The woods, p.30
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       The Woods, p.30
 

           Harlan Coben
Chapter 31

  I called Raya Singh's cell phone. Cingle Shaker was gone, but Muse had stayed behind.

  Raya picked up on the third ring. "Hello?"

  "Maybe you're right," I said to her.

  "Mr. Copeland?"

  That accent was so phony. How did I buy into it-or had part of me known all along?

  "Call me Cope," I said.

  "Okay, uh, Cope. " The voice was warm. I heard that knowing tease. "What am I maybe right about?" "How do I know you're not the one? How do I know you wouldn't make me deliriously happy?" Muse rolled her eyes. Then she mimed sticking her index finger down her throat and vomiting violently. I tried to make a date for tonight, but Raya would have none of it.

  I didn't push it. If I pushed, she might get suspicious. We set up a time to meet in the morning.

  I hung up and looked at Muse. Muse shook her head at me.

  "Don't start. "

  "Did she really use that phrase? 'Deliriously happy?"

  "I said, don't start. "

  She shook her head again.

  I checked the clock. Eight-thirty p. m.

  "I better get home," I said.

  "Okay. "

  "How about you, Muse?"

  "I got some stuff to do. "

  "It's late. Go home. "

  She ignored that. "Jenrette and Marantz," Muse said. "They are really going after you hard. " "I can handle it. " "I know you can. But it's amazing what parents will do to protect their children. "

  I was going to comment that I understood, that I had a daughter, that I would do anything to keep her safe from harm. But it sounded too patronizing.

  "Nothing amazes me, Muse. You work here every day. You see what people are capable of doing. "

  "That's my point. "

  "What is?' "Jenrette and Marantz hear that you're looking to seek higher office. They figure it's a weak spot. So they go after you, do all they can to intimidate you. It was smart. Lots of guys would have caved. Your case was only half-assed anyway. They figured you'd see the information and settle. "

  "They thought wrong. So?"

  "So do you think they're just going to give up? Do you think they'd just go after you? Or do you think there is a reason Judge Pierce wants to see you in chambers tomorrow afternoon?"

  When I got home there was an e-mail from Lucy.

  Remember how we used to make each other listen to certain songs? I don't know if you've heard this one, but here. I won't be forward enough to say think of me when you listen to it.

  But I hope you do.

  Love,

  Lucy.

  I downloaded the attached song. It was a fairly rare classic from Bruce Springsteen called "Back In Your Arms. " I sat there at my computer and listened to it. Bruce sang about indifference and regrets, about all he's thrown away and lost and longs for again and then he achingly begs to be back in her arms again.

  I started to cry. Sitting there, alone, listening to this song, thinking about Lucy, about that night, I actually cried for the first time since my wife died.

  I loaded the song on my iPod and brought it into the bedroom. I played it again. And then once more. And after a while, sleep finally found me.

  The next morning Raya was waiting for me in front of Bistro Janice in Ho-Ho-Kus, a small town in northeast New Jersey. No one is sure if the name is Hohokus or Ho Ho Kus or HoHoKus. Some people say that the name comes from a Native American word used by the Lenni Le-nape, who controlled this parcel until the Dutch started settling in 1698. But there is no definitive proof one way or the other, though that never stops the old-timers from arguing about it.

  Raya wore dark jeans and a white blouse open at the throat. A killer. A total killer. Beauty has such an effect, even though I now knew what she was about. I was angry and had been conned and yet I couldn't help feeling an attraction and hating myself for it.

  On the other hand, as beautiful and young as she was, I couldn't help thinking that she wasn't in Lucy's league. I liked feeling that. I held on to it. I thought about Lucy and a funny smile crept onto my face. My breathing grew a little shallow. It always had around Lucy. It was again.

  Try to figure love.

  "I'm so glad you called," Raya said.

  "Me too. "

  Raya bussed my cheek. A subtle whiff of lavender came off her. We moved toward a booth in the back of the bistro. A striking mural of life-size diners, painted by the owners' daughter, took up one entire wall. All the painted eyes seemed to follow us. Our booth was the last one, under a giant clock. I had been eating at Bistro Janice for the past four years. I have never seen that clock set on the correct time. The owners' little joke, I guess.

  We sat down. Raya gave me her best melt-'em smile. I thought about Lucy. It knocked away the effect. So, I said, you're a private eye. Subtlety wasn't going to work here. I didn't have the time or the patience for it. I kept going before she could start with the denials.

  "You work for Most Valuable Detection of Newark, New Jersey. You don't really work for that Indian restaurant. I should have picked up on that when the woman at the desk didn't know who you were. "

  Her smile flickered but it stayed full wattage. She shrugged. "How did you figure me out?"

  "I'll tell you later. How much of what you said to me was a lie?"

  "Not much, actually. "

  "Are you still going to stick with that story about not knowing who Manolo Santiago really was?"

  "That part was true. I didn't know he was Gil Perez until you told me. "

  That confused me.

  "How did you two really meet?" I asked.

  She sat back and crossed her arms. "I don't have to talk to you, you know. This is work product by the attorney who hired me. "

  "If Jenrette hired you through either Mort or Flair, you could make that argument. But here's your problem. You're investigating me. There is no way you can claim that Gil Perez could be work product on Jenrette or Marantz. "

  She said nothing.

  "And since you feel no qualms about going after me, I will go after you. My guess is, you were not supposed to be found out. There is no reason why MVD needs to know. You help me, I help you, win-win, please add your own cliche. "

  She smiled at that.

  "I met him on the street," she said. "Just like I told you. "

  "But not by accident. "

  "No, not by accident. My job was to get closer to him. "

  "Why him?"

  John, the owner of Bistro Janice-Janice being his wife and chef- appeared at our table. He shook my hand, asked me who the lovely lady was. I introduced him. He kissed her hand. I frowned at him. He went away.

  "He claimed to have information on you. "

  "I don't understand. Gil Perez comes to MVD-"

  "He was Manolo Santiago to us. "

  "Right, okay, Manolo Santiago comes up to you and says he can help you find dirt on me. " "Dirt is a bit strong, Paul. " "Call me Prosecutor Copeland," I said. "That was your task, right?

  Find something incriminating on me? Try to get me to back off?"

  She did not reply. She didn't have to.

  "And you don't have attorney-client privilege to hide behind, do you? That's why you're answering my questions. Because Flair would never let his client do this. And even Mort, as big a pain in the ass as he is, isn't this unethical. EJ Jenrette hired you guys on his own. "

  "I'm not at liberty to say. And frankly, I wouldn't be in a position to know. I work out in the field. I don't deal with the client. " I didn't care about the inner workings of her office, but it felt like she was confirming what I said. "So Manolo Santiago comes to you," I went on. "He says he has in formation on me. Then what?" "He won't say exactly what it is. He gets coy. He wants money, lots of it. "

  "And you bring this message to Jenrette. "

  She shrugged.

  "And Jenrette is willing to pay it. So go on from there. "

  "We insist on proof. Manolo starts talking about how he st
ill needs to nail down details. But here's the thing. We've checked up on him now. We know his name isn't really Manolo Santiago. But we also know that he's on to something big. Huge even. "

  "Like what?"

  The busboy put down our waters. Raya took a sip.

  "He told us that he knew what really happened the night those four kids died in the woods. He told us that he could prove you lied about it. "

  I said nothing.

  "How did he find you?" I asked.

  "What do you mean?"

  But I thought about it.

  "You went to Russia to dig up stuff on my parents. "

  "Not me. "

  "No, I mean, an investigator from MVD. And you guys also knew about those old murders, that the sheriff even questioned me. So. . . "

  I saw it now.

  "So you questioned everyone involved in that case. I know you guys sent someone down to visit Wayne Steubens. And that means you went to the Perez family too, right?"

  "I don't know, but that makes sense. "

  "And that's how Gil heard about it. You visited the Perezes. His mother or father or someone called you. He saw a way to score some money. He goes to you. He doesn't tell you who he really is. But he has enough information that you're curious. So they send you to, what, se duce him?"

  "Get close to him. Not seduce. "

  "You say 'tomato,' I say 'tomahto. ' So did he take the bait?"

  "Men usually do. "

  I thought about what Cingle said. This was not a road I wanted to travel down again. "And what did he tell you?" "Almost nothing. You see, he told us you were with a girl that night.

  Someone named Lucy. That's all I knew-what I told you. The day after we met, I called Manolo on his cell phone. Detective York answered. You know the rest. "

  "So Gil was trying to get you proof? In order to score this big payday?"

  "Yes. "

  I thought about that. He had visited Ira Silverstein. Why? What could Ira have told him? "Did Gil say anything about my sister?" No. "Did he say anything about, well, about Gil Perez? Or any of the victims?"

  "Nothing. He was coy, like I said. But it was clear he had some thing big. "

  "And then he ends up dead. "

  She smiled. "Imagine what we thought. "

  The waiter came over. He took our order. I got the salad special.

  Raya ordered a cheeseburger, rare.

  "I'm listening," I said.

  "A man says he has dirt on you. He is willing to give us proof for a price. And then, before he can tell us all he knows, he ends up dead. " Raya ripped a tiny piece of bread and dipped it in olive oil. "What would you have thought?"

  I skipped the obvious answer. "So when Gil was found dead, your assignment changed. "

  "Yes. "

  "You were supposed to get close to me. "

  "Yes. I thought my helpless Calcutta story would get to you. You seemed like the type. " "What type?" She shrugged. "Just a type, I don't know. But then you didn't call. So I called you. "

  "That efficiency suite in Ramsey. The one you said Gil lived in-"

  "We rented that room. I was trying to get you to admit to some thing. " "And I did tell you some stuff. " "Yes. But we weren't sure you were being accurate or truthful. No body really believed that Manolo Santiago was Gil Perez. We figured that he was probably a relative. "

  "And you?"

  "I believed you, actually. "

  "I also told you about Lucy being my girlfriend. "

  "We already knew about that. In fact, we'd already found her. "

  "How?"

  "We're a detective agency, that's how. But according to Santiago, she was lying about something that happened back then too. So we figured a direct interrogation wouldn't work. "

  "You sent her journals instead. "

  Yes.

  "How did you get that information?"

  "That I don't know. "

  "And then it was Lonnie Berger's job to spy on her. "

  She didn't bother replying.

  "Anything else?" I asked.

  "No," she said. "Actually, this is kind of a relief, you finding out. It felt okay when I thought you might be a killer. Now it just feels sleazy. " I rose. "I might want you to testify. " "I won't. " "Yeah," I said. "I hear that all the time. "