Kate’s turning 50, and as if that weren’t depressing enough, she’s about to become a grandmother—twice. Her investigation of a mysterious death at the Vista View retirement complex opens her eyes to the new realities of aging, some of which send her reeling. What really happened to the wealthy, tennis-playing cougar in Building One? Are residents covering up a sex-for-hire scandal? Will Kate’s longtime friend lose her job as Vista View’s business manager? Kate makes it her business to discover the truth—or die trying.
“There comes a morning in every woman’s life,” I said to Strutter on the telephone, “when she looks into the mirror and knows precisely what she’ll look like if she makes it to the age of eighty. Lines, pouches, droopy bits—they’re all there, lurking just below the surface, waiting to erupt at the slightest provocation. I won’t need to wear a mask this Halloween. A pointy hat and a broom, and I’ll be the perfect old hag.”
I squinted at my reflection in the hand mirror and stuck out my tongue.
“The approach of the big five-o has got you down, huh? Well, I’m afraid I can’t relate. Not only am I a full seven years younger than you are, but we women of color age undetectably, or hadn’t you heard? It’s you pigmentation-challenged Caucasians who dry up in your fifties, Katie girl.” The twinkle in her Jamaican lilt softened her unsympathetic words. “Not that you could prove that by Margo,” she added as a final dig.
Margo Harkness was our third partner and a few years into her fifties, an apparently ageless blonde beauty.
“That’s a Southern thing. Comes in the gene pool right along with the drawl and the debutante’s guidebook. So what’s on your agenda today?” I turned the mirror face down on my bed and reached for my cooling coffee.
“Nothing very exciting, although grocery shopping with a two-year-old does have its heart-stopping moments. She chuckled. “Thank goodness Charlie has a game after school. I can plop myself in a lawn chair and hand Olivia over to that gaggle of fourteen-year-old girls who think she’s just the cutest thing ever.”
“She is the cutest thing ever, and it doesn’t hurt a bit that her big brother is the emerging star of Wethersfield High’s soccer team.”
“Oh, Lord, don’t remind me. It’s only October, and I already wish the school year were over. Those girls are absolutely stalking him. If he’s not on Facebook, he’s got that damned cell phone clamped to his ear, or he’s hammering away at a text message. I swear, none of them will have functional thumb joints by the time they’re thirty. What’s your plan for today?”
I sighed. “Vista View. I told Margo I’d take her days this month as well as mine. She has a ton of new listings to show, and I told her I’d finalize the sale on Mrs. Roncaro’s unit. Her death was quite a surprise. She seemed just fine the last time I saw her. Such a nice lady.”
Vista View is a retirement community repped by our firm, Mack Realty.
“Tomorrow, I’m going to stop by to see the Henstock sisters. Ada telephoned me, and I haven’t seen them in a while. I think they may want to check out the retirement complex. Even that little Cape we sold them behind the Silas Robbins House is getting to be too much for them, I think, so I want to tell them about Vista View, if they’re looking at options.” Ada and Lavinia are sisters, former clients and now good friends who live near the Wethersfield Green on Broad Street, right around the corner from our office.
“Seeing them will probably due your silly age funk good. Those old gals are what, eighty-something? And still interested in the opposite sex, if Lavinia’s reaction to Margo’s husband is any indication.” Lieutenant John Harkness, AKA Margo’s husband, had taken charge of an investigation involving the sisters some two years previously.
I emptied my mug and eased out from under my ancient cat Jasmine, who considered me her personal heat source. Her housemate Gracie, a young ginger cat, slitted her eyes at me from the foot of the bed. I had lingered under the covers long enough that they had assumed it was a weekend morning and settled in.
“Let’s face it. Women of any age respond to a man as good looking as Margo’s husband,” I said, reflecting upon our previous experiences with Ada and Lavinia, “but Lavinia did have a habit of blushing whenever John was around, as I recall. Anyway, gotta go. Pinch Olivia’s fat cheeks for me.”
“Will do,” Strutter promised and rang off.
Despite my later than usual start, I could hear Armando’s shower running upstairs. His work schedule at TeleCom International required a good deal of international travel and lots of overtime, so he could pretty well start and end his days in the office when he chose. That suited my Colombian husband’s casual relationship with time very well, although it made me a little nuts. I headed for my own downstairs bathroom and hoped there was still enough hot water for my shower.
It isn’t so much the age, I mused as I rinsed shampoo out of my hair under a stinging spray. It’s the unavoidable significance that gets attached to birthdays ending in zeros. The beginning of yet another decade of life, they seem to shout, and a lot more water has gone under the bridge. For women, these announcements have a lot to do with physical appearance. Even an attractive woman, and I’m happy to say I do have my good points, gets labeled differently as the years roll by. She’s “a pretty young thing” in her twenties and “still very youthful” in her forties but only “well preserved, considering her age” by the time she hits fifty. After that, “still takes care of herself, bless her” is about all she can hope for.
I toweled off and blew dry and moisturized, then spent my customary two minutes with the mirror, applying the workday amenities of mascara, lipstick and a little blusher. “Still very youthful,” I muttered defiantly, struggling into pantyhose and the pencil skirt and tunic that would get me through the day in comfort, if not the height of elegance. Small gold hoops in my ears, and I was done. At the last second, I dabbed a few more drops of firming serum onto my chin and neck. Couldn’t hurt, might help.
“Good morning, Cara, did you sleep well?” said Armando from the hall as I hastily made my bed. He stood in the bedroom doorway, impeccably turned out for his work day, as always. Not especially tall, but undeniably dark and handsome, he was fastidious about his personal appearance and always a sight worth seeing. Unfortunately, that orderliness didn’t extend to his bedroom and bathroom which were, to put it kindly, a perpetual mess.
I yanked the comforter smooth and turned to give him a smile. The sight of him caused all the usual stirrings, so evidently there was some life in the old girl yet. Both cats dropped all pretense of feline aloofness and churned around his ankles, purring and nudging, as they vied for his attention.
“Apparently, your Latino appeal extends to females of all species,” I noted, and he obliged the hairy ones with a scritch apiece. I inhaled his clean, soapy scent as I leaned in for a kiss.
“I am very glad to hear that.” His hand wandered from my waist, and I slapped it away lightly.
“Off to work with you. I’m running late for Vista View, and I still have to feed the beasts.” I wiped a smudge of my lipstick from the corner of his mouth and patted his butt. “Go.” He went.
A few minutes later I got on the road as well. Instead of following my usual route to Old Wethersfield, where Mack Realty had its offices on Old Main Street, I turned right out of The Birches’ entrance road and made my way down Prospect Street to Collier, where the Vista View complex was located. The signs of autumn were everywhere, in the gardens that were lush with fall blooms, in the property repairs being made in preparation for a New England winter, and the pumpkins and pots of colorful mums on every front stoop. Within half a mile I passed a painter on a ladder, tending to the window trim on an already tidy looking Colonial; roofers repairing shingles atop a sprawling ranch; a young man in earphones operating a roaring leaf blower; and an elderly woman on her knees, energetically tidying her perennial border.
I parked my car in a visitor slot and hefted my briefcase over the gearshift console. Never without a full complement of file folders and papers, it weighed about twice as much as usual today, stuffed as it was with rental agreement forms, sales brochures and price sheets. By the time I reached the entrance of Building One, which housed the administrative offices and dining facilities for the complex, I was puffing. Yet another sign of advancing age, I reflected sourly.
As I paused to catch my breath, I looked around at the other buildings. Several surrounded a tasteful green, and carefully meandering roads led to similar groupings set farther from Collier Road. From the outside they all looked similar, like expensively constructed and maintained residential housing, but I knew that each one served a specific purpose in the hierarchy of caring for the elderly. The clusters farther removed were indeed elegant housing units of all configurations—garden apartments, townhouses, and even freestanding units—and were rented or owned by the not-yet-retired or newly retired who still enjoyed good health and mobility. Phase One-ers, the developers labeled them.
Phase Two facilities were located closer to the main road and consisted of one-bedroom units discreetly equipped with bells, buzzers and other devices that allowed their residents to call for help, should they require it. Housekeeping services were available to Phase Two-ers, as well as communal dining in Building One if they wished to avail themselves of regularly provided group meals that were both nourishing and appealing.
Phase Three residents were essentially nursing home patients and enjoyed the best round-the-clock personal care services that money could buy. It wasn’t anything to look forward to, exactly, but it was the reason that most residents signed up for a Vista View unit to begin with. While enjoying the amenities of Phase One and Phase Two, they knew Phase Three was waiting. It was comforting, I supposed, to know that one need do nothing but slip quietly into an adjoining building to accomplish the transition. I imagined myself, the advancing years robbing me of my mobility and independence, and felt inexpressibly sad. Vista View was my job today. Was it also my future?
A blue Audi slid smoothly into a parking space, and an exuberant foursome in tennis whites burst from its interior. They still glistened genteelly from what must have been an early morning session on the courts. They headed for the front door of Building One and, presumably, the snack bar. “Your game is really improving,” one of the men, sleek with good health, threw over his shoulder at his companions. “You two almost got us today. We’ll have to put in some extra practice time with the pro, right, Jan?” He poked the trim lady at his side, and she giggled.
“I’ll be glad to spend extra time with Anthony anytime for any reason,” she agreed. She yanked open the heavy glass door and swept through, winking at her friends. The general banter continued as they made their way through the immaculate lobby, and I found myself smiling as I trailed after them, lugging my paperwork. Apparently, this aging business had some positive aspects.