Page 17 of The Innocent

He didn’t know what to say.

“And most of the time,” Jamie went on, “I book the hotel for her.”

“You didn’t this time?”

“No.” Then she hurriedly added: “But that’s not unusual or anything. Olivia does it herself sometimes too.”

He didn’t know what to make of that. “Have you heard from her today?”

“She called in this morning.”

“Did she say where she was going to be?”

There was another pause. Matt knew that his behavior would be considered beyond the scope of normal husbandly curiosity, but he figured it was worth the risk.

“She just said she had some meetings. Nothing specific.”

“Okay, if she calls back—”

“I’ll tell her you’re looking for her.”

Then Jamie hung up.

Another memory struck him. He and Olivia had a huge fight, one of those no-holds-barred verbal brawls where you know you’re wrong and you just keep pushing. She ran out in tears and didn’t call for two days. Two full days. He would call, she wouldn’t answer. He searched, but he couldn’t find her. It punched a huge hole in his heart. That was what he remembered right now. The idea that she would never come back to him hurt so much he could barely breathe.

The home inspector was just finishing up when he arrived at the house. Nine years ago Matt walked out of jail after serving four years for killing a man. Now, incredible as it might seem, he was on the verge of buying a home, sharing it with the woman he loved, raising a child.

He shook his head.

The house was part of a suburban tract built in 1965. Like most of Livingston, the area used to be a farm. All the houses were pretty much the same, but if that discouraged Olivia, she hid it pretty well. She’d stared at the house with a nearly religious fervor and whispered, “It’s perfect.” Her enthusiasm had swept away any doubts he’d had about moving back.

Matt stood on what would soon be his front yard and tried to imagine himself living here. It felt odd. He didn’t belong here anymore. He had known that until, well, until Olivia. Now he was back.

Behind him a police cruiser pulled up. Two men got out. The first one was in uniform. He was young and in shape. He gave Matt the cop squint. The second man was in plainclothes.

“Hey, Matt,” the man in the brown suit called out. “Long time, no see.”

It had been a long time, since Livingston High at least, but he recognized Lance Banner right away.

“Hi, Lance.”

Both men slammed their doors closed as if they’d coordinated the move. The uniform crossed his arms and remained silent. Lance moved toward Matt.

“You know,” Lance said, “I live on this street.”

“That a fact.”

“It is.”

Matt said nothing.

“I’m a detective on the force now.”

“Congrats.”

“Thanks.”

How long had he known Lance Banner? Since second grade, at least. They were never friends, never enemies. They played on the same Little League team for three years running. They shared a gym class in eighth grade and a study hall junior year of high school. Livingston High School had been big—six hundred kids per grade. They’d simply traveled in different circles.

“How’s it been going for you?” Lance asked.

“Super.”

The home inspector stepped outside. He had a clipboard. Lance said, “How’s it look, Harold?”

Harold looked up from his clipboard and nodded. “Pretty solid, Lance.”

“You sure?”

Something in his tone made Harold take a step back. Lance looked back at Matt.

“We have a nice neighborhood here.”

“It’s why we picked it.”

“You really think it’s a good idea, Matt?”

“What’s that, Lance?”

“Moving back.”

“Done my time.”

“And you think that’s the end of it?”

Matt didn’t say anything.

“That boy you killed. He’s still dead, isn’t he?”

“Lance?”

“I’m Detective Banner now,” he said.

“Detective Banner, I’m going inside now.”

“I read all about your case. I even called a couple of cop buddies, got the whole scoop on what happened.”

Matt looked at him. The man had gray flecks in his eyes. He had put on weight. His fingers kept itching and Matt didn’t like the way he smiled at him. Lance Banner’s family had worked this land as farmers. His grandfather or maybe it was his great-grandfather had sold the land for a song. The Banners still considered Livingston their town. They were the soil here. The father drank too much. So did Lance’s two dull brothers. Lance, on the other hand, always hit Matt as being pretty sharp.

“Then you know it was an accident,” Matt said.

Lance Banner nodded slowly. “Could be.”

“So why the hard time, Lance?”

“Because you’re an ex-con.”

“You think I should have gone to prison?”

“Tough call,” he said, rubbing his chin. “But from what I read, I think you got a bad break.”

“So?”

“So you did. Go to prison, I mean.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Society wants to peddle that rehabilitation crap on the public, hey, that’s fine with me. But I”—he pointed to himself—“know better. And you”—he turned the finger toward Matt—“know better.”

Matt said nothing.

“You may have gone into that place an okay guy. But you want to tell me you’re the same man now?”

Matt knew that there was no right answer to that one. He turned and started toward the door.

Lance said, “Maybe your home inspector will find something. Give you a way to back out.”

Matt went inside and finished up with the inspector. There were several issues—some pipe problem, one overloaded breaker—but they were all small. He and Harold finished up, and Matt started for Marsha’s house.

He pulled into the tree-lined street where his nephews and sister-in-law—was she still considered a sister-in-law after your brother died? “Ex” certainly didn’t sound right—resided. The boys, Paul and Ethan, were on the front lawn rolling in the leaves. Their babysitter, Kyra, was with them. Kyra Walsh was a recent freshman-transfer taking summer classes at William Paterson University. She rented a room above Marsha’s garage. Kyra had come highly recommended from someone at Marsha’s church, and while Matt had been initially skeptical of the whole idea of a live-in babysitter (nonetheless a college student) it seemed to be working great. Kyra ended up being a pretty terrific kid, a fresh-faced burst of needed sunshine from one of the “I” states in the Midwest, he could never remember which one.


Tags: Harlan Coben Thriller
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