This short fiction began as a response to a prompt from Writer's Digest: develop a 500-word (or less) sketch involving an heirloom item and its loss or retrieval. The responses I saw included subjects focusing on jewelry, locked boxes, and so forth. Good stuff, but I took a slightly different tack. And yes, what is described here actually happens.
Shaking the key in the deadbolt, she shot the latch through. At some point, the lock was going to need to get fixed. Turning, the middle-aged woman, dressed in soft cashmere for the sake of fashion more than the September weather, made her way through the empty parking lot to the waiting Audi A7, then to her waiting husband, and, most likely, her waiting television and another early night.
Her impractical Louboutin heels sounded flat clacks across the black pavement, poorly illuminated by two halide lights humming 30 feet above her. The only other car in the lot she had assumed to be empty until the driver’s-side door suddenly opened, discharging a person who then gently shut the door. He started making his way toward her, but slowly.
Margaret Stiegler, proprietor of Stiegler’s Funereal Services, hesitated, then stopped to allow this stranger to approach. Perhaps she should have felt more caution given the hour and situation, but something told her this man was not a threat. Maybe it was the man’s slow, hesitant pace or the slight wave of a raised hand that eased any apprehensions; or perhaps it was that hers was a little town where only little things happened.
As he approached, she relaxed further. In his 80’s and hobbled to the point of being a near-invalid, he looked more like one of her customers than someone that could do her harm. The man lowered his arm as he neared.
“I’m so sorry,” he began, “I know it must seem odd to meet like this out here. I just wanted to have a quick word with you but didn’t feel comfortable coming inside. Name’s Hanson, Mike Hanson. And you’re Mrs. Stiegler, the owner, correct?” His tone suggested it was a superfluous question, one of several opening gambits that were commonly made at the outset of a conversation between two distant acquaintances. She noted that his accent was not authentic to this area, the vowels pinched and diction too precise for a native.
“That’s right, Mr. - Hanson, is it?” She remembered now: Elizabeth Hanson, a deceased that came through about two months ago, when it was warmer and the air stagnant, accumulating strength for the onslaughts of fall and winter. “Mr. Hanson, it is good to see you again - and I’m so sorry about your lovely wife. I know what comes after can be so hard.” They had moved close to each other, no more than a couple of feet apart, so she placed her hand on his shoulder in what she hoped was a gesture of sympathy. He felt sharp and slightly unsteady under her hand. Releasing him and turning her head slightly she added, “What can I do for you?”
“Thank you for those kind words; I do hope you can help me. This situation is awkward for me, Mrs. Stiegler, but I’ll just get right to my point. A young man that works for you, Roger Lackey, is an acquaintance. He delivers groceries to us - me, now that Elizabeth is gone - and sometimes does some odd jobs around the house. You know him?” Margaret asserted she did, and that Roger had even worked part time at the parlor last year.
“Actually, that’s what I wanted to speak with you about: Roger having worked at your establishment last year, I mean. Well…Roger told me something that I found hard to believe, but he seems very sincere and is a very polite young man, as you know.” Margaret nodded, slowly, her skin tingling with unwelcome anticipation, like it does when you slip and almost, but not quite, take a bad fall on an icy sidewalk. “According to Roger it seems that you may retain certain…items…left from those that are cremated at your facility on Route 51.” Seeing the younger woman staring at him intently, he looked down at his worn, soft shoes as if the courage to go on had fallen out of his pocket and landed near his feet. “I’m here because my Lizzie’s titanium hip joint is worth quite a lot and, on the off chance that you still have it, I would like it returned. It would help with expenses. If you would kindly do that for me, I will never tell another soul about this part of your operations – although I have to say I find it a disturbing practice.”
Margaret paused for a moment to study the elderly man’s features, wrinkled and kind and resolute. His shallow, irregular breaths were marked by small clouds that fogged the air momentarily then faded away. She then asked him to wait while she went to unlock the trunk of the Audi where she kept the big glass pickle jar.