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The stranger, p.13
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       The Stranger, p.13

          Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
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"Dad?"

He had prided himself on his naivete when it came to this technological mastery that had enslaved the masses, that forced us to ignore one another and obey its insatiable demand for attention. Adam's phone had, to his knowledge, no unnecessary apps. No games, no Twitter, no Facebook, no shopping, no scores, no weather reports, none of that. He had the apps the phone came with--e-mail, texts, phone, stuff like that. He had Ryan put on a GPS that mapped out the best driving routes, taking into account the traffic.

But that was it.

"So why can't I see Mom on this thing?" Adam asked.

"You need to zoom out."

"How?"

Thomas took back the phone, placed two fingers on the screen, pinched them. He handed the phone back to his father. Adam could now see the entire state of New Jersey and to the west, Pennsylvania. An orange dot was on the left part of the screen. Adam tapped on it and the phone zoomed in again.

Pittsburgh?

Adam had made the drive to Pittsburgh once to bail a client out of jail. The ride had taken him more than six hours.

"Why isn't the dot blinking?" Adam asked.

"Because it's not active."

"What do you mean?"

Thomas bit back the sigh he always sounded when he had to explain technology to his father. "When I checked the app a few hours ago, she was still moving. But then, about an hour ago, well, that's where Mom was."

"So she stopped here?"

"I don't think so. See, if you click here . . ." He reached over and touched the screen. An image of a mobile phone with the word CORINNE'S came up. "It puts the battery power left up here on the right. See? So when I checked it then, her phone only had about four percent left. It's out now, so the dot stopped blinking."

"So is she still where this dot is?"

"I don't know. It only shows where she was before the battery died."

"And you can't see where she is anymore?"

Thomas shook his head. "Not until Mom charges her phone. There's also no point in texting or calling right now."

"Because her phone is dead."

"Right."

Adam nodded. "But if we keep watching this, we can see when she's powered back up?"

"Right."

Pittsburgh. Why on earth would Corinne have gone to Pittsburgh? To his knowledge, she didn't know anybody there. To his knowledge, she had never been there. He didn't remember her ever talking about the city or having any friends or relatives who'd moved there.

He zoomed in on the orange dot. The address read South Braddock Avenue. He clicked the button for a satellite photo. She'd been in or near a strip mall of some sort. There was a supermarket, a dollar store, a Foot Locker, a GameStop. Maybe she had stopped there to grab something to eat or get supplies or something.

Or maybe she was meeting the stranger.

"Thomas?"

"Yeah?"

"Is this app on my phone?"

"It has to be. If someone can see you, then you can see them."

"Can you show me where it is?"

Adam handed him the phone. His son narrowed his eyes and started with the fingers again. Finally, he said, "I found it."

"How come I never saw it before?"

"It was grouped on the last page with a bunch of other apps you probably never use."

"So if I sign in right now," Adam said, "I can keep an eye on Mom's phone?"

"Like I said, the battery's dead right now."

"But if she charges it?"

"Yeah, you'll be able to tell. You just need the password."

"What is it?"

Thomas hesitated.

"Thomas?"

"LoveMyFamily," he said. "All one word. And you need to capitalize the L, M, and F."





Chapter 21


Oh yeah, hotshot, in your face.

Bob Baime--or, as Adam preferred, Gaston--hit yet another turnaround jumper. Yep, Big Bob was in the zone tonight. He was on fire. En fuego.

This was pickup basketball at Beth Lutheran Church. A rotating group of guys, mostly town fathers, played two nights a week. The players varied in ability. Some guys were great--one guy had even been an all-American at Duke and a first-round draft pick of the Boston Celtics before crapping out with a knee injury--and some guys sucked eggs so badly they could barely walk.

But today, Bob Baime, Big Bob Baime, was the man, the go-to guy, the automatic basket machine. Under the boards, he was a one-man rebounding wrecking crew. He used his two-hundred-seventy-pound frame and moved people out of the way. He knocked over the all-American, Mr. Basketball Superstar. The all-American shot him a look, but Big Bob Baime stared right back at him.

