Kevin handed the bottle to his guest and then continued pacing the viewing area in the front of the chapel. After circling around a floral