The stranger, p.8
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       The Stranger, p.8

           Harlan Coben

  "There's no time. I have to be at school in ten minutes. Do you mind driving the boys?"

  "Are you for real?"

  She stepped close to him. "I can't tell you what you want to know yet."

  He almost punched her. He almost reared back his fist and . . . "What's your strategy here, Corinne?"

  "What's yours?"


  "What's your worst-case scenario?" she asked. "Think about it. And if it's true, are you going to leave us?"


  "You know what I mean."

  It took a second for him to get the words out. "I can't live with someone I can't trust," he said.

  She tilted her head. "And you don't trust me?"

  He said nothing.

  "We all have our secrets, don't we? Even you, Adam."

  "I've never kept anything like this from you. But clearly, I have my answer."

  "No, you don't." She moved close to him and looked up into his eyes. "You will soon. I promise."

  He bit back and said, "When?"

  "Let's meet for dinner tonight. Janice's Bistro at seven. Back table. We can talk there."

  Chapter 11

  Hummel figurines sat on the top shelf. There was a little girl with a donkey, three children playing follow-the-leader, a little boy with a beer stein, and finally a boy pushing a girl on a swing.

  "Eunice loves them," the old man told Adam. "Me, I can't stand the damn things. They creep me out. I keep thinking someone should make a horror film with them, you know? Like instead of that scary clown or leprechaun. Can you imagine if those things came to life?"

  The kitchen was old wood paneling. A Viva Las Vegas magnet was on the fridge. There was a snow globe with three pink flamingos on the ledge above the sink. The mounting read MIAMI, FLA in a florid-script font--"Fla" in case you weren't sure which Miami, Adam guessed. The Wizard of Oz collectible plates and an owl clock with moving eyes took up the wall on the right. The wall on the left had numerous yet fading police-related certificates and plaques, a retrospective of the long and distinguished career of retired Lieutenant Colonel Michael Rinsky.

  Rinsky noticed Adam reading the certificates and muttered, "Eunice insisted we hang them up."

  "She's proud of you," Adam said.

  "Yeah, whatever."

  Adam turned back toward him. "So tell me about the mayor's visit."

  "Mayor Rick Gusherowski. Busted him twice when he was in high school, once for drunk driving."

  "Was he charged?"

  "Nah, just called his old man to pick him up. This was, what, thirty years ago. We did that more back in those days. Considered drunk driving a minor offense. Stupid."

  Adam nodded to let him know that he was listening.

  "They're real strict with the drunk-driving stuff now. Saves lives. But anyway, Rick comes to my door. Mr. Mayor now. Got the suit, with the American flag in the lapel. Don't join the military; don't help out the little guy; don't take in your tired, your poor, your huddled masses--but if you wear a little flag, you're a patriot."

  Adam tried not to smile.

  "So Rick comes in with his chest out and this big grin. 'The developers are offering you a lot of money,' he says to me. Goes on and on about how generous they're being."

  "What do you say?"

  "Nothing yet. I just kinda stare at him. Let him bloviate."

  He signaled to the kitchen table for them to sit. Adam didn't want to sit in Eunice's chair--it felt wrong somehow--so he asked, "Which chair?"

  "Any's fine."

  Adam took one. Then Rinsky sat. The vinyl tablecloth was old and a little sticky and felt just right. There were still five chairs here, though the three boys he and Eunice had raised in this very house were grown and gone.

  "Then he starts in on me with the good-of-the-community stuff. 'You're standing in the way of progress,' he tells me. 'People will lose their jobs because of you. Crime will increase.' You know the deal."

  "I do, yes," Adam said.

  Adam had heard it before many times, and he wasn't unsympathetic. Over the years, this downtown neighborhood had gone to seed. Some developer, getting a ton of tax breaks, had come in and bought up every building on the block on the cheap. He wanted to knock down all the dilapidated homes, apartments, storefronts, and build shiny new condos and Gap stores and tony restaurants. It wasn't a bad idea, really. You could make fun of the gentrification, but towns needed new blood too.

