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The Stranger Inside
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- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around February 25, 2020. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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The outcropping of limestone on which Michelle Hannon struck her head had been a part of the hillside for three thousand years, before there were trees in sight taller than a scrubby pine. It was thicker and a dozen feet broader back then, but storms and earthquakes came, and chinkapin oaks and butternut trees sank deep roots in the hillside, fracturing the big rock. Chunks of it fell away and tumbled into the timid creek at the bottom of the ravine. Now most of those old trees were gone, long ago sacrificed to logging, and the rock was little wider than Michelle's hunched and broken body was tall. She lay wedged between it and the earth, as though she were trying to hide in the rock's shadow. Her thoughts were caught in a blink, the slow closing of one undamaged eye, and she was at the beginning of her life again, soothed by her mother's thrumming heartbeat. She felt only a quiet joy. There was no unmovable rock, no blood streaking her face, no pain seething through her body. Nothing mattered. Nothing at all. But the moment that lasted both a split second and an eternity ended, and with each frantic beat of her heart, the joy ebbed away. Death was coming for her. She could hear it stalking through the leaves carpeting the hillside, eager to whisper its frigid breath in her ear.
Her eye closed.
The front door key in Kimber's hand won't turn in the lock, but she tries it again and again: taking it out, sliding it back in, her mind unable to connect what's happening with what is supposed to happen. Frustrated, she tries the other keys on the fob, the keys to her garage, her mother's house, and the radio station where she works, just in case she's gone a little crazy and forgotten which is which. With each successive key, she tries harder to force it in, making her hand hurt. All the while, a low, insistent voice in her brain is telling her what she already suspects. None of the keys will work.
She stares at the door a moment, then glances around her porch and the tree-lined street beyond. There's no one around, and the day seems to be slipping quietly into evening, as it should.
Wait. Am I being punked?
Is someone hiding and watching? Laughing at her?
She lets her laptop bag slide off her shoulder to rest beside the weekender at her feet and pushes her dark blond bob away from her face with her sunglasses.
Stepping back, she looks up at the familiar rows of green and orange glass squares arranged above the lintel. This is definitely the same door she closed—and locked—behind her when she left four days ago. The same polished mahogany, the same simple Shaker lines that complement the rest of the Craftsman-style bungalow. The same faint scratches inflicted by her next-door neighbor's tiny dog. A dozen feet away, the cedar porch swing hangs unmoving in the torpid August twilight. She looks at the useless set of keys in her hand, feeling stymied and helpless. Shading her forehead, she presses against a front window and is relieved to see the kitchen light she left on Thursday afternoon is the only light burning.
An empty house somehow feels empty, doesn't it? But this house—her house—doesn't feel empty at all. The idea that someone is inside takes hold of her and won't let go.
"Hello? Is somebody in there?" She raps hard and fast on the glass until her knuckles sting. "Hey! Hello?"
Along with the unending hum of cicadas, there's the sound of a lawn mower from a few houses away yet nothing but silence from inside her house.
She presses the doorbell once, twice, five times. Nothing.
There are other ways to get inside.
Kimber leaves the porch and stalks across the yard on the half-buried stone pavers to drop her bags on the driveway beside her Mini.
On her way to the backyard, she glances warily at the steep concrete stairwell tucked beside the house. The door at the bottom opens into the basement. She's seen enough horror movies to know better than to force her way in through there. The door, like the basement itself, is rough and cobwebbed and gives her the creeps. She's never tried to open it and doesn't want to.
Reaching one hand to a back pocket of her shorts, she touches her phone for reassurance. If someone really is inside, she'll eventually have to call the police, but right now she feels a nervous tingle of excitement at the possibility of confronting them.
The hinges on the back porch's screen door grate and squeal as she pulls the door open. She looks over her shoulder into the darkening yard. No one is behind her. But did she really expect there to be? Giving herself a little shake, she tells herself she's just being paranoid. Ridiculous! What a funny story it will make to tell her best friend over wine. Maybe there is just something wrong with her keys. Maybe it's only someone's idea of a bad joke after all.
Then she enters the dim porch, and the remnants of the lovely calm she stored up during the long weekend's lake retreat rush from her body like an outgoing tide.
An unfamiliar, sparkling red and white Novara Strada bicycle leans against one wall. It's no kid's toy, and her beat-up Trek looks homely beside it. A scratched yellow helmet hangs from the newer bike's handlebars. And is that one of her bathroom face towels draped over the seat? She grabs it up to find it's spotted with grease and smells heavily of rancid sweat. Disgusted and furious, she drops it and kicks it away.
Her hand shakes as she struggles to fit her key into the back door lock. When it doesn't work, she doesn't bother to try the other keys.
The feeling that someone is inside is stronger now. She's dealt with some obnoxious people in her life, but breaking into her house is over the top. And it makes her angry.
She peers through the glass into the narrow hall that serves as a mudroom. At its end is the interior basement door, illuminated by light spilling from the kitchen. A black baseball cap hangs on the door's hook, along with the frilly kitchen apron her ex-husband gave her as a housewarming joke. She doesn't own a black baseball cap.
A formless shadow slides across the basement door and disappears.
"Hey!" Kimber rattles the loose handle below the offending lock. "Who's in there?" An ugly sense of violation takes root inside her.
She retrieves the stained towel and hurriedly wraps it around her hand before she can change her mind. But as she steels herself to punch through the glass, the kitchen light blinks out, and everything on the other side of the door turns from gray to black. Deep inside the house, a door slams.
Stunned, she backs away. All her brave anger gone, she turns and bursts out the screen door, feeling as helpless as a child. Helpless in her own backyard. Unable to enter her own house. Her mind races. Did she accidentally leave a door unlocked, so a stranger—or strangers—could get inside and even go so far as to change the locks?
Shit. This can't be happening.
Then comes that answering voice in her head. The one that is hers, only not quite: Oh yes. It's happening.
Tall shade trees engulf the backyard in shadows, and Kimber walks quickly out to the brighter driveway. Her fingers fumble as she tries to dial 911, as they do in her nightmares. What if whoever is inside gets to her before the dispatcher answers? Finally the call goes through and it rings three, four times. "Nine one one. What is your emergency?"
She hesitates. She hasn't planned what to say.
"Hello? Can you speak?"
"Someone's broken into my house. I need you to get them out."
A light from the second floor draws her attention. Looking up, she sees the silhouette of a man in her guest room window.
Kimber paces in the driveway, gripping her phone hard. The guest room lamp is still on, but the man is gone from the window.
The lawn mower has stopped, leaving the block deceptively quiet but for the endless scritching of cicadas. People rarely linger on the sidewalks of Providence Street, or any other street in her quaint, well-kept neighborhood. Strangers are conspicuous, and being out in front of her house instead of inside makes her feel like she doesn't quite belong. There are Richmond Heights Neighborhood Watch signs everywhere, but apparently no one was watching out for her house.
Startled by something cold and wet on her ankle, Kimber jumps. Only the familiar jingle of dog tags stops her from kicking out. Her neighbor's shaggy tan Yorkie pants up at her, his brown eyes appealing, his tail wagging. She stares at him, but his presence doesn't really register in her brain. He doesn't fit what's going on. Nothing fits. Everything is wrong. He stares back at her, his head at a questioning tilt.
"Kimber!" The dog's owner, elderly Jenny from next door, calls from her porch. At the same time, a police cruiser with its lights flashing silently pulls into the driveway.
Thank God. Finally.
Kimber shields her eyes from the flashing red and blue strobes, as well as the scathing white light of the cruiser's headlamps. She fights an impulse to run to the driver's window. Come on! Tell whoever is in my house to get the hell out!
Her experiences with police haven't always been good ones. She knows to be polite. Respectful. Even when she's the victim. When panic threatens to overcome her, she takes a deep, calming breath.
I'm the victim. You're here to help me.
"Kimber, what's going on? What are you doing here?" Jenny rushes down the sidewalk with surprising speed. The tiny dog jumps and barks, excited by Jenny's worried voice and the presence of the strange car.
"Not now, Jenny." Kimber holds up a hand to stop the older woman. Not now. This isn't your business.
With a twinge of disappointment she sees that the officer inside the cruiser is a woman. It's a sexist reaction, she knows, but she can't help herself. The idea that she and the female officer will be the ones trying to evict a stranger—almost definitely a man—from her house worries her. At least one of us is armed. Then she remembers the gun in her bedside table, an old Smith & Wesson .22 revolver her father left in the house. The man inside might have already found it. Should she tell the police? She doesn't even know if the gun is legal. What if he shoots at them from the house? Get a grip. Things like that don't happen in real life. Not in my life.
At least they never have before.
The officer gets out, leaving the car running, and comes around to meet Kimber. She doesn't offer her hand to shake. "Ms. Hannon? Kimber Hannon? I'm Officer Maby."
Rhymes with "baby."
Officer Maby is perhaps thirty, definitely seven or eight years younger than Kimber, the age of someone she might have babysat when she was a teenager. Her short-sleeved uniform shirt, buttoned securely at the neck, is snug around her apple torso, and her pants have military creases. Not a single strand of chestnut hair is loosed from her low bun, and her large eyes and sensuous, full lips are devoid of makeup. Her voice is smooth and controlled and confident, and Kimber silently reflects that Officer Maby has both a voice and face for radio.
Out of patience, Kimber jumps in right away. "This is my house." She points at the bungalow with its single burning light. "I called because there's somebody inside. The locks were changed sometime between Thursday afternoon and today. I want whoever is in there to get out."
"Ms. Hannon, when did you first try to get into the house?"
"Um, around eight o'clock. Does it matter?"
"You say the locks have been changed? What happened when you went to the door?"
Kimber bristles. "Nothing happened. The key didn't fit. And someone is turning lights on and off. Look." She points to the second-story window overlooking the driveway. "I saw a man's—you know—shadow, up there."
One of Officer Maby's overplucked eyebrows lifts. "Did you invite anyone to stay at your house? Or is the house in foreclosure?"
"No, it's not in foreclosure, and I didn't invite anyone to stay! Why would I do that and then call you?" Agitation makes her voice louder. "I was out of town. Nobody has a key except my mother, and it's not her. I talked to her earlier today."
"Well, I know who it is. And you do too, Kimber. What is all this fuss about? Why did you call the police on that nice man?"
Kimber turns around to stare. Her neighbor, Jenny Tuttle, stands in strobing red and blue cruiser lights, her red wig and her candy-apple-red glasses both slightly askew. The jacket of her velour tracksuit sags on her wilted body, and the slightest of breezes carries the odor of cigarette smoke from her clothes to Kimber. The little dog sits at her feet. Now they both look defiant.
"Ma'am?" The officer speaks before Kimber can respond. "What's your name, please?"
"I'm Jenny. Jennifer Tuttle. I live next door."
Kimber finds her voice. "What are you talking about?" She has a love-hate relationship with the woman she's lived next door to for the last year. Jenny is the neighborhood busybody and knows all the gossip, though she rarely leaves her house except to walk the dog. But she is also kind, occasionally gifting Kimber with half a casserole or tomatoes from her garden. Her dog is a sweet, lively thing. Now Kimber is wondering if Jenny has finally lost her mind. She only admits to being sixty-eight years old yet looks eighty, or older.
Jenny stands up a bit taller. "I saw you hand him a set of keys, and you helped him carry his bags in before he drove you away again. He's here for six months! Have you had some kind of accident, dear? Like amnesia, on the soaps?"
A breathy sound from the officer draws Kimber's attention. "I don't know what she's talking about. I didn't rent my house to anybody. Why would I do that?" Where the officer's mild face was serious and business-like a moment earlier, now there's a glint of skepticism in her eyes. She looks from Jenny to Kimber. "That's crazy. Why would I do that?" Kimber repeats. Now she really does feel as if, like Alice, she's on the other side of the looking glass.
"What else happened that makes you believe Ms. Hannon rented out her house?"
To Kimber's dismay, Jenny doubles down on her story. Her fantasy.
"Well, he told me he did," Jenny says. "He told me Saturday when I took young Mr. Tuttle outside to have a piddle."
Officer Maby starts to speak, but Kimber interrupts. "The dog," she says, pointing to the Yorkie sitting patiently at Jenny's feet. "He's named after her late husband."
"Ah, okay," the officer says. Jenny nods, obviously unaware of the skepticism in the woman's voice.
"The man's name is Lance Wilson, and he said he rented the house for six months. That you were going to move in with your boyfriend until you decided whether to sell the house or keep it. He's very nice. Works in computers, I think." She crosses her arms and rubs them with her hands. Whatever the weather, she complains that she's cold. "As I said, he's very nice. I took him some zucchini bread."
"Jesus, Jenny. How could you believe him? Don't you think I would've mentioned it to you if I were going to move—or sell the house?"
Jenny lifts her nose in an offended manner. "Well, it did hurt my feelings. I thought we were friends."
"I don't even have a boyfriend—"
The officer raises a hand. "Ms. Hannon, I need to see some identification. Does your driver's license list this address?"
"Why? She knows I live here." Kimber points to Jenny. "You're not listening, are you? I didn't rent anyone my house! Why haven't you gone to the door yet? I'm the one who called you people."
"If you could just give me your driver's license, ma'am."
The ma'am gets under Kimber's skin, as she's sure it's meant to. "Fine." Fumbling in her purse, she takes out her wallet and hands over the license. "I just want you to know that I've been down at Lake of the Ozarks all weekend. Witnesses. There are lots of witnesses." This is almost the truth. She spent most of her time in the cabin, reading, eating and drinking wine in the evenings, taking walks in the mornings. But there were other people staying at the lodge and in the other cabins. Surely she doesn't need some kind of alibi. Or does she?
Kimber and Jenny stand watching the officer, only just visible in the red light filling the interior of her car.
"We haven't had police stopping here since…" Jenny pauses a long moment to think, and Kimber wonders if she has dementia or has begun to hallucinate. She knows Jenny spends most of her waking hours watching soap operas. Maybe she's slipped into some soap opera universe and taken Kimber with her. "Not since 2005, and that girl up the street had a wild party while her parents were out of town. Those teenagers did ten thousand dollars' damage."
Kimber's reminded of the things in her house the intruder could steal. I should tell the police about the gun. I don't want to forget. Along with the gun, there's the desktop computer and all her financial papers. He could steal her identity. Her entire life.
"Why would you think I rented my house, Jenny? I don't care what this Lance Wilson person told you. And if you thought it was me with him, why didn't you come over and ask what was going on? You show up almost every time there's a strange car in my driveway."
Jenny's face crumples, making her look like a very old, sad child. Her small hands fidget with the wide elastic strip at the bottom of her jacket. "So you're saying it wasn't you? You didn't rent him your house?"
"Of course I didn't!"
"But how could I know that? It's not my fault. You know my eyes are weak."
Being angry with Jenny isn't doing anyone any good, and Kimber tries to sound less harsh. The problem is that the person she's really mad at is unreachable. "We'll see what the police do. They have to get him out. They have to."
Jenny says something about going inside to turn her television off and make some coffee, but Kimber suspects what she's really planning to do is alert the other neighbors, who are surely already peering from behind their curtains. The house is still dark, except for that one upstairs window. Lance Wilson is watching from the darkness too. She can feel it.
Every minute that passes with the officer still working in her car makes Kimber more worried that she's going to have bigger problems than just evicting a random stranger from her house.
There's a lawyer who might help her. A good one. Does she dare call him? He might hang up on her.
Why couldn't Gabriel be there?
You know why not, she tells herself.
But maybe. Just maybe he'll come.
Her heart beats faster. He could only say no. What if she does something on her own that screws everything up?
His number is still on the favorites list in her phone.
You're such a bitch for asking him.
Gabriel answers on the first ring, as though he's been waiting for her call.
Don't be an idiot.
It's been months since she heard his even, clear voice. There's a small change, though. An edge. Caution.
Of course he's cautious.
"It's me. I'm really sorry to bother you. Is it okay?"
"It's okay. What's up?"
She tries to analyze his words. His tone. The What's up? sounds casual enough, like he's expecting her to ask about some trivial point of traffic law or get the recipe for the tandoori chicken and rice he used to make for her. He's a far better cook than she could ever be.
"It's a legal thing, and the police are here. I don't even know what you can do or really why I called."
"Are you under arrest?" Now he sounds concerned, but not upset. Just concerned. Surely lawyers get concerned whenever someone they know is arrested.
"Don't call me again," he'd said. "Leave me alone."
"No. If you want to give me a number for another lawyer, that's fine too. I just don't want to screw this up."
"Damn it, Kimber. Tell me what's going on."
She glances at the officer, who is still in the car. She hasn't even gone to the house yet.
"I got home tonight from a long weekend at Lake of the Ozarks. Kind of a retreat. And when I got home, the locks were changed, and Jenny—You remember Jenny, from next door?—said that some guy showed up with a woman who looked like me and supposedly rented my house. For six months! The cop—she took my license and she's sitting in the car and she hasn't even gone up to knock on the door. What's she doing?" She's breathless when she finishes.
"Your locks were changed? That's bizarre. You're sure no one else has a key?" Gabriel sounds as calm as the cop.
"Never mind," Kimber says. "I'll handle it. You don't have to believe me."
"Wait a minute. Do you want my help or not?"
Her irritation deflates, and she's left feeling foolish for calling him. "Yes. But I'm sure the cop will get him out."
Gabriel is quiet a moment. Then he says, "If the guy's got a lease—forged or not—it could be a problem. I'll be there in ten minutes. Keep yourself together and don't answer any questions she doesn't ask."
As soon as she's off the phone, it buzzes with a text. Diana, her best friend, wants to know if she's back from the retreat. Before she can type out an answer, the officer gets out of the car. Kimber sends a thumbs-up emoji to Diana to let her know all is well and she'll be in touch. All isn't well. All really sucks. But it will do for now. A smiley face pops up on the screen in response.
Kimber takes a tentative step toward the young officer. "Are you done? Will you please see if this guy will answer the door?"
"I needed to run your information. There's some maintenance going on in the system, so it took a while."
"And?" A tightness around the officer's mouth makes Kimber wary.
The woman looks at her tablet. "You were arrested for shoplifting, and cited for purchasing alcohol for a minor as well?"
Blood rushes to Kimber's face. "What does that have to do with anything? I was in college. And I didn't have to go to court for either of them. So no convictions."
"There's no problem, Ms. Hannon. We need to have all the facts before we get involved in a dispute." She gives Kimber a limp smile. Behind her another set of flashing red and blue lights appears, spackling the trees. More police. But are they here for the man in her house or is everything about to get even more complicated?
As if that's even possible.
"A dispute? This is nothing like a dispute!"
The second police car parks at the curb. Officer Maby says, "My colleague and I are going up to the house. Please stay out here on the sidewalk." With that, she turns around and goes to meet the other officer, and Kimber is left alone and furious.
Nothing is happening the way she thinks it should. What could a couple of stupid decisions she made at ages nineteen and twenty-one have to do with someone breaking into her house and forging a lease?
Two minutes later, Officer Maby and a rangy, Lincolnesque man, with the slightest of stoops to his narrow shoulders, cautiously approach the dark porch with their flashlights leading the way. It's then that she remembers she didn't mention the gun. She could shout after them but tells herself it's already too late. They're armed and careful. Whoever is inside might have brought his own gun and not even found hers.
Please don't let anyone be killed.
Half an hour earlier she was getting home, ready to grab a bite to eat, pour a glass of wine, and spend a sleepy evening on her couch watching Netflix. Now she's thinking about people dying on her doorstep.
The cops place themselves on either side of the front door. Officer Maby presses the bell twice in the span of a minute, and Kimber imagines she can hear its soft chimes. She unconsciously holds her breath and only inhales deeply when the overhead light comes on in her living room. Then the front porch lamps blink on, and, finally, the door opens a few inches.
It's happening. It's real. He is real.
- "Suspenseful and moving, The Stranger Inside gripped me from the first page. Laura Benedict is at the top of her game."—Meg Gardiner, author of Into the Black Nowhere
- "Reads at breakneck speed; perfect for a thrilling distraction from the everyday.... Fans of Laura Benedict will find themselves stunned by the new depths to her writing this stand-alone unleashes; those coming to her work fresh will almost certainly be instant fans for life."—BOLO Books
- "Outstanding.... Kimber's complicated personality and unusual family life drive the ever-twisting, surprise-filled plot.... [She] is the epitome of the unreliable narrator."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"The Stranger Inside is a twisty, compelling thriller. Laura Benedict takes hold of your throat and doesn't let go until the final page."
—Jeff Abbott, New York Times bestselling author of The Three Beths
- "Can you imagine the nightmare of a stranger taking over your house? The terror you would feel? With The Stranger Inside, Laura Benedict turns her unique voice in suspense to this elegant scary mystery, where nothing is as it seems and one woman's truth is shattered by the hidden secrets of her past."—J.T. Ellison, New York Times bestselling author of Lie to Me
"The Stranger Inside is an intense, fascinating character study that will have you rooting for Kimber while she turns her life around and tries to stay alive."
—Catherine Coulter, New York Times bestselling author of Paradox
- "Benedict spins a story driven by deceit on the part of most of the principals, with tension increasing with the body count and the twists and turns that continue to the very end."—Booklist
- "Laura Benedict's The Stranger Inside begins with one of the most unnerving premises I've ever read. This is a masterfully constructed thriller about one woman's inability to escape from the complicated web of her past. You won't be able to put it down until every secret is revealed, one breathtaking surprise after another, all the way until the shocking final pages."—David Bell, USA Today bestselling author of Somebody's Daughter
- "Compelling characters, lush settings, complex emotions--all in a clever plot and spiced with a hint of darkness. These are the trademarks of Laura Benedict's writing. I've followed her career for years and she never disappoints. This new book, The Stranger Inside, is no exception. But a warning--once you pick it up, you will yield your life to the power of a great storyteller."—Carolyn Haines, bestselling author of the Sarah Booth Delaney mysteries and The House of Memory
- On Sale
- Feb 25, 2020
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Mulholland Books