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         Part #11 of Myron Bolitar series by Harlan Coben  
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  I had "sniffed" a trap, hadn't I? Had he known that the Italians would try to track him down via that contest? Had he let them? Apparently. Many believe that I am infallible in such matters, that I am so professional and dangerous that death itself gives me a wide berth. I confess that I do all I can to encourage, amplify, and intensify this reputation. I want you to fear me. I want you to cringe every time I enter a room because you do not know what I might do next. But I am not naive enough to buy my own press, if you will. No matter how good you are, a sniper can take you out.

  As one of my enemies once put it, "You're good, Win, but you ain't bulletproof."

  I had tried to be careful, but missions such as this require a degree of rush. No one had followed us from the airport. I know that. But still Fat Gandhi knew that we were here.

  "We need to talk," Fat Gandhi says.

  "Okay," I say.

  He spreads his arms. "Do you mind if I call you Win?"

  "Yes."

  He still holds the grin. I still hold the gun. He glances at Zorra. "Does she have to be here for this conversation?"

  "Who you calling she?" Zorra snaps.

  "What?"

  "Does Zorra look like girl to you, dreamboat?"

  "Uh . . ." There is no good answer to this.

  I hold up my hand. Zorra steps down, if you will.

  "Both of you can relax," Fat Gandhi says. "If I wanted you dead, you'd be dead."

  "Wrong," I say.

  "Pardon?"

  "You're bluffing," I say.

  Fat Gandhi continues to smile, but I can see the light flickering.

  "You know who I am," I say. "That would take very little research on your part. You probably had a man watching the airport and another man watching the road. My guess is, it was the bearded guy in the Peugeot."

  "Zorra knew it!" Zorra says. "You should have let me--"

  Again I stop him with my hand.

  "You have eyes on us," I continue, "but that doesn't mean you have a sniper who would be good enough to hit us at this distance. I have two men out there. If you had someone, they would know. You have other men inside. Three to be exact. None have a long-range weapon pointed at us. We'd have spotted it."

  More flickers in that smile. "You seem very sure of yourself, Mr. Lockwood."

  I shrug. "I could be wrong. But the odds you have enough firepower hidden to take out all four of us before you die seems beyond remote."

  Fat Gandhi does a slow clap. "You live up to your reputation, Mr. Lockwood."

  Reputation. See what I mean by encourage, amplify, and intensify?

  "I would go into an entire bit about this being a stalemate," Fat Gandhi says, "but we are both men of the world. I came out here to talk. I came out here so we can make an arrangement and put this matter behind us."

  "I don't care about you," I say. "I don't care about your enterprise."

  His enterprise, of course, involves teenagers being raped and abused. Zorra makes a face at me to indicate that maybe he cares.

  "I'm here for Rhys," I tell him.

  The smile slips off Fat Gandhi's face. "You were the one who killed my three men."

  Now it's my turn to grin. I am buying time, drawing his eye. I want Zorra to keep checking the house and perimeter, just in case.

  "You were also the one who blew that hole in my wall."

  "Are you looking for a confession?" I ask.

  "No," he says.

  "How about vengeance?"

  "Not that either," Fat Gandhi says too quickly. "You want Rhys Baldwin. I understand that. He's your cousin. But there are things I want too."

  There is no reason to ask him what. He will tell me.

  "I want my life back," Fat Gandhi says. "The police have nothing on me. Patrick Moore is back in the United States. He won't come back to testify. Myron Bolitar may claim to have seen me stab him, but in the end, it was dark. I could also claim self-defense. Someone had obviously attacked us. The hole in the wall proves that. None of my people will talk. All the files and evidence remain locked away in a cloud."

  "The police have nothing," I agree. "But I don't think your big worry is the police, is it?"

  "My big worry," Fat Gandhi says, "is you."

  I grin again.

  "I don't want to spend the rest of my life waiting for you to knock on my door, Mr. Lockwood. May I be honest for a moment?"

  "You can try," I say.

  "I didn't know for certain, but when 'Romavslazio' put up that challenge, well, after what we had uncovered about you, we realized that it would be a risk. That was when I knew. I knew that I would have to face you directly, so we can put an end to this once and for all. We debated--and I'm just being honest--getting a bunch of men and trying to kill you."

  "But you changed your mind."

  "Yes."

  "Because I would have spotted the men. And I would have brought more men. And I would have killed your men and killed you. And even if you and your group somehow got the upper hand on us--"

  Zorra makes a choking noise and laughs out loud. "On Zorra?"

  "We are talking hypotheticals," I assure him. I turn back to Fat Gandhi. "Even if you somehow could kill us, you knew that it wouldn't end there. Myron would go after you."

  Fat Gandhi nods. "It would never end. I would have to spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder."

  "You're wiser than I thought," I say. "So let's make it simple. Give me Rhys. I take him home. The end. I never think of you again. I forget you exist. You forget I exist."

  It is a good deal, I think, but I wonder whether I can keep it. Fat Gandhi had tried to eliminate Myron. That was no small matter. I wouldn't kill him out of revenge for that act--it was, in its own way, quite understandable--but I have to worry about both his mental stability and self-interest. He wanted to show strength to his workers. He wanted to show power. That motive was still present.

  His "looking over my shoulder" concern works both ways.

  "It's not that simple," Fat Gandhi says.

  I put a little steel in my voice. "It's just that simple. Give me Rhys."

  He lowers his eyes and shakes his head. "I can't."

  There is a moment's hesitation, no more. I know that it is coming, but I do nothing to stop it. With grace that never fails to surprise me, Zorra spins and sweeps Fat Gandhi's legs. Fat Gandhi drops like a sack of peat moss onto his back. He makes an oof noise as the air leaves his lungs.

  Zorra stands over his prone form. He raises his razor-sharp (literally) heel, perfectly poised to stomp down on Fat Gandhi's face. Instead Zorra lowers the point of the heel so that the blade is scant millimeters (again literally) from Fat Gandhi's cornea.

  "Bad answer, dreamboat," Zorra tells him. "Try again."

  Chapter 24

  Myron sat in his dad's chair in the TV room.

  Dad asked, "Are you going to wait up for Mickey?"

  When Myron was a teenager, his father would sit in this chair at night and wait for his children to come home. He never gave Myron a curfew--"I trust you"--and he never told Myron that he waited up for him. When Myron would come through the door, Dad would either pretend to be asleep or have already sneaked upstairs.

  "I will." Then with a smile on his face, Myron said, "You think I didn't know."

  "Didn't know what?"

  "That you stayed awake until I came home."

  "I couldn't sleep until I knew you were safe." Dad shrugged. "But I knew you knew."

  "How?"

  "I never gave you a curfew, remember? I said I trusted you."

  "Right."

  "But when you realized I stayed awake, you started coming home earlier. So I wouldn't have to stay up and worry." Dad arched an eyebrow at him. "Ergo, you actually came home earlier than if I gave you a curfew."

  "Diabolical," Myron said.

  "I just took advantage of what I knew."

  "Which was?"

  "You were a good boy," Dad said.

  Silence. Silence that was broken when Mom shouted from the kitchen: "This is a very touching father-and-son moment. Can we go to bed now?"

  Dad chuckled. "On my way. Are we going to Mickey's game tomorrow? It's home."

  "I'll pick you up in the morning," Myron said.

  His mother leaned her head in from the kitchen. "Good night, Myron."

  "How come you never stayed awake until I came home?" Myron asked her.

  "A woman needs her beauty sleep. What, you think I stay this hot by accident?"

  "It's a good lesson on marriage," Dad said.

  "What is?"

  "Balance. I stayed awake at night. Mom slept like a baby. It doesn't mean she didn't care. But our strengths and weaknesses complement each other. We're a couple. See? That was my contribution. I took night watch."

  "But you were also first up in the morning," Myron said.

  "Well, yes, that's true."

  "So what was Mom good at?"

  Mom from the kitchen: "You don't want to know."

  "Ellen!" Dad shouted.

  "Oh, relax, Al. You're such a prude."

  Myron already had his fingers in his ears. He started saying, "La, la, la, I can't hear you," as his father trudged toward the kitchen. He took his fingers out when they had both gone upstairs. He sat back and looked out the window. Funny. The chair was perfectly set up so you could watch both the television and any car approaching from the street.

  Diabolical indeed.

  It was almost one A.M. when Myron spotted Mickey's car. He wondered whether he too should feign being asleep, but Mickey wouldn't buy it. Myron had waited up for three reasons. One: General concern. Two: So his father wouldn't have to. And three--most obvious: To find out what had happened after Myron left Mickey and Ema at the Moore house.

  Myron sat in the dark and waited. Five minutes passed. Myron looked out. The car was still there. No lights. No movement. Myron frowned. He picked up his mobile and sent Mickey a text: All ok?

  No reply. Another minute went by. Nothing. Myron checked his phone for a reply. Nada. A feeling of unease began to descend upon him. He called Mickey's phone. It went straight to voicemail.

  What the hell?

  He got out of Dad's chair and started for the front door. No, that would be too direct. He headed into the kitchen and out the back. The yard was pitch dark, so Myron used the flashlight on his mobile phone. He circled toward the driveway where the streetlights provided enough illumination.

  Still nothing.

  Myron ducked low and crept toward the back of the car. Dad had watered the lawn recently. Myron's slippers were quickly waterlogged. Terrific. He was twenty yards from the trunk of the vehicle. Then ten. Then he was ducking behind the back bumper.

  He did a mental check, sifting through his brain in search of probable explanations for why no one would have come out of the car yet. Then just as Myron made the leap and grabbed the door handle and pulled open the driver's door, the answer came to him . . .

  . . . a second too late.

  Ema screamed.

  Mickey shouted, "What the hell, Myron?"

  Two teenagers. In a car. Late at night.

  Myron flashed back to a time when his own father had walked in on him and Jessica, his old love, during a most indelicate moment. His father had just stood there, unmoving, frozen, and at the time, Myron didn't get it, why his father didn't quickly apologize and close the door.

  He got it now.

  "Oh," Myron said. Then: "Oh."

  "What's wrong with you?" Mickey snapped.

  "Oh," Myron said again.

  They were both, Myron was glad to see, dressed. Clothes, hair, makeup, showed some degree of distress. But they were dressed.

  Myron pointed with his thumb behind him. "Maybe I should wait in the house."

  "Ya think?"

  "Right. Okay, then."

  "Go!" Mickey shouted.

  Myron turned and slouched his way back toward the house. Before he got to the door, Mickey and Ema were out of the car, doing slight wardrobe adjustments and following him. When Myron opened the door and they all stepped inside, Dad was standing there in the Homer Simpson pajamas Myron had bought him last Father's Day.

  Dad looked at Myron. Then he looked at Mickey and Ema.

  "You went outside?" he asked Myron.

  "Yes."

  "Weren't you a teenager once?" Dad shook his head, trying to hold in the smile. "I knew I shouldn't have left the night watch to you. Good night, all."

  Dad left. Myron and Mickey stood and looked at the floor. Ema sighed and said, "Grow up. Both of you."

  The three of them grabbed cold drinks and took their seats around the kitchen table.

  "So," Myron asked, "what's your impression of Patrick? I mean, if it is Patrick."

  "He's a normal kid," Mickey said.

  "Too normal," Ema added.

  "What do you mean?"

  Ema put her hands on the table. Besides dressing in black and wearing black makeup, Ema had numerous tattoos up and down her arms. She had silver jewelry including two skull rings on her hand. "He knew recent movies," she said.

  "He was up-to-date on the latest video games," Mickey said.

  "He knew about the newest apps."

  "Same with social media sites."

  Myron considered that. "I don't think he's been kept in a cage all this time. Especially in recent, I don't know, years. I mean, he was out on the streets. He lived under an arcade. The guy who was holding him in London is a major gamer. Couldn't that explain all that?"

  "It could," Mickey said.

  "But you don't buy it?"

  Mickey shrugged.

  "What?"

  "I don't think he's who he says he is," Mickey said.

  Myron looked at Ema. Ema nodded.

  "His hands," she said.

  "What about them?"

  "They're soft."

  "It wasn't like he was doing hard labor," Myron said.

  "I know," Ema said, "but they don't look like the hands of someone who's been out on the streets either. And more than that, his teeth. They're straight; they're white. He may have incredible genes, but a safer bet would be that he's had proper dental care and braces."

  "It's hard to put a finger on it," Mickey added, "but Patrick doesn't look or sound, well, street. He doesn't look abused, except, you know, for the recent stuff. I mean, ugh, he might have been 'kept' or taken care of by some . . . whatever . . . but . . ."

  "Did you talk about the kidnapping at all?" Myron asked.

  "We tried," Ema said. "But we always got shot down."

  "Francesca was running interference," Mickey said.

  "Interference how?"

  "She was protecting him," Ema said. "Which is understandable, I guess."

  "So whenever we raised what happened--"

  "Or even mentioned Rhys's name."

  "She would interrupt and get all emotional, crying and hugging him," Mickey said. "I mean, Patrick seemed kind of normal, but the sister was off."

  "I'm not sure I'd use the word 'off,'" Ema said. "Her brother comes home after ten years. I think it would be weird if Francesca wasn't all emotional."

  "Yeah, maybe," Mickey said. But he didn't say it with much enthusiasm.

  "We tried to raise the kidnapping again after she left with Clark."

  "Wait," Myron said. "Clark Baldwin? Rhys's brother?"

  "Yes."

  "He was there?"

  "He came in to pick up Francesca," Mickey said.

  "They go to Columbia together," Ema said. "He was giving her a ride back to campus."

  Myron said nothing.

  "Is that a big deal?" Ema asked.

  "I don't know." Myron thought about it some more. "It's odd; that's all. Maybe, I don't know, do you think they're romantically involved?"

  Mickey rolled his eyes as only a teenager could. "No."

  "What makes you so sure?"

  "Old dudes," Ema said to Mickey with a shake of the head. "No gaydar."

  "Clark is gay?"

  "Yes. And what difference would it make if they were romantically involved? Weren't they, like, ten, when this all went down?"

  Something was niggling at the back of Myron's brain, but he couldn't figure out what yet. He moved back to the topic at hand.

  "So after Francesca left, you tried to broach the subject of the kidnapping again?"

  "Yes, but Patrick got real quiet."

  "Completely clammed up."

  "We left not long after that."

  Myron sat back for a moment. "How did he sound?"

  "Sound?"

  "We found him in London," Myron said. "We have no idea how long he's been there. Did you detect anything in his accent?"

  "That's a good question," Ema said. "His accent was American overall, but . . ." She turned to Mickey. He nodded.

  "It did have something else in it," Mickey said. "I can't put my finger on it exactly. He didn't sound like he'd grown up here. But he didn't sound like he'd grown up in England either."

  Myron tried to process that but came up with nothing. He tried something else. "So what did you do the whole time?"

  "We ate pizza," Ema said.

  "We watched a movie," Mickey added.

  "We played video games."

  "We talked."

  "Oh, Patrick said he had a girlfriend," Ema said. "But not from around here."

  "A girlfriend?" Myron said.

  "Yeah, but he backed right off. He said it, I don't know, like a kid bragging a little."

  "You know," Mickey said. "Like when the new kid comes to town and says he has a girlfriend in Canada or something."

  "Don't get us wrong," Ema said. "He was nice enough. All kids talk about those kinds of things. It was just . . . I don't know. It felt so normal."

  Mickey nodded.

  "Thanks, guys. This was really helpful."

  "Oh, we're not done," Ema said.

  Myron looked at them.

  "I put a keylogger on his computer," Mickey said.

  "As in . . . ?"

  "As in we can see whatever he types on it. Emails, social media, whatever."

  "Whoa," Myron said. "Who's monitoring him?"

  "Spoon."

  Spoon was Mickey's other close friend--if you still counted Ema as only a "friend"--and what they used to call (or heck, maybe still do) a lovable nerd or geek or dork. Spoon was also ridiculously brave.

  "How is he doing?"

  Mickey smiled. "He's walking again."

  "And annoying everyone again," Ema added. "Anyway, he'll let us know if anything important comes up."

  Myron wasn't sure what to say here. He didn't like these teenagers crossing this particular ethical line, but he wasn't in the mood to lecture them about privacy or, more important, give up a chance of possibly finding out the truth. It was a close call. Patrick might not be Patrick. Patrick might hold the key to finding another missing boy. Then again, was spying on a teenager justified? Was it even legal?

 
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