Part #3 of Mickey Bolitar series by Harlan Coben
"Call me Lizzy."
"Okay, great. Lizzy, I was asking about this Luther guy and my father."
"And I'm telling you. You need to be patient, Mickey."
I said nothing.
"Where was I?"
"You loved your loud refrigerator," I said, trying to keep the sarcasm out of my voice.
"Oh, right. Thank you. Yes, my refrigerator. I've had it since, oh, I don't know. Many, many years."
"Fascinating," I said, because I couldn't help it.
Lizzy ignored it. "One day, the refrigerator broke, so I called the repairman. This was, oh, I don't know. Maybe two months ago."
"Okay," I said, just to keep her moving along.
"So he said that he would come between noon and five P.M. That's how they do it, these repairmen. They don't give you a specific time, like they used to. They give you a block of time. You're supposed to sit and wait, but then again, I had no place to go."
I wanted to pull the words out of her mouth, but I guess that she needed to go at her own pace.
"So anyway, at noon I came downstairs. I like to sit in the living room and listen to my old record player. I play it all day long. I know it's funny for an old lady, but I love the old rock. The Who. The Rolling Stones. I have Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys. Have you ever heard it?"
"Do you like it?"
"Me too. My favorite is HorsePower. Do you know them?"
I nodded. "They're my mother's favorite."
"I know." She smiled at me again. "But on that day, I wanted to be sure to hear the doorbell. I didn't want to miss the repairman. So I kept the music off. I made myself a cup of Earl Grey tea and sat at the kitchen table and waited for the repairman to arrive. It seemed to take forever."
"I know the feeling," I muttered.
"Never mind. You were waiting for the repairman."
"Yes. And I fell asleep. Right there. Right at the kitchen table. I don't know why. I never nap during the day. But I was tired, I guess. Or maybe it was because the refrigerator was silent. Or that there was no music playing. I can't explain, but I fell asleep. And that's when I heard it."
"In my sleep. In my dream, I guess. I heard your father's voice."
I tried not to make a face. "In a dream?"
"And, uh, what did he say?"
"I couldn't hear much. It was very muffled. But I knew it was his voice. I could make out the word Luther. That was about it. He sounded in trouble, though. There was panic in his voice. A knock on the door woke me up. The repairman was there."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "And this is why you thought my father was alive?"
"Because you heard a voice?"
"In your sleep?"
I didn't even know what to say to that.
"You know about the fate of my family, of course. My mother. My father. My beloved brother."
"They are all dead," she said. "So I know."
"I know," she said, her voice a low cackle, "that the dead never speak to me."
Somewhere, way in the background, I heard hospital machines beeping.
"Not once," she went on. "All those deaths, all those years, all those ghosts. But they never speak to me. You want to roll your eyes at the old lady hearing voices? I understand that too. But as I've learned, we can't explain everything. Not yet anyway. I know what I heard. I heard your father. I heard him warn me about Luther."
I just sat there.
"And now Luther is back, isn't he? So maybe, just maybe, I'm not so crazy."
Silence. For a few moments we just stayed there, not moving. Finally I spoke.
"Is that why you Photoshopped his head on that Nazi picture?" I asked.
"Trick photography. Yes."
"You wanted to see my reaction? To see if I knew Luther?"
"Did you think that, what, I was working with him?"
"I didn't know. But he was there. You said that he took your father away."
"He did," I said. "But Dad rescued Luther, right?"
"So why would this Luther guy want to hurt him?"
"Things go wrong, Mickey." She looked at Spoon. The implication was obvious. "Just because you do right doesn't mean that wrong won't still find you."
I felt a tear in my eye. "So what do I do now?"
"You're already doing it. You have your assignment."
"What, you mean this guy Ema met online?"
"She will need to discover the truth. You have to help her."
"And, Mickey? We don't always make the rescue."
"What do you mean?"
"Your search. It may not end well."
"Why do you--?"
The door behind us opened. As the nurse started to come in, Lizzy Sobek moved with a speed that defied her age. She blew through the door, muttering an excuse-me to the confused nurse, and vanished down the corridor. I started toward it, but the nurse blocked my exit.
"Excuse me," she said to me, "but who was that?"
"Just another nurse," I said, and pushed past her.
When I reached the corridor, I looked left, then right. Nothing.
The Bat Lady was gone.
The next day, Ema and I were at our usual outcast lunch table. I was about to fill her in on Bat Lady's visit when I saw Ema's eyes widen and leave mine.
Ema didn't reply. She was looking over my shoulder, and judging from the expression on her face, some horror movie zombie was slowly approaching me from behind, ready to pounce and sink his teeth into my flesh.
I slowly turned to see what had caused Ema's terror.
Troy Taylor was walking toward us.
He carried an overloaded lunch tray. Three cartons of milk, a sandwich the size of a throw pillow, a heaping pile of French fries, Jell-O, I don't even want to know what else. He walked with an ease and confidence that Ema and I would never have in this room.
"What the . . . ?" Ema whispered. "He's not planning on--"
Troy stopped in front of us. He flashed a smile that almost made me reach for sunglasses and said, "Hey, mind if I sit with you guys?"
Before we could overcome our surprise enough to reply, Troy dropped his tray with a heavy thud and pulled out a chair. He sat as though someone had cut his legs out from under him. Then he picked up his sandwich with both hands.
"So how are you guys doing?"
He took a huge bite and started to chew.
Ema looked at him as though he'd just dropped out of a horse's behind. "What do you want?"
"Who said I want something?"
"Well, you don't normally sit here."
"I'm trying to broaden my horizons. Is that a problem?"
"You usually sit over there," Ema said, pointing at the "cool" table. "If you even so much as glance over here, it's usually to moo at me."
Troy put down his sandwich, wiped his hands on a napkin, and gave Ema the most solemn look I had ever seen on a teenager. "I wanted to apologize for that."
"No, Ema--can I call you Ema? Or do you prefer Emma?"
Caught off guard, she said, "Uh, Ema is fine."
"Great, thanks. No, Ema, it is I who needs to be excused, not you. I was wrong."
"You were wrong every day?" Ema asked. "Every day since, oh, sixth grade or so?"
"I was, yes. I was horrible. I have nothing to say in my defense. Sure, I could blame Buck. You know that he was the leader of all that kind of stuff. Maybe I felt peer pressure, I don't know. You might think it's
Ema and I sat there, mouths agape.
"So maybe it's because Buck is gone now," Troy continued. "Maybe recent events are making me see things more clearly. But really, Ema, I want to apologize and try to start anew."
"You're kidding, right?"
Troy looked wounded. "I've never been more serious."
"You must think I'm an idiot."
"You're a user, Troy."
"Ema," I said.
Her head snapped toward me. "What? You're buying this?"
"You're being used, Mickey. He's not here because he's had some great epiphany or because Buck is gone. He's here because he wants us to help him get off for failing a drug test."
It was Troy. She slowly turned her head toward him.
"You may be right," he said.
"I'm not claiming Mickey and I are going to be best friends," he went on, "but we're teammates. It's a bond that's hard to understand. We both want to win--and we want to win with our teammates by our side."
"You did it, Troy. We both know you're guilty."
"Then the last thing I'd want to do is keep the whole mess front and center, right?" Troy said. "If I was guilty, I'd stay quiet. That's what my old man wants me to do."
That quieted Ema for a moment.
"I understand how you feel," Troy said.
"No, you don't," Ema said. "How would you have reacted if I'd sat at your table? You'd probably start mooing or something."
"That's a good question," he said with a nod. "It hurts to hear. But it's a fair point."
"So you fail a drug test and now you want us to believe that you've seen the light?"
Troy thought about it. "The truth is, I need Mickey's help. You have no idea how hard that was to admit. Brandon really helped me see that. And, yeah, I know how this sounds, but maybe talking to Mickey, you know, face-to-face and all, maybe that's what it was. It's easy to hate at a distance. It's not so easy to hate face-to-face, like this."
Ema just frowned.
"But when I was talking to Mickey, I started thinking about everything. My whole life, I guess. Here was some guy I've been a total jerk to and he's willing to help me. I'd have never done that. I'm being honest here. It made me think. It made me wonder about what kind of guy I am and what kind of guy I want to be. I took a long, hard look at myself. I don't think I've ever done that before. Things have always come easy to me. Maybe I needed this, I don't know. Either way, I took a long, hard look in the mirror--and I didn't like what I saw."
Troy stood and picked up his tray. "I don't blame you, Ema. And I don't expect to make amends in one day. Tiny steps. So if you won't accept my apologies for all the horrible things I've said over the years--and you shouldn't yet--please accept my apologies for barging in on you guys like this." He gave me a nod and started on his way. "See you around."
I almost called out to him, but I let it go. Ema didn't reply either. She just lowered her head and started picking at her food.
"He's full of it, you know."
I didn't say anything. I didn't blame her. I got it. I more than got it. I didn't fully trust him either, and I had only been subjected to his bullying for a few weeks. Ema had dealt with it most of her life.
At the same time, he had come to us. He had made the first move. I hated the idea of merely rejecting him back. It felt wrong. It felt like something they would do, not us.
Ema put down her fork. "We should look into Troy's drug test."
Ema nodded. "So we can prove once and for all that he's a lying bully."
After school I received a group text from Spoon. It was addressed to Rachel, Ema, and me.
Got something. Stop by tonight?
We all texted back that we would.
I got to the locker room early, changed, and found my way to the basket in the corner. I was the first one there and I enjoyed five minutes of solitude. The next guy out of the locker room was a junior named Danny Brown. As I saw him grab a basketball and stroll onto the court, I stopped dribbling and waited for the customary stony glare.
Only I didn't get one.
More than that, instead of heading toward the center basket, Danny Brown started making his way toward me.
"Hey, Mickey," he said.
"Uh, hey, Danny."
No one had ever introduced us. We had never exchanged words before. But that was how it was. Other guys came out, and again, to my astonishment, they made their way toward my corner basket. Danny grabbed the rebound and threw it out to me. We ran passing and shooting drills. People said hello to me. They slapped me five. They asked how I was liking the new school. They asked about some of my classes. They warned me about teachers to stay away from and offered me study guides that would be helpful.
One guy, a senior named Eric Bachmann, asked me if I needed a ride home after practice.
For the first time in my life, I felt I was part of a team.
I know that sounds like nothing in comparison to what was going on around me. Ema had a missing boyfriend. I had a dead father and a mom in rehab, and this crazy Luther guy was probably after me. But right now, for just a minute or two, I let myself revel in this wonderful camaraderie that came so easily to others.
The joy continued on the court. My teammates passed to me. I passed to them. On one fast break, I faked a drive to the hoop, hoisted the ball up over my head, and as though we had communicated telepathically, Brandon leapt high in the air, grabbed the ball in one hand, and sailed in for the alley-oop slam dunk.
Basketball can be poetry in motion.
Everyone whooped and hollered and slapped my back. Brandon just pointed to me, gave a little nod, and started back on defense.
I can't tell you how good that felt.
The cheerleaders were practicing in the corner. They had all seen the play. Rachel gave me a small smile, and my heart did a backflip.
Practice on the court was only an hour today. The second hour was weightlifting down the street at Schultz's Health Club. The club was all sleek machines and chrome weights. Television screens adorned the cardio machines. There was a small clothing store and a juice bar. The music was loud and pulsating.
But our moods sobered up the moment we entered the gym. Schultz's was owned by Boris Schultz, Buck's father, and coming here made everyone think of him. Twenty-plus years ago, Mr. Schultz had been a big-time bodybuilder, a former Mr. New Jersey who reached the top ten for Mr. America. He was still huge with a chest big enough to play paddleball on. He sported a severe crew cut. He looked like the kind of angles and hard edges where if you bumped into him, you could break a bone.
Today, though, Mr. Schultz somehow looked smaller. I had seen that before in my mother and maybe in myself. Illness can do that to you, but so could sadness. He led us through our weightlifting stations, trying to sound upbeat and enthusiastic but today it felt flat. Chest press, bicep curls, squats. He yelled out all the usual encouraging cliches about maximizing effort and "come on, two more" and stuff like that.
But his heart wasn't in it.
The last time we had been here, no one had wanted to partner up with me. Coach Stashower had finally stepped forward and gone through the circuit as my partner. Today I had plenty of volunteers and ended up with Danny Brown. We were about halfway through the circuit when I spotted something peculiar. Or should I say, someone.
I could see him standing in Mr. Schultz's office through the big glass window. Mr. Schultz left the weight area and greeted him. Buck's older brother, town legend Randy Schultz, was also there. Someone had once explained to me the odds of becoming a professional athlete. In short, they are close to zero. Kasselton is a pretty big town. I read somewhere that
In the history of the sports-crazy town of Kasselton, there had only been one professional athlete out of the thousands of kids who'd participated, though injuries prevented him from playing more than a game or two.
You guessed it. Uncle Myron Bolitar.
Now, for the first time since Myron's career came crashing down two decades ago, Kasselton had another potential professional athlete--a football tight end named Randy Schultz, Buck's older brother. After breaking every receiving record at Kasselton High, Randy had gone on to stardom in the Big Ten, was named MVP of the Orange Bowl, and was currently waiting for the NFL draft. The experts had Randy pegged to go somewhere in the first two rounds.
Kasselton was poised to have its first professional football player.
But right now Randy Schultz, future professional tight end, looked grim and serious--and he was talking to my uncle. The conversation was animated, at least on Randy's part. I looked over, trying to catch Myron's eyes. Buck's father spotted me. He frowned and pulled down the shade.
What was that all about?
It was Danny Brown.
The squat rack. I loaded on the weight and spotted Danny. We finished up and headed back to the locker room.
"A couple of us are going to hang out at Pizzaiola after practice. You want a ride? I can take you home afterward."
A flush of joy rushed through me. "Uh, sure, thanks."
He gave me a crooked smile. I showered and tried to suppress the smile. It had been a good day. There had been painfully few in the past eight months. I wanted one night of being normal. I wanted a night where I could go out for pizza with my teammates.
Was that so wrong?
Ten guys ended up at Pizzaiola. I would tell you what we talked about, but it was just guy talk. We complained about the local pro teams. We poked gentle fun at some of the teachers. We talked about girls, though I didn't really know any of them. They asked me questions about myself.
"Where did you live before this?"
"Lots of places," I said.
"Africa mostly. South America, Asia, Europe. We traveled a lot."
They listened wide-eyed. Most of them had only lived and known life in Kasselton. The second "newest" player had moved to town eight years ago. These guys had all grown up together. They knew everything about one another, could almost predict what the other would say, knew exactly how to make one another laugh, what buttons to push, when to back off.
Found by Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Young Adult / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes