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Dont let go, p.11
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       Don't Let Go, p.11

          Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
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"Definitely," I say.

"And what do you have? Some hobo-- Do people still say 'hobo'?"

I smile and spread my hands. "Why not?"

"Right. Hobo. He hangs around our children. You move to a town like this and every day you have to see this bum--that's what he is, I know you shouldn't use the word--this bum every day lurking around your children. It's like this giant, awful weed in a beautiful flower garden, you know?"

I nod. "We need to pull the weed out."

"Exactly!"

I take some pretend notes. "Have you ever seen Mr. Stroud do more than ogle?"

She's about to blurt something out, but now I notice the hand on her shoulder gently squeeze to silence her. I look up at Joe. He looks back at me. He gets why I'm here. I get that he gets it, and he gets that I get that.

Shorter: The game is over. Or is just beginning.

"You posted a video of Hank Stroud, didn't you, Mrs. Hanson?"

Her eyes are aflame. She shakes Joe's hand off her shoulder. "You don't know that."

"Oh, I know it," I say. "We already ran a voice analysis. We also traced down the Internet IP address from which the video originated." I give what I said a second to land. "They both confirm that you, Mrs. Hanson, filmed and posted that video."

This is a lie, of course. I ran no voice analysis or Internet trace.

"And what if she did?" Joe asks. "Not saying she did or she didn't, but if she did, there's no law against it, is there?"

"I don't care," I say. "I'm here to find out what happened, that's all." I look her straight in the eyes. She looks down a second, then back up at me. "You filmed Hank. If you keep denying it, you're just going to piss me off. So tell me what you saw."

"He . . . he pulled down his pants," she says.

"When?"

"You mean like the date?"

"For starters, sure."

"It was maybe a month ago."

"Before school, after school, when?"

"Before school. That's when I see him. I drop my daughter off at seven forty-five A.M. Then I stay and watch her walk all the way in every day because, well, wouldn't you? You drop your fourteen-year-old daughter off at this beautiful school, and there is a creepy pervert right across the way. I don't understand why the police don't do something."

"Tell me exactly what happened."

"I told you. He pulled down his pants."

"Your daughter was walking. And he pulled down his pants."

"Yes."

"On your video, his pants are up."

"He pulled them back up."

"I see. So he pulled his pants down and then he pulled them back up."

"Yes." She is looking up to the left. I forget if that means a lie is coming or a memory. Doesn't matter. I don't believe much in that stuff. "He saw me fiddling with my phone and he panicked and so he pulled them back up."

"How long would you say his pants were down?"

"I don't know. How could I know?"

Joe adds, "You think she was carrying a stopwatch or something?"

"It was long enough, that I can tell you."

I bite back the obvious joke and say, "Go on."

Suzanne looks confused. "What do you mean, go on?"

"He pulled his pants down, he pulled his pants up." I look very unimpressed. "That's it?"

Joe doesn't like that. "What, that's not enough for you?"

"How do you know his pants didn't just fall down?" I ask.

Once again Suzanne's eyes drop to the table before lifting toward me. I know a lie is coming. I am not disappointed. "He pulls his pants down," she says again. "Then he yells at my daughter to look at his . . . I mean, he starts stroking it and everything."

Ah, human nature. So predictable sometimes. I see this a lot, Leo. You hear a witness tell you something that they hope will shock your senses. Then I, as an investigator, act blase. The truthful person lets it go. But the liar starts embellishing, trying to up the story so I share their outrage. I use the word "embellishing" here, but really it's straight-up lying. They can't help themselves.

I know now and don't want to waste much more time here. Time to cut to it.

Watch and learn, Leo.

"You're lying," I say.

Suzanne's mouth turns into a shocked perfect O.

Joe's face reddens. "Are you calling my wife a liar?"

"What part of 'you're lying' left that in doubt, Joe?"

If Suzanne had been wearing pearls, she'd have clutched them. "How dare you!"

I smile now. "I know it's a lie," I say, "because I just talked to Maria."

The anger rises.

