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         Part #11 of Myron Bolitar series by Harlan Coben  

  "What do you know about cybercurrency?"

  "Ransoms are sometimes paid with it, but with all the recent antilaundering laws now, it is extraordinarily difficult. My expert says that you have to buy the currency, put it in some kind of online wallet, and then transfer it to them. It's part of the dark web."

  "Do you understand what that means?"

  "I told you. I'm an expert in nearly anything."

  Myron waited.

  "But no, I don't have a clue."

  "We may be getting old."

  Win's phone buzzed. He checked it. "I'm getting information on our friend Fat Gandhi from a constable friend."

  "And?"

  "His real name is Chris Alan Weeks."

  "For real?"

  "Age twenty-nine. The authorities know about him, but according to this, he mostly works on the dark web."

  "That term again."

  "He dabbles in prostitution, sexual slavery, robbery, blackmail . . ."

  "Dabbles?"

  "My term, not theirs. And . . . ah, no surprise. He's into computer hacking. His syndicate operates several online money scams."

  "You mean like a Nigerian prince wants to give you all his money?"

  "A tad more sophisticated, I'm afraid. Fat Gandhi--I prefer his nom de plume if you don't mind."

  "I don't."

  "Fat Gandhi is good with computers. He matriculated and graduated from Oxford. As we both know, law enforcement hates referring to criminals as 'geniuses' or 'masterminds'--but our cherubic friend seems pretty close to being both. Hmm."

  "What?"

  "Fat Gandhi also has a reputation for being--and this is their phraseology--'creatively violent.'"

  Win stopped and smiled.

  "He sounds a bit like you," Myron said.

  "Ergo my smile."

  "Is he into kidnapping?"

  "Human trafficking is slavery for the purposes of sexual exploitation. By definition, that's kidnapping." Win held up a hand before Myron could interrupt. "But if you mean grabbing wealthy children for the purpose of making them sexual slaves, no, there is no indication he does that. Plus, Fat Gandhi would have been nineteen when the kidnappings occurred. By all accounts he was studying at Oxford at that time."

  "So any theories about how Patrick and Rhys ended up with him?"

  Win shrugged. "Several. The original kidnapper sold them off. The boys could have changed hands dozens of times over the past ten years. He may not be their first predator."

  "Ugh."

  "Yes, ugh. It could be that Patrick and Rhys were somehow runaways living on the streets. A parasite like Fat Gandhi gets them that way too. Offers them work. Helps them get strung out and thus hooked on drugs, so that they have to earn. There are a dozen ways it could have gone down."

  "None of them good," Myron said.

  "None that I can think of, no. But as we've learned, people, especially the young, are resilient. Right now, we concentrate on rescuing them."

  Myron stared in his beer. "You saw Patrick on the street."

  "Yes."

  "If he had that kind of freedom--"

  "Why didn't he call home?" Win finished for him. "You know the answer. Stockholm syndrome, fear, he could have been watched, or perhaps he doesn't remember his old life. He was six when he was taken."

  Myron nodded. "What else?"

  "I have people casing the arcade."

  "For?"

  Win didn't answer. "One of my people will follow Fat Gandhi when he leaves. The money will be arriving in approximately ten minutes. Our rooms are adjoining. When he calls you, we move. Other than that . . ."

  "We wait."

  *

  The call came in at four A.M.

  Myron scrambled out of sleep and reached for the phone. Win appeared in the doorway, still dressed. He nodded for Myron to answer and held his duplicate phone to his ear.

  "Good morning, Mr. Bolitar."

  It was Fat Gandhi. He had done this on purpose, the four A.M. call. Myron understood. He was trying to catch Myron off guard, in the middle of a sleep cycle. He hoped to find Myron disoriented and just slightly off his game. Classic move.

  "Hey," Myron said.

  "Do you have the money?"

  "I do."

  "Lovely. Please go to the NatWest Bank on Fulham Palace Road."

  "Now?"

  "As soon as possible, yes."

  "It's four in the morning."

  "I am aware. There is an employee named Denise Nussbaum, who will be standing by the door. Go to her. She will help you open an account and make the proper deposit."

  "I'm not following."

  "You will, if you listen. Go where I tell you. Denise Nussbaum will give you wiring instructions."

  "You expect me to wire the money to you before I get the boys?"

  "No. I expect you to do what I say. The boys will show up once the account is open. When you see them, you will complete the wire transfer to our cybercurrency account. Then you get the boys."

  Myron looked over at Win. Win nodded at him.

  "Okay," Myron said.

  "What, Mr. Bolitar, you prefer the old-fashioned way? Did you think I would make you use various red telephone boxes and jump on the Underground and perhaps drop the ransom off in a hollow tree?" Fat Gandhi chuckled. "You watch too much television, my friend."

  Oh boy. "Are we done?"

  "Not so fast, Mr. Bolitar. I have a few more, shall we say, requests."

  Myron waited.

  "Bring no weaponry of any kind."

  "Okay."

  "You come alone. You will be followed and watched. We realize that you have some sort of backup in this country. Other people working with you. If we see any of them within smelling distance of this transaction, there will be consequences."

  "Now who's the one watching too much television?"

  Fat Gandhi liked that one. "You don't want to cross me, mate."

  "I won't," Myron said.

  "Good."

  "But one thing."

  "Yes?"

  "I know you're scary and all," Myron said. "But so are we."

  Myron waited for a reply, but the phone went dead. Myron and Win exchanged a glance.

  "Did he hang up?" Win asked.

  "Yes."

  "Rude."

  Chapter 8

  They sat in the back of the stretch Bentley. Win had put the money in a rather elegant leather suitcase. Myron read the label.

  "A Swaine Adeney Brigg bag for a ransom drop?"

  "I had nothing cheaper on hand."

  "Do you know Fulham Palace Road?" Myron asked.

  "Not well."

  "So where should we drop me off so we won't be seen?"

  "Behind Claridge's Hotel."

  "That's near this bank?"

  "No. It's approximately a twenty-to twenty-five-minute ride."

  "I'm not following."

  "I switched out your phone last night."

  "Right, I know."

  "When your rotund friend from the arcade temporarily confiscated said phone, he put a tracking chip into it."

  "For real?"

  "Yes."

  "So he's been keeping tabs on my location."

  "Well, not yours, of course. I had one of my men bring the phone to Claridge's. He checked into the hotel under the alias of Myron Bolitar."

  "Did my alias stay in the Davies Suite?"

  "No."

  "My alias is used to luxury."

  "Finished?"

  "Just about. So Fat Gandhi thinks I'm at Claridge's?"

  "Yes. You'll go in through the side employee entrance. My man will give you back your phone. He will also place two listening devices on your person."

  "Two?"

  "Depending on where you go, they may search you again. They probably won't find both."

  Myron understood. When Win put tracking devices on cars, he always put one under the bumper--where it could easily be found--and one in a more difficult space to find.

  "Use the same safe word," Win said.

  "Articulate."

  "Yes, very nice that you remember." Win turned and looked at Myron full on. "Use it even if you do not believe it will do any good."

  "Huh?"

  "We've spent the evening with eyes on the arcade," Win said. "Your chum Fat Gandhi has not left. No one matching either Patrick's or Rhys's description has entered."

  "Theories?"

  "He may be holding them in the arcade. We've seen signs of"--Win paused, tapped his lip with his finger--"signs of life coming from the basement."

  "Like there's someone down there?"

  "Like there's more than one someone down there."

  "You using a thermal scanner?"

  "We are, but the basement walls are thick. Still . . ."

  "What?"

  Win shook it off. The car stopped.

  "My man is directly inside on the left. Go in, get your phone, get wired up, catch a taxi to that address on Fulham Palace Road."

  Myron did as Win asked. He had brief flashbacks to his last time in the hotel, to the death and destruction and mayhem that followed, but he pushed them away. Myron didn't recognize the man who helped him. The man went about his tasks in silence. First, he put a listening device on Myron's chest under his shirt.

  "Yikes, that's cold," Myron said.

  Nothing.

  The man put the second device inside Myron's shoe. Myron headed out the front door. A uniformed doorman complete with top hat said, "May I help you, sir?"

  Gripping the money bag a touch too tightly, Myron did his subtle scan, searching for someone suspicious who might be watching him. There was no one out on the streets yet--no guy leaning against a wall pretending to read a paper or stopping to tie his shoelaces or anything like that.

  The only thing maybe worth noting: a gray car with tinted windows down the block on his left.

  "Taxi, please."

  The doorman blew a whistle, even though a black Hackney carriage was a car's length from where Myron stood. He made a big production of opening the door for Myron. Myron fumbled for some change, didn't have any, gave the doorman a hopeless shrug. The doorman seemed unimpressed. Myron slid into the back, digging the legroom, and gave the driver the bank's address on Fulham Palace Road.

  After three blocks it was clear to Myron that the gray car was following him. Myron knew the line was open between him and Win so that Win could hear everything. But there was no reason to play games with that yet. Myron picked up the phone and put it to his ear.

  "You there?"

  "I am."

  "There's a gray car following me," Myron said.

  "Make?"

  "I don't know. I'm not good with cars. You know that."

  "Describe, please."

  "The logo looks like an aggressive lion standing."

  "Gray Peugeot. It's French. You love the French."

  "Indeed I do."

  Despite its being five A.M., Fulham Palace Road still had plenty of traffic. The taxi dropped Myron off in front of the NatWest Bank. It was, of course, closed. Myron paid the driver and stepped out. The taxi drove off. Myron stood in front of the bank, holding the bag of cash. The bills were "marked"--that is, Win knew the serial numbers on them--but Fat Gandhi had not asked for unmarked bills. Or was that another movie trope? Who checked the serial numbers of bills when you spent money?

  After a full minute of standing like a dope, Myron's cell phone rang. The number was blocked, but it had to be Fat Gandhi. Myron picked it up, put on a bad fake British accent, and intoned in his best Alfred the butler, "Wayne Manor. I'll summon him, sir."

  "A Batman reference," Fat Gandhi said with a chortle. "Who was your favorite? Christian Bale, right?"

  "There is only one Batman, and his name is Adam West."

  "Who?"

  Today's youth.

  "Do you see the gray car with the tinted windows?" Fat Gandhi asked him.

  "The Peugeot," Myron said, showing off his new car knowledge.

  "Yes. Get in."

  "What about Denise Nussbaum at the bank?"

  Fat Gandhi hung up.

  The car pulled up. The thin black guy from the arcade's back room opened up the back door and said, "Let's go, mate."

  Myron checked the car. One driver. One thin guy.

  "Where are the two boys?"

  "I'm taking you to them."

  Thin Guy slid over, making room for Myron. Myron hesitated but got in. Next to him, the thin black guy was on a laptop. "Give me your phone," he said.

  "No."

  "It won't do you any good anyway." He smiled widely. "I got your cell jammed."

  "Pardon?"

  He smiled at Myron. "This here laptop? I'm using it to scramble your signal. So like yesterday, when you had all that data going back and forth between you and whoever was listening? Well, he can't hear you anymore. Oh, and if you put any kind of wire or listening device on yourself? Same thing."

  "Just so I'm clear," Myron said, "your laptop is cutting off all signals?"

  The guy's grin grew. "Exactly."

  Myron nodded. Then he slid open the car window, snatched the laptop from the skinny guy's hands, and tossed it out the window.

  "Hey! What the--?" He looked out the back window to where his smashed laptop lay, guts split open. "Are you for real? Do you know how much that cost?"

  "A billion pounds?"

  "This ain't funny, mate."

  "I'm sure it's not. Now, enough games. Call Fat Gandhi."

  The kid looked as though he might cry. "Ah, you didn't have to do that," he said in a high-pitched whine. "I was just doing what I was told."

  "Now do what I'm telling you. Call Fat Gandhi. Tell him I got the money. I want the boys."

  His shoulders dropped. "You know how much that laptop cost me?"

  "I don't care. If you piss me off again, I'm going to throw you out that window. Now, call him."

  "No need to call." He pointed toward the front windshield. "We're here. Couldn't you have just been patient?"

  Myron looked out the window. That same arcade was up the block.

