Elvis Cole: six days
after they were
When people call a private
investigator because someone they
love is missing, especially a child,
the strain in their voice ripples
with fear. When Nita Morales called
that morning about her missing adult
daughter, she didn’t sound afraid.
She was irritated. Ms. Morales
phoned because the Los Angeles
Times Sunday Magazine published
a story about me eight weeks ago,
rehashing a case where I cleared an
innocent man who had convicted of
multiple homicides. The magazine
people came to my office, took a
couple of pretty good pictures, and
made me sound like a cross between
Philip Marlowe and Batman. If I
were Nita Morales, I would have
called me, too.
Her business, Hector Sports & Promotions, was on the
east side of the Los Angeles River
near the Sixth Street bridge, not
far from where giant radioactive
ants boiled up from the sewer to be
roasted by James Arness in the 1954
classic, Them! It was
a warehouse area now, but no less
dangerous. Buildings were layered
with gang tags and graffiti, and
signs warned employees to lock their
cars. Steel bars covered windows
and concertina wire lined roofs, but
not to keep out the ants.
That Spring morning, 8:55 A.M., a low haze filled the
sky with a glare so bright I
squinted behind the Wayfarers as I
found the address. Hector Sports &
Promotions was in a newer building
with a gated, ten-foot chain link
fence enclosing their parking lot.
A young Latin guy with thick shoulders and dull eyes
came out when I stopped as if he had
“You the magazine guy?”
The magazine guy.
“That’s right. Elvis Cole. I have a nine o’clock with
“I gotta unlock the gate. See the empty spot where it
says delivery? Park
there. You might want to put up the
top and lock it.”
“Think it’ll be safe?”
That would be me, flashing the ironic smile at their
overkill battlestar security.
“For sure. They only steal clean cars.
That would be him, putting me in my place.
He shook his head sadly as I drove past.
“I had an old Vette like this, I’d show some love. I’d
pop those dents, for sure.”
That would be him, rubbing it in. My Jamaica yellow
1966 Corvette Sting Ray convertible
is a classic. It’s also dirty.
He locked the parking gate behind us, told me he was
Nita Morales’s assistant, and led me
inside. We passed through an outer
office with a counter for customers,
and a man and woman at separate
desks. The man and woman both
looked over, and the man held up the
Sunday Magazine issue with my
We passed through a door onto the shop floor where
fifteen or twenty people were
operating machines that sewed logos
on baseball caps and photo-inked
mugs. Nita Morales had a glass
office on the far side of the shop
where she could see the floor and
everything happening there. She saw
us coming, and stepped from behind
her desk to greet the magazine guy
when we entered. Tight smile. Dry
hand. All business.
“Hi, Mr. Cole, I’m Nita. You look like your picture.”
“The one where I look stupid or the one where I look
“The one where you look like a smart, determined
detective who gets the job done.”
I liked her immediately.
“Would you like something? Coffee or a soft drink?”
“No, thanks. I’m good.”
“Jerry, where’s the swag bag? You left it in here,
She explained as Jerry the Assistant handed me a white
“We made a little gift for you this morning. Here,
take a look.”
A large white T-shirt and a matching baseball cap were
in the bag. I smiled at the cap,
then held up the T-shirt. “Elvis
Cole Detective Agency” had been
silk-screened onto the front in
black and red letters, with “world’s
greatest detective” in smaller
letters below it. An emblem saying
the same had been sewn on the front
of the cap.
“You like them?”
“I like them a lot.”
I put them back in the bag.
“This is very cool, but I haven’t agreed to help you.
You understand that, don’t you?”
“You will. You’re going to find her. It won’t be hard
for the World’s Greatest Detective.”
She got that from the magazine.
“The ‘world’s greatest’ thing was a joke, Ms. Morales.
The guy who wrote the article put it
in the story like I meant it. I
didn’t. It was a joke.”
“I have some things to show you. Give me a second. I
have to get them together.”
She dismissed the assistant, and returned to her desk
while I looked around. Shelves
along the wall opposite her desk
were lined with mugs, cups,
bobbleheads, T-shirts, caps,
giveaway toys, and dozens of other
promotional items. Want team shirts
for your kid’s soccer club? They
could do it. Want the name of your
insurance agency on cheap plastic
cups for the Knights of Columbus
barbeque? That’s what they did.
