THE HEARSE CASE SCENARIO
Apparently I was the first person Shrimp Martin called after Lucy Taylor shot him. It was a Saturday afternoon. Early June. The sun was high and I was low. I had a wicked toothache and I had just gotten off the phone with a guy named Roger, who was taking my regular dentists calls while my regular dentist was away at his vacation house in Jackson Hole, poor guy. Roger sounded gung-ho to see me. He was going to fit me in that afternoon, between a root canal and an extraction. Well, good for Roger. Me, I had no gung-ho at all, just the sore tooth. Just before we hung up, Roger had asked me quite earnestly how my gums were. I didnt know how to answer that question. I was still pondering it when the phone rang.
"Sewell and Sons."
The voice on the other end was raspy and hoarse. Like someone whispering and gargling with glass at the same time. "Whos this?" it rasped.
The voice croaked again. "Whos this?"
"You called me," I pointed out. "Sewell and Sons Family Funeral Home. Now. Your turn."
There was a pause. I leaned back even further in my chair and recrossed my legs, which were up on my desk. Lately, that is where they had been spending a lot of their time. Up on my desk. Not a lot of people were dying these days. My aunt and I were suffering a beginning-of-summer drought. Currently we had only one customer on ice, down in the basement. Mrs. Rittenhouse, from around the corner. Shakespeare Street. Her next-of-kin was due by any minute to drop off a dress for the viewing. A fact which was about to make this phone call all the more interesting.
A hissing sound was coming over the phone, like air going out of a balloon. I asked again. "Who is this?"
"Ssssssssss... Shrimp Martin."
Shrimp Martin. Nightclub owner. Blatant self promoter. Borderline sleaze. A legend in his own mind.
"Shrimp? This is Hitchcock Sewell. Whats up? Whats wrong with your voice?"
"Lucy," he croaked.
"Lucy?" My heart iced. Nine out of ten people who call me at work are calling to talk about a corpse.
"Lucy. I got that part. What about Lucy?"
I switched ears and glanced out the window. Sam and some kids from the neighborhood were hosing down the hearse. Actually, the kids appeared to be hosing down Sam. Who didnt appear to be minding much. Sams just a big kid anyway. Two hundred and ninety pounds worth.
"Shrimp, why dont we start this whole conversation over? Im not looking for Lucy. I didnt call you, okay? You called me. So whats up?"
Shrimp sighed again. He sounded irritated. "Whos this?"
Now I was getting irritated. "I told you. Its Hitchcock Sewell, Shrimp. What the hell is going on?"
"Lucy," Shrimp said again. "Shes gone. She...left me. She -" He interrupted his own sentence with another groan. This one stretched out in sort of a sing-song fashion, almost a humming. It sounded as if Shrimp was channeling a tone-deaf drunk. Which was the conclusion I was beginning to reach. Not that Shrimp was channeling, but that he was definitely coming to us from the Land of Liquor.
"What do you mean, shes gone?"
Aunt Billie had just stepped into my office. She was holding a rat by the tail, at arms length. Presumably dead. If not, then faking it nicely. Billie asked, "Whos gone?"
I palmed the mouthpiece. "Shrimp Martin says that Lucy Taylor has left him."
Billie sniffed. "Lucy Taylor has a brain." Billie leaned sideways and dropped the dead rat into my brass spittoon. I dont spit. I use it to keep the door propped open. And - apparently - for storing dead rats. I didnt ask.
"Mrs. Rittenhouse is all done," Billie announced. "Pretty as a picture. Im just waiting on her dress."
At that precise instant, the front door opened. I could see a pair of arms wrapped around a blue chiffon number. Well, I call it chiffon. I dont really know these things. It was blue. I made the Voila" gesture (one-handed version) and Billie floated out to the lobby to do her thing. Shrimp was still gurgling into the phone.
"Im sorry, Shrimp. I missed that. What were you saying?"
He sounded strained and defeated. "Lucy," he mumbled again. For a man who was refusing to come to a point, he was driving one home nonetheless.
"Yes. Lucy. You just said that she left you. When, Shrimp? When did Lucy leave you?" I was beginning to over-enunciate, the way you do when youre trying to get through to a foreigner. Or a child.
"A half hour ago? Jesus, Shrimp, come on. A half hour isnt really an awfully long time."
Billie was coming back into the office. She showed the dead womans granddaughter to the chair in front of my desk. The young woman plopped down into the chair, the blue dress bunched in her arms like a bag of groceries. I held up a hand to indicate that Id be right with her. Shrimp finally got to his point.
"She shot me."
"She what?" I dont even remember it happening, but my feet were suddenly on the floor and I was standing at my desk. The phone felt tiny in my hand, like it was a childs toy. My sore tooth exploded with pain. "What are you talking about?"
Shrimp wheezed, "Lucy..." I sank slowly back to my chair as Shrimp struggled to locate enough air to conclude his short sentence. "...shot me."
"When, Shrimp?" I said, cocking an eyebrow at my guest. I noticed that there was a smudge mark on her cheek, the ripening of a fresh bruise. "When did she shoot you?"
Shrimps answer was depressingly deadpan. "Right before she left."
There was a pause, then he added. "I think Ive lost a lot of blood."
And the line went dead.
"Shrimp? Shrimp, are you still there?" I did what they do in the movies. Rattled my finger up and down on the little jiggywazzits where you hang up the phone then I hung up the phone. The young woman in front of me was shifting the dress in her lap. Her hand emerged from underneath it and she set something blue and ugly on my desk.
"Hows he doing?" she asked.
I steepled my fingers and lighted my chin on the tippy top. Undertakers have a knack for being able to draw their faces into a blank. Thats what I did. Then I reached down with my index finger and swiveled the barrel of the little pistol so that it wasnt aiming directly at me. Were also not idiots. Then I re-steepled.
"Well Lucy, I wouldnt say hes sounding terribly chipper. If thats what youre asking."