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The stranger, p.17
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       The Stranger, p.17

          Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
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Rinsky had confirmed exactly what Adam had already thought.

"So what do I do?"

Rinsky lifted his reading glasses back to his face. "Show me that text your wife sent you before she took off."

Adam found it. He handed Rinsky the phone and read the message once again over the old man's shoulder: MAYBE WE NEED SOME TIME APART. YOU TAKE CARE OF THE KIDS. DON'T TRY TO CONTACT ME. IT WILL BE OKAY.

Then:


JUST GIVE ME A FEW DAYS. PLEASE.

Rinsky read it, shrugged, took off the glasses. "What can you do? Far as you know, your wife needs some time away from you. She asked you not to contact her. So that's what you're doing."

"I can't sit around and do nothing."

"No, you can't. But if the cops ask, well, there's your answer."

"Why would the cops ask me that?"

"Got me. Meanwhile, you are doing all you can. You got that license plate number and you came to me. You did right on both counts. Chances are, your Corinne will just come home on her own soon. But either way, you're right--we need to try to find her first. I'll try to dig into this Ingrid Prisby. Maybe there's a clue there."

"Okay, thanks. I appreciate that."

"Adam?"

"Yeah?"

"Odds are, your Corinne stole this money. You know that."

"If she did, she had a reason."

"Like she needed to run away. Or to pay off this blackmailer."

"Or something we aren't thinking of yet."

"Whatever it is," Rinsky said, "you don't want to give the cops anything that can incriminate her."

"I know."

"You said she was in Pittsburgh?"

"That's what we saw on that phone locator, yeah."

"You know anybody there?"

"No." He looked over at Eunice. She smiled at him and lifted her tea. A perfectly normal domestic scene to an outside observer, but when you know her condition . . .

A memory hit Adam.

"What?"

"The morning before she disappeared, I came downstairs. The boys were at the breakfast table, but Corinne was in the backyard talking on her phone. When she saw me, she hung up."

"Any idea who she called?"

"No, but I can look it up on the web."

Old Man Rinsky stood up and gestured for Adam to have a seat. Adam took it and brought up the website for Verizon. He typed in the phone number and the password. He knew it by heart, not because he had a great memory, but because for things like this, he and Corinne always used the same approximate password. The word they used was BARISTA, all caps, always. Why? Because they had decided to come up with a password while sitting in a coffee shop and started looking around for a random word and, voila, there was a barista. The word was perfect because it had absolutely no connection to them. If the password needed to be longer than seven characters, the password was BARISTABARISTA. If the password required numbers, not just letters, it was BARISTA77.

Like that.

Adam got the password right on his second try--BARISTA77.

He clicked on the various links and reached her recent outgoing calls first. He'd hoped that maybe he'd get lucky, that maybe he'd see that she'd called someone a few hours ago or late last night. Nothing doing. In fact, the last call she'd made had been the one he was now searching for--a call made at 7:53 A.M. the morning she ran off.

The call had lasted only three minutes.

She had been outside in the backyard, talking softly, and hung up as he'd approached. He had pushed it, but Corinne had refused to tell him who was on the phone. But now . . .

Adam's eyes traveled right to the phone number on the screen. He froze and stared.

"You recognize the number?" Old Man Rinsky asked.

"Yeah, I do."





Chapter 31


Kuntz dumped both guns into the Hudson River. He had plenty more, no big deal.

He took the A train to 168th Street. He got out on Broadway and walked three blocks down to the entrance of the hospital that used to be called Columbia Presbyterian. Now it was known as Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital of NewYork-Presbyterian.

Morgan Stanley. Yeah, when you think of health care for children, the first name that comes to your mind is the multinational financial giant Morgan Stanley.

But money talks. Money is as money does.

Kuntz didn't bother showing his ID. The security guards at the desk knew him too well from his too frequent visits. They also knew he'd once been NYPD. Some, maybe most, even knew why he'd been forced to leave. It had been in all the papers. The libtards in the media had crucified him--wanting him not only to lose his job and livelihood but even wanting him locked up on murder charges--but the guys on the street backed him. They got that Kuntz was being railroaded.

They got the truth.

The case had been in the papers. Some big black guy resisting arrest. He'd been caught shoplifting at a grocery store on Ninety-Third, and when the Korean owner confronted him, the big black guy pushed him down and threw a kick. Kuntz and his partner, Scooter, cornered the guy. The guy didn't care. He growled and put it simply: "I ain't goin' wit' you. I just needed a pack of smokes." The big black guy started to walk away. Just like that. Two cops there, he'd just committed a crime, and he was just going to do as he pleased. When Scooter stepped in his way, the big black guy pushed him and kept walking.

So Kuntz took him down hard.

How was he supposed to know the big guy had some kind of health condition? Seriously. Are you really supposed to let a criminal walk away like that? What do you do when a thug won't listen to you? Do you try to take him down nicely? Maybe do something that puts your life or your partner's life in jeopardy?

What dumb assholes made these rules?

Long story short: The guy died and the libtard media had an orgasm. That dyke bitch on cable started it up. She called Kuntz a racist killer. Sharpton started with the marches. You know the drill. Didn't matter how clean Kuntz's record was or how many citations for bravery he'd received or how he volunteered with black kids in Harlem. Didn't matter that he had his own personal problems, including a ten-year-old boy with bone cancer. None of that meant a damn thing.

He was now a racist murderer--as evil as any of the scum he'd ever busted.

Kuntz took the elevator to the seventh floor. He nodded at the nurses' station as he hurried toward room 715. Barb was sitting in that same chair. She turned toward him and gave him a weary smile. There were dark circles under her eyes. Her hair looked as though it'd taken a late bus to get here. But when she smiled at him, that was still all he could see.

His son was sleeping.

"Hey," he whispered.

"Hey," Barb whispered back.

"How's Robby?"

Barb shrugged. Kuntz walked toward his son's bed and stared down at the boy. It broke his heart. It gave him resolve.

"Why don't you go home for a little while?" he said to his wife. "Relax a little."

"I will in a few," Barb replied. "Sit and talk with me."

You often hear that the media is a parasite, but rarely was it truer than in the case of John Kuntz. They swarmed and devoured until there was nothing left. He lost his job. He lost his pension and his benefits. But worst of all, he could no longer afford to give his son the best treatment available. That had been toughest on him. Whatever else a father is in this life--cop, fireman, Indian chief--he provides for his family. He does not sit by idly watching his son in pain without doing all he can to alleviate it in some way.

And then, when he was at his lowest, John Kuntz found salvation.

Isn't that always the way?

A friend of a friend hooked up Kuntz with a young Ivy Leaguer named Larry Powers, who had developed some new phone app that made it easier to find Christian guys to do home repair. Something like that. Charity and Construction, that was the pitch. The truth was, Kuntz didn't really care about the business angle of it. His job was to run both personal and company security--protect the key employees and all trade secrets--and so that was his single focus.

He was good at it.

The business, it was explained to him, was a start-up, and so the initial pay was crap. But still it was something, a job, a way to hold his head up. It was also more about the promise too. He was given stock options. Risky, sure, but that was how great fortunes were made. There was a back end--a big, juicy back end--if things went very well.

And they did.

The app caught on in a way no one had anticipated, and now, after three years, Bank of America had underwritten their IPO--initial public offering--and if things went just okay (not super great, just okay), two months from now, when the company started trading on the stock market, John Kuntz's stake would be worth approximately seventeen million dollars.

Let that number just sink in for a second. Seventeen million dollars.

Forget a comeback. Forget salvation. With that kind of money, he'd be able to afford the best doctors in the world for his son. He'd get Robby home care and the best of everything. He'd be able to get his other kids--Kari and Harry--into good schools, quality places, and maybe set them up in their own businesses one day. He'd get Barb some help around the house, maybe even take her away on a vacation. The Bahamas maybe. She was always looking at ads for that Atlantis hotel, and they hadn't gone anywhere since that three-day Carnival cruise six years ago.

