DEATH IN A BROWNSTONE by A.M. Offenwanger

Albert nearly hired a detective then,
to figure out if what she said
about her stepmother was true...
There’s always one thing in a man's life that he shudders to think of. If it hadn't been for Milo, this would have been mine.

Milo is the little brother of Albert Zwergmann—him and me went to grade school together—and he was a klutz from the time he was little. He’d trip over rocks, he’d trip over the end of the teeter-totter, he’d trip over other kids’ book satchels or their legs—even the ones that weren’t stuck out on purpose—and if, by a miracle, there weren’t any of those around, he’d trip over his own big feet. During his first grade, almost every other day Albert had to pick him up out of the dirt, dust him off, wipe his nose, and send him home to Mama.

Well, Mama Zwergmann ain’t around anymore, and Milo is no longer a little klutz on the playground. Matter of fact, he’s six feet two and has broader shoulders than even Rufus, who’s the biggest of all the Zwergmann brothers. But he’s still a klutz—except when he gets his hands on some precious stones. Then all of a sudden he’s the most skilled of the lot. For almost a dozen years now, he’s done all the original design work for the business, and Zwergmann’s Jewelers has become a byword for the rings, bracelets, and fancy cuff links they put on the market. 

Albert’s still the one who has to pick people up out of the dirt, though. That’s how they ended up with her—Whitney, I mean. She was their cousin. One day, Albert tells me, there she was, sitting on their front room sofa, looking like something the cat dragged in. They probably should have seen it coming, her stepmom being what she was—but that’s the Zwergmann boys all over: they know everything there is to know about diamonds and emeralds and stuff, but when it comes to women they’re clueless. That’s why not one of them was married—all seven of them still together in that brownstone on East Forty-Sixth Street, working the business and making a success of it, but just a bit pathetic, all the same.

So there she was, sitting in their front room, sniffling into her hankie, with the whole lot of them standing in a circle around her looking awkward. They didn’t really know what to do with her, Albert said; I can just picture him patting her shoulder and making soothing noises. After a while she stopped sniffling and put down her hankie. She noticed the thick layer of dust on the coffee table, drew her finger through it with a sniff of quite another kind, and Albert had an idea.

Whitney became their housekeeper. Her apple strudel was almost as good as Mama Zwergmann’s used to be, and that’s saying something.

Albert nearly hired a detective then, to figure out if what she said about her stepmother was true—attempted murder is a pretty serious accusation. But they only had Whitney’s word for it, so in the end frugality won out. After all, Nina Klasowsky, socialite and top fashion designer, had forgotten about the girl now. At least that’s what it looked like from the tabloid front pages, which showed the woman swanning about with her boy toy, that B-List actor Hunter Somebody-or-Other, spending her late husband’s money—her stepdaughter’s inheritance, really—like it was going out of style. 

So the Zwergmanns and Whitney lived quite happily together in that brownstone, the eight of them—until disaster struck.

“Roy, you g-gotta help us!” It was Milo on the phone, calling me up at my Uncle Mort’s funeral parlor, King’s Funeral Emporium. “We gotta keep her p-preserved, she’s so beautifu-ful…” He was crying, poor dope. When I finally got him calmed down enough to figure out what he wanted, frankly, I was appalled. They wanted me to embalm their cousin’s body so they wouldn’t have to bury her! 

But at King’s, the client is king, even if he’s a guy you’ve gone to grade school with and think is a few cards short of a deck. So I hoofed it over to the Zwergmann’s to see what I could do. Albert, whose eyes were all red from crying, took me upstairs where they had laid her out, with Milo falling up the stairs behind us, quietly sobbing to himself. 

When I saw her, I felt like someone had sucker-punched me in the gut. There she lay, in a long open glass display case that they had brought up from the store, with a little blue velvet pillow under her head. She was gorgeous. I’d say drop-dead gorgeous, but that would be in poor taste. And the thing is, she didn’t look dead. She looked like she was just sleeping, except for the little detail that her chest—such a shapely chest it was, too—wasn’t moving up and down with breathing at all. Believe me, I looked.

“Are you sure…” I turned to Albert.

“That she’s dead?” He pinched his lips together. “Oh yeah. Here, we got the death certificate.” He handed me a piece of white paper from the top of her bedside stand.

I unfolded it and skimmed the uncompromising lines. It was when I reached the doctor’s signature at the bottom that alarm bells started to go off in my head. Dr. Finkelsteiner. The man is eighty if he’s a day, and I swear he’s going deaf and blind. When I see his signature on a death certificate, I always double-check. Double- and triple-check. A mortician’s worst nightmare is to bury a living body.

I took the girl’s slender white wrist between my fingers and felt for a pulse. There was nothing. I couldn’t believe it. I tried the carotid artery, first the left and then the right—still nothing.

“Do you have a hand mirror?” I asked Albert. I knew I was grasping at straws, but I just didn’t want to buy it. The way she looked—so fresh and rosy, so beautiful—combined with Finkelsteiner being the one to sign the certificate…

Albert rummaged around on the girl’s dressing table. “Can’t see one,” he said.

“It’s down—downstairs,” Milo said. He turned around and walked out. A couple of seconds later there was an almighty crash as he fell down the stairs.

“Milo! Are you alright?” Albert ran out the door to check on him.

I leaned over the girl in the glass case, listening for a breath, looking for the slightest movement, anything. From just a few inches away, I stared at her sweet face, the thick black eyelashes fanned out on the rosy cheeks, the luscious blood-red lips…

And then I did something so unprofessional, if it ever got out, our funeral business would be finished.

I kissed her. 

I. Kissed. A. Corpse.

In my defense, she didn’t look like a corpse. She didn’t feel like one, either. She just felt like a sleeping girl—but a sleeping girl who had no breath or pulse. And who did not respond whatsoever. Nothing. Zilch.

I drew back with a shudder. What the hell had come over me? I had to concede it—she was dead. There was nothing more anyone could do for her. In a short while, she’d grow cold; not long after, she’d start to decay… 

I spun around and pulled open the bedroom door.

“Zwergmann!” I called. “Get up here!”

Albert came stumbling up the stairs.

“We’ll do this,” I said curtly. I could not let this most perfect of bodies go to the worms. I just couldn’t. “We’ll have to get her to the funeral parlor; I can’t do it here.”

“Alright,” Albert said in a thick voice. “We’ll bring her over—tomorrow?”

“Sure.” My eyes were on the girl in the glass box. “Look, Zwergmann, what the hell happened? The death certificate says ‘heart failure,’ but old Finkelsteiner puts that on every one of them.”

“We don’t know,” Albert said. “We got home from work, and she was just layin’ there on the floor, dead. We tried everything, but—” His voice caught on a sob.

I tripped over a half-eaten apple in the hallway on the way out. It was red and white, like her face—and just as dead. I gave it a vicious kick.

But I couldn’t get away from thinking about her. At the newsstand where I picked up my pack of smokes a headline screamed out at me, “Fashion Queen Dead in Penthouse Blaze!” and below that, “The fire that tragically took the life of Nina Klasowsky, head of Couture House Koenig, is suspected to have started in the designer’s shoe closet…” I didn’t bother reading any further. So Whitney’s stepmother was gone—a fat lot of good that did her now.

The next morning, I was ready long before the Zwergmanns got to the funeral parlor. I had my tools laid out and everything together, but I was still hoping it wouldn’t be true; that they’d call to cancel on account of, well, she wasn’t dead after all.

But no such luck. At nine o’clock sharp, a hearse drew up in front of the building, with the Zwergmann van right behind it. Albert climbed out of the hearse, and the other six spilled out of the van. I propped open the doors of the funeral parlor, and by then they had her out of the hearse and on their shoulders. In the glass display case. They had taken the legs off the case and put a lid on it, and it looked like nothing so much as a glass coffin.

Albert walked in front, his brothers, three to a side, carrying the box. Rufus and Milo brought up the rear, being the tallest, which raised the head end of the case so she was on full display. I could see her in that damned glass box, still looking like she was just asleep, so warm, so alive…

Milo tripped.

The glass case jerked; I could see the girl inside being jolted up and down.

Rufus stiffened and threw out his arm under the box, steadying Milo’s corner; Milo caught himself, straightened up and once again put his shoulder under the case.

The girl’s body in the box jolted again.

And again.

She was coughing!

The next few seconds were nothing but confusion. I sprang toward the case. The Zwergmanns realized something was up, stopped and stood befuddled for a moment; Albert turned around and stared at Whitney. “Down!” he yelled at his brothers, “put her down!” They started to lower the glass case, Milo lost his grip, and the case slipped out of his hand. His brothers made a grab to save it, but it dropped right through their fingers, hit the ground, and shattered into a thousand pieces.

The girl’s eyes flew open.

Milo dropped to his knees beside her, heedless of the glass shards on the ground, and reached out to help her up. He hit her in the side of the head instead.

“Oh, Milo!” She sat up and laughed, but the laugh turned into another cough, and she spat something into her  palm. A chunk of apple, the white flesh contrasting with the red streaks of its skin.

She looked up and her eyes met mine, shining with surprise and wonder.

I don’t remember much else that happened after that—it’s all a blur.

But here I am now, standing at the front of the church, waiting for them to bring her in. That’s right, all seven of them insisted on walking her down the aisle, and Milo being one of them, we know it’ll end in disaster. 

But seeing as his klutziness was what saved Whitney’s life and brought her into mine, I don’t think anyone could care less. 
Angelika is a writer, reader, blogger, and editor who has loved fairy tales and folklore from the time she was a little girl – so much so that when she was grown, she wrote a master’s thesis on them. Her favourite stories to read, write and study are those set in other worlds, whether that’s fantastical worlds full of magic, far-off places, or long-gone times. 
Follow her blog at www.amovitam.ca or on Twitter @amoffenwanger

Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff
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