The woods, p.39
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       The Woods, p.39

           Harlan Coben
 
Chapter 40

  Dr. Tara O'Neill rarely slept more than four, five hours a night. She just didn't need sleep. She was back in the woods by six a. m. , at first daylight. She loved these woods-any woods, really. She'd gone to undergrad and medical school in the city, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. People thought that she'd love it. You're such a lovely girl, they said. The city is so alive, so many people, so much happening.

  But during her years in Philadelphia, O'Neill had returned home every weekend. She eventually ran for coroner and made extra money working as a pathologist in Wilkes-Barre. She tried to figure out her own life philosophy and came up with something she once heard a rock star-Eric Clapton, she thought-say in an interview about not being a big fan of, uh, people. She wasn't either. She preferred-as ridiculous as it sounded-being with herself. She liked reading and watching movies without commentary. She couldn't handle men and their egos and their constant boasting and their raging insecurities. She didn't want a life partner.

  This-out in the woods like this-was where she was happiest.

  O'Neill carried her tool case, but of all the fancy new gizmos that the public had helped pay for, the one she found most useful was the simplest: a strainer. It was nearly the exact same as the kind she had in her kitchen. She took it out and started in the dirt.

  The strainers job was to find teeth and small bones.

  It was painstaking work, not unlike an archeological dig she had done after her senior year in high school. She had apprenticed in the Badlands of South Dakota, an area known as the Big Pig Dig because, originally, they had found an Archaeotherium, which was pretty much a huge ancient pig. She worked with pig and ancient rhinoceros fossils. It had been a wonderful experience.

  She worked through this burial site with the same patience-work most people would find mind-deadeningly tedious. But again Tara O'Neill thrived.

  An hour later, she found the small piece of bone.

  O'Neill felt her pulse quicken. She had expected something like this, realized that it was a possibility after the ossification X-rays. But still. To find the missing piece. . .

  "Oh my. . . "

  She said it out loud, her words echoing in the stillness of the woods. She couldn't believe it, but the proof was right there, right in the palm of her rubber-gloved hand.

  It was the hyoid bone.

  Half of it anyway. Heavily calcified, brittle even. She went back to her search, sifting as fast as she could. It didn't take long now. Five minutes later, O'Neill found the other half. She held up both pieces.

  Even after all these years, the bone fragments still fit together like a jigsaw.

  Tara O'Neills face broke into a beatific smile. For a moment, she stared at her own handiwork and shook her head in awe.

  She took out her cell phone. No signal. She hurried back halfa mile until two bars appeared. Then she pressed Sheriff Lowell's number. He picked up on the second ring.

  "That you, Doc?"

  "It is. "

  "Where are you?"

  "At the burial site," she said.

  "You sound excited. "

  "I am. "

  "Why?"

  "I found something in the dirt," Tara O'Neill said.

  "And?"

  "And it changes everything we thought about this case. "

  One of those random hospital beeping noises woke me. I stirred slowly, blinked open my eyes and saw Mrs. Perez sitting with me.

  She had pulled the chair right next to my bed. The purse was in her lap. Her knees touched. Her back was straight. I looked into her eyes. She'd been crying.

  "I heard about Mr. Silverstein," she said.

  I waited.

  "And I also heard that they found bones in the woods. "

  I felt parched. I looked to my right. That yellow-brown plastic water pitcher, that one unique to hospitals and specifically designed to make the water taste awful, sat on the stand next to me. I was about to reach for it, but Mrs. Perez was up before I could do so much as lift my hand. She poured the water into a cup and handed it to me.

  "Do you want to sit up?" Mrs. Perez asked.

  "That's probably a good idea. "

  She pressed the remote control and my back began to curl into a sit.

  "Is that okay?"

  "That's fine," I said.

  She sat back down.

  "You won't leave this alone," she said.

  I didn't bother responding.

  "They say that Mr. Silverstein murdered my Gil. Do you think that's true?"

  My Gil. So the pretense was down. No more hiding behind a lie or a daughter. No more hypothetical. "Yes. " She nodded. "Sometimes I think Gil really did die in those woods.

  That was how it was supposed to be. The time after that, it was just borrowed. When that policeman called me the other day, I already knew. I'd been expecting it, you see? Part of Gil never escaped from those woods. "

  "Tell me what happened," I said.

  "I thought I knew. All these years. But maybe I never learned the truth. Maybe Gil lied to me. " "Tell me what you do know. " "You were at the camp that summer. You knew my Gil. "

  "Yes. "

  "And you knew this girl. This Margot Green. "

  I said that I did.

  "Gil fell for her hard. He was this poor boy. We lived in a burnt-out section of Irvington. Mr. Silverstein had a program where children of workers got to attend. I worked in the laundry room. You know this. "

  I did.

  "I liked your mother very much. She was so smart. We talked a lot. About everything. About books, about life, about our disappointments. Natasha was what we call an old soul. She was so beautiful but it was fragile. Do you understand?"

  "I think so, yes. "

  "Anyway, Gil fell very hard for Margot Green. It was understand able. He was eighteen. She was practically a magazine model in his eyes. That's how it is with men. They are so driven by lust. My Gil was no different. But she broke his heart. That too is common. He should have just suffered for a few weeks and then moved on. He probably would have. "

  She stopped.

  "So what happened?" I asked.

  "Wayne Steubens. "

  "What about him?"

  "He whispered in Gils ear. He told him that he shouldn't let Mar-got get away with it. He appealed to Gil's machismo. Margot, he said, was laughing at Gil. You need to pay that tease back, Wayne Steubens whispered in his ear. And after a while-I don't know how long-Gil agreed. "

  I made a face. "So they slit her throat?"

  "No. But Margot had been strutting all over camp. You remember this, yes?" Wayne had said it. She was a tease. "There were many kids who wanted to knock her down a peg. My son, of course. Doug Billingham too. Maybe your sister. She was there, but that might have been because Doug talked her into it. It's not important. "

  A nurse opened the door.

  "Not now," I said.

  I expected an argument but something in my voice must have worked. She backed up and let the door close behind her. Mrs. Perez had her eyes down. She stared at her purse as though afraid someone would snatch it.

  "Wayne planned it all very carefully. That's what Gil said. They were going to draw Margot out to the woods. It was going to be a prank. Your sister helped with the lure. She said that they were going to meet some cute boys. Gil put a mask on his head. He grabbed Margot. He tied her up. That was supposed to be the end of it. They'd leave her there for a few minutes. She'd either escape from the rope or they'd untie her. It was dumb, very immature, but these things happen. "

  I knew that they did. Camp was full of "pranks" back then. I remembered one time we'd taken a kid and moved his bed into the woods.

  He woke up the next morning alone, outside, terrified. We used to shine a flashlight in a sleeping camper's eyes and make a train noise and shake them and yell, "Get off the tracks!" and watch the kid dive off his bed.

  I remembered that there were two bully campers who used to call the
other kids "faggots. " Late one night, when both were deep in sleep, we picked one up, took off his clothes, put him in bed with the other. In the morning, the other campers saw them naked in the same bed. The bullying stopped.

  Tying up a total tease and leaving her in the woods for a little while. . . that wouldn't have surprised me.

  "Then something went very wrong," Mrs. Perez said.

  I waited. A tear escaped Mrs. Perez's eye. She reached into her purse and pulled out a wad of tissues. She dabbed her eyes, fought them back. "Wayne Steubens took out a razor blade. "

  I think my eyes widened a little when she said that. I could almost see the scene. I could see the five of them out in the woods, picture their faces, their surprise.

  "You see, Margot knew what was going on right away. She played along. She let Gil tie her up. Then she started mocking my son. Made fun of him, said he didn't know how to handle a real woman. The same insults women have thrown at men throughout history. But Gil didn't do anything. What could he do? But suddenly Wayne had the razor blade out. At first, Gil thought it was part of the act. To scare her. But Wayne didn't hesitate. He walked over to Margot and slashed her neck from ear to ear. " I closed my eyes. I saw it again. I saw the blade going across that young skin, the blood spurting, the life force leaving her. I thought about it. While Margot Green was being slaughtered, I was only a few hundred yards away making love to my girlfriend. There was probably poignancy in that, in that most horrible of mans actions running adjacent to his most wondrous, but it was hard to see it now.

  "For a moment no one moved. They all just stood there. Then Wayne smiled at them and said, Thanks for the help/" I frowned, but maybe I was starting to understand. Camille had drawn Margot out, Gil had tied her up. . .

  "Then Wayne lifted the blade. Gil said they could see how much Wayne liked what he had done. How he stared at Margot's dead body. He had a thirst now. He started toward them. And they ran. They ran in different directions. Wayne chased them. Gil ran for miles and miles. I don't know what happened exactly. But we can guess. Wayne caught up to Doug Billingham. He killed him. But Gil got away. And so did your sister. "

  The nurse returned.

  "I'm sorry, Mr. Copeland. I need to take your pulse and blood pressure.

  I nodded for her to come in. I needed to catch my breath. I could feel my heart hammering in my chest. Again. If I didn't calm down, they'd keep me in here forever.

  The nurse worked quickly and silently. Mrs. Perez looked around the room as if she'd just entered it, as if she'd just noticed where she was. I was afraid I was going to lose her.

  "It's okay," I said to her.

  She nodded.

  The nurse finished up. "You're being released this morning. "

  "Great. "

  She gave me a tight smile and left us alone. I waited for Mrs. Perez to continue.

  "Gil was terrified, of course. You can imagine. So was your sister.

  You have to see it from their viewpoint. They were young. They were nearly killed. They had watched Margot Green get slaughtered. But maybe most of all, Wayne's words haunted them. Thanks for the help. '

  You understand?"

  "He had made them a part of it. "

  "Yes. "

  "So what did they do?"

  "They just hid. For more than twenty-four hours. Your mother and I were worried sick. My husband was home in Irvington. Your father was at camp too. But he was out with the search parties. Your mother and I were together when the call came in. Gil knew the number of the pay phone in the back of the kitchen. He dialed it three different times but he hung up when someone else answered. Then, more than a day after they went missing, I picked it up. "

  "Gil told you what happened?"

  "Yes. "

  "You told my mother?"

  She nodded. I was starting to see it.

  "Did you approach Wayne Steubens?" I asked.

  "We didn't have to. He'd already approached your mother. "

  "What did he say?"

  "Nothing incriminating. But he made it clear. He had set up an alibi for that night. And you see, we knew already. Mothers are like that. " "You knew what?"

  "Gil's brother, my Eduardo, was serving time. Gil had a small arrest record-he and some friends stole a car. Your family was poor, my family was poor. There would be fingerprints on the rope. The police would wonder why your sister had led Margot Green into the woods. Wayne had gotten rid of the evidence against him. He was rich and well liked and could hire the best attorneys. You're a prosecutor, Mr. Copeland. You tell me. If Gil and Camille came forward, who would have believed them?"

  I closed my eyes. "So you told them to stay hidden. "

  Yes.

  "Who planted their clothes with the blood?"

  "I did that. I met Gil. He was still in the woods. "

  "Did you see my sister?"

  "No. He gave me the clothes. He cut himself, pressed his shirt against the wound. I told him to stay hidden until we came up with a plan. Your mother and I tried to figure a way to turn it around, to get the police to learn the truth. But nothing came to us. Days passed. I knew how the police could be. Even if they did believe us, Gil was still an accomplice. So was Camille. "

  I saw something else.

  "You had a handicapped son. "

  "Yes. "

  "And you needed money. To take care of him. And maybe to pay for Glenda to go to a decent school. " My eyes found hers. "When did you realize that you could cash in with that lawsuit?"

  "That wasn't part of our original thinking. That came later-when Billingham's father started screaming about how Mr. Silverstein didn't protect his son. "

  "You saw an opportunity. "

  She shifted in her seat. "Mr. Silverstein should have watched them. They would have never gone in those woods. He wasn't blameless in this. So yes, I saw an opportunity. So did your mother. "

  My head was spinning. I tried to make it stop just long enough to accept this new reality. "Are you telling me. . . " I stopped. "Are you telling me that my parents knew that my sister was alive?"

  "Not your parents," she said.

  And I felt the cold gust hit my heart.

  Oh no. . .

  She said nothing.

  "She didn't tell my father, did she?"

  "No. "

  "Why not?"

  "Because she hated him. "

  I just sat there. I thought about the fights, the bitterness, the unhappiness. "That much?" "What?" "It's one thing to hate a man," I said. "But did she hate my father so much that she'd let him think his own daughter was dead?"

  She didn't respond.

  "I asked you a question, Mrs. Perez. "

  "I don't know the answer. I'm sorry. "

  "You told Mr. Perez, right?"

  "Yes. "

  "But she never told my father. "

  No answer.

  "He used to go out in those woods and search for her," I said. "Three months ago, as he lay on his deathbed, his last words were that he wanted me to keep looking. Did she hate him that much, Mrs. Perez?"

  "I don't know," she said again.

  It started to hit me, like heavy raindrops. Big thuds. "She bided her time, didn't she?"

  Mrs. Perez didn't respond.

  "She hid my sister. She never told anyone-not even. . . not even me. She was waiting until the settlement money came through. That was her plan. And as soon as it did. . . she ran. She took enough money and ran and met up with my sister. "

  "That was. . . that was her plan, yes. "

  I blurted out the next question. "Why didn't she take me?"

  Mrs. Perez just looked at me. I thought about it. Why? And then I realized something. "If she took me, my father would never stop looking. He'd get Uncle Sosh and all his old KGB cronies on it. He might let my mother go-he had probably fallen out of love with her too. He thought my sister was dead so that wouldn't be a draw. But my mother knew that he'd never let me go. "

  I remembe
red what Uncle Sosh said, about her returning to Russia. Were they both there? Were they both there right now? Did that make sense?

  "Gil changed his name," she went on. "He traveled around. His life was less than spectacular. And when those private detectives came around to our house and asked questions, he got wind of it. He saw it as a way of cashing in again. You see, it was odd. He blamed you too. "

  "Me?"

  "You didn't stay on guard duty that night. "

  I said nothing.

  "So part of him blamed you. He thought that maybe this was a good time for payback. " It added up. It fit in perfectly with what Raya Singh had told me. She stood. "That's all I know. " "Mrs. Perez?" She looked at me. "Was my sister pregnant?" "I don't know. " "Did you ever see her?" "Excuse me?" "Camille. Gil told you she was alive. My mother told you she was alive. But did you ever see her yourself?"

  "No," she said. "I never saw your sister. "