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Fool Me Once, Page 3

Harlan Coben

  "I'll give you a receipt for it," he said.

  "I, of course, could ask for a court order."

  "And I'd probably be able to get it," he said.

  True enough. She gave him the weapon.



  "You're not telling me something."

  Kierce smiled. "I'll be in touch."

  Chapter 3

  Isabella, Lily's nanny, arrived at seven the next morning.

  At the funeral, Isabella's family had been among the most animated of the mourners. Her mother, Rosa, Joe's childhood nanny, had been especially distraught, clutching a handkerchief and continually collapsing on her own children, Isabella and Hector. Even now, Maya could still see the tinge of red in Isabella's eyes from yesterday's tears.

  "I'm so sorry, Mrs. Burkett."

  Maya had asked her several times to call her by her first name, not Mrs. Burkett, but Isabella would just nod and continue to call her Mrs. Burkett, so Maya let it go. If Isabella was more comfortable with formality in her work environment, who was Maya to force it?

  "Thank you, Isabella."

  Lily hopped out of her kitchen chair, the cereal still in her mouth, and ran toward them. "Isabella!"

  Isabella's face lit up as she swooped the little girl into her arms and gave her a big hug. Maya felt the quick pang of the working mother: grateful that her daughter liked her nanny so much while ungrateful that her daughter liked her nanny so much.

  Did she trust Isabella?

  The answer was, as she had said yesterday, yes--as much as she would trust any "stranger" in this situation. Joe had hired Isabella, of course. Maya hadn't been sure about it. There was this new day care center on Porter Street called Growin' Up, which Maya read as a small homage to the old Bruce Springsteen song. A pretty, young smiley thing named Kitty Shum ("Call me Miss Kitty!") had given Maya a tour of the clean, sleek, multihued rooms of overstimulation, with all kinds of cameras and security procedures and other young smiley things and, of course, other children for Lily to play with, but Joe had been insistent on a nanny. He reminded Maya that Isabella's mother had "practically raised me," and Maya had jokingly countered, "Are you sure that's a resume enhancer?" But since Maya had been heading overseas for a six-month deployment at the time, she really had little say in the choice--and no reason not to embrace it.

  Maya kissed Lily on the top of her head and headed off to work. She could have taken a few more days and stayed at home with her daughter. She certainly didn't need the money--even with the prenup, she would be a very wealthy widow--but classically doting motherhood was simply not for her. Maya had tried to dive into the whole "mommy world," the coffee klatches with her fellow moms where they discussed toilet training, top preschools, stroller safety ratings, and slow-bragged with genuine interest about their own children's mundane development. Maya would sit there and smile, but behind her eyes, she would be flashing back to Iraq, to a specific blood-filled memory--usually Jake Evans, a nineteen-year-old from Fayetteville, Arkansas, getting the entire lower part of his body blown off yet somehow surviving--and trying to somehow come to terms with the unfathomable fact that this gossipy coffee klatch existed on the same planet as that blood-soaked battleground.

  Sometimes, when she was with the other moms, the sounds of the rotors more than the gruesome visuals would come roaring back. Ironic, she thought, that this in-your-face, never-back-off parenting was nicknamed "helicoptering."

  They all just didn't have clue.

  Maya assessed her surroundings as she headed to the car in her own driveway, looking for places where the enemy could hide or spring an attack. The reason for doing this was simple: Old habits die hard. Once a soldier, always a soldier.

  No sign of the enemy, imaginary or not.

  Maya knew that she suffered some textbook mental malady from being over there, but the truth is, no one comes back without scars. To her, that malady felt more like enlightenment. She got the world now. Others didn't.

  In the Army, Maya had flown combat helicopters, often providing cover and clearing for advancing ground troops. She'd started by flying UH-60 Black Hawks at Fort Campbell before logging enough miles to apply for the prestigious 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) in the Middle East. Soldiers routinely called helicopters "birds," which was fine, but there were few things more grating than when a civilian did the same. It had been her plan to stay in the service, probably for life, but after that video had been released on the CoreyTheWhistle site, that particular plan was blown up as though it too, like Jake Evans, had stepped on an IED.

