The stranger, p.10
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       The Stranger, p.10

           Harlan Coben
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  "What difference does that make?"

  Kuntz shrugged. "Just a routine question."

  Heidi said nothing. The small tingling at the base of her neck had started to grow.

  "Mrs. Dann?"

  "I think I better talk to an attorney."

  "Oh," Kuntz said. He made a face as though he were a teacher suddenly disappointed by a favorite pupil. "Then your daughter lied to us. That won't look good here, I gotta be honest."

  Heidi knew that he wanted her to bite. The silence between them grew so big, Heidi could hardly breathe. She couldn't take it, so she asked: "Why do you think my daughter lied?"

  "Simple. Kimberly told us you found out about the website in a completely legal way. She said that two people--a man and a woman--stopped you outside a restaurant and informed you of what was going on. But see, if that were true, I don't get why you wouldn't want to tell us that. There is nothing illegal in that activity."

  Heidi's head started spinning. "I don't understand any of this. What are you doing here exactly?"

  "That's a fair question, I guess." Kuntz sighed and adjusted himself on the couch. "Do you know what the Cyber Crime Unit is?"

  "I imagine it has something to do with crimes on the Internet."

  "Exactly. I'm with the CCU--that stands for Cyber Crime Unit--which is a fairly new division of the NYPD. We bust criminals who use the Internet in nefarious ways--hackers, scammers, that kind of thing--and we suspect that the person or persons who approached you at the restaurant are part of an elusive cyber criminal syndicate we've been after for a long time."

  Heidi swallowed. "I see."

  "And we would like your help in finding and identifying whoever might have been involved in these crimes. Does that make sense? So let's get back to it, okay? Yes or no, did two people approach you in the parking lot of a restaurant?"

  The tingling was still there, but she said, "Yes."

  "Great." Kuntz smiled with the spaced teeth again. He wrote something down and looked back up at her. "What restaurant?"

  She hesitated.

  "Mrs. Dann?"

  "I don't understand something," Heidi said slowly.

  "What's that, ma'am?"

  "I just talked to my daughter yesterday afternoon."


  "So when did you talk to her?"

  "Last night."

  "And how did you get here so fast?"

  "This matter is of great importance to us. I flew in this morning."

  "But how did you even know about it?"


  "My daughter didn't say anything about calling the police. So how would you know . . . ?" She stopped. Her mind traveled down a few possible paths. All of them were pretty dark.

  "Mrs. Dann?"

  "I think you better leave."

  Kuntz nodded. He started working the few strands of hair again, sweeping them from one ear to the other. Then he said, "I'm sorry, but I can't do that."

  Heidi stood and moved toward the door. "I'm not going to talk to you."

  "Yes, you are."

  Still sitting and with something approaching a sigh, Kuntz took out his gun, aimed with precision at Heidi's kneecap, and pulled the trigger. The sound of the weapon was quieter than she would have thought, but the impact was more immense. She collapsed to the floor like a broken folding chair. He moved fast, covering her mouth to smother her scream. He lowered his lips to her ear.

  "If you scream, I'll finish you off slowly and then I'll start on your daughter," Kuntz whispered. "Do you understand?"

  The pain came in waves, nearly making her pass out. Kuntz took the muzzle and pressed it against the other knee. "Do you understand, Mrs. Dann?"

  She nodded.

  "Terrific. Now let's try this again. What was the name of the restaurant?"

  Chapter 15

  Adam sat in his office, going over everything for the thousandth time in his head, when a simple question came to him: If Corinne had indeed decided to run away from life, where would she go?

  Truth? He had no idea.

  He and Corinne were such a couple, such a unit, that the idea of her running away someplace without him or their family was completely anathema to him. There were friends Corinne might call, he guessed. Some women she knew in college. There were a few family members too. But he couldn't see her confiding in or staying with any of them under this sort of circumstance. She just wasn't that open with anyone other than . . . well, other than Adam.

  So maybe Corinne was alone.

  That seemed most likely. She would be staying in a hotel. But either way--and this was the key here--whatever she was doing would require means, aka the use of a credit card or cash. That meant somewhere there were credit card charges or ATM withdrawals.

