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Found, p.2
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       Found, p.2

          part  #3 of  Mickey Bolitar Series  by  Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Young Adult / Thrillers & Crime
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"That's not relevant," Myron snapped.

Yes, that was my mother. At one point Kitty Hammer Bolitar had a chance of being one of the greatest female tennis players of all time, up there with Billie Jean King and the Williams sisters. Then something happened that eventually ended her career: She got pregnant.

With me.

"You're right," Dr. Botnick said. "My apologies."

"Look," Uncle Myron said, "is his body in there or not?"

I watched her face for some kind of sign, but there was nothing. Dr. Botnick would have made a great poker player. She turned her attention to me. "Is that why you're here?"

"Yes," I said.

"To find out if your father is in the right casket?"

I said yes again.

"Why do you think your father wouldn't be in there?"

How could I possibly explain it?

Dr. Botnick looked at me as though she really wanted to help. But even in my own head it sounded insane. I couldn't tell her about the Bat Lady, who may be Lizzy Sobek, the Holocaust hero everyone thought had died in World War II. I couldn't tell her about the Abeona Shelter, the secret society that rescued children, and how Ema, Spoon, Rachel, and I had risked our lives in its service. I couldn't tell her about that creepy paramedic with the sandy hair and green eyes, the one who took my father away and then, eight months later, tried to kill me.

Who would believe such crazy talk?

Uncle Myron saw me squirm in my seat. "The reasons are confidential," he said, trying to come to my rescue. "Would you please just tell us what you found in the casket?"

Dr. Botnick started chewing on the end of her pen. We waited.

Finally, Myron tried again: "Is my brother in the casket, yes or no?"

She put the pen down on her desk and stood.

"Why don't you come with me and see for yourself?"





CHAPTER 4


We headed down the long corridor.

Dr. Botnick led the way. The corridor seemed to narrow as we walked, as though the tiled walls were closing in on us. I was about to move behind Myron, walking single file, when she stopped in front of a window.

"Wait here, please." Dr. Botnick poked her head in the door. "Ready?"

From inside, a voice said, "Give me two seconds."

Dr. Botnick closed the door. The window was thick. Wires crisscrossed inside of it, forming diamonds. There was a shade blocking our view.

"Are you ready?" Dr. Botnick asked.

I was shaking. We were here. This was it. I nodded. Myron said yes.

The shade rose slowly, like a curtain at a show. When it was all the way up--when I could see clearly into the room--it felt as though seashells had been pressed against my ears. For a moment, no one moved. No one spoke. We just stood there.

"What the--?"

The voice belonged to Uncle Myron. There, in front of us, was a gurney. And resting on the gurney was a silver urn.

Dr. Botnick put a hand on my shoulder. "Your father was cremated. His ashes were put in that urn and buried. It isn't customary, but it's not all that unusual either."

I shook my head.

Myron said, "Are you telling us that there were only ashes in that casket?"

"Yes."

"DNA," I said.

"Pardon?"

"Can you run a DNA test on the ashes?"

"I don't understand. Why would I do that?"

"To confirm that they belong to my father."

"To confirm . . . ?" Dr. Botnick shook her head. "That technology doesn't exist, I'm sorry."

I looked at Myron. There were tears in my eyes. "Don't you see?" I said.

"See what?"

"He's alive."

Myron's face turned white. In the corner of my eye I could see Bow Tie heading down the corridor toward us.

"Mickey . . . ," Myron began.

"Someone is covering their tracks," I insisted. "We wouldn't cremate him."

"I'm afraid that's not true."

It was Bow Tie. He held up a sheet of paper.

"What's that?" I asked.

"This is an authorization to have the body of Brad Bolitar cremated per the legal requirements for the State of California. It is all on the up-and-up, including the notarized signature of the next of kin."

Uncle Myron reached out for the sheet, but I grabbed it first. I scanned to the bottom of the page.

It had been signed by my mother.

I could feel Myron reading over my shoulder.

Kitty Hammer Bolitar had signed a lot of autographs during her tennis days. Her signature was fairly unique with the giant K and the curl on the right side of the H. This signature had both.

"It's a forgery!" I shouted, though it didn't look like a forgery at all. "This has to be a fake."

They all stared at me as though an arm had suddenly sprouted out of the middle of my forehead.

"It was notarized," Bow Tie said. "That means an independent person witnessed and confirmed that your mother signed it."

I shook my head. "You don't understand . . ."

Bow Tie took the sheet back from me. "I'm sorry," he said. "There is nothing more we can do for you."





CHAPTER 5


Dead end.

We sat in the airport and waited to board our flight home. Uncle Myron frowned at his smartphone, concentrating a little too hard on the screen. "Mickey?"

I looked at him.

"Don't you think it's time you told me what's going on?"

It was. Uncle Myron deserved to know. He had called in favors and put himself on the line. He had, in a sense, earned my trust. But there were other things to consider. First of all, I had been warned more than once by those in Abeona Shelter not to tell Myron. I couldn't just ignore that advice.

Second--and this was always front and center--I still blamed Myron for what happened to my parents. When my mother got pregnant with me, Uncle Myron reacted badly to the news. He didn't trust my mother. He and my dad fought over it. My parents ended up running away overseas and then coming back years later and then . . . well, then it led to my dad being "maybe dead" and my mother being locked up in a drug rehabilitation center.

Uncle Myron waited for my answer. I was wondering how to tell him no when I remembered that I still needed to call Ema back. I held up the phone and said, "I have to take this," even though the phone hadn't rung.

I moved away from the gate and hit Ema on my speed dial. She answered immediately.

"So?" Ema said.

"So nothing."

"Huh? I thought they were about to open the casket."

"They were. I mean, they did."

I explained about the cremation. She listened, as always, without interrupting. Ema was one of those people who listened with everything they had. She focused on your face. Her eyes didn't dart to all corners. She didn't nod at inappropriate times. Even now, even when she was just on the phone with me, I could feel that concentration.

"And you're sure it's her signature?"

"It certainly looks like it."

"But it could be forged," Ema said.

"Doubtful. I mean, there was a notary who witnessed it or something. But it could be . . ." My words trailed off.

"What?"

"After my father died, well, that was when she fell apart."

"She started taking drugs?"

"Yes," I said, remembering it all now. "In fact, Mom was so out of it . . . I don't know how she could have made a decision like that."

"So what now?"

"I fly home. I have basketball practice."

I know what you're thinking. Who cares about basketball practice at a time like this? Answer: I do. I get that that sounds warped. But even now--or maybe especially now--I needed to be back on the court. I needed basketball to be a priority. It was the place I thrived and escaped, and no matter what, I longed for it.

"Anything new on Spoon's condition?" I asked.

"No."

"How about Rachel?"

Silence.

I waited. Asking about Rachel may have been a mistake, I don't know. Rachel was a part of our group, much as she, being immensely popular and probably the hottest girl in the school, seemed to have nothing in common with us.

"Rachel's fine," Ema said, her voice like a door slamming shut. "She's dealing, I guess."

I needed to reach out to Rachel when I got back. I had dropped a huge bomb on her--a life-altering bomb--and then I had flown away to Los Angeles. I needed to remedy that.

"So why did you call before?" I asked.

"It can wait till you get home."

"Talk to me, Ema. I need the distraction."

She took a deep breath. I could see her now, sitting alone in that huge gated mansion. "Why us?" she asked.

I knew what she meant. Nothing here had been accidental. A secret group called the Abeona Shelter had somehow recruited us--Ema, Spoon, Rachel, me--to help them rescue children and teens. This was never stated. We never applied for the job, and it wasn't as though they had come to us. It just sort of . . . happened.

"I ask myself that every day," I said.

"And?"

"I don't know."

"There has to be a reason," Ema said. "First Ashley, then Rachel, and now--"

"Now what?"

"Someone else is missing," she said.

