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The stranger, p.27
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       The Stranger, p.27

          Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
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The shovel dug into the earth again. Then again.

"Where did you meet?" Adam asked.

Tripp tossed the dirt to the side. "Your place. I went in through the garage. Corinne came out and met me. She didn't want me in the actual house, you know? Like it was a place only for her family."

"So what did you do?"

"What do you think I did?"

Tripp looked down and smiled at the ground. Then he stepped back so Adam could see.

"I shot her."

Adam looked past him and down to the ground. His heart crumbled into dust. There, lying in the dirt, was Corinne.

"Oh no. . . ."

His legs gave way. Adam dropped next to Corinne and started brushing the dirt off her face. "Oh no. . . ." Her eyes were closed, and she was still so damn beautiful. "No . . . Corinne . . . Oh God, please . . ."

He lost it then. He placed his cheek against her cold, lifeless one and sobbed.

A small dim part of him thought about Tripp, about him still holding the shovel and maybe attacking him. Adam looked up, gun ready.

But Tripp hadn't moved.

He stood there with a small smile on his face.

"Are you ready to go now, Adam?"

"What?"

"Are you ready to go home?"

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"It's like I promised back at the office. You know the truth now. It's over. We need to bury her again."

Adam's head started spinning again. "Are you out of your mind?"

"No, my friend, but perhaps you are."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"I'm sorry about killing her. I really am. But I saw no other way out. Seriously. Like I said, we kill for our own, right? Your wife was threatening my family. What would you have done?"

"I wouldn't have stolen the money."

"It's done, Adam." His voice was like a steel gate slamming shut. "Now we both need to move on."

"You're insane."

"And you haven't thought this through." The smile came back to his lips. "The lacrosse books are a mess. No one will ever be able to untangle them. So what will the police know? You found out Corinne tricked you by faking a pregnancy. You two had a huge fight about it. The next day, she was shot in your garage. I cleaned up the blood a bit, but so what? The police will find traces of it. I used the cleaner under your sink. I threw out the bloody rags in your garbage can. Are you starting to see, Adam?"

He looked back down at Corinne's beautiful face.

"I put her body in the trunk of her own car. The shovel in my hand--doesn't it look familiar? It should. I took it from your garage."

Adam just stared down at his beautiful wife.

"And if that's not enough, the security cameras in my office corridor will show you forcing me into my car with a gun. If any of my fibers or DNA are found on the body now, well, you forced me to dig her up. You killed her, you buried her here, you parked her car near an airport, but you stayed away from an actual airport lot because everyone knows they have a ton of security cameras. Then you bought time by sending yourself a text about her running off. Then, to confuse matters more, you probably, oh I don't know, tossed her cell phone in the back of a delivery truck at, say, a Best Buy store. If anyone searched for it, they'd think she was driving somewhere, at least as long as the battery lasted. That would cause more confusion."

Adam just shook his head. "They're never going to buy that."

"Sure they will. And if not, let's be honest. You're the husband. It's a lot more logical than claiming I killed her, don't you think?"

Adam turned back to his wife. Her lips were purple. Corinne didn't look peaceful in death. She looked lost and scared and alone. He stroked her face with his hand. In one way, Tripp Evans was right. It was over, no matter what happened now. Corinne was dead. His life partner had been taken away from him forever. His sons, Ryan and Thomas, would never be the same. His boys--no, her boys--would never know the comfort and love of their mother again.

"What's done is done, Adam. It's detente now. Don't make something bad even worse."

And then Adam saw one more thing that broke his heart all over again.

Her earlobes.

Her earlobes . . . they were empty. He flashed back to that Forty-Seventh Street jewelry store, the Chinese restaurant, the waiter delivering them on the plate, the smile on her face, the way Corinne carefully took them off and left them on the night table before going to bed.

Tripp hadn't just killed her. He had stolen the diamond studs off her dead body.

"And one more thing," Tripp said.

Adam looked up at him.

