A Holiday Novella
December 8, 11 a.m.
I have nothing to say.
It’s the fault of that retired pile of ursine melancholy, PI Bear Jacobs. Even on his best days, observers could be forgiven for thinking of him as a cane-wielding, king-sized, potty-mouthed grouch. But now? Right here, up against the ho-ho-holidays? The big man is a beacon of gloom and doom, a grump who wouldn’t just steal Christmas, he’d ram it into the trash and set it on fire.
Bear says to leave him alone with his seasonal depression. He wants to hibernate through the ‘whole damn tinsel-covered mess.’ The other residents and staff cut a wide swath around him, hoping he’ll be okay again when the tree is taken back out of the Latin’s Ranch living room and twinkly bulbs no longer circle the dining room crown moulding.
But I know he’d really rather join the fun. So it’s up to me to poke the bear, so to speak. All he needs is a mystery to solve. That would make him festive as a cup of Christmas cheer. If I’m going to be his eWatson and keep his case notes, I better find him something to scratch his head about. Otherwise, I might slip into a pile of uselessness myself.
I believe a mystery may be coming through the door very soon now. My physical therapist Ernie let it slip that his girl friend Clarice, who is also our bookkeeper, is worried about unexplained goings on involving Eunice Taylor. Worry about my roommate is a worry for me, too. And unexplained goings on? Bingo! A mystery for Bear.
I’ve arranged for tea to be served in the living room after lunch. Gives us residents a chance to be alone with our guest. And for the mystery to begin to unfold. That means I should have a lot to say any time now.
Lily Gilbert, Jolly Assistant to PI Bear Jacobs
Clarice Hagadorn loved birds and birding expeditions. She’d learned to get along with old people as well as administrators of adult care facilities and nursing homes. Her independent bookkeeping business was burgeoning. Her son had managed not to flunk out his first year of college, and it appeared he might actually be growing up, praise the day. Nobody ruled her roost except the two Siamese cats, Kit Kat and Hersey, who clawed, bit, yowled and purred their way through her life. She had an ongoing relationship with a very sweet man. While Ernie wasn’t the handsomest of guys, he was among the most limber, what with being a physical therapist and all. It had its advantages.
From nearly every point of view, Clarice was a successful woman. But if anyone asked her, she’d say her greatest accomplishment had been the loss of seventy pounds. She could now bend over and put her palms flat on the floor. She could reach far enough to shave her legs all the way around. She could cross them, one right over the other. Her upper arms didn’t flap in the breeze. The two cats no longer fit in her lap at the same time. She could hike the trails of the Cascades. She felt in shape, strong and lithe.
Clarice had not only taken it off but was keeping it off. Until now. And here it was again, a dieter’s greatest dread. The downfall of all foodies. Nightmare on Loser Street.
Yes. It was the holiday season. Chestnuts roasting. Figgy puddings baking. Sugar plums dancing. Partridges in pear trees. Nogged eggs and uncontrolled wassailing. It was hearty food and drink time, and Clarice was not feeling all that grateful about it. She was on her way to Latin’s Ranch to visit her client, Eunice Taylor. And since Latin’s Ranch was also a client, she’d been invited to lunch. A lunch prepared by that Mexican marvel, Aurora. It would no doubt include cheese and crispy fried things and roasted pork and cream. It would be heaven on earth.
Clarice shook in the new, smaller-sized boots that fit her now trim calves. Would it also be her nemesis from a formerly plump point of view? Would the holidays put her in the kind of tailspin that could easily lead to the fat suit again? Heaven knows, she hated to impart the news she had for Eunice. It was enough to make her stomach growl for a wee bit of comfort food.
If there was one thing that could lure Bear out of his den during the holidays, it was Aurora’s cooking. At Christmas time, she created a minor miracle every day of the month. It was her holiday gift to the residents and staff at Latin’s Ranch Adult Care Home. The evening before she’d served their cocoa with her buñuelos, each little fritter sprinkled with powdered sugar. It had been almost enough to make him smile.
Monday’s lunch had been pozole, a hearty soup of hominy, pork, chili and garlic. Today, according to the posted menu the residents checked every morning, the entree was chicken with black mole sauce. Aurora made hers spicy and sweet, with chocolate, cinnamon, clove and so many other surprises.
Bear was glad they had a luncheon guest. Everyone liked Clarice so chatting with her would draw their attention away from his funk. He could enjoy his mole in peace. He couldn’t believe the reasonable portions that Clarice seemed to be enjoying. He remembered when she could out-wolf him. The woman would be an inspiration if, in fact, anything could inspire him at the moment. Maybe after lunch he’d think about the connection between food and fitness. Then again, maybe not.
Alita, their youngest aide, served them tea in the living room following lunch. The four other residents included Bear’s roommate Charlie Barker, Lily, Eunice and retired capo Frankie Sapienza. Clarice Hagadorn joined them there. Bear thought he saw conflict in the bookkeeper’s usually open and friendly face. He wondered what was up. Not that he really cared, of course.
“Lunch was lovely,” Clarice said. “But Eunice, remember we need to talk for a moment before I leave.”
“Okay, my dear. Talk away.”
Clarice colored a pink blush that did her auburn hair no favors. “Well, I … um … it involves your finances, of course, and might be a bit personal if you’d like to go …”
“Oh, heavens no, dear.” Eunice made an expansive gesture with her spindly arms to include the gang. “Everyone here knows all there is to know about me, including how I look before make-up in the mornings.”
Bear saw a ghost of a smile cross Lily’s lips. It made him wonder if he’d actually ever seen the carefully coiffed, jewelry bedazzled Eunice before she was good and ready for her close-up. Eunice might put on airs as ditzy, but he’d learned long ago that the octogenarian had plenty of marbles under that spiky orange hair.
“Well, still …”
“Come along, speak up girl, no mumbling,” Eunice urged.
Bear watched as Clarice cleared her throat, donned a cloak of professionalism and began. “I’m aware that you do a certain amount of shopping at My Fair Pair, have for as long as I’ve known you.”
“Yes, that’s right. Lovely things they have for day or night.” Eunice tucked in her chin and glanced sideways at Frankie.
This time, Bear and Charlie also concealed their smiles. All the residents knew Frankie was over the moon about Eunice. The two had been an item damn near since the day Latin’s Ranch opened its doors as an adult care home.
Bear considered Eunice’s purchase of lady geegaws and scanties and other unknowns to be none of his business. Charlie was more likely interested in that kind of crap since the old sumbitch was known to have an eye for the ladies. At the moment, Charlie was petting Furball, the fat cat draped across his exceptionally skinny knees, but Bear assumed he was listening with great interest.
Clarice soldiered on. “Well, recently, it seems to me your purchases have increased. They were under $50 a month. But that’s being going up. In October alone, you spent over $300. And I thought, I mean, I wondered, well …”
“You wondered how many pairs of fancy pants one old woman could need.”
“Exactly!” Clarice said, following it up with an exhale that sounded like relief to Bear. “So I have to question whether someone there is fiddling with your charge account.”
“Of course there is, my dear. Has for some time.”
Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at Eunice.
“Huh?” said Clarice.
“I’ll second that,” said Lily. “Huh?”
“Well, of course I know about it. I go over my bills quite carefully, you know. And yes it has increased here in the fourth quarter before the holidays.”
Finally, Bear couldn’t take it. He may have withdrawn from the group temporarily, but he’d be damned if he’d let them withdraw from him. “Eunice, if you knew about it, why didn’t you tell me? Ask me to figure out what’s going on? I’ve been known to solve a crime or two, you know. I could stop it.”
“But Bear, I don’t want to stop it.”
“Then I, too, have to ask, ‘Huh?’”
“Someone steal from you, my little dove? I have his head for this,” seethed the old capo.
“No, no, no! Nobody will have anybody’s head. Louella Bowles has owned that store for decades. She’s been my friend for decades, too. Now her daughter works there. I don’t want to let Louella know someone’s stealing from me. Don’t want to hurt her. Don’t want to accuse her daughter or any other clerk for that matter. I’d rather just pay the extra as long as it doesn’t get any more out of hand.”
Eunice got up from the hard backed chair she favored, flapping her wings like a sparrow in a birdbath. “And since that is my wish, Clarice I want you to forget about it.” She hip-switched out of the room as quickly as an agile old woman could manage. Frankie, with the aid of his walker, rose and followed her out at a far statelier pace.
When they were gone, Clarice said in some distress, “Oh no. Have I made her mad? I’d hate to upset her.” They all looked at Lily. As Eunice’s roommate, Lily was the final authority on this matter.
“She’s not mad, Clarice. Eunice just loves a dramatic exit and she so rarely gets the chance to do one anymore.” Lily shrugged. “But I am sure she really means it. She would hate to hurt an old friend even at her own loss.”
“I guess I’m glad she knew it was happening,” Clarice admitted. “I like to know my clients are aware of their finances.”
“Oh, she’d know all right. It’s sometimes easy to think of her as flighty. But Eunice always knows what’s up.”
“Maybe,” said Bear. “But this time, what’s up doesn’t just affect her. Others may be getting taken, too.”
“Well, that’s a good point, Bear,” Lily said. “I’ll talk with her about it when she calms down a bit.”
“Might have to give this some thought,” Bear muttered mostly to himself, struggling up with the help of his custom-made quad cane.
“Maybe there’s a way to stop it without Louella Bowles even knowing that Eunice started it.” Lily flashed a broad grin at him before he turned to walk away.
As he kachunk, kachunked down the hall to his room, Bear hummed a few bars of Here We Come A-Wassailing before he realized what the hell he was doing. He always hummed an oldie but goodie when he was thinking about a crime but not a damn Christmas carol, for God’s sake.
Then another thought flitted through his massive head. It involved the Mona Lisa grin that Lily had given him as he left the living room.
Lily. Did she have something to do with this mystery? Did she set up that tea party? Had he just been conned into action? He damn well wouldn’t put it past his conniving little assistant to do something just like that.