Page 8 of The Innocent

Chapter 3



ESSEX COUNTY HOMICIDE INVESTIGATOR Loren Muse sat in her boss’s office.

“Wait a second,” she said. “Are you telling me that the nun had breast implants?”

Ed Steinberg, the Essex County prosecutor, sat behind his desk rubbing his bowling-ball gut. He had that kind of build that from the back you wouldn’t even know he was heavy, just that he had a flat ass. He leaned back and put his hands behind his head. The shirt was yellow under the armpits. “So it appears, yeah.”

“But she died of natural causes?” Loren said.

“That’s what we thought.”

“You don’t think that anymore?”

“I don’t think anything anymore,” Steinberg said.

“I could make a crack here, boss.”

“But you won’t.” Steinberg sighed and put on his reading glasses. “Sister Mary Rose, a tenth-grade social studies teacher, was found dead in her room at the convent. No signs of struggle, no wounds, she’s sixty-two years old. Apparently a standard death—heart, stroke, something like that. Nothing suspicious.”

“But?” Loren added.

“But there’s been a new development.”

“I think the word is ‘augmentation.’ ”

“Stop it, you’re killing me.”

Loren turned both palms up. “I still don’t see why I’m here.”

“How about that you’re the greatest homicide investigator in the naked, uh, county?”

Loren made a face.

“Yeah, didn’t think that’d fly. This nun”—Steinberg lowered the reading glasses again—“taught at St. Margaret’s High.” He looked at her.


“So you were a student there, right?”

“And again I say: So?”

“So the Mother Superior has some juice with the brass. She requested you.”

“Mother Katherine?”

He checked the sheet. “That’s her name.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Nope. She called in a favor. Requested you by name.”

Loren shook her head.

“You know her, I assume?”

“Mother Katherine? Only because I was constantly being sent to her office.”

“Wait, you weren’t an easy kid?” Steinberg put his hand to his heart. “Tattoo me shocked.”

“I still don’t see why she’d want me.”

“Maybe she thought you’d be discreet.”

“I hated that place.”


“You didn’t go to Catholic school, did you?”

He lifted his nameplate on his desk and pointed to the letters one at a time. “Steinberg,” he read to her slowly. “Note the Stein. Note the Berg. See those names much in church?”

Loren nodded. “Right, then it’d be like explaining music to the deaf. What prosecutor will I be reporting to?”


That surprised her. “Directly?”

“Directly and only. Nobody else is on this, understood?”

She nodded. “Understood.”

“You ready then?”

“Ready for what?”

“Mother Katherine.”

“What about her?”

Steinberg stood and sauntered around his desk. “She’s in the next room. She wants to talk to you privately.”

When Loren Muse was a student at St. Margaret’s School for Girls, Mother Katherine was twelve feet tall and approximately one hundred years old. The years had shrunk her down and reversed the aging process—but not by a lot. Mother Katherine had worn the full habit when Loren was at St. Margaret’s. Now she was decked out in something undeniably pious, though far more casual. The clerical answer to Banana Republic, Loren guessed.

Steinberg said, “I’ll leave you two alone.”

Mother Katherine was standing, her hands folded in preprayer position. The door closed. Neither of them said anything. Loren knew this technique. She would not talk first.

As a sophomore at Livingston High School, Loren had been labeled a “problem student” and sent to St. Margaret’s. Loren was a petite thing back then, just five feet tall, and she hadn’t grown much in the ensuing years. The other investigators, all males and oh so clever, called her Squirt.

Investigators. You get them started, they’ll shred you with the cutting lines.

But Loren hadn’t always been one of the so-called troubled youth. When she was in elementary school, she was that tiny tomboy, that spunky spark plug of a girl who kicked ass in kickball and would sooner die than don anything in the pink family. Her father worked a variety of blue-collar jobs, mostly involving trucking. He was a sweet, quiet man who made the mistake of falling for a woman far too beautiful for him.

The Muse clan lived in the Coventry section of Livingston, New Jersey, a slice of suburbia well beyond their social and economic means. Loren’s mother, the ravishing and demanding Mrs. Muse, had insisted because, dammit, she deserved it. No one—but no one—was going to look down on Carmen Muse.

She pushed Loren’s father, demanding he work harder, take out more loans, find a way to keep up, until—exactly two days after Loren turned fourteen years old—Dad blew his brains out in their detached two-car garage.

In hindsight her father was probably bipolar. She understood that now. There was a chemical imbalance in his brain. A man kills himself—it’s not fair to blame others. But Loren did. She blamed her mother. She wondered what her sweet, quiet father’s life would have been like had he married someone less high maintenance than Carmen Valos of Bayonne.

Young Loren took the tragedy as one might expect: She rebelled like mad. She drank, smoked, hung out with the wrong crowd, slept around. It was, Loren knew, grossly unfair that boys with multiple sex partners are revered while girls who do the same are dumb sluts. But the truth was—and Loren hated to admit this—for all the comforting feminist rationalizations, Loren knew that her level of promiscuity was adversely (though directly) related to her self-esteem. That is, when her self-worth was low, her, uh, easiness factor rose. Men didn’t seem to suffer the same fate, or if they did, they hid it better.

Mother Katherine broke the stalemate. “It’s nice to see you, Loren.”

“Same here,” Loren said in a tentative voice that was so not like her. Gee, what next? Would she start biting her fingernails again? “Prosecutor Steinberg said you wanted to talk to me?”

Tags: Harlan Coben Thriller