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“Looks like we’re the last ones to arrive.” Dad raised his hand to acknowledge his friend’s wave.
I followed Dad to the diner table where his friends sat. They greeted me warmly. This was only the second time I’d joined Dad’s twice-weekly coffee group in the month I’d been home. They were nice guys, but since I was living with my father again, I wanted to ensure he had a social life apart from me. This time, however, they had specifically requested my presence.
Which meant they wanted something.
I couldn’t wait to find out what.
I’d gotten through my first week back home, after decades of traveling the world as a war correspondent, by solving a mystery at my mother’s Alzheimer’s care unit and putting away a killer. The next month had been filled with writing Associated Press articles about those events, and then longer magazine articles on the challenges of finding and paying for suitable care for elderly people, especially those with special needs. I’d hardly scratched the surface of the topic, but I’d done what I could for now. I was ready for a new mental challenge.
I already had enough of a physical one with PT and getting used to walking with a cane.
“Thanks for coming, Kate. We need your expert advice.” Joe Washington and his wife had helped with the nursing home investigation. Joe wore his white hair trimmed close to his head, forming a handsome contrast to his dark skin.
“Glad to help,” I said. “What’s up?”
The four men looked at each other. Dad nodded to one of them. “You start, Clarence. You were the first to notice something wrong.”
“We’re worried about our friend, Larry,” Clarence said. “His wife died last year, and he remarried in the spring. We have concerns about his new wife. She is very young, maybe your age.”
While I chuckled at the thought of being “very young,” I had no desire to get involved in someone’s marriage, especially if his friends’ disapproval was only due to the age difference or loyalty to the old wife.
Clarence pushed his glasses farther up his large nose. “She’s loud and bossy, and her children are worse. They’re in their twenties, and the son in particular is a layabout who doesn’t even have a job. We believe they are all after Larry’s money.”
“Do you have any evidence to support that?” The older generations sometimes had a hard time understanding how tough the job market could be for millennials.
“I was Larry’s CPA for many years. I’ve mostly retired, but I still handle taxes for a few friends.”
An accountant. That might explain why Clarence wore a button-up, long-sleeved white shirt, while the other men wore polo shirts in various colors.
“At first, Larry seemed happy after he married Pamela,” Clarence said. “They went on a month-long honeymoon that must have cost a fortune. After they returned, I reminded Larry to revise his will if he wanted to make sure his children got some of his money. He agreed he would. That was the last time he seemed happy.”
The other men nodded.
“After that, he made excuses not to come to coffee,” Joe said. “When he did come, he brought Pamela. We don’t have a rule against bringing wives, but most of them are happy to get rid of us for a while.”
“Does Pamela work?” I asked.
“Not since she married Larry,” Clarence said.
Change could be hard on everyone. It was possible Pamela and Larry were enjoying their newlywed time together. Larry might have picked up on his friends’ disapproval and resented it, so he didn’t want to spend as much time with them. He might have brought Pamela hoping she’d make a good impression.
“He hasn’t joined our coffee group in over two months,” Dad said. “Pamela says he’s getting dementia. She won’t let him leave the house.”
“That’s tough.” It was also another explanation for the change in Larry’s behavior. I could feel sorry for these men who had lost their friend, but I might also feel sorry for the younger wife who found herself taking care of an elderly man with dementia after only a few months of marriage.
“I’ve offered to pick up Larry,” Dad said. “I have some experience with memory patients, given your mother, and I’m sure we could handle Larry for an hour or two, but Pamela refuses. She won’t even let us visit at their house. She says Larry isn’t up for visitors.”
“That does seem strange,” I said. “Maybe he’s not comfortable with visitors.”
That could happen if he was embarrassed about his symptoms, or if his dementia was the type and degree to cause anxiety and even paranoia around people he no longer recognized. Still, the men’s concern made sense. I was trying to keep an open mind and even play devil’s advocate for Pamela, but the journalist in me smelled a potential story. Pamela could be cutting off Larry from his support system.
“We know our group is going to get smaller over the years,” Joe Washington said. “That’s inevitable at our age. But Larry was fine six months ago, and now this?”
“It happens, I’m afraid. Still, some medicines can cause symptoms similar to dementia.” I’d learned that doing research for my articles on elder care. “To start, a doctor should review Larry’s medicine. Has he seen a specialist for the dementia?”
Clarence crossed his arms and sat back with a huff. “Who knows? Pamela claims she’s getting him the best care, but she could be lying. He is completely at her mercy.”
I pondered the situation. I’d witnessed plenty of examples of people doing terrible things to other people. The elderly and sick were victims more often than others. But this still could be nothing more than a group of old men resenting a friend being taken from them and fearing their own decline.
“I suppose his wife has a legal right to make decisions about his care,” I said. “Does he have any children who could intervene? The doctors aren’t going to give information to anyone else.”
“He has a daughter in Minneapolis who stopped talking to him after he remarried,” Clarence said. “His son lives overseas, Hong Kong I think, and doesn’t get back very often.”
We paused while the waitress came over to fill coffee cups. “Good morning, gentlemen.” She glanced at me and did a double take. “And lady.” I was the only woman in the group, and the only one under seventy, but with my hair going gray (or as I preferred to call it, silver) in a short pixie cut, my casual shorts and T-shirt, and my cane, I didn’t stand out among four senior men.
“Food for anyone today?” the waitress asked. “A breakfast sandwich, muffin, scone?”
My stomach grumbled at that list, but Dad said, “Maybe in a few minutes, thanks.”
Joe slid the basket of half-and-half and the sugar caddie into the center of the table and we started doctoring our coffee.
Speaking of doctoring, I turned to Arnold, a slender Asian man with wispy gray hair and glasses. “Aren’t you a doctor?”
“I was an obstetrician, and I haven’t practiced in ten years. I’m hardly the person to diagnose conditions affecting the memory, even if Pamela would let me see Larry, which she won’t. Now if Floyd were here—but he’s visiting family in Pennsylvania for another month.”
“Why anyone would go to Pennsylvania for the winter and stay in Arizona for the summer I cannot understand,” Clarence muttered.
“In Arizona, the four seasons are tolerable, hot, really hot, and are you kidding me?” Arnold said.
Clarence looked at me. “How do you find an Arizonan in a room full of people?”
“You say, ‘You won’t believe how hot it was back home today.’”
“You want to talk about hot!” Arnold said on cue.
Dad shook his head and sighed. “Clarence and Arnold have been like this ever since they took a stand-up comedy class together.”
“As long as their jokes aren’t as old as they are,” I said.
Arnold threw himself back in his chair and clutched his chest. “A hit, a very palpable hit!”
“Arnold is also in community theater,” Joe said.
I smiled, but my thoughts were on Pamela. I could understand being protective of an ill spouse. As a younger wife, she might be embarrassed by her elderly husband’s infirmity. But when someone was old and sick, keeping him away from his friends wasn’t helpful. If one of those friends was a doctor, whatever kind, I’d see that as a potential source of advice. Arnold might not be able to diagnose or treat Larry, but he could help Pamela understand medical terminology and point her to the best specialists.
The question remained: Was she overprotective and perhaps making bad decisions, or was something more serious happening?
“I’m glad to help if I can,” I said, “but I’m not sure how. You need to know if Larry is really suffering from memory problems, and if so, if he’s getting the right treatments.”
Joe leaned forward. “When you were investigating Sunshine Haven, you pretended to be writing a story so you could talk to the family members.”
“I did write a story.”
Granted, that hadn’t necessarily been the plan when I interviewed people, but it wasn’t completely false.
“I’m not sure that would work here,” I added. “Last time, I interviewed two women who had recently lost their mothers. Those obituaries had been in the papers. No one even asked why I was writing the article or who it was for or how I got their names. If I knock on Pamela’s door claiming to be a reporter, she’ll have questions. If I say I heard her husband has dementia and I want to know how she’s handling that, she could simply refuse to talk to me.”
I finished my coffee. It did not provide a sudden jolt of inspiration. “I suppose if I’m Pamela’s age, I could try to befriend her, but that’s a long and roundabout way to get to Larry. It’s hard to arrange a meeting with someone who rarely leaves home, and if she’s isolating Larry against his will, she’ll hardly invite me to her house. Even if I could get in to see Larry, I can’t diagnose his condition.”
We sat in discouraged silence for a minute.
Clarence sighed. “We are aware that we do not have legal options for interfering.”
“We have to do something,” Arnold said. “If not legal, then—” He broke off and grinned at the waitress. “Morning, Grace. You ready to leave your husband and run away with me?”
“No, but I will give you the senior discount. Today we have pumpkin walnut scones, pecan pie muffins, and apple strudel muffins.”
The waitress refilled our coffee cups and we ordered our baked goods.
Once she left, Arnold straightened and scanned the area around us. He leaned forward, and we all did the same. If anyone was watching, our behavior must have screamed “Secret plotting happening now!”
“If we have no legal options, we must consider a less legal option,” Arnold whispered.
Clarence’s gaze shifted nervously, but he didn’t disagree. Joe made a murmur that might have been assent.
I looked at my father, hoping this was an elaborate prank, but he nodded. Oh boy. I knew returning to Arizona and living with my father while my leg healed after the bombing injury would bring some unusual challenges. I did not expect one of those challenges to be my father and his seventysomething cronies luring me into illegal activities.
“Did you have something in mind?” I asked.
“Know any hitmen? We could bump off Pamela.” Clarence chuckled. “Kidding!”
I decided to ignore that. “The goal is to find out what’s really happening with Larry and whether he needs intervention. First off, we need to know if the dementia diagnosis is correct.”
“If we take Larry to a doctor, we can get a second opinion,” Joe said. “They won’t release medical records to his friends, but they wouldn’t stop one of us from going in with him. It’s not uncommon to bring along a family member or friend to take notes during a visit.”
“I know a doctor who would help,” Arnold said. “He normally has a waiting list for new patients, but he’ll get Larry in if I explain.”
“How soon?” Dad asked.
“I’ll call and check.”
He stepped away from the table to call. The waitress brought our food. I traded half of my scone for half of Dad’s pecan pie muffin. Clarence switched his yogurt and fruit bowl for Arnold’s breakfast sandwich.
Arnold returned. “He’ll see Larry today, if we can bring him in at noon.” He didn’t even glance at Clarence as he switched their plates back.
I checked the time on my phone. 10:40 a.m. “Guess we’d better make a plan.”
“Pamela won’t let us take Larry,” Dad said. “We have to do it without her knowledge.”
“How are we going to get Larry out of the house?” I asked. “I find it hard to believe Pamela never leaves, but we don’t have time to figure out her schedule. Do we lure her out?”
“Maybe we could sneak Larry out the back,” Dad said. “I think they use the back patio a lot, or at least Larry and Betty did, so it was always unlocked during the day.”
“How hard will it be to get back there?” I asked. I couldn’t see anyone in this group, myself included, scrambling over tall fences.
“The back of his house looks out onto the golf course,” Clarence said. “The back wall is only about eighteen inches high.”
Arnold made a skeptical grunt. “Larry is halfway down the fairway. That’s a hike and someone is sure to notice us, either golfers or people in the other houses.”
Clarence ran his hand over his steel-gray hair. “Yes, a handsome fellow like me stands out.”
“Stands out like a mutt at a dog show,” Arnold said.
“True enough. I’m like the best mix of breeds.”
“Maybe we should drive over there and take a look,” Joe said.
We finished our coffee and snacks and piled into two cars. I rode with Dad.
“Thanks for taking us seriously,” he said.
“Sure. You really think something is wrong?”
I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a ploy to keep me entertained. I was doing a lot better physically since the bombing that tore a chunk out of my left leg, but I wasn’t ready to return to world travel or tracking down warlords and might never be. Using my journalism skills to ferret out problems close to home kept life interesting, but I didn’t need Dad creating challenges purely for my benefit.
He didn’t answer at first. Had I hit on the truth?
“I know it’s hard to believe,” Dad finally said. “But I couldn’t forgive myself if something happened to Larry, and I’d ignored the problem. Too often, people dismiss complaints from old folks. It’s easy for a younger person, an adult child, even a lawyer put in charge of someone at a nursing home, to take advantage. If the old person complains, people assume they’re forgetful or paranoid or don’t understand the situation.”
That was a scary thought. Dad’s mind was as sharp as ever, but did people look at him and dismiss him? With my mother’s Alzheimer’s, we had to make decisions on her behalf. She had Dad, my sister, and me looking out for her. But what about someone who didn’t have that support? My research had turned up one case where lawyers appointed to administer a million-dollar estate blew through the money in under a year, and then the elderly patient had to go into a Medicaid home.
“We’ll find out what’s happening,” I promised.
We drove into one of the planned communities that were everywhere in the greater Phoenix area, with a golf course and clubhouse up front and winding streets throughout, most named after trees. A few turns took us to Desert Drive. Dad pointed to one of the almost-identical stucco houses as he drove slowly past. “That’s Larry’s.”
“That gate must lead to the backyard.”
“I’m sure you’re right.” He drove down the block and parked at the corner. The other car pulled up behind us and we all got out.
“I forgot about the gate,” Joe said. “That’s easier. We can park a few houses down and sneak through the gate, along the side of the house. Let’s see . . . That side of the house has the garage, a guest bedroom, and what used to be Betty’s sewing room. I doubt anyone will notice us.”
I pictured us all in a row, four senior men and me, creeping across the rocks and past the cacti in the front yard. Yeah, that wouldn’t look suspicious at all. The street was empty now, but you never knew when someone would drive past or leave their house, and it wasn’t like our group could quickly drop to the ground to hide behind the single bush in the yard.
“We shouldn’t all go,” I said. “Anyway, we need to get Pamela to the front of the house and keep her distracted there.”
“Right,” Joe said. “Kate, she doesn’t know you. You can ring the bell and say you’re doing a survey or something.”
“Hmm. She might say she’s not interested and close the door on me. It could take several minutes to find Larry, convince him to move, and get him outside. We need to keep her at the door.” I paced a few steps down the sidewalk and back. “Besides, maybe we shouldn’t let her see me. That way, if we wind up needing a plan B, I can still be a journalist or whatever.”
“She’ll turn any of us away,” Clarence said. “She’ll slam that door faster than my ex spends her alimony.”
“She doesn’t have to let you in,” I pointed out. “It’s better if she doesn’t. I nominate you, Clarence.”
“But what do I say?”
“You’ve already shown suspicion of her. Get into an argument. Lean on the door or the doorframe while you talk, so she can’t close the door.” I gestured at his cane, the kind with four little feet for extra stability. “Make it look like you can’t stand without the support.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’m not good at confrontation.”
“You underestimate yourself,” Arnold said.
“I’ll do it,” Dad said. “Lend me your cane, Clarence. I’ll bet Pamela has no idea which of us uses a cane. She may not even recognize me, but I’ll make sure she knows me after this.”
“Great. Clarence can drive the getaway vehicle,” I said. “Dad goes to the front door.”
That left Joe, Arnold, and me. Would we need all three of us to get Larry out? I couldn’t go alone, because Larry didn’t know me. I didn’t want Joe and Arnold to go without me, because I wanted to keep an eye on the situation. I could go with one of the men, but it might be helpful to have a third person to handle doors and act as a lookout while two people helped Larry. We didn’t know his current physical condition.
“The rest of us will go around back,” I said. “Joe can go first and scout out the yard, make sure no one is in back. Arnold and I will follow. Dad, give us a minute to get in position and then ring the doorbell.”
“How long do you think you’ll need to get Larry out?” he asked.
“Five minutes? That will seem like forever to you, but we may need every second.”
We couldn’t see the house well from where we were, but I pictured it in my mind. The front walk led up to an alcove. The front door was set at least five feet back in that alcove. No one at the front door could see the gate opening, but they might hear us if we tried to cross the rocky front yard, especially if Larry was confused and asking questions.
“We’ll stop inside the gate on our way out,” I said. “If you’re still arguing, I’ll call your phone. Make sure Pamela closes the door as you leave. Then we’ll all head for the cars.”
Dad pulled out his phone and tipped his head back so he could study the screen through the lower part of his trifocals. He tapped it a few times and stuck it in his pocket. “All right. I’ll feel it vibrate.”
“We used to have to pay good money for that kind of thing,” Clarence said.
“Clarence, turn the car around now,” I said. “When we come out, pull up to the house next to Larry’s. Stay out of sight of any of Pamela’s windows.”
“I’ll give them the slip!” Clarence said. “We’ll go on the lam. We’ll peach that gold digger and put her in the big house with a pair of silver bracelets.”
“You’ve been watching gangster movies again,” Joe said.
“Right. I always wanted to be a lookout man.”
“Concentrate, people. Everyone know the plan?” I looked at each of them. “Now, let’s kidnap your friend.”
End of Excerpt