CHAPTER 10

1

DEPUTY CLAY TAYLOR arrived at the sheriffs department at 7:53 A.M. to find the coffeepot on and a note on his desk from Wesley Rountree, giving him instructions for the day’s interrogations. Wesley himself, the note explained, had gone off to court. After that he proposed to drive directly out to question the proprietor of the regional crematorium. He had no plans to return to the office in between. In his absence, the deputy was to attempt to ascertain the number of local residents who had been cremated within the last seven years.

“How does he expect me to do that?” grunted Clay in disgust. “Go door-to-door?”

Two cups of coffee later he had given the matter enough thought to figure out how to proceed. The logical person to begin with would be Azzie Todd, manager of Todd and O’Connor Funeral Home in Chandler Grove. He had learned from his telephone inquiries that their firm did not do cremations, but Clay felt that they could advise him on what steps to take next. What he did not want was to look up every obituary in the local newspaper for the last seven years and then contact each family individually.

With some misgivings about the nature of his errand, the deputy set out for the funeral home. Like most Southern mortuaries, the Chandler Grove establishment had begun its existence as a large private home. It stood on Main Street, white-columned and splendid, with spreading oak trees and a perfectly manicured lawn. Its former owners had become customers of Todd and O’Connor too long ago for anyone to remember or care that the house had once been a happier, if less tidy, place.

After a brisk walk out of the business district and into the tree-lined old section of Main Street, Clay found himself outside the wrought-iron fence of Todd and O’Connor, wondering how to conduct the inquiry. Naturally they would want to know why he was asking such questions-and since the perpetrator of the fraud had not been determined, the deputy wasn’t sure that he should tell them.

He hurried up the cement walk to the freshly painted gray porch and prepared to ring the bell. The door was ajar. They probably don’t like a lot of noise here, thought Clay, And it’s not as if anyone would come here to steal anything.

He had been inside a number of times before, but never alone, and he would have been ashamed to admit how uneasy he felt at doing so now. It was the deputy’s experience that people usually went to funerals in groups. He supposed that law enforcement officers in larger districts would have become quite accustomed to death after a few years on the job, but in rural Georgia, murder was no everyday occurrence. Clay had seen enough car wrecks to last him a lifetime, but mercifully few victims of homicide.

As soon as he entered the oak-paneled hallway, a solemn young man in a gray suit materialized from an inner sanctum and in hushed tones inquired whether he could be of help. The boy could have done with less hair grease and more Clearasil, in Clay’s opinion.

“I’d like to see Mr. Todd,” he said in his normal tone of voice. The words seemed to bounce off the walls. “I’m here on official business.”

With a cordial nod, the apparition scuttled back into the offices, and Clay could hear the murmur of lowered voices discussing his arrival. Clay studied the Victorian prints on display in the hall. Todd and O’Connor seemed to favor Landseer animal portraits, along the lines of The Old Shepherd Is Mourned by His Canine Companion. The artist had a way with animals: their expressions made them almost seem human.

The deputy felt the presence of someone behind him and turned so quickly that he almost collided with the velvety person of Azzie Todd. Everything about the funeral director was sleek and molelike, and he had an unfortunate shortsighted gaze over a pointed snout that completed the image. He reminded Clay of the children’s book Wind in the Willows. Idly, the deputy wondered if Mr. O’Connor completed the firm’s literary allusion by resembling a large and aristocratic toad.

He ushered the deputy into a small back office with earth-tone walls (the burrow, thought Clay, fighting to keep a straight face). After he had seated himself behind a cluttered antique desk, Mr. Todd folded his hands primly and asked what he could do for the local constabulary.

“I am conducting an inquiry,” said Clay, answering the formality in kind. “And I need some information-or at least, your advice on how I can obtain it.”

“And that is?”

“I need to know whether anyone was cremated in this county in the last seven years, and if so who. And by whom.”

Concern flickered across Azzie Todd’s talpine features. “We at Todd and O’Connor don’t offer that service,” he said.

“I know. This investigation would have been a whole lot easier if you did.”

The funeral director looked puzzled. “Has there been a murder?”

“Why do you ask that?” asked Clay, thinking that murder had been a strange, and perhaps telling conclusion to reach on the basis of his question.

Todd blushed. “I read detective stories. Cremation is the ideal way to conceal your crime. You poison someone and then have them cremated. No evidence!”

The deputy considered it. “Lord, I hope we don’t have that to contend with. At the moment, it’s more like a case of mistaken identity. I really can’t be any more specific than that.”

“I understand,” said Todd, making a steeple with his fingertips. “Discretion is a byword with us.”

“On the phone the other day, I believe you said that you farm out any cremation requests, so to speak. Would you have a list of any such cases?”

“No. Why should we? Anyway, it doesn’t happen very often. Seven years? I can go back twenty. We’ve had three such requests. One was the Hadley boy, who moved out to the West Coast and left instructions in his will that he was to be cremated. His parents didn’t much care for the idea, but they did it anyway.”

“Was the body cremated here in Georgia?”

“No. Done there, and the ashes mailed here. We made the arrangements by telephone with a firm out there. The second was one of those commune people-Earthling, I think they call their company. One of the fellows out there died in a car wreck and the rest decided to cremate the body and to scatter the ashes in their meadow. I referred them to Elijah’s Chariot, as I always do in these cases, but I must say I did suspect them of doing it out of stinginess. He left them all his money; they spent less than five hundred dollars on his funeral. That young man was an heir to some minor tobacco fortune.” He shook his head in wonder that this was so. “Ever noticed that most of these hippie types that want to live on the land come from well-to-do families?”

“Sure,” said Clay, no stranger to that lifestyle himself. “If poor kids want to eat beans and sleep on the floor, they can stay home and do it. Do you remember the name of the deceased?”

“Christopher Greene. They called him something else, though. Rama-something.”

The deputy made a note of it. “Now didn’t you say that there was a third case?”

“That I know of, yes,” said Todd. “Now, you understand there may be people in the community who take their business elsewhere without consulting me. In order to be absolutely certain, I think you’ll have to check the death records at the courthouse one at a time.”

Clay grimaced at the unwelcome suggestion. He was afraid that such a chore might be inevitable. “And the third was…”

“Jeter Wales. He was at least eighty and his nearest kinfolks were some first cousin’s children in Ohio, so they-”

The deputy wrote down the name. “I don’t think that’s who I’m looking for.”

“That’s about all I know to tell you,” said Azzie Todd with a mournful smile. “You really want to go to the courthouse and check those death records.”

Clay Taylor sighed. “No, I don’t. Want to, I mean.”

* * *

Elizabeth MacPherson had seldom been more cheerful at breakfast. She smiled when asked to pass the sugar bowl; she made bright and inane conversation to no one in particular; and she kept taking deep breaths as if she were about to burst into song. Geoffrey was afraid she would. Driven from his bed by the sound of the vacuum cleaner in the upstairs hall, he had crept to the table in stupefied silence, where he had attempted to ingest a cup of black coffee without attracting undue attention.

As usual, Captain Grandfather and Dr. Chandler were nowhere to be seen, having breakfasted at seven, and Aunt Amanda was supervising the cleaning operations. Charles, screened from view by the Atlanta newspaper he was reading, had coffee and a cup of yogurt in front of him, which he would attempt to reach with his spoon from time to time without lowering the paper. It was a bit like watching a robot arm handle radioactive substances. This, unfortunately, left no one for Elizabeth to be pleasant to except a comatose Geoffrey.

“Isn’t it a lovely morning?” she asked, beaming in his general direction.

Geoffrey’s expression suggested that he considered the two terms mutually exclusive.

“I called Miss Grey, the dressmaker, yesterday, and she has promised to do the dresses. I have an appointment with her this afternoon, to be measured and so on. I must call Jenny and see if she can go as well.”

“I take it that no atrocities are planned for the male hostages in this event?” asked Geoffrey. “Not kilts or anything?”

“No, Geoffrey. Just don’t wear your velvet cloak.”

He managed a taut smile. “I am saving that for my visit to you in Edinburgh-when you are the Lady Elizabeth.”

She sighed. “That sounds awfully nice, doesn’t it? Unfortunately it’s impossible.”

“Is Cameron not knighthood material, then?”

“I have no idea,” said the bride-to-be. “But even if he’s knighted, I wouldn’t be Lady Elizabeth. If he becomes Sir Cameron, I would be Lady Dawson, and if I received a knighthood, I’d be Dame Elizabeth. The only women who can use lady before their first names are the daughters of earls. Or dukes.”

“Like Lady Diana?”

“Yes. And, by the way, the same thing applies to the term princess. I know that the Princess of Wales is called Princess Diana, but that is not correct. She is Lady Diana-because she is the daughter of the Earl of Spencer-or she is the Princess of Wales. But not Princess Diana. Only the Princess Anne is entitled to use the title before her given name.” Elizabeth sighed. “Titles are not easy to come by. Anyway, I’ll never be Lady Elizabeth: I had the wrong parents.”

“At the risk of prompting another lecture out of Debrett, may I wish your bridegroom a knighthood?” said Geoffrey courteously.

From the recesses of the front hall, the doorbell chimed. “Oh, dear!” cried Elizabeth. “I hope that isn’t the sheriff again!” She set her napkin beside her plate and hurried to answer the door.

Geoffrey took advantage of this blessed interruption to draw the curtains to the French windows and to pour himself another cup of coffee.

Charles peered over the top of the newspaper and pushed his own empty cup out for a refill. “What did she mean, she hopes it’s not the sheriff? What is she up to?”

“When I awaken, I shall ask her,” Geoffrey promised.

They sipped their coffee in companionable silence for a few moments until Elizabeth returned. “Postman,” she announced, still beaming. “He brought another wedding present. Huge box-I could barely lift it. From New York. It’s addressed to Cameron Dawson and Fianc?e, though, so I’ve left it until he gets here. Probably one of his marine-biologist cronies. Just think, Cameron will be here in four days!” She clapped her hands in glee, much to her cousins’ disgust.

Geoffrey crumpled his napkin and threw it up in the air.

“Oh, by the way, Charles,” said Elizabeth, pushing down the top of his newspaper and ignoring the ensuing scowl. “There was also a letter for you. From Snow White?”

Charles stifled a cough. “Just a little joke,” he muttered, snatching the letter. He hurried out of the room before anyone could comment further.

Elizabeth stared after him. “What is he up to?”

“We were just about to ask you the same thing,” Geoffrey replied. “What was that remark of yours about hoping the sheriff hadn’t come back?”

“He was consulting me about a case,” said Elizabeth in her grandest manner. “Forensic anthropology.”

“Wesley Rountree has a case? What is it? Chicken thieves?”

“No, Geoffrey. It involves fraud and people pretending to be dead. I had to identify cremated remains.”

Geoffrey snickered. “I assure you, cousin, that anyone who has been cremated is not merely pretending to be dead.”

Elizabeth was so stung by this mocking interruption of her serious (and self-congratulatory) discussion that she explained the entire case to him in the haughty tones of an expert witness. She told him about Emmet Mason’s second demise, and about the mixture of bodies in the cremation urn, emphasizing her own skills as a forensic anthropologist in identifying the mysterious remains. “I told Miss Grey about it on the telephone when I called about my dress. She had read the engagement announcement in the paper, and so she knew that I was an anthropologist. She said that it was wonderful how clever girls of my generation are. She’s quite right! I was brilliant,” she assured him. “But of course, I shan’t take any further interest in the matter,” she declared. “Because I’m getting married next week, which is much more important.”

Geoffrey looked thoughtful. “It is an interesting case, though,” he murmured.

Wesley Rountree supposed that there could be worse names for a crematorium than Elijah’s Chariot, Inc. Other biblical titles might be even more unfortunate: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s, for example, which would be an oblique reference to the fiery furnace of Old Testament fame. Or maybe Lot’s Wife and Company-after the lady in Genesis who was turned into a pillar of salt in a sort of divine and instantaneous cremation. Wesley felt that names could be a tricky matter in a business like that. Any suggestion of the flames of hell and your business would go right up in smoke.

Still, it made him suspicious, and he was very interested in meeting the joker who had given such an unusual name to a most uncommon business. He had thought about it all morning as he sat in court waiting to testify in the reckless-driving case. Strictly speaking, he supposed that he ought to notify the law enforcement agency of the county he was going to, but he doubted that they’d want to be bothered. There was not as yet any evidence that a crime involving their jurisdiction had taken place. At this point Wesley figured that he was just on a fishing trip: questioning a witness who might or might not be involved. If it turned out later that he was involved, then Wesley would tip off Wayne Dupree, sheriff of Roan County, and turn the case over to him. Right now he just wanted some answers.

He enjoyed the drive on the corkscrew county roads, and the view of rolling meadows and the green mountains thick with hardwoods. He was far enough back in the hills now so that there weren’t any cute subdivisions with names like Brook Valley edging out the pastureland. He wondered why a crematorium should be so far out in the country. So as not to make the neighbors nervous, he told himself. He slipped a Statler Brothers cassette into the tape deck and sang along, enjoying the sunshine and the beauty of a June day in the hills of Georgia; but in the back of his mind a list of questions was forming.

Clarine Mason fingered the crystal pendant around her neck and took three deep breaths. She really was feeling better. It was quite amazing. The pendant was absorbing all her negative feelings, just like they said it would. Perhaps the herbal tea had been a help, too. She resolved to buy more of it; after all, they had been kind to her and they needed the business, and after all, ginseng really might be an antidepressant.

Clarine poured hot water into the teapot and waited for the herbs to steep. The kitchen was sunny and comforting in the morning light. She felt happy to be on her own among her plants and her cross-stitched samplers. She was all right in the kitchen; it was the parlor that bothered her, with that blatant bare spot on the mantel that used to be a memorial to Emmet.

She had wanted to talk to somebody about her anger and her sense of humiliation at Emmet’s betrayal, but as she considered her friends one by one, she could find no one in whom she wanted to confide. Most of her friends were older women like herself, and although they would never admit it, her plight would make them uncomfortable. Somewhere, she thought, under their professions of sympathy, there would be a spark of satisfaction that this had happened to her. That the humiliation had been meted out to her, and not to them. That she was gullible to have believed in Emmet’s death in the first place with only a blue jar for proof.

Clarine had thought she’d go crazy that afternoon, pacing around the big empty house with all that rage building up inside her. But then as she was tidying up the kitchen, she’d noticed an old edition of the Chandler Grove Scout under a pile of vegetable peelings, and there had been an ad at the bottom of the page.

Treat Your Worries with Nature’s Remedies, the ad advised. Spiritual and Nutritional Counselors at Earthling Will Help You Fight the Blues. The directions in the ad described the old gristmill by the river as the headquarters of the health-food store and meditation center.

Clarine though to herself, Well, why not? She knew about Earthling from local gossip among the ladies’ church group. Everyone said that they were a bunch of hippies from out west who believed in eating peculiar food, and who took an interest in political causes that nobody else had ever heard of. Clarine knew all that. But their ad promised help to people with worries. Clarine decided that in this case their being outsiders was a point in their favor. Telling her troubles to those crazy people would hardly count as disclosure. It wasn’t as if anybody who mattered would find out. In fact, she thought, considering the peculiarities of their own lifestyles, they were hardly in any position to look down on her for being a discarded wife.

The potions of Earthling, Inc., seemed to Clarine to be her best chance of consolation without confiding in her friends and neighbors, those whose esteem she valued. Heaven forbid that Dr. Chandler should learn about the shame of Emmet’s defection. She would much rather try the mumbo jumbo of a bunch of raggedy strangers than confide in her lifelong acquaintances.

In a mood of desperation, gambling on a long shot, Clarine had gone to visit Earthling. When she reached the old gristmill, she parked the car in the gravel lot. Inside the cluttered shop, she looked around as if she were a casual tourist, trying not to attract any undue attention. She was nervous, not knowing what to expect from these outlandish strangers, and she was bewildered by all the strange and unpronounceable items they sold.

Just as she was ready to dash from the shop and forget the whole thing, a dark-haired woman in braids and an Indian print dress appeared and asked her if she’d like some tea. She seemed so sincere about the offer that Clarine forgot to say no, and soon she was sitting in the back room telling her life story to Shanti, which is what the girl said to call her. Shanti had seemed most interested in Emmet’s return from the ashes, as it were. But she said that since death was only a state of mind anyway, that Clarine should feel perfectly free to count Emmet’s first death as the valid one for psychic purposes. Just forget this little epilogue, she’d advised. After two more cups of tea, she and Shanti were in perfect agreement that Emmet had racked up enough bad karma to come back as a cockroach, and that Clarine was not to worry about any loose ends that Emmet had left in his new life. Shanti prescribed herbal tea and a healing crystal, and she urged Clarine to come back for meditation classes.

Clarine decided that she’d go to Earthling’s programs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That way, it wouldn’t conflict with ladies’ circle on Monday and Wednesday-night choir practice. She poured herself a cup of herbal tea and added two spoonfuls of sugar. She was feeling much better indeed now that she was busy. Emmet was already fading from her consciousness like a bad dream.

The telephone rang, startling her so much that she spilled a few drops of tea. Setting the cup down carefully in its saucer, she hurried to answer it.

“Mrs. Clarine Mason?” said another of those plastic West Coast voices.

“Oh, Lord God! What is it this time?” cried Clarine, completely out of patience with intrusions from California.

“I’m with the coroner’s office, ma’am, and I’m looking at this form here on your late husband Mr. Emmet J. Mason, and I see that the officer who called you has neglected to put down what you’d like us to do with your late husband’s remains-”

In words of one syllable, Clarine told him.

“I don’t care if you’re Wyatt Earp,” said Susan Davis in her sternest voice. “You can’t bring that Coca Cola in here. There are irreplaceable documents in this office. So you either dump it out, or you stay outside the railing until you finish it.”

“Aw, Sue,” moaned Clay Taylor. “Come on. I have a couple of hours’ work to do, and I’ll probably even miss lunch. It’s police business,” he added for good measure.

Susan Davis was not impressed. “Parking tickets is police business,” she observed. “That don’t mean you get to break the rules in here and get me in trouble with Mrs. Home.” Her dark eyes flashed as she made her pronouncement and she went back to copying names in a record book.

With a sigh of resignation, Clay Taylor returned to the basement hall of the courthouse and finished his drink. He wondered how anybody as pretty as Susan Davis could be in such a perpetually bad mood. She had beautiful dark hair, worn long, except for a bit at the front caught up in a barrette, and her features were cameo perfect. If it weren’t for the perpetual snarl, she could be lovely. Her face in repose was a frown of disapproval and she could wring vinegar out of the most sugary comments addressed to her. In the three years during which Clay had been a deputy, he had occasion to encounter Susan at least once a week on visits to the records office, and he had yet to observe her in a good mood. There wasn’t much point in arguing with her, though, he thought, taking another swallow of Coke. He just hoped that someday Miss Dragon Lady would do 56 m.p.h. when he was out with the radar gun.

In a few minutes he reappeared at the counter of the records office. “Will you let me in now?”

Susan’s expression suggested that he was still a nuisance, but that she would have to put up with him. She opened the wooden barrier and motioned him in. “What do you want?” she asked in tones suggesting complete indifference.

“I need to see the death records in the county for the last five or six years. Can I use your computer?”

Her frown deepened. “No, you can’t use my computer. I have work to do! And besides those records haven’t been put on disk yet.”

“Why not?” asked Clay without thinking.

“Because I’m too busy to get around to it, what with people coming in and wasting my time asking stupid questions!”

“Well, where are the records then?”

“In a drawer, of course! Come on, I’ll show you where it is.” Her expression suggested that this would involve a four-hour trek through a swamp. In fact they ended up no more than twenty feet from Susan’s desk. She jerked the file drawer open for him and started to stalk away.

“What if somebody lived in this county, but didn’t die here?”

She gave him a withering glare. “Then they won’t be here, will they?”

“But the obituaries would be in the newspaper,” said Clay, thinking aloud.

“That’s not my problem!” said Susan, going back to her desk.

“Okay, I’ll check here first, and then look in the archives at the Scout office.”

“Bully for you.”

Clay began to examine the death records for 1985. He wondered if Susan’s personality would change when she was no longer young and pretty, or if her nearest and dearest were already looking into untraceable poisons.

Elijah’s Chariot, Inc., was a modest-looking building of whitewashed cinder block set in a field among boxwood shrubs and cedar trees. One white Nissan hatchback was parked on the circular gravel driveway. There were no other cars in sight. Wesley supposed that the business would require only part-time help, if that, and that one person would be sufficient to mind the store. They didn’t seem to be too busy today. He noted with relief that no smoke was issuing from the vent pipe in the roof.

Wesley parked his sheriff’s car behind the Nissan and went in search of the proprietor. Since it was a place of business, Wesley decided that it would be unnecessary to knock at the front door. He eased it open and went in, calling out, “Hello? Anybody here?”

The front room was an ordinary office. There was an old wooden desk and office fixtures on one side of the room, and the other side contained couches and Queen Anne chairs, much like a doctor’s waiting room. The waiting-room walls were decorated with landscapes in the Starving Artist school of hasty realism, while the office portion of the premises was adorned with framed travel posters. A brass plate on the desk announced it to be the domain of Jasper Willis, but Mr. Willis was not in any state to receive visitors. Judging from the amount of blood on the floor beside him, Mr. Willis had just become a prospective client for his own services.

“Well, damn!” said Wesley. He pulled out his handkerchief and draped it over the telephone receiver as he lifted it. “Now I’ve got to get Wayne Dupree in on this case, and he’ll probably make me come testify in court for him. Pigheaded so-and-so. Hello, this is Sheriff Wesley Rountree here, from over in Chandler Grove. Let me speak to your sheriff, please. Wayne? That you, good buddy? Great to talk to you!”

In the privacy of his bedroom, Charles Chandler stared at the letter as if he were afraid it might explode. Finally, after days of silence, the lovely blonde from the Highlander ad had answered his letter. He was almost afraid to open it. He didn’t suppose that anyone would waste a twenty-five-cent stamp just to tell him to go to blazes. How odd, he thought, that even though this was an essentially financial transaction on his part, he still had the pounding heart and sweaty palms of a lovesick adolescent. There was barely a week left until the wedding.

“I hope she’s desperate,” he muttered, opening the letter.

It was written in ink, in that rounded handwriting that young women usually outgrow before they are thirty. She wasn’t lying about her age, he decided. There was no return address or phone number given, he noticed, but all the same it didn’t seem to be a rejection. The lady was wary. Charles decided that she was wise to be cautious, considering the nature of the communication. After all, anybody could buy a magazine and answer the ads. He thought that she would be wise not to answer letters postmarked Leavenworth or San Quentin. Charles read the letter through twice, once for content and once for clues.

Dear Charles Chandler,

This is a reply to the letter that you sent to Snow White at the Highlander magazine.

Since there aren’t too many people in this region, I thought I’d know every person who answered my ad, at least by name, but I’ve never heard of you. (Are you related to Geoffrey Chandler, by any chance?) And you didn’t say whether you worked around here, or what you did. At first I thought it might be some kind of alias or a jokefrom one of my friends, but your letter sounded sweet, and I decided to answer it anyway.

If this does turn out to be a practical joke, I’ll be very mad.

Shouldn’t you tell me more about who you really are? Well, never mind. I was very interested to hear that you are a scientest [Charles winced at the spelling] and although we seem to have rather different interests, you certainly sound like a nice enough person. I have decided that it wouldn’t do any harm to meet you, and see if we hit it off. I’m kind of busy right now (as ever!), but I could manage to meet you for a drink at Bubba’s in Milton’s Forge. If that is all right with you, meet me there at seven Wednesday evening at the bar.

Since I’m still not sure that this isn’t a joke, I don’t believe I’ll tell you who I am until I see you. But I do hope you are for real.

I’ll see you Wednesday, then, at Bubba’s, if you decide to go through with this. I’ll be wearing a white jacket with a rose on the lapel and carrying an umbrella.

See you soon, I hope!

Snow White

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