Friday, March 29, 2013

Assisted Dying

Place: first place in The Steve Hockensmith Mystery Contest

Assisted Dying

Ida Wasserstein pushed herself away from the table and struggled to her feet. Her slippers made a shushing sound on the carpet in the cavernous dining room. Lunch was over for the 200 or so residents of Sunset Care Village.
Mrs. Wasserstein felt a little more confused than usual as she pushed her walker along. She shouldn’t have had the chopped liver, she thought. She loved it but it seldom agreed with her.
She was headed to her room on the third floor to lie down, maybe take a nap. Ever since her stroke six years before, she lived at the Village’s assisted care facility. She shuffled to the elevator and, having pushed the wrong button, rode the car to the fourth floor. When she exited, she plodded along in the direction of her apartment one floor below.
When she walked in to Mrs. Applebaum’s apartment by mistake, Mrs. Wasserstein was shocked to find someone else there. Mrs. Applebaum was shocked to see a strange woman walk in like she owned the place. Mrs. Wasserstein wondered what happened to all her things. The two women knew each other slightly but were far from friends. Each wondered what the other was doing there. After much confused gesticulating and adjusting of hearing aids, the two old ladies got the matter sorted out and Mrs. Wasserstein realized her mistake. Slowly she continued on her way. The chopped liver was making itself felt. Her bowls were objecting and her head was swimming. Her confusion over the wrong apartment only aggravated the situation.
Befuddled, she turned the wrong way and continued down the long hallway to the fire exit at the end of the hall. It was later theorized, that perhaps she mistook the stairway for the elevator. How else to explain her broken body at the bottom of the stairs? Doctor Gupta, Sunset Village’s physician, attributed Mrs. Wasserstein’s death to her long exposure in the unheated stairwell. She lay there for several hours before someone from the cleaning staff found her. Of course, the multiple fractures and blunt force trauma would have killed her anyway. She was 87 years old.
It was the third fatality in as many months at Sunset Village and, while a fairly high turnover was expected, residents were expected to die in their beds or in hospitals not from falls in stairwells or other public places. Accidental death smacked of neglect and created public relations problems.
An autopsy was not done on Mrs. Wasserstein for religious reasons and also because no criminal activity was suspected. Had an autopsy been performed, it would have revealed an alarmingly high level of Motrolomine, a common muscle relaxant, in Mrs. Wasserstein’s blood stream. The same drug would have showed up in the blood-streams of the two earlier “accident” victims but, to the great relief of Sunset Village’s owners, foul play was not suspected. “Accidents” were bad enough for business. Murder would have been a disaster.
The general lack of suspicion, however, was not universal. In the dark and murky mind of 79 year old Ben Marcus, a suspicion took hold. In a previous life, the shy, quiet old man in room 202 had been Detective Sergeant Ben Marcus of the Chicago PD. A 24 year veteran of Chicago’s mean streets. Forced into retirement after a long career, Ben and his long time partner Chu made quite a name for themselves. Together they’d solved scores of cases. For those who knew him in his prime like his son Dave and his daughter Emily, it was difficult to believe that the shriveled and silent old man with the blanket on his lap was once half of that dynamic team.
A few months short of his 65th birthday and his official retirement, a skin head, gang banger’s bullet left Ben paralyzed and Chu brain dead. If that weren’t enough bitterness to swallow, the sudden illness and loss of his beloved wife, Maddy, two years later sent poor Ben Marcus into a downward spiral from which it was feared he would never recover. Ben slipped into a depression so complete that Dave and Emily despaired of ever having their father back. They put him into Sunset Village where he could get the professional care he needed.
Detective Marcus was suspicious. Something about those accidental deaths didn’t feel right. It was, at first, just a hint of a suspicion, more a nagging feeling. Something an old detective would recognize. It smoldered for three days before bursting into flame. Like a spark on dry tinder, it grew into a force he couldn’t resist. It awoke in Ben something that had been asleep for the last fifteen years— the slumbering detective. The very force that at one time gave purpose to his life was re-animated and it brought the old man back from that dark place.  It didn’t return him to the life he knew—that life was long gone. He could not be the professional investigator he was either mentally or physically. For one thing he was confined to a wheel chair and for another, well he was 79 years old. But he still knew a hunch when he felt one. And a hunch was something to be respected. He wished his old partner was on the case with him. He and Chu would get to the bottom of the mystery soon enough.
A part of him knew that Chu was dead but another part didn’t care. It simply recreated him. Call it the result of too many anti-depressants or the early stages of dementia or the privileges of being old and infirm but in Ben’s mind, Chu was there, quite real and as cheeky as ever. Once Chu was at his side again, Ben felt a whole lot better. The fact that no one else could see who he was talking to didn’t bother him in the least. Let them mutter “dotty old fool” under their breath, Marcus and Chu were Chicago Homicide at its best and Ben wasn’t about to start a case without him. What a pair they were. It made Ben smile just to think of it. In Ben’s mind, Chu was as real as anything else. Besides, being dotty was one of the privileges of old age.
It made Dave and Emily a little uncomfortable to see their father talking to himself. If they asked him, “Who are you talking to Dad?” Ben might say, “no one,” or he might say, ”your mother,” or “Chu.” They had mixed feelings about this. It was disturbing to see the old man talking to ghosts but it was good to see him animated about something. They didn’t know that he and Chu were working on a case, they only saw that something had finally brought the old detective out of his shell.
Ben’s son, Dave Marcus, lived a hundred miles away in Benton so only managed a visit once a month or so. Daughter, Emily, lived closer and came once or twice a week. Both children had children of their own but they rarely brought them to see their grandfather. Ben hadn’t reacted to their presence or absence since they were born so they stayed home. After Ben was shot he lived at home with Maddy who took good care of him until she died. She caught pneumonia and died a week later. After that, Ben turned his back on this world and sank into a deep well of despair. He stopped talking, stopped caring and deteriorated to the point where he needed to be cared for.
The kids used Ben’s pension and the sale of his house to keep him at Sunset Care. It was expensive but worth it. Ben’s mental state stabilized. He was silent and depressed but they no longer feared for his life. “I never thought delusional would seem like an improvement,” Emily once said to Dave, “but in Dad’s case it is.”

“I don’t like the smell of it,” Ben said to Chu. The Chu in his mind was the skinny forty year old who had just received his lieutenant’s shield.
“All old people smell funny,” said Chu. “Especially old white people.” Cultural differences provided the source for much of their banter. Chu was second generation Chinese American. Born and raised in Chicago, he could hardly even speak his parent’s native Mandarin. He spoke English better than Ben. He was smarter than Ben too. He had a degree in Political Science from the University of Chicago all paid for with scholarships. Ben had only his Associate’s Degree from a Community College. It was all he could afford. His lack of a four year degree meant that he couldn’t advance to lieutenant. Ben was ten years older than Chu yet Chu was technically his superior. This disparity of age, class and brains could have been a source of resentment between them but instead it was just another thing to tease each other about.
Chu looked Ben over and said, ”You don’t expect to investigate a crime looking like that do you?”
  Ben looked in the mirror and saw himself—a middle aged man in his fifties, short, paunchy with thinning hair showing the first hints of gray. Still strong and vigorous with a keen eye for details and a head for connecting the dots. An idealized picture to be sure but it represented Ben and Chu in their prime.
“What do you mean?” Ben asked.
“Where’s your jacket? Where’s your notebook?” asked Chu.
Of course Chu was right. Ben had always worn a checkered sports coat. For 25 years it was his uniform and the source of unending jokes on the force. And the little spiral bound notebook he always kept inside the breast pocket was both useful and a talisman that helped them solve so many tough cases.
Ben looked in the closet in his room. The original jacket was long gone. He’d been wearing it that last day on the job when he and Chu walked into that rat hole of an apartment and into a hail of bullets. That jacket was blood soaked and ruined—his blood and Chu’s blood together, the way it always was and should be. But there was a jacket in there, an old brown one. It wasn’t the old uniform but it would have to do. It was far too big for him now. He’d shrunk so much these last years.
A small spiral notebook was another matter. He’d filled and saved hundreds of them over his long career. Where were they all? Probably in a box in a garage or an attic somewhere if they’d been saved at all. The best he could come up with was a stack of yellow post-it notes that he found in a drawer. They were a far cry from his trusty spiral but, like the jacket, they would have to do. He found a ball point pen and put it and the post-its in his jacket pocket.
“That’s better,” said Chu. “Now tell me what we’ve got.”

“Pa? Who’re you talking to?” It was Emily gently shaking Ben back into her world. “Hi Dad. It’s me.  How you’re doing? I think you were having a dream.” She knelt at his knee, straightened the blanket. ”You put on your old jacket. That’s good. You always wore one. You always wore that horrid checkered thing, remember? Seemed like you had it forever. Anyway, it’s nice to see you engaged.”
Her visits were usually brief but this time she lingered. Ben still had trouble speaking but he was responsive for the first time in a long time. Emily had tears in her eyes telling her father the tid-bits of news that constituted a normal person’s day. Little stories about the children. A funny thing that happened at the market. These things she always brought him but now he nodded his head and even almost smiled.
It was enough for Emily to tell her brother later that, “I think dad has found something to interest him.”
“A woman?” suggested Dave.
“Maybe. Who knows?” was Emily’s reply.

“So what have we got? Chu asked.
Ben took out his notebook, licked his thumb and mentally flipped through the pages. “Three suspicious deaths approximately a month apart. Something’s not right.”
“Details?” requested Chu.
“Two months ago..ah..February 11th, Bob Winger, 80 years old, resident, went to the hot tub for his daily soak. He went every afternoon right after lunch before if filled up.”
“Did Winger have any medical problems?” asked Chu.
“Are you kidding? Everyone here has medical problems. It’s called old age. But to answer your question, Yes. Mr. Winger had heart problems and was on several cholesterol lowering and blood pressure regulating drugs.”
“Plus he didn’t believe in waiting an hour before swimming” added Chu. “Anyone examine the body? What was the explanation given for the accident?” Chu was full of questions. Ben was about to answer when he was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder.
“Good Morning Mr. Marcus. How are we today?” It was Hayward Pierce, Sunset Village’s General Manager, making an effort to be a cheerful regular guy. Ben couldn’t remember the man ever speaking to him before. Then in a louder voice as if he were speaking to a simpleton foreigner, Pierce patted Ben’s shoulder and said, “I see you’re having a conversation. I don’t mean to interrupt. Nice jacket. Hope to see you at happy hour later. Have a nice day.”
“Asshole,” Ben muttered under his breath.
“I know the type,” said Chu, “you were saying?”
“Where was I?”
“Mr. Winger?”
“Cause of death?” prompted Chu.
“Right. Drowned in the hot tub. They assume he got overheated and fainted.”
“Isn’t there supposed to be a lifeguard on duty?”
“There usually is but on that particular morning, Chico the pool attendant, was in the kitchen having a second cup of coffee and flirting with the staff.”
“Maybe we should talk to Chico,” said Chu.
“Can’t,” said Ben. “They canned him right after the incident. The management only tolerates incompetence at the managerial level. There’s a new kid there now, name’s Pete. Nice kid.”
“And you’re suspicious, why exactly?”
“Well,” said Ben, “for one thing, Winger went there every day. Never fainted before. The one time he faints is the morning Chico isn’t around.”
“Too neat,” said Chu.
“Exactly,” said Ben. “Like to see the scene of the crime?”
Chu agreed and Ben rolled them in the direction of the pool/spa area. The indoor pool was tiny. A few old folks were bobbing around in tight fitting shower caps. The brightly colored caps reminded Ben of rubber balls. One old guy wore a flesh colored cap. It gave Ben a start, it made him think of the skin heads who ambushed him and Chu that day so many years ago.
They were calling on an informer. A surprise visit. There’d been a particularly brutal double homicide a few weeks before. A mixed race couple were kicked and beaten to death in broad daylight in an empty lot near the lake. There were no witnesses, no clues. The papers were howling for blood. The pressure from city hall fell heavily on the police. They were desperate to come up with something. Skin heads were seen in the vicinity. It wasn’t much but every lead was being pursued. He and Chu had a snitch in the neighborhood. A Frank something-or-other, connected with the Aryan Brotherhood. They decided to pay him a visit, see if he’d heard anything.
Ben would never forget that day. It was a bright Spring morning. They parked by the Lake and walked past the lot where the bodies were found. Someone had already ripped down the crime scene tape. Remnants of it fluttered in the breeze like little yellow flags. Ben remembered the sun sparkling off the water. How peaceful it looked. He popped back into the present staring at the water in the indoor pool.
“You all right Mister?” Pete was bending over him concerned.
“I was just thinking,” muttered Ben. The air was thick with humidity and the smell of chemicals. The sounds of human chatter echoed off the walls.
“About the old days?” asked Pete trying to be friendly.
“Mmmm,” said Ben rolling away to show Chu the hot tub.
There were caution signs all around the big round tub advising residents to use the tub at their own risk, watch their valuables and not to use it if they were pregnant. That always got a chuckle from the seniors. A half a dozen residents were soaking in the bubbly soup. A large wall mounted thermometer gave the temperature at 110º.
“Not very hot,” observed Chu. “What was the temperature when they found Mr. Wright?”
“110,” said Ben.

“Tell me about number two,” said Chu in the elevator. They got off on the fourth floor and headed down the long corridor.
“A month ago. Let’s see…here it is, March 17th. Also a Tuesday by the way. A Mrs. Norma Wiener, 87, fell from her balcony onto the shuffle board court below. Dead on impact. Found by Rita Bentley, activity director. They think she was watering her hanging plants, got dizzy and went over the railing. She might have been standing on a chair.”
“Was a chair found?” asked Chu.
“I don’t know. This is her apartment here. Her kids live in New York and haven’t gotten around to cleaning it out yet so I thought we might take a look around.”
Like most of the apartments in the assisted care wing of the Village Mrs. Wiener’s was unlocked. The interior was crowded with a life time of treasured things. Photos of children and grand children in groups and singles, artwork and needlework filled every bit of wall space. The furniture was old fashioned and plants adorned every horizontal surface.
“She did like plants,” observed Chu.
Ben wheeled through the living room to the sliding glass door and examined the balcony. There were plants hanging from the ceiling and two small wire chairs sat at a square glass table. “If she stood on one of these chairs,” said Ben, “she could have toppled.”
Chu looked down. There was a tinted stain on the white cement court below. “The stain doesn’t line up with any of the hanging plants. Did you notice that?” Ben checked. It was true. The two hanging pots were at the other end of the balcony. “If she fell that way, she’d have landed in the bushes.”
Ben looked around the apartment. Everything seemed neat and tidy. On impulse he opened the refrigerator in the tiny kitchen. There wasn’t much to see. The only items in it were a left over container containing a small amount of chopped liver, a small box of chocolate truffles, half eaten, and a quart of milk curdled into cottage cheese. Ben smelled it and wrinkled his nose. “Spoiled,” he said and put it back. “You want to look at the shuffle board court? Ben asked Chu.
Chu shrugged his narrow shoulders, “Sure. What the hell. What else we got to do.”
They took the elevator down to the ground floor and went out to the recreation area. The air was still too chilly for out door activities. The big out door pool was still covered. The shuffle board courts were deserted. They had the place to themselves. They examined the spot where Mrs. Wiener’s head collided with the base of the shuffle board triangle.
“Ten off,” observed Chu.
“Very funny,” said Ben. “Your people play shuffle board?”
“We have a similar game,” replied Chu, “using the shin bones of pandas.”
“Barbarians,” said Ben.
“March 17th. Isn’t that…”
“Saint Paddy’s Day,” said Ben. “I thought of that. I don’t see a connection. But how do you Chinamen know about a thing like that?”
Chu assumed his buck toothed Fu Manchu accent and said, “We have been studying your customs for many years,” he said, “Soon we will take over your government.”
“Damn yellow peril, ”Ben said. Both men laughed.
  Then a profound sadness descended on Ben. Part of Ben’s addled brain remembered that awful day. It was not a memory he embraced. Too painful even after all these years. Knocking on the snitch’s door. The bald head in the gap. The expression of surprise changing to fear and alarm. Ben flinched at the memory. He looked for Chu. He was down. Shot. Dear god what was happening?
“Hi dad. What are you doing out here. Let’s get you inside.” Dave pushed Ben’s chair down the length of the shuffle board court and back inside the warm building. “You know dad, next week is your birthday. The big eight oh. I thought we might have a cake, maybe bring the grand kids and sing Happy Birthday. What do you think?”
  Ben looked at his son. Forty six years old and Ben hardly knew him. He was always so busy when Dave was growing up. Now that he was a man and a father, Ben had missed out on that too. Police work is hell on families. It was amazing that Maddy kept family and marriage together so well for so long. She’d raised the two kids practically on her own. Somehow the kids managed to love him anyway. He couldn’t imagine what he’d done to deserve that.
Ben was at Chu’s side everyday as soon as his own wounds would allow it. Chu was on a respirator, his prognosis poor. He’d been shot in the face, the bullet tearing upward through his brain. He was in a deep comma. No brain function to speak of. Chu’s parents were there constantly. Ben hardly spoke to them. Together they kept a vigil united by their common love.

Meals at Sunset Village were a big event. The highlights of a featureless day. The regular shuffle to the table. The biological imperatives of eating and excreting were life affirming functions. The familiar faces and the regularity of the schedule were comforting rhythms. The plates of food were served restaurant style by minorities and immigrants who were grateful for the minimum wage jobs. There were choices to be made, soup or salad, what kind of dressing, which of three entrees. It was familiar and nourishing fare and one got used to its universal blandness.
Tables were assigned according to some incomprehensible policy. Ben had been sitting at the same table for years. His table-mates were all similarly medicated zombies so there wasn’t much social interaction. What the table lacked in animation was more than compensated for by Jesus, their talkative Jamaican waiter.
“Good afternoon boys and girls. How is everyone today? Good. We have a wonderful soup today. Chicken noodle. How many want soup?” Two hands twitch. “I have two soups. Mr. Marcus and Mrs. Greenblatt. Last call. Okay, I’ll be right back.”
Soup was always a good bet at the Village and Ben usually ordered a bowl. Ben looked at his table mates for what seemed like the first time. Even though he’d been sitting with them for years, he’d been too deep in his own head to notice them. There were six people at Ben’s table, two men and four women. Ben sat in his wheel chair, others used walkers or canes to get around. To Ben’s left sat Mrs. Greenblatt, a heavy set woman with a kind face. She gave Ben a shy smile when he looked at her. On his right was Mrs. Roberts, a frail bird-like woman carefully dressed and coifed as if she were going out for the day. He didn’t remember ever having said a word to either of them. Now he leaned over to Mrs. Greenblatt and said, “You like soup?” Mrs. Greenblatt’s head bobbed up and down as if she wasn’t quite sure. “Me too,” he said.
When Jesus brought the soups, he took the orders for the main course. There was usually a choice of three dishes. Jesus kept all the orders in his head and rarely got one wrong. Ben ordered the meatballs and spaghetti, an old time favorite. It was a dish his Maddy made so well. Ben ate with real appetite and finished it all. It was the first time. It was so unusual that even Jesus noticed and was forced to remark, “Well, well, looks who’s come back to life. Way to go Mr. Marcus.”
When Jesus brought the desserts over he reminded the table what activities were scheduled that afternoon. “There’s a trivia game in the game room at one thirty, a Doris Day movie at two in the auditorium, a sing along in the lobby at three. I guess you all heard about Mrs. Wasserstein’s unfortunate accident a few days ago. Well there a brief memorial service for her in the chapel at four. That’s it boys and girls. Enjoy the rest of your day.”
Ben waited for the others to leave before calling Jesus over. “Do you know where Mrs. Wasserstein sat?” he asked.
Jesus thought a minute and said, “Table 7, I believe.”
“How about Evelyn Wiener?”
“Table 12.”
“And Bob Winger?”
“Table 22. What’s this all about?” Jesus had a big smile on his face. “I think we are having the most conversation we’ve ever had. What’s cooking in that head of yours Mr. Marcus?”
Ben just shook Jesus’ hand and rolled away. “Thanks,” was all he said.

Chu was waiting for him in the lobby and they picked up where they left off.
“Tell me about number three,” Chu asked.
Ben looked through his notes. “Tuesday, April 12th,  three days ago. Ida Wasserstein, 87, found at the bottom of a flight of stairs on the fourth floor by one of the cleaning staff. Witnesses said she was confused. Probably wandered into the stairway by mistake and fell down the steps.”
“But you don’t like that explanation.” Chu said it as a statement. “What’s wrong with it?”
“A couple of things,” said Ben. “First of all, why so confused? She wasn’t one of your over medicated zombies. In fact by all accounts she was pretty sharp. Used a computer. Wrote emails. Worked on the Village news letter. Served on the Meals Committee.”
“Is there a second of all?” asked Chu.
“There is. I heard that her walker was found at the top of the steps. If she was trying to walk down, wouldn’t the walker have fallen with her?”
They sat in the lobby in upholstered chairs. “Let’s review what we have,” said Chu. “What do these three deaths have in common? Did they know each other?”
“Not that I could determine,” said Ben. “They sat at different tables which would indicate that they weren’t close.”
“So you’re thinking random victims?”
“Unless the killer had something against people whose last names begin with ‘W’,” said Ben. “If there is a pattern here, I’m more inclined to go with the Tuesday connection.”
“Right. What happens around here on Tuesdays in the middle of the month? Lets check out the activities calendar”
“And the monthly menu,” said Ben.
“How about the guest sign in sheets?” suggested Chu. “And staff sign in while we’re at it.”
“The menu and activity schedules are easy enough. The sign in stuff not so much. They keep that in the office.”
“Well let’s do the easy stuff first,” said the pragmatic Chu. “Old Chinese saying.”
“You people are so wise,” said Ben bowing to the superior wisdom of the East.
The monthly menus and activity schedules were distributed to all residents on the first of every month plus they were posted on every bulletin board. On the bulletin board adjacent to the mail boxes, the new menus and schedules were stapled directly over the old ones in layers six months deep. Ben used his pocket knife to remove the staples and took the menus and schedules for the last three months. A few residents coming for their mail eyed Ben suspiciously. He didn’t care. He folded the papers away in his jacket and went with Chu to the library where they could study the schedules in peace and quiet.
The activity calendars had similar events every Tuesday throughout the year. There was always a poker tournament in the game room in the morning and a trivia game in the afternoon. Ben didn’t know if any of the victims were regular participants at either of these weekly events. “I can ask Rita Bentley if any of the victims were regulars.” Rita Bentley was the activities director and was easy to find. “Lets do the menus first and then find Rita.”
The monthly menus showed nothing interesting. On Tuesdays chopped liver was offered at lunch. The rest of the food choices appeared at random intervals but chopped liver was a Tuesday staple.
”Now there’s a dish I find disgusting,” said Chu.
“This from a culture that eats chicken feet,” said Ben.
“Mmm, chicken feet,” said Chu.
“Well we know that Mrs. Wiener liked the liver. No telling about the other two.”
“All the accidents happened after lunch,” observed Chu. “That could be significant.”
“Something in the liver?” Ben was thinking out loud.
“Then why wasn’t everyone effected?” countered Chu.
“I’ll go find Rita and ask her about the activities.” Ben was already rolling toward the game room. “You coming?” he called to Chu over his shoulder.
It turned out that only one of the three victims participated in any of Rita’s organized activities. The perky Miss Bentley ticked off on her fingers where everyone was after lunch. “Bob Winger was soaking. Evelyn Wiener was napping. And Ida Wasserstein was an occasional trivia participant. You going to her memorial service later?”
“Probably,” said Ben.

The turn out for Mrs. Wasserstein’s memorial service was larger than Ben expected. Because of her many interests and activities the small chapel was filled to capacity. Besides a score of residents, there were many staff members present. Ben was there early and had a place where he could observe everyone who entered. He saw many faces he knew. Hayward Pierce was there looking like an undertaker. Rita Bentley was there trying her best to keep her natural perkiness under control. There were several members of the kitchen staff in attendance. Ben didn’t know them but they were wearing cooks whites so he assumed that’s what they were.
  One face in the kitchen crew looked vaguely familiar. Ben’s once reliable ‘never forget a face’ memory wasn’t what it used to be. He was pondering the problem when the Rabbi began to speak. The solemn tones transported Ben’s mind back fourteen years.
