The stranger, p.19
The Stranger, p.19
"You don't come here unless there's a problem."
That was true enough.
Eduardo sat back. "Were there any issues with Dan Molino or his son?"
"Yes and no."
"We got the money," Merton said. "It couldn't have been that bad."
"Yeah, but I had to handle it alone."
"So Ingrid was supposed to be there."
They all looked at one another. Gabrielle broke the silence. "She probably figured that a woman would stand out at a football tryout."
"Could be," Chris said. "Have any of you heard from her?"
Eduardo and Gabrielle shook their heads. Merton stood and said, "Wait, when did you talk to her last?"
"In Ohio. When we approached Heidi Dann."
"And she was supposed to meet you at the football tryouts?"
"That's what she said. We followed protocol, so we traveled separately and had no communication."
Eduardo started typing again. "Hold up, Chris, let me check something."
Chris. It was almost odd to hear someone speak his name. The past few weeks, he'd been anonymous, the stranger, and no one called him by name. Even with Ingrid, the protocol had been clear: No names. Anonymous. There was irony in that, of course. The people he approached had assumed and craved anonymity, not realizing that in truth, it didn't exist for them.
For Chris--for the stranger--it did.
"According to the schedule," Eduardo said, staring at the screen, "Ingrid was supposed to drive to Philadelphia and drop off the rental car yesterday. Let me check and see. . . ." He looked up. "Damn."
"She never returned the car."
The room chilled.
"We need to call her," Merton said.
"It's risky," Eduardo said. "If she's been compromised, her mobile might be in the wrong hands."
"We need to break protocol," Chris said.
"Carefully," Gabrielle added.
Eduardo nodded. "Let me call her via Viber and knock the connection through two IPs in Bulgaria. It should only take me five minutes."
It took more like three.
The phone rang. Once, twice, and then on the third ring, the phone picked up. They expected to hear Ingrid's voice. But they didn't.
A man's voice asked, "Who is this calling, please?"
Eduardo quickly disconnected the call. The four of them stood still for a moment, the garage completely silent. Then the stranger--Chris Taylor--said what they were all thinking.
"We've been compromised."
They had done nothing wrong.
Sally Perryman had been a junior partner in the firm assigned to be Adam's first chair for a time-consuming case involving the immigrant owners of a Greek diner. The owners had been happily and profitably working in the same location in Harrison for forty years, until a big hedge fund had built a new office tower down the street, causing the powers that be to conclude that the road leading to the tower would have to be widened to accommodate the new traffic. That meant bulldozing the diner. Adam and Sally were up against the government and bankers and, in the end, deep corruption.
Sometimes you can't wait to wake up and get to work in the morning and you hate the day to end. You get consumed. You eat, drink, sleep the case. This was one of those times. You grow close to those who stand with you in what you start to see as a glorious, hard-fought quest.
He and Sally Perryman had grown close.
But there hadn't been anything physical--not so much as a kiss. Lines hadn't been crossed, but they'd been approached and challenged and perhaps even stepped on, though never over. There comes a stage, Adam had learned, where you are standing near that line, teetering, one life on one side, one life on the other, and at some point, you either cross it or something has to wither and die. In this case, something died. Two months after the case ended, Sally Perryman took another job with a law firm in Livingston.
It was over.
But Corinne had called Sally.
Why? The answer seemed obvious. Adam tried to think it through, tried to come up with theories and hypotheses that could possibly explain what had happened to Corinne. A few of the pieces maybe came together. The picture beginning to emerge was not pleasant.
It was past midnight. The boys were in bed. This house had a grieving quality to it now. Part of Adam wanted the boys to express their fears, but right now, most of him just wanted them to block, to just get through another day or two, until Corinne came home. In the end, that was the only thing that would make this right.
He had to find Corinne.
