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Dont let go, p.5
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       Don't Let Go, p.5

          Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
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"Ah, that's a shame," I say.

"Yeah, I can see you're crushed."

I almost say, Crushed like Trey's leg, but I hold back.

"On the positive side," Ellie continues, "Brenda was able to go back to his place. She got her stuff and the kids' stuff and she was finally able to sleep. So we are all grateful for that."

Ellie looks at me a second too long.

I nod. Then I say, "Rex."

"What?"

"You asked if I wanted to start with Rex or Trey."

"We covered Trey," she says.

Now I look at her. "So we're done talking about him?"

"We are."

"Good," I say.

Bunny, the old-school server with a pencil in her overbleached hair, comes over and pours the fair-trade coffee.

"Usuals, hons?" Bunny asks.

I nod. So does Ellie. We come here a lot. Most of the time, we get the broken-yolk sandwiches. Ellie prefers the "simple"--two runny eggs on sourdough with white cheddar and avocado. I go for the same but also with bacon.

"So tell me about Rex," Ellie says.

"They found fingerprints at the murder scene," I say. "They belong to Maura."

Ellie's eyes blink to wide. I have had my share of bad breaks in life, I guess. I have no family, no girlfriend, no good prospects, not a lot of friends. But this magnificent person, this woman whose pure goodness is so blindingly obvious in the darkest of nights, is my best friend. Think about that. Ellie chose me for that role--best friend--and that means, no matter how much of a mess I may be, I do some things right.

I tell her everything.

When I get to the part about Maura with the guys in the bar, Ellie's face crumples. "Ah, Nap."

"I'm fine with it."

She gives me the look of skepticism I normally deserve.

"I don't think she was hooking or picking up men," I say.

"What, then?"

"Might be worse in some ways."

"How?"

I shake it off. It makes no sense to speculate until Reynolds gets back to me with the information.

"When we spoke yesterday," Ellie says, "you knew about Maura's fingerprints, didn't you?"

I nod.

"I could hear it in your voice. I mean, one of our old high school friends dying, sure, that's big, but you sounded . . . anyway, I took a little initiative." Ellie reaches down into a pocketbook the size of an army duffel and pulls out a large book. "I found something."

"What is that?"

"Your high school yearbook."

She drops it on the Formica table.

"You ordered one in the beginning of our senior year, but you never picked it up, for obvious reasons. So I held on to it for you."

"For fifteen years?" I ask.

Now it's Ellie's turn to shrug. "I was head of the yearbook committee."

"Of course you were."

High School Ellie was prim and proper and wore sweaters and pearls. She was our class valedictorian, that girl who always whined she was going to fail a test and then she would be first to finish, with a straight A, and spend the rest of class doing her homework. She carried several perfectly sharpened number two pencils at all times, just in case, and her notebook always looked like yours did on the first day of school.

"Why are you giving it to me now?" I ask.

"I need to show you something."

I notice now that certain pages are marked off with pink Post-it notes.

Ellie licks her finger and flips to a page toward the back. "Did you ever wonder how we handled Leo and Diana?"

"Handled them how?"

"In the yearbook. The committee was divided. Do we just leave their photos in their normal place, in alphabetical order with the class, just like every other graduating senior--or do we pull them out and give them some kind of 'in memoriam' in the back?"

I take a sip of water. "You guys really discussed this?"

"You probably don't remember--we didn't know each other all that well--but I asked you what you thought."

"I remember," I say.

I had snapped at her that I didn't care, though my language may have been more colorful. Leo was dead. Who gave two shits about how the yearbook handled that?

"In the end, the committee decided to pull them out and create an in memoriam section. The class secretary. . . . Do you remember Cindy Monroe?"

"Yes."

"She could be kind of anal."

"You mean an asshole."

Ellie leans forward. "Isn't that what anal means? Anyway, Cindy Monroe reminded us that technically speaking, the main listing pages were for graduating seniors."

"And Leo and Diana died before graduating."

"Right."

"Ellie?"

"Yes."

"Can we get to the point now?"

"Two broken-yolk sandwiches," Bunny says. She drops the plates in front of us. "Enjoy."

The smell wafts up, travels through my nostrils, and grabs hold of my stomach. I reach for the sandwich, carefully grab it with both hands, and take a bite. The yolk breaks and starts to seep into the bread.

Ambrosia. Manna. Nectar of the gods. You choose the terminology.

"I don't want to ruin your breakfast," she says.

"Ellie."

"Fine." She opens the yearbook to a page toward the back.

And there you are, Leo.

You're wearing my hand-me-down blazer because though we were twins, I was always bigger. I think I bought that jacket in eighth grade. The tie is Dad's. You were terrible at making a knot. Dad always did it for you, and with a flourish. Someone has tried to slick down your unruly hair, but it just isn't happening. You're smiling, Leo, and I can't help but smile back.

I'm not the first person to lose a sibling prematurely. I'm not the first to lose a twin. Your death was catastrophic, no question, but it wasn't the end of my life. I recuperated. I was back in school two weeks after "that night." I even played in a hockey game the following Saturday against Morris Knolls--the distraction was good for me, though maybe I played with too much fury. Got a ten-minute major for nearly putting a kid through the glass. You'd have loved it. Sure, I was a bit morose in school. For a few weeks everyone showered me with attention, but they got over that. When my history grade slipped, I remember Mrs. Freedman kindly but firmly telling me that your death was no excuse. She was right. Life goes on, as it should, though it's also an outrage. When you have grief, at least you have something. But when grief ebbs away, what's left? You go on, and I didn't want to go on.

Augie says that's why I obsess over the details and won't accept what is so obvious to others.

I stare at your face. When I speak, my voice is a little funny. "Why are you showing me this?"

"Look at Leo's lapel."

Ellie reaches across the table and points with her finger to a small silver pin. I smile again.

"It's crossed Cs," I say.

"Crossed Cs?"

I'm still smiling, remembering your dorkiness. "It was called the Conspiracy Club."

"Westbridge High didn't have a conspiracy club."

"Not officially, no. It was supposed to be some kind of secret society kinda thing."

"So you knew about it?"

"Sure."

Ellie takes hold of the yearbook. She flips toward a page in the front and spins the book so I can see. It's my photo now. My posture is ramrod, my smile tight. God, I look like a frigging tool. Ellie points to my empty lapel.

"I wasn't a member," I say.

"Who else was?"

"Like I said, it was supposed to be a secret society. No one was supposed to know. It was just this goofball group of like-minded nerds . . ."

My voice trails off as she flips the page again.

It's Rex Canton's picture. He's sporting a crew cut and a gapped-tooth smile. His head is tilted to the side like someone just surprised him.

"So here's the thing," Ellie says. "When you mentioned Rex, I looked him up in the yearbook first. And I saw this."

She points again. Rex has the tiny CC on his lapel.

"Did you know he was a member?"

I shake my head. "But I never asked. Like I said, it was supposed to be their little secret society. I didn't pay much attention."

"Do you know any other members?"

"They weren't supposed to talk about it, but . . ." I meet her eyes. "Is Maura in the yearbook?"

"No. When she transferred, we pulled her picture out. Was she a member . . . ?"

I nod. Maura moved to town toward the end of our junior year. She was a mystery to all of us, this superhot aloof girl who seemed to have no interest in any of the high school conventions. She liked to go to Manhattan on weekends. She backpacked through Europe. She was dark and mysterious and drawn to danger, the kind of girl you figured dated college guys or teachers. We were all too parochial for her. How did you get to be friends with her, Leo? You never told me that. I remember coming home one day, and you two were doing homework at the kitchen table. I couldn't believe it. You with Maura Wells.

"I, uh, checked Diana's picture," Ellie says. There's a catch in her throat here. Ellie was Diana's best friend since second grade. That's how Ellie and I formed a bond too--in grief. I lost you, Leo. She lost Diana. "Diana doesn't have the pin. I think she would have told me about this club if she was in it."

"She wouldn't have been a member," I say, "unless maybe she joined after she started dating Leo."

Ellie grabs hold of her sandwich. "Okay, so what's the Conspiracy Club?"

"You have a few minutes when we're done with breakfast?"

"Yes."

"Let's take a walk then. It might make it easier to explain."

Ellie takes a bite, gets yolk on her hands, wipes her hands and face. "You think there's any connection between this and . . . ?"

"What happened to Leo and Diana? Maybe. You?"

Ellie picks up a fork and spears her yolk. "I always thought Leo and Diana died in an accident." She looks up at me. "I thought your other explanations were, uh, far-fetched."

"You never told me that."

She shrugs. "I also thought you could use an ally instead of someone else saying you were crazy."

I am not sure how to respond to that so I just say, "Thank you."

"But now . . ." Ellie scrunches up her face in deep thought.

"Now what?"

"We know the fate of at least three members of the club."

I nod. "Leo and Rex are dead."

"And Maura, who disappeared fifteen years ago, happened to be at Rex's murder scene."

"Plus," I add, "Diana may have been a member too after the school picture was taken. Who knows?"

"That would make three dead. Either way, to believe it's a coincidence--to believe that their fates aren't somehow connected--well, that's far-fetched."

I pick up my sandwich and take another bite. I keep my eyes down but I know Ellie is watching me.

"Nap?"

"What?"

"I went through the entire yearbook with a magnifying glass. I checked every single lapel for that pin."

"Did you find any others?" I ask.

Ellie nods. "Two more. Two more of our classmates were wearing that pin."





Chapter Eight


We start up the old path behind Benjamin Franklin Middle School. When we were students, this path was called the Path. Clever, right?

"I can't believe the Path is still here," Ellie says.

I arch an eyebrow. "You used to come up here?"

"Me? Never. This was for the rowdy kids."

"Rowdy?"

"I didn't want to say 'bad' or 'rebellious.'" She puts her hand on my arm. "You used to come up here, right?"

"Senior year mostly."

"Drinking? Drugs? Sex?"

"All three," I say. Then with a sad smile, I add something I would add only when talking to her. "But I wasn't much for drinking or drugs."

"Maura."

I don't have to reply.

The wooded area behind the middle school is the place kids went to smoke, drink, get high, or hook up. Every town has one. Westbridge is no different on the surface. We start climbing up the hill. The woods are windy and long rather than deep. You feel as though you are miles from civilization, but in fact, you're never more than a few hundred yards from a suburban street.

"Our town's make-out point," Ellie says.

"Yep."

"Except more than making out."

No need to reply. I don't like being here. I haven't been here since "that night," Leo. It isn't about you. Not really. You were killed on those train tracks on the other side of town. Westbridge is pretty big. We have thirty thousand residents. Six elementary schools feed two middle schools, which feed one high school. The town is almost fifteen square miles. It would take me at least ten minutes to drive from here to the spot where you and Diana died, and that's only if I got lucky with the lights.

But this wooded area makes me think of Maura. It makes me remember the way she made me feel. It makes me remember that no one since her--and, yeah, I know how this sounds--has ever made me feel that way.

Am I talking about the physical?

Yep.

Label me a pig; I don't care. My only defense is that I believe the physical is entangled with the emotional, that the ridiculous sexual heights that this eighteen-year-old boy reached with her weren't just about technique or newness or experimentation or nostalgia but about something deeper and more profound.

But I'm also savvy enough to admit that could be bullshit.

"I didn't really know Maura," Ellie says. "She moved in, what, end of junior year?"

"That summer, yeah."

"She kinda intimidated me."

I nod. Like I said, Ellie was our class valedictorian. There is a photograph in that yearbook of Ellie and me because we were voted "Most Likely to Succeed." Funny, no? We knew each other a little before posing for that picture, but I'd always figured that Ellie was a Little Miss Priss. What would we have in common? I could probably go through a mental timeline and figure out the steps that led to Ellie and me being friends after that photo was taken, how we grew closer after losing Leo and Diana, how we stayed friends as she went off to Princeton University and I stayed home, all of that. But off the top of my head, I don't remember the details, what we saw in each other outside of grief, where the signposts lay. I'm just grateful.

"She seemed older," Ellie says. "Maura, I mean. More experienced. Sort of, I don't know, sexy."

Hard for me to argue.

"Some girls just have that, you know? Like everything they do, like it or not, is a double entendre. That sounds sexist, doesn't it?"

"A little."

"But you understand what I mean."

"Oh, I do."

"So the other two members of the Conspiracy Club," she says, "were Beth Lashley and Hank Stroud. You remember them?"

I do. "They were friends with Leo. Did you know them?"

"Hank was a math genius," she says. "I remember he was in my calculus class freshman year and then they had to make up his own curriculum for him. Went to MIT, I think."

"He did," I say.

Ellie's voice turns grave. "Do you know what happened to him?"

"Some of it. Last I heard, he's still around town. He plays pickup basketball by the oval."

"I saw him, what, six months ago near the train station," Ellie says with a shake of her head. "Talking to himself, ranting. It was awful. Such a sad story, don't you think?"

"I do."

She stops walking and leans against a tree. "Let's just go through the members of the club for a second. For the sake of this discussion let's assume Diana became a member, okay?"

"Okay," I say.

"So we then have six members in total. Leo, Diana, Maura, Rex, Hank, and Beth."

I start walking again. Ellie joins me and keeps talking.

"Leo is dead. Diana is dead. Rex is dead. Maura is missing. Hank, well, he's . . . what should we call him? Homeless?"

"No," I say. "He's an outpatient at Essex Pines."

"So he's, what, mentally ill?"

"Let's go with that."

"And that leaves Beth."

"What do you know about her?"

"Nothing. She left for college and never came back. As our alumni coordinator, I've reached out, tried to get a mailing address, you know, to invite her to the reunions and homecomings. Nothing."

"Her parents?"

"They moved to Florida last I heard. I wrote to them too, but there was no reply."

Hank and Beth. I would need to talk to them. And say what exactly?

"Where are we going, Nap?"

"Not far," I say.

I want to show her--or maybe I want to see for myself. I'm visiting old ghosts. The smell of pinecones fills the air. Every once in a while, we see a broken liquor bottle or an empty pack of cigarettes.

We are getting close now. It's my imagination--I know that--but the air seems suddenly still. It feels as though someone is out there, watching us, holding their breath. I stop at a tree and run my hand across the bark. I find an old rusty nail. I move to the next tree, run my hand down it, find another rusty nail. I hesitate.

"What?" Ellie asks.

"I've never walked past here."

"Why?"

"It was restricted. These nails? There used to be signs all along here."

"Like, No Trespassing signs?"

"The signs read, 'Restricted Area Warning' in large red letters," I say. "Underneath was a ton of scary smaller print about the area being declared restricted in accordance with some code number and that anything can be confiscated, no photography, you'll be searched, blah blah blah. It ended with the following words italicized: 'Deadly Force Is Authorized.'"

"It really said that? About deadly force?"

I nod.

"You have a good memory," she says.

I smile. "Maura stole one of the signs and hung it in her bedroom."

"You're kidding."

I shrug.

Ellie nudges me. "You liked the bad girls."

"Maybe."

"Still do. That's your problem."

We keep walking. It feels odd going past where the signs hung, as though some invisible force field has finally dropped and allowed us to move forward. In fifty yards we are able to see the remnants of a barbed-wire fence. When we get closer, we can start to make out the ruins of shacks poking through the underbrush and overgrowth.

"I did a school report on this junior year," Ellie says.

"On what?"

"You know what was out here, right?"

I do, but I want her to tell it.

"A Nike missile base," she says. "A lot of people don't believe that, but that's what these were originally. During the Cold War--I'm talking about the 1950s--the army hid these bases in suburban towns like ours. They stuck them on farms or in wooded areas like this. People thought it was just an old wives' tale, but they were real."
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