Fool me once, p.13
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       Fool Me Once, p.13

           Harlan Coben
 
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  He led her past a beaded curtain and into a private back room. The room was gold and green and looked like a Midwest cheerleader uniform had inspired the decor.

  "You knew I came here before," Maya said. "That I talked to that Lulu."

  "Yes."

  She was putting it together. "So you probably watched me leave. You saw me head over toward your car. So you knew I was following you."

  He didn't reply.

  "And those two cars that pulled in behind us. They with you?"

  "Overkill, Maya. Paranoia. Have a seat."

  "On this?" Maya frowned. "How often do they clean the upholstery?"

  "Often enough. Sit."

  They both did.

  "I need you to understand what I do," he began.

  "I understand what you do."

  "Oh?"

  "You think secrets are bad, so you reveal them, damn the repercussions."

  "That's not far off, actually."

  "So let's skip the rationale. How do you know my sister?"

  "She contacted me," Corey said.

  "When?"

  Corey hesitated. "I'm not a radical. I'm not an anarchist. It's nothing like that."

  Maya didn't give a shit what it was like. She wanted to know about Claire and why he was following her. But she didn't want to antagonize him unnecessarily or discourage openness. She stayed silent.

  "You're right about secrets. I started out as a hacker. I'd break into places for fun. Then big companies and governments. Like a game. But then I started to see all the secrets. I'd see how the powerful abuse the normal man." He caught himself. "You don't want to hear that speech, do you?"

  "Not really."

  "Anyway, the point is, we don't hack much anymore. We give whistle-blowers the freedom to tell the truth. That's all. Because people cannot police themselves when it comes to power and money. It's simple human nature. We twist the truth to suit our self-interest. So the people who work for cigarette companies--they aren't all horrible, evil people. They just can't make themselves do the right thing because it's not in their self-interest. We humans are wonderful at self-justification."

  So much for not getting the speech.

  A waitress came into the room wearing a top that had the relative width of a headband. "Drink?" she said.

  "Maya?" Corey asked.

  "I'm fine."

  "Get me a club soda with lime, please."

  The waitress left. Corey turned toward Maya.

  "People think I want to weaken governments or businesses. Actually I want the opposite. I want to strengthen them by forcing them to do the right thing, the just thing. If your government or business is built on lies, then build them on truth instead. So no secrets. No secrets anywhere. If a billionaire is paying off a government official to get that oil field, let the people know. In your case, if your government is killing civilians in a war--"

  "That's not what we were doing."

  "I know, I know, collateral damage. Great nebulous term, don't you think? Whatever you believe, accident or intentional, we the people should know. We may still want to fight the war. But we should know. Businessmen lie and cheat. Sports figures lie and cheat. Governments lie and cheat. We shrug. But imagine a world where that didn't happen. Imagine a world where we have full accountability instead of unjust authority. Imagine a world where there are no abuses or secrets."

  "Are there unicorns and pixie dust in this world?" Maya asked.

  He smiled. "You think me naive?"

  "Corey--can I call you Corey?"

  "Please."

  "How do you know my sister?"

  "I told you. She contacted me."

  "When?"

  "A few months before her death. She sent an email to my website. It eventually found its way to me."

  "What did it say?"

  "Her email? She wanted to talk to me."

  "What about?"

  "What do you think, Maya? You."

  The waitress came back. "Two club sodas with lime." She gave Maya a friendly wink. "I know you didn't order one, hon, but you might get thirsty."

  She handed the drinks off, gave Maya a big smile, and then strode away.

  "You're not trying to tell me Claire was the one who leaked that combat tape--"

  "No."

  "--because there is no way she'd even have access--"

  "No, Maya, that's not what I'm saying. She contacted me after I released your tape."

  That made more sense yet answered nothing. "What did she say?"

  "That's why I'm trying to explain our philosophy. About whistle-blowing. About accountability and freedom."

  "I'm not following."

  "Claire contacted me because she was afraid I was going to reveal the rest of your tape."

  Silence.

  "You know what I mean, don't you, Maya?"

  "Yes."

  "You told Claire about it?"

  "I told her everything. We told each other everything. At least that's what I thought."

  Corey smiled at her. "She wanted to protect you. She asked me not to release the audio."

  "And you didn't."

  "That's correct."

  "Just because Claire asked."

  He took a sip of his drink. "I know a man. A group really. They think they're like mine. But they're not. They reveal secrets too, but on an individual scale. Cheating spouses, steroid users, revenge porn, stuff like that. Personal deceptions. If you want to do something unethical anonymously online, this group will out you. Like those hackers of that adultery website did last year."

  "And you don't agree with that?"

  "I don't."

  "Why not? Aren't they ridding the world of secrets?"

  "Funny," he said.

  "What?"

  "Your sister raised that point too. I won't say we are hypocritical, but we do pick and choose our spots, don't we? No way around it. I didn't reveal the audio on your tape for, yes, my own selfish reasons. I had planned to do it later. To maximize the impact of the revelation. More hits on my website. More exposure for my cause."

  "So why didn't you?"

  "Your sister. She asked me not to."

  "Just like that."

  "She was convincing. You, Maya, are just a pawn, she explained. You are forced to be what you are by a corrupt system. Part of me wants to reveal that because, again, the truth will indeed set you free. But you'd be irreparably harmed. Claire convinced me that if I did that, I'd be no better than my colleagues who nail small-time cheaters."

  Maya was getting tired of the circling. "You were more interested in hurting the war cause than hurting me."

  "Yes."

  "So you provided the people with your own narrative. Let them hate the government. If they heard the audio, they might blame me instead."

  "I guess that's true."

  Replacing the truth with his own narrative, Maya thought. Scratch the surface and we are all the same. There was no time or reason to ruminate on that right now.

  "So my sister contacted you," Maya said, "to protect me."

  "Yes."

  Maya nodded. That made sense. Sad, terrible sense. The guilt came rushing back. "So then what happened?"

  "She convinced me of the righteousness of her argument." A small smile toyed with his lips. "And I convinced her of the righteousness of mine."

  "I don't understand."

  "Claire worked for a big corrupt corporation. She had access to the inner sanctum."

  It was starting to click. "You convinced her to leak information to you?"

  "She saw the righteousness of the cause."

  Maya had a thought.

  "What?"

  "Was it quid pro quo?" Maya asked. "Did Claire agree to help take down Burkett Enterprises in exchange for you not releasing the audio?"

  "Nothing so crude."

  Or was it just that crude?

  "So," Maya said, feeling the answer start to well up, "you got Claire to do your dirty work. And it got her killed."

 
A shadow crossed his face. "Not just Claire," Corey said.

  "What do you mean?"

  "She worked with Joe."

  Maya let that sink in a moment before she shook her head. "There's no way Joe would turn in his own family."

  "Your sister apparently thought otherwise."

  Maya closed her eyes.

  "Think about it. Claire looks into it. She ends up dead. Then Joe looks into it . . ."

  The connection, Maya thought. Everyone was looking for the connection.

  Corey thought that he knew what it was.

  But he was wrong.

  "Joe reached out to me after your sister died."

  "What did he say?"

  "He wanted to meet."

  "And?"

  "I couldn't. I had to stay off the grid. I'm sure you read about it. The Danish government was trying to nail me on trumped-up charges. I told him that I could find secure ways to communicate, but he wanted to meet in person. I think he wanted to help. And I think he found a secret that got him killed."

  "What were Claire and Joe supposed to be investigating?"

  "Financial crimes."

  "Can you be more specific?"

  "You know the phrase that behind every great fortune is a crime? It's true. Oh, I'm sure you could find exceptions, but scratch the surface behind every major corporation and someone got paid off or someone intimidated the competition."

