The innocent, p.27
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       The Innocent, p.27
 

           Harlan Coben
Chapter 26

  LOREN THOUGHT about the jolt.

  Matt had tried to cover it, but he'd reacted to the name Max Darrow. The question was, of course, why.

  She actually took up Matt's challenge and semi-followed him- that is, she drove ahead and planted herself near the offices of MVD. She knew that the owner of the private investigation firm was an ex-fed. He had a reputation for discretion, but maybe he could be squeezed.

  When Matt pulled in- just as he'd said- there were two other cars in the lot. Loren wrote down the license plate numbers. It was late. There was no reason to hang around now.

  Twenty minutes later, Loren arrived home. Oscar, her oldest cat, nestled up for an ear scratch. Loren obliged but the cat quickly grew bored, meowed his impatience, and crept into the dark. There was a time when Oscar would dart away, but age and bad hips had ended that. Oscar was getting old. The vet had given Loren that look during the last checkup, the one that said she'd better start preparing. Loren blocked on it. In movies, it was always the kids who were, a la Old Yeller and its subsequent ripoffs, devastated by the loss of a pet. In reality kids get bored with pets. Lonely adults feel the loss most acutely. Like Loren.

  It was freezing in the apartment. The air conditioner rattled against the windowsill, dripping water and keeping the room at a good temperature to store meat. Mom was asleep on the couch. The television was still on, playing an infomercial for some contraption guaranteed to give you six-pack abs. She flicked off the air conditioner. Her mother did not budge.

  Loren stood in the doorway and listened to her mother's smoke-phlegm snore. The grating sound was something of a comfort- it eased Loren's own desire to light up. Loren didn't wake her mother. She didn't fluff her pillow or pull a blanket over her. She just watched for a few moments and wondered for the umpteenth time what she felt for this woman.

  Loren made herself a ham sandwich, wolfed it down over the sink in the kitchen, and poured a glass of Chablis from a jug-shaped bottle. The garbage, she saw, needed to be taken out. The bag was overflowing, not that that ever stopped her mother from trying to stuff more into it.

  She ran the dish under the faucet and lifted the garbage can with a sigh. Her mother still did not stir; there was no disturbance or variance in her phlegm-snore cycle. She took the bag to the Dumpster outside. The outside air was sticky. The crickets hummed. She tossed the bag on the heap.

  When she got back to her apartment her mother was awake.

  "Where were you?" Carmen asked.

  "I had to work late. "

  "And you couldn't call?"

  "Sorry. "

  "I was worried sick. "

  "Yeah," Loren said. "I saw how it affected your sleep. "

  "What's that supposed to mean?"

  "Nothing. Good night. "

  "You're so inconsiderate. How could you not call? I waited and waited-"

  Loren shook her head. "I'm kinda getting tired of it, Mom. "

  "Of what?"

  "Your constantly berating me. "

  "You want to throw me out?"

  "I didn't say that. "

  "But that's what you want, isn't it? To have me gone?"

  "Yes. "

  Carmen opened her mouth and put her hand to her chest. There was probably a time when men would react to such theatrics. Loren remembered all those photographs of the young Carmen- so lovely, so unhappy, so sure she deserved more.

  "You'd throw out your own mother?"

  "No. You asked if I wanted to. I do. But I won't. "

  "Am I that horrible?"

  "Just. . . just stay off my back, okay?"

  "I just want you to be happy. "

  "Right. "

  "I want you to find someone. "

  "You mean a man. "

  "Yes, of course. "

  Men- that was Carmen's answer to everything. Loren wanted to say, "Yeah, Mom, look at how ecstatically happy men have made you," but she bit down.

  "I just don't want you to be alone," her mother said.

  "Like you," Loren said, wishing she hadn't.

  She did not wait for the response. She headed into the bathroom and started getting ready for bed. When she came out, her mother was back on the couch. The television was off. The air conditioner was back on.

  Loren said, "I'm sorry. "

  Her mother did not reply.

  "Were there any messages?" Loren asked.

  "Tom Cruise called twice. "

  "Fine, good night. "

  "What, you think that boyfriend of yours called?"

  "Good night, Mother. "

  Loren headed into the bedroom and switched on the laptop. While it booted up, she decided to check the caller ID. Nope, Pete, her new boyfriend, hadn't called- hadn't called, for that matter, in three days. In fact, other than those that had emanated from her office, there had been no new calls at all.

  Man, that was pitiful.

  Pete was a nice enough guy, on the overweight side and sort of sweaty. He worked some district job for Stop amp; Shop. Loren could never figure out what he did exactly, probably because it really didn't interest her much. They were nothing steady, nothing serious, the kind of relationship that just glides along, that scientific principle about a body in motion will keep moving. Any friction would pretty much stop it in its tracks.

  She glanced around the room, at the bad wallpaper, the nondescript bureau, the Kmart snap-together night table.

  What kind of life was this?

  Loren felt old and without prospects. She considered moving out west- to Arizona or New Mexico, someplace warm and new like that. Start fresh with great weather. But the truth is, she didn't like the outdoors all that much. She liked the rain and cold because they gave her an excuse to stay inside and watch a movie or read a book guilt-free.

  The computer sprang to life. She checked her e-mail. There was a message from Ed Steinberg sent within the hour:

  Loren,

  I don't want to get into Trevor Wine's file on Max Darrow without involving him. We'll do that in the morning. Here are the prelims. Get some sleep, I'll see you at nine A. M.

  - Boss

  A file was attached. She downloaded the document and decided to print it out. Reading too much on a computer monitor made her eyes ache. She grabbed the pages out of her printer and slipped under the covers. Oscar managed to jump on the bed, but Loren could see him wince from the effort. The old cat cuddled next to her. Loren liked that.

  She scanned the documents and was surprised to see that Trevor Wine had already come up with a decent hypothesis for the crime. According to the notes, Max Darrow, a former detective with the Las Vegas Police Department and current resident of Raleigh Heights, Nevada, had been found dead in a rental car near the Hebrew cemetery in Newark. According to the report, Max Darrow had been staying at the Newark Airport Howard Johnson's. He had rented a car from someplace called LuxDrive. The car, a Ford Taurus, had been driven, per the speedometer, eight miles in the two days the car had been in Darrow's possession.

  Loren turned to the second page. Here was where things got interesting.

  Max Darrow was found shot dead in the driver's seat of the rental car. No one had called it in. A patrol car had spotted the bloodstains on the window. When Darrow was found, his pants and boxers were pulled down around his ankles. His wallet was gone. The report stated that Darrow was wearing no jewelry when found, implying that he'd probably been robbed of those items too.

  According to the preliminary report- everything was still preliminary- the blood found in the car, especially the trajectory on the windshield and driver-side window, showed that Darrow had been shot while sitting in the driver's seat of the car. Splatters were also found on the inside of his pants and boxers, which would be consistent with the man having his pants pulled down before the gun fired, not after.

  The working theory was obvious: Max Darrow had decided to get lucky- or more likely, to buy some "get lucky. " He had picked up the wrong prostitute who waited f
or the right moment- pants down- and then rolled him. Something had gone wrong then, though it was hard to say what. Maybe Darrow, being an ex-cop, had tried to make a hero play. Maybe the prostitute was simply too strung out. Whatever, she ends up shooting and killing Darrow. She takes what she can find- wallet, jewelry- and runs.

  The investigative team, in cooperation with the Newark Police Department, would squeeze the prostitution trade. Someone would know what happened. They'd talk.

  Case solved.

  Loren put down the report. Wine's theory made sense if you didn't know about Darrow's fingerprints being found in Sister Mary Rose's room. Still, now that Loren knew that the lead theory was crap- what did she have left? Well, for one thing, this was probably a pretty clever setup.

  Play it out for a second.

  You want to kill Darrow. You get in a car with him. You put a gun to his head. You tell him to drive to a sleazy part of town. You make him pull down his pants- anyone who'd ever watched any forensic TV show would know that if you pulled the pants down after the shooting, the blood splatters would show that. Then you shoot him in the head, take his money and jewelry, make it look like a robbery.

  Trevor Wine had bought it.

  In a vacuum Loren probably would have come to the same conclusion.

  So what would be the next logical step?

  She sat up in bed.

  Wine's theory had been that Max Darrow had done some cruisin' and picked up the wrong girl. But if that wasn't the case- Loren was sure of that much- how did the killer get in the car with Darrow in the first place? Wouldn't it be most logical to assume that Darrow was with his killer from the beginning of his car trip?

  That meant Darrow probably knew his killer. Or at least did not view him as a threat.

  She checked the mileage again. Only eight miles. Assuming he used it the day before, well, that meant that he hadn't driven very far.

  There was something else to consider: Another set of fingerprints had been found in Sister Mary Rose's room- more specifically, on her body.

  Okay, Loren thought, suppose Darrow was working with someone else- a partner maybe. They'd stay together, right? Or near each other, at the very least.

  Darrow had been staying at the Howard Johnson's.

  She checked the file. The rental car company LuxDrive- they had a counter at the same hotel.

  So that was where it all started. At the Howard Johnson's.

  Most hotels have security cameras. Had Trevor Wine checked out the ones at the Howard Johnson's yet?

  Hard to say, but it would definitely be worth it for her to check it out.

  Either way, it could wait until morning, right?

  She tried to sleep. She sat in bed and closed her eyes. She did this for well over an hour. From the other room, she heard her mother's snores. The case was heating up. Loren felt the buzz in her blood. She pushed back the covers and got out of bed. There was no way she could sleep. Not now. Not when there was something of a clue in the air. And tomorrow she'd have a whole new set of problems, what with Ed Steinberg calling the feds and Trevor Wine getting involved.

  She might be taken off the case.

  Loren threw on her sweats, grabbed her wallet and ID. She tiptoed outside, started up her car, and headed for the Howard Johnson's.

 
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