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         Part #11 of Myron Bolitar series by Harlan Coben  

  "We were indeed."

  Fat Gandhi offered up another beatific grin, but now--and maybe this was just his imagination--Myron could see the decay behind it.

  "Do you think only you can use your phone as a listening device?"

  Myron said nothing.

  Fat Gandhi snapped his fingers. A map appeared on the big screen. There were blinking blue dots all over it. "All of my employees carry such phones. We can use them as listening devices, as GPSs, to page. We can keep track of all our employees at all times." He pointed at the blue dots on the screen. "When we get a match on one of our apps--let us say one of our clients has a desire for a malnourished white male with a studded dog collar . . ."

  The kid started to shake.

  ". . . we know where such an employee is and can arrange a meeting at any time. We can also listen in if we wish. We can discover if there is any danger. Or"--and now the smile looked positively predatory--"we can see if we are being cheated."

  The kid reached into his shoe, pulled out the five hundred pounds, and held it out toward Fat Gandhi. Fat Gandhi didn't take it. The kid put the money on one of the desks. Then he actually slid behind Myron. Myron let him.

  Fat Gandhi turned toward the map. He spread his hands again. The other men in the room kept their heads down and typed.

  "This is our nerve center."

  Nerve center, Myron thought. This guy should be petting a hairless cat. He sounded like a Bond villain.

  He looked over his shoulder at Myron. "Do you know why I don't fear telling you all this?"

  "Is it my trusting face? That's come in handy tonight."

  "No." He spun back toward Myron. "It's because there is nothing you could really do. You've noticed the security. Sure, the authorities could eventually get in, maybe whoever is on the other end of your smartphone even. By the way, one of my men is driving around with your phone. Just to make it all the more fun, no?"

  "Sounds like big laughs."

  "But here is the thing, Myron. May I call you Myron?"

  "Sure. Should I call you Fat?"

  "Ha-ha. I like you, Myron Bolitar."

  "Great."

  "Myron, you may have noticed that we have no hard drives in here. Everything--all of the information on our clients, our employees, our dealings--is kept in a cloud. So if someone comes in, we press a button, and voila"--Fat Gandhi snapped his fingers--"there is nothing to be found."

  "Clever."

  "I tell you this not to boast."

  "Oh?"

  "I want you to understand with whom you are dealing before we do business. Just as it is my responsibility to know who I am dealing with."

  He snapped his fingers again.

  When the screen came back on, Myron almost groaned out loud.

  "Once we heard your name, it didn't take long to learn much more." Fat Gandhi pointed to the screen. Someone had paused the video on the title: THE COLLISION: THE MYRON BOLITAR STORY

  "We've been watching your documentary, Myron. It's very moving."

  If you were a sports fan of a certain age, you knew the "legend" of Myron Bolitar, former first-round draft pick of the Boston Celtics. If you were not, or if you were younger or foreign like these guys, well, thanks to a recent sports documentary on ESPN called The Collision going viral, you still knew more than you should.

  Fat Gandhi snapped his fingers again, and the video started playing.

  "Yeah," Myron said, "I've already seen it."

  "Oh, come, come. Don't be so modest."

  The documentary started off optimistically enough: tinkling music, bright sunshine, cheers from the crowd. Somehow they had gotten clips of Myron playing AAU ball as a sixth grader. Then it moved on. Myron Bolitar had been a high school basketball superstar from Livingston, New Jersey. During his years at Duke University, his legend grew. He was a consensus All-American, a two-time NCAA champion, and even College Player of the Year.

  The tinkling music swelled.

  When the Boston Celtics picked him in the first round of the NBA draft, Myron's dreams, it seemed, had all come true.

  And then, as the documentary voice-over of doom intoned, "Tragedy struck . . ."

  Sudden stop on the tinkling music. Cue something more ominous.

  "Tragedy struck" in the third quarter of Myron's very first preseason game, the first--and last--time he would don the green Celtics uniform number 34. The Celtics were playing the Washington Bullets. Up until that point, Myron's debut had lived up to the hype. He had eighteen points. He was fitting in, clicking on all cylinders, lost in the sweet, sweaty bliss he found only on a basketball court, and then . . .

  The Collision filmmakers must have shown the "horrific" replay two dozen times from a variety of angles. They showed it at regular speed. They showed it in slow motion. They showed it from Myron's vantage point, from above, from courtside. Didn't matter. The result was always the same.

  Rookie Myron Bolitar had his head turned when Big Burt Wesson, a journeyman power forward, blindsided him. Myron's knee twisted in a way neither God nor anatomy ever intended. Even from a distance you could actually hear a nauseating sound like a wet snap.

  Bye-bye, career.

  "Watching this," Fat Gandhi said with an exaggerated pout, "made us sad." He looked around. "Didn't it, lads?"

  Everyone, even Dog Collar, quickly mimicked the pout. They all then stared at Myron.

  "Yeah, I'm over it."

  "Are you?"

  "Man plans and God laughs," Myron said.

  Fat Gandhi smiled. "I like that one. Is that an American expression?"

  "Yiddish."

  "Ah. In Hindi, we say knowledge is bigger than debate. You see? So first, we learned your name. Then we watched your documentary, we broke into your email--"

  "You what?"

  "There was nothing very interesting, but we haven't finished. We also checked your phone records. Your mobile phone received a call from an untraceable number whilst in New York City fewer than twenty-four hours ago. The call originated from London." He put out his hands, palms up. "And now you are here. With us."

  "Thorough," Myron said.

  "We try to be."

  "So you know why I'm here."

  "We do."

  "And?"

  "I assume you are working for the boy's family?"

  "Does it matter?"

  "Not really. We do rescues, of course. It is all a matter of profit, to tell you the truth. I learned this from the great Eshan, who had a religion--you'd call it a cult--outside Varanasi in India. He was a wonderful man. He spoke of peace and harmony and charity. He was so charismatic. Teenagers flocked to him and gave his temple all their earthly possessions. They lived in tents on well-guarded barren land. Sometimes the parents wanted their child back. The great Eshan would accommodate. He wouldn't ask too much--never be too greedy, he would say--but if he could receive from the parents more than he could make from having their child work or beg or recruit, he would take the money. I am no different. If one of my workers makes the most contribution working sex, that is what he or she does. If the worker is best suited for robbery, as our friend Garth attempted with you, that is where we place him."

  Man, this guy liked to talk.

  "How much?"

  "One hundred thousand pounds cash for each boy."

  Myron did not reply.

  "This amount is nonnegotiable."

  "I'm not negotiating."

  "Wonderful. How long will it take you to raise this sum?"

  "You can have it immediately," Myron said. "Where are the boys?"

  "Come, come. You don't have that kind of cash on you."

  "I can get it within an hour."

  Fat Gandhi smiled. "I should have asked for more."

  "Never be too greedy. Like the great Eshan said."

  "Are you familiar with Bitcoin?"

  "Not really."

  "Doesn't matter. Our transaction will be via cybercurrency."

  "I don't know what that is either."

  "Get the cash. You'll be instructed what to do."

  "When?"

  "Tomorrow," Fat Gandhi said. "I will call you and set it up."

  "Sooner is better."

  "Yes, I understand. But you should also understand, Myron. If you try to circumvent our arrangement in any manner, I will kill the boys and they will never be found. I will kill them slowly and painfully and there will not be an ash left. Do I make myself clear?"

  An ash? "You do," Myron said.

  "Then you can go."

  "One thing."

  Fat Gandhi waited.

  "How do I know this isn't a scam?"

  "You question my word?"

  Myron shrugged. "I'm just asking."

  "Perhaps it is a scam," Fat Gandhi said. "Perhaps you shouldn't bother coming back tomorrow."

  "I'm not trying to play chicken here. You"--Myron pointed at him--"you are smart enough to get that."

  Fat Gandhi stroked his chin and nodded.

  Psychos, Myron knew, fall for flattery almost every time.

  "I just think," Myron continued, "for that kind of money, a little evidence would be nice. How do I know you have the boys?"

  Fat Gandhi raised his hand again and snapped his fingers.

  The documentary disappeared from the screen.

  For a moment, there was only black. Myron thought that maybe they had shut off the television. But no, that wasn't it. Fat Gandhi moved toward a keyboard and slowly started tapping the brightness button. The screen started to light up now. Myron could see a room with concrete walls.

  And there, in the center of the room, was Patrick.

  His eyes were black. His lip was swollen and bloody.

  "He's being held off-site," Fat Gandhi said.

  Myron tried to keep his voice steady. "What did you do to him?"

  Fat Gandhi snapped his fingers again. The screen went dark.

  Myron stared at the blackness. "What about the other boy?"

  "I think that's enough. It is time for you to leave."

  Myron met his eye. "We have a deal now."

  "We do."

  "So I don't want anyone touching either one of them. I want your word."

  "And you won't get it," Fat Gandhi said. "I'll contact you tomorrow. Now please get out of my office."

  Chapter 7

  Last time they were in London, Win had put them in his favorite suite, the Davies, at Claridge's Hotel on Brook Street. That trip had ended poorly for all of them. This time, maybe to change it up a bit, Win chose the more boutiquey Covent Garden Hotel on Monmouth Street near Seven Dials. When Myron got to his room, he used a throwaway phone Win had given him to call Terese.

  "You okay?" she asked.

  "I'm fine."

  "I don't like this."

  "I know."

  "There's been too much of this in our past."

  "I agree."

  "We wanted to put this all behind us."

  "We did. We do."

  "I don't do the wait-and-worry wife well."

  "Nice alliteration. The two D's and then all those W's."

  "Years of being a top-rated news anchor," Terese said. "Not that I like to brag."

  "Alliteration is only one of your many skills."

  "You can't help yourself, can you?"

  "Love me for all my faults."

  "What else is there? Okay, so fill me in. And please don't make the obvious double-entendre joke using my 'fill me in' opening."

  "Opening?"

  "I love you, you know."

  "I love you too," Myron said.

  And then he told her everything.

  When he was done, Terese said, "He likes being called Fat Gandhi?"

  "Loves."

  "It's like you and Win live in an old Humphrey Bogart film."

  "I'm too young to get that reference."

  "You wish. So you'll be doing the ransom drop?"

  "Yes."

  Silence.

  "I've been thinking," Myron said.

  "Uh-huh."

  "About the families, I mean. The parents, mostly."

  "You mean Patrick's and Rhys's."

  "Yes."

  Silence.

  "And," she said, "you want my expert opinion on the matter."

  Terese had lost a child many years ago. It had nearly destroyed her.

  "I shouldn't have brought it up."

  "Wrong response," she said. "If you tiptoe around it, it's much worse."

  "I want to start a family with you."

  "I want that too."

  "So how do we do it?" Myron asked. "When you love something that much. How do you live with the fear that they can be hurt or killed at any time?"

  "I could tell you that that's life," Terese said.

  "You could."

  "Or I could point out, what choice do you have?"

  "I hear a 'but' coming," Myron said.

  "You do. But I think there's another answer, one that took me a long time to understand."

  "And that is?"

  "We block," Terese said.

  Myron waited. Nothing. "That's it?"

  "You expected something deeper?"

  "Maybe."

  "We block," she said, "or we would never be able to get out of bed."

  "I love you," he said again.

  "I love you too. And so if I lose you, I will experience crippling pain. You get that, right?"

  "I do."

  "If you want to experience love, then you have to be ready for pain. One doesn't come without the other. If I didn't love you, I wouldn't have to worry about losing you. If you want laughter, expect tears."

  "Makes sense," Myron said. Then: "You know what?"

  "Tell me."

  "You're worth it."

  "That's the point."

  Myron heard the key in the door. Win stepped into the room. Myron said his good-byes and hung up the phone.

  "How is she?" Win asked.

  "Concerned."

  "Let's hit a pub, shall we? I'm famished."

  They started down toward Seven Dials. Matilda the Musical was playing at the Cambridge Theatre.

  "I always wanted to see that," Myron said.

  "Pardon?"

  "Matilda."

  "Now doesn't seem the time."

  "I was joking."

  "Yes, I know. Your humor is your defense mechanism. It's a very engaging personality quirk." Win started to cross the street. "And the show is eh."

  "Wait, you saw it?"

  Win kept walking.

  "You saw a musical without me?"

  "Here we are."

  "You hate musicals. I even had to drag you to see Rent."

  Win didn't reply. Seven Dials was, per the name, seven roads converging clocklike, producing seven corners around a circle. There was a sundial column maybe three stories high in the middle of the circle. One corner housed the Cambridge Theatre. A small pub called the Crown was wedged on another. That was where Win entered now.

  The Crown was old-school, complete with a polished bar and dark wood paneling and, despite having about three feet of throwing space, a dartboard. The place was cozy and cramped and packed with standing patrons. Win caught the barman's eye. The bartender nodded, bodies parted, space cleared, and suddenly there were two stools open. Two pints of Fuller's London Pride awaited them on beer coasters.

  Win sat on one stool, Myron on the other. Win raised his stein. "Cheers, mate."

  They clinked mugs. Two minutes later, the barman threw down two orders of fish and chips. The smell made Myron's stomach rumble with joy.

  "I thought this place didn't serve food," Myron noted.

  "It doesn't."

  "You're a beautiful man, Win."

  "Yes. Yes, I am."

  They enjoyed the dinner and drinks. Whatever else Win had to say could wait. Somewhere along the way, they finished the fish and chips and ordered a second round. There was a rugby match on the television. Myron didn't know much about rugby, but he still watched the screen.

  "So our friend Fat Gandhi," Win said. "He saw your documentary on ESPN?"

  "Yes." Myron turned toward him. "Have you seen it?"

  "Of course."

  Dumb question.

  "I'm curious, though," Win said, "about your reaction."

  Myron shrugged into his beer mug. "I thought it was accurate enough."

  "You gave them an interview."

  "Yep."

  "You never did that before. Talked about the injury."

  "True."

  "You wouldn't even watch replays of what happened."

  "True."

  It had been too overwhelming to watch. Normal, right? Your dream, your life goal, everything you ever wanted--it's there, in your grasp at the age of twenty-two, and snap, lights out, buh-bye, it's over, nada mas.

  "I didn't see the point," Myron said.

  "And now?"

  Myron took a deep swill of the ale. "They kept saying that this injury 'defined' me."

  "At one point, it did."

  "Exactly. At one point. But not anymore. Now I could finally watch Burt Wesson slam into me, and I felt little more than a ping. The stupid narrator. He kept saying the injury"--Myron made quote marks with his fingers--"'destroyed my life.' But now I know it was just a fork in the road. All those guys I started out with, all those superstars who made it and had successful NBA careers--they're all retired now. The light went out for them too."

  "But in the meantime," Win said, "they scored boatloads of chicks."

  "Well, yes, there's that."

  "And the light didn't snap off for them. It dimmed."

  "Slowly," Myron said.

  "Yes."

  "Maybe that makes it harder."

  "How so?"

  "You rip off the bandage all at once versus slowly peeling it away."

  Win took a sip of his beer. "Fair point."

  "I could also add the cliche about being thrown into the deep end. The suddenness forced me to act. It made me go to law school. It made me become a sports agent."

  "It didn't 'make' you," Win said.

  "No?"

  "You were always a competitive--nay, overly ambitious--son of a bitch."

  Myron smiled at that and raised his mug. "Cheers, mate."

  Win again clinked his glass, cleared his throat, and said, "Der mentsh trakht un got lakht."

  "Wow," Myron said.

  "I taught myself the Yiddish," said the blond-haired, blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon. "It does wonders when I hit on Jewish chicks."

  Der mentsh trakht un got lakht. Translation: Man plans and God laughs.

  Man, it was good to be back with Win.

  They both went quiet for a moment. They were both thinking the same thing.

  "Maybe the injury isn't such a big deal anymore," Myron said, "because I know there are a lot of worse things in life."

  Win nodded. "Patrick and Rhys."

 
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