Officially, Harry Jenkins’ elderly client, Norma Dinnick, had committed no crime. While she embroidered tales of murderous revenge in a singsong voice, her doctors rubbed their jaws to hide their smirks. Such a sweetly smiling woman could not have committed the cruel and devious acts she so vividly described. Their diagnosis was psychotic dementia with a touch of Alzheimer’s thrown in. Court documents, stamped with a gold seal, declared her mentally incompetent. After all, psychiatrists were not so easily fooled.Once appointed as her legal guardian, Harry found her accommodations in the most luxurious mental hospital possible. Their deal was unspoken—a nice, permanent home with refined residents, not a jail. For him, Norma remained a fascinating conundrum, and after all, lawyers only wanted to know so much.
His next task? Locate the missing shares in Elixicorp Enterprises hidden by her deceased husband, Arthur. Their value? Thirty million dollars or so. Only she, Norma insisted, had any right to them, but Harry knew that some had died trying to wrest them from her. He envisioned a line of brutal successors lurking in the shadows, waiting for him to falter. Those shares had to be somewhere. As he drove off to see her today, he determined to find out as much as he could.
In declaring Norma incompetent, the court, in its wisdom, required Harry to consult with her on decisions, if possible. But fortunately, he was not bound by her instructions. Today, he might jog her memory for clues to the missing shares, although her recollections ran from the unreliable to the fantastical.
Gravel crunched beneath his tires as the road to the Mercer Mental Hospital narrowed and mounted steeply between jagged rocks. A small green sign, with white lettering, marked the entrance. Getting out of the car, Harry took off his jacket. The sun bore down, and the heat hit hard. The breeze sang softly through the grasses and caressed his face. In the field below, a group of patients gazed skyward, while an attendant pointed at black ravens circling against the brilliant sky. A nature outing, Harry supposed, but Norma would not be among them. Unless she could command a group, she would have no part of it.
Suddenly, one bird broke from the military precision of the flock and swooped down upon a patient who, clutching his head, ran in circles. As the attendant warded off the attacker, the inmate cringed beneath a tree. Harry turned away and collected his briefcase.
He had heard many versions of Norma’s story of the Elixicorp shares. Some hung together— for the most part. Others were so absurdly confused that they strained the credulity of the most gullible soul. As best as Harry could determine, her husband, Arthur, had been part of a consortium to raise money in the nineteen sixties for the development of a wonder drug to forestall memory loss. Ironic that everyone seemed to have forgotten just where those shares might be! Now, all the partners— George Pappas with his underworld connections, Arthur, Archie Brinks, and David Parrish were dead. So, who was entitled to the money?
Walking up the path, lined with tall maples, he saw the white clapboard buildings with their green awnings and wide verandas. Norma sat near the screen door of the main entrance. She wore a pretty, floral dress, neatly cinched in at the waist, giving her a decidedly girlish appearance. Easy to spot her in the midst of all the hospital gowns. A piano rendition of My Blue Heaven floated out on the summer air. Only her foot tapped to the music. Harry had a vision of a single flower sprouting in a dry, stubbly field.
Bending awkwardly to kiss her cheek, he saw the glint in her eye, which said, This is a huge joke. We both know I don’t belong in this nuthouse.
“Have you found the missing shares yet, Harry?” Norma demanded.
“Not yet. I need more information.”
“I’ve told you everything I know. And you still haven’t found the bank accounts?”
“I need the bank transit numbers.”
She peered at him sternly. “Arthur would have dealt with only the most reputable financial institutions.”
“Even so, that narrows the field only slightly, to dozens of banks with innumerable branches.”
“You’re not afraid of a little work, are you? Do I have to hire a private detective?”
Harry shifted in his seat. Norma was not above bullying in order to mislead him for her own murky purposes. But if she had any more information, why send him on a pointless and costly venture? No doubt, it would be fun to scour Europe for the money, he thought, as visions of medieval towns flashed before him. But he would have to account for every penny on a court audit of his expenses.
Harry jumped when a birdlike hand pinched his knee. Glancing sideways, he saw the beady eyes of a tiny, wizened woman boring into him. Surrounded, he thought.
“Donald, what have you done with my money?” Her bright red nails dug into his kneecap. “You always were a deceitful child,” she gasped, and then spat out, “You’ve spent it on that hussy, haven’t you?”
Norma muttered in disgust, “Stupid woman! Doesn’t even know her own son. See what I mean, Harry? Lunatics everywhere!”
A nurse hurried down the veranda. “Mrs. Burke! That is not your son, Donald.” Swiftly, she removed the offending hand from Harry’s knee. “So sorry, sir.” She smiled apologetically. “I’m sure you understand.”
She held Mrs. Burke’s hand firmly until she lapsed into reverie. Harry rubbed his knee.
Norma was halfway down the steps. “Take me for a walk, please. We can talk privately the garden.”
Carrying her cane, Harry rushed to catch up with her as she hobbled through the trellised gardens. In the glaring sun, the bees hummed among the blood red roses drooping in the heat. At last, he steered her toward a bench in the shade.
Norma pointed to the residents standing motionless in the field below. Old faces squinted upward in the sun, transfixed by the circling crows. “Look at those fools. They’re waiting.”
“Something to happen.” She shrugged. “They’re mad, you know.” She plunked herself down on the bench and continued, “I do not belong in this insane asylum.”
Harry raised his hand to quiet her. “You know, Norma, I can’t get you out of here.”
Despite her prior confessions of murder, Norma was fond of changing her tune.
“Harry, I would never harm Archie or David. I loved them dearly.” Glancing downward, she spoke in darker tones. “Granted, George was another matter.”
Patiently, Norma explained away all the suspicious deaths to which she had confessed. “I was caught up in a terrible nightmare!”
He shook his head solemnly. “No. You got out of a real corner last time. Besides, admitting the confessions were false lands you right back here.”
Norma sat in obstinate silence. At last, she said quietly, “If you can’t get me out, then you’d better find the money, Harry.”
She was right, of course. As her legal guardian, he was sworn to locate all her assets and prepare an inventory. Even suspected ill-gotten gains had to be listed. Although George Pappas and Archie Brinks were dead, Harry was chilled by the prospect of an endless chain of ruthless pretenders.
As if reading his mind, Norma shifted the brim of her hat against the sun and said, “Really, Harry!” Her glance was withering. “You know everyone is dead. They never had any right to that money. It was Arthur’s and mine.”
“They didn’t think so!”
Norma, her jaw rigid, jerked away.
A fine time for her to become difficult, he thought. “Any more information will make my job a lot easier and less expensive,” he said.
Norma’s lower lip trembled. After a few sniffles, she spoke angrily. “I know you, Harry Jenkins! You think Arthur bilked a bunch of rich old biddies with some crazy scheme for a wonder drug.”
“I never said that. But George and Archie certainly had a fraudulent scheme. Who’s behind them?”
“You’re right!” she said primly. “Those two jailbirds were at the very center of the whole scheme. We knew nothing of it.”
“So where did all this money come from?”
“There was only a tiny bit to begin with, and it was just our share,” she insisted. “Arthur was a genius at investing!”
“All right, Norma. I’ll try to find the accounts with what I’ve got. You said I should start with the banks in London. But when I find the money, we have to establish your right to ownership in court.”
“I told you it belonged to Arthur and me.”
“That’s not good enough. We need a court declaration stating you’re the lawful owner.”
Norma was aghast. “That’s useless! Those people laugh at court orders. Just scraps of paper.”
“What people?” he demanded. “Just a minute ago you said they were all dead!”
Her eyes glassed over. “So I did. Well then…” She began to fidget.
“What aren’t you telling me? Who’s behind Pappas and Archie Brinks?”
Norma gazed at him. In the beating sun, Harry loosened his tie.
“All I know is they’re a very dangerous, rapacious bunch, who won’t give a damn about any court orders!”
Norma’s expression chilled him. “Like who?” he asked more quietly.
She touched his hand. “Be very careful, Harry! They’re always watching and working together!”
“Where are they?” Harry pushed back his matted hair and swallowed hard.
“Mrs. Dinnick? There you are!” The nurse who had rescued him earlier was now marching around the rose bushes. “You’re due for your medication.”
Immediately, the intelligence in Norma’s eyes faded.
The nurse held out her hand. “Come with me, dear. It’s time for your injection.”
Harry knew Norma’s mad act was coming. “Don’t, Norma!” His desperation mounted swiftly. “Who are these people?”
But the transformation was swift. Her face slackened, and her body slumped against his. The nurse helped her up, and Norma limped and swayed up the path after her. There was nothing he could do. Norma had raised the curtain just an inch, only enough for him to glimpse her shadowy world, where no one else could enter.
He stared at the huge roses looming grotesquely over him. In the lengthening shadows, the patients at the foot of the garden had grown to sinister proportions. And the damned crows were still circling! It seemed unnatural.
Alone, Harry climbed up the pathway. Norma would be lying down in a cool, dark room to receive her injection. Smiling docility would soon erase her shrewd intelligence along with any chance for further information. He knew he was on his own.