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Deal Breaker, Page 2

Harlan Coben



  "Nice image, really."

  "Fuck you."

  Myron sighed. Then his whole body seemed to snap into motion at the same time. He started with a head-butt that landed square on the big man's nose. There was a squelching noise like beetles being stepped on. Blood gushed from the nose.

  "Son of a--"

  Myron cradled the back of the big man's head for leverage and smashed his elbow into the sweet of the Adam's apple, nearly caving the windpipe all the way in. There was a painful, gurgling choke. Then silence. Myron followed up with a knife-hand strike to the back of the neck below the skull.

  The big man slid to the ground like wet sand.

  "Okay, that's enough!"

  The man with the fedora stepped closer, a gun drawn and pointed at Myron's chest.

  "Back away from him. Now!"

  Myron squinted at him. "Is that really a fedora?"

  "I said, back off!"

  "Okay, okay, I'm backing."

  "You didn't have to do that," the smaller man said with almost childlike hurt. "He was just doing his job."

  "A misunderstood youth," Myron added. "Now I feel terrible."

  "Just stay away from Chaz Landreaux, okay?"

  "Not okay. Tell Roy O'Connor I said it's not okay."

  "Hey, I ain't hired to get no answer. I'm just delivering."

  Without another word the man with the fedora helped his fallen colleague to his feet. The big man stumbled to their car, one hand on his nose, the other massaging his windpipe. His nose was busted, but his throat would hurt even worse, especially when he swallowed.

  They got in and quickly drove away. They did not stop to change Myron's tire.

  Chapter 2

  Myron dialed Chaz Landreaux's number on his car phone.

  Not being what one would call mechanically inclined, it had taken Myron half an hour to change the tire. He rode slowly for the first few miles, fearing his handiwork would encourage the tire to slip off and flee. When he felt more confident, he accelerated and started back on the road to Christian's.

  When Chaz answered, Myron quickly explained what happened.

  "They was already here," Chaz told him. Lots of noise in the background. An infant cried. Something fell and broke. Children laughed. Chaz shouted for quiet.

  "When?" Myron asked.

  "Hour ago. Three men."

  "Did they hurt you?"

  "Nah. Just held me down and made threats. Said they was going to break my legs if I didn't honor my contract."

  Breaking legs, Myron thought. How original.

  Chaz Landreaux was a senior basketball player at Georgia State and a probable first-round NBA pick. He was a poor kid from the streets of Philadelphia. He had six brothers, two sisters, no father. The ten of them lived in an area that--if daringly improved--might one day be charitably dubbed "poor ghetto."

  During his freshman year, an underling of a big-time agent named Roy O'Connor had approached Chaz--four years before Chaz was eligible to talk to an agent. The man offered Chaz a five-thousand-dollar "retainer" up front, with monthly payments of $250, if he signed a contract making O'Connor his agent when he turned pro.

  Chaz was confused. He knew that NCAA rules forbade him from signing a contract while he still had eligibility. The contract would be declared null and void. But Roy's man assured him this would be no problem. They would simply postdate the contract to make it appear Chaz had signed on after his final year of eligibility. They'd keep the contract in a safety deposit box until the proper time arrived. No one would be the wiser.

  Chaz was not sure. He knew it was illegal, but he also knew what that kind of money would mean to his mom and eight siblings living in a two-room hellhole. Roy O'Connor then entered the picture and pitched the final inducement: If Chaz changed his mind at some future date, he could repay the money and tear up the contract.

  Four years later Chaz changed his mind. He promised to pay back every cent. No way, said Roy O'Connor. You have a contract with us. You'll stick with it.

  This was not an uncommon setup. Dozens of agents did it. Norby Walters and Lloyd Bloom, two of the country's biggest agents, had been arrested for it. Threats too were not uncommon. But that was where it usually ended: with threats. No agent wanted to risk being exposed. If a kid stood firm, the agent backed off.

  But not Roy O'Connor. Roy O'Connor was using muscle. Myron was surprised.

  "I want you out of town for a little while," Myron continued. "You got someplace to lay low?"

  "Yeah, I'll crash with a friend in Washington. But what we going to do?"

  "I'll take care of it. Just stay out of sight."

  "Okay, yeah, I hear ya." Then: "Oh, Myron, one other thing."


