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The Family Vault
A Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn Mystery
By Charlotte MacLeod
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Charlotte MacLeod
All rights reserved.
"Who did you say you was going to dig up?"
Sarah maneuvered herself a bit farther upwind. He seemed a sweet old man and she didn't want to hurt his feelings, but she wasn't used to people who breakfasted on Schlitz.
"We're not actually planning to dig up anybody," she explained for the third time. "At least I hope we're not. We're just going to ask the people who have charge of the cemetery to open one of the vaults and make sure it's in decent condition, so that my great-uncle can be buried in it."
"That was his wish."
She couldn't very well explain to a total stranger that Great-uncle Frederick had vowed he wouldn't be caught dead with Great-aunt Matilda, who had already preempted their assigned space in the more recent Kelling family plot at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. She didn't quite know how she'd fallen into conversation with this down-at-heel old man at all, except that the cemetery was such a dreary place on a bleak November day, and there was nobody else to pass the time with. Cousin Dolph should have been here an hour ago, but he was still nowhere in sight.
Her new acquaintance was intrigued. "Mean to say anybody can get buried here that wants to?"
"Well, no," Sarah had to admit. "All these old cemeteries around the Common have been declared historic sites, as I expect you know, so nothing is supposed to be disturbed. However, that particular vault over there by the wall belongs to our family, so we can't be stopped from using it if we choose."
Nobody had so chosen for the past one hundred and forty-six years, but Great-uncle Frederick could safely be counted on to make a pest of himself to the last. In a way, the change of plans was going to work out for the better. Instead of a tedious funeral procession snarling traffic all the way across the bridge from Boston to Cambridge, the pallbearers would simply carry the casket out the side door of the church, directly into the ancient burial ground.
Sarah only hoped somebody would have sense enough to close those ornate cast-iron gates. There'd be crush enough without tourists thinking Great-uncle Frederick's interment was one more sightseeing attraction on the Freedom Trail. Cousin Dolph was probably still on the phone, recklessly piling up toll calls during the high-rate hours, rounding up the clan. It was useless to hope any of them would stay away. There wasn't a Kelling alive, except herself, who didn't adore a family funeral.
They'd all troop back to the house afterward, expecting to be fed. How in heaven's name was she to manage a spread for that crowd when the week's grocery allowance was already spent? She'd have to talk Alexander into letting her stretch the budget for once, although that might take some doing. For such a gentle man, he could be remarkably inflexible about money. It was odd to be reasonably well-off in one's own right, married to a rich husband, and still never have an extra cent in one's purse.
The old man was still talking. Feeling guilty because she hadn't been listening, Sarah dug into the pocket of her sagging brown tweed coat and pulled out a couple of bite-sized Milky Ways. They were on sale this week at the supermarkets. Knowing how she liked them, Alexander had bought a bag and tucked a handful into her pocket to surprise her. Being so many years older than Sarah, he tended sometimes to treat her like his child instead of his wife.
Her new acquaintance shook his head. "Thanks, miss, but I'm not s'posed to eat candy. I got the sugar diabetes, see? Got to watch what I eat. An' drink."
He chuckled as though there were something funny about his affliction, blowing another gust of malt in Sarah's direction. She took another sideward step and put the tidbits back in her pocket. He noticed.
"Hey, look, don't let me stop you. I never did go much for them Milky Ways anyhow. Even when I was a kid, my teeth was no good for chewin' nothing except maybe soup and mashed potatoes. Hershey Bars, now, I could eat them. They went down easy. I bet I ate a million Hershey Bars before the doctor told me to lay off the sweet stuff. Back in the Depression, you wouldn't be born then I don't s'pose, they used to sell 'em three for a dime and they was about the size of a cedar shingle. Yeah, I sure did like Hershey Bars. You go right ahead and eat your Milky Ways. Won't bother me none."
Not knowing how to get out of it, Sarah unwrapped one of the little bars she didn't want anymore and crammed it whole into her mouth, to get the business over as quickly as possible. Naturally Dolph arrived while she was struggling with her chewy mouthful, and of course he'd brought an entourage: a respected member of the Historical Society, an official from the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, and a foreman from the Cemetery Division. Dolph scowled at her bulging cheek.
"I don't see why Alex couldn't come."
Sarah gulped down the awkward confection. "I explained when you phoned that he'd already taken Aunt Caroline down to the Eye and Ear for her checkup. There was no way I could get hold of him."
In fact, she could have tracked down her husband easily enough. The world-famous Eye and Ear Infirmary of Massachusetts General Hospital was within walking distance of their house, and Mrs. Kelling well-known to the staff. Sarah hadn't bothered because she was heartily sick of having the entire Kelling tribe use Alexander as their odd-job man.
"Anyway," she went on, "I'm more closely related to Great-uncle Frederick than he is. Aunt Caroline wasn't even a Kelling."
Until a generation or so ago, Kellings had often chosen their mates from among their third, second, and even first cousins, partly because they were a close-knit group and partly because it kept the money in the family. Nobody had seen anything remarkable about Sarah's parents having sprung from different branches of the same family tree. Nor did any relative think it inappropriate for the only child of that union to be joined in lawful wedlock to her fifth cousin once removed when he was almost forty-one and she a new-made orphan not quite nineteen years old.
After the marriage, Sarah had gone on calling her mother-in-law Aunt Caroline as she'd always done. Younger Kellings generally addressed any older connection as Aunt or Uncle, otherwise titles became too confusing. For a long time now it hadn't mattered what anybody called Caroline Kelling, as Dolph was pointing out with his usual tact.
"Can't think why Alex keeps throwing money away on doctors' bills. Caroline's stone blind and stone deaf, and there's not one damn thing they can do about it."
Sarah didn't bother to answer. Dolph's companions were beginning to fidget. She took it upon herself to lead the group over to the vault, noting with amusement that the man who liked Hershey Bars was not far behind.
"Too bad you people didn't give us a little advance notice," the Cemetery Division foreman was grumbling. "Hinges are probably rusted out."
He made great play with a long-nosed oilcan, then hauled out a bunch of huge old iron keys and selected the one tagged "Kelling." "This ought to be it. Provided the lock still works."
To his own apparent surprise, once he had pried the small brass medallion that covered the keyhole loose from its bed of moss and corrosion and managed to push it aside, he succeeded rather easily in fitting the key to the hole. The lock turned. The man from the Historical Society caught his breath.
"After all these years," he murmured, "we're going to see—"
"Nothing," snorted the foreman.
The door had opened on a solid brick wall that blocked the entire opening. Cousin Dolph was beside himself.
"Damned bureaucratic interference! Who in hell ever gave anybody permission to stick that thing up? Now what am I to do? All the arrangements changed, Aunt Emma coming all the way from Longmeadow, and we can't get into the vault. I wish to Christ Alex were here!"
"At least he'd know how to take the wall down," said Sarah, trying not to laugh.
"Take the wall down, that's it! Never should have been put there in the first place. You," Adolphus Kelling thrust his Yankee beak within an inch of the foreman's more comely nose. "Get a pickax or something."
"Just a second, Mr. Kelling," the man from Parks and Recreation intervened. "Ralph here and myself are delighted to co-operate with you on account of your uncle's distinguished military and civil record."
Great-uncle Frederick had fought well with Black Jack Pershing and been a successful public gadfly for many years afterward. Family opinion held that Bay Staters sent their short-fused fellow citizen to Washington on one commission after another simply for the relief of getting him away from Boston. Even now, it appeared the doughty local son was not going to rest in peace without one last struggle.
"However," the young official was going on, "Ralph and I can't take it upon ourselves to authorize any demolition. I'm afraid this will have to go through channels."
"How long will that take?"
"In such an unusual situation, I really can't say. I expect we'll have to dig into the archives—"
"The hell you will! Look here, young man, any fool can see this brickwork is no part of the original vault. The blasted mortar isn't even dirty. Probably some nincompoop put it up during the Bicentennial, scared a tourist would pinch our bones for a souvenir. Now you listen to me and you listen straight. I've broken my back to get this funeral lined up the way Uncle Fred wanted it. Everything's scheduled for tomorrow morning at ten o'clock sharp. And if you think I'm going to undo all I've done and squat beside a stinking coffin for the next five years while a bunch of bureaucrats squander the taxpayers' money trying to make up their minds whether a man has a right to be buried in his own family vault, you can damn well think again."
Sarah knew Dolph would be furious if she didn't back him up. She was glad that for once he had reason on his side.
"I'm sure my cousin is right about this wall. My own father helped to make the arrangements when this cemetery was declared a historic site, and he made very sure we'd always be able to use our vault if we chose to. And we certainly can't use it with that wall there."
"Damn right. Good thinking, Sarah. So let's get cracking."
"Excuse me," said the now deeply perturbed young man. "I think I'd better call the office."
He disappeared in the direction of a phone booth and came back looking relieved. "I guess it's okay, Mr. Kelling, provided you're willing to sign a note saying you'll take the responsibility. Got a pickax, Ralph?"
Ralph had not, and was properly chagrined at not having brought what he'd had no reason to expect would be needed. After a bit of discussion, he and his colleague went to borrow one from some workmen over near the Parkman bandstand while Dolph fulminated to the man from the Historical Society, whose name was Ritling.
Sarah wished her cousin would shut up. The city people were being a great deal kinder about this affair than the family had any real right to expect, especially in view of the last-minute planning and this latest contretemps about a wall that shouldn't be in the way. She eased her tired legs against one of the ancient gravestones and stared at the offending brickwork. She'd have sworn she knew all there was to know about that vault. Back when the historical sites issue first came up, her father had thrashed over the subject at mealtimes until he'd put her off her food, but he'd never once mentioned that the vault entrance had been bricked up. Was it possible he never knew?
There seemed no reason why it should have been, except that body snatching to get corpses for medical students to dissect was still not unheard-of back when the old vault was abandoned for the more spacious lot at Mount Auburn. Surely, though, the erecting of a barrier to keep out grave robbers would have been noted in the family annals, which Walter Kelling knew backward and forward. Anyway, Dolph was right about the brickwork's not looking all that old.
Whoever did the work knew his trade, at any rate. The bricks were unusually small, in a nice proportion to the size of the opening, which was only about four feet square. They were laid in an intricate pattern of interlocking diamonds which Sarah had seen somewhere else but couldn't place offhand. To while away the waiting, she took out a notebook and began to sketch the opening, drawing in each separate brick with careful attention to detail.
Alexander would be interested. Bricklaying was one of his unlikely talents. He'd taken courses in various manual skills, mostly at the Center for Adult Education over on Commonwealth Avenue. Learning to do odd jobs around the house used to be his sole excuse to get away from Aunt Caroline once in a while. One might think that having some time alone with his wife would be an even more legitimate reason, but Alexander didn't seem to go along with that idea. She tightened her lips and went on sketching. She was adding a not very flattering portrait of Dolph when the men came back with the pickax.
"Mr. Kelling," said the foreman, "would you care to do the honors?"
Cousin Dolph picked up the implement, studied it curiously, hefted it once or twice, then brought it down with a mighty wallop. The entire wall gave way. He stumbled forward into a mess of brick and mortar.
"Are you all right, Mr. Kelling?"
Pleased with his feat, Dolph brushed away the men who rushed to help him. "I'm fine. Didn't know my own strength, that's all. Damn shoddy construction, though, I must say. Good God, what's that?"
Ritling crowded in beside him. "Why, it's—" He rushed off among the gravestones and began to retch.
The Cemetery Division foreman was clearly disgusted with this weakness. "What's the matter? Vaults are made to hold bodies, aren't they? Here, let's have a better look."
He took a butane lighter from his pocket and shot a candle of flame into the cavity. Sarah, wondering what the to-do was about, peered over his shoulder. A gust of beer told her that her new-found friend was right behind.
She'd been braced for something nasty, but not for what she saw. On the stone floor of the vault, sprawled as if it had been thrust in with no regard for funerary decorum, lay a body. It must have been a woman's. The flesh was rotted away, but the skeleton was still encased in the moldered remains of an hourglass corset and a crimson skirt. High black boots with frisky red heels held the leg and foot bones together.
But what had turned Mr. Ritling's stomach and would haunt all their nightmares forever after were the tiny chips of blood-colored rubies that winked flashes of burning scarlet from between the grinning teeth.CHAPTER 2
"Christ on a crutch!" gasped the old man with the breath. "It's Ruby Redd!"
"You know her?" Dolph Kelling turned on him like a charging bull. "What's she doing in our vault?"
"Dolph, don't be ridiculous," Sarah protested. "He didn't put her there."
"That's right, miss. I won't say me and Ruby was ever any great buddies, but I'd never of done a thing like this to nobody. So this is where she disappeared to."
Suddenly conscious that he had become the center of attention, the old man stepped back, mumbling, "I didn't mean to butt in."
"We're tremendously grateful that you did," Sarah urged. "Please don't go away. Can't you tell us more about this—Ruby Redd?"
"She was a—well, she called herself an exotic dancer."
Cousin Dolph's bulgy eyes took on a knowing glint. "My God, I remember Ruby Redd! Jem and I used to drop in at the Old Howard every so often, to watch her strut her stuff. She had a sort of Gold Rush routine, supposed to be a dance hall queen on the Barbary Coast, or some damn thing. Always wore that black corset affair with a pair of knockers bulging out over the top the size of watermelons. Sorry, Sarah, but damn it, you're a married woman."
"All right, Dolph. So that's why she had those rubies in her teeth? Wasn't there a real dance hall girl once who did the same thing with diamonds?"
"Stands to reason she stole the idea from somewheres," muttered the old man.
"Why? Was she a thief?"
"Ruby was a lot of things, but mostly mean. Meanest woman I ever run acrost in all my born days, and that's sayin' plenty, though I suppose I shouldn't be speakin' ill of the dead. Funny, I can't seem to take it in that's Ruby layin' there. Got to be, though. I lived in Boston all my life, and I ain't never seen anybody else struttin' down Washington Street with a grin on her puss like a row of taillights on a wet night."
Excerpted from The Family Vault by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 2002 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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