Welcome, dear reader, to the lateral macrocosm through which our hero, Phineas Stiffs, often stumbles and occasionally strides, seeking truth, honesty, and the comely young woman whom he fervently hopes will be his true love … if she doesn’t kill him first.
Before we begin, first a note about Phineas’s hometown, Gravesend. I imagine it is rather like the place where you live, or someplace nearby, only with one significant difference in historical narrative. Phineas’s world is one in which, on a stormy afternoon in Philadelphia some time ago, lightning failed to strike Benjamin Franklin’s kite. It is where, in Menlo Park, New Jersey, Thomas Edison’s light bulb declined to glow. And in Boston, when Alexander Graham Bell said into his newly invented telephone, “Mr. Watson, come here,” his young assistant did not emerge from the adjoining room. In other words, dear reader, in Phineas’s world, the phenomenon which the English scientist William Gilbert first dubbed “electricus” has not yet been discovered.
1 THE BEAUTIFUL AND MYSTERIOUS STRANGER
“May I volunteer?”
Upon hearing those words, Phineas Stiffs, age 19, felt his heart grab like tires on rough asphalt. On that warm hazy spring day in the Gravesend Cemetery, with the yellow disc of the sun ashimmer through a film of brownish-yellow smog stretching to the horizon, Phineas gazed spellbound at the beautiful and mysterious dark-haired stranger who had just spoken to him. She was, without doubt, the loveliest living female he had ever seen, an enchantress with large green eyes and a French curled bob, wearing flowing low-cut ruffled indigo dress.
Phineas, who, despite his substantial athletic build, and own good looks, had always been painfully shy around the opposite sex, was so startled by her sudden appearance beside the polished bronze casket that for a moment he forgot what he’d asked volunteers for. “Uh, uh … ahem, uh, sorry ….?” He stammered.
“Didn’t you just ask if anyone could help carry this?” The young woman placed her hand on the polished casket, which protruded halfway out of the back of the funeral lorry.
Phineas now recalled that yes, he had indeed asked for assistance in removing from the back of the lorry the Stiff’s Everlasting Security Bronze “Forever Locked” Air-tight casket containing the late Ms. Hortense Peabody. Ms. Peabody, he recalled, had pre-purchased the casket on lay-away, thus guaranteeing that upon demise her body would remain safe and inviolate for all of eternity, or at least until earthworms became capable of operating acetylene torches.
“But you’re so pretty … uh, I mean, it’s so pretty … heavy… the casket, that is,” Phineas spluttered. By itself, the Everlasting Security Bronze weighed more than 200 pounds. With the addition of Ms. Peabody, who had anything but a pea-size body, it probably tipped the scales at 420.
The young woman in indigo crooked her milky white bare arm, displaying a firm bicep with a slight, though well-defined bulge. “I train regularly.”
“We can definitely use you right here, miss,” interrupted Phineas’s Cousin Rudy, pointing to the spot directly across the casket from where he was standing. The young woman stepped closer and clasped a casket handle firmly. Then, with the aid of a couple of burly funerary workers in dirt-stained coveralls, they hefted the casket out of the lorry and started up the weedy slope toward the gravesite.
Thus laboring, Phineas felt an unexpected flush of jealousy when he noticed that his cousin’s eyes were fixed, not on the goal of securing firm purchase on the scraggly sloping terrain ahead, but rather on the young woman’s extremely fetching décolletage.
No wonder Rudy was so eager to have her directly across the casket, Phineas thought, while he himself noted how her long slender throat reddened from the effort of lugging the heavy casket, and how the tendons were visible beneath the soft skin of her comely neck, displaying an enticing combination of delicacy and bewitching strength. The result was as dismaying as it was dizzying, for he had never before known a female to have such an effect on him.
Having made their way uphill to the gravesite, they lowered the casket on the straps of the descender, and the funerary workers returned to their shovels and diesel excavator on the periphery. Phineas and Rudy backed away to a respectable distance, and the beautiful young woman returned to the small group of mourners who had gathered to bid Hortense Peabody secure passage to her final resting place.
Reverend Walls, his white collar stiff and black gowns ruffling, stepped forth and began to rattle off the standard sermon: “We come here today with sorrow in our hearts and questions on our minds as to why these things…” the familiar words slipping through Phineas’s consciousness as automatically as a daily flag salute in class, or a mother’s admonition to dress warmly on a cold morning.
Instead, Phineas’s attention rested solely on that vision of indigo-clad loveliness across the gravesite, who now dabbed her cheeks with a small lace handkerchief. Finding it nearly impossible to take his eyes off her, Phineas felt himself grow uncomfortably warm under the hazy June sun. His own collar began to feel tight and he repeatedly chastised himself for staring. After all, she was one of the mourners, and while he’d never actually been told that staring at the bereaved was considered bad form, he couldn’t help but assume that it was. He felt ashamed of himself. Surely he should have had better self-control, no matter how comely she was.
“Never thought I’d see her again,” Rudy whispered beside him. The tailcoat Phineas’s cousin wore was wrinkled to the point of looking slept in. His eyes were bloodshot, and several days’ worth of stubble darkened those areas of his cheeks and chin not covered by his bushy hulihee.
The whispered words jolted Phineas out of his reverie. “What do you mean, ‘again?’?”
“She came to an old lady’s funeral last week, too. That one blew herself up in her kitchen. Gas leak.”
Phineas nodded solemnly. Such explosions were regretfully commonplace in a world dependent solely on natural gas or hydrocarbon jelly for cooking.
“Are you sure it was her?” Phineas asked.
“Definitely. Your father insisted that I accompany him for the disposition of the remains. After the mix-up with Mayor Del Guardia, he—”
“That’s not what I meant,” Phineas said and nodded at the lovely young woman. “I meant, are you sure it was she at the funeral last week?”
“Are you kidding?” Rudy whispered. “As if I would mistake such a heavenly goddess for anyone else? Tell me she doesn’t make your winkle wankle?”
At this juncture, dear reader, it is important to note that Cousin Rudy’s voice tends to carry. Around the gravesite, the handful of elderly mourners still in possession of some degree of hearing raised their heads with chastising scowls. And, while Phineas would probably not have selected “wankling winkle” to describe the affect the young woman had on him, he found himself unable to disagree with his cousin’s general sentiment.
At least, until Rudy nudged him with his elbow and nodded toward the tall sinister-looking fox-faced young man in the black sack suit and bowtie, polished top hat and dark glasses, lurking just behind the crowd.
2 THE VILLAIN
Had Phineas Stiffs been a quadruped of the species, canus lupus, the sight of Egon Von Titus Barr-Cadwell would have caused his fur to rise, his canines to be bared, and no doubt a low and ominous snarl to escape his throat. While Phineas was not one to garner mortal enemies, nor enemies of any sort for that matter, no one came closer to fitting that description than Von Titus Barr-Cadwell. Phineas’s distaste for the fellow carried back to the earliest levels of primary education at Gravesend Academy, which they’d both attended for a time. Several years and grade levels ahead of Phineas, Von Titus Barr-Cadwell had been a relentless bully of younger, smaller boys, as well as a cheat in both academics and sport. Perversely, in the rather mocking fashion that life often presents its ironies, these negative attributes had served the cad well in the years since. Though barely 22 years of age — and thanks in no small part to a substantial family inheritance of property and businesses — Von Titus Barr-Cadwell was now one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in all of Gravesend. But rather than be satisfied with such good fortune, his abundance of riches only fanned the flames of lust for more, compelling him to expand his business enterprises in multiple directions, including VTBC Cremations, a direct threat to the long-time family concern into which Phineas and Rudy had been born -- Stiffs & Sons Funeral Home.
“What’s he doing here?” Rudy whispered.
“Probably sizing up the competition,” Phineas whispered back, painfully aware that Egon Von Titus Barr-Cadwell wasn’t in the habit of merely sizing up the competition, but was nearly always inclined to confront it head on, as he apparently intended now, tromping noisily around the perimeter of mourners until he was face-to-face with the cousins Stiffs.
In addition to his sack suit, Von Titus Barr-Cadwell wore high black boots, and sported the sort of droopy moustache that Phineas associated with certain low breeds of mongrels. Only this particular mongrel smelled of cologne and tar, no doubt from the pomade he used to hold his black hair in a stiff pompadour beneath the top hat.
“So this is how you arrange your funerals, is it?” Von Titus Barr-Cadwell asked in a gruff haughty tenor loud enough to cause Reverend Walls to look up from his from his sermon with a frown, and to elicit shushes from the crowd. Von Titus Barr-Cadwell ignored them. “Frankly, I’m amazed you’ve got any business at all.”
“Really?” Phineas replied. “Then why, only a few years ago, were you so desirous of purchasing the company from us?”
“Because, as your ancestors clearly recognized, few corporate ventures are as steady and dependable as undertaking,” Von Titus Barr-Cadwell replied. “But I never had any enthusiasm for your company as you run it. I was merely interested in acquiring the name Stiffs & Sons and the good will that accompanied it. Frankly, this barbaric and antiquated practice of internment has no future, and we both know it.”
“You mean, where we actually honor the dead instead of simply incinerating them into a small heap of ashes?” Rudy asked while covering his mouth with his hand to stifle a yawn.
“You call this honoring them?” Von Titus Barr-Cadwell scoffed. “By starting the funeral half an hour late? By leading the procession through the Le Roadhouse Trundle-Thru on your way here?”
My apologies, dear reader, for yet another brief interruption. Up to now it would be understandable if you’ve felt inclined to regard Cousin Rudy as a somewhat unkempt and boorish lout. But I hasten to point out that he was also universally regarded as brilliant and vast repository of knowledge, some useful, much not. Unfortunately, despite, or perhaps, because of all the intellect he possessed, he could, at times, be entirely bereft of good sense and decorum, which doubtless explained why the funeral procession he’d led that very morning had arrived at the cemetery half an hour late, and why a number of the elderly attendees were either clutching Le Roadhouse gunny sacks, or slurping Le Slurries through straws while they paid their final respects to Miss Hortense Peabody. On any other day, such a sacrilegious detour in the proceedings probably would have rankled Phineas a good deal more than it did today; his being so captivated by the beautiful young woman in indigo as to have his regular sensibilities rendered nearly useless.
“For your information,” Rudy informed Von Titus Barr-Cadwell, “I was up late last night working on a remarkable new discovery. As a consequence I felt the need to make a quick stop for nutrition and caffination on way here.”
“And that’s what you call paying respect to the dead?” Von Titus Barr-Cadwell smirked condescendingly. “Eating that badly prepared slop?”
“On the contrary. You’ve apparently not sampled their Chutney Le Dagwood, which I personally find to be a deeply religious experience,” Rudy replied, then pointed at the elderly crowd of Le Roadhouse gunny sack clutchers, and Le Slurry slurpers. “I don’t see any them complaining, do you?”
Von Titus Barr-Cadwell crossed his arms and harrumphed. It was just then that the funeral service ended and the mourners slowly began to make their ways back down the slope to the diesel buggies and horse-drawn carriages that lined the cobblestone lane.
“Thunderation, will you look at that!” Rudy blurted. Down in the lane, the beautiful and mysterious young woman had opened the door of a bright red cabriolet roadster. Hiking up the dark indigo dress and copper-colored petticoat beneath, she bared her shapely calves just for an instant while swinging them under the dashboard.
“Quite the stunning roadster, is it not?” Von Titus Barr-Cadwell observed.
“I believe my cousin wasn’t referring to the vehicle,” Phineas said, “but to the exquisite female getting into it.”
Von Titus Barr-Cadwell puffed out his chest. “Ah, yes, that would be my betrothed, Miss Theodosia Boudreaux.”
3 OUR HERO
No sooner had Egon Von Titus Barr-Cadwell made his pronouncement that Phineas felt blasted by a consternation so deep it jarred the very marrow of his bones. No! It couldn’t be! Rarely had he heard more unwelcome words. How was it possible that anyone as alluring, as captivating as Miss Theodosia Boudreaux would agree to wed as vile and dastardly a cretin as Egon Von Titus Barr-Cadwell?
“Oh, so you intend to troth, do you?” said Rudy.
“Yes, this coming Wednesday, in fact.” Egon Von Titus Barr-Cadwell replied in his typically smug self-satisfied manner, then turned his noxious gaze on Phineas. “And speaking of intentions, young Mr. Stiffs, let it be known that I’m putting you on notice that as soon as I’ve got my marital affairs in order, my very next intention will be to bury both you and your funeral home in a hole so deep it will make that —” he jerked his thumb at the funerary workers scooping loose soil back into the grave — “look like a mere divot in a pall-mall court.”
The brief stillness that followed was suddenly broken by a loud Clank! coming from the cobblestone lane where the bright red cabriolet roadster had just backed into the bumper of the vehicle parked behind it. Von Titus Barr-Cadwell and the cousins Stiffs watched as Miss Theodosia Boudreaux got out of the roadster and began to speak to the owner of the other car.
Finally, Rudy spoke: “Rather ironic choice of phrases, wouldn’t you say?”
Egon Von Titus Barr-Cadwell frowned at him. “Sorry?”
“A moment ago you said you intended to bury a funeral home, which is sort of ironic, wouldn’t you agree?”
Egon Von Titus Barr-Cadwell scowled. “No,” he replied. And with that, the world’s only living heart donor arrogantly strode away.
“What could she possibly see in him?” Rudy wondered out loud. “I think I’d rather be betrothed to an arthropod.”
But Von Titus Barr-Cadwell’s final words were still ringing in Phineas’s ears. “He wants to bury us.”
“Doubly ironic, now that I think of it,” Rudy said brightly. “Not only does he mean to bury a funeral home, but you’d imagine that someone who owns a crematorium wouldn’t be thinking of burials at all. Shouldn’t he have threatened to incinerate Stiffs? Reduce it to smoke and ashes?”
Phineas knew better than to suggest that this was a moment his cousin might have chosen to take more seriously. In his uniquely literal way, Rudy was being serious. But when it came to keeping their family’s 200-year old mortuary business from being buried, incinerated, or, for that matter, merely annihilated by the ruthless and greedy Egon Von Titus Barr-Cadwell, Phineas knew the responsibility would fall, at least partly, and somewhat unfairly, on his shoulders. Once again he gazed in the direction of Miss Theodosia Boudreaux who had now gotten back into her red cabriolet and had started winding her way down the stone-lined lane. A profound sense of angst within Phineas caused a deep and poignant groan of dismay to issue from his lungs. She was so utterly lovely. How could she possibly want to marry Egon Von Titus Barr-Cadwell?
Please forgive another brief interruption, dear reader, while we consider the question of why Phineas felt it was unfair that he must bear some of the burden for keeping the family concern of Stiffs & Sons from being crushed under Egon Von Titus Barr-Cadwell well-polished boot heel. The reason is this – despite the long tradition into which he was born, Phineas had no desire to be an undertaker. He would much rather have spent his time training for the profession in which he someday aspired to be employed —that of a forensic investigator. Rather than prepare insensate protoplasm for that final, and most permanent of addresses, he much preferred the challenge of winnowing down the possible causes of death when considered suspicious or, at least, not immediately obvious.
To that end, at the age of fifteen Phineas abandoned the liberal arts education offered by Gravesend Academy and chose instead to attend the Venenum Institute of Forensics. This required him to board many hundreds of miles from home for much of each calendar year. However, being a dutiful son (and no doubt suffering some degree of guilt over his deviation from the Stiff family norm), he returned for a few months each summer to help in the business.
And now let us return to our story. The internment of the late Ms. Hortense Peabody completed, Phineas and Rudy made their way down the weedy slope toward the funeral lorry. The gradually warming summer air was heavy with noxious odor, soot and humidity, the hazy sky becoming a light brownish blue. In the distance the tall smokestacks of Gravesend belched dark gray smoke as the daily commerce of the city churned. Closer by, a slightly lighter shade of fume rose from the chimney of the Le Roadhouse, located a few hundred yards from the entrance to the cemetery. The sight of the drive-in saloon had the unwelcome effect of prying Phineas out of a reverie in which he was heroically saving Miss Theodosia Boudreaux from the evil clutches of Von Titus Barr-Cadwell.
“He was right about one thing,” Phineas said to his cousin. “This could be the first time in Stiffs history that a funeral ran late because the procession detoured through the Le Roadhouse quaff and go.”
“Perhaps we should go into a partnership,” Rudy replied, plucking a crooked, half-smoked cheroot from the pocket of his waistcoat and lighting it. “Stiffs & Sons Le Roadhouse Mortuary. Billions and billions buried.”
A response to this quip was neither expected nor warranted. Arriving at the funeral lorry, the cousins placed Phineas’s velocipede— which he ridden from his funeral home to the cemetery while Rudy led the procession — on the flat bed where the casket had previously lain. Going around to the front of the wagon, Phineas paused to study several long and unsightly scrapes in the black paint along the right front fender. “When did this happen?”
Rudy glanced at the fender, then cleared his throat. “Uh, er … probably last night.”
Phineas frowned. “I thought you said you worked late in the lab.”
Rudy took a drag on the cheroot and rubbed his palm against his gristled jaw. “Around three I went out to meet a friend. The Serpollet’s been in the shop for a month, so I took the lorry instead.”
What sort of friend does one go out to meet at three in the morning? Phineas wondered, then decided he’d rather not know. “The shop’s had Serpollet for a month and it’s still not fixed?”
“No, they fixed it in two days.” Rudy exhaled bluish smoke. “But they won’t give it back until I pay them.”
“It needed that much work?” Phineas asked, alarmed. His recollection was that his cousin’s vehicle was a dented, rattling, enfeebled contraption well into the process of succumbing to age, copious rust, and spectacular neglect. The sort of conveyance one would be much wiser relegating to the junk heap than spending cash to repair.
Rudy coughed into his fist. “Ahem … uh, no, it didn’t need that much work, but I’ve been a little short in the currency department.”
This was not unusual. Though by no means a spendthrift, Rudy had never much taken to the notion of financial husbandry. To him, money had no value other than being a tool for the accomplishment of whatever scientific whim came to mind. But the family had always made allowances for such eccentricities. Stiffs & Sons might not have been a cash cow, but it had always been capable of providing a fairly consistent stream of revenue for those who depended on it.
“Why not ask my father for a loan until your next paycheck?” Phineas suggested.
With uncharacteristic recalcitrance, Rudy said, “Well, you see, Finny, the business hasn’t been quite… uh …. You’ve been away and no one wanted you to worry.”
The implication came as a shock. “You haven’t been paid?” Phineas deduced.
“Your father says it’s just temporary. A bit of belt-tightening while he sorts matters out.”
“Well, you know … the fallout from the mix-up.”
“I thought that had been sorted out,” Phineas said.
Rudy slid his eyes away. “You’d better talk to Seymour.”
Yes, Phineas thought. It appears that I’d better. He’d had no idea that the situation at Stiffs & Sons had deteriorated to the point where various members of the family were being forced to forego a salary. One thing was certain. If Rudy was going without pay, then Phineas’s father, Seymour, was, too.
Rudy gestured to the scratches on the lorry’s fender. "And don’t worry about these. I’ll get some paint and touch them up.”
But studying the funeral lorry more closely, Phineas now noticed other scrapes and even some rust spots. These, in addition to several splotchy gray sun-faded patches on roof and hood, were to him yet more signs that his father had let the affairs of Stiffs & Sons slip while he (Phineas) had been away at the Venenum Institute of Forensics. “Don’t bother, Rudy,” he said. “The whole wagon needs to be repainted. I’ll talk to Dad about it.”
Together, the cousins bent down at the front of the lorry and took hold of the two-man crank. “Three, two, one,” Phineas counted down and they both applied muscle to metal, turning the crank the two complete rotations necessary to start the diesel engine rumbling.
They climbed into the lorry, the spongy springs jiggling and jouncing. The driver’s compartment stank of diesel and cheroot smoke. Phineas swept a crumpled Le Roadhouse gunny sack off the cracked leather passenger seat and glanced over at his cousin. “By the way, you’ve got chutney on your lapel.”
Rudy licked his palm and wiped the spot, leaving a shiny glaze on the fabric. “You realize, Finny, that if I can find a way to capture kinetic efflux, not only will we be as rich as sultans, but there might never again have to be a case of anyone blowing themselves up in kitchens or crematoriums.”
“Hmmm…” Phineas acknowledged the comment without actually processing it; he’d begun to drive, and his thoughts were once again away, this time wondering why his father hadn’t told him sooner about the apparently precarious state of finances at Stiffs. Was it because he, Phineas, had already made it clear that he would leave the business as soon as he finished his forensic investigator studies, and therefore his father saw no point in burdening him with problems that were not destined to be his? Or was it that his father was simply too ashamed to admit that after 200 years of success, he had let things slip to such a low point?
“Thunderation!” Rudy’s exclamation snapped Phineas out of his thoughts. They were stopped at an intersection, a white-gloved traffic master in a blue and red uniform standing on a round platform directing the flow of vehicles. Inching across the intersection in traffic was Miss Theodosia Boudreaux in her shiny red roadster. The instant he saw her, Phineas felt his emotions begin to convulse hotly under his skin.
Rudy groaned dramatically. “What an angel! And I think she must be swimming in it, too.”
To Phineas, the lovely Miss Boudreaux’s cabriolet appeared to be an older model, but the very fact that some filtered sunlight glinted off the metal and glass meant it was well-cared for. “Because she’s got nice clothes and drives an old roadster?” he asked uncertainly.
“Not old, Finny. Classic. That’s a Sutton Wraith. And restored like that? Must’ve cost a fortune.”
The cousins watched the roadster creep through the intersection, squeezed in among the lorries, unicycles, Serpollets, velocipedes, and other modes of transport. Miss Boudreaux sat in profile, her face partly obscured by driving goggles, her dark hair protected beneath a scarf, leaving only faintly rouged cheekbones, celestial nose and red lips visible. Phineas felt his heart plummet into a mire of angst when he saw -- even at that distance -- the enormous diamond engagement ring on her left finger, now wrapped around the polished wooden steering wheel.
Why, oh why, dear reader, does she have to be affianced to another man? Just look at her unflustered patience in the traffic amid the tooting of horns and clang of car bells. Witness how, even when a petulant half-track driver intentionally tries to cut her off, Miss Boudreaux responds with a tight and determined smile, and inches forward to hold her spot. From a place deep within that he had not visited in many a year, if ever, Phineas felt a profoundly infatuated and disconcerted longing. He was a great deal more than mildly intrigued by her. He was wildly, helplessly captivated.
Stiffs & Sons was located on a quiet, conduit-lined cobble-stone street. The funeral home was a shambling wooden three-story structure which was not only more 200 years old, but -- Phineas realized as he and Rudy approached in the funeral lorry – very much looked it. The conical spires and gabled dormers were a grimy gray, the building having long ago surrendered its straw-colored exterior to the ever encroaching airborne soot that rose from Gravesend’s coal-generated steam plants. Phineas wasn’t sure that a funeral home should be brightly painted and inviting, but shouldn’t it at least appear neat and well-kept?
Claiming he had errands to run, Rudy dropped Phineas off and drove away in the lorry. Phineas let himself into the mortuary through the rear door. Inside, the walls were covered with faded floral wallpaper, in some spots buckling and peeling, in others stained from ancient water leaks. The iron wood-burning stoves had reddish-brown rust streaks along the edges, and the glass in some of the older windows was either cracked or wavy or both. As Phineas took in these imperfections, he wondered why he’d never noticed the creeping dilapidation before. It struck him that the last time any major improvements had been made to the building was when the lighting had been switched over from candle to gas, sometime before he was born.
Phineas climbed the dark creaking stairs to the business suite on the second floor. As customary when he wanted to enter his father’s office, he knocked twice, waited a beat, and then pushed open the door. When he knocked today, he thought he heard what sounded like a drawer being hastily slid open and banged shut as if something was quickly being hidden. Indeed, upon entering the office, Phineas observed the pronghorn-in-the-headlights expression on his father’s usually taciturn face, followed by a very obvious attempt to appear as though nothing out of the ordinary had just transpired. Phineas could not help but wonder what his father would have felt needed hiding in his desk.
But such deliberation did not last long, as it was quickly replaced by the sensation of shock as Phineas surveyed the disarray that surrounded him. What had once been a model of tidy organization was now an absolute mess, the desk almost invisible beneath a mountain of papers, and cabinet drawers half–open with folders protruding. Still more piles of paper and periodicals were stacked on the floor.
Behind that disturbingly cluttered desk, Seymour Stiffs straightened the ruby tie pin in his maroon cravat, but the nervously self-conscious attempt to neaten his appearance fell short. Strands of thinning hair fell in wayward directions over his ears and temples, and stuck to his moustache was a small yellow morsel of dried food. Furthermore, the dark shadow over the lower half of his face made it apparent that he had neglected to shave that morning. “So my boy,” he exclaimed with forced cheerfulness, “how’s it feel to be back in the old routine?”
“Okay, I guess,” Phineas replied carefully while easing his large frame into a creaky leather chair. To be honest, the only thing that felt “okay” about “the old routine” was that a year from now he would have his forensic investigator’s license and be able to walk away from the mortuary business for good. Though, dear reader, let it be understood that it was not without innumerable hours of painful deliberation, as well as a great deal of angst and guilt, that he had come to this decision. Still, Phineas’s mind was made up. To that end, he’d already decided not to mention that the morning’s internment had run half an hour late thanks to Rudy’s last-minute detour through the Le Roadhouse quaff-and-go. After all, the deceased Ms. Hortense Peabody was in no position to complain about a little tardiness.
In a feeble attempt at order, Seymour Stiffs gathered some of the disorganized papers from the desktop and began to shuffle them. “You’re just back from the Bilderback burial? Blew herself up in her kitchen?”
“I think that was last week. Today it was Hortense Peabody.”
“Oh, right, right. The one with the blue fingernails.”
“Blue fingernails?” Phineas repeated.
“Yes, gave me a moment’s pause, too,” said his father, setting the pile of papers back down in a slightly more straightened state of disorganization. “Possible cyanide poisoning and all that. Thought for a moment about alerting the constable, but then it occurred to me that blue fingernails are also a sign of pulmonary embolism, cardiac tamponade, or polycythermia vera. Anyway, thank God for our pre-paid little old ladies, eh, Finny? They’ve been going like clockwork lately, about one a week. I’m not sure we’d be able to keep the good ship Stiffs & Sons afloat without them. Floating on a sea of corpses. Not a very fetching image is it? No, I think not, ha ha!”
Phineas sensed that his father’s tight smile and forced joviality over the regularity of these deaths masked some deeper distress. “Dad, Rudy said he hasn’t been paid in a while. He can’t afford to get his Serpollet out of the garage.”
Seymour’s face emptied. “Just a hiccup. That’s all, Finny. Nothing to worry about. We all get them now and then. Just a hiccup.”
“A hiccup or the mix-up?” Phineas asked.
Seymour looked down at his desk, and it seemed to Phineas that the lines in his father’s face deepened as though he was aging right before his son’s 11eyes. With slumped shoulders Seymour once again began to sort through the jumble of papers on his desk, as if unable to meet his son’s gaze.
At this juncture, dear reader, you may be wondering about the tragic event of just a few months earlier – every mortician’s worst nightmare, now immortalized in Stiffs family history as the mix up — in which the body of Moses del Guardia, a much-loved prominent citizen and former mayor of Gravesend was accidentally mixed up with the remains of Theodore “Topcoat” Tompkins, an equally well-known citizen, though singularly infamous for his penchant of going about town wearing nothing but a dirty old trench coat, which he would fling open wherever and whenever impulse, or the call of nature, prompted.
To the enormous dismay of the Stiffs family, the incident garnered a full week of front-page-headline attention in the Gravesend Inquisitor, the local newspaper owned by none other than Egon Von Titus Barr-Cadwell. Sadly, the family’s protests that the disproportionate amount of negative publicity was entirely self-serving, given the newspaper publisher’s own entry into the business of undertaking, went completely unheeded.
Watching Seymour sort and resort the jumble of papers on his desk without making any apparent headway, Phineas felt the mixture of anxiety and sadness that any son would feel when witnessing a long-admired father in a state of self-doubt and duress. For so much of Phineas’s life, Seymour had been the Stiff family cornerstone, a pillar of stability – always thorough, measured, consistent, and thoughtful. Now seeming harried and scattered, his father pulled a piece of vellum from the pile and placed it in front of Phineas. The letterhead said Mortuary Licensing Board in large black type.
Phineas read through the letter, which demanded that his father appear before the board for a hearing about the mix up, and further stated that unless Seymour could explain how the unfortunate incident had occurred, and demonstrate that provisions had been made to prevent such a mistake from reoccurring, the Mortuary Licensing Board would have no choice but to consider a suspension or even revocation of Seymour’s mortuary license.
Stunned both by the severity of the warning, and what it implied for the future of Stiffs & Sons, Phineas looked into his father’s darkly ringed eyes. “Suspension or even revocation?”
“How can they expect me to explain something that I myself still can’t comprehend?” Seymour sounded agonized as he leaned forward and planted his elbows on the desktop. “The bodies were tagged, Finny. You know that. Tagged about the big toe precisely to prevent such mix ups. How am I supposed to demonstrate that I’ve taken action to correct a situation that makes no sense to me? No sense at all?”
When Seymour lowered his face into his hands, Phineas felt both profound worry and ire rise from within. Worry because he had never before seen his father exhibit such uncertainty and befuddlement. And ire because here was a man who’d sacrificed, slaved, and suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune on a scale few others could comprehend, beginning with the betrayal brought forth by his very own son. For, while Seymour had voiced approval when his son first announced that he would not follow tradition and enter the family mortuary business, Phineas could not help but suspect that deep inside his father felt a near-mortal wound. Then while still trying to cope with that calamity, came one even worse, when Seymour’s brother Fillmore — Rudy’s father and Phineas’s uncle — inadvertently blew himself up while trying to build a crematorium of his own to compete with Von Titus Barr-Cadwell’s entry into the funerary field. And still, dear reader, the catastrophes did not end. The third and most recent tragedy had come just this past month when, while attending the Venenum Institute of Forensics, Phineas had received a missive from his mother, Sophronia, declaring that she was leaving Seymour for a used roadster salesman named Clearance.
Merited or not, Seymour Stiffs blamed himself for all these tragedies. To Phineas’s father, his son’s decision not to continue the family tradition clearly reflected a failure in his own ability to raise the boy correctly. Likewise, Fillmore’s explosive end might have been averted if Seymour had been more assertive in his belief in the hallowed tradition of entombment versus quick and ashy disposal by cremation. Finally, Sophronia’s decision to take up with another man was an obvious indication of Seymour’s own failure as a husband.
Across the desk from Phineas, Seymour lifted his anguished face from his hands. “It’s good of you to be concerned about Rudy’s Serpollet, Finny. Paying salaries wouldn’t have been a problem except that I’ve had to hire a very expensive barrister to represent me to the Mortuary Board in an attempt to explain the inexplicable. But I promise you, dear boy, that I’ll repay Rudy just as soon as —” he let out a long, despondent sigh – “just as soon as a few more people die.”
Feeling both concern and apprehension, Phineas watched his father stare down woefully at the scattered papers on his desk. It seemed as if Seymour might even break down in tears. Phineas had never seen his father brought so low. Wracking his brain for some way to extricate Seymour from his gloom, Phineas was surprised to find the image of the beautiful Miss Theodosia Boudreaux appear in his thoughts. Somewhat impulsively, he announced, “I… I have some good news.”
His father looked up and scowled.
“There’s … a young woman,” Phineas said.
Seymour Stiffs’ bushy eyebrows rose, and he actually managed a slight smile. “A young woman? Ah, wonderful! That is… unless.” He gave his son a wary look. “That is … she isn’t in a family way, is she?”
“No, Dad,” Phineas assured him. “Well, I don’t believe she is. Certainly not by me. Anyway, she’s absolutely lovely and beautiful, and I …. I have to admit that I’m suddenly altogether smitten.”
Phineas nearly blurted out that there was just one small problem -- well, actually, not so small at all – that the lovely young woman in question was betrothed to Egon Von Titus Barr-Cadwell. But he managed to catch himself. After all, sharing that with his father wouldn’t do anything to lighten his mood.
The smile on his father’s lips grew slightly broader as Seymour gave him a bemused and quizzical look. “Did you say altogether smitten?”
Phineas nodded. He had said that, hadn’t he? Although, until the words left his lips he himself hadn’t realized that he was as committed to the emotion as he now found he was.
“Uh, yes, I did,” Phineas replied, wondering if he wasn’t being a tad impetuous. After all, he and the beautiful Miss Theodosia Boudreaux had merely exchanged a few words. And what he did know — that she was betrothed to that sub-human warthog Von Titus Barr-Caldwell — hardly spoke well of her. And yet. And yet! There was something undeniably alluring about her. And it wasn’t just her physical beauty. It was something more …. Something magnetic and enchanting about her poise and gracefulness. Having never before experienced anything like what he was currently feeling, Phineas wasn’t certain how to put it into words.
Once again his father leaned his elbows on his desk, only this time with considerably more animation than before. Instead of using his hands to hide his face, he entwined his fingers as if in prayer. “Phineas, I’m very glad you’ve told me that. As you might imagine, the recent, er, setbacks here at Stiffs and Sons have caused me to do some very deep reflection. For the first time in my life I feel like I’ve taken a long and hard look at myself and have seen with painful clarity the man who looks back. You know, Phineas, when I was your age, I was just like you. Feeling trapped by the familial obligations I’d been born into, yet yearning to take flight in another direction. I wanted to be an adventurer. I may have spent my days preparing the dead for their final resting places, and my nights reading the Principals and Practices of Embalming, but in my dreams I was trekking through jungles, soaring into the sky, and plumbing the depths of the Earth. I was out in the world, exploring all that lived and breathed, not here in this prison of necrosis.”
His father must have seen the wonder on Phineas’s face, for he went on, “Ah, surprised, are you? Of course! I brought you up to think this was all there’d ever be.” Seymour spread his arms as if to take in the entire funeral home. “Just as I was brought up to believe that by my own father. After all, what’s the worst thing you can do to an undertaker? Give him a taste of life, that’s what! It’s as bad as offering alcohol to a dipsomaniac, it is! We’re taught to dress in black and stay out of sight. To keep to the shadows, never daring to show ourselves until there’s dirty work to be done. Otherwise, no one wants to associate with us. Well, I say, the hell with that!”
With a maniacal look in his eyes and some actual color in his cheeks, Seymour Stiffs banged his fist down on a pile of errant papers, sending a few cascading to the floor. Phineas didn’t know how to react. He’d never seen his father display such outlandish behavior before. Meanwhile Seymour leaned even closer to his son, his eyes suddenly wild. “Here is what I’ve finally come to understand, dear boy. It goes by fast. This brief state of animate existence between womb and tomb. It races past in the blink of an eye. Life is but a mere flicker of precious light in an otherwise eternal night. Want a word of advice, my boy? Don’t pussyfoot! Whatever is in your heart and mind, pursue without hesitation! Don’t make the mistake I made! Investigate don’t ruminate. Follow don’t wallow. Live and love while you have the time!”
5 THE LOVES OF YOUNG PHINEAS STIFFS (An exhaustive and yet depressingly brief history)
Dear reader, at this point it will probably come as no surprise that despite an abundance of attractive features, both physical and personality-wise, Phineas’s relations with the opposite sex had been neither numerous nor particularly successful. In part this has been the result of his innate shyness, but it was also the result of several pubescent incidents of emotional scarring caused when – after gargantuan effort to work up the nerve to chat with a young woman – the question of his last name arose … leading to the inevitable inquiry, “not one of those Stiffs, are you?” At which point Phineas would feel morally obligated to confess that yes, he was one of those Stiffs. The result was almost always immediate catastrophic rejection, as no 13- or 14-year-old female could cope with the idea of her friends knowing she was interested in a boy whose family “did things” with dead bodies, and who, if further pressed, would have had to admit that he himself had participated in such behavior to the point where – “eeeew!” – he had actually touched a dead body (quite a few if the truth were to be entirely known).
Having been thus scarred, Phineas had even tried lying once, and had been quite painfully humiliated when the young woman learned the truth from another source. And hence he’d come to the demoralized conclusion that no matter what he did or said, sooner or later they would always find out that he was one of those Stiffs, and automatically reject him.
But now something had quite possibly changed. For perhaps the first time in his life, Phineas had reason to believe that this might not be the case with Miss Theodosia Boudreaux. After all, was she not betrothed to someone who owned a crematorium? Would this not impute a certain acceptance for his line of work?
To his mind, even under the influence of infatuated hope, this made sense.
There remained just that one small hitch. Come next Wednesday, Miss Theodosia Boudreaux, whom he didn’t know at all, evidently planned to marry someone else.
Phineas left the mortuary office feeling unsettled. Despite the apparently precarious state of his father’s mental health, Phineas had never heard Seymour speak with such passion on the subjects of life and love. He honestly had no idea what to make of it. Were Seymour’s pronouncements born of the wisdom and clarity that one might imagine resulted from the reflections of a life mostly spent? Or were they merely the blather of one who feels one’s life crumbling down around him?
And while he (Phineas) may have managed, at least temporarily, to lift his father’s spirits, serious challenges still remained: the looming hearing before the Mortuary Licensing Board, the growing threat to Stiffs & Sons by Von Titus Barr-Cadwell’s crematorium, and his (Phineas’s) own coming abdication of the family business reins. It was difficult to imagine, given his father’s current emotional state, that he (Seymour) could manage any of it, much less all of it.
In spite Phineas’s intention to one day pursue a different occupation, it none-the-less rankled him to think that the enterprise known for so many generations as Stiff’s & Sons Mortuary Service might come to an ignominious end under his and his father’s watch, thereby implying an epic failure on their part. Not only would that be yet another devastating blow to his father’s clearly precarious self-esteem, but it would leave his cousin Rudy and his widowed aunt, Minnie, without any means of financial support.
Speaking of Minnie Stiffs, Phineas was letting himself out the rear entrance of the funeral home when he discovered the flower lorry backed into the loading dock, and Rudy’s mother trying to wrestle a large heart-shaped floral arrangement out of the back.
“Wait a minute, Minnie, I’ll help you.”
“Oh, thank you, Finny, you’re such a dear,” said Minnie, who was delicate and slight of stature, and whose disposition had been sorely tested in recent years by the untimely detonation of her husband, Fillmore, Phineas’s uncle, as well as the often aggravating guardianship of her capricious genius of a son, Rudy.
Phineas carried the wreath inside. As befitted a family business, everyone pitched in. Minnie was the office manager, as well as being in charge of floral arrangements and burial monuments.
“Is Rudy here?” she asked once Phineas had placed the wreath in the viewing room.
“He said he had an errand in town,” Phineas replied.
“Oh, dear. Did he say what sort of errand?” Minnie asked hopefully, revealing the anxiety they all felt whenever Rudy’s presence could not be accounted for. As was her habit when she was worried about her son, Minnie twisted an embroidered hanky around her fingers. At this point, the hanky was little more than a small, shredded rag.
Phineas made a helpless gesture. It was useless to wonder where Rudy could have gone. After all, it was Rudy. He could have gone anywhere.
Minnie let out a weary sigh. “He’s been going on and on about this … this new fascination of his.”
“I haven’t the foggiest notion of what he’s talking about,” Minnie said. “Then again, I hardly ever understand what he’s talking about. And it hardly seems to matter, because he jumps so quickly from one … one …”
“Yes, to another. But this time it’s worse. I keep waiting for it to go away, but he seems stuck. Tell me, Finny, do you have any idea what these… these….”
“Kinetic effluxes are?” Phineas shook his head. “I’m afraid I don’t have a clue.”
“He was just impossible last winter,” Minnie said. “Every time I ran into him he’d rub his shoes on the carpet and then want me to touch him. And if I did I’d get this terribly painful spark. It was really quite uncomfortable, Finny. I got to the point where I found myself avoiding my own son.”
“Well, like you said, he does go through these passions.” Phineas tried to sound reassuring. “I’m sure this one will pass just like all the rest.”
“I do hope so, Finny. I worry about him constantly. I always used to wonder why he couldn’t have been a sensible, responsible young man like you. And now that you don’t want to continue with the family business, I can’t imagine what will happen to him, and me, and all of this.” She gestured around the viewing room.
“Well, you know, Minnie, after Fillmore blew himself up, my father promised that he’d always keep an eye on Rudy.”
“Yes, but your father isn’t … and he won’t …”
“He isn’t the same, is he?” Phineas acknowledged. “And even if he was, he won’t always be here.”
Minnie nodded and looked away as if unable to meet his gaze. “I’m sorry, Finny. I know I shouldn’t dwell on things like this, especially since you won’t be part of the business much longer. But with Rudy the way he is, I can’t help myself sometimes. What is he going to do when your father’s no longer with us and you’re off being a forensic investigator?”
Despite his own profound concerns about the future of the family enterprise, Phineas endeavored to reassure her. “There’s no reason why Stiffs can’t continue just as it always has, Minnie, except we’ll hire someone from the outside to run it.”
“And what do you think will happen when that person realizes that Rudy is ….”
Minnie nodded and twisted her embroidered hanky.
Eager to relieve his aunt of at least a little of her maternal stress, Phineas stated with all the certainty he could muster, “When that day comes, I’ll make sure it’s written into the contract that Rudy will stay on the payroll no matter what.”
“But what if there is no payroll?” Minnie asked. “What if Von Titus Barr-Caldwell and his crematorium…”
“Take away Stiffs’ business?” Phineas guessed. “Minnie, Stiffs has been around for two hundred years. We have a very loyal following. Even after the mix up, people still trust their loved ones to us. I firmly believe that in one way or another, this business will survive.”
In Phineas’s previous experience, this degree of reassurance was usually enough to make his aunt smile and thank him for making her feel better. But today she merely pursed her lips, hung her head, and turned away.
7 RUDY, WHERE ART THOU?
A few hours later, Phineas found himself pressed into a shadowy doorway, his heart thrumming with anticipation like some skulking holdup artist waiting to pounce on an innocent mark. But Phineas’s case, the only thing he wanted to steal was a glimpse of Miss Theodosia Boudreaux as she passed. He had come to town in search of Rudy, who had not returned from whatever errand he’d said he had to run earlier. And it was just now, while seeking his cousin, that Phineas had spotted Miss Boudreaux coming down the sloping promenade, pushing an elderly matron in a wheeled chair.
A drop of water splattered on the toe of his boot. Phineas looked up and saw that it had dripped from a dark tendril of grime hanging from the keystone of the arched doorway. He couldn’t say precisely why he’d chosen to secret himself here in the damp shadows, rather than continue his search for Rudy. Surely it was not in his nature to sneak around and surreptitiously spy on attractive young women, and yet Miss Boudreaux clearly possessed the power to make him to act in quite unnatural ways.
Pressing his cheek against the cool stone of the doorway, Phineas peeked out. A dozen yards away, Miss Boudreaux looked resplendent in a dark maroon dress with lace sleeves and gold trim as she navigated the aged dowager along the sloping sidewalk. Phineas held his breath and felt his heart accelerate. He backed deeper into the shadows, praying that neither lady would notice him furtively gazing with unabashed yearning upon the younger of the two. Meanwhile, the pair approached, close enough now for Phineas to overhear the older woman regaling the younger with a story about a long ago voyage the ocean-going liner, Queen Cassiopeia, with someone whose name sounded, oddly, like Clearance.
Even in the filmy sunlight of a typical Gravesend afternoon, it was difficult not to notice the numerous twinkling rings on the woman’s fingers, as well as the heavy glimmering necklace draped low around her neck. With a start, Phineas realized that the lady in question wasn’t just any elderly matron, but the dowager Philippa de Worthington, richest woman in the territory.
“What a charmer he was,” Philippa de Worthington declared ruefully. “What a romantic! What an absolute cad!”
The younger and older ladies burst into conspiratorial cackles. Unfortunately, at that moment Miss Boudreaux also chose to clasp her hands in mirth, thus unintentionally letting go of the wheel chair, which at once began to roll away on its own down the sloping pavement. For an instant, Phineas was forced to debate whether to do the right thing for Miss Boudreaux – which would be to step out of his hiding place and stop the wayward conveyance. Or do the wrong thing for himself -- which would be to step out of his hiding place, stop the wayward conveyance, and reveal the fact that he’d been close by, spying.
But fortunately, before it could gain momentum, the wheeled chair thumped into a carriage stone and came to a halt. Miss Boudreaux caught up an instant later and both ladies shared yet another laugh, though this time one of relief that Philippa de Worthington had not just hurled unchaperoned down the hill and into the busy intersection beyond.
His heart still pumping from that moment of excitement, as well as from Miss Boudreaux’s close proximity, Phineas waited until the pair had passed, then craned his neck around the doorway to see where they were headed. Just a dozen steps down the block, the two stopped in front of an imposing structure of dark stone and gold flake called The Camelot. Two workmen were busy polishing the brass hardware and scrubbing soot from the stone exterior, the sort of labor performed only at the most opulent of facilities for the elderly and infirm. Phineas watched as Miss Boudreaux kissed her elderly companion on both cheeks, then handed her off to a white-uniformed attendant and continued on.
As if unable to exert any will power to the contrary, Phineas found himself following, suddenly loathe to allow this enthralling creature out of his sight. But he was driven by more than just attraction. He was desperate to learn more about her, to find the answer to how someone so lovely could allow herself to fall into the heinous claws of Egon Von Titus Barr-Caldwell. In that proposed union, a grievous mistake was being made, but Phineas wasn’t sure by whom. Was Miss Boudreaux mistaken in her regard for Caldwell, or was he, Phineas, mistaken in his regard for her? Was he so blinded by her beauty and apparent charm and grace that he couldn’t divine some glaringly obvious (to objective observers, at least) flaw that made her a suitable match for that despicable cur?
Now unslowed by the obligation of steering the wheeled chair, Miss Boudreaux began to stride with purpose down the sidewalk past blackened, grimy buildings, as if she were late for an appointment. Following a few dozen yards behind, Phineas could not help noticing how her thin, shapely ankles swished beneath the hem of the dark maroon dress when she walked, nor the trail of sweetly scented perfume that wafted behind. Everything about her was so tantalizing, so intoxicating, that he began to feel a dizzy sensation that made it difficult to concentrate.
On the next block, Miss Boudreaux made a left around a corner and vanished from sight. Concerned that he might lose the trail, Phineas quickened his step, but when he turned the corner there was no sign of her. Phineas stopped and stared up and down the thoroughfare, eager to catch a glimpse of her somewhere on the promenade. But there was no Theodosia Boudreaux to be seen.
Phineas was in the midst of feeling an unexpectedly profound sense of disappointment when he realized he was standing in front of a showplace called the Lux, which billed itself as the premiere bawdy house in all of Gravesend. Looking up at the brightly lit and gaudily decorated marquee, Phineas found himself studying the bold advertising for the scantily clad female performers who plied their scandalous trade within. A startling and deeply distressing thought came to him: Had the demur and apparently chaste Miss Boudreaux gone into … this bawdy house?
After quickly perusing the display windows advertising the garishly painted faces and skimpily-clad torsos of the entertainers within, a brief moment of relief flooded through Phineas. He had not identified Miss Boudreaux’s visage among those displayed. But still, could there be any other explanation for why she’d so abruptly disappeared from sight? Once again, a chill swept through him as he reminded himself that he barely knew her. Could he have been this badly mistaken about her?
There was only one way to find out.
His face flushed and hot with embarrassment, Phineas stepped up to the ticket booth and paid for admission. He’d never been inside a bawdy house before and dreaded the thought of being recognized. Going through the glass doors he found himself in a dark, smoky lobby. Cheering, hooting, and the sound of sultry music oozed through the thick maroon curtains that puddled on the opposite side of the lobby. Lining the walls were more framed broad sheets of gaudily painted, women in various stages of undress. Thankfully, Miss Theodosia Boudreaux was not featured among those either.
Phineas hesitated on the quieter side of the maroon curtains, telling himself that he must have been mad to have entered a place like this. This was the last thing the Stiffs family needed right now. First, Major Embarrassment as Stiffs Mortuary Mixes Up Bodies of Beloved Mayor and Local Pervert, and now Next Generation of Stiffs Seen Snooping About Bawdy House. And so far as the young woman in question was concerned, he didn’t even know if she was really in there. In fact, the more he took in the garishness of the place, the dimness and damp stale odor of smoke, the sleazy music and lewd whistles and cat calls of the audience inside, the more convinced he was that he had to have been mistaken.
Surely someone as lovely of Miss Theodosia Boudreaux could not have possibly entered a place like this, he decided. He’d been misguided, had jumped to an impulsive and illogical conclusion. There was no point in venturing any deeper into the smutty bowels of this enterprise, and thus, the only option now was to exit posthaste. Phineas was turning to leave when the heavy maroon curtains parted and a portly fellow with a crimson nose and the stub of a cigar clamped between his stained teeth strode out. Suddenly Phineas froze, not at the sight of the man, but because of the glimpse he’d caught of the crowd inside before the curtain closed. Sitting in the last row, with what looked like a coat over his lap, was none other than Cousin Rudy.
The next thing Phineas knew, he’d knifed through the curtains and was inching down the row where Rudy was sitting. Thankfully, his cousin was alone. But it was with significant alarm that Phineas noted that Rudy appeared more interested in what was going on under the coat on his lap than on the stage, where a blonde was contorting herself behind huge feathery pin fans while the crowd hooted, whistled, and tossed silver coins at her feet. Overhead, the theater was illuminated by huge candle chandeliers, drops of melted wax falling like intermittent rain on those members of the crowd seated below, who protected their heads by wearing homburgs and bowlers.
Phineas stopped one seat away from Rudy and apprehensively tried to see what his cousin was doing under the coat, but it was too dark and shadowy at the back of the theater to tell. “Rudy?” he whispered.
His cousin jerked his head up and stared at him with wide, startled eyes.
“What the devil are you doing in here?” Phineas whispered hotly, feeling his brow grow warm with embarrassment.
Eyes still wide, Rudy hissed back, “Experimenting.”
During his years in boarding school, Phineas had heard such acts called many things, and he supposed experimentation wasn’t entirely off the mark. Still, he felt it was imperative to first get his cousin out of that place as quickly as possible, and then deliver a stern lecture on the inadvisability of conducting such “experiments” in public places.
But to Phineas’s horror Rudy began to slide the coat from his lap enough to reveal … a small glass jar in which hung two wafer-thin leaves of foil. Leading from the cap of the jar were two strands of picture-hanging wire.
“What in the world?” Phineas whispered.
Eyes glazed with excitement, Rudy whispered back, “I’ve come to believe that the human body itself may be capable of generating its own kinetic efflux!”
An Introduction to Kinetic Efflux: A brief tutorial by Rudolph Billingsly Stiffs
The concept of kinetic efflux first came to me while observing lightning during a summer storm. While the precise understanding of what causes lightning remains a mystery, it is clear that lightning itself consists of extraordinarily bright light traveling between two points at extremely rapid speed. These speeds appear to be far in excess of the known properties of the three basic states of matter: solids, liquids, and gases. Therefore, I have concluded that lightning must represent a forth state of matter, which I have named kinetic efflux.
Through further investigation I have observed that humans themselves are capable of generating small amounts of kinetic efflux. This first came to my attention during the recent winter months when I witnessed tiny sparks of light appear between myself and certain inanimate objects – such as a door knob, the body of the funeral lorry, and a metal faucet – as well as between myself and other human beings. While the appearance of these tiny amounts of kinetic efflux were accompanied by a brief and mildly adverse sensation to the skin, they seemed wholly absent of the heat that accompanies the production of light from such contemporary fuel sources as wood, paraffin, oil, and gas.
Based on these observations, it is my hypothesis that — if it can be captured, stored, and controlled — kinetic efflux has the potential to become an effective light source without the dangerously incendiary levels of heat associated with traditional lighting sources such as candles, fire, oil, or gas lanterns. This would have enormous benefits over contemporary lighting sources in terms of safety to humans, as well as significantly reducing the risk of property loss due to fire.
9 BACK AT THE BAWDY HOUSE
“Why do you need to perform this experiment in a bawdy house?” Phineas asked in the last row, one seat from his cousin.
Rudy nodded at the stage, where the blonde continued to gyrate and writhe, dexterously scooping up the coins that landed at her feet while coyly allowing the large feather fans to reveal brief and tantalizing glimpses of her anatomy.
“It has come to my attention that the charged physical sensations I experience in here are akin to those I feel if I rub my feet on a carpet,” Rudy explained. “I know for a fact that rubbing my feet on the carpet can produce those tiny sparks of kinetic efflux. Therefore, I’ve decided to conduct the experiment here in the hope of producing a more sustained flow.”
From a pocket of his coat Rudy produced some string, horse hair, and a ribbon. “I’ve been experimenting with strands of different material in the hope of finding one that will conduct the kinetic efflux from my body to the two leaves of foil in the jar. So far nothing’s worked. I was just about to try picture-hanging wire.”
Staring at the undulating maiden on the stage, Rudy grasped one end of the picture-hanging wire in each hand. To Phineas’s amazement, inside the glass jar, the two leaves of foil spread apart, as if by magic.
“Rudy!” Phineas gasped. “It’s… it’s working!”
With a frown, his cousin stared down at the jar in his lap and shook his head. “Hardly. Do you see any light?”
“No, but, clearly something is happening,” Phineas replied. “This is remarkable, Rudy.”
“I suppose,” Rudy mumbled without excitement. “At least we’ve discovered an adequate conductor in these wires. And furthermore, that stimulated by the sight of yon dancing maiden, my body has commenced to generate its own supply of kinetic efflux. The efflux runs down these wires into the jar where it causes these leaves of foil to move.” Phineas’s cousin shrugged. “But without light, what’s the point?”
But to Phineas, who’d been in the mortuary preparation room for the embalming and readying of any number of bodies for burial -- and had thus reluctantly inspected the insides of more corpses than he could count -- didn’t see it that way. “This is the point, Rudy! It’s remarkable. You’re proving that these so-called kinetic effluxes are created inside the body. I’ve never heard of anything like this!”
But Rudy had turned his head and was no longer listening. Instead, he was staring at an exit door just to the right of the stage. “It’s her.”
Unnoticed by the crowd of men whose eyes were glued to the quivering, quavering female on the stage, someone wrapped in a dark shawl had just entered through the exit door and was now standing in the shadows, watching the performance.
“Who?” Phineas asked.
“The one from the funeral.”
Phineas squinted. He could see that it was a woman beneath the shawl, but that was hardly a surprise in a place like this. Now she left the exit doorway and quietly started up the aisle toward the back of the theater, where Rudy and Phineas were seated. As she came toward them, the shawl slipped from her face for an instant. Phineas went stiff with the recognition that it was indeed Miss Theodosia Boudreaux!
“Drat. I’m sorry we missed her,” Rudy said.
Phineas gave him a puzzled scowl.
“Well, if she’s here.” Rudy nodded at the stage. “I assume it’s to be up there. But it looks like she’s leaving. Hence, I can only assume that we missed her performance.”
Once again, Phineas’s eyes traveled to the stage and the nearly naked woman with the feather fans. Was that the answer? Was Miss Boudreaux indeed one of those women who vulgarly flaunted their physical beauty in return for a shower of silver coins? Did that explain her coming nuptials to the enormously egocentric Egon Von Titus-Barr Caldwell?
Phineas was momentarily stricken. But she’s so lovely and prim! Could he imagine her on that stage? No, he refused to believe it. There had to be another explanation for why she was there.
Meanwhile, Miss Boudreaux was nearing the back of the theater.
“At least there’s some good news. Here’s your opportunity.” Starting to rise, Rudy closed his hand around Phineas’s arm. “Come on, I’ll introduce you.”
The implications struck Phineas like a slap. “No!” He gasped and tried to yank his arm out of his cousin’s grasp. Unfortunately, Rudy’s crablike grip was tight.
“Why not?” Rudy asked.
“Because the first thing she’ll ask is, what are you doing in a bawdy house?”
“Well, you could ask her the same thing,” Rudy pointed out.
But Phineas was in no mood to ask her anything. In a moment Miss Boudreaux would pass within a few yards of them. Phineas could not, under any circumstances, allow her to see him there. But Rudy’s hand was still around his arm, tugging at him to rise.
In a panic, Phineas pulled back hard enough to send his cousin stumbling. With a loud crash, the jar from Rudy’s experiment shattered on the floor. Miss Boudreaux heard the racket and looked. For an instant, her eyes met Phineas’s. His stomach knotting anxiously, Phineas quickly looked away.
“What’d you do that for?” Rudy spluttered on his hands and knees a few feet from Phineas.
Slumped down in his seat, hearing only the click of heels on the bawdy house floor, Phineas felt too morose to answer. Miss Boudreaux had clearly seen him. When he finally mustered the wherewithal to look toward the aisle, she was gone. And so, he was certain, were his dreams. Whatever ridiculous fantasies he’d had about “saving” her from the clutches of Egon Von Titus Barr-Caldwell had just been dashed. He buried his face in his hands.
“What’s with you?” Rudy asked, picking up the broken shards and pieces of his experiment.
“She saw me in here,” Phineas groaned.
“Yes, and you saw her.”
Phineas couldn’t explain it to his cousin. He wasn’t even sure he could explain it to himself. But it was hopeless. Completely hopeless. Now that she thought of him as the type of fellow who frequented bawdy houses, it was over. And why was he still in this ridiculous place anyway?
Jumping up from his seat, Phineas shimmied past his cousin to the aisle and then started briskly toward the curtains while Rudy trailed behind.
“What’s the matter with you, Finny?” his cousin asked as he hurried to keep up.
Phineas couldn’t answer. Having stamped across the bawdy house’s lobby as fast as he could without attracting more attention, he yanked open the door, stepped out into the dusky sunlight, and started away.
“Wait!” Rudy croaked behind him on the promenade. “Seriously, Finny, I don’t understand you. If I was as big, and strong, and good-looking as you, I’d be dating super mannequins.”
“Until they learned that your last name is Stiffs and what it is that your family does for a living!” Phineas shouted back, railing at the injustice of having been born into a clan of undertakers. This was compounded by the agonizing memory of what had just happened inside the Lux. Could he possibly have been more of an idiot, following Miss Boudreaux so blindly into the bawdy house and then making a spectacle of himself? How would he ever be able face her? Speak to her? It was impossible, crazy, out of the question.
But maybe it didn’t matter. What if he’d been wrong about her in the first place? What if she really did work in that place? Well, that was even worse, wasn’t it? Just when he’d finally thought he’d found someone capable of understanding the family business, she’d turned out to be in a business that he himself could never understand, much less accept in the woman he loved.
A sense of disgust came over him. Love? Was that what he thought he’d been feeling? For someone he hardly knew? For someone who might have paraded her privates before a bawdy house crowd. Why, he was behaving as if this was some school-boy crush. What the devil was wrong with him?
When Phineas found himself forced to stop at the corner and wait for the traffic to cease, Rudy caught up to him, though the effort left him hobbling and breathing hard. Cleary his unhealthy lifestyle was having an effect. He bent over and pressed his hands against his knees to keep himself from toppling. “I’ll tell you something else, cousin. There’s nothing wrong with the ladies knowing we’re in the mortuary business. Why, some of my women friends really like it in the back of the funeral lorry.”
Phineas stared at him in disbelief. “Rudy, you are incorrigible.”
Just then the traffic master waved, and Phineas started across the intersection.
“Hey!” Rudy called behind him. “I’m not the one in need of incorrigment, you are!”
“Come to an art show with me,” Rudy said, leaning in the doorway of the mortuary office while Phineas sat at his father’s desk, sorting through the piles of papers. With his father temporarily absent without explanation, Phineas had taken it upon himself to try to straighten the place up. What he’d discovered in the process was both daunting and ominous. Bills going back nearly half a year had not been paid. Invoices for funerals had not been sent. It really appeared as if his father had given up the helm of the good ship Stiffs & Sons.
“Why should I go to an art show?” Phineas asked without looking up.
“Uh, because you haven’t left this funeral home for two days?”
“Come on, get out, and enjoy life.”
The fact was that Phineas was having a difficult time imagining just how life could be enjoyed now that Miss Theodosia Boudreaux had seen him in the Lux. One thing was certain: he couldn’t possibly face her now. Not with the need to explain what he’d been doing in that bawdy house hanging over his head. And what of Rudy’s point that she was there, too? He didn’t know the answer, but clearly it had been a very brief stop. Certainly not long enough to have implied that she had any sort of formal association with the place.
“If I don’t bring some order to this mess,” Phineas said, “the only thing we’ll be getting out of is this business. By the way, you haven’t seen my father today, have you?”
Rudy shook his head. “Not today or yesterday, for that matter. Is it possible he went somewhere?”
“Without telling me, or your mother, or you?” Phineas shook his head. What he didn’t add was that when his father had not shown up for work the day before, Phineas had gone to his place to see if he was there. The place was locked and dark. Phineas had never known his father to go off for even a few hours without alerting a family member as to where and why.
“How about you come to the art show for my sake?” Rudy proposed. “I need a wing man.”
Phineas looked up. “You?”
“You should see the artist.”
“So? Since when have you ever needed moral support when meeting women?”
“What if she asks what I’m doing there?”
“Say you came to see the art.”
“It’s just art, Rudy.”
“And suppose she asks what other artists I like?”
“Tell her you’ve just started to get interested. You’re a novice, but willing to learn,” Phineas suggested, although they both knew the only thing Rudy had any interest in learning was how to undo her corset.
Phineas’s cousin shook his head. “Come on, Finny, join me. Then I can say you’re the one who’s interested in art. And don’t pretend you’re not. I’ve seen all the paintings in your room. Besides, you might actually discover you like her stuff.”
It was true that Phineas’s place was filled with art, a form of creative expression he admired and found comfort in. And it was also true that he was weary of sorting through the stacks of papers his father’s desk. He’d been at it for nearly two days and still hadn’t gotten close to the bottom. And there were still piles on the floor. And heaven only knew what state of disorganization the filing cabinets were in.
“Just go for an hour,” Rudy said. “Then you can come back here and work for the rest of the night if you wish.”
Outside the sky was the color of slate and a heavy moist wind was blowing. Phineas pulled the collar of his jacket tight.
“Feels like a storm coming,” said Rudy as he poked a half-smoked cheroot between his lips and ducked behind the corner of a building to light it. “We’ll have to keep an eye out.”
“Something to do with kinetic efflux?” Phineas guessed.
A few minutes later they arrived at the art gallery. Parked on the street outside was a maroon funeral lorry covered with images of scantily clad female grim reapers airbrushed in pale whites, dark maroons, and midnight blues.
Phineas did a double take. “Please tell me that’s not our funeral lorry.”
“That’s not our funeral lorry,” Rudy said.
“Yes, it is,” said Phineas. “Why is it painted like that?”
“Wait until you see the artist,” said Rudy with a wink.
“You gave her permission?” Phineas asked, bewildered.
“You’re the one who said it needed a paint job, Finny. And Myst said it would help pull people in for her art show. Best of both worlds, right?”
“Wait, I thought you haven’t met her yet,” Phineas said.
“Just briefly, at the roadster repair garage. That’s her regular job, at least until she makes it as an artist.”
“She repairs roadsters?”
“No, stupid, she paints them.”
“And what about tomorrow when we need to use the lorry to perform the solemn task of transporting the deceased to their final resting place?”
“Don’t you think it looks better than it used to?” Rudy asked.
“Covered with paintings of the grim reaper as a busty woman in a skimpy bathing costume?” Phineas let out a long, deep, and very weary sigh. He could just imagine what his father was going to say when he saw it.
Heavy pipe organ music reverberated inside the art gallery. Gas lights glowed on the walls, and the tables were set with glittering candelabras. Most of the attendees favored the Roque fashion, dressing in dark maroon, with hair dyed either black or in deep red hues. Maroon makeup and abundant piercings and tattoos were in evidence. Hanging on the walls were large, dark canvases of Roque gods and goddesses adorned in tight leather or furs, all striking provocative poses reminiscent of the figures that now adorned the Stiffs & Sons funeral lorry.
A young woman in a skimpy maroon and white maid’s outfit had just offered them hors oeuvres of red sushi wrapped in nori when Phineas felt Rudy grab his arm: “There she is!”
As usual, his cousin had spoken loudly enough to be heard three blocks over. The entire crowd turned. Phineas looked across the room expecting to see the artist, Myst, whom Rudy was so interested in. Instead he found himself looking into the dazzling green eyes of Miss Theodosia Boudreaux.
Dressed in a blood-red corseted gown with long sleeves, a sweetheart neckline, and a glimmering bejeweled choker, Miss Boudreaux was nothing short of stunning, and was looking straight at him. Instantly, Phineas’s face felt so hot with embarrassment that a drop of water probably could have boiled on his nose.
Even worse, she now began to head their way, her red dress flowing and shimmering in the gas and candle light. Phineas’s initial impulse was to quickly scan the room for the nearest exit, but then Rudy stretched up on his toes and whispered into his ear, “Is she torrid or what? Go ahead and run, cuz. I think I prefer this one over the artist.”
The spike of jealousy that ran up his spine instantly caused Phineas to hold his ground. The thought of Rudy getting his grubby hands on this lovely lass was utterly out of the question. Feeling his insides churning, Phineas forced a smile on his face while Miss Boudreaux sauntered toward them, her head cocked demurely. “Didn’t I see you two in the Lux the other day?”
If there was one question Phineas was dreading above all others, this was it. He jabbed his thumb in his cousin’s direction. “I was, uh, looking for him. He’s a bit of an inventor and mad scientist.”
Miss Boudreaux gave them both a puzzled look, probably wondering what being a mad scientist could have to do with being in a bawdy house. Meanwhile, being this close to her had begun to have profound physical manifestations in Phineas. Not only were his heart drumming and palms moist, but his scalp felt tight and his ears, hot. His head felt light and he heeded the need to focus on each breath to avoid forgetting to breathe entirely. Normally, the only times he ever felt this wound up was when he’d given the hammer a sufficient enough throw to come within some sort of record.
Just then Rudy pointed at a very tall young woman with long burgundy hair, wearing a ruffled white blouse, maroon vest, and brown tiered skirt, all adorned with necklaces, chains and belts. “Oh, there’s Myst. See you later.”
He was gone before Phineas could react, leaving our hero feeling contradictory emotions – on the one hand, highly desirous of being with Miss Boudreaux. And on the other, feeling terrified. Breathes becoming even more quick and shallow, heart racing faster, and nerves tingling, Phineas forced a smile and offered his hand. “Phineas.”
“Theodosia, but everyone calls me Tipsy.” She shook his hand firmly. At her touch, Phineas felt as if he might launch out of his boots. She cocked her head. “So what were you doing in the bawdy house?”
Her hand still clasping his, Phineas felt dazed. She had the most profound effect on him. Rather like finding one’s head slammed between orchestral cymbals. Once again, he could not help but wonder how this extraordinarily lovely creature could possibly be engaged to marry a so dastardly a slug as Egon Von Titus Barr-Cadwell?
“Hello?” She gave him a curious look and tugged her hand out of his.
“Oh, sorry.” Phineas snapped out of it. “I was momentarily distracted. What did you say?”
Tipsy repeated the question about what he’d been doing in the Lux.
Phineas swallowed and felt his cheeks, already warm, grow hot. Admitting that he’d followed her there was out of the question. “I suppose one could ask the same of you.”
Tipsy dropped her gaze. “I… I had to pay a visit to my fiancé.”
“In the bawdy house?” Phineas asked, honestly puzzled.
Tipsy’s eyes remained downcast. “He, uh… his name is Egon Von Titus Barr-Cadwell and he … well, he likes to say that he has his fingers in many different enterprises here in Gravesend.”
The idea that the Lux was among the many enterprises owned by Von Titus Barr-Cadwell caught Phineas by surprise, although perhaps it shouldn’t have.
Tipsy’s gaze rose. “And you?”
Phineas nodded at Rudy, who was on the other side of the room, chatting with the burgundy-haired artist, Myst, who towered over him. “He really is a bit of a mad scientist. He was doing an experiment. I, uh, was assisting …”
Tipsy held up her left hand, the one with the big diamond engagement ring, as if to stop him. “No, no, I meant, what line of work are you in?”
A sudden tightening of the chest added to the many physical manifestations of being so close to this goddess. Phineas had hoped that once they were engaged in conversation his nervousness would abate. And yet, with that one question he now felt as if he was walking on a very high wire between two mountain cliffs with nothing close to resembling a safety net below. True, Miss Boudreaux was engaged to a fellow who owned a crematorium, but that was just one of Von Titus Barr-Caldwell’s many enterprises. Phineas could not let go of the notion that, if history was any indicator, this beautiful creature would bolt the instant she learned of his family business. And while he supposed that he’d have to tell her eventually, right now he was mostly concerned with trying to make sure there’d even be an “eventually.” In a not very subtle attempt to change the subject, he gestured at a large painting of the Grim Reaper wearing a maroon thong and dancing with a Roque version of Hades draped in pink fur.
“Quite a talent, don’t you think?”
“I do admire her technical proficiency, but can’t say I find the subject matter enthralling,” replied Tipsy.
“You like art?” Phineas asked, then regretted it. “Sorry, that’s a stupid question. I mean, everyone likes some kind of art, don’t they?”
“I do like art,” Tipsy said. “And I think it’s important to support local artists and the arts in general.” Then she paused and studied him. “And no, I don’t think it was a stupid question. Are you always this hard on yourself?”
Phineas shrugged uncomfortably. “No … well, perhaps now and then. I suppose I’m sensitive to the stereotype of the big dumb hammer thrower, so I get down on myself when I think I sound like one.”
A brief aside appears to be warranted here, dear reader, for it appears that I’ve neglected to mention that for exercise and sport, Phineas’s preferred activity is the hammer throw. Not that when he feels the need for recreation, he goes about launching hammers this way and that, but rather, he arrives at the sports field with a 16-pound device comprised of a four-foot-long stick with a heavy metal ball attached to one end. Beginning at a standstill, he grasps the stick end and begins to spin, at first like a slow-moving top, and then faster and faster. At the other end of the stick, the metal ball moves in a circular path, increasing in velocity with each turn of Phineas’s body until he lets go and the device arcs high into the air over the turf before thumping back down, the farther from Phineas, the better.
Because this is an activity that demands both size and muscularity, and because, to the layman, it appears to require very little in the way of acumen to spin around a few times and hurl something heavy toward the heavens, Phineas was somewhat justified in feeling defensive about the general public’s assumptions concerning the inferior intelligence of those who pursued the hammer throw.
So it was to his great surprise that Tipsy’s expression brightened measurably as she exclaimed, “I throw the javelin! I just love it! The way it launches out of my hand and sails high before streaking down. Sometimes I pretend I’m a Norse goddess hurling my spear at the approaching enemy.”
“Me, too!” Phineas blurted. “I mean, not that I feel like a Norse goddess, but like a Scotsman battling the approaching English armies during the War of Independence.”
The two grinned at each other with the unselfconscious glee of long-lost siblings upon an unexpected reunion. But the moment quickly faded as they remembered who they were and who was betrothed to whom.
“Do you compete?” Tipsy asked.
“Yes, I throw for the Venenum Institute of Forensics.”
When Tipsy scowled, Phineas explained that the Venenum Institute was a boarding school where he was training to become a forensic investigator. He then hastened to add that he had one more year and then would almost certainly return to Gravesend to begin his practice. “What about you?”
“I was at Herrington,” Tipsy said. “I graduated in May.”
Herrington was the most exclusive all-female preparatory school in the territory. “Will you be continuing your studies?” Phineas asked, since Herrington was known for sending its graduates on to many of the best centers for higher education.
Before Tipsy could answer, they were joined by Rudy and Myst. Phineas noted that Rudy had a wide-eyed dazzled look that he associated more with his cousin’s scientific discoveries than any lady of the moment.
“Phineas, please allow me to introduce Myst,” Rudy said. “Myst, Phineas.”
Up close, one could observe that the artist wore maroon eye shadow and lipstick, had black streaks in her burgundy hair, and a thin tarnished silver chain from pierced nostril to earlobe. “Sorry to interrupt,” she said to Phineas. “I just wanted to thank you for use of the funeral lorry. I think it helped draw quite a few passersby from the street.”
It was one of those moments when time temporarily grinds to a halt. Glancing at Tipsy, Phineas thought he detected a slight fading of color from her face. She turned to look at him with a somewhat quizzical expression. Phineas smiled weakly. Rudy, no doubt wishing to promote his cousin’s best qualities, reached up and clasped Phineas on the shoulder. “Heart of gold, this one.”
Phineas felt his collar start to grow warm. Meanwhile there was no longer any doubt in his mind about the increasingly ashen cast on Tipsy’s face.
“That’s your funeral lorry out front?” she asked.
“But you knew that,” Rudy said to her. “You were at the funeral of that old lady, what’s her name?”
“Martha Bilderback?” Tipsy suddenly sniffed, and her eyes became glittery.
“You helped us carry the casket,” Rudy said, then turned to Phineas. “The one with the blue fingernails, remember?”
Phineas stared down at the floor. The last thing on Earth he wanted was have this conversation in front of Tipsy Boudreaux.
“No, wait, that was Hortense Peabody,” Rudy corrected himself obliviously. “Martha Bilderback was blown up in her kitchen.” He turned to Tipsy. “You went to both funerals.”
When Phineas looked up to see how Tipsy would respond, he found her suddenly dry-eyed, staring directly at him. “You said you were studying to be a forensic investigator.”
“I am,” Phineas confirmed, feeling a cold wave sweep through him. “But my family … owns the funeral home. Stiffs and Sons?”
Though it did not seem quite physically possible, Phineas was certain that at that moment Tipsy Boudreaux went even paler. She quickly checked the polished brass timepiece on his wrist. “Oh, dear. I really must be going. Speaking to you was so… revealing.”
With that, the lovely young woman hastily departed, cleaving her way through the crowd so quickly that one might have thought she’d just learned that Phineas had a touch of bubonic plague. With a profound ache in his heart, Phineas realized that she was no different from all the others, far too repulsed by his profession to ever see past it.