The stranger, p.23
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       The Stranger, p.23

          
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  What Johanna needed to do would come soon enough. Let them both have their cries in the meantime.

  After some time had passed, Kimberly let go and took a step back. "I got my bag," she said. "When is our flight?"

  "Let's sit and talk first, okay?"

  They looked for places to sit, but since this was a dorm room, Johanna took the corner of the bed while Kimberly collapsed on what looked like an upscale beanbag chair. It was true that Johanna had come on her own dime to interrogate Adam Price, but she was here for more than that. She'd promised Marty that she'd accompany Kimberly back home for Heidi's funeral. "Kimmy's so upset," Marty had said. "I don't want her traveling alone, you know?"

  Johanna knew.

  "I need to ask you something," Johanna said.

  Kimberly was still drying her face. "Okay."

  "The night before your mom was killed, you two talked on the phone, right?"

  Kimberly started to cry again.

  "Kimberly?"

  "I miss her so much."

  "I know you do, honey. We all do. But I need you to focus for a second, okay?"

  Kimberly nodded through the tears.

  "What did you and your mom talk about?"

  "What difference does it make?"

  "I'm looking into who murdered her."

  Kimberly started to cry again.

  "Kimberly?"

  "Didn't Mom interrupt a robbery?"

  That was one of the county boys' hypotheses. Drug fiends desperate for money had broken in, and before they could find anything of value, Heidi had interrupted them and gotten killed for her trouble.

  "No, honey, that's not what happened."

  "Then what?"

  "That's what I'm trying to figure out. Kimberly, listen to me. Another woman was murdered by the same person."

  Kimberly blinked like someone had whacked her with a two-by-four. "What?"

  "I need you to tell me what you and your mom talked about."

  Kimberly's eyes started dancing around the room. "It was nothing."

  "I don't believe that, Kimberly."

  Kimberly started crying again.

  "I checked the phone records. You and your mom exchanged a bunch of texts, but you've only talked on the phone three times this semester. The first call lasted six minutes. The second, only four. But the night before she was murdered, the call between you two lasted more than two hours. What did you two talk about?"

  "Please, Aunt Johanna, it doesn't matter anymore."

  "Like hell it doesn't." There was steel in Johanna's voice now. "Tell me."

  "I can't. . . ."

  Johanna dropped off the bed and knelt in front of Kimberly. She took the girl's face in her hands and forced her to look directly at her. "Look at me."

  It took some time, but Kimberly did.

  "Whatever happened to your mother, it's not your fault. You hear me? She loved you and she would want you to go on and live the best life you can. I'll be there for you. Always. Because that's what your mother would have wanted. Do you hear me?"

  The girl nodded.

  "So now," Johanna said, "I need you to tell me about her last phone call."

  Chapter 47

  Adam watched from what he hoped was a safe distance as Gabrielle Dunbar hurriedly packed a suitcase in the trunk of her car.

  A half hour ago, Adam had decided to take one more run at Gabrielle on his way to work. But as he turned down her street, Gabrielle Dunbar was throwing a suitcase in the trunk. Her two children--Adam estimated them to be about twelve and ten--lugged smaller bags. He pulled his car to the side, kept a safe distance, and watched.

  So now what?

  The night before, Adam had tried to reach out to the other three people Gribbel had been able to identify and locate in that photograph on Gabrielle Dunbar's page. None gave him anything useful on the stranger. No surprise. Whatever line of bull he threw at them, they were all naturally wary of a "stranger"--yep, irony strikes again--asking them in one fashion or another to identify a person, possibly a friend or coworker, from a group photograph. None of them lived close enough for Adam to chance, as he had with Gabrielle, confronting them in person.

  So his mind went back to Gabrielle Dunbar.

  She was hiding something. That much had been obvious to him yesterday--and suddenly she was rushing out of the house again with her third suitcase.

  Coincidence?

  He didn't think so. He stayed in his car and watched. Gabrielle threw the bag into the trunk and struggled to slam it closed. She swept her children into the car, both in the backseat, and made sure they were strapped in. She opened her own door, paused, and then Gabrielle looked down the street right at him.

  Damn.

  Adam quickly slid down in the driver's seat. Had she spotted him? He didn't think so. Or if she had, would she know who he was from this distance? And hold up, so what if she had? He had come here to confront her, right? He raised himself back up slowly, but Gabrielle wasn't looking in his direction anymore. She'd gotten into the car and had started moving.

  Man, he was no good at this.

  Gabrielle's car started down the block. Adam thought about his next move but not for very long. In for a penny, in for a pound. Adam shifted into drive and started to follow.

  He wasn't sure how far to stay back so that she wouldn't see him and yet he wouldn't lose her. All of his knowledge on this subject had come from a lifetime of watching TV. Would anyone even know what a tail was if they hadn't watched television? She turned right. Adam followed. They started toward Route 208 and then down Interstate 287. Adam checked his gas tank. Nearly full. Okay, good. Just how long did he plan on following her anyway? And when he caught up, what exactly did he plan on doing then?

  One step at a time.

  His cell phone rang. He glanced down and saw the name JOHANNA pop up.

  He had programmed her phone number into his smartphone after her visit last night. Did he fully trust her? Pretty much, yeah. She had a simple agenda: Find her friend's killer. As long as that wasn't Corinne, Johanna could be, he thought, an asset and even an ally. If the killer was Corinne, then he had bigger problems than trusting a cop from Ohio.

  "Hello?"

  "I'm about to board a plane," Johanna said.

  "Heading back home?"

  "I'm already back home."

  "In Ohio?"

  "At the Cleveland airport, yeah. I had to take Heidi's daughter home, but I'm flying back out to Newark in a few. What are you up to?"

  "I'm tailing Gabrielle Dunbar."

  "Tailing?"

  "Isn't that what you cops call it when you follow someone?"

  He quickly explained how he came to her house and saw her packing up.

  "So what's your plan here, Adam?"

  "I don't know. I can't just sit around and do nothing."

  "Fair point."

  "Why did you call?"

  "I learned something last night."

  "I'm listening."

  "Whatever is happening here," she said, "this isn't just about one website."

  "I don't understand."

  "This stranger guy. He doesn't just tell his victims about their wives faking pregnancies. He has access to other sites. Or at least one other site."

  "How do you know this?"

  "I talked to Heidi's daughter."

  "So what was the secret?"

  "I promised I wouldn't tell--and you don't need to know, trust me on that. The key thing is, your stranger may be blackmailing a whole slew of people for a variety of reasons, not just for faking a pregnancy."

  "So what do we think is going on here exactly?" Adam asked. "This stranger and Ingrid were blackmailing people about what they do online?"

  "Something like that, yeah."

  "So why is my wife missing?"

  "Don't know."

  "And who killed your friend? And Ingrid?"

  "Don't know and don't know. Maybe something went wrong with the blackmail. Heidi was tough. Maybe she stood up to them. Maybe the stranger and Ingrid had a falling-out."

  Up ahead, Gabrielle was pulling off an exit to Route 23. Adam hit his turn signal and stayed with her.

  "So what's the connection between your friend and my wife?"

  "Other than the stranger, I don't see any."

  "Hold up," Adam said.

  "What?"

  "Gabrielle's pulling into a driveway."

  "Where?"

  "Lockwood Avenue in Pequannock."

  "That's in New Jersey?"

  "Yeah."

  Adam wasn't sure whether he should stay back and stop suddenly or drive past and find a spot to pull over. He opted for the latter, cruising by the yellow split-level with the aluminum siding and red shutters. A man opened the front door, smiled, and strolled toward Gabrielle's car. Adam didn't recognize him. The car doors opened. The girl came out of the car first. The man gave her an awkward hug.

  "So what's going on?" Johanna asked.

  "False alarm, I guess. Looks like she's dropping her kids off at her ex's place."

  "Okay, they're calling my flight. I'll call you when I land. Don't do anything stupid in the meantime."

  Johanna hung up. Now Gabrielle's son got out of the car. Another awkward hug. The man who might have been the ex waved at Gabrielle. She may have waved back, but he couldn't tell from here. A woman appeared at the doorway. A younger woman. A much younger woman. An old story, Adam thought. Gabrielle stayed in the car as the probable ex opened the trunk. He took out one of the suitcases and closed it again. He started back toward the front of the car with a puzzled look on his face.

  Gabrielle hit reverse and pulled out before he could reach her. She started driving back down the street.

  With a lot of luggage still in her car.

  So where was she going?

  In for a penny . . .

  Adam saw no reason not to keep following her.

  Chapter 48

  Gabrielle's car climbed up Skyline Drive into the Ramapo Mountains. The road was only forty-five minutes from Manhattan, but it might as well have been in another world. There were legends about the tribes who still lived in this area. Some called them the Ramapough Mountain Indians or the Lenape Nation or the Lunaape Delaware Nation. Some believed the people were Native American. Others claimed that they dated back to Dutch settlers. Still others thought they were Hessian soldiers who fought for the British during the American Revolution or were freed slaves who found a home in the barren woods in northern New Jersey. Many, too many, had dubbed them, perhaps derogatorily, the Jackson Whites. The origin of that name also remained a mystery but probably had something to do with their multiracial appearance.

  As is always the case with such people, scary stories surrounded them. Teenagers drove up Skyline Drive and scared one another with tales of kidnappings, of being dragged into the woods, of ghosts crying out for revenge. It was all myth, of course, but myth can be a powerful thing.

  Where the hell was Gabrielle going?

  They were heading into the wooded areas of the mountains. The elevation was causing Adam's ears to clog up. She cut back onto Route 23. Adam followed her nearly an hour, until she crossed the narrow Dingman's Ferry Bridge into Pennsylvania. The roads were less traveled now. Adam again wondered how far to stay behind in order not to be spotted. He erred against caution, figured that it would be better to be spotted and possibly confronted than to lose Gabrielle altogether.

  He checked his phone. The battery was low. Adam stuck the phone into his glove-compartment charger. A mile farther up the road, Gabrielle took a right. The woods grew denser. She slowed and turned onto what looked like a dirt driveway. A faded stone sign read LAKE CHARMAINE--PRIVATE. Adam veered to the right and stopped behind an evergreen. He couldn't just pull his car into the driveway, if indeed it was a driveway.

  So what was his next move?

  He opened the glove compartment and checked the phone. The battery hadn't had much of a chance to charge, but it was still hovering at ten percent. That could be enough. He pocketed it and got out of his car. Now what? Just walk up to this Lake Charmaine and ring the bell?

  He found an overgrown path in the woods running parallel to the driveway. That would do. The sky above him was a beautiful robin's-egg blue. Branches jutted into the pathway, but Adam pushed through them. The woods were silent, save the sounds Adam himself was causing. He stopped every once in a while to listen for . . . for anything, but now, as he got deeper into the woods, he couldn't even hear the passing cars on the road anymore.

  When Adam stepped into a clearing, he saw a buck nibbling on some leaves. The buck looked up at Adam, saw he meant no harm, went back to nibbling. Adam kept moving, and soon the lake rose before him. Under other circumstances, he would have loved being up here. The lake was as still as a mirror, reflecting the green of the trees and the robin's-egg blue of the sky. The view was intoxicating and soothing and so damned peaceful, and man oh man, would it be wonderful to just sit down and stare at it for a little while. Corinne loved lakes. The ocean scared her a bit. Waves, in her view, were often violent and unpredictable. But lakes were quiet paradise. Before the boys were born, he and Corinne had rented a lake house in northern Passaic County. He remembered lazy days, both of them sharing a humungo hammock, him with a newspaper, her with a book. He remembered watching Corinne read, the way her eyes would narrow as they crossed the page, a look of pure concentration on her face--and then, every once in a while, Corinne would look up from her book. Corinne would smile at him and he would smile back and then their gaze would drift to the lake.

  A lake like this one.

  He spotted a house on the right. It looked abandoned except for one car sitting in front of it.

  Gabrielle's.

