Farewell to a Queen is a chapter from The Painted Trunk.

 

Mysteries should always begin at funerals. There’s the obligatory rain, shadowy people, and a spectacularly spine-chilling graveyard. That sets the scene perfectly for bizarre and mysterious happenings.

Of course, Cleopatra Alexandria Gleason’s funeral was nothing of the kind. Georgia, usually uncomfortable in the dying days of summer, was on its best behavior. Humidity was low, a cooling breeze wafted through the evergreens, and gnats were not in attendance. Birds sang their little hearts out, and the chorus of sniffles and blatant bawling were anything but ominous. The green lawn of the cemetery stretched far into the distance, the perfect backdrop for the thousands of blooms, potted and arranged, surrounding the queen’s coffin. The flowers filled the air with a glorious scent as lovely as any Parisian creation.

Just perfect enough, I thought, to disguise the sneaky, the sly, and the sinister.

Cleopatra had a remarkable turnout, the like seldom seen in our little city, August Grove. Over four hundred people gathered in the church and at the cemetery, many from out of town, to wish Cleopatra on her way. I wondered how many were there to say goodbye and how many to say, “Good riddance.” As for myself, I didn’t belong in either camp. Interested observer – that was my position, with all my fevered loathing and chilling hatred for the deceased buried before I entered the cemetery. All I wanted to do was bid her farewell and observe the formalities.

And at this funeral, there was much to observe.

The senator and his lady were in the house.

Quite the guy, our senator – handsome, altruistic, bipartisan, and very forward thinking – a real green guy. I had no doubt Senator Jefferson Houston was on his way to the White House. Bred, groomed, and packaged to perfection, he’d been a politician since his first diaper. A political superstar that might, emphasis on might, make a decent president.

I hadn’t put a tack in his lovely wife yet. Emily Thacker-Houston, of the Seriously Old Money Philadelphia Thackers, was always at his side for photo ops, or in the youTube videos opening the newest whatever wherever good will could be garnered. The epitome of lovely, gracious, “soon-to-be-First Lady,” she was always perfect.

Too perfect.

I always watched her eyes and hands when she spoke. They were never in the same frame, so to speak. I didn’t get the impression Mrs. Senator was a happy woman.

Until now.

Those eyes, those hands – they were absolutely grinning. She stood quite still beside her husband, but of the two of them, he was the one who was truly sad. Body language and micro expressions don’t lie.  Mrs. Thacker-Houston was doing everything she could not to break out in song.

Now that’s interesting.

The good Reverend Rochester delivered a lovely and lengthy graveside service, and when he was finally winded, several people came forward to bid tearful farewells to the late Ms. Gleason. I ignored them all. These were the puppets whose strings she had pulled in life. What interested me were the duckers and dodgers, the ones who didn’t want to meet anyone’s eyes, yet were clearly at the funeral to gather information. Several times I met the eyes of a ducker, and fear lurked in those eyes. The dodgers, on the other hand, were the animosity carriers. I didn’t know their names, but I filed the faces away for future reference. Another one of my habits, good or bad, probably linked to the habitual question-asking.

One of the notable names on the animosity ledger was none other than Pastor Anna Townsend-Gleason, mother of the deceased. I expected nothing less than a Vegas-style rendition of weeping and wailing from the reverend mother. I’d seen her put on some amazing exhibitions for people in the old neighborhood, complete with sweats and swoons. But now, at her own daughter’s graveside, she was as tight as a drumhead. She stood like a monument, not a tear or a sniffle in sight. At the conclusion of services, she came forward, unassisted, and dropped a single black rose onto the coffin. Then, without a glance at anyone, she turned and walked away.

Curiouser and curiouser.

As soon as the service ended, people scurried away like roaches when the lights come on. No one lingered or commiserated. I noted the furtive glances amid the hasty retreats. These people wanted to remember who attended this funeral. I suspected this had been an awkward gathering for more than a few.

In particular was a couple I did not recognize. He, of medium height, stood beside a woman in a wheelchair. It was hard to determine what kind of relationship they had. The man stood hunched as if ready to launch or strike at a moment’s notice, his face set and dark and scowling behind an expensive pair of Gucci sunglasses. He could have been the woman’s husband, brother, or bodyguard.

The woman was just the opposite of her dark companion. Pale from top to bottom, she wore a gown of white lace instead of black, her fine blond hair pulled back from her face. Pale, red rimmed eyes gave her a ghostly appearance. She reached for the man’s hand a few times during the service, but he seemed not to notice. He had done the same – a few times, but she either ignored him or didn’t see. Their timing was completely off. If these two were married, they were married in name only. Nothing about them said “together.”

I wondered what type of relationship they’d had with Cleopatra. As I watched, another man, big and burly, came around and pushed the wheelchair as they departed the cemetery. More interesting people to research later.

“So, you did come.” A man’s voice over my shoulder interrupted my observations.

I turned and stared into a face that had a familiarity about it, but I couldn’t put a name to it. He and I were the same height, which put us eye to eye, and it was those brown eyes that had all my attention. They literally burned with hatred. I don’t think I’d ever had anyone stare at me with such loathing – not even the good author, Roger Phillips. Whoever this guy was, he clearly had an issue with me.

“Yes, I came. And you are?”

“You don’t recognize me?” He smirked, contempt twisting his mouth. “Guess you wouldn’t, it’s been a while. I’m Russell, Cleopatra’s brother.”

I stepped back from him and took a hard look over the top of my sunglasses. The last time I saw Russell Gleason, he was nine or ten, his mother hauling him away by the scruff of his neck. Maybe ten years ago. He’d grown up to be nice looking, almost handsome, but he stood 5’10 at most. Compared to Cleopatra’s six plus feet, I expected him to be at least a few inches taller. He was also darker than his sister. If not for his eyes, I wouldn’t have thought them related at all. He had a military air about him – straight back, well built, short hair… and like I said, what would have been nice eyes if they weren’t glaring at me. Why does he have this big hate on for me?

“Sorry, Russell, I didn’t recognize you. And you’re right; it’s been a long time. How are you?”

“Let’s not pretend we care what the other’s been doing all this time. I want to know why you’re here.”

“Alright, let’s not pretend. I won’t pretend my reason for being here is any of your business. It was your sister’s funeral, it’s over, and now I’m leaving.” So much for being nice. Sometimes my temper had a mind of its own.

“You didn’t like my sister.”

“We didn’t like each other. We had that in common.” Clearly, our conversation was in no way going to improve. I prepared to make my exit. “It was… interesting… to see you.”

I turned away, but baby brother hadn’t finished. He stepped into my path. “Did you get a letter from Cleo’s lawyer?”

The aggressive tone made me pause in mid-stride, and I bit back the comment my mouth wanted to make. A hook hid in this bitterness. I decided not to take the bait. “I did. How did you know?”

“So how come you’re in her will?”

“No idea. I’d tell you to ask her, but you might have to wait a minute for an answer.” I stepped past him. “Me, I don’t have time for this conversation. I’ll see you at the reading.”

I walked away before he could respond. I’d have to get my dress repaired what with all the dagger holes in the back.