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     ROBERT CRAIS: THE WANTED
     
                                    

 


HARVEY AND STEMMS


Harvey and Stemms were making progress, but they couldn’t just blow into the club and flash the picture. The photograph of Unknown Male Subject #1 was dangerous. The picture connected Harvey and Stemms to the person in the picture, and the girl who threw up on the actor, and to everything that would soon happen. Stemms and Harvey were careful to avoid a connection. A connection could get them both killed.
     Harvey frowned at the long line of people outside the dance club.
     “This is crazy, Stemms. You really wanna mingle with hundreds of
people?”
     “Only your busboy, Harvey.”
     “He might not be working tonight. My source didn’t know.”
     The busboy was a twenty-two-year-old parolee named Jesse Guzman.
     They needed to know if the girl’s story was true, so Harvey made a few calls and came up with Guzman. The busboy had a history of misdemeanor arrests, substance abuse, and terrible luck, which was about to turn worse when he met Harvey and Stemms.
     Stemms shrugged.
     “If he’s not here, we’ll catch him at home. Either way, let’s hope he remembers.”
     Harvey rolled his eyes.
     “Remembers what, a barfer? A place like this, nobody can tell one barfing chick from the next. They mop up chick-barf every night.”
     Stemms hated Harvey’s negativity.
     “It isn’t like she puked in the bathroom, Harvey. She threw up on a
TV star.”
     Harvey sighed, and shook his head.
     “There is nothing to remember, Stemms. She made it up.”
     “She didn’t lie. The lady told us the truth.”
     “Not the old lady. The barfer. I don’t doubt the girl said it, but criminals lie all the time, especially about themselves. It’s what we call a fanciful life construction. Also known as baloney.”
     “Harvey.”
     “What?”
     “You’re right. The girl probably made it up, but we still have to check.”
     Harvey gave in with a nod.
     Earlier that day, Stemms and Harvey back-traced a stolen SLR camera to a Santa Monica flea market. They located a flea market regular, this older woman with sun-scorched skin and liver spots, who remembered the young couple who sold the camera. The woman described a slender girl with green eyes and a scar on her wrist, and a good-looking boy with dimples. The girl was a lush. She slurped vodka from a pink plastic cup, and told outlandish stories, like how she’d thrown up on a has-been actor at a fancy Hollywood club, the Jade Horse or Gay Horse, a place she went to a lot. Stemms grew excited. He flashed the picture, and was surprised when the woman said, no, this wasn’t the boy with the girl. Stemms felt
bad for flashing the picture, but their progress was worth it. The SLR had led to the barfer, and the barfer was linked to a dance club in Hollywood. Harvey was a buzz kill, but if they found the girl, they’d find the Unknown Male Subjects, and everything else they’d been hired to find.
     Jade House was one of those celebutante clubs with a squad of paparazzi camped at the door, three-hundred-pound guards, and a line of sexed-up women and nervous men begging a doorman to let them in.  Stemms parked their stolen Chrysler around the corner, and slipped a doorman a thousand, cash, to buy their way past the line.
     Stemms hated the place. The crowd was a sweaty press of hipsters, drunks, pretenders, and wealthy foreign nationals, all pounded by the sonic hammer of a Swedish DJ spinning a hip-hop dance mix. Stemms and Harvey split up to find the busboy, hiding their search in jokes and banter.
The employees they questioned did not realize they were being questioned.
None of them knew they were being asked about the busboy.
Stemms and Harvey were good.
    An hour into their search, Harvey slipped past two women sheathed in
shimmering blue, and whispered.
     “I found him. That bitch told the truth.”
     Stemms was shocked.
     “You’re kidding? For real?”
     “He’s going on break. Meet us. The next block, in the alley.”
     “Don’t let anyone see you.”
     “No one sees me, Stemms. Ever.”
     Stemms hurried back to their car, and drove to the alley on the next block. Two minutes later, Harvey walked up with a trim, nice looking guy with caramel skin.
     Harvey told the busboy to sit up front, and slid into the backseat.
     Harvey said, “Jesse, this is Detective Munson. Rich, Jesse Guzman.”
     Guzman offered his hand, but Stemms ignored it.
     “He’s high.”
     The kid’s eyes flitted like a couple of June bugs bouncing off a light. Scared.
     “Hey, no. No, sir. I’m doing the program.”
     “If I had you tested, think you’d show clean?”
     Harvey’s hand floated out of the darkness in back, and patted Guzman’s shoulder.
     “Stop grinding him, Rich. He was working the night she hurled on the actor. He saw it.”
Guzman’s head bobbed.
     “She’s here a lot. She gets sick a lot, too.”
     “Okay. What’s her name?”
     “I don’t know her like that. I don’t have conversations with these people. I’m a busboy.”
     Stemms sniffed the air loudly, like a dog catching a scent.
     “I’m smelling bullshit.”
     Harvey spoke again, voice mellow and calm, like a jazz man at two in the morning.
     “Relax, Jesse. What does she look like? Describe her.”
     “Really pretty. Like a model. Green eyes. She has a scar on her wrist.”
     Stemms glanced at Harvey. Guzman’s description matched with the flea market. Stemms settled back, and studied the busboy.
     “Okay, Jesse, I’m liking you better. Sounds like our girl. She comes here a lot?”
     “Yes, sir.”
     “Is she here now?”
     “I don’t know. I don’t think so, but it’s a big club.”
     “Boyfriends?”
     The kid flashed a nervous grin.
     “She’s hot. She always has boys.”
     Harvey spoke from the shadows.
     “Show him.”
     Stemms hesitated, so Harvey said it again.
     “Show him the picture.”
     Stemms took out his phone. The image he carried was taken from a high-quality residential surveillance video. The video was captured at night, and showed three figures creeping alongside a house. They moved
in single file, one after another, and knew the camera was watching. All three wore hoodies and hats to cover their faces, and kept their heads down. The second figure blew it. The second figure, dubbed Unknown Male Number One glanced up at the camera as he stepped out of frame. The image had to be enhanced and refined, but it turned out okay. A ball cap and hoodie masked a third of the face, but his features were readable. Now Harvey and Stemms needed a name.
     Stemms held out the phone.
     “What about this guy? You see him with the girl?”
     Guzman studied the picture.
     “I’m pretty sure I’ve seen him, but she’s with another boy, more.”
     Stemms put away his phone, and repeated the old woman’s description.
     “Tall guy. Good-looking. Dimples.”
     Guzman’s eyes lit up.
     “Yeah. Alec.”
     Stemms glanced at Harvey, and tried not to smile. Harvey’s hand appeared, and squeezed Guzman’s shoulder. Encouraging.
     “That’s right. You know Alec’s last name?”
     Guzman squinted, as if he thought he should know, but didn’t.
     “Some of the staff know him. He’s a waiter. Up in the Valley.”
     Stemms glanced at Harvey again.
     “Alec the waiter. Up in the Valley.”
     He turned back to the busboy.
     “You know this how?”
     “They give him free drinks. They talk. Alec is here more than the girl.”
     “Yeah? So who in the club here knows Alec?”
     “Crystal. There’s Crystal, and Paul. Paul is a bartender. Crystal is a server. I can ask them. I can find out his last name.”
     Stemms ignored his offer.
     “Has anyone else been asking about this?”
     “Policemen?”
     “Anyone.”
     “Not me. I don’t know if anyone else been asked.”
     Harvey said, “The girl, Alec, their friends? Nobody’s asking about them?”
     Guzman again tried to turn, but Harvey’s touch stopped him.
     “No, sir. What did they do?”
     Stemms ignored him again, and stared at Harvey.
     “What do you think?”
     Harvey’s voice was a shadow.
     “I think Jesse’s been a big help. Thank you, Jesse.”
     Stemms smiled at the busboy.
     “Yeah, dude. We owe you.”
     “Can I go?”
     “Sure.”
     Stemms offered his hand.
     Guzman was surprised. He beamed, and took the hand.
     Harvey looped a rope across Guzman’s throat as they shook. Stemms held tight, and hooked a hard left to the boy’s temple. The busboy arched and thrashed and kicked the dashboard. Stemms hooked lefts as hard as he could, and Harvey strained against the rope. The kicking slowed, and finally stopped. Stemms made sure the busboy was dead, and pushed his body under the dash. Harvey said nothing. Stemms fired up the Chrysler, and pulled away. He listened to Harvey breathe, somewhere in the darkness behind him.
     “He saw the picture.”
     Harvey said, “That’s right.”
     Stemms and Harvey drove through Hollywood, looking for a place to dump the body. The image of Unknown Male Number One was captured sixteen days earlier. Stemms and Harvey had been on the hunt since before the image was captured. They were ahead of the police, the insurance investigators, and the private security firms. Now they were even farther ahead. Stemms and Harvey were the best in the business.
     Stemms glanced in the mirror.
     “Hey, Harvey?”
     Harvey was a shadow within a shadow. Silent.
     Stemms glanced again.
     “We’re really bad people.”
     Stemms laughed. His laughter grew as they glided across the night, but
     Harvey didn’t laugh with him.

1
ELVIS COLE


James Tyson Connor walked out of his home on a chill fall morning, climbed into a twelve-year-old Volvo, and left for school an hour late. Tyson was a seventeen-year-old junior at an alternative school in the San
Fernando Valley. He was thin, nervous, and cursed with soft features and gentle eyes that made him look like a freshman. Nothing about him suggested that Tyson was one of the most wanted felons in Los Angeles.
     Tyson and his mother lived in a modest, one-story ranch house not far from his school. I was a block away, waiting for Tyson to leave. His mother had warned me he would be late. Tyson suffered from anxiety issues, and hated going to school. Two prior schools had expelled him for absenteeism and failing grades, so his mother enrolled him at the alternative school to keep him from dropping out. This was a decision she regretted.
     His mother called as Tyson drove away.
     “Mr. Cole? Are you here?”
     “I’ve been here almost two hours, Ms. Connor. The sunrise was lovely.”
     “He’s gone. You can come in now.”
     Tyson’s mother worked as an office manager for a law firm in Encino. She appeared neat, trim, and ready for work when she opened the door, but carried herself with so much tension she might have been wrapped with duct tape.
     I walked up the drive, and offered my hand.
     “Elvis Cole.”
     “Devon Connor. Thanks so much for coming, Mr. Cole. I’m sorry he took so long.”
     I stepped into her living room, and watched her lock the door. The house smelled of pancakes and fish, and something I didn’t place. A glowing aquarium bubbled beside a couch.
     “The new school doesn’t mind, him being so late?”
     “With what they charge, they should send a limo.”
     She stopped herself, and closed her eyes.
     “Sorry. I sound like a bitch.”
     “He’s your son. You’re worried.”
     “Beyond worried. I moved mountains to get him into this school, and now I feel like I’ve fed him to animals.”
     Devon had found money and valuables in Tyson’s room. She believed her son had gotten involved with drug dealers and gangsters, and wanted me to find out what he was doing. I wasn’t sure I wanted the job.
I tried to sound reassuring.
     “It probably isn’t as bad as you think, Ms. Connor. These things usually aren’t.”
     She studied me like I was stupid, and abruptly turned away.
     “Follow me. I’ll show you how bad.”
     Tyson’s bedroom was small, and looked like a typical middle-class, teenage boy’s bedroom. A dresser sat opposite a walk-in closet, an unmade bed filled the corner, and his nightstand bristled with soda cans, chip bags, and crumbs. Special Forces operators with glowing green eyes watched us from a recruitment poster above the bed. A desk beneath his window was crowded with a desktop computer, a laptop, three monitors, and an impressive tangle of game controllers.
     I said, “He must be a serious gamer.”
     “He can’t sit still in school, but he can sit in front of these things for hours.”
     She went to the desk, opened the middle side drawer, and took something from the back of the drawer.
     “This is how bad it is.”
     She held out a watch with a bright white face, three dials, and three knobs on the rim. The distinctive Rolex crown was obvious.
     “A Rolex?”
     “A Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, made with eighteen-carat white gold.
     A watch like this sells for forty thousand dollars, new. Even used, they sell for more than twenty. He came home wearing it. I said, this is a Rolex, where’d you get a watch like this?”
     Small nicks marred the rim and crystal, but the watch appeared otherwise perfect.
     “What did he say?”
     She rolled her eyes, and looked disgusted.
     “A flea market, can you imagine? He says it’s a knockoff, but I don’t believe it. Does this look like a knockoff to you?”
     She pushed the watch closer, so I took it. The body felt heavy and substantial. The hands showed the correct time, and the second hand swept the face with silent precision, but I wasn’t an expert.
     “Could it be a gift, and he doesn’t want you to know?”
     “Who would give him a gift like this?”
     “His father? A grandparent?”
     She frowned again, and gave me the ‘you’re stupid’ eyes.
     “His father left before Tyson was born, and everyone else is dead. My son should not have this watch. He shouldn’t have anything this expensive, and we have to stop him before he gets himself killed or arrested.”
     We.
     I tried to tone down the drama.
     “Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. If the watch is real, then he shouldn’t have it, but this is the kind of thing a kid might lift if he saw it at a friend’s house. You don’t need a detective if Tyson has sticky fingers.”
     The reasonable detective offered a reasonable explanation, but she seemed disappointed.
     “There’s so much more than the watch.”
     She went to the closet, and reached inside.
     “It started with shirts. He didn’t even bother to hide them, like with the watch.”
     I said, “Shirts.”
     She came out with a sleek black sport coat trimmed with velvet lapels.
     “New shirts. Then new shoes turned up, and another new shirt, and this jacket, all from Barneys in Beverly Hills. We can’t afford Barneys.”
     Her phone chirped with an incoming text. She checked the message, and slipped the phone back into her pocket.
     “Sorry. The school. I text when he leaves, they text when he arrives. It’s how we keep track.”
     Alternative.
     I fingered the jacket. The fabric felt soft and creamy, like very fine wool. Expensive.
I glanced up, and found her watching me. Waiting.
     “Did the clothes come from the same flea market?”
     “No, this time a friend’s father runs the wardrobe department at a studio. They get so many free clothes, Tyson can have whatever he wants.”
     I didn’t say anything. Devon went on without my prompting.
     “I called Barneys. This jacket? Tyson bought it. The salesman remembered because Tyson paid cash. Three thousand dollars, and Tyson paid cash.”
     She put the jacket back in the closet, and went to his bed.
     “After I found out about Barneys, I searched his room.”
     She slid a plastic storage container from under the bed. The container was filled with keyboards, Game Boy and Xbox gear, and action figures. She moved a keyboard, took out a box, and opened it. The box contained a thick roll of cash wrapped by a blue rubber band.
     “Four thousand, two hundred dollars. I counted. The first time, he had twenty-three hundred dollars. I found over seven thousand dollars here once. The amount changes.”
     I sat back and stared at her. Devon was describing an income stream.
     “Did you ask him about the money?”
     “If I ask, he’ll lie, just like he lied about the clothes and the watch. I want to know what he’s doing and who he’s doing it with before I confront him.”
     “I can ask him.”
     “If we ask, he’ll know I snoop, and he’ll still lie. Don’t detectives follow people? You could follow him and see what he does.”
     “Following someone is expensive. Asking is cheaper.”
     Her mouth pinched, and she glanced away. Worried.
     “We should discuss your fee. I have a good job, but I’m not wealthy.”
     “Okay. What would you like to know?”
     “How much would it cost to follow him?”
     “Two cars minimum, one op per car, ready to go twenty-four/seven. Call it three thousand a day.”
     “Oh.”
     She wet her lips, and her eyes lost focus. She was trying to figure out how to come up with the money, and all her options were bad. I had met a hundred parents like Devon, and seen the same fearful confusion in their eyes. Like people who didn’t know how to swim, watching their children drown.
     I changed the subject.
     “How long has this been going on?”
     “Since the beginning of school.”
     “And whatever he’s doing, you believe he’s doing it with students from school.”
     Her eyes snapped into hard focus.
     “Tyson’s never been in trouble. Tyson’s a sweetheart! He stayed home all the time, he never went out, he was afraid of everything, but then he started changing. He met a girl.”
     “Ah.”
     “I was thrilled. Tyson doesn’t meet girls. Tyson’s afraid of girls.”
     “Have you met her?”
     “He wouldn’t tell me her name. He made friends with a boy named Alec. They go to the mall. I ask questions, but he’s evasive and vague, or makes up more lies. Tyson was never like this. He never used to go to the mall, and now he’s never home.”
     Tyson sounded like any other teenage boy, except for the parts about money and watches.
     “He met Alec at school?”
     “I think so, but I checked the roster.”
     She took a slim red booklet from Tyson’s desk. The cover was emblazoned with a soaring bird and the name of the school. Cal-Matrix Alternative Education. Where students soar.
     “I didn’t find anyone named Alec or Alexander.”
     We weren’t exactly drowning in clues.
     I jiggled the watch. An authentic Rolex had serial and model numbers cut into the head behind the bracelet, or on the inner rim below the crystal. High-end fakes often had numbers, too, but fake numbers didn’t appear in the manufacturer’s records.
     “Tell you what. I have a friend who knows watches. She can tell us if the watch is real. She might even be able to tell us who owns it.”
     “You can’t take it. Tyson might notice.”
     I told her about the numbers.
     “I’ll take off the bracelet, and copy the numbers. The watch can stay.”
     “You won’t have to follow him?”
     “We’ll start small to keep the costs down, and see what develops. Sound good?”
     Her face brightened, and split with a smile.
     “Perfect.”
     I thought about the money and the watch she’d found, and wondered if Tyson had hidden anything else.
     “You searched his room, but what about his car?”
     “Only twice. When the car’s home, he’s home.”
     “If you have a spare key, I’d like it. I’ll check his car after I call in the watch.”
     She started away for the key, then hesitated.
     “I saw on your website, The Elvis Cole Detective Agency. The website says your work is confidential.”
     “That’s right.”
     “Meaning, when we find out what Tyson’s doing, you won’t tell the police?”
     “It depends.”
     “The website doesn’t say anything about depends.”
     “If I find a human head in his trunk, I might feel the urge to report it.”
     She smiled again, and turned away.
     “No human heads, Mr. Cole. Not yet.”
     I didn’t like the way she said ‘yet’.
     Devon gave me the key and watched me copy the numbers. When the bracelet was back on the watch, she put the watch in the drawer, and we left the house together.
     Devon Connor drove away first. She had a long drive in bad traffic ahead, and was already late for work. Alternative schools were expensive, and so were detectives.
     I started my car, but I didn’t leave. I pictured the skinny kid with gentle eyes who looked like a freshman. I pictured him sneaking cash into his room, and hiding it under his bed. There were many ways he could have gotten the cash, but none of the ways were good.
     Devon’s pleasant, middle-class street was peaceful. No one was trying to murder her, or Tyson, or me, but this was about to change.

© 2017 by Robert Crais 

 


   
 
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