The stranger, p.2
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       The Stranger, p.2

           Harlan Coben

  The room was starting to break up. Guys were leaving. Adam opened his mouth to say more, but what was the point? He wouldn't win this argument, and what was he making it for anyway? He didn't even know who the hell Logan was. It was a distraction from the mess the stranger had left behind. Nothing more. He knew that. He got up from the chair.

  "Where are you going?" Gaston asked, chin stuck out long enough to invite a punch.

  "Ryan is on the A team, right?"


  That was why Adam was there--to advocate, if need be, for his son. Done. The rest was flotsam. "Have a good night, guys."

  Adam made his way back to the bar. He nodded at Len Gilman, the police chief in town, who liked to work behind the bar because it kept down the DUIs. Len nodded back and slid Adam a bottle of Bud. Adam twisted off the cap with a little too much gusto. Tripp Evans sidled up to him. Len slid him a Bud too. Tripp held it up and clinked bottles with Adam. The two men drank in silence while the meeting broke up. Guys called out their good-byes. Gaston rose dramatically--he was big on dramatically--and shot a glare at Adam. Adam lifted the bottle toward him in a "cheers" response. Gaston stormed out.

  "Making friends?" Tripp asked.

  "I'm a people person," Adam said.

  "You know he's the VP of the board, right?"

  "I must remember to genuflect next time I see him," Adam said.

  "I'm president."

  "In that case, I better get some kneepads."

  Tripp nodded, liking that line. "Bob's going through a lot right now."

  "Bob's an ass waffle."

  "Well, yes. Do you know why I stay on as president?"

  "Helps you score chicks?"

  "Yes, that. And because if I resign, Bob's next in line."

  "Shiver." Adam started to put down his beer. "I better go."

  "He's out of work."


  "Bob. Lost his job over a year ago."

  "I'm sorry to hear that," Adam said. "But that's no excuse."

  "I didn't say it was. I just wanted you to know."

  "Got it."

  "So," Tripp Evans continued, "Bob has this headhunter helping him find a job--a big-time, very important headhunter."

  Adam put down the beer. "And?"

  "So this big-time headhunter is trying to find Bob a new job."

  "So you said."

  "So the headhunter's name is Jim Hoch."

  Adam stopped. "As in Jimmy Hoch's father?"

  Tripp said nothing.

  "That's why he wants the kid on the team?"

  "What, you think Bob cares that the parents are divorced?"

  Adam just shook his head. "And you're okay with it?"

  Tripp shrugged. "Nothing here is pure. You get a parent involved in their own kids' sports, well, you know it's like a mother lion around a cub. Sometimes they pick a kid because he lives next door. Sometimes they pick a kid because he's got a hot mom who dresses provocatively at the games. . . ."

  "You know that from personal experience?"

  "Guilty. And sometimes they pick a kid because his daddy can help them get a job. Seems a better reason than most."

  "Man, you're so cynical for an ad exec."

  Tripp smiled. "Yeah, I know. But it's like we always talk about. How far would you go to protect your family? You'd never hurt anyone; I'd never hurt anyone. But if someone threatens your family, if it means saving your child . . ."

  "We'd kill?"

  "Look around you, my friend." Tripp spread his arms. "This town, these schools, these programs, these kids, these families--I sometimes sit back and can't believe how lucky we all are. We're living the dream, you know."

  Adam did know. Sort of. He had gone from underpaid public defender to overpaid eminent domain attorney in order to pay for the dream. He wondered whether it was worth it. "And if Logan has to pay the price?"

  "Since when is life fair? Look, I had these clients from a major car company. Yeah, you know the name. And yeah, you read in the paper recently how they covered up a problem with their steering columns. A lot of people got hurt or killed. These car guys, they're really nice. Normal. So how do they let it happen? How do they work out some cost-benefit crap and let people die?"

  Adam could see where he was going with this, but the ride was always a good one with Tripp. "Because they're corrupt bastards?"

  Tripp frowned. "You know that isn't true. They're like tobacco company employees. Are they all evil too? Or how about all the pious folks who covered up church scandals or, I don't know, pollute the rivers? Are they all just corrupt bastards, Adam?"

  Tripp was like this--a suburban-dad philosopher. "You tell me."

  "It's perspective, Adam." Tripp smiled at him. He took off his cap, smoothed down the receding wisps of hair, put it back on his head. "We humans can't see straight. We are always biased. We always protect our own interests."

  "One thing I notice about all those examples . . . ," Adam said.



  "It's the root of all evil, my friend."

  Adam thought about the stranger. He thought about his two sons at home right now, probably doing homework or playing a video game. He thought about his wife at some teachers' conference down in Atlantic City.

  "Not all evil," he said.

  Chapter 3

  The American Legion parking lot was dark. Only the flashes of light from opened car doors or the smaller bursts from checked smartphones broke the black curtain. Adam got into his car and sat in the driver's seat. For a few moments he did nothing. He just sat there. Car doors were being slammed shut. Engines were starting. Adam didn't move.

  "You didn't have to stay with her. . . ."

  He could feel his phone vibrate in his pocket. It would be, he figured, a text from Corinne. She'd be anxious to know about team selections. Adam took out the phone and checked the message. Yep, from Corinne: How did it go tonight??

  As he thought.

  Adam was staring at the text as though it might contain a hidden message when the rapping of knuckles against the glass made him jump. Gaston's pumpkin-size head filled the passenger-side window. He grinned at Adam and made a rolling-down motion. Adam put the key in the ignition, pressed the button, and watched the window slide open.

  "Hey, man," Gaston said, "no hard feelings. Just an honest difference of opinion, right?"


  Gaston stuck his hand in the window to shake. Adam returned the grip.

  "Good luck this season," Gaston said.

  "Yeah. And good luck with the job hunt."

  Gaston froze for a second. The two men stayed there, Gaston looming large in the window, Adam sitting in the car but not looking away. Eventually, Gaston pulled his mitt free and stalked away.


  The phone buzzed again. Again it was Corinne: Hello?!?

  Adam could see her staring down at the screen, dying for an answer. Head games had never been his style--he saw no reason not to give it to her: Ryan's on A.

  Her reply was immediate:

  Yay!!! Will call u in half an hour.

  He put away the phone, started up the car, and headed home. The ride was exactly 2.6 miles--Corinne had measured it with her car's odometer when she first got into running. He drove past the new Dunkin' Donuts/Baskin-Robbins combo store on South Maple and made a left at the Sunoco station on the corner. It was late when he got home, but as usual, every light in the house was still switched on. A lot of school time nowadays was spent on conservation and renewable energy, but his two boys hadn't learned yet how to depart a room without leaving on the lights.

  He could hear their border collie, Jersey, barking as he approached the door. When he unlocked the door with his key, Jersey greeted him as though he were a returning POW. Adam noticed that the dog's water bowl was empty.


  No answer. Ryan could be asleep by now. Thomas would either be finishing up homework or claiming the same. He was never in the middle
or end of playing video games or messing around on his laptop--Adam always managed to interrupt him just as he was finishing his homework and starting to play video games or mess around on his laptop.

  He filled the water bowl.


  Thomas appeared at the top of the stairs. "Hey."

  "Did you walk Jersey?"

  "Not yet."

  Teen code for: No.

  "Do it now."

  "I just need to finish this one homework thing first."

  Teen code for: No.

  Adam was about to tell him "Now"--this was a familiar teen-parent dance--but he stopped and stared up at the boy. Tears pushed their way into his eyes, but he fought them down. Thomas looked like Adam. Everyone said so. He had the same walk, the same laugh, the same second toe bigger than the first toe.

  No way. No way he wasn't Adam's. Even though the stranger had said that . . .

  Now you're listening to a stranger?

