Excerpt: Uprooting Ernie

 

Chapter 1: Nothing to See Here, Folks

 

If I weren’t so darn honest, I wouldn’t have been the one to find him. And then I’d have been spared all the messy stuff that happened afterward.

Or not. Messy stuff seems to seek me out. I’m the trailer park to its tornado.

And okay, as for honesty, I admit I’ve been known to bend or even sucker-punch the truth, but only when the occasion really warranted it and the white lie was for the better good and all that. But when it comes to my paying clients, I’m practically always sort of mostly very honest. If I tell you, This is what I’m going to do for you and this is when I’m going to do it, you can take that to the bank. I mean, in a business like mine, you only have your reputation, right?

Which is how Sexy Beast and I found ourselves squelch-squelching across the sodden turf of Whispering Willows Cemetery on that windy midsummer afternoon, slogging through drenched leaves, willow limbs, and other post-storm detritus. Yeah, I know dogs aren’t permitted in the graveyard, but I was the only idiot willing to venture outside so soon after the monster nor’easter that had just pummeled Crystal Harbor and environs, and I do pick up after him, so no harm no foul. Plus, Sexy Beast—SB to his nearest and dearest—being the high-maintenance, neurotic toy poodle he is, doesn’t even qualify as a real dog in the eyes of many of our neighbors, so I figure it’s, you know, okay to bend the rules a little.

Just driving there had been a white-knuckled obstacle course around downed branches and live wires lying in the street. But I had a job to do. In more than two decades I’d never failed a client. Well, okay, once, but she’d come to an untimely end before she could learn that I’d let her down, so that didn’t count, did it?

Anyway, I’d made my perilous way to the local boneyard because of that reputation thing I mentioned before. Plus I’d already spent my client’s prepaid fee on a one-year membership to dog-loving-singles.com, and issuing him a refund would have stretched my anemic budget past the breaking point.

Chip Wentworth, a local golf pro who’d relocated to Austin a few months back, had paid me a hundred bucks to empty a three-liter spigot box of white Zinfandel on his mother Dorothy’s grave on the occasion of her third birthday in heaven. Dorothy had been fond of cheap rosé—perhaps too fond from what I hear. And I hear a lot. People tell me things. It’s a mixed blessing.

That honesty thing meant my doing this particular job on this particular day as required by the client, nor’easter or no nor’easter. I’m like the post office that way—neither snow nor rain, yadda yadda.

“All right, all right, hold your horses,” I muttered as SB strained at the leash. I unhooked him. “Stay near Janey.”

We were crossing one of the cemetery’s open rolling lawns, dotted with graceful weeping willow trees and stone benches. At some point in the future, when they run out of room where bodies are currently being planted, this unused space will become occupied, as it were. For now, it’s corpse-free, a necropolis-in-waiting.

The sky was clearing, but the wind was still strong enough to whip long strands of my reddish blond hair into my face. I yanked the hair tie from its usual spot on my wrist and pulled my hair back into a messy bun.

Sexy Beast began high-stepping through the sodden debris, sniffing up a storm—hey, it’s not that bad a pun!— as his gazillion olfactory cells catalogued every drowned bug and damp, irritable chipmunk hunkered in its burrow. We crossed the cobblestone footpath separating the sprawling lawn from the neat grid of tombstones. The cemetery’s map was permanently etched into my brainpan, so it took me no time at all to locate Dorothy’s final resting place.

I set the wine box on the spongy ground, lifted a whippy willow limb off the grave, and used it to rake wet leaves and blades of grass from the polished granite stone. I’m a full-service Death Diva—an unfortunate but durable nickname long ago bestowed by the locals here in Crystal Harbor, the well-to-do town on the North Shore of Long Island where most of my clients reside. It doesn’t hurt to do a little basic grave maintenance whenever my assignment takes me to a cemetery.

Okay, I know it’s killing you, so let me get this part over with right now. My name is Jane Delaney and I make my living performing tasks for paying clients. Those tasks involve loved ones who have gone on to their final reward. A typical workday might find me delivering flowers to multiple gravesites (I take Memorial Day reservations months in advance), tossing ashes out of a hired plane, choosing an outfit to coordinate with a satin-lined casket, or inventorying the contents of a deceased person’s home—not to mention running the tag sale, sprucing up the house, dealing with the broker, and arbitrating the inevitable family skirmish over inheritance rights to, in one recent case, Grandma’s deep freeze crammed top to bottom with T.G.I. Fridays Cheddar & Bacon Potato Skins.

The list of Death Diva assignments is endless. What’s the most bizarre death-related chore you can think of? Oh please, I was doing that before I could vote—use your imagination! All right, that’s more like it. I’ve done that. Come to think of it, I’ve done that more than once.

I stood back to examine Dorothy’s neatened-up grave. “So what do you think, SB? Will it pass muster?”

The apricot poodle’s dark little eyes flashed to mine. He licked his lips. I didn’t need the Dog Whisperer to read his one-track mind. Did you say mustard? Where are the hot dogs?

I gave him scritches and a small cube of cheddar from my shoulder bag. “Don’t worry, this shouldn’t take long. Then we’ll be back home and you can have a nice Vienna sausage.”

He responded by lifting his leg to mark a neighboring headstone before I could stop him. Oh brother. I glanced around to double-check that we were still alone, then squinted at the words etched into the befouled stone. “Sorry, Mr. Parmentier,” I muttered to the gentleman who’d reposed in that spot since May 15, 1955.

“Let’s get this over with before you take a dump on the poor guy.” I opened the spigot and held the heavy box of rosé over Dorothy’s grave.

Sexy Beast yipped at the sight of the pink plonk watering the grass. This was the most exciting thing that had happened to him all day, since he’d snored peacefully through the roaring, window-rattling, power-outaging, record-rainfall-dumping nor’easter. Cautiously he inched his way toward the sweet-smelling stream.

“Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.” I tried to block him with my foot, but he’s an agile little brat when he’s motivated, and he managed to wet the tip of his tongue before I could shoo him away. “You’re going to regret it,” I warned him. Some things, one had to learn from grim experience. I knew that better than most.

SB licked his lips, thought about it a moment, then shook his head violently and sneezed.

“Like I said.”

He made a dainty hacking noise, sneezed again, and perched on his haunches to observe the action from a safe distance.

I tilted the box, hoping to speed things up. No such luck. I studied the curved top of Dorothy’s headstone and debated the wisdom of balancing the wine box on it to give my arms a rest. The rosé would, after all, be aimed more or less at her mouth, and wouldn’t that be a nice plus?

But that would be cheating. Don’t ask me why, it just would. So I stood there and held the box high as it gradually lightened and the wet ground underfoot became even wetter. Meanwhile I stared across the footpath to the normally manicured lawn I’d crossed minutes earlier, now looking like a prom queen after a rough night and rougher morning.

I squinted into the distance. I frowned. Was one of the willow trees tilted? It was hard to tell because of the wind whipping its dangly limbs. None of the dozen or so willows on that lawn had ever been tilted. I knew those trees by heart, had sat under them countless times, contemplating mortality, the infinite, and insanely adorable Youtube sloths.

Yeah, that’s right, I finally got a smartphone. Are you proud of me? Irene McAuliffe had bequeathed a bunch of money to me so I could support her beloved Sexy Beast in style, and I used an infinitesimal fraction of that dough to buy the phone. No, it’s not cheating! The thing’s GPS and web access and all those fun gadgets will help me better care for Irene’s precious pet. Like, um, if I have to find my way to the animal emergency center or, um, order SB’s dog-breath biscuits (they don’t work, alas). And yes, Sten Jakobsen approved the purchase. If Irene’s lawyer and executor said it was legit, who was I to argue?

But I wasn’t thinking about Irene or Sten or my new electronic toy at that moment. I was thinking about that one willow tree on the open lawn about thirty yards off that was definitely, no doubt about it, listing like a drunkard. I almost expected to see it stumble and right itself. As I watched, it gradually leaned farther, ever so slowly.

“Holy cow,” I breathed, “that thing’s going to fall.”

Sexy Beast picked up on my mood and began barking in alarm, his body tense. I stared dumbfounded as the tree continued to lean. That’s when I saw the emerald turf behind it start to bulge as the roots lifted.

I gasped and SB went on high alert, all six pounds eleven ounces of him, prepared to protect me from any and all sources of danger. He followed my wide-eyed stare and the ominous creaking sounds, clearly audible over the sustained wind. In a flash he took off toward the doomed tree.

“SB, no!” I dropped the wine box and sprinted after him, screeching at him to come!—a command he usually obeys. Not this time. He turned on the juice, leaping gazelle-like over downed limbs and other obstacles while I struggled to catch up. In no time at all, he stood directly in the path of the killer tree, tail raised, barking as if his life depended on it.

Which it kinda did, since those long, wind-whipped branches soon swept the ground, obscuring his tiny form. I could hear him, but I couldn’t see him. My sandaled feet kept slip-sliding on the wet leaves, causing me to waste precious seconds imitating one of those inflatable waving tube men you see at car dealerships.

I thought about the flowers I still delivered every Sunday to three little graves at the Best Friend Pet Cemetery—in perpetuity, as dictated by Irene in her last will and testament. The beneficiaries of those memorial arrangements were Sexy Beast’s deceased poodley predecessors: Dr. Strangelove, Annie Hall, and Jaws. I had no intention of adding a fourth bouquet anytime soon. SB was only three years old, and he was going to live to be a crotchety old canine if it killed me. Which, I reflected, it very well might.

The toppling tree gained speed as Sexy Beast continued to scold it from somewhere inside that mass of greenery. The heaving ground behind the tree swelled alarmingly as if an interred corpse had decided that on second thought, he’d rather not spend eternity in that particular spot. Of course, I knew no bodies were buried under this broadloom lawn, but SB’s plight sent my imagination into overdrive.

The creaking turned to rapid-fire cracks, each one a gunshot aimed at my darling, dumb little Sexy Beast. I raced to reach him in time, watching the carpetlike sod stretch, then split in a rough semicircle behind the tree as its root system broke free, stealing the trunk’s last anchor to the earth. I called on my deepest reserve of strength, diving headlong directly into the path of the collapsing tree.

My body coasted on the wet ground as if I were sliding into home plate, my eyes squeezed shut against the lashing limbs. I made a blind grab toward the sound of SB’s frantic barking and snagged a handful of curly poodle fur. Taking advantage of my forward momentum, I tucked Sexy Beast to my chest and rolled away from the center of impact as the percussive energy of the crashing tree shook the ground.

I lay in a gasping heap on the wet grass, clutching SB while my heart did its big drum solo. The dog barked like a maniac. It was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard. I kissed his damp, furry head.

I managed to make it to my feet, wet, wobbly, and covered in scratches. Sexy Beast gave himself a vigorous shake. He yawned. Just another day protecting his alpha female. Said alpha female saw things differently.

“You know,” I grumbled, plucking a willow leaf from my lip, “I almost got killed rescuing your pathetic little butt.”

Which demonstrates how much that pathetic little butt means to me, considering the fact that once SB ascends to Doggie Heaven, I’ll be free to sell the huge house in Crystal Harbor that Irene willed to me, plus the valuable artwork and furnishings, and to keep what remains of the million and a half smackers she left for the upkeep of the house and her cherished Sexy Beast.

He found the downed tree enthralling, and in truth, so did I. I’d seen uprooted trees before, including one on the way to the cemetery that very day, which had fallen across the road and forced a detour. But I’d never actually witnessed the dramatic event in all its glory. All things considered, it was an experience I could have lived without. Which was closer to the literal truth than I cared to acknowledge.

I followed SB to the base of the willow, thinking that if he sniffed any harder, he’d turn inside out. The tree’s underpinnings had erupted from the ground as an intact mass of soil and roots nearly my height, carpeted in pristine sod on the flip side. The contrast was stark: choir practice upstairs and a meth lab in the basement.

The smell of raw earth bombarded my nostrils as I gazed at a part of the tree never meant to be gazed at. This tangle of broken roots represented the death of a living thing. I dealt in death on a daily basis, made my living from it in fact, but this was different. There’s something about trees that speaks to the human soul, and the sudden, violent demise of this stately weeping willow left me awestruck.

And no, I didn’t haul out my phone to snap a few pictures. I just gaped at the upended jumble of dirt and roots, from cables as thick as my arm to dangling shoestrings. A few rocks peeked out, along with a handful of outraged earthworms. One rock was as big as a good-size cantaloupe, held in place by roots that had snaked through a couple of holes in it.

Reflexively my mind played connect the dots, seeking patterns as if I were lying on my back contemplating stars or cloud formations. I noticed several curved roots that ran parallel to one another. Below those, a straight root seemed to connect, end to end, to another one and finally to a cluster of small, irregular stones.

I stepped back, tilting my head this way and that to take in the whole picture. “Well, this has been vastly entertaining,” I told the dog, “but I think I’ve had about as much fun as I can stand.” I hooked the leash to his harness. “Let’s finish what we came for and get out of here.”

I trudged back to Dorothy’s grave, lifted the mostly empty wine box, and pressed the spigot. I stood staring at the headstone but without seeing it. Inside my cranium, roots and rocks played bumper cars, coming together in intriguing ways, coalescing into a whole…

“Nope.” I shook my head. “It’s preposterous.”

Sexy Beast cocked his head at me.

“Insane.” I cocked my head right back at him. “Right, little man?”

He gave a sharp, interrogative bark.

“There we go!” I shook the box to ensure it was indeed empty, then turned to the headstone. “Cheers, Dorothy. Enjoy it in good health. Or… oh, you know what I mean. Come on, SB. There’s a Vienna sausage in the fridge with your name on it.”

I flattened the wine box underfoot, tucked it under my arm, and led Sexy Beast back across the cobblestone footpath to the lawn. I had to pass the downed tree on the way to my car, which was parked on a side street. Deliberately I detoured around the top part of the tree, striding with brio, determined to not so much as glance at those stupid roots. I refused to humor the flight of fancy that had taken the rational part of my brain hostage.

I made it to the cemetery’s gate before my brisk pace slowed and finally ground to a halt. I closed my eyes and threw back my head, bemoaning my lack of willpower. I knew I was being ridiculous, but I also knew that if I left without one more peek, I’d never be able to let go of the fantasy that I’d seen something I hadn’t.

Which is why I retraced my steps and planted my feet in front of the upended roots of that defunct weeping willow. SB explored the ground near my feet, managing, as always, to wrap the leash around my ankles.

“All right then.” I let out a gusty sigh, exasperated and a little embarrassed by my own foolishness. “Nothing to see here, folks. Move right along.”

At first, as I stared at the head-high mass, I saw only random roots poking through the soil, punctuated by a few rocks here and there. I concentrated on the parallel roots I’d noticed before, the ones my imagination had turned into the side of a rib cage. The big rock sat above them. The longer I studied the rock, the more its root-choked holes came to resemble a human skull’s eye and nose openings.

Automatically my gaze slid down to an irregular shape that sure looked like the side of a hipbone poking through the dirt. Then came those straight roots, the ones that seemed to connect at an angle, terminating in a cluster of small shapes whose names I’d memorized in Mrs. Deluca’s high school biology class.

Metatarsus. Phalanges.

I heard a low, throaty “No no no no no…” and realized it came from my own throat. I swallowed hard. SB, exhibiting his customary pack-member empathy, propped his front paws on my legs and whined.

The skeleton lay in a reclining position on his—her?—side, held in place by the tree roots that had grown around and through it. At the end of a bent arm, fisted finger bones clutched a gnarled root. Or so it appeared. Distractedly I realized the root must have grown through the fist. Bits of rotted cloth flapped in the breeze.

My voice was a quavering whisper. “Who in the world are you?”


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