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The stranger, p.12
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       The Stranger, p.12

          Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
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"And by nothing, you mean?"

"Playing Call of Duty. I just started."

Right.

"Homework done?" Adam asked out of habit. It was an oft-repeated parent-child verbal hamster-wheel of a question, never going anywhere, though somehow still mandatory.

"Pretty much."

He didn't bother telling him to "pretty much" finish it first. Pointless. Let the kid do it on his own. Let go a little.

"Where's your brother?"

"I don't know."

"But he's home, right?"

"I guess."

Brothers. "Just make sure he's okay. I'll be home soon."

"Okay. Dad?"

"Yeah?"

"Where's Mom?"

"She's away," he said again.

"Where?"

"It's some teachers' thing. We can talk about it when I get home, okay?"

The pause was long. "Yeah, okay."

He parked next to Kristin's Audi convertible and headed inside. The bloated musclehead behind the desk looked Adam up and down and clearly found him wanting. He had the Cro-Magnon brow. His lips were frozen in a sneer of disdain. He wore some kind of sleeveless unitard. Adam feared the man might call him Brah.

"Help ya?"

"I'm looking for Kristin Hoy."

"Member?"

"What?"

"You a member?"

"No, I'm a friend. My wife's a member. Corinne Price."

He nodded as if that explained everything. Then he asked, "She okay?"

The question surprised Adam. "Why wouldn't she be?"

He might have shrugged, but the bowling balls flanking his head barely budged. "Big week to miss. Competition next Friday."

Corinne, he knew, didn't compete. She was nicely built and all, but there was no way she'd don one of those skimpy suits and start posing. She had, however, attended nationals with Kristin last year.

Musclehead pointed--he actually flexed when he did so--toward a corner in the back of the gym. "Room B."

Adam pushed through the glass door. Some gyms were quiet. Some featured loud music. And some, like this one, echoed with primordial grunts and the clank of heavy metal weights. All the walls were mirrored, and here, and only here, primping and posing for self-pleasure was not only acceptable but expected. The place reeked of sweat, disinfectant, and what he imagined from the commercials Axe cologne smelled like.

He found room B, knocked lightly, and pushed it open. It looked like a yoga studio with blond wood floors, a balance beam, and, yep, tons of mirrors. A super-toned woman tottered out onto the floor in a bikini and ridiculously high heels.

"Stop," Kristin shouted.

The woman did so. Kristin strutted over in a skimpy pink bikini and the same ridiculously high heels. There was no totter, no awkwardness, no hesitation. She stalked across the floor as though it owed her something.

"Your smile is weak. You look as though you've never been in high heels before."

"I don't normally wear them," the woman said.

"Well, you're going to have to practice. They will judge you on everything--how you enter, how you exit, how you walk, your poise, your smile, your confidence, your demeanor, your facial expression. You get one chance to make that first impression. You can lose the competition with your very first step. Okay, all of you sit." Five other super-toned women sat on the floor. Kristin stood in front of them, pacing back and forth. Her muscles coiled and uncoiled with each step.

"You should all still be leaning out," Kristin said. "Thirty-six hours before competition, most of you will carbo-load. This will prevent your muscles from flattening out and get them to have that natural puff look we're going for. Right now, you should still be eating ninety percent protein. You all have the specific diet plan, am I right?"

Nods.

"Follow it like a religious scripture. You should all be drinking one and a half gallons of water per day. That's a minimum. We'll start scaling that down as we get closer. Only sips the day before Nationals and no water at all on competition day. I have water pills if any of you are still retaining water weight. Any questions?"

One hand went up.

"Yes?"

"Will we rehearse the evening gown competition?"

"We will. Remember, ladies. Most people think this is a bodybuilding competition. It is not. The WBFF is about fitness. You will have your poses and pose-off, just as we've been doing. But the judges now are looking for Miss America, Victoria's Secret, Fashion Week, and yes, MuscleMag all wrapped into one elegant package. Harriet will help you coordinate your evening gowns. Oh, and now let's go over travel necessities. Please bring with you the following: butt glue for your bikini, tape for the top of your suit, E6000 glue, breast pad petals, blister bandages, shoe glue--we always have last-minute strap disasters--tanner, gloves for your tanner, tan-block cream for those palms and feet bottoms, teeth whitener strips, red-eye drop--"

It was then that she spotted Adam in the mirror. Her face changed all at once. Gone was the taskmaster preparing for the WBFF nationals. Back was the friend and fellow teacher. It was amazing how easily we all slip in and out of roles, Adam thought.

"Work on your starting poses," Kristin said, her eyes on Adam now. "When you first walk out, you do one front, then one back, then you walk away. That's it. Okay, Harriet will lead you out. I'll be right back."

Kristin headed toward him without pause, again crossing the room in the high heels that made her nearly as tall as he was. "Anything new?" she asked him.

"Not really."

Kristin led him into the corner. "So what's up?"

It shouldn't be awkward talking to a woman standing in ridiculously high heels and sporting a skimpy bikini. But it was. When Adam was eighteen, he spent two weeks in Spain's Costa del Sol. Many of the women went topless, and Adam had fancied himself too mature to ogle. He didn't ogle, but he did feel a little awkward. That feeling was coming back to him now.

"I guess you're preparing for a show," Adam said.

"Not just any show, but Nationals. If I can be selfish for a moment? Corinne left at a bad time. She's my travel partner. I know in the scheme of things, this doesn't seem like much, but this is my first show since turning pro and . . . okay, that's a dumb thing to care about. But that's a small part of how I'm feeling. The bigger part, though, is I'm really worried. This isn't like her."

"I know," Adam said. "It's why I want to ask you something."

"Go ahead."

He didn't know how to do it, so he just dove in. "It's about her pregnancy two years ago."

Pay dirt.

His words hit Kristin Hoy like a surprise wave at the beach. Now it was Kristin's turn to teeter on the ridiculously high heels. "What about it?"

"You look surprised," he said.

"What?"

"When I mentioned her pregnancy. You looked like you'd seen a ghost or something."

Her eyes darted everywhere but on him. "I guess I was surprised. I mean, she disappears, and for some reason, you start asking about something that happened two years ago. I don't see the connection."

"But you remember her pregnancy?"

"Of course. Why?"

"How did she tell you?"

"About being pregnant?"

"Yes."

"Oh, I don't remember." But she did. He could tell. Kristin was lying to him. "What's the difference how she told me?"

"I need you to think. Do you remember anything odd about it?"

"No."

"Nothing unusual about the pregnancy at all?"

Kristin put her hands on her hips. Her skin glistened from a fine sheen of perspiration or maybe something left over from a bronzer. "What are you trying to get at?"

"How about when she miscarried?" Adam tried. "How was she acting then?"

Oddly enough, those two questions seemed to center her somehow. Kristin took her time now, breathing slowly as though meditating, the prominent clavicle rising and falling. "Funny."

"Yes?"

"I thought her reaction was low-key."

"Meaning?"

"Well, I was thinking about it. She was so good about getting over it. So after you left school today, I started thinking--I mean, at first--that maybe Corinne had been too good after the miscarriage."

"I'm not following."

"A person needs to grieve, Adam. A person needs to express and feel. If you don't express and feel, toxins develop in your bloodstream."

Adam tried not to frown at the new age babble.

"It seemed to me like maybe Corinne had bottled up her pain," she continued. "And when you do that, you create not only toxins but internal pressure. Eventually, something has to give. So after you left, I started wondering. Maybe Corinne had submerged the pain of losing the baby. Maybe she pushed it down and tried to keep it down, but now, two years later, whatever walls she had built suddenly gave way."

Adam just looked at her. "At first."

"What?"

"You said you started thinking this 'at first.' So somewhere along the line you changed your mind."

She didn't reply.

"Why?"

"She's my friend, Adam."

"I know that."

"You're the husband she's trying to get away from, right? I mean, if you're telling the truth and nothing bad happened to her."

"Are you serious?"

"I am." Kristin swallowed hard. "You walk down the streets where we all live. You see the nice neighborhoods and the manicured lawns and the nice patio furniture in the backyard. But none of us knows what really goes on behind those facades, do we?"

He stood there.

"For all I know, Adam, you abuse her."

"Oh, come on--"

Kristin held up her hand. "I'm not saying you do. I'm just giving you an example. We just don't know." There were tears in her eyes, and now he wondered about her husband, Hank, and why, with this physique, she sometimes wore those long sleeves and cover-ups. He had thought that maybe she had wanted to be modest. But that might not be it.

She had a point, though. They might live in a seemingly friendly community or a close-knit neighborhood, but every home is its own island with its own secrets.

"You know something about this," Adam said to her.

"I don't. And I really have to get back to the girls now."

Kristin turned away from him. Adam almost reached out and grabbed her arm. Instead, he said, "I don't think Corinne was really pregnant."

Kristin stopped.

"You knew, didn't you?"

With her back still turned, she shook her head. "Corinne never said anything to me."

"But you knew."

"I knew nothing," Kristin said in a low voice. "You need to go now."





Chapter 19


Ryan was at the back door waiting for him.

"Where's Mom?"

"She's away," Adam said.

"What do you mean, away?"

"She's traveling."

"Where?"

"It's a teacher's thing. She'll be home soon."

Ryan's voice was a panicked whine. "I need my uniform, remember?"

"Did you check your drawer?"

"Yes!" The panicked whine had upgraded itself to a shout. "You asked me that yesterday! I checked the drawer and the laundry basket!"

"How about the washer and dryer?"

"I checked both of those too! I checked everywhere!"

"Okay," Adam said, "calm down."

"But I need my uniform! If you don't have your uniform, Coach Jauss makes you run extra laps and miss a game."

"No problem. Let's look for it."

"You never find anything! We need Mom! Why isn't she answering my texts?"

"She's out of range."

"You don't get it! You don't--"

"No, Ryan, you don't get it!"

Adam heard his voice boom through the house. Ryan stopped. Adam didn't.

"You think your mother and I exist only to serve you? Is that what you think? Well, here's something you should learn right now, pal. Your mom and I are human beings too. Big surprise, right? We have lives too. We get sad, just like you. We worry about our lives, just like you. We aren't here just to serve you or do your bidding. Now do you get it?"

Tears filled his son's eyes. Adam heard footsteps. He turned toward them. Thomas was at the top of the steps, staring down at his father in disbelief.

"I'm sorry, Ryan. I didn't mean--"

Ryan sprinted up the stairs.

"Ryan!"

Ryan ran past his brother. Adam heard the bedroom door slam shut. Thomas stayed at the top of the stairs and looked at him.

"I lost my temper," Adam said. "It happens."

Thomas didn't say anything for a long moment. Then he said, "Dad?"

"What?"

"Where's Mom?"

He closed his eyes. "I told you. She's away at a teachers' thing."

"She was just away at a teachers' thing."

"There's another."

"Where?"

"Atlantic City."

Thomas shook his head. "No."

"What do you mean, no?"

"I know where she is," Thomas said. "And it's nowhere near Atlantic City."





Chapter 20


Come in here, please," Adam said.

Thomas hesitated before heading down the stairs into the kitchen. Ryan was still in his room with the door closed. That was probably best. Give everyone a chance to cool down. But right now, Adam desperately needed to follow up on what Thomas had just told him.

"Do you know where your mother is?" he asked.

"Sort of."

"What do you mean, sort of? Did she call you?"

"No."

"Did she text or e-mail you?"

"No," Thomas said. "Nothing like that."

"But you know she isn't anywhere near Atlantic City."

He nodded.

"How do you know that?"

