by C.L. Thomas
A mortician with a side-business finds himself at odds with the mafia.
| Lennie was just putting the finishing touches on Mrs. Biedermeier's makeup when the overhead light dimmed briefly, notifying him that someone was waiting in the lobby upstairs. Lennie set down his kit on the tray next to the stainless-steel slab and made his way upstairs to the funeral home parlor. The man waiting for him there was disheveled and visibly unsettled. Spotting Lennie, he stopped pacing. From the way his eyes darted to the door, Lennie thought he might just turn and run.
"Welcome," Lennie said. "We're closed at the moment, but is there something I can help you with?"
The man fumbled in his pockets. "I got this card... Jerry Daniels. He... he said you could help me out..."
Lennie looked at the card and his breath caught. Taking it from the man he waved for him to follow and briskly made his way down a hallway to the back of the house. With the stranger trailing after him Lennie looked over the business card that bore his own name. Leonard Harper, Funeral Director. On this one, however, the first and final "o" were filled in, showing that the bearer was not here for funerary services.
Reaching the office and shutting the door behind them, Lennie rounded on his visitor. "Didn't Mr. Daniels tell you to use the rear entrance?"
The man stammered an apology and Lennie cut him off. "Fine. What do you want?"
Pulling a wad of cash out of his pocket the man held it out. "Two hundred is the best I could get ahold of. What can you do for me?"
Lennie shook his head. He walked around the desk and, taking a pair of pliers out of a drawer, laid them on the desk.
"First, I need to know that you are what you say you are. I need to see you yank a tooth."
Lennie sat down and took a breath, "I'm sorry. We didn't start well. What is your name?"
"Eric. Eric Torres."
"Mr. Torres, I don't know you and I need to protect my customers and my business. If you want to buy from me, I need some assurance. If you're actually undead, you'll be able to manage this with no pain or blood. I'll be able to help you reinsert the tooth, but if this is something you can't or unwilling to do, please just leave now."
The man stared at the pliers for a moment, then slowly reached over and took them off the desk.
An hour later Lennie grimaced as he cleaned up the mess Eric Torres left behind. As expected, the tooth came out with little protest, but the gore that clung to it left an ugly smear when the man tossed it down and it skittered off the tray Lennie provided for its disposal. Given the unfortunate start to the meeting, Lennie did his best to ignore that display of poor manners. The young man was visibly disheartened that Lennie could only provide him with a mixed bag of entrails, but Lennie explained that supply was constrained, forcing him to set high prices. Still, Lennie never liked to see a customer leave unhappy.
"Here, turn on that lamp," Lennie said. "Yep, I thought so. Take this mirror. See how your skin is already starting to grey? You've been getting by on poultry, haven't you? You need to stick to red meat as much as possible when you can't get in here. It's not a substitute for human flesh, but it's your best alternative. Now, let me show you a couple things you can do to cover that up..."
When the young man left with his purchase, along with strict disposal instructions and recommendations for a few excellent YouTube beauty vloggers, he appeared to be in better spirits. Lennie sensed he would make an excellent future customer.
Now, with the mess cleared up and Mrs. Biedermeier tucked away for the night, Lennie settled in to go over his accounts. He was sorting the month's receipts when the office door swung open to slam against the file cabinets. Lennie's first irrational thought was that the man standing in his doorway was unlikely to fit through without turning sideways. But fit through he did, barely looking at Lennie as he surveyed the office.
"Excuse me. We're closed," Lennie said, rising and stepping around the desk to intercept his visitor. Barely sparing Lennie a glance, the man gestured through the doorway then took Lennie's upper arm in a grip just tight enough to communicate that Lennie should refrain from any activity that might give this man the idea that it needed to be tighter.
Two more men entered the office. The second, a scaled-down version of Lennie's captor, was preceded by a man so like a tv drama mafioso that Lennie might have giggled had a sinking feeling deep in his guts not convinced him that he was, in fact, dealing with the mafia. This man approached Lennie and smiled.
"Mr. Harper," he said. "Jerry Russo. It's a pleasure."
It took Lennie a moment to look down and register that Jerry Russo was holding out a hand to him. Lennie reached up and took the hand, but his arm flopped like a noodle as it was pumped up and down. Jerry released the handshake, then walked around the desk to lowered himself into Lennie's chair. Lennie was immediately indignant, but a hand on his shoulder shoving him into the facing seat reminded him that keeping quiet on this point might be the wisest course of action.
"Well, Leonard...may I call you Leonard?" Jerry asked. Lennie nodded dumbly.
"Well, I'm very sorry to barge in on you outside of normal business hours," Jerry said. "Though it appears you're still very hard at work this evening. The reason we're here is that we feel that your little operation and ours have common interests that might be well served were we to enter into a shared business arrangement."
Lennie cleared his throat and after a false start found his voice, "I'm sorry, Mr. Russo. I'm not sure I understand what you mean."
"Please, call me Jerry," he said. "You aren't exactly new to the neighborhood, Leonard. Are you familiar with our organization?"
Lennie had to shake his head in the negative.
"Well. We recognize that there is demand for a variety of products in this community which are not well served by conventional commercial channels. We provide for the acquisition and delivery of said products."
"Drugs? What do I have to do with-"
Jerry's smile slipped a little, "As I said, Leonard. A variety of products."
"I don't understand. This is a funeral home. I don't deal with anything like that."
Jerry nodded at Thing 2 who was leaning against the door behind Jerry. Thing 2 stepped forward and laid a business card on the desk in front of Lennie, whose stomach turned to ice. It was his own business card, with the first and final "o" filled in.
"Leonard, you would do well to take care when cutting one of your customers loose," said Jerry. "I got this from an associate on the police force. Apparently, he has been discussing his relationship to you and your business. Rather indiscreetly I might add."
Jerry allowed Lennie to contemplate the card lying before him for a few moments. When Lennie looked up, Jerry was smiling back at him, not unkindly. Lennie could only nod when Jerry asked, "Well. Now that all our cards are on the table, if you'll forgive the pun, shall we start again?"
Lennie remained seated for a long time after Jerry Russo left with Thing 1 and Thing 2. Given the fact that Jerry and his people were effectively taking over Lennie knew it was irrational, but he couldn't help liking the guy and feeling a certain amount of pride in the unexpected level of interest in his business.
"Honestly, we're impressed," Jerry told him. "Most people get started and find themselves scrambling to put a legitimate face on their operations. You, on the other hand, grind away for years getting yourself established before getting into a more lucrative business."
Lennie wished he could take credit for that. The truth is he practically fell face-first into his side-business. The funeral home business had not been treating him well for several years. He had seriously considered closing down when the first of his cash customers approached him. His first thought was to call the police, thinking he had stumbled across some kind of cannibalistic cult. But the proof they offered was undeniable. These were actual undead people. Not slavering, mindless zombies. Just otherwise ordinary individuals with highly specific dietary needs trying to get their groceries.
Jerry Russo did have one very good point. Lennie's supply problems could be fulfilled by helping out with Jerry's disposal problems. The constant struggle of maintaining the legitimacy of his primary business while catering to his side customers wore on Lennie. That struggle forced him to maintain high prices, which excluded many potential customers. Lennie hated to think what those people were doing to get by from one day to the next.
Cremations provided the best source of income. For most people, any sort of ash filling an urn would do and there was no need for cleverly hiding missing limbs. Closed casket services were also productive, but there was always the chance that a family member would change their mind at the last minute and ask to see the body. Then there was the constant pressure of time. Embalming wasn't an option, which meant that an unusually hot day, a power outage, or even a funeral running long could be disastrous.
Working with Russo would eliminate almost all of those considerations. Lennie could get back to running the funeral home normally while still having plenty of inventory to provide to the rest of his customers. But as Lennie looked from the stack of cash sitting in front of him on the desk ("A seed investment," Jerry called it. "A demonstration of our commitment to this partnership.") to the saran-wrapped corpse Thing 1 had deposited in the corner of his office, misgivings quickly began to accumulate in his mind.
Lennie stood, lifted one end of the body, and began dragging it toward the stairs. This would have to be dealt with first, but then Lennie had a phone call to make.
Lennie was at work in the basement again when the dimming of the overhead lights notified him that he had visitors. This time he stayed put. These guests knew where he would be. Moments later he heard footsteps on the stairs and Jerry Russo entered. Russo paused briefly at the entrance. The way he crinkled his nose and brought his hand to his face drew Lennie's attention to the smells in the room. Cleaners and disinfectants. Embalming chemicals that Lennie handled every day. Though the smell was quite powerful, Lennie usually barely noticed. Lennie wondered at the human mind's capacity to adapt.
"Leonard!" Jerry said as Thing 1 entered behind him with another body slung over his shoulder. "You don't greet guests at the door? I'm surprised at you!"
"Apologies. I'm just finishing a tricky procedure," Lennie laid his tools down and beckoned for Thing 1 to follow. Opening a cold storage locker, Lennie rolled out the stainless-steel table and stepped back as Thing 1 deposited his burden.
Jerry looked around the room and his eyebrows shot up. Both of Lennie's work tables were occupied, as was the rolled-out table of one of the storage lockers. "It appears that business is booming. On the phone you said that you wanted to discuss my proposal. I hope this doesn't mean that you've decided that you aren't interested."
"I do have some concerns," Lennie answered.
"Oh? Why don't we see if we can clear them up."
"I've been running this business for a while. I do just enough on the side to avoid attracting unwanted attention. It's a delicate balance and I'm afraid that the increased business introduced by your product would upset that balance."
"That," Jerry said, "Is a simple matter of territory expansion. You are in a unique position Leonard. No one else is providing the service you are. We can just set you up in a more desirable location."
"I also have some concerns regarding my customers."
Jerry chuckled, "Such as?"
"I had a careful look at the body you brought me on your first visit. Do you know what drugs do to the human body, Mr. Russo?"
"Make your point." Jerry Russo was no longer smiling.
"Suffice to say that given the amount of toxic substances contained in the body of that young man, there is no way I could sell that to my customers."
Jerry raised his finger and pointed it in Lennie's face. "Alright, you listen to me you prissy little jerk. What do you think we do here? You think every ounce of coke or smack we put on the street is pure? We're here to move product and when you get right down to it, if one of your customers has a bad reaction, so be it. One thing I've learned in this business is that there are always more customers. Simply put - fuck your customers."
Lennie nodded, "Well, I'm honestly relieved to hear you say that. I promised the Petersons and Mr. Torres a unique dining experience and I don't know how I would have made it up to them otherwise. My prices are high, and I like to offer something special to my clients whenever I can."
Lennie gestured behind Jerry. The work tables and the open storage locker were now vacant, their earlier occupants now advancing toward Jerry and Thing 1. Thing 1 reached for a gun, but Eric Torres and Mrs. Peterson were already on top of him. Lennie's stomach heaved and he hurried out the door. He wasn't quite ready to adapt that much.
As Lennie closed the door behind him, he could still hear Jerry. "Alright you three, now let's settle down. I'm pretty sure we can come to an understanding here."
"Sorry, Mr. Russo." That was Aaron, one of Lennie's earliest customers. "You just don't find customer service like Mr. Harper's anymore."