Dont let go, p.22
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       Don't Let Go, p.22

          
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  Maura lowers her hand.

  "They were shooting at you?"

  "Yeah. I guess."

  "What do you mean, you guess?"

  "I mean, that's what started it, right?" Maura's voice goes up an octave now. I can hear the fear, the regret. "Me. I ran toward the fence like a stupid kid. I ignored the warning signs. I tripped a wire or they spotted me or something, so they did what they promised on the signs. They started shooting. So, yeah, I guess they were shooting at me."

  "What did you do?"

  "I turned and ran. I remember hearing a bullet hit a tree right by my head. But, see, eventually I made it out alive. The bullets--they never hit me."

  She raises her head and looks me straight in the eyes.

  "Leo," I say.

  "I kept running, and they kept shooting. And then . . ."

  "Then what?"

  "I heard a woman scream. I'm sprinting as fast as I can, dodging trees, trying to keep low so I make a smaller target. But I turn when I hear the scream. A woman's scream. I see someone, maybe a man, in silhouette through those bright lights . . . more gunfire blasts . . . then I hear the woman scream again, except this time . . . this time I think I recognize the voice. She screams, 'Leo!' She screams, 'Leo, help,' except the 'help' is cut off by another shot being fired."

  I realize I'm holding my breath.

  "And now . . . now I hear a man yell for everyone to hold their fire . . . silence . . . dead silence . . . and then maybe, I don't know anymore, but maybe someone yells, 'What have you done . . .' And then someone else yells, 'There was another girl, we have to find her . . .' but I don't hear that for sure, I don't know if it's in my head or for real, because I'm running. I'm running and I'm not stopping . . ."

  She looks at me like she needs my help and like I better not offer any.

  I don't move. I don't think I can.

  "They . . . they just shot them?"

  Maura doesn't reply.

  Then I say something dumb. "And you just ran away?"

  "What?"

  "I mean, I get why you ran then--to get away from the danger. But when you were safe, why didn't you call the police?"

  "And say what?"

  "How about 'Hello, I saw two people shot'?"

  Her eyes flick away from me. "Maybe I should have," she says.

  "That's not really a good enough answer."

  "I was stoned and scared and I freaked out, okay? It's not like I knew they'd been shot dead or something. I didn't see or hear Leo, just Diana. I panicked. You get that, right? So I hid for a while."

  "Where?"

  "You remember that stone hut behind the town pool?"

  I nod.

  "I just sat there in the dark. I don't know how long. You can see Hobart Avenue from there. I saw big black cars driving by slowly. Maybe I was just paranoid, but I thought they were looking for me. At some point I decided to go to your house."

  This is news to me, but then again, what about tonight isn't? "You went to my house?"

  "That was my destination, yeah, but when I reached your street, I saw another big black car parked on the corner. It's past midnight. Two men are sitting in suits watching your house. So I knew. They were covering their bases." She came closer to me. "Pretend now that I call this in to the police. I call and I say I think the guys at the base maybe shot someone. I don't really have any details or anything. But I have to give my name. They'd ask what I was doing near the base. I could lie or I could say I was up there smoking a joint and drinking some Jack. By the time they'd listen to me, those guys at the base--they'd clean it up. Do you really not see this?"

  "So you just ran again," I say.

  "Yes."

  "To Ellie's."

  She nods. "At one point, I said to myself, 'Let's give it a day or two, see what happens.' Maybe they'll forget about me. But of course they don't. I'm watching from behind a rock when they interrogate my mother. And then when I see on the news that they found Leo's and Diana's bodies . . . I mean, I knew. The news didn't say anything about them being shot. They said they were hit by a train on the other side of town. So now what? What could I do? The evidence was gone. Who would ever believe me?"

  "I would have," I say. "Why didn't you come to me?"

  "Oh, Nap, are you serious?"

  "You could have told me, Maura."

  "And what would you have done? You, a hotheaded eighteen-year-old boy?" She glares at me for a moment. "If I'd told you, you'd be dead too."

  We stand there and let that truth hang in the air.

