Authors: Robert - Elvis Cole 08 Crais
The woman with the thick waist showed us out through the cool of Frank Garcia's home. Joe's red Jeep Cherokee was parked beneath an elm tree at the curb. My car was parked behind it. Pike and I walked down the drive without speaking until we came to the street, and then Joe said, "Thanks for coming."
"I guess there are worse ways to spend a Sunday. I could be wrestling that damned couch."
Pike canted the glasses my way. "We finish this, I'll move the couch for you."
We left my car where it was, climbed into Pike's Jeep, and went to find Karen Garcia.
Frank Garcia had written his daughter's name, address, and phone number on the yellow sheet, along with a description of Karen's car (a red Mazda RX-7) and her license number (4KBL772). He'd attached a snapshot of Karen laughing about something as she sat at what was probably his dining-room table. She had a brilliant white smile, offset nicely against golden skin and rich black hair. She looked happy.
Joe stared at the photograph as if he were peering through a window at something far away.
I said, "Pretty."
"Yes. She is."
"You had to be seeing her, when, before you knew me?"
His eyes never left the picture. "I knew you, but I was still on the job."
I remember Joe dating back then, but the relationships seemed as they were now, none more important than any other. "I guess you were tight with this girl."
"So what happened?"
Pike handed back the picture. "I broke her heart."
"Oh." Sometimes prying is a lousy idea.
"A few years later she married and moved East to New York. It didn't work out, and now she's back here."
I nodded, still feeling small for prying.
I used Pike's cell phone to call Karen Garcia's number. She didn't answer, but I identified myself to her machine, and asked her to call her father if she got this message. Frank had provided Mrs. Acuna's phone, also, so I called her next, asking if she knew where Karen had gone to run. The dry winds were amping the air with so much static electricity that her voice sounded like bubbling fat, but I understood enough to get that the answer was no. "Is it possible, Mrs. Acuna, that Karen came home, then left again without your seeing her? You know, like maybe she came home long enough to get cleaned up, then went out with friends?"
"You mean yesterday?"
"Yes, ma'am. Yesterday after her run."
"Oh, no. My husband and I live right here by the stairs. Karen lives right above us. When she didn't come back for the machaca, I was so worried. Her father loves my machaca. She always brings him a bowl. I just been up there again, and she still isn't back."
I glanced at Joe. "You see Karen much, Mrs. Acuna? You two chat about things?"
"Oh, yes. She's such a sweet girl. I've known her family since before she was born."
"She say anything to you about maybe getting back together with her ex-husband?"
Pike glanced over.
"No. Oh, no, she doesn't say anything like that. She calls him' the creep.' He's still back in that place." That place. New York.
Still looking at Pike, I shook my head. Pike turned to the window.
"What about other boyfriends?"
"She sees young men. Not a lot, you know, but she's very pretty."
"Okay. Thanks, Mrs. Acuna. I'll probably drop around later on. If Karen happens to come home, would you ask her to phone her father? "
"I'll call him myself."
I ended the call, then looked over at Pike. "You know she's probably with her friends. Probably went to Vegas, or maybe spent all night swing dancing and she's crashing at some guy's."
"Could be. But Frank's worried, and he needs someone to help carry the load."
"You really were close with these people."
Pike went back to staring out the window. Getting him to talk is like pulling your own teeth with pliers.
The information operator told me that there were two Jungle Juice outlets, the original in West Hollywood on Melrose, the second on Barham in Universal City. West Hollywood was closer, so we went there first. Detective work denned by the process of least effort.
The first Jungle Juice was manned by a skinny kid with blue hair and Irish tattoos on his arms, a short girl with a bleach-blond buzz cut, and a guy in his early thirties who looked like he might be president of the local Young Republicans chapter. All three of them had worked yesterday when Karen would've been in, but none of them recognized her picture. The bleach blond worked every weekend and said she would know her if Karen were a regular. I believed her.
The Santa Anas continued to pick up as we drove north to the second Jungle Juice. Palm trees, tall and vulnerable like the necks of giant dinosaurs, took the worst of it. The wind stripped the dead fronds that bunched beneath the crowns and tossed them into streets and yards and onto cars.
It was a few minutes before noon when we reached the second Jungle Juice, just south of Universal Studios. It was set in a narrow strip mall that ran along Barham at the base of the mountains, and was crowded with Sunday shoppers and tourists trying to find the Universal City Walk, even with the wind.
Pike and I stood in line until we reached the counter and showed them the picture of Karen. The girl behind the register, all of eighteen with a clean bright smile and chocolate tan, recognized Karen at once. "Oh, sure, she comes in all the time. She always gets a smoothie after her run."
Pike said, "Was she in yesterday?"
The girl didn't know, and called over a tall African-American kid named Ronnie. Ronnie was a good-looking kid a couple of inches over six feet whose claim to fame was six seconds in a Charmin commercial. "Oh, yeah, she comes in here after her run. That's Karen."
"Did she come in yesterday?"
Now Ronnie squinted at me. "Is she okay?"
"I just want to know if she came in yesterday."
The squint turned into a frown, went to Pike, then grew suspicious. "What is this?"
I showed him the license. He squinted at that, too.
"Your name really Elvis?"
Pike stepped past me until his hips pressed against the counter. Ronnie was maybe an inch taller than Joe, but Ronnie took a fast step back. Joe said, "Did she come hi here or not?" Voice so soft you could barely hear him.
Ronnie shook his head, eyes bugging. "Not yesterday. I worked from opening to six, and she didn't come in. I would've known because we always talk about her run. I jog, too."
"You know where she runs?"
"Sure. She parks down here and runs up the hill there to the reservoir." He gestured across Barham to the hill. Lake Hollywood Drive meandered up through a residential area to the reservoir.
The girl said, "I'm pretty sure I saw her drive past yesterday. Well, it was a little red car. I didn't see her or anything. Just the car."
Ronnie said, "No way. Karen always comes in after the run, and she didn't come in." Like he was disappointed that maybe she had come for the run and not stopped in to see him. "No way."
We thanked them, then went out to the parking lot.
I said, "Well, that's something. She shows up for the run, but she doesn't go in for the smoothie, which is her habit."
Pike walked to the street, then looked back at the parking lot. It was small, and empty of red Mazdas.
He said, "She runs, but maybe she remembers something and doesn't have time to get the smoothie, or she meets someone and they decide to do something else."
"Yeah. Like go to his place for a different kind of smoothie."
Pike looked at me.
He stared up the hill. "You're probably right. If she runs to the reservoir, she probably follows Lake Hollywood up. Let's drive it."
We followed Lake Hollywood Drive past upscale houses that were built in the thirties and forties, then remodeled heavily in the seventies and eighties into everything from homey ranch-styles to contemporary aeries to postmodern nightmares. Like most older Los Angeles neighborhoods (until the land boom went bust), the homes held the energy of change, as if what was here today might evolve into something else tomorrow. Often, that something else was worse, but just as often it was better. There is great audacity in the willingness to change, more than a little optimism, and a serious dose of courage. It was the courage that I admired most, even though the results often made me cringe. After all, the people who come to Los Angeles are looking for change. Everyone else just stays home.
The road switchbacked up the hillside, meandering past houses and mature oaks that shuddered and swayed with the wind. The streets were littered with leaves and branches and old Gelson's Market bags. We crested the ridge, then drove down to the reservoir. It was choppy and muddy from the .wind. We saw no red Mazdas, and no one who looked like Karen Garcia, but we didn't expect to. The hill was there, so you climbed it, and so far I wasn't too worried about things. Karen was probably just waking up at wherever she'd spent the night, and pretty soon she'd go home or collect her messages, and call her father to calm down the old man. The burden of being an only child.
We were halfway down the mountain and thinking about what to do next when a homeless guy with a backpack and bedroll strolled out of a side street and started down the mountain. He was in his mid-thirties, and burned dark by the sun.
I said, "Pull over."
When Pike slowed, the man stopped and considered us. His eyes were red, and you could smell the body odor even with the wind. He said, "I am a master carpenter looking for work, but no job is too small. I will work for cash, or books." He managed a little pride when he said it, but he probably wasn't a master carpenter and he probably wasn't looking for work.
Pike held out Karen's photograph. "Have you seen this woman?"
"No. I am sorry." Every word like that. Without contractions.
"She jogged through the neighborhood yesterday morning. Blue top. Gray shorts."
He leaned forward and examined the picture more closely. "Black ponytail."
Pike said, "Could be."
"She was running uphill, struggling mightily against the forces that would drag her down. A truck slowed beside her, then sped away. I was listening to Mr. Dave Matthews at the time." He had a Sony Discman suspended from his belt, the earphones hanging loose at his neck.
I said, "What kind of truck?"
He stepped back and looked over Pike's Cherokee.
"A red Jeep like this?"
He shrugged. "I think it was this one, but it might've been another."
The corner of Pike's mouth twitched. In all the years I had known him, I have never seen Pike smile, but sometimes you'll get the twitch. For Pike, that's him busting a gut.
I said, "You see the driver?"
He pointed at Pike. "Him."
Pike looked away, and sighed.
The homeless man peered at us hopefully. "Would you have a small job that needs a careful craftsman? I am available, don't you know?"
I gave him ten bucks. "What's your name?"
"Edward Deege, Master Carpenter."
"Okay, Edward. Thanks."
"No job too small."
"Hey, Edward. We want to talk to you again, you around?"
"I am but a Dixie cup on the stream of life, but, yes, I enjoy the reservoir. I can often be found there."
"Okay, Edward. Thanks."
Edward Deege peered at Pike some more, then stepped back, as if troubled. "Release your rage, my friend. Rage kills."
Pike pulled away.
I said, "You think he saw anything, or he was just scam-mingus?"
"He was right about the ponytail. Maybe he saw a four-wheel-drive."
We followed Lake Hollywood Drive down to Barham, and when we turned left toward the freeway, Pike said, "Elvis."
Karen Garcia's red Mazda RX-7 was parked behind a flower shop on this side of Barham, opposite the Jungle Juice. We hadn't seen it when we were at the Jungle Juice because it was behind a building across the street. We couldn't see it until we were coming down, and I wished then that it wasn't there to see.
Pike turned into the parking lot, and we got out. The Mazda's engine was cool, as if it had been parked here a very longtime.
"Been here all night."
"If she went up to run, that means she never came down." I looked back up the hill.
Pike said, "Or she didn't leave by herself."
"She's running, she meets some guy, and they use his car. She's probably on her way back to pick up the Mazda now." I said it, but neither of us believed it.
We asked the people at the flower shop if they had seen anything, but they hadn't. We asked every shopkeeper in the strip mall and most of the employees, but they all said no. I hoped they had seen something to indicate that Karen was safe, but deep down, where your blood runs cold, I knew they hadn't.