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The Woods, Page 24

Harlan Coben

Chapter 25

  Greta finally returned my call.

  I was on my way home, still in the car, and I struggled to find that damn "hands-free" so that the Essex County prosecutor would not be caught breaking the law.

  "Where are you?" Greta asked.

  I could hear the tears in her voice.

  "I'm on my way home. "

  "Do you mind if I meet you there?"

  "Of course not. I called before-"

  "I was down at the courthouse. "

  "Did Bob make bail?"

  "Yes. He's upstairs getting Madison to bed. "

  "Did he tell you-"

  "What time will you be home?"

  "Fifteen, twenty minutes tops. "

  "I'll see you in an hour, okay?"

  Greta hung up before I could answer.

  Cara was still awake when I got home. I was glad for that. I put her to bed and we played her new favorite game, called "Ghost. " Ghost is basically hide-and-seek and tag combined. One person hides. When that person is found, he tries to tag the finder before the finder gets back to home base. What made our version of the game extra-silly was that we played it in her bed. This severely limited your hiding spots and chances to reach home base. Cara would duck under the covers and I would pretend I couldn't find her. Then she would close her eyes and I would put my head under the pillow. She was as good at pretending as I was. Sometimes I would hide by putting my face right in front of her eyes, so she would see me the second she opened them. We both laughed, well, like children. It was dumb and silly and Cara would outgrow it very soon and I didn't ever want her to.

  By the time Greta arrived, using the key I had given her years ago, I was so lost in the bliss of my daughter that I'd almost forgotten everything - young men who rape, young girls who vanish in the woods, serial killers who slit throats, brothers-in-law who betray your trust, grieving fathers who threaten little girls. But the jangle in the door brought it all back to me.

  "I have to go," I told Cara.

  "One more turn," she pleaded.

  "Your aunt Greta is here. I need to talk to her, okay?"

  "One more? Please?"

  Children will always beg for one more. And if you give in, they will do it again and again. Once you give in, they will never stop. They will always ask for one more. So I said, "Okay, one more. "

  Cara smiled and hid and I found her and she tagged me and then I said I had to go and she begged for one more, but I'm nothing if not consistent so I kissed her cheek and left her begging, nearly in tears.

  Greta stood at the bottom of the steps. She wasn't pale. Her eyes were dry. Her mouth was a straight line that accentuated her already too-prominent jowls.

  "Isn't Bob coming?" I asked.

  "He's watching Madison. And his lawyer is coming over. "

  "Who does he have?"

  "Hester Crimstein. "

  I knew her. She was very good.

  I came down the stairs. I usually kissed her cheek. I didn't today. I wasn't sure what to do exactly. I also didn't know what to say. Greta moved toward the den. I followed. We sat on the couch. I took her hands in mine. I looked at that face, that plain face, and, as always, saw angels. I adored Greta. I really did. My heart broke for her.

  "What's going on?" I asked.

  "You need to help Bob," she said. Then: "Help us. "

  "I will do whatever I can. You know that. "

  Her hands felt ice cold. She lowered her head and then looked straight at me.

  "You have to say you loaned us the money," Greta said in pure monotone. "That you knew about it. That we agreed to pay you back with interest. "

  I just sat there.


  "You want me to lie?"

  "You just said you would do whatever you could. "

  "Are you saying"-I had to stop-"Are you saying Bob took the money? That he stole from the charity?" Her voice was firm. "He borrowed the money, Paul. " "You're kidding, right?" Greta took her hands away from mine. "You don't understand. " "Then explain it to me. "

  "He'll go to jail," she said. "My husband. Madison's father. Bob will go to jail. Do you get that? It will ruin all our lives. "

  "Bob should have thought of that before he stole from a charity. "

  "He didn't steal. He borrowed. It's been tough for him at work. Did you know he lost his two biggest accounts?" "No. Why didn't he tell me?" "What was he going to say?" "So he thought the answer was to steal?" "He didn't. . . " She stopped mid-denial, shook her head. "Its not that simple. We had signed the papers and committed to the pool. We made a mistake. We overextended. "

  "What about your family money?"

  "After Jane died, my parents thought it best to keep everything in trust. I can't touch it. " I shook my head. "So he stole?" "Will you stop saying that? Look. " She handed me photocopied sheets. "Bob was keeping tabs on every cent he took. He was using six percent interest. He would pay it all back once he got on his feet. It was just a way of tiding us over. "

  I scanned through the papers, tried to see something that would help them, show me that he hadn't truly done what they said. But there was nothing. There were handwritten notes that could have been put there at any time. My heart sank.

  "Did you know about this?" I asked her.

  "That's not relevant. "

  "Like hell it isn't. Did you know?"

  "No," she said. "He didn't tell me where the money came from. But listen, do you know how many hours Bob put into JaneCare? He was director. A man in that position should have had a full-time salary. Six figures at least. "

  "Please tell me you're not going to justify it that way. "

  "I will justify it any way I can. I love my husband. You know him. Bobs a good man. He borrowed the money and would have returned it before anybody noticed. This type of thing is done all the time. You know that. But because of who you are and this damn rape case, the police stumbled across it. And because of who you are, they will make an example of him. They'll destroy the man I love. And if they destroy him, they destroy me and my family. Do you get that, Paul?"

  I did get it. I had seen it done before. She was right. They would put the entire family through the wringer. I tried to push past my anger. I tried to see it Greta's way, tried to accept her excuses.

  "I don't know what you want me to do," I said.

  "This is my life we're talking about. "

  I flinched when she said that.

  "Save us. Please. "

  "By lying?"

  "It was a loan. He just didn't have time to tell you. "

  I closed my eyes and shook my head. "He stole from a charity. He stole from your sister's charity. " "Not my sister's," she said. "Yours. " I let that one go. "I wish I could help, Greta. " "You're turning your back on us?" "I'm not turning my back. But I can't lie for you. " She just stared at me. The angel was gone. "I would do it for you.

  You know that. "

  I said nothing.

  "You've failed everyone in your life," Greta said. "You didn't look out for your sister at that camp. And in the end, when my sister was suffering the most. . . " She stopped. The room temperature dialed down ten degrees. That sleeping snake in my belly woke up and started to slither.

  I met her eye. "Say it. Go ahead, say it. "

  "JaneCare wasn't about Jane. It was about you. It was about your guilt. My sister was dying. She was in pain. I was there, at her deathbed. And you weren't. "

  The unending suffering. Days turned to weeks, weeks to months. I was there. I watched it all. Most of it anyway. I watched the woman I adored, my tower of strength, wither away. I watched the light dim from her eyes. I smelled death on her, on the woman who smelled of lilacs when I had made love to her outside on a rainy afternoon. And toward the end, I couldn't take it. I couldn't watch the final light go out. I cracked. The worst moment of my life. I cracked and ran and my Jane died without me. Greta was right. I had failed to stay on watch. Again. I will never get over it-and the guilt did indeed d
rive me to start up JaneCare.

  Greta knew what I'd done, of course. As she just pointed out, she alone was there in the end. But we'd never talked about it. Not once had she thrown my greatest shame in my face. I always wanted to know if Jane asked for me in the end. If she knew that I wasn't there. But I never have. I thought about asking now, but what difference would it make? What answer would satisfy me? What answer did I deserve to hear?

  Greta stood. "You won't help us?"

  "I'll help. I won't lie. "

  "If it could save Jane, would you lie?"

  I said nothing.

  "If lying would have saved Jane's life-if lying would bring back your sister-would you do it?"

  "That's a hell of a hypothetical. "

  "No, it's not. Because this is my life we're talking about. You won't lie to save it. And that's pretty typical of you, Cope. You're willing to do anything for the dead. It's the living you're not so good with. "