A new director. Budget cuts. And a fire. The senior center will never be the same again.
As the new director for the senior center, Raina Sun thought organizing a few events for the geriatric crowd would be fairly easy. Until the center’s biggest donor dies in a fire, and her grandma’s arch nemesis becomes the prime suspect. As the body count piles up, Raina is drawn into another murder investigation. Can she solve the case, or will her grandma’s arch nemesis spend the rest of her golden years in prison?
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Raina Sun Louie glanced at the entrance to the game room and grimaced. Here we go again, she thought to herself. She ran a hand through her curly black hair, a recent tic she’d acquired to buy herself time to respond to the dueling duo.
Po Po stabbed a finger at her arch nemesis. Her grandma’s pixie haircut had grown into a shag with long silver bangs that highlighted the anger in her brown eyes. Though barely over five feet tall, she was a force to be reckoned with.
Janice Tally, the social committee chair, batted at Po Po’s finger with a knitting needle. Her grandma’s arch nemesis was a bird of a woman with big round glasses and had recently taken to dying her hair black with a tint of blue like Marge from The Simpsons. She had no fear of rolling on toes with her walker and stabbing people’s backside with her needles to prod them to do her bidding.
According to a Chinese proverb, the two of them must have mixed up their bones in a previous life. Sometimes her grandma took an opposing stance to get Janice riled up for entertainment. And Janice always took the bait. They just couldn’t stay out of each other’s business.
As the director for the senior center, Raina had to referee between these two strong-willed women daily. Her head pulsated with the beginnings of a headache. Not today, she thought. She turned, hoping to make a quick exit through the rear doorway that led to the communal kitchen before either of the ladies noticed her.
“Raina, great job at the town council meeting this morning,” said an approaching familiar voice. “I’m sure your argument will make the council reconsider the budget cut for the center.”
Raina glanced over her shoulder. Alonso Escalante rose from the game table. The other retirees were packing up the Scrabble game and leaving the room. Probably to get ready for the potluck later in the evening or to get away from the dueling duo. No one wanted to pick sides.
She glanced at the doorway again. Luckily, Po Po and Janice were still there, having their showdown. Raina couldn’t hightail it out of the room with the center’s biggest financial donor wanting a chat. “I’m just doing my job.”
“I can always tell when someone does a job from the heart. To some people, us old folks are nothing but a burden,” Alonso said, placing a hand over his heart. “But you, my dear, actually care about us.”
Raina blushed. It really wasn’t much. She already spent time at the senior center because of her grandma, only now she was getting paid to help organize things. “Thank you. I appreciate the kind words.” She had learned a long time ago never to dismiss a compliment.
“If the Council ends up cutting the budget, I can make a bigger donation this year to make up the shortfall,” Alonso said.
Originally from Spain, Alonso still had a Spanish accent even though he had lived in the United States for more than fifty years. His olive skin was rough as jerky, but instead of caramelizing into a beautiful tan color, it was blotchy with age spots that fell into crevices created by his deep wrinkles. But what he lacked in the physical appearance department, he made up for with his generous heart.
Raina hesitated. She appreciated his offer. However, once the budget was cut, the senior center would not get the funds back without a fight. And private donations were not a guaranteed annual funding source.
“Rainy!” Po Po called from the entrance. In Chinese, Po Po was the formal title for a maternal grandmother and also a term of respect for elderly ladies. Her legal name was Bonnie Wong.
Raina met Alonso’s eyes and groaned involuntarily.
Alonso chuckled. His hazel eyes sparkled with amusement. “That’s my cue to pick up the smoked brisket from my cook. I’ll see you at the potluck later.”
As he stepped around Raina, his cell phone rang. He answered it and stepped through the rear doorway to the communal kitchen of the senior center. From there, he could circle around back to the foyer or leave the building through the side exit. The lucky man.
Resigned, Raina turned to face the music. If only it weren’t a Chinese opera full of waving hands, stomping feet, and echoing voices. And in the end, someone would be reduced to tears—hopefully, they wouldn’t be hers.
Po Po and Janice scowled at each other, their eyes narrowing, neither daring to break eye contact.
Raina shifted her weight to the other foot. Maybe she could make a run for the kitchen before either woman noticed her disappearance.
As if Raina’s movement was a signal, both women flew into a flurry of activity.
Janice Tally pushed her walker to the left, reducing the gap between the wingback reading chair and the table. She jabbed at the air with her knitting needle while shuffling forward with the walker one-handed.
Po Po swerved around her arch nemesis and bolted for the gap between the board game table and the ping-pong table. Unencumbered by a medical device, she made better time even though she took the more circuitous route.
Janice abandoned the walker and threw the knitting needle at Po Po, who ducked, shook a fist, and called out a mean name. Janice made a beeline for Raina, ignoring the name-calling.
Raina’s eyes widened. Her grandma had been right all along. The walker had been a ploy to gain sympathy. Should she laugh or tell the ladies to slow down? What if one of them broke a hip?
Though they were moving at top speeds for their age, to Raina, they appeared as if they were moving underwater. She settled on a neutral expression, though she was sure her dark brown eyes were twinkling with amusement.
Po Po skidded to a stop in front of Raina, her orthopedic shoes squeaking on the wood floor. “You asked me to post signs in the kitchen, so I did. Now Janice is complaining about the signs.”
Raina groaned inwardly. It had sounded like a simple job for her grandma to post fliers around the kitchen this morning. The emergency water main repair in the street had shut down the fire suppression system in the building. The facility person was supposed to return in an hour to turn the system back on. All the retirees who signed up for the potluck were notified of this inconvenience and were told to heat their food at home. It should have been a brainless job. How did it lead to World War III between these two ladies?
She raked at her curly black hair again. It probably stood out around her head even more from the attention. A Chinese girl with an Afro wasn’t someone who could handle these two Titans. What was she thinking when she took the job? Would the town fire her if she couldn’t handle these two?
Janice shuffled over the last few steps and took several deep breaths, her hands over her heart.
Po Po opened her mouth to steamroll over Janice, but Raina held up her hand. “Please let Janice catch her breath, so she can have her say.”
Her grandma crossed her arms and harrumphed. She had no patience for the social committee chair who had banned her from all the major events in the last year.
This rivalry between the two ladies was the hardest part of Raina’s new job. She could handle budget cuts, but she wasn’t sure how to navigate this rivalry without hurting someone’s feelings, especially with a grandma who expected family loyalty to come first.
The corners of Janice’s lips twitched, and she slowed her breathing even more, taking her sweet time and knowing it would irritate Po Po.
“Bonnie plastered the entire kitchen with her fliers,” Janice said. “It looks ridiculous. Who tapes paper on top of the electrical burners on the stovetop? It’s a fire hazard.”
“The whole point is to make somebody stop and think before using the stove,” Po Po said. “If someone sees a sheet of paper on top of the burner, who would be stupid enough to turn it on?”
Raina held up the universal time out sign, forming a “T” with her hands. “Whoa! Why don’t we go take a look in the kitchen?”
The two ladies opened their mouths—
An alarm began to wail from a distance, and the smoke detectors in the game room picked up its tune.
Raina’s eyes widened, finally noticing the smoke coming in from the rear doorway. Her heart began to beat faster, matching a rising fear. This was no fire drill. Someone must have used the kitchen and started a fire. Please don’t let Po Po have anything to do with this, she pleaded silently to her ancestors.
* * *
Thick tendrils of smoke billowed out of the kitchen, and the heat blasted across Raina’s face. She squinted at the dim interior. “Anyone in here? Alonso, are you in here?” she screamed from the doorway.
While she had seen Alonso disappear into the kitchen a few minutes ago, he had no reason to still be in there. With three exits to choose from, he must have left the building before the fire started. And yet, until Raina got confirmation that he was safe, she worried about him.
Manny Díaz, a warden for the fire evacuation team, ushered several senior citizens toward the exit of the center. His silver hair and orange construction vest were beacons in the darkening interior. His walkie talkie blared as he communicated with the evaluation teams. He came back and grabbed Raina’s arm.
“We need to get out of here,” Manny said, coughing at the smoke. “Janice and Bonnie are doing the roll call outside. They’ll let us know if someone is missing.”
Raina nodded and squinted at the smoke and dancing flames in the kitchen one more time. “Anyone in here?” She waited, straining her eyes and ignoring the tickling in the back of her throat. If she gave in to it, she would probably start coughing too.
The fire crackled and roared, leaping into the air. No answer. Whoever started the fire probably ran off, afraid of being caught. Was this an accident or arson?
Raina reluctantly left with Manny. She hoped the quarterly fire drills were enough to get everyone safely outside. Janice Tally, Po Po, and another retiree were checking folks off in the corner of the parking lot.
The maintenance crew working on the water main were in the process of covering up the trench on the ground with metal plates. Attached to the excavator bucket was a chain with a heavy duty magnet, dangling a metal plate above the open trench. The heavy equipment operator and the rest of the crew gaped at the commotion.
Raina ran across the parking lot, waving her hands in the air like a crazy woman. “There’s a fire in the building. The fire truck is coming!”
The wail of emergency vehicles approached them. As the sounds came closer, the maintenance workers swiveled their heads back to the street as if looking for the source of the sirens.
“Cover up the street! The fire truck is coming!” Raina yelled from sidewalk.
A man leapt out of a parked truck and yelled at the maintenance crew. “Quick! Cover up the street!” He must be the foreman.
The heavy equipment operator lowered the excavator bucket with the metal plate and a worker attached a metal stick to guide the plate over the open trench. Once in place, the worker signaled for the operator. The plate dropped with a loud bang. The worker removed the guiding stick, and the foreman detached the chain.
Several blocks away, a fire truck turned the corner, its lights flashing and sirens blaring. It raced toward the senior center.
A walkie-talkie crackled to life. “It won’t stop in time!”
It was the flagger screaming into the walkie-talkie. He was a block away, holding the “STOP” sign with shaking hands. His orange vest was not much protection against several tons of steel barreling toward him.
The heavy equipment operator, sweat pouring down his face and dampening his shirt, moved the tractor to the side of the road. It was still blocking a third of the lane. As the machine came to a stop, the operator jumped out.
At the first orange construction sign on the road, the fire truck slammed on the brakes. The flagger tossed the “STOP” sign and leapt out the way. The maintenance crew ran for the parking lot. Raina took several steps back, her heart racing with adrenaline.
The fire truck slowed and made a wide arc around the tractor and into the parking lot, rattling the metal plates on the road. It pulled up next to the building, and the fire crew jumped out of the vehicles. Like a well-practiced orchestra, every person knew their task and performed it on reflex.
The foreman swore and glanced at Raina sheepishly.
The metal plate rattled again, and she glanced up to see a police cruiser with an ambulance at its bumper pulling into the parking lot. The emergency medical technicians grabbed their medical bags and headed toward the group of retirees.
Raina scanned the crowd, found Po Po and Janice, and joined them. “Everyone accounted for?”
“Alonso didn’t sign out of the visitors log,” Janice said with a worried expression.
“People don’t always sign in or out,” Po Po said, putting a cheerful spin on the situation. “Without someone monitoring all the exits, there’s no way to know who is coming and going.”
Raina frowned. She prayed this was the case, and Alonso was safely in his mansion worrying about transporting his smoked brisket.
A fireman came out of the building and jogged over to join them.
Raina recognized the fire chief and stepped forward to greet him. “Everyone is accounted for, except Alonso Escalante. I saw him go into the kitchen before the fire, and he said he was heading home. But he didn’t sign out on the visitors log, so we don’t know if he had actually left the building.”
The fire chief nodded and pressed a button near his shoulder, which probably activated the two-way radio. He spoke into it, relaying Raina’s information about Alonso.
As the fire chief jogged back to join his crew, he called over his shoulder, “Raina, make sure everyone stays here until you get the all clear.”
Officer Youri Sokol got out of the police cruiser and exchanged a few words with the fire chief. He glanced at the group of retirees and frowned like he was studying a bunch of arsonists. It was precisely this attitude and his haphazard investigations that led to his demotion from detective to officer. It had been several months, but he still walked around with a boulder on his shoulder.
He sauntered over to Raina. He was a doppelgänger for Danny DeVito, but his pug face was often set in a scowl. He was just as height challenged as Raina, approximately two or three inches taller. But this didn’t stop him from looking down at her, which meant he held his nose up like he had a nose bleed.
“Why am I not surprised to see you here?” he said.
Raina bit back a smart comment. There was no point in riling the man up when he clearly didn’t want to be here. “Do you need anything from me? Are you taking a police report?”
Officer Sokol narrowed his eyes at Raina. “Is there a crime here?”
Raina shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m hoping it’s all an accident.”
“Then I guess I’m not needed,” he said and got back into his police cruiser.
As Raina watched the disgruntled officer drive away, she wondered why he came out in the first place if he didn’t intend to help.
Two hours later, Raina got the all clear that the fire was put out, and the senior citizens could return to their condos. Many of them were sitting on the asphalt and leaning against each other. It looked like the potluck was a complete bust.
The fire chief pulled Raina aside and whispered, “We found a body in the kitchen. The police are on the way.”
Raina swallowed the bile rising in her throat. “Is it Alonso Escalante?”
The fire chief nodded. “That’s the name on his driver’s license. I’m sorry.”
A wave of guilt washed over Raina. “I didn’t hear anyone in the kitchen. With the smoke, I couldn’t see inside. I should have run inside the kitchen. I might have been able to save Alonso.”
The fire chief patted Raina’s shoulder. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. You would have run into trouble trying to get him out by yourself. You’re not strong enough to drag out a man his size.”
“Drag out? He didn’t…uh…burn?”
“No, the fire didn’t touch him. He might have died from the smoke inhalation. The coroner will be able to confirm how Alonso died.”
Despite what the fire chief said, Raina couldn’t help but wonder if she had failed Alonso somehow. She didn’t think he would still be in the kitchen. If he wasn’t burned, then he wasn’t close to the flames. Then why didn’t he leave through the side exit? Unbidden, an even more morbid thought drifted through her mind. What if he was prevented from leaving the kitchen?