  The flight lessons today would take place aboard a Cessna 172, a single-engine four-seater that just so happened to be the most successful aircraft in history. Teaching ends up being about hours in the air for the student. Maya's job was often more "watch and see" than active instructions.

  Flying, or just being in a cockpit when the plane was up in the air, was the equivalent of meditation for Maya. She could feel the bunched muscles in her shoulders loosen. No, it didn't offer the rev or, let's be honest, thrill of flying a UH-60 Black Hawk over Baghdad or being one of the first women to pilot a Boeing MH-6 Little Bird helicopter gunship. No one wanted to admit that awful high of combat, the adrenaline boost that some compared to narcotics. It was unseemly to "enjoy" combat, to feel that tingle, to realize that nothing else in your life would ever really approach it. That was the terrible secret you could never voice. Yes, war was horrible and no human being should ever have to experience it. Maya would have laid down her own life to make sure that it never came close to Lily. But the unspoken truth was a part of you jonesed for the danger. You didn't want that. You didn't like what it said about you. Liking it means you are prenatally violent or lack empathy or some such nonsense. But there was an addictive element to fear. At home, you live relatively calm, placid, mundane lives. You go over there and live in mortal fear, and then you're supposed to come back home and be calm, placid, and mundane again. Human beings don't work that way.

  When she was in the air with a student, Maya always left her phone in her locker because she wanted no distractions. If there was an emergency, someone could radio up. But when she checked her messages during her lunch break, she saw a strange text from her nephew, Daniel.

  Alexa doesn't want you to go to her soccer game.

  Maya dialed the number. Daniel answered on the first ring.

  "Hello?" he said.

  "What's wrong?"


  When Maya tapped Alexa's soccer coach on the shoulder, the big man turned so quickly the whistle around his neck nearly slapped her across the face.

  "What?" he shouted.

  The coach--his name was Phil, and his daughter was an obnoxious bully named Patty--had been shouting and pacing and throwing tantrums pretty much nonstop the entire game. Maya had known drill sergeants who'd have considered his behavior over the top for hardened recruits, let alone twelve-year-old girls.

  "I'm Maya Stern."

  "Oh, I know who you are, but"--Coach Phil gestured theatrically toward the field--"I'm in the middle of a game here. You should respect that, soldier."

  Soldier? "I have a quick question."

  "I got no time for questions now. See me after the game. All spectators need to be on the other side of the field."

  "League rules?"


  Coach Phil dismissed Maya by turning so that his expansive back was now facing her. Maya didn't move.

  "It's the second half," Maya said.


  "League rules specify that you're supposed to play each girl half the game," Maya said. "It's the second half. Three girls haven't gotten in yet. Even if you put them in now for the rest of the game, it wouldn't total half a game."

  Coach Phil's shorts probably fit him okay twenty, thirty pounds ago. His red polo shirt with the word "Coach" stitched in script across the left breast was also snug enough to double as sausage casing. He had the look of an
ex-jock gone to seed, which, Maya surmised, he probably was. He was big and intimidating, and his size probably scared people.

  Keeping his back to her, Coach Phil said out of the corner of his mouth, "For your information, this is the semifinals of the league championship."

  "I know."

  "We're only up by one goal."

  "I checked the league rules," Maya said. "I don't see an exception to the half-game rule. You also didn't play all your players in the quarterfinals."

  He turned toward her and again faced her full-on. He adjusted the brim of his cap and moved into Maya's personal space. She didn't step back. During the first half, sitting with the parents and watching the guy's constant tirades at both the girls and the refs, Maya had seen him slam-dunk that stupid cap onto the ground twice. He'd looked like a two-year-old midparoxysm.

  "We wouldn't even be in the semis," Coach Phil said as though spitting glass, "if I played those girls last game."

  "Meaning you'd have lost because you followed the rules?"

  Patty, Coach's daughter, chuckled at that one. "Meaning they suck."

  "Okay, Patty, that's enough. Go in for Amanda."

  Patty smirked her way toward the scorer's table.

  "Your daughter," Maya said.

  "What about her?"

  "She picks on the other girls."

  He made a face of disgust. "Is that what your Alice told you?"

  "Alexa," she corrected. "And no."

  Daniel had told her.

  He leaned in close enough for her to get a whiff of tuna salad. "Look, soldier--"


  "You're a soldier, right? Or you were?" He grinned. "Rumor has it you were a bit of a rule breaker yourself, no?"

  Her fingers flexed and relaxed, flexed and relaxed.

  "As a former soldier," he continued, "you should get this, plain and simple."

  "How so?"

  Coach Phil hoisted up his shorts. "This"--he gestured to the field--"is my battlefield. I'm the general, these are my soldiers. You wouldn't put some dumb grunt behind the wheel of an F-16 or whatever, would you?"

  Maya could actually feel the blood in her veins start to warm. "Just to be clear," she said, somehow managing to keep her tone even, "are you equating this soccer game to the wars our soldiers fight in Afghanistan and Iraq?"

  "You don't see it?"

  Flex, relax, flex, relax, flex, relax. Take nice even breaths.

  "This is sports," Coach Phil said, gesturing toward the field again. "Serious, competitive sports--and yes, that's a bit like war. I don't coddle these girls. I mean, this isn't fifth grade anymore where everything is rainbows and sweetness. It's sixth grade now. It's the real world. You get my meaning?"

  "The league rules on the website--"

  He leaned in so that the brim of his cap touched the top of her head. "I don't give a damn about what's on the website. If you have a complaint, file an official grievance with the soccer board."

  "Of which you are president."

  Coach Phil gave her a big smile. "I have to coach my girls now. So buh-bye." He gave her a toodle-oo finger wave and slowly turned back toward the field.

  "You shouldn't turn your back on me," Maya said.

  "What are you going to do about it?"

  She shouldn't. She knew that. She should just leave it alone. She should not make the situation worse for Alexa.

  Flex, release, flex . . .

  But even as such lofty ambitions swam through Maya's mind, her hands had other ideas. Moving with lightning speed, Maya bent down, grabbed hold of his shorts, and--praying that he hadn't gone commando--pulled them all the way to his ankles.

  Several things happened in pretty short order.

  There was a collective gasp from the crowd. The coach, sporting tighty-whities, also moved at lightning speed, bending down to pull his shorts up but tripping in the process. He tumbled to the ground.

  Then came the laughter.

  Maya waited.

  Coach Phil quickly regained his balance. He jumped to a standing position, pulling up his shorts, and charged toward her. The red of both rage and embarrassment came off his face like a call girl's beacon.

  "You bitch."

  Maya quietly prepared herself, but she didn't move.

  Coach Phil cocked his fist.

  "Go ahead," Maya said. "Give me the excuse to put you down."

  The coach stopped, looked into Maya's eyes, saw something there, and lowered his hand. "Ah, you ain't worth it."

  Enough, Maya thought.

  Maya was already semiregretting her actions, what with teaching her niece the wrong lesson about violence being an answer. She, of all people, should know better. But when she glanced over at Alexa, expecting her quiet niece to look scared or mortified, Maya instead saw a small smile on the little girl's face. It wasn't a smile of satisfaction or even pleasure at the coach's humiliation. The smile said something else.

  She knows now, Maya thought.

  Maya had learned it in the military, but of course, it applied to real life. Your fellow soldiers had to know that you had their back. That was rule one, lesson one, and above all else. If the enemy goes after you, he goes after me too.

  Maybe Maya had overreacted, maybe not, but either way, now Alexa knew that no matter what, her aunt would be there and fight for her.

  Daniel had started toward her when the commotion began, looking in his own way to somehow help out. He too nodded at Maya. He too got it.

  Their mother was dead. Their father was a drunk.

  But Maya had their back.


  Maya spotted the tail.

  She was driving Daniel and Alexa home, again doing that surveillance thing that just came to her naturally, scanning her surroundings, looking for anything out of place, when she saw the red Buick Verano in the rearview mirror.

  There was nothing suspicious about the Buick yet. She had been driving only a mile, but she'd noticed the same car when she'd pulled out of the soccer field lot. Could be nothing. Probably was nothing. Shane talked about the sixth sense of being a soldier, that sometimes, somehow, you just knew. That was bullshit. Maya had bought into that mumbo jumbo until they'd all been proven wrong in a horrific way.

  "Aunt Maya?"

  It was Alexa.

  "What's up, honey?"

  "Thanks for coming to the game."

  "It was fun. I thought you played great."

  "Nah, Patty's right. I suck."

  Daniel laughed. So did Alexa.

  "Stop that. You like soccer, right?"

  "Yeah, but this will be my last year."


  "I won't be good enough to play next year."

  Maya shook her head. "It's not about that."


  "Sports are supposed to be about having fun and getting exercise."

  "You believe that?" Alexa asked.

  "I do."

  "Aunt Maya?"

  "Yes, Daniel."

  "Do you believe in the Easter Bunny too?"

  Daniel and Alexa laughed again. Maya shook her head and smiled. She glanced in the rearview mirror.

  The red Buick Verano was still there.

  She wondered whether it was Coach Phil looking for round two. The car color was right--red--but no, the big guy would drive a penis-envy sports car or a Hummer or something like that.

  When she pulled up to Claire's house--even this long after the murder, Maya still thought of the house as her sister's--the red Buick passed them without hesitating. So maybe it wasn't a tail. Maybe it was just another family at the soccer game that lived in the neighborhood. That would make sense.

  Maya flashed back to the first time Claire had shown this house to her and Eileen. It had looked something like it did now--grass overgrown, paint chipping, cracks in the pavement, drooping flowers.

  "What do you think of it?" Claire had asked her then.

  "It's a dump."

  Claire had smiled. "Exactly, thank you. Just watch."

  Maya had no creativity for such things. She could not see the potential. Claire could. She had that kind of touch. Soon the two words that came to mind when you pulled up to the home were "cheerful" and "homey." The whole place ended up looking like a happy kid's crayon drawing somehow, with the sun always shining and the flowers taller than the front door.

  That was all gone now.

  Eddie met them at the door. He too was a reflection of the house--one thing before Claire's death, something faded and gray since. "How did it go?" he asked his daughter.

  "We lost," Alexa said.

  "Oh, sorry."

  She kissed her father's cheek as she and Daniel hurried inside. Eddie looked wary, but he stepped aside and let Maya in. He wore a red flannel shirt and jeans, and once again Maya got a whiff of too much mouthwash.

  "I would have picked them up," he said defensively.

  "No," Maya said, "you wouldn't have."

  "I didn't mean . . . I had a drink after I knew you were taking them."

  She said nothing. The boxes were still piled in the corner. Claire's stuff. Eddie hadn't yet moved them into the basement or garage. They just sat in the living room like the work of a mad hoarder.

  "I mean it," he said. "I don't drink and drive."

  "You're a prince, Eddie."

  "So superior."




  The tufts of stubble still dotted his chin and right cheek--spots he'd missed shaving. Claire would have seen them and told him and made sure that he didn't leave the house looking so disheveled.

  His voice was soft. "I didn't drink when she was alive."

  Maya didn't know what to say to that, so she kept quiet.

  "I mean, I had a drink every once in a while, but--"

  "I know what you mean," Maya interrupted. "Anyway, I better go. Take care of them."

  "I got a call from the town soccer association."


  "Seems you made quite a scene today."

  Maya shrugged. "I just discussed the rules with the coach."

  "What gave you the right?"

  "Your son, Eddie. He called me to help your daughter."

  "And you think you helped?"

  Maya said nothing.

  "You think an asshole like Phil forgets something like this? You think he won't find a way to take it out on Alexa?"

  "He better not."

  "Or what?" Eddie snapped. "You'll handle it some more?"

  "Yeah, Eddie. If that's what it takes. I'll stand up for her until she can stand up for herself."