Seventeen million dollars. All their dreams were about to come true.

Now, once again, someone was trying to take it all away from him.

And from his family.





Chapter 32


Adam drove past MetLife Stadium, home of both the New York Giants and New York Jets. He parked in an office-building lot about a quarter of a mile down the road. The building, like everything around it, was on old swampland. The smell was pure New Jersey lore and the reason for much of the state's misconception. The odor was part swamp (obviously), part chemical from whatever had been used to drain the swamp, and part dorm bong that never got rinsed out.

In sum, seriously funky.

The 1970s-era office building looked as though someone had taken the Brady Bunch's house as inspiration. There was a lot of brown and the kind of rubberized flooring that might have been snapped into place. Adam knocked on the door of a ground-level office overlooking the loading dock.

Tripp Evans opened it. "Adam?"

"Why did my wife call you?"

It was odd to see Tripp out of his normal element. In town he was popular and well-liked and important within the small worlds he inhabited. Here he looked strikingly ordinary. Adam knew Tripp's story vaguely. When Corinne was growing up in Cedarfield, Tripp's father had owned Evans Sporting Goods, located in the center of town where Rite Aid now was. For thirty years, Evans was the place where all the kids in town got their sports equipment. They also sold Cedarfield varsity jackets and practice gear for the high school teams. They opened two other stores in neighboring towns. When Tripp graduated college, he came home and ran the marketing. He made Sunday circulars and came up with special events to keep Evans relevant. He paid to have local pro athletes come in and sign autographs and greet customers. Times were good.

And then, like for most mom-and-pop operations, it all went south.

Herman's World of Sporting Goods came in. Then Modell's opened on the highway, and Dick's and a few others. The family business slowly withered and died. Tripp had landed on his feet, though. His track record helped him nab a position at a big Madison Avenue advertising firm, but the rest of his family suffered greatly. A few years ago, Tripp moved out to the suburbs to open his own boutique firm, to quote Bruce Springsteen, here in the swamps of Jersey.

"Do you want to sit down and talk?" Tripp asked.

"Sure."

"There's a coffee shop next door. Let's take a stroll."

Adam was about to argue--he wasn't in the mood for a stroll--but Tripp started on his way.

Tripp Evans wore an off-white short-sleeved dress shirt flimsy enough to see the V-neck tee underneath. His suit pants were the brown of a middle school principal's. His shoes looked too big for his feet--not orthopedics but one of those comfortable, less expensive brands that aimed for faux formal. In town, Adam was used to seeing Tripp in his clearly more comfortable coaching gear--the polo shirts with the Cedarfield Lacrosse logo, the crisp khakis, the baseball cap with the stiff brim, the whistle around his neck.

The difference was startling.

The coffee shop was an old-school greasy spoon, complete with a waitress who kept her pencil in her hair bun. They both ordered coffees. Just coffees. This wasn't the type of place that served macchiatos or lattes.

Tripp placed his hands on the sticky table. "You want to tell me what's going on?"

"My wife called you."

"How do you know this?"

"I checked the phone records."

"You checked . . ." Tripp's eyebrows jumped up a bit at that. "Are you serious?"

"Why did she call you?"

"Why do you think?" Tripp countered.

"Was it about this whole stolen-money thing?"

"Of course it was about this stolen-money thing. What else would it be?"

Tripp waited for a reply. Adam didn't give him one.

"So what did she say to you?"

The waitress came by, dropping the coffees with a thud that caused some to splash onto the saucer.

"She said that she needed more time. I told her I'd stalled long enough."

"Meaning?"

"The other board members were growing impatient. Some wanted to confront her more aggressively. A few wanted to go to the police right away on a more official basis."

"So how long has this been going on?" Adam asked.

"What, the investigation?"

"Yes."

Tripp put some sugar in his coffee. "A month or so."

"A month?"

"Yes."

"How come you never said anything to me?"

"I almost did. Draft night at the American Legion Hall. When you went nuts on Bob, I thought that maybe you already knew."

"I had no idea."

"Yeah, I get that now."

"You could have said something to me, Tripp."

"I could have," he agreed. "Except for one thing."

"What?"

"Corinne asked me not to."

Adam stayed perfectly still. Then he said: "I just want to make sure I understand."

"Let me see if I can help, then. Corinne knew that we were looking at her for the theft, and she made it clear that we shouldn't tell you," Tripp said. "You understand just fine."

Adam just sat back.

"So what did Corinne say that morning when you called?"

"She asked me for more time."

"Did you give it to her?"

"No. I told her time was up. I had tried to hold the board back long enough."

"When you say the board--"

"All of them. But mostly Bob, Cal, and Len."

"How did Corinne respond?"

"She asked--no, I think a better word might be begged--she begged for another week. She said she had a way to prove she was completely innocent, but she needed more time."

"Did you believe her?"

"Truth?"

"Preferably."

"No, not anymore."

"What did you think?"

"I thought she was trying to find a way to pay it back. She knew we didn't want to press charges. We just wanted it to be made whole. So yeah, I figured that she was contacting relatives or friends or something to raise the money."

"Why wouldn't she come to me?"

Tripp didn't reply. He just sipped his coffee.

"Tripp?"

"I can't answer that."

"This makes no sense."

Tripp just kept sipping his coffee.

"How long have you known my wife, Tripp?"

"You know the answer. We both grew up in Cedarfield. She was two years behind me--the same year as my Becky."

"Then you know. She wouldn't do this."

Tripp stared into his coffee. "I thought that for a long time."

"So what changed your mind?"

"Come on, Adam. You used to be a prosecutor. I don't think Corinne started out to steal. You know how it is. When you hear about the sweet old lady stealing from the church tithing or, heck, the sports board member embezzling, it isn't like they set out to do it. You come in with the best of intentions, right? But it creeps up on you."

"Not Corinne."

"Not anybody. That's what we always think. We're always shocked, aren't we?"

Adam could see that Tripp was about to start into some philosophical spiel. For a moment, Adam debated stopping him, but maybe he should let go. Maybe the more Tripp talked, the more Adam would learn.

"But, let's say, for example, you stay up late at night to schedule the lacrosse practice. You're working really hard and maybe you're in a diner, like this, so you order a coffee, just like the ones we have in our hands, and maybe you forgot your wallet in the car and figure, what the hell, the organization should pay for it anyway. A legitimate expense, am I right?"

Adam didn't reply.

"And then a few weeks later, some referee doesn't show up at a game in, say, Toms River, and you lose three hours of time covering for him, so hey, the least the organization can do is pay for your gas on the ride down. Then maybe it's a dinner because you're far away from home and the game ran late. Then you need to pay for the pizzas for the coaches when the board meeting makes you all miss dinner. Then you need to hire local teens to ref the little kids' games, so you make sure your teen gets the job. Hey, why not? Who better? Shouldn't your family benefit from all this volunteering you're doing?"

Adam just waited.

"So you keep sliding like that. That's how it starts. And then one day you're behind on a car payment and what do you know--your organization has a big surplus. Because of you. So you borrow some money. No big deal, you'll pay it back. So who are you hurting? No one. That's what you fool yourself into believing."

Tripp stopped and looked at Adam.

"You can't be serious," Adam said.

"As a heart attack, my friend." Tripp made a project of looking at his watch. He threw some bills on the table and stood up. "And who knows? Maybe we're all wrong about Corinne."

"You are."

"That would thrill me to no end."

"She asked for a little more time," Adam said. "Can you just give it to her?"

Tripp quietly sighed and hitched up his pants a bit. "I can try."


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