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Truth or Die
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Old Habits Die Hard
AT PRECISELY 5:15 every morning, seven days a week, Dr. Stephen Hellerman emerged from his modest brick colonial in the bucolic town of Silver Spring, Maryland, and jogged six miles. Six-point-two miles, to be exact.
Depending on whether it was Daylight Saving Time or not, it was either still dark or just dawn as he first stretched his calves against the tall oak shading most of his front yard, but no matter what the season, Dr. Hellerman, an acclaimed neurologist at Mercy Hospital in nearby Langley, rarely saw another human being from start to finish of his run.
That was exactly how he wanted it.
Although he’d never been married, dated sparingly, and socialized with friends even less, it wasn’t that the forty-eight-year-old doctor didn’t like people; he simply liked being alone better. Being alone meant never being tempted to tell someone your secrets. And Dr. Stephen Hellerman had a lot of secrets.
A brand-new one, in particular. A real dandy.
Taking his customary left turn out of his driveway, heading north on Knoll Street, Hellerman then hung a right onto Bishop Lane, which curved a bit before feeding into the straight shoot of Route 9 that hugged the town’s reservoir. From there it was nothing but water on his left, dense trees on his right, and the weathered gray asphalt beneath his Nike Flyknit Racers.
Hellerman liked the sound the shoes made as he ran, the consistent thomp-thomp-thomp-thomp that measured off his strides like a metronome. More than that, he liked the fact that he could focus on that sound to the exclusion of everything else. That was the real beauty of his daily run, the way it always seemed to clear his mind like a giant squeegee.
But there was something different about this particular morning, and Hellerman realized it even before the first beads of sweat began to dot the edge of his thick hairline.
The thomp-thomp-thomp-thomp wasn’t working.
This new secret of his—less than twelve hours old—was unlike all the others encrypted inside his head, never to be revealed. The facts that Hellerman moonlighted for the CIA, was paid through an offshore numbered account, and engaged in research that no medical board would ever approve were secrets of his own choosing. Decisions he’d made. Deals he’d cut with his own conscience in a Machiavellian trade-off so big that it would garner its own wing in the Rationalization Hall of Fame.
But this new secret? This one was different. It didn’t belong to him.
It wasn’t his to keep.
And try as he did, there simply wasn’t enough thomp-thomp-thomp-thomp in the world to let him push that thought out of his head, even if only for an hour.
Still, Hellerman kept running that morning, just like every morning before it. That was what he did. That was the routine. The habit. Six-point-two miles, every day of the week. The same stretch of roads every time.
Suddenly, though, Hellerman stopped.
If he hadn’t, he would’ve run straight into it.
A WHITE van was parked along the side of Route 9 with its hood open, the driver hunched over the engine, which was hissing steam. He had his back turned to Hellerman. He hadn’t heard him approaching.
“Dammit!” the guy yelled, pulling back his hand in pain. Whatever he’d touched on the engine was way too hot. As if the steam weren’t a giveaway.
“You okay?” asked Hellerman.
The guy turned with a look of surprise to see he wasn’t alone. “Oh, hey,” he said. “Yeah, I’m fine, thanks. Wish I could say the same for this piece of shit van, though.”
“I think the coolant line has a leak. This water should at least get me through my route,” the guy said, pointing to a bottle of Poland Spring perched on top of the grille. He smiled. “Unless, of course, you’re a mechanic.”
“No, just a humble doctor,” said Hellerman.
“Oh, yeah? What kind?”
“A brain doctor, huh? I’ve never met one of those before.” The guy poured some water on the radiator cap to cool it down before giving it a second go. “My name’s Eddie,” he said.
Hellerman shook Eddie’s hand and watched as he emptied the Poland Spring into the radiator. He looked pretty young, thirtyish. Good shape, too. Hellerman, as an MD and a running fanatic, tended to notice such things. Anytime he first met someone, they were immediately classified as either “fit” or “unfit.” Eddie was fit.
“Yeah, that oughta do it,” said Eddie, rescrewing the radiator cap.
Meanwhile, Hellerman glanced at the side of the white van. There was no logo, no marking of any kind. Eddie, nonetheless, was dressed in matching gray shorts and a tucked-in polo, much like a driver for FedEx or UPS.
“You mentioned having a route,” said Hellerman. “Are you a delivery man, Eddie?”
Eddie smiled again. “Something like that,” he said before slamming the hood. “But my real specialty, Dr. Hellerman, is pickups.”
Hellerman’s toes twitched inside his Flyknit Racers. Never mind that he hadn’t told Eddie his last name. Just the way the guy delivered the line—hell, the line itself—was enough to set off every warning bell in his head.
My real specialty is pickups? That could only mean one thing, thought Hellerman.
He was the package.
The sound he heard next only confirmed it. It was the van’s side door sliding open. Eddie wasn’t alone.
Out came a guy who could’ve been Eddie’s brother, if not his clone. Same age, just as fit. The one major difference? The gun he was holding.
“You know,” said the guy, aiming at Hellerman’s chest, “one of the first things you learn in field training is that the only habit you should have is to have no habits. You never eat lunch at the same restaurant, you don’t have a favorite park bench…and for the love of stupidity, you never jog every day at the same time along the same route. But, of course, you’re not actually a field agent, Dr. Hellerman, are you? You’re just a civilian recruit.” He motioned to the van. “Get in.”
It took Hellerman all of one second to consider his options. There weren’t any. None, at least, that didn’t end with his taking a bullet.
So into the windowless van he went. It was empty in the back. Save now for him. “Where are we going?” he asked.
“That depends,” said the one with the gun. “Can you keep a secret?”
He let go with a loud laugh that immediately became the most annoying and terrifying noise Hellerman had ever heard in his life. Even after the sliding door was closed in his face, he could still hear it loud and clear. Until.
It sounded like firecrackers, but Hellerman knew that wasn’t what it was. Those were definitely gunshots. Three of them.
What the hell…?
THE ONE with the gun wasn’t the only one with a gun.
Before Hellerman could even begin to figure out what had happened outside the van, Eddie opened the driver’s side door and quickly climbed behind the wheel. He slid his Beretta M9 into one of the cup holders so casually it could’ve been a grande mocha from Starbucks.
“You’re safe now,” he said, starting the engine. “But we need to get out of here. Fast.”
“Eddie, who are you?” asked Hellerman.
“My name’s not Eddie,” he said, shifting into drive and punching the gas simultaneously.
The tires screeched, kicking up gravel from the side of the road, as Hellerman frantically grabbed the back of the shotgun seat to hold on. As he watched the speedometer hit forty, then fifty, then sixty, he waited for Not Eddie to elaborate, but nothing came.
“In that case, who was that with you?” Hellerman asked.
“He’s the guy who was going to kill you,” Not Eddie answered. “Right after he got what he wanted.”
“Which is what?”
“You tell me.”
Oddly enough, Hellerman knew exactly what Not Eddie meant. This was all about his new secret, it had to be. “Are we talking about the kid?”
“Yes, exactly…the kid. Where is he? We need to get to him before they do.”
The speedometer was pushing seventy now. The posted speed limit on Route 9 was thirty-five.
“Wait a second,” said Hellerman. He was back to full-blown confused. “Who’s they?”
“The ones who developed the serum. That’s what the kid told you about, right? That’s what he uncovered. The serum.”
“How do you know?”
Finally, Not Eddie was ready to explain. “I’m FBI,” he said.
Had Hellerman actually been sitting in a seat, he would’ve fallen out of it. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You’re telling me the FBI has an agent working undercover in the CIA?”
“Someone has to keep them in line.”
“By killing one of them?”
“It was either you or him, so I think the words you’re really looking for are ‘thank you.’”
“I’m sorry,” said Hellerman. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. But now you’ve got to help me,” Not Eddie said. “Where is he? Because we can’t protect him if we don’t know where he is.”
Hellerman couldn’t argue with the logic. After all, he was living proof of it. Mr. Not Eddie—or whatever his real name was—had just saved his life.
So he told him what he knew, that the kid had travel plans.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” said Hellerman.
“And what did he want you to do?”
“Spill the beans internally. Later this morning, I’m supposed to meet with the assistant director.”
Not Eddie, whose real name was Gordon, glanced back at Hellerman in the rearview mirror. “Thanks,” he said with a nod. “I appreciate your telling me the truth.”
“As do I,” said Hellerman.
“Yeah, about that…there’s something else I need to tell you.”
Gordon pulled off the road with a sharp tug on the wheel. He turned back to Hellerman and shrugged. “That stuff about me working for the FBI? I lied.”
And just like that, without the slightest hesitation, he reached for his grande mocha Beretta M9 and shot Hellerman in the head.
Then he turned the van around and went back to pick up his partner, whom he hadn’t really killed.
That was a lie, too.
What the Truth Knows
HAD IT been anyone else, any other woman, the moment might have registered upward of a 7.6 on the Emasculation Scale, or whatever number it takes to rattle a man’s self-confidence until he crumbles.
But this wasn’t any other woman. This was Claire.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
Right in the middle of our having sex, she’d burst out laughing. I mean, really laughing. The whole bed was shaking.
“I’m sorry,” Claire said, trying to stop. That just made her laugh harder and do that little crinkle thing with her nose that in a weird and wonderful way always made her look even prettier.
“Damn, it’s the sex, isn’t it? I’m doing it all wrong again,” I joked. At least, I hoped I was joking.
As I propped an elbow on the mattress, she finally explained. “I was just remembering that time when you—”
“Really?” I said, immediately cutting her off. “That’s what you were thinking about?”
There was a certain something simpatico between Claire and me that allowed each of us to know what the other was about to say or do, based on nothing more than our shared history. For the record, that history was two years of officially dating, followed by the past two years, during which we were just friends (with benefits) because our respective careers had put a major strain on the officially dating thing.
Oddly enough—or maybe not—we’d never been happier together.
Claire wrapped her arms around me, smiling. “Just so you know, I always thought it was cute,” she said. “Endearing, even.”
“And just so you know, it happened over three years ago and I’m pretty sure I was drunk.”
“You weren’t drunk,” she said.
“Okay, but it was definitely over three years ago. Shouldn’t there be some kind of statute of limitations?”
“On a man’s first attempt to talk dirty in bed? I don’t think so.”
“How do you know it was my first time?”
She shot me a deadpan look. “I want to spank you like Santa Claus?”
All right, she had me there.
“Fair enough,” I said. “Rookie mistake. In my defense, though, it was right before Christmas.”
“Of course,” said Claire, “because that’s the first rule of talking dirty in bed. Keep it topical.”
“Okay, now you’re just mocking me.”
“No, I’m pretty sure I was mocking you before that,” she said. “Tell you what, though, I’m willing to give you a second chance.”
“Charlie Brown and the football, that’s why,” I said.
“I promise I won’t laugh this time.”
“Sure thing, Lucy.”
“No, really.” Claire lifted her head off the pillow, gently kissing my lower lip. “Let’s see what you’ve got, Mr. Mann.”
I stared at her, waiting for her to say she was only kidding. Calling me by my last name was sometimes a tip-off. Not this time, though.
“You’re stalling,” she insisted.
“No, just stumped. Not a lot of holidays in June.”
Claire chuckled, playing along. She always played along. “You’ve got Flag Day next week,” she said. “Maybe something about your pole?”
“Speaking of half-mast, though.”
I glanced down beneath the sheets. “Well, whose fault is that?”
Claire suddenly grabbed my backside, rolling me like a kayak. Next thing I knew, she was on top and pushing her long auburn hair back from her eyes.
“Sometimes it just takes a woman,” she said.
She then leaned down to my ear and whispered a request that was easily the dirtiest thing I’d ever heard her say. Just filthy. X-rated. Obscene.
And I loved it.
But before I could show her just how much, we both froze to a horrible sound filling the room.
Now I really couldn’t believe my ears.
CLAIRE UNATTACHED herself from me, for lack of a more delicate way to describe it, and reached for “the Stopper” on my bedside table. That was my nickname for it. When it rang, everything else stopped.
“I’m sorry,” she said before taking the call.
“You and me both,” I said under my breath.
In all, Claire owned three cell phones. The first, her iPhone, was for personal use. Friends and family.
The second, a BlackBerry, was for work. Claire S. Parker, as her byline read, was a national affairs reporter for the New York Times.
Her third phone, an old Motorola, was also for work. Except this phone and its number were for a very small and select group. Her sources.
Which was another reason why the Stopper was a good name for this phone. The identity of these sources stopped with her, cold, end of story. Not her editor, not the executive editor, not even Judge Reginald McCabe had ever been told the name of a single source of Claire’s.
As far as that last guy, Judge McCabe of the United States District Court, was concerned, he went so far as to charge Claire with contempt when she refused to identify a source after being subpoenaed in a criminal homicide case involving an American military attaché assigned to the UN. That got her thirty-six days and nights at the Taconic Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, New York. I have to say, she rocked the orange jumpsuit they made her wear.
“Hello?” Claire answered.
The unwritten ground rules for when she took these calls were simple. If I had been at her place downtown, I’d have gotten up and given her some privacy. Since we were at my place, though, I had squatter’s rights. If she needed privacy, she’d be the one leaving the bedroom.
But she remained sitting there on the edge of the bed. Naked, no less.
She listened for a few moments, the beat-up old flip phone pressed tight against her ear. Then, her voice high-pitched with surprise, she asked, “Wait, you’re here in the city?” Quickly, she began tapping her thumb and forefinger together, twisting her wrist in the air. If I’d been a waiter in a restaurant, I would’ve been bringing her the check. But I knew what she actually wanted.
I leaned over to the bedside table closest to me, pulling out the drawer. After handing her a pen, I was about to offer up some paper when I saw her reach for a yellow legal pad that was sitting atop a tall stack of books on the floor, also known as my to-read pile. Mostly biographies. Some historical fiction mixed in as well.
As Claire scribbled something on the pad, I stared at the freckles on the curve of her shoulders, hundreds of them. My eyes drifted down her spine and I smiled, thinking of the trip we took to Block Island a few summers ago, when I rubbed suntan lotion on her bikinied back and sneakily left bare a small stretch of real estate spelling out my initials, TM.
“Trevor Mann!” she screamed later that afternoon when she caught a glimpse in the mirror as she stepped out of the shower. After delivering a punch to my shoulder—with more wallop than her thin frame would ever have suggested—she broke up laughing. “I’ve been trademarked!”
Even now, squinting a bit in the dimness of my bedroom, I could still sort of see most of the T and some of the M. Or so I’d convinced myself.
“Okay, don’t go anywhere,” Claire said into the phone.
I was hoping she’d hang up, turn around, and say, “Now, where were we?” but I knew that was beyond wishful thinking. By the time she looked back at me over her shoulder and all those freckles, I already knew.
“You have to go, don’t you?” I said.
She leaned over and kissed me. “I’m sorry.”
Those same unwritten ground rules had it that I wasn’t supposed to pry. But as I watched her dress, and saw the bounce in her step, I couldn’t help myself.
“You’ve got something, don’t you?” I asked. “Something good.”
She nodded with a touch of giddiness.
I stared at her, waiting for something, anything that hinted at what it might be. I must have looked like a dog sitting at the edge of the dinner table, silently begging for scraps.
“I know,” she said finally. “But we have to keep some mystery between us, don’t we?”
Buttoning the last button on her navy-blue blouse, she returned to the side of the bed and kissed me one last time before leaving.
“Call me in the morning,” I said.
She smiled. “Promise.”
A little over two hours later, I was jolted awake by the sound of my phone. It was just shy of one a.m.
Claire’s older sister was calling from Boston. She was crying and couldn’t get the words out. She didn’t have to. It was as if I knew the second I picked up the phone. There was a certain something simpatico between Claire and me.
Something terrible had happened.
DETECTIVE DAVE Lamont shook my hand firmly in the front waiting area of the Midtown North Precinct on West Fifty-Fourth Street and led me upstairs to the far back corner of a squad room that was empty and silent, save for the baritone hum of the fluorescent lighting overhead.
“Have a seat,” he said, pointing to a folding metal chair in front of his desk. “You want some coffee?”
“No, I’m okay. Thanks.”
He grabbed a mug with a faded New York Giants logo on it that was sitting on top of some overstuffed folders. “I’ll be right back.”
I watched him as he walked off. Lamont was a tall man, filled out by age, but still with a build that suggested a degree of athleticism somewhere in his past. Given the Giants mug, I was thinking there was probably an old high school yearbook out there with the word linebacker next to his name.
Claire once showed me her high school yearbook. Her senior quote was from Andrew Marvell: “Had we but world enough and time…”
Christ, this is really happening, isn’t it? She’s really gone. Just like that. I feel numb. No, that’s not right. I feel everything. And it’s hurting like hell.
Claire’s sister, Ellen, had given me Detective Lamont’s name and number. He’d made the call to her up in Boston, breaking the news.
I wasn’t next of kin, husband or fiancé, or even the last person to see Claire alive, but when I’d told Lamont my name over the phone I’d been pretty sure he’d agree to see me right away.
“You were that ADA, weren’t you?” he asked.
“Yeah, that was me,” I answered.
Me, as in that former Manhattan assistant district attorney. Back when I played for the home team. Before I changed jerseys.
Before I got disbarred.
I knew he knew the story. Most every cop in the city did, at least the veterans. It was the kind of story they wouldn’t forget.
Lamont came back now and sat behind his desk with a full mug of coffee. He took a sip as he pulled Claire’s file in front of him, the steam momentarily fogging the bottom half of his drugstore-variety glasses.
Then he shook his head slowly and simply stared at me for a moment, unblinking.
“Fuckin’ random,” he said finally.
I nodded as he flipped open the file to his notes in anticipation of my questions. I had a lot of them.
Christ. The pain is only going to get worse, isn’t it?
“WHERE EXACTLY did it happen?” I asked.
“West End Avenue at Seventy-Third. The taxi was stopped at a red light,” said Lamont. “The assailant smashed the driver’s side window, pistol-whipped the driver until he was knocked out cold, and grabbed his money bag. He then robbed Ms. Parker at gunpoint.”
“Claire,” I said.
“Please call her Claire.”
I knew it was a weird thing for me to say, but weirder still was hearing Lamont refer to Claire as Ms. Parker, not that I blamed him. Victims are always Mr., Mrs., or Ms. for a detective. He was supposed to call her that. I just wasn’t ready to hear it.
“I apologize,” I said. “It’s just that—”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said with a raised palm. He understood. He got it.
“So what happened next?” I asked. “What went wrong?”
PRAISE FOR JAMES PATTERSON
"The prolific Patterson seems unstoppable."—USA Today
- "James Patterson knows how to sell thrills and suspense in clean, unwavering prose."—People
- "Patterson's novels are sleek entertainment machines, the Porsches of commercial fiction, expertly engineered and lightning fast."—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Jan 5, 2016
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Grand Central Publishing