A Lodi Christmas
Copyright© 2019 by AA Nemo
We’ll meet again. Don’t know where, don’t know when
But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day
Keep smiling through, just like you always do
Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds away
Hughie Charles, Ross Parker
Numbness. Case could hear the doctor, but somehow everything was filtered to incomprehension after he heard her say, ‘I’m sorry, we did everything we could, but her injuries were just too severe.”
He hung his head as the tears came.
How could this happen? We were together just a few hours ago.
Visions of an excited Juliet from this morning overlaid whatever the doctor was saying: Juliet smiling as they exchanged gifts in front of the beautiful tree he and Cindy had selected; Juliet’s surprise and happiness when she saw her new watch; he and Juliet, riding to St. Anne’s, the two of them singing along with some of the carols on the radio, just like when they were kids.
“Mr. Reynolds?” He felt the doctor’s hand on his hand.
“They’re probably done cleaning her up. Would you like to see her?”
He had no voice, so he could only nod. The doctor handed him some tissues.
I’m still crying? See her? Is that what she said? How can I see her? She’s dead. There’s no Juliet to see.
The doctor stood, and her voice broke when she said, “Please come this way.”
This is no unfeeling surgeon. She looks emotionally and physically drained. I wonder how many surgeries she gets where she can’t save a woman who was in the prime of her life – prime of her life, gunned down in the parking lot by thugs, just outside of where she works?
They went through the door and down the corridor, until they got to a sign that read, ‘Staff Only.’ That led to a short hallway and the doctor ushered him into a sterile-looking windowless room with a harsh overhead light. Juliet was on a gurney – all but her head covered by a light blanket.
“Mr. Reynolds, please accept my deepest sympathy. I didn’t know Officer ... your sister, but I knew of her. Her loss will diminish this community. Please stay as long as you want, no one will disturb you. A nurse will come by with her personal effects in a little while, though.”
“Thank you, doctor.”
She glanced at Juliet, and shook her head just slightly, perhaps thinking gratitude was misplaced.
“Oh, and one more thing. When the nurse comes in, she’ll also have some information about grief counseling. It’s not the usual eye-wash. There are only three referrals on the list, and I know them. They’re excellent. I would highly recommend you talk to one of them or someone you trust.”
He was surprised when she ignored his outstretched hand and briefly hugged him, tears in her eyes.
After she left Case stood near his sister, his tears gone.
No, Juliet’s not here. She’s been replaced by this gray, lifeless thing on the gurney.
He pulled up the only chair in the room and sat next to her. He couldn’t bring himself to take her hand, so he just placed one hand on her shoulder, over the blanket.
“I’m sorry, Juliet.” He hung his head. “I’m your big brother, I should have been able to protect you like I did with Tommy Welch. I just can’t imagine my life without you in it. I know we didn’t see a lot of each other over the last few years, but we were still connected.
“I know it must be terrible to say, but I’m glad you killed four of the bastards. I saw Valeria tonight. She’s in shock, but she’ll be okay. Ramón was with her. He feels responsible. Whoever did this to you will pay. I know that won’t bring you back but, but...”
The tears came again.
Cindy looked at her phone.
Where has the time gone?
She’d spent a better part of an hour with a young woman who had a large bruise on her face and a split lip. These were recent injuries, delivered by an abusive alcoholic husband. When he had passed out, she’d thrown some items in some suitcases and backpacks and taken her two small children from their rental house in Reno and fled. When she got to Lodi, she was almost out of gas. In desperation she drove to St. Anne’s and discovered a Christmas miracle.
Cindy had taken her in hand, listened to her story, and introduced her to the VFW representatives. For the next week she would have a hotel room and vouchers for meals and gas. Tomorrow she had an appointment at a local health clinic to assess her injuries, and an appointment with a job counselor, and a volunteer attorney.
She seems too smart to have gotten hooked up with a violent drunk, but who am I to talk? Before marriage and children, she was a bookkeeper. I don’t expect she’ll have much trouble finding a job here, or nearby, and the VFW guys, and gals will get her housing sorted out.
The woman, Adrian, hugged her as she and her children left to catch one of the shuttles. Her car would be serviced and gassed and returned to her tomorrow compliments of the VFW.
I’m ready to call it a night. Where’s Case?
The church hall was almost empty except for those helping with cleanup. She spotted Jessica near the door to the kitchen.
No sign of Valeria either. Odd.
Cindy crossed the room. “Jessica, have you seen Case?”
“Cindy, thanks, as always, for all your help today. No, I haven’t. I know he’s been in and out helping get people to their cars and shuttles. He’s probably not far. By the way, have you seen Valeria – not like her to just disappear.”
Cindy looked around. “No, I haven’t.” She grinned, “Maybe she’s abducted Case and is having her way with him in the parking lot!”
Jessica chuckled, but it seemed tinged with worry.
Jenny and Essie approached. They looked distressed.
Before Cindy could say anything, Jessica asked, “What’s the matter?”
Essie answered. “We’ve been all over looking for Case and went out to the parking lot and one of the off-duty police officers said a patrol car came and picked him up and took him to Lodi Memorial.”
“He told us he overheard the officer say something to Case about a shooting, and Officer Reynolds in emergency surgery.”
Cindy felt as if she’d taken a blow to the stomach.
Case’s sister, Juliet, shot, emergency surgery? But she was here. When did this happen? Not here. When did she leave, and why? I’ve got to go to Case!
Two of their volunteer off-duty police officers, Jerry Price and Letizia Flores, came in and approached Jessica. “Sorry we have to leave before everyone is gone, but we’ve been called into work. Apparently, there was some kind of shooting in the hospital parking lot, and every officer has been told to report.”
“Do you have any details? We’ve just learned that Officer Reynolds was involved in some kind of shooting and is in emergency surgery.”
The officers looked at each other and both shook their heads. Jerry said, “That’s bad news, but more than we know.”
Jessica nodded. “I understand, and thank you, and thank you for giving up part of your Christmas to help out.”
“We’re happy to do it.”
They turned to leave and Jessica called after them, “Have you seen my assistant Valeria Ramirez?” She smiled slightly. “You know, the one with the short hair and tablet in hand, running around trying to keep this organized.”
“We know who you mean.” Jerry paused. “Oh.” Then paused again, looking concerned. “I did see her about an hour ago. She was with Juliet, I mean Officer Reynolds, and they were in a hurry. Juliet stopped for a second and talked to Officer Billings, then they got in Juliet’s SUV and drove off.”
Jessica paled. Cindy was sure the look of fear on Jessica’s face reflected her own.
Letizia said, “We hope she’s okay.”
Jessica pulled out her phone and scrolled through her texts. “I’ve been too busy to check messages. “Damn.” She said softly, “About an hour ago, I got a text from Valeria that she was on her way to Lodi Memorial because her grandfather had been admitted with a heart attack. Juliet was giving her a ride.”
Jessica’s fingers moved across her phone. “I just sent her a text.”
Cindy’s phone chimed. She read the text. “It’s from Case. He’s at the hospital and Juliet’s in surgery.” She looked at Jessica. “He’s asked me to tell you Valeria is okay and with Ramón.”
Jessica’s relief was palpable. “Thank God she’s okay. No other details?”
Cindy shook her head.
“Cindy, we’re mostly wrapped up here. I know you’re anxious to get over to Lodi Memorial and spend some time with Case, so get going.”
“You’ve read my mind.”
Jenny and Essie looked expectantly at Jessica and Cindy, but it was Jessica who disabused them of any idea of going to the hospital with Cindy. “I know you want to go too, but there’s no need. Case is dealing with enough right now, and we shouldn’t overwhelm him. Right?”
Both nodded, their disappointment obvious.
“Cindy will keep us posted. By the way Cindy, Jenny will stay with us tonight.”
Cindy nodded. She hugged Jenny, and to Essie’s surprise, she hugged her also.
Moments later she was in her truck on the way to the hospital.
He didn’t know how long he sat there, embracing the numbness that had returned, or perhaps had never gone away.
He heard a soft knock, followed by a nurse entering. She was Latina, dressed in scrubs, and seemed very young.
“I’m sorry for the interruption sir, but I brought Officer Reynolds’ effects.” She handed him a plastic zip-lock. “I know this isn’t a good time, but will you sign for them, please?”
He glanced at the bag. He saw her phone in its wallet case, her police badge in its leather case, her new watch, and her keys. All of them looked as if someone had tried to remove dried blood. They had not been entirely successful.
He took the clipboard and signed.
“Thank you. By the way, here is our list of grief counseling referrals.” She handed him an envelope.
She turned to leave. “Nurse?”
“I don’t want to go out through the waiting room, or the Emergency Department ... there are some people I don’t want to see. Is there...”
“Whenever you’re ready, I’ll be glad to show you another way.”
He took one more look at the body that used to be Juliet. “I’m ready now.”
She took him through a number of empty corridors to a door that she explained led to employee parking.
As he was about to leave, she said, “I’m sorry about your sister.”
He only nodded and went into the night.
When Cindy approached the hospital, she was directed away from the parking lot near the emergency room. What she saw was pretty distressing. A portable generator had been set up to run powerful lights that illuminated an SUV that appeared to be damaged, and a van that was a short distance away. It had started to rain, so it was hard to see much.
That’s probably Juliet’s SUV. So, it happened here at the hospital? Why? Who would want to shoot Juliet? She’s a cop. But...
Suddenly, it became clear. This must be about Valeria. Somebody once mentioned that Valeria’s grandfather is some kind of crime boss in Lodi. I really didn’t pay much attention since knowing Valeria and seeing her work with Jessica, I found that impossible to believe. He was at Mass last night and at the Hacienda just this morning. He doesn’t seem to be anything other than a successful businessman, and Valeria’s grandfather.
There is Ramón, though. He’s obviously her bodyguard and with her if she’s not at the Hacienda. I’ve hardly given that a thought considering all the security around that place. Certainly, Harrison and Jessica wouldn’t have anything to do with Rafael Ramirez if he was a criminal...
Suddenly a chill swept through her. What if Jenny had decided to go along to the hospital tonight?
Case said Valeria is all right. Does that mean Juliet dropped off Valeria before the shooting? And where was Ramón? She’s with him now, but what does that mean?
Cindy parked near the main entrance, and then made her way through the hospital to the emergency department.
Cindy knew the woman behind the check-in desk. “Hi, Kelli, I’m looking for Case Reynolds ... he’s Officer Reynolds’ brother.”
Kelli gave her an appraising look, obviously trying to figure out the connection. Cindy didn’t volunteer any information.
“Sure, he’s in surgery waiting.”
“Thanks. Any news about Officer Reynolds?”
She shook her head, and turned away when the phone rang. Cindy followed the signs to surgery waiting. It was empty except for Joanna Banks, a hospital volunteer.
“Hi Cindy, what brings you my way, especially tonight? Jenny okay?”
We could be having a whole different conversation if Jenny had gone with Juliet.
Cindy knew that was unlikely, but Jenny did know Juliet from the Dojo and considered Valeria a friend. She suppressed a shiver.
“No, Jenny’s fine ... It’s just I’m looking for Case Reynolds. Kelli in the ER said he was here. He’s Officer Reynolds’ brother and I know she’s been hurt and in surgery.”
Joanna’s face fell.
“He’s in with the surgeon.”
“Is Officer Reynolds going to be all right?” I know you’re not supposed to discuss patients with non-family members.
“Cindy, how well do you know Mr. Reynolds?”
That’s an odd question.
She paused. How do I describe our relationship?
“I just met him a couple of days ago, we’re friends...”
And I’d like to make our relationship a lot more than that.
Joanna came around her desk and gave Cindy a long look, obviously deciding something, then she took Cindy’s hand and led her to one of the sofas and sat next to her.
“This news has already gone out to LPD, so I expect it will be public shortly. Officer Reynolds did not survive her wounds.”
Cindy just stared at the woman, suddenly feeling light-headed. She was glad she was sitting.
How can that be? I just saw her at St. Anne’s not long ago. She was joking with Case, and so excited about his singing with Jenny and her group. She was wearing one of her new sweaters and proudly showed me her new watch. She thanked me for helping pick out the perfect Christmas gifts, and for the pre-Christmas decorations and dinner surprise at her condo.
Suddenly the tears came.
How will Case be able to bear it? What can I say to him? What will I say when he comes out from talking to the surgeon?
The older woman put her arms around Cindy and let her cry for a few minutes, until she got control of herself. She got up and brought Cindy a glass of water and some tissues.
“You can wait right here until he comes out. It may be a while, since he may want to spent some time with his sister.”
Cindy just nodded.
I should text Jessica, and Jenny too. That can wait until I see Case.
Case hardly noticed the soft rain as he headed across the mostly empty parking lot, no destination in mind, clutching the plastic bag that held Juliet’s things. He just wanted to be away from this place. Even from the opposite side of the hospital, he could see the lights from the police cars reflecting against the low clouds.
Still investigating? What’s to investigate? Thugs tried to kidnap Valeria, and they murdered my sister.
What time is it? How’d it get to be eleven already? That means it’s ... two a.m. in Barnwell? I’ve got to call them. What will I say?
He made the call and got his father. His sleepy voice came instantly awake when he heard Case’s voice. Two a.m. calls are never good news. As soon as his mother got on the speakerphone, he gave them an abbreviated version of the events of the night. As he spoke tears mingled with the rain that dripped down his face.
He convinced them not to come to Lodi, assuring them he would be bringing Juliet home in the next couple of days.
Not really Juliet. Got to figure out how to do that.
Was it only yesterday morning when we spoke to them, and Chloe, for over an hour?
Chloe was home from Georgia Tech on Christmas break, and good-naturedly chided them both for being absent. They had compared Christmas gifts and recalled Christmases past, and laughed with those memories. Mom was baking a Christmas ham and they were going to have a house full as usual.
Christmas will never be the same in the Reynolds household.
Sometime later, by some miracle, he ended up in front of Juliet’s condo. He stood looking at the front steps for a long time trying to comprehend where he was before realizing he had somehow managed to find it.
He started to walk up the stairs when he heard a voice.
What the? It’s Cindy. Where’d she come from?
Case looked in the direction of the voice and saw her climb out of her truck. She ran to him, and put her arms around him. “I’m so sorry!”
Bad news travels fast.
“Where have you been? I was at the hospital, but I guess I missed you. I’ve been calling ... Oh, you’re soaked. Let’s get inside.”
I’m soaked? Yeah, it’s raining – I knew that, I don’t care. My phone? I’ve been feeling it vibrate in my pocket, since I called Mom and Dad, but somehow that didn’t register.
They walked up the short flight to the door and he put in the code and went inside and disarmed the alarm system.
It’s warm. I’m freezing ... and wet. This denim jacket sure wasn’t enough. Suddenly partial lyrics to an old song spun through his head. It never rains in California, but girl don’t they warn ya? It pours, man, it pours.
I want to laugh, but that doesn’t seem right – no laughing – no laughing ever again.
Sorrow, like a giant millstone, threatened to drag him into some abyss.
The Christmas tree – it’s still here. Why wouldn’t it still be here, along with the gift bags on the floor next to the sofa? He shook his head. Christmas morning was just a few hours ago. Seems longer.
The gaily decorated tree, and the garlands and all the decorations that he and Cindy had put up and Juliet enjoyed so much, seemed to mock him.
What’ll I do with all this stuff - all Juliet’s stuff?
He looked down and he was still holding the zip lock bag. He set it on the dining table.
Oh, Cindy’s here. Yeah, I remember.
She guided him up the stairs to his room, and moved behind him and stripped off his sodden jacket.
She faced him. “I want you to finish getting undressed and then get in a hot shower.” She pointed to the open door to the bath. “Call if you need anything. I’m going downstairs and get you something hot to drink. Will you be okay? Do you need something to eat?”
He just looked at her, and nodded. She gave him a gentle shove toward the bathroom.
Cindy looks worried. Will I be okay? Right now, to take a shower? Probably. Otherwise, I may never be okay again. It feels like my life stopped when Juliet’s did. She wouldn’t want that. No, she wouldn’t want that at all.
Like an automaton, he stripped and got in the shower. He started replaying the last couple of days. Juliet had been so happy. They had spent all that time just talking. She was his sounding board, his advisor, his best friend.
How could this happen to her?
“Case, come on, get out of there.”
What? Cindy’s here. She’s turning off the shower. The water is already cold. I don’t remember the water getting cold. I’m naked with Cindy, but she’s not. Too bad. Wasn’t the way I envisioned it at all.
Case shivered as she rubbed him with a large towel. He just stood watching her. It was like all this was happening to someone else. She produced a thick terry robe from somewhere.
Oh, I remember, Juliet got it for me for Christmas.
Soon they were downstairs again, and she placed a steaming mug in his hands, as they sat on the sofa. She folded her legs under her and sipped from her drink.
He took a healthy swallow, and felt the alcohol warm his insides. “What’s this?”
“Hot buttered rum.”
“Remember? We bought the ingredients and mixed up a batch. It was in the freezer. Just add boiling water and rum, or in my case leave out the rum, since I’m driving.”
Oh. I was hoping she’d stay. No, as much as I’d like that, I won’t ask, and I need more time alone.
He took another swallow, and then another. It started to have the desired effect, warming his insides, and interestingly, helping him think more clearly.
This is how I felt when they dragged me out of my airplane in Afghanistan. I’m in shock.
“Would you like another?”
He shook his head.
“How are you feeling now?” She looked at him with genuine concern.
He thought about her question. “Actually, I’m better. It’s just the shock.”
She watched him. He was glad she didn’t say anything. He was sure he would hear enough platitudes in the coming days.
Cindy took his hand. “There’s nothing I can say that will make the hurt go away. I’m sorry about Juliet, though.”
“Do you think you’ll be able to sleep?”
“I’ll come by tomorrow.” She looked at her phone. “Actually, that’s later today. How about noon?”
“What time is it?”
“It’s almost one.”
How’d that happen?
“Okay, noon will be fine. I think I’m going to need some help with all the things I have to do...”
“I know most people in town, and if I don’t, Jessica certainly does. Plus, you’ll need access to a car.”
His mind flashed to the brief look he’d had at Juliet’s SUV in the parking lot, smashed against a post, and the bodies on the ground. He shuddered.
“I think so, just sometimes scenes from tonight just barge their way in.”
She squeezed his hand.
After a few moments, she stood and took the mugs to the kitchen. He heard water running. When she came out, she was carrying Juliet’s land-line phone.
“I’ve unplugged the kitchen phone. I expect there’s another upstairs. You should unplug that one, too.”
Why does she even have a landline? Maybe cops have to have one. Maybe I can get that cancelled tomorrow.
Who’s going to call? Oh, right, newspapers, reporters, and people I don’t know, offering condolences. I don’t want to talk to any of them. Anyone important will have my cell number. I’ll have to turn off Juliet’s cell phone, too.
He didn’t relish the thought of taking her blood-stained phone wallet from the plastic bag.
He walked Cindy to the door. “Thank you.”
“No thanks needed. I’m just glad I was able to help.” She touched his face. “Get some rest. I’ll see you about noon.” She kissed him lightly on the lips and turned away.
He locked up and activated the security system. When he got to the top of the stairs he went to Juliet’s room. The bed was neatly made – how very Juliet. He wanted to be near her, so he got into her bed. It was comforting, and despite his worries he soon fell into an exhausted sleep.
Valeria woke up screaming, curling into a ball to avoid the flying glass, and covering her ears from the sound of gunshots.
“Valita, Valita, it’s okay. Wake up, you’re dreaming.” She opened her eyes in the semi darkness – there was only a small lamp in one corner of the room on a small table. Eduardo was sitting on the bed and holding her hands. He was amazingly gentle for such a big man. He had worked for her grandfather for as long as she could remember. He called her Valita, as he had done since she was a child. It was comforting. She looked around. “I ... I don’t know this place.”
“We’re in the mountains. Your grandfather owns this place. He and your grandmother used to come here. It’s safe.”
She nodded. “Where’s Ramón?”
“He’s with your Abuelo...”
“They won’t be able to hurt you again,” he said solemnly.
“And what about Officer Reynolds?”
He shook his head. “We have not heard. Ramón said she was badly hurt.”
After a few moments he said, “I’m sure we’ll find out more in the morning. Try to sleep. Should I bring you another of the pills the doctor gave you?”
Valeria shook her head. “I’ll try to sleep.”
As he reached the door, he said, “Buenas noches, Valita.”
She smiled at him, but quickly discovered smiling made her face hurt from where that kidnapper had struck her.
“Buenas noches, Tío Eduardo.”
She tried to sleep; her brain would not shut down; everything was a jumble. The pills made it almost impossible to hold onto her thoughts. Finally sleep came.
When she woke it was daylight and her head was much clearer. Unfortunately, that meant the events of last night came rushing back,