Excerpt

The Boy From the Woods

Harlan Coben

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Boy from the Woods, by Harlan Coben. Thirty years ago, Wilde was found as a child, living in the woods, almost feral. Now he’s an adult, living in society, and he is tasked with finding a missing child: a little girl who has been bullied at school and who has now vanished. But to do this involves confronting the community that made him an outcast as a child, and the childhood that made him an outsider.

Matthew was in Crash Maynard’s enormous mansion on the hill.

The mansion’s exterior looked old and kind of Gothic with marble columns. It reminded Matthew of that snooty golf club his grandmother took him to because one of her clients was getting some kind of award. Hester hadn’t liked being there, he remembered. As she sucked down the wine—too much wine as it turned out—her eyes began to narrow. She glanced around the room, frowning and muttering under her breath about silver spoons and privilege and inbreeding. When he asked her what was wrong, Hester had looked her grandson up and down and said, loud enough for those nearby to hear: “You’re half Jew, half black— you’d doubly not be allowed in this club.” Then she paused, raised a finger in the air, and added, “Or maybe you’d be two tokens in one.” When an elderly lady with frozen dollops of snow-white hair made a tut-tut, shh-shh noise in her direction, Hester had told her to blow it out her ass.

That was Matthew’s grandmother. Nana never avoided a controversy if she could create one.

It was both mortifying and comforting. Mortifying, well, that was pretty obvious. Comforting because he knew that his grandmother always had his back. He never questioned it. Didn’t matter that she was small or seventy or whatever. His grandmother seemed superhuman to him.

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There were about a dozen kids at what parents insisted on calling a “party” but was really just a gathering in Crash’s “lower level”—Crash’s parents didn’t like calling it a basement—which may have been the coolest place Matthew had ever been. If the exterior was old school, the interior couldn’t have been more state of the art. The home theater was closer to a full-fledged cinema with mod digital sound design and forty-plus seats. There was a cherrywood bar and real-theater popcorn machine out front. The corridors were lined with a mix of vintage movie posters and posters for Crash’s dad’s television shows. The arcade room was a mini replica of the Silverball, the famed pinball palace on the Asbury Park boardwalk. Down one corridor was a wine cellar with oak barrels. The other became an underground tunnel leading to a regulation-sized basketball court, a replica—lots of replicas—of the Knicks’ floor at Madison Square Garden.

No one ever hung out on the basketball court. No one ever used the pinball arcade. No one was ever really in the mood to watch anything in the movie theater. Not that Matthew had been here a lot. For most of his life, he’d been on the outs with the popular crowd, but recently, Matthew had wormed his way back in. Truth be told, he loved it here. The popular kids did the coolest things, like when Crash had that birthday bash in Manhattan. His dad had rented black limos to transport them, and the party had been in some huge place that used to be a bank. All the boys got to be “escorted” in by past contestants on Dash Maynard’s reality show Hot Models in Lingerie. A famous TV star had DJed the party, and when he introduced “my best friend and our birthday boy,” Crash had ridden in on a white horse, a real horse, and then his father drove in behind him in a red Tesla he’d given his son as a present.

Tonight most of the kids had ended up in the “regular” TV room—a ninety-eight-inch Samsung 4K Ultra HD hanging on the wall. Crash and Kyle played Madden video football, the rest of the gang—Luke, Mason, Kaitlin, Darla, Ryan, and of course Sutton, always Sutton—lay sprawled across upscale beanbag chairs as though some giant being had tossed them from the sky. Most of his friends were high. Caleb and Brianna had gone off to a room down the corridor to take their hookup to the next level.

The room was dark, the blue light from both the television and individual smartphones illuminating his classmates’ faces, turning them a ghostly pale. Sutton was on the right, uncharacteristically on her own. Matthew wanted to take advantage of that opening, and so he looked for a way to move closer to her. He’d had an unrequited crush on Sutton since seventh grade—Sutton with the almost supernatural poise and blond hair and perfect skin and melt-your-bones smile—and she was always nice and friendly and a sixth-degree black belt in how to keep guys like Matthew in the friend zone.

On the big screen, Crash’s video quarterback threw a deep pass that went for a touchdown. Crash jumped up, did a little celebration dance, and shouted at Kyle, “In your face!” This led to some halfhearted laughs from the spectators, all of whom were on their phones. Crash looked around as though he’d expected more in the way of a reaction. But it wasn’t happening.

Not tonight anyway.

There was something in the room, a whiff of fear or desperation.

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“We need more munchies?” Crash asked. No one responded.

“Come on, who’s with me?”

The halfhearted murmurs were enough. Crash hit a button on the intercom. A woman’s Mexican-accented voice said, “Yes, Mr. Crash?”

“Can we get some nachos and quesadillas, Rosa?”

“Of course, Mr. Crash.”

“And can you crush up some of that homemade guac?”

“Of course, Mr. Crash.”

On the screen, Crash kicked off. Luke and Mason drank beers. Kaitlin and Ryan shared a joint while Darla vaped with the latest flavors from Juul. The room had been Crash’s dad’s cigar room and they had done something to it so you couldn’t really smell the new smoke. Kaitlin passed an e-cigarette to Sutton. Sutton took it, but she didn’t put it in her mouth.

Kyle said, “Man, I love Rosa’s guac.” “Right?”

Crash and Kyle high-fived and then someone, maybe Mason, forced up a laugh. Luke joined in, then Kaitlin, then pretty much everyone except Matthew and Sutton. Matthew didn’t know what they were all laughing about—Rosa’s guacamole?—but the sound had zero authenticity, like they were all trying too hard to be normal.

Mason said, “She check in on the app?” Silence.

Tonight, a local girl from Westville, New Jersey, is missing and needs your help.

“I was just saying—”

“There’s nothing,” Crash said, interrupting him. “I got an app that gives updates.”

More silence.

Matthew slipped out of the room. He headed toward the relative privacy of the nearby wine cellar. When he closed the door behind him, he sat on a barrel that read Maynard Vineyards—yes, they owned a vineyard too—and called his grandmother.

“Matthew?”

“Did you find her yet?”

“Why are you whispering? Where are you?”

“At Crash’s house. Did you speak to Naomi’s mother?” “Yes.”

Matthew felt his heart beating in his chest. “What did she say?”

“She doesn’t know where Naomi is.”

He closed his eyes and groaned. “Matthew, what aren’t you telling us?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It does.”

But he couldn’t say anything. Not yet. “Forget I asked, okay?”

“Not okay.”

Through the phone, he heard a male voice  say, “Ten  seconds to air.” Then someone else mumbled something he couldn’t make out.

“I’ll call you back,” Hester said before disconnecting the call. As he took the phone away from his ear, a familiar voice said,

“Hey.”

He turned to the wine cellar entrance. It was Sutton. She was still blinking away the dark of the TV room.

“Hey,” he said.

Sutton had a bottle of beer in her hand. “You want some?”

He shook his head, afraid that Sutton would think it was gross to share his germs or something. Then again, hadn’t she asked him?

Sutton looked around the wine cellar as if she’d never seen it before, though she had always been with the popular crowd. Always.

“What are you doing in here?” she asked. Matthew shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t seem yourself tonight.”

It surprised him that Sutton would notice something like that. He shrugged again. Man, did he know how to woo girls or what?

Then Sutton said: “She’s fine, you know.” Just like that.

“Matthew?”

“Do you know where she is?”

“No, but . . . ” Now it was her turn to shrug. His phone buzzed. He sneaked a peek.

Where are you?

It was from Wilde. Matthew quickly texted back: At Crash Maynard’s.

Is Naomi there? No.

Sutton stepped toward him.

“They’re a little worried about you.”

“Who?”

“Crash and Kyle, the others.” She looked at him with those blue eyes. “Me too.”

“I’m fine.”

Now her phone buzzed. When she read it, her eyes widened. “Oh my God.”

“What?”

She looked up at him with those gorgeous eyes. “Did you . . . ?” He heard a commotion from down the corridor.

Matthew typed: Shit.

Wilde: What?

Crash burst into the wine cellar as Matthew hit send on: Something bad is going down.

Kyle came in right behind him. They both had their smartphones in their hands. Crash stormed toward Matthew so fast that Matthew actually put his fists up as  though  preparing  to ward off a blow. Crash stopped, raised his hands in a surrender motion, and smiled.

The smile was oily. Matthew felt something roil in the pit of his stomach.

“Whoa, whoa,” Crash said in a voice that aimed for comforting but slithered down Matthew’s back like a snake. “Let’s slow down here.”

Crash Maynard was surface handsome—wavy dark hair, brooding boy-band expression, thin frame adorned in the latest fashion. When you took a closer look at him, you could see that Crash was nothing special, not in any way really, but as Hester once joked about a rich girl she wanted Matthew to date, “She’s beautiful when she’s standing on her money.”

Crash always wore a big silver smile-skull ring. It looked ridiculous on his thin, smooth finger.

With that oily smile still on his face, Crash lifted his phone and turned it toward Matthew. “Do you want to explain this?”

He pushed down on the screen using the finger with the smile-skull ring. The ring seemed to wink at Matthew. A video sprang to life, starting off with the familiar network news logo. Then his grandmother came on the screen.

“But first, breaking news just coming in . . .”

A photo of Naomi appeared on the screen.

“Tonight, a local girl from Westville, New Jersey, is missing and needs your help. Naomi Pine has been missing for at least a week now. There have been no reported sightings or ransom demands, but friends are concerned that the teen may be in danger. . . .”

Oh no. . . .

Matthew felt his stomach tumble. He hadn’t thought about that, that Nana might go live on the air with the story. Or was that what he’d secretly been hoping? He wasn’t surprised by how fast the news—according to the timer on the app, less than two minutes—had disseminated amongst his friends. That was how it worked now. Someone maybe had a news alert on Naomi Pine or maybe a parent had seen the story and right away texted their kid and said, “Doesn’t this girl go to your school?!?!” or maybe someone followed CNN on Twitter. Whatever, that was how it was now, how quickly word got out.

Crash’s smile didn’t flicker. “That’s your grandmother, right?” “Yeah, but . . . ”

Crash beckoned for more with his smile-skull-ring hand. “But?” Matthew said nothing.

Crash’s tone was mocking. “Did you say something to Grandma?” “What?” Matthew tried to look offended by the suggestion.

“No, of course not.”

Still smiling—a smile that now eerily echoed the one on his ring—Crash stepped forward and put his hands on Matthew’s shoulders. Then, without the slightest warning, he drove his knee upward, straight into Matthew’s groin. Crash pulled down on Matthew’s shoulders for extra leverage.

The blow lifted Matthew onto his toes.

The pain was immediate, white hot, all-consuming. Tears filled Matthew’s eyes. Every part of his body shut down. His knees caved, and he collapsed to the floor. The pain rose from his stomach, paralyzing his lungs. Matthew pulled his knees to his chest and curled himself into a fetal ball on the floor.

Crash bent down so his mouth was right near Matthew’s ear. “Do you think I’m stupid?”

Matthew’s cheek was pressed against the floorboard. He still couldn’t breathe. It felt as if some part of him was irretrievably bro- ken, as if he would never be right again.

“You drove here with Luke and Mason. They told me you were standing with your grandmother when they picked you up.”

Breathe, Matthew told himself. Try to breathe.

“What did you tell her, Matthew?”

He gritted his teeth and managed to open his eyes. Kyle was by the door on lookout. Sutton was nowhere to be seen. Had she set him up? Would she really do that to . . . ? No. Sutton couldn’t know the story was about to come out or any of that. And she wouldn’t . . .

“Matthew?”

He looked up, the pain still ripping through him.

“We could kill you and get away with it. You know that, right?” Matthew stayed frozen. Crash made a fist and showed him the silver skull.

“What did you tell your grandmother?”

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Excerpted from The Boy from the Woods. Copyright © 2020 by Harlan Coben. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.




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