There is nothing funny—no matter what Lisa Higgins says—about answering the doorbell with a gray wig twisted sideways on your head and a red dress over your blue jeans and T-shirt. Nothing funny at all. Especially when your lipstick is smeared.
“Nice outfit,” the man at the door said without meaning it, already wiping his feet on the mat.
“I’m acting a skit for these—”
The man lifted his briefcase and pushed past me.
“—these old folks,” I finished to the empty cold wind that blew in from the gray, blustery clouds that hung low and threatened snow.
“Ricky?” As I turned back inside, I could hear Miss Avery’s quivery voice call me from the sun-room. “Who is it?”
Good question—for a change. Usually her curiosity drove me nuts. What are your teachers like? Do any of your friends enjoy playing the piano? Don’t you find it cold in here without your sweater?
I mean, wasn’t it enough spending Thursdays here after school without having to make small talk?
That’s why I’d allowed my friend Lisa Higgins to convince me to help her with a skit. “Try to have fun,” Lisa had said. “If we’re here with these old folks anyway, make the best of it.” Hard logic to ignore; plus, it’s tough to argue with Lisa when she’s smiling.
Except, in the middle of the skit, the bell had rung and I’d answered the door in a dress, expecting to find Lisa’s aunt returned early with her arms full of groceries. Instead, I’d met the man with a briefcase who hadn’t even told me his name.
So I asked him.
“How many old geezers in here?” he replied for an answer. “Place don’t seem like much for a retirement center.”
I straightened my wig and studied the man. Blue pinstriped suit. Shiny hair plastered over a narrow skull. Long nose. Pinched face. And black eyes that bored into me.
“Geezers?” I repeated.
Funny. How many times have I thought the same word about the people here?
Mr. Barnsworth, who called himself Major and wore a soldier’s uniform every day. Gretta Myers, who drooled so much she wore a bib. Mr. Lynch, who hated his false teeth and needed his food chopped soft enough not to hurt his gums. And Miss Avery, with her sad, watery blue eyes and her quivering way of talking and talking and talking. Funny how it now made me bristle inside to hear them called geezers.
“There are four senior citizens,” I said, slow and clear.
“And the manager?” the man demanded. “Where’s he?”
“She,” I corrected. I wondered if he heard the anger in my voice. This was a small center, but I knew Lisa Higgins’ aunt did her best to keep everyone happy, especially since they were all in their eighties and needed special attention.
“Yeah. Right. Where’s she?” The man tapped the toes of his right foot.
“Buying groceries—” Even as I began, I sensed it was the wrong thing to say. “My friend and I are keeping an eye on things for her.”
He smiled. A crocodile smile.
“This won’t take long.” He began to open his briefcase. “Lead me to them.”
He was already moving down the hallway. I followed him into the sun-room, where all four residents were enjoying the weak light of a mid-November afternoon. Wheelchairs arranged in a semicircle, blankets across their laps, and Lisa nearby, standing tall beside them with her dark hair bouncing sunlight.
I paused in the doorway to drop my wig and peel out of the stupid dress. The man was already passing out glossy brochures as I caught up to him.
“Fred Norman’s the name,” he announced. “Making you happy’s the game.”
Lisa studied one of the brochures. Fred Norman frowned slightly at her but continued his patter.
“You got it, folks,” he said in his soothing, oiled voice. “Take a close look at paradise in your hands.”
Lisa gave me a searching look. I shrugged in return.
“That’s right, folks. Paradise. Warm and sunny all year round.”
Miss Avery giggled as she squinted at the brochure. “Oooh. Sounds peachy.”
Mr. Barnsworth glared at her. “Peachy? It’d cost a fortune.”
Fred Norman saluted Mr. Barnsworth. “You, sir, are a man of obvious intelligence, so I won’t try to fool you.”
Mr. Barnsworth beamed. I found myself gritting my teeth and hoping Lisa’s aunt would return soon. I didn’t trust this guy a bit.
“No, sir,” Fred Norman said. “A man of your intelligence would know that a retirement home in Florida isn’t cheap.” He paused dramatically. “Unless some developer has already paid for most of it!”
“Eh?” Mr. Lynch mumbled through his gums.
“Exactly,” Fred Norman answered. “Some developer built almost all of the units, then went bankrupt. So the bank is willing to sell condominiums for a song.”
He dropped his voice to a stage whisper. “In fact, it’s such a good deal, there isn’t much time left!”
Mr. Barnsworth brushed imaginary lint from his soldier’s uniform. “One must be decisive, I gather?”
Fred Norman smiled another crocodile smile. “One must be very decisive.”
He reached into his briefcase and pulled out some papers. “In fact, there are barely a dozen units left. And I’ve been instructed to clear them. Today. For only five hundred dollars, you can get one reserved now!”
Lisa finally looked up from the brochure. “My aunt says salesmen aren’t allowed in here.”
I nodded agreement. For so long I had thought of these four as problems, old geezers who needed and demanded my time on Thursday afternoons. But these weren’t geezers. They were old people, simple and vulnerable in their trust of those who cared for them.
I realized something else. Someday, hopefully a long, long time from now, my own parents would also need to trust others, just like now they were watching and helping me grow up. I was their lamb, and later they would be mine.
And if someday someone tries scamming my parents ...
Anger hit me at that thought.
“I think you should go now,” I told Fred Norman. My boldness didn’t surprise me. It was all I could do to stay polite.
“Ask these people if they want me to leave,” Fred Norman said smugly.
“Not a chance,” Mr. Barnsworth said. “We men of intelligence stick together.”
“No,” Gretta Myers croaked as she chimed in with her first words of the afternoon. “Mr. Norman is such a handsome young man.”
“Five hundred dollars?” Miss Avery added. “It doesn’t sound like much.”
And Mr. Lynch smacked his lips in agreement.
Fred Norman unleashed a malevolent smile in my direction.
“Enough of an answer, kid?”
He faced the old people. “Five hundred isn’t much at all,” he confirmed with a smile in Miss Avery’s direction. “And the condos cost less than twenty thousand. We make all the arrangements. You have nothing to worry about.”
But I worried lots. This guy was charming the bunch of them, and I didn’t believe much of what he was saying.
Neither did Lisa. Her lips were pursed in anger. If her aunt didn’t return soon ...
“Ricky,” Lisa then said sweetly as her eyes suddenly brightened, “if our seniors want Mr. Norman to stay, perhaps we should show our manners by offering him a snack.”
“What!” I almost exploded. How can she—
“I’d like my purse, Lisa,” Miss Avery said. “This sounds like the opportunity of a lifetime. Imagine, me in Florida.”
“My checkbook, too,” Mr. Barnsworth said.
Lisa stared me straight in the eyes. “Yes, Ricky, why don’t you get some peanuts from Mr. Lynch’s room while I get the checkbook and purse.”
“Peanuts sound fine,” Fred Norman said, agreeing to anything just to collect the money.
It wasn’t until I saw the bowl of peanuts on the table beside Mr. Lynch’s bed that I understood two things: how glad I was that Lisa had sent me for the peanuts, and because of that gladness, how much I regarded all of these people here as friends. When I returned to the sun-room, everything inside me was hoping Lisa’s idea would work.
First I offered the peanuts to Mr. Barnsworth. He looked at me as if I were crazy. Miss Avery refused, politely. As did Gretta Myers. Mr. Lynch waved away his own peanuts too.
I handed the entire bowl to Fred Norman.
He stuffed a handful into his mouth and tried to talk as he munched. “Just ... crunch ... sign ... crunch, crunch ... here.”
He pulled a sheaf of papers from the briefcase.
Another handful of peanuts. “Folks ... crunch ... you won’t crunch ... regret this.”
Miss Avery started to count her money. Mr. Barnsworth started to sign his check.
“Whom do I make this out to?” Mr. Barnsworth asked.
Lisa interrupted. “How are the peanuts, Mr. Norman?”
“Fine,” he replied absently. “My thanks to Mr. Lynch.”
“No problem,” Mr. Lynch said. “I was going to throw them away anyhow.” He caught the puzzled look on Fred Norman’s face.
“Can’t eat them myself,” Mr. Lynch explained. “I don’t have teeth.”
I grinned at Lisa. We couldn’t have asked for a better reply.
Fred Norman stopped chewing, looking even more puzzled. “If you don’t have teeth, why the peanuts?”
Mr. Lynch waved his hand as if dismissing a silly question. “I love the chocolate.”
“What?” Fred Norman slowly swallowed the half-chewed peanuts still in his mouth.
“The chocolate,” Mr. Lynch said. “For a snack, Lisa here brings me chocolate-covered peanuts. I suck them until the chocolate is gone and then stick the peanuts in that bowl.”
Fred Norman gagged.
“Though why anyone else would eat those peanuts is beyond me,” Mr. Lynch finished.
Fred Norman placed a hand over his mouth. What I could see of his face looked as white as death. He gagged again, dropped his briefcase, and bolted down the hallway for the outside door.
I gathered up his papers and snapped the briefcase shut.
“Such a nice young man,” Miss Avery said as she folded her money back into her purse. “It’s so sad he couldn’t stay.”
Terror on Kamikaze Run (ACCIDENTAL DETECTIVES) by Sigmund Brouwer
Copyright © 2004 ; ISBN 0764225731
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.