Found, p.5
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       Found, p.5

         Part #3 of Mickey Bolitar series by Harlan Coben  
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  "I have my laptop," Spoon said. "I'll get us everything I can on this Jared Lowell."

  CHAPTER 9

  I decided to walk home because I needed to see something.

  I cut across Northfield Avenue and tried to clear my head. I made a right on the next corner. I had a destination in mind, even if, in a sense, it no longer existed.

  Bat Lady's house.

  I know that I shouldn't refer to her as that anymore. The Bat Lady was the name the town kids had given to the creepy, crazy old lady who lives in the creepy, crazy old house, the one that children whispered about and made up stories about and even genuinely feared.

  The Bat Lady was not crazy. Or maybe she was, but either way, she was not what any of those kids ever imagined. In a way, the reality behind Bat Lady was even scarier.

  The decrepit house that had stood for more than a century was barely more than ashes now. It had been burned down last week. I had been in the house at the time. I had barely escaped with my life. I still didn't know why that man had tried to burn me alive. I had only met him once before.

  He was the paramedic who told me that my dad was dead.

  I stopped in front of the remains of the house. There was yellow tape surrounding it. I wondered whether that meant that this was a crime scene, if the authorities had figured out that this had been a case of arson, not merely fire.

  I flashed back to the day it all started, just a few weeks ago. I had been walking to my new high school, minding my own business, strolling right past this very spot when the front door of the scary old house creaked open.

  The Bat Lady had called out to me. "Mickey?"

  I had never seen her before. I had no idea how she knew my name.

  She pointed a bony finger at me and said the words that changed my life: "Your father isn't dead. He's very much alive."

  And then she vanished back inside.

  I had thought that his casket would hold the answer. Instead it just led to more questions.

  I stared at the remains of the house. Signs reading CONDEMNED and PRIVATE PROPERTY--NO TRESPASSING were everywhere.

  So now what?

  There were secret tunnels under the house. I wondered whether the fire had affected them. I doubted it. I tried to remember the last time--well, the only time--I had been in them. I knew that the entrance was by the garage, deep in the woods. I knew that they led to the house. I knew that there were other paths underground, a whole maze of them maybe.

  Tunnels that had been closed off to me.

  Was that all gone now? Or would there be clues down there?

  I thought about working my way into the garage and searching for the tunnels, but, no, I couldn't do that right now. For one thing, there were the various KEEP OUT-type signs. But more than that, there were neighbors out and about. A man mowed his lawn. A woman walked her dog. Two girls were drawing on a driveway with chalk. I debated circling around back, trying to find another way into those woods behind Bat Lady's property, when I heard a sweet sound that always got my attention.

  The tunnels would have to wait until the street was quiet.

  Besides, someone was dribbling a basketball.

  The sound called out to me. It worked like a mating call or something. I was drawn to it. The sound was soothing, engaging, comforting, inviting. If someone is dribbling a basketball and you want to join him, you are always welcome. It is part of the code. You could shoot around with someone or rebound for them or take winners. You didn't have to know each other. You didn't have to be the same age or the same sex or play at the same level. All that vanished when someone was dribbling a basketball.

  As I drew closer, I could tell from the sound that it was someone practicing alone. Two dribbles. Shot. Two dribbles. Shot. By the speed of it, I'd say that the person was practicing low post moves. The sounds were too close together for outside shots. If you play the game, you'll know what I mean.

  When I turned the corner, I saw my team co-captain Brandon Foley taking hook shots in the key. I stopped and watched for a few seconds. He took three from the left, then three from the right, then back to the left. He made nearly every one. His face was coated in sweat. He was concentrating, focused, completely lost in the simple bliss of this drill, but there was something more here, something deeper and not so joyful.

  "Hey," I called out.

  Brandon stopped and turned toward me. Now I could see that it wasn't sweat coating his face.

  It was tears.

  "What are you doing here?" he asked me.

  "I was just walking by when I heard the dribbling," I said. "Look, I'm sorry about what I said after practice. I appreciate you reaching out like that."

  He turned toward the basket and started up his drill again. "Forget it."

  I let him shoot for another minute. There was no letup, no slowing down.

  "What's wrong?" I asked him.

  Brandon dribbled outside and took a shot. The ball swished through the basket and started to roll away. Neither one of us went for it.

  "It's all falling apart," Brandon said.

  "What is?"

  "All these years, all the different teams we played on together, all leading up to this season and now . . ." Brandon shrugged. "It's all gone."

  I said nothing. I figured that this had something to do with what I had witnessed with Troy in the locker room, but I didn't want to let on that I'd seen.

  "Everything was going so well," Brandon said. "We had all worked so hard and prepared and then, today, your very first day on the team and . . ."

  He didn't finish the thought. He didn't have to. His glare said it all.

  "Wait, are you blaming me?"

  Brandon turned back toward the basket and started shooting again.

  "So what happened?" I asked him.

  "Troy and Buck," he said.

  My two sworn enemies.

  "What about them?"

  "They're both off the team."

  "What?"

  Brandon nodded. "That's right. Troy was our leading scorer. Buck was our best defender. Both gone."

  "Why?" I asked.

  "What do you care?" He took another hook shot. "Heck, you're probably happy. It clears two spots for you."

  I moved toward the basket. I grabbed the ball and held on to it. "I wanted to earn a spot," I said. "I don't want to get it because other guys drop out."

  Brandon looked off for a second. He let loose a deep breath and wiped his face with his forearm. "I'm sorry," he said, his voice softening. "I'm snapping at you, but I know this isn't your fault."

  "So what happened?"

  "Buck moved."

  "What? Now?"

  Brandon nodded. "See, his parents got divorced when we were all in eighth grade. He's lived with his father and brother, but now his parents decided he should be with his mom."

  "Just like that?" I asked. "During his senior year of high school?"

  "I guess. I don't know. I never heard a hint of it until today."

  Part of me was pleased, of course. I hated Buck, and Buck hated me. But this somehow didn't feel right. "So that's why Buck wasn't at practice," I said.

  "Yeah."

  "And Troy?"

  Brandon put up his right hand, inviting me to throw him the pass. I did. He grabbed the ball in his outstretched hand, took one dribble, and dunked it hard through the hoop.

  "He's been suspended for the season," Brandon said.

  "For what?"

  "Steroids."

  My mouth dropped open in surprise. "He failed a drug test?"

  "Yes."

  "Wow," I said, but now I understood what I had witnessed in the locker room. Coach Grady must have just given him the news.

  "Troy swears he's never taken anything like that," Brandon said. "He says he's being set up."

  I remembered hearing him claim that in the locker room. "How could that be?"

  "I don't know."

  "And who would do that?" I asked. "I mean, the testing all seems pretty much on the up-and-up."

  "I know," Brandon said.

  Brandon threw me the ball. I took a shot. "Do you believe Troy?" I asked him.

  Brandon grabbed the rebound, threw me the ball. I took another shot, waiting for his answer. He seemed to be chewing over the question.

  "Troy is a lot of things," he said. "I know he can be, well, rough around the edges. I even know that he can be a bully. But a liar? A drug cheat?"

  We both stopped and looked at each other.

  "Yeah," Brandon said, "I know it's crazy, but I believe Troy."

  CHAPTER 10

  I wanted to go back to the Bat Lady's house that night, but here was the problem: I had too much homework. I'd been blowing it off for days now, and if I didn't start working on the essay for history and study for the math quiz, I'd be in huge trouble. I turned off my mobile phone, sat at the kitchen table, and got to work.

  First thing Tuesday morning, I had history with my favorite teacher, Mrs. Friedman. Rachel's desk was empty. I didn't know what to think, but it really wasn't a huge surprise. There had been a shooting at her house. Her mother ended up dead, and Rachel ended up hospitalized with a bullet wound. The wound ended up being minor. Physically she was okay. Mentally, well, that was another story.

  I had been the one to tell Rachel the truth. I had been warned by her father not to, but Uncle Myron had given me other advice, warning me that if you lie, it never leaves the room. It haunts the relationship forever. That made sense to me, so I ended up listening to Myron.

  Rachel and I hadn't communicated since, and yet if I had to do it all again . . . I don't know.

  The vibe in the school cafeteria was decidedly somber today. Ema and I sat at our usual table in what is often dubbed "Loserville." Our table could sit twelve, but today there were just the two of us. Usually we were three, and staring at the spot where Spoon normally sat made my chest hurt.

  "I'm worried about him too," Ema said. "But he wouldn't want us moping around about it."

  I nodded. I had met Spoon in this very cafeteria. He had walked up to me and offered me his spoon for reasons I still didn't get. In my mind I had started thinking of him as "that spoon kid," which had been shortened to Spoon. Spoon loved the nickname and insisted that we use it always and forever. If someone called him Arthur now, he ignored them.

  The tables with the kids we deem more popular for whatever dumb reasons were usually an active beehive of varsity jackets, blond highlights, loud voices, big laughs, and enthusiastic high fives. But not today. Troy was still there, at the head of the table as usual, but he was quiet. The rest of the table followed his mood. In fact, it seemed as though the whole cafeteria were in silent mourning over the recent fate of their fallen leader.

  "It's so quiet in here," Ema said.

  She and I were always on the same wavelength.

  "Too quiet," I said, arching a joking eyebrow.

  I wasn't suicidal enough to smile or laugh out loud, but I didn't want to be a hypocrite. I hated Troy with pretty good reason, and that wasn't about to change over this. Yes, I understood how painful it must be to lose a season of basketball, especially now, in your last year of playing with your buddies. But then again, some of us had never had a steady group of buddies to play with. Some of us hadn't been handed those opportunities, just to toss them away.

  I didn't feel sorry for him.

  Troy had cheated by taking PEDs--performance-enhancing drugs. I didn't buy Brandon's defense. That was what every athlete said when they were caught--it was a mistake, it was a fix, it wasn't me. I would probably admire Troy more if he just admitted it. Whatever. It wasn't my business.

  Troy's table was usually full, but the seat next to his, the one where Buck always sat, was empty. I could usually count on Buck to be staring me down, mouthing that I was a "dead man," emphasizing the point by making a slashing motion across his neck with his finger. Buck would then make fun of Ema in some cruel way, call her "fugly" or moo at her, a classic insecure bully idiot. I wouldn't miss him either.

  But I did find it odd.

  Troy and Buck had been best friends since elementary school. Suddenly, within a few days of one another, Troy had been caught up in a drug scandal and Buck had moved away.

  I lowered my head to start eating when I realized that the room had suddenly gone even quieter if possible, as though everyone had decided to hold their breath at the same time.

  Then I heard Ema said, "Whoa."

  I lifted my head and felt the familiar jolt.

  Rachel Caldwell had entered the cafeteria.

  The silence was for a few reasons. One, this was her first return to school since the shooting that had left her mother dead and Rachel wounded. That had been our last . . . I don't know what the word is . . . case, I guess, for the Abeona Shelter. We had solved it, but the answer remained a carefully guarded secret.

  I hadn't even told Ema.

  I felt bad about that. Ema and Spoon had risked their lives and done everything anyone could have asked. They were my best friends and I hated the idea of keeping secrets from them, especially Ema, but in this case, the secret wasn't mine to tell. It was Rachel's. If I tell Ema, I betray Rachel. But then again, by not telling Ema . . .

  In the end, I hoped and believed that Ema would understand. But I could be wrong about that.

  I had not seen Rachel since the day I flew to California, when I showed up at her door and blew her world apart.

  Reason Two for the cafeteria silence: Rachel was a popular girl. More to the point, she was captain of the cheerleading team, the hottest girl in school, the girl everyone talked about--you get the drift. People paid attention to a girl like that.

  Reason Three: Rachel and Troy had been--I start gagging when I even think of it--an item. Rachel made it clear to me that she'd been young and dumb and that it was way, way over, though maybe she should make it a little clearer to Troy.

  Still, I couldn't help but notice that she wasn't coming over to say hi to Ema or me. She was heading for Troy's table. She took Buck's seat--the one next to him--and forced up a sad smile for Troy.

  My face felt hot.

  "Stop it," Ema whispered to me.

  "What?"

  She just frowned at me and shook her head. "Troy was just kicked off the basketball team. She has to show some kind of support for him, don't you think?"

  I didn't. But that wasn't the point. Rachel hadn't so much as glanced in our direction. Ema wouldn't understand why. But I did. Uncle Myron had warned me that there would be a price for telling the truth, but how had he put it?

  The ugliest truth is still better than the prettiest of lies.

  She was avoiding me. I don't know what advice someone would give me about that. Give her time, probably. I had done that already. Not a lot of time. But enough. Besides, I had learned that "giving time" often meant "time to fester."

  I needed to confront Rachel. The sooner, the better.

  CHAPTER 11

  I made it my business to walk past Rachel's locker between classes, hoping to catch her there. Finally, with only one period left in the day, I found her, but she was far from alone. Rachel's locker was surrounded by cheerleaders and jocks and a potpourri of popular kids, all welcoming her back and showing concern.

  I didn't know them. They didn't know me.

  I was the new kid and so there was some natural curiosity about me. My height also drew attention, I think, and maybe I was starting to get a rep for my basketball. I had, of course, lost a lot of popularity cred by choosing to hang out with Ema and Spoon. So now maybe I was less a curiosity and more an oddity.

  Rachel saw me approach and gave a slow shake of her head. I got the meaning. Stay away. I should have respected that, nodded in return and moved on my way.

  I didn't. I stood there and mouthed the word, When?

  Her reply was a slammed locker. Rachel shot me one last dagger, turned, and strolled away.

  Terrific.

  My final period today was health with Mr. Nacht, a class that couldn't be more snooze worthy if it included Benadryl. When classes ended, I hurried back to Rachel's locker. No sign of her. I went to my own. I had basketball practice in half an hour, but it would be good to get there early and work on my shooting. I reached into my locker and grabbed my phone. There was a message from Spoon: Got some information on Jared. Stop by tonight.

  There was another buzz. Again it was Spoon, the boy who lived for irrelevant factoids: Porcupines float in water.

  Good to know, in case I was ever tempted to rescue a water-drenched porcupine.

  I was first changed and out on the gym floor. I shot around, enjoying the solo echo of one man dribbling and shooting. The other guys started to sputter out of the locker room. None chose to shoot with me. I was hardly surprised. Normally there was laughter, horsing around, banter, whatever. Not today. The gym was silent as a tomb--or the cafeteria today. The only sounds came from the bouncing balls.

  At four o'clock, Coach Grady blew the whistle and shouted for everyone to take a seat. Brandon and some guy I hadn't met yet pulled out the rickety accordion-like stands. We all climbed up a step or two and found a place to sit.

  Coach Grady looked as though he'd aged ten years since last practice. He paced for a few moments. We all sat and watched him. Behind him, Coach Stashower held a clipboard and waited.

  "We have our work cut out for us," Coach Grady said. "As most of you know by now, Troy has been suspended from the team. He has the right to appeal, which he has taken, but in the meantime he will not be allowed to practice or play with the team. Troy had been our co-captain. During his absence, which will last the entire season if it's not overturned on appeal--and frankly I don't know anyone who has ever won an appeal--Brandon will serve as our solo captain."

  All eyes turned to Brandon. Brandon kept his head up, his face set.

  "On top of that, Buck's family has decided that he would be better off living with his mother, so he won't be with us for the season. That means two seniors, both starters and leaders on last year's team, won't be playing with us this season. I don't think I have to tell you what a big blow this is for our program."

  Coach Grady adjusted the cap on his head and let loose a long sigh. "But victory often comes out of adversity. We can give up, or we can rise to the challenge. For many of you, there is an opportunity here to step up. For us as a team, we can either let these setbacks tear us to shreds--or make us more cohesive. We can either come together or come apart."

 
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