Part #3 of Mickey Bolitar series by Harlan Coben
I said nothing.
"What's going on, Mickey?"
"I don't know."
We sat there in silence. I finally broke it. "Tell me about your missing boyfriend."
For a second or two, she didn't move. She swallowed, blinked a few times, and then stared at the floor. "Boyfriend may be putting it a little too strongly."
Ema started twisting the skull ring on her right hand. "You have to promise me something."
Her body language was all wrong. Ema was about confidence. She was big and confident and didn't care who noticed. She was comfortable in her own skin. Now, all of a sudden, that confidence was gone.
"Okay," I said.
"You have to promise you won't make fun of me."
"Are you serious?"
She just looked at me.
"Okay, okay, I promise. It's odd, that's all."
"What's odd?" she asked.
"This promise. I thought you didn't care what people think of you."
"I don't," Ema said. "I care what you think of me."
A second passed. Then another. Then I said, "Oh," because I'm really, really good with words. It was, of course, a dumb comment on my part--the stuff about her not caring. Everyone cares what people think. Some just hide it better.
"So tell me," I said.
"I met a guy in a chat room," Ema said.
I blinked once. Then I said, "You hang out in chat rooms?"
"I'm not making fun."
"You're judging," she said. "That's just as bad."
"I'm not. I'm just surprised, that's all."
"It's not like you think," Ema said. "See, I've been helping my mom with her social networking. She's clueless. So is her manager and her agent and her personal assistant--whatever. So I set some promotional stuff up for her--Twitter, Facebook, you know the deal. And now I watch it for her."
"Okay," I said.
"Anyway, in this chat room, I met this guy."
I just looked at her.
"What?" she said.
"You're judging again."
"I'm just sitting here," I said, spreading my hands. "If you see something more on my face, that's more about you than me."
"I'm just surprised, okay? What kind of chat room was this anyway?"
"It's for Angelica Wyatt fans."
I tried sooo hard to keep my face expressionless.
"There you go again!" she shouted.
"Stop looking at my face and tell me what happened. You're in an Angelica Wyatt chat room. You start talking to a guy. Am I right so far?"
Ema looked sheepish. "Yeah."
"Are you using an alias?"
"Why would I? No one knows I'm Angelica Wyatt's daughter."
Not even me until I followed her from school last week. In school, Ema was the subject of much speculation. Every school, I'm told, has that one kid who seems to come out of the woods to school every day. No one knows where he or she lives. No one has been to his or her house. Rumors start--as they did about Ema. She lived in a cabin in the woods, some speculated. Her father abused her maybe. He sold drugs. Something.
Ema actually encouraged those rumors to hide the truth: She was the daughter of a world-famous movie star.
"I use my own name in the chat room," Ema said, "so I can be just another fan."
"Okay, go on."
"So anyway, I started chatting with this guy. Then we started e-mailing and texting, that kind of thing." Her face turned red. "He told me about his life. He told me he used to live in Europe but they had moved to the United States last year. We talked about books and movies and feelings. It . . . it got pretty intimate."
My face twisted into a grimace.
"Ew, gross," Ema snapped. "Not that kind of intimate!"
"I didn't say--"
"Stop, okay? And never play poker, Mickey. You'd be terrible at it. I mean, we talked. We really talked and opened up. At first, okay, I figured that maybe this guy was a fake, you know? Like I was being played."
"A prank," I said. "Catfished."
"Right. I mean, you know me. I don't trust easily. But as time went on . . ." Ema's eyes lit up. "It was weird, but we both changed. Especially him. He might have started out playing some kind of game, but he became real. I can't explain it."
I nodded, trying to move her along. "So you two got close."
"You felt like he was starting to open up to you."
"Yes. A few days ago, he said that he had something really important to tell me. That he had to confess something. I figured, uh-oh, here we go. He's really an eleven-year-old girl or he's married and thirty-eight. Something like that."
"But that wasn't it?"
Ema shook her head. "No."
"So what was his big secret?"
"He ended up saying, forget it, it's no big deal," Ema said. She slid a little closer to me. "Don't you see? He chickened out. I can't explain this well. I'm summing up hundreds of texts and conversations. It was like something scared him from telling me the truth."
"You're right," I said.
I nodded. "You're not explaining this well."
Ema punched me in the arm. "Just listen, okay?"
"Jared and I finally set up a meet."
"Jared? His name is Jared?"
"Oh, now you're going to make fun of his name?"
I held up both hands.
"He lives in Connecticut. About two hours from here. So we agreed to meet at the Kasselton Mall. Jared had just gotten his license and could drive down. He said that he had to tell me something really important, something he could only tell me in person. He said that once we met, I'd understand everything."
"Understand everything about what?"
"About him. About us."
I was lost, but I just said, "Okay. So then what?"
"Then . . ." Ema stopped, shrugged. "Nothing."
"What do you mean, nothing?"
"What do you think I mean?" she snapped. "That's it. I went to the Kasselton Mall. I waited exactly where we said we'd meet--in that back corner of Ruby Tuesday's. But he never showed. I waited one hour. Then two. Then . . . all day, okay? I sat there all day."
"Jared never showed?"
"You got it."
"So what did you do then?" I asked.
"I texted him. But he didn't answer. I e-mailed him. Same thing. I went into our chat room, but he didn't come back. I even checked his Facebook page, but there was nothing there. It was like he had suddenly vanished into thin air."
Ema typed something onto her laptop and then turned it to me. It was a Facebook profile for a boy named Jared Lowell. I took one look at his profile picture and without thinking said, "You were catfished."
The guy in the profile picture was ridiculously good-looking. I don't mean everyday-high-school-quarterback good-looking. I mean TV-hunk, fronting-a-hot-boy-band good-looking.
"Forget it," I said.
Ema was angry now. "Why did you say that?"
"Forget it, okay?"
"No, why did you say that I was catfished when you saw his picture? It's because he's cute, right?"
"What? No." But my words sounded weak even in my own ears.
"You don't think a guy who looks like that could ever go for a girl who looks like me, right?"
"That's not it at all," I sorta-lied.
"If I were Rachel Caldwell, you'd have no trouble believing it--"
"It isn't that, Ema. But, I mean, look at him. Come on. If I told you I was having an online relationship with a girl I met in a chat room and, when you saw her picture, she looked like a famous swimsuit model, what would you think?"
"I'd believe you," she said. But now it was her voice that sounded weak.
"Yes," she said a little too firmly.
I put my hands on her shoulders. "You're my best friend, Ema. You're the best friend I've ever had."
She looked down, her face reddening in embarrassment.
"I could lie to you and tell you that this all sounds on the up-and-up," I said. "But what kind of friend does that? I'm not saying your relationship with Jared isn't real. But if I don't have the courage to tell you how it looks, who will?"
That stopped her. Ema kept her face down. "So you think, what, it's a prank?"
"Maybe," I said. "That's all. Maybe it's just a joke."
She looked up at me. "A joke?"
"A cruel one, but yeah, maybe."
"Well, ha-ha." Ema shook her head. "Mickey, think about it. Let's say it was a prank. Let's say it was the mean kids in school. Like Troy or Buck, right? Let's say they set this whole thing up."
Ema spread her arms. "Where's the payoff?"
I had no answer to that.
"They would have let me know, right? They would have mocked me. They would have rubbed it in my face or put the intimate conversations online. They'd let the world know what a fool I was, wouldn't they?"
A tear slid down her cheek.
"Why would Jared the prankster just vanish without having the last word?"
I swallowed. "I don't know," I said.
"It is easy to make fun of these relationships. I used to do it too. But think about it. When it is just in writing like this, when it is just texts or e-mails, just your words and nothing else, it is actually more real. It doesn't matter what you look like or what table you sit at during lunch. It doesn't matter if you play quarterback or head up the chess club. All of that becomes irrelevant. It is just the two of you and your intelligence and your feelings. Do you see?"
"I guess," I admitted.
"Listen to me, Mickey. Look at my eyes and really listen."
I did. I looked into those eyes, and for a moment, I felt happily lost. I trusted those eyes. I believed in them.
"I know," Ema said. "Don't ask me how. But I know. We have to do this--even if you think I'm crazy."
"Because it's not up to us," Ema said.
"Huh? Of course it is."
Ema shook her head. "These things come to us, Mickey. It's bigger than we are."
"What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean."
"What, you think this is Abeona?"
She moved closer to me so we could share the laptop. I smelled her perfume. It was something new, something different. I had smelled it before, but couldn't place it. She pulled up Jared's page again. "There has only been one new photograph added since Jared disappeared . . ."
When I saw the screen, I nearly gasped out loud.
There, on Jared Lowell's page, was a photograph of a butterfly.
Again, to be more specific, the Tisiphone Abeona.
"We have no choice," Ema said. "We need to find him."
We sat there for another moment, staring at that butterfly. I smelled her perfume again and felt a small rush. I looked at her. She looked at me. Our eyes met. Nothing was said. Nothing needed to be said.
And then my cell phone rang.
Our eye contact broke as though it were a dry twig. Ema looked away. I looked toward the caller ID on my phone. The number was blocked.
An adult male said, "Is this Mickey Bolitar?"
The voice was grave and serious and maybe there was a small quake of fear in it.
"Yes, this is he," I said.
"This is Mr. Spindel, Arthur's father."
It took me a second to place the name, but when I did, I felt my pulse quicken. I always called Arthur Spindel "Spoon." His father, the man on the phone, was the head custodian at Kasselton High School--and Spoon's father.
"Is Spoon okay?" I said quickly.
Mr. Spindel didn't answer that directly. "Do you know where Emma Beaumont is?"
Emma was Ema. "She's right next to me."
"Could you please both come to the hospital?"
"Of course. When?"
"As soon as possible," Mr. Spindel said, and then he hung up.
Niles drove us to Saint Barnabas Medical Center. He dropped us off at the front door. We sprinted to the reception desk in the lobby.
"Fifth floor," the receptionist said to us. "The elevator is on your right. Look for the signs for the ICU."
ICU. Spoon was still in the Intensive Care Unit. I felt my eyes well up, but I forced the tears back down.
We hurried to the elevator. I pressed the button repeatedly, as if that would somehow tell the elevator that we were in a rush. It took too long to arrive. We leapt in and of course three other people did too, all pushing for floors lower than ours. I wanted to yell at them to cut it out.
When we finally reached the fifth floor, Mr. Spindel was waiting for us. He was wearing the beige janitor uniform he wore at school, the words MR. SPINDEL stenciled on the right chest pocket. He was a wiry man with big hands and usually an easygoing way about him. There was no smile now.
"This way," Mr. Spindel said.
As we followed him, Ema asked, "How is Spoo--I mean, Arthur?"
No change. The words hushed the corridor. When we last saw him, Spoon had no feeling in his legs. He was paralyzed below the waist.
Down the corridor I saw Mrs. Spindel sitting in a chair. I flashed to the first time I had seen her when I dropped Spoon off at his house a few weeks ago. She had greeted her son at the door with such pure joy. Her entire face had lit up as she hugged him. Now it was like someone had extinguished that light. Her cheeks were sunken. Her hair seemed grayer.
Mrs. Spindel gave me a baleful look. The last time I was here, she had told me in no uncertain terms that what happened to her beloved son was my fault. Clearly her opinion had not changed.
"My wife doesn't think this is a good idea," Mr. Spindel explained.
There was no need to comment on that.
We approached a big door.
"I'll wait out here," Mr. Spindel said. "You two go in."
I pushed the heavy door open slowly. Spoon was sitting up in bed. There were tubes and machines and beeping noises. He looked tiny in that big hospital bed, this little skinny kid with the big glasses lost among all this horror.
When Spoon saw us, his face broke into a huge smile. For a second everything else in the room disappeared. There was just that big smile on the face of that tiny, doofy kid.
"Did you know," Spoon began, "that Babe Ruth wore a cabbage leaf under his baseball cap?"
Ema and I just stood there.
"For real," Spoon went on. "He'd wet it on hot days and it kept him cool. He changed it every two innings."
I couldn't help it. I lost it. I ran over to him and tried so hard not to cry. I'm not a crier by nature. But as I rushed over to Spoon, as I swept him as gently as I could into my arms, I could feel the tears push through my eyelids.
"Mickey?" Spoon said tentatively. "What the . . ."
I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to hold it. I needed to be strong right now. I needed to be strong for Spoon. I was his big, tough friend. I remembered on the very first day we met how he'd said that I was Shrek to his Donkey. I was his protector.
And I had failed him.
It was no use. I started sobbing.
Spoon said, "Mickey?"
"I'm so sorry," I said through the sobs. "I'm so sorry."
I just shook my head and held on to him.
"For what?" Spoon asked again. "You didn't shoot me, did you?"
"I didn't think so. So what are you sorry about?"
I let him go.
"It's still my fault," I said.
Spoon frowned. "How on earth do you figure that?"
"Are you serious?"
"As a heart attack," Spoon said. He started laughing. "Man, I always wanted to use that line. Serious as a heart attack, except it really isn't funny, I mean, not in here. Mr. Costo down the hall, he had a heart attack. That's why he's in the hospital. I met his wife. Nice lady. She went to elementary school with Tippi Hedren. You know, the old actress? From The Birds? Isn't that something?"
I just looked at him. He smiled again.
"It's okay, Mickey."
I shook my head. "I got you involved in all this."
Spoon pushed the glasses up his nose. "Really?"
I looked at Ema. She shrugged. I turned back to Spoon. "Are you putting me on?"
"No," Spoon said. "And no offense, Mickey, but you're kinda sounding full of yourself."
Spoon's eyes met mine. "You're not that powerful, Mickey. You didn't make me do anything. I made my own choices. I'm my own man." He looked at Ema and winked. "That's why the ladies dig me, am I right?"
Ema rolled her eyes. "Don't make me punch you."
Spoon laughed at that. I just stood there.
"You weren't the only one the Bat Lady chose," Spoon said. "Sure, you're our leader, I guess. But we're a team. We are all a part of Abeona--you, me, Ema. Rachel too. Can we walk away from it? Well, I can't. I mean, I really can't. My legs aren't working right now. But even if they were, I don't think I could. And that has nothing to do with you, Mickey. You're not to blame."
"Wow," I said.
"You're kind of making sense."
Spoon arched an eyebrow. "I'm a constant surprise." Another wink for Ema. "Another reason the ladies dig me."
Ema made a fist and showed it to him. Spoon howled with laughter. When he finished, he spread his arms and said, "So?"
"So?" I repeated.
"So why do you think I told my dad I had to see you? We rescue kids. That doesn't stop because I got hurt. So who do we need to rescue now?"
"Just rest," I said. "You need to concentrate on getting better."
Spoon frowned at me and looked toward Ema.
"A guy I met in a chat room," Ema said to him.
"A boyfriend?" Spoon asked.
Spoon shook his head. "I get shot and you're already on to a new guy?"
"I will hurt you," Ema said.
Spoon pushed the glasses back up his nose again. "Tell me about him," he said.
So she did. Spoon nodded. He never showed doubt. He never judged. He just listened. It made me wonder who indeed was the leader of this group. Ema was just finishing up when a nurse came in and told us it was time to leave.
Found by Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Young Adult / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes