Dont let go, p.12
Don't Let Go, p.12
It is hard to believe. "Nike missiles in all these towns?"
"Sure. They started with the smaller Nike Ajax missiles, but those were still thirty feet long. They kept them in underground launch sites and would bring them to the surface the same way a body shop would lift a car up in a garage."
"I don't get it," I say. "How could the government keep something like this a secret?"
"They didn't," Kaufman says. "At least not at first."
He stops now, leans back, and folds his hands over his belly.
"In fact, the bases were celebrated. When I was seven--that would have been in 1960--my Cub Scout pack got a tour of the facility, if you can believe it. The idea that your friendly local missile site was keeping you safe from the long-range aircraft of the Soviet Union was supposed to make you sleep better."
"But that changed?" I ask.
"Early sixties." Jeff Kaufman sighs and rises to his feet. He opens a tall file cabinet behind him. "See, they replaced the Nike Ajax missiles with the larger Nike Hercules." He plucked out two photographs of a scary-ass-looking white missile marked US ARMY on the side. "Forty-one feet tall. Traveled at Mach 3--that's about twenty-three hundred miles per hour. Range of seventy-five miles."
He moved back to the seat, sat, and put his hands on the table in front of him. "But the big change with the Nike Hercules--the reason they clammed up about the program--had to do with the payload."
"The missiles were armed with W31 nuclear warheads."
It is hard to fathom. "There were nuclear weapons . . . ?"
"Right here, yes. Armed warheads. There were even reports of a few near misses. One slid off a dolly when they were moving it higher up a hill. Landed on the concrete and the warhead cracked. Smoke started pouring out. No one knew about it at the time, of course. Everything was kept hush-hush. Anyway, the Nike program ran until the early 1970s. The control center in Westbridge was one of the last to close. That would have been 1974."
"And then what?" I ask. "I mean, what happened to the land after they closed?"
"There wasn't much interest in anything military in the seventies. Vietnam was ending. So they just sat there. Most fell into disrepair. Eventually most were sold off. A condo development was built over a missile battery in East Hanover, for example. One of the roads is called Nike Drive."
"What about the base in Westbridge?"
Jeff Kaufman smiles at me. "What happened to our base," he says, "is a tad murkier."
He leans toward me and asks what I'm surprised he hadn't asked earlier. "Do you mind me asking why you're suddenly interested in all of this?"
I was going to make something up or tell him that I'd rather not, but then I figure what's the harm. "It involves a case I'm working on."
"What kind of case, if you don't mind me asking?"
"A long shot," I say. "Something from years ago."
Jeff Kaufman meets my eyes. "Are you talking about your brother's death?"
I don't say anything--in part because I've learned to stay silent and let others jump in to break it, in part because I don't think I can.
"Your father and I were friends," he says. "You knew that, right?"
I manage to nod.
"And Leo . . ." Kaufman shakes his head and sits back. His face has lost a bit of color. "He wanted to know about the history of the base too."
"Leo came to you?" I ask.
"I can't say exactly. A few times, probably within a year of his death. Leo was fascinated by the base. Some of his friends came with him too."
"Do you remember their names?"
"What did you tell them?"
He shrugs. "The same things I'm telling you now."
My mind is whirring. I feel lost yet again.
"At Leo's memorial service, I shook your hand. I doubt you'd remember. So many people were there and you looked so shell-shocked. I told your dad."
That startles me back. "Told my dad what?"
"That Leo used to come here and ask about the base."
"You told my dad?"
"What did he say?"
"He seemed grateful. Leo was so bright and inquisitive. I thought that your father would want to hear that, that's all. I never thought his death could be connected . . . I mean, I still don't. Except now you're here too, Nap. And you're no fool either." He looks up. "So tell me. Is there a connection?"
Rather than answer him I say, "I need to know the rest of the story."
"What happened to the Westbridge base after the Nike program closed down?"
"Officially? It was taken over by the Department of Agriculture."
"When you were a kid, did you ever go up there?"
"We did in my day too. We used to sneak in through a hole in the fence. I remember one time we got so trashed one of the soldiers took us home in an army jeep. My dad grounded me for three weeks." The memory brings a small smile to his face. "How close did you get to the base?"
"I'm not following."
"Security was tighter for the Department of Agriculture than a nuclear missile control center." Kaufman tilted his head. "Why do you think that was?"
I don't answer.
"Think about it. You have these empty military bases. The security apparatus is already in place. If you were a government agency that wanted to fly under the radar, do something clandestine . . . Look, think of some three-letter government agencies that might like to hide in plain sight like that. It wouldn't be the first time. The old Montauk Air Force Station had dozens of rumors swirling around it."
"What kind of rumors?"
"Nazi scientists, mind control, LSD experiments, UFOs, all kinds of crazy nonsense."
"And you believe those? You believe the United States government hid Nazis and aliens in Westbridge?"
"For crying out loud, Nap, they hid nuclear weapons here!" There was a glint in Kaufman's eyes now. "Is it really such a stretch to think they hid something else?"
I say nothing.
"It doesn't have to be Nazis and aliens. They could have been testing some advanced technology--DARPA, lasers, drones, weather modification, Internet hacking. Does that really seem so far-fetched with all the security around the place?"
No, it doesn't.
Jeff Kaufman stands now, starts pacing. "I'm a damn good researcher," he says. "Back in the day, I dug into this pretty deeply. I even took a trip down to Washington, DC, to check records and archives. All I found going on there were innocuous corn and livestock studies."
"You told all this to my brother?"
"Him and his friends, yeah."
"How many of them?"
"How many kids came with Leo?"
"Five, maybe six, I don't remember."
He thought about it. "I think there were two girls, but I can't swear to it. Might have been just one."
"You know that Leo didn't die alone."
He nods. "Of course. Diana Styles was with him. The captain's daughter."
"Was Diana one of those girls who visited you with my brother?"
I am not sure what to make of that, if anything. "Is there anything else you can think of that could help me?"
"Help you what, Nap?"
"Let's say you're right. Let's say the base was doing something top secret. And let's say somehow these kids found out about it. What would happen to them?"
Now it was his turn to not reply. His mouth just drops open.
"What else did you learn, Dr. Kaufman?"
"Just two more things." He clears his throat and sits back down. "I found the name of one of the commanders. Andy Reeves. He was supposedly an agriculture expert out of Michigan State, but when I looked into his background, let's just say it was muddled."
"He fits the pattern. And he still lives in the area."
"Did you ever talk to him about it?"
"He just said the base did boring agriculture stuff. Counting cows and crops, that's how he put it."
"What's the second thing?"
"The closing of the base."
"Right, when was that?"
"Fifteen years ago," Kaufman says. "Three months after your brother and Augie's daughter were found dead."
As I head back toward my car, I call Augie.
"I just talked to Jeff Kaufman."
I think I hear a sigh. "Oh, great."
"He had some interesting stuff to say about the old base."
"I bet he did."
"Do you know Andy Reeves?"
I'm cutting across town now. "How?"
"I've been head of this police department for almost thirty years, remember? He was running the base when it was doing agriculture studies."
I pass a new place that only sells various chicken wings. The smell is enough to harden my arteries.
"Did you buy that?" I ask.
"That they were doing agricultural studies."
"I buy that," Augie says, "a lot more than I buy those mind-control rumors. As police chief, I knew all the commanders at the base. My predecessor knew all the ones from before that."
"Kaufman says back in the day the base used to control nuclear missiles."
"That's what I heard too."
"And then he said when it changed hands, the base became even more guarded and more secretive."
"No offense to Kaufman, but he's being overly dramatic."
"The Nike bases were out in the open at first. Kaufman told you that, right?"
"So when they went nuclear, it would have been suspicious to all of a sudden be hunkering down and acting too secretive. There was a ton of added security when they went nuclear, but it was more subtle."
"And when the Nike bases closed down?"
"There may have been tighter security, but that was just normal updating and technology. A new team comes in, they put up a better fence."
I cross Oak Street, Westbridge's own Restaurant Row. I walk past--in order--Japanese, Thai, French, Italian, dim sum, and something called "California fusion" restaurants. After that, you hit a slew of bank branches. I don't see the point. I never see any customers in bank branches, other than to use the ATMs.
"I'd like to talk to this Andy Reeves," I say to Augie. "Can you arrange it?"
I expect pushback. I don't get it. "Okay, I'll set it up for you."
"You're not going to try to stop me?"
"No," Augie says. "You seem to need this."
He hangs up then. As I reach my car, my phone rings. The caller ID tells me it's Ellie.
"Hey," I say.
"We need you at the shelter."
I don't like the tone. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. Just get here as soon as you can, okay?"
She hangs up. I slip into the car and grab the portable police siren light. I almost never use it, but this seems like a good time. I slap it on the roof and drive fast.
I arrive at the shelter in twelve minutes. I hurry-walk inside, turn left, and half rush down the hall. Ellie is waiting outside her office door. The expression on her face tells me that this is something big.
"What?" I ask.
Ellie doesn't speak, instead choosing to gesture toward the inside of her office. I turn the knob, push the door open, and look inside.
There are two women in the room.
The one on the left I don't recognize. The other . . . It takes me a second to process. She has aged well, better than I would have expected. The fifteen years have been a friend to her. I wonder now if those years had been about sobriety and yoga or at least something along those lines. Anyway, it looks like it.
Our eyes meet. I say nothing for a moment. I just stand there.
"I knew it would come back to you," she says.
I flash back to standing across the street from the row houses, the ill-fitted summer dress, the walk-weave as she headed down the street. It's Lynn Wells.
I don't waste time. "Where's Maura?"
"Close the door," the other woman says. Her hair is the color of carrots, with lipstick to match. She's wearing a tailored gray suit with a frilly shirt. I'm not a fashionista, but it looks expensive.
"And you are?"
I turn back and reach for the door. Ellie gives me a quick nod as I close it.
"My name is Bernadette Hamilton. I'm Lynn's friend."
I get a sense that they are more than friends, though I don't care in the slightest. My heart is thumping so hard I'm sure they can see it through my shirt. I turn back to Mrs. Wells, all ready to repeat my question more forcefully, when something makes me pull up.
Slow down, I tell myself.
I have a million questions to ask her, of course, but I also understand that the best interrogations require almost supernatural patience. Mrs. Wells has come to me, not vice versa. She has sought me out. She has even used Ellie as a go-between, so that she didn't have to show up at my home or office or leave a phone trail. That all took effort.
The obvious conclusion?
She wants something from me.
So I should let her talk. I should let her give up something without being asked. Stay quiet. That is my normal modus operandi. No reason to change that because it's personal. So I stay calm. Don't ask her questions. Don't prompt her or make demands.
Not yet. Take your time. Plan.
But one thing, Leo: There is no way Mrs. Wells is leaving this room without telling me where Maura is.
I stay standing and wait for her to make the first move.
Finally, Mrs. Wells speaks. "The police came to see me."
I say nothing.
"They said Maura might be involved in a murder of a police officer." When I still don't reply, she says, "Is that true?"
I nod. I see her friend Bernadette reach over and put her hand on Mrs. Wells's.
"Do you really think Maura could be involved in a murder?" Lynn Wells asks.
"Probably, yeah," I say.
Her eyes widen a bit. I see the hand tighten over hers.
"Maura wouldn't kill anyone. You know that."
I bite back a sarcastic rejoinder and stay silent.
"The police officer who visited me. Her name was Reynolds. From somewhere in Pennsylvania. She said you were helping in the investigation?"
Mrs. Wells says it like a question. Again I don't take the bait.
"I don't understand, Nap. Why would you be investigating a murder in another state?"
"Did Lieutenant Reynolds tell you the name of the victim?"
"I don't think so. She just said he was a police officer."
"His name is Rex Canton." I keep an eye on her face. Nothing. "Does the name ring a bell?"
She considers it. "No, I don't think so."
"Rex was in our high school class."
"At Westbridge High?"
The color starts to ebb from her face.
The heck with patience. Sometimes you startle them with the surprise question: "Where's Maura?"
"I don't know," Lynn Wells says.
I lift my right eyebrow, offering up my most incredulous expression.
"I don't. That's why I came to you." She looks up at me. "I hoped you could help me."
"Help you find Maura?"
My voice is thick. "I haven't seen Maura since I was eighteen years old."
The phone on the desk starts to ring. We all ignore it. I look toward Bernadette, but she only has eyes for Lynn Wells.
"If you want me to help find Maura," I say, trying to keep my tone calm, professional, matter-of-fact, all while my heart rate is spiking, "you need to tell me what you know."
Lynn Wells looks at Bernadette, who shakes her head. "He can't help us," Bernadette says.
Lynn Wells nods. "This was a mistake." Both women rise. "We shouldn't have come."
They both start for the office door.
"Where are you going?" I ask.
Lynn Wells's voice is firm. "We're leaving now."
"No," I say.
Bernadette ignores me and circles toward the door. I shift my body to block her.
"Move," she says.
I look at Lynn Wells. "Maura is in over her head."
"You don't know anything."
When Bernadette goes for the knob, I'm still in the way.
"Are you going to hold us here by force?"
I'm not bluffing. I have spent my entire adult life waiting for answers, and now that those answers are standing in front of me, I will not let them walk out the door. No way, no how. I will keep Lynn Wells here until I know what she knows. I don't care what that takes. I don't care about the ethics or legalities.
Lynn Wells will not leave this room without telling me all she knows.
I don't move.
I try the crazy eyes, but they won't come. There is a quake inside of me, an internal shake, and I think they can see it.
"You can't trust him," Bernadette says.
I ignore her and focus on Mrs. Wells. "Fifteen years ago," I begin, "I came home from a hockey game. I was eighteen years old. A senior in high school. I had a great best friend in my twin brother. And I had a girlfriend I thought was my soul mate. I sat at my kitchen table and waited for my brother to come home . . ."
Lynn Wells studies my face. I see something I can't quite comprehend. Her eyes start to water. "I know. Both our lives changed forever that night."
She waves Bernadette to silence.
"What happened?" I ask. "Why did Maura run away?"
Bernadette snaps, "Why don't you tell us?"
That reply puzzles me, but Lynn puts a hand on Bernadette's shoulder. "Wait outside."
"I'm not leaving you."
"I need to talk to Nap alone."
Bernadette protests, but she isn't going to win this one. I move away from the door just a bit. I'm still not taking chances. I open the door just enough so that Bernadette can slip through. I'm actually crazy enough to keep an eye on Maura's mom as though she might try to bolt through it too. She doesn't. Bernadette eventually slides through the opening, throwing a baleful glare in my direction as she does.
Don't Let Go by Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes