Part #3 of Mickey Bolitar series by Harlan Coben
"You're right," Brandon said. But I could hear in his tone that he just wanted to move on. "Forget that. I'm not making excuses for Buck, but let's be real here. Buck was under a lot of pressure to perform, to live up to the hype of being Randy's brother. Then you add to that all the problems at home, his parents' divorce . . ."
"And his huge weight gains," I added.
"So I don't get it, Mickey. What are you trying to say?"
"I don't know. I just wonder if it's connected. Buck suddenly leaves town. Troy tests positive for steroids."
"I don't see how they're related."
"Neither do I," I said. Then I added: "Yet."
When I stepped into Spoon's hospital room, Ema was already there. Mr. Spindel, Spoon's father and the school janitor, was up on a ladder, fiddling with wires behind the television.
"Almost done, Dad?" Spoon asked.
"I don't see why you need this here."
"I told you. Rachel has a copy of an old Smurfs show on Betamax. We all want to watch it."
Mr. Spindel stepped down from the ladder with a frown on his face. "That has to be the lamest lie I have ever heard."
"Or maybe," Spoon said, "it's something R rated and completely inappropriate."
Mr. Spindel sighed. "Sounds better than the Smurfs." He finished tightening the wire. "All yours," he said. He grabbed his stepladder and left the room.
I looked at the old machine. "Where did you get this?" I asked him.
"From home," Spoon said. "Where else?"
"You still have one?"
"Of course. While the Betamax had lost almost its entire market share to the VHS tape by 1988, Sony continued to manufacture them until 2002."
"Ooookay," I said.
Ema put the tape into the Betamax. She pressed the play button. I sat on the right front corner of the bed. Ema took the left. We left enough space between us for Spoon to see.
The hospital TV was mounted on the wall in front of us. Right now, the screen crackled in gray-and-white static. We waited. Ten seconds later, the picture cleared.
"Where is that?" Spoon asked.
Ema and I shared a glance. "That's the tunnel."
"The one under Bat Lady's house?"
"Yes," Ema said. "In fact, this is pretty close to where we found the tape."
"Cool beans," Spoon said.
The camera was pointed straight down the corridor, coming from a spot relatively close to the house and aiming at a spot more toward the garage. For ten seconds, nothing happened. Then the camera gave a little jerk and we heard a familiar voice say, "Oh, I'm so clumsy."
From behind the camera, Lizzy Sobek appeared.
She was wearing that long white gown, her gray hair down to her waist. She looked younger--it was hard to say how much--but her skin was less wrinkled. She turned back and looked at the camera. "Is it on, Dylan?"
Spoon said, "'Dylan'?"
"Dylan Shaykes," I said. "That's the name of the guy with the shaved head."
"The one who follows you in the black car?"
"Yes," I said.
"Why does that name ring a bell?" Spoon asked.
"From old milk cartons. He disappeared twenty-five years ago. There were a lot of stories on him recently--"
"And now he . . . ?"
"Works for the Abeona Shelter," I said.
"Shh," Ema said.
On the screen, Lizzy Sobek turned her back to the camera, spread her arms, and said, "Welcome."
We heard distant voices, but we couldn't see anything.
A voice from behind the camera, Dylan Shaykes's, said, "You're blocking me."
"Oh," Lizzy Sobek said. "Sorry."
She stepped to the side. I squinted at the screen. Four kids--or maybe it was five or six, hard to tell from the distance--appeared down the hall. They stumbled closer to the camera.
"You're safe now," Lizzy told them.
One of the kids stepped forward in a challenging way. He put his fists on his hips, almost Superman style. "Who are you? Why are we here?"
I heard Ema gasp. "Mickey?"
I nodded, unable to speak.
The boy looked to be about twelve years old. He moved closer to the camera--close enough that we could see that his hair was sandy blond. The picture quality wasn't good enough to see the green eyes, but I didn't need to know the color. The facial features were all the same. I would guess he was fifteen or twenty years younger, but there was no doubt in my mind.
It was Luther. My Butcher.
"We will explain everything to you in due time," Lizzy said.
But Luther was having none of it. "I want to know now."
The other children moved forward. One looked younger than Luther by maybe five years. The little boy was scared and confused. Luther threw his arm around him protectively.
"It's okay," Lizzy said in a gentle voice. "No one can ever hurt you again."
Another child, the one on the far right, started to cry. Lizzy moved toward him, her arms spread. He ran into her arms. She stroked his hair. The fourth child did the same. Lizzy took him in her grasp too.
"What the . . . ?" Ema asked.
"It's a rescue," Spoon said.
I stared at the screen. Still comforting the two children, Lizzy looked toward Luther and the other boy. Luther shook his head. His grip on the other boy tightened.
"It's okay," she said again.
A tear ran down Luther's cheek.
"You're safe here. No one will harm either of you."
From behind the camera, I heard Dylan say, "Uh-oh, I think we have company."
Lizzy turned toward him. I could see something like fear on her face. "Get them to the safe room. Hurry."
Then she turned back and said one word that made my whole world crumble anew: "Brad?"
And then the voice, at once so familiar and yet so different: "I'm right here."
My teenage father stepped forward.
Ema said, "Oh my God. Is that . . . ?"
Tears were running freely down my face. I nodded.
"Get them fed and situated," Lizzy said to the teenager who would one day become my father.
Lizzy, her face set, started back toward the camera. She walked past it and disappeared. For another second or two, I could see them all--the two children she had been comforting, Luther with his arm around the other scared boy, and my father. They all stood there, completely still, and then, with a snap, the screen went black.
For a few moments, none of us moved. We just sat and stared at the TV screen.
"I have more information to use now," Spoon said. "Luther disappeared with three other boys approximately, what, twenty years ago. There has to be something about it on the web."
I nodded numbly. I did everything numbly. I could barely talk or think since we had watched the tape.
"We will find out what happened to your father, okay? I promise."
Look who was suddenly making the promises. I nodded. Numbly.
Ema took my hand. "Are you okay?"
Another numb nod. Then I said, "It's just . . ." I stopped myself, but there I sat, Ema holding my hand, Spoon looking at me from his bed with such concern. "After my dad was killed, I didn't look at any pictures of him. You know? It just hurt too much. I don't know. I couldn't handle it."
"We understand," Ema said.
"Now I not only see him," I said, pointing toward the screen, "but I see him on a video made before I was even born. So it's just . . ."
No more words would come out.
"Totally get it," Spoon said.
"Absolutely," Ema added.
Ema and I were still holding hands. It felt good.
"Perhaps," Spoon said, "a distraction would be nice." He opened his laptop and started typing. "As you may remember, Jared Lowell lives on Adiona Island, off the coast of
"Wait, I can't go tomorrow," Ema said. "I promised my mom I'd go to her show in New York."
"Maybe that's better," I said.
"I can find Jared and talk to him without you there. Maybe he'll be more forthcoming."
Ema frowned. "You're kidding, right?"
"No, he's right," Spoon said. "Perhaps it is best you don't go."
"So Mickey goes alone?" Ema asked.
Then I remembered my texts with Rachel. "Not alone," I said. "I'll have backup."
I admit that this action--coming all the way out to this island--seemed extreme.
Ema and I had already wasted half a day heading up to the Farnsworth School trying to find Jared Lowell. That was one thing. It made some sense. But now we stood on the ferry, watching Adiona Island grow larger as we approached, hoping against hope that maybe Jared was here and we would find him and this mystery would be over.
I shook my head thinking about it.
"What's wrong?" Rachel asked me.
The wind blew her hair across her face. I wanted to reach out and push it back, tuck it behind her ear, but of course, I didn't. "What are the odds he's even here?"
"Jared? He lives here, right?"
"And that guy you met up at the prep school said he'd gone home, right?"
"So I'd say the odds are pretty good."
I shook my head again.
"You don't agree?" she asked.
"Do you think we're going to just knock on his door and find him home?" I frowned. "It's never that easy for us."
Rachel smiled. "True."
But that was exactly what happened.
The ferry was loaded with two classes of people. The crowd on the top deck looked like they were going to a cricket match or an equestrian show. Some of the men had sweaters tied around their shoulders. Others wore tweed jackets. The women wore tennis skirts or summer dresses in loud pink and green. They spoke with jutted jaws and used the word summer as a verb. One guy wore an ascot. He called his wife "sassy." I thought it was a personality description, you know, like she was sassy, but after eavesdropping I realized that was her name. Sassy with a capital S.
The other class, on the deck below, were what I assumed were day workers or domestics. I had seen the same expressions, the same slumped shoulders on the bus going from Kasselton back to Newark. I didn't know much about Adiona Island, but judging by the ferry, it was a playground for the old-money jet-setter crowd.
When we got off the ferry, Rachel had the GPS app on her smartphone ready.
"The Lowells live on Discepolo Street," she said. "It's less than a mile from here. I guess we should walk."
It was a good guess, especially since there were no other options. There was nothing by the dock area. No taxis. No car rental. No restaurant or deli or even snack machine. Almost everyone else had cars at the dock. The lower deck hopped into the back of pickups. The upper tier had roadsters and antique cars and brands you normally associate with money.
In the distance we could see fancy homes along the water. They were big, of course, but not huge or new. They were more what one might call "stately" rather than some nouveau palace. Half a mile down the road we passed a ritzy tennis club, the kind where everyone wore only whites, like they were at Wimbledon or something.
No one else walked, so we got a few odd looks. Rachel, of course, got a few lingering glances, but she was used to that.
"How did it go with your father?" I asked.
"It'll be okay," she said.
"Are you mad at me?"
"For telling me about my mother?"
"No. I get it. My father thinks it was the wrong move. He thinks I'll feel guilty for the rest of my life."
"Is he right?"
Rachel shrugged. "I feel guilty now. I don't know how I'll feel tomorrow. But your uncle was right: I'd rather live with the guilt than the lie." She pointed up the hill. "We take that left."
When we did, we entered a whole different part of the island. If the island were also a ferry, we were now on the lower deck. Rather than lush trees, row houses now lined both sides of the streets. The plain brick and cookie-cutter architecture indicated that we were no longer among the hoity-toity. That was the thing with fancy islands for the rich. Someone had to work the electric and the water and the cable. Someone had to mow the expansive lawns and teach the tennis and clean the pools.
This eyesore of a street, tucked away where no one could really see it, was where these workers and all-year inhabitants lived.
"Are you sure we're on the right street?" I asked.
"I am," Rachel said. She pointed at one of the brick buildings. "It's that one--third on the left."
I shook my head. "Jared goes to an expensive prep school. That fits with this island."
"But it doesn't fit with this street," Rachel said.
"He plays basketball," I said. "It looks like he's very good."
"A scholarship kid?"
"Makes sense." We reached a cracked walkway made of concrete and started toward the door. "Now what?" I asked.
"We knock," Rachel said.
So we did--and Jared Lowell answered.
He was tall and good-looking, just like in the photographs. He wore a flannel shirt, jeans, and work boots. He looked at me first, then at Rachel. His eyes stayed on Rachel.
A smile came to his lips.
"Can I help you?"
Rachel asked, "Are you Jared Lowell?"
"That's right. Who are you?"
"This is Mickey Bolitar," she said. He turned and gave me a brief though polite nod. "My name is Rachel Caldwell."
The names clearly didn't mean anything to him. From inside the house, I heard a woman's voice shout, "Jared? Who's there?"
"I got it, Ma."
"I didn't ask if you got it. I asked who's there."
Jared looked at us as though waiting for the answer. I said, "We're here on behalf of Ema Beaumont."
I wasn't sure what to suspect. The most likely answer to all of this remained the most obvious one: Ema had been catfished. This guy, this Jared, had no idea who she was or what we were talking about. Still, this visit would confirm that fact, and we could be on our way.
In another sense, our mission was over the moment Jared Lowell opened that door. Jared Lowell wasn't missing. We had found him. He was safe. The rest--whether he was the guy who'd befriended Ema online or not--was irrelevant.
So I expected him to say, "Who?" or "I don't know any Ema Beaumont" or something along those lines. But that was not what happened. Instead his face drained of all color.
It was his mom again.
"Just some friends from town," he shouted back. "Everything's fine."
He stepped outside and closed the door behind him. He hurried down the cracked-concrete path. Rachel and I caught up to him.
"What are you doing here?" Jared asked.
"We're friends of Ema's," I said.
"You know who she is, right?"
He didn't reply.
"Yeah, I know who she is. So what?"
Jared looked at his front door as though expecting it to open. He picked up the pace. We kept up with him. When we reached the corner, he stopped abruptly.
"What's this about?" Jared asked me. "I got to get to work at the club soon."
Now that I had him in front of me, listening, I wasn't sure how to put it. "You, uh, had a relationship with her," I began.
"With Ema, you mean?"
He shrugged. "We communicated online, I guess."
Jared looked over at Rachel, then back at me. "Why is this your business?"
Rachel said, "She's worried about you."
"Who do you think?" I snapped. "Ema."
"And how does any of this concern you two?"
"You were 'communicating'"--I made quote marks in the air--"online, right?"
"What if I was?"
"Well, Jared, you just stopped cold. Why?"
He shook his head slowly. "What's your name again? Never mind. This is really none of your business." He turned toward Rachel and his face softened. "No offense to you, Rachel, but I'm not sure it's your business either."
"Didn't forget her name," I mumbled.
I stepped up to him. "You don't do that to a person," I said.
"You don't just stop communicating with someone like that. You don't just disappear and not tell the other person. You don't just leave them hanging like that. It's mean."
"'It's mean'?" he repeated, turning toward Rachel. "Is he for real?"
"I agree with him," Rachel said.
That made him swallow. "Wait, I did send her an e-mail. Maybe, I don't know, maybe it got stuck in her spam folder or something."
"Yeah," I said in a voice dripping with sarcasm, "that seems likely."
There was a sound that drew his attention. I looked behind me to see what it was. The front door opened. A woman I assumed was his mother was standing in the doorway. "Everything okay, Jared?"
"Fine, Ma." Then in a quieter voice to us: "I have to go."
I stepped in his path. I didn't exactly block him, but the move definitely had some force behind it. "Wait a second," I said. "The two of us came a long way."
"For what?" he asked.
I looked at Rachel. She looked at me. I didn't have an answer. Jared Lowell wasn't missing. He wasn't in danger. He was, it seemed, a jerk, but that didn't make him in need of rescue.
"Why did you stop communicating with Ema?" I asked again.
"None of your business."
Again his eyes drifted toward Rachel, and when they did, a cold realization entered my brain.
"Oh man," I said.
"When did you first see a picture of Ema?"
A small seed of anger began to grow in my chest. "When did you first see what Ema looked like, Jared?"
He shrugged. "I don't remember."
"No?" I said. "So maybe--wild guess here--it was around the time you decided not to talk to her anymore?"
"I told you. We never talked."
"E-mailed, texted, whatever. You know what I mean. Is that when you first saw her picture?"
Found by Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Young Adult / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes