CASKET CACHE, A Spencer Funeral Home Niagara Cozy Mystery, Book 1

By Janice J. Richardson

Crime & mystery, General fiction

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12 mins

Chapter One

"We have a coroner's call," Jennifer said to her assistant Peter. "Bundle up, the police say we have a bit of a walk through a field."
"Will do," he said. "See you in a few minutes."
Jennifer disconnected the call, tucked her phone into her pocket and took the stairs two at a time into the apartment above her funeral home. It was almost 11 p.m. and the wind was howling and screaming, scattering and swirling the powdered snow. With the wind chill hovering around -20C she wasted no time putting on her snow pants, parka, and heavy winter boots. She placed her wool scarf on the chair by the door, picked up the thrummed mittens her sister had knit her and pulled on a toque. She was used to the cold but when she was tired it was harder to cope. She reminded herself that she had wanted nothing more than to be her own boss, own the funeral home and stay independent.
"Living the dream," she muttered as she clumped over to the kitchen counter in her boots, her snow pants swishing. Reaching for the cat treats she shook the bag. Grimsby, her black and grey cat appeared like a silent apparition out of nowhere.
"You get to stay warm and comfortable while Peter and I do all the work," she said, scratching behind her pet's ear. "Here's your treat, we should be back in a few hours". She closed the door to the apartment, not bothering to lock it. Downstairs she went straight to the garage, plucked the transfer vehicle keys off the key rack and hit the garage door opener.
The icy blast as the door opened made her catch her breath. Realizing she had forgotten her scarf she considered heading back upstairs to get it but changed her mind at the thought of climbing the stairs in her snow gear.
As she started the van she saw Peter's truck pull up through the swirling snow. Climbing out he reached into his truck bed and pulled out a toboggan, tucked it under his arm and entered the garage. "We might need this," he said.
"Good thinking," Jennifer replied. Peter was the first employee she hired upon acquiring the funeral home two days ago. She had advertised for a part-time employee and many had responded. Peter stood out, he had interviewed well. Peter had a diploma in social media and in addition to being self-employed, he now worked part-time for Jennifer.
"This is the worst storm I've seen in years," said Jennifer as she opened the back of the van and watched Peter place the toboggan on the stretcher.
"I haven't seen it like this since I was a kid," replied Peter. "It is not fun driving and it's very cold. Thank you for the snowmobile suit".
Jennifer had given Peter her uncle's old snowmobile suit and boots just in case the situation warranted it, and this night clearly required it. The climate in the Niagara peninsula was temperate, snowsuits seldom left the closet.
Climbing into the van she reached for the GPS and punched in the coordinates for the location the Niagara Regional Police dispatcher had given her as Peter pulled out slowly into the blizzard. She knew the general area and the road they were to attend but having the exact spot mapped would make it easier. She recalled her uncle telling her about some of the calls he had responded to over the years, remote locations without the benefit of a GPS or cell phone. She was grateful for the technology that made her job easier.
She had not counted on the storm blocking the signal though. The GPS was on her phone was next to useless with the heavy cloud cover. The blasts and swirls of snow reduced visibility to a few feet and Peter was forced to keep their speed down. She was used to winter having grown up in northern Ontario. It was just common sense, one didn't go out on nights like this one, unless of course, one had no choice.
Six months ago Jennifer had been working at a large funeral home in Toronto. She had graduated from Funeral Service education at Humber three years before. Working as a junior director in the greater Toronto area meant regular shifts with little to no overtime and full benefits. The funeral home had a large staff to share the workload. She had made new friends and was enjoying her job. The concerts and restaurants and night life were a far cry from the small northern community she left behind.
Her uncle was the reason she had become a funeral director. She spent several summers as a teen helping him around his funeral home in Niagara. His quiet and gentle demeanor was very different than the home she grew up in. Jennifer had welcomed her summers in Niagara with her uncle and his wife. It was Uncle Bill who encouraged her to find her own way in the world, to make her own choices and not be who her peers and parents expected her to be.
Uncle Bill died suddenly one evening in his funeral home. Closing up the funeral home after a visitation he sat down at his desk and slipped away from a heart attack. Aunt Jean, died of cancer a few months before Uncle Bill and his grief, silent and unspoken, may have been the contributing factor in his death. Jennifer missed them both terribly, the void the two left in her life was bigger than she thought it could ever be. It made her realize how important her career choice as a funeral director was. Grief, crushing and devastating, was something she had experienced upon the death of her aunt and uncle, and she vowed that as a funeral director she would never forget how hard it was for the families she served.
Uncle Bill and Aunt Jean made Jennifer and her twin sister Anne the beneficiary of the funeral home and their cottage in their will. Uncle Bill's lawyer contacted the two women, set up a meeting and explained the inheritance. In their grief she had not fully grasped the significance of what the lawyer had said. An interim funeral director had been hired by the lawyer to run the funeral home until a decision was made. Her twin Anne, had taken a different career path. The funeral home wasn't part of her summers, she wanted to be a journalist and upon graduation from university had moved to Ottawa to pursue her dream. She and Anne, although identical in appearance were polar opposites in personality, Jennifer was social and outgoing, Anne was a loner who loved to research and write. Jennifer made the decision to run the funeral home and share the profits with Anne.
Jennifer thought about texting Anne to see how her day had been but a glance at the dashboard clock changed her mind. Anne liked her privacy and they had an agreement not to disturb each other after 11 p.m. or before 8 a.m. unless it was an emergency. In spite of the poor reception, she texted her friend who was about to start her evening shift at the casino. Gwen was a dealer, a smart, bubbly person who enjoyed her job. Gwen worked the night shift in order to spend time with her husband and family. She and Jennifer usually checked in once or twice a week to see what was new and spent as much time together visiting, shopping and chattering as their work allowed. She trusted Gwen with her life secrets and Gwen did the same. Jennifer was surprised when her phone cheeped back a couple of minutes later. Gwen was at work, she said that several people hadn't shown up because of the storm, including the pit boss. The casino was busy, she texted, and they were short staffed. The weather had little effect on the twenty-four operation of the resort, people stranded in hotels in the Falls could easily get to the casino. She texted back 'don't work too hard, catch you later' and slipped her phone back into the inside pocket of her parka.
The falling snow enveloped the road and their vehicle in a white cocoon. Visibility was limited to a few feet and Peter was concentrating on his driving. The cab was quiet as they both stared at the road ahead. It had been forty-five minutes since they left the funeral home and Jennifer suspected they were getting close to the scene. It was hard to tell where the side of the road was and most of the signs were obscured by the blizzard. The isolation of the storm surrounded them and it was a peaceful respite.
As is typical in a snowstorm, they were upon the police vehicles almost instantly. The blue and red flashing lights from the police cars barely broke through the whiteness. Peter maneuvered the van to the right between two police cars and stopped. Jennifer watched to see if someone exited the vehicle ahead but there was no movement. Jennifer gathered her mitts, pulled on her toque and jumped at the sudden banging on the driver's side window. Peter rolled down the window and the officer peered at them through the fur on his parka, his face barely visible.
"Don't think you will be able to drag the stretcher through the snow", said the policeman. "Check it out." He disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared. Peter flipped his hood up, putting on his gloves as he exited the van. Jennifer slid out her side, wrestling with the door as the wind caught it. She felt like a little kid as she walked around the front of the van where the two men, who were both over six feet, towered over her. She saw the crime scene command post vehicle parked in front of the first squad car.
"How long have you been waiting?" Jennifer asked. It was her standard greeting to police officers when she attended coroner's calls or house calls. It was not uncommon for police to wait hours at a death call. Waiting for the coroner, the forensics team, the funeral directors, it all took time to facilitate.
"It wasn't snowing when I got here," was the response. Brevity seemed to be this officer's choice of communication style and Jennifer understood perfectly. The man had put in a long shift and just wanted to get out of the snow and cold. He turned and headed into the storm. Heads down, Jennifer and Peter followed. Talk was pointless, the wind snatched the words away. Jennifer followed in the footprints of the two men, struggling with the length of their stride. For every two steps they took, she took three and it was hard to keep up. The snowdrifts were a challenge to climb through.
About six minutes later they stopped in what appeared to be a small grove of trees. The storm was quieter in the cluster of trees and there was not as much snow. Jennifer noted that a blue tarp had been made into a makeshift tent. Two spotlights provided some light. Several officers stood with their backs to the wind beside the tarp, their flashlights in hand and watched as the trio approached.
"Detective Sergeant Gillespie," one of them said to Peter. "Peter," he responded. "This is my boss, Jennifer," as he turned to her. The Detective Sergeant looked down at her. The police coats made the men indistinguishable, to Jennifer they were all tall and with their faces buried they all looked the same. But a pair of blue eyes twinkled and a crooked grin greeted her. She responded in kind, surprised at the warmth he exuded.
"Um, we, um, brought a toboggan," she stammered, immediately embarrassed by her lack of 'boss behaviour'. She was in charge of the transfer and she was acting like an apprentice director.
The Detective Sergeants grin widened. She couldn't tell what colour his hair was, the hood blocked that, but she was acutely aware he was a good looking man.
"A toboggan sounds like a plan," was the response.
Peter stepped in before Jennifer could embarrass herself further. "I will go and get the two man stretcher and the rest of the equipment," he said.
"Bring an extra sheet," said Jennifer. Turning back to the Detective Sergeant Gillespie she asked "Hiker?"
The Detective Sergeant shook his head no. "Homicide." Again Jennifer cringed inwardly, the crime scene unit command post should have been a giveaway, not to mention the suit and shoes on the victim. Hiking in a suit and shoes in a field? She needed to stop trying to chat and compose herself. If she couldn't sound professional at least she could try to look professional.
"Hang on Peter", said Jennifer and she walked over to the tarp. A man lay on his side. He was wearing a suit, no coat. His shoes were shiny and his tie loosened His cuff links and tie clip looked expensive. His fingertips were black from the ink the forensic team had used, but she quickly surmised this person was a professional, his nails were manicured, his hair trimmed to perfection.
"Bring the kit too please," said Jennifer. Peter nodded and he and the officer who walked them in disappeared quickly into the snow.
Jennifer studied the scene carefully. The victim was lying on grass and twigs, indicating to her that the body had been found earlier in the day. There was a single gunshot wound to his forehead. No blood, just a small hole. Except for the obvious cause of death he could have been sleeping, she thought. Every transfer, every individual who required Jennifer's services touched her in some way. A life lived and finished, some too soon, imprinted themselves on her soul.
"We don't have an ID yet," said Detective Sergeant Gillespie, who had moved up behind her. "Recognize him?"
Jennifer turned to the Detective Sergeant and shook her head. "No," she responded. "We are in the middle of nowhere, who found him?" she asked.
"We got an anonymous tip," he replied. "Been on the scene all afternoon and evening."
"Long day for you and the team," she responded. She knew though, that they would have been well supplied with coffee and food, an absolute must in the extreme cold. They could take shelter in the Command Post vehicle.

"Are we going to the Falls or St. Catherine's?" she asked, surmising they were more or less equally between the two hospitals.
"Hamilton," he replied. "Case of this nature warrants a forensic autopsy." Without further explanation he continued. "Let me just clarify your information. Jennifer and Peter - right? Last names? Spencer Funeral Home? Do you have a cell number?"
Jennifer provided the information and decided that Peter could drive the van into Hamilton. He would be accompanied by a Detective Constable. She also realized she could be riding in the squad car with one of other two men waiting at the scene, the forensics officer or the Detective Sergeant. It was safe to speculate it would be the officer with the forensics team so she walked over to him.
"I don't believe I caught your name," she said.
"Doug," was the response. The fact that Doug didn't look a day over nineteen crossed her mind.
"Are you originally from the Niagara region?" she asked the young officer.
"Naw, grew up in Cape Breton. Moved here for university and was hired on last year," was his response.
"That's a trip I plan on taking at some point," Jennifer responded, forgetting her decision a minute ago to try to stop chatting. "The Cape Breton trail, Nova Scotia, looking forward to seeing the Atlantic ocean".
The conversation lagged for a minute. "Has your family been to visit you yet Doug?"
"Yep, took 'em to the Falls last summer," he said. Another pause. It crossed Jennifer's mind she needed to admit defeat, that none of the men were prone to small talk.
Fortunately, Peter and the other constable materialized out of the blizzard with the equipment and he and Jennifer quietly got to work. Jennifer guided her new employee through what to do at a homicide scene. Donning gloves and removing two paper bags from the kit she showed him how to bag the hands. They wrapped the body in the sheets and moved the deceased into the body bag. The transfer was a bit awkward under the tent but they worked smoothly together. She removed her gloves and dropped them in the body bag, glancing at Peter who followed suit. She zipped opened the stretcher and she and Peter placed the body inside. Doug, the forensics officer, stepped in and placed the police seal over the zipper of the body bag. Jennifer then zipped up the stretcher, pulled her mittens from her coat pocket and put them back on.
"I would like you to drive to the hospital in Hamilton," said Jennifer quietly to Peter. This is your first coroner's call and since it's a homicide, the Detective Constable will stay with the body until it is in the morgue and will tag the pouch once you have arrived. It will be a long night - are you up for it?"
Peter nodded affirmatively, his eyes briefly betraying his excitement. Jennifer knew he would quickly become a reliable and trustworthy employee. His calm demeanour and interest in learning would serve him well, and give her the occasional night or weekend off from doing transfers in time. He and Jennifer had talked at length about confidentiality and consideration for families and Peter had shown the level of maturity Jennifer expected from her staff.
"The toboggan is a bit shorter than the stretcher but I think if we put the head over the top and go slowly it would save having to carry the stretcher through the snow," said Peter. "If it doesn't work then the kit can go on the toboggan and the officers can help us carry the stretcher.
Doug stepped in to help Peter place the stretcher on the toboggan. The other constable had been watching Detective Sergeant Gillespie working under the makeshift tent. He was checking for evidence that might have been under the body and ensuring that nothing was missed. Jennifer and Peter stood quietly and respectfully while the task was completed.
"Ok, let's get going," said Detective Sergeant Gillespie.
Peter started pulling the toboggan in the direction of the van. Jennifer walked beside the toboggan, ready to jump in should the stretcher start to slide off. Doug walked on the other side. Detective Sergeant Gillespie was giving final instructions to the constable at the tarp.
In spite of the terrain and snowdrifts, it was an easy trip to the roadside. Jennifer opened the van doors and bent down to pick up the side of the stretcher.
"I got it ma'am," said Doug and he and Peter placed the stretcher in the van. Jennifer picked up the toboggan and placed it on its side away from the stretcher.
"Thank you Doug, appreciate the help," said Jennifer "I've been thinking, with you two officers and Peter going to Hamilton I think I will check to see if I can get a ride back to the funeral home, Peter will be able to take care of things from here."
"I'll check," said Doug as he reached for his radio. He walked away from the vehicle so Jennifer couldn't hear the conversation. Doug quickly returned. "No problem, just wait here."
Peter had finished brushing the snow off the windows of the funeral vehicle and left a couple of minutes later, followed by Doug in the forensics officer's car. Jennifer stood looking at the remaining two police vehicles covered in snow and wondered if she should start clearing the snow away. She trudged over to the command post and using her mitts and sleeve started pushing the snow off.
She had almost completed the squad car when she heard voices. Detective Sergeant Gillespie and the other constable were exiting the field.
"You're still here Ms. Spencer?" said the Detective Sergeant. Jennifer was a little taken aback, she knew Doug had cleared her ride home with one of the officers.
"I sent Peter to Hamilton with the two officers. I understand this is not normal procedure but I would appreciate a lift back to the funeral home," she answered. "Doug, your forensics officer cleared it with you?"
"Huh," responded Detective Sergeant Gillespie. He smiled with that endearing crooked smile. "Doug did." He turned to the remaining officer. "Goodnight Constable."
The young man looked at his vehicle and turned to Jennifer. "That was very kind of you to clear the snow ma'am. Thank you."
"No problem," she responded.
Detective Sergeant Gillespie unlocked his car and opened the passenger door. Jennifer, feeling a little self-conscious thanked him. He popped the trunk, placed his gear in and pulling out a brush, finished clearing the snow off the car. Jennifer sat very still, lost in thought as she waited. When Detective Sergeant Gillespie took the driver's seat she found herself feeling a little awkward. It wasn't her first homicide, she knew the routine, but sitting next to this blue-eyed police officer with the crooked grin made her feel vulnerable. She chided herself for her silliness and chalked it up to fatigue.
It didn't take long for the vehicle to warm up and Jennifer pulled off her toque and mitts. The snowstorm was letting up, visibility was better than it had been earlier. Detective Sergeant Gillespie had yet to speak and Jennifer wondered if she should initiate a conversation then decided against it. As a child she'd had a habit of filling space and void with words and chatter and had learned, as a funeral director, to let silence do its job.
As they got closer to the main highway Detective Sergeant Gillespie broke the silence.
"Are you settling into your new home?" he asked.
"Slowly" Jennifer replied. "It was such a shock when Uncle Bill died. I think he was grieving Aunt Jean more than we realized."
"I got to know your uncle a bit over the years," said the Detective Sergeant. "He was a good man, well-respected in the community."
Jennifer nodded but before she could reply a car shot out of the intersection ahead. She instinctively braced for impact as Detective Sergeant Gillespie scrambled to avoid a collision. The police car skidded but held the road. The car that cut them off disappeared into the night.
Gillespie cursed. Jennifer's heart was pounding at the near miss and she exhaled slowly. He reached for the radio and reported that a vehicle was speeding down Townline Road, make and model unknown.
"Taurus", said Jennifer. He related the information to the dispatcher and turned to Jennifer.
"Are you OK?" he asked, the concern in his voice obvious. "Are you hurt?"
"I'm fine," said Jennifer.
"You're sure?" Jennifer nodded. "I apologize for my language," he said. "What an idiot, he could have killed us. Can't believe you got the model of the car."
Jennifer laughed weakly. "Comes from driving miles a day through Toronto," she replied. "Kinda got used to getting cut off and all the near misses. Where are the police when you need them?"
His burst of laughter broke the tension. Jennifer joined in and in a couple of minutes the stress of the moment was gone. They could hear the radio chatter and it wasn't long before the driver who cut them off was pulled over.
When they arrived at the funeral home a few minutes later. Jennifer let herself out of the squad car and thanked the Detective Sergeant for the lift. "Good night," said Jennifer.
“Good night," was the response.
She wondered what his first name was as she opened the door. No point wondering, she said to herself, you are way too busy to think about anything other than work. Entering the funeral home she pulled her phone from her pocket. A quick check showed it was after 2 a.m. and she made a mental note to debrief Peter later in the day. She could still recall every detail of her first homicide years ago and wanted to be sure Peter wasn't traumatized. She did not want her new employee emotionally damaged by what he had seen and done. She would discuss the scene, the transfer, and the victim as she so often did with her colleagues in circumstances like this sudden death.
The snow had built up around the garage. She picked up the snow shovel and went to work on the sidewalk. The quiet of the night and the soft light from the snow was peaceful. Jennifer worked slowly, enjoying the physical labour and peace.
Twenty minutes later she put the shovel away, laid out the supplies for the next call, left a note with the call details on the front desk, and headed up to bed. She would call Peter in later in the day. Grimsby met her at the door and after a quick shower she and her cat crawled into bed.



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