The woods, p.10
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       The Woods, p.10

           Harlan Coben
 
Chapter 11

  I shook off Uncle Sosh's words and headed back through the Lincoln Tunnel. I needed to focus on two things and two things only: Focus One, convict those two damned sons of bitches who had raped Chamique Johnson. And Focus Two, find out where the hell Gil Perez had been for the past twenty years.

  I checked the address Detective York had given me for the witness/girlfriend. Raya Singh worked at an Indian restaurant called Curry Up and Wait. I hate pun titles. Or do I love them? Lets go with love.

  I was on my way.

  I still had the picture of my father in the front seat. I didn't much worry about those KGB allegations. I had almost expected it after my conversation with Sosh. But now I read the index card again:

  THE FIRST SKELETON

  The First. That again implied that more would be coming. Clearly Monsieur Jenrette, probably with financial help from Marantz, was sparing no expense. If they found out about those old accusations against my father more than twenty-five years old now they were clearly desperate and hungry.

  What would they find?

  I was not a bad guy. But I wasn't perfect either. No one was. They would find something. They would blow it out of proportion. It could seriously damage JaneCare, my reputation, my political ambition-but then again Chamique had skeletons too. I had convinced her to take them all out and show them to the world.

  Could I ask less of myself?

  When I arrived at the Indian restaurant, I threw the car into Park and turned off the ignition. I was not in my jurisdiction, but I didn't think that would matter much. I took a look out the car window, thought again about that skeleton and called Loren Muse. When she answered I identified myself and said, "I may have a small problem. "

  "What's that?" Muse asked.

  "Jenrette's father is coming after me. "

  "How?"

  "He's digging into my past. "

  "Will he find anything?"

  "You dig into anybody's past," I said, "you find something. "

  "Not mine," she said.

  "Really? How about those dead bodies in Reno?"

  "Cleared of all charges. "

  "Great, terrific. "

  "I'm just playing with you, Cope. Making a funny. "

  "You're hilarious, Muse. Your comic timing. It's pro-like. "

  "Okay, cut to the chase then. What do you need from me?"

  "You're friends with some of the local private eyes, right?"

  "Right. "

  "Call around. See if you can find out who's on me. "

  "Okay, I'm on it. "

  "Muse?"

  "What?"

  "This isn't a priority. If the manpower isn't there, don't worry about it. "

  "It's there, Cope. Like I said, I'm on it. "

  "How do you think we did today?"

  "It was a good day for the good guys," she said.

  "Yeah. "

  "But probably not good enough. "

  "Cal and Jim?"

  "I'm in the mood to gun down every man with those names. "

  "Get on it," I said and hung up.

  In terms of interior decorating, Indian restaurants seem to break down into two categories-very dark and very bright. This one was bright and colorful in the pseudo style of a Hindu temple, albeit a really cheesy one. There were faux-mosaic and lit-up statues of Ganesh and other deities with which I am wholly unfamiliar. The waitresses were costumed in belly-revealing aqua; the outfits reminded me of what the evil sister wore on I Dream of Jeannie.

  We all hold on to our stereotypes, but the whole scene looked as if a Bollywood musical number were about to break out. I try to have an appreciation for various foreign cultures, but no matter how hard I try, I detest the music they play in Indian restaurants. Right now it sounded like a sitar was torturing a cat.

  The hostess frowned when I entered. "How many?" she asked.

  "I'm not here to eat," I said.

  She just waited.

  "Is Raya Singh here?"

  "Who?"

  I repeated the name.

  "I don't. . . oh, wait, she's the new girl. " She folded her arms across her chest and said nothing.

  "Is she here?" I said.

  "Who wants to know?"

  I did the eyebrow arch. I wasn't good with it. I was going for rakish but it always came out more like constipation. "The President of the United States. "

  "Huh?"

  I handed her a business card. She read it and then surprised me by shouting out, "Raya! Raya Singh!"

  Raya Singh stepped forward and I stepped back. She was younger than I'd expected, early twenties, and absolutely stunning. The first thing you noticed-couldn't help but notice in that aqua getup-was that Raya Singh had more curves than seemed anatomically possible. She stood still but it looked as though she were moving. Her hair was tousled and black and begged to be touched. Her skin was more gold than brown and she had almond eyes that a man could slip into and never find his way back out.

  "Raya Singh?" I said.

  Yes.

  "My name is Paul Copeland. I'm the prosecutor for Essex County in New Jersey. Could we talk a moment?"

  "Is this about the murder?"

  "Yes. "

  "Then of course. "

  Her voice was polished with a hint of a New England-boarding school accent that shouted refinement over geographical locale. I was trying not to stare. She saw that and smiled a little. I don't want to sound like some kind of pervert because it wasn't like that. Female beauty gets to me. I don't think I'm alone in that. It gets to me like a work of art gets to me. It gets to me like a Rembrandt or Michelangelo.

  It gets to me like night views of Paris or when the sun rises on the Grand Canyon or sets in the turquoise of an Arizona sky. My thoughts were not illicit. They were, I self-rationalized, rather artistic.

  She led me outside onto the street, where it was quieter. She wrapped her arms around herself as though she were cold. The move, like pretty much every move she made, was nearly a double entendre. Probably couldn't help it. Everything about her made you think about moonlit skies and four-poster beds-and that, I guess, shoots down my "rather artistic" reasoning. I was tempted to offer her my coat or something, but it wasn't cold at all. Oh, and I wasn't wearing a coat.

  "Do you know a man named Manolo Santiago?" I asked.

  "He was murdered," she said.

  Her voice had a strange lilt to it, as if she were reading for a part.

  "But you knew him?"

