Altaring Death: A Death and the Detective Tale
It was sometime on Monday and I couldn't see straight. A weekend drunk to celebrate the end of my alimony payments. My ex-wife was safely married again to some poor sap and I was free.
Free! What a wonderful word.
Free! I could almost taste the flavor of it--like the richest Cuban cigar made and the finest scotch. That was how I'd celebrated last night. Now I paid for my celebration. But it was worth it. A temporary discomfort.
No more alimony. That was permanent. No more nagging about late payments or my other many sins. The nagging had made me realize I'd never be happy as a married man.
I was lying on the floor. I rolled over onto my back and banged my head on the only good leg of the coffee table. I grunted and sat up, rubbing my noggin where a small bump quickly formed. Not a promising start to the day.
After several tries, I managed to clamber to my feet, using the old blue sofa to lever myself upright. My head pounded from the effort. The pain of a hangover and that klonk on the head added to the mix.
I was sure I was standing straight, but the room leaned. First one way, then the other. It took some doing. I found if I was careful, I could make it from one piece of furniture to the next. I headed for the bathroom.
I stank. No other way to put it. I smelled of smoke, booze, some flowery bug repellent called Lover's Twain and sweat. The stinky perfume must have belonged to the gal I met in Skeeter's Bar after my fourth glass. I couldn't remember her name or what she looked like now, but last night I'd thought she was beautiful.
A long hot shower and four aspirin helped reduce the pain in my head. When I stepped out of the bathroom, I found my sight was clear. And I wished it hadn't been.
He was floating just off the floor in the middle of my living room with his finger bones clutching his scythe. At least, this time he hadn't lost it.
"I need your help," Death said. Just like before, his voice sounded like a bunch of stones being rolled in an empty tin bucket. What was strange was I thought I could smell flowers--roses and lilacs maybe. Had he been to a funeral?
"Again?" I tried sarcasm. It hadn't worked before, yet one could always hope. He might take the hint.
He nodded. The hood of his shroud fell forward over his skull so I couldn't see his--what would you call it--his face? Whatever... I didn't want to see it or any part of him now or in the future.
"Go away," I said as nastily as I could. I didn't want to be bothered by his weird problems. Even if he did pay well. That would be bad for business--okay, it would be if anyone found out I had dealings with him. Who'd hire a P.I. who worked for Death? If they believed me, if I was stupid enough to tell them, and if I didn't wind up wearing one of those funny jackets in a padded cell.
"I need your help," he repeated. It was plain he had no intention of leaving until I heard him out.
I stalled, pouring myself a cup of coffee. It looked like, smelled like and tasted like tar. The maker had been on all night. The jolt of triple-strength caffeine hit my empty stomach and nerves with a sizzle.
"I gotta get some clothes on," I told him. The air conditioner was working for once and someone had set it at 65 degrees. My goose pimples had goose pimples. I didn't want him to see me naked either. I couldn't explain it, but the idea seemed indecent. Even to my fuzzled mind.
His hood moved in a nod. He'd wait.
I looked at the clock. Almost noon and my brain was just beginning to function. I was cold. No wonder. I was wearing only a wet towel.
I dressed slowly, not wanting to find out what strange thing my client needed me to do. Even though he paid well, he weirded me out.
I wondered if this ever happened to anybody else. Had he ever bothered Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple? What would they have done if he had?
Finally, I couldn't think of another thing to do to myself so I went out to face him. He was in the same place, and now two sets of footbones protruded from the bottom of his shroud and made contact with my carpet. I wouldn't have been surprised to see one of them tapping impatiently at the way I'd kept him waiting. I don't really think Death has a sense of time, however.
I refilled my coffee mug and dropped onto the nearest chair. Gathering my courage, I asked, "What is it this time?"
"I have to get married," he sort of growled.
I stared at him. I couldn't have heard right. "What?"
"I have to get married," he repeated.
I howled. I couldn't stop. "Married? You? You...have...to?" It was the weirdest problem yet. I had trouble catching my breath.
After a few more window-rattling guffaws, I wound down to a stupid giggle. "Did you get some gal knocked up?" I couldn't resist the question. It cracked me up again.
"No," he rattled.
If I hadn't known better, I'd have said he was annoyed. This was the nuttiest thing I ever heard. A guy only I could see unless he was about to collect a soul was going to get married. What woman in her right mind... How...
"Do you know how ridiculous this sounds?" I asked, choking back more laughter.
"Yes," he rattled again. Then he pointed that scythe at me.
I shuddered and went numb all over. If that thing touched me, I was a goner. I stood and moved away from the chair. My coffee mug nearly broke as I dropped it on the nearest end table.
I had a strange premonition I was going to be attending the wedding. No way that was going to happen. I wouldn't.
"You have to help me." He didn't sound like he was asking for help.
I shook my head. "No way," I told him. "I'm not going to any wedding of yours." I took up a position near my door. I might just be able to get out before he could swing that scythe in my direction.
"You are the only one who can help me," his feet disappeared and he floated toward me with the scythe over his shoulder. It was like he knew what I was thinking.
"I can't help you," I told him. "If nobody else can see you but me, you can't marry anybody."
But I had to admit my curiosity was picqued. "By the way, who were you going to marry?"
"Eldona Secrist," he rasped.
"Eldona?" I couldn't believe it. I'd known her most of my life. She was an old lady who lived down the street from my family when I was a kid. When she started talking to people who weren't there, her sister Orrine took her to live with her in Mifflin and when Orrine died, Eldona was put in a nursing home back here in Meadeville.
"Eldona must be about a hundred years old. She's nutty as they come too. She can't get married," I told him. Then I headed for that coffee pot. The first caffeine blast was losing its power. I filled a clean mug and turned to face him.
He raised his head. I wished he hadn't. His hood fell back and I found myself staring into those eyeless sockets.
I couldn't help it. I shuddered. And nearly spilt my coffee. So I sat again.
"Can't you keep your head covered?" I asked. "I gotta tell you, you give me the creeps." I was gonna have nightmares for weeks to come. This was worse that some horror movie.
He gave a quick nod as he spoke, "Eldona Secrist is a recycled soul. In a previous life she was killed in an accident. She missed her chance to be married."
"How did she get to be a recycled soul? She was always a single woman. I don't think she made the cycle a first time." I wasn't sure I believed his story.
"She was given a second life to replace the one taken before it could be fulfilled. She was promised in this life the marriage she missed the first time."
"Don't you think she waited a bit too long to get married?" I couldn't make any sense of it. This old lady was gonna marry Death? No wonder they said she was batty. Was she like the old man who'd wanted to live forever? He'd been the reason Death had come to enlist my services the first time. Why did he need a detective for this problem?
This whole situation was crazy. I didn't see how it could be real.
I sipped steadily at the coffee. If you can call it that. It was thick and had a burnt taste that made me shudder too.
"Eldona was promised marriage before she died this time," Death told me.
I thought I detected a trace of impatience in his tone. Maybe, just maybe, if I played stupid a bit longer he'd go away. I could but hope. It did sound like that first case. Only this time a crazy old woman had figured out how to keep living by not getting married.
"I can't take her until she gets married," he added.
I leaned back in the chair. "Her wedding day is the day she dies? That's really crappy," I told him. "Couldn't you at least take her on a honeymoon first?"
He swayed back and forth a bit like my questions were agitating him. I had this sudden mental image of him and the little elderly lady together in bed. What a horrid picture that made. My eyes burned. I blinked several times and shook my head to clear my head of the picture.
"No honeymoon was promised." He floated to his former position in the center of the room. I'd noticed he seemed to favor being in the middle of things.
"Why didn't you marry her before this if you're the one she wants to marry?"
He seemed to stiffen as if he was communicating with someone else. After what seemed several moments, movement returned again.
"We didn't know until her time grew near. Then we learned she was saying she wanted to marry Death. Only Death. And that was impossible." He aimed those empty sockets at me.
I felt a creeping doom. I suddenly knew what he was aiming at. They were taking a crazy old lady's ramblings seriously.
I jumped to my feet. "No! I won't do it! Not me!" I headed for the door.
He got there before me.
If I thought it would do any good, I'd shoot him. But my gat (I love that word--got it from those old B&W movies my ex-wife hated) was in my desk at the office.
I was sunk. Trapped. Snagged.
Then I thought of an out. "Do you have a marriage license application?" I blew out a breath of relief. He'd have to appear in person to get one.
"It's not needed," he said. "Now please get dressed. We must go."
I sagged and shook my head. "I can't do this. It isn't right."
"You must," He spoke like I had no choice.
And I knew I didn't.
There was no sense in my trying to run from him so I dressed and we went down to the alley where my car was parked.
"I don't like this," I said as I got it. "It's inhumane to make me help you kill this old woman."
He appeared in the passenger's seat. "Do you think I should let her live forever?" he rolled those stones in that bucket at me. "She'd soon be unable to talk at all. Or see. Or hear. Her heart is very bad, but it would keep beating."
I couldn't help how I felt, but I knew what he was telling me. The lady's body was tired. It was ready to rest. However a promise had been made and must be kept before that could happen. Why couldn't she have said she wanted to marry Elvis? Or Frankie?
We reached Happy Acres Nursing Home in fifteen minutes. It was the longest drive I'd ever taken. I tried to go slow but the car had a mind of its own and kept to the top of the speed limit.
Death was silent as we entered the lobby. I asked to see Miss Eldona Secrist. The lady behind the desk, a Mrs. Gibbons, nodded and got to her feet. "Come this way, please. She's expecting you."
"Is she all right?" I asked. Maybe they wouldn't let me see her.
She gave me a strange look. "Yes. She's fine. We don't know what's happened, but the last three days she's been unusually lucid. You're the first visitor she's had in a long time except for her lawyer yesterday."
I gathered I was supposed to know that. "That's wonderful. Maybe we can talk for a few minutes." Maybe I could explain the impossibility of this situation to her. I felt like a noose was being tightened around my neck. What if something went wrong...
Mrs. Gibbons opened the door at the end of the long, flower-papered hall. "Miss Secrist, Mr. Death is here to see you."
She ushered me into the room.
I turned to protest the name.
She didn't wait, closing the door behind me and leaving me in the room of a little old lady who didn't in the least resemble the neighbor I'd known.
"Are you Miss Eldona Secrest?"
She bobbed her head and smiled. She had a sweet untroubled look. This was no schemer.
An elderly man sat in a chair by the old woman's bed. He wore an unctuous air I didn't like one bit. In his shaky hand he held a small black book.
He stood and gestured to me with a knowing smile. "I'm Reverend Dale. Please take your place beside Miss Secrist's bed. We've got to do this fast."
I tried to explain I wasn't the groom. But he spoke in my head. I looked over my shoulder at him. "You know what you must do."
I'd been set up. "How did you know I'd be here today?" I asked Eldona.
She gave me a fluttery smile. "I had a dream that Mr. Death would come and marry me. Ever since I saw that movie...it was so romantic."
The reverend repeated his instructions. "Stand on Miss Secrist's right side, please." He added in an undertone. "We really must hurry. Mrs.Gibbons will be back in a few minutes. She doesn't allow so many visitors at once." He turned his head. "Okay, Addie. Come out, Miss Simms. Take your places."
On that, two other elderly ladies made an appearance on the other side of Eldona's bed. They were both like tiny, twittery birds made of very soft feathers. They simpered at me.
"Oh, Eldona. He's so young. How did you..." the one called Addie began.
"Hush, Addie. We're not going to stick our nose into their business." Miss Simms stopped her. "We're just witnesses to Eldona's marriage."
I found my voice. "I'm not who you think I am," I tried to protest.
Eldona smiled vaguely. "I know that, dear. You're just standing in for him." She pointed at the wall behind me where Death stood, his scythe at the ready.
"He's not anything like I pictured. He looks a lot like Daddy."
I remembered Death had explained how his appearance could be different to different people. To think I got to see the skull and bones version.
The ceremony was quick. She signed her name to the license and as I went to sign it, the name Death appeared on the line. I left.
I found my fee on the passenger's seat of my car. I would like to have refused it this time, but he was gone.
And that is how Death came to be married.
I visited Eldona's resting place once to see if the headstone I'd ordered with that money had been set up. It read "Mrs. Eldona Death, nee Secrist, beloved wife" with the dates of birth and death below.
It was the least I could do.