The stranger, p.24
The Stranger, p.24Harlan Coben
All of that was good. But it didn't mean Johanna was taking herself off the case.
Her cell phone rang. She didn't recognize the number, but the area code was 216, which meant the call was from someone close to home. She picked up and said hello.
"This is Darrow Fontera."
"I'm the head of security for Red Lobster. We met when you asked for surveillance footage."
"Yes, right. What can I do for you?"
"I had asked you to return the DVD when you were done."
Was this guy for real? Johanna opened her mouth to tell him to go pound sand, but then she thought better of it. "We aren't done with the investigation yet."
"Could you please make a copy, then, and return the original DVD to us?"
"What's the big deal?"
"That's protocol." The tone was pure bureaucrat. "We provide one DVD copy only. If others are needed--"
"I only took one copy."
"No, no, you were the second."
"The other police officer got a copy before you."
"Wait, what other police officer?"
"We took a scan of his ID. He'd retired from New York, but he said . . . oh, wait, here it is. His name is Kuntz. John Kuntz."
First came the pain.
For a few moments, the pain shut out everything else. It was all-consuming, driving out any sort of awareness about where Adam might be or what had happened to him. His skull felt as if it'd been cracked into bone fragments, the jagged edges floating around and tearing through brain tissue. Adam kept his eyes closed and tried to ride it out.
Second came the voices.
"When's he going to wake up?" . . . "You didn't have to hit so hard." . . . "I wasn't taking a chance." . . . "You got the gun, right?" . . . "Suppose he doesn't regain consciousness? . . . "Hey, he came here to kill us, remember? . . . "Hold up, I think he's moving. . . ."
Awareness started to creep in, clawing its way past the pain and numbness. He was lying on cold ground, his right cheek on a rough, hard floor. Concrete maybe. Adam tried to open his eyes, but it felt like spiders had spun webs across them. When he blinked hard, a fresh surge of pain nearly made him gasp out loud.
When his eyes finally did open, he saw a pair of Adidas sneakers. He tried to remember what had happened. He'd been following Gabrielle. He remembered that now. He'd been following her to a lake and then. . . .
He knew that voice. He had heard it only once before, but it had echoed in his head ever since. With his cheek still on the concrete, he forced his gaze upward.
"Why did you do it?" the stranger asked him. "Why did you kill Ingrid?"
Thomas Price was taking a test in AP English class when the classroom phone rang. His teacher, Mr. Ronkowitz, picked up the phone, listened for a moment, and then said, "Thomas Price, please go to the principal's office."
His classmates, like millions of classmates have done all over the world a million times over, made an "ooo, you're in trouble" noise as he grabbed his books, stuffed them in his backpack, and headed out. The corridor was empty now. That always felt odd to Thomas, an empty high school corridor, like a ghost town or haunted house. His footsteps echoed as he hurried toward the office. He had no idea what this meant, if it was good or bad, but you rarely get called down to the principal's office for nothing, and when your mom had decided to run off and your dad was coming unglued, your mind imagines all kinds of horrifying scenarios.
Thomas still couldn't figure out what had gone wrong with his parents, but he knew that it was bad. Big-time bad. He also knew that Dad hadn't told him the full truth yet. Parents always think it's best to "protect" you, even though by "protect," they mean "lie." They think they're helping by shielding you, but in the end, it makes it worse. It's like Santa Claus. When Thomas had first realized that Santa Claus wasn't real, he didn't think, "I'm growing up" or "That stuff is for babies" or any of that. His first thought was more basic: "My parents lied to me. My mom and dad looked me in the eye, and for years and years, they lied to me."
What's that supposed to do for long-term trust?
Thomas had hated the whole idea of Santa Claus anyway. What was the point? Why do you tell kids that some weird fat guy who lives at the North Pole watches them all the time? Sorry, that's just creepy. Even as a child, Thomas remembered sitting on a mall Santa's lap and he smelled a little like piss and Thomas thought, "This guy is the one who brings me toys?" And why tell kids that anyway? Wouldn't it be nicer to think your parents, who worked hard, gave you those presents instead of some creepy stranger?
Whatever was going on now, Thomas just wished that his dad would come clean. It couldn't be worse than what Thomas and Ryan had been imagining. He and his brother weren't stupid. Thomas could see that his dad had been tense even before Mom ran off. He had no idea why, but since Mom got back from that teachers' conference, something had been really wrong. Their house was like a living thing, like one of those delicate ecosystems in science, and now something foreign was throwing off everything.
When Thomas opened the office door, that lady police officer, Johanna, was standing with the principal, Mr. Gorman. Mr. Gorman said, "Thomas, do you know this woman?"
He nodded. "She's a friend of my dad's. She's also a police officer."
"Yes, she showed me her ID. But I can't leave you alone with her."
Johanna said, "That's okay," and stepped toward him. "Thomas, do you have any idea where your father is?"
"At work, I guess."
"He didn't show today. I tried his cell phone. It's going straight to voice mail."
That little pang of panic in his chest started to grow. "It only does that if someone switches the phone off," Thomas said. "Dad never switches it off."
Johanna Griffin came closer. He could see the look of concern in her eyes. It scared him, and yet this was what he wanted, right? Honesty instead of protection? "Thomas, your dad told me about the tracker your mom put on his phone."
"It won't work if the phone is dead."
"But it shows where he last was when the phone was turned off, right?"
Thomas got it now. "Right."
"Do you need a computer to access--?"
He shook his head, reaching into his pocket. "I can look it up on my phone. Just give me two minutes."
Why did you kill Ingrid?"
When Adam tried to sit up, tried even to peel his face off the concrete--where was he anyway, that log cabin?--his head screamed in protest. He tried to bring his hands to his skull, but they wouldn't move. Confused, Adam tried again and heard the rattling.
His wrists were tied.
He looked behind him. A bike chain had been wrapped around his wrists and threaded behind a pipe running from the floor to the ceiling. He tried to take stock of the situation. He was in a basement. Directly in front of him, still wearing the same baseball cap, was the stranger. Gabrielle stood on the stranger's right. A young guy, not much older than Thomas probably, was on the left. The kid had a shaved head and tattoos and too many piercings.
He was holding a gun.
Behind the three of them was another man, maybe thirty-ish, with long hair and the start of a beard.
"Who are you?" Adam asked.
The stranger took that one. "I told you before, didn't I?"
Adam tried again to sit up. The bolts of pain nearly paralyzed him, but he dodged past them. There was no way he could stand. Between the pain in his head and the chains on his wrists, there was nowhere to go anyway. He sat now and leaned against the pipe.
"You're the stranger," Adam said.
"What do you want with me?"
The kid with the gun stepped forward and aimed the weapon at Adam. He turned the gun sideways, like something he'd seen in a bad gangsta film, and said, "You don't start talking, I'm going to blow your head off."
The stranger said, "Merton."
"Nah, man. We don't have time for this. He needs to start talking."
Adam looked up at the gun. He looked into Merton's eyes. He'd do it, Adam thought. He'd fire and not think twice.
It was Gabrielle who spoke next. "Put that gun away."
Merton ignored her. He stared down at Adam. "She was my friend."
He pointed the gun at Adam's face.
"Why did you kill Ingrid?"
"I didn't kill anyone."
Merton's hand started shaking.
Gabrielle: "Merton, don't."
With the gun still pointed at Adam's face, Merton reeled back and kicked him like he was attempting a field goal from long range. He wore steel-toed boots and the blow landed right on the delicate spot on the bottom of Adam's rib cage. He let out an oomph sound and slumped over.
"Stop that," the stranger snapped.
"He's gotta tell us what he knows!"
"What are we going to do?" Gabrielle asked, her voice in full panic. "This was supposed to be easy money."
"It is. We're fine. Just calm down."
The guy with the long hair said, "I don't like this. I don't like any of it."
Gabrielle: "I didn't sign up for kidnapping."
"Will you all just stay calm?" But even the stranger now sounded on edge. "We need to find out what happened to Ingrid."
Adam winced and said, "I don't know what happened to Ingrid."
They all turned toward him.
"You're a liar," Merton said.
"You need to listen to--"
Merton cut him off with another kick to the ribs. Adam's face landed back on the hard concrete. He tried to crawl into a protective ball, tried again to free his hands so that they could cradle his aching head.
"Stop it, Merton!"
"I didn't kill anyone," Adam managed.
"Right, sure." It was Merton. Adam tried to tighten up his protective ball in case another kick was coming. "And I suppose you didn't ask Gabrielle about Chris either, right?"
Chris. He knew the man's first name.
"Back up," Chris--the stranger--said. He moved closer to Adam and said, "You started searching for Ingrid and me, right?"
"And you found Ingrid first."
"Just her name."
"I found her name."
"Where's my wife?"
Chris frowned. "Excuse me?"
"No, I heard you." He looked back toward Gabrielle. "Why would we know where your wife is?"
"You started this," Adam said. He struggled up into a sitting position. He knew that he was in deep trouble here, that his life was in danger, but he also knew that these people were amateurs. The stench of their fear was everywhere. The bike chain was loosening. He was starting to work his wrists free. That might help, if he could get Merton and his gun close. "You came at me first."
"So, what, you wanted revenge? Is that what this is about?"
"No," Adam said. "But I know what you do now."
"You learn something compromising about a person. Then you blackmail them."
"You're wrong," Chris said.
"You blackmailed Suzanne Hope about her faking a pregnancy. When she didn't pay up, you told her husband, just like you told me."
"How did you know about Suzanne Hope?"
Merton, who was the most frightened and thus the most dangerous of all of them, shouted, "He's been spying on all of us!"
"She was friends with my wife," Adam said.
"Ah, I should have seen that," Chris said with a nod. "So Suzanne Hope was the one who referred Corinne to the site?"
"What Suzanne did--what your wife did--it's a horrible thing, don't you think? You see, the Internet makes it easy to be deceptive. The Internet makes it easy to be anonymous and to lie and to keep terrible, destructive secrets from your loved ones. We"--he opened his hand, indicated his group--"are just evening the playing field a little bit."