  "One of the dudes who held me down said he knew you. A monster, man. I mean, huge. Slick-looking motherfucker."

  "Did he say his name?"

  "Aaron. He said to tell you Aaron said hi."

  Myron's shoulders slumped. Aaron. A name from his past. Not a good name either. Roy O'Connor not only had muscle behind him--he had serious muscle.


  Three hours after leaving his office, Myron shook off all thoughts about the garage incident and knocked on Christian's door. Despite the fact that he'd graduated two months earlier, Christian still lived in the same campus dorm he had occupied throughout his senior year, working as a counselor at Reston U's football summer camp. The Titans minicamp, however, started in two days, and Christian would be there. Myron had no intention of having Christian hold out.

  Christian opened the door immediately. Before Myron had a chance to explain his tardiness, Christian said, "Thanks for getting here so fast."

  "Uh, sure. No problem."

  Christian's face was completely devoid of its usual healthy color. Gone were the rosy cheeks that dimpled when Christian smiled. Gone was the wide-open, aw-shucks smile that made the co-eds swoon. Even the famed steady hands were noticeably quaking.

  "Come on in," he said.


  Christian's room looked more like a 1950s sitcom set than a modern-day campus dorm room. For one thing, the place was neat. The bed was made, the shoes in a row beneath it. There were no socks on the floor, no underwear, no jock straps. On the walls were pennants. Actual pennants. Myron couldn't believe it. No posters, no calendars with Claudia Schiffer or Cindy Crawford or the Barbi twins. Just old-fashioned pennants. Myron felt as if he'd just stepped into Wally Cleaver's dormitory.

  Christian didn't say anything at first. They both stood there uncomfortably, like two strangers stuck together at some cocktail party with no drinks in their hands. Christian kept his eyes lowered to the floor like a scolded child. He hadn't commented on the blood on Myron's suit. He probably hadn't noticed it.

  Myron decided to try one of his patented silver-tongued ice-breakers. "What's up?"

  Christian began to pace--no easy accomplishment in a room slightly larger than the average armoire. Myron could see that Christian's eyes were red. He'd been crying, his cheeks still showing small traces of the tear tracks.

  "Did Mr. Burke get mad about canceling the meeting?" Christian asked.

  Myron shrugged. "He had a major conniption, but he'll survive. Means nothing, don't worry about it."

  "Minicamp starts Thursday?"

  Myron nodded. "Are you nervous?"

  "A little, maybe."

  "Is that why you wanted to see me?"

  Christian shook his head. He hesitated and then said, "I--I don't understand it, Mr. Bolitar."

  Every time he called him mister, Myron looked for his father.

  "Don't understand what, Christian? What's this all about?"

  He hesitated again. "It's ..." He stopped, took a deep breath, started again. "It's about Kathy."

  Myron thought he'd heard wrong. "Kathy Culver?"

  "You knew her," Christian said. Myron couldn't tell if it was a statement or a question.

"A long time ago," Myron replied.

  "When you were with Jessica."


  "Then maybe you'll understand. I miss Kathy. More than anyone can ever know. She was very special."

  Myron nodded, encouraging. Very Phil Donahue.

  Christian took a step back, nearly banging his head into a bookshelf. "Everybody sensationalized what happened to her," he began. "They put it in tabloids, had stories about the disappearance on A Current Affair. It was like a game to everyone. A TV show. They kept calling us 'idyllic,' the 'idyllic couple.'" He made quote marks in the air with his fingers. "As if idyllic meant unreal. Unfeeling. Everyone kept saying I was young, I'd get over it quickly. Kathy was just a pretty blonde, millions more like her for a guy like me. I was expected to get on with my life. She was gone. It was over and done with."

  Christian's boyish quality--something that Myron thought would help make him the future endorsement king--had suddenly taken on a new dimension. Instead of the shy, gee-whiz, modest little Kansas boy, Myron saw reality: a scared child huddled in a corner, a child whose parents were dead, who had no real family, probably no real friends, just hero-worshipers and those who wanted a piece of him (like Myron himself?).

  Myron shook his head. No way. Other agents, yes, but not him. Myron wasn't like that. But still something akin to guilt stayed there, poking a sharp finger into his ribs.

  "I never really believed Kathy was dead," Christian continued. "That was part of the problem, I guess. The not-knowing gets to you after a while. Part of me--part of me almost hoped they'd find her body already, anything to end it. Is that an awful thing to say, Mr. Bolitar?"

  "I don't think so, no."

  Christian looked at him solemnly. "I kept thinking about the panties. You know about that?"

  Myron nodded. The lone clue in the mystery was Kathy's ripped panties, found on top of a campus Dumpster. Rumor had it that they were covered with semen and blood. To the world at large, the panties had confirmed what had long been suspected: Kathy Culver was dead. It was a sad though not uncommon story. She had been raped and murdered by a random psychopath. Her body would probably never be found--or maybe some hunters would stumble across the skeletal remains in the woods one day, giving the press a great eleven o'clock commercial teaser, bringing the cameras back into the story with undying hopes of catching a grief-stricken relative on film.

  "They made it seem like it was a dirty thing," Christian continued. "'Pink,' they said. 'Silk,' they said. They never called them underwear or undergarments or even just plain panties. It was always pink silk panties. Like that was important. One TV station even interviewed a Victoria's Secret model for her comment on them. Pink silk panties. Like that meant she was asking for it. Trashing Kathy like that ..."

  His voice sort of faded away then. Myron said nothing. Christian was working up to something. Myron only hoped it wasn't a breakdown.

  "I guess I should get to the point," Christian finally said.

  "Take your time. I'm not going anywhere."

  "I saw something today. I--" Christian stopped and swung his eyes toward Myron's. They looked at him, pleading. "Kathy may still be alive."

  His words hit Myron like a wet slap. Whatever Myron had been preparing himself for, whatever he imagined Christian was leading up to, hearing Kathy Culver might still be alive was not a part of the equation.


  Christian reached behind him and opened his desk drawer. The desk too was something out of Leave It to Beaver. Completely uncluttered. Two cans, one with Bic pens, the other with sharpened number-two pencils. Gooseneck lamp. Desk blotter with calendar. Dictionary, thesaurus, and The Elements of Style all in a row between two globe bookends.

  "This came in the mail today."

  He handed Myron a magazine. On the cover was a naked woman. Calling her well-endowed would be tantamount to calling World War II a skirmish. Most men are somewhat mammary obsessed, and Myron was not above having similar sentiments, but this was positively freakish. The woman's face was far from pretty, kind of harsh looking. She was giving the camera a look that was supposed to be come-hither but looked more like constipation. Her tongue was licking her lips, her legs spread, her finger beckoning the reader to come closer.

  Very subtle effect, Myron thought.

  The magazine was called Nips. The lead story, according to the words emblazoned across her right breast: "How to Get Her to Shave Dat Thang."

  Myron looked up sharply. "What's this all about?"

  "The paper clip."


  But Christian seemed too weak to repeat it. He just pointed. On the top of the magazine Myron spotted a glint of silver. A paper clip was being used as a bookmark.

  "It came with that on there," Christian said by way of explanation.

  Myron fingered through the pages, catching quick glimpses of flesh, until he arrived at the page marked off by the paper clip. His eyes squinted in confusion. It was an ad page, though it had as many erotic photos as any other. The top of the page read:

  Live Fantasy Phone--Pick Your Girl!

  There were three rows, four girls in each row, all the way down the page. Myron's eyes scanned down. He could not believe what he was seeing. "Oriental Girls Are Waiting!" "Wet and Juicy Lesbos!" "Spank Me, Please!" "Bitches in Heat!" "Tiny Titties!" (for those who didn't like the cover shot, no doubt) "I Want You to Ride Me!" "Pick My Cherry!" "Make Me Beg for More!" "Wanted: Robocock." "Mistress Savannah Demands You Call Now!" "Horny Housewife!" "Overweight Men Wanted." Each with matching photo--provocative poses involving telephones.

  There were some that were far more raunchy. Cross-dressers. Women with men's equipment. There were some Myron could not even understand. Like unfathomable science experiments. The telephone numbers were what you'd expect. 1-800-888-SLUT. 1-900-46-TRAMP. 1-800-REAM-MEE. 1-900-BAD-GIRL.

  Myron made a face. He wanted to wash his hands.

  Then he saw it.

  It was in the bottom row, second from the right. It read, "I'll Do Anything!" The phone number was 1-900-344-LUST. $3.99 per minute. Discreetly billed to your telephone or charge card. Visa/MC accepted.

  The woman in the picture was Kathy Culver.

  Myron felt a coldness seep into him. He turned back to the cover and checked the date. It was the current issue.

  "When did you get this?"

  "It came in today's mail," Christian said, picking up an envelope. "In this."

  Myron's head began to swim. He tried to fight the dizziness and get some kind of footing, but the picture of Kathy kept tipping him back over. The envelope was plain manila. There was no return address--that would have been too easy. It was not postmarked and had no stamps, merely reading:


  BOX 488

  No city, no state. That meant it'd been mailed on campus. The address had been handwritten.

  "You get lots of fan mail, right?" Myron asked.

  Christian nodded. "But they go somewhere else. This was in my private box. The number is unlisted."

  Myron handled the envelope carefully, trying not to smudge any potential fingerprints. "It could be trick photography," Myron added. "Someone might have superimposed her head on--"

  Christian stopped him with a shake of his head. His eyes were back on the floor. "It's not just her face, Mr. Bolitar," he said, embarrassed.

  "Oh," Myron said, ever swift on the uptake. "I see."

  "Do you think we should give this to the police?" Christian asked.


  "I want to do the right thing," Christian said, his hands balling into fists. "But I won't let them drag Kathy through the mud again. You saw what they did when she was the victim. What will they do when they see this?"

  "They'll go animal," he agreed.

  Christian nodded.

  "But it's probably just a prank," Myron continued. "I'll check it out before we do anything else."


  "Let me worry about that."

sp; "There's one other thing," Christian said. "The handwriting on the envelope."

  Myron glanced at it again. "What about it?"

  "I can't say for sure, but it looks a lot like Kathy's."

  Chapter 3

  Myron stopped short when he saw her.

  He had just stumbled into the bar in something of a daydream, his mind like a movie camera that couldn't stay in focus. He tried to sift through what he had just seen and learned from Christian, tried to compute the facts and form a solid, well-conceived conclusion.

  He came up with nothing.

  The magazine was jammed into the right pocket of his trench coat. Porn mag and trench coat, Myron thought. Jesus. The same questions echoed ad nauseam in his head: Could Kathy Culver still be alive? And if she was, what had happened to her? What could have led Kathy from the innocence of her dorm room to the back pages of Nips magazine?

  That was when he spotted the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

  She was sitting on a stool, her long legs crossed, sipping gently at her drink. She wore a white blouse opened at the throat, a short gray skirt, and black stockings. Everything clung just right. For a fleeting moment Myron thought she was just a by-product of his daydream, a dazzling vision to tantalize the senses. But the knot in his stomach made him quickly dismiss that notion. His throat went dry. Deep, dormant emotions crashed down upon him like a surprise wave at the beach.

  He managed to swallow and commanded his legs to move forward. She was, quite simply, breathtaking. Everything else in the bar faded into the background, as though they were only stage props set for her.

  Myron approached. "Come here often?" he asked.

  She looked at him like he was an old man jogging in a Speedo. "Original line," she said. "Very creative."

  "Maybe not," he said. "But what a delivery." He smiled. Winningly, he thought.

  "Glad you think so." She turned back to her drink. "Please leave."

  "Playing hard to get?"

  "Get lost."

  Myron grinned. "Stop it already. You're embarrassing yourself."

  "Pardon me."

  "It's obvious to everyone in this bar."

  "Oh?" she remarked. "Do enlighten."

  "You want me. Bad."

  She almost smiled. "That obvious, huh?"

  "Don't blame yourself. I'm irresistible."

  "Uh-huh. Catch me if I swoon."

  "I'm right here, sweetcakes."

  She sighed deeply. She was as beautiful as ever, as beautiful as the day she had walked out on him. He hadn't seen her in four years, but it still hurt to think about her. It hurt even more to look at her. Their weekend at Win's house on Martha's Vineyard came to him. He could still remember the way the ocean breeze blew her hair, the way she tilted her head when he spoke, the way she looked and felt in his old sweatshirt. Simple fragile bliss. The knot in his stomach tightened.