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Dont let go, p.16
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       Don't Let Go, p.16

          Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
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And the picture goes black.

I hit the fast-forward button. But that's it. There is nothing else on the tape. I rewind and watch the scene with the helicopter again. Then a third time. It never gets easier to hear your voice or see Maura's face.

During the fourth viewing something new occurs to me. I start putting myself into this timeline. Where was I that night? I wasn't part of the Conspiracy Club. I didn't really think much of it at the time--this "clandestine group" was somewhere between cute and childish, in my view, between harmless and (when I was unkind) pathetic. You had your games and secrets. I get that.

But how could you guys keep something like this secret from me?

You used to tell me everything.

I try to travel back in time. Where was I that night? It was, like the night you died, a Friday. Friday was hockey night. Who did we play that night? I don't remember. Did we win? Did I see you when I got home? I don't remember. I know I got together with Maura. We headed into the clearing in those woods. I can still see the tangled hair, the killer smile, the eyes lit with excitement, but something was different that night, something even more electrifying when we made love. I don't think I wondered why back then--Maura liked the edge--but I probably selfishly chalked it up to my own wonderfulness. That's how wrapped up I, the big jock senior, was in my own stuff.

And my twin brother?

I think back to that photograph in the attic. The four of us. The stoned, lost look on your face. Something was going on with you, Leo. Something big and probably obvious, and because I was a self-involved prick, I missed it and you died.

I unplug the camera. I'm sure that Bob won't mind if I take it with me. But I need to think on it. I don't want to act in haste. Hank hid this video because whatever issues he had, he knew this was big. He was paranoid and probably mentally unwell, and come hell or high water, I still want to honor his wishes.

So where do I go with this?

Do I take it to the authorities? Do I tell Muse or Manning? Do I tell Augie?

First things first. Make copies. Put the original in a safe place.

I run it through my head, try to see how this all fits together. The old Nike base stayed under government control. It pretended to be some kind of harmless agriculture center so as to hide its real purpose. Okay, I get all that. I even get that you guys saw something that night that could open the place up to public scrutiny.

I might even be able to take it a step further. I might even get why they--and by "they" I just mean the "bad guys" working at the base--would want to silence you and Diana, even though I didn't hear Diana on the tape. Was she there? I don't know. But either way, the two of you ended up dead.

Question: Why would the others still be alive?

Possible answer: "They" didn't know about Rex, Hank, and Beth. "They" only knew about you and Diana. Okay, that makes a modicum of sense. Not much. But I'll take a modicum. And I can add Maura into this equation. Somehow "they" knew about Maura too. That's why she ran and hid. On the tape, you and Maura are clearly the leaders. So maybe you two went back and did something careless. You got caught. She ran.

That all makes some sense.

But again: What about the others? Rex and Hank and Beth continued their lives. None of them hid. Maybe after fifteen years they started looking again. Maybe something happened after fifteen years so that suddenly they did know.

Like what?

No idea. But maybe Augie was onto something when he wondered about Tom Stroud. Maybe I need to figure out when exactly Tom Stroud came back to Westbridge.

Enough speculating. I'm still missing something. And there is something else I need to do right now.

Confront Ellie.

It can't be a coincidence that Maura's mother came to me via Ellie. Ellie knows something. This realization is one I half want to ignore. I've taken enough blows today, thank you very much, but if I can't trust Ellie--if Ellie lied to me and doesn't have my back--then where am I?

I take a deep breath and open the workshop door. The first sounds I hear are Leah's and Kelsi's laughter. I realize I'm making this family seem somewhat unreal, a little too perfect, but this is what I see. I once asked Ellie how she and Bob did it, and she said, "We've both been through some wars, so now we fight to preserve this." Maybe I understand, but I'm not sure. Ellie's parents' late-in-life divorce was hard on her. Maybe that's part of it, I don't know. Or maybe we don't know anybody that well.