  Back to a funeral home in Chicago. The pews filled with uniformed cops paying their last respects to Chu. Ben up front near the casket, Maddy beside him. One by one a hundred cops filed by and said a few words to Chu’s parents and shook Ben’s hand. He was family. In Ben’s mind he could hear the police chaplain drone on about Chu’s bravery. How he would be missed. Ben was so bummed by the whole miserable fiasco he was ready to scream. How stupid they were to walk into that death trap. Shouldn’t he have known better?
  Then there was Chu knocking on the snitch’s door. The door opening just wide enough for Frank, the skin head son of a bitch, to see who it was. That look of surprise turning to fear. Then Ben saying, “Hiya Frank. How they hangin’. You gonna invite us in?” So tough. So stupid. If only he’d paid attention to the signs. Two tough cops coming to shake some information out of old dumb Frank.
  They push their way in. Frank was doing his best to get rid of them, saying, “It’s not a good time. You boys shouldn’t be here.” They brushed him aside like so much trash and walked in on what? A skin head meeting? Three ugly tattooed Nazi skin head freaks. Their guns already drawn. No time to think. No time to react. Chu went down right away, then Ben’s hit. Ben manages to get off a couple of shots, sees a skinhead fall half his cheek blown away. Then Ben’s hit again and again, then the lights go out.
  The Rabbi was finished praising Mrs. Wasserstein. The chapel was emptying out. The man in the kitchen whites filed past. He had an enormous scar on his right cheek.
  “What do you think?” Ben asked Chu.
  “It’s been a lot of years,” said Chu. “I didn’t really get a good look at the guy. I was busy if you remember.”
  “Yeah,” said Ben, “I remember. I got off a couple of shots. I hit one in the face. But what are the odds? Even if it is the same guy, what does it mean?”
  Just the same, Ben kept an eye on the kitchen staff. He waited outside the kitchen for what he didn’t know. He felt like he was on a stake out. Sometimes Chu was there to talk to, sometimes he wasn’t.  Every night scar-face got picked up by a woman driving an old Toyota. There were three little kids in the back seat. Scar face kissed the woman and greeted the kids, then got in the passenger seat and drove off. Ben’s instinct told him it was a dead end. Just another hard working stiff trying to earn a living.
  Chu reminded him they needed to look at the sign in logs for visitors and staff. “Maybe the perp visits one Tuesday a month.”
  “They’re locked up in Pierce’s office,” Ben tells him. “How are we going to get in there?”
  “What’s the problem? You think you need a warrant?”
  Ben put his mind to the problem. There were two sources for master keys—the nurse’s station on the first floor and the cleaning staff. With luck and chicanery Ben found a way to ‘borrow’ the master key from Maria Caldera, the kindly Latina who had been cleaning his room for years. He waited until she finished her rounds. She was pushing her heavy cart back down the hall when he called her into his room.
  “Can you help me please?”. He played the catatonic cripple for maximum effect. Maria sighed heavily. She was tired after a long day. She found some soiled towels and bent to clean up the spilled soup. While she was so occupied, Ben snatched the master key off the key ring she left on the cart. He’d return it to her tomorrow or not. He hadn’t planned that far ahead.
  When Maria left, Ben showed the key to Chu. “You the man,” said Chu.
In the middle of the night they unlocked the door to the administration section. There was a sales office, Hayward Pierce’s office and a bookkeeper’s office. Ben headed straight for the manager’s office and started looking through the files. He didn’t find the sign in logs but he did find the Village’s personnel files. Ben was curious to see if someone might have been hired in January or February when the accidents began. Pete, the pool boy, was the only candidate and he was hired after Mr. Winger drowned.
Ben found a file labeled H. Pierce/Performance Review and decided to take a closer look. It revealed that Pierce had been passed over for promotion in February due to “erratic behavior, lack of initiative and low self esteem.” The psychologist who wrote the evaluation sited the “many complaints from residents and their families” as an example of Pierce’s poor management skills. He recommended termination if the complaints persisted. Ben always thought the guy was an idiot.
The file contained copies of the letters the families wrote to the central office. The letters mostly voiced general complaints about conditions at Sunset Village . Some addressed individual people. Ben wasn’t surprised to see the names Winger, Wasserstein and Wiener among the letters. There were even a couple of letters from David and Emily in the stack. He put everything carefully back where he found it at least he thought he did.
  The next day was Ben’s birthday. Emily and Dave showed up with their children. For the first time in years Ben was responsive, even friendly. The grand children were all so big. The youngest, Emily’s daughter, Ruth, was eight years old. Ben didn’t even remember ever seeing her. What a beauty she was. What a delight. She had Maddy’s face. It made the old man smile. As promised, Emily brought cake and Dave brought ice cream. Happy Birthday was sung and presents opened. Ben felt genuinely blessed and made an effort to engage the children.
  The families were starting to pack their things when Hayward Pierce knocked on the open door. “I hope I’m not too late,” he said with a big phony smile. “I just wanted to wish the birthday boy well and give him this.” Mr. Pierce handed Ben a small box of mixed chocolates. “They’re cream filled. I hope you like them.”
  “Isn’t that nice,” said Emily handing the little box to her father. “We were just leaving.” She kissed Ben. He shook hands with his son-in-law, Marc, and his two teen aged grandsons and then they were gone. Dave was about to follow when Ben called him over for a private word.
  “Dave,” Ben whispered, “Will you do me a favor?”
  “Sure, Dad, anything.”
  “I need you to take these chocolates someplace and have them tested.”
  “What? Tested for what? Are you kidding?” Dave was thinking the old man was having a senior moment. This time it was paranoia.
  “Please Dave, do it for me. Get them tested. I don’t trust that guy.”
  “Okay, dad. Whatever you say,” Dave put on his coat. He was anxious to get going. “We have a long drive ahead,” he said. Then he and his wife kissed Ben goodbye, took their kids and left.
  On the ride home they talked about the great improvement in Ben’s mental state. Somehow the box of chocolates got opened and passed around. Everyone had one. They were delicious. Less than twenty minutes later, the car’s occupants began feeling dizzy and disoriented. Dave’s driving became erratic, the car drifting all over the road. A patrol car took notice and thinking he had a DUI turned on his lights and ushered Dave’s car off the road. The car rolled slowly down a grassy embankment and came to rest in a ditch.
The cop rushed over to see if anyone was hurt and found the Marcus family drugged, sick and acting peculiar. Dave struggled out of the car disoriented and shaky. The cop called an ambulance. Dave and family were taken to the nearest hospital and put under observation. Food poisoning was suspected. The young doctor on duty ordered blood tests. High levels of the muscle relaxant Motrolomine are found in their blood. The police are called.
    When Dave is able to think clearly again, he remembers the chocolates and Ben’s suspicion. He produces the remaining candy and delivers it into the hands of the puzzled emergency room physician. “Test these,” Dave urges.
  “You let us eat poisoned chocolates?” Dave’s wife, Gerry, asks incredulous at her husband’s poor judgment.
  “I though he was acting paranoid,” was Dave’s only defense.
  The tests on the chocolates came back positive. All the chocolates were tainted. The machinery of the law was set in motion. Eventually Ben was interviewed. He told his story to a young homicide detective who turned out to be the son of his old Captain. On the strength of Ben’s testimony, Pierce was investigated and, soon after, held as a prime suspect. The bodies of the three accident victims were exhumed and their tissues tested. The left over chopped liver in Mrs. Wiener’s refrigerator was also analyzed. High doses of Motrolomine were found in both. Hayward Pierce was charged with murder, attempted murder and a few other things Ben couldn’t remember.
  That afternoon at lunch, Ben was explaining to his neighbor why Mr. Pierce was arrested. He was addressing Mrs. Greenblatt over a bowl of minestrone soup. He couldn’t tell if she was listening, he didn’t really care. “He thought he could improve his standing with the home office by eliminating some of the complaints against the facility. You know, it doesn’t take much to make an accident happen around here. Give an old person a good dose of some drug, maybe a little push here, a little dizziness there and boom! it’s done. Old people are easy to kill.”
  Ben and Chu were sitting in the sun when the police took Pierce away. “Nice work for a round eyed foreign devil,” said Chu.
  “We did good,” said Ben. He wheeled himself back inside the lobby. He checked the time, 1:30. Time for bingo in the game room, perky Miss Bentley presiding. Maybe he’d try his luck. What did he have to lose?


Posted by tobiash on 03/29 at 10:26 AM | Permalink
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