Randy had not been too keen on discussing it last time she’d tried, so this time she had to be very sneaky and word her questions very carefully, as if they were just having a nice chat about the fun times to be had working at Oleander Gardens.
Luckily, since there was a funeral that day, by ignoring her cleaning duties and going straight to the mortuary she was able to have some one-on-one time. She pretended to be totally curious about the finishing touches he was putting on Mrs. Rubens.
“Wow, she looks great. Nice job, Randy.” Nothing like a little flattery to get a conversation started.
“That’s because she’s completely covered in mortician’s wax and make-up. Even more make-up than when she was alive.”
It didn’t seem nice to make fun of Mrs. Rubens when she was lying dead on a slab in front of them. But now was not the time to correct Randy on his ethics. But what about OG’s ethics? What kind of professionals did they hire? Since it seemed they always had the same coroner and the same priest, was it possible that those people were hired not for their background and experience, not for their credentials, but for something else? “Randy, how did you learn to do this?” I.e., Randy, are you a certified mortician?
“Believe it or not, Nora, I started by working on the living. I was the only guy in my beautician class in high school.”
So he was a beautician? Not a mortician? “Oh, so it’s basically the same thing?”
Randy laughed as he used a very large brush to dust Mrs. Rubens once more with skin-tinted opaque powder. “Yes and no. Applying make-up is the same principles, but there is a LOT more to embalming a body and preparing it for viewing than what people think.”
“So you went to mortician’s school?” Are you or are you not a pro?
Randy looked at her for several moments, sizing her up. He must have decided he trusted her, because he said, slowly and in a lowish voice, “I took an online course.”
Snap! Not certified! There was no WAY one could become a qualified, certified mortician by taking an online course! “You mean, like a college course?”
“Nnooo… not college, per se. I didn’t actually finish high school, although I am very well read and quite intelligent. Some of the most successful people in the world never finished high school, you know, Nora.”
Nora grinned. “Like me!”
Randy grinned back. Now they were comrades: two uneducated labourers in positions they were not qualified for. Well, Nora supposed a gnat would be qualified to change sheets and mop floors, but Randy had just basically admitted he was not qualified to do his job. Which most likely meant that the coroner wasn’t, either. So who was he? Did Mrs. King have him because he couldn’t figure out that she was poisoning residents, so he just put ‘natural causes’ on all the death certificates? Or perhaps he was illegally employed, and Mrs. King knew it, and was using her knowledge to blackmail him into playing along. But what game was she playing? What would be the purpose of knocking off old people who were going to die eventually anyway? To get a new resident in their room? That just cost more money, because every time they got a new resident, they repainted the room and sprayed for bed bugs and all that.
In fact, there would be a new resident in Mrs. Rubens’s room in no time, so Nora had to get to it before the painters and bed-bug sprayers if she was going to find any evidence!
“See ya at the funeral, then,” she called and boogied it out of the mortuary.
Mrs. King was in the mortuary, setting out fake flowers. So… she actually did do something! But where had all the fake flowers come from? They were at the last funeral, and the one before, but as far as Nora knew, there were no fake flowers stored anywhere in the chapel or mortuary. The uber-secret locked storage rooms? For FLOWERS?
“Hello, Nora.” Mrs. King was never one to let you go about your daily business without a bitchy lecture. “Since you obviously have plenty of time to spare from your daily work, why don’t you finish setting up these flowers for me? I have actual funerary arrangements to take care of.”
Nora tried to protest, “But Mrs. King, I was just–” but Mrs. King shoved the big old plastic shopping bag of stupid flowers into Nora’s chest and clattered away on her stupid mega-bitch spiky shoes.
“Don’t forget these ones,” she called back, pointing at a stuffed econo-sized black garbage bag sitting on the floor next to the chapel door as she passed through.
“Sure, I’ll just set out these lovely plastic flowers then. What better way to honor the deceased than by spreading dusty old dollar-store flowers everywhere?” Nora said after Mrs. King had left the building.
There was a little loop of plastic somehow affixed to each end of every pew, into which Mrs. King had been stuffing the crappy flower arrangements. Nora finished off the rest of the ones in the bag, of which there were not enough, and then explored the contents of the giant garbage bag. By the time she had the entire chapel completely draped in flowers, her pristine crime scene would probably be tarnished by all manner of temporary labourers.
There were flowers for every pew, long sheets of flowers to drape across the stage or whatever it was, a big faux-brass vase filled with flowers for the podium or whatever it was, and giant bouquets to shove into the four big flower pots in the four corners of the little chapel. The last thing at the bottom of the garbage bag was a three-foot long strip of flowers that Nora recognized as the ones that went on top of the casket, and for a moment her eyes almost filled with tears. Her throat had that little ache that you get when something makes you want to cry but you don’t want to because you’re too tough to cry. And when the going gets tough, the tough get going, as her mom sometimes texted, which although her mom might not have meant it in its correct way, reminded Nora that she had work to do if she was going to find out why perfectly healthy old people were dying at a rate of one per fortnight here.
She left the casket flowers on the front pew and tried to figure out what to do with the flower storage bags. Finally she wadded them up as well as she could, getting still more grime on her hands that were already black after handling all those dusty flowers, and shoved them behind the door, which was propped open pretty much all the time with a wooden wedge.
The place was still pretty quiet by the time Nora got to Mrs. Rubens’s room. She took her cleaning cart with her, in case Mrs. King reared her ugly head again, but instead of clean, she investigated. She crawled on her hands and knees and shone her cell-phone flashlight under the bed, the easy chair, and the desk. She sorted through the things on top of the chest of drawers — normal little old lady stuff, like old stinky perfumes, little faded photos in ornate frames, an econo-sized bottle of Jergen’s hand cream. She sifted through the stuff on top of Mrs. Rubens’s desk — a small table lamp, the bendy neck kind, a pen cup with various pens and pencils, a writing pad… Nora wondered what the last thing Mrs. Rubens had written might have been. Maybe she had known something untoward was going on, and had sent a letter to someone to warn them. Maybe she had found some evidence and written a letter to the police, and when Mrs. King, who likely censored all the mail, found out, she disposed of the letter and then ordered Mrs. Rubens killed! There had to be some kind of high-tech way to find out the contents of Mrs. Rubens’s last letter. Nora glanced around and then shoved the writing pad way down to the bottom of the laundry hamper. She dumped Mrs. Rubens’s towels on top, which were dry and probably didn’t contain DNA evidence anyway.
Then Nora started going through Mrs. Rubens’s night table. A pretty lacy lamp adorned the top of it, along with the glass that Mrs. Rubens kept her dentures in at night. Nora knew that because on many mornings she had entered Mrs. Rubens’s room before Mrs. Rubens had put in her dentures, so Mrs. Rubens had begun telling a story, only to have to stop and put in the dentures before she could communicate clearly. There was more hand cream on the night table, and a small photo of an elderly frowning man, presumably the late Mr. Rubens.
But what was INSIDE the night table? Nora pulled open the drawer slowly. A plethora of pill bottles rolled around inside. Nora picked up one, and then another, another, and another, reading the labels… aspirin. Castor oil. Extra strength Tylenol with an easy-open cap. Zopiclon. She examined the Zopiclon closely. It was a sleeping aid. Stood to reason; the way Mrs. Rubens had loved to sip tea all day, that she would need something to help her sleep. The Zopiclon bottle looked newer than the others.
The bellows of Ray and Ben as well as the polyester shuffling of the residents echoed down the corridor towards her. Nora pocketed the Zopiclon bottle and leapt to the cleaning cart.
The little parade of the elderly in their Funeral Best passed along in front of her, giving her nods and smiles, as Ray and Ben brought up the rear.
“Like herding cats,” Ben grumbled as he passed her. “Let’s go, Nora; the preacher dude is here and we need to get this show on the road.”
Nora abandoned the cart in Mrs. Rubens’s doorway and joined the herd.
Just behind her, Ray said, “Pastor Bob is paid by the hour, you know.”
More old people were emerging from their rooms, looking perplexed as usual.
“Good heavens, has someone died?” asked Mrs. Edwards, wearing her purple flowing dress and her red bonnet with the red net veil and her fuzzy bedroom slippers.
Mr. Edwards appeared behind her in his purple tuxedo from approximately 1978. “It was Mrs. Rubens, dear; remember? Put on your shoes.”
“Oh, that’s why she wasn’t at breakfast. I forgot. Which ones?”
“The black ones. The ones you wear for ballroom dancing lessons.”
“The brown ones are so much more comfortable, though.”
“But they’re dirty. You use them for gardening.”
Ben bellowed, “Just put on any shoes and move it along, you silly cow!”
Nora nearly punched him in his big flappy mouth. She’d never heard either of them talk before, and now that she had, she hated them more than she could ever have imagined. Mrs. King must have been on quite the rampage.
Nora took Mrs. Edwards by the elbow and said, “Come on, let’s find your nice shoes.”
Mrs. Edwards went with her back into her room. “But they pinch my toes when we dance, dear.”
“Well, you won’t be dancing, so it should be okay, just for a little while.”
“We’re not dancing? Then why am I putting on my dancing shoes?” Mrs. Edwards bent and obediently put her feet into a pair of shiny black Mary Janes that looked comfortable enough for an eight-hour shift at Denny’s.
“We’ll just go to the chapel and say goodbye to Martha, and then you can take them off,” said Mr. Edwards in a low, tired voice.
“Good heavens! Is Martha going home?”
Nora lingered back until the Edwards had moved along out of her range of hearing.