MURDER IN THE HEARSE DEGREE
Ray Ghost sidled up to me in the middle of a funeral to tell me that an old flame of mine had left her husband down in Annapolis and was back in Baltimore. He had an insanely huge grin on his Howdy Doody face when he told me the news, the kind of look a dogll give you when hes dying for you to throw the stick.
"Youre at a funeral," I reminded him. "You might want to hide your teeth."
Ray drives the panel truck for the Church Home and Hospital Thrift Shop, picking up old furniture and clothes and books and whatever various knick-knacks people want to unload in exchange for a little tax write-off. Its where Ray gets most of his clothes. The man is a sartorial miasma. Today he was sporting a chocolate brown suit that rode on his lanky frame like a pair of pajamas. Either the sleeves of the suit coat were too short or the sleeves of his yellow dress shirt were too long; the cuffs came out over Rays hands like bells. Ray planted his feet and put a heavy scowl on his face. He jammed his hands into his pockets then yanked them right out again and, mimicking me, clasped his hands at his crotch.
"Saw her yesterday, Hitchcock," Ray murmured tersely, his eyes fixed on a spot on the ground in front of him. "Bolton Hill. Didnt look so good. Asked about you."
I brought a finger to my lips and quietly shooshed him. Ray reset his feet and coughed into his hand.
I was keeping an eye on the widower. A backhoe operator from Dundalk. Young guy. Deeply tanned and looking uncomfortable in his suit. We were burying his wife. She had just stepped out of Finklesteins the previous Monday with an armload of new jeans for her boys when an ambulance racing down York Road had veered to avoid hitting a turtlebacked old dearie who was caning her way across the street in full oblivion deaf, it turned out. The ambulance jumped the curb, taking out a wooden bench, a parking meter, two newspaper boxes (The City Paper and The Towson Times) and by far the saddest fact, the backhoe operators wife. The couple had three boys, each one exactly a head taller (or shorter) than the next. They were standing with their father, staring holes into their mothers casket, which was suspended above the grave. I had come across the eldest of the boys earlier in the morning, outside the funeral home. He had one of those thermometer-style tire gauges with him and he was scrabbling around the hearse on his haunches, testing the tire pressures. The boy had insisted on wearing the new jeans his mother had purchased for him. He looked to be around twelve. Thats the age I was when I lost my parents and my unborn baby sister to a charging beer truck at the intersection of Broadway and Eastern Avenue. Not the drivers fault, by the way. Just a case of really, really bad timing.
The widower summoned me over. I told Ray to hang tight and stepped over to the graveside to be of service.
"Ive changed my mind," the man said to me. He indicated his three boys. "They dont want me to do it after all. Is that okay?"
The Number One laugh-line in my profession is Its your funeral. May I go to my own grave having never uttered it.
"No problem," I said. "Whatever you want. Well take care of it."
I glanced down at the boys. The twelve-year old looked like he was ready to kick the next person that spoke to him. I decided not to be that person and I stepped over to a nearby mausoleum where Pops and his crew were cooling their heels. Pops has been digging graves in Greenmount Cemetery since before they invented the shovel. I spent some time myself crewing with him in my strapping youth, during my growth spurt. It was the summer I was trying to grow sideburns. Pops had a pair of mutton chops back then that held me in awe; they came right to the edges of his mouth and were black and bushy and thick enough you could hide toothpicks in them. My painstakingly cultivated crop of peach fuzz was dismal by comparison. Id rub dirt in my cheeks to see if I could get some of it to cling to the silky down. Pops taught me how to chew tobacco that summer, which made up a bit for the nearly inert facial hair. I came out of the summer nearly a foot taller than when Id entered it, with arms like steel, dirty cheeks, and firing off tobacco juice with machine-gun regularity. Come Labor Day my Aunt Billie put a stop to it. I washed my face, bought a bottle of mouthwash and shaved off my phantom sideburns.
Two of Pops crew were playing checkers, kneeling on the grass with a faded checkerboard between them while the third, a fellow we all called Tommy Haircut, was leaning against the mausoleum James Dean style, chewing gum and blowing a gargantuan bubble.
"Youre back on," I said to Pops. "Hes changed his mind."
Pops sent a missile of brown juice into the clover. "Good. I didnt like it."
I knew that already. Pops had told me ten times that he didnt like it and I had patiently told him eleven times that he didnt have to like it, that it was what the customer was requesting.
"It was a bad idea," Pops said, running his thumb and forefinger along his white walrus mustache.
"It was a fine idea," I said. "The man just decided against it."
Pops smirked then turned to his crew. "Were on. Look alive."
Tommy Haircut popped his bubble and shoulder-shoved himself off the mausoleum wall. His blonde pompadour wobbled on his head. The checker players folded their board. One of the two let out a sigh of relief.
I went back over to the canopy where the dozen folding chairs were set and gave a nod to the widower to let him know that everything was fine. He gave grim acknowledgment. His plan had been to climb up into the cemeterys John Deere at the conclusion of the service and begin the process of filling in his wifes grave himself. The thought had come to him the night before, during her wake. He discussed it with his sons who had all gone along with the idea. Apparently something had changed. I suspected the twelve year old.
The service played out and each boy stepped forward to set a rose onto his mothers casket. White casket with silver handles. Very feminine. The twelve-year old paused after placing his rose and worked something out of his rear pants pocket. It was a scrunched up Orioles cap. He glanced at his father who nodded - set the cap on top of the casket then stepped back over to his brothers, accepting a grim low-five from each of them. The widower gathered them in like a mother hen - or father hen - and that pretty much concluded the affair.
I gave a nod to Tony Marino. Tony had been standing in his full Scottish regalia some thirty feet off, as stock still as a statue. Despite the unique air conditioning afforded by his kilt, Tony was sweating like a frozen beer mug under his furry headpiece. The widower had made a particular request and Tony - God love him had stayed up half the night working out a passable arrangement on the bagpipes. Tony carries the gold medal for Lovelorn; theres not a thing he wouldnt do in the service of a severed romance.
Tony puffed up his chest. He checked the position of his fingers, then commenced to squeeze and wheeze.
Thats a song. It was recorded years ago by a group calling itself Bread. It has nothing to do with the Kipling poem. Its what the backhoe operator wanted. On bagpipes it was bloody god-awful. Sounded like a herd of little lambies being slaughtered. Tony worked it bravely, his face going as red as a blood-filled tomato.
The backhoe operator collapsed into tears.
Ray Ghost had drifted over to Pops crew and was jawing quietly with Tommy Haircut, whose insane pompadour was wobbling on his head like jello in an earthquake. I signaled to Ray and he shuffled over.
"Okay. So whats this about Libby?"
* * *
Libby was fresh from the shower when she pulled open the door. Well, nearly fresh; she was clothed. Her black hair was plastered to her head in wet ringlets and she had a towel draped over one shoulder. Her cheeks were wet. There was a bead of water jiggling on the very tip of her nose and it dropped off when she saw who was standing at the door.
"Oh my god. Its an undertaker."
I removed an invisible hat and solemnly placed it over my heart. Libbys huge grin stretched across her moon-shaped face.
If Libby had aged a dot in the past six years it must have been on the bottom of her feet where I couldnt see it. I didnt ask for a look. She was wearing a blue and white striped scoop-neck t-shirt and white slacks. She looked like an awfully sexy gondolier. The last time Id seen her she had looked like an awfully sexy bride. Her skin was still as Kabuki-white as I remembered, offset by dark arching eyebrows, a small mouth and a pair of large and lovely Pacific-blue eyes. Libby hailed from southern California but she was no big fan of the sun, rarely going outside without one of her army of large floppy hats. Libby was slim-hipped; a trim girl-like frame. I had always felt she could have used an extra pound or two and she had always said she loved me for thinking so. Standing here in the doorway, we would have hugged, except that Libby had something balanced on her hip.
"Whats that?" I asked.
Libby shifted her weight. "This is my little monkey."
I leaned forward for a better look. "Youre a cute little monkey," I said. "You look like the kind of monkey they can teach to talk. Quick, whats the capital of Alaska?"
The little monkey burrowed her head into Libbys breasts.
"Her name is Lily," Libby said.
"Shes cute. Shes got your nose."
"Shes got no such thing. Ive got this little ski slope. Dont you be insulting my child."
I tapped Lily on her shoulder. "I think your mother is a wee bit sensitive. Dont you worry. Your proboscis becomes you."
The child burrowed deeper.
"Shes shy around strangers," Libby said.
I took a beat. "And they dont get any stranger than me?"
Libby tossed her head and laughed. "I wasnt going to say anything."
* * *
Libby invited me inside. The entranceway floor was checked in large black and white tiles. There was an elaborate wooden piece of furniture right there by the door that you could sit on, store things in, hang things on and check out your own reflection in. About the only thing it didnt do was make omelets and sing lullabies.
"Whose digs?" I asked, following Libby down the narrow hallway. Lily had crawled up her mothers shoulder and was peering at me with the dull intensity that children can get away with. It didnt waver when I made a face at her. We paused at the end of the hallway where a set of stairs spiraled steeply upward.
"You remember my friend Shelly?"
"Crazy Shelly? The one who reads all those murder mysteries?"
"Thats the one. This is her place."
"Are there any dead bodies in the basement?"
"She reads the books, Hitch, she doesnt re-enact them."
I cupped my hands to my mouth and called up the stairs, "Mrs. Danvers? Is everything okay up there?"
Libby smirked. "Funny."
Im glad she thought so.
Libby explained that her friend was away on vacation for several weeks and was letting Libby use the house. The place was pretty nicely done up, that is if you go in for old stuff. There were several small rugs on the walls, which Ive always thought was pretty classy. A painting of an ugly woman circa a long long time ago. Antique bric-a-brac collecting contemporary dust. The furniture in the room where Libby led me looked like what youd expect at Versailles, just perfect for a megalomaniac little Sun King but nothing terribly Hitchcock-friendly. There were two floor-to-ceiling windows at the far end of the room, overlooking the street, bordered by long oyster-white curtains. The September sun was streaming through the windows like God himself had decided to join us.
Libby set her daughter down on the floor and I moved in for the hug. We screwed up the choreography. Our heads nearly clunked as we each bobbed the same direction. Our arms didnt quite slink into place.
"Wow," Libby said. "That stank."
Once we got into the front room Lily overcame her shyness and decided that it was of the utmost importance that I not only meet her huge collection of inanimate bears and cats and frogs and dogs and tigers, but that I pay close attention to the conversations she was prompting them to have with one another. The little girl spoke in an animated murmur, so I crouched down next to her to hear better. The talk seemed to center on a character named Sydney who I gathered had misbehaved in some fashion and was being ostracized by the rest of the gang. The details were murky. Lily grabbed a giraffe by the neck not terribly hard to do and used it to knock over three animals with one swipe. She smiled proudly at her achievement. I stood back up and patted the girl on the head.
Libby winced a smile. "Its been a rough couple of days."
I sent an eyebrow running up the pole. "So what gives? Ray Ghost told me he was making a pick-up next door and he saw you out on the steps. Watering geraniums, I believe."
"See? My information is so dog gone sketchy."
Libby was rubbing her thin arms, thought I didnt think it was particularly cold in the place. "Lets go into the kitchen." She turned to her daughter. "Honey, before you go outside I want you to pick up all these toys. Do you understand me?"
Lily let off a world class sigh. Correct me if Im wrong, but is it not true that little girls learn exasperation way the hell before little boys do? I followed Libby through the dining room into the kitchen. It was a French style kitchen, with a large ceiling rack on which hung nearly a dozen copper pots and pans that looked like theyd never been used. Libby offered me tea. I dont really like tea, but I told her tea would be just swell. I was raised to be accommodating. I took a seat at the kitchen table as Libby fetched me a teacup. She stuck a kettle under the spigot and ran some water into it. She put the kettle on the stove and kicked up the flame then leaned up against the counter and tucked her wet hair behind her ears.
"So how have you been, Hitch? Tell me what youve been up to."
"Me? Lets see not much new really," I said. "Of course Im a lot handsomer now, as you can see."
"I was going to say thinner."
"We call that trim. I work out once a month now."
"My golf game has improved."
"Is that so? I didnt know you played golf."
"Putt putt. Ive finally mastered that devilish old windmill."
Libby roped her arms over her breasts. "I happen to know that if I try really hard I can actually get a serious word out of you. Hows Julia? Is she still in the picture?"
Julia is my ex-wife. One silly year of marriage. Ill-conceived, awkwardly executed, ended by mutual consent. Were still ungodly close. Julia is the loveliest libidinous creature youd ever hope to stumble across. Also an acclaimed painter. Also a nut.
"Julia? Oh, shes fine. Still working the streets you know."
"What a lovely thing to say."
"Ive been rehearsing that line. How did it sound?"
Libby grabbed a basket from the counter and tossed it onto the table. It was filled with tea bags. The wicker on the handle had begun to unravel. I stirred through the basket and picked out a teabag with the word berry on it. I dont know my flavored teas, but Im pretty fond of berries.
"So whats up?" I asked. "Ray told me he asked you about Mike and you snapped shut like a clam."
Libby leveled a look at me. "You never liked Mike."
"That might be. But you can also anagram that sentence and it would be just as true."
"Dont I know."
Mike Gellman was Libbys husband, though when I first heard his name some six years previous, he had simply been the unlucky fellow from whom Libby had broken off her engagement. It was about a month after Libby pulled the plug that I met her. She was sitting across from me in a booth at Burkes Restaurant ignoring a plate of French fries with gravy, looking very grave and very pretty. Im a fiend for French fries with gravy, so I had insinuated myself at her booth and remained there until I finally got a laugh out of her. Eventually I was able to convince her to go out dancing. I keep a list of women who have been able to resist the patented Hitch two-step, and even in my excessive humility Im proud to say its a very short list. One thing led to about a dozen others, and Libby and I ended up spending the next several months together making the world go away, which I strongly recommend trying if you havent already done so. I was fresh off from my goofball marriage with Julia, and Libby proved a vivacious panacea for that unfortunate episode. It turned out that Mike was still very much on the sidelines, lobbying hard to get Libby to come back to him, and his pull on her was more than even Libby had realized. Several months into our festive bacchanalia Libby abruptly called it to a halt. Despite her jitters, she did want to marry and start a family. I didnt. I bowed out with considerable grace and at Libbys request agreed to meet Mike. As far as summits go, ours was not a qualified success. I found Mike Gellman charming and tolerable, but also a little too patronizing. I like a humble man even if its cleverly disguised and that certainly wasnt Mike Gellman. But then I didnt have to live with the guy; I only had to sweat through a couple of drinks and as much phony bonhomie as I could muster.
Libbys hair was drying out now, thickening before my very eyes. Like one of those flat sponges you drop into water. She shifted uncomfortably, crossing her arms. Her eyebrows collapsed in on each other.
"That was a strange time for all of us. I really behaved very badly with you. You were so kind not to hate me."
"I like to think so."
"Maybe Im wrong. Maybe you did hate me." Her eyes narrowed. "Maybe you do hate me."
"I think we used each other in equal measure. In the end nobody seemed to get seriously hurt."
"Im glad to hear you say that, Hitch. Ive thought about you a lot the last six years. You showed a lot of style the way you handled all that. I wish I could say the same thing about Mike."
"Well, Mike and I had our differences One of them being that I was a good loser and he was a sore winner."
Libby raked her fingers through her hair. She suddenly seemed uncomfortable.
"Mike has been Weve had our ups and downs in the marriage, Hitch. I know thats to be expected. Nothings perfect. Its all looked pretty good from the outside, but Im afraid it hasnt always been the greatest."
"No one said marriage is a walk in the park."
"Mike can be a little difficult sometimes."
"Now, for example?"
"Oh yes. Now is a good example. An excellent one, in fact." Libby set her hands on the counter as if she was going to perform an impossible gymnastic move. Her mouth drew a grim line. "Mikes in some sort of hot water down in Annapolis. I dont know the details, but I can tell its bad. Hes been under a lot of pressure lately."
"Im sorry to hear that."
"Mikes an assistant in the DAs office in Annapolis. Hes been a big rising star there. Theres been some talk recently of his maybe running for his bosss job in the next election. Mike would like nothing better. You wouldnt believe how ambitious he is. Hes a maniac. The problem is, theres some sort of internal investigation that has started up. And Mikes the focus. I overheard him on a call with his uncle last week. He didnt know I was listening. It was scary. He was talking about possible disbarment. That would kill him, Hitch. Hed be crushed. I dont even want to imagine. Maybe you remember Mike has a little bit of an ego."
Nine parts ego and one part water, if I remember correctly. But I didnt say anything. The kettle began to whimper. Libby turned off the flame and poured water into my cup, then hers. I unwrapped my berry teabag and commenced to dunking.
"So then why are you in Baltimore, Libby?" I asked. "Does it have to do with this trouble your husbands in?"
"No. Its not that." Libby was going with Earl Gray. She removed him from his packet and lowered him slowly into the boiling water. Not a sound.
"Im here because the bastard hit me."
* * *
Libby and I went back into the front room. The room looked like the prelude to the Saint Valentines Day Massacre. All of Lilys stuffed animals had been lined up facing the wall. Only, Lily wasnt paying attention to the dolls. She was paying attention to a chubby little boy who was sitting in the middle of the floor. The boy was dressed in red pants and a blue shirt, like the baby Superman when he came down from Krypton. Lily was covering the boy with kisses. A fiftyish woman was seated on the couch, poking through her purse. She had thick ankles and a jowly face. Libby made the introductions.
"Hitch, this is Valerie. Im borrowing Valerie from a neighbor of Shellys. Shes helping me look after the children. Valeries a godsend."
The godsend looked up from her purse and smiled. She had large teeth and a mole to the left of her right eye. The eye was also a little lazy, but then some days, so am I.
"And this is Toby."
The force of a hundred kisses were finally too much for the baby Superman. He fell sideways and seemed content to stay there. I tilted my head to look at him.
"Youre supposed to say hes cute."
"Hes cute," I said. "And hes chubby. Is he yours, too?"
"Yes." She added, "And he has my nose."
Valerie was taking the kids out to a nearby park. She loaded Toby into a double stroller. Lily stepped over to the wall of stuffed animals and marched back and forth a few times like a junior field marshal. She finally picked up a tiger by the tail and climbed into the stroller. Valerie leaned into the stroller like Sisyphus into his rock and got it moving. Libby walked with them to the door and I stepped over to one of the large windows. Bolton Hill is one of Baltimores handsome old neighborhoods. I believe the Cone sisters lived here for awhile. And F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wacky Zelda. Gertrude Gertrude Stein Stein might have set a spell here, too, at least so Ive been told.
A man across the street wearing several sweaters and shouldering two bulging garbage bags was peeing on a fire hydrant. Nothing handsome about that. Luckily, Valerie and the kids were headed the opposite direction. I turned around as Libby came back into the room.
"Theres a man out there peeing on a fire hydrant," I said.
"Good for him," Libby grumbled.
I came away from the window and went over to the couch and sat down. Libby had moved to the fireplace where she picked up a porcelain figurine from the mantelpiece and was fussing absently with it. The figurine was of a maid milking a cow. Libby ran her thumb absently over the cows nose. Her mood had darkened. Libby set the figurine back on the mantelpiece and glanced in the mirror. Whether she was looking at herself or at me or at the tail end of Alice, I couldnt say. Finally she turned around.
"Ask," she said. "I know you want to."
"Why dont you just tell me?"
She held her gaze on me. "Okay. The answer is no. It is not the first time Mike has hit me. It has happened before. He has a temper."
"A person can have a temper and still not hit people."
"Im not making excuses for him."
"I hope not. Youd find me hard to convince."
"Its a difficult relationship to explain. Mike and "
I held my hand up to stop her. "Im not asking you to explain it, Libby. Im of the opinion that one strike and youre out, but its not my marriage, its yours."
"It might not be for long."
"Are you pulling the plug?"
"Something has happened I mean besides Mikes hitting me." She moved over to an armless chair and settled onto it. "Our nanny is missing."
"What do you mean missing?"
"Missing, Hitch. Shes gone. She disappeared."
"When did this happen?"
"Just this past Friday night. Or Saturday morning. I guess it depends how you want to look at it. Her name is Sophie. Shes very sweet. Weve only had her a few months. Shes around twenty-two, twenty-three? Great with the children. Shes from Hungary originally. Her father died and her mother remarried an American who brought them both over. Shes very quiet. Pretty much keeps to herself. Im worried."
"Have you spoken to her friends? Anything like that?"
"She doesnt have any. Or if she does she hasnt brought them around. For the most part, after the children go to bed Sophie goes to her room and reads or watches videos. Though the thing is this last week she started going out. She didnt say where she was going and its not really my business to pry. It did seem to me though that she was in a peculiar mood. Sort of preoccupied. But I didnt think anything particular about it."
"How about a boyfriend?" I asked.
"I suppose its possible. Shes shy. Maybe she wouldnt feel comfortable telling me."
"So what happened?"
"Like I said, it was this past Friday. Mike was working late. No surprise there. I wasnt feeling so great. I was coming off a cold Id had most of the week and I was bushed, so after Sophie and I put the kids to bed I went to bed early. Sophie said she was going out. The next morning I got Toby and Lily up. Mike was up and out already, on his run. He jogs down to the river and across the bridge to the Naval Academy campus every morning. I looked in Sophies room and she wasnt there. Her bed was still made. She hadnt come home the night before."
"Has she ever done anything like that before?"
"Never. Our last nanny was a regular party girl, but not Sophie. Shes just the opposite in fact. Which has been fine by me."
"Did you call the police?"
"Thats the thing, Hitch. We didnt. Not right away. And I could kick myself. At first we just waited for Sophie to come back. I wasnt real thrilled that she would stay out all night like that and not tell us, but maybe shed suddenly gotten a life. I was still going to read her the riot act of course. We waited all through Saturday. Nothing. I did want to call the police by late Saturday, but Mike overrode me. He insisted we hold off. Mike deals with the police practically every day. He said they dont respond to a missing persons call until the person has been missing for forty-eight hours. If theyre an adult, that is. Which Sophie is. So what did I know? I argued with him a little bit, but he kept saying we didnt want to over-react. He said most of the calls the police get are people over-reacting."
"What about her parents?" I asked. "Maybe she decided to go home for a visit."
"Ive been trying that. Her mother and stepfather live up on Long Island. All Ive gotten is a phone machine. Im guessing they must be away on vacation or something. And Im certainly not going to leave a message on their phone machine saying Hi, your daughter is missing. Call me."
"Could Sophie have maybe gone on vacation with them?"
Libby shook her head. "I wish I could think so. But theres no way shed just take off like that without saying anything. It just doesnt make sense. So anyway, on Sunday Mike finally did agree we should notify the police and they sent someone out to take a report. It was after the police left that I went into Sophies room and started looking around. I hadnt felt right about it up to then. Thats when it happened."
"Thats when he hit me. Mike came in and saw what I was doing and well he just went ballistic. He snapped. He started screaming at me that I had no right snooping around in Sophies room and all sorts of garbage. I told you, hes been under a lot of pressure. He just blew. One minute we were standing there screaming at each other and the next thing I knew, I was down on Sophies bed with blood coming out of my nose."
Libby put her fingers lightly against her cheek. "I thought he had broken my nose. It was horrible. Then Mike took off. He just turned around and stormed out of the house." Her eyes went flinty. "And god damn it, Hitch, so did I. Maybe he knocked some sense into me. Youre absolutely right. There is no excuse for that sort of thing. And Im not about to make one for him. I called up Shelly told her what had happened and she said we could use the place as long as we needed. She wanted me to call the police but I said no. I just wanted to get the hell out of there. I threw some of the kids stuff into the car and here I am. I have no idea what Im going to do next."
"Has Mike contacted you?"
"Youd better believe it. I let him know where I was. I didnt want him filing a missing persons on me. Hes called. He wants me to come back of course. He apologized for hitting me, but every conversation has still ended in a yelling match. Its really no good, Hitch."
"And still no word from your nanny?"
"None. I feel responsible for her. I could shoot myself for letting the whole weekend go by without contacting the police. What the hell was I thinking?"
Tears suddenly sprang to her eyes. She looked up at the ceiling.
"Ill be damned. I am not going to cry."
I got up from the couch and handed her a handkerchief. No self respecting undertaker leaves the house without one. She took it and buried it in her lap.
"Look, Libby, maybe I can help with this. I cant promise you anything, but I know someone who has got some experience in tracking down missing persons. Hes a private investigator. Maybe I can talk to him."
She shook her head. "Thats very kind, Hitch. But theres no reason for you to get involved in this. Im just being silly."
"It couldnt hurt just to ask."
Libby poked at her eyes with my handkerchief then wrapped her arms around herself and began to cry in earnest. She didnt say yes, she didnt say no.
I usually take that as a yes.
I wont go so far as to say that the Fells Point section of Baltimore is an area that time forgot, though I do think its fair to say that time hasnt made nearly as much an impression here as it has on other sections of town. Our buildings are on the small side and have been around long enough to settle at slight angles, giving the impression that theyre leaning against each other in order to keep them from falling. Its a posture that you can see somewhat mimicked especially on weekends - by the hordes who descend on Fells Points poorly cobbled streets to negotiate the numerous dockside bars that proliferate in the neighborhood. Fells Point used to be a sailors haven and many of these bars have changed little from that time. The counters are scarred, the floors are uneven, the air is smoky and stale. They filmed a popular police show in this area for a number of years. The show got a lot of bang for its buck when it came to local color. Whenever there was a crowd scene to be filmed the production crew let groups of locals bunch together in the background to gawk on cue. I come across the show in reruns sometimes when I drag my television out of the closet and fire her up. Its like having a little magic window onto the neighborhood, seeing my neighbors there on the tube, all of them working hard to get their crowd-scene-gawker Emmy. The show is gone now, but they did leave behind a false door down at the maritime building that has Baltimore City Police stenciled on it. You can yank on that thing all day if youd like to Ive seen people do it but if youre looking for the affirming balm of law enforcement, youre not going to get it there.
The funeral home that I run with my Aunt Billie is a couple of blocks in from the harbor. Its called Sewell and Sons Family Funeral Home, but dont let that fool you. There was never a son in the game; Aunt Billie and my ugly Uncle Stu never had any knee nibblers, they simply thought the name would be good for business. I moved in with the two of them when I was twelve, after the beer truck made its quick work of my parents and my sister. One thing lead to another which is after all the nature of things and came a day that ugly Uncle Stu was dead and I was a licensed mortician all ready to take his place. I took a stab at convincing Billie to rename the place Harold & Maudes. To Billies credit, she almost bought it.
Aunt Billie and Darryl Sandusky were sitting on the front steps of the funeral home smoking cigarettes as I came up the sidewalk.
"Hey, Sewell," I said to Billie. "Whats with the runt?"
"Im not a runt," Darryl said.
"How tall are you?" I asked.
"Five feet one and a quarter inches."
"Thats a runt."
Darryl snorted. "Give me a break. Im only twelve."
"I forgot. The cigarette makes you look older. Gee, I guess thats the point."
Aunt Billie shaded her eyes to look up at me. "Darryl and I are discussing the state of the world."
"It stinks," Darryl said. He took a humongous drag on his cigarette.
"Shouldnt you be off chasing cars with your friends?" I asked.
The kid squinted up at me. "What do you think I am, a dog?"
"Does your mother know youre sitting here with an old lady putting nails in your coffin?"
"Darryl wants to be a mortician," Billie said. "Ive been explaining to him the vagaries of the profession."
"Are you trying to squeeze me out, kid?" I said.
"Ill be dead one day, Hitchcock," Billie said. " Perhaps Darryl could be your new partner."
"Sandusky and Hitch? I dont know. Sounds like a bad cop show." I considered Darryl again. "You look pretty scrawny to me."
"You were scrawny at his age," Billie remarked.
"Yeah," Darryl said.
"Ill tell you what, next body we get you can help me scrub it down."
Darryl flicked his cigarette into the street. He looked over at Billie.
"Is he shittin me, Mrs. Sewell?"
"No, Darryl. Hitchcock is a man of his word. Im sure hes not shittin you."
"Dont go planning on any big busty blondes," I warned him. "You take what you get in this business."
Darryl pawed the air. "Youre nuts."
Who told him?
Billie finished her cigarette and handed it to Darryl. The boy flicked it out into the middle of the street. Billie smiled up at me.
I went inside to my office and leafed through my mail. Big yawn there. I had a fax dangling out of the machine. A mortician in Columbus, Ohio, was being sued by the family of a customer who there is no way to put this delicately had blown up about a week after his internment in the familys mausoleum. Its rare, but it happens, and when it does it usually suggests a lousy embalming or no embalming whatsoever. The explosion can be surprisingly powerful. In this case the door of the mausoleum had literally cracked when a piece of the concrete vault slammed into it at mach speed. The mortician was professing his innocence in the grisly event and was faxing newspaper articles concerning the trial to his colleagues all over the country. I wasnt quite sure how we were supposed to show our support. Were we expected to travel to Columbus in our hearses and ring the courthouse? As best I could tell the guy had simply botched the embalming and that was pretty much the end of it. Naturally, he was being sued for millions. Nobody sues for reasonable amounts anymore; its all this bonanza seeking. Anyway, I set my feet up on my desk, skimmed the latest installment then balled the fax and missed the three-point attempt into my doorstop spittoon.
About an hour later I popped down the street to my place and changed out of my suit then swung down to the Cats Eye Saloon to see if pretty Maria was playing. She wasnt. The Ferguson Brothers were playing. Neither of them is particularly pretty. I chewed on a mug of Guinness then angled over to John Stevens for a plate of mussels and an argument with Greasy Kevin about which member of the 1966 World Series-winning Orioles, Paul Blair or Frank Robinson, had almost drowned in a swimming pool during a team party about midway through the season. Kevin swore that it was Blair. My money went on Frank Robinson, who had been acquired that year from Cincinnati to help the Birds nab the pennant. Kevin could simply not stomach the idea that a man who was batting a season average of .316, a slugging average of .637 and who was well on his way to MVP and Triple Crown honors could not negotiate a backyard swimming pool. We both agreed however that it was the Os catcher, Andy Etchebarren, who had noticed the floundering ballplayer in the deep end and who had dived into the pool to save him, but that was about all we could agree on. After that it was rankle, rankle, rankle.
Alcatraz was working on a quantum physics problem when I got back home, but he managed to shove all the papers into a folder and stow it away before I closed the front door behind me. He looked for all the world like a long-sleeping hound dog when I came in.
There were three messages on my phone machine. One was from my ex-wife, Julia. She was calling to tell me a joke shed just heard but she couldnt remember how it went. "It was very funny," she said on the machine, and she laughed hysterically at the memory. The second message was a recorded voice telling me that I had a free hotel room waiting for me at a resort somewhere in Florida if I acted now. I didnt act. Neither then nor later.
The third message was from Libby. I was standing on one leg pulling off my shoes when her voice came on.
"Hitch? Hello, its me. Listen, I appreciate your offer to help out this afternoon and everything, but well, it looks like you dont have to. Sophies been found."
I yanked the shoe off. The power of the pull sent me falling against the wall. I had to play back the message to be sure Id heard the final part.
" shes dead."