The police never did catch them, although they came close one or two times.
“Thanks for joining me, ladies and gents!” said Harold as he began his meeting in the least popular TV room of the retirement home. He’d explained his idea beforehand to Ethel, Deidre and Thomas. They all agreed that Jim had lost one or two of his marbles. And that if they didn’t do something, he’d soon be beyond rescue. They needed to bring him back from the brink of senility.
“So, what’s all this about, then, Harry?” asked Thomas. He’d never win any awards for acting, but he did a good enough job. “Only the quiz show’s on in—” he looked at his watch “—ten minutes.” Deidre and Ethel murmured their agreements. They all liked the quiz shows. Didn’t want to miss them. Caught them every day, without fail. Jim continued to stare at a spot in the upper lefthand corner of the room.
Since arriving at Sunny Daze, Jim had gone downhill. It happened to more than Harold cared to count, and — damn it — he wouldn’t let it happen to Jim, too. They’d worked together since their twenties. Ever of the opinion that if you don’t use it, you lose it, Harry formulated a plan.
“Yes, yes, the quiz shows, I know, I know.” Harry soothed the crowd of four with hand gestures. “But what I’ve gathered you here today for is for something even better than a quiz show.”
But it wouldn’t work if Jim didn’t opt to take part.
Harry stood by a whiteboard, his three conspirators sat in attendance. Jim, their target, sat in the middle, glazed eyes off towards the ceiling. A little trickle of drool pooled on his chin and sparkled in the fluorescent lights. He looked, Harold thought with alarm, like a corpse who’s forgotten to die.
“Better than a quiz show?” Ethel placed a hand over her heart.
Harry did his best to not roll his eyes. “Yes, Ethel. Better than a quiz show. Because, what’s better than watching someone do a puzzle?”
Thomas raised his hand. “A visit from the grandkids?”
“Well, yes — of course — that’s lovely. But I’m sticking strictly to the realm of games, here, Thomas.” The unspoken part of the sentence: stay on the script!
After a pause, Harry continued. “The only thing better than watching someone else do a puzzle is to do a puzzle yourself! We all like puzzles, don’t we?” He grinned and looked out into his audience. His conspirators smiled back and nodded and grumbled affirmations. But Jim continued to catch flies, as his grandmother would have put it.
Deidre’s moment to shine. “But, Harold, here at Sunny Daze we’ve already done all the puzzles! Where on Earth will we find another puzzle before the Wednesday paper’s crossword?”
“Well, what if we made our own puzzle? A puzzle for the rest of the world?”
Jim raised his eyebrows and stirred. His rheumy eyes snapped to the front. The movement made them all jump. “What sort of puzzle, Harry?” His voice had a quiet, sandpaper quality to it.
Harold’s smile widened. Sunshine, warm and gold, peeked from behind the clouds and warmed his glacial heart. “I’m glad you asked, Jim! I was actually thinking something like from one of them Agatha Christie books. You know, Hercule Poirot and the trains and stuff.” Poirot always stirred Jim from whatever reverie he fell into. Chosen words.
“There’s been a murder?” Jim tilted his head and his eyes focused on the whiteboard. His tongue darted to the corner of his mouth and stuck there.
Here goes nothing.
“No,” Harry sighed, “I’m afraid not. Sunny Daze and Sunny Acres and Sunny Farms—” called the Funny Farm by its residents “—are all crime-free. Nothing suspicious or untoward at all.”
“Oh,” Jim’s eyes already began to fog back over, “what a shame for us.”
“Yes, so it seems, hm?” Harold strode to the window, hands clasped behind his back. “Unless…” He let his voice trail off, the air of mystery tinged his words purple.
“Unless what, Harry?” said Thomas.
“Unless we don’t solve a crime. What if… we approached it from the other direction?”
“Like how at Christmas, they get us to make our own word searches and hand them out to each other? Like that, Harry?” Ethel had settled down into her role, and her words came out in an almost believable patois.
“Yes!” Harry clicked his fingers and spun around. Headmastorian authority. “Exactly!”
Jim, who’d fallen back into a daze, snapped bolt upright. “We make our own puzzle?” His face conveyed his puzzlement. “Like Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile, a puzzle like that Harry?”
“Spot on, Jim! Spot on!”
Deidre tilted her head at him. “So, what are you proposing, Harold?”
“We will—” he paused for effect, allowed the mischief to twinkle in his eyes “—commit an unsolvable murder!”
“Ooh!” said Ethel. “I like a bit of murder! Always spices up the shows, I reckon. So exciting! And sex, too. Can never get enough of that. Like in The Game of Thrones. Why be boring when you can show a nice bit of arse?”
“Game of Thrones,” said Thomas.
“Game of Thrones!” he said, louder. “It’s not THE Game of Thrones. It’s just Game of Thrones. Like it’s just Cher or Arctic Monkeys.”
“The Arctic who?”
“I dunno, my grandson likes ‘em.”
“Anyway,” said Harry to nudge the conversation back on track, “what do you think of that, gang?” He clapped his hands together. “Ha! Our own murder! One that bamboozles every detective for miles around! Who’d suspect us, ey? Us old codgers? They’ll never solve it in a million years!”
“I dunno, Harry.” Thomas chewed his inner lip. He played the doubtful part a bit too well. Harold hoped he didn’t have reservations. “Sounds like a lot of work, to me. Dangerous, too. What if we get caught? I’ll never see my granddaughter again.”
But Jim looked enthralled. His eyes lit up. He held himself upright — no sludgy slouch. He’d even wiped the drool from his lip. His crystal blue eyes danced with adventure. Nervous energy thrummed throughout his entire body.
Hook, line, and sinker.
“No no, it’s brilliant!” More enthusiasm than he’d shown in his previous two-and-a-half months at Sunny Daze. Awake. Aware. And, most of all: back. “Why should the younguns get to have all the fun, eh? It’s time for us old fogeys to enter the chat. And if they cotton on to us, why, they’ll never put us away. ‘We was only having a bit of fun,’ we’d say. ‘Didn’t mean no harm.’”
Harold couldn’t hide his grin. All according to plan. If the murder itself went this well, they’d go down in the history books. Or not, as it were.
“I’ve even got a target,” Jim raised his finger.
A stuttered heartbeat.
All arched their eyebrows.
This Harold hadn’t expected. He’d chosen a victim already — a drunk and a wifebeater disliked by all, one town over. Someone that nobody would miss. Few friends. Many enemies. Vigilante justice. Perfection.
“He’s been my nemesis for years!”
But, given Jim’s excitement, Harry didn’t want to extinguish the flames he’d worked so hard to stoke. Best see where this went. He could always try to steer it away if the end of the road looked unpleasant.
“The bastard who put me here in the first place!”
Jim’s voice dropped down an octave. His eyes darkened, but the shine never departed. A black, coallike glare. An odd stillness settled over him. The eye of the storm.