Fool me once, p.15
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       Fool Me Once, p.15

           Harlan Coben
 
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  He said nothing.

  "I need you to find out who the lead investigator was in the maritime death of Andrew Burkett," she said. "I need you to see if it was a Coast Guard officer named Tom Douglass."

  Chapter 17

  Putting Lily to sleep was usually a routine task. Maya had heard all the horror stories about little kids who made bedtime a nightmare. Not Lily. It was as though she'd had enough of the day and was ready to just put it behind her. Her head hit the pillow without argument and, poof, sleep. But tonight, after Maya tucked her into bed, Lily said, "Story."

  Maya was exhausted, but wasn't this one of the joys of motherhood? "Sure, sweetie, what would you like to read?"

  Lily pointed to a Debi Gliori book. Maya read it to her, hoping it would work like hypnosis or a boring coworker and Lily's eyes would get droopy before closing for the night. But the book was having the opposite of the intended effect--Maya was the one drifting off while Lily poked her to stay awake. Maya managed to finish the story. She closed the book, started to rise, and Lily said, "Again, again."

  "I think it's time to go to sleep, sweetie."

  Lily started crying. "Scared."

  Maya knew that you weren't supposed to let your child stay in your room during moments like this, but what those parental instructional manuals forget is that all human beings, even parents, will take the easier way out when exhausted. This little girl had lost her father. She was too young to get that, of course, but there still had to be something there, some subconscious pang, some primitive knowledge that all was not right.

  Maya scooped Lily up. "Come on. You can sleep with me."

  She carried Lily and gently set her down on Joe's side of the bed. She laid out pillows along the edge of the bed in a makeshift rail and then, to be on the safe side, threw a bunch more on the floor in case Lily somehow rolled through this tenuous barricade. Maya pulled the covers up and tucked them under Lily's chin, and as she did, Maya had one of those sudden "pow" moments sneak up on her, the ones all parents experience, when you are simply overwhelmed by your love for your child, when you are awestruck and you can feel something rising inside of you and you just want to hold onto it and yet, at the same time, that caring, that fear of losing this person, scares you into near paralysis. How, you wonder, will you ever relax again, knowing how unsafe the world is?

  Lily closed her eyes and fell asleep. Maya stayed there, unmoving, watching her daughter's little face, making sure the breaths were deep and even. She stayed that way until mercifully her mobile phone rang and broke the spell.

  She hoped that it might be Shane with an answer on Tom Douglass, though he'd told her that he wouldn't be able to look into the man's military records until the morning. She grabbed the phone and saw her niece Alexa's name pop up. In a small panic--here too was another person she could never lose--Maya quickly hit the green button.

  "Everything okay?"

  "Umm, yeah," Alexa said. "Why wouldn't it be?"

  "No reason." Man, Maya needed to calm the hell down. "What's up, kiddo? You need help with your homework?"

  "Right, and if I did, you think I'd call you?"

  Maya laughed. "Good point."

  "Tomorrow is Soccer Day."

  "Excuse me?"

  "It's the lame thing we do in our town where all the grades have a game and they sell booster stuff and there's a moon bounce and a carnival and all that. I mean, it's fun for the little kids."

  "Okay."

  "I know you said you were busy, but I was hoping you and Lily could come."

  "Oh."

  "Dad and Daniel will be there too. His game is at ten, mine's at eleven. We can take Lily around, get her a balloon animal--Mr. Ronkowitz, my English teacher, makes them for all the little kids--take her on the rides. I thought it might be fun. We miss her."

  Maya looked over at Lily sleeping next to her. The overwhelmed feeling returned in force.

  "Aunt Maya?"

  Alexa and Daniel were Lily's cousins. Lily adored them. Maya wanted them--needed them--to be a big part of Lily's life. "I'm glad Lily's already asleep," Maya said to Alexa.

  "Huh?"

  "Because if I told her she was going to see her cousins tomorrow, she would be too excited to go anywhere near her bed."

  Alexa laughed. "Great, see you in the morning? It's at the town circle."

  "Right."

  "Oh, and just FYI. My stupid coach will be there."

  "No worries. I think the two of us get each other now."

  "Good night, Aunt Maya."

  "Good night, Alexa."

  *

  The night was bad.

  The sounds began their assault when Maya was in that gentle cusp between consciousness and sleep. The clamoring, the screams, the rotors, and the gunfire were relentless. They would not pause. They would not let up. They grew louder and stayed. Maya wasn't in her bed. She wasn't back there either. She was in this in-between world, suspended, lost. All was darkness and noise, unceasing, endless noise, the type of noise that seemed to come from within her, as though some small creature had climbed inside her head and started screeching and scratching from within.

  There was no escape, no rational thought. There was no here or now, no yesterday or tomorrow. That would all come later. Right now there was nothing but the agony of the sounds shredding through her brain like a reaper's scythe. Maya put her hands on either side of her head and pushed hard as though trying to crush her own skull.

  It was that bad.

  It was the type of bad that made you want to do anything to please--

  --oh God please--

  --make it stop. It made you think about picking up a gun and silencing the sounds, if you knew where you were, if you knew that you were so close to your bedside table where you kept a gun in that small safe . . .

  Maya didn't know if it lasted minutes or hours. It seemed endless. Time had no meaning when the sounds suffocated you. You just rode it out and tried to stay afloat.

  But at some point, a new sound, a more "regular" sound, penetrated her auditory hell. The sound seemed to come from a great distance. The sound seemed to take a long time to reach her and register. It had to fight through the other deafening sounds--one of which, Maya realized as she started to float up toward consciousness, was her own self screaming.

  A doorbell. Then a voice:

  "Maya? Maya?"

  Shane. He started banging against the door.

  "Maya?"

  She opened her eyes. The sounds didn't flee so much as mockingly fade away, reminding her that they might grow quiet but they were always there, always with her. Maya again thought about that theory that no sound dies, that if you scream in the woods and you hear an echo, that echo just grows fainter and fainter but never completely goes away. Her sounds did the same.

  They never fully left her.

  Maya looked to her right, to where Lily had been sleeping.

  But she wasn't there.

  Maya's heart leapt into her throat. "Lily?"

  The knocking and doorbell had stopped. Maya bolted upright. She swung her legs out of bed. When she tried to stand, the head rush knocked her back into a seating position.

  "Lily?" she called again.

  From downstairs, Maya heard the door open.

  "Maya?"

  It was Shane, inside the house now. She'd given him a key for emergencies.

  "Up here." Maya tried again, making it to a standing position this time. "Lily? I can't find Lily!"

  The house shook as Shane ran up the stairs two at a time.

  "Lily!"

  "I got her," Shane said.

  He appeared at her door, carrying Lily with his right arm. Relief flooded Maya's veins.

  "She was at the top of the stairs," Shane said.

  There were tears on Lily's face. Maya hurried over to her. Lily cringed for a moment, and Maya realized that her daughter had probably woken up to her mother's screams.

  Maya slowed down and made herself smile. "It's okay, sweet
ie."

  The little girl buried her face into Shane's shoulder.

  "I'm sorry, Lily. Mommy had a nightmare."

  Lily wrapped her arms around Shane's neck. Shane looked toward Maya, not even trying to hide the pity and concern on his face. Maya's heart crumbled into a million pieces.

  "I tried to call," he said. "When you didn't answer . . ."

  Maya nodded.

  "Hey," Shane said too cheerfully. He wasn't good with cheerful. Even Lily could sense that his tone was off. "Let's all go downstairs and have breakfast, what do you say?"

  Lily looked wary, but she was also recovering quickly. That was the thing about kids. They are ridiculously resilient. They have, Maya thought, the coping skills of the best soldiers.

  "Oh, guess what?" Maya said.

  Lily looked at her mother warily.

  "Today we're going to a carnival with Daniel and Alexa!"

  That made the little girl's eyes widen.

  "There'll be rides and balloons . . ."

  Maya kept talking about the wonders of Soccer Day, and in a matter of minutes, the storm of last night dissipated in the glow of a new day. For Lily at least. But for Maya, the grip of fear, especially because it had obviously touched her daughter, held on to her for far too long.

