by Ang Pompano
The Bucket List was first published in Best New England Crime Stories: Red Dawn, Level Best Books (2015). We have a review and giveaway of Ang’s mystery novel, When It’s Time for Leaving, up this week over on KRL News and Reviews.
The first time I laid eyes on the well-seasoned lovebirds was in a hotel lounge overlooking the Boston Common. Her lipstick too red and his lapels too wide for 2015, they were having the time of their lives doing the Bossa Nova like it was still in style.
They seemed to have the joy of life that I wished for my parents who have decided to sit out their retirement in front of the TV set. I was so taken by them that I told the bartender to send them a drink. The server pointed to my table, and they ambled over followed by waves of Opium and Jade East. The woman said they were the Gilberts: Virginia and Ted.
“That was very amiable of you, Miss…”
“Nike DeNardo.” I held out my hand.
“Oh, what a beautiful name. After the goddess?”
I shook my head. “Actually, after the missile. My grandfather named me. He was in aerospace.”
Like most people, Virginia seemed taken aback by my unusual name, but Ted took it in stride.
He held up his drink, and we clinked glasses. “I hope you don’t mind. You seemed to be having such a good time that I assumed you were celebrating some occasion.”
“We are,” Virginia said.
I asked if they would like to take a seat. To my surprise they did.
“So what are you celebrating?”
“Just being alive.” Virginia winked.
“It’s actually a little more than that. We’re working our way through our bucket list,” Ted explained.
“You mean the things you want to do before you die?”
“That’s correct as rainwater.”
“What Ted is trying to say is that we made a list of all of the things we talked about over the years but never got around to doing. After we retired we decided it’s now or never.”
Ted put his arm around her. They reminded me of teenagers on a first date.
“That’s right. We want to see what we’ve missed of the world while we still have the energy. We started last year on our forty-fifth anniversary.”
I wished that my parents could take some lessons from these two. “That is all kinds of awesome. There’re tons of things I’m going to do someday.”
Virginia patted my hand. “Honey, don’t wait too long. You may be half our age now, but before you know it, you’ll find you’re pushing seventy, too.”
I wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be a compliment or not, but she was so sweet I let it go. “So, tell me about your list.”
“Goodness, where to begin? Last Christmas Eve we visited the Austrian church where ‘Silent Night’ was written. We also saw the Northern Lights in Iceland.”
“Don’t forget the Roman Forum.” They glanced at each other with a look that said, What happened in the Forum stays in the Forum. I turned away not wanting to spoil their moment.
“Never.” She giggled. “Oh yes, I took a picture of Ted watching the sunrise at Machu Picchu.”
“And I took one of her at the Key West sunset.”
“Now we’ve learned how to take selfies like the youngsters do. He doesn’t like computers, but I even have a Facebook page where we share our adventures.”
“That’s what I love about my Ginny. She keeps us young.”
“Anyway, Ted always wanted to come to Boston to see the Freedom Trail. We had ten must-do things on the list. This is one of the last.” For a second I thought I heard a note of sadness in her voice. “Look at this photo.” Virginia took out a cell phone and showed me an off-center-selfie of the two of them by the Swan Boats. “But enough about us, what do you do?”
Next to theirs, my life was pretty dull. “I’m a one-woman detective agency.”
“A one-woman detective agency.” Something flashed across Virginia’s face. I get that sometimes. To some people the word detective is a sign to step back.
But, Ted was very interested. It may have been the novelty of a lady detective.
“What are you working on?”
“Nothing really that interesting. I’m only staying at the hotel for a few days while I testify in a divorce case.”
“I’m sure we’ve bothered Nike enough.” Virginia stood up from the table and put her hand on Ted’s elbow to bring him to his feet as well. “Besides, we have a swing dancing lesson in ten minutes. Again, thank you so much for the drink.”
It was about 10:30 when I heard a knock on my hotel room door. I hadn’t ordered room service. It was Virginia.
“Nike, you have to help me.” Her eyes were red and her face was creased with worry.
“What’s wrong?” Her behavior made me uneasy, and I crossed my arms across my robe.
“Someone is going to kill Ted. Please help me. When I heard that you were a detective, I just knew you were heaven-sent. I don’t know who else to turn to.”
“What makes you think anyone wants to hurt your husband?”
Her bottom lip quivered. “I hired a man to kill him.”
“A hit man?” What had I gotten into? I should have known that my pay-it-forward would turn around to bite me in the ass.
“Yes, I guess that’s what it’s called. You see, Ted is dying. That’s why the bucket list is so important. I always held us back because I thought we would need the money for more important things. We’ve missed our whole lives because I was worried about saving for our old age. When we learned of Ted’s illness, I saw what a fool I’d been, so I convinced him it was his idea to tackle our bucket list.”
“But why hire someone to kill him?”
She began to cry. I pulled some tissues from a box and handed them to her.
“We did just about everything. Now he doesn’t have much time before he’ll be in a bad way. We’ve known our doctor all of our lives, and he said that Ted doesn’t have much more time before whatever it is in his brain will strike. It will be horrible. He doesn’t deserve to suffer so I hired someone to…you know. I was promised it would be painless. But I changed my mind. I want us to go through this together. Who knows? Miracles happen every day.”
I wanted to dismiss Virginia’s ranting as dementia, or a problem with her meds, but something made me believe her story.
“Then call it off.”
“The problem is I don’t know who I hired. It was all very secretive. I need you to stop it from happening.”
I was hearing her words but coming from such a sweet old lady they were a total mind-botch. I wanted to make sure I understood. “Tell me everything. How did you find a hit man? I mean, you don’t look like the type to have those connections.”
“True. But how am I supposed to help you?”
“I told him on the computer that I changed my mind, but he said a deal is a deal. I have to give him $15,000 in the Public Garden tonight at 11:30 after Ted goes to sleep. I’m afraid that if I don’t pay him, he’ll tell Ted what I did. He said he has copies of our chats. I’m scared. Can you at least come with me?”
“You realize that even if you pay him, you’re opening yourself up to blackmail for the rest of your life.”
“I have to do what I can to save Ted even if he doesn’t have much time. I’ll take the consequences.”
“You never met the man. How will you know who to give the money to?”
“He’ll find me. I’m supposed to wear a yellow scarf and wait on the lagoon bridge.”
I looked at my watch. “Give me the scarf and stay with Ted. I’m going in your place.”
The cool fog in the Public Garden misted my skin and the air smelled fresh, a bit like the sea. The murkiness hid the top of the George Washington statue and haloed the lights on the path to the lagoon as if I were wearing glasses made of wax paper.
I waited at the railing of the bridge. A couple came hand-in-hand out of the vapor, walked by without seeming to notice me, then disappeared again in the cloud at the other end of the short span. I waited looking over the side. The fog allowed me to see only one of the Swan Boats tied up below. I thought of how happy Virginia and Ted looked in their off-center selfie. After fifteen minutes or so, I was about to leave when a man in a white rain shell materialized next to me. His thin face needed a shave.
I touched the scarf and his eyes followed my hand. He nodded slightly and smiled. A meth-mouth if I ever saw it.
“You waiting for someone?” His breath reeked of weed.
“Anyone in particular?” His eyes darted around as if he were looking for someone else to come out of the fog.
“I think I’ve found him.”
“Well, that’s good. Have a nice night.” He started to walk off the bridge.
“I have something you want.” I touched the scarf again. Once more his eyes followed my hand, but this time he scoffed and shook his head.
“Not from you, sister.”
“You don’t think I know entrapment when I see it? I smell bacon.”
“I’m not a cop.”
“Whatever. The age isn’t right.”
Was he that dumb or that desperate for money that he didn’t realize he was practically admitting he was up to no good? “You can’t expect an old lady to come out here at night. She sent you this.” I pulled an envelope of money from my pocket. Meth-mouth looked interested but still wary.