  He thought about all the times he and Corinne had warned the boys about strangers, about so-called stranger danger, all the lessons about not being too helpful, about drawing attention to yourself if an adult approached, about creating a safe code word. Thomas had gotten it right away. Ryan was more naturally trusting. Corinne had been wary of those men who hung around the Little League fields, the lifers who had an almost pathological need to coach even when their kids were long out of the program or, worse, when they had no kids at all. Adam had always been a little more lax about all that--or maybe it was something darker. Maybe it was the fact that he trusted no one when it came to his kids, not just those who might normally arouse suspicion.

  It was just easier that way, wasn't it?

  Thomas spotted something in his father's face. He made a face of his own and did that teenage tumble-walk-clump down the stairs, as though some invisible hand had pushed him from behind and his feet were trying to catch up.

  "Might as well take Jersey out now," Thomas said.

  He stumbled past his father and grabbed the leash. Jersey was huddled up against the door, ready to go. Jersey was, like all dogs, always ready to go. She displayed her intense desire to go outside by standing in front of the door so you couldn't open it and let her out. Dogs.

  "Where's Ryan?" Adam asked.

  "In bed."

  Adam checked the clock on the microwave. Ten fifteen. Ryan's bedtime was ten, though he was allowed to stay up and read until lights-out at ten thirty. Ryan, like Corinne, was a rule follower. They never had to remind him that it was nine forty-five or any of that. In the morning, Ryan got out of bed the moment his alarm went off, showered, dressed, made his own breakfast. Thomas was different. Adam often considered investing in a cattle prod to get his older son moving in the mornings.

  Novelty Funsy . . .

  Adam heard the screen door shut as Thomas and Jersey started out. He headed upstairs and looked in on Ryan. He had fallen asleep with the light on, a copy of the latest Rick Riordan novel resting on his chest. Adam tiptoed in, picked up the book, found a bookmark, put it away. He was reaching for the lamp's switch when Ryan stirred.



  "Did I make A?"

  "The e-mail goes out tomorrow, pal."

  A white lie. Adam wasn't supposed to officially know yet. The coaches were not supposed to tell their kids until the official e-mail in the morning so everyone learned at the same time.


  Ryan closed his eyes and fell asleep before his head actually touched down. Adam watched his son for a moment. Lookswise, Ryan favored his mother. That never meant much to Adam before tonight--it had in fact always been a plus--but now, tonight, it was making him wonder. Stupid, but there you go. The bell you can't unring. The niggling in the back of the brain wouldn't leave him alone, but then again, so the hell what? Let's take a complete theoretical. He stared at Ryan and felt that overwhelming feeling he sometimes got when he looked at his boys--part pure joy, part fear of what could happen to them in this cruel world, part wishes and hopes, all blended together in the only thing in this entire planet that felt completely pure. Corny, yes, but there you go. Purity. That was what hit you when you get lost looking at your own child--a purity that could be derived only from true, unconditional love.

  He loved Ryan so damned much.

  And if he found out that Ryan wasn't his, would he just lose all that? Does all that go away? Does it even matter?

  He shook his head and turned away. Enough philosophizing on fatherhood for one evening. So far, nothing had changed. Some weirdo had handed him some nonsense about a fake pregnancy. That was all. Adam had been involved in the legal system long enough to know that you take nothing for granted. You do the work. You do the research. People lie. You investigate because too often your preconceived notions will get blown out of the water.

  Sure, Adam's gut was telling him that the stranger's words had a ring of truth to them, but that was the problem. When you listen to your gut, you are often just fooled with greater certainty.

  Do the work. Do the research.

  So how?

  Simple. Start with Novelty Funsy.

  The family shared a desktop computer that used to be kept in the family room. This had been Corinne's idea. There would be no secret web browsing (read: porn watching) in their home. Adam and Corinne would know all, the theory went, and be mature, responsible parents. But Adam quickly realized that this sort of policing was either superfluous or nonsense. The boys could look things up, including porn, on their phones. They could go to a friend's house. They could grab one of the laptops or tablets lying around the house.

  It was also lazy parenting, he thought. Teach them to do the right thing because it's the right thing--not because Mom and Dad are looking over your shoulder. Of course, all parents start off believing stuff like that, but quickly, you realize that parenting shortcuts are there for a reason.