Adam almost smiled. "Is that what you tell yourself?"
"It's the truth. Take your wife, for example. The Fake-A-Pregnancy site, like all those sites, promises to be discreet, and she thought because it's online and makes that silly promise that no one would ever know. But do you really believe anything is truly anonymous? And I'm not talking about some kind of spooky governmental NSA thing. I'm talking about human beings. Do you really think that everything is that automated, that there aren't employees who can access your credit card information or your browsing history?" He smiled at Adam. "Do you really think anything is truly a secret?"
"Chris? That's your name, right?"
"I don't care about any of that," Adam said. "I care about my wife."
"And I told you the truth about her. I opened your eyes. You should be grateful to me. Instead, you hunted us down. And when you found Ingrid--"
"I told you. I didn't find her. I searched for you, that's all."
"Why? Did you check the link that I gave you?"
"And then you checked your Visa bill. You knew that what I told you was the truth, right?"
"Who?" Chris frowned. "Your wife?"
"Wait, when you say she's missing, did you confront her with what I told you?"
Adam said nothing.
"And then, what, she ran off or something?"
"Corinne didn't just run off."
Merton said, "We're wasting time. He's stalling."
Chris looked at him. "You moved his car out of sight, right?"
"And we took the battery out of his phone. Relax. There's time." He turned back toward Adam. "Don't you see, Adam? Your wife had deceived you. You had a right to know."
"Maybe," Adam said. "But not from you." He felt his right wrist start slipping through the chain. "Your friend Ingrid is dead because of you."
"You did that," Merton shouted.
"No. Someone killed her. And not just her."
"What are you talking about?"
"The same person who killed your friend also murdered Heidi Dann."
That made them all stop. Gabrielle said, "Oh my God."
Chris's eyes narrowed. "What did you say?"
"You didn't know about that, did you? Ingrid isn't the only murder victim. Heidi Dann was shot and killed too."
Gabrielle said, "Chris?"
"Let me think."
"Heidi was murdered first," Adam continued. "Then Ingrid. And on top of that, my wife is missing. That's what your revealing of secrets got you."
"Just shut up," Chris said. "We need to figure this out."
"I think he's telling the truth," the long-haired guy added.
"He's not," Merton shouted, hoisting the gun up and pointing it back at Adam. "But even if he is, he's a threat to us. We have no choice here. He's been asking questions and searching for us."
Adam kept his voice as steady as he could. "I've been searching for my wife."
"We don't know where she is," Gabrielle said.
"So what happened, then?"
Chris stood there, still stunned. "Heidi Dann is dead?"
"Yes. And maybe my wife is next. You need to tell me what you did to her."
"We didn't do anything," Chris said.
The wrist was almost free. "Like you said before, start at the beginning," Adam said. "When you blackmailed my wife, how did she react? Did she refuse to pay?"
Chris turned and looked at the long-haired man behind him. Then he turned back to Adam and knelt down next to him. Adam was still working his wrist free. He was close. Of course, what would he do then? Merton had taken a step back. If he grabbed Chris, Merton would have plenty of time to aim the gun.
"We never blackmailed your wife. We never even spoke to her."
Adam didn't understand. "You blackmailed Suzanne."
"Yes. But your case was different."
"We were hired to do it."
For a moment, the pain in his head was gone, pushed out by pure confusion. "Someone hired you to tell me that?"
"They hired us to find lies and secrets about your wife and then reveal them."
"Who hired you?"
"I don't know the name of the client," Chris said, "but we were hired by an investigation firm named CBW."
Adam felt something inside of him plummet.
"What is it?" Chris asked.
Merton stepped forward. "No way. You ain't going--"
Then a gunfire blast shattered the room. And Merton's head exploded in blood.
Kuntz had gotten the address of Eduardo's garage from Ingrid.
He sat on it and waited. It didn't take long. Eduardo had driven up through the mountains and over Dingman's Ferry Bridge. Kuntz followed him. When Eduardo arrived, the skinhead wannabe was already there. That would be Merton Sules. Then the woman showed. That would be the one named Gabrielle Dunbar.
One more to go.
Kuntz stayed hidden. As he did, he spotted another man creeping through the woods. He had no idea who the man was. Had Ingrid forgotten to mention him? Not likely. By the end, Ingrid had told him everything. She had told him everything and begged for death.
So who was this guy?
Kuntz stayed still and watched the setup. He saw Merton hide behind a tree with a baseball bat. He saw Gabrielle stand in the clearing and draw the man out. He almost called out a warning when he saw Merton sneak up behind the man, the baseball bat raised. But he didn't. He needed to wait. He needed to make sure they were all here.
So he watched Merton swing the bat and connect with the back of the man's head. The man staggered and fell. Merton, probably unnecessarily, hit him again. For a moment, Kuntz thought that Merton's intent was murder. That would be strange and interesting. The group, according to Ingrid, was completely nonviolent.
This man must have been seen as a threat.
Or . . . or did they think the man was Kuntz himself?
The Stranger by Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes