Fool me once, p.14
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       Fool Me Once, p.14

           Harlan Coben
 
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  The woman--Maya assumed it was Mrs. Douglass--kept studying Maya's face. "He's not here."

  "Do you know when he'll be back?"

  "Could be a while."

  "My name is Maya Stern."

  "Yeah," the woman said. "I recognize you from the news. What do you want with my husband?"

  Great question. "Can I come in?"

  Mrs. Douglass stepped back to let her enter. Maya really hadn't meant to ask about coming inside. She had just been buying time, trying to figure out the best way to approach it.

  Mrs. Douglass led her past the foyer and into the den. The theme there was nautical. Big-time. Stuffed fish hung from the ceiling on wires. The wood-paneled walls were decorated with antique fishing rods and fishing nets and an old captain's wheel and round life preservers. There were family photos involving the seas. Maya spotted two sons, both of whom must have been grown by now. This family of four clearly liked to fish together. Maya had never been much for fishing, but she'd noticed over the years that there were few photographed smiles as bright and authentic as those taken with caught fish.

  Mrs. Douglass folded her arms and waited.

  The best approach, Maya quickly surmised, would be the direct one.

  "Your husband has done work for the Burkett family for a long time."

  Blank face.

  "I wanted to ask him about what he does."

  "I see," Mrs. Douglass said.

  "Do you know about his work with the Burketts?"

  "You're a Burkett, Maya, aren't you?"

  The question rocked Maya back a bit. "I married in, I guess."

  "That's what I thought. And I saw that your husband was killed."

  "Yes."

  "I'm sorry for your loss." Then: "Do you think Tom knows something about the murder?"

  Again her bluntness threw Maya. "I don't know."

  "But that's why you're here?"

  "In part."

  Mrs. Douglass nodded. "I'm sorry, but I really don't know anything."

  "I'd like to talk to Tom."

  "He's not around."

  "Where is he?"

  "Away."

  She started back toward the door.

  "My sister was also murdered," Maya said.

  Mrs. Douglass slowed her step.

  "Her name was Claire Walker. Does that name mean anything to you?"

  "Should it?"

  "Right before she was killed, she found out about the Burketts' secret payments to your husband."

  "Secret payments? I don't know what you're trying to imply here, but I think you better leave."

  "What kind of work does Tom do for them?"

  "I wouldn't know."

  "I have your tax returns for the past five years."

  Now it was Mrs. Douglass's turn to show surprise. "You . . . what?"

  "More than half your husband's yearly income has come from the Burketts. The payments are substantial."

  "So? Tom works hard."

  "Doing what?"

  "I wouldn't know. And if I did, I certainly wouldn't say."

  "Something about those payments troubled my sister, Mrs. Douglass. A few days after Claire found out about them, someone tortured her and shot her in the head."

  Her mouth made a perfect O. "And you think, what, Tom had something to do with it?"

  "I didn't say that."

  "My husband is a good man. He, like you, served in the military." She nodded toward the wall behind her. Beneath a plaque that read "Semper Paratus" were silver crossed anchors, the symbol of the esteemed boatswain's mate. Maya had known a few BMs in the Navy. It was a proud distinction. "Tom worked as a town cop for almost two decades. He took early retirement after getting hurt on the job. He opened up his own firm and he works hard."

  "So what did he do for the Burketts?"

  "I told you. I wouldn't know."

  "Or say?"

  "That's right."

  "But whatever he did for them was worth nine or ten grand a month going back . . . how long?"

  "I wouldn't know."

  "You don't know when he started with them?"

  "His work was confidential."

  "He never talked about the Burketts?"

  For the first time, Maya saw a chink in the woman's armor as she said softly, "Never."

  "Where is he, Mrs. Douglass?"

  "He's away. And I don't know anything." She flung open the door. "I'll let him know you stopped by."

  Chapter 16

  Most people have a pretty antiquated idea of what a shooting range/gun shop looks like. They picture musty animal taxidermy and bear pelts on the walls, dusty rifles lined up haphazardly, a cantankerous owner behind a counter wearing either early Elmer Fudd hunting gear or a wifebeater T-shirt with a hook for one hand.

  That wasn't the case anymore.

  Maya, Shane, and their compatriots hung out at a state-of-the-art gun club called RTSP, which stood for Right To Self-Protect or, as some joked, Right To Shoot People. Forget dust--everything in here gleamed like new. The unfailingly solicitous employees all donned black polo shirts neatly tucked into khakis. The weaponry was laid out in glass cases like fine jewelry. There were twenty shooting ports altogether, ten for the twenty-five-yard-range shooter, ten for the fifteen-yarders. A digital simulator worked pretty much like a life-sized video game. Picture a theater room with some sort of hostile situation--gang attack, hostage taking, Wild West, even zombie infiltration--come to life with fully formed targets coming at you. You "shot" lasers with a real-weight firearm.

  For the most part, Maya came to shoot real guns at paper targets and hang with her friends, most of whom had served in the military. This place served that purpose in what their advertisements called "comfort and style." Some people join clubs to golf or play tennis or try their hand at bridge. Maya was a VIP member of the "Guntry Club." Being ex-military, she and her friends had been given a fifty percent discount.

  The Guntry Club on Route 10 had dark wood walls and rich carpeting and reminded Maya of either a faux version of the Burkett library or an upscale chain steak house. A pool table sat in the middle of the room. There was lots of leather furniture. Three walls were adorned with flat-screen televisions. The fourth was painted with the words of the Second Amendment, spelled out in enormous cursive letters. There was a cigar room, card tables, and free Wi-Fi.

  Rick, the owner, also wore the black polo and khakis and always had a gun on his belt. He greeted her with a sad smile and a fist bump. "Great to have you back, Maya. Me and the boys, when we heard the news . . ."

  She nodded. "Thanks for the flowers."

  "We just wanted to do something, you know?"

  "I appreciate it."

  Rick coughed into his fist. "I don't know if this is the right time to raise it, but if you need a job now with more flexible hours . . ."

  Rick was constantly offering her a job teaching shooting classes. Women were the fastest-growing demographic for gun buyers and ranges like his. Women also greatly preferred female instructors, of which there were still very few.

  "I'll keep it in mind," Maya said.

  "Great. The boys are upstairs."

  There were five of the gang there that night, including Shane and Maya. The other three headed off to the simulator while Shane and Maya hit the twenty-five-yard range. Maya found Zen in shooting. There was something about the release of breath as you pulled the trigger, the stillness, the quiet before the almost-welcome recoil, that soothed and comforted her.

  When they were done, they moved back up to the VIP room. Maya was the only woman. One might think that sexism would rule a place like this, but here, all that mattered was how good you shot. Maya's military notoriety, if not heroism, also made her something of a local celebrity. Some of the guys were awed by her. Some harbored small-time crushes. It didn't bother Maya. Despite what you might read, most soldiers were greatly respectful of women. In her case, they seemed to channel whatever feelings of attraction they possessed into something more chaste o
r brotherly.

  Maya's eyes skimmed over the words of the Second Amendment on the wall.

  A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

  Awkward grammar, to put it mildly. Maya had learned never to discuss or argue with those on either side. Her father, who had been adamantly anti-gun, used to snap, "You want your big assault rifle? What 'well regulated militia' are you with anyway?" while her pro-gun friends would always counter "What part of 'shall not be infringed' is confusing to you?" It was, of course, amazingly elastic phraseology and proved the adage that everyone always sees what's in their interest. If you loved guns, you found this document to mean one thing. If you hated guns, you thought it meant another.