  The Peugeot cruised to a stop. Myron got out without bothering to apologize. Two guys in camouflage pants opened the door. The skinny kid followed, pleading his case. "The bastard threw my bleeding laptop out the window!"

  It felt as though someone had pulled the plug on the entire arcade, which, for all Myron knew, was exactly what had happened. No sounds, no lights, no movement. The entire arcade, so bursting with furious light and color a few hours ago, seemed shades of gray now. With all the machines off, their shadowy outlines felt odd, menacing, grotesque. There was an almost postapocalyptic feel to the whole place.

  "Let's go," Pants One said to Myron.

  "Where?"

  "Back room."

  Myron didn't like this. "The place is deserted. We can make the exchange out here."

  "That's not how it works," Pants Two said.

  "Then I think I'll leave."

  "Then I think"--Pants One crossed his arms and tried to flex his biceps--"the two of us will beat the hell out of you and take the money anyway."

  Myron's grip on the bag tightened. He could take them both out, no problem--he was actually rehearsing his first strike in his head--but then what? For better or worse, he had to play it out. So he followed the same path he'd taken the last time he was here, when Dog Collar was with him, and stopped at the exit door.

  There was the surveillance camera by the door again. Myron looked up, gave it a bright smile and cheery thumbs-up. Mr. Confident. Rule 14 of ransom drops: Never let the bad guys see you worried. The door opened. The Camouflage Pants Guys emptied Myron's pockets. The wand found the listening device on his chest.

  They were about to take the device off him when Fat Gandhi opened the door to the back room, stuck his head out, and said, "No weapons?"

  "None."

  "It's fine, then; let him keep the rest."

  Myron didn't know if that was a good thing or not.

  He entered that same room with all the computers and flat-screens. The skinny black kid was already back at his station. "He broke my bleeding laptop!" he cried out, pointing at Myron. "Just threw out it out the window like it was last week's rubbish."

  Fat Gandhi was resplendent in what looked to be a yellow zoot suit. "The cash is in that bag?"

  "It isn't in my underwear," Myron said.

  Fat Gandhi frowned at the joke, which was fair.

  "There is someone listening on the other end of your phone," Fat Gandhi said.

  Myron didn't bother denying or agreeing.

  "There is only one entrance into this lair," Fat Gandhi said. "Do you understand?"

  "Did you just call this a lair?"

  "We have cameras everywhere. Derek and Jimmy, raise your hands."

  Two guys staring at their monitors raised their hands.

  "Derek and Jimmy are watching the surveillance cameras. If someone tries to get in, we will see them. The two doors you entered to arrive here are steel reinforced, but you probably know that already. In short, there is no way anyone could get into this room in time to save you, even if they were fast and heavily armed."

  No fear. Show no fear. "Yeah, okay, cool. Can we move this along now? You said something about cybercurrency."

  "No."

  "No, you didn't say--"

  "It makes no sense, Mr. Bolitar. You'd have to get the Bitcoin or more fashionable assorted cybercurrency in the first place. Then I would have to give you a long public key address, which is basically the equivalent of a unique bank account. You would then transfer the money via a network, and, poof, gone. That was how I originally planned to make the exchange."

  "But not anymore?"

  "No, not anymore. See, it works fine for small amounts, but something this big, well, it would be tracked. Cybercurrency is too public nowadays. You want to know the truth?" He leaned in as though to whisper something conspiratorial. "I think cybercurrency has turned into a giant sting operation so law enforcement can gather intel on the black market. So I started thinking. Why do Somali pirates always demand cash?"

  He looked at Myron as though he expected an answer. Myron figured that if he didn't reply, maybe the guy would stop talking.

  "Because cash is easiest, simplest, and best."

  Fat Gandhi reached out for the bag.

  "Hold up," Myron said, "we had a deal."

  "You don't trust my word?"

  "This is how it will go," Myron said, trying to take some semblance of control. "The two boys leave here. They go outside. Once they are outside, I give you the money."

  "Go where outside?"

  "You said you knew someone was listening to us."

  "Go on."

  "He knows where I am. So he'll pull up in a car. The boys go in the car, I give you the money, then I leave."

 
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