Authors: Robert - Elvis Cole 08 Crais
That Sunday, the sun floated bright and hot over the Los Angeles basin, pushing people to the beaches and the parks and into backyard pools to escape the heat. The air buzzed with the nervous palsy it gets when the wind freight-trains in from the deserts, dry as bone, and cooking the hillsides into tar-filled kindling that can snap into flames hot enough to melt an auto body.
The Verdugo Mountains above Glendale were burning. A column of brown smoke rose off the ridgeline there where it was caught by the Santa Anas and spread south across the city, painting the sky with the color of dried blood. If you were in Burbank, say, or up along the Mulholland Snake over the Sunset Strip, you could see the big multiengine fire bombers diving in with their cargoes of bright red fire retardant as news choppers crisscrossed the scene. Or you could just watch the whole thing on television. In L.A., next to riots and earthquakes, fires are our largest spectator sport.
We couldn't see the smoke column from Lucy Chenier's second-floor apartment in Beverly Hills, but the sky had an orange tint that made Lucy stop in her door long enough to frown. We were bringing cardboard moving boxes up from her car.
"Is that the fire?"
"The Santa Anas are bringing the smoke south. Couple of hours, the ash will begin to fall. It'll look like gray snow." The fire was forty miles away. We were in no danger.
Lucy shifted the frown to her Lexus, parked below us at the curb. "Will it hurt the paint?"
"By the time it settles it'll be cool, just like powder. We'll wash it off with the hose." Elvis Cole, Professional Angeleno, educating the recent transplant, who also happens to be his girlfriend. Wait'll we get a big temblor.
Lucy didn't seem convinced, but then she stepped inside, and called her son. "Ben!"
Less than a week before, Lucille Chenier and her nine-year-old son had left Louisiana and settled into the apartment that they had taken in Beverly Hills, just south of Wilshire Boulevard. Lucy had been a practicing attorney in Baton Rouge, but was beginning a new career as a legal analyst for a local television station (a nouveau occupational fruit growing from the ugly tree that was the Simpson trial). Trading Baton Rouge for Los Angeles, she gained a larger salary, more free time to spend with her son, and closer proximity to moi. I had spent all of Friday, Saturday, and most of Sunday morning arranging and rearranging the living room. That's love for you.
The television was tuned to the station she now worked for, KROK-8 ("Real News for Real People!"), which, like every other station in town, had interrupted regular programming with live coverage of the fire. Twenty-eight homes were threatened and had been evacuated.
Lucy handed Ben the box. "Too heavy?"
"Your room. Your closet. Neatly."
When he was gone I slipped my hand around her waist, and whispered, "Your room. Your bed. Messy."
She stepped away and considered the couch. "First we have to get this house in order. Would you please move the couch again?"
I stared at the couch. I had moved it maybe eight hundred times in the last two days.
She chewed at her thumb, thinking. "Over there."
"That's where it was two moves ago." It was a big couch. It probably weighed three thousand pounds.
"Yes, but that was when the entertainment center was by the fireplace. Now that we've put the entertainment center by the entry, the look will be completely different."
I bent into the couch and dragged it to the opposite wall. Four thousand pounds.
I was squaring the couch when the phone rang. Lucy spoke for a minute, then held out the phone.
Joe Pike and I are partners in the detective agency that bears my name. He could have his name on it if he wanted, but he doesn't. He's like that.
I took the phone. "Hernias R Us." Lucy rolled her eyes and turned away, already contemplating new sofa arrangements.
Pike said, "How's the move going?"
I walked the phone out onto the balcony. "It's a big change. I think she's finally realizing how big. What's up?"
"You heard of Frank Garcia?"
"The tortilla guy. Regular, large, and Monsterito sizes. I prefer the Monsterito myself." You could walk into any food store in Los Angeles and see Frank Garcia smiling at you from the packages of his tortillas, eyes bright, bushy black mustache, big smile.
Pike said, "Frank's a friend of mine and he's got a problem. I'm on my way there now. Can you meet me?"
Pike and I have owned a detective agency for twelve years, and I have known him even longer since his days as a Los Angeles police officer. He had never once asked a favor, or asked for my help on a personal problem in all of that time.
"I'm helping Lucy set up her house. I'm wearing shorts, and I've spent the morning wrestling a ten-thousand-pound couch."
Pike didn't answer.
"Frank's daughter is missing, Elvis. She's a friend of mine, too. I hope you can make it." He gave an address in Hancock Park, then hung up without another word. Pike is like that, too.
I stayed out on the balcony and watched Lucy. She was moving from box to box as if she could no more decide what to unpack next than where to put the couch. She had been like that since she arrived from Louisiana, and it wasn't like her. We had had a long-distance relationship for two years, but now we had made a very real move to further that relationship, and she had carried the weight of it. She's the one who had left her friends. She's the one who had left her home. She was the one taking the risk.
I turned off the phone, went back inside, and waited for her to look at me.
She smiled, but seemed troubled.
I stroked her upper arms and smiled back. She has beautiful amber-green eyes.
She looked embarrassed. "I'm fine."
"It's a big move. Big changes for both of us."
She glanced back at the boxes as if something might be hiding in them.
"It's going to work out, Luce."
She snuggled against me, and I could feel her smile. I didn't want to leave.
She said, "What did Joe want?"
"The daughter of a friend of his is missing. He wants me to help check it out."
Lucy looked up at me, her face now serious. "A child?"
"He didn't say. You mind if I go?"
She glanced at the couch again. "You'll do anything to avoid this couch, won't you?"
"Yeah. I hate that damned couch."
Lucy laughed, then looked into my eyes again.
"I'd mind if you didn't go. Take a shower and go save the world."
Hancock Park is an older area south of the Wilshire Country Club, lesser known to outsiders than Beverly Hills or Bel Air, but every bit as rich. Frank Garcia lived in an adobe-walled Spanish villa set behind a wrought-iron fence just west of the country club. It was a big place, hidden by lush green tree ferns and bird-of-paradise plants as big as dinosaurs and leafy calla lilies that were wilting from the heat.
Forty minutes after Pike gave me Garcia's address, I followed an older Latina with a thick waist and nervous hands through Garcia's rambling home and out to where Frank Garcia and Joe Pike waited beside a tile-lined pool.
As I approached, Pike said, "Frank, this is Elvis Cole. We own the agency together."
Frank Garcia wasn't the smiling man with the bushy mustache you see on his tortillas. This Frank Garcia looked small and worried, and it had nothing to do with him being in a wheelchair. "You don't look like a private investigator."
I was wearing one of those terrific Jam's World print shirts over the shorts. Orange, yellow, pink, and green. "Gee, did I wear this on a Sunday?"
Garcia looked embarrassed, then raised his hands in apology. "I'm sorry, Mr. Cole. I'm so worked up about this thing with Karen, I'm not thinking. I don't care how you dress. I just want to find my daughter." He touched Joe's arm. It was a loving gesture, and surprised me. "That's why I called Joe. Joe says if anyone can find Karen, it's you. He says you're the best there is at finding people."
Here's the scene: The three of us are by the Olympic-sized pool. The Latina with the thick waist is hovering in the shade of the veranda up by the house, her eyes on Frank in case he might want something, but so far he doesn't and he hasn't offered anything to me. If he did, I would ask for sunblock because standing here next to his pool is like standing on the sun side of Mercury. Gotta be ninety-six and climbing. Behind us is a pool house larger than my home, and through the sliding glass doors I can see a pool table, wet bar, and paintings of vaqueros in the Mexican highlands. It is air-conditioned in there, but apparently Frank would rather sit out here in the nuclear heat. Statues of lions dot the landscape, as motionless as Joe Pike, who has not moved once in the three minutes that I have been there. Pike is wearing a gray sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off, faded Levi's, and flat black pilot's glasses, which is the way he dresses every day of his life. His dark brown hair is cut short, and bright red arrows were tattooed on the outside of his deltoids long before tattoos were au courant. Watching Joe stand there, he reminds me of the world's largest two-legged pit bull.
I said, "We'll do what we can, Mr. Garcia. How long has Karen been missing?"
"Since yesterday. Yesterday morning at ten o'clock. I called the police, but those bastards wouldn't do anything, so I called Joe. I knew he'd help." He parted Joe's arm again.
"The police refused to help?"
"Yeah. Those pricks."
"How old is Karen, Mr. Garcia?"
I glanced, at Pike. Together, we had worked hundreds of missing persons cases, and we both knew why the police had brushed off Frank Garcia.
I said, "A thirty-two-year-old woman has only been missing since yesterday?"
"Yes." Pike's voice was soft.
Frank Garcia twisted in his chair, knowing what I was saying and angry about it.
"What's your point, asking that? You think just because she's a grown woman she'd meet some man and run off without letting anyone know?"
"Adult people do that, Mr. Garcia."
He shoved a piece of yellow legal paper into my hands, and now the nervous eyes were rimmed with frustration, like I was his last best hope and I wasn't going for it, either. "Karen would've called. She would've told me if she had to change her plans. She was gonna go run, then bring me a bowl of machaca, but she never came back. You ask Mrs. Acuna in her building. Mrs. Acuna knows." He said it as though if he could only get it out fast enough, it would become as important to me as it was to him. But then Frank wheeled toward Joe, and now his voice held anger as well as fear. "He's like the goddamned police. He don't want to do anything." He spun back at me, and now you could see the man he had been before he was in the chair, a teenaged gang-banger out of East L.A. with the White Fence gang who had turned his life around and made a fortune. "Sorry I pulled you away from your donuts."
From a million miles away behind the dark glasses, Joe said, "Frank. We're going to help you."
I tried not to look embarrassed, which is hard to do when your face is red. "We'll look for your daughter, Mr. Garcia. I just want you to know that the police have their policy for a reason. Most people we think are missing aren't. Eventually they call or show up, and they're embarrassed that everyone went to so much trouble. You see?"
He didn't look happy about it.
"You know where she was going to run?"
"Somewhere around Hollywood up by the hills. Mrs. Acuna said she was going to this Jungle Juice, one of those little juice places? Mrs. Acuna said she always got one of those things, a smoothie. She offered to bring one back."
"Jungle Juice. Okay, that gives us a place to start." How many Jungle Juices could there be?
Frank was looking more relieved by the second. Like he could breathe again. "I appreciate this, Mr. Cole. I want you to know that I don't care how much this costs. You tell me how much you want, it's yours."
Joe said, "Nothing."
Garcia waved his hands. "No, Joe, c'mon."
I stared at the pool. I would've liked some of Frank Garcia's money just fine.
Garcia took Joe's arm again. "You're a good boy, Joe. You always were." He hung on to Joe's arm as he looked at me. "We know each other since Joe was a policeman. Joe and my Karen, they used to see each other. I was hoping maybe one day this boy might be part of the family."
Joe said, "That was a long time ago." He said it so softly that I could barely hear him.
I smiled. "Joe. You never told me about this."
Joe turned my way, the flat black lenses reflecting sun. "Stop."
I smiled wider and shook my head. That Joe. You learn something every day.
The old man looked up at the sky as the first flecks of ash swirled around us, the flecks catching on his hands and legs. "Look at this mess. The goddamned sky is melting."