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REST IN PEACE, . . . PLEASE!

Adam Smith

 

A cold, gray sky served as the background for the Victorian styled mansion rising on the hill.  Two men dressed in black suits stood on the front porch, both wearing somber faces land locking their hands behind their backs.
            "Blast this foul weather!" the shorter one said.
            "Manfred, please quit using that stupid British accent and quit saying 'Blast.'  If you're going to curse, you might as well curse like an American."
            "In my own country, we never had this kind of weather."
"Yes, we all know how London is warm and sunny throughout the year."
            "I'm not from London, Henry."
            "I really don't cars."  Henry noticed three vehicles reach the entrance far down the hill.  The procession turned in through the gate and moved slowly up the road.  "It appears our guests have arrived."
            "There's only three cars."
            "This stiff was a crazy old bat.  Only his family showed up for this."
"I believe the word you're looking for is 'eccentric,' " corrected Manfred.  Remember, he was filthy rich.  We're making a fortune off his death."
"The best word is 'loony,' which, as I understand, could describe his entire family."  The vehicles were still far away, but Henry leaned down anyway to whisper to his partner, "Rumor has it the old geezer was hiding the most valuable part of the fortune from all these characters, and one of them knocked him off."
Manfred looked surprised.  "I thought the coroner called it a heart attack?"
"The coroner can barely tell if they're dead.  Besides, he's drunk most of the time.  Heart attack, food poisoning.  What's the difference?"
"Well, I don't care how he died.  I just wish more people would follow his lead."
"Yes," conceded Henry, "business has been slow."
"Only two stiffs in the whole blasted house! I'd say so."
Henry ignored the comment.  The procession finally reached the mansion.  The first vehicle, a long, black Lincoln, produced a leggy, middle-aged blonde in a red dress and a twenty-something slouch of a man with tousled black hair.
"That's the current wife and the estranged nephew," said Henry.
"The wife?" repeated Manfred.  Henry nodded.  Manfred shrugged, "I can see why the coroner guessed a heart attack."
A much older couple stepped out of the second vehicle, a suburban.
"The ex-wife and the brother," mumbled Henry.
Manfred smiled, "Future clients."
Two more middle-aged, innocent looking figures got out of the final vehicle, a red Tahoe.  There was one man and one woman, both with chestnut-colored hair and tear-stained faces.
"The children," said Henry.
"It took three vehicles that large to bring six people down here?"
"Crazy families usually aren't close, Manfred."
"Eccentric."
"Whatever."  Henry turned to his partner,  "Look, why don't I go make sure everything's ready while you greet the guests?"
"Fine."
Manfred put on his most comforting smile while Henry walked inside the chapel. Near the front sat an open coffin with a young man arranging flowers around it. The man's suit fit terribly, which always bothered Henry, but if the kid couldn't fix himself up, at least he fixed up the corpses without arguing.
"Everything ready, Bartholomew?"
"Yes, sir," replied the kid.  "Just putting on the finishing touches."
Henry smiled, then turned his attention to the body in the coffin.  What he saw made his knees go weak, his face grow white, and his blood heat to boiling.  He leaned against the coffin for support.
Bartholomew noticed Henry's reaction. "Are you okay, sir?"
Drawing on all the strength he could muster, Henry turned his face to the kid and spoke slowly and deliberately. "Where in Hell is that crazy old man?"
The kid suddenly looked hurt, "Please, sir. The old man might have been bad, but give him the benefit of the doubt."
"He's supposed to be in this coffin, you moron!"
"But I thought it was the old lady's funeral?"
"That's not 'til tomorrow!"
"Oh," said Bart. "I guess that does complicate things a bit."
"Where's the other body!"
Bart looked confused. "Well, Digger took out another coffin this morning. I asked him what he was doing and he said it needed repairs."
Henry couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Repairs! For crying out loud, Bart! Why would it need repairs? It's going underground!"
"Maybe it was an old one."
"We don't recycle these things, you twit!" Henry heard voices approaching the door. He slammed the coffin lid shut and grabbed Bart by the shoulders. "Look here, kid. If you want to keep this job, you get in the hearse and go find Digger. Now!"
The door opened and the family filed into the chapel. Henry helped seat the guests, then pulled his partner aside.
"We've got a slight problem, Manfred."
"I don't like problems right now. Why is the coffin shut? Did Bart not prepare everything correctly?"
"The wrong body is in the coffin."
Manfred felt he would throw up. "Please tell me this is one of your disgusting undertaker jokes."
Henry shook his head. "The lady is in this box. Digger took off with the other corpse."
"We've only got two blasted corpses in the entire house, and the wrong one is in the coffin!"
"Quite, Manfred," whispered Henry, looking back at the guests. "They'll hear you."
Manfred tried to compose himself. "What are you doing about it?"
"I've sent Bart out to find Digger."
"In what?"
"The other hearse."
Manfred tilted his head, "You're saying we've got two hearses chasing each other around out there?" Henry nodded solemnly. Manfred continued, "Well, that's a brilliant idea! Sending that kid speeding through town in a hearse. We're dead. Stone, cold, stick-a-fork-in-'em, they're done, dead."
"I wish you wouldn't use that word at the moment."
"Would you prefer 'Blasted'?"
"I'm giving the eulogy," Henry said curtly, and walked over to his position behind the coffin. With a somber, death-warmed-over face, he began.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here today to celebrate the life of—"
"Please don't start this like a wedding," interjected the ex-wife. "He's had two of them already."
"Mother!" hissed both the children. The mother only shrugged.
Henry gathered himself and continued. "Unfortunately, our beloved is no longer with us in the physical sense, but we will always keep him in our hearts."
"Why isn't the coffin open?" asked the estranged nephew.
Henry disliked being interrupted, especially for a question he couldn't really answer.  Nevertheless, inspiration hit him just when he needed it most. "At our last meeting concerning his wishes, the deceased requested that his coffin be shut throughout the ceremony."
"Why?" continued the nephew. "He died from a heart attack. The body should look fine."
Why do you care, you little—but Henry stopped himself.  Being the good undertaker, he avoided such words, even in their most fitting cases. Instead he replied, "I tried to convince him of the positives about an open coffin. I told him he would look better dead than he ever did alive, but—"
"Please, sir. I must see my brother's body," said the brother suddenly. "My brother told me about a family heirloom, a ring, that he wanted me to have. I couldn't find it at his house, so I figure it must have accidentally been placed on his hand."
"That ring as for me," argued the wife.
"Let me get this straight," said Manfred to the brother. "You want to pull a ring off the corpse?"
"I've had enough!" stated the son. He stood up and marched over to the coffin. The other family members followed him.
"Please, sir. You mustn't!" begged Henry, but it was too late. The son threw back the coffin lid. The wife fainted, the brother gasped, the children cried, and Manfred went to answer the phone he just knew was ringing in the other room.
"Woah, he was a cross-dresser!" laughed the nephew.
"I want to see my ex-husband!"
Since the whole ceremony was shot anyway, Henry didn't care anymore. "That's probably the first time an ex-wife ever said that line."
"What did you do with him?!" said the brother.
"Digger's taking him on one last cruise through town. That was another one of his final wishes."
"You're lying!"
Henry shrugged, "You're the one with the crazy brother. Besides, what's the big deal about this ring? He hid his real fortune from all of you anyway."
"That was the fortune!" exclaimed the wife, who miraculously woke up.  She looked at the brother, "It wasn't yours.  It was mine; he promised it to me!"
By now the children had lost the tears. The daughter spoke up, "Mother, what are they talking about?"
The ex-wife scowled, "Your father had a special ring worth a lot of money he never told anyone about." She looked at the brother and ex-wife, "At least that's what I thought until now."
:First time I ever heard of it," declared the nephew.
"Shut up!" yelled the son. Then, turning to his mother. "Do you think one of these people killed Dad?"
"It's highly possible."
"Oh, please!" sneered the wife. "That's a real clever way of getting rid of us so you can get to the ring, lady."
The ex-wife threw a disgusting glance at her rival, "Well, let's face it, floozy. You and I and our brother-in-law all had motive, but between the three of us you're the only one who could give him a heart attack!"
"Why, you—" The wife cut herself off and looked at the children. "You mean to tell me these little darlings of yours were too dense to ever discover the ring?"
"You leave my children out of this!"
"I bet they're in on it!"
Henry stood back from the rest, now actually enjoying himself.  Ironic, he thought, of all these characters I'd have pegged the nephew. It really made no difference to him, though. At the rate things were going, he would have another customer before the day was over.
Manfred walked back into the room and spoke to Henry, "The police just called. Said a hearse crashed on the way out of town. Apparently digger's not hurt, but the hearse is totaled." Then, to the family, he announced, "The good news is, we found you body!"
"Well, who is this lady in the coffin?" asked the nephew.
"Did they mention anything about a ring on the body?" the brother asked Manfred.
"Is that ring all you care about?"
Henry clued Manfred in on the new information. "The Brady Bunch here are now claiming that ring the brother wants is the fortune and that it must be in the coffin with him. We're just trying to figure out who put him in the coffin."
"So, it wasn't a heart attack?"
Henry shook his head.
"Well," said Manfred, "I do remember two rings when we were preparing the body. He had a wedding band and some monstrous, ugly piece of jewelry that clashed horribly with his suit."
"That's it!" cried the brother.
"Not so fast," said the ex-wife. "Well, you sure can part with your brother pretty easily."
"You think the old man did it?" asked the nephew.
"Not our uncle!" said the children.
"Ever hear of Cain and Abel, kids?" rebutted the ex-wife.
Henry leaned over to Manfred, "You know, she does have a point."
Manfred shook his head and whispered back, "I think the children did it. They look too innocent."
"It wasn't me!" the brother stated emphatically. He looked over both the wives carefully, "One of you was bound to have done it. You both tried to cheat him out of everything!"
"Save the sob story, Gramps," remarked the wife. "I didn't kill him, and you're too old and senile to have accomplished the feat. It was Ms. Perfect and her little two accomplices that did it! They wanted the ring for themselves!"
"How could the three of us share one ring?" hissed the ex-wife. "You're guilty, and I know it. I bet you poisoned him. Look at that dress you're wearing. That should be proof enough. Everyone is wearing black but you, even what's-his-name," she stated, pointing to the nephew. She continued, "You wore red to a funeral?"
The wife smiled, "Red was my husband's favorite color. I was thinking of him."
(Nobody really believed this, but the wife went on.)
"But you can share a ring three ways. Just sell it for the money." Then, with a subtle smile, she purred, "Or were you not going to share the bounty with that real-estate agent boyfriend of yours?"
"Shut up, floozy!"
The wife continued, "Oh, what's his name? James? No. Jimbo? No."
"Shut up!"
"Jack! That's it! It's Jack!"
At the mention of the name "Jack," Henry and Manfred looked at each other. They both cracked a smile as their minds worked together, Jack, real estate . . . Digger!
The case was solved, and at the most convenient time possible, too. The police had just walked through the door with the lost coffin and announced they had a Jack Carter, alias "Digger," in custody down at the station on charges of theft. The undertakers politely informed the police they could take the ex-wife with them and charge both criminals with murder. The daughter left with her mother, holding the older woman's arm and crying that she was innocent. The ex-wife remarked she had never been so humiliated in her life, but told her on to check the body just in case.
A policeman opened the coffin lid, and the undertakers and remaining family members stared down at the body. It was the right one this time, but there was only one ring: the wedding band.
"That no good Digger already took the ring!" shouted the brother.
"That ring is mine when we find it!" cried the wife.
"Why didn't you tell me you had a ring, Dad?" pleaded the son.
"Well," said the nephew, "look on the bright side. There's still one left. It's gotta be worth something."
The policeman and undertakers calmed everyone down and assured them they would get to the bottom of this matter, but despite extensive questioning the rest of the afternoon, they couldn't pull much information out of Digger or the ex-wife. So, after all the accusations and all the lies, the ring was never found, which made for a rather anticlimactic reading of the will.
The charges had to be dropped against the criminals because nothing suspicious was ever located in their houses. They did, however, determine who the killer was. The coroner exhumed a body that had yet to be buried, and performed a second autopsy (sober this time). He found no traces of common household poisons, but an abnormal amount of embalming fluid in the victim's stomach that he didn't happen to notice the first time around. Someone with access to embalming fluid had poisoned the old man. Someone who had always known about the ring and knew it would be there when they were preparing the body slipped it into his own pocket when Manfred wasn't looking. Someone who went on a wild goose chase in a hearse after the man he claimed had taken a coffin out for repairs, when Digger was really just using the hearse to go dig another grave at the cemetery. Someone who never complained about dressing up bodies but never could dress himself to save his own life. Someone who, according to everyone, didn't have enough sense to come I out of the rain.
By the way, Bartholomew never returned the hearse, either.