He raised his eyebrows and turned his hands palms up. “We had a deal.”
“I’m going to give you the money. But forget the job. Understand?” I had a problem with paying him, but my priority was to save Ted’s life. “Just take it.” I handed him the money. “Now that’s the end of it. We don’t want to hear from you again.”
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way.” He pulled a knife from his pocket. “These jobs are all about balance. You have something on me. I have something on you. You hire me to kill someone. I kill someone. See what I mean? You can’t rat on me, I can’t rat on you. Without that balance I have a real problem. I’ve done dozens of these jobs and someone always has to be killed. Unfortunately, in this case it is going to have to be the person who can identify me—you.”
At that point I was glad that I didn’t let Virginia meet with him. It was obvious that he would have killed her.
He lunged at me, trying to throw me over the rail. I kneed him, and as he doubled over, I cuffed him on both ears. He straightened up, knife still in one hand, envelope in the other. He seemed off balance like a marionette with broken strings. His arms spun in circles. The envelope dropped, but not the knife as I was hoping. He went backwards toward the railing. I tried to grab him but couldn’t make it and fell to my knees as he went over the side. A woman screamed. I scooped up the envelope and stuffed it in my pocket before getting up.
The couple who had walked by earlier ran over. “Are you all right?” the fellow said.
“We saw him attack you with a knife. It was amazing how you defended yourself.” The girl leaned over the railing to look. “He’s in the Swan Boat. I think he landed on the knife. He looks dead.”
Virginia looked like she had gained ten years overnight when I spoke to her in the hotel lobby the next morning. “What happens now?”
“Nothing as far as the police are concerned. He was wanted for murder. Witnesses saw him attack me, and he died by his own actions.” I knew I was sidestepping her question.
“You should continue to take care of Ted and finish as much of that bucket list as you can.”
She smiled. “Thank you. There are a few things that we never got to. Can you imagine a couple of old goats like us on a zip line?”
Actually I could. I thought about the Gilberts a lot over the next few weeks and followed Virginia on Facebook. Every once in a while a picture of them doing something from their bucket list appeared on my newsfeed. After a time the postings stopped, and I knew Ted had probably had his last adventure. I thought of contacting Virginia but got involved in work and never did.
“Ted, I’m so glad to see you. You look so well.” I caught myself from saying more. He didn’t know that Virginia had confided in me concerning his health. “What brings you here?”
“Zip lining through the rainforest. It’s one from the list that we had overlooked. I’m with that group over there.” He nodded toward a group on the other side of the lobby.
“I don’t see Virginia.”
His face changed.
“I’m afraid she’s not here. She passed away six months ago. I’m the oldest one in the bunch but I’m doing this for her.”
“Dead?” I had heard of this before. The caregiver dies before the person they are taking care of.
“I know what you’re thinking. She must have told you I was dying.”
At first I thought of denying it, but Ted would have seen right through me. “She was stressed and confided in me.”
“I don’t doubt it. But the truth is, I wanted to have her experience everything she had missed in life, so I told her I was the one who was dying. She never would have done the bucket list if she thought it was for her. She was too practical.”
“How did you keep it from her?”
“She had arthritis in her neck and they picked up what they called a glioblastoma in an MRI. It was in a place they couldn’t operate on. I know our doctor well. He wasn’t blessed with a good marriage like I was; mostly through his own fault. You know how it is in a small town. I had enough bad stuff on him to persuade him to tell her I was the one that was sick. There wasn’t much he could do anyway. He gave her every new treatment he could between trips right down to the newest tetanus shot therapy. The tumor showed no symptoms for over a year so she thought her shots were for arthritis. You know the rest.
I expressed my condolences. “I think Virginia would have been very happy that you are here.”
Ted nodded and walked toward the zip line group.
I doubted that he knew that Virginia had almost had him murdered. He wasn’t going to hear it from me. Sometimes couples have secrets from each other that are best taken to the grave.
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