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Fool Me Once, Page 6

Harlan Coben

  Isabella used her key to open the back door. Maya stayed upstairs and waited.

  "Mrs. Burkett?"


  "Mrs. Burkett?"

  "We'll be down in a second."

  Maya picked up the remote control and snapped off the television. She expected Lily to protest, but that didn't happen. Lily had heard Isabella's voice and was eager now to go down. Maya scooped Lily in her arms and started down the stairs.

  Isabella was at the sink washing out a coffee cup. She turned when she heard the footsteps. Her eyes found Lily's, only Lily's, and the fixed, wary expression broke into a smile. It was a nice smile, Maya thought, but did it perhaps lack some of its customary luster?


  Lily started to stretch her arms toward Isabella. Isabella turned off the water, dried her hands on a towel, and started toward them. Isabella too stretched out her arms, made a cooing noise, and wiggled her fingers in a "give me, give me" gesture.

  "How are you, Isabella?" Maya asked.

  "Fine, Mrs. Burkett, thank you."

  Isabella again reached for Lily, and for a moment Maya almost pulled the child away. Eileen had asked her if she trusted this woman. As much as she could trust anyone with her child, she'd replied. But now, after what she had just seen on the nanny cam . . .

  Isabella snatched Lily from her hands. Maya let her. Without another word, Isabella moved into the den with Lily. They sat together on the couch.


  Isabella looked up as though startled. A smile was frozen on her face. "Yes, Mrs. Burkett?"

  "May I have a word with you?"

  Lily was on her lap.


  "Yes, please," Maya said. Her own voice suddenly sounded funny to her. "I would like to show you something."

  Isabella gently placed Lily on the couch cushion next to her. She handed Lily a cardboard book, rose, and smoothed down her skirt. She moved slowly toward Maya, almost as if she were expecting a blow.

  "Yes, Mrs. Burkett?"

  "Was anyone here yesterday?"

  "I'm not sure what you mean."

  "I mean," Maya said, keeping her tone even, "was there anybody inside this house yesterday besides you and Lily?"

  "No, Mrs. Burkett." The fixed expression was back. "Who do you mean?"

  "I mean, anyone. Did Hector come inside, for example?"

  "No, Mrs. Burkett."

  "So no one was here?"

  "No one."

  Maya glanced toward the computer, then back at Isabella. "Did you leave at all?"

  "Leave the house?"


  "Lily and I went to the playground. We do that every day."

  "Did you leave the house any other time?"

  Isabella looked up as though trying to remember. "No, Mrs. Burkett."

  "And did you leave the house at all by yourself?"

  "Without Lily?!" She said it with a sharp intake, as though this were the most offensive thing she could imagine. "No, Mrs. Burkett, of course not."

  "Did you leave her alone at all?"

  "I don't understand."

  "It's a simple question, Isabella."

  "I don't understand any of this," Isabella said. "Why are you asking me these questions? You don't like the job I'm doing?"

  "I didn't say that."

  "I never leave Lily alone. Never. Maybe when she takes a nap upstairs, I come downstairs and clean up a little--"

  "That's not what I mean."

  Isabella studied Maya's face now. "Then what do you mean?"

  There was no reason to delay this any longer. "I want to show you something."

  The laptop was on the kitchen island. Maya reached for it as Isabella moved in closer. "I keep a camera in the family room," she began.

  Isabella looked puzzled.

  "A friend gave it to me," Maya said in a way of explanation, though really, did she need to explain herself? "It records what goes on when I'm not here."

  "A camera?"


  "But I never saw a camera, Mrs. Burkett."

  "You're not supposed to. It's hidden."

  Isabella's gaze slid back toward the family room.

  "A nanny cam," Maya continued. "You know that new picture frame we have on the shelf?"

  She watched Isabella's eyes land on the bookshelf. "Yes, Mrs. Burkett."

  "That's a camera."

  Isabella looked back at her. "So you were spying on me?"

  "I was monitoring my child," Maya said.

  "But you didn't let me know."

  "No, I didn't."

  "Why not?"

  "There's no reason to get defensive."

  "No?" Isabella's tone spiked up. "You didn't trust me."

  "Would you?"


  "It wasn't a question of you, Isabella. Lily is my child. I am responsible for her well-being."

  "And you think spying on me is best for her?"

  Maya maximized the screen setting and cued up the video. "Before this morning, I figured that it couldn't hurt."

  "And now?"

  Maya flipped the screen around so Isabella could see it. "Watch."

  Maya didn't bother to watch the video again. She had seen it enough times for now. Instead, she focused on Isabella's face and looked for signs of stress or deception.

  "What am I supposed to be looking for?"

  Maya glanced at the screen. The fake Joe had just exited the screen after blocking the camera. "Just watch."

  Isabella narrowed her eyes. Maya tried to keep her breath even. They say you never know how someone will react when the grenade is thrown. That was always the hypothetical: You are standing with your comrades in arms and a grenade is thrown at your feet. Who flees? Who ducks? Who jumps on the grenade and sacrifices themselves? You can try to predict, but until the grenade is actually thrown, you don't have a clue.

  Maya had proven herself to her fellow soldiers repeatedly. They knew that under the pressure of combat, she could be cool, calm, collected. She was a leader who had displayed those qualities time and time again.

  The odd thing was, this leadership and coolheadedness had not transferred to her real life. Eileen had told her about her little son, Kyle, who was so organized and tidy at his Montessori preschool--and such a mess at home. Something similar happened with Maya.

  So as she stood over Isabella, as "Joe" entered the screen and put Lily on his lap, as Isabella's facial expression didn't change, Maya could feel something inside of her give way.

  "Well?" Maya said.

  Isabella looked at her. "Well, what?"

  Something behind Maya's eyes snapped. "What do you mean, well, what?"

  Isabella cringed.

  "How do you explain that?"

  "I don't know what you mean."

  "Stop playing games with me, Isabella."

  Isabella took a step back. "I don't understand what you mean."

  "Did you watch the video?"

  "Of course."

  "So you saw that man, right?"

  Isabella said nothing.

  "You saw the man, right?"

  Isabella still said nothing.

  "I asked you a question, Isabella."

  "I don't know what you want from me."

  "You saw him, right?"


  "What do you mean, who? Joe!" Maya reached out and grabbed Isabella by the lapels. "How the hell did he get into this house?"

  "Please, Mrs. Burkett! You're scaring me!"

  Maya pulled Isabella toward her. "You didn't see Joe?"

  Isabella met her eyes. "Did you?" Her voice was soft, barely a whisper. "Are you telling me you saw Joe on that video?"

  "You . . . you didn't?"

  "Please, Mrs. Burkett," Isabella said. "You're hurting me."

  "Wait, are you saying--"

  "Let go of me!"

  "Mommy . . ."

  It was Lily. Maya looked toward her daughter. Isabella used the distraction to push back a
nd put her hand against her throat as though she'd been choked.

  "It's okay, honey," Maya said to Lily. "It's all okay."

  Isabella, acting as though she were catching her breath, said, "Mommy and I were just playing, Lily."

  Lily watched them both.

  Isabella's right hand was still on her own neck, rubbing it far too dramatically. Maya turned toward her. Isabella quickly raised her left palm toward Maya to signal for her to stop.

  "I want answers," Maya said.

  Isabella managed a nod. "Okay," she said, "but I need some water first."

  Maya hesitated and then turned toward the sink. She turned on the water, opened a cabinet, grabbed down a cup. A thought flashed across her brain.

  Eileen had been the one to give her the nanny cam.

  Maya considered that as she placed the glass under the faucet. She filled it halfway, turned toward Isabella, and then heard the strange hissing.

  Maya screamed as the pain--white-hot pain--consumed her.

  It felt as though someone were jamming tiny shards of broken glass directly into her eyeballs. Maya's knee buckled. She dropped to the floor.

  The hissing.

  Somewhere in the clouds past the burning, past the agony, the answer came to her.

