The woods, p.29
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       The Woods, p.29

           Harlan Coben
 
Chapter 30

  Alexander "Sosh" Stekierky stood alone in his penthouse.

  Man gets used to his environment. That was how it was. He was getting comfortable. Too comfortable for a man with his beginnings. This lifestyle was now the expected. He wondered if he was still as tough as he once was, if he could still walk into those dens, those lairs, and lay waste without fear. The answer, he was certain, was no. It wasn't age that had weakened him. It was comfort.

  As a young child, Sots family had gotten ensnared in the horrible siege of Leningrad. The Nazis surrounded the city and caused unspeakable suffering. Sosh had turned five on October 21, 1941, a month after the blockade began. He would turn six and seven with the siege still on. In January of 1942, with rations set at a quarter pound of bread a day, Soshs brother, Gavrel, age twelve, and his sister, Aline, age eight, died of starvation. Sosh survived eating stray animals. Cats mostly. People hear the stories, but they can't fathom the terror, the agony. You are power less. You just take it. But even that, even that horror-you get used to it. Like comfort, suffering can become the norm.

  Sosh remembered when he first came to the USA. You could buy food anywhere. There were no long lines. There were no shortages. He remembered buying a chicken. He kept it in his freezer. He couldn't believe it. A chicken. He would wake up late at night in a cold sweat. He would run to the freezer and open it up and just stare at the chicken and feel safe.

  He still did that.

  Most of his old Soviet colleagues missed the old days. They missed the power. A few had returned to the old country, but most had stayed. They were bitter men. Sosh hired some of his old colleagues because he trusted them and wanted to help. They had history. And when times were hard and his old KGB friends were feeling particularly sorry for themselves, Sosh knew that they too opened their refrigerators and marveled at how far they'd come.

  You don't worry about happiness and fulfillment when you're starving.

  It is good to remember that.

  You live among this ridiculous wealth and you get lost. You worry about nonsense like spirituality and inner health and satisfaction and relationships. You have no idea how lucky you are. You have no idea what it is like to starve, to watch yourself turn to bones, to sit by hopelessly while someone you love, someone otherwise young and healthy slowly dies, and a part of you, some horrible instinctive part of you, is almost happy because now you will get a bite-and-a-half-size sliver of bread today instead of just a bite size.

  Those who believe that we are anything other than animals are blind. All humans are savages. The ones who are well fed are just lazier. They don't need to kill to get their food. So they dress up and find so- called loftier pursuits that make them believe that they are somehow above it all. Such nonsense. Savages are just hungrier. That was all. You do horrible things to survive. Anyone who believes that they are above that is delusional.

  The message had come in on his computer.

  That was how it worked nowadays. Not by phone, not in person. Computers. E-mails. It was so easy to communicate that way and not be traced. He wondered how the old Soviet regime would have handled the Internet. Controlling information had been such a large part of what they did. But how do you control it with something like the Internet? Or maybe it wasn't that big of a difference. In the end, the way you rounded up your enemies was through leaks. People talked. People sold one another out. People betrayed their neighbors and loved ones. Some times for a hunk of bread. Sometimes for a ticket to freedom. It all de pended on how hungry you were.

  Sosh read the message again. It was short and simple and Sosh wasn't sure what to do about it. They had a phone number. They had an ad dress. But it was the first line of the e-mail that he kept coming back to. So simply stated.

  He read it again:

  WE FOUND HER.

  And now he wondered what he should do about it.

  I put a call in to Muse. "Can you find Cingle Shaker for me?"

  "I guess. Why, what's up?"

  "I want to ask her some questions about how MVD works. "

  "I'm on it. "

  I hung up and turned back to Lucy. She was still looking out the window.

  "You okay?"

  "I trusted him. "

  I was going to say I'm sorry or something equally hackneyed, but I decided to keep it to myself. "You were right," she said. "About?" "Lonnie Berger was probably my closest friend. I trusted him more than anyone. Well, except for Ira, who's got one arm locked in the strait-jacket as it is. "

  I tried to smile.

  "By the way, how's myself-pity act? Pretty attractive, right?"

  "Actually," I said, "it is. "

  She turned away from the window and looked at me.

  "Are we going to try again, Cope? I mean, after this is all done and we figure out what happened to your sister. Are we going back to our lives-or are we going to try to see what could happen here?"

  "I love when you beat around the bush. "

  Lucy wasn't smiling.

  "Yeah," I said. "I want to try. "

  "Good answer. Very good. "

  "Thanks. "

  "I don't always want to be the one risking my heart. "

  "You're not," I said. "I'm there too. "

  "So who killed Margot and Doug?" she asked.

  "Wow, that was a quick segue. "

  "Yeah, well, the faster we figure out what happened. . . " She shrugged. "You know something?" I said. "What?" "It's just so damn easy to remember why I fell for you. " Lucy turned away. "I am not going to cry, I am not going to cry, I am not going to cry. . . " "I don't know who killed them anymore," I said.

  "Okay. How about Wayne Steubens? Do you still think he did it?"

  "I don't know. We do know that he didn't kill Gil Perez. "

  "Do you think he told you the truth?"

  "He said he hooked up with you. "

  "Yuck. "

  "But that he only got to second base. "

  "If he counts the time he intentionally bumped into me during a softball game and copped a feel, well, then technically he's telling the truth. Did he really say that?"

  "He did. He also said he slept with Margot. "

  "That's probably true. Lots of guys had Margot. "

  "Not me. "

  "That's because I snagged you as soon as you arrived. "

  "That you did. He also said that Gil and Margot had broken up. "

  "So?"

  "Do you think it's true?" I asked.

  "I don't know. But you know how camp was. It was like a life cycle in seven weeks. People were always going out and then breaking up and then finding someone new. " True. "But?" "But the common theory was that both couples went into the woods to, uh, mess around. " "Like we were doing," she said.

  "Right. And my sister and Doug were still an item. Not in love or anything, but you know what I mean. My point is, if Gil and Margot were no longer together, why would they have been sneaking into the woods?"

  "I see. So if she and Gil were broken up-and we know Gil didn't die in those woods. . . " I thought about what Raya Singh had suggested - a woman who had clearly known and even been close to Gil Perez, aka Manolo Santiago.

  "Maybe Gil killed Margot. Maybe Camille and Doug just stumbled across that. "

  "So Gil silenced them. "

  "Right. Now he's in trouble. Think about it. He's a poor kid. He has a brother with a criminal record. He'd be under suspicion as it was. "

  "So he faked like he died too," she said.

  We both sat there.

  "We're missing something," she said.

  "I know. "

  "We might be getting close. "

  "Or we might be way off. "

  "One of the two," Lucy agreed.

  Man, it felt good to be with her.

  "Something else," I said.

  "What?"

  "Those journals. What were they talking about-you finding me covered with blood and me saying we can't tell anyone?"

 
"I don't know. "

  "Let's start with the first part-the part they got right. About how we sneaked away. " "Okay. " "How would they know that?" "I don't know," she said. "How would they know you led me away?" "Or"-she stopped, swallowed-"how I felt about you?" Silence. Lucy shrugged. "Maybe it was just obvious to anyone who saw the way I looked at you. "

  "I'm trying hard to focus here and not smile. "

  "Don't try too hard," she said. "Anyway, we got part one of the journal. Let's move on to part two. "

  "The stuff about me covered in blood. Where the hell did they come up with that?"

  "No idea. But you know what really creeps me out?"

  "What?"

  "That they knew we got separated. That we did lose sight of each other. "

  I had wondered about that too.

  "Who would know about that?" I asked.

  "I never told a soul," she said.

  "Neither did I. "

  "Someone could have guessed," Lucy said. She stopped, looked up at the ceiling. "Or. . . "

  "Or what?"

