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The stranger, p.11
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       The Stranger, p.11

          Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
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Gush? Oh, Adam didn't think so.

The mayor spread his arms. "What do you think of the place? Beautiful, am I right?"

It looked to Adam like a conference room at a Courtyard Marriott, which was to say neat, generic, and impersonal. Adam gave a noncommittal head nod.

"Walk with me, Adam. I want to give you a little tour." He started down a corridor with forest-green walls. "Great, isn't it? Everything here is state-of-the-art."

"What does that mean?" Adam asked.

"Huh?"

"State-of-the-art. How is it state-of-the-art?"

The mayor rubbed his chin, signaling deep thought. "Well, for one thing, they have flat-screen televisions."

"So does almost every house in America."

"There's Internet service."

"Again, like almost every house, not to mention cafe, library, and McDonald's, in America."

Gush--Adam was warming to the name--volleyed the question away by reigniting the smile. "Let me show you our deluxe unit."

He used a key to unlock the door and opened it with the flourish of--maybe Adam's mind was on game shows now--a model on The Price Is Right. "Well?"

Adam stepped inside.

"What do you think?" Gush asked.

"It looks like a Courtyard Marriott."

Gush's smile flickered. "These are brand-new and state--" He stopped himself. "Modern."

"It doesn't matter," Adam said. "Frankly, it doesn't matter if it looks like a Ritz-Carlton. My client doesn't want to move."

Gush nodded with great sympathy. "I get that. I really do. We all want to hold on to our memories, am I right? But sometimes memories hold us back. They force us to live in the past instead of the present."

Adam just stared at him.

"And sometimes, as a member of a community, we have to think about more than just ourselves. Have you been to the Rinsky house?"

"I have."

"It's a dump," Gush said. "Oh, I don't mean it like that. I grew up in that neighborhood. I say this as a man who worked his way up from those very streets."

Adam waited for the bootstraps analogy. He was somewhat disappointed when it didn't come.

"We have a chance of making real progress, Adam. We have a chance to chase away the urban blight of crime and bring sunshine to a part of our city that could use it. I'm talking new housing. A real community center. Restaurants. Quality shopping. Real jobs."

"I've seen the plans," Adam said.

"Progressive, am I right?"

"I don't care about that."

"Oh?"

"I represent the Rinskys. I care about them. I don't care about the profit margins of Old Navy or the Home Depot."

"That's not fair, Adam. We both know the community would be better served with this project coming to fruition."

"We both don't know that," Adam said. "But either way, I don't represent the community. I represent the Rinskys."

"And let's be honest. Look around you. They'd be happier living here."

"Doubtful, but maybe," Adam said. "But see, in the United States, the government doesn't decide what makes a man happy. The government doesn't decide that a couple who worked hard and bought their own home and raised their family would now be happier living somewhere else."

The smile slowly returned to Gush's face. "May I be blunt for a moment, Adam?"

"What, you haven't been so far?"

"How much?"

Adam steepled his fingers and did his best movie villain voice. "One billion dollars."

"I'm serious. Now, I could play games and do it the way the developer asked me to--bargain with you, go up in ten-thousand-dollar increments. But let's cut to the chase, shall we? I've been authorized to increase the offer by another fifty thousand dollars."

"And I've been authorized to tell you no."

"You're being unreasonable."

Adam didn't bother responding.

"You know that a judge already gave us the okay on our eminent domain case, right?"

"I do."

"And that Mr. Rinsky's previous attorney already lost the appeal. That's why he's gone now."

"I know that too."

Gush smiled. "Well, you leave me no choice."

"Sure I do," Adam said. "You don't just work for the developer, do you, Gush? You're a man of the people. So build your strip mall around his house. Change the plans. It can be done."

"No," Gush said, the smile gone now. "It can't."

"So you'll throw them out?"

"The law is on my side. And after the way you guys have behaved?" Gush leaned in close enough for Adam to smell the Tic Tac and whispered, "With pleasure."

Adam stepped back, nodding. "Yeah, I figured that."

"So you'll listen to reason?"

"If I ever hear it." Adam gave a little wave and turned to go. "Have a good night, Gush. We'll talk again soon."





Chapter 17


The stranger hated to do this one.

But Michaela Siegel, who was now weaving her way into view, deserved to know the truth before she made a terrible mistake. The stranger thought about Adam Price. He thought about Heidi Dann. They may have been devastated by his visit, but this time, in the case of Michaela Siegel, it would be much, much worse.

Or maybe not.

Maybe Michaela would feel relief. Maybe, after the initial devastation, the truth would set her free. Maybe the truth would bring back balance to her life and put her back on the road she should and would have taken.

You never knew how someone would react until the pin in the grenade was pulled out, right?

It was late, nearly two in the morning. Michaela Siegel hugged her noisy friends good-bye. They were all somewhat inebriated from that night's festivities. The stranger had already tried twice earlier to get Michaela alone. It hadn't worked. He hoped that now she might head for the elevator by herself, and he could start the process.

Michaela Siegel. Age twenty-six. She was in her third year of residency in internal medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital after graduating from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. She had started as an intern at Johns Hopkins Hospital, but after what happened, she and the hospital administrator felt that it would be best for all if she switched locations.

As she semistumbled toward the elevator, the stranger stepped into view. "Congratulations, Michaela."

She turned with a crooked smile. She was, he already knew, a rather sexy woman, which in a sense made this violation all the worse. The stranger felt a flush in his cheeks, remembering what he had seen, but he pushed on.

"Hmm," she said.

"Hmm?"

"Are you serving me with a subpoena or something?"

"No."

"And you're not hitting on me, are you? I'm engaged."

"No."

"I didn't think so," Michaela Siegel said. There was the slight slur of drink in her voice. "I don't really talk to strangers."

"I get that," he said, and because he feared losing her, he dropped the bombshell. "Do you know a man named David Thornton?"

Her face slammed shut like a car door. The stranger had anticipated that. "Did he send you?" she asked.

The slur was gone from her voice.

"No."

"Are you some kind of weird perv or something?"

"No."

"But you've seen--"

"Yes," he said. "Just for two seconds. I didn't watch it all or stare or anything. It was just . . . I had to make sure."

He could see now that she was facing the same dilemma so many he approached faced--flee this lunatic or hear him out? Most of the time, curiosity won them over, but he never knew how it would go.

Michaela Siegel shook her head and voiced that dilemma. "Why am I still talking to you?"

"They say I have an honest face."

It was true. That was why it was almost always he who took on this task. Eduardo and Merton had strengths, but if they approached you like this, your first instinct would be to run fast.

"That's what I used to think about David. That he had an honest face." She tilted her head. "Who are you?"

"That's not important."

"Why are you here? This is all in my past."

"No," he said.

"No?"

"It's not in your past. I wish it was."

Her voice was a scared whisper. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"You and David broke up."

"Well, duh," she snapped. "I'm getting married to Marcus this weekend."

She showed him the engagement ring on her finger.

"No," the stranger said. "I mean . . . I'm not saying this right. Do you mind if I go through it step-by-step?"

"I don't care how honest your face is," Michaela said. "I don't want to rehash this."

"I know."

"It's behind me."

"It's not. Not yet, anyway. That's why I'm here."

Michaela just stared at him.

"Were you and David broken up when . . . ?" He didn't know how to put it, so he just sort of moved his hands back and forth.

"You can say it." Michaela straightened her back. "It's called revenge porn. I'm told it's quite the craze."

"That's not what I'm asking," the stranger said. "I'm asking about the state of your relationship before he put that video online."

"Everyone saw it, you know."

"I know."

"My friends. My patients. My teachers. Everyone at the hospital. My parents . . ."

"I know," the stranger said softly. "Were you and David Thornton broken up?"

"We'd had a big fight."

"That's not what I asked."

"I don't get--"

"Were you two broken up before that video went public?"

"What difference does it make now?"

"Please," the stranger said.

Michaela shrugged. "I don't know."

"You still loved him. That's why it hurt so much."

"No," she said. "It hurt so much because it was a terrible betrayal. It hurt so much because the man I was dating went on a revenge porn site and put up a sex tape of us doing . . ." She stopped. "Can you imagine? We had a fight, and that was how he reacted."

"He denied putting it up, right?"

"Of course he did. He didn't have the courage--"

"He was telling you the truth."

There were people around them. One guy stepped in an elevator. Two women hurried outside. A concierge was behind the desk. They were all there, and right now, none of them were there.

Her voice was distant, hollow. "What are you talking about?"

"David Thornton didn't put that tape online."

"Are you a friend of his or something?"

"I've never seen or spoken to him."

Michaela swallowed. "Are you the one who posted the video?"

"No, of course not."

"Then how can you--?"

"The IP address."

"What?"

The stranger took a step closer to her. "The site claims to keep the user's IP address anonymous. That way, no one can know or prosecute the person who put it up."

"But you know?"

"Yes."

"How?"

"People think a site is anonymous because the site says so. That's a lie by definition. Behind every secret site on the Internet, there is a human being monitoring every keystroke. Nothing is really secret or anonymous."

Silence.

They were there now. The stranger waited. It wouldn't be long. He could see the quake by her mouth.

"So whose IP address was it?"

"I think you know already."

Her face twisted up in pain. She closed her eyes. "Was it Marcus?"

The stranger didn't answer yes or no. There was no need.

"They were close friends, weren't they?" the stranger said.

"Bastard."

"Roommates, even. I don't know the exact details. But you and David fought. Marcus saw an opportunity and seized it." The stranger reached into his pocket and pulled out an envelope. "I have the proof right here."

Michaela held up her palm. "I don't need to see it."

The stranger nodded, put the envelope away.

"Why are you telling me?" she asked.

"It's what we do."

"The wedding is four days away." She looked up at him. "So now what do I do?"

"That's not up to me," the stranger said.

"Right, of course." There was bitterness in her voice. "You just rip open lives. Closing them back up again--that's not up to you."

The stranger said nothing.

"I guess you figured, what, I'll go back to David now? Tell him I know the truth and ask his forgiveness? And then what? He'll take me in his arms and we'll live happily ever after? Is that how you see this working out? You being the hero of our love?"

In truth, the thought had occurred to the stranger, though not the hero part. But that idea of righting a wrong, that idea of restoring balance, that idea of putting her back on the life path she'd been taking--yes, he had hoped for that sort of resolution.

"But here's the problem, Mr. Secret Revealer." Michaela stepped closer to him. "Even when I was dating David, I had a crush on Marcus. That's the irony, right? Marcus didn't have to do this. We would have ended up together. Maybe, I don't know, but maybe Marcus feels bad about what he did. Guilty. Maybe he's trying to make up for it, and that's why he's so good to me."

"That's not a reason to be good to someone."

"Oh, so now you're offering life advice?" she snapped. "Do you know what choices you've left me with? I can blow up my life or I can live a lie."

"You're still young and attractive--"

"And I'm in love. With Marcus."

"Even now? Even though you know he's capable of doing something like this?"

"People are capable of doing all sorts of things in the name of love."

Her voice was soft now. The fight had gone out of it. She turned away and pressed the call button on the elevator. "Are you going to tell anyone else about this?" she asked.

"No."

"Good night."

"So you're still going to marry him?"

The elevator doors opened. Michaela stepped inside and turned to face him. "You didn't reveal a secret," she said. "You just created another one."





Chapter 18


Adam pulled over when he hit the Cedarfield town line. He took out his phone and texted Corinne again: I'M WORRIED. THE BOYS ARE WORRIED. PLEASE COME HOME.

He hit SEND and put the car back into drive. Adam started to wonder, not for the first time, how he ended up spending his life in the town of Cedarfield. It was a simple thought, and yet the obvious implications weighed on him. Had something this important been a conscious choice? He didn't think so. He and Corinne could, he knew, have chosen to live anywhere, but then again, what was wrong with Cedarfield? It was, in many ways, the winner's spoils in the war we call the American dream. Cedarfield had picturesque homes with expansive yards. There was a lovely town center with a variety of restaurants and shops and even a movie theater. There were updated sports facilities, a modern library, and a duck pond. No less a nearly biblical authority than Money magazine had ranked Cedarfield the twenty-seventh "Best Place to Live in America" last year. According to the New Jersey Department of Education, Cedarfield was classified in the socioeconomic District Factor Group of J, the highest of eight categories. Yes, the government ranks towns in this way for real. Why they do this ranking is anybody's guess.

In fairness, Cedarfield was a great place to raise your kids, even though you were raising them to be you. Some thought of it as the cycle of life, but for Adam, it felt more like a shampoo-rinse-repeat existence, with so many of their neighbors and friends--good, solid people whom Adam liked a lot--growing up in Cedarfield, leaving for four-year stints to college, returning, marrying, raising their own children in Cedarfield, who would grow up here and leave for four-year stints to college, in the hopes of returning, marrying, and raising their own children here.

Nothing wrong with that, was there?

After all, Corinne, who had spent the first ten years of her life in Cedarfield, had not, it seemed, been fortunate enough to follow this well-trodden trajectory. When she was in fourth grade, this town and its values already deeply ingrained in her DNA, Corinne's father was killed in a car accident. He had been only thirty-seven, too young presumably to have worried about stuff like his own mortality or estate planning. His insurance coverage was a pittance, and soon after, Corinne's mother had to sell the house and downsize with Corinne and her older sister, Rose, to a brick garden apartment in the somewhat less upscale city of Hackensack.

For a few months, Corinne's mother had made the ten-mile trek between Hackensack and Cedarfield so that Corinne could still see her old friends. But then school started and predictably her friends got busy with town sports and dance classes Corinne could no longer afford, and while the physical distance stayed the same, the societal chasm grew too far to bridge. The childhood relationships quickly frayed on their way to completely falling apart.

Corinne's sister, Rose, acted out conventionally, doing poorly in school, rebelling against her mother, experimenting with a potpourri of recreational drugs and dead-end boys. Corinne, on the other hand, channeled the deep hurt and resentment into what most might consider positive outlets. She grew focused in school and in life, determined to do her best in all endeavors. Corinne kept her head down, studied hard, ignored the normal teenage temptations, and silently vowed to return victorious to the place where she'd been a seemingly happy girl with a father. Corinne spent the next two decades like a child with her face pressed against the upper suburban glass, until, at long last, the window opened or--just as likely--shattered.

Corinne and Adam had bought a house that looked suspiciously like the one in which Corinne had been raised. If it had bothered him at the time, Adam didn't recall it, but maybe by then, he shared her quest. When you marry, you marry your spouse's hopes and dreams too. Hers were to triumphantly return to a place that had cast her aside. There was a thrill, he now guessed, in helping Corinne fulfill that twenty-year odyssey.

The lights were still on at the aptly named Hard-core Gym (motto: You're Not Hard-core Unless You Lift Hard-core). Adam took a quick gander at the parking lot and spotted Kristin Hoy's car. He hit the speed dial for Thomas's cell phone--again, no point in calling the home phone; neither boy would ever answer it--and waited. Thomas answered on the third ring and gave his customary distracted and barely audible "Hullo?"

"All okay at home?"

"Yeah."

"What are you doing?"

"Nothing."
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