Page 16 of The Innocent

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.”


Tags: Harlan Coben Thriller
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