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Fool Me Once, Page 4

Harlan Coben

  "By pulling down a coach's pants?"

  "By doing what it takes."

  "Do you even hear what you're saying?"

  "Loud and clear. I said I'll stand up for her. You know why? Because no one else will."

  He recoiled as though he'd been slapped. "Get the hell out of my house."

  "Fine." Maya started for the door, stopped, faced him. "Your house, by the way, is a toilet. Straighten it out."

  "I said, get out. And maybe you shouldn't come by for a while."

  She stopped. "Pardon me?"

  "I don't want you around my children."

  "Your . . . ?" Maya moved closer to him. "Do you want to explain?"

  Whatever anger had been in his eyes seemed to dissipate. Eddie swallowed, looked off, and said, "You don't get it."

  "Don't get what?"

  "You were the one who did battle so the rest of us didn't have to. You used to make us feel safe."

  "Used to?"


  "I don't understand," she said.

  He finally met her eye. "Death follows you, Maya."

  She just stood there. In the distance, someone turned on a television. She could hear muffled cheers.

  Eddie started counting on his fingers. "The war. Claire. Now Joe."

  "You're blaming me?"

  He opened his mouth, closed it, tried again. "Maybe, I don't know, maybe death found you in some shithole in the desert. Or maybe he's just always been inside of you and somehow you let him out or he followed you home."

  "You're not making any sense, Eddie."

  "Maybe not. Man, I liked Joe. Joe was good people. And now he's gone too." Eddie looked up at her. "I don't want anyone else I love to be next."

  "You know I would never let anyone harm Daniel or Alexa."

  "You think you have that power, Maya?"

  She didn't reply.

  "You wouldn't let anyone harm Claire or Joe either. How did that work out for you?"

  Flex, relax.

  "You're talking nonsense, Eddie."

  "Get out of my house. Get out of my house and don't come back."

  Chapter 4

  A week later, the red Buick Verano was back.

  Maya had been coming home from too long a day of flight lessons. She was tired and hungry and just wanted to get home and relieve Isabella. But now that damn red Buick was back.

  How should she play it?

  Just as she started going through her possible options, the Buick veered off again. Another coincidence, or had the driver figured that she was just heading home? Maya was willing to bet on the latter.

  Isabella's brother, Hector, was waiting by his pickup truck when she pulled up. He usually gave Isabella a ride home when he finished gardening.

  "Hello, Mrs. Burkett."

  "Hi, Hector."

  "I just finished the flower beds." He zipped his hoodie, an odd fashion choice in this heat, to the neck. "You like?"

  "They look great. Can I ask you a favor?"

  "Of course."

  "My sister's house could use a little work. If I paid you extra, do you think you could cut the grass and maybe do a cleanup?"

  Hector looked a little uncomfortable with the suggestion. The family worked for the Burketts exclusively. They paid his salary.

  "I'll clear it with Judith first," Maya said.

  "Then sure, I'd be happy to do it."

  As Maya headed toward the house, her phone dinged. It was a text from Alexa.

  Soccer Day is Saturday. You coming?

  She had made her excuses not to stop by since the incident with Coach Phil last week. Much as she knew that he was wrong, Eddie's accusation haunted her. She knew that he was being irrational with that "death follows you" gobbledygook. But perhaps a father had the right to be irrational when it came to his own children--for a short period of time, anyway.

  Years ago, when Daniel was born, Claire and Eddie had made Maya the guardian for first Daniel, then both their children, in the unlikely event that something happened to Claire and Eddie. But even back then, even back before Claire had a clue how wrong it would all go, she had pulled Maya aside and said, "If something happens to just me, Eddie won't be able to cope."

  "What makes you say that?"

  "He's a good man. But he's not a strong man. You need to be there, no matter what."

  She didn't have to add "Promise me" or any of that. Claire knew. Maya knew. Maya took the responsibility and her sister's concerns seriously, and while she might obey Eddie's wants for a short period of time, even he knew that it wouldn't be forever.

  She replied to the text: Dang, can't. Work is crazy. See you soon? XO.

  As Maya continued her way to the back door, she flashed back to that day at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. It had been noon on the base, 5:00 A.M. at home, when the call came in.

  "It's me," Joe said, his voice cracking. "I have some bad news."

  Odd, she had thought in that brief lull before her world was destroyed, to be on the other end of the line, so to speak. These terrible calls had always gone the other way for her--the bad news emanating from the Middle East and traveling west toward the United States. Of course, she never made the calls herself. There was a protocol involved. A "death notification officer"--yes, there was such a thing--told the family in person. What a task. No one volunteered for it--they were "voluntold," to use a military term. The death notification officer donned his dress blues, got in a car with a pastor, knocked on your door, had the death script memorized.

  "What is it?" she had asked Joe.

  Silence. The worst silence she had ever known.


  "It's Claire," he said, and Maya felt something inside her crumble to dust.

  She opened her back door. On the couch, Lily drew with a green crayon. She didn't look up when her mother entered, but that was okay. Lily was the kind of kid who had amazing concentration. All of it right now was focused on the drawing. Isabella got up slowly, as though afraid to wake her, and crossed the room.

  "Thanks for staying late," Maya said.

  "It's no problem."

  Lily looked up and smiled at them. They both smiled and waved back.

  "How was she today?"

  "A joy." Isabella looked at Lily with a forlorn face. "She has no idea."

  Isabella said this or something similar every day.

  "I'll see you in the morning," Maya said.

  "Yes, Mrs. Burkett."

  Maya sat next to her daughter as she heard Hector's truck pull away. She saw the pictures go by on the digital frame/nanny cam, always cognizant of the fact that everything she did was recorded. She checked it most days, just to make sure that Isabella wasn't . . . well, what exactly? Whatever, the video was always pretty uneventful. Maya never watched herself playing with her own child. It felt strange. Then again, it felt strange just having a surveillance camera in the room, as though you had to behave differently because of it. Did the camera in part dictate Maya's own interactions with Lily? Yeah, probably.

  "What are you drawing?" Maya asked.

  "You can't tell?"

  It looked like squiggly lines. "No."

  Lily looked hurt.

  Maya shrugged. "Can you tell me?"

  "Two cows and a caterpillar."

  "The cow is green?"

  "That's the caterpillar."

  Mercifully, Maya's phone rang. She checked her phone and saw it was Shane.

  "How are you holding up?" Shane asked her.


  Silence. Three seconds passed before Shane spoke.

  "I'm digging this awkward silence," Shane said. "You?"

  "It's awesome. So what's up?"

  They were too close for this "how are you holding up" stuff. It just wasn't something that was a part of their relationship.

  "We need to talk," he said.

  "So talk."

  "I'll come over. Are you hungry?"

  "Not really."

  "I can pick up a buffalo chicken pizza f
rom Best of Everything."

  "Hurry, dammit."

  She hung up. Camp Arifjan had served pizza as a choice at almost every meal, but the sauce tasted like turned ketchup and the dough had the consistency of toothpaste. Since she'd been home, she craved only thin-crust pizza and nobody did that better than Best of Everything.

  When Shane arrived, they all sat at the kitchen table and wolfed down the pizza. Lily loved Shane. Kids, in general, loved Shane. It was adults he didn't do quite as well with. There was an awkwardness to him, a stoicism that most people, with their need for appearances and fake smiles, found off-putting. Shane couldn't handle small talk or the excess bullshittery of modern society.

  When they finished the pizza, Lily insisted that Shane, not Maya, get her ready for bed.

  Shane pouted. "But reading to you is so boring."

  That cracked Lily up. She grabbed his hand and started dragging him toward the stairs. "No, please!" Shane cried, falling to the ground. Lily laughed harder and kept pulling. Shane protested the entire way. It took ten minutes for Lily to get him up the stairs.

  When they reached the bedroom, Shane read her a story and Lily conked out so fast Maya wondered whether he had slipped her an Ambien.

  "That was fast," she said when he came back down.

  "Part of my plan."

  "What was?"

  "Having her drag me up the stairs. It tired her out."


  "Yeah, well."

  They both grabbed cold beers from the fridge and headed into the backyard. Night had fallen. The humidity weighed them down, but after you experienced desert heat wearing forty pounds of gear on your back, nothing else in the hot family really bothered you.

  "Nice night," Shane said.

  They sat by the swimming pool and started to drink. There was something there, some sort of chasm, and Maya didn't like it.

  "Stop it," she said.

  "Stop what?"

  "You're treating me like . . ."


  "Like a widow. Cut it out."

  Shane nodded. "Yeah, okay, my bad."

  "So what did you want to talk to me about?" she asked.

  He took a swig of beer. "It may be nothing."


  "There's an intelligence report floating around." Shane was still in the military, heading up the local branch of the military police. "Seems Corey Rudzinski may be back in the United States."

  Shane waited for her reaction. Maya took a deep, long sip of the beer and said nothing.

  "We think he came across the Canadian border two weeks ago."

  "Is there an arrest warrant out on him?"

  "Technically, no."

  Corey Rudzinski was the founder of CoreyTheWhistle, a website where whistle-blowers could safely post information in a confidential manner. The idea was to disclose illegal activities by government and big business. Remember that story about the South American government official who had been taking kickbacks from the oil companies? A leak to CoreyTheWhistle. That police corruption case with the racist emails? CoreyTheWhistle. The abusive prisoner treatment in Idaho, the covered-up nuclear accident in Asia, the security forces hiring escort services? CoreyTheWhistle.

  And, of course, the civilian deaths due to an overzealous female Army helicopter pilot?

  Yep, you guessed it.

  All those "scoops" were courtesy of Corey's confidential whistle-blowers.


  "He can't hurt me anymore."

  Shane tilted his head.



  "He can't hurt me," she said. "He already released that tape."

  "Not all of it."

  She took a slug of beer. "I don't care, Shane."

  He leaned back. "Okay." Then: "Why do you think he didn't?"

  "Didn't what?"

  "Release the audio."

  It was a question that haunted her more than Shane would ever know.

  "He's a whistle-blower," Shane said. "So why didn't he air it?"

  "Don't know."

  Shane looked out. Maya knew that look.

  "I assume you have a theory?" she said.

  "I do."

  "Let's hear it."

  "Corey has been saving it for the right time," Shane said.

  Maya frowned.

  "First he gets the big press hit off the initial release. Then, when he needs fresh publicity, he releases the rest of it."

  She shook her head.

  "He's a shark," Shane said. "You have to constantly feed a shark."


  "For his operation to be a success, Corey Rudzinski needs to not only take down those he believes are corrupt, but he has to do it in a way that will maximize publicity."



  "I don't really care. I'm out of the military. I'm even--gasp--a widow. Let him do his worst."

  She wondered whether Shane would buy the bravado, but then again, he didn't know the full truth, did he?

  "Okeydokey." Shane finished the beer. "So are you going to tell me what's really going on?"

  "What do you mean?"

  "I ran that test for you, no questions asked."

  She nodded. "Thank you."

  "I'm not here for gratitude, you know that."

  She did.

  "Running that test was a violation of my oath. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, against the law. You know that, right?"

  "Let it go, Shane."

  "Did you know Joe was in danger?"


  "Or were you the real target?"

  Maya closed her eyes for a moment. The sounds were raging toward her.


  She opened her eyes and turned toward him slowly. "Do you trust me?"

  "Don't insult me like that. You saved my life. You're the best and bravest soldier I've ever known."

  She shook her head. "The best and bravest came home in a box."

  "No, Maya, they didn't. They paid the biggest price, yes. Mostly, they were the unluckiest. We both know that. They were just standing in the wrong spot at the wrong time."

  It was true. It isn't as though the more competent warriors had a better chance of surviving. It was a crapshoot. War is never a meritocracy for the casualties.

  Shane's voice was soft in the darkness. "You're going to try to do this on your own, aren't you?"

  She didn't reply.

  "You're going to take down Joe's killers by yourself."

  It wasn't a question. The silence hung there for a while, just like the humidity.

  "I'm here if you need help. You know that, right?"

  "I do." Then: "Do you trust me, Shane?"

  "With my life."

  "Then leave it alone."


  Shane finished his beer and headed for the door.

  "I need one more thing," Maya said.

  She handed him a piece of paper.

  "What's this?"

  "A license plate for a red Buick Verano. I need to know who the car belongs to."

  Shane made a face. "I won't insult either of us by asking why you want this," he said. "But this is the last freebie."

  He kissed her on the top of the head, fatherlike, and left.

  Maya looked in on her sleeping daughter. Then she padded down the corridor to the high-tech workout room Joe had built when they first moved in. She did some light weights--squats, bench, curls--and then hit the treadmill. The house had always felt too big for her, too fancy. Her family hadn't been poor by any stretch, but this kind of wealth didn't sit well with her. Maya didn't feel comfortable here, hadn't ever, but that was the way the Burketts were. No one really left the family's environs--their compound just spread out.

  She worked up a good sweat. Exercising always made her feel better. When she was done, Maya threw a towel around her neck and grabbed a frosty Bud. She pressed the bottle against her forehead. Nice and cold.

  She moved the mouse, waking up
the computer, and jumped on the web. She typed in the URL for the CoreyTheWhistle website and waited for it to load. Other similar sites like WikiLeaks had no-nonsense layouts--very cookie-cutter, monochromatic, informational. Corey had gone for a far more stimulating visual. The motto, written in alternating fonts across the top, was simple and crude: "We Provide The Whistle, But You Provide The, Uh, Blow."

  There were bursts of color. There were thumbnails of videos. And while rival sites downplayed any hyperbole, Corey's had brought all the best and cheesiest click-bait terminology: "Top Ten Ways The Government Is Watching--Number 7 Will Blow Your Mind!" "Wall Street Goes For Your Green . . . and You Won't Believe What Happens Next." "Think the Cops Are There to Protect You? Think Again." "We Kill Civilians. Why the Four-Star Generals Hate Us." "Twenty Signs You're Being Robbed By Your Bank." "The Wealthiest Men in the World Pay No Taxes--How You Can Too." "Which Despot Are You Most Like? Take Our Test."

  She hit the archive and found the old video. She wasn't sure why she went to Corey's site to get it. YouTube had a dozen variations of it up. She could have easily just gone there, but somehow it felt right to go to the source.

  Someone had leaked to Corey Rudzinski what had started off as a rescue mission. Four soldiers, including three Maya knew and loved, had been killed in an ambush in Al Qa'im, not far from the Syrian-Iraqi border. Two were still alive but pinned down by enemy fire. A black SUV was moving in for the kill. Maya and Shane, flying at full speed in a Boeing MH-6 Little Bird light helicopter gunship, had heard the terrified calls for help from the two surviving soldiers. They both sounded so young, so damned young, and she knew the four already dead would have sounded exactly the same.

  Once they had the target in view, they waited for confirmation, but while everyone thinks military gear is infallible, the radio signal from Joint Operations Command at Al Asad kept coming in and out. Not so with the two soldiers who were begging to be saved. Maya and Shane waited. Both were cursing through the radio, demanding a reply from JOC, when they heard the two survivors scream.

  That was when Maya's MH-6 took out the black SUV with an AGM-114 Hellfire Missile. The SUV blew up high into the air. The infantry moved in and rescued the soldiers. Both had been hit, but both survived.

  At the time, it had all seemed pretty righteous.

  Maya's cell phone rang. She closed the web browser quickly, as though she'd been caught watching porn. She saw the caller ID read "FARNWOOD," the name of the Burkett family estate.


  "Maya, it's Judith."

  Joe's mom. It had been more than a week since Joe's death, but the tone still had that same heaviness, as though every word was a task, a struggle, painful.

  "Oh, hi, Judith."

  "I wanted to know how you and Lily are faring."