This is the second instalment of the four-part mystery series Smiling Palms. If you missed the first one you can read it here. Please note this is fiction and any similarity between real people and places is purely coincidental.
SMILING PALMS PART TWO
Shannon remembered her aunt’s sharp mind and couldn’t help wondering if the move had somehow made it turn feeble. It was unimaginable that someone would stoop to killing elderly people who rarely had more than their pensions to live on.
When Aunt Mary finally answered her urgent knocks, Shannon nearly burst into tears. The big, strong woman, her childhood protector, had become so frail and fragile that even her height could not stop her from appearing to be a waif. The grey pallor of her skin matched the grey of her hair, once so thick and dark. Shannon remembered the strong shoulders and ample bosom and her amazement at the fact that her aunt’s skinny legs could hold up so much body. Now, she realised with horror, those skinny legs could barely hold up what had become a tiny, shrunken frame. She appeared to have aged 12 years, not 12 months.
Aunt Mary’s embrace was just as strong and firm as always, though maybe a little shaky.
“My darling Shannon, I’m so pleased to see you. You look beautiful. I’ve missed you so much,” Aunt Mary exclaimed in a rush.
When their hellos were finished, Aunt Mary showed Shannon around. It took only a few minutes to see the tiny two-bedroom unit, which was tastefully decorated and spotlessly clean.
“What a lovely place,” Shannon explained.
“I knew you wouldn’t go for one of those dark, smelly, old people’s places, but this is truly lovely and you’ve made it so welcoming.”
“Yes, well you know I love my things,” aunt Mary replied as they sat on a peach coloured lounge.
“I had to get rid of so much. It wouldn’t fit you know. But I’ve managed to keep the important stuff,” she said while fondling the treasured crystal castle which still held pride of place in her new lounge.
“Just as well, as I don’t go out much anymore, except for my walk.
“These old bones aren’t as strong as they used to be and I don’t like to leave the unit with all the thefts we’ve been having.”
“Oh, Aunt Mary, that’s terrible. You were always so busy, so active. Have you made any friends here?”
“I’ve met a few nice people, but, for the most part, they are just not me,” Aunt Mary said.
“We have a common bond in fear, but most are too scared to talk about it with each other in case it gets back to Fits and Farts”.
Of course, Shannon knew this wouldn’t be their real names, just more nicknames her aunt had come up with to describe the village managers. She knew her aunt would never let people know they even had a special name, as she was neither cruel nor rude. Shannon guessed it was her aunt’s way of coping with the ever-decreasing manners and compassion in the world.
“Do you want to tell me what’s going on now?” she asked.
Aunt Mary proceeded to explain how her initial amusement regarding the mismanagement of the village had turned to amazement and then anger. She became outspoken on certain issues, such as the village handyman charging exorbitant fees to change light bulbs for the residents, many of whom had spent all their savings to live in one of the little units. The maintenance fee had already increased 100 per cent since Aunt Mary had moved in and even she, with some savings still in the bank, was starting to feel the pinch. She was outraged to discover there was no limit to what the owners could charge for maintaining the grounds, even though most of the gardening was done by the residents who missed their pre-village gardens.
Her angry comments resulted in some people avoiding her, others seeking her advice and a few, in management positions, making oblique threats.
It hurt her feelings that people avoided her. Aunt Mary was used to people instantly succumbing to her warmth and fun attitude towards life.
Those who chose to confide told her horror stories of people being threatened with eviction, isolation and sometimes even physical harm.
It was the last group that scared Aunt Mary most. She had to admit she just wasn’t young enough or physically well enough to cope with threats from stronger, more powerful people.
“What kind of threats?” Shannon was asking.
“Well Miss Fits informed me she had instructed the other residents to steer clear of me as I was a troublemaker who could do them no good,” she replied.
“Mr Farts explained to me the importance of not getting management offside as they tended to respond faster to panic button alarms for people who toed the line.”
Aunt Mary explained that each unit was equipped with two panic buttons, one in the bedroom and one in the bathroom. Each resident was also given a panic button they could wear around their necks if necessary. Once pushed, the panic button, also known as Vital Call, would sound an alarm in the manager’s office and unit. The manager would then investigate, using a master key to gain access to the unit, and call an ambulance if necessary.
The master key was another cause for concern for Aunt Mary as her informers had told her about reports of stolen property from units when the owners were away. There never appeared to be an obvious break-in. These thefts were not reported to the police, people were just too scared.
Aunt Mary went on to describe a time she actually saw the managers enter the unit of a woman who’d died the day before. They were removing furniture, sheets, towels and ornaments. When she asked what they were doing with the items she was told they would pack them for her family. On investigation, she discovered the woman had no living relatives.
“I would have informed the authorities there and then but it was pointed out to me I had not seen the woman’s will and had no proof they were doing anything wrong,” Aunt Mary explained.
“Just before my last letter to you, a really scary thing happened,” Aunt Mary continued.
“It was a Friday night and my bones were particularly sore.
“I couldn’t sleep so decided to make myself a hot cocoa.
“It was dark outside the kitchen window and even when I heard a scuffle the sensor lights didn’t come on, which I thought was weird.
“I didn’t focus on it too much though as stuff is always breaking down in this place”.
Aunt Mary paled and became shakier as she told Shannon that the following morning she woke to the sounds of sirens to discover a woman in the opposite block of units had died from a fall down the stairs.
“This in itself wasn’t huge cause for alarm,” she said.
“Old people are always falling and hurting themselves.
“I thought it odd she was out so late. Most people don’t leave their units after dark because this place is often a target for young hoodlums who feel big and important when they scare the elderly.
“The really scary thing happened a few days later when I saw Miss Fits strutting around the grounds and, in an attempt to be friendly, expressed sorrow at the woman’s demise.
“She said; ‘Oh well, it’s to be expected. That woman was always complaining and making trouble. Mind you watch your step now Mary, we’d hate for anything to happen to you’.”
You can read part three here. In the meantime, have a gleeful week, Tamuria.