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The stranger, p.25
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       The Stranger, p.25

          Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
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He thought about that. Was there any chance that the group knew they were under threat? By now, they almost certainly knew Ingrid had been murdered. He had counted on that to draw them together. It'd worked. He had also counted on the fact that they were rank amateurs, all high on trying to help the world by revealing secrets or some such nonsense.

But of course, with Ingrid dead, they would know they were in danger.

Was that what this assault was about?

Didn't matter. Kuntz still had the upper hand. He would just have to be patient, that was all. So he waited. He saw them drag the man inside the house. Kuntz waited. Five minutes later, another car pulled up.

It was Chris Taylor. The leader.

They were finally all here. Kuntz considered taking Chris Taylor out then, but that would alarm the others. He needed to be patient. He needed to see if anyone else would show up. He needed to figure out why they had assaulted this other man and what they planned to do with him.

Kuntz quietly circled the house, peering in windows. Nothing. That was odd. There were at least five people inside. Had they gone upstairs or had they . . . ?

He checked a basement window in the back.

Bingo.

The assaulted man was still unconscious. He lay on the floor. Someone had wrapped a bike chain around one of his wrists, looped it around a pipe, and then wrapped the chain around the other wrist. The others--Eduardo, Gabrielle, Merton, and now Chris--paced liked caged animals waiting for slaughter, which, in a sense, they were.

An hour passed. Then two.

The guy never moved. Kuntz wondered if good ol' Merton had killed the poor guy, but eventually the man stirred. Kuntz checked his Sig Sauer P239. He was using 9mm ammunition, so the gun held eight rounds. Should be enough. He had more 9mms in his pocket, just in case.

With the weapon in hand, Kuntz crept toward the front of the cabin. He put his hand on the doorknob and tested it. Unlocked. Perfect. He pushed his way inside and tiptoed toward the basement.

He stopped at the top of the stairs and listened.

What he heard was mostly good news. In short, Chris Taylor and his colleagues had no idea who had murdered their friend Ingrid. The one negative, though it couldn't be helped, was that the assaulted man knew there was a connection between Ingrid's and Heidi's deaths. Not a big deal, though. Kuntz had figured that eventually someone might put it together, but the fact that they had learned it so quickly troubled him a bit.

It didn't matter. He would have to take them all out, including the assaulted guy. He steeled himself by thinking again of Robby in that hospital bed. That was really what it came down to for him. Did he let these people continue to break the law and blackmail people? Or did he do what a father had to in order to ease his family's suffering?

Not much of a choice, was there?

Kuntz was still crouching near the top of the steps, lost for a moment in his thoughts about Barb and Robby, when Eduardo turned and spotted him.

Kuntz didn't hesitate.

Since Merton had the gun, Kuntz took him out first with a bullet to the head. Then he swung his aim back toward Eduardo. Eduardo raised his hand, as though it could somehow stop a bullet.

It didn't.

Gabrielle was screaming. Kuntz turned the gun on her and fired a third time.

The screaming stopped.

Three down, two to go.

Kuntz hurried down the stairs to finish the job.

*

Using the locator app, Thomas had figured out that his dad had been on Lake Charmaine in Dingman, Pennsylvania, when his phone died. Johanna then insisted that Thomas go back to class and not worry, a position backed up by the principal, who wouldn't let her take him anyway.

After making a few calls, Johanna reached the dispatcher at Shohola Township Police Department. Dingman was in their jurisdiction. She sent him the coordinates from the GPS locator app and tried to explain the situation. The dispatcher didn't really get it or understand the urgency.

"What's the big deal?"

"Just send someone out."

"Okay, Sheriff Lowell said he'd drive by."

Johanna jumped into her car and hit the accelerator. If a cop tried to pull her over, she had her badge at the ready. She'd signal for them to pull up alongside her and flash it. A half hour later, she got a call back from the same dispatcher. Adam's car wasn't in sight. The locator wasn't precise enough to pinpoint an exact house--they had several on the lake--and what exactly did she expect them to do about it?