  So look them up, dummy.

  He and Corinne had two accounts, both held jointly. They used a debit card out of one and a Visa charge card from the other. Corinne wasn't good with the finances. Adam handled all that as part of their domestic division of labor. He also knew all the user names and passwords.

  In short, he could see her every charge or withdrawal.

  For the next twenty minutes, Adam went through her charge cards and bank accounts. He started by searching from the most recent backward--any activity from today and yesterday. But there was nothing. He started traveling back a few days, just to see if there were any patterns. Corinne wasn't big on using cash. Credit cards were both easier and offered points on every purchase. She liked that.

  Everything--her entire financial life or, well, spending life--was there and unsurprising. She had gone to the A&P supermarket, Starbucks, the Lax Shop. She had lunch at Baumgart's and picked up takeout at Ho-Ho-Kus Sushi. There were the automatic gym payments taken off the card and something she had ordered online from Banana Republic. Normal-life stuff. There was also pretty much at least one charge every single day.

  But not today. And not yesterday.

  No charges at all.

  So what should he make of that?

  For one thing, Corinne might be naive in the ways of bill paying, but she wasn't dumb. If she wanted to stay hidden, Corinne might have realized that he could check the credit card statements online and track her down that way.

  Right. So what would she do instead? She'd use cash.

  He checked the ATM withdrawals. The last one she made had been two weeks ago for $200.

  Was that enough to run away on?

  Doubtful. He thought about it.

  If she were driving for any length of time, she would need to buy gas. So how much cash did she have on her now? It wasn't as though she planned to run. She couldn't have known that he would confront her about the fake pregnancy or that the stranger would visit. . . .

  Or had she?

  He stopped. Could Corinne have put money away, knowing that something like this would happen? He tried to think back. Had she been surprised when he confronted her? Or had she been more like . . . resigned?

  Had she somehow suspected that one day her deception would come to light?

  He didn't know. When he sat back and tried to think it through, he realized that he didn't know a damn thing for anything close to certain. In her text, Corinne had asked him--no, the text equivalent of begged him, what with her "JUST GIVE ME A FEW DAYS. PLEASE."--to let her be. Maybe that was best. Maybe he should just let her blow off steam or do whatever it was she was doing and be patient and wait. That was what she had specifically asked for in that text, right?

  But then again, for all he knew, Corinne had driven away from the school and met some horrible fate. Maybe she knew the stranger. Maybe she drove to the stranger and confronted him and he got angry and kidnapped her, or worse. Except the stranger didn't seem the type. And those texts had come in, telling him that she needed time and to give her a few days. But then again--this was how his head was reeling back and forth right now--anyone could have sent those texts.

  A killer even.

  Maybe someone had killed Corinne and
taken her phone and . . .

  Whoa, slow down a sec. Let's not get ahead of ourselves.

  He could actually feel his heart pounding against his chest. Now that this worry had entered his head--check that, it had been in his head, but now he had all but voiced it--the fear stayed there, unmoving, like some unwelcome relative who wouldn't leave. He looked at her text again: MAYBE WE NEED SOME TIME APART. YOU TAKE CARE OF THE KIDS. DON'T TRY TO CONTACT ME. IT WILL BE OKAY.

  And then:


  Something about the texts was off, but he couldn't figure out what. Suppose Corinne was in real danger. He again wondered whether he should go to the police. Kristin Hoy had asked him about that right away, hadn't she? She asked him whether he had called the police if his wife was missing. Only she wasn't missing. She had sent that text. Unless she didn't send that text.

  His head started spinning.

  Okay, let's say he went to the police. Then what? He would have to go to the town cops. And what would he say exactly? They'd take one look at the text and say to give it time, wouldn't they? And in town, as much as he hated to admit it mattered, the cops would talk. He knew most of them. Len Gilman was the top cop in Cedarfield. He'd take his complaint, most likely. He had a son Ryan's age. They were in the same homeroom. Gossip and rumors about Corinne would spread like, well, gossip and rumors. Did he care? Easy to say no, but he knew that Corinne would. This was her town. She had battled to make it her own again and make a life.

