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The Woods, Page 23

Harlan Coben

Chapter 24


  "In the morning," she said, "I'll visit Ira and see what he can tell me about Manolo Santiago. "

  "Okay. "

  Lucy reached for the door handle. "I have a bunch of papers to correct. ((T) I'll walk you in. "

  "Dont. "

  Lucy slipped out of the car. I watched her walk toward the door. My stomach tightened. I tried to sort through what I was feeling right now, but it just felt like a rush of emotion. Hard to distinguish what was what.

  My cell phone rang. I looked at the caller ID and saw it was Muse.

  "How did it go with Perez's mother?" Muse asked.

  "I think she's lying. "

  "I got something you might find interesting. "

  "I'm listening. "

  "Mr. Perez hangs at a local bar called Smith Brothers. He likes hanging out with the boys, plays some darts, that kind of thing. Moderate drinker from what I hear. But the last two nights, he got really lit up.

  Started crying and picking fights. "

  "Grieving," I said.

  At the morgue, Mrs. Perez had been the strong one. He had leaned on her. I remember that I could see the cracks there. "And either way, liquor loosens the tongue," Muse said. "True enough. " "Perez is there now, by the way. At the bar. Might be a good place to take a run at him. "

  "On my way. "

  "There is one more thing. "

  "I'm listening. "

  "Wayne Steubens will see you. "

  I think I stopped breathing. "When?"

  "Tomorrow. He's serving his time at Red Onion State Prison in Virginia. I also hooked you up to meet with Geoff Bedford at the FBI office afterward. He was the special agent in charge of Steubenss case. "

  "Can't. We have court. "

  "Can. One of your associates can handle it for a day. I have you booked on the morning flight. "

  I don't know what I expected the bar to be. Something tougher, I guessed. The place could have been a chain restaurant like T. G. I. Fri day's or Bennigan's, something like that. The bar was bigger than in most of those places, the dining area obviously smaller. They had wood paneling and free-popcorn machines and loud music from the eighties. Right now Tears for Fears was singing "Head Over Heels. "

  In my day, they would have called this a yuppie bar. There were young men in loosened ties and women trying hard to look business-y. The men drank beer out of bottles, trying hard to look like they were having a good time with their buddies while checking out the ladies. The ladies drank wine or faux martinis and eyed the guys more surreptitiously. I shook my head. The Discovery Channel should film a mating special in here.

  This didn't look like a hangout for a guy like Jorge Perez, but I found him toward the back. He sat at the bar with four or five comrades in arms, men who knew how-to drink, men who hulked over their alcohol as though it were a baby chick in need of protection. They watched the twenty-first-century yuppies milling about them with hooded eyes.

  I came up behind Mr. Perez and put a hand on his shoulder. He turned toward me slowly. So did his comrades. His eyes were red and runny. I decided to try a direct route.

  "My condolences," I said.

  He seemed puzzled. The other guys with him, all Latino men in their late fifties, looked at me as though I'd been ogling their daughters. They wore work clothes. Mr. Perez had on a Polo shirt and khaki pants. I wondered if that meant anything, but I couldn't imagine what.

  "What do you want?" he asked me.

  "To talk. "

  "How did you find me?"

  I ignored the question. "I saw your face at the morgue. Why are you lying about Gil?" His eyes narrowed. "Who you calling a liar?" The other men stared at me a little harder. "Maybe we could talk in private. " He shook his head. "No. " "You know that my sister disappeared that night, right?" He turned away from me and grabbed his beer. His back was to me when he said, "Yeah, I know. "

  "That was your son in the morgue. "

  He still kept his back to me.

  "Mr. Perez?"

  "Get out of here. "

  "I'm not going anywhere. "

  The other men, tough men, men who had spent their lives working outdoors and with their hands, glared at me. One slid off his bar stool.

  "Sit down," I said to him.

  He didn't move. I met his eyes and held it. Another man stood and folded his arms at me.

  "Do you know who I am?" I said.

