Fool Me OnceHarlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
ALSO BY HARLAN COBEN
One False Move
The Final Detail
Tell No One
Gone for Good
No Second Chance
Just One Look
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Hardcover ISBN 9780525955092
eBook ISBN 9780698404175
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Doesn't matter how old you get, you're still my little girl
Also by Harlan Coben
About the Author
They buried Joe three days after his murder.
Maya wore black, as befitted a grieving widow. The sun pounded down with an unflagging fury that reminded her of her months in the desert. The family pastor spouted the cliches, but Maya wasn't listening. Her eyes drifted to the schoolyard across the street.
Yes, the cemetery overlooked an elementary school.
Maya had driven past here countless times, the graveyard on the left, the elementary school on her right, and yet the strangeness, if not obscenity, of the placement had never really registered with her before. Which came first, she wondered, the schoolyard or the cemetery? Who'd been the one to decide to build a school next to a cemetery--or vice versa? Did it even matter, this life-ending and life-beginning juxtaposition, or was it, in fact, somewhat poignant? Death is so close, always, a breath away, so perhaps it was wise to introduce children to that concept at an early age.
Maya filled her head with inanities like this as she watched Joe's casket disappear into the earth. Distract yourself. That was the key. Get through it.
The black dress itched. Over the past decade, Maya had been to a hundred-plus funerals, but this was the first time she'd been obligated to wear black. She hated it.
To her right, Joe's immediate family--his mother, Judith; his brother Neil; his sister, Caroline--wilted from the combination of high temperatures and deep sorrow. To her left, getting antsy and starting to use Maya's arm as a rope swing, was her (and Joe's) two-year-old daughter, Lily. The parenting cliche states that children do not come with instruction manuals. That never seemed more true than today. What, Maya had wondered, was the proper etiquette for a situation like this? Do you leave your two-year-old daughter at home--or do you take her to her father's funeral? That was an issue that they didn't cover on those know-it-all, one-size-fits-all mommy websites. In a fit of pity-anger, Maya had almost posted that question online: "Hi, Everyone! My husband was recently murdered. Should I bring my two-year-old daughter to the graveyard or leave her home? Oh, and clothing suggestions? Thanks!"
There were hundreds of people at the funeral, and in some dimly lit corner of her brain, she realized that this would have pleased Joe. Joe liked people. People liked Joe. But of course, popularity alone wouldn't explain the crowd. Mourners had been drawn in by the horrible lure of being near the tragic: a young man gunned down in cold blood, the charming scion of the wealthy Burkett family--and the husband of a woman mired in an international scandal.
Lily wrapped both arms around her mother's leg. Maya bent down and whispered, "Not much longer, sweetheart, okay?"
Lily nodded but held on even tighter.
Maya stood back at attention, smoothing the itchy black dress she'd borrowed from Eileen with both hands. Joe would not have wanted her in black. He'd always preferred her in the military formals she'd worn back in the days when she'd been Army Captain Maya Stern. When they'd first met at a Burkett family charity gala, Joe had walked straight up to her in his tails, given her the rakish smile (Maya hadn't understood the term "rakish" until she saw that smile), and said, "Wow, I thought the turn-on was supposed to be men in uniform."
It was a lame pickup line, just lame enough to make her laugh, which was all the opening a guy like Joe needed. Man, he was so damn handsome. The memory, even now, even standing in this stifling humidity with his dead body feet away, made her smile. A year later, Maya and Joe were married. Lily came not long after that. And now, as though someone had fast-forwarded a life-together tape, here she was, burying her husband and the father of her only child.
"All love stories," Maya's father had told her many years ago, "end in tragedy."
Maya had shaken her head and said, "God, Dad, that's grim."
"Yes, but think about it: You either fall out of love, or, if you're really one of the lucky ones, you live long enough to watch your soul mate die."
Maya could still see her father sitting across from her at the kitchen table of yellowing Formica laminate in their Brooklyn town house. Dad wore his customary cardigan sweater (all professions, not just those in the military, wear uniforms of some kind or another), surrounded by the college essays he'd have to grade. He and Mom had died years ago, within months of each other, but in truth, it was still hard for Maya to know which category of tragedy their love story fell into.
As the pastor prattled on, Judith Burkett, Joe's mother, took hold of Maya's hand in the death grip of the grieving.
"This," the old woman mumbled, "is even worse."
Maya didn't ask for clarification. She didn't have to. This was the second time Judith Burkett had been forced to bury a child, two of her three sons now gone, one supposedly by tragic accident, one by murder. Maya glanced down at her own child, at the top of Lily's head, and wondered how a mother could live with such pain.
