Page 15 of The Innocent

“You sure it was a pillow?”

“Yup. Pillow in her room, matter of fact. Plenty of fibers in the throat.”

“How about under her fingernails?”

“They’re clean.”

“Isn’t that unusual?”

“Depends.”

Loren shook her head, tried to put it together. “You have an ID?”

“An ID on what?”

“On the victim?”

“I thought she was Sister Silicon or something. What do we need an ID for?”

Loren checked her watch. “How much longer are you in the office?”

“Another two hours,” Eldon Teak said.

“I’m on my way.”

Chapter 7

HERE IS HOW you find your soul mate.

It is spring break your freshman year of college. Most of your friends head down to Daytona Beach, but your high school bud Rick has a mother in the travel business. She gets you super-low rates to Vegas, so you and six friends go for a five-night stay at the Flamingo Hotel.

On the last night, you head to a nightclub at Caesars Palace because you hear it’s supposed to be a great hangout for coeds on vacation. The nightclub, no surprise, is noisy and crowded. There is too much neon. It is not your scene. You are with your friends, trying to hear them over the loud crush of music, when you look across the bar.

That is when you see Olivia for the first time.

No, the music doesn’t stop or segue to angelic harps. But something happens to you. You look at her and feel it in your chest, a warm twang, and you can see that she feels it too.

You are normally shy, not good with approaches, but tonight you can do no wrong. You make your way over to her and introduce yourself. We all have special nights like this, you think. You’re at a party and you see a beautiful girl and she’s looking at you and you start talking and you just click in a way that makes you think about lifetimes instead of one-nights.

You talk to her. You talk for hours. She looks at you as if you’re the only person in the world. You go somewhere quieter. You kiss her. She responds. You start to make out. You make out all night and have no real desire to push it any further. You hold her. You talk some more. You love her laugh. You love her face. You love everything about her.

You fall asleep in each other’s arms, fully clothed, and you wonder if you will ever be this happy again. Her hair smells like lilacs and berries. You will never forget that smell.

You’d do anything to make this last, but you know it won’t. These sorts of interactions aren’t built for the long term. You have a life, and Olivia has a “serious” boyfriend, a fiancé really, back home. This isn’t about that. It is about the two of you, your own world, for just too brief a time. You pack a small life span into that night, a complete cycle of courtship, relationship, breakup into those few hours.

In the end, you will go back to your life and she’ll go back to hers.

You don’t bother trading phone numbers—neither one of you wants to pretend like that—but she takes you to the airport and you passionately kiss good-bye. Her eyes are wet when you release her. You return to school.

You go on, of course, but you never quite forget her or that night or the way it felt to kiss her or the smell of her hair. She stays with you. You think of her. Not every day, maybe not even every week. But she’s there. The memory is something you take out every now and then, when you’re feeling alone, and you don’t know if it comforts or stings.

You wonder if she ever does the same.

Eleven years pass. You don’t see her in all that time.

You are no longer the same person, of course. The death of Stephen McGrath had set you off the rails. You have spent time in prison. But you’re free now. Your life has been given back to you, you guess. You work at the Carter Sturgis law firm.

One day you sign onto the computer and Google her name.

You know it is stupid and immature. You realize that she probably married the fiancé, has three or four kids by now, maybe taken her husband’s name. But this is harmless. You will take it no further. You are simply curious.

There are several Olivia Murrays.

You search a little deeper and find one that might be her. This Olivia Murray is the sales director for DataBetter, a consulting business that designs computer systems for small-to-midsize companies. DataBetter’s Web site has employee biographies. Hers is brief but it does mention that she is a graduate of the University of Virginia. That was where your Olivia Murray was going when you met all those years ago.

You try to forget about it.

You are not one who believes in fate or kismet—just the opposite—but six months later, the partners at Carter Sturgis decide that the firm’s computer system needs to be overhauled. Midlife knows that you learned about computer programming during your tenure in prison. He suggests that you be on the committee to develop a new office network. You suggest several firms come in and make bids.

One of those firms is DataBetter.

Two people from DataBetter arrive at the offices of Carter Sturgis. You are in a panic. In the end, you fake an emergency and don’t attend the presentation. That would be too much—showing up like that. You let the other three men on the committee handle the interview. You stay in your office. Your leg shakes. You bite your nails. You feel like an idiot.

At noon, there is a knock on your office door.

You turn and Olivia is there.

You recognize her right away. It hits you like a physical blow. The warm twang is back. You can barely speak. You look at her left hand. At her ring finger.

There is nothing there.

Olivia smiles and tells you that she’s here at Carter Sturgis doing a presentation. You try to nod. Her company is bidding to set up the firm’s computer systems, she says. She spotted your name on the list of people who were supposed to be at the meeting and wondered if you were the same Matt Hunter she met all those years ago.

Still stunned, you ask her if she wants to grab a cup of coffee. She hesitates but says yes. When you rise and walk past her, you smell her hair. The lilacs and berries are still there, and you worry that your eyes will well up.

You both gloss over the phony catch-up preliminaries, which, of course, works well for you. Over the years she has thought about you too, you find out. The fiancé is long gone. She has never been married.

Your heart soars even as you shake your head. You know that this is all too impossible. Neither of you believes in concepts like love at first sight.

But there you are.

In the weeks that follow you learn what true love is. She teaches it to you. You eventually tell her the truth about your past. She gets over it. You get married. She becomes pregnant. You are happy. You both celebrate the news by buying matching camera phones.


Tags: Harlan Coben Thriller
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