Tell No One, Page 33Harlan Coben
The old autopsy files were kept in a U-Store-'Em in Layton, New Jersey, not far from the Pennsylvania border. Special Agent Nick Carlson arrived on his own. He didn't like storage facilities much. They gave him the black-cat creeps. Open twenty-four hours a day, no guard, a token security camera at the entrance. . . God only knows what lay padlocked in these houses of cement. Carlson knew that many were loaded with drugs, money, and contraband of all sorts. That didn't bother him much. But he remembered a few years back when an oil executive had been kidnapped and crate-stored in one. The executive had suffocated to death. Carlson had been there when they found him. Ever since, he imagined living people in here too, right now, the inexplicably missing, just yards from where he stood, chained in the dark, straining against mouth gags.
People often note that it's a sick world. They had no idea.
Timothy Harper, the county medical examiner, came out of a garage like facility, holding a large manila envelope closed with a wrap-around string. He handed Carlson an autopsy file with Elizabeth Beck's name on it.
"You have to sign for it," Harper said.
Carlson signed the form.
"Beck never told you why he wanted to see it?" Carlson asked.
"He talked about being a grieving husband and something about closure, but outside of that. . . " Harper shrugged.
"Did he ask you anything else about the case?"
"Nothing that sticks out. "
"How about something that doesn't stick out?"
Harper thought about it a moment. "He asked if I remembered who identified the body. "
"Not at first, no. "
"Who did identify her?"
"Her father. Then he asked me how long it took. "
"How long what took?"
"The identification. "
"I don't understand. "
"Neither did I, quite frankly. He wanted to know if her father had made the ID immediately or if it took a few minutes. "
"Why would he want to know that?"
"I have no idea. "
Carlson tried to find an angle on that one, but nothing came to him. "How did you answer him?"
"With the truth actually. I don't remember. I assume he did it in a timely fashion or I'd remember it better. "
"Not really, no," he said. "Look, if we're done here, I got two kids who smashed a Civic into a telephone pole waiting for me. "
Carlson gripped the file in his hand. "Yeah," he said. "We're done. But if I need to reach you?"
"I'll be at the office. "
PETER FLANNERY, ATTORNEY-AT-LAW was stenciled in faded gold into the door's pebbled glass. There was a hole in the glass the size of a fist. Someone had patched it up with gray duct tape. The tape looked old.
I kept the brim of my cap low. My insides ached from my ordeal with the big Asian guy. We had heard my name on the radio station that promises the world in exchange for twenty-two minutes. I was officially a wanted man.
Hard to wrap ye olde brain around that one. I was in huge trouble and yet that all seemed strangely remote, as though that were happening to someone with whom I was vaguely acquainted. I, me, the guy right here, didn't care much. I had a single focus: finding Elizabeth. The rest felt like scenery.
Tyrese was with me. Half a dozen people were scattered about the waiting room. Two wore elaborate neck braces. One had a bird in a cage. I had no idea why. No one bothered to glance up at us, as though they'd weighed the effort of sliding their eyes in our direction against the possible benefits and decided, hey, it isn't worth it.
The receptionist wore a hideous wig and looked at us as though we'd just plopped out of a dog's behind.
I asked to see Peter Flannery.
"He's with a client. " She wasn't clacking gum, but it was close.
Tyrese took over then. Like a magician with a great sleight of hand, he flourished a roll of cash thicker than my wrist. "Tell him we be offering a retainer. " Then, grinning, he added, "One for you too, we get in to see him right away. "
Two minutes later, we were ushered into Mr. Flannery's inner sanctum. The office smelled of cigar smoke and Lemon Pledge. Snap-together furniture, the kind you might find at Kmart or Bradlees, had been stained dark, feigning rich oak and mahogany and working about as well as a Las Vegas toupee. There were no school diplomas on the wall, just that phony nonsense people put up to impress the easily impressed. One commemorated Flannery's membership in the "International Wine-tasting Association. " Another ornately noted that he attended a "Long Island Legal Conference" in 1996. Big wow. There were sun-faded photos of a younger Flannery with what I guessed were either celebrities or local politicians, but nobody I recognized. The office staple of a golf foursome photo mounted wood-plaque-like adorned a prize spot behind the desk.
"Please," Flannery said with a big wave of his hand. "Have a seat, gentlemen. "
I sat. Tyrese stayed standing, crossed his arms, and leaned against the back wall.
"So," Flannery said, stretching the word out like a wad of chaw, "what can I do for you?"
Peter Flannery had that athlete-gone-to-seed look. His once golden locks had thinned and fled. His features were malleable. He wore a rayon three-piece suit - I hadn't seen one in a while - and the vest even had the pocket watch attached to a faux gold chain.
"I need to ask you about an old case," I said.
His eyes still had the ice blue of youth, and he aimed them my way. On the desk, I spotted a photograph of Flannery with a plump woman and a girl of maybe fourteen who was definitely in the throes of awkward adolescence. They were all smiling, but I saw a wince there too, as though they were bracing for a blow.
"An old case?" he repeated.
"My wife visited you eight years ago. I need to know what it was about. "
Flannery's eyes flicked toward Tyrese. Tyrese still had the folded arms and showed him nothing more than the sunglasses. "I don't understand. Was this a divorce case?"
"No," I said.
"Then. . . ?" He put his hands up and gave me the I'd-like-to help shrug. "Attorney-client confidentiality. I don't see how I can help you. "
"I don't think she was a client. "
"You're confusing me, Mr. -" He waited for me to fill in the blank.
"Beck," I said. "And it's doctor, not mister. "
His double chin went slack at my name. I wondered if maybe he had heard the news reports. But I didn't think that was it.
"My wife's name is Elizabeth. "
Flannery said nothing.
"You remember her, don't you?"
Again he flipped a glance at Tyrese.
"Was she a client, Mr. Flannery?"
He cleared his throat. "No," he said. "No, she wasn't a client. "
"But you remember meeting her?"
Flannery shifted in his chair. "Yes. "
"What did you discuss?"
"It's been a long time, Dr. Beck. "
"Are you saying you don't remember?"
He didn't answer that one directly. "Your wife," he said. "She was murdered, wasn't she? I remember seeing something about it on the news. "
I tried to keep us on track. "Why did she come here, Mr. Flannery?"
"I'm an attorney," he said, and he almost puffed out his chest.
"But not hers. "
"Still," he said, trying to gain some sort of leverage, "I need to be compensated for my time. " He coughed into his fist. "You mentioned something about a retainer. "
I looked over my shoulder, but Tyrese was already on the move. The cash roll was out and he was peeling bills. He tossed three Ben Franklins on the desk, gave Flannery a hard sunglass glare, and then stepped back to his spot.
Flannery looked at the money but didn't touch it. He bounced his fingertips together and then flattened his palms against each other. "Suppose I refuse to tell you. "
"I can't see why you would," I said. "Your communications with her don't fal
l under privilege, do they?"
"I'm not talking about that," Flannery said. His eyes pierced mine and he hesitated. "Did you love your wife, Dr. Beck?"
"Very much. "
"Have you remarried?"
"No," I said. Then: "What does that have to do with anything?"
He settled back. "Go," he said. "Take your money and just go. "
"This is important, Mr. Flannery. "
"I can't imagine how. She's been dead for eight years. Her killer is on death row. "
"What are you afraid to tell me?"
Flannery didn't answer right away. Tyrese again peeled himself off the wall. He moved closer to the desk. Flannery watched him and surprised me with a tired sigh. "Do me a favor," he said to Tyrese. "Stop with the posturing, okay? I've repped psychos who make you look like Mary Poppins. "
Tyrese looked as though he might react, but that wouldn't help. I said his name. He looked at me. I shook my head. Tyrese backed off. Flannery was plucking at his lower lip. I let him. I could wait.
"You don't want to know," he said to me after a while.
"Yeah, I do. "
"It can't bring your wife back. "
"Maybe it can," I said.
That got his attention. He frowned at me, but something there softened.
"Please," I said.
He swiveled his seat to the side and tilted way back, staring up at window blinds that had turned yellow and crusty sometime during the Watergate hearings. He folded his hands and rested them on his paunch. I watched the hands rise and fall as he breathed.
"I was a public defender back then," he began. "You know what that is?"
"You defended the indigent," I said.
"Something like that. The Miranda rights - they talk about having the right to counsel if you can afford one. I'm the guy you get when you can't. "
I nodded, but he was still looking at the blinds.
"Anyway, I was assigned one of the most prominent murder trials in the state. "
Something cold wormed into my stomach. "Whose?" I asked.
"Brandon Scope's. The billionaire's son. Do you remember the case?"
I froze, terrified. I could barely breathe. Little wonder Flannery's name had seemed familiar. Brandon Scope. I almost shook my head, not because I didn't remember the case, but because I wanted him to say anything but that name.
For the sake of clarity, let me give you the newspaper account: Brandon Scope, age thirty-three, was robbed and murdered eight years ago. Yes, eight years ago. Maybe two months before Elizabeth's murder. He was shot twice and dumped near a housing project in Harlem. His money was gone. The media played all the violins on this one. They made much of Brandon Scope's charitable work. They talked about how he helped street kids, how he preferred working with the poor to running Daddy's multinational conglomerate, that kind of spin. It was one of those murders that "shock a nation" and lead to plenty of finger-pointing and hand-wringing. A charitable foundation had been set up in young Scope's name. My sister, Linda, runs it. You wouldn't believe the good she does there.
"I remember it," I said softly.
"Do you remember that an arrest was made?"
"A street kid," I said. "One of the kids he helped, right?"
"Yes. They arrested Helio Gonzalez, then age twenty-two. A resident of Barker House in Harlem. Had a felony sheet that read like a Hall of Famer's career stats. Armed robbery, arson, assault, a real sunshine, our Mr. Gonzalez. "
My mouth was dry. "Weren't the charges eventually dropped?" I asked.
"Yes. They didn't have much really. His fingerprints were found at the scene, but so were plenty of others. There were strands of Scope's hair and even a speck of matching blood found where Gonzalez lived. But Scope had been to the building before. We could have easily claimed that was how that material got there. Nonetheless, they had enough for an arrest, and the cops were sure something more would break. "
"So what happened?" I asked.
Flannery still wouldn't look at me. I didn't like that. Flannery was the kind of guy who lived for the Willy Loman world of shined shoes and eye contact. I knew the type. I didn't want anything to do with them, but I knew them.
"The police had a solid time of death," he continued. "The M. E. got a good liver temperature reading. Scope was killed at eleven. You might be able to stretch it a half hour in either direction, but that was about it. "
"I don't understand," I said. "What does this have to do with my wife?"
He bounced the fingertips again. "I understand that your wife worked with the poor as well," he said. "In the same office with the victim, as a matter of fact. "
I didn't know where this was going, but I knew I wasn't going to like it. For the most fleeting of seconds, I wondered if Flannery was right, if I really didn't want to hear what he had to say, if I should just pick myself out of the chair and forget all about this. But I said, "So?"
"That's noble," he said with a small nod. "Working with the downtrodden. "
"Glad you think so. "
"It's why I originally went into law. To help the poor. "
I swallowed down the bile and sat a little straighten "Do you mind telling me what my wife has to do with any of this?"
"She freed him. "
"My client. Helio Gonzalez. Your wife freed him. "
I frowned. "How?"
"She gave him an alibi. "
My heart stopped. So did my lungs. I almost pounded on my chest to get the inner workings started up again.
"How?" I asked.
"How did she give him an alibi?"
I nodded numbly, but he still wasn't looking. I croaked out a yes.
"Simple," he said. "She and Helio had been together during the time in question. "
My mind started to flail, adrift in the ocean, no life preserver in reach. "I never saw anything about this in the papers," I said.
"It was kept quiet. "
"Your wife's request, for one. And the D. A. 's office didn't want their wrongful arrest made more public. So it was all done as quietly as possible. Plus there were, uh, problems with your wife's testimony. "
"She sort of lied at first. "
More flailing. Sinking under. Coming to the surface. Flailing. "What are you talking about?"
"Your wife claimed that she was doing some career counseling with Gonzalez at the charity office at the time of the murder. Nobody really bought that. "
He cocked a skeptical eyebrow. "Career counseling at eleven at night?"
I nodded numbly.
"So as Mr. Gonzalez's attorney, I reminded your wife that the police would investigate her alibi. That, for example, the counseling offices had security cameras and there would be tapes of the comings and goings. That was when she came clean. "
"Go on," I said.
"It's obvious, isn't it?"
"Tell me anyway. "
Flannery shrugged. "She wanted to spare herself - and you, I guess - the embarrassment. That was why she insisted on secrecy. She was at Gonzalez's place, Dr. Beck. They'd been sleeping together for two months. "
I didn't react. No one spoke. In the distance, I heard a bird squawk. Probably the one in the waiting room. I got to my feet. Tyrese took a step back.
"Thank you for your time," I said in the calmest voice you ever heard.
Flannery nodded at the window blinds.
"It's not true," I said to him.
He didn't respond. But then again, I hadn't expected him to.