The stranger, p.16
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       The Stranger, p.16

          
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  Still, Dan made a living. A few of those big-chain mattress stores had recently decided to cut back on their own fleet. Found it cheaper to hire a local guy like Dan. It helped. So, okay, Dan wasn't killing it, but he was doing fine. He and Carly had a nice place in Sparta off the lake. They had three kids. Ronald was the youngest. He was twelve. Karen was a freshman, getting to that stage when the sass and puberty kicked in and the boys start noticing. Dan hoped that he'd survive it. And then there was Kenny, his firstborn, the high school senior who was poised to get a full ride to a major college football program. Alabama and Ohio State were showing interest already.

  If Kenny could just nail this forty-yard dash.

  Watching his son, Dan felt his eyes water up. Always happened. It was kind of embarrassing, the way he'd react like this. Couldn't help it, though. He'd started wearing sunglasses to Kenny's high school games so no one would see, but that hadn't helped when they were inside and Kenny was getting some award, like when they named him MVP at the team dinner and Dan's sitting there, and boom, there it came, the eyes watering up, sometimes even a tear or two running down the cheek. When someone would notice, Dan would say allergies or that he had a cold or some such thing. Who knows, maybe they bought that line. Carly loved this part of him, calling him her sensitive Teddy Bear or giving him a big hug. Whatever else Dan had done, whatever mistakes he'd made in his life, he had hit the biggest bottom-of-the-ninth homer when Carly Applegate had chosen him to be her life partner.

  In truth, Dan didn't think that Carly had been quite as lucky. Eddie Thompson had liked her, back in the day. Eddie's family got in early on McDonald's chains, made a fortune. They were always in the town paper now, Eddie and his wife, Melinda, doing some charity thing or whatever. Carly never said anything, but Dan knew it bugged her. Or maybe that was just Dan's own issues. He didn't know anymore. Dan only knew that when he saw his kids do something special, like play football or win awards, his eyes watered up. He was an easy cry and he tried to hide that, but Carly knew the truth and loved him for it.

  Dan was wearing sunglasses today. That was for sure.

  With the big-time scouts keeping a watchful eye, Kenny had done really well in the other tests--the vertical jump, the 7-on-7, that trench warfare thing. Still, the forty-yard dash would clinch it for him. A full ride to some big-time university. Ohio State, Penn State, Alabama, maybe even--oh man, it was almost too much to even let himself think about it--Notre Dame. The Notre Dame scout was here, and Dan couldn't help noticing that the guy had been keeping tabs on Kenny.

  Just one last dash. Just beat 5.2 and Kenny was golden. That was what they said. If a prospect slower than that, the scouts lost interest, even if he was great at everything else. They wanted a 5.2 or better. If Kenny did that, if Kenny could just run this one race at his best time . . .

  "You know, don't you?"

  The unfamiliar voice startled him for a second, but Dan just figured that the guy hadn't been talking to him. Still, when he sneaked a look, he could see some stranger was staring directly into Dan's sunglassed eyes.

  Little guy, Dan thought, but then again, everyone looked little to Dan. Not short. Just small. Small hands, thin arms, almost frail. The guy who was staring at him now stuck out here because it was so clear he didn't belong. There was nothing football about him. Too little. Too nerdy. Big baseball cap pulled down too low. And that soft, friendly smile.

  "You talking to me?" Dan asked.

  "Yes."

  "I'm kinda busy here."

  The guy kept smiling as Dan slowly turned back toward the track. On the field, Kenny was putting his feet in the blocks. Dan watched and waited for his personal waterworks to begin.

  But for once, his eyes stayed dry.

  Dan risked a glance back. The guy was still smiling and staring.

  "What's your problem?"

  "It can wait till after the race, Dan."

  "What can wait? How do you know my--?"

  "Shhh, let's see how he does."

  On the field, someone shouted, "On your mark, get set," and then the gun went off. Dan's head snapped back toward his son. Kenny got a good jump off the start and began pounding down his lane like a runaway truck. Dan smiled. Try getting in the way of that, he thought. Kenny would mow you down like a blade of grass.

