WHEN CINGLE GOT to the police station she used her phone call to reach her boss, Malcolm Seward, the president of Most Valuable Detection. Seward was retired FBI. He opened MVD ten years ago and was making a small fortune.
Seward was not thrilled about the late-night call. "You pulled a gun on the guy?"
"It's not like I would have shot him."
"How reassuring." Seward sighed. "I'll make some calls. You'll be out in an hour."
"You're the best, Boss."
He hung up.
She went back to her holding cell and waited. A tall officer unlocked the holding cell door. "Cingle Shaker."
"Please follow me."
He led her down the hallway. She expected this to be it- the bail hearing, the quick release, whatever- but that wasn't the case.
"Please turn around," he said.
Cingle cocked an eyebrow. "Shouldn't you buy me dinner first?"
"Please turn around."
She did. He cuffed her hands.
"What are you doing?"
He didn't speak. He escorted her outside, opened the back door of his squad car, and pushed her in.
"Where are we going?"
"The new court building."
"The one on West Market?"
The ride was short, less than a mile. They took the elevator to the third floor. The words OFFICE OF THE ESSEX COUNTY PROSECUTOR were stenciled on the glass. There was a big trophy case by the door, the kind you see in a high school. Cingle wondered about that, about what a trophy case was doing in a prosecutor's office. You prosecute killers and rapists and drug dealers and the first thing you see when you enter is a bunch of trophies celebrating softball wins. Weird.
He led her through the waiting area, past the double doors. When they stopped, she peeked inside a small, windowless space. "An interrogation room?"
He said nothing, just held the door. She shrugged and entered.
Time passed. A lot of time, actually. They had confiscated her possessions, including her watch, so she didn't really know how much. There was no one-way mirror either, like you usually see on TV. They used a camera here. There was one mounted in the corner of the wall. From the monitoring room, you could zoom the camera in or change the angle, whatever. There was one sheet of paper taped down at a funny angle. That was the guide spot, she knew, where you put the release statement so that the camera could tape you signing it.
When the door finally opened, a woman- Cingle assumed that it was a plainclothes investigator- stepped into the room. She was a tiny thing, maybe five-one, 110 pounds tops. Sweat drenched her body. It looked like she'd just stepped out of a steam room. Her blouse stuck to her chest. There was dampness under her pits. A thin coat of perspiration made her face glisten. She wore a gun on her belt and had a manila folder in her hand.
"I'm Investigator Loren Muse," the woman said.
Wow, that was fast. Cingle remembered the name- Muse was the one who'd questioned Matt earlier this evening.
"Cingle Shaker," she said.
"Yes, I know. I have a few questions."
"And I'm going to choose not to answer them right now."
Loren was still catching her breath. "Why's that?"
"I'm a working private investigator."
"And who would your client be?"
"I don't have to tell you."
"There is no such thing as PI-client privilege."
"I'm aware of the law."
"So I choose not to answer any questions at this time."
Loren dropped the manila folder on the table. It stayed closed. "Are you refusing to cooperate with the county prosecutor's office?"
"Not at all."
"Then please answer my question. Who is your client?"
Cingle leaned back. She stretched out her legs and crossed her ankles. "You fall in a pool or something?"
"Oh, wait, I get it. Because I'm wet? Good one, really. Should I get a pen, you know, in case you come up with more gems?"
"No need." Cingle pointed to the camera. "You can just watch the tape."
"It's not on."
"If I wanted to tape this, I'd have you sign the release."
"Is anybody in the monitoring room?"
Loren shrugged, ignored the question. "Aren't you curious about how Mr. Hunter's doing?"
Cingle didn't bite. "Tell you what. I won't ask any questions if you don't."
"I don't think so."
"Look, Inspector… Muse, is it?"
"What's the big deal here? It was a simple assault. That hotel probably has three a week."
"Yet," Loren said, "it was serious enough for you to pull a gun on a man?"
