by Joan Leotta
Throughout this week leading up to Mother’s Day we will be publishing several mother related mystery short stories and one non-mystery one. The Dead Lady’s Coat was originally published in a slightly different form in Crimestalker Handbook 2006. Be sure and come back this week to check out the rest of the stories! You can also find all of them after they are posted, and many others, in our Terrific Tales section!
Joan shares how she came up with the story: “The inspiration for this story was a gift from my cousin, Joan Joy. She gave me a lovely camel hair coat that had belonged to the mother (deceased) of one of her friends. It fit perfectly but when I put my hands in the pockets, I found a hole in one pocket. What made that hole? That’s how the story started.”
My widowed Mom’s delight is treasure hunting. She is a regular at thrift shops and spends most of her Saturday morning at garage sales. She does not confine the pleasure of her bargains to herself, but often buys items and gives them away. “I just knew it was right for “blank blank” so I had to buy it,” is how she usually begins her post garage sale call to me every Saturday. Last week, my name is the one that filled in the blanks.
Despite my protests, on Monday she paraded over to my house with what she considered to be the perfect item for me, a new winter coat. I had to admit my old coat was a threadbare wreck; a coat was not something in my budget. My small savings account was stretching to bridge what I hoped would be a temporary employment gap. I had already refused offers to move home or take money from Mom so, when she presented me with a genuine camel-hair coat, quite new looking and stylish, I had to admit that taking a hand-me-down, albeit a purchased one, was tempting.
After sitting Mom down in front of a plate of my famous chocolate cookies, I tried on the coat. She nodded approvingly adding, “It’s not thrift shop–this belonged to Charlie.”
I gagged. “A dead man’s coat?”
“No, no! My friend Sam’s AUNT Charlene. You remember my friend, Sam? Her aunt was the reason she and her sister have boy’s names. The dear, now departed, lady was born on day of Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight. That’s why her name started their family tradition of girls with male nicknames.”
“Like your friend Sam.”
“Right–short for Samantha! Anyway, the coat is almost new; Charlie bought it just days before her heart attack, right after her weekly coffee date and card game with her retired cop neighbor. I told Sam you needed a new coat and…”
“But still,” I whined, “It’s a dead lady’s coat!”
“Oh, get over it! By the way, Sam and I met some cute young guys while we were helping to clean out Charlie’s place. I think they are nephews of that handsome ex- detective who squired Aunt Charlie around on those coffee dates. Seems he, the retired cop, had a stroke the same day she died. The two guys were cleaning out his place.”
I started to choke on my cookies. “Mom! Too much information. I don’t want to know what you and your friend think about guys. I’m your daughter!”
Mom giggled. Giggled! “Never fear, they were way too young for Sam and me–and even too young for you. Hmmmm…I wonder if I should have gotten their names for that new girl at work? They’re about her age.”
I rolled my eyes. Mom likes matchmaking as much as treasure trawling, but her ability to find gems is limited to the sales! I think everyone who knows her has been fixed up on the date from hell, by my dear sweet Mom. She ignored my expression of disbelief and one by one devoured four of my famous chocolate chip cookies. She convinced me to keep the coat, at least for a day or so, and then left.
Alone, I put the coat on, struck a jaunty, modelesque, pose in front of the mirror, pushing my hands deep into the pockets.
Yech! Wadded tissue in the left pocket! I gingerly tossed the tissue into the trash, sat down, took the coat off and spread it across my lap. Very carefully, I dipped my hand back into the pocket and pulled out the lining. There was a hole in the bottom of the silk where the threads had split. As I inspected the hole, something hard farther down in the coat, but still inside the lining banged my knee.
Careful pushing, prodding and pulling pried a small sharp-edged key from the coat’s innards. It looked like a safe deposit box key. I recognized the telltale shape from the days when I had a job and valuables to put in a bank.
“Charlie’s family is probably looking for this key,” I told myself and then punched Mom’s number into my cell phone to tell her to call Sam about the key. Mom answered on the first ring! She must have seen my name in her caller ID because before I could speak, she began to sob into the phone: “Oh Gabbie, I’m so glad it’s you. My house has been robbed! Can you believe it? The robbers went through everything! They trashed the place. It looks horrible. The police are here now, but could I come and stay with you after they leave?”
“Of course! Do you want me to come over and get you?”
“No, I’ll throw a few things into my car and I’ll come over. I don’t want to leave my car here or stay here a minute longer than I have to. The police say they won’t be back, but I feel so violated!”
“I’ll be here waiting for you,” I assured her.
By the time the police left and Mom got to my place it was after ten. I fed her a bowl of chicken soup and we talked for a while. It was after midnight when I settled her onto my couch and she fell asleep almost immediately.
Not me. Now wide awake, I reached for a book, but before I could turn a page, my phone rang. A male voice rasped: “Joy there? I’m Ed, Sam’s brother. Sam thinks she gave Joy something that I was supposed to get. Can I come over and get it?”
Joy is my Mom’s given name, so I answered.” She’s asleep. I’ll ask her in the morning. We’ll call you,” I growled, thinking he could have waited for morning to call. Ed hung up without leaving his number. Of course, I had it in my phone.
A tousled Mom appeared in the doorway to my bedroom. “Who was on the phone?” she asked while stifling a yawn.
“That was Sam’s brother, Ed.”
Mom shook her head and corrected me. “Sam doesn’t have a brother. Ed’s short for Edwina!”
Suddenly I remembered the key. I jumped out of bed and grabbed Mom by the shoulders.
“Mom! My caller said he was Sam’s brother, Ed! Think, Mom, those cute guys at the neighbor’s– what did you say to them about the stuff you were taking out of the house? Where you lived?”
The roar of a motorcycle interrupted us. I croaked out, “Mom, hide and call 911!” I grabbed my big green vase and slipped behind the door.
“Ed” burst through a minute later, but my decorator–on-a–dime special conked him “out.” Two police officers arrived in short order. We called Sam to tell her what was going on and she told us that her house had also been burgled too, but that her neighbor had seen two guys fleeing and had tackled one of them. “He’s in custody but the other one is on the loose.”
“Not anymore,” we told her. “The police have him in custody here.” Sam came over too and we talked late into the night, finally falling asleep just before dawn.
A detective came by later in that morning. He joined Mom, Sam and me for a coffee and cookie breakfast. He told us that the one we called “Ed” had talked back at the station.
“I guessed most of the story anyway. I was Zeke’s (Aunt Charlie’s friend) last partner before Zeke retired. Zeke called me after discovering a stash of drugs while looking for his supply of motor oil in the shed he was renting to two motorcycle enthusiasts. We, my new partner and I, think these guys came back early and fingered Zeke for taking their stash. Zeke probably suspected they knew it was him, so on his regular date with Aunt Charlie, we think Zeke told her all and asked her to hold the key to the safe deposit box where he had hidden the evidence. From what you told us”– the detective nodded at me– “she stuffed the key into her coat pocket so hard it went into the lining. But she had a heart attack when she got home, so no one else knew about the key.”
The detective continued. “The punks must have discovered the box rental receipt and while trying to get Zeke to tell where the key was hidden, he died. They must have remembered Zeke’s dates with Aunt Charlie and figured she had the key.”
Mom picked up the story. “So they came over at twilight while we were taking her apartment apart and chatted us up, hoping to find out about the key. We mentioned taking things for Ed. They must have followed Sam home, broken in, got my number and address from her phone list and later got Gabbie’s number and address from my emergency call list when they trashed my place. Pretty clever.”
“Except for not knowing Ed was a girl!” I chimed in.
Turns out there were a reward for capturing “Ed” and his pal. Mom, Sam and I split the money. With my share, I bought a brand new coat!
Well done. I liked the mystery.