I’m competing in NYC Midnight’s Short Story Challenge again this year. You have one week to write a short story (2500 words) on a topic they provide. This year I was given crime caper, setting was funeral home, and character is chocolatier. This seemed perfect for Phee and Juliet to tackle since they had just been on a crime caper with Nellie Jo to dispose of Mike’s ashes.
“Nellie Jo told me how you helped her out with Mike’s body down in Louisiana,” Chantal said. She pronounced it loozy anna.
“Did she also tell you we almost got killed trying to dump Mike’s ashes in the bayou?” I grimaced at the memory of the alligator that had almost made me into its dinner. “I’m a librarian, not a detective. If I’ve happened to stumble over a dead body or two in the course of retrieving a few overdue library books, it was more a case of bad luck than crime solving.”
“Please, Phee, I don’t know who else to ask. I just need you to get that recipe book before they bury Uncle Henri,” Chantal pleaded, tears threatening to fall. “It’s my legacy, and Carl had no right to take it. The funeral is tomorrow morning. I’m out of options.”
My gut told me to walk away and hope she could find somebody else to help her, but my marshmallow heart was toast. “Fine. I’ll help, but only if Juliet agrees. I’m not breaking into Nash and Slaw’s on my own.”
Chantal wiped her eyes with a tissue and smiled. “Thank you. You have no idea how much I appreciate this. I’ve been pacing the floor like a caged panther trying to figure out another way. If Carl wasn’t such a snake who has my mama fooled six ways to Sunday…well, I say never trust a man who goes sockless with leather loafers. He thinks me going into the chocolate business is a waste of time and money, and now Mama agrees with him. Uncle Henri left me that money to continue his chocolate shop. The recipes in that book are my family’s heritage. Carl thinks it all needs to be buried and forgotten because Uncle Henri was Daddy’s brother. Carl wants to take my inheritance and invest it in something safe. Safely in his pockets, I’m sure.”
After Chantal left, I called Juliet. She agreed to meet me at Odd Couple’s Diner after she finished teaching her last yoga class. I spent the rest of the day cataloging books and researching how many years I would serve in prison for breaking into a funeral home.
When I got to the diner, Juliet was already seated in a corner booth. Tall and slim, no one would ever guess she was my sister. Juliet’s blonde hair would have made Goldilocks envious. I was short and fluffy with red hair. Fortunately, I had inherited the brains.
I waited until our food arrived before I gave her the lowdown. Juliet operates better after she’s eaten a double order of fries and a chocolate cherry shake. I stuck with my oh-so-tasty house salad.
“Chantal needs us to take the book and replace it with a fake,” I said, pushing a limp lettuce leaf around in an oily substance with flecks of oregano in it.
“So why do we have to put a fake one in its place? How will they ever know? It’ll be buried six feet under. Unless Henri comes back as a ghost and tells all.” Juliet’s eyes widened, and she gave a slight shiver. “Haunted by a chocolatier. Sounds like the title to one of those cozy mysteries you read all the time.”
“They’re having a final open casket viewing tomorrow before leaving for the cemetery. There won’t be another chance. It’s not like we can snatch the recipe book out of his cold, dead hands while we pass by and pay our respects. We’re going back tonight after closing.”
“Break into a funeral home? In the dark? With dead bodies? We’re supposed to be crime stoppers, not crime committers!” Juliet’s voice rose in pitch and volume, and a few of the diners turned to look at us.
“Shush!” I whispered. “The word is criminals, not crime committers. Anyway, we’re technically not stealing anything. We’re righting a wrong. Henri would have wanted Chantal to have those recipes. If only he had given her the book before he died, but I guess he thought he had a few more good years.”
“Funeral homes are bad juju. We’ll have dead people cooties on us and that will mess up my aura.”
“It’s just dead people. There’s nothing to be afraid of, you ninny.” My sister is a firm believer in the afterlife, ghosts, and any other New Age woo woo crap that was hot for the moment.
“Why can’t Chantal do it?”
“She has to be with the family tonight. No one will ever suspect it’s us, and she’ll be in the clear. We’ll go to the viewing and get the layout. It’s a funeral home, not the Tower of London. It should be easy.”
Several hours later, I eased Velma, my ‘sixty-eight VW van, into a side street a block from the Victorian house that served as our local funeral home. We had paid our respects to the family earlier that evening. Chantal had been jumpier than a mouse at a cat show when we had shown up. When we passed through the line to pay our respects, I had given her a small thumbs up, and she seemed to relax a little.
I handed Juliet a black ski mask. I slipped mine over my head. I had bedazzled it with a cursive “L” in the middle of the forehead for librarian. Juliet’s sported a “Y” for yogi. If I was going to get arrested for body tampering, I wanted to be stylish.
Juliet rolled her eyes at the mask, but she slipped it on. I tucked a penlight into my bra and motioned for her to follow me. We crept along the wrought iron fence that surrounded the cemetery and slipped through a gap in the hedge.
When I saw the backyard was lit up like a football stadium, I stopped. Juliet plowed into the back of me. I tumbled into the grass. Rolling over, I stared up at the night stars and counted to ten.
“Oh, my goddess! Are you okay?” Juliet reached down to grab my hand.
“Yes,” I whispered. I brushed my hands off onto my pants. “Listen. Here’s the plan. I’m going to run across the lawn to the back. You count to thirty then follow me. Got it?”
Juliet gave me a thumbs up. I sprinted across the yard, then squatted down behind a large rhododendron near the back. Thirty seconds later, Juliet began to run across the yard to join me. She would have made it in record time with those long legs of hers, but when she was almost to me, a jet of water shot up from the ground and hit her in the butt. The automatic sprinklers had started. She squealed, did a pirouette, then a jig, and finally cartwheeled into a rose bush.
“Juliet!” I hissed. No response. Crap. I was going to have to rescue her.
I slid along the side of the building until I reached her. My sister had faceplanted into a teacup rosebush. She groaned and stood up. She plucked a thorny stem from her mask.
“I’m fine. Let’s just do this and get out of here.”
I tugged on a basement window. It resisted for a moment then opened. Juliet eased through the narrow space. I followed her, but my bountiful bottom decided to stop me. I was stuck between the window and the frame.
“Pull me,” I said. I reached my hand out to Juliet. She gave a mighty tug, and I popped out of the window like a champagne cork.
“Perhaps Chantal could give you some sugar-free chocolate as a reward,” Juliet said. She gave me a toothy grin.
“Perhaps we should hurry up and get out of here before we’re discovered,” I said, giving her the evil eye. “We need to find out how to get upstairs.”
I pulled the penlight out of my bra. The narrow beam provided just enough light for me to see we were in a storage area surrounded by coffins.
“This is the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen,” Juliet said. “I want to be a tree.”
“What the–a tree? What in Sam Hill are you talking about?” I demanded.
“Promise me that when I die, you won’t put me in a coffin. Have them make me into a tree or pressed into a diamond, but no coffin. Promise?”
“Fine. I’ll make you into a tree and plant you. There’s a door.” I shone the flashlight across the room. “Maybe it will lead upstairs to the viewing rooms.”
Juliet skirted past the coffins making sure not to touch them and opened the door. She slammed it shut. “Nope. Not doing it. I’m outta here.”
I reached out a hand to stop her. “What’s behind the door?”
“Dead people. I see dead people, Phee!”
I sighed. Maybe I should have asked someone else to be my sidekick. “We’re in a funeral home. They have dead people.”
I yanked the door open and glanced inside. In the middle of the floor on a metal table was Mrs. Sampson. I’d heard that she’d died. I hadn’t been saddened to hear of her passing. She was old, plus she had threatened my dog, Watson, with her cane when we were at the park the previous week. Unfortunately, her dead body lay between us and the elevator to the upstairs. I had to get Juliet to pass by her.
“Close your eyes and hold on to my hand,” I said.
“I can’t do it, Phee.”
“I’m your big sister. I promise I won’t let you get dead people cooties on you. Do you trust me?”
Juliet nodded and squeezed her eyes shut. She held her hand out, and I grabbed it. I led her around Mrs. Sampson and hit the button for the elevator. A moment later, it groaned to a halt and the doors slid open.
“You can open your eyes. We’re going up.”
It was more like a large dumbwaiter than an elevator. I suppose it’s how they were able to get the bodies upstairs after they were prepared. When the doors opened, we were in a hallway. The Blackbird Room where Henri was laid out was to our right. I pointed to it with my chin and motioned for Juliet to follow me. Inside the room, the casket was closed.
“I can’t look,” Juliet squeaked.
“I can’t lift the lid on my own. You need to suck it up and help me. Please.” The ski mask was making me hot, so I yanked it off and tucked it into my back pocket.
We reached over and lifted the lid. Inside, Henri Rocqueville was in a three-piece gray suit with a red silk handkerchief tucked into his breast pocket. He looked the same as he had the last time I had seen him in the library. I always thought he was the most well-dressed man in town. I looked down. Clasped in his hand was a small leather book.
“There’s the recipe book,” Juliet whispered. “Did you remember to bring the fake one?”
I reached into my bra and pulled it out. “Of course.”
“What the heck do you have in that bra of yours? My goddess, it’s like a clown car. Things just keep popping out.”
“Ha ha. You’re jealous because you don’t have my voluptuous body. Grab the book.”
“No. Not just no, but hell no. I’m not touching anything in this coffin.”
I pushed her out of the way, grabbed the book, and tucked it into my bra. I was opening his fingers to place the new book into his hands when the lights came on.
“Hands up or I’ll shoot!”
Juliet screamed and collapsed in a faint. I held my hands up and turned around to see old Mrs. Nash standing in a white nightgown in the doorway, a shotgun in her hand.
“Hi, Mrs. Nash. Would you believe me if I said we just wanted to pay our respects?”
“Ophelia Jefferson?” She squinted at me. “Is that you? What in the world are you doing in here in the middle of the night? Is that Juliet passed out on the floor?”
“Yes, ma’am. I can explain.” I put my hands down as she lowered the shotgun.
“Hell’s bells, girl. If you’re standing over Henri’s body, I know it has something to do with the screaming match I heard between that tight ass Carl Shockley and Chantal. I’m better off not knowing. Get some water and toss it on that sister of yours to wake her up.” Mrs. Nash indicated the water cooler that was in the hallway. I did as she instructed. I yanked off Juliet’s ski mask and dowsed her. She sputtered and sat up.
“Am I dead? What happened?”
“You’re not dead. It’s Mrs. Nash.”
Juliet stood up with a sheepish look. “I thought you were a ghost in that white nightgown.”
“Shucks. I still have a few good years left. I sometimes sleep in one of the empty coffins. Ed snores so loud it shakes the entire house. I have to leave and come next door to get any rest,” Mrs. Nash said.
“Are you going to call the police?” I asked her.
She stared at me long and hard. I tried my best to look wholesome and innocent. “I tell you what. I don’t know what you two are up to, but I’ve heard rumors about Carl and how he treats that stepdaughter of his. I also know that Henri thought the world of his niece. I’m guessing you two creeping around here in the dead of night has something to do with Chantal.”
“It does. We’re just trying to do right by Henri and Chantal,” I said.
Mrs. Nash held up her hand to stop me. “If you don’t tell me anything, I won’t have to lie.” She yawned. “I’m awfully tired, so I think I’ll go back to bed. You girls make sure you lock that back door when you finish.”
With a wink and a smile, Mrs. Nash walked away with the shotgun slung over her shoulder. Juliet slumped against me. I reached over and gave her a hug. “Come on. Let me put this book in his hand, and we can get out of here before anything else happens.”
Ten minutes later, we were back in my van. I leaned my head against the seat and let out a laugh.
“What?” Juliet demanded.
“Mrs. Nash sleeps in a coffin. That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Juliet grinned. “No crazier than a librarian breaking into a funeral home in the middle of the night. Let’s go home.”
Juliet was right. I fired up the van and headed towards home.