night. You wanted to work guard duty. I'm the one who lured you into the woods. " "Lured?" She said nothing. "You're kidding, right?" "No," she said. "I had a mind of my own, Lucy. You didn't make me do anything. " She stayed quiet. Then she said, "You still blame yourself. " I felt my grip tighten on the wheel. "No, I don't. " "Yeah, Cope, you do. Come on. Despite this recent revelation, you knew that your sister had to be dead. You were hoping for a second chance. You were hoping to still find redemption. " "That psychology degree of yours," I said. "Its really paying off, huh?"

  "I don't mean to-"

  "How about you, Luce?" My voice had more bite than I intended. "Do you blame yourself? Is that why you drink so damn much?" Silence. "I shouldn't have said that," I said. Her voice was soft. "You don't know anything about my life. " "I know. I'm sorry. It's none of my business. " "Those DUIs were a long time ago. " I said nothing. She turned away from me and looked out the window. We drove in silence.

  "You may be right," I said.

  Her eyes stayed on the window.

  "Here is something I've never told anyone," I said. I felt my face flush and the tears push against my eyes. "After the night in the woods, my father never looked at me the same. "

  She turned toward me.

  "I could have been projecting. I mean, you're right. I did blame my self to some degree. What if we hadn't gone off? What if I had just stayed where I was supposed to? And maybe the look on his face was just the pure devastation of a parent losing a child. But I always thought there was something more in it. Something almost accusatory. "

  She put a hand on my arm. "Oh, Cope. "

  I kept driving. "So maybe you're on to something. Maybe I do need to make amends for the past. But what about you?" "What about me?" "Why are you delving into this? What do you hope to gain after all these years?"

  "Are you kidding?"

  "No. What are you after exactly?"

  "The life I knew ended that night. Don't you get that?"

  I said nothing.

  "The families-including yours-dragged my father into court. You took away everything we had. Ira wasn't built for that kind of hit. He couldn't take the stress. "

  I waited for her to say more. She didn't.

  "I understand that," I said. "But what are you after now? I mean, like you said, I'm trying to rescue my sister. Short of that, I'm trying to find out what really happened to her. What are you after?" She didn't reply. I drove some more. The skies were starting to darken.

  "You don't know how vulnerable I feel being here," she said.

  I wasn't sure how-to answer that. So I said, "I would never hurt you. "


  "Part of it is," she said, "it feels like I lived two lives. The one before that night, where things were going pretty well, and the one after, where things aren't. And yeah, I know how pathetic that sounds. But some times it feels like I was pushed down a hill that night and I've been stumbling down ever since. That sometimes I sort of get my bearings but the hill is so steep that I can never really get balanced again and then

  I start tumbling again. So perhaps-I don't know-but perhaps if I figure out what really happened that night, if I can make some good out of all that bad, I'll stop tumbling. "

  She had been
so magnificent when I knew her. I wanted to remind her of that. I wanted to tell her that she was being overly melodramatic, that she was still beautiful and successful and that she still had so much going for her. But I knew that it would sound too patronizing.

  So instead I said, "It's so damn good to see you again, Lucy. "

  She squeezed her eyes shut as though I had struck her. I thought about what she said, about not wanting to be too vulnerable. I thought about that journal, all that talk about not finding another love like that, not ever. I wanted to reach out and take her hand, but I knew for both of us right now, it was too raw, that even a move like that would be too much and not enough.