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Fool Me Once, Page 16

Harlan Coben


  "Suppose it was all a setup," Shane said, warming up to his outlandish conspiracy theory. "Suppose these two punks were hired to fire blanks and make it look like Joe was dead."

  "Shane?"

  "Yes."

  "You realize how crazy that sounds, right?"

  He kept plucking that lower lip.

  "The cops were there too, Shane, remember? People saw the body."

  "Okay, let's take that one at a time. First off, the people who saw the body. Sure. If you were the only witness, it wouldn't be enough. So Joe lies there with the fake blood or whatever. In the dark. A few people see him. It's not like they took his pulse or anything."

  Maya shook her head. "Are you kidding?"

  "Do you see a problem with my theory?"

  "Where to begin?" Maya countered. "What about the cops?"

  He spread his hands. "Didn't you yourself tell me that a payoff had been made?"

  "To Kierce, you mean? Your new buddy who you liked and seemed to follow the rules?"

  "I could be wrong about him. Wouldn't be the first time. And maybe Kierce made sure he was on duty when the murder happened. If it was a setup, Joe would know the when and where. So Kierce made sure his name came up in the rotation. Or maybe, I don't know, the Burketts also paid off the chief or captain or whatever so Kierce's name came up and he was first on the scene."

  "You should make one of those YouTube conspiracy tapes, Shane. Was 9/11 an inside job too?"

  "I'm giving you possibilities, Maya."

  "So let me get this straight," she said. "They were all in on it. The punk kids who Kierce arrested. The cops at the scene. The medical examiner. I mean, if Joe is carted off as dead, there's an autopsy, right?"

  "Hold up," Shane said.

  "What?"

  "Didn't you say that there was some kind of issue with the death certificate?"

  "A bureaucratic snafu. And stop plucking at your lip, please."

  Shane almost smiled. "There are holes in what I'm saying. I admit that. I could ask Kierce to see the autopsy photos--"

  "Which he won't give you."

  "I can be pretty resourceful."

  "Don't be. Oh, and if they went to this much trouble, who's to say they couldn't doctor up some autopsy photos too?"

  "Good point."

  "I was being sarcastic." Maya shook her head. "He's dead, Shane. Joe is dead."

  "Or he's messing with you."

  Maya mulled that over for a few moments. "Or," she said, "someone is."

  Chapter 18

  Soccer Day was like something out of a nostalgic American movie that was just a little too perfect, too Norman Rockwell, to be authentic. There were tents and booths and games and rides. There were laughs and cheers and referee whistles and music. Food trucks offered up burgers and sausages and ice cream and tacos. You could buy pretty much anything in the town's green-and-white colors--T-shirts, caps, hoodies, polos, decals, water bottles, coffee mugs, key chains, fold-out chairs. Even the bounce house and inflatable slides were green and white.

  Every grade had set up their own activity booth. The seventh grade girls applied temporary tattoos. The eighth grade boys had a radar gun and goalie net so you could see the speed of your kicks. The girls' sixth grade had set up a face-painting booth.

  That was where Maya and Lily found Alexa.

  When Alexa spotted them, she dropped her paintbrush and ran toward them yelling, "Lily! Hey!"

  Lily, who had been holding her mother's hand, let go now. She giggled and covered her mouth with her tiny hands and quivered with that level of anticipation and joy that only little children can reach. The quivering and giggles grew as Lily's cousin barreled toward them. The giggles grew into shrieking laughs when Alexa scooped Lily off the ground.

  Maya stood there, a definite spectator in this greeting, and smiled.

  "Lily! Aunt Maya!"

  It was Daniel now hurrying toward them. Eddie trailed behind his son, a smile on his face too. The scene felt so unreal to Maya, almost obscene in the middle of the personal chaos, but that was okay. The world has lines and fences. More than anything, Maya wanted to keep these three children on the right side of them.

  Daniel gave his aunt a quick kiss on the cheek on his way to Lily. He took her from his sister and hoisted her high in the air. The sound of Lily's laugh, a sound of pure undiluted innocence, made Maya pull up. When, she wondered, was the last time she had heard her daughter make a sound like that?

  "Can we take her on the rides, Aunt Maya?" Alexa asked.

  "We'll be careful," Daniel added.

  Eddie moved up next to Maya.

  "Sure," Maya said. "You need some money?"

  "We got it," Daniel said, and they were off.

  Maya gave Eddie a quick smile. Her former brother-in-law looked better today, clean-shaven and clear-eyed. He kissed her cheek. No smell of booze. Maya turned her gaze back on the three kids walking away. Daniel had put Lily down between Alexa and himself. Lily held on to Daniel with her right hand, Alexa with her left.

  "Beautiful day," Eddie said.

  Maya nodded. It was indeed. The sun was shining as though on a director's cue. Here was the American dream, spread out before Maya like a warm blanket, and the overwhelming feeling for her was that she didn't belong here, that her very presence was a dark cloud blocking that glowing light.

  "Eddie?"

  His hand cupped his eyes to keep the sun out. He turned toward her.

  "Claire wasn't cheating on you."

  His eyes welled up so fast he had to look away. He hunched over, and for a second, Maya worried that he might be crying. She reached out, wanting to put a hand on his shoulder, but she stopped short and let the hand fall to her side.

  "You're sure?" he said.

  "Yes."

  "And that phone?"

  "Do you remember my, uh, troubles with that combat tape that got released?"

  "Yes, of course."

  "There was more to them."

  "What do you mean?"

  "The guy who leaked it--"

  "Corey the Whistle," Eddie said.

  "Right. He didn't release the audio."

  Eddie looked confused.

  "I think Claire talked him out of it."

  "That audio," Eddie said. "It would have made it worse for you?"

  "Yes."

  Eddie nodded, but he didn't ask what was on it. "Claire was so upset when that scandal broke. We all were. We were worried about you."

  "Claire took it a step further."

  "How?"

  "She contacted Corey. She hooked up with his organization."

  There was no reason to go into Claire's possible motives with Eddie. Maybe Claire worked with Corey as quid pro quo for leaving Maya alone. Maybe Corey, who could be persuasive and charming, had convinced her that helping him take down the Burkett family was the moral and just thing to do. Didn't matter in the end.

  "Claire started to gather dirt on the Burketts," she said. "To help Corey's organization take them down."

  "Do you think that's what got her killed?"

  Maya looked over at her daughter. Alexa's whole team had gathered around Lily to ooh and aah. They were taking turns putting green-and-white face paint on her, and even at this distance, Maya could feel her daughter's joy.

  "Yes."

  "I don't understand," Eddie said. "Why didn't Claire tell me?"

  Maya kept her eyes on the children, playing her part as the silent sentinel. She could feel Eddie's gaze, but she kept silent. Claire hadn't told him because she wanted to keep him safe. In doing so, in keeping Eddie completely ignorant, Claire had in all likelihood saved his life. She had loved her husband. She had loved him very much. Jean-Pierre was a stupid fantasy that would have curdled in the light of reality like turned milk. Claire, the loving pragmatist, had seen that, even if Maya, so impetuous with her own love life, couldn't. Claire had loved Eddie. She had loved Daniel and Alexa. She had loved this life with its Soccer Days and face painting under the
bright sun.

  "Do you remember anything unusual, Eddie? Anything that might fit into this?"

  "Like I told you before, she started working later. She was distracted. I would ask her what was wrong, but she didn't want to tell me." His voice grew soft. "She told me not to worry."

  The kids finished the face painting and started toward the carousel.

  "Did she ever mention a man named Tom Douglass?"

  Eddie thought about it. "No. Who is he?"

  "He's a private detective."

  "Why would she go to him?"

  "Because the Burketts have been paying him off. Did you ever hear her talk about Andrew Burkett?"

  He frowned. "Joe's brother who drowned?"

  "Yes."

  "No. What does he have to do with it?"

  "I don't know yet. But I need you to do something."

  "Name it."

  "Look at everything again with fresh eyes. Her travel records, her personal files, anyplace she may have hid things. Whatever. She was trying to take down the Burketts. She found out that they were paying off this Tom Douglass, and I think that was the catalyst for something bigger."

  Eddie nodded. "I will."

  They both stood there and watched Daniel hoist Lily onto a carousel horse. Daniel stayed on one side, Alexa on the other. Lily beamed.

  "Look at them," Eddie said. "Just . . ."

  Maya nodded, afraid to speak. Eddie had said that death followed her, but it probably wasn't that simple. All around her, children and families played and laughed and reveled in the glory of this seemingly ordinary day. They did so without fear or care because they didn't get it. They all played and they all laughed and they felt so damn safe. They didn't see how fragile it all was. War was far away from them, they thought. Not just another continent but another realm. It couldn't touch them.

  But they were wrong about that.

  It had touched one of them already, more specifically Claire, and Maya was to blame. What she had done in a combat helicopter over Al Qa'im, like those sounds that wouldn't ever leave her, started an echo, a reverberation, and eventually that echo found its way to her sister.

  The truth was so obvious and so deeply painful. If Maya hadn't made those mistakes in that chopper, Claire would still be alive. She would be standing here, overwhelmed by the beauty and laughter of her children. It was Maya's fault that she wasn't. Claire was not here, and somewhere, behind the happy smiles of Daniel and Alexa, was a sadness that would always haunt them.

  Lily started to spin her head, looking around. She spotted her mother and waved. Maya swallowed and waved back. Daniel and Alexa waved too and beckoned for Maya to join them.

  "Maya?" Eddie said.

  She said nothing.

  "Go to them."

  Maya shook her head.

  "You're not on guard duty right now," he said, a little too in her thoughts. "Go and enjoy your daughter."

  But he didn't get it. She didn't belong here. She was an outsider, out of her element--even though, ironically, this was the way of life she had fought and risked everything to protect. Yes, this. Right here. This very moment. Yet she couldn't cross that line and be a part of it, could she? Maybe that was the deal you made. You can participate or you can protect, but you really can't do both. Her fellow soldiers would understand. Some might force themselves to cross over. They'd smile and go on the carousel and buy the T-shirts, but there would be something behind the eyes, something that couldn't quite let go, something that kept them scanning the perimeter for approaching danger.

  Did that ever go away?

  Maybe. But not yet. So Maya stood there, watching, a silent sentinel.

  "You go," Maya said.

  Eddie thought about it. "No, I'm good here with you."

  They stayed there and watched.

  "Maya?"

  She said nothing.

  "When you find out who killed Claire, you'll need to tell me."

  Eddie wanted to be the one to avenge his wife. That wouldn't happen. "Okay," she said.

  "Promise?"

  What was one more lie? "Promise."

  Her mobile phone buzzed. She checked the number. Tom Douglass's home line. She stepped to the side and brought the phone to her ear.

  "Hello?"

  "I got your message," Mrs. Douglass said. "Come by as soon as you can."

  *

  "Let me take Lily home with us," Eddie said. "The kids will be thrilled."

  It would indeed make things easier. If Maya were to try to pull Lily away from the festivities, she would understandably throw a tantrum worthy of, well, a two-year-old.

  "It's about that Tom Douglass," she said, even though he hadn't asked. "He lives in Livingston. It shouldn't take more than a couple of hours."

  Eddie made a face.

  "What?"

  "Livingston. That's Exit 15W on the Turnpike, right?"

  "Right, why?"

  "The week before Claire was killed," he said, "her E-Z Pass showed a couple of hits through that toll booth."

  "Was that unusual for her?"

  "I never really checked her E-Z Pass before, but yeah, I mean, we don't go down that far."

  "What do you make of it?"

  "There's some fancy mall down there. I figured maybe that's where she went."

  Or he didn't want to look too closely, which was understandable. No matter. Maya hurried back to her car. Her sister had been murdered because she was getting too close to a secret. Maya was sure of it. That secret had to do with Tom Douglass and, by extension, Joe's brother Andrew Burkett. How Andrew Burkett, who'd been dead almost fifteen years when Maya and Joe met, could possibly have led to Claire's murder was still a mystery.

  She started toward the highway, flipping stations, finding nothing she liked. It wouldn't do to overanalyze right now. Her daughter was safe with Claire's family.

  She hooked up the playlist on her phone via the Bluetooth and tried to clear her mind. Lykke Li came on singing "No Rest for the Wicked." Lykke sang that she let her "good one" down and then the killer line: "I let my true love die." Maya sang along, lost in that small bliss, and when the song was over, she hit the back arrow, played it again, sang it all the way through to the also-killer end stanza: "I had his heart, but I broke it every time."

  Joe had given her this song. Their relationship had been a mad whirlwind, but that had been Maya's disastrous romantic history. Forty-eight hours after meeting at that charity function, Joe had suggested flying down to Turks and Caicos on the Burketts' private plane. Maya had swooned and acquiesced. They spent the weekend at a villa at the Amanyara resort.

  She had expected this new relationship to follow her normal impetuous pattern: intense, sizzling, over-the-top, maniacal romantic connection--followed in short order by a quick cut to black. Sizzle to fizzle. Love to good-bye. For Maya, everyone she fell for became her Jean-Pierre. For maybe three weeks.

  So after week one, when she woke up to find that Joe had made her an online playlist, she listened hard to every song, ciphering out hidden meanings in the lyrics, while lying on her back like a teenager and staring at the ceiling. She loved his taste in music. The songs had done more than speak to her. They had penetrated her defenses, weakened her, left her ripe for, sexist as it might sound, education.

  Still, Maya knew it took two to tango. She had relished whirling helplessly in Joe's vortex--drink, song, travel, sex--but from the start, like with every one of her romantic entanglements, she could see the end in sight. That was okay for her. She had a life in the military. Marriage, kids, Soccer Days--they were not part of the plan. By all rights, Joe should have ended up being another good memory.

  Her relationships eventually turned bad. But the memories didn't.

  Except Maya ended up getting pregnant, and in her ensuing confusion about what to do, Joe stepped up big-time. There was the proposal on one knee while violins played. He promised her happiness. He promised her love. He told her that he was proud of her military service and swore to do
all he could so that she could achieve her career goals. They would be different, he said, living by their own set of rules. Joe's passion was a force unto itself. It swept her along, and before she knew it, Captain Maya Stern was a Burkett.

  Lykke Li faded away and Oh Wonder's "White Blood" came on. Why on earth, she asked herself, was she listening to Joe's heartbreakers? Simple answer: because she liked the songs. In a vacuum, forgetting where it had all gone, these songs still reached inside her and touched her, even this one, even with the gut-wrenching opening lines: "I'm ready to go, I'm ready to go,

  "Can't do it alone . . ."

  Beautiful but bullshit, Maya thought as she spotted Tom Douglass's boat by the garage. She was ready to do it alone.

  Before Maya could ring the bell, the front door opened. Mrs. Douglass was there. Her face was drawn, the skin pulled tight. She looked left and right, opened the screen door, and said, "Get in."

  Maya stepped inside. Mrs. Douglass closed the door behind her.

  "Is someone watching us?" Maya asked.

  "I don't know."

  "Is your husband home?"

  "No."

  Maya kept silent. The woman had called her back because she wanted something. Let her say what it was.

  "I got your phone message," Mrs. Douglass said.

  Maya barely nodded.

  "You said you knew what work my husband was doing for the Burketts."

  This time Mrs. Douglass waited her out. Maya kept it brief.

  "That's not what I said."

  "Oh?"

  "I said I knew why the Burketts were paying your husband."

  "I don't see the difference."

  "I don't think he did work for them," Maya said. "Unless accepting a bribe is work."

  "What are you talking about?"

  "Mrs. Douglass, stop jerking me around, please."

  Her eyes went wide. "I'm not. Please tell me what you learned."

  Maya could hear the desperation in the woman's voice. If she was lying, she was pretty good at it.

  "What did you think your husband was doing for the Burketts?" Maya asked.

  "Tom's a private eye," she said. "I assumed that he was doing confidential private investigation work for a powerful family."

  "But he never told you what the work specifically entailed?"

  "I told you. His work was confidential."

  "Come on, Mrs. Douglass. Are you telling me that your husband would come home from work every day and never tell you anything that went on at the office?"

  A tear escaped and ran down her cheek. "What was Tom doing?" she asked, her voice a whisper. "Please tell me."