Everything Goes to Hell
It hadn’t rained in weeks. Months, actually. Grass hadn’t been green since the spring of 2015, so long ago that none of us could remember its actual color. There were no flowers, and the bushes were a sickly brown. Trees bloomed in the spring and died in the summer; there was no water to keep them alive. We’d had droughts before . . . they were nothing new to California. But this one had gone on so long we’d all gone a little crazy, and according to the weather report, there was no end in sight.
Pools stood empty in the back yard – there was no water to fill them with. Each house received a small ration of water daily, and if you were smart you watered what was left of your garden with it. At least that way you could supplement your food with something homegrown. After the Santa Ana winds started, Mother Nature decided it wasn’t hot enough, and the heat index shot up over a hundred degrees. As if we hadn’t suffered enough, heat lightning started in the desert, and before we knew it we had almost twenty fires burning from Orange County all the way to San Francisco.
Me, I had somebody out there killing people. It was almost a relief to be searching for something that wasn’t climate related. I’m a private detective named Rick Simon, and right now I wished I was anywhere but Southern California. I hear Alaska is nice this time of year.
It didn’t matter what I wished, I was here and I was on the lookout for Billy Flatbush, a hitman that was proving to be as elusive as an afternoon shower. He’d already killed four members of the Cortez family, including a police sergeant and my partner. His body count had taken on a distinctly personal flavor. What my employer didn’t know was I was ready to find him . . . for free. No matter what the temperature was outside.
Eddie Winchester was my partner, my friend, the nicest person I knew. If you needed the shirt off his back, he’d ask if you wanted the coat, too. We’d been friends since high school. We were roommates in college, and came straight out of there and into the FBI. And when the FBI got too restrictive, we decided to go into business together. We’d been partners for almost ten years, and I wasn’t sure I knew how to function without him. Flatbush had seen to it that I was going to have to try. Simon and Winchester, LLC was down one partner, and I wasn’t about to go looking for anything except the man that was responsible.
The Cortez family had been bootleggers and gun runners during Prohibition but had converted their operation to a legal business a long time ago. They found their way into politics some twenty years ago, and they stayed there ever since. The youngest of the trio, Manny Cortez, was Governor of California, and the oldest, Diego, was the California Attorney General. Alicia, their sister, was a California State Senator. Diego’s car exploded one hot summer night when he was headed home from his office. Alicia’s house burned down with her in it. Manny was felled by an assassin’s bullet. The police sergeant happened to be their cousin, Juan, and he died leading a raid on a drug house. Eddie was with Juan and might have been collateral damage. I didn’t know, and I didn’t care. Eddie was just as dead.
Simon and Winchester had been hired by Alma Cortez to find the killer when it appeared the police were getting nowhere. Alma was the matriarch of the Cortez family and tough as nails. I was on my way now to see her, and I knew she wasn’t going to be happy. She had one son left and had no intention of burying him like she had Manny, Diego and Alicia. I knew her well enough to know she’d be cognizant of the loss of my partner.
What she lived in wasn’t a house, it was a mansion. I had to climb marble steps just to get to the front door, and I was drenched in sweat by the time I got there. Gerald the butler answered the door and he looked cool and comfortable. He would – it was at least twenty-five degrees cooler inside than out here where the real people live.
She was in her office, sitting behind her desk, and looking every bit the grieving businesswoman. She set her pen down on the desk as I walked in and looked me thoroughly up and down. “Richard.”
“I understand Edward was killed with Juan in the raid. Are you here to resign?”
“Why would I do that? I still have to make a living, and you still have a boy that needs protection.”
“Well, then, good. Juan’s death just proves why I have no faith in the police. What are you going to do about protecting Lonnie?”
“I’m going to insist that he move in with me.”
Alma Cortez looked at me like I’d grown a second head. “Insist that he . . . oh no, that will never work. He can’t move in with you. I need him for too many things.”
“Then there’s only one other thing I can do. I’ll have to move in here.” I was absolutely serious. Whether she would take me that way or not, I had no idea. And to my surprise, she did.
“Now, that can be arranged. Yes, I can make that happen. You can pose as his secretary. Or his bodyguard. You can have the bedroom next to his.” Alma picked up the phone and buzzed someone. “Have the bedroom next to Lonnie’s made up right away.”
As soon as she put the phone down I posed a question. “How is Lonnie going to feel having someone with him everywhere he goes?”
“Everywhere?” she asked quizzically.
She chortled to herself. “I don’t imagine he’ll like it very much.”
I shook my head. “I don’t imagine he will. By the way, where is he?”
Alma picked up the phone again. “Lonnie, come down here. Yes, now. No, it can’t wait until later.”
In just a few minutes Lonnie Cortez, the last of the Cortez children still alive, came down the steps and deposited himself next to his mother’s desk. Lonnie was a tall, skinny kid, maybe nineteen or twenty, with a head full of curly black hair and a look on his face that would get him into the sneering hall of fame. “What?”
“Lonnie, this is Rick Simon. Rick is going to be your bodyguard from now on. He’s to go everywhere with you. Everywhere, Lonnie. No ditching him to go party with your friends. Is that understood?”
I expected to hear any answer out of him except the one I got. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Where are we going today?” I asked my newest charge. He looked at me the way his mother had earlier, like I had two heads.
“Philosophy class at U.S.C. at one o’clock. Then the library until Political Science at three-thirty.”
“And after that?” I asked innocently.
“I don’t know yet,” came the snappy reply. “Do you have to go dressed like that?”
I didn’t see what was wrong with the way I dressed. I had on slacks, a hounds tooth sport coat, a yellow shirt and a tie. Maybe he objected to my tie. “Unless you’d like me to go naked. Take your pick.”
Lonnie shook his head. He’d made the right decision. “That’s fine.”
“Take good care of him,” Alma told me.
“I will,” I promised. There was no doubt in my mind that Billy Flatbush would make an appearance, and an attempt on Lonnie sooner or later. The most logical place to try that was the campus of U.S.C. My job was to prevent its success and put an end to this job once and for all. If I was lucky I could extract a little personal revenge. Eddie deserved at least that much.
Lonnie was true to his word. I sat in the back of the Philosophy class and tried not to fall asleep; I guess Plato and Aristotle just aren’t my thing. When Philosophy was over I followed him to the library, and discovered the latest issue of True Detective. I always read the magazine; it was good for a laugh or two. He almost got away from me when he left for Political Science, but I caught up to him and sat someplace inconspicuous. Towards the end of the class I got to thinking about my days in college, with Eddie and me taking Chemistry, Biology, Engineering, and every other class that had the faintest chance of making us valuable recruits for the FBI. And what did we do with it? Threw it all away for a profession that ended up getting Eddie killed.
Something wasn’t right; I could feel it in my bones. I slipped my .45s out of my shoulder holster and slid it into my jacket pocket. As the class ended Lonnie sidled out the back door and was about ten feet ahead of me in the hall when I saw a bright flash and made a leap for the elusive Mr. Cortez. I knocked him to the floor just as the gun went off, and I tried to see where the shot had come from, but at that point there were too many people in the hall yelling and screaming. I got off Lonnie and helped him up. “You weren’t supposed to do that,” I reminded him.
“I didn’t think . . .I mean I . . . what does somebody want to shoot me for?” he stammered out as I brushed him off. He stood there looking at me with a stricken look on his face.
“Because your name is Cortez,” I explained. It seemed clear enough to me.
“But I . . . I . . . I haven’t done anything.”
“Sure you have. You were born. That’s enough for some people.”
Just about that time the police got there. No wonder his mother didn’t want to trust him to their care. I saw Sergeant Donahue and grabbed Lonnie by the arm. He was coming with me. “Sergeant, you missed all the shooting.”
“Alright, Simon, what are you involved in this time?” Donahue was about thirty-five, tall and clean-cut, with an intense desire to be Lieutenant Donohue.
“Sergeant Donohue, meet Lonnie Cortez, the last of the Cortez’s. Lonnie, this is Sergeant Donahue. You’ll probably be seeing a lot of him.” I waited. It only took a few seconds for Donahue’s eyes to light up.
“So that’s why Witherspoon was with Sergeant Cortez. I didn’t know you two were working for the family.”
“That’s the hell of it, Donahue. We weren’t. Eddie was there after Colin Murphy, the drug dealer. He was just in the wrong place at the right time.”
The Sergeant looked at me for a moment, confused. “But now you are working for them?”
“So give me the lowdown. What happened here? All we got was a call for shots fired.”
“Shot fired. I couldn’t return fire – junior here was too busy trying to get killed and I, fool that I am, was trying to prevent it.”
“I didn’t know,” Lonnie protested vociferously.
“Did you see Flatbush?”
“No, but I’d wager it was him.”
Donahue gave me that look again, and I could see his mind working. I wasn’t sure that was a good thing, but at least it would be interesting. “You’ll have to come down to the station and give your statements,” he decided at long last.
“Fine,” I answered. It was probably the first time I’d ever complied willingly. The two men I was with both stared at me; Donahue was perplexed about my agreement, Lonnie was pissed because I had stopped him from escaping to wherever he was going. He might have told mama he wouldn’t try to evade me, but once he was out in the hall moving away from me he had no intention of behaving like he was supposed to.
“Can we take our car and follow you?” I asked innocently. Lonnie drove a brand new Jaguar F-Type and riding in that was preferable to the back of Donahue’s patrol car. To my surprise, Donahue agreed. “But I . . . “ Junior started, and I cut him off.
“No, you’re not. We’re following Donahue to the station.”
Lonnie had the good sense to nod in agreement. I don’t know where he’d been headed when he snuck out of his Political Science class, but I’d deal with that later. For the time being, I wanted to know if the police had found anything that could be useful in tracking down Billy Flatbush.
The answer to that was no, they hadn’t. That left me in the dark about the reasons for the ambush at the drug raid. Were they after the Sergeant that was killed, cousin to the Cortez family, or was he just part of the damage inflicted on the police raid? Looked like I had to find out for myself.
We answered all the usual questions at police headquarters, and it was early evening by the time we were finished. I needed to check-in at the office and get some things from my apartment if I was going to follow junior around tomorrow, so I took him home and left orders with Mama that he stay at the mansion and not go anywhere. “I’ll be back,” I threatened, and I guess they believed me.
I got to the office just as Robin was leaving for the night. Robin Short was our receptionist, secretary, part-time operative, and whatever else she wanted to be. She’d been just as upset as I was about the loss of Eddie, and she seemed just as hell-bent on revenge of some sort. I told her when I’d left that morning I was going to see Mama Cortez and not to expect me back any time soon, so at least she’d known I wasn’t out getting my brains blasted out. “Did I miss anything exciting?” I asked as I came through the front door.
“Exciting? Probably not. Jeremy Jones called, he wants to know if you’re going to finish that case Eddie was working on, and Scott Talbet called to tell you he’s found the banker you were looking for. What are your plans for the night?” Robin knew I was looking for Flatbush in my off hours; what she didn’t know was that I wasn’t going to have too many of those for a while.
“Call Jones in the morning and tell him I’ll finish Eddie’s case as soon as I can. And get Talbet to tell you where the banker’s hiding out. From now on I’m baby-sitting Lonnie Cortez, so I probably won’t have much spare-time. Keep a lid on things here, would you?”
“Aye-aye, boss. Anything else I should do? Cooking, cleaning, anything like that?”
I looked at Robin and didn’t know whether I wanted to spank her or kiss her. She’d probably enjoy the spanking.
We’d had to hire someone about five years ago, and that someone was Robin. Blonde hair, blue eyes, somewhere around thirty, she’d turned out to be the mother hen Eddie and I needed. She reminded us about appointments, picked up our dry-cleaning, and chewed out the cleaning service when they forgot to empty her wastebasket. She was everything two single men could want . . . and she never let us forget it. I won’t say she was well-paid . . .she was absolutely spoiled. Last year for Christmas we bought her a new car. Neither of us would know if we were coming or going without her. I didn’t know how she would feel about working solely for me, at least for a while. I probably should ask her.
“Uh, Robin, now that Eddie’s gone . . . “
“It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference, Rick. You still need a mommy.” I don’t know how she did that, knowing what I was going to say before I said it. I was relieved to hear her answer, though. “Now, I’m going home,” she told me, and before I could say anything to discourage her, she was gone. I went into my office and grabbed what I was after, then left and locked the door. I went straight to my apartment, packed a bag and left for my new address. This time I took blue jeans and long sleeve shirts, so at least I’d fit in wherever junior went. And maybe I’d be less conspicuous to Billy Flatbush.
Start writing here…