His son lowered his head. There were times when he would see Thomas move a certain way or make a gesture and realize that it was an echo of himself. He had no doubt that Thomas was his son. The similarities were too great. Did he have doubts about Ryan? He never had before, but in some secret, dark corner in the heart, all men have that misgiving. They never voice it. It rarely reaches their consciousness. But it's there, sleeping in that dark corner, and now the stranger had poked the fear and dragged it into the light.

Did that explain Adam's stupid outburst?

He had lost his temper with Ryan, and yes, under the circumstances, it was more than understandable, the way the boy was carrying on about his uniform.

But was there more to it than that?

"Thomas?"

"Mom will get mad."

"No, she won't."

"I promised her I'd never do it," Thomas said. "But, I mean, she always texts me back. I don't get what's going on. So I did something I shouldn't have done."

"It's okay," Adam said, trying to keep the desperation from his voice. "Just tell me what happened."

He let out a deep breath and gathered himself. "Okay, you remember before you went out, I asked you where Mom was?"

"Yes."

"And, I don't know, you sounded . . . it was just weird, that's all. First, you not saying where Mom is, then Mom's not answering my texts . . ." He looked up. "Dad?"

"What?"

"When you said all that stuff about Mom being at a teachers' conference, were you telling the truth?"

Adam thought about it, but not long. "No."

"Do you know where Mom is?"

"No. We had a fight, I guess."

His son nodded in too sagely a way. "So Mom, what, ran out on you?"

"I don't know, Thomas. That's what I'm trying to figure out."

Thomas nodded some more. "So maybe Mom wouldn't want me to tell you where she is."

Adam sat back and rubbed his chin. "That's a possibility," he admitted.

Thomas put his hands on the table. He wore a silicone wristband, the kind people use to promote causes, though this one read CEDARFIELD LACROSSE. He started using his free hand to snap the band against his wrist.

"But here's the problem," Adam said. "I don't know what happened here, okay? If your mom contacted you and told you not to tell me where she is, well, I would listen to her on that. But I don't think she did. I don't think she'd put you or Ryan in that position."

"Mom didn't," Thomas said, still staring at the band on his arm.

"Okay."

"But she did make me promise never to sign into this."

"Sign into what?"

"This app."

"Thomas?"

The boy looked up.

"I have no idea what you're talking about."

"See, we made a deal. Mom and me."

"What kind of deal?"

"She would only use the app in emergencies, not to spy on me. But I was never allowed to use it."

"What do you mean, emergencies?"

"Like if I'd gone missing or she really couldn't reach me."

Adam felt himself spinning again. He stopped and tried to center himself. "Maybe you should explain about this app."

"It's called a phone locator, and it's supposed to help you find your phone, you know, in case you lose it or someone steals it."

"Okay."

"So it shows you where your phone is on this map. All phones come with an app like this, I think, but this is an upgrade. So see, if something happened to us, or Mom couldn't find me or Ryan, she could look us up on the app and know exactly where we were."

"From the phone?"

"Right."

Adam reached out his hand. "Let me see."

Thomas hesitated. "But that's the thing. I wasn't supposed to use it."

"But you did, right?"

He lowered his head and nodded.

"You signed in and you saw where your mother is?"

Another nod.

Adam put his hand on his son's shoulder. "I'm not mad," he said. "But could you let me see the app?"

Thomas took out his phone. His fingers danced across the screen. When he was done, he handed the phone to his father. Adam looked at it. There was a map showing Cedarfield. Three blinking dots were coming from the same place. One dot was blue, another green, another red.

"So these dots . . . ," Adam began.

"That's us."

"Us?"

"Right. You, me, and Ryan."

The pulse in Adam's head started to thrum. When he spoke, his voice sounded far away. "Me?"

"Sure."

"There's a dot representing me?"

"Yeah. You're the green one."

His mouth went dry. "So, in other words, if your mom wanted, she could track . . ." He stopped. There was no need to finish the thought. "How long has this app been on our phones?"

"I don't know. Three, four years maybe."

Adam just sat there as the realization rolled over him. Three or four years. For three or four years, Corinne had that ability to sign into some app and see exactly where her children and, more important, her husband were at any given moment.
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