Much to my surprise, I slept until almost eight o’clock. I took a shower and shaved, then got dressed in slacks, a long-sleeved shirt, and a jacket. I argued with myself for almost five minutes but finally decided a tie might come in handy, so I put one on. By the time I got downstairs it was nine-fifteen and breakfast was over. There was still coffee, and I poured myself a cup; the cup and I went into the living room to wait.
Alma came downstairs in a blue business suit with a brightly colored scarf at her neck. Her hair was up on her head, and she looked, once again, like Mrs. Cortez. I joined her in the vestibule, and it was only a minute or two before I heard the car engine. Gerald came in to escort madam into the car, and I trailed along behind like a lost puppy.
The car was a Rolls Royce, of course, and it was disgustingly comfortable inside. Not only that, the air conditioner was cold enough to positively spoil you. Gerald drove about twenty or twenty-five minutes, twisting and turning until we arrived at the gates of Golden Hills Manor, Retirement and Convalescent Home. The gates opened slowly; then we continued down a long driveway to a gigantic front door that looked like it belonged at Medieval Times. The doors opened and a man and two women came out, while Gerald helped madam out.
The man stepped forward and took Alma’s hand. “Mrs. Cortez, so good to see you. You, of course, know Mrs. Dempsey and Mrs. Montgomery, the ladies that run our facility.”
“Yes, of course. Mr. Norris, this is Mr. Simon, one of my attorneys. Mr. Simon, Mr. Norris is the director of the facility. Mrs. Montgomery is the manager and Mrs. Dempsey is the case manager. You know, of course, that we want to see Uncle Carlos privately. I assume you have arranged that for me?” Alma was once again using her Mrs. Cortez voice. It tickled me the way she assumed her different personas. Mrs. Cortez, Alma, loving and concerned Mother, and frightened Mother were the ones I had seen, and I was sure there were more at her disposal.
So I played the diligent attorney while Mrs. Montgomery led us down the hall to a solarium. There were several chairs in the room, and I held one of them for Alma and got her seated. In just a minute Mrs. Montgomery wheeled in an old gentleman, obviously Uncle Carlos. He must have been close to one hundred; he had a full head of white hair and his eyes looked sharp, but his hands were knarled and his knuckles swollen. Those hands had done a lot of fighting. As soon as Mrs. Montgomery got Carlos settled, she locked the wheels on the wheelchair and left the room, closing the door behind her.
“Uncle Carlos, it’s Alma.”
“Goodness, child, I know who you are.” His voice was full of piss and vinegar. “Who’s this yahoo?”
I knew where Lonnie got his attitude. “My name’s Rick Simon, Mr. Cortez. I’m a private investigator. Someone is trying to kill Mrs. Cortez’s youngest son Lonnie, and I’m trying to find out why and stop him. I need to ask you some questions. Would that be alright?”
“Is this what you want, Alma?” in a voice that was a little friendlier than before. Only a little.
“Yes, Uncle Carlos, it would really help a lot if you would.” Ah, another persona. Pleading loving niece.
“Alright, I’ll give it my best.” The old man turned to me. “What is it that you want to know, Simon?”
“Please, Mr. Cortez, call me Rick. How much do you remember from the bootlegging days?”
He thought for a moment before answering me. “Well, it depends. Some things I remember; some things my father told me. What do you want to know?”
“Did the family have any enemies? Maybe somebody that had a vendetta against them?”
“I don’t . . . I don’t remember anybody. There was Mallard King . . . he and my father were friends at one time; they were pretty fierce competitors, too. But Mallard was killed in one of the last raids conducted on the bootleggers. Then there was Jose Barerra, but no, he was gone, too. I just can’t . . . I just can’t remember anybody else.” I could see that Carlos was struggling, trying to think of somebody, anybody that might have fit the criteria I gave him. I felt bad for him, trying so hard to remember something that happened long ago. Heartless as I am sometimes, I couldn’t let him go on torturing himself.
I reached out and clasped one of his hands in mine. It felt almost like rough-hewn wood. “It’s alright, Mr. Cortez. That was a long time ago. I’m sure I wouldn’t remember, either.”
He sighed and looked right at me. “I’m sorry I can’t help you, son.”
I sat back and watched him as he and Alma began to talk. Obviously, he had great affection for what surely had to be his grand-niece, and she him. It seemed he didn’t know of the deaths of Manny, Diego and Alicia; he talked with Alma as if they were still alive. I was glad I hadn’t said anything about their murders.
They talked for almost fifteen minutes, but it looked as if Carlos was falling asleep towards the end of that time. Alma got up and opened the door, and in a moment Mrs. Montgomery came and got the old man. They were almost out the door when suddenly Carlos came alive and searched for me. “Rick, Rick?”
I got up and hurried over to his wheelchair, where I squatted on the floor so that he didn’t have to strain to see me. “Yes, sir?”
“Navarro. Ramon Navarro. That’s who you’re looking for.”
He’d struggled so diligently to remember the name, but it wouldn’t come to him while he was awake. And he’d almost missed the chance to give me the one thing I was after. Ramon Navarro.
“Thank you, Mr. Cortez. It was an honor to meet you.” As I stood, I reached down and picked up his hand, then shook it. He looked up at me and smiled. Mrs. Montgomery wheeled him down the hall. I stood there and watched until they were out of sight.
We walked back down the hall in the opposite direction. Mr. Norris was waiting for us at the door. “Was your visit with your uncle satisfactory?”
Alma nodded. “It was, Mr. Norris. Thank you for making the arrangements I requested.”
“Any time, dear lady. Any time.”
Norris and I nodded at each other and I held the door open for Alma. George had the car right at the door and he helped Alma in, then winked at me and waited until I was in to close the door. “He’s a sweet old gentleman,” I told his niece.
“He was a mean, vicious son-of-a-bitch,” Alma responded. “But that was the only way to survive in those days. And he is a sweet man now. I don’t get out here as often as I should. You caught on to his ignorance about my other children?”
“If I’d told him it would have killed him. It almost killed me.” She was silent for a minute, then she called out, “Hurry home, Gerald. I need a drink.”
Gerald brought Bloody Mary’s to the enclosed porch, where Alma and I had decided to sit. The sun wasn’t hitting the room yet, and it was cool inside. She’d changed into a short-sleeve summer dress and taken her hair down off her head, and she looked ten years younger. “Oh, my, that hits the spot,” Alma remarked, after she’d taken the first sip of her drink.
“This is nice, but I can’t stay all day. Either junior has to come with me or he has to stay here with you for a while. I need to spend some time trying to find out about Ramon Navarro.”
“Dear, I suppose I’ll have to keep him here. You need to concentrate and I’m sure he’d just drive you crazy.”
Maybe not me, I thought. But for sure . . . Robin. “I think that’s probably best. In case I have to go someplace I won’t have to worry about dragging him with me.”
“Is this ever going to be over, Richard?”
“One way or the other, it’s only a matter of time. Flatbush is going to make a mistake and I’ll get him.” I gave that remark too much venom, and Alma looked at me sorrowfully.
“Because of Eddie?” she asked softly.
I chose my answer carefully. “To be completely honest, mostly because of Eddie. But because of Manny and Diego and Alicia, too. And to keep Lonnie safe. You’ve been hurt enough; you don’t need any more pain.”
“I appreciate that, but I think you’ve been hurt, too.”
“Yeah, but not in the same way. They were your children.”
Alma stared at the ground, and her face clouded over. “I’ll never stop grieving for them.”
It took me a minute or more before I could say anything. “But life goes on, doesn’t it? And we have to go on with it.” I treated the drink like it was medicine, something that would stop the stab of pain I felt every time Eddie’s name came up. “I have to get to the office. I’ll see what I can find on Navarro and be back later. Will you be alright?”
She put on the Mrs. Cortez face and looked up at me. “My friend and I will be fine,” she told me, holding up her Bloody Mary.
It felt good to be in the Mustang; familiar, like an old friend. An old friend that understood all the conflicting feelings I had. I thought I was fine by the time I got to the office, and more than ready to research the elusive Mr. Navarro. “Hey, Robin,” I called as I went in the front door. “How’s tricks?”
“Tricks and I are just fine,” she replied, then looked up at me. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Uncle Carlos gave us a name, and I want to see what I can find on him. Anything important I should see?”
“Not a thing. Benny called and said to tell you ‘No Dice.’ I assume you know what that means.”
Benny had come up empty. Good thing Carlos had given us something. “I do. Why don’t you go to lunch and I’ll catch the phones.”
“Now I know somethings wrong.” I never sent Robin out to lunch. She just took time whenever she could. She stood there staring at me. Obviously my telltale face had given me away. I’d have to have a talk with him.
“I’m fine,” I told her. “Bring me back a sandwich, would you? Roast beef if you can get it.”
For once she didn’t argue, or try to dig any further. “Okay. I’ll be back soon.”
I watched her walk out the door and felt relief that she was gone. I desperately wanted to go into my office and throw something, but I knew Robin would be looking for anything I might have destroyed when she came back, and I’d have more explaining to do. So I was a good boy and didn’t cost the firm any money. I sat at my computer and typed in ‘Ramon Navarro.’ There must have been two dozen or more Ramon Navarro’s that came up, and I began wading through them.
I was about halfway through when Robin returned. She came into my office and put a brown paper bag and an iced tea on my desk and then scanned the room for broken objects. Finding none, I heard a “Hmpf,” and she left for her desk. “Got that expense report ready for me yet?” I called after her.
“Yes,” and she walked in lazily and set it on the corner of my desk. “I got your roast beef.”
“Thank you. Be sure and add that to the next expense report.”
“Have you found anything yet?”
I shook my head. “Nothing but a shitload of Ramon Navarro’s.” That’s when I noticed she had a brown bag in her hand, too. “Bring your lunch back to the office?”
“I thought maybe we could talk.” She set her bag down and extracted a sandwich. “Like we used to.”
I opened my lunch bag and retrieved my roast beef, then took a bite. It was good, just the way I liked it. I thought we’d gotten the business about talking settled the last time I was here. “I can’t talk when I’m eating.”
Her eyes were shaded, and I knew that look. “You know what I mean.”
“I told you before, no talking until I find Billy Flatbush. Can you just help me until then? For Eddie?”
There was a long pause before she answered, and she sounded resigned to her decision. “Sure. You’re the boss.”
“Thank you.” We ate in silence, and when Robin was finished she went back out front. I kept going through the Ramon Navarro’s. I didn’t find one that dated back to the old days, but I did find a current Ramon – Ramon Luis Navarro, President of Banker’s Trust in Beverly Hills. There wasn’t too much about him on the internet . . . born 1970, married with two children, active in several different charities. Just the right age to be a grandson of the original Ramon. That was all I could find on the computer; nothing about Grandpa Ramon.
That meant my search had been extended, first to the California Department of Public Health-Vital Records. When I was done there I’d visit the Los Angeles Public Library. Looked like I was going to be late getting back to the mansion, and I picked up the phone and called Alma. “Gerald, it’s Rick Simon. Let me talk to Alma, please.” There was a brief pause, then I had Alma on the phone. “Alma, I need to go a couple more places before I come back. Can you handle that?”
“Do whatever you have to, Richard.” I wish she’d quit calling me Richard.
“Good. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Thanks.” We both hung up, and I gathered myself to face Robin. “I’m going to the California Department of Public Records and then the library. Can I bring you back anything?”
Robin sighed, as if happy to hear that I was doing something besides throwing things. Then she smiled. “Nope, I’ve got everything I need, right here.”
“Good. I’ll call you later.” And with that I was out the door and on to my next adventure.