  "And in this case?"

  "The Burkett family has a long history of paying off top politicians in this country and abroad. Do you remember the case of the pharmaceutical company Ranbaxy?"

  "Vaguely," Maya said. "Fraudulent drugs or something."

  "Close enough. The Burketts are doing something similar over in Asia with one of their pharmaceutical holdings called EAC. People are dying because the drugs don't meet specifications, but so far, the Burketts have managed to hide behind claims of local incompetence. In short, they claim that they didn't know anything, that their testing was sound, whatever. It's all lies. They fabricated data, we are sure of it."

  "But you couldn't prove it," Maya said.

  "Exactly. We needed someone from the inside to get the data."

  "So you sent in Claire."

  "Nobody forced her, Maya."

  "No, you charmed."

  "Don't insult your sister's intelligence. She knew the risks. She was brave. I didn't make her. She wanted to do the right thing. You, of all people, should understand that--that she died trying to expose injustice."

  "Don't," Maya said.

  "What?"

  She hated when people made comparisons to soldiers and war. They always managed to be both patronizing and inept. But again, now was not the time.

  "So your theory is that someone in Joe's family killed Claire--and then Joe--to hush up exposure?"

  "What, you think they're above it?"

  Maya thought about that. "They might not be above killing Claire," she said, "but they'd never kill one of their own."

  "You may be right." He rubbed his face with his hand and looked off. From the other room, Maya could hear the song "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast, adding new meaning to the line "put our service to the test."

  "But," he continued, "I think Claire found something else. Something bigger than manipulating a drug test."

  "Like what?"

  He shrugged. "I don't know. Lulu told me you found her burner phone."

  "Yes."

  "I won't go through how the machinations of our communications worked, how the calls here can be rerouted via the dark web and eventually find their way to me. But still. We had agreed on radio silence. We would only communicate when she was ready to give me the final material or if there was an emergency."

  Maya leaned forward. "But Claire did reach out."

  "Yes. A few days before her death."

  "What did she say?"

  "That she'd found something."

  "Something other than drug tampering?"

  He nodded. "Something potentially bigger," he said. "She said she was still putting it together, but she wanted to send me the first piece of evidence." He stopped, stared ahead with his pale blue eyes. "It was the last time we spoke."

  "Did she send you that first piece of evidence?"

  He nodded. "That's why you're here."

  "What?"

  But she knew, of course. He had known where she was the entire time--that she had visited the club, that she had talked to Lulu, that she was following him. Corey Rudzinski had not set this up casually. There had been a purpose to all of this.

  "You're here," he said, "so I can show you what Claire found."

  *

  "The name is Tom Douglass. Two S's."

  Corey handed her the printout. They were still in the private back room at the strip club. This was a pretty great spot for a clandestine meeting. No one paid you any attention, and no one wanted you to pay any to them.

  "Does the name mean anything to you?" Corey asked.

  "Should it?"

  Corey shrugged. "Just a general question."

  "Never heard of him," Maya said. "So who is he?"

  According to the printout, there were monthly payments to "Tom Douglass Security" for nine thousand dollars. Maya noted the obvious: It was the same amount as the purported secret payments to Roger Kierce.

  Coincidence?

  "Tom Douglass worked as a private investigator in a New Jersey town called Livingston. His business was a small, one-man operation. He mostly did marital work and background checks. He retired three years ago, but the money is still coming."

  "So maybe it's legitimate. He's a private eye on retainer. He retired but kept his biggest client."

  "I would agree. Except your sister clearly thought that there was more to it."

  "Like what?"

  Corey shrugged.

  "How could you not have asked her?"

  "You don't understand how we work."

  "Oh, I think I do. So when Claire got murdered over this, did you contact the police?"

  "No."

  "Or tell them what she was investigating?"

  "I told you. I had to stay off the grid when she died."

  "Not 'died,'" Maya said. "She was brutalized and murdered."

