The stranger, p.14
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       The Stranger, p.14

          
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Everyone had cleared out of the Rinskys' house.

  Adam heard the clacking of a keyboard in the breakfast nook off the kitchen. When he entered the room, he was taken aback by the sheer amount of technology that surrounded him. There were two big-screen computers and a laser printer sitting on the Formica desk. One wall was entirely corked. Photographs, clippings from newspapers, and articles printed off the Internet were hung on it with pushpins.

  Rinsky had reading glasses low on his nose. The reflection of the screen made the blue in his eyes deepen.

  "What's all this?" Adam asked.

  "Just keeping busy." He leaned back and took off the glasses. "It's a hobby."

  "Surfing the web?"

  "Not exactly." He pointed behind him. "See this photograph?"

  It was a picture of a girl with her eyes closed who Adam guessed was probably between eighteen and twenty. "Is she dead?"

  "Since 1984," Rinsky said. "Her body was found in Madison, Wisconsin."

  "A student?"

  "Doubt it," he said. "You'd think a student would be easy to identify. No one ever has."

  "She's a Jane Doe?"

  "Right. So you see, me and some fellas online, we crowdsource the problem. Share information."

  "You're solving cold cases?"

  "Well, we try." He gave Adam his "aw shucks" smile. "Like I said, it's a hobby. Keeps an old cop busy."

  "Hey, I have a quick question for you."

  Rinsky gestured for Adam to go ahead.

  "I have a witness I need to reach. I'm a firm believer in doing it in person."

  "Always better," Rinsky agreed.

  "Right, but I'm not sure if she's home or not, and I don't want to warn her or ask her to meet me."

  "You want to surprise her?"

  "Right."

  "What's her name?"

  "Suzanne Hope," Adam said.

  "You have her phone number?"

  "Yeah, Andy found it for me online."

  "Okay. How far away does she live?"

  "Probably a twenty-minute drive."

  "Give me the number." Rinksy stuck out his hand and wiggled his fingers. "I'll show you a clever little cop technique you can use, but I'd appreciate it if you kept it to yourself."

  Adam handed him the phone. Rinsky lowered his reading glasses back down his nose, picked up the kind of black telephone Adam hadn't seen since his childhood, and dialed the number. "Don't worry," he said. "I got a block on my caller ID." Two rings later, a woman's voice answered. "Hello?"

  "Suzanne Hope?"

  "Who's asking?"

  "I work for the Acme Chimney Cleaning Service--"

  "Not interested, take me off your list."

  Click.

  Rinsky shrugged and smiled. "She's home."

  Chapter 23

  The drive took exactly twenty minutes.

  Adam pulled up to one of those sad garden apartment complexes of monotonous brick that catered to young couples saving up to buy a first home and divorced dads who were broke and/or wanted to stay near the kids. He found apartment 9B and knocked on the door.

  "Who is it?"

  It was a woman's voice. She hadn't opened the door.

  "Suzanne Hope?"

  "What do you want?"

  He actually hadn't planned for this. For some strange reason, he had figured that she'd open the door and invite him in and then he could explain his reason for coming here, even though he still wasn't sure what that reason was. Suzanne Hope was a potential thin thread, a tenuous connection to what had led Corinne to run off. Maybe he could gently pull on the thread and, to mix metaphors, learn something.

  "My name is Adam Price," he said to the closed door. "My wife is Corinne."

  Silence.

  "Do you remember her? Corinne Price?"

  "She's not here," the voice he assumed was Suzanne Hope's said.

  "I didn't think she was," he replied, though now that he thought about it, perhaps he had held out the smallest unspoken hope that finding Corinne would be that easy.

  "What do you want?"

  "Can we talk a second?"

  "What about?"

  "About Corinne."

  "This isn't my business."

  Shouting through a door felt distant, of course, but Suzanne Hope was clearly not yet comfortable opening it. He didn't want to push it and lose her completely. "What's not your business?" he asked.

  "You and Corinne. Whatever troubles you're having."

  "What makes you think we're having troubles?"

  "Why else would you be here?"

  Why indeed. Score one for Suzanne Hope. "Do you know where Corinne is?"

