Author's Note: I actually wrote and published this (on my LJ) in the summer of 2006, before it came out that "Eli Navarro stole his first bike at age 6" so I was totally pumped when it turned out I wasn't that far off.
Keith was going over the week's duty roster when Lamb knocked on his door.
"Sheriff, we found out who's been stealing all those bikes in the 09 neighbourhood. I think you should see this."
Ordinarily stolen bikes weren't that big of a deal. In a town the size of Neptune there were fifteen to twenty bikes stolen a week with about 75 of them recovered. Over the last two months though, someone began targeting the kids in the 90909 zip code and none of those bikes were seen again. The Casablancas kids had to replace their bikes about four times each, the Kane kids twice each, the Echolls boy three times and that was just the tip of the iceberg. It seemed like every other minute Keith was getting a phone call from the Enboms, the Pomroys, the Sinclairs, all demanding extra security in their neighbourhood because they were tired of dropping several hundred dollars every other day on new bikes.
He couldn't wait to book the guy if only to stop the hysterical 09er outrage.
The interrogation room door was closed and Lamb waited outside with a somewhat bemused look on his face. "He's in there. I wrote him up already." Lamb handed over the paperwork as Keith reached for the doorknob.
And stopped. He knew the perp. He'd been in Veronica's class in fifth and sixth grades. He was twelve years old.
"Are you serious?" he asked Lamb.
"As a heart attack. I found him riding a bike behind the Manning's property. I probably wouldn't have even looked twice but it was a little too pink and had too many ribbons for most twelve-year-old boys. I checked out the Manning's bike shed and it had been forced open with a crowbar." Lamb grinned and walked away.
Keith entered the interrogation room and sat down across from the kid. "Eli."
Solemn brown eyes met his. "Sheriff."
They sat in silence and studied one another. Keith had to give it to the kid, he had a great poker face. He showed no fear and no bravado either.
"Deputy Lamb caught you stealing a bike from Manning's. It would have been the fifty-ninth bike stolen from that neighbourhood in the past seven weeks. Do you know anything about that?"
"They can afford new bikes. Most of them get replaced the next day."
"Just because people can afford things, it doesn't mean they should be robbed from."
"No, but just because people can't afford things, it doesn't mean they should go without."
"Who got you to steal the bikes, Eli?"
"No one." Something in the way he said let Keith know that he was telling the truth.
"Well then, what are you doing with the bikes?"
"I'm a private collector." The first smartass answer which meant that the kid really didn't want Keith to find out what he did with the bikes.
"You don't seem like a bad kid, Eli. I remember Veronica telling me when Dick Casablancas started picking on her last year that you defended her." Eli shrugged. "This is a bad road to start down. Stealing bikes will lead to stealing larger things. Eli, your two older brothers are in Chino right now. Is that the life you want? Your dad will be in San Quentin for the next thirty years. This isn't what he'd choose for you."
That got Eli to flinch. He glared, his brown eyes fierce. "What do you know about my dad? You don't know him."
"I do, actually. I was the arresting officer for two of his three strikes. We got to know each other a bit." Keith smiled, recalling hours of rummy he'd played with Manny Navarro in the holding cells when he was still a deputy. "Your dad is a nice guy, but he made some bad choices. I don't think he'd want you to make the same bad choices that he did. I think he'd want you to live up to all the potential he saw in you."
"He talked about me?" Eli asked carefully.
"Non-stop. Told me you could change a spark plug by the time you were five and could take apart and reassemble the engine of a '67 Mustang when you were eight. He said you'd be Neptune's first honest and genius mechanic."
"He must've forgotten what neighbourhood we live in."
Eli slouched back into the chair, and for a second Keith was struck by just how young he was. He had a feeling he knew why Eli was stealing the bikes – it would be an automatic in with the PCH bike gang in a year or two, but he had a feeling that there was more to it.
"What are you doing with the bikes, Eli?"
"Nothing. I threw them into the water." For the first time since their interview began he wouldn't meet Keith's eyes. "So, am I going to juvie, or what?"
Ordinarily Keith would say yes, but he didn't see what good that would do in this case. Maybe it was the fact that he was the same age as Veronica, maybe it was the hours spent playing cards with his dad, but Keith wanted to give Eli another chance.
"No, not this time. This is your first offense and all we really have you on is stealing one bike. Consider this a warning. But Eli, if any more bikes disappear you will be going to juvenile detention and more than that, I will talk to your grandmother and let her know exactly what went on here today." Thankfully, this threat seemed to create the effect that Keith wished for as fear flashed across Eli's face. "Now, wait here for a few minutes. I'll drive you home when my shift ends."
Lamb waited outside the door. "So, should I take him to the detention centre now?"
Keith shook his head and gestured for Lamb to follow him to his office. "Nothing good will come from throwing him in with a bunch of other criminals at this point. I'm giving him another chance. Maybe it'll give him something to think about."
"You don't seem that certain," Lamb replied, leaning against the door frame.
"I'm not. But it's better than the alternative."
Lamb shrugged, obviously not agreeing, but not arguing either.
"You know what I'm afraid of?" Keith asked.
"Last year, after he helped her fend off a bully, Lianne and I kept finding "Veronica + Eli" written in little hearts all over the house. And I've got this sinking feeling that in five years Eli Navarro will be in the PCH gang, still committing petty crime and I'm going to come home and find Veronica making out with him on the couch."
"Good girls do like the bad boys."
"You're not helping, Don."
"So, why don't you just send him to juvie?"
Keith shrugged and leaned back in his chair. "Because maybe if I give him this chance in five years he'll be a good kid only interested in bad girls and he'll be Jake Kane's problem, not mine."
"Good luck with that." He pushed off the door frame. "Do you want me to take him home?"
"No, I'm done for the day. I'll take him home."
Fifteen minutes later he was pulling up in front of the Navarro house. There were a bunch of kids playing outside and as soon as they saw who was driving they went running for the house. Leticia Navarro came out a second later as Eli was getting out of the car. "Elias, what have you done? Why is the sheriff driving you home?"
Eli glanced apprehensively at Keith before shifting his gaze to the ground.
"It's nothing, Mrs. Navarro," Keith answered. "We thought Eli might have committed some vandalism, but he was innocent. I drove him home as an apology."
Keith had used his most sincere voice, but it was plain that Leticia Navarro was no fool. She made a "hmph" noise as though to say, 'that's a likely story' before turning on Eli. "You get inside the house, mister. Maybe a grounding will encourage you to tell me why the sheriff is covering for you."
Eli nodded and started back towards the house when Mrs. Navarro stopped him. "Eli, where are your manners?"
Turning, Eli met Keith eyes. "Thanks for the ride, Sheriff."
"Your welcome, Eli. Think about what I said." Eli nodded and headed for the house.
Mrs. Navarro was giving Keith a hard look. "You won't do him any favours by letting things slide, you know."
"I won't do him any favours by surrounding him with juvenile delinquents, either."
For a long moment Mrs Navarro seemed to size him up. "Manuel always spoke highly of you. Said you were a fair cop and a nice man." Mrs. Navarro seemed to be speaking more to herself than to Keith so he didn't respond. She smiled. "Thanks for bringing Eli home, Sheriff Mars."
"No problem, Mrs. Navarro."
Keith headed back for his car when he noticed a bike laying in the front lawn. The bike was the wrong brand and looked too beat up to be one of the stolen bikes. Then Keith took a closer look. The paint had been scraped along the bottom of the body and beneath the red paint on top was a dark green paint. Not unlike the description of Logan Echolls' second stolen bike. And all the damage to the bike was superficial. It was a bit dirty and there were some scrapes and dents on the metal frame that could have easily been made by a hammer. Keith ran his fingers over the brand name and realised it was painted on top of the base paint.
He looked down the street. There were bikes on every single lawn and Keith was willing to bet that none of them fit the descriptions of the bikes had gone missing. Part of him wanted to laugh at the ingenuity. This 12-year-old boy had engineered a bicycle chop shop.
For a moment Keith contemplated rounding up the bikes and checking them for refits and paint jobs but the very thought made him tired. The Mexican community would be outraged and the 09ers wouldn't want the bikes back anyway. He glanced up at the house and saw Eli watching him from the window anxiously.
Keith merely raised a hand in greeting and went to his car. If any more bikes went missing he'd round up the bikes and Eli. For now he'd let it go.
He hoped, rather than believed that he could save Eli from the life he was too late to save Manny from. Only time would tell.