Part #3 of Mickey Bolitar series by Harlan Coben
He put his foot up on the lowest bench, leaned onto his knee, and took a few seconds to scan our faces. "I believe in all of you. I believe in this team. And I believe we can still achieve great things this season."
"Okay, boys, take three laps and start the three-man weave. Let's go."
He clapped his hands, and we were off.
The practice did not go well. If I'd hoped that Troy being vanquished would help me, I was very sadly mistaken. If anything, the rest of the guys seemed extra angry with me, as if it were my fault. They froze me out. They threw passes at my feet. Someone hit me with a dirty elbow. I fought through it and played hard, but part of me wanted to just quit.
When practice ended, I was a sweaty mess, but I didn't want to hang around these guys one second longer than necessary. I was about to head out when Brandon ran up behind me.
I turned toward him.
"We need to talk," he said.
"Uh, okay. Now?"
He came a little closer. "Let's wait for the other guys to leave. I don't want them to see us. Shower, get dressed, take your time."
So I did. Again everyone avoided me, except to give me death stares. Half an hour later, Brandon and I were the only ones left in the locker room.
"So talk," I said to him.
Brandon looked left, then right. "Not here," he whispered. "Follow me."
"Just follow me."
He held open the door, inviting me out into the still corridor. I didn't like it. The players and coaches were gone now. So were all the teachers. Our footsteps echoed down hallway.
"You get what's going on, right?" Brandon said.
"About why the guys on the team are mad at you."
"Think about it."
I did. I still didn't get it.
"You join the team," Brandon said, "and suddenly Troy comes up with a positive drug test."
"So?" Then: "Wait, are you saying people think I had something to do with it?"
Brandon nodded. "We've all known Troy for years. He's a lot of things. But he's not a drug cheat."
"So, what, they think I spiked his urine or something?"
Brandon stopped and looked at me. "Did you?"
"Are you out of your mind?"
"Of course not. Seriously, even if I wanted to, how would I?"
Brandon shrugged. "You have access to the school."
"What are you talking about?"
"People know you're friends with the janitor's weird kid."
He meant Spoon. I was about to defend Spoon, to snap back that Spoon wasn't weird, but then I remembered something: Spoon was weird. Wonderfully so. But he was weird.
"He's got keys, right? He could sneak you into places."
"To alter drug tests?" I said. "That's insane."
"Is it? Heck, you guys were in here with drug dealers last week. The janitor's kid got shot, right?"
"There's been a lot of crazy stuff happening in this town since you moved in," Brandon said, "and somehow, Mickey, you seem to always be in the middle of it."
We were in a dark corridor now. I didn't like it. I didn't like any of this.
"Where are we going, Brandon?"
When we reached the end of the corridor, I heard a familiar voice say, "Hello, Mickey. Thanks for coming."
It was Troy.
I took two steps back and debated how to play this.
I could make a run for it. I could stand and fight. I wasn't afraid. I was pretty good with my fists, but then again it was two against one, at the very least. There might be more of them somewhere nearby. I could also go after one, make a quick strike, and sprint down the corridor.
But neither Troy nor Brandon moved toward me. They just stood there, both looking at each other nervously, then back at me.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"We need to talk," Brandon said. "That's all. Just talk."
"Are you going to start up again with that nonsense about me setting up Troy?"
It was Troy who replied. "No. I didn't believe it for a second."
I looked at him. For the first time since we'd met, Troy Taylor wasn't looking at me with naked hostility. He wasn't telling me I was a dead man. He wasn't mooing at Ema. He looked like a real, live human being.
"I need your help, Mickey."
Brandon stepped forward. "All that stuff I said before. About how you could break into the school. About all that stuff you've been involved with."
"What about it?"
Troy and Brandon exchanged another look. "You're good at stuff like that."
"What are you talking about?"
"Come on, Mickey," Troy said. "My dad is the chief of police here, remember?"
Boy, did I know. Chief Taylor probably hated me more than his son did.
"He told me how you were doing your own investigation when that girl Ashley disappeared. He told me that you drove a car and broke into a nightclub down in Newark. I know you helped Rachel figure out who shot her and her mom. You were actually here, in this school, when those bad guys shot up the place, and you came out on the winning end."
Winning end, I thought. Spoon lay partially paralyzed in the hospital and Rachel was devastated. Some winning end.
"I still don't see your point," I said.
Troy looked at Brandon. Brandon nodded at him to continue.
"You're like some kind of kid detective," Troy said. "I don't know. But I need your help."
"Help with what?"
"I need you to help me prove that I didn't take steroids."
"Me?" I glanced at Brandon and then back at Troy. "You're kidding, right?"
Brandon said, "Just hear him out."
"I didn't do it, Mickey. I swear."
I still couldn't believe what I was hearing. "First off, Troy, I don't believe you. But even if I did, you've been nothing but a bully to me since I arrived. You pick on my friends. You tried to hurt me at practice."
"I know that. And I'm sorry."
"That's not good enough."
Troy spread his arms. "We're teammates, right?"
