There’s no question that Coben’s protagonist in Fool Me Once is on the edge. An Army pilot, Captain Maya Stern has left the chaos of war behind only to face the murder of her sister, Claire, and months later her husband, Joe Burkett. Now left to raise two-year-old Lily by herself, Maya resists the smothering embrace of her husband’s wealthy family, who have had their own tragic losses over the years, Joe’s death only the latest blow. Keeping the wartime nightmares that haunt her sleep to herself, Maya wants only to restore her life and Lily’s to some type of normalcy, comforted by fellow soldier and longtime ally Shane and the friend she shared with Claire since their college days, Eileen.
When Eileen suggests using a nanny cam when she returns to work, Maya agrees, though she has been happy with Isabella, a young woman from a family that has always worked for the Burketts. Almost ready to return to her job as a flight instructor at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, Maya is weary of answering detectives’ questions about the night of Joe’s death and her escape from the assassins. Between the questions, the strain of the funeral, and caring for Lily, each day has been torturous.
Only when she stops to view the footage on the nanny cam on her computer does Maya suspect that something is very wrong. Among the nanny cam’s images, Maya sees Joe playing with his daughter in the den--after his funeral. While she knows it’s impossible, Maya realizes no one will believe her when the memory card with the images disappears.
While Maya presents the tough exterior of a seasoned soldier to the world, she is wracked with confusion over recent events, her PTSD exacerbated by grief, Joe’s appearance on the camera, and a snap decision to enroll Lily in a reliable daycare facility; she can view the child’s activities at any time with a special app. Though responsible and detail-oriented to a fault, Maya starts to question everything that’s happened since Claire’s unsolved murder, loss and pain everywhere around her:
"Death follows you, Maya.” Balancing her efforts between investigating on her own and seeking information about Joe’s case, hungry for information to narrow her search, Maya is increasingly wary, unstrung by an image of Joe that doesn’t make any sense.
While experience in war teaches Maya the art of survival, she worries that the questions plaguing her are a sign of paranoia as each new discovery leads to one more sinister connection between Claire’s and Joe’s murders and the Burkett family. Although driven to know, following clues wherever they may lead, she must face each new day with her little daughter, exhausted after a harrowing, sleepless night: “Grief don’t do that to a man. Guilt does.” Maya is at war, only this time a private war to find the truth and keep her daughter safe, even Shane concerned for her well-being: “We humans are wonderful at self-deception.”
Captain Stern is a woman carrying significant emotional baggage, attempting to think her way through the incongruous events that have turned her world inside-out. Forced to trust those who may be untrustworthy, Maya makes split decisions and deals with the consequences, asking Shane to trust her when she makes decisions he doesn’t yet understand. Reality shifts back and forth until the final pages, when Maya can finally confront a monstrous betrayal she has uncovered in a shocking, unexpected ending.