The stranger, p.22
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       The Stranger, p.22

          
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  "Meaning?"

  "Meaning I meant what I said out there. I'm not a cop in New Jersey. Heck, I'm barely a cop back home. I don't do homicides. The county does them. And even if I did, I'm way out of my jurisdiction here."

  "But they flew you out here to question me."

  "No, I came out on my own dime. I knew a guy from Bergen who called a guy from Essex, and they extended me a courtesy by picking you up and bringing you in."

  "Why are you telling me this?"

  "Because the county guys back home heard about it and they got pissed. So I've been officially taken off the case."

  "I'm not following. If this wasn't your case, why did you come out here at all?"

  "Because one of the victims was a friend of mine."

  Adam understood now. "That Heidi woman?"

  "Yeah."

  "I'm sorry for your loss."

  "Thank you."

  "So where was Corinne's car?"

  "Nice change of subject," she said.

  "You came to tell me."

  "True."

  "So?"

  "At an airport hotel in Newark."

  Adam made a face.

  "What?"

  "That makes no sense," he said.

  "Why not?"

  Adam explained about the locator app on the iPhone showing Corinne in Pittsburgh.

  "She could have flown somewhere and rented a car," Johanna said.

  "I'm not sure where you'd fly that you'd pick up a car and drive through Pittsburgh. And you said it was in a hotel parking lot?"

  "Near the airport, right. We found it right before it got towed. I asked the tow company to deliver it back here, by the way. You should have it in an hour."

  "I don't get something."

  "What?"

  "If she was taking a flight, Corinne would have just parked in the airport lot. That's what we always do."

  "Not if she didn't want anyone to know where she was going. She might have figured that you'd look there."

  He shook his head. "I'd look for her car in an airport parking lot? That makes no sense."

  "Adam?"

  "Yeah."

  "I know you have no reason to trust me. But let's go off the record here for a second."

  "You're a cop, not a reporter. You don't go off the record."

  "Just listen to me, okay? Two women are dead. I won't go into how special Heidi was but . . . look, you need to come clean now. You need to tell me everything you know." She met his gaze and held it. "I promise you. I promise you on the soul of my dead friend that I won't use anything you say against you or your wife. I want justice for Heidi. That's all. Do you understand?"

  Adam could feel himself squirming in his seat. "They can compel you to testify."

  "They can try." She leaned forward. "Please help me."

  He thought about it but not for long. There was no choice now. She was right. Two women were dead, and Corinne could be in serious trouble. He had no solid leads anymore, just an uneasy feeling about Gabrielle Dunbar.

  "First," he said, "tell me what you know."

  "I told you most of it."

  "Tell me about how Ingrid Prisby is connected to your friend."

  "Simple," Johanna said. "Ingrid and that guy showed up at a Red Lobster. They talked. The next day, Heidi was dead. A day after that, Ingrid was dead."

  "Do you suspect the guy Ingrid was with?"

  "I certainly think he can help us figure this out," Johanna said. "I assume they talked to you too, right? At that American Legion Hall."

  "The guy did, yes."

  "Did he tell you his name?"

  Adam shook his head. "He just said he was the stranger."

  "And after they left, you tried to find him. Or them. You got that parking lot attendant to give you their license plate. You tracked her down."

  "I got her name," Adam said. "That was all."

  "So what did the guy say to you at the American Legion Hall? This stranger?"

  "He told me that my wife faked a pregnancy."

  Johanna blinked twice. "Come again?"

  Adam told her the story. Once he opened his mouth, it all just spilled out of him. When he was finished, Johanna asked him a question that seemed both obvious and surprising.

  "Do you think it's true? Do you think she faked the pregnancy?"

  "Yes."

  Just like that. No hesitation. Not anymore. He had probably known the truth from the start--right from the moment the stranger first told him--but he'd needed the pieces to come together before he could voice it.

  "Why?" Johanna asked.

  "Why do I think it's true?"

  "No, why do you think she'd do something like that?"

  "Because I made her feel insecure."

  She nodded. "That Sally Perryman woman?"

  "Mostly, I guess. Corinne and I had grown distant. She feared losing me, feared losing all this. It doesn't matter."

  "Actually, it might."

  "How?"

  "Humor me," Johanna said. "What was going on in your life when she went to that pregnancy-faking website?"

  Adam couldn't see the point, but he also saw no reason not to tell her. "Like I said, we were growing apart. It's an old story, isn't it? We became all about the boys and the family logistics--who was going to do the food shopping, who was going to do the dishes, who was going to pay the bills. I mean, this is all such normal shit. Really. I was also going through a midlife crisis, I guess."

  "You felt unappreciated?"

  "I felt, I don't know, I felt like I wasn't a real man anymore. I know how that sounds. I was a provider and a father. . . ."

  Johanna Griffin nodded. "And suddenly there's this Sally Perryman paying you all kinds of attention."

  "Not suddenly, but yeah, I start working on this great case with Sally, and she's beautiful and passionate and she looks at me the way Corinne used to look at me. I get how stupid it all sounds."

  "Normal," Johanna said. "Not stupid."

  Adam wondered whether she meant that or whether she was humoring him. "Anyway, I think Corinne was worried I'd leave. I didn't see it at the time, I guess, or maybe I didn't care, I don't know. But she had this tracker on my iPhone."

  "The one that showed you she was in Pittsburgh?"

  "Right."

  "And you didn't know about it?"

  He shook his head. "Not until Thomas showed me."

  "Wow." Johanna shook her head. "So your wife was spying on you?"

  "I don't know, maybe. That's what I think happened. I told her I was working late a bunch of times. Maybe she checked that tracker app and saw I was at Sally's more than I should have been."

  "You didn't tell her where you were?"

  He shook his head. "It was just work."

  "So why not tell her?"

  "Because, ironically enough, I didn't want her to worry. I knew how she'd react. Or maybe I knew on some level that it was wrong. We could have stayed in the office, but I liked being at her house."

  "And Corinne found out."

  "Yes."

  "But nothing happened between you and Sally Perryman?"

  "Right." Then thinking about it: "But maybe something was close to happening."

  "What's that supposed to mean?"

  "I don't know."

  "Did you get physical? Second base? Third base?"

  "What? No."

  "You didn't kiss her?"

  "No."

  "So why the guilt?"

  "Because I wanted to."

  "Hell, I want to give Hugh Jackman a sponge bath. So what? You can't help what you want. You're human. Let it go."

  He said nothing.

  "So then your wife confronted Sally Perryman."

  "She called her. I don't know if she confronted her."

  "And Corinne never told you?"

  "Right."

  "She asked Sally what was going on, but she never did you that courtesy. That about right?"

  "I guess."

  "So then what?"

  "Then, well, then Corinne got pregnant," Adam said.

  "You mean, faked being pregnant."

  "Right, whatever."

  Johanna just shook her head and said, "Wow," again.

  "It's not what you think."

  "No, it's exactly what I think."

  "The pregnancy startled me, you know? But in a good way. It brought me back. It reminded me of what was important. That's the other irony here. It worked. Corinne was right to do it."

  "No, Adam, she wasn't right."

  "It brought me back to reality."

  "No, it didn't. She manipulated you. You'd probably have gotten back to reality anyway. And if you didn't, then maybe you weren't meant to. Sorry, but what Corinne did was bad. Really bad."

  "I think maybe she felt desperate."

  "That's not an excuse."

  "This is her world. Her family. Her entire life. She fought so hard to build it, and it was being threatened."

  Johanna shook her head. "You didn't do what she did, Adam. You know that."

  "I'm guilty too."

  "It isn't about guilt. You had a doubt. You had your head turned. You wondered about the what-if. You're not the first person to feel these things. You either find your way through it or you don't. But in the end, Corinne didn't give you that chance. She chose to trick you and live a lie. I'm not defending or condemning you. Every marriage is its own story. But you didn't see the light. You had someone shine a flashlight in your eyes."

  "Maybe I needed that."

  Johanna shook her head again. "Not like this. It was wrong. You have to see that."

  He thought about it. "I love Corinne. I don't think the fake pregnancy really changed anything."

  "But you'll never know."

  "Not true," Adam said. "I've thought about this a lot."

  "And you're certain you would have stayed?"

  "Yes."

  "For the kids?"

  "In part."

  "What else?"

  Adam leaned forward and stared at the floor for a moment. It was a blue-and-yellow Oriental carpet he and Corinne had picked in an antiques store in Warwick. They'd gone up on an October day to pick apples, but they ended up just drinking some apple cider and buying McIntoshes and then they headed to an antiques store.

  "Because whatever crap Corinne and I put each other through," he began, "whatever dissatisfaction or disappointments or resentments surface, at the end of the day, I can't imagine my life without her. I can't imagine growing old without her. I can't imagine not being part of her world."

  Johanna rubbed her chin, nodding. "I get that. I do. My husband, Ricky, snores so bad it's like sleeping with a helicopter. But I feel the same."

  They sat there for a moment, letting the feelings settle.

  Then Johanna asked, "Why do you think the stranger told you about the fake pregnancy?"

  "No clue."

  "He didn't extort money?"

  "No. He said he was doing it for me. He acted as though he was on a holy crusade. How about your friend Heidi? Did she fake a pregnancy too?"

  "No."

  "So I don't get it. What did the stranger tell her?"

  "I don't know," Johanna said. "But whatever it was, it got her killed."

  "You have any thoughts?"

  "No," Johanna said, "but now I think I might know someone who does."

  Chapter 45

  HE KNOWS

  Chris Taylor read the message and wondered yet again how and where this had all gone wrong. The Price job had been for hire. That might have been the mistake, though in most ways, the jobs for hire--and there had been only a handful--were the safest. The payments came from an emotionless third party, a top-level investigation firm. In a sense, it was more on the up-and-up, because there wasn't--and yes, Chris wasn't afraid to use the word--blackmail involved.

  The normal protocol was simple: You know a terrible secret about a certain person via the web. That person has two options. He or she can pay to have the secret kept or he can choose not to pay and have the secret revealed. Chris felt satisfied either way. The end result was either a profit (the person paid the blackmail) or cathartic (the person came clean). In a sense, they needed people to choose both. They needed the money to keep the operation going. They needed the truth to come out because that was what it was all about, what made their enterprise just and good.

  A secret revealed is a secret destroyed.

  Perhaps, Chris thought, that was the problem with the for-hire cases. Eduardo had pushed for those. They would, Eduardo claimed, work only with a select group of upscale security companies. There would be safety, ease, and always a profit. The way it worked was also deceptively simple: The firm would put out a name. Eduardo would check through their data banks to see if there was a hit--in this case, there was one for Corinne Price via Fake-A-Pregnancy.com. Then a figure would be paid and the secret revealed.

  But that meant, of course, that Corinne Price never got the chance to choose. Yes, the secret was revealed in the end. He had told Adam Price the truth. But he had done so strictly for cash. The secret keeper had not been given the option of redemption.

  That wasn't right.

  Chris used the all-encompassing term secret, but really, they weren't just secrets. They were lies and cheats and worse. Corinne Price had lied to her husband when she faked her pregnancy. Kimberly Dann had lied to her hardworking parents about how she was earning cash for college. Kenny Molino had cheated with steroids. Michaela's fiance, Marcus, had done worse when he set up both his roommate and eventual wife with that revenge tape.

  Secrets, Chris believed, were cancers. Secrets festered. Secrets ate away at your innards, leaving behind nothing but a flimsy husk. Chris had seen up close the damage secrets could do. When Chris was sixteen years old, his beloved father, the man who had taught him how to ride a bike and walked him to school and coached his Little League team, had unearthed a terrible, long-festering secret.

  He wasn't Chris's biological father.

  A few weeks before their marriage, Chris's mother had one last fling with an ex-boyfriend and gotten pregnant. His mother had always suspected the truth, but it wasn't until Chris was hospitalized after a car accident and his father, his beloved father, had tried to donate blood that the truth finally came out.

  "My whole life," Dad had told him, "has been one big lie."

  Chris's father had tried to do the "right thing" then. He had reminded himself that a father is not merely a sperm donor. A father is there for his child, provides for his child, loves and cares and raises him. But in the end, the lie had just festered too long.

  Chris hadn't seen the man in three years. That was what secrets did to people, to families, to lives.

  After Chris finished college, he'd landed a job at an Internet start-up called Downing Place. He liked it there. He thought he'd found a home. But for all the company's fancy talk, it was really just a facilitator of the worst kind of secrets. Chris ended up working for one particular site called Fake-A-Pregnancy.com. The company lied, even to itself, pretending that people bought the silicone bellies as "gag" gifts or costume parties or other "novelty funsy" rationales. But they all knew the truth. Someone might, in theory, go to a party dressed as someone pregnant. But fake sonograms? Fake pregnancy tests? Who were they fooling?

  It was wrong.

  Chris realized right away that it would make no sense to expose the company. That was simply too big a task and, as bizarre as it seemed, Fake-A-Pregnancy had competitors. All of these sites did. And if you went after one, the others would just grow stronger. So Chris remembered a lesson that, ironically, his "father" had taught him as a young child: You do what you can. You save the world one person at a time.

  He found a few like-minded people in similar businesses, all with the same access to secrets that he had. Some were much more interested in the moneymaking side of the venture. Others understood that what they were doing was right and just, and while Chris didn't want to make it into some kind of religious crusade, there was an aspect of his new operation that felt like a moral quest.

  In the end, the core group had been five--Eduardo, Gabrielle, Merton, Ingrid, and Chris. Eduardo had wanted to do everything online. Make the threat online. Reveal the secret via an untraceable e-mail. Keep it completely anonymous. But Chris didn't agree. What they were doing, like it or not, was devastating people. You were changing lives in a flash. You could dress it up all you wanted, but the person was one thing before his visit, and something entirely different after. You needed to do that face-to-face. You needed to do that with compassion and with a human touch. The secret protectors were faceless websites, machines, robots.

  They would be different.

  Chris read Adam Price's business card and Gabrielle's short message again: HE KNOWS

  In a sense, the shoe had been put on the other foot. Chris now had a secret, didn't he? But no, his was different. His secret was not for the sake of deception but protection--or was that just what he told himself? Was he, like so many of the people he encountered, simply rationalizing the secret?

  Chris had known that what they were doing was dangerous, that they were making enemies, that some would not understand the good and want to retaliate or continue to live in their "secrets" bubble.

  Now Ingrid was dead. Murdered.

  HE KNOWS

  And so the response was obvious: He had to be stopped.

  Chapter 46

  Kimberly Dann's dorm room was in a seemingly ultrahip section of Greenwich Village in New York City. Beachwood wasn't Hicksville, not even close. Many of their residents had migrated from New York City, wanting to escape the hustle and bustle and live a somewhat more financially comfortable life in a place with lower property values and tax rates. But Beachwood certainly wasn't Manhattan, either. Johanna had done enough traveling--this was her sixth time here--to know that there was no place like this isle. The city did indeed sleep and rest and all that, but when you are here, your senses were always alive. You were plugged in. You felt the constant surges and crackles.

  The door flung open the moment Johanna knocked, as though Kimberly had been standing by the door, hand on the knob, waiting.

  "Oh, Aunt Johanna!"

  Tears streamed down Kimberly's face. She collapsed onto Johanna and sobbed. Johanna held her up and let her cry. She stroked her hair down to her back the way she'd seen Heidi do a dozen times, like when Kimberly fell at the zoo and scraped her knee or when that jerk Frank Velle down the block had taken back his invitation to the prom because he was "upgrading" to Nicola Shindler.

  Holding her friend's daughter, Johanna felt her own heart start to break anew. She closed her eyes and made what she hoped were comforting shushing sounds. She didn't say, "It's going to be okay," or offer false words of comfort. She just held her and let her cry. Then Johanna let herself cry too. Why not? Why the hell pretend that this wasn't crushing her too?

 
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