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Megan is a suburban soccer mom who once upon a time walked on the wild side. Now she’s got two kids, a perfect husband, a picket fence, and a growing sense of dissatisfaction. Ray used to be a talented documentary photographer, but at the age of forty he finds himself in a dead-end job posing as a paparazzo, pandering to celebrity-obsessed rich kids. Broome is a detective who can’t let go of a cold case—a local husband and father who disappeared seventeen years ago—and spends the anniversary every year visiting a house frozen in time, the missing man’s family still waiting, his slippers left by the recliner as if he might show up at any moment to step into them.
Three people living lives they never wanted, hiding secrets that even those closest to them would never suspect, will find that the past never truly fades away. Even as the terrible consequences of long-ago events crash together in the present and threaten to ruin lives, they will come to the startling realization that they may not want to forget the past at all. And as each confronts the dark side of the American dream—the boredom of a nice suburban life, the excitement of temptation, the desperation and hunger that can lurk behind even the prettiest façades—they will discover the hard truth that the line between one kind of life and another can be as whisper-thin as a heartbeat.
Master of domestic suspense Harlan Coben delivers his trademark combination of page-turning thrills and unrivaled insight into the dark shadows that creep into even the happiest communities.
Praise for the narration of Stay Close by Harlan Coben, performed by Scott Brick:
“Scott Brick crafts characters not so much by shaping each individual voice with different accents but by expressions and tones that convey strong emotions. And the emotions are far ranging. Empathy, psychotic behavior, and frantic helplessness all figure into the narration as much as the plot. It’s a diverse group tied to the crimes: a crooked cop haunted by his conscience, two young psychopathic killers without remorse, old lovers who are trying to escape their past and confront their present. Brick’s narration is crucial as the solution is unearthed.” © AudioFile 2012, Portland, Maine
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Harlan Coben is the bestselling author of eighteen novels, including The Woods, Promise Me, and The Innocent, and is the winner of the Edgar, Shamus, and Anthony awards. He lives in New Jersey with his family.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
ALSO BY HARLAN COBEN
One False Move
The Final Detail
Tell No One
Gone for Good
No Second Chance
Just One Look
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“Atlantic City” by Bruce Springsteen. Copyright © 1982 Bruce Springsteen (ASCAP).
Reprinted by permission. International copyright secured. All rights reserved.
First printing, March 2012
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Copyright © 2012 by Harlan Coben
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
has been applied for.
Printed in the United States of America
Set in Sabon LT Std.
Designed by Leonard Telesca
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
This one is for
Aunt Diane and Uncle Norman Reiter
Aunt Ilene and Uncle Marty Kronberg,
with love and gratitude.
Well now everything dies, baby that’s a fact.
But maybe everything that dies, someday comes back.
—Bruce Springsteen, “Atlantic City”
SOMETIMES, IN THAT SPLIT SECOND when Ray Levine snapped a picture and lost the world in the strobe from his flashbulb, he saw the blood. He knew, of course, that it was only in his mind’s eye, but at times, like right now, the vision was so real he had to lower his camera and take a good hard look at the ground in front of him. That horrible moment—the moment Ray’s life changed completely, transforming him from a man with a future and aspirations into this Grade-A loser you see in front of you—never visited him in his dreams or when he sat alone in the dark. The devastating visions waited until he was wide-awake, surrounded by people, busy at what some might sarcastically dub work.
The visions mercifully faded as Ray continuously snapped pictures of the bar mitzvah boy.
“Look this way, Ira,” Ray shouted from behind his lens. “Who are you wearing? Is it true Jen and Angelina are still fighting over you?”
Someone kicked Ray’s shin. Someone else pushed him. Ray kept snapping pictures of Ira.
“Where is the after-party, Ira? What lucky girl is getting the first dance?”
Ira Edelstein frowned and shielded his face from the camera lens. Ray surged forward undaunted, snapping pictures from every angle. “Get out of the way!” someone shouted. Someone else pushed him. Ray tried to steady himself.
Snap, snap, snap.
“Damn paparazzi!” Ira shouted. “Can’t I have a moment of peace?”
Ray rolled his eyes. He did not back off. From behind his camera lens, the vision with the blood returned. He tried to shake it off, but it would not go. Ray kept his finger pressed down on the shutter. Ira the Bar Mitzvah Boy moved in a slow-motion strobe now.
“Parasites!” Ira screamed.
Ray wondered if it was possible to sink any lower.
Another kick to the shins gave Ray his answer: Nope.
Ira’s “bodyguard”—an enormous guy with a shaved head named Fester—swept Ray aside with a forearm the size of an oak. The sweep was with a bit too much gusto, nearly knocking him off his feet. Ray gave Fester a “what gives” look. Fester mouthed an apology.
Fester was Ray’s boss and friend and the owner of Celeb Experience: Paparazzi for Hire—which was just what it sounded like. Ray didn’t stalk celebrities hoping to get compromising shots to sell to tabloids like a real paparazzo. No, Ray was actually beneath that—Beatlemania to the Beatles—offering the “celebrity experience” to wannabes who were willing to pay. In short, clients, most with extreme self-esteem and probably erectile dysfunction issues, hired paparazzi to follow them around, snapping pictures to give them, per the brochure, the “ultimate celebrity experience with your very own exclusive paparazzi.”
Ray could sink lower, he supposed, but not without an extreme act of God.
The Edelsteins had purchased the A-List MegaPackage—two hours with three paparazzi, one bodyguard, one publicist, one boom-mike handler, all following around the “celebrity” and snapping pictures of him as though he were Charlie Sheen sneaking into a monastery. The A-List MegaPackage also came with a souvenir DVD for no extra charge, plus your face on one of those cheesy-fake gossip magazine covers with a custom-made headline.
The cost for the A-List MegaPackage?
To answer the obvious question: Yes, Ray hated himself.
Ira pushed past and disappeared into the ballroom. Ray lowered his camera and looked at his two fellow paparazzi. Neither one of them had the loser L tattooed on their forehead because, really, it would have been redundant.
Ray checked his watch. “Damn,” he said.
“We still have fifteen minutes on the clock.”
His colleagues—both barely bright enough to write their names in the dirt with a finger—groaned. Fifteen more minutes. That meant going inside and working the introduction. Ray hated that.
The bar mitzvah was being held at the Wingfield Manor, a ridiculously gauche banquet hall that, if scaled back a tad, could have doubled as one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. There were chandeliers and mirrors and faux ivory and ornate woodwork and lots and lots of shimmering gold paint.
The image of the blood came back to him. He blinked it away.
The event was black-tie. The men looked worn and rich. The women looked well kept and surgically enhanced. Ray pushed through the crowds, wearing jeans, a wrinkled gray blazer, and black Chuck Taylor Hi-Tops. Several guests stared at him as though he’d just defecated on their salad fork.
There was an eighteen-piece band plus a “facilitator” who was supposed to encourage guest frolicking of all sorts. Think bad TV-game-show host. Think Muppets’ Guy Smiley. The facilitator grabbed the microphone and said, “Ladies and gentlemen,” in a voice reminiscent of a boxing ring announcer, “please welcome, for the first time since receiving the Torah and becoming a man, give it up for the one, the only... Ira Edelstein!”
Ira appeared with two... Ray wasn’t sure what the right terminology was but perhaps the best phrase would be “upscale strippers.” The two hot chicks escorted little Ira into the room by the cleavage. Ray got the camera ready and pushed forward, shaking his head. The kid was thirteen. If women who looked like that were ever that close to him when he was thirteen, he’d have an erection for a week.
The applause was rapturous. Ira gave the crowd a royal wave.
“Ira!” Ray called out. “Are these your new goddesses? Is it true you may be adding a third to your harem?”
“Please,” Ira said with a practiced whine, “I’m entitled to my privacy!”
Ray managed not to vomit. “But your public wants to know.”
Fester the Sunglassed Bodyguard put a large mitt on Ray, allowing Ira to brush past him. Ray snapped, making sure the flash worked its magic. The band exploded—when did weddings and bar mitzvahs start playing music at a rock-stadium decibel?—into the new celebration anthem “Club Can’t Handle Me.” Ira dirty-danced with the two hired helpers. Then his thirteen-year-old friends joined in, crowding the dance floor, jumping straight up and down like pogo sticks. Ray “fought” through Fester, snapped some more pictures, checked his watch.
One more minute on the clock.
Another kick to the shins from some little cretin.
“Ow, damn it, that hurt!”
The cretin scurried away. Note to self, Ray thought: Start wearing shin guards. He looked over at Fester as though begging for mercy. Fester let him off the hook with a head gesture to follow him toward the corner. The corner was too loud so they slipped through the doors.
Fester pointed back into the ballroom with his enormous thumb. “Kid did a great job on his haftorah portion, don’t you think?”
Ray just stared at him.
“I got a job for you tomorrow,” Fester said.
“Groovy. What is it?”
Fester looked off.
Ray didn’t like that. “Uh-oh.”
“It’s George Queller.”
“Yes. And he wants the usual.”
Ray sighed. George Queller tried to impress first dates by overwhelming and ultimately terrifying them. He would hire Celeb Experience to swarm him and his date—for example, last month it was a woman named Nancy—as they entered a small romantic bistro. Once the date was safely inside, she would be presented with—no, this was for real—a custom-made menu that would read, “George and Nancy’s First Date of Many, Many” with the address, month, day, and year printed beneath. When they left the restaurant, the paparazzi for hire would be there, snapping away and shouting at how George had turned down a weekend in Turks and Caicos with Jessica Alba for the lovely and now-terror-stricken Nancy.
George considered these romantic maneuvers a prelude to happy-ever-after. Nancy and her ilk considered these romantic maneuvers a prelude to a ball gag and secluded storage unit.
There had never been a second date for George.
Fester finally took off his sunglasses. “I want you to work lead on the job.”
“Lead paparazzo,” Ray said. “I better call my mother, so she can brag to her mahjong group.”
Fester chuckled. “I love you, you know that.”
“Are we done here?”
Ray packed away his camera carefully, separating the lens from the body, and threw the case over his shoulder. He limped toward the door, not from the kicks but the hunk of shrapnel in his hip—the shrapnel that started his downward slide. No, that was too simple. The shrapnel was an excuse. At one time in his miserable life, Ray had fairly limitless potential. He’d graduated from Columbia University’s School of Journalism with what one professor called “almost supernatural talent”—now being wasted—in the area of photojournalism. But in the end, that life didn’t work out for him. Some people are drawn to trouble. Some people, no matter how easy the path they are given on the walk of life, will find a way to mess it all up.
Ray Levine was one of those people.
It was dark out. Ray debated whether he should just head home and go to bed or hit a bar so seedy it was called Tetanus. Tough call when you have so many options.
He thought about the dead body again.
The visions came fast and furious now. That was understandable, he supposed. Today was the anniversary of the day it all ended, when any hope of happy-ever-after died like... Well, the obvious metaphor here would involve the visions in his head, wouldn’t it?
He frowned. Hey, Ray, melodramatic much?
He had hoped that today’s inane job would take his mind off it. It hadn’t. He remembered his own bar mitzvah, the moment on the pulpit when his father bent down and whispered in his ear. He remembered how his father had smelled of Old Spice, how his father’s hand cupped Ray’s head so gently, how his father with tears in his eyes simply said, “I love you so much.”
Ray pushed the thought away. Less painful to think about the dead body.
The valets had wanted to charge him—no professional courtesy, he guessed—so Ray had found a spot three blocks down on a side street. He made the turn, and there it was—his piece-o-crap, twelve-year-old Honda Civic with a missing bumper and duct tape holding together a side window. Ray rubbed his chin. Unshaven. Unshaven, forty years old, piece-o-crap car, a basement apartment that if heavily renovated might qualify as a crap hole, no prospects, drank too much. He would feel sorry for himself, but that would involve, well, caring.
Ray was just taking out his car key when the heavy blow landed on the back of his head.
He dropped to one knee. The world went dark. The tingle ran up his scalp. Ray felt disoriented. He tried to shake his head, tried to clear it.
Another blow landed near his temple.
Something inside his head exploded in a flash of bright light. Ray collapsed to the ground, his body splayed out. He may have lost consciousness—he wasn’t sure—but suddenly he felt a pulling in his right shoulder. For a moment he just lay limp, not able or wanting to resist. His head reeled in agony. The primitive part of his brain, the base animal section, had gone into survivor mode. Escape more punishment, it said. Crawl into a ball and cover up.
Another hard tug nearly tore his shoulder out. The tug lessened and began to slip away, and with it, a realization made Ray’s eyes snap open.
Someone was stealing his camera.
The camera was a classic Leica with a recently updated digital-send feature. He felt his arm lift in the air, the strap running up it. In a second, no more, the camera would be gone.
Ray didn’t have much. The camera was the only possession he truly cherished. It was his livelihood, sure, but it was also the only link to old Ray, to that life he had known before the blood, and he’d be damned if he’d give that up without a fight.
The strap was off his arm now. He wondered whether he’d have another opportunity, whether the mugger would go for the fourteen bucks in his wallet and give Ray a chance. Couldn’t wait to find out.
With his head still swimming and his knees wobbling, Ray shouted, “No!” and tried to launch...
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