  The race lasted only scant seconds, but it felt much longer. One of Dan's new drivers, some kid working off a student loan, sent an article that said time slows down when you're having new experiences. Well, this was new. Maybe that's why the seconds ticked away so slowly. Dan was watching his boy heading for a personal-best time in the forty and, in doing so, locking in a full ride to someplace special, someplace Dan could never have gone, and when Kenny crossed the finish line with a record time of 5.07, Dan knew that the tears would start coming.

  Except they didn't.

  "Great time," the little guy said. "You must be so proud."

  "You bet I am."

  Dan faced the stranger straight-on now. Screw this guy. This was one of the greatest moments--maybe the greatest--of Dan's life and he'd be damned if he'd let some dork get in that way. "Do I know you?"

  "No."

  "You a scout?"

  The stranger smiled. "Do I look like a scout, Dan?"

  "How do you know my name?"

  "I know lots of things. Here."

  The stranger held out a manila envelope.

  "What's this?"

  "You know, don't you?"

  "I don't know who the hell you think--"

  "It's just hard to believe no one has ever raised this with you before."

  "Raised what?"

  "I mean, look at your son."

  Dan spun back toward the track. Kenny had this huge smile on his face, looking toward the sideline for his father's approval. Now Dan's tears started to come. He waved, and his boy, who didn't go out carousing at night, who didn't drink or smoke pot or hang out with a bad crowd, who still--and yeah, no one believed it--preferred hanging out with his old man, watching the game or some movie on Netflix, waved back.

  "His weight was, what, two thirty last year," the stranger said. "He put on fifty-five pounds and no one noticed?"

  Dan frowned, even as he felt his heart drop. "It's called puberty, asshole. It's called working out hard."

  "No, Dan. It's called Winstrol. It's called a PED."

  "A what?"

  "Performance-enhancing drug. Better known to the layman as steroids."

  Dan turned and moved right up into the little stranger's face. The stranger just kept smiling. "What did you say?"

  "Don't make me repeat myself, Dan. It's all in that manila folder. Your son went to Silk Road. You know what that is? The Deep Web? The online underworld economy? Bitcoin? I don't know if you gave Kenny your blessing or if your son paid for it on his own, but you know the truth, don't you?"

  Dan just stood there.

  "What do you think all these scouts are going to say when that file goes public?"

  "You're full of it. You're making this up. This is all--"

  "Ten thousand dollars, Dan."

  "What?"

  "I don't want to go into this in detail right now. You'll see all the proof in that manila envelope. Kenny started with Winstrol. That was his main PED, but he also took Anadrol and Deca Durabolin. You'll see how often he bought it, his method of payment, even the IP address on your home computer. Kenny started taking them junior year, so all those trophies, all those victories, all those stats . . . well, if the truth comes out, they all go away, Dan. All those congratulatory slaps on the back when you go into O'Malley's Pub, all those well-wishers, all those townspeople who think so highly of the nice boy you raised--what are they going to think of you when they find out your son cheated? What are they going to think of Carly?"

  Dan put his finger on the little guy's chest. "Are you threatening me?"

  "No, Dan. I'm asking for ten thousand dollars. A one-time payment. You know I could demand a lot more, what with how much college costs nowadays. So consider yourself lucky."

  Then the voice that always brought the tears sounded to his right: "Dad?"

  Kenny was jogging over with a look of joy and hope on his face. Dan just froze and stared at his son, unable to move for a moment.

  "I'm going to leave you now, Dan. All the information is in that manila envelope I just gave you. Look at it when you get home. What happens tomorrow is up to you, but for right now"--the stranger gestured toward Kenny coming toward them--"why don't you enjoy this special moment with your son?"

