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Fool Me Once, Page 7

Harlan Coben


  It was Kierce again. She closed the app and put the phone in her pocket. They both stepped inside. There were two other people in the room--a female DA assigned to the case and a male defense attorney. Maya tried to focus, but her mind was still swirling from the nanny cam and Isabella. The lingering effects of the pepper spray were still playing havoc with her lungs and nasal membranes. She sniffed like a coke addict.

  "I wish to once again put my protest on the record," the male defense attorney said. He had a ponytail halfway down his back. "This witness has admitted she never saw their faces."

  "So noted," Kierce said. "And we agree."

  Ponytail spread his hands. "So what's the point?"

  Maya was wondering that too.

  Kierce pulled the cord and the shade came up. Kierce leaned into a microphone and said, "Bring in the first group."

  Six people walked into the room. They all wore ski masks.

  "This is silly," Ponytail said.

  Maya had not expected this.

  "Mrs. Burkett," Kierce said, speaking up as though he was being recorded, which, she figured, he probably was, "do you recognize anyone in this room?"

  He looked at her and waited.

  "Number four," Maya said.

  "This is bullshit," Ponytail said.

  "And how do you recognize number four?"

  "'Recognize' might be too strong a word," Maya said. "But he is the same build and same height as the man who shot my husband. He is also wearing the same clothes."

  "Several other men in there are wearing the exact same clothes," Ponytail said. "How can you be sure?"

  "Like I said, they're the wrong build or height."

  "You're sure?"

  "Yes. Number two matches the closest, but he's wearing blue sneakers. The man who shot my husband was wearing red."

  "But just to be clear," Ponytail continued, "you can't say for certain that number four is the man who shot your husband. You can say you recollect that he's relatively the same size and build and is wearing similar clothing--"

  "Not similar," Maya interjected. "The same clothing."

  Ponytail tilted his head. "Really?"


  "You can't possibly know that, Mrs. Burkett. There must be more than one set of red Cons out there, am I right? I mean, if I put four red Cons out there, are you going to be able to tell me for certain which ones the assailant was wearing that night?"


  "Thank you."

  "But the clothing isn't 'similar.' It isn't as though he's wearing white Cons instead of red. Number four is wearing the exact same outfit as the shooter."

  "Which brings me to another point," Ponytail said. "You don't know for certain it's the shooter, do you? That man in the ski mask could be wearing the same clothing and be the same size as the shooter. Isn't that correct?"

  Maya nodded. "That's correct."

  "Thank you."

  Ponytail was done for now. Kierce leaned into the microphone. "You can leave. Send in the second group."

  Six more men came in wearing ski masks. Maya studied them. "It's most likely number five."

  "Most likely?"

  "Number two is wearing the same clothing and is nearly the same height and build. My recollection would be that it's number five, but they are close enough that I couldn't swear to it."

  "Thank you," Kierce said. Again he leaned into the microphone. "That's all, thank you."

  She followed Kierce out.

  "What's going on?"

  "We picked up two suspects."

  "How did you find them?"

  "Your description."

  "Can you show me?"

  Kierce hesitated, but not for long. "Okay, come on." He brought her to a table with a large-screen monitor, probably thirty inches, maybe more. They sat down. Kierce started typing. "We searched through all nearby CCTV cameras the night of the murder, looking for two men who fit your description. As you can imagine, it took some time. Anyway, there's a condo building on Seventy-Fourth and Fifth Avenue. Take a look."

  The CCTV shot the two men from above.

  "Is that them?"

  "Yes," Maya said. "Or do you want me to give the legalese about just matching the build and clothes?"

  "No, this isn't on the record. As you can see, they aren't wearing ski masks. We wouldn't think they would on the street. That would draw attention."

  "Still," Maya said, "I don't see how you got an ID from that angle."

  "I know. The camera is so damned high. It's so annoying. I can't tell you how many times we get this. The camera is set ridiculously high, and the perps just keep their chins tucked or wear a cap and we can't see their faces. But anyway, once we had this, we knew that they were in the area. So we kept looking."

  "You spotted them again?"

  Kierce nodded and started typing again. "Yep. At a Duane Reade half an hour later."

  He brought up the video. This one was in color. It was shot from the side of the cash register. The two guys' faces were clear now. One was black. The other looked lighter-skinned, maybe Latino. They paid in cash.

  "Cold," Kierce said.


  "Look at the time stamp. This is fifteen minutes after they shot your husband. And here they are, maybe half a mile away, buying Red Bulls and Doritos."

  Maya just stared.

  "Like I said, cold."

  She turned to him. "Or I got it wrong."

  "Not likely." Kierce stopped the video, freezing the two men. Yes, men. They were young men, no question about it, but Maya had served with too many men that age to call them boys. "Take a look at this."

  He hit an arrow button on the keyboard. The camera zoomed in, blowing up the picture. Kierce focused in on the Latino. "That's the other guy, right? The one who wasn't the shooter?"


  "Notice anything?"

  "Not really."

  He zoomed in closer now, with the camera focused squarely on the guy's waist. "Look again."

  Maya nodded. "He's packing."

  "Right. He's carrying a gun. You can see the handle if you zoom close enough."

  "Not very subtle," she said.

  "Nope. Hey, I wonder how all your open-carry patriot buddies would react to these two guys strolling down their street strapped like that."

  "I doubt it's a legally purchased gun," Maya said.

  "It's not."

  "You found the gun?"

  "You know it." He sighed and stood. "Meet Emilio Rodrigo. Got an impressive rap sheet for a young punk. They both do. Mr. Rodrigo had the Beretta M9 on him when we arrested him. Illegally owned. He'll serve time for it."

  He stopped.

  Maya said, "I hear a 'but.'"

  "We got a warrant and searched both of their residences. That's where we found the clothes you described and identified today."

  "Will that stick in court?"

  "Doubtful. Like our ponytailed pal in there said: They're red Cons. Lots of people own them. There was also no sign of ski masks, which I found odd. I mean, they kept the clothes. Why throw out the ski masks?"

  "Don't know."

  "They probably dumped them in a garbage can. You know. Right away. They shoot, they run, they rip off the masks, they dump them somewhere."

  "That makes sense."

  "Yeah, except we searched all the nearby garbage cans. Still, they could have found a place, maybe a sewer or something." Kierce hesitated.


  "Thing is, we located the Beretta, like I said. But we didn't find the murder weapon. The thirty-eight."

  Maya sat back. "I'd be surprised if they kept it, wouldn't you?"

  "I guess. Except . . ."

  "Except what?"

  "Punks like these guys don't always dump the gun. They should. But they don't. It has value. So they reuse it. Or they sell it to a buddy. Whatever."

  "But this was a pretty big case, right? High profile, lots of media?"


  Maya watched him. "But you don't buy that, do you? You have another theory."

  "I do." Kierce looked away. "But it makes no sense."

  "What doesn't?"

  He started scratching his arm. A nervous tic of some kind. "The thirty-eights we took from your husband's body. We ran them through ballistics. You know. To see if the bullets matched any other cases in our database."

  Maya looked up at him. Kierce kept scratching. "I'm guessing from your expression," she said, "that you found a match."

  "We did, yeah."

  "So these guys. They've killed before."

  "I don't think so."

  "But you just said . . ."

  "Same gun. Doesn't mean the same guys. In fact, Fred Katen, the one you identified as the shooter, had a stone-cold alibi for the first murder. He was serving time. He couldn't have done it."


  "When what?"

  "When was the first murder?"

  "Four months ago."

  The room chilled. Kierce didn't have to say it. He knew. She knew. Kierce couldn't meet her eye. He looked away, nodded, and said, "The same gun that killed your husband also killed your sister."

  Chapter 8

  Are you okay?" Kierce asked.


  "I know this is a lot to take in."

  "Don't patronize me, Detective."

  "I'm sorry. You're right. Let's go through this again, okay?"

  Maya nodded. She stared straight ahead.

  "We need to look at this in a whole new way now. The two murders seemed random and unconnected, but now that we know the same gun was used for both . . ."

  Maya said nothing.

  "When your sister was shot, you were deployed in the Middle East. Is that correct?"

  "At Camp Arifjan," she said. "In Kuwait."

  "I know."


  "We checked. Just to make sure."

  "Make sure . . . ?" She almost smiled. "Ah. You mean like to make sure I didn't somehow sneak home and shoot my sister and then go back to Kuwait and, what, wait four months and kill my husband?"

  Kierce didn't reply. He didn't have to. "It all checked out. Your alibi is rock solid."

  "Super," she said.

  Maya flashed back again to Joe's call. The tears. The shock. That call. That damn call had been the end of Maya's life as she knew it. Nothing would ever be the same after that. It was remarkable when you thought about it. You travel halfway around the world to some hellhole to fight a crazed enemy. You'd think that was where the danger would originate from, that the real threat to her would be from an armed combatant. You'd think, if your life were about to get blown apart, that it would come from an RPG or an IED or a fanatic carrying an AKM.

  But no. The enemy had struck, as enemies often do, where she had least expected it: back home in the good ol' USA.


  "I'm listening."

  "The officers investigating your sister's murder believed it was a home invasion. She was . . . Do you know the details?"

  "Enough of them."

  "I'm sorry."

  "I asked you not to patronize me."

  "I'm not. I'm just being a human being. What was done to her . . ."

  Maya took out her app again. She wanted to see her daughter's face. She needed that anchor. But she stopped herself. No. Not now. Don't bring Lily into this. Not even in the most innocuous way.

  "At the time of the murder, the cops also took a good look at Claire's husband, your brother-in-law . . ." He started searching through his papers.


  "Right, Edward Walker."

  "He wouldn't do it. He loved her."

  "Well, they cleared him," Kierce said. "But now we need to take a closer at the home life. We need to take a fresh look at everything."

  Maya saw it now. She smiled, but there was no humor or warmth. "How long, Detective?"

  He kept his head down. "Excuse me?"

  "How long have you known about the ballistics report?"

  Kierce kept reading the file.

  "You've known about it for a while, haven't you? About the same gun killing Joe and Claire?"

  "What makes you say that?"

  "When you came to my house to check out my Smith and Wesson, I assume it was to make sure that it wasn't the murder weapon--to make sure it didn't match either murder."

  "That doesn't mean anything."

  "No, but you said you no longer suspected me. Remember?"

  He said nothing.

  "That's because you already knew I had the perfect alibi. You knew that the same gun had been used to kill my sister. And you knew that I was overseas when Claire was shot. Before then, well, you hadn't found the two guys with the ski masks. I could have made that up. But once you had that ballistics report, you only had to double-check my whereabouts with the military. You did that. I know the procedure. That's not one phone call. So how long have you had the ballistics report?"

  His voice was low. "Since the funeral."

  "Right. And when did you find Emilio Rodrigo and Fred Katen and get confirmation I was in Kuwait?"

  "Late last night."

  Maya nodded--just as she had thought.

  "Come on, Maya, don't be naive. Like I said, we looked hard at your brother-in-law when your sister was murdered. Here's one time when there's no sexism. Think about it. You're the spouse. You're alone in a park. If you were me, who would be your number one suspect?"

  "Especially," Maya added, "when that spouse served in the military and is, in your eyes, a gun nut?"

  He didn't bother defending himself. Then again, he didn't have to. He was right. You always suspect the spouse.

  "So now that we got all that out of the way," Maya said, "what do we do now?"

  "We look for connections," Kierce said, "between your sister and your husband."

  "The biggest being me."

  "Yes. But there are more."

  Maya nodded. "They worked together."

  "Exactly. Joe hired your sister for his equities firm. Why?"

  "Because Claire was smart." Just saying her name stung. "Because Joe knew that she was hardworking and reliable and trustworthy."

  "And because Claire was family?"

  Maya considered this. "Yes, but not in a nepotistic way."

  "What way then?"

  "The Burketts are big on family. It's old-world clan-like."

  "They don't trust outsiders?"

  "They don't want to trust outsiders."

  "Okay, I get that," Kierce said, "but if I had to work every day with my sister-in-law . . . ugh, shudder. You know what I mean?"

  "I do."

  "Of course my sister-in-law's a world-class, Olympic-sized pain the ass. I'm sure your sister--" He caught himself now, cleared his throat. "So their working together, Joe and Claire--did it cause any tension?"

  "I worried about that," Maya said. "My uncle, he had a business. Very successful. But then other family members wanted in and he let them and it all went to hell. Family and money is never a good mix. Someone is always going to feel resentful."

  "But that didn't happen here?"

  "Just the opposite. Claire and Joe had this fun new connection. Work. They'd talk business all the time. She would call with ideas. He would remember something that needed to be done the next day and text it to her." She shrugged. "But then again . . ."

  "Then again?"

  Maya looked up at him. "I wasn't around a whole lot."

  "You were deployed overseas."


  "Still," Kierce said, "none of it adds up. What would make someone kill Claire, hold on to the gun for four months, and then give it to this Katen guy to kill Joe?"

  "Yo, Kierce?"

  It was another cop in the station. The younger man stood across the room and beckoned for Kierce to come toward him.

  "Excuse me a moment."

  Kierce headed over to the cop. The young cop leaned in, and the two men started whispering. Maya wa
tched. Her head was still spinning, but her thoughts kept returning to something that didn't seem to concern Kierce in the least.

  The nanny cam video.

  That was natural, she supposed. He hadn't seen the actual images. He was preoccupied with the facts, and while he didn't completely dismiss what she said as the ravings of a delusional nutbag, he probably figured that it was the work of an overactive imagination or something in that realm. To be fair, even Maya had to consider that possibility.

  Kierce finished up the conversation and came toward her.

  "What's wrong?"

  He grabbed his suit coat and threw it over his shoulder like Sinatra playing the Sands. "I'll drive you home," he said. "We can finish this conversation on the way."


  Ten minutes into the ride, Kierce said, "So you saw me talking to that cop before we left, right?"


  "That was about your, uh, situation." He kept his eyes on the road. "I mean, what you said about the nanny cam and the pepper spray and all that."

  So he hadn't forgotten. "What about it?"

  "Well, look, I'm going to ignore for now what you said about the contents, okay? Until I see and we can both analyze the video, there's no reason to discredit or, uh, confirm what may be on that . . . What was it again, a USB drive?"

  "An SD card."

  "Right, the SD card. There is no reason yet to deal with intangibles. But that doesn't mean there is nothing we can do."

  "I'm not following."

  "You were assaulted. That's a fact. Check that: You were clearly hit with pepper spray or some agent in that family. Your eyes are still red. I can see that you are still dealing with the residual aftereffects. So whatever else we want to believe, clearly something happened to you."

  He made a turn, sneaking a glance at her as he did.

  "You said that it was your nanny, Isabella, who assaulted you, right?"


  "So I sent a man out to her house. You know. To check out your claim."

  Her claim. Nice lingo. "So did your man find her?"

  Kierce kept his eyes fixed on the road. "Let me ask you a question first."

  She didn't like that reply. "Okay."

  "During this altercation," he began, speaking with more care now, "did you threaten or choke Isabella Mendez?"

  "Is that what she told you?"

  "It's a simple question."

  "No, I did not."

  "You didn't touch her?"

  "I may have touched, but--"

  "May have?"

  "Come on, Detective. I may have touched her to get her attention. The way two women might."

  "Two women." He almost smiled. "So now you're playing the woman card with me?"