Welcome to the November edition of First Monday Free Fiction. To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month. It will remain free to read on this blog for one month, then I’ll take it down and post another story.
November is the month for remembering the dead, so here is a humorous crime story set in a cemetery. You can read “Loot” both in a standalone edition and as part of the crime fiction collection Murder in the Family. “Loot” is based on a true story, by the way, which happened to an elderly lady of my acquaintance.
So prepare to accompany Eudora Pennington to the cemetery to bury a loved one and watch pursesnatcher Jack Slater get his comeuppance in…
Katrina hadn’t been well for quite a few days. She didn’t eat, she didn’t drink, she didn’t want to go outside, she scarcely stirred from her basket in the bedroom. She did not even enjoy sitting in her favourite spot on her owner’s lap anymore.
Eudora Pennington had been very worried. After a sleepless night, for both her and Katrina, she finally decided to call the vet. The vet came, examined Katrina and then told Mrs. Pennington frankly that there was nothing he could do. Old age was finally taking its toll. The best thing would be to put her to sleep.
Eudora Pennington had refused, of course. If you spent seventeen years with a pet, you didn’t just have it put down, once it became old and ill and useless. It was inhuman and simply wrong. And this was what she told the vet. The young man just shrugged and left. He hadn’t helped Katrina, in fact he hadn’t done anything except making Mrs. Pennington angry and he’d charged her twenty-five pounds for the privilege, too. Typical, those young doctors of today were interested in nothing but money.
But though Eudora Pennington was unwilling to let her sole companion of the past seven years go, the fluffy white Persian cat died peacefully the following night anyway. Mrs. Pennington was heartbroken. Katrina was the only friend she had left, after all, the only living creature to share the loneliness of a large empty house. Her husband Albert was long dead, and they’d had no children. And they’d always had preciously little contact with the relatives on either side. So all that had been left after Albert’s sudden death seven years before were a few friends and the neighbours who dropped in every now and then. And Katrina, of course. But now Katrina was gone as well.
The morning after Katrina passed away, Philip, Mrs. Pennington’s neighbour, came over to offer his assistance. Mrs. Pennington liked her neighbours. They were good people and had always been there for her, when she needed help. But that morning Philip wanted to take Katrina away. And Mrs. Pennington knew only too well where he would take her. He’d take her to the knacker’s. And Mrs. Pennington knew only too well would happen to her then.
“I will not have my poor Katrina end up as glue or as meat and bone meal,” she told him.
Philip had been very understanding. He assured her that he knew how she felt, though he was pretty sure that they did not actually make glue out of dead animals anymore. And meat and bone meal had been banned over that mad cow scare years ago. And he really wished there were some other way. But unfortunately it was forbidden to bury pets in the garden or anywhere else except at designated pet cemeteries.
The idea of a pet cemetery had crossed Eudora Pennington’s mind. Katrina would have a decent grave there, complete with a headstone and flowers. It was what Mrs. Pennington wanted for Katrina, what her trusted companion deserved. But unfortunately there was a grave problem. Pet cemeteries were very expensive. Too expensive for Mrs. Pennington’s small pension.
For two days, Eudora Pennington brooded over what to do with poor Katrina’s body. She considered simply burying Katrina in a nice corner of the garden or in a pleasant spot in the woods. But that was forbidden, just as Philip had pointed out. Besides it might poison the groundwater or something like that. To be honest, she didn’t quite understand all that. All she knew was that burying Katrina in the garden was against the law and Mrs. Pennington didn’t want to get in trouble with the police. She had always been a law-abiding citizen, after all. No, she would have to find another way. Then, on the second night after Katrina’s death, she had an idea.
There was one place where she could give Katrina a decent burial without accidentally poisoning the groundwater. And Katrina would have as nice a grave there as she would have had at a pet cemetery. What was more, she would even rest in the company of somebody who had cared for her almost as much as Eudora Pennington herself had.
Mrs. Pennington would simply take Katrina’s body to the cemetery and bury her in her husband’s grave. Albert would have liked to have Katrina with him. And this way, Eudora Pennington could visit the graves of both her loved ones at the same time. It was the perfect solution.
Of course, it was illegal as well. The cemetery was for humans, not for pets. But Mrs. Pennington had paid for that burial place, and a ridiculously high sum, too, for such a little plot of land. That grave belonged to her and she had the right to do with it as she pleased and to bury whomever she pleased in there.
Once she’d come to this solution, Eudora Pennington set out the very next morning to carry it out. Carefully, she wrapped Katrina’s body in a plastic bag. Then she put the plastic bag into her handbag, the big one of brown leatherette which she always used when she went grocery shopping. Finally, she took a shovel, a rake and a watering can and set off for the cemetery.
On her way she stopped once more to buy some pansies. Albert’s grave needed new flowers anyway, the old ones were dry and faded. Besides, if she were planting flowers, simply slipping Katrina’s little body into the grave would look entirely inconspicuous.
Thus prepared, Mrs. Pennington set out to bury Katrina.
Jack Slater spent a lot of time hanging out on cemeteries, purely for professional reasons. However, he was neither a priest nor a gardener nor a gravedigger nor an undertaker. Jack Slater was a thief, a pursesnatcher who stole the handbags of little old ladies. And there were plenty of little old ladies at Shady Grove Cemetery.
And little old ladies tended to be careless, particularly on cemeteries. Most of the time, they were so busy planting flowers and watering them, picking up snails and fallen leaves or simply sitting on benches, lost in memories of some long dead loved one, that they did not pay attention the large handbags they invariably carried. That was Jack Slater’s chance.
Even better, people on cemeteries were usually lost in their own private grief, so they never looked at each other, never paid attention to what was going on around them. Therefore, nobody ever noticed Jack Slater, nobody was ever able to describe him. A thief could not wish for a better turf.
Of course, it was thoroughly rotten, vile and evil. What crime could be more heinous than breaking the holy peace of a cemetery and snatching the purses of grieving old ladies? But everybody had to make a living somehow. And to Jack Slater this seemed as good a way as every other.
Besides, he was only taking from those who could afford it. Old people had money. In fact, people over sixty were the richest group in the entire country, so Jack had read in a newspaper he’d found on the bus. It all had to do with wars and hyper-inflations and how there hadn’t been either in such a long time that nobody lost any money anymore unless they were really stupid. But the ones that were not stupid just kept on amassing wealth. And old people, being old, were the richest of all. Jack Slater didn’t pretend to understand it all, but he got the gist of it. Old people were rich, and when they died, their heirs would become rich. The next generation would be a generation of rich heirs, so the newspaper headline had said.
Unfortunately, Jack Slater was not the heir of anybody, much less of anybody rich. For some reason, his parents and grandparents had missed the memo on amassing wealth for their heirs. Which meant that Jack Slater would never belong to that new generation of rich heirs. Therefore, it was only fair if he balanced the scales a bit by relieving those rich old people of some of the money before they could bequeath it to their heirs.
Armed with this justification cobbled together from half-remembered newspaper articles, Jack Slater roamed the cemeteries in order to take what he believed the world owed him. So far, he’d been quite successful. The loot had been varied, but mostly good. And he’d never been caught. The coppers had even put up signs warning of pickpockets. But people were never watchful on cemeteries and Jack did his best to look inconspicuous.
He always dressed nicely, when he went to “work”. Little old ladies tended to be so bloody judgmental of other people’s appearance. But if you looked proper, no one suspected you of being a crook. And so Jack always wore black jeans, a black shirt and a black jacket. He’d tried wearing a tie, too, but found that he couldn’t bind it the way it was supposed to look. On his feet were Chucks in the most boring black he could find. He’d tried wearing cowboy boots once, but he couldn’t run fast enough in those. And in his line of work speed was important. Furthermore, he always made sure to shower and shave and wash his hair before he went to the cemetery. And so, dressed as properly as he could manage, Jack went about his shady business.
When he roamed the cemetery, he always put on a very solemn expression. Sometimes he strolled along the gravel paths, pretending to look only at his feet. Occasionally he grabbed a watering can and pretended to water the flowers on a grave. And sometimes he just sat on a bench, seemingly lost in sad thoughts. Nobody noticed that he was surreptitiously watching his surroundings, always on the look-out for victims that promised good loot.
That day, Jack Slater sat on a bench enjoying the springtime sun, his legs stretched out before him. His face was hidden behind a newspaper, the Times Education Supplement unfortunately. Why did people never leave anything good like the sports pages on the bus? Still, it made a good disguise. Made him look smart and scholarly. And scholarly looking people were entirely non-threatening.
And so, while Jack was trying to make sense of an article on the higher education bubble, whatever that may be, he happened to notice a fat old lady in a camel hair coat. She was loaded down with a shovel, a rake, a watering can and a box of pansies. More importantly, she also carried a large dark brown handbag, which she clutched tightly to her chest. Surely, there was money in the bag. Perhaps even her pension. Those old birds tended to be so bloody stupid, getting their whole pension paid out in a single swoop. Still, she looked like a very promising catch indeed.
Jack watched intently over the top of his newspaper, as she stopped at a nearby grave, put down the rake, the shovel, the watering can, the pansies and finally also the large handbag. She picked up the shovel and stabbed it into the grave. The handbag was lying behind her in the grass, completely unattended.
This was the moment Jack had been waiting for. Soundlessly as a cat he crept between the gravestones, until he was directly behind the old lady and reached for the handbag. Alas, at that exact moment the old woman decided that she needed something in her handbag very desperately and reached behind her. When she did not find the bag where she had put it, she turned around and saw it in the hands of Jack Slater.
The old woman raised her shovel and opened her mouth to scream, but Jack did not wait for the shovel to come down and the scream to leave her lips. He spun around, still clutching the handbag, and ran as fast as his legs would carry him, jumping over several gravestones in the process.
“Come back, you villain,” the old woman cried after him, “There’s no money in there. There’s nothing in that bag that has any value to you.”
Eudora Pennington stopped in frustration, once she’d screamed herself hoarse. It was to no avail anyway. No amount of screaming would stop that punk. She slumped down in front of her husband’s grave, tears running down her cheeks, both from the exertion of screaming at the top of her lungs and from realising what she had just lost.
Mrs. Pennington’s screams might not have stopped the thief, but they did attract the attention of some other people in the vicinity and soon four or five of them were gathered around her to see if she was all right. They were all very sympathetic and completely outraged about the impunity of the thief.
A young woman dressed all in black with heavy make-up and earrings all over her face (Such a pretty girl, Eudora Pennington thought. Why did she have to disfigure herself like that?) called the police on her mobile and soon a young constable arrived to take Mrs. Pennington’s statement.
“We’ve been having a lot of thefts lately,” PC Higgins said, “We even put up signs warning the visitors.” He sighed. “You can never let down your guard these days, cause crime no longer stops at the cemetery gates. It’s a crying shame.”
Everybody agreed, from the retired mayor visiting the grave of his late wife via the Pakistani gardener to the girl all in black.
“So how much money was stolen, ma’am?” PC Higgins asked.
“Oh, he did not steal any money,” Mrs. Pennington replied. She opened her camel hair coat to reveal a pocket made from an old bedsheet sewn into the coat lining. “I always keep my money in here, ever since my Albert, god bless his soul, and I were robbed on a bus in Rome back in sixty-five.”
“That’s very clever of you,” PC Higgins said approvingly, “I wish everybody were that careful. It would certainly make our job easier. But what was in the stolen bag, ma’am?”
In spite of the situation Eudora Pennington had to smile. “You’d be surprised, Constable,” she said, “So will the thief.”
Still panting, Jack Slater bounded up the rickety stairs to his shabby flat. That had been too close for comfort. Damn that old bird for reaching for her handbag at the exact same moment Jack was trying to snatch it. And she’d tried to whack him with a shovel, too. So much for little old ladies being harmless.
Once inside, Jack Slater immediately flung himself onto an old green sofa and proceeded to examine his loot. The bag was dark brown, made of cheap leatherette that smelled of plastic and death. As for the design, that hadn’t been fashionable since World War II at least. Why, oh why did old people always have such ugly handbags? With all the money they were supposedly hoarding, would it kill them to spend some of it on a nice Prada or Gucci or Louis Vuitton handbag? Even an imitation, if they were real scrooges. Because there always was a market for designer handbags, real or fake, and no one ever asked where they came from. This ugly thing, however, was only good for the bin.
Well, hopefully the contents were better. So Jack opened the zipper. Immediately, a cloud of cemetery smell hit him, stronger than he’d ever experienced it before. Shit, it smelled as if something had crawled into that handbag and died.
Jack held his nose and looked inside the bag. The first thing he saw was the distinctive blue, white and orange design of an Aldi plastic bag. Probably the old bird’s groceries. He pulled out the bag and flung it rather carelessly on the sofa behind him. He would find out what he’d have for dinner tonight later. But right now, the other contents of the bag were far more interesting. So he examined the inside of the oversized bag and finally found a zipper. Side pocket. Bingo. That was where old people usually kept their money. Probably thought it was safer there. Yeah right.
But as he reached into the side pocket, all he found were two used bus-tickets and a faded library pass. No money. Jack Slater cursed and turned over that brown monstrosity of a bag. He found a lace-edged handkerchief, an imitation tortoiseshell comb, a half-empty roll of mints and a shopping list. No wallet, no chequebook, no credit card, no money. Nothing but junk. A whole day of work and all he had to show for it were some lousy groceries. Damn that old fossil.
To let out his frustration, Jack flung that hideously ugly handbag against the stained wall of his flat. Then he leaned back on the sofa and nearly landed on the plastic bag in the process. Curiously he pulled it on his lap. Might as well see what he’d have for dinner tonight. He just hoped the old lady wasn’t into health food or products for diabetics. That stuff tasted like crap. Jack should know — after all, he had eaten enough of it over the past year.
He sniffed at the bag. Whatever she’d bought, it smelled awful. Plus, she shopped at Aldi. Cheap, she was too. Still, maybe she had bought some meat, sausages maybe or perhaps even a frozen steak. There might even be a bottle of wine or, if he was extremely lucky, something harder.
His curiosity aroused, Jack reached into the plastic bag, when to his great surprise his fingertips touched something soft and fuzzy. He looked into the bag and saw nothing but thick white fur. Jack smiled. Perhaps the day’s loot was not as bad as it had seemed after all.
For there was no mistaking what the plastic bag contained. This was clearly a fur coat. Chinchilla or silver fox or something similarly luxurious by the looks of it. Of course, the market for fur coats was not what it used to be — screw those animal rights people. But a nice coat like this would still bring a good enough price. Perhaps he could even take it to one of those vintage fashion shops. Vintage was in — Jack had read it in a Fashion and Style supplement he’d found on the bus last week.
Briefly, Jack wondered why on Earth an old woman would carry a fur coat wrapped in a plastic bag around in her handbag at a cemetery on a warm and pleasant April day. Old people truly were weird.
But his attention quickly returned to more important matters, namely the loot, and so he proceeded to examine his prize. Gingerly, he reached into the plastic bag. His hand closed around the furry object to pull it out.
He held the day’s loot up to the light and immediately recoiled in horror. Disgusted, he dumped the furry thing on the floor. For there, in the middle of his fake Persian carpet lay the decomposing carcass of a furry white cat.
That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new story will be posted.
Check back next month, when there will be a new story available.