Dont let go, p.23
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       Don't Let Go, p.23

          
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  That makes total sense. I have all my answers now, don't I?

  Except.

  Except fifteen years later, Rex and Hank are murdered.

  How does that fit in?

  Only two members of the Conspiracy Club are left alive now. Beth, who is hiding. And Maura.

  So what does that mean? Don't know, but maybe Augie will have a thought.

  Mike's Coffee Shop & Pizzeria somehow manages to look like neither a coffee shop nor a pizzeria. It's in the heart of Newark, on the corner of Broad and William, with a big red awning. Augie sits by the window. He's staring at a guy who is eating pizza before nine in the morning. The slice is so obscenely enormous it makes his full-sized paper plate look like a cocktail napkin. Augie is about to crack wise about that when he sees my face and stops.

  "What happened?"

  There is no reason to sugarcoat any of this. "Leo and Diana weren't killed by a train," I say. "They were shot."

  To his credit, Augie doesn't start with the "What?" "How can you say that?" "There were no bullets found" standard-issue denials. He knows I wouldn't just say something like that.

  "Tell me."

  I do just that. I tell him about Andy Reeves first. I can see he wants to stop me, wants to argue that none of this means Reeves or his men killed Diana and Leo, that he was waterboarding me because he still wanted to protect the secrecy around that black site. But he doesn't interrupt. Again, he knows me well enough.

  Then I get to Maura rescuing me. I skip how Reeves dies for now. I trust Augie with my life, but there is no reason to put him in a spot where he may have to testify to what I'm saying here. Simply put, if I don't say Maura shot Reeves, then Augie can't testify to that if he's under oath.

  I keep going. I can see my words are landing on my old mentor like body blows. I want to pause, give him time to breathe and recover, but I know that it will only make it worse and that it would not be what he wants. So I just keep the onslaught going.

  I tell Augie about the scream Maura heard.

  I tell Augie about the gunfire and then the silence.

  Augie sits back when I'm done. He looks out the window and blinks twice.

  "So now we know," he says.

  I don't say anything. We both sit there. Now that we know the truth, we are waiting for something to feel different. But that guy is still eating his enormous slice of pizza. Cars are still cruising down Broad Street. People are still going to work. Nothing has changed.

  You and Diana are both still dead.

  "Is it over?" Augie asks.

  "Is what over?"

  He spreads his arms wide as if to indicate everything.

  "It doesn't feel over," I say.

  "Meaning?"

  "There has to be justice for Leo and Diana."

  "I thought you said he was dead."

  He. Augie doesn't use Andy Reeves's name. Just in case.

  "There were other people at the base that night."

  "And you want to catch them all."

  "Don't you?"

  Augie turns away.

  "Someone pulled the trigger," I say. "Probably not Reeves. Someone picked them up and put them in, I don't know, a car or a truck. Someone pulled the bullets out of their bodies. Someone tossed your daughter's body onto a railroad track and . . ."

  Augie is wincing, his eyes closed.

  "You were indeed a great mentor, Augie. Which is why I can't move on. You were the one who railed against injustice. You, more than anyone I ever knew, insisted on making sure the bad guys paid a price for what they did. You taught me that if we don't get justice--if no one is punished--we never have balance."

  "You punished Andy Reeves," he says.

  "That's not enough."

  I lean forward now. I had seen Augie knock heads too many times to count. He was the one who helped me take care of my first "Trey," a subhuman slither of scrotum whom I had arrested for sexually assaulting a six-year-old girl, his girlfriend's daughter. It got kicked on a technicality, and he was heading back home--back to that little girl. So Augie and I, we stopped him.

  "What aren't you telling me, Augie?"

  He drops his head into both hands.

  "Augie?"

  He rubs his face. When he faces me again, his eyes are red. "You said Maura blames herself for running toward that fence."

  "In part, yes."

  "She even said maybe it was her fault."

  "But it's not."

  "But she feels that way, right? Because maybe if she didn't get stoned and run like that . . . that's what she said, right?"

  "What's your point?" I ask.

  "Do you want to punish Maura?"

