in the Hearse Degree
By Tim Cockey
Published by Hyperion
February 2003; 0-786-86712-4; 320 pages
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 dog'll give you when he's dying for you to throw the stick.
"You're 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 knickknacks people want to unload in exchange for a little tax write-off. It's 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 Ray's 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. Didn't look so good. Asked about you."
I brought a finger to my lips and quietly shushed 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 operator's 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 mother's 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. That's 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 driver's 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.
"I've changed my mind," the man said to me. He indicated his three boys. "They don't want me to do it after all. Is that okay?"
The number-one laugh line in my profession is It's your funeral. May I go to my own grave having never uttered it.
"No problem," I said. "Whatever you want. We'll 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 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 muttonchops 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. I'd rub dirt on 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 I 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's crew were playing checkers, kneeling on the grass with a faded checkerboard between them while the third, a fellow we called Tommy Haircut, was leaning against the mausoleum James Dean style, chewing gum and blowing a gargantuan bubble.
"You're back on," I said to Pops. "He's changed his mind."
Pops sent a missile of brown juice into the clover. "Good. I didn't like it."
I knew that already. Pops had told me ten times that he didn't like it and I had patiently told him eleven times that he didn't have to like it, and 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. "We're on. Look alive."
Tommy Haircut popped his bubble and shoulder-shoved himself off the mausoleum wall. His blond 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 a grim acknowledgment. His plan had been to climb up into the cemetery's John Deere at the conclusion of the service and begin the process of filling in his wife's 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 mother's 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 stature. Despite the unique air conditioning afforded by his kilt, Tony was seating 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; there's not a thing he wouldn't 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.
That's a song. It was recorded years ago by a group calling itself Bread. It had nothing to do with the Kipling poem. It's 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 blood-filled tomato.
The backhoe operator collapsed into tears.
Ray Ghost had drifted over to Pops's crew and was jawing quietly with Tommy Haircut, whose insane pompadour was wobbling on his head like Jell-O in an earthquake. I signaled to Ray and he shuffled over.
So what's this about Libby?"
Reprinted with permission.
The fourth installment in the popular hearse mystery series featuring Hitch, the lovable "undertaker-detective you'll really dig." (People)
Libby, a former flame of Hitchcock Sewell, has returned to town with her two children, but minus one husband and one nanny. Libby's husband has been accounted for -- she left him back in Annapolis. However, the nanny, Sophie, is truly missing.
As soon as Hitch starts to nose around, Sophie turns up -- literally -- in the Severn River. She's quite dead, and just a little bit pregnant. The police suspect suicide, but Sophie's mom is adamant it's murder. Hitch's sense? He sides with the mother. Racing around town, Hitch finds more questions than answers.
Murder in the Hearse Degree is another pitch-perfect mystery in a series that never disappoints, always surprises, and keeps the laughs -- and corpses -- rolling right along.
"No cheap gimmicks, nothing ostentatious, just class all the way." --New York Times(back to top)
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.