HEARSE OF A DIFFERENT COLOR
The dead waitress had beautiful eyes. Large, chocolate and lovely. Of course, this was something I couldn't possibly know until some time later, once I had the chance to see them in a photograph. As usual with me, I get them when the spark has gone out and they're already losing their looks. Aunt Billie has a term for this. She calls it "occupational disappointment."
The waitress couldn't have arrived at a more inopportune moment. Baltimore was right in the middle of an unscheduled pre-Christmas blizzard and Aunt Billie and I were right in the middle of a wake. A heart surgeon from nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital had gone out in a blaze of irony two days previous, struck down by a heart attack, no less, while in the middle of performing a triple bypass. His name was Richard Kingman. Dr. Kingman had been in his late fifties, played tennis several times a week, hadn't touched a cigarette for decades, ate sensibly, drank politely and all the rest, and yet there it was. The needle suddenly skidded across his heart, and he collapsed in the operating room. He had been a robust fellow,
judging by the photograph provided to me by the man's widow. Ruddy. Expansive smile. Big healthy mop of rust red hair as wavy as a small ocean. The photograph had been snapped during a skiing vacation the family had taken out west some fifteen years previous. It featured the now-dead patriarch in the center, flanked by his then-teenage son on one side and his daughter and wife on the other. Everybody looked nurtured and well fed. The son bore only a thin resemblance to his father, his face a little longer and his smile considerably less natural. Unlike his sister's smile, which-like Father's-was wide and exuberant. As for Mom, her bland expression revealed nothing. Or, for that matter, in its nothingness, everything.
"Everybody loved Richard," the widow said flatly when she handed me the photograph. She made it sound like a bad thing.
This weather of ours, it wasn't simply bad. It was a wet, ugly, bitter, nasty and thoroughly crappy, stinking god-awful slop of a miserable night. A cold front from hell (if you can withstand the oxymoron) had skidded into town without warning. Poor Bonnie, over at Television Hill, was probably in tears. Again. During the six o'clock news-pinwheeling her arms all around the map of Baltimore and the vicinity-she had promised that the real shit (my term, not hers) would be passing well to the north. But no sooner had the anemic December sun packed it in for the night than the bottom fell out of the thermometer and huge amoebas of sleet began dropping out of the sky, accompanied by crisscross gusts of wind that were flinging the mess in all directions at once. Now Bonnie would have to come back on at eleven and hold on to an iron smile as her on-air colleagues jovially ganged up on her.
On my way up the street for the doctor's wake, I slipped on the fresh ice and landed knees-first in a slush puddle. Then my elbow took a hard hit on
the iced sidewalk as I slipped trying to get up. The pain ran up and down my arm like a frantic hamster.
"What in the world happened to you?" Billie asked as I came through the door. From the knees down I was a joke.
"Uncontrollable urge to pray," I muttered, reaching down to flick the stray bits of ice from my pant legs.
"Are you going to change them before the people start arriving?"
"I'm not going back out in that slop to change my clothes," I said. "Maybe you'd like to lend me one of your dresses."
My aunt clucked at that. "Oh, I'm too zaftig, dear."
"Big fanny. You're way too svelte for my wardrobe." Billie sighed. "You could always hide behind a floral arrangement," she suggested.
"No flowers please, remember? Send condolences in the form of a contribution to the Heart Association?" Billie sniffed. "What's wrong with flowers and a contribution? Hitchcock, when I go I want that room in there glutted with flowers, do you understand me? I want a jungle."
"Don't 'yes ma'am' me, I'm serious. The funeral of an undertaker should be exemplary in every way." Billie stepped over to straighten my tie. "You give me flowers. Irises. Orchids. Lilies. Even mums. You can make entire
blankets of mums." She smoothed my lapel.
"Duly noted," I said, fluffing the silk scarf under her chin. Billie gently slapped my hand away.
"And no black-eyed Susans. I have never understood why people do that."
"It's the state flower."
"I don't care. This isn't a constitutional convention, it's a funeral. The black-eyed Susan is strictly a roadside flower. It has no business at a funeral. At least not mine. Understood?"
I nodded. Billie turned to the wall mirror and began poking her silvery do. My aunt is a handsome little chippy, who would gently slaughter me if I revealed her age (she's sixty-three). A daughter of the South, she was born with a silver spoon pretty near her mouth but developed fairly quickly into a frustrating disappointment to her high-toned Confederate family. Billie was a socialite rebel. She pretty much ripped it with her aristocratic papa when she showed up at her own cotillion in a pair of riding britches and puffing on a short-stem pipe. It was an offense that she swore-albeit without much vigor-was intended to pay homage to the twin economic pursuits of her dear southern father, namely horse rearing and tobacco farming.
They have a term for this: black sheep.
Billie finished with her hair-it looked exactly the same as before-and turned from the mirror. I had removed my jacket and was rolling up my sleeve to have a look at the elbow.
"Would you like some ice for that elbow? Ice might help, if it's swelling."
"Ice is why it's swelling."
Billie's nose twitched like a rabbit's. "Well then, how about some brandy?" A half hour later, and just after I had salted the sidewalk and the front steps, the friends and relatives of the dead doctor started arriving. We had laid out newspapers beneath the metal coatrack in the front hallway, to catch the runoff. Billie and I were expecting a somewhat smaller than usual turnout on account of the piss-poor weather. My aunt was working the front door. I took up my position near the coffin. I admit, I like to drink in the compliments.
"He looks very nice, Mr. Sewell," the doctor's widow said to me, after spending approximately five seconds gazing down at her husband. Her name was Ann. She had arrived with her husband's brother, along with her daughter and son-in-law, the three of whom immediately set themselves up at the parlor door to start greeting the arriving guests. Ann Kingman was around fifty, short and stocky, a formerly pretty woman gone hard in the eyes and tight around the mouth. She was as heavily made-up as her husband.
"I have your photograph in my office," I told her. "I can give it back to you before you leave."
She gestured vaguely. "Keep it. It's a copy. I have dozens more. We used it for a Christmas card that year."
"It's a very good photo. You have a handsome family."
The woman gave me a frank look. "I know that it is your job to be solicitous, Mr. Sewell. You're very gracious. But if it is all the same to you, I'd feel better if you would drop the effort."
She said all this without a trace of bitterness in her voice. "It's not that I don't appreciate it. I do. But to be honest with you, I'm angry with Richard . . . I know it sounds cold. But the effort of being polite to all the well-wishers tonight is going to exhaust me." She paused to see if I would react. I didn't.
"You and I have a strictly financial relationship," she went on. "And I am officially releasing you from the obligation to tell me that I have a handsome family. The truth is, I have a daughter who hates me and a son who hated his father. Don't let the photograph fool you."
I was tempted to tell her that it hadn't, but I remained silent. She gave me a humorless smile then stepped over to join the daughter who hated her. The son was just arriving. I could see him in the front hallway, shrugging
out of his parka.
As expected, the storm did keep the turnout somewhat small, though not as small as I had thought. What with Hopkins being so close, a fair number of the doctor's colleagues did manage to pop in to pay their respects. From what I could tell, the widow was not requesting polite indifference from anyone but me, and was receiving the sympathies of her guests with apparent authenticity. Her smile was weary and sincere; her occasional laugh was tinged with effort. The daughter, on the other hand, was a slobbering mess. Her husband was dutifully feeding tissues to her from a stash in his jacket pocket.
The son was a little more difficult to read. He was in his late twenties, slender, pale, sandy-haired. He wore a pair of wire-rim glasses. I observed that he looked even more like his mother in real life than he did in the
ski-vacation photograph, right down to the thinly disguised look of scorn that he was wearing. His indifference to his sniffling sister was remarkable. After ten minutes or so of meeting and greeting, he broke away from his family and wandered over to take a look at his father. As he reached the coffin he pulled his hands out of his pockets, as if suddenly ordered to-for the umpteenth time-by the imperious old man. His eyes narrowed as he gazed down at his father. I tensed. If a person is going to do something loud and embarrassing at a wake, this is where it will usually happen. At the coffin. I had positioned myself against the wall, trying my best to look like a potted plant. Just as the son's face was collapsing into tears, I was distracted by a commotion coming from the front hallway. I glanced toward the parlor doors, and when I looked back, the son was reaching his hand into the coffin. The commotion from the front was spilling into the room. I took one step toward the coffin, then the scream rang out. High and shattering.
Our dead waitress had arrived.
* * *
She was folded unceremoniously on the top step. A bloodstain about the circumference of a drink coaster covered her left breast. The scream had come from the dead doctor's secretary, who had been on her way out. "I just pulled open the door and . . . there she was," the woman said to no one in particular as we all gathered around the open doorway.
Assessments came swiftly.
"She's been shot."
"She might be alive."
As if by an invisible signal, a half dozen doctors suddenly surrounded the woman and confirmed, with a check of her neck and her wrists, that there was indeed no pulse. One of them said, "Let's get her inside," and over the protests of a few who cautioned that we should wait for the police, the woman was lifted by four of the medical professionals and carried inside and laid out on the couch in the front hallway. I went back over to the
front door. Before I closed it I peered into the darkness. The various sets of footprints in the slush and snow were-to my eyes-indistinguishable. I saw none that bore the peculiar imprint that said: MURDERER. Maybe if
Alcatraz were there he could have put his nose to some use. But I sure as hell wasn't going to get down on my knees and start sniffing. I glanced across the street at St. Teresa's. Their Nativity scene was looking out of place, all those folks dressed for desert climes standing around in snow. A yellow North Star on a pole behind the manger had a bad electrical connection and was flickering erratically. Like Morse code: S-E-N-D
The wake was a bust. Everybody was crowded into the front hall, leaving the dead doctor to his own devices. One of his colleagues was kneeling in front of the couch, gingerly lifting the bloodstained front of the dress and peering inside. He meant well, but it was a perverse sight.
"Looks like a bullet wound," he said, confirming the previous guess. "Has anyone called the police?" A half dozen cell phones were suddenly whipped out, but a man off in the corner announced that he had just made the call. He flipped his phone shut and slid it smugly back into his pocket.
The dead doctor's daughter was standing near the couch. She had a grip on her husband's lapels and was weeping into his shirt. Who could blame her? I looked about and found the widow and her son standing near the parlor door. Shock had loosened the poor woman's skin. She looked ten years older. Her brother-in-law stepped over to them. He didn't look too peachy either.
"We've got to get these people out of here," I muttered to Billie.
"The police will want to talk with them, won't they? I think everyone should stay put."
She was right. I looked about to assess the scene. I'm six-three, so I have a decent vantage point for assessing. My instinct was to herd everybody out of the hallway, away from the gruesome new arrival and back into the
parlor. But, of course, there was a dead body in there as well. What a mess. I had to take command. The buzz of voices was rising to a din. I hated to do it, but I clapped my hands together loudly, like a schoolteacher harnessing an unruly class. The room fell instantly silent. Impressive. The only sound was the continued soft sobbing of the daughter.
"I'm terribly sorry about this, but I'm going to have to ask everybody to hang tight until the police get here. Make yourselves at . . . If you could all please be patient, I'm sure that we'll-" Billie was tugging on my sleeve. She pulled me down to her level and whispered in my ear. Brilliant tactician. I straightened and cleared my throat.
"Would any of you care for a drink?"
A dam of relief burst.
* * *
As a certified undertaker and overseer of funerals, I'm deft at crowd control when need be. Aunt Billie had taken the doctor's immediate family upstairs to her apartment in order to get them away from the nonsense
below. I was bartending and butlering the other guests. Doctors are largely a Scotch and soda crowd, though personally I've never much cared for the perfumey aftertaste of Scotch. I'm a bourbon man. But then, I wasn't drinking.
I had fetched a thin blanket from Billie's linen closet and placed it over the dead waitress. Before I did, I paused and took a long hard look at the woman. I've seen plenty of dead bodies, so it wasn't from morbid
fascination that I stared overlong at her. I couldn't place her. She was from none of the restaurants that I frequented in the immediate neighborhood, unless she was brand-new. She had shoulder-length hair, thick
and black, which had been gathered up at the back of her head and held there with one of those oversize plastic clips that you can also use to close up a bag of potato chips. With all the jostling she had undergone,
the clip was crooked and only holding back a portion of her hair. The loose strands were glued with melted snow against her cheek and her neck. The young woman-I was placing her in her early- to mid-twenties-had high
cheekbones, a very distinct widow's peak and a slightly turned-up nose. She was about five-five, probably around a hundred and twenty or so. She had a small scar on her chin, roughly the same as the one I have just below my lip. Mine came from a sledding fiasco in my youth which, next to bicycle mishaps, probably accounts for 90 percent of the tiny scars on the faces of America's men. Of course, I had no idea where the dead waitress got hers. One more thing: How did I know she was a waitress? Simple. She was wearing a short, pale green dress, a pair of white sneakers and a brown-and-white checked apron with a plastic tag attached that read: HELEN.
The police weren't happy that the body had been moved. The snow still hadn't let up and the impression that the body had left was already vanishing. The first policemen to arrive were a mixed pair: The older one
was large and gruff, his partner skinny and sour.
"Why did you move the body?" the older cop asked me, shining his flashlight on the front steps. Only the slightest trace of blood remained.
"It's cold out," I said. "It was still sleeting. She wasn't wearing a coat." I didn't have a good answer.
"The crime scene has been breached," the skinny guy said.
I scratched my head. "How do you know it's a crime scene? Nobody here heard any shots."
A general mumbling of assent from the assembled chorus just inside the door backed me up on this point. The two cops exchanged a look.
"We're going to have to question everyone here," the skinny cop said. "I hope you didn't let anybody leave."
His partner looked past me at the milling guests. "Why are they drinking?"
I shrugged. "It's the holidays."
"No more drinks, please. Gather them up."
While I collected everyone's glasses, the two cops moved inside and took a look at the victim. It seemed like a pretty indifferent look, but I suppose I give some ho-hum once-overs at corpses myself. The skinny cop gestured toward the parlor.
"What's in there?"
"Another body," I told him.
"Man or woman?"
"How'd he die?"
"Not tonight, if that's what you're asking."
"You got some sort of table, Mr. Sewell?" the older cop asked. "And a chair?"
I fetched a card table from upstairs and set it up for him. I rolled in my own chair from my office. Command post. The skinny cop pulled the blanket back down so that the waitress's face was showing, then he had everyone line up and walk slowly past her to take a good hard look at her before then stepping over to the card table to be questioned by his partner. The dead doctor's family was still upstairs with Billie. I decided to wait until all of the guests had been interviewed and allowed to leave-out the side door to avoid further "breaching" of the so-called crime scene-before letting the police know about the others. The two cops were as unhappy with this information as they had been with the body's being moved.
"What are they doing upstairs?" the gruff cop demanded.
I indicated the parlor. "That's their loved one in there. It's been upsetting enough for them even before the arrival of our mystery guest. I was giving them a little peace."
"We have to talk to them too."
"Of course you do."
The gruff cop glared at me. Fetch.
The rest of the investigating unit was arriving, everybody grumbling the same thing about the body having been moved. The person with the yellow
crime-scene tape wasn't sure if she should even bother. The photographer took a few pictures of the sidewalk and the front steps then came inside and snapped off a dozen portraits of the waitress. The medical examiner
arrived, and after some poking and prodding, announced that the waitress had been dead between two to five hours. "Fresh kill" was how he put it.
I went up to Billie's living room to fetch the dead doctor's family. I led them back downstairs where they each took a turn looking down at the face of the dead woman. No one recognized her.
"Her name is Helen," the skinny cop said. "Does the name Helen mean anything to anyone?"
"Her face launched a thousand ships," the widow said wearily, then turned and went into the parlor to be with her husband. She was joined by her brother-in-law. The daughter detached herself from her husband's arm and stepped over to me. Her eyes were puffy from crying. Even so, I could tell that she had her father's eyes. Unfortunately she had his jaw too. And perhaps even at one point the nose, though I suspected she had had this
doctored sometime back. The woman was handsome at best. She wore her straw-colored hair coifed into a perfect bowl. Good skin. Pearl earrings and matching necklace. A well-maintained Guilford housewife. She took my hand-my fingers really-and pinched lightly.
"Thank you for all you've done, Mr. Sewell," she said in a voice just barely above a whisper. She withdrew her fingers and joined the others in the parlor.A short, stocky man with yellow hair and the demeanor of a congenial bulldog was coming through the front door. He was wearing a Humphrey Bogart trench coat and a Humphrey Bogart sneer. He stepped directly over to the body. I met him there.
"Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"
Detective John Kruk let out a soft grunt, from which I was able to extract the words, "You again." He was looking down at the woman on the couch.
"Did you know her?"
"I've never seen her before in my life."
"Any idea why she was left here?"
"Well, we're a funeral home. She's dead. Maybe someone was tossing us a bone?"
Detective Kruk looked up at me. "You still a smart aleck, Mr. Sewell?"
"One can never really climb all the way out of the gene pool, Detective."
He grunted again and returned his gaze to the dead waitress. He got down on one knee-a short trip-and pulled the blanket back further, down to the
woman's waist. Without taking his eyes off her, he asked me a series of questions.
"Was she on her front or her back when you found her?"
"Her side, actually."
"Which way was she facing?"
"Sideways, I guess. Is that what you mean?"
"When you opened the door. Head to the left? The right? Facing the door? What?"
"I see. Um . . . her head was to my left. Her right. That would be, facing south."
"Her feet. Her legs. Was she in a fetal position or was she stretched out?"
"Like did someone dump her off or lay her down gently?"
"You can't know that. You weren't present. I'm asking what you observed."
Kruk's warm and fuzzy style was all coming back to me now. He had moved the blanket all the way down to her feet and was looking closely at her legs. The cad.
"I'd say somewhere in between fetal and laid out," I said.
Kruk got back to his feet. Aunt Billie had just come into the hallway. A smile blossomed on her face as she came forward.
"It's Sergeant Kruk, isn't it? Why hello."
"Lieutenant. Hello, Mrs. Sewell."
"We meet again. Isn't it terrible? The poor girl. Can I offer you anything to drink, Detective?"
"No. Thank you." Kruk told us that he and his gang would be there another hour or so. "You might as well go on about your business," he said.
I stepped over to say my good-byes to the dead doctor's family, who were finally leaving. They all looked terrible. The widow summed it up.
"It's a rotten night all around."
The dead doctor's brother gave me a lousy handshake as they were leaving. He took one final glance back toward the coffin, then joined his family at the door. They left, huddled together like a family of turtles. I watched them disappear into the snow. Forty minutes later the dead waitress was hoisted onto a gurney and taken away. She was being referred to now as "Jane Doe," though it seemed to me that "Helen Doe" would have been-technically-closer to the truth. Kruk's minions began drifting away. I went into the parlor and battened down the hatches on the doctor's coffin.
That's when I discovered what the son had been doing when he had reached into the coffin. There on the dead man's chest was a silver dollar. One of the old ones. This one was dated 1902. I had no idea of the significance, but I'm accustomed to people dumping various memorabilia into their loved one's coffins at the last minute. My favorite was a small alarm clock, set to go off every day at four in the morning. Billie and I debated all through breakfast the morning of the funeral whether or not to turn off the alarm. In the end, we left it.
I replaced the silver dollar on the doctor's chest and closed the lid of the coffin, then I shut off the lights and left the doctor to his last night on Earth. Billie was looking tired and I sent her off to bed. "I'll lock up," I told her. Which I did. Then I put on my coat and headed back down the dark street to my place. The wetness had finally gone out of the snowfall. It was down to wind-whipped flurries, silver brush strokes in the gusty night air. And cold. Goddamn it was cold.
There was a leggy blond woman in my bed when I climbed the stairs to my place. She had a big, sad, bruised look on her face.
"I hate my goddamn job," she pouted.
I shrugged, getting out of my clothes as quickly as possible. "Oh you know, you win some, you lose some."
I slid between the sheets. The warmth coming off her body was a rapture. She turned to me. "I didn't just 'lose some,' Hitch. I called for light fucking flurries and lows in the upper twenties. Have you seen it out there? It's a goddamn disaster. I fucking stink."
I love a woman who swears like a sailor. Bonnie Nash rolled into my arms. Fronts collided. High pressure dominated. We were in for a wild one.