Authors: Sandy Frances Duncan
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective
Always Kiss the Corpse
ON WHIDBEY ISLAND
Sandy Frances Duncan & George Szanto
For June and Jerry Underwood
These people who pay their respect to the dead, who are they? What had these tenâeleven nowâmourners to do with Sandro?
The men and women in the room, likely they lived on this island. Why Sandro had chosen to move here to Whidbey made no sense. The rest of the family, the communityâexcept poor Mariaâwe all live in Seattle. That's where Sandro should have come, home. Not onto an island, separated by time and water from those who care the most.
Andrei again scanned the room. No Maria yet. The space, wood-paneled, was decorated into nothing, two painless seascapes to the right, one flowered landscape beside him, medium quality carpeting. Not even a crucifix. The all-purpose chapel. No solace to soothe the soul.
Set against the long wall stood a table draped in white. On the table the coffin, burnished oak, gave off a fine lustre. At the head and the foot, vases of red roses. Yes, the funeral home had assured him, Sandro's body would be laid out according to custom.
At the far end of the room sat a young woman with green hair. How would Sandro have met such a person? In the corner stood two women, one tall, dark-haired, the other a blonde, animated, looked competent enough. The tall one, attractive, seemed late twentiesâslender, a straight dress too blue for the occasion but full red lips and pretty eyes. The blonde, shorter, a few years older, talked with a portly man in a double-breasted suit, either a man of substance or trying to pass himself off as important, sucking in his belly to give an appearance of a broader chest.
A small wiry man wearing a navy blazer over a shirt and tie caught Andrei's eye, walked over, reached out his hand and introduced himself; the name went out of Andrei's brain the instant it entered. “Friend of Sandro's. You family?”
Andrei must stand out, different in this group. He gripped the man's hand. “Andrei Vasiliadis. Sandro's uncle.”
“Terrible thing, just terrible. I liked Sandro a lot.”
Andrei nodded. “You were close friends.”
The man shrugged. “Not real close, no. We bowled together, same team. Once a week. Had a beer after.”
“Ah.” Not close, but the man had come here this wet afternoon.
The man smiled. “We kinda carried the team. We were the best, both lefties.”
Andrei's brow twitched. Had Sandro been political?
The man caught the confusion. “Left-handed.”
“Oh. I see.” The competent blonde and the portly man were approaching, and Andrei felt an uneasiness. In one way, satisfaction; these people dealt him respect. In another, failure; he had not, in the moment of arriving, taken on the role of welcomer.
The blonde reached out her hand to Andrei. Another introduction, another name gone. “I worked with Sandro at the hospital. We were good friends.” She smiled, her eyes red. “And this is Dr. Jones.”
He too shook Andrei's hand. “My deep sympathies.”
“So upsetting, so sad.” The doctor scowled.
The blonde agreed. “I just don't understand.”
“No,” said Andrei, “neither do we.”
“He'd been in such a good mood lately, real upbeat.”
“I hadn't seen Sandro for a couple of years.” Andrei dropped his head. “Not since his father's funeral. My brother.”
“That's very sad too.” The blonde dabbed her eyes. “And for his mother.”
Andrei shook his head. “She and Sandro talked every week. He wasn't sick, he'd have told her. And she says the same about his mood, always up.”
“Will she be here this afternoon?”
“Yes. She wants to see Sandro a last time.”
The blonde and the doctor glanced over at the coffin. She said, “You mean you'll open the coffin?” She shivered a little.
“Yes. My sister-in-law requested it.”
“Won't that be hard for her?” The doctor crunched his eyebrows.
“Of course.” Had it been up to him he'd have insisted the coffin stay closed, despite custom. He'd prefer no repeat of Maria's collapse when she'd viewed her husband's body. Since that funeral she'd taken his, Andrei's, advice. Mostly. Still, there'd been no arguing with her about an open coffin.
“I work at the hospital, I see how people die,” the blonde said. “The dead should be allowed a final dignity. Away from the eyes of others.”
The doctor said, “I agree.”
“A mother has the right to kiss her son goodbye.” Andrei felt a need to defend his brother's widow: an open coffin was normal. Stillâ“Any relative, or even a close friend, has that right. If they want to take it.”
Through the doorway came a woman in her early thirties, pale makeup, black dress; behind her an older woman, also in black, on the arm of a tall man about the first woman's age, he in a dark jacket, slacks, no tie.
“Excuse me,” Andrei said, and joined the new arrivals. He kissed the older woman on the cheek, embraced her for a moment, stood back. “Hello, Maria.”
She tried to speak. Words wouldn't come. The tall man took her arm again, led her to a chair, sat her down. The young woman took the seat beside Maria. The man said to Andrei, “Mr. Vasiliadis, we met a long time ago.” He mentioned his name. “I'm very sorry. I've known Sandro since fourth grade.”
Sandro's old friend introduced his wife, who now held Maria's hand. One by one people introduced themselves to Maria, including the green-haired one. Maria nodded thanks to each for coming.
A smooth-cheeked, tall, slim man in a black suit and blacker tie appeared silently at Andrei's side. “Sir, if you're ready?”
Andrei glanced at his sister-in-law. Her face had taken on a quality of uncertainty, as if she had forgotten where she was. Even, possibly, who she was; what she had been she was no longer, not a wife, not a mother. Was she strong enough to gaze at the face of a son whose soul now dwelled with both his earthly father and his heavenly Father? “Maria? If you can't do this, I'll do it for you.”
Hearing the words brought Maria back to the room. She stood, stiff and straight. “No. I must kiss Sandro.”
Andrei glanced at the funeral director, and nodded. The man, his black shoes glowing with high polish, removed the roses from each end of the coffin, and raised the lid. Red velvet lined the underside. The body had been wrapped in a white shroud, proper for death. Andrei took Maria by the arm and led her across the room.
When she reached the coffin, she slowly lowered her head and wiped her eyes. When she opened them again her lips were inches from the body's face. She paused, then drew back, mouth agape. Shaky sound came from her throat.
Andrei put his arm around her waist. “What?”
She breathed harshly and stood straight, staring down. “That'sâ” a hoarse whisper, “that's not Sandro!” She started to fall.
“No, detective work isn't half so glamorous as movies like
make it seem.” Kyra Rachel stood up from the sofa, found the remote and ejected the DVD.
Jerome Benson poured more red wine. “You don't solve murders and find missing persons?” Jerome, tall and slim, had thinning ruddy hair and, Kyra thought, the warmest pair of deep brown eyes she'd ever seen. She and he raised their glasses and sipped.
“We mainly deal with delinquent spouses, false insurance claims and, let me seeâ” She changed the topic. “The best thing about being a snoop is working for yourself and you know about that.”
“Come on, the pharmacyâ”
“Your own business.”
“So no guns or bad guys all over the place?”
Kyra looked at him with a smile, her head shaking. “It's anything but romantic.”
“I'm relieved.” Jerome's tone teased. He was intrigued with Kyra. She and her associate ran a detective agency, working on both sides of the USâCanada border, specializing in islands.
Kyra lowered herself to the sofa, now close enough to Jerome so that if she turned to face himâor he to face herâtheir legs would touch. “No need for relief.” In January, she had started an art history course at Western Washington University; among her fellow students, Jerome Benson. Till now, the first week of March, they'd spent a few Sundays exploring Bellingham, visiting funky art galleries, a couple of times walking Jerome's dog, Nelson. Kyra and Nelson had taken an instant dislike to each other. So Nelson was not invited to her place this evening for takeout Thai and a movie. “I don't get involved in danger.”
Jerome let his arm slide along the top of the sofa. “How'd you and your associate get started in the first place?” He sipped his wine.
“Oh, I was already doing some investigating for an insurance company here. And I knew Noel from before, we'd been good friends for a long time. Then Noel's partner died, and he was devastated. Worse, at real loose ends. Till he got involved in an investigative project and asked me to help him. The agency developed from there.”
Three possibilities. Relax onto Jerome's arm maybe now, or maybe later, or maybe not at all. She got up without making a conscious decision. This was Jerome's first evening at Kyra's. She'd have to decide how intimate she wanted to be with him: friend? lover? Jerome, she thought, was a nice man. “Care for a tour of the condo?” She'd carefully not offered before the movie. Now they could end up in the bedroom. She felt her neck grow warm.
Jerome stood, glanced again around the living, dining, kitchen area, and stepped over to the sliding glass door. Beyond it a small deck hovered above the lights of downtown Bellingham. “In the daytime, can you see the bay?”
“Ships in the harbor, and over there Lummi and Portage Islands.” Kyra followed his glance. Jerome stood a comfortable few inches taller than her five-six. “I'm glad I sprang for the place.” For a moment she took it all in through Jerome's eyes, a condo filled with new furniture. The only remnant from her previous life was a Hepplewhite chair, a present from her father. A rich indigo sofa and matching loveseat, plum-and-cream-striped armchair, wicker and glass coffee table, dining table and six mahogany chairs. All on her credit card. A teak wall unit housed new china, a sound system, some books. She wondered when the place would stop feeling like a showroom in a furniture store. “You like the window over the kitchen sink? I think it makes the place feel homey.” She finished her wine. “And here's the guest bedroom-cum-office. All I've got is a pullout couch and my desk.” The desk, a door blank on two filing cabinets, held computer, printer and two phones, Kyra's private one and the agency's business line. She led the way through the living area and down the hall, pointing out a spacious bathroom, the washer/dryer/linen closet, a large storage cupboard. The hall ended at her bedroom with its attached bath.