Ursula Archer & Arno Strobel Excerpt: Strangers

Ursula Archer and Arno Strobel’s internationally bestselling Strangers is a shocking thriller and mind-bending must-read that explores what happens when mysterious foul play causes a woman not to recognize or remember her fiancé but forces the couple to trust each other and fight the odds (available January 9, 2018).

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Trust or die.

Imagine you’re home alone. Suddenly a man stands before you. He claims to be your fiancé. But you have no idea who he is. And nothing in your home suggests that someone lives with you. He’s talking to you, but nothing makes sense. You’re afraid. And you feel the irresistible urge to attack. Take a knife. Are you crazy?

Imagine you come home and your fiancée doesn’t recognize you. She thinks you’re a burglar. Worse, a rapist. You just want to protect her, but she defends herself against your perceived threat and barricades herself behind a door. She claims she’s never seen you before. She obviously thinks you’re crazy. Are you?

A woman. A man. The more they try to understand the situation, the more confusing it becomes. Soon they must realize that they are in deadly danger. And there’s only one chance for survival: they must trust each other.

1

It’s only by chance that I see the entrance light flicker on. Because I happen to glance across at the bathroom window as I blow-dry my hair. Outside, there is light where there shouldn’t be any.

Someone must have activated the motion sensor, but I’m not expecting anyone, so there’s no way I’m opening the door if the bell rings. In general, I’ve got nothing against friends dropping by unannounced, but the last thing I’m in the mood for today is Ela turning up on the doorstep with two bottles of red wine and launching into an endless monologue about how she’s really going to break up with Richard this time, without a shadow of a doubt.

No. She’ll just have to come to terms with her lousy relationship by herself today. But then again, maybe it’s just Jehovah’s Witnesses.

I switch the hair dryer to a higher speed so I won’t even have to lie when I say I didn’t hear the doorbell. I ignore the nagging sense of unease gradually unfurling inside me. Sure, sometimes burglars ring the doorbell first to make sure no one’s home before they strike. That’s what I’ve heard, anyway. I haven’t been in Germany long enough to know how common it actually is. I may speak the language fluently, but when it comes to day-to-day life, there’s a lot that’s still foreign to me.

Besides, it’s silly to think the worst just because of a harmless ring of the doorbell.

For heaven’s sake, I’m not usually like this.

A few moments later, the entrance light goes out again.

I turn off the hair dryer, nudge the curtain of the bathroom window aside a little, and peer out. There’s no one there. Neither a visitor nor someone trying to break in through the door or windows.

Dad would throttle me with his bare hands if he knew I was living alone in an unprotected house—there are more security cameras at our family compound in Melbourne than at the Pentagon. Another reason I’m glad to be away from there.

For the next few minutes everything is still, and the pressure weighing down on my chest slowly dissipates, giving way to joyful anticipation. There’s nothing else standing in the way of a relaxing evening on the couch, and I can’t wait. A cup of tea, a warm blanket, and a good book are everything I want from the rest of today—also, maybe someone who’d be willing to massage my back for me. I have no idea where the tension between my shoulder blades has come from.

Vanilla tea. Just the thought of it warms me up. I slip into my bathrobe and open the door to the hallway, then make my way down the stairs. Halfway down, I pause.

There was … a noise. A clinking sound. From inside the house. Someone smashing in a window pane? No, it wasn’t loud enough for that.

All at once, the uneasiness from before comes crashing back, this time with twice the force. My hand grips the banister. I take a deep breath, try to pull myself together, walk down another step. You’re being silly, I tell myself, burglars would make much more noise. They would snatch as much stuff as they could and try to make off with it as quickly as possible—

Another sound. Not a clinking this time, but a scraping. Like a drawer being opened and closed.

My first impulse is to turn around. Run to my bedroom, call the police. Hide.

Instead, I fight all my instincts and remain there, as I realize I don’t even have this one, sensible option. My phone is in the kitchen, its battery almost dead. I had put it on the espresso machine, in plain sight, so I wouldn’t forget to charge it.

But the kitchen and living room are precisely where the noises are coming from.

I walk down another two steps. Yes, I can see light through the crack of the living room door.

I take a deep breath to beat back my fear, which seems much too great for the context. The fact that the light’s on doesn’t mean a damn thing; I’m always forgetting to turn it off. So there’s no reason to panic. And besides, the front door is right in front of me. If I need to, I can be outside in five seconds to get help, no matter if I’m in my bathrobe or not.

I hold my breath. Concentrate and listen hard. Now there’s nothing but silence. Was I wrong, did I just imagine the noises? My mind considers this to be entirely possible, but my wildly hammering heart says otherwise. And if there’s one thing I can’t bear, it’s uncertainty.

There’s a paperweight on the dresser in the hall. Ela gave it to me a few weeks ago. A cube made of blue glass, at least four pounds in weight. I pick it up in one hand, ignoring the junk mail which sails down to the floor, and slowly, slowly, open the living room door.

Nothing. Nobody. At least not in here. The living room is untouched; the terrace door is completely intact; everything is just as I left it.

As far as the kitchen is concerned, though, I’m not sure yet. I can’t get a glimpse of it from where I’m standing, and the light’s off.

The paperweight almost slips out of my sweaty hand. I grip it tighter and take a step into the living room. Silently. Another step. Until I’m standing in the middle of the room.

Right when I’m starting to laugh at myself for being so foolish, a shadow steps out of the darkness of the kitchen.

The scream which tries to escape from me dies out halfway, as if there were suddenly no breath left in my body. Every part of my body freezes.

Run away is the only thought which makes it to my consciousness, but I’m not capable of putting it into action. My legs refuse to respond.

A man is standing there beneath the light of the ceiling lamp: he is dark haired, broad shouldered. He says something, his mouth moves, but I can’t make out a word of it; every sound seems to be coming from a great distance, only the hammering of my heartbeat is worryingly close and loud. Is this shock?

The man says something again, but it’s as though I’ve suddenly forgotten all my German. For a moment, the room spins around me. Don’t pass out now, I tell myself.

He cocks his head to the side, hesitates. Then he comes toward me. A new thought pounds into my head: You’re so stupidwhy didn’t you stay upstairs?

Only when he’s close enough for me to smell a hint of his aftershave does the paralyzing shock finally lift. I edge backward, but toward the wall instead of the door. By the time I realize it’s too late, he’s almost right next to me.

“Get out!” I shout, in the hope of at least startling him. To my surprise, it works. He stops in his tracks.

“Get out, or I’ll call the police!” If I shout a little louder, maybe the neighbors will hear me too.

A burglar would run away now, but the stranger doesn’t do that, and something inside me has already figured out that the man hasn’t broken in here to rob me. No thief wears a suit when he’s breaking into a house. But that means there’s another reason, that the stranger has a different intention … and this thought awakens a completely new kind of fear within me. I take another step back; the floor lamp is right behind me now; I feel it tipping over, almost lose my balance.

“Please,” I whisper. “Please don’t hurt me.”

He is five steps away at most. He doesn’t shift his gaze from me, not for a second.

“For heaven’s sake,” he says. “What’s wrong?”

Another step toward me. I duck down a little, as if it could help, as if I could hide inside myself.

“I don’t have much money in the house, but I’ll give you everything I’ve got, OK? Take whatever you want. But please … don’t hurt me.”

“Is this supposed to be some kind of joke?” He lifts his hands, baring his palms. They’re empty. “Are you feeling sick? Should I call a doctor?”

He’s stopped advancing toward me. That’s all that matters. I slowly straighten up again. The paperweight. Maybe this would be a good moment to throw it.

“Just go, please. I promise I won’t call the police.”

He blinks, takes a few deep breaths in and out. “What’s going on? Why are you talking to me like this?”

If those were signs of uncertainty, then I have a chance. I’ll engage him in conversation. Yes. And grab the first opportunity that presents itself to flee.

