Page 73 of The Innocent

What about any of that was different now?

The truth was not always freeing. Your past was your past. He had not, for example, told her about his stint in prison to illuminate the “real Matt” or “take their relationship to the next level”—he told her because she would undoubtedly find out anyway. It didn’t mean a thing. If he hadn’t told her, wouldn’t their relationship be equally strong?

Or was this all a giant rationalization?

He stopped at an ATM near Sonya’s house. He had no choice now. He needed money. If she called the police, well, they’d know he’d been in this area anyway. If they traced it down, he’d be long gone by the time they arrived. He didn’t want to use the credit card at a gas station. They might get his license plate number that way. As it was, if he could get the money and put distance between himself and this ATM, he figured that he’d be all right.

The ATM had a max of a thousand dollars. He took it.

Then he started thinking of a way to get to Reno.

Loren drove. Adam Yates sat in the passenger seat.

“Explain this to me again,” he said.

“I have a source. A man named Len Friedman. A year ago we found two dead women in a hooker alley, both young, both black, both had their hands cut off so that we couldn’t get an ID off fingerprints. But one of the girls had a strange tattoo, a logo from Princeton University, on her inner thigh.”

“Princeton?”

“Yes.”

He shook his head.

“Anyway, we put that in the papers. The only person who came forward was this Len Friedman. He asked if she also had a rose petal tattoo on her right foot. That hadn’t been released. So our interest, to put it mildly, was piqued.”

“You figured he was the perp.”

“Sure, why not? But it turns out that both women were strippers—or as Friedman calls them, erotic dancers—at a dump called the Honey Bunny in Newark. Friedman is an expert on all things stripper. It’s his hobby. He collects posters, bios, personal information, real names, tattoos, birthmarks, scars, I mean everything. A full database. And not just on the local trade. I assume you’ve walked the Vegas Strip?”

“Sure.”

“You know how they pass out cards advertising strippers and prostitutes and whatever.”

“Hey, I live there, remember?”

She nodded. “Well, Len Friedman collects them. Like baseball cards. He gathers information on them. He travels for weeks at a time visiting these places. He writes what some consider academic essays on the subject. He also collects historical material. He has a brassiere belonging to Gypsy Rose Lee. He has stuff that dates back more than a century.”

Yates made a face. “He must be a lot of fun at parties.”

Loren smiled. “You have no idea.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’ll see.”

They fell into silence.

Yates said, “I’m really sorry again. About what I said before.”

She waved him off. “How many kids do you have anyway?”

“Three.”

“Boys, girls?”

“Two girls, one boy.”

“Ages?”

“My daughters are seventeen and sixteen. Sam is fourteen.”

“Seventeen- and sixteen-year-old girls,” Loren said. “Yikes.”

Yates smiled. “You have no idea.”

“You have pictures?”

“I never carry pictures.”

“Oh?”

Yates shifted in his seat. Loren glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. His posture was suddenly rigid. “About six years ago,” he began, “I had my wallet stolen. I know, I’m head of an FBI field office and I’m dumb enough to get pickpocketed. Sue me. Anyway, I went nuts. Not because of the money or the credit cards. But all I kept thinking about was, some slimeball has pictures of my kids. My kids. He probably just took the cash and dumped the wallet in the garbage. But suppose he didn’t. Suppose he kept the pictures. You know, for his own amusement. Maybe he, I don’t know, stared at the pictures longingly. Maybe he even put his fingers on their faces, caressed them.”

Loren frowned. “Talk about being a lot of fun at parties.”

Yates chuckled without humor. “Anyway, that’s why I never carry pictures.”

They turned off of Northfield Avenue in West Orange. It was a nicely aging town. Most of the newer burbs had landscapes that looked somehow phony, like a recent hair transplant. West Orange had lush lawns and ivy on the walls. The trees were tall and thick. The houses were not cookie-cutter—there were Tudors, next to capes, next to Mediterranean style. They were all a little past due, not in prime condition, but it all seemed to work.

There was a tricycle in the driveway. Loren pulled up behind it. They both got out. Someone had set up one of those baseball net–retrievers in the front yard. Two mitts sat in the fetal position on the grass.

Yates said, “Your source lives here?”

“Like I said, you have no idea.”

Yates shrugged.

A woman straight out of the Suzy Homemaker handbook answered the door. She wore a checkered apron and a smile Loren usually associated with religious fervor. “Len’s in the workroom downstairs,” she said.

“Thank you.”

“Would you like some coffee?”

“No, that’s okay.”

“Mom!”

A boy of maybe ten ran into the room. “Kevin, we have guests.”

Kevin smiled like his mother. “I’m Kevin Friedman.” He stuck out his hand and met Loren’s eye. The shake was firm. He turned to Yates, who seemed startled. He shook too and introduced himself.

“Very nice to meet you,” Kevin said. “Mom and I are making some banana bread. Would you care for a slice?”

“Maybe later,” Loren said. “We, uh . . .”

“He’s down that way,” Suzy Homemaker said.

“Right, thanks.”

They opened the basement door. Yates muttered, “What did they do to that boy? I can’t even get my kids to say hello to me, forget strangers.”

Loren muffled a laugh. “Mr. Friedman?” she called out.

He stepped into view. Friedman’s hair had gone a shade grayer since the last time she’d seen him. He wore a light blue button-down sweater and khakis. “Nice to see you again, Investigator Muse.”

“Same here.”

“And your friend?”

“This is Special Agent in Charge Adam Yates from Las Vegas.”


Tags: Harlan Coben Thriller
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