Otto Burke, the Wizard of Schmooze, raised his game another level.
"Come on, Myron," he urged with neoreligious fervor. "I'm sure we can come to an understanding here. You give a little. We give a little. The Titans are a team. In some larger sense I would like all of us to be a team. You included. Let's be a real team, Myron. What do you say?"
Myron Bolitar steepled his fingers. He had read somewhere that steepled fingers made you look like a thoughtful person. He felt foolish.
"I'd like nothing more, Otto," he said, returning the pointless volley for the umpteenth time. "Really I would. But we've given as much as we can. It's your turn now."
Otto nodded vigorously, as if he had just heard some philosophical whimsy that put Socrates to shame. He tilted his head, angling the painted-on smile toward his team's general manager. "Larry, what do you think?"
Taking his cue, Larry Hanson pounded the conference table with a fist hairy enough to be a gerbil. "Bolitar can go to hell!" he shouted, playing enraged to the hilt. "You hear me, Bolitar? You understand what I'm telling you? Go to hell."
"Go to hell," Myron repeated with a nod. "Got it."
"You being a wiseass with me? Huh? Answer me, dammit! You being a wiseass?"
Myron looked at him. "You have a poppy seed stuck in your teeth."
"And you're beautiful when you're angry. Your whole face lights up."
Larry Hanson's eyes widened. He swung his line of vision toward his boss, then back to Myron. "You're out of your league here, Bolitar. And you fucking know it."
Myron said nothing. The truth of the matter was, Larry Hanson was partially right. Myron was out of his league. He had been in sports representation for only two years now. Most of his clients were borderline cases--guys who were lucky to make the cut and grabbed the league's minimum. And football was far from his specialty. He had only three NFL players, only one of whom was a starter. Now Myron sat across from thirty-one-year-old wunderkind Otto Burke, the youngest owner in the NFL, and Larry Hanson, former-football-legend-turned-exec, negotiating a contract that even in his inexperienced hands would be the biggest rookie contract in NFL history.
Yes, he--Myron Bolitar--had landed Christian "Hot Prop" Steele. Two-time Heisman trophy-winning quarterback. Three straight AP and UPI number-one rankings. All-American four years in a row. If that wasn't enough, the kid was an endorsement wet dream. An A student, good-looking, articulate, polite, and white (hey, it mattered).
Best of all, he was Myron's.
"The offer is on the table, gentlemen," Myron continued. "We think it's more than fair."
Otto Burke shook his head.
"It's a load of crap!" Larry Hanson shouted. "You're a goddamn idiot, Bolitar. You're going to flush this kid's career down the toilet."
Myron spread his arms. "How about a group hug?"
Larry was about to offer up another expletive, but Otto stopped him with a raised hand. In Larry's playing days Dick Butkus and Ray Nitzchke couldn't stop him with body blows. Now this one-hundred-fifty-pound Harvard grad could silence him with but a wave.
Otto Burke leaned forward. He hadn't stopped smiling, hadn't stopped the hand gestures, hadn't stopped the eye contact--like an Anthony Robbins Personal Power infomercial come to life. Disconcerting as all hell. Otto was a small, fragile-looking man with the tiniest fingers Myron had ever seen. His hair was dark and heavy-metal long, flowing to his shoulders. He was baby-faced with a silly goatee that looked as if it'd been sketched on in pencil. He smoked a very long cigarette, or maybe it just appeared long against his tiny fingers.
"Now, Myron," Otto said, "let's speak rationally here, okay?"
"Great, Myron, that'll be helpful. The truth is, Christian Steele is an unknown, untested quantity. He hasn't even put on a pro uniform yet. He may be the bust of the century."
Larry snorted. "You should know something about that, Bolitar--about players who amount to nothing. Who crap out."
Myron ignored him. He had heard the insult before. It no longer bothered him. Sticks and stones and all that. "We are talking about perhaps the greatest quarterback prospect in history," he replied steadily. "You made three trades and gave up six players to get his rights. You didn't do all that if you didn't believe he has what it takes."
"But this proposal"--Otto stopped, looked up as though searching the ceiling tiles for the right word--"it's not sound."
"Crap is more like it," Larry added.
"It's final," Myron said.
Otto shook his head, the smile unfazed. "Let's talk this through, okay? Let's look at it from every conceivable angle. You're new at this, Myron--an ex-jock reaching for the executive brass ring. I respect that. You're a young guy trying to give it a go. Heck, I admire that. Really."
Myron bit down. He could have pointed out that he and Otto were the same age, but he so loved being patronized. Didn't everybody?
"If you make a mistake on this," Otto continued, "it could be the sort of thing that destroys your career. Do you know what I mean? Plenty of people already feel that you're not up to this--to handling such a high-profile client. Not me, of course. I think you're a very bright guy. Shrewd. But the way you're acting . . ." He shook his head like a teacher disenchanted with a favorite pupil.
Larry stood, glowering down at Myron. "Why don't you give the kid some good advice?" he said. "Tell him to get a real agent."
Myron had expected this whole good-cop, bad-cop routine. He had, in fact, expected worse; Larry Hanson had not yet attacked the sexual appetites of anyone's mother. Still, Myron preferred the bad cop to the good cop. Larry Hanson was a frontal assault, easily spotted and handled. Otto Burke was the snake-infested high grass with buried land mines.
"Then I guess we have nothing more to discuss," Myron said.
"I believe a holdout would be unwise, Myron," Otto said. "It might soil Christian's squeaky-clean image. Hurt his endorsements. Cost you both a great deal of money. You don't want to lose money, Myron."
Myron looked at him. "I don't?"
"No, you don't."
"Can I jot that down?" He picked up a pencil and began scribbling. "Don't . . . want . . . to . . . lose . . . money." He grinned at both men. "Am I picking up pointers today or what?"
Larry mumbled, "Goddamn wiseass."
Otto's smile remained locked on autopilot. "If I may be so bold," he continued, "I would think Christian would want to collect quickly."
"There are those who have serious reservations about Christian Steele's future. There are those"--Otto drew deeply on his cigarette--"who believe he may have had something to do with that girl's disappearance."
"Ah," Myron said, "that's more like it."
"More like what?"
"You're starting to fling mud. For a second there I thought I wasn't asking for enough."
Larry Hanson stuck a thumb in Myron's direction. "Do you believe this fucking sliver of pond film we're sitting with? You raise a legitimate issue about Christian's ex-bimbo, one that goes to the heart of his value as a public relations commodity--"
"Pitiful rumors," Myron interrupted. "No one believed them. If anything, they made the public more sympathetic to Christian's tragedy. And don't call Kathy Culver a bimbo."
Larry raised an eyebrow. "Well, well, aren't we touchy," he said, "for a low-life pissant."
Myron's expression did not change. He had met Kathy Culver five years ago when she was a sophomore in high school, already a budding beauty. Like her sister Jessica. Eighteen months ago Kathy had mysteriously vanished from the campus of Reston University. To this day no one knew where she was or what had happened to her. The story had all the media's favorite tasty morsels--a gorgeous co-ed, the fiancée of football star Christian Steele, the sister of novelist Jessica Culver, a strong hint of sexual assault for extra seasoning. The press could not help themselves. They attacked like ravenous relatives around a buffet table.
But just recently a second tragedy had befallen the Culver family. Adam Culver, Kathy's father, had been murdered three nights earlier in what police were calling a "botched robbery." Myron wanted very much to contact the family, to do more than merely offer simple condolences, but he had decided to stay away, not knowing if he was welcome, fairly certain he wasn't.
There was a knock on the door. It opened a crack, and Esperanza stuck her head in. "Call for you, Myron," she said.
"Take a message."
"I think you'll want to take it."
Esperanza stayed in the doorway. Her dark eyes gave away nothing, but he understood.
"I'll be right there," he said.
She slipped back through the door.
Larry Hanson gave an appreciative whistle. "She's a babe, Bolitar."
"Gee, thanks, Larry. That means a lot coming from you." He rose. "I'll be right back."
"We don't have all goddamn day to jerk off here."
"I'm sure you don't."
He left the conference room and met up with Esperanza at her desk.
"The Meal Ticket," she told him. "He said it was urgent."
From her petite frame most would not guess that Esperanza used to be a professional wrestler. For three years she had been known on the circuit as Little Pocahontas. The fact that Esperanza Diaz was Latina, without a trace of American Indian blood, did not seem to bother the FLOW (Fabulous Ladies of Wrestling) organization. A minor detail, they said. Latino, Indian, what's the difference?
At the height of her pro wrestling career, the same script was played out every week in arenas all over the U.S. of A. Esperanza ("Pocahontas") would enter the ring wearing moccasins, a suede-fringed dress, and a headband that lassoed her long black hair away from her dark face. The suede dress came off before the fight, leaving a somewhat flimsier and less traditional Native American garb in its stead.
Professional wrestling has a pretty simple plot with painfully few variations. Some wrestlers are bad. Some are good. Pocahontas was good, a crowd favorite. She was cute and small and quick and had a tight little body. Everyone loved her. She would always be winning the fight on skill when her opponent would do something illegal--throw sand in her eyes, use a dreaded foreign object that everyone in the free world except the referee could see--to turn the tide. Then the bad wrestler would bring in a couple of extra cronies, ganging up three against one on poor Pocahontas, pounding mercilessly on the brave beauty to the unequivocal shock and chagrin of the announcers, who had seen the same thing happen last week and the week before.
Just when it seemed there was no hope, Big Chief Mama, a mammoth creature, charged out of the locker room and threw the beasts off the defenseless Pocahontas. Then together Big Chief Mama and Little Pocahontas would defeat the forces of evil.
"I'll take it in my office," Myron said.
As he entered he saw the nameplate on his desk, a gift from his parents.
He shook his head. Myron Bolitar. He still couldn't believe someone would name a kid Myron. When his family first moved to New Jersey, he had told everyone in his new high school that his name was Mike. Nope, no dice. Then he tried to nickname himself Mickey. Unh-unh. Everyone reverted to Myron; the name was like a horror-movie monster that would not die.
To answer the obvious question: No, he never forgave his parents.
He picked up the phone. "Christian?"
"Mr. Bolitar? Is that you?"
"Yes. And please call me . . . Myron." Acceptance of the inevitable, a sign of a wise man.
"I'm sorry to interrupt you. I know how busy you are."
"I'm busy negotiating your contract. I have Otto Burke and Larry Hanson in the next room."
"I appreciate that, Mr. Bolitar, but this is very important." His voice was trembling. "I have to see you right away."
He switched hands. "Something wrong, Christian?" Mr. Perceptive.
"I--I'd rather not discuss it over the phone. Would you be able to meet me at my room on campus?"
"Sure, no problem. What time?"
"Now, please. I--I don't know what to make of this. I want you to see it."
Myron took a deep breath. "No problem. I'll throw Otto and Larry out. It'll be good for the negotiations. I'll be there in an hour."
It took a lot longer.
Myron entered the Kinney garage on Forty-sixth Street, not too far from his Park Avenue office. He nodded to Mario, the garage attendant, walked past the pricing sheet, which had a small disclaimer on the bottom that read "not including 97% tax," and headed to his car on the lower level. A Ford Taurus. Your basic Babe Magnet.
He was about to unlock the door when he heard a hissing sound. Like a snake. Or more likely, air escaping from a tire. The sound emanated from his back right tire. A quick examination told Myron that it had been slashed.
He spun around. Two men grinned at him. One was the size of a small Third World nation. Myron was big--nearly six-four and two hundred twenty pounds--but he guessed that this guy must have been six-six and closing in on three hundred. A heavy-duty weight lifter, his whole body was puffed up as if he were wearing inflatable life vests under his clothes. The second man was of average build. He wore a fedora.
The big man lumbered toward Myron's car. His arms swung stiffly at his sides. He kept tilting his head, cracking the part of the anatomy that on a normal human being might be called a neck.
"Having some car trouble?" he asked with a chuckle.
"Flat tire," Myron said. "There's a spare in the trunk. Change it."
"I don't think so, Bolitar. This was just a little warning."
The human edifice grabbed the lapels of Myron's jacket. "Stay away from Chaz Landreaux. He's already signed."
"First change my tire."
The grin increased. It was a stupid, cruel grin. "Next time I won't be so nice." He grabbed a little tighter, bunching up the suit and tie. "Understand?"
"You are aware, of course, that steroids make your balls shrink."
The man's face reddened. "Oh, yeah? Maybe I oughta smash your face in, huh? Maybe I oughta pulverize you into oatmeal."
"Nice image, really."
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.
Copyright © 2006 by Harlan Coben. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.