by Damon Nomad
People are suspicious of a retired engineer's interest in mortuary science.
A Quiet Little Man
By Damon Nomad
The couple avoided staring at a classmate sitting alone in the main cafeteria on campus. Phil nodded toward the older man across the cafeteria. "Ten thousand people at this community college, he's the strangest character here." He paused. "Always off by himself."
Lisa frowned as she spun the engagement ring around on her finger. "There are lots of older people taking courses. He's polite and the smartest person in our classes." She glanced at the thin elderly man, with neatly combed thin gray and black hair. He was wearing one of his signature cardigan sweaters and a bow tie. "He's from another generation and it's hard for him to fit in with the rest of us."
Phil grumbled, "Sixty some years old, and studying mortuary sciences. This major attracts some creeps and he is at the top of my list. You watch, we will see him on the TV news a few years from now. Exposed as some sort of freak, experimenting on dead bodies or maybe even a serial killer."
She waved a finger in the air. "Maybe you're jealous cause he's finishing the degree in only a year and a half and not four years. Maybe that's what is gnawing at you."
"I'm not jealous of creepy Reggie and I ain't the only one who thinks something is off with him. That's another thing, why does someone with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering study something like this after he retires? It makes no sense and it's just plain weird. Frankie got a look at his computer one day during lunch and said it was full of thousands of obituaries he was studying for some reason. Admit it, that's strange."
She sighed. "Let's talk about something else, you and Frankie should mind your own business." She glanced at Reginald Hoffman again. "He's such a quiet little man."
Phil smirked. "Yeah, quiet little man. That's what people will say when reporters interview them. They will say they are shocked because he was such a quiet man." He pointed a finger at her. "Don't get angry when I say that I told you so."
She frowned as she shook her head. "My loving fiancee."
Reggie was oblivious to the attention of his two classmates across the cafeteria. He was focused on the laptop after he finished his tuna sandwich and potato chips. He clicked on the custom-built application he was working on and hit the button for a new query. His lips curled into a crooked grin; the algorithms seemed to be working. The results came back quickly. Nearly forty-five thousand deaths in the US in the past week. He started clicking through the filtered tabs looking for the profiles he would focus on.
Several years later Reggie sat on the porch of his cabin watching the SUV creep along the dirt road. He stood up and waved as his son got out of the car. "I'm not interested in another argument Clarence."
Clarence came up the walkway and took a seat on one of the Adirondack chairs. "I'm not here to argue dad." He tapped his fingers on the arms of the chair before continuing, "You've been at this for more than five years now. I don't understand this life you have chosen."
"You've been against me since the beginning."
"That's not true. After mom died and you retired and cashed out of the corporate world I understood. I was quiet when you told me what you were going to study at the community college." He paused with a sigh. "I was confused but I didn't quarrel with you even though it was so out of the blue and such a strange choice. Something you had never talked about." He tapped his fist on the arm of the chair. "A mortician? After thirty years as a research chemical engineer."
Reggie stared at the mountains. "It's my choice and my life."
"I realized that and tried to keep my opinions to myself. But something isn't right about whatever it is you are really doing."
"What are you getting at?"
"You liquidated your assets in the first year, personal property and financial. Upwards of fifteen million dollars I would guess."
"So, you are spying on me, and this is about money."
"I'm a lawyer dad, all of this is public record, and I don't want your money. You sold the boat, the vacation home, and our family home. You bought this cabin in the middle of the woods, it's like you are hiding or hiding something."
"I wanted a simpler life. Where are you headed with this little inquisition?"
"I've been checking into this business of yours. You are registered to perform mortuary services in thirty-three states. There's no fixed business address other than your cabin, no laboratory or funeral home anywhere that I can find. You purchase chemicals and other supplies and bought some sort of custom portable embalming facility." He waved at the old barn. "Probably hidden in that barn there."
"That's enough. I want you to leave." Reggie headed toward the door.
Clarence stood up and followed behind. "I can't find any funeral arrangements announced for any of your businesses since you started. What are you doing with dead bodies? What have you gotten yourself into?"
"You should have remembered what I told you about sounding your own trumpet." He slammed the door as he went inside.
Two years later Clarence's executive assistant came into his office. "Ms. Angela Franklin from the Department of Justice is here to see you. No appointment but she says it's important."
He could see the woman in the outer office, she looked vaguely familiar. "Okay fine, please send her in."
Clarence gestured to a leather wingback chair in front of his desk. "Please have a seat, Ms. Franklin, I'm afraid you have me at a loss. Have we met?"
"No sir Mr. Hoffman, I do not deal with cases much especially in your specialty area. I'm the chief of staff to the deputy attorney general."
Clarence realized he had seen her on television and in pictures online. "I cannot imagine any matters I am dealing with are of interest to the deputy AG."
"It involves a personal connection of yours. Your father Reginald Hoffman."
Clarence stiffened and he paused a moment. "My father? He passed away three months ago. Why is DOJ interested in my father?"
"How much do you know about his mortuary services business over the last several years?"
Clarence sighed loudly. "Would you like something to drink?"
"Coffee black thank you."
Clarence started his explanation after they each had a cup of coffee. "I know very little about what his business was really about. I hired an accountant to review his finances after he passed away. Whatever it was it seems to have been a financial disaster of sorts. He seems to have virtually no income but only expenses and burned through nearly twelve million dollars in seven years. To be honest it's not clear to me what he was doing and I didn't want to dig too deep." He rubbed his chin as he paused. "I was worried he might be involved in something illegal but had no evidence of that. I confronted him a couple of years ago and we have had little contact since then. It's confusing, I always considered him a model of integrity before mom died. He was a humble and quiet man and I loved him." He stared at the floor as he shook his head. "I don't know what happened. I'll give you any documents I have."
Franklin took a slow sip of coffee. "We weren't investigating him for any crimes. I'm vetting your father for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was recommended to the President by the Secretary of Defense six months ago. He got ill before I had a chance to interview him."
Clarence froze with the coffee mug inches from his mouth. "Medal of Freedom? Secretary of Defense? I don't understand." He put the cup down on his desk.
"I wanted to understand what started him on this path. That was what I was hoping you might shed some light on. I can tell you what he was doing with his business. The office of the Secretary of Defense began getting reports several years back. Reports from thankful families of veterans, homeless veterans who died while living on the streets and in shelters. Your father was tracking these veterans down and he contacted the next of kin to give them a burial or cremation service, free of charge. He took care of the bodies himself with his portable facility and prepared them for burial and paid local funeral homes for services. Anything the family wanted within reason. He found a liaison officer in DOD that was helping get uniforms for burial, honor guards, and a veterans burial site if that is what the family wanted. In the last few years, praise has poured into DOD from families about the support services of Reggie Hoffman. People assumed that this was a DOD-sponsored program of some sort. It was a one-man operation, your father. Using his own money."
Clarence folded his hands on his desk. "How many veterans?"
"He put seven hundred and thirty-two soldiers to rest. Can you think of why he chose this form of charity and why he was so secretive? He went to a lot of trouble routing money around, it's hard to trace the payments back to his foundation."
Clarence walked over to the window and stared out for a few moments. He muttered quietly, "I should have trusted him. Don't blow your own trumpet." He looked at Franklin. "One of the last times we met he mentioned something. I did not understand it at the time, but now I remember what he was talking about. My mother and father were whispering one evening after dinner, I was in junior high. I heard my mother say that it was a lot of money but it was the right thing to do. A week later we went to a funeral at our church. The son of one of the families had died living on the streets a few years after getting discharged from the army. Not a family we knew and they were not well off financially. During the eulogy, the minister said that the family was thankful for a gracious anonymous donation for the funeral and burial plot. I knew that it had to be what my parents were talking about. I asked my dad about it when we got home." Clarence sat back down. "He told me that his grandfather was killed in World War Two and never received a formal burial. A temporary battlefield burial that was never located after the war, he said that it tormented his grandmother until her death decades later. I asked him why they didn't tell the family that the money came from us. He told me to read Matthew Chapter 6 verses one to four before going to bed." Clarence smiled as he paused for a moment. "When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret."
Lisa waved at the television as a picture of Reginald Hoffman was on display while the President described Hoffman's deeds that warranted the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She got up off the sofa and slowly danced as she pointed at Phil. "Go ahead honey, tell me. Tell me you told me so." She cackled loudly. "You were right. People are in shock about this quiet little man."
Word Count 1980
Prompt: Write a story about an opsimath of an unusual field or subject matter.