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Dont let go, p.25
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       Don't Let Go, p.25

          Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
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There are so many people to blame. Am I one of them?

"Diana what?" Augie says.

"I'm leaving here in a few minutes," I say. "I think it's better if I tell you in person."

"It's that bad."

Augie isn't asking. He's stating.

I don't reply. I don't trust my voice.

Then Augie says, "I'll be at my place. Get here when you can."

--

When I see Augie, my heart drops.

I've been waiting here for the past hour. I'm not inexperienced enough to sit by a window like Beth. I found a spot in the living room corner. From here I can see all entryways. No one can sneak up on me.

I know the truth, but I still hope I'm wrong. I hope that I'll just waste my time, that I'll sit in this corner of the farmhouse the rest of the day and through the night, and in the morning I'll realize that I made a mistake, that I messed up someplace, that I was hopelessly albeit wonderfully wrong.

But I'm not wrong. I'm a good detective. I was schooled by the best.

Augie doesn't see me yet.

I aim my gun and flick on the light. Augie turns toward me fast. I try to tell him to freeze, but I can't say it. So I sit there, my gun pointed at him, and hope that he doesn't reach for his. He sees my face. I know. He knows.

"I got onto your dating site," I say.

"How?"

"Your email was the user ID."

He nods, still the mentor. "And the password?"

"Eleven-fourteen-eighty-four," I say. "Diana's birthday."

"Careless of me."

"I went through your communications. There was only one woman named Yvonne. Yvonne Shifrin. Her phone number was there."

"You called her?"

"I did. You only went on one date. For lunch. You were sweet, Yvonne Shifrin said, but there was too much sadness in your eyes."

"Yvonne seemed like a good woman," he says.

"Still, I called the Sea Pine Resort in Hilton Head. Just to make sure. You never booked a room there."

"I could have gotten the hotel wrong."

"You really want to go this way, Augie?"

He shook his head. "Beth told you what they did to Diana?"

"Yes."

"So you understand."

"Did you kill my brother, Augie?"

"I got justice for my daughter."

"Did you kill Leo?"

But Augie isn't going to make it that easy.

"That night I picked up chicken parm from Nellie's. Audrey had a PTA meeting, so it was just Diana and me. I could see something was bothering her. Diana was just picking at her food, and she usually scarfed down Nellie's chicken parm." He tilts his head, remembering. "So I asked her if something was wrong. She said that she wanted to break up with Leo. Just like that. We had that kind of relationship, Nap."

He looks at me. I say nothing.

"I asked Diana when she was going to do it. She said she wasn't sure, but she'd probably wait until after the dance. I . . ." He closed his eyes. "I told her it was up to her, but I didn't think that was fair to Leo. If she didn't like him anymore, she shouldn't string him along. So you see, Nap? Maybe if I had kept my mouth shut, maybe if I had minded my own business . . . I saw your brother when he arrived, all stoned, and me, like an idiot . . . oh God, why did I let her go? Every night I lie in my bed and I ask myself that. Every single night of my miserable, horrible, empty life. I lie there and I replay it and I make all kinds of deals with God about what I'd give, what I'd do, what torments I would suffer, if only we could go back to that night and I could do it over again. God is so cruel sometimes. He blessed me with the most wonderful daughter in the world. I knew that. I knew how fragile it all was. I tried so hard to balance being a strict father with giving my child enough freedom, walking that goddamn tightrope."

He stands there shaking. I keep the gun on him.

"So what did you do, Augie?"

"It was like I told you before. I went to the base on a disturbance call. Andy Reeves brought me inside. I could tell something big had gone down. Everyone was pale. So first Reeves shows me the body in the back of a truck. It's some guy they were holding there. A high-profile American, he explains. The guy had gotten past the fences. They couldn't risk him escaping. He wasn't supposed to be there, so they were going to get rid of his body, say he ran back to Iraq or something. Reeves told me all this in confidence. But I got it. State secrets. He wanted to make sure he could trust me. I said he could. And then . . . then he said he had something horrible to show me."

Augie's face starts to collapse a little at a time.

"So Reeves walks me out into the woods. Two of his men follow us. Two of his men are already there. Up ahead. He hits the flashlight and there, on the ground, naked . . ."

He looks up, and I can see the rage in his eyes.

". . . and there, next to my daughter's body, sobbing hysterically and holding her hand, is Leo. I'm staring down, completely numb, while Reeves starts explaining it to me. The prisoner in the truck escaped. They turned on the lights. The guys working the guard towers started shooting into the woods. No one is supposed to be out here. It's night. Those warning signs are all over the place. The guards kill the escapee, but accidentally, in the heat of battle, I mean, Diana was screaming like crazy and running right at them, stark naked, so one of the guards, a new guy, he panicked and pulled the trigger. It wasn't his fault, I guess. So there we are, standing there. You'd think I drop to my knees, wouldn't you? My little girl is dead on the ground, and I want to, I want to just fall onto the ground and hold her and sob for hours. But I don't."

Augie looks at me. I don't know what to say, so I don't say anything.

"Leo is still blubbering away. I ask him, calm as I can, what happened. Reeves, he signals for his men to start back to camp. Leo wipes his face with his sleeve. He tells me he and Diana were out in the woods, making out, starting to go further, you know, that kind of thing. Starting to undress. He says when the lights went on, Diana jumped up and panicked. Reeves is standing there listening. I look at him. He shakes his head. He knows what I can see on your brother's face. Leo is lying. 'We got video,' Reeves whispers to me. I help your brother stand. We go inside the base to look at the surveillance tape. First, Reeves shows me a video of your girlfriend. They got her on tape too. Reeves asks me if I know her. I'm too stunned not to answer. I say that's Maura Wells. Then he nods and shows me another tape. I see Diana. She's running and screaming. Her eyes are wide like she's terrified, and she's ripping her clothes off like she's on fire. That's how my little girl spent her last moments alive, Nap. Screaming and terrified. I actually see the bullet hit her chest. She crumples to the ground. And then coming up behind her is Leo. Reeves stops the tape. I turn to Leo. He's cringing now. I say, 'How come your clothes are still on?' He's crying. He starts making up some story about how much they both loved each other. But see, I know: Diana was going to break up with him. I get really quiet now. Like I understand him now. I'm a cop; he's a perp. I'm working him. My heart is falling apart--it's disintegrating in my chest, and I'm just like, 'It's okay, Leo,' just tell me the truth. They're going to do an autopsy. What drugs are in her system? I keep peppering him. He's a kid. It doesn't take long for Leo to crack."

"What did he tell you?"

"It was just a joke, he kept saying. He didn't mean to hurt her. Just a stupid prank. To get back at her."

"What did you do?"

"I looked back at Reeves. He nodded like we both understood each other. Because I did. This was a black site. No way the government was going to let that get out, even if it meant a few civilian deaths. He left the room. Leo was still crying. I told him not to worry, it was going to be okay. I told him what he did was wrong, but really, what would he get via the legal system? Not much. In the end, all he did was slip a girl LSD. No big deal. Unlikely worst-case scenario: They might charge him with manslaughter, go on probation. I told him all this because it was true, and as I did, I took out my gun and pressed it against his forehead and pulled the trigger."

I cringe as though I'm there, Leo, as though I am standing right next to Augie as he kills you in cold blood.

"Reeves comes back in the room. He tells me to go home, that he'll take care of it. But I don't leave. I stay with them. I find my daughter's clothes. I put them on her. I don't want her found naked. We put their bodies in the back of the pickup truck. We drive across town to the train tracks. We get ready. I'm the one who heaves Diana onto those tracks. I watch that big engine steamroll over my beautiful daughter. And I don't blink. I don't flinch. I need it to be horrible. The more horrible, the better. Then I go home. I wait for the call to come in. That's it."

I want to call him names. I want to hurt him. But it all feels so pointless, so utterly wasteful.

"You're a good interrogator," I say, "but Leo didn't tell you the whole truth, did he?"

"No," Augie says. "He protected his friends."

I nod. "I also called Westbridge Police Station. Your rookie cop Jill Stevens answered. It always bothered me that she left Hank's file on your desk and that you didn't follow up. But you did follow up, didn't you?"

"I found Hank by the basketball courts. He was pretty shook up about the whole viral-video thing. I always had a soft spot for him, so I told him he could come stay at my house for the night. We watched the Knicks game on TV. And when it was over, I made up a bed for him in the spare bedroom. He goes into the room and when he sees the photograph of Diana on the bureau, he completely loses it. He starts sobbing and crying and begging me for forgiveness. He keeps saying it was his fault and at first I don't know what to make of it, if he's just having some kind of manic episode, but then he says, 'I should have never gotten that LSD.'"

"So then you knew."

"He kinda caught himself. Like he realized he had said too much. So I had to work him. I had to work him hard. But eventually he told me about that night, about what him and Rex and Beth did. You're not a father, so I don't expect you to get it. But they all killed Diana. They all murdered my little girl. My daughter. My life. The three of them got to live another fifteen years. They got to breathe and laugh and grow into adults, while my baby, my world, rotted in the ground. Do you really not get why I did it?"

I don't want to go there. "You killed Hank first."

"Yes. I hid the body where no one would find it. But then we visited his father. I thought Tom deserved to know what happened to his son. So that's when I strung Hank up. Cut him up so it looked like it was connected to that viral video."

"And before that, you went up to Pennsylvania," I say. Augie was good, thorough. He would have gotten the lay of the land, looked into Rex's life, learned about his scam, used it. I remember Hal the bartender's description of the killer: raggedy beard, long hair, big nose. Maura, who had only met Augie briefly at Diana's last birthday party, described the killer the same way. "You wore a disguise, even changed the way you walked. But when the tapes from the rental car place were analyzed, you matched the height and weight. Also your voice."

"What about my voice?"

The door from the kitchen opens. Maura and Ellie walk through it. I didn't want them to stay, but they insisted. Ellie noted that if the two of them were men, I wouldn't insist they leave. She was right about that. So here they are now.

Maura nods at me. "Same voice."

"Maura says the guy who hit Rex was a pro," I say, because I want this to end. "Yet this pro let her escape. That was my first clue. You knew Maura had nothing to do with what happened to Diana. So you didn't kill her."

That was it. There was really nothing more to say. I could tell him about the other clues that had pointed me toward him--how Augie had known Rex was shot twice in the back of the head even though I never told him, or how Andy Reeves, when he had me strapped down, regretted killing Diana but not a word about Leo. But all of that wasn't important.

"So now what, Nap?" Augie asks.

"You're armed, I presume."

"You gave me this address," he says with a nod. "You know why I came here."

To kill Beth, the last person who had harmed his daughter.

"What I felt for you, Nap--what I feel for you--that's real. We did bond in grief--you, me, your dad. I know that makes no sense, that it almost sounds sick--"

"No, I get it."

"I love you."

My heart is breaking all over again. "And I love you."

Augie's hand starts to go into his pocket.

"Don't," I say.

"I would never shoot you," Augie says.

"I know that," I say. "But don't."

"Let me end this, Nap."

I shake my head. "No, Augie."

I cross the room now, reach into his pocket, take out his gun, and toss it to the side. Part of me doesn't want to stop him. Let it end with a nice suicide. Nice, neat, complete. Rest in peace. Some would say that I get it now, that Augie wrongly taught me to be a vigilante, that just because the legal system doesn't always deliver justice doesn't mean I should take matters into my own hands, that I was wrong to do what I did to Trey the same way Augie was wrong to do what he did to Leo and Hank and Rex. Some would think that I'm stopping him because I want to let the legal system work, that I finally understand that I need to let our laws decide these things, not the passions of certain men.

Or maybe, as I cuff him, I realize that suicide would be the easy way out, that if he killed himself, it was over for him, that forcing an old cop to rot in a prison cell with all those ghosts is a far worse fate than a quick bullet.

Does it matter which is right?

I'm heartbroken, devastated. For a moment I think about the gun in my possession and I think about how easy it would be to join you, Leo. But I only think about it for a moment.

Ellie has already called the police. As they take Augie away, he looks back at me. Maybe he wants to say something, but I don't want to hear it, can't bear to hear it. I've lost Augie. No words will change that. I turn away and walk out the back door.

Maura is standing there, looking off into the fields. I come up behind her.

"There's one more thing I need to tell you," she says.

"It's not important," I say.

"I met up with Diana and Ellie at the school library earlier that day."

I know, of course. Ellie had already told me.

"Diana said she was going to break up with Leo after the dance. I shouldn't have said anything. What was the big deal? I should have kept it to myself."

I had already figured this part out. "You told Leo."

That was how you knew, Leo, wasn't it?

"He got so angry. He talked about getting her back. But I wanted no part of it."

"Which is why you ended up in the woods all alone," I say.

"If I hadn't said anything to him . . . none of this would have happened. It's my fault."

"No," I say, "it's not."

And I mean it. I pull her close and kiss her. We could go on and on with this blame game, Leo, couldn't we? It's her fault because she told you Diana wanted to break up with you, it's my fault because I wasn't there for you, it's Augie's, it's Hank's, it's Rex's, it's Beth's, hell, it's the president of the United States's fault for approving that black site.

But you know what, Leo? I don't care anymore. I'm not really talking to you. You're dead. I love you and I will always miss you, but you've been dead for fifteen years. That's a long enough time to mourn, don't you think? So I'm going to let you go now and grab on to something more substantial. I know the truth now. And maybe, as I gaze upon this strong, beautiful woman in my arms, the truth has finally set me free.





ACKNOWLEDGMENTS


If you read the opening author note, you know I went back to my childhood. The reminiscences on the Livingston--60s and 70s Facebook page were invaluable, but I especially need to thank Don Bender, a patient man and an expert on all things involving New Jersey's old missile sites. Other people to thank, in no particular order: Anne-Sophie Brieux, Anne Armstrong-Coben, MD, Roger Hanos, Linda Fairstein, Christine Ball, Jamie Knapp, Carrie Swetonic, Diane Discepolo, Lisa Erbach Vance, John Parsley, and a few people I'm forgetting, but because they are generous and wonderful, they'll forgive me.

I also want to acknowledge Franco Cadeddu, Simon Fraser, Ann Hannon, Jeff Kaufman, Beth Lashley, Cory Mistysyn, Andy Reeves, Yvonne Shifrin, Marsha Stein, and Tom Stroud. These people (or their loved ones) made generous contributions to charities of my choosing in return for having their names appear in the novel. If you would like to participate in the future, visit www.HarlanCoben.com for details.





ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Harlan Coben is the internationally bestselling author of more than twenty previous novels, including the #1 New York Times bestsellers Home, Fool Me Once, The Stranger, Missing You, Six Years, Stay Close, Live Wire, Caught, Long Lost, and Hold Tight, as well as the Myron Bolitar series and, more recently, a series aimed at young adults featuring Myron's nephew, Mickey Bolitar. The winner of the Edgar, Shamus, and Anthony Awards, he lives in New Jersey.





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Harlan Coben, Don't Let Go
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