The woods, p.20
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       The Woods, p.20

           Harlan Coben
 
Chapter 21

 

  "LUCE?" I SAID INTO THE PHONE. "YOU OKAY?"

  "I'm fine. It's just. . . "

  "Yeah, I know. "

  "I can't believe I did that. "

  "You always were an easy cry," I said, regretting it the moment it came out. But she snorted a laugh. "Not anymore," she said. Silence. Then I said, "Where are you?" "I work at Reston University. I'm walking across the commons. " "Oh," I said, because I didn't know what else to say. "I'm sorry about leaving such a cryptic message. I don't go by Silver- stein anymore. " I didn't want her to know I already knew this. But I didn't want to lie either. So again I gave a noncommittal "Oh. " More silence. She broke it this time.

  "Man, this is awkward. "

  I smiled. "I know. "

  "I feel like a big dope," she said. "Like I'm sixteen again and worried about a new zit. "

  "Same here," I said.

  "We never really change, do we? I mean, inside, we're always a scared kid, wondering what we're going to be when we grow up. "

  I was still smiling, but I thought about her never being married and the DUIs. We don't change, I guess, but our path certainly does. "It's good to hear your voice, Luce. " "Yours too. " Silence. "I was calling because. . . " Lucy stopped. Then: "I don't even know how to say this, so let me ask a question. Has anything strange happened to you lately?"

  "Strange how?"

  "Strange as in about-that-night strange. "

  I should have expected her to say something like that-knew it was coming-but the smile still fled as if I'd been punched. "Yes. " Silence. "What the hell is going on, Paul?" "I don't know. " "I think we need to figure it out. "

  I agree.

  "Do you want to meet?"

  "Yes. "

  "It's going to be weird," she said.

  "I know. "

  "I mean, I don't want it to be. And that's not why I called. To see you. But I think we should meet up and discuss this, don't you?"

  "I do," I said.

  "I'm babbling. I babble when I get nervous. "

  "I remember," I said. And then, again, I regretted saying that, so I quickly added, "Where should we meet?"

  "Do you know where Reston University is?"

  "Yes. "

  "I have another class and then student appointments until seven-thirty," Lucy said. "Do you want to meet me at my office? It's in the Armstrong Building. Say, eight o'clock?" "I'll be there. "

  When I arrived home I was surprised to find the press camped out in front of my house. You often hear about that-about the press doing stuff like that-but this was my first experience with it. The local cops were on hand, clearly excited to be doing something that seemed quasi-big time. They stood on either side of the driveway so that I could pull in. The press didn't try to stop them. In fact, when I pulled in, the press barely seemed to notice.

  Greta gave me the conquering-hero welcome. She was full of kisses and quick hugs and congratulations. I love Greta. There are some people you know are pure good, who are always on your side. There aren't many of them. But there are some. Greta would jump in the way of a bullet for me. And she made me want to protect her.

  In that way she reminded me of my sister.

  "Where's Cara?" I asked.

  "Bob took Cara and Madison to Baumgart's for dinner. "

  Estelle was in the kitchen, doing laundry. "I need to go out to night," I said to her.

  "No problem. "

  Greta said, "Cara can sleep over at our house. "

  "I think I'd rather she slept at home tonight, thanks. "

  She followed me into the den. The front door opened and Bob came in with the two girls. Again I envisioned my daughter sprinting into my arms while screaming, "Daddy! You're home!" That didn't hap- pen. But she did smile and she did come over to me. I swept her up in my arms and kissed her hard. She held the smile but wiped her cheek. Hey, I'll take it.

  Bob slapped my back. "Congrats on the trial," he said.

  "Its not over yet. "

  "That's not what the media is saying. Either way it should get that Jenrette off our back. "

  "Or more desperate. "

  His face paled a little. If you were to cast Bob in a movie, he'd be the bad-guy rich Republican. His complexion was ruddy, his jowls thick, his fingers short and stubby. Here was another example of where appearances could be deceiving. Bob's background was totally blue collar. He studied and worked hard. Nothing had ever been given to him or made easy.

  Cara came back into the room carrying a DVD. She held it up as though it were an offering. I closed my eyes, and remembering what day of the week it was, I cursed to myself. Then I said to my little girl, "It's movie night. "

  She still held up the DVD. Her eyes were wide. She was smiling. On the cover was something animated or computer-generated with talking cars or maybe farm animals or zoo animals, something from Pixar or Disney, something I had seen a hundred times already.

