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The stranger, p.18
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       The Stranger, p.18

          Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
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Chapter 33


Audrey Fine finally said something relevant. And that led to Johanna's first real lead.

Police Chief Johanna Griffin had been right about the county guys. They had put on their spouse blinders and zoomed in on Marty Dann for the murder of his wife, Heidi. Even the fact that poor Marty had a rock-solid alibi for the timing of the killing hadn't dissuaded them. Yet. They had assumed a "professional hit job" from the start, so now they were digging into poor Marty's phone records and texts and e-mails. They were asking around the offices of TTI Floor Care about his recent behavior, about his contacts, about where he went out for drinks or lunch, that kind of thing, hoping to find some connection between Marty and a possible hit man.

Lunch was the key.

Not where Marty had lunch, though. That's where the county boys had messed up again.

But where Heidi ate lunch.

Johanna knew about Heidi's weekly lunch with the girls. She had even gone a time or two. At first, Johanna had dismissed it as indulgent, as a privileged waste of time. There was some of that. But these were also women who wanted to bond with other women. These were women who made it a priority to make their lunch hour last a little longer so that they could share time with friends and connect to something other than their own family or career.

What was wrong with that?

This week, the lunch had taken place at Red Lobster and included Audrey Fine, Katey Brannum, Stephanie Keiles, and Heidi. No one noticed anything unusual. According to all of them, Heidi, fewer than twenty-four hours from being murdered in her home, had been her usual ebullient self. It was an odd thing talking to these other women. All of them were beyond devastated. All of them had felt that they had lost their closest friend in Heidi, the one person whom they could confide in, the one who was the strongest among their friends.

Johanna felt that way too. Yep, Heidi was magic. She was one of those people who made all those around her feel somehow better about themselves.

How, Johanna wondered, does one bullet take out a spirit like that?

So Johanna met with the entire lunch group and listened to them give her nothing. She was about to call it a day and see if she could uncover some other lead, something else the county boys wouldn't consider, when Audrey remembered something.

"Heidi was talking to a young couple in the parking lot."

Johanna had been drifting off, lost in a memory. Twenty years ago, after much trial and error, Johanna had gotten "miracle" pregnant through IVF. Heidi had been with her at the ob-gyn when she'd gotten the news. And Heidi had been the first person Johanna had called when she'd miscarried. Heidi had driven over. Johanna slipped into the passenger seat and told her the news. The two women sat in the car and cried together for a long time. Johanna would never forget the way Heidi lowered her head onto the steering wheel, her hair spread out like a fan, and cried for Johanna's loss. Somehow they both knew.

There would be no more miracles. This pregnancy had been Johanna's only chance. She and Ricky ended up never having any children.

"Wait," Johanna said. "What young couple?"

"We all said our good-byes and we got in our cars. I started pulling out onto Orange Place, but this truck zoomed by so fast, I thought it'd take my front grille off. I looked in the rearview mirror, and I saw Heidi talking to this young couple."

"Could you describe them?"

"Not really. The girl had blond hair. The guy had a baseball cap on. I figured that they were asking her directions or something."

Audrey remembered nothing else. Why would she? But the entire world, especially the parking lots of chain stores and restaurants, had video cameras. Getting the warrant would take time, so Johanna just went to Red Lobster on her own. The head of security put the video on a DVD for her, which felt a little old school, and asked for it to be returned. "Policy," he said to Johanna. "We need it back."

"No problem."

The Beachwood police station had a DVD player. Johanna hurried in to her office, closed the door, and jammed the DVD into the slot. The screen came to life. The security guy knew his stuff. Two seconds into the video, Heidi appeared from the right-hand corner. Johanna gasped out loud at the sight. Something about seeing her dead friend, alive, teetering as she did on those heels, made the tragedy too real.

Heidi was dead. Gone forever.

There was no sound on the tape. Heidi kept walking. Suddenly, she stopped and looked up. There was a man in a baseball cap and a blond woman. They did indeed look young. Later, the second and the third and the fourth time Johanna watched the tape, she would try to make out their facial features more, but at this height and this angle, there wasn't much to see. Eventually, she would send it to county and let them get their computer guys and techno-whizzes to get whatever they could from the tape.

But not just yet.

At first, watching silently, it did indeed appear as though the young couple was asking for directions. That might make sense to a casual observer. But as time passed, Johanna felt the room chill. The conversation was taking much too long for this to just be about directions, for one thing. But more than that, Johanna knew her friend. She knew her mannerisms and her body language, and right now, even watching silently, Johanna could see that they were both all wrong.

As the conversation continued, Johanna grew more and more still. At one point, Johanna was sure that she even saw her friend's legs buckle. A minute later, the young couple got into their car and drove away. For almost a full minute, Heidi just stood in the lot, dazed, lost, before she got into her car. From her angle, Johanna could no longer see her friend. But time passed. Ten seconds. Twenty, thirty. Then, suddenly, there was movement in the front windshield. Johanna squinted and moved closer. It was hard to see, hard to make out, but Johanna recognized it now.

Heidi's hair spread out like a fan.

Oh no. . . .

Heidi had lowered her head to the steering wheel, the same way she had done twenty years ago when Johanna had told her about the miscarriage.

She was, Johanna was certain, crying.

"What the hell did they say to you?" Johanna asked out loud.

She backed up the tape now and watched the young couple pull out of the parking lot. She slowed it down and then hit the pause button. She zoomed in, picked up her phone, and dialed in the number.

"Hey, Norbert," she said, "I need you to run a license plate for me right away."





Chapter 34


Thomas was waiting for his father in the kitchen.

"Any word on Mom?"

Adam had hoped that neither of his sons would be home yet. After spending the entire car ride home wondering what to do, an idea of sorts had emerged. He needed to get upstairs and do a little more research on the computer.

"She should be home any day now," Adam said. And then, to immediately get off the subject, he added, "Where's your brother?"

"Drum lesson. He walks there after school, but Mom usually picks him up."

"What time?"

"In forty-five minutes."

Adam nodded. "It's that place on Goffle Road, right?"

"Right."

"Okay, cool. Look, I have some work to do. Maybe we can run out to Cafe Amici for dinner after I pick up your brother, okay?"

"I'm walking over to the gym and lifting with Justin."

"Now?"

"Yeah."

"Well, you have to eat."

"I'll make something when I get back. Dad?"

"What?"

The two of them stood in the kitchen, father and son, the son closing in on manhood. Thomas was only an inch shorter than his father now, and with the way he'd been lifting weights and working out, Adam wondered whether his son could finally take him. Thomas had last challenged his father to a one-on-one game of basketball about six months earlier, and for the first time, Adam had to really try to squeak out an 11-8 victory. Now he wondered whether that score would be reversed, and how he'd feel about it.

"I'm worried," Thomas said.

"Don't be."

He said it as a parental reaction rather than anything of truth or substance.

"Why did Mom run off like this?"

"I told you. Look, Thomas, you're old enough to understand. Your mother and I love each other very much. But sometimes parents need a little distance."

"From each other," Thomas said with a small nod. "But not from Ryan and me."

"Well, yes and no. Sometimes we just need to get away from it all."

"Dad?"

"What?"

"I don't buy it," Thomas said. "I don't want to sound full of myself or anything, and yeah, I get it. You guys have your own lives. You aren't all about us. So maybe I could understand Mom needing to, I don't know, get away or blow off some steam or whatever. But Mom's a mom. You know what I mean? She would tell us first, or if she did it like at the last second? She'd contact us or something. She'd answer our texts. She'd tell us not to worry. Mom is a lot of things, but first off, sorry, she's our mom."

Adam wasn't sure what to say to that, so he said something dumb: "It's going to be okay."

"What does that mean?"

"She told me to take care of you guys and to give her a few days. She asked me not to contact her."

"Why?"

"I don't know."

"I'm really scared," Thomas said. And now the almost-man was back to sounding like the little boy. It was the father's job to assuage that feeling. Thomas was right. Corinne was a mother first and foremost--and he, Adam, was a father. You protect your children.

"It's going to be okay," he said, hearing the hollow in his own voice.

Thomas shook his head, the maturity returning as fast as it had fled. "No, Dad, it's not." He turned, wiped the tears off his face, and started for the door. "I gotta go meet Justin."

Adam was about to call him back, but what good would that do? He didn't have any words of comfort, and perhaps, if nothing else, being with his friend might distract his son. The solution--the only real comfort here--would be to find Corinne. Adam needed to dig in more, figure out what was going on, get his sons some real answers. So he let Thomas go and headed up the stairs. There was still time before drum lesson pickup.

Once again he briefly debated getting the police involved. He didn't really fear anymore that they'd think he did something to his wife--let them--but he knew from experience that the police understandably deal in facts. Fact One: Corinne and Adam had a fight. Fact Two: Corinne had already texted Adam, telling him that she wanted a few days away and not to contact him.

Would the police need a Fact Three?

He sat down at the computer. At Old Man Rinsky's, Adam had quickly checked Corinne's recent mobile phone records. Now he wanted to get a more detailed look at her calling and texting pattern. Would the stranger or this Ingrid Prisby have called or texted Corinne? It seemed a long shot--hadn't the stranger simply approached him without warning?--but there was a chance that Corinne's phone records might produce some kind of clue.

But it didn't take him long to realize that there was nothing to mine. His wife was, it seemed via recent communications, an open book. There were no surprises. Most numbers he knew from memory--calls and texts to him, to the boys, to friends, to fellow teachers, to lacrosse board members, and that was about it. There were a few other calls sprinkled in, but they were to restaurants for reservations, the dry cleaner about a pickup, that kind of thing.

No clue.

Adam sat and thought about what to do. Yes, Corinne was an open book. That was how it seemed via her recent texts and phone calls.

The key word: Recent.

He flashed back to the surprise on his Visa card--the charge to Novelty Funsy from two years ago.

Corinne had been much more of a surprise back then, no?

Something had precipitated that purchase. But what? You don't one day just decide to fake a pregnancy. Something happened. She had called someone. Or someone had called her. Or texted.

Something.

It took Adam a few minutes to find the old archives dating back two years, but he did. He knew that Corinne had made her first order from Fake-A-Pregnancy in February. So he started there. He traced through the phone records, scanning up the screen rather than down.

At first, all he found were the usual suspects--calls and texts to him, the boys, friends, fellow teachers. . . .

And then, when Adam saw a familiar number, his heart sank.





Chapter 35


Sally Perryman sat alone at the far end of the bar, sipping a beer and reading the New York Post. She had on a white blouse and a gray pencil skirt. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She'd put her coat on the stool next to her, saving it for him. As Adam moved closer, she moved the coat without looking up from the paper. Adam slid onto the stool.

"Been a long time," she said.

Sally still hadn't looked up from the paper.

"It has," he said. "How's work?"

"Busy, lot of clients." She finally met his eye. He felt a gentle pow and held on. "But you didn't call for that."

"No."

It was one of those moments when the noise fades away and the rest of the world becomes background and it's him and her and nothing else.

"Adam?"

"What?"

"I can't handle a big thing here. Just tell me what you want."

"Did my wife ever call you?"

Sally blinked as if the question, too, had been a bit of a pow. "When?"

"Ever."

She turned toward her beer. "Yeah," she said. "Once."

They were in one of those noisy chain-restaurant bars, the kind that majors in deep-fried appetizers and has a million TV screens playing maybe two sporting events. The bartender came over and made a big production of introducing himself. Adam quickly ordered a beer to get him to leave.

"When?" he asked.

"Two years ago, I guess. During the case."

"You never told me."

"It was just once."

"Still."

"What difference does it make now, Adam?"

"What did she say?"

"She knew you'd been to my house."

Adam almost asked how, but of course, he knew the answer, didn't he? She'd put a tracking app on all the phones. She could check at any time to see the boys' location.

Or his.

"What else?"

"She wanted to know why you were there."

"What did you tell her?"

"That it was work," Sally Perryman said.

"You told her it was nothing, right?"

"It was nothing, Adam. We were obsessed with that case." Then: "But it was almost something."

"Almost doesn't count."

A sad smile came to Sally's lips. "I think to your wife it probably does."

"Did she believe you?"

Sally shrugged. "I never heard from her again."

He sat there and looked at her. He opened his mouth, not sure what he would say, but she stopped him with her open palm. "Don't."

She was right. He slid away from the counter and headed outside.





Chapter 36


As the stranger entered the garage, he thought, as he did nearly every time he came here, about all the famous companies that purportedly started in just this way. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple (why not call the company the Steves?) by selling fifty units of Wozniak's new Apple I computer out of a garage in Cupertino, California. Jeff Bezos began Amazon as an online bookseller out of his garage in Bellevue, Washington. Google, Disney, Mattel, Hewlett-Packard, Harley-Davidson, all began life, if legend is to be believed, out of tiny, indistinct garages.

"Any word on Dan Molino?" the stranger asked.

There were three of them in the garage, all sitting in front of powerful computers with large monitors. Four Wi-Fi routers sat on the shelf next to paint cans Eduardo's dad had put out here more than a decade ago. Eduardo, who was easily the best of them when it came to the technological aspects of what they did, had set up a system whereby the Wi-Fi not only went out and bounced all over the world, making them as anonymous as the Internet gets, but even if someone somehow tracked it back to them, the routers would automatically trip into action and move them to another host. In truth, the stranger didn't get it all. But he didn't have to.

"He paid," Eduardo said.

Eduardo sported stringy hair that always needed a cut and the kind of unshaven look that made him look more greasy than hip. He was an old-school hacker who enjoyed the chase as much as the moral indignation or cash.

Next to him was Gabrielle, a single mother of two and the oldest of them by far at forty-four. Two decades ago, she'd started out as a phone-sex operator. The idea was to keep the guy on the line for as long as possible, charging his phone $3.99 per minute. More recently, in a similar vein, Gabrielle had posed as various hot housewives on a "no strings attached" hookup site. Her job was to coax a new client (read: dupe) into thinking sex was imminent until his free trial was over and he committed to a full-year subscription on his credit card.

Merton, their most recent colleague, was nineteen, thin, heavily tattooed, with a shaved head and bright blue eyes just south of sane. He wore baggy jeans with chains coming out of the pocket that hinted at either biking or bondage, it was hard to tell which. He cleaned his fingernails with a switchblade and spent his free time volunteering for a televangelist who did his services out of a twelve-thousand-seat arena. Ingrid had brought Merton in from her job at a website for a company called the Five.

Merton turned toward the stranger. "You look disappointed."

"He'll get away with it now."

"With what, taking steroids to play big-time football? Big deal. Probably eighty percent of those kids are on some kind of juice."

Eduardo agreed. "We stick to our principles, Chris."

"Yeah," the stranger said. "I know."

"Your principles, really."

The stranger, whose real name was Chris Taylor, nodded. Chris was the founder of this movement, even if this was Eduardo's garage. Eduardo had been first in with him. The enterprise started as a lark, as an attempt to right wrongs. Soon, Chris realized, their movement could be both a profitable company and a source for doing good. But in order to do that, in order to not let one take over the other, they all had to stick to their founding principles.

"So what's wrong?" Gabrielle asked him.

"What makes you think something's wrong?"
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