“You want to borrow a casket?”
Archie Donovan leaned forward, his eyes bright and his brain disengaged from any concern that I’d find his request ridiculous. “Only the last two weekends in October. Then you’ll get it back as good as new.”
“But it won’t be new.” I got up from my armchair, anxious to move both the conversation and Archie out the door of the funeral home. “People don’t buy used caskets.”
Archie seemed unperturbed. He pushed his proposition like he pushed his insurance policies, oblivious to any objections. “You have my personal guarantee, Barry. And who’s to know? Is it violating some lifetime warranty on the casket?” His brow furrowed as he thought about his question. “Can you have a lifetime warranty when the owner’s already dead?”
“For you, I’ll double the lifetime warranty and I’ll even put you in the casket myself.”
Archie looked up at me, his eyes wide with surprise. “No need to get mad. I thought you’d want to help. Susan said we could count on you.”
“Susan?” The name of my girlfriend got my attention. “The Jaycees are raising money for the children’s wing of the hospital. Don’t you care about sick kids?”
“Of course I care about sick kids. Ask another stupid question like that and I will get mad.” I returned to the chair across from him. Susan hadn’t mentioned anything about the Jaycees’ fund-raiser. I wished she’d warned me before Archie’s unannounced visit. He had a knack for punching all my wrong buttons. We’d known each other since grade school, and he was always figuring out an angle, whether it was a scheme for my lunch money or a “can’t fail” investment in a cemetery.
“Susan came up with this idea?” I asked.
Archie beamed. “I did. What better than a casket in a haunted house?”
Maybe he had a point, but when you’d grown up in a funeral home, you were sensitive to jokes about the business. I never forgave Archie for calling me “Buryin’ Barry” in the third grade, a name that stuck through high school.
The Gainesboro Jaycees were creating a haunted house for Halloween to raise money for charity. Apparently this year the funds were going to the hospital where my girlfriend Susan Miller worked as a surgeon. I could see I was fighting a losing battle. “If you’d join the Jaycees, Barry, you’d know what’s going on in town.”
“I know enough, more than I want to sometimes.” “The secrets of the dead?”
“Of the living. Remember I’m also a deputy.” I got up again. “And I’m on duty in an hour.”
Archie stood and offered his hand. “So, we’ve got a deal?” “I’ll check with Fletcher and Uncle Wayne, but, yes, we can probably help.”
He pumped my arm. “Great.”
“What are you going to do with the casket?”
“Someone will be lying in it, and then when people come up close, he’ll sit up real fast and scare the be-jesus out of them. You want to volunteer?”
“No. And keep where you got the casket a secret.”
Archie laughed. “Where else would we get it? Wal-Mart?” He jabbed me on the shoulder. “You kill me, Barry. You really do.”
There certainly were times when I wanted to.
A full month later I stood at the edge of a cow pasture and watched a line of cars turn off Stag Hollow Road where the blue flashers of my patrol car marked the entrance to the Gainesboro Jaycees’ House of Horror. Orange-vested volunteers waved flashlights to direct vehicles over the bumpy ground and into makeshift parking spaces.
Archie Donovan and his committee had rented the Bradley farmhouse, a piece of real estate that had been on the market for six months without a single offer. The old widow Bradley passed away in early spring and none of her children wanted to move into the home place, a weathered structure that saw its last renovation when Eisenhower sat in the Oval Office.
Sheriff Tommy Lee Wadkins had assigned me Halloween night duties. He knew I had no children to take trick-or-treating and I’d be here anyway since Susan manned the ticket table at the foot of the front porch steps.
The site was about three miles from Gainesboro, not so far that town folk wouldn’t drive out, but removed enough that only a sliver of the waxing moon and the brittle stars lit the clear night sky.
I could see my frosty breath in the beams of the oncoming headlights. On this Friday night, the temperature threatened to dip into the twenties, and I zipped up my uniform jacket to ward off the cold. The sudden chill hadn’t deterred the crowd. I had to give Archie credit. He and his Jaycees would be making a significant contribution to the children’s wing of the hospital. The haunted house had been a tremendous success and tonight’s Halloween crowd promised to break attendance records.
My assignment was to make sure cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks got safely in and out of the pasture. Once in the field, the event’s attendees became the responsibility of the Jaycees. The only other government service on hand was a county ambulance with two EMTs. Their green and white vehicle idled between the house and parking area. Archie said its presence added an ominous touch, the possibility that someone might die of fright. To me, the corny sound effects and weird lights emanating from the house weren’t nearly as scary as navigating through the cow pies hidden in the brown fall grass.
A white Lexus pulled out of line, ignored the exaggerated gestures of the first parking volunteer, and bounced to a halt behind my patrol car. The strobing blue lights of the flasher bar made the emerging driver look like a twitching marionette, jerked to life by invisible strings. I recognized Carl Atkinson, president of the Jaycees and son of Ralph Atkinson, a wealthy businessman who owned the John Deere dealership and acres of apple orchards and Christmas trees, Laurel County’s primary agricultural products.
Carl had been four years ahead of me in school so we hadn’t been close growing up. He had to be nearing the Jaycee age limit of forty. Word on the street said Carl wasn’t as sharp as his daddy and he preferred hard liquor over hard work. Everyone knew the old man kept his only son on a short leash of high expectations and low cash flow. Ralph Atkinson orchestrated opportunities for Carl, like the Jaycees’ presidency, but he demanded results. Carl could be obnoxious and overbearing, but I felt sorry for the guy trapped in the image of his father’s creation.
“Barry, can I leave my car here a few minutes? I won’t be staying long and it’ll be easier to get out.” He clicked his keyless remote, locking the doors before I could answer. “Archie called that they need more small bills for change. Looks like half the county’s here.”
“How much do you hope to raise?” I asked.
“We ought to clear five or six thousand dollars.” He surveyed the rapidly filling pasture. “Archie thinks we’ll take in over a thousand dollars tonight. That’s good because who’s going to come to a haunted house the night after Halloween?”
“Teenagers,” I said.
Carl laughed. “Yeah. Any excuse for them to get in a car. I’ll be back soon.” He walked toward the farmhouse, chuckling to himself.
Traffic became more congested as those who’d been through the House of Horror tried to leave. I used orange cones from the trunk to create in-and-out lanes and gave the volunteers a quick course on how to route the exiting vehicles. Then I started flares burning one hundred feet out in each direction to warn motorists on Stag Hollow to slow down. Not everyone was going to the haunted house and I especially didn’t want them running over me as I stood in the middle of the road.
Since the Jaycees hoped to attract families, the event was scheduled from seven to ten. At nine forty-five, I moved the cones to block the entrance lane and asked one of the volunteers to tell any late arrivals to return tomorrow. The EMTs gave a wave as they left, and I lit the final set of flares that would burn until everyone had gone.
As I walked back to the patrol car, a voice called, “Hey, big guy, want a cup of hot coffee?”
Susan Miller stepped close and held out a Styrofoam cup. Her knit pink stocking cap matched her cheeks, and her mahogany-colored hair fell in soft waves that spread over the collar of her tan jacket.
“Is that all I get?” She flashed a smile that warmed me in a way the coffee never would.
“I’m on duty.” Then I kissed her lips. “Breathalyzer test. Inconclusive.” I kissed her again. “Sober enough, I guess.” “The night is young.”
“Then I’ll check later. Want to grab a bite to eat?”
“Maybe. If I get away soon enough. I promised Archie I’d double-check his money count against the ticket sales.”
I glanced at the Lexus parked behind me. “Carl Atkinson said you ran out of change. He must have been too busy to leave.”
Susan shrugged. “I haven’t seen Carl for a couple hours. Since he got Archie out of the casket.”
“Archie was in the casket?”
“For awhile. He’s such a ham. He said he used his cell phone to call Carl from there.”
“A casket with a built-in cell phone. Now there’s a marketing opportunity.” I took a sip of coffee and stamped my feet to get the blood circulating. “I’m done here. Let’s go to the house. I want to talk to Archie about changing the way he parks people.” Susan took my arm as we walked. “You working tomorrow?” “Yeah, but not for the department. Uncle Wayne and I have the Nolan funeral. Reece will be here.”
Even in the dark I could sense Susan rolling her eyes. “Great,” she groaned.
Deputy Reece Hutchins lived in a state of perpetual officiousness. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he slept with his badge pinned on his pajamas and a memo pad on his nightstand.
Susan and I found Archie at the ticket table binding stacks of cash with rubber bands and jotting figures on a legal pad.
“What a night. The last group just went in.” He grinned through a coating of chalk dust on his face that must have been his corpse makeup. “We have nearly two thousand dollars.”
“Does that count the money we used to make change?” Susan asked.
“Yes. So back out the five hundred that includes what Carl brought and we’re still close to fifteen hundred. Not too shabby for one night.”
A group of five teenage boys came around the house from the exit. They were teasing one another. A tall, skinny kid in a Wake Forest University parka seemed to be taking the brunt of the ribbing.
“You would have jumped just as much,” he protested. “You boys have fun?” Archie asked.
“Oh, yeah,” they said in unison.
Then a stocky boy elbowed the skinny kid. “Especially Ricky.
He nearly peed in his pants.”
“Did not.” Ricky looked at the ground, clearly embarrassed. Archie laughed. “What was it? The skeleton in the closet?
The blast of cold air up your leg?”
“The guy in the coffin,” Ricky muttered.
Archie looked at me. “Told you the casket would be a winner.” He turned to the boys. “I was in the coffin earlier. Someone screamed every time I sat up.”
“He didn’t sit up,” Ricky said. “Didn’t do nothing but play dead. They dared me to tickle him. I jumped when I touched the fake blood.” He held up his left hand.
In the harsh glare of the outdoor work lights, I saw bright crimson smears covering his fingers.
“If I got some on my new parka, my mom’s gonna kill me.”
Archie gasped. I set my coffee on the table and ran up the steps to the house. I could hear Susan right behind me.
The front door went straight into the living room. A sign glowing in the black light proclaimed it “The Dying Room.” Ghoulish figures sat on the sofa watching a horror film and eating finger food that looked like real fingers. The last tour group was just moving from that tabloid into the hallway. I shoved past them, tripping motion detectors and laser beams that triggered recorded screams, light flashes, and shots of mist in my face.
The previous week I’d delivered the casket to the back bed- room. “Dead Room” as it was now labeled. No one was inside.
Susan entered behind me.
“Close the door,” I said. I found the light switch.
The metal casket stood against the far wall. Carl Atkinson’s profile rose above the satin ruffles of the lining. His open eyes stared straight up. I bent over him. The once white fabric of the cushion was soaked in blood. His chest arched up as if trying to escape the flood beneath him. I pressed my fingers against the carotid artery on his neck. Nothing.
“Is he dead?” Susan asked.
“Yes.” I grabbed Carl’s body by the shoulders and twisted his torso away from us.
The wooden handle of a Buck knife protruded from between his shoulder blades.