The innocent, p.17
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       The Innocent, p.17
 

           Harlan Coben
Chapter 16

  "HEY, GUESS WHAT I'm doing to your wife right now?"

  Matt held the phone to his ear.

  The man whispered, "Matt? You still there?"

  Matt said nothing.

  "Yo, Matt, did you tattle on me? I mean, did you tell the wife about me sending you those pictures?"

  He couldn't move.

  "Because Olivia is being much more protective with her phone. Oh, she won't stop doing me. That ain't gonna happen. She's addicted, you know what I'm saying?"

  Matt's eyes closed.

  "But all of a sudden she says she wants to be more careful. So I'm wondering, you know, guy to guy here, did you say something? Let her in on our little secret?"

  Matt's hand clamped down so hard he thought the phone might crack in his hand. He tried to take in deep breaths, but his chest kept hitching up. He found his voice and said, "When I find you, Charles Talley, I'm going to rip off your head and crap down your neck. "

  Silence.

  "You still there, Charles?"

  The voice on the phone was a whisper. "Gotta run. She's coming back. "

  And then he was gone.

  Matt told Rolanda to cancel his afternoon appointments.

  "You don't have any appointments," she said.

  "Don't be a wiseass. "

  "You want to tell me what's wrong?"

  "Later. "

  He started home. The camera phone was still in his hand. He waited until he pulled up to their place off Main Street in Irvington. The already-sparse grass had pretty much died in the recent drought- there had been no rainfall on the East Coast for three weeks. In suburbs like Livingston, the lushness of one's lawn is taken seriously. Banning it, sitting by idly as one's green deadened to brown, was worthy of a good neighborly teeth-gnashing over the new Weber Genesis Gold B backyard grill. Here, in Irvington, nobody cared.

  Lawns were a rich man's game.

  Matt and Olivia lived in a declining two-family held together by aluminum siding. They had the right side of the dwelling; the Owens, an African-American family of five, had the left. Both sides had two bedrooms and one and a half baths.

  He took the stoop two steps at a time. When he got inside he hit the speed-dial-one spot for Olivia. It went into her voice mail again. He wasn't surprised. He waited for the beep.

  "I know you're not at the Ritz," Matt said. "I know it was you in the blonde wig. I know it wasn't a big joke. I even know about Charles Talley. So call me and explain. "

  He hung up and looked out the window. There was a Shell gas station on the corner. He watched it. His breaths were coming in shallow gulps. He tried to slow them down. He grabbed a suitcase from the closet, threw it on the bed, started stuffing his clothes into it.

  He stopped. Packing a suitcase. A stupid and histrionic move. Cut it out.

  Olivia would be home tomorrow.

  And if she wasn't?

  No use thinking about it. She would be home. It would all come together, one way or the other, in a few hours.

  But he was no longer above snooping. He started in Olivia's drawers. He barely hated himself for doing it. That voice on the phone had set him off. Best-case scenario now: Olivia was hiding something from him. He might as well find out what.

  But he found nothing.

  Not in the drawers, not in the closets. He thought about other possible hiding spots when he remembered something.

  The computer.

  He headed upstairs and hit the power switch. The computer booted up, came to life. It seemed to take an inordinate amount of time. Matt's right leg started shaking up and down. He put his palm on the knee to slow it down.

  They'd finally gotten a cable modem- dial-ups going the way of the Betamax- and he was on the Web in seconds. He knew Olivia's password, though he had never dreamed of using it like this. He logged onto her e-mail and scanned the messages. The new stuff held no surprises. He tried the old mail.

  The directory was empty.

  He tried looking under her "Sent Mail" folder. Same thing- everything had been deleted. He tried the section called "Deleted Mail. " It too had been cleaned out. He checked through the browser's "History," hoping to see where Olivia had last surfed. That, too, had been erased.

  Matt sat back and drew an obvious conclusion: Olivia had been covering her tracks. And the obvious follow-up question was: Why?

  There was one more area to check: the cookies.

  People often erased their surfing history or their mailbox, but the cookies were something different. If Olivia had wiped out the cookies, Matt would automatically know something had gone awry. His Yahoo! home page wouldn't automatically come up, for instance. Amazon wouldn't know who he was. A person trying to cover their tracks would not want that.

  Clearing out the cookies would be too noticeable.

  He went through Explorer and found the folder that held the Web's cookies. There were tons of them. He clicked the date button, thereby putting them in date order, the most recent at the top. His eyes ran down them. Most of them he recognized- Google, OfficeMax, Shutterfly- but there were two unfamiliar domains. He wrote them down, minimized the Explorer window, went back to the Web.

  He typed in the first address and hit return. It was for the Nevada Sun News- a newspaper that required you to sign up in order to access the archives. The paper's home office was in Las Vegas. He checked the "personal profile. " Olivia had signed up using a fake name and e-mail address. No surprise there. They both did that, to prevent spam and protect privacy.

  But what had she been looking up?

  There was no way to tell.

  Strange, maybe, but the second Web address was far more so.

  It took a while for the Web to recognize what he'd typed in. The address bounced from one spot to another before finally landing on something called:

  Stripper-Fandom. com.

  Matt frowned. There was a warning on the home page that nobody under the age of eighteen should continue. That didn't bode well. He clicked the enter icon. The pictures that appeared were, as one might expect, provocative. Stripper-Fandom was an "appreciation" site for. . .

  . . . for female strippers?

  Matt shook his head. There were countless thumbnails of topless women. He clicked one. There were biographies listed for each girl:

  Bunny's career as an exotic dancer started in Atlantic City, but with her impressive dance moves and slinky costumes, she quickly rose to stardom and moved to Vegas. "I love it out here! And I love rich men!" Bunny's specialty is wearing bunny ears and doing a hop-dance using the pole. . .

  Matt clicked the link. An e-mail address came up, in case you wanted to write Bunny and request rates for a "private audience. " It actually said that- private audience. Like Bunny was the pope.

  What the hell was going on here?

  Matt searched through the stripper fan site until he could take no more. Nothing jumped out at him. Nothing fell into place. He just felt more confused. Maybe the site meant nothing at all. Most of the strippers were from the Vegas area. Maybe Olivia had gotten there by clicking an advertising link at that Nevada newspaper. Maybe the link wasn't even marked as a stripper site and just led there.

  But why was she on a Nevada newspaper site in the first place? Why had she erased all her e-mails?

  No answer.

  Matt thought about Charles Talley. He Googled the name. Nothing interesting came up. He shut down the browser and moved back downstairs, that whisper from the phone call still echoing in his head, shredding all reason:

  "Hey, guess what I'm doing to your wife right now?"

  Time to get some air. Air and something more potent.

  He headed outside and started for South Orange Avenue. From the Garden State Parkway, you couldn't miss the giant brown beer bottle rising up and dominating the skyline. But when you traveled this section of the GSP, the other thing you noticed- maybe even more than the old water tank- was the sprawling cemetery on both sides of the road. Th
e parkway cut smack through the middle of a burial ground. You were encased left and right by unending rows of weather-beaten gravestones. But the effect of driving through was not so much splitting a cemetery in half as much as zipping it together, of making something whole. And there, in the not-so-far distance, this strange giant beer bottle stood, high in the air, a silent sentinel guarding or maybe mocking the buried inhabitants.

  The damage to the brewery was somewhat mystifying. Every window was only partially broken, not fully smashed, as if someone had taken the time to throw one rock and only one rock at every single window in the twelve-story structure. Shards lay everywhere. Every opening was a yawning, jangled threat. The combination of erosion and pride, the strong skeleton against the missing-teeth shattered-eye look from the broken glass, gave the place a strange downtrodden-warrior bearing.

  Soon they would tear the old factory down and build an upscale mall. Just what Jersey needed, he thought- another mall.

  Matt turned down the alley and headed for the faded red door. The tavern did not have a name on it. There was one window with a Pabst Blue Ribbon neon sign in it. Like the brewery- like this city?- the sign no longer lit up.

  Matt opened the door, forcing sunlight into a place bathed in darkness. The men- there was only one woman here right now and she'd hit you if you called her a lady- blinked like bats who'd had a flashlight shined on them. There was no jukebox playing, no music at all. The conversations were kept as low as the lights.

  Mel was still behind the bar. Matt hadn't been here in, what, two, three years at least, but Mel still knew him by name. The tavern was a classic dive. You see them everywhere across the United States. Men- mostly, anyway- finishing up whatever job they grinded out were now looking to get a buzz on. If that included some boasting or banter, so be it, but places like this were much more about inebriation than consolation or conversation.

  Before his stint in prison Matt would have never gone into a dump like Mel's. He now liked rougher spots. He was not sure why. The men in here were big with undefined muscle. They wore flannel shirts in the fall and winter, and bowling-gut-emphasizing T-shirts in the spring and summer. They wore jeans year-round. There weren't many fights in here, but you didn't walk in a place like this unless you knew how to use your fists.

  Matt took a seat on a stool. Mel nodded at him. "Beer?"

  "Vodka. "

  Mel poured him one. Matt held the glass, looked at it, shook his head. Drinking away his problems. Could he be a bigger cliche? He threw back the vodka and let the warmth coast through him. He nodded for another, but Mel was already on the case. Matt threw that one back too.

  He started to feel better. Or to say the same thing in another way: He started to feel less. His eyes slowly swerved from side to side. He felt, as he did in most places, slightly out of place- a spy in enemy territory. He was not really comfortable anywhere anymore- his old softer world or his new hardened one. So he straddled both. Truth was, he was only comfortable- pitiful as it sounded- when he was with Olivia.

  Damn her.

  Third shot down the hatch. The buzzing started in the base of his skull.

  Yo, check out the big man throwing back the booze.

  He already felt a bit wobbly. He wanted that. Just make it go away, he thought. Not forever. He wasn't drinking away the blues. He was postponing them, for just one more night, just until Olivia came home and explained to him why she was in a motel room with another man, why she lied about it, why the guy knew that he had told her about the pictures.

  Like that. The little things.

  He pointed for another. Mel, rarely one to converse or hand out advice, poured.

  "You're a beautiful man, Mel. "

  "Hey, thanks, Matt. I get that a lot, but it still means something, you know?"

  Matt smiled and looked at the glass. Just for a night. Just let it go.

  A big moose came back from the can, accidentally bumping into Matt as he walked past. Matt startled to, gave the moose the eye. "Watch it," Matt said.

  The moose grunted an apology, diffusing the moment. Matt was almost disappointed. One would think he'd be smarter- that Matt, better than anyone, knew the danger in fisticuffs of any sort- but not tonight. Nope, tonight fisticuffs would be most welcome, yes indeed.

  Screw the consequences, right?

  He looked for Stephen McGrath's ghost. He often sat on the next bar stool. But Stephen was nowhere to be found tonight. Good.

  Matt was not a good drinker. He knew that. He could not hold his liquor. He was already past buzzed and nearing inebriation. The key, of course, was knowing when to stop- maintaining the high without the aftermath. It was a line many people tried to find. It was a line most tripped over.

  Tonight he really didn't care about the line.

  "Another. "

  The word came out slurred. He could hear it. It was hostile too. The vodka was making him angry or, more likely, letting him be. He was actually hoping for trouble now, even while he feared it. The anger was making him focus. Or at least that was what he wanted to believe. His thinking was no longer muddled. He knew what he wanted. He wanted to hit someone. He wanted a physical confrontation. It didn't matter if he crushed someone or someone crushed him.

  He didn't care.

  Matt wondered about this- this taste for violence. About its origins. Maybe his old chum Detective Lance Banner was right. Prison changes you. You go in one guy, even if you're innocent, but you come out. . .

  Detective Lance Banner.

  The keeper of the Livingston gate, the dumb hick bastard.

  Time passed. It was impossible to say how much. He eventually signaled for Mel to come over and total him up. When he hopped off the stool, the inside of Matt's skull screamed in protest. He grabbed the bar, got his bearings. "Later, Mel. "

  "Good seeing you, Matt. "

  He weaved his way out, one name ringing repeatedly in his head.

  Detective Lance Banner.

  Matt remembered an incident in second grade when he and Lance had both been seven. During a recess game of Four Squares- the dumbest game since Tetherball- Lance's pants had split. What made it worse, what made it one of those wholly horrifying childhood incidents, was that Lance had not worn underwear that day. A nickname had been born, one that Lance hadn't been able to shake until middle school: "Keep It in Your Pants, Lance. "

  Matt laughed out loud.

  Then Lance's voice came back to him: "We have a nice neighborhood here. "

  "That so?" Matt said out loud. "Do all the kids wear underwear now, Lance?"

  Matt laughed again at his own joke. The noise echoed in the tavern, but nobody looked up.

  He pushed the door open. It was night now. He stumbled down the street, still cracking up at his own joke. His car was parked near his house. A couple of his quasi-neighbors stood near it, both drinking out of brown paper bags.

  One of the two. . . homeless was the politically correct term they used nowadays, but these guys preferred the old standby winos, called out to him. "Yo, Matt. "

  "How are you, Lawrence?"

  "Good, man. " He held out the bag. "Need a swig?"

  "Nah. "

  "Yo. " Lawrence made a waving motion with his hand. "Looks like you been having your fill anyway, huh?"

  Matt smiled. He reached into his pocket and peeled off a twenty. "You two get some of the good stuff. On me. "

  A broad smile broke out on Lawrence's face. "Matt, you's all right. "

  "Yeah. Yeah, I'm very special. "

  Lawrence laughed at that one like it was a Richard Pryor special. Matt waved and walked away. He dug into his pocket and pulled out his car keys. He looked at the keys in his hand, at the car, and then he stopped.

  He was plastered.

  Matt was irrational right now. He was stupid. He'd love to beat the hell out of someone- Lance Banner being number two on his list (Charles Talley was number one, but Matt didn't know how to find him)- but he was not tha
t stupid. He wouldn't drive in this condition.

  Lawrence said, "Yo, Matt, you wanna hang with us?"

  "Maybe later, guys. "

  Matt spun around and headed back toward Grove Street. The number 70 bus hit Livingston. He waited at the stop, swaying with the wind. He was the only one there. Most of the people were traveling from the other direction- exhausted domestics trudging back from the wealthier environs to their far more humble abodes.

  Welcome to the flip side of the burbs.

  When bus 70 pulled up, Matt watched the tired women descend, zombielike. Nobody spoke. Nobody smiled. Nobody was there to greet them.

  The bus ride was maybe ten miles, but what a ten miles. You went from the decay of Newark and Irvington and suddenly it was like you hit another universe. The change happened in a snap. There was Maplewood and Milburn and Short Hills and finally Livingston. Matt thought again about distance, about geography, about the truly thinnest of lines.

  Matt rested his head against the bus window, the vibration working like a strange massage. He thought about Stephen McGrath and that terrible night in Amherst, Massachusetts. He thought about his hands around Stephen's neck. He wondered how hard he squeezed. He wondered if he could have let go as they fell, if that would have made a difference. He wondered if maybe, just maybe, he gripped the neck even tighter.

  He wondered about that a lot.

  Matt got off at the circle on Route 10 and walked toward Livingston's favorite watering hole, the Landmark. The lot on Northfield Avenue was chock full of minivans. Matt sneered. No thin line here. This was not Mel's. This was a goddamn wussy bar, if ever he saw one. He pushed open the door.

  Lance Banner would be here.

  The Landmark was, of course, nothing like Mel's. It was brightly lit. It was loud. Outkast sang about roses smelling like boo-boo- safe ghetto music. There was no cracked vinyl, no peeling paint, no sawdust on the floor. The Heineken signs worked. So did the Budweiser clock, complete with moving Clydesdales. Very little hard liquor was being served. Pitchers of beer lined the tables. At least half the men were dressed in softball uniforms with various sponsors- Friendly's Ice Cream, Best Buy, Burrelle's Press Clipping- and enjoying a post-rec-league-game celebration with teammates and opponents alike. There was a smattering of college kids home on break from Princeton or Rutgers or- gasp- maybe Matt's almost alma mater, Bowdoin.

  Matt stepped inside and when he did, nobody turned around. Not at first. Everyone was laughing. Everyone was boisterous and red-faced and healthy. Everyone talked at the same time. Everyone smiled and swore too casually and looked soft.

  And then he saw his brother, Bernie.

  Except, of course, it wasn't Bernie. Bernie was dead. But man, it looked like him. At least from the back. Matt and Bernie used to come here with fake IDs. They'd laugh and be boisterous and talk at the same time and swear too casually. They'd watch those other guys, the rec-league softball players, and listen to them talk about their kitchen additions, their careers, their kids, their boxes at Yankee Stadium, their experiences coaching Little League, the lamentations over their declining sex lives.

  As Matt stood there, thinking about his brother, the energy of the place shifted. Someone recognized him. A ripple began. Murmurs followed and heads turned. Matt looked around for Lance Banner. He didn't see him. He spotted the table with the cops- you could just tell that was what they were- and recognized one of them as the cop-kid Lance had braced him with yesterday.

  Still heavily under the influence, Matt tried to keep his walk steady. The cops gave their best laser glares as he approached. The glares didn't faze him. Matt had seen much worse. The table grew silent as he approached the cop-kid.

  Matt stopped in front of him. The kid did not step back. Matt tried not to sway.

  "Where's Lance?" Matt asked.

  "Who wants to know?"

  "Good one. " Matt nodded. "Say, who writes your lines?"

  "What?"

  " 'Who wants to know?' That's funny stuff, really. I mean, I'm standing in front of you, I'm asking you directly, and you come up, bang, on the spot, no time to think, with, 'Who wants to know?' " Matt moved in closer. "I'm standing right here- so who the hell do you think wants to know?"

  Matt heard the sound of chair legs scraping the floor, but he didn't look away. The cop-kid glanced toward his buddies, then back at Matt. "You're drunk. "

  "So?"

  He got into Matt's face now. "So you want me to haul your ass downtown and give you a Breathalyzer?"

  "One"- Matt raised his index finger-"Livingston's police station is not downtown. It's more midtown. You've been watching too many repeats of NYPD Blue. Two, I'm not driving, numbnuts, so I'm not sure what a Breathalyzer is supposed to do for you. Three, while we're on the subject of breath and you standing in my face and all, I have mints in my pocket. I'm going to slowly reach for them so you can have one. Or even the whole pack. "

  Another cop stood. "Get out of here, Hunter. "

  Matt turned toward him and squinted. It took him a second to recognize the ferret-faced man. "My God, it's Fleisher, right? You're Dougie's little brother. "

  "Nobody wants you here. "

  "Nobody. . . ?" Matt turned from one man to the other. "Are you guys for real? You going to run me out of town now? You"- Matt snapped, pointed-"Fleisher's little brother, what's your first name?"

  He didn't answer.

  "Never mind. Your brother Dougie was the biggest pothead in my class. He dealt to the whole school. We called him Weed, for crying out loud. "

  "You talking trash about my brother?"

  "I'm not talking trash. I'm talking truth. "

  "You want to spend the night in jail?"

  "For what, asswipe? You going to arrest me on some trumped-up charge? Go ahead. I work for a law firm. I'll sue your ass back to the high school equivalency exam you probably never passed. "

  More chair scrapes. Another cop stood. Then another. Matt's heart started doing a quick two-step. Someone reached and grabbed his wrist. Matt pulled away. His right hand formed a fist.

  "Matt?"

  This voice was gentle and struck a distant chord deep inside of him. Matt glanced behind the bar. Pete Appel. His old friend from high school. They'd played together at the Riker Hill Park. The park was a converted Cold War missile base. He and Pete used to play rocket ships on the cracked concrete launch pads. Only in New Jersey.

  Pete smiled at him. Matt relaxed the fist. The cops all stayed in place.

  "Hey, Pete. "

  "Hey, Matt. "

  "Good to see you, man. "

  "You too," Pete said. "Look, I'm getting off now. Why don't I give you a lift home, okay?"

  Matt looked at the cops. Several were red-faced, ready to go. He turned back to his old friend. "That's okay, Pete. I'll find my way. "

  "You sure?"

  "Yeah. Look, man, sorry if I caused you any trouble. "

  Pete nodded. "Good to see you. "

  "You too. "

  Matt waited. Two of the cops made a space. He did not look back as he walked out into the lot. He sucked in the night air and started down the street. Soon he broke into a run.

  He had a specific destination in mind.

 
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