As if she knew what Maya was thinking, the old woman whispered, "It'll never be okay," her simple words cutting through the air like a reaper's scythe. "Never."
"It's my fault," Maya said.
She hadn't meant to say it. Judith looked up at her.
"I should have . . ."
"There was nothing you could have done," Judith said. But there was still something off in the tone. Maya understood, because others were probably thinking the same thing. Maya Stern had saved so many in the past. Why couldn't she have saved her own husband?
"Ashes to ashes . . ."
Wow, did the pastor really trot out that hackneyed chestnut or had Maya imagined it? She hadn't been paying attention. She never did at funerals. She had been around death too many times not to understand the secret to getting through them: Go numb. Don't focus on anything. Let all sounds and sights blur to the point of being unrecognizable.
Joe's casket reached bottom with a thud that echoed too long in the still air. Judith swayed against Maya and let out a low groan. Maya maintained her military bearing--head high, spine straight, shoulders back. She recently had read one of those self-help articles people always emailed around about "power poses" and how they were supposed to improve performance. The military understood that tidbit of pop psychology way before its time. As a soldier, you don't stand at attention because it looks nice. You stand at attention because, on some level, it either gives you strength or, just as important, makes you appear stronger to both your comrades and enemies.
For a moment, Maya flashed back to the park--the glint of metal, the sound of gunshots, Joe falling, Maya's shirt covered in blood, stumbling through the dark, distant streetlights giving off hazy halos of illumination . . .
"Help . . . please . . . someone . . . my husband's . . ."
She closed her eyes and pushed it away.
Hang on, she told herself now. Just get through it.
And she did.
Then there was the receiving line.
The only two places you stand on receiving lines are funerals and weddings. There was probably something poignant in that fact, but Maya couldn't imagine what it could be.
She had no idea how many people walked past her, but it took hours. Mourners shuffled forward like a scene in some zombie movie where you slay one but more just keep coming at you.
Just keep it moving.
Most offered a low "Sorry for your loss," which was pretty much the perfect thing to say. Others talked too much. They started in about how tragic it all was, what a waste, how the city was going to hell, how they were almost robbed at gunpoint once (rule one: never make it about yourself on a receiving line), how they hoped the police fried the animals who did it, how fortunate Maya was, how God must have been looking out for her (the implication being, she guessed, that God hadn't cared as much about Joe), how there is always a plan, how there is a reason for everything (a wonder she didn't punch those people straight in the face).
Joe's family grew exhausted and had to sit midway through. Not Maya. She stood throughout, maintained direct eye contact, and greeted each mourner with a firm handshake. She used subtle and not-so-subtle body language to rebuff those who wanted to be more expressive in their grief via hugs or kisses. Inane as their words might have been, Maya listened attentively, nodded, said, "Thank you for coming" in the same sincere-ish tone, and then greeted the next person in line.
Other hard-and-fast rules of the receiving line at a funeral: Don't talk too much. Short platitudes work well because innocuous is far better than offensive. If you feel the need to say more, make it a nice, quick memory of the dead. Never do, for example, what Joe's aunt Edith did. Never cry hysterically and become the most theatrical "look at me, I'm suffering" of mourners--and never say something chillingly stupid to the grieving widow like: "You poor girl, first your sister, now your husband."
The world stopped for a moment when Aunt Edith voiced what so many others were thinking, especially when Maya's young nephew, Daniel, and younger niece, Alexa, were within earshot. The blood in Maya's veins thrummed, and it took everything she had not to reach out, grab Aunt Edith's throat, and rip her vocal cords out.
Instead, Maya said in a sincere-ish tone: "Thank you for coming."
Six of Maya's former platoon mates, including Shane, hung back, keeping a watchful eye on her. That was what they did, like it or not. Guard duty seemed to never end when they were together. They didn't get in line. They knew better. They were her silent sentinels, always, their presence offering the only true comfort on this horrible day.
Every once in a while, Maya thought that she could hear her daughter's distant giggle--her oldest friend, Eileen Finn, had taken Lily to the playground at the elementary school across the street--but maybe that was just her imagination. The sound of laughing children felt both obscene and life affirming in such a setting: She longed for it and couldn't bear it.
Daniel and Alexa, Claire's kids, were the last two in line. Maya swept them into her arms, wanting, as always, to protect them from anything else bad happening to them. Eddie, her brother-in-law . . . Is that what he was? What do you call the man who was married to your sister before she was murdered? "Ex-brother-in-law" seemed like something more for a divorce. Do you say "former brother-in-law"? Do you just stick with "brother-in-law"?
More inanity designed to distract.
Eddie approached more tentatively. There were tufts of hair on his face where he'd missed with the razor. Eddie kissed Maya's cheek. The smell of mouthwash and mints was strong enough to drown out whatever else might be there, but then again, wasn't that the point?
"I'm going to miss Joe," Eddie mumbled.
"I know you will. He liked you a lot, Eddie."
"If there's anything we can do . . ."
You can take better care of your kids, Maya thought, but her normal anger with him was gone now, leaked away like a raft with a pinhole.
"We're fine, thanks."
Eddie went silent, as if he too could read her mind, which in this case he probably could.
"Sorry I missed your last game," Maya said to Alexa, "but I'll be there tomorrow."
All three of them suddenly looked uneasy.
"Oh, you don't have to do that," Eddie said.
"It's okay. It'll be a nice distraction."
Eddie nodded, gathered up Daniel and Alexa, and headed to the car. Alexa looked back at her as she walked away. Maya gave her the reassuring smile. Nothing has changed, the smile said. I will still always be there for you, just as I promised your mother.
Maya watched Claire's family get into the car. Daniel, the outgoing fourteen-year-old, took the front seat. Alexa, who was only twelve, sat alone in the back. Since her mother's death, she seemed to always be wincing as though preparing for the next blow. Eddie waved, gave Maya a tired smile, and slipped into the driver's seat.
Maya waited, watching the car drive slowly away. When it did, she noticed NYPD homicide detective Roger Kierce standing in the distance, leaning against a tree. Even today. Even now. She was tempted to walk over and confront him, demand some answers, but Judith took her hand again.
"I'd like you and Lily to come back to Farnwood with us."
The Burketts always referred to their house by its name. That probably should have been clue one of what would become of her if she married into such a family.
"Thank you," Maya said, "but I think Lily needs to be home."
"She needs to be with family. You both do."
"I appreciate that."
"I mean it. Lily will always be our granddaughter. And you'll always be our daughter."
Judith gave her hand an extra squeeze to emphasize the sentiment. It was sweet of Judith to say, like something she was reading off a teleprompter at one of her charity galas, but it was also untrue--at least the part about Maya. No one who married a Burkett was anything but a tolerated outsider.
"Another time," Maya said. "I'm sure you understand."
Judith nodded and gave her a perfunctory hug. So did Joe's brother and sister. She watched their devastated faces as they stumbled toward the stretch limos that would take them to the Burkett estate.
Her former platoon mates were still there. She met Shane's eyes and gave him a small nod. They got it. They didn't so much "fall out" as quietly fade away, being sure not to disturb anything in their wake. Most of them were still enlisted. After what happened near the Syrian-Iraqi border, Maya had been "encouraged" to take an honorable discharge. Seeing no other real option, she did. So now, instead of commanding or at least teaching the new recruits, retired Captain Maya Stern, for a short time the face of the new Army, gave flying lessons at Teterboro Airport in northern New Jersey. Some days it was okay. Most days she missed the service more than she'd have ever imagined.
Maya finally stood alone by the mound of dirt that would soon cover her husband.
"Ah, Joe," she said out loud.
She tried to feel a presence. She had tried this before, in countless mourning situations, seeing if she could sense any sort of life force after death, but there was always nothing. Some believed that there had to be at least a small life force--that energy and motion never die completely, that the soul is eternal, that you can't destroy matter permanently, all that. Perhaps that was true, but the more of the dead Maya hung around, the more it felt as though nothing, absolutely nothing, was left behind.
She stayed by the gravesite until Eileen came back from the playground with Lily.
"Ready?" Eileen asked.
Maya took another look at the hole in the ground. She wanted to say something profound to Joe, something that might give them both--ugh--closure, but no words came to her.
Eileen drove them home. Lily fell asleep in a car seat that looked like something designed by NASA. Maya sat in the front passenger seat and stared out the window. When they got to the house--Joe had actually wanted to name it too, but Maya had put her foot down--Maya somehow managed to release the complicated strapping mechanism and eased Lily out of the backseat. She cradled Lily's head so as not to wake her.
"Thanks for the ride," Maya whispered.
Eileen turned off the car. "Do you mind if I come in for a second?"
"We'll be fine."
"No doubt." Eileen unbuckled her seat belt. "But I've been meaning to give you something. It'll just