  Chapter 29

  The American Legion Hall was close to the relative bustle of downtown Cedarfield. This made it a tempting place to park when the limited metered spots on the streets filled up. To combat this, the American Legion powers that be hired a local guy, John Bonner, to "guard" the lot. Bonner had grown up in this town--had even been captain of the basketball team his senior year--but somewhere along the way, mental health issues began to gnaw at his edges before they moved inside and settled in for the long haul. Now Bonner was the closest thing to what Cedarfield might call a homeless guy. He spent his nights at Pines Mental Health and his days shuffling around town muttering to himself about various political conspiracies involving the current mayor and Stonewall Jackson. Some of Bonner's old classmates at Cedarfield High felt bad about his predicament and wanted to help. Rex Davies, the president of the American Legion, came up with the idea of giving Bonner the lot job just so he'd stop wandering so much.

  Bonner, Adam knew, took his new job seriously. Too seriously. With his natural tendency toward OCD, he kept an extensive notebook that contained a potent blend of vague paranoid ramblings and ultra specifics about the makes, colors, and license plates of every vehicle that entered his lot. When you pulled in to park for something other than American Legion Hall business, Bonner would either warn you off, sometimes with a little too much gusto, or would intentionally let you illegally park, make sure that you had indeed gone to the Stop & Shop or Backyard Living instead of the hall, and then he'd call his old teammate Rex Davies, who coincidentally owned a body shop and car towing service.

  Everything's a racket.

  Bonner eyed Adam suspiciously as he pulled into the American Legion lot. He wore, as he always did, a blue blazer with too many buttons so that it looked like something used in a Civil War reenactment, and a red-and-white checkered tablecloth-cum-shirt. His pants were frayed at the cuffs, and a pair of laceless Chucks adorned his feet.

  Adam had realized that he could no longer afford to sit back and wait for Corinne's return. There were enough lies and deception to go around, he thought, but whatever it was that had gone terribly wrong in the past few days had started here, at the American Legion Hall, when the stranger told him about that damned website.

  "Hey, Bonner."

  Bonner may have recognized him, may have not. "Hey," he said cautiously.

  Adam put the car in park and got out. "I got a problem."

  Bonner wriggled eyebrows so bushy they reminded Adam of Ryan's gerbils. "Oh?"

  "I'm hoping you can help me."

  "You like buffalo wings?"

  Adam nodded. "Sure." Supposedly, Bonner had been a genius before his illness, but wasn't that what they always say about someone with serious mental health issues? "You want me to get you some from Bub's?"

  Bonner looked aghast. "Bub's is shit!"

  "Right, sorry."

  "Ah, go away." He waved a hand at Adam. "You don't know nothing, man."

  "Sorry. Really. Look, I need your help."

  "Lots of people need my help. But I can't be everywhere, now, can I?"

  "No. But you can be here, right?"

  "Huh?"

  "In this lot. You can help with a problem in this lot. You can be here."

  Bonner lowered his bushy eyebrows to the point where Adam couldn't see his eyes. "A problem? In my lot?"

  "Yes. See, I was here the other night."

  "For the lacrosse draft," Bonner said. "I know."

  The sudden recollection should have startled Adam, but for some reason, it didn't. "Right, so anyway, my car got sideswiped by some out-of-towners."

  "What?"

  "Did some pretty serious damage."

  "In my lot?

  "Yeah. Young out-of-towners, I think. They were driving a gray Honda Accord."

  Bonner's face reddened at the injustice. "You get the plate number?"

  "No, that's what I was hoping you could give me. So I can file a claim. They left at approximately ten fifteen."

  "Oh, right, I remember them." Bonner took out his giant notebook and started paging through rapidly. "That was Monday."

  "Yes."

  He flipped more pages, his pace growing more and more frantic. Adam glanced over Bonner's shoulder. Every page in the thick notebook was filled from top to bottom, from far left to far right, with tiny letters. Bonner kept turning pages at a furious clip.

  Then suddenly, Bonner stopped.

  "You found it?"

  A slow grin came to Bonner's face. "Hey, Adam?"

  "What?"

  Bonner turned the grin toward him. Then he did the gerbil wriggle again and said, "You got two hundred bucks on you?"

  "Two hundred?"

  "Because you're lying to me."

  Adam tried to look perplexed. "What are you talking about?"

  Bonner slammed the notebook closed. "Because, you see, I was here. I would have heard your car getting hit."

  Adam was about to counter when Bonner held up his palm.

  "And before you tell me it was late or it was noisy or it was barely a scratch, don't forget that your car is sitting right over there. It's got no damage. And before you tell me you were driving your wife's car or some other lie"--Bonner held up the notebook, still grinning--"I got the details of that night right here."

  Caught. Caught in a clumsy lie by Bonner.

  "So the way I see it," Bonner continued, "you want that guy's license plate number for another reason. He and that cute blonde he was with. Yeah, yeah, I remember them because the rest of you clowns I've seen a million times. They were strangers. Didn't belong. I wondered why they were here." He grinned again. "Now I know."

  Adam thought about saying a dozen things, but he settled on the simplest: "Two hundred dollars, you say?"

  "It's a fair price. Oh, and I don't take checks. Or quarters."

  Chapter 30

  Old Man Rinsky said, "The car is a rental."

  They were in the hi-tech breakfast nook. Rinsky was all in beige today--beige corduroys, beige wool shirt, beige vest. Eunice was at the kitchen table, dressed for a garden party, having tea. Her makeup looked as though it'd been applied with a paintball gun. She had said, "Good morning, Norman," when Adam came in. He had debated correcting her when Rinsky stopped him. "Don't," he'd said. "It's called validation therapy. Let her run with it."

  "Any idea who rented the car on Monday?" Adam asked.

  "Got it right here." Rinsky squinted at the screen. "The name she used was Lauren Barna, but that's a pseudonym. I did some digging and Barna is actually a woman named Ingrid Prisby. She lives in Austin, Texas." His reading glasses were on a chain. He let them drop to his chest and turned around. "The name mean anything to you?"

  "No."

  "Might take a little while, but I could run a background check on her."

  "That would be helpful."

  "No problem."

  So now what? He couldn't just fly off to Austin. Should he get the woman's phone number and call her, and say what exactly? Hi, my name is Adam Price, and you and some guy in a baseball cap told me a secret about my wife. . . .

  "Adam?"

  He looked up.

  Rinsky interlaced his fingers and rested them on his paunch. "You don't have to tell me what this is about. You know that, right?"

  "I do."

  "But just so we're clear, anything you tell me doesn't leave this house. You know that too, right?"

  "Sorry, but you're the one with the privilege here," Adam said, "not me."

  "Yeah, but I'm an old man. I have a bad memory."

  "Oh, I doubt that."

  Rinsky smiled. "Suit yourself."

  "No, no. Actually, if it's not too much of a burden, I'd really like to get your take on this."

  "I'm all ears."

  Adam wasn't sure how much of the story he would tell Rinsky, but the old cop was a good listener. Back in the day, he must have done an Oscar-buzzed "good cop" because Adam couldn't shut himself up. He ended up telling him the entire story, from the moment the stranger walked into that American Legion Hall right up until now.

  When Adam finished, the two men sat in silence. Eunice drank her tea.

  "Do you think I should tell the police?" Adam asked.

  Rinsky frowned. "You were a prosecutor, right?"

  "Right."

  "So you know better."

  Adam nodded.

  "You're the husband," he said as though that explained everything. "You just learned that your wife betrayed you in a pretty horrible way. Now she's run off. Tell me, Mr. Prosecutor, what would you think?"

  "That I did something to her."

  "That'd be number one. Number two would be that your wife--what's her name again?"

  "Corinne."

  "Right, Corinne. Number two would be that Corinne stole this money from that sports league or whatever so she could run away from you. You'd also have to tell that local cop about her faking the pregnancy. He's married?"

  "Yes."

  "So that'll be blabbed all over town before you know it. Not that that matters in light of the other stuff. But let's face it. The cops will either think you killed your wife or that she's a thief."

 
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