WHEN MATT REACHED Rolanda's desk, she said, "Cingle's waiting in your office."
"Midlife wants me to buzz him the very second you arrive." Rolanda looked up. "Have you arrived yet?"
"Give me five."
She turned back to the computer terminal and started typing. Matt entered. Cingle Shaker was standing looking at the window. "Nice view," she said.
"Nah. That's just my idea of small talk."
"You're very good at it," he said.
"I thought you were just a paralegal."
"So why the fancy digs?"
"It was my brother's."
"So Bernie was a big rainmaker here."
"So?" Cingle turned toward him. "I don't want to sound cold, but he's dead."
"I think you were being hard on yourself before. You really are good at this small talk stuff."
"No, I mean, he's been dead for, what, three years now? I can't believe they let an ex-con paralegal keep a space like this."
He smiled. "I knew what you meant."
"So what gives?"
"Maybe they're being respectful to my brother's memory."
"Attorneys?" Cingle made a face. "Please."
"Actually," he said, "I think they like having me around."
"Because you're such a nice guy?"
"Because of the ex-con angle. I'm a fun oddity."
Cingle nodded. "Kinda like having a lesbian couple at your hoity-toity soiree."
"Something like that, but even more exotic. It's funny. In some ways I'm the ultimate curiosity. Whenever they're drunk, they all ask me, on the sly, of course, what it's really like for a guy like them to go to the"- he made quote marks with his fingers-"Big House."
"You're like a local celebrity."
"In a bizarre way, yeah."
"And that's why they don't throw you out of the office?"
"They might also be afraid of you," Cingle said. "You already killed one man with your bare hands."
He sighed and took his seat. Cingle took hers.
"Sorry," she said.
He waved her off. "What's up?"
Cingle crossed her long legs. It was for effect, he knew that, but he wondered if it had become something of an unconscious move on her part. "So tell me," she said. "Why did you want the license plate traced?"
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."
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?"
"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.
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.