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“Who’s this?”

Leo Tilbury didn’t bother to look up from his desk but continued to fuss with the topmost sheet of paper in the file folder, adjusting it neatly—some might say meticulously, some might say fanatically—until it aligned precisely with those sheets beneath it. “Who’s who?” he asked.

“Whadda ya mean ‘who’s who’?” Albert Pepperidge demanded.

At the irritation in Pepperidge’s voice, Leo decided he’d better look up.

When there were no grieving customers in sight, the funeral director shed his professional skin and reverted to the louse his employees knew best. At the moment, Pepperidge was gesturing wildly, his arms wind milling as he pointed into the crematorium. “Who’s this? It had better not be Mrs. Farquharson.”

Leo sincerely hoped it wasn’t either. He reached for the lid of the ornate urn on the credenza next to his chair. A peep inside told him Agnes Farquharson was where she was supposed to be.

“Nope, she’s here, boss. All ready to perch on her granddaughter’s mantle next to the mister.”

Pepperidge took a deep breath. From the color his face was turning, Leo thought his boss would need more than a single gulp of the mortuary’s mechanically cleaned, temperature-controlled air to calm down. “I hate to sound redundant,” Pepperidge said, his voice seemingly under control. “But who the Sam Hill is this then?” he ended in a thunder.

“Search me,” Leo admitted. “No idea. Agnes was the last client we toasted.”

Pepperidge cringed at the last word. Leo liked to call them as he saw them. As long as the paperwork was done properly, he was a happy man. He didn’t have to deal with the bereaved, but merely processed the dearly departed whether the required service be pump ‘em and plant ‘em or send them off like a Viking champ, sans the boat. At least he’d heard the Vikings had used a boat as a pyre. Earliest case of trying to take it with you that Leo had ever heard.

Pepperidge took a moment to pull himself together. “Take another look,” he urged. “Perhaps something about this…” He gestured toward what the uninitiated would have taken for the collected contents of a dustpan. “…will jog one of those atrophied cells you call a brain. Do you, for instance, have the required forms to file?”

The mention of the documents in question chilled Leo to the bone. The “IN” box on the desk was tellingly vacant. Just in case he’d automatically put the sheets in his top drawer the evening before, Leo pulled it open. A plain white envelope lay within, its bulging sides an all too familiar reminder of his less than straight and narrow life prior to that with Pepperidge Funereal Services.

“Maybe someone wandered in,” Leo offered.

Pepperidge didn’t look like he was going to buy that lame idea.

“I’ll ask around,” Leo said.

Pepperidge nodded briefly. “You do that, Leo. And ask the right people, hmm?”

Leo made a call.

~ ~ ~

The Dude looked like he could do serious damage to a body—any body—but in truth he left the physical side of business to his associates. Three of them, and a woman who dressed like she was auditioning for a part in a heavy metal video, flanked Dude as he unfolded his lanky form from a well crushed, crushed velvet sofa.

Leo forced himself not to wipe away the sweat beading on his forehead as he sidled inside the dilapidated storefront that served as Dude’s office.

“M’ man,” Dude greeted and began the intricate handshake ritual that never actually involved either of them shaking hands. Dude dropped his fist down on Leo’s. Leo reciprocated. Dude smashed his clenched hands together, knuckles to knuckles, and then went knuckles to knuckles with Leo.

Except Leo missed and rammed his fist into Dude’s bicep.

A collective gasp went up from Dude’s associates.

“Sorry.” Leo tried to brush the blow from the gangsta’s arm. “I’m a bit dyslexic.”

“It’s cool,” Dude assured, although Leo bet his chances of living to an old age would diminish quickly if he ever repeated the error.

“You should eat prunes,” Dude’s girl friend suggested. “They really work.”

“On what?” Dude asked, sounding honestly curious.

“You know. On his ‘little problem.’”

Leo fancied he could see the two words floating in the air above him with garish neon quotation marks bracketing them.

“What problem?” Dude demanded.

She rolled heavily made up eyes. “You know. Being dyslexic and all.” She turned to Leo, eager to help. “My granny’s got the same thing and she swears by prunes.”

“Go get Leo some prunes,” Dude ordered indiscriminately to the men behind him.

“I don’t think we got any,” one of the minions said.

Dude frowned. “So, get some,” he snapped. “I got business to do.”

With Dude’s dark eyes turned on him once more, Leo didn’t think he was going to need any prunes, even if he did suddenly come down with whatever Granny had.

“About the envelope,” Leo began.

“It ain’t enough?” Dude demanded.

“It’s plenty,” Leo hastily assured. “It’s just that you should have taken him—or her—with you.”

Dude chuckled.

Leo didn’t think it was a pleasant sound.

“Hey, Cosh,” Dude called to one of his men. “He thinks we should have taken Murray with us.”

Cosh, who in size could have easily doubled for an NFL linebacker, snickered. “Couldn’t, Dude. He was too hot.”

Everyone but Leo laughed.

“I can’t keep him,” Leo said. “There might be something the cops could match to something. DNA maybe. I don’t know, but they’d say I was an accessory to the crime.”

“You are an accessory, man. You took the money.”

Leo shook his head. They didn’t understand the situation.

“Okay, sure, but someone still has to get rid of him.”

“Yeah.” Dude rammed his fist against Leo’s chest. “And that someone is you.”

~ ~ ~

Back in the sanctuary of his office, Leo pulled open the bottom desk drawer and looked at the cremains now carefully horded in an empty coffee can. Murray had been a big man, he decided. There was a lot of him to dispose of. But how? It didn’t seem right to toss him in the Dumpster out back. Besides, if found, the bits of bone that lingered were as incriminating as the pointing finger of an eagle-eyed victim picking out a perp in a police lineup. He didn’t need Murray fingering him when all he’d done was take a bit of cash.

The unexpected jangle of the phone made him flinch and hastily shove the drawer closed. “The gentleman is here to take Mrs. Farquharson to her memorial service,” the receptionist said.

“Should I send him back, Leo?”

“No!” Leo gasped. “I mean, there’s no reason for him to come down here. I was just on my way upstairs. I’ll bring her up.”

He had to get control of himself, of the situation, Leo told himself. If he looked guilty, someone would figure he was guilty. It had happened before. Of course, he had been guilty, but never of something as heinous as murder. Not that he’d had a hand in the unfortunate Murray’s demise, but who would believe him if he jumped at every shadow?

There were a lot of shadows to be found at Pepperidge Funereal Services. Bodies arrived from three counties so that the tastefully decorated rooms at various funeral homes no longer need worry about the distasteful scents that went with preparation of the dead. Pepperidge handled it all: preservation and cremation. In fact, the schedule that lay on his desk showed that there were several cremations on the schedule already. Not all would have as carefully chosen urns as the late Agnes Farquharson. And not all the living felt it necessary to reclaim their toasted relatives since doing so required payment of Pepperidge’s bill. There were more than a few urns and boxes on the utility shelves that lined Leo’s office, all waiting for forgetful kin to show up.

Leo reached for Mrs. Farquharson’s delicately decorated container and froze. Who would know? he asked himself. Answer: no one. Agnes certainly would not be telling anyone, and he doubted if Murray, whoever he’d been, cared either way.

Just in case, Leo did a quick check down the hall outside the office door, then ducked back inside. The lid of Mrs. Farquharson’s urn opened quickly. He added a couple pinches of Murray to her remains. Then, hastily wiping any residue of ash from his hand, Leo was on his way up the stairs, Agnes Farquharson and guest held reverently before him.

~ ~ ~

“Did you find who was responsible for that unknown’s pile of ashes?” Al Pepperidge asked a week later.

Leo nodded without looking up, busy once more arranging paperwork for the files. It had taken a full dozen of the cremations stored on the shelves to clear Murray from the coffee can, but dispersed Murray had been.

“And who is this guest with now?” Pepperidge pursued.

Leo aligned his last document. “With friends,” he murmured. “With a few new friends.”

The End

Getting Rid of Murray © 2006 Beth Daniels / J.B. Dane

This story originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2006 edition of Great Mystery and Suspense Magazine.

Cover design and interior layout: Beth Daniels

Cover graphic: Dreamstime

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information and storage retrieval system (such as file sharing), without permission in writing from the author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author's imagination, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.

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