Part #3 of Mickey Bolitar series by Harlan Coben
For these guys, I had turned from weird to exotic.
I don't know how much pizza we ate, but it was a lot. Brandon especially could put it away. Adults came in and said hello and asked about the team's chances. Everyone seemed to know everyone. Brandon always stood and shook the adult's hand. Sometimes he would introduce them to us with too much polish. "Mr. Mignone, allow me to introduce you to" and then he'd name us from right to left. Most of the guys nodded back. I hadn't been raised that way, so I too stood and shook each hand. Inevitably they would say the same thing: "'Bolitar'? Are you related to Myron?"
"I'm his nephew."
They would put together then that I was Brad's son and grow quiet.
Like I said, everyone knew everyone. I guessed, at some point, that meant they knew my dad too.
I was having fun, especially when the attention turned away from me and they let me just observe and listen. I laughed a lot. I tried to remember the last time I laughed this much, and I don't think I ever had. I wanted the world to go away. I wanted to forget about the Abeona Shelter or missing kids or my dad or . . .
Or Spoon in that hospital bed.
I closed my eyes. Yeah, I wanted to forget. Just for one night. But I didn't get that. I got a few hours, and maybe, for now, that was enough.
My phone buzzed when the text came in. It was from Ema: we're all here. where are you????
When I arrived at the hospital, Ema and Rachel met me by the elevator. Ema looked at me warily.
"What time did practice end?" she asked.
"Don't worry about it."
Rachel could see the tension, but she wisely let it go. "Come on. We can all go in."
"I thought it was only one of us at a time."
"New nurse, new rule," Rachel said. "Today's said it was okay."
Rachel led the way. I fell in behind her with Ema, who kept her eyes focused straight ahead.
"What?" I asked her.
"So where were you?"
"That ended hours ago," Ema said.
"You're kidding, right?"
Ema kept walking.
"I have to report in to you wherever I'm going?"
"Only when you say you're going to meet me."
"I lost track of time. I had practice and we went to Buck's dad's gym and then, I don't know, we went to Pizzaiola."
She stopped. "You went with them for pizza?"
"Them. They're my teammates, Ema. Don't you get that?"
She just shook her head.
"You don't get it, do you?" she said.
"They're my teammates. I don't have to hate them."
"I didn't say you had to."
"But nothing, Mickey. You're free to do whatever you want."
"Thanks, Mom," I said.
We reached Spoon's room. He sat up in bed with that wonderful, dopey smile on his face. "Hey, Mickey, did you tell them?"
"Tell them what?"
"That I'm meant for great things."
"Wait," I said, "you heard that?"
"I heard everything."
"So the whole time Bat Lady was here . . ."
"I was awake, yep."
Rachel gasped. "She was here? In this room?"
Ema stared daggers at me. Great. Now that I got the basketball team to stop with the stares, Ema had picked up the habit.
"Yep," Spoon said. "She pretended to be a nurse. She said I was meant for great things." He wiggled his eyebrows at Rachel. "Impressed?"
I looked at Ema. "I was going to tell you at lunch," I said to her, "but then Troy came by . . ."
"That's okay," Rachel said, though I hadn't been talking to her. I think that she knew. I think that she was trying to save me. "So what did she say?"
I filled them in on the Bat Lady's visit. When I finished, Rachel said, "So now we know for certain. We have to find Jared Lowell."
I nodded. Ema didn't. She had stopped staring daggers. Now she just looked plain hurt. Part of me understood. Part of me was getting a little annoyed.
"The question is," Rachel continued, "how?"
Spoon cleared his throat. "That's where I come in."
We all turned to him. He clicked a button on his laptop. "I have just sent you all my most recent file on Jared Lowell. I managed to get into his Farnsworth School files. He's a good student, by the way. Top of his class. But more important, I got both his dorm address and course schedule. You'll also find a campus map in the attachment." Spoon pushed the glasses up his nose. "With this information, it shouldn't be hard to find him."
"The campus is in Connecticut," Rachel said.
"So how are we going to get up there?"
"Oh," Spoon said, "Mickey drives."
"Not legally," Ema said.
"And I can't just drive up to Connecticut," I said. "It's wrong to do it locally, but it would be way too risky to go that far without a license. Plus my uncle has confiscated all the car keys."
"You could take the bus," Spoon said. He was typing on the laptop. "Let's see. Grab the four-four-one on Northfield Avenue and change in Newark." He listed some morning departure times. "You could take a taxi from there."
"So when do we go?" I asked.
"No school tomorrow," Ema said. "Teacher conference. It'll be our best chance."
I would need to be back by 4:00 P.M. for basketball practice, but I didn't feel the need to tell her that right now. A phone buzzed. It was Rachel's. She took a look at her screen and frowned. I couldn't help it. I wondered whether it was Troy.
"It's my dad," she said with a heavy sigh. "Ever since my mom died . . ."
She didn't finish the sentence. We all understood.
"He wants to know where I am," she said. "I better go."
Rachel pocketed her phone and hoisted up her backpack. "It'll be tough for me to get away tomorrow. Dad wants to take me out to breakfast and then maybe to visit my grandmother."
"You don't have to explain," I said.
"We can handle this," Ema added.
"Might need someone back here anyway," I said. "Just in case."
I had no idea what I meant by that, but it sounded good, like we were giving her something to do. But Ema was right. We didn't need three of us going up there anyway.
We said our good-byes and Rachel walked out the door. When she was gone, Spoon looked up at me and said, "We can work on two things at the same time, Mickey."
"Meaning Bat Lady talked to you about Luther."
I said nothing.
"Luther is the guy in that photograph you gave me, right?"
"Your Butcher?" Ema asked.
"So your dad was like us," Spoon said. "He rescued kids for Abeona."
"Yes," I said.
"Did you know?"
"No," I said. "Or maybe I suspected, I don't know."
"I don't get it," Ema said. "If your father rescued Luther, why would he now be trying to hurt you?"
"Simple," Spoon said.
"Luther must not have wanted to be rescued."
I looked at Ema. She looked at me.
"I don't understand."
"Neither do I yet," Spoon said. "But Bat Lady said sometimes things go wrong. I started to think about it. I remember reading about Stockholm syndrome. You know what that is?"
I had a vague idea, but I let him tell us.
"You start liking your captives. You don't know it's wrong anymore. Or I was reading about kids with really bad parents--parents who hurt them--but they still want to stay with them. So maybe this Luther was like that. Maybe Luther didn't want to be rescued."
I glanced at Ema. "He's making sense," she said.
Spoon spread his arms. "I'm just full of surprises, aren't I?"
"So how does that help us find him?"<
"That's what I plan on finding out," Spoon said. "I got that picture you gave me. I got a first name. It isn't a lot, but maybe I'll find something."
Ema was quiet in the elevator.
"Let's take the first bus up to Connecticut tomorrow," I said. "We could be up at Jared's school by ten."
"Okay," Ema said.
I frowned at her.
"I know how much you want to be part of that team," she said.
"And I know that scares you," I said.
"You think I'll start hanging out with them instead of you?"
Ema shook her head. "You're so thick sometimes."
"That's not it?"
"No, that's not it."
We were outside now. The night air was cool, and I welcomed it. Hospital air is always stilted and heavy. It is hard to breathe in a hospital. I stopped a moment and sucked in a deep breath.
"Then what?" I asked.
"Come on, don't be like that. What?"
"With some people, you tell them the oven is hot, they don't touch it," Ema said. "But other people have to touch the oven. They have to feel the pain."
I frowned again. "That's deep, Ema. And isn't it supposed to be a frying pan?"
She stopped and put her hands on my arms. I saw her eyes in the moonlight look up at me. We just stood there a second and a weird thought hit me: I wanted to kiss her.
I don't think I ever consciously thought about that before. We had always been squarely in the "friend zone." But looking down on her in this wonderful light, I wanted to cup her face in my hands and kiss her.
"You're going to touch the oven," she said. "I want to protect you from that pain. But I can't. I can only tell you that when it hurts, I'll be there for you."
"And I'll be there for you," I said. "Always."
"Always," Ema repeated.
We stared into each other's eyes. I don't know how long. I was about to move my hands to her face when someone driving by us honked and yelled, "Get a room!"
That broke the spell.
Ema's hands slid off my arms. She took a step back. We both turned and started for home. We walked in silence for a while. Neither of us would raise this. We would both just pretend the moment never happened. With each step it seemed farther away, as though we were leaving the near kiss in the hospital parking lot. The tension eased.
We were becoming just friends again.
When we reached the intersection, Ema surprised me by starting down the road toward Bat Lady's now-burned-down house. I stayed right by her side.
"What are you thinking?" I asked.
"There are tunnels under the house. That's what you told me."
"And last time we went down to the basement, we found a clue."
"You're thinking maybe we can find another?"
Ema shrugged. "It's worth a try."
I had thought the same thing, of course. It was dark out now. It would be easier to approach without being seen by neighbors. Then again, the night also made an already spooky place even spookier. We stopped on the sidewalk.
Up ahead of us, the house's collapsed remains stood in menacing silhouette. The streetlights were dim. The house had been built right along the woods. It was odd, I thought now, how none of the trees behind it caught fire.
What horrors, I wondered, had this house seen over the years?
We didn't have flashlights on us, but we had our smartphones. I got the flashlight app ready. I didn't want to use it until we were belowground. A light might be seen by nosy neighbors. They'd call the police, and let's just say that wouldn't end well.
Our approach was blocked by dozens of signs reading KEEP OUT and NO TRESPASSING. The yellow tape wrapped around the burned ruins worked like a reflector on a kid's bike.
"Strange," Ema whispered.
"All the signs, the tape. It's almost overkill."
I had thought about that too. Were the police and fire department really that worried about keeping people out? The signs didn't look officially issued, just something you'd buy at the hardware store. I wondered whether Lizzy Sobek had put them up. I couldn't see that. Maybe it was one of the other people who worked for the Abeona Shelter. Maybe it was the guy with the shaved head whom I had recently learned was named Dylan Shaykes.
