Part #3 of Mickey Bolitar series by Harlan Coben
"No point. I just find it interesting that Ema fell for a guy who could be, well, you."
I said nothing.
"What do you want me to say here, Spoon? We're both tall and play basketball. I don't attend a fancy-shmancy private school. I'm only a sophomore, not a senior. I don't live with my mother--she's in rehab, remember?"
Spoon nodded. "That's all true."
"And this is still feeling like a catfish to me. You were able to independently confirm that Jared Lowell is real?"
"Yes. There are articles on his ball playing, complete with photographs and statistics. He's real."
"I'm still thinking this is a catfish," I said. "All the stuff you said, okay, there are similarities. So someone--maybe Troy or Buck or some other toad--found this guy online and made up a fake Facebook page--"
"No," Spoon said.
"The Facebook page has existed for four years. It's a little hard to explain, but the original setup ISP originated on Adiona Island--where he lives. He also used it. Not a lot. He isn't a big Facebook guy. But it was in use and the posts are obviously not fake."
"So Jared Lowell is real?"
"And his Facebook page is his?"
I pointed my palms to the sky. "So where is he now?"
"Normally I would say there is no big mystery."
"Meaning there are no articles or indications that he's missing. I assume he's at school. If he was hurt or vanished, I think there would be something online, don't you?"
"I do," I said.
"All we know for certain is that he's not currently using his Facebook page and has stopped communicating with Ema. Normally I would say that this doesn't concern us. For whatever reason, he decided that Ema wasn't for him and, well, was less than a gentleman about informing her."
"So why isn't this 'normally'?"
"Because nothing about us is normal, Mickey," Spoon said. "You know that."
"And while many photographs were taken down from his Facebook page, only one has been added since he stopped talking to Ema."
I nodded. "The Abeona butterfly."
I sighed. "So we need to see this through."
"Right again. Unless."
"We have our enemies, don't we, Mickey?"
I thought about the sandy-haired paramedic with the green eyes. He had taken my father away from the car accident. He had set Bat Lady's house--Abeona's headquarters--on fire while I was inside.
"We do," I said.
"He could be another. Jared Lowell. This could be a setup."
Spoon could be right. But it gave me another idea. "Do you remember this?"
I handed him the old black-and-white photograph. The man dressed in the Nazi uniform was, I'd been told at first, the Butcher of Lodz, a monstrous war criminal who had killed hundreds, maybe thousands, during World War II. But it wasn't. At least not entirely.
The face belonged to the paramedic with the sandy hair and green eyes.
For a long time, I had been bewildered by this--how could a Nazi from World War II have been the paramedic who wheeled away my dad? But sometimes the simplest answer is so close to us, we can't see.
The paramedic's face had been Photoshopped onto the Butcher of Lodz's body by the Bat Lady.
I still had no idea who he was.
"Sure," Spoon said. "What about it?"
I put my finger right on the picture's face. "You know he's not really the Butcher of Lodz, right?"
"Is there any way you can figure out who he really is?"
Spoon studied the picture. He started to nod slowly. "I think maybe I can. Let me work on it, okay?"
Spoon put the photograph in the drawer next to his bed. "You better let Ema in now. What do you think I should tell her?"
"The truth," I said.
I looked down at him, in that bed, paralyzed below the waist. I was blocking on that. It was the only way to stay upright. But suddenly I felt the tears building again. Spoon looked up at me and then turned away.
"Arthur?" I said.
"Don't call me that," he said.
I swallowed. "How are you? Really."
He gave me the big smile. "Terrific!"
I just looked at him and waited. The smile faded away.
"To tell the truth," Spoon said, "I'm a little scared."
"Yeah," I said. "I get that."
"After I talk to the girls, do you think you can hang in my room for a while?"
I managed not to cry. "For as long as you'd like."
Ema went in next, leaving Rachel and me alone for the first time since I knocked on the door and told her the truth about her mother's death. For a few minutes we avoided each other's gaze. I stood there feeling ridiculously awkward, shuffling my feet, casually fake whistling. I had no idea why I was fake whistling, but that's what I was doing. I bounced on my toes. My hands felt really big and like I had no place to put them. I jammed them in my pockets.
Rachel was beautiful. It was as simple as that. Physically she was the complete package. Everyone thought so. At our school, she was "that" girl, but I've often found that the "high school hot," while obviously attractive, can often have looks that are somewhat blank or standard or like some kind of formula--that when you are universally considered hot, that hotness can also be bland.
That wasn't the case here. Rachel's beauty was, well, interesting.
I moved toward her hesitantly, half expecting her to shake her head for me to go away again. She smelled great, like honeysuckle and lilacs.
"Hey," I said, because I'm smooth like that.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"It's not your fault."
"Your father thought it'd be better if you didn't know the truth. He didn't want me to tell you what happened to your mom."
Rachel tilted her head. "So why did you?"