  "You never told anyone about us getting separated, right?"

  "Right. "

  "And I never told anyone about us getting separated. "

  "So?"

  "So then there's only one explanation," Lucy said.

  "That being?"

  She looked straight at me. "Someone saw us that night. "

  Silence.

  "Gil maybe," I said. "Or Wayne. "

  "They're our two murder suspects, right?"

  "Right. "

  "Then who murdered Gil?"

  I stopped.

  "Gil didn't kill himself and move his body," she went on. "And Wayne Steubens is in a maximum security facility in Virginia. "

  I thought about that.

  "So if the killer wasn't Wayne and it wasn't Gil," she said, "who else is there?"

  "Found her," Muse said, as she walked into my office.

  Cingle Shaker followed. Cingle knew how to make an entrance, but I wasn't sure that was a conscious effort on her part. There was some thing fierce in her movements, as if the air itself better make way. Muse was no potted plant, but she looked like one next to Cingle Shaker.

  They both sat. Cingle crossed the long legs.

  "So," Cingle said, "MVD is after you big-time. "

  "Looks that way. "

  "It is that way. I've checked. It's a scorched-earth operation. No expense spared. No lives spared either. They destroyed your brother-in-law already. They sent a guy to Russia. They've put people on the street, I don't know how many. They had someone try to bribe your old buddy Wayne Steubens. In short, they're going to carve out any piece of your ass they can get their blade into. "

  "Any word on what they got?"

  "Not yet, no. Just what you already know. "

  I told her about Lucy's journals. Cingle nodded as I spoke.

  "They've done that before. How accurate are the journals?"

  "A lot is wrong. I never stumbled across blood or said we have to keep this secret or anything like that. But they know how we felt about each other. They know we sneaked away and how and all that. "

  "Interesting. "

  "How would they have gotten their information?"

  "Hard to say. "

  "Any thoughts?"

  She mulled it over for a few moments. "Like I said before, this is how they operate. They want to stir something up. It doesn't matter if it's the truth or not. Sometimes you need to shift reality. Do you know what I mean?"

  "No, not really. "

  "How to explain. . . ?" Cingle thought about it a moment. "When I first got to MVD, do you know what I was hired to do?"

  I shook my head.

  "Catch cheating spouses. Its big business-adultery. My own firm too. It used to be forty percent, maybe more. And MVD is the best at it, though their methods are a tad unorthodox. "

  "How?"

  "Depends on the case, but the first step was always the same: Read the client. In other words, see what the client really wants. Do they want the truth? Do they want to be lied to? Do they want reassurance, a way to get a divorce, what?"

  "I'm not following. Don't they all want the truth?"

  "Yes and no. Look, I hated that end of the business. I didn't mind surveillance or background checks-you know, following a husband or wife, checking out credit card charges, phone records, that kind of thing. That's all a tad seedy, but I get that. It makes sense. But then there's this other side of the business. "

  "What other side?"

  "The side that wants there to be a problem. Some wives, for example, want their husbands to be cheating. "

  I looked at Muse. "I'm lost. "

  "No, you're not. A man is supposed to be faithful forever, right? I know this one guy. I'm talking to him on the phone-this is before we ever met face-to-face-and he's telling me how he would never, ever cheat, how he loves his wife, blah, blah, blah. But the guy is some ugly slob who works as an assistant manager at a CVS or something-so I'm thinking to myself, 'Who is going to come on to him?' Right?"

  "I'm still not following. "

  "It is easier to be a good, honorable guy when there is no temptation. But in cases like that, MVD would shift reality. By using me as bait. "

  "For what?"

  "For what do you think? If a wife wanted to nail her husband for cheating, my job would be to seduce him. That's how MVD worked. The husband would be at a bar or something. They would send me out as a"-she made quote marks with her fingers-"fidelity test. "

  So?

