The well-furnished rooms swarmed with the chattering friends and family of Spine Less. Tears stained their faces and damp tissues hung from their pockets. Skunk’s wife placed her arm around his and together they weaved their way through groups of hugs and tear-soaked kisses. A pleasant-looking man with thick curly hair directed them to the visitation room. Skunk was disappointed to discover the man’s name was not Terence.
“Well, doesn’t he look peaceful,” Mink remarked after setting eyes on Spine Less’ body. Not only did Spine Less look peaceful, he looked alive. His cheeks were rosy and full and his fingertips were pink as though the blood was still circulating through them.
“He almost looks like he’s breathing!” Mink gasped.
“He’s dead, Dear. I saw it with my own eyes,” Skunk sighed. Mink rubbed his shoulders reassuringly and then wandered off to fetch coffee for the two of them. She talked familiarly with every stranger she passed, giving Skunk the funny feeling his coffee would be cold by the time she got it to him.
“Can I help you with something, sir?” A red-faced man with a jolly belly approached Skunk. His name was Billy Verdin. Again, not Terence. Skunk must have looked lost staring off while everyone else mingled. He introduced himself as the Mayor of Belleville and asked if he could speak to Terence. Mr. Verdin assured Skunk Terence would be happy to talk. Skunk thanked him and was given a whopping smack on the back in return. His back now aching, he took a seat.
“I should arrest that man for his abusive friendliness.” Officer Fanny Duster sat in the adjacent matching chair. He was sucking on a coffee and munching on the remnants of a chocolate chip cookie.
“You saw that, did you?” Skunk said, arching his back.
The officer nodded, “I’ve got eyes like a bat.”
“Bats are blind, Officer.” Officer Fanny Duster opened his mouth to say something, but instead placed the remainder of the cookie on his chocolate-smeared tongue. It was then that Billy Verdin returned.
“Come on up, gentlemen. The Undertaker will see you now!” he chuckled. Skunk didn’t find the statement so funny. He followed the man up the wooden stairs, which creaked with every step, to an office door with the name Bob Amigone written on it.
“Bob was the previous owner,” Mr. Verdin explained. “He passed quite suddenly.”
Skunk nodded, “I see,” he said. Officer Fanny Duster plowed his way through and banged loudly on the door.
“Open up, Undertaker! We have questions for you!” he cried. The door swung open.
“Please,” a tired voice responded, “call me Terence.” Skunk was surprised to see how accurately Terence’s appearance matched Rachelle’s sketches. He was impossibly tall and thin. His face was buried in shadow and his hair was as black as tar. His eyes were like those of a fish: dead and pale. Though terrifying, they held a certain sadness Skunk couldn’t place. In a way, his appearance was both intimidating and pitiable.
“What do you both want?” Terence sighed, he wore the expression of someone in constant agony. Skunk cleared his throat and extracted the medical certificate of death from inside his jacket.
“Can you explain why this document was found in the Elm Valley Trail of Belleville?” Terence took the sheet of paper from Skunk. His fingers were alien-like. As his eyes scanned the document, Skunk and Officer Fanny Duster relayed to him the string of vandalisms surrounding Spine Less’ death.
Terence stood speechless throughout the explanation. He appeared to be in a trance. One long hand covered his mouth and the other held the document as though it was an infectious piece of material.
“The doctor…” he muttered vacantly.
“Yes. His name is Archie―”
“I know what his name is.” Terence cut Skunk off, his voice a clap of thunder. His stone-eyed stare was so cold it made Skunk shiver.
Trying not to show weakness, the mayor cleared his throat and said, “We believe whoever was carrying that document may be the vandal.” His words seemed to dwindle in the rotund office as Terence looked down his angular face at them. The paper lowered in his hands and a look of confused distress overcame his features. When he spoke, it was as if he’d forgotten how to form sentences.
“I don’t…how did…this isn’t possible…” Terence clutched his head and inhaled sharply. He sank into his chair, eyes still glued to the medical certificate.
“Is something wrong, Mr. Coon?” Officer Fanny Duster crossed his arms over his chest: his tone and stance indicated he suspected Terence. A sudden anger befell the undertaker and he shot out from behind his desk like a rocket.
“Yes!” he growled. “This document is fake!” He shoved the stained certificate into the officer’s hands before walking past him. “Along with the doctor who signed it,” he added. He grabbed his blazer from a hook beside the door, swung it on gracefully, and then exited without an explanation. Stung, both Skunk and Officer Fanny Duster stood blinking as their only lead escaped them.
Skunk was the first to start after Terence. Being alone in the undertaker’s office with Officer Fanny Duster was, in a way, creepier than being in the presence of the undertaker himself.
“Wait, Terence!” he called. He caught the man just as he was about to glide down the staircase.
“What do you want now?” Terence sneered. His back was turned and his hands were both balanced on the banister.
“Please,” Skunk said, “how do you know that document is fake?” The man’s shoulders deflated as he sighed morosely.
“The doctor signed his name upside down,” he answered. Before Skunk could ask any more questions, Terence swooped down the stairs and out of sight.
“I’d say we’ve got our first suspect,” Officer Fanny Duster said, approaching Skunk from behind. Deep in thought, Skunk said nothing in reply. Terence didn’t seem like the sort of person who would commit petty crimes for fun. One thing was for certain, though: the undertaker had a dark secret. Suddenly Rachelle’s psychic mumbo jumbo didn’t seem so far fetched.
“Let’s find my wife and get out of here,” Skunk suggested.
“Don’t you think we should talk to some of the other undertakers here? Something tells me this Terence guy can’t be trusted.” Skunk agreed with the officer’s proposition.
“We’ll call them into the station for interviews, starting with that curly-haired gentleman,” he said.
On their way down to the main level of the funeral home, Skunk and Officer Fanny Duster met with Billy Verdin a second time. The rolly-polly jovial man ceased his jubilant skipping and slapped them wholeheartedly across their backs.
“Did Terry tell you about that exotic woman of his?” boomed Mr. Verdin. Both Skunk and Officer Fanny Duster eyed each other incredulously. Hand on his taser, Officer Fanny Duster prompted the giddy assistant to continue. “The man’s got that woman eating out of the palm of his hand! You should hear the naughty things he does to her!” Mr. Verdin threw back his head and laughed robustly. Skunk almost wished Officer Fanny Duster would taser the man just to stop his obnoxious howling. Instead, the officer stroked his walrus mustache and thanked Mr. Verdin for his useful information.
“So we’re dealing with a possible sex offender,” the officer stated after Mr. Verdin was out of earshot.
“Right now, I have no idea who we’re dealing with,” Skunk sighed, placing his hands in his trouser pockets. “I can’t think in this environment. There’s too much sadness suppressed between these walls. Let’s grab Mink and regroup at the station.” The policeman rounded up the new members of his police squad faster than a collie rounding up a herd of sheep. He saluted before leaving and marched his band of blue uniforms out the door.
Skunk joined his wife by an industrial coffee machine. She was chattering with a man he’d never seen before. She’d likely never seen him before either. This was not unusual behavior for her. She socialized with strangers on a regular basis. She smiled and waved at Skunk as he approached.
“Skunkie!” she exclaimed, taking his arm. “Meet my new friend―”
“Murry.” In a blink of an eye, the man’s hand was in Skunk’s. His grip was like that of a boa constrictor. Clearly his short, lean stature took no ill effects to his strength. His skin was a deep shade of chestnut and his features were sharp, as though they’d been carved out of stone. He wore a black turtleneck, which Skunk thought suited him well.
“We’ll be in touch, Mrs. Diggory,” he said to Mink before stealthily slipping through the scattering of people. The man’s voice was both quiet and loud at the same time.
“Yes. We must do the cheese and wine thing!” Mink shouted, her laugh chiming through the crowd.
Skunk shook his head and escorted her across the parking lot of the funeral home, the cold coffee in hand.
“You really do make the most curious of friends,” he said to her. A murder of crows sat on a tree branch, weighing it down so that it almost made contact with the windshield of his car. Skunk attempted to shoo them away, but the birds seemed more amused than frightened of his swooping hand. Mink laughed and pulled a bundle of saltines from her purse.
“I’m a curious woman,” she replied, tossing bits of crackers at the crows. They scattered, hungrily, pecking the pavement and croaking at one another.
“Not too curious, I hope,” Skunk said. He opened the door chivalrously for his wife.
“You have nothing to worry about, my love,” she grinned her red-lipped grin before bunching herself into the car. Skunk scoffed slightly before crawling in himself.
“Nothing to worry about, eh? Bit of an exaggeration given everything that’s going on in Belleville, don’t you think?”