The innocent, p.23
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       The Innocent, p.23

           Harlan Coben
 
Chapter 22

  MATT THANKED LANCE for the ride and watched him pull away.

  As soon as the minivan was out of sight, he headed inside, grabbed his phone, and started dialing Cingle's cell. He checked the time. It was nearly eleven o'clock. He hoped that she was awake, but even if she wasn't, well, once he explained, she'd understand.

  The phone rang four times and then went into Cingle's simple voice mail message:

  "Me. You. Tone. "

  Damn.

  He left Cingle a message: "Call me back, it's urgent. " He hit the button for "other options" and plugged in his home number. Maybe she'd get the page.

  He wanted to download the images from his camera phone onto his hard drive, but like a dummy he'd left the USB cord at work. He searched the computer room for the cord that came with Olivia's phone, but he couldn't find it.

  It was then that he noticed the phone's message light was blinking. He picked it up and hit play. There was only one message and after the day he'd had, it hardly surprised him.

  "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 two numbers- office and cell.

  Matt put the phone back in its cradle. So Lance was trying to get a jump on his county counterpart. Or they were working together. Whatever. He wondered what it could be about. Lance had said something about St. Margaret's in East Orange. Something about a nun there.

  What could it possibly have to do with him?

  Whatever, it couldn't be good.

  He didn't want to speculate. He also didn't want to get caught unawares. So he headed into the computer room and ran a classic Google search. He searched for St. Margaret's in East Orange and got too many hits. He tried to remember the nun's name. Sister Mary Something. He added that into the mix. "Sister Mary" "St. Margaret's" "East Orange. "

  No relevant hits.

  He sat back and thought it through. Nothing came to him. He wouldn't call Loren back. Not yet. It could wait until morning. He could say that he was out drinking- Lance would back that up- and forgot to check his messages.

  His head started clearing. He thought about his next move. Even though he was alone in the house, Matt checked the corridor and closed the door. Then he opened the closet door, reached toward the back, and pulled out the lockbox. The combination was 878 because those numbers had absolutely no link to his life. He'd just made them up on the spot.

  Inside the lockbox was a gun.

  He stared at it. The semiautomatic was a Mauser M2. Matt had bought it off the streets- it's not hard to do- when he got out of jail. He'd told no one- not Bernie, not Olivia, not Sonya McGrath. He was not sure how to explain why he owned it. One would again think that his past would have taught him the danger of such actions. It had, he supposed, but with a twist. Now that Olivia was having a baby, yes, he'd have to get rid of the gun. But he wasn't sure that he'd be able to go through with it.

  The prison system has its share of critics. Most problems are obvious and, to some extent, organic, what with the fact that you are, for the most part, caging bad people with other bad people. But the one thing that was definitely true was that prison taught you all the wrong skills. You survive by being aloof, by isolating yourself, by fearing any alliance. You are not shown how to assimilate or become productive- just the opposite. You learn that no one can be trusted, that the only person you can truly count on is yourself, that you must be ready to protect yourself at all times.

  Having the gun gave Matt a strange feeling of comfort.

  He knew it was wrong. He knew the odds were much greater that the gun would lead to disaster rather than salvation. But there it was. And now, with the world caving in on him, he was eyeing it for the first time since he'd bought it.

  The phone startled him. He quickly closed the lockbox, as if someone had suddenly entered the room, and picked up the receiver.

  "Hello?"

  "Guess what I was doing when you called. "

  It was Cingle.

  "I'm sorry," Matt said. "I know it was late. "

  "No, no. Guess. C'mon. Okay, forget it, I'll tell you. I was putting out for Hank. He takes forever. I was getting so bored I almost picked up mid, er, thrust. But men, well, they're so sensitive, you know?"

  "Cingle?"

  "What's up?"

  "The pictures you downloaded from my phone. "

  "What about them?"

  "Do you have them?"

  "You mean the files? They're at the office. "

  "Did you blow them up?"

  "My tech guy did, but I haven't had a chance to study them. "

  "I need to see them," Matt said. "Blown up, that is. "

  "Why?"

  "I have a thought. "

  "Uh oh. "

  "Yes, uh oh. Look, I know it's late, really late, but if you could meet me down at your office-"

  "Now?"

  "Yes. "

  "I'm on my way. "

  "I owe you. "

  "Time and a half," Cingle said. "See you in forty-five minutes. "

  He grabbed his keys- he was sober enough now to drive- jammed his cell phone and wallet into his pocket, started for the door. Then he remembered the Mauser semiautomatic. It was still on the desktop. He considered his next move.

  He picked up the gun.

  Here was something that they never tell you: Holding a gun feels great. On television, the average person always acts all repulsed when the gun is first handed to them. They make a face and say, "I don't want that thing!" But the truth is, having a gun in your hand- the cold steel against your skin, the weight in your palm, the very shape, the way your hand naturally coils around the grip, the way your index finger slides into the trigger loop- it feels not only good, but right and even natural.

  But no, he shouldn't.

  If he somehow got caught carrying a piece, with his record, there would be huge problems. He knew that.

  But he still jammed the gun into the waist of his pants.

  When Matt opened his front door, she was walking up the stoop. Their eyes met.

  Matt wondered if he would have recognized her had he not just heard her name from Lance and listened to the message on the machine. Hard to say. The hair was still short. That tomboyish quality remained. She looked very much the same to him. Again there was something to that- to running into adults you only knew as kids in elementary school, how you can still recognize them by seeing the small child there.

  Loren Muse said, "Hey, Matt. "

  "Hey, Loren. "

  "Long time. "

  "Yeah. "

  She managed a smile. "Do you have a second? I need to ask you a few questions. "

 
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