The innocent, p.18
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       The Innocent, p.18

           Harlan Coben
 
Chapter 17

  LANCE BANNER WAS still smiling at Loren. "Come on, get in," he said. "We'll talk. "

  She took one more look at Marsha Hunter's house and then slid into the passenger seat. Lance started driving around the old neighborhood.

  "So," he said, "what did you want with Matt's sister-in-law?"

  She swore Lance to secrecy but still tossed him only the bare bones- that she was investigating the suspicious death of Sister Mary Rose, that they weren't sure that there was even a murder yet, that Sister Mary Rose had possibly placed a phone call to Marsha Hunter's residence. She did not tell him about the implants or the fact that they didn't know the nun's real identity.

  For his part, Lance informed her that Matt Hunter was married now, that he currently worked as a "low-level, shat-upon" paralegal in his brother's old law firm. Matt Hunter's wife, Lance said, was from Virginia or Maryland, he couldn't remember which. Lance also added, with a little too much enthusiasm, that he would be happy to help Loren look into this case.

  Loren told him not to bother, that this was her investigation, that if he thought of something he should let her know. Lance nodded and drove her back to her own car.

  Before Loren stepped out, she said, "Do you remember him? I mean, as a kid?"

  "Hunter?" Lance frowned. "Yeah, sure, I remember him. "

  "He seemed like a pretty straight shooter. "

  "So do a lot of killers. "

  Loren reached for the door handle, shaking her head. "You really believe that?"

  Lance said nothing.

  "I read something the other day," Loren said. "I don't remember the details, but the basic premise was that by the age of five, much of our future self is determined: how well we'll do in schools, if we'll grow up to be a criminal, our capacity to love. You buy that, Lance?"

  "Don't know," he said. "Don't much care. "

  "You've caught a lot of bad guys, right?"

  "Yeah. "

  "You ever look into their past?"

  "Sometimes. "

  "Seems to me," Loren said, "that I always find something. There's usually a pretty obvious case of past psychosis or trauma. On the news, the neighbors are always like, 'Gee, I didn't know that nice man was chopping up little kids- he always seemed so polite. ' But you go back, you ask their schoolteachers, you ask their childhood friends, they almost always tell a different story. They're never surprised. "

  Lance nodded.

  "So what about it?" she asked. "You see anything in his past that makes Matt Hunter a killer?"

  Lance thought about it. "If it was all determined by the age of five, we wouldn't have jobs. "

  "That's not an answer. "

  "Best I can do. You try to profile based on how a third-grader played on the monkey bars, we're all screwed. "

  He had a point. Either way Loren needed to keep her eye on the ball- right now that meant tracking down Matt Hunter. She got back into her car and started south. There was still time to get to Lockwood Corp. in Wilmington, Delaware, before it was too dark.

  She tried to reach Matt Hunter at the law firm, but he was gone for the day. She called his house and left a message on the machine: "Matt, this is Loren Muse. I'm an investigator with the Essex County prosecutor's office. We knew each other a lifetime ago, at Burnet Hill. Could you give me a call as soon as possible?"

  She left both her mobile and office numbers before hanging up.

  The usually two-hour ride to Delaware took her an hour and twenty minutes. Loren didn't use the siren, but she did keep the small detachable flashing blue light on for the entire journey. She liked speeding- what's the point in being in law enforcement if you can't drive fast and carry a gun?

  Randal Horne's office was a cookie-cut attorney spread. His firm took up three floors in a warehouse of office buildings, one next to the other, an unending drone of boxed sameness.

  The receptionist at Horne, Buckman and Pierce, a classic battle-ax who was comfortably past her prime, eyed Loren as if she'd recognized her from a sex offender poster. Full frown in place, the battle-ax told her to sit.

  Randal Horne kept her waiting for a full twenty minutes- a classic, if not transparent, lawyer mind game. She passed the time reading the thrilling magazine selection, which consisted of various issues of The Third Branch, the newsletter of federal courts, and the American Bar Association Journal. Loren sighed. What she wouldn't give for something with Lindsay, or Colin, on the cover.

  Horne finally came out to the reception area and moved so that he stood directly over her. He was younger than she'd imagined, though he had that kind of shiny face Loren usually associated with Botox or Jermaine Jackson. His hair was a little too long, slicked back and curling around the neck. His suit was impeccable, though the lapels looked a little wide. Maybe that was back in.

  He skipped the introductions: "I don't really see that we have anything to discuss, Ms. Muse. "

  Randal Horne stood close to her so that she couldn't really stand. That was okay. He was trying to do the height thing with her. Loren was all of five-one as it was, so she was used to it. Part of her was tempted to smash her palm into his groin, just to get him to back up, but no, let him have his play.

  The battle-ax receptionist- she looked about fifteen years too old to play the prison matron in B-movies- watched the scene play out, the hint of a smile on her dry, lipstick-caked lips.

  Loren said, "I'd like the identity of the woman who purchased the breast implants with the serial number 89783348. "

  "In the first place," Horne said, "these are very old records. SurgiCo didn't keep the woman's name on record, only the doctor who performed the procedure. "

  "Fine, that'll be enough. "

  Horne crossed his arms. "Do you have a subpoena, Detective?"

  "It's on its way. "

  He gave her his smuggest expression, which was saying something. "Well then," he said, "I'll return to my office. Please inform Tiffany here when you have it, will you?"

  The battle-ax preened, smiled widely. Loren pointed at her and said, "You have lipstick on your teeth. " Then she turned her attention back to Randal Horne. "Do you mind telling me why you require a subpoena?"

  "There are all sorts of new patient privacy laws. We at the Lockwood Corporation believe in following them. "

  "But this woman is dead. "

  "Still. "

  "There are no medical secrets here. We know that she had implants. We're just trying to identify the body. "

  "There must be other ways, Detective. "

  "We're trying, believe me. But so far. . . " Loren shrugged.

  "Unfortunately that does not change our position. "

  "But your position, with all due respect, seems a tad fluid, Mr. Horne. "

  "I'm not sure I understand your point. "

  "Hold on a sec. " Loren started pulling folded papers out of her back pockets. "I had time on the ride down here to check the New Jersey cases. It seems that your company has always cooperated with law enforcement in the past. You released records on a cadaver found last July in Somerset County. A Mr. Hampton Wheeler, age sixty-six, had his head and fingers cut off in order to avoid identification, but the killer forgot he had a pacemaker. Your company helped the authorities ID him. There was another case-"

  "Detective. . . Muse, is it?"

  "Inspector. "

  "Inspector Muse. I'm very busy. Please make yourself comfortable. When your subpoena arrives, please feel free to tell Tiffany. "

  "Wait. " Loren glanced at the battle-ax. "Tiffany- I mean, that can't be her real name, right?"

  "If you'll excuse me. . . "

  "Mr. Horne, you already know I have no subpoena coming- that I was bluffing. "

  Randal Horne said nothing.

  Loren looked down and spotted the issue of The Third Branch. She frowned and turned toward Horne. This time she did stand. "You didn't think I was bluffing," she said, her words coming slowly. "You knew it. "

  Horne took a step back.
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br />   "But in reality," Loren went on, more to herself than to him, "it could have been true. It would have been tough timing, sure, but I could have called a federal judge on my way down here. The subpoena would be a no-brainer. Any member of the bench would have rubber-stamped it in five minutes. No judge in their right mind would refuse unless. . . "

  Randal Horne waited. It was almost as if he hoped she'd put it together.

  "Unless someone on the federal level- the FBI or U. S. attorney's office- shut you down. "

  Horne cleared his throat and checked his watch. "I really have to go now," he said.

  "Your company was cooperating with us at first. That's what Eldon said. Suddenly you stopped. Why? Why would you suddenly change your mind unless the feds told you to?" She looked up. "Why would the feds care about this case?"

  "That isn't our concern," he said. Horne then put his hand to his mouth as if he'd been aghast at his own indiscretion. Their eyes met and she knew that he'd done her a favor. Horne wouldn't say any more. But he had said enough.

  The FBI. They were the ones who had shut her down.

  And maybe Loren understood why.

  Back at her car Loren ran it through her head.

  Who did she know at the FBI?

  She had some acquaintances there, but nobody who could help on this level. The found-a-lead tingle rushed through her. This was big, no question about it. The FBI had been looking into this case. For some reason they wanted to find whoever was pretending to be Sister Mary Rose, leaving trip wires and calling cards everywhere, even with the company who supplied her breast implants.

  She nodded to herself. Sure, this was mere speculation, but it made sense. Start with the victim: Sister Mary Rose had to be some sort of fugitive or witness. Someone valuable to the FBI.

  Okay, good. Go on.

  A long time ago Sister Mary Rose (or whatever her real name was) ran off- hard to say how long ago, but she'd been teaching at St. Margaret's, according to Mother Katherine, for seven years. So it had to be at least that long.

  Loren stopped, considered the implications. Sister Mary Rose had been a fugitive for at least seven years. Had the feds been looking for her all that time?

  It added up.

  Sister Mary Rose had gone into deep, deep hiding. She'd changed her identity, for certain. Probably started off in Oregon, at that conservative convent Mother Katherine had mentioned. Who knows how long she was there?

  Doesn't matter. What does matter is that seven years ago, for whatever reason, she chose to come east.

  Loren rubbed her hands together. Oh, this is good.

  So Sister Mary Rose moves to New Jersey and starts teaching at St. Margaret's. By all accounts she's a good teacher and nun, caring and devoted, living a quiet life. Seven years pass. Maybe she thinks she's safe now. Maybe she gets careless and reaches out to someone from her old life. Whatever.

  Somehow, some way, her past catches up with her. Someone learns who she is. And then someone breaks into her small convent room, tortures her, and then suffocates her with a pillow.

  Loren paused, almost as if she were offering up a respectful moment of silence.

  Okay, she thought, so now what?

  She needed to get the identity from the feds.

  How?

  Only thing she could think of was classic quid pro quo: Give them something in return. But what did she have?

  Matt Hunter, for one.

  The feds were probably at least a day or two behind her. Would they have the phone logs yet? Doubtful. And if they did, if they knew about the call to Marsha Hunter, would they have already figured in a Matt Hunter connection?

  Very doubtful.

  Loren hit the highway and picked up her cell phone. It was dead. She cursed the damn thing. The greatest lie- right up there with "the check is in the mail" and "your call is very important to us"- is the stated battery life of a cell phone. Hers was supposed to last a week on standby. She was lucky if the cursed thing gave her thirty-six hours.

  She flipped open the glove compartment and pulled out the charger. One end she jammed into the cigarette lighter, the other into her phone. The phone's LCD jumped to life and informed her that there were three messages waiting.

  The first was from her mother. "Hi, sweetheart," Mom said in a voice strangely tender. It was her public voice, the one she usually saved for when she thought someone might overhear and thus judge her maternal skills. "I thought I'd order us a pizza from Renato's and pick up a movie at Blockbuster- the new Russell Crowe is out on DVD- and, I don't know, maybe we could have a girls' night, just the two of us. Would you like that?"

  Loren shook her head, tried not to be moved, but the tears were there, right below the surface. Her mom. Every time she wanted to write her off, to dismiss her from her life, to hold a grudge, to blame her once and for all for Dad's death, she came along and said something surprising and pulled herself back from the brink.

  "Yeah," Loren said softly in the car. "I'd like that a lot. "

  The second and third messages blew that idea out of the water. They were both from her boss, County Prosecutor Ed Steinberg, and were short and to the point. The first one said: "Call me. Now. " The second one said: "Where the hell are you? Call me. Doesn't matter what the hour. Disaster on the way. "

  Ed Steinberg was not one for overstatement or for having people call at all hours. He was old-fashioned in that approach. Loren had his home number somewhere- not on her, unfortunately- but she had never used it. Steinberg didn't like to be bothered during off hours. His motto was: Get a life, it can wait. He was usually out of the office by five o'clock and she couldn't recall a time when she'd seen him in his office after six.

  It was six thirty now. She decided to try his office line first. Thelma, his secretary, might still be there. She'd know how to reach him. After one ring, the phone was picked up by Ed Steinberg himself.

  This was not a good sign.

  "Where are you?" Steinberg asked.

  "On the way back from Delaware. "

  "Come straight back here. We got a problem. "

 

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