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         Part #11 of Myron Bolitar series by Harlan Coben  
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  "I told you already: Esperanza doesn't know I'm here. I just think you should do the right thing."

  "For her sake?"

  "For her sake. For Hector's sake. And for your sake."

  "For mine?"

  "I think it would be best."

  "Well, I don't give a shit what you think. Go home, Myron."

  Myron nodded. "Will do."

  Tom waited. Myron started to cross the street, but he stopped and did his best Columbo turn. "Oh, one thing."

  "What's that?"

  Myron tried not to smile. "I saw Win."

  The street went silent. Even the music spilling out of the nightclub seemed to hush.

  "You're lying."

  "No, Tom, I'm not. He's coming home. And when he does, I'm sure he'll want to pay you a visit."

  Tom stood there, frozen. Geri, still inside the car, finally lost it and threw up in the loudest way possible. Windows rattled. Tom still didn't move.

  Myron let the smile come to his face as he waved good-bye. "Have a great night."

  Chapter 18

  It was a bright, clear New Jersey morning.

  Huge neon lettering on the southern side of the Lower Trenton Toll Supported Bridge spelled out the following slogan: TRENTON MAKES, THE WORLD TAKES. The letters were installed in 1935, and maybe back then, with linoleum, ceramics, and other manufacturing plants in full swing, there was a modicum of truth in the wording. Not now. Trenton was the capital of New Jersey, home to the state government and thus filled with politicians and their ensuing scandals, which made the entire city, when you thought about it, as honest as the message on the bridge you crossed to enter it.

  Still, Myron loved this state, and anyone with even an inkling of knowledge knew that New Jersey hardly held a patent on governmental corruption. The political scandals might be more colorful here, but then again, everything was. New Jersey was hard to define because it was a hodgepodge. Up north, it was the suburbs of New York City. To the southwest, it was the suburbs of Philadelphia. Those two major cities drained resources and attention from New Jersey's own urban centers, leaving Newark and Camden and the like sucking for life like a retiree with an oxygen tank at an Atlantic City casino. The suburbs were lush and green. The cities were destitute and concrete. And so it goes.

  Still, it was odd. Anyone who lived within a forty-minute drive of Chicago or Los Angeles or Houston said they were from that city. But you could live two miles from New York City and you would say you were from New Jersey. Myron grew up half an hour away from New York City and maybe five miles from Newark. He never said he was from either. Well, one time he said he was from Newark, but that was because he wanted to apply for financial aid.

  You put all that together--the beauty, the blight, the sophisticated cities, the inferiority complex, the tacky, the classy--and you got the indefinable color and texture of the great state of New Jersey. Better to find the definition of New Jersey in Sinatra's voice, in Tony Soprano's ride, in a Springsteen song. Listen closely. You'll get it.

  Myron was a little disappointed to see that Neil Huber looked the part of a New Jersey politician. His fingers were sausage thick, a gold pinkie ring on his right hand. His suit was striped; his tie shimmered as though someone had sprayed it with tanning oil. The collar of his shirt was too tight, and when he smiled, Neil Huber resembled a barracuda.

  "Myron Bolitar," he said, greeting him with a firm handshake and showing him to a seat. The office had a plainness you might associate with your high school vice principal's.

  "I coached against you when you were in high school," Huber said.

  "I remember."

  "No, you don't."

  "Pardon?"

  "What, did you look it up when you knew we were meeting?"

  Myron held out his hands, wrists together. "Caught."

  Neil gave him a good-natured wave. "No worries. So you know you beat us."

  "Yes."

  "And that you scored forty-two points."

  Myron said, "It was a long time ago."

  "I coached high school basketball for eighteen years." He pointed a stubby finger at Myron. "You, my friend, are the best I've ever seen."

  "Thank you."

  "I hear you got a nephew playing."

  "I do."

  "He as special as they say?"

  "I think so."

  "Good, great." Neil Huber leaned back. "So, Myron, have we done enough of the break-the-ice, chitchat thing?"

  "I think we have."

  Neil spread his hands. "What can I do for you?"

  He had the prerequisite family photographs on the desk--a blond wife with big hair, grown married children, a sprinkling of young grandkids. On the wall behind him, the New Jersey State flag featured a shield with three plows and a horse's head above it. Yep, a horse's head. You can fill in your own Godfather joke, but it will be obvious and beneath you. Two female goddesses, the goddess of liberty (okay) and the goddess of agriculture (again too easy), stood on either side of the shield. The flag was bizarre and dense, but then again, bizarre and dense described New Jersey pretty accurately.

  "It's about a case you worked when you were a cop in Alpine," Myron said.

  "The Moore and Baldwin kidnappings," he said.

  "How did you know?"

  "I was a detective. So I deduced."

  "I see."

  "Clue one"--he raised his index finger--"I worked on very few major cases. Clue two"--he was making a peace sign now--"I worked on exactly one major case that remains unsolved. Clue three"--you get the drift with the fingers--"one of the abducted boys was just found after ten years." He lowered his hand. "Yes, sir, really took all my powers of deduction to come up with that one. Myron?"

  "What?"

  "Did you know the Moores are going on CNN in a few hours?"

  "No, I didn't."

  "Instead of a big press conference, they're doing a sit-down with Anderson Cooper at noon." He leaned forward. "Please tell me you're not press."

  "I'm not press."

  "So what's your interest in this?"

  Myron debated how to play it. "Could I just say it's a long story?"

  "You could. It won't get you anywhere. But you could."

  Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Plus, politico though he might appear, Myron was taking a shine to Neil Huber. Why not be honest if you can?

  "I'm the one who rescued Patrick."

  "Come again?"

  "In London. Like I said, it's a long story. My friend is Rhys Baldwin's cousin. He got a tip on his whereabouts. We tracked him down."

  "Whoa."

  "Yes."

  "You said it was a long story."

  "Right."

  "Maybe you should tell it to me."

  Myron gave him as much as he could without incriminating or even mentioning Win by name. Still, Neil Huber wasn't an idiot. It wouldn't be difficult to find out who Rhys's cousin was. But so what?

  When he finished, Neil said, "Holy crap."

  "Yeah."

  "So I still don't get why you're here."

  "I'm looking into the case again."

  "I thought you became a sports agent or something."

  "It's complicated."

  "I suppose it is," Neil said.

  "I just want to take a fresh look at it."

  Neil nodded. "You figure I made a mistake and maybe you can look at it and see what I was missing?"

  "It's been ten years," Myron said. "We know new things now." He thought about how Win had put it. "It's like a car trip where you don't know where you're going. Last week, we only knew the start. Now we know where the car was a few days ago."

  Neil frowned. "What?"

  "It sounded better when my friend said it."

  "I'm just busting your balls. Look, I only had the case a short time. The FBI took it away from me pretty fast." He tilted back in his chair and rested his hands on his belly. "Ask away."

  "So yesterday I was at the crime scene."

  "The Baldwins' house."

  "Yes. And I was trying to piece together how it all happened. That backyard is wide open, and the kitchen has those big windows."

  "Plus," Neil added, "there's a gate by the driveway entrance. And fencing around the property."

  "Exactly. And there's the timing."

  "The timing?"

  "They were kidnapped around noon. Most kids are still in school at the time. How did the kidnappers know they'd be home?"

  "Ah," Neil said.

  "Ah?"

  "You see holes."

  "I do."

  "You think the official scenario doesn't add up."

  "Something like that."

  "And you think, what, we didn't notice all this stuff ten years ago? We raised all the issues you're raising now. And more of them. But you know what? Lots of crimes don't make sense. You can poke holes in almost anything. Take the gate, for example. The Baldwins never closed it. It was useless. The backyard? The Baldwins had lawn furniture. You could sneak up that way. Or you could press your body against the back of the house and no one would see you until you were by the windows."

  "I see," Myron said. "So you satisfied your doubts?"

  "Whoa, I never said that."

