Myron hunched his shoulders and slurred his words. “I am not a baby-sitter,” he said. “I am a sports agent.”Norm Zuckerman looked pained. “Was that supposed to be Bela Lugosi?””The Elephant Man,” Myron said.”Damn, that was awful. And who said anything about being a baby-sitter? Did I say the word baby-sitter or baby-sitting or for that matter any form of the verb to baby-sit or noun or even the word baby or the word sit or sat or–”
Myron held up a hand. “I get the point, Norm.”
They sat under a basket at Madison Square Garden in those cloth-and-wood directors’ chairs that have stars’ names on the back. Their chairs were set high so that the net from the basket almost tickled Myron’s hair. A model shoot was going on at half-court. Lots of those umbrella lights and tall, bony women-cum-children and tripods and people huffing and fluffing about. Myron waited for someone to mistake him for a model. And waited.
“A young woman may be in danger,” Norm said. “I need your help.”
Norm Zuckerman was approaching seventy and as CEO of Zoom, a megasize sports manufacturing conglomerate, he had more money than Trump. He looked, however, like a beatnik trapped in a bad acid trip. Retro, Norm had explained earlier, was cresting, and he was catching the wave by wearing a psychedelic poncho, fatigue pants, love beads, and an earring with a dangling peace sign. Groovy, man. His black-to-gray beard was unruly enough to nest beetle larvae, his hair newly curled like something out of a bad production of Godspell.
Che Guevara lives and gets a perm.
“You don’t need me,” Myron said. “You need a bodyguard.”
Norm waved a dismissing hand. “Too obvious.”
“She’d never go for it. Look, Myron, what do you know about Brenda Slaughter?”
“Not much,” Myron said.
He looked surprised. “What do you mean, not much?”
“What word are you having trouble with, Norm?”
“For crying out loud, you were a basketball player.”
“So Brenda Slaughter may be the greatest female player of all time. A pioneer in her sport–not to mention the pinup girl, pardon the political insensitivity, for my new league.”
“That much I know.”
“Well, know this: I’m worried about her. If something happens to Brenda Slaughter, the whole WPBA–and my substantial investment–could go right down the toilet.”
“Well, as long as it’s for humanitarian reasons.”
“Fine, I’m a greedy capitalist pig. But you, my friend, are a sports agent. There is not a greedier, sleazier, slimier, more capitalist entity in existence.”
Myron nodded. “Suck up to me,” he said. “That’ll work.”
“You’re not letting me finish. Yes, you’re a sports agent. But a damn fine one. The best, really. You and the Spanish shiksa do incredible work for your clients. Get the most for them. More than they should get really. By the time you finish with me, I feel violated. Hand to God, you’re that good. You come into my office, you rip off my clothes and have your way with me.”
Myron made a face. “Please.”
“But I know your secret background with the feds.”
Some secret. Myron was still hoping to bump into someone above the equator who didn’t know about it.
“Just listen to me for a second, Myron, okay? Hear me out. Brenda is a lovely girl, a wonderful basketball player–and a pain in my left tuchis. I don’t blame her. If I grew up with a father like that, I’d be a pain in the left tuchis too.”
“So her father is the problem?”
Norm made a yes-and-no gesture. “Probably.”
“So get a restraining order,” Myron said.
“Then what’s the problem? Hire a private eye. If he steps within a hundred yards of her, call the cops.”
“It’s not that easy.” Norm looked out over the court. The workers involved in the shoot darted about like trapped particles under sudden heat. Myron sipped his coffee. Gourmet coffee. A year ago he never drank coffee. Then he started stopping into one of the new coffee bars that kept cropping up like bad movies on cable. Now Myron could not go through a morning without his gourmet coffee fix.
There is a fine line between a coffee house and a crack house.
“We don’t know where he is,” Norm said.
“Her father,” Norm said. “He’s vanished. Brenda is always looking over her shoulder. She’s terrified.”
“And you think the father is a danger to her?”
“This guy is the Great Santini on steroids. He used to play ball himself. Pac Ten, I think. His name is–”
“Horace Slaughter,” Myron said.
“You know him?”
Myron nodded very slowly. “Yeah,” he said. “I know him.”
Norm studied his face. “You’re too young to have played with him.”
Myron said nothing. Norm did not catch the hint. He rarely did.
“So how do you know Horace Slaughter?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Myron said. “Tell me why you think Brenda Slaughter is in danger.”
“She’s been getting threats.”
“What kind of threats?”
“Could you be a little more specific?”
The photo shoot frenzy continued to whirl. Models sporting the latest in Zoom wear and oodles of attitude cycled through poses and pouts and postures and pursed lips. Come on and vogue. Someone called out for Ted, where the hell is Ted, that prima donna, why isn’t Ted dressed yet, I swear, Ted will be the death of me yet.
“She gets phone calls,” Norm said. “A car follows her. That kind of thing.”
“And you want me to do what exactly?”
Myron shook his head. “Even if I said yes–which I’m not–you said she won’t go for a bodyguard.”