"Start going door-to-door."

"I'm sorry. Under whose authority is this coming from?"

"Mine. Yours. Anyone's. Two women have already been killed. This man's wife is missing. He's trying to find her."

"We'll do our best."





Chapter 53


It was amazing how many things could happen in a single moment.

When the first bullet rang out, Adam's mind and body seemed to go in a dozen different directions. He had already gotten his right hand loose from the chain. That was all he needed. With the chain attached to only his left wrist, it did no good. So when the bullet sounded, Adam rolled away, forgetting the pain in his head and ribs, and looked for cover.

Something wet splashed on his face. Adam realized through the fog that it was Merton's brains.

At the same time, various possibilities to explain the shooting ricocheted through his head. The first was a positive one: Could the gunman be a cop sent here to rescue him?

That possibility took a huge hit when the long-haired man dropped like a stone. The possibility was completely blown away a second later when Gabrielle went down too.

It was a slaughter.

Keep moving. . . .

But where? He was in a basement, for crying out loud. There weren't a whole lot of hiding places. He commando-crawled to his right. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Chris Taylor leaping up toward the window. The gunman came down the stairs and took a shot. With surprising speed, Chris kicked his legs up and pushed himself through the window and out of sight.

But Adam heard Chris shout.

Had he been hit?

Maybe. It was hard to tell.

The man with the gun hurried all the way down the stairs.

Trapped.

Adam thought about surrendering. The gunman might, in a sense, be on his side. He, too, might very well have been a victim of Chris's group. But that didn't mean he was about to leave around any witnesses. This guy had, in all likelihood, been the one to kill Ingrid and Heidi. He had now killed Merton and the long-haired man. Gabrielle, he thought, was still alive. Adam could hear her moaning on the ground.

The man was at the bottom of the stairs now.

Adam rolled again to his right and found himself under the very stairs the gunman had just come down. The gunman started toward the window, probably to check on Chris Taylor, but he stopped when he heard Gabrielle groan. The man looked down at her and barely broke stride.

Gabrielle lifted a bloody hand and said, "Please."

The gunman shot her dead.

Adam almost screamed out loud. The gunman didn't hesitate. He kept walking toward the window where Chris had escaped.

That was when Adam spotted Merton's gun.

It was across the room, not far from the window. The gunman's back was turned. Adam had two options here. One, he could try to run up the stairs. But no, that would leave him too exposed for too long. He'd be a sitting duck. So two, if he could just make a sudden move toward the gun, if he could just get there in time and reach out while the man was distracted. . . .

Or wait, there was a third option. Should he just stay right where he was? Should he just stay hidden under the stairwell?

Yes. That was it. Stay out of sight. Maybe the man hadn't seen him. Maybe the man didn't know he was here.

No.

The man had shot Merton first. Merton had been standing right next to Adam. There was no way he could have seen Merton and not seen him. The gunman just wanted to make sure no one escaped. He wanted them all dead.

Adam had to go for the weapon.

These calculations didn't take seconds. They didn't even take nanoseconds. All of it--the three options, the computations, the rejections, the planning--happened in no time, as though the world had been frozen just so he could sort this out.

The gun. Get the gun.

It was, he knew, his only hope. So with the man's back turned, Adam leapt from his spot toward the weapon. He stayed low, diving for it, coming closer. His hand was just inches away when a black shoe came out of nowhere and kicked the gun away.

Adam landed on the concrete with a thump. He watched helplessly as the gun skittered underneath a chest of drawers in the corner.

The gunman looked down and, just as he had done with Gabrielle, took aim.

It was over.

Adam knew that now too. His brain had gone through the various options again--roll away, grab the man's leg, try to attack--but he could see that there would not be time. He closed his eyes and winced.

And then a foot came through the window, kicking the man in the head.

Chris Taylor's foot.

The gunman stumbled to the side, but he regained his balance fast. He aimed the gun out the window and fired twice. No way to know if he had hit anything. The gunman started to turn his attention back to Adam.

But Adam was ready.

He leapt to his feet. The bike chain was still attached to his wrist. Adam used it now, swinging it blindly like a whip. It landed flush and heavy on the man's face. He cried out in pain.

Sirens. Police sirens.

Adam didn't let up. He pulled the chain back toward him as his free hand came forward in a fist. It, too, landed on the gunman's face. Blood gushed from his nose. The gunman tried to push Adam away, tried to free himself.

Uh-uh, no way.

Adam kept his body close. He wrapped the gunman up in a bear hug, his momentum still pushing him forward. They fell hard on the concrete, forcing Adam to let go. The gunman took advantage of the moment. He connected with an elbow to Adam's head.

The stars came back. So did the nearly paralyzing pain.

Nearly paralyzing.

The gunman tried to roll away, tried to put just enough space between them so he could free his gun hand. . . .

The gun, Adam thought. Just concentrate on the gun.

The sirens were getting closer.

If the man couldn't use his gun, Adam could survive this. Forget the pain. Forget the shots to the body or the head or anything like that. He had but one mission: Grab the man's wrist and stop him from being able to use the gun.

The man tried to kick his way free, but they were still tangled up just enough. The man kicked at him again. Adam's grip loosened. The man was almost free now. He was on his stomach, slipping out of Adam's grasp.

Just grab the wrist.

Without warning, Adam let go of everything. The man, thinking he was free, started to scoot away. But Adam was ready. He leapt toward the gun hand. He grabbed the wrist with both hands, pinning the arm to the concrete but leaving himself otherwise exposed.

The man took advantage of that.

He punched Adam hard in the kidney. The blow stole his breath. Jolts of hot pain surged through his nerve endings. But Adam didn't budge. The man punched him again, harder this time. Adam held on, but now he could feel his body start to shut down.

Another blow and he wouldn't be able to keep his grip.

No choice now. He would have to be more proactive.

Adam lowered his mouth toward the gun hand. He opened wide and bit down like a rabid dog on the inside of the man's wrist. The gunman howled. Adam held on with his teeth and twisted hard, ripping the thin skin.

The gun fell from the man's hand.

Adam dove for it like a drowning man after a life preserver. His hand clasped around the weapon as he felt the man punch him yet again.

But the punch was too little too late. The gun was Adam's now.

The gunman jumped onto Adam's back. Adam rolled backward toward him, swinging his gun in a big arc. The butt of the Sig Sauer landed on the man's already broken nose.

Adam stood up, pointed the gun down at the man, and said, "What did you do to my wife?"





Chapter 54


Thirty seconds later, the cops were there.

They were local guys. Johanna wasn't far behind. She'd been the one to call them, getting the location from Thomas. Adam was proud of his son. He would call him later and explain.

But not quite yet.

Adam dealt with the police. It took some time. That was okay. He could plan as he talked to them. He kept his tone even. He answered all their questions. He answered them in his best attorney voice. He followed his own lawyerly advice: Only answer what is asked.

Nothing more, nothing less.

Johanna told him that the gunman's name was John Kuntz. He was an ex-cop forced to resign. She was still putting the pieces together, but Kuntz now worked security for yet another Internet start-up that was about to go public. Apparently, his motives were financial and involved his sick kid.

Adam nodded as she spoke. He accepted treatment from an EMT, but he refused to go to the hospital. The EMT wasn't happy about that, but there wasn't much he could do. When they were winding down, Johanna put her hand on his shoulder.

"You need to see a doctor."

"I'm fine. Really."

"The cops will want to ask you more questions in the morning."

"I know."

"There'll be a ton of media too," Johanna said. "Three dead bodies."

"Yeah, I know that too." Adam checked his watch. "I better go. I called the boys, but they'll be a wreck until I get home."

"I'll give you a ride, unless you want the police to take you."

"No, that's okay," Adam said. "My car is here."

"They won't let you take it. It's evidence."

He hadn't thought of that.

"Hop in," Johanna said. "I'll drive."

They were quiet for a while. Adam fiddled with his phone for a bit, typing out an e-mail. Then he sat back. The EMT had given him something for the pain. It was making him feel groggy. He closed his eyes.

"Just rest," Johanna said.

He would, but he knew that sleep was still a long way away. "So when are you flying back?" he asked her.

"I don't know," Johanna said. "I might stick around a few more days."

"Why?" He pried his eyes open, looked at her profile. "You got the guy who killed your friend, right?"

"Right."

"That's not enough?"

"Maybe it is, but"--Johanna tilted her head--"we aren't done yet, are we, Adam?"

"Oh, I think we are."

"Still some big loose ends left dangling."

"Like you said, it's a big story now. They'll catch the stranger."

"I'm not talking about him."

He had figured as much. "You're worried about Corinne."

"And you're not?"

"Not as much," he said.

"You want to tell me why?"

Adam took his time, considering his words carefully. "Like you said, there'll be a ton of media now. Everyone will be looking for her, so she'll probably just come home. But the more I think about it, the more I think the answer was pretty obvious right from the start."

Johanna arched an eyebrow. "Do tell."

"I kept wanting it not to be my fault, you know? Her running off had to be more than it appeared. It had to be some big conspiracy involving Chris Taylor's group or something."

"And you don't think that anymore?"

"No, I don't."

"So what do you think?"

"Chris Taylor exposed my wife's most closely held and painful secret. We all know what that does to a person."

"It messes you up," Johanna said.

"Right. But more than that, a revelation that big--it strips you bare. It tears you down and takes away how you look at your life." Adam closed his eyes again. "You need time after something like that. To rebuild. To figure out what's next."

"So you think Corinne . . . ?"

"Occam's razor," Adam said. "The simplest answer is usually correct. Corinne texted that she needed time apart. It's still only been a few days. She'll come back when she's ready."

"You sound pretty sure."

Adam didn't respond.

Johanna hit her blinker and kept driving. "You want to stop and clean up before you get home? You still got blood on you."

"That's okay."

"You'll scare the boys."

"Nah," Adam said. "They're more resilient than you know."

A few minutes later, Johanna dropped him by his front door. Adam waved and waited until she drove off. He didn't go into his house. The boys weren't there anyway. When he was alone back at the lake, he had called Kristin Hoy. He asked if she could pick the boys up from school and keep them at her house for the night.

"Of course," Kristin Hoy said. "Are you okay, Adam?"

"I'm great. I appreciate this favor."

Corinne's minivan, the one that had been left in the hotel parking lot, was sitting in the driveway. Adam slipped into it. The driver's seat, too, smelled wonderfully of Corinne. The medication was wearing off, and the pain was flooding back in. He didn't care. He could deal with the pain. But he had to be sharp. He had his iPhone in his hand. The police had let him take it from the crime scene. He told them that he thought Chris Taylor had thrown his phone underneath the old chest of drawers. They'd let him reach under for it, but of course it wasn't there.

Merton's gun was.

Another police officer called down that he'd found Adam's phone upstairs. The battery had been removed. Adam put the battery back and thanked him. Merton's gun was now hidden in his waistband. The police hadn't searched him again. Why would they?

The gun had dug into his side the entire ride with Johanna, but he didn't dare move it.

He needed that gun.

He sent the e-mail he'd composed during the car ride to Andy Gribbel. The subject read: DO NOT READ UNTIL TOMORROW MORNING.

If something went wrong--and that was likely--Gribbel would read the e-mail in the morning and pass it on to both Johanna Griffin and Old Man Rinsky. He had debated telling them now, before this, but they would have stopped him. Law enforcement would have been contacted and then the suspects would circle the wagons and go silent. They'd hire attorneys like him and the truth would never come out.

He had to handle it this way.

He drove over to Beth Lutheran Church. He parked by the gymnasium exit and waited. He thought that he understood what had happened now, but something was still niggling at the base of his brain. Something still didn't feel right--hadn't felt right from the beginning.
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