CHAPTER 44

Big Cyndi stayed behind and flashed Aimee’s photograph around the neighborhood, just in case. Those employed in these illicit fields wouldn’t talk to cops or Myron, but they’d talk to Big Cyndi. She had her gifts.

Myron and Win headed back to their cars.

“Are you coming back to the apartment?” Win asked.

Myron shook his head. “I got more to do.”

“I’ll relieve Zorra.”

“Thanks.” Then looking back at the warehouse, Myron added: “I don’t like leaving her here.”

“Katie Rochester is an adult.”

“She’s eighteen.”

“Exactly.”

“So what are you saying? You turn eighteen, you’re on your own? We only rescue adults?”

“No,” Win said. “We rescue those we can. We rescue those in trouble. We rescue those who ask and need our help. We do not — repeat, not — rescue those who make choices we don’t agree with. Bad choices are a part of life.”

They kept walking. Myron said, “You know how I like to read the paper at Starbucks, right?”

Win nodded.

“Every teenager who hangs out there smokes. All of them. I sit there and watch them and when they light up, not even thinking about it, just as casual as you please, I think to myself, ‘Myron, you should say something.’ I think I should go up to them and excuse myself for interrupting and then beg them to stop smoking now because it’ll only get harder. I want to shake them and make them understand how stupid they’re being. I want to tell them about all the people I know, people who were living wonderful, happy lives like, say, Peter Jennings, a great guy from all I’ve heard, and how he was living this amazing life and how he lost it because he started smoking young. I want to shout at them the full litany of health problems they will inevitably face because of what they’re so casually doing right now.”

Win said nothing. He looked ahead and kept pace.

“But then I think I should mind my own business. They don’t want to hear it. And who am I anyway? Just some guy. I’m not important enough to make them stop. They’d probably tell me to take a hike. So of course, I keep quiet. I look the other way and go back to my paper and coffee and meanwhile these kids are sitting near me, slowly killing themselves. And I let them.”

“We pick and choose our battles,” Win said. “That one would be a loser.”

“I know, but here’s the thing: If I said something to every kid, every time I saw them, maybe I’d perfect my antismoking pitch. And maybe I’d reach one. Maybe one would stop smoking. Maybe my prying would save just one life. And then I wonder if staying quiet is the right thing — or the easy thing.”

“And then what?” Win asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Are you going to hang out at McDonald’s and scold the people eating Big Macs? When you see a mother encouraging her overweight son to snarf down his second supersized order of fries, are you going to warn her about what the boy’s horrible future will be like?”

“No.”

Win shrugged.

“But okay, forget all that,” Myron said. “In this specific case, right now, a few yards away from us, there is a pregnant girl sitting in that whorehouse—”

“—who has made up her own, adult mind,” Win finished for him.

They kept walking.

“It’s like what that Dr. Skylar told me.”

“Who?” Win asked.

“The woman who spotted Katie near the subway. Edna Skylar. She talked about preferring the innocent patients. I mean, she took the Hippocratic oath and all and she follows it, but when push comes to shove, she’d rather work with someone more deserving.”

“Human nature,” Win said. “I assume you weren’t comfortable with that?”

“I’m not comfortable with any of it.”

“But it’s not just Dr. Skylar. You do it too, Myron. Put aside Claire’s guilt trip on you for a moment. Right now, you’re choosing to help Aimee because you perceive her as an innocent. If she were a teenage boy who had a history of drug problems, would you be so apt to find her? Of course not. We all pick and choose, like it or not.”

“It goes beyond that.”

“How so?”

“How important is what college you make?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“We were lucky,” Myron said. “We went to Duke.”

“And your point is?”

“I got Aimee in. I wrote a letter, I made a phone call. I doubt she would have been accepted if it wasn’t for me.”

“So?”

“So where do I get off? As Maxine Chang pointed out to me, when one kid makes it, another is denied.”

Win made a face. “Way of the world.”

“Doesn’t make it right.”

“Someone makes the choice based on a fairly subjective set of criteria.” Win shrugged. “Why shouldn’t it be you?”

Myron shook his head. “I can’t help but think that it’s connected to Aimee’s disappearance.”

“Her college acceptance?”

Myron nodded.

“How?”

“I don’t know yet.”

They separated. Myron got into his car and checked his cell phone. One new message. He listened to it.

“Myron? Gail Berruti here. That call you asked about, the one that came to the residence of Erik Biel.” There was noise behind her. “What? Damn, hold on a second.”

Myron did. This was the call Claire had received from the robotic voice telling her that Aimee “is fine.” A few seconds later, Berruti was back.

“Sorry about that. Where was I? Right, okay, here it is. The call was placed from a pay phone in New York City. More specifically, from a bank of pay phones in the Twenty-third Street subways. Hope that helps.”

Click.

Myron thought about that. Right where Katie Rochester had been spotted. It made sense, he guessed. Or maybe, with what he’d just learned, it made no sense at all.

His cell phone buzzed again. It was Wheat Manson, calling back from Duke. He did not sound happy.

“What the hell is going on?” Wheat asked.

“What?”

“The ranking you gave me for that Chang kid. It matched.”

“Fourth in the class, and he didn’t get in?”

“Are we going there, Myron?”

“No, Wheat. We’re not. What about Aimee’s ranking?”

“There’s the problem.”

Myron asked a few follow-up questions before hanging up.

It was starting to fit.

Half an hour later Myron arrived at the home of Ali Wilder, the first woman in seven years he’d told that he loved. He parked and sat in the car for a moment. He looked out at the house. Too many thoughts ricocheted through his head. He wondered about her late husband, Kevin. This was the house they’d bought. Myron saw that day, Kevin and Ali coming here with a Realtor, both young, both choosing this vessel as the one where they would live their lives and raise their kids. Did they hold hands as they toured their future abode? What appealed to Kevin, or was it maybe his beloved’s enthusiasm that won him over? And why the hell was Myron thinking about such things?

He had told Ali that he loved her.

Would he have done so — said “I love you” like that — if Jessica hadn’t visited him last night?

Yes.

Are you sure about that, Myron?

His cell phone rang. “Hello?”

“Do you plan on sitting out in the car all night?”

He felt his heart soar at the sound of Ali’s voice. “Sorry, just thinking.”

“About me?”

“Yes.”

“About what you’d like to do to me?”

“Well, not exactly,” he said. “But I can start now, if you want.”

“Don’t bother. I got it all planned out already. You’ll only interfere with what I’ve come up with.”

“Do tell.”

“I’d rather show. Come to the door. Don’t knock. Don’t talk. Jack is asleep and Erin is upstairs on her computer.”

Myron hung up. He caught his reflection — the goofy smile — in the car’s rearview mirror. He tried not to sprint to the door, but he couldn’t help but do one of those run-walks. The front door opened as he approached. Ali had her hair down. Her blouse was clingy and red and shiny. It stretched at the top, just asking to be unbuttoned.

Ali put a finger to her lips. “Shh.”

She kissed him. She kissed him hard and deep. He felt it in his fingertips. His body sang. She whispered in his ear, “The kids are upstairs.”

“So you said.”

“I’m usually not much of a risk-taker,” she said. Then Ali licked his ear. Myron’s entire body jerked in pleasure. “But I really, really want you.”

Myron held back the quip. They kissed again. She took his hand, quickly leading him down the hall. She closed the kitchen door. They went through the family room. She closed another door.

“How’s the couch work for you?” she said.

“I don’t care if we do it on a bed of nails at half court at Madison Square Garden.”

They dropped to the couch. “Two closed doors,” Ali said, her breathing heavy. They kissed again. Their hands began to wander. “No one can sneak up on us.”

“My, haven’t we been planning,” Myron said.

“Pretty much all day.”

“Worth it,” he said.

She wiggled her eyebrows. “Oh, just you wait and see.”

They kept their clothes on. That was the most amazing thing. Sure, buttons were undone and zippers were lowered. But they’d kept their clothes on. And now, as they panted in each other’s arms, fully spent, Myron said the same thing that he said every time they finished.

“Wow.”

“You’ve got quite the vocabulary.”

“Never use a big word when a small one will suffice.”

“I could make a crack here, but I won’t.”

“Thank you,” he said. Then: “Can I ask you something?”

Ali snuggled closer. “Anything.”

“Are we exclusive?”

She looked at him. “For real?”

“I guess.”

“It sounds like you’re asking me to go steady.”

“What would you say if I did?”

“Asked me to go steady?”

“Sure, why not?”

“I’d exclaim, ‘Oh yes!’ Then I’d ask if I can doodle your name on my notebook and wear your varsity jacket.”

He smiled.

Ali said, “Does your asking have anything to do with our earlier exchange of I-love-yous?”

“I don’t think so.”

Silence.

“We’re adults, Myron. You can sleep with whomever you wish.”

“I don’t want to sleep with anyone else.”

“So why are you asking me this right now?”

“Because, well, before? I don’t, uh, think very clearly when I’m in a state of, you know…” He sort of gestured. Ali rolled her eyes.

“Men. No, I mean, why tonight. Why did you ask about exclusivity tonight?”

He debated what to say. He was all for honesty, but did he really want to get into Jessica’s visit? “Just clarifying where we stand.”

Footsteps suddenly began to pound down the stairs.

“Mom!”

It was Erin. A door — that first of two doors — banged open.

Myron and Ali moved with a speed that would intimidate NASCAR. Their clothes were on, but like a couple of teenagers, they made sure everything was fastened and tucked in by the time the second doorknob began to turn. Myron jumped to the other side of the couch as Erin threw open the door. They both tried to wipe the look of guilt off their faces with mixed results.

Erin burst into the room. She looked at Myron. “I’m glad you’re here.”

Ali finished adjusting her shirt. “What’s wrong, honey?”

“You better come quick,” Erin said.

“Why, what’s up?”

“I was on the computer, instant messaging with my friends. And just now — I mean, like thirty seconds ago — Aimee Biel signed on and said hello to me.”

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