My grip on the phone tightened. "Who?"

"You don't know him."

Silly, but I had thought that I knew everyone Ema knew. Maybe it was because she always played the big-girl-outcast-loner to perfection. The other kids made fun of her weight and her all-black clothes. Ema always sat by herself at lunch in the cafeteria. She had taken sullen and raised it to an art form.

"But you do?" I said.

"Yes."

"Who?"

"He's . . . well, he's kind of my boyfriend."





CHAPTER 6


Man, I hadn't expected that answer.

How could I not know Ema had a boyfriend? How could she keep something like that from me? I mean, don't get me wrong. I thought it was great. Ema was so awesome. She deserved somebody.

So why was I annoyed?

Because we told each other everything, didn't we? Now I wasn't so sure. I told her everything, but maybe it was just a one-way street. Clearly Ema hadn't been equally forthcoming.

How could she not tell me that she had a freakin' boyfriend?

Then again, had I told her about Rachel and me, about how there just might be something more between us?

No.

Why not? If Ema was just my friend--if it didn't matter that she was a girl or whatever--why wouldn't I tell her about Rachel?

"You okay?" Uncle Myron asked.

We were on the plane now, crammed next to each other in the last row. We are both tall, and the legroom in coach is designed for someone about two feet shorter.

"I'm fine," I said.

"So now what?" Uncle Myron asked.

"What do you mean?"

"You asked me to help get your father's grave exhumed, right?"

"Right."

Uncle Myron tried to shrug, but the seat was too small for it. "So now that we've done that, what's your next step?"

I had wondered that myself, of course. "I don't know yet."

*

As soon as we landed, I called Ema. No answer. I tried Rachel's phone. No answer. I texted them both that I was back in New Jersey. I placed a call to the hospital again, trying to get through to Spoon's room, but the operator wouldn't patch the call through.

"No calls allowed to that room," the operator explained.

I didn't like that.

We had landed on time, which meant that I could still make basketball practice. I had missed the past few days because of this trip. That would set me back with the team, and it worried me a little. I hadn't actually practiced with the varsity, and I knew that I would be way behind.

Kasselton High, my new school, has a varsity and junior varsity team. The varsity is for juniors and seniors. Freshmen and sophomores play JV, and so far, in Coach Grady's dozen years of coaching the Kasselton Camels, he has never had a freshman or sophomore on the varsity.

Humble-brag alert: I, a lowly sophomore, have been invited to try out for the varsity team.

I couldn't wait to get on the court, but as Uncle Myron pulled his car to a stop in front of the school, I felt the butterflies start flying around my stomach. Myron must have seen the look on my face.

"You nervous?"

"What, me?" I shook my head firmly. "No."

Uncle Myron put his hand on my shoulder. "It may take a while to warm up after a long flight," he went on, "but once you get on the court and the ball is in your hand--"

"Right, thanks," I said, not really wanting to hear it.

It wasn't worrying about my performance that stirred those butterflies.

It was my teammates. In short, they all hated me.

None of the seniors and juniors liked the idea of a lowly sophomore crashing their party.

I could hear laughter coming from the locker room, but as soon as I pushed open the door, all sound stopped as though someone had flicked a switch. Troy Taylor, the senior captain, glared at me. To put it mildly, Troy and I had issues. I looked away and opened a locker.

"Not there," Troy said.

"What?"

"This row is for lettermen."

Everybody else was in this row. I looked at the other guys. Some had their heads lowered, tying their shoes too carefully. Some glared with open hostility. I looked for Buck, Troy's best friend and a total jerk, but he wasn't there.

I waited for someone to stick up for me or, at least, comment. No one did. Troy smirked and made a shooing gesture in my direction with his hand. My face reddened in embarrassment. I wondered what I should do, whether I should fight or back down.

Not worth it, I decided.

I hated giving Troy the satisfaction, but I remembered something my father told me: Don't win the battle and lose the war.

I took my stuff, moved into the next row, and changed into shorts and a reversible practice jersey. After I laced up my sneakers, I headed out to the gym. That sweet echo of dribbling basketballs calmed me a bit, but as soon as I opened the door, all dribbling stopped.

Oh, grow up.

There were four or five guys at each of three baskets. Troy shot at the one on the far right. His glare was already in place. I looked again for Buck--he was always with Troy, always following Troy's lead--but he wasn't here. I wondered whether Buck had gotten injured and, cruel as it sounded, I really hoped that was the case.

I looked toward the guys standing around the basket in the middle. If those faces were windows, they were all slammed shut with shades lowered. At the third basket, I spotted Brandon Foley, the team center and other captain. Brandon was the tallest kid on the team, six foot eight, and in the past, he had been the only one to acknowledge my existence. As I stepped toward him, he met my eye and gave his head a small shake.

Terrific.

The heck with it. I moved over to a basket in the far left corner and shot alone. My face burned. I let the burn sink deep inside of me. The burn was good. The burn would fuel my game and make me better. The burn would let me forget, for a few moments anyway, that I still didn't know what really happened to my father. The burn would let me forget--no, not really--that my friend Spoon was in the hospital and may never walk again and that it was all my fault.

Maybe that explained why all my potential teammates, even Brandon Foley, had turned on me. Maybe they too blamed me for what happened to the nerd that they all enjoyed bullying.

It didn't matter. Shoot, get the rebound, shoot. Stare at the rim, only the rim; never watch the ball in flight; feel the grooves on your fingertips. Shoot, swish, shoot, swish. Let the rest of the world fade away for a little while.

Do you have something like this in your life? Something you do or play that makes the entire world, at least for a little while, fade away? That was how basketball was. I could sometimes focus so hard that everything else ceased to exist. There was the ball. There was the hoop. Nothing else.

"Hey, hotshot."

The sound of Troy's voice knocked me out of my stupor. I looked around. The gym was empty.

"Team meeting for non-lettermen," Troy said. "Room one seventy-eight. Hurry."

"Where is that?"

Troy frowned. "You serious?"

"I'm new to the school, remember?"

"Lower level. Push through the metal doors. Hurry. Coach Grady hates when someone shows up late."

"Thanks."

I dropped the ball and hustled down the corridor. As I took the stairs down, a small niggling started at the back of my brain. It wondered how come Coach Grady would call a meeting so far from the gym. I wish that I had stopped there and listened to that niggling. But there was really no time. And what was I going to do anyway, run back upstairs and ask my buddy Troy for more details on the meeting?

So I ran down the corridor. There was no else in the halls. The echo of my sneakers slapping the linoleum sounded as loud as . . .

. . . as gunshots.

My head started spinning. Where exactly was I? The lower level was for senior classes. I had never been here before. But if my sense of direction was correct, I was pretty close to being right on top of where Spoon had been shot just a few days earlier.

I hurried my step.

Room 166. Then room 168. I was getting closer. 170, 172 . . .

Up ahead I saw the metal doors Troy had mentioned. I pushed through them. They closed behind me with a bang.

And locked me out.

I stopped and closed my eyes. There was no room 178. Practice was probably starting right now. I would have to go out the back, through the football field, and around to the front entrance in order to make my way to the gym.

I ran as fast as I could but it still took me nearly ten minutes to get back. My teammates were already doing the weave drill when I burst in through the door. Coach Grady was not pleased. He turned and snapped, "You're late, Bolitar."

"It isn't my . . ."

I stopped. What exactly was I going to say here? Troy looked at me with that same stupid smirk. He knew. I had two choices. One, tell Coach Grady what really happened, in which case Coach Grady might or might not believe me, but either way I'd be forever labeled a tattletale. Or, two, keep my mouth shut.

"Sorry, Coach."

But Coach Grady wasn't done. "Being late to practice is disrespectful to both your teammates and your coaches."

I nodded. "It won't happen again."

"You haven't even made the team yet."

"Yes, sir."

"And this won't help your cause."
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