Polly didn’t want a cracker. Polly didn’t want much of anything anymore. Polly Larkin, aka “Room 203,” had been dead several hours when her aide came to wake her, early on the morning of September third, and her days of haranguing the staff were done. Nobody was surprised much by Polly’s demise, least of all the aide. That she’d toppled to the floor at some point in the night, knocking over her walker, was unfortunate, but not shocking. Polly had been sickly for as long as anyone could remember—sickly and stubborn, refusing requests that she stay in bed until her aide or a night nurse could be summoned—and at 84, nobody expected her to last much longer. But even an anticipated death sets off repercussions in the world of the living, and while the assisted living staff was handling the arrangements, I had to deal with the parrot.
Randolph Jones, that was the parrot’s name, and whether that was the deceased’s idea of a joke or a handle the old lady had inherited when she adopted the bird was not shared with me. What I did get was an urgent phone call from the daughter, begging me to call her back on a matter of utmost importance. “Please.” The voice on the message gasped. “I need your help.
It’s life or death.”
# # #
I was making coffee when I heard the message, and I confess it didn’t make me pause. I didn’t know at that point that the old lady had passed three days before, but I’ve been in this business long enough to know that “life or death” rarely is. I’m an animal behaviorist, or almost, not a cardiologist or brain surgeon, which means I work with people’s pets rather than anything they really care about. Used to be, I’d spend my time trying to understand why domesticated animals did what they did. If Spot’s pooping on the floor, you know he’s got a reason, same as you would. What the clients pay me for, though, isn’t an explanation, it’s behavior modification. They want the behavior changed, and my job is to change it.
I’ve gotten used to that. Hey, it beats watching Spot taken to the pound. Or worse, “released” by the roadside miles out of town, as they still do in my semi-rural burg. I’ve developed a repertoire of training tricks, reeducation if you will, to help everyone adjust. My refusal to pick up the phone before nine a.m. is an attempt to use the same techniques on the owners. It rarely works, but it’s the principle as much as anything. Besides, I knew I’d be no good before I had my caffeine. In addition, while I was grinding the beans, Wallis had come into the room, and serving her breakfast trumps everything. And so while the coffee was brewing, I cracked open two eggs and scrambled them in butter. She kneaded the floor in anticipation, and so I didn’t even wait for them to cool before scooping them onto a plate and placing them on the floor.
Wallis may be a cat—a mature tabby who has shared the last twelve years of her life with me—but she has more sense than most humans. If I had to talk down some hysterical would-be client, I wanted her in the room—and in the mood to consult. Besides, I cared about her happiness. The caller? Well, we’d see about that.
“Jane? Jane Larkin? This is Pru Marlowe, returning your call.” I’d taken my mug over to the big farmhouse table that serves as a general workspace. “You said you had a problem?”
From the stuttering on the other end, I thought she’d forgotten me already. That was fine. I didn’t need another client, especially not one who indulged in histrionics.
“Oh, Miss Marlowe, thank you.” She had someone else in the room, I realized. I raised my eyebrows to Wallis, who started to bathe. “Things are just so crazy here.”
I looked at the clock. Five past nine, late enough for me to begin my morning rounds. “I can call you back later.”
“No, please. Can you come over today? The vet at the county animal hospital said you were a miracle worker, and I need… well, could you just come over?” I heard a deep sigh. “I’ve got a real problem with a very aggravated parrot.”
# # #
I still hadn’t heard how an angry bird translated to life or death, but I agreed to head over once I was done with my regular visits. She’d given me an address on the new side of Beauville, in the complex called LiveWell. Even I knew that euphemistic tag meant it was for old people, so I was rather surprised to find the array of activities listed in the beige and pink front lobby: movie nights, field trips. What have you. All on a billboard crowned with a stylized LW that would do minor royalty proud. And I was even more shocked when—once I’d smiled and nodded my way past the similarly colored receptionist—the door marked 203, along with that same logo, opened.
“Jane?” The woman in front of me couldn’t have been more than fifty. A very tired fifty.
Before she could respond, I heard a voice yell out behind her. “Who the hell is it?” The woman at the door winced.
“I’m sorry,” the woman whispered. “You can hear why I called.” She led me in.
“Mind your own damned business!” The room was overheated and dark, heavy shades covering the big picture window. I remembered how distracted she’d been that morning and dreaded meeting her companion. “Bugger off!”
“I just got here,” my host said, walking to the window. When she pulled back the drape, I saw that the room was close for a reason. Small to start with, the studio was overstuffed. Boxes, some taped shut, were stacked against empty book shelves and more lay, waiting to be assembled, on what looked like a hospital bed. Photos had been taken down, showing lighter spots against the deep cream wall. Some were piled on top of the mini fridge, and more lay on a small table top, threatening to tumble.
“Your own damned business!” The woman winced again, and I turned toward the voice. In the corner, suspended from a frame, hung a birdcage. Inside the cage a large gray bird shuffled on his perch, turned his head, and seemed to appraise me with one cool eye. An African gray, known for their skills at mimicry and their longevity. In some circles, they’re also known for their intelligence.
“And who the hell are you?” He asked me, punctuating his question with a squawk. “The cleaning lady?”