The wheel stopped, landing on the glittery $1,000. The woman asked for a B. There were two of them. Esperanza groaned. “You’re back early,” she said. “I thought you were going out to dinner with Linda Coldren.”
“It didn’t work out.”
Esperanza finally turned around and looked at his face. “What happened?”
He told her. Her dark complexion lost a bit of color along the way. When he finished, Esperanza said, “You need Win.”
“He won’t help.”
“Time to swallow your macho pride and ask him. Beg him if you have to.”
“Been there, done that. He’s out.” On the television, the greedy woman bought a vowel. This always baffled Myron. Why do contestants who clearly know the puzzle’s solution still buy vowels? To waste money? To make sure their opponents know the answer too?
“But,” he said, “you’re here.”
Esperanza looked at him. “So?”
It was, he knew, the real reason she had come down in the first place. On the phone she had told him that he didn’t work well alone. The words spoke volumes about her true motivation for fleeing the Big Apple.
“Do you want to help?” he asked.
The greedy woman leaned forward, spun the wheel, and then started clapping and shouting, “Come on, a thousand!” Her opponents clapped too. Like they wanted her to do well. Right.
“What do you want me to do?” Esperanza asked.
“I’ll explain on the way. If you want to come.”
They both watched the wheel decelerate. The camera moved in for a close-up. The arrow slowed and slowed before settling on the word BANKRUPT. The audience groaned. The greedy woman kept the smile, but now she looked like someone had just punched her hard in the stomach.
“That’s an omen,” Esperanza said.
“Good or bad?” Myron asked.
The girls were still at the mall. Still at the food court. Still at the same table. It was amazing, when you thought about it. The long summer days beckoned with sunny skies and chirping birds. School was out, and yet so many teenagers spent all their time inside a glorified school cafeteria, probably lamenting the day they would have to return to school.
Myron shook his head. He was complaining about teenagers. A sure sign of lost youth. Soon he’d be screaming at someone for turning up the thermostat.
As soon as he entered the food court, the girls all turned in his direction. It was like they had people-we-know detectors at every entrance. Myron did not hesitate. Making his expression as stern as possible, he rushed toward them. He studied each face as he approached. These were, after all, just teenagers. The guilty one, Myron was sure, would show it.
And she did. Almost instantly.
She was the one who had been teased yesterday, the one they taunted for being the recipient of a Crusty smile. Missy or Messy or something. It all made sense now. Crusty hadn’t spotted Myron’s tail. He’d been tipped off. In fact, the whole thing had been arranged. That was how Crusty had known that Myron had been asking questions about him. That explained the seemingly fortuitous timing—that is, Crusty hanging around the food court just long enough for Myron to arrive.
It had all been a big setup.
The one with Elsa Lancaster hair screwed up her face and said, “Like, what’s the matter?”
“That guy tried to kill me,” Myron said.
Lots of gasps. Faces lit up with excitement. To most of them, this was like a television show come to life. Only Missy or Messy or some name with an M remained rock-still.
“Not to worry though,” Myron continued. “We’ve just about got him. In an hour or two, he’ll be under arrest. The police are on their way to find him right now. I just wanted to thank you all for your cooperation.”
The M girl spoke: “I thought you weren’t a cop.”
A sentence without the word like. Hmm. “I’m undercover,” Myron said.
“Oh. My. God.”
“You mean like on New York Undercover?”
Myron, no stranger to TV, had no idea what she was talking about. “Exactly,” he said.
“This is so cool.”
“Are we, like, going to be on TV?”
“The six o’clock news?”
“That guy on Channel Four is so cute, you know?”
“My hair totally sucks.”
“No way, Amber. But mine is like a total rat nest.”
Myron cleared his throat. “We have this pretty much all wrapped up. Except for one thing. The accomplice.”
Myron waited for one of them to say, “Accomplice?” No one did. Myron elaborated. “Someone in this very mall helped that creep set me up.”
“In, like, here?”
“In our mall?”
“Not our mall. No way.”
They said the word mall like some people said the word synagogue.
“Someone helped that skank?”
“I can’t, like, believe it.”
“Believe it,” Myron said. “In fact, he or she is probably here right now. Watching us.”
Heads swirled about. Even M managed to get into the act, though it was an uninspired display.
Myron had shown the stick. Now the carrot. “Look, I want you ladies to keep your eyes and ears open. We’ll catch the accomplice. No question about it. Guys like that always talk. But if the accomplice was just a hapless dupe …”
“If she, like, didn’t really know the score”—not exactly hip-hop lingo, but they nodded now—“and she came to me right away, before the cops nail her, well, then I’d probably be able to help her out. Otherwise, she could be charged with attempted murder.”
Nothing. Myron had expected that. M would never admit this in front of her friends. Jail was a great fear-inducer, but it was little more than a wet match next to the bonfire that was teenage peer pressure.
Myron moved to the other side of the food court. He leaned against a pillar, putting himself in the path between the girls’ table and the bathroom. He waited, hoping she’d make an excuse and come over. After about five minutes, M stood up and began walking toward Myron. Just as he planned. Myron almost smiled. Maybe he should have been a high school guidance counselor. Mold young minds, change lives for the better.
The M girl veered away from him and toward the exit.