My 1996 station wagon squeaked to a stop in front of the house. It really needed a lube job, and I suspected a brake job; I did not even dream about getting my AC fixed this year. I looked down at my phone, then up at the pony express box and confirmed I was in the right place. These people had some real money; this was both one of the oldest and most expensive neighborhoods in Orlando, and somehow I had been asked to come and investigate a theft. Walking up the sidewalk I automatically added another zero to my retainer cost and hoped it would not sour the deal.
The lady of the house opened the door before I could ring the bell (I was sorry about this because I really wanted to hear the doorbell; I bet it was one of those big gonging things like the Addams Family).I followed Mrs. Lafluer into the house, which from the short tour of the digs the inside matched the outside in that it was highbrow and expensive.
“I do not believe I have ever met a Private Investigator before,” the very distinguished looking grey-haired man said, rising from the sofa and extending his hand.
“And I am sure I have never met a brain surgeon before,” I said, shaking his hand. It was warm and firm, and I wondered how many brains these fingers had touched.
“We prefer Neurosurgeons, it shows you have an open mind.”
I heard his wife groan at his joke; it was one I am sure she had heard a couple thousand times. I supposed old married couples do that, but I did not have any personal experience with it; my mother’s longest relationship was with a couch she had for fifteen years. They motioned for me to sit, and we got right down to the case.
“We had a break in last month.”
My face must have shown some shock and Mrs. Lafluer noticed. “Oh, it was an organized ring, they broke into a series of houses around here, but they were caught last week.”
“I had not heard anything about it.”
Doctor Lafluer. “It was kept quiet, and they’re still trying to recover some property.”
“No all of ours was recovered waiting to be sold.” Confusion must have shown on my face. “Everything except one item,” the doctor added.
“And what was the one item?” I asked.
“It was a collectible, a family memento really.”
I nodded and then volunteered, “Something connected to Disney?”
The couple nodded, then Mrs. Lafluer spoke up, “It would probably be easier to show you.” The three of us rose and I followed them to an upstairs hallway. I noted several framed collages of what appeared to be Disney ticket stubs, park maps and small souvenirs, all mounted tastefully behind glass.
“One is missing,” I noted motioning to a spot on the wall that was slightly discolored. The void had once held a similarly large sized collection I guessed.
“Yes, that one had opening day memorabilia from Hollywood Studios.” I nodded and Dr. Lafluer continued. “My daughter was working there opening day as was our future son in law Justin. They each received opening day pins and assorted things that they both saved. When they got married, we framed it all and gave it to them as a wedding present.”
“I see,” I replied. “And it was taken in the burglary but was not recovered with your other things.”
“And you want me to see if I can find the collection.”
They both nodded eagerly.
“Well folks, this is kind of a tricky thing, if those pieces are valuable to a collector the collage might have been broken up already. If I take the case, there is no guarantee I will be able to recover any of the pieces.”
Dr. Lafluer nodded and spoke in a serious tone. “Son there are no guarantees in life, the only thing we can do is try. We are just asking you to try.”
I nodded back. I quoted my price and they agreed to it easily enough, then they gave me a check for my retainer along with a folder containing detailed descriptions and pictures of all the framed items. I left the house promising to update them daily. Halfway to my car I was kicking myself for not asking for more, but a deal was a deal. Rich clients… someday I was going ask for too much and be thrown out on my ear. But not today.
My first stop was the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, Property Crimes Division. I caught up with a buddy and told him I was working the case, he moaned about the paperwork of the recovery, tagging and categorizing all the recovered property.
I usually don’t have much sympathy for flat foots when they complain about shuffling papers. They knew it was in the job when they took it, but I humored him and listened. It was about a half an hour of his belly aching before I got to the crux of the matter of the missing keepsakes. He said there were two problems with that case: one, the LaFleurs did not discover the missing frame until a day after the initial report and in the other burglaries nothing like the memorabilia had been taken.
The other was that the crew that had done the burglaries only took cash, jewelry, and some easily stolen high end appliances, but no paintings, collectibles or things of that nature. My buddy had interviewed the guy that turned on his co-conspirators (there is no honor among thieves), and he had told them the deal: fast cash, easily sold things that were hard to trace.
I drove away from the Sheriff’s office with more questions than before.
Why the collection? Why the delay in reporting? If it was the 2nd story crew, had one of them taken a personal fancy to the piece?
I needed to know more about the items stolen, maybe I was missing something, maybe those pieces were more valuable then any of us knew. Time to consult an expert.
Tuesday, that meant I had to go to Epcot.
Epcot, a park that was utterly different than Walt’s vision for his world. The name itself stood for Experimental Prototype of Community of Tomorrow, and it was meant to be a planned community with underground roads, incredible public transportation and beautiful landscaping.
Now Epcot was simply a theme park, a thrilling and educational one, but when boiled down, a theme park. One of the biggest ‘what ifs’ in Disney history, mostly because it was Walt’s last big proposed project.
Personally, I had my own ideas, and they were just as valid as anyone else’s, meaning pure malarkey.
My expert was at Epcot so that is where I went. He was a man of strict habits; looking at my watch I knew he would be somewhere in the International region of the park, either Germany or Italy.
After walking past China, which was the closest I would ever get to the real place, I kept my peepers open; my expert would most likely be sitting at a table with his laptop.
Predictably I found him in the sit-down restaurant in Italy, a few empty dishes around him which I am sure he had instructed the staff not to take away. He was a great tipper and so for him to monopolize a table, while annoying, was made up for with cold hard cash. He was also my oldest friend.
I had met Danny Deww a long time ago when we were both kids. His relatives did not know what to do with a 12 year old genius who loved Disney, so they dumped him off in the park with a credit card and annual pass. My mom would do the same thing, but with no credit card and never enough cash in my pocket to feed me. So, one day when borrowing snacks off people’s parked strollers I met Danny. We literally ran into one another. There were other kids like me who ran in packs around property and somehow, he had run afoul of them and they were chasing him. I hate bullies, I dealt with them and me and Danny have been friends ever since. Disney has since cracked down on those hooligans, but it gave me my best friend.
I picked up his old beat up backpack which occupied a chair and moved it to the next seat. He looked up from his laptop and frowned at the intrusion, but I saw a very brief smile, which turned back to a frown; a total put on I knew.
“Daniel,” I said in greeting.
“Miles,” he said making some notation on his ever-present notepad.
“How is business?”
He responded with a so-so hand gesture without looking up. Daniel’s business was information. He was the unknown research man for a variety of publications, blogs and even some business interests; people that wanted to know what was happening at the House of Mouse that was not in the press releases. Daniel knew more people that worked behind the scenes at Disney than anyone else, and he gathered information and dispersed it to numerous contacts around the world. Not that Daniel needed to work; he was a trust fund baby and if he stayed healthy and living with his aunt and uncle he was set for life.
“How are the Ganders?”
Daniel answered, “Good enough. They took up yoga, and they have some young chippy come to the house everyday and help them get into downward dog. Aunty says it helps fight her arthritis, I think Unc goes along with it just so he can see this hot blonde in his house every day.”
I shrugged. Rich people problems. “Eh, whatever gets you through the day,” I responded.
“What can I do for you?” Danny asked, glancing at the screen. “I have a conference call with someone from Saudi Arabia in ten minutes.”
“Anything to give me the brush me off, so I don’t bring up the money you owe me.” I added.
“No one can pull a straight flush without cheating.” Daniel said.
“People can and I did,” He was about to interrupt when I held up a finger. “I did not come for my money you old miser, in fact you help me out with this case, and I will call us even.”
His eyes narrowed. “What do you need?”
I pulled the folder out. “I need to locate these items that were stolen in a burglary. They were not targeting memorabilia, this was just a whim, so if they are trying to sell them I do not think they would have any connections, so I am thinking the public sites or maybe private sites that you would know about.”
Danny looked over the file for a few minutes. “Have these ever been sold before.” The confused look on my face must have answered his question. “Original owners huh.”
“As far as I know, they got them on opening day.”
He nodded then he closed the file. “Well I will do some research, but this is not really rare stuff, in fact except for how pristine the pieces are there is nothing really remarkable about them. There is some value to them, but any good thief would be disappointed in the price he got for them,” he said, handing the file back to me. “The frame and glass were not left behind. The burglars took everything together?”
That was not something I had really considered. I looked at the main list of things stolen. Most of the items could be easily stashed in a large duffle bag, but this framed thing was not easily moved; it was bulky and fragile. A new question and no answers yet. I looked over at my friend who had his headset on, and I bid a silent goodbye to Danny.
I continued to my trip and found myself at the Living Seas. I ran over the questions I had in my mind. Why did the thieves steal the memento when they had not done so before or after? Had they broken their own rules and taken the whole framed piece from the house. Why did the Lafleur’s add the item to the stolen list a day after the initial report? The LaFleurs where not someone I would peg for padding an insurance claim.
And lastly, where were the items now?
After turning the problem over many times in my head I realized I needed more information, or at least a second look at the crime scene. I called the LaFleur’s and set up an appointment.
This time I vowed to arrive a little earlier to ring the doorbell, I wanted to know if it was a big gong like I hoped.
I arrived ten minutes early for my appointment with the LaFleurs, but as my finger was less than an inch from hitting the button and appeasing my decidedly over developed curiosity, the door opened wide by the hand of the good doctor. A small voice like Snidely Whiplash in my head said, ‘Curses foiled again’.
I got down to the heart of the matter sitting on the same chair with the good doctor and his wife on the couch. “I have a question, on the initial police report you did not list the memorabilia as missing, then added it the next day.”
The Doctor looked a little embarrassed. “That was my fault, she was out of town and all I saw was the missing appliances, when she got home, she noted it was missing right away.”
Mrs. Lafluer patted him on the knee. “It was easy to overlook with everything else missing.”
“You weren’t home when the burglary occurred?” I said, puzzled.
“No, I was at my daughter and sons-in-law house.”
“The same ones that had the memorabilia from opening day at Studios?”
“Yes,” Mrs. LaFleur answered but I caught a glimpse of discomfort on the doctor’s face.
I recalled something from the first interview. “Didn’t you say the piece was a wedding present to them when they got married? I hate to be indelicate folks but if it was a wedding present, what was it doing in your home?”
The married couple exchanged chapters of information in just a short glance at each other. “A couple of years ago, they started to have trouble. Our daughter and her son moved back in here for a while, and she brought the piece with her. Recently they have been repairing the relationship, and in fact they are in the process of moving back in together,” the doctor stated.
I nodded. Then without pausing to think ahead my mouth formed the words, “Where is their son now?”
“Tommy is staying with us for the summer.”
“Was he here at the time of the break in?”
“No, he was at a day camp, he came home just as the police were taking the last of my statement,” the doctor answered.
“Yes, that is when I called with the good news that Tommy and his mom would be moving back in with Justin. That’s how I found out about the break in.” Volunteered Mrs. LaFleur.
“Is he here now?”
“Yes, I believe he’s up in his room. Why are you asking about Tommy?” Mrs. LaFleur asked with the hint of protective mama bear coming out.
“Just a hunch nothing more, can we talk to him?”
A glance again and then he nodded.
Tommy’s door was directly across from where the framed memorabilia had been hanging. The grandmother knocked on the door. A muffled ‘come in’ was heard and we entered the room of what I pictured a normal ten-year old’s room looked like. Legos, sport posters and a rumpled bed. Tommy was sitting in a chair playing a handheld game. He stopped when he saw both his grandparents and a stranger. “Hi.”
“Hi,” I said back, taking command of the conversation. “I am a private investigator your grandparents hired me to look into the burglary.”
“You mean like Magnum P.I?”
“Sort of but without the cool car.” I looked around the room. “You know about the missing keepsakes.”
I watched him closely, his eyes went to the bed and not the closet.
“Yeah,” he said, but not as casually as before.
“Do you know anything about the stuff?”
Again, his eyes went to his bed and he simply shrugged.
“It was right across from your room; you must have seen it every day.”
I saw the tear start to form at his eye, at the same time the lower lip started to quiver. “I am sorry, I thought if they didn’t have the keepsakes they would not fight anymore. They always seemed to fight around it. I thought if it was gone, they could start over again and not fight so much.”
He really did not say all that at once, there was a lot of crying, blubbering, and nose wiping before we got the whole story out of the kid. The burglary just coincided with the news they were moving back in with his father. No grand conspiracy, no higher malice, just a kid who did not want his parents to fight anymore. The framed stuff was under the bed, and the LaFleurs stated the keepsakes would stay in their house and not go back to Tommy’s house.
The important part, I got paid a big bonus for getting it back in one piece. I did not tell them they would have eventually found it when someone vacuumed under the bed.
I do sometimes know when to shut up.