Page 13 of The Innocent

“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 this 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.


Tags: Harlan Coben Thriller
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