Harlan Coben's next novel, "I Will Find You," comes out in March 2023 – but you can get an exclusive preview here.
"I Will Find You" is narrated by a man in prison for murdering his own child. But as he says in the first sentence, David Burroughs is completely innocent. Five years into his prison sentence, David finds evidence that his son my be alive.
Coben is the author of over 35 novels which have sold over 77 million copies, and have been turned into Netflix shows. He stopped by TODAY to give a few of his own recommendations for what to read next. But for now, read a preview of the book he has on the way, which you can preorder here.
Read an exclusive excerpt of Harlan Coben's 'I Will Find You'
I am serving the fifth year of a life sentence for murdering my own child.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t do it.
My son Matthew was three years old at the time of his brutal murder. He was the best thing in my life, and then he was gone, and I’ve been serving a life sentence ever since. Not metaphorically. Or should I say, not just metaphorically. This would be a life sentence no matter what, even if I hadn’t been arrested and tried and convicted.
But in my case, in this case, my life sentence is both metaphorical and literal.
How, you wonder, can I possibly be innocent?
I just am.
But didn’t I fight and protest my innocence with every fiber of my being?
No, not really. This goes back, I guess, to the metaphorical sentence. I didn’t really care that much about being found guilty. I know that sounds shocking, but it’s not. My son is dead. That’s the lede here. That’s the lede and the headline and the all-caps. My son is dead and gone, and that fact would not have changed had the jury forewoman declared me guilty or not guilty. Guilty or not guilty, I had failed my son. Either way. Matthew wouldn’t be less dead had the jury been able to see the truth and freed me. A father’s job is to protect his son. That’s his number-one priority. So even if I didn’t wield the weapon that smashed my son’s beautiful being into the mangled mess I found on that awful night five years ago, I didn’t stop it either. I didn’t do my job as his father. I didn’t protect him.
Guilty or not guilty of the actual murder, it is my fault and thus my sentence to serve.
So I barely reacted when the jury forewoman read the verdict. Observers concluded, of course, that I must be sociopathic or psychopathic or deranged or damaged. I couldn’t feel, the media claimed. I lacked an empathy gene, I couldn’t experience remorse, I had dead eyes, whatever other terminology would land me in the killer camp. None of that was true. I just didn’t see the point. I had been on the receiving end of a devastating blow when I found my son Matthew in his Marvel-Hero-themed pajamas that night. That blow had knocked me to my knees, and I couldn’t get up. Not then. Not now. Not ever.
The metaphorical life sentence had begun.
If you think this will be a tale about a wronged man proving his innocence, it is not. Because that would not be much of a story. In the end, it would make no difference. Being released from this hellhole of a cell would not lead to redemption. My son would still be dead.
Redemption isn’t possible in this case.
Or at least, that was what I believe right up until the moment that the guard, a particularly eccentric case we call Curly, comes to my cell and says, “Visitor.”
I don’t move because I don’t think he is talking to me. I have been here for five years, and I have had no visitors in all that time. During the first year, my father tried to visit. So had a handful of relatives and close friends and relatives who believed me innocent or at least, not really guilty. I wouldn’t let them in. Matthew’s mother, Cheryl, my then-wife (she is now, not surprisingly, my ex-wife) had tried too, albeit half-heartedly, but I wouldn’t let her see me. I made it clear: No visitors. I was not being self-pitying or any kind of pitying. Visiting helps neither the visitor or the visitee. I didn’t and don’t see the point.
A year passed. Then two. Then everyone stopped gave up on trying to visit. Not that anyone, other than maybe Adam, had been clamoring to make the shlep up to Maine, but you get my point. Now, for the first time in a long time, someone is here at Briggs Penitentiary to see me.
“Burroughs,” Curly snaps, “let’s go. You have a visitor.”
I make a face. “Who?”
“Do I look like your social secretary?”
“The social-secretary line. It was very funny.”
“Are you being a wiseass with me?”
“I have no interest in visitors,” I tell him. “Please send them away.”
