The Woods

Chapter 28

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"Please tell me you're joking/'

FBI Special Agent Geoff Bedford and I were sitting at a regulation-size diner, the kind with the aluminum on the outside and signed photographs of local anchors on the inside. Bedford was trim and sported a handlebar mustache with waxed tips. I'm sure that I had seen one of those in real life before, but I couldn't recall where. I kept expecting three other guys to join him for a little barbershop quartet work.

"I'm not," I said.

The waitress came by. She didn't call us hon. I hate that. Bedford had been reading the menu for food, but he just ordered coffee. I got the meaning and ordered the same. We handed her the menus. Bedford waited until she was gone.

"Steubens did it, no question. He killed all those people. There was never any doubt in the past. There is no doubt now. And I'm not just talking about reasonable doubt here. There is absolutely no doubt at all."

"The first killings. The four in the woods."

"What about them?"

"There was no evidence linking him to those," I said.

"No physical evidence, no."

"Four victims," I said. "Two were young women. Margot Green and my sister?"

"That's right."

"But none of Steubens's other victims were female."

"Correct."

"All were males between the ages of sixteen and eighteen. Don't you find that odd?"

He looked at me as if I had suddenly grown a second head. "Look, Mr. Copeland, I agreed to see you because, one, you're a county prosecutor, and two, your own sister died at the hands of this monster. But this line of questioning..."

"I just visited Wayne Steubens," I said. "I am aware of that. And let me tell you, he is one damn good psychopath and pathological liar." I thought about how Lucy had said the same thing. I also thought about how Wayne had said that he and Lucy had a little fling before I got to camp.

"I know that," I said.

"I'm not sure you do. Let me explain something to you. Wayne Steubens has been a part of my life for nearly twenty years. Think about that. I've seen how convincing a liar he can be."

I wasn't sure what tack to take here, so I just started tramping around. "New evidence has come to light," I said. Bedford frowned. The tips of the mustache down turned with his lips. "What are you talking about?"

"You know who Gil Perez is?"

"Of course I do. I know everything and everyone involved in this case."

"You never found his body."

"That's right. We didn't find your sister's either."

"How do you explain that?"

"You went to that camp. You know that area."

"I do."

"Do you know how many square miles of woods there are out there?"

"I do."

He lifted his right hand and looked at it. "Hello, Mr. Needle?" Then he did the same with his left. "Meet my friend Mr. Haystack."

"Wayne Steubens is a relatively small man."

"So?"

"So Doug was over six feet tall. Gil was a tough kid. How do you think Wayne surprised or overpowered all four of them?"

"He had a knife, that's how. Margot Green was tied up. He simply sliced her throat. We aren't sure of the order of the others. They may have been tied up too-in different places in the woods. We just don't know. He ran down Doug Billingham. Billingham's body was in a shallow grave halfa mile from Margots. He had several stab wounds, some defensive wounds on the hands too. We found blood and clothes be longing to your sister and Gil Perez. You know all this."

I do.

Bedford tilted his chair way back so that his feet went up on the toes. "So tell me, Mr. Copeland. What is the new evidence that has suddenly come to light?"

"Gil Perez."

"What about him?"

"He didn't die that night. He died this week."

The chair dropped forward. "Pardon me?"

I told him about Manolo Santiago being Gil Perez. I would say that he looked skeptical, but that makes it sound more in my favor than the reality. In reality, Agent Bedford stared at me as if I were trying to convince him that the Easter Bunny was real.

"So let me get this straight," he said when I finished. The waitress came back with our coffees. Bedford added nothing to it. He lifted the cup carefully and managed to keep the rim off his mustache. "Perez's parents deny it's him. Manhattan homicide doesn't believe it's him. And you're telling me-"

"It's him."

Bedford chuckled. "I think you've taken up enough of my time, Mr. Copeland." He put down his coffee and started to slide out of the booth. "I know it's him. It's just a question of time before I prove it." Bedford stopped. "Tell you what," he said. "Let's play your game. Let's say it is indeed Gil Perez. That he survived that night."

Okay.

"That doesn't let Wayne Steubens off the hook. Not at all. There are many"-he looked at me hard now-"who believed that maybe Steubens had an accomplice for the first murders. You yourself asked how he could have taken out so many. Well, if there were two of them and only three victims, it makes it all a lot easier, don't you think?"

"So now you think maybe Perez was an accomplice?"

"No. Hell, I don't even believe he survived that night. I'm just playing hypotheticals. If that body in the Manhattan morgue did end up being Gil Perez."

I added a packet of Splenda and some milk to my coffee. "Are you familiar with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?" I asked.

"The guy who wrote Sherlock Holmes."

"Exactly. One of Sherlock's axioms goes something like this: 'It is a big mistake to theorize before one has data-because one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.'" "You're starting to try my patience, Mr. Copeland."

"I gave you a new fact. Rather than trying to rethink what happened, you just immediately found a way to twist that fact to suit your theory."

He just stared at me. I didn't blame him. I was coming on hard, but I needed to push. "Do you know anything about Wayne Steubenss past?" he asked, borne.

"He fits the profile to a tee."

"Profiles aren't evidence," I said.

"But they help. For instance, do you know that neighborhood animals went missing when Steubens was a teen?" "Really? Well, that's all the proof I need." "May I give you an example to illustrate?" "Please." "We have an eyewitness to this. A boy named Charlie Kadison. He didn't say anything back then because he was too scared. When Wayne Steubens was sixteen, he buried a small white dog-what's the breed, something French..."

"Bichon Frise?"

"That's it. He buried the dog up to its neck. So only its head was sticking out. The thing couldn't move." "Pretty sick." "No, it gets worse." He took another dainty sip. I waited. He put the coffee back down and dabbed his mouth with a napkin.

"So after he buries the body, your old camp buddy goes to this Kadi son kid's house. You see his family had one of those riding lawn mowers. He asks to borrow it..."

He stopped, looked at me, and nodded.

"Eeuw," I said.

"I have other cases like that. Maybe a dozen."

"And yet Wayne Steubens managed to land a job working at that camp-" "Big surprise. I mean, that Ira Silverstein seemed like such a stickler for background checks." "And no one thought of Wayne when those murders first occurred?"

"We didn't know any of this. First off, the locals were on the Camp PLUS case, not us. It wasn't federal. Not at first. On top of that, people were too scared to come forward during Steubenss formative years. Like Charlie Kadison. You have to also remember that Steubens came from a rich family. His father died when he was young, but his mother shielded him, paid people off, whatever. She was overprotective, by the way. Very conservative. Very strict."

"Another check mark in your little serial killer profile kit?"

"It isn't just about his profile, Mr. Copeland. You know the facts. He lived in New York yet somehow managed to be in all three areas- Virginia, Indiana, Pennsylvania-when the murders occurred. What're the odds of that? And the kicker, of course: After we got a search war rant, we found items-classic trophies-belonging to all the victims on his property."

"Not all the victims," I said.

"Enough of them."

"But none from those first four campers." "That's correct."

"Why not?"

"My guess? He probably was in a rush. Steubens was still disposing of the bodies. He ran out of time." "Again," I said, "it sounds a bit like fact twisting." He sat back and studied me. "So what is your theory, Mr. Cope-land? Because I am dying to hear it."

I said nothing.

He spread his arms. "That a serial killer who slit campers' throats in Indiana and Virginia happened to be a counselor at a summer camp where at least two other victims had their throats slit?"

He had a point. I had been thinking about that from the get-go, and I couldn't get around it. "You know the facts, twisted or not. You're a prosecutor. Tell me what you think happened."

I thought about it. He waited. I thought about it some more.

"I don't know yet," I said. "Maybe it's too early to theorize. Maybe we need to gather more facts." "And while you do that," he said, "a guy like Wayne Steubens kills a few more campers."

He had another point. I thought about the rape evidence against Jenrette and Marantz. If you looked at it objectively, there was just as much-probably more-against Wayne Steubens.

Or at least there had been.

"He didn't kill Gil Perez," I said.

"I hear you. So take that out of the equation, for the sake of this discussion. Say he didn't kill the Perez kid." He held up both palms to the ceiling. "What does that leave you with?" I mulled that over. It leaves me, I thought, wondering what the hell really happened to my sister.

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