I hadn't expected her to ask that. I guess that I expected to get credit for being honest, but her eyes were pinning me down, wanting an answer.
"It was something my uncle said."
"Your uncle Myron?"
"It was about lies. Even when they're for someone's good."
"I don't remember his exact words, but he said that it might be a good lie, it might be a bad lie, but either way, the lie would always be in the room with us."
Rachel nodded. I wanted to ask more. I wanted to know how her father had reacted, but it wasn't my place to ask. We stood in silence for a few more seconds. I broke it: "I was surprised to see you here. Did Spoon call you?"
"No," she said.
"So how did you know to come?"
"This was in my locker."
Rachel handed me an essay she had written for Mrs. Friedman's history class. She had gotten an A with a comment in Mrs. Friedman's script saying, "Great job!" But that wasn't the important thing. The important thing was the image someone had stamped onto the top right-hand corner of the first page.
The Abeona butterfly.
"Did you do this?" she asked.
I sighed. "You know better."
"So who was it?"
"I don't know. And yet we all know."
Rachel shook her head. "You sound like a fortune cookie." She looked toward Spoon's door. "So there's another kid who's missing."
"Maybe. What did Spoon tell you before we got here?"
"That Thomas Jefferson had a pet mockingbird and when he was alone in his study, he'd close the
"So who's missing?"
"A guy Ema met online. His name is Jared Lowell."
I filled her in on what I knew. When I finished, I said, "Can I ask you a personal question?"
"Are you and Troy . . . ?"
"No. You of all people should understand."
"He loves basketball like you love basketball."
And it had been taken away from him in his final year. Troy was maybe good enough to play college, get a scholarship even, and now it was all gone.
"Do you think he did it?" I asked.
"Yeah," I said. "He says he was set up."
"Is that possible?" Rachel asked.
"I don't know. You know him"--ugh--"well. I want your opinion."
"Why do you care what I think?" she asked.
"Because he asked me to investigate it."
Rachel's eyes widened. "What?"
"Troy wants me to prove that the test was wrong or fixed or whatever."
"My reaction exactly."
She shook her head. "Wow."
"I don't know," she said. "I never knew him to cheat. He was overly competitive, for sure. He has a lot of pressure on him and, yeah, maybe he's been acting out more. But a cheater? I don't think so."
Ema came out and Rachel went in. A few minutes later, Rachel exited the room. We were all going to leave together, but I told them that I needed to stay behind with Spoon for a while. They understood and started home.
I entered Spoon's room nervously, but he immediately put me at ease. We laughed a lot. Life was funny, I thought. The most poignant moments always ended up being the most mixed. I had a great time with Spoon even while my heart broke. Laughter can be more intense when it's blended with tears.
It was getting late, but I didn't want to leave him. I texted Uncle Myron and explained what was going on. He understood: I'll pick you up when you're done. Don't worry about the hour.
I told him not to wait up--that I'd walk--and then I turned off the phone before he could argue. Time passed. Spoon put a sitcom on the television. At some point, I realized that he had stopped speaking, which was something that never happened. I turned toward him.
Spoon had fallen asleep.
I watched him. Lots of emotions passed through me. I didn't stop or analyze them. I just let them flow through. I felt my eyes grow heavy. I decided that I would close them for a minute, no more, and then I would make sure Spoon was okay and head home. That was my plan anyway. Rest the eyes for a second.
I don't know how much time passed. It may have been an hour. It may have been more. I was dreaming about the car accident that killed my father, the sound of brakes screeching, the crunch of impact, the way my body flew. I saw my father lying on the ground, bleeding, his eyes closed, and that paramedic, that damn paramedic with the sandy-blond hair and green eyes, meeting my eye . . .
A hand touched my shoulder.
My blood went cold. I jerked awake. I was back in Spoon's hospital room. It was dark. He was asleep. The hand was still on my shoulder. I turned in my chair and looked up at the silhouette of the nurse. Except of course it wasn't a nurse. I knew that the moment I heard her voice.
It was the Bat Lady.
I had a million questions to ask her.
Bat Lady kept her hand on my shoulder. The hand was bony with liver spots and thick veins. I knew that she had to be well into her eighties by now. She looked it. And I knew that I should stop thinking of her as Bat Lady. Her real name was Elizabeth "Lizzy" Sobek. Her whole family died during the Holocaust, but young Lizzy had saved a group of children from certain death in a Polish concentration camp. After that, the famous teen became a resistance fighter against the Nazi occupation.
No one heard from her again.
Most history books believe that she'd been killed during World War II.
Most history books are wrong.
"Are you okay?" I asked her.
The last time I was in her house, the sandy-haired man with the green eyes burned it to the ground. I had not seen her since.
"I'm fine," she said.
She loomed over me, looking larger and stronger than she had in the past. Maybe that was because she had traded in her tattered, long white nightgown for hospital scrubs. The gray hair that normally flowed down past her shoulders was tied into a bun.
She made her way toward the front of Spoon's bed and checked his chart. Her face looked grim.
"Can't you do something?" I asked. "He can't walk."
"I'm not a doctor, Mickey."
"But can't you . . . ?"
"No," she said. She moved toward Spoon's head. She reached down and smoothed back his hair. "I'm sorry."
"That's not good enough."
"It never is."
"It's our fault," I said.
"Perhaps." She turned toward me. "We save many, but there is always a cost."
I gestured toward the bed. "He shouldn't be the one to pay for it."
She almost smiled. "Do you want to lecture me about how life isn't fair, Mickey?"
"No, ma'am." I shifted in the chair. "Where have you been?"
"That's not important." She looked down at Spoon. "He's meant for great things, you know."
"So he's going to be okay?"
"I didn't say that." She turned toward me. "My house is gone."
"The paramedic. He burned it down."
"He tried to kill me."
She didn't respond to that.
"I still don't understand." I opened up the drawer next to Spoon's bed and pulled out the old black-and-white picture. "Why did you give me this?"
She didn't respond to that either.
"You told me that it's the Butcher of Lodz from World War Two," I said, trying to control my anger. "But that's not who it is at all. I mean, the body is, I guess. But the face . . . that's the paramedic who told me that my dad was dead. Why did you give this to me?"
"The Butcher of Lodz killed my family," she said.
"This man," she said. "He is your Butcher."
I shook my head. "So he's, what, my enemy?"
She said nothing.
"And I still don't get why you put his face on this body."
"It was," she said, "a test."
"I wanted to see your reaction. I needed to see if you were on our side. Or his."
"Wait, you're not making any sense. Who is he?"
"The last time you were in my house, you went upstairs, yes?"
"You saw the Hall of the Rescued."
"Is that what you call it?"
"You saw it?"
I had seen it. When I went up the stairs of the old house, the hallway had been blanketed with pictures of children and teenagers. Hundreds, thousands, maybe tens of thousands. They'd been everywhere, crawling up both walls, clinging to the ceiling. There were layers upon layers of them. Some were black and white. Some were color. There were so many of them, you couldn't find the walls or the ceiling.
Only photographs of the children.
Missing children. Check that: rescued children.
"The pictures were burned in the fire," I said.
"I still don't get it," I said. "What do the pictures have to do with the guy?"
"If you'd had the chance to study the hall closer," she said, "you might have found a photograph of a sandy-haired little boy with green eyes."
I frowned. "He was one of the children you rescued?"
"Not me," she said.
She just looked at me.
She didn't answer. She didn't have to.
"My father rescued this guy?" I opened my mouth but n
"He is," she said slowly, "worse than that."
"He set the fire. It nearly killed me."
Again she just stood there.
"Did he kill my father?"
"I don't know. You said he was there."
I nodded. "He was the paramedic."
"And he took away your father?"
She turned and looked at Spoon again. "That is all I know."
"What are you talking about?" I could hear the anger in my voice. "The first time I saw you, you stepped outside and told me point-blank that my father was alive. Don't you remember?"
She nodded. "I do," she said softly.
"Well, if you didn't know, why did you say that?"
She closed her eyes. "When I heard about your father's car accident, I cried. We get used to death and costs. I've explained that to you before. But your father had saved so many. Your mother too. They dedicated their lives to our cause and angered many bad people. But still, when I first heard about your father, I believed that it was just a tragic accident. I had no idea that Luther was involved."
"Luther?" I said. "That's his name?"
She took the photograph from my hand. "I should have known better, Mickey. Accidents happen, of course, but with people like us, odds are that there is something more nefarious at work. I was wrong."
"What made you change your mind?" I asked.
She looked at me.
"What made you suspect this Luther guy was involved?"
The old lady smiled, and for a second, I could see the child that she once was. "You don't believe in magic, do you, Mickey?"
Oh, please, I thought. "No."
"Neither do I. I've seen too much suffering to believe in the superstitious. And yet . . ."
I waited. When she didn't speak again, I tried a new avenue. "Who is this Luther? What's his last name?"
"I don't know."
"How can you not know?"
She shrugged. "We worry about the rescue, not the name."
"But my father rescued him?"
"And then you thought--"
"That your father died in a car accident."
"So what made you change your mind?" I asked again.
"You won't believe it. I don't believe it either. And yet I know what I know. I don't believe in magic or superstition. But I believe that there are some things we cannot yet comprehend--that there are things beyond our capabilities to understand. Sometimes, explaining how the universe works is like teaching a lion to read. Reading is real. The lion is real. But he's never going to read."
I shook off the analogy and yet I got it. "So what happened?" I asked.
"My refrigerator broke."
"It's an old refrigerator," she said. "It hums so loudly. But I've had it a long time. I like it. Even the noise comforts me."
I tried not to sigh.
Found by Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Young Adult / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes