The innocent, p.52
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       The Innocent, p.52
 

           Harlan Coben
Chapter 51

  THE TAXI DRIVER WORKED for a company called Reno Rides. He pulled to a full stop, shifted in park, turned around, and looked Olivia up and down. "You sure this is the place, ma'am?"

  Olivia could only stare.

  "Ma'am?"

  An ornate cross dangled from the taxi's rearview mirror. Prayer cards wallpapered the glove compartment.

  "Is this 488 Center Lane Drive?" she asked.

  "It is. "

  "Then this is the place. " Olivia reached into her purse. She handed him the money. He handed her a pamphlet.

  "You don't have to do this," he said.

  The pamphlet was church-affiliated. John 3:16 was on the cover. She managed to smile.

  "Jesus loves you," the driver said.

  "Thank you. "

  "I'll take you anywhere else you want to go. No charge. "

  "It's okay," Olivia said.

  She stepped out of the taxi. The driver gave her a forlorn look. She waved as he departed. Olivia cupped a hand over her eyes. The sign of tired neon read:

  EAGER BEAVER-NUDE DANCING.

  Her body began to quake. Old reaction, she guessed. She had never been in this place, but she knew it. She knew the dirty pickups that littered the lot. She knew the men trudging in mindlessly, the low lights, the sticky feel of the dance pole. She headed toward the door, knowing what she'd find inside.

  Matt feared prison- going back. This, right in front of her, was her prison.

  Candi Cane lives another day.

  Olivia Hunter had tried to exorcise Candace "Candi Cane" Potter years ago. Now the girl was back in a big bad way. Forget what experts tell you: You can indeed wipe away the past. Olivia knew that. She could jam Candi in some back room, lock the door, destroy the key. She had almost done it- would have done- but there'd been one thing that always kept that door, no matter how hard she pushed, from closing all the way.

  Her child.

  A chill scrambled down her back. Oh, God, she thought. Was her daughter working here?

  Please no.

  It was four P. M. Still plenty of time before the midnight meeting. She could go somewhere else, find a Starbucks maybe or get a motel room, grab some sleep. She had caught a little shut-eye on the plane out here, but she could definitely use more.

  When she first landed, Olivia called FBI headquarters and asked to speak to Adam Yates. When she was connected to the office of the Special Agent in Charge, she hung up.

  So Yates was legit. Dollinger too, she supposed.

  That meant that two FBI agents had tried to kill her.

  There would be no arrest or capture. She knew too much.

  The last words Clyde had said to her came back: "Just tell me where it is. . . "

  It was starting to make some sense. There were rumors about Clyde making tapes for blackmail. He'd probably blackmailed the wrong guy- either Yates or somebody close to them. Somehow that led him to poor Cassandra. Did she have the tapes? Was she in them?

  Standing there, reading the sign about the $4. 99 EAGER BEAVER BUFFET! Olivia nodded to herself.

  That was it. It had to be. She started walking toward the front door.

  She should wait, come back.

  No.

  She got a curious look at the door. Women do not come to these places alone. Every once in a while a man might bring a girlfriend. The girlfriend would be trying to show she was hip. Or maybe she had lesbian tendencies. Whatever. But women never came in alone.

  Heads turned when she entered, but not as many as you'd think. People reacted slowly at places like this. The air was syrupy, languid. The lights were down. Jaws remained slack. Most patrons probably assumed that she was either a working girl on her downtime or a lesbian waiting for her lover's shift to end.

  The Human League's "Don't You Want Me" played over the sound system, a song that had been an already aged classic when Olivia had danced. Retro, she guessed, but she had always liked the track. In this place, the lyrics were supposed to be a sexy come-on, but if you listened closely, Phil Oakey, the lead singer, made you feel the pain and shock of having your heart broken. The title wasn't repeated with lust. It was repeated with shattering disbelief.

  Olivia took a seat in a back booth. There were three dancers onstage right now. Two looked off at nothing. One worked a customer, feigning passion, inviting him to jam dollar bills into her G-string. The man complied. She took in the audience and realized that nothing had changed in the decade since she'd worked rooms like these. The men were of the same variety. Some had the blank faces. Some had the glazed smile. Some tried a cocky look, a swagger in their expression, as if they were somehow above it all. Others aggressively downed their beers, staring at the girls with naked hostility, as if demanding an answer to the eternal question, "Is that all there is?"

  The girls onstage were young and on drugs. You could tell. Her old roommate Kimmy had two brothers who OD'd. Kimmy wouldn't tolerate drug use. So Olivia- no, Candi- took to drinking, but Clyde Rangor had made her stop when she started stumbling onstage. Clyde as a rehab counselor. Weird, but there you have it.

  The grease from the awful lunch buffet took to the air, becoming more a skin coating than a smell. Who ate that stuff? she wondered. Buffalo wings dating back to the Carter administration. Hot dogs that sit in water until, well, until they were gone. French fries so oily it makes picking them up a near impossibility. Fat men circled the dishes and piled their Styrofoam plates to dizzying heights. Olivia could almost see their arteries hardening in the dim light.

  Some strip joints called themselves "gentlemen's clubs," and businessmen wore suits and acted above the riffraff. There was no such pretense at the Eager Beaver. This was a place where tattoos outnumbered teeth. People fought. The bouncers had bigger guts than muscle because muscle was show and these guys would seriously kick your ass.

  Olivia was not scared or intimidated, but she wasn't sure what she was doing here. The girls onstage began their rotation. The dancer at the one spot went offstage. A bubbly young girl came on in the three spot. No way was she legal age. She was all legs, moving on the high heels like a colt. Her smile looked almost genuine, so Olivia figured that the life had not yet been ripped out of her.

  "Get you something?"

  The waitress looked at the oddity that was Olivia with a wary eye.

  "Coca-Cola please. "

  She left. Olivia kept her eye on the bubbly young girl. Something about her brought back memories of poor Cassandra. Just the age, she guessed. Cassandra had been far prettier. And then, as she looked at the three girls still onstage, the obvious question hit her:

  Was one of these girls her daughter?

  She looked at their faces for any sort of resemblance and saw none. That meant nothing, of course. She knew that. The waitress delivered the Coke. Olivia just let it sit there. There was no way she'd drink from any of these glasses.

  Ten minutes later the girls rotated again. Another new girl. Probably running a five shift- three girls on, two girls off, fairly steady rotation. Could be a six shift. She wondered about Matt, about how he'd find his way out here. He had seemed so confident that he'd be able to make it, or had that been false bravado for her sake?

  The dancer in the two spot worked some guy with a toupee so bad it looked like it had a zipper. Probably handing him that old favorite about working her way through school, Olivia thought. Why guys got off on the idea that a girl was a student always amazed her. Did they need a spot of purity to offset their filth?

  The girl who'd been in the one spot when Olivia entered came out from the back. She approached a man who had a chicken wing sticking out of his mouth. The man dropped the chicken wing, wiped his hands on his jeans. The girl took the man by the hand and disappeared into a corner. Olivia wanted to follow her. She wanted to grab all of these girls and drag them out into the sunshine.

  Enough.

  She signaled to the waitress to bring over a check. The waitress broke away from a bu
nch of laughing locals. "Three-fifty," she said.

  Olivia stood, reached into her purse, and took out a five. She was just about to hand it to the waitress, just about ready to leave this dark, awful place, when the dancers shifted again. A new girl came out from the back.

  Olivia froze. Then a small groan, a groan of quiet, strong anguish, escaped from her lips.

  The waitress said, "Miss, you okay?"

  Walking on the stage, taking the number three position.

  It was Kimmy.

  "Miss?"

  Olivia's legs almost gave way. She sat back down. "Get me another Coke. "

  She had not touched her last one but if that bothered the waitress, she hid it pretty well. Olivia simply stared. For several seconds, she let the swirl of emotions twist through her. Regret, of course. Deep sadness to see Kimmy still up on that stage after all this time. Guilt for what Olivia had been forced to leave behind. But there was joy too at seeing her old friend. Olivia had visited a couple of Web sites in recent weeks, trying to see if Kimmy was dancing. She'd found nothing, which, Olivia had hoped, meant that Kimmy was no longer in the business. Now she could see the truth: Kimmy had just been too low-level to earn even a mention.

  Olivia could not move.

  Despite what one might think, it was not hard to forge friendships in that life. Most of the girls genuinely liked one another. They were like army buddies, bonding while trying to stay alive. But no one had been like Kimmy Dale. Kimmy had been her closest friend, the only one she still missed, still thought about, still wished that she could talk to. Kimmy had made her laugh. Kimmy had kept her off cocaine. Kimmy had even kept the gun in their trailer that ended up saving Olivia's life.

  Olivia smiled in the dark. Kimmy Dale, the clean freak, her sometimes dance partner, her confidante.

  And then the guilt and sadness roared back.

  The years hadn't been kind, but then again no years ever had been to Kimmy Dale. Her skin sagged. There were lines around her mouth and eyes. A pattern of small bruises dotted her thighs. She wore too much makeup now, like the old "hangers-on" they used to dread becoming. That had been their greatest fear: being one of the old hangers-on who couldn't see it was time to get out of the business.

  Kimmy's stage dance hadn't changed- the same few steps, the moves a little slower now, more lethargic. The same high black boots she had always favored. There was a time when Kimmy would work the crowd better than anyone- she had a terrific smile- but there was no posturing anymore. Olivia kept back.

  Kimmy thinks I'm dead.

  How, she wondered, would Kimmy react to seeing this. . . this ghost? Olivia wondered what to do. Should she reveal herself- or just stay here in the shadows, wait another thirty minutes, slip out when she was sure Kimmy couldn't see her?

  She sat there and watched her friend and considered her next step. It was obvious. Everything was coming out now. The pact with Emma was over. Yates and Dollinger knew who she was. There was no reason to hide anymore. There was no one left to protect and maybe, just maybe, there was still someone she could save.

  When Kimmy was on the final leg of her rotation, Olivia waved over the waitress.

  "The dancer on the right," Olivia said.

  "The black one?"

  "Yeah. "

  "We call her Magic. "

  "Okay, good. I want a private session with her. "

  The waitress cocked an eyebrow. "You mean in the back?"

  "Right. A private room. "

  "Fifty bucks extra. "

  "No problem," Olivia said. She had picked up cash at the ATM in Elizabeth. She handed the girl an extra ten for her own troubles.

  The waitress stuffed the bill in her cleavage and shrugged. "Go back and to the right. Second door. It's got a B on it. I'll send Magic over in five minutes. "

  It took longer. There was a couch and a bed in the room. Olivia did not sit. She stood there and waited. She was shaking. She heard people walking past her door. On the sound system, Tears for Fears noted that everybody wants to rule the world. No kidding.

  There was a knock on the door.

  "You in there?"

  The voice. No question who it was. Olivia wiped her eyes.

  "Come in. "

  The door opened. Kimmy stepped inside. "Okay, let me tell you the price-"

  She stopped.

  For several seconds, they both just stood there and let the tears roll down their cheeks. Kimmy shook her head in disbelief.

  "It can't be. . . "

  Candi- not Olivia now- finally nodded. "It's me. "

  "But. . . "

  Kimmy put a hand to her mouth and began to sob. Candi spread her arms. Kimmy nearly collapsed. Candi grabbed her and held on.

  "It's okay," she said softly.

  "It can't be. . . "

  "It's okay," Olivia said again, stroking her friend's hair. "I'm here. I'm back. "

 
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