Fool Me Once, Page 25Harlan Coben
Maya swallowed away the bile. "No one reported any of this?"
"You didn't know Joe's dad, did you?"
"He was an intimidating man. There were rumors he was in with some rough customers. Whatever, payoffs were made. The family's more, shall we say, unsavory friends would stop by and request your silence. Plus, well, Joe was good at it. He didn't leave a lot of evidence. We talked about his charm before. He could fake contrition like nobody's business. He would apologize. He would cajole. He was rich and powerful, and those moments, that darker side, he could really keep it hidden when he had to. Again, I remind you, I knew him my whole life. And even I saw it only a handful of times. But when I did . . ."
The tears started coming again.
"You're probably wondering what I'm doing in a place like this."
She hadn't been. She had figured that he was an addict of some kind and was here for help. What else could it be? She wanted him to keep telling the story, but if he needed this sidetrack, it would probably be a mistake to stop him.
"I'm here," he said, "because of Joe."
She tried not to make a face.
"I know, I know, I'm supposed to take responsibility for myself. That's what they always say. And yeah, I keep trading one addiction for another. I've been in here for booze, for pills, for coke . . . you name it. But I wasn't always like this. In school I used to get teased because I wouldn't have more than a beer. Didn't like the taste. I tried pot once my senior year. It made me nauseated."
"What happened to Theo?"
"It was supposed to be a prank. That was what Joe told us. I don't know if I believed him or not, but . . . I was so weak. Check that. I'm still weak. Joe was the leader. I was the follower. Andrew was a follower too. And really, what was going to be the harm? A little hazing. It happens all the time at schools like Franklin Biddle. So that night, we jumped Theo. You know what I mean? We came to his room--me, Joe, Andrew was already there--and we jumped on him and we carried him downstairs."
He was looking off now, the thousand-yard stare, and a funny smile came to his face. "You know something?"
"Theo went along with it. Like he got it. He was getting hazed. This was part of it. He was that cool a kid. I remember that he was smiling, you know, like this was all good. And then we get down to that room and we throw him in the chair. Joe started tying him up. We helped out. We're all laughing, and Theo is pretending to call for help, that kind of thing. I remember I left this one knot loose. Joe came by and tightened it. Then, when Theo was all tied down, Joe took out a funnel. You know the kind. For drinking? He stuck it into Theo's mouth, and I remember Theo's eyes changed then. Like, I don't know, like maybe he was starting to get it. Two other guys were there. Larry Raia and Neil Kornfeld. We were all laughing, and Andrew started to pour beer down the funnel. Guys were chanting, 'Chug chug.' And then, the rest is like a dream. A nightmare. Like I still can't believe it all happened, but at some point, Joe replaced the beer with grain alcohol. I remember Andrew saying, 'Wait, Joe, stop . . .'"
His voice faded away.
"What happened?" Maya asked, but it seemed obvious now.
"Suddenly Theo's leg started thrashing, like he was having a seizure or something."
Christopher Swain started to cry. Maya wanted to reach out her hand and put it on his shoulder. At the same time, she also wanted to punch him in the face. So instead she just sat there and waited.
"I've never told that story before yesterday. Not to anyone. But after your email . . . my doctor, she knows some of it now. That's why she thought it would be good to talk to you. But that night, I mean, that's when I went off the rails. I was so scared. I knew that if I said something, Joe would kill me. Not just back then. Now. Even now. I still feel . . ."
Maya tried to keep him talking. "So you, what, stuck the body in the basement?"
"But you were there, right?"
"So I doubt Joe lifted him alone, did he?"
He shook his head.
"Who helped Joe?"
"Andrew." He looked up. "Joe made Andrew help him."
"Is that what made Andrew crack?"
"I don't know. Maybe Andrew would have cracked anyway. Andrew, me . . . we were never the same after that."
Javier Mora had been right. It wasn't grief. It was guilt.
"So then what happened?"
"What could I do?"
There were plenty of things he could have done, but Maya wasn't there to prosecute or to give him absolution. She wanted information. That was all.
"I had to keep the secret, didn't I? So I smothered it away. I tried to go on with my regular life, but nothing was the same. My grades tumbled. I couldn't concentrate. That's when I started drinking. Yes, I know it sounds like a convenient excuse--"
"You all ended up on that yacht six weeks later."
He closed his eyes.
"What do you think happened, Maya? Come on. You know now. So you tell me. You put it together."
Maya leaned forward. "So you're all on that boat heading for Bermuda. You all start drinking. Probably you especially. It's the first time all of you have been together since Theo's death. Andrew is there. He's been in therapy, but it hasn't done him any good. The guilt is destroying him. So he makes a decision. I don't know exactly how it worked, Christopher, so maybe you can tell me. Did Andrew threaten you guys?"
"Not threaten," Christopher said. "Not really. He just . . . He started pleading with us. He couldn't sleep. He couldn't eat. God, he looked horrible. He just said that we had to come forward because he didn't know how long he could keep this bottled up inside. I was so drunk I could barely understand what he was saying."
"And then Andrew went outside to the upper deck. To get away from us. A few minutes later, Joe followed him." Swain shrugged. "The end."
"You never told anyone?"
"The other two guys, Larry Raia and Neil Kornfeld . . ."
"Neil was going to Yale. He ended up changing his mind and headed to Stanford. Larry went to school overseas, I think. Paris maybe. We finished up our senior year in a daze and never saw each other again."
"And you've kept this secret for all these years."
"So why now?" Maya asked. "Why are you willing to tell the truth now?"
"You know why."
"No, I'm not sure I do."
"Because Joe is dead," he said. "Because I finally feel safe."
Christopher Swain's words echoed in her ears as she walked back to the guest lot.
"Because Joe is dead . . ."
In the end, it all came back to that nanny cam, didn't it?
Time to get analytical here. There were three possibilities that explained what she had seen on that nanny cam: One, the most likely, was that someone had set it up using some kind of Photoshop program. The technology existed. She had only seen the video for a brief time. It could be done easily enough.
Two, almost tied for most likely, Maya had imagined or hallucinated Joe, or in some other way, her mind had played tricks on her and thus conjured up the image of Joe being alive. Eileen Finn liked to send her those optical illusion videos, where you think you're seeing something and then the camera moves just a little and you realize that your eye has preconceived a certain image. Add in Maya's PTSD, her meds, her sister's murder, her guilt about that, the night in Central Park, all the rest . . . how could Maya really dismiss that as a real possibility?
Three, least likely, Joe was somehow still alive.
If the answer was Two--it was all in her head--there was little to be done about it. She still needed to go through all this because the truth, while it won't set you free, will help right the world in some w
ay. But if the answer was either One (Photoshop) or Three (Joe was alive), then it meant one thing without question: Someone was screwing with her big-time.
And if it was either One or Three, it almost certainly meant something else: Isabella had lied. She had seen Joe on that nanny cam video. The only reason Isabella would have pretended not to see Joe, pepper-sprayed Maya, grabbed the SD card, and then gone into hiding was fairly simple: She was in on it.
Maya got back into her car, turned on the engine, and hit her playlist. Imagine Dragons came on telling her not to get too close, it's dark inside, it's where her demons hide.
They didn't know the half of it.
She clicked on the app for the GPS she'd attached to Hector's car. First off, assuming Isabella was in on it, she wasn't the kind to act alone. Her mother, Rosa, who had been on the yacht that night, would be in on it. Her brother, Hector, too. Second--man, she was thinking arithmetically today--there was a chance, of course, Isabella had gone someplace far away, but Maya doubted it. She was around. It was just a question of finding her.
She retrieved the gun from her glove box, checked the GPS, and saw that Hector's truck was currently parked in the servants' complex at Farnwood. Maya clicked the history button, seeing all the places the truck had traveled over the past few days. The only place that didn't seem to fit the work pattern of a landscaper was an address he constantly visited in a Paterson, New Jersey, housing project. He could, of course, have friends or a girlfriend there. But something about it didn't feel right.
So now what?
Even if Isabella was hiding there, it wasn't as though she could just go to the address and start knocking on doors. She needed to be more proactive. It was coming down to it now. She had most of the answers. She needed to find out the rest and put an end to it once and for all.
Her mobile rang. She saw on the caller ID that it was Shane.
"What have you done?"
His tone chilled her blood.
"What are you talking about?"
"What about him?"
"He knows, Maya."
She said nothing. The walls were starting to close in on her now.
"He knows I tested that bullet for you."
"Shane . . ."
"The same gun killed Claire and Joe, Maya. How the hell can that be?"
"Shane, listen to me. You have to trust me, okay?"
"You keep saying that. 'Trust me.' Like it's some kind of mantra."
"I shouldn't need to say it." Pointless, she thought. There was no way she could explain it to him right now. "I gotta run."
She hung up the phone and closed her eyes.
Let it go, she told herself.
She started down the quiet road, distracted by Shane's call, by what Christopher Swain had told her, by all the emotions and thoughts swirling through her head.
Maybe that explained what happened next.
A van started coming toward her from the opposite direction. The tree-lined road was narrow, so she slowly shifted her vehicle a little to the right to give the van room to pass her. But as the van got close, it suddenly swung to its left, cutting in front of her.
Maya slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the van. Her body jutted forward, restrained by the straps, even as the lizard-instinct part of the brain came to a realization: She was being attacked.
The van had cut off any forward motion, so she was reaching for the gear to put the car in reverse when she heard the knocking on her window. She looked and saw the gun facing her head. In her peripheral vision, she saw someone else at the window on the passenger side.
"It's okay." The man's voice was hard to hear through the window. "We aren't here to hurt you."
How had the man gotten to the side of her car so fast? He couldn't have gotten out of the van. There wasn't that kind of time. This had been carefully orchestrated. Someone had realized that she would be at the Solemani Recovery Center. The road was quiet. Very little traffic. So these two men had probably been hiding behind a tree. The van cuts her off. They step out.
Maya just sat very still and considered her options.
"Please step out of the car and come with us."
Option One: Reach for the gear and shift the car in reverse.
Option Two: Go for the gun in the hip holster.
The problem with both options was simple. The man had his gun at her head. Maybe his friend by the other window did too. She wasn't Wyatt Earp and this wasn't the O.K. Corral. If the man wanted to shoot her, she would have no chance of reaching either the gun or the gearshift in time.
Which left Option Three: Get out of the car--
That was when the man with the gun said, "Come on. Joe is waiting."
The side door of the van began to slide open. Sitting in her car, both hands on the wheel, Maya could feel her heart pounding against her rib cage. The van door stopped halfway. Maya squinted, but she couldn't see inside. She turned to the man with the gun.
"Joe . . . ?" she said.
"Yeah," the man said, his voice suddenly tender. "Come on. You want to see him, right?"
She looked at the man's face for the first time. Then she looked at the other man. He didn't have a gun in his hand.
Option Three . . .
Maya started to cry.
Through the tears, she said, "Joe . . ."
"Yes." The man's voice grew insistent. "Unlock the door, Mrs. Burkett."
Still crying, Maya weakly fumbled for the unlock button. She pressed it and pulled the door handle. The man stepped back to let the door swing. He still had the gun on her. Maya half fell out of the car. The gunman started to reach for her arm, but Maya, still with the tears, shook her head and said, "No need."
She straightened up and then stumbled toward the van. The gunman let her go. And that told Maya everything.
The van door slid open a little more.
Four men, Maya calculated. The driver, the van-door opener, the passenger-side guy, the gunman.
As she got closer to the van, all her training, all those hours in the simulator and at the shoot house, started to kick in. She felt an odd calm now, a moment of near Zen, that feeling when you are in the eye of the hurricane. It was all about to happen now, and one way or the other, if she came out of it alive or dead, she was being proactive. She wasn't controlling her own destiny--that sort of thinking was nonsense--but when you've trained and when you're prepared, you can act with a sort of comforting confidence.
Still stumbling, Maya turned her head just a little, just the slightest bit, because what she saw now would decide everything. The gunman had not grabbed hold of her when she got out of the car. That was the reason she had poured on the fake tears and semihysterics. To see how he would react. He had fallen for it. He had let her go.
He hadn't frisked her.
That meant three things . . .
She glanced behind her. The man had indeed lowered his gun to his side. He had relaxed. He felt she was no longer an active threat.
One, no one had warned the man that she'd be armed . . .
Maya had been planning the sequence from the moment she started with the tears. The tears were designed to act as a weapon--to make the kidnappers relax; to make them underestimate her; to give her time, before getting out of the car, to plan exactly what she would do.
Two, Joe would know that she'd be armed . . .
Her hand was already near her hip as she started to run. Here's a fun fact most people don't know. Shooting a handgun with accuracy is difficult. Shooting a handgun at a moving target is very difficult. Seventy-six percent of the time, trained police officers miss the shot between three and nine feet. The percentage is north of ninety percent for civilians.
So you always moved.
Maya looked toward the back of the van. Then, without so much as a misstep or warning or even hesitation, she tucked into a roll, hit the pavement as she pull
ed her Glock out of its holster, and came up aiming directly at the man with the gun. The man had noticed the move, had started to react, but it was too late.
Maya aimed for the center of his chest.
In real life, you never shoot to wound. You point the weapon at the center of the chest, the largest target, the best chance of hitting at least something should your aim be off, and you just keep firing.
Which is what Maya did.
The man went down.
Three, the conclusion: Joe had not sent them.
Several things happened at once.
Maya kept rolling, kept moving, so she wasn't a stationary target. She turned to where the other man was, the one who had been at her passenger side. She swung her gun up, ready to fire, but the man ducked away behind her car.
Keep moving, Maya . . .
The van door slammed shut. The engine roared to life. Maya was behind it now, using it as a shield in case the other guy came up firing. She obviously couldn't stay. The van was about to move, probably in reverse, probably trying to crush her.
Maya made the instinctive decision.
The man with the gun was down. The guys in the van were panicking. The final man was hidden behind her.
When in doubt, do the simple thing.
Still using the van as something of a shield, Maya ran into the woods. The van shot backward, almost hitting her. Maya stayed to its side, and then, fully blocked off from the guy by her passenger door, she turned and ran the last few feet.
Don't stop . . .
The woods were too thick for her to look behind her while she was running, but at some point, she ducked behind a tree and risked a quick look. The man who had been hiding behind the passenger seat was not following her. He sprinted straight for the van and dove in while the van was still moving. The van completed the K-turn and, with tires peeling the pavement, shot back down the road.