Page 7 of The Innocent

“Could you stop by?”

“Stop by your place?”

“Yes.”

“Sure.”

“If it’s a bad time . . .”

“No, of course not.”

Marsha was a beautiful woman with an oval face that sometimes looked sad-sack, and a nervous upward glance as if making sure the black cloud was in place. That was a physical thing, of course, no more a true reflection on her personality than being short or scarred.

“Everything all right?” Matt asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine. It’s no big deal. It’s just . . . Could you take the kids for a couple of hours? I got a school thing and Kyra’s going to be out tonight.”

“You want me to take them out for dinner?”

“That would be great. But no McDonald’s, okay?”

“Chinese?”

“Perfect,” she said.

“Cool, I’m there.”

“Thanks.”

The image started coming in on the camera phone.

“I’ll see you later,” he said.

She said good-bye and hung up.

Matt turned his attention back to the cell phone. He squinted at the screen. It was tiny. Maybe an inch, no more than two. The sun was bright that day. The curtain was open. The glare made it harder to see. Matt cupped his hand around the tiny display and hunched his body so as to provide shade. It worked somewhat.

A man appeared on the screen.

Again it was hard to make out details. He looked in his mid-thirties—Matt’s age—and had really dark hair, almost blue. He wore a red button-down shirt. His hand was up as though waving. He was in a room with white walls and a gray-sky window. The man had a smirk on his face—one of those knowing, I’m-better-than-you smirks. Matt stared at the man. Their eyes met and Matt could have sworn he saw something mocking in them.

Matt did not know the man.

He did not know why his wife would take the man’s photograph.

The screen went black. Matt did not move. That seashell rush stayed in his ears. He could still hear other sounds—a distant fax machine, low voices, the traffic outside—but it was as though through a filter.

“Matt?”

It was Rolanda Garfield, said assistant/secretary. The law firm had not been thrilled when Matt hired her. Rolanda was a tad too “street” for the stuffed shirts at Carter Sturgis. But he’d insisted. She had been one of Matt’s first clients and one of his painfully few victories.

During his stint in prison, Matt managed to accrue enough credits to get his BA. The law degree came not long after his release. Bernie, a powerhouse at his uber-Newark law firm of Carter Sturgis, figured that he’d be able to convince the bar to make an exception and let his ex-con brother in.

He had been wrong.

But Bernie was not easily discouraged. He then persuaded his partners to take Matt in as a “paralegal,” a wonderful all-encompassing term that, for the most part, seemed to mean “scut work.”

The partners at Carter Sturgis didn’t like it, at first. No surprise, of course. An ex-con at their white-shoe law firm? That simply wouldn’t do. But Bernie appealed to their purported humanity: Matt would be good for public relations. He would show that the firm had heart and believed in second chances, at least in theoretical spin. He was smart. He would be an asset. More to the point, Matt could take on the large bulk of the firm’s pro bono cases, freeing the partners to gouge the deep pockets without the distraction of the underclass.

The two closers: Matt would work cheap—what choice did he have? And Brother Bernie, a major-league rainmaker, would walk if they didn’t agree.

The partners considered the scenario: Maybe do good and help yourself? It was the kind of logic upon which charities are built.

Matt’s eyes stayed on the blank phone screen. His pulse did a little two-step. Who, he wondered, is that guy with the blue-black hair?

Rolanda put her hands on her hips. “Earth to doofus,” she said.

“What?” Matt snapped out of it.

“You okay?”

“Me? I’m fine.”

Rolanda gave him a funny look.

The camera phone vibrated again. Rolanda stood with her arms crossed. Matt looked back at her. She did not get the hint. She rarely did. The phone vibrated again and then the Batman theme started up.

“Aren’t you going to answer that?” Rolanda said.

He glanced down at the phone. The caller ID blinked out his wife’s phone number again.

“Yo, Batman.”

“I’m on it,” Matt said.

His thumb touched on the green send button, lingering there for a moment before it pressed down. The screen lit up anew.

A video appeared now.

The technology was improving, but the shaky video display usually had a quality two steps below the Zapruder film. For a second or two, Matt had trouble focusing in on what was happening. The video would not last long, Matt knew. Ten, fifteen seconds tops.

It was a room. He could see that. The camera panned past a television on a console. There was a painting on the wall—Matt couldn’t tell of what—but the overall impression led him to conclude that it was a hotel room. The camera stopped on the bathroom door.

And then a woman appeared.

Her hair was platinum blonde. She wore dark sunglasses and a slinky blue dress. Matt frowned.

What the hell was this?

The woman stood for a moment. Matt had the impression she did not know the camera was on her. The lens moved with her. There was a flash of light, sun bursting in through the window, and then everything came back into focus.

When the woman walked toward the bed, he stopped breathing.

Matt recognized the walk.

He also recognized the way she sat on the bed, the tentative smile that followed, the way her chin tilted up, the way she crossed her legs.

He did not move.

From across the room he heard Rolanda’s voice, softer now: “Matt?”

He ignored her. The camera was put down now, probably on a bureau. It was still aiming at the bed. A man walked toward the platinum blonde. Matt could only see the man’s back. He was wearing a red shirt and had blue-black hair. His approach blocked the view of the woman. And the bed.

Matt’s eyes started to blur. He blinked them back into focus. The LCD screen on the camera started to darken. The images flickered and disappeared and Matt was left sitting there, Rolanda staring at him curiously, the photographs on his brother’s side of the desk still in place, and he was sure—well, pretty sure, the screen was only an inch or two, right?—that the woman in the strange hotel room, the woman in the slinky dress on the bed, that she was wearing a platinum-blonde wig and that she was really a brunette and that her name was Olivia and she was his wife.


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