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Fool Me Once, Page 12

Harlan Coben


  The manager wore yoga shorts and a sleeveless top. He told her to "Call me Billy." Billy was short, spent too much time in the gym, and had thin fingers. His office was painted bright avocado. The computer had monitors watching the dressing room and stages. The camera angles reminded Maya of the ones that shot Lily at Growin' Up.

  "First off, let me just say you're hot. Okay? You're hot."

  "So I keep hearing," Maya replied.

  "And you got that whole toned, athletic thing going on. That's popular nowadays. Like that hot chick in The Hunger Games. What is her name?"

  "Jennifer Lawrence."

  "No, no, not the actress, the character. See, we do the whole fantasy thing here, so we'd want you to be . . ." Billy snapped his thin fingers. "Katniss. That was the lead's name, right? The hot chick in that leather outfit with the bow and arrow and whatever. Katniss Eversomething. But . . ." His eyes widened. "Oh crap, this is sheer genius. Instead of Kat-niss, we will call you Kat-nip. Get it?"

  From behind them a woman's voice said, "She's not here for work, Billy."

  Maya turned to see a woman in glasses. She was midthirties and wore a classy tailored suit that stuck out in here like a cigarette in a health club.

  "What do you mean?" Billy asked.

  "She's not the type."

  "Aw, come on, Lulu, that's not fair," Billy said. "You're just being prejudiced."

  Lulu half smiled at Maya. "You find tolerance in the strangest places." Then, to Billy: "I'll handle this."

  Billy left the office. Lulu moved over and checked the monitors. She started clicking the mouse, circling through the various surveillance cameras.

  "What can I do for you?" Lulu asked.

  There was no reason to play around. "My sister used to call here. I'm trying to find out why."

  "We accept table reservations. Maybe that was it."

  "Yeah, I don't think so."

  Lulu shrugged. "I don't know what to tell you. Lots of people call here."

  "Her name was Claire Walker. Does that name mean anything to you?"

  "Doesn't matter. Even if it did, I wouldn't tell you. You know what kind of business we run here. We pride ourselves on discretion."

  "Nice to be proud of something."

  "Don't play the judgmental card, Miss . . . ?"

  "Maya. Maya Stern. And my sister was murdered."

  Silence.

  "She had a hidden phone." Maya pulled it out and brought up the history. "The only calls she made or received were from here."

  Lulu did not so much as glance down. "I'm sorry for your loss."

  "Thank you."

  "But there is nothing I can tell you."

  "I can turn this phone over to the police. A woman kept this phone a secret. She only called here. Then she ended up murdered. You don't think the cops will be all over this place?"

  "No," Lulu said, "I don't. But even if they choose that route, we have nothing to hide. How do you know the phone was even your sister's?"

  "What?"

  "Where did you find it? In her home? Does she live with someone else? Maybe the phone was theirs, not hers. Was she married? Did she have a boyfriend? Maybe it was his."

  "It wasn't."

  "You sure? A hundred percent? Because--and this will shock you--men have been known to lie about coming here. Even if you could somehow prove that the phone did indeed belong to your sister, dozens of people use the phone here. Dancers, bartenders, waitstaff, chefs, janitors, dishwashers, even customers. How long ago was your sister killed?"

  "Four months ago."

  "We delete our video surveillance files every two weeks. Again it's about discretion. We don't want someone getting a warrant to see if their husband was here or anything. So even if you wanted to look at tape--"

  "I get it," Maya said.

  Lulu gave her a patronizing smile. "I'm sorry we couldn't be more help."

  "Yeah, you seem pretty broken up about it."

  "If you'll excuse me."

  Maya stepped toward her. "Forget the legal for a second. You know I'm not out to catch an indiscretion. I'm calling on your humanity. My sister was murdered. The police have all but given up hope of solving the case. The only fresh lead is this phone. So I'm asking you, as a human being, to please help me."

  Lulu was already moving toward the door. "I'm terribly sorry about your loss, but I can't help you."

  *

  There was an explosion of sunlight when Maya exited the club. It was always nighttime inside places like this, but in the real world, it was barely noon. The sun beat down upon her with both fists. Maya squinted and shaded her eyes with her hand, staggering like Dracula dragged into daylight.

  "Didn't get the job?" Meathead asked.

  "My loss."

  "Shame."

  "Yeah."

  So now what?

  She could indeed do as threatened and bring it to the police. That, of course, meant bringing it to Kierce. Did Maya trust him? Good question. Either he was in some ways taking payoffs or Caroline was lying. Or Caroline was mistaken. Or . . . didn't matter. She didn't trust Caroline. She didn't trust Kierce.

  So who did she trust?

  Right now it didn't pay to trust anyone, but if there was still one person she believed was telling the truth, it was Shane. Which meant, of course, she would have to be careful. Shane was her friend, but he was also a straight shooter. She had already pushed him to do something that he hadn't liked. She was supposed to see him that night at the gun range. Maybe she would talk to him there, but now that she really thought about it, that seemed unlikely. He was starting to ask too many questions . . .

  Wait, hold up.

  Maya had been walking through the parking lot, still blinking away the onslaught of the light change, when she spotted it. At first it meant nothing. She was seeing it at a great distance, and there were plenty of them on the road.

  Plenty of red Buick Veranos.

  This one was parked in the far corner of the lot, half hidden between a fence and a Cadillac Escalade, a big SUV. She looked back toward the door. Meathead was checking out her ass. Big surprise. She waved and started toward the red vehicle.

  She needed to see if the license plate matched.

  Along the top of the fence, Maya could see surveillance cameras. But so what? Would anyone be watching right now, and if so what would be the harm? She had a plan of sorts. In one of her very rare smart moves recently--not wanting to get caught unprepared again--she'd bought several GPS trackers at the mall. The first was, of course, on Hector's truck.

  A second was in her purse, ready to go.

  The plan was simple and obvious. First, make sure she had the right car by checking the license plate. Second, walk past the red Buick and slap the GPS tracker under the bumper.

  The second part might provide a little bit of a problem. The car was parked in the corner, against a fence, and a casual stroll past it, if spotted, would be awkward at best. Still, the lot was quiet. The few people who pulled in parked on the other side, and while most people might not have any reason to be embarrassed about being here, they weren't exactly puffing out their chests with pride about it either.

  The license plate started to come into view, and yes, it was the same car.

  WTC Limited. A holding company, maybe for Leather and Lace?

  "Wrong way."

  It was Meathead. She turned. He moved right next to her. She forced up a smile.

  "Sorry?"

  "That's the employee parking area."

  "Oh," Maya said. "Is it? I'm sorry. I'm so ditzy sometimes." She tried a "tee-hee, aren't I a ditz" laugh. "I parked in the wrong place. Or maybe I wanted the job so badly--"

  "No, you didn't."

  "Pardon?"

  He pointed with his beefy finger back the other way. "You parked over there. On the other side."

  "Oh, did I? I'm such an airhead sometimes."

  She stood there. He stood there.

  "We don't let no one into the employee area," he
said. "Company policy. See, some of the guys, they'll come out and they'll wait by a dancer's car. You know what I mean? Or they'll try to get the license plate and call her. We gotta escort the girls out here sometimes so they can avoid the creepy guys. You get my drift?"

  "Yes, but I'm not a creepy guy."

  "No, ma'am, you certainly are not."

  She stood there. He stood there.

  "Come on," he said. "I'll escort you to your car."

  *

  There was one of those giant warehouse stores across the street and maybe a hundred yards down the road. Maya parked in the lot, positioning her car so she could stake out the employee lot of Leather and Lace. Her hope was that someone would eventually get into the red Buick Verano and then she could follow him.

  And then what?

  One step at a time.

  But what about all that nonsense about looking several steps down the road when you make a plan?

  She didn't know. Preparedness was all well and good, but there was also a little something called improvisation. Her next move would be dependent on where that red Buick went. If, say, the car stopped for the night at a residence, then maybe her move would be to figure out who lived at that house.

  A strip club gets a fairly varied clientele in dress, if not gender. There were the blue-collar guys in work boots and jeans. There were business suits. There were guys in cargo shorts and T-shirts. There was even a group of guys in golf clothes, looking like they just came off the links. Hey, maybe the food was good, who knew?

  An hour passed. Four people left the employee area of the lot; three entered. None involved the red Buick Verano parked against the fence.

  Maya had time to sort through all the recent developments, but time wasn't helping her. She didn't need time. She needed more information.

  The red Buick was leased by a company called WTC Limited. Was that something the Burketts held? Caroline had talked about payouts to and from offshore accounts and anonymous companies. Could WTC Limited be something like that? Had Claire known the driver of the red Buick Verano? Had Joe?

  Maya and Joe had several joint accounts. She opened them on her phone app and brought up the credit charge charges. Had Joe visited Leather and Lace? If so, it wasn't showing up on the statements. Then again, would Joe be that stupid? Didn't places like Leather and Lace know that prying wives might check their husbands' credit card charges and, knowing Lulu's desire for discretion, use another name?

  Maybe WTC Limited?

  With new hope, she searched for any charge to WTC Limited. Nothing. The club was in Carlstadt, New Jersey. She searched for any charges made to that city. Again nothing.

  Someone parked two spots away from the red Buick. The car door opened, and a pole dancer got out. Yes, Maya knew her occupation. Long blond hair, shorts that barely covered half a cheek, a boob job that lifted them high enough to double as earrings--you didn't need the pole dancing equivalent of gaydar to see that this woman was either a pole dancer or a sixteen-year-old boy's fantasy come to life.

  When the shapely pole dancer entered through the employee side door, a man stepped out. The man wore a Yankees baseball cap pulled down low over his sunglass-covered eyes. He kept his head down, his shoulders hunched, the way one does when they want to blend in or hide. Maya sat up. The man sported one of those unruly beards superstitious athletes grow when they're on a playoff run.

  She couldn't get a look at him obviously, but still there was something familiar . . .

  Maya started up her car. The man kept his head down, hurried his step, and slid into the red Buick Verano.

  So this was her man.

  Following him would be risky. Maybe her best move was to confront him now. He might spot a tail. She might lose him. So maybe she should stop with the subtlety, pull back into Leather and Lace's parking lot, block his car, demand answers. But there were problems with that scenario too. There was security there, probably a fair amount of it. Meathead would interfere. Others too. Strip clubs were used to handling incidents. Shane's work as an MP backed up what Meathead had said. Men often hung out after the club closed, hoping to approach some dancer they sincerely believed was interested in more than what was in their wallet, though that was never, ever the case. Guys who lack confidence in so many ways still manage to delude themselves into thinking they are irresistible to all women.

  In short, there would be security. Better to get him alone, no?

  The red Buick backed out of the space and started toward the exit. Maya was on it. She merged onto Paterson Plank Road and immediately felt unsettled. Why? Was it her imagination, or did the red Buick hesitate, as if somehow she had already been spotted? That was hard to fathom. She was a full three cars back.

  Two minutes into the ride, Maya realized that tailing him wouldn't work.

  She hadn't quite realized it before, but now that her plan was in action, she could see more issues raising their heads. Problem One: He clearly knew her car. He had, in fact, tailed it himself on numerous occasions. One look in the rearview mirror would be all he'd need to put it together.

  Problem Two: Lulu or Billy or Meathead or someone else at the club could have warned him about her visit, in fact probably had. So Buick Yankees Cap would be on guard. He might, in fact, have already spotted her.

  Problem Three: Depending on how long he had been following Maya, Buick Yankees Cap could have done the same thing Maya did with Hector's truck--put a GPS tracker on it. For all she knew, he had known that she was parked outside the club from the moment she arrived.

  This could all be a setup. This could all be a trap.

  She could back off, figure out a better way in, and come back to Leather and Lace with a plan. But uh-uh, no way. Enough with the passive approach. She needed answers, and if that meant using a little less caution and erring on the side of boldness, so be it.

  They were still in the industrial area, a few miles from the major highway. Once the Buick was there, she'd have no chance. Maya reached into her purse. The handgun was within easy reach. The traffic light turned red. The Buick glided to a stop, first car in line in the right lane. Maya hit the accelerator and veered first left, then back to the right. She knew that she would have to move fast. She passed the Buick on its left, spun the wheel, and angled her car so she blocked him.

  She was out of the car, keeping the gun low and out of sight. Yes, this was ridiculously risky, but she had done the calculations. If he tried to back up or make a run for it, she would shoot his tires. Would someone call the police? Probably. But she was willing to take that risk. Worst-case scenario: The police arrest her. She would then tell them about her husband's murder and that this guy had started following her. She might then have to play the hysterical widow a bit, but there was little chance she would be convicted of something serious.

  Within seconds, Maya was at the red Buick. The glare on the windshield prevented her from seeing the driver, but that wouldn't last. She considered going to the driver's-side window and threatening him with the gun through the glass, but in the end, she opted for the passenger-side door. It might be unlocked, in which case she could just slip inside. If it wasn't, she could make the same threat through that window.

  She reached out, grabbed the door handle, and pulled.

  The car door opened.

  Maya slipped inside and lifted the gun toward the man in the Yankees cap.

  The man turned and smiled at her. "Hey, Maya."

  She sat there, stunned.

  He took the baseball cap off and said, "Nice to finally meet in person."

  She wanted to pull the trigger. She had almost dreamed about this moment--seeing him, pulling the trigger, blowing him away. Her first thought was that simple, instinctive, and primitive: Kill your enemy.

  But if she did, forgetting the legal and moral implications for the moment, the answers would probably die with him. And now, more than ever, she had to know the truth. Because the man following her in the red Buick, the man who had secretly communic
ated with Claire in the weeks before her murder, was none other than Corey the Whistle.

  Chapter 14

  Why are you following me?"

  Corey was still smiling. "Put away the gun, Maya."

  In all the photographs, Corey Rudzinski was well-dressed, baby-faced, and clean-shaven. The scruffy beard, the baseball cap, the dad jeans all made for a pretty good disguise. Maya just stared, still pointing the gun at him. Horns started blaring.

  "We're blocking up traffic," Corey said. "Move your car and then we can talk."

  "I want to know--"

  "And you will. But first move your car to the side of the road."

  More horns.

  Maya reached across and grabbed his car keys. No way she was about to let him slip away. "Don't go anywhere."

  "No plans to, Maya."

  She pulled her car toward the curb, parked it, and slid back into the Buick's passenger seat. She handed him the keys.

  "I bet you're confused," Corey said.

  Dr. Understatement. Maya was stunned. Like a boxer on his heels, she needed time to recover, to take the standing eight count, get her head back into the fight. Explanations for how this could be rose into view, but in every case, she was able to shoot them down with too much ease.

  Nothing made sense.

  She started with an obvious question. "How do you know my sister?"

  His smile faded away when she asked that, replaced by what appeared to be genuine sadness, and she realized why. Maya had said, "do you know"--present tense. Corey Rudzinski had indeed known Claire. He had, Maya could see, cared for her.

  He faced forward. "Let's take a ride," he said.

  "I'd rather you just answer the question."

  "I can't stay out here. Too exposed. They won't stand for it either."

  "They?"

  He didn't reply. He drove her back to Leather and Lace and parked in the same spot. Two cars pulled in behind them. Had the cars been out on the road with them? Maya thought that maybe they had.

  The employee entrance had a keypad. Corey punched in the numbers. Maya memorized the code, just in case. "Don't bother," he said. "Someone still has to buzz you in too."

  "You type in a code and a guard checks you out?"

  "That's right."

  "Sounds like overkill. Or maybe paranoia."

  "Yes, I bet it does."

  The corridor was dark and stank like dirty socks. They walked through the club. The Disney song "A Whole New World" was blaring. The pole dancer wore a Princess-Jasmine-from-Aladdin costume. Maya frowned. Seemed dress-up wasn't just for preschool.