The Woods

Chapter 33

Loading...

Day was surrendering to the shadows when Loren Muse reached the old campsite.

The sign said Lake Charmaine Condominium Center. The land-mass was huge, she knew, stretching across the Delaware River, which separates New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The lake and condos were on the Pennsylvania side. Most of the woods were in New Jersey.

Muse hated the woods. She loved sports but hated the supposedly great outdoors. She hated bugs and fishing and wading and taking hikes and rare antique finds and dirt and general posts and lures and prize pigs and 4-H fairs and everything else she considered "rural."

She stopped at the little building that housed the rent-a-cop, flashed her ID, expected the gate to rise. It didn't. The rent-a-cop, one of those bloated weightlifter types, brought her ID inside and got on the phone.

"Hey, I'm in a hurry here."

"Don't get your panties in a bunch."

"My panties in a...?"

She fumed.

There were flashing lights up ahead. Bunch of parked police cars, she figured. Probably every cop within a fifty-mile radius wanted in on this one.

The rent-a-cop hung up the phone. He sat in his booth. He didn't come back to her car.

"Yo," Muse called out.

He didn't respond.

"Yo, buddy, I'm talking to you here."

He turned slowly toward her. Damn, she thought. The guy was young and male. That was a problem. If you have a rent-a-cop who is on the elderly side, well, it is usually some well-intentioned guy who's re tired and bored. A woman rental? Often a mother looking to pick up some extra money. But a man in his prime? Seven out often it was that most dangerous of muscle-heads, the cop wannabe. For some reason he didn't make it onto a real force. Not to knock her own profession, but if a guy sets his sights on being a cop and doesn't make it, there is often a reason, and it wasn't something you wanted to get anywhere near.

And what better way to atone for your own worthless life than to keep a chief investigator  -  a female chief investigator  -  waiting?

"Excuse me?" she tried, her voice an octave gentler.

"You can't enter yet," he said.

"Why not?"

"You have to wait."

"For?"

"Sheriff Lowell."

"Sheriff Lobo?"

"Lowell. And he said no one gets in without his okay."

The rent-a-cop actually hitched up his pants.

"I'm the chief investigator for Essex County," Muse said.

He sneered. "This look like Essex County to you?"

"Those are my people in there. I need to go in."

"Hey, don't get your panties in a bunch."

"Good one."

"What?"

"The panties-in-a-bunch line. You've used it twice now. It is very, very funny. Can I use it sometime, you know, when I really want to put someone down? I'll give you credit."

He picked up a newspaper, ignored her. She considered driving straight through and snapping the gate.

"Do you carry a gun?" Muse asked him.

He put down the paper. "What?"

"A gun. Do you carry one? You know, to make up for other shortcomings." "Shut the hell up." "I carry one, you know. Tell you what. You open the gate, I'll let you touch it." He said nothing. The heck with touching it. Maybe she'd just shoot him.

Rent-A-Cop glared at her. She scratched her cheek with her free hand, pointedly raising her pinkie in his direction. From the way he looked at her she could tell it was a gesture that hit painfully close to home.

"You being a wiseass with me?" "Hey," Muse said, putting her hands back on the wheel, "don't get your panties in a bunch."

This was stupid, Muse knew, but damn if it wasn't also fun. The adrenaline was kicking in now. She was anxious to know what Andrew Barrett had found. Judging by the amount of flashing lights, it had to be something big.

Like a body.

Two minutes passed. Muse was just about to take out her gun and force him to open the gate when a man in uniform sauntered toward her vehicle. He wore a big-brimmed hat and had a sheriffs badge. His name tag read Lowell.

"Can I help you, miss?"

"Miss? Did he tell you who I am?"

"Uh, no, sorry, he just said-"

"I'm Loren Muse, the chief investigator for Essex County." Muse pointed toward the guardhouse. "Small Balls in there has my ID." "Hey, what did you call me?" Sheriff Lowell sighed and wiped his nose with a handkerchief. His nose was bulbous and rather huge. So were all his features-long and droopy, as if someone had drawn a caricature of him and then let it melt in the sun. He waved the hand holding the tissue at Rent-A-Cop.

"Relax, Sandy." "Sandy," Muse repeated. She looked toward the guardhouse. "Isn't that a girls name?" Sheriff Lowell looked down the huge nose at her. Probably disapprovingly. She couldn't blame him.

"Sandy, give me the lady's ID."

Panties, then miss, now lady. Muse was trying very hard not to get angry. Here she was, less than two hours from Newark and New York City, and she might as well have been in friggin' Mayberry.

Sandy handed Lowell the ID. Lowell wiped his nose hard-his skin was so saggy that Muse half-feared some would come off. He examined the ID, sighed and said, "You should have told me who she was, Sandy."

"But you said no one gets in without your approval."

"And if you told me on the phone who she was, I would have given it." "But-" "Look, fellas," Muse interrupted, "do mea favor. Discuss your back woods ways at the next lodge meeting, okay? I need to get in there."

"Park to the right," Lowell said, unruffled. "We have to hike up to the site. I'll take you."

Lowell nodded toward Sandy. Sandy hit a button and the gate rose. Muse pinkie-scratched her cheek again as she drove through. Sandy fumed impotently, which Muse found apropos.

She parked. Lowell met her. He carried two flashlights and handed her one. Muses patience was running on the thin side. She snatched it and said, "Okay, already, which way?"

"You got a real nice way with people," he said.

"Thanks, Sheriff."

"To the right. Come on."

Muse lived in a crapola garden apartment of too-standard-to-be-standard brick so she wasn't one to talk, but to her amateur eye, this gated community looked exactly the same as every other, except that the architect had aimed for something quasi-rustic and missed entirely. The aluminum exterior was faux log cabin, a look beyond ridiculous in a sprawling, three-level condo development. Lowell veered off the pavement and onto a dirt path.

"Sandy tell you not to get your panties in a bunch?" Lowell asked.

"Yes."

"Don't take offense. He says that to everyone. Even guys."

"He must be the life of your hunting group."

Muse counted seven cop cars and three other emergency vehicles of one kind or another. All had lights flashing. Why they needed their lights on she had no idea. The residents, a mix of old folks and young families, gathered, drawn by the unnecessary flashing lights, and watched nothing.

"How far is the walk?" Muse asked.

"Mile and a half maybe. You want a tour as we go along?"

"A tour of what?"

"The old murder site. We'll be passing where they found one of the bodies twenty years ago."

"Were you on that case?"

"Peripherally," he said.

"Meaning?"

"Peripherally. Concerned with relatively minor or irrelevant aspects. Dealing with the edges or outskirts. Peripherally."

Muse looked at him.

Lowell might have smiled, but it was hard to tell through the sags. "Not bad for a hunting lodge backwoods hick, eh?"

"I'm dazzled," Muse said.

"You might want to be a tad nicer to me."

"Why's that?"

"First, you sent men to search for a corpse in my county without in forming me. Second, this is my crime scene. You're here as a guest and as a courtesy."

"You're not going to play that jurisdiction game with me, are you?"

"Nah," he said. "But I like sounding tough. How did I do?"

"Eh. So can we continue to the tour?"

"Sure."

The path grew thinner until it practically disappeared. They were climbing on rocks and around trees. Muse had always been something of a tomboy. She enjoyed the activity. And  -  Flair Hickory be damned  -  her shoes could handle it.

"Hold up," Lowell said.

The sun continued to dip. Lowell's profile was in silhouette. He took off his hat and again sniffled into his handkerchief. "This is where the Billingham kid was found."

Doug Billingham.

The woods seemed to settle at the words, and then the wind whispered an old song. Muse looked down. A kid. Billingham had been seventeen. He had been found with eight stab wounds, mostly defensive.

He had fought his assailant. She looked at Lowell. His head was lowered, his eyes closed.

Muse remembered something else-something from the file. Low ell. That name. "Peripherally, my ass," she said. "You were the lead."

Lowell did not reply.

"I don't get it. Why didn't you tell me?"

He shrugged. "Why didn't you tell me you were reopening my case?"

"We weren't really. I mean, I didn't think we had anything yet."

"So your guys hitting pay dirt," he said. "That was just dumb luck?"

Muse didn't like where this was going.

"How far are we from where Margot Green was found?" Muse asked. "A half mile due south." "Margot Green was found first, right?" "Yep. See, where you came in? The condos? That used to be where the girls' side of the camp was. You know. Their cabins. The boys were to the south. The Green girl was found near there." "How long after you found Green did you locate the Billingham boy?"

"Thirty-six hours."

"Long time."

"A lot of land to cover."

"Still. He was just left out here?"

"No, there was a shallow grave. That's probably why it was missed the first time through. You know how it is. Everybody hears about missing kids and they want to be the good citizen so they come out and help us cover ground. They walked right over him. Never knew he was there."

Muse stared down at the ground. Totally unremarkable. There was a cross like those makeshift memorials for car-accident deaths. But the cross was old and nearly fallen over. There was no picture of Billingham. No keepsakes or flowers or stuffed bears. Just the beat-up cross. Alone out here in the woods. Muse almost shivered.

"The killer  -  you probably know this  -  his name was Wayne Steubens.

A counselor, as it turned out. There are a lot of theories on what happened that night, but the consensus seems to be that Steubens worked on the vanished kids-Perez and Copeland-first. He buried them. He started to dig a grave for Douglas Billingham when Margot Green was found. So he took off. According to the hotshot down at Quantico, burying the bodies was part of what gave him his thrill. You know Steubens buried all his other victims, right? The ones in the other states?"

"Yeah, I know."

"You know two of them were still alive when he buried them?"

She knew that too. "Did you ever question Wayne Steubens?" Muse asked. "We talked to everyone at that camp." He said that slowly, carefully. A bell rang in Muse's head. Lowell continued.

"And yes, the Steubens kid gave me the creeps-at least, that's what I think now. But maybe that's hindsight, I don't know anymore. There was no evidence linking Steubens to the murders. There was nothing linking anybody, really. Plus Steubens was rich. His family hired a lawyer. As you can imagine, the camp broke up right away. All the kids went home. Steubens was sent overseas for the next semester. A school in Switzerland, I think."

Muse still had her eyes on the cross.

"You ready to keep moving?"

She nodded. They started hiking again.

Lowell asked, "So how long have you been chief investigator?"

"A few months."

"And before that?"

"Homicide for three years."

He wiped the huge nose again. "It never gets easier, does it?"

The question seemed rhetorical, so she just kept trekking.

"It's not the outrage," he said. "It's not the dead even. They're gone.

Nothing you can do about that. It's what's left behind-the echo. These woods you're walking through. There are some old-timers who think a sound echoes forever in here. Makes sense when you think about it.

This Billingham kid. I'm sure he screamed. He screams, it echoes, just bounces back and forth, the sound getting smaller and smaller, but never entirely disappearing. Like a part of him is still calling out, even now.

Murder echoes like that."

Muse kept her head down, watched her feet on the knotty ground.

"Have you met any of the victims' families?"

She thought about that. "One is my boss, actually."

"Paul Copeland," Lowell said.

"You remember him?"

"Like I said, I questioned everybody at that camp."

The bell in Muse's head sounded again.

"Is he the one who got you to look into the case?" Lowell asked.

She didn't reply.

"Murder is unjust," he went on. "It's like God had this plan and there is this natural order He set up and someone took it upon them selves to mess with that. If you solve the case, sure, it helps. But it's like you crumbled up a piece of aluminum foil. Finding the killer helps you spread it out again, but for the family, it never really regains its form."

"Aluminum foil?"

Lowell shrugged.

"You're quite the philosopher, Sheriff."

"Look into your boss's eyes sometimes. Whatever happened in these woods that night? It's still there. It still echoes, doesn't it?"

"I don't know," Muse said.

"And I don't know if you should be here."

"Why's that?"

"Because I did question your boss that night."

Muse stopped walking. "Are you saying there's some kind of conflict of interest?"

"I think that might be exactly what I'm saying."

"Paul Copeland was a suspect?"

"It is still an open case. It is still, despite your interference, my case.

So I wont answer that. But I will tell you this. He lied about what happened."

"He was a kid on guard duty. He didn't know how serious it was." "That's no excuse."

"He came clean later, right?'

Lowell did not respond.

"I read the file," Muse said. "He goofed off and didn't do what he was supposed to on guard duty. You talk about devastation. How about the guilt he must feel over that? He misses his sister, sure. But I think the guilt eats at him more."

"Interesting."

"What?"

"You said the guilt eats at him," Lowell said. "What kind of guilt?"

She kept walking.

"And it's curious, don't you think?"

"What is?" Muse asked.

"That he left his post that night. I mean, think about it. Here he is, a responsible kid. Everyone said so. And suddenly, on the night that these campers sneak out, on the night that Wayne Steubens plans on committing murder, Paul Copeland chooses to slack off."

Muse said nothing.

"That, my young colleague, has always struck me as a hell of a coincidence."

Lowell smiled and turned away.

"Come on," he said. "It's getting dark and you're going to want to see what your friend Barrett found."

After Glenda Perez left, I didn't cry, but I came awfully close. I sat in my office, alone, stunned, not sure what to do or think or feel. My body was shuddering. I looked down at my hands. There was a noticeable quake. I actually did that thing when you wonder if you're dreaming. I did all the checks. I wasn't. This was real.

Camille was alive.

My sister had walked out of those woods. Just like Gil Perez had.

I called Lucy on her cell phone.

"Hey," she said.

"You're not going to believe what Gil Perez's sister just told me."

"What?"

I filled her in. When I got to the part about Camille walking out of those woods, Lucy gasped out loud. "Do you believe her?" Lucy asked. "About Camille, you mean?"

"Yes."

"Why would she say that if it wasn't true?"

Lucy said nothing.

"What? You think she's lying? What would be her motive?"

"I don't know, Paul. But we're missing so much here."

"I understand that. But think about it. Glenda Perez has no reason to lie to me about that." Silence. "What is it, Lucy?" "It's just odd, that's all. If your sister is alive, where the hell has she been?"

"I don't know."

"So what are you going to do now?"

I thought about that, tried to settle my mind. It was a good question. What next? Where do I go from here?

Lucy said, "I talked to my father again."

"And?"

"He remembers something about that night."

"What?"

"He wont tell me. He said he'd only tell you."

"Me?"

"Yep. Ira said he wanted to see you."

"Now?"

"If you want."

"I want. Should I pick you up?"

She hesitated.

"What?"

"Ira said he wanted to see you alone. That he won't talk in front of me."

"Okay."

More hesitation.

"Paul?"

"What?"

"Pick me up anyway. I'll wait in the car while you go in."

Homicide detectives York and Dillon sat in the "tech room," eating pizza. The tech room was actually a meeting space where they wheeled in televisions and VCRs and the like.

Max Reynolds entered. "How are you guys?"

Dillon said, "This pizza is awful." "Sorry."

"We're in New York, for crying out loud. The Big Apple. The home of pizza. And this tastes like something that disobeyed a pooper-scooper law."

Reynolds turned on the television. "I'm sorry the cuisine does not measure up to your standards."

"Am I exaggerating?" Dillon turned to York. "I mean, seriously, does this taste like hobo vomit, or is it me?"

York said, "That's your third slice."

"And probably my last. Just to show I mean it."

York turned to Max Reynolds. "What have you got for us?"

"I think I found our guy. Or at least, his car."

Dillon took another rip like bite. "Less talk, more show."

"There is a convenience store on the corner two blocks from where you found the body," Reynolds began. "The owner has been having problems with shoplifters grabbing items he keeps outside. So he aims his camera out that way."

Dillon said, "Korean?"

"Excuse me?"

"The convenience store owner. He's Korean, right?"

"I'm not sure. What's that got to do with anything?"

"Dollars to doughnuts, he's Korean. So he points his camera outside because some ass wipe is stealing an orange. Then he starts screaming about how he pays taxes when he probably has like ten illegal working in the place and someone should do something. Like the cops should comb through his cheap-ass, blurry-crap tapes to find Mr. Fruit Stealer."

He stopped. York looked at Max Reynolds. "Go on."

"Anyway, yes, exactly, the camera gives us a partial of the street. So we started checking for cars around that age-more than thirty years ago-and look what we found here."

Reynolds already had the tape keyed up. An old Volkswagen bug drove by. He hit the freeze button.

"That's our car?" York asked.

"A 1971 Volkswagen Beetle. One of our experts says he can tell by the MacPherson strut front suspension and front luggage compartment. More important, this type of car matches the carpet fibers we found on Mr. Santiago's clothing."

"Hot damn," Dillon said.

"Can you make out the license plate?" York asked.

"No. We only get a side view. Not a partial, not even the state."

"But how many original Volkswagen bugs in yellow can there be on the road?" York said. "We start with the New York motor vehicle records, move to New Jersey and Connecticut." Dillon nodded and talked while chewing like a cow. "We should get some kind of hit."

York turned back to Reynolds. "Anything else?"

"Dillon was right, the quality isn't great. But if I blow this up"-he hit a button and the picture zoomed-"we can get a partial look at the guy."

Dillon squinted. "He looks like Jerry Garcia or something."

"Long gray hair, long gray beard," Reynolds agreed.

"That it?"

"That's it."

York said to Dillon, "Let's start checking the motor vehicles record. This car can't be that hard to find."

Loading...
Tip: You can use left and right keyboard keys to browse between pages.