All dressed in white shirts and black ties, the wait staff lined up on one side. The youngest, Laura, appeared exhausted with circles under her eyes and a bruise on the side of her temple. Running into the doorjamb to the kitchen, she had dropped her tray breaking several glasses hurting her pride more than her head. Beth stood with a beaming smile, and Richard took his place at the end folding his arms and appearing glum. Standing beside Peter, Nine placed her arm on his shoulder. Boris and his assistant, Crank—covered in food grime, lined up on the other side of Peter.
Standing beside the bar, Tara held her phone up and gazed at the display lining up the shot. The bartender, Kyle or Cal, never made it in. Tara had saved the day by stepping in behind the bar, but she had made a point of letting everyone know how unprepared they were. Eyebrows scrunched low, she examined the phone display.
“How long do we have to wait for this picture?” asked Laura. She huffed and flicked her strawberry blonde hair over her shoulder
“Any second now,” said Beth, smiling for the picture.
“Is that coffin for real?” asked Tara.
Realizing the coffin rested in the background, Peter frowned. A flash, the opening-day celebration captured three grumpy faces, a coffin behind their legs, and Nine staring at Peter with a grin that Tara would make derogatory comments on for weeks. Peter was about to suggest another try over by the stage, but he didn’t want to interrupt the crew circling around Beth to look at the image on her phone. ➥
Where had Tara disappeared to? Peter glanced around finding Laura scurrying up the stairs. The others were a clump of white and black beside the bar. Perhaps Tara had slipped out to fetch more of her wine she had brought from the vineyard. It didn’t matter. The coffin had his attention.
All Hallows’ Eve, and according to the note, he could reveal his treat. He had tracked down the name of the sender, and called twice earlier in the day leaving messages, but no response. It was a business number, the office of a man named, Steve Reynolds, a stranger.
Laura skidded to a stop and stuffed an arm through her coat. “Have school in the morning gotta go,” she said.
Peter thanked Laura for staying late, and she sped out the front door. He wished Boris and Crank a goodnight. Nine popped beside him bumping shoulders.
“Want to open it now?” asked Nine. Grinning like the devil, she elbowed Peter. “I have my tools in the break room.”
“Sure,” said Peter. Although, he didn’t feel all that certain about it. A part of him wanted an explanation, another part wanted rid of the coffin. His curious side stood like an elephant in the room.
Spinning around, Nine headed upstairs to fetch her tools.
An expensive gift from a stranger didn’t sit well with him, and a coffin seemed wrong, especially so soon after his father had passed away. Of course, the sender likely didn’t know. The box held something beneath the sealed lid. He had felt weight shift inside when carrying it from the kitchen. If he didn’t like his gift, he could always return it to the sender. Or sell it all like Nine had suggested.
Holding a glass of her best piñot noir, Tara stood beside Peter. Her free hand knocked him on the back of the head.
Grimacing, Peter pushed his hair back in place and glared at his sister.
“I noticed the way you look at her,” said Tara, nodding towards the stairs.
“You’re her boss, Peter,” said Tara, “so try to keep your dick in your pants.”
Peter shook his head. That was just like her, always riding him about everything she imagined. It seemed worse lately. Maybe she felt jealous about the restaurant, and had wanted it all along. He appreciated her coming for opening day and covering for the missing bartender, but he wished she would stick to her vineyard and leave his business alone.
“Ever wonder why you’re not married?” said Peter. He didn’t mean to snap back at her, but he decided he might as well keep going. “Because you say shit like that.”
Tara frowned and sipped her wine.
On her way out, Beth promised to send him the picture and wiggled her fingers goodbye. Peter smiled and wished her a safe drive home.
Nine returned with a pair of pry irons. Nine handed one of the bars to Peter and sat down near the foot of the coffin.
On one knee, Peter took his position near the head of the box.
“If we’re careful,” said Nine, “the damage will be minimal so we can sell this bad boy.” She set the prongs against the crack and hit the opener hard with her palm forcing the prongs in.
“Are you seriously going to open that thing in here?” asked Tara.
“If you want to sell, I mean,” said Nine. She gave the opener another hit.
On Nine’s count, Peter leaned on his bar while Nine pushed down on hers while Tara droned on about health code violations and Hallowe’en pranks. The lid creaked, but held firm.
“Peter,” said Nine, “if we find a pile of candy in here I’m going to smack you for not opening it sooner.”
“Think about it. Trick-or-treaters grabbing handfuls of candy from a coffin. We could have been the coolest business on the block.”
Another push on the bars, and the coffin released a long groan.
“I don’t like the sound of that,” said Tara.
“It’s the seal,” said Nine. Looking at Peter, she smiled. “We’d smell it if there was anything atrocious inside.”
Lid popping open, the coffin spewed a fine dust smelling like cinnamon and lavender. Powder on his tongue, Peter closed his mouth and turned his head away.
“What the hell was that?” asked Tara. She slammed her glass down on the bar.
Licking his lips, Peter tasted the powder finding it sweet. Looking at Nine with concern, he felt relieved finding her casual grin. Perhaps dust came with the job. Setting the opener aside, he grasped the edge of the lid and lifted leaning it against the wall.
No padding or pillows, a thin red liner covered the inside of the coffin. A silver canister, nearly consuming the width of the box, sat near the center. Beside it, a composition book, which Nine snatched up. A samurai sword held in black ribbon hung on the near side.
Nine flipped through the composition book.
Uncertain what to make of it all, Peter reached out tentatively and touched the canister. Cold. Two hinged clasped held the lid down tight, and clear tape kept it sealed. Brown tape held a test tube to the side, and a blue stopper clenched a rubber tube dangling inside like a straw. Looking closer, Peter noticed a white chalky substance clinging to the inside of the test tube.
“Oh, shit,” said Peter. He couldn’t think of anything else to say, and sat down dropping his hands in his lap.
The chalky dust from the test tube had filled his lungs.
Setting the notebook down, Nine leaned over the coffin. “There’s a blue sticky on this canister,” she said.
“Peter,” said Tara, “should I call the cops?”
“Keep in freezer,” said Nine. She ripped tape pulling a small plastic bag free from the backside of the canister. “And there are two syringes. What is this about, Peter?”
Toxic joke, deadly attack, odd collectables mistakenly delivered to the wrong Peter Gray; it all swirled in his head. There were far easier ways to poison someone, and the powder could have released by accident, change in pressure sucking the fine powder from the test tube. No one with bad intentions would supply directions to keep the goods frozen, and include what appeared to be an expensive sword.
Nine ripped the tape from the canister. Unfastening the levers, she popped the lid of the canister open, and a rush of cold air pushed frost out.
“Are you sure you want to be doing that?” asked Tara. Taking a step closer, she leaned over Peter for a closer look.
Nine lifted the lid, revealing two plastic bags sitting on a bed of card ice pellets. Lifting a bag of red substance, she tapped the label indicating the contents. Blood.
“That’s blood, Peter,” said Tara.
“Thank you for pointing out the obvious,” said Peter.
Scrunching her face, Nine scowled at Peter.
Beneath the other bag of blood, a smaller bag containing clear liquid sat at the bottom. Lifting it, Nine squished the bag with her fingers pushing frosty bubbles around.
“We don’t need the cops,” said Peter. Twisting around, he looked for his sister. An empty wine glass sat on the end of the bar.
“This is one weird box of treats,” said Nine.
Looking at the contents, Peter tried to make sense of it. There might be useful information in the notebook, maybe even identifying the substance swimming around inside him, but a sword and packs of blood in a coffin seemed too bizarre for an unannounced gift.
“The red interior is divine,” said Nine. She placed the bags back inside the canister and closed the lid.
Peter picked up the scent of lavender again and paused. Sniffing the air heated his nostrils. He felt feint, but it passed. Taking in a deep breath, he felt better.
“Dammit,” said Peter. He grinned at Nine trying to appear apologetic. “Now I wish you had talked me into opening it earlier. A pile of candy in the coffin for the trick-or-treaters would have been sweet.”
You may read this same scene from Nine’s perspective in “Twilight Coffin”