BV Lawson, author of Nevermore, has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, honored by Derringer, Golden Fedora, and Gemini Magazine Awards, and was a contributor to the Anthony Award-winning Blood on the Bayou. BV’s Scott Drayco crime novels have been named Best Mystery in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, chosen as a Featured Library Journal Self-E pick, and been a finalist for the Shamus, Silver Falchion, and Daphne Awards.
She was utterly and truly screwed if she couldn’t get her nerves under control. Vera rearranged the purple cosmos on the nightstand for the tenth time and studied the arrangement from various angles. There were still two brown petals and that just wouldn’t do. She plucked out the offending stems and fluffed the remaining blossoms.
After taking one last look around the bedroom, she picked a piece of lint off the quilt and straightened one tiny wrinkle. Everything had to be perfect since she’d never done this before. Well, maybe not perfect, but it should be good enough.
When the doorbell rang, her heart raced with anticipation. She glanced in the mirror to check her hair—two gray strands she’d missed plucking stood out like neon signs that flashed in giant letters, “Middle-aged woman!” She tucked them beneath her headband.
And what about her yellow paisley dress? Was it not-too-this, not-too-that? Was she even making the right decision to do this at all? She opened the front door and tried to hide her surprise but apparently didn’t do a very good job of it.
The man took off his fedora and said, “Robert Treuhold. I hope my appearance doesn’t scare you. Cancer surgery last year. A couple of those squamous cell things.”
Nevermore…is about a woman trying to turn her life around…
Vera hastily replied, “No, you’re fine. I didn’t mean to—”
“I get that reaction a lot. This your first time?”
She laughed, a little too loudly. “How can you tell? Guess I’m a bit nervous.” Glancing down at his small bag, she pointed to it. “Shall I show you to your room?”
“That would be nice, Miss Lye.”
“Please, it’s Vera. I hate my surname. Well, it’s not my real surname. Or it won’t be soon.”
“Ah, I see. And call me … Bob.”
“I didn’t see your car, Bob, but you can park anywhere out front.”
“No car. I always use taxis.”
She led him to the back of the house and noted, as they passed the same mirror she’d used only moments ago, that he didn’t look at it once. Maybe he was too embarrassed by the scars? Or maybe it was the port-wine stain on his balding head or those three-toned caterpillar eyebrows of his. He wasn’t Hollywood leading-man material, for sure.
As they reached the room, she noted one of the flower petals had fallen on the carpet and brushed it under the bed with her foot. “I hope this is acceptable, Bob. The bathroom is right next door. You’ll have a lot of privacy since I don’t use this part of the house much.”
He tossed his hat on top of the quilt. “I believe this will do just fine, Vera. I’ve seen my share of these homeowner rentals, and this one is nicer than most.”
She relaxed a bit at that and smiled. “The reservation app said you’d be here for three days?”
“I think that should be enough time to complete my task.”
Vera stared at him. “I’m sorry, your task?”
He chuckled. “Pardon my awkward phrasing. I’m not well versed in the social graces. I’m looking to retire, you see. Seeking a place to spend my last days.”
She frowned. “Your last days? You’re not … I mean, surely …”
“There I go again. So sorry for the confusion. I meant a home for my final resting place. I’ve done quite a bit of traveling during my career, and I’m ready to settle down.”
“Oh,” she said, chuckling to ease some of her tension.
He stood there looking at her expectantly, and she hurried to add, “Have you eaten? It’s almost dinner time. I’ve got a casserole in the oven.”
“A home-cooked meal? That would be nice. I’m more accustomed to rat burgers and cockroach fries.”
Vera’s jaw dropped. “What?”
“Fast food. So many of those places aren’t the cleanest, you see. You never know what you’re getting, do you?”
Vera had the passing thought she wasn’t at all sure what she was getting with this boarder of hers, but she settled him down at the kitchen table and doled out some of the Chicken a la King and a mixed-melon salad.
As she pulled out a chair to join him, she tried to think of something to talk about. Anything to keep from staring at those scars. “You’ve come to the right place if you’re looking for a nice retirement community. We have golfing, water sports, there’s the adult fitness center, and of course, lots of good doctors.”
He took a taste of the casserole. “Delicious. Just like my Aunt Carole used to make.”
As she pulled out a chair to join him, she tried to think of something to talk about.
“I’m glad you like it.” Vera ate in silence for several minutes, unsure of what else to say. Maybe Bob wasn’t the only nonsocial human at the table. As she wracked her brain trying to think of something witty, strains of “Another One Bites the Dust” from her cellphone startled her, and she had to grab her plate to keep from spilling the casserole right into her lap. Why was she so jumpy?
When Vera saw who the caller was, she excused herself and headed to the living room. “Greg, this is not a good time.”
The voice on the other end was so loud, she pulled the phone away from her ear. The baritone boomed, “Pete Sims drove by your house. Saw a man with a suitcase heading in. You’re quite the little slut, aren’t you?”
“It’s nothing like that, not that it’s any of your business. I have a boarder here, and we’re eating supper.”
“Right. A boarder. You were probably cheating on me for years.”
“Greg, I said it’s nothing like that. Though you’d certainly know something about cheating, wouldn’t you?”
That shut him up for a moment until he finally replied, “That again?”
She sighed. “Look, I’ve been meaning to call you. And since you initiated it—the alimony check still hasn’t come. I have bills, Greg. I need that money.”
His voice got even louder. “Why should I pay you anything? It’s my money, not yours.”
“That’s not what the judge said. But I don’t want to get into a fight over the phone.”
She fought the urge to yell back at him but just added in a calm tone of voice, “I’ll call you later. Or my lawyer will.”
She hung up and felt like throwing the cellphone into the fireplace, but instead took a few deep breaths before making her way back to the table. After she slid into her seat, Bob said, “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but that soon-to-be former-surname you mentioned. A divorce, I take it?”
Vera poked self-consciously at her gray strands of hair. “My husband ran off with his much younger sailing instructor, Barbie or Bambie something. Or Bimbo, perhaps. After twenty-five years of marriage. And after I worked to put him through medical school.”
“Friendship is the marriage of the soul, and this marriage is liable to divorce.”
Okay, maybe so his “social graces” were a bit unusual, but she actually thought she recognized that quotation. “Voltaire?”
“One of my favorites. Your ex sounds like he could learn a thing or two from Voltaire.” When he smiled like that, he looked a lot more human. And a lot more sympathetic.
“Tell me about your work, Bob. Is it exciting?”
“Friendship is the marriage of the soul, and this marriage is liable to divorce.”
He paused, fork in mid-air. “I think some people would find it too exciting. Others not so much.”
“I’m in the death business.”
“I’m afraid I don’t … ah, you mean funerals?”
“Something like that. Not a lively topic or a very pleasant one for dinner, I daresay.”
“Perhaps not. But someone has to do that kind of work, don’t they?”
“People pay me pretty well for it, so I would say yes.”
She’d noticed his clothing looked tailored. From Brunello Cucinelli, perhaps? And that hat of his could be a Bailey’s fedora. “Well, then, you might be able to afford one of the homes in Century Village. That’s the new chic-chic retirement community they’re putting south of town.”
“I’m not sure I’ll need something that elaborate. I was thinking a lot smaller.”
“How small? A cottage? A studio?”
He smiled again. “So, you’re beginning a new life, it seems. A second chance?”
“That’s one way of looking at it.” Vera thought back to the night Gary told her he was leaving. The fight, the tears … and her own scars on her wrists where she’d cut herself with a knife.
She added, “If you’d asked me that question a couple of months ago, I think I would have said I was tired of life.”
“I believe I understand that. Being tired of life.”
She prompted him, “And this is your second chance, too, then?”
“Oh, I don’t there are second chances for people like me.”
People like him? She couldn’t imagine funeral directors were exactly pariahs. She shook her head, bemused, and they continued eating in a more companionable silence.
Vera wasn’t sure why, but she felt drawn to this man. Not romantically, but there was just something she couldn’t quite identify. Which is why she was disappointed when he said he wanted to lie down after supper because he was tired. She’d been hoping for what—the companionship of a sympathetic soul? Intelligent conversation for a change? But she said she understood and gave him a key to use while she was at work in the morning.
Before he retired to his room, he looked out the back window to her garden. “How lovely. Are you the gardener?”
“When I get the time. I’ve neglected it lately, I’m afraid.”
“I have a little experience planting things. Perhaps I could pull a few weeds tomorrow while you’re gone.”
“I couldn’t ask you to do that.”
“It’s no trouble. Consider it part of my payment to you. A bonus.”
“Why, thank you. I’d be incredibly grateful. I used to be so proud of that garden.”
He nodded. “Life is bristling with thorns, and I know no other remedy than to cultivate one’s garden.”
“Quite the philosopher, don’t you think?”
“I guess he was, at that.” Vera pulled the Boston cream cake out of the refrigerator. It hardly seemed like the type of dessert to go with Voltaire. Now she wished she’d made some dark chocolate mousse or crème brûlée.
The next day at work, Vera told her friend Alma about her boarder, and Alma sat her down for a lecture. “You know nothing about this man, Vera. I realize you need extra money right now. But couldn’t you just sell something on the internet? Or some plasma?”
“You worry too much. He’s quite the gentleman. And he has this unusual air about him. Not like any man I’ve met before.”
“Don’t tell me you’re falling for him after one day.”
“Nothing like that, no. But we do seem to have a lot in common.”
“Yeah, right. Well, if you don’t come into work tomorrow morning, I’m calling the cops.”
Vera rolled her eyes. “You truly are a drama queen.”
“With a capital ‘Q.’ That’s because I read the newspapers, dear. Maybe you should, too. They’ve got drama with a capital ‘R,’ as in robbers, rapists, and ransom. There’s a story in the papers about that every day.”
“I take that back. You aren’t a drama queen. You’re a hypo-drama-chondriac.”
If Vera were honest with herself, she’d admit it made sense to heed Alma’s warning, but she couldn’t shake the feeling she was safe with Bob. Then again, maybe Alma would turn out to be right. Vera would return home and realize the connection she’d felt to him was all in her mind—as she surveyed the empty silverware case and jewelry box items strewn across the floor.
But when she arrived at her house after work, the place seemed even tidier than when she’d left that morning. As she walked in, Bob was just washing up at the kitchen sink, being careful not to get the counters dirty.
Vera peered out the back window. “Oh, my god. That’s a lot more than a few weeds.”
The garden looked like something out of Architectural Digest. She hadn’t seen it that pristine in years. Neat, manicured, orderly. Except for a long trench dug into the ground over on one side.
When he saw her looking at the trench, he said, “Oh, don’t worry about that. I have plans. I noted some blue periwinkle flowers at the Spring Hill Nurseries. Thought they would look perfect there against the fence.”
She studied the spot and imagined the periwinkle, another of her favorite flowers. How had he known? He seemed to be reading her mind. Vera nodded. “I do believe you’re right.”
She prepared the leftover casserole, wishing she’d got him some steak instead for all his hard work, but he didn’t seem to care. He queried her about her day, and she told him the usual boring, soul-killing details that seemed to define her life these days. And then he asked her an odd question, although coming from him, maybe not so much.
“Have you ever considered what type of funeral you might like to have?”
Vera blinked at him. “You said you were getting out of the business.”
“Oh, I am. I just think you can tell a lot about a person from the type of funeral they envision after they’re dead.”
“I hadn’t given it much thought. I suppose lots of flowers, of course.”
“And maybe some nice music. Bach, perhaps? Or Mozart. I love the Ave verum.”
“Excellent choice. And your coffin?”
She laughed. “I imagine you get a lot of unusual requests, there.”
“All coffins are coffins to me. They fulfill their purpose.”
“What about you, Bob? After all those years of being in the business of death, you must have plans for some extravaganza.”
“You’d think so, but no. Nothing fancy, much more practical. I don’t have any friends or family to speak of, you see.”
“Really? I’m sorry. I had no idea.”
“It’s a hazard in my business.”
Again, Vera was having a difficult time imagining what he meant. Why it would be hard to form friends as a funeral director? As for the family part, well, she’d just lost a husband, hadn’t she? Maybe Bob had lost a wife. Or kids? And perhaps she didn’t want to know any of those sordid details. Just one more thing they had in common, no doubt.
She asked, “Where did you learn to love Voltaire so much?”
“Can you think of something better to do while waiting around for someone to hire you? I do so hate being bored. Reading is my escape.”
“From all that death.”
“Precisely.” He nodded over at a stack of DVDs on the counter. “Just as you like horror films.”
She smiled. “Catharsis, I suppose.”
“The divorce is not going well, I take it?”
“I can’t believe I used to love that man.” Vera grimaced. “Guess my horror-film catharsis is better than all the ideas I had of putting Greg six feet under.”
He nodded. “The safest course is to do nothing against one’s conscience. With this secret, we can enjoy life and have no fear from death.”
She thought about that for a moment. “Voltaire was a very smart fellow. My being in prison for murder wouldn’t help my cause, would it?”
He stared at her for a little longer than felt comfortable before he replied, “Prison is the last place I’d want you to be.”
With Bob’s unusual phrasing again ringing through her head, she had a hard time sleeping and found herself going through the motions at work the next day. Voltaire or not, he was a most eccentric man. Still, she picked up some steak and chocolate mousse on her way home. He’d probably finished her garden by now, and they needed to celebrate.
When she opened the door, she didn’t see him at the sink this time. In fact, she didn’t hear any sounds from him at all. Was he napping? Taking a shower? She tiptoed to his room and looked in.
He wasn’t there but something else was.
From the doorway, she saw a manila envelope on the quilt with “Vera” penned in large block letters. With a mounting sense of dread, she walked over to pick up the envelope and opened it. A digital recording device dropped out, along with a handwritten note and what looked like a stack of high-value bills wrapped in brown paper with a rubber band.
She sank onto the bed and started reading. Dear Vera. It has been so nice to get to know you. I believe we have a special connection, you and I. But I’m afraid I wasn’t quite honest with you. Although I wasn’t lying when I said I was in the death business, I don’t run a funeral parlor. I take care of problem people. And your husband considered you a “problem.”
Vera’s heart almost stopped as she gasped for breath. Her eyes watered, and she angrily wiped away the tears to continue reading. I also wasn’t lying when I said I wanted to spend my last days here. With your help, I can do that now. You see, I’m tired of my job. Tired of the cheating husbands and jealous mobsters and crooked politicians. But you can’t really retire from my business, you know?
She stared at the sheet of paper, hardly seeing it thanks to her blurry eyes. But then she spied one last line. P.S. The digital recording will be all the evidence you need to take to the police. I recorded it when your husband called to arrange the hit.
Vera sat there for what felt like an eternity, not knowing or caring how much time had passed. Her movements were robotic as she picked up the recorder and pressed play. There, in digital black-and-white, was the voice of her husband telling Bob precisely what he wanted done and how much money he was willing to pay Bob to do it. And that made her blood boil even more. Fifty thousand dollars? Really, Gary? And you can’t even fucking pay me one alimony check?
The device slipped out of Vera’s hand as she stared at Bob’s words. What did he mean by, “I wasn’t lying about wanting to spend my last days here. With your help, I can do that now?”
Noting his suitcase was still in the room, she frowned and hopped up to search the house—the living room, the den, the other bedrooms, the kitchen. But he was nowhere to be found. Until she finally spied him in the garden.
In a daze, she walked out to the trench he’d dug next to the fence. The pots of blue periwinkle were sitting off to the side. Bob, however, lay inside the trench covered in blood, with the handle of one of her kitchen knives buried in his chest. Vera knew from her brief stint as a nursing aide that Bob was dead, but she took his pulse, anyway.
She stood up and thought about what he’d said. Thought about her lousy marriage and lousy husband, but that wasn’t what made her sad. It was that this man, this Voltaire-quoting, garden-loving man was the one lying there and not Gary.
Bob had been right about one thing—they really did share a connection, and she knew exactly what she had to do. Vera picked up the shovel from the ground and scooped up some of the dirt pile Bob had made. One shovel, then another, then another. It would take a while, but she’d have the job done before dark. Time enough to plant the periwinkles on top. And go grab some Voltaire off the internet to read to him above the flowers.