Play dead, p.1
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       Play Dead, p.1

           Harlan Coben
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Play Dead


  Play Dead

  Harlan Coben

  *

  SUMMARY:

  Terrible secrets lead basketball star David Baskin to fake his death while honeymooning in the tropics in this manipulative but otherwise engaging first novel. His bereaved bride, supermodel Laura Ayars, not sure that David's drowning was accidental, starts sleuthing--which proves dangerous when somebody begins killing people who may have the answers she wants. Meanwhile, David, fitted out with a new identity and appearance, tries out for his original team, the Boston Celtics, and "replaces" himself at his former position. Why he has faked his death is explained in the story's penultimate surprise. But why he risks playing in front of fans who know his style is never addressed. Crucial coincidences abound, such as the love affair of David's brother and Laura's sister--adults who, as kids 30 years before, just happen to have witnessed their parents' worst sins. Coben manufactures tension primarily by keeping key details out of his narrative, a method that eventually wears thin. The resolution comes as a relief, with less of a bang than its buildup promises.

  PROLOGUE:

  May 29, 1960

  It would be a mistake to look directly at her when she spoke. Her words, he knew, could not affect him; her face and body could.

  Sinclair turned and gazed out the window as she closed the door. It was a warm day, and outside he could see many of the students lazing in the sun. A few played touch football, but most just lay on blankets, couples cuddling close to one another; opened text books sprawled near them, ignored, giving the illusion at least that they had actually planned to study.

  A flash of golden highlights drew his vision toward a head of blonde hair. He turned and recognized the pretty sophomore heartthrob from his two p.m. class. Half a dozen boys surrounded her, all battling for her attention, all hoping to draw her brightest smile. A stereo from one of the rooms blasted Buddy Holly's final single across the commons. Once again, he looked at the attractive blonde who was not one-tenth as striking as the brunette standing behind him.

  'Well?' he asked.

  From across the room, the stunning beauty nodded and then realized he was still not facing her. 'Yes.'

  He sighed heavily. Below his window, a few of the boys moved away from the blonde with dejected faces, as though they had been eliminated from a competition which, he guessed, they were.

  'You're sure?'

  'Of course I'm sure.'

  Sinclair nodded, though he could not say why he did so. 'What are you going to do?'

  She stared at him in disbelief. 'Correct me if I'm wrong,' she began with blatant annoyance, 'but I think you might be involved in this, too.'

  Again he nodded for no reason. On the commons, another boy had been thrown from the ring, leaving only two to battle for the blonde's potential favors. He turned his attention to the touch football game and watched a pass float slowly through the humid air. A bare-chested boy extended his hands. The ball spiraled toward him, bounced off his fingertips, and landed on the ground.

  Sinclair concentrated on the game, feeling the boy's disappointment, trying his best to ignore the power she wielded over his mind. His eyes inadvertently shifted back to the blonde. A winner had been chosen. With down-turned eyes, the runner-up stood and sulked off.

  'Will you please turn around and face me?'

  A smile played on his lips, but he was not foolish enough to turn around, to expose himself to her devastating weapons, to allow her to cast her sensual spell over him. He looked down at the young man who had captured the blonde. Even from his window on the second floor, he could see the hunger in the boy's wide eyes as he moved in to claim his hard-sought prey. The boy kissed her. His hands began to wander.

  To the victor goes the spoils.

  He diverted his attention toward the library, feeling as though he were invading the young couple's privacy now that their relationship was getting somewhat physical. He put a cigarette in his mouth. 'Get out.'

  'What?'

  'Get out. Do whatever you please but I don't want you here anymore.'

  'You can't mean that.'

  'I can.' He lit the cigarette. 'I do.'

  'But I was going to tell -- '

  'Don't tell anybody anything. It's already gone far enough.'

  There was silence for a moment. When she spoke again, her voice was pleading, the tone strumming at his nerves. 'But I thought . . .'

  He inhaled deeply on the cigarette as though he wanted to finish it in one puff. From the commons, he heard a sharp slap. The blonde had halted the young man's hormones as he tried to slip past the innocent groping stage. 'Obviously, you thought wrong. Now get out.'