Old Man Rinksy had sent him the preliminary information on Ingrid Prisby. So far, there was nothing noteworthy or spectacular. She lived in Austin, had graduated eight years ago from Rice University in Houston, had worked for two Internet start-ups. Rinsky had gotten a home phone number. It went immediately into a message machine set to a robotic default voice. Adam left a message asking Ingrid to call him. Rinsky had also provided the home phone number and address of Ingrid's mother. Adam considered calling her but wondered how to approach her. It was late. He decided to sleep on that.
So now what?
Ingrid Prisby had a Facebook page. He wondered whether that might provide more clues. Adam had his own Facebook page but rarely checked it. He and Corinne had set ones up a few years back when Corinne, feeling nostalgic, had read an article on how social media was a great way for people their age to rediscover old friends. The past held little draw for Adam, but he'd gone along with it. He'd barely touched his page since throwing up a profile picture. Corinne started off a little more enthusiastic about the whole social media thing, but he doubted that she'd ever gone on it more than two or three times in a week.
But who knew for sure?
He flashed back to sitting in this very room with Corinne when they had first created their Facebook profiles. They began searching and "friending" family and neighbors. Adam had gone through the photographs his college buddies had posted--their grinning family shots on the beach, the Christmas dinners, the kids' sports, the ski vacation in Aspen, the tan wife wrapping her arms around the smiling husband, that kind of thing.
"Everyone looks happy," he'd said to Corinne.
"Oh, not you too."
"Everyone looks happy on Facebook," Corinne said. "It's like a compilation of your life's greatest hits." Her voice had an edge to it now. "It's not reality, Adam."
"I didn't say it was. I said everyone looks happy. That was kinda my point. If you judge the world by Facebook, you wonder why so many people take Prozac."
Corinne had grown quiet after that. Adam had pretty much laughed it off and moved on, but now, years later, looking through his newly cleaned goggles of hindsight, so many things took on a darker, uglier hue.
He spent almost an hour on Ingrid Prisby's Facebook page. First he checked her relationship status--maybe he'd get lucky and the stranger was her husband or boyfriend--but Ingrid listed herself as single. He clicked through her list of 188 friends, hoping to find the stranger among them. No luck. He looked for familiar names or faces, someone from his or Corinne's past. He found none. He started down Ingrid's page, looking through her status updates. There was nothing that hinted at the stranger or pregnancy faking or any of that. He tried to scrutinize her photographs in a critical way. The vibe he got off her was a positive one. Ingrid Prisby looked happy in the party pictures, drinking and letting go and all that, but she looked far happier in those photos where she volunteered. And she volunteered a lot: soup kitchens, Red Cross, USO, Junior Achievement. He noticed something else about her. All her pics were group shots, never solos, never portraits, never selfies.
But these observations brought him no closer to finding Corinne.
He was missing something.
It was getting late, but Adam kept plugging away. First off, how did Ingrid know the stranger? They had to be close in some way. He thought about Suzanne Hope and how she'd been blackmailed over faking her pregnancy. The most likely scenario was that Corinne had been blackmailed too. Neither woman had paid the blackmail money. . . .
Or was that true? He knew that Suzanne hadn't paid it. She told him as much. But maybe Corinne had paid. He sat back and thought about that for a second. If Corinne had stolen the lacrosse money--and he still didn't believe it--but if she had, maybe she had done so to pay for their silence.
And maybe they were just the kind of blackmailers who told anyway.
Was that likely?
No way of knowing. Concentrate on the question at hand: How did Ingrid and the stranger know each other? There were several possibilities, of course, so he put them in order from most to least likely.
Most likely: work. Ingrid had worked for several Internet companies. Whoever was behind this probably worked for Fake-A-Pregnancy.com or specialized in the web--hacking or what-not--or both.
Second most likely: They met in college. They both seemed about the right age to have met on a campus and remained friendly. So maybe the answer lay at Rice University.
Third most likely: Both were from Austin, Texas.
Did this make sense? He didn't know, but Adam went back through her friends, keeping an eye out for people who also worked on the Internet. There was a fair amount. He checked their pages. Some were blocked or had limited access, but most people don't go on Facebook to hide. Time passed. Then he looked through her friends' friends who worked on the Internet. And even friends of those friends. He checked out profiles and work histories, and 4:48 A.M.--he saw the time on the little digital clock on the top bar on his computer--Adam finally struck gold.
The first clue had come from the Fake-A-Pregnancy website. Under the CONTACT US link, the company listed a mailing address in Revere, Massachusetts. Adam Googled the address and found a match--a business conglomerate called Downing Place that operated various start-ups and web pages.
Now he had something.
Scouring again through Ingrid's friends, he found someone who listed his employer as Downing Place. He clicked on his profile page. There was nothing much there, but the guy had two friends who also worked at Downing. So he clicked on their pages--and so on, until he arrived at a page belonging to a woman named Gabrielle Dunbar.
According to her ABOUT page, Gabrielle Dunbar studied business at New Jersey's Ocean County College and in the past had attended Fair Lawn High School. She did not list a current or past employer--nothing about Downing Place or any other website--and she had not posted anything on her page in the past eight months.
What had drawn his eye was the fact that she had three "friends" who listed Downing Place as their employer. It also stated that Gabrielle Dunbar lived in Revere, Massachusetts.
So he started clicking on her page, scanning through her photo albums, when he stumbled across a picture from three years ago. It was in an album called Mobile Uploads and captioned simply HOLIDAY PARTY. It was one of those quickly-round-up-before-we-all-get-too-wasted office-party pics, where someone good-naturedly asks everyone to pose for a group shot and then e-mails it or posts it to their page. The party was held at a wood-paneled restaurant or bar. There were probably twenty or maybe thirty people in the picture, many red-faced and red-eyed from both the camera flash and the alcohol.
And there, on the far left with a beer in his hand, not looking at the camera--probably not even realizing the photograph was being taken--was the stranger.
Johanna Griffin had two Havanense dogs named Starsky and Hutch. At first she didn't want to get Havaneses. They were considered a toy breed, and Johanna had grown up with Great Danes and considered small dogs, please forgive her, semi-rodents. But Ricky had insisted and damned if he wasn't right. Johanna had owned dogs all her life, and these two were as lovable as all get-out.
Normally, Johanna liked taking Starsky and Hutch for a walk early in the morning. She prided herself on being a good sleeper. Whatever horror or issues might be plaguing her daily life, she never let them past her bedroom door. That was her rule. Worry it all to death in the kitchen or living room--but when you cross that portal, you flick a switch. That was it. The problems were gone.
But two things had been robbing her of sleep. One was Ricky. Maybe it was because he'd put on a few pounds or maybe it was just age, but his once tolerable snoring had become a constant, grating buzz saw. He had tried various remedies--a strip, a pillow, some over-the-counter medication--but none had worked. It had reached the stage where they'd been debating separate sleeping quarters, but that felt too much like a white flag to Johanna. She'd just have to plow through it until a solution popped up.
Second, of course, was Heidi.
Her friend visited Johanna in her sleep. It wasn't in a gory, bloody way. Heidi didn't turn into a ghostly figure or whisper, "Avenge me." Nothing like that. Johanna really couldn't say what exactly occurred in her Heidi-centric dreams. The dreams felt normal, like real life, and Heidi was there and laughing and smiling and they were having a good time, and then at some point, Johanna remembered what had happened, that Heidi had, in fact, been murdered. Then panic would take hold of Johanna. The dream would start ending, and Johanna would reach out and desperately try to grab her friend, as though she could keep Heidi there, alive--as though Johanna, if she tried hard enough, could undo the murder and Heidi would be okay.
Johanna would wake up with cheeks wet from tears.
So lately, to change it up, she had taken Starsky and Hutch for late-night walks. Johanna tried to enjoy the solitude, but the roads were dark and, even with the streetlights, she always feared that she'd hit a patch of uneven sidewalk and fall. Her dad had taken a fall when he was seventy-four and never fully recovered. You hear that a lot. So as she walked, Johanna kept her eyes glued to the ground. Right now, as she hit a particularly dark patch, she took out her smartphone and used the flashlight app.
Her phone buzzed in her hand. At this late hour, it would have to be Ricky. He'd probably woken up and either wondered when she'd be getting back or decided that maybe with all that weight he was gaining, he could use a little exercise and would want to join the dog walk. That was okay by her. She had just started out, so circling back with Starsky and Hutch wouldn't be a problem.
She put both leashes in her left hand and put the phone to her ear. She didn't check the caller ID. She simply hit the answer button and said, "Hello?"
She could tell from the voice that this wasn't a casual call. She stopped. Both dogs stopped too.
"Is that you, Norbert?"
"Yeah, sorry about the hour, but . . ."
"I checked on that license plate for you. I had to do some digging, but it looks like it was a car rented to a woman whose real name is Ingrid Prisby."
"And?" she prompted.
"And it's bad," Norbert said. "Really, really bad."
Adam called Andy Gribbel early in the morning. Gribbel moaned out a "What?"
"Sorry, didn't mean to wake you up."
"It's six in the morning," Gribbel said.
"The band had a gig late last night. Then there were hot groupies at the after-party. You know how it is."
"Yeah. Listen, do you know anything about Facebook?"
"You kidding? Of course I do. Band has a fan page. We have, like, almost eighty followers."
"Great. I'm forwarding you a Facebook link. Four people are in it. See if you can get me addresses on any of them and find out anything else you can about the picture--where it was taken, who else is in it, anything."
"Top. I need the info yesterday."
"Got it. Hey, we did a killer version of 'The Night Chicago Died' last night. Not a dry eye in the house."
"You can't imagine how much this means to me right now," Adam said.
"Wow, this is that important?"
Adam hung up and got out of bed. He woke up the boys at seven and took a long, hot shower. It felt good. He got dressed and checked the time. The boys should be downstairs now.
It was Thomas who replied. "Yeah, yeah, we're up."
Adam's mobile phone buzzed. It was Gribbel. "Hello?"
"We got lucky."
"That link you sent. It came from the profile page of a woman named Gabrielle Dunbar."
"Right, what about it?"
"She doesn't live in Revere anymore. She moved back home."
"You got it."
Fair Lawn was only a half hour from Cedarfield.
"I just texted you her address."
"No problem. You going to see her this morning?"
"Let me know if you need me."
Adam hung up. He started down the corridor when he heard a noise coming from Ryan's bedroom. Adam moved closer to the shut door and placed his ear against it. Through the wood, he could hear his son's muffled sobs. The sound was like shattered glass rolling across his heart. Adam rapped his knuckles on the door, braced himself, and turned the knob.
Ryan was sitting up in bed sobbing like a little boy, which, in a sense, he still was. Adam stayed in the doorway. The pain inside him, fueled by helplessness, grew.
Tears made everyone look smaller and frailer and so damn young. Ryan's chest hitched, but he still managed to say, "I miss Mommy."
"I know you do, pal."
For a second, a bolt of anger boomed through him--anger at Corinne for running away, for not staying in touch, for faking that damn pregnancy, for stealing the money, for all of it. Forget what she had done to Adam. That wasn't an issue. But hurting the boys like this . . . that would be far harder to forgive.
"Why isn't she answering my texts?" Ryan cried. "Why isn't she home with us?"
He was about to offer up more platitudes about her being busy and needing time and all that. But the platitudes were lies. The platitudes just made it worse. So this time, Adam settled for the truth.
"I don't know."
That answer seemed oddly to soothe Ryan a little. The sobs didn't suddenly stop, but they did begin to decelerate toward something more akin to sniffles. Adam came over and sat on the bed with Ryan. He was going to put his arm around his son, but somehow that felt like the wrong move. So he just sat beside him and let him know he was there. It seemed enough.
The Stranger by Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes