Stranger in the House

Stranger in the House

by Patricia MacDonald

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743437264
Publisher: Pocket Books
Publication date: 11/07/2003
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 326,176
File size: 340 KB

About the Author

Patricia Macdonald's darkly hypnotic tales have captivated readers across America, as well as in France, where she is a #1 bestselling author. Her previous novels include Suspicious Origin, Stranger in the House, Not Guilty, and the Edgar Award-nominated The Unforgiven. She lives with her husband and daughter in New Jersey, where she is working on her next novel.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


"How do you like your tea?" Iris asked.

"It's great," said Anna. "Fresh mint. Is it from your garden?"

The two women were sitting at one end of the plant-filled conservatory of the Stewarts' opulent home. The sun streamed in on them, and a breeze from the open doors riffled the leaves of the plants.

Iris nodded. "Henry brought it in this morning."

"I always mean to put some in my garden, and then I forget."

"I'll tell Henry to dig some up for you," Iris said eagerly.

"Would you? That would be great."

Iris and Anna relaxed in their chairs, enjoying the sun and the breeze. Anna leaned over the glass table and picked up a pile of envelopes that were lying beside the bowl, addressed in Iris's careful hand. "What are you up to here?" Anna asked.

A pained look crossed Iris's face. "Oh, we're giving a party. For the Hospital Guild. It's going to be rather a large affair, to raise money for the new cardiac wing."

Anna nodded. "I read about it in the paper. I didn't know the party was going to be here."

"Well, Edward is the chairman of the fund-raising committee, you know."

Anna nodded, noting that Iris was clenching her hands together in her lap. "You're good at organizing things," Anna reassured her. "It will be a great success."

Iris gave a small sigh. "I hope so," she said. "There's one for you in there." Iris pointed to the stack of envelopes.

Anna found the envelope addressed to the Langes and smiled. "Tracy, too?"

"Older children." Iris shrugged. "That was my idea, I thought they'd pep things up."

"Great," said Anna. "When's the party going to be?"

"A week from tomorrow. The thirtieth. I hope you're free. I'm a little late with the invitations."

"The thirtieth," said Anna softly, staring down into her glass of tea. "That's Paul's birthday." She looked up at Iris. "He'll be fifteen this year."

Iris's eyebrows rose slightly. For a moment she regarded her friend thoughtfully. "Is that so?" she murmured. "Well...that's good. Where's Tom today?"

"With Tracy. They're playing tennis. Is Edward home?"

"Oh, no. He had a business lunch today. He just bought another company. The Wilcox Company, I think it's called. They have something to do with helicopter parts."

Anna stirred the ice in her glass and looked up under her eyelashes at Iris. You would never know to look at her, Anna thought, that her husband was a millionaire. Edward, whose company manufactured private aircraft, was always a model of correctness and elegance in his appearance, while Iris dressed simply and seemed to give only the minimum attention to her hair and makeup.

Nonetheless, they seemed to get along together, and Anna had always ascribed it to opposites attracting.

"Well, I've got to be getting back." She placed her empty glass down on the end table and got up.

"Anna, I meant to ask you. How's Tracy's job at the vet's working out?"

Anna frowned, thinking of her daughter. "Oh, she loves being around the animals. She doesn't get paid for it, but she seems to enjoy it."

"There, you see! That's great," said Iris. "I had a feeling that all she needed was an interest."

"It's helped," said Anna absently, although she felt a twinge of annoyance at Iris's simplistic solution to the problems she had with Tracy. Her shy, introverted daughter was turning into a moody, difficult teenager who seemed to resent her mother more each day. But Iris always acted as if a little change in the routine would solve everything. And perhaps in Iris's pampered, childless life, that was all the solution she needed, Anna thought ruefully.

"Why don't I ask Henry to get you those mint plants right now?" Iris suggested, opening the glass door to hail the gardener in a straw hat, who was crouching in a flowerbed beyond the pool. Anna realized that she had been unconsciously staring at him.

"No, no," she protested hurriedly. "Don't bother him."

"It's no bother," Iris insisted.

Anna shook her head but smiled at her friend's kindness. She felt guilty for her uncharitable thoughts about Iris, remembering how often she had taken comfort in Iris's confidence in Anna's ability to make things right. Often, when she had been down, it was a visit from Iris that had forced her up. She gave her friend a brief impulsive hug. "Not today," she said. "I'd better be getting along."

"If you have to," said Iris. "Don't forget. Put that party on your calendar."

"I will," said Anna. She walked out the door and down the steps, then headed down the incline past the pool, greeting Henry, the gardener, as she went by. Her route home through the Stewart estate was long and meandering but it was a walk she always enjoyed. She followed the path through the gardens, skirted the frog pond, and wandered in the grape arbors until she came to the high hedges and the narrow stream that separated their properties.

Anna decided, before she went in the house, to get a few vegetables from her garden for dinner. She was proud of her garden this year. She had culled a few tips from Henry and had raised a bountiful crop of vegetables. Everything had grown vigorously, probably because much of the garden plot had lain fallow for so many years. After harvesting two lustrous inky eggplants, a few tomatoes and a bunch of beans, Anna headed back toward the house. Sometimes, especially when the fall came, and Tracy returned to school, Anna thought about going back to work. She always decided against it, although she never admitted her real reason to Thomas. She wanted to be home, just in case. Just on the unlikely chance that Paul found his way back to them, she wanted to be there. Anna walked past the spot where the children's play yard had been. She stopped and sank down on the rusty glider, staring dully at the patch of lawn. It was green now and planted over with flowers. I'd better not mention Paul's birthday, she thought. Tom will only get upset.

She knew how much he didn't like to talk about it. But each year she felt compelled to bring it up, as if it were somehow vital that his parents speak his name aloud, acknowledge his birth. Every year Thomas would turn away from her with a grim look on his face. She didn't do it to pain him. It just seemed that it was important. Then, last year, when she mentioned it, he had suddenly gotten angry.

"Anna, I can't stand it when you say that. Every year it's the same thing. 'Paul is eleven today. Paul is twelve today. It's Paul's thirteenth birthday.' Why do you always have to mention it?"

"Because it is his birthday," she insisted. "Because I want to remember it."

"It's like some grisly joke. Paul's birthday. As if he were still alive and about to walk in that door."

"But, Tom," she protested, "I do believe that he is alive. Don't you? I mean, we don't know any different. We need to have hope, darling."

But Thomas had turned away from her without another word, and the subject was closed between them once again, as it had been for most of the years since Paul was gone. She could not pinpoint the time when they had stopped discussing it. But the child's disappearance had been like an amputation on the body of their marriage. Tom wanted to cover it, to hide it and pretend it hadn't happened. Or so it seemed to Anna, as she restlessly sought help, advice, some reassurance that she would one day reattach what seemed irretrievably lost. As if by agreement, they avoided talking about it. It was the best they could do.

Anna examined the ground from her seat on the glider, to see if any trace remained of the play fence, any faint outline of where it had been. The grass had grown over it. There was not a sign. It was as if it had never existed.

Anna walked up to the back porch and entered the cool, quiet house. She placed the basket on the butcher block beside the sink and turned on the tap, placing a copper colander into the clean porcelain basin. The only sound in the house was the rush of the running water. Normally she liked nothing better than to be busy in her comfortable kitchen, but now a melancholy mood descended on her. She held her wrist under the water, like a mother testing a baby's formula, and gazed over the plants on her windowsill into the stillness of the sun-dappled backyard.

Suddenly she became aware of a sound like tapping. Turning off the water, she listened again. Someone was knocking at the front door. After wiping her hands off quickly on the soft terry towel next to the sink, she hurried through the house to the foyer and opened the door. At first she saw no one there. Stepping out onto the front porch, she observed the familiar back of a man descending the flagstone steps to the driveway where his car was parked.

"Buddy," she called out, "come back. I'm here."

Detective Mario Ferraro started and then turned slowly around to face the woman standing in the doorway. She was smiling in welcome. Over the years he had come to know her well. Long after Paul's case had been officially abandoned, she'd continued to call him with questions about psychics or other missing children or any case that bore any similarity to her own. He had responded with what he hoped was patience and care to each of her desperate hopes, tracking down any fillip of a lead that came his way. "It's that poor woman again," a rookie named Parker told him the last time she had called with news of a child who had turned up in Houston. That poor woman.

He knew that was how the others saw her, but secretly he admired her courage and her tenacity. After losing her son and then the baby, she had pulled herself together and committed herself to the search. Some people thought it was abnormal, but Buddy saw the logic in her efforts. But for the grace of God, he had reminded himself often, he would have had to make such a choice as hers. He had decided to help her. One night Thomas had taken him aside in the kitchen and apologized to him for Anna's relentless questions and leads.

"There's no getting through to her," Thomas had said. In a way Thomas's reaction had bothered him more than Anna's. But he'd held his tongue. "I don't mind," he'd told Thomas. "I can imagine what she's going through."

"What's the matter with you?" Anna asked, squinting at him. "You look kind of sick."

Buddy Ferraro smiled with one corner of his mouth. "I'm glad you're here."

"I was out in the garden. I didn't hear your car come in. I hope you haven't been standing here for long."

The detective shook his head. Buddy climbed the steps haltingly. When he reached the porch where Anna stood, he looked at her and frowned, pressing his lips together. Anna linked her arm through his and led him into the house. "My garden," she said, "is really terrific this year. I've got something for you to take to Sandra. Eggplants and tomatoes. You get that wife of yours to make you eggplant Parmesan. No excuses. I'll give you a big bagful to take home."

"Anna..." he began.

Arm in arm they had passed through the foyer and into the bright L-shaped living room, which was filled with flowers, baskets of magazines, and needlepoint pillows on the furniture. Anna released the detective's arm and gestured toward a chair next to the fireplace at the end of the room. "Please sit down," she insisted. "I haven't seen you in such a long time now. I'm glad you came by. I was just in there starting to feel sorry for myself." She moved her knitting bag off the chair matching his and sat down opposite him.

Buddy perched on the edge of the seat and leaned forward.

"Can I get you something to drink? Club soda or a beer?"

The policeman shook his head. "It's good to see you," he said quietly. "But this isn't just a friendly visit. I have some news for you."

Anna gasped as if he had slapped her. Over the years she had been like a disappointed lover, waiting for a missive that never came. In time she had grown to expect the postman, not the letter. Now, suddenly, the detective was turning it all around. She stared into his eyes, trying to read what the message might be.

"Is Thomas home?" he asked quietly. "I think he should be here."

"He's not...he's out," she whispered, her eyes riveted to the detective's face.

Buddy Ferraro frowned. "Maybe we should..."

"It's Paul," she said. She clasped her hands together and pressed them to her lips. "Tell me," she whispered.

Buddy nodded and cleared his throat. "Anna," he said, "I don't know how to say this. It's going to be a shock."

Anna began to shake her head as she stared at him.

Buddy hesitated. "Paul's been found. He's alive."

Anna crushed her trembling fists to her mouth and squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. His words hung in the air before her, waiting for her to comprehend them. But a tingling fear suffused her, paralyzing her. She felt that if she tried to grasp what he said, take hold of it, it would somehow be snatched away from her. All hope, everything she had prayed for and clung to for all these years would vanish instantly and forever. "Don't lie to me, Buddy," she warned him in a shaking, nearly inaudible voice.

"I wouldn't, Anna. You know that. It's true. You can believe it. He's alive." Buddy was surprised by the tears that sprang to his own eyes. He pressed his lips into a crooked smile.

Anna sat frozen in her chair for a moment. Then, slowly, as if in a trance, she slid from the seat to her knees on the floor, clutching her arms around her chest. Her head was bowed; her eyes were shut.

Buddy sprang forward from his seat, prepared to grab her, thinking at first that she had fainted. Then, understanding, he exhaled and sat back in his chair. Bowing his head, he crossed himself quickly.

When Anna raised her head, her face was like a flower opening, turning out fragile petals one by one.

Buddy offered her his hand. Anna reached for it and kneaded it between her icy fingers. "Tell me everything," she whispered in a choked voice. "Where is he? Is he all right? Is he safe?"

"He's fine," Buddy assured her and reached into his pocket, removing his handkerchief and handing it to her. "Here."

While Anna wiped her eyes, the detective began to explain. "It happened this morning. We got a call from the sheriff of Hawley, West Virginia. He had been contacted by a minister in town who had evidence that Paul has been living all these years in that town as the son of a couple named Albert and Dorothy Lee Rambo. It seems that the woman was dying of cancer, and last week she contacted this minister, one Reverend Orestes Foster, and gave him a letter. Told him to open it at the time of her death, which occurred day before yesterday. The letter amounted to a confession that she and her husband had abducted Paul and raised him as their own son, and it also revealed Paul's identity, which apparently they were aware of all along."

"You're sure it's Paul."

Buddy nodded. "It's your boy all right. She still had the little clothes he was wearing when they took him. Pictures of him. The works. Evidently the woman believed that this terminal illness was some kind of punishment for her crime. She wanted to set accounts straight, make sure the boy would be returned to you."

"What about her husband?"

Buddy grimaced. "Well, that's a problem. It seems that she told him what she planned to do because he cut out of there before she even died. He's been on the run ever since. The man is a little disturbed, I'm afraid. From what I understand, he's had a history of hospitalization for mental illness."

"Oh, God, no."

"As far as we can determine, he never hurt any way. He was just not quite right. The woman apparently was okay. She worked as a nurse and took care of them. Anyway, the police are looking for this guy, Rambo. And the FBI. They'll find him."

"Where is Paul now? When can I go there? I have to see him."

"He's still being questioned by the Hawley police. They're trying to find out what they can. Getting the story in bits and pieces. You've got to remember, this has come as a real jolt to all of them. They've known these Rambos for some years. You should have heard this sheriff on the phone. I could barely understand him for his drawl." Buddy chuckled.

"Buddy, I need to go to my son," Anna persisted.

Buddy squeezed her hand. "Anna, I want you to trust me on this. They're taking good care of Paul. You'll have him back here with you in a couple of days."

"I can't wait a couple of days!" she cried.

"We don't want a media circus. This is a shock for Paul, too. It would be best to keep it quiet."

Anna shook her head helplessly. "You're right. I know that what you say makes sense."

"There's a lot we don't know yet. The boy was too young to remember it. But we're getting what information we can. The important thing is that he's alive. And we've found him."

"I won't really believe it until I'm holding him."

"Believe it. Before you know it, you'll have your boy back."

Anna looked up at him with serious, tear-filled eyes. "I never gave up on him, Buddy. Sometimes I thought I was losing my mind over this. I always believed that he'd come home."

"You were right," the detective said.

Tears began to dribble down Anna's face again. For the first time in eleven years she pictured her son in her mind, and her heart did not twist in agony but was filled with joy. What did he look like now? How would he be? Would he know her, and she him? Suddenly she looked up at the detective. "I have to tell Thomas. And Tracy. I have to find them."

"Do you know where they are?" Buddy asked.

"They're over at the tennis courts in the park. I have to tell them." Anna scrambled to her feet and looked around the room confusedly. "I need the keys. Where did I put the keys?" She wiped her tears away, but they continued to flow.

"Never mind," said Buddy, standing up. "I'll drive you over there. You're in no state to be driving."

Anna raised her hands in a gesture of surrender.

"You're right. Oh, let's go."

Anna and Buddy hardly spoke on the way to the park. Buddy glanced over at Anna briefly and felt a wave of apprehension at the sight of her delicate profile. The suffering she had endured was visible in the lines on her face, especially in her forehead. Her soft brown hair was streaked with strands of gray. But her eyes were shining now, and her skin had a high color that had been missing for a long time. These years had taken a high toll on her and her family, he thought. He offered a silent prayer that her ordeal would be over now. He wished he could dispel the uneasy feeling that had plagued him all day, whenever he thought of Paul's homecoming.

They passed through the stone columns which flanked the entrance to the park. Anna nervously directed him to the tennis courts, which were beyond the baseball diamond. As they pulled up to the courts, Anna could see through the climbing roses and the green chain links of the court walls the neon flash of Tracy's coltish legs sheathed in purple spandex bike shorts, and the back of Thomas's compact, muscular figure in white across the net.

"Okay," she said aloud, as if preparing herself.

"Do you want me to wait?"

Anna stirred and faced him in a daze. Then she shook her head. "Tom will drive home. Buddy, I can never thank you enough." She leaned over and embraced him fervently for a second. Then she began to slide out of the car. As she put her hand on the door handle, she turned back to him, a worried frown on her face.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Buddy, I keep thinking about this man, this kidnapper..."


"Yes. You say there's something wrong with him mentally. We don't know what he might do...."

Buddy dismissed her fears with a wave of his hand. "I have a feeling that Mr. Rambo is trying to get as far away from you and your son as he can. I'll call you tomorrow with all the arrangements for bringing him home. We're going to do our best to keep it low profile. Now, go tell your family the good news. Go on."

Anna smiled and slammed the door behind her. "Good luck," Buddy blurted out, not quite knowing why. He watched her pensively as she hurried toward the court, bearing her precious piece of news. He had not told her all the Hawley sheriff had had to say about the severity of Albert Rambo's mental illness. Nor had he conveyed the sheriff's disturbing description of the sullen, uncooperative youth whose return Anna was anticipating with such joy. Why worry her? he thought. Things will all work out. But Buddy could not shake off the feeling of anxiety that had crept up on him again.

"Now you're in trouble," Tracy cried out as the racket connected with the ball at the sweet spot, with a hum and a thwack.

Thomas watched the ball and leapt for it. He slid into position and drew back his arm to swing, but his concentration was broken by the sight of Anna, who had thrown open the door to the court and was rushing toward him. He smiled and waved when he saw her, and then he frowned as he saw the expression on her face.

"Mo-ther!" Tracy cried in a voice shrill with exasperation. "Get off the court. You don't belong here."

Anna did not even seem to hear her daughter. She ran up to Thomas and then stopped short, a foot shy of him. She clasped her hands together and stared into her husband's baffled face.

"Tom, I have to tell you something."

"What is it, honey?" he asked worriedly. "What's the matter?" He took a step toward her.

"It's Paul."

Thomas's mouth tightened, and his eyes narrowed with wariness. "We're right in the middle of a game, Anna," he said.

"What's going on?" Tracy yelled across the court. The players on the adjacent court looked over at them through the mesh wall and then back at one another before resuming their game.

"Tom, Buddy Ferraro was just here. At our house. Thomas, Paul's been found. He's been found alive. The woman who kidnapped him died and left a confession. Tom, he's alive. He's coming home. Paul's coming home." Anna's face crumpled, and she buried it in her hands.

Thomas stared at his wife in disbelief. "What?" he whispered.

Anna nodded. "It's true. I'm telling you it's true. Paul is coming back to us."

It seemed to Thomas that the pulsing of blood in his ears was muffling the words she was saying. They were words he had never expected to hear. When he tried to picture the boy, there was only a blank spot in his mind, only the black hole with which he had willfully replaced his son's image through the years.

Anna was gazing at him now, gripping his hands. The warmth of her hands and the intensity in her eyes seemed to revive him. Feeling returned to him, in the form of an acute tenderness for her. She stood bravely before him, like a sapling that had withstood a pitiless gale.

He slipped his arms around her and drew her to his chest, his hands resting awkwardly on her back. "I knew it," she said, her cheek pressed to his sweaty tennis shirt. "I knew he was alive. I knew he'd come back."

Thomas stroked her hair, staring out over her head. "Paul's alive," he murmured. "You always said that. I never thought...I can't believe it."

Anna pulled back and looked into her husband's eyes. The tears were starting again in her own. "Oh, darling," she whispered.

Thomas squeezed her arms, wishing he could find his tears, but he felt as if they were trapped in a knot in the pit of his stomach. "It's wonderful," he said. "God, it's unbelievable."

"Forget it," Tracy screamed from across the court. She threw down her racket, which clattered to the ground, and started to stalk off the court. "I don't know what's going on here, but you can find yourself somebody else to play with."

"No, Tracy," Anna cried, disengaging herself from Thomas's arms and hurrying toward her daughter. She grabbed hold of the top of the net and leaned over it. "Tracy, wait. We have to tell you something. Wait for me." Anna did not want to yell the news out in front of the other players. But Tracy reached defiantly for the door of the court and yanked it open.

"Tracy, listen to me," Anna pleaded. "Your brother has been found. Paul. Paul is coming back."

Tracy turned around and faced her mother, who leaned toward her, clutching the top of the net between them. Behind her mother, her father stood immobile, his arms hanging limply at his sides.

Slowly the blood drained away from Tracy's tanned and freckled face. She seemed rooted there, staring at them, her eyes wide and blank. For a moment her hand remained frozen to the door of the cage. Then her hand dropped, leaden, to her side. The chain link gate swung back and clanged shut behind her.

Copyright © 1983 by Patricia J. MacDonald

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