  "I did, yes. "

  "You were lovers?"

  "Not yet. "

  "Not yet?"

  "Our relationship," she said, "was platonic. "

  My eyes moved to the pavement and then across the street. Better. I didn't really care so much about the murder or who had committed it. I cared about finding out about Manolo Santiago.

  "Do you know where Mr. Santiago lived?"

  "No, I'm sorry, I don't. "

  "How did you two meet?"

  "He approached me on the street. "

  "Just like that? He just walked up to you on the street?"

  "Yes," she said.

  "And then?"

  "He asked me if I would like to grab a cup of coffee. "

  "And you did?"

  "Yes. "

  I risked another look at her. Beautiful. That aqua against the dark skin. . . total killer. "Do you always do that?" I asked.

  "Do what?"

  "Meet a stranger and accept his invitation to grab coffee with him?"

  That seemed to amuse her. "Do I need to justify my behavior to you, Mr. Copeland?"

  "No. "

  She said nothing.

  I said, "We need to learn more about Mr. Santiago. "

  "May I ask why?"

  "Manolo Santiago was an alias. I'm trying to find out his real name, for one thing. " "I wouldn't know it. " "At the risk of overstepping my bounds," I said, "I'm having trouble understanding. "

  "Understanding what?"

  "Men
must hit on you all the time," I said.

  The smile was crooked and knowing. "That's very flattering, Mr.

  Copeland, thank you. "

  I tried to stay on message. "So why did you go with him?"

  "Does it matter?"

  "It might tell me something about him. "

  "I can't imagine what. Suppose, for example, I told you that I found him handsome. Would that help?"

  "Did you?"

  "Did I what-find him handsome?" Another smile. A tousled lock dropped across her right eye. "You almost sound jealous. "

  "Ms. Singh?"

  "Yes?"

  "I'm investigating a murder. So maybe we can stop now with the head games. "

  "Do you think we can?" She tucked the hair back. I held my ground.

  "Well, okay then," she said. "Fair enough. "

  "Can you help me figure out who he really was?"

  She thought about it. "Maybe through his cell-phone records?"

  "We checked the one he had on him. Your call was the only one on it. "

  "He had another number," she said. "Before that. "

  "Do you remember it?"

  She nodded and gave it to me. I took out a small pen and wrote it on the back of one of my cards.

  "Anything else?"

  "Not really. "

  I took out another card and wrote down my mobile phone number. "If you think of anything else, will you call me?"

  "Of course. "

  I handed it to her. She just looked at me and smiled.

  "What?"

  "You're not wearing a wedding band, Mr. Copeland. "

  "I'm not married. "

  "Divorced or widowed?"

  "How do you know I'm not a lifelong bachelor?"

  Raya Singh did not bother replying.

  "Widowed," I said. I'm sorry.

  "Thank you. "

  "How long has it been?"

  I was going to tell her none of her goddamn business, but I wanted to keep her in my good graces. And damned if she wasn't beautiful. "Nearly six years. "

  "I see," she said.

  She looked at me with those eyes.

  "Thank you for your cooperation," I said.

  "Why don't you ask me out?" she asked.

  "Excuse me?"

  "I know you think I'm pretty. I'm single, you're single. Why don't you ask me out?"

  "I don't mix my work life with my personal," I said.

  "I came here from Calcutta. Have you been?"

  The change in subjects threw me for a second. The accent also didn't seem to match that locale, but that didn't mean much nowadays. I told her I had never been, but I obviously knew of it.

  "What you've heard," she said. "Its even worse. "

  Again I said nothing, wondering where she was going with this.

  "I have a life plan," she said. "The first part was getting here. To the United States. " "And the second part?" "People here will do anything to get ahead. Some play the lottery.

  Some have dreams of being, I don't know, professional athletes. Some turn to crime or strip or sell themselves. I know my assets. I am beautiful. I am also a nice person and I have learned how-to be"-she stopped and considered her words-"good for a man. I will make a man incredibly happy. I will listen to him. I will be by his side. I will lift his spirits. I will make his nights special. I will give myself to him whenever he wants and in whatever way he wants. And I will do it gladly. "

  Oookay, I thought. We were in the middle of a busy street but I swear there was so much silence I could hear a cricket chirp. My mouth felt very dry. "Manolo Santiago," I said in a voice that sounded far away. "Did you think he might be that man?"

  "I thought he might be," she said. "But he wasn't. You seem nice. Like you would treat a woman well. " Raya Singh might have moved to ward me, I can't be sure. But she suddenly seemed closer. "I can see that you are troubled. That you don't sleep well at night. So how do you know, Mr. Copeland?"

  "How do I know what?"

  "That I'm not the one. That I'm not the one who will make you deliriously happy That you wouldn't sleep soundly next to me. "

  Whoa.

  "I don't," I said.

  She just looked at me. I felt the look in my toes. Oh, I was being played. I knew that. And yet this direct line, her lay-it-out-with-no-BS approach. . . I found it oddly endearing.

  Or maybe it was the blinded-by-beauty thing again.

  "I have to go," I said. "You have my number. "

  "Mr. Copeland?"

  I waited.

  "Why are you really here?"

  "Excuse me?"

  "What is your interest in Manolo's murder?"

  "I thought I explained that. I'm the county prosecutor-"

  "That's not why you're here. "

  I waited. She just stared at me. Finally I asked, "What makes you say that?" Her reply landed like a left hook. "Did you kill him?" "What?" "I said-" "I heard you. Of course not. Why would you ask that?" But Raya Singh shook it off. "Good-bye, Mr. Copeland. " She gave me one more smile that made me feel like a fish dropped on a dock. "I hope you find what you're looking for. "