"You want to work out? I could show you another tae kwon do kata
before your mom gets home."
I said, "You want to talk about me and your mom?"
I am a private investigator. My work brings me into contact with dangerous
people, and early last summer that danger rolled over my shores when a
murderer named Laurence Sobek threatened Lucy and Ben. Lucy was having
a tough time with that, and Ben had heard our words. Lucy and Ben's father
had divorced when Ben was six, and now he worried that it was happening
again. We had tried to talk to him, Lucy and I, but boys-like men-find
it hard to open their hearts.
Instead of answering me, Ben thumbed the game harder and nodded toward
the action on the screen.
"Check it out. This is the Queen of Blame."
A young Asian woman with spiky hair, breasts the size of casaba melons,
and an angry snarl jumped over a Dumpster to face three musclebound steroid-juicers
in what appeared to be a devastated urban landscape. A tiny halter barely
covered her breasts, sprayed-on shorts showed her butt cheeks, and her
voice growled electronically from the Game Freak's little speaker.
"You're my toilet!"
She let loose with a martial arts sidekick that spun the first attacker
into the air.
I said, "Some woman."
"Uh-huh. A bad guy named Modus sold her sister into slavery, and now the
Queen is going to make him pay the ultimate price."
The Queen of Blame punched a man three times her size with left and rights
so fast that her hands blurred. Blood and teeth flew everywhere.
"Eat fist, scum!"
I spotted a pause button on the controls, and stopped the game. Adults
always wonder what to say and how to say it when they're talking with
a child. You want to be wise, but all you are is a child yourself in a
larger body. Nothing is ever what it seems. The things that you think
you know are never certain. I know that, now. I wish that I didn't, but
I said, "I know that what's going on between me and your mom is scary.
I just want you to know that we're going to get through this. Your mom
and I love each other. We're going to be fine."
"She loves you. I love you, too."
Ben stared at the frozen screen for a little while longer, and then he
looked up at me. His little-boy face was smooth and thoughtful. He wasn't
stupid; his mom and dad loved him, too, but that hadn't stopped them from
"I had a really good time staying with you. I wish I didn't have to leave."
"Me, too, pal. I'm glad you were here."
Ben smiled, and I smiled back. Funny, how a moment like that could fill
a man with hope. I patted his leg.
"Here's the plan: Mom's going to get back soon. We should clean the place
so she doesn't think we're pigs, then we should get the grill ready so
we're good to go with dinner when she gets home. Burgers okay?"
"Can I finish the game first? The Queen of Blame is about to find Modus."
"Sure. How about you take her out onto the deck? She's pretty loud."
I went back into the kitchen, and Ben took the Queen and her breasts outside.
Even that far away, I heard her clearly. "Your face is pizza!" Then her
victim shrieked in pain.
should have heard more. I should have listened even harder.
Less than three minutes later, Lucy called from her car. It was twenty-two
minutes after four. I had just taken the hamburger meat from my refrigerator.
I said, "Hey. Where are you?"
"Long Beach. Traffic's good, so I'm making great time. How are you guys
Lucy Chenier was a legal commentator for a local television station. Before
that, she had practiced civil law in Baton Rouge, which is what she was
doing when we met. Her voice still held the hint of a French-Louisiana
accent, but you had to listen closely to hear it. She had been in San
Diego covering a trial.
"We're good. I'm getting hamburgers together for when you get here."
"He was feeling low today, but we talked. He's better now. He misses you."
We fell into a silence that lasted too long. Lucy had phoned every night,
and we laughed well enough, but our exchanges felt incomplete though we
tried to pretend they weren't.
It wasn't easy being hooked up with the World's Greatest Detective.
Finally, I said, "I missed you."
"I missed you, too. It's been a long week. Hamburgers sound really good.
Cheeseburgers. With lots of pickles."
She sounded tired. But she also sounded as if she was smiling.
"I think we can manage that. I got your pickle for ya right here."
Lucy laughed. I'm the World's Funniest Detective, too.
She said, "How can I pass up an offer like that?"
"You want to speak with Ben? He just went outside."
"That's all right. Tell him that I'm on my way and that I love him, and
then you can tell yourself that I love you, too."
We hung up and I went out onto the deck to pass along the good word, but
the deck was empty. I went to the rail. Ben liked to play on the slope
below my house and climb in the black walnut trees that grow further down
the hill. More houses were nestled beyond the trees on the streets that
web along the hillsides. The deepest cuts in the canyon were just beginning
to purple, but the light was still good. I didn't see him.
He didn't answer.
"Hey, buddy! Mom called!"
He still didn't answer.
I checked the side of the house, then went back inside and called him
again, thinking maybe he had gone to the guest room where he sleeps or
"Yo, Ben! Where are you?"
I looked in the guest room and the downstairs bathroom, then went out
the front door into the street. I live on a narrow private road that winds
along the top of the canyon. Cars rarely pass except when my neighbors
go to and from work, so it's a safe street, and great for skateboarding.
I didn't see him. I went back inside the house. "Ben! That was Mom on
I thought that might get an answer. The Mom Threat.
"If you're hiding, this is a problem. It's not funny."
I went upstairs to my loft, but didn't find him. I went downstairs again
to the deck.
My nearest neighbor had two little boys, but Ben never went over without
first telling me. He never went down the slope or out into the street
or even into the carport without first letting me know, either. It wasn't
his way. It also wasn't his way to pull a David Copperfield and disappear.
I went back inside and phoned next door. I could see Grace Gonzalez's
house from my kitchen window.
"Grace? It's Elvis next door."
Like there might be another Elvis further up the block.
"Hey, bud. How's it going?"
Grace calls me bud. She used to be a stuntwoman until she married a stuntman
she met falling off a twelve-story building and retired to have two boys.
"Is Ben over there?"
"Nope. Was he supposed to be?"
"He was here a few minutes ago, but now he's not. I thought he might have
gone to see the boys."
Grace hesitated, and her voice lost its easygoing familiarity for something
"Let me ask Andrew. They could have gone downstairs without me seeing."
Andrew was her oldest, who was eight. His younger brother, Clark, was
six. Ben told me that Clark liked to eat his own snot.
I checked the time again. Lucy had called at four twenty-two; it was now
four thirty-eight. I brought the phone out onto my deck, hoping to see
Ben trudging up the hill, but the hill was empty.
Grace came back on the line.
"My guys haven't seen him. Let me look out front. Maybe he's in the street."
voice carried clearly across the bend in the canyon that separated our
homes when she called him, and then she came back on the line.
"I can see pretty far both ways, but I don't see him. You want me to come
over there and help you look?"
"You've got your hands full with Andrew and Clark. If he shows up, will
you keep him there and call me?"
I turned off the phone, and stared down into the canyon. The slope was
not steep, but he could have taken a tumble or fallen from a tree. I left
the phone on the deck and worked my way down the slope. My feet sank into
the loose soil, and footing was poor.
"Ben! Where in hell are you?"
Walnut trees twisted from the hillside like gnarled fingers, their
trunks gray and rough. A lone yucca tree grew in a corkscrew among the
walnuts with spiky leaves like green-black starbursts. The rusted remains
of a chain-link fence were partially buried by years of soil movement.
The largest walnut tree pushed out of the ground beyond the fence with
five heavy trunks that spread like an opening hand. I had twice climbed
in the tree with Ben, and we had talked about building a tree house between
the spreading trunks.
I listened hard. I took a deep breath, exhaled, then held my breath. I
heard a faraway voice.
I imagined him further down the slope with a broken leg. Or worse.
I followed the voice through the trees and around a bulge in the finger,
certain that I would find him, but as I went over the hump I heard the
voice more clearly and knew that it wasn't his. The Game Freak was waiting
for me in a nest of stringy autumn grass. Ben was gone.
I called as loudly as I could.
No answer came except for the sound of my own thundering heart and the
Queen's tinny voice. She had finally found Modus, a great fat giant of
a man with a bullet head and pencil-point eyes. She launched kick after
kick, punch after punch, screaming her vow of vengeance as the two of
them fought in an endless loop through a blood-drenched room.
"Now you die! Now you die! Now you die!"
I held the Queen of Blame close, and hurried back up the hill.
time missing: 00 hours, 21 minutes
The sun was dropping. Shadows pooled in the deep cuts between the
ridges as if the canyon was filling with ink. I left a note in the middle
of the kitchen floor: STAY HERE-I'M LOOKING FOR U, then drove down through
the canyon, trying to find him.
If Ben had sprained an ankle or twisted a knee, he might have hobbled
downhill instead of making the steep climb back to my house; he might
have knocked on someone's door for help; he might be limping home on his
own. I told myself, sure, that had to be it. Ten-year-old boys don't simply
When I reached the street that follows the drainage below my house, I
parked and got out. The light was fading faster and the murk made it difficult
to see. I called for him.
If Ben had come downhill, he would have passed beside one of three
houses. No one was home at the first two, but a housekeeper answered at
the third. She let me look in their backyard, but watched me from the
windows as if I might steal the pool toys. Nothing. I boosted myself to
see over a cinder-block wall into the neighboring yards, but he wasn't
there, either. I called him again.
I went back to my car. It was all too easy and way too likely that we
would miss each other; as I drove along one street, Ben might turn down
another. By the time I was on that street, he could reappear behind me,
but I didn't know what else to do.
Twice I waved down passing security patrols to ask if they had seen a
boy matching Ben's description. Neither had, but they took my name and
number, and offered to call if they found him.
I drove faster, trying to cover as much ground as possible before the
sunset. I crossed and recrossed the same streets, winding through the
canyon as if it was me who was lost and not Ben. The streets were brighter
the higher I climbed, but a chill haunted the shadows. Ben was wearing
a sweatshirt over jeans. It didn't seem enough.
When I reached home, I called out again as I let myself in, but still
got no answer. The note that I left was untouched, and the message counter
I phoned the dispatch offices of the private security firms that service
the canyon, including the company that owned the two cars I had already
spoken to. Their cars prowled the canyons every day around the clock,
and the companies' signs were posted as a warning to burglars in front
of almost every house. Welcome to life in the city. I explained that a
child was missing in the area and gave them Ben's description. Even though
I wasn't a subscriber, they were happy to help.
When I put down the phone, I heard the front door open and felt a spike
of relief so sharp that it was painful.
Lucy came into the living room. She was wearing a black business suit
over a cream top, but she was carrying the suit jacket; her pants were
wrinkled from so long in the car. She was clearly tired, but she made
a weak smile.
"Hey. I don't smell hamburgers."
It was two minutes after six. Ben had been missing for exactly one hundred
minutes. It had taken Lucy exactly one hundred minutes to get home after
we last spoke. It had taken me one hundred minutes to lose her son.
Lucy saw the fear in my face. Her smile dropped.
She glanced around as if Ben might be hiding behind the couch, giggling
at the joke. She knew it wasn't a joke. She could see that I was serious.
"What do you mean, missing?"
Explaining felt lame, as if I was making excuses.
"He went outside around the time you called, and now I can't find him.
I called, but he didn't answer. I drove all over the canyon, looking for
him, but I didn't see him. He isn't next door. I don't know where he is."
She shook her head as if I had made a frustrating mistake, and was getting
the story wrong.
"He just left?"
I showed her the Game Freak as if it was evidence.
"I don't know. He was playing with this when he went out. I found it on
Lucy stalked past me and went outside onto the deck.
"Ben! Benjamin, you answer me! Ben!"
"Luce, I've been calling him."
She stalked back into the house and disappeared down the hall.
"He's not here. I called the security patrols. I was just going to
call the police."
She came back and went right back onto the deck.
"Damnit, Ben, you'd better answer me!"
I stepped out behind her and took her arms. She was shaking. She turned
into me, and we held each other. Her voice was small and guilty against
"Do you think he ran away?"
"No. No, he was fine, Luce. He was okay after we talked. He was laughing
at this stupid game."
told her that I thought he had probably hurt himself when he was playing
on the slope, then gotten lost trying to find his way back.
"Those streets are confusing down there, the way they snake and twist.
He probably just got turned around, and now he's too scared to ask someone
for help; he's been warned about strangers enough. If he got on the wrong
street and kept walking, he probably got farther away, and more lost.
He's probably so scared right now that he hides whenever a car passes,
but we'll find him. We should call the police."
Lucy nodded against me, wanting to believe, and then she looked at the
canyon. Lights from the houses were beginning to sparkle.
She said, "It's getting dark."
That single word: Dark. It summoned every parent's greatest dread.
I said, "Let's call. The cops will light up every house in the canyon
until we find him."
As Lucy and I stepped back into the house, the phone rang. Lucy jumped
even more than me.
I answered the phone, but the voice on the other end didn't belong to
Ben or Grace Gonzalez or the security patrols.
A man said, "Is this Elvis Cole?"
"Yes. Who's this?"
The voice was cold and low.
He said, "Five-two."
"Who is this?"
"Five-two, motherfucker. You remember five-two?"
Lucy plucked my arm, hoping that it was about Ben. I shook my head, telling
her I didn't understand, but the sharp fear of bad memories was already
I gripped the phone with both hands. I needed both to hang on.
"Who is this? What are you talking about?"
"This is payback, you bastard. This is for what you did."
I held the phone even tighter, and heard myself shout.
"What did I do? What are you talking about?"
"You know what you did. I have the boy."
The line went dead.
Lucy plucked harder.
"Who was it? What did they say?"
I didn't feel her. I barely heard her. I was caught in a yellowed photo
album from my own past, flipping through bright green pictures of another
me, a much different me, and of young men with painted faces, hollow eyes,
and the damp sour smell of fear.
Lucy pulled harder.
"Stop it! You're scaring me."
was a man, I don't know who. He says he took Ben."
Lucy grabbed my arm with both hands.
"Ben was stolen? He was kidnapped? What did the man say? What does
My mouth was dry. My neck cramped with painful knots.
"He wants to punish me. For something that happened a long time ago."
Excerpted from The Last Detective by Robert Crais
Copyrightę 2003 by Robert Crais. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday,
a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this
excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from
Now, in The
Last Detective, Crais returns to his signature character, Los Angeles
private investigator Elvis Cole, in a masterful page-turner that probes
the meaning of family and the burdens of the past.
relationship with attorney Lucy Chenier is strained. When she moved from
Louisiana to join Elvis in Los Angeles, she never dreamed that violence
would so easily touch her life -- but then the unthinkable happens. While
Lucy is away on business and her ten-year-old son, Ben, is staying with
Elvis, Ben disappears without a trace. Desperate to believe that the boy
has run away, evidence soon mounts to suggest a much darker scenario.
with his enigmatic partner, Joe Pike, Elvis frantically searches for Ben
with the help of LAPD Detective Carol Starkey, as Lucy's wealthy, oil-industry
ex-husband attempts to wrest control of the investigation. Amid the maelstrom
of personal conflicts, Elvis and Joe are forced to consider a more troubling
lead -- one indicating that Ben's disappearance is connected to a terrible,
long-held secret from Elvis Cole's past.
deep inside a complex psyche, Crais explores Elvis's need for family -
the military that embraced him during a troubled adolescence, his rock-solid
partnership with Pike, and his floundering relationship with Lucy - as
they race the clock in their search for Ben. The Last Detective
is Robert Crais' richest, most intense tale of suspense yet.
Crais was born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, among a family
of cops (three uncles and two cousins are, or were, police officers) before
moving west to LA in the 1970s. Crais has written TV scripts for Hill
Street Blues, Cagney and Lacey, Miami Vice and L.A.Law. His first
novel, The Monkey's Raincoat won both an Anthony Award and a Macavity
Award. He now lives in Santa Monica mountains with his wife and daughter.