Ryan showed up at 4:00 and followed Nora around as she cleaned the back rooms, which was cute and also amazing after the day she’d had to actually be able to have a conversation with someone.
“Nora, hey! Want to stay for movie night?”
Did she want to stay at her place of employment after finishing her eight hours of cleaning and eating crustless sandwiches to watch Casablanca? She glanced at him. With his tousled hair and twinkling eyes, he was too cute to resist. “Yeah, sure,” she said. Besides, it might help to bounce some of her ideas about the evidence off someone else. Especially someone who was guaranteed NOT getting paid off by Mrs. King to keep quiet about whatever she was up to here.
“How was the funeral?”
“Oh, dude, you have no idea. Nobody came. That woman lived on this earth for eighty-four years, raised six kids and had thirteen grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, and NOBODY CAME TO HER FUNERAL. She was super sweet, too.”
“Are you serious?”
“I just don’t know what’s wrong with people.”
“How is it possible that out of that entire massive family, nobody could take an hour out of their day to come and say goodbye? Shit, if I’d known it would be like that, I would have skipped school and come down here, no questions asked.”
Nora glanced out the door of the salon to make sure nobody was coming, and then leaned closer to Ryan. “I think it’s the same for all of them, and I think Mrs. King’s behind it.”
Ryan looked shocked. “Why on earth would she stop people from coming to the funerals?”
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out. Listen, we have to be careful, because I think everyone is in on it, even Randy, but some of the old people told me there’s something very weird going on here, and I promised them I would figure it out. Do you want to help me?”
“Yeah, sure! Of course! Let’s get started tonight, at movie night.”
Nora felt unbelievably relieved. She had never had an important function anywhere before, and she hadn’t really realized how stressed she was getting about this problem here at OG until Ryan said he would help. It felt like something huge and invisible and frightening and horrible was shifting off her and dissipating into the air. She gave him a genuine smile of gratitude. He smiled back.
“What’s the movie? Casablanca?”
“As promised! And I brought some hard candies, sugar free. The guy at the shop said that a lot of old people can’t eat sugar because of diabetes and stuff.”
“Wow, that was really sweet!”
Ryan grinned. “Ha ha, I see what you did there!”
If she had known that a teenage human being could be cute, sweet, witty, and fun to hang around with, she might now have dropped out. But then there would be nobody to figure out what Mrs. King was up to and stop her.
“So last time, I mean last funeral, I found out that the reason nobody came was that they all live so far away.”
Ryan thought about that for a moment as Nora finished polishing the mirrors and put everything back in the cart.
“So if that’s the case, why not give them a few more days to sort it out? I mean, Mrs. Rubens was dead for like 24 hours before they put her in the ground.”
“Or did they?” Nora made Twilight Zone eyes at Ryan and motioned for him to follow her to the janitorial closet.
“Um, one would assume they did.”
“The funeral is held in the chapel, and then the body is taken away and everybody goes on about their day. They’ve never taken a funerary procession to a graveyard or anything. Randy says it’s because the old people are too old to travel; the insurance would be too high or something. Which sounds like a ridiculously lame excuse to me.”
“So do you think they’re doing something with the bodies? Like to save expenses or something? Burials are probably really expensive.”
“Yeah, the priest or whatever he is charges by the hour.”
“Like a hooker, eh?”
Nora laughed and pulled the dust mop out of the closet. “Let’s, uh, talk about it more at movie night.”
Ryan nodded and took his leave of her, with, “The walls have ears.”
As she pushed the wide mop down the back corridor, Nora marveled once again about how lucky it was that Ryan turned out to be a decent person and that he wanted to figure out what was going on as much as she did. And he had a good point about burials being expensive; Mrs. King made it very clear that Oleander Gardens saved money in every way they could, So… if they weren’t burying people, maybe they were burning them? Nora took out her phone and looked up how much it cost to cremate someone.
Of course Mrs. King chose that exact moment to come out of her office, flanked by Og and Grog, of course.
As she turned the key in the lock, she glanced meanly at Nora. “Good to see you working hard, as usual, Nora.” Mrs. King led the way to the main entrance and the two neanderthals followed, each making glarey eyes back at Nora on their way.
“I was just–” Nora tried. Never mind. I was just trying to find out what you’re up to, you evil witch!
The internets told her that she could be looking at anywhere from less than a thousand dollars to upwards of nine thousand to dispose of a body in the oven. Since Butterfield was a pretty small place, there were probably not a lot of local options for cremating. So without a lot of competition, that meant the prices could be high all over town.
She compared burial costs, which of course were way high, including the coffin. A flashback to the funeral that morning and Nora realized something: it was the same coffin. The exact same coffin that Mr. Carpenter had been mourned in. The same coffin that Mrs. Cranberry had been mourned in. Your classic dark stained wood, brassy handled, white-satin interior design, with a slight scrape along the edge of the part of the lid that opened for the viewing. Nora remembered noticing that because she was the one who helped Randy close it up after everyone had paid their respects and shuffled out again.
Clicking on a few websites, she discovered that in order to book a burial or cremation, one needed the correct paperwork, such as death certificate.
If this whole place was involved in some kind of scam, some form of cover up, maybe they didn’t take the funeral to the graveyard because they didn’t do burials because they didn’t have official paperwork!
Nora hurried to get the dust mop up and down the corridor and back into the janitorial closet. She had to talk this over with Ryan.
Nora checked that the evil-mobile was gone and then went to the dining hall. Her first ever dinner at OG consisted of soft boiled peas and carrots, soft mashed potatoes, and some kind of meatloaf-like object that she politely declined. She sat with Ryan and the Edwards.
As she swallowed her dinner without needing to chew it, Nora said, “Hey, Mr. Edwards, are you excited about the movie tonight?”
Mr. and Mrs. Edwards both gave the biggest smiles she’d ever seen at OG and directed them towards Ryan.
“Nora,” said Mr. Edwards, “We haven’t been to the cinema in years. I can’t tell you how nice it is that you and your little friend are doing this for us.”
“Well, mostly Ryan, actually, Mr. Edwards. I’m just staying because… you know.”
“It’s the dinner, isn’t it?” Mrs. Edwards said, looking at the half-eaten swill on Nora’s plate.
“Better than Mom used to make!” Ryan said, and they all laughed.
“Hey, Mr. Edwards, I was wondering,” Nora said, darting her eyes around to make sure nobody who could hear was in earshot. “What happens after the, you know, the funeral? Like, to Mrs. Rubens?”
Well, that killed the mood. But one could not conduct an investigation without killing a few moods.”
Mr. Edwards shrugged his shoulders. “We don’t know. Assuming the family has made some arrangement.”
“Don’t you know, Nora dear?” asked Mrs. Edwards. “We hoped… with your gift… you’d be able to figure out some of the things that have been bamboozling us here.”
Nora’s shoulders drooped. “Mrs. Edwards, I’m not really psychic or anything like that. But me and Ryan are trying to figure out what’s going on.”
“You’re not… then how did you… how did you know about Jimmy’s swimming trophy? And finding my ring in the field?”
Nora faltered. “Uh, Mrs. Edwards…”
“That’s not important right now, Jean,” her husband said. “What’s important is figuring out what that horrible Barbara King is up to, before anyone else dies.”
“Right. So we have to figure out what happens to the bodies.”
“I’d assume they get buried somewhere,” said Mr. Edwards. “How will that help you get to the bottom of the deaths?”
“Mr. Edwards, there are some very fishy things that I don’t understand right now. First, how come nobody’s family ever comes to visit or ever comes to the funerals?”
“Well,” said Mrs. Edwards with a grumble, “I can tell you that. Ours are so busy with their own lives they just can’t be bothered to take the long trip. Do you know, Nora, we have great grandchildren that we have never even met? Their parents seem to think that sending photos by email is enough!”
“But did they choose for you to be here, so far away from them? Or did you choose Oleander Gardens yourselves?”
Mr. and Mrs. Edwards looked at each other. “It was a family decision,” Mr. Edwards said. “It’s such a nice place. It really offers everything we wanted, with the lovely garden, a community feel so we don’t have to leave for Mrs. Edwards’s hair appointments or anything like that. And we looked into a lot of homes, and this one is by far the cheapest.”
“They collect our pensions and give us an allowance,” said Mrs. Edwards. “Every other place we looked at that had this caliber of facilities would have required our families to pitch in.” She frowned. “They were very keen on sending us here. Oleander Gardens even covered the moving costs and our health insurance so we can visit the doctor whenever we need to.”
Weird. “That sounds really generous.”
“Almost too generous,” Ryan said.
It seemed like OG was trying on purpose to get residents here who would be very far away from their families. But how could they afford to keep the cost so low and offer all that wonderful stuff? Not just by employing Nora. She supposed it was possible that they actually were dumping the bodies somewhere and saving money on burial costs. But wouldn’t the families be responsible for those charges?
“What about funerals, and… related costs? Does that go to your family?”
Mr. Edwards said, “Well now let me think… we were given an option on that. Rather, the agreement included an option. I do believe that if we choose to have our funeral here at Oleander Gardens there are no charges for the service and burial, but if our family wants to have it anywhere else or have us buried elsewhere, then they pay the costs. Isn’t that right, Jean?”
Mrs. Edwards snorted. “I would say it’s pretty obvious where we’re going to be buried, then, isn’t it, dear?”
It was so uncomfortable talking about their impending deaths and funerals with the Edwards. But Nora pressed on, because she really felt that this was going somewhere. “Where?”
“Why, here, of course, dear! Nobody in our family has come to visit us in three years. I don’t imagine for a moment that they’re going to pay the cost of transporting us back to them for our burial.”
“That really sucks, Mrs. Edwards. But I mean, where, exactly? Do you know where Oleander Gardens buries the bodies?”
Mr. and Mrs. Edwards looked at each other. Then they looked at some of the other diners at nearby tables. Mrs. Tillynaught and Mr. Hoominz had turned up their hearing aids and were starting to notice the conversation. They both shook their heads.
“Evelyn was my close friend, and you know, I really have no idea where she is. If I wanted to go visit her grave, I wouldn’t be able to.”
“But that could give us a clue!” Nora said. “Somebody needs to go and ask to visit one of your friend’s graves.”
Mr. Hoominz sighed with a wavery sound. “She’ll just say no.”
“But you might be able to get her to tell you where the grave is. Which cemetery. Or what they do with the bodies, if they’re not buried… I mean, cremation or whatever. There must be a, what do you call it? A tombstone or whatever, somewhere, no matter what.”
“A grave marker,” said Mr. Edwards.
The old people looked at one another. Now Mrs. Balanafeel was in on the conversation, too. “Did someone say we were going to play Clue? I’ll be Miss Peacock!”
Nora and Ryan laughed. “Isn’t tomorrow games day, Mrs. Balanafeel? Tonight is movie night!”
“Oh, how wonderful! I didn’t know we had movie night! What are we seeing?”
Mr. Hoominz and Mr. Greenfield exchanged some kind of conspiratory glance. “I’ll do it,” said Mr. Greenfield. “I’ve been here the longest now. I fear I might be the next to go.”
Ryan had an actual Blu-Ray Limited Edition Totally Remastered or something copy of Casablanca. While he slipped it into the machine,