Excerpt for I Spy a Courtyard Casanova by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

I Spy a Courtyard Casanova

© 2017 by J.J. Brass


All rights reserved.


This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, organizations, events or locales is entirely coincidental.


Warning: the unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal.


Cover design © 2017

First Edition 2017



I Spy a Courtyard Casanova


The Courtyard Clairvoyant Mysteries

Book Three


By J.J. Brass





One


It was a rare event when almost every tenant on the courtyard engaged in the same activity at the same time, but this was the case Tuesday morning as the regulars dressed in black for George Miller’s funeral

In Elise Golden’s ground-floor flat, her niece, Val, sat at the edge of the bed wearing an uncharacteristically subdued outfit: black trousers and a black shell with fitted jacket. No sign of the usual studded belts or wallet chains. Even her purple hair was coifed in a way that lessened its usual impact.

Even after going to all the trouble of getting dressed, Val still whined about the prospect of attending a stranger’s burial. “Do I have to go to this thing, Auntie? I never even met the guy. That old bag kept him cooped up in their flat the whole time I’ve lived here!”

Dressed in a black sweater set and long wool skirt, Elise stepped inside her niece’s bedroom. “Let’s try to show Mrs. Miller a bit of compassion on the day of her husband’s funeral.”

“But she’s so awful, and she hates everybody!”

“I know, doll. We’ll go back to despising her tomorrow. But, just for today, let’s be nice.”

“Be nice to the woman who ripped the rainbow pride flag off my wheelchair?” Val grumbled as she tried her best to bend forward and elevate one leg. Finally, she gave up and collapsed on her bed with a growl. “I hate this! Yesterday I could put on my socks just fine. Today I can’t even reach my feet!”

“Not to worry,” Elise said simply. “I’ll do it for you.”

“Thanks, Auntie.” Val handed over a pair of black socks and sighed. “Sometimes I feel like I’m moving backwards, you know? Instead of recovering, I’m just getting worse.”

“You’re not getting worse, doll.” Elise kneeled on the floor beside her niece’s bed. “Think back to the state you were in right after your stroke: you couldn’t walk at all. Now you can get around the house on crutches. You couldn’t communicate verbally, not in a way that other people could understand.”

“Yeah, now I just sound drunk all the time,” Val said with maudlin humour. “And I still choke on my food if I talk while I’m eating.”

“Let that be a lesson to you,” Elise quipped. “Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

Once Val’s socks were on her feet, the girl extended her hands and Elise grabbed them to haul her to a sitting position.

“Do you want me to call Dr. Indira?” Elise asked.

“No,” Val grumbled as she grabbed Elise’s elbow and allowed her aunt to escort her to the front door. “I just need to try harder at physio, that’s all. You can’t get comfortable. That’s what I’ve learned. You can’t let things slide, or this is what happens.”

Elise felt very pleased that her young niece had finally come to that realization. She grabbed her purse while Val slid into the power chair she used to get around outside the flat. Walking was okay around the house, but the girl’s muscles couldn’t yet bear too much exertion.

When Elise watched her niece insert the key into the power chair’s locking mechanism, she considered also locking her front door, but why bother? Nobody on the Courtyard locked their doors and, anyway, most tenants would be attending George Miller’s funeral. The only ones who might give it a miss would be the commuters, the tenants who worked in the city and spent so much time in their cars or on trains that by the time they got home they lacked the energy to interact with their neighbours.

Across the way, Gloria was just leaving her flat. She and her husband, Bruno, both waved from across the courtyard. Their daughter Julieta raced across the cobbles with an 18-year-old smile on her face and six-inch heels on her feet. “Hey, you guys. Mama and Papa have been fighting all morning. I can’t listen to one more minute of it! Can I walk with you?” Glancing at Val’s chair, she said, “Well, I’ll walk, you roll.”

“We’ll walk-and-roll,” Elise laughed to herself.

“We’ll all walk, metaphorically,” Val suggested.

Julieta said, “How about you metaphorically walk and I’ll metaphorically drive and your aunt can metaphorically fly an invisible airplane?”

“Like Wonder Woman!” Elise joined in, crouching in her invisible cockpit and grabbing hold of the invisible controls. “Wonder Woman, you are cleared for take-off!”

“You ladies seem to be having far too much fun,” said a male voice from behind Elise’s back. It was so familiar she felt a sense of sheer dread as she turned to find out who was speaking.

Val piped up to say, “Ladies is such an outdated, anti-feminist term to throw at three women you’ve never even met. Get educated, dude.”

“Oh, but I have met one of you,” the gentleman declared as Elise looked up into his eyes. “Good to see you, Elise Golden. It’s been far too long.”

She couldn’t speak, couldn’t swallow, couldn’t even breathe. The individual standing before her was a handsome older gentleman—well, “older” meaning a man her own age—but when she gazed into his eyes, she saw the boy this man used to be, and the woman she once was.

“Will you excuse us?” Elise stammered. “We’re just on our way to a funeral.”

“My condolences,” the man offered. “I’m supposed to meet someone called Tom. Don’t tell me you live around here.”

“Oh yes, yes, lived here for years,” Elise said as she subtly pressed Julieta and Val toward the gate. “Tom is the landlord. I would have thought he’d be joining us for the funeral, considering it was one of his tenants who died.”

“I see.” The handsome gentleman glanced at his watch. “Well, I’m a few minutes early. I don’t mind waiting. Seems like a perfectly enchanted place to live, this courtyard of yours.”

“Yes, it is. Perfectly enchanted. Fairies in the garden, bluebirds in the trees, all that.”

“Wonderful, because I’m here to view the rental flat that’s just come on the market. Imagine that, Elise Golden.” He offered a seductive smile. “After all these years, we could be neighbours.”

“Oh, good,” Elise replied far too loudly. She was practically racing across the cobbles with her niece and neighbour in tow as she shouted, “Good! Great! See you later, maybe!”

Once they’d cleared the gate, Julieta said, “Hold up! I can’t run in these shoes.”

As Julieta grabbed Val’s shoulder for balance, Val asked, “Who was that guy, Auntie?”

“Yeah,” Julieta asked. “Who’s the silver fox?”

From a safe distance, Elise peeked between Gloria’s house and the one next door. Once she was sure he no longer had the three of them in view, Elise admitted to the girls, “That man is the incomparable Rex Sorensen. We were engaged to be married, once.”

“You were engaged?” Val asked with a laugh. “To that ladies’ man back there?”

Elise nodded uncomfortably.

“What happened?” Juliet asked cautiously.

Taking a deep, long breath, Elise told the girls, “I left him at the altar.”


Two


Elise had never been comfortable with funerals. The death of a loved one, or even an acquaintance, filled her with sadness, but the prospect of showing strong emotion by, goodness forfend, crying in public filled her with equal parts terror and trepidation. In a way, she envied Gloria, who let it all hang out—emotionally, that is.

During George Miller’s funeral, Elise had the opportunity for mental escape, though she wasn’t sure whether her thoughts were preferable to the droning on of business associates Mr. Miller had worked with thirty years ago.

What thoughts played so powerfully on Elise’s mind? Thoughts of Rex Sorensen, of course. What else could she think about after bumping into a man she’d left at the altar when she was little more than a girl?

The guilt and shame of it rose like bile in her throat. Even after all these years, she felt the emotional turmoil like it had happened just yesterday: the fear of marriage and all that entailed, the decision to run away from the promise she’d made, from her family’s great expectations.

For years, she’d thought there was something wrong with her. She’d never wanted things other women seemed to enjoy, seemed to long for and lust after. More recently, her niece had assured her she wasn’t alone. There was even a word to describe her freedom from physical attractions: asexuality. There was also a word for people who don’t experience romantic attachments: aromantic.

When Val had told her all this, she felt as though a weight had lifted. Her body and mind felt looser, lighter, less jagged. She wasn’t alone. The way she was… it was a real, valid thing to be and she didn’t have to feel ashamed.

Running into Rex after all these years only served to remind her of the promise she’d broken. Yes, she did feel ashamed for treating Rex as she’d done. She also felt ashamed for not being able to fulfil the dreams he’d had for their life together. Because, in truth, she’d never shared those dreams. She’d gone along with the idea for a while. She knew what was expected of a young woman in those days. She was expected to marry.

But she didn’t marry Rex, and the fallout must have broken his poor heart.

The funeral might have gone on for days. Elise’s mind remained somewhere else altogether. She suspected the service had been quite lengthy, because when it was over, Val whispered, “Finally!”

Courtyard residents and people from George Miller’s past—and, of course, his wife of many years—escorted the casket to his burial plot under a cloudy sky. Perfect funeral weather. When his body was safely in the ground, the group returned to cemetery’s main building, where food and drink would be provided. The late George Miller must have pre-arranged for all this. There’s no way a dour witch like Dorcas Miller would shell out on a spread for the neighbours.

When they entered the building, Val’s eyes lit up like flames. Standing in the foyer, looking somewhat panicked, was a slim young person wearing a dapper vest over a crisp red shirt. Elise did a double take, because she wasn’t sure whether she was looking at a man or a woman. This person had honey-brown skin, short black hair, small bosoms and a fine moustache.

Smacking her lips, Val whispered, “Just my type!”

“Everybody’s your type,” Julieta teased.

“Yeah, but you usually have to go into the city to hit on a dapper GQ like we have before us.”

Julieta rolled her eyes. “You are so predictable.”

“But is it a boy or a girl?” Elise whispered.

“Don’t call people it,” Val hissed. “And the best way to find out is to ask.”

Val rolled up to the dapper figure and said, “Howdy, partner! What’s a fine specimen like you doing in a funeral home like this? And what’s your pronoun, while we’re at it? Mine is she. Same goes for my friend and my aunt, here.”

“Oh. Hi,” the young person said with a slight blush. “I use they/them. Thanks for asking.”

Val looked up at Elise and raised an eyebrow, as if to say: And that’s how it’s done!

“Actually, maybe you can help me,” the stranger went on, nervously extending a business card in Val’s direction. “My name’s Tanveer Mitri. I work at the law offices of Donaldson, Bacchus, Hailey and Shah.”

“You’re a lawyer?” Val flirted.

“No, nothing like that. Just an assistant. But I’m trying to track down a bunch of people. Oh wait, I have a list.” Tanveer pulled a folded sheet of paper from their pocket and struggled to unfold it while holding a stack of business cards in the other hand.

“Can I help you out with that?” Elise offered, and Tanveer eagerly passed the sheet over. “Goodness, my name is on here! And, Val, your name’s in brackets beside mine. Julieta, you’re on here too along with your mother.”

Julieta snuck behind Val to peer over Elise’s shoulder. “Why is my name on a lawyer’s list? Are we in trouble or something?”

“No, nothing like that,” Tanveer assured them. “It’s for the reading of George Miller’s last will and testament. I’m trying to track down everyone who’s named in it. Sorry, this is all sort of last-minute.”

“You mean he’s leaving us money in his will?” Val asked.

“Could be money,” Tanveer replied. “Could be a goldfish. Could be anything, really.”

“These names,” Elise said. “These are pretty much all women from the courtyard.”

“You know them?” Tanveer asked.

Elise nodded. “Abi and Zarine are my neighbours. Dr. Indira doesn’t live on the courtyard, but I saw her at the funeral. She should be around here somewhere.”

“There she is,” Julieta said, pointing to the pretty doctor chatting with an elderly man. “Want me to give her your business card?”

“Oh, it’s not mine. I’m not important enough to have my own business cards. It’s just a general one for the firm, but it has the address and everything. We’re right down the street, a ten-minute walk from here.” Tanveer handed Julieta a business card for the doctor. “If you could tell her the reading of the will is scheduled for one-thirty?”

“You really are cutting it close,” Elise said, glancing at her watch. “I notice the late George Miller’s wife, Dorcas, isn’t on this list.”

“She’s already aware of the reading,” Tanveer replied.

“So the only other person is Luna Rigby. I didn’t see her at the funeral, but I can give you her unit number on the courtyard.”

“No way will Luna Rigby open the door to a stranger,” Val said. She told Tanveer, “Luna Rigby has some mental health issues. She tends to be paranoid about all kinds of stuff.”

“Oh, okay,” Tanveer said, taking the list back from Elise. “Well, it isn’t crucial that everyone’s at the reading. It’s really more of a courtesy. We can contact her by snail mail after the fact if she’d be more comfortable with that.” Handing Elise a business card, Tanveer said, “Oh wow, I need to get back to the office. Oh, the lawyer handling George Miller’s estate is Harriet Bacchus. That’s who you’ll be dealing with.”

“See you soon!” Val sang as her new crush rushed from the building.

“A nervous sort of person, that Tanveer,” Elise commented.

“It’s probably a lot of pressure, working in a lawyer’s office. Lawyers aren’t exactly known for being little rays of sunshine.”

“True.” Elise’s stomach rumbled so loudly she looked around to make sure nobody but Val had heard. “We’d better get something to eat before this thing at the lawyer’s office, or my belly’s going to utterly humiliate me.”

As they made their way to the table of finger sandwiches and dessert squares, Val asked Elise, “So, Auntie, what do you think the dead guy left us? Gold bricks or goldfish?”


Three


The reception room was all a-twitter with gossip of who’d been invited to the reading of the will and who hadn’t—namely, Gloria’s husband, Bruno. Elise could easily guess why: twenty years ago, Gloria and George Miller had engaged in an extra-marital affair of which Bruno was still not aware. Perhaps George wished to offer her some remembrance of that occasion without sparking an argument between herself and her husband.

As for Abi and Zarine next door, they worried about bringing their young twins to a lawyer’s office. Cadence and Sebastian had been incredibly well-behaved throughout the funeral, but by the time of the reception they seemed to have maxed out on being quiet and sitting still. The last thing the neighbours wanted was to be disruptive at such a solemn occasion.

Abi and Zarine didn’t say so, but Elise assumed the black lesbian couple anticipated a certain amount of toxic prejudice to be spewed at them by Mrs. Miller. Surely they didn’t want their twins exposed to that. Though her name wasn’t on the list, Dorcas Miller was certain to be present at the reading, considering she’d been George Miller’s wife for more than forty years.

“I can keep an eye on the twins,” Bruno piped up. “Take ‘em to the park like we used to do with Julieta when she was their age.”

“Da-a-d,” Julieta groaned.

“Yay! Park!” the children cheered.

“No, not the park,” Zarine jumped in.

Maman! Maman!” the kids cried. “Please can we go?”

Adjusting her ostentatious designer chapeau, Zarine replied, “Mamans say no park. You will get your beaux vêtements covered in mud.”

Quietly, in Zarine’s ear, Abi said, “On peut facilement laver leurs vêtements. Let them go to the park. They have behaved so well today.”

Zarine said not a word, but communicated her displeasure with a single raised eyebrow.

To Bruno, Abi said, “It is most generous of you to take care of the children while we are at the lawyer’s office. Please allow them to ride their tricycles around the courtyard when you arrive.”

With a nod, Bruno got the twins into their stroller and set off in one direction while Gloria, Julieta, Abi, Zarine, Dr. Indira, Elise and Val crossed the street and headed toward the address on the lawyer’s card.

It didn’t take long to tramp over to the office. When the group of women arrived, they were treated to the recognizably crabby sound of Mrs. Miller’s voice as she harangued young Tanveer. “What kind of lawyer did my husband hire? This is what she sends to beckon my neighbours to a reading of the will? I can’t even tell if you’re a girl or a boy!”

Elise’s heart seized in empathy with the nervous youngster.

“I guess you could say I’m both,” Tanveer replied. “Or neither. Your choice how you want to think about it. Anyway, I’m not your husband’s lawyer. I just work here at the office.”

“Next thing you know they’ll have trained monkeys typing up people’s wills.”

Val’s nostrils flared, but Elise grabbed her niece’s shoulder. “What did we say? Mrs. Miller just lost her husband. Give her one day to be horrible. You can yell at her tomorrow. Agreed?”

A growl emerged from deep inside Val’s throat, but producing that noise caused her to choke.

Tanveer raced over with water in a small paper cup, though they managed to spill most of it by the time it reached Val’s hand. She drank it down and thanked Tanveer, but then started coughing again.

“She has trouble swallowing sometimes,” Elise explained.

“Auntie!” Val coughed.

Tanveer brought Val another paper cup of water before asking the assembly whether anyone else would like water, tea or coffee.

“Let’s just get this over with,” Mrs. Miller shouted from inside the lawyer’s office. “Send in my husband’s whores!”

“Here we go,” Gloria grumbled, lowering her head as she made her way through a door with a brass plaque that read: Harriet Bacchus.

The building they’d entered was nondescript and smelled faintly of mold. Nothing like the sleek lawyers’ offices you saw on TV, with floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over huge cityscapes. But that was just as well, because Harriet Bacchus looked nothing like a sleek and polished city lawyer.

Standing behind a chipped desk was a mousy brunette with blotchy pink skin and hair pulled into what might have passed for a bun a few hours earlier. She wore a forest green suit jacket that was too big in the shoulders, and when she sat down it rose up almost to her ears, which made her look like a turtle ducking into its shell.

It was Harriet Bacchus’s tremendous glasses that had the most noticeable impact. The lenses were so thick she seemed to be looking at you through a pair of fishbowls. This woman could surely benefit from a cornea transplant like the one Elise had undergone. Of course, Elise’s surgery had sparked a sudden clairvoyance in her, which probably wouldn’t be perceived as a gift, not in the eyes of a lawyer. Middle-aged Harriet Bacchus would be able to see her clients’ crimes, and then how could she continue to represent them in good conscience?

“Please, everyone, won’t you have a seat?” said the soft-spoken woman, opening her arms wide like Jesus in one of those paintings with loaves and fishes. “There should be enough chairs for all of you.” When she caught sight of Val, she easily said, “Oh, I see you’ve brought your own. Well, we’ll just clear one of these out of the way. Tanveer?”

“I’ll remove two,” Tanveer replied. “I wasn’t able to get in touch with Luna Rigby.”

“That nutter?” Mrs. Miller scowled. “My George must have been out of his mind, leaving things in his will to a bunch of freaks and whores.”

Gloria huffed, but Abi and Zarine acted as though they hadn’t heard a thing. Dr. Indira was too busy fiddling with her phone to take notice.

The chairs had been set up in a horseshoe around the lawyer’s desk, with Gloria at the far end and her daughter at her side. Next to Julieta was the doctor, and then Zarine and Abi, followed by Val. That left Elise in the seat next to Dorcas Miller. Lucky, lucky. Although, in fact, Tanveer had removed the chair that had been between them, so at least she had a little breathing room between herself and the hateful old woman.

“Would anybody like anything?” Harriet Bacchus asked. “A refreshment of any sort?”

“Just get on with it,” Mrs. Miller growled.

The lawyer responded only to Mrs. Miller’s words and not to her tone when she said, “Very well. Let’s get this under way.”

Although George Miller’s will commenced with basic boilerplate language, there was something momentous about hearing it read out loud. Harriet Bacchus’s voice was even rather musical if you tuned out the words and simply listened to the mellifluous lilt. Buried beneath that oversized suit was a creative soul aching to escape. Elise wasn’t quite sure how she knew that, but she felt it in her bones.

When it came down to who got what, Gloria was first on the list. “Gloria Mendez, I leave to you the contents of my carport: two classic cars you have so admired since the moment you moved onto the courtyard.”

“Cars?” Doris Miller spat. “And two of them? Where does my George get off leaving you two whole cars, and not even one car for me?”

“Why do you need a car?” Gloria shot back. “You don’t even know how to drive!”

“Sit down, Mama!” Julieta tugged on her mother’s dress. “You’re embarrassing me!”

“So what if I don’t know how to drive?” Mrs. Miller went on. “I could sell them cars, I could. George always told me if he fixed ‘em up nice, they’d be worth a pretty penny. And the time he spent out there with those cars, I bet he fixed ‘em up so they’re worth a million bucks by now.”

Elise glanced across the room only long enough to catch Gloria’s eye. She didn’t mean to see what she saw, but it’s not as if she could control her clairvoyance. Sometimes she looked into someone’s eyes and saw exactly what they were thinking.

And Gloria was thinking about her affair with George Miller.

In the carport. That’s where they used to meet. Elise didn’t have to be psychic to know this tidbit of information. Gloria had admitted as much to her a few short months ago.

The affair had taken place quite a few years ago, but Elise noticed fresh pain in Gloria’s tear-filled eyes. She’d told Elise it was just a fling, something she’d done out of boredom, but when Elise psychically saw that pair together in the back seat of one of George’s classic cars, she knew full well it was love.

“Excuse me,” Gloria said, whipping a tissue from her purse as she slipped toward the door.

When Julieta rose to follow her mother, the lawyer asked, “Julieta Mendez? You’re next on the list.”

“Oh.” Julieta gazed longingly after her mother, but then quickly sat down. “Can you do me fast? I want to make sure Mama’s okay.”

“Of course, my dear. It’s just one line.”

But when the lawyer read that one line, everybody gasped.

George Miller had left the girl a considerable sum of money.

“Does it say why?” Julieta asked.

Harriet Bacchus shook her head. “I’m sorry, dear. There’s no further information.”

“You little Jezebel!” Mrs Miller cried, pointing an accusatory finger across the room. “I’ve seen that boyfriend of yours sneaking around the courtyard in the middle of the night. You’re a floozy and you know it, turning every man’s head—including my George.”

“Excuse me?” Julieta bit back. “I’m eighteen years old. You’ve have your husband locked up in your flat for the last, like, three years? Are you accusing me of hitting on a man in his seventies when I was fifteen?”

Dorcas Miller gave a meaningful shrug. “If the whore fits…”

Zarine spoke up for the first time to say, “Enough of this nonsense, Mrs. Miller. Julieta is only a child.”

“No I’m not,” the girl bit back. “I’m eighteen. I’m getting married next month.”

“Oh, that reminds me,” seamstress Abi broke in. “I’ve been working on the bodice of your wedding gown. Will you stop by for a quick fitting after we are done here?”

“Yeah, of course!” Julieta sang, clapping her hands enthusiastically. “Oooh, I’m so excited! Have you stared on the lace part yet?”

Harriet Bacchus cleared her throat and the room fell into silence. “If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to proceed with the reading.”

Everybody grumbled as Julieta squirmed past Dr. Indira to check on her mother. The moment she got to the door Gloria appeared in the threshold.

“Are you okay?” Julieta whispered. Gloria nodded. As they both returned to their seats, Julieta quietly asked her mother, “How are we going to explain this to Papa?”

Harriet Bacchus resumed her reading of the will before Gloria could reply.

George Miller’s next message from beyond the grave came in the form of an apology to Dr. Indira for his wife’s unforgiveable behaviour.

Dorcas Miller huffed. “I was only telling the neighbours information that was freely available on the computer at the library! Women go to a woman doctor because they want a woman doctor, not a bearded lady.”

The whole room groaned as Dr. Indira subtly raised a hand to her face, checking for traces of stubble.

“Not this again,” Gloria said.

“I’m gonna strangle her,” Val growled. “Auntie, hold me back because I can’t listen to much more of this.”

“What? I don’t want a man in a dress poking around down there,” Mrs. Miller went on. “Lawyer lady, you agree with me, don’t you? Oh, look who I’m talking to! You get your office staff from a circus tent.”

With a straight face, Harriet Bacchus said, “Mr. Miller has included a message of hope for Dr. Indira, which I would like to read now: In addition to my most heartfelt apologies, I am bequeathing to you seed money for the scholarship you wish to establish in the amount of…”

Dr. Indira’s hand trembled with emotion as she pressed it to her heart. “I can’t believe he remembered!”

“…for transgender students who wish to seek higher education in the sciences. You explained to me how blessed you felt to come from a family that supported you, both emotionally and financially, through your transition, but you also made it clear that many young people are not so lucky. The best way to ensure that there’s good medical care available to transgender people is to create space for transgender doctors, nurses and medical technicians. Your scholarship will help pave the way. Thank you for your generosity of character, Dr. Indira.”

“What a bunch of baloney,” Mrs. Miller huffed.

Elise tuned out the old woman as she gazed in the doctor’s direction. When their eyes met, Elise saw Dr. Indira and George Miller together, the doctor paying a house call, her patient looking very weak and thin as a rail, but happy for the company.

This must have been before Dorcas had driven Dr. Indira from their home and spread malicious rumours about her around the courtyard. Or perhaps it was after. George clearly knew how to keep secrets from his wife. Perhaps Dr. Indira had continued to pay the patient house calls even after Dorcas had removed him from her roster, perhaps when his wife was at church or out committing hate crimes, or whatever Mrs. Miller did in her spare time.

“Val!” Elise whispered when she heard a simper. “Are you crying?”

Rolling her eyes, Val said, “You don’t have to call attention to it, Auntie.”

“But why, doll? What’s wrong?”

“I misjudged the old guy. I feel…” Val looked around, and Elise leaned in so her niece could whisper in her ear. “I feel bad for not wanting to come to the funeral. I thought because his wife is a sack of turds, her husband must have been awful too.”

“No, he wasn’t awful at all,” Elise said. “He was a good man. If you’d ever crossed paths with him, you would have known.”

“Yeah, and just because he was old didn’t mean he was closed-minded. And now I feel so sad that he’s gone and I never got a chance to meet him.”

Elise squeezed her niece’s hand and planted a gentle kiss on the side of her head.

The lawyer had started up again. Abi was next. George Miller had left her some money to start the dressmaking business of her dreams.

Zarine’s head whipped around so fast her neck made a cracking sound. “Your dream is to start a business?”

Abi nodded cautiously.

Zarine’s milky brown skin turned shades of crimson. “A dead man knows this and your wife does not?”

“I was going to tell you when the children started school in l’automne. I will have my days free, you see, and I want to work. I want to exploit my skills.”

Suddenly aware that all eyes were on the two of them, Zarine calmly said, “We will discuss this matter at home, in private.”

Abi’s children,” the lawyer went on, “are to receive the tin toys and collectibles I’ve saved since childhood. From what I understand, they’re worth a fair bundle to collectors, but don’t let that prevent Cadence and Sebastian from playing with them. Life is for living. Don’t let us get bogged down by work. There is always time for play.

“Oh, well, that’s just perfect,” Mrs. Miller said mockingly. “I always said he had the jungle fever for that one. Remember that, Elise, when she first moved in? Remember me saying that to you? Jungle fever, I said. He’ll be up her skirt faster than a rat up a drainpipe.”

Elise turned away from her neighbour. Yes, it was the day of her husband’s funeral. No, she wouldn’t say anything to cross Mrs. Miller. But she wasn’t going to engage in that sort of spiteful trash-talk either.

“I bet you anything my George fathered those two brats of hers,” Dorcas Miller told Harriet Bacchus. “They even look like him, just blacker.”

“Mrs. Miller,” Gloria growled. “If your husband really had been the father of Abi and Zarine’s children, don’t you think he would have left them more than just a few toy cars?”

Julieta glanced sheepishly at her mother, and then gazed down at her hands in her lap.

You tell me how one of them types gets pregnant,” Mrs. Miller continued. “It wasn’t immaculate conception, I’ll tell you that much. Someone had to put those babies in her belly. How do you know it wasn’t my George?”

Gloria’s lips pursed.

“Let’s go on with the reading,” Elise suggested.

Very good,” the lawyer replied. “I bequeath to my long-time neighbour, Elise Golden, a fine collection of LPs that I’ve accumulated over the years.”

“That old junk?” Mrs. Miller said, waving it off. “Pfft! You can have it! Who’d want a bunch of old records, anyway?”

Harriet Bacchus went on reading: “She will surely enjoy the music of our generation with her niece, Val, as they cruise back in time through song.”

“Wow, that’s so thoughtful,” Val said. “It was nice of him to include me even though we never met.”

“I’m not so sure he and I are of the same generation,” Elise replied. “But very thoughtful indeed.”

“Do we even have a record player to play them?” Val asked.

“Yes, it’s in the hutch,” Elise told her nice. “It’ll be nice to fire that baby up again. Vinyl has such a warm sound.”

Zarine was next on the list. George Miller left her a canvas by a local artist, Reg McCoy, who had apparently gone on to become an internationally celebrated painter.

“How very kind,” Zarine said.

“Good riddance,” Dorcas Miller said. “I never like that painting anyway. Looks like it was done by a three-year-old.”

“Well, then, you won’t miss it,” Gloria replied. “Zarine, do you have any idea why George left that painting to you?”

“Yes,” she said, smiling faintly. “When I first moved onto the courtyard, George heard I worked in the perfume industry and naturally assumed I would be attuned to the art world. I am very interested in art, as it happens. He showed me the collection he and his wife had amassed across the years. We discussed this particular Reg McCoy canvas at length. I was familiar with the artist’s work, but I did not realize he had grown up here in town.”

“Is it worth a lot of money?” Julieta asked.

Gloria glared at her daughter, but Zarine turned her gaze to the lawyer.

“I really couldn’t say,” Harriet Bacchus replied. “You’d have to get the work appraised to know for sure what you might expect at auction, or how much to insure the painting for. I can give you the name of an appraiser here in town, if you like.”

“No need,” Zarine said haughtily. “I have a friend in the city who does such work.”

Harriet Bacchus forced a smile, though her eyes read blank through those pop-bottle glasses. “My wife Dorcas will receive all material goods not specifically named in this will, but material goods only. She was never one for charity or community goodwill as I knew her, but perhaps she will change her mind when I am gone and she needs to rely on the milk of human kindness to pay the rent and put food on the table.”

Mrs. Miller’s jaw dropped. “So I get George’s stuff, but not his money? Is that what that means?”

“I’m afraid so,” said Harriet Bacchus.

The old woman’s mouth opened and closed like a fish. “This has got to be some kind of joke! You’re having me on. George can’t give all his money to these floozies.”

“You’re right about that,” the lawyer said. “The balance of your late husband’s estate goes to someone called Luna Rigby, for the care of herself and her cats.”

“Luna Rigby?” Dorcas Miller screeched. “Luna Rigby? What’s she going to do with my husband’s money, spend it on magic beans? That woman lives in la-la land! She’s not right in the head! George’s hard-earned savings will be gone in a week, and meanwhile I’ll be living in a cardboard box!”

The lawyer said, “My offices will see to it that nothing of the sort happens to you, Mrs. Miller. I can give you the name of a friend of mine who works in social services. He’ll see what kind of public assistance is available to someone in your situation.

“You mean the welfare?” Mrs. Miller cackled. “Do I look like a single mother to you? I ain’t no lazy swindler. I’ll get a job if it comes to that!”

Val whispered to Elise, “Who would hire a mean old broad like Mrs. Miller?”

“Post office, maybe?” Elise let out a small chuckle.

It was Dr. Indira who suggested, “You can contest the will if you believe it to be unjust.”

“Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Mrs. Miller spat.

“Truthfully, no,” the doctor replied. “Your husband’s offering to my scholarship fund would provide needed support to many transgender students.”

“Fine!” Mrs. Miller howled. “If my husband cared more about freaks and floozies than he cared about his own wife, so be it. Take the money! You know it should be mine, but what do you care? You’re all a bunch of slappers. So take my money. Taken everything I’ve got! It’s what George wanted!”

Stunned silence filled the lawyer’s office as Dorcas Miller stormed out. Nobody seemed to know how to follow such a display.

That is, until Julieta piped up to ask, “Mama, do you really need both cars, or can I have one?”


Four


The assembly of women walked home in a daze after their meeting with George Miller’s lawyer. When they arrived on the courtyard, Cadence and Sebastian were riding their tricycles in circles around the cobblestone. Abi thanked Bruno for looking after the children and took the twins indoors to change out of their Sunday best. Meanwhile, Zarine grabbed Elise by the purse-strap and marched her across the cobbles.

“Where are we going?” Elise asked.

“That old woman owes me a painting,” Zarine replied. “And she owes you your albums.”

“Toys for the children as well,” Elise added.

“Yes, and I do not want her destroying the items her husband has bequeathed to us.”

Elise wouldn’t put it past Dorcas Miller to punch through a painting out of spite. Still, she wished she was running this errand with Abi rather than Zarine. Abi was friendly and relaxed. Her wife was high-strung and… Elise hesitated to say snobbish, but the French accent certainly didn’t help.

Zarine knocked on the door of the Millers’ ground floor flat, but there was no sound from inside.

“I know you’re in there,” Zarine shouted. “You left the lawyer’s office well before us!”

“The woman’s in mourning,” Elise said. “We should come back another time.”

“A woman in mourning is far more likely to destroy her late husband’s belongings.”

“Really?”

Zarine raised a knowing eyebrow.

“Hmm,” Elise replied. “Who knew?”

As they waiting for Mrs. Miller to answer, Zarine slipped off her heels and said, “I apologize, but I simply must. My feet are crying.”

When Elise glanced at the woman’s feet, she experienced a hazy memory of her mother. Those were silk stockings Zarine had on, not nylons. Everything about this woman exuded class. It was a wonder she felt satisfied living on the courtyard. With the kind of money Zarine brought in, she and Abi could certainly reside anywhere they wished. But Abi loved it here and you know what they say: marriage is about compromise. Maybe Zarine was more flexible than she seemed.

Whacking the sole of her shoes against Mrs. Miller’s front door, Zarine cried, “Open up! I want my painting!”

“Maybe she’s not home,” Elise suggested.

“Allo?” Zarine shouted, pushing down on the handle and opening the door. “Allo? I know you are in here, Mrs. Miller.”

No response. Only silence.

“Mrs. Miller?” Elise asked. “Anybody home?”

Still no answer.

Zarine closed the door and leaned back against it. “So she is not home. I don’t mind waiting.”

When Zarine crossed her arms, her camel-coloured shoes hung from two fingers. The shoes complemented her skirt suit nicely, not to mention her skin colour. Her suit was black with tan suede inserts in the lapel and in the skirt, creating a V between her legs. The outfit gave a striking effect of partial nudity. Elise had certainly done a double-take at the funeral.

“The moment that old woman arrives home she will destroy everything her husband held dear.”

“You really think so?” Elise asked. “Wouldn’t she want to hold on to him in some way, now that he’s gone?”

“She is too bitter and angry for that right now.”

“Angry that her husband favoured other women over his own wife?”

Zarine scoffed. “That is only surface anger, Elize. Deep inside, she is angry with her husband for dying. He has left her forever. How dare he?”

“There’s a lot that I’ll never understand about marriage,” Elise admitted.

“She will destroy what he loved,” Zarine went on. “Later, she will regret this.”

Zarine had always been an enigmatic character, to Elise’s mind. Her mystery was only compounded by her intimate knowledge of love and death.

From across the courtyard, a slurred voice called out, “Why are you no-good beggars hanging out by my front door?”

Elise and Zarine whipped around to spy a very tipsy Dorcas Miller clumsily navigating the cobbles.

“She’s drunk as a skunk!” Elise said.

“Can you blame her after a day like this?”

Elise was surprised to hear such sympathy cross the lips of someone she’d always seen as standoffish.

“Mrs. Miller,” Elise said. “We thought we might take a few things off your hands while it’s still on everybody’s mind.”

“Vultures,” Dorcas Miller heckled.

Shoeless, Zarine hopped across the cobbles in her silk stockings. She offered Dorcas Miller an elbow.

“Get your cotton-pickin’ hands off me!” Dorcas Miller cried, hitting Zarine away and stumbling in the opposite direction. Elise rushed to catch her but didn’t make it. Mrs. Miller fell to the cobbles and instantly shouted: “Well? Aren’t ya gonna help an old woman to her feet?”

Who’d have imagined Zarine had the patience of a saint? Clearly, she did. That or she really wanted the Reg McCoy painting George Miller had left to her.

Once Zarine had helped the older woman to her feet, Dorcas Miller cried, “Fine! Take your painting! Take your records!” Mrs. Miller fished through her purse for keys, but dropped them to the ground.

Elise picked them up, saying, “We can come back later if it’s inconvenient for you.”

“Speak for yourself,” Zarine muttered as she opened the old woman’s unlocked door.

Dorcas Miller stepped inside, pointing to a blank wall as she walked toward the kitchen. “Take it. Take anything you want. What difference does it make? You can’t take it with you, not when you’re living in a cardboard box in an alley somewhere.”

“Thank you,” Zarine said congenially. “Where is the painting, may I ask?”

“You’re looking at it!” Mrs. Miller shouted from the kitchen.

Elise and Zarine stood together in the empty front hall. The wall was discoloured where a rectangular frame had once hung. All that was left now was a hook and a nail.

“It was once here,” Zarine said. “Mrs. Miller, did you move the painting to another wall?”

“I didn’t move nothing,” Dorcas Miller said as she emerged from the kitchen with a bottle of schnapps in one hand and a discoloured brassier in the other. “Yer painting’s right…”

She froze in the middle of the hallway, staring at the faded rectangle of paint on the wall. “It was there. Been hanging there thirty years. Ask anybody.”

“Well, it seems to have grown legs and run away,” Zarine said.

Mrs. Miller blew a rude raspberry. “You took it. You musta took it.” She then pointed her bottle of booze at the ground. “And you took them boxes, too. I had them all piled up together like George asked me.”

“What boxes?” Elise asked.

“Yer records, and them toys. George asked me to box ‘em up, put ‘em by the door. Didn’t say why.” She hiccupped, then said, “He asked me that before he died. I don’t mean his ghost been by giving me packing instructions from beyond the grave.”

The woman issued a drunken laugh and headed back into the kitchen.

“I know what has happened,” Zarine whispered. “The old woman raced back here from the lawyer’s office and hid all these things George willed to us. That painting is somewhere inside this flat, I am sure.”

“She wouldn’t have been able to run back here, hide a bunch of boxes—and a painting—and still have time to get smashed.” Elise’s own turn of phrase made them both chuckle, and she followed that up by asking Zarine, “Where do you think she’s been all this time, anyway? The only bar in close walking distance is Windy’s. Can you picture Mrs. Miller hanging out with that rough crowd?”

“The death of a spouse does strange things to a person,” Zarine reasoned. “Watch this, Elise. I will call her bluff. We will see what happens.”

Dorcas Miller poked her head out of the kitchen. Now her dress was off and she was down to a dirty slip. “You two still hanging around?”

“Mrs. Miller,” Zarine said with false concern. “Clearly you have been robbed while you were at your husband’s funeral. You cannot allow the criminal to escape justice. You must telephone the police!”

“You call the cops, if you’re so interested. It’s your stuff that got stole, not mine.”

Elise joined in the ruse. “You should look around the flat, Mrs. Miller. If a burglar took Zarine’s painting and her children’s toys and my box of records, surely they stole something more.”

Dorcas Miller glanced swiftly into the sitting room. “I don’t see nothing else missing. They probably just stole what was close to the door, lazy crooks.”

“Perhaps we should look around the flat together,” Zarine suggested. “If you see anything out of place or missing, you will tell us and we will write a list for la police.”

Waving them off, Dorcas Miller grumbled, “I’ve had enough of you two for one day. Your painting got stole. Boo-hoo. Least your husband isn’t dead.”

Zarine appeared shocked, as though the old woman’s words had smacked her across the face. Demurely, she said, “I still believe you ought to inform la police.”

“Inform ‘em what? My husband left his most prized possessions to a pair of lousy lesbos?” Mrs. Miller took another swig of schnapps, then said, “Leave me be. I’ve had more than enough excitement for one day.”

“As you wish,” Zarine replied, heading out the door.

When Elise turned to follow, Dorcas Miller grabbed her arm with a bony force one would never expect of an elderly woman. Zarine was gone by the time Mrs. Miller moaned, “When I said a pair of lousy lesbos just then, I wasn’t talking about you. I know you’re just a lonely spinster. I meant Lady Muck and them all.”

Elise didn’t even attempt to wrench free of the woman’s fierce grip. She simply said, “It’s all right, Mrs. Miller. I’m not offended if people assume I’m a lesbian. I don’t consider it an insult.”

“Well you should,” Mrs. Miller grumbled. “And call me Dorcas. Now that George is gone, there’s nobody left to call me by my Christian name.”

Dorcas Miller released her grip, but Elise couldn’t bring herself to flee. When she looked into the woman’s glassy eyes, she couldn’t see anything clearly. All she felt was confusion, sorrow and anger.

Dorcas Miller returned glumly to the kitchen, where her funeral garb was draped over the back of a chair. “How could he do this to me? Leave me with nothing! I’ve never worked a day in my life, Elise. I’m not a modern woman like you. How am I going to survive?”

Elise joined the old woman at the table. She didn’t really want to, but she felt sorry for Mrs. Miller. “Didn’t George have a life insurance policy? He worked all those years life for the power company. They’d have had a company plan, surely. You must have been the beneficiary on that.”

Her eyes lit up. “Yes! You’re right! You’re right, I am!” She took one final swig of schnapps, then screwed on the cap. “You’re a genius, Elise! I don’t care what other people say!”

“Oh. Well. Thank you.” Sweeping across the kitchen, Elise said, “Why don’t I make you a cup of coffee? Do you have a percolator somewhere?”

“Devil’s brew!” Mrs. Miller spat. “But you can certainly put the kettle on.”

Elise filled the stainless steel kettle and set it on the stove. She investigated various cupboards for a teapot, cups and teabags while Mrs. Miller said, “The thing I don’t understand is: why’d he hafta go and embarrass me in front of all my neighbours? If he knew there was a life insurance policy from his old job, why wouldn’t he mention it in his will?”

“Maybe he forgot,” Elise offered. “I’m sure it was an oversight.”

“No it weren’t,” Dorcas Miller said glumly. “My George was sharp as a tack, right up to the end. He knew what he was doing. He wanted to take me down a peg.”

“That doesn’t sound like the George I knew.”

“You weren’t married to him,” Dorcas Miller spouted. There was such violence in her voice Elise knew not to respond.

Mrs. Miller was right. Elise hadn’t lived with the man for fifty-odd years. She had no way of knowing what he was like behind closed doors.

“Oh, it weren’t like that,” Dorcas Miller went on, leading Elise to wonder if alcohol gave her the ability to read minds. “George weren’t a cruel man. Never done raise a finger in anger. I were lucky that way. But I always did feel I wasn’t up to that man’s standards. Even when he married me, I wondered what I ever done to deserve it. I think he wanted to raise me up, like. My Fair Lady me. He never did manage to make a lady of me. Guess I was just too darn dull in the head.”

A new kind of sadness embraced the room as Dorcas Miller sat alone at her kitchen table, wearing nothing but a dirty slip and feeling sorry for herself. Fortunately, the kettle chose that moment to whistle. Elise busied herself making tea, which was far easier than consoling an embittered hag who’d just lost the love of her life.

“All them years I took care of him when he was sick,” Dorcas Miller said as Elise brought the teapot to the table. “Didn’t that mean a thing? Didn’t he appreciate it?”

“That’s hard for me to say, Dorcas. I don’t know what it’s like to be married.”

“Well that’s obvious enough! A married woman would know you gotta let the tea brew for more than thirty seconds before pouring a cup.”

Elise went into grin-and-bear-it mode, but managed to say, with utter sincerity, “If you took care of him every day, I bet he did appreciate that. But I bet he also saw the way you interacted with people who are different from you and… I bet he didn’t agree. Maybe he didn’t leave you anything in his will because he wanted you to learn to be kind and compassionate to people like my Val, and Abi and Zarine, and Dr. Indira.”

“This place is a pigsty,” Dorcas Miller replied, without seeming to hear a word Elise had said. “I’ll take my tea in the sitting room while you get started on those dishes.”

Elise sighed heavily, but picked up the tea tray and carried it into the sitting room. “Goodness, it’s dark in here.”

“Flick the switch if you’re so interested.”

Once she’d set down the tea tray, Elise felt around the wall. The Millers’ flat was laid out much like Elise’s but flipped around so that nothing was quite where she expected it to be. But when she flicked that switch, it wasn’t just the lights that came on. Music rang out from the stereo system, making her jump.

Nonchalantly, Mrs. Miller said, “Guess that thief didn’t get it all.” She pointed to the record player, where the needle traced fine lines around a distantly familiar melody. “They just took what was nearest the door. Like I say, crooks are lazy.”

Elise kneeled beside the record player, where a variety of record sleeves were propped against the wall.

“I musta forgot to put those ones in the box. They’re the records George been listening to coming up on his dying day.”

“In that case, you’ll want to keep them for yourself, I imagine.”

“Nah,” Mrs. Miller said. “I don’t really care for music. What I want is some peace and quiet for once.”

Quite a variety, from The Beatles to Pink Floyd to Duke Ellington and his orchestra. “Your husband had an eclectic taste in music.”

“Call it what you want. It’s all noise to me. And would you put a stop to that trash he’s got playing, there? What a racket!”

As Elise lifted the needle and the record spun increasingly slowly, she was able to make out the album title and artist on the label. It was Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man. Elise smirked as she lifted it off the player and found its sleeve.

“You take them records home to that queer niece of yours,” Dorcas Miller said, employing queer as a pejorative.

“Thank you. We’ll listen to them together. Val and I could use a little bonding time.”

Pouring herself a cup of tea, Mrs. Miller went on to say, “You can sit those on the table while you’re in there washing dishes. And when you’re finished in there, the carpets could do with a good once-over. Vacuum’s in the hall closet. After that…”


Five


It was gone suppertime when Elise staggered wearily through the door.

“Were have you been, young lady?” Val called from the kitchen. “I was about to call the Coast Guard.”

Elise laughed meekly as she pried her shoes from her poor, aching feet. “Coast Guard only operates on water, and I was firmly indoors.”

“You weren’t at Mistress Miller’s place this whole time?”

“Indeed I was.” Elise stepped into the kitchen and set the stack of records on the island.

Val burst out laughing. “What happened to you?”

Elise glanced down at her black funeral attire now covered in grey dust. “A vacuum bag exploded at me.”

“Yikes!”

“Yes, well, I see dinner’s made.”

“Pasta Valerie!” Val said, showcasing her special sauce of tomatoes and Moroccan olives. “Get it while it’s hot.”

Elise planted a gentle kiss on Val’s purple hair. “Looks delicious, doll. Let me change out of these dirty clothes and I’ll bring dinner to the table.”

“Don’t be long—I’m starving,” Val replied, peeking at the stack of vinyl as Elise left the room.

Starving was the word of the evening. Dorcas Miller hadn’t so much as offered Elise a cup of tea while she cleaned. Pyjama pants and the Asexual and Proud T-shirt that Val had custom designed for her would have to do.

When Elise returned to the kitchen, her niece was nowhere to be found. “Val? Where’d you go?”

“Down here,” she replied from the floor of the sitting room, her crutches and Dark Side of the Moon lying neatly beside her as she tried to haul the turntable out from the hutch.

“Goodness, child, set that down!”

“Auntie! I’m not that weak. I can lift things, you know.”

“I know, but you don’t have to move it. It’s already plugged into the stereo system. See? All you have to do is lift this top part…”

“Ohhh…”

“And pop the record on the turntable.”

“Ohhh…”

Elise knew exactly in which order to turn on all the power buttons on the stereo, even though she hadn’t done so in ages. She felt as though she’d stepped into a time machine when she dropped the needle on Dark Side of the Moon.

Val sat on the floor and Elise kneeled beside her, both mesmerized by the music, staring at the record player the way children used to watch TV when Elise was a growing girl. It had been such a long time since she’d listened to this album. Such a very long time.

After a while, when hunger set in, Elise wandered to the kitchen and returned with two servings of Pasta Valerie. Val didn’t get up from the floor. She ate with her plate in her lap. Elise stepped over her to sit on the sofa. They didn’t say a word, just gazed at the record player and listened and ate absentmindedly.

During the track called Time, Val asked, “When did this album come out?”

“Seventy-three,” Elise said. She didn’t have to think about it. She just knew.

“I didn’t know there was experimental music like this way back then.”

Elise let out a small chuckle in time with a knock at the door. She set her plate of pasta on the coffee table and stepped over her niece. “Who could that be?”

“You’re the psychic. You tell me.”

“I’m not psychic,” Elise scoffed. “Just a touch of clairvoyance here and there.”

“It’s probably Mrs. Miller asking for the contents of her vacuum back,” Val shouted as Elise wrenched open the front door.

There before her stood the man she’d almost married. He was holding a bottle of red wine.

“Rex!” she said.

“Hello, Elise.”

He looked incredibly dapper in his button-down shirt and jeans. Julieta had referred to him as a silver fox, and he certainly was that: a full mane of hair in fifty shades of grey, a respectable amount of stubble across his square jaw. Rex had aged undeniably well. He was far more handsome now than he’d been in his youth.

If she’d married him in the summer of 1973, he’d surely have left her by now—for a girl Val’s age, no doubt.

“I’ve just signed a lease on the flat above yours,” he went on. “Perhaps I should be saying howdy, neighbour!”

“That’s… that’s… wonderful,” Elise replied breathlessly. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t expecting company.”

“I should be the one to apologize. How rude of me to pop in on you like this.”

“No, it’s fine, it’s fine. I’m happy to see you. Really! Where’s my head? You must come in.”

When his gaze drizzled down her body, Elise realized what she was wearing and immediately covered her chest with both hands. She never wore this shirt in front of anyone but Val. The truth of the matter was that, yes, she was asexual, but proud? More like Asexual in Secret.


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-38 show above.)