"You did what?" Suzanne shouts.

"It took a while for your daughter to cave," I say, "but eventually Maria admitted to me it never happened."

They are both apoplectic. I try not to enjoy this.

"You aren't allowed to do that!"

"Do what?"

"You can't talk to our daughter without our permission," she says. "I'll have your badge."

I frown. "Why does everyone say that?"

"What?"

"That threat. 'I'll have your badge.' You saw it on TV, right?"

Joe takes a step toward me. "I don't like the way you're talking to my wife."

"And I don't care. Sit down, Joe."

He sneers at me. "Tough guy. Because you have a badge."

"Again with the badge." I sigh, take out the badge, slide it across the table. "Here, you want it? Take it." I stand and get right in Joe's face. "You ready to go now?"

Joe takes a step back. I step closer to him. He tries to look me in the eyes, but he can't hold it.

"Not worth it," he mutters.

"What did you say?"

Joe doesn't reply. He circles the table and sits in the chair next to his wife.

I glare down at Suzanne Hanson. "If you don't tell me the truth, I'm going to launch a full investigation and charge you with two counts of violating federal Internet Act Section 418, which upon conviction could lead to a penalty of one hundred thousand dollars and up to four years in prison."

I'm making this up. I don't think there is any federal Internet act. The specific section number is a nice touch, don't you think?

"That bum shouldn't be there!" she insists. "You people wouldn't do anything about it!"

"So you did," I say.

"He shouldn't be allowed to be that close to a school!"

"He has a name. It's Hank Stroud. And he's missing."

"What?"

"Since you posted your video, no one has seen him."

"Good," she says.

"How's that?"

"Maybe the video scared him."

"And you feel good about that, do you?"

Suzanne opens her mouth, then closes it again. "I was just trying to protect my child. To protect all the children at the school, really."

"You better tell me everything."

--

She did.

Suzanne admitted that she "exaggerated" to the point of making it all up. Hank never exposed himself. Tired and frustrated by what she perceived as the lack of action by school administrators and law enforcement, Suzanne Hanson did what she thought best.

"It's only a question of time before he did something awful. I was just trying to prevent that."

"Noble," I reply with as much disdain as I can muster.

Suzanne was "cleaning up the filth" by trying to twist the reality of her town into the idyllic haven she believed it should be. Hank was mere refuse. Best to dump him curbside where he could be trucked out of sight and smell. I would lecture Suzanne Hanson on her lack of empathy, but what's the point? I remember once when we were maybe ten, driving through a rough neighborhood in Newark. Parents always tell their kids to look out the windows and be grateful for what they've got. But our dad handled it differently. He just said one line that has always stuck with me: "Every person has hopes and dreams."

It is something I try to remember every time I cross a fellow human being. Does that include low-life turds like Trey? Of course. He has hopes and dreams too. That's fine. But when your hopes and dreams crush the hopes and dreams of others . . .

I'm rationalizing again. I don't care about the Treys of the world. Simple as that. Maybe I should. But I don't. Or maybe I doth protest too much.

What do you think, Leo?

When I finally leave their stuffy house--when Joe slams the door behind me to make some kind of stand, to himself at least--I take a deep breath. I glance over to where Maura used to live. She never brought me here, and I was inside only once. This was about two weeks after you and Diana were killed. I turn now and look at the tree across the street. That was where I waited, hidden. First I saw the Vietnamese family exit. Fifteen minutes later, Maura's mom stumbled out in an ill-fitted summer dress. She managed to weave her way down the street toward the bus stop.

When she was out of sight, I broke into the house.

The answer to why is probably obvious. I was looking for clues to where Maura might have gone. When I had cornered her mother earlier, she said something about her transferring to a private school. I asked where. She wouldn't tell me.

"It's over, Nap," Mrs. Wells told me, her breath stinking of booze. "Maura has moved on. So should you."

But I didn't believe her. So I broke in. I rummaged through all the drawers and cabinets. I went into Maura's room. Her clothes and backpack were still there. Did she pack anything? It didn't look like it.