"I was just trying to get upstairs before it got any more dangerous."
"How did you know?"
"The fight was on the fifth floor. You were outside in your car. How did you know that someone was in trouble?"
"I think we're done."
"No, Cingle, I don't think we are."
Their eyes met. Cingle did not like what she saw. Loren pulled out the chair and sat down. "I've just spent the last half an hour in the stairwell of the Howard Johnson's. It's not air-conditioned. In fact, it's hot as hell. That's why I look like this."
"Am I supposed to know what you're talking about?"
"It's not a simple assault, Cingle."
Cingle eyed the manila folder. "What's that?"
Loren dumped out the folder's contents. They were photographs. Cingle sighed, picked one up, froze.
"I assume you recognize him?"
Cingle stared at the two pictures. The first was a headshot. No question about it- the dead man was Charles Talley. His face looked like raw meat. The other was a full body shot. Talley was sprawled on what looked like metal steps. "What happened to him?"
"Two shots to the face."
"Feel like talking now, Cingle?"
"I don't know anything about this."
"His name is Charles Talley. But you knew that, right?"
"Jesus," Cingle said again, trying to put it together. Talley was dead. How? Hadn't he just assaulted Matt?
Loren put the pictures back in the manila folder. She folded her hands and leaned closer. "I know you're working for Matt Hunter. I also know that right before you headed for that hotel you two met in your office for a very late-night chat. Would you care to tell me what you discussed?"
Cingle shook her head.
"Did you kill this man, Ms. Shaker?"
"What? Of course not."
"How about Mr. Hunter? Did he kill him?"
"How do you know?"
"I didn't even tell you when he was killed." Loren tilted her head. "How could you possibly know that he wasn't involved in the man's death?"
"That's not what I meant."
"What did you mean?"
Cingle took a breath. Loren did not.
"How about retired detective Max Darrow?"
"Who?" But Cingle remembered that name from Matt. He had asked her to check him out.
"Another dead man. Did you kill him? Or did Hunter do it?"
"I don't know what…" Cingle stopped, crossed her arms. "I have to get out of here."
"That's not going to happen, Cingle."
"Are you charging me with something?"
"As a matter of fact, we are. You threatened a man with a loaded handgun."
Cingle crossed her arms and tried to regain her composure. "Old news."
"Ah, but see, you're no longer getting sped through the system. You'll be kept overnight and arraigned in the morning. We're going to prosecute this to the full extent of the law. You'll only lose your license if it all breaks your way, but my bet is, you'll serve jail time."
Cingle said nothing.
"Who assaulted Mr. Hunter tonight?"
"Why don't you ask him?"
"Oh, I will. Because- and this is interesting- when we found Mr. Talley's corpse he had a stun gun and a pair of brass knuckles. There was fresh blood on the brass knuckles." Loren did that head tilt again, moving in a little closer. "When we run a DNA test, whose blood do you think will match?"
There was a knock on the door. Loren Muse held the gaze a moment longer before she opened it. The man who escorted Cingle from the station was there. He was holding a cell phone.
"For her," the man said, gesturing toward Cingle. Cingle looked at Loren. Loren's face gave away nothing. Cingle took the phone and put it to her ear. "Hello?"
It was her boss, Malcolm Seward.
"It's a sensitive case."
"I'm on the computer network now," Seward said. "Which case number?"
"There isn't a case number yet."
"With all due respect, sir, I don't feel comfortable talking with the authorities here."
She heard Seward sigh. "Guess who just called me, Cingle. Guess who called me at home at three in the morning."
"Actually, no, don't guess. I'll tell you because, hey, it's three in the morning and I'm too tired for games. Ed Steinberg. Ed Steinberg himself called me. Do you know who that is?"
"Ed Steinberg is the Essex County prosecutor."
"He's also been my friend for twenty-eight years."
"I know that too."
"Good, Cingle, then we're on the same wavelength here. MVD is a business. A very successful business, or so I like to think. And a big part of our effectiveness- yours and mine- depends on working with these people. So when Ed Steinberg calls me at home at three in the morning and tells me he's working on a triple homicide-"
"Hold up," Cingle said. "Did you say triple?"
"You see? You don't even know how deep this doo-doo goes. Ed Steinberg, my old pal, very much wants your cooperation. That means I, your boss, very much want your cooperation. Do I make myself clear?"
"I guess so."
"Guess? What, am I being too subtle here, Cingle?"
"There are mitigating factors."
"Not according to Steinberg. Steinberg tells me this all involves some ex-con. That true?"
"He works at Carter Sturgis."
"Is he a lawyer?"
"No, he's a paralegal."
"And he served time for manslaughter?"
"Then there's nothing to discuss. There's no privilege here. Tell them what they want to know."
"Can't?" There was an edge in Seward's tone now. "I don't like to hear that."
"It's not that simple, Mr. Seward."
"Well, then let me simplify it for you, Cingle. You have two choices: Talk or clean out your desk. Bye now."
He hung up the phone. Cingle eyed Loren. Loren smiled at her.
"Everything all right, Ms. Shaker?"
"Good. Because as we speak, our techno people are on their way to MVD's office. They'll comb through your hard drive. They'll scrutinize every document you've got in there. Prosecutor Steinberg is right now calling back your boss. He'll find out what files you accessed recently, who you talked to, where you've been, what you've been working on."
Cingle stood slowly, towering over Loren. Loren did not back up a step. "I have nothing more to say."
"Sit your ass down."
"I prefer to stand."
"Fine. Then listen up because we're coming to the end of our conversation. Did you know I went to school with Matt Hunter? Elementary school, actually. I liked him. He was a good kid. And if he's innocent, nobody will be more anxious to clear his name than yours truly. But your keeping mum like this, well, Cingle, it suggests you might be hiding something. We have Talley's brass knuckles. We know Matt Hunter was at the murder scene tonight. We know he got into some kind of fight in Room 515- that was Mr. Talley's room. We also know that Mr. Hunter was out drinking at two bars this evening. We know that the DNA test on the brass knuckles will show that the blood is Hunter's. And, of course, we know that Mr. Hunter, a convicted felon, has something of a history of getting into fights where someone ends up dead."
Cingle sighed. "Is there a point to this?"
"Sure is, Cingle, and here it comes: Do you really think I need your help to nail him?"
Cingle started tapping her foot, looking for a way out. "Then what do you want from me?"
"Help with what?"
"Tell me the truth," Loren said. "That's all I ask. Hunter is already as good as indicted. Once he's in the system- him being an ex-con and all- well, you know how that'll go."
She did. Matt would freak. He'd go nuts if they lock him up- his greatest fear come to fruition.
Loren moved a little closer. "If you know something that might help him," she said, "now is the time to say it."
Cingle tried to think it through. She almost trusted this little cop, but she knew better. That was what Muse wanted- playing good cop and bad cop in one package. Christ, an amateur could see through this charade and yet Cingle was almost ready to bite.
Key word: almost.
But Cingle also knew that once they got into her office computer, there would be huge problems. The last files she accessed were the photographs from Matt's cell phone. Pictures of the murder victim. A video of the murder victim and Matt Hunter's wife.
Those would be the final nails in any ex-con's coffin.
As Investigator Muse had pointed out, they already had enough with the physical evidence. The photographs would add one thing more: motive.
Cingle had her own career to worry about too. This had started out as a favor to a friend, just another case. But how far was she willing to go? What should she be willing to sacrifice? And if Matt had nothing to do with the murder of Charles Talley, wouldn't cooperating right from the get-go help bring the truth to light?
Cingle sat back down.
"You have something to say?"
"I want to call my lawyer," Cingle said. "Then I'll tell you everything I know."