I said nothing.
"This is what teammates do. We help each other. Like family. And, yeah, Mickey, maybe you'll be the star this year. Maybe you'll even score more points than me. I don't know. But you know the team will have a better chance of winning the state championship if I'm on it."
I shuffled my feet. "This isn't my business," I said.
"Mickey, look at me for a second. Okay? Just look at me."
"I'm sorry," Troy said again. "I was getting on your case because you're new to the school and you're only a sophomore and, okay, maybe I was jealous. I mean, you just came to this school and you're this hotshot basketball star and, well, already my girl is spending more time with you than me."
I was about to comment on that, but Brandon just shook his head at me, signaling for me to let it go.
"So here I am," Troy said, "asking for your help."
I wasn't sure how to respond. I took a step back. "As you pointed out, your father is the chief of police," I said. "Let him help you."
"He can't do this."
"Sure he can."
"I need someone with your skills. I need someone who gets it, who's part of the team."
I almost bought into it right then--the idea of team. But then I remembered it all. Troy's threats, the way he bullied Spoon and grabbed Ema's laptop, how he had set me up and almost got me thrown off the team, the way he yelled "moooo" and cackled whenever Ema walked by him in the cafeteria.
"I'm sorry," Troy repeated. He stuck out his hand. "Can't we start again?"
"I have to go," I said.
"This isn't my battle, Brandon. You kept saying how I get in the middle of these things. This time I'm staying out of it."
I turned and started down the corridor.
Brandon caught up to me when I reached the door. "Cold," he said.
"It's like sixty degrees out," I said.
"Ha, ha. I meant the way you just dissed Troy."
"You're joking, right? You were there when he whipped the ball at my face. How long ago was that? Oh, that's right. Last practice."
"He was jealous. He explained that to you. Don't you get that at all? You've spent your life traveling around. You don't know what it's like when you're in a town like this. Things are just expected of you. And for Troy, well, he's been the best basketball player in town. His dad's the chief of police. He had this great girlfriend--and yeah, yeah, I know, you didn't take her away--but suddenly someone comes in and threatens everything he's worked for. Don't you have any compassion at all?"
I thought about that. "He was mean to my friends."
"Because they're an extension of you."
Again with the justifying. "And seriously, Brandon, what can I do anyway? His dad should help him."
"Troy's dad can't help."
"Because," Brandon said, "his dad doesn't believe him."
That surprised me. "What?"
"That's right. Even his own father has abandoned him on this. He thinks his son cheated. Chief Taylor wants to see if Troy can get back on the team in other ways, you know, come clean, say it's a first offense. But Troy doesn't want that. He wants his name cleared. He wants the truth to come out."
I didn't know what to say.
"There's something else you should consider too," Brandon said.
"Your teammates, like it or not, think you had something to do with Troy's suspension."
"But even Troy said he knew I had nothing to do with it."
"And maybe he'll tell the other guys that. Or maybe he won't. Maybe he'll wonder why you rejected his peace offering and slapped his hand away. Maybe he'll start to think the rest of the guys are right about you."
I said nothing.
"You see what I'm saying?"
"I think so. It sounds like blackmail. Help Troy or look like the guy who set him up."
"That's putting it too strongly," Brandon said. "More like, help Troy and look like the kind of teammate other guys want to play with. Look like the kind of teammate other guys respect and look up to and want to be around. Look like the kind of teammate who stands up for his captain, even when it's hard."
"Wow," I said.
"No wonder you're always elected class president."
Brandon smiled and put his hand on my shoulder. "Help him, Mickey. Help yourself. Help your team."
And because I'm a complete idiot, I told him that I would.
Ema did not take it well.
"Are you out of your mind?" Ema asked.
We were entering the lobby of the hospital, heading up to Spoon's room.
"If you'd just listen a second--"
"Oh, I heard you. You want to help Troy Taylor! Troy Freakin' Taylor!" She spread her arms. "What, are there no serial killers who need our help?"
"Forget it. I'll do it on my own, okay?"
"No, not okay. We work together. That's part of this. And we have more pressing problems, thank you very much."
"You mean your"--I tried to say it without sounding sarcastic--"boyfriend?"
"Are you being sarcastic?"
Like I said, I tried.
"It'd be a waste of time anyway," Ema said.
"Because you know Troy's guilty."
"A lot of people don't think so."
"Like who? Brandon? Look, Brandon is a nice guy, but he's always been under Troy's spell."
"I may need to do it," I said.
"To help me."
"Help you how?"
"To help get my teammates to see me in a new light."
She blinked. "Are you serious?"
"They hate me, Ema. All of them."
"And you think helping Troy will do what exactly? Make all the jocks think you're cool?"
"No," I said.
"Because if you want to be cool, your best bet is to jettison the uncool people around you."
"Will you stop it?"
We got into the elevator.
"I still don't understand," Ema said. "What do you want out of this?"
I opened my mouth, closed it, tried again. There was no point. She wouldn't understand. "Do you get what basketball means to me?"
Ema met my gaze and moved closer. I felt something warm pass over me. "Yes, of course."
"You can't be an outsider on a team," I said. "You can't be the loner sitting at a table in the corner."
"You mean like I do?"
"No, I mean like we do. Basketball is a team sport. That's the beauty of it. I want to be a part of that. It's why I wanted my parents to settle in one place. So I could play on a real team. So I could know what that's like--being part of a team and all that goes along with it."
I stopped because the emotion came suddenly. Suppose I hadn't wanted that. Suppose I had just kept my mouth shut. Would my dad be alive (or with me)? Would my mom have stayed off drugs?
Had my desire to be part of a real team destroyed everything?
"I know that's what you want, Mickey," Ema said in the softest voice. "I get that. But helping Troy Taylor--"
"Will show everyone that I'm willing to do anything to be a good teammate."
Ema shook her head, but she didn't argue.
We reached the door to Spoon's hospital room. No one was around, so I knocked lightly and pushed it open. I heard Spoon's voice: "Did you know that ants stretch when they wake up in the morning?"
I smiled. Ah, Spoon.
"Oh, and I mean ant like the insect. Not aunts like my aunt Tessie. She never stretches."
I wondered what nurse or doctor he was regaling with his random facts, but when I saw who it was, I pulled up short.
It was Rachel.
Spoon smiled at us from the bed. "Great," he said. "We're all here."
Rachel greeted Ema with a brief hug but only nodded at me and turned away. Ema looked at me, puzzled. Rachel was usually much friendlier with me, but of course, Ema didn't know about our last conversation, when I told her the truth about her mother's death.
"Four of us," Spoon said. "Do you know that the number four is considered unlucky in many East Asian cultures? That's because the word for four sounds like the word for death."
He pushed his glasses up his nose.
Ema sighed and said, "Did you find anything about Jared Lowell?"
Before he could answer, the door behind us opened. A nurse in pink hospital scrubs stepped into the room. She did not look pleased to see us. "What is this?"
Spoon spread his arms. "My posse."
"My posse. These are my peeps, my crew, my homies--"
"Are they immediate family?"
"More than immediate family," Spoon said. "They're my posse, my peeps, my crew, my--"
The nurse was having none of it. "You're only allowed one non-family visitor at a time, Arthur. You know that."
Spoon frowned. "But I had two here yesterday."
"Then someone was breaking the rules. I need two of you to leave this room immediately."
We all looked at one another, not sure what to do. Spoon took care of it.
"I will talk to all three of you separately, but--and I hope you lovely ladies don't consider this in any way to be sexist--Mickey and I first need to have a man-to-man talk."
He winked at me. I tried not to frown. Ema did not look pleased. I got that. She was the one most interested in finding Jared Lowell.
"I can wait," I
Spoon shook his head. "Man to man. It's important."
He looked at me hard, trying to send a message. I noticed now that the call button was near his right hand. I wondered whether he had pressed it--whether that was the reason why the nurse had suddenly appeared.
The nurse clapped her hands. "Okay, ladies, you heard the man. Let's leave them alone for their bro talk." She gestured toward the door, escorting Ema and Rachel out into the corridor.
Spoon and I were alone.
"Did you call for the nurse?" I asked.
"I wanted to show you what I found before we tell Ema."
"Why? He's a fake, right? Jared Lowell."
"No. Her boyfriend, Jared, is very much real. Maybe too real."
"What do you mean?"
Spoon pressed the button next to his bed so that he could sit more upright. "Jared Lowell's residence is in Massachusetts, a small place called Adiona Island."
"Lie Number One," I said.
"He told Ema that he lives in Connecticut."
"Well, he does. Sorta. That's why I used the word residence. Jared Lowell actually lives at the Farnsworth School, a fancy-shmancy prep school in Connecticut. All boys. They have to wear a jacket and tie every day. Could you imagine? That would put a crimp in my fashion statements, I think. I'm normally known in school as a pretty natty dresser, right?"
"Sharp. I'm a sharp dresser, don't you think?"
To keep Spoon on track, I said, "I do."
"Anyway, Jared Lowell is seventeen years old and a senior. He does indeed have a Facebook page, but he almost never used it--not until recently anyway. After he, uh, disappeared or whatever, he took down almost all the photographs on his page. You know this already, right?"
"I guess," I said.
"So have you seen any pictures of him?" Spoon asked.
"Just the profile picture."
"So you probably don't know that he's tall."
I didn't see the relevance. "Okay."
Spoon looked me in the eye. "He's six-four."
My height. "Okay," I said again.
"Or that he plays basketball. In fact, he's the leading scorer for his high school team, averaging nineteen points per game."
I nodded and said, "Okay."
"Or that his father's dead, so he only has his mother."
I stopped saying okay.
"Did you notice that Jared kinda looks like you?"
"He doesn't look like me," I said.
"He's more pretty-boy. You're more what the ladies would call rugged. But, yeah, Mickey, there are similarities. Lots of them."
"So what's your point, Spoon?"
Found by Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Young Adult / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes