Julie Eberhart Painter, Mortal Coil
Publisher: Champagne Books
Length: 237 pp.
He was floating, spinning, and turning the wheel to regain command of the car while it spun out of control on a bed of gravel. Then, wheels airborne, flying, rolling, metal... Screaming—
Ellen Lange’s office door was pulled shut when she arrived at the nursing home. She pushed through, expecting to see the new police investigator snooping around. Instead, the lights were out, the room undisturbed. The rooms were unusually quiet because her secretary-receptionist, Barbara Johnson, had taken the week off to look after her daughter and new grandchild.
Ellen flipped on the lights and propped the door open, then walked to her adjoining office. She leaned against the open door and turned on the lights to wait. After she sat down, she fidgeted, pushing files around her desktop while she anticipated the knock she dreaded. A moment later it sounded. She turned her chair.
Framed in the doorway was the tallest man she’d ever seen. He had to be six foot seven; his sandy brown crew cut brushed the overhead frame as he entered. He was dressed in plain clothes: a white dress shirt; sleeves turned halfway up to reveal his muscular arms. He wore tan slacks that broke over black dress shoes. His dark eyes drew her attention.
“I’m Detective Bill Watts, Special Investigations. Are you the administrator, Ms. Lange?”
“Yes, Ellen Lange.” She stood, indicating a chair. “Please sit down. Your office called to say you were coming in... finally.”
He ignored the insult and folded himself into the captain’s chair across from her. Sitting forward he studied her face as if evaluating her competency. She rolled her chair back to get a better look at him. He seemed pleasant enough, quite handsome in an athletic way. Despite his height, he was perfectly proportioned.
“As my assistant may have told you on the phone yesterday, I was assigned this case after your second murder indicated that the MOs for the nursing home murders were the same as two in the community. It’s starting to look like part of a serial killer’s long-range plan. This makes two here, in only six weeks?”
Ellen blinked in surprise. “There are more?”
“Yes, ma’am. Two others in town, just like these.”
“It doesn’t make sense. Why here and in my... my nursing home?”
“These things seldom make sense to the average citizen. But the killer has a special agenda we don’t know about yet. Find the reason, find the killer; crack the motive, and we can quickly crack the case.” Bill shifted his weight. “Mrs. Smith’s murder was the first of its kind. The other murders followed the script exactly: smother the victim, cut off the hair — as I said, same MO. I’m here because of the second victim here.”
“And you believe they’re all connected.”
“We’re going on that assumption now.”
“This is such an unlikely place for a killer to strike. My residents are better protected than most senior citizens. Think of the visibility. A killer would be noticed. They aren’t sitting at home alone or out driving at night...”
“That’s true. It doesn’t seem to be a crime of opportunity.”
“I feel as if we failed them...” She couldn’t help the telltale hiccup in her voice.
“The residents. We call them residents. I’m... I’m glad you’ve come.” She didn’t know why she’d said that, she wasn’t glad at all — not glad it was necessary anyway. That would be like welcoming the health inspectors. “I don’t want any more of my residents becoming... victims.”
“Did you notice anything different about the victim this time? Was she richer, on Medicare or a Long-term Care policy or on Medicaid?”
“Florence Smith was paying her own expenses through her family’s considerable wealth. Sally Murray was on Medicare and still collecting from a limited long-term care benefit.”
“So the two women weren’t exactly alike financially?”
“And security. Did you take care of the problem areas that our office recommended?”
Ellen cringed, feeling accused. “Security was tightened. We’ve always locked up each night at eight o’clock. One can get out, but no one can enter without being buzzed in or using the security code for the doors. We unlock the main doors to the public at eight in the morning. Those rules comply with The Residents’ Bill of Rights.” She slid a small orange brochure, stamped by the Community Ombudsman’s office, across her desk. “That lists the guidelines we use. We open at eight instead of nine so our families who like to come in and help with their loved one’s breakfasts can easily do so, but they must sign in.”
Detective Watts looked down at the booklet and shuffled his feet, as if the term loved one made him nervous.
“Your people ran a check on all my employees,” Ellen reminded him. “Everyone came up clean except for two who had records for shoplifting years before. We let them go immediately.”
He glanced through the booklet and shifted to the other hip. “’Sa long way from shoplifting to murder and taking the victim’s hair. Why’d you fire them?”
Ellen sighed. “Not exactly fired. Let go. They had been written up for minor infractions. We suggested they look elsewhere for employment and gave them lukewarm recommendations.”
He uncrossed his legs and leaned toward her desk again, putting the booklet down. He stared at the framed picture of her husband. Ellen turned the picture. Tom had been smiling into the camera. He was wearing his favorite golf shirt, the one that matched his bright blue eyes. She’d not been able to put it away with the others after he was killed.
Bill tapped the booklet and sat back, looking at her. “You notice anything... out of place? Stuff missin’. Anybody scared, hollerin’ in the night.”
Ellen tried to suppress a smile. “Hollering, or calling out in the night, is a given here.”
“S’pose. You’re here nights?”
“Not all night. Sometimes I stay late to finish paperwork or enter something onto the computer. But I usually leave around five. I’m always gone by the juice and bedtime hours.”
“That would be what time?”
“Those rounds are completed by ten o’clock.”
He pulled a notepad out of his breast pocket, flipped it open and wrote something. “Any new employees?”
“No. I haven’t replaced any... yet.”
“How are y’all handlin’ the extra workload then?”
“Long shifts, extra hours... I’m very careful hiring. I can’t understand how this could happen — twice. The killer had to have come in from outside the building, yet everything was locked down.”
Bill stood up, turned the chair and pushed it forward, leaning on its arms. He put his knee in the seat to be closer to Ellen’s line of vision. “Well for one thing, firing a couple of shoplifters isn’t gonna do it.” His voice had taken on a condemning tone.
“What about the nurses’ boyfriends, or the aides? Any weird characters hangin’ around the parkin’ lot?”
Ellen thought a moment. “Not really...”
“Don’t worry; we’re gonna tear this place limb from trunk to find your Ponytail Perp. We’ll look for breaches in your security that you never even dreamed existed. Despite his runnin’ amok in the community, he’s got to be connected here; nothing else makes sense.”
Ellen felt like a little child being chastised. “Security is my responsibility, my priority. Short of turning this into a jail, you won’t find any breaches here—”
“If we do, we’ll let you know so’s you can fix ’em. I’m surprised that your corporation hasn’t suspended you or at least reassigned you. They could have you jumpin’ through hoops to shore this mess up now that there has been another murder.” He stood, turning the chair back, and smiled. “Watch your back, Ms. Lange, the company might even fire you to look good in the media.”
Ellen leaped to her feet. Bill stepped back, surprised. His dark eyes followed her as far as her neck, which flamed and pulsed with righteous indignation.
“Don’t you think that’s occurred to me? We changed the front door locks and the security codes for the exits. Everyone has always had to sign in and out. I am not lax. But, if your people had done their jobs more thoroughly and taken this more seriously six weeks ago, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I’m doing the best I can with what I have to work with.” She gulped air like an asthmatic. Her face heated. “I’ll even help you find the culprit. But when we do, you’ll see that he is not one of my people. Then your apology will be welcome, Detective Watts.”
He looked chagrined. “Now, ma’am, don’t go gettin’ yourself in a stew. I was just suggesting it was likely an insider here—”
“We run a tight ship despite the friendly atmosphere,” Ellen continued. “My residents trust me, tell me things. If an employee were inappropriate with one of my (space) people, I’d have heard about it. So set up some security cameras and concentrate your investigation on examining the families of our residents, something the first officer who was here completely ignored when I suggested it. I’ll see that you get that list — again.”
“I’ll take it now.”
“I’ll need a few minutes to reassemble and photocopy it. The state inspectors are waiting for me this morning. I have to deal with them, too, but I’ll have it for you later today.”
He stood, appraising her.
She leveled her best icy gaze at him. “Is that all—?”
“Later today is fine. I wasn’t trying to stick a burr under your saddle.”
“Before you stuck your head in my door, you’d made up your mind that I was negligent. I don’t appreciate it.”
“Duly noted, but it’s my job to...” He backed away, hands defensive. “Okay, okay. After I review the files, tomorrow morning, we can begin interviewing the residents of B Hall, where Ms. Murray lived. Can you have everything for me by then?”
“Of course. I’ll leave the files on my desk for you to pick up this afternoon.” She sat, dismissing him.
He smiled. “Relax, Ms. Lange, the cavalry is here.” Bill offered a snappy backward salute and bowed his way from the office. His black eyes never left hers. The door shut, barely missing his nose.
* * *
Bill turned in the polished hallway and smiled at a curious resident. “Good morning.”
“Are you that special po’liceman?” she asked.
“You could say that, ma’am. Are you on your way to speak with Mrs. Lange?”
“Talked with her yesterday. I was just going back to my room when I heard all the ruckus.”
“You’re a new face. The other policeman was scrub young and a whole lot quieter.”
Bill laughed. “How young is scrub young?”
“Wet behind the ears. Now, where was I goin’?”
“You were eavesdropping here in the entryway as I remember.”
“Right. Which way is B Hall?”
“Come with me; we’ll find it together.”
Bill got behind the woman’s wheelchair and headed toward the tri-forked hallways. B Hall was in the center.
“Have you lived here long, ma’am?”
“Too damned long. But it’s an okay place if you have to be...incarcerated. This way,” she said, crusty-voiced.
Bill wheeled the woman through the open door marked Evelyn Koontz. “You’re Ms. Koontz?”
“Yep, fifty years, then the mister passed.”
He said goodbye and made his way to the exit. Not too bad if you have to be locked up, he agreed. It smells clean, better than most. He’d probably been too hard on her Ms. Lange.
He walked out through the lobby, grinning. Damnyankee woman. Spitfire: Jill Hennessy and Catherine Zeta Jones put together — standing there with her red face, blasting away at him like a rear gunner, yet showing just enough skin to prove she was a woman, but not quite enough to prove she was no lady. It might be interesting to know which she really was. The picture on the desk must be her husband, though she hadn’t been wearing a ring. Yes indeed, it was going to be a pleasure and a challenge working with her.
* * *
Ellen sat, face hot, arms cold. She rubbed them to get warm. He’d hit too close to home. She did fear for her job, her reputation, and her loss of income. Since Tom’s death two years ago, expenses had mounted. She and Patti were barely holding their household together. They’d even considered moving to a smaller house. It cost a lot to maintain their big house — although something smaller would cost just as much to buy in today’s market.
Another reason she’d resisted was that their house was a happy reminder of her life with Tom. They’d picked it out together. At the time, they’d thought it perfect for the three of them. Someday, when their daughter Patti was in college, the basement would be converted to a rec. room, pool table and all. But now the house was due for a new roof and the heavy yard work had to be farmed out — all unwelcome expenses. Ellen didn’t see how she was going to manage all the bills, but she loved her job and didn’t want to change. She knew every nursing home resident by name. They would shuffle down the hall to her office or enjoy a visit from the “boss lady.” They trusted her, their Miss Ellen, the boss. She looked after their needs, listened to their complaints, and kept them shielded from avaricious relatives. When she was suddenly widowed, they commiserated. They knew what losing the other half of themselves had cost them and were full of advice, sharing their own stories.
So it was with a special guilt that she felt she’d betrayed them when Florence Smith was murdered, her hair bobbed of its braid that the nurse’s aide had so lovingly redone for the night. Then six weeks later it happened again. Sally Murray, a particularly popular resident, had been smothered and her long pigtail snipped at the scalp. The media, known for their love of alliterations, dubbed the killer the Ponytail Perp.
Sally had been a special favorite of Ellen’s. She wasn’t supposed to have favorites. Might she have ushered the killer in by somehow leaving her residents vulnerable? She should have seen it coming — especially the second time. She should have been watching for some bizarre behavior — but from whom? The Perp’s first victim, Florence Smith, had been with them only four days. A feisty old lady, she wasn’t adjusting to her new surroundings and had managed to alienate most of the staff the first day; they were all ready to throttle her.
Ellen had warned her staff not to divulge personal information. “Just speak to the facts only. When talking to the police be forthcoming, answer their questions, but keep your opinions to yourselves.”
They’d agreed to follow her advice. In her own mind, she went over her actions, wondering if she should have cut everyone’s hair — even the old man on F hall, who had come from the Veterans Administration Hospital. She should have suggested it to the families. The nurse’s aides would have done it for free. But in her rational moments, Ellen realized that was hardly a solution when fighting a determined killer.
She patted her own brown mop that she kept neatly tucked into a French twist. A strand fell lose over one ear, and she wound it around her finger while thinking about what else she could do to prevent another incident.
Ironically, five years ago, when she was interviewed for this job, she’d played up her desire to be a hands-on administrator. She remembered the day she first drove to Kingsley. Tom was finishing his last week of work with a small Cleveland beverage company. She’d packed Patti and her Halloween costume off to daycare. Tom would pick Patti up later to take her trick and treating.
Ellen had flown alone to Atlanta, rented a car, and driven north through bumper-to-bumper, eighty-five-mile-an-hour traffic into Marietta. In only four hours, the flight had taken her from one culture to another. Different fall colors greeted her as the famous Kennesaw Mountain came into view. Kingsley Home sat in its shadow. Fall was less advanced here than in Cleveland. Ohio’s woods had gone from red, to brown, to gray under a gloomy sky. Marietta’s woodsy mountain shimmered under a cloudless dome of ice blue, the golden blaze of trees deepening to okra. Ellen was immediately seduced by the warmth of her new Southern home.
The daylong interview was a rigorous test of her patience and competence. The head honcho, Fred Yarochuk, CEO in charge of all the long-term care facilities that Americas Corporation, Inc. managed, reviewed her credentials, which were current in both Ohio and Georgia. She’d done her homework.
Despite their reputation for letting their administrators go every two years — something Ellen already knew — it was a reasonable financial offer that she could live with until something else came along. She’d worry about the future when she knew how long Tom’s new job with Coke would last.
Five years later, Ellen was the longest lasting satellite administrator Americas Corporation employed. She’d become their corporate darling and learned to use buzzwords like networking, interface, and human rights — in other words, sound bytes (space) to win over the media. Not a fan of doublespeak, she knew it was sometimes needed to afford her residents decent lives and extra perks.
Twirling her hair absently, she remembered those happier times while she reviewed the past looking for the weak spot that had allowed someone to invade her building and hurt her residents. She hoped she’d have more cooperation from Detective Watts. She hadn’t been able to get his young assistant investigator to take her seriously. It was just some old lady, not a wife, mother, friend, and perhaps someone’s lover once upon a time. They didn’t see Florence as a person. The police certainly didn’t know or care what a sweetie Sally was, just that she was victim number two. It was all about statistics. Maybe Ellen was to blame, she thought; maybe she was too involved with the nursing home statistics — especially the financial ones with corporate breathing down her neck all the time. She should have humanized Florence for the policemen who’d first been assigned to the case.
She turned in her chair, trying to calm herself. The view of what she had come to think of as her mountain rose, majestic, silhouetted against a cerulean sky. This morning on her way to Kingsley, Kennesaw Mountain blossomed to life with lacy pink and white dogwoods peeking through greening, winter branches and long-leaf pines — a festive prelude to the pre-summer season. Despite what was going on inside Kingsley, the outside façade of the one-story building rested like the center of interest in a dry brush painting that changed daily.
She felt restored, remembering how she had fallen in love with the South. For all its contradictions, Southerners’ resilience and warmth charmed her. Only here in the foothills of history did people commemorate their losses as well as their victories. She would have to learn that skill.
* * *
Closing her office door behind her, she headed to the East Wing where the state inspectors waited with their latest report. Three hallways led from each of the two nurses’ stations at the opposite ends of the long building. The chart kiosk had been pulled into the middle of the station, and an older woman from the state sat at the desk, poring over each chart and noting numbers in her notebook. Despite the good rating Kingsley always earned, Ellen dreaded those “Hector the Inspector” visits. They had the authority to shut her down.
The hall nurse took her arm. “Ellen, this is Jane Randolph; she’s tallying the pharmaceuticals.” A worried look pinched her nurse’s face.
Ellen nodded toward the woman. “Are you finding everything you need?”
“Yes, ma’am. But I want to go over this list of drugs with you. Your pharmacy records don’t match the invoices that were submitted... not any serious discrepancies, but certainly it reflects a careless way of keeping the books. Who has access to these?”
“The nurses and the aides for these three halls.” Ellen felt the stirring of a headache, a safety valve, safer than showing anger.
“I’m not finding the corresponding list of controlled substances.”
Either someone couldn’t count, or some no-count was stealing the drugs. She wondered. “Any particular drugs you’re unable to reconcile?”
“The Xanax count is off. The water pills, on the other hand, show up as overstocked. How could you have too many of those in your inventory? Aren’t your residents taking their meds? Should I be looking for other doctors’ order forms in here?
“Are you sure they aren’t mixed together? They’re both little pink pills.”
“They do look alike, Ms. Lange, but the written records don’t match the pharmacy slips. You’re using one centrally authorized pharmacy; blister packaging should have eliminated this kind of discrepancy. The names of the drugs should be clearly marked and entered on the master sheet. This is random. It looks more like mischief than carelessness. Does someone have it in for you?”
“Mischief? Xanax is a controlled substance, not just mischief.”
“Ms. Lange you will have to question your employees and find out where those pills are. We’ll give you twenty-four hours to reconcile the count, or we’ll have to call our office and also notify Americas Corporation that the accounting is off...
Copyright © 2009 by Julie Eberhart Painter