  "So he keeps talking, about the shiny new Kasselton, how it will make the neighborhood safe and bring people back and all that. Then he comes up with his big pot sweetener. The developer has new senior-living housing in the heights. And then he has the gall to lean across and give me the sad eyes and say, 'You need to think about Eunice.'"

  "Wow," Adam said.

  "I know, right? Then he says I should take this deal because the next one will be worse and they can throw me out. Can they really do that?"

  "They can," Adam said.

  "We bought this house in 1970 off my GI Bill. Eunice . . . she's fine, but sometimes her mind isn't on the track it's supposed to be. So she gets real scared in strange places. She starts to cry and shake even, but then she gets home, right? She sees this kitchen, she sees her creepy figurines or that rusty old refrigerator, and she's okay again. Do you understand?"

  "I do."

  "Can you help us?"

  Adam leaned back. "Oh yes, I think I can."

  Rinsky studied him for a few moments, his eyes penetrating. Adam shifted in the chair. He could tell what a great cop he must have been. "You got a funny look on your face, Mr. Price."

  "Call me Adam. What kind of funny look?"

  "I'm an old cop, remember?"

  "Of course."

  "I pride myself on reading faces."

  "And what are you seeing on mine?" Adam asked.

  "That you're cooking up a badass, killer idea."

  "I may be," Adam said. "I think I can end this quickly if you have the stomach for it."

  The old man smiled. "Do I look like I'm afraid of a fight?"

  Chapter 12

  When Adam got home at six P.M., Corinne's car wasn't in the driveway.

  He didn't know whether that surprised him. Corinne was usually home before him, but she probably wisely figured that there might be a scene if they met up at home before their Janice's Bistro dinner, so it would be best to avoid him. He hung up his coat and placed his briefcase in the corner. The boys' backpacks and sweatshirts were strewn across the floor, as though they were debris from a plane crash.

  "Hello?" he shouted. "Thomas? Ryan?"

  No answer. There was a time in this world when that meant something, maybe was even a cause of concern, but with the video games and the headphones and the teenage boys' constant need to "shower"--was that a euphemism?--any concern was short-lived. He started up the stairs. Sure enough, the shower was running. Probably Thomas. The door to Ryan's room was closed. Adam gave it a brief knuckle rap but opened without waiting for a response. If the headphones were loud enough, Ryan might never reply; if he just opened it, he felt as though he was completely invading his son's privacy. The knock-and-open somehow felt like a parentally fair way to handle the dilemma.

  As expected, Ryan was lying in bed with his headphones on, fiddling with his iPhone. He slipped them off and sat up. "Hey."


  "What's for dinner?" Ryan asked.

  "Good, thanks. Work was busy, sure, but overall, yeah, I'd say I had an okay day. How about you?"

  Ryan just stared at his father. Ryan often just stared at his father.

  "Have you seen your mother?" Adam asked.


  "She and I are going to Janice's tonight. You want me to order you two a pizza from Pizzaiola?"

  There are few questions more rhetorical than asking your child whether they want you to order them pizza for dinner. Ryan didn't even bother with the yes, heading straight to the "Can we get buffalo chicken topping?"

  "Your br
other likes pepperoni," Adam said, "so I'll go half-and-half."

  Ryan frowned.


  "Just one pie?"

  "It's only the two of you."

  Ryan did not seem placated.

  "If that's not enough, there are Chipwiches in the freezer for dessert," Adam said. "That okay?"

  Grudgingly: "I guess."

  Adam headed back down the hall and into his bedroom. He sat on the bed and called the pizzeria, adding an order of mozzarella sticks. Feeding teenage boys was like filling a bathtub with a grapefruit spoon. Corinne was always complaining--happily, for the most part--that she had to food shop every other day at the least.

  "Hey, Dad."

  Thomas wore a towel around his waist. Water dripped from his hair. He smiled and said, "What's for dinner?"

  "I just ordered you guys pizza."


  "Half pepperoni, half buffalo chicken." Adam held up his hand before Thomas could say more. "And an order of mozzarella sticks."

  Thomas gave his father a thumbs-up. "Nice."

  "You don't have to eat it all. Just leave the leftovers in the fridge."

  Thomas made a confused face. "What is this leftovers of which you speak?"

  Adam shook his head and chuckled. "Did you leave me any hot water?"



  Adam normally wouldn't shower and change, but he had time and felt oddly nervous. He showered quickly, managing to stay seconds ahead of the hot water, and shaved away the Homer Simpson five-o'clock shadow. He reached into the back of his cabinet and pulled out an aftershave he knew Corinne liked. He hadn't worn it in a while. Why he hadn't worn it recently, he couldn't say. Why he had chosen to wear it tonight, he couldn't say either.

  He put on a blue shirt because Corinne used to say that blue worked with his eyes. He felt stupid about that and almost changed, but then he figured, what the hell. When he started out the bedroom door, he turned around and took a long look at this room that had been theirs for so long. The king-size bed was neatly made. There were too many pillows on it--when had people started putting so many pillows on a bed?--but he and Corinne had spent a lot of years here. A simple and insipid thought, but there you go. It was just a room, just a bed.

  Yet a voice in Adam's head couldn't help but wonder: Depending on how this dinner went, he and Corinne might never spend another night in here together.

  That was melodramatic, of course. Pure hyperbole. But if hyperbole couldn't feel free to roam in his head, where could it roam?

  The doorbell rang. No movement from the boys. There never was. They had been trained somehow to never answer the house phone (it wasn't for them, after all) and to never answer the doorbell (it was usually a delivery guy). As soon as Adam paid and closed the door, the boys clumped down the stairs like runaway Clydesdales. The house shook but held its ground.

  "Paper plates okay?" Thomas asked.

  Thomas and Ryan would eat on paper plates exclusively because it meant easier cleanup, but tonight, with the parents away, it was pretty much a given that if he forced real plates on them, they'd be in the sink when he and Corinne came home. Corinne would then complain to Adam. Adam would then have to scream for the boys to come down and put their plates in the dishwasher. The boys would claim that they were just about to do it--yeah, right--but not to worry because they'd be down and do it when their show was over in five (read: fifteen) minutes. Five (read: fifteen) minutes would pass, and then Corinne would complain to Adam again about how irresponsible the boys were, and he'd shout up to them with a little more anger in his voice.

  The cycles of domesticity.

  "Paper plates are fine," Adam said.

  The two boys attacked the pizza as if they were rehearsing the finale of The Day of the Locust. Between bites, Ryan looked at his father curiously.

  "What?" Adam said.

  Ryan managed to swallow. "I thought you were just going to Janice's for dinner."

  "We are."

  "So what's with the getup?"

  "It isn't a getup."

  "And what's the smell?" Thomas added.

  "Are you wearing cologne?"

  "Eeew. It's ruining the taste of the pizza."

  "Knock it off," Adam said.

  "Want to trade a slice of pepperoni for a slice of buffalo chicken?"


  "Come on, just one slice."

  "Throw in a mozzarella stick."

  "No way. Half a mozzarella stick."

  Adam started for the door as the negotiations wore down. "We won't be late. Get your homework done, and please stick the pizza box in the recycling, okay?"

  He drove past the new hot yoga place on Franklin Avenue--by hot he meant temperature of the class, not popularity or looks--and found parking across the street from Janice's. Five minutes early. He looked for Corinne's car. No sign of it, but she could be parked in the back lot.

  David, Janice's son and quasi maitre d', greeted him at the door and brought him to the back table. No Corinne. Well, okay, he was here first. No big deal. Janice came out of the kitchen two minutes later. Adam rose and kissed her on the cheek.

  "Where's your wine?" Janice asked. Her bistro was BYO. Adam and Corinne always brought a bottle.


  "Maybe Corinne will bring some?"

  "I doubt it."

  "I can send David to Carlo Russo's."

  Carlo Russo's was the wine store down the street.

  "That's okay."

  "It's no hassle. It's quiet right now. David?" Janice turned back to Adam. "What are you having tonight?"

  "Probably the veal Milanese."

  "David, get Adam and Corinne a bottle of the Paraduxx Z blend."

