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Dont let go, p.18
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       Don't Let Go, p.18

          Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
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"Yes."

"If you didn't know anything," I continue, "you couldn't tell them anything."

"She also made me promise, Nap. She made me swear that until she came back on her own, I couldn't tell anyone. I tried to keep that promise, Nap. I know you're angry about it. But something about the way Maura said it . . . I wanted to keep my word. And I was really afraid that breaking my word would lead to disaster. To tell you the truth, even now, even as we sit here, I think it's the wrong thing. I didn't want to tell you."

"So what changed your mind?"

"Too many people are dying, Nap. And I wonder whether Maura is one of them."

"You think she's dead?"

"Her mom and I . . . we naturally bonded after this. That first call at the Bennigan's? I helped set that up. Lynn left that part out when she talked to you, to protect me."

I don't know what to say to all this. "You lied to me all these years."

"You were obsessed."

Again that word. Ellie says I am obsessed. David Rainiv says Hank was obsessed.

"If I told you about this promise," Ellie says, "well, I had no idea how you'd react."

"Wasn't your place to worry about my reaction."

"Maybe not. But it wasn't my place to break a promise either."

"I still don't get it. How long did Maura stay with you?"

"Two nights."

"And then?"

Ellie shrugs. "I came home and she was gone."

"No note, no nothing?"

"Nothing."

"And since then?"

"More nothing. I haven't seen her or heard from her since."

Something isn't adding up. "Wait, when did you learn about Leo's and Diana's deaths?"

"I heard about it the day after they were found. I called Diana's house and asked for her and"--I see her eyes water up again--"her mom . . . God, her voice."

"Audrey Styles told you over the phone?"

"No. She asked me to come over. But I could hear it. I ran the whole way. She sat me down. In the kitchen. When she finished, I went home to ask Maura. But she was gone."

Still not adding up. "But . . . I mean, you had to figure it was connected, right?"

She didn't reply.

"Maura comes to you the night Leo and Diana die," I say. "You had to think there was some link."

Ellie nods slowly. "I figured it couldn't be a coincidence, that's right."

"And yet you didn't tell anyone?"

"I made a promise, Nap."

"Your best friend had just been killed," I say. "How could you not tell anyone?"

Ellie lowers her head. I stop for a second.

"You were the most responsible girl in the school," I say. "I could see you keeping a promise. That makes sense. But once you found out Diana was dead--"

"We all thought it was an accident, remember? Or maybe a weird double suicide, though I never believed that. But I didn't think Maura had anything to do with it."

"Come on, Ellie, you can't be that naive. How could you not tell someone?"

She lowers her head again. I know it now. She's hiding something.

"Ellie?"

"I did tell someone."

"Who?"

"But that was part of Maura's genius, when I look back at it. What could I tell anyone? I had no idea where she was."

"Who did you tell?"

"Diana's parents."

I freeze. "You told Augie and Audrey?"

"Yes."

"Augie . . ." I think I can't be stunned anew, yet here I am. "He knew that Maura had stayed at your house?"

She nods, and I'm reeling again. Can you trust anyone in this world, Leo? Ellie lied to me. Augie lied to me. Who else? Mom, of course. When she said she was coming right back.

Did Dad lie too?

Did you?

"What did Augie say to you?" I ask.

"He thanked me. Then he told me to keep my promise."

I need to see Augie. I need to go over to his house and figure out what the hell is going on here. But then I remember something else Ellie told me.

"You said before and after."

"What?"

"I asked you if you saw Maura before or after Leo and Diana died. You said both."

Ellie nods.

"You told me about the after. What about the before?"

She looks off.

"What is it?" I ask.

"This is the part," Ellie says, "you're not going to like."





Chapter Twenty-two


She stands across the street from the Armstrong Diner and watches them through a window.

Fifteen years ago, after the gunfire shattered the still night, she ran and hid for two hours. When she ventured out and saw the parked cars with the men in them, she knew for sure. She made her way toward the bus stop. It didn't matter which bus she got on. She just wanted distance. All the buses leaving Westbridge ended up in either Newark or New York City. From there, she could find friends and support. But it was late. Very few buses were still operating at that hour. Even worse, when she started up near the station by Karim Square, she again noticed men nearby in parked cars. For the next two nights, she stayed with Ellie. The three days after that, she hid in the Livingston basement / art studio of Hugh Warner, her art teacher. Mr. Warner was single, wore a ponytail, and always smelled like a bong. Then she started moving. Mr. Warner had a friend in Alphabet City. She stayed there for two days. She cut her hair and dyed it blond. For a few weeks, she followed groups of foreign tourists in Central Park and stole cash, but when she nearly got caught by an off-duty cop from Connecticut, she knew that had to end. A panhandler told her about a guy in Brooklyn who did fake IDs. She bought four new names. The IDs weren't perfect, but they were good enough to get her temporary employment. For the next three years, she moved around. A lot. In Cincinnati, she waitressed at a luncheonette. In Birmingham, she worked the cash register at Piggly Wiggly. In Daytona Beach, she donned a bikini and sold time-shares, which felt grimier than robbing the tourists. She slept on streets, in public parks, in chain motels (they were always clean), in the homes of strange men. She knew that if she just kept moving, she would be safe. They couldn't put out an APB on her. There were no Wanted posters. They were looking, but they were limited. The public couldn't help them. She joined various religious groups, feigning a reverence for whatever egomaniac served as minister, and used that to find housing, nourishment, protection. She danced at remote "gentlemen's clubs"--the strangest of euphemisms because they are neither--where the money was good but the attention too great. She was robbed twice, beaten, and one night she got in way over her head. She blocked on that and moved on. She started carrying a knife. In a parking lot outside of Denver, two men attacked her. She stabbed one deep in the gut. Blood poured from his mouth. She ran. He may have died. She never knew. She sometimes hung around community colleges, where the security wasn't too tight, and even attended classes. Near Milwaukee, she tried to settle down for a bit, even getting her real estate license, but an attorney noticed something wrong with her ID during a closing. In Dallas, she prepared taxes at a storefront accounting chain--they pretended to hire real accountants, but her training was a three-week seminar at a Courtyard Marriott--and for the first time, perhaps because the loneliness was getting overwhelming, she made a real friend in a coworker named Ann Hannon. Ann was great fun and warm, and they became roommates. They double-dated and went to movies and even took a vacation together to San Antonio. Ann Hannon was the first person she trusted enough to tell the truth, but of course, for both their protection, she never did. One day as she approached the storefront, she noticed two men in suits sitting in the waiting area reading newspapers. There were often people in the waiting area. But these guys looked wrong. She could see Ann through the window. Her always-smiling friend was not smiling. So she ran again. Just like that. Never called Ann to say good-bye. That summer she worked in a cannery in Alaska. She then did a three-month stint selling excursions on a cruise ship running from Skagway to Seattle. There were a few kind men along the way. But most were not kind. Most were anything but kind. As the years passed, she twice ran into people who recognized her as Maura Wells--one in Los Angeles, one in Indianapolis. That was bound to happen when she looked back on it now. You spend your life on streets or in public places, someone is going to see you. It was no big deal. She didn't pretend that they were mistaken or claim that she was someone else. She had stories ready, usually involving doing a graduate program. As soon as the person was out of sight, she would be gone. She always had a backup plan, always knew where the nearest truck stop was, because that was the easiest way to get a ride when you looked like she did. A guy was bound to give her a lift. Sometimes, if she got to the stop early enough, she would watch them eat and converse and interact, trying to decide which driver looked the least predatory. You could tell. Or you could be wrong. She didn't ask the women drivers for lifts, even the seemingly friendly ones, because women on the road had learned to be suspicious, and she was afraid that they might call her in. She had a series of wigs now and various glasses with no prescription. That was enough of a disguise in the event that anyone said anything.

