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Violet Lassiter passed me the heavy blue-willow plate with a remarkably steady hand for a one hundred-year-old. "Have a cookie, Miss Skerritt."
She didn't have to twist my arm. Fresh from the oven, the cookies smelled heavenly.
"They're better with nuts," she added in apology,
"but Bessie can't have "em, so the rest of us have to suffer."
"You eat too many sweets, anyway," her eighty four-year-old sibling, Bessie, countered.
"What do you think—" Violet accused her with a roll of her eyes "—that I'm going to shorten my life?"
Taking a cookie, I sat on the screened back porch of the modest cement-block home with the two elderly women, who were apparently unfazed by the ninety-degree heat and suffocating humidity of the September morning. Violet, tall and gangly with thick white braids wrapped around her head like a crown, wore a heavy sweater over her cotton house dress.
Bessie, short and lean, was also dressed in a cotton shift and a cardigan, plus bright-pink sneakers and heavy flesh-toned nylons rolled just below her knees.
I'd first encountered the Lassiter sisters last June when Bill Malcolm, my fiancé and partner in Pelican Bay Investigations, had done background checks on volunteers for the local historical society. To his dismay, he'd discovered that Bessie had an arrest record for shoplifting. Further digging revealed she'd been stealing food for Violet after their Social Security money had run out before the end of the month. The judge had given Bessie probation, but his lenient ruling hadn't solved the elderly women's subsistence problem.
Bill and I had arranged for meals-on-wheels for the pair and had put togethera gift basket to tide them over until deliveries began. To save the Lassiters" pride, we'd fabricated a story that Bessie had won the basket in a grand opening raffle we'd held at our business. We'd presented them the basket of staples and goodies, along with our business card and instructions to call on us if they needed a private investigator, a request we never expected to receive.
Their call came yesterday.
I'd solved many cases during my twenty-three years as a cop and more recently for Pelican Bay Investigations, but I couldn't guess what dilemma had prompted these elderly sisters to contact me. And I couldn't get them to stop sniping at one another long enough to find out.
"Get Miss Skerritt more ice," Violet ordered her sister in a drill-sergeant tone. "Her tea's getting warm."
"Just because you're older doesn't mean you can boss me around," Bessie shot back.
"My tea is fine, really," I said. "Now what—"
"You need to be bossed," Violet said, ignoring me,
"because you act like a child. I hope I live long enough to see you grow up."
"Ladies." I spoke loudly and firmly. The situation was spiraling out of control, sweat was soaking through the back of my blouse and all I could think of was how great air-conditioning would feel about now. "Why exactly did you want to see me?"
"We have a man," Bessie announced with a gleeful expression.
I nodded but didn't comment, not sure where this was going.
"A tenant," Violet corrected.
"But he's not a paying tenant," Bessie added. "More like a guest."
I gazed into the tiny house through the open back door but couldn't spot anyone inside, and I was beginning to wonder if this mysterious tenant wasn't senility's equivalent of an imaginary friend.
"Where is he?" I asked.
"Over there." Bessie pointed to a toolshed at the rear of the yard that backed up to the Pinellas Trail, a linear park built on an old railroad bed that ran the length of the county.
I narrowed my eyes, but the shed door was shut, and I caught no flicker of movement inside. With the windows closed and the Florida sun beating on the roof, the interior temperature had to be over a hundred degrees. If their "guest" was in there, he was well done by now.
"Oh…kay," I said, not wanting to call her crazy to her face.
"He's not there now, Bessie." Violet's condescending older sister voice reminded me of my own sibling, Caroline. "He's gone out."
"You have a man living in your garden shed?" I felt like Alice who'd tumbled down the rabbit hole.
Bessie nodded. "What's his name?" The investigator in me couldn't help asking, while the saner part of my nature chided me for encouraging their delusions.
"He doesn't have a name," Violet said, "so we call him J.D."
Curiouser and curiouser. The ladies had obviously lost it.
"J.D. for John Doe," Bessie said. "He's a lovely man."
"Who doesn't have a name." An incipient ache flared behind my eyes.
"Well, he had a name at one time—" Violet began.
"—but he can't remember it," Bessie finished.
"Can't remember anything. Who he is, where he came from, not even his age, although I'd put him in his early sixties, if I had to guess." She chomped the last bite of her third cookie, sans nuts.
"He has the nicest manners," Violet said, "or we wouldn't tolerate him. Why, for the longest time, we didn't even know he was there."
"We wouldn't have known at all," Bessie agreed,
"if it hadn't been for the Turk's Cap bush."
I was beginning to wonder if I were the one losing it. Nothing either of them said made any sense.
"That bush grew so high during the summer rains," Bessie explained, "that it blocked the view from my bedroom window. So I went to the shed for the clippers."
"We don't use the shed much any longer," Violet said, "since that nice young neighbor—" "Mr. Moore," Bessie said.
"Don't interrupt," her sister snapped.
"But you'd forgotten his name."
"I didn't forget. I hadn't gotten to it yet."
"So you don't use the shed…" I prompted Violet in hopes of ending the bickering.
Bessie answered. "Mr. Moore mows our grass when he does his yard. He's very thoughtful."
"Thoughtful, my eye," Violet said. "He got sick of looking at the jungle over here."
While Bessie searched for a suitable comeback, I plunged into the void. "What did you find in the shed, Bessie?"
"Come and see for yourself."
I set aside my glass of tea, pushed to my feet from the ancient metal glider and followed Bessie out the screen door. Violet, amazingly agile for a centenarian, dogged our steps as if afraid she'd miss something.
We followed a path of popcorn stone, set in thick St. Augustine grass, to the shed, constructed of the same concrete block as the house and apparently built at the same time, around 1940. The wooden door showed signs of rot, and several asphalt shingles were missing from the roof. A square of cardboard replaced a missing pane in one of two sash windows visible on the side of the shed that faced the house.
Bessie knocked on the door. "J.D., you home?" When no one answered, she tugged open the warped door, reached inside and flipped a switch. Light from the bare bulb, which extended from a cord in the center of the ceiling, illuminated the opposite of what I'd expected.
Instead of a jumble of old tools, broken pots and other junk covered in dust and spiderwebs, the space was immaculate. The concrete floor had been recently swept, every surface dusted, the windowpanes sparkled in the sun and tools and garden implements hung in an orderly array on makeshift wall pegs. On an ancient wooden workbench in front of the east window sat rows of healthy green herbs in small pots. Next to the herbs were a single-burner electric hot plate, a battered but clean saucepan and a few cans of beans and franks. Beneath the bench stood a jug of drinking water and an old but sturdy Igloo cooler.
On the opposite side of the shed, under the west windows, a rough bed frame had been constructed from scraps of plywood and old lumber. Several ragged and faded blankets, neatly folded, lay beside a stained pillow. On a peg above the bed hung a heavy army jacket.
Either the Lassiter sisters had staged an elaborate set for their delusion, or the mysterious J.D. wasn't a figment of their imagination but real flesh and blood.
My concern for the frail and elderly ladies skyrocketed. "Have you called the sheriff's office?"
"Oh, no," Bessie said in a horrified tone.
"We wanted to," Violet said, "but police make J.D. nervous, poor man."
"So you want me to evict him?" I thought I'd finally gotten a handle on why the sisters had summoned me.
"Evict him?" Bessie's eyes widened with alarm. "Of course not. That would be inhospitable."
"We want you to find out who he is," Violet explained in the same exasperated voice she used on her sister. "He's such a dear man, we're sure he has a family somewhere who love him and miss him. In the meantime, we're happy to have him stay with us."
"We even offered to share our meals," Bessie added,
"but he didn't want to impose."
"How does he support himself?" I asked.
"He doesn't beg, if that's what you're thinking," Violet said sharply.
The old lady was quick. That J.D. was a panhandler, at best, was exactly what I'd been thinking.
"He's too proud," Bessie said. "He'd never take charity. He insists on doing odd jobs around our house to pay his rent. He stopped our faucet from dripping, planed a closet door that always stuck and mended a window screen. He also trims the shrubbery and weeds the flower beds. And as soon as we can afford a new pane, he's going to repair the shed window."
"He has an old bicycle," Violet added. "He rides around town and collects aluminum cans. Then he takes them to the recycling center and sells them."
"I'm sure J.D. is very…nice." I was trying to be tactful. "But are you sure he's not dangerous?"
Violet drew herself to her full height, very imposing since it included six inches of braided coronet.
"Young lady, I didn't get to be a hundred years old without learning a few things. I am an excellent judge of character. J.D. may have forgotten who he is, but he hasn't forgotten what he is."
"And what's that?" I asked.
"A kind and gentle man who's temporarily lost his way," Violet said. "We asked you here to help him find it."
"Will you?" Bessie asked. "As much as we like having J.D., we do want him to find his family."
Faced with the Lassiters" sincere concern, I didn't have the heart to tell them that J.D. was most likely one of a vast army of homeless, many of whom, due to mental illness, had chosen life on the streets rather than deal with the strains and stresses of a normal life. I only hoped he wasn't also the type who suffered bouts of violence because he wasn't on medication. "I'll have to meet J.D. and talk with him," I said.
"Then I'll see what I can do. Can you call me when he's here?"
Bessie looked embarrassed.
Violet squared her shoulders and raised her chin. "We had the phone taken out. Never used it, except to answer calls from telemarketers."
I knew better. The Lassiters" fixed income hadn't stretched to include the monthly phone bill.
"Maybe your neighbor, Mr. Moore, will call me?" I suggested.
"That's a good idea," Bessie said. "He's already volunteered to call 9-1-1 if we ever need help. I'm sure he won't mind calling you."
I said goodbye, hurried to my ancient Volvo and cranked up the air-conditioning. I hoped J.D. returned soon, so I could meet him and decide whether to call the police, despite the sisters" objections, for their own safety.
As I drove away, I knew I wouldn't bill them for my time. As Bill always said, pro bono work was good for the soul.
Especially if it kept two lively old ladies out of harm's way.