Part #3 of Mickey Bolitar series by Harlan Coben
But I saw something churning behind his eyes. "Yeah? So what of it?" He grabbed my arm and pulled me away from Rachel. He spoke in a soft voice.
"Dude, do you really blame me? I mean, look at the girl you're with."
I was actually cocking my fist when I remembered that his mom was still at the front door.
"Jared?" she called out.
"I'll be there in a second, Ma." He leaned close to me and kept his voice low. "Look, okay, maybe I should have told her better. Maybe I should have made it clearer, but really, it wasn't a big thing."
"It was to her."
"That's not my problem."
"Yeah, Jared, it is."
"What? Are you going to hit me, big man? Defend Ema's honor?"
Man, I wanted to. I wanted to smack him good and hard. "You have no idea what a great person Ema is."
"Then why don't you date her?" He grinned. "I'd be happy to take Rachel off your hands."
Rachel put her hand on my shoulder, her way of telling me to stay calm. "Not worth it," she whispered.
"Look," Jared said, "I'll e-mail her, okay? I'll let her know. You're right about that. But, Mickey? You better get out of my face now, because one thing is for sure: This is none of your damned business."
I called Ema, but it went straight into her voice mail. I sent her a brief text: Found Jared. He's safe. Call if you have any questions.
"I blew it," I said to Rachel.
"Got too aggressive."
"You were mad."
"It's just . . . when I think of Ema waiting by her computer . . ."
Rachel smiled. "You're sweet."
I shook my head. "I didn't even ask him the important question."
"Why is Jared home? Why isn't he still at school?"
"We didn't come to change his life," Rachel said. "We were supposed to find him. Mission accomplished."
I knew that she was speaking the truth. Jared had vanished--and we had found him. Period. The end.
But something felt very wrong about it.
When we arrived back home, I got a text from Brandon Foley: Anything new on Troy's test?
I thought about it. I simply was not buying that Buck's mother would suddenly be granted full custody and that he would have to move away. Sure, I had heard of some pretty strange arrangements in cases of divorce, but who would move a kid when he was seventeen years old and already into his final year of high school?
It might make sense in a vacuum--if that was all that had happened. But at the same time Buck decided to leave, his best friend and cohort in crime, Troy Taylor, failed a drug test.
I didn't think so. Troy insisted that he's innocent, and most of the guys on the team seemed to believe him. I started drawing little lines in my head, trying to make things connect.
My brain started to hurt.
I needed more information, so as soon as I made sure Rachel was home safe and sound, I decided that it was time I had a heart-to-heart with Troy.
I was going to text him, but I didn't have his number. I guessed that I could ask Brandon for it, but I was already in the neighborhood. One of the few things I had learned was that there is no substitute for face-to-face. No, I'm not going to bemoan the smartphones or how we all constantly text or check social media. It is what it is. But when you want information, when you want to see whether a person is telling the truth or lying, there is nothing better than to look them in the eye and watch their body language.
At least, that was what I thought.
When I arrived at Troy's door, I hesitated before knocking. I had been here before. Sort of. Rachel had "distracted" Troy--ugh--so that Ema and I could break into Chief Taylor's home office off the back kitchen. Ah, good times. Now I was knocking on his front door, like a real visitor.
Suppose Chief Taylor answered the door?
No "suppose" about it. Two seconds after I knocked, the door opened. Chief Taylor, still in full uniform, appeared. His eyes narrowed when he spotted me on the stoop. "Mickey Bolitar?"
"Hi, Chief Taylor," I said too cheerfully.
"What do you want?"
"Is, uh, Troy home?"
Chief Taylor frowned at me a few more seconds. Then he stepped aside and said, "Troy is in the basement."
"Thank you." I wiped my feet a few hundred times on the welcome mat and stepped into the house. He gestured toward a door across the room. I opened it and started down the steps.
The room was dark and silent. I kept moving down the stairs. An eerie glow started providing some illumination. When I reached the bottom step, I saw what it was. A video game with plenty of blood and guts was playing on the big-screen television. I spotted Troy lounging on a gamer chair. Headphones covered his ears. His finger danced across the game controller.
He still didn't know I was here. He was lost in the game, shooting, dodging, changing weapons. I had never gotten into the video game craze because when we were overseas I didn't have access to it. When we first moved back to the United States earlier in the year, I had tried to play them, but I wasn't very good. Like anything else, video games took practice. I'd started playing too late, and maybe this was a weakness of my own, but I didn't like to do things I wasn't good at.
He still didn't hear me. I touched him on the shoulder. He jumped up, eyes wide, as though ready to attack. When he saw it was me, confusion crossed his face for a split second, but it was quickly replaced with his ready smile.
I didn't know what to think of this guy.
"Hey," I said. "I wanted to talk to you."
He took off the headphones and put the controller down.
"Have a seat."
I sat in the gamer chair next to him. It felt odd, sitting in this dark room, the television providing the only light. On the screen, the game characters continued on as though nothing had happened. They ran and shot and dived and hid.
"So what's up?" Troy asked.
"I need to ask you about Buck."
That seemed to surprise him. "What about him?"
"You two are close, right?"
"Were you surprised when he moved away?"
"Surprised? I was more like shocked." Troy turned toward me a little more. "Why?"
"It's just odd," I said.
"You were close to Buck, so maybe you didn't see it. He put on a ton of size in the off-season."
"He was lifting hard," Troy said.
"That might be all it is, then."
Troy's eyes narrowed like his father's had upstairs. "But you don't think so?"
"I just wonder. He showed all the signs of steroid use. Increased size. He was nasty and aggressive. I heard he had a really good baseball season."
"Great season," Troy said. "He showed a lot of improvement."
"Too much improvement?" I asked.
Troy looked troubled by something.
"What?" I said.
"You think Buck may have been taking steroids."
"But what would that have to do with me?"
"I don't know. Maybe nothing."
Troy looked away.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Troy, you asked for my help."
"I know. But I didn't want that help to come at the expense of a friend."
"That's not what I'm doing."
"I'm trying to find out the truth here," I said. "That's all. So what's troubling you?"
Troy took a deep breath. "Buck felt threatened by you."
I leaned back. "Me?"
"Look, we treated you wrong. I told you that."
"What does that have to do with Buck?"
Troy started fiddling with the controller in
I said nothing.
"The five of us had been starters on the basketball team forever. But one of us was about to lose his starting position to you. It wouldn't have been Brandon, the center, or me, the point guard--"
He didn't finish the thought. I finished it for him.
"It would have been Buck."
Troy nodded. "Think about it. You know all the pressure he was already under with his brother being a superstar, right?"
"Now add you in the equation. It got to him. Bad. To lose your starting job in your last year . . ."
I saw where Troy was going with this. "So you think he took steroids."
"I'm not saying that. He's my friend. But at some point, Brandon and I wanted to lay off you. We knew that you could help us win. That's all that really mattered to me." He leaned closer to me. "But, see, I would still be a starter. Buck was the one on the fringe."
We sat there, in the dark, and watched the video game characters run rampant.
"He hasn't called me back," Troy said.
"Yeah. He sent me a few texts, but he won't talk to me."
"Why do you think that is?"
Troy shrugged. "I don't know."
My cell phone rang. It was Ema. I got myself out of the chair and headed over to a quiet corner. "Hello?"
"You found Jared?"
"Yeah," I said. "Where are you?"
"We just got back home."
"I'm on my way."
I told Ema everything about our meeting on Adiona Island with Jared Lowell.
She listened intently, as she always did. We were sitting in the kitchen of the enormous mansion she calls home. Niles, the family butler, was puttering around the house, but he knew better than to get in our way. Ema's mom, the actress whose fan board had started this whole thing, was still in New York.
When I finished, Ema didn't speak. She just sat at the kitchen table. Her hands were folded in front of her. She stared at them. I started to reach my hand across, but I stopped. Her body language was all wrong.
"Ema?" I said.
I waited for her to say more. She kept her eyes on her hands. She started twisting the silver skull ring on her right hand around and around. Finally she said, "I want to show you something."
She took out her smartphone and started playing with the buttons. I sat quietly. "I don't like doing this," she said.
"Showing you this e-mail. It's the last one Jared sent me."
"You don't have to . . ."
"I know that. And, yeah, it's really personal. That's why I don't really want to do it. But I need you to understand. Okay?"
With a deep sigh, Ema handed me her phone. The cover was black with silver studs. The girl was consistent, I had to say that. She had blown up the screen so I couldn't see the address or the top of the e-mail. I didn't scroll. If she had wanted me to see the whole thing, she would have left it alone.
I can't wait to see you. I can't wait for this all to be over and to tell you what's in my heart and how I've changed. You changed me, Ema. I have made so many mistakes and there is still one more thing to do, but once that's over, I promise it will all be behind me. We will be together if you'll accept me.
I looked up. "That's it?"
"That's all I want to show you."
"What's with the 'if you'll accept me'?" I asked.
"I don't know."
I handed her back the phone.
"But does that sound like a guy who had a change of heart?"
"No, but you know how guys are."
"I do," Ema said with a frown.
I thought about it. "Jared wrote that he still has one more thing to do and then he can put it all behind him. What was he talking about?"
"I don't know."
I mulled it over for a few seconds. "He left school. Do you think it has to do with that?"
"I guess it has to," Ema said. "School was important to him. He's as basketball crazy as you are." She checked her phone and slid it back into her pocket. "Did he tell you why he was home?"
"Did you ask?"
I remembered what Rachel had said. "We didn't come to change his life. Our mission was to find him and make sure he was safe."
My words came out with more sting than I intended. This all felt strange for some reason. Seeing that e-mail had thrown me off guard a little. Ema, a girl I cared about a whole lot, had this big relationship with some guy she was really into and with whom she exchanged words of . . . love?
I wanted not to care. But I didn't like it.
For a second--a half second, maybe less--I considered asking her when she had first sent him her picture. Had it been late in the game, maybe right after she received this e-mail? I know how cruel that sounded, but I had seen the way Jared looked at Rachel.
Was that it? Was the answer that simple--and that superficial?
I started thinking about that again and now my emotions turned back to rage at Jared Lowell.
But I stayed quiet.
"He may still be in danger," Ema said. "He could be covering something up. He could be trying to protect me."
"Protect you how?"
"There was something going on in his life. Something he was trying to get away from so that he could be with me. But suppose he couldn't? Suppose he tried to but, whatever it was, he couldn't escape it."
We sat there in silence. Finally I asked, "What was he trying to escape?"
"I don't know," she said. "But maybe we still need to find out."
It was dark when I headed home. Niles offered me a ride, but I wanted to walk. I needed to clear my head. The walk home would do me good. Ema's house was not only ginormous but it sat atop a ginormous plot of land. I started down a driveway that had to be a quarter mile long.
When I reached the bottom of the hill, I spotted the familiar car across the street. It was black with tinted windows. Its license plate number was A30432. During the Holocaust, prisoners in Auschwitz had numbers tattooed on their arms. Lizzy Sobek had survived that death camp. Her tattoo number?
The car was here for me. I didn't walk toward it. I would let them make the first move.
The back door opened. The man I had called Shaved Head stepped out. He wore a dark suit and tie. I knew now that his name was Dylan Shaykes. As a young child, curly-haired Dylan Shaykes had vanished, never to be seen again. I didn't know what happened or how he had joined Abeona, but he had been watching me from the beginning.
The black car drove away, leaving Dylan alone on the street with me.
"Funny thing," I called to him.
"I've never seen the driver. Who is he?"
Dylan didn't answer. I didn't expect him to. "Let's take a walk," he said.
We started down the street together. Neither of us spoke for the first hundred yards or so. We were waiting each other out. It was odd. I had always thought my . . . what was he anyway? My mentor? My immediate superior? I didn't know. But I always thought that my relationship with a guy like this would be more teacher-student, master-pupil, like in some karate movie. But it wasn't. He was on my side. I knew that. He had been with Abeona a long time and would, I'm sure, help me in a pinch, yet there was always a tension between us.
"You have something that doesn't belong to you," Dylan said.
"Oh, right. Well, since my father was on it, I kinda think it belongs to me too."
We kept walking.
"My father helped rescue Luther, didn't he?"
"So why is Luther our enemy now?"
"It's a long story," Dylan said.
"I can walk slower if you'd like."
"You're still new to this," Dylan said.
"Not that new."
"Do you know who Abeona was?"
"A Roman goddess who protected children."
"Something like that," Dylan said. "To be more exact, Abeona is the Roman goddess of outward journeys. She guards over children as they leave their home for the first time to explore the world."
"Okay," I said. "And how long has the Abeona Shelter existed?"
He smiled. "No one knows."
"What does that mean?"
"I was called. You were called. Lizzy Sobek was called. There were ones called before her. There will be ones called after us."
"And you don't know when it all started?"
"Who calls us?"
"For now? It's Lizzy Sobek. One day, we will have a new leader." He smiled at me. "I have been on both ends, Mickey. I'm a rescuer. And I was rescued."
I flashed back to the "memorial" service for a little boy named Dylan Shaykes. "Everyone thinks you're dead."
He kept walking.
"Even your father."
"You're okay with that?"
"He's the reason I was rescued. My father . . ." He closed his eyes for a second, as though in pain. "He was a cruel man."
"Did Bat Lady rescue you?"
"Her name is Lizzy Sobek."
"I know. But it's dangerous to use her real name, right?"
He nodded. "Good point. Yes. She rescued me. I was in the hospital. My father had hurt me. Again. I told the police that I fell down the stairs. Again. I don't think they believed me, but my father could be a very charming man when he wanted to be. I remember sitting in the hospital room and thinking about hurting myself again. So I could stay longer. I didn't want to go back to that house. I was scared." He stroked his chin. "Do you know those containers for disposable needles?"
"I tried to break into it. So I could get a needle. I thought maybe I could use it as a weapon or . . ."
"Or what?" I asked.
"Or I could use it to kill myself."
There may have been sounds around us. There may have been cars driving by or children playing somewhere nearby or something like that. But I heard none of it.
"Bat Lady came in. She was dressed like a nurse. She took me away."
"Where did she take you?"
A small smile came to his lips. "Where do you think?"
I remembered the tape he wanted. "To that tunnel?"
"Yes. For a long time, that was where we hid the rescued until we could find them safe transport. There is a door down there. It can be hidden by a false wall."
"I saw it," I said.
"When you found that tape?"
I remembered it now. I had walked past it. "Yes."
Found by Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Young Adult / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes