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The Boy from the Woods
By Harlan Coben
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Thirty years ago, Wilde was found as a boy living feral in the woods, with no memory of his past. Now an adult, he still doesn't know where he comes from, and another child has gone missing.
No one seems to take Naomi Pine's disappearance seriously, not even her father—with one exception. Hester Crimstein, a television criminal attorney, knows through her grandson that Naomi was relentlessly bullied at school. Hester asks Wilde—with whom she shares a tragic connection—to use his unique skills to help find Naomi.
Wilde can't ignore an outcast in trouble, but in order to find Naomi he must venture back into the community where he has never fit in, a place where the powerful are protected even when they harbor secrets that could destroy the lives of millions . . . secrets that Wilde must uncover before it's too late.
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From the North Jersey Gazette
April 18, 1986
ABANDONED "WILD BOY" FOUND IN THE WOODS
Huge Mystery Surrounding Discovery of "Real-Life Mowgli"
WESTVILLE, N.J.—In one of the most bizarre cases in recent history, a wild-haired young boy, estimated to be between six and eight years old, was discovered living on his own in the Ramapo Mountain State Forest near the suburb of Westville. Even more bizarre, authorities have no idea who the boy is or how long he had been there.
"It's like Mowgli in the 'Jungle Book' movie," Westville Police Deputy Oren Carmichael said.
The boy—who speaks and understands English but has no knowledge of his name—was first spotted by Don and Leslie Katz, hikers from Clifton, N.J. "We were cleaning up from our picnic when we heard a rustling in the woods," Mr. Katz said. "At first I worried it was a bear, but then we caught sight of him running, clear as day."
Park rangers, along with local police, found the boy, thin and clad in tattered clothes, in a makeshift campsite three hours later. "At this time, we don't know how long he's been in the state forest or how he got here," said New Jersey State Park Police Chief Tony Aurigemma. "He doesn't recall any parents or adult figures. We're currently checking with other law enforcement authorities, but so far, there are no missing children who match his age and description."
For the past year, hikers in the Ramapo Mountain area have reported seeing a "feral boy" or "Little Tarzan" matching the boy's description, but most people chalked up the sightings to urban legend.
Said James Mignone, a hiker from Morristown, N.J., "It's like someone just birthed him and left him in the wild."
"It's the strangest survival case any of us have ever seen," Chief Aurigemma said. "We don't know if the boy has been out here days, weeks, months or heck, even years."
If anyone has any information on the young boy, they are asked to contact the Westville Police Department.
"Someone out there has to know something," Deputy Carmichael said. "The boy didn't just appear in the forest by magic."
April 23, 2020
How does she survive?
How does she manage to get through this torment every single day?
Day after day. Week after week. Year after year.
She sits in the school assembly hall, her eyes fixed, unseeing, unblinking. Her face is stone, a mask. She doesn't look left or right. She doesn't move at all.
She just stares straight ahead.
She is surrounded by classmates, including Matthew, but she doesn't look at any of them. She doesn't talk to any of them either, though that doesn't stop them from talking to her. The boys—Ryan, Crash (yes, that's his real name), Trevor, Carter—keep calling her names, harshly whispering awful things, jeering at her, laughing with scorn. They throw things at her. Paper clips. Rubber bands. Flick snot from their noses. They put small pieces of paper in their mouths, wad the paper into wet balls, propel them in various ways at her.
When the paper sticks to her hair, they laugh some more.
The girl—her name is Naomi—doesn't move. She doesn't try to pull the wads of paper out of her hair. She just stares straight ahead. Her eyes are dry. Matthew could remember a time, two or three years ago, when her eyes would moisten during these ceaseless, unrelenting, daily taunts.
But not anymore.
Matthew watches. He does nothing.
The teachers, numb to this by now, barely notice. One wearily calls out, "Okay, Crash, that's enough," but neither Crash nor any of the others give the warning the slightest heed.
Meanwhile Naomi just takes it.
Matthew should do something to stop the bullying. But he doesn't. Not anymore. He tried once.
It did not end well.
Matthew tries to remember when it all started to go wrong for Naomi. She had been a happy kid in elementary school. Always smiling, that's what he remembered. Yeah, her clothes were hand-me-downs and she didn't wash her hair enough. Some of the girls made mild fun of her for that. But it had been okay until that day she got violently ill and threw up in Mrs. Walsh's class, fourth grade, just projectile vomit ricocheting off the classroom linoleum, the wet brown chips splashing on Kim Rogers and Taylor Russell, the smell so bad, so rancid, that Mrs. Walsh had to clear the classroom, all the kids, Matthew one of them, and send them all out to the kickball field holding their noses and making pee-uw sounds.
And after that, nothing had been the same for Naomi.
Matthew always wondered about that. Had she not felt well that morning? Did her father—her mom was already out of the picture by then—make her go to school? If Naomi had just stayed home that day, would it all have gone differently for her? Was her throwing-up her sliding door moment, or was it inevitable that she would end up traveling down this rough, dark, torturous path?
Another spitball sticks in her hair. More name-calling. More cruel jeers.
Naomi sits there and waits for it to end.
End for now, at least. For today maybe. She has to know that it won't end for good. Not today. Not tomorrow. The torment never stops for very long. It is her constant companion.
How does she survive?
Some days, like today, Matthew really pays attention and wants to do something.
Most days, he doesn't. The bullying still happens on those days, of course, but it is so frequent, so customary, it becomes background noise. Matthew had learned an awful truth: You grow immune to cruelty. It becomes the norm. You accept it. You move on.
Has Naomi just accepted it too? Has she grown immune to it?
Matthew doesn't know. But she's there, every day, sitting in the last row in class, the first row at assembly, at a corner table all alone in the cafeteria.
Until one day—a week after this assembly—she's not there.
One day, Naomi vanishes.
And Matthew needs to know why.
The hipster pundit said, "This guy should be in prison, no questions asked."
On live television, Hester Crimstein was about to counterpunch when she spotted what looked like her grandson in her peripheral vision. It was hard to see through the studio lights, but it sure as hell looked like Matthew.
"Whoa, strong words," said the show's host, a once-cute prepster whose main debate technique was to freeze a baffled expression on his face, as though his guests were idiots no matter how much sense they made. "Any response, Hester?"
Matthew's appearance—it had to be him—had thrown her.
Not a good time to let the mind wander, she reminded herself. Focus.
"You're gross," Hester said.
"You heard me." She aimed her notorious withering gaze at Hipster Pundit. "Gross."
Why is Matthew here?
Her grandson had never come to her work unannounced before—not to her office, not to a courtroom, and not to the studio.
"Care to elaborate?" Prepster Host asked.
"Sure," Hester said. The fiery glare stayed on Hipster Pundit. "You hate America."
"Seriously," Hester continued, throwing her hands up in the air, "why should we have a court system at all? Who needs it? We have public opinion, don't we? No trial, no jury, no judge—let the Twitter mob decide."
Hipster Pundit sat up a little straighter. "That's not what I said."
"It's exactly what you said."
"There's evidence, Hester. A very clear video."
"Ooo, a video." She wiggled her fingers as though she were talking about a ghost. "So again: No need for a judge or jury. Let's just have you, as benevolent leader of the Twitter mob—"
"Hush, I'm talking. Oh, I'm sorry, I forget your name. I keep calling you Hipster Pundit in my head, so can I just call you Chad?" He opened his mouth, but Hester pushed on. "Great. Tell me, Chad, what's a fitting punishment for my client, do you think? I mean, since you're going to pronounce guilt or innocence, why not also do the sentencing for us?"
"My name"—he pushed his hipster glasses up his nose—"is Rick. And we all saw the video. Your client punched a man in the face."
"Thanks for that analysis. You know what would be helpful, Chad?"
"Rick, Chad, whatever. What would be helpful, super helpful really, would be if you and your mob just made all the decisions for us. Think of the time we'd save. We just post a video on social media and declare guilt or innocence from the replies. Thumbs-up or thumbs-down. There'd be no need for witnesses or testimony or evidence. Just Judge Rick Chad here."
Hipster Pundit's face was turning red. "We all saw what your rich client did to that poor man."
Prepster Host stepped in: "Before we continue, let's show the video again for those just tuning in."
Hester was about to protest, but they'd already shown the video countless times, would show it countless more times, and her voicing any opposition would be both ineffective and only make her client, a well-to-do financial consultant named Simon Greene, appear even more guilty.
More important, Hester could use the few seconds with the camera off her to check on Matthew.
The viral video—four million views and counting—had been recorded on a tourist's iPhone in Central Park. On the screen, Hester's client Simon Greene, wearing a perfectly tailored suit with a perfectly Windsored Hermès tie, cocked his fist and smashed it into the face of a threadbare, disheveled young man who, Hester knew, was a drug addict named Aaron Corval.
Blood gushed from Corval's nose.
The image was irresistibly Dickensian—Mr. Rich Privileged Guy, completely unprovoked, sucker-punches Poor Street Urchin.
Hester quickly craned her neck toward Matthew and tried, through the haze of the studio spotlights, to meet his eye. She was a frequent legal expert on cable news, and two nights a week, "famed defense attorney" Hester Crimstein had her own segment on this very network called Crimstein on Crime, though her name was not pronounced Crime-Rhymes-with-Prime-Stine, but rather Krim-Rhymes-with-Prim-Steen, but the alliteration was still considered "television friendly" and the title looked good on the bottom scroll, so the network ran with it.
Her grandson stood in the shadows. Hester could see that Matthew was wringing his hands, just like his father used to do, and she felt a pang so deep in her chest that for a moment she couldn't breathe. She considered quickly crossing the room and asking Matthew why he was here, but the punch video was already over and Hipster Rick Chad was foaming at the mouth.
"See?" Spittle flew out of his mouth and found a home in his beard. "It's clear as day. Your rich client attacked a homeless man for no reason."
"You don't know what went on before that tape rolled."
"It makes no difference."
"Sure it does. That's why we have a system of justice, so that vigilantes like you don't irresponsibly call for mob violence against an innocent man."
"Whoa, no one said anything about mob violence."
"Sure you did. Own it already. You want my client, a father of three with no record, in prison right now. No trial, nothing. Come on, Rick Chad, let your inner fascist out." Hester banged the desk, startling Prepster Host, and began to chant: "Lock him up, lock him up."
"Cut that out!"
"Lock him up!"
The chant was getting to him, his face turning scarlet. "That's not what I meant at all. You're intentionally exaggerating."
"Lock him up!"
"Stop that. No one is saying that."
Hester had something of a gift for mimicry. She often used it in the courtroom to subtly if not immaturely undermine a prosecutor. Doing her best impression of Rick Chad, she repeated his earlier words verbatim: "This guy should be in prison, no questions asked."
"That will be up to a court of law," Hipster Rick Chad said, "but maybe if a man acts like this, if he punches people in the face in broad daylight, he deserves to be canceled and lose his job."
"Why? Because you and Deplorable-Dental-Hygienist and Nail-Da-Ladies-69 on Twitter say so? You don't know the situation. You don't even know if the tape is real."
Prepster Host arched an eyebrow over that one. "Are you saying the video is fake?"
"Could be, sure. Look, I had another client. Someone photoshopped her smiling face next to a dead giraffe and said she was the hunter who killed it. An ex-husband did that for revenge. Can you imagine the hate and bullying she received?"
The story wasn't true—Hester had made it up—but it could be true, and sometimes that was enough.
"Where is your client Simon Greene right now?" Hipster Rick Chad asked.
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"He's home, right? Out on bail?"
"He's an innocent man, a fine man, a caring man—"
"And a rich man."
"Now you want to get rid of our bail system?"
"A rich white man."
"Listen, Rick Chad, I know you're all 'woke' and stuff, what with the cool beard and the hipster beanie—is that a Kangol?—but your use of race and your easy answers are as bad as the other side's use of race and easy answers."
"Wow, deflecting using 'both sides.'"
"No, sonny, that's not both sides, so listen up. What you don't see is, you and those you hate? You are quickly becoming one and the same."
"Reverse this around," Rick Chad said. "If Simon Greene was poor and black and Aaron Corval was rich and white—"
"They're both white. Don't make this about race."
"It's always about race, but fine. If the guy in rags hit the rich white man in a suit, he wouldn't have Hester Crimstein defending him. He'd be in jail right now."
Hmm, Hester thought. She had to admit Rick Chad had a pretty good point there.
Prepster Host said, "Hester?"
Time was running out in the segment, so Hester threw up her hands and said, "If Rick Chad is arguing I'm a great attorney, who am I to disagree?"
That drew laughs.
"And that's all the time we have for now. Coming up next, the latest controversy surrounding upstart presidential candidate Rusty Eggers. Is Rusty pragmatic or cruel? Is he really the most dangerous man in America? Stay with us."
Hester pulled out the earpiece and unclipped the microphone. They were already headed to commercial break when she rose and crossed the room toward Matthew. He was so tall now, again like his father, and another pang struck hard.
Hester said, "Your mother…?"
"She's fine," Matthew said. "Everyone is okay."
Hester couldn't help it. She threw her arms around the probably embarrassed teen, wrapping him in a bear hug, though she was barely five two and he had almost a foot on her. More and more she saw the echoes of the father in the son. Matthew hadn't looked much like David when he was little, when his father was still alive, but now he did—the posture, the walk, the hand wringing, the crinkle of the forehead—and it all broke her heart anew. It shouldn't, of course. It should, in fact, offer some measure of comfort for Hester, seeing her dead son's echo in his boy, like some small part of David survived the crash and still lives on. But instead, these ghostly glimmers rip at her, tear the wounds wide open, even after all these years, and Hester wondered whether the pain was worth it, whether it was better to feel this pain than feel nothing. The question was a rhetorical one, of course. She had no choice and would want it no other way—feeling nothing or someday being "over it" would be the worst betrayal of all.
So she held her grandson and squeezed her eyes shut. The teen patted her back, almost as though he were humoring her.
That was what he called her. Nana. "You're really okay?"
Matthew's skin was browner than his father's. His mother, Laila, was black, which made Matthew black too or a person of color or biracial or whatever. Age was no excuse, but Hester, who was in her seventies but told everyone she stopped counting at sixty-nine—go ahead, make a joke, she'd heard them all—found it hard to keep track of the evolving terminology.
"Where's your mother?" Hester asked.
"At work, I guess."
"What's the matter?" Hester asked.
"There's this girl in school," Matthew said.
"What about her?"
"She's missing, Nana. I want you to help."
Her name is Naomi Pine," Matthew said.
They were in the backseat of Hester's Cadillac Escalade. Matthew had taken the hour-long train ride in from Westville, changing at the Frank Lautenberg Station in Secaucus, but Hester figured that it would be easier and smarter to drive him back to Westville. She hadn't been out to visit in a month, much too long, and so she could both help her distraught grandson with his problem and spend some time with him and his mom, killing the allegorical two birds with one stone, which was a really violent and weird image when you stopped and thought about it. You throw a stone and kill two birds—and this is a good thing?
Look at me, throwing a stone at a beautiful bird. Why? Why would a person do such a thing? I don't know. I guess I'm a psychopath, and whoa—I hit two birds somehow! Yay! Two dead birds!
"This Naomi," Hester said, pushing the silly inner rant away. "She's your friend?"
Matthew shrugged as only a teenager can. "I've known her since we were, like, six."
Not a direct answer, but she'd allow it.
"How long has she been missing?"
"For, like, a week."
Like, six. Like, a week. It drove Hester crazy—the "likes," the "you-knows"—but now was hardly the time.
"Did you try to call her?"
"I don't know her phone number."
"Are the police looking for her?"
"Did you talk to her parents?"
"She lives with her dad."
"Did you speak to her dad?"
He made a face as though that was the most ridiculous thing imaginable.
"So how do you know she's not sick? Or away on vacation or something?"
"What makes you think she's missing?"
Matthew just stared out the window. Tim, Hester's longtime driver, veered the Escalade off Route 17 and into the heart of Westville, New Jersey, less than thirty miles from Manhattan. The Ramapo Mountains, which are actually part of the Appalachians in every way, rose into view. The memories, as they have a habit of doing, swarmed in and stung.
Someone once told Hester that memories hurt, the good ones most of all. As she got older, Hester realized just how true that was.
Hester and her late husband, Ira—gone now seven years—had raised three boys in the "mountain suburb" (that's what they called it) of Westville, New Jersey. Their oldest son, Jeffrey, was now a DDS in Los Angeles and on his fourth wife, a real estate agent named Sandy. Sandy was the first of Jeffrey's wives who hadn't been an inappropriately younger dental hygienist in his office. Progress, Hester hoped. Their middle son, Eric, like his father before him, worked in the nebulous world of finance—Hester could never understand what either man, her husband or son, actually did, something with moving piles of money from A to B to facilitate C. Eric and his wife, Stacey, had three boys, aged two years apart, just as Hester and Ira had done. The family had recently moved down to Raleigh, North Carolina, which seemed all the rage nowadays.
Their youngest son—and truth be told, Hester's favorite—had been Matthew's father, David.
Hester asked Matthew, "What time will your mom be home?"
His mother, Laila, like grandmother Hester, worked at a major law firm, though she specialized in family law. She'd started her career as Hester's associate during summers while attending Columbia Law School. That was how Laila had first met Hester's son.
Laila and David had fallen in love pretty much right away. They'd gotten married. They had a son named Matthew.
"I don't know," Matthew said. "Want me to text her?"
"Don't tell Mom about this."
"Just don't, okay?"
"Stop it," Hester said with a little snap that he needed her to say this. Then, more gently: "I promise. Of course, I promise."
Matthew fiddled with his phone as Tim made the familiar right turn, then left, then two more rights. They were on a storybook cul-de-sac called Downing Lane now. Up ahead was the grand log-cabin-style home Hester and Ira had built forty-two years ago. It was the home where she and Ira raised Jeffrey, Eric, and David, and then, fifteen years ago, with their sons grown, Hester and Ira decided that it was time to leave Westville. They'd loved their home in the foothills of the Ramapo Mountains, Ira more than Hester because, God help her, Ira was an outdoorsman who loved hiking and fishing and all those things that men named Ira Crimstein were not supposed to like. But it had been their time to move on. Towns like Westville are meant for raising children. You get married, you move out from the city, you have a few babies, you go to their soccer games and dance recitals, you get overly emotional at their graduations and commencements, they go to college, they visit and sleep in late, and then they stop doing even that and you're alone and really, like any life cycle, it's time to put this behind you, sell the house to another young couple who move out from the city to have a few babies, and start anew.
There was nothing for you in towns like Westville when you got older—and there was nothing wrong with that.
So Hester and Ira did indeed move on. They found an apartment on Riverside Drive on the Upper West Side of Manhattan facing the Hudson River. They loved it. For almost thirty years they had commuted on that same train Matthew had taken today, changing in Hoboken back in those days, and now, in their advancing years, to be able to wake up and walk or quickly subway to work was heaven.
Hester and Ira relished living in New York City.
As for the old mountain home on Downing Lane, they ended up selling it to their son David and his wonderful wife, Laila, who'd just had their first child—Matthew. Hester thought that it might be odd for David, living in the same house he'd grown up in, but he claimed that it would be the perfect place to start and raise a family of his own. He and Laila did an entire renovation, putting their own stamp on the house, making the interior almost unrecognizable to Hester and Ira during their visits out here.
- "The Boy from the Woods is as much an action as a psychological thriller, as much a riveting read as a superb character study in which Coben challenges himself by taking his story outside his suburban comfort zone. A must-read for any mystery or thriller fan."—Providence Journal
- "The crafty Coben knows how to weave a compelling story with intriguing characters, and Wilde is one of his best . . . The narrative veers into such unexpected directions that even a true thriller aficionado will not see the multiple surprises the ending delivers." —Associated Press
- "I liked [The Boy from the Woods] a lot!"—Stephen King
- "Coben never, ever lets you down."—Lee Child
- "Every time you think Harlan Coben couldn't get any better at uncoiling a whip snake of a page-turner, he comes along with a new novel that somehow surpasses its predecessor."—San Francisco Chronicle
- "[Harlan Coben is] the modern master of the hook and twist."—Dan Brown
- "Harlan's a great thriller writer . . . one of my favorites."—John Grisham
- "Intense from the first page, with dramatic plot twists . . . Fans of complex heroes caught up in world-changing events will relish this latest from a master storyteller."—Library Journal, Starred Review
- "The world needs to discover Harlan Coben. He's smart, he's funny and he has something to say."—Michael Connelly
- "Count on Coben to serve up a once-you-start-you-can't-stop mystery/thriller. He introduces a new character that only he could pull off: a New Jersey version of Tarzan."—Forbes
- "Coben is simply one of the all-time greats."—Gillian Flynn
- "Introduces a compelling new series lead . . . another fantastic thriller from one of the best."—CrimeReads
- "[Harlan Coben is] one of the world's finest thriller writers."—Peter James
- "A gloriously pulpy premise . . . in the hands of a thriller master."—BookPage
- "A hybrid mystery-thriller featuring a unique blend of concepts and themes. Starkly original."—Providence Sunday Journal
- "The Boy From the Woods is a one-sit read. The characters and plotlines are so well drawn out that it is easy to find yourself caught up inside them."—Bookreporter.com
- "Coben is the undisputed king of suspense . . . jam-packed with misdirection and heart-stopping twists."—The Real Book Spy
- "The bestselling author of . . . Run Away has written another gripping thriller for 2020."—AARP.org
- "Coben finds room for three climactic surprises, one of them a honey."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Harlan Coben is a master at weaving compelling thrillers . . . a haunting ride."—PopSugar
- "There are lots of levels to this tale . . . Wilde is wild in a believable way and we want to know just what it is that keeps him going. As always, the women are great."—The Globe and Mail
- "Entertaining . . . [a] read for the summer."—Winnipeg Free Press
- "There may be no other thriller writer alive today who has mastered that fundamental trick of the genre. When you start a new Coben novel, or just pick one up and read the jacket copy, you know that nothing will unfold as it seems. You can be assured that surprises will keep appearing until the final page."—BookTrib
- "Harlan Coben is a master at writing spellbinding thrillers, and his latest, The Boy From the Woods, is no exception . . . a wild ride."—Orange County Register
- "The twists and turns of this story are really intriguing, and you don't suspect who the culprit is until the very end."—Self Magazine
- "The Boy from the Woods is another superior tale from this popular author."—The Missourian
- "Engrossing characters . . . [readers will] want more stories involving Wilde and Hester."—The Military Press
- "Coben fans will instantly recognize the author's dry style, deft plotting, and adept use of twists and turns."—Intermountain Jewish News
- "Gripping . . . a must-read."—9to5Toys
- On Sale
- Jun 29, 2021
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Grand Central Publishing