THE BEAUTIFUL AND MYSTERIOUS STRANGER

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"May I volunteer?"


Upon hearing those words, Phineas Stiffs, age 19, felt his heart grab like tires on rough asphalt. On that warm hazy spring day in the Gravesend Cemetery, with the yellow disc of the sun ashimmer through a film of brownish-yellow smog stretching to the horizon, Phineas gazed spellbound at the beautiful and mysterious dark-haired stranger who had just spoken to him. She was, without doubt, the loveliest living female he had ever laid eyes on, an enchantress with large green eyes and a French curled bob, wearing flowing low-cut dark ruffled indigo dress.

Phineas, who, despite his substantial, athletic build, and own good looks, had always been painfully shy around the opposite sex, was so startled by her sudden appearance beside the polished bronze casket that for a moment he forgot what he'd asked volunteers for. "Uh, uh ... ahem, uh, sorry ....?" He stammered.

"Didn't you just ask if anyone could help carry this?" The young woman placed her hand on the polished casket, which protruded halfway out of the back of the funeral lorry. Phineas now recalled that yes, he had indeed asked for assistance in removing from the back of the lorry the Stiff's Everlasting Security Bronze casket containing the late Ms. Hortense Peabody.

"But you're so pretty ... uh, I mean, it's so pretty ... heavy... the casket, that is," Phineas spluttered. By itself, the Everlasting Security Bronze weighed more than 200 pounds. With the addition of Ms. Peabody, who was anything but pea-sized, it probably tipped the scales at 420.

The beautiful young woman in indigo crooked her milky white bare arm, displaying a firm bicep with a well-defined bulge. "I train regularly."

At the sight of her pale, trim flesh, Phineas felt the color rise in his cheeks. Indeed, he found himself momentarily speechless.

However, another of the pallbearers who'd gathered behind the funeral lorry was not nearly so dazzled. "We can definitely use you right here, miss," said Phineas's Cousin Rudy, pointing to the spot directly across the casket from where he was standing. The young woman smiled as she stepped closer and clasped a casket handle firmly. Cousin Rudy then patted Phineas's strapping shoulder, bringing the entranced young man back to the business at hand.

With the aid of a couple of burly funerary workers in dirt-stained coveralls, they hefted the casket off the lorry's flat bed, trod past the soot-shrouded trees and started up the weedy slope toward the grave site. Thus laboring, Phineas felt an unexpected flush of jealousy when he noticed that his cousin's eyes were fixed, not on the goal of securing firm purchase on the scraggly sloping terrain ahead, but rather on the young woman's extremely fetching décolletage.

No wonder my cousin was so eager to have her directly across the casket, Phineas thought ruefully, while he himself noted how her long slender throat reddened from the effort of lugging the heavy casket, and how the tendons were visible beneath the soft skin of her slender neck, displaying an enticing combination of delicacy and bewitching strength. The result was as dismaying as it was dizzying, for he had never before known a female to have such a profound affect on him.

Having made their way up hill to the grave site, Phineas and Rudy backed away to a respectable distance. The beautiful young woman returned to the small group of mourners who had gathered to bid Hortense Peabody secure passage to her final resting place.

Reverend Walls, his white collar stiff and black gowns ruffling, stepped forth and began to rattle off the standard sermon: "We come here today with sorrow in our hearts and questions on our minds as to why these things..." the familiar words slipping through Phineas's consciousness as automatically as a daily flag salute in class, or a mother's admonition to dress warmly on a cold morning.

Instead, Phineas's attention once again focused solely on the vision of indigo-clad loveliness across the grave site, who now dabbed her cheeks with a small lace handkerchief. Finding it nearly impossible to take his eyes off her, Phineas felt himself grow uncomfortably warm under the hazy June sun. His own collar began to feel tight and he repeatedly chastised himself for staring. After all, he was at work. This was the family business and she was one of the mourners, and while he'd never actually been told that feeling deeply with one of the bereaved was considered bad form, he couldn't help but assume that it was. He felt ashamed of himself. Surely he should have had better self-control, no matter how comely she was.

"Never thought I'd see her again," Cousin Rudy whispered beside him. The tailcoat Phineas's cousin wore was wrinkled to the point of looking slept in. His eyes were bloodshot, and several days' worth of stubble darkened those areas of his cheeks and chin not covered by his bushy hulihee.

The whispered words jolted Phineas out of his reverie. "What do you mean, 'again?'?"

"She came to an old lady's funeral last week, too. That one blew herself up in her kitchen. Gas leak."

Phineas nodded solemnly. Such explosions were regretfully commonplace in a world dependent solely on natural gas or hydrocarbon jelly for cooking. "Are you sure it was her?"

"Definitely. Your father insisted that I accompany him for the disposition of the remains. After the terrible mix-up with Mayor Del Guardia, he—"

"That's not what I meant," Phineas quickly said. He still couldn't bear hearing about what had come to be called The Mix-Up in recent Stiffs family lore. An event so painfully inexcusable that it threatened the very existence of the family funeral home itself. He nodded at the lovely young woman. "I meant, are you sure it was she at the funeral last week?"

"Are you kidding?" Rudy whispered. "As if I would mistake such a heavenly goddess for anyone else? Tell me she doesn't make your winkle wankle?"

At this juncture, dear reader, it is important to note that Cousin Rudy's voice tends to carry. Around the grave site, the handful of elderly mourners still in possession of some degree of hearing turned their heads in his direction with chastising scowls. And, while Phineas surely would not have selected "wankling winkle" to describe the affect the young woman had on him, he found himself unable to disagree with his cousin's general sentiment.

At least, until Cousin Rudy nudged him with his elbow and nodded toward the tall sinister-looking fox-faced young man in the black sack suit and bow tie, polished top hat and dark glasses, lurking just behind the crowd.

Phineas instantly steeled himself. For the moment, all thoughts of wankles, winkles, and exquisite young women instantly abated.

Trouble was at hand.

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