I paused outside of Gran’s door and took several deep breaths. Jakob stood just behind me. I’d agreed to let him come, even after our spat in the downstairs hallway, because he was right about the fact that I would make myself a target without him. I was less concerned with that, despite his insistence that I couldn’t take care of myself, and more concerned with the fact that by consequence, I’d make a target out of Gran too. If someone working here was corrupt, it’d be all too easy for them to strike out at her to get back at me, and I would never forgive myself if that happened.
My one stipulation was that we didn’t lie to Gran. I couldn’t play the part of Jakob’s girlfriend in front of her. Not now. Judging by the way he’d shut down, he wasn’t ready to fake being all loved up either.
I took one last steadying breath and turned toward him. The leathers he wore were matte black like his bike, and the light seemed to bend around his frame as if it was allergic to him. His blue eyes lacked any hint of warmth. He stood there like a sliver of night, projecting an aura of stygian violence. Thanks to the Kevlar padding in his jacket, he looked even larger than he was. If I didn’t know him, I would have given him a wide berth. As it was, I still wanted to take a step back.
His gaze fixed on me as I faced him, as intense and unyielding as it always was.
“No bullshit with her, right?” I said. “We tell her what’s really going on so she can agree to help us on her own terms.”
“No bullshit,” he said.
“She’s here because she has Alzheimer’s,” I told him. I’d hinted at it back at his apartment, but I hadn’t flat out said it, and I needed to prepare him for this visit.
He said nothing in response. Unlike Hank downstairs, I didn’t even warrant a nod of acknowledgment.
I gritted my teeth against a spark of annoyance and forced my tone to neutral. “I don’t know if today is a good day or a bad day, so get ready to repeat yourself a couple of times. She might ask the same question more than once. If she does, just go with it. Don’t point out the fact that she’s already asked the question. It’ll just confuse her and make everything worse.”
Again, he just stared at me.
My right hand twitched, itching to slap him. Instead, I turned and took my anger out on the door, knocking hard enough that it hurt my knuckles.
“Come in!” Gran called.
I pushed the door open and walked inside. Gran’s place looked like any other middle-class apartment might. To my right was a bright, farmhouse-style kitchen. Straight ahead was her living area, elegantly appointed in furniture from her last home. Opposite the front door was a large bank of windows, with a slider set into the middle. Her rooms faced southwest, looking out over the grounds, and now that morning had bled into early afternoon, light flooded in. The slider led to a wide balcony, crowded with deck furniture and the terracotta pots that held Gran’s little herb garden.
She wove through the living room and came over to me, arms outspread. “There’s my girl.”
I hugged her for longer than usual, needing her warmth and her comfort right now.
“Everything okay, sweetie?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said, pulling away. “Gran, this is Jakob Larson. Jakob, this is my grandmother, Isabelle Evans.”
A small indentation appeared between Jakob’s brows as he looked at Gran. Surprise maybe? Gran didn’t fit the stereotype of an Alzheimer’s patient. She was tall, like me, her spine unbent despite the fact that she was in her mid-60s. Her blonde hair was loose today, and it flowed down her back in a cascade of waves. She’d been outside a lot this spring, and her skin was flushed with the beginnings of a golden suntan. Her face was youthful, her green eyes sharp as they took Jakob in.
“Nice to meet you, Jakob,” Gran said, offering her hand.
I held my breath, praying he’d at least be civil.
He stepped forward and slid his hand into hers. “You too, Mrs. Evans.”
“Call me Izzy,” Gran said as they released each other. She stepped back and prodded me with her elbow. “Well done, you,” she said in an appreciative tone.
I nearly choked. “Gran, he can hear you.”
“I know that,” she said, still eyeing him like he was a tall drink of water and she was just dying of thirst. “But he looks like he could be a mean sonofabitch under the right circumstances, and I want to get on his good side.”
“Gran, I am begging you. Put a lid on it.”
Jakob’s gaze slid to me. “I see where you get that mouth of yours.”
Gran let out a whoop of laughter. “Oh, I think you and I are going to get along famously, Jakob.” She stepped up to him, fearless, and slipped her arm through his. “Now, come inside and tell me how you met my baby.”
She led him right past me toward the living room. And he let her. I stood rooted to the spot, regretting this entire day more and more with every passing moment.
“At the bar,” Jakob said.
“Did you really? You know, I met my late husband at a bar.”
Her words snapped me out of it. “Gran, it’s not like that,” I said, joining them.
She glanced back and forth between Jakob and me and then snorted. “Bullshit. You two look about as prickly as a pair of pissed-off porcupines. If you didn’t just have a lovers’ quarrel, I’ll eat my shoe.” She dragged Jakob down onto the couch beside her and gave him a serious look. “What happened?”
Jakob’s gaze slid to mine.
I stared at him. Don’t be a dick.
“I told her a hard truth she didn’t want to hear,” he said, meeting my gaze.
Gran patted the leather over his forearm. “Good. She can be stubborn as a mule sometimes. She needs a man with enough gumption to speak up to her.”
My face burned, but not with embarrassment. With rage. A hard truth? He’d told me a hard truth I didn’t want to hear? As if it was somehow brand-new fucking information that my leg was my weak spot?
There was a huge difference between tough love and being an asshole, and the way he’d told me I couldn’t take care of myself in the hallway was pure asshole. He hadn’t done it to try and keep me safe or make me face a difficult fact. He’d said it out of anger, and in a shitty tone of voice meant to both belittle and hurt me. Well, he’d succeeded. If Gran wasn’t here, I would have laid into him. There were several hard truths that Jakob needed to hear himself.
I sat down on the loveseat opposite them. “Gran, it’s not like that,” I said again. Because it wasn’t. Last night was a one-time thing. Of that, I was now 100% certain.
She turned to me with a small, teasing smile on her face but then she caught sight of my expression. Her smile disappeared. “What’s going on?”
“Jakob is a member of The Kings,” I said.
“Who are The Kings?” she asked.
I’d told her about them before, but it wasn’t surprising that she’d forgotten. Alzheimer’s typically affected short-term memory first. She could recount with perfect detail the dress I wore during a fifth-grade recital, but if I asked her what she had for breakfast yesterday, she might not be able to answer me.
“They’re a motorcycle club in town,” I said. “They think that someone working here might be stealing the residents’ medications and replacing them with placebos so they can sell the drugs in town.”
Gran frowned. Hard. “God-fucking-damn it, Krista. We looked into this place. It was supposed to be the best.”
I grinned. Yes, I had gotten my mouth from her. Also, she remembered looking into this place with me. Today must have been one of her better days.
“It’s a new problem,” I said.
“What do you need?” She looked from me to Jakob. “Want me so spy on the staff? Be an inside source?”
Jakob shook his head. “No. We want to have you drug tested and make sure your meds aren’t being messed with.”
“I can do that,” she said. “I have an appointment with Dr. Perez in an hour. We can ask her then.”
Jakob turned to me. “I want a tour while we wait.”
Look at him, making demands like I fucking owed him anything after the way he’d been acting.
“Why?” I asked. “Didn’t experience enough tension as we were walking in? Want to intimidate some old folks while you’re at it? Maybe press your luck with Hank and see if he’ll really shoot you?”
“Krista,” Gran said in a scolding tone.
I clenched my jaw and didn’t meet her eyes. I would not apologize to him.
“I want to see if I recognize anyone working here,” Jakob ground out. “If I spot some sketchy motherfucker on staff, it might save us a lot of time.”
Damn it. As tempting as it was to shut him down just to be a bitch, logic always had a way of winning out with me. What he said made sense. And there might never be another opportunity for him to check the place out. I was going to have to show him around. I might not like it, but I was going to do it, and that grated. It must be so much easier to be the kind of person that buried their head in the sand and let their emotions blindly dictate their decisions. I envied those people sometimes.
“Fine,” I said. “But you’d better behave.”
“Look who’s talking,” he shot back.
“Oof, the tension between you two,” Gran said, rising from her seat. She sighed, a hint of longing in her expression. “My favorite part of fighting with your grandfather was when we got around to making up.”
Ewww. “Gran, I never needed to know that.”
She grinned. “We broke a table once.”
I gagged and plugged my ears to protect myself from further trauma.
She laughed and stood from her seat. I knew her; the danger hadn’t passed. To Gran, the best form of entertainment was embarrassing or shocking those around her, which was why, even though it made me look like an idiot in front of Jakob, I kept my fingers in my ears and hummed to drown out her voice as I followed her out of her rooms.
Ten minutes later, I gave up on any hope that Jakob and I wouldn’t be the talk of the town by nightfall. Gran kept introducing him to everyone as, “My granddaughter’s handsome beau,” and every time I told her to cut it out, she shushed me.
“I’m just keeping up the ruse,” she said. “Plus, escorting a dangerous criminal around the premises will be great for my popularity. No offense, Jakob.”
My grandmother, the prom queen.
Jakob’s face darkened as we entered the cafeteria. He swept his icy gaze across the room. “None taken.”
Was it my imagination, or had he just put a little more menace into his expression for her benefit?
From the second Dr. Perez stepped inside Gran’s rooms, it was clear that she was Not A Fan of Jakob. She caught sight of him and came to a dead stop. In her mid-forties, she was a trim, short woman with deeply tan skin. Her dark hair was cut into a bob. Today she wore a pair of black slacks with a white, scoop-necked silk top tucked into them. Her black jacket was left unbuttoned, the sleeves folded up to reveal a band of the pink silk liner. She looked fashionable and professional, put together in a way that always eluded me, no matter how hard I might try to replicate the look.
Her gaze met mine, and her expression morphed into disappointment. “How did you get him in here?” She held up a hand to forestall my answer. “More importantly, why did you bring him here?”
I caught her up on what we thought was happening at Magnolia.
She frowned as she listened, sinking down between Gran and me on the couch. When I finished, she looked at Jakob, who stood near the slider. “Do you recognize anyone here?”
Jakob hesitated for half a second before shaking his head. I frowned, thinking about the man we’d seen when we first walked in. Jakob had zeroed in on him, but he must not have known him after all. Either that or he was lying.
“How long have you suspected something?” Dr. Perez asked.
“A month,” he said.
Her brows shot up. “And you didn’t think to tell someone here?”
He lifted one shoulder in a shrug that somehow managed to look like a dismissal. “They wouldn’t have listened.”
“I would have listened,” she said. “I might not have wanted to believe you at first, but I would have looked into it.” She turned to Gran. “I take my patients’ health very seriously.”
Gran smiled and patted her arm, much like she had Jakob earlier. Gran could be blunt and a little inappropriate at times, but deep down, she was a comforter. “I know you do.”
“That’s great,” Jakob said, his tone gaining a rough edge. “But you don’t answer phones here, Doc.”
“Not helpful,” I told him, and then turned toward Dr. Perez. “Have you noticed anything? Questionable behavior from a fellow staff member? Residents not responding to meds as they should?”
She sent me a meaningful look. “I couldn’t answer your last question even if I had. That’s client privilege.”
Fine. I’d play it her way. “Has Gran not responded to her meds like you expected her to?”
The gleam in her eye said I’d asked the right question. “She’s responded better than expected. To everything but her arthritis prescription.”
I frowned. “You think it could have been tampered with?”
“It’s a possibility,” she said. “Her flare-ups have shown little to no improvement since we started the regiment, and up until now, I was stumped by it. I even called a friend over in Houston who specializes in osteoarthritis to see if he’s run into a similar response.”
“And has he?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“But isn’t it just a generic nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory scrip?” I asked. “Why would anyone want to steal that?” As Gran’s power of attorney, I knew every pill she’d been prescribed.
Dr. Perez tucked her hair behind her ear. “When paired with lithium, a simulation of the effects of an opioid can sometimes be achieved. It comes with a huge risk of potentially catastrophic side effects, but…” She shrugged.
I sighed. “But people looking to get high might be willing to risk that.”
Gran’s expression turned grim. “I want to get drug tested.”
Dr. Perez looked to me for confirmation.
“Please drug test my grandmother,” I said.
Dr. Perez rose from her seat. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
When she was gone, I turned to Gran. “She better not find pot in your system.”
Gran’s expression flashed to innocence. “I don’t remember smoking any dope.”
I eyed her. Gran told Jakob that I could be stubborn as a mule sometimes, but if I was, it was because I’d learned it from her. “Using your Alzheimer’s as a shield is low, even for you.”
A glint of steel shone in her eyes. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Have it your way,” I said. “But I’ll know if you’re lying when the results come back.”
She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned into the couch. “I guess you will.”
She wasn’t going to back down, which meant that she’d definitely been smoking pot. Where the hell did she get it from in here?
Over by the slider, Jakob stared out the window like we’d bored him. I followed his gaze, searching through Gran’s makeshift herb garden for the distinct leaf pattern of marijuana plants. I didn’t see any, but I’d go out there and get a better look before I left today, just to be sure.
Dr. Perez came back a few minutes later, and she and Gran disappeared into Gran’s bedroom to collect the samples in some semblance of privacy. Jakob and I were left alone in the living room. I studiously ignored him because every time I looked at him, my irritation flared back to life. Unfortunately, Gran’s rooms were swathed in cream and off-white, and he stood in a self-contained spot of darkness that crept into my periphery even when I turned my head away.
This was why it was best to bail after sex. Before things got complicated or the memory of a brain-melting orgasm was tainted when your partner revealed themselves as the world’s biggest jackass. The next time my inner cavewoman reared her head, I would club her over it myself.
“All done,” Dr. Perez announced when they reemerged. “I should have the lab work back by tomorrow morning if I put a rush on it.”
“Thanks,” I said, rising from my seat. “You’ll call me when you get the results?”
She promised that she would. After that, she hustled out of there. We’d kept her past her appointment time, and she had other patients to see. Before she left, she promised that she’d keep our suspicions to herself until we had Gran’s results, and if there were signs of tampering, we’d figure out how to move forward from there.
I told Jakob he could go, but he insisted on staying until I left.
I spent another twenty minutes with Gran, catching up on everything I’d missed since my last visit, the day before yesterday. Gran regaled me with a tale of lunchroom drama – apparently there was a lurid affair happening on the second floor, and it had imploded during the chicken parm course – followed by the game of euchre she’d won last night against her rival from down the hall.
Some weeks were like this. Her memory would seem perfectly fine, with a few small slip-ups that were common among anyone advancing in years, like not being able to find her reading glasses when they were right on top of her head. Other weeks, I repeated the same conversation with her three times in one day.
Alzheimer’s was brutal. Unpredictable enough that just when you thought your loved one was improving, it flared up and reminded you that there was no getting over this disease. Eventually, it would claim everything from her, including me.
Jakob remained a silent bystander throughout most of it, but at least he answered the few questions Gran lobbed at him civilly. If he’d been rude to her, all bets would have been off.
Before we left, I checked the deck plants. No pot out there. Gran must have been buying it from a neighbor. Who would have guessed that nursing homes were such hotbeds of vice and sin?
“I’ll see you tomorrow?” Gran asked as she saw us out. “You have it off, right?”
I nodded, both happy and sad that she remembered. “I’ll come by around noon.”
“Sounds good,” she said.
I wanted to be here right when the doors opened, but I was working the late shift again tonight, and I needed to get some sleep afterward, or I’d be no use to anyone.
I hugged Gran goodbye and led Jakob out of the nursing home. We received a few sideways glances, but no one said anything, and I breathed a sigh of relief as we stepped out into the balmy heat of early afternoon.
Jakob stuck to my side like glue as we made our way through the parking lot. I went to get in my car – yes, I was petty enough that I was going to leave without saying goodbye – but his hand landed on top of my door just as I tried to jerk it open.
“Give me your phone,” he said.
I turned to look at him. “Why?”
His shades were back on, obscuring his eyes. “I’m going to put my number in it so you can call me when you hear from Perez.”
“Dr. Perez,” I muttered, digging through my purse. I didn’t want to give him my phone, but I wanted to get out of there more, so I handed it over. Plus, my stupid logical side reminded me that The Kings should know if something was up. I didn’t want drugs in Kearny either, especially not if they were stolen from people who really needed them.
He took my phone and punched his number into my contact list. “You notice how the good doc didn’t answer your question about someone on staff acting shady?”
I frowned. No, I hadn’t, but looking back, she’d moved expertly past that and drew my focus to Gran’s meds. “Do you think she was already suspicious about something being off at the nursing home and was afraid to say anything?”
He handed my phone back. “Either that or she’s in on it.”
With that disturbing comment, he grabbed his helmet off his bike and swung a leg over the seat. “See you tonight.”
A heartbeat later, the engine thundered to life, and he roared out of there.
Copyright © 2020 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.