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The stranger, p.9
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       The Stranger, p.9

          Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime / History & Fiction
"Why didn't you call me?" Adam had asked.

"I didn't want you to worry or rush home. There was nothing you could do."

And he had bought it.

Corinne had wanted to go to work the next day, but Adam put his foot down. She had gone through something traumatic. You don't just get up and go to work the next day. He had picked up the phone and handed it to her.

"Call the school. Tell them you won't be in."

She had reluctantly made the call, informing the school that she would be back by Monday. Adam had thought at the time that this was simply Corinne's way. Get back to life. Get back to work. No reason to dwell. He had been amazed at the speed of her recovery.

Man, how naive could one man be?

But then again, was that his fault? Who the hell would be looking for dishonesty in such a traumatic moment? Why would he question her word on something so serious? Even now, with hindsight, he had no idea why Corinne would have done something so . . . heinous? Crazy? Desperate? Manipulative?

What?

But that didn't matter right now. The point was, Corinne would be at school. She might choose to take time off from him and maybe even her boys, but there was no reason why she wouldn't be at school today.

The boys were old enough to get ready for school on their own. Adam managed to avoid them, ducking their questions about Mom's whereabouts with quick shout-outs from his bedroom and the pretense of a long morning shower.

When the boys were gone, he drove over to the high school. The bell for homeroom would have just sounded. That would be perfect. Adam could enter and confront her as she walked between homeroom and first period. Her homeroom class was room 233. He would wait for her by the door.

The high school had been built in the seventies and reeked of it. What had been considered sleek and modern had weathered like an old sci-fi movie set, like Logan's Run or something. The building was gray with fading aqua trim. It was the edificial equivalent of Cheez Whiz or a hockey player's mullet.

There were no free spaces in the school's parking lot. Adam ended up parking illegally--live on the edge--and hurrying toward the school. The side door was locked. Adam had never done this before--visited Corinne during a school day--but he knew that all schools had taken up stringent security protocols in the wake of shootings and other violence. He circled toward the front door. It was also locked. Adam pressed the intercom button.

A camera whirred down on him, and the weary female voice that could only belong to someone working in a school's main office asked him who he was.

He put on his most disarming smile. "It's Adam Price. Corinne's husband."

The door buzzed. Adam pushed through the doors. A sign read CHECK IN AT THE MAIN DESK. He wasn't sure what to do here. If he signed in, they would want to know why and probably buzz down to the classroom. He didn't want that. He wanted to surprise Corinne or, at the very least, not need to explain to the staff why he was here. The office was on the right. Adam was about to turn left and just hurry down the opposite way when he saw the armed security guard. He aimed his most disarming smile at the guard. The guard offered one back. No choice now. He'd have to go to the main office. He veered through the door and weaved past a few local moms. There was a huge laundry basket in the middle of the floor where parents dropped off lunches for their kids who forgot to bring them in the morning.

The clock on the wall grunted and ticked. It read 8:17 A.M. Three minutes until the bell rang. Okay, good. The sign-up sheet was on the tall counter. He picked up the pen as casually as possible--Mr. Without A Care--and quickly signed in with intentionally messy handwriting. He grabbed a visitor pass. The two women behind the desk were busy. They didn't bother to even glance his way.

No reason to wait, was there?

He hurried back down the hall, flashing his visitor pass at the guard. Like most high schools, there had been additions over the years, and that helped make traversing your way inside these arteries somewhat tricky. Still, when the bell sounded, Adam was perfectly situated to observe the door to room 233.

The students streamed out and collided and clogged the corridors like some medical documentary on heart disease. He waited until the flow of students petered out and then halted. Then, a few seconds later, a young man Adam guessed was probably under thirty came out and turned left.

A substitute.

Adam just stood there, pressing himself against the wall to let the student stream rush past him and not get caught in its current. He wasn't sure what to think or do. Was he even surprised by this development? He didn't know. He tried to put it together, tried to think about the links here--the fake pregnancy, the stranger, the confrontation--that had led to his wife's choosing to run off for a few days.

It made no sense.

So what next?

Nothing, he supposed. At least, not right this very moment. Go to work. Do your job. Think it through. He was missing something. He knew that. Corinne had as much as admitted that, hadn't she?

"It isn't what you think, Adam. There's more to this."

When the flow of students turned into a trickle, he started back toward the front exit. He was lost in thought and about to make a turn when he felt fingers like a steel talon grip his arm. He turned and saw his wife's friend, Kristin Hoy.

"What the hell is going on?" she whispered.

"What?"

Her muscles clearly were not just for show. She pulled him into an empty chemistry classroom and closed the door. There were workstations and beakers and sinks with high faucets. A giant chart of the periodic table of elements, both a staple of every science classroom and a cliche, dominated the far wall.

"Where is she?" Kristin asked.

Adam wasn't sure how to play it, so he went with honesty. "I don't know."

"How can you not know?"

"We were supposed to meet for dinner last night. She never showed."

"She just didn't . . . ?" Kristin shook her head in confusion. "Did you call the police?"

"What? No."

"Why not?"

"I don't know. She sent a text. She said she needed some time away."

"From what?"

Adam just looked at her.

Kristin said, "You?"

"Seems so."

"Oh. Sorry." Kristin stepped back, chastened. "So why are you here?"

"Because I want to make sure she's okay. I figured she'd be at work. She never calls in sick."

"Never," Kristin agreed.

"Except, it seems, today."

Kristin considered that. "I guess you guys have been fighting a lot."

Adam didn't really want to get into it, but what choice did he have? "Something has recently come up," he said in his most noncommittal legal voice.

"It isn't any of my business, right?"

"Right."

"But it is kinda my business because Corinne made it part of my business."

"What do you mean?"

Kristin sighed and put her hand to her mouth. Outside the school, her outfits were all about accentuating her toned body. She wore sleeveless blouses and either shorts or small skirts, even when the weather didn't exactly call for it. In here, her blouse was more conservative, though you could still see the muscles near the clavicle and neck.

"I got a text too," she said.

"What did it say?"

"Adam?"

"What?"

"I don't want to get in the middle of this. You get that, right? You two have been having issues. I get that."

"We haven't been having issues."

"But you just said--"

"We have an issue, one, and, well, it just came up."

"When?"

"When did the issue come up?"

"Yes."

"The day before yesterday."

"Oh," Kristin said.

"What do you mean, 'Oh'?"

"It's just that . . . I mean, Corinne has been acting strangely for the past month or so."

Adam tried to keep a straight face. "Strange how?"

"Just, I don't know, different. Distracted. She missed a class or two and asked me to cover for her. She missed a few workouts and said . . ."

Kristin stopped.

"Said what?" Adam prodded.

"Said if anybody asked where she was, to just say that she was there with me."

Silence.

"Did she mean me, Kristin?"

"She never said that, no. Look, I better get back. I have class--"

Adam stepped in her path. "What did her text say?"

"What?"

"You said she sent you a text yesterday. What did it say?"

"Look, she's my friend. You get that, right?"

"I'm not asking you to betray confidences."

"Yeah, Adam, you kinda are."

"I just want to make sure she's okay."

"Why wouldn't she be?"

"Because this isn't like her."

"Maybe it's just what she said to you. She needs time."

"Is that what she texted you?"

"Something like that, yes."

"When?"

"Yesterday afternoon."

"Wait, when? After school?"

"No," Kristin said too slowly. "During."

"During school?"

"Yes."

"What time?"

"I don't know. Around two o'clock."

"Wasn't she at school?"

"No."

"She missed school yesterday too?"

"No," Kristin said. "I saw Corinne in the morning. She was acting a little shaky. I guess that's because you guys were fighting."

Adam said nothing.

"She was supposed to oversee study hall during lunch break, but she asked me to cover for her. I did. I saw her run out to her car."

"Where was she going?"

"I don't know. She didn't say."

Silence.

"Did she come back to school?"

Kristin shook her head. "No, Adam, she never came back."





Chapter 14


The stranger had given Heidi the link to FindYourSugarBaby.com as well as her daughter's user ID and password. With a heavy heart, Heidi signed in as Kimberly and found out all she needed to confirm that everything the stranger had told her was true.

The stranger had not just told her out of the kindness (or emptiness) of his heart. He made money demands, of course. Ten grand was the amount. If she didn't pay it in three days, the news of Kimberly's "hobby" would go viral.

Heidi signed out and sat on the couch. She debated pouring herself a glass of wine and decided against it. Then Heidi had a good, long cry. When she finished, she headed to the bathroom, washed her face, and sat back on the couch.

Okay, she thought, what do I do about this?

Heidi's first decision was almost the simplest: Don't tell Marty. She didn't like to keep secrets from her husband, but then again, she didn't hate it either. It was part of life, wasn't it? Marty would absolutely lose it if he found out what his little girl was up to while she was supposedly studying at NYU. Marty was prone to overreaction, and Heidi could see him hopping in his car, driving to Manhattan, and dragging his daughter back by the hair.

Marty didn't need to know the truth. Come to think of it, neither did Heidi.

Damn those two strangers.

When Kimberly was in high school, she had gotten drunk at a party at a classmate's house. Intoxication led, as it often does, to going a little too far with a boy. Not all the way. But too far. Another mother in town, a busybody who meant well, had overheard her daughter talking about the incident. She had called Heidi and said, "I hate to tell you this, but if our roles were reversed, I would want to know."

So she told Heidi about the incident. Heidi had told Marty, who had completely overreacted. The relationship between father and daughter had never really been the same. What, Heidi wondered, would have been the outcome if that busybody had never called? In the end, what good had it done? It embarrassed her daughter. It strained the relationship between father and daughter. It had, Heidi believed, been a huge part of Kimberly's decision to go to college so far away. And maybe that stupid phone call from that stupid busybody had even led Kimberly and ultimately Heidi to this terrible website and the horrific nature of her daughter's relationship with three different men.

Heidi didn't want to believe it, but the evidence was right there in the "secret" communications between her young daughter and these older men. Dress it up all she wanted, but there was no way around the fact that her daughter was involved in straight-up prostitution.

She wanted to cry again. She wanted to do nothing and forget those two calm strangers had ever said anything to her. But she had no choice now, did she? The secret had been thrust in her face. She couldn't put that horse back in the barn, to mix her metaphors. It was a parental paradox probably as old as time: She didn't want to know, but she did want to know.

When she called her daughter's cell phone, Kimberly had answered with breathless enthusiasm. "Hi, Mom."

"Hey, sweetheart."

"Everything okay? Your voice sounds funny."

At first Kimberly had denied it. That was to be expected. Then she tried to make it sound innocent. That, too, was to be expected. Then Kimberly tried defiance, accusing her mother of hacking into her account and invading her privacy. Again expected.

Heidi kept her voice steady, even as her heart cracked in her chest and filled it with pain. She explained to Kimberly about the stranger. She recounted what they had told her and what she had seen on her own. Patiently. Calmly. At least, on the outside.

It took some time, but they both knew where this conversation was headed. Cornered, the shock slowly wearing off, Kimberly started to open up. Money was tight, she explained.

"You can't believe how expensive everything is here."

A classmate had told Kimberly about the site. You didn't really have to do anything with the guys, she'd been told. They just wanted young girls for the company. Heidi almost laughed out loud at that one. Men, as Heidi knew all too well and Kimberly quickly learned, never really just wanted company. That was merely the loss leader to get you in the store.

Heidi and Kimberly talked for two hours. At the end of the conversation, Kimberly asked her mother what she should do.

"Break it off with them. Today. Now."

Kimberly promised she would do just that. The next question was how to proceed. Heidi said she would take some time off and come up and spend some time in New York. Kimberly balked.

"The semester will be over in two weeks. Let's just wait till then."

Heidi didn't like that idea. In the end, they agreed to discuss it further in the morning. Before they hung up, Kimberly said, "Mom?"

"Yes?"

"Please don't tell Dad."

Already decided, but she didn't tell Kimberly that. When Marty came home, she said nothing. Marty cooked up burgers on the grill in the yard. Heidi poured them both drinks. He talked about his day. She talked about hers. The secret was there, of course. It sat at the kitchen table in Kimberly's old chair, never speaking but never budging, either.

In the morning, after Marty left for work, there was a knock on the door.

"Who is it?"

"Mrs. Dann? I'm Detective John Kuntz with the New York Police Department. May I speak with you for--"

Heidi threw open the door, nearly collapsing in the process. "Oh my God, my daughter . . . ?"

"Oh, she's fine, ma'am," Kuntz said quickly, stepping forward to help support her. "Wow, jeez, I'm sorry. I guess I should have told you that right away. I'm just imagining--your daughter is in school in New York and an NYPD officer shows up at your door." Kuntz shook his head. "I have kids too. I get it. But don't worry, Kimberly is fine. I mean, healthwise. There are other factors . . ."

"Factors?"

Kuntz smiled. There was a little too much space between each tooth. He sported a terrible comb-over, the kind of thing that made you want to grab a pair of scissors, pull the few hairs taut, and snip them off. She placed him in his midforties, paunchy with stooped shoulders and the sunken eyes of someone who didn't eat well or get enough sleep.

"May I come in for a moment?"

Kuntz held up his badge. It looked, to Heidi's amateur eye, to be legitimate.

"What's this about?"

"I think you probably have some idea." Kuntz nodded toward the door. "May I?"

Heidi stepped back. "I don't."

"Don't what?"

"Have any idea what this is about."

Kuntz stepped inside and looked around as though he were there to buy the place. He smoothed down a few of the comb-over hairs that had started to make a static-electrical escape. "Well, you called your daughter last night. Is that correct?"

Heidi wasn't sure how to answer. Didn't matter. Kuntz plowed ahead without waiting for one anyway.

"We are aware that your daughter has been involved in activity that could be illegal."

"What do you mean?"

He sat on the couch. She sat on the chair across from him.

"Can I ask a favor, Mrs. Dann?"

"What's that?"

"It's a small one, but I think it would really simplify this conversation for all concerned. Let's stop with the pretense, okay? It just wastes time. Your daughter, Kimberly, was involved in online prostitution."

Heidi just sat there.

"Mrs. Dann?"

"I think you better leave."

"I'm trying to help."

"It sounds like you're making accusations. I better talk to an attorney."

Kuntz pushed down the stray strands again. "You got it wrong."

"How so?"

"We don't care about what your daughter may or may not have done. It's petty and I will grant you this: With the online stuff, there is a fine line between business relationship and prostitution. Then again, maybe there has always been. We aren't interested in hassling you or your daughter."

"Then what do you want?" Heidi asked.

"Your cooperation. That's all. If you and Kimberly cooperate, we see no reason why we can't just forget about her role in all this."

"Her role in what?"

"Let's take it a step at a time, shall we?" Kuntz reached into his pocket and pulled out a small pad. Then he took out one of those small pencils golfers use to keep score. He licked the pencil's tip and turned his attention back toward Heidi. "First off, how did you find out about your daughter's involvement with that sugar babies website?"
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