Fade AwayHarlan Coben
Also by Harlan Coben
For Larry and Craig,
the coolest brothers a guy could ever have.
If you don't believe me, just ask them.
The author wishes to thank the following for their help: Anne Armstrong-Coben, M.D.; James Bradbeer, Jr., of Lilly Pulitzer; David Gold, M.D.; Maggie Griffin; Jacob Hoye; Lindsay Koehler; David Pepe of Pro Agents, Inc.; Peter Roisman of Advantage International; and, of course, Dave Bolt. Any errors--factual or otherwise--are totally their fault. The author is not to blame.
"Me?" Myron said. "I'm always a delight."
Myron Bolitar was being led through the corridor of the darkened Meadowlands Arena by Calvin Johnson, the New Jersey Dragons new general manager. Their dress shoes clacked sharply against the tile and echoed through empty Harry M. Stevens food stands, Carvel Ice Cream carts, pretzel vendors, souvenir booths. The smell of sporting-event hot dogs--that sort of rubbery, chemically, yet nostalgically delicious aroma--wafted from the walls. The stillness of the place consumed them; there is nothing more hollow and lifeless than an empty sports arena.
Calvin Johnson stopped in front of a door leading to a luxury box. "This may all seem a bit strange," he said. "Just go with the flow, okay?"
Calvin reached for the knob and took a deep breath. "Clip Arnstein, the owner of the Dragons, is in there waiting for us."
"And yet I'm not trembling," Myron said.
Calvin Johnson shook his head. "Just don't be an ass."
Myron pointed to his chest. "I wore a tie and everything."
Calvin Johnson opened the door. The luxury box faced midcourt. Several workers were putting down the basketball floor over the hockey ice. The Devils had played the night before. Tonight was the Dragons' turn. The box was cozy. Twenty-four cushioned seats. Two television monitors. To the right was a wood-paneled counter for the food--usually fried chicken, hot dogs, potato knishes, sausage and pepper sandwiches, that sort of stuff. To the left was a brass cart with a nicely stocked bar and minifridge. The box also had its own bathroom--this so the corporate high rollers would not have to urinate with the great unwashed.
Clip Arnstein faced them, standing. He wore a dark blue suit with a red tie. He was bald with patches of gray over both ears. He was burly, his chest still a barrel after seventy-some-odd years. His large hands had brown spots and fat blue veins like garden hoses. No one spoke. No one moved. Clip glared hard at Myron for several seconds, examining him from head to toe.
"Like the tie?" Myron asked.
Calvin Johnson shot him a warning glance.
The old man made no movement toward them. "How old are you now, Myron?"
Interesting opening question. "Thirty-two."
"You playing any ball?"
"Some," Myron said.
"You keep in good shape?"
"Want me to flex?"
"No, that won't be necessary."
No one offered Myron a seat and no one took one. Of course the only chairs in here were the spectator seats, but it still felt weird to stand in a business setting where you're supposed to sit. Standing suddenly became difficult. Myron felt antsy. He didn't know what to do with his hands. He took out a pen and held it, but that didn't feel right. Too Bob Dole. He stuck his hands in his pockets and stood at a weird angle, like the casual guy in the Sears circular.
"Myron, we have an interesting proposition for you," Clip Arnstein said.
"Proposition?" Always the probing interrogatory.
"Yes. I was the one who drafted you, you know."
"Ten, eleven years ago. When I was with the Celtics."
"I know all this, Mr. Arnstein."
"You were a hell of a prospect, Myron. You were smart. You had an unbelievable touch. You were loaded with talent."
"I coulda been a contenda," Myron said.
Arnstein scowled. It was a famous scowl, developed over some fifty-plus years in professional basketball. The scowl had made its first appearance when Clip played for the now-defunct Rochester Royals in the forties. It grew more famous when he coached the Boston Celtics to numerous championships. It became a legendary trademark when he made all the famous trades ("clipping" the competition, ergo the nickname) as team president. Three years ago Clip had become majority owner of the New Jersey Dragons and the scowl now resided in East Rutherford, right off Exit 16 of the New Jersey Turnpike. His voice was gruff. "Was that supposed to be Brando?"
"Eerie, isn't it? Like Marlon's actually in the room."
Clip Arnstein's face suddenly softened. He nodded slowly, giving Myron the doelike, father-figure eyes. "You make jokes to cover the pain," he said gravely. "I understand that."
Dr. Joyce Brothers.
"Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Arnstein?"
"You never played in a single professional game, did you, Myron?"
"You know very well I didn't."
Clip nodded. "Your first preseason game. Third quarter. You already had eighteen points that game. Not bad for a rookie in his first scrimmage. That was when fate took over."
Fate took the form of big Burt Wesson of the Washington Bullets. There had been a collision, a searing pain, and then nothing.
"Awful thing," Clip said.
"I always felt bad about what happened to you. Such a waste."
Myron glanced at Calvin Johnson. Calvin was looking off, arms crossed, his smooth black features a placid pool. "Uh huh," Myron said again.
"That's why I'd like to give you another chance."
Myron was sure he'd heard wrong. "Pardon?"
"We have a slot open on the team. I'd like to sign you."
Myron waited. He looked at Clip. Then he looked at Calvin Johnson. Neither one was laughing. "Where is it?" Myron asked.
"The camera. This is one of those hidden camera shows, right? Is this the one with Ed McMahon? I'm a big fan of his work."
"It's not a joke, Myron."
"It must be, Mr. Arnstein. I haven't played competitive ball in ten years. I shattered my knee, remember?"
"All too well. But as you said, it was ten years ago. I know you went through rehabilitation to rebuild it."
"And you also know I tried a comeback. Seven years ago. The knee wouldn't hold up."
"It was still too early," Clip said. "You just told me you're playing again.
"Pickup games on weekends. It's a tad different than the NBA."
Clip dismissed the argument with a wave of his hand. "You're in shape. You even volunteered to flex."
Myron's eyes narrowed, swerving from Clip to Calvin Johnson, back to Clip. Their expressions were neutral. "Why do I have the feeling," Myron asked, "that I'm missing something here?"
Clip finally smiled. He looked over to Calvin Johnson. Calvin Johnson forced up a return smile.
"Perhaps I should be less"--Clip paused, searched for the word--"opaque."
"That might be helpful."
"I want you on the team. I don't much care if you play or not."
Myron waited again. When no one continued, he said, "It's still a bit opaque."
Clip let loose a long breath. He walked over to the bar, opened a small hotel-style fridge, and removed a can of Yoo-Hoo. Stocking Yoo-Hoos. Hmm. Clip had been prepared. "You still drink this sludge?"
"Yes," Myron said.
He tossed Myron the can and poured something from a decanter into two glasses. He handed one to Calvin Johnson. He signaled to the seats by the glass window. Exactly midcourt. Very nice. Nice leg room too. Even Calvin, who was six-eight, was able to stretch a bit. The three men sat next to one another, all facing the same way, which again felt weird in a business setting. You were supposed to sit across from one another, preferably at a table or desk. Instead they sat shoulder to shoulder, watching the work crew pound the floor into place.
"Cheers," Clip said.
He sipped his whiskey. Calvin Johnson just held his. Myron, obeying the instructions on the can, shook his Yoo-Hoo.
"If I'm not mistaken," Clip continued, "you're a lawyer now."
"I'm a member of the bar," Myron said. "I don't practice much law."
"You're a sports agent."
"I don't trust agents," Clip said.
"Neither do I."
"For the most part, they're bloodsucking leeches."
"We prefer the term 'parasitic entities,'" Myron said. "It's more PC."
Clip Arnstein leaned forward, his eyes zeroing in on Myron's. "How do I know I can trust you?"
Myron pointed at himself. "My face," he said. "It screams trustworthiness."
Clip did not smile. He leaned a little closer. "What I'm about to tell you must remain confidential."
"Do you give me your word it won't go any farther than this room?"
Clip hesitated, glanced at Calvin Johnson, shifted in his seat. "You know, of course, Greg Downing."
Of course. Myron had grown up with Greg Downing. From the time they had first competed as sixth graders in a town league less than twenty miles from where Myron now sat, they were instant rivals. When they reached high school, Greg's family moved to the neighboring town of Essex Fells because Greg's father did not want his son sharing the basketball spotlight with Myron. The personal rivalry then began to take serious flight. They played against each other eight times in high school, each winning four games. Myron and Greg became New Jersey's hottest recruits and both matriculated at big-time basketball colleges with a storied rivalry of their own--Myron to Duke, Greg to North Carolina.
The personal rivalry soared.
During their college careers, they had shared two Sports Illustrated covers. Both teams won the ACC twice, but Myron picked up a national championship. Both Myron and Greg were picked first-team All-American, both at the guard spots. By the time they both graduated, Duke and North Carolina had played each other twelve times. The Myron-led Duke had won eight of them. When the NBA draft came, both men went in the first round.
The personal rivalry crashed and burned.
Myron's career ended when he collided with big Burt Wesson. Greg Downing sidestepped fate and went on to become one of the NBA premier guards. During his ten-year career with the New Jersey Dragons Downing had been named to the All-Star team eight times. He led the league twice in three-point shooting. Four times he led the league in free-throw percentage and once in assists. He'd been on three Sports Illustrated covers and had won an NBA championship.
"I know him," Myron said.
"Do you talk to him much?" Clip Arnstein asked.
"When was the last time you spoke?"
"I don't remember."
"Within the last few days?"
"I don't think we've spoken in ten years," Myron said.
"Oh," Clip said. He took another sip. Calvin had still not touched his drink. "Well, I'm sure you heard about his injury."
"Something with his ankle," Myron said. "It's day to day. He's in seclusion working on it."
Clip nodded. "That's the story we gave the media anyway. It's not exactly the truth."
"Greg isn't injured," Clip said. "He's missing."
"Missing?" Again the probing interrogatory.
"Yes." Clip took another sip. Myron sipped back, not an easy task with Yoo-Hoo.
"Since when?" Myron asked.
"Five days now."
Myron looked at Calvin. Calvin remained placid but he had that kind of face. During his playing days, his nickname had been Frosty because he never displayed emotion. He was living up to his name now.
Myron tried again. "When you say Greg is missing--"
"Gone," Clip snapped. "Disappeared. Into thin air. Without a trace. Whatever you want to call it."
"Have you called the police?"
Clip gave him the wave-off again. "You know Greg. He's not a conventional guy."
The understatement of the millennium.
"He never does the expected," Clip said. "He hates the fame. He likes to be on his own. He's even disappeared before, though never during a playoff drive."
"So there's a good chance he's just being his usually flaky self," Clip continued. "Greg can shoot like a dream, but let's face facts: the man is a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. You know what Downing does after games?"
Myron shook his head.
"He drives a cab in the city. That's right, a goddamn Yellow taxi cab in New York City. Says it keeps him close to the common man. Greg won't do appearances or endorsements. He doesn't do interviews. He doesn't even do the charity thing. He dresses like something out of a seventies sitcom. The man is a nut job."
"All of which makes him immensely popular with the fans," Myron said. "Which sells tickets."
"I agree," Clip said, "but that just underlines my point. If we call the cops it could damage both him and the team. Can you imagine the media circus if this got out?"
"It would be bad," Myron admitted.
"Exactly. And suppose Greg is just hanging out in French Lick or whatever hickville town he goes to in the off-season, fishing or something? Christ, we'd never hear the end of it. On the other hand, suppose he's up to something."
"Up to something?" Myron repeated.
"Hell, I don't know. I'm just talking here. But I don't need a goddamn scandal. Not now. Not with the playoffs coming up, you know what I'm saying?"
Not really, but Myron decided to let it go for now. "Who else knows about this?"
"Just the three of us."
The work crew rolled in the baskets. Two extras were kept in storage in case someone pulled a Darryl Dawkins and shattered a backboard. They then began putting down additional seats. Like most arenas, the Meadowlands holds more seats for basketball than hockey--in this case around a thousand more. Myron took a another sip of Yoo-Hoo and let it roll around his tongue. He waited until it slid down his throat before he asked the obvious question. "So how do I fit in?"
Clip hesitated. His breathing was deep, almost labored. "I know something of your years with the FBI," he said finally. "No details, of course. Not even vagaries really, but enough to know you have a background in this kinda stuff. We want you to find Greg. Quietly."
Myron said nothing. His "undercover" wo
rk for the feds, it seemed, was the worst kept secret in the continental United States. Clip sipped his drink. He looked at Calvin's full glass, then at Calvin. Calvin finally took a sip. Clip turned his attention back to Myron. "Greg's divorced now," Clip went on. "He's basically a loner. All his friends--hell, all his acquaintances--are teammates. They're his support group, if you will. His family. If anyone knows where he is--if anyone's helping him stay hidden--it's got to be one of the Dragons. I'll be honest with you. These guys are a major pain in the ass. Spoiled, pampered prima donnas who think our purpose in life is to serve them. But they all have one thing in common: They see management as the enemy. Us against the world and all that crap. They won't tell us the truth. They won't tell reporters the truth. And if you approach them as some, uh, 'parasitic entity,' they won't talk to you either. You have to be a player. It's the only way to get on the inside."
"So you want me to join the team so I can find Greg."
Myron heard the echoes of hurt in his voice. It was unintentional, but he saw that both men heard it too. His face flushed in embarrassment.
Clip put a hand on his shoulder. "I meant what I said, Myron. You could have been great. One of the greatest."
Myron took a deep swig of his Yoo-Hoo. No more sipping. "I'm sorry, Mr. Arnstein. I can't help you."
The scowl was back. "What?"
"I have a life. I'm a sports agent. I have clients to tend to. I can't just drop it all."
"You'll get the players' minimum prorated. That's two hundred thousand dollars less whatever. And there's only a couple of weeks left until the playoffs. We'll keep you on till then no matter what."
"No. My playing days are over. And I'm not a private investigator."
"But we need to find him. He could be in danger."
"I'm sorry. The answer is no."
Clip smiled. "Suppose I sweeten the pot."
"Fifty-thousand-dollar signing bonus."
"Greg could show up tomorrow and you'd still get to keep that. Fifty grand. Plus a share of playoff money."
Clip sat back. He stared at his drink, dipped his finger into it, stirred. His voice was casual. "You say you're an agent, right?"
"I'm very friendly with the parents of three guys that will go in the first round. Did you know that?"
"Suppose," Clip said slowly, "I guarantee you that one of them signs with you."
Myron pricked up. A first round draft pick. He tried to keep his expression cool--to do like Frosty--but his heart was thumping. "How can you do that?"
"Don't worry about how."
"It doesn't sound ethical."
Clip made a scoffing noise. "Myron, don't play choirboy with me. You do me this favor and MB SportsReps gets a first round draft pick. Guaranteed. No matter how this thing with Greg plays out."