Curly sighs. “Burroughs.”
“Get your ass up. You didn’t fill out the forms.”
“There are forms to fill out,” Curly says, “if you don’t want visitors.”
“I thought people had to be on my guest list.”
“Guest list,” Curly repeated with a shake of his head. “This look like a hotel to you?”
“Hotels have guest lists?” I counter. “Either way, I did fill out something that I don’t want any visitors.”
“When you first got here.”
Curly sighs again. “You got to renew that every year.”
“Did you fill out a form this year saying you wanted no visitors?”
Curly spread his hands. “There you go. Now get up.”
“Can’t you just tell the visitor to go home?”
“No, Burroughs, I can’t, and I’ll tell you why. That would be more work for me than dragging your ass down to Visitors. See, if I do that, I’ll have to explain why you’re not there and your visitor might ask me questions and then I’ll probably have to fill out a form myself and I hate that and then you’ll have to fill out a form and I’ll have to walk back and forth and, look, I don’t need the hassle, you don’t need the hassle. So here’s what’ll happen: you’ll go with me now and you can just sit there and say nothing for all I care and then you can fill out the correct forms and neither of us will have to go through this again. Do you feel me?”
“I feel you.”
“Cool. Let’s go.”
I know the drill, of course. I let Curly put on the handcuffs, followed by the belly chain so that my hands could be shackled to my waist. He skipped the leg cuffs, mostly because they are a pain to get on and off. The walk is fairly long from the PC (protective custody, for those not in the know) unit of Briggs Penitentiary to the visiting area. Eighteen of us are currently housed in PC – seven child molesters, four rapists, two cannibal serial killers, two “regular” serial killers, two cop killers, and of course, one filicidal former-cop, English professor (moi). Quite the coterie.
Curly gives me a hard glare, which is unusual. Most of the guards are bored cop wannabees and/or muscle-heads who looked upon us inmates with staggering apathy. I want to ask him what gives, but I know when to keep quiet. You learn that in here. I feel my legs quake a bit as I walk. I’m oddly nervous. The truth is, I’ve settled in here. It’s awful – worse than you imagine – but still I’ve grown accustomed to this particular brand of awful. This visitor, whoever it is after all the time, is here to deliver rock-my-world news.
I don’t welcome that.
I flash back to the blood – my son’s blood -- from that night. I think about the blood a lot. I dream about it too. I don’t know how often. In the beginning, it was every night. Now I would say it’s more a once-a-week thing, but I don’t keep track. Time doesn’t pass normally in prison. It stops and starts and sputters and zigzags. I smelled the blood that night. That’s what I remember the most – blinking myself awake in the bed I shared with my wife Cheryl, and that dark, dank, rusted odor overwhelming me. You would think that smell would have made me bolt upright and leap to my feet. It didn’t. It took time for me to wake up. I stayed in my bed, my brain stuck in that weird cusp between sleep and awake, floating ever upward toward consciousness.
At some point, I did finally sit up. I stared down at my hands as though they belonged to someone else.
Blood, of course. Lots of it.
It was redder than I imagined – fresh, bright Crayola-Crayon red, garish and mocking as a clown’s lipstick against the white sheet.
I sprang from the bed and called out Matthew’s name. I didn’t check the time, but for those keeping score at home, it was four in the morning. I was still in my clothes. I clumsily ran to his room, bumping hard into the doorframe. There was blood in the hallway. I called out his name again. No answer. I ran into his bedroom and found… you couldn’t call it a body. Not anymore. I sank to my knees and tried to cradle the still form, but there was nothing there, just pulp, more puddle than human.
I don’t remember anything else. I’m told I started screaming. That was how the police found me. Still screaming. The screams became shards of glass careening through every part of me. I stopped screaming at some point, I guess. I don’t remember that either. Maybe my vocal cords snapped, I don’t know. But the echo of those screams have never left me. Those shards still rip and shred and maul.
“Hurry up, Burroughs,” Curly says. “She’s waiting for you.”
He’d said “she.” For a moment I imagine that it is Cheryl, and my heart picks up a beat. But no, she won’t come, and I wouldn’t want her to. We were married for eight years. Happily, I thought. Not long after my conviction, I signed some paperwork granting her. That’s all I know. I have no idea where Cheryl is now, if she’s still mourning or if she’s made a new life for herself. I think it’s best that way.
Why didn’t I pay more attention to Matthew that night?
I’m not saying I was a bad father. I don’t think I was. But that night, I simply wasn’t in the mood. Three-year-olds can be tough. And boring. We all know this. Parents try to pretend that every moment with their child is bliss. It’s not. Or at least that’s what I thought that night. I didn’t read a bedtime story Matthew because I just couldn’t be bothered. Awful, right? I just sent my child to bed because I was obsessing and upset over a stupid work issue. I had expected to be promoted to chair of the English department at Wathmouth Community College. I had worked hard for the promotion. I had been told it was coming. I did get the promotion – but not alone. I was “co-chair” with a young woman named Belinda Edwards, and I wasn’t happy about sharing that pathetically weak spotlight. Stupid. So stupid. We are all so luxuriously stupid when things are good in our life.
Cheryl, who had just finished her residency in general surgery, had a night shift in the kids’ emergency room at Boston General. I was alone with Matthew. I started drinking. I’m not a big drinker and don’t handle spirits well and so the drinks hit me hard and fast. In short, I drank too much and I semi-passed out so instead of watching my child, instead of protecting my son, instead of making sure the doors were locked (they weren’t) or listening for an intruder or heck, instead of hearing a child scream in terror and/or agony, I was in a state the prosecutor at the trail mockingly called “snooze from booze.”
I don’t remember anything else until, of course, that smell.
I know what you’re thinking: Maybe he (meaning “I”) did do it. After all, the evidence against me was pretty overwhelming. I get that. It’s fair. I sometimes wonder about that too. You’d have to be truly blind or delusional not to consider that possibility, so let me tell you a quick story that I think relates to this: I once kicked my then-wife Cheryl hard while we slept. I’d been having a nightmare that a giant raccoon was attacking our little dog Laszlo, so in a sleep panic, I kicked the racoon as hard as I could and ended up kicking Cheryl in the shin. It was oddly kind of funny, watching her try to keep a straight face as I defended my actions (“Would you have wanted me to let Laszlo get eaten by a racoon?”), but my wonderful surgeon wife, the kindest woman you’d ever want to meet, a woman who loved Laszlo and all dogs, still seethed.
"Maybe,” Cheryl said to me, “subconsciously, you wanted to hurt me.”
She said that with a smile and so she didn’t mean it. At least, I didn’t think she did. We forgot about it immediately and had a great day together. But I think about that a lot now. I was asleep and dreaming that night too. One kick isn’t a murder, but who knows, right? The murder weapon was a baseball bat. It had my fingerprints on it. That was, pardon the pun, the kicker. In fact, my neighbor. Mrs. Winslow, who had lived in the house behind our woods for forty years, saw me bury that bat. That was the other kicker, though I wondered about that, about me being supposedly smart enough to try to get rid of the murder weapon (though far too close to the murder site) but dumb enough to leave his fingerprints on it. I wonder about a lot of things like that. For example, I had fallen asleep after a drink or two too many once or twice before – who hasn’t? – but never like this. Perhaps I’d been drugged, but by the time I was a viable suspect, it was too late to test for that. The local police, many of whom revered my father, were supportive at first. They looked into some bad people he’d put away, but that didn’t seem right, not even to me. Dad had made enemies, sure, but that was a long time ago. Why would anyone kill a three-year-old boy for that kind of revenge? It didn’t add up. The autopsy also showed no signs of sexual assault, so we can rule out that too as a motive. So really, when you add it all up, there was only one real suspect left.
So maybe something like my raccoon-kick dream happened here. It’s not impossible. My attorney Abe Tansmore wanted to make an argument like that. My family, some of them anyway, believed that I should take that route too. There was my “history of mental illness,” they reminded me. I could use that.
But nah, I wouldn’t confess because, despite these rationales, I didn’t do it. I didn’t kill my son. I know I didn’t. I know. And yes, I know every perp says that.
Curly and I make the final turn. Briggs Penitentiary is done up in Early American Asphalt. Everything was a washed-out gray, a faded road after a rainstorm. I had gone from a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath colonial, splashed in sunshine-yellow with green shutters, decorated in earth tones and pine antiques, nicely situated on a three-quarter acre lot in a cul-de-sac to this. Doesn’t matter. Surroundings are irrelevant. Exteriors, you learn, are illusions and thus meaningless.
There is a buzzing sound, and then Curly opens the door. Many prisons have updated visiting areas. Lower-risk inmates can sit at a table with their visitor or visitors with no partitions or barriers. I cannot. Here at Briggs we still have the bullet-proof Plexiglas. I sit on a metal stool that is bolted into the floor. My belly chain is loosened so that I can grab hold of the telephone. That is how visitors in the supermax communicate – via telephone and Plexigas.
The visitor isn’t my ex-wife Cheryl, though she looks like Cheryl. It’s her sister Rachel.
Rachel sits on the other side of the Plexiglas, but I see her eyes widen when she takes me in. I almost smile at her reaction. I, her once beloved brother-in-law, the former literary one-hit wunderkind, the man with the offbeat sense of humor and the devil-may-care smile, had certainly changed in the past five years. I wonder what she notices first. The thirty-pound weight loss perhaps. Or maybe the shattered facial bones that had not healed properly. It could be my ashen complexion, the slump from the once-athletic shoulders, the thinning and graying of my hair.
I sit down and peer at her through the plexiglass. I take hold of the phone and gesture that she should do the same. When Rachel lifts the phone to her ear, I speak.
“Why are you here?”
Rachel almost manages a smile. We were always close, Rachel and I. She was a wonderful aunt to Matthew. “Not much on pleasantries, I see.”
“Are you here to exchange pleasantries, Rachel?”
Whatever hint of a smile there was fades away. She shakes her head. “No.”
I wait. Rachel looks worn yet still beautiful. Her hair was still the same ash blonde as Cheryl’s, her eyes the same dark green. I shift on my stool and face at her angle because it hurts to look directly at her.
Rachel blinks back tears and shakes her head. “This is too crazy.”
She lowers her gaze and for a moment, I see the eighteen-year-old girl I’d met when Cheryl first brought me to her New Jersey home from Amherst College during our junior year. Cheryl and Rachel’s parents hadn’t really approved of me. I was a little blue collar for them, what with the beat-cop father and row-house upbringing. Rachel, on the other hand, had taken to me right away, and I grew to love her as the closest thing I would have to a little sister. I cared about her. I felt protective of her. A year later, I drove her up and helped her move in at Dartmouth as an undergrad and later, to Columbia where she studied journalism.
"It’s been a long time,” Rachel says.
I nod. I want her to go away. It hurts to look at her. I wait. She doesn’t speak. I finally say something because Rachel looks like she needs a lifeline and so I can’t help myself.
“How’s Sam?” I ask.
"Fine,” Rachel says. “He works for Merton Pharmaceuticals now. In sales. He made manager, travels a lot.” Then she shrugs and adds, “We’re divorced.”
"Oh,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
She shakes that off. I’m not really sorry to hear it. I never thought Sam was good enough for her, but I felt that way about most of her boyfriends.
“Are you still writing for the Globe?” I ask.
“No,” she says in a voice that slams the door on that subject.
We sit in silence for a few more seconds. Then I try again.
“Is this about Cheryl?”
“No. Not really.”
I swallow. “How is she?”
Rachel starts wringing her hands. She looks everywhere but at me. “She’s remarried.”
The words hit me like a gut punch, but I take it without so much as flinching. This, I think to myself. This is why I don’t want visitors.
“She never blamed you, you know. None of us did.”
“Why the hell are you here?”
We fall back into silence. Behind her, I see another guard, one I don’t know, staring at us. There are three other inmates in here right now. I don’t know any of them. Brigg is a big place, and I try to keep to myself. I am tempted to stand up and leave when Rachel finally speaks.
“Sam has a friend,” she says.
“Not really a friend. A co-worker. He’s on the marketing side. In management too. At Merton Pharmaceutical. His name is Tom Longley. He has a wife and two boys. Nice family. We used to get together sometimes. For company barbecues, stuff like that. His wife’s name is Irma. I like her. Irma is pretty funny.”
Rachel stops and shakes her head.
“I’m not telling this right.”
“No, no,” I say. “It’s a great story so far.”
Rachel smiles, actually smiles, at my sarcasm. “A hint of the old David,” she says.
We go quiet again. When Rachel starts speaking, her words come out slower, more measured.
“The Longleys went on a company trip two months ago to an amusement park in Springfield. Six Flags, I think it’s called. Took their two boys. Irma and I have stayed friends, even after the divorce, so she invited me over to lunch the other day. She talked about the trip – a little gossipy because I guess Sam brought his new girlfriend. Like I’d care. But that’s not important.”
I bite back the sarcastic rejoinder and look at her. She holds my gaze.
“And then Ira showed me a bunch of photos.”
Rachel stops here. I don’t have the slightest idea where she is going with this, but I can almost hear some kind of foreboding soundtrack in my head. Rachel takes out a manila envelope. Eight by ten size, I guess. She puts it down on the ledge in front of her. She stares at it a beat too long, as though debating her next step. Then in one fell swoop she reaches into the envelope, plucks something out, and presses it against the glass.
It is, as advertised, a photo.
I don’t know what to make of it. The photograph does indeed appear to have been taken at an amusement park. A woman – I wonder whether this is pretty-funny Irma – smiles shyly at the camera. Two boys, probably the Langleys, are on either hip, neither looking at the camera. Someone in a Bugs Bunny costume is on the right; someone dressed like Batman is on the left. Irma looks a little put out -- but in a fun away. I can almost imagine the scene. Good ol’ Pharmaceutical Marketing Tom cheerily goading Pretty-Funny Irma to pose, Pretty-Funny Irma not really in the mood but being a good sport, the two boys having none of it, we’ve all be there. There is a giant red rollercoaster in the background. The sun is shining in the faces of the Langley family which explains why they are squinting and slightly turning away.
Rachel has her eyes on me.
I lift my eyes toward hers. She keeps pressing the photograph up to the glass.
“Look closer, David.”
I stare at her another second or two and then I let my gaze wander back to the photograph. This time I see it immediately. A steel claw reaches into my chest and squeezes my heart. I can’t breathe.
There is a boy.
He is in the background, on the right edge of the frame, almost out of the picture. His face is in perfect profile, like he’s posing to be on a coin. The boy appears to be about eight years old. Someone, an adult male perhaps, holds the boy’s hand. The boy looks up at what I assume is the back of the man, but the man is out of frame.
I feel the tears push into my eyes and reach out with tentative fingers. I caress the boy’s image through the glass. It is impossible, of course. A desperate man sees what he wants to see and let’s face it – no thirsty, heat-crazed, starved desert-dweller who ever conjured up a mirage has ever been this desperate. Matthew had not yet reached the age of three when he was murdered. No one, not even a loving parent, could guess what he would look like some five years later. Not for certain. There is a resemblance, that’s all. The boy looks like Matthew. Looks like. It’s a resemblance. Nothing more. A resemblance.
A sob rips through me. I put my fist into my mouth and bite down. It takes a few seconds before I am able to speak. When I do, my words are simple.
Excerpted from I WILL FIND YOU by Harlan Coben. Copyright © 2023 by Harlan Coben. Used by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.