The stranger, p.15
The Stranger, p.15Harlan Coben
For the hundredth time that day, Adam checked the phone-locator app, hoping that Corinne had charged her phone back up since her visit to Pittsburgh. He wondered again whether she had chosen to stay there or was just traveling through. He bet traveling through. He also bet that she had realized somewhere along the way that one of the boys would put together that they could find her on the phone locator, so she had simply turned off the power or maybe found a way to turn off the app.
Okay, so if Corinne were traveling from Cedarfield through Pittsburgh, where would she be going?
He didn't have a clue. But something was really, really wrong. Duh, thank you, Captain Obvious. Still, Corinne had told him to stay away. Shouldn't he listen to that? Should he sit back and see how it all played out? Or was the threat too real to be idle?
Should he get help? Should he contact the police or just let it be?
Adam couldn't say which side of the fence he would have fallen on--both options were fraught with problems--but suddenly, as he made the turn onto his street, that didn't seem like an issue anymore. As he pulled up to his house, Adam noticed three men standing on the curb in front of his lawn. One was his neighbor, Cal Gottesman, who was pushing those glasses up his nose. The other two were Tripp Evans and Bob "Gaston" Baime.
What the . . . ?
For a moment, just a split second, Adam expected the worst: Something horrible had happened to Corinne. But no, these guys wouldn't be the ones to tell him. Len Gilman, the town cop who also had two kids in the lax program, would be the one.
As if someone had heard his thoughts, a squad car with the words CEDARFIELD POLICE DEPARTMENT emblazoned across the sides turned onto the road and slid into the spot where the three men were standing. Len Gilman was in the driver's seat.
Adam felt his heart drop.
He quickly put the car in park and swung the car door open. Gilman was doing the same. When Adam stood, his knees almost gave way. On teetering legs, he sprinted toward where the four men had congregated, on the curb right in front of Adam's house.
All four men looked at him solemnly.
"We need to talk," Len Gilman said.
Beachwood, Ohio, Police Chief Johanna Griffin had never been to a homicide scene.
She had seen her share of dead bodies, of course. Plenty of people called the police when they found that a loved one had died of natural causes. Same with a drug overdose or a suicide, so, yeah, Johanna had been around death and then some. There'd also been a fair number of gory car crashes over the years. Two months ago, a semi cut across the divider line, and when it slammed into a Ford Fiesta, the car's driver had been decapitated and his wife's skull had been crushed like a Styrofoam cup.
Bloody and gross and even dead didn't bother Johanna. But boy, this did.
Why? First off: murder. It was just hard to get around the word. Murder. Just say it out loud and feel the chill. Nothing compared, really. It was one thing to lose your life to illness or accident. But to have your life snatched away from you intentionally, to have a fellow human being actually decide to snuff out your very existence--that just offended on so many levels. It was an obscenity. It was something beyond a crime. It was playing God in the most ungodly way possible.
But even that, Johanna might have been able to live with.
Johanna tried to keep her breath steady, but she could feel it coming in hurried gulps. She stared down at the corpse. Heidi Dann stared back up out of unblinking eyes. There was a bullet hole in Heidi's forehead. A second bullet--or maybe the first bullet, come to think of it--had blown away her kneecap. Heidi had bled out on the Oriental carpet she'd bought for a song from a guy named Ravi, who sold them out of a truck in front of the Whole Foods. Johanna had halfheartedly chased Ravi off more than once, but Ravi, who gave his customers great value and a ready smile, always came back.
The rookie working with her, a kid named Norbert Pendergast, was trying not to look too excited. He sidled up to Johanna and said, "The county guys are on their way. They're going to take this away from us, aren't they?"
They would, Johanna knew. Local cops in this area spent most of their days dealing with traffic violations and bicycle licenses and maybe a domestic dispute. Major crimes, like murder, were handled by the county police. So yep, in a few minutes, the big boys would come in, swinging their little dicks to make sure everyone knew they were in charge now. They would cast her aside, and not to sound overly melodramatic, but this was her town. Johanna had grown up here. She knew the lay of the land. And she knew the people. She knew, for example, that Heidi loved to dance and played a great game of bridge and had a naughty, contagious laugh. She knew that Heidi enjoyed experimenting with weird-color nail polish, that her favorite TV shows of all time were The Mary Tyler Moore and Breaking Bad (yep, that was Heidi), and that she had bought the Oriental rug on which she had bled out from Ravi in front of the Whole Foods for $400.
"Where's Marty?" Johanna asked.
Norbert pointed behind him. "He's in the kitchen."
Johanna hoisted up her pants--no matter how hard she tried, the pants waist on the police uniform never quite fit right--and started toward the kitchen. Marty's pale face tilted up when she entered as though pulled on a string. His eyes were shattered marbles.
The voice was hollow and ghostlike.
"I'm so sorry, Marty."
"I don't understand. . . ."
"Let's take it a step at a time." Johanna pulled out the kitchen chair across from him--yes, that had been Heidi's chair--and sat down. "I need to ask you some questions, Marty. That okay with you?"
The county swinging dicks would spend a long time looking at Marty as the perp. He hadn't done it. Johanna knew that, but there'd be no point in trying to explain, because the truth was, she knew because, well, she knew. The county dicks would laugh that off and talk about the percentage of murders like this being committed by the husband. Fine with her. And who knew? Maybe they were right (they weren't), but either way, the county dicks could go in that direction. She'd try others.
Marty nodded numbly. "Yeah, okay."
"So you just got home, right?"
"Yeah. I was at a convention in Columbus."
No reason to ask for confirmation. The county dicks could chase that down. "So what happened?"
"I parked in the driveway." His voice was flat and very far away somehow, beyond detached. "I opened the door with my key. I called out to Heidi--I knew she was home because her car was there. I walked into the den and . . ." Marty's face twisted into something barely human and then collapsed into something all too human.
Normally, Johanna would give a grieving spouse time to recover, but the county dicks would be here soon. "Marty?"
He tried to regain his composure.
"Is anything missing?"
"Like in a robbery."
"I don't think so. I don't see anything missing. But I didn't really look."
A robbery, she knew, was unlikely. The contents of the house didn't have a lot of value, for one thing. For another, Heidi's engagement ring, which Johanna knew had been her grandmother's and was the most expensive thing she owned, was still on her finger. A thief would have taken that for certain.
"Who's the first person to pop into your head?"
"What do you mean?"
"Who might have done this?"
Marty stopped and thought about it. Then his face twisted up again. "You know my Heidi, Johanna."
Know. Still using the present tense.
"She doesn't have an enemy in the world."
Johanna took out her notepad. She opened it to an empty page and stared at it and hoped that no one would see her eyes well up. "Think, Marty."
"I am." He let out a moan. "Oh my God, I have to tell Kimberly and the boys. How am I
"I can help with that, if you'd like."
Marty leapt on that like onto a lifeboat. "Would you?" He was a nice guy, Johanna thought, but no way had he ever been good enough for someone like Heidi. Heidi was special. Heidi was the kind of person who always made everyone around her feel special. Simply put, Heidi was magic.
"The kids adore you, you know. So did Heidi. She'd want you to be the one."
Johanna kept her eyes on the blank page. "Has anything happened lately?"
"What? You mean, anything like this?"
"I mean, anything like anything. Have you gotten any frightening calls? Did Heidi get in an argument with someone at Macy's? Did someone cut her off in traffic on 271? Did she give someone the finger when they cut the line at Jack's? Anything."
He slowly shook his head.
"Come on, Marty. Think."
"Nothing," he said. He looked up at her, his face lined with anguish. "I got nothing."
"What's going on here?"
The authoritative voice came from behind her, and Johanna knew that her time was up. She stood and faced two county dicks. She introduced herself. They eyed her as though she might steal silverware, and then they told her that they would take over now.
And so they would. Johanna would let them. They had experience at this, and Heidi deserved the best. Johanna headed out, content to let the homicide detectives do their thing.
But she'd be damned if that meant she wasn't going to do her thing too.
Are your kids home?" Len Gilman asked.
Adam shook his head. The five of them were still standing on the curb. Len Gilman didn't look like a cop, though he had the gruff part down to an art form. He reminded Adam of one of those aging motorcycle gang members who still wears leather and hangs out in dive bars. Gilman's graying handlebar mustache had yellow nicotine stains. He favored short-sleeved shirts, even when in uniform, and had enough hair on his arms to be mistaken for a bear.
For a moment, no one moved, just five town dads hanging by the curb on a Thursday night.
This made no sense, Adam thought, and maybe that was a good thing.
If Len Gilman had come here in his capacity as a police officer to deliver the worst kind of news, why would he bring Tripp, Gaston, and Cal with him?
"Maybe we could go inside," Len said, "and talk."
"What's this about?"
"It's better if we do this in private."
Adam was tempted to say that they were in private, on the curb in front of his lawn where no one else could hear them, but Len was already starting up the walk and Adam didn't want to do anything that might delay the conversation any more. The other three men waited for Adam. Gaston had his head down, studying the grass. Cal was jittery, but that was pretty much his default state. Tripp was noncommittal.
Adam moved in behind Len, the other three trailing on the path. When they got to the door, Len stepped aside and let Adam use the key. Jersey the dog rushed toward them, nails clacking on the hardwood, but, perhaps sensing something wasn't quite right, her greeting was muted and perfunctory. Jersey quickly sized up the situation and slinked back to the kitchen.
The house fell into silence, the kind of silence that seemed deliberate, as though even the walls and furniture were conspiring to keep everything still. Adam didn't bother with niceties. He didn't ask anyone if they wanted to take a seat or have a drink. Len Gilman headed into the living room, as though he either owned the place or was a cop comfortable in his own skin.
"What's going on?" Adam asked.
Len did the talking for the group. "Where is Corinne?"
Two things hit Adam at once. First: relief. If she'd been hurt or worse, Len would know where she was. So whatever was going on here, even if it was something bad, it wasn't the worst-case scenario. Second: fear. Because, yes, Corinne seemed safe for the moment, but whatever this visit entailed, by both this show of force and the tone of Len's voice, it was indeed going to be something bad.
"She's not home," Adam said.
"Yes, we can see that. Would you mind telling us where she is?"
"Would you mind telling me why you want to know?"
Len Gilman kept his gaze on Adam. The other men stood and shifted their feet. "Why don't we sit down?"
Adam was about to protest that this was his house and that he'd tell everyone when or where to sit, but that seemed pointless and a waste of energy. Len collapsed with a sigh in the big chair usually reserved for Adam. Adam noted that it was probably a power move, but again no reason to fret over the irrelevant. The other three men sat on the couch like the speak-no-hear-no-see-no monkeys. Adam stayed standing.
"What the hell is going on?" Adam asked again.
Len Gilman stroked his handlebar mustache as though it were a small pet. "I just want to make something clear right off the bat. I'm here in my role as a friend and a neighbor. I'm not here as the chief of police."
"Oh, that's encouraging."
Len ignored the sarcasm and continued. "So as a friend and neighbor, I'm telling you that we are looking for Corinne."
"And as a friend and neighbor, not to mention a concerned husband, I'm asking you why."
Len Gilman nodded, buying time, trying to figure how to play this. "I know Tripp stopped by here yesterday."
"He mentioned that we had a lacrosse board meeting."
Len Gilman then stopped talking, doing that cop thing where you wait and hope your subject says something. Adam knew the technique all too well from his days in the prosecutor's office. He also knew that those who played it back, who tried to outwait the cop, were usually hiding something. Adam wasn't. He also wanted to move this along, so he said, "Right," again.
"Corinne didn't come to the meeting. She didn't show."
"So what? Does she need an absence note from a parent?"
"Don't be a wiseass, Adam."
Len was right. He needed to clamp down on the sarcasm.
"Are you a member of the board, Len?" Adam asked.
"I'm a member at large."
"What's that mean?"
Len smiled and spread his hands. "Damned if I know. Tripp is the president. Bob here is the VP. And Cal is the secretary."
"I know and, man, am I impressed." Again he scolded himself for the tone. This wasn't the time. "But I still don't know why you're all looking for Corinne."
"And we don't know why we can't find her," Len countered, spreading his meaty paws. "It's a mystery, isn't it? We've texted her. We've e-mailed her. We've called her mobile and your house. Heck, I even stopped by the school. Did you know that?"
Adam bit back his reply.
"Corinne wasn't there. She was absent--and there was no absence note from a parent. So I talked to Tom." Tom Gorman was the principal. He, too, lived in town and had three kids. Towns like this got ridiculously incestuous. "He says Corinne normally has the best attendance record of any teacher in the district, but suddenly she's a no-show. He was concerned."
"Can you cut the crap and tell me why you're all so anxious to find my wife?"
Len looked over at the three monkeys on the couch. Bob's face was set in stone. Cal was busy cleaning his glasses. That left it up to Tripp Evans. Tripp cleared his throat and said, "There seems to be some discrepancies with the lacrosse financials."
Or maybe the opposite of boom. The house grew even quieter. Adam was sure that he could actually hear his own heart beating in his chest. He found the seat behind him and lowered himself onto it.
"What are you talking about?"
But of course, he already knew, didn't he?
Bob now found his voice. "What do you think we're talking about?" he half snapped. "There's money missing from the account."
Cal nodded, just to do something.
"And you think . . . ?" Adam didn't finish the thought. First off, it was obvious what they thought. Two, it would
But was it ridiculous?
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Len said, playing Mr. Reasonable. "Right now, we just want to talk to Corinne. As I told you before, I'm here as a friend and neighbor and maybe a board member. That's why we are all here. We're Corinne's friends. And yours. We want to keep this between us."
Lots of nods.
"Meaning," Len said, leaning forward in a conspiratorial way, "that if the books get straightened out, that will be the end of it. It stays in this room. No questions will be asked. If the discrepancies go away, if the ledger is made whole again, well, we don't really care about the hows or whys. We all move on."
Adam stayed quiet. Organizations are all the same. Cover-ups and lies. The greater good and all that. Through his confusion and fear, part of Adam couldn't help but feel disgust. But that was beside the point. He needed to be very careful here. Despite Len Gilman's twice-repeated "friend/neighbor/board member" spiel, he was a cop. He wasn't here as a nicety. He was here to gather information. Adam had to be careful how much he gave him.
"This discrepancy," Adam said. "How large is it?"
"Very," Len Gilman said.
"In terms of . . ."
"Sorry, that's confidential."
"You can't seriously believe that Corinne would do anything--"
"Right now," Len Gilman said, "we just need to talk to her."
Adam stayed silent.
"Where is she, Adam?"
He couldn't tell them, of course. He couldn't even try to explain. The attorney in him took over. How many times had he warned his own client not to talk? How many convictions had he nailed because some idiot tried to talk his way out of it?
"I think you guys better leave now."
Dan Molino tried not to cry as he watched his son Kenny line up for the forty-yard dash.
Kenny was a high school senior and one of the top football prospects in the state. He had a breakout senior year, gaining notice and respect among the big-time scouts, and now here he was, warming up for the final combine event. Dan stood in the bleachers, feeling that familiar rush, that parental high, as he watched his big son--Kenny was 285 pounds now--getting ready to put his feet in the starting blocks. Dan was a big guy too, six-two, two forty. He'd also played some ball back in the day, All-State linebacker, but he'd been a step too slow and a size too small to go Division I. He started up his own business in freelance furniture delivery twenty-five years ago, and now Dan owned two trucks and had nine guys working for him. The big stores, they often had their own delivery fleet. Dan specialized in taking care of the little mom-and-pop shops, though there seemed to be less and less of them every day. The big chains were squeezing them out, just like the big boys like UPS and FedEx were squeezing him.
The Stranger by Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes