Myron had a headache, and quickly realized why. He hadn’t had coffee yet that day. So he headed over to Starbucks with two thoughts in mind — caffeine and pay phone. The caffeine was taken care of by a grunge barista with a soul patch and long frontal hair that looked like a giant eyelash. The pay phone problem would take a little more work.
Myron sat at an outdoor table and eyed the offending pay phone. It was awfully public. He walked over to it. There were stickers on the phone advertising 800 numbers to call for discount calls. The most prominent one was offering “free night calls” and had a picture of a quarter moon in case you didn’t know what night was.
Myron frowned. He wanted to ask the pay phone who had dialed his number and called him a bastard and said that he’d pay for what he’d done. But the phone wouldn’t talk to him. It had been that kind of day.
He sat back down and tried to figure out what he needed to do. He still wanted to talk to Randy Wolf and Harry Davis. They probably wouldn’t tell him much — they probably wouldn’t talk to him at all — but he would figure a way to get a run at them. He also needed to interview that doctor who worked at St. Barnabas, Edna Skylar. She had purportedly seen Katie Rochester in New York. He wanted some details on that.
He called St. Barnabas’s switchboard and after two brief explanations, Edna Skylar got on the phone. Myron explained what he wanted.
Edna Skylar sounded annoyed. “I asked the investigators to keep my name out of this.”
“So how do you know it?”
“I have good contacts.”
She thought about that. “What’s your standing in this, Mr. Bolitar?”
“Another girl has gone missing.”
“I think there may be a connection between this girl and Katie Rochester.”
“Could we meet? I can explain everything then.”
“I really don’t know anything.”
“Please.” There was a pause. “Dr. Skylar?”
“When I saw the Rochester girl, she indicated that she didn’t want to be found.”
“I understand that. I just need a few minutes.”
“I have patients for the next hour. I can see you at noon.”
“Thank you,” he said, but Edna Skylar had already hung up.
Lithium Larry Kidwell and the Medicated Five shuffled into Starbucks. Larry headed right for his table.
“Fourteen hundred eighty-eight planets on creation day, Myron. Fourteen hundred eighty-eight. And I haven’t seen a penny. You know what I’m saying?”
Larry looked as awful as always. Geographically, they were so close to their old high school, but what had his favorite restaurateur, Peter Chin, said about years flying by but the heart staying the same? Well, only the heart then.
“Good to know,” Myron said. He looked back at the pay phone and a thought struck him hard and fast: “Wait.”
“Last time I saw you there were fourteen hundred eighty-seven planets, right?”
Larry looked confused. “Are you sure?”
“I am.” Myron’s mind started racing. “And if I’m not mistaken, you said the next planet was mine. You said it was out to get me and something about stroking the moon.”
Larry’s eyes lit up. “Stroking the moon sliver. He hates you bad.”
“Where is that moon sliver?”
“In the Aerolis solar system. By Guanchomitis.”
“Are you sure, Larry? Are you sure it’s not…” Myron rose and walked him to the pay phone. Larry cringed. Myron pointed to the sticker, to the image of the quarter moon on the ad for free night calls. Larry gasped.
“Is this the moon sliver?”
“Oh please, oh my god, oh please…”
“Calm down, Larry. Who else wants that planet? Who hates me enough to stroke the moon sliver?”
Twenty minutes later, Myron headed into Chang’s Dry Cleaning. Maxine Chang was there, of course. There were three people in line. Myron didn’t get behind them. He stood to the side and crossed his arms. Maxine kept sneaking glances at him. Myron waited until the customers were gone. Then he approached.
“Where’s Roger?” he asked.
“He has school.”
Myron met her eye. “Do you know he’s been calling me?”
“Why would he call you?”
“You tell me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I have a friend at the phone company. Roger called me from that booth over there. I have reliable witnesses who can place him there at the right time.” That was more than an exaggeration, but Myron went with it. “He threatened me. He called me a bastard.”
“Roger wouldn’t do that.”
“I don’t want to get him in trouble, Maxine. What’s going on?”
Another customer came in. Maxine shouted something out in Chinese. An elderly woman came out of the back and took over. Maxine gestured with her head for Myron to follow her. He did. They walked past the tracks of moving hangers. When he was a kid, the metallic whir of the tracks had always amazed him, like something out of a cool sci-fi movie. Maxine kept walking until they were out in the back alley.
“Roger is a good boy,” she said. “He works so hard.”
“What’s going on, Maxine? When I was in here the other day, you were acting funny.”
“You don’t understand how hard it is. To live in a town like this.”
He did — he had lived here his whole life — but he held his tongue.
“Roger worked so hard. He got good grades. Number four in his class. These other kids. They’re spoiled. All have private tutors. They don’t work a real job. Roger, he works here every day after school. He studies in the back room. He doesn’t go to parties. He doesn’t have a girlfriend.”
“What does any of this have to do with me?”
“Other parents hire people to write their children’s essays. They pay for classes to improve their boards. They donate money to the big schools. They do other things, I don’t even know. It’s so important, where you go to college. It can decide your whole life. Everyone is so scared, they do anything,
“I do, but I don’t see what that has to do with me.”
“I need you to understand. That’s what we have to compete with. With all that money and power. With people who cheat and steal and will do anything.”
“If you’re telling me that college acceptance is competitive in this town, I know that. It was competitive when I graduated.”
“But you had basketball.”
“Roger is such a good student. He works so hard. And his dream is to go to Duke. He told you that. You probably don’t remember.”
“I remember him saying something about applying there. I don’t remember him saying it was his dream or anything. He just listed a bunch of schools.”
“It was his first choice,” Maxine Chang said firmly. “And if Roger makes it, there is a scholarship waiting for him. He’d have his tuition paid for. That was so important to us. But he didn’t get in. Even though he was number four in his class. Even though he had very good boards. Better boards — and better grades — than Aimee Biel.”
Maxine Chang looked at Myron with heavy eyes.
“Wait a second. Are you blaming me because Roger didn’t get into Duke?”
“I don’t know much, Myron. I’m just a dry cleaner. But a school like Duke almost never takes more than one student from a specific high school in New Jersey. Aimee Biel made it. Roger had better grades. He had better board scores. He had great teacher recommendations. Neither of them are athletes. Roger plays the violin, Aimee plays guitar.” Maxine Chang shrugged.
“So you tell me: Why did she get in and not Roger?”
He wanted to protest, but the truth stopped him. He had written a letter. He had even called his friend in admissions. People do stuff like that all the time. It doesn’t mean that Roger Chang was denied admission. But simple math: When one person gets a spot, someone else doesn’t.
Maxine’s voice was a plea. “Roger was just so angry.”
“That’s no excuse.”
“No, it’s not. I will talk to him. He will apologize to you, I promise.”
But another thought came to Myron. “Was Roger just mad at me?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Was he mad at Aimee too?”
Maxine Chang frowned. “Why would you ask that?”
“Because the next call on that pay phone was to Aimee Biel’s cell phone. Was Roger angry with her? Resentful maybe?”
“Not Roger, no. He’s not like that.”
“Right, he’d only call me and make threats.”
“He didn’t mean anything. He was just lashing out.”
“I need to talk to Roger.”
“What? No, I forbid it.”
“Fine, I’ll go to the police. I’ll tell them about the threatening calls.”
Her eyes widened. “You wouldn’t.”
He would. Maybe he should. But not yet. “I want to talk to him.”
“He’ll be here after school.”
“Then I’ll be back at three. If he’s not here, I’m going to the police.”