  The other problem was more obvious: If you wanted to use the computer for its intended use--to study or do homework--the noise from the kitchen and the television would be certain to distract. So Adam had moved the desktop into the small nook that they'd generously dubbed a "home office"--a room that was too many things to too many people. Corinne's students' papers, ready to be graded, were stacked on the right. The boys' homework was always in disarray, a rough draft of some essay left behind in the printer like a wounded soldier on a battlefield. The bills were piled on the chair, waiting for Adam to pay them online.

  The Internet browser was up and on a museum site. One of the boys must be studying ancient Greece. Adam checked the browser's history, seeing what sites had been visited, though the boys had grown too savvy to leave anything incriminating behind. But you never knew. Thomas once accidentally left his Facebook up and logged in. Adam had sat at the computer and stared at the front page, trying like hell to fight off the desire to take a peek in his son's message file.

  He'd lost that fight.

  A few messages in and Adam stopped. His son was safe--that was the important thing--but it had been a disturbing invasion of his son's privacy. He had learned things that he wasn't supposed to know. Nothing heavy. Nothing earth-shattering. But things that a father should perhaps talk to his son about. But what was he now supposed to do with this information? If he confronted Thomas, Adam would have had to admit going through his private things. Was that worth it? He'd debated telling Corinne about it, but once he relaxed and gave it some time, he realized that, really, the communications he'd read were not abnormal, that he himself had done some stuff when he was a teenager he wouldn't have wanted his parents to know about, that he had simply outgrown it and moved on, and if his parents had spied on him and confronted him about it, he probably would have been worse off.

  So Adam let it go.

  Parenting. It ain't for sissies.

  You're stalling, Adam.

  Yeah, he knew that. So back to it.

  Tonight there was nothing spectacular in the recent history. One of the bo
ys--probably Ryan--was indeed studying ancient Greece or just getting really into his Riordan book. There were links to Zeus, Hades, Hera, and Icarus. So more specifically, Greek mythology. He moved down the history and clicked for yesterday. He saw a search for driving directions to the Borgata Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. Made sense. That was where Corinne was staying. She had also searched for the convention's schedule and clicked on that.

  That was about it.

  Enough stalling.

  He brought up his bank's web page. He and Corinne had two Visa accounts. They unofficially called one personal, the other business. It was for their own bookkeeping records. They used the "business" card for what they might deem a business expense--like, for example, the teachers' con in Atlantic City. For everything else, they used the personal card.

  He brought up the personal card account first. They had a universal search feature. He put in the word novelty. Nothing showed up. Okay, fine. He logged out and made the same search through the business Visa.

  And there it was.

  A little more than two years ago, there was a charge to a company called Novelty Funsy for $387.83. Adam could hear the low hum of the computer.

  How? How had the stranger known about this charge?

  No idea.

  Adam had seen the charge way back when, hadn't he? Yes, he was sure of it. He racked his brain and scraped together the flimsy remnants of a memory. He had been sitting right here, checking the Visa charges. He had asked Corinne about it. She had made light of the charges. She'd said something about decorations for the classroom. He'd wondered about the price, he thought. Seemed high. Corinne had said the school was going to reimburse her.

  Novelty Funsy. That didn't sound like anything nefarious, did it?

  Adam opened up another window and Googled Novelty Funsy. Google spit back: Showing results for Novelty Fancy

  No results found for Novelty Funsy

  Whoa. That was odd. Everything was on Google. Adam sat back and considered his options. Why wouldn't there be even one hit for Novelty Funsy? The company was real. He could see it on his Visa charge. He assumed that they sold some kind of decorations or, uh, fun novelty items.

  Adam chewed on his lower lip. He didn't get it. A stranger comes up to him and tells him that his wife lied to him--elaborately, it seemed--about being pregnant. Who was he? Why would he do it?

  Okay, forget those two questions for now and let's get to the one that matters most: Is it true?

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