  What had she done?

  Shane didn't ask her if she was okay. He knew. Once they had Lily settled in front of her breakfast and moved out of her earshot, Shane said, "How bad?"

  "I'm fine."

  Shane just turned away.

  "What?"

  "Lying to me gets easier and easier for you."

  He was right.

  "Very bad," she said. "Happy now?"

  Shane turned back to her. He wanted to hug her--she could see that--but they didn't do that. Too bad. She could have used it.

  "You need to talk to someone," Shane said. "What about Wu?"

  Wu was the shrink from the VA. "I'll call him."

  "When?"

  "When this is over."

  "When what is over?"

  She didn't answer.

  "It's not just about you anymore, Maya."

  "Meaning?"

  He looked over at Lily.

  "Low blow, Shane."

  "Too bad. You have a daughter you're raising on your own now."

  "I'll take care of it."

  Maya checked the time. Nine fifteen. She tried to remember the last time that had happened, when she had slept past 4:58 A.M., but she couldn't. She also wondered about Lily. So what had gone on? Had her daughter woken up and listened to her mother scream? Had Lily tried to wake her, or did she just cower in fear?

  What kind of mother was she?

  "Death follows you, Maya . . ."

  "I'll take care of it," she said again. "I just need to see this through."

  "And by 'see this through,' you mean 'find out who killed Joe'?"

  She didn't reply.

  "You were right, by the way," Shane said.

  "About?"

  "That's why I'm here. You asked me to look into Tom Douglass's time in the Coast Guard."

  "And?"

  "He served fourteen years. That's where he got his first taste of law enforcement. And yes, he was the officer in charge of the investigation into the death of Andrew Burkett."

  Boom. It made sense. It made no sense.

  "Do you know what his findings were?"

  "Accidental death. According to his report, Andrew Burkett fell overboard at night and drowned. Alcohol was probably involved."

  They just stood there for a few moments and let it sink in.

  "What the hell is going on, Maya?"

  "I don't know, but I plan to find out."

  "How?"

  Maya quickly took out her mobile phone and called the Douglass home. There was no answer. Maya left a message: "I know why the Burketts were paying you. Call me."

  She left her cell phone number and hung up.

  "How did you find out about Douglass?" Shane asked.

  "It isn't important."

  "Really?"

  Shane stood up and started pacing. You didn't have to know him as well as Maya did to realize that this wasn't good.

  "What?" she said.

  "I called Detective Kierce this morning."

  Maya closed her eyes. "Why would you do that?"

  "Oh, I don't know. Maybe because you threw out a pretty big accusation last night."

  "It was Caroline's accusation."

  "Whatever. I wanted to size him up a little."

  "And?"

  "I like him. I think he's a straight shooter. I think Caroline is full of crap."

  "Okay, just forget it."

  Shane made an annoying buzzing sound like a game show effect when you give the wrong answer.

  "What?"

  "Sorry, Maya, wrong answer."

  "What are you talking about?"

  "Kierce wouldn't share any information on the actual investigation with me," Shane continued. "Which is what a good cop, a cop who plays by the rules and doesn't take bribes, would do."

  Maya didn't like where this was going.

  "But," Shane said, raising a finger in the air, "he felt that it would be okay to let me know about a certain incident that happened in your home recently."

  Maya glanced over at Lily. "He told you about the nanny cam."

  "Bingo."

  Shane waited for her to explain. She didn't. They both stood there and stared at each other for too long. Shane broke the silence.

  "Why wouldn't you tell me something like that?" he asked.

  "I was going to."

  "But?"

  "But you already think I'm unstable."

  Shane made the annoying buzzing noise again. "Wrong. I may think you need help--"

  "Exactly. You're all over me to call Wu. And what would you have thought if I told you I thought I saw my murdered husband on a nanny cam?"

  "I would have listened," Shane said. "I would have listened and tried to help you get to the bottom of it."

  She knew that he meant it. Shane grabbed a chair, moved it close to her, sat down.

  "Tell me what happened. Exactly."

  No point in hiding it anymore. She told Shane about the nanny cam, about Isabella using pepper spray, about Joe's missing clothes and her visit to the Burkett workers' compound where Isabella lived. When she was finished, Shane said, "I remember that shirt. If you imagined it all, why would it be missing?"

  "Who knows?"

  Shane rose and started for the stairs.

  "Where are you going?"

  "I'm going to check his closet, see if it's there."

  She was going to protest, but this was how Shane was. He had to play it all the way through. She waited. He came back five minutes later.

  "Gone," he said.

  "Which doesn't mean anything," Maya added. "A million reasons a shirt wouldn't be in his closet."

  Shane sat back across from her and plucked his lower lip. Five seconds passed. Then ten. "Let's talk it out for a bit."

  Maya just waited.

  "You remember what General Dempsey said when he visited camp?" Shane asked. "About predictability in the theater?"

  She nodded. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had said that, of all human endeavors, the one that is most unpredictable is warfare. The only cardinal rule about what happens in battle is that you never know what will happen in battle. You have to be ready for what seems impossible.

  "So let's play it through," Shane said. "Let's say that you really did see Joe on that nanny cam."

  "He's dead, Shane."

  "I get that. But just . . . let's go step by step. Just as an exercise."

  She rolled her eyes for him to get on with it.

  "Okay, so you look at this nanny cam on, what, your TV?"

  "Laptop. You plug in an SD card."

  "Right, sorry. The SD card. That's the one Isabella took after she sprayed you?"

  "Yes."

  "Okay, so
you put this SD card into your laptop. You see Joe playing with Lily on the couch. Let's eliminate the obvious. It wasn't, like, an old recording, right?"

  "Right."

  "Are you sure? You said Eileen gave the nanny cam to you after the funeral. But could someone have put in an old recording or something? A tape someone made of the two of them before Joe was killed?"

  "No. Lily was wearing exactly what she was wearing that day. It was filmed at the exact right angle, taken from that very spot on the shelf and aimed at the couch. There was a trick to it, sure. Had to be. Joe was, I don't know, photoshopped or something. But it wasn't an old piece of film."

  "Okay, so we've eliminated that possibility."

  This was getting ridiculous. "What possibility?"

  "That it was an old tape. So let's try something else." Shane started plucking his lip again. "Let's pretend--just for the sake of argument--that it really was Joe. That he's still alive." Shane held up his hands, even though she hadn't said anything. "I know, I know, but just bear with me, okay?"

  Maya bit back the sigh and shrugged a "suit yourself."

  "How would you do it?" he asked. "If you were Joe and you wanted to fake your death."

  "Fake my death and then, what, sneak into my house and play with my kid? I don't know, Shane. Why don't you tell me? You obviously have a theory."

  "Not a theory exactly, but . . ."

  "Does it involve zombies?"

  "Maya?"

  "Yes?"

  "You use sarcasm when you're being defensive."

  She frowned. "Those psych courses," she said. "They are really paying off."

  "I don't know what you're so afraid of here."

  "I'm afraid of wasting my time. But okay, Shane. Forget zombies. Give me your theory. How would you fake your death, if you were Joe?"

  Shane kept plucking at his lip. Maya was afraid he might draw blood.

  "Here is how I might do it," he said. "I might hire two street punks. I might give them guns with blanks."

  "Wow," Maya said.

  "Just let me finish, but I'll skip the mights if you don't mind. I, Joe, would set it up. I would have blood capsules or something like that. So it looks real. Joe was the one who liked that spot in the park, right? He knew the lighting situation. He knew it would be dark enough so you wouldn't see exactly what was going on. Think about it. Do you really believe those two punks just happened to be there? Wasn't that odd to you?"

  "Wait, that's the part you find odd?"

  "That whole robbery angle . . ." Shane shook his head. "It always felt like nonsense to me."

  Maya sat there. Kierce had already proven that the robbery angle was nonsense when the ballistics test told him that the same gun had killed both Joe and Claire. Obviously Shane didn't know that.

 
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