Right to Remain Silent: Chapter One

"She’s . . . dead!"

At least, I thought that’s what he said. I later learned I missed a crucial word. But Sluice Jackson, the old miner, wasn’t speaking very clearly. With wisps of straw-like hair sticking out from under his Forty-Niners baseball cap, he looked like a frightened scarecrow, running down the driveway of Memory Kingdom Memorial Park, waving his bony arms as he flagged me down.

Late for work at my newspaper office, I’d been pedaling like a frantic Margaret Hamilton from "The Wizard of Oz" when he nearly collided with me in the middle of the road. Folks nearby say he was screaming loud enough to wake the dead. Of course I couldn't hear him. But deafness didn't keep me from noticing the horrified look on his red, ragged face.

"Sluice! What is it?" I said, more angry than alarmed. His distraction had caused me to hit one of the many potholes along Flat Skunk’s Main Street, and I'd nearly dumped my bike. As I straightened it up, Sluice grabbed the handlebars with two gnarled hands and tried to speak between huffs and puffs.

" . . . she’s not . . . her eyes . . . she . . ."

Sluice bent over with his hands on his knees and tried to get his breath. From this position, he pointed awkwardly to the mortuary.

"What, Sluice? Is Del Rey all right? Has something happened to her?" I dragged my bike over to the driveway and leaned it up against a shrub.

Sluice straightened and stared at me through rheumy eyes, his face twisted like a dried-up apple doll. "Sparkle Bodie . . ."

He made no sense at all, and probably wouldn’t. He’d downed a few too many bottles of Yukon Jack over the years, while eking out a living as an unsuccessful gold prospector. His eighty-something wetbrain was fairly fragile.

I headed toward the mortuary with Sluice wobbling on spindly legs behind me, but he stopped short at the door, reluctant to accompany me further. I left him muttering to himself in a flurry of fall leaves as I entered the Kingdom and shut the door on the crisp morning air. Down the hall I located the familiar sign on the embalming room door that read, "No Admittance." I pushed through boldly, semi prepared for the smell reminiscent of my high school science class. My friend Del Rey, the new mortician, stood leaning against the wall.

I glanced over at the embalming table and wished I hadn’t. Lying on the cold slab was the body of a very old woman, naked, shriveled and still. I recognized Sparkle Bodie immediately. With a shiver I looked back at Del Rey, whose normally crimson-cheeked face now matched the color of the white porcelain table.

"Del Rey? Are you okay?"

She shook her head while taking short staccato breaths.

"Do you need a doctor?" I asked again. "Are you dizzy? A heart attack? What is it, Del Rey?"

Del Rey closed her mouth and swallowed; her fleshy chin rippled slightly. One puffy finger, tightly encased in a plastic glove, pointed to the withered woman on the table. Not eager to follow her point, I kept my eyes on the mortician, who finally began to speak.

"She’s . . . not . . . "

Not eager to follow her point, I reluctantly sneaked a quick peek back at Sparkle Bodie, lying in wait for Del Rey’s expert postmortem care, then returned to Del Rey's twisted face. I’d never seen her look the least bit fazed about a post-mortem client. Even when old man Penzance practically rolled off the embalming table last month, just prior to his embalming, she didn’t bat an eyelash. She said corpses twitched and wiggled all the time when they’re coming out of rigor. I thought nothing bothered her. Until now.

"She’s not . . . what?" I asked.

Del Rey shook her head again, and moved slowly toward the table, while I took another look at the body from a safe distance. Sparkle Bodie appeared lifeless, just as all corpses did, before Del Rey worked her magic with embalming fluid, makeup, and hair design.

Del Rey motioned me closer to the body. I took a hesitant step forward and peered cautiously into the dead woman’s face. It was colorless and slack--and then I noticed the eyes.

They were rolling under the lids, as if she were dreaming.

"Oh my God. Is she . . . alive? How--?

Del Rey cut me off.

"I. Don’t. Know. How." She said the words distinctly, as if each was a self-contained sentence. Speaking so deliberately seemed to bring back her professionalism. She snatched a lab coat hanging on the wall and draped it over the body. "But she is. And she’s got to be freezing in here."

"Del Rey, are you sure she’s--I mean, maybe it’s just like old man Penzance, you know--"

Del Rey shot me a stinging glance.

"All right! All right! So what should we do? Did you call 911?"

Del Rey nodded tightly, then turned her attention to her customer

--or whatever she was called--on the table, who was now covered snugly with the lab coat.

One eye fluttered open . . . and Sparkle Bodie looked right at me.

Where in God's name was that ambulance?

* * * * *

Less than a minute later the EMTs entered with a stretcher, followed by Sheriff Elvis Mercer. One of the paramedics gave the old woman oxygen, while the other covered her with a blanket and began an I.V. I stood on the sidelines as Sheriff Mercer asked Del Rey a few questions I couldn't lip-read clearly. By the time the ambulance and sheriff left with a blue-tinged but semi-revived Sparkle Bodie, Del Rey’s hands had stopped trembling enough to get us a drink.

Forever on a diet, Del Rey opted for a "lite" Sierra Nevada pale ale, which she’d stashed away in the tiny office refrigerator. She offered me the same and it only took me a second to realize and then ignore the fact that it was still morning. We downed several swallows before speaking.

"Well, this is one for Ripley’s, isn’t it?" she said, pulling her brown knit top down over her hips for the third time. The yanking and tugging of garments over her padded waistline had become a habit. At thirty-five, Del Rey was two years younger and probably fifty pounds heavier than I was. But she wore it well, and I couldn’t imagine her thinner. Without the padding, she wouldn’t have been Del Rey Montez.

"I’d say it’s one for ‘Hard Copy.’ What are you going to wear when Jerry Springer comes calling to inquire about your former customer?"

She shot me a nasty look--she was getting good at them--then moved into the lobby of the mortuary to find a comfortable place to recover.

Emotionally drained myself, I dropped into one of the cozy overstuffed couches in the homey greeting room. The decor resembled a grandmother’s parlor, complete with Tiffany lamps, velveteen loveseats, and flecked rose-petal wallpaper, but with an artificial, almost Disneyesque touch.

Del Rey had been employed at the Memory Kingdom Memorial Park for six months, and during that time we’d slowly become friends. We’d met at the "Memorial Park" where her Malamute, Frosty, and my Siberian Husky, Casper, played chase the squirrels.

Del Rey plopped next to me and tried to cross a leg over her knee. She made it half way. "Thanks for your help, Connor. Sluice is pretty useless these days. Don’t know why I keep him working the grounds. Guess cause he reminds me of my father and the rest of the old prospectors."

"I’m glad I was nearby. I was on my way to interview the new deputy, Marca Clemens, when Sluice ran out like he’d seen a ghost. Was that the first customer you’ve had come back to life?"

"She’s a client, not a customer. I have clients, waitresses have customers. What do newspaper publishers have?"

"Migraines. I thought you called them corpses. Or maybe Loved Ones." I usually don’t engage in much irrelevant small talk. It’s a strain reading lips and I don’t like to waste the energy. But at the moment, the light conversation seemed soothing. And Del Rey’s Betty Boop lips were easy to read.

Del Rey smiled. "It’s nearly the twenty-first century, Connor. Even here in the historically preserved Mother Lode, terms have changed with the times. Get with it."

"Hey, at least I didn’t call her deceased when she wasn’t."

Del Rey stopped smiling. "That was below the belt. Or it would be, if I had one." She hiked up her sagging knee-highs through her cotton leggings.

"How could this have happened?" I asked, still puzzled. "How could a person appear to be dead--and still be alive?"

"Good question. I read about an old guy once who lived at a nursing home in a small town. When he didn’t respond, the staff just sent him off to the mortuary, assuming he was dead. Turned out he wasn't."

"That’s incredible!"

"You watch. Everyone’s going to be passing the buck on this one, real fast. Especially the members of the Bodie family. The old woman was in poor health for a long time, but if you ask me, I think the relatives have been expecting her to die for years."

Del Rey seemed to need more prodding for details. "What makes you say that?"

"In this business, you hear a lot of stuff. Apparently her son, Esken, didn’t get along with her at all, and neither did his wife, Sonora. While Sparkle had been trying to maintain Flat Skunk a kind of historical monument, those two have been working hard to turn the town into a bunch of money-making strip malls and fast food joints."

"Yeah, but that doesn’t mean they'd actually do anything--"

"And what about that other one who lives there, the one nobody ever sees? What’s up with him?"

"I don’t know who you mean. I thought she was alone in that big old house." As a reporter for my own weekly newspaper, the Eureka!, I got into the gossip mode quickly. Shame on me, I thought, as I took another sip of beer.

"I heard she has another son. He’s retarded or something. Don’t know his name or much about him. She never talks about him, never brings him to town."

"The Bodies are an odd family, that’s for sure--always bickering at town council meetings. And that Sparkle is a feisty one. But how could she be pronounced dead when she wasn’t? Didn’t a doctor examine her?"

Del Rey shrugged. "I'm sure he did. You can’t officially die around here without a medical certificate. But Sparkle was old. And like I said, it wasn’t as if they didn’t expect it any minute, with her weak heart, enlarged liver, and hemorrhoids and whatever else was wrong with her. I’ll bet one of the family members found her cold and blue and just figured she was gone. They probably couldn’t wait to get rid of her."

"Still, this is a pretty big mistake. Like something out of an Edgar Allen Poe story. We don’t bury people today unless they’re really dead - do we?" I shuddered.

"Maybe old Doc Crippen couldn’t detect a heartbeat, so he just signed the paper and sent her over to me. He’s half blind himself and way past retirement. Hell, I don’t know. They don’t tell you anything about this in mortuary college. I think there was a paragraph or two on those early coffins, where undertakers would install bells on the outside. Inside was a handle, so if the deceased suddenly woke up, he could ring the bell and alert the mourners he wasn't ready for the boneyard quite yet. But I never studied anything called ‘Reanimation 101 - What To Do When The Dead Body Comes Back To Life.’ All I know is, it scared the shit out of me."

The phone apparently rang because Del Rey pushed herself up from the couch and went over to answer it. I watched her face as she spoke, and saw her expression change from curiosity to horror. Could things be worse than they were already? Had someone else died? When Del Rey returned with a flushed face and a second beer, I asked her what was wrong.

"It was the Mother Lode Monitor. They want to do a story on what happened! God, what am I going to say? They're sending a photographer over in an hour. What'll I wear? Can I lose five pounds before they get here? God, my hair--"

"Traitor!" I yelped. "What about the Eureka!? I want an exclusive for my newspaper. A story like this could be good for your business," I said.

"Or not," she added quickly. "When I think I might have actually stuck that big fat trocar into her thin old thigh and--" She shivered and took a deep swallow of beer.

I thought for a moment about Sparkle Bodie, one of the many eccentric residents of Flat Skunk. You couldn't escape them, here in the heart of the California Gold Country, where towns like Bogus Thunder and Poker Flat were once as shiny as gold nuggets. She had the distinction of being the oldest. Her forefathers from the gold and copper mines had helped shape this antique mining town. The Bodies were one of the few families to strike it rich while the rest of the gold-dreamers lapsed into poverty, depression, and alcoholism. Ironic how her descendants were doing their best to bury Flat Skunk's rustic heritage along with her. For months she’d been publicly at war with her son, Esken, and daughter-in-law, Sonora, over their own dreams of turning Flat Skunk into a trendy tourist trap.

"She wasn’t, I mean she isn’t . . . terribly well liked in town, is she?" I asked.

Del Rey opened her eyes wide. Her expressive face was easy to read, with those flexible eyebrows, elastic lips, and Shirley Temple dimples. "Not with me, she wasn’t. Isn’t. I'm all for keeping Flat Skunk historically preserved, within reason. But when she tried to stop us from upgrading the crumbling cemetery, that was too much. She's a fanatic."

"A lot of people agree with you, from what I understand," I said.

Del Rey’s face went from disapproval to sudden interest. Those eyebrows peaked like the Alps. "What have you heard? Uh, I mean, what do you know?"

I smiled at her change of phrase. I say the words "hear" and "heard" all the time, but hearing people seem to feel awkward about using the terms in front of me, as if they’ve said something insulting.

"Oh, I learn things, too, you know, owning a newspaper," I said nonchalantly. "People tell me all kinds of dirt . . ." I made a I-know-something-you-don’t-know face.

"Like who?" Del Rey said, leaning in.

"I have to protect my sources, you know. Confidentiality."

"Hell, Connor, I tell you all kinds of things about my clients. And believe me, I learn plenty in this business."

"Dead men tell no tales," I said, raising a brow to give her my best pirate look.

"Connor, they don’t have to talk to tell me their secrets."

I finished my beer and stood. "I’m going to check up on Sparkle Bodie at the hospital. See if I can beat the Monitor to the rest of the story. After all, I was an eye witness."

Del Rey stood too and moved across the room to the gilt-trimmed phone. Another call. With her back to me, I couldn’t make out what she said. But when she hung up and turned around, the alcohol flush had drained from her Kewpie-doll face.

"Was that Barbara Walters?"

"No, Sheriff Mercer."

"What's the matter?"

"Looks like business is picking up."

"What do you mean?"

"Sparkle Bodie is dead--again."