The Woods, Page 5Harlan Coben
Muse and I said nothing for a few moments.
Cal and Jim. The names deflated us.
The position of chief investigator was almost always held by some male lifer, a gruff guy slightly burned out by what he'd seen over the years, with a big belly and a heavy sigh and a well-worn trench coat. It would be that mans job to maneuver the guileless county prosecutor, a political appointee like me, through the rings of the Essex County legal system.
Loren Muse was maybe five feet tall and weighed about as much as your average fourth grader. My choosing Muse had caused some nasty ripples among the veterans, but here was my own private prejudice: I prefer hiring single women of a certain age. They worked harder and were more loyal. I know, I know, but I have found this to be true in almost every case. You find a single woman over the age of, say, thirty-three, and she lives for her career and will give you hours and devotion the married ones with kids will never give you.
To be fair, Muse was also an incredibly gifted investigator. I liked talking things out with her. I would say "muse"-ing them over, but then you'd understandably groan. Right now she was staring down at the floor.
"What's on your mind?" I asked her.
"Are these shoes really that ugly?"
I looked at her and waited.
"Put simply," she said, "if we don't find a way to explain Cal and Jim, we're screwed. "
I stared at the ceiling.
"What?" Muse said.
"Those two names. "
"What about them?"
"Why?" I asked for the umpteenth time. "Why Cal and Jim?"
"Don't know. "
"You questioned Chamique again?"
"I did. Her story is frighteningly consistent. They used those two names. I think you're right. They simply did that as a cover, so her story would sound idiotic. "
"But why those two names?"
"Probably just random. "
I frowned. "We're missing something, Muse. "
She nodded. "I know. "
I have always been pretty good about partitioning my life. We all are, but I am especially good at it. I can create separate universes in my own world. I can deal with one aspect of my life and not have it interfere with another in anyway. Some people watch a gangster movie and wonder how the mobster can be so violent on the streets and so loving at home. I get that. I have that ability.
I'm not proud of this. It is not necessarily a great attribute. It protects, yes, but I have seen what actions it can justify.
So for the past half hour I had been pushing away the obvious questions: If Gil Perez had been alive this whole time, where had he been?
What had happened that night in the woods? And of course, the biggest question: If Gil Perez had survived that awful night. . .
Had my sister survived too?
It was Muse.
"What's going on?"
I wanted to tell her. But now was not the time. I need to sort it through myself first. Figure out what was what. Make sure that body really did belong to Gil Perez. I stood and walked toward her.
"Cal and Jim," I said. "We have to figure out what the hell that's all about, and fast. "
My wife's sister, Greta, and her husband, Bob, lived in a McMansion on a new cul-de-sac that looks almost precisely the same as every other new cul-de-sac in North America. The lots are too small for the ginormous brick edifices that stretch across them. The houses have a variety of shapes and shades but somehow still look exactly the same. Everything is a little too brushed, trying to look aged and only looking more faux.
I had met Greta first, before my wife. My mother ran away before I turned twenty, but I remember something she told me a few months before Camille went into those woods. We were the poorest citizens in our rather mixed town. We were immigrants who had come over from the old Soviet Union when I was four. We had started out okay, we had arrived in the USA as heroes, but things turned very bad very quickly.
We were living on the top floor of a three-family dwelling in Newark, though we went to school at Columbia High in West Orange. My father, Vladimir Copinsky (he anglicized it to Copeland), who had once been a doctor in Leningrad, couldn't get a license to practice in this country. He ended up working as a house painter. My mother, a frail beauty named Natasha, the once-proud, well-educated daughter of aristocratic college professors, took on a variety of cleaning jobs for the wealthier families in Short Hills and Livingston but could never hold on to one for very long.
On this particular day, my sister, Camille, came home from school and announced in a teasing voice that the town rich girl had a crush on me. My mother was excited by this.
"You should ask her out," my mother said to me.
I made a face. "Have you seen her?"
"I have. "
"Then you know," I said, speaking as a seventeen-year-old would. "She's a beast. "
"There is an old Russian expression," my mother countered, raising a finger to clarify her point. "A rich girl is beautiful when she stands on her money. "
That was the first thought that came through my mind when I met Greta. Her parents, my former in-laws, I guess, still the grandparents of my Cara, are loaded. My wife came from money. It is all in trust for Cara. I'm the executor. Jane and I discussed long and hard the age at which she should get the bulk of the estate. You don't want someone too young inheriting that kind of money, but hey, on the other hand, it is hers.
