The stranger, p.6
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       The Stranger, p.6

           Harlan Coben

  Adam nodded slowly. "I do."

  "So that's it, Adam." Cal spread his hands. "That's the whole home-field advantage in a nutshell--the human desire to conform and be liked."

  "And so you yell at the referees--"

  "At away games," he interrupted. "I mean, we need to keep our advantage at home. But at away games, sure, scientifically speaking, you need it for balance. Staying quiet could actually hurt you."

  Adam looked away.



  "No, I want to hear it. You're an attorney, right? You work in an adversarial business."

  "I do."

  "And you do what you can to influence the judge or opposing counsel."

  "I do."


  "Nothing. I got your point."

  "But you don't agree with it."

  "I don't really want to get into it."

  "But the data is pretty clear."


  "So what's your issue?"

  Adam hesitated and then figured, why not. "It's just a game, Cal. Home-field advantage is part of it. It's why we play half of the games home, half away. So it balances out. In my view--and hey, it's only mine--you're justifying bad behavior. Let it just play out, bad calls and all. It's a better example to the boys than screaming at referees. And if we lose an extra game or two a year, which I doubt, it's a small price to pay for decorum and dignity, don't you think?"

  Cal Gottesman started working up his counter when Thomas came out of the locker room. Adam held up a hand and said, "No big deal, Cal, just my take. Excuse me, okay?"

  Adam hurried back to the car and watched his son cross the field. There is a definite walk when you feel good about a win. Thomas stood more upright, a bounce in his step. There was a hint of a smile on his face. Thomas didn't want to let that joy out, Adam knew, until he was in the car. He waved to a few friends, ever the politician. Ryan was on the quiet side, but Thomas could be mayor of this town.

  Thomas threw his lacrosse bag into the backseat. The stink from the much-sweated-in pads began their assault. Adam slid open the windows. That did some good, but after a game in the warm weather, it was never enough.

  Thomas waited for them to get about a block away before allowing his face to light up. "Did you see that first goal?"

  Adam grinned. "Sick."

  "Yeah. Only my second goal using my left."

  "It was a nice move. The game winner was sweet too."

  They went on like this for quite some time. Some might think it was being boastful. It was actually the opposite. With his teammates and coaches, Thomas was modest and generous. He always gave credit to someone else--the guy who made the pass, the kid who made the steal--and grew shy and embarrassed whenever he was made the center of attention on an athletic field.

  But alone with his family, Thomas felt comfortable cutting loose. He loved to go into details about the game, not just about his goals but about the entirety of play, what the other kids said, who had played well, who hadn't. Home was a secure haven for that--a familial cone of honesty, if you will. Corny as it sounded, that was what family should be. He didn't have to worry about sounding like a braggart or a phony or any of that. He just spoke freely.

  "He's home!" Corinne shouted as Thomas walked through the door. He shrugged his lax bag off his shoulder and left it in the mudroom. Thomas let his mother hug him.

  "Great game, honey."


  Ryan offered his brother a fist bump of congratulations.

  "What's for dinner?" Thomas asked.

  "I got one of those marinated skirt steaks on the grill."

  "Oh yeah."

  The steaks were Thomas's favorite. Not wanting to break the mood, Adam dutifully gave his wife a kiss. They all washed up. Ryan set the table, which meant that Thomas would have to clear it. There was water for everyone. Corinne had poured two glasses of wine for the adults. She laid out the food on the kitchen island. Everyone grabbed plates and served themselves.

  It was a strikingly ordinary albeit cherished family dinner, and yet it felt to Adam as though there were a ticking bomb under their table. It was only a matter of time now. The dinner would end and the boys would do their homework or watch TV or mess around on the computer or play a video game. Would he wait until Thomas and Ryan went to bed? Probably. Except that over the past year or two, he or Corinne would fall asleep before Thomas. So he'd have to get Thomas in his room with the door closed before he could confront his wife with what he had learned.

  Tick, tick, tick . . .

  For most of the meal, Thomas held court. Ryan listened raptly. Corinne told a story about how one of the teachers got drunk in Atlantic City and threw up in the casino. The boys loved it.

  "Did you win any money?" Thomas asked.

  "I never gamble," Corinne said, ever the mom, "and you shouldn't either."

  Both boys rolled their eyes.

  "I'm serious. It's a terrible vice."

  Now both boys shook their heads.


  "You're so lame sometimes," Thomas said.

  "I am not."

  "Always with the life-lesson stuff," Ryan added with a laugh. "Cut it out."

  Corinne looked to Adam for help. "Do you hear your sons?"

  Adam just shrugged. The subject changed. Adam didn't remember to what. He was having trouble focusing. It was as though he were watching a movie montage of his own life--the happy family he and Corinne had created, having dinner, enjoying one another's company. He could almost see the camera slowly circling the table, getting everyone's face, getting everyone's back. It was so everyday, so hackneyed, so perfect.

  Tick, tick, tick . . .

  A half hour later, the kitchen was cleaned. The boys headed upstairs. As soon as they were out of sight, Corinne's smile dropped off her face. She turned to Adam.

  "What's wrong?"

  Amazing when he thought about it. He had lived with Corinne for eighteen years. He had seen her in every kind of mood, had experienced her every emotion. He knew when to approach, when to stay away, when she needed a hug, when she needed a kind word. He knew her well enough to finish her sentences and even her thoughts. He knew everything about her.

  There had been, he thought, no surprises. He even knew her well enough to know that what the stranger had alleged was indeed possible.

  Yet he hadn't seen this. He hadn't realized that Corinne could read him too, that she had known, despite his best effort to hide it, that something serious had upset him, that it wasn't just a normal thing, that it was something big and maybe life-altering.

  Corinne stood there and waited for the blow. So he delivered it.

  "Did you fake your pregnancy?"

  Chapter 8

  The stranger sat at a corner table at the Red Lobster in Beachwood, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland.

  He nursed his Red Lobster "specialty cocktail," a mango mai tai. His garlic shrimp scampi had started to congeal into something resembling tile caulk. The waiter had tried to take it from him twice, but the stranger had shooed him away. Ingrid sat across the table. She sighed and checked her watch.

  "This has to be the longest lunch ever."

  The stranger nodded. "Almost two hours."

  They were watching a table with four women who were on their third "specialty cocktail" round and it wasn't yet two thirty. Two of them had done Crabfest, the variety dish served on a plate the approximate circumference of a manhole cover. The third woman had ordered the shrimp linguini Alfredo. The cream sauce kept getting caught up in the corners of her pink-lipsticked mouth.

  The fourth woman, whose name they knew was Heidi Dann, was the reason they were there. Heidi had ordered the wood-grilled salmon. She was forty-nine, big and bouncy with strawlike hair. She wore a tiger-print top with a somewhat plunging neckline. Heidi had a boisterous yet melodic laugh. The stranger had been listening to it for the past two hours. There was something mesmerizing in the sound.

ve grown to like her," the stranger said.

  "Me too." Ingrid pulled her blond hair back with both hands, forming an imaginary ponytail and then letting it free. She did that a lot. She had the kind of long, too-straight hair that constantly fell in front of her face. "There's a certain zest for life there, you know?"

  He knew exactly what Ingrid meant.

  "In the end," Ingrid said, "we are doing her a favor."

  That was the justification. The stranger agreed with it. If the foundation is rotten, you need to demolish the entire house. You can't just fix it with a coat of paint or a few planks of wood. He knew that. He understood it. He lived it.

  He believed it.

  But that didn't mean that he relished being the one to work the explosives. That was also how he looked at it. He was the one who blew up the house with the rotting foundation--but he never stuck around to see how or if it was rebuilt.

  He didn't even stick around to make sure that no one had been left inside the house when it went up.

  The waitress came over and gave the ladies the check. Everyone dug into their purses with care and produced cash. The woman who had the linguini did the math, dividing the bill up with precision. The two Crabfest eaters pulled out bills one at a time. Then they each opened their change purse as though it were a rusted chastity belt.

  Heidi just threw in some twenties.

  Something about the way she did it--with care and ease--touched him. He guessed that the Danns were okay with money, but who knew in today's world? Heidi and her husband, Marty, had been married twenty years. They had three kids. Their oldest daughter, Kimberly, was a freshman at NYU in Manhattan. The two boys, Charlie and John, were still in high school. Heidi worked various makeup counters at the Macy's in University Heights. Marty Dann was a vice president in sales and marketing for TTI Floor Care in Glenwillow. TTI was all about vacuum cleaners. They owned Hoover, Oreck, Royal, and the division where Marty had worked for the past eleven years, Dirt Devil. He traveled a lot for his job, mostly to Bentonville, Arkansas, because that was where Walmart's corporate offices were.

  Ingrid was studying the stranger's face. "I can handle this on my own, if you'd like."

  He shook his head. This was his job. Ingrid was here because he would need to approach a woman and that sometimes looked odd. A man-and-woman couple approaching someone? No worries. A man approaching another man in, say, a bar or American Legion Hall? Again no worries. But if a twenty-seven-year-old man approached a forty-nine-year-old woman near, say, a Red Lobster?

  That could get tricky.

  Ingrid had already paid the bill, so they moved quickly. Heidi had arrived on her own in a gray Nissan Sentra. He and Ingrid had parked their rent-a-car two spots away. They waited by the car, key in hand, ready to pretend that they were about to get in it and drive off.

  They didn't want to draw attention to themselves.

  Five minutes later, the four women exited the restaurant. They hoped Heidi would end up alone now, but they had no way of knowing for certain. One of her friends could walk her to the car, in which case they would have to follow Heidi back to her house and either try to confront her there (never a good idea to confront a victim on their own property--it made them more defensive) or wait until she headed out again.

  The women all bid one another adieu with hugs. Heidi, he could see, was a good hugger. She hugged as though she meant it. When she hugged, her eyes closed and the person she hugged closed hers too. It was that kind of hug.

  The three other women headed off in the opposite direction. Perfect.

  Heidi started toward her car. She wore Capri pants. Her high heels made her stagger a little after the drinks, but she handled it with practiced aplomb. She was smiling. Ingrid nodded a get-ready at the stranger. They both did all they could to look harmless.

  "Heidi Dann?"

  He tried to keep his expression friendly or, at worst, neutral. Heidi turned and met his eye. The smile dropped off her face as though someone had attached an anchor to it.

  She knew.

  He wasn't surprised. Many somehow did, though denial also worked big-time when the stranger called. But he sensed strength and intelligence in her. Heidi already knew that what he was about to say would change everything.


  "There's a website called," he said.

  The stranger had learned that you had to leap directly into it. You didn't ask the victim if they had time to talk or if they wanted to sit down or go someplace quiet. You just launched.


  "It purports to be a modern online dating service. But it's not. Men--supposedly wealthy men with disposable income--sign up to meet, well, sugar babies. Have you heard of it?"

  Heidi looked at him another second. Then she turned her gaze toward Ingrid. Ingrid tried to smile reassuringly.

  "Who are you two?"

  "That's not important," he said.

  Some people fight it. Other people see that it's an irrelevant waste of time in the big picture. Heidi was in the latter group. "No, I've never heard of it. It sounds like one of those sites married people use to cheat."

  The stranger made a yes-no gesture with his head and said, "Not really. This site caters to more of a business transaction, if you know what I mean."

  "I don't know what you mean at all," Heidi said.

  "You should read the material when you have a chance. The site talks about how every relationship is really a transaction and how important it is to define your roles, to know what is expected of you and what is expected of your lover."

  Heidi's face was losing color. "Lover?"

  "So here is how it works," the stranger continued. "A man signs on, for example. He looks through a list of women, usually much younger. He finds one he likes. If she accepts, they start negotiating."


  "He's looking for what we call a sugar baby. The website defines that as a woman he'd maybe take out to dinner or escort to a business conference, that kind of thing."

  "But that's not what really happens," Heidi said.

  "No," the stranger said. "That's not what happens."

  Heidi let loose a long breath. She put her hands on her hips. "Go on."

  "So they negotiate."

  "The rich guy and his sugar baby."

  "Right. The site tells the girl all sorts of nonsense. How everything is defined. How dating like this means no game playing. How the men are rich and sophisticated and will treat her well and buy her gifts and take her to exotic overseas locales."

  Heidi shook her head. "Do the girls really fall for that?"

  "Some, maybe. But I doubt too many. Most understand the score."

  It was as though Heidi had expected him to visit, expected this news. She was calm now, though he could still sense the devastation. "So they negotiate?" she prompted.

  "Right. Eventually, they reach an understanding. It's all spelled out in an online contract. In one case, for example, the young woman agrees to be with the man five times per month. They spell out possible days of the week. He offers eight hundred dollars."

  "Each time?"

  "Per month."


  "Well, that's how it starts. But she counters with two thousand dollars. They go back and forth."

  "Do they reach an agreement?" Heidi asked.

  Her eyes were wet now.

  The stranger nodded. "In this case, they settle for twelve hundred dollars per month."

  "That's fourteen thousand four hundred dollars per year," Heidi said with a sad smile. "I'm good at math."

  "That's correct."

  "And the girl," Heidi said. "What does she tell the guy she is? Wait, don't tell me. She says she's a college student and needs help with her tuition."

  "In this case, yes."

  "Ugh," Heidi said.

  "And in this case," the stranger continued, "the girl is telling the truth."

  "She's a student?" Heidi shook her head. "Terrific."

  "But the girl, in this case, doesn't stop there," the stranger said. "The girl sets up different days of the week with different sugar daddies."

  "Oh, that's gross."

  "So with one guy, she's always Tuesdays. Another guy is Thursdays. Someone else gets weekends."

  "Must add up. The money, I mean."

  "It does."

  "Not to mention the venereal diseases," Heidi said.

  "That I can't comment on."


  "Meaning we don't know if she uses condoms or what. We don't have her medical records. We don't even know exactly what she does with all these men."

  "I doubt she's playing cribbage."

  "I doubt it too."

  "Why are you telling me this?"

  The stranger looked at Ingrid. For the first time, Ingrid spoke. "Because you deserve to know."

  "That's it?"

  "That's all we can tell you, yes," the stranger said.

  "Twenty years." Heidi shook her head and bit back her tears. "That bastard."


  "Marty. That bastard."

  "Oh, we're not talking about Marty," the stranger said.

  Now, for the first time, Heidi looked completely baffled. "What? Then who?"

  "We're talking about your daughter, Kimberly."

  Chapter 9

  Corinne took the blow, stumbled back, stayed standing.

  "What the hell are you talking about?"

  "Can we skip this part?" Adam asked.


  "The part where you pretend you have no idea what I'm talking about. Let's skip the denials, okay? I know you faked the pregnancy."

  She tried to gather herself, pick up the pieces one at a time. "If you know, why are you asking?"

  "How about the boys?"

  That puzzled her. "What about them?"

  "Are they mine?"

  Corinne's eyes went wide. "Are you out of your mind?"

  "You faked a pregnancy. Who knows what else you're capable of?"

  Corinne just stood there.


  "Jesus, Adam, look at them."

  He said nothing.

  "Of course they're yours."

  "There are tests, you know. DNA. You can buy them at Walgreens, for crying out loud."

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