It was plant day in the City of Angels. On plant day I gather the plants that I keep in my office and take them out onto the little balcony I have overlooking West Los Angeles, where I clean and water and feed them, and then spend the remainder of the afternoon wondering why my plants are more yellow than green. A friend who knows plants once told me that I was giving them too much water, so I cut their rations in half. When the plants turned soft as well as yellow, another friend said that I was still drowning them, so I cut their water in half again. The plants died. I bought new plants and stopped asking other people's advice. Yellow plants are my curse.
I was sneering at all the yellow when Lucy Chenier said, "I don't think I'll be able to get away until much later, Elvis. I'm afraid we've lost the afternoon."
"Oh?" I was using a new cordless phone to talk to Lucille Chenier from the balcony as I worked on the plants. It was in the low eighties, the air quality was good, and a cool breeze rolled up Santa Monica Boulevard to swirl through the open French doors into my office. Cindy, the woman in the office next to mine, saw me on the balcony and made a little finger wave. Cindy was wearing a bright white dress shirt tied at the belly and a full-length sarong skirt. I was wearing Gap jeans, a silk Tommy Bahama shirt, and a Bianchi shoulder holster replete with Dan Wesson .38-caliber revolver. The shoulder holster was new, so I was wearing it around the office to break in the leather.
Lucy said, "Tracy wants me to meet the vice president of business affairs, but he's tied up with the sales department until five." Tracy was Tracy Mannos, the station manager of KROK television. Lucy Chenier was an attorney in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but she had been offered a job by KROK here in Los Angeles. She had come out for three days to discuss job possibilities and contract particulars, and tonight was her last night. We had planned to spend the afternoon at the Mexican marketplace on Olvera Street in downtown LA. Los Angeles was founded there, and the marketplace is ideal for strolling and holding hands.
"Don't worry about it, Luce. Take all the time you need." She hadn't yet decided if she would take the job, but I very much wanted it to happen.
"Are you sure?"
"Sure, I'm sure. How about I pick you up at six? We can go for an early dinner at Border Grill, then back to the house to pack." Border Grill was Lucy's favorite.
"You're a dream, kiddo. Thanks."
"Or, I could drive over and pull the veep out of his meeting at gunpoint. That might work."
"True, but he might hold it against me in the negotiation."
"You lawyers. All you think about is money."
I was telling Lucy how rotten my plants looked when the outer door opened and three children stepped into my office. I cupped the receiver and called, "Out here."
The oldest was a girl with long dark hair and pale skin and little oval glasses. I made her for fifteen, but she might have been older. A younger boy trailed in behind her, pulling a much smaller girl. The boy was wearing oversized baggy shorts and Air Nike sneakers. He looked sullen. The younger girl was wearing an X-Files T-shirt. I said, "I'm being invaded."
Lucy said, "Tracy just looked in. I have to go."
The older girl came to the French doors. "Are you Mr. Cole?"
I held up a finger, and the girl nodded. "Luce, don't worry about how long it takes. If you run late, it's okay."
"You're such a doll."
"Meetcha outside the building at six."
Lucy made kissy sounds and I made kissy sounds back. The girl pretended not to hear, but the boy muttered something to the younger girl. She giggled. I have never thought of myself as the kissy-sound type of per-son, but since I've known Lucy I've been doing and saying all manner of silly things. That's love for you.
When I turned off the phone, the older girl was frowning at my plants. "When they're yellow it means they get too much sun."
Everyone's an expert.
"Maybe you should consider cactus. They're hard to kill."
"Thanks for the advice."
The girl followed me back into my office. The younger girl was sitting on the couch, but the boy was inspecting the photographs and the little figurines of Jiminy Cricket that I keep on my desk. He squinted at everything with disdain, and he carried himself with a kind of round-shouldered skulk. I wanted to tell him to stand up straight. I said, "What's up, guys? How can I help you?" Maybe they were selling magazine subscriptions.
The older girl said, "Are you Elvis Cole, the private investigator?"
"Yes, I am." The boy snuck a glance at the Dan Wesson, then eyed the Pinocchio clock that hangs on the wall above the file cabinet. The clock has eyes that move from side to side as it tocks and is a helluva thing to watch.
She said, "Your ad in the Yellow Pages said you find missing people."
"That's right. I'm having a special this week. I'll find two missing people for the price of one." Maybe she was writing a class report: A Day in the Life of the World's Greatest Detective.
She stared at me. Blank.
"I'm kidding. That's what we in the trade call private-eye humor."
The boy coughed once, but he wasn't really coughing. He was saying "Asshole" and masking it with the cough. The younger girl giggled again.
I looked at him hard. "How's that?"
The boy went sullen and floated back to my desk. He looked like he wanted to steal something. I said, "Come away from there."
"I didn't do anything."
"I want you on this side of the desk."
The older girl said, "Charles." Warning him. I guess he was like this a lot.
"Jeez." He skulked back to the file cabinet, and snuck another glance at the Dan Wesson. "What kind of gun is that?"
"It's a Dan Wesson thirty-eight-caliber revolver."
"How many guys you kill?"
"I'm thinking about adding another notch right now."
The older girl said, "Charles, please." She looked back at me. "Mr. Cole, my name is Teresa Haines. This is my brother, Charles, and our sister, Winona. Our father has been missing for eleven days, and we'd like you to find him."
I stared at her. I thought it might be a joke, but she didn't look as if she was joking. I looked at the boy, and then at the younger girl, but they didn't appear to be joking either. The boy was watching me from the corner of his eye, and there was a kind of expectancy under the attitude. Winona was all big saucer eyes and unabashed hope. No, they weren't kidding. I went behind my desk, then thought better of it and came around to sit in one of the leather director's chairs opposite the couch. Mr. Informal. Mr. Unthreatening. "How old are you, Ms. Haines?"
"I'm fifteen, but I'll be sixteen in two months. Charles is twelve, and Winona is nine. Our father travels often, so we're used to being on our own, but he's never been gone this long before, and we're concerned."
Charles made the coughing sound again, and this time he said, "Prick." Only this time he wasn't talking about me.
I nodded. "What does your father do?"
"He's in the printing business."
"Unh-hunh. And where's your mother?"
"She died five and a half years ago in an automobile accident."
Charles said, "A friggin' drunk driver." He was scowling at the picture of Lucy Chenier on my file cabinet, and he didn't bother to look over at me when he said it. He drifted from Lucy back to the desk, and now he was sniffing around the Mickey Mouse phone.
I said, "So your father's been gone for eleven days, he hasn't called, and you don't know when he's coming back."
"Do you know where he went?"
Charles smirked. "If we knew that, he wouldn't be missing, would he?"
I looked at him, but this time I didn't say anything. "Tell me, Ms. Haines. How did you happen to choose me?"
"You worked on the Teddy Martin murder." Theodore Martin was a rich man who had murdered his wife.
I was hired by his defense attorneys to work on his behalf, but it hadn't gone quite the way Teddy had hoped. I'd been on local television and in the Times because of it. "I looked up the newspapers in the library and read about you, and then I found your ad in the Yellow Pages."
"Resourceful." My friend Patty Bell was a licensed social worker with the county. I was thinking that I could call her.
Teri Haines took a plain legal envelope from her back pocket and showed it to me. "I wrote down his birth date and a description and some things like that." She put it on the coffee table between us. "Will you find him for us?"
I looked at the envelope, but did not touch it. It was two-fifteen on a weekday afternoon, but these kids weren't in school. Maybe I would call a lieutenant I know with the LAPD Juvenile Division. Maybe he would know what to do.
Teresa Haines leaned toward me and suddenly looked thirty years old. "I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that we're just kids, but we have the money to pay you." She pulled a cheap red wallet from her front pocket, then fanned a deck of twenties and fifties and hundreds that was thick enough to stop a 9mm Parabellum. There had to be two thousand dollars. Maybe three. "You see? All you have to do is name your price."
Charles said, "Jeezis Christ, Teri, don't tell'm that! He'll clean us out!" Charles had moved from the Mickey phone and now he was fingering the Jiminys again. Maybe I could handcuff him to the couch.
Teri was looking at me. "Well?"
"Where'd you get the money?"
Her right eye flickered, but she did not look away. "Daddy leaves it for us. It's what we live on."
Teresa Haines's hair hung loosely below her shoulders and appeared clean and well kept. Her face was heart-shaped, and a couple of pimples had sprouted on her chin, but she didn't seem self-conscious about them. She appeared well nourished and in good health, as did her brother and sister. Maybe she was making all of this up. Maybe the whole thing was their idea of a joke. I said, "Have you called the police?"
"Oh no." She said it quickly.
"If my father was missing, I would."
She shook her head.
"It's what they do, and they won't charge you. I usually get around two grand."
Charles yelled, "Ripoff!" A small framed picture fell when he said it, and knocked over three Jiminy figurines. He scuttled toward the door. "I didn't do anything. Jeezis."
Teresa straightened herself. "We don't want to involve the police, Mr. Cole." You could tell she was struggling to be calm. You could see that it was an effort.
"If your father has been gone for eleven days and you haven't heard from him, you should call the police. They'll help you. You don't have to be afraid of them."
She shook her head. "The police will call Children's Services, and they'll take us away."
I tried to look reassuring. "They'll just make sure that you guys are safe, that's all. I may have to call them myself." I spread my hands and smiled, Mr. Nothing-to-Be-Afraid-of-Here, only Teri Haines didn't buy it. Her eyes cooled, growing flinty and hard and shallow with fear.
Teresa Haines slowly stood. Winona stood with her. "Your ad said confidential." Like an accusation.
Charles said, "He's not gonna do frig." Like they'd had this discussion before they came, and now Charles had been proven right.
"Look, you guys are children. You shouldn't be by yourselves." Saying it made me sound like an adult, but sounding that way made me feel small.
Teresa Haines put the money back in the wallet and the wallet back in her pocket. She put the envelope in her pocket, too. "I'm sorry we bothered you."
I said, "C'mon, Teresa. It's the right way to play it."
Charles coughed, "Eat me."
There was a flurry of fast steps, and then Teresa and Charles and Winona were gone. They didn't bother to close the door.
I looked at my desk. One of the little Jiminys was gone, too.
I listened to Cindy's radio, drifting in from the balcony. The Red Hot Chili Peppers were singing "Music Is My Aeroplane." I pressed my lips together and let my breath sigh from the corners of my mouth.
"Well, moron, are you just going to let them walk out of here?" Maybe I said it, or maybe it was Pinocchio.
I pulled on a jacket to cover the Dan Wesson, ran down four flights to the lobby, then out to the street in time to see them pull away from the curb in a metallic green Saturn. The legal driving age in the state of California is sixteen, but Teresa was driving. It didn't surprise me.
I ran back through the lobby and down to the parking level and drove hard up out of the building, trying to spot their car. A guy in a six-wheel truck that said leon's fish almost broadsided me as I swung out onto Santa Monica Boulevard, and sat on his horn.
I was so focused on trying to spot the Saturn that I didn't yet see the man who was following me, but I would before long.
Teresa Haines's Saturn turned south past the West Hollywood Sheriff's Station, then east onto Melrose. I didn't careen through oncoming traffic to cut her off, and I didn't shoot out her tires. Teri Haines was driving just fine, and I wasn't sure what to do if I stopped them. Hold them at gunpoint for the police?
Fairfax High School was just letting out, and the sidewalks were dotted with boys toting book bags and skateboards, and girls flashing navel rings. Most of the kids were about Teri's age, some younger, some older, only these kids were in school and she wasn't. Charles leaned out of the passenger-side window and flipped off a knot of kids standing at the bus stop. Three of the kids gave back the finger, and somebody threw what appeared to be a Coke can which hit the Saturn's rear wheel.
Teri cruised along Melrose past hypermodern clothing outlets and comic-book shops and tour groups from Asia until she turned south onto a narrow residential street. Modest stucco houses lined the street, and the curbs were jammed with parked cars. Some of the cars probably went with the houses, but most belonged to people who'd come to shop on Melrose. I stopped at the corner and watched. The Saturn crept halfway down the next block, then turned into the drive of a yellow bungalow with an orange tile roof and a single royal palm in the yard. The three Haines children climbed out of the car and disappeared into the bungalow. Retreating to familiar territory after an unsuccessful meeting with the detective.