I locked up and made my way down the path and out through the front gate. There, I stopped in astonishment. A hearse was parked outside my house. A hearse with a coffin in it.
In the driving seat was Mr. Babcock. He looked like an elderly tortoise, with his short wrinkly neck thrust forward above a stiff white collar and wearing a top hat. Flan, also wearing a top hat, was perched beside him. She stretched and opened the passenger door.
“Hop in, darling, and we’ll be off.”
“In this?” I exclaimed, gaping.
“I agree that it’s not ideal for a stake-out,” she said regretfully, “but it’s the best we could come up with on the spot. Harold’s other car has developed crotch problems, I’m afraid.”
“Clutch problems,” corrected Harold with a sniff. “Clutch problems.”
“But I thought you were retired,” I said irrelevantly as I became aware of the curious glances of a couple passing by on the other side of the street.
“I like to keep my hand in,” he replied.
Keep his hand in what? My mind skittered away from the image of cadavers on a slab.
“And does one ever really retire?” asked Flan thoughtfully. “If it’s something one has done all one’s life then one can’t help but retain an interest. Undertaking is in Harold’s blood, you see, even if now, his nephew does run the company.”
“It’s funeral directors,” said Harold with another sniff. “We don’t use the term undertakers anymore.”
“Well, whatever it is you’re called and whoever it is that’s in there” – I gestured towards the coffin, which was topped with a simple sheaf of white lilies and encircled by individual flower arrangements in baskets and bouquets – “I’m not going anywhere with you in this.”
“But I’ve got you a top hat,” protested Flan, pointing down at one she held in her lap. “They’re surprisingly comfortable. It’s the soft brim, apparently. Now, do get in, darling. We’ve just got to make a quick drop-off and we’ll be on our way.”
I felt my eyes cross as she pulled me unresistingly into the hearse beside her.