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Last Rights: A Mystery Short Story

IN THE May 7 ISSUE

FROM THE 2016 Articles,
andMysteryrat's Maze,
andTerrific Tales
SECTIONS

by Camille Minichino

A version of Last Rights was published in the magazine Vermont Ink in 1999.

My old Aunt Celia is laid out in the funeral parlor on Crown Court in Boston, three blocks from the house she lived in all her life, a stone’s throw from the public gardens. The cover of her sturdy cherry wood casket is propped open, like the hood of a car in trouble. garden

I’m comfortable in this quiet, final setting. This parlor, with its heavy burgundy drapes and antique walnut cabinets filled with religious curios and delicate figurines, reminds me of the old library where I work, and where I figured out the details of my crime.

I walk across the rich maroon carpet toward Aunt Celia and breathe the sweet odors of thick-stemmed gladiolas. Outside, the early morning traffic rumbles by on Tremont Street, a barely audible hum, adding deep tones to the music Louie the undertaker has piped in.

Aunt Celia’s stiff navy blue taffeta dress is tucked into the crepe-lined edges of her coffin, her best mother-of-pearl rosary circling her old fingers, her thin white hair falling neatly around her crusty orange face. Louie has done a good job.

In approximately one hour, Aunt Celia will be buried. Alone with her in this dark room, settled on the small wooden prie-dieu in front of her coffin, I lean over and look at her necklace.

Aunt Celia asked to be buried with her old pendant, worth tens of thousands of dollars, an oval ruby set in gold, surrounded by tiny diamond chips and suspended on a delicate serpentine chain. I’d always been able to see myself in Aunt Celia’s ruby, my dark hair and eyes matching her own in an earlier day. Today there’s no shine from the jewel around Aunt Celia’s lifeless neck, not the tiniest reflection from the flickering votive lights set in rows on the shaky metal rack next to her coffin.

I dig my elbows into the black velvet top of the prie-dieu and lift my short frame for a better angle, pricking myself on thorns from the enormous spray of blood-red roses at Aunt Celia’s waist. Streaks of light edge around the curtains and end in dullness on her necklace. No glow at the center stone; not a spark from the diamonds. This is not the pendant Aunt Celia cherished.

Of course it isn’t. I have stolen Aunt Celia’s necklace and replaced it with a fake.

I wonder whether anyone has noticed. I wonder if someone has reported the theft. I imagine the police asking questions: who had the opportunity to switch the jewelry? Who needs money? Did someone want revenge? I stare at Aunt Celia’s small, flattened bosom until it seems to rise and fall with breath and life, as if she’s trying to throw off the worthless paste around her neck.

The taped organ hymns, soft at first, grow louder and louder and pound against my head. My hands turn clammy, and my body sways on the kneeler.

“Are you all right, Grace?”

The drapes behind a large crucifix part, and a startling figure in black emerges. I catch my breath and utter a tiny, embarrassing cry. It’s only Louie’s nephew and new assistant, Peter, just out of high school.

“I’m fine,” I say, standing up. “Thank you.”

Peter relaxes his wide, padded shoulders and nods with relief, as if the moment has cost him every ounce of his newly acquired graveside manner. He wanders around the parlor, straightens rows of chairs, dusts the lectern that holds the satiny white guest book, scrapes stray wax from the long ivory candles that frame Aunt Celia’s body. It occurs to me that the police might think Peter stole the necklace. About all he has in this world is a suit Louie handed down and a battered car that’s his graduation present.candle

Another fifty minutes until Aunt Celia’s coffin is closed. Before then, the whole family will march past her remains. Any one of them can be suspected of stealing Aunt Celia’s necklace. Like me, they all had access to this private room before the regular guests arrived. We all knew of her request to wear the ruby and diamonds for all eternity. We’ve all had time to prepare an imitation.

Buddy, Aunt Celia’s oldest son, is a likely suspect. He’s a heavy gambler with never enough money. Buddy’s a regular at Wonderland, the dog-racing track stretched out behind the old Boulevard in Revere, eight miles north of Boston.

It’s common knowledge at Wonderland that Buddy will do anything to be free of the powerful men in white ties who hound him for payments on a five-figure debt. And he’s not the only one in the family with money problems. Jim, his younger brother, filed for bankruptcy when his small restaurant downtown failed last year. Annie, the youngest, is the single mother of teenaged twins trying to support her family as a grade school teacher. There’s no lack of motive for robbery among Aunt Celia’s offspring.money

My mind races with other possibilities, assuring myself that I’m only one of many the police will think of. Why not Louie, the impeccably groomed mortician who’s as old as his dead client? I steal a glance at him, leaning against the doorway, arms folded across his chest. No one else was with the body for so long. And rumor has it that he and Aunt Celia had dated long ago. For all we know, it was Louie who gave Aunt Celia the necklace in the first place. She never told us why she chose this particular piece for perpetual companionship.