I also searched for my varsity jacket.

For all Maura's eye rolling about my being a jock and the stupid intensity of sports in this town and the anti-hip, quasi-sexist idea of it all, Maura got a kick out of wearing my varsity jacket. Retro maybe. Ironic, I don't know. Or maybe it wasn't a contradiction at all. Maura was an old soul.

So I searched for my varsity jacket, the green one with the white sleeves and the crossed hockey sticks on the back and my name and "Captain" stenciled on the front.

But I couldn't find it.

Did Maura take the jacket with her? I always wondered. Why wasn't the jacket in her room?

I turn away from the house now and look out into the distance. I have a few minutes. I know where I want to go. I cross the road and find the railroad tracks. I know you are not supposed to walk beside them, but I'm living on the edge today. I follow the tracks out of the town center, up past Downing Road and Coddington Terrace, past the storage facility and the old industrial plant that's been converted into a party space and circuit-training studio.

I am away from civilization now, high up on that hill between the station for Westbridge and the one for Kasselton. I skirt past broken beer bottles and reach the edge. I look down and see the steeple from Westbridge Presbyterian. It lights up at 7:00 P.M., so I assume you saw it that night. Or were you too stoned or high to take notice? I knew that you were starting to get a little too fond of recreational drugs and drinking. In hindsight, I guess I should have stopped it, but at the time it didn't hit me as a big deal. Everyone was doing it--you, Maura, most of our friends. The only reason I didn't partake was because of my training.

I take another deep breath.

So how did it all go down, Leo? Why were you here, on the other side of Westbridge, and not hanging out in the woods near the old Nike base? Did you and Diana want to be alone? Were you trying to avoid your Conspiracy Club friends? Were you intentionally staying away from the old base?

Why were you here? Why were you on these train tracks?

I wait for you to say something. You don't.

I wait a little more because I know it won't be long now. The Main Line runs every hour this time of day. I wait until I hear the whistle as it pulls out of the Westbridge station. Not far away now. Part of me wants to stand on the tracks. No, I don't want to end it. I'm not suicidal. But I want to know what it was like for you. I want to reconstruct that night so I know exactly what you experienced. I watch now as the train hurtles over the horizon. The tracks vibrate to the point where I can't believe they don't come apart. Did you feel that vibration under your feet? Did Diana? Or were you standing off to the side, just as I am? Did you both look down at the steeple, turn, and then decide to jump across at the last possible second?

I can see the train now. I watch it come closer. Did you see it that night? Hear it? Feel it? You must have. It bears down on these tracks with unfathomable power. I take another step back. When it rushes by, I am a full ten yards away from the train and yet I'm forced to close my eyes and raise my hand to protect my face. The swoosh of air nearly knocks me off my feet. The pure might of the locomotive, the sheer mass times velocity, is awesome, devastating, unstoppable.

A mind, like a heart, goes where it wants, and so I imagine that hard-steel front grille crushing human flesh. I imagine those churning wheels grinding bone into dust.

I pry my eyes open and squint at the train speeding by. It seems to take forever, that the train is endless, crushing and churning and grinding. I stare straight at it, letting it blur without trying to focus. My eyes water.

I've seen the horrific, splatter-filled crime scene photos from that night, but they oddly don't move me. The destruction was so great, the disfigurement so immense, that either I can't link the misshapen waxy chunks to you and Diana or, more likely, my mind won't let me.

When the train finally passes, when the quiet slowly returns, my eyes start to take in the scene. Even now, all these years later, I am searching for clues, evidence, something that may have been missed. Being up here is strange. The horror is obvious, but it also feels somehow holy, somehow right, to be in the place where you drew your final breath.

As I start back down the hill, I check my phone for messages. Nothing from our old classmate Beth Fletcher nee Lashley, MD. I call her office in Ann Arbor again. The receptionist gives me a bit of the runaround, so I get more pointed. Soon a woman who introduces herself as Cassie and calls herself the "office manager" gets on the line.

"Dr. Fletcher is unavailable at this time."