Norm smiled and patted Myron’s knee. “Here’s the part where I lure you in. Like a fish on a hook.”
“Brenda Slaughter is currently unagented.”
Myron said nothing.
“Cat got your tongue, handsome?”
“I thought she signed a major endorsement deal with Zoom.”
“She was on the verge when her old man disappeared. He was her manager. But she got rid of him. Now she’s alone. She trusts my judgment, to a point. This girl is no fool, let me tell you. So here’s my plan: Brenda will be here in a couple of minutes. I recommend you to her. She says hello. You say hello. Then you hit her with the famed Bolitar charm.”
Myron arched one eyebrow. “Set on full blast?”
“Heavens, no. I don’t want the poor girl disrobing.”
“I took an oath to only use my powers for good.”
“This is good, Myron, believe me.”
Myron remained unconvinced. “Even if I agreed to go along with this cockamamy scheme, what about nights? You expect me to watch her twenty-four hours a day?”
“Of course not. Win will help you there.”
“Win has better things to do.”
“Tell that goy boy-toy it’s for me,” Norm said. “He loves me.”
A flustered photographer in the great Eurotrash tradition hurried over to their perch. He had a goatee and spiky blond hair like Sandy Duncan on an off day. Bathing did not appear to be a priority here. He sighed repeatedly, making sure all in the vicinity knew that he was both important and being put out. “Where is Brenda?” he whined.
Myron swiveled toward a voice like warm honey on Sunday pancakes. With her long, purposeful stride–not the shy-girl walk of the too-tall or the nasty strut of a model–Brenda Slaughter swept into the room like a radar-tracked weather system. She was very tall, over six feet for sure, with skin the color of Myron’s Starbucks Mocha Java with a hefty splash of skim milk. She wore faded jeans that hugged deliciously but without obscenity and a ski sweater that made you think of cuddling inside a snow-covered log cabin.
Myron managed not to say wow out loud.
Brenda Slaughter was not so much beautiful as electric. The air around her crackled. She was far too big and broad-shouldered to be a model. Myron knew some professional models. They were always throwing themselves at him–snicker–and were ridiculously thin, built like strings with helium balloons on top. Brenda was no size six. You felt strength with this woman, substance, power, a force if you will, and yet it was all completely feminine, whatever that meant, and incredibly attractive.
Norm leaned over and whispered, “See why she’s our poster girl?”
Myron nodded. Norm jumped down from the chair. “Brenda, darling, come over here. I want you to meet someone.”
The big brown eyes found Myron’s, and there was a hesitation. She smiled a little and strode toward them. Myron rose, ever the gentleman. Brenda headed straight for him and stuck out her hand. Myron shook it. Her grip was strong. Now that they were both standing, Myron could see he had an inch or two on her. That made her six-two, maybe six-three.
“Well, well,” Brenda said. “Myron Bolitar.”
Norm gestured as if he were pushing them closer together. “You two know each other?”
“Oh, I’m sure Mr. Bolitar doesn’t remember me,” Brenda said. “It was a long time ago.”
It took Myron only a few seconds. His brain immediately realized that had he met Brenda Slaughter before, he would have undoubtedly remembered. The fact that he didn’t meant their previous encounter was under very different circumstances. “You used to hang out at the courts,” Myron said. “With your dad. You must have been five or six.”
“And you were just entering high school,” she added. “The only white guy that showed up steadily. You made all-state out of Livingston High, became an all-American at Duke, got drafted by the Celtics in the first round–”
Her voice dovetailed. Myron was used to that. “I’m flattered you remembered,” he said. Already wowing her with the charm.
“I grew up watching you play,” she went on. “My father followed your career like you were his own son. When you got hurt–” She broke off again, her lips tightening.
He smiled to show he both understood and appreciated the sentiment.
Norm jumped into the silence. “Well, Myron is a sports agent now. A damn good one. The best, in my opinion. Fair, honest, loyal as hell–” Norm stopped suddenly. “Did I just use those words to describe a sports agent?” He shook his head.
The goateed Sandy Duncan bustled over again. He spoke with a French accent that sounded about as real as Pepe LePew’s. “Monsieur Zuckermahn?”
Norm said, “Oui.”
“I need your help, s’il vous plait.”
“Oui,” Norm said.
Myron almost asked for an interpreter.
“Sit, both of you,” Norm said. “I have to run a sec.” He patted the empty chairs to drive home the point. “Myron is going to help me set up the league. Kinda like a consultant. So talk to him, Brenda. About your career, your future, whatever. He’d be a good agent for you.” He winked at Myron. Subtle.
When Norm left, Brenda high-stepped into the director’s chair. “So was all that true?” she asked.
“Part of it,” Myron said.
“I’d like to be your agent. But that’s not why I’m really here.”
“Norm is worried about you. He wants me to watch out for you.”
“Watch out for me?”
Myron nodded. “He thinks you’re in danger.”
She set her jaw. “I told him I didn’t want to be watched.”
“I know,” Myron said. “I’m supposed to be undercover. Shh.”
“So why are you telling me?”
“I’m not good with secrets.”
She nodded. “And?”
“And if I’m going to be your agent, I’m not sure it pays to start our relationship with a lie.”
She leaned back and crossed legs longer than a DMV line at lunchtime. “What else did Norm tell you to do?”
“To turn on my charm.”
She blinked at him.
“Don’t worry,” Myron said. “I took a solemn oath to only use it for good.”
“Lucky me.” Brenda brought a long finger up to her face and tapped it against her chin a few times. “So,” she said at last, “Norm thinks I need a baby-sitter.”
Myron threw up his hands and did his best Norm impression. “Who said anything about a baby-sitter?” It was better than his Elephant Man, but nobody was speed-dialing Rich Little either.
She smiled. “Okay,” she said with a nod. “I’ll go along with this.”
“I’m pleasantly surprised.”
“No reason to be. If you don’t do it, Norm might hire someone else who might not be so forthcoming. This way I know the score.”
“Makes sense,” Myron said.
“But there are conditions.”
“I thought there might be.”
“I do what I want when I want. This isn’t carte blanche to invade my privacy.”
“If I tell you to get lost for a while, you ask how lost.”
“And no spying on me when I don’t know about it,” she continued.
“You keep out of my business.”
“I stay out all night, you don’t say a thing.”
“Not a thing.”
“If I choose to participate in an orgy with pygmies, you don’t say a thing.”
“Can I at least watch?” Myron asked.
That got a smile. “I don’t mean to sound difficult, but I have enough father figures in my life, thank you. I want to make sure you know that we’re not going to be hanging out with each other twenty-four a day or anything like that. This isn’t a Whitney Houston-Kevin Costner movie.”
“Some people say I look like Kevin Costner.” Myron gave her a quick flash of the cynical, rogue smile, la Bull Durham.
She looked straight through him. “Maybe in the hairline.”
Ouch. At half-court the goateed Sandy Duncan started calling for Ted again. His coterie followed suit. The name Ted bounced about the arena like rolled-up balls of Silly Putty.
“So do we understand each other?” she asked.
“Perfectly,” Myron said. He shifted in his seat. “Now do you want to tell me what’s going on?”
From the right, Ted–it simply had to be a guy named Ted–finally made his entrance. He wore only Zoom shorts, and his abdomen was rippled like a relief map in marble. He was probably in his early twenties, model handsome, and he squinted like a prison guard. As he sashayed toward the shoot, Ted kept running both hands through his Superman blue-black hair, the movement expanding his chest and shrinking his waist and demonstrating shaved underarms.
Brenda muttered, “Strutting peacock.”
“That’s totally unfair,” Myron said. “Maybe he’s a Fulbright scholar.”
“I’ve worked with him before. If God gave him a second brain, it would die of loneliness.” Her eyes veered toward Myron. “I don’t get something.”
“Why you? You’re a sports agent. Why would Norm ask you to be my bodyguard?”
“I used to work”–he stopped, waved a vague hand–“for the government.”
“I never heard about that.”
“It’s another secret. Shh.”
“Secrets don’t stay secret much around you, Myron.”
“You can trust me.”
She thought about it. “Well, you were a white man who could jump,” she said. “Guess if you can be that, you could be a trustworthy sports agent.”
Myron laughed, and they fell into an uneasy silence. He broke it by trying again. “So do you want to tell me about the threats?”
“Nothing much to tell.”
“This is all in Norm’s head?”
Brenda did not reply. One of the assistants applied oil to Ted’s hairless chest. Ted was still giving the crowd his tough guy squint. Too many Clint Eastwood movies. Ted made two fists and continuously flexed his pecs. Myron decided that he might as well beat the rush and start hating Ted right now.
Brenda remained silent. Myron decided to try another approach. “Where are you living now?” he asked.
“In a dorm at Reston University.”
“You’re still in school?”
“Medical school. Fourth year. I just got a deferment to play pro ball.”
Myron nodded. “Got a specialty in mind?”
He nodded again and decided to wade in a bit deeper. “Your dad must be very proud of you.”
A flicker crossed her face. “Yeah, I guess.” She started to rise. “I better get dressed for this shoot.”
“You don’t want to tell me what’s going on first?”
She stayed in her seat. “Dad is missing.”
“A week ago.”
“Is that when the threats started?”
She avoided the question. “You want to help? Find my father.”
“Is he the one threatening you?”
“Don’t worry about the threats. Dad likes control, Myron. Intimidation is just another tool.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You don’t have to understand. He’s your friend, right?”
“Your father? I haven’t seen Horace in more than ten years.”
“Whose fault is that?” she asked.
The words, not to mention the bitter tone, surprised him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Do you still care about him?” she asked.
Myron didn’t have to think about it. “You know I do.”
She nodded and jumped down from the chair. “He’s in trouble,” she said. “Find him.