“Because … I’m scared, OK?”

“Of me?”

“Yes. You’ve given me a real shock.”

He spread out his arms, coming toward me again. “Joanna…”

My name. I flinch again. He knows my name; maybe he’s a stalker … or maybe he just saw the address details on the envelopes that were lying in the hallway.

I take a closer look at him. Blue eyes beneath thick brows. Prominent features, which I would remember if I’d met him before. He doesn’t look aggressive, nor dangerous, but the sight of him still fills me with a horror I couldn’t explain even to myself.

Now I have the wall behind me. There’s no way out; I’m trapped. My pulse is racing; I lift the paperweight. “Go. Right now.”

His gaze flits back and forth between my face and the glass cube. Then it slips a little lower, making me realize my robe is gaping open more than I would have liked.

“Joanna, I don’t know what you’re doing, but please, stop it.”

You stop it!” I meant my words to sound authoritative, but in actual fact they sound pathetic. “Stop acting like we know each other and just go, please.”

Something about my fear must be enticing to him; he comes yet another step closer. I edge along the wall to the left, toward the door.

“Will you give it a rest already? Of course we know each other.” His tone is one of impatience, not anger, but that could easily change. Another seven feet to the door. I can make it; I have to make it.

“You’re wrong. Really.” With every sentence I say, I’m winning myself time. “Where are we supposed to know each other from?”

He slowly shakes his head. “Either you’re playing some kind of twisted game with me, or maybe I should get you to a hospital.” He runs his hand through his hair. “We’re engaged, Jo. We live together.”

I stare at him, speechless. What he said was so far from what I’d expected that I need a few seconds to get my head around it.

We’re engaged.

So not a stalker, then. Something much worse. A lunatic. Someone who’s living in his own made-up world. Someone who’s suffering from delusions.

But why, of all the people in the world, am I the one he’s directing them at?

That’s irrelevant, I tell myself. You can’t reason with someone who’s mentally ill, nor convince them with logic. His mood could change at any moment—he seemed peaceful so far, but who knows, a single ill-judged word could be enough to make him aggressive. After all, he used force to break his way into a stranger’s house.

I can think of only one way out of this, and I make the decision quickly.

The paperweight traces a shimmering blue flight path through the air as I hurl it at the man. My aim is good, but he twists to the side and I only catch his shoulder, not his head. But it’s enough. I run out of the living room, through the hallway, up the steps into the bedroom. I slam the door behind me, turning the key twice.

Then I sink down to the floor, back against the door, staring at my bed. One pillow, one blanket. Nothing more. The bed of a woman who lives alone. But if he really is ill, then his brain will come up with some reason for that. That he’s been sleeping on the couch recently, for example.

Everything seems to have gone silent downstairs. I close my eyes for a moment. Safety at last. I hope.

Of course we know each other, the stranger had said, with an almost eerie matter-of-factness. I search my memory, but in vain. Had he come into the studio once? Was he a client?

No, that’s impossible. I never forget a face that I’ve photographed.

A noise makes me jump. A dull thud, like a door being slammed.

I press my ear against the wood of the bedroom door. Nothing. Maybe the paperweight hit the man hard enough to scare him away.

I listen with my eyes closed, holding my breath. My hope lasts for just one minute, then I hear footsteps on the stairs, slow and heavy.

He’s coming after me. Now he won’t be staying calm anymore.

And I still don’t have a phone to call for help.

 

Copyright © 2018 Ursula Archer & Arno Strobel.

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Ursula Archer was born in Vienna, Austria. She is a science journalist and the internationally best-selling, award-winning author of Five, her first adult book, as well as others in YA and kids. She lives in Vienna, Austria, with her family.

Arno Strobel was born in Saarlouis, Germany. He studied information technology and worked at a German bank in Luxembourg until he ventured to write novels. He is the author of several bestselling novels including The Script, The Coffin, The Village, and The Flood, among others. Strobel lives with his family near Trier, Germany.

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