  "That's right. Will you make popcorn?"

  I took a knee so I was at her eye level. I put a hand on either shoulder. "Honey," I said, "Daddy has to go out tonight. "

  No reaction.

  "I'm sorry, sweetie. "

  I waited for the tears. "Can Estelle watch it with me?"

  "Sure, honey. "

  "And she can make popcorn?"

  "Of course. "

  "Cool. "

  Td been hoping for a little crestfallen. No go. Cara skipped away. I looked at Bob. He looked at me as if to say, Kids - what can you do? "Inside," I said, gesturing toward my daughter. "On the inside, she's really crushed. "

  Bob laughed as my cell phone buzzed. The read-out simply said, New Jersey, but I recognized the number and felt a little jolt. I picked it up and said, "Hello?"

  "Nice job today, All-Star. "

  "Mr. Governor," I said.

  "That's not correct. "

  "Excuse me?"

  "Mr. Governor. You would properly address the President of the United States as Mr. President, but governors are addressed as either Governor or by their last name, for example, Governor Stallion or Governor Chick Magnet. "

  "Or," I said, "how about Governor Anal Compulsive. "

  "There's that. "

  I smiled. During my freshman year at Rutgers, I first met (now Governor) Dave Markie at a party. He intimidated me. I was the immigrant's son. His father was a United States senator. But that was the beauty of college. It is made for strange bedfellows. We ended up be coming close friends.

  Dave's critics could not help but notice this friendship when he appointed me to my current post as Essex County prosecutor. The guv shrugged and pushed me through. I had gotten very good press already, and at the risk of caring about what I shouldn't care about, today should have helped my possible bid for a congressional seat.

  "So, big day, no? You da man. Woo hoo. Go, Cope, go, Cope, it's your birthday. "

  "Trying to appeal to your hip-hop constituency?"

  "Trying to understand my teenage daughter. Anyway, congrats. "

  "Thanks. "

  "I'm still no-commenting this case to death. "

  "I've never heard you say no-comment in your life. "

  "Sure you have, just in creative ways: I believe in our judicial system, all citizens are innocent until proven guilty, the wheels of justice will turn, I am not judge and jury, we should wait for all the facts to come in. "

  "Cliche as no comment. " "Cliche as no comment and every comment," he corrected. "So how is everything, Cope?" "Fine. "

  "You dating?"

  "Some. "

  "Dude, you're single. You're good-looking. You got some money in the bank. Do you see where I'm going with this?" "You're subtle, Dave, but I think I can follow. " Dave Markie had always been a lady slayer. He was okay-looking, but the man had a gift for pick-up that could be conservatively called dazzling. He had that sort of charisma where he made every woman feel as though she was the most beautiful and fascinating person in the world. It was all an act.
He just wanted to nail them. Nothing but. Still, I had never seen anybody better at picking up women.

  Dave was married now, of course, had two polished children, but I had little doubt that there was some side action. Some men can't help it. It is instinctive and primitive. The idea of Dave Markie not hitting on a woman was simply anathema.

  "Good news," he said. "I'm coming up to Newark. "

  "What for?"

  "Newark is the largest city in my state, that's why, and I value all my constituents. " "Uh-huh. " "And I want to see you. It's been too long. "

  "I'm kinda busy with this case. "

  "You can't make time for your governor?"

  "What's up, Dave?"

  "It involves what we talked about before. "

  My possible congressional run. "Good news?" I said.

  "No. "

  Silence.

  "I think there's a problem," he said.

  "What kind of problem?"

  His voice switched back to jovial. "Could be nothing, Cope. We'll talk. Let's make it your office. Say, lunchtime?" "Okay. " "Get those sandwiches. From that place on Brandford. " "Hobby's. " "Exactly. The fully dressed turkey breast on homemade rye. Get yourself one too. See you then. "

  Lucy Gold's office building was the otherwise-lovely quad's resident eyesore, a seventies "mod" structure that was supposed to look futuristic but somehow looked dated three years after completion. The rest of the quad edifices were handsome brick that begged for more ivy. I parked in the lot in the southwest corner. I tilted the rearview mirror and then, to paraphrase Springsteen, I checked my look in that mirror and wanted to change my clothes, mohair, my face.

  I parked and walked across the commons. I passed a dozen students. The girls were much prettier than I remembered, but that was probably my aging. I nodded at them as I walked by. They didn't nod back. When I went to college there was a guy in my class who was thirty-eight years old. He'd gone to the military and skipped getting his BA. I remembered how he stuck out on campus because he looked so goddamn old. That was my age now. Hard to fathom. I was the same age as that seemingly old geezer.

  I continued to think such inane thoughts because they helped me ignore where I was going. I wore an untucked white dress shirt, blue jeans, blue blazer, Ferragamo loafers without socks. Mr. Casual Chic.

  When I approached the building, I could actually feel my body shaking. I scolded myself. I was a grown man. I had been married. I was a father and a widower. I had last seen this woman more than half my life ago.

  When do we grow out of this?

  I checked the directory, even though Lucy had told me that her office was on the third floor, door B. There it was. Professor Lucille Gold. Three-B. I managed to press the right button in the elevator. I turned left when I got out on the third floor, even though the sign with the "A-E" had an arrow pointing right.

  I found her door. There was a sign-up sheet with her office hours. Most of the time slots were taken. There was also a class schedule and something about when assignments were due. I almost breathed into my hand and smelled it, but I was already working a peppermint Altoid.

  I knocked, two sharp raps with the knuckles. Confident, I thought. Manly.

  God, I'm pathetic.

  "Come in. "

  Her voice made my stomach drop. I opened the door and stepped into the room. She stood near the window. The sun was still out, and a shadow cut across her. She was still damn beautiful. I took the hit and stayed where I was. For a moment we just stood there, fifteen feet apart, neither moving.

  "How's the lighting?" she said.

  "Excuse me?"

  "I was trying to figure out where to be. You know, when you knocked. Do I answer the door? Nah, too much of an early close-up. Do I stay at my desk with a pencil in my hand? Should I look up at you over my half-moon reading glasses? Anyway, I had a friend of mine help me test out all the angles. He thought I looked best with this one-across the room, the shade half drawn. "

  I smiled. "You look terrific. "

  "So do you. How many outfits did you try on?"

  "Only this one," I said. "But I've been told in the past its my A-game look. You?" "I tried on three blouses. " "I like this one," I said. "You always looked good in green. " "I had blond hair back then. " "Yeah, but you still have the green eyes," I said. "Can I come in?" She nodded. "Close the door. " "Should we, I don't know, hug or something?" "Not yet. " Lucy sat at her desk chair. I sat in the chair in front of the desk. "This is so messed up," she said. "I know. " "I have a million things I want to ask you. " "Me too. " "I saw online about your wife," she said. "I'm sorry. " I nodded. "How's your father?" "Not well. " "I'm sorry to hear that. " "All that free love and drugs-eventually they take a toll. Ira also. . . he never got over what happened, you know?"

  I guessed that I did.

  "How about your parents?" Lucy asked.

  "My father died a few months ago. "

  "I'm sorry to hear that. I remember him so well from that summer. "

  "It was the last time he was happy," I said.

  "Because of your sister?"

  "Because of a lot of things. Your father gave him the chance to be a doctor again. He loved that-practicing medicine. He never got to do it again. "

  "I'm sorry. "

  "My father really didn't want to be part of the lawsuit-he adored Ira-but he needed to blame someone and my mom pushed him. All the other families were on board. "

  "You don't need to explain. "

  I stopped. She was right.

  "And your mother?" she asked.

  "Their marriage didn't survive. "

  The answer did not seem to surprise her.

  "Do you mind if I put on my professional hat?" she asked.

  "Not at all. "

  "Losing a child is a ridiculous strain on a marriage," Lucy said.

  "Most people think that only the strongest marriages survive that sort of blow. That's not true. I've studied it. I've seen marriages one might de scribe as 'crappy' endure and even improve. I've seen ones that seemed destined to last forever crack apart like cheap plaster. Do you two have a good relationship?"

  "My mother and I?"

  "Yes. "

  "I haven't seen her in eighteen years. "

  We sat there.

  "You've lost a lot of people, Paul. "

  "You're not going to psychoanalyze me, are you?"

  "No, nothing like that. " She sat back and looked up and away. It was a look that sent me right back. We would sit out in the camp's old baseball field, where the grass was overgrown, and I would hold her and she would look up and away like that.

  "When I was in college," Lucy began, "I had this friend. She was a twin. Fraternal, not identical. I guess that doesn't make much of a difference, but with the identical, there seems to be a stronger bond. Any way, when we were sophomores her sister died in a car crash. My friend had the strangest reaction. She was devastated, of course, but part of her was almost relieved. She thought, well, that's it. God got me. That was my turn. I'm okay for now. I gave at the office. You lose a twin sister like that, you're sorta safe the rest of your life. One heartbreaking tragedy per person. You know what I mean?"

  "I do. "

  "But life isn't like that. Some get a lifetime pass. Others, like you, get more than your share. Much more. And the worst part is, it doesn't make you immune to even more. "

  "Life ain't fair," I said.

  "Amen. " Then she smiled at me. "This is so weird, isn't it?"

  Yes.

  "I know we were together for, what, six weeks?"

  "Something like that. "

  "And it was just a summer fling, when you think about it. You've probably had dozens of girls since then. " "Dozens?" I repeated. "What, more like hundreds?" "At the very least," I said. Silence. I felt something well up in my chest. "But you were special, Lucy. You were. . . " I stopped. "Yeah, I know," she said. "So were you. That's why this is awkward.

  I want to know ever
ything about you. But I'm not sure now is the time. "

  It was as if a surgeon was at work, a time-warping plastic surgeon maybe. He had snipped off the last twenty years, pulled my eighteen year-old self up to meet my thirty-eight-year-old one, done it almost seamlessly.

  "So what made you call me?" I asked.

  "The strange thing?"

  "Yeah. "

  "You said you had one too. "

  I nodded.

  "Would you mind going first?" she asked. "You know, like when we messed around?"

  "Ouch. "

  "Sorry. " She stopped, crossed her arms over her chest as if cold. "I'm babbling like a ditz. Cant help it. " "You haven't changed, Luce. " "Yeah, Cope. I've changed. You wouldn't believe how much I've changed. "

  Our eyes met, really met, for the first time since I entered the room. I'm not big on reading people's eyes. I have seen too many good liars to believe much of what I see. But she was telling me something there, a tale, and the tale had a lot of pain in it.

  I didn't want any lies between the two of us.

  "Do you know what I do now?" I asked.

  "You're the county prosecutor. I saw that online too. "

  "Right. That gives me access to information. One of my investigators did a quick background check on you. " "I see. So you know about my drinking and driving. " I said nothing. "I drank too much, Cope. Still do. But I don't drive anymore. " "Not my business. " "No, it's not. But I'm glad you told me. " She leaned back, folded her hands, placed them in her lap. "So tell me what happened, Cope. " "A few days ago, a couple of Manhattan homicide detectives showed me an unidentified male victim," I said. "I think the man - a man they said was in his mid to late thirties-was Gil Perez. "

  Her jaw dropped. "Our Gil?"

  "Yes. "

  "How the hell is that possible?"

  "I don't know. "

  "He's been alive all this time?"

  "Apparently. "

  She stopped and shook her head. "Wait, did you tell his parents?"

  "The police brought them in to ID him. "

  "What did they say?"

  "They said it wasn't Gil. That Gil died twenty years ago. "

  She collapsed back in the chair. "Wow. " I watched her tap her lower lip as she mulled it over. Another gesture straight back from our camp days. "So what has Gil been doing all this time?"

  "Wait, you're not going to ask me if I'm sure it's him?"

  "Of course you're sure. You wouldn't have said it if you weren't. So his parents are either lying or, more likely, in denial. " "Yes. " "Which one?" "I'm not sure. But I'm leaning toward lying. " "We should confront them. " "We?" "Yes. What else have you learned about Gil?" "Not much. " I shifted in my seat. "How about you? What happened?"

  "My students write anonymous journals. I got one that pretty much described what happened to us that night. " I thought I was hearing wrong. "A student journal?" "Yep. They had a lot of it right. Howe went into the woods. How we were messing around. How we heard the scream. "

  I was still having trouble understanding. "A journal written by one of your students?"

  "Yeah. "

  "And you have no idea who wrote it?"

  "Nope. "

  I thought about it. "Who knows your real identity?"

  "I don't know. I didn't change identities, just my name. It wouldn't be that hard to find. " "And when did you get this journal?" "Monday. " "Pretty much the day after Gil was murdered. " We sat and let that settle. I asked, "Do you have the journal here?" "I made you a copy. " She handed the pages across the desk. I read them. It brought it back. It hurt, reading it. I wondered about the heart stuff, about never getting over the mysterious "P. " But when I put it down, the first thing I said to her was, "This isn't what happened. "

  "I know. "

  "But it's close. "

  She nodded.

  "I met this young woman who knew Gil. She said she overheard him talking about us. He said that we lied. " Lucy kept still for a moment. She spun the chair so that now I saw her profile. "We did. "

  "Not about anything that mattered," I said.

  "We were making love," she said, "while they were being murdered. "

  I said nothing. I partitioned again. That was how I got through my day. Because if I didn't partition, I would remember that I was the counselor on guard duty that night. That I shouldn't have sneaked off with my girlfriend. That I should have watched them better. That if I had been a responsible kid, if I had done what I was supposed to, I wouldn't have said I had done head counts when I hadn't. I wouldn't have lied about it the next morning. We would have known that they were gone since the night before, not just that morning. So maybe, while I put check marks next to cabin inspections that I had never done, my sister was having her throat slashed.

  Lucy said, "We were just kids, Cope. "

  Still nothing.

  "They sneaked out. They would have sneaked out if we were there or not. "

  Probably not, I thought. I would have been there. I would have spotted them. Or I would have noticed empty beds when I did my rounds. I did none of that. I went off and had a good time with my girlfriend. And the next morning, when they weren't there, I figured that they were just having fun. Gil had been dating Margot, though I thought they'd broken up. My sister was seeing Doug Billingham, though they weren't too serious. They had run off, were having fun.

  So I lied. I said I'd checked the cabins and that they'd been safely tucked away. Because I didn't realize the danger. I said I was alone that night-I stuck to that lie for too long-because I wanted to protect Lucy. Isn't that strange? I didn't know all the damage. So yeah, I lied. Once Margot Green was found, I admitted most of the truth-that I'd been negligent on guard duty. But I left off Lucy's role. And once I stuck with that lie, I was afraid to go back and tell the whole truth. They were suspicious of me already-I still remember Sheriff Lowell's skeptical face-and if I admitted it later, the police would wonder why I lied in the first place. It was irrelevant anyway.

  What difference did it make if I was alone or with somebody? Either way, I didn't watch out for them. During the lawsuit, Ira Silversteins office tried to lay some of the blame on me. But I was only a kid. There were twelve cabins on the boys' side of the camp alone. Even if I had been in position, it would have been easy enough to sneak out. The security was inadequate. That was true. Legally, it wasn't my fault.

  Legally.

  "My father used to go back to those woods," I said.

  She turned toward me.

  "He would go digging. "

  "For what?"

  "For my sister. He told us he was going fishing. But I knew. He did it for two years. " "What made him stop?" "My mother left us. I think he figured that his obsession had cost him too much already. He hired private eyes instead. Called some old friends. But I don't think he dug anymore. "

  I looked at her desk. It was a mess. Papers were scattered, some half-tumbling off like a frozen waterfall. There were open textbooks sprawled out like wounded soldiers.

  "That's the problem when you don't have a body," I said. "I assume you've studied the stages of grief?"

  "I have. " She nodded, seeing it. "The first step is denial. "

  "Exactly. In a sense, we never got past that. "

  "No body, ergo, denial. You needed proof to move on. "

  "My father did. I mean, I was sure Wayne had killed her. But then I would see my father going out like that. " "It made you doubt. " "Let's just say it kept the possibility alive in my mind. " "And what about your mother?" "She grew more and more distant. My parents never had the greatest marriage. There were cracks already. When my sister died - or what ever the hell happened - she totally withdrew from him. " We both went quiet. The last remnants of sunlight were fading away. The sky was turning into a purple swirl. I looked out the window to my left. She looked out too. We sat there, the closest we had been to each other in twenty years.

  I said before that the years had been surgical
ly removed. They seemed to return now. The sadness was back. I could see it on her. The long-lasting destruction to my family from that night was obvious. I had hoped that Lucy had been able to get past it. But she hadn't. There hadn't been closure for her either. I don't know what else had happened to her over the last twenty years. To blame that one incident for the sad ness I saw in her eyes would be too pat. But I could see it now. I could see myself pulling away from her that very night.

  The student journal had talked about how she had never gotten over me. I don't flatter myself to that degree. But she had never gotten over that night. What it did to her father. What it did to her childhood.

  "Paul?"

  She was still looking out the window.

  "Yes?"

  "What do we do now?"

  "We find out what really happened in those woods. "