“The widow spoke the truth,” Skyler Hobbs said. “That fellow looks positively gleeful.”
The subject of Hobbs’ remark sat to our right and one pew ahead, beaming like he’d won the Megabucks lottery. His eyes glowed a brilliant blue behind his thick spectacles, and gold-capped teeth glinted through his bristling white beard. The other funeral goers had cleared a wide space around him, focusing their attention in other directions.
“He looks happier than SpongeBob SquarePants,” I said. “Maybe he’s just nuts.”
“A distinct possibility, Watson, but I sense deeper waters here.”
“Wilder,” I said. “Jason Wilder, Computer Doctor.” But I knew it was pointless to correct him. Skyler Hobbs, you see, thinks he’s the second coming of Sherlock Holmes, and that I’m his Dr. Watson.
Organ music swelled, and from a room behind the choir came Hobbs’ client, Mrs. Charles Winkleman, dressed in a slinky black shift. Though her face was drawn, she was remarkably good-looking for a woman on the plus side of sixty.
She’d come to us two days before, and Hobbs was instantly intrigued. Her husband had perished in a grease fire while working his burger wagon on the downtown bus mall. The police had found no sign of foul play, and the widow had just begun to grieve when the smiling man appeared. She saw him outside the funeral parlor, in the meat department at Zupan’s Market, and in Mt. Scott Park while walking her wiener dog. She even saw him standing outside her house, just watching and smiling like the devil. And each time she’d tried to approach him, the fellow simply scurried away.
There was something oddly familiar about him, Mrs. Winkleman declared, but could not put her finger on it. And she had come to fear for her safety.
Watching the old coot’s reaction to the eulogies, I couldn’t blame her. When the preacher declared the Lord had His own reasons for taking the deceased into His bosom, the guy beamed as if he’d just been named King of the World, and when Winkleman’s sister broke into tears over a poignant tale, the guy actually licked his lips and chortled.
When it was finally over, we followed Mr. Happy up the aisle and down the hall to the reception, where a somber crowd munched stale cookies and conversed in low tones.
Hobbs paid special attention to an easel displaying photos of the deceased. He’d been a smooth-faced fellow with close-cropped hair, and in the shots where he wasn’t wearing sunglasses, he displayed remarkably blue eyes.
Hobbs turned from the easel looking enormously pleased with himself.
“So,” I said, “you’ve got it figured. What’s the poop?”
As was his habit, Hobbs wasted no time with explanations. Crooking a finger, he weaved a path through the mourners and planted himself before the smiling man. “So,” he said, “I perceive you have been quite enjoying yourself today.”
The fellow nodded with enthusiasm. “Quite.”
“Liked the eulogies, did you? Reveled in the grief expressed by Winkleman’s friends and relatives.”
The widow, I saw, had now entered the room, and stopped to watch the confrontation.
“And I suppose you think I find that odd,” Hobbs said.
The fellow beamed. “Don’t you?”
“Not at all,” Hobbs said, “for I have discovered your secret. You, sir, are Mr. Charles Winkleman in disguise!” And with that, he grabbed the guy’s whiskers in both hands and yanked.
The man stopped smiling. His mouth formed a huge O as he let loose a scream.
Hobbs looked astonished to see the beard still attached to the guy’s face. Then he gave a howl of his own, as the man kicked him in the shins and began pummeling him about the head.
Releasing the whiskers, Hobbs thrust his right leg backwards and cocked an arm in a peculiar manner.
I jumped on Hobbs' back, pinning his arms. I’d recognized the stance of the exotic martial art he called baritsu, and was afraid the bearded man would be seriously injured. As Hobbs struggled, the old guy continued to rain blows upon him until the widow’s sharp cry blistered our ears.
Hobbs stopped struggling, and the old man seemed to deflate. He folded up on himself, trying to avert his face.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Mrs. Winkleman snapped. “This man is not my husband!”
Hobbs seemed incapable of speech.
After a moment, the old man mumbled, “No Mabel, I’m not. But I’d like to be.”
She stared at him, a riot of emotions flitting across her face. At last she reached out, removed his thick spectacles, and brushed the scraggly hair aside. A small gasp escaped her lips.
“Harold? Is that you?”
“Who else,” he said, “has waited forty years to claim your hand?”
“Just as I suspected!” Hobbs declared. “Madam, you may expect my bill in the post.”
And though Hobbs was eager to go, I refused to budge until I got the whole story. The two had been high school sweethearts and were parted when Harold was sent to Viet Nam. He’d returned to find Mabel married to Charles Winkleman, and pined for her ever since. On hearing she’d been widowed he could not contain his joy, but had feared to approach her directly.
He needn’t have. Mabel was clearly pleased to see him, and I had a feeling this same church would soon be ringing wedding bells.
“So,” I said later to Hobbs, “you had that figured, did you?”
“Indubitably, Doctor. But since there was no way to prove it, I had to trick him into a confession.”
“A pat answer,” I said. “But I was watching your face when that beard stayed put, and you were the most surprised man on earth.”
It was Hobbs’ turn to smile. “You flatter me, Watson. But you are correct. The stage lost a fine actor when I turned to a career in crime detection.”
© copyright 2010 by Evan Lewis
For more adventures of Skyler Hobbs and "Doctor" Wilder, click HERE.
This tale was an entry in Dan O'Shea's "Mystery in Church" Flash Fiction Challenge.