"Cassie, I'm getting tired of being jerked around. I'm a cop. I need to speak to her."

"I can only pass that message on to her."

"Where is she?"

"I wouldn't know."

"Wait, you don't know where she is?"

"It is not my concern. I have your name and number. Is there any other message you'd like me to give her?"

In for a penny, in for a pound. "Do you have a pen, Cassie?"

"I do."

"Tell Dr. Fletcher that our friend Rex Canton has been murdered. Tell her Hank Stroud is missing. Tell her Maura Wells briefly resurfaced and then went missing again. Tell the good doctor that it all goes back to the Conspiracy Club. Tell her to call me."

Silence. Then: "Is that Laura with an L or Maura with an M?"

Completely unflustered.

"Maura with an M."

"I'll give Dr. Fletcher the message."

She hangs up.

I don't like this. Maybe I'll call the Ann Arbor Police Department, ask them to send one of their people over to Beth's home and office. I keep walking. I think again about all the strands--your and Diana's "accident," Rex's murder and Maura being at the scene, Hank and that viral video, the Conspiracy Club. I try to find connections, draw lines, work Venn diagrams of these events in my head. But I see no overlap or link.

Perhaps there is none. That's what Augie would tell me. He's probably right, but of course, accepting that possible reality gets me nowhere.

I see the Westbridge Memorial Library up ahead now, and that sparks an idea. The front facade is that kind of red school brick that dates back a hundred years. The rest of the building is modern and sleek. I still love libraries. I love the hybrid quality, the new computer sections and the books yellowing with age. Libraries for me have always had a cathedral-like ambiance, a hushed sanctuary where learning is revered, where we the people elevate books and education to the level of the religious. When we were kids, Dad would take us here on Saturday mornings. He would leave us in the children/young adult section with strict instructions not to misbehave. I would browse through dozens of books. You would grab one--usually one meant for an older reader--sit in a beanbag chair in the corner, and read the entire book.

I head down two levels to the dingy basement area. It is old-school down here--rows and rows of books upon books, most no longer of interest to the casual library visitor, sit on aluminum shelves. There are a few cubby desks for true homework grinders. In the corner, I find the old room. The plaque next to it reads TOWN HISTORY. I lean my head in and rap on the wood.

As Dr. Jeff Kaufman looks up at me, his reading glasses drop off his nose. The glasses are on a chain, so they bounce against his chest. He's wearing a thick knit cardigan sweater buttoned up to the sternum. He's bald on top with shocks of gray hair on the sides that look as if they are trying to flee from his scalp.

"Hey, Nap."

"Hey, Dr. Kaufman."

He frowns. Dr. Kaufman was a librarian and town historian long before we moved to Westbridge, and when you call someone of authority "doctor" or even "mister" as a kid, it is hard to convert to a casual use of their first name as an adult. I move into the cluttered room and ask Dr. Kaufman what he can tell me about the old Nike missile base located by the middle school.

Kaufman's eyes light up. He takes a moment or two to gather his thoughts; then he invites me to have a seat across the table from him. The table is a mess of black-and-white photographs from days of yore. I scan them hoping to see one of the old base. I don't.

He clears his throat and dives in: "The Nike missile bases were constructed in the midfifties throughout northern New Jersey. This was during the height of the Cold War. Back then, we would run school drills where kids would duck under their desks in case of nuclear attack, if you can believe it. Like that would help. The base here in Westbridge was constructed in 1954."

"The army just stuck these bases right in the middle of suburban towns?"

"Sure, why not? Farmland too. New Jersey used to have a lot of farms back then."

"And what were the Nike missiles used for exactly?" I ask.

"They were surface-to-air. Put simply, the missiles were an air defense designed to shoot down attacking Soviet aircrafts, most notably their Tu-95, which could fly six thousand miles without needing to refuel. The missile batteries were in approximately a dozen sites in northern New Jersey. Sandy Hook still has remnants if you want to visit. The one in Livingston is now an art colony, of all things. There were missile batteries in Franklin Lakes, East Hanover, Morristown."
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