by Ron Katz
“Have you seen my reading glasses, Barb?” inquired Bernie Silver.
“Which of your twelve pairs?” asked Barb Silver with a sigh. Bernie’s wife of thirty years and his business partner in Silver Investigations since the company’s founding five years ago, Barb had fielded this inquiry from Bernie many times. They had met when both were investigators for Alpha Insurance Company.
“The ones I keep in the kitchen,” responded Bernie.
“Just my usual check of fat content, carbs, and calories,” he responded, taking the readers from her. “Thanks for your usual powers of observation!”
“I wish I had a nickel for every time I solved this mystery, Bernie. Now that I think of it, eleven spares might not be enough.”
“Readers.com should give me the purchaser-of-the-year award,” said Bernie. “But the investment is well worth it for the times you’re not here to help.”
At that moment the phone rang. Looking at the screen, Bernie saw that their old manager at Alpha, Al Jordan, was calling. Jordan was now a vice president at Alpha and in a position to send business their way.
“Hello, Al,” he said. “Don’t tell me there’s another case your millennial investigators can’t solve.”
“Perhaps,” said Al, now a vice president at Alpha, “but first tell me how you and Barb are doing.”
“We’re doing great, Al,” exclaimed Bernie. “Now that we’re off your payroll, we’re up to three meals a day!”
“Glad to hear it,” responded Al. “I hope you’re not gaining too much weight.”
“Only in my wallet, Al.”
“I’m actually calling because the company wants to hire you and Barb for an undercover assignment that might make your wallet even heavier.”
“You can’t afford us, Al.”
“I agree. However, my higher-ups have authorized a budget that will be to your liking because it’s a very serious matter, and you’re correct that the millennial investigators are not right for this job.”
“Oh, how so?”
“It’s about illegal opioid distribution at a large assisted living facility. Big bucks. Several residents have died. Our client is the facility, and millennials can’t go deep enough undercover to disguise their youth and vigor.”
“Wait—you said Barb and I would be undercover. Does that mean we’d have to pass as old?”
“You can pass, Bernie, trust me,” said Al, “but you will always be young to me.”
“It will be harder for her, but make-up can work wonders.”
“Make-up or money?”
“A thousand a day for each of you, plus expenses.”
“Can we keep our Bingo winnings too?”
“Okay, let me talk to Barb, and we’ll get back to you.”
“You will fit in just great,” said John Campbell, the Executive Director of Sunny Vistas.
“We will?” questioned Bernie.
“Absolutely,” Campbell responded. “None of our new residents think they fit in here.”
“But we look so much younger than everyone else,” said Barb.
“Everyone thinks that,” said Campbell, barely concealing a smile. “That’s the beauty of Sunny Vistas.”
“Do you think it’s a good idea for us to use our real names?” Bernie asked.
“Definitely,” said Campbell. “You’ve lived in the Bay Area for years, and, with the internet, assuming new identities is too risky. You may even meet some people here you’ve known in a previous life.”
“Then they’ll know we’re investigators,” said Barb.
“That you were investigators,” corrected Campbell. “Just like everyone here was previously something important, or else they couldn’t afford to live here now. PIP’s we call them.”
“PIP’s?” questioned Barb.
“Previously Important People,” answered Campbell. “The place is full of ‘em. You will find out soon enough.”
“When can we move in?” asked Bernie.
“No units just now, but the first one that becomes available is yours.”
“Putting aside our investigation, is there anything special we should be looking out for?” asked Barb.
“You will run into some cliques,” said Campbell, “and we don’t have many males here.”
“Why is that a problem?” asked Bernie.
“For you, it isn’t,” Campbell responded, now breaking into a broad grin. “You might be feeling a bit more attractive is all.”
At that moment the head of housekeeping burst in. “Mr. Campbell,” she said excitedly. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but Mrs. Belden has just been found in her room, unresponsive.”
Rising, Campbell said, “I will be right there.”
Looking back as he left the room, he said, “I apologize for the interruption. Looks like we have a vacancy now, so you can move in next week.”
On the way back to their office, the Silvers compared notes on their impressions of Campbell.
“I could live without the elder humor,” said Bernie.
“And without the Hawaiian shirt,” added Barb, grimacing. “But I guess forced gaiety is part of his business.”
“Possibly four, now,” Barb responded. “But, dealing with death is an occupational hazard for him.”
“I see your point,” responded Bernie. “Poor Mrs. Belden’s misfortune created a vacancy for us, but I guess we shouldn’t dwell on that.”
“Let’s start packing and studying up on opioids,” said Barb. “We need a plan.”
“I’ve always meant to plan for retirement,” said Bernie, frowning. “But I never imagined it would happen like this. I’m not sure that we know enough about assisted living yet to make a plan.”
“Luckily, we don’t have to pay for this,” said Barb. “Did you see the fee schedule?”
“A million dollars down, $5000 a month, and your heirs get 60% of the million back when you ‘vacate’ the premises,” responded Bernie. “With that arrangement, they don’t need a complaint department. Everyone is literally stuck for life.”
“We don’t have the autopsy results, yet,” said Campbell.
“Did she have any enemies?”
“Everybody here has enemies. Our residents have too much time to think about the petty slights everyone experiences.”
“Do you do anything to help with that?”
“What can we do?” asked Campbell. “It’s an unfortunate part of the human condition. I spend a lot of my time listening to complainers, and Mrs. Belden was at the top of that heap.”
“Then you’re not sad to see her pass?” asked Barb.
“If I was sad every time someone passed, Mrs. Silver, I would have no time to do anything else.”
“Hmm,” said Bernie. “Did Mrs. Belden have any ailments requiring the use of opioids?”
“Everyone here has ailments, but I don’t have access to their medical records. For that you’ll need to speak with Dr. Lozano, who is the head of our medical services.”
“Ok,” said Bernie. “It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out a way of doing that.”
As Barb and Bernie rose to leave, Campbell said, “Mr. Silver, I think you left these when you were last here.”
“Don’t worry,” said Barb, brightening. “There’s many more where that came from.”
Back in their new one-bedroom apartment, Barb asked, “Okay, which of us gets to be the first sick one?”
“I can do that,” said Bernie. “It won’t require much exaggeration at all to say that my back’s killing me.”
“Maybe we are old,” said Barb.
“This certainly proves it” said Bernie, holding out two Life Guardian alert systems that had been hanging on a hook in their new kitchen.
“I’m not wearing that around my neck,” said Barb.
“This placard says it’s recommended by Sunny Vistas, so I think we should wear them as part of our trying to fit in,” said Bernie. “You can disguise yours by wearing a necklace and tucking the device into your blouse.”
“$1000 a day is not enough for this assignment,” sighed Barb.
“Are these seats taken?” asked Barb, as she and Bernie approached a table of six women in the Sunny Vistas restaurant.
“One is vacant,” said Roz Gardner, without looking up from the menu she was studying through her iridescent pinkish/purplish reading glasses. “The late, lamented Betty Belden usually sat there. The other one is for one of our group, who is currently on the art-for-elders excursion.”
“So, I guess we’re ok then,” said Barb.
“If you say so,” said Roz, still not looking up.
“I like your readers,” said Barb, trying to inject something positive into the situation.
“Guccis,” said Roz. “I could buy lunch and dinner for everyone at this table with what I paid for them.”
As Bernie and Barb sat down, Barb said, “We’ve just moved in—Barb and Bernie Silver.”
Looking up with sudden interest, Roz said, “I had a boyfriend in high school named Bernie Silver. Allowing for the fifty years or so, he could look like you now, Bernie. Did you go to Berkeley High?”
Bernie seemed to freeze and said nothing.
Thinking that this reaction was completely unlike Bernie, Barb thought something was up and decided to go with the flow. “His memory is not so good,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“Roz. Roz Gardner, Berkeley High class of ‘69. Back then I was Roz Gold. My boyfriend and I were known as the Precious Metals.”
“Bernie, do you remember Roz from Berkeley High?” Barb asked solicitously.
“I…I’m not sure,” said Bernie.
“So you are the one,” said Roz. “How could you not remember the good times we had?”
“His memory is very spotty,” said Barb. “Maybe it will come back to him later. You said that your group sits at this table. What group is that?”
“The Third Floor Girls,” said Roz. “No guys allowed, mainly because none live on the third floor. But we might make an exception for my old flame.”
“Was Betty Belden a member of the group?” asked Barb.
“She was until a few months ago,” said Roz. “Until she changed.”
“I don’t know you well enough to go into it,” said Roz, looking down at her menu again. “Let’s just say she won’t be missed.”
In their apartment again, Barb said, “You really threw me a curve ball there, Bernie, but I have to say it was brilliant.”
“First of all,” Bernie said, “Roz Gardner/Gold is the last person on earth I hoped to or expected to see here. She dumped me for a much older guy, and then later tried to get back with me when she found out he was married. So, being speechless was actually my first, honest reaction. But then it came to me that I might be able to be more effective here if people think I have memory problems. It was great that you picked up on that right away.”
“I was taken aback at first, but this was so unlike you that I figured something must be up.”
“I hope you can get used to me as someone who doesn’t remember everything.”
“I think I’ve had some practice at that.”
“What have you been doing for your back up ‘til now?” Dr. Robert Lozano asked Bernie.
“I’ll answer,” Barb said, “because lately Bernie’s memory has not been so good. He’s been doing the usual—Advil and physical therapy—but nothing seems to help.”
“Has he considered consulting an orthopedic surgeon?”
“He’s not too keen on surgery. Isn’t there a more powerful painkiller he can take?”
“There are, but there are some dangerous side-effects. I would not recommend them for your situation now.”
“Is that because there have been some problems here with opioids?”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t comment on other patients. Let’s just say extreme caution is needed with opioids. Why don’t I see you again next week. Please make an appointment with the receptionist, Tiffany, on your way out.”
“Hi, Tiffany,” said Barb to the twenty-five-year-old receptionist. “Bernie here needs an appointment.”
“How about next Wednesday?” Tiffany said brightly, looking to Bernie for a response. He stared blankly.
“Wednesday is not good for me,” said Barb, “and I am handling most things for Bernie now. How about Thursday at ten?”
Tiffany looked uncomfortable, saying, “That’s when we get our drug deliveries. Can we make it eleven?”
“That works,” said Barb. “See you then.”
“Hmm,” said Bernie chuckling to Barb after they had left the office. “Drug deliveries. Better to be lucky than smart.”
Roz Gardner was not to be denied. She brought her yearbook to lunch the next day. “See, Bernie,” she said. “The Precious Metals were voted cutest couple.”
Bernie shifted in his seat. Barb said, “Talking about the past can agitate him. Can we change the subject?”
Roz now looked agitated. “We certainly can,” she said, getting up and walking out.
Her friend, Linda Schultz, said, “Roz can be very sensitive.”
“I meant no offense,” said Barb. “Was Roz friends with Betty Belden?”
“Roz is friends with everybody,” said Linda, “for a while.”
“Did she and Betty have a falling out?”
“Like a lot of Roz’s friends,” Linda said, “Betty seemed to withdraw in the last months of her life.”
“Hi, Tiffany,” said Barb. “I know we’re a little early for Bernie’s eleven o’clock, but I have an errand I have to run and may not be back by eleven, so I hoped he could just wait in here. He won’t be any trouble.”
Tiffany shifted uncomfortably in her chair, saying, “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. I’ll be busy checking in our weekly delivery of medicines, so I can’t really keep an eye on Bernie.”
“I assure you he will just sit here and look at the screen on his phone,” said Barb, heading toward the door.
“I really don’t think—” Tiffany started to say, but Barb was already out the door. Tiffany looked over at Bernie, who, as promised, was staring vacantly at something on his phone.
At that moment the UPS driver arrived with several packages. “Can we do the paperwork outside today?” asked Tiffany, nodding toward Bernie.
“Whatever,” said the driver.
As Tiffany was leaving the reception area, Roz walked in. “Hi, Tiffany. Can we talk for a second?”
Looking a little stressed, Tiffany said, “I’m just receiving our delivery of prescription drugs, Roz. I’m going to take it outside,” she said, nodding toward Bernie, who was still blankly staring at the screen of his phone.
“I get it,” said Roz. “Actually, the delivery was what I was coming here to discuss with you. Do you want me to watch him while you’re outside?”
“That would be great,” said Tiffany. “According to his wife, it won’t take much effort.”
She left, and Roz approached Bernie. “Bernie, are you sure you don’t remember your little Goldie?”
Bernie continued to stare blankly at the screen.
“Then perhaps you remember these,” said Roz, lifting her blouse.
No reaction from Bernie.
“Maybe if you took this,” she said, “it would prompt your memory.” Handing him a pill. He absently put it in his mouth without interrupting his stare.
“I’ll keep looking for you, Bernie, like I did this morning, so maybe we can talk again soon.” As Roz left, she brushed by Tiffany re-entering the office holding several parcels.
“Can I get you anything, Mr. Silver?” Tiffany asked several minutes later. She approached closer and asked again.
“Tissues?” asked Bernie.
“Sure,” she said, handing him one as she headed toward the ringing phone.
“Are you alone?” asked the voice on the other end. Looking nervously at Bernie, Tiffany hesitated and then said, “Yes.”
“Did everything come in OK?” said the caller.
“Let me just check,” Tiffany said, sorting the dozen or so packages in front of her. Then, “We’re good, twice as much as needed.”
Barb returned to the doctor’s office and was ushered in to see Dr. Lozano with Bernie. “How’s the back, Bernie?” asked Dr. Lozano.
“He can’t sleep,” said Barb. “Some of our friends have said that opioids helped with that, so we were wondering if we could get some.”
“I can give you a prescription that will last fourteen days,” said the doctor.
“Unfortunately,” said Barb, “he also needs to sleep after fourteen days have passed.”
“I can’t help you with that, Mrs. Silver,” Lozano said, handing her a slip of paper. But, if you call this number, you may be able to get some helpful advice.”
“Thank you, doctor.”
“Why did you hand me that soggy tissue to keep?” Barb asked Bernie when they were back in their unit.
“Sorry about that,” said Bernie, “but it contains the remains of a pill that Roz gave me.” He added, after a quizzical look from Barb, “I think she stalked us to the doctor’s office this morning and then confronted me after you left when she saw Tiffany leaving the office to receive the shipment of drugs. She was quite angry when I was unresponsive to her requests about whether I remembered the good old days, and she even flashed me. Finally, she gave me this pill, which I thought might be good evidence, so I put it under my tongue to preserve it. Would you take it to Al Jordan so that the insurance company can arrange to get it analyzed?”
“Ok,” she said, looking dubiously at the sodden tissue. “I’ll try to be back in an hour. In the meantime, you should stay put.”
“I wouldn’t think of leaving our little paradise here,” he said, smiling.
A few minutes later, Bernie picked up the phone. “Is that you, Bernie?”
“Yes,” said Bernie. “Who’s this?”
“John Campbell, the manager here.”
“Oh, yes, John, how are you?”
“Very busy with my new additional task of policeman,” Campbell said, with an edge to his voice. We now have Betty Belden’s autopsy report. Can I come to your unit to discuss it?”
“Sure,” said Bernie.
“Is Barb there? I’d rather not have to repeat this.”
“She should be back in around an hour.”
“That doesn’t work for me, so I’ll stop by shorty, tell you the news, and let you tell Barb later.”
Barb returned ninety minutes later. As she opened the front door to their unit, she was met with a scene of total disarray. “Bernie,” she yelled. “Bernie!” No response. She looked around, noting that his phone was not in its charger.
Everything strewn around was theirs, with one exception: a pair of iridescent pinkish/purplish reading glasses.
Barb stifled a scream and started racking her brain for what she should do next. Being undercover made everything more complicated. She decided to start with Roz Gardner. It was lunch time, so she headed for the dining room with Roz’s Gucci reading glasses in her pocket.
The usual table had two vacant seats, Roz’s and Bernie’s. Feigning normalcy, Barb asked Linda Schultz where Roz was.
“She went to her daughter and son-in-law’s place in L.A. for a few days,” said Linda.
“Oh,” said Barb. “What’s her daughter’s name? I need to reach Roz.”
“It’s now something like Glenn or Flynn,” Linda said vaguely. “I can’t remember exactly. Where’s Bernie?”
Trying not to panic through this nightmare, Barb next went to John Campbell’s office. She entered just as a tall, heavy-set man was exiting.
“Ah, great,” Campbell said. “I was just going to see you and Bernie. Where is he?”
“I don’t know,” said Barb, “I was out for a while and, when I returned, he was missing, and our apartment was a mess. All I found that wasn’t ours were these.” She held out the reading glasses.
“Those look like Roz Gardner’s,” said Campbell. “Has she been in your place?”
“Not that I know of, but we recently found out that Bernie was her high school boyfriend.”
“Yes,” he said, knowingly, “I had heard about that—just the kind of gossip that turns this place upside down.”
“I think we should call the police,” said Barb.
“If we do that, it will probably blow your cover,” said Campbell. “Do you mind if I check a few places here first?”
“Okay,” said Barb, “but I want to come with you.”
“Of course,” said Campbell. “Give me a second while I use the bathroom.”
“First we’ll go to the basement,” said Campbell. “There’s a storage room down there that’s never used—a perfect place to hide someone or to go for secret activities.”
As they approached a steel door, Campbell stopped. “As we were walking down here, I got a text from Al Jordan asking me if I could call him. It might be about Bernie, but I can’t get a signal down here on my phone. May I borrow yours for a moment?”
Barb handed him her phone. He then grabbed her and put a damp cloth over her mouth. She crumpled.
When she came to, she was tied up in a dark room, which she assumed was the room they were approaching when she was attacked. The gag over her mouth had been tied hurriedly, so she was able to work it loose.
As she did so, she heard a rustling nearby. “Bernie?” she said.
No verbal response, but she heard some grunts in what seemed like Bernie’s voice. Also, she heard higher-pitched similar cries that sounded like Roz.
Barb moved toward the sounds by flexing her body along the floor. First, she got to the figure with the female voice, and Barb was able to undo that gag with her teeth. It was Roz. Barb asked, “What were you doing in our apartment?”
“I have never been in your apartment,” Roz responded angrily.
“Your glasses were,” Barb said dubiously.
“I’ve been looking for those for days,” said Roz. “John Campbell called today, said he had found them and asked to come to my apartment. He showed up with a heavy guy, and the next thing I knew I was down here. A few minutes later, Bernie was thrown in. I admit that I had thought I would give anything to discuss old times with Bernie, but I’m now reconsidering that.”
“You’ll get your chance,” said Barb. “And he’s in better shape than you think—we’re investigators undercover here because of the opioid deaths. Let’s get Bernie loose.”
They flexed their bodies over to Bernie and got his gag loose. “Glad to be talking to my new and old flames,” Bernie said. “Does either of you have any ideas how to get out of here before Campbell and his friend return?”
“I think we’re going to be ok,” said Barb. “He took my phone but forgot to take the Life Guardian tucked into my top. I’m going to position myself near your tied hands, so all you have to do is fish out the device with a finger and then press the button. Life Guardian should add ‘kidnap protection’ as one of its features.”
“I love happy endings,” said Al Jordan to Bernie and Barb, who were sitting across from him in his office, “even though you really didn’t figure out who was the bad guy until it was almost too late.”
“We just try everything,” said Bernie, “and hope that something works. It helped that, once Tiffany knew that Campbell, whom she was dating, was arrested, she started cooperating with our investigation. Even before that, my fake dementia made Tiffany comfortable enough to speak on the phone when I was there. I could gather from her side of the conversation that she was in on the scheme, but I didn’t know with whom. Later, when Tiffany let slip to Campbell that I had been present during that phone call, he panicked and decided I had to go, although we didn’t know it was him until he roughed up Barb.”
Barb continued the story: “Campbell had heard about Bernie’s former relationship with Roz, and it wasn’t too difficult for him to steal her reading glasses, which she had left at the lunch table. He used them to try to make it look like she had abducted Bernie. Of course, that meant Campbell had to get rid of Roz too, but, having crossed the murder boundary with the opioid overdoses—probably accidentally at first–he apparently did not have a problem with that. Roz never actually came down to our apartment. Campbell had one of his heavies abduct her and then Bernie while Campbell knew I was out of our apartment”
“But what pushed him to sell opioids in the first place?” asked Al.
“We now know that he had some serious debts,” responded Barb. “And he knew that his residents were vulnerable to opioids for chronic pain relief. With the first death, things had gotten too far out of hand for him to turn back. Plus, he made money—40% of one million dollars—every time a resident ‘vacated’ an apartment.”
“Did Dr. Lozano play any role?” asked Jordan.
“Not really,” said Bernie, “except that he didn’t supervise his office very closely. His patients were always begging him for more opioids, but he wouldn’t prescribe them. When asked, he just gave his patients a number of an organization that advised callers of the dangers of opioids. Tiffany mentioned this to Campbell on one of their dates. Campbell saw an opportunity to get out from under his debt, and he put together a scheme for Tiffany to double the amount on the opioid prescriptions. She then diverted the excess from the weekly deliveries and offered it privately to the patients, who loved her for that.”
“And Roz’s involvement?” asked Jordan.
“None. She was just another casualty of Bernie’s love life long before he married me on his second time around,” said Barb. “By the way, did you get that pill analyzed that I brought to you?”
“Yes,” said Jordan, with a friendly laugh. “I won’t say exactly what it was, but Bernie should call his doctor if he has a problem that lasts over four hours.”
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Be sure to check out our new mystery podcast too with mystery short stories, and first chapters read by local actors. A new episode went up this week.