The all-American shook his head and started running downcourt.

Yeah, asshole, keep moving, so you don't get your ass kicked.

Ladies and gentlemen, Big Bob Baime was back. That all-American with his stupid knee brace usually got the best of him. But not today. Uh-uh, no way. Bob had held his ground. Man, his old man would have been proud. His old man, who'd spent most of Bob's childhood calling him Betty instead of Bobby, calling him worthless and weak, and worse, a pussy, a faggot, and even a girl. His father, the tough son of a bitch, had been the athletic director at Cedarfield High School for thirty years. Look up old-school in the dictionary, you'll see a picture of Robert Baime Senior. It had been hard growing up with a guy like that, but in the end, no doubt, the hard love had been worth it.

Too bad. Too bad his old man couldn't see how his only son had become such a big man in this town. Bob no longer lived on the crummy side of town where the teachers and blue-collar guys tried to survive. No, he bought the big manor with the mansard roof in the ritzy "country club" section of town. He and Melanie drove his-and-hers Mercedes. People respected them. Bob had been invited to join the exclusive Cedarfield Golf Club, a place his dad once went as a guest. Bob had three kids, great athletes all of them, even if Pete was having a tough time in lacrosse right now, maybe losing his chance at a scholarship now that Thomas Price was taking his position. But still, it had all been good.

And now it would again.

Too bad his father hadn't seen this part either. Too bad he hadn't seen his son lose his job, because then he would have seen exactly what kind of man Bob was--a survivor; a winner; a man who, when faced with adversity, perseveres. He was about to close the page on this awful chapter in his life and become Big Bob the big breadwinner again. Even Melanie would see. Melanie, his wife, the former cheerleading captain. She used to look at him with something close to worship, but since the downturn, she'd been in full nag mode, riding him for being so generous in the past, being a show-off with the money, leaving them with no savings when he lost his job. Yep, the vultures had been circling. The bank was ready to foreclose on the house. The repo man had been talking smack about the two Mercedes S coupes.

Well, who was going to have the last laugh now?

Jimmy Hoch's dad, a top headhunter in New York, had lined him up for an interview today, and to put it simply, Bob Baime nailed it. Crushed it like an empty soda can. The guy doing the interview had been eating out of Big Bob's hand. Sure, the call hadn't come in yet--Bob kept eyeing the phone on the sideline--but it wouldn't be long now. He was going to land that job, maybe even insist on a better buy-in, and then, well, he'd officially be back. Wait till he told Melanie about the interview. She would finally put out again, maybe throw on that little pink thing he loved so much.

Back on the court, Bob got the ball, drove hard to the hoop, and scored the winning basket.

Oh yeah, Bob was back and better than ever. Man, he wished that he had felt this way the other night when that prig Adam Price was riding him over picking Jimmy Hoch for the lacrosse team. For crying out loud, all three of those kids sucked. They'd all end up being glorified towel boys. Who cared that a tenth of a point assigned by some bored evaluators who only paid attention to the good players separated them? He wasn't about to blow this big job interview. Not that it should matter. It wasn't like him and Jimmy Hoch's dad had any kind of quid pro quo, but hey, life was about mutual back-scratching. Sports were a life lesson, right? Kids might as well learn that now too.

Bob's team was about to take the floor for a new game when his phone rang.

He grabbed the phone fast, his hand actually shaking as he checked out the incoming number.

GOLDMAN.

So this was it.

"Bob, you ready?"

"Start the game without me, fellas. I have to take this."

Bob headed out into the corridor for privacy. He cleared his throat and smiled, because if you smiled for real, that confident tone would even travel through the phone.

"Hello?"

"Mr. Baime?"

"Speaking."

"This is Jerry Katz with Goldman."

"Yes, hey, Jerry. Nice to hear from you."

"I'm afraid that it isn't good news, Mr. Baime."

Bob felt his heart plummet. Jerry Katz said some more stuff about how competitive the market was and how much he enjoyed talking with him, but the words started to blur into a barely audible haze. Jerry, the scrawny idiot, was still jabbering away. Darkness seeped into Bob's chest, and as it did, a memory came over him. He thought again about the other night, about Adam openly challenging him on selecting Jimmy Hoch. It had, Bob realized now, surprised him in more ways than one. First, what business was it of his, a guy who wasn't even going to coach the travel team, which players Bob selected? Adam and Corinne's kid was on the team. So what difference could Jimmy Hoch make to him?

But more important, especially now that he thought about it: How did Adam recover so quickly from the devastating news that he had received just minutes earlier at the American Legion bar?

Jerry still talked. Bob still smiled. Smiled and smiled. Smiled like an idiot, and when he finally said, "Well, I appreciate you calling me and letting me know," Bob bet that he sounded like a truly confident idiot.

He hung up.

"Bob, you ready?"

"Come on, man, we need you."

And they did. Maybe, Bob thought, that was what the other night had been with Adam. In the same way Bob would go back on the court and find an outlet for his rage, maybe Adam had attacked him for picking Jimmy because he, too, needed the outlet.

What, Bob wondered, would be Adam's reaction if he knew the full truth about his wife? Not the betrayal stuff he thought he knew now. But the full truth.

Well, Bob thought as he jogged back toward the court, he'd find out soon enough, wouldn't he?





Chapter 22


It was two in the morning when Adam remembered something--or, to be more precise, someone.

Suzanne Hope from Nyack, New York.

She had been the one to steer Corinne to the Fake-A-Pregnancy website. That was where this all started, right? Corinne meets Suzanne. Suzanne fakes a pregnancy. Corinne, for some reason, decides to do the same. Maybe. And then the stranger shows up.

He brought up the search engine on his smartphone and typed in Suzanne Hope Nyack, New York. He figured that this would probably not work, that this woman had probably given a fake name or fake town to go along with her fake pregnancy, but almost immediately he found hits.

The White Pages listed a Suzanne Hope of Nyack, New York, as being between the ages of thirty and thirty-five. There was both a telephone number and a street address given. Adam was about to write them down when he remembered something Ryan had taught him a few weeks back--pressing two buttons on the phone simultaneously so it takes a screenshot. He tried it, checked the image in the photo app, and saw that it was legible.

He turned off the phone and tried again to drift off to sleep.

*

The cramped living room in Old Man Rinsky's house smelled of Pine-Sol and cat piss. The room was packed, but that only meant that there were maybe ten people there. Still, that was all Adam would need. He spotted the bald guy who normally covered sports for The Star-Ledger. There was the woman reporter he liked from the Bergen Record. According to Adam's paralegal extraordinaire, Andy Gribbel, the Asbury Park Press and the New Jersey Herald were also there. The major networks weren't interested yet, but News 12 New Jersey had sent out a camera crew.

It would be enough.

Adam leaned close to Rinsky. "You're sure you're okay with this?"

"You kidding?" The old man arched an eyebrow. "I'm just going to try not to enjoy it."

Three of the reporters were jammed into the plastic-covered sofa. Another leaned on the upright piano against the wall. A birdhouse-shaped cuckoo clock hung on the far wall. There were more Hummel figurines on the end table. The once shag carpet had been trampled into something resembling artificial turf.

Adam checked his phone one last time. Still nothing on the phone tracker about Corinne. She either hadn't charged up her phone or . . . no point in thinking about that now. The reporters were looking at him both expectantly and skeptically, half "let's see what you got," half "this is a waste of time." Adam stepped forward. Mr. Rinsky stayed where he was.

"In 1970," Adam began without preamble, "Michael J. Rinsky returned home after serving his country in the most hostile battlegrounds of Vietnam. He came back here, to his beloved hometown, and married his high school sweetheart, Eunice Schaeffer. Then, using the money he earned from his GI Bill, Mike Rinsky bought a home."

Adam paused. Then he added, "This home."

The reporters scribbled.

"Mike and Eunice had three boys and raised them in this very house. Mike got a job with the local police, starting as a rookie patrolman, and moved up the ranks until he was chief. He and Eunice have been important members of this community for many years. They volunteered at the local shelter, the town library, the Biddy Basketball program, the July Fourth parade. In the past nearly fifty years, Mike and Eunice touched so many lives in this town. They worked hard. When Mike left the stresses of work, he came home to relax in this very house. He rebuilt the boiler in the basement on his own. His children grew older, graduated, and moved out. Mike kept working and eventually, after thirty years, he paid off the mortgage. Now he owns this house--the house we are all in right now--outright."

Adam glanced behind him. As if on cue--well, it was on cue--the old man hunched his shoulders, made his face droop, and held an old framed photograph of Eunice in front of him.

"And then," Adam continued, "Eunice Rinsky got sick. We won't invade her privacy by going into the details. But Eunice loves this house. It comforts her. New places frighten her now, and she finds solace in the place where she and her beloved husband raised Mike Junior, Danny, and Bill. And now, after a lifetime of work and sacrifice, the government wants to take this home--her home--away from her."

The scribbling stopped. Adam wanted to let the moment weigh on them, so he reached behind him, took hold of the water bottle, and wetted his throat. When he started up again, his voice seethed and started cracking with barely controlled rage.

"The government wants to throw Mike and Eunice out of the only home they've ever known so some wealthy conglomerate can knock it down and build a Banana Republic." Not strictly true, Adam thought, but close enough. "This man"--Adam gestured behind him at Old Man Rinsky, who was playing his part with gusto, managing to look even more fragile somehow--"this American hero and patriot, just wants to keep the home he worked so hard to own. That's all. And they want to take it away from him. I ask you, does that sound like the United States of America? Does our government seize hardworking people's property and give it to the rich? Do we throw war heroes and elderly women into the streets? Do we just take away their home after they've worked a lifetime to pay it off? Do we just bulldoze their dreams to create yet another strip mall?"

They were all looking at Old Man Rinsky now. Even Adam was starting to well up for real. Sure, he had left some parts out--how they had offered to pay the Rinskys more than the house was worth, for example--but this wasn't about being balanced. Attorneys take sides. The other side, if and when they responded, would give their spin. You were supposed to be biased. That was how the system worked.

Someone snapped a photograph of Old Man Rinsky. Then someone else. Hands were raised for questions. A reporter shouted out, asking Old Man Rinksy how he felt. He played it smart, looking lost and fragile, not so much angry as bewildered. He shrugged, held up the picture of his wife, and simply said, "Eunice wants to spend her last days here."

Game, set, match, Adam thought.

Let the other side spin the facts all they want. The sound bite belonged to them. The better story--and that was really what the media always wanted, not the truest story but the best--belonged to them. What would make a more compelling narrative--a big conglomerate throwing a war hero and his ill wife out of their home, or a stubborn old man who is preventing rejuvenation by not taking money and moving into better digs?

It wouldn't be close.

A half hour later, with the reporters gone, Gribbel smiled and tapped Adam on the shoulder. "It's Mayor Gush for you."

Adam took the phone. "Hello, Mr. Mayor."

"You think this is going to work?"

"The Today show just called. They want us to come in tomorrow morning for an exclusive interview. I said not yet."

It was a bluff, but a pretty good one.

"You know how fast a news cycle is nowadays?" Gush countered. "We can ride it out."

"Oh, I don't think so," Adam said.

"Why not?"

"Because for now, we have decided to make our case impersonal and corporate. But our next move will be to take it a step further."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning that we will reveal that the mayor, who is working so hard to throw an old couple out of their home, may have a personal grudge against an honest cop who once arrested him, even though he let him go."

Silence. Then: "I was a teenager."

"Yeah, I'm sure that will play well in the press."

"You don't know who you're messing with, pal."

"I think I have a pretty good idea," Adam said. "Gush?"

"What?"

"Build your new village around the house. It's doable. Oh, and have a nice day."

*
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