I know the police will suspect me, too. Such a tightly knit neighborhood, everyone knows that Aunt Celia took me in when I was a child. My father, her brother Nick, couldn’t deal with me, eight years old when my mother died.

“I don’t like living with Aunt Celia,” I told my father over and over. “I don’t fit in and my cousins hate me.”

But he always said I’d get used to it. I needed a mother, a home life, he said. “With a rich woman,” he winked. He forgot to mention that he wanted to start a new life himself, with nothing to remind him of my real mother.

I was always second class in Aunt Celia’s household. Her sons, Buddy and Jim, were sent to a private high school in Boston, and her natural daughter, Annie, went to an academy in a lovely suburb. For me, public schools, hand-me-downs, and banishment from the living room during family meetings.

Footsteps break into my memories. My fruitless reliving of one deadly holiday after another is interrupted as Buddy arrives with his latest wife, Rita, tall and slim, in a fashionable black cloak. Certainly bought for this special occasion, and not from a sale rack. Rita pinches her cloak around her neck and looks at Aunt Celia. Buddy stands behind her and rolls his bald head around in his tight collar.

“Doesn’t she look beautiful,” Rita says, her voice high and whiny like the voice people use with infants or puppies.

I’ve already moved to a cold folding chair in the shadow of a potted tree so Buddy and Rita can have the kneeler. Closer to the window, I feel a slight chill though the spring air is mild. I hunch my shoulders and stuff my hands into the pockets of my brown knit jacket, the most respectable article of clothing I own.

I may not be able to afford designer fashions, but it was my menial library job that helped me pull off this heist. The idea had hit me like a bolt, the day a poor young girl from the projects came in and asked me to help her with a school report.

“I want to know how to make jewelry that looks real,” she’d said. “You know, imitations of expensive necklaces and stuff.”

Thanks, inarticulate little waif in the tattered sweater, so out of place in our plush Beacon Hill library branch. Over the next few months, I worked with her on a grade A report, and finished my own project on the side. jewelry

Now, in Louie’s parlor, Buddy and Rita hardly notice me. I watch to see if they’ll spot the fake necklace, but they seem to be concentrating on other things. Rita eyes a wilted flower in a small basket and calls Peter to remove it.

“Let’s look through these cards,” Rita says. Her elaborate coral fingernails pick through the envelopes on the narrow oak stand. “There might be money in some of them.”

“Forget it,” says Buddy. “What’s the matter with you? Nobody’s been here since we looked last night.” Buddy’s wearing the navy pin-striped suit and wide dark tie he says he bought for job interviews.

In the next few minutes, the peace of the funeral parlor is destroyed as Jim and his wife, Marianne, arrive, their four children and Annie and her twins with them. A few old women in black file in also, Aunt Celia’s friends from St. Margaret’s. Two by two, they all take a turn on the kneeler as I watch their faces from the sidelines, looking for some sign of recognition that Aunt Celia is wearing inferior goods.

Jim and Marianne whisper to each other the whole time they kneel in front of Aunt Celia. Then they approach me in my corner and ask me to move to the next row back.

“So the children can help each other with the rosary,” Marianne says. She pronounces each word deliberately, as if I need special handling.

“We should have marked this row for the family,” Jim says, “then Grace would have known enough not to sit here.” I think he sincerely believes this remark is a kindness to me.

Carla, their oldest, stumbles into the chair that had been mine. She leans over to catch my eye, rests her hand on her shoulder, and flicks her fingers, as if brushing off an insect or a bit of lint.

“Hello step-Auntie Grace,” Carla says.

I adjust my glasses and glance down at the bright crystal rosary in Carla’s hand. I clench my jaw at the image of year after year of miserable evenings when I baby-sat Carla and her brothers.

Annie’s twins, a boy and a girl, are the last to approach the kneeler. After only a few seconds, they reach out together and touch the narrow collar of Aunt Celia’s dress. For a moment, I think they’ve spotted the arts-and-crafts jewelry, but their awkward fidgeting and stifled giggles tell me they’re involved in some sort of mutual joke, probably daring each other to touch their dead grandmother.

I look at the clock: only a half hour to go. So far, no one has mentioned the necklace. The air in the parlor is heavy, choking, partly from perfumes, and partly from Louie’s chemicals. Aunt Celia’s children discuss the details of the burial mass and the motor procession to her final resting place.

Rita’s voice rings out, a sharp contrast to the hushed tones of the parlor: “We have two limos,” she says. “Car number one will have Buddy and me, Jim, Marianne, and Annie. Car number two is for the six kids. Grace can drive her own car and take Uncle Nick, if he ever shows up.”

No one objects, and Peter disappears through the back door that leads to the mortuary garage.

“Where are the prayer cards?” Annie asks. “They should be here by now. People will be looking for them.” Her twins, slumped in a corner, look at their mother as if waiting to be blamed for the missing package.

“Somebody’d better check over at the convent,” Marianne says.

“I’ll go,” I say, happy for an excuse to leave the parlor and the necklace. I head out into the air and light.

I pass my old green Dodge and hurry along Prince Street to the convent, a few blocks away, anxious to put distance between me and the parlor. It seems that Aunt Celia will go to her grave in a few dollars worth of glass and glue, for all her children noticed, and I, at last, will have my rights, a share in the family’s goods.

At the convent I pick up the memorial cards, stacked tightly together, and stuffed into a small box, like a deck of ordinary playing cards ready to be dealt to the worshippers at the funeral mass.

I head back to the funeral home and check the time on the old clock tower attached to the post office building behind Louie’s parlor. Only fifteen minutes left in the parlor. Father Rossi will lead the final rosary, then Aunt Celia and the pasty necklace will be closed up and buried forever at Holy Family Cemetery.

I reach the short walkway leading to the parlor and spy a uniformed policewoman at the door, next to Louie, her hand at hip level where her gun is holstered.

“Grace has always been a problem,” I hear someone say.

Very slowly and deliberately, the policewoman walks toward me. I back away slightly, but a second officer, a man I’d known in high school, moves in and blocks my way.

The energy drains from my body, my arms drop to my side, and the package of holy cards spills out of my hands. The flimsy cardboard box lands on its edge and opens as it hits the ground. Spread out at my feet are one hundred identical images of Jesus, sad-eyed from disappointment in His disciples, His fingers pointing to His heart, bare and wounded in His chest. Some of the cards are already soiled from grains of dirt blown around them. A few have flipped over during their fall — May she rest in peace. I look down without hope, and know that the cards can never be put back into their crisp, perfectly wrapped deck.

Louie looks at the officers, and then at me, and shakes his head, his eyes cast down. His highly polished black shoes catch the light from shiny handcuffs at the policeman’s waist.

In the doorway behind Louie, Aunt Celia’s children and grandchildren and the ladies in black stand crowded together in silence, mouths closed, eyes stunned into openness. My father, who has finally arrived, has the startled look of a fallen angel. Father Rossi, in his stark white collar, clutches his lapels and glares at me. I have everyone’s full attention.

“I’m sorry about this, Grace,” the officer says, his voice low and steady.

I give him a weak smile and lift my hands, wrists together, fingers touching, as if to pray.

Rita pushes her way to the front and comes within a few inches of me. Her cloak waves around us, a dark shroud that clouds my vision. She throws her head back, and breathes a loud sigh into my face.

“Your car is blocking Louie’s driveway,” she says. “You’re getting a ticket.”

I turn from her and see the sun dance on my car. Rita is right. I’m parked illegally.

I point to the curb at our feet, lined with cars, bumper to bumper.

“It was the only way I could fit in,” I say.

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section.

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Camille Minichino is a retired physicist turned writer. When her first book, Nuclear Waste Management Abstracts, was not a bestseller, she turned to mystery fiction. She has written more than 20 novels and many articles and short stories. You can learn more on her website.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 camille minichino May 7, 2016 at 12:04pm

Thanks to Lorie and KRL — graphics by them add so much to the story!

Reply

2 Kathleen Costa May 7, 2016 at 12:17pm

Thank you, Camille Minichino! I really enjoyed your story. Your characters were just how I thought you meant to present them…karma needs to visit them and soon! You definitely had me at the end…whew!

Reply

3 Gail Farrelly
Twitter: @gailfarrelly
May 7, 2016 at 4:02pm

Loved the story, Camille. The ending was terrific!

Reply

4 Doward Wilson May 7, 2016 at 10:29pm

Wonderful story, thanks for sharing it with us.

Reply

5 Kaye George
Twitter: @KGeorgeMystery
May 8, 2016 at 7:52am

Lovely story. So many nuances!

Reply

6 camille minichino May 8, 2016 at 11:01am

Thanks, all. I’m glad the ending worked for you.

Reply

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