A Lodi Christmas
Chapter 3

Copyright© 2019 by AA Nemo

Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely nights dreaming of a song

The melody haunts my reverie, and I am once again with you

When our love was new, and each kiss an inspiration

Oh, but that was long ago. Now my consolation is in the stardust of a song

Hoagy Carmichael


“Case! Case, wake up!”

“Huh?” That was all he could manage as he came groggily awake as someone turned on the bedside lamp.

He got his eyes focused enough to make out his sister standing over him. She was wearing pale blue flannel pajamas with miniature snowmen on them. The cheerful pattern was incongruous with her look of distress.

“Juliet? What’s the matter?”

“You were shouting in your sleep. Something about a rash and then you yelled, get out, eject, eject.”

He shook his head trying to clear the cobwebs. He’d been deeply asleep.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you. Sometimes I have dreams...”

“Is this about when you were hurt in Afghanistan?”

Case nodded.

Not about ‘a rash,’ but my friend Captain Aarash Khan who was in the front seat as pilot in command that day. We got raked by cannon fire on a low altitude strafing run and suddenly I had to take the controls. I could see his head lolling against the side of the bubble canopy in front of me - killed or wounded I didn’t know. I kept yelling at him to eject while I could still control the aircraft – the controls were mushy, smoke was coming from the engine and my right leg wasn’t working very well.

“Will you ever talk about ... about that time?”

Meaning, will I ever tell you about what happened the day that put me in the hospital and out of the Air Force?

“I’m sorry, Juliet. It doesn’t help to rehash it.”

“So you just have to dream it?”

Her green eyes flashed. She wasn’t happy. Growing up they had shared many things and it was obvious that she was hurt by his unwillingness to talk about what had happened to him. Juliet had dropped everything and taken leave from her job as a new police officer in Lodi to fly across country to visit him at Walter Reed two years ago (Was it really that long ago?). She’d come in like a lioness to protect her injured cub. Fortunately she’d found nothing amiss unless you count having your older brother pretty banged up because he’d been in a war on the other side of the world – a war she didn’t understand.

Their parents arrived with their younger sister Chloe, and things settled down. The family spent Christmas at the medical center, and his mother even convinced the director of the dining facility to let her bake Christmas cookies. Then she and Juliet and Chloe – dressed like elves – made the rounds of the wards handing out red and green foil bags filled with an assortment. His fondest memory of that Christmas was attending Christmas services at the chapel in a wheelchair flanked by his family.

“The dreams are ... well, they’re going away. It’s just when I’m over-tired or stressed about things they tend to surface.”

“All that flying you’re doing – no wonder you’re tired and stressed...” She stopped abruptly realizing that hectoring was not a way to lessen stress. Instead, Juliet sat on the edge of the bed. Her expression said it all – she was saddened by his distress and worried about him.

“Are you okay, Case?”

He gave her a slight smile. “Guess I just need a vacation.”

“Yes,” she said softly. “And while you’re here maybe I can get some food in you and make you rest. You’re so skinny a strong breeze could blow you away.” She leaned over and hugged him. “And I’m not going to let that happen.” She sniffed. “I love you, Case.”

“I love you, Juliet.” He hugged her as she stretched out next to him on top of the covers.

“This is nice,” she said into his chest. “I wish I could keep my big brother close all the time.”

He stroked her short light brown hair. “Don’t you think you’d get tired of me in a big hurry?”

She shook her head. He felt hot tears soaking his t-shirt.

They were quiet for a time and then she said, “I was mad at you for a long time after you left for the Academy. I felt lost and abandoned.”

Case thought for a few moments how to respond. This is not the time for some flip comment.

“I’m sorry. I guess I just figured that over the months between my acceptance letter and my leaving everyone would come to accept the fact I was going away.”

She brushed a tear. “I just didn’t want it to happen and maybe I kept wishing you’d change your mind or there’d be some other reason you couldn’t go. And then the time was up and I didn’t feel like I got enough time to say goodbye.”

Case hugged her again. “Those months went awfully fast and suddenly we were on our way to the airport. I knew you were unhappy. You cried most of the way there and I think the first time you answered one of my emails was about two months later. But you knew it was time for me to go.”

She nodded into his chest. “You kept sending me emails despite my trying to ignore you - telling me about what you were doing. I read them all.”

“I was so happy and relieved when you finally answered.”

“I know, you told me. I knew all along it was time for you to leave the farm and get a chance to fly something more than a Cessna, I just didn’t want to accept that in my stupid sixteen year old brain.”

He was quiet for bit. The Air Force A-29 was bigger and much faster than a Cessna but it was still a single engine plane and far from his dream of being a pilot of a supersonic fighter. That wasn’t going to happen now. Funny how dreams run up against reality.

Man plans – God laughs...

After a couple of minutes of silence, he wondered if she had drifted off, but then she said, “I’m sorry about Anastasia.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“After what you told me last night, it’s a good thing you’re here for a few days – gives you a chance to digest it all...”

He nodded. “At the airport, I could tell that she was crushed when I didn’t jump at the chance to get back together. It was as if her explanation about her engagement, her mother, and all the rest, was simply good enough.”

“I know she hurt you badly – you tried to hide it in your calls and emails, but I knew it was an awful time for you. I wish we could have carved out some time to be together.” Juliet sighed. “But after she explained how her mother had sabotaged things, you still have misgivings?”

He looked at the ceiling for a minute or so. “Yes, and yes, she hurt me badly, and I don’t ever want to go through that again. But, even knowing about her mother’s machinations, I’m still wary. She told me that her engagement to this Davis guy is over, but if she loves me so much, why did I have to confront her about it before she called it off? We were together for months.”

Case shook his head. “It leaves me wondering if he was the fallback position if we didn’t work out. Was she that uncertain about my love for her ... or worse, uncertain about her love for me, that she was willing to stay engaged?”

Clearly struggling, he went on. “And why did she wait two and a half months to explain? I know I did my best to avoid her, but we work together, and we were in a number of places more appropriate, and a lot more private, than the airport to have a conversation. Hell, she could have scheduled a trip to one of our offices, and just got on a delivery flight with me!”

Juliet nodded thoughtfully. “It’s never that easy when emotions are involved. You told me she confessed she was devastated, and in shock and frozen emotionally, unable to think clearly about the two of you since no one had ever broken up with her. On top of that she was afraid you wouldn’t listen. Sounds like two bull-headed people who don’t communicate very well.”

He gave that some thought. “You’re right. Instead of talking we were dwelling on the anger and the hurt...”

“And acting like kids.”

“Yes, in hindsight...”

“And even beautiful women can be a bundle of insecurities, especially when they’re in love.”

“I suppose you’re right, but I would never have thought that of Anastasia. She’s always so in control.”

“Did you not hear me when I said, ‘in love?’ It may be a cliché but love tends to make us all vulnerable ... And sometimes stupid,” she added ruefully.

He tightened his arms around her. “I’m sorry, I forgot.”

“What?”

“You’ve been through it – that guy at college.”

She pressed her fingers against his lips. “We’re not here to talk about me. That was a long time ago. I got over it.”

Maybe not completely

After a few moments, Juliet removed her fingers from his lips and hugged him back. “So, what are you going to do?”

“I just need some time to think.”

“I agree, and it’s a whole lot easier without the rose-colored glasses.”

“Huh?”

“Think about it. When you and Anastasia were together you saw each other every couple of days, if that. You were both busy trying to keep Air-Bytes going, and actually her job was tougher than yours. She had to do a whole lot more than fly deliveries, so you were basically on an extended honeymoon, missing each other when gone and then having great ‘I missed you so much’ sex when you got back together.”

Case smiled. “Yeah, that’s pretty much what happened, but that wasn’t everything,”

“I know. Your texts and photos – the opera, symphony, ballet - you hate ballet - and any number of charity events...”

“She’s charitably minded,” he said defensively.

“Is she? You told me she isn’t drawing a salary, so whose money was it? Daddy’s?

“Her trust fund,” he said sheepishly.

“So you go to these events and you’re wearing a custom made tux that she paid for. Right?”

He nodded.

“And she writes a nice big check from a pile of money she never earned, and people fawn over her, and each other, for being so ‘charitably minded.’ It’s a perfect evening unless she chips one of her manicured nails writing that check, or spills wine on one of her couture dresses.”

“They’re busy people...”

She snorted, and then continued. “Mom and Dad are busy people – they’re farmers, but Mom volunteers each week at church, and Dad has been with the volunteer fire department for twenty-five years. And remember that summer when you were in high school and those tornados ripped through towns near us? You and Dad disappeared for nearly two weeks helping people dig out and rebuild. Mom, Chloe, and I made meals and ran all over the county delivering food and clothing to people who had nothing?”

“Those were tough times for a lot of people and we just wanted to help.”

“Yes, by giving the most precious thing a person can give – time. That’s something that can never be recouped. Mom and Dad are not helping out to be seen or praised, or to make contacts for business deals. Many of the people Anastasia is rubbing shoulders with at those events are sacrificing nothing.”

“Put that way, it does sound pretty superficial.”

“Yes, it is. I’m not saying what they’re doing is bad – the money usually goes to a good cause, but the fact they can make a very public donation makes them feel self-righteous. The lack of altruism is the tragedy. In Matthew, Jesus says: when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do.

“I remember that from Bible study at church when I was a kid.”

When was I even in a church last? Oh yeah, Christmas services with my family at the chapel at Walter Reed.

“You’re right though, Time is the precious commodity...” Aarash thought he had all the time in the world, but his time ran out that day, and mine almost did.

He continued, almost to himself. “And the uncertainty of how much we have left makes it even more precious.”

Juliet felt him tense as the memories intruded. She looked at him. “I know one thing, we’re going to make the most of our precious time the next few days.”

She sighed and put her head on his chest.

Eventually, she spoke again. “By the way, when you were at these events and sitting around a table with Anastasia and her high-roller friends, what did you talk about? Flying?”

“And sports...”

“And what happened when they discovered you were simply a pilot for a start-up, and were really just Anastasia’s escort?”

“They’d mostly ignore me and talk to Anastasia or to the other high rollers, trying to impress each other with their big deals.”

Juliet thought for a few moments. “Your new job as senior pilot – whose idea was that?”

“I’ve hardly had a chance to think about it – the new owner I guess, but since I was the only one of the three pilots who would stay, I probably got the job by default.”

“But they could have brought in someone new?”

“Sure.”

“But Anastasia did the negotiations for the buyout?”

“Yes...”

“And you told me the new owner has changed his mind and wants your current CEO to stay on for six months after the takeover.”

He nodded, wondering where she was going.

“So you might be in line to jump from senior pilot to CEO when she leaves?

Case shook his head. “Doubtful. The new owner wants his son to take over; that was the whole reason behind the purchase.”

“But if the new owner really wants Air-Bytes to be successful, he might be hesitant to put that guy in charge. He’s been a failure at every business Daddy has set up for him, right?”

“True. Angus Duncan is a successful businessman, and based on his commitment to Air-Bytes so far, he might be having second thoughts about his irresponsible playboy son getting his hands on something that might prove pretty lucrative.”

“So, maybe Anastasia’s pulling the strings – you told me she’s been asked to stay on as CFO during the transition, but I expect she’ll soon be indispensable to Duncan’s vision of success, and you’ll be there with her, and there’s no way in hell she’ll let some loser son be allowed anywhere near Air-Bytes. My guess is that she figures you’ll get back together, and in a matter of months, you’ll no longer be just some redneck pilot from Georgia, but CEO of an up and coming delivery service.”

“Why am I feeling manipulated?”

Juliet ignored his question. “And once you’ve been CEO for a couple of years she’ll find you an executive position with one of the major airlines, or some other company, and voilà, you’ll be the busy guy writing the check to the charity.”

Case shook his head. “I’ve never wanted to be one of those people.”

“No, that’s not my brother, at least right now, but it sounds like that’s her goal. I think the reason she dragged you to all these events and the opera and symphony is because she was doing a Beta test on Case One Point Oh.”

“Huh?”

“She’s was remaking Case Reynolds, and was trying you out, one event, fancy dinner, or opera at a time, to see how you handle yourself. You certainly clean up well - you look damn good, and I hate to say it, pretty comfortable, in that tux. So now she knows you’re presentable, know which fork to use, and you don’t get drunk and perve wives or girlfriends, or annoy her friends. On top of that, I know you’re a great dancer.” Juliet covered her mouth then said, “Sorry.”

“What? Oh, my leg.”

She nodded looking embarrassed.

“Juliet, they patched me up pretty well. I’ll never be a distance runner, but I can dance.”

“I’m glad. So at least Anastasia didn’t have to pay for dance lessons,” she teased. “Was she impressed?”

It was his turn to smile. “Not so much at first, since Anastasia and the guys would be off at another table or at the bar talking deals, or bragging about deals, so I danced with the wives.”

Juliet frowned.

“I assure you she was rarely out of my sight with these guys. A few thought that getting her off somewhere alone might be a good idea, but they were shot down, and some who wouldn’t take the hint were treated to her fiery temper, some in front of their wives or girlfriends!” He chuckled.

“The wives, huh?”

“Yes, and I didn’t mind. Many of them are successful in their own right, and are interesting, smart people, unappreciated by their husbands, so I’d get asked to dance, a lot. Actually, Anastasia was miffed a few times when one of the wives would get a bit too ... err ... clingy, on the dance floor.” He grinned.

“It all came to a head one night when we were leaving some function and her temper got the best of her, about one rather ‘affectionate’ wife in particular. I had the limo drop her at her door, but not before I told her if she doubted my fidelity, maybe this was a good time to call it quits.”

“Good for you. So what happened?”

We didn’t speak for three days until she cornered me, just back from my latest delivery run, and tearfully apologized. She never wandered off with the guys again.”

Juliet laughed. “I expect she learned a lesson, and at the same time saw you in a little different light – a man who could charm the ladies, but not take advantage, but also someone who wasn’t going to put up with her fits of temper.”

“Maybe so, but she still kept Davis the Third waiting in the wings.”

“Yes, but your little dustup may have been an important milestone in your Beta test since it appears she’s now on to Case Reynolds Two Point Oh, future executive.”

She paused. “And your concern about what’s his name, the third, as a fallback might be justified. Had you failed the Beta test you probably would have been history.”

“Gee, that’s comforting.”

“No, seriously, it makes sense from her point of view and avoids the confrontation with her mother until she’s sure, and if she can introduce you as an executive with lots of potential it might blunt some of her mother’s objections. You just forced her hand.”

“This gets more complicated by the minute.”

“How about one more complication?

“I’m afraid to ask.”

“Your split might have made her Case Reynolds Two Point Oh job easier.”

“You’ve lost me.”

“She was negotiating this buyout, and all of a sudden you’re offered the senior pilot job along with that outrageous salary.”

“And?”

“If you were still together it would have been tough to keep it from you. This way she could negotiate the deal, and then convince the Board and the CEO the package was the best they could get – not saying it wasn’t - and by the time she gets to you yesterday evening it’s a fait accompli. You can’t refuse because the deal depends on your acceptance of the senior pilot job, and she knows you won’t let the other employees down.”

“Sounds pretty Machiavellian.”

“I think it’s brilliant!”

“Hey, whose side are you on?” he teased.

They were both lost in thought for a minute or so. Finally Juliet spoke, “We’ve been doing a lot of guessing, although I think we’ve figured out that Anastasia wants Case Reynolds Two Point Oh, and will constantly be working on upgrades. Now you have to decide if that’s what you want.”

He shook his head, looking thoughtful. “I never aspired to be the CEO of anything, and I don’t want to be that guy making deals at the bar, or around the table, or trying to one up the next guy.”

“Okay, but if you’d been able to stay in the Air Force, wouldn’t you be forced into those command jobs eventually?”

“True enough, but I just wanted to fly jets.” He smiled. “And think about that command stuff later, when I was older.”

“Well, you’re older now, and you have lots to think about. From all she’s doing, I believe she does love you, and I suspect you still have strong feelings for her. She sees her future, and yours, as partners and highly paid executives. She has a law degree and an MBA, which should tell you something, but remember she’s already several steps ahead of you in the decision-making process. Anastasia’s mapped it out, now she has to convince you that she’s still the one, and the future you see is the same as the one she sees.

“Without a serious talk about your futures, there is no future, unless you’re willing to capitulate, and just go with the plan. Somehow I don’t see you doing that.”

He shook his head.

“Then you have to have a face to face discussion, and tell her what Anastasia One Point Oh looks like. I’d love to see photos of the two of you in a bass boat on a lake somewhere, or off hiking. Better yet, her perfect model’s butt on the back of your motorcycle. Show her the things you enjoy?”

He nodded, realizing she was right.

“So, figure it out. Do you want what Mom and Dad have? They work hard side by side each day on the farm, and at the end of the day they sit silently in that porch swing with his arm around her and her head on his shoulder just loving each other. They’re busy people, but they give their time to each other and to make their community better. If that’s what you want, then you need to tell her. She deserves to know, but she deserves a hearing, too. She needs to actually tell you what she wants – no more pulling strings, and together you need to figure out if there is some middle ground. If not, then go your separate ways.”

He hugged her. “I’m glad I have such a smart sister.”

“Someone needs to try to get things through that thick farm boy redneck skull of yours.”

“Oh please, officer, not the nightstick!”

“How about the Taser?”

They both laughed.

Yawning, she sat up. “Unlike some, I’ve got work in the morning and I need a couple more hours.”

Case put his hand on her arm. “Thanks for being such a good sport last night about giving Jonas and his daughter a ride. I know I sprang it on you, but they were going to have to rent a car because his mother got tied up at the last minute with some planning meeting in Stockton.”

“I didn’t mind at all.” Juliet grinned “It was a pleasure meeting them and you never know when doing a favor for the son of one of the power brokers of Lodi will come in handy.”

“Power broker?”

“Oh, yes, Anna Kaufmann runs a very successful architecture firm out of Sacramento with satellite offices in other cities in the Central Valley. Her firm has its fingers in about every major private and government project in north central California. She does keep an office in her home in Lodi, but she’s not there much. Anyway, she has done lots of business here, and from what I understand, her campaign contributions make her welcome in all the city offices. She’s also a big supporter of the police department, to say nothing of the charities she supports, although she keeps everything low key and shuns publicity.”

“No trumpets.”

She just smiled and shook her head.

“Interesting. Guess you know just about everyone in town.”

“Not quite everyone in town, but I do pay attention to those people who are the influencers. As a cop it pays to pay attention. The key to successful policing is situational awareness, but not just on the street.”

“Sounds like the military.”

“Yes, very much like the military.”

“You and Jonas seemed to get along pretty well in the car last night.”

Juliet was quiet for a few seconds. “He’s handsome, likeable, and smart, and appears to have had some success in life. He’s also devoted to his daughter, who’s a treasure, but in the hour we spent in the car I came away with the feeling he’s not long for Lodi – and not just because you were doing your recruiting spiel and extolling the virtues of living in Austin.”

“Jonas would be a great addition to Air-Bytes, and he’s looking for a job.”

“Case, I decided a while back I do want what Mom and Dad have, and that’s not where Jonas is headed. He’s driven, and there are few opportunities in this town, unless he can afford to buy a winery, but I don’t see that as his future.”

Case nodded. “I saw it right away. He’s come from five years as a commander of a helicopter squadron in a foreign country in what amounts to a combat zone. I admire him for it. He’s one of those guys who, had he been able to stay in the Marines, would probably be wearing stars someday – something I never aspired to do.

“Actually, after meeting him, my thought was to create a position as XO for the pilots and offer the job to Jonas. He would be tasked with all the stuff I hate doing, like overseeing maintenance, handling personnel problems, keeping the schedule up to date – all that nonsense – the stuff he’s been doing for five years, and when my contract is up after a year he’d be ready to step in as senior pilot.”

“Or, when you step up to be CEO?”

“I doubt that will ever happen. I’m hardly qualified anyway.”

“Case, don’t sell yourself short. Don’t forget I went with Mom and Dad to most of your games in high school. And when you were a senior, the reason a baseball team from the little town of Barnwell got to the state championships was because of your leadership. You know how to motivate people, and more importantly you care about them.”

“Juliet, I hardly think that qualifies me to run a company.”

She stood, hands on hips. “Case, I’ll bet you know every person in Air-Bytes and probably the names of their spouses, kids, and dogs. That’s just who you are, and nobody says a CEO has to be some unfeeling jerk. Anastasia certainly doesn’t want that. I think she fell in love with the Case Reynolds who cares about people. She recognizes leadership and firmly believes, as I do, that you can succeed at anything you put your mind to.”

He smiled as he watched his sister giving him a pep talk.

“So call her and set up a time for a face to face as soon as you get back to Austin.” She smiled. “If the weather’s decent you could pack a picnic and take her out on your Harley.”

“Okay, you’ve convinced me.”

“No procrastinating.”

“I’ll call Anastasia in the next couple of days and I’ll ask her to meet me as soon as I get back.”

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