The innocent, p.8
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       The Innocent, p.8

           Harlan Coben
 
Chapter 7

  HERE IS HOW you find your soul mate.

  It is spring break your freshman year of college. Most of your friends head down to Daytona Beach, but your high school bud Rick has a mother in the travel business. She gets you super-low rates to Vegas, so you and six friends go for a five-night stay at the Flamingo Hotel.

  On the last night, you head to a nightclub at Caesars Palace because you hear it's supposed to be a great hangout for coeds on vacation. The nightclub, no surprise, is noisy and crowded. There is too much neon. It is not your scene. You are with your friends, trying to hear them over the loud crush of music, when you look across the bar.

  That is when you see Olivia for the first time.

  No, the music doesn't stop or segue to angelic harps. But something happens to you. You look at her and feel it in your chest, a warm twang, and you can see that she feels it too.

  You are normally shy, not good with approaches, but tonight you can do no wrong. You make your way over to her and introduce yourself. We all have special nights like this, you think. You're at a party and you see a beautiful girl and she's looking at you and you start talking and you just click in a way that makes you think about lifetimes instead of one-nights.

  You talk to her. You talk for hours. She looks at you as if you're the only person in the world. You go somewhere quieter. You kiss her. She responds. You start to make out. You make out all night and have no real desire to push it any further. You hold her. You talk some more. You love her laugh. You love her face. You love everything about her.

  You fall asleep in each other's arms, fully clothed, and you wonder if you will ever be this happy again. Her hair smells like lilacs and berries. You will never forget that smell.

  You'd do anything to make this last, but you know it won't. These sorts of interactions aren't built for the long term. You have a life, and Olivia has a "serious" boyfriend, a fiance really, back home. This isn't about that. It is about the two of you, your own world, for just too brief a time. You pack a small life span into that night, a complete cycle of courtship, relationship, breakup into those few hours.

  In the end, you will go back to your life and she'll go back to hers.

  You don't bother trading phone numbers- neither one of you wants to pretend like that- but she takes you to the airport and you passionately kiss good-bye. Her eyes are wet when you release her. You return to school.

  You go on, of course, but you never quite forget her or that night or the way it felt to kiss her or the smell of her hair. She stays with you. You think of her. Not every day, maybe not even every week. But she's there. The memory is something you take out every now and then, when you're feeling alone, and you don't know if it comforts or stings.

  You wonder if she ever does the same.

  Eleven years pass. You don't see her in all that time.

  You are no longer the same person, of course. The death of Stephen McGrath had set you off the rails. You have spent time in prison. But you're free now. Your life has been given back to you, you guess. You work at the Carter Sturgis law firm.

  One day you sign onto the computer and Google her name.

  You know it is stupid and immature. You realize that she probably married the fiance, has three or four kids by now, maybe taken her husband's name. But this is harmless. You will take it no further. You are simply curious.

  There are several Olivia Murrays.

  You search a little deeper and find one that might be her. This Olivia Murray is the sales director for DataBetter, a consulting business that designs computer systems for small-to-midsize companies. DataBetter's Web site has employee biographies. Hers is brief but it does mention that she is a graduate of the University of Virginia. That was where your Olivia Murray was going when you met all those years ago.

  You try to forget about it.

  You are not one who believes in fate or kismet- just the opposite- but six months later, the partners at Carter Sturgis decide that the firm's computer system needs to be overhauled. Midlife knows that you learned about computer programming during your tenure in prison. He suggests that you be on the committee to develop a new office network. You suggest several firms come in and make bids.

  One of those firms is DataBetter.

  Two people from DataBetter arrive at the offices of Carter Sturgis. You are in a panic. In the end, you fake an emergency and don't attend the presentation. That would be too much- showing up like that. You let the other three men on the committee handle the interview. You stay in your office. Your leg shakes. You bite your nails. You feel like an idiot.

  At noon, there is a knock on your office door.

  You turn and Olivia is there.

  You recognize her right away. It hits you like a physical blow. The warm twang is back. You can barely speak. You look at her left hand. At her ring finger.

  There is nothing there.

  Olivia smiles and tells you that she's here at Carter Sturgis doing a presentation. You try to nod. Her company is bidding to set up the firm's computer systems, she says. She spotted your name on the list of people who were supposed to be at the meeting and wondered if you were the same Matt Hunter she met all those years ago.

  Still stunned, you ask her if she wants to grab a cup of coffee. She hesitates but says yes. When you rise and walk past her, you smell her hair. The lilacs and berries are still there, and you worry that your eyes will well up.

  You both gloss over the phony catch-up preliminaries, which, of course, works well for you. Over the years she has thought about you too, you find out. The fiance is long gone. She has never been married.

  Your heart soars even as you shake your head. You know that this is all too impossible. Neither of you believes in concepts like love at first sight.

  But there you are.

  In the weeks that follow you learn what true love is. She teaches it to you. You eventually tell her the truth about your past. She gets over it. You get married. She becomes pregnant. You are happy. You both celebrate the news by buying matching camera phones.

  And then, one day, you get a call and see the woman you met during that long-ago spring break- the only woman you ever loved- in a hotel room with another man.

  Why the hell would someone be following him?

  Matt kept his hands steady on the wheel as his head spun with possibilities. He sorted through them. Nothing stuck.

  He needed help, big-time. And that meant visiting Cingle.

  He was going to be late for his appointment with the home inspector. He didn't much care. Suddenly the future he had allowed himself to imagine- house, picket fence, the always-beautiful Olivia, the 2. 4 kids, the Lab retriever- seemed frighteningly unrealistic. More fooling himself, he guessed. A convicted murderer returning to the suburbs he grew up in and raising the ideal family- it suddenly sounded like a bad sitcom pitch.

  Matt called Marsha, his sister-in-law, to tell her he wouldn't get out there until later, but her machine picked up. He left a message and pulled into the lot.

  Housed in a building of sleek glass not far from Matt's office is MVD- Most Valuable Detection, a large private-eye firm Carter Sturgis uses. By and large Matt was not a huge fan of private detectives. In fiction they were pretty cool dudes. In reality they were, at best, retired (emphasis on the "tired") cops and at worst, guys who couldn't become cops and thus are that dangerous creation known as the "cop wannabe. " Matt had seen plenty of wannabes working as prison guards. The mixture of failure and imagined testosterone produced volatile and often ugly consequences.

  Matt sat in the office of one of the exceptions to this rule- the lovely and controversial Ms. Cingle Shaker. Matt didn't think that was her real name, but it was the one she used professionally. Cingle was six feet tall with blue eyes and honey-colored hair. Her face was fairly attractive. Her body caused heart arrhythmia- a total, no-let-up traffic-stopper. Even Olivia said "Wow" when she met her. Rumor had it that Cingle had been a Rockette at Radio City
Music Hall, but that the other girls complained that she ruined their "symmetry. " Matt did not doubt it.

  Cingle had her feet up on her desk. She had on cowboy boots that added another two inches to her height and dark jeans that fit like leggings. Up top, she wore a black turtleneck that on some women would be considered clingy but on Cingle could legitimately draw a citation for indecency.

  "It was a New Jersey plate," Matt told her for the third time. "MLH-472. "

  Cingle hadn't moved. She rested her chin in the L made by her thumb and index finger. She stared at him.

  "What?" Matt said.

  "What client am I supposed to bill for this?"

  "No client," he said. "You bill me. "

  "This is for you then. "

  "Yes. "

  "Hmm. " Cingle dropped her feet to the floor, stretched back, smiled. "So this is personal?"

  "Man," Matt said, "you are good. I tell you to bill me, that it's for me, and bang, you figure out that it's personal. "

  "Years of detecting, Hunter. Don't be intimidated. "

  Matt tried to force up a smile.

  She kept her eyes on him. "Want to hear one of the ten rules from the Cingle Shaker Book of Detection?"

  "No, not really. "

  "Rule Six: When a man asks you to look up a license plate for personal reasons, it can be only one of two things. One"- Cingle raised a finger-"he thinks his wife is cheating and he wants to know who with. "

  "And two?"

  "There's no two. I lied. There's only one. "

  "That's not it. "

  Cingle shook her head.

  "What?"

  "Ex-cons usually lie better. "

  He let that one alone.

  "Okay, so let's say I believe you. Why, pray tell, do we want me to trace this down?"

  "It's personal. Remember? Bill me, for me, personal?"

  Cingle stood up, waaay up, and put her hands on her hips. She glared down at him. Unlike Olivia, Matt did not say "Wow" out loud, but maybe he thought it.

  "Think of me as your religious advisor," she said. "Confession is good for the soul, you know. "

  "Yeah," Matt said. "Religion. That's what comes to mind. " He sat up. "Will you just do this for me?"

  "Okeydokey. " She stared at him another beat. Matt did not cringe. Cingle sat back down and threw her feet back on the desk. "The standing up with the hands on the hips. That usually weakens a guy. "

  "I'm stone. "

  "Well, yes, that's part of it. "

  "Ha, ha. "

  She gave him the curious look again. "You love Olivia, right?"

  "I'm not getting into this with you, Cingle. "

  "You don't have to answer. I've seen you with her. And her with you. "

  "So you know then. "

  She sighed. "Give me the plate number again. "

  He did. This time Cingle wrote it down.

  "Shouldn't take more than an hour. I'll call you on your cell. "

  "Thanks. " He started for the door.

  "Matt?"

  He turned back toward her.

  "I've had some experience in stuff like this. "

  "I'm sure. "

  "Opening this door. " Cingle held up the slip of paper with the license plate. "It's kinda like trying to break up a fight. Once you jump in, you don't know what could happen. "

  "Gee, Cingle, that's pretty subtle. "

  She spread her arms. "Subtlety ended for me the day I hit puberty. "

  "Just do this for me, okay?"

  "I will. "

  "Thank you. "

  "But"- she put up her index finger-"should you feel the need to take it further, I want you to promise to let me help. "

  "I won't take it further," he said, and the look on her face told him all he needed to know about how much she believed him.

  Matt was just entering his old hometown of Livingston when his cell phone rang again. It was Jamie Suh, Olivia's assistant, finally calling back. "Sorry, Matt, I can't find a hotel contact. "

  "How can that be?" he snapped without thinking.

  There was too long a pause.

  He tried to backtrack. "I mean, doesn't she usually leave one? Suppose there was an emergency. "

  "She has her cell phone. "

  He didn't know what to say.

  "And most of the time," Jamie went on, "I book the hotel for her. "

  "You didn't this time?"

  "No. " Then she hurriedly added: "But that's not unusual or anything. Olivia does it herself sometimes too. "

  He didn't know what to make of that. "Have you heard from her today?"

  "She called in this morning. "

  "Did she say where she was going to be?"

  There was another pause. Matt knew that his behavior would be considered beyond the scope of normal husbandly curiosity, but he figured it was worth the risk.

  "She just said she had some meetings. Nothing specific. "

  "Okay, if she calls back-"

  "I'll tell her you're looking for her. "

  Then Jamie hung up.

  Another memory struck him. He and Olivia had a huge fight, one of those no-holds-barred verbal brawls where you know you're wrong and you just keep pushing. She ran out in tears and didn't call for two days. Two full days. He would call, she wouldn't answer. He searched, but he couldn't find her. It punched a huge hole in his heart. That was what he remembered right now. The idea that she would never come back to him hurt so much he could barely breathe.

  The home inspector was just finishing up when he arrived at the house. Nine years ago Matt walked out of jail after serving four years for killing a man. Now, incredible as it might seem, he was on the verge of buying a home, sharing it with the woman he loved, raising a child.

  He shook his head.

  The house was part of a suburban tract built in 1965. Like most of Livingston, the area used to be a farm. All the houses were pretty much the same, but if that discouraged Olivia, she hid it pretty well. She'd stared at the house with a nearly religious fervor and whispered, "It's perfect. " Her enthusiasm had swept away any doubts he'd had about moving back.

  Matt stood on what would soon be his front yard and tried to imagine himself living here. It felt odd. He didn't belong here anymore. He had known that until, well, until Olivia. Now he was back.

  Behind him a police cruiser pulled up. Two men got out. The first one was in uniform. He was young and in shape. He gave Matt the cop squint. The second man was in plainclothes.

  "Hey, Matt," the man in the brown suit called out. "Long time, no see. "

  It had been a long time, since Livingston High at least, but he recognized Lance Banner right away.

  "Hi, Lance. "

  Both men slammed their doors closed as if they'd coordinated the move. The uniform crossed his arms and remained silent. Lance moved toward Matt.

  "You know," Lance said, "I live on this street. "

  "That a fact. "

  "It is. "

  Matt said nothing.

  "I'm a detective on the force now. "

  "Congrats. "

  "Thanks. "

  How long had he known Lance Banner? Since second grade, at least. They were never friends, never enemies. They played on the same Little League team for three years running. They shared a gym class in eighth grade and a study hall junior year of high school. Livingston High School had been big- six hundred kids per grade. They'd simply traveled in different circles.

  "How's it been going for you?" Lance asked.

  "Super. "

  The home inspector stepped outside. He had a clipboard. Lance said, "How's it look, Harold?"

  Harold looked up from his clipboard and nodded. "Pretty solid, Lance. "

  "You sure?"

  Something in his tone made Harold take a step back. Lance looked back at Matt.

  "We have a nice neighborhood here. "

  "It's why we picked it. "

  "You really think it's a good idea, Matt?"


  "What's that, Lance?"

  "Moving back. "

  "Done my time. "

  "And you think that's the end of it?"

  Matt didn't say anything.

  "That boy you killed. He's still dead, isn't he?"

  "Lance?"

  "I'm Detective Banner now," he said.

  "Detective Banner, I'm going inside now. "

  "I read all about your case. I even called a couple of cop buddies, got the whole scoop on what happened. "

  Matt looked at him. The man had gray flecks in his eyes. He had put on weight. His fingers kept itching and Matt didn't like the way he smiled at him. Lance Banner's family had worked this land as farmers. His grandfather or maybe it was his great-grandfather had sold the land for a song. The Banners still considered Livingston their town. They were the soil here. The father drank too much. So did Lance's two dull brothers. Lance, on the other hand, always hit Matt as being pretty sharp.

  "Then you know it was an accident," Matt said.

  Lance Banner nodded slowly. "Could be. "

  "So why the hard time, Lance?"

  "Because you're an ex-con. "

  "You think I should have gone to prison?"

  "Tough call," he said, rubbing his chin. "But from what I read, I think you got a bad break. "

  "So?"

  "So you did. Go to prison, I mean. "

  "I don't understand. "

  "Society wants to peddle that rehabilitation crap on the public, hey, that's fine with me. But I"- he pointed to himself-"know better. And you"- he turned the finger toward Matt-"know better. "

  Matt said nothing.

  "You may have gone into that place an okay guy. But you want to tell me you're the same man now?"

  Matt knew that there was no right answer to that one. He turned and started toward the door.

  Lance said, "Maybe your home inspector will find something. Give you a way to back out. "

  Matt went inside and finished up with the inspector. There were several issues- some pipe problem, one overloaded breaker- but they were all small. He and Harold finished up, and Matt started for Marsha's house.

  He pulled into the tree-lined street where his nephews and sister-in-law- was she still considered a sister-in-law after your brother died? "Ex" certainly didn't sound right- resided. The boys, Paul and Ethan, were on the front lawn rolling in the leaves. Their babysitter, Kyra, was with them. Kyra Walsh was a recent freshman-transfer taking summer classes at William Paterson University. She rented a room above Marsha's garage. Kyra had come highly recommended from someone at Marsha's church, and while Matt had been initially skeptical of the whole idea of a live-in babysitter (nonetheless a college student) it seemed to be working great. Kyra ended up being a pretty terrific kid, a fresh-faced burst of needed sunshine from one of the "I" states in the Midwest, he could never remember which one.

  Matt stepped out of the car. Kyra shaded her eyes with one hand and waved with the other. She smiled as only the young can. "Hi, Matt. "

  "Hey, Kyra. "

  The boys heard his voice and turned their heads like dogs hearing their owner rummaging for treats. They sprinted at him, calling, "Uncle Matt! Uncle Matt!"

  Matt felt a sudden lightness in his chest. A smile played with the corner of his lips as the boys rushed him. Ethan grabbed hold of Matt's right leg. Paul aimed for the midsection.

  "McNabb back to pass," Matt said, doing his best Greg Gumbel impression. "Look out! Strahan breaks through the line and has a leg. . . "

  Paul stopped. "I want to be Strahan!" he demanded.

  Ethan would have none of that. "No, I want to be Strahan!"

  "Hey, you both can be Strahan," Matt said.

  The two youngsters squinted at their uncle as if he were the slow kid sitting in the back. "You can't have two Michael Strahans," Paul said.

  "Yeah," his brother chimed in.

  Then they lowered their shoulders and hit him again. Matt performed a near Pacino-esque performance of a quarterback about to be sacked. He stutter-stepped, he looked desperately for imaginary receivers, he pump-faked a pass with his invisible football, and ultimately he went down in a slow-motion heap.

  "Woo-hoo!" The boys stood, high-fived each other, bumped chests. Matt groaned into a sitting position. Kyra was smothering a giggle.

  Paul and Ethan were still doing a celebration dance when Marsha appeared at the door. She looked, Matt thought, very nice. She wore a dress and makeup. Her hair had that carefully mussed thing going on. The car keys were already jiggling in her hand.

  When Bernie died, Matt and Marsha had both been so devastated, so desperate, that they tried to knit something together where Matt could maybe take over as husband and father.

  It was a disaster.

  Matt and Marsha had waited a proper amount of time- six months- and then one night, without discussing it but knowing what was about to happen, they both got drunk. Marsha made the first move. She kissed him, kissed him hard, and then she started to sob. That had been the end.

  Before "the slip," Matt's family had been strangely blessed or maybe just blessedly naive. Matt had been twenty years old and all four of his grandparents were alive and in good health- two in Miami, two in Scottsdale. Tragedy had visited other families, but the Hunters had been left alone. The slip changed all that. It left them ill prepared for what followed.

  Tragedy sort of works this way: Once it snakes its way in, it cuts down all your defenses and allows its brethren easy access to feed. Three of his four grandparents died during Matt's stint in prison. The burden killed his father and sapped his mother. Mom fled to Florida. Their sister ran west to Seattle. Bernie had the aneurysm.

  Just like that, they were all gone.

  Matt stood up. He waved to Marsha. She waved back. Kyra said, "Is it okay if I go?"

  Marsha nodded. "Thanks, Kyra. "

  "No problem. " Kyra slipped on the backpack. "Bye, Matt. "

  "Bye, kiddo. "

  Matt's cell phone rang. The caller ID told him it was Cingle Shaker. He signaled to Marsha that he needed to take it. She gestured for him to go ahead. Matt moved toward the curb and picked it up.

  "Hello. "

  "Got some info on the license plate," Cingle said.

  "Go ahead. "

  "It's a rental. Avis at Newark Airport. "

  "So does that mean it's a dead end?"

  "For most private investigators, most definitely. But you're dealing with a near legend in the business. "

  "Near?"

  "I'm trying to be modest. "

  "Doesn't work on you, Cingle. "

  "Yeah, but the effort is there. I called a contact at the airport. He ran it down for me. The car was rented by one Charles Talley. You know him?"

  "No. "

  "I figured the name might mean something to you. "

  "It doesn't. "

  "You want me to check this Talley guy out?"

  "Yes. "

  "Call you back. "

  She hung up. Matt started to lower the phone when he spotted the same police cruiser turning onto the block. It slowed as it passed Marsha's house. The uniformed cop who'd been with Lance eyed him. Matt eyed him back and felt his face flush.

  Paul and Ethan stood and watched the cruiser. Matt turned back to Marsha. She saw it too. He tried to smile and wave it off. Marsha frowned.

  That was when his phone rang again.

  Still watching Marsha, Matt put the phone to his ear without checking the caller ID.

  "Hello," he said.

  "Hi, hon, how was your day?"

  It was Olivia.

 

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