  The house was either a log cabin or one of those snap-together facsimiles. Hard to tell from here. Adam carefully padded down the hill, ducking behind trees and shrubbery as he went. He felt foolish, like a kid playing capture the flag or paintball or something. He tried to think of another time in his life when he had done this, when he'd had to sneak up on someone, and his mind had to travel all the way back to the Y summer camp when he was eight.

  Adam still wasn't sure what he'd do when he got close to the house, but for a split second, he wished he was armed. He didn't own a handgun or anything like that. Maybe that was a mistake. His uncle Greg had taken him shooting a few times when he was in his early twenties. He liked it and knew that he could handle a weapon. In hindsight, that would have been the smart play. He was dealing with dangerous people. Killers, even. He reached into his pocket and felt for his phone. Should he call someone? He didn't know who or even what to say. Johanna would still be on her flight. He could text or call Andy Gribbel or Old Man Rinsky, but what would he tell them?

  Where you are, for one thing.

  He was about to grab his phone and do just that when he spotted something that made him freeze.

  Gabrielle Dunbar stood alone in the clearing. She was staring right at him. He felt the rage build up inside him. He took a step closer, expecting her to run off or say something. She didn't.

  She just stood there and watched him.

  "Where's my wife?" he shouted.

  Gabrielle kept staring.

  Adam took another step into the clearing. "I said--"

  Something smacked him so hard in the back of the head that Adam could actually feel his brain jarring loose from its moorings. He dropped to his knees, seeing stars. Working on pure instinct, Adam somehow managed to turn and look up. A baseball bat was coming down on the top of his skull like an axe. He tried to duck or turn away or at least lift a protective arm.

  But it was much too late.

  The bat landed with a dull thud, and everything went dark.

  Chapter 49

  Johanna Griffin was a natural rule follower, so she didn't turn off the airplane mode on her smartphone until they'd stopped moving on the active runway. The flight attendant made the standard "welcome to Newark where the temperature is" announcement as Johanna's texts and e-mails loaded up.

  Nothing from Adam Price.

  The past twenty-four hours had been exhausting. Kimberly had been hysterical. Extracting her horrible story had been painstaking and time-consuming. Johanna had tried to be understanding, but what on God's green earth had that kid been thinking? Poor Heidi. How had she reacted to the news about her daughter and that horrible website? Johanna thought back to that videotape of Heidi in the Red Lobster parking lot. Heidi's body language made complete sense now. In a way, Johanna had been watching an assault on that tape. That guy, that goddamn stranger, was pummeling her friend with his words, breaking her heart with his revelations.

  Did he comprehend the damage he was wreaking?

  So Heidi had gone home after that. She had called Kimberly and gotten her daughter to tell the truth. She had stayed rational and calm, even as she withered away inside. Or maybe Heidi hadn't withered away. Maybe, because Heidi was the least judgmental person Johanna had ever known, she had dealt with the bad news and was ready to fight back. Who knew? Heidi had comforted her daughter. She had then tried to figure a way of removing her from the terrible mess she had gotten herself into.

  And maybe that had gotten her killed.

  Johanna still didn't know what had happened to Heidi, but clearly it was somehow connected to the revelation that her daughter had become a whore--forget the more marketable terms like sugar baby--for three different men. Johanna had started to dig into it, but that would take time. Kimberly didn't know the men's real names, which was another wow, but hey, there was a reason they were called johns. Johanna had spoken to the president of the sugar babies website, listened to her rationalizations, and wanted to take a long, hot shower after she hung up. She--yes, in a nice feminist touch, the site was run by a woman--defended her company's "business arrangements" and her clients' "right to privacy" and said there was no way she would reveal any information without a court order.

  Since the company was located in Massachusetts, that would take time.

  Then, after dealing with this crap, the annoyed county homicide cops wanted a full debriefing on Johanna's renegade trip to New Jersey. This wasn't about ego for her. She wanted the bastard who killed her friend caught. Period. So she told them everything, including what Kimberly had just told her, and now those guys were getting the court order and putting manpower toward figuring out who the stranger was and what his connection to the murders might be.

 
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