Part #3 of Mickey Bolitar series by Harlan Coben
"I understand, sir. I'm really sorry."
Coach Grady stared at me a beat too long. "Run three laps and then get on line. Troy?"
I would say that Buck was meaner than a snake, but that wouldn't be nice to the snake.
"I don't know, Coach. He didn't pick up his cell."
"Odd. He's never missed a practice before. Okay, five-second-denial drill. Get into it."
Practice didn't get much better. Whenever we were working on plays, the guys would throw it at my feet, making it nearly impossible to catch. When we scrimmaged, they froze me out, never passing me the ball no matter how open I was. Of course, I got my share of rebounds. I scored twice off steals. But still. If your teammates freeze you out, there is only so much you can do.
And then, with just a minute left in practice, I saw a glorious opening.
I was covering Brandon Foley. He grabbed a rebound and threw a long outlet pass to Troy Taylor. Troy had been what we call "basket-hanging"--not playing defense and staying close to his own basket for easy points. Troy caught the ball and slowed down his dribble. He was taking his time, preparing for takeoff, revving himself up for a big-time slam dunk.
The other guys hung back, watching, waiting to see whether Troy threw it down with one hand or two, or whether he tried a reverse dunk or something trickier.
I sprinted toward the basket with everything I had. Up ahead of me, Troy took off into the air. His hand was above the rim, palming the ball. He was maybe half a second away from dunking the ball through the hoop when I leapt up from behind him and swatted the ball away.
"What the--?" Troy shouted in surprise.
A completely clean block.
"Foul!" he yelled.
I said nothing, just jogged toward the bouncing ball.
"You fouled me!"
I picked up the ball. I had knocked it out of bounds. It was his team's possession. My father had taught me that you let your game do the talking. You don't yell at referees. You don't trash-talk. You just play.
I handed Troy the ball. He snatched it away.
"He fouled me!" Troy shouted again.
"Take the ball out of bounds, Troy," Coach Grady said. "Run the stack."
"It's just a scrimmage. Let's go. Ten seconds left."
Troy didn't like it. He muttered something under his breath. I ignored him and got ready. I covered Brandon Foley tightly. I knew that he was the first option on the stack. Troy would want to lob it over my head to Brandon. I wouldn't let that happen.
Troy yelled, "Break!" and all the players started to move. I kept a forearm on Brandon, trying to time his jump. I had my back to the ball, my eyes on my man, guarding him closely.
Seconds ticked by.
If five seconds passed, we got the ball. It was getting pretty close to that. I sneaked a glance to see what Troy was about to do.
But he'd been waiting for me to do just that.
When I spotted the grin on Troy's face, I knew that I had made yet another mistake. Troy had been hoping that curiosity would get the better of me. Without warning or hesitation, Troy whipped the ball right at my face.
There was no time to react. The ball landed hard against my nose like a giant fist. I staggered back. I saw stars. My eyes started to water. My head felt numb. I tried to stay standing, tried like hell not to give Troy the satisfaction of going down, but I couldn't remain upright.
I dropped to one knee and cupped my nose in both hands.
Brandon put a hand on my shoulder. "You okay?"
Coach Grady blew the whistle. "What the heck was that?"
"Hey, I'm sorry," Troy said, all nice and innocent. "I was trying to get the ball to Brandon."
I shook Brandon's hand off my shoulder. The pain was subsiding. The nose wasn't broken. I stood as quickly as I could. My head reeled in protest, but I didn't back down.
I blinked away the tears and met Troy's eye. "Whose ball is it?" I asked in as calm a voice as I could muster.
Brandon said, "You sure you're--"
"Off you," Troy said. "It hit your face and went out of bounds."
"Then your ball," I said. "Let's play."
But right then, Coach Stashower, the assistant coach, hurried back into the gymnasium. He whispered something into Coach Grady's ear. Coach Grady's face lost color.
"Okay, that's it," Coach Grady said. "Practice is over. Take a lap and shower up."
I took the lap quickly and headed into my solo locker row. I grabbed my cell phone and checked the messages. Only one text--it was from Ema: coming over after practice? let me know time.
I quickly typed that practice had just ended and, yes, of course I'd be over.
After all, we had to find her missing "boyfriend."
There was still nothing from Rachel. I didn't know what to do about it. I was sure some "helpful" adult would say something like "give it time," but I hated that advice. I had blown it. Uncle Myron had warned me that even the ugliest truth was better than the prettiest of lies. I had listened to that advice. I had told Rachel the ugly truth about her mother's death.
Now, it seemed, she didn't want to see me again.
I thought about that. I thought about Spoon in that hospital bed. I thought about the ashes in my father's grave. I thought about my mother in rehab. I thought about basketball, about my dreams of finally playing on a real team and how, now that it had come true, all my teammates hated me.
I sat by my locker. Sweat dripped off me. I could hear my teammates making jokes and enjoying that easy, laughing friendship I had never really known. Emotionally drained, I stayed where I was. I decided that I'd wait it out. I'd let the rest of the team shower and get dressed, and then when everyone was gone, I'd get ready.
I just didn't have the strength to face them any more today.
Troy was in the middle of some long-winded story when Assistant Coach Stashower stuck his head in the door. "Troy? Coach wants to see you in his office."
"I'm just finishing up a joke--"
Everyone made a friendly mocking "oooo" sound as Troy headed out. Then the rest of the guys showered and got dressed. I pretended to check my iPhone for important messages. Ten minutes passed. The guys started to file out with back slaps, figuring out who would ride in whose car, figuring a time to meet up at the Heritage Diner and then hang out at whose house.
I'd thought that the entire team had left when Brandon Foley came around the corner and sat on the bench next to my locker.
"Tough practice," Brandon said.
I shrugged. "No big deal."
"Troy isn't really such a bad guy."
"Yeah," I said, "he's a real prince."
Brandon smiled at that one. I knew that Brandon Foley was one of the most popular kids in the school. He was president of the student council, president of the Key Club, president of the local chapter of the National Honor Society, and as I mentioned before, co-captain (with Troy) of the basketball team.
You know the type. Good guy, but he wants everyone to like him.
"You need to understand the situation," Brandon said.
"Uh-huh," I said.
"It's mild hazing," Brandon said. "You're the only sophomore."
It was a lot more than mild hazing, but I didn't see much point in continuing with this conversation.
"You know that this team won the county championship last year, right?"
"Yes," I said.
"And that we were within one game of winning the states," Brandon continued. "Do you know how long it's been since Kasselton High actually won it?"
I did. The big win was memorialized all over the walls of the gym in the form of banners and retired jerseys. Twenty-five years ago, Uncle Myron, the school's all-time leading scorer and rebounder, led the Kasselton Camels to their only state championship. One of his teammates--the second le
Bad blood across two generations.
"What's your point?" I said.
"The point is, last year our team started five juniors, so we're all back. The five of us have all played together since we were Biddy All-Stars in fifth grade. Troy, Buck, Alec, Damien, and me--we grew up together. We've been the starting five since we were eleven years old. This may not seem like a big deal to you."
But it did seem like a big deal. I never had anything like that. My parents had lived overseas my entire life. We jumped from place to place, country to country, mostly in the Third World. We lived the life of nomads, backpacking, setting up tents, living in small villages. I had no idea what it was like to have friends like that. As I said before, Ema and Spoon were my best friends ever, and I had only known them a few weeks.
"So now," Brandon said, in his calm, rational, mature voice, "the five of us are seniors. This will be our last year together. We will go off to college and never be on the same team again. We've been waiting for this moment pretty much our whole lives. And now, because of you, one of us won't be a starter anymore."
"You don't know--"
Brandon held up a hand. "Please, Mickey, let's not play humble. You know how good you are. I know how good you are. Troy has always been our leading scorer and best player. Soon it will be you. So he knows it too. You've been at this school, what, a few weeks. In that time, you've taken his girlfriend and soon you'll have his spot on the team."
He was talking about Rachel. I wanted to correct him--I hadn't taken her away and she wasn't my girlfriend--but maybe it was better to just stay quiet.
Brandon stood. "Give him time to get used to that, okay?"
"I didn't steal his girlfriend," I said.
So much for staying quiet.
"Rachel broke it off with him before I ever got here."
"That's not the point."
"Of course it is. And I can't help it if I'm a better player than he is."
"I didn't say you could," Brandon replied. "I'm just letting you know what's going on."
"I don't care," I said.
"Troy is a jerk. You're justifying his bullying behavior--not just of me, but of Ema and Spoon too. He's been on my case since day one--before he ever saw me take a shot--and he just intentionally whipped a basketball at my face. So, sorry, Brandon, I'm not really in the mood to hear someone excuse his bullying."
"I'm not excusing it."
I stood up. "Yeah, you are. And you let it happen. You, the big co-captain and president of everything in this stupid school, just stood there today and let it happen."
Brandon didn't like that. "Look, Mickey, I came over here to help you."
"You're a little late, Brandon. And if your help is to justify why your old best friend hates me, I'm good, thanks. He's the one you should be talking to, not me."
Brandon looked down at me another moment or two. I wanted to take it back. He had been the only one to reach out a hand in friendship, and I had slapped it away. But I was also angry and tired and jet-lagged and just sick of all the crap that kept piling on me. I didn't want to hear about Troy's problems. I had enough on my own.
Still, I ended up saying, "Brandon, I didn't mean--"
"See you around."
He turned and left without another word.
I really had nothing to say to him anyway. I was finally alone. I got undressed and headed into the shower. Have you ever been alone in a locker room? Every sound echoes like it's been miked up. I turned on the water and stepped under the wonderfully harsh spray. I took my time, letting the water pound on my back and head, closing my eyes and breathing deeply.
Calm down, I told myself.
I had just gotten out of the shower when I heard the locker room door burst open. I peeked around the corner.
It was Troy.
He didn't see me. I stayed where I was. He collapsed onto the bench in front of his locker. His face fell into his hands. I heard a sound, a sound like . . .
Troy was crying!
For a moment I thought that maybe Coach Grady had bawled him out for his behavior today. Maybe Coach had seen how Troy had punked me with that fake meeting and whipped the ball into my face, and that was why he had called him into his office.
But I would soon learn that this had nothing to do with me.
The locker room door opened up again. It was Coach Stashower.
"You got your things, Troy?"
Troy sniffled and wiped the tears off his face with his forearm. "It's a lie, you know."
"We heard you."
"I'm being set up."
"Either way, I'm supposed to stay with you while you clean out your locker."
"Now, Troy. It all has to go."
Troy looked as though he was about to protest and then thought better of it. He opened his locker. He took out his bag and angrily stuffed everything into it. Everything. Sneakers, clothes, loose change. His shampoo. His cologne (cologne?). Even, ugh, an old photograph of Troy with his arm around Rachel in her cheerleading uniform that he'd taped to the inside of the locker door.
He jammed it all into his gym bag.
What the heck was going on?
"I'll escort you out," Coach Stashower said in a firm voice when Troy was done.
"No need," Troy said. He stormed toward the door and flung it open. "It's a lie. All of it."
Then Troy was gone.
I should have felt elated. My big enemy was apparently off the team. But I didn't. I felt confused and a little lost. Then again, that seemed to be my permanent status lately. I was at my best when I didn't have to think too much--either when I was on the court or when I had a specific task.
So what was my next task?
Help Ema find her missing boyfriend, I guess.
I walked up the long driveway and crossed the expansive front grounds. I'd barely put my fingertip on the doorbell in front of Ema's enormous mansion when the door swung slowly open.
"Master Mickey. Welcome."
It was Niles, the family butler, speaking with an accent so pronounced, it had to be fake. He wore a tuxedo or tails or something like that. His posture was ramrod straight. He arched one eyebrow.
Ema ran to the door. "Cut that out, Niles."
Ema rolled her eyes. "He's been watching a lot of British television."
"Oh," I said, though I wasn't sure I got it.
It was funny watching the two of them standing there. Both wore black, but that was where the similarities ended. Niles wore formal wear. Ema was in full goth mode--black clothes, jet-black hair, black lipstick, white makeup. She had silver studs going all the way up her ears, a pierced eyebrow, and one skull ring on each hand.
As we headed down the stairs, I couldn't help but stare at the movie posters. They all featured films starring the gorgeous Angelica Wyatt. Some were headshots. Some were full body. Sometimes she was alone. Sometimes she was with some guy. On the bottom step, there was one for that romantic comedy she did with Matt Damon last year.
Only a handful of people knew that Angelica Wyatt--yes, the Angelica Wyatt--was Ema's mom.
"So tell me what happened in California," Ema said.
We sat on oversize beanbag chairs. I told her everything. When I was done, Ema said, "Maybe it was your father's wish."
"What? Being cremated?"
"Right, a lot of people choose that," Ema said. "It's a possibility, right?"
I thought about it. We had traveled all over the world. Most foreign cultures--most cultures my father admired--preferred cremation to burial. I remembered that my father once bemoaned the "waste" of good land, land that could have been used to grow crops, because it was being used as a graveyard.
Could he have told Mom he wanted to b
I thought some more. Then I said, "No."
"If Dad had wanted to be cremated, he wouldn't then want to be buried too. He'd choose one or the other."
Ema nodded. "But it was your mother's signature on the form?"
"So I need to ask her about it. The problem is, she's not allowed visitors in rehab right now. She's going through withdrawal."
"How much longer?"
"I don't know." I looked at Ema. Yes, she was interested, but I knew what she was doing. For some reason, she was asking all these questions to stall. "So tell me about your missing boyfriend."
"Before I do," Ema said, "I wanted to show you something."
She started pulling up her shirt.
"Uh," I said, because I'm good with words.
"Relax, perv. I want to show you a tattoo."
"Uh," I said again.
"You'll see why."
Ema was loaded up with tattoos. This helped cultivate her bad-girl image. She wore them almost like a fence, warning people to stay back. Yes, I know a lot of people have tattoos, but Ema was only a high school freshman. Many of the kids were intimidated that a girl so young could have so many. How did she get her parents' permission?
I had wondered that myself.
But more recently I learned the simple truth: The tattoos were temporary. She had a friend named Agent at a tattoo parlor called Tattoos While U Wait. Agent liked to try out designs before putting them on someone in a permanent way. He used Ema's skin as a practice canvas.
Ema turned her back to me. "Look."
There, in the center of her back, was a familiar image to Ema, Spoon, Rachel, and me.
A butterfly. More specifically, the Tisiphone Abeona butterfly.
That image haunted us. I had seen it on a grave behind Bat Lady's house. I had seen it on Rachel's hospital room door. I had seen it in an old picture of hippies from the sixties. I had even seen the image of that butterfly in an old photograph of the famous Lizzy Sobek, the young girl who led children to safety during the Holocaust. I saw it atop my father's "maybe" grave, on the back of a photograph in Bat Lady's basement, even in a tattoo parlor.
"You told me about that," I said.
"I know. But I went back to have it redone. You know. Have Agent make it bright or change it. The tattoos usually wear off after a few weeks."
I felt a small chill ripple across my back. "But?"
"But he couldn't."
I knew the answer but I asked anyway. "Why?"
"It's permanent," Ema said. "Agent said he doesn't know how that happened. But the butterfly is there. For good."
Found by Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Young Adult / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes