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The stranger, p.26
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       The Stranger, p.26

          Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
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He took out his phone, brought up Corinne's text, and read it once again: MAYBE WE NEED SOME TIME APART. YOU TAKE CARE OF THE KIDS. DON'T TRY TO CONTACT ME. IT WILL BE OKAY.

He was about to read it again when Bob "Gaston" Baime came sauntering out. He said good night to the other guys with high fives and knuckle pounds. He wore shorts that were too short. A towel was draped around his neck. Adam waited patiently until Bob was close to his car. Then Adam got out and said, "Hey, Bob."

Bob turned toward him. "Hey, Adam. Whoa, you startled me there. What's--?"

Adam punched him hard in the mouth, knocking the big man onto the driver's seat. Bob's eyes went wide with shock. Adam came up to his door and stuck the gun in his face.

"Don't move."

Bob's hand was on his mouth, stemming the flow of blood. Adam opened the car door behind him and slid him into the backseat. He pressed the gun against Bob's neck.

"What the hell are you doing, Adam?"

"Tell me where my wife is."

"What?"

Adam pushed the muzzle of the gun into the back of his neck. "Just give me a reason."

"I don't know where your wife is."

"CBW Inc., Bob."

Silence.

"You hired them, didn't you?"

"I don't know what--"

Adam struck him in the bony part of the shoulder with the butt of the gun.

"Ow!"

"Tell me about CBW."

"Goddamn it, that hurt. That hurt a lot."

"CBW is your cousin Daz's investigation firm. You hired him to dig up dirt on Corinne."

Bob closed his eyes and moaned.

"Didn't you?"

Adam hit him again with the gun.

"Tell me the truth or I swear I'll shoot you dead."

Bob lowered his head. "I'm sorry, Adam."

"Tell me what happened."

"I didn't mean it. It was just . . . I needed something, you know?"

Adam pressed the gun against his neck. "Needed what?"

"Something on Corinne."

"Why?"

The big man went quiet.

"Why did you need something on my wife?"

"Go ahead, Adam."

"What?"

Bob turned and faced him. "Pull the trigger. I want you to. I got nothing anymore. I can't find work. Our house is in foreclosure. Melanie is going to leave me. Go ahead. Please. I bought a good insurance policy from Cal. The boys will be better off."

And then the niggling started up again.

The boys . . .

Adam froze and thought about Corinne's text.

The boys . . .

"Do it, Adam. Pull the trigger."

Adam shook his head. "Why did you hurt my wife?"

"Because she was trying to hurt me."

"What are you talking about?"

"The stolen money, Adam."

"What about it?"

"Corinne. She was going to pin it on me. And if she did, what chance would I have against her? I mean, come on. Corinne is this nice schoolteacher. Everyone loves her. And me, I'm the one out of a job with the house in foreclosure. Who would believe me over her?"

"So you figured, what, get her before she got you?"

"I had to fight back. So I told Daz. I asked him to look into her, that's all. He didn't find anything. Of course not, right? Corinne's Little Miss Perfect. So Daz says to me that he'd put her name out there with some of his"--he made quote marks in the air--"'unorthodox sources.' He ended up getting a hit with some weird group. But they had their own rules. They have to reveal the dirt themselves."

"Did you steal the money, Bob?"

"No. But who'd believe me? And then Tripp confided in me what Corinne was doing--that she was trying to pin the whole thing on me."

And then the niggling in Adam's brain stopped.

The boys . . .

Adam's throat went dry. "Tripp?"

"Yeah."

"Tripp said Corinne was trying to pin it on you?"

"Right. He said we needed something, that's all."

Tripp Evans. Who had five kids. Three boys. Two girls.

The kids . . .

The boys . . .

He thought about that text one more time: MAYBE WE NEED SOME TIME APART. YOU TAKE CARE OF THE KIDS.

Corinne never referred to Thomas and Ryan as "the kids."

She always said "the boys."





Chapter 55


The agony in Adam's head had grown monstrous, grotesque.

Every step sent a fresh lightning bolt through his head. The EMT had given him a few pills to hold him over. He was tempted to take them, grogginess be damned.

