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The stranger, p.20
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       The Stranger, p.20

          Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
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A moment later, Thomas came to the doorway. All three of them were together now--"my boys," as Corinne always called them, joking that Adam was just her biggest child. They stayed in the room, unmoving, and Adam realized something simple but somehow profound: Corinne loved her life. She loved her family. She loved the world she had fought so hard to create. She loved living in this town where she'd started out, in this neighborhood she cherished, in this home she shared with her boys.

So what had gone wrong?

All three of them heard the car door slam. Ryan's head snapped toward the window. Adam instinctively went into protective mode, getting to the window fast and positioning his body in such a way as to block his boys' view. The block didn't last long. The two boys came up to him, each on one side, and looked down. No one cried out. No one gasped. No one said a word.

It was a police car.

One of the officers was Len Gilman, which made no sense because the side of the vehicle read ESSEX COUNTY POLICE. Len worked for the town of Cedarfield.

Coming out of the driver's side was a county officer in full uniform.

Ryan said, "Dad?"

Corinne is dead.

It was a flash, no more than that. But wasn't that the obvious answer here? Your wife goes missing. She doesn't communicate with you or even her children. Now two cops, one a family friend, one from the county, show up at his doorstep with grim faces. And really, wasn't that the logical assumption all along--that Corinne was dead and lying in a ditch somewhere and these grim-faced men were there to deliver that news and then he'd have to pick up the pieces and carry on and grieve and be brave for the boys?

He turned and started down the stairs. The boys fell in line behind him, Thomas first, then Ryan. It was almost as though there had been an unspoken adhesion, a bond formed by the three survivors to stand together and take the oncoming blow. By the time Len Gilman rang the bell, Adam was already turning the knob to open the door.

Len startled back and blinked.

"Adam?"

Adam stood there, the door half-opened. Len looked behind him and spotted the boys.

"I thought they'd be at practice by now."

"They were just about to leave," Adam said.

"Okay, maybe you could let them go and then we could--"

"What's going on?"

"It's better if we talk at the precinct." Then, clearly for the benefit of the boys, Len added, "Everything is fine, boys. We just have some questions."

Len met Adam's eye. Adam was having none of it. If the news was bad--if it was going to devastate them--it would be just as devastating if they heard now or after practice.

"Does this have something to do with Corinne?" Adam asked.

"No, I don't think so."

"Don't think?"

"Please, Adam." He could hear the plea in Len's voice now. "Get the boys off to practice and come with us."





Chapter 40


Kuntz spent the night in his son's hospital room, semi-sleeping on a chair that half folded out into what no one would really call a bed. When the nurse saw him trying to stretch his stiff back in the morning, she said, "Not very comfortable, is it?"

"Did you guys order these from Guantanamo?"

The nurse smiled at him and took Robby's vital signs--temperature, heart rate, blood pressure. They did that every four hours, awake or asleep. His little boy was so used to it, he barely stirred. A little boy should never get used to something like that. Never.

Kuntz sat by his son's bedside and let the familiar horror of helplessness wash over him. The nurse saw the distress on his face. They all did, but they were wise enough not to patronize or soothe with comforting lies. She merely said, "I'll be back in a bit." He appreciated that.

Kuntz checked his texts. There were several urgent ones from Larry. Kuntz had expected as much. He waited for Barb to arrive. He kissed her on the forehead and said, "Gotta go for a bit. Business."

Barb nodded, not asking or needing details.

Kuntz grabbed a taxi and headed to the apartment on Park Avenue. Larry Powers's pretty wife, Laurie, answered the door. Kuntz never understood cheating on your wife. Your wife was the woman you loved more than anything in the world, your only true companion, a part of you. You either love her with all your heart or you don't--and if you don't, it was time to move along, little doggie.

Laurie Powers always had a ready smile. She wore a pearl strand necklace and a simple black dress that looked expensive--or maybe it was Laurie who looked expensive. Laurie Powers had come from old-world money, and even if she wore a muumuu, you'd probably be able to see that.

"He's expecting you," she said. "He's in the study."

"Thanks."

"John?"

Kuntz turned toward her.

"Is something wrong?"

"I don't think so, Mrs. Powers."

"Laurie."

"Okay," he said. "And how about you, Laurie?"

"What about me?"

"Are you okay?"

She tucked her hair behind her ear. "I'm fine. But Larry . . . he hasn't been himself. I know it's your job to protect him."

"And I will. Don't give it another thought, Laurie."

"Thank you, John."

Here is one of life's little shortcuts: If someone is meeting you in their "study," they have money. Normal people have a home office or a family room or maybe a man cave. Rich people have studies. This one was particularly opulent, loaded up with leather-bound books and wooden globes and Oriental rugs. It looked like someplace Bruce Wayne would hang out before heading down to the Batcave.

Larry Powers sat in a burgundy leather wing chair. He held a glass filled with what looked like cognac. He'd been crying.

"John?"

Kuntz came over and took the glass from his hand. He checked the bottle and saw that too much of it was gone. "You can't be drinking like this."

"Where have you been?"

"I've been taking care of our problem."

The problem was both devastating and simple. Because of the somewhat religious connection to their product, the bank issuing the IPO had insisted on moral clauses, including one involving adultery. In short, if it got out that Larry Powers frequented a sugar babies website and had, in fact, used it to secure the sexual services of college students, bye-bye, IPO. Bye-bye, seventeen million dollars. Bye-bye, best health care for Robby. Bye-bye, trip to the Bahamas with Barb.

Bye-bye to it all.

"I got an e-mail from Kimberly," Larry said.

He started crying again.

"What did it say?"

"Her mother was murdered."

"She told you that?"

"Of course, she told me. Jesus, John, I know you--"

"Quiet."

The tone in his voice stopped Larry like a slap across the face.

"Just listen to me."

"It didn't have to be this way, John. We could have started again. There might have been other opportunities. We would have been okay."

Kuntz just stared at him. Right, sure. Other opportunities. Easy for him to say. Larry's father had been a bond trader, made nice cash his whole life, sent his kid to an Ivy League school. Laurie came from huge money. Neither of them had a friggin' clue.

"We could have--"

"Stop talking, Larry."

He did so.

"What exactly did Kimberly say to you?"

"Not say. It was by e-mail. I told you. We never talk on the phone. And it's not my real e-mail. It's via my sugar babies account."

"Okay, good. What did her e-mail say?"

"That her mother had been killed. She thought it was some kind of breaking and entering."

"Probably was," Kuntz said.

Silence.

Then Larry sat up and said, "Kimberly isn't a threat. She doesn't even know my name."

Kuntz had already gone through the pros and cons of silencing Heidi's daughter, Kimberly, but in the end, he decided it would be more dangerous to kill her. Right now, the police would have absolutely no need to connect Heidi Dann's murder to Ingrid Prisby's. They were separated by more than four hundred miles. He had even used two different guns. But if suddenly something also happened to Heidi's daughter, that would draw too much attention.

Larry claimed that he did not use his real name with Kimberly. The site did a fairly good job of keeping the men's identities a secret. Sure, Kimberly might recognize him if his picture ended up in the paper, but they'd already decided to now make Larry the shy CEO and let the president do all the press when the IPO officially came out. And if she did make trouble later on, well, Kuntz would figure a way to handle it then.

Larry stood and started doing a drunk-stagger pace. "How did these people know about me?" he whined. "The site is anonymous."

"You had to pay for the services, right?"

"Yes, sure, with a credit card."

"Someone has to run the card, Larry. That's how they knew."

"And someone told Kimberly's mom about this?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Why do you think, Larry?"

"Blackmail?"

"Bingo."

"So let's just pay them."

Kuntz had considered that, but one, they hadn't yet approached them for anything, and two, it left too many loose ends. Blackmailers, especially ones who had a certain brand of fanaticism, were not reliable or trustworthy. He hadn't known enough about the threat when he first arrived in Ohio. What he did know was that Heidi Dann had been devastated by the news that her daughter had taken up something akin to prostitution. She knew the aliases of the johns, but luckily, she hadn't discussed that with her daughter. After some persuasion, Heidi had told Kuntz about the young couple approaching her outside Red Lobster. Kuntz had flashed his credentials at some kid who worked in the restaurant's security office, gotten the video of the young couple talking to Heidi, written down the license plate.

From there, it'd been easy. He got the name Lauren Barna from the rental car agency and connected it to Ingrid Prisby. Then he ran a trace on her credit card and found her staying at a motel near the Delaware Water Gap.

"So is that it?" Larry asked. "It's over, right?"

"Not yet."

"No more bloodshed. Please? I don't care if we lose the IPO. You can't hurt anyone else."

"You hurt your wife."

"What?"

"Cheating on her. You hurt her, right?"

Larry opened his mouth, closed it, tried again. "But . . . I mean, she's not dead. You can't compare the two."

"Sure I can. You hurt someone you love, yet you worry about strangers who are out to harm you."

"You're talking murder, John."

"I'm not talking anything, Larry. You are. I heard that Kimberly's mom died from a breaking and entering. That's a good thing, because if someone did her harm--say, someone who worked for you--that person could easily cut a deal and say he was just a hired hand. Are you following me?"

Larry said nothing.

"You got any other messes I need to clean up, Larry?"

"No," he said softly. "Nothing."

"Good. Because nothing is going to stop this IPO from coming together. You understand that?"

He nodded.

"Now stop drinking, Larry. Pull yourself together."





Chapter 41


With the two cops still standing at their door, Thomas and Ryan surprised Adam. They didn't protest or offer any resistance. They just quickly grabbed their stuff and got ready to go. They made a production of hugging and kissing their father good-bye. When Len Gilman smiled, slapped Ryan on the back, and said, "Your dad is just helping us with something," Adam managed not to roll his eyes. He told his boys not to worry and that he'd contact them the moment he knew what was up.

When the boys were gone, Adam walked down the path to the police cruiser. He wondered what the neighbors would think, but he really didn't give a crap. He tapped Len Gilman on the shoulder and said, "If this is about that stupid lacrosse money--"

"It's not," Len said, his voice a door slamming shut.

They didn't talk during the drive. Adam sat in the back. The other cop--young guy, hadn't introduced himself--drove, while Len Gilman sat in the passenger seat. Adam had figured they were headed to the Cedarfield police station on Godwin Road, but when they hit the highway, he realized that they were heading into Newark. They took Interstate 280 and pulled up to the county sheriff's office on West Market Street.

The car stopped. Len Gilman stepped out. Adam reached for the door handle, but there weren't any in the backseat of cop cars. He waited and let Len open the door for him. He stepped out. The car drove off.

"Since when do you work for the county?" Adam asked.

"They asked for a favor."

"What's going on, Len?"

"Just some questions, Adam. More than that, I can't tell you."

Len led him through the door and down a corridor. They entered an interrogation room.

"Have a seat."

"Len?"

"What?"

"I've been on the other side of this, so do me a favor. Don't make me wait too long, okay? It won't make me cooperative."

"Duly noted," Len said, closing the door behind him.

But he didn't listen. After Adam had sat there alone for an hour, he got up and pounded on the door. Len Gilman opened it. Adam spread his arms and said, "Really?"

"We aren't playing with you," Len said. "We're just waiting for someone."

"Who?"

"Give us fifteen minutes."

"Fine, but let me take a piss."

"No problem. I'll escort--"

"No, Len, I'm here voluntarily. I'll go to the bathroom by myself like a big boy."

He did his business, came back, sat in the chair, played with his smartphone. He checked his texts again. Andy Gribbel had taken care of clearing his morning schedule. Adam looked at the address for Gabrielle Dunbar. She lived right near the center of Fair Lawn.

Would she be able to lead him to the stranger?

The interrogation room door finally opened. Len Gilman came in first, followed by a woman Adam would guess was in her early fifties. Her pantsuit was a hue that could best be described as institutional green. Her shirt collar was too long and pointy. Her hair was what they called wash-and-wear--a sort of brown shag-mullet that reminded Adam of hockey players in the seventies.

"Sorry to keep you waiting," the woman said.

Her accent was slight, maybe Midwestern--definitely not New Jersey. She had a rawboned face, the kind that reminded you of farmhands and square dances.

"My name is Johanna Griffin."

She reached out with a big hand. He shook it.

"I'm Adam Price, but I assume you know that."

"Please sit."

They sat across the table from each other. Len Gilman leaned against a far corner, trying like all get-out to look casual.

"Thanks for coming in this morning," Johanna Griffin said.

"Who are you?" Adam asked.

"Pardon me?"

"I assume you have a rank or . . ."

"I'm a police chief," she said. Then, after giving it some thought, "From Beachwood."

"I don't know Beachwood."

"It's in Ohio. Near Cleveland."

Adam hadn't expected that. He sat and waited for her to continue.

Johanna Griffin put a briefcase on the desk and snapped it open. She reached inside, and as she pulled out a photograph, she asked, "Do you know this woman?"

She slid the photograph across the table. It was an unsmiling head shot against a plain backdrop, probably off a driver's license. It took Adam a second, no more, to recognize the blond woman. He had seen her only once and it was dark and from a distance and she'd been driving a car. But he knew right away.

Still he hesitated.

"Mr. Price?"

"I might know who she is."

"Might?"

"Yes."

"And who might she be?"

He wasn't sure what to say here. "Why are you asking me this?"

"It's just a question."

"Yeah, and I'm just an attorney. So tell me why you want to know."

Johanna smiled. "So that's how you want to play it."

"I'm not playing it any way. I just want to know--"

"Why we are asking. We will get to that." She pointed to the photograph. "Do you know her, yes or no?"

"We've never met."

"Oh wow," Johanna Griffin said.

"What?"

"Now you're going to play semantics games with us? Do you know who she is, yes or no?"

"I think I do."

"Super, terrific. Who is she?"

"You don't know?"

"This isn't about what we know, Adam. And really, I don't have time, so let's cut to it. Her name is Ingrid Prisby. You paid John Bonner, a parking attendant at an American Legion Hall, two hundred dollars to give you her license plate number. You had that number traced by a retired police detective named Michael Rinsky. Do you want to tell us why you did all that?"

Adam said nothing.

"What's your connection to Ingrid Prisby?"

"No connection," he said carefully. "I just wanted to ask her something."

"Ask her what?"

Adam felt his head spin.

"Adam?"

It didn't escape his notice that she had moved from calling him Mr. Price to the more informal Adam. He glanced toward the corner. Len Gilman had his arms folded. His face was impassive.

"I was hoping she could help me with a confidential matter."

"Forget confidential, Adam." She reached into her briefcase again and produced another photograph. "Do you know this woman?"

She put down a picture of a smiling woman who looked to be about Johanna Griffin's age. Adam shook his head.

"No, I don't know her."

"Are you sure?"

"I don't recognize her."

"Her name is Heidi Dann." Johanna Griffin's voice was a little off now. "Does that name mean anything to you?"

"No."

Johanna locked eyes with him. "Be sure, Adam."

"I am. I don't know this woman. I don't recognize her name."

"Where's your wife?"

The sudden change of topics threw him.

"Adam?"

"What does my wife have to do with any of this?"

"You're full of questions, aren't you?" There was steel in her voice now. "That's getting really annoying. I understand that your wife is suspected of stealing a lot of money."
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