Didn't matter. I didn't care about the warnings. I was going in. There might be clues about Jared Lowell somewhere in the bowels of this property, but I was more thinking that there might be information about my father's sworn enemy, the mysterious Luther.
Bat Lady--sorry, I still thought of her that way rather than Lizzy Sobek--had said that Luther had been rescued by Abeona and that his photograph had been in that hallway he burned down to the ground.
"Another thing," Ema whispered.
"Why did Luther set the house on fire?"
"Because I was in it."
It was too dark to see her face, but I could feel her skeptical frown. "So why not, I don't know, shoot or stab you? Why burn an entire house to the ground?"
I saw where she was going with this. "Because he wanted to destroy evidence."
"And some of the evidence--"
"Could be in those tunnels under the house," Ema finished for me.
We reached what had been the front stoop before the fire. I remembered how decrepit the house had been, how the very foundations seemed to shake when I knocked on that door, how the paint job was so old that flakes fell off as though it had a bad case of dandruff.
Now the house was rubble. But somehow that didn't seem to lessen the power. The fire had been put out days ago, but an acrid smell assaulted my senses. There was no smoke or smoldering going on, but it still seemed as though steam was coming up from the wreckage. I thought about what this house had held. I thought about the fact that a legendary hero from the Holocaust, long thought dead, had lived here in hiding for so many years. I thought about all the children who had been rescued, all the ones who had temporarily been hidden here or had healed here or had told their tales here.
The building might be gone, but those voices still whispered to us.
Ema took my hand as we stepped into the debris. We had been here before. We knew the way. The fireplace had been on the left. There had been an old photograph of Bat Lady with a group of hippies, probably taken in the sixties. I rescued that picture from the fire. It was in the drawer next to my bed.
Everything in the room was gone--the couch, the old record player where Bat Lady played her rock 'n' roll vinyl albums, the chair, the armoire, all of it. They were soot and dust.
I flicked on the flashlight app, keeping the beam low. Last time I'd been here, the basement stairs had been blocked by debris. They weren't now, but that was probably because I had made an opening.
I turned off the app. Okay, I knew where to go now.
I started toward it. Ema stayed with me.
"I'll go down first and make sure it's safe," I said.
"Because you're the big brave man?"
"Because I've been down there before, remember?"
"I do. You made me stay up here, remember?"
I sighed. "You want to go first?"
"And bruise your heroic ego? Not a chance."
I shook my head. The moonlight was just enough to catch her teasing smile. I wanted to give her a gentle shake. Or maybe kiss her.
Man, I had to stop thinking like this.
The opening was a giant hole. I shined the light down it for a brief moment. The stairs did not look sturdy enough to hold my weight, but I didn't have any choice. I knew the drop was not far anyway. I just had to be prepared.
When I reached the third step, I heard a cracking noise. I leapt right before the stair gave way and landed on the concrete floor.
"You okay?" Ema asked.
I turned on my flashlight app. I was below the earth now. The neighbors would not be able to see the beam.
"I'm coming down," Ema said.
The beam of the flashlight danced around the room. In one corner, there was a washer and dryer that looked like something from the Eisenhower administration. Some old clothes were piled on the left. I opened two of the cardboard boxes. There was nothing but junk in them. No files, no clues, all a mess of dust and soot.
"Don't bother," I said. "There's nothing here."
"Are you sure?"
I checked the floor again. That was where I'd found the photograph last time we were here. But there was nothing now. Finally I raised the beam toward where I knew the answer would be.
The reinforced steel door.
I had seen it last time I was here. While everything else in this house had been decaying, this door was stronger than ever. I put my hand against it. The soot fell away and I could still see a shine. I tried the knob.
I had expected that. I tried to push my shoulder against it. It didn't budge a bit.
I needed to get to the other side of that door.
But there was no way I was going to make it this way. That didn't mean I was defeated. I just had to go another route.
"I'm coming back up."
I tested the bottom steps. They were sturdy enough. I climbed a few. Ema lowered her hand to offer me help. I didn't need it, but if I refused it, she would make another crack about me being sexist or whatever. So I took it, which may have been an even more sexist move.
"So what now?" she asked when I was back aboveground.
"The garage," I said. "When Dylan Shaykes brought me here, he had me go through a tunnel that started in the garage out back and made its way to the house. I saw other corridors and doors. One, I bet, leads to whatever is behind that steel door."
The garage was in the woods, about fifty yards away. It seemed so odd, but then again everything about this property did. The woods came right up to the very house, as though they had sneaked in one night and taken over the backyard. That had made no sense to me. Now, of course, I understood it better. There was a road in the woods. You could drive up to the garage back there without fear of being seen. You could even use the tunnel in the garage and enter the house without anyone ever noticing.
There was a lot of secrecy surrounding the Abeona Shelter.
The garage doors were locked, but this time the doors weren't reinforced with anything. I checked the bolt and saw it was right by the knob. Good. I lifted my leg and smashed my heel into the spot directly above the knob.
Found by Harlan Coben / Mystery & Detective / Young Adult / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes