BEAR IN MIND
(a Bear Jacobs Mystery)
March 14, 11 a.m.
Bear Jacobs let his Private Investigator’s license expire about the time he nearly did the same thing himself. A crash team shocked his heart out of the Arrhythmic Boogie and back to its natural shuffle. Afterwards, Bear growled and moaned from hospital to nursing home, his attitude damn near getting him booted out to the streets. Now denned up at Latin’s Ranch Adult Family Care, he has recovered a fair amount of his strength and a little bit of good humor. He thinks he’s a real sweetheart now. Yeah. Sure.
Anyhoo, idle hands aren’t his problem. It’s that his big old brain doesn’t have enough to think about now that his physical worries have eased up. Simple boredom has him chewing on any mysterious bone that comes his way. Bear in mind that when the big man gets involved, he needs a strong-willed sidekick to stick like a burr and keep him on point.
Who better than a one-legged tough customer like me?
- Lily Gilbert, Lovely Assistant to PI Bear Jacobs
Lily powered down, closed the lid on her laptop and stretched her back. At seventy-seven, she figured she could call herself lovely if she damn well felt like it. And, in fact, she was. Her daughter had clipped her dove gray hair into a fluffy cloud, and her skin was rosy with health, never mind the wrinkles that crosshatched her cheeks like the grain of fine old suede.
It was a mistake to think of her as a sweet little granny. Lily was opinionated, feeling she had a right to be. She’d done a hell of a lot in her years on this earth. Seen a lot, too. As she’d once said to Bear, “I was a multitasker long before the word was invented.”
Lily liked to write down her adventures with Bear. She called them her case notes. Of course, she’d never seen actual case notes, didn’t know what they were for and didn’t care. She did it for the fun of it. She was proud to have mastered the little Toshiba so late in life and loved the opening riff, the touch of the keys, the gentle clicking sound. She felt like an eWatson.
Lily set the computer on her nightstand then swung herself to the side of the bed. She eyed her wheelchair but decided on the walker instead. She’d been practicing with it, building up the arm strength to get around without wheels. It wasn’t easy, what with having only one leg. She’d learned to balance herself and hop along, holding onto the walker as she swung her leg forward. Bear said her arms were as buff as a lowland gorilla.
All and all, Lily was content. She’d gotten over shaking her fist at the sky long ago, resigned to the physical outrages of old age. She’d rather be young and in charge of her life and raising hell, of course. But she had all those times tucked away in her memory bank. She could take out each deposit to study, enjoying the memory almost as much as the experience. Mentally, she hadn’t lost a step. As long as that was true, she could make do with some loss of mobility.
Of course, it was always possible Bear would get her killed, and she wasn’t crazy about that.
March 14, 3 p.m.
The whole thing started with the bookkeeper’s call. Eunice Taylor and Charlie Barker were in the living room watching All My Great Great Grandchildren. Bear and I were there, too, and I was whipping his sorry ass at Scrabble with a triple word score that included a q. Jessica Winslow – she’s the owner of Latin’s Ranch – came in and asked Charlie if she could speak with him.
“A personal matter,” she called it. Her voice is naturally soft, but I noticed she lowered it even more.
“Hell, Jessica,” Charlie answered. His voice is high, often rat-a-tatting in staccato bursts like a triple-tongued trumpet. “Everyone here knows I got sores on my nuts. Not much left that’s too personal for them to hear.”
That was true enough. We all knew a nurse came in special to medicate the backside of Charlie’s scrotum. He was troubled with sores from sitting all day. Not an uncommon complaint for wheelchair jocks.
“Well, Charlie, the bookkeeper called to say you have some unclaimed PNA funds,” Jessica said.
“Personal Needs Allowance. For things like tooth paste, shaving cream, deodorant – ”
“- and a hooker?”
“I don’t think that’s what the State has in mind. But I’ve noticed you could use a few new clothes.” Jessica cocked her head, causing her natural curls (and not so natural blonde streaks) to bounce as she eyed him up and down. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt so old it looked like the fronds would drop right off the palms. It was way too big for him, too. He’d lost weight trying to put less pressure on the aforementioned unmentionable bits of his anatomy. “If you like, I’ll call your wife. She could use the money to buy you some new things.”
Bear and I went dead quiet. Eunice tried, but the tinkling of her jewelry always rivals a wind chime. We all knew Charlie’s wife never called him or visited any more. She’d flat out abandoned him. Jessica knew it, too, but Louise Barker must still be listed as his emergency contact. I’ll bet she’s listed somewhere as a heart breaking bitch, too, pardon my goddamn French.
Charlie gave Jessica a winsome smile. “Sure, go ahead. If you reach Louise, let her know I miss her.”
- Lily Gilbert, Judgmental Assistant to PI Bear Jacobs
Jessica Winslow was aggravated which was rare. She was by nature even tempered, and that served her well in all of her businesses. She boarded horses, gave riding lessons, and raised Paso Finos. Her stallion, Latin Lover, had sired a line of champions, his stud fees supplementing her income.
She’d been widowed one winter night when her husband jackknifed his truck on an icy mountain pass in the Cascades east of Seattle. He’d left her with a shattered heart and a backlog of expenses. No matter how hard Jessica worked to shoulder the burden, she’d been failing financially, bit by bit.
To stave off selling her horses, she’d taken on her most demanding job of all. By remodeling her house, passing the state-required courses, and hiring a staff, she’d opened an adult family home called Latin’s Ranch in honor of her stallion. She gave her two-legged residents as much fine care as she gave her four-legged.
That’s why she was so aggravated with Charlie’s wife, Louise Barker. If the woman didn’t want to buy new clothes for Charlie, Jessica would help him pick a few things out of a catalog. No big deal, no reason to make Charlie feel like a bother. Jessica just needed the approval, that’s all. She’d left three messages on Louise’s voice mail in as many days. No answer. That settled it. Jessica trounced out to her old Camry and drove toward Louise’s house to make a demand or two. A knock on the door would be harder to ignore than a ringing phone.
Jessica made two wrong turns looking for the Barker house, which did little to sweeten her mood. She caught a look at herself in the rearview mirror and saw the frown line puckering her forehead. “Great,” she muttered to no one in particular. “Wrinkles instead of laugh lines.” She took a deep breath and relaxed her face muscles. Soon all signs of irritation left her fair skin free of anything but freckles.
The Barker place was hidden in a hilly neighborhood between Everett and Seattle, not far from the Puget Sound coastline. Some roads were only a couple blocks long but twisted and looped so the little cottages weren’t side by side in tidy rows. Even though the area was congested, overgrown rhododendrons and photinia blocked the houses from sight. Neighbors wouldn’t easily keep an eye on each other.
Still, when she parked in the Barker drive and approached the front door, Jessica wondered if anyone else had noticed the rank odor in the yard. Had a raccoon or rat died in the bushes? No, the stench seemed to be coming from the neat bungalow itself. She noticed the windows near the door were open, with screens in place.
What on earth can this god-awful odor be?
The closer she got, the worse it reeked of decay. Meat gone bad. Jessica’s eyes began to water as she reached the front door. She fought back nausea.
I don’t want to be here. I want to leave now!
Jessica battled the impulse to take flight and stood her ground. She rang the bell. And rang it again. No answer.
Finally, she dug in her purse for Kleenex. Holding a wad up to her nose with her left hand, she tried the door knob with her right. It turned. With a loud shout out for Mrs. Barker, Jessica pushed the door open.
A swarm of blowflies blasted out of the house, riding the fetid airwave. Jessica shrieked as the filthy, buzzing cloud flew into her face. She turned and ran back to her car, flailing her hands in front of her eyes all the way. Once inside her dependable old Camry, doors and windows closed tight, she waited for the shivering chill of repulsion to pass. With great gulps of air, she finally got fear under control. Then she called 911.
“She’s dead! I mean, I think.”
Jessica got out of her Camry when she saw the first patrol car pull up to the front curb. It was a county sheriff Crown Vic. Before she had a word with the uniformed deputies who emerged, an unmarked Charger pulled into the Barker driveway and parked behind her. It was a color that Dodge probably called White Gold Pearl or Sunlit Desert Sand.
Or Boring Beige.
Jessica was having a hard time focusing as she watched two people in plain clothes get out.
A hint of shock, maybe?
They glanced at her, and the woman flashed the briefest of smiles before saying, “Please wait here for us, Ma’am.” She nodded, and they both walked past her. The guy took a quick look back at her then went on with his partner into the house.
The guy’s sure were. A white shirt and jeans. Wolverine lace-ups that might have been new around the turn of the century. But that butt was anything but plain. Jessica figured he was a few years her junior, enough to make her feel like a cougar, and she was only thirty-something.
Probably girl hearts break with audible pops whenever he passes them by. OMG. My mind’s flitting around like all those flies.
Jessica shook her head, sighed and concentrated on reclaiming her composure while she waiting for the authorities to deal with it. The uniforms had followed the plain clothes inside so she was alone.
A dead body. Has to be.
Finally, the detectives came out of the little house and walked toward her. Neither looked upset or sickened or angry. They didn’t look anything at all, like finding a body was business as usual.
What must it be like for death to be commonplace in your daily life? Not that it isn’t a worry for me with my old tenants. But still …
The female officer spoke first. “Ms. Winslow, I’m Deputy Detective Josephine Keegan of the Major Crimes unit. This is my partner, Clay Galligan. You reported the body, yes?”
Galligan. That explains the blue eyes and dark curls of the Irish.
“Ah, yes. No. I mean, I reported smelling a body.”
Keegan cocked her head, frowning slightly. “You didn’t see it?”
Jessica thought the investigator was pretty in a tough sort of way. Like Ripley in those Alien movies or –
“Well, no. I didn’t actually go inside. An odor like that … it was nothing living. I couldn’t help her.”
“Yes. Mrs. Barker. Louise Barker. It’s her house.”
“You think she’s dead?”
Jessica was confused. “Well, we haven’t heard from her, you see. Her husband or me. For a long time.”
“You spend a lot of time with her husband?”
Jessica felt the heat of indignity. “He lives in my adult family home. Latin’s Ranch. Neither Charlie – that’s Charles Barker – nor I have heard from his wife for several weeks. That’s not unusual, but I need some instructions on his care. She didn’t return calls so I thought I’d come see her. Am I wrong? Isn’t there a body? All those flies and the odor …” Jessica wound to a stop.
“There is a body but not what you think,” Keegan said. “It’s a dog. Poor thing was locked in the foyer.”
“What? A dog was locked in there long enough to smell like that? That’s … that’s awful.” The wellbeing of animals was as sensitive a subject as the wellbeing of her pack of humans.
“Died of thirst most likely. It tore up the entry pretty well trying to get out. But the rest of the house looks untouched. And Mrs. Barker isn’t there.”
“You mean to tell me she just locked her dog in there and LEFT IT TO DIE? How could anybody do that?”
“Don’t know, Ma’am,” Deputy Detective Clay Galligan finally spoke. “Either she didn’t intend to come back … or she couldn’t come back.”
“Whichever, it’s a missing persons case for now. Let’s go have a chat with this husband of hers. We’ll follow you to, what was it?” Keegan looked at her notes. “Oh yeah. Latin’s Ranch.”
March 15, 8 p.m.
Before coming to Latin’s Ranch, we lived in a nursing home called Soundside Rehab and Health Care. The place wasn’t evil or anything. There were some first rate people working there. But even good nursing homes have a bad rep for a reason. They can’t avoid the smell of overcooked greens and medicines and bodily functions, no matter how much lemon disinfectant they use. Or the sight of diseased bodies and the deepest despair. For me, it was the noise that was worst. The blaring televisions, alarms, and shrieks from broken human beings.
Bad as it was, we found each other there, Bear, Eunice, Charlie and me. We were the lucky ones with minds still intact even though our bodies were on the decline. If we stuck together we could just make it through each day. But then, Soundside began to kick out its Medicaid patients. Lots of nursing homes are handling the budget crunch that way. It would have left us with no place to go but the streets. We were in some seriously scary shit until the cavalry arrived.
Jessica’s heart – and my daughter Sylvia’s know-how – got Latin’s Ranch up and running in the proverbial nick of time. It’s not a nursing home; it’s an Adult Family Home. It’s much smaller and, as the name implies, feels like family.
Four of us moved here from Soundside. Eunice and I are roomies as are Bear and Charlie. There’s a fifth resident here, too, a guy named Frankie Sapienza. We think he’s rich, but we don’t ask a lot of questions about his past. Good looking dude. Suave. Still has his hair and his teeth. He also has Eunice Taylor’s old heart pitter patting in a way a whole bottle of nitro tablets wouldn’t help.
Some of the staff from Soundside took jobs here at Latin’s Ranch. Our aides Chrissie, Rick and Alita have stories damn near as important to us as their ability to keep us healthy. Our critters made the move, too. Furball the cat and our cage of canaries are trying to get along with Jessica’s dog Folly and, of course, the horses. The jury is still out on whether Furball and Folly can live on the same planet much less the same ranch.
The saddest cases can’t be cared for here; we know that. They still exist in miserable rooms away from public view. None of us will ever forget we’re just one fall or one brain freeze away from going back.
Anyhoo. That’s a snapshot of how we got here, but back to Charlie’s missing wife. We all knew Jessica had gone to see Louise Barker so we gathered together to wait for her return. Damned if she didn’t beat feet through the front door right along with two detectives.
And might I say this about that young stud cop. He shouldn’t be sprung on LOLs – my anagram for little old ladies – without warning. Mercy.
- Lily Gilbert, Hot and Bothered Assistant to PI Bear Jacobs
Lily and the rest were gathered around the door in a wheelchair, walker, and quad cane traffic jam when Jessica got back to Latin’s Ranch with the two detectives.
“We look like the street gang that lost the rumble,” Bear muttered with some disgust. But he was in the thick of things with everyone else to hear Jessica tell Charlie that the authorities wanted to speak with him.
“Detectives? No!” Eunice said with a theatrical hand to forehead. “They’ll take him down to headquarters and get out the waterboards!” Lily was pretty sure Eunice had been watching too much television.
“Actually, we can talk right here, Mr. Barker. No need for torture devices,” said the woman dick while the dick with the dick tried not to snicker at Eunice. She introduced herself and her partner to everyone then asked Charlie, “You have a private place where we can go?”
“We can use my room, I guess,” Charlie said, looking glum. Of course, with his cheeks wrinkled in velvety pleats like a basset hound, he always looked pretty glum.
“Think I’ll come along, too,” said Bear. He used his low growly voice in counterpoint to Charlie’s high squeaky one. Lily knew that meant he expected to get his way. He leaned hard on his quad cane and shoved out his chin in a display of aggression.
Detective Keegan said, “But we – ”
Bear interrupted her. “Hiya, Cupcake.”
At the use of that endearment, Keegan squinted hard into those small obsidian eyes. They were nearly buried behind the fringe of silver hair and beard that surrounds Bear’s huge round head. After a slight intake of breath, she asked, “Al? Al Jacobs?”
“At your service.” Bear doffed an imaginary hat at her.
“Al! I thought you were dea … uh, Clay, this big galoot used to be a PI for the classiest law offices around. Worked with law enforcement more often than against us. Helped solve some tough cases. We met when I was just a rookie.”
“You can call me Bear,” the big man said, shaking hands with Keegan’s partner.
In case any of the Latin’s Ranch residents or staff had doubts about Bear’s bona fides, they were cleared up right then. Keegan invited him to sit in on the questioning of Charlie. After the delegation left for Charlie’s room, Lily and Eunice sat in the living room. A startling realization smacked Lily in the face for the first time. “Charlie is the hubby. That makes him Suspect Numero Uno in a case of foul play!”
“Cheese it,” Eunice replied. “Here comes the heat.”
As Jessica came into the room, Lily was hoping Eunice would soon give up on the hard boiled shtick. “Come on, ladies,” Jessica said failing to quite stifle a yawn. “I’ll help you get ready to hit the hay.”
“But what if something really juicy happens?” Eunice protested.
Lily saw the yawn even though Jess tried to conceal it with her hand. Those pretty eyes were marred tonight with dark smudges on the delicate skin beneath.
“We’ll find out first thing in the morning, Eunice. Let’s go.” Lily used her walker to lift herself from the living room chair. She knew Jessica had too much to do, what with all those hayburners and all these people. She never wanted the caregiver to choose between the two, because the horses might just win out. Even with compliance from Eunice and herself, it would take Jess an hour to get them in and out of the bathroom, given their meds, dressed in their nightgowns and provided an evening snack for late night TV.
The next morning at breakfast, Bear and Charlie told the rest of the household about their interview with Keegan and Gallaway. Chrissie, Lily’s favorite aide, was serving the green chili burritos made by Aurora who ran the kitchen as pleasantly as a pit bull patrols her yard. The little Latina was a tyrant, but her cooking was worth her fractious moods.
“Okay, you guys. Fess up. Who committed the crime?” Eunice chirped. Her hoop earrings were braided strands of white, rose and yellow gold. Lily waited for her each morning to accessorize with gems and scarves. The octogenarian would never consider appearing in public any other way.
“So far there is no crime,” Bear said. He took a grizzly-sized bite from the burrito and chewed for a moment. “Charlie’s wife is a missing person, not a victim. She might have just done a runner.”
“I can’t believe that, Bear. Why would she leave without a word?” Charlie shook his head, the folds in his cheeks wobbling gently. “I mean, she doesn’t visit often, I know, but that’s because she says it makes her feel too sad.”
Eunice rolled her eyes.
“And she always tells me when she is going out of town for one of her many charity functions.”
Everyone at the table rolled his or her eyes.
Lily didn’t believe anybody could seriously suspect Charlie of harming Louise even if her body was found with wheelchair tread marks across its chest. He’d been in mourning ever since she’d stopped coming to see him. Besides, someone would have noticed if he left Latin’s Ranch long enough to push himself miles away and back. With activity like that and sores where he got them, he’d never sit again.
“I don’t know yet, Charlie. But I agree that it is suspicious,” Bear said.
“Why?” Lily asked.
“Well, first the dog, of course. Charlie says his wife doted on that mutt. That she would never hurt it.”
“She loved Fluffy-san,” Charlie confirmed.
“Any idea how long it’s been dead?” Lily asked, controlling an impulse to giggle at the name.
Bear scratched the beard on his chin. “Detective Keegan guessed three weeks, maybe more. A week to die of thirst, and the rest of the time for eggs laid in the remains to reach adult fly size. The flies that greeted Jessica.”
“Eeeuuu,” Eunice cringed and set down her fork.
“The lab will know for sure if they process the dog’s carcass, which they probably won’t without any more reason than they have now.” Bear said. “But there’s something else. Tell them, Charlie.”
Charlie leaned forward in his wheelchair, placing his elbows on the table. “Louise is not the only missing person that’s been reported. Other seniors have disappeared recently, too. That’s what Detective Keegan said.”
Everyone stared at him.
“Dio mio,” Frankie said in his smooth Italian. “Sono venuta per uno di noi?”
All heads now turned toward him.
“What’s that you said, my dear?” Eunice asked.
Frankie translated. “Are they coming for one of us?”