A Lodi Christmas
Chapter 7

Copyright© 2019 by AA Nemo

The very thought of you and I forget to do the little ordinary things that everyone ought to do.

I’m living in kind of a daydream; I’m happy as a king and foolish though it may seem, to me

that’s everything.

Ray Noble


On the short drive from the police station he didn’t have much of a chance to tell her about his day. Juliet, on the other hand, had regaled him with stories, mostly humorous, of upholding the law in Lodi. She had inherited their mother’s dry wit and wicked sense of humor, and had him laughing as he drove through the early winter darkness to her apartment.

When they walked through her door she let out a delighted, “Oh, it’s beautiful!”

Surprised and pleased, she turned and hugged him as they stood in the entryway. “Thank you, Case!”

With one arm still around his waist, she stood gazing in wonder at the transformation her brother had made to her townhouse apartment. It was now decorated for Christmas – something she’d not had the time or the inclination to do on her own. The living room was dominated by an evergreen that sparkled with lights reflected from glass ornaments, and there was a scattering of beautifully wrapped presents at the base of the tree. The scent brought back childhood memories, and as she gazed around the room, she spotted evergreen garlands circling the railing that went to the upper floor. There was even a large twinkling star in her front window.

“Case, I wanted to have everything decorated before you got here but...” Her voice trailed off as he kissed her forehead. “Juliet, I understand. I’ve been kind of busy myself and it was fun to go a little crazy for Christmas, and be able to surprise my sister, plus I had one of Santa’s helpers to guide me along.”

“And was Santa’s helper Cindy McCabe by chance?” she asked with a grin.

He laughed. From her look, that was not the reaction she’d expected.

“What’s funny?”

“Even though Lodi is probably ten times larger than Barnwell, it’s still a small town, so I’m not really surprised that you know the identity of Santa’s helper.” He smiled at her. “Cindy and I discussed small towns and gossip over lunch – something like ‘local celeb spends day with mysterious stranger.’ Actually, Cindy appended ‘handsome mysterious stranger!’”

It was Juliet’s turn to laugh. “Handsome mysterious stranger, huh? I think she was hitting on my brother. Over dinner we can compare notes. By the way, what’s that wonderful smell?”

They hung their jackets on an antique hall tree near the door. Juliet followed her nose to the kitchen and examined the contents of a large brand new slow cooker. “Pasta sauce?” Case nodded. She hugged him again. “I might never let you leave.” She gave him one of her wonderful smiles. “Any more surprises?”

He shook his head. “Why don’t you get changed and I’ll get the pasta water boiling and the rolls in the oven.”

“Okay.” As she walked to the stairs, she noticed her dining table was already set for two, including wine glasses, and beautifully decorated Christmas plates on a red tablecloth, all of which she’d never seen before. At the center of the table was a bottle of wine. She smiled, thinking about what a fantastic brother she had and how much brighter Christmas was going to be with him around.

Her smile slipped a bit as she mounted the stairs, contrasting this Christmas with the one two years ago when she’d been at his side at Walter Reed. He’d made light of his wounds, but she’d been badly shaken by the thought of how close she’d come to losing her brother. She knew he missed flying for the Air Force, but she was relieved he’d never be put in that kind of danger again.


Showered and changed into skinny jeans, dark green cable knit sweater, and her favorite fuzzy slippers, Juliet was just in time to help him bring the meal to the table. She put out the salads and a basket of sourdough rolls, and when she returned to the kitchen her mouth watered as she watched him plate the pasta and sauce, and grate fresh parmesan over their dishes.

When Case poured the wine, she noticed it was a zinfandel from a well-known local winery. Juliet dug in and after a couple of minutes Case gently chided her as she forked spaghetti into her mouth, “Slow down, there’s plenty.”

Juliet paused, sipping her wine. “I know, but it’s all so delicious.”

Case remembered his sister had zero interest in cooking as they were growing up. Tall and slender, she was very active in sports and after school activities, and her typical MO was to rush into the house, graze the refrigerator and leave again. He surmised her habits hadn’t gotten any better, and since she worked different shifts, he suspected her calories came from hastily grabbed convenience meals. When he arrived, he’d discovered her refrigerator contained a couple bottles of white wine, a few apples, bread, lunch meat, yogurt, cheese, and some expired milk. The freezer held pot pies and a of frozen entrees and pizzas.

He was reminded that even though he didn’t have his own refrigerator, he was fortunate the ladies at Orange County and Austin kept the refrigerators in the office/apartments in the hangars well stocked. There was always a healthy and homemade meal waiting when he landed. He usually got his own breakfast at the hangar, but they sent him off with a well-provisioned cooler that was filled with a sensible lunch and snacks.

Today he had done his best to rectify Juliet’s woefully inadequate larder, but knew as soon as he left, she’d be right back to her diet of meals on the go that were filling but not particularly nutritious. Fortunately, as hyper-active as she was, coupled with rigorous workouts, she had never had a problem with her weight. Unfortunately, it all had a way of catching up eventually.

Case smiled as he imagined buying a house for Juliet with his newfound wealth and then hiring a cook to take care of her. Maybe I will.

Juliet patted her mouth with one of the new cloth napkins and poured them another glass of wine. “Case, that’s the best dinner I’ve had in a long time – maybe since I was home last. Thank you.” She reached over and put her hand over his. “And thank you for making this a special Christmas.”

Case wanted to joke that it wasn’t hard to put together something special considering the state of her refrigerator and pantry, but he held back. Juliet’s eyes glistened, and he was deeply moved by her sincerity. He had missed his sister and suddenly he was regretting he had not been able to carve out more time to be together. He vowed to rectify that situation and hoped with his new position as senior pilot he’d be able to stop by much more frequently. Unbidden, Cindy McCabe’s smiling face surfaced.

Admit it Case, Juliet’s not the only reason you want to come back to Lodi.

She sipped her wine and composed herself and with a slight grin changed the subject. “Now tell me about Santa’s helper so I can fill in the blanks from the gossip.”

He laughed and nodded. “Cindy is a wonderful helper. She knew the stores to find the perfect gifts...”

“Perfect gifts? Maybe we could start a new tradition – opening gifts on Christmas Eve, eve?”

He sipped his wine and smiled. “As I was saying, she also knew where to find the best tree and decorations even this late, and after seeing your place she left me to start decorating the tree while she went off to find dishes and wine glasses and table linens. When she got back we cooked dinner together.”

He thought about their late-afternoon parting at Three Corners Farm and touched his lips remembering a brief kiss and the light in her eyes as they stood on the porch of the Hacienda.

I could have stayed a lot longer for more of those kisses.

“I thought she had a hand in putting this dinner together. Next time I see her I’ll tell her I owe her – not just for decorating and dinner but for keeping my brother entertained while I was at work.”

They laughed. Case recalled how natural it felt as he and Cindy worked side by side in the small kitchen, browning the locally made Italian sausage, sautéing onions, peppers, mushrooms and garlic, as they sipped the cabernet that would go into what she had styled, ‘southwestern’ pasta sauce. And then they’d sat at the table and wrapped presents while listening to – thanks to Cindy - Martina McBride’s White Christmas album.

“And she picked the wine?”

He nodded, thinking about their reception at the winery tasting room. It seemed everywhere they went Cindy was known and warmly welcomed. He saw their curiosity as she introduced him, and the quick acceptance that came from being with her, and the knowledge he was visiting his sister Juliet - someone they all seemed to know.

What happened to me today? I’ve always been the cautious one, but I was immediately attracted to Cindy. Is it because I’m on the rebound? From the time Cindy sat next to me on the porch swing, until now, I haven’t even given Anastasia a thought.

And what about Vika? Kissing her, and being kissed by her, was a surprise and extremely enjoyable. Was that only yesterday evening? But the kiss with Cindy, the kiss on the porch as we parted, wasn’t a surprise, it just seemed like the logical conclusion to a wonderful day. It was something so natural it was as if we’d been together for a long time.

Suddenly his imagination took over and he saw Cindy and Jenny in his fantasy house in San Antonio.

He stared into the distance imagining flying with Cindy in the sunny cockpit of Charlie at twenty thousand feet over the beautiful snow-covered Rockies. Cindy would look over at him with a smile of pure joy as they shared...

“Case. Hello.”

“Oh, sorry.”

Juliet looked at him closely. “Guess she made an impression.”

He smiled. “Yes.” He refilled their glasses and finally asked, “So what did the Lodi gossip mill have to say?”

Juliet laughed. “As you probably discovered, Cindy is a singer and composer and local morning radio host, so she’s about as close to a celebrity as Lodi has.”

He nodded. “Yes, although much of that information didn’t come from her. Spending time with her, I got to see Cindy through the eyes of other people in this town. She’s very much respected and considered a valuable member of the community. Everywhere we went she was greeted warmly and she responded in kind. She may be a celebrity, but she doesn’t act like one.”


They sat in silence enjoying their wine for a bit, and then Juliet asked the tough question, “So how does Anastasia compare?”

He gave her question some thought and finally replied, “I was with Cindy for several hours, and never gave a thought to Anastasia.”

“Oh, that spells trouble for her.”

He nodded. “It certainly complicates things. From the moment I met Cindy, I was drawn to her. It wasn’t just her natural beauty; it was much more than that. She has an aura of maturity and calm that I found very attractive.”

They hadn’t traded detailed life stories or talked of inconsequential things; they’d mostly just sat quietly in the late morning sunshine and enjoyed the tranquil garden with the fountain providing the only sound above the gentle purring of the orange cat. It really was reminiscent of his parents on their porch swing at the end of the day, holding hands, not saying a word.

Juliet smiled. “And you didn’t get the feeling she’d want you to become Case, Two Point Oh?”

He smiled in return, and just shook his head.

“So, how are you going to handle this ‘complication’ with Anastasia?’

He gave his sister a long look, then said, “Our conversation this morning gave me a lot to think about, and while I was swimming I balanced the pros and cons of a relationship with her, and more importantly, I tried to see us thirty-five years in the future, like Mom and Dad.”

“And?’

“I couldn’t see it. She needs to find someone who is as driven as she is, but also someone who might be able to rein her in a bit.”

“You could be that person.”

“Perhaps, but that’s not the relationship I want. I do want what Mom and Dad have, and my time with Cindy gave me a glimpse of that future with the right person.”

“Is she?”

He smiled slightly and shook his head. “I don’t know. I intend to spend as much time with her as I can while I’m here, not neglecting you, of course,” he hastened to add.

Case frowned. “But she’s a successful entertainer, and song writer, who has deep roots in this community. Would she even consider a move to Austin? Not likely. On top of that she shares custody of Jenny with Harrison. That’s probably the biggest reason a move is not going to happen.”

He examined the bottom of his wine glass for a moment or two. “It’s not like I can move to Lodi. We both know long-distance romances are usually doomed. I mean it’s fifteen hundred air miles to Austin alone.”

“Despite the obstacles, you intend to keep seeing her.” It was not a question.

“Yes. I want to be with her, and if it’s just for a short time, so be it. And if it doesn’t work out, then at least I know women like Cindy are out there somewhere...”

“And if there aren’t?”

Making light of the situation, he replied, “Then I’ll just have to be content with being single and wonderful Uncle Case to the children you and Chloe will certainly have!”

Juliet laughed.


They got up and cleared the dishes, and settled in with coffee and some lemon tart from a local bakery.

Juliet asked, “So how did all this...” she waved her hand indicating the table and meal and the Christmas tree and presents, “come about? I take it you weren’t just walking down Main Street and decided to accost the first beautiful woman you saw?”

He smiled. “No, we were sitting on a porch swing at Jessica Brandt’s home.”

“Wait. What? Now I’m really confused. You were at the Hacienda?”

“Yes, for brunch. Don’t tell me that wasn’t included in the local gossip.”

Juliet turned serious. She wore what he thought might be her ‘cop face.’ “I can tell you with certainty that no gossip ever, and I mean ever, comes out of the Willets/Brandt household. What goes on at that farm and behind those stucco walls, stays there. Even your cell phone won’t work without a special encrypted access code that changes all the time.

“I took a report one time from some moron who complained that someone shot down his drone when he flew it over their property. I followed up with the Brandt chief of security Alex Skarlatos...”

“I met her.”

“Yes, I expect you did. Undoubtedly, anyone new who comes to the Hacienda meets her, or one of her security team. Anyway, about the drone, Alex and her team deploy some kind of electronic anti-drone technology, which not only shuts them down but fries their components. The moron got his toy back but it’ll never fly again.”

“They do take security pretty seriously.”

“Yes, and if there’s a threat we don’t know about it. There have never been any reports to LPD of problems out at the farm. Of course, with a team of four security people I figure they can pretty much handle things on their own without police involvement. We don’t encourage vigilantism, but...” She shrugged.

“And now as someone who has been granted access to the inner sanctum, more than likely there is an electronic dossier on you in Skarlatos’s files. Had you not passed muster you’d not have been sitting anywhere inside the compound, especially on a porch swing with Cindy McCabe.”

I figured something was up when Alex asked me to repeat my name when we were still at the Y. She probably had me vetted before we even reached the Hacienda and that was pretty much confirmed by Cindy’s comments after we got in her truck.

“Is that even legal?”

“Sure, as long as the information is from public records. You’d be amazed how much of your life is floating around out there.” Juliet smiled. “Now I’m dying to know how you swung a brunch invitation.”

“Nothing mysterious about that. I ran into Harrison Willets and Matt Kipling in the locker room at the Y this morning, and we got to talking and then as we walked out, we met Jessica, and then I was invited to brunch.”

She shook her head. “You’ve been here less than twenty-four hours and you’ve already breakfasted with the most influential people in town, and on top of that you managed to spend the day with Cindy McCabe. This is unbelievable!”

“Inconceivable?”

“That, too.” She smiled at the reference to one of her favorite films. “Cindy’s also involved in a number of charities in town, and she’s a big supporter of a school for orphan girls up in Red Bluff. I expect there was a lot of curiosity about you.”

“Yes, but I’m a stranger, and curiosity is normal. Right?”

Juliet shook her head. “Well, sort of, but you have to understand Cindy rarely dates, so having her walking arm in arm through town with a stranger almost caused an overload of the gossip mill.”

He was happy to hear there was no one else in her life. “Overloaded the gossip mill, huh?”

“Yes. I first heard the shocking news when I stopped at the Daily Grind for coffee about noon and one of the regulars came in, or I guess I should say, rushed in and asked the owner, Alexa, if she had any idea of the identity of the tall hunk with Cindy. Alexa’s coffee shop is like ground zero for gossip in Lodi.”

“Tall hunk?”

“Hey. I’m only reporting what I heard, not the accuracy,” she said with a smile.

“And when did you come to discover the ‘tall hunk’ was your brother? A break at the donut shop?”

She stuck out her tongue. “No smarty, when I watched you and Cindy walk out of the Rosewood, and she had her arm through yours. That must have been some lunch. I was in a patrol car just down the street, but I suspect you wouldn’t have noticed even if I’d blasted the siren. You and Cindy were looking pretty ... well, chummy.”

Case nodded. Some lunch? Yes, it was. What did I have for lunch anyway? I do remember she showed me several photos of Jenny and talked about growing up on a ranch in Montana. I seem to recall telling her about growing up on a farm in South Carolina.

“So how did you get from sitting on the porch swing at the Hacienda with Cindy to shopping, decorating, cooking, and having lunch at the Rosewood?”

“I asked her advice about a Christmas gift for you, and she volunteered to take me to some shops where I might find something.”

Juliet glanced at the beautifully wrapped packages under the tree. “Yes, the gossip mill was full of that – you and Cindy shopping. Looks like that mission was a success, though,” she teased.

“Well, I couldn’t make up my mind and Cindy had lots of good suggestions.”

“I really don’t know her, but since she helped pick out gifts for me, and she likes you enough to spend the day, which included decorating my home and cooking dinner, my estimation has gone up several notches!”

Case studied his smiling sister for a few moments. “I’m glad, because I’d like to keep her, and if you like her, then that’s one less obstacle.”

Juliet grinned. “You have my blessing.” She reached over and put her hand on his. “Seriously, I’m happy for you. I was worried that with my hours you’d be left at loose ends, but I do know Cindy’s a nice person and I think you two would make a great couple.”

He laughed. “From your mouth to God’s ears!”

It was her turn to be serious. “You’re tied to your new job for a year, but after that you’ll be in position to go anywhere, even Lodi. If Cindy’s the one, and you’re the one for her, then she’ll wait.”

“Damn the torpedoes, and full speed ahead?”

“Something like that. Haven’t you ever heard love will find a way?” she teased.

“Okay, I bow to your irrefutable female logic.” He touched the rim of his cup to hers. “Here’s to, love will find a way.”

They both chuckled.


“She’s invited me to a Christmas party tomorrow night hosted by Jessica Brandt and La Banda Sage at Three Corners Farm.”

Juliet paused, her coffee cup midway to her mouth, a look of astonishment on her face. “Case, I’m sure you have no idea how difficult it is to get an invitation to that party. Many in this town would give a lot to be on that invitation list. And it really is invitation only and restricted to people Alex has vetted.”

“Oh.”

“Yes, ‘oh.’ It started a couple of years ago as a Christmas Eve celebration for friends and family and they try very hard to keep it that way. Like everything else at Three Corners Farm, information is pretty limited – no photos have ever surfaced on social media. I do know it’s family oriented and Santa puts in an appearance, and that’s about all. Oh, and it’s over by 11 pm when the buses roll up to take almost everyone to midnight Mass at St. Anne’s – most of the members of Sage play an instrument or sing in the Church choir.”

Case shook his head. “I had no idea. Cindy just described it as a Christmas Eve party, but she made it clear I was her date.”

She smiled. “A very positive development – that woman is interested.”

“Despite the obstacles?”

“She’s smart, and I suspect she sees the same problems you do; she has to realize that the only realistic solution is for you to move to Lodi.”

“But what would I do?”

“You have fourteen months to figure it out and you and Cindy could put your heads together to plan your future.”

Maybe, instead of that house in Austin, I should buy an airplane.

They were quiet for a few moments, and then Juliet asked, “Have you met Cindy’s daughter yet?”

“This morning. She appears to be as smart and talented as her mother. She and four other girls were rehearsing some songs for the annual feed the hungry event at the church hall on Christmas Day. She said you’d be there, so I volunteered to help out.”

She reached over and squeezed his hand. “That’s my brother. It’s no wonder I’m so proud of you.”

“And Jenny persuaded me to sit in with them on Christmas. I mentioned I knew a couple Zac Brown songs, so we’re on tap to rehearse for a couple of hours in the morning at The Farm. Cindy’s going to pick me up. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all. I’m happy you’re getting out, and especially happy you have a date with Cindy for Christmas Eve, since I have to work. And it sounds like you’re well on your way to winning over Jenny.”

He sipped his coffee. “She’s pretty special.”


After clearing away the dessert dishes, poured fresh coffee, and moved to the living room sofa, Case went on about his morning. “Jessica and Harrison’s place is amazing. They host a mob of people for brunch every Saturday and a couple times a year they have six girls as guests who are recipients of a college scholarship named after her late grandfather.

“The brunch rivals most restaurants, and friends and family and staff all get together to share that meal. Jessica claims most of the credit for making the place run like a well-oiled machine is due to the efforts of their assistant, Valeria.”

Juliet’s expression tuned serious. “Did you meet her?”

He smiled. “Oh, yes. I was impressed. She really does make their lives much easier. If I could wrangle a personal assistant in my new job, I’d want someone just like her. I wonder if she has an older sister, who’d like to move to Austin to take care of me,” he teased. “Do you know her?”

Juliet sat back in her chair. “Yes, I do, and she doesn’t have any siblings.”

He grinned. “Oh, too bad. So how do you know her? Is she one of your Dojo groupies like Jenny?”

Juliet smiled, but her smile faded as she thought about her response for a few seconds. “I don’t know her personally, but the fact she works for Jessica Brandt makes her very visible in this town. Her visibility is also higher, especially with LPD, because she’s the granddaughter of Rafael Ramirez, who is the nearest thing Lodi has to a crime boss.”

Case digested that information for a few seconds and slowly nodded. “I can see that the Lodi Police Department might be interested in some crime boss, but really, she’s Jessica Brandt’s assistant. Harrison and Jessica, and the people that surround them, seem to be about as law-abiding as they come. So how did she become their assistant anyway?”

“That’s what LPD would like to know.”

“So LPD thinks something must be going on between upstanding citizen Jessica Brandt and crime boss Rafael Ramirez, to have her hire his granddaughter to be her personal assistant?”

“In a nutshell.”

“Any proof of that?”

“Well, there is the fact that out of the blue sixteen-year-old Valeria made an appearance as Jessica Brandt’s intern on Christmas Day three years ago at the feed the hungry event at St Anne’s. She’s worked for her since.”

“And there was no contact with this Mr. Ramirez before that?”

“Nobody knows.”

“You mean as far as Lodi Police know.”

“Right.”

“What about Valeria’s parents? How do they fit in this?”

“No father listed on the birth certificate and her mother, Ramirez’s only child, took off a few years ago and is living in Europe.”

“So, granddad had to step in. That’s rough on her.”

“Considering the mother’s record with LPD and elsewhere, maybe not. Anyway, Valeria seemed destined to follow in her mother’s bad girl footsteps. At the expensive private boarding school in Sacramento she was less than a sterling pupil - mediocre grades at best, bad attitude, fights, skipping class. It must have driven her grandfather crazy. But right after she went to work for Jessica, she transferred to Lodi High and became a model student.”

“So, Grandfather Ramirez somehow convinces Jessica Brandt to take on his granddaughter who’s having problems, and the girl does a complete turnaround. It seems like Ramirez would be beholden to Jessica.”

“True, but what’s Ramirez got on Brandt to convince her to take on this troubled teen? That’s what LPD worries about.”

“Have there been any problems?”

“Problems?”

“Like has the Brandt place become a hotbed of crime?”

Juliet smiled and shook her head. “You’re right about Jessica and her husband - they are about as law-abiding and reputable as they come, and Jessica is well known for helping troubled teen girls.”

Case smiled. “And Valeria? From my short interaction she seems as upstanding as they are.”

“Yes, she is. Valeria is devoted to them. Actually, she’s a Jessica clone with dark hair.”

Case considered a moment. “I can see that. The whole place revolves around them and Valeria seems determined to keep it running smoothly.”

Juliet nodded. “However, the job with Jessica came about, it seems a match made in heaven. She’s as brilliant and driven as Jessica and most of the people who are in the Brandt/Willets orbit. A year and a half after taking the job she graduated with honors from Lodi High while taking college classes and working for Jessica and her assistant at the time, Rashmi Moore. She had big shoes to fill taking over from Rashmi.”

“Oh. I met them at brunch. Her husband Tom is a Marine Corps Afghan vet and they were on their way to spend Christmas with her family in London.” Case left out any mention of the chronograph.

“So, I guess I need to mind my manners around Valeria because otherwise granddaddy or a guy named Ramón, and or maybe even Alex Skarlatos, would kick my butt.”

Juliet smiled indulgently. “That pretty much covers it. Her grandfather dotes on her and she reciprocates. She goes to church with him each Sunday and then they spend the day at his home.”

“How do Jessica and Harrison survive on Sundays without her?” he asked cheekily.

“Simple, Valeria has an understudy named Luna who is a relative of the guy who manages the Farm. The girl has a juvie record - nothing serious. Valeria took her in hand and now she’s a Valeria clone.”

“Now I’m curious. Has granddaddy, or Ramón – not having met granddaddy, I’d say it would be Ramón – ever had to step in because someone didn’t mind their manners?”

Juliet turned serious again. “As you know, Cindy manages and sings with La Banda Sage, and about a year and a half ago one of the women in the group was involved in a nasty divorce. Her husband was, on the surface, a big affable guy who worked construction. The problem was he was extremely jealous, and it got worse when she started making serious money – more money than he did – while she was with Sage. According to all reports there was no reason for him to be jealous. Cindy keeps a pretty tight rein on her girls anyway.

“They split because he tried to use her as a punching bag. Thankfully, her injuries weren’t severe and she immediately filed for divorce and got a restraining order. He tried all the tricks and ploys to try to get her back, but she wasn’t fooled and the other members of the group rallied around. I heard that he even showed up at one of their concerts out of town and tried to grab her after the show. Fortunately for her, and unfortunately for him, he was met by Matt Kipling, who was providing security. No police report was filed but I have it on good authority that Matt taught him the error of his ways, at least for a short time.”

“And?”

“Well, a couple of months later Valeria, and the now ex-wife and some others, walk out of a restaurant downtown and are accosted by a very drunk ex-husband. They were being shadowed by Ramón. Obviously, you’ve met him.”

“We didn’t meet, but I saw him around at brunch and he was driving the Escalade that picked up Valeria at the Y. He watches over her like a mother hen.”

Juliet shook her head. “More like a hawk. He would give his life for that girl.”

“Not just the hired muscle, then?”

“No. Anyway, this ex has Ramón by about twenty pounds but it made no difference. Ramón knocked him on his ass and trussed him with some zip ties.”

“Nice work, Ramón.”

She nodded. “About that time, I rolled up along with another unit. There were enough witnesses that it was pretty clear ex-husband was the instigator and in violation of the still standing restraining order. That was backed up later by the stuff we pulled from the restaurant’s security cameras. We got cuffs on the ex and pulled him up, but he wouldn’t keep his mouth shut and started making threats about what he’d do to the ex-wife. Then he made what I consider his fatal mistake, he started in on what he was going to do to Valeria.”

“Not smart.”

“No, not smart. I watched Ramón. He didn’t go after the guy, he just stood between the guy and Valeria as calm as could be, even a slight smile on his face, but I saw his eyes and I knew the guy was toast.”

“Ramón’s not in jail, so I guess you’re going to tell me that something bad happened to the ex.”

Juliet nodded. “That was the middle of the day on a Saturday and the ex spent the weekend in jail and was finally released on bail Monday morning. A couple days later one of his coworkers came by the station to report he’d not been at work, and there was no answer at his apartment. As a junior cop they sent me out to the apartment to follow up. The landlady let me in. There was no trace of the guy. The place was rented furnished, but there were no personal items or clothing. It looked like he’d cleared out. The landlady said she thought she heard his motorcycle early Tuesday morning.”

“Once he sobered up, he probably figured he needed to get out of Dodge.”

“That’s what I thought, too, but I’d seen Ramón. I keep checking, but in over a year there’s been no sign of the guy – no new registration for his bike, no renewed driver’s license, no employment record under his social – not just California but nationwide per the FBI. I even contacted his parents in Portland. They don’t have the best relationship but they would hear from him occasionally – nada.”

Case frowned. “Maybe he’s working off-book somewhere.”

“I considered that, but this guy’s not very smart and he’s a drinker, and when he drinks, he gets in trouble. I’m convinced if he was still alive, he’d have been in trouble by now and I’d have heard.”

Case thought for a while. “What I saw this morning was a close-knit extended family that takes care of each other. They are also welcoming to people who might fit in, but nobody gets a pass. I figured out that Alex Skarlatos did a quick background check on me before I even got through the door of the Hacienda – later confirmed by Cindy – and probably something more in-depth before Cindy and I left for our shopping trip.”

Juliet interrupted. “But don’t you think that’s a bit overboard? Don’t you feel a bit uneasy that they are privy to all kinds of information about you?”

Case shook his head. “Like you did with Valeria? I don’t think school records are public documents.”

“That’s different. She’s a person of interest because of her close ties to her grandfather.”

“Right.” He left it there and went on. “Juliet, you’re a cop. You know there are lots of two-legged monsters out there. Harrison and Jessica are wealthy people with a daughter and surrounded by people who have children and appear to lead normal lives. I don’t blame them for being cautious. As far as Valeria is concerned, there is no doubt in my mind she had nothing to do with the disappearance of her friend’s ex. Ramón, though, is another story. His job is to protect Valeria and to take threats seriously, even from a drunk. It sounds like anyone who caused the ex to disappear did the world a favor, or at least the next woman who might have ended up with an abusive drunk.”

“Threats from drunks are not capital offenses. If they were death row would be filled with them.”

“Yes, you’re right in the abstract, but if someone, drunk or sober was threatening to harm you I’d be a mite upset.”

“Like Tommy Welch in fifth grade?”

Case nodded. He knew his sister wanted to change the subject. “He was a tough little bastard, and mean. Bloodied my nose.”

“Well, he’d failed a couple of grades so he was closer to your age.” She laughed. “But you finally got his attention. He left me alone after that.”

He smiled. “I was more afraid to face mom with a bloody torn shirt.”

Juliet came around the table and hugged him. “My hero.”


Lost in thought, Cindy stared at the beautifully decorated tree that adorned her living room. She sat on her large sofa with her tablet on her lap thinking about Case Reynolds and the information provided by Alex ‘Xena’ Skarlatos. In the background, Jenny was in her bedroom playing her guitar. She smiled as she recognized Zac Brown’s Colder Weather.

Everything here reinforces what I already thought – Case is more than a nice guy – responsible, hard-working, a founding partner in a startup air service – a company that is solidly in the black and growing.

Xena had included copies of laudatory articles about Air-Bytes from Forbes, The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Orange County Register, Austin American Statesman, and others. Her summary had also included the important fact that none of the original investors had sold any shares of the corporation.

Case’s financials showed a modest saving account which grew every month, and more importantly, no debt.

Should I be concerned that he owns nothing tangible and doesn’t even have a place to live? His home is an airplane hangar.

Cindy sighed and sat back as she read his citations for bravery in Afghanistan. Self-sacrificing, too.

She set her tablet on the coffee table in front of her and slowly shook her head. Admit it, girl, you have a silly school-girl crush on a guy who you’re likely to never see again. He’s based in Austin and the closest he ever comes to Lodi is his 30-minute stop in San Jose - which is a hundred miles away - to pick up and drop off high-tech materials.

She smiled at a silly vision of herself, wearing a frilly apron and running out to his airplane in San Jose, to give him a kiss and a bag of brownies she had baked that morning, before watching him take off again for his next stop.

With my schedule, when would I even have time to bake brownies, much less to drive to San Jose? And it’s not like I could relocate to Austin. Maybe I could find him a job locally – crop duster? No.

It’s damned unfair. I finally meet a guy I’d like to spend a lot more time with – why does he have to be a pilot?

Cindy went back into Xena’s report and went to the photo file. Included were photos of the CEO, and founding partner, Cassandra Cavanaugh, and the CFO, Anastasia Walsh, another founding partner. It was a pretty formal photo with Cavanaugh and Walsh in an office. They were both dressed in expensive-looking suits that fit their model-like figures perfectly. Both had professional-looking haircuts and exuded confidence as they looked at the camera. As Cindy studied the photo, she wondered how old the CEO was. She didn’t look much older than her mid-twenties. The equally stunning, auburn-haired CFO looked to be in her late twenties. The report said the CEO was based in Orange County, and the CFO in Austin.

There was another photo which was credited to the Austin newspaper, and was entitled, ‘Meet the pilots of Air-Bytes.’ Standing with Case in front of a white single-engine airplane were two women and a man. They were all dressed in white shirts, dark slacks, and leather flight jackets, and identified as Jeff and Rachel Paulson, and Vika Vishnevsky.

Cindy frowned as she noticed tall blonde Vika, who looked to be in her early twenties, at most, was the only one not facing the camera. She was standing close and smiling up at Case.

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