Page 25 of The Innocent

He spread his hands. “Do we really have to go through the meaning of ‘personal’ again?”

“Only if you want me to tell you what I know.”

“So you’re resorting to blackmail now?”

But he could see that she was serious.

“I think he was following me,” Matt said.

“Why do you think that?”

“Why do you think? I went a few places, his car was there.”

“And you just happened to pick up on that?”

“His license plate was close to my initials.”

“Excuse me?”

Matt explained about the license plate, about the three letters being similar to his own initials, about the way the car raced off when he approached. Cingle listened without moving.

When Matt finished, Cingle asked, “So why is Charles Talley following you, Matt?”

“I don’t know.”

“No idea at all?”

He did not repeat himself. He knew all about men who doth protest too much. Silence was the best response here.

“Talley has a record.”

Matt was tempted to say “So do I,” but he knew better. Having a record—a record worth Cingle’s attention—meant something. The fact that it didn’t in Matt’s case only proved the rule by the exception. Matt didn’t like thinking that way—hadn’t Lance Banner used that same prejudice?—but you’d be hard-pressed to argue with the reality.

“Assault,” Cingle said. “He used brass knuckles. Didn’t kill the poor bastard but scrambled his brains to the point where it would have been more merciful if he had.”

Matt thought about that, tried to make it fit. “How long did he get?”

“Eight years.”

“Long time.”

“Not his first charge. And Talley was far from a model prisoner.”

Matt tried to put it together. Why would this guy be following him?

“Do you want to see what he looks like?” Cingle asked.

“You have a picture?”

“His mug shot, yeah.”

Cingle wore a blue blazer with jeans. She reached into the inner jacket pocket, plucked out the photographs, and sent Matt’s world spinning all over again.

How the. . . ?

He knew that her eyes were on him, gauging his reaction, but he couldn’t help it. When he saw the two mug shots—the classic front view and turn-to-the-side profile—he nearly gasped out loud. His hands gripped the desk. It felt as though he were in free fall.

“So you recognize him,” Cingle said.

He did. The same smirk. The same blue-black hair.

Charles Talley was the man from the camera phone.

Chapter 13

LOREN MUSE WALKED through a time machine.

Revisiting St. Margaret’s, her high school alma mater, the clichés applied: The corridors seemed tighter, the ceilings seemed lower, the lockers seemed smaller, the teachers shorter. But others things, the important stuff, did not change too much. Loren fell into a time portal as she entered. She felt the high school tingle in her belly, the constant state of insecurity; the need for both approval and rebellion churned inside of her.

She knocked on Mother Katherine’s door.

“Come in.”

There was a young girl sitting in the office. She wore the same school uniform that Loren had so many years ago, the white blouse and tartan skirt. God, she’d hated that. The girl had her head down, clearly post–Mother Katherine berate. Her stringy hair hung down in front of her face like a beaded curtain.

Mother Katherine said, “You may go now, Carla.”

Shoulders slumped, head still lowered, Carla slinked off. Loren nodded as she passed, as if to say, I feel for ya, sister. Carla did not meet her eye. She closed the door behind her.

Mother Katherine watched all of this with a look both bemused and disheartened, as though she could read Loren’s mind. There were stacks of bracelets, all different colors, on her desk. When Loren pointed to them, the bemusement vanished.

“Those bracelets belong to Carla?” Loren asked.

“Yes.”

A dress code violation, Loren thought, fighting off the desire to shake her head. Man, this place will never change.

“You haven’t heard about this?” Mother Katherine asked.

“Heard about what?”

“The bracelet”—she took a deep breath—“game.”

Loren shrugged.

Mother Katherine closed her eyes. “It’s a recent . . . the word would be fad, I believe.”

“Uh huh.”

“The different bracelets . . . I don’t even know how to say this . . . the different colors represent certain acts of a sexual nature. The black one, for example, is supposed to be . . . uh, for one thing. Then the red one . . .”

Loren held her hand up. “I think I get the picture. So the girls wear them as some kind of, I don’t know, level of achievement?”

“Worse.”

Loren waited.

“You’re not here about this.”

“Tell me anyway.”

“Girls like Carla wear the bracelets around the boys. If the boy can grab the bracelet off the girl’s arm, she must then, well, perform the act that corresponds with the bracelet color.”

“Please tell me you’re kidding.”

Mother Katherine gave her a look as heavy as the ages.

“How old is Carla?” Loren asked.

“Sixteen.” Mother Katherine pointed to another set of bracelets as if afraid to touch them. “But I took this set off an eighth grader.”

There was nothing to say to that.

Mother Katherine reached behind her. “Here are the phone logs you requested.”

The building still had that chalk-dust musk Loren had always associated, until just now, with a certain sort of adolescent naïveté. Mother Katherine handed her a small stack of papers.

“Eighteen of us share three phones,” Mother Katherine said.

“Six of you to a phone, then?”

Mother Katherine smiled. “And they say we don’t teach math anymore.”

Loren looked at Christ on the cross behind the Mother Superior’s head. She remembered an old joke, one she heard when she first got here. A boy is getting all Ds and Fs in math so his parents send him to Catholic school. On his first report card, his parents are shocked to see their son getting straight As. When his parents ask him why, he says, “Well, when I went into the chapel and saw that guy nailed to a plus sign, I knew they were serious.”

Mother Katherine cleared her throat. “May I ask a question?”


Tags: Harlan Coben Thriller
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