THE VOLUNTEER


                                                               

                                                               

                                                                THE VOLUNTEER

                                              A Harry Bartlett short story


Wellesley, MA                                                                Tuesday, 9 AM                                                                  


 “Move it,” Steve Malarkey yelled.

They’d been sitting behind the Grassy Knoll Assisted Living van for several minutes, waiting to cross Route 16, home to a large section of the Boston Marathon. He was ready to lean on the horn when the driver quickly charged through an opening in the oncoming traffic and parked in a St. John’s Credit Union handicap parking spot. Steve drafted on the van’s bumper like a NASCAR driver; his handicap-modified van hadn’t slowed his driving or increased his patience.

“He might’ve been waiting because of his passenger,” Harry Bartlett said.

Steve looked at the van; a white-haired woman in a wheelchair was in the back. “Maybe I should ask if she needs help?” He’d perfected maneuvering his chair and was next to her van before she’d even turned her chair to face the van’s platform.

“Hi, how are you doing?” Steve asked.

She looked up; her worried face changed to a weary smile when she saw Steve. “I can’t get used to moving this thing-a-ma-jig,” she said.

“I hear you,” Steve said. “The bump between the van’s floor and the edge of the platform is a royal pain.”

Her weary smile changed to a full grin. “These young whippersnappers think they know it all, but they don’t. They say do this or do that. I’m scared to death I’ll tip forward onto my face.”

“I move my bum back an inch or so,” Steve said. “That shifts some weight off the front wheels. Seems to help.”

She wiggled backward, then powered over the bump without a hitch and gave a “woo-hoo” yell. Her driver touched the red toggle switch, and the platform slowly lowered her to the ground.

“Thank you, son,” she said to Steve. She gripped his hand in both of hers and pulled it toward her once, then again.

“And you, too,” she said to Harry and shook his hand repeatedly. She cocked her head sideways as she looked at him. “You look very familiar, young man.”

“Are you making a pass at me, ma’am?” Harry asked.

“You should be so lucky,” she said. “Are you on tv?”

Harry explained what he and Steve did and their tv appearances.

“Well, you keep after those bad people. They come after people like me, you know. Filthy scoundrels.”

Harry was about to ask her if he could offer any help getting her into the bank when he heard someone yell,” Hello, Mrs. Strand, hello.” Harry turned to see a short, wiry man wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a lightweight suit trot across the parking lot, waving and smiling the entire way. When he reached her, he patted her hand and hugged her, all the while bending down to her wheelchair height.

Must be a lawyer, a financial advisor, or a CPA, Harry thought.

“These nice young men helped me with the platform,” Mrs. Strand said. “They’re famous, don’t you know.”

The wiry man turned to Harry. “Arthur Lassow, elder law specialist. You’re the fraud detectives, aren’t you?”

Harry and Steve reciprocated the introductions.

“You know, I come across some shady people in my practice, but I never know who to call. May I have one of your cards for future reference?” Arthur asked. He pocketed Harry’s Fraud Detective Group business card. “Well, I’ll be helping Mrs. Strand here with some banking business.”

“We’re new customers,” Harry said. Harry and Steve were there to open business bank accounts. Wellesley was twenty miles from their 221B Brookline Avenue office in Boston, but the branch manager here was a Boston Orphanage graduate like Harry, and that had won out.

“Great bank. You’ll love it. Good meeting the both of you.”

They watched Lassow and Mrs. Strand navigate the wheelchair ramp.

“Did she…?” Harry asked.

“Yeah, she…” Steve said.  

“What did she do to you?” Harry asked.

Steve thought for a few seconds, trying to recreate the motion. “It was weird. She made a fist but kept her thumb pointed up, then she put it in her palm and pulled it toward her chest.”

“She grimaced, too,” Harry said.

“How about you?” Steve asked. 

“Taps and strokes,” Harry said. He stared at the rooster weathervane atop the bank’s cupola. “She was using Morse code.”

“Mine must’ve been sign language,” Steve said.

They returned to their seats in Steve’s van. Harry woke his laptop from its sleep setting and searched for sign language. “We need to know what to look for. Write this down,” he said.

Steve retrieved a piece of paper and a pen from the side door pocket. Harry voiced the taps and dashes, and Steve handed over the result,  ****  *  *-**  *--*. Harry looked them up on a Morse code chart. It took a few minutes; he wrote  H    E    L      P  and showed it to Steve. “Now, let’s look up the sign language.” He found a YouTube video. “Is this it?”

“That’s what she did,” Steve said.

Harry continued typing, found something, then watched and re-watched it, moving his fingers in unison with the short video.

“What are you doing?” Steve asked.

“I want to communicate with her. What does this look like?” Harry touched the tips of his thumb to his forefinger and middle fingers, then flicked those three fingers out. 

“No idea,” Steve said.

Harry turned so Steve could get a side view.

“The first looks like an “o,” but I don’t get the second part,” Steve said.

“It’s a “k.” O-K.”

“Why not do what everyone always does? Steve asked and made the universal okay sign.  

“Because the driver and Mr. Lassow will know what we said,” Harry said.

“And they won’t the other way?”

“I’ll do it like a wave,” Harry said and demonstrated. “Let’s get in the bank and watch them.”

They scurried across the parking lot and entered the bank through the front lobby. Mrs. Strand was at the 2nd teller from the left; Mr. Lassow hovered over her. She turned in their direction as they entered, and Harry quickly flashed his sign.

“There are those nice young men,” she said to Mr. Lassow, and he turned to look. She mouthed “thank you” as he turned away.

The branch manager approached Harry and Steve and guided them to his office. They started filling out paperwork but kept glancing through the office glass wall. Mrs. Strand and Mr. Lassow soon departed.

Banks were so damned slow. Harry and Steve were now working on the paperwork for ATM and credit cards when they heard “Hello, Mr. Twine, hello” through the front door. They watched Mr. Lassow push a wheelchair-bound older man to the 2nd teller from the left. His chair had “Verona Hills Nursing Home” stenciled on the back.

The branch manager noticed Harry’s puzzled look. “Can I help you, Harry?”

“What’s he doing here twice in one day?”

“Wait, and he’ll be back. He volunteers helping the elderly with their banking, even if they aren’t his clients. He’s a special person; he gives free talks to seniors on elder law issues.”

The last paperwork and signature act was the safety deposit box. Finally, Harry and Steve were done, and they started toward the front door. There he was again, now with person # 3. Harry held the door open; the back of the woman’s wheelchair identified her home as the Cedar Grove Adult Living Center.

“Nice meeting you again, Mr. Lassow,” Harry said and watched him approach teller #2. He helped Steve down the ramp and over to his van. “You know, Steve, I feel a sudden need to plan for my golden years.”


                                                          ***

The Grassy Knoll Assisted Living facility was at the top-end of aged-care offerings. Without the benefit of the sign, Harry and Steve would’ve been excused for thinking they were entering a golf and tennis country club. A stone wall separated the public sidewalk and the private grounds. Manicured shrubs provided a backdrop for the flowers meticulously planted one foot in from the sharp edges of the green lawn. A copper-covered portico provided a covering for the residents to avoid unwanted raindrops. The long ramp made it easy for wheelchair residents to propel themselves to the front door.

“This place makes me reconsider getting old,” Steve said.

“You have $7,000 per month lying around?” Harry asked as they approached the receptionist.

“You mean real money, not the monopoly kind?” Steve asked.

Harry ignored him and smiled at the woman behind the desk. “Hi, my friend here is considering assisted living and heard great things about Grassy Knoll.”

“Well, sir, you‘ve come to the right place,” she said.

“As a matter of fact, we know a resident named Mrs. Strand and would like to speak with her, maybe see her apartment,” Harry said.

The receptionist looked as if she’d swallowed a rotten egg. “Oh, I’m sorry, sir. Mrs. Strand has strict orders that she doesn’t want any visitors, and we must respect her wishes.  Perhaps Mr. Pauline, our administrator, could answer your questions?”

Steve sighed loud enough to drown out the noise from a low-flying helicopter. “We talked with her before coming here, and she said nothing about that. Can you call her, tell her it’s Ben Dover to see her?”

“No, but as I said, we must respect her wishes, Mr. Dover.” The receptionist’s solicitous attitude quickly changed to a reenactment of an Mt. Rushmore figure. She stared at them, tight-lipped, hands folded in front of her, elbows pointing outward. “I’ll be glad to send you a brochure, Mr. Dover.”

“No, thanks, we’ll be going,” Harry said and wheeled Steve out. They were quiet until they’d closed the van’s doors.

“That was weird as hell,” Steve said.

“Let’s try the other two assisted living places,” Harry said.

An hour later, they were sitting in the Cedar Grove facility parking lot.  

“Three elderly people, all in assisted living or nursing homes, all with the same lawyer, all needing help with their banking but refusing to see visitors,” Harry said.

“And looking like they were making a hostage video,” Steve said.

Harry typed into his laptop. “The Credit Union closes in an hour. Let’s see what happens when the lights go out,” Harry said.

They parked across the street from the bank. At 4 PM, the 2nd teller from the left, a young woman, locked the bank door, checked it twice, and walked to her car. She’d parked at the furthest spot in the parking lot. Maybe it was to let customers have the closer ones or perhaps because she was driving a POS that coughed up enough smoke to screen a battleship.

Steve followed a few car lengths behind as she drove across town to an Italian restaurant and parked headfirst at the far end of the parking lot. She stayed in the car for several minutes. When she got out, they could see the reason for her delay: she’d changed into a waitress's uniform.

“Cheese or pepperoni?” Harry asked Steve and phoned in the order. They waited the requested ten minutes, and then Harry approached the take-out counter. The young woman gave him the usual “big smile for the customer” greeting and said, “Hi, I’m Katya, can I help you?” Her Russian accent didn’t make her English unintelligible.

They finished the pepperoni pie. It was good, not as good as in Boston’s North End, but not bad. At 9:30, she trudged wearily to her car. Steve let her get in and put on her seat belt before blocking her path with his van.

Harry made the roll-down-your window motion. She hesitated, then complied.

“Why do you do it?” Harry asked.

“Do what, and who the fuck are you?”

Clearly, she’d learned the proper use of idioms.

Harry looked her car over; it was at least 15 years old and had enough dings to qualify for a volume discount at a body shop, although even they might junk it instead of fixing it. “You process transactions for Mr. Lassow’s clients is the answer to question number 1. I’m Harry Bartlett fraud detective is the answer to number 2.”

She moved her car forward, but it only went a few inches; she’d parked close to the fence. Steve had parked against her back bumper; she was pinned in.

“Move that thing, or I’ll ram it,” she said. “This piece of crap can take it, can yours?”

“Maybe not,”  Harry said, “But my insurance is paid up, and they’ll fix it. How about yours, Ms. Katya Slevenko?”

“How do you…?”

“We had time to kill while you finished your shift and did a little digging.”

“Just like KGB bastards in home country,” Katya said.

“No, we’re nicer than those guys. We want to help you, not send you to a gulag,” Harry said. “And we’re definitely nicer than Mr. Lassow, too, given that you’re working two jobs and can’t afford a better car.”

She stared at him, stone-faced.

“Are you legal?” Harry asked.

Katya started to cry.

“Let me in your car, and we can talk,” Harry said, and she relented.


                                                          


                                                                                 ***


Wellesley, Weston, Southborough                                    2 weeks later, Wednesday 9 AM                                          


“You’re sure about this?” Frank Lawless, the U.S. Attorney for Boston, asked. They were sitting in Frank’s government-issued Ford Taurus at the Wellesley branch of the St. John’s Credit Union. A similar vehicle with two FBI agents was across the street.

“You want to place a wager?” Harry asked.

“I’m a poor public servant,” Frank said.

“Coffee and a dozen donuts,” Harry said.

Steve was at the Weston branch, and Uncle Louie was in Southborough, each with the same setup.  “For all three?” Frank asked.

“Only one then,” Harry said. 

A white mini-van from the Grassy Knoll Assisted Living facility pulled into a handicap spot. Mr. Lassow hopped from his car and approached the van. He talked with an older man in a wheelchair and then pushed him up the slightly-inclined walkway,

Harry called Steve for a report, then had the same call with Uncle Louie. “Teller #2 each time?” A pause. “Good. What was the elderly person’s name?” Another pause. “That’s the one. Thanks.”

“Names?” Frank asked.

“The new customers had to have names, right? I used Hawser and Cordage. He’s Cable,” Harry said, nodding toward the elderly man that Lassow had helped into the bank. “I think $15 should cover a dozen glazed and a box of Joe. There’s a Dunkin Donuts on the way.”

                                                            *** 

Boston, U.S. Attorney’s office                                       Wednesday noon                       


Harry and Frank watched Arthur Lassow in an interrogation room through a two-way mirror. Arthur’s law firm associates Dash Leonard and Elmore Hammett, Katya, and the other two bank tellers were speaking with Assistant D.A.’s.  Steve was in a conference room with twelve elderly folks in wheelchairs learning Morse code from Mrs. Strand.

 “Threatening ICE raids is pretty despicable,” Harry said.  “He had them in a squeeze, acting like bird dogs, scouting out people with big bank balances with assisted living addresses and no relatives. They fed Arthur the names, and he turned on the charm.”

“And he worked quickly,” Frank said. “It only took him two weeks to get his hooks into your three new targets.”

“Smart guy, running two scams together,” Frank said. “Not easy to catch someone like him.”

 “He simply needed enough ropes to hang himself, and I provided the ropes,” Harry said.

  “But Mrs. Strand was the brave one. She should get some public recognition.”

  “We asked her to record a public service announcement,” Frank said.

   Harry watched several planes land at nearby Logan Airport, then jotted some notes on a   paper napkin.

    “How do you think of those damn things?” Frank asked.

     “Warped mind,” Harry said and looked at the notes.

                     Arthur Lassow liked helping old folks

                    But his generosity was really a hoax

                     He scammed their life savings

                     To meet his money cravings

                     His future will be selling jailhouse smokes.


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