  I meet his eyes. "What the hell is going on, Augie?"

  "Do you?"

  "Of course not."

  "Even though she might in part be responsible?"

  "She isn't."

  He leans back. "Maura told you about the big bright lights. All that noise. Made you wonder why no one called it in, right?"

  "Right."

  "I mean, you know that area. The Meyers lived close by that base. On that cul-de-sac. So did the Carlinos and the Brannums."

  "Wait." I see it now. "You guys got a call?"

  He looks off. "Dodi Meyer. She said there was something going on at the base. She told us about the lights. She thought . . . she thought maybe some kids broke in and turned on the floodlights and set off firecrackers."

  I feel a small stone form in my chest. "So what did you do, Augie?"

  "I was in my office. The dispatcher asked me if I wanted to take the call. It was late. The other patrol car was handling a domestic disturbance. So I said yes."

  "What happened?"

  "The lights were out by the time I got there. I noticed . . . I noticed a pickup truck by the gate. It was ready to pull out. There was a tarp over the back. I rang the bell at the fence. Andy Reeves came out. It was late at night, but I didn't question why so many people were still at a Department of Agriculture compound. What you said about a black site, that doesn't surprise me. I didn't know exactly what was going on, but I still foolishly trusted my government back then to be doing the right thing. So Andy Reeves comes to the gate. I tell him about us getting a disturbance call."

  "What does he say?"

  "That a deer jumped into the fence. That's what set off the alarms and lights. He said one of his guards panicked and started shooting. That was the gunfire. He said the guard killed the deer. He pointed to that tarp in the back of the pickup."

  "Did you buy that?"

  "I don't know. Not really. But the place was classified government stuff. So I let it go."

  "What did you do next?"

  His voice is coming from a million miles away now. "I went home. My shift was over. I got into bed, and a few hours later . . ." He shrugs away the rest of the thought, but I'm not ready to let it go.

  "You got the call about Diana and Leo."

  Augie nods. His eyes are wet now.

  "And you didn't see a connection?"

  He thinks about that. "Maybe I didn't want to see one. That way, like I asked you with Maura, it wasn't my fault. Maybe I was just trying to justify my own mistake, but I never saw much of a link."

  My phone goes off. I see the time is 9:10 A.M., even before I read Muse's text: Where the F are you??!!

  I text back: There in a minute.

  I rise. His eyes are on the floor.

  "You're late for your meeting," he says without looking up. "Go."

  I hesitate. In a way, all this explains so much--Augie's reticence over the years, his insistence that it was just two stoned kids doing something stupid, his disconnect. His mind wouldn't let him link the murder of his own daughter to his visit that night to the base because then he'd have to live with the additional guilt of maybe not doing anything about it. As I turn and head for the exit, I wonder about that now. I wonder about dropping this all on him, shattering him anew, whether every night from now on, as he closes his eyes, he's going to see that tarp over the back of a pickup truck and wonder what was underneath it. Or has he already been doing that in some subconscious way? Is the reason he so easily accepted the more obvious explanation for his daughter's death because he couldn't face his own small role in what happened?

  My phone rings. It's Muse. "I'm almost there," I tell her.

  "What the hell have you done?"

  "Why, what's up?"

  "Just hurry up."

  Chapter Thirty-one

  The Essex County Prosecutor's Office is located on Market Street in the simply dubbed Veterans Courthouse. I work here, so I know the building well. This place is always humming--more than a third of the entire state's criminal cases are tried here. As I head inside, I hear an unfamiliar ding coming from my phone and I realize it's that new app Maura installed. I read the message from her: Drove by again. Cops found yellow Mustang.

  This isn't good, of course, but it would still be a while before the course of events I laid out earlier would lead them to me. I have time. Probably. I type back: Okay. Heading into meeting now.

  Loren Muse is waiting for me at the door, staring daggers. She is a short woman, and she is flanked on both sides by tall men in suits. The younger of the two is thin and wiry, with hard eyes. The older guy sports a halo of too-long hair circling his bald dome. His protruding gut is giving his shirt buttons a hell of a battle. When we step into the outer office, the older guy says, "I'm Special Agent Rockdale. This is Special Agent Krueger."

