Part #11 of Myron Bolitar series by Harlan Coben
"And then I lost him."
Myron sat back.
"This surprises you," Win said.
"You're thinking, 'That's not like you.'"
"I am indeed."
Win nodded. "I miscalculated." Then he added: "There was collateral damage."
That was never a good thing with Win.
"Perhaps we should press the rewind button first." Win reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. "Read this."
Win handed him what looked to be a printed email. It was addressed to Win's personal email account. Myron had sent the account half a dozen messages over the past year. He had never gotten a reply. The sender was listed as anon5939413. It read: You are looking for Rhys Baldwin and Patrick Moore. For most of the last ten years, they have been together, but not always. They've been separated at least three times. They are back together now.
They are free to go but might not with you. They aren't who you think they are anymore. They aren't who their families remember either. You may not like what you find. Here is where they are. Forget the reward money. I will one day ask for a favor.
Neither one of them remembers much of their life before. Be patient with them.
Myron felt a chill scramble down his spine. "I assume you tried to figure out where the email came from?"
"And I assume you got nothing."
"VPN," Win said. "No way to track down where or from whom it originated."
Myron read it again. "That last paragraph."
"Yes, I know."
"There is something about it."
"An air of authenticity," Win said.
"Which is why you took it seriously."
"Yes," Win said.
"And this address they list?" Myron asked.
"It's a rather small yet sordid area in London. An underpass where all sorts of illicit trade takes place. I canvassed the spot."
"Someone who strongly resembles those age-progression images of Patrick showed up."
"About an hour before I called you."
"Did you hear him talk?"
"Did he speak? I'm trying to get a better handle on his ID. Maybe his accent was American."
"I didn't hear him speak," Win said. "We also don't know. He could have been here, on these streets, for his entire life."
Then Myron repeated, "His entire life."
"I know," Win said. "No reason to dwell on it."
"So you saw Patrick. Then what?"
Myron nodded. "You were hoping Rhys would show."
"Three men who appeared to be unhappy with Patrick assaulted him."
"And you stopped them?"
For the first time a small smile played with Win's lips. "It's what I do."
It was indeed.
"And all three?" Myron asked.
Win smiled, shrugged.
Myron closed his eyes.
"These men were the worst sort of thugs," Win said. "They will not be mourned."
"It was self-defense?"
"Yes, fine, let's go with that. Are we really going to second-guess my methods right now, Myron?"
He was right.
"So then what happened?"
"Whilst I was preoccupied with said thugs, Patrick fled. The last time I saw him, he was heading into King's Cross station. Not long after that, I called you for help."
Myron sat back. They were approaching Westminster Bridge and the river Thames. The London Eye, basically a gigantic Ferris wheel that moved at what could generously be dubbed a glacial pace, shimmered in the afternoon sunlight. Myron had gone on it once years ago. It had bored him silly.
"You understand," Win said, "how pressing this is."
Myron nodded. "They'll make the boys disappear."
"Precisely. Move them out of the country, or if they feel threatened with exposure . . ."
Win didn't have to finish the thought.
"Have you told the parents?"
"Not even Brooke?"
"No," Win said. "I saw no reason to give her false hope."
They were driving north. Myron looked out the window. "They've been gone since they were six years old, Win."
He said nothing.
"Everyone thought that they were long dead."
"Oh, I thought they were dead."
"But you kept looking."
Win steepled his fingers. It was a familiar gesture, one that brought Myron back to younger days. "Last time I saw Brooke, we opened some very expensive wine. We sat out on a deck and looked out over the ocean. For a while, she was the Brooke I grew up with. Some people are conduits for misery. Brooke is the opposite. She brings joy. Always has. You know the cliche that some people light up a room?"
"Brooke could do that from a distance. You could just think about her and be happier. You want to shield a person like that. And when you see someone like that in such pain, you want--nay, need--to relieve it."
Win bounced his fingertips together. "So there we were, drinking wine and staring out at the ocean. Most people use alcohol to anesthetize the kind of pain Brooke faced. But with Brooke, the opposite was happening. The alcohol made the facade fall away. The smile she still forced up was gone. She confessed something to me that night."
He stopped. Myron waited.
"For a long time, Brooke fantasized about Rhys's homecoming. Every time the phone rang, she felt the jangle in her blood. She hoped it would be Rhys telling her he was okay. She would see him in crowded streets. She would dream about rescuing him, about seeing him, about their tearful reunion. She would constantly replay that day in her head, staying home instead of going out, taking Rhys and Patrick with her instead of leaving them with that au pair--altering something, anything, to make it not have happened. It stays with you, Brooke told me. A permanent companion. You may run a few steps ahead, but that day is always there, tapping you on the shoulder, pulling at your sleeve."
Myron sat very still.
"I knew all this, of course. It isn't revelatory that parents suffer. Brooke still looks wonderful. She's a strong woman. But things have changed."
"What do you mean, 'changed'?"
"It has to end."
"What do you mean?"
"That was Brooke's confession. When the phone rings, do you know what she hopes?"
Myron shook his head.
"That it's the police. That they've finally found Rhys's body. Do you understand what I'm saying? The not knowing--the hope--has become more painful than death. And that just makes the tragedy all the more obscene. It is horrible enough that you make a mother suffer like this. But this, she told me--wishing, no matter what, that it would just end--was even worse."
They sat in silence for a few moments.
Then Win said, "Hey, how about those Knicks?"
"You need to be loose."
"Where are we going?"
"Back to King's Cross."
"Where you can't really show your face."
"I'm extraordinarily handsome. People remember me."
"Ergo needing my help."
"Glad my absence hasn't dulled your sharp investigative tools."
"So tell me everything," Myron said. "Let's make a plan."
When they drove past the train station, Myron read the sign and said, "King's Cross. Isn't that from Harry Potter?"
Myron took another look. "Cleaner than I expected."
"Gentrification," Win said. "But you never really get rid of the dirt. You just sweep it into dark corners."
"And you know where those dark corners ar
"I was told in the email." The Bentley came to a stop. "We can't get any closer without the risk of being seen. Take this."
Win handed him a smartphone.
"I have a phone," Myron said.
"Not like this one. It's a complete monitoring system. I can follow you via GPS. I can listen in on any conversations via microphones. I can see what you see via the camera."
"The key word," Myron said, "is 'via.'"
"Hilarious. Speaking of a key word, we will need a distress signal if you get into trouble."
"How about 'help'?"
Win looked at him blankly. "I. Missed. Your. Humor."
"Remember when we first started out?" Myron couldn't help but smile. "I would call you on the old cell phones and you would listen in."
"We thought we were so high tech."
"We were," Win said.
"Articulate," Myron said.
"If I'm in trouble, I'll say 'articulate.'"
Myron headed out past the station. He realized that he was whistling a show tune--"Ring of Keys" from Fun Home--as he walked. That might strike some as odd. This situation was, after all, horrible and dangerous and deadly serious, but he'd be lying to himself if he said it wasn't also a thrill to be working with Win again. Most of the time, it was Myron who kicked off their often foolhardy rescue missions. In fact, come to think of it, it had always been Myron. Win had been the voice of caution, the sidekick dragged along, joining in more for the fun of it than for any form of justice.
At least, that was Win's claim.
"You," Win would tell him, "have a hero complex. You think you can make the world better. You are Don Quixote tilting at windmills."
"I'm eye candy for the ladies."
It was still daylight, but only the naive believe this sort of trade goes on solely under the blanket of darkness. Still, as Myron arrived at the lookout spot Win had used yesterday, he looked down and saw that this would not be easy.
The police were here.
In the spot where Win had seen probably-Patrick, there were two uniformed officers and two what looked to be lab technicians. The splattered blood, even from up here, still looked wet on the pavement. There was also a lot of it. It looked as if someone had dropped cans of paint from a great height.
The bodies were nowhere to be seen. Nor, naturally, were any streetwalkers--they knew enough to stay away from scenes like this. A dead end, Myron thought. Time for a new plan.
He turned to head back to where the Bentley had dropped him off when something caught his eye. Myron stopped. There, in the "dark corner," as Win had put it, at the end of Railway Street, he spotted what had to be a streetwalker.
She was dressed in Seventies American Hooker--fishnet stockings, high boots (those two looks seemed to be a contradiction), a skirt that covered up as much of her as, say, a belt would, and a purple top so tight it could have been sausage casing.
Myron started toward her. When he got closer, the woman turned to him. Myron gave her a little wave.
"Looking for company?" she asked him.
"Uh, no. Not really."
"You don't really get how this works, do you?"
"I guess not, sorry."
"Let's try again: Looking for a little company?"
"You bet I am."
The woman smiled. Myron expected something horrific in the dental category, but she had a full mouth of nice, even white teeth. He guessed her age at around fifty, but it could have been a hard forty. She was big and shapely and sloppy and spilling out everywhere, and the smile made it all kind of work.
"You're an American," she said.
"Lots of my clients are American."
"Doesn't look like you have much competition."
"Not anymore, no. See, the girls stay off the streets nowadays. Do everything with a computer or an app."
"But you don't."
"Nah, it ain't me, you know what I mean? So cold, everyone on Tinder or Ohlala or whatever. Shame really. What happened to human contact? What happened to the personal touch?"
"Uh-huh," Myron said, because he wasn't sure what else to say.
"Me, I like the streets. So my business model is to be something of a throwback, you know what I mean? I appeal to people's-- What do you call it?" She thought about it for a second and then snapped her fingers. "Nostalgia! Right? I mean, people are on holiday. They visit King's Cross to see a hooker, not fiddle with their iPhone. You know what I mean?"
"They want the full experience. This street, these clothes, the way I act, what I say--see, I'm what they call niche marketing."
"Good to fill a need."
"I used to be in porn."
"Oh, you probably don't recognize me. I was only in three films back when-- Well, a girl has to keep some of her secrets. My most famous role was Third Wench in a scene with that famous Italian guy, Rocky or Rocco something. But for years I was a top-notch fluffer. You know what that is, don't you? A fluffer?"
"I think I do."
"Most of the guys, truth is, with all the cameras and lights and all the people watching, well, it wasn't easy on them to stay, you know, hard. So that was what the fluffers provided. Offstage. Oh, it was great work. I did it for years, knew all the tricks, I can tell you."
"I'm sure you can."
"But then Viagra came along and, well, a pill was a lot cheaper than a girl. Shame really. We fluffers are extinct now. Like dinosaurs or VHS tapes. So here I am, back out working on the streets. Not that I'm complaining, am I right?"
"Speaking of which, you're on the clock."
"Some girls sell their bodies. Not me. I sell my time. Like a consultant or barrister. What you do with that time--and as I say, the clock is ticking--is up to you. So what are you looking for, handsome?"
"Um, a young man."
That made the smile flee. "Go on."
"He's a teenager."
"Nah." She made a swatting motion with her hand. "You're no short eyes."
"Short eyes. A pedo. You're not going to tell me you're a pedo, are you?"
"Oh no. I'm not. I'm just looking for him. I mean him no harm."
She put her hands on her hips and looked at him for a long moment. "Why do I believe you?"
Myron forced up his most winning smile. "My smile."
"No, but you do have a trusting face. That smile is bloody slimy."
"It's supposed to be winning."
"I'm just trying to help him," Myron said. "He's in real danger."
"What makes you think I can help?"
"He was here yesterday. Working."
"So are you the one who killed those cockwombles?"
"Too bad," she said. "I would have thrown you a freebie for that."
"This kid. He's in real danger."
"So you said." She hesitated. Myron took out his wallet. She waved him off. "I don't want your money. I mean, I do. But not for that."
She seemed unsure what to do.
Myron pointed to himself. "Trusting face, remember?"
"None of the boys'll be back here for a bit. Not with the coppers around. They'll go to their other spot."
"And where is that?"
"Hampstead Heath. They usually hang near the west end of Merton Lane."
Hampstead Heath," Win said when Myron was back in the car. "Historic."
"Keats walked its lanes. Kingsley Amis, John Constable, Alfred Tennyson, Ian Fleming--they all had residences there. But that's not why it's best known."
"Do you remember when George Michael was arrested fo
"Sure. It was here?"
"Hampstead Heath, indeed. This has been a gay cruising spot forever, but from my understanding, there is very little prostitution. It has always been more about cottaging."
"God, you're naive. Cottaging. Anonymous sex between men in bushes, public toilets, like that. Cash rarely changes hands. Still, young hustlers could try to ply their trade here, perhaps locate a potential sugar daddy or network for clients. I would suggest heading into the park and veering left toward the public toilets. Continue down the lane past the ponds. That seems to be the apropos area."
"You're pretty knowledgeable on the subject."
"I'm knowledgeable on all subjects."
That was true.
"I also use this new thing called Google." Win held up his smartphone. "You should try it sometime. Do you need to take these?"
Win handed Myron the age-progression photographs of both Patrick and Rhys. He also described with startling detail what the maybe-Patrick he'd seen yesterday looked like, and what he was wearing.
Myron stared at the faces. "How old would Patrick and Rhys be now?"
"Both would be sixteen. Coincidentally--or maybe not--sixteen is the age of consent in Great Britain."
Myron snapped photos of the photos before handing them back to Win. He reached for the door handle and stopped.
"We're missing something here, Win."
"You feel it too?"
"Are we being set up?"
"Could be," Win said, steepling his fingers again. "But the only way to find out for certain is to proceed."
The car was idling at the corner of Merton and Millfield Lane.
"Onward," Myron said and slipped out of the car.
Hampstead Heath was lush and green and beautiful. Myron took the stroll, but there was no sign of Patrick or Rhys. There were men, lots of them, from eighteen (or younger, he supposed) to eighty, mostly in unremarkable garb, but what had Myron expected? Myron saw nothing sexual going on, but that was because, he assumed, there was a public toilet and bushes deep off the paths.
Fifteen minutes into the walk, Myron put the phone to his ear.
"Nothing," he said.
"Anyone hit on you?"
"I know," Myron said. "Do you think these pants make me look fat?"
"We still joke," Win said.
"We believe in complete equality and get angry at anyone who displays the slightest bit of prejudice," Win said.
"Yet we still joke," Myron finished for him.
That was when Myron spotted something that gave him pause.
"Hold up a second," Myron said.
"When you described the, uh, scene yesterday, you mentioned two other guys working the street."
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