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Fool Me Once, Page 21

Harlan Coben

  That was not the answer Maya had been expecting.

  "Could you elaborate?" she asked.

  "I was a math teacher. I taught all kinds of courses in statistics and probabilities. Bivariate data, linear regression, standard deviation, all that stuff. So I look at things as equations and formulas. That's how my mind works. The odds that two students from the same small, elite all-boys prep school die within months of each other are very slim. The odds that those two boys were in the same grade make the odds slimmer still. The odds that both played on the same soccer team, well, again, you can start to rule out coincidence." He almost smiled now, raising one finger in the air, lost as though back in the classroom. "But when you add the final factor into the equation, the possibility of coincidence is lowered to almost zero."

  "What final factor?" Maya asked.

  "Theo and Andrew were roommates."

  The room fell silent.

  "The odds that two seventeen-year-old roommates at a small prep school would both die young and not in some way be related . . . I confess that I don't believe in odds that long."

  In the distance Maya could hear a church-like bell sound. Doors began to open. Young boys began to laugh.

  "When Andrew Burkett drowned," Neville Lockwood continued, "an investigator came by. Someone from the Coast Guard who dealt with any sort of deaths at sea."

  "Was his name Tom Douglass?"

  "Could have been. I don't remember anymore. But he came to this very office. He sat right where you are now sitting. And he too wanted to know about the possibility of a connection."

  Maya swallowed. "You told him you saw one."


  "Could you tell me what it is?"

  "Theo's death was a tremendous shock to our community. How it happened was never reported in the papers. The family wanted it that way. But as much as we were all shocked by what happened, Andrew Burkett was Theo's best friend. He was devastated. I assume that you met Joe well after Andrew died, so you didn't know Andrew, did you?"


  "They were very different, the two brothers. Andrew was a far more sensitive boy. He was a sweet child. His coach used to say that was the quality that held Andrew back on the soccer pitch. He didn't have to be victorious in battle, like Joe. He lacked the aggression, that competitive edge, that killer instinct that you need in the trenches."

  Again, Maya thought, with the inane war metaphors to describe athletics.

  "There may have been more issues with Andrew," Neville Lockwood added. "I really can't say or reveal more, but all that matters for the sake of this discussion was that Andrew took Theo's death very hard. We closed campus for a week after the death. We had counselors at the ready, but most of the boys headed home to, I don't know, recuperate."

  "How about Andrew and Joe?" Maya asked.

  "They went home too. I remember your mother-in-law rushing down with Andrew's old nanny to pick them up. Anyway, all the boys, including your husband, returned to campus. All the boys--except one."



  "When did he come back?"

  Neville Lockwood shook his head. "Andrew Burkett never came back. His mother felt it best if he took the semester off. Campus life returned to normal. That's how these things are. Joe led the soccer team to a great season. They won their league and were prep school state champions. And after the season ended, Joe took a few of his teammates to celebrate on the family yacht . . ."

  "Do you know which boys?"

  "I'm not sure. Christopher Swain for certain. He was co-captain with Joe. I don't remember who else. Anyway, you wanted to know about the connection. I think it's obvious now, but here is my hypothesis. We have a sensitive boy whose best friend tragically dies. The boy is forced to leave school and perhaps, theoretically, has to deal with depression issues. Perhaps, again theoretically, the boy has to take antidepressants or other mood-altering drugs. He is then sailing on a yacht with people who remind him of both this tragedy and what he missed and loved about campus life. There is a raucous party on board. The boy has too much to drink, which mixes badly with whatever medications he might be taking. He's on the boat in the middle of the water. He goes up to the top deck and looks out at the ocean. He's in tremendous pain."

  Neville Lockwood stopped there.

  "You think Andrew committed suicide," Maya said.

  "Perhaps. It's a theory. Or perhaps the mix of alcohol and medications caused a loss of equilibrium and he fell over. Either way, the proof, if you will, is the same: Theo's death directly led to Andrew's. The most likely hypothesis is that the two deaths are thus connected."

  Maya just sat there.

  "So now," he said, "that I've told you my theory, perhaps you can tell me why this is relevant today."

  "One more question if I may."

  He nodded for her to go ahead.

  "If two deaths from the same team are that unlikely, how do you explain three?"

  "Three? I'm not following."

  "I'm talking about Joe."

  He frowned. "He died, what, seventeen years later?"

  "Still. You're the probability guy. What are the odds that his death isn't somehow connected?"

  "Are you saying that your husband's murder is somehow related to Theo and Andrew?"

  "Seems to me," Maya said, "like you already said it."

  Chapter 25

  There was nothing more to learn.

  Neville Lockwood walked her out a few minutes later. Maya sat in her car for a moment. Up ahead was the storied landmark of Franklin Biddle, an eight-story Anglican bell tower. The four notes of the Westminster chimes sounded again. Maya checked her watch. They went on the quarter hour, she assumed.

  She took out her phone and started googling again. Theo Mora's parents were named Javier and Raisa. She started searching "white pages" sites to see if they lived in the area. She found a Raisa Mora within the Philadelphia city limits. It was worth a try.

  Her cell phone rang. The caller ID for Leather and Lace popped up. She lifted the phone to her ear, but of course, whoever was on the other end had already hung up. The signal that Corey needed to see her. Well, she was a solid two hours away, and she had other places to be. Corey would just have to wait.

  Raisa Mora's street was packed with seen-better-days row houses. Maya found the right address and headed up steps of cracked concrete. She pressed the buzzer, listened for footsteps, heard nothing. Smashed bottles lined the walk. Two doors down a man in an open flannel shirt over a wifebeater tee gave her a toothless smile.

  They were a long way from those Westminster chimes.

  Maya pulled open the screen door. It opened with a rusty groan. She knocked hard.

  "Who is it?" a woman from inside called out.

  "My name is Maya Stern."

  "What do you want?"

  "Are you Raisa Mora?"

  "What do you want?"

  "I want to ask you about your son Theo."

  The door flung open. Raisa Mora wore a diner-waitress uniform of faded mustard. Her mascara was smeared. There was more gray than black in the hair bun. She wore socks, and Maya could imagine that she had just come from some too-long work shift and kicked her shoes into a corner.

  "Who are you?"

  "My name is Maya Stern"--then, thinking better of it, she added, "Burkett."

  That last name got her attention. "You're Joe's wife."


  "You're a soldier, right?"

  "Former," Maya said. "Do you mind if I come in?"

  Raisa crossed her arms and leaned against the door frame. "What do you want?"

  "I want to ask about your son Theo's death."

  "Why would you want to know about that?"

  "Please, Mrs. Mora, you have every reason to ask me, but I really don't have time to explain it all. Let me just say this. I'm not sure we know all there is to know about your son's death."

  Raisa stared at her for several seconds. "Your husband was murdered recently. I
saw that in the paper."


  "They picked up two suspects. Saw that too."

  "They're innocent," Maya said.

  "I don't understand." The facade didn't so much crack as give way just enough for a tear to appear. "You think, what, Joe's murder has something to do with my Theo?"

  "I don't know," Maya said as gently as she could. "But is there any harm in just answering my questions?"

  Raisa kept her arms crossed. "What do you want to know?"


  "Come on in then. I'm going to need to sit down."


  The two women sat together on a threadbare couch that had clearly seen better days, but then again, so had the rest of the room. Raisa handed Maya a framed family photograph. The hues had been faded by age or too much sun or, more likely, both. Five people were in the picture. Maya recognized Theo with two smaller boys who she assumed were his brothers. Behind the three children stood Raisa, looking not all that much younger though a hell of a lot happier, and a stocky man with a big mustache and wide smile.

  "That's Javier," Raisa said, pointing to the man. "Theo's father. He passed away two years after Theo died. Cancer. That's what they say. But . . ."

  Javier had a good smile, the kind you could feel even in a photograph, the kind that made you wonder what his laugh sounded like. Raisa took the photograph back from Maya and gingerly placed it back on the shelf.

  "Javier came here from Mexico. I was a poor girl living in San Antonio. We met and . . . you don't need to hear this."

  "No, go ahead."

  "Doesn't matter," Raisa said. "We ended up in Philadelphia because Javier had a cousin who got him a job doing landscaping. You know. Mowing lawns for rich people. That kind of thing. But Javier--" She stopped, smiled at some memory. "He was smart, ambitious. Really personable too. Everybody liked Javier. He had that way about him. You know what I mean? Some people--they're just kind of magic. They draw people to them. My Javier was one of them."

  Maya nodded toward the photograph. "I can see that."

  "You can, right?" Her smile faded away. "Anyway, Javier did a lot of work for the families on the Main Line, including the Lockwood family."

  "As in the headmaster?"

  "His cousin, actually. Super rich financial guy. He mostly lived in New York, but he kept an estate out here too. Snootiest-looking man you ever met with his blond hair and jutted jaw and all that, but he was kind too. He liked Javier. The men started talking a lot. One day, Javier told him about Theo." The pain came back to her face all at once. "He was such a special boy, my Theo. So smart. Great athlete. Really had it all, as they say. Like all parents, we wanted a better life for him. Javier, he wanted to get Theo into a better school. Turns out Franklin Biddle Academy was looking to get a few scholarship kids in, you know, financial aid so they could say that the school was"--she made quote marks with her hands--"'diverse.' So this Lockwood guy wanted to help. He talked to his cousin the headmaster, and next thing you know . . . Have you been to the school?"


  "Ridiculous, right?"

  "I guess."

  "But Javier was so happy when Theo got in. Me, I was worried for Theo. How do you fit in at a place like that when you come from a place like this? It's almost like, I don't know, what do they call it when scuba divers come up too fast? The bends. It felt like that to me. I didn't say anything though. I'm not stupid. I could see what an opportunity this could be for Theo. You know what I mean?"

  "Yes, of course."

  "So one morning, Javier goes off to work." Raisa Mora clasped her hands as though in desperate prayer, and Maya figured that they were getting close. "Me, I got the late shift at work. So I was home. The doorbell rings." Her gaze traveled in that direction. "They don't call. They ring the doorbell, you know, like Theo was in the army or something. It's Headmaster Lockwood and some other school official, I don't remember his name. They're just standing there and I see their faces and you'd think I would know, right? You'd think I would see them standing there with their eyes down and looking all sad and that I'd get it right away and then I'd collapse onto the ground screaming, 'No, no!' But it wasn't that way at all. I smiled at them. Said, 'Well, this is a nice surprise.' Showed them in. Asked them if I could get them some coffee and then . . ." She almost smiled. "You want to hear something awful?"

  Maya thought that she already had--what could be more awful?--but she nodded.

  "I found out later that they actually taped everything they said to me. Lawyer's advice or something. They actually had a tape recorder going the whole time they're telling me how my boy's body was found by some custodian in the basement. I didn't get it. 'Custodian?' I said. They said his name, like that would matter. Theo had too much to drink, they told me. Like an overdose with alcohol. I said, 'Theo doesn't drink,' and they nodded like that made perfect sense, that it's always the boys who don't know what they're doing who end up drinking too much and dying. They said normally a kid can be saved when this happens, but Theo stumbled around and ended up in a corner of the basement. No one saw him until the next day. By then, it was too late."

  Same thing, almost word for word, that Neville Lockwood had told her.

  It was starting to sound practiced, rehearsed.

  "Was an autopsy done?" Maya asked.

  "Yes. Javier and me, we met with the coroner ourselves. Nice woman. We sat in her office, and she told us it was alcohol poisoning. I guess a lot of boys got drunk that night. Some kind of party that got out of control. But Javier, he didn't believe it."

  "What did he think happened?"

  "He didn't know. He thought maybe someone pressured Theo, you know. New kid in school, poor kid, so the rich kids pressured him and he drank too much. He wanted to make a big stink about it."

  "And you?"

  "I didn't see the point," she said with an exhausted shrug. "Even if that was true, it wouldn't bring Theo back, would it? And that's what happens everywhere, doesn't it? Kids in this neighborhood get pressured too. So what was the point? And then . . . I know it's wrong, but then there's the money to consider."

  Maya got what she meant. "The school made a financial offer?"

  "You see these other two boys in the picture?" She wiped the tears from her eyes and stuck out her chest. "That's Melvin. He's now a professor at Stanford. A professor and he's barely thirty years old. And Johnny is in medical school at Johns Hopkins. The academy made sure that our boys never had to pay for their education. Gave Javier and me some money too. But we just put it in accounts for the children."

  "Mrs. Mora, do you remember Theo's roommate at Franklin Biddle?"

  "You mean Andrew Burkett?"


  "He would have been, what, your brother-in-law. The poor boy."

  "You remember him then?"

  "Of course. They all came to Theo's funeral. All these handsome, rich-looking boys with their blue blazers and school ties and wavy hair. All dressed exactly the same, all lining up to say 'My condolences' like rich-boy robots. But Andrew, he was different."

  "How so?"

  "He was sad. Really, really sad. He wasn't just, I don't know, going through the motions."

  "Were they close? Andrew and Theo?"

  "I think so, yes. Theo said Andrew was his best friend. When Andrew fell off that boat not long after, I mean, I read it was an accident. But that didn't make sense to me. The poor boy loses his best friend--and then he falls off a boat?" She looked up at Maya with an arched eyebrow. "It wasn't an accident, was it?"

  Maya said, "I don't think so, no."

  "Javier suspected that. We went to Andrew's funeral, did you know that?"

  "No, I didn't."

  "I remembered saying to Javier, 'Andrew seemed so sad about Theo.' I wondered if grief killed him, you know what I mean? Like he was so sad that he ended up maybe jumping off that boat?"

  Maya nodded.

  "But Javier didn't believe that."

  "What did he believe?"
  Raisa looked down at her clasped hands. "Javier said to me, 'Grief don't do that to a man. Guilt does.'"

  There was silence.

  "See, Javier, he couldn't handle what happened. The settlement, he said it was blood money. I didn't see that. Like I said, maybe those rich boys had pushed Theo a bit, but in the end, I mean, I'd always thought the reason Javier went so crazy was because he blamed himself. He was the one who pushed Theo to go to a school where he didn't belong. And, God help me, I blamed him too. I tried to hide it, but I think Javier could always see it on my face. Even when he got sick. Even when I nursed him. Even when he lay in his bed and held my hand and died. Javier saw that look on my face--maybe it was even the last thing he ever saw."

  She lifted her head, wiped a tear with her index finger.

  "So maybe Javier was right. Maybe it wasn't grief that killed Andrew Burkett. Maybe it was guilt."

  They sat there for a few moments. Maya reached out and took Raisa's hand. It wasn't like her. It wasn't a gesture Maya often made. But it felt right.

  After some time had passed, Raisa said, "Your husband was murdered a few weeks ago."


  "And now you're here."

  Maya nodded.

  "That's not a coincidence, is it?"

  "No," Maya said, "it's not."

  "Who killed my boy, Mrs. Burkett? Who murdered my Theo?"

  Maya told Raisa Mora that she didn't know the answer.

  But she was starting to think that maybe she did.

  Chapter 26

  When Maya got back in her car, she just stared out the front windshield for a little while. She wanted so much to lower her head and cry. But there was no time. She checked her phone. Two more hang-ups from Leather and Lace. They must be getting desperate. Maya decided to break protocol. She called the number back and asked for Lulu.

  "May I help you?" Lulu asked.

  "Enough with the cloak-and-dagger. I'm in Philadelphia."

  "One of our best girls got sick, so we have an opening for you to dance tonight. If you want the job, it's urgent that you come in."

  Maya held back the eye roll. "I'll be there."

  Using her smartphone, she googled Christopher Swain, the soccer team co-captain, who had been on that yacht that night. He worked in Manhattan for the aptly named Swain Real Estate. The family had tons of holdings in all five boroughs of New York City. Great. More super wealth to navigate. She found an email address for him on the Franklin Biddle alumni page and sent him a short message: My name is Maya Burkett. My husband was Joe. It is urgent that we speak. Please contact me as soon as you can.