Uncle Carlos, Redux
I drove straight back to the Cortez house and found Alma in her office. “How fast can you arrange to see Uncle Carlos at Golden Hills Manor?”
“If he’s feeling up to it, we can go this afternoon.”
“Would you call and check? I think your uncle is the one that holds the key to this whole thing.”
“Certainly. Have a seat.” She picked up her phone and called the retirement home. “Mr. Norris, this is Mrs. Cortez. How is Uncle Carlos doing today? Can we come and see him? Oh, he’s not. You did? Do you think he’ll be up to seeing us tomorrow? Yes, please arrange it. We’ll be there early. Yes, thank you.” She hung up and looked at me. “Not good news, I’m afraid. He was having a bad day and they had to medicate him. But we’re set up for tomorrow morning.”
“That’s alright. Whatever’s best for him. I’m going upstairs to work on my computer. I’ll be in my room if you need me.” Actually, I wanted to sit down and read The Birth and Death of Bootlegging. I was hoping to find the information I needed in there so we wouldn’t have to disturb Uncle Carlos.
I’m not the world’s fastest reader, and I was only about one-third of the way through the book when Gerald knocked on my door and announced dinner. I left a piece of paper in the book and got up to go downstairs. Alma was quiet at dinner and I didn’t lend much in the way of conversation; my mind was too preoccupied with what I was reading. When dinner was over I excused myself and went back to read some more. “I’ll see you in the morning,” I told Alma, and she nodded at me. I don’t think she was in the mood to talk any more than I was.
I read until almost eleven o’clock and got more than two-thirds of the way finished. The only thing I could find about Ramon Navarro Sr. was tucked away back on page 248. Santino Navarro was one of the most ruthless of the bootleggers during this era. He died peacefully in his sleep at age ninety-five, but his son, Ramon Navarro, met an untimely end in January 1944 at the hands of an unknown assailant. It was purported his death was retribution for some heinous act committed by Santino at the height of Prohibition.
I read the paragraph over three times. Could the unknown assailant be Carlos Cortez? The only way I was going to find out was to ask him. Sometime shortly after that I fell asleep, with the book spread open across my chest.
I woke with a start the next morning. I thought at first there was someone in my room; then I realized the noise was coming from Lonnie’s room next door. I sat up in bed and the book fell open next to me. It had perched there on my chest all night. I got up and went to the bathroom; Lonnie must have just taken a shower because it was wet inside. Junior returning to his room was what I heard. I showered, shaved, and went back to get dressed, then hurried downstairs with the book in my hands. Alma was in the living room having coffee. “You’re in a hurry this morning.”
“I want you to read something,” I explained as I handed her the book. “Page 248.” I pointed out the paragraph when she got to the right page. She must have had the same reaction I did because she read it over several times. She looked up at me at last.
“Uncle Carlos,” she breathed, barely audible.
“I had the same reaction,” I replied. “Do you think it could have been him? He seemed such a gentle soul.”
“He is now, but I heard things about him when he was younger . . . I always thought they were just stories. Maybe they weren’t.”
Gerald brought me a cup of coffee. I thanked him before Alma could tell him about breakfast. “Omelets, Gerald. Sausage and cheese, preferably. With home fries and orange juice.”
“Will you be ready to go as soon as we’ve eaten?” she asked me.
“Yes, ma’am. All I need from upstairs is my briefcase and a jacket.”
Lonnie came downstairs, and for once he didn’t run. He must have gone into the kitchen to let Minnie know to make three omelets; then he came back into the living room with coffee of his own. “Are you still going to see Uncle Carlos after breakfast?” he asked no one in particular.
“Yes,” I finally answered. Lonnie turned to his mother.
“I want to go with you.”
“You don’t have to,” Alma told him.
“Yes, I do. I’m the one that this idiot is trying to kill, and I want to know who and why.” He seemed adamant about going. I took the book from his mother and handed it to him.
“Read this paragraph,” I told him.
“This? You mean this is why somebody was after all of us?” He’d barely glanced at the page.
“You’ve seen that before, haven’t you?” I asked.
“Two years ago. In history class. Is that the reason?”
“I think so.”
“And you think it was Uncle Carlos?” There was a pleading note in his voice. As if he wanted to know but didn’t want to know. He loved the old man; that much was obvious.
“It might have been, or he might know who it was. Either way we have to try and find out.”
“Then I’m definitely going.”
“Breakfast is served,” Gerald announced.
Breakfast was eaten in silence. I’m sure we all had our thoughts about who killed Ramon, Senior. I had a hard time reconciling the murder with the sweet, gentle old man I’d met. But then, Carlos had many years to turn into the man he was now. When we were finished there was no dawdling at the breakfast table, as there had been just yesterday. I excused myself and ran upstairs, slipping on a sport coat and grabbing my briefcase. As I came back downstairs, I could hear Alma explaining to junior who she’d told Mr. Norris I was. “Does Uncle Carlos know the truth?” he asked.
“I told him.”
Lonnie looked me right in the eyes. “Good.”
Just about that time, Gerald came through the front door. “Your car, madam.”
The three of us filed out, and Gerald helped Alma in. Junior and I followed. Again, the twenty-minute ride and the stop at the gates. As they had before, they opened and we wound our way down the driveway to the Medieval Times front doors. This time only Mrs. Dempsey met us. “We were surprised to see you come back so soon, Mrs. Cortez. And I see you’ve brought Lonnie with you this time. And Mr. Simon. Follow me, we have the solarium set up for you again.”
“Thank you,” Alma replied. Back down that hallway, until we arrived at the solarium.
“I’ll be right back.” And Mrs. Dempsey was gone.
Once again we sat and waited. It took a few minutes longer this time, and then she wheeled in Uncle Carlos. In just a moment she was gone, and the door closed behind her.
Carlos looked up, straight at Alma. “Who are you?”
This was not a good beginning. “I’m Alma, Uncle. And this is Lonnie, your nephew.” Not exactly true, but close enough.
I set my briefcase down and squatted down to Carlos’s level. “Do you remember me, Mr. Cortez? My name’s Rick Simon. I’m a private investigator.”
“You, I remember. I gave you a name.”
“Yes, sir. Ramon Navarro. I remember.”
“No good low-life. Just like his father, Santino.” There was plenty of venom in the remark.
“Do you remember what happened to Ramon?”
“I do. He died an ugly death,” he answered.
“Did you kill him, Mr. Cortez?”
He was quiet for a minute, and then he shook his head. “No. I wanted to, but my father talked me out of it.”
At that moment he looked at Alma again, and the man I’d met the other day returned. “Alma, sweetie. How are you? And is this little Lonnie? He’s all grown up.” He looked at me. “Simon. Can’t remember your first name.”
“That’s right. You come back to pick what’s left of my poor brain again?” The tone had changed completely. He was the sweet old man.
“Well, pick away, young man.”
“Do you remember who killed Ramon Navarro?”
“Of course I do.”
“Who was it, Mr. Cortez?”
And then in a voice as clear as day, he announced, “Cock Robin. It was Cock Robin.”
My face must have fallen half a mile. “Cock Robin?” I asked him. “Are you sure?”
“Yep. Absolutely positive.”
I looked at Alma, but she did nothing but smile at me. I wondered for a moment if she’d lost her mind, too, and she kept right on smiling. The three members of the Cortez family chatted; I grabbed my briefcase and walked back down the hall, then went outside. I would have given anything for a cigarette right about then. I saw Gerald and the Rolls across the parking lot and walked over to the car.
“You look like you could use a drink, sir.”
I didn’t bother to correct him. “I could, but it’s only ten o’clock in the morning.”
“I can make you a Bloody Mary if you’d like.”
“I’d like very much, Gerald. Extra spicy.”
“No problem, Rick.” In less than five minutes I had a drink in my hands, and a substitute for the cigarette I really wanted. It was another fifteen or twenty minutes before I saw Alma, and I hurried to open the car door for her and junior.
“Did you have to come out and get a drink?” she asked, laughing.
“I couldn’t find a cigarette.”
“Cock Robin?” was my question back to her.
“You left before I could explain it to you.” She was still laughing.
“I don’t think you can.”
“Go on, Mom, tell him,” Lonnie interjected.
“Okay, I’ll bite. Tell me what?” I wasn’t expecting the answer I got.
“Cock Robin was Uncle Carlos’s pet name for his older brother, Eduardo.”
“You mean . . . ?” I started, before Mrs. Cortez interrupted me.
Her tone was now serious. “That’s right. Cock Robin was Eduardo Cortez.”