  Her voice was a whisper, 'Bastard.'

  He nodded yet again, but this time he was in full agreement with what had been said. 'Just get the hell out of my office.'

  'Bastard,' she repeated.

  He heard her slam the door. Her high heels echoed against the wooden floor as the most beautiful woman he had ever known headed out of the ivy-covered building.

  He stared out the window at nothing in particular. His vision unfocused, and his world became a blurry mass of green grass and brick buildings, his mind racing with a series of what-ifs.

  Her face swam in front of his eyes. He closed his eyes, but the image did not fade.

  I did the right thing. I did the right thing. I did the -His eyes flew open. Panic filled him. He had to find her, had to tell her he did not mean any of it. He was about to swivel his chair, turn, and run for her when he felt something metallic push against the back of his head.

  A coldness rippled through him.

  'Bastard.'

  The gunshot shattered the still air.

  Chapter 1

  June 17, 1989

  Laura opened the window and felt the gentle tropical breeze refresh her naked body. She closed her eyes as the palm trees' cool wind made her skin tingle. The muscles in her legs still quaked. She turned back toward the bed and smiled at David, the man who had put her legs in this precarious position.

  'Good morning, Mr Baskin.'

  'Morning?' David repeated. He glanced at the clock on the night-table, the day silent except for the crashing of the waves outside the window. 'It's well into the afternoon, Mrs Baskin. We've spent almost the entire day in bed.'

  'Are you complaining?'

  'Certainly not, Mrs B.'

  'Then you won't mind a little more exercise.'

  'What have you got in mind?'

  'How about a swim?'

  'I'm spent,' he said, sprawling back against the pillows. 'I couldn't move if the bed was on fire.'

  Laura smiled seductively. 'Good.'

  David's eyes widened with awe as she slowly strode back toward the bed, remembering the first time he had seen that body, indeed the first time the world had seen that body. It was almost a decade ago and a full eight years before they met. Laura had debuted as a seventeen-year-old cover girl on Cosmopolitan wearing a -- ah, who the hell saw the dress? He had been a junior at the University of Michigan at the time and he could still recall the way the mouths of every member of the basketball team dropped when they saw the issue on a news-stand in Indiana before their Final Four game.

  He feigned panic. 'Where are you going?'

  Her smile grew. 'Back to bed.'

  'Please, no.' He held up his hand to ward her off. 'You're going to put me in the hospital.'

  She kept walking.

  'Vitamin E,' David pleaded. 'Please.'

  She did not stop.

  'I'm going to scream rape.'

  'Scream.'

  His voice was barely audible. 'Help.'

  'Relax, Baskin. I'm not going to attack you.'

  His face registered disappointment. 'You're not?'

  She shook her head, turned, and began
to walk away.

  'Wait,' he called after her. 'Where are you going?'

  'To the Jacuzzi. I'd invite you to join me but I know how tired you are.'

  'I feel a second wind coming on.'

  'Your powers of recuperation are truly incredible.'

  'Thank you, Mrs B.'

  'But you're still out of shape.'

  'Out of shape?' David repeated. 'Playing against the Lakers isn't this exhausting.'

  'You need to work out.'

  'I'll try harder, Coach, really I will. You just tell me what to do.'

  'To the Jacuzzi,' Laura commanded.

  She threw a silk robe over her shoulders, partially covering the gorgeous figure that had made her the world's highest paid fashion model up until her early retirement four years ago at the tender age of twenty-three. David slid out from under the satin sheets. He was tall, a shade under six-five, which was on the short side for a pro basketball player.

  Laura eyed his naked physique admiringly. 'No wonder they say you've revolutionized the game.'

  'Meaning?'

  'Your ass, White Lightning. Women come to the game just to watch it wiggle down court.'

  'You make me feel so cheap.'

  David filled the circular tub with hot water and turned on the jet streams. He uncorked a bottle of champagne and lowered his muscular frame into the water. Laura loosened her robe and began to take it off. Talk about paradise. Everything was perfect. The phone rang.

  Laura rolled her eyes. 'I better get it,' she said reluctantly, retying the silk cord and heading back into the bedroom. David leaned back, his legs floating in the water. He felt the warm streams massage his aching body. His muscles were still sore from the rugged play-offs even though they had ended almost a month ago. He smiled. The Celtics had won so it was a good ache.

  'Who was it?' he asked when she came back in.

  'Nobody.'

  'Nobody called us in Australia?'

  'It was just the Peterson Group.'

  'The Peterson Group?' David repeated. 'Aren't they the company you've been trying to get to carry the Svengali line in the South Pacific?'

  'The same.'

  'The company that you've been trying like hell to set up a meeting with for the past six months?'

  'You got it.'

  'So?'

  'So they want to meet with me today.'

  'When are you going?'

  'I'm not.'

  'What?'

  'I told them I couldn't meet with them while I was on my honeymoon. My husband is very possessive, you know.'

  David sighed out loud. 'If you blow this opportunity, your husband is going to kick your ass. Besides, how are you going to support him in the style to which he's become accustomed if you blow big opportunities?'

  Laura's robe fell to the floor and, though he had seen her body so many times since they fell in love two years ago, he still found himself gaping. She joined him in the tub, her eyes closing as she released a long breath. David watched the water surround her breasts. Her black hair cascaded down her shoulders, framing that incredible European-exotic face.

  'Don't worry,' she said, opening her sparkling blue eyes with flecks of silvery gray. She gave him a look that could slice through solid steel. 'I promise you'll be well taken care of.'

  He shook his head. 'What happened to that business-first bitch I fell in love with?'

  She placed her foot between his legs, probing. 'She loves it when you talk dirty.'

  'But -- '

  'Forget it, Baskin. I'm not leaving my husband for even a moment.'

  He groaned. 'Look, we have three weeks together. If I spend twenty-four hours a day with you for three weeks, you'll drive me nuts. For my sake, go. Go to the meeting. You're already getting to be a pest.'

  'Smooth talker. No wonder I fell for you.' She leaned forward and massaged his powerful legs. 'Did I ever tell you that you have great legs?'

  'Frequently. And what's with all the compliments? You trying to give me a swollen head?'

  Her foot circled and then rested against him. 'Feels to me like I already have.'

  He looked properly shocked. 'That kind of language from last year's businesswoman of the year? I'm stunned, ashamed . . . and aroused. Mostly aroused.'

  She moved closer to him, her full firm bosoms pressing against his chest. 'Why don't we do something about that?'

  'Only if you promise to meet with the Peterson Group afterwards.'

  Her lips found his ear. 'Sometimes I don't understand you,' she whispered. 'Men are supposed to feel threatened by a woman with a career.'

  'A very successful career,' he corrected proudly. 'And if I was one of those men, you would have dumped me long ago.'

  'Never,' she said softly, 'but if I do go, how will you keep yourself occupied while I'm gone?'

  He cupped her buttocks in his strong hands and lifted her on top of him, his lips inches from her nipple. 'I'll shoot some hoops,' he said. 'Like you said before, I'm out of shape. Do you promise or not?'

  She felt his breath on her skin. 'Men, They're always using their bodies to get their way.'

  'Promise?'

  His hardness was just below her. She ached for him, her body quivering. She was barely able to nod.

  He lowered her onto him. She gasped and then cried out, wrapping her arms around his head. Her body rocked back and forth, her fingers digging into his hair, clutching his face into her breasts.

  Laura rose from the bed, gently kissed a sleeping David, and showered. She dried off her long, supple legs and began to get dressed. She wore very little make-up, just light touches around the eyes. Her olive complexion did not need cosmetics to enhance its God-given glow. Laura put on a gray professional suit bearing her Svengali label and buttoned her white blouse.

  Laura was full-breasted -- not what most would consider huge but when she first began modeling ten years ago, she was considered almost too large for conventional modeling, except bathing suits and face shots. Her agency wanted her to strap down her chest during runway events, which Laura would not do, comparing it to asking a man to tie his testicles against his inner thigh. But once she appeared on Cosmo, nothing could stop her career. Laura was the face and body you could not see enough and along with some of her colleagues like Paulina Porizkova and Elle Macpherson, she helped bring cleavage back into style -- if indeed it had ever really been out.

  David stirred, sat up, looked at his wife of four days. 'The transformation is complete.'

  'Transformation?'

  'From nymphomaniac to business barracuda. I feel sorry for this Peterson fellow.'

  Laura laughed. 'I shouldn't be more than an hour or two.' She put on her earrings and walked over to kiss David. 'Will you miss me?'

  'Not even a little.'

  'Bastard.'

  David threw back the blankets and stood. 'You kiss your mother with that mouth?'

  She glanced over his rugged build, shaking her head. 'Incredible,' she muttered. 'You expect me to leave that body for even a little while?'

  'Uh-oh.'

  'What?'

  'Problem in the transformation, Captain. I still sense a few molecules of the nymph hidden under the business facade.'

  'You sense right.'

  'Laura?'

  'Yes?'

  David took her hand. 'I love you,' he began, his eyes misting over. 'You've made me the happiest man in the world.'

  She hugged him, her eyes closing. 'I love you too, David. I couldn't live without you.'

  'Grow old with me, Laura, and I promise I'll always make you happy.'

  'You've got a deal,' she said gently, 'and you better stick to it.'

  'Forever,' he said.

  Laura kissed him then, not realizing that the honeymoon was over.

  'G'day, ma'am.'

  'Good morning,' Laura answered the receptionist with a smile. They were staying at the Reef Resort Hotel in Palm's Cove, about twenty miles from Cairns, Australia. The private resort was a quiet slice of Eden
, a secluded paradise overlooking the Pacific. They were hidden within the century-old palm trees and lush bush of tropical northern Australia. Take a boat out in any direction and you would be mesmerized by the rainbow colors of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, nature's most exquisite masterpiece of jagged coral and exotic marine life, an underground park that man both explored and preserved. Travel in any other direction and you would be wandering through green rain forests with cascading waterfalls, or the beginning of Australia's famed outback region. It was like no other place in the world.

  The receptionist's voice was heavy with an Australian accent. 'Your taxi should be here in a few minutes, ma'am. You and your husband enjoying your stay?'

  'Very much so.'

  'Lovely here, ain't it?' he said proudly. Like most locals, his skin had a bronze-to-red tone from the constant exposure to the sun.

  'Yes, it is.'

  He began to tap his pencil on the desk, his eyes darting around the sun-drenched room. 'Do you mind if I ask you a sort of personal question, ma'am?'

  'I guess so.'

  He hesitated. 'Your husband I recognized right away from the telly. Even in these sticks we get some of your important basketball games -- especially the Boston Celtics. But, ma'am, you also look a might familiar. You used to be on magazine covers or something, right?'

  'Used to be,' Laura responded, amazed at both how widespread certain publications were and how far the average person's memory stretched. Four years had passed since Laura had been on any magazine covers, with the exception of last November's Business Weekly.

  'I knew I'd seen you before. But don't worry, ma'am. I won't let on. No way I'm going to allow anyone to disturb you and Mr Baskin.'

  'Thank you.'

  A horn honked. 'That'll be your taxi. Have a good one.'

  'I'll try.' She left the lobby, greeted the driver, and sat in the backseat. The air-conditioning was at full blast, making the car almost too cold, but against the outside sun, it was a most welcome change.

  Laura settled back and watched the tropical foliage merge into a wall of green as the taxi sped toward town. Every once in a while a small building would pop out of the natural habitat but for the first ten minutes of the ride, they were only a few hidden bungalows, a post office and a grocery store. She gripped the briefcase that contained the catalogues of all the latest Svengali products. Her right leg bounced up and down restlessly.

  Laura began modeling when she was only seventeen. Her Cosmo debut was followed by Mademoiselle and Glamour covers in the same month, and then Sports Illustrated' s annual swimsuit issue made her name somewhat household. The cover photo was taken during a sunset on Australia's Gold Coast about 500 miles from Palm's Cove. In the photograph, Laura was wading knee-deep in the water, her eyes staring into the camera as she pulled back her wet hair. She wore a black, strapless one-piece that molded to her curves, her shoulders bare. It ended up being the best-selling issue Sports Illustrated ever had.