"If you ever go near my family or threaten them," he said, "well, I've already shown you what I will do."

"Yes, you have."

And then Adam lifted the gun, aimed it at the center of Tripp's chest, and squeezed the trigger three times.





Chapter 56


SIX MONTHS LATER

The lacrosse game took place in the optimistically dubbed SuperDome, an air-inflated sports facility made from some sort of pliable material. Thomas was playing in an indoor league for the winter season. Ryan had come along too. He half watched his brother, half played catch in the corner with a couple of other kids. Ryan also kept looking over at his father. He did that a lot now, looked for his father, as though Adam might suddenly vanish into thin air. Adam got it, of course. He tried to reassure him, but what could he really say?

He didn't want to lie to the boys. But he wanted them to feel happy and safe.

Every parent has to deal with that balance. That hadn't changed with Corinne's death, but maybe you learn that happiness based on untruths is, at best, fleeting.

Adam watched as Johanna Griffin pushed through the glass door. She came across the back of the goal and stood alongside him facing the field.

"Thomas is number eleven, right?"

"Right," Adam said.

"How's he been playing?"

"Great. The coach of Bowdoin wants him to commit."

"Wow. Good school. He going to do it?"

Adam shrugged. "It's a six-hour drive. Before all this, yeah. But now . . ."

"He wants to stay closer to home."

"Right. Of course, we can move too. There's nothing left for us in this town."

"Why are you staying?"

"I don't know. The boys lost enough already. They grew up here. They have their school, their friends." On the field, Thomas scooped up a loose ball and started down the field. "Their mom is here too. In that house. In this town."

Johanna nodded.

Adam turned to her. "It's so great to see you."

"Same."

"When did you get in?"

"A few hours ago," Johanna said. "They're sentencing Kuntz tomorrow."

"You already know he's getting life."

"Yeah," she said. "But I want to see it happen. And I also wanted to make sure that you were officially exonerated."

"I was. I got word last week."

"I know. But I still wanted to see it for myself."

Adam nodded. Johanna looked over toward where Bob Baime and other parents sat.

"You always stand alone on the sidelines?"

"I do now," Adam said. "But I don't take it personally. You know how I told you that whole thing about living the dream?"

"Yeah."

"I'm living proof that the dream is flimsy stuff. They all know it's flimsy, of course, but no one wants to hang around a constant reminder."

They watched the game some more.

"They have nothing new on Chris Taylor," she said. "He's still on the run. But in the end, he's not exactly Public Enemy Number One. All he did was blackmail some people who don't want to press charges because their secrets will be revealed. I doubt he'd get more than probation, even if he was caught. Would you be okay with that?"

Adam shrugged. "I go round and round with it."

"How so?"

"If he'd let Corinne keep her secret, this may have never happened. So I ask myself: Did the stranger kill my wife? Or did her own decision about faking the pregnancy? Or did I, by not realizing how insecure I'd made her? You can drive yourself crazy with that kind of thinking. You can go back and look at the ripples forever. But in the end, there is only one person to blame. And that person is dead. I killed him."

Thomas passed the ball and ran to the area behind the goal known in lacrosse jargon as X. According to the medical examiner's report, the first bullet had been enough. It had pierced Tripp Evans's heart, killing him instantly. Adam could still feel the gun in his hand. He could still feel the retort when he pulled the trigger. He could still see Tripp Evans's body collapse and hear the long echoes of the gunshots in the quiet forest.

For a few seconds after the shooting, Adam had done nothing. He had sat there, numb. He hadn't thought about the repercussions. He had just wanted to stay with his wife. He had lowered his head back to his Corinne. He had kissed her cheek and closed his eyes and let himself cry.

Then a moment later, he heard Johanna say, "Adam, we need to move fast."

She had been following him. She slowly pried the gun from Adam's hand and placed it in Tripp Evans's. She looped her finger over his and fired off three shots, so that there would be gun residue on Tripp's hand. She picked up Tripp's other hand and used it to scratch Adam, making sure that DNA got beneath his fingernails. Adam just followed her orders in a daze. They came up with a story of self-defense. It wasn't perfect. There were holes and plenty of skepticism, but in the end, the physical evidence, along with Johanna's own testimony of overhearing Tripp Evans's confession, made it impossible to get an indictment.

Adam was free.

Still, you live with what you've done. He had killed a man. You don't get a free pass on something like that. It haunted him at night, robbed him of sleep. He understood that he had had no choice. As long as Tripp Evans was alive, he was a threat to Adam's family. And something primitive in him even took satisfaction in what he'd done, in avenging his wife, in protecting his boys.

"Can I ask you something?" he said.

"Sure."

"Do you sleep okay?"

Johanna Griffin smiled. "No, not really."

"I'm sorry."

She shrugged. "I may not sleep well, but I would sleep a lot worse if you spent the rest of your life in prison. I made a choice when I saw you in the woods. I think I made the choice that lets me sleep best."

"Thank you," he said.

"Don't worry about it."

There was something else that had always bothered Adam, but he never spoke about it. Tripp Evans in the end--did he really think his plan would work? Did he really think Adam would simply let him get away with killing his wife? Did he really think it was wise to threaten his family like that when Adam was kneeling beside his dead wife with a gun in his hand?

After his death, Tripp's family had been on the receiving end of a huge death-benefit payout. The Evans family stayed in town. They got support. Everyone in Cedarfield, even those who believed Tripp was a murderer, rallied around Becky and the kids.

Had Tripp known that would happen?

Had Tripp, in the end, wanted Adam to kill him?

The game was tied with a minute left.

Johanna Griffin said, "Funny, though."

"What?"

"It was all about secrets. That was the whole thing with Chris Taylor and his group. They wanted to rid the world of secrets. And now you and I have been forced to keep the biggest secret of all."

They both stood and watched the time ticking down. With thirty seconds to go, Thomas scored a goal to break the tie. The crowd erupted. Adam didn't leap for joy. But he did smile. He turned toward Ryan. Ryan was smiling too. So, he bet, under the helmet, was Thomas.

"Maybe that's what I really came for," Johanna said.

"What's that?"

"To see you all smile."

Adam nodded. "Maybe."

"Are you a religious man, Adam?"

"Not really."

"Doesn't matter. You don't have to believe that she actually sees her boys smile." Johanna kissed his cheek and started to walk away. "You just have to believe that she'd want to."





ACKNOWLEDGMENTS


The author wishes to acknowledge the following in no particular order because he can't remember exactly who helped with what: Anthony Dellapelle, Tom Gorman, Kristi Szudlo, Joe and Nancy Scanlon, Ben Sevier, Brian Tart, Christine Ball, Jamie Knapp, Diane Discepolo, Lisa Erbach Vance, and Rita Wilson. As always, any mistakes are theirs. Hey, they're the experts. Why should I take all the heat?

I'd also like to give a quick shout-out to John Bonner, Freddie Friednash, Leonard Gilman, Andy Gribbel, Johanna Griffin, Rick Gusherowski, Heather and Charles Howell III, Kristin Hoy, John Kuntz, Norbert Pendergast, Sally Perryman, and Paul Williams, JP. These people (or their loved ones) made generous contributions to charities of my choosing in return for having their names appear in this novel. If you'd like to participate in the future, visit HarlanCoben.com or e-mail giving@harlancoben.com for details.





ABOUT THE AUTHOR


HARLAN COBEN is the internationally bestselling author of more than twenty previous novels, including the #1 New York Times bestsellers Missing You, Six Years, Stay Close, Live Wire, Caught, Long Lost, and Hold Tight as well as the Myron Bolitar series and, more recently, a series aimed at young adults, featuring Myron's nephew, Mickey Bolitar. The winner of the Edgar, Shamus, and Anthony Awards, he lives in New Jersey.





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