  "So I hate to sound immodest, but take a look. " Cingle spread her arms. Even dressed down in a loose sweater, the sight was indeed impressive. "If that's not unfair entrapment, I don't know what is. "

  "Because you're attractive?"

  "Yep. "

  I shrugged. "If the guy's committed, it shouldn't make a difference how attractive the woman is. " Cingle Shaker made a face. "Please. " "Please what?" "Are you being intentionally dense? How hard do you think it would be for me to get Mr. CVS, for example, to look in my direction?"

  "To look is one thing. To do more than that is another. "

  Cingle looked at Muse. "Is he for real?"

  Muse shrugged.

  "Let me put it this way," Cingle said. "I probably ran, oh, thirty or forty of these so-called fidelity tests. Guess how many married guys turned me down?" "I have no idea. "

  "Two. "

  "Not great stats, I admit-"

  "Wait, I didn't finish. The two that turned me down? Do you know why?" No.

  "They caught on. They realized something had to be up. They were both like, "Wait, why would a woman who looks like this be coming on to me?' They saw the trap-that's why they didn't go through with it. Does that make them better than the other guys?"

  "Yes. "

  "How so?"

  "They didn't go through with it. "

  "But shouldn't the why matter? One guy might say no because he's scared he'll get caught. Does that make him any more moral than the guy who isn't scared? Maybe the guy who isn't scared loves his wife more. Maybe he's a better husband and more committed. Maybe the other guy wants to screw around like crazy but he's so meek and timid that he can't go through with it. "

  "So?"

  "So fear-not love, not wedding vows, not commitment-is the only thing keeping him honest. So which guy is better? Is it the act or the heart?"

  "Heavy questions, Cingle. "

  "What's your take, Mr. Prosecutor?"

  "Exactly. I'm a prosecutor. It's all about the actions. "

  "The actions define us?"

  "In legal terms, yes. "

  "So the guy who is too scared to go through with it-he's clean?"

  "Yep. He didn't go through with it. The why is besides the point. No one says he has to maintain his vow out of love. Fear might be as good a reason as any. "

  "Wow," she said. "I disagree. "

  "Fair enough. But is there a point to this?"

&
nbsp; "The point is this: MVD wants dirt. Anyway they can get it. If the current reality isn't providing any-read: if the husband isn't already cheating-they'll shift the reality-read: get someone like me to hit on the husband. Do you get it now?"

  "I think so. I not only have to be careful about what I might have done, but what I look like I'm doing or appear to be doing or might get entrapped into doing. "

  "Bingo. "

  "And you have no idea who provided them with the information in that journal?"

  "Not yet. But hey, you've now hired me to do counterespionage. Who knows what I'll come up with?" She stood. "Anything else I can help you with?"

  "No, Cingle, I think that covers it. "

  "Cool. Byte way, I have my bill here for the Jenrette-Marantz case. Who should I give it to?"

  Muse said, "I'll take it. "

  Cingle handed it to her and smiled at me. "I liked watching you in court, Cope. You nailed those sons of bitches but good. " "Couldn't have done it without you," I said. "Nah. I've seen a lot of prosecutors. You're the real deal. " "Thanks. I wonder, though. Based on your definition, did we, uh, engage in reality shifting?"

  "No. You had me dig up honest information. No entrapment. Yes, I used my looks to extract the truth. But there's nothing wrong with that. "

  "I agree," I said.

  "Wow. We should leave on that note then. "

  I laced my hands at the fingers and put them behind my head.

  "MVD must miss you. "

  "I hear they got a new hottie. Supposedly she's very good. "

  "I'm sure she's not you. "

  "Don't count on it. Anyway, I might try to steal her from them. I could use a second hottie, and she appeals to a slightly different demo graphic. "

  "How's that?"

  "I'm a blonde. MVD's new girl is dark skinned. "

  "African-American?"

  "No. "

  And then I felt the floor underneath me give way as Cingle Shaker added, "I think she's from India. "