I look for the seams in Ellie and Bob's life. Just because I can't see them doesn't mean they aren't there. And just because Ellie and Bob may hide them doesn't make them any less wonderful or human.

Dad's quote: Every person has hopes and dreams.

I head into the kitchen, but Ellie isn't there. There is an open seat. Bob turns to me and says, "Ellie had to run out. She left you a plate."

Out the window, I see Ellie heading to her car. I make a quick excuse and sprint after her. She's opening her car door and readying to slide in when I shout, "Do you know where Maura is?"

That stops her. Ellie turns toward me. "No."

I meet her eyes. "To reach me, her mother came through you."

"Yes."

"Why you, Ellie?"

"I promised her I wouldn't say anything."

"Who?"

"Maura."

I know that name is coming, and it still punches me in the teeth. "You"--it takes me a second--"you promised Maura?"

My mobile rings. It's Augie. I don't answer. Whatever happens now--whatever Ellie tells me--I know nothing will be the same between us anymore. There is very little in my world that keeps me grounded. I have no family. I let very few people into my world.

The person who is dearest to me just pulled the life rug, if you will, out from under me.

"I have to go," Ellie says. "There's an emergency at the center."

"All these years," I say. "You lied to me."

"No."

"But you never told me."

"I made a promise."

I try to keep the hurt out of my voice. "I thought you were my best friend."

"I am. But being your friend doesn't mean I betray everyone else."

My mobile keeps buzzing. "How could you keep something like this from me?"

"We don't tell each other everything," she says.

"What are you talking about? I trust you with my life."

"But you don't tell me everything, do you, Nap?"

"Of course I do."

"Bullshit." Ellie's voice comes out as a surprise whisper-scream, one of those things adults do when they're angry but don't want to wake the kids. "You keep plenty from me."

"What are you talking about?"

Something flashes in her eyes. "You want to tell me about Trey?"

I am about to say Who? That's how focused I am on this investigation, into the possibility of discovering the truth about that night and feeling betrayed by, of all people, the woman who is closest to me. But then, of course, I remember the baseball bat and the beating.

Ellie stares hard at me.

"I didn't lie to you," I say.

"You just didn't tell me."

I say nothing.

"You don't think I know it was you who put Trey in the hospital?"

"It has nothing to do with you," I say.

"I'm complicit."

"No, you're not. It's on me."

"Are you really that dense? There's a line between wrong and right, Nap. You drag me across it. You break the law."

"To punish slime," I say. "To help a victim. Isn't that what we're supposed to be doing?"

Ellie shakes her head, her anger flushing her cheeks. "You don't get it, do you? When the police come around because they figure there might be a connection between an injured man and a battered woman, I have to lie to them. You know that, right? So like it or not, I'm complicit. You involve me, and you don't have the decency to face me with the truth."

"I don't say anything to keep you safe."

Ellie shakes her head. "Are you sure that's it, Nap?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Maybe you don't tell me because I'd stop you. Maybe you don't tell me because what you do is wrong. I set up that shelter to help the abused, not to go vigilante on the abusers."

"It's not on you," I say again. "I'm the one who makes that call."

"We all make calls." Her voice is quieter now. "You made the call that Trey deserved a beating. I made the call to keep my word to Maura."

I shake my head as my phone starts up. It's Augie again.

"You can't keep this from me, Ellie."

"Let it go," she says.

"What?"

"You didn't tell me about Trey to protect me."

"So?"

"So maybe I'm doing the same for you."

The phone still rings. I have to take it. As I put it to my ear, Ellie jumps into the car. I'm about to stop her, but then I notice that Bob is standing by the door, watching with a funny look on his face.

It'll have to wait.

"What?" I shout into the phone.

"I finally got hold of Andy Reeves," Augie tells me.

The "agriculture" commander at the military base. "And?"

"You know the Rusty Nail Tavern?"

"That's a dive bar in Hackensack, right?"

"Used to be. Meet him there in an hour."





Chapter Twenty


I copy the old videotape in the least-tech but fastest way possible. I simply play it on the little camera screen while recording it with my smartphone. The quality is not as terrible as I thought it would be, but I won't be winning any cinematography awards either. I upload a copy of the video to my cloud, and then, to be on the safe side, I email it out to another one of my email addresses.

Should I send a copy to someone else for safekeeping?

Yes. The question is, who? I consider David Rainiv, but if it ever got traced back--and, yes, I'm being paranoid--I don't want to put him in danger. I think about sending it to Ellie, but same issue. Plus I need to think it through. I need to really consider my next move with her.

The obvious answer is Augie, but again, do I want to just send this out to his computer without any kind of warning?

I call Augie on the phone.

"You at the Rusty Nail yet?" Augie asks.

"On my way. I'm emailing you a video."

I fill him in on David Rainiv's visit and the rest of it. He stays quiet. When I finish, I ask if he's still on the line.

"Don't send it to my work," he says.

"Okay."

"You got my personal email address?"

"Yes."

"Okay, send it there." There is a longer pause. Then Augie clears his throat and says, "Diana . . . you said she wasn't on the tape?"

I can always hear it when he says Diana's name. I lost you. A brother. A twin. Devastating, sure. But Augie lost his only child. Whenever he says Diana's name, it comes out hoarse, pained, like someone is pummeling him as he speaks. Each syllable rains down new hurt.

"I didn't see or hear Diana," I tell him, "but the tape isn't great quality. You might pick up something I didn't."

"I still think you're heading down the wrong path."

I think about that. "I do too."

"So?"

"So it's the only path I have right now. I might as well stay on it and see where it leads."

"Sounds like a plan."

"Though not a good one."

"No, not a good one," Augie agrees.

"What did you tell Andy Reeves?" I ask.

"About you?"

"About my reason for visiting, yeah."

"Not a damn thing. What could I tell him? I don't even know."

"Part of my plan," I say. "The not-good one."

"Better than none at all, I guess. I'm going to watch the tape. I'll call you if I see anything."

--

The Rusty Nail is a converted house with cedar-shake vinyl siding and a red door. I park between a yellow Ford Mustang with the license plate EBNY-IVRY and a bus-van hybrid with the words "Bergen County Senior Center" painted on the side. I don't know what Augie meant by saying it used to be a dive bar. From the outside it still looks like one to me. The only change I notice is the extensive wheelchair ramp. That didn't used to be there. I head up the steps and open the heavy red door.

Initial observation: The crowd is old.

Very old. I'm guessing the median age is close to eighty. Probably came in from the senior center. Interesting. Seniors take field trips to supermarkets and racetracks and casinos.

Why not taverns?

The second thing I notice: There is an ostentatious white piano with silver trim, like something Liberace would have considered too garish, in the middle of the room, complete with a tip jar. Straight out of Billy Joel. I almost expect a real estate novelist and Davy from the navy to be nursing drinks. But I don't see anyone fitting that description. I see a variety of walkers and canes and wheelchairs.

The piano player is pounding out "Sweet Caroline." "Sweet Caroline" has become one of those songs, played at every wedding and sporting event, beloved by children and seniors alike. The old patrons sing along enthusiastically. They are off-key and have no pitch and don't care. It's a nice scene.

I'm not sure which one is Andy Reeves. In my head, I'm expecting someone in his midsixties with a crew cut and military bearing. A few of the older men fit the bill, I guess. I step into the room. I spot several strong young guys now, their eyes moving around like wary security guards, and I'm tagging them as bartenders or maybe orderlies for the seniors.

The piano player looks up and nods at me. He does not have a crew cut or military bearing. He has feathered blond hair and that kind of waxy complexion I associate with chemical peels. He beckons with a head gesture for me to take a seat at the piano as the older crowd builds to a giant "Bah-bah-bah, good times never seemed so good."

"So good, so good, so good . . ."

I sit. One of the old guys throws his arm around me, nudging me to sing along. I join in for a very unenthusiastic "I've been inclined" and wait for someone else--preferably Andy Reeves--to approach me. No one does. I glance around the room. There is a poster featuring four of the happiest, healthiest seniors this side of a Viagra ad with the words "Tuesday Afternoon Bingo--$3 Drinks" emblazoned across their chests. At the bar, a few of the guys I figure are orderlies-bartenders pour a red beverage into laid-out plastic cups.

When "Sweet Caroline" finishes up, the old folks hoot and holler their approval. I'm almost looking forward to the next song, enjoying this quasi normalcy, but the feathered-hair piano man stands up and announces a "quick break."

The old-timers register their disappointment with gusto.

"Five minutes," the piano man says. "Your drinks are at the bar. Think up a few requests, okay?"

That placates them a bit. The piano man scoops the money out of what looks like an oversized brandy snifter, heads toward me, and says, "Officer Dumas?"

I nod.

"I'm Andy Reeves."

First thing I notice: His speaking voice is a little breathy.

Or whispery.

He takes the seat next to me. I try to guess the age. Even with whatever weird cosmetic work has made his face shiny, he can't be more than midfifties, but then again, the military base closed down only fifteen years ago. Why does he have to be older than that?

I glance around. "This place," I say.

"What about it?"

"It seems a far distance from the Department of Agriculture."

"I know, right?" He spreads his hands. "What can I say? I needed a change."

"So you no longer work for the government?"

"I retired, what, seven years ago. Worked for the USDA for twenty-five years. Got a nice pension and now I'm pursuing my passion."

"Piano."

"Yes. I mean, not here. This is, well, you have to start somewhere, right?"

I study his face. The tan is from a bottle or bed, not the sun. I can see some very pale skin near the hairline. "Right," I say.

"We had a piano at that old Westbridge office. I used to play there all the time. Helped us relax when the job got too stressful." Reeves shifts in his seat and flashes teeth so big and dazzlingly white that they could double as piano keys. "So what can I do for you, Detective?"

I jump right in. "What kind of work were you guys doing at the military base?"

"Military base?"

"That's what it used to be," I say. "A control center for Nike missiles."

"Oh, I know." He shakes his head in awe. "What a history that place has, am I right?"

I say nothing.

"But all of that, well, it was years before we moved in. We were just an office complex, not a military base."

"An office complex for the USDA," I say.

"That's right. Our mission was to provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management."

It sounds rehearsed, probably because it is.

"Why there?" I ask.

"Pardon?"

"The USDA has an office on Independence Avenue in Washington, DC."

"Headquarters, sure. We were a satellite."

"But why there, in the woods like that?"

"Why not?" he says, lifting his palms to the ceiling. "It was a great space. Some of the work we did, well, I don't want to boast or make it sound more glamorous than it was, but many of our studies were absolutely top secret." He leans forward. "Did you ever see the movie Trading Places?"

"Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis," I say.

He's very pleased that I know it. "That's the one. If you remember, the Duke brothers were trying to corner the orange juice market, right?"

"Right."

"Do you remember how?" Reeves smiles as he sees on my face that I do. "The Dukes were bribing a government official to obtain an advance copy of the USDA's monthly crop report. The USDA, Detective Dumas. That was us. Many of our studies were that important. We needed privacy and tight security."

I nod. "So that's why you had the fence and all the No Trespassing signs."

"Exactly." Reeves spreads his hands again. "Where better for us to conduct our testing than a former military base?"

"Anybody ever defy those signs?"

For the first time I think I see the smile flicker. "What do you mean?"

"Did you ever have trespassers?"

"Sometimes," Reeves says as casually as he can muster. "Kids would sneak into the woods to drink or smoke pot."
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