The innocent, p.43
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       The Innocent, p.43
 

           Harlan Coben
Chapter 42

  LANCE BANNER APPROACHED Marsha Hunter's front door.

  Two tired uniforms were with him now. Both men had facial stubble nestled in that cusp between needing a shave and trendy, the end of an uneventful Livingston night shift. They were young guys, fairly new on the force. They walked in silence. He could hear them breathing hard. Both men had put on weight recently. Lance was not sure why that happened, why the new recruits always gained weight during their first year with the force, but he'd be hard-pressed to find examples where that didn't happen.

  Lance was conflicted here. He was having second thoughts about his run-in with Matt yesterday. Whatever his past crime, whatever he may have become, Hunter had not deserved being subject to Banner's clumsy and stupid harassment. And it had been stupid, no question about it, intimidating a purported interloper like some redneck sheriff in a bad movie.

  Last night Matt Hunter had scoffed at Lance's seemingly Pollyanna-ish attempt to keep evil out of his fair town. But Matt got it wrong. Lance wasn't naive. He understood that there was no protective force field around the fertile suburban sprawl. That was the point. You work hard to make a life for yourself. You meet up with like-minded people and build a great community. Then you fight to keep it. You see a potential problem, you don't let it fester. You remove it. You're proactive. That was what he'd been doing with Matt Hunter. That was what men like Lance Banner did for their hometowns. They were the soldiers, the front line, the few who took night duty so that the others, including Lance's own family, could sleep soundly.

  So when his fellow cops started talking about doing something, when Lance's own wife, Wendy, who had gone to school with Matt Hunter's younger sister and thought she was a "Queen Bitch," started getting on his case about a convicted killer moving into their neighborhood, when one of the town councilmen had offered up the sternest of suburban worries-"Lance, do you realize what it'll do to property values?"- he had acted.

  And now he wasn't sure if he regretted it or not.

  He thought about his conversation with Loren Muse yesterday. She'd asked him about young Matt Hunter. Had Lance seen any early signs of psychosis there? The answer was a pretty firm no. Hunter had been soft. Lance remembered him crying at a Little League game when he dropped a fly ball. His father had comforted him while Lance marveled at what a big baby the kid was. But- and this might seem the opposite of Loren's study on early signs of trouble- men can indeed change. It was not all decided by age five or whatever Loren had told him.

  The catch was, the change was always, always, for the worse.

  If you discover a young psychotic, he will never turn himself around and become productive. Never. But you can find plenty of guys, nice guys who grew up with the right values, quality guys who respected the law and loved thy neighbor, gentle guys who found violence abhorrent and wanted to stay on the straight and narrow- you find lots of guys like this who end up doing terrible things.

  Who knew why? Sometimes it was, as in Hunter's case, just a question of bad luck, but then again it's all about luck, isn't it? Your upbringing, your genes, your life experience, conditions, whatever- they're all a crapshoot. Matt Hunter had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. That didn't matter anymore. You could see it in his eyes. You could see it in the way Hunter walked, the early gray in his hair, the way he blinked, the tightness in his smile.

  Bad follows some people. It hooks into them and never lets them go.

  And simple as it sounded, you don't want those people around you.

  Lance knocked on Marsha Hunter's door. The two uniforms stood behind him in vee formation. The sun had begun its ascent. They listened for a sound.

  Nothing.

  He saw the doorbell. Marsha Hunter, he knew, had two young children. If Matt wasn't here, he'd feel bad about waking them, but that couldn't be helped. He pressed the bell and heard the chime.

  Still nothing.

  Just for the heck of it, Lance tried the door, hoping it might be unlocked. It wasn't.

  The officer on Lance's right started shifting his feet. "Kick it in?"

  "Not yet. We don't even know if he's here. "

  He rang the bell again, keeping his finger pressed against it until it rang a third time too.

  The other cop said, "Detective?"

  "Give it a few more seconds," he said.

  As if on cue, the foyer light snapped on. Lance tried to look through the pebble glass, but the view was too distorted. He kept his face pressed against it searching for movement.

  "Who is it?"

  The female voice was tentative- understandable under the circumstances.

  "It's Detective Lance Banner, Livingston Police. Could you open the door, please?"

  "Who?"

  "Detective Lance Banner, Livingston Police. Please open the door. "

  "Just a minute. "

  They waited. Lance kept peering through the pebble glass. He could make out a hazy figure coming down the stairs now. Marsha Hunter, he assumed. Her steps were as tentative as her voice. He heard a bolt slide and a chain rattle and then the door was opened.

  Marsha Hunter had a bathrobe tied tightly around her waist. The robe was old and terrycloth. It looked like it belonged to a man. Lance wondered for a brief second if it had been her late husband's. Her hair was mussed. She wore no makeup, of course, and while Lance had always considered her an attractive woman, she could have used the touches.

  She looked at Lance, then at the two officers at his wing, then back to Lance. "What do you want at this hour?"

  "We're looking for Matt Hunter. "

  Her eyes narrowed. "I know you. "

  Lance said nothing.

  "You coached my son last year in rec soccer. You have a boy Paul's age. "

  "Yes, ma'am. "

  "Not ma'am," she said, her voice sharp. "My name is Marsha Hunter. "

  "Yes, I know. "

  "We're your neighbors, for crying out loud. " Marsha again took in the uniformed men before returning her gaze to Lance. "You know I live alone with two young boys," she said, "yet you wake us up like storm troopers?"

  "We really need to talk to Matt Hunter. "

  "Mommy?"

  Lance recognized the boy coming down the stairs. Marsha gave Lance a baleful eye before turning to her son. "Go to bed, Ethan. "

  "But, Mom. . . "

  "I'll be up in a moment. Go back to bed. " She turned back to Lance. "I'm surprised you don't know. "

  "Don't know what?"

  "Matt doesn't live here," she said. "He lives in Irvington. "

  "His car is in your driveway. "

  "So?"

  "So is he here?"

  "What's going on?"

  Another woman was at the top of the stairs.

  "Who are you?" Lance asked.

  "My name is Olivia Hunter. "

  "Olivia Hunter as in Mrs. Matt Hunter?"

  "Excuse me?"

  Marsha looked back at her sister-in-law. "He was just asking why your car is in the driveway. "

  "At this hour?" Olivia Hunter said. "Why would you want to know that?"

  "They're looking for Matt. "

  Lance Banner said, "Do you know where your husband is, Mrs. Hunter?"

  Olivia Hunter started to move down the stairs. Her steps, too, were deliberate. Maybe that was the tip-off. Or maybe it was her clothes. She was, after all, wearing clothes. Regular clothes. Jeans and a sweatshirt. Not nightclothes. No robe, no pajamas. At this hour.

  That didn't make sense.

  When Lance glanced back at Marsha Hunter, he saw it. A small tell on her face. Damn, how could he have been so stupid? The turning on the light, the walking down the stairs, the slow walk right now. . . it had all taken too long.

  He spun to the uniformed cops. "Check around back. Hurry. "

  "Wait," Olivia shouted too loudly. "Why are your men going to the backyard?"

  The cops started running- one toward the right, one to the left. Lance looked at Marsha. She
stared back at him defiantly.

  That was when they heard a woman's scream.

  "What's going on?" Olivia asked.

  "That was Midlife," Matt said. "Charles Talley and Max Darrow are both dead. "

  "Oh, my God. "

  "And unless I'm mistaken," he continued, gesturing toward the window, "these guys are here to arrest me for their murders. "

  Olivia closed her eyes, tried to ride it out. "What do you want to do?"

  "I have to get out of here. "

  "You mean, we have to get out of here. "

  "No. "

  "I'm going with you, Matt. "

  "You're not the one they want. They have nothing on you. At worst they think you cheated on your husband. You just refuse to answer any questions. They can't hold you. "

  "So you're just going to run?"

  "I have no choice. "

  "Where will you go?"

  "I'll figure that out. But we can't communicate. They'll be watching the house, tapping the phone. "

  "We need a plan here, Matt. "

  "How about this," he said. "We meet up in Reno. "

  "What?"

  "Tomorrow at midnight. The address you said- 488 Center Lane Drive. "

  "You still think there's still a chance that my daughter. . . "

  "I doubt it," Matt said. "But I also doubt Darrow and Talley were doing this on their own. "

  Olivia hesitated.

  "What?"

  "How are you going to get across the country that fast?"

  "I don't know. If I can't make it, we'll figure out something later. Look, it's not a great plan, but we don't have time for anything better. "

  Olivia took a step forward. He felt it again in his chest, the gentle thrum. She had never looked so beautiful or vulnerable. "Do we have time for you to say you still love me?"

  "I do love you. More than ever. "

  "Just like that?"

  "Just like that," he said.

  "Even after. . . ?"

  "Even after. "

  She shook her head. "You're too good for me. "

  "Yeah, I'm a prince. "

  Olivia laughed through the sob. He put his arms around her.

  "We'll get into this later, but right now we need to find your daughter. "

  Something she had said- about this life being worth fighting over. It resonated in him, even more than the revelations. He would fight. He would fight for both of them.

  Olivia nodded, wiped her tears. "Here. I only have twenty dollars. "

  He took it. They risked a glance out the window. Lance Banner was approaching the front door, flanked by two cops. Olivia moved in front of him as if readying to take a bullet.

  "You sneak out back," Olivia said. "I'll wake up Marsha, tell her what's going on. We'll try to stall them. "

  "I love you," he said.

  She gave him the crooked smile. "Good to hear. " They kissed hard and quick. "Don't let anything happen to you," she said.

  "I won't. "

  He headed downstairs and started toward the back door. Olivia was already in Marsha's room. It wasn't right to drag Marsha into this, but what choice did they have? From the kitchen he could see another police car pull up to the front.

  There was a knock on the door.

  No time. Matt had something of a plan. They were not far from the East Orange Water Reservation, which was basically a forest. Matt had gone through it countless times as a child. Once inside he'd be difficult to find. He'd be able to work his way toward Short Hills Road and from there, well, suffice to say that he needed outside help.

  He knew where to go.

  His hand was on the back-door knob. Matt heard Lance Banner ring the bell. He turned the knob and pushed open the door.

  Someone was standing right there, already in the doorway. He nearly jumped out of his skin.

  "Matt?"

  It was Kyra.

  "Matt, what are-?"

  He signaled her to stay quiet and beckoned her inside.

  "What's going on?" Kyra whispered.

  "What are you doing awake?"

  "I-" She shrugged. "I saw police cars. What's going on?"

  "It's a long story. "

  "That investigator who came by today. She asked me about you. "

  "I know. "

  They both heard Marsha shout: "Just a minute. "

  Kyra's eyes widened. "You're trying to run away?"

  "It's a long story. "

  Her eyes met his. He wondered what Kyra was going to do here. He didn't want to involve her. If she screamed, he would understand. She was just a kid. She had no role in any of this, no real reason to trust him.

  "Go," Kyra whispered.

  He didn't wait or say thank you. He started outside. Kyra followed, veering the other way back toward her room above the garage. Matt saw the swing set he'd put up with Bernie a lifetime ago. It'd been ridiculously hot the day they assembled it. They'd both had their shirts off. Marsha had waited on the porch with beers. Bernie had wanted to put in one of those ziplines, but Marsha had nixed that, claiming, correctly in Matt's view, that they were dangerous.

  What you remember.

  The yard was too open- there were no trees, no bushes, no rocks. Bernie had cleared out a lot of the brush with the anticipation of putting in a swimming pool- another dream, albeit a small one, that died with him. There were white bases laid out in the shape of a baseball diamond and two small soccer goals. He started to cross the yard. Kyra had gone back inside the garage.

  Matt heard a commotion.

  "Wait!" The voice belonged to Olivia. She was intentionally shouting so that he would hear. "Why are your men going to the backyard?"

  There was no time to hesitate. He was out in the open. Make a mad run for it? There was little choice. He sprinted into the neighbor's yard. Matt avoided the flower beds, which were a strange thing to worry about at a time like this, but he did it anyway. He risked a glance behind him.

  A policeman had made the turn into the backyard.

  Damn.

  He hadn't been spotted. Not yet. He searched for a place to hide. The neighbors had a toolshed. Matt leaped behind it. He pressed his back against it, like he'd seen done in the movies. A pointless move. He checked his waistband.

  The gun was there.

  Matt risked a peek.

  The cop was staring directly at him.

  Or at least he appeared to be. Matt quickly pulled back. Had the cop seen him? Hard to say. He waited for someone to yell, "Hey, he's right there, right in the next yard behind that toolshed!"

  Nothing happened.

  He wanted to take another look.

  He couldn't risk it.

  He stayed and waited.

  Then he heard a voice- another cop, he guessed: "Sam, you see some-?"

  The voice cut out like a radio turned off.

  Matt held his breath. He strained his ears. Footsteps? Was he hearing footsteps? He couldn't say for sure. He debated sneaking another glance. If they were on their way toward him, what harm would it do? Either way he'd be nailed.

  It was too quiet back here.

  If the cops were actively searching for him, they'd be calling out to one another. If they were being quiet, quiet like this, there was only one explanation.

  He'd been spotted. They were sneaking up on him.

  Matt listened again.

  Something jangled. Like something on a policeman's belt.

  No question now- they were coming for him. His heart picked up pace. He could feel it hammering in his chest. Caught. Again. He pictured what would happen: the rough handling, the handcuffs, the back of the cruiser. . .

  Jail.

  Fear gripped him. They were coming. They'd take him away and throw him back into that pit. They'd never listen. They'd lock him up. He was an ex-con. Another man was dead after a fight with Matt Hunter. Forget everything else. This one would be a slam dunk.

  And what would happen to Olivia if he
was caught?

  He couldn't even explain the truth, even if he wanted to, because then she would end up in jail. And if there was one thing that terrified him more than his own incarceration. . .

  Matt wasn't sure how it happened, but suddenly the Mauser M2 was in his hand.

  Calm down, he told himself. We're not shooting anybody here.

  But he could still use the threat, couldn't he? Except that there were several cops here, four or five at a minimum, more probably on the way. They'd draw their weapons too. Then what? Were Paul and Ethan awake?

  He slid to the back part of the toolshed. He risked a peek out from the back.

  Two cops were no more than six feet away from him.

  He had been spotted. No way around that. They were headed right toward him.

  There was no escape.

  Matt gripped the gun and got ready to sprint when his gaze was snagged by something in Marsha's backyard.

  It was Kyra.

  She must have been watching the whole time. She was standing near her door at the garage. Their eyes met. Matt saw something that looked like a small smile on her face. He almost shook his head no, but he didn't.

  Kyra screamed.

  The scream shattered the air and rang in the ears. The two cops turned toward her- and away from him. She screamed again. The cops sprinted toward her.

  "What's wrong?" one of the cops yelled.

  Matt did not hesitate now. He used Kyra's diversion and sprinted in the opposite direction, toward the woods. She screamed again. Matt never looked back, not until he was deep in the trees.

 
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