excerpt two


Part One

Elvis Cole: six days after they were taken


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 been waiting.
     “You the magazine guy?”
     The magazine guy.
     “That’s right.  Elvis Cole.  I have a nine o’clock with Ms. Morales.”
     “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 story.  Embarrassing.
     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 confused?”
     “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, right?”
     She explained as Jerry the Assistant handed me a white plastic bag.
     “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, let’s sit.”
     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 June.
     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.  Krista—“
     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 Berman.
     “She went to Palm Springs seven days ago.  With a boy.  Her boyfriend.”
     She said “boyfriend” as if it was another word for “mistake.”
     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 daughter’s ambitions.
     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 about him.”
     Old story.  The less Krista told her, the less she could criticize.  I put the address aside.
     “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.”
     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 this attitude.”
     She said “attitude” as if it was another word for “disease.”
     “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 dominant mother.
     “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 it—“
     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 I cannot—“
     She resumed a torrent of Spanish, whereupon Nita paused the playback.
     “She’s pretending.  This exaggerated accent, the poor English.  My daughter has no accent.  This isn’t the way she speaks.”
     “What is she saying?”
     “She began by saying they’re concerned because they didn’t get the money.”
     “Who’s they?”
     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 recording.
     “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 content.”
     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 eyebrows.
     “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 laughing.”
     “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 know.
     “Why would she pretend she has poor English?”
     “No idea.”
     “But you believe she’s pretending she’s been abducted to swindle five hundred dollars from you?”
     Her mouth dimpled as she frowned, and the dimples were hard knots.  But after a moment they softened.
     “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 Vegas.”
     “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 to come.”
     “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 money.”
     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 caps.
     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.”
     “Okay.  Thanks.”
     “Anything else?”
     “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 door.
     “I have a key.  I’ll let you into her apartment and introduce you.”
     “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 

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