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         Part #11 of Myron Bolitar series by Harlan Coben  
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  Again my reply: Fair enough.

  I leave my room and take the elevator to the Excelsior's overly baroque lobby. Vincenzo spots me and meets my eye. I gently shake him off. He worries that he will miss my gratuity, but why should he suffer because of my somewhat hypocritical moral code?

  I know Rome fairly well. I'm far from a native, but I have traveled here extensively. I head down the Via Veneto toward the American embassy. I make the right at the Via Liguria and wind my way to the top of the Spanish Steps. The walk is nothing short of delightful. I take the 135 steps down to the bottom and make my way to the famed Trevi Fountain. It is overrun with tourists. That is okay. I join them. I take out a coin and, using my right hand, I throw it over my left shoulder.

  Too touristy a move for such a sophisticate as moi? Of course. But there is a reason certain activities become touristy, no?

  My mobile phone rings. I hit the answer button and say, "Articulate."

  A voice on the other end says, "They are there now."

  I thank him and hang up. The walk to the shop on the Piazza Colonna takes me five minutes. This is Rome. Everything is old. Nothing has been redone. There is no pretense of updating, and I, for one, am thankful. The marble column in the center of the piazza, named for Marcus Aurelius, has stood where it is now since AD 193. In the sixteenth century, almost fourteen hundred years later, the then pope ordered a bronze statue of St. Paul to be placed atop the column.

  History in a nutshell: Bye-bye, your god. Hello, mine.

  A palace sits on the north end of the piazza. There is a fancy "galleria" on the east. "Galleria," by the way, is just a snooty way of saying "mall." The sporting goods shop I am looking for, with its small, tacky window display, is located right next to the tiny white church from the eighteenth century. There is a child mannequin wearing an AS Roma soccer jersey in the window. There are a variety of soccer balls and soccer cleats and soccer socks and soccer scarves and soccer caps and soccer sweatshirts.

  In a word: soccer.

  I enter. The man behind the counter is ringing up a customer. He pretends not to see me. I head toward the back of the store and up the stairs. I have never been here before, but I've been given pretty specific instructions. The door is in the back. I knock. The door opens.

  "Come in," the man says.

  I step in the room and he closes the door behind me. He puts out his hand for me to shake. "I'm Giuseppe."

  Giuseppe is wearing a soccer referee uniform. He is going all in with this look. Not only does he sport the shirt, but he rocks the regulation black shorts, the matching socks pulled high, and a whistle around his neck. His watch is big and thick and probably doubles as a game clock.

  I look past him. The room is set up like a mini soccer pitch. The carpet is grass green with white lines delineating midfield, out of bounds, the box. There are desks on the opposite walls where the goals would be. The desks face the wall, so that the two men sitting at them have their backs to each other. They are both furiously typing on computers.

  "That's Carlo," Giuseppe says, pointing to the man on the right. Carlo is decked out in a Roma home uniform of imperial purple with gold trim. His wall is decorated with all things Roma, including the team logo, a wolf feeding human boys Romulus and Remus from her teat, which is historically interesting and visually confusing. Head shots of current Roma players line where the wall meets the ceiling.

  Carlo keeps typing. He does not so much as nod in my direction.

  "And this is Renato."

  Renato at least nods. He too wears a soccer uniform, his of sky blue with white. His desk/goal is all for a team called Lazio. Everything is in sky blue. The head shots here also line where the wall meets the ceiling. The Lazio logo is far simpler than Roma's: an eagle carrying a shield in its talons.

  "Gentlemen," Giuseppe says in his accented English, "this is our new sponsor."

  In a sense, Myron has sent me here. He has a remarkable memory. I asked for as much specific detail as he could give me on his brief time with Fat Gandhi. He told me about the gamer situation going on when he entered--I don't know much about video or computer games or what have you--but he noted how Fat Gandhi wanted to beat his chief rivals--the "damned Italians" with the team name ROMAVSLAZIO.

  Roma vs. Lazio.

  For those not so educated in the ways of European football, Roma and Lazio are hated soccer rivals. They are both teams from Rome and even share a stadium. Without going into much detail, every year the two teams face off in the Derby della Capitale--the translation, I think, is obvious enough--which could be perhaps the fiercest inner-city match in sports.

  Giuseppe leans close to me and whispers, "They don't like each other much."

  "More like hate," Carlo mutters, still typing.

  "He's a terrible man," counters Renato, throwing what the kids call "shade" at Carlo.

  "Both of you stop it," Giuseppe says. Then to me: "Carlo and Renato met at a brawl outside the Stadio Olimpico."

  "Roma won," Carlo says.

  "By cheating," counters Renato.

  "You're just a bad loser."

  "The referee. He was paid off."

  "No, he wasn't."

  "Your man was three meters offside!"

  "Stop," Giuseppe says. "So you see there was a brawl."

  "Crazy bastard tried to kill me," Carlo says.

  "Ah, you so exaggerate!"

  "He stabbed me with a knife."

  "It was a pen!"

  "It broke skin."

  "No, it didn't."

  "It scratched for sure. I had a blue mark down my arm!"

  "Roma is afraid of the dark."

  "Lazio players wear skirts."

  "You take that back."

  Carlo puts his hand to his ear. "Which team has won more derbies again?"

  "Oh, that's it." Renato's face is scarlet. "Let's go!"

  Renato stands and throws a paperclip across the room. It hits the back of Carlo's chair, going nowhere near Carlo's face, but Carlo falls to the floor as though he's been shot.

  "My eye! My eye!"

  Carlo cups his eye with one hand and rolls back and forth as though in great pain. Giuseppe blows his whistle. He races over to Renato, reaches into his pocket, and pulls out a yellow card.

  "Sit back down!"

  "He's faking!" Renato shouts.

  Carlo is smiling now. He moves his hand away and winks at Renato. When Giuseppe turns toward him, Carlo cups his eye and starts grimacing in pain again.

  "He's faking!" Renato insists.

  "I said, sit down. Don't make me bring out the red card."

  Renato, still fuming, sits back down. Carlo gingerly gets back into his chair.

  Giuseppe comes back toward me. "They're insane, both of them. But they are great at what they do."

  "Which is gaming."

  "Yes. But pretty much anything involving computers."

  "They lost to Fat Gandhi, though."

  Both Carlo and Renato turn in unison: "He cheats."

  "How do you know?"

  "No one can beat us fairly," Carlo says.

  "Fat Gandhi has to use more than two players," adds Renato.

  I think back to Myron's description of the room. "He does."

  Both men stop typing now. "You know for sure?"

  "I do."

  "How do you know?"

  "It's not important."

  "It is to us," Carlo says.

  "He took away our title," adds Renato.

  "You'll have your chance at revenge," I tell them. "Have you started implementing my plan?"

  "One hundred thousand euros?"

  "Yes."

  Carlo types with a smile on his face. So does Renato.

  Giuseppe says, "We're ready."

  Chapter 17

  Esperanza met Myron in the back corner of Baumgart's.

  Baumgart's restaurant was an old Jewish soda fountain/deli that had been purchased by Chinese immigrant Peter Chin. Wanting to do something both different and wise, Peter had kept all the old touches and added an Asian fusion (whatever that meant) menu and some neon lights and hip decor. Now you could order Kung Bao Chicken or a Pastrami Reuben, the Chinese Eggplant Combo or a Turkey Club.

  Peter came over and bowed toward Esperanza. "You do my restaurant a great honor with your presence, Ms. Diaz."

  Myron said, "Ahem."

  "And you don't completely kick its reputation to the curb."

  "Good one," Myron said.

  "Did you see it?" Peter asked.

  "See what?"

  Beaming now, Peter pointed behind him. "Look at my wall of honor!"

  Like many restaurants, Baumgart's hung up framed autographed photographs of the celebrities who had dined there. It was an eclectic mix of New Jersey celebrity. Brooke Shields was up there. So was Dizzy Gillespie. Grandpa "Al Lewis" Munster was on the same wall, along with several stars from The Sopranos, a few New York Giants players, local news anchors, a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, and an author Myron had once read.

  There, hung dead center between a rapper and a villain from the old Batman TV show, was a photograph of Esperanza "Little Pocahontas" Diaz dressed in her suede bikini. The bikini top was starting to slide down her shoulder. Esperanza posed in the ring, sweaty and proud and looking up.

  Myron turned to her. "You stole that pose from Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C."

  "I did."

  "I had that poster on my wall when I was a kid."

  "So did I," Esperanza said.

  Peter was still beaming. "Great, right?"

  "You know," Myron said, "I was a professional basketball player."

  "For about three minutes."

  "You're so nice to your customers."

  "Part of my charm. Your food will be out soon."

  Peter left them alone. Esperanza was killer in an aqua blouse. She wore gold hoop earrings and a thick bracelet. Her cell phone buzzed. She took a look and closed her eyes.

  "What?" Myron asked.

  "Tom."

  "He's texting you?"

  "No, it's my attorney. Tom canceled all settlement talks."

  "So he's going full frontal."

  "Yep."

  "I'd like to help."

  She shook him off. "We're not here to discuss Tom."

  "Doesn't mean we can't."

  Nicole the waitress came over with appetizer-sized Cold Sesame Noodles and a Sizzling Duck Crepe. Serious yum. They both went quiet for a moment and ate. Way back when, Myron Bolitar had founded a sports agency cleverly dubbed MB SportsReps. The M stood for Myron, the B for Bolitar, the SportsReps because he repped athletes. Marketing--it's a gift, really.

  Esperanza came on as his receptionist/assistant/confidante/assorted other hats. She went to school at night to get her law degree. Eventually she moved up to full partner, though she didn't insist on changing the name to MBED because, really, that would be confusing. They did drop "Sports" from the name when they started representing actors and musicians and the like, so that in the end, the company had been called MB Reps.

  Big Cyndi took over as receptionist and, well, agency bouncer. Things went along pretty swimmingly until they all fell apart. When Tom started this slash-n-burn custody hearing a year ago--back then he'd claimed Esperanza was an unfit mother because she worked too hard--Esperanza had been so freaked-out by the threat that she asked Myron to buy her out. Myron hesitated, but then when Win disappeared, the thought of continuing without both of them was too disheartening. They ended up selling MB Reps to a mega-agency that took their clients and got rid of the name altogether.

  "So I went to the Alpine police station," Esperanza said, "to see what they were doing with the Moore-Baldwin case."

  "And?"

  "They wouldn't talk."

  Myron stopped eating. "Wait, they wouldn't talk to you?"

  "That's right."

  He thought about that. "Did you flash cleavage?"

  "Two buttons' worth."

  "And that didn't work?"

  "The new police chief is female," Esperanza said. "And straight."

  "Still," Myron said.

  "I know, right? I was a little insulted."

  "Maybe I should try," Myron said. "I'm told I have a terrific ass."

  Esperanza frowned.

  "I could meet her. Turn the charm on full blast."

  "And have her disrobe right in the station?"

  "You may have a point."

  Esperanza rolled her eyes without actually rolling her eyes. "I don't think she can help us anyway. The local force has had a lot of turnover since Rhys and Patrick were kidnapped."

  "I doubt they'll handle the case this time anyway."

  "I'm sure it'll get kicked up to state or federal, but Big Cyndi did a little digging. The guy who ran the case ten years ago is retired. His name is Neil Huber."

  "Wait, I know that name."

  "He's a state senator in Trenton now."

  "No. Something else . . ."

  "He used to be a high school basketball coach."

  Myron snapped. "That's it. We played Alpine when I was in high school."

  "So maybe you should be the one who talks to him," Esperanza said. "Do your male sports bro-connect thing."

  "Sounds like a plan," Myron said.

  "Or wiggle your once-terrific ass."

  "I'll do what it takes," Myron said. Then: "Wait, 'once-terrific'?"

  *

  Myron waited outside the nightclub.

  New York City's Meatpacking District traditionally runs from West Fourteenth Street down to Gansevoort Street on the far west side of the island. In the 1900s it was known for, what else, slaughterhouses, but with the rise of supermarkets and refrigerated trucks, the area began to fall into disrepair. In the 1980s and 1990s, drugs and street prostitution were the main industry down there. It was a place where transsexuals and BDSM practitioners could thrive side by side with the Mafia and NYPD corruption. Nightclubs catering to what was then considered "subculture" began to open.

  But like most of Manhattan, the Meatpacking District underwent another transformation. It started in part because people are drawn to the illicit--to the sleaze, if you will--but then, of course, the rich who crave danger want to go out on that edge with the most comfortable safety harness possible. So gentrification took hold. High-end boutiques offered commerce with trendy exposed brick. The grungy nightclubs became overrun with hipsters. The restaurants started to cater to whatever they started calling yuppies. The old rusted elevated railroad tracks became a tree-lined promenade called the High Line.

  The Meatpacking District was now clean and safe and you could bring your kids, and yet when something like that happens, where does the sleaze go?

  Myron checked his watch. It was midnight when the man finally lurched out of the trendy Subrosa nightclub. He was drunk. He'd grown a beard and wore flannel and, oh man, was that really a man bun? He had his arm draped like a strap around a young--too young--woman. The words "midlife crisis" weren't tattooed on his forehead, but they should have been.

  They started stumbling down the road. The man took out his car keys and pressed the remote button. His BMW beeped its location. Myron crossed the street and made his approach.

  "Hello, Tom."

  The man, Esperanza's ex, spun toward him. "Myron? Is that you?"

  Myron stood and waited. Tom seemed to sober up a bit. He stood up a little straighter. "Get in the car, Jenny," he said.

  "It's Geri."

  "Right, sorry. Get in the car. I'll be with you in a second."

  The girl teetered on her heels. It took three tries but she managed to open the passenger door and fall inside.

  "What do you want?" Tom asked.

  Myron pointed at his head. "Is that really a man bun?"

  "So you're here to make jokes?"

  "Nope."

  "Did Esperanza send you?"

  "Nope," Myron said. "She has no idea I'm here. I'd be grateful if you didn't tell her."

  The passenger door opened. Geri said, "I don't feel so good."

  "Don't you dare throw up in my car." Tom turned to Myron. "So what do you want?"

  "I want to encourage you to make peace with Esperanza. For her sake. And for your son's."

  "You know she left me, right?"

  "I know your marriage didn't work."

  "And you think it was my fault?"

  "Don't know. Don't care." More young people spilled out of the nightclub, laughing and cursing in the obnoxious way of the greatly intoxicated. Myron shook his head. "Don't you think you're too old for this, Tom?"

  "Yeah, well, I was married and settled, you know."

  "Let it go," Myron said. "Stop lying about her."

  "Or what?"

  Myron said nothing.

  "What, you think I'm afraid of you?"

  Geri said, "I think I'm going to be sick."

  "Not in the car, honey, okay?" Tom turned back to Myron. "I'm working on something here."

  "Yeah, I can see that."

  "She's hot, right?"

  "Hot," Myron agreed. "And about to vomit. Yeah, I'm all turned on."

  "Listen, Myron, no offense. You're a good guy. You're not much of an intimidator. Just piss off, okay?"

  "Esperanza is a good mother, Tom. We both know that."

  "It isn't about that, Myron."

  "Yeah, well, it should be."

  "I don't want to sound immodest," Tom said, "but do you know why I'm a big success?"

  "Because your daddy is rich and gave you lots of money?"

  "No. It's because I go for the jugular. It's because I win."

  Never fails. Scratch a guy who always talks about what a winner he is or how he's "self-made" or how he's pulled himself up by the bootstraps, and underneath you'll always find a little boy who had everything handed to him. It was like they needed a blind spot to justify their tremendous luck. Something like: I can't have all of this because of fate or chance--I must be special.

  "I'm asking you to be reasonable, Tom."

  "That's your message to me?"

  "It is."

  "I'll pass, thanks. I'm on the verge of victory. You"--he pointed at Myron--"are proof of that. She's getting desperate. Tell her I said to kiss my ass."

 
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