The woods, p.25
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       The Woods, p.25

           Harlan Coben
 
Chapter 26

  Muse had faxed me a three-page summary on Wayne Steubens.

  Count on Muse. She didn't send me the entire file. She had read it herself and given me the main points. Most of it I knew. I remember that when Wayne was arrested, many wondered why he decided to kill campers. Did he have a bad experience at a summer camp? One psychiatrist explained that while Steubens hadn't talked, he believed that he had been sexually molested at a summer camp during his childhood. An other psychiatrist, however, surmised that it was just the ease of the kill: Steubens had slaughtered his first four victims at Camp PLUS and got ten away with it. He associated that rush, that thrill, with summer camps and thus continued the pattern.

  Wayne hadn't worked at the other camps. That would have been too obvious, of course. But circumstances had been his undoing. A top FBI profiler named Geoff Bedford had nailed him that way. Wayne had been under moderate suspicion for those first four murders. By the time the boy was slaughtered in Indiana, Bedford started to look at anyone who could have been in all those spots at the same time. The most obvious place to start was with the counselors at the camp.

  Including, I knew, me.

  Originally Bedford found nothing in Indiana, the site of the second murder, but there had been an ATM withdrawal in Wayne Steubens's name two towns away from the murder of the boy in Virginia. That was the big break. So Bedford did more serious digging. Wayne Steubens hadn't made any ATM withdrawals in Indiana, but there was one in Everett, Pennsylvania, and another in Columbus, Ohio, in a pattern that suggested that he had driven his car from his home in New York out that way. He had no alibi and eventually they found a small motel owner near Muncie who positively identified him. Bedford dug some more and got a warrant.

  They found souvenirs buried in Steubens's yard.

  There were no souvenirs from that first group of murders. But those, the theory went, were probably his first killings and he either had no time for souvenirs or didn't think to collect them. Wayne refused to talk. He claimed innocence. He said that he'd been set up.

  They convicted him of the Virginia and Indiana murders. That was where the most evidence was. They didn't have enough for the camp. And there were problems with that case. Head only used a knife. How had he managed to kill four of them? How had he gotten them into the woods? How had he disposed of two of the bodies? They could all be explained-he only had time to get rid of two bodies, he chased them deep in the woods-but the case wasn't neat. With the murders in Indiana and Virginia, it was open and shut.

  Lucy called at near midnight.

  "How did it go with Jorge Perez?" she asked.

  "You're right. They're lying. But he wouldn't talk either. "

  "So what's the next step?"

  "I meet with Wayne Steubens. "

  "For real?"

  "Yep. "

  "When?"

  "Tomorrow morning. "

  Silence.

  "Lucy?"

  "Yeah. "

  "When he was first arrested, what did you think?"

  "What do you mean?"

  "Wayne was, what, twenty years old that summer?"

  "Yes. "

  "I was a counselor in the red cabin," I said. "He was two down at the yellow. I saw him every day. We worked that basketball court for a week straight, just the two of us. And, yeah, I thought he was off. But a killer?"

  "It's not like there's a tattoo or something. You work with criminals. You know that. "

  "I guess. You knew him too, right?"

  "I did. "

  "What did you think?"

  "I thought he was a dickhead. "

  I smiled in spite of myself. "Did you think he was capable of this?"

  "Of what, slitting throats and burying people alive? No, Cope. I didn't think that. "

  "He didn't kill Gil Perez. "

  "But he killed those other people. You know that. " 1 guess.

  "And come on, you know he had to be the one who killed Margot and Doug. I mean, what other theory is there-he happened to be a counselor at a camp where murders took place and then took up killing himself?"

  "Its not impossible," I said.

  "Huh?"

  "Maybe those murders set Wayne off somehow. Maybe he had that potential and that summer, being a counselor at a camp where throats were slit, maybe that was the catalyst. "

  "You really buy that?"

  "Guess not, but who knows?"

  "One other thing I remember about him," she said.

  "What?"

  "Wayne was a pathological liar. I mean, now that I have that big-time psychology degree I know the technical term for it. But even then. Do you remember that at all? He would lie about anything. Just to lie. It was his natural reaction. He'd lie about what he had for breakfast. "

  I thought about it. "Yeah, I do remember. Part of it was normal camp boasting. He was this rich kid and he'd try to fit in with us wrong-siders. He was a drug dealer, he said. He was in a gang. He had this girl friend from home who posed in Playboy. Everything he said was crap. "

  "Remember that," she said, "when you talk to him. "

  "I will. "

  Silence. The sleeping snake was gone. Now I felt other dormant feelings stir. There was still something there, with Lucy. I don't know if it was real or nostalgia or a result of all this stress, but I felt it and I didn't want to ignore it and I knew I'd have to.

  "You still there?" she said.

  "I am. "

  "This is still weird, isn't it? Us, I mean. "

  "Yes, it is. "

  "Just so you know," Lucy said, "you're not alone. I'm there too, okay?"

  "Okay. "

  "Does that help?"

  "Yes. Does it help you?"

  "It does. It would suck if I was the only one feeling this way. "

  I smiled.

  "Good night, Cope. "

  "Good night, Luce. "

  Serial killing-or at least, having a severely compromised conscience- must be pretty stress free, because Wayne Steubens had barely aged in twenty years. He had been a good-looking guy back when I knew him. He still was. He had a buzz cut now as opposed to those wavy, out-sailing-with-Mummy locks, but it looked good on him. I knew that he only got out of his cell an hour a day, but he must have spent it in the sun because he had none of that typical prison pallor.

  Wayne Steubens gave me a winning, near-perfect smile. "Are you here to invite me to a camp reunion?" "We're having it in the Rainbow Room in Manhattan. Gosh, I hope you can attend. "

  He howled with laughter as if I had just cracked the gem of gems. It wasn't, of course, but this interrogation was going to be a dance. He had been questioned by the best federal officers in the land. He had been probed by psychiatrists who knew every trick in The Psychopath's Hand book. Normal venues wouldn't work here. We had a past. We had even been somewhat friendly. I needed to use that.

  His laughter segued into a chuckle and then the smile slipped away. "They still call you Cope?"

  "Yes. "

  "So how are you, Cope?"

  "Groovy," I said.

  "Groovy," Wayne repeated. "You sound like Uncle Ira. "

  At camp we used to call the elders Uncle and Aunt.

  "Ira was one crazy dude, wasn't he, Cope?"

  "He was out there. "

  "That he was. " Wayne looked off. I tried to focus in on his powder blue eyes, but they kept darting around. He seemed a bit manic. I wondered if he was medicated-probably-and then I wondered why I hadn't checked on that.

  "So," Wayne said, "are you going to tell me why you're really here?" And then, before I could answer, he held up his palm. "Wait, no, don't tell me. Not yet. "

  I had expected something different. I don't know what exactly. I expected him to be more outwardly crazy or obvious. By crazy, I meant like the raving lunatics you conjure up when you think of serial killers- the piercing gaze, the scenery chewing, the intensity, the lip smacking, the hands clenching and unclenching, the rage right under the surface. But I di
dn't feel any of that with Wayne. By obvious, I meant the type of sociopaths we stumble across every day, the smooth guys you know are lying and capable of horrible things. I wasn't getting that vibe either.

  What I got from Wayne was something far more frightening. Sit ting here and talking to him-the man who in all likelihood had murdered my sister and at least seven others-felt normal. Okay, even.

  "It's been twenty years, Wayne. I need to know what happened in those woods. " "Why?" "Because my sister was there. "

  "No, Cope, that's not what I meant. " He leaned in a little. "Why now? As you pointed out, it's been twenty years. So why, old friend, do you need to know now?"

  "I'm not sure," I said.

  His eyes settled and met mine. I tried to stay steady. Role reversal: The psychotic was trying to read me for a lie.

  "The timing," he said, "is very interesting. "

  "Whys that?"

  "Because you're not my only recent surprise visitor. "

  I nodded slowly, trying not to seem too anxious. "Who else came?"

  "Why should I tell you?"

  "Why not?"

  Wayne Steubens sat back. "You're still a good-looking guy, Cope. "

  "So are you," I said. "But I think us dating is out of the question. "

  "I should be angry with you, really. "

  "Oh?"

  "You spoiled that summer for me. "

  Partitioning. I talked about that before. I know that my face showed nothing, but it was like razors were slicing through my gut. I was making small talk with a mass murderer. I looked at his hands. I imagined the blood. I imagined the blade up against the exposed throat. Those hands. Those seemingly innocuous hands that now sat folded on the steel tabletop. What had they done?

  I kept my breath steady.

  "How did I do that?" I asked.

  "She would have been mine. "

  "Who would have been yours?"

  "Lucy. She was bound to hook up with somebody that summer. If you weren't there, I had more than an inside track, if you know what I mean. " I wasn't sure what to say to that, but I waded in. "I thought you were interested in Margot Green. "

  He smiled. "She had some bod, huh?"

  "Indeed. "

  "Such a major tease. You remember that time when we were on the basketball court?"

  I did remember. Instantly. Funny how that worked. Margot was the camp va-va-voom, and man, did she know it. She always wore these excruciating halter tops whose sole purpose was to be more obscene than actual nudity. On that day, some girl had gotten hurt on the volleyball court. I don't remember the girl's name. I think she ended up with a broken leg, but who remembers anymore? What we all remember-the image I was sharing with this sicko-was a panicked Margot Green sprinting past the basketball court in that damn halter top, everything jiggling, screaming for help, and all of us, maybe thirty, forty boys on the basketball court, just stopping and staring slack jawed.

  Men are pigs, yes. But so are adolescents. It is an odd world. Nature demands that males between the ages of, say, fourteen and seventeen be come walking hormonal erections. You cant help it. Yet, according to society, you are too young to do anything about it other than suffer. And that suffering increased tenfold around a Margot Green.

  God has some sense of humor, don't you think?

  "I remember," I said.

  "Such a tease," Wayne said. "You do know that she dumped Gil?"

  "Margot?"

  "Yep. Right before the murder. " He arched an eyebrow. "Makes you wonder, doesn't it?"

  I didn't move, let him talk, hoped he'd say more. He did.

  "I had her, you know. Margot. But she wasn't as good as Lucy. " He put his hand to his mouth as though he had said too much. Quite a performance. I stayed very still. "You do know that we had a fling before you arrived that summer, right? Lucy and me. "

  "Uh-huh. "

  "You look a little green, Cope. You aren't jealous, are you?"

  "It was twenty years ago. "

  "It was, yes. And to be honest, I only got to second base. Bet you got farther, Cope. Bet you popped that cherry, didn't you?"

  He was trying to get a rise out of me. I wouldn't play that game.

  "A gentleman never kisses and tells," I said.

  "Right, sure. And don't get me wrong. You two were something. A blind man could see it. You and Lucy were the real deal. It was very special, wasn't it?"

  He smiled at me and blinked rapidly.

  "It was," I said, "a long time ago. "

  "You don't really believe that, do you? We get older, sure, but in most ways, we still feel exactly the same as we did back then. Don't you think?"

  "Not really, Wayne. "

  "Well, life does march on, I guess. They give us Internet access, you know. No porno sites or anything like that, and they check all our communications. But I did a Web search on you. I know you're a widower with a six-year-old girl. I couldn't find her name online though. What is it?"

  Couldn't help it this time-the effect was visceral. Hearing this psycho mention my daughter was worse than having her photograph in my office. I bit back and got to the point.

  "What happened in those woods, Wayne?"

  "People died. "

  "Don't play games with me. "

  "Only one of us is playing games, Cope. If you want the truth, let's start with you. Why are you here now? Today. Because the timing is not coincidental. We both know that. "

  I looked behind me. I knew that we were being watched. I had re quested no eavesdropping. I signaled for someone to come in. A guard opened the door.

  "Sir?" he said to me.

  "Has Mr. Steubens had any visitors over the past, say, two weeks?"

  "Yes, sir. One. "

  "Who?"

  "I can get that name for you, if you'd like. "

  "Please do. "

  The guard left. I looked back at Wayne. Wayne did not appear up set. "Touche," he said. "But there's no need. I will tell you. A man named Curt Smith. "

  "I don't know that name. "

  "Ah, but he knows you. You see, he works for a company called MVD. "

  "A private detective?"

  "Yes. "

  "And he came because he wanted" -I saw it now, those damn sons of bitches -" he wanted dirt on me. "

  Wayne Steubens touched his nose and then pointed at me.

  "What did he offer you?" I asked.

  "His boss used to be a big fed. He said that he could get me better treatment. "

  "Did you tell him anything?"

  "No. For two reasons. One, his offer was total nonsense. An ex-fed can't do anything for me. "

  "And two?"

  Wayne Steubens leaned forward. He made sure I was looking him square in the eye. "I want you to listen to me, Cope. I want you to listen to me very carefully. "

  I held his gaze.

  "I have done a lot of bad things in my life. I won't go into details. There is no need. I have made mistakes. I have spent the past eighteen years in this hellhole paying for them. I don't belong here. I really don't. I won't talk about Indiana or Virginia or any of that. The people who died there-I didn't know them. They were strangers. "

  He stopped, closed his eyes, rubbed his face. He had a wide face. The complexion was shiny, waxy even. He opened his eyes again, made sure that I was still looking at him. I was. I couldn't have moved if I wanted to.

  "But-and here's your number-two reason, Cope-I have no idea what happened in those woods twenty years ago. Because I wasn't there. I don't know what happened to my friends-not strangers, Cope, friends-Margot Green or Doug Billingham or Gil Perez or your sister. "

  Silence.

  "Did you kill those boys in Indiana and Virginia?" I asked.

  "Would you believe me if I said no?"

  "There was a lot of evidence. "

  "Yes, there was. "

  "But you're still proclaiming your innocence. "

  I am.

  "Are you innocent, Wayne?"
r />   "Lets focus on one thing at a time, shall we? I am talking to you about that summer. I am talking to you about that camp. I didn't kill anyone there. I don't know what happened in those woods. "

  I said nothing.

  "You are a prosecutor now, right?"

  I nodded.

  "People are digging into your past. I understand that. I wouldn't really pay too much attention. Except now you're here too. Which means something happened. Something new. Something involving that night. "

  "What's your point, Wayne?"

  "You always thought I killed them," he said. "But now, for the first time, you're not so sure, are you?"

  I said nothing.

  "Something has changed. I can see it in your face. For the first time you seriously wonder if I had something to do with that night. And if you have learned something new, you have an obligation to tell me about it. "

  "I have no obligations, Wayne. You weren't tried for those murders.

  You were tried and convicted for murders in Indiana and Virginia. "

  He spread his arms. "Then where's the harm in telling me what you learned?"

  I thought about that. He had a point. If I told him that Gil Perez was still alive, it would do nothing to overturn his convictions-because he wasn't convicted of killing Gil. But it would cast a long shadow. A serial killer case is a bit like the proverbial and literal house of corpses: If you learn that a victim wasn't murdered-at least, not then and not by your serial killer-then that house of corpses could easily implode.

  I chose discretion for now. Until we had a positive ID on Gil Perez, there was no reason to say anything anyway. I looked at him. Was he a lunatic? I thought so. But how the hell could I be sure? Either way I had learned all I could today. So I stood.

  "Good-bye, Wayne. "

  "Good-bye, Cope. "

  I started for the door.

  "Cope?"

  I turned.

  "You know I didn't kill them, don't you?"

  I did not reply.

  "And if I didn't kill them," he went on, "you have to wonder about everything that happened that night-not only to Margot, Doug, Gil and Camille. But what happened to me. And to you. "