Page 5 of The Innocent

“I love you too.”

They were both inside the car. She turned to him. He could see the concern and it almost made him turn away. “It’s going to be okay,” Olivia said. “You know that, right?”

He nodded and feigned a smile. Olivia wouldn’t buy it, but the effort would count toward something.

“Olivia?” he said.


“Tell me more about the nudies.”

She punched his arm.

But Matt’s unease returned the moment he entered the Sprint store and started hearing about the two-year commitment. The salesman’s smile looked somehow satanic, like the devil in one of those movies where a naïve guy sells his soul. When the salesman whipped out a map of the United States—the “nonroaming” areas, he informed them, were in bright red—Matt started to back away.

As for Olivia, there was simply no quelling her excitement, but then again his wife had a natural lean toward the enthusiastic. She was one of those rare people who finds joy in things both large and small, one of those traits that demonstrates, certainly in their case, that opposites do attract.

The salesman kept jabbering. Matt tuned him out, but Olivia gave the man her full attention. She asked a question or two, just out of formality, but the salesman knew that this one was not only hooked, lined, and sinkered but fried up and halfway down the gullet.

“Let me just get the paperwork ready,” Hades said, slinking away.

Olivia gripped Matt’s arm, her face beaming. “Isn’t this fun?”

Matt made a face.


“Did you really use the word ‘nudie’?”

She laughed and leaned her head against his shoulder.

Of course Olivia’s giddiness—and nonstop beaming—was due to much more than the changing of their mobile phone service. Purchasing the camera phones was merely a symbol, a signpost, of what was to come.

A baby.

Two days ago, Olivia had taken a home pregnancy test and, in a move Matt found oddly loaded with religious significance, a red cross finally appeared on the white stick. He was stunned silent. They had been trying to have a child for a year—pretty much since they first got married. The stress of continuous failure had turned what had always been a rather spontaneous if not downright magical experience into well-orchestrated chores of temperature taking, calendar markings, prolonged abstinence, concentrated ardor.

Now that was behind them. It was early, he warned her. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. But Olivia had a glow that could not be denied. Her positive mood was a force, a storm, a tide. Matt had no chance against it.

That was why they were here.

Camera phones, Olivia had stressed, would allow the soon-to-be threesome to share family life in a way their parents’ generation could never have envisioned. Thanks to the camera phone, neither of them would miss out on their child’s life-defining or even mundane moments—the first step, the first words, the average play-date, what-have-you.

That, at least, was the plan.

An hour later, when they returned to their half of the two-family home, Olivia gave him a quick kiss and started up the stairs.

“Hey,” Matt called after her, holding up his new phone and arching an eyebrow. “Want to try out the, uh, video feature?”

“The video only lasts fifteen seconds.”

“Fifteen seconds.” He considered that, shrugged, and said, “So we’ll extend foreplay.”

Olivia understandably groaned.

They lived in what most would consider a seedy area, in the strangely comforting shadow of the giant beer bottle of Irvington. When he was fresh out of prison, Matt had felt he deserved no better (which worked neatly because he could afford little better) and despite protestations from family, he began renting space nine years ago. Irvington is a tired city with a large African-American population, probably north of eighty percent. Some might reach the obvious conclusion about guilt over what he’d had to be like in prison. Matt knew that such things were never so simple, but he had no better explanation other than he couldn’t yet return to the suburbs. The change would have been too fast, the land equivalent of the bends.

Either way, this neighborhood—the Shell gas station, the old hardware store, the deli on the corner, the winos on the cracked sidewalk, the cut-throughs to Newark Airport, the tavern hidden near the old Pabst brewery—had become home.

When Olivia relocated from Virginia, he figured that she’d insist on moving to a better neighborhood. She was used to, he knew, if not better, definitely different. Olivia grew up in the small hick town of Northways, Virginia. When Olivia was a toddler, her mother ran off. Her father raised her alone.

On the elderly side for a new dad—her father was fifty-one when Olivia was born—Joshua Murray worked hard to make a home for him and his young daughter. Joshua was the town doctor of Northways—a general practitioner who worked on everything from six-year-old Mary Kate Johnson’s appendix to Old Man Riteman’s gout.

Joshua was, according to Olivia, a kind man, a gentle and wonderful father who doted on his only true relative. There was just the two of them, father and daughter, living in a brick town house off Main Street. Dad’s medical office was attached, on the right side off the driveway. Most days, Olivia would sprint home after school so that she could help out with the patients. She would cheer up scared kids or gab with Cassie, the long-time receptionist/nurse. Cassie was a “sorta nanny” too. If her father was too busy, Cassie cooked dinner and helped Olivia with her homework. For her part, Olivia worshipped her father. Her dream—and yes, she thought now that it sounded hopelessly naïve—had been to become a doctor and work with her father.

But during Olivia’s senior year of college, everything changed. Her father, the only family Olivia had ever known, died of lung cancer. The news took Olivia’s legs out from under her. The old ambition of going to medical school—following in her father’s footsteps—died with him. Olivia broke off her engagement to her college sweetheart, a premed named Doug, and moved back to the old house in Northways. But living there without her father was too painful. She ended up selling the house and moving to an apartment complex in Charlottesville. She took a job with a computer software company that required a fair amount of travel, which was, in part, how she and Matt rekindled their previously too-brief relationship.

Irvington, New Jersey, was a far cry from either Northways or Charlottesville, Virginia, but Olivia surprised him. She wanted them to stay in this place, seedy as it was, so that they could save the money for the now-under-contract dream house.

Tags: Harlan Coben Thriller