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Fiction Crime Suspense

The digits on his watch read 5:03. “Damn, damn, damn,” Del Wragley mutters. His shoulder grazes off one person coming the other way. “Sorry,” he says without looking. Both the double doors of the funeral home entrance are open and plugged with people coming out. “Doesn’t anyone follow the ‘keep to the right’ rule anymore?’ he thinks.

Del turns sideways and shuffle-steps to squeeze into the building, his back scrapes against the left-side door jamb. He hustles across the tiled floor of the lobby. He passes a sign announcing “Hazel Harris, viewing 4 PM.” and another for “J. D. Whyte, viewing 3 PM”. Del weaves through the potted palms along one edge. There are knots of people randomly spread around the room, huddling in low conversation. He deviates around a scrum at the coffee table. The gurgle of the stream from one urn hit his ears just as his nose slices through a cloud of brew smell. His hips turn to put him at the end of the coffee queue. “Focus Del.”

He forges on to the doors at the opposite end of the space. One of the two is already closed. The other closing. A hawk-faced, bald, stooped old man takes up the dwindling space between.

Del stops in front of the old man. He’d pinned a name tag to the lapel of his all-black suit coat. A badge of inoffensive beige plastic has words routered out in dark blue to convey the essential information–“Morton Boot, Director”.

Boot half-steps forward and pulls the swinging door against his shoulder. His other one touches the edge of the door’s twin. “I’m sorry, sir. The viewing is closed. All the guests are heading over to the interment site for the service.”

Del shifts to one side and rises on tip toe. Just over the gleam reflecting off the top of the man’s head, he sees two younger men in somber dress, each sporting the Morton Boot nose, wheeling a casket, the casket, out of the room. The casket with his nemesis and business associate, J. Don Whyte, inside. Or what is left of him. Is the stein nestled under one arm? Embraced to his chest? Or shoved without care between his legs. Del knew where Carol would have put it. But she probably wouldn’t have been able to roll the body over without help.

He paused his breathing. With the whistle of his twice broken nose silenced for the moment, he heard the voices, muffled, from the other room. Carol Whyte, Bob Nance and Britney… something. Good. He was safe for now.

At least Del wouldn’t have to search for it. J. Don, pathologically organized, had a special place for it, commensurate with its importance. Del knew just where it would be and what it looked like. J. Don had waved it in front of him often enough. Usually when Del tried to show independence or initiative.

“Just do what you’re told Del, my boy. Or I destroy this and there’s nothing to prove you weren’t there that night.” Del had lost count of the number of times J. Don had said it, words always the same.

“Don’t be locked, don’t be locked, don’t be locked,” Del said, fast, a desperate incantation. He reached out and pulled on the knob. The drawer slid open. At halfway, a squeak filled the room. Yep, that was the drawer. He froze again to listen. He could still hear them talking. Del didn’t dare open the drawer further.

His heart fluttered. He sucked in a breath. J. Don had packed the drawer from front to as far in as Del could see with file folders. Del squatted down, butt against heels. He started thumbing across the little manila tabs. Not all manila though. A few other colors stood out. One, safety orange, had “D.X. Wragley” written on it in J. Don’s machine precision script exactly centered left-right and up-down on the tab.

Del pinched the tab between his thumb and the two-knuckle stump of his index finger and stood, hauling the folder up with him. He opened the folder and cradled it in his palms. The folder had two two sheets of yellowed paper clipped, one to each cover. The one he stared at had the photo. Delbert Xavier Wragley seen through a car windshield, overhead view, date and time stamp along the bottom.

Del grinned, let out a deliberate breath, forced his shoulders down, away from his ears. Then he smiled.

He pushed the drawer closed with his foot. Squeak. Clunk. He headed toward the door, still reading the two pages in the file.

“Del?” Carol said, distant, out in the hall. Her heels clacked on the tile. The noise grew louder, closer.

What to do? Where to hide it? He couldn’t just shove it down his pants. Too obvious. Del looked around. To the right of the door was the trophy case. Closest was the glass door with the Kragensberg Stein behind it. That stupid thing. J. Don always jabbering about it, “There’s only one. I have the provenance to prove it. Should be in a museum.”

Carol’s heel strikes were right outside the door.

Del yanked open the glass case door, thumbed the pad at the top of the stein’s handle. Its metal lid popped open. Clack. He rolled the folder into a narrow tube, shoved it into the maw of the stein, and flipped the lid closed. His hand returned to his side just as Carol pushed open the door to the office.

“What are you doing? I’ve been calling you. We have the meeting with the funeral home people in forty minutes. I need you to drive,” Carol said. Her eyes narrowed. She looked Del in the eyes and then at the desk. She stood aside, held the door wide, and stuck her arm out. An “after you” gesture.

Del walked through the opening and stopped to let Carol go first down the hall. The gentlemanly thing. Carol’s eyes didn’t leave his face. She pulled the door to J. Don’s study closed with both hands behind her. She jerked her head sidewards, aimed down the hall, toward the others.

Message received. Del went back to the meeting in the main room.

The conversation wound down. The two lawyers gathered their papers and put them away.

“OK. Let’s get over there. I’ll go grab that stupid mug,” Carol says.

She returned holding the gaudy thing with two hands underneath, fingers interlaced. She held it handle out, like a prow. The face of the porcelain white-mustachioed German dude nuzzled Carol’s flat stomach.

“I can’t believe he wants to be buried with this thing. Asshole. You sure we can’t just sell it?” she said.

“I’m sorry Mrs. Whyte. It’s stipulated in your husband’s will,” Brittany or Tiffany or whatever said.

“Come on Del. Let’s go,” Carol said over her shoulder to him.

The doors latch closed inches from Del’s nose. “Think Del. Come on. Concentrate,” he said, lips barely moving. The remaining pods of people move across the lobby toward the glass entry way. Del shoulders his way between business suits and pants suits and somber dresses. He throws out a few insincere “Excuse me.”s on his way through.

Out front, under the portico, he makes a left turn onto the walk, matching the direction the two Boot boys headed in with the fancy oak box, J.Don and the stein.

Del cuts in behind a low hedge to travel the space between it and the cinder block wall. The shoulder pad of his suit jacket rubs along the wall while on the other side, sharp, trimmed twigs of the hedge snag and pull at the coat’s tail.

He stops at the far corner, crouches, puts his back to the blocks, spy style, and cranks his head around to put one eye past the edge.

He sees the service side of the business, hidden from the mourners. The requisite dumpster is there. Del cringes and pulls back at the sight of it. Surely not for body parts. No, couldn’t be.

Fans whir in two air conditioner pods, connected by umbilicals to the building. A carport juts out, sheltering two big Lincoln Continentals. One is a clean, well-waxed white. The other a hazed black. Both have raised roofs and ornate silver scrolled handles above the rear fender wells, as if set up for a pair of colossal pall bearers to lift the cars and take them to their final destinations.

The full-width rear hatch on the dark car stands swung open to its limit. Boot juniors one and two each have a hand wrapped around the rear of a casket and are leaning their combined and considerable weight toward the rear of the death wagon. Something gives. The front set of spindly chrome legs fold back until their undersized black wheels disappear up underneath the casket. The other legs follow like dominoes. J.Don is safe inside his last ride.

Little Boot the first wipes the back of a meaty, hairy hand across his forehead. His brother reaches out and slams the big door closed.

Del duck walks in his crouch around the two humming AC units and into the gap between the dumpster and the wall. He drops one knee to the pavement to relieve the burning in his quads. He shifts his weight. His knee slides in something greasing the pavement. “Might as well ruin the pants, too. While I’m at it.”

Del has a clear view out the gap between the rust-sided dumpster and the matching rust-colored smears on the mostly white cinder blocks. He can see the driver’s side of the black hearse and the rear service entrance on the left. Door closer disappears through the rear entrance. Keys jangle. The other young Boot flips one-handed through them and comes up with a car ignition fob pinched between two fingers. He opens the driver-side door, sticks a leg in and drops into the seat. The big car jounces on its springs. The driver pauses, leans away from the opening, one cheap dress shoe still on the pavement. He fiddles, working to get the key in the ignition.

Del drops to his butt and leans his head back. A sharp-edged bump of cement stabs at his scalp. Among his swirling thoughts comes, “They’re going to drive that thing to the cemetery, put J. Don in the ground in front of all those people and then cover him up. I’m toast. I’m not up to a two AM moonless night shovel session. Not in the dark, surrounded by all those dead people. The investigators will find out about ‘the incident’, eventually. They’ll figure J. Don’s trusted and handy muscle thug slash driver would have been there. And with him under grass they’ll pounce on me. Me with no way to prove I wasn’t there. Unless some magic happens right quick.”

Something flickers in Del’s peripheral vision. Boot senior is beckoning a claw at his son. He says something Del can’t make out. “Yeah, yeah, coming,” Junior says, accompanied by a tremendous eye roll. He slithers sideways. The steering wheel takes a ten degree turn to the right as young Boot’s gut drags at its lower rim. Boot comes out from between the wheel and the seat back like a popped cork. He takes a step, stops, does a half-turn and underhands the chandelier of keys onto the driver's seat. He shuffles off toward the door, grabbing handfuls of belt and hitching his pants up. Poppa has already gone back inside.

Del waits until he can’t see those hunched shoulders anymore. He pops to his feet and runs to the hearse. Snatching the keys off the seat, he gets in and pulls the door after him. He holds it near closed with his left hand, afraid to make any noise. Del fumbles the key into the ignition and looks up. It’s just like when that one boyfriend of Mom’s let him drive his pickup when Del was eleven. He’s looking through the hearse’s steering wheel. He raises his free hand. Stretching, he can touch the headliner. The Boot boys must be bruisers, bigger than he thought. Seat and mirror adjustments will have to wait.

Del cranks the key fob and stomps the gas. The corpse hauler leaps forward. He pushes the door out for a second and slams it closed. Someone had thought through the backside layout of the parlor. It’s a straight shot across the narrow rear lot to the exit.

Del lifts a little, cranks the wheel right. Tires complain and the Lincoln rolls left like it wants to go all the way over. He and his hijacked cargo finish the turn, cross a drainage dip at the intersection and come out the other side, pitching like a ship at sea. “Why’d they give this thing such cushy springs?” Del thinks. “It’s not like the passengers care about the ride.”

Del whooped and pounded the top limb of the steering wheel with his palm. He did it. He was back in business and may yet live. “Now what?” he says, wishing J. Don would give him the answer to that question one last time.

How long before the police showed up? For a crime boss flunky, he was ignorant about police procedure. Soon, probably. Del took a few deep breaths. “Blend in Del. Just drive normal, blend in.”. His first look at the giant curvy silver handles and the car’s high roof flashes across his mind. “Yeah. Blend in. Right.”

He needs to get off the street. He’d turned right coming out of the parlor’s parking lot. That put him heading back into town. The farther he goes, the taller the buildings get. Parking lots are getting smaller and farther between. He cranks his head around as he passes one. He can’t see any open slots. Would this beast even fit in a parking spot?

Is that a siren? It sounds like a siren. “Please be a fire truck.”

His palms are cold, clammy. It feels like sweat squirts out when he squeezes the steering wheel in his fists.

On the right, sticking up from the sidewalk, over the train of parked car roofs, he sees a sign. A blue rectangle with a white letter “P”, and an arrow pointing right.

Del flicks his gaze to the far side rear-view mirror, hops over to the right lane without signaling. He stands on the brakes and makes the right turn in under the “Public Parking” banner suspended overhead. In front of him, the concrete ramp descends below street level.

At the bottom, just before the blackness, a yellow horizontal pipe with “Caution–Clearance 8 ft. 3 in.!” stenciled on it hangs horizontally from two chains.

From his old lady vantage through the steering wheel, it looks to be hanging right the level of the “emoH larenuF snoS & tooB” decal stuck on the upper inside of the windshield.

He clamps his eyes closed as he passes under but hears no rending shriek of peeling sheet metal.

Del opens his eyes again. “Yes… No!” Back on the brakes again. Tires squeak on polished concrete. The nose of the Lincoln stops just under the white barrier with its red diagonal stripes.

“Please take the ticket,” says the recorded lady voice.

Del takes.

The barrier arm goes up.

Three right turns, squeal, squeal, squeal and down a level.

And again.

And again.

The bottom level is nearly empty, only a few cars parked at minimum walking distance from the up elevator.

Del noses into a spot as dark as the Lincoln, at the far corner. A pipe, swathed with insulation wads as big around as he is, runs side to side, anchored to the concrete wall.

Del abuses the shift lever over to “P” and kills the engine. He climbs over the back of the bench seat and moves on all fours along the space between the casket and the modesty curtains hiding the window.

In the dimness, the casket wood looks black, with only a few highlights coming off the polished metal fittings.

“You lose J.D. Got my alibi after all.”

Del gets thumbs under the lid and pushes up. Nothing. “What the hell. Do they nail them closed now?”

He fishes his iPhone out of his pocket, hits the flashlight icon and plays the white light on the fancy box.

He’s on the hinge side.


Del swings the phone up in front of him. The casket is flush against the big back door. He twists and gets his head up over the top. At the apex, his chin skin skitters along the wood and the hearse’s headliner is trying to give him a receding hairline.

Backwards crawl to the bench seat, awkward turn around and down the other side of the J. Don container.

This time, thumbs are useful. The lid comes up about a hand’s span before a hard stop against the car’s ceiling.

“Sorry J Don,” Del says and slides a hand into the gap. Then his arm stops moving, and fingers retract into a fist. He snatches the arm back. The idea of reaching into a dark casket, in the dark, and having a feel around doesn’t seem that daunting. At first.

“Del. Jeez. You’re pathetic.” He switched his grip, got an elbow under the lid to prop it up, got the flashlight on the iPhone firing again and holds in the hand of the lid prop arm.

Del whooshes a breath out through pursed lips. He flexes the fingers of his free hand and looks into the casket, ready to plunge in.

He likes the Golden Girls. It’s one of his go-to three beer turn the mind off TV selections. Even so, the sight of the spitting image of Sophia laying in the casket with her blue-white curls, drinking glass bottom eyeglasses and gnarled fingers clutching the handles of a Jackie Kennedy purse was little comfort.

December 24, 2021 20:17

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01:39 Jan 01, 2022

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