  Down the concrete path and to the right, a postal worker eyed Adam with suspicion. Not surprising. He had thought about the divorced dads who show up here, but of course there were divorced moms too. Adam tried to nod at the postal worker to show him that he meant no harm, but that didn't seem to help.

  "Why would I know?" the voice asked.

  "She's missing," Adam said. "I'm trying to find her."

  Several seconds passed. Adam took a step back and kept his hands at his sides, trying to look as unthreatening as possible. Eventually, the door opened a crack. The chain was still in place, but now he could see a sliver of Suzanne Hope's face. He still wanted to come inside and sit down, talk to her face-to-face, engage, disarm, distract, whatever it would take. But if a chain made Suzanne Hope feel safe, then so be it.

  "When was the last time you saw Corinne?" he asked her.

  "A long time ago."

  "How long?"

  Adam saw her eyes look up to the right. He didn't necessarily buy the idea that you could tell lies by the way the eyes move, but he did know that when someone's eyes look up and to the right, it usually indicated that the person was visually remembering things, as opposed to the left, which meant visually constructing things. Of course, like most generalizations, you couldn't really count on it, and visually constructing did not mean lying. If you asked someone to think of a purple cow, that would lead to visual construction, which isn't a lie or deception.

  Either way, he didn't think she was lying.

  "Maybe two, three years ago."

  "Where?"

  "It was a Starbucks."

  "So you haven't seen her since . . ."

  "Since the time she figured out I was lying about being pregnant," she finished for him. "That's right."

  Adam hadn't expected that answer. "No phone calls?"

  "No phone calls, no e-mails, no letters, nothing. I'm sorry I can't help you."

  The postal worker kept moving, kept delivering the mail, kept eyeing Adam. Adam put his hands to his eyes to shade the sun. "Corinne followed your lead, you know."

  "What do you mean?" she asked.

  "You know what I mean."

  Through the crack in the door, he could see Suzanne Hope nod. "She did ask me a lot of questions."

  "What kind of questions?"

  "Where did I buy the prosthetic belly, how did I get the sonogram pictures, stuff like that."

  "So you directed her to Fake-A-Pregnancy.com."

  Suzanne Hope put her left hand against the frame of the door. "I didn't 'direct' her anywhere." Her voice had a little snap in it now.

  "That's not what I meant."

  "Corinne asked, and I told her about it. That's all. But yeah, she was almost too curious. Like we were kindred spirits."

  "I'm not following."

  "I thought she'd judge me. I mean, most people would, right? Who could blame them? Weird lady pretending she's pregnant. But it was like we were kindred spirits. She got me right away."

  Wonderful, Adam thought, but he kept the sarcasm to himself. "If I may be so bold," he said slowly, "how much did you lie to my wife?"

  "What do you mean?"

  "For one thing"--he pointed to the hand on the doorframe--"there's no wedding band on your finger."

  "Wow, aren't you a real-life Sherlock?"

  "Were you even married?"

  "Yes."

  He could hear the regret in her voice, and for a moment, he thought she would slip that hand back inside and slam the door shut.

  "I'm sorry," Adam said. "I didn't mean--"

  "It was his fault, you know."

  "What was?"

  "That we couldn't have kids. So you'd think Harold would have been more sympathetic, right? He was the one with the low sperm count. Shooting blanks. Bad swimmers. I never blamed him. It was his fault, but it wasn't his fault, if you know what I mean."

  "I do," he said. "So you've never really been pregnant?"

  "Never," she said, and he could hear the devastation in her voice.

  "You told Corinne you had a stillborn."

  "I thought maybe she'd understand better if I said that. Or, well, not understand. Just the opposite, really. That she would sympathize anyway. But I wanted to be pregnant so badly, and maybe that was my fault. Harold saw that. It made him withdraw. Maybe. Or maybe he never really loved me. I don't know anymore. But I always wanted kids. Even as a little girl, I wanted a big family. My sister Sarah, who swore she'd never have any, well, she has three. And I remember how happy she was when she was pregnant. How she glowed. I guess I just wanted to see what it was like. Sarah said being pregnant made her feel like somebody important, everyone always asking when the baby was due and wishing her luck and all that. So one day, I did it."

  "Pretended you were pregnant?"

  Suzanne nodded in the doorframe. "As a gag, really. Just to see what it would be like. And Sarah was right. People held doors for me. They wanted to carry my groceries or give me their parking spot. They asked me how I was doing and really seemed to care about the answer. People get hooked on drugs, right? They get hooked on highs, and I read it's all because of some dopamine release. Well, that's what this did. It was a dopamine release for me."

  "Do you still do it?" he asked, though he didn't know why he cared. Suzanne Hope had pointed his wife toward the website. He had already figured that out. There was nothing really new to learn here.

  "No," she said. "Like all addicts, I stopped when I hit rock bottom."

  "Do you mind my asking you when that was?"

  "Four months ago. When Harold found out and discarded me like an old tissue."

  "I'm sorry," he said.

  "Don't be. It's for the best. I'm in therapy now, and while I own this illness--it's me, not anyone else--Harold didn't love me. That's what I realize now. Maybe he never did, I don't know. Or maybe it's because he started resenting me. A man can't have a child and it hits home with his manhood. So maybe that's it. But either way, I looked for validation elsewhere. Our relationship had become toxic."

  "I'm sorry," Adam said.

  "It doesn't matter. You didn't come to hear about that. Suffice it to say I'm happy I didn't pay the money. Maybe that guy telling Harold my secret was the best thing to happen to me."

  A chill started somewhere in Adam's chest and spread to his fingers. His voice seemed to be coming from somewhere else, somewhere far away. "What guy?"

  "What?"

  "You said a guy told your husband your secret," he said. "What guy?"

  "Oh my God." Suzanne Hope finally opened the door and looked at him in anguish. "He told you too."

  Chapter 24

  Adam sat on the couch across from Suzanne Hope. Her apartment had white walls and white furniture and yet somehow it still seemed dark and depressing. There were windows, but little natural light seeped in. There were no visible stains or dirt and yet the apartment felt grimy. The artwork, if that was what one would call it, would be considered too generic for a Motel 6.

  "Is that how you found out about the fake pregnancy?" Suzanne Hope asked. "Did that guy visit you too?"

  He sat there, still feeling that chill. Suzanne Hope had her hair piled high in what might have started as a bun. A tortoiseshell hair clip kept what was left in place. A ton of bracelets adorned her right wrist, gypsy style, and whenever she moved, they jingled. Her eyes were big and wide and blinked a lot, the kind of eyes that had probably made her appear eager and animated in her youth, though now they looked as though she were awaiting a blow.

  Adam leaned forward. "You said you didn't pay the money."

  "That's right."

  "Tell me what happened."

  Suzanne Hope stood. "Would you like some wine?"

  "No."

  "I probably shouldn't have any either."

  "What happened, Suzanne?"

  She looked longingly toward the kitchen. Adam remembered another rule of interrogation, if not life: Alcohol lowers inhibitions. It makes people talk, and while scientists debate this, Adam was convinced that it was also a truth serum. Either way, if he accepted her hospitality, she would probably be more apt to talk.

  "Maybe a small glass," he said.

  "White or red?"

  "Either."

  She headed toward the kitchen with a bounce in her step that felt out of place in this depressing apartment. As she reached into the refrigerator, Suzanne said, "I work part-time as a cashier at Kohl's. I like it. I get an employee discount, and the people there are nice."

  She took out two glasses and started to pour.

  "So one day I go outside for my lunch break. They have these picnic tables in the back. I go out there and this guy in a baseball cap is waiting for me."

  Baseball cap. He swallowed. "What did he look like?"

  "Young, white, skinny. Kind of a geek. I know this sounds odd, especially with what happened next, but he had a nice way about him. Like he was my friend. He had this smile that made me relax a little."

  She poured the wine.

  "So what happened?" Adam asked.

  "Out of nowhere he just says, does your husband know? I stop and say, excuse me, something like that. And he says, does your husband know you faked your pregnancy?"

  Suzanne picked up one of the glasses and took a deep sip. Adam stood and walked toward her. She handed him the glass and then made a motion to clink glasses. He did so.

  "Go on," Adam said.

  "He asked me if my husband knew about my lie. I asked him who he was. He didn't say. He just said something about the stranger who reveals truth, something like that. He says he has proof I've been lying about being pregnant. At first I figured that he had seen me at Bookends or Starbucks, you know, like Corinne. But I hadn't seen him before and something in the way he spoke . . . it just didn't add up to that."

  Suzanne Hope took another sip. He took one too. The wine tasted like fish ass.

  "So the guy says that he wants five thousand dollars. He says if I pay it, he'll go away and I'll never see him again, though--and this was really odd--he said that I couldn't lie again."

  "What did he mean?"

  "That's what he said. He said, here's the deal. You pay me five thousand dollars and stop faking the pregnancy, and I'll go away for good. But if I kept up the deception--that was the word he used, deception--he would tell my husband the truth. He also promised it was a one-time payment."

  "What did you say?"

  "First, I asked him how I knew I could trust him. If I gave him the money, how did I know he wouldn't ask for more?"

  "How did he respond to that?"

  "He gave me that smile again and said that's not what we do, that's not how we operate. And you know, this is weird, I believed him. Maybe it was the smile, maybe not, I don't know. But I think he was being straight with me."

  "But you didn't pay, did you?"

  "How did you know? Oh, wait, I already told you. Funny. At first, I started thinking, how am I going to get that kind of money? And then, when I stopped and thought about it, I thought, wait, what did I do wrong here? I lied to a bunch of strangers. It's not like I lied to Harold, right?"

  Adam took another sip, taste be damned. "Right."

  "Maybe, I don't know, maybe I was calling the guy's bluff. Maybe I didn't care. Or heck, maybe I wanted him to tell Harold. The truth will set you free, right? Maybe that's what I wanted in the end. Harold would see this as a cry for help. He'd show me more attention."

  "But that wasn't what happened," Adam said.

  "Not even close," she said. "I don't know when or how the guy told Harold. But he did. He gave Harold some web link so he could see all the stuff I ordered from that pregnancy-faking website. Harold went ballistic. I thought it would open his eyes to my pain, but really, it did the opposite. It played into all his insecurities. All that stuff about not being a real man--it all came roaring to a head. It's complicated, you know. A man is supposed to spread his seed and if the seed isn't any good, well, it goes right to his core. Stupid."

  She took another sip and looked him straight in the eye.

  "I'm surprised," Suzanne said.

  "Surprised about what?"

  "That Corinne made the same choice. I would have figured that she'd pay the money."

  "What makes you say that?"

  Suzanne shrugged. "Because she loved you. Because she had so much to lose."

  Chapter 25

  Could it be that simple?

  Could it all be a blackmail scam that went south? The stranger had gone to Suzanne Hope and asked for money in exchange for silence. She refused to pay. The stranger then told her husband about her faking the pregnancy.

  Was that what happened with Corinne and Adam?

  On the one hand, it made perfect sense. The Hopes had been blackmailed. Why couldn't it have happened to Corinne and him? You ask for money, you don't get it, you tell. That's how blackmail works. But as Adam started on his way back home, as he let the reality of what he just heard roll around in his head, something about it all didn't feel right. He couldn't put his finger on it. For some reason, something about the obvious blackmail theory didn't quite pass the smell test.

  Corinne was driven and smart. She was a worrier and a planner. If the stranger had threatened her with blackmail and if she had made the decision not to pay up, Corinne, ever the perfect student, would have been prepared. Yet when Adam confronted her after the stranger's visit, Corinne had been at a loss. She had no ready answer. She weakly tried to stall. There was no doubt in his mind that Corinne had been surprised.

  Why? If she'd been blackmailed, wouldn't she have at least suspected that the stranger would tell Adam?

  She had also reacted by, what, running away? Did that make sense? She had run so quickly and haphazardly, barely contacting him and the school and, most surprising of all, just leaving the boys in the lurch.

  That wasn't Corinne.

  Something else was going on here.

  He did a mental rewind to the night at the American Legion Hall. He thought about the stranger. He thought about the young blond woman with him. He thought about how calm and concerned the stranger seemed. The stranger took no joy in telling Adam what Corinne had done--nothing about him indicated psycho or even socio--but then again, he hadn't seemed businesslike, either.

 
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