Sarah arrived outside of the undertaker’s place a few minutes after the bell rang 11 o’clock. The sound felt too long and too ominous as if it meant more today and maybe it did. She paused at the door, the sign reading Warren Chilton firmly attached to it. He was the local keeper of the dead as her father had often joked when he had brought Sarah along for a visit. Warren was a tall and imposing man that only Sarah’s father had befriended. He had often found his way to the Redcross household sending little Sarah to run and clutch her father’s leg. His apologetic smile had always been less than disarming.
Sarah’s hesitation did not come from any past views of Warren Chilton. The ghosts of youth had all been chased away by the stronger ghosts of adulthood. Warren no longer scared Sarah. Well, maybe just a little if she was being honest. What really made her pause was the thought of the bodies in there. Mr. Nobody’s body was hard enough to look at out in the sunshine. In there it was dim and silent and much closer all of which seemed much worse.
She took a deep breath and pushed open the door. It swung open easily and she stepped inside, her boot steps sounded hollow as she stepped over the threshold. The cool air betrayed the presence of an ice block hidden away somewhere behind all of the finery and rituals.
“Is that you, Sheriff?” Warren called from a room in the back. That meant either the room with the bodies or the parlor for the guests who never came. That parlor was where Sarah would be deposited if Warren and her father had ever had to talk business which meant dead bodies. The parlor was thankfully free of dead bodies when there wasn’t a viewing or else Sarah would have asked to wait for her father outside.
“Yes, Mr. Chilton. You know, you’re just about the only person who calls me that.” The thought did make her smile. Even if he was somewhat unsettling, Warren was familiar and reminded Sarah of the good times with her father. That could never be a bad thing.
“And you’re usually the only person who calls me Warren outside of my wife.” He said. It was a gentle reminder. Of course, his first wife was ten years dead but Warren had once told John Redcross that he spoke to his wife every day still. Sarah tried to keep an open mind about it. She knew that Warren’s second wife was very open-minded about it.
“No, it’s alright, Sarah. I wish more people treated me like a man rather than death itself. You’re not afraid of me anymore.” It was almost a question but came out sound like a statement instead. He lit a cigarette off of the candle near the door and a couple drops of hot wax hit his hand. If he felt anything, he didn’t show it.
“I grew up, Warren,” Sarah said with a shrug. She carefully hung up her coat and smoothed her dress.
“No, it’s something else, Sarah. It’s the same thing that makes you a good Sheriff. It’s the
same thing that made your father a good Sheriff.”
“And what’s that?” Sarah asked, looking up at the tall man’s beaming face. She was reminded of scarecrows and skeletons looking at him.
“Courage.” He said with a brighter smile. “Courage.”
Sarah sighed deeply. She didn’t feel very brave. She could feel the goosebumps on her arms and she felt on edge. “I didn’t want to come here.” She confessed.
“Nobody ever does,” Warren replied with a grave nod. “Shall we get on to business? Sunnier pastures beyond the rain clouds or so they say.” Sarah wasn’t sure who said that but it sounded pretty good as long as the rain didn’t last too long. She followed Warren but was relieved when he walked only a few steps to a simple desk where several items were laid out carefully. On one end of the desk, there were bloody clothes neatly folded. “These are the clothes and personal effects of the deceased,” Warren said as he turned up the nearby lamp so there was a little more light.
Sarah passed over the bloody tatters of the dead man’s clothes, she had seen them out at the spot where the man had been found. She looked with more interest at the personal items. She turned to look at Warren. “Is it ok to touch?”
“That’s fine. I don’t think he’ll mind.” Warren said with the slightest smirk.
She picked up a silver pocket watch which was inscribed with all sorts of strange symbols. She didn’t understand any of them.
“Do you understand any of these symbols, Warren? You’re a university man, aren’t you?”
“Not a single one. Do you?” He replied.
“Nope.” She sighed and set the watch down. The next item was a pearl-handled revolver which looked pretty fancy. She flipped it open and there were no bullets inside of it. “I wonder if he got to use this against whatever killed him. I kind of hope he hit it.” She said as she looked up at Warren who shrugged. It was no help speculating about gunplay without any more evidence. He might have just had the gun for show or had used the gun before he got to town and had yet to get more bullets. Too many possibilities.
There was a package of smokes, matches and money and a fancy silver belt buckle as well but besides being kind of flashy, they were ordinary. The only other thing was a piece of paper. It looked like it had been torn from a bigger piece and it had a cigarette burn in it but it looked more or less intact. Sarah picked it up and read it aloud.
“Come to me. Bring the key.” She looked up at Warren. “Instructions, it seems like. The key?”
“It wasn’t on him anywhere nor was it in him. I checked.” There was a pause as Sarah swallowed hard and tried to will her stomach not to do so many flips. “It seems to me to be a word that should be underlined. Something important, no?”
“Yeah, I get a chill just reading the words. It’s not signed so he must have known who it was from. I get the feeling the key’s a big secret. But I have no clue what it means, especially without the key itself.”
“Now are you ready for the rest?” Warren said, gesturing toward the back room.
“The rest? Warren, this is just a simple animal attack, right? There’s no need for the rest is there?”
“Well…” Warren began and cocked his head gently to the side, a gesture that seemed to mean that there was more to this story.
“No, don’t tell me that even you are influenced by the rumors that drunken idiot started.” She laughed but inside she hoped, she clung to the belief that this was just a case of lucky mountain lions finding an unlucky traveler. Why did something in her gut keep telling her differently? She could feel Warren looking at her and she could see him thinking. Something was wrong.
“I found some evidence that seems to indicate something else,” Warren said with a tone that was half proud statement and half apology.
“Something else? You’d better show me then.” Something tightened in Sarah’s stomach at the thought of seeing the stranger’s body again but that feeling warred with her sense of duty and curiosity.
“Alright. Follow me into the back, Sheriff.” Warren said as he led the way into the back room. The room with the bodies. Sarah dared to follow.