James Tyson Connor walked out of his home on a chill fall morning, climbed into a twelve-year-old Volvo, and left for school an hour late. Tyson was a seventeen-year-old junior at an alternative school in the San Fernando Valley. He was thin, nervous, and cursed with soft features and gentle eyes that made him look like a freshman. Nothing about him suggested that Tyson was one of the most wanted felons in Los Angeles.
Tyson and his mother lived in a modest, one-story ranch house not far from his school. I was a block away, waiting for Tyson to leave. His mother had warned me he would be late. Tyson suffered from anxiety issues, and hated going to school. Two prior schools had expelled him for absenteeism and failing grades, so his mother enrolled him at the alternative school to keep him from dropping out. This was a decision she regretted.
His mother called as Tyson drove away.
“Mr. Cole? Are you here?”
“I’ve been here almost two hours, Ms. Connor. The sunrise was lovely.”
“He’s gone. You can come in now.”
Tyson’s mother worked as an office manager for a law firm in Encino. She appeared neat, trim, and ready for work when she opened the door, but carried herself with so much tension she might have been wrapped with duct tape.
I walked up the drive, and offered my hand.
“Devon Connor. Thanks so much for coming, Mr. Cole. I’m sorry he took so long.”
I stepped into her living room, and watched her lock the door. The house smelled of pancakes and fish, and something I didn’t place. A glowing aquarium bubbled beside a couch.
“The new school doesn’t mind, him being so late?”
“With what they charge, they should send a limo.”
She stopped herself, and closed her eyes.
“Sorry. I sound like a bitch.”
“He’s your son. You’re worried.”
“Beyond worried. I moved mountains to get him into this school, and now I feel like I’ve fed him to animals.”
Devon had found money and valuables in Tyson’s room. She believed her son had gotten involved with drug dealers and gangsters, and wanted me to find out what he was doing. I wasn’t sure I wanted the job.
I tried to sound reassuring.
“It probably isn’t as bad as you think, Ms. Connor. These things usually aren’t.”
She studied me like I was stupid, and abruptly turned away.
“Follow me. I’ll show you how bad.”
Tyson’s bedroom was small, and looked like a typical middle-class, teenage boy’s bedroom. A dresser sat opposite a walk-in closet, an unmade bed filled the corner, and his nightstand bristled with soda cans, chip bags, and crumbs. Special Forces operators with glowing green eyes watched us from a recruitment poster above the bed. A desk beneath his window was crowded with a desktop computer, a laptop, three monitors, and an impressive tangle of game controllers.
I said, “He must be a serious gamer.”
“He can’t sit still in school, but he can sit in front of these things for hours.”
She went to the desk, opened the middle side drawer, and took something from the back of it.
“This is how bad it is.”
She held out a watch with a bright white face, three dials, and three knobs on the rim. The distinctive Rolex crown was obvious.
“A Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, made with eighteen-carat white gold. A watch like this sells for forty thousand dollars, new. Even used, they sell for more than twenty. He came home wearing it. I said, this is a Rolex, where’d you get a watch like this?”
Small nicks marred the rim and crystal, but the watch appeared otherwise perfect.
“What did he say?”
She rolled her eyes, and looked disgusted.
“A flea market, can you imagine? He says it’s a knockoff, but I don’t believe it. Does this look like a knockoff to you?”
She pushed the watch closer, so I took it. The body felt heavy and substantial. The hands showed the correct time, and the second hand swept the face with silent precision, but I wasn’t an expert.
“Could it be a gift, and he doesn’t want you to know?”
“Who would give him a gift like this?”
“His father? A grandparent?”
She frowned again, and gave me the ‘you’re stupid’ eyes.
“His father left before Tyson was born, and everyone else is dead. My son should not have this watch. He shouldn’t have anything this expensive, and we have to stop him before he gets himself killed or arrested.”
I tried to tone down the drama.
“Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. If the watch is real, then he shouldn’t have it, but this is the kind of thing a kid might lift if he saw it at a friend’s house. You don’t need a detective if Tyson has sticky fingers.”
The reasonable detective offered a reasonable explanation, but she seemed disappointed.
“There’s so much more than the watch.”
She went to the closet, and reached inside.
“It started with shirts. He didn’t even bother to hide them, like with the watch.”
I said, “Shirts.”
She came out with a sleek black sport coat trimmed with velvet lapels.
“New shirts. Then new shoes turned up, and another new shirt, and this jacket, all from Barneys in Beverly Hills. We can’t afford Barneys.”
Her phone chirped with an incoming text. She checked the message, and slipped the phone back into her pocket.
“Sorry. The school. I text when he leaves, they text when he arrives. It’s how we keep track.”
I fingered the jacket. The fabric felt soft and creamy, like very fine wool. Expensive.
I glanced up, and found her watching me. Waiting.
“Did the clothes come from the same flea market?”
“No, this time a friend’s father runs the wardrobe department at a studio. They get so many free clothes, Tyson can have whatever he wants.”
I didn’t say anything. Devon went on without my prompting.
“I called Barneys. This jacket? Tyson bought it. The salesman remembered because Tyson paid cash. Three thousand dollars, and Tyson paid cash.”
She put the jacket back in the closet, and went to his bed.
“After I found out about Barneys, I searched his room.”
She slid a plastic storage container from under the bed. The container was filled with keyboards, Game Boy and Xbox gear, and action figures. She moved a keyboard, took out a box, and opened it. The box contained a thick roll of cash wrapped by a blue rubber band.
“Four thousand, two hundred dollars. I counted. The first time, he had twenty-three hundred dollars. I found over seven thousand dollars here once. The amount changes.”
I sat back and stared at her. Devon was describing an income stream.
“Did you ask him about the money?”
“If I ask, he’ll lie, just like he lied about the clothes and the watch. I want to know what he’s doing and who he’s doing it with before I confront him.”
“I can ask him.”
“If we ask, he’ll know I snoop, and he’ll still lie. Don’t detectives follow people? You could follow him and see what he does.”
“Following someone is expensive. Asking is cheaper.”
Her mouth pinched, and she glanced away. Worried.
“We should discuss your fee. I have a good job, but I’m not wealthy.”
“Okay. What would you like to know?”
“How much would it cost to follow him?”
“Two cars minimum, one op per car, ready to go twenty-four/seven. Call it three thousand a day.”
She wet her lips, and her eyes lost focus. She was trying to figure out how to come up with the money, and all her options were bad. I had met a hundred parents like Devon, and seen the same fearful confusion in their eyes. Like people who didn’t know how to swim, watching their children drown.
I changed the subject.
“How long has this been going on?”
“Since the beginning of school.”
“And whatever he’s doing, you believe he’s doing it with students from school.”
Her eyes snapped into hard focus.
“Tyson’s never been in trouble. Tyson’s a sweetheart! He stayed home all the time, he never went out, he was afraid of everything, but then he started changing. He met a girl.”
“I was thrilled. Tyson doesn’t meet girls. Tyson’s afraid of girls.”
“Have you met her?”
“He wouldn’t tell me her name. He made friends with a boy named Alec. They go to the mall. I ask questions, but he’s evasive and vague, or makes up more lies. Tyson was never like this. He never used to go to the mall, and now he’s never home.”
Tyson sounded like any other teenage boy, except for the parts about money and watches.
“He met Alec at school?”
“I think so, but I checked the roster.”
She took a slim red booklet from Tyson’s desk. The cover was emblazoned with a soaring bird and the name of the school. Cal-Matrix Alternative Education. Where students soar.
“I didn’t find anyone named Alec or Alexander.”
We weren’t exactly drowning in clues.
I jiggled the watch. An authentic Rolex had serial and model numbers cut into the head behind the bracelet, or on the inner rim below the crystal. High-end fakes often had numbers, too, but fake numbers didn’t appear in the manufacturer’s records.
“Tell you what. I have a friend who knows watches. She can tell us if the watch is real. She might even be able to tell us who owns it.”
“You can’t take it. Tyson might notice.”
I told her about the numbers.
“I’ll take off the bracelet, and copy the numbers. The watch can stay.”
“You won’t have to follow him?”
“We’ll start small to keep the costs down, and see what develops. Sound good?”
Her face brightened, and split with a smile.
I thought about the money and the watch she’d found, and wondered if Tyson had hidden anything else.
“You searched his room, but what about his car?”
“Only twice. When the car’s home, he’s home.”
“If you have a spare key, I’d like it. I’ll check his car after I call in the watch.”
She started away for the key, then hesitated.
“I saw on your website, The Elvis Cole Detective Agency. The website says your work is confidential.”
“Meaning, when we find out what Tyson’s doing, you won’t tell the police?”
“The website doesn’t say anything about depends.”
“If I find a human head in his trunk, I might feel the urge to report it.”
She smiled again, and turned away.
“No human heads, Mr. Cole. Not yet.”
I didn’t like the way she said ‘yet.’
Devon gave me the key and watched me copy the numbers. When the bracelet was back on the watch, she put the watch in the drawer, and we left the house together.
Devon Connor drove away first. She had a long drive in bad traffic ahead, and was already late for work. Alternative schools were expensive, and so were detectives.
I started my car, but I didn’t leave. I pictured the skinny kid with gentle eyes who looked like a freshman. I pictured him sneaking cash into his room, and hiding it under his bed. There were many ways he could have gotten the cash, but none of the ways were good.
Devon’s pleasant, middle-class street was peaceful. No one was trying to murder her, or Tyson, or me, but this was about to change.
Sherri Toyoda and her family owned a watch shop in Santa Monica. The Toyodas sold moderately priced timepieces almost anyone could afford, but their restoration of antique and vintage collectibles had made them legends. Photographs of Sherri’s parents with dignitaries, politicians, and movie stars covered the walls. Three U.S. presidents, eleven senators, and four Supreme Court justices were among their clients.
I checked the numbers from the watch, and called her.
“Yesterday’s bad news?”
Sherri and I used to date.
“I need help with a Rolex.”
“I’ll help if I can, but we’re not an authorized dealer.”
“I’m not shopping. This is a specific Cosmograph Daytona.”
“Sweet! If you can afford a Cosmo, I might date you again.”
Everyone thinks they’re a riot.
“I need to know if it’s genuine.”
“Bring it in. I can tell if it’s real in five seconds.”
“I don’t have the watch. I have the serial and model numbers.”
“Do you have the chronometer certification that came with it?”
“If I knew what a chronometer certification was, the answer would be no. All I have are the numbers.”
She was silent for a moment.
“Okay, listen. I can check your numbers with a friend at the corporate office. If your numbers match his numbers, the watch is authentic.”
“Not so great if it’s stolen. He’ll want to know how I have the numbers, and why I’m asking. Is it?”
“Could be. How would he know?”
“Dude. You buy a watch like this, you’re walking around with twenty or thirty thousand dollars on your wrist. Guess what?”
“They get stolen.”
“Or lost, so the company keeps a list of AWOL watches for their clients. If you lose your watch, you give them the numbers. If your watch turns up, they know you’re the rightful owner, and give you a shout.”
“Meaning, you could find out who owns it?”
“Not necessarily. People sell watches. They give them as gifts. The company doesn’t know.”
“Are you trying to find the owner?”
She thought some more.
“I still might be able to help. Stores activate the warranty when someone buys a watch like this. The original buyer might be in the warranty files. Want me to check?”
“You’re the best, Sherri. Thanks.”
I read off the numbers, and lowered my phone, but I still didn’t leave. Devon had searched Tyson’s room, but she was his mom, and almost certainly missed something. I was a trained professional, and knew where to look. Or maybe I’d get lucky.
I turned off my car, and walked up Devon’s drive for the second time that morning. The side gate squealed, I passed Tyson’s window, and let myself in through the kitchen.
The Connor residence held three bedrooms and two baths. Tyson probably wouldn’t hide something in his mother’s bedroom or bath, so I skipped them, and started in Tyson’s bathroom.
Green streaks of toothpaste highlighted the sink, and the counter was forested with deodorant, mouthwash, zit cream, and all the usual bathroom items. A frazzled toothbrush and disposable razor stood sentry in a plastic X-Men cup. Tyson’s medications were lined up beneath the mirror. The scripts bore Tyson’s name, and were written for medicines commonly used to treat depression, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder. I found nothing out of the ordinary in the cabinets, behind the towels, or in the toilet tank.
The third bedroom was set up as an office, but Devon used it as a catch-all room. Mirrored sliders filled a wall opposite a desk, a file cabinet, and a bookcase jammed with law books, paperback thrillers, and titles like The Unhappy Child, Coping with Fear, and The Single Mother’s Rule Book. Cardboard boxes of Christmas decorations were stacked on a treadmill between the desk and a window, and the desk was heavy with bills, unread magazines, and a file devoted to Tyson’s school. The file contained promotional brochures, articles, and another copy of the roster. I took a brochure and the roster, and moved on to Tyson’s room.