There it was, in black and white: Cecily VanDeGroot, dead at 88. Rich. Well-known. A good-sized family who’d want a good show. One I could give them.
Damn. “Services provided by Eternal Rest.” Lo’Retta had beat me out again. Early bird gets the worm.
And so do the dead. But we don’t tell the customers that.
“ROGER DAWKINS—YOU ARE THE DEVIL IN A GRAY SILK SUIT!”
I put down my cellphone, certain that Lo’Retta had cracked the screen when she hung up.
Lo’Retta HiLeen Roubidoux, from “near Atlanta,” with more bleach than peach to her Georgia good looks. A ring for every man who snagged her, and a hefty settlement when he discovered he hadn’t.
She ran the Haven of Eternal Rest Funeral Home across town, rival to my own Weeping Birches Mortuary Services.
And she wanted me dead as a corpse in a gold-plated coffin.
Frances, my cold-box assistant, interrupted me. “You want Castleberry front or back?” Castleberry was the richest dead lawyer this year, and I’d snatched him from Lo’Retta, now madder than a shampooed cat.
“Front. Near the catalogs. And for God’s sake, not too life-like, Frances. He should look like he’s sleeping forever, not like he’s taking a short nap. Scared the bejesus out of Ma Willoughby.” We’d been adjusting Mr. Willoughby while his widow was here. His eyes popped right open; Ma Willoughby plopped right over; and almost had a new customer right then and there.
Frances left, and I returned to the paperwork. And to Lo’Retta.
* * *
Tuesday it started again. Sunday is the day of rest (though we don’t call it that), and on Monday we scan the obits.
I got to Lo’Retta’s place just five minutes before the service.
Nicely laid out. Flowers, flounces, and candles, like you’d expect for a woman like Cecily. All golds and silvers and whites. Cecily propped up in the open coffin, her spectacles on and her hands folded over a Bible. Not hers, but one with HOLY BIBLE in big gold letters, like a saint would have. But maybe not like Cecily.
Damn. Lo’retta had rows of china dolls all across the bier. Cecily had a thousand dolls in her home, and Lo’Retta had snagged the best. I heard the black-clad guests murmuring: “Such a fine set-up.” “Yes, she loved those dolls.” “That Lo’Retta, just always thinking up the best ideas.” “Makes me want to die myself to get this send-off.”
I shook my head.
Dear God! She had Duke out. Again! Duke, her Scottish Terrier, trained to drop a single red rose in the coffin at the finale, and then, so help me, pray. It was a killer ending, and it made everyone cry.
And I had nothing like it!
Not this time, Lo’Retta. I was prepared for this: I removed a piece of bacon from a plastic bag, then placed it just between Cecily’s lips as she lay there, looking so peaceful.
I heard the funeral ended in mayhem and melee as the family began screaming when Duke first started nibbling Cecily’s face, and then continued by licking out the bacon. Some thought he’d bitten out her tongue.
No matter. Cecily was a terrible gossip. It was a lesson. And I’m sure Duke enjoyed the bacon.
It took those high airs right out of Lo’Retta.
* * *
“Boss-man, Castleberry’s about as done as he’ll ever be.” Frances wiped her forehead and waved me over.
Castleberry looked fine, lying in his best suit, the pocket square just so, and his face artfully powdered to look pale, not too yellowy or mottled.
“Wheel him out. The family wants a private viewing.”
“You got a surprise planned, boss-man?”
* * *
I was double-checking the funeral programs when I smelled that familiar perfume.
“Hey there, Roger. Don’t you look divine today?” The temperature in the viewing room just leapt up thirty degrees.
She was standing there, sky-blue eyes in a cloud of golden hair.
“Lo’Retta. What brings you here?”
“Oh, returning the favor. Can’t imagine why you didn’t stay around last week.”
“Heard it was quite something.”
“Indeed. Now, who would have stuck that bacon into Cecily?”
“Hmmph.” She disappeared into the crowd, a butter-yellow skiff in the sea of black mourning clothes.
* * *
I had the Right Reverend Alcott from St. Agnes, Mary Lou Hamblin as the soloist, and sacred dancers from the Serenity School of Movement. It was gracious and restrained, yet creative. I imagined the responses, especially from those at Cecily’s send‑off. “Such good taste!” they’d say. “Roger is a master of the elegant,” they’d remark. “Just the kind of man to make me ready to meet my maker,” they’d swoon.
But then I sniffed.
There was Lo’Retta, a cigarette in her hand, blowing smoke up to the detector…
“Wait! Don’t do that, Lo’retta! Dammit, I’m sorry—”.
The alarm shrieked, stopping the dancers, and then the sprinklers sprayed, dousing everything: corpse, casket, and fancy cakes. The guests knocked over flower stands and slower-moving relatives in their haste to escape.
* * *
Castleberry lay unmoving, of course, his casket half-filled with water. My own gray silk suit was ruined, and I wiped the water from my face.
She stood there, her blue eyes wide with mischief.
“Karma’s a bitch, Roger.”
* * *
The phone rang. It was Frances. But it was almost midnight, and I was tired.
“Who was that, hon?”
I sighed. “Oh, just work.”
Then I felt a pounce.
“For God’s sake, can we for one night not have that damned dog sleep on our bed?”
“Now, you know I’ve loved him since you gave him to me at Christmas.” Lo’Retta half-sat up. “Here, Duke, come sleep by me. Let mean ol’ Roger sleep all by himself. You and me have some planning to do.”
Yes, we would have some planning. It was our anniversary in two weeks, and I wanted to surprise Lo’Retta.
Banner Image: Pixabay.com