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         Part #11 of Myron Bolitar series by Harlan Coben  

  "Correct."

  "You said one had a shaved head and wore a dog collar."

  "Correct again."

  Myron moved the phone so that the camera was pointing at the young leather-clad man near the pond.

  "Well?"

  "That is he," Win said.

  Myron put the phone back in his pocket and crossed the path. Dog Collar had his hands jammed into his pants pockets as though he was searching for something that had pissed him off. His shoulders were hunched. He had a tattoo on his neck--Myron couldn't tell what it was--and he was pulling on his cigarette as though he meant to finish it with one inhale.

  "Hey," Myron said, wanting to get his attention, but also afraid that anything too loud might startle the . . . boy? Man? Guy? Kid?

  Dog Collar spun toward Myron, trying his best to look tough. There is a certain cringe behind false bravado. Myron saw that here. It usually derives from a person who, one, has been beaten too many times, hence the cringe, and, two, has discovered the hard way that showing weakness makes the beatings even worse, hence the false bravado. The damage--and there was a lot of it here--came off the boy in waves.

  "Gotta light?" he asked.

  Myron was going to answer that he didn't smoke or carry a lighter, but maybe asking for a light was some sort of code, so he stepped closer.

  "Can we talk for a second?" Myron asked.

  Dog Collar's eyes darted like a bird moving from branch to branch. "I know a place."

  Myron didn't reply. He wondered about the boy's life, about where it had started, about the path it had traveled, about when it started to go wrong. Was this a slow descent, a childhood steeped in abuse maybe, something like that? Was this boy a runaway? Did he have a mother or father? Was he beaten or bored or on drugs? Had the downward spiral been gradual, or had hitting bottom been more sudden--a snap, a scream, one hard, clean blow?

  "Well?" the kid said.

  Myron took in this skinny kid with his pale, reed-thin arms, a nose that had been busted more than once, the piercings in his ears, the guyliner, that damn dog collar, and he thought about Patrick and Rhys, two boys who had grown up in the lap of luxury and been snatched away.

  Did they now look like this boy?

  "Yeah," Myron said, trying not to sound too deflated, "I'm ready."

  "Follow me."

  Dog Collar headed up the ridge toward the path between the two ponds. Myron wasn't sure if he should keep up and walk side by side with the boy--Myron was guessing his age to be between eighteen and twenty, and that was young enough to still be called a boy--or if he should stay behind him. Dog Collar kept hurrying ahead, so Myron settled for walking behind him.

  There had been no request for money yet. That troubled Myron a bit. He kept an eye on his surroundings. They were heading farther up, toward the thicker bushes. There were fewer men around now. Myron turned his attention to Dog Collar. When they walked past a guy wearing camouflage pants, Myron saw a small, almost indiscernible nod pass between the two men.

  Uh-oh.

  Myron wanted to give Win a little bit of a warning.

  "Who's that?" Myron asked.

  "Huh?"

  "That guy you just nodded at. The guy with the camouflage pants."

  "Don't know what you're talking about." Then he added, "You're an American."

  "Yes."

  The kid circled behind a bush. They were completely out of sight now. Myron spotted a used condom on the ground.

  "So what are you into?" the kid asked.

  "Conversation."

  "What?"

  Myron was a big guy, six four, a former collegiate basketball star. He had weighed 215 in his playing days. He was up ten pounds since then. He positioned his body so that Dog Collar couldn't just run off. Myron didn't know if he would use force to stop him, but he didn't want to make it easy either.

  "You were there yesterday," Myron said.

  "Huh?"

  "When that . . . that incident took place. You saw it."

  "What are you . . . Wait, are you a copper?"

  "No."

  "So why would an American . . . ?" His voice faded away and his eyes widened. "Oh, look, I ain't seen nothing."

  Myron wondered whether Win had spoken and if Dog Collar was putting it together like this: An American kills three people--and another American finds the witness.

  "I don't care about that," Myron said. "I'm looking for the boy who was there. He ran off."

  Dog Collar looked skeptical.

  "Look, I'm not here to harm you or anyone else."

  He tried to show Dog Collar his most trustworthy face, but unlike the throwback street hooker, this kid had probably never seen one. People were either abusers or marks in his world.

  "Pull down your trousers," Dog Collar said.

  "What?"

  "That's what we're here for, right?"

  "No, listen, I'll pay you. I'll pay you a lot."

  That made him pause. "For?"

  "Do you know the boy who ran off?"

  "And if I do?"

  "I'll pay you five hundred pounds if you bring me to him."

  The eyes started darting again. "Five hundred?"

  "Yes."

  "You have that much on you?"

  Uh-oh. But in for a penny, in for a . . .

  "Yeah, I do."

  "So you probably have more."

  As though on cue, two guys came around the bush. One was the man in camouflage pants Myron had noticed earlier. The other guy was a big brawler type with a tourniquet-tight black T-shirt, a Cro-Magnon forehead, and arms as big as ham hocks.

  The brawler was chewing tobacco like a cow with a cud and playing to type; he was actually cracking his knuckles.

  "You're going to give us all your money," Camouflage Pants said, "or Dex here is gonna give you a pounding--and then we'll just take it."

  Myron looked at Dex. "Are you really cracking your knuckles?"

  "What?"

  "I mean, I get it. You're a tough guy. But cracking your knuckles? It's over the top."

  That confused Dex. He frowned. Myron knew the type. Bar fighter. Takes on smaller guys. Never did battle with anyone who had any kind of skill.

  Dex moved into Myron's space. "You some kind of smart-ass?"

  "How many kinds are there?"

  "Oh man, oh man, oh man." Dex actually rubbed his hands together. "I'm going to so enjoy this."

  "Don't kill him, Dex."

  Dex smiled with tiny pointy teeth like an ocean predator circling a guppy. There was no reason to wait. Myron made his fingers into a spear, cupped his hand slightly, and, leading with the fingers, he struck Dex straight in the throat. The blow landed like a dart.

  Dex's hands both went to his neck, leaving him completely exposed. Myron wasn't in the mood to do any serious damage here. He quickly swept the guy's leg, knocking him to the ground. He turned his attention to Camouflage Pants, but he was having none of it. Maybe it was watching his muscle get taken down so easily. Maybe it was the knowledge of what had happened to his haute couture brethren yesterday at the hands of Win. He ran.

  So did Dog Collar.

  Damn.

  Myron was fast, but as he turned, he felt the old injury tighten his knee joint. Between the plane and the car, he'd probably spent too much time sitting. Should have stretched it more during his walk.

  Meanwhile the kid moved like a jackrabbit. He had, Myron surmised, been forced to run a lot, and while Myron might normally sympathize, there was no way he was going to let this lead slip away.

  He couldn't let Dog Collar get too far ahead of him.

  If he got too far ahead--if he found people and civilization--Dog Collar would be safe from whatever Myron wanted to, well, do to him. He might also call out for help. These areas had a way of policing their own.

  But then again, would a thief trying to roll a guy in a park like this want to draw attention to himself?

  It might not matter. Myron was on the path now too, but the kid already had a substantial lead, and that lead seemed to be widening. If Myron lost him, it would be yet another missed opportunity. The ties to what Win had seen yesterday--the ties to Patrick and Rhys--were tenuous at best. If this kid got away, it could be game over.

  Dog Collar veered around the street lamp and out of sight. Damn. No chance, Myron thought. No chance of catching up.

  And then Dog Collar went flying.

  His legs were up in the air, his body horizontal to the ground. Someone had done the simplest thing in the world.

  Someone had stuck out his foot and tripped him.

  Win.

  Dog Collar was splayed on his belly. Myron made the turn. Win barely glanced his way before disappearing into the shadows. Myron hurried over and straddled Dog Collar. He spun him onto his back. Dog Collar covered his face and waited for the blows.

  The kid's voice was pitiful. "Please . . ."

  "I'm not going to hurt you," Myron said. "Just calm down. It's going to be all right."

  It took another few seconds before he lowered his hands away from his face. There were tears in his eyes now.

  "I promise," Myron said, "I'm not going to hurt you. Okay?"

  The boy nodded through the tears, but you could see he didn't believe a word of it. Myron risked rolling off him. He helped him sit up.

  "Let's try this again," Myron said. "Do you know the boy who ran away yesterday, the one they were fighting over?"

  "The other American," Dog Collar said. "He your friend?"

  "Does it matter?"

  "He killed all three of them, like he was taking a stroll. Just sliced them up without a care."

  Myron tried another avenue. "Did you know those guys?"

  "Course. Terence, Matt, and Peter. Used to beat the shit out of me, all three of them. If I had a pound in my pocket, they wanted me to give them two." He looked up at Myron. "If you had something to do with it, well, I'd shake your hand."

  "I didn't," Myron said.

  "You just want the boy they was hassling."

  "Yes."

  "Why?"

  "It's a long story. He's in need of rescue."

  Dog Collar frowned.

  "Do you know him, yes or no?"

  "Yeah," Dog Collar said. "Course I know him."

  "Can you take me to him?"

  Some wariness came back to the kid's eyes. "You still got the five hundred pounds?"

  "I do."

  "Give it to me now."

  "How do I know you won't run again?"

  "Because I saw what your friend did. You'll kill me if I run."

  Myron wanted to tell him that wasn't so, but it probably wouldn't hurt to keep him scared. Dog Collar stuck out his palm. Myron gave him the five hundred pounds. The kid jammed the money into his shoe.

  "You won't tell anyone you gave it to me?"

  "No."

  "Come on, then. I'll take you to him."

  Chapter 6

  Myron tried to chat up the kid as they hopped on a train at Gospel Oak. For the first part of the ride, the kid jammed in earphones and turned up the volume so loudly Myron could clearly hear the misogynistic lyrics through the kid's ear canal.

  Myron wondered whether the phone's signal could still reach Win. When they changed lines at Highbury and Islington, the kid turned off the music and said, "What's your name?"

  "Myron. What's yours?"

  "Myron what?"

  "Myron Bolitar."

  "You're pretty good with your fists. Took care of Dex like he was wet tissue."

  Myron wasn't sure what to say to that, so he said, "Thanks."

  "Where in the States you from?"

  Curious question. "New Jersey."

  "You're a big bloke. You play rugby?"

  "No. I . . . I played basketball in school. How about you?"

  The kid made a scoffing sound. "School. Right. Where did you go to school?"

  "A university called Duke," Myron said. "What's your name?"

  "Don't worry about it."

  "How come you're working the streets?" Myron asked.

  The kid tried looking tough, but as with most kids, it came out as more sullen than threatening. "What's it to you?"

  "I don't mean it as an insult or anything. I just hear most of the, uh, business is online nowadays. It's on Grindr and Scruff and apps like that."

  The kid lowered his head. "It's punishment."

  "What's punishment?"

  "The streets."

  "For what?"

  The train stopped. "We get off here," the kid said, rising. "Come on."

  The street outside the station was crowded and noisy. They headed down Brixton Road, past a Sainsbury's store, and ducked into a shop front called AdventureLand.

  The cacophony of sounds, none pleasant except perhaps in a nostalgic way, was the first thing to assault the senses. There was the crash of bowling pins, the digital ding-ding of arcade scoring, the harsh buzzing of missed shots, the mechanical whoop-whoop-whoop of made free throws. There were the artificial noises of virtual planes being struck down and monsters dying under heavily armed assault. There were neon lights and Day-Glo colors. There were Skee-Ball machines and Pac-Man and air hockey and shoot-'em-ups and race-car simulators and those claw cranes trying to snag generic stuffed animals from within a glass cage. There were bumper cars and Ping-Pong and pool tables and a karaoke bar.

  There were a lot of teenage boys.

  Myron's eyes swept the room. There were two rent-a-cops by the door. They couldn't have looked more bored without some sort of neurosurgery. He didn't pay them much attention. What Myron did notice, almost immediately, were the several men milling about trying to fit in--no, trying to blend in.

  They wore camouflage pants.

  The kid with the dog collar weaved through the crowd toward an area called Laser Maze, which looked like one of those scenes in Mission: Impossible where someone tries to move without crossing one of the beams and setting off an alarm. There was a door marked EMERGENCY EXIT behind it. The kid moved over to it and looked up at a surveillance camera. Myron joined him. The kid gestured for Myron to look up into the lens. Myron did so, smiling widely and giving the camera a little wave.

  "How do I look?" he asked the kid. "My hair's a mess, right?"

  The kid just turned away.

  The door opened. They walked through it. The door closed. Two more camouflage-pants-clad men were there. Myron pointed at the pants.

  "Was there, like, a really big sale on those?"

  No one found this amusing.

  "You got a weapon on you?"

  "Just my winning smile."

  Myron demonstrated. Neither man appeared particularly impressed.

  "Empty your pockets. Wallet, keys, phone."

  Myron did so. They even had one of those bowls where you empty your keys and change before heading through airport security. One of the men took out a metal wand and ran it over Myron. That wasn't good enough. He started to pat down Myron with a little too much gusto.

  "Oh God, that feels good," Myron said. "A little left."

  That made the man stop.

  "Okay, second door on the right."

  "Can I have my stuff back?"

  "When you come out."

  Myron looked at Dog Collar. Dog Collar kept his eyes on the floor.

  "Why do I have a feeling I'm not going to find what I'm looking for behind that door?"

  This door too was locked. There was yet another security camera above it. The kid looked up at it. He gestured for Myron to do the same. Myron did it, but this time there was no winning smile. Show them.

  There was a clanging noise. The door, made of reinforced steel, swung open. The kid went inside first. Myron followed.

  The first word that came to mind: "high tech." Or was that two words? AdventureLand was kind of a dump, with arcade games that had seen better days. This room was sleek and modern. There had to be a dozen, probably more, high-end monitors and screens on the walls, on desks, everywhere. Myron counted four men. None wore camouflage pants.

  Standing in the middle of the room was a heavyset Indian man with a shaved head. He wore headphones and held a game controller. They were all playing a military-style shooter video game. While everyone around him frantically attacked their controllers, the heavyset man seemed relaxed, almost casual.

  "Shh, give us a second, will you? Those damn Italians think they have us beat."

  The heavyset Indian turned his back to them. All eyes were on the center screen on the far wall. It was a leaderboard in some sort of game, Myron guessed. First place listed ROMAVSLAZIO. Second place was FATGANDHI47. Third place was HUNGSTALLION12. Uh-huh, dream on, gamer boy. Other teams on the leaderboard included UNECHANCEDETROP, GIRTH-VADER (probably a friend of HUNGSTALLION12), and MOMMY'S-BASEMENT (honesty--finally, a self-aware gamer).

  The heavyset Indian raised his hand slowly, like a conductor about to begin. He looked over at a thin black man by the keyboard.

  "Now!" the heavyset Indian said, lowering his arm.

  The thin black man clicked a key.

  For a moment, nothing happened. Then the leaderboard changed so that the top name read FATGANDHI47.

  The men in the room cheered and high-fived one another. That transitioned to backslaps and hugs. Myron and Dog Collar just stood there until the celebrations slowly wound down. The other three men got back behind their computer terminals. Myron could see the reflections from the screens on their glasses. The big monitor in the middle, the one that had been tracking the leaders, turned to black. As it did, the heavyset Indian turned to Myron.

  "Welcome."

  Myron glanced at Dog Collar. The kid looked petrified.

  Calling the Indian heavyset was being politically correct. He was rotund, with slabs and slabs of skin and a belly like he'd swallowed a bowling ball. His T-shirt couldn't quite reach his waist and hung out almost like a skirt. His neck fat flowed directly into a smoothly shaved head, so that it looked like one trapezoidal entity. He had a small mustache, wire-rimmed glasses, and a smile that one might mistake for gentle.

  "Welcome, Myron Bolitar, to our humble offices."

  "Nice to be here," Myron said, "Fat Gandhi."

  This pleased him. "Ah yes, yes. You saw the leaderboard?"

  "I did."

  He spread his arms, his triceps flapping in the no-breeze. "Does the name not fit?"

  "Like a well-tailored sock," Myron said, even though he had no idea what that meant.

  Fat Gandhi turned his gaze toward Dog Collar. The kid withered to the point where Myron felt the need to step in front of him.

  "Aren't you going to ask how I know your name?" Fat Gandhi asked.

  "The kid asked for it on the subway," Myron said. "He also asked me where I was from and where I went to school. I guess you must have been listening in."

 
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