The innocent, p.22
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       The Innocent, p.22
 

           Harlan Coben
Chapter 21

 

  IT FINALLY STARTED to rain.

  Matt Hunter had stumbled from the Landmark Bar and Grill and headed back up Northfield Avenue. Nobody followed him. It was late and dark and he was drunk, but that didn't matter. You always know the streets near where you grew up.

  He made the right on Hillside Avenue. Ten minutes later he arrived. The Realtor's sign was still out front, reading UNDER CONTRACT. In a few days this house would be his. He sat on the curb and stared at it. Slow raindrops the size of cherries pounded down on him.

  Rain reminded him of prison. It turned the world gray, drab, shapeless. Rain was the color of jail asphalt. Since the age of sixteen Matt wore contact lenses- was wearing them now- but in prison he'd stayed with glasses and kept them off a lot. It seemed to help, making his prison surroundings a blur, more unformed gray.

  He kept his eyes on the house he'd planned to buy- this "saltbox charmer" as the ad had called it. Soon he'd move in with Olivia, his beautiful, pregnant wife, and they'd have a baby. There'd probably be more kids after that. Olivia wanted three.

  There was no picket fence in the front, but there might as well have been. The basement was unfinished, but Matt was pretty good with his hands. He'd do it himself. The swing set in the back was old and rusty and would need to be thrown out. While they were two years away from purchasing a replacement, Olivia had already located the exact brand she wanted- something with cedar wood- because they guaranteed no splinters.

  Matt tried to see all that- that future. He tried to imagine living inside this three-bedroom abode with the kitchen that needed updating, a roaring fire, laughter at the dinner table, the kid coming to their bed because a nightmare had scared her, Olivia's face in the morning. He could almost see it, like one of Scrooge's ghosts was showing him the way, and for a second he almost smiled.

  But the image wouldn't hold. Matt shook his head in the rain.

  Who had he been kidding?

  He didn't know what was going on with Olivia, but one thing he knew for certain: It marked the end. The fairy tale was over. As Sonya McGrath had said, the images on the camera phone had been his wake-up call, the reality check, the "It's all a joke on you!" moment, when deep down inside, he'd always known that.

  You don't come back.

  Stephen McGrath was not about to leave his side. Every time Matt started to pull away, Dead Stephen was there, catching up from behind, tapping him on the shoulder.

  "I'm right here, Matt. Still with you. . . "

  He sat in the rain. He idly wondered what time it was. Didn't much matter. He thought about that damned picture of Charles Talley, the mysterious man with the blue-black hair, his mocking whispers on the phone. To what end? That was what Matt could not get around or figure out. Drunk or sober, in the comfort of his home or heck, outside in the pouring rain, the drought finally over. . .

  And that was when it struck him.

  Rain.

  Matt turned and looked up, encouraging the drops now. Rain. Finally. There was rain. The drought had ended with a massive fury.

  Could the answer be that simple?

  Matt thought about it. First thing: He needed to get home. He needed to call Cingle. Didn't matter what the time. She'd understand.

  "Matt?"

  He hadn't heard the car pull up, but the voice, even now, even under these conditions, well, Matt couldn't help but smile. He stayed on the curb. "Hey, Lance. "

  Matt looked up as Lance Banner stepped out of a minivan.

  Lance said, "I heard you were looking for me. "

  "I was. "

  "Why?"

  "I wanted to fight you. "

  Now it was Lance's turn to smile. "You wouldn't want to do that. "

  "Think I'm afraid?"

  "I didn't say that. "

  "I'd kick your ass. "

  "Which would only prove me right. "

  "About?"

  "About how prison changes a man," Lance said. "Because before you went in, I'd have beaten you with two broken arms. "

  He had a point. Matt stayed seated. He still felt pretty wasted and didn't fight the feeling. "You always seem to be around, Lance. "

  "That I am. "

  "You're just so damn helpful. " Matt snapped his fingers. "Hey, Lance, you know who you're like now? You're like that Block Mom. "

  Lance said nothing.

  "Remember that Block Mom on Hobart Gap Road?" Matt asked.

  "Mrs. Sweeney. "

  "Right. Mrs. S. Always peering out the window, no matter what time it was. Big sourpuss on her face, complaining about the kids cutting through her yard. " Matt pointed at him. "You're like that, Lance. You're like a great big Block Mom. "

  "You been drinking, Matt?"

  "Yup. That a problem?"

  "Not in and of itself, no. "

  "So why are you always out and about, Lance?"

  He shrugged. "I'm just trying to keep the bad out. "

  "You think you can?"

  Lance didn't reply to that.

  "You really think that your minivans and good schools are, what, some kind of force field, warding off evil?" Matt laughed too hard at that one. "Hell, Lance, look at me, for chrissake. I'm the poster boy proving that's a load of crap. I should be on your warn-the-teens tour, you know, like when we were in high school and the cops would make us look at some car smashed up by a drunk driver. That's what I should be. One of those warnings to the youngsters. Except I'm not sure what my lesson would be. "

  "Not to get into fights, for one. "

  "I didn't get in a fight. I tried to break one up. "

  Lance fought back a sigh. "You want to retry the case out here in the rain, Matt?"

  "No. "

  "Good. Then how about I give you a lift home?"

  "Not going to arrest me?"

  "Maybe another time. "

  Matt took one last look at the house. "You may be right. "

  "What about?"

  "About my belonging. "

  "Come on, Matt, it's wet out. I'll drive you home. "

  Lance came up behind him. He put his hands under Matt's armpits and lifted. The man was powerful. Matt stumbled to a wobbly stand. His head spun. His stomach gurgled. Lance helped him to the car and into the front passenger seat.

  "You get sick in my car," Lance said, "you'll wish I arrested you. "

  "Ooo, tough guy. " Matt cracked the window, enough for a breeze but not enough to let in the rain. He kept his nose near the opening like a dog. The air helped. He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the window. The glass was cool against his cheek.

  "So why the drinking binge, Matt?"

  "Felt like it. "

  "You do that a lot? Drink yourself stupid?"

  "You an AA counselor too, Lance? You know, along with your gig as the Block Mom?"

  Lance nodded. "You're right. Change of subject. "

  The rain let up a little. The wipers slowed down a notch. Lance kept both hands on the wheel.

  "My oldest daughter is thirteen. You believe that?"

  "How many kids you got, Lance?"

  "Three. Two girls and a boy. " He took one hand off the wheel and fumbled for his wallet. He extracted three photographs and handed them to Matt. Matt studied them, searching as he always did, for echoes of the parent. "The boy. How old is he?"

  "Six. "

  "Looks just like you did at that age. "

  Lance smiled. "Devin. We call him Devil. He's wild. "

  "Like his old man. "

  "Guess, yeah. "

  They fell into silence. Lance reached for the radio then decided against it. "My daughter. The oldest. I'm thinking of putting her in Catholic school. "

  "She at Heritage now?" Heritage had been the middle school they'd attended.

  "Yeah, but, I don't know, she's a little wild. I heard St. Margaret's in East Orange is supposed to be good. "

  Matt looked out the window.

  "You know anything about it?"

>   "About Catholic school?"

  "Yeah. Or St. Margaret's. "

  "No. "

  Lance had both hands on the wheel again. "Say, do you know who went there?"

  "Went where?"

  "St. Margaret's. "

  "No. "

  "Remember Loren Muse?"

  Matt did. It was that way with people you went to elementary school with, even if you never saw them after graduation. You recall the name and face instantly. "Sure. Tomboy, hung out with us for a while. Then she kinda faded away. Her father died when we were kids, right?"

  "You don't know?"

  "Know what?"

  "Her old man committed suicide. Blew his brains out in their garage when she was in like eighth grade. They kept it a secret. "

  "God, that's awful. "

  "Yeah, but she's doing okay. She works in the prosecutor's office in Newark now. "

  "She's a lawyer?"

  Lance shook his head. "An investigator. But after what happened with her father, well, Loren hit a rough patch too. St. Margaret's helped, I think. "

  Matt said nothing.

  "But you don't know anybody who went to St. Margaret's?"

  "Lance?"

  "Yeah. "

  "This subtlety act. It's not really playing. What are you trying to ask me here?"

  "I'm asking if you know anything about St. Margaret's. "

  "You want me to write your daughter a letter of recommendation?"

  "No. "

  "Then why are you asking me these questions?"

  "How about a Sister Mary Rose? Taught social studies there. Do you know her?"

  Matt shifted so that he faced Lance full on. "Am I a suspect in some kind of crime?"

  "What? We're just having a friendly conversation here. "

  "I don't hear a no, Lance. "

  "You have a very guilty conscience. "

  "And you're still evading my question. "

  "You don't want to tell how you knew Sister Mary Rose?"

  Matt closed his eyes. They weren't far from Irvington now. He leaned his head back against the headrest. "Tell me more about your kids, Lance. "

  Lance did not reply. Matt closed his eyes and listened to the rain. It brought him back to what he'd been thinking before Lance Banner showed up. He needed to call Cingle as soon as he could.

  Because, strangely enough, the rain could hold the key to what Olivia was doing in that hotel room.

 
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