Social worker Mead McCutcheon is frazzled, coping with a ridiculously unwieldy workload after government cutbacks. But one elderly client is missing, and when his body is found in a snow bank along a highway, Mead is outraged when no one seems to care. She'll do whatever it takes to catch his killer.
Bright and early the next morning, Mead made a home visit on her way to work. Eighty-year-old Pinky Detweiler was a long-time client, an adult-onset diabetic with circulatory problems who was resistant to the dietary restrictions dictated by his condition.
He lived alone in a low-income housing project just west of downtown. He used a walker or a cane to get around and never went far from home. In fact, his only excursions were to the senior nutrition center, located a very short block away, and a small mom-and-pop grocery store called Paulie’s, which was on the same block, and whose only customers were the many near-invalid poor seniors who lived in the area.
When Mead knocked on his door at 7:50 A.M., she heard no sounds coming from his apartment. She frowned; in the twenty years she had known Pinky, he always, during waking hours, had his television on very loud, due to a significant hearing loss. She checked her watch. His favorite show, “The Price is Right” was on. But where was Pinky?
After knocking repeatedly for several minutes, she tried the door. It was locked, so she walked downstairs and knocked on the building manager’s front door.
The door was opened by a burly middle-aged man with thick, dark chest hair sticking out the top of a gray sleeveless undershirt. Mead tried not to recoil at the sight. She had never had occasion to meet the man before.
“Good morning. Listen, I need your help. I just knocked on Pinky Detweiler’s door, and he didn’t answer. Have you seen him lately?”
“Sure, a couple days ago.”
“Well, he’s never gone this time of the day, and I’m really worried about him. Could you please let me into his apartment to look around? I need to check on him—see if he’s all right.”
He shrugged. “I’ll have to get the key.”
Not a moment later, he followed her upstairs, knocked on the door, and used the key to let them inside. He then stood aside and allowed her access then stood beside the door while she looked around.
There was nothing apparently disturbed in the apartment, but Mead had the oddest feeling the place had been abandoned. It had the smell of emptiness, as if no one had been there for some time. His bed was neatly made and his clothes hung up in the small but tidy bedroom. And though his cane was gone, his walker stood against the living room wall. His heavy gray wool coat hung over a hook on an ancient oak hall tree. His knit gray and red stocking cap hung beside it. His worn black leather gloves lay on a small table beside the hall tree. Mead frowned. He wouldn’t have left the building without them in the bitter January wind.
Glancing around, she noticed his three medication bottles on the kitchen counter. They should’ve been nearly empty, now that it was the end of the month; his doctor only gave him thirty days worth of pills at a time. She found a plate and dumped one bottle of pills onto it, counting them in her head. Only five pills out of the thirty were gone. Twenty-five remained, which meant Pinky, who never missed a single dose, had taken none for nearly three weeks. Suddenly her heart began to beat faster, wondering if Pinky was even still alive.
She turned to speak to the building super, but he had disappeared without a single word.
Pulling out her cell phone, she dialed the 9-1-1 operator and asked that an officer come to investigate a missing person.
She moved about the place, taking in Pinky’s surroundings like the inveterate student of human nature that she was. He was a bit of a pack-rat, certainly, hoarding things like plastic grocery bags and paper sacks. He held onto his newspapers only long enough to set them out for recycling pick-up, which was apparently due any day now. But other than that, the space was orderly and smelled as if he had regularly cleaned surfaces with Fresh Scent antibacterial cleaner. Many of her low-income clients seemed to use the same inexpensive but pleasant-smelling cleaning product.
The officer, whose badge said his name was J. Jackson, looked familiar, but she couldn’t place him. He, however, remembered her.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, snapping his fingers. “You’re that caseworker who calls us when you’re worried about old guys, aren’t you?” He cleared his throat, embarrassed at his own words, then added, “I mean, I met you about a year ago when you were checking on that old lady in the nursing home—the one where funny stuff kept happening to the residents, right?”
Mead sighed. So the authorities see me as a meddler. Oh, well. “You’re right. And as it happened, Mrs. Granger had untreated bedsores and was quite malnourished, if you recall, so it was not a frivolous intervention on my part.”
He bit his lip. “Oh, I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. I just meant we’ve met before . . .”
“You’re right. We have, and now I need you to write up a report on Pinky—I mean—Edgar Detweiler. He’s missing.”
She proceeded to show him around the space, pointing out the things that made her question Pinky’s well-being. When she had finished, the blond officer, who was in his early thirties, said, “You’re absolutely right. This does look weird. Old people don’t usually leave home without their overcoats in January, do they?”
“Not Pinky. He would never do that.”
“When was the last time you saw him?”
“About two months ago. On a home visit just like this one.”
“And he was all right the last time you saw him?”
“Yes. He was just fine. But I think it would be good to talk to the building superintendent. See what he can tell you. He used to see Pinky nearly everyday. Sorry I don’t know the man’s name.”
“I’ll do that. But can you give me a desrc
She opened the file and pointed to the photo. “I can do better than that. I have his photo in my file. This was taken about five years ago, but he hasn’t really changed much, except his hair has grown white over that time.”
“Can I take that photo?”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t remove it from the file, but I can fax a copy to you at the precinct when I get back to the office, if you give me your fax number.”
Closing the file, she said, “Here are the facts. Pinky is eighty years old and stands about five-feet ten inches tall. He weighs in at about 160, and has a slight limp from an old injury.” Officer Jackson jotted notes as she dictated.
Trying to reassure her before leaving, he said, “Listen, I wouldn’t worry too much. He’ll turn up sooner or later. They always do.” She was not comforted by his cavalier attitude.
The officer left to go talk to the building superintendent, while Mead locked up behind him. He had already disappeared inside the first floor apartment when she walked past the door. She was worried sick for Pinky’s safety. Where could he be?
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