  I reached into my pocket and pulled out my prosecutor badge. Yes, I have one. The truth is, I am the top law-enforcement officer for Essex County. I didn't like being threatened. Bullies piss me off. You know the old yarn about standing up to a bully? It was only true if you could back it up. I could.

  "You all better be legal," I said. "Your family better be legal, your friends better be legal. People you accidentally bump into on the streets-they all better be legal. "

  The narrow eyes opened a little wider.

  "Let me see some ID," I said. "All of you. "

  The one who had stood first put up his hands. "Hey, we don't want no trouble. "

  "Then get lost. "

  They threw down some bills and left. They didn't run, didn't hurry, but they didn't want to stick around either. I would normally feel bad about making idle threats, quasi-abusing my power like that, but they had more or less asked for it.

  Perez turned to me, clearly unhappy.

  "Hey," I said, "what's the point of carrying a badge if I don't use it?"

  "Haven't you done enough?" he asked me.

  The bar stool next to him was open. I took it. I signaled for the bar tender and ordered a draft of "whatever he's having," pointing to Jorge Perez's mug.

  "That was your son in the morgue," I said. "I could show you the proof, but we both know it. "

  He drained his beer and signaled for another. It arrived with mine. I picked up my mug as though to offer a toast. He just looked at me and kept his beer on the bar. I took a deep sip. The first sip of beer on a hot day is like that first finger-dip when you open a new jar of peanut butter. I enjoyed what could only be called God's nectar.

  "There are two ways to play it," I went on. "You keep pretending it's not him. I've already ordered a DNA test. You know about those, don't you, Mr. Perez?"

  He looked out over the crowd. "Who doesn't anymore?" "Right, I know. CSI, all those cop shows on TV. So you know it won't be a problem for us to prove that Manolo Santiago was Gil. " Perez took another sip. His hand shook. His face had fault lines now. I pressed on.

  "So the question is, once we prove it's your son, what happens? My guess is, you and your wife will try to peddle some 'gasp!-we had no idea crap. But that won't hold. You start off looking like liars. Then my people start investigating for real. We check all the phone records, all the bank records, we knock on doors, we ask your friends and neighbors about you, we ask about your children-"

  "Leave my children out of it. "

  "No way," I said.

  "That's not right. "

  "What's not right is you lying about your son. "

  He shook his head. "You don't understand. "

  "Like hell I don't. My sister was in those woods that night too. "

  Tears filled his eyes.

  "I'll go after you, your wife, your children. I will dig and dig and trust me, I will find something. "

  He stared at his beer. The tears escaped and trickled down his face.

  He didn't wipe them away. "Damn," he said.

  "What happened, Mr. Perez?"

  "Nothing. "

  He lowered his head. I moved so that my face was close to his.

  "Did your son kill my sister?"

  He looked up. His eyes searched my face as if desperately seeking some kind of solace that would never be there. I held my ground. "I'm not talking to you anymore," Perez said. "Did he? Is that what you're trying to cover up?" "We're not covering up anything. " "I'm not making idle threats here, Mr. Perez. I'll go aft
er you. I'll go after your children. "

  His hand moved so fast I didn't have time to react. He grabbed my lapels with both hands and pulled me close. He had a good twenty years on me, but I could feel his strength. I got my bearings quickly enough and, remembering one of the few martial arts moves I learned when I was a kid, slashed down on his forearms.

  He released me. I don't know if my blow did it or it was just a decision on his part. But he let go. He stood. I stood too. The bartender was watching us now.

  "You need help, Mr. Perez?" he asked.

  I had the badge out again. "You reporting all your tips to the IRS?"

  He backed off. Everyone lies. Everyone has stuff they keep buried. Everyone breaks laws and keeps secrets.

  Perez and I stared at each other. Then Perez said to me, "I'm going to make this simple for you. "

  I waited.

  "If you go after my children, I'll go after yours. "

  I felt my blood tick. "What the hell does that mean?"

  "It means," he said, "I don't care what sort of badge you carry You don't threaten to go after a mans children. " He walked out the door. I thought about his words. I didn't like them. Then I picked up my cell phone and called Muse. "Dig up everything you can on the Perezes," I said.