But he had to hold on.

Just as he had two days before, he drove past MetLife Stadium and pulled into the low-rent office space. That awful Jersey swamp smell smacked him in the face again. The snapped-together rubberized flooring squeaked under his feet. He knocked on the same ground-level office door.

And again when Tripp opened the door, he said, "Adam?"

And again Adam said, "Why did my wife call you that morning?"

"What? Jesus, you look awful. What happened?"

"Why did Corinne call you?"

"I told you already." Tripp stepped back. "Come in and sit down. Is that blood on your shirt?"

Adam entered the office. He hadn't gotten inside before. Tripp had tried his best to keep him out. Little wonder. The office was a dump. One room. The carpet was worn. The wallpaper was peeling. The computer was dated.

Living in a town like Cedarfield cost big bucks. How had Adam not seen the truth before?

"I know, Tripp."

"Know what?" He studied Adam's face. "You need to see a doctor."

"You stole the lacrosse money, not Corinne."

"Jesus, you got blood all over you."

"Everything was the opposite of what you told me. You asked Corinne for time, not the other way around. And you used that time to set her up. I don't know how exactly. You altered the books, I guess. Hid the stolen money, whatever. You turned everyone else on the board against her. You even told Bob that she was going to pin it on him."

"Listen to me, Adam. Sit down, okay? Let's just talk this out."

"I keep thinking about Corinne's reaction when I confronted her about faking the pregnancy. She didn't bother denying it. What she really wanted to know is how I found out. She figured that you were behind it somehow. Sending her a warning. That's why she called you. To let you know she'd had enough. What did you say back to her, Tripp?"

He didn't bother replying.

"Did you beg her for one more chance? Did you ask her to meet you so you could explain?"

"You got some imagination, Adam."

Adam shook his head and tried to hold it together. "All that philosophizing to me about how the sweet old lady or sports board member rationalizes embezzling funds. How it begins small. Gas money, you said. A coffee at the diner." Adam moved a step closer. "Is that how it went for you?"

"I really have no idea what you're talking about."

Adam swallowed and felt the tears start to come. "She's dead, isn't she?"

Silence.

"You killed my wife."

"You can't really believe that."

But Adam could feel his body start to quake from the truth. "We're living the dream, right? Isn't that what you always say, Tripp? How lucky we all are, how thankful we should be. You married Becky, your high school sweetheart. You have five wonderful kids. You'd do anything to protect them, wouldn't you? What would happen to your precious dream if it got out that you're nothing but a thief?"

Tripp Evans straightened up and pointed at the door. "Get out of my office."

"It came down to you or Corinne. That's how you saw it. Your family gets destroyed. Or mine. For a guy like you, the choice was easy."

Tripp's tone was colder now. "Get out."

"That text you sent pretending to be her. I should have seen it right away."

"What are you talking about?"

"You killed her. And then, to buy time, you sent that text. I was supposed to read it and figure she was blowing off steam--and if I didn't believe that, if I thought something happened to her, the police wouldn't pay attention. They'd see the text. They'd learn we just had a giant fight. They wouldn't even bother filling out a report. You knew all that."

Tripp shook his head. "You got it wrong."

"I wish I did."

"You can't prove this. You can't prove any of this."

"Prove? Maybe not. But I know." Adam held up his cell phone. "'You take care of the kids.'"

"What?"

"That's what the text says. 'You take care of the kids.'"

"So?"

"So Corinne never called Thomas and Ryan the kids." He smiled even as his heart sank. "It was always the boys. That's what they were. Not her kids. Her boys. Corinne never wrote that text. You did. You killed her and then you sent that text so no one would start looking for her right away."

"That's your proof?" Tripp almost laughed. "You really think anyone is going to believe that crazy story?"

"Doubt it."

Adam lifted the gun out of his pocket and took aim.

Tripp's eyes went wide. "Whoa, just calm down and listen a second."

"I don't really need to hear more of your lies, Tripp."

"Just . . . Becky is meeting me here in a few minutes."

"Oh, good." Adam moved the gun closer to the man's face. "What would your little philosophizing say about that? Eye for an eye maybe?"

For the first time, Tripp Evans's mask slipped off and Adam could see the darkness beneath. "You wouldn't hurt her."

Adam just stared at him. Tripp stared back. For a second, neither of them moved. Then something changed in Tripp. Adam could see it. Tripp began to nod to himself. He leaned back and grabbed his car keys.

"Let's go," Tripp said.

"What?"

"I don't want you here when Becky arrives. Let's go."

"So where are we going?"

"You wanted the truth, right?"

"If this is some sort of trick . . ."

"It's not. You'll see the truth with your own eyes, Adam. Then you can do whatever you want. That's the deal. But we gotta go right now. I don't want Becky hurt, do you understand?"

They started out the door. Adam walked a step behind. He kept the gun on Tripp for a few seconds, but then he realized how that might look if someone walked by, so he put the gun in his jacket pocket. He still pointed it at Tripp through the pocket, like some guy in a bad movie using his finger to pretend he had a gun.

When they stepped outside, a familiar Dodge Durango pulled into the lot. Both men froze as Becky pulled in. Tripp whispered, "If you touch a hair on her head . . ."

"Just get rid of her," Adam said.

Becky Evans had the cheerful smile on her face. She waved with too much enthusiasm and pulled up next to them.

"Hey, Adam," Becky called out.

She was still so damn cheerful.

"Hey, Becky."

"What are you doing here?"

Adam looked toward Tripp. Tripp said, "Something came up with the sixth-grade boys' game."

"I thought that was tomorrow night."

"Well, that's just it. We might get kicked out of the whole tournament because of some registration problem. Adam and I are just going to take a ride over there and see if we can work it out."

"Oh, that's a shame. We were going to go out to dinner."

"We still will, hon. It shouldn't take more than an hour or two. We'll go to Baumgart's when I get home, okay? Just the two of us."

Becky nodded, but for the first time, the smile faltered. "Sure." She turned to Adam. "Take care, Adam."

"You too."

"Give my best to Corinne. We really need to go out soon, the four of us."

Adam managed to say, "I'd like that."

With another cheery wave, Becky drove off. Tripp watched her. His eyes were wet. When she was out of sight, he started walking again. Adam followed. Tripp took out his key and unlocked the car. He got in on the driver's side. Adam took the seat next to him. He pulled the gun out of his pocket and pointed it at Tripp again. Tripp seemed calmer now. He hit the accelerator and started out on Route 3.

"Where are we going?" Adam asked.

"Mahlon Dickerson Reservation."

"Near Lake Hopatcong?"

"Yes."

"Corinne's family used to have a house there," Adam said. "When she was little."

"I know. Becky went with her when they were in third grade. It's why I chose it."

Adam's adrenaline began to ebb. The dull, thudding ache in his head returned with renewed energy. Dizziness and exhaustion sapped him. Tripp veered onto Interstate 80. Adam blinked and gripped the gun tighter. He knew this ride and calculated that they were about a half hour away from the reservation. The sun had started to set, but they probably had another hour at least of daylight.

His cell phone rang. He checked the caller ID and saw it was Johanna Griffin. He didn't answer it. They drove some more in silence. When they reached the exit for Route 15, Tripp said, "Adam?"

"Yeah."

"Don't do that again."

"Don't do what?"

"Don't ever threaten my family."

"Ironic," Adam said, "coming from you."

Tripp turned, met his eye, and said it again: "Don't ever threaten my family."

His tone sent a chill down Adam's back.

Tripp Evans turned back to the road. He had both hands on the wheel. He took Weldon Road and then veered off onto a dirt road into the woods. He parked up along the trees and turned off the ignition. Adam kept his gun ready.

"Come on," Tripp said, opening the car door. "Let's get this over with."

He stepped out of the car. Adam did the same, making sure to keep the gun pointed at Tripp. If he was going to try something, here, alone in the woods, was probably his best chance. But Tripp didn't hesitate. He trekked into the woods. There was no path, but they could still make their way. Tripp walked steadily, with purpose. Adam tried to keep up, but in his condition, it was hard going. He wondered whether this would be Tripp's big move--to get farther and farther ahead of him and then make a run for it, maybe sneak up on Adam as it got darker.

"Slow down," Adam said.

"You want the truth, don't you?" Tripp's tone was almost singsong. "Keep up."

"Your office," Adam said.

"What about it? Oh, it's a shit hole, is that what you're thinking?"

"I thought you'd done well at some big Madison Avenue firm," Adam said.

"I was there for about five minutes before they laid me off. See, I always figured that I'd have a job for life with my dad's sporting goods store. Put all my eggs in that basket. When that went south, I lost everything. Yeah, I tried to put out my own shingle, but, well, you just saw the results of that."

"You were broke."

"Yep."

"And there was enough money in the lacrosse treasury."

"Way more than enough. You know Sydney Gallonde? Rich guy I went to Cedarfield High with? Sucked at lacrosse. Rode the bench. He gave us a hundred grand because I worked him. Me. There were other donors too. When I came in, the organization could barely buy a goalpost. Now we have turf fields and uniforms and . . ." Tripp stopped talking. "I guess you think I'm just rationalizing again."

"You are."

"Maybe, Adam. But you're not naive enough to think the world is black-and-white."

"Hardly."

"It is always us against them. That's what all of life is. We fight wars for that reason. We make decisions every day to protect our own loved ones, even if it means hardships for others. You buy your boy a new pair of cleats for lacrosse. Maybe you could have used that money to save a starving child in Africa. But no, you let that child starve. Us against them. We all do this."

"Tripp?"

"What?"

"This really isn't a good time for your bullshit."

"Yeah, you're right." Tripp stopped in the middle of the woods, knelt down, and started feeling his way around on the ground. His hand pushed away the brush and leaves. Adam readied his gun and took two steps back.

"I'm not going to attack you, Adam. There's no need."

"What are you doing?"

"I'm looking for something. . . . Ah, here it is."

He stood up.

Holding a shovel.

Adam's legs went rubbery. "Oh no. . . ."

Tripp just stood there. "You were right. In the end, it came to my family or yours. Only one could survive. So let me ask you, Adam. What would you have done?"

Adam just shook his head. "No. . . ."

"You got most of it right. I did take the money, but I had every intention of paying it back. I won't go through the justification again. Corinne found out. I begged her not to say anything, that it would ruin my life. I was trying to buy time. But really, there was no way I could repay that money. Not yet. So yeah, I have a background in bookkeeping. I did it at my dad's store for years. I started to change the books so the finger pointed more at her. Corinne didn't know about it, of course. She actually listened to me and kept quiet. She didn't even tell you, did she?"

"No," Adam said. "She didn't."

"So I went to Bob and Cal and then, with great pretend regret, Len. I told all of them Corinne had stolen the lacrosse funds. Strangely enough, Bob was the one who didn't really buy it. So I told him that when I confronted Corinne, she said it was him."

"And then Bob went to his cousin."

"I didn't count on that."

"Where is Corinne now?"

"You're standing right where I buried her."

Just like that.

Adam made himself look down. Vertigo took over. He didn't bother to steady himself. The earth beneath his feet, he could see, had recently been disturbed. He collapsed to the side, leaning against a tree, his breath hitching in his chest.

"You okay, Adam?"

He swallowed and lifted the gun. Keep it together, keep it together, keep it together. . . .

"Start digging," Adam said.

"What good is that going to do? I already told you she's there."

Still dizzy, Adam staggered toward him and put the gun right in his face. "Start digging now."

Tripp shrugged and walked past him. Adam kept the gun on him, trying hard to not even blink. Tripp pierced the dirt with the shovel, scooped up the dirt, tossed it to the side.

"Tell me the rest of it," Adam said.

"You know the rest of it, don't you? After you confronted her about faking the pregnancy, Corinne was furious. She'd had enough. She was going to tell what I'd done. So I told her, okay, fair enough, I'll come forward. I said, let's just meet at lunchtime and go over it, so we're on the same page. She was reluctant, but hey, I can be persuasive."
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