Playing solitaire on a computer is sterile and asinine. It’s all pixels and cursors and about as immersive as a Care Bears movie.
But it was as good a way as any to waste time and, at the moment, I had nothing better to do.
As I clicked and dragged, I thought back to when I was just a kid, maybe eight or nine years old. I remembered lying on the floor at my great grandmother’s house in Oxnard, the deck of cards in my left hand, my right hand counting off three at a time. The carpet was shag so the cards didn’t lay flat and you couldn’t have perfect little stacks there. Instead, the columns kept sliding together, making it more difficult to keep the cards where they were supposed to be and easier to use the mess as an excuse to cheat.
There was no way to cheat playing solitaire on the computer, at least no way that I was aware of. And what would be the point, anyway? It was just another mundane activity to count down the seconds as I waited for the phone to ring or for someone to come through the door and ask for some detecting help. I tried to spice things up by imagining I was in Las Vegas, playing video poker at the bar. But I wasn’t playing for real money and there wasn’t a server offering me free cocktails so that fantasy died in its tracks.
The mouse danced beneath my fingers and the flashing cursor grabbed an eight of spades and dragged it across to the corresponding pile. A tinny shuffling sound came from the cheap computer speakers. It sounded artificial.
And I guess it was.
I tried to imagine Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer sitting at a computer, Googling the name of a suspect instead of hunting him down the old-fashioned way, but I couldn’t see it. Hammer’s porkpie hat just didn’t seem right in the glow of an LED screen. Still, I tried to take solace in the fact that Hammer’s job and my job were primarily much the same: a lot more waiting and watching than doing.
I pulled the deuce of clubs from the draw pile and digitally slid it over on top of a red three. A few moments later, I dragged the last ace from the pile, placed it at the bottom of a column, and it was all over. I knew this because the cards started cascading down the screen in a kind of psychedelic rainfall pattern.
There was no euphoria on my part. The only emotion was the dread of starting a new game.
I sat back and surveyed the office. Nothing had changed since I started playing solitaire about two hours before. The phone sat smugly on the desk in front of me, content in its silence. The mini-fridge on the table in the corner hummed contentedly, keeping my Cokes and beer at just the right temperature. The coat rack stood in the corner, empty, of course, being more of a novelty item than a practical item here in the warmth of Ventura, California.
The one potential customer I’d had that day had turned out good for one thing: He’d bought me breakfast. Hopefully, he’d go home to his wife tonight, pay her a little more attention, and things would be all right.
If not, he knew where to find me.
I thought about pulling out the checkbook and reviewing my account but decided digital solitaire was far less depressing than an $11.41 bank balance.
My heart leapt as the door to the outside office clicked open and three people came in. I could see their blurry silhouettes through the marbled glass that separated my office from the reception area. More potential clients? This might be a banner day! More likely, though, it was someone selling sandwiches door to door.
Well, I had $11.41. I could afford a sandwich.
At the moment, my receptionist was ... okay, I had no receptionist, so I stood, stepped around from behind the big wooden desk I had purchased at one of the four hundred or so thrift stores in downtown Ventura, and opened the separating door.
There, reaching for the doorknob from the other side, was Johnny Caesar. Two of his bodygoons stood nearby him, one on each side of him like massive, fleshy bookends. Both of them were big-shouldered, big-mustached Mexicans. They gave me the evil eye they reserved specifically for pinche gringos. I tried to win them over with my dazzling smile but, alas, to no effect.
The four of us shared a moment of silent, mutual displeasure and then Caesar said, “Heller.”
“Caesar,” I replied.
Another moment passed. The room temperature seemed to drop a few degrees as the silence dragged on.
“Can we come in?” Caesar finally said.
“You can,” I told him. “They can stay out here.”
The bodygoon on the left started to argue but Caesar cut him off. “Do what he says,” he told him, and then pushed past me into the inner office.
“Have some coffee,” I told the other two, pointing to the stainless steel pot in the corner. “Have to make it yourselves, though. My receptionist is out today.” They glared at me, making those scary faces that kept people from messing with them. I offered them another brilliant show of teeth but, again, they seemed less than impressed.
I closed the door behind me and walked back behind my thrift store desk. Caesar had already taken the clients’ chair. I sat, causally checking to make sure the Sig Sauer was in the top right hand drawer and that the top right hand drawer was slightly open. If I needed it, I could get to it.
Caesar and I sat across from each other in silence. He still wore that close-cropped haircut that gave him his street name. “Johnny Caesar” was far more menacing than “Juan Garcia” even if the haircut wasn’t menacing at all. Caesar wore a pair of black slacks and a sleeveless, wifebeater-style shirt. A brick-and-black plaid button-up shirt hung loosely over that.
There was something in Caesar’s eyes that I hadn’t seen before, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Whatever it was, it was something that didn’t fit his reputation or his attitude.
A few more moments passed. More silence. I waited patiently. Caesar was the biggest crime lord in Santa Paula, and he and I had a rocky history. Not only were we on opposite sides of the legal fence, we just didn’t like one another. Still, I was curious what had brought him the thirty or so miles to my office in downtown Ventura. But I was willing to wait until he was ready to talk.
He shocked the hell out of me when he suddenly began to sob. And then I recognized the out-of-place look in his eyes.
It was vulnerability.
“They killed him,” he said between gasping breaths and a shuddering, Herculean effort to stop the tears. “My baby brother. Someone shot him in the head last night and I need to know who done it.”
I snatched a Kleenex from the box on the desk (usually reserved for troubled wives who wanted me to catch their cheating husbands in the act) and held it out to him. He didn’t take it. I let it drop there on the end of the desk. Only then did Caesar pick it up and dab his eyes. He blew his nose delicately.
“I’m sorry,” I told him, and hoped it sounded sincere. It wasn’t. Caesar’s brother, Diego, was a well-known scumbag. He was the Uday or Qusay Hussein of Santa Paula. His brother was the big cheese and he knew he could get away with murder. And, reportedly, he sometimes did. He had a rap sheet as long as a Columbian python and the reptilian personality to go along with it. Everything from petty theft to aggravated assault had won him jail time and those were just the things he’d been caught at.
The one thing Diego didn’t have was his brother’s smarts. While Johnny Caesar was the pride of the Garcia family, Diego was the black sheep. He was the younger sibling that wanted everything his older brother had but he didn’t have the brains, the talent or the drive to get it. And, because of that, he was bitter and he took that bitterness out on anyone and everyone.
“Tell me what happened,” I said.
“Shit, man, don’t you read the papers?” Caesar spat. He took a deep heaving breath and finally got his sobbing under control.
I glanced guiltily at the still-rolled Ventura County Post on my desk. I guess maybe there had been something to do other than play solitaire after all. And I hadn’t listened to the radio on the way in this morning either. Usually, I would have gotten the local news from the KVTA morning show but this morning I was listening to a CD I’d picked up the night before at a local club. The band was called Slam Alice and I liked what I heard.
But none of that helped me with Johnny Caesar at the moment.
“I haven’t had a chance yet, Johnny. Tell me.”
“That’s the problem. There’s not much to tell. Diego ...” His voice broke with the sound of his brother’s name. “...Diego was on his way home from Rigoberto’s ...”
“Yeah, the nightclub. He always hangs out there on Sundays. Usually gets drunk. Usually gets laid.”
Caesar shot me a glance. “What the fuck difference does that make?”
“I need to know if he was alone, or if he left with somebody.”
“Yeah, okay. He was alone when they found him.”
“But you don’t know if he left with anyone?”
“No. But I can find out.”
“It would help. But if you can’t, I can.”
“I can,” Caesar said firmly.
“That’s all I know. They found him about halfway between Rigoberto’s and his house. You know he lived just a few blocks away?”
I shook my head. I hadn’t known that. Was glad I didn’t.
“Yeah, just a couple blocks down, off Harvard. He never drove because the cops always put up drunk stops there. They catch a lot of them there.”
“What about the cops?” I asked. “They have any leads?”
“Shit,” Caesar said, drawing the word out angrily. “They got nothin’. And they aren’t gonna bust their balls lookin’, either, you know what I mean? Diego was my brother, man. They don’t give a rat’s ass about him.”
I couldn’t disagree. He was right.
“Anything else you can tell me?”
“Like did your brother have any enemies that you know of?”
“Shit, man, half of this city is his enemy. A lot of people hated his fucking guts.”
There was no denying that, either.
“So, look,” Caesar continued. “I know we got a lot of baggage between us, you and me, but I need your help here, Heller. You and me, we got issues, but I know you’re a straight-shooter. You’re all I got.” He was tearing up again and nearly strangling himself to try and stem the flow. After a moment, he lost the struggle. “I need you,” he blathered. “It would mean a lot to me.” And I knew it was killing him to say so.
It wasn’t an easy decision. I didn’t like Johnny Caesar and I hadn’t liked his brother, Diego. As far as I was concerned, Diego’s death was simply good riddance. Still, no matter how much I disliked Caesar, he was a powerful and important part of the local crime scene. It wouldn’t hurt to have him owe me a favor. There was no question that, someday, I’d have to ask him for one.
“Yeah, I’ll help you,” I told him. It felt wrong to say it but sometimes you have to deal with the devil. “On two conditions.”
Caesar actually managed a weak smile of gratitude. “Okay.”
“One: I find out who did this we go to the police first. They choose to ignore us, you do what you have to do, but I want them to have first crack.”
Caesar froze for a moment, and then reluctantly nodded.
“Two: I do this alone. I don’t want any of your boys following me, checking up on me. It cramps my style and it scares witnesses.”
“You got it,” Caesar told me. “I give my word.”
“Two hundred a day,” I continued, “Plus expenses. Five hundred dollar retainer up front.”
I thought Caesar might blanch, but instead he stood up, pulled a wallet out of his back pocket (it was attached to a belt loop with a long silver chain and bore a bright green marijuana leaf on its side) and counted out five one-hundred dollar bills from a stack that looked a half-inch thick.
“You find out who did this,” Caesar said strongly, making it sound like an order. He stuffed his wallet back into his pants.
I gathered the money off of the desktop and stacked it neatly.
“That’s what you’re paying me for,” I told him.