A Lodi Christmas
Copyright© 2019 by AA Nemo
Good morning heartache, here we go again
Good morning heartache, you’re the one who knew me best
Might as well get used to you hanging around
Good morning heartache, sit down
I turned and tossed until it seemed you had gone
But here you are again with the dawn
Irene Higginbotham, Ervin Drake, Dan Fisher
“Case, this is wonderful! I never realized flying could be so much fun!”
He grinned as he looked at Juliet. She was at the controls. “I thought it was obvious.”
“Why didn’t we do this sooner?”
“We should have, but it seemed we never had the time.”
His friend Aarash, sitting in the back, chimed in, “You should always make time for your sister. The time we have with family is fleeting and precious.”
Juliet nodded. “He’s right.” She smiled lovingly. “Case, now I have all the time in the world.” She reached over and gently touched the center of his chest. “I’ll always be flying with you now.”
“Juliet!” He jerked awake, his hand on his chest. The dream was both comforting and unsettling. He looked around. He was on board the Gulfstream chartered by Rafael Ramirez, taking Juliet’s ashes home.
He closed his eyes, not ready for the dream to go away just yet. Juliet had looked so happy, and Aarash had been there too.
He was right. The time with family is fleeting and precious. I never had enough time with Juliet. And, someday I’ll go to London and tell his family about Aarash the pilot, the patriot, and my friend.
Juliet would have loved flying. Why had I never taken her? Now it was too late; but what she said was true, she’ll always be inside me, always with me. I’ll never let myself forget.
Yes, I’ll never forget, but how do I make it through each day?
The last three days were madness, and he was sure he’d have lost his mind without Ms. Davis. She had helped him with so many important things when it came to Juliet and her estate, gently encouraging him to make decisions. She chauffeured him to appointments with Joe Cervantes, funeral directors, and others, while making sure he ate and slept. She even knew a tailor who could drop everything to make him a couple of suits appropriate for mourning and a funeral. Ms. Davis propped him up when he felt like he needed to crawl into a hole somewhere – a place with no light or sound where he would be left alone. She also kept the newshounds at bay, finding him a room in an out of the way bed and breakfast once Juliet’s apartment was cleared.
I feel like I’ve been dropped from some high place and when I landed, I broke into thousands of pieces. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Case together again.
Stop it! Feeling sorry for yourself solves nothing. I need to be strong for Mom and Dad and Chloe, and for Juliet, too. I’m the oldest, the big brother. I need to be the person the others can lean on. You’ve been shot up and shot down, and at the same time lost your best friend, Aarash. Now your other best friend has died, but this time you’re physically whole and others will depend on you.
He felt a warm hand touch his arm and then move down until it found his hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. He opened his eyes and looked at Valeria. Obviously, he’d awakened her.
They’d had a light breakfast just after they left Sacramento. Valeria had some yogurt and fruit, before she’d collapsed into a deep sleep. Now she was staring up at him from under thick wool blankets, her seat fully reclined next to him. Her dark eyes were luminous with unshed tears.
His throat was tight. He squeezed her hand in return. Somehow it felt right holding her hand.
She sighed and closed her eyes. She didn’t let go.
Why do I find her presence comforting? Maybe, because I can be the one who comforts her. Valeria is one more I have to be strong for. She’s been through a lot, and I can’t let her see the shattered Case Reynolds. I lost a sister, but she experienced the horror of the attack, and I know as well as anyone that it will take some time to come to grips with what happened. As a survivor, she’ll get to experience it again, and again, in sudden backflashes, and torturous, convoluted nightmares.
When Ms. Davis had dropped him at Sacramento Executive Airport this morning the Gulfstream was ready to go. Valeria and Ramón were already on board. For security reasons, they had boarded while the plane was still in the hangar.
When he entered the cabin, Valeria, looking wan and uncharacteristically frail, the bruise on her face dark against her skin, hurried to greet him. She hesitated, suddenly uncertain, until Case smiled and opened his arms. She moved to his embrace and gave him a fierce hug. Neither said a word as they stood that way for a couple of minutes.
When she stepped back slightly, he could see she was fighting tears, then she did the unexpected. She gently moved her cool fingers across the bruised side of his face, followed by a soft kiss as if that was all it would take to make it better. He surprised her, and himself by returning the favor, first kissing the top of her head, and then gently kissing her bruised face. She smiled at him as a single tear escaped.
Case, Valeria, and Ramón were the only passengers. He had boarded with Juliet’s ashes, which were in a beautifully finished teakwood box inside a silk-lined leather tote. He waved away the offer of assistance from the flight attendant, but followed her to a closet at the rear of the aircraft where the tote and his carry-on would be secured for the flight.
Now awake, Case looked over his shoulder and spotted Ramón in a seat at the back of the aircraft. Across from him was their flight attendant, a pretty Latina in her twenties, dressed in blue skirt, white blouse, and low heels. They were having a quiet conversation. From her body language it appeared she was quite taken by Ramón.
Why does that surprise me? It shouldn’t. He’s a good-looking man and he carries himself with confidence. I know so little about Ramón, except his job is to watch over Valeria. I don’t have a clue how long he’s done that, or even his last name.
That night – the night they came to the ER – his clothes were covered with Juliet’s blood. He was chillingly calm, but I detected a dent in his composure. There was an underlying current of distress because he’d not been there to stop the attack and protect Valeria.
Ramón looked his way and gave him a questioning look. Case shook his head, letting him know things were fine.
After a few minutes Ramón came forward, trailed by the flight attendant. He took his seat across the aisle. She refilled their water glasses. “I’ve got snacks and drinks in the galley, if you need anything.” She looked at her watch. “I can also serve lunch early if you like.”
Case declined, as did Ramón.
“I’ll check back in a few minutes.” She glanced at Valeria, who was asleep, the blankets pulled up so only the top of her head was exposed. Her professional persona softened a bit when she saw Case holding Valeria’s hand. “Please let me know if you do.” She walked toward the rear of the aircraft.
“I’m glad she’s sleeping. She looked exhausted when I boarded this morning.”
Ramón nodded. “She’s hardly slept since...” He looked like he was considering his words. “Since the shooting, at least without medication.”
Case gave a half-hearted smile. “I know how she feels.”
Thank God for Ms. Davis. She’s the only reason I’m sane today. She may look like somebody’s grandmother, but she gets it done. Her electronic rolodex must be huge, and if she has to leave a message, people call her back. Fortunately, Cervantes is influential too. Getting Juliet’s body released might have been a monumental hassle, but somehow, he convinced the coroner to accept the surgeon’s conclusions as to cause of death.
Ramón looked concerned. “She’s very angry.” He paused. “She’s angry at the men who tried to kidnap her ... and angry at herself for falling into their trap.”
Case shook his head, “Not her fault.”
Ramón went on. “She feels as if she should have done more to help Juliet when the shooting started, and she feels the need for revenge, but she knows there’s nothing she can contribute, so at the same time, she feels helpless.”
I feel the need for revenge, too. I don’t know how I can bring it up with Ramón. Other than the four thugs that Juliet took out, there hasn’t been a thing in the news about more dead bad guys. I expected a war by now.
What did Juliet say about the guy who threated Valeria a couple years ago? The guy who was divorced because he beat up on one of Cindy’s band-mates? Now I remember, Ramón was there to witness the threats, and that guy just disappeared.
Is that what’s happening now? The people behind the kidnapping, just disappearing?
Case shook his head sadly. “That’s an impossible burden for someone, especially someone so young.”
“Yes, that’s why this time away will be good for her. The conversations she’s had with your mother have helped, and your mother’s insistence that we stay with them will help her accept their forgiveness.”
Valeria called me and asked if I would give her my parents’ number. Conversations? I wonder how many times they’ve spoken? It’s only been three days.
“There’s nothing to forgive.”
“That’s not how she sees it. The events of Christmas will haunt her for a long time...”
He looked at Ramón. “All of us.”
Ramón sadly nodded.
“Our flight attendant keeps staring at the bruise on the side of my face. I guess she doesn’t get too many private jet customers who look like they’ve been in a fight.”
Ramón gave just the slightest smile. “You should have seen the look she gave me when we boarded and she saw Valeria’s face. I explained it was the result of a car accident. I don’t know if she believes me, but having her know the truth serves no purpose, and might be unsettling. I’m just glad the swelling is gone.”
Valeria’s face is badly bruised. Mine’s not quite as bad since it was more of a glancing blow. Bad enough though.
“I’m surprised she hasn’t tried to cover it with makeup.”
Ramón frowned. “She refuses to cover it. She says when she feels the soreness and when she looks in the mirror, it reminds her that all this happened because of her carelessness.”
“She’s very strong-willed like her grandfather.” He paused and looked at Case, perhaps assessing him. Then seemed to make a decision.
“Yesterday she went to her grandfather and announced that she wanted to quit college and no longer wished to work for the Willets-Brandt household.”
“Oh?” That’s a surprise.
“She wants to go to work for him full time, and learn about his businesses.”
“Is she ready for that? She’s nineteen.”
“She’s quick to point out that she’ll be twenty in March. She told him that there was no better time to learn, than when there are problems.”
“Trial by combat?”
He thought about that. “Perhaps.”
“But, today we’re on a chartered jet headed for South Carolina.”
“Yes, Mr. Ramirez feels she needs some time away. He’s also determined she should complete her education first. She’s pursuing a business degree, and he would prefer she also have a law degree.”
All that to be a crime boss?
Seeing his expression, Ramón added, “Mr. Reynolds, despite what you may have heard about Mr. Ramirez, he is involved in a number of legitimate businesses.”
So why is my sister dead?
“His other businesses generate a large amount of cash, which he invests in the community, in what you might characterize as handshake deals. There are no written agreements.”
“That might cause the IRS and others to wonder where that cash came from?”
“So, why doesn’t he get out of his other businesses, if he has these legitimate businesses to fall back on?”
“As Prince Hamlet would say, there’s the rub.”
Ramón quoting Hamlet?
“If Mr. Ramirez isn’t in those other businesses...”
“Like prostitution, bookmaking, loan-sharking, drugs, gambling?”
Ramón gave him an icy glare. “Yes, like those. But consider this, there will always be those ... vices, and if Mr. Ramirez didn’t have control of them, Lodi would be the Wild West as gangs moved in to fill the vacuum.”
“But with Ramirez in charge in Lodi, there wasn’t a vacuum to fill, so why the attempt to kidnap Valeria, which resulted in the murder of my sister?” He said it more sharply than he intended.
Ramón shook his head. “Pedro Sanchez, the man responsible, was a psychopath who operated out of Modesto. He had a particular hatred for Mr. Ramirez, and decided he would expand his territory north to Sacramento.”
He keeps saying ‘was.’
“Modesto’s not that far from Lodi. Sounds like you knew about this guy.”
“Yes, we’ve been keeping an eye on him for years.”
“And you didn’t do something about him?”
“Mr. Reynolds, this is not some Netflix movie. Just because we didn’t like him, or how he ran his business, didn’t mean we were going to do something about him. He wasn’t a threat and it would have created a vacuum in Modesto like we have now, where Mr. Ramirez is forced to step in and take over – something he really did not want to do.”
“So why did Sanchez decide now was the time? I expect that before he went to eternal damnation you had a conversation with him. You said ‘a vacuum like we have now,’ so that means that the threat from Mr. Sanchez, at least in the person of Mr. Sanchez, and probably from his organization, is over.”
Ramón gave him a long look, then glanced at the still sleeping Valeria. “He was Valeria’s father.”
Case shook his head, trying to comprehend that statement.
Father? Does Valeria know?
“You are correct. There is no longer a threat from Pedro Sanchez.”
I imagine Sanchez’s last moments were quite unpleasant. Could I have killed Pedro Sanchez, as an act of revenge? I’ve killed people with rockets, bombs, and machine guns, but that was war, and from an airplane. How about lashing out at Detective Anderson? I snapped when he said those things about Juliet. But in cold blood?
I like to think I’m not that kind of person, but Sanchez’s people killed Juliet, and he probably would have never spent a day in jail. Had I been there and Ramón handed me a gun?
I waited for Tommy Welch that day years ago, and that was not in the heat of the moment. When I saw him leave the school grounds, I attacked. Some friends pulled me off him. They told me that I’d picked up a rock to finish him.
His thoughts were interrupted when Ramón went on. “He thought by kidnapping Valeria, he could use her as leverage with Mr. Ramirez, and somehow in his psychotic mind, he thought when he told Valeria he was her father she would want to be with him.”
“I guess he doesn’t know Valeria.”
Ramón shook his head. “No, he’d never met her. When Mr. Ramirez discovered Sanchez had impregnated his daughter, who was barely sixteen at the time, he was displeased, and Mr. Sanchez barely escaped with his life.”
Displeased? Why didn’t Ramirez kill him on the spot? He could have saved us all a lot of grief.
“So, problem solved now? Mr. Sanchez has seen the error of his ways?”
Ramón laughed, but his eyes were cold. “He said he understood...”
“As I said, Mr. Ramirez has plenty on his plate without taking on additional territory, but in this case, he has no choice. There is a group of thugs in Oakland who call themselves the Mau Mau, who want to expand into the Valley. They are looking to fill any vacuum, so we can’t leave one.
“There also must be some changes. Sanchez ruled through fear and brutality. That is not how Mr. Ramirez does business. There will be no underage prostitution, no girls working the street, no one drugged or kidnapped into prostitution, and no drugs to school children. There will also be changes to betting and loan practices.”
He nodded, digesting what Ramón told him. “Are you going to tell Valeria about Sanchez?”
“To what end? It serves no purpose. She just needs to know that there is no longer a threat to her from Sanchez, or his people.”
“Things were relatively peaceful for a number of years, but now we will have to be more vigilant.”
“And even after all that’s happened, she still wants to be a part of it?”
“Maybe spending some time in Barnwell will help her see things more clearly.”
“I pray that is the case.”
The flight attendant brought them each a large bowl of salted cashews. Case asked her to bring him a beer. Ramón had her refill his water.
After those revelations I need one.
But what about Valeria? Can I even discuss any of this with my parents? Ramón said Valeria had conversations with my mother. What did she tell her? Do they know the reason their daughter is dead is because a gang of thugs was going to try to take over the territory controlled by the gang run by Valeria’s grandfather?
I know my parents. They’ll see Valeria, rightfully, as the victim, but the senseless loss of a daughter is a bitter pill.
“Is that police business finished?” Ramón interrupted his thoughts.
Case sipped his beer from the tall frosted glass the flight attendant had brought. “Yesterday, Mr. Cervantes and I met with the District Attorney and I gave a formal statement. I don’t know if anything will come of it, but the DA didn’t look too happy when Cervantes gave him the video of the assault on me, and some documents that showed both detectives living well beyond their means.”
Ramón grinned. “It has been my experience that Mr. Cervantes is very thorough.”
“He’s been very helpful. By the way, did Valeria ever make a statement to the LPD about the shooting?”
“No. Mr. Cervantes strongly advised against it. He is fond of the Latin saying, ‘res ipsa loquitur.’ Do you know it?”
Case shook his head. Now Ramón is quoting Latin. I keep underestimating this guy.
“It means, ‘the matter speaks for itself.’ Any competent investigator can reconstruct how it happened, without Valeria subjecting herself to interrogation. In Valeria’s situation she can add nothing to the investigation. The police know she was there, but she can’t identify any of the dead men, nor was she involved in their deaths. The four dead men are well-known gang members with long rap sheets. The LPD questioning would make Valeria relive the events over and over, causing her more distress.”
Case thought about what Ramón said. “I agree, and even if the men could be traced to Sanchez, they can’t testify, and there’s probably not enough other evidence to support an arrest.”
“And having the LPD fumbling around would just get in the way.”
Ramón looked at Case for a few moments. “Yes.” He took a long drink from his water glass, glanced once more at the sleeping Valeria, and reclined his seat slightly and closed his eyes.
Obviously, this conversation is over.
Case reclined his seat again and closed his eyes, trying to come to grips with what he’d learned. Instead, memories of Cindy intruded.
Cindy. What could have been. But could it? Love will find a way. Right. We hardly had any time together since the shooting. The day after, as promised, she showed up with Jenny in tow, and cooked lunch for all of us. Jenny had insisted on seeing me, and I’m glad she did. She was obviously shaken by what happened and hugged me for a long time after they arrived at the apartment. She also brought a card that contained a heartfelt message, which was signed by the other members of her musical group. Essie also wrote a sweet note that included a poem about love and loss.
Jenny took Juliet’s black belt and her martial arts certificates and awards for a memorial at the dojo. I had no idea what to do with them and Jenny was so sweet about it. She’s a lovely girl, and Cindy is justifiably proud.
There just wasn’t enough time with Cindy. On top of everything she had rehearsal each day for her upcoming Vegas show, and they had scheduled time over the holidays in a recording studio in Sacramento.
Will I ever see her again? That’s up to me, because I have to be the flexible one. Juliet warned me. Juliet!
Cindy sat at her kitchen table with her neighbor Alice Goodwin. Alice had just returned from Christmas in San Diego with kids and grandkids. Cindy was filling her in on news of Lodi since Alice left the week before.
“So, you meet this guy at Hacienda Willets-Brandt a couple days before Christmas, fall for him, which seemed mutual, then there’s a shootout at Lodi Memorial on Christmas where his sister is killed, and then three days later he’s gone?”
Cindy looked down at her coffee cup and half-eaten cinnamon roll and just nodded.
“Is he coming back?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t know, or didn’t ask?”
“We hardly had a minute alone since Christmas – I was busy with my hectic life, and he was overwhelmed with settling his sister’s affairs, arranging for her apartment to be cleared, and constantly on the phone with his family...”
I don’t need to tell her about Case’s swollen jaw, the smashed coffee table, the blood on the living room rug and the mess the police from the taskforce out of Sacramento left behind when I got there. Case had tried to explain, but I had trouble following the reasoning. Why were the police looking at Juliet? She died protecting Valeria, so that somehow made her a person of interest? I don’t understand.
“Must have been a terrible shock.”