  "Come on," Maura says with a shiver. "Let's get out of here."

  Chapter Twenty-nine

  When we get back to the car, I say, "I left my car at that club."

  "I called it in," Maura says.

  "What does that mean?"

  "I called the club and gave them the make and license plate and said that I was too drunk to drive. I told them I'd pick it up tomorrow."

  She had thought of everything.

  "You can't go home, Nap."

  I hadn't planned on that anyway. She starts up the car.

  "So where are we going?" I ask.

  "I have a safe place," she says.

  "So since that night"--I don't even know how to put it--"you've been on the run?"

  "Yes."

  "So why now, Maura? Why after fifteen years is someone killing the rest of the Conspiracy Club?"

  "I don't know."

  "But you were with Rex when he was shot?"

  She nods. "I started relaxing the last three, four years. I figured, I mean, why go after me anymore? There was zero evidence. The base was long closed. No one would believe a word I said. I was low on funds and trying to find a safe way . . . a safe way to see what was happening. Anyway, I took a risk, but it was like Rex wanted to keep the past closed as much as I did. He needed help in his side business."

  "Setting up men for drunk driving."

  "He had nicer labels for it, but, yes."

  We turn off Eisenhower Parkway right near Jim Johnston's Steak House.

  "I saw some CCTV footage from the night Rex was murdered," I say.

  "The guy was a stone-cold pro."

  "And yet," I say, "you escaped."

  "Maybe."

  "Meaning?"

  "When I saw Rex go down, I figured, they found us, I'm dead. You know. I was there that night--I was the real target, I thought--but maybe they knew about the whole Conspiracy Club. It made sense. So as soon as Rex was shot, I moved fast. But the guy was already turning the gun on me. I jumped into the driver's seat, started the car, drove like a bat out of hell . . ."

  "But?"

  "But like I said. He was a pro." Maura shrugs. "So how come he didn't kill me too?"

  "You think he let you go?"

  She doesn't know. We park in the back of a dumpy no-tell in East Orange. She isn't staying there. It's an old trick, she explains. She parks at the no-tell, so if the police or whoever spot the car or start a search based on the car, she's not there. She's renting a room about a quarter mile down the road. The car is stolen, she explains. If she senses any danger, she'll just abandon it and steal another.

  "Right now I'm changing locations every two days."

  We get to her rented room and sit on the bed.

  "I want to tell you the rest," Maura says.

  As she does, I stare at her. There is no sense of deja vu. I'm not the teenager who made love with her in the woods. I try not to get lost in her eyes, but in her eyes, it's all there--the history, the what-ifs, the sliding doors. In her eyes I see you, Leo. I see the life I once knew and have always missed.

  Maura tells me about where she's been since the night you died. It is hard to hear what her life has been like, but I listen without interrupting. I don't know what I'm feeling anymore. It's like I'm one exposed nerve ending. It's three in the morning when she finishes.

  "We need some rest," she says.

  I nod. She heads into the bathroom and takes a shower. She comes out in a terry cloth robe with her hair wrapped in a towel. The moonlight hits her in just the right way, and I don't think I've ever seen a more magnificent sight. I head into the bathroom, strip down, shower. When I come out, I have a towel wrapped around my waist. The lights are out except for a low-wattage lamp on the night table. Maura stands there. The towel is gone from her wet hair. She still wears the bathrobe. She looks at me. No pretense anymore. I cross the room fast. We both know it. Neither says it. I take her in my arms and kiss her hard. She kisses me back, her tongue snaking into my mouth. She pulls the towel off me. I yank open her robe.

  This is like nothing I have ever experienced before. It is a hunger, a tearing, a ripping, a healing. It is rough and loving. It is gentle, it is harsh. It is a dance, it is an attack. It is ravenous and intense and ferocious and almost unbearably tender.

  When it's over, we collapse on the bed, staggered, shattered, like we'll never be exactly the same, and maybe we won't. Eventually she moves so as to lay her head on my chest, her hand on my stomach. We don't speak. We stare at the ceiling until our eyes close.

  My last thought before I pass out is a primitive one: Don't leave me. Don't leave me ever again.

  Chapter Thirty

  We make love again at dawn.

  Maura rolls on top of me. Our eyes meet and stay locked. It's slower this time, more soulful, comfortable, vulnerable. Later, when we are lying back and staring up into the silence, my mobile dings a text. It's from Muse and it's short: Don't forget. 9AM sharp.

  I show it to Maura. "My boss."

  "Could be a setup."

  I shake my head. "Muse told me about it before I met up with Reeves."

  I am still on my back. Maura flips around so that her chin is on my chest. "Do you think they found Andy Reeves yet?"

  It is something I've been wondering too. I know how that will play out: Someone notices the yellow car first, maybe they call the cops right then and there, maybe they search the premises. Whatever. They find the body. Did Reeves have ID on him? Probably. If not, they'll figure out his name from the car's license plate, they'll get his schedule, they'll see he worked that night at the Hunk-A-Hunk-A. A club like that will have CCTV cameras in the lot.

  I'll be on them.

  So will my car. The CCTV will show me getting into Reeves's yellow Ford Mustang with the victim.

  I'll be the last person to see him alive.

  "We can drive by the scene on the way," I say. "See if the cops are there yet."

  Maura rolls off me and stands. I'm about to do the same, but I can't help pausing in something approaching sheer awe to admire her first.

  "So why did your boss call this meeting?"

  "I'd rather not speculate," I say. "But I don't think it's good."

  "Then don't go," she says.

  "What do you suggest I do?"

  "Run away with me instead."

  That could be the greatest suggestion ever made by anyone ever. But I'm not running. Not now, anyway. I shake my head. "We need to see this through."

  Her reply is to get dressed. I do the same. We head outside. Maura leads the way back to the parking lot of the no-tell motel. We scout the area, see no nearby surveillance, and decide to risk it. We get in the same car we used last night and start toward Route 280.

  "You remember how to get there?" I ask.

  Maura nods. "The warehouse was in Irvington, not far from that graveyard off the parkway."

  She takes 280 to the Garden State Parkway and veers off at the next exit, for South Orange Avenue. We pass by an aging strip mall and turn into an industrial area that, like many such areas in New Jersey, has seen better days. Industry leaves; manufacturing plants close. That's just the way it is. Most times, progress comes in and builds something new. But sometimes, like here, the warehouses and factories are simply left to decay and disintegrate into bitter ruins that hint at past glory.

  There are no people around, no cars, no activity at all. It looks like the set from some dystopian movie after the bombs hit. We cruise past the yellow Mustang without so much as slowing down.

  No one has been here yet. We are safe. For now.

  Maura swings the car back onto the parkway. "Where is your meeting?"

  "Newark," I tell her. "But I better shower and change first."

  She gives me a crooked smile. "I think you look great."

  "I look satiated," I say. "There's a difference."

  "Fair enough."

  "The meeting will be serious." I point at my face. "So I need to figure a way to wipe this grin from my face."

  "Go ahead and try."

  We both smile like two lovestruck dopes. She puts her hand on mine and keeps it there. "So where to?" she asks.

  "The Hunk-A-Hunk-A," I say. "I'll grab my car and take it home."

  "Okay."

  We enjoy the quiet for a few moments. Then in a soft voice Maura says, "I can't tell you how many times I picked up the phone to call you."

  "So why didn't you?"

  "Where would it have led, Nap? One year later, five years later, ten years later. If I had called you and told you the truth, where would you be right now?"

  "I don't know."

  "Me neither. So I'd sit there with the phone in my hand and I'd play it all out again. If I told you, what would you do? Where would you be? I wanted to keep you safe. And if I came home and told the truth, who'd believe me? No one. If someone did--if the police took me seriously--then those guys at the base would have to silence me, right? And then I started thinking about it this way: I was alone in the woods that night. I ran away and hid for years. So maybe the guys at the base would pin Leo and Diana on me. How hard would that be to do?"

  I study her profile. Then I say, "What aren't you telling me?"

  She puts on the turn signal with a little too much care, puts her hand back on the wheel, keeps her eyes too focused on the road. "It's a little hard to explain."

  "Try."

  "I was on the road for a long time. Moving, hiding, being on edge. Pretty much my entire adult life. That's the only life I knew. That constant rush. I was so used to it, to running and hiding, I didn't get being relaxed. It wasn't my baseline. In my own way, I'd been okay like that, under threat, trying to survive. But then when I slowed down, when I could see clearly . . ."

  "What?"

  She shrugs. "It was empty. I had nothing, no one. It felt like maybe that was my fate, you know. I was okay if I kept moving--it hurt more when I thought about what could have been." Her grip on the wheel tightens. "How about you, Nap?"

  "How about me what?"

  "How has your life been?"

  I want to say, It would have been better if you stayed, but I don't. Instead I tell her to drop me off two blocks away, so I can walk to the club without anyone seeing her on CCTV. Sure, there is a chance we'll be picked up by another camera in the area, but by then, this will all be played out, whatever way it ends up going.

  Before I get out of the car, Maura again shows me the new app I should use to contact her. It's supposedly untraceable, and the messages are permanently deleted five minutes after they arrive. When she's done, she hands me the phone. I reach for the door handle. I'm about to ask her to make me a promise that she won't run, that no matter what happens, she won't just disappear on me again. But that's not me. I kiss her instead. It's a gentle kiss that lingers.

  "There are so many things I'm feeling," she says.

  "Me too."

  "And I want to feel them all. I don't want to be guarded with you."

  We both get this connection and openness, don't we? Neither one of us is a kid anymore, and I understand how this potent cocktail of lust and want and danger and nostalgia can warp your perspective. But that's not what is happening to us. I know it. She knows.

  "I'm glad you're back," I say, which may rank as the biggest understatement of my life.

  Maura kisses me again, harder this time, so that I feel it everywhere. Then she pushes me away, like that old song about the honesty being too much.

  "I'll wait for you by that office in Newark," she says.

  I get out of the car. Maura drives off. My car is where I left it. Hunk-A-Hunk-A is, of course, closed. There are two other cars in the lot, and I wonder whether they too were claimed to be the result of too much drinking. I need to fill in Augie about Maura's return and Reeves's demise.

  As I drive home, I call him on my mobile. When Augie answers, I say, "Muse wants to meet me at nine A.M."

  "What about?" Augie asks.

  "She wouldn't say. But there are some things I need to tell you first."

  "I'm listening."

  "Can you meet me at Mike's at quarter to nine?"

  Mike's is a coffee shop not far from the county prosecutor's office.

  "I'll be there."

  Augie hangs up as I pull into my driveway and park. I manage to stumble out of my car when I hear a laugh. I turn and see my neighbor Tammy Walsh.

  "Look what the cat dragged in," she says.

  I wave to her. "Hey, Tammy."

  "Long night?"

  "Just some work."

  But Tammy smiles as if it's written all over my face. "Yeah, okay, Nap."

  I can't help but smile too. "Not buying that?"

  "Not in the least," she says. "But good for you."

  "Thanks."

  Some twenty-four hours, am I right?

  I shower and try to get my head back in the game. I pretty much have the truth now, don't I? But I'm still missing something, Leo. What? Or am I overthinking it? The base was hiding a terrible secret--that it was a black site for high-value potential terrorists. Would the government kill to keep that a secret? The answer is so obvious the question is by definition rhetorical. Of course they would. So that night, something set them off. Maybe it was Maura running toward the fence. Maybe they spotted you and Diana first. Either way, they panicked.

  Shots were fired.

  You and Diana were killed. So what could Reeves and his cohorts do? They couldn't just call the cops and admit what happened. No way. That would expose the entire illegal operation. They also couldn't just make you both disappear. That would lead to too many questions. The cops--and especially Augie--wouldn't rest. No, they needed a good ol'-fashioned cover-up. Everyone knew the legend of those train tracks. I obviously don't know all the details, but my guess is they pulled the bullets from your bodies and then transported you to the tracks. The impact of the train would leave the corpses in a state where no medical examiner would find any clues.

 
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