Page 39 of The Innocent

Matt tried to see all that—that future. He tried to imagine living inside this three-bedroom abode with the kitchen that needed updating, a roaring fire, laughter at the dinner table, the kid coming to their bed because a nightmare had scared her, Olivia’s face in the morning. He could almost see it, like one of Scrooge’s ghosts was showing him the way, and for a second he almost smiled.

But the image wouldn’t hold. Matt shook his head in the rain.

Who had he been kidding?

He didn’t know what was going on with Olivia, but one thing he knew for certain: It marked the end. The fairy tale was over. As Sonya McGrath had said, the images on the camera phone had been his wake-up call, the reality check, the “It’s all a joke on you!” moment, when deep down inside, he’d always known that.

You don’t come back.

Stephen McGrath was not about to leave his side. Every time Matt started to pull away, Dead Stephen was there, catching up from behind, tapping him on the shoulder.

“I’m right here, Matt. Still with you . . .”

He sat in the rain. He idly wondered what time it was. Didn’t much matter. He thought about that damned picture of Charles Talley, the mysterious man with the blue-black hair, his mocking whispers on the phone. To what end? That was what Matt could not get around or figure out. Drunk or sober, in the comfort of his home or heck, outside in the pouring rain, the drought finally over. . . .

And that was when it struck him.

Rain.

Matt turned and looked up, encouraging the drops now. Rain. Finally. There was rain. The drought had ended with a massive fury.

Could the answer be that simple?

Matt thought about it. First thing: He needed to get home. He needed to call Cingle. Didn’t matter what the time. She’d understand.

“Matt?”

He hadn’t heard the car pull up, but the voice, even now, even under these conditions, well, Matt couldn’t help but smile. He stayed on the curb. “Hey, Lance.”

Matt looked up as Lance Banner stepped out of a minivan.

Lance said, “I heard you were looking for me.”

“I was.”

“Why?”

“I wanted to fight you.”

Now it was Lance’s turn to smile. “You wouldn’t want to do that.”

“Think I’m afraid?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“I’d kick your ass.”

“Which would only prove me right.”

“About?”

“About how prison changes a man,” Lance said. “Because before you went in, I’d have beaten you with two broken arms.”

He had a point. Matt stayed seated. He still felt pretty wasted and didn’t fight the feeling. “You always seem to be around, Lance.”

“That I am.”

“You’re just so damn helpful.” Matt snapped his fingers. “Hey, Lance, you know who you’re like now? You’re like that Block Mom.”

Lance said nothing.

“Remember that Block Mom on Hobart Gap Road?” Matt asked.

“Mrs. Sweeney.”

“Right. Mrs. S. Always peering out the window, no matter what time it was. Big sourpuss on her face, complaining about the kids cutting through her yard.” Matt pointed at him. “You’re like that, Lance. You’re like a great big Block Mom.”

“You been drinking, Matt?”

“Yup. That a problem?”

“Not in and of itself, no.”

“So why are you always out and about, Lance?”

He shrugged. “I’m just trying to keep the bad out.”

“You think you can?”

Lance didn’t reply to that.

“You really think that your minivans and good schools are, what, some kind of force field, warding off evil?” Matt laughed too hard at that one. “Hell, Lance, look at me, for chrissake. I’m the poster boy proving that’s a load of crap. I should be on your warn-the-teens tour, you know, like when we were in high school and the cops would make us look at some car smashed up by a drunk driver. That’s what I should be. One of those warnings to the youngsters. Except I’m not sure what my lesson would be.”

“Not to get into fights, for one.”

“I didn’t get in a fight. I tried to break one up.”

Lance fought back a sigh. “You want to retry the case out here in the rain, Matt?”

“No.”

“Good. Then how about I give you a lift home?”

“Not going to arrest me?”

“Maybe another time.”

Matt took one last look at the house. “You may be right.”

“What about?”

“About my belonging.”

“Come on, Matt, it’s wet out. I’ll drive you home.”

Lance came up behind him. He put his hands under Matt’s armpits and lifted. The man was powerful. Matt stumbled to a wobbly stand. His head spun. His stomach gurgled. Lance helped him to the car and into the front passenger seat.

“You get sick in my car,” Lance said, “you’ll wish I arrested you.”

“Ooo, tough guy.” Matt cracked the window, enough for a breeze but not enough to let in the rain. He kept his nose near the opening like a dog. The air helped. He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the window. The glass was cool against his cheek.

“So why the drinking binge, Matt?”

“Felt like it.”

“You do that a lot? Drink yourself stupid?”

“You an AA counselor too, Lance? You know, along with your gig as the Block Mom?”

Lance nodded. “You’re right. Change of subject.”

The rain let up a little. The wipers slowed down a notch. Lance kept both hands on the wheel.

“My oldest daughter is thirteen. You believe that?”

“How many kids you got, Lance?”

“Three. Two girls and a boy.” He took one hand off the wheel and fumbled for his wallet. He extracted three photographs and handed them to Matt. Matt studied them, searching as he always did, for echoes of the parent. “The boy. How old is he?”

“Six.”

“Looks just like you did at that age.”

Lance smiled. “Devin. We call him Devil. He’s wild.”

“Like his old man.”

“Guess, yeah.”

They fell into silence. Lance reached for the radio then decided against it. “My daughter. The oldest. I’m thinking of putting her in Catholic school.”

“She at Heritage now?” Heritage had been the middle school they’d attended.


Tags: Harlan Coben Thriller
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