The woods, p.41
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       The Woods, p.41

           Harlan Coben
 
Chapter 42

  Sosh wasn't surprised to see me.

  "You knew, didn't you?"

  He was on the phone. He put his hand over the mouthpiece.

  "Sit down, Pavel. "

  "I asked you a question. "

  He finished his call and put the phone back in the cradle. Then he saw the manila envelope in my hand. "What's that?"

  "Its a summary of my fathers KGB file. "

  His shoulders slumped. "You cant believe everything in those," Sosh said, but there was nothing behind his words. It was as though he'd read them off a teleprompter. "On page two," I said, trying to quiet the tremor in my voice, "it says what my father did. "

  Sosh just looked at me.

  "He turned in my Noni and Pope, didn't he? He was the source that betrayed them. My own father. "

  Sosh still wouldn't speak.

  "Answer me, dammit. "

  "You still don't understand. "

  "Did my own father turn my grandparents in, yes or no?"

  "Yes. "

  I stopped.

  "Your father had been accused of botching a delivery. I don't know if he did or not. It makes no difference. The government wanted him. I told you all the pressure that they can apply. They would have destroyed your entire family. "

  "So he sold out my grandparents to save his own skin?"

  "The government would have gotten them anyway. But yes, okay, Vladimir chose to save his own children over his elderly in-laws. He didn't know it would go so wrong. He thought that the regime would just crack down a little, flex a little muscle, that's all. He figured they'd hold your grandparents for a few weeks at the most. And in exchange, your family would get a second chance. Your father would make life better for his children and his children's children. Don't you see?"

  "No, I'm sorry, I don't. "

  "Because you are rich and comfortable. "

  "Don't hand me that crap, Sosh. People don't sell out their own family members. You should know better. You survived that blockade. The people of Leningrad wouldn't surrender. No matter what the Nazis did, you took it and held your head high. "

  "And you think that was smart?" he snapped. His hands formed two fists. "My God, you are so naive. My brother and sister starved to death. Do you understand that? If we had surrendered, if we'd given those bastards that damn city, Gavrel and Aline would still be alive. The tide still would have turned against the Nazis eventually. But my brother and sister would have had lives-children, grandchildren, grown old. In stead. . . "

  He turned away.

  "When did my mother find out about what he'd done?" I asked.

  "It haunted him. Your father, I mean. I think part of your mother always wondered. I think that was why she had such contempt for him. But the night your sister vanished, he thought that Camille was dead. He crumbled. And so he confessed the truth. "

  It made sense. Horrible sense. My mother had learned what my father had done. She would never forgive him for betraying her beloved parents. She would think nothing of making him suffer, of letting him think that his own daughter was dead.

  "So," I said, "my mother hid my sister. She waited until she had enough money from the settlement. Then she planned on disappearing with Camille. "

  "Yes. "

  "But that begs the central question, doesn't it?"

  "What question?"

  I spread my hands. "What about me, her only son? How could my mother just leave me behind?" Sosh said nothing. "My whole life," I said. "I spent my whole life thinking my mother didn't care enough about me. That she just ran off and never looked back. How could you let me believe that, Sosh?"

  "You think the truth is better?"

  I thought of how I spied on my father in those woods. He dug and dug for his daughter. And then one day he stopped. I thought that he stopped because my mother ran off. I remembered the last day he had gone out to those woods, how he told me not to follow him:

  "Not today, Paul Today I go alone. . . " He dug his last hole that day. Not to find my sister. But to bury my mother.

  Was it poetic justice, placing her in the ground where my sister supposedly died, or was there also an element of practicality-who would think to look in a place where they had already searched so thoroughly?

  "Dad found out she planned to run. "

  "Yes. "

  "How?"

  "I told him. "

  Sosh met my eye. I said nothing.

  "I learned that your mother had transferred a hundred thousand dollars out of their joint account. It was common KGB protocol to keep an eye on one another. I asked your father about it. "

  "And he confronted her. "

  "Yes. "

  "And my mother. . . " There was a choke in my voice. I cleared my throat, blinked, tried again. "My mother never planned on abandoning me," I said. "She was going to take me too. "

  Sosh held my gaze and nodded.

  That truth should have offered me some small measure of comfort. It didn't. "Did you know he killed her, Sosh?" "Yes. " "Just like that?" Again he went quiet. "And you didn't do anything about it, did you?" "We were still working for the government," Sosh said. "If it came out that he was a murderer, we could all be in danger. "

  "Your cover would have been blown. "

  "Not just mine. Your father knew a lot of us. "

  "So you let him get away with it. "

  "It was what we did back then. Sacrifice for the higher cause. Your father said she threatened to expose us all. " "You believed that?" "Does it matter what I believed? Your father never meant to kill her.

  He snapped. Imagine it. Natasha was going to run away and hide. She was going to take his children and disappear forever. "

  I remembered now my father's last words, on that deathbed. . .

  "Paul, we still need to find her. . . "

  Did he mean Camille's body? Or Camille herself?

  "My father found out my sister was still alive," I said.

  "Its not that simple. "

  "What do you mean, it's not that simple? Did he find out or not? Did my mother tell him?"

  "Natasha?" Sosh made a noise. "Never. You talk about brave, about being able to withstand hardships. Your mother wouldn't speak. No matter what your father did to her. "

  "Including strangling her to death?"

  Sosh said nothing.

  "Then how did he find out?"

  "After he killed your mother, your father searched through her papers, through phone records. He put it together-or at least he had his suspicions. "

  "So he did know?"

  "Like I said, it's not that simple. "

  "You're not making sense, Sosh. Did he search for Camille?"

  Sosh closed his eyes. He moved back around his desk. "You asked me before about the siege of Leningrad," he said. "Do you know what it taught me? The dead are nothing. They are gone. You bury them and you move on. "

  "I'll keep that in mind, Sosh. "

  "You went on this quest. You wouldn't leave the dead alone. And now where are you? Two more have been killed. You learned that your beloved father murdered your mother. Was it worth it, Pavel? Was it worth stirring up the old ghosts?"

  "It depends," I said.

  "On what?"

  "On what happened to my sister. "

  I waited.

  My father's last words came to me:

  "Did you know?"

  I'd thought he was accusing me, that he saw guilt on my face. But that wasn't it. Did I know about the real fate of my sister? Did I know what he'd done? Did I know that he murdered my own mother and buried her in the woods?

  "What happened to my sister, Sosh?"

  "This is what I meant when I said its not so simple. "

  I waited.

  "You have to understand. Your father was never sure. He found some evidence, yes, but all he knew for certain was that your mother was going to run with the money and take you with her. " So? "So he asked me for help. He asked metro look into his evidence. He asked me to fin
d your sister. "

  I looked at him.

  "Did you?"

  "I looked into it, yes. " He took a step toward me. "And when I was finished, I told your father that he got it wrong. " "What?" "I told your father that your sister died that night in the woods. " I was confused. "Did she?" "No, Pavel. She didn't die that night. " I felt my heart start to expand in my chest. "You lied to him. You didn't want him to find her. "

  He said nothing.

  "And now? Where is she now?"

  "Your sister knew what your father had done. She couldn't come forward, of course. There was no proof of his guilt. There was still the matter of why she had disappeared in the first place. And of course, she feared your father. How could she just return to the man who murdered her mother?"

  I thought about the Perez family, the charges of fraud and all that. It would have been the same with my sister. Even before you add my father into the equation, it would have been difficult for Camille to come home.

  Hope again filled my chest.

  "So you did find her?"

  "Yes. "

  "And?"

  "And I gave her money. "

  "You helped her hide from him. "

  He didn't answer. He didn't have to.

  "Where is she now?" I asked.

  "We lost touch years ago. You have to understand, Camille didn't want to hurt you. She thought about taking you away. But that was impractical. She knew how much you loved your father. And then later, when you became a public figure, she knew what her return, what this scandal, would do to you. You see, if she came back, it would all have to come out. And once that happened, your career would be over. "

  "It already is. "

  "Yes. We know that now. "

  We, he said. We.

  "So where is Camille?" I asked.

  "She's here, Pavel. "

  The air left the room. I couldn't breathe. I shook my head.

  "It took a while to find her after all these years," he said. "But I did. We talked. She didn't know your father had died. I told her. And that, of course, changed everything. "

  "Wait a second. You. . . " I stopped. "You and Camille talked?"

  It was my voice, I think.

  "Yes, Pavel. "

  "I don't understand. "

  "When you came in, that was her on the phone. "

  My body went cold. "She's staying at a hotel two blocks away. I told her to come over. " He looked at the elevator. "That's her now. On her way up. "

  I slowly turned and watched the numbers climb above the elevator. I heard it ding. I took one step toward it. I didn't believe it. This was an other cruel trick. Hope was having its way with me again.

  The elevator stopped. I heard the doors begin to open. They didn't slide. They moved grudgingly as though afraid to surrender their passenger. I froze. My heart hammered hard against my chest. I kept my eyes on those doors, on the opening.

  And then, twenty years after vanishing into those woods, my sister, Camille, stepped back into my life.

  Epilogue

  One Month Later Lucy does not want me to take this trip.

  "It's finally over," she says to me, right before I head to the airport.

  "Heard that before," I counter.

  "You don't need to face him again, Cope. "

  "I do. I need some final answers. "

  Lucy closes her eyes.

  "What?"

  "It's all so fragile, you know?"

  I do.

  "I'm afraid you'll shift the ground again. "

  I understand. But this needs to be done.

  An hour later, I am looking out the window of a plane. Over the past month, life has returned to quasi-normal. The Jenrette and Marantz case took some wild and weird twists toward its rather glorious ending. The families did not give up. They applied whatever pressure they could on Judge Arnold Pierce and he broke. He threw out the porno DVD, claiming we didn't produce it in a timely enough fashion. We appeared to be in trouble. But the jury saw through it-they often do-and came back with guilty verdicts. Flair and Mort are appealing, of course.

  I want to prosecute Judge Pierce, but I'll never get him. I want to prosecute EJ Jenrette and MVD for blackmail. I doubt I'll get that either. But Chamique's lawsuit is going well. Rumor has it that they want her out of the way quickly. A seven-figure settlement is being bandied about. I hope she gets it. But when I peer into my crystal ball, I still don't see a great deal of happiness for Chamique down the road. I don't know. Her life has been so troubled. Somehow I sense that money will not change that.

  My brother-in-law, Bob, is out on bail. I caved in on that one. I told the federal authorities that while my recollections were "fuzzy," I do believe Bob told me that he needed a loan and that I approved it. I don't know fit will fly. I don't know if I'm doing the right thing or the wrong thing (probably the wrong) but I don't want Greta and her family destroyed. Feel free to call me a hypocrite-I am-but that line between right and wrong grows so blurry sometimes. It grows blurry here in the bright sunshine of the real world.

  And, of course, it grows blurry in the dark of those woods.

  Here is the quick yet thorough update on Loren Muse: Muse re mains Muse. And I'm thankful for that. Governor Dave Markie hasn't called for my resignation yet and I haven't offered it. I probably will and I probably should, but as fright now, I'm hanging in.

  Raya Singh ended up leaving Most Valuable Detection to partner up with none other than Cingle Shaker. Cingle says that they're looking for a third "hottie" so they can call their new agency "Charlie's Angels. "

  The plane lands. I get off. I check my Blackberry. There is a short message from my sister, Camille:

  Hey, bro-Cara and I are going to have lunch in the city and shop. Miss and love you, Camille My sister, Camille. It is fantastic to have her back. I cant believe how quickly she had become a full-fledged and integral part of our lives. But the truth is, there is still a lingering tension between us. It is getting better. It will get better still. But the tension is there and unmistakable, and sometimes we go over the top in our efforts to combat it by calling each other "bro" and "sis" and saying that we "miss" and "love" each other all the time.

  I still don't have Camille's entire backstory. There are details she is leaving out. I know that she started with a new identity in Moscow, but didn't stay long. There were two years in Prague and another in Begur on the Costa Brava of Spain. She came back to the United States, moved around some more, got married and settled outside Atlanta, ended up divorced three years later.

  She never had kids, but she is already the worlds greatest aunt. She loves Cara, and the feeling is more than reciprocated. Camille is living with us. It is wonderful-better than I could have hoped-and that truly eases the tension.

  Part of me, of course, wonders why it took so long for Camille to come home-that's where the majority of the tension comes from, I think. I understand what Sosh said about her wanting to protect me, my reputation, my memories of my father. And I know that she understandably was afraid of Dad while he still breathed.

  But I think that there is more to it.

  Camille chose to keep silent about what happened in those woods. She never told anyone what Wayne Steubens had done. Her choice, right or wrong, had left Wayne free to murder more people. I don't know what would have been the right thing to do - if coming forward would have made it better or worse. You could argue that Wayne still would have gotten away with it, that he might have run off or stayed in Europe, that he would have been more careful about his killings, gotten away with more. Who knows? But lies have a way of festering. Camille thought that she could bury those lies. Maybe we all did.

  But none of us got out of those woods unscathed.

  As for my romantic life, well, I am in love. Simple as that. I love Lucy with all my heart. Wearer not taking it slow-we plunged right in, as if trying to make up for lost time. There is a maybe unhealthy desperation there, an obsession, a clinging-as-thou
gh-to-a-life-raft quality in what we are. We see a lot of each other, and when we're not together I feel lost and adrift and I want to be with her again. We talk on the phone. Wee-mail and text-message incessantly.

  But that's love, right?

  Lucy is funny and goofy and warm and smart and beautiful and she overwhelms me in the best way. We seem to agree on everything. Except, of course, my taking this trip. I understand her fear. I know all too well how fragile this all is. But you can't live on thin ice either. So here I am again, in Red Onion State Prison in Pound, Virginia, waiting to learn a few last truths. Wayne Steubens enters. We are in the same room as our last meeting. He sits in the same place.

  "My, my," he says to me. "You've been a busy boy, Cope. "

  "You killed them," I say. "After all is said and done, you, the serial killer, did it. "

  Wayne smiles.

  "You planned it all along, didn't you?"

  "Is anyone listening in to this?"

  "No. "

  He puts up his right hand. "Your word on that?"

  "My word," I say.

  "Then, sure, why not. I did, yes. I planned the killings. "

  So there it is. He too has decided that the past needs to be faced.

  "And you carried it out, just like Mrs. Perez said. You slaughtered Margot. Then Gil, Camille and Doug ran. You chased them. You caught up to Doug. You murdered him too. "

  He raises his index finger. "I made a miscalculation there. See, I jumped the gun with Margot. I meant her to be last because she was al ready tied up. But her neck was so open, so vulnerable. . . I couldn't resist. "

  "There are a few things I couldn't figure out at first," I say. "But now I think I know. "

  "I'm listening. "

  "Those journals the private detectives sent to Lucy," I say.

  "Ahh. "

  "I wondered who saw us in the woods, but Lucy got that one right. Only one person could have known: the killer. You, Wayne. " He spreads his hands. "Modesty prevents me from saying more. " "You were the one who gave MVD the information they used in those journals. You were the source. "

  "Modesty, Cope. Again I plead modesty. "

  He is enjoying this.

  "How did you get Ira to help?" I ask.

  "Dear Uncle Ira. That addle-brained hippie. "

  "Yes, Wayne. "

  "He didn't help much. I just needed him out of the way. You see- and this might shock you, Cope-but Ira did drugs. I had pictures and proof. If it came out, his precious camp would have been ruined. So would he. "

  He smiles some more.

  "So when Gil and I threatened to bring it all back," I say, "Ira got scared. Like you said, he was somewhat addle-brained then-he was a lot worse now. Paranoia clouded his thinking. You were already serving time-Gil and I could only make things worse by bringing it all back. So Ira panicked. He silenced Gil and tried to silence me. "

  Another smile from Wayne.

  But there is something different in the smile now.

  "Wayne?"

  He doesn't speak. He just grins. I don't like it. I replay what I'd just said. And I still don't like it.

  Wayne keeps smiling.

  "What?" I ask.

  "You're missing something, Cope. "

  I wait.

  "Ira wasn't the only one who helped me. "

  "I know," I say. "Gil contributed. He tied Margot up. And my sister was there too. She helped get Margot into those woods. "

  Wayne squints and puts his forefinger and thumb half-an-inch part. "You're still missing one teensy-weensy thing," he says. "One itsy-bitsy secret I've kept all these years. "

  I am holding my breath. He just smiles. I break the silence.

  "What?" I ask again.

  He leans forward and whispers, "You, Cope. "

  I can't speak.

  "You're forgetting your part in this. "

  "I know my part," I say. "I left my post. "

  "Yes, true. And if you hadn't?"

  "I would have stopped you. "

  "Yes," Wayne says, drawing out the word. "Precisely. "

  I wait for more. It doesn't come.

  "Is that what you wanted to hear, Wayne? That I feel partially responsible?"

  "No. Nothing that simple. "

  "What then?"

  He shakes his head. "You're missing the point. "

  "What point?"

  "Think, Cope. True, you left your post. But you said it yourself. I planned it all out. "

  He cups his hands around his mouth and his voice drops to a whisper again. "So answer me this: How did I know you wouldn't be at your post that night?"

  Lucy and I drive out to the woods.

  I already got permission from Sheriff Lowell, so the security guard, the one Muse had warned me about, just waves us through. We park in the condo lot. It is strange-neither Lucy nor I had been here in two decades. This housing development hadn't existed back then, of course. But still, after all this time, we know just where we are.

  Lucy's father, her dear Ira, had owned all this land. He had come up here all those years ago, feeling like Magellan discovering a new world. Ira probably looked out at these woods and realized his lifelong dream: a camp, a commune, a natural habitat free from the sins of man, a place of peace and harmony, whatever, something that would hold his values.

  Poor Ira.

  Most crimes I see start with something small. Wife angers her husband over something inconsequential - where the remote control is, a cold dinner - and then it escalates. But in this case, it was just the opposite. Something big got the ball rolling. In the end, a crazy serial killer had started it all. Wayne Steubens's lust for blood set everything in motion.

  Maybe we all facilitated him in one way or another. Fear ended up being Wayne's best accomplice. EJ Jenrette had taught me the power of that too-if you make people fearful enough, they will acquiesce. Only it hadn't worked in his son's rape case. He hadn't been able to scare Chamique Johnson. He hadn't been able to scare me either.

  Maybe that was because I had already been scared enough.

  Lucy carries flowers, but she should know better. We don't place flowers on tombstones in our tradition. We place stones. I also don't know who the flowers are for-my mother or her father. Probably both.

  We take the old trail-yes, it is still there, though its pretty overgrown-to where Barrett found my mother's bones. The hole where she lay all these years is empty. The remnants of yellow crime-scene tape blow in the breeze.

  Lucy kneels down. I listen to the wind, wonder if I hear the cries. I don't. I don't hear anything but the hollow of my heart.

  "Why did we go into the woods that night, Lucy?"

  She doesn't look up at me.

  "I never really thought about that. Everyone else did. Everyone wondered how I could have been so irresponsible. But to me, it was obvious. I was in love. I was sneaking away with my girlfriend. What could be more natural than that?"

  She puts the flowers down carefully. She still won't look at me. "Ira didn't help Wayne Steubens that night," I say to the woman I love. "You did. " I hear the prosecutor in my voice. I want him to shut up and go away. But he won't.

  "Wayne said it. The murders were carefully planned - so how did he know I wouldn't be at my post? Because it was your job to make sure that I wasn't. "

  I can see her start to grow smaller, wither.

  "That's why you could never face me," I say. "That's why you feel like you're still tumbling down a hill and can't stop. It's not that your family lost the camp or their reputation or all the money. It's that you helped Wayne Steubens. "

  I wait. Lucy lowers her head. I stand behind her. Her face drops in her hands. She sobs. Her shoulders shake. I hear her cries, and my heart breaks in two. I take a step toward her. The hell with this, I think. This time, Uncle Sosh is right. I don't need to know everything. I don't need to bring it all back.

  I just need her. So I take that step.

  Lucy holds up
a hand to stop me. She gathers herself a piece at a time.

  "I didn't know what he was going to do," she says. "He said he'd have Ira arrested if I didn't help. I thought. . . I thought he was just going to scare Margot. You know. A stupid prank. "

  Something catches in my throat. "Wayne knew we got separated. "

  She nods.

  "How did he know?"

  "He saw me. "

  "You," I say. "Not us. "

  She nods again.

  "You found the body, didn't you? Margot's, I mean. That was the blood in the journal. Wayne wasn't talking about me. He was talking about you. "

  "Yes. "

  I think about it, about how scared she must have been, how she probably ran to her father, how Ira would have panicked too. "Ira saw you in blood. He thought. . . " She doesn't speak. But now it makes sense. "Ira wouldn't kill Gil and me to protect himself," I say. "But he was a father. In the end, with all his peace, love and understanding, Ira was first and foremost a father like any other. And so he'd kill to protect his little girl. "

  She sobs again.

  Everyone had kept quiet. Everyone had been afraid-my sister, my mother, Gil, his family, and now Lucy. They all bear some of the blame, and they all paid a stiff price. And what about me? I like to excuse myself by claiming youth and the need to, what, sow some wild oats. But is that really any excuse? I had a responsibility to watch the campers that night. I shirked it.

  The trees seem to close in on us. I look up at them and then I look at Lucy's face. I see the beauty. I see the damage. I want to go to her. But I can't. I don't know why. I want to-I know it is the right thing to do. But I cant.

  I turn instead and walk away from the woman I love. I expect her to call out for me to stop. But she doesn't. She lets me go. I hear her sobs. I walk some more. I walk until I am out of the woods and back by the car. I sit on the curb and close my eyes. Eventually she will have to come back here. So I sit and wait for her. I wonder where we will go after she comes out. I wonder if we will drive off together or if these woods, after all these years, will have claimed one last victim.

 
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