  "Hey, bro."

  Andy Gribbel entered the office with a big smile on his bearded face. He wore sunglasses inside today, not because he wanted to look cool so much as to cover the red from either a late night or something more herbal.

  "Hey," Adam said. "How did the gig go the other night?"

  "The band totally kicked ass," Gribbel said. "Kicked ass and took names."

  Adam leaned back, welcoming the interruption. "What did you open with?"

  "'Dust in the Wind.' Kansas."

  "Hmm," Adam said.


  "Opening with a slow ballad?"

  "Right, but it totally worked. Dark bar, low lights, atmospheric, and then we directly segued, no break, into 'Paradise by the Dashboard Light.' Blew the roof off the place."

  "Meat Loaf," Adam said with a nod. "Nice."


  "Wait, since when do you have a female vocalist?"

  "We don't."

  "But 'Paradise' is a male-female duet."

  "I know."

  "A rather aggressive one," Adam continued, "with all the 'Will you love me forever's and him pleading for her to let him sleep on it."

  "I know."

  "And you guys do it without a female vocalist?"

  "I do both parts," Gribbel said.

  Adam sat up, tried to picture this. "You do the male-female duet yourself?"


  "That must be a hell of a rendition."

  "You should hear me do 'Don't Go Breaking My Heart.' One second I'm Elton. The next, Kiki Dee. Brings tears to your eyes, really. Speaking of which . . ."


  "You and Corinne need a night out. I mean, you do anyway. If those bags under your eyes get any heavier, you'll have to pay surcharge when you check in for your flight."

  Adam frowned. "Reaching."

  "Come on, it wasn't that bad."

  "We all set up for Mike and Eunice Rinsky tomorrow?"

  "That's why I wanted to see you."


  "Nope, but Mayor Gush-something-ski wants to talk to you about the Rinsky eviction. He's got some town hall at seven and asked if you could stop by after. I texted you the address."

  Adam checked his phone. "Yeah, okay, I guess we should hear him out."

  "I'll let his people know. Have a good night, my man."

  Adam checked his watch. He was surprised to see that it was six o'clock already. "Good night."

  "Let me know if we're on for tomorrow."

  "Will do."

  Gribbel took off then, leaving Adam alone. Adam stopped and listened for a second. The sounds were distant, the office in its slow nightly death throes. Okay, so back up a step. Play it through. Go back to what he knew for certain.

  One, he knew that Corinne had gone to school yesterday. Two, around lunchtime, Kristin had seen Corinne pull out of the school parking lot. Three . . . okay, no three, but . . .


  If Corinne had gone any distance at all, there would be a record of it via the tollbooths. The school was near tolls on the Garden State Parkway, so that would show up in her E-ZPass records. Would Corinne remember to pocket her E-ZPass for the tolls? Probably not. E-ZPass was the kind of thing you stuck on your windshield and forgot about. There were times when it worked the opposite way, when Adam had rented a car and driven through the E-ZPass lanes, forgetting that he didn't have his E-ZPass.

  Worth a try anyhow.

  He found the E-ZPass website via a Google search, but it required both an account number and a password. He didn't have them--had never, in fact, gone on the website--but they'd be on the bills at home. Okay, good. Time to go home anyway.

  He grabbed his jacket and hurried to the car. When he merged onto Interstate 80, his mobile rang. It was Thomas.

  "Where's Mom?"

  He debated how to play it, but now was not the time for detailed honesty. "She's away."


  "I'll tell you about it later."

  "Will you be home for dinner?"

  "I'm on my way now. Do me a favor. Take burgers out of the freezer for you and your brother. I'll grill them when I get home."

  "I don't really like those burgers."

  "Too bad. I'll see you in half an hour."

  He flipped through the music stations as he drove, searching for some nonexistent perfect song that would be, as Stevie Nicks might sing, "hauntingly familiar" yet not played so often as to beat it into submission. When he did find such a song--a rarity--it was always the last verse, and so the flipping would start anew.