  "I know. Believe me, I get it."

  "But not enough to help find her killer."

  "Our sources demand confidentiality."

  "But your source was murdered."

  "That doesn't change our commitment to her."

  "Ironic," Maya said.

  "How so?"

  "You're so big on a world without secrets. But you have no problem creating and keeping your own. What about your everything-out-in-the-open utopia?"

  "That's not fair, Maya. We didn't even know her murder was connected to us."

  "Sure you did. You kept quiet because you were afraid if it got out that one of your sources was murdered, it would reflect badly on you. You were afraid that someone leaked her name and that got her killed. You were afraid--and probably still are--that maybe that leak came from your organization."

  "It didn't," Corey said.

  "How do you know?"

  "You talked about our paranoia. Our overkill. I'm the only one who knew about Claire. We have safeguards. There is no way her name was leaked by my organization."

  "You know the public wouldn't buy that."

  He put his hand on his face. "They might misinterpret, that's true."

  "They'd blame you."

  "Our enemies might use it against us. Our other whistle-blowers might feel threatened."

  Maya shook her head. "You really don't see, do you?"

  "What?"

  "You're justifying keeping secrets. You're doing exactly the same thing as those governments and businesses you condemn."

  "That's not true."

  "Sure it is. Protect the institution at all cost. You got my sister killed. And you helped her killer go free to shield your organization."

  Something ignited behind his
eyes. "Maya?"

  "What?"

  "I don't need lectures on morality from you."

  Fair enough. Maya had agitated him, perhaps too much. That was a mistake. She needed him to trust her. "So why are the Burketts paying Tom Douglass?"

  "We have no idea. A few months ago, we hacked into Douglass's computer, checked his browsing history, even got a list of his searches. There's no hint. Whatever he was doing, it wasn't just off the books. It was way off the books."

  "Did you try asking him?"

  "Oh, he won't talk to us, and if the police question him, he'll claim attorney-client privilege. All his work product goes through the family law firm, Howell and Lamy."

  That was Heather Howell's firm.

  "So how do we find out more?" Maya asked.

  "We took a run at him and got nowhere," Corey said. "So I was thinking maybe you could give it a try."

  Chapter 15

  Unlike in the movies, Tom Douglass Investigations didn't have pebbled glass with the name stenciled into it. The office was located in a nondescript brick building on Northfield Avenue in Livingston, New Jersey. The corridor smelled like a dentist's office, which seemed apt based on the number of names listed with a DDS by the entrance. Maya knocked on the solid wood door. No answer. She tried the knob. Locked.

  She noticed a man in hospital scrubs standing by the reception desk across the corridor. He was checking her out with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. She returned the smile, pointed at the door, and shrugged.

  Scrubs walked toward her. "You have great teeth," he said.

  "Gee, wow, thanks." Maya feigned breathless, kept the smile going. "Do you know when Mr. Douglass will be back?"

  "You need some investigation help, hon?"

  Hon. "Sort of. It's confidential." She bit her lower lip as if to indicate seriousness and yeah, okay, maybe a little coquettishness. "Have you seen him today?"

  "I haven't seen Tom in weeks. Must be nice. Just being able to take time off like that."

  Maya thanked him and headed toward the exit. Scrubs called after her. She ignored him and picked up her pace. Corey had provided her with Tom Douglass's home address. It was only a five-minute drive. She would try there.

  The Douglass house was a much-loved Cape Cod, blue with purple trim. The flower boxes burst with color. The shutters were overly decorative. It was all a bit much, but it worked. Maya parked in the street and started up the walk. A fishing boat on a wheeled rig sat on the side of the garage.

  Maya knocked on the door. A woman in her midfifties wearing a black sweat suit opened it.

  The woman's eyes narrowed. "May I help you?"

  "Hi," Maya said, trying to sound upbeat, "I'm looking for Tom Douglass."

 
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