Something Shady at Sunshine Haven

by

Kris Bock

She’s pursued the most dangerous news stories around the world. But can she survive going home?

Injured in a bombing, war correspondent Kate Tessler returns to her hometown in Arizona to recover. For the first time in her life, she’s starting to feel her age of nearly fifty despite living like a teenager again: staying in her childhood bedroom with only a cat for company, trying to understand why her sister resents her so much, and running into people who still refer to her as Kitty. The hardest part? Seeing her once-sharp and witty mother stuck in an Alzheimer’s unit.

When an old friend asks her to investigate suspicious deaths at the nursing home, Kate limps into action. Is a self-appointed “Angel of Mercy” killing patients to end their suffering? Are family members hastening their inheritance? Is an employee extorting money and removing the witnesses? Kate uses her journalism skills to track clues, but the puzzle pieces simply won’t fit.

If Kate can’t uncover the truth quickly, her mother could be next on the killer’s list.

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My childhood home had faded in the harsh Arizona sun and now showed its age—rather like me. I’d never dreamed of living here again after thirty years of traveling the world.

This is temporary. You’ll find a way out.

“Do you need help?” My sister’s tone made it clear the correct answer was no. She’d already hinted that picking me up at the airport had been one more burden in her busy life.

“I got it.” I eased out of the car and limped to the trunk to retrieve my travel backpack, still getting used to my new cane. My thigh throbbed where the doctors had dug out the shrapnel and stitched it back together with Frankenstein scars. My usual fast stride was an awkward hobble up the walkway. My luggage might have been “light,” considering it held everything I owned, but it still nudged the airline’s weight limit.

The front door opened, and I forced a smile. Jen disappeared inside, and Dad and I stood face-to-face.

Our smiles faltered. I dropped the backpack and stumbled into his arms. Tension drained out of my body. I blinked back tears and felt his frailty, the tremor in his hands. He smelled like Dad with a hint of a newer scent, something that only seemed to come from old men.

“Welcome home,” he whispered.

“It’s good to be home.” I needed to rest and heal, and where better to do that than in my parents’ house? In a few weeks—I promised myself weeks, not months, and definitely not years—I would be well enough to return to journalism. “How’s Mom?”

“Good. Well, you know. She’s settled in. She can’t wait to see you.”

I didn’t ask if she’d remember me. I hadn’t noticed signs of Alzheimer’s on my last visit, but that had been a year ago, and Jen assured me Mom had faded fast. She also made it clear that since I was home with no job, it was my turn to take care of our parents.

“Sit,” Dad said. “You need to rest that leg.”

Behind him, Jen sighed loudly. “Don’t coddle her. She needs to stay active.” You wouldn’t know from the way she acted that Jen was younger by two years.

Dad winked at me. “Come and sit anyway.”

Jen hustled outside. She glanced back through the open door. “Welcome home.” She sped down the path without waiting for an answer.

I closed the door and looked at Dad. “I guess I caught her on a bad day.”

“No, just a day. Hey, a friend of yours runs the care home. She gave me a message for you. Said it was urgent.” He shuffled through the mail on the little table by the door.

I couldn’t think of any friends in Arizona. I hadn’t had any here since my childhood. My friends were scattered around the world, wherever news was happening. If she ran the nursing home, she might hope I’d write a story on the facility to promote it, or do some free PR work. Drat. Were people going to treat me like I had nothing better to do than give away my time?

Double drat. I did not, in fact, have anything better to do. And I wanted a nap.

Dad handed me an envelope. I leaned on the door and propped my cane against the table so I had two hands to tear open the envelope. The handwritten message inside was brief:

Kitty—Please come see me ASAP. I need your help.

—Heather Garcia

“She sounded . . .” Dad hesitated. “She asked about your journalism and begged me to bring you in as soon as possible.”

Begged? This could be interesting after all. But who was Heather Garcia? Someone I knew in high school, given her use of my old nickname. Maybe I’d recognize her when I saw her. Or maybe not. I hadn’t changed a bit, of course, but other people sure looked different after thirty years.

“We can go see your mother whenever you’re ready,” Dad said.

See Mom in a nursing home, literally losing her mind? I’d never be ready for that.

“No time like the present.” Plus I could find out more about Heather Garcia’s desperate plea for help.

The nursing home was less than twenty minutes away in low traffic. Automatic doors opened into a large lobby with clusters of cushioned chairs, like a fancy hotel lounge. A woman sitting behind a reception desk greeted Dad by name. When he paused before a waist-high gate, something buzzed, and Dad pushed open the gate. Handrails lined each side of the hallway ahead, but the pale yellow paint took away some of the hospital feel. It smelled of lemon-scented cleaning fluid. Better than medicine and sick people.

Mom’s room was the third on the left, small but cheerful, with a single bed, dresser, desk, and chair. She looked like herself, although her face twisted in confusion when I entered.

Dad said, “Look who’s here to see you, Mother. Our daughter Kate has come home.”

Mom reached out with both hands. “Kitty!”

I hadn’t gone by that nickname in decades, but it was better than being forgotten.

“You look tired,” she said. “And you’ve cut your hair.”

I was tired, but I’d worn my hair short for over a decade. Was she remembering me from some previous era? If she thought I was still twenty, then “tired” was a delicate understatement for how I’d changed.

She brushed hair off my forehead. “You should grow your hair out again. It looks so nice long, when you bother to style it.”

“Thanks, Mom.” Maybe she hadn’t changed much after all. “How are you? Are you . . . happy here?”

“It’s a hospital. Too many people die here. So much death! I’ll be happy when I get to go home.”

I wasn’t about to explain that she would never move back home. This might be the one area where her confusion benefited her.

She seemed cheerful enough as we chatted. Still, seeing my parents fade wasn’t easy. She frowned at my cane a few times, but she didn’t say anything about the bombing. Had she forgotten? Had she never been told? I struggled to find safe topics of conversation. Certainly not her health or mine, or the people dying around her. We wound up mainly talking about my sister’s kids, my smile stiff as I tried not to cry.

Shoes squeaked in the hall, and a loud voice passed, talking about hospice.

“Don’t forget to visit Heather Garcia while we’re here,” Dad said.

Was he giving me an excuse to escape? I took it.

The director’s office was behind the reception counter. I walked in, prepared to pretend I recognized the person. A glimmer of familiarity hit me as the woman looked up from her desk. She was my age, with brown hair to her shoulders, a strong jaw, and dark eyes framed by laugh lines. She stood and extended her hand. “Kitty! Or I guess you go by Kate now.”

“Yes, I prefer Kate.” Technically, my name was Katherine. I’d grown up as Kitty, but I’d started using Kate the first year of college as it sounded more like a serious journalist.

She beamed as we shook hands. “I’ve followed your career. You probably don’t remember me.”

The vague familiarity wasn’t clicking into anything definite. “It was a long time ago.”

“Isn’t that the truth? I was two years behind you. I took journalism my sophomore year, when you were a senior.”

It was coming back. “You were on the school paper that year.”

“Right. You were such a go-getter, even then.”

We gazed at each other long enough for it to become awkward. I’d never attended a high school reunion and didn’t follow childhood friends on social media. Heather seemed nice enough, but nostalgia for the “good old days” held no appeal. I hadn’t hated high school, but people who called it the best years of their lives had peaked early, had poor memories, or were liars.

She broke our gaze and headed for the door. Was this strange reunion over already? What about her request for help?

She closed the door and returned to her desk. “Please, have a seat. I shouldn’t have kept you standing, with your leg. We were all horrified when we heard.”

I managed a tight smile. I wasn’t surprised my injury had made the local news, or the grapevine anyway, as I was something of a hometown celebrity simply for getting my byline in the papers via the Associated Press. I wasn’t supposed to be the news story, but at least I wouldn’t have to explain the limp over and over. I sat in the chair across from her and leaned my cane against her desk.

“I have a problem,” Heather said.

I tensed. “About Mom?”

“Oh, no, she’s delightful, very popular with the staff and the other patients.” Heather shuffled some papers on her desk. “No, this is . . . something else.” She glanced at the closed door, leaned forward, and lowered her voice. “Can I tell you something in confidence?”

My journalism senses, dormant and neglected for weeks, gave a faint tingle before subsiding in exhaustion.

“It depends. I won’t spread gossip. I hardly know anyone around here to tell.” I smiled. “But if you confess to murdering someone, I’ll have to report you.”

“Ha. Nothing like that. I hope.”

I stared at her. “You’d better tell me what’s bothering you. If I can keep it a secret in good conscience, I will.”

Her hands clenched on her desk. “I need to know that you’re not here as a reporter.”

I nodded and settled back into the chair with the trustworthy expression I’d mastered. Or possibly I simply looked tired. “This is off the record. I’m on leave anyway.”

“Okay.” She spread her fingers and pressed her hands on the desk. “Two of my patients died last week.”

My stomach churned. People came to this place for the ends of their lives. My mother . . .

Shut down that thought. Snap into journalist mode.

It was more of an ooze than a snap, but I found a logical question. “Is that unusual?”

“Most of my patients are going to die here eventually, except those in the short-term care wing. Still, people can live for years with Alzheimer’s and dementia, if they are otherwise healthy.” Now she had the soothing, professional voice she’d no doubt perfected on hundreds of patients’ families. “Our usual turnover is one every month or two.”

“Two in a week could be a normal variation then.” Good. I sounded calm, even if part of my mind still ran in circles screaming, “No! Not my mommy!” I cleared my throat and asked, “Was something suspicious about these deaths?”

She sighed. “Not exactly. I mean, they were old, but both women were in reasonable health and died suddenly. That happens sometimes. Some sick people will survive for days or weeks, even after they can no longer talk or eat. Others seem fine one day and the next morning they’re gone.”

She gazed into the distance, perhaps replaying some of those scenes.

Her focus snapped back. “These two were like that. One complained of stomach pains and vomited a few times. The other seemed unusually weak and confused, according to the nurse who gave her medicine that evening. With Alzheimer’s patients, it can be hard to identify a separate illness from the normal disease progression.” Her voice wavered. “They were both dead by morning.”

“The vomiting could be food poisoning. That can kill a person in poor health.”

“These two incidents were a week apart, and no one else got sick either time. With food poisoning, you’d expect a wider outbreak.”

I frowned. “What was the cause of death?”

“Officially, heart failure. We file death certificates, but unless the death is clearly questionable, no one would order an autopsy.” She clenched her hands together. “One more thing. Two weeks ago, another woman got very ill, yet she recovered. Now she’s fine. No one else in the unit got sick at the same time and we don’t know what she had.”

“Food poisoning seems unlikely with three patients sick that far apart. Could a virus spread that slowly?”

“With the first woman, the nurse tested for bacterial infections, and for antibodies, which should show up if the immune system is fighting a viral infection. The tests didn’t show any sign of either. The other two died so quickly we didn’t have time to test. One of these cases alone wouldn’t worry me, but the three of them together . . .”

Alarm bells clamored in my mind. Was I reacting as a reporter or as a daughter? I dragged in slow, deep breaths to force back the nausea and become the logical, skeptical correspondent. I’d covered stories where hundreds or even thousands of people had died in natural disasters or acts of war. Two old women dying in a nursing home wasn’t much of a story.

Except that my mother was now an old woman living in a nursing home. “What exactly do you suspect?”

“I’m probably being paranoid. But once in a while, you hear stories about a nurse or aide who decides the people in their care would be better off if they didn’t have to suffer any more.” She looked away and whispered, “How could I forgive myself if more people died because I wasn’t willing to ask questions?”

“Have you talked to the police?”

“Definitely not.” Her eyes pleaded with me. “It would be disastrous for the home. People would want to remove their parents and spouses. Even if these deaths were perfectly natural, the rumors would destroy us. I can’t do nothing, but I also can’t put the entire operation at risk over a vague possibility.”

I couldn’t argue with that. The press would love a story about a murdering caregiver, and a false rumor could taint a business for years. I suspected I knew the answer, but I asked, “What exactly do you want from me?”

“I’d like you to investigate. You’re a journalist, you know how to find out things, and I trust you more than some random private detective. I want you to learn what happened, which hopefully will put my mind to rest. Am I being paranoid, or is someone killing my patients?”

End of Excerpt

Something Shady at Sunshine Haven is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-1-954894-48-8

April 7, 2022

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