  Neil Huber loosened his tie and undid the top button of his shirt. The red in his face seemed to drain away. Now Myron did have a sense of deja vu. He could see the younger man, the coach for the other team, or maybe it was just a fake memory he was concocting for the occasion.

  "I had doubts," he said, his voice a little quieter now. "We all did, I guess. But at the end of the day, the two boys were gone. We followed every angle we could find. Stranger abductions like this--breaking into a house, asking for a ransom--are extremely rare. So we looked hard at the parents. We looked hard at the families, the neighbors, the teachers."

  "How about the nanny?"

  "Au pair," he said.

  "Pardon?"

  "She wasn't a nanny. She was an au pair. Big difference."

  "In what way?"

  "An au pair is like an exchange program. They're always from a foreign country. In this case, Vada Linna--yep, I remember the name--was from Finland. They are usually young. Vada was eighteen. Her English was fair at best. They are supposedly there in part on something of a cultural education, but most people go with them because they're cheap labor."

  "You think that was the case here?"

  He thought about it. "Nah, I don't. Not really. The Baldwins have a lot of money. I think they bought into the whole international experience stuff and loved the idea of having their kids in the company of a foreigner. From what I understood, Brooke and Chick treated Vada well. That whole angle--it's one of the reasons I hate the press so much."

  "What is?"

  "When the crap hit the fan, the media had a field day with all of that slave labor-au pair talk. You know--privileged rich girl Brooke Baldwin hires poor, cheap worker so she can get her hair done or lunch with the ladies or whatever. Like she wasn't already victimized enough. Like losing her son was somehow her fault."

  Myron remembered reading a bit about the controversy at the time. "Vada's story about the breakin," he said. "Did you believe it?"

  Huber took his time on this one. His hand rubbed his face. "I don't know. I mean, the girl was clearly traumatized. She may have been fudging some of the details, trying to make herself look better or something. Like we've both noted, there were parts that didn't add up. But that could have been the language barrier too. Or the cultural barrier, whatever. I wish we'd had more time with her."

  "Why didn't you?"

  "Vada's father showed up within twenty-four hours. Flew in from Helsinki and hired a shark lawyer. The father demanded to take her home. The ordeal was too much for her, he said. He wanted her to get care in Finland. We tried to stall, but we had no reason to hold her. So he flew her home." Neil looked up. "Truth? I would have liked another crack at Vada."

  "Do you think she was involved?"

  Again he took his time. Myron liked that Neil Huber was trying to give him thoughtful answers. "We looked at her hard. We went through her computer history. There was nothing. We checked her text messages. There was nothing there that stood out. Vada was just a teen alone in a foreign country. She had one friend, another au pair, and that was about it. We tried to work out various theories where she'd been in on the kidnapping in some way. You know. Maybe she gave the kids to an accomplice. Then the accomplice tied her up. They make up a story about a kitchen breakin. That kind of thing. But nothing added up. We even explored the possibility that maybe Vada was a psycho. Maybe she snapped and killed them and hid the bodies. But nothing came of that either."

  Their eyes met.

  "So what do you think happened, Neil?"

  There was a pen on his desk. He picked it up and started twirling it between his fingers. "Well, that's why recent developments are interesting."

  "How so?"

  "They blow away my theory."

  "Which was?"

  He shrugged. "I always figured that Patrick and Rhys were dead. I figured that whatever happened--abduction, breakin, whatever--that the two boys were killed right away. The killers then pretended to be kidnappers and did that whole ransom-drop thing to distract us. Or maybe they hoped that it would be easy money but they realized that they'd get caught. I don't know."

  "But why would someone kill two boys?"

  "Yeah, motive. That's a tougher nut to crack. But I think the crime scene is the key."

  "Meaning?"

  "The Baldwin home."

  "You think Rhys was the target?"

  "Had to be. It was his house. The playdate was planned two days before, so you couldn't know Patrick Moore would be there. So maybe these guys are told to grab a six-year-old boy. But when they break in, there are two of them. So they don't know which is which or their instructions aren't so clear, so they figure, let's grab both. Just to be sure."

  "And again: Motive?"

  "Nothing concrete. Hell, not even wet cement. Just wild conjecture on my part."

  "Like?"

  "The only parent who we had anything on was Chick Baldwin. The guy's a crook, plain and simple, and right about then, when his Ponzi scheme collapsed, he pissed off a lot of people. Some of his money came from questionable Russians, if you know what I mean. Chick skated too. No jail time, small fine. Good lawyers. That upset a lot of folks. All his assets were in his kids' names, so no one could touch him. Do you know the guy at all?"

  "Chick? Just a little."

  "He's not a good guy, Myron."

  Almost word for word what Win had said.

  "Anyway," Neil said, "that's what I thought. They were dead. But now that Patrick is alive . . ."

  He just let it hang there. The two men looked at each other for a long moment.

  Myron said, "Why do I have a feeling you're holding back on me, Senator?"

  "Because I am."

  "And why would you do that?"

  "Because I'm not sure if the next part is any of your goddamn business."

  "You can trust me," Myron said.

  "If I didn't trust you, I would have thrown you out of my office a long time ago."

  Myron spread his arms. "So?"

  "So this is ugly. We kind of buried this ten years ago because it was ugly."

  "When you say 'kind of buried--'"

  "We looked into it. It came to nothing. I was told to back off. I did so but with some reluctance. In the end, I still don't think it's relevant. So I'm going to need a second or two to ponder the repercussions of telling you."

  "If it helps," Myron said, "I promise to be discreet."

  "It doesn't."

  Neil stood and walked over to the window. He turned the wand controlling the blinds, closing them for a moment, then opening them again. He stared down at a construction site.

  "There were text messages," Neil said, "between Chick Baldwin and Nancy Moore."

  Myron waited for him to say more. When he didn't, Myron asked, "What kind of text messages?"

  "Lots of them."

  "Do you know what they said?"

  "No. They were deleted off both their phones. The phone company doesn't keep a record of the content."

  "I assume you asked Chick and Nancy about them?"

  "We did."

  "And?"

  "They both claimed it was just normal stuff. Some of it was about their boys. Some of it was about the Moores maybe investing with Chick."

  "Did the Moores invest with Chick?"

  "They did not. And the texts were at all hours of the day. And night."

  "I see," Myron said. "Did you talk to their spouses about it?"

  "We did not. The FBI was involved by now. You have to remember what it was like. The pressure, the fear, the not knowing. The families were already hanging on by a thread. We investigated this angle hard and came up with nothing. We didn't see a reason to cause anyone any more pain."

  "And now?"

  Neil turned away and looked down at Myron in the chair. "And now I still don't see a reason to cause anyone any more pain. That's why I didn't want to tell you."

  There was a knock on the door. Neil told the knocker to come in. A young man stuck his head in the doorway. "You have that meeting with the governor in ten minutes."

  "Thank you. I'll meet you in the lobby."

  The young man closed the door. Neil Huber moved back to his desk. He scooped up his mobile phone and wallet and jammed them into his pockets. "It's an old saw, but a case like this never leaves you. I blame myself in part. I know, I know, but I do. I wonder maybe, just maybe, if I were a better cop . . ."

  He didn't finish the sentence. Myron rose.

  "Do what you have to," Neil said, starting for the door. "But keep me in the loop."

  Chapter 19

  Is it noon yet?" Chick asked.

  Myron checked his watch. "Five minutes away."

  "I better set up the laptop, then."

  They were sitting at the enormous marble bar at La Sirena, an Italian restaurant in Chelsea's famed Maritime Hotel. The place was somehow sleek and warm, modern yet with a definitive sixties vibe. The border between dining inside and dining alfresco was almost nonexistent. Myron made a mental note to take Terese here pronto.

  There was no television on the wall--it wasn't that kind of place--so Chick brought a laptop so they could live-stream the CNN interview.

  "I couldn't stay home today," Chick said. His skin always glistened, so that he looked as though he'd undergone some kind of hot-wax treatment. Maybe he had. "Brooke and I just stare at each other and wait. It brings it all back, you know?"

  Myron nodded.

 
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