  Isabella had sprayed something into her face.

  Pepper spray.

  Pepper spray not only burned the eyes but also inflamed the mucous membranes in the nose, mouth, and lungs. Maya tried to hold her breath so that it wouldn't enter her lungs, tried to blink fast and hard and let her tears wash it away. But for now there was no relief, no escape.

  Maya couldn't move.

  She heard the sound of someone running, then a door closing.

  Isabella was gone.



  Maya had managed to make her way to the bathroom.

  "Mommy's fine, honey. Draw me a picture, okay? I'll be there in minute."


  "Isabella's fine too. She'll be back soon."

  It took longer to get over the effect than she'd originally thought. Rage burned like her eyes. For the first ten minutes, she had been completely incapacitated, helpless to mount even the most minimal defense against an enemy. Eventually the pain and dry heaving subsided. Maya caught her breath. She rinsed out her eyes and washed her skin with dishwashing detergent. Then she scolded herself.

  Turning her back on the enemy. Amateur hour.

  How could she have been so stupid?

  She was furious, mostly with herself. She had even started buying Isabella's act, thinking maybe she really didn't know anything about it. So she let her guard down. Just for a second. And look at the results.

  Hadn't she seen enough times when a slipup, a second of lost concentration, had cost lives? Hadn't she learned this most obvious of lessons?

  It wouldn't happen again.

  Okay, enough self-flagellation. Time to remember, learn, and move ahead.

  So what next?

  The answer was fairly obvious. Take another few minutes. Recuperate to full strength. Then track down Isabella and make her talk.

  The doorbell rang.

  Maya rinsed her eyes one more time and headed to the door. She debated getting a gun first--no more chances--but she could see right away it was Detective Kierce.

  He stared at her when she opened the door. "What the hell happened to you?"

  "I got hit with pepper spray."

  "Come again?"

  "Isabella. My nanny."

  "Are you serious?"

  "No, I'm a gifted comedian. Nothing warms up a crowd like jokes about pepper-spraying nannies."

  Roger Kierce's eyes wandered around the room before returning to Maya. "Why?"

  "I saw something on my nanny cam."

  "You have a nanny cam?"

  "I do." Again she thought about Eileen giving it to her, even telling her exactly where to put it. "It's hidden in a picture frame."

  "My God. Did you . . . did you see Isabella do something to . . . ?"

  "What?" But of course it was natural that a cop's mind would go right there. "No, that's not it."

  "Then I'm not sure I follow."

  Maya debated what route to take here, but she knew that the most direct one would be the only one that would protect her in the long run. "It'll be easier to show you."

  She headed toward the laptop on the kitchen island. Kierce followed her. He looked confused. Well, she thought, that look was about to be raised to the tenth power.

  Maya spun the screen toward him. She moved the cursor arrow, clicked on the play button, and waited.


  She checked the USB port.

  The SD card was gone.

  She checked the island and the floor around it. But she knew.

  "What?" Kierce asked.

  Maya took deep even breaths. She needed to stay calm. She looked two or three steps ahead now, again like on a mission. You can't just think about firing rounds downrange at the black SUV. You need to consider your response. You need to have the best intel before making any sudden, life-altering moves.

  She knew what this would sound like. If she blurted out what she had seen on the nanny cam, Kierce would think that she was a lunatic. Hell, it sounded crazy replaying it now in her own mind. There were still strands of cobwebs from the pepper spray. What exactly had happened here? Was she, for certain, thinking straight?

  Take it slow.

  "Mrs. Burkett?"

  "I told you to call me Maya."

  The evidence for her crazy assertion--the SD card--was gone. Isabella had taken it. It would probably be wisest for Maya to handle that on her own. But at the same time, if she did that, if she didn't tell him now and it came back . . .

  "Isabella must have taken it."

  "Taken what?"

  "The SD card."

  "After, what, she hit you with the pepper spray?"

  "Yes," Maya said, trying like hell to sound authoritative.

  "So she sprays you, she grabs the video card, and then, what, she runs off?"


  Kierce nodded. "So what was on it?"

  Maya glanced toward the den. Lily was happily engrossed in a giant four-piece zoo puzzle. "I saw a man."

  "A man?"

  "Yes. On the video. Lily sat on his lap."

  "Whoa," Kierce said. "I assume the man was a stranger?"


  "You knew him?"

  She nodded.

  "So who was it?"

  "You won't believe me. You'll understandably think I'm delusional."

  "Try me."

  "It was Joe."

  To his credit, Kierce didn't make a face or gasp or look at her as though she were the craziest person in the history of the world.

  "I see," he said, as though he too were trying to maintain his composure. "So it was an old tape?"


  "It was something you taped when Joe was still alive and maybe, I don't know, you thought you taped over it or--"

  "I only got the nanny cam after the murder."

  Kierce just stood there.

  "The date stamp said it was recorded yesterday," Maya continued.

  "But . . ."


  Then: "You know that can't be."

  "I do," Maya said.

  They stared at each other. There was no point in trying to convince him. Instead, Maya changed the subject. "Why are you here?"

  "I need you to come to the station."


  "I can't tell you. But it's really important."

  Chapter 7

  The same young smiley thing was on duty at the Growin' Up Day Care Center.

  "Oh, I remember you," she said. She bent down toward Lily. "And I remember you too. Hi, Lily!"

  Lily said nothing. The two women left her with blocks and moved into the office.

  "I'm ready to sign her up," Maya said.

  "Terrific! When would you like to start?"


  "Um, that's a little unusual. We usually need two weeks to process an application."

  "My nanny quit unexpectedly."

  "I'm sorry to hear that, but--"

  "Miss . . . I'm sorry, I forget your name."

  "Kitty Shum."

  "Right, Miss Kitty, sorry. Kitty, do you see that green car out there?"

  Kitty looked out the window. Her eyes narrowed. "Is that person bothering you? Do we need to call the police?"

  "No, see, that's an unmarked police car. My husband was murdered recently."

  "I read about that," Kitty said. "I'm sorry for your loss."

  "Thank you. The thing is, that police officer needs to take me to his precinct. I'm not sure why. He just stopped by. So I have a choice. I can bring Lily with me while they ask me about her father's murder . . ."

  "Mrs. Burkett?"


  "Maya." Kitty still had her eyes on Kierce's car. "You know how to download our phone app?"

  "I do."

  Kitty nodded. "It's best for your child if you don't have a big emotional good-bye."

  "Thank you."


  When they reached the Central Park Precinct, Maya asked, "So can you tell me now why we are here?"

  Kierce had barely spoken a word the entire ride over. That was okay with Maya. She needed the time to think everything through--the nanny cam, the video, Isabella, the forest green shirt.

  "I need you to do two lineups for me."

  "Lineups of what?"

  "I don't want to prejudice your answers."

  "It can't be the shooters. I told you. They wore ski masks."

  "Black ones, you said. Just eye and mouth holes?"


  "Okay, good. Come with me."

  "I don't understand."

  "You'll see."

  As they walked, Maya checked out the Growin' Up Day Care's app. The app allowed you to pay your bill, sign up for hours, review your child's "curriculum of activities," get bios on all the caregivers. But the best part of the app--the reason she'd been drawn to Growin' Up in the first place--was one specific feature. She clicked on it now. There were three choices: the red room, the green room, the yellow room. Lily's age group was in the yellow room. She clicked on the yellow icon.

  Kierce opened the door. "Maya?"

  "One second."

  The screen on her phone came alive, giving her a live feed of the yellow room. You would think Maya would have had enough with the surveillance videos for one day. But no. She turned her phone on the side to make the picture bigger. Lily was there. Safe. A caregiver--later Maya could look her up and read her bio--was stacking blocks with her and a boy about Lily's age.

  Maya felt relief course through her. She almost smiled. She should have insisted on putting Lily in a place like this months ago. Having a nanny left you dependent on one unsupervised person with few checks and balances. Here, there were witnesses and security cameras and socialization. It had to be safer, right?