Authors: tonya kappes
Stunned. My jaw dropped when I saw Cephus Hardy walk up to me in the magazine aisle of Artie’s Meat and Deli. I was admiring the cover of
Cock and Feathers,
where my last client at Eternal Slumber Funeral Home, Chicken Teater, graced the cover with his prize Orloff Hen, Lady Cluckington.
“I declare.” A Mack truck could’ve hit me and I wouldn’t have felt it. I grinned from ear to ear.
Cephus Hardy looked the exact same as he did five years ago. Well, from what I could remember from his social visits with my momma and daddy and the few times I had seen him around our small town of Sleepy Hollow, Kentucky.
His tight, light brown curls resembled a baseball helmet. When I was younger, it amazed me how thick and dense his hair was. He always wore polyester taupe pants with the perfectly straight crease down the front, along with a brown belt. The hem of his pants ended right above the shoelaces in his white, patent-leather shoes. He tucked in his short-sleeved, plaid shirt, making it so taut you could see his belly button.
“Momma and Daddy live in Florida now, but they are going to be so happy when I tell them you are back in town. Everyone has been so worried about you.” I smiled and took in his sharp, pointy nose and rosy red cheeks. I didn’t take my eyes off him as I put the copy of
Cock and Feathers
back in the rack. I leaned on my full cart of groceries and noticed he hadn’t even aged a bit. No wrinkles. Nothing. “Where the hell have you been?”
He shrugged. He rubbed the back of his neck.
“Who cares?” I really couldn’t believe it. Mary Anna was going to be so happy since he had just up and left five years ago, telling no one—nor had he contacted anyone since. “You won’t believe what Granny is doing.”
I pointed over his shoulder at the election poster taped up on Artie’s Meat and Deli’s storefront window.
“Granny is running against O’Dell Burns for mayor.” I cackled, looking in the distance at the poster of Zula Fae Raines Payne all laid-back in the rocking chair on the front porch of the Sleepy Hollow Inn with a glass of her famous iced tea in her hand.
It took us ten times to get a picture she said was good enough to use on all her promotional items for the campaign. Since she was all of five-foot-four, her feet dangled. She didn’t want people to vote on her size; therefore, the photo was from the lap up. I told Granny that I didn’t know who she thought she was fooling. Everyone who was eligible to vote knew her and how tall she was. She insisted. I didn’t argue anymore. No one, and I mean no one, wins an argument against Zula Fae Raines Payne. Including me.
“She looks good.” Cephus raised his brows, lips turned down.
“She sure does,” I noted.
For a twice-widowed seventy-seven-year-old, Granny acted like she was in her fifties. I wasn’t sure if her red hair was still hers or if Mary Anna kept it up on the down-low, but Granny would never be seen going to Girl’s Best Friend unless there was some sort of gossip that needed to be heard. Otherwise, she wanted everyone to see her as the good Southern belle she was.
“Against O’Dell Burns?” Cephus asked. Slowly, he nodded in approval.
It was no secret that Granny and O’Dell had butted heads a time or two. The outcome of the election was going to be interesting, to say the least.
“Yep. She retired three years ago, leaving me and Charlotte Rae in charge of Eternal Slumber.”
It was true. I was the undertaker of Eternal Slumber Funeral Home. It might make some folks’ skin crawl to think about being around dead people all the time, but it was job security at its finest. O’Dell Burns owned Burns Funeral, the other funeral home in Sleepy Hollow, which made him and Granny enemies from the get-go.
O’Dell didn’t bother me though. Granny didn’t see it that way. We needed a new mayor, and O’Dell stepped up to the plate at the council meeting, but Granny wouldn’t hear of it. So the competition didn’t stop with dead people; now Granny wants all the living people too. As mayor.
“Long story short,” I rambled on and on, “Granny married Earl Way Payne. He died and left Granny the Sleepy Hollow Inn. I don’t know what she is thinking running for mayor because she’s so busy taking care of all of the tourists at the Inn. Which reminds me”—I planted my hands on my hips—“you never answered my question. Have you seen Mary Anna yet?”
“Not yet.” His lips curved in a smile.
“She’s done real good for herself. She opened Girl’s Best Friend Spa and has all the business since she’s the only one in town. And”—I wiggled my brows—“she is working for me at Eternal Slumber.”
A shiver crawled up my spine and I did a little shimmy shake, thinking about her fixing the corpses’ hair and makeup. Somebody had to do it and Mary Anna didn’t seem to mind a bit.
I ran my hand down my brown hair that Mary Anna had recently dyed since my short stint as a blond. I couldn’t do my own hair, much less someone else’s. Same for the makeup department.
I never spent much time in front of the mirror. I worked with the dead and they weren’t judging me.
“Emma Lee?” Doc Clyde stood at the end of the magazine aisle with a small shopping basket in the crook of his arm. His lips set in a tight line. “Are you feeling all right?”
“Better than ever.” My voice rose when I pointed to Cephus. “Especially now that Cephus is back in town.”
“Have you been taking your meds for the Funeral Trauma?” He ran his free hand in his thin hair, placing the few remaining strands to the side. His chin was pointy and jutted out even more as he shuffled his thick-soled doctor shoes down the old, tiled floor. “You know, it’s only been nine months since your accident. And it could take years before the symptoms go away.”
“Funeral Trauma,” I muttered, and rolled my eyes.
Cephus just grinned.
The Funeral Trauma.
A few months back I had a perilous incident with a plastic Santa Claus right here at Artie’s Meat and Deli. I had walked down from the funeral home to grab some lunch. Artie had thought it was a good idea to put a life-sized plastic Santa on the roof. It was a good idea until the snow started melting and the damn thing slid right off the roof just as I was walking by, knocking me square out. Flat.
I woke up in the hospital seeing ghosts of the corpses I had buried six feet deep. I thought I had gone to the Great Beyond. But I could see my family and all the living.
I told Doc Clyde I was having some sort of hallucinations and seeing dead people. He said I had been in the funeral business a little too long and seeing corpses all of my life had been traumatizing. Granny had been in the business for over forty years. I had only been in the business for three. Something didn’t add up.
Turned out, a psychic confirmed I am what was called a Betweener.
I could see ghosts of the dead who were stuck between the here and the after. Of course, no one but me and Jack Henry, my boyfriend and Sleepy Hollow’s sheriff, knew. And he was still a little apprehensive about the whole thing.
“I’m fine,” I assured Doc Clyde, and looked at Cephus. “Wait.” I stopped and tried to swallow what felt like a mound of sand in my mouth. My mind hit rewind and took me back to the beginning of my conversation with Cephus.
utta the way!” I pushed past Doc Clyde, leaving the cartful of groceries, and made it to the front of the store. “Outta the way!” I yelled at Beulah Paige Bellefry.
-clare.” Beulah grabbed the pearls around her neck like I was going to do a drive-by robbery. I pushed my way past her. “I’m calling Zula Fae!”
I stopped dead in my tracks and stood on the sidewalk in front of the hearse. Slowly, I turned around.
The bag boy and clerk had their faces planted up against the glass next to Granny’s election poster while Doc Clyde and Beulah stood with their hands on their hips, taking in all my crazy. Beulah Paige’s ice-blue eyes cut right through me. She batted her fake lashes, tucked a strand of her flaming red hair behind her ear and whispered something to Doc Clyde.
“I’m sure you will tell everyone in Sleepy Hollow,” I shouted back at the window—confirming Beulah Paige’s reign as the CEO of the gossip mill in the small town.
I jumped in the hearse.
It took everything in my body not to ram my hearse into her red Cadillac, which was parked in front of me.
“I’m sorry, Emma Lee.” Cephus appeared in the passenger seat next to me.
My jaw clenched, my hands gripped the wheel so hard my knuckles were white. I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. Not for the fact that he scared me, but rather because it meant he was dead. Dead as dead could be. How was I going to explain that to Mary Anna and her brother?
“I’m just so glad, after all these years, to have some help.”
“Years?” I asked.
Had he been dead this entire time? The rumor was that he had gone on a binge and left his family behind.
He nodded. “The
“Who says I’m going to help you?” I asked.
Deep down I knew I was going to have to. I was hooked from the moment I realized he was a ghost. I slammed the brakes on the hearse and looked over at him.
“Seriously, years?” I asked again, just to make sure.
“I didn’t leave town like everyone thinks.” His eyes took on a ghostly look. He turned his face toward the window. “I was murdered and I can’t cross over to live in peace.”
“That loudmouth Ruthie Sue Payne,” I growled.
“Ruthie Sue.” Cephus shook his head and smiled.
Ruthie Sue was the town gossip before she died . . . was murdered. She was my first client as a Betweener. After I helped solve her murder, I found out she was a big gossip in the afterlife too. She told Chicken Teater about me, who was my second client. Now Chicken had told Cephus . . . who I had no choice but to help.