Photos of youth teams dotted the
walls, the kids all wearing shirts
made by Hector Sports.
I said, “Who’s Hector?”
“My husband. He started the company twenty-two years
ago, silk-screening T-shirts. I run
it now. Cancer.”
“Me, too. Seven years, this June.”
“You must run it well. Business looks good.”
“No one’s getting rich, but we’re doing okay. Here,
She came around her desk so we could sit together on
matching metal chairs. Nita Morales
was in her mid-forties, built
sturdy, and wore a conservative blue
business skirt and ruffled white
shirt. Her sleek black hair showed
no gray, and framed her broad face
well. Her nails were carefully
done, and her wedding ring was still
in place, seven years later, this
She held out a snapshot.
“This is who you’re going to find. This is Krista.”
“I haven’t agreed yet, Ms. Morales.”
“You will. Look.”
“We haven’t talked price.”
“Look at her.”
Krista Morales had a heart-shaped face, golden skin,
and a smile that dimpled her right
cheek. Her eyes were deep
chocolate, and her hair glistened
with the deep black sheen of a
crow’s wing in the sun. I smiled at
the picture, then handed it back.
“Smart. She’s going to graduate summa cum laude
in two months from Loyola
Marymount. Then she’s going to work
in Washington as a congressional
aide. After that, maybe the first
Latina president, you think?”
“Wow. You must be proud.”
“Beyond proud. Her father and I, we didn’t graduate
high school. I had no English until
I was nine. This business, we built
with sweat and the grace of God.
She ticked off the points on her fingers.
“—highest GPA in her class, editor of the student
newspaper, National Honor Society,
Phi Beta Kappa. This girl is making
our dreams come true.”
She suddenly stopped, and stared through the glass wall
into the shop. Even with the angle,
I saw her eyes glisten.
“They’re good people, but you have to watch them.”
“I understand. Take your time.”
She cleared her throat as she pulled herself together,
then Nita Morales’s face darkened
from a sunrise of pride to the iron
sky of a thunderstorm. She put
Krista’s picture aside, and handed
me a page showing a name and Palm
Springs address. The name was Jack
“She went to Palm Springs seven days ago. With a boy.
She said “boyfriend” as if it was another word for
She described the boyfriend, and didn’t have anything
good to say. A USC drop-out without
a job and little future. Just the
type of boy who could derail her
I glanced at the address.
“He lives in Palm Springs?”
“Somewhere in L.A., I think. His family has the house
in Palm Springs, or it might belong
to a friend, but I don’t really
know. Krista hasn’t told me much
Old story. The less Krista told her, the less she
could criticize. I put the address
“Okay. So how is she missing?”
“She went for the weekend. That’s what she told me,
and she always tells me where she’s
going and exactly how long she’ll be
gone. But she’s been gone now for a
week, and she won’t return my calls
or texts, and I know it’s that boy.”
“How long have Krista and that boy been together?”
Thinking about it seemed to sicken her.
“Six or seven months. I’ve only met him two or three
times, but I don’t like him. He has
She said “attitude” as if it was another word for
“Do they live together?”
Her face darkened even more.
“She shares an apartment near campus with a girl. She
doesn’t have time for that boy.”
She had time to go to Palm Springs. I had seen this
story five hundred times, and knew
where it was going. The good-girl
daughter rebelling against the
“Ms. Morales, twenty-one-year-old women go away with
their boyfriends. Sometimes, they
have such a good time, they turn off
their phones and stay a few extra
days. Unless you have reason to
believe otherwise, that’s all this
is. She’ll come back.”
Nita Morales studied me for a moment as if she was
disappointed, then picked up her
smart phone and touched the screen.
“Do you speak Spanish?”
“A few words, but, no, not really.”
“I’ll translate. This is the second call. I recorded
Nita Morales’s voice came from the tiny speaker as she
answered the incoming call.
“Krista, is this you? What is going on out there?”
A young woman fired off rapid-fire Spanish. Then
Nita’s voice interrupted.
“Speak English. Why are you carrying on like this?”
The young woman shifted to English with a heavy accent.
“Mama, I know you want me to practice the English, but
She resumed a torrent of Spanish, whereupon Nita paused
“She’s pretending. This exaggerated accent, the poor
English. My daughter has no
accent. This isn’t the way she
“What is she saying?”
“She began by saying they’re concerned because they
didn’t get the money.”
She held up a finger.
She resumed the playback. A young male voice took
Krista’s place, and also spoke
Spanish. He sounded calm and
reasonable, and spoke several
seconds before Nita paused the
“You get any of it?”
I shook my head, feeling slightly embarrassed.
“He’s saying he has expenses to cover. He wants me to
wire five hundred dollars, and as
soon as he gets the money he’ll see
that Krista gets home.”
I sat forward.
“What just happened here? Was Krista abducted?”
Nita rolled her eyes, and waved me off.
“Of course not. The rest is just more Spanish. I’ll
tell you what they said.”
“No. Play it back. I want to hear the emotional
The playback resumed, but Nita repeatedly interrupted.
The man remained calm. He waited
her out each time she interrupted,
then resumed as if he was reading
from a script.
The recording finally ended, and Nita arched her
“He apologized for asking for the money. He told me
where to wire it, and promised to
take good care of Krista while they
waited. Then he thanked me for
being so helpful.”
She dropped the phone to her desk. Plunk.
I said, “This was a ransom demand. It sounds like
she’s been abducted.”
Nita Morales waved me off again.
“He put her up to this so they could get married.”
“You know this for a fact?”
“You don’t kidnap someone for five hundred dollars.
Five hundred dollars is what your
stupid boyfriend tells you to ask
for when he wants money. And this
business with the Spanish and the
bad English? This is absurd.”
“Did you pay them?”
“Not the first time. I thought she was making a joke.
I thought she would call back
“But she didn’t call back laughing.”
“You heard. I wanted to see if she would come home, so
I paid. She hasn’t called again,
and that was four days ago. I think
they used the money to get married.”
All in all, Krista Morales did not sound like a person
who would shake down her mother for
a few hundred bucks, but you never
“Why would she pretend she has poor English?”
“But you believe she’s pretending she’s been abducted
to swindle five hundred dollars from
Her mouth dimpled as she frowned, and the dimples were
hard knots. But after a moment they
“Even smart girls do stupid things when they think a
boy loves them. I was so upset I
drove out there, but they weren’t
home. I waited almost four hours,
but no one came, so I left a note.
For all I know they went to Las
“Did you call the police?”
She stiffened, and her face grew hard.
“Absolutely not. Krista has everything ahead of
her—possibilities no one in my
family would have even dreamed. I’m
not going to ruin her future with
nonsense like this. I’m not going
to let her throw her life away by
doing something stupid.”
“If what you believe is true, Berman might have her
involved in something more serious.”
“This is why you’re going to find her. The man they
wrote the article about, he would
save this girl’s future.”
“If she’s married, there’s nothing I can do. I can’t
force her back if she doesn’t want
“You don’t have to bring her back. Just find her, and
tell me what’s going on. Will you
help me, Mr. Cole?”
“It’s what I do.’
“I thought so. You aren’t the World’s Greatest
Detective for nothing.”
She burst into a wide smile, went behind her desk, and
held up a green check book.
“I’ll pay you five thousand dollars if you find her.
Is that fair?”
“I’ll charge you a thousand a day, and we’ll start with
a two thousand dollar retainer.
Expenses are mine. You’ll save
She smiled even wider, and opened a pen.
“I’ll pay you ten thousand if you kill him.”
I smiled at her, and she smiled back. Neither of us
moved, and neither spoke. Outside
on the floor, the big stitching
machines whined like howling coyotes
as they sewed patches to baseball
She bent to write a check.
“I was kidding. That was a joke.”
“Like me being the World’s Greatest Detective.”
“Exactly. When can you leave for Palm Springs?”
“I’ll start at her apartment. It’s closer.”
“You’re the detective. You know best.”
She wrote the check, tore it from the checkbook, then
gave me a large manila envelope.
“I put some things together you might want. Krista’s
address, her phone number, a
picture, the receipt when I wired
the money. Things like that.”
“This will be fine. I’ll start with her roommate.
Maybe you could call her, let her
know I’m coming?”
“Oh, I can do better than that.”
She picked up a red leather purse, and went to the
“I have a key. I’ll let you into her apartment and
“Sorry, Ms. Morales. I’d rather go alone.”
Her eyes grew dark and hard.
“You might be the World’s Greatest Detective, but I’m
the World’s Greatest Mother. Don’t
forget your swag.”
She walked out without waiting.
© 2012 by Robert Crais