There are various theories about why the years seem to pass faster as you get older. The most popular is also the most obvious. As you get older, each year is a smaller percentage of your life. If you are ten years old, a year is ten percent. If you are fifty years old, a year is two percent. But she had read a theory that spurned that explanation. The theory states that time passes faster when we are in a set routine, when we aren't learning anything new, when we stay stuck in a life pattern. The key to making time slow down is to have new experiences. You may joke that the week you went on vacation flew by far too quickly, but if you stop and think about it, that week actually seemed to last much longer than one involving the drudgery of your day job. You are complaining about it going away so fast because you loved it, not because it felt as though time was passing faster. If you want to slow down time, this theory holds: If you want to make the days last, do something different. Travel to exotic locales. Take a class.

In a sense, this was her life.

Until Rex. Until more gunfire. Until Hank.

Through the window, she can see the devastation on Nap's face. It is the first time she has seen him in fifteen years. Her life's greatest what-if. The road not taken. She lets the emotions ricochet through her. She doesn't fight them.

At one point, she even steps out from the shadows.

She stands under a light in the parking lot, in plain view now, not moving, letting fate take the chance that Nap might turn and look out the diner window and see her and then . . .

She gives him ten seconds to look. Nothing. She gives him another ten.

But Nap never looks out the window.

Maura turns and disappears back into the night.





Chapter Twenty-three


Diana and I had plans," Ellie begins.

There are only two other tables of patrons left, and they are way on the other side of the counter. I am trying hard to not get ahead of myself, to listen before jumping to conclusions, to absorb first and process later.

"We probably seemed like silly cliches, looking back on it. I was president of the student council. Diana was vice president. We were cocaptains of the soccer team. Our parents were close friends. They'd go out to dinner as a foursome." She looks up at me. "Does Augie date much?"

"Not really."

"You said he went down south with a girlfriend recently."

"Yvonne. Hilton Head."

"Is that in Georgia?"

"It's an island off South Carolina."

"How did it go?" Ellie asks.

How did Augie put it? "I don't think it's going to work out."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

I say nothing.

"He should be with someone. Diana wouldn't want her father alone like that."

I catch Bunny's eyes, but she looks away, giving us privacy. Someone has hit one of the old jukeboxes. Tears for Fears remind us in song that "Everybody Wants to Rule the World."

"You said you saw Maura before Leo and Diana died," I say, trying to get us back on course.

"I'm getting to that."

I wait.

"So Diana and I are in the school library. You probably don't remember this--no reason you would--but we had our big fall dance coming up the week after. Diana was head of the planning committee. I was her second."

She's right. I don't remember. The annual fall dance. Maura wouldn't have wanted to go. I wouldn't have cared.

"I'm not telling this right," Ellie says.

"It's okay."

"Anyway, the dance was a big deal to Diana. She'd been working on it for over a month. She couldn't decide between two themes. One was Vintage Boardwalk, the other was called Once Upon a Storybook, and so Diana suggested that we do both." Ellie looks off now, a small smile toying with her lips. "I was adamantly against this idea. I told Diana we have to, have to, pick only one, because otherwise it would be anarchy, and because I was a stupid, pathetic little perfectionist, this--what theme to choose--is what my best friend and I argued about the last time we ever spoke."

Ellie stops. I give her the time to put herself back together.

"So we're arguing about this and it's getting kinda heated--and then Maura walks in and starts talking to Diana. I was in a snit about the idea of two themes, and so I didn't listen to the first part too closely. But Maura wanted Diana to come with her somewhere that night. Diana said no, that she had kinda had it."

"Had it with what?" I ask.

"She didn't say. But then Diana told us both something . . ."

Ellie stops again and looks at me.

"What?" I say.

"She said that she'd had it with the whole group of them."

"And by 'group,' she meant . . . ?"

"Look, I didn't really care. I was focused on how someone could possibly think you could have two themes for one dance and how would you possibly mesh Vintage Boardwalk, which I liked, with carnival games and peanuts and popcorn, with Once Upon a Storybook, which I didn't even get. I mean, what the hell does that even mean? But now? After what we saw in the yearbook? I guess maybe Diana was talking about the Conspiracy Club. I don't know. That's not the part you won't like."

"What is the part I won't like?"

"What Diana said next."

"Which was?"

"Diana wanted to wait another couple of weeks--until after the fall dance because, well, she was the planning chair. But Diana said she was tired of your brother and his friends. She swore us both to secrecy, but she said she was going to break up with Leo."

I just react: "That's crap."

Now it's Ellie's turn to stay quiet.

"Diana and Leo were solid," I say. "I mean, yeah, it was high school, but . . ."

"He changed, Nap."

I shake my head.

"Leo was moodier. That's what Diana said. He would snap at her. Look, a lot of kids were experimenting senior year, partying or whatever--"

"That's all he was doing too. Leo was fine."

"No, Nap, he wasn't fine."

"We lived in the same room. I knew everything about him."

"And yet you didn't know what was going on with the Conspiracy Club. You didn't know he and Diana were having a rough time of it. That's not your fault. You had Maura and your hockey. You were just a kid . . ."

Her voice trails off when she sees my face.

"Whatever happened that night--" Ellie begins.

I interrupt her. "What do you mean, 'whatever happened'? That military base was guarding a secret. Leo and Maura and, I don't know, the rest of them found out what it is. I don't care if Leo was stoned or that maybe, maybe Diana considered breaking up with him a week later. They all saw something. I have the proof now."

"I know," Ellie says gently. "I'm on your side."

"You don't sound like it."

"Nap?"

I look at her.

"Maybe you should let this go," she finally says.

"Yeah, that's not going to happen."

"Maybe Maura doesn't want to be found."

"I'm not doing this for Maura," I say. "I'm doing this for Leo."

--

But once we are out in the parking lot, once I kiss Ellie's cheek and make sure she's in her car, a thought rises from the ashes and won't so easily be put down: Maybe Ellie is right. Maybe I should let this go.

I watch Ellie pull out. She doesn't turn around and wave good-bye. She's always waved good-bye in the past. Dumb thing to notice, but there you go. I wonder about this. It may have been a promise, but she has been keeping a secret from me for fifteen years. You would think unburdening herself might lead us to a higher level of trust.

That doesn't seem to be the case.

I glance around the parking lot for the smoking girls, but they are long gone. Still I feel eyes on me. I don't know whose. I don't really care. Ellie's words rip through my head like talons.

"Maybe you should let this go. Maybe Maura doesn't want to be found."

What exactly am I trying to do here?

Proclaiming that I'll do anything in my quest for justice sounds honorable and brave. But that doesn't make it right. How many more have to die before I step back? By flushing out Maura, am I putting her and others in danger?

I'm stubborn. I'm determined. But I'm not reckless or suicidal.

Should I let this go?

I still feel like I'm being watched, so I turn. Someone is standing behind a tree at the Jersey Mike's Subs shop down the street. Doesn't seem like a big deal, but I'm full of paranoia right now. I put my hand to the gun in my hip holster. I don't pull it. I just want to know it's there.

As I step toward the tree, my phone buzzes. The number is blocked. I step toward my car. "Hello?"

"Detective Dumas?"

"Yep."

"This is Carl Legg with the Ann Arbor Police Department. You asked me to look into finding a cardiologist named Dr. Fletcher."

"Any luck?"

"No," Legg says. "But there are a few things you should know. Hello, you there?"

I slide into my car. "I'm listening."

"Sorry, sounded like you cut out for a second. So I visited Dr. Fletcher's office and spoke to the office manager."

"Cassie."

"Yep," Legg says. "You know her?"

"She wasn't cooperative on the phone."

"She wasn't Miss Congeniality in person either, but we pushed a bit."
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