  FBI. We shake hands. Krueger, of course, tries to give me the dominant squeeze. I frown at him.

  With that done, Rockdale turns to Muse and says, "Thank you for your cooperation, ma'am. We would be grateful if you could leave us now."

  Muse doesn't like that. "Leave?"

  "Yes, ma'am."

  "This is my office."

  "And the bureau appreciates your cooperation in this manner, but we really need to speak to Detective Dumas alone."

  "No," I say.

  They turn to me. "Pardon?"

  "I would like Prosecutor Muse to attend any questioning."

  "You're not suspected of any crime," he says.

  "I still want her here."

  Rockdale turns back to Muse.

  Muse says, "You heard the man."

  "Ma'am--"

  "Stop calling me ma'am--"

  "Prosecutor Muse, my apologies. You received a call from your superior, did you not?"

  Through gritted teeth, Muse replies, "I did, yes."

  Her superior, I know, is the governor of the state of New Jersey.

  "And he did ask that you cooperate and give us jurisdiction on this matter of great national security, did he not?"

  My phone vibrates. I sneak a quick peek, and I'm surprised to see it's from Tammy.

  Van of guys searching your house. Wearing FBI windbreakers.

  I'm not surprised. They're looking for the original tape. They won't find it in my house. I buried it--where else?--in the woods near the old base.

  "The governor did contact me," Muse continues, "but Detective Dumas has now requested counsel--"

  "Irrelevant."

  "Sorry?"

  "This is a matter of national security. What we are about to discuss is highly classified."

  Muse looks at me. "Nap?"

  I think about it. I think about the issues Augie had raised, about what we should keep secret, about who is to blame for what happened to Leo and how I can get to the bottom of it and end this once and for all.

  We are standing in the doorway. Muse's support staff of four are all pretending not to be listening. I look at the two agents. Rockdale is giving me flat eyes. Krueger is clenching and unclenching his fists, glaring at me like I just dropped out of a dog's behind.

  I've had it.

  So I turn to Muse and say loud enough so that her support staff can hear, "Fifteen years ago, the old Nike control base in Westbridge was an illegal black site incarcerating and interrogating American citizens suspected of colluding with terrorist entities. A bunch of high school kids, including my dead twin brother, taped a Black Hawk helicopter landing there at night. They want the tape from me." I gesture toward the two agents. "Their colleagues are, in fact, searching my house right now. It's not there, by the way."

  Krueger's eyes go wide in shock and anger. He jumps toward me, his hand darting out to throttle me. You need to understand, Leo. I'm good with my fists. I've trained hard, and I'm athletic enough. But I imagine, under normal circumstances, this guy is more than up to the task of taking me down. So how to explain what comes next? How to explain that I move fast enough to parry his attack with a forearm? Simple.

  He is going for the throat.

  The part of me that lets me breathe.

  And after last night, after being strapped to the table, something primitive in me will not let that happen. Something both instinctive and maybe supernatural will protect that part of my anatomy no matter what.

  The problem is, blocking a blow never ends it. You have to deliver one of your own. I use the heel of my palm to strike his solar plexus. It lands flush. Krueger drops to one knee, the wind knocked out of him. I jump back now, fists raised, in case the other guy wants to join in. He doesn't. He stares at his fallen comrade in shock.

  "You just struck a federal officer," Rockdale says to me.

  "In self-defense!" Muse shouts. "What the hell is wrong with you guys?"

  He gets in her face. "Your man just spouted out classified information, which is illegal, especially when it's a lie."

  "How can it be classified," Muse shouts back, "if it's a lie?"

  My phone buzzes again, and when I see the message from Ellie, I know I have to get out of here pronto: FOUND BETH.

  "Look," I say, "I'm sorry, okay, let's just all go inside and straighten this out." I go to help Krueger up. He doesn't like it, pushes my hand away, but there is no more fight in him for now. I keep acting all Mr. Peaceful as we head into Muse's office. I have a plan, a ridiculously simple plan, but sometimes those are the best. Once we settle down, once everyone is seated, I stand and say, "I, uh, need two minutes."

  Muse says, "What's wrong?"

  "Nothing." I try to look a little embarrassed. "I need the bathroom. I'll be right back."

  I don't really wait for permission. I'm an adult, right? I head out of Muse's office and down the corridor. No one is following me. Up ahead is the men's room door. I walk past it and hit the staircase. I run down the steps to the ground floor, where I slow into a sort of walk-run.

  Less than sixty seconds after leaving Muse's office, I am outside and putting distance between myself and those federal agents.

  I call Ellie. "Where's Beth?" I ask.

  "On her parents' farm in Far Hills. At least I think it's her. Where are you?"

  "Newark."

  "I'll text you the address. The ride should take less than an hour."

  I hang up. I'm moving fast down Market Street. I turn onto University Avenue and use that new app to call Maura. I worry now that she won't answer, that she's vanished back into the ether, but she picks up right away.

  "What's up?" Maura asks.

  "Where are you?"

  "Double-parked in front of the prosecutor's office on Market Street."

  "Head east and make a right on University Avenue. We need to visit an old friend."

  Chapter Thirty-two

  Once Maura picks me up, I text Muse:

  Sorry. I'll explain later.

  "So where are we going?" Maura asks.

  "To visit Beth."

  "You found her?"

  "Ellie did."

  I put the address Ellie texted me into my navigation app. It tells us the ride will take thirty-eight minutes. We start making our way out of the city and onto Route 78 heading west.

  "Do you have a theory on how Beth Lashley fits into all this?" Maura asks.

  "They were also there that night." I say. "By the base. Rex, Hank, Beth."

  Maura nods. "Makes sense. So we all had a reason to run away."

  "Except the others didn't. At least not at first. They finished high school. They went to college. Two of them, Rex and Beth, didn't come back. They weren't exactly hiding, but I think it's clear they wanted no part of Westbridge. Hank, well, he was different. He would walk every day from the old base all the way across town to the railroad tracks. Like he was checking the route. Like he was trying to figure out how Leo and Diana ended up there. I think I get that now. He last saw them get shot by the base, like you."

  "I didn't exactly see them get shot."

  "I know. But let's say the Conspiracy Club were all there except for you--Leo, Diana, Hank, Beth, Rex. Let's say they saw those spotlights and heard that gunfire and all ran. Maybe Hank and the others saw Leo and Diana get shot. Like you, they're scared out of their minds. The next day, they find out the bodies were found all the way across town on the railroad tracks. That must have confused the hell out of them."

  Maura nods. "They probably would have guessed that the guys from the base moved them."

  "Right."

  "But they stayed in town." Maura veers the car onto the highway. "So we have to assume that Reeves and the guys at the base didn't know about Hank, Rex, and Beth. Maybe only Leo and Diana got close enough to the fence."

  That makes sense. "And my guess is, judging by Reeves's reaction, he didn't know about the tape either."

  "So they thought I was the only living witness," she says, "until recently."

  "Right."

  "So what gave them away now? It's been fifteen years."

  I think hard about this, and a possible answer comes to me. Looking out of the corners of her eyes, Maura sees it. "What?"

  "The viral video."

  "What viral video?"

  "Hank supposedly exposing himself."

  I explain to her about the video of Hank, about how it'd gone viral, how most people thought his murder was some kind of act of vigilantism. When I finish, Maura says, "So you think, what, someone from the base saw the video and maybe recognized Hank from that night?"

  I shake my head. "That doesn't make much sense, does it? If they'd seen Hank that night--"

  "They would have identified him earlier."

  We're still missing something, but I can't help but think it has something to do with that viral video. For fifteen years, the three of them are safe. Then that video of Hank on school grounds goes viral.

  It's related.

  A brown sign featuring a red-clad equestrian reads WELCOME TO FAR HILLS. This isn't farm country. Not really. This part of Somerset County is for the wealthy rural set, those who want a huge home on a large plot with nary a neighbor in sight. I know a philanthropist out here who has a three-hole golf course on his land. I know other guys who own horses or grow apples for cider or do some other form of what one might label gentlemen's farming.

 
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