The stranger, p.3
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       The Stranger, p.3

           Harlan Coben

  Adam wanted to simply say no and move on. Whatever their problems, whatever scars were left from eighteen years of marriage, he trusted her. Many things slipped away with time, broke down and dissolved or, more optimistically, altered and changed, but the one thing that seems to remain and grow more cohesive is the protective family bond--you are a team, you and your spouse. You are on the same side, in this together, you have each other's backs. Your victories are hers. So are your failures.

  Adam trusted Corinne with his life. And yet . . .

  He had seen it a million times in his line of work. Put simply, people fool you. He and Corinne might be a cohesive unit, but they were also individuals. It would be nice to trust unconditionally and forget the stranger ever appeared--Adam was tempted to do just that--but that felt a tad too much like the proverbial sticking your head in the sand. The voice of doubt in the back of his head might one day quiet, but it would never go away.

  Not until he knew for sure.

  The stranger had claimed that the proof was in this seemingly harmless Visa charge. He owed it to himself and, yep, Corinne (she wouldn't want the voice around either, would she?) to follow up, so Adam called the Visa's toll-free number. The recorded voice made him dial in the card number, the expiration date, and the CVV code number on the back. It tried to give him the information via a machine, but eventually the recorded voice asked whether he'd like to speak to a representative. Representative. Like he was calling Congress. He said, "Yes," and heard the phone ring through.

  When the representative came on, she made him repeat the exact same information--why do they always do that?--along with the last four numbers of his social security and his address.

  "What can I help you with today, Mr. Price?"

  "There's a charge on my Visa card from a company called Novelty Funsy."

  She asked him to spell funsy. Then: "Do you have the amount and date of the transaction?"

  Adam gave her the information. He expected some pushback when he said the date--the charge was more than two years old--but the representative didn't comment on that.

  "What information do you need, Mr. Price?"

  "I don't recall buying anything from a company called Novelty Funsy."

  "Um," the representative said.


  "Um, some companies don't bill under their real name. You know, to be discreet. Like when you go to a hotel and they tell you the name of the movie won't be on your phone bill."

  She was talking about pornography or something involving sex. "That's not the case here."

  "Well, let's see what's what, then." The clacking of her keyboard came over the phone line. "Novelty Funsy is listed as an online retailer. That usually indicates that it is a company that values privacy. Does that help?"

  Yes and no. "Is there any way to ask them for a detailed receipt?"

  "Certainly. It may take a few hours."

  "I guess that's okay."

  "We have an e-mail for you on file." She read off his address. "Should we send it there?"

  "That would be great."

  The representative asked whether she could assist him with any other matter. He said no, thanks. She wished him a good evening. He hung up the phone and stared at the charge screen. Novelty Funsy. Now that he thought about it, the name did sound like a discreet name for a sex shop.


  It was Thomas. Adam quickly reached for the screen's off switch like, well, one of his sons watching porn.

  "Hey," Adam said, the very essence of casual. "What's up?"

  If his son found his father's behavior bizarre, he didn't show it. Teens were ridiculously clueless and self-involved. Right now, Adam appreciated that. What Thomas's father did on the Internet couldn't be the least bit interesting to him.

  "Can you give me a ride to Justin's?"


  "He has my shorts."

  "What shorts?"

  "My practice shorts. For practice tomorrow."

  "Can't you wear other shorts?"

  Thomas looked at his father as though a horn had sprung out of his forehead. "Coach says we have to wear the practice shorts to practice."

  "Can't Justin just bring them to school tomorrow?"

  "He was supposed to bring them today. He forgets."

  "So what did you use today?"

  "Kevin had an extra pair. His brother's. They were too big on me."

  "Can't you tell Justin to put them in his backpack right now?"

  "I could, yeah, but he won't do it. It's only like four blocks. I could use the practice driving anyway."

  Thomas had gotten his learner's permit a week ago--the parental equivalent of a stress test without using an actual EKG machine. "Okay, I'll be down in a sec." Adam cleared the history on the browser and headed downstairs. Jersey was hoping for another walk and gave them the pitiful "I can't believe you're not taking me with you" eyes as they hurried past her. Thomas grabbed the keys and got behind the wheel.

  Adam was now able to let go when he sat in the passenger seat. Corinne was too much of a control freak. She would keep shouting out instructions and cautions. She almost put her foot through the imaginary passenger-side brake. As Thomas pulled onto the street, Adam turned and studied his son's profile. Some acne was forming on his cheeks. There was faint hair growing down the side of his face, Abe Lincoln's lines if not thickness, but his son had to shave now. Not every day. Not more than once a week, but it was there. Thomas wore cargo shorts. His legs were hairy. He had beautiful blue eyes, his son. Everyone commented on them. They had the sparkling blue of ice.

  Thomas pulled into the driveway, drifting a little close to the right curb.

  "I'll be two seconds," he said.


  Thomas put the car in park and sprinted toward the front door. Justin's mom, Kristin Hoy, opened it--Adam could see the bright shock of blond hair--and that surprised him. Kristin taught at the same high school as Corinne. The two women had grown pretty close. Adam had figured that she'd be down in Atlantic City, but then he remembered that this conference was for history and languages. Kristin taught math.

  Kristin smiled and waved. He waved back. Thomas vanished into the house as Kristin started down the path toward the car. Politically incorrect as it sounded, Kristin Hoy was a MILF. Adam had overheard a bunch of Thomas's friends saying that, though he could have figured it out on his own. Right now, she was sashaying toward him in painted-on jeans and a tight white top. She was some sort of competitive bodybuilder. Adam wasn't sure what kind. Her name had a bunch of letters after it, and she had earned the distinction of being a "pro," whatever that exactly entailed. Adam had never been a fan of the muscular weight lifting women of old, and in some of her competitive pictures, Kristin did indeed look a little corded and cut. The hair was a little too blond, the smile a little too white, the tan a little too orange, but the look worked pretty damn well in person.

  "Hey, Adam."

  He wasn't sure whether he should get out of the car. He settled for staying in his seat. "Hey, Kristin."

  "Corinne still away?"


  "But she's back tomorrow, right?"


  "Okay, I'll touch base with her. We have to train. I've got the states in two weeks."

  On her Facebook page, she claimed to be a "fitness model" and "WBFF Pro." Corinne envied her body. They had started working out together recently. Like most things that were good or bad for you, you reach a stage where what started as a happy habit turns into something of an obsession.

  Thomas was back with the shorts.

  "'Bye, Thomas."

  "'Bye, Mrs. Hoy."

  "Have a good night, boys. Don't have too much fun with Mom away."

  She sashayed back toward the house.

  Thomas said, "She's kind of annoying."

  "That's not nice."

  "You oughta see their kitchen."

  "Why? What's wrong with their kitchen?"

  "She has bikini
pictures of herself on the fridge," Thomas said. "It's gross."

  Hard to argue. As Thomas pulled out, a small smile tugged at his lips.

  "What?" Adam said.

  "Kyle calls her a butterface," Thomas said.


  "Mrs. Hoy."

  Adam wondered if that was a new term for MILF or something. "What's a butterface?"

  "It's what you call someone who's not pretty--but she has a good body."

  "I'm not following," Adam said.

  "Butterface." Then Thomas spoke slowly. "But. Her. Face."

  Adam tried not to smile as he shook his head in disapproval. He was about to admonish his son--wondering exactly how to do so and keep a straight face--when his cell phone rang. He looked down at the caller ID.

  It was Corinne.

  He hit the ignore button. He should pay attention to his son's driving. Corinne would understand. He was about to put his phone in his pocket when he felt it vibrate. Fast for a voice mail, he thought, but no, it was an e-mail from his bank. He opened it. There were links to see the detailed purchases, but Adam barely noticed them.

  "Dad? You okay?"

  "Keep your eyes on the road, Thomas."

  He would go through it in detail when he got home, but right now, the top line of the e-mail said more than he wanted to know.

  Novelty Funsy is a billing name for the following online retailer:

  Chapter 4

  When he was back home and in his office nook, Adam hit the link in the e-mail and watched the website come up.

  Adam tried not to react. He knew that the Internet catered to every peccadillo and taste, even ones that defied the imagination, but the fact that there was an entire website based on faking a pregnancy was yet another one of the moments when a rational human being just wants to surrender and cry and admit that our worst instincts have won.

  Underneath the large pink lettering, in a slightly smaller font, was the tagline: FUNNIEST GAGS EVER!


  He clicked on the link for the "featured products you purchased!" The top item was for a "SUPER NEW Fake Pregnancy Test!" Adam just shook his head. The normal price of $34.95 had a red slash through it in favor of the sale price $19.99, and then, in black italics underneath that, "You save $15!"

  Well, great, thanks for the savings. I sure hope my wife didn't pay retail!

  The item shipped in twenty-four hours with "discreet packaging." He read farther down the page: Use it the same way you would a real pregnancy test!

  Urinate on the strip and read the results!

  They show up positive every time!

  Adam's mouth felt dry.

  Scare the bejesus out of your boyfriend or your in-laws or your cousin or your professor!

  Cousin and professor? Who the hell wants to scare a cousin or professor into thinking . . . Adam didn't even want to go there.

  There was a warning in small print on the bottom.

  CAUTION: This item has the potential to be used irresponsibly. By completing and submitting the form below, you agree not to use this product for purposes that may be illegal, immoral, fraudulent, or hurtful to others.

  Incredible. He clicked the item image and zoomed in on the packaging. The test was a white strip with a red cross indicating pregnancy. Adam racked his brain. Was that the test Corinne had used? He didn't remember. Had he even bothered looking? He couldn't be sure. They all looked the same anyway, didn't they?

  But he did recall now that Corinne had done the test while he was home.

  That was new for her. With Thomas and Ryan, Corinne had greeted him at the door with a big smile and told him the news. But this last time, she had wanted him there. He remembered that. He had been lying in bed, flipping stations on the television. She had gone into the bathroom. He thought the test might take a few minutes, but that wasn't the case. She had come running out of the bathroom with the strip.

  "Adam, look! I'm pregnant!"

  Had the strip looked like this?

  He didn't know.

  Adam clicked the second link and just dropped his head into his hands.


  These came in various sizes: First trimester (1-12 weeks), second trimester (13-27 weeks), third trimester (28-40 weeks). There was also an extra-large size and one for twins, triplets, and even quadruplets. There was a photograph of a beautiful woman gazing lovingly at her "pregnant" belly. She wore wedding-gown white and held lilies in her hand.

  The sales pitch on the top read:

  Nothing throws you in the spotlight like being pregnant!

  And underneath that, a less subtle pitch: Get better presents!

  The product was made of "medical-grade silicone" that the site described as "the closest thing to skin invented so far!" On the bottom, there were video testimonials from "real Fake-A-Pregnancy clients." Adam clicked on one. A pretty brunette smiled into the camera and said, "Hi! I love my silicone belly. It's so natural!" She went on to explain that it had arrived in just two business days (not quite as fast as the pregnancy test, but you wouldn't need it as fast, would you?) and that she and her husband were adopting and didn't want their friends to know. The second woman--this time a thin redhead--explained that she and her husband were using a surrogate and didn't want their friends to know (Adam hoped, then, for their sakes that their friends were not creepy enough to frequent this website and out them). The final testimonial was from a woman who used the fake belly to play "the funniest joke ever" on her friends.

  She must have some pretty strange friends.

  Adam clicked back to the cart page. The last item listed was . . . oh man . . . fake ultrasound sonograms.

  2-D or 3-D! Your choice!

  The fake sonograms were on sale for $29.99. Glossy, matte, or even a transparency. There were fields so you could type in a doctor's name, a hospital's or clinic's name, and the date of the ultrasound. You could choose your fetus's gender or just the odds ("Male--80% certainty"), not to mention their ages, twins, you name it. For an extra $4.99, you could "add a hologram to your fake sonogram to make it appear more authentic."

  He felt sick. Had Corinne splurged for the hologram? Adam couldn't remember.

  Again the website tried to make it seem like people would buy this for laughs. "Perfect for Bachelor Parties!" Yeah, what a knee-slapper. "Perfect for Birthday Parties and even Christmas Gags!" Christmas gag? Wrap up a fake pregnancy test and leave it under the tree for Mom and Dad. Laughs galore.

  Of course, the "gag" talk was a cover for lawsuit protection. There was no way this site didn't know that people were using it for purposes of deception.

  That's it, Adam. Keep showing outrage. Keep ignoring the obvious.

  That dazed feeling was back. There was nothing more to be done tonight. He would go to bed. He would lie down and think about it. Don't do anything rash. Too much was at stake. Stay calm. Block, if you have to.

  He walked past both of his sons' bedrooms as he headed toward his own. Their rooms, this whole house, suddenly seemed so fragile, made of eggshells, and if he wasn't careful, what the stranger had told him could crush them all.

  He entered the bedroom that he shared with his wife. A trade paperback of some debut literary novel by a Pakistani woman sat on Corinne's night table. A copy of Real Simple magazine with folded pages for bookmarks lay next to it. There was an extra set of reading glasses. The prescription was pretty light, and Corinne didn't like wearing them in public. The clock radio was also a charging dock for her iPhone. Adam and Corinne had similar tastes in music. Springsteen was a favorite. They'd seen a dozen live shows. Adam always lost it at some point, getting so caught up in the music that he lost control. Corinne focused and concentrated. She stood and she might move a little, but mostly her eyes were on the stage.

  Adam, meanwhile, danced around like an idiot.

  He headed into the bathroom and brushed his teeth. Corinne used some newfangled sonic boom ele
ctric toothbrush that looked like something from NASA. Adam stayed old-school. A box of L'Oreal sat out. He could still get a whiff of the chemical smell from the hair dye. Corinne had probably touched up the gray before heading down to Atlantic City. The gray seemed to come in one long strand at a time. For a while, she would pull them out and study them. Then she'd frown, hold up the hair, and say, "It has the texture and color of steel wool."

  His mobile rang. He checked the caller ID, but he already knew who it was. He spit out the toothpaste, quickly rinsed, and picked it up.

  "Hey," he said.


  It was, of course, Corinne.


  "I called before," she said. He could hear the slight panic in her voice. "Why didn't you answer?"

  "Thomas was driving. I wanted to focus."


  In the background, he could hear music and laughter. She was probably still at the bar with her colleagues.

  "So how did it go tonight?" she asked.

  "Fine. He's on the team."

  "How was Bob?"

  "What do you mean, how was Bob? He was a buffoon. As always."

  "You have to be nice to him, Adam."

  "No, I don't."

  "He wants to move Ryan to middie so he doesn't compete with Bob Junior. Don't give him an excuse."



  "It's late and I got a big day tomorrow. Can we talk tomorrow?"

  Someone in the background--a male someone--broke into guffaws of laughter.

  "Everything okay?" she asked.

  "Fine," he said before he hung up.

  He rinsed off the toothbrush and washed his face. Two years ago, when Thomas was fourteen and Ryan ten, Corinne had gotten pregnant. It had been a surprise. Adam had some issues with a low sperm count as he got older, so their birth control had been closest to the silent-prayer method. This was, of course, irresponsible on their part. At the time, he and Corinne had never discussed the fact that they wouldn't have more children. It just seemed--up to that point anyway--to be an unspoken agreement between them.

  Adam caught his reflection in the mirror. The voice in the back of his head was starting up again. He quietly padded back down the hall. He brought up the web browser and searched for DNA test. The first one was sold at Walgreens. He was about to hit the order button and then thought better of it. Someone might open the box. He'd pick it up tomorrow.

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