I sipped at a morning cup of Silver Needle tea and stared at the phone resentfully. Not so long ago this would have been my reaction to its impenetrable silence.
It’s not that I didn’t need the work, I did. Or at least I would when my last client’s go–away money ran out. I just didn’t know if I wanted to take another case like the last tow and I suspected that this spin of the wheel wasn’t over yet.
I sighed and gave in to the inevitability of the future and scooped up the phone. I was greeted by an ancient and paper thin voice, belonging to one Ms. Veroa – – widow. Well, that was a nice change of pace. No femme fatales, no jealous husband. Just this sweet sounding old lady. Maybe my luck was changing for the better.
It seems Ms. Veroa and her cronies at the Newfield Senior Apartments had a problem with their landlord. They suspected him, and the building super’ of trying to drive them out, so they could raise the rents.
I agreed to be at the Newfield Senior Apartments by two and hung up the phone. This actually sounded much more like my usual sort of case – two crooked men extorting a bunch of old people for profit. No flowers or bugs. Nothing out of place, just plain old human greed and corruption.
I couldn’t have been more wrong, of course.
I was met at the door of the apartment building by Ms. Veroa – widow, Ms. Uro – divorced and Mr. Skult – life long confirmed bachelor. They were quite the assembly. Ms.Veroa perfectly matched her voice – – small, papery skin, water-ice tinted hair and a sweet smile. Ms. Uro was still a tall woman. She still had the confidence and direct stare, although the curves and smooth skin had both fled from the advancing years. At first I figured Mr. Skult was dressed in his best Easter Sunday three piece suit.
It became evident, however, that dressing nicely was one of the flamboyant Mr. Skult’s many passions in life.
After introductions, I began to ask some questions about their troubles and was quickly hushed. “There’s plenty of time for that,” said Ms. Veroa.
“Let’s just get you oriented,” added Ms. Uro.
“Before we get you started along your path,” finished Mr. Skult. I wondered how long they had known each other before they started finishing each other’s sentences.
By way of orientation, they gave me a tour of the entire apartment complex. I met the nearly one hundred residents and learned small details about their lives – – whose daughters never visited, whose sons married nice girls, whose spouses had passed away, and who was newly courting whom. It was a bewildering and exhausting brocade of senior life and I tried to take as many relevant notes as I could.
But the true focus of the tour appeared to be sinks. Kitchen sinks, bathroom sinks, laundry room sinks. In the midst of a list of minor sleights perpetuated by the landlord, my three guides would stop dramatically and indicate a porcelain basin and say, “…and this is Mrs. Nott’s sink,” nodding sagely. Before I could ask a question, we’d rush on to the next apartment and add more ‘crimes’ to the list.
Mr. Donner’s broken drawer had yet to be repaired. Mr. and Mrs. Nana’s rent checks were perpetually getting lost.
When the tour was over, we retired to Ms.Veroa’s apartment for tea. I idly flipped through my notebook while I prepare my speech to let them down gently. Once the tea had been poured and finger sandwiches doled out I began, “I appreciate your concerns about your landlord, but I don’t really see…”
“Oh no you wouldn’t see yet,” Ms. Veroa interrupted. “We haven’t told you the latest development yet,” said Ms. Uro. “You see, we’ve been having a bit of a problem with snakes,” revealed Mr. Skult.
It turned out that snakes had been coming up through their drains, one at a time, for the last several months. All the attention paid to sinks on the tour finally made sense. The trio proved themselves to be quite the budding herpetologists as they described the amazing variety of snakes they had been subject to.
Grass snakes, rat snakes, garter snakes, green snakes, black snakes and hognose snakes. This was not to mention the imported varieties such as European Aesculapain snakes and Australian keelback snacks.
If the snakes had been venomous, they could have called the police. But every snake had been startling, but ultimately harmless. If the snakes had been regional, they could have called an exterminator. But the presence of foreign snakes in the mix meant a human presence behind their incursion.
Now this was a case I could wrap my mind around. I jotted down dates of snake sightings, hastily recreating the list of sinks on a fresh page. No obvious pattern emerged. It was time, building supervisor.
I made my way into the bowels of the Newfield Senior Apartment building in search of the super, one Mr. Bartholomew Allfer. I found him in his office, a storage room with a single buzzing light and tools hung on every available wall surface.
One look at Bart’s ratty face and I knew that while he was certainly capable of terrorizing old people, he wasn’t near smart enough to manage a plot like this on his own.
I thought I could use that to my advantage.
I spent a lot of time working on Bart. I played on his pride, his greed, his twisted vanity. We talked about which residents tipped him well at Christmas and which ones treated him “like dirt.” We talked about calls for repairs that come at one o’clock in the morning and the difficulties of maintaining an old building. We talked about his kids (two boys) and how hard it was to make ends meet.
In the end I came up short. If he was guilty, than either I was terrible at my job, or he was an accomplished liar. Neither seemed terribly likely.
So I turned the conversation at least to the landlord. It turned out that Bart’s relationship with the landlord was rockier than the tenants’ relationship with him. I’d had to pull information out of Bart before, but now his words came quickly and vehemently – infrequent raises, a lack of proper funding for cleaning supplies, no paid holidays, an unwillingness to pay for anything but the most critical of structural repairs, the laundry list went on and on.
It was time to pay the landlord a visit.
I made my way back through the building, flipping back through my notebook, letting its contents refilter through my brain. I was so absorbed in looking that I nearly ran head first into…
Well, she certainly wasn’t a resident of the Newfield Senior Apartments. She was dressed to the nines and not a blond ringlet was out of place. She smiled serenely as I stammered an apology and her scent wafted over me. Definitely not the smell of an old person.
I turned and watched her slink her way down the hall. Was she someone’s daughter or granddaughter even? Mr. Skult was waiting for me in the building’s small foyer and I asked him about the woman.
It turns out she was one Miss Locket, a good citizen, dropping by the apartment complex once or twice a week – bringing small gifts, running errands. Hardly the sort of woman you’d picture doing something like that, but looks can be deceiving, I guess. I told Mr. Skult I’d be interviewing the landlord and made my way.
I continued on to my car and resumed flipping through my notebook. It was hard to concentrate now, I could still smell Miss Locke3t’s perfume in my nostrils. I sat in the car and moment and closed my eyes, trying to conjure images of the sinks and apartments I had seen. Sweet and inviting, her perfume stayed with me, making it difficult to focus. Every time I’d get an image of one apartment or another, I’d see her eyes, or picture the light on her hair or…
My eyes snapped open. I’d got it. Or, at least, I thought I had.
I quickly strode back into the Newfield and knocked on a few doors. Every single resident that had been visited by snakes had a small apple – shaped bundle of sweet scented potpourri in their apartment. Each one a generous present from one Miss Locket shortly before their sunrise serpentine surprise.
I found out who she was visiting and stopped by to see if I could catch her. For some reason, Miss Locket had been in a hurry. She’d dropped off a little present and left quickly. The present? A bundle of potpourri of course.
I borrowed the potpourri and dropped it off with a chemist I know for analysis. I decided to skip interviewing the landlord for now and returned to the office to wait for the results of the test. I thought I knew what they’d be.
Sure enough, the potpourri contained high levels of snake hormone. I hadn’t known for certain whether reptiles even had hormones, but given the tap dance Miss Locket’s perfume had done on my attention span, I figured she’d be able to produce some sort of chemical that would guide the snakes to the right apartment.
The rest was almost anti-climatically easy. I figured Miss Locket would have found a convenient method of slipping the snakes into the drains of the building and, sure enough, the apartment had a shed that provided access to the central water main. Although most of the tangle of pipes and ticking meters showed little signs of use, there were plenty of new scuff marks on the floor and fresh wrench marks on one of the large pipes. I tested the fit of the thread cuff and it was screwed on tight. Our Miss Locket was no slouch in the strength department.
I wasn’t sure if she’d be back that night, or the next, so I prepared for a few camp outs. That evening, taking a cab in case she’d recognize my car, I settled into a particularly dark corner of the shed and played the waiting game.
I got lucky and she showed just after midnight of the first evening. Maybe she was worried about running into me in the hallway. The door scraped open and she came in, dressed in dark slacks and sweater, dragging a large bucket, a sealed picnic basket and an enormous wrench.
Thinking of the strength needs to seal the pipe off and not wanting to take any chances, I lunged forward, grabbed the wrist that bore the wrench and twisted slightly. The wrench clattered to the floor and I kicked it out of reach.
She didn’t squeal or anything, just swung at me with her free hand. Fortunately the picnic basket didn’t break open with it slammed into my head. I wouldn’t want any snakes to get hurt. Realizing she was caught she allowed me to lead her into the main building and I called the cops.
I asked her a few questions, not expecting any answers, and I wasn’t disappointed. She was as silent as a grave, this one. Well, the boys and girls in blue would deal with her. If she was working for the landlord, they’d find out eventually. Of course, I didn’t think she was working for the landlord.
I figured she was working for someone else. I didn’t know who yet, but I was going to find out. Three cases, each involving a biological field of study — herpetology.
Even more coincidentally, I just happened to be the detective called in on each case? Something big was going on and now the real case was truly afoot.