of a Different Color
By Tim Cockey
Published by Hyperion
February 2001; 0-786-86571-7; 336 pages
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.
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
"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."
'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
"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."
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?"
They have a term for this: black sheep.
with her hair-it looked exactly the same as before-and turned from the
"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."
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.
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
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.
waitress had arrived.
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.
"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
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.
police will want to talk with them, won't they? I think everyone should
"Would any of you care for a drink?"
A dam of
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
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.
my head. "How do you know it's a crime scene? Nobody here heard any
"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.
are they doing upstairs?" the gruff cop demanded.
"We have to talk to them too."
"Of course you do."
The gruff cop glared at me. Fetch.
of the investigating unit was arriving, everybody grumbling the same thing
about the body having been moved. The person with the yellow
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?"
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
"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?"
never seen her before in my life."
"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."
High pressure dominated. We were in for a wild one.
© 2001 Tim Cockey
Hitchcock Sewell, Baltimore's hippest undertaker and civilian sleuth, is back in a second sly, original mystery.
One of the
most charming and offbeat amateur detectives to come around in years,
Hitchcock Sewell does for the undertaking profession what Marilyn Monroe
did for the ukulele gives it a touch of class. In this rollicking follow-up
to Tim Cockey's "witty, punchy, snappy, well-written, and dang funny
debut" (Harlan Coben, author of The Final Detail), a surprise blizzard
dumps more than snow on the steps of Sewell & Sons funeral home it
leaves behind the corpse of a murdered waitress as well. Hitch's television
meteorologist girlfriend sees the crime as an opportunity to move into
hard news. Her unctuous mentor wants to beat Hitch to the punch. Hitch's
snooping takes him from low-life strip joints to high-tone mansions, proving
yet again that undertakers and their clue-happy cohorts can be a pretty
Tim Cockey has served as a story analyst for such companies as American Playhouse, ABC-TV and Hallmark Entertainment. He also promoted professional opera productions, helped run a farmer's market and edited books about how to get other people to give you money. He grew up in Baltimore and now lives in New York City.