My Jane was so practical after the doctors had announced her death sentence. I couldn't listen. You learn a lot when someone you love goes down for the count. I learned that my wife had amazing strength and bravery I would have thought unfathomable before her illness. And I found that I had neither.
Cara and Madison, my niece, were playing in the driveway. The days were starting to get longer now. Madison sat on the asphalt and drew with pieces of chalk that resembled cigars. My own daughter rode one of those motorized, slow-moving minicars that are all the rage with today's under-six crowd. The kids who own them never play on them.
Only visitors on play dates do. Play dates. Man, I hated that term.
I stepped out of the car and shouted, "Hey, kiddos. "
I waited for the two six-year-old girls to stop what they were doing and sprint over to me and wrap me in big hugs. Yeah, right. Madison glanced my way, but she couldn't have looked less interested without some sort of surgical cerebral disconnect. My own daughter pretended not to hear. Cara steered the Barbie Jeep in a circle. The battery was fading fast, the electric vehicle churning at a speed slower than my uncle Morris reaching for the check.
Greta pushed open the screen door. "Hey. "
"Hey," I said. "So how was the rest of the gymnastics show?"
"Don't worry," Greta said, shading her eyes with her hand in a pseudo salute. "I have the whole thing on video. "
"So what was up with those two cops?"
I shrugged. "Just work. "
She didn't buy it but she didn't press. "I have Cara's backpack inside. "
She let the door close behind her. There were workers coming around back. Bob and Greta were putting in a swimming pool with matching landscaping. They'd been thinking about it for several years but wanted to wait until Madison and Cara were old enough to be safe.
"Come on," I said to my daughter, "we need to go. "
Cara ignored me again, pretending that the whir of the pink Barbie Jeep was overwhelming her aural faculties. I frowned and started toward her. Cara was ridiculously stubborn. I would like to say, "like her mother," but my Jane was the most patient and understanding woman you ever met. It was amazing. You see qualities both good and bad in your children. In the case of Cara, all the negative qualities seemed to emanate from her father.
Madison put down the chalk. "Come on, Cara. "
Cara ignored her too. Madison shrugged at me and gave me that kid-world-weary sigh. "Hi, Uncle Cope. "
"Hey, sweetie. Have a good
"No," Madison said with her fists on her hips. "Cara never plays with me. She just plays with my toys. "
I tried to look understanding.
Greta came out with the backpack. "We already did the homework," she said.
"Thank you. "
She waved it off. "Cara, sweetheart? Your father is here. "
Cara ignored her too. I knew that a tantrum was coming. That too, I guess, she gets from her father. In our Disney-inspired worldview, the widowed father-daughter relationship is a magic one. Witness pretty much every kid film, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, A Little Princess, Aladdin, you get the point. In movies, not having a mother seemed to be a pretty nifty thing, which, when you think about it, is really perverse. In real life, not having a mother was just about the worst thing that could happen to a little girl.
I made my voice firm. "Cara, we're going now. "
Her face was set, I braced for the confrontation, but fortunately the gods interceded. The Barbie battery went totally dead. The pink Jeep stopped. Cara tried to body-language the vehicle another foot or two, but Barbie wouldn't budge. Cara sighed, stepped out of the Jeep, and started for the car.
"Say good-bye to Aunt Greta and your cousin. "
She did so in a voice sullen enough to make a teenager envious.
When we got home, Cara snapped on the TV without asking permission and settled in for an episode of Sponge Bob. It seems as though Sponge Bob is on all the time. I wonder if there is an all-Sponge Bob station. There also only seems to be maybe three different episodes of the show. That did not seem to deter kids, though.
I was going to say something, but I let it go. Right now I just wanted her distracted. I was still trying to put together what was going on with both the Chamique Johnson rape case and now the sudden reemergence and murder of Gil Perez. I confess that my big case, the biggest of my career, was getting the short end of the stick.
I started preparing dinner. We eat out most nights or order in. I do have a nanny-housekeeper, but today was her day off. "Hot dogs sound good?"
The phone rang. I picked it up.
"Mr. Copeland? This is Detective Tucker York. "
"Yes, Detective, what can I do for you?"
"We located Gil Perez's parents. "
I felt my grip tighten on the phone. "Did they identify the body?"
"Not yet. "
"What did you tell them?"
"Look, no offense, Mr. Copeland, but this isn't the kind of thing you just say over the phone, you know? 'Your dead child might have been alive this whole time-and oh yeah, he's just been murdered'?"
"I understand. "
"So we were pretty vague. We're going to bring them in and see if we can get an ID. But here's the other thing: How sure are you that it's Gil Perez?"
"Pretty sure. "
"You understand that's not really good enough. "
"I do. "
"And anyway, it's late. My partner and I are off duty. So we're going to have one of our men drive the Perezes down tomorrow morning. "
"So this is, what, a courtesy call?"
"Something like that. I understand your interest. And maybe you should be here in the morning, you know, in case any weird questions come up. "
"The morgue again. You need a ride?"
"No, I know my way. "
When I got back to my house, Loren Muse was pacing like a lion near a wounded gazelle. Cara was in the backseat. She had dance class in an hour. I wasn't taking her. Our nanny, Estelle, was back today. She drove. I overpay Estelle and don't care. You find someone good who also drives? You pay them whatever they want.
I pulled into my driveway. The house was a three-bedroom split-level that had all the personality of that morgue corridor. It was supposed to be our "starter" house. Jane had wanted to upgrade to a McMansion, maybe in Franklin Lakes. I didn't care much where we lived. I'm not into houses or cars and would pretty much let Jane have her way on that kind ofstuff.
I missed my wife.
Loren Muse had a something-eating grin locked onto her face. No poker player was Muse, that was for certain. "I got all the bills. Computer records too. The works. " Then she turned to my daughter. "Hi, Cara. "
"Loren!" Cara shouted. She jumped out of the car. Cara liked Muse. Muse was good with kids. Muse had never been married, never had any of her own. A few weeks ago I met her most recent boyfriend. The guy wasn't in her league, but that again seemed to be the norm for single women of a certain age.
Muse and I spread everything out on the den floor-witness statements, police reports, phone records, all the fraternity's bills. We started with the frat bills, and man, there were a ton. Every cell phone. Every beer order. Every online purchase.
"So," Muse said, "what are we looking for?" "Damned if I know. " "I thought you had something. " "Just a feeling. "
"Oh, gag me. Please don't tell me you're playing a hunch. " "I would never," I said. We kept looking.
"So," she said, "basically we're going through these papers looking for a sign saying, "Big Clue This Way'?" "We are looking," I said, "for a catalyst. " "Good word. In what way?"
"I don't know, Muse. But the answer is here. I can almost see it. " "Ooookay," she said, managing with great effort not to roll her eyes. So we searched. They ordered pizza pretty much every night, eight pies, from Pizza-To-Go, directly billed to their credit card. They had Netflix so that they could rent regular DVD movies, three at a time delivered to your door, and something called HotFlixxx, so they could do the same with dirty ones. They ordered fraternity frat-logo golf shirts. The frat logo was also on golf balls, tons of them.
We tried to put them in some kind of order. I don't have a clue why. I lifted the HotFlixxx bill and showed it to Muse. "Cheap," I said. "The Internet makes porn readily accessible and thus affordable to the masses. "
"Good to know," I said.
"But this might be an opening," Muse said.
"Young boys, hot women. Or in this case, woman. "
"Explain," I said.
"I want to hire someone outside the office. "
"A private eye named Cingle Shaker. Have you heard of her?"
I nodded. I had.
"Forget heard," she said. "Have you seen her?"
"But you've heard?"
"Yeah," I said. "I've heard. "
"Well, it's no exaggeration. Cingle Shaker has a body that not only stops traffic, it pulls up the road and bulldozes highway dividers. And she's very good. If anyone can get lawyered-up frat boys to spill, it's Cingle. "
"Okay," I said.
Hours later-I can't even tell you how many, Muse started to rise. "There's nothing here, Cope. " "Seems that way, doesn't it?" "You have Chamique's direct first thing in the morning?" "Yes. " She stood over me. "Your time would be better spent working on that. "
I did a mock "yes, sir" salute in her direction. Chamique and I had worked on her testimony already, but not as hard as one might imagine. I didn't want her to sound practiced. I had another strategy in mind.
"I'll get you what I can," Muse said.
She stomped out the door in her best lick-da-world mode.
Estelle made us all dinner, spaghetti and meatballs. Estelle is not a great cook, but it went down. I took Cara out for Van Dyke's ice cream afterward, a special treat. She was chattier now. In the rearview mirror, I could see her strapped into the car seat. When I was a kid, we were allowed to sit in the front seat. Now you had to be of drinking age before that was permissible.
I tried to listen to what she was saying but Cara was just yakking pure nonsense the way kids do. It seems Brittany had been mean to Morgan so Kyle threw an eraser and how come Kylie, not Kylie G, Kylie N - there were two Kylies in her class, how come Kylie N didn't want to go on the swings at recess unless Kiera was on one too? I ke
pt glancing at her animated face, scrunched up as though imitating an adult. I got hit with that overwhelming feeling. It sneaked up on me. Parents get it from time to time. You are looking at your child and it is an ordinary moment, not like they are onstage or hitting a winning shot, just sitting there and you look at them and you know that they are your whole life and that moves you and scares you and makes you want to stop time.
I had lost a sister. I had lost a wife. And most recently, I had lost my father. In all three cases I had gotten off the canvas. But as I looked at Cara, at the way she talked with her hands and widened her eyes, I knew that there was indeed one blow from which I could never rise.
I thought about my father. In the woods. With that shovel. His heart broken. Searching for his little girl. I thought about my mother. She had run away. I didn't know where she was. Sometimes I still think about searching her out. But not that often anymore. For years I had hated her. Maybe I still do. Or maybe now that I have a child I understand a little better about the pain she must have been going through.
When we walked back into the house, the phone rang. Estelle took Cara from me. I picked it up and said hello. "We got a problem, Cope. "
It was my brother-in-law, Bob, Gretas husband. He was chairman of the charitable fund JaneCare. Greta, Bob and I had founded it after my wife's death. I had gotten lots of wonderful press for it. My living memorial to my lovely, beautiful, gentle wife.
My, what a wonderful husband I must have been.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"Your rape case is costing us big-time. Edward Jenrette's father has gotten several of his friends to back out of their commitments. "
I closed my eyes. "Classy. "
"Worse, he's making noises that we've embezzled funds. EJ Jenrette is a well-connected son of a bitch. I'm already getting calls. "
"So we open our books," I said. "They won't find anything. "
"Don't be naive, Cope. We compete with other charities for the giving dollar. If there is even a whiff of a scandal, we're finished. " "Not much we can do about it, Bob. " "I know. It's just that. . . we're doing a lot of good here, Cope. " "I know. " "But funding is always tough. " "So what are you suggesting?" "Nothing. " Bob hesitated and I could tell he had more to say. So I waited. "But come on, Cope, you guys plea-bargain all the time, right?"
"We do. "
"You let a lesser injustice slide so you can nail someone for a bigger one. "
"When we have to. "
"These two boys. I hear they're good kids. "
"You hear wrong. "
"Look, I'm not saying that they don't deserve to be punished, but sometimes you have to trade. The greater good. JaneCare is making big strides. It might be the greater good. That's all I'm saying. "
"Good night, Bob. "
"No offense, Cope. I'm just trying to help. "
"I know. Good night, Bob. "
I hung up. My hands were shaking. Jenrette, that son of a bitch, hadn't gone after me. He had gone after my wife's memory. I started up stairs. Rage consumed me. I would channel it. I sat at my desk. There were only two pictures on it. One was the current school photo of my daughter, Cara. It had a prized spot, dead center.
The second photograph was a grainy picture of my Noni and Popi from the old country, Russia, or, as it was called when they died in that gulag, the Soviet Union. They died when I was very young, when we still lived in Leningrad, but I have vague recollections of them, especially my Popi's big shock of white hair.
Why, I often wondered, do I keep this picture out?
Their daughter, my mother, had abandoned me, right? Dumb when you thought about it. But somehow, despite the obvious pain intertwined, I find the picture oddly relevant. I would look at it, at my Noni and Popi, and I would wonder about ripples and family curses and where it all might have started.
I used to keep out pictures of Jane and Camille. I liked having them in view. They brought me comfort. But just because I found comfort in the dead, that didn't mean my daughter did. It was a hard balance with a six-year-old. You want to talk about her mother. You want her to know about Jane, her wonderful spirit, how much she would have loved her little girl. You want to offer some kind of comfort, too, that her mother was up in heaven looking down on her. But I didn't believe in that. I want to. I want to believe that there is a glorious afterlife and that above us, my wife, my sister and my father are all smiling down. But I can't make myself believe it. And when I peddle it to my daughter, I feel as though I'm lying to her. I do it anyway. For now it feels like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, something temporary and soothing, but in the end, she, like all children, will learn it is yet another parental lie with minimum justification. Or maybe I'm wrong and they are up there looking down on us. Maybe that is what Cara will conclude someday.
At midnight I finally allowed my mind to go where it wanted to, my sister, Camille, Gil Perez, that awful, magical summer. I flashed back to camp. I thought about Camille. I thought about that night. And for the first time in several years, I let myself think about Lucy.
A sad smile crossed my face. Lucy Silverstein had been my first real girlfriend. We'd had it so good, a fairy-tale summer romance, until that night. We never had the chance to break up, we were, instead, ripped apart by bloody murders. We were torn away while still enmeshed in each other, at a point where our love, as silly and immature as it was supposed to have been, was still rising and growing.
Lucy was the past. I had given myself an ultimatum and shut her out. But the heart doesn't really know from ultimatums. Over the years, I have tried to see what Lucy is up to, harmlessly Googling her name and stuff, though I doubt I would ever have the courage to contact her. I never found anything. My bet is, after all that happened, she'd wisely changed her name. Lucy was probably married now, like I had been. She was probably happy. I hoped so.
I pushed that all away. Right now I needed to think about Gil Perez. I closed my eyes and went back. I thought about him at camp, how we horsed around, how I used to fun-punch him in the arm, the way he'd say, "Wimp! I didn't even feel that "
I could see him now, with the skinny torso, his shorts too baggy before that was a fashionable look, the smile that needed major orthodontia, the. . .
My eyes opened. Something felt wrong.
I headed into the basement. I found the cardboard box right away. Jane had been good about marking everything. I saw her extra neat handwriting on the side of the box. It made me pause. Handwriting is so damn personal. My fingertips drifted over it. I touched her lettering and pictured her with the big Magic Marker in her hand, the top in her mouth as she wrote boldly: photographs-Copeland's.
I had made many mistakes in my life. But Jane. . . it was my one great break. Her good transformed me, made me better and stronger in every way. Yes, I loved her and there was passion, but more than that, she had the ability to make me my best. I was neurotic and insecure, the financial-aid kid at a school with very few of them, and there she was, this nearly perfect creature who saw something in me. How? How could I be so awful and worthless if a creature this magnificent loved me?
Jane was my rock. And then she got sick. My rock crumbled. And so did I.
I found the photographs from that long-ago summer. There were none of Lucy. I had wisely thrown them all away years ago. Lucy and I had our songs too - Cat Stevens, James Taylor, stuff that was syrupy enough to be gag worthy. I have trouble listening to them. Still. To this day. I make sure that they are nowhere near my iPod. If they come on the radio, I switch stations at a dizzying speed.
I sifted through a stack of pictures from that summer. Most of them were of my sister. I pushed through them until I found one that was taken three days before she died. Doug Billingham was in the picture, her boyfriend. A rich kid. Mom had approved, of course. The camp was an odd social mix of privileged and poor. Inside that camp, the upper and lower classes mingled on about as level a playing field as you could find. That was how the hippie who ran t
he camp, Lucys fun-loving hippie dad, Ira, wanted it.
Margot Green, another rich kid, was smack in the middle. She always was. She had been the camp hottie and knew it. She was blond and busty and worked it constantly. She always dated older guys, until Gil anyway, and to the mere mortals around her, Margots life was like something on TV, a melodrama we all watched with fascination. I looked at her now and pictured her throat slit. I closed my eyes for a second.
Gil Perez was in the photograph too. And that was why I was here.
I pointed my desk light and took a closer look.
Upstairs, I'd remembered something. I am right-handed, but when I fun-punched Gil on the arm, I used my left hand. I did this to avoid touching that awful scar. True, it was healed up, but I was afraid to go near it. Like it might tear open anew and start spewing blood. So I used my left hand and hit his right arm. I squinted and moved closer.
I could see the bottom of the scar peaking out beneath the T-shirt. The room began to spin. Mrs. Perez had said that her sons scar was on his right arm. But then I would have punched him with my right hand, ergo, hitting his left shoulder. But I hadn't done that. I had punched him with my left hand- on his right shoulder.
Now I had the proof. Gil Perez's scar was on his left arm. Mrs. Perez had lied. And now I had to wonder why.