  Shane grabbed Maya a Coke. Alcohol was not allowed there because even the least rational among them realized that guns and alcohol don't mix. The five of them sat around and started shooting the breeze. The conversations always started with the local sports team but quickly moved into deeper terrain. This was the best part for Maya. She was one of them, except she was maybe a bit more. The guys often sought out the female perspective because, news flash, war messes up your relationships at home. It was a cheap cop-out for a soldier to say that nobody at home understood what he was going through, but it was also too damned apt. After you serve in some hellhole, you just see things differently. Sometimes it's in obvious ways, but more often, it's just about textures and hues and scents. Things that used to matter don't and vice versa. Relationships and marriages are hard enough, but you add war into the mix and small fissures become gaping wounds. No one sees what you're seeing--again that clear-eyed, unbiased thing--except your fellow soldiers. It's like one of those movies where only the hero can see the ghosts and everyone else thinks the hero is crazy.

  In this room, they all saw the ghosts.

  Being single and somewhat emotionally challenged, Shane wasn't good with the confessional stuff. He moved over to the seat in the corner, took out the new novel by Anna Quindlen, and started reading. Shane was a big reader--except, as Maya had seen the other night, out loud to children--and could read anywhere, even on that chopper where the rotors were so loud they seemed to be coming from inside her brain.

  Eventually Maya migrated toward him. The TV above their head showed the third quarter of the New York Knicks-Brooklyn Nets game. Shane put down the book as she approached. He swung his long legs up on the leather ottoman and said, "Cool."

  "What?"

  "I assume you're ready to fill me in now."

  She wasn't. She wanted to protect him. Always.

  Still Shane wouldn't take that as an answer, and it would be unfair and perhaps detrimental to give him nothing. She debated telling him about meeting Corey Rudzinski in the flesh, but she had no idea how he would react. With anger, probably. Corey had also been very specific in the end: "No burner phones. We only communicate if there is an emergency. If you need me, call the club and ask for Lulu. If I need you, the club will call your phone and hang up. That'll be your signal to come back here. But, Maya, if I feel slightly uneasy, I'm gone. Probably for good. So say nothing."

  Say nothing--that felt like the right play for now. If she blew that relationship, Corey would likely disappear. She couldn't risk that.

  But there was another avenue she could take.

  Shane stared at her and waited. He could do that all night.

  "What do you know about Kierce?" Maya asked him.

  "The homicide cop working Joe's case?"

  Maya nodded.

  "Not much. He's got a solid reputation, but it's not like we hang out with the NYPD. Why?"

  "You remember Joe's sister, Caroline?"

  "Right."

  "She told me that the family has been giving Kierce money."

  Shane made a face. "What do you mean, giving him money?"

  "Just under ten grand three times."

  "For what?"

  Maya shrugged. "She doesn't know."

  She filled him in on what Caroline had told her about the payoffs, about her password not working, about Maya's decision to wait before she confronted Neil or Judith.

  "It makes no sense," Shane said. "Why the hell would Joe's family want to bribe Kierce?"

  "You tell me," Maya said.

  He considered that for a moment. "We both know the rich are weird."

  "We do."

  "But are they paying Kierce in hopes he'll, what, do a better job? Make Joe's case a priority? It already is. Do the Burketts think they should tip a cop or something?"

  "I don't know," Maya said. "But there's something more."

  "What?"

  "Caroline claims that the family started paying Kierce before Joe died."

  "Bullshit."

  "That's what she thinks."

  "She's wrong. It doesn't even make sense. Why would they give Kierce money before the murder?"

  Again Maya said: "I don't know."

  "It's not like, what, they predicted Joe would get murdered and which detective would work the case?" Shane shook his head. "You know what the most likely answer is, don't you?"

  "No."

  "Caroline is playing you."

  Maya had considered that.

  "Come on, that whole part with her going online in front of you and suddenly, gasp, the password has changed? That seems awfully convenient, doesn't it?"

  "It does," Maya agreed.

  "So she's lying. Wait, strike that."

  "What?"

  Shane turned toward her. "Caroline is a first-class flake, right?"

  "Of the highest order."

  "So maybe she's not lying," Shane said, warming up to his new theory. "Maybe she just imagined the whole thing. Put the pieces together. You have this first-class flake. Her brother is murdered. You all meet to discuss the will. Then that gets canceled because of, what, some paperwork snafu?"

  "Not just a snafu," Maya said. "There's something wrong with his death certificate."

  "Even better. So she's under stress."

  Maya frowned. "So she imagined seeing payments to a homicide cop?"

  "It's as likely as any other scenario right now." Shane sat back. "Maya?"

  She knew what was coming.

  "Can you stop it, please?" he said.

  "Stop what?"

  He frowned. "It makes my tummy hurt when you lie to me."

  "I'm not lying to you."

  "Semantics. What aren't you telling me?"

  Too much probably. Again she debated telling him more, but again she had the knee-jerk reaction of protecting him. She considered telling him about Claire's secret phone, but that would just lead to Corey. She didn't want to go there yet. She hadn't told him about what she had seen on the nanny cam either, but that could wait too. Always better to be cautious. Things can always be said later, but things can never be unheard.

  Shane leaned close, made sure nobody could hear, and then whispered, "Where did you get that bullet?"

  "You need to leave that alone."

  "I did you a huge favor."

  "And your favors come with strings, Shane?"

  That stung him into silence, as she had known it would. She moved the topic back to Caroline.

  "You said something interesting about Caroline being under stress," Maya said.

  Shane waited.

  "She didn't just talk about Joe. She talked about her other brother."

  "Neil?"

  Maya shook her head. "Andrew."

  Shane made a face. "Wait, the one who fell off the boat?"

  "He didn't fall."

  "What do you mean?"

  Finally. Something she felt safe confiding in him. "Joe was there. On the boat with him."

  "Right, so?"

  "So Joe told me it wasn't an accident. He said Andrew committed suicide."

  Shane fell back in the chair. "Yowza."

  "Yeah."

  "Does the family know?"

  Maya shrugged. "I
don't think so. They all claim it was an accident."

  "And Caroline raised this yesterday?"

  "Yep."

  "Why?" Shane asked. "Andrew Burkett died, what, nearly twenty years ago, right?"

  "In a way I think it was natural," Maya said.

  "How so?"

  "Two brothers. Supposedly very close. Both dying young and tragically."

  Shane nodded, seeing it now. "More reason why her imagination might get the better of her."

  "And she never saw Joe's body."

  "Come again?"

  "Caroline. She never saw Joe's body. Or Andrew's. She wanted that. For closure. So Andrew dies at sea. She never sees his corpse. Joe gets murdered. She never sees his either."

  "I don't get it," Shane said. "Why didn't she see Joe's?"

  "The family wouldn't let her or something, I don't know. But look at it from her viewpoint. Two dead brothers. And no dead bodies. Caroline never saw either one of them in a casket."

  They fell into silence, but Shane saw it now. Caroline had hit a nerve when she talked to Maya about the need for a body. Maya and Shane had seen it time and time again during their time overseas. When a soldier died in battle, his family often couldn't accept the death until they saw definitive proof.

  The dead body.

  Maybe Caroline was right. Maybe that was the real origin of why soldiers make sure to bring everyone, even the dead, home.

  Shane broke the silence. "So Caroline is having trouble accepting Joe's death."

  "She's having trouble accepting both deaths," Maya said.

  "And she thinks the man who is investigating Joe's murder is being paid off by her family."

  That was when it hit Maya so hard she almost fell over. "Oh no . . ."

  "What?"

  Maya swallowed. She tried to think it through, tried to organize her thoughts. The boat. The captain's wheel. The fishing trophies . . .

  "Semper paratus," she said.

  "What?"

  Maya met Shane's eye. "Semper paratus."

  "It's Latin," Shane said. "It means 'Always ready.'"

  "You know it?"

  The boat. The fishing trophies. The captain's wheel and life preservers. But mostly the crossed anchors. Maya had assumed the crossed anchors meant the Navy. They often do. But someone else used crossed anchors to award their boatswain's mates.

  Shane nodded. "It's the motto of the Coast Guard."

  The Coast Guard.

  The branch of the Armed Forces with jurisdiction in both international and domestic waters. The Coast Guard could claim jurisdiction in any death on the high seas . . .

  "Maya?"

  She turned to him. "I need another favor, Shane."

 
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