Authors: Harlan Coben
Table of Contents
ALSO BY HARLAN COBEN
One False Move
The Final Detail
Tell No One
Gone for Good
No Second Chance
Just One Look
Published by Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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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, there was nothing menacing about the red door. In fact, the door was beyond ordinary, wood and fourpaneled, the kind of door you see standing guard in front of three out of every four suburban homes, with faded paint and a knocker at chest level no one ever used and a faux brass knob.
But as I walked toward it, a distant streetlight barely illuminating my way, the dark opening yawning like a mouth ready to gobble me whole, the feeling of doom was unshakable. Each step forward took great effort, as if I were walking not along a somewhat crackled walk but through still-wet cement. My body displayed all the classic symptoms of impending menace: Chill down my spine? 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. The dwelling somehow seemed a little too cookie-cutter, a little too nondescript. That bothered me for some reason. This house was also isolated at the tippy end of the cul-de-sac, hunkering down 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 just finished coaching the inner-city fourth-grade Newark Biddy Basketball team. My team, all kids who, like me, were products of foster care (we call ourselves the NoRents, which is short for No Parents--gallows humor), had managed to blow a six-point lead with two minutes left. On the court, 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 usually consisted of giving my charges some life-altering insight like "Good effort," "We'll get them next time," or "Don't forget we have a game next Thursday," always ending with "Hands in" and then 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 even had time to shower. The smell of gym sweat mixed now with the smell of fear sweat. I slowed my pace.
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, my gray 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 was setting off the warning bells. I hadn't liked her voice on the phone, hadn't really warmed to this whole setup. Taking a deep breath, I glanced behind me. In the distance, I could see some signs of life on this suburban night--house lights, a flickering television or maybe computer monitor, an open garage door--but in this cul-de-sac, there was nothing, not a sound or movement, just a hush in the dark.
My cell phone vibrated, nearly making me jump out of my skin. I figured that it was Chynna, but no, 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-respected surgeon named Noel Wheeler. Noel does volunteer work for me at the teen center. I like Noel and he likes me. He has a daughter by a previous marriage, and he and Jenna have a six-year-old girl named Kari. I'm Kari's godfather, and both kids call me Uncle Dan. I'm the family go-to babysitter.
I know this all sounds very civilized and Pollyanna, and I suppose it is. In my case, it could be simply a matter of necessity. I have no one else--no parents, no siblings--ergo, the closest thing I have to family is my ex-wife. The kids I work with, the ones I advocate for and try to help 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 a moment, remembered our own wedding day. It was a mistake for me to get married. It is a mistake for me to get too close to people, and yet I can't help it. Someone cue the violins so I can wax philosophical about how it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. I don't think that applies to me. It is in humans' DNA to repeat the same mistakes, even after we know better. So here I am, the poor orphan who scraped his way up to the top of his class at an elite Ivy League school but never really scraped off who he was. Corny, but I want someone 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 into philosophical debates.
"Think about it, Dan. Throughout mankind, the strongest and brightest did what? They fought in wars. That only stopped this past century. Before that, we sent our absolute best to fight on the front lines. So who stayed home and reproduced while our finest died on distant battlefields? The lame, the sick, the weak, the crooked, the cowardly--in short, the least of us. 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 breeding."
I forwent the knocker and rapped on the door lightly with my knuckles. The door creaked open a crack. I hadn't realized that it was ajar.