  When he pulled onto his street, Adam was surprised to see the Evanses' Dodge Durango in the driveway. Tripp Evans was getting out of the vehicle as Adam pulled in beside him. The two men greeted each other with handshakes and slaps on the back. Both were wearing business suits with loosened ties, and suddenly, the lacrosse draft at the American Legion Hall, just three days earlier, seemed very far away.

  "Hey, Adam."

  "Hey, Tripp."

  "Sorry to just stop by like this."

  "No worries. What can I do for you?"

  Tripp was a big man with big hands. He was the kind of guy who never looked comfortable in a business suit. The shoulders were too tight or one sleeve was too long, something, so that he was always adjusting himself and you could see all he really wanted to do was rip the damn thing off. Lots of guys looked like that to Adam. Somewhere along the way, the suit had been strapped to them like the proverbial straitjacket, and now they simply couldn't get it off.

  "I was hoping to talk to Corinne for a sec," Tripp said.

  Adam stood there, hoping nothing showed on his face.

  "I texted her a few times," Tripp continued, "but, uh, she hasn't replied. So I just figured I'd stop by."

  "Can I ask what it's about?"

  "No big deal, really," he said in a voice that for a guy as forthright as Tripp felt awfully forced. "It's just some lacrosse business."

  Might be just Adam's imagination. Might be just the craziness of the past couple of days. But it felt as though some sort of tension was gathering in the air between them.

  "What kind of lacrosse business?" Adam asked.

  "The board met last night. Corinne never showed. Which was odd, I guess. I wanted to fill her in on some stuff, that's all." He looked toward the house as though he expected her to appear at the door. "It can wait."

  "She's not here," Adam said.

  "Okay, fine. Just tell her I stopped by."
Tripp turned and met Adam's eye. That tension in the air seemed to thicken. "Everything okay?"

  "Yeah," Adam said. "I'm fine."

  "Let's grab a beer soon."

  "I'd like that."

  Tripp opened his car door. "Adam?"


  "I'll be honest here," Tripp said. "You look a little rattled."



  "I'll be honest here. You do too."

  Tripp tried to smile it off. "It's really no big deal."

  "Yeah, you said that before. No offense, but I don't believe you."

  "It's lacrosse business. That's the truth. I'm still hoping it's nothing, but I can't tell you more right now."

  "Why not?"

  "Board confidentiality."

  "Are you serious?"

  But he was. Adam could see that Tripp wouldn't budge on the subject, but then again, if Tripp was telling the truth, what the hell could the lacrosse board have to do with anything truly relevant in this?

  Tripp Evans slipped back into his car. "Just tell Corinne to give me a call when she can. Have a good night, Adam."

  Chapter 16

  Adam expected Mayor Gusherowski to look like a fat-cat politico fresh off the graft train--soft build, ruddy complexion, practiced smile, maybe a pinkie ring--and in this particular case, Adam was not disappointed. Adam wondered whether Gusherowski had always looked like a poster boy for corrupt politicians or if, over his years of "service," it had just become part of his DNA.

  Three of the past four mayors of Kasselton had been indicted by the US Attorney's office. Rick Gusherowski had served in two of those administrations and been on the town council for the third. Adam wouldn't judge the man strictly on his looks or even legacy, but when it came to New Jersey small-town corruption, where there was smoke, there was usually a blazing, supernova-like bonfire.

  The sparsely attended town hall meeting was breaking up when Adam arrived. The median age of the audience appeared to be in the mideighties, but that could be because this particular town hall meeting was being held at the brand-spanking-new PineCliff Luxury Village, which was unquestionably a euphemism for nursing and/or retirement home.

  Mayor Gusherowski approached Adam with a Guy Smiley smile--the perfect blend of game show host and Muppet. "Wonderful to meet you, Adam!" He gave Adam the perfunctory too-enthusiastic handshake, adding that little pull toward him that politicians believed made the recipient feel somehow inferior or obligated. "Can I call you Adam?"

  "Sure, Mr. Mayor."

  "Oh, we'll have none of that. Call me Gush."

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