  David brought back the wine. Corinne still wasn't there. David opened the bottle and poured two glasses. Corinne still wasn't there. At seven fifteen, Adam started to get that sinking feeling in his gut. He texted Corinne. No answer. At seven thirty, Janice came over to him and asked if everything was okay. He assured her that it was, that Corinne was probably just caught up in some parent-teacher conference.

  Adam stared at his phone, willing it to buzz. At 7:45 P.M., it did.

  It was a text from Corinne:




  Chapter 13

  Adam sent several desperate texts to try to get Corinne to reply. They included: "this isn't the way to handle this," "please call me," "where are you," "how many days," "how can you do this to us"--stuff like that. He tried nice, mean, calm, angry.

  But there was no reaction.

  Was Corinne okay?

  He gave Janice some lame excuse about Corinne still being stuck and having to cancel. Janice insisted that he take two veal Milanese home with him. He was going to fight it, but there seemed little point.

  As he pulled onto his street, he still held out hope that Corinne had changed her mind and gone home. It was one thing to be mad at him. It was another thing to take it out on the boys. But her car wasn't in the drive, and the first thing Ryan said to him when he opened the door was "Where's Mom?"

  "She has some work thing," Adam said in a voice equally vague and dismissive.

  "I need my home uniform."


  "So I threw it in the wash. Do you know if Mom did the laundry?"

  "No," Adam said. "Why don't you check the basket?"

  "I did."

  "How about your drawers?"

  "I checked there too."

  You always see your or your spouse's flaws in your child. Ryan had Corinne's anxiety over small matters. Big matters--house payments, illness, destruction, accidents--didn't bother Corinne. She rose to the occasion. Maybe because she overcompensated by worrying the minor stuff into a ground stump, or maybe, in life, like a great athlete, Corinne was clutch when it mattered.

  Of course
, to be fair, this was no small matter to Ryan.

  "Then maybe it's in the washer or dryer," Adam said.

  "Already looked."

  "Then I don't know what to tell you, kid."

  "When will Mom be home?"

  "I don't know."

  "Like at ten?"

  "What part of 'I don't know' is confusing you exactly?"

  There was more snap in his tone than expected. Ryan was also, like his mother, supersensitive.

  "I didn't mean--"

  "I'll text Mom."

  "That's a good idea. Oh, let me know what she says, okay?"

  Ryan nodded and texted.

  Corinne didn't reply to him right away. Nor in an hour. Or even two. Adam made up some excuse about her teachers' conference being extended. The boys bought it because the boys never looked too closely at stuff like that. He promised Ryan that he'd find the uniform before his game.

  Adam was, of course, blocking to some extent. Was Corinne safe? Had something terrible happened to her? Should he go to the police?

  The last part felt foolish. The police would hear about their big fight, see Corinne's text about letting her be, and shake their heads. And really, when you step back, is it so bizarre that his wife would want a little distance after what Adam had just learned?

  Sleep came in small chunks. Adam constantly checked his phone for texts from Corinne. Nothing. At 3:00 A.M., he sneaked into Ryan's room and checked his son's phone. Nothing. This made no sense. Trying to avoid Adam, okay, he could get that. She might be angry or scared or confused or feeling cornered. It would make sense that she might want to get away from him for a few days.

  But her boys?

  Would Corinne really just up and leave her boys in the lurch like this? Did she expect him to just make excuses?


  What was that all about? Why shouldn't he try to contact her? And what about . . . ?

  He sat up as the sun came through the windows. Hello.

  Corinne could abandon him. She could even want to--he didn't know--force him to take care of the boys.

  But what about her students?

  She took her teaching responsibilities, like most things that mattered, very seriously. She was also a bit of a control freak and hated the idea of some ill-prepared substitute taking over her class for even a day. Funny now that he thought about it. Over the past four years, Corinne had missed only one day of school.

  The day after her "miscarriage."

  It had been a Thursday. He had come home late from work to find her crying in bed. When the bad cramping started, she had driven herself to the doctor. It was too late, but in truth, she said, the doctor wouldn't have been able to do anything anyway. These things happen, the doctor had told her.

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