The innocent, p.6
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       The Innocent, p.6
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           Harlan Coben
Chapter 5

  TWO HOURS PASSED. Olivia did not call back.

  Matt spent those two hours with Ike Kier, a pampered senior partner who wore his gray hair too long and slicked back. He came from a wealthy family. He knew how to network and not much else, but sometimes that was enough. He owned a Viper and two Harley-Davidsons. His nickname around the office was Midlife, short for Midlife Crisis.

  Midlife was bright enough to know that he was not that bright. He thus used Matt a lot. Matt, he knew, was willing to do most of the heavy lifting and stay behind the scenes. This allowed Midlife to maintain the big corporate client relationship and look good. Matt cared, he guessed, but not enough to do anything about it.

  Corporate fraud may not be good for America, but it was damned profitable for the white-shoe, white-collar law firm of Carter Sturgis. Right now they were discussing the case of Mike Sterman, the CEO of a big pharmaceutical company called Pentacol, who'd been charged with, among other things, cooking the books to manipulate stock prices.

  "In sum," Midlife said, giving the room his best you-the-jury baritone, "our defense will be. . . ?" He looked to Matt for the answer.

  "Blame the other guy," Matt said.

  "Which other guy?"

  "Yes. "

  "Huh?"

  "We blame whoever we can," Matt said. "The CFO"- Sterman's brother-in-law and former best friend-"the COO, the C Choose-Your-Favorite-Two-Letter Combination, the accounting firm, the banks, the board, the lower-level employees. We claim some of them are crooks. We claim some of them made honest mistakes that steamrolled. "

  "Isn't that contradictory?" Midlife asked, folding his hands and lowering his eyebrows. "Claiming both malice and mistakes?" He stopped, looked up, smiled, nodded. Malice and mistakes. Midlife liked the way that sounded.

  "We're looking to confuse," Matt said. "You blame enough people, nothing sticks. The jury ends up knowing something went wrong, but you don't know where to place the blame. We throw facts and figures at them. We bring up every possible mistake, every uncrossed t and undotted i. We act like every discrepancy is a huge deal, even if it's not. We question everything. We are skeptical of everyone. "

  "And what about the bar mitzvah?"

  Sterman had thrown his son a two-million-dollar bar mitzvah, featuring a chartered plane to Bermuda where both Beyonce and Ja Rule performed. The videotape- actually, it was a surround-sound DVD- was going to be shown to the jury.

  "A legitimate business expense," Matt said.

  "Come again?"

  "Look who was there. Executives from the big drug chains. Top buyers. Government officials from the FDA who approve drugs and give out grants. Doctors, researchers, whatever. Our client was wining and dining clients- a legit American business practice since before the Boston Tea Party. What he did was for the good of the company. "

  "And the fact that the party was for his son's bar mitzvah?"

  Matt shrugged. "It works in his favor, actually. Sterman was being brilliant. "

  Midlife made a face.

  "Think about it. If Sterman had said, 'I'm throwing a big party to win over important clients,' well, that wouldn't have helped him develop the relationships he was looking for. So Sterman, that sly genius, went with something more subtle. He invites his business associates to his son's bar mitzvah. They are caught off guard now. They find it sweet, this family guy inviting them to something personal rather than hitting them up in some stuffy business venue. Sterman, like any brilliant CEO, was creative in his approach. "

  Midlife arched an eyebrow and nodded slowly. "Oh, I like that. "

  Matt had figured as much. He checked his cell phone, making sure it was still powered up. It was. He checked to see if there were any messages or missed calls. There were none.

  Midlife rose. "We'll do more prep tomorrow?"

  "Sure," Matt said.

  He left. Rolanda stuck her head in the door. She looked down the hall in the direction of Midlife, faked sticking a finger down her throat, and made a gagging noise. Matt checked the time. Time to get moving.

  He hurried out to the firm's parking lot. His gaze wandered, focusing on nothing and everything. Tommy, the parking lot attendant, waved to him. Still dazed, Matt may have waved back. His spot was in the back, under the dripping pipes. The world was about the pecking order, he knew, even in parking lots.

  Someone was cleaning a green Jag belonging to one of the founding partners. Matt turned. One of Midlife's Harleys was there, covered by a see-through tarp. There was a tipped-over shopping cart. Three of the four wheels had been ripped off the cart. What would someone want with three shopping-cart wheels?

  Matt's eyes drifted over the cars on the street, mostly gypsy cabs, and noticed a gray Ford Taurus because the license plate was MLH- 472, and Matt's own initials were MKH, pretty close, and things like that were distractions.

  But once in his car- once alone with his thoughts- something new started gnawing at him.

  Okay, he thought, trying his best to stay rational. Let's assume the worst- that what he saw on the camera phone were the opening moments of a tryst of some kind.

  Why would Olivia send it to him?

  What would be the point? Did she want to get caught? Was this a cry for help?

  That didn't really add up.

  But then he realized something else: Olivia hadn't sent it.

  It had come from her phone, yes, but she- assuming that was Olivia with the platinum wig- didn't seem to realize that the camera was on her. He remembered thinking that. She was the subject of the film- the filmee, if you will, not the filmer.

  So who sent it? Was it Mr. Blue-Black Hair? If so, then who snapped the first picture, the one of Blue-Black? Had he taken it himself?

  Answer: No.

  Blue-Black had his palm up as if waving. Matt remembered the backside of a ring on his finger- or what he thought was a ring. He really wasn't up for looking at the picture again. But he thought about it. Could that have been a wedding band? No, the ring was on the right hand.

  Either way, who had taken Blue-Black's picture?

  Olivia?

  Why would she send it to him? Or was the picture sent to him inadvertently? Like maybe someone hit the wrong number on the speed dial?

  It seemed unlikely.

  Was there a third person in the room?

  Matt couldn't see it. He mulled it over some more, but nothing came together. Both calls had originated from his wife's phone. Got that. But if she was having an affair, why would she want him to know?

  Answer- and yes, his reasoning was getting circular- she wouldn't.

  So who would?

  Matt thought again of the cocky smirk on Blue-Black's face. And his stomach roiled. When he was younger, he used to feel too much. Strange to imagine it now, but Matt had been too sensitive. He'd cry when he lost a basketball game, even a pickup game. Any slight would stay with him for weeks. All of that changed the night Stephen McGrath died. If prison teaches you one thing, it's how to deaden yourself. You show nothing. Ever. You never allow yourself anything, even an emotion, because it will either be exploited or taken away. Matt tried that now. He tried to deaden the sinking feeling in the pit of his belly.

  He couldn't do it.

  The images were back now, terrible ones blended in with achingly wonderful memories, the memories hurting most of all. He remembered a weekend he and Olivia had spent at a Victorian B amp;B in Lenox, Massachusetts. He remembered spreading pillows and blankets in front of the fireplace in the room and opening a bottle of wine. He remembered the way Olivia held the stem of the glass, the way she looked at him, the way the world, the past, his tentative, fearful steps all faded away, the way the fire reflected off her green eyes, and then he would think of her like that with another man.

  A new thought hit him then- one so awful, so unbearable he nearly lost control of his car:

  Olivia was pregnant.

  The light turned red. Matt almost drove through it. He slammed on
the brakes at the last moment. A pedestrian, already starting across the street, jumped back and waved his fist at him. Matt kept both hands on the wheel.

  Olivia had taken a long time to conceive.

  They were both in their mid-thirties and in Olivia's mind the clock was ticking. She so badly wanted to start a family. For a long time their attempts at conception hadn't gone well. Matt had started to wonder- and not just idly- if the fault lay with him. He had taken some pretty good beatings in prison. During his third week there, four men had pinned him down and spread-eagled his legs while a fifth kicked him hard in the groin. He had nearly passed out from the pain.

  Now suddenly Olivia was pregnant.

  He wanted to shut down his brain, but it wouldn't happen. Rage started to seep in. It was better, he thought, than the hurt, than the awful gut-wrenching ache of having something he cherished ripped away from him again.

  He had to find her. He had to find her now.

  Olivia was in Boston, a five-hour journey from where he now was. Screw the house inspection. Just drive up, have it out with her now.

  Where was she staying?

  He thought about that. Had she told him? He couldn't remember. That was another thing about having cell phones. You don't worry so much about things like that. What difference did it make if she was staying at the Marriott or the Hilton? She was on a business trip. She would be moving about, out at meetings and dinners, rarely in her room.

  Easiest, of course, to reach her by cell phone.

  So now what?

  He had no idea where she was staying. And even if he did, wouldn't it make more sense to call first? For all he knew, that might not even be her hotel room he'd seen on the camera phone. It might have belonged to Blue-Black Hair. And suppose he did know the hotel. Suppose he did show up and pounded on the door and then, what, Olivia would open it in a negligee with Blue-Black standing behind her, a towel wrapped around his waist? Then what would Matt do? Beat the crap out of him? Point and shout "Aha!"?

  He tried calling her on the camera phone again. Still no answer. He didn't leave another message.

  Why hadn't Olivia told him where she was staying?

  Pretty obvious now, isn't it, Matt ol' boy?

  The red curtain came down over his eyes.

  Enough.

  He tried her office, but the call went directly into her voice mail: "Hi, this is Olivia Hunter. I'll be out of the office until Friday. If this is important, you can reach my assistant, Jamie Suh, by pressing her extension, six-four-four-"

  That was what Matt did. Jamie answered on the third ring.

  "Olivia Hunter's line. "

  "Hey, Jamie, it's Matt. "

  "Hi, Matt. "

  He kept his hands on the wheel and talked using a hands-free, which always felt weird- like you're a crazy person chatting with an imaginary friend. When you talk on a phone, you should be holding one. "Just got a quick question for you. "

  "Shoot. "

  "Do you know what hotel Olivia's staying in?"

  There was no reply.

  "Jamie?"

  "I'm here," she said. "Uh, I can look it up, if you want to hold on. But why don't you just call her cell? That's the number she left if any client had an emergency. "

  He was not sure how to reply to that without sounding somehow desperate. If he told her he had tried that and got the message, Jamie Suh would wonder why he couldn't simply wait for her to reply. He wracked his brain for something that sounded plausible.

  "Yeah, I know," he said. "But I want to send her flowers. You know, as a surprise. "

  "Oh, I see. " There was little enthusiasm in her voice. "Is it a special occasion?"

  "No. " Then he added extra-lamely: "But hey, the honeymoon is still on. " He laughed at his own pitiful line. Not surprisingly, Jamie did not.

  There was a long silence.

  "You still there?" Matt said.

  "Yes. "

  "Could you tell me where she's staying?"

  "I'm looking it up now. " There was the tapping sound of her fingers on a keyboard. Then: "Matt?"

  "Yes. "

  "I have another call coming in. Can I call you back when I find it?"

  "Sure," he said, not liking this at all. He gave her his cell phone number and hung up.

  What the hell was going on?

  His phone vibrated again. He checked the number. It was the office. Rolanda didn't bother with hellos.

  "Problem," she said. "Where are you?"

  "Just hitting Seventy-eight. "

  "Turn around. Washington Street. Eva is getting evicted. "

  He swore under his breath. "Who?"

  "Pastor Jill is over there with those two beefy sons of hers. They threatened Eva. "

  Pastor Jill. A woman who got her religious degree online and sets up "charities" where the youth can stay with her as long as they cough up enough in food stamps. The scams run on the poor are beyond reprehensible. Matt veered the car to the right.

  "On my way," he said.

  Ten minutes later he pulled to a stop on Washington Street. The neighborhood was near Branch Brook Park. As a kid Matt used to play tennis here. He played competitively for a while, his parents schlepping him to tournaments in Port Washington every other weekend. He was even ranked in the boys' fourteen-and-under division. But the family stopped coming to Branch Brook way before that. Matt never understood what happened to Newark. It had been a thriving, wonderful community. The wealthier eventually moved out during the suburban migration of the fifties and sixties. That was natural, of course. It happened everywhere. But Newark was abandoned. Those who left- even those who traveled just a few miles away- never looked back. Part of that was the riots in the late sixties. Part of that was simple racism. But there was something more here, something worse, and Matt didn't know exactly what it was.

  He got out of the car. The neighborhood was predominantly African American. So were most of his clients. Matt wondered about that. During his prison stint, he heard the "n"-word more often than any other. He had said it himself, to fit in at first, but it became less repulsive as time went on, which of course was the most repulsive thing of all.

  In the end he'd been forced to betray what he had always believed in, the liberal suburban lie about skin color not mattering. In prison, skin color was all that mattered. Out here, in a whole different way, it mattered just as much.

  His gaze glided over the scenery. It got snagged on an interesting chunk of graffiti. On a wall of chipped brick, someone had spray-painted two words in four-foot-high letters:

  BITCHES LIE!

  Normally Matt would not stop and study something like this. Today he did. The letters were red and slanted. Even if you couldn't read, you could feel the rage here. Matt wondered about the creator- what inspired him to write this. He wondered if this act of vandalism had diluted the creator's wrath- or been the first step toward greater destruction.

  He walked toward Eva's building. Pastor Jill's car, a fully loaded Mercedes 560, was there. One of her sons stood guard with his arms crossed, his face set on scowl. Matt's eyes started their sweep again. The neighbors were out and about. One small child of maybe two sat atop an old lawn mower. His mother was using it as a stroller. She muttered to herself and looked strung out. People stared at Matt- a white man was not unfamiliar here but still a curiosity.

  Pastor Jill's sons glared as he approached. The street went quiet, like in a Western. The people were ready for a showdown.

  Matt said, "How are you doing?"

  The brothers might have been twins. One kept up the stare. The other started loading Eva's belongings into the trunk. Matt did not blink. He kept smiling and walking.

  "I'd like you to stop that now. "

  Crossed-Tree-Trunk-Arms said, "Who are you?"

  Pastor Jill came out. She looked over at Matt and scowled too.

  "You can't throw her out," Matt said.

  Pastor Jill gave him the high-and-mighty. "I own th
is residence. "

  "No, the state owns it. You claim it's charitable housing for the city's youths. "

  "Eva didn't follow the rules. "

  "What rules are those?"

  "We are a religious institution. We have a strict moral code here. Eva here broke it. "

  "How?"

  Pastor Jill smiled. "I'm not sure that's any of your concern. May I ask your name?"

  Her two sons exchanged a glance. One put down Eva's stuff. They turned toward him.

  Matt pointed at Pastor Jill's Mercedes. "Sweet wheels. "

  The brothers frowned and strolled toward him. One cracked his neck as he strutted. The other opened and closed fists. Matt felt his blood hum. Strangely enough the death of Stephen McGrath- the "slip"- hadn't made him fearful of violence. Perhaps if he had been more aggressive that night, not less. . . but that wasn't what mattered now. He had learned a valuable lesson about physical confrontations: You can predict nothing. Sure, whoever lands the first blow usually wins. The bigger man was usually victorious too. But once it got going, once the red tornado took hold of the combatants, anything could happen.

  The Neck Cracker said, "Who are you?" again.

  Matt would not risk it. He sighed and took out his camera phone. "I'm Bob Smiley, Channel Nine News. "

  That stopped them.

  He pointed the camera in their direction and pretended to turn it on. "If you don't mind, I'm going to film what you're doing here. The Channel Nine News van will be here for clearer shots in three minutes. "

  The brothers looked back at their mother. Pastor Jill's face broke into a beatific albeit phony smile.

  "We're helping Eva move," she said. "To better quarters. "

  "Uh huh. "

  "But if she'd rather just stay here. . . "

  "She'd rather stay here," Matt said.

  "Milo, move her things back into the apartment. "

  Milo, the Neck Cracker, gave Matt the fish eye. Matt held up the camera. "Hold that pose, Milo. " Milo and Fist Flex started to take the stuff out of the van. Pastor Jill hurried to her Mercedes and waited in the back. Eva looked down at Matt from the window and mouthed a thank-you. Matt nodded and turned away.

  It was then, turning away, not really looking at anything, that Matt saw the gray Ford Taurus.

  The car was idling about thirty yards behind him. Matt froze. Gray Ford Tauruses were plentiful, of course, perhaps the most popular car in the country. Seeing two in a day would hardly be uncommon. Matt figured that there was probably another Ford Taurus on this very block. Maybe two or three. And he would not be surprised to learn that another one might even be gray.

  But would it have a license plate that started with MLH, so close to his own initials of MKH?

  His eyes stayed glued to the license plate.

  MLH-472.

  The same car he'd seen outside his office.

  Matt tried to keep his breathing even. It could, he knew, be nothing more than a coincidence. Taking a step back, that was indeed a strong possibility. A person could see the same car twice in a day. He was only, what, half a mile away from his office. This was a fairly congested neighborhood. There was no big shock here.

  On a normal day- check that: On pretty much any other day- Matt would have let that logic win him over.

  But not today. He hesitated, but not for very long. Then he headed toward the car.

  "Hey," Milo shouted, "where you going?"

  "Just keep unloading, big man. "

  Matt hadn't moved five steps when the front wheels of the Ford Taurus started to angle themselves to move out of the spot. Matt hurried his pace.

  Without warning, the Taurus jumped forward and cut across the street. The white taillights came on and the car jerked back. Matt realized that the driver planned on making a K turn. The driver hit the brake and turned the steering wheel hard and fast. Matt was only a few feet from the back window.

  Matt yelled, "Wait!"- as if that would do any good- and broke into a sprint. He leapt in front of the car.

  Bad move.

  The Taurus's tire grabbed gravel, made a little shriek, and shot toward him.

  There was no slowdown, no hesitation. Matt jumped to the side. The Taurus accelerated. Matt was off the ground now, horizontal. The bumper clipped his ankle. A burst of pain exploded through the bone. The momentum swung Matt around in midair. He landed face-first and tucked into a roll. He ended up on his back.

  For a few moments Matt lay there blinking into the sunlight. People gathered around him. "You all right?" someone asked. He nodded and sat up. He checked his ankle. Bruised hard but no break. Someone helped him to his feet.

  The whole thing- from the moment he saw the car to the moment it tried to run him down- had maybe taken five, maybe ten seconds. Certainly no more. Matt stared off.

  Someone had been- at the very least- following him.

  He checked his pocket. The cell phone was still there. He limped back toward Eva's apartment. Pastor Jill and her sons were gone. He checked to make sure Eva was okay. Then he got into his own car and took a deep breath. He thought about what to do and realized that the first step was fairly obvious.

  He dialed her private line number. When Cingle answered, he asked, "You in your office?"

  "Yup," Cingle said.

  "I'll be there in five minutes. "

 
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