"County, car 12."
"12, go ahead."
"12, when you go 10-8, contact the supervisor at 2300 Fernoak Road."
I stare at the cows I am currently attempting to put back behind their fence. Crap. Crap crap crap.
Twenty minutes later I pull up to the back door of the local nursing home.
I say back door, it is actually a set of French doors on the back side of the dining room/TeeVee room, opening onto a patio, surrounded by a faux wrought-iron fence about eight feet high.
Just inside the fence, a matronly-looking woman in scrubs, body language giving every impression of annoyed impatience I've ever seen, looks pointedly at her wrist watch as I park the cruiser.
"It's five minutes past seven o'clock. I called the sheriff at a quarter 'til. Be sure you put that in your report."
"Sorry about that, but I was on the far side of the county with a herd of cows when the --."
"That's sheriff's business. Mr. Johnson is missing. He's ninety-four years old, white, last seen wearing a tartan dressing robe over blue pajamas."
"Okay, good to know. When was he last seen?" Ninety-plus years old, I doubt if he got further than, say, a mile. Unless someone picked him up...
"When was he last seen?"
"Are you implying something?"
What the hell? I look at her over my Gargoyles in absolute confusion, "When was the last time he was seen? So I'll have a search limit?"
"Young man, Bugscuffle is not that big."
I see how this one is going to be played. "Okay, do you have any idea which way he might have gone, or where he might be going?"
"Mr. Johnson has a severe case of Alzheimers. Not only do we not know where he may be going, or which way, but he doesn't know either." The 'you idiot' was unspoken.
I'm trying not to show teeth in a smile that neither one of us is going to believe is friendly. "I understand. Can you tell me what kind of footwear he's wearing?"
"You, young man, should be looking for Mr. Johnson, not standing here, conducting what my lawyer will probably tell me is an illegal interro --."
"Madam. These are dirt streets. We haven't had rain in months, and there's a good layer of dust everywhere. I can track Mr. Johnson quite easily -- if I know what I'm looking for. Now. Am I looking for slippers, am I looking for sneakers, am I looking for bare feet, what?"
She looks at me for a long moment, no doubt cataloging my series of sins and trespasses in her mind.
"I'm sure that an aide will be able to help you. I'll send one out. You are planning on looking for poor Mr. Johnson sometime today, I hope?"
The amount of saccharine in that one little sentence would probably kill half a lab quota of rats, and I feel my jaw muscles knot up as I gravely incline my head, "I'll certainly do my best. May I see Mr. Johnson's room?"
"He's not -- oh, bother. Very well. 105." With that, the supervisor throws up her arms and stomps back into the facility, me taking the moment to slip in the self-locking door behind her.
A couple of moments later I'm at room 105.
I've been here before. About three weeks back, half-an-hour before end of shift, the ambulance was paged out to the nursing home. As was our policy, I had responded, had come to this room from the other direction to find it full of aides and nurses. The bed just inside the door had been empty, bedclothes thrown back as if the occupant had been taken out of the room. The far bed had had two of the staff attempting to resuscitate a tiny figure; then two of our local paramedics had button-hooked the door and taken over, only to gently shake their heads after a brief exam.
What was her name ... Viola Faye Carter Johnson. I worked the escort for her funeral later that week. I close my eyes and I replay my courtesy at the service in my mind:
Walked in through the side door. Waited at the door while my eyes adjusted and spoke with the funeral director about the route and location of the grave site. Walked through the line ... grandchildren, grandchildren, daughter, son, son, ah-hah. Tall, barrel-chested, big-boned, but no muscle over the bones. Natty bowler hat on top of thin white hair, incredibly bright yellow-and-red feather tucked rakishly in the hat-band, white moustache, good grey suit, malacca cane leaning forgotten against the pew.
Complete and total dazed incomprehension in the blue eyes.
Got him. Now I know who he is.
Out of habit I look under the bed -- hey, it's happened before. No such luck this time, though.
I open the closet door -- no Mr. Johnson there -- the clothes are hung with almost military precision, no gaps to show missing clothes. I'm looking at a tiny framed pen and watercolour portrait of a woman on the bedside table when two younger women step through the door, one of them carrying a red, blue and green check robe.
Well, he's not wearing a tartan bathrobe after all. Hope he's still wearing the blue pajamas.
The portrait is a bit smudged and looks like it was bent or folded a time or two before being framed. It is a blonde woman, young, who is pulling a blue ribbon from her ponytail while looking levelly at the artist. It is well-done, drawn with love as well as skill. Dollar to a doughnut says Mr. Johnson was the artist -- it has that feel.
The aides are clearly upset -- Mr. Johnson seems to have been a favorite. He is a white male, tall -- they're not sure how tall -- and he's nice. And never a problem.
That's nice to know.
The only thing they think is missing from his room -- aside from him -- is his cane. The side door alarm beeped at the supper meal, at five. They think that was him, but truth be told, nobody is really sure when Mr. Johnson amscrayed.
Yeah, this one isn't going to be easy.
I tip my hat to the aides and start walking around outside the home, checking the dirt at each door. At the side door, I find it. It's not much -- a circular imprint a little bigger than the diametre of a quarter in the dirt -- but in my memory I see the tan rubber after-market tip someone had slid onto Mr. Johnson's cane. With the cane imprint as a marker, I can see the shiny spots where his cloth-soled slippers pressed into the caliche and it's fairly easy to track Mr. Johnson to Muir Road.
I mark the spot, hurry back to the Super Scooter and call in a BOLO (Be On the Look Out) for Mr. Johnson to Dispatch, then a run the cruiser up to my mark and start slowly idling east on Muir road, head hung out the window, watching the little rounds marks.
Six blocks later, I'm starting to get worried. Muir Road goes straight east into Old Town, the original location of Bugscuffle. In the early 1900's, maybe teens, something had happened in Old Bugscuffle -- fire, tornado, I'm not sure. Whatever it was, that entire section of town had picked up and moved west to it's current location, leaving behind stone foundations and a few low ruined walls, overgrown in eighty-some-odd years of salt cedar, pecan trees, ornamental trees run amuck, cane breaks and other tree-type growth. Worst of all, Old Bugscuffle had red brick streets. Which New Bugscuffle happily -- and mindlessly -- runs a street sweeper down every other week.
Two blocks later, and I watch helplessly as the little circles and the small shiny spots turn into red brick streets. Dammit, dammit, dammit ... "Car 12, County."
"Go ahead, 12."
"County, I've lost track of that BOLO at Muir and Pecan. Might be a good idea to turn out the VFD."
"10-4, car 12."
"Go ahead, 10."
"What's 12 got?"
I climb out of the car as Dispatch fills the Sheriff in on our Missing Person, hoping that Mr. Johnson had veered from his course and had climbed up into the grass. No such luck -- but I honestly didn't figure a 94-year-old man to get off on uneven grass when there was a perfectly nice brick road right there. Dammit. My walkie-talkie crackles into life.
"Car 10, car 12."
"You know that foundation slab about a block and a half east from your current location where the high school kids go to party?"
"That's the old Carter place. Next door to the east is the old Johnson place. Comprende?"
Bingo. I feel my chest ease a bit. "10-4, car 10, I'm en route."
"Good. Car 10, Dispatch, tone the fire department and have them meet me at the corner of Muir and Pecan."
Three quick breaths later and I pull the cruiser to a stop on the red brick street. North of the road is a huge lot waist-deep in vegetation -- where it isn't shoulder deep or worse in salt cedars, rioting pyracantha -- and a narrow path wending it's way through the undergrowth. I scoot along the path, anxiously looking for -- and not finding -- those little rounds marks, but checking anyway. At the end of the patch -- almost fifty yards back -- is an enormous stone foundation slab.
Dozens of burn marks show where decades of high schools students had started campfires, various names and statements were written onto the stones with pens and markers; sprayed on in every conceivable shade of Krylon; or carved into any available surface, while scads of empty beer cans, liquor bottles, fast-food containers, and empty condom wrappers give mute testimony to what the kids were doing when they weren't indulging their artistic and literacy Muses.
But not one sign of Mr. Johnson. I lope back to the street and walk slowly along the edge of the road, looking ... got it.
Right in the middle of the lot that the Sheriff had called "the old Johnson place" I find two parallel lines maybe a handspan apart, where the leaves had been moved and turned over, their damp bottoms dark in the sunlight, as if by someone walking through in a shuffle. Say, an elderly man. I kneel and brush gently to the right of the trail, and am rewarded when I come across a round impression -- a little larger than a quarter -- partially covered by a leaf.
"Car 12, car 10."
"I've got tracks at the old Johnson place."
Out of habit I stay to the left of the tracks, but I move quickly -- the sun is going down and night won't make this any easier. The tracks lead through the brush and up onto a foundation slab, straight up the center of the slab for several yards, before making an abrupt left turn, marching off the slab, then angling northwards of the Carter place.
Five minutes later, as the sun is going down, I find Mr. Johnson.
There is a low -- no taller than the middle of my thigh -- fieldstone wall separating the two lots, and sometime in the past there had been a pecan tree next to the wall.
He is sitting on top of the wall, back against the stump, his spiffy feather-adorned bowler hat a sharp contrast to his neat blue pajamas, a rusted metal box sitting in his lap and the cane leaning against the wall.
"Car 12, County. Code 4."
If one were to squint real hard, it would be easy to believe that he's lost in thought, or maybe napping.
But I can tell from ten feet away that he's not.
"Car 10, car 12, do you need Rescue?"
I take my hat off and put it on the wall, then I strip off my gloves and drop them into the hat. His right hand is resting on top of the metal box and I slip my fingers to the inside of his wrist to check for a pulse.
Looped around his index finger, held in place by his thumb, is a ribbon, badly faded to a dove grey, but probably once the cornflower shade that might have been used to tie back the hair of a blue-eyed blonde girl.
I gently place my fingers on the side of his throat. He's cold and there hasn't been a pulse there for some time.
"County to car 12."
Funny how there seems to be a hitch in my throat. I squeeze the fragile shoulder softly, then hit the 'send' button on my walkie-talkie, "County, negative on Rescue. Signal 9."
A long pause before the County Dispatcher replies, "10-4, 12." She'll be calling a Justice of the Peace to come pronounce -- there's going to need to be a path cleared for that, and for the funeral home, but it just doesn't feel right to leave that old gentleman alone again. Not in the dark.
The Sheriff and the volunteer fire department will be here soon enough.