Table of Contents Title Page Copyright Page Dedication PART ONE CHAPTER 1 CHAPTER 2 CHAPTER 3
CHAPTER 4 CHAPTER 5 CHAPTER 6 CHAPTER 7 CHAPTER 8 CHAPTER 9 CHAPTER 10 CHAPTER 11 CHAPTER 12 CHAPTER 13 CHAPTER 14 CHAPTER 15 CHAPTER 16 CHAPTER 17 CHAPTER 18 CHAPTER 19 CHAPTER 20 CHAPTER 21 CHAPTER 22 CHAPTER 23 CHAPTER 24 PART TWO CHAPTER 25 CHAPTER 26 CHAPTER 27 CHAPTER 28 CHAPTER 29 CHAPTER 30 CHAPTER 31 CHAPTER 32 CHAPTER 33 CHAPTER 34 CHAPTER 35 CHAPTER 36 CHAPTER 37 CHAPTER 38 EPILOGUE ABOUT THE AUTHOR ALSO BY HARLAN COBEN Deal Breaker
One False Move
The Final Detail
Tell No One
Gone for Good
No Second Chance
Just One Look
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Published by Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First printing, March 2010
Copyright (c) 2010 by Harlan Coben
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eISBN : 978-1-101-18605-3
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From the luckiest guy in the world
I KNEW opening that red door would destroy my life.
Yes, that sounds melodramatic and full of foreboding and I'm not big on either, and true, therewas nothing menacing about the red door. In fact, the door was beyond ordinary, wood andfourpaneled, the kind of door you see standing guard in front of three out of every foursuburban homes, with faded paint and a knocker at chest level no one ever used and a faux brassknob.
But as I walked toward it, a distant streetlight barely illuminating my way, the dark openingyawning like a mouth ready to gobble me whole, the feeling of doom was unshakable. Each stepforward took great effort, as if I were walking not along a somewhat crackled walk but throughstill-wet cement. My body displayed all the classic symptoms of impending menace: Chill down myspine? Check. Hairs standing up on my arms? Yep. Prickle at the base of the neck? Present.Tingle in the scalp? Right there.
The house was dark, not a single light on. Chynna warned me that would be the case. Thedwelling somehow seemed a little too cookie-cutter, a little too nondescript. That bothered mefor some reason. This house was also isolated at the tippy end of the cul-de-sac, hunkeringdown in the darkness as though fending off intruders.
I didn't like it.
I didn't like anything about this, but this is what I do. When Chynna called I had justfinished coaching the inner-city fourth-grade Newark Biddy Basketball team. My team, all kidswho, like me, were products of foster care (we call ourselves the NoRents, which is short forNo Parents--gallows humor), had managed to blow a six-point lead with two minutes left. On thecourt, as in life, the NoRents aren't great under pressure.
Chynna called as I was gathering my young hoopsters for my postgame pep talk, which usuallyconsisted of giving my charges some life-altering insight like "Good effort," "We'll get themnext time," or "Don't forget we have a game next Thursday," always ending with "Hands in" andthen we yell, "Defense," choosing to chant that word, I suppose, because we play none.
"Who is this?"
"It's Chynna. Please come."
Her voice trembled, so I dismissed my team, jumped in my car, and now I was here. I hadn't evenhad time to shower. The smell of gym sweat mixed now with the smell of fear sweat. I slowed mypace.
What was wrong with me?
I probably should have showered, for one thing. I'm not good without a shower. Never have been.But Chynna had been adamant. Now, she had begged. Before anyone got home. So here I was, mygray T-shirt darkened with perspiration and clinging to my chest, heading to that door.
Like most youngsters I work with, Chynna was seriously troubled, and maybe that was what wassetting off the warning bells. I hadn't liked her voice on the phone, hadn't really warmed tothis whole setup. Taking a deep breath, I glanced behind me. In the distance, I could see somesigns of life on this suburban night--house lights, a flickering television or maybe computermonitor, an open garage door--but in this cul-de-sac, there was nothing, not a sound ormovement, just a hush in the dark.
My cell phone vibrated, nearly making me jump out of my skin. I figured that it was Chynna, butno, it was Jenna, my ex-wife. I hit answer and said, "Hey."
"Can I ask a favor?" she asked.
"I'm a little busy right now."
"I just need someone to babysit tomorrow night. You can bring Shelly if you want."
"Shelly and I are, uh, having trouble," I said.
"Again? But she's great for you."
"I have trouble holding on to great women."
"Don't I know it."
Jenna, my lovely ex, has been remarried for eight years. Her new husband is a well-respectedsurgeon named Noel Wheeler. Noel does volunteer work for me at the teen center. I like Noel andhe likes me. He has a daughter by a previous marriage, and he and Jenna have a six-year-oldgirl named Kari. I'm Kari's godfather, and both kids call me Uncle Dan. I'm the family go-tobabysitter.
I know this all sounds very civilized and Pollyanna, and I suppose it is. In my case, it couldbe simply a matter of necessity. I have no one else--no parents, no siblings--ergo, the closestthing I have to family is my ex-wife. The kids I work with, the ones I advocate for and try tohelp and defend, are my life, and in the end I'm not sure I do the slightest bit of good.
Jenna said, "Earth to Dan?"
"I'll be there," I said to her.
"Six thirty. You're the best."
Jenna made a smooching noise into the mouthpiece and hung up. I looked at the phone for amoment, remembered our own wedding day. It was a mistake for me to get married. It is a mistakefor me to get too close to people, and yet I can't help it. Someone cue the violins so I canwax philosophical about how it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved atall. I don't think that applies to me. It is in humans' DNA to repeat the same mistakes, evenafter we know better. So here I am, the poor orphan who scraped his way up to the top of hisclass at an elite Ivy League school but never really scraped off who he was. Corny, but I wantsomeone in my life. Alas, that is not my destiny. I am a loner who isn't meant to be alone.
"We are evolution's garbage, Dan. . . ."
My favorite foster "dad" taught me that. He was a college professor who loved to get intophilosophical debates.
"Think about it, Dan. Throughout mankind, the strongest and brightest did what? They fought inwars. That only stopped this past century. Before that, we sent our absolute best to fight onthe front lines. So who stayed home and reproduced while our finest died on distantbattlefields? The lame, the sick, the weak, the crooked, the cowardly--in short, the least ofus. That's what we are the genetic by-product of, Dan--millenniums of weeding out the premium
and keeping the flotsam. That's why we are all garbage--the dung from centuries of bad
I forwent the knocker and rapped on the door lightly with my knuckles. The door creaked open acrack. I hadn't realized that it was ajar.
I didn't like that either. A lot I didn't like here.
As a kid, I watched a lot of horror movies, which was strange because I hated them. I hatedthings jumping out at me. And I really couldn't stand movie gore. But I would still watch themand revel in the predictably moronic behavior of the heroines, and right now those scenes werereplaying in my head, the ones where said moronic heroine knocks on a door and it opens alittle and you scream, "Run, you scantily clad bimbo!" and she wouldn't and you couldn'tunderstand it and two minutes later, the killer would be scooping out her skull and munching onher brain.
I should go right now.
In fact, I will. But then I flashed back to Chynna's call, to the words she'd said, thetrembling in her voice. I sighed, leaned my face toward the opening, peered into the foyer.
Enough with the cloak and dagger.
My voice echoed. I expected silence. That would be the next step, right? No reply. I slippedthe door open a little, took a tentative step forward. . . .
"Dan? I'm in the back. Come in."
The voice was muffled, distant. Again I didn't like this, but there was no way I was backingout now. Backing out had cost me too much throughout my life. My hesitation was gone. I knewwhat had to be done now.
I opened the door, stepped inside, and closed the door behind me.
Others in my position would have brought a gun or some kind of weapon. I had thought about it.But that just doesn't work for me. No time to worry about that now. No one was home. Chynna hadtold me that. And if they were, well, I would handle that when the moment came.
"Go to the den, I'll be there in a second."
The voice sounded . . . off. I saw a light at the end of the hall and moved toward it. Therewas a noise now. I stopped and listened. Sounded like water running. A shower maybe.
"Just changing. Out in a second."
I moved into the low-lit den. I saw one of those dimmer-switch knobs and debated turning it up,but in the end I chose to leave it alone. My eyes adjusted pretty quickly. The room had cheesywood paneling that looked as if it were made from something far closer to vinyl than anythingin the timber family. There were two portraits of sad clowns with huge flowers on their lapels,the kind of painting you might pick up at a particularly tacky motel's garage sale. There was agiant open bottle of no-name vodka on the bar.
I thought I heard somebody whisper.
"Chynna?" I called out.
No answer. I stood, listened for more whispering. Nothing.
I started toward the back, toward where I heard the shower running.
"I'll be right out," I heard the voice say. I pulled up, felt a chill. Because now I was closerto the voice. I could hear it better. And here was the thing I found particularly strange aboutit:
It didn't sound at all like Chynna.
Three things tugged at me. One, panic. This wasn't Chynna. Get out of the house. Two,curiosity. If it wasn't Chynna, who the hell was it and what was going on? Three, panic again.It had been Chynna on the phone--so what had happened to her?
I couldn't just run out now.
I took one step toward where I'd come in, and that was when it all happened. A spotlightsnapped on in my face, blinding me. I stumbled back, hand coming up to my face.
I blinked. Female voice. Professional. Deep tone. Sounded oddly familiar.
Suddenly there were other people in the room. A man with a camera. Another with what lookedlike a boom mike. And the female with the familiar voice, a stunning woman with chestnut brownhair and a business suit.
"Wendy Tynes, NTC News. Why are you here, Dan?"
I opened my mouth, nothing came out. I recognized the woman from that TV newsmagazine . . .
"Why have you been conversing online in a sexual manner with a thirteen-year-old girl, Dan? Wehave your communications with her."
. . . the one that sets up and catches pedophiles on camera for all the world to see.
"Are you here to have sex with a thirteen-year-old girl?"
The truth of what was going on there hit me, freezing my bones. Other people flooded the room.Producers maybe. Another cameraman. Two cops. The cameras came in closer. The lights gotbrighter. Beads of sweat popped up on my brow. I started to stammer, started to deny.
But it was over.
Two days later, the show aired. The world saw.
And the life of Dan Mercer, just as I somehow knew it would be when I approached that door, wasdestroyed.
WHEN MARCIA MCWAID FIRST SAW HER daughter's empty bed, panic did not set in. That would comelater.
She had woken up at six AM, early for Saturday morning, feeling pretty terrific. Ted, herhusband of twenty years, slept in the bed next to her. He lay on his stomach, his arm aroundher waist. Ted liked to sleep with a shirt on and no pants. None. Nude from the waist down."Gives my man down there room to roam," he would say with a smirk. And Marcia, imitating herdaughters' teenage singsong tone, would say, "T-M-I"--Too Much Information.
Marcia slipped out of his grip and padded down to the kitchen. She made herself a cup of coffeewith the new Keurig pod machine. Ted loved gadgets--boys and their toys--but this one actuallygot some use. You take the pod, you stick it in the machine--presto, coffee. No video screens,no touch pad, no wireless connectivity. Marcia loved it.
They'd recently finished an addition on the house--one extra bedroom, one bathroom, the kitchenknocked out a bit with a glassed-in nook. The kitchen nook offered oodles of morning sun andhad thus become Marcia's favorite spot in the house. She took her coffee and the newspaper andset herself on the window seat, folding her feet beneath her.
A small slice of heaven.
She let herself read the paper and sip her coffee. In a few minutes she would have to check theschedule. Ryan, her third grader, had the early Hoops Basketball game at eight AM. Ted coached.His team was winless for the second straight season.
"Why do your teams never win?" Marcia had asked him.
"I draft the kids based on two criteria."
"How nice the father--and how hot the mom."
She had slapped at him playfully, and maybe Marcia would have been somewhat concerned if shehadn't seen the moms on the sideline and knew, for certain, that he had to be joking. Ted wasactually a great coach, not in terms of strategy but in terms of handling the boys. They allloved him and his lack of competitiveness so that even the untalented players, the ones whowere usually discouraged and quit during the season, showed up every week. Ted even took theBon Jovi song and turned it around: "You give losing a good name." The kids would laugh andcheer every basket, and when you're in third grade that's how it should be.
Marcia's fourteen-year-old daughter, Patricia, had rehearsal for the freshman play, an abridgedversion of the musical Les Miserables . She had several small parts, but that didn't seem to
affect the workload. And her oldest child, Haley, the high school senior, was running a"captain's practice" for the girls' lacrosse team. Captain's practices were unofficial, a wayto sneak in early practices under the guidelines issued by high school sports. In short, nocoaches, nothing official, just a casual gathering, a glorified pickup game if you will, run bythe captains.