Dont let go, p.4
Don't Let Go, p.4
"And you have," I remind him. "Did they come in together?"
"Who came in first?" Reynolds asks.
"The geezer did." Hal gestures toward me. "Sat right where you are now."
"What did he look like?" I ask.
"Midsixties, long hair, raggedy beard, big nose. Looked like a guy who rode a hog, but he was dressed in a gray suit, white shirt, blue tie."
"He you remember," I say.
"He you remember. But her?"
"If you saw the way she wore that black dress, you wouldn't remember much else either."
"So he's sitting here alone drinking," Reynolds says, getting us back on track. "How long before the woman came in?"
"I don't know. Twenty, thirty minutes."
"Then she comes in and . . . ?"
"She makes an entrance, you know what I'm saying?"
"We do," I say.
"She goes right over to him." Hal says this wide-eyed, as though he's describing a UFO landing. "Starts hitting on the guy."
"Any chance they knew each other before?"
"Don't think so. Not the vibe I got."
"What vibe did you get?"
Hal shrugs. "Figured that she was a pro. That was my take, you want to know the truth."
"You get a lot of pros in here?" I ask.
Hal gets wary. Reynolds says, "We don't give a shit about solicitation, Hal. This is a cop killing."
"Sometimes, yeah. I mean, there are two strip clubs within a mile. Sometimes the girls from there want to do a little business off-site."
I look at Reynolds, but she's already nodding in my direction. "I got Bates working that angle."
"You ever see her in here before?" I ask.
Hal spreads his hands. "How many times I gotta tell you?"
"Hot," I say for him. I am good at denial. This "hot" might not be Maura, though, uh, the description, vague as it is, does indeed fit.
"Those other two times," I continue, "she leave with guys?"
I picture it. Three times at this dump. Three times leaving with guys. Maura. I swallow back the ache.
Hal rubs his chin. "Come to think of it, she might not be a pro."
"What makes you say that?"
"Not the type."
"What's the type?"
"It's like that judge said about porn: You know it when you see it. I mean, she could be. Probably is. But it could be something else. She could just be a freak, you know? We get these MILFs that come in sometimes, happily married, three kids at home. They come in here and they bed guys and, I don't know. Freaks. Maybe she's one of those."
Reynolds taps her foot. She brought me here for a specific reason, and it isn't to follow this line of questioning.
Enough putting it off. I nod at her. It's time.
"Okay," Reynolds says to Hal. "Show him the videotape."
The TV is an old console. Hal has it propped up on the bar. There are two customers at the bar now, but both seem enamored of the glasses in front of them and nothing else. Hal hits the switch. The screen comes alive, first as a blue dot and then, thirty seconds later, as angry static.
Hal checks the back of the TV. "Cord's loose," he says. He jams it back in. The other end of the fraying cord is plugged into a Zenith VCR player. The door is broken, so I can look into the slot and see the old cassette.
The play button descends with an audible click. The video quality sucks--yellow, filmy, unfocused. The camera is set up high above the parking lot so as to cover everything, and yet because of that, it pretty much covers nothing. I can make out car types maybe and some colors, but there's no way to read license plates.
"Boss just tapes over and over until the tape rips," Hal explains.
I know the deal. Insurance company probably requires a CCTV presence, so the boss complies in the cheapest way possible. The tape trudges forward. Reynolds points to a car on the upper right. "We think that's the rental."
I nod. "Can we hit the fast-forward?"
Hal does so. It speeds up old-school, so you can see everything happening faster. He releases the button when two people exit. Their backs are toward us. They are at a distance, shot from behind, blurry with the camera set too far away.
But then I see the woman walk.
Time stops. There is a slow, steady tick-tick-ticking in my chest. Then I can feel the ka-boom right as my heart explodes into a million pieces.
I remember the first time I saw that walk. There was a song Dad loved by Alejandro Escovedo called "Castanets." Do you remember it, Leo? Of course you do. There's that line where he sings about this impossibly sexy woman: "I like her better when she walks away." I never concurred--I preferred when Maura walked right toward me, shoulders back, eyes boring into me--but boy, did I get it.
Senior year, the Dumas twins both fell in love. I introduced you to Diana Styles, Augie and Audrey's daughter, and a week later, you hooked me up with Maura Wells. Even in this--dating, girls, falling in love--we had to be in sync, right, Leo? Maura was the beautiful outsider who hung with your geek squad. Diana was the good-girl cheerleader and student council vice president. Her father, Augie, was captain of the police and my football coach. I remember him making a joke at practice about his daughter dating the "better Dumas."
At least, I think it was a joke.
Dumb, I know, but I still wonder about the what-ifs. We never talked specifics about life after high school, did we? Would you and I have gone to the same college? Would I have stayed with Maura? Would you and Diana . . . ?
Reynolds says, "Well?"
"That's Maura," I say.
I don't bother replying. I'm still watching the tape. The gray-haired guy opens the car door, and Maura slips into the passenger seat. I watch him circle back around and get into the driver's seat. The car reverses out of the spot and starts cruising toward the exit. I watch carefully until the car is gone from view.
"How much did they drink?" I ask Hal.
Hal is wary again.
Reynolds reminds him of the severity in the same way: "We don't give a crap about overserving, Hal. This is a cop killing."
"Yeah, they were drinking pretty good."
I think about it, try to get it to make sense.
"Oh, one other thing," Hal says. "Her name wasn't Maura. I mean, that's not the name she used."
"What name did she use?" Reynolds asks.
Reynolds looks at me with a concern I find oddly touching. "You okay?"
I know what she's thinking. My great love, whom I've spent the past fifteen years obsessing over, was hanging out in this toilet, using a fake name, leaving with strange men. The stench of this place is starting to get to me. I stand, thank Hal, and hurry to the front door. I open it and step into the same lot I just saw on the video. I gulp some fresh air. But that's not why I'm here.
I look toward where the rental car had been parked.
Reynolds comes up behind me. "Thoughts?"
"The guy opened the car door for her."
"He didn't stagger. Didn't fumble with his keys. Didn't forget his manners."
"And again I say: So?"
"Did you watch him drive out of here?"
"No swerving, no quick stops or starts."
I start walking down the road.
"Where are you going?" she asks.
I keep walking. Reynolds follows. "How far is the turn?"
She hesitates because I think she now sees where I'm going with this. "Second right."
That's about what I'd figured. The entire walk from the bar to the murder scene takes us less than five minutes. When I get to it, I look back at the bar and then down to the spot where Rex fell.
It isn't making sense. Not yet. But I'm getting closer.
"Rex pulled them over awfully fast," I say.
"He was probably staking out the bar."
"I bet if we watch that video we'll see a lot of drunker guys stumbling out," I say. "So why them?"
Reynolds shrugs. "Maybe the rest were local. This guy had a rental plate."
"Nail the out-of-towner?"
"Who happens to be driving in a car with a girl Rex knew in high school?"
The wind has picked up. A few strands of hair get in Reynolds's face. She pushes them away. "I've seen bigger coincidences."
"So have I," I say.
But this isn't one of them. I try to picture it. I start with what I know--Maura and the old man in the bar, coming out, he holds the door for her, they drive off, Rex pulls them over.
"I need you to look something up for me," I say.
The security feed at Sal's Rent-A-Vehicle is of better quality. I watch the video in silence. As is too often the case with security footage, this camera is also set up high. Every bad guy knows about this, and so they do the simple things to beat it. Here, the guy with the stolen ID in the name of Dale Miller is wearing a baseball cap pulled low. He keeps his head down so that it's impossible to see his features with any sort of clarity. I can maybe make out the start of a beard. He limps.
"A pro," I tell Reynolds.
"Cap pulled low, head down, fake limp."
"How do you know the limp is fake?"
"The same way I knew Maura's walk. A walk can be distinctive. What's the best way to hide that and get you to focus on something meaningless?"
"Fake a limp," Reynolds says.
We head outside Sal's shack of a rental office and into the cool night air. In the distance, I see a man light up a cigarette. He lifts his head and breathes out a long smoke plume, just like Dad used to do. I took up smoking after Dad died and kept at it for more than a year. I know how nuts that is. Dad died of lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking, and yet my reaction to his horrible death was to smoke. I liked stepping outside alone with a cigarette like this guy is doing. Maybe that was the appeal for me--when I lit up, people stayed away from me.
"We can't rely on the age thing either," I say. "The long hair, the beard--he could be wearing a disguise. Lots of times a guy will pretend to be old so you underestimate him. Rex pulls over an old man for a DUI, he may let his guard down."
Reynolds nods. "I'll still have an expert comb through the surveillance tape frame by frame. Maybe they'll get something more distinct."
"You have a theory, Nap?"
I watch the guy take a deep drag and let it out through his nose. I'm a Francophile now--wine, cheese, fluency in the language, the whole kit 'n' caboodle, which may also explain my short-lived smoking. The French smoke. A lot. Of course, I came by my Francophilism, to invent a word, honestly, what with being born in Marseilles and spending the first eight years of my life in Lyon. It isn't a show thing for me like it is with those pretentious twat waffles who know nothing about wine but suddenly need a special carrying case and treat the pulled cork like a lover's tongue.
"Do you believe in hunches, Reynolds? Do you believe in cop intuition?"
"Fuck no," Reynolds says. "Every stupid mistake I've seen a cop make stems from their reliance on"--she makes quote marks with her fingers--"'hunches' and 'intuition.'"
I like Reynolds. I like her a lot. "Exactly my point."
It's been a long day. It feels like I whacked Trey with the bat a month ago. I've been working off adrenaline, and now I'm tapped out. But like I said before, I like Reynolds. Maybe I owe her too. So I figure, why not?
"I had a twin brother. His name was Leo."
"You know anything about this?" I ask.
"No; should I?"
I shake my head. "Leo had this girlfriend named Diana Styles. We all grew up in Westbridge, where you picked me up."
"Nice town," Reynolds says.
"It is, yeah." I don't know how to tell this. It makes no sense, so I just keep rambling. "So our senior year, my brother, Leo, is dating Diana. One night, they go out. I'm not around. I have a hockey game in another town. We were playing Parsippany Hills. Funny what you remember. I had two goals and two assists."
I half smile at my old life. If I close my eyes, I can still recall every moment of that game. My second goal was the game winner. Shorthanded. I stole the puck right before the blue line, flew down the left side, juked the goalie, lifted the backhander over his shoulder. Life before, life after.
An airport shuttle van marked with the words "Sal's Rent-A-Vehicle" pulls up to the front of the little hut. Weary travelers--everyone looks weary when they're renting a car--fall out and get in line.
"So you had a hockey game in another town," Reynolds prompted.
"And that night, Leo and Diana were hit by a train. They died instantly."
Reynolds's hand goes to her mouth. "I'm so sorry."
I say nothing.
"Was it an accident? Suicide?"
I shrug. "No one knows. Or at least I don't."
The last guy off the shuttle is an overweight businessman dragging an oversized suitcase with a broken wheel. His face is neon red from exertion.
"Was there an official finding?" Reynolds asks.
"Accidental deaths," I say. "Two high school kids, plenty of booze in their system, some drugs too. People used to walk on those railroad tracks, sometimes doing stupid dares. Another kid died up there in the seventies trying to jump the track. Anyway, the entire school freaked out, went into mourning. The deaths got plenty of sanctimonious media coverage as a warning to others: young, attractive, drugs, drinking, what is wrong with our society, you know the deal."
"I do," Reynolds says. Then: "You said senior year."
"That was when you were dating Maura Wells."
"So when exactly did Maura run off?"
I nod again. Reynolds gets it.
"Shit," she says. "How soon after?"
"A few days later. Her mother claimed I was a bad influence. She wanted her daughter out of this terrible town with teens who got stoned and drunk and walked in front of trains. Maura supposedly transferred to a boarding school."
"Happens," Reynolds says.
"But you didn't buy it?"
"Where was Maura the night your brother and his girlfriend died?"
"I don't know."
Reynolds sees it now. "That's why you're still searching for her. It's not just her spellbinding cleavage."
"Though we shouldn't just discount that."
"Men," Reynolds says. She moves toward me. "You think--what?--Maura knows something about your brother's death?"
I say nothing.
"Why do you think that, Nap?"
I make quote marks with my fingers. "'Hunch,'" I say. "'Intuition.'"
I have a life and a job, so I get a car service to drive me home.
Ellie calls me and asks for an update, but I tell her it can wait. We plan a breakfast at the Armstrong Diner for the morning. I turn off my phone, close my eyes, and sleep the rest of the ride. I pay the driver and offer to add more so he can find a motel for the night.
"Nah, I gotta get back," the driver tells me.
I overtip. For a cop, I'm fairly rich. Why wouldn't I be? I'm Dad's sole heir. Some people claim that money is the root of all evil. Could be. Others say that money can't buy you happiness. That may be true. But if you handle it right, money buys you freedom and time, and those are a lot more tangible than happiness.
It's past midnight, but I still get in my car and head to Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville. I flash my ID and find Trey's floor. I peek in his room. Trey is asleep, his leg in the air wrapped in an enormous cast. No visitors. I flash my ID at a nurse and tell her I'm investigating his assault. She tells me that Trey won't be walking on his own for at least six months. I thank her and leave.
I go home to the empty house, get in bed, stare at the ceiling. Sometimes I forget how odd it is for a single guy to be living in a house in this kind of neighborhood, but I'm used to it by now. I think about how that night started with such promise. I'd come home from that win against Parsippany Hills so fired up. Ivy League scouts were there that night. Two made me offers on the spot. I couldn't wait to tell you about it, Leo. I sat in the kitchen with Dad and waited for you to get home. Good news was never yet good news until I shared it with you. So Dad and I talked and waited, but we were both listening with half an ear for your car to pull into the driveway. Most kids in town had a curfew, but Dad never gave us one. Some parents in town saw that as lazy parenting, but Dad shrugged and said he trusted us.
So you didn't come home at ten, Leo, or eleven or midnight. And when a car finally did pull into the driveway at nearly 2:00 A.M., I ran to the door.
Only it wasn't you, of course. It was Augie in a squad car.
I wake up the next morning and take a long, hot shower. I try to keep my mind clear for now. No new facts had come in overnight on Rex, and I don't want to waste more time on speculation. I get in the car and head to the Armstrong Diner. If you want to know the best diners in town, always ask a cop. The Armstrong is a hybrid of sorts. The physical is pure New Jersey diner retro--a chrome-and-neon exterior, big red letters spelling out DINER on the roof, a soda-fountain bar with handwritten specials on a board, faux leather booths. The cuisine, however, is hip and socially conscious. The coffee is referred to as "fair trade." The food is "farm to table," though when you order eggs, I'm not sure what other route they'd go.
Ellie is waiting for me at the corner table. No matter what time I tell her, she is always there first. I slide in across from her.
"Good morning!" Ellie says with her customary over-the-top cheer.
I wince. She loves that.
Ellie slides one foot under her butt to sit up a little higher. She is coiled energy. Ellie looks like she's moving even when she's sitting still. I've never taken her pulse, but I bet her resting heart rate is over a hundred.
"Who should we start with?" Ellie asks. "Rex or Trey?"
Ellie frowns at me. "Trey."
My face is blank.
"Trey is Brenda's abusive boyfriend."
"Oh, right. What about him?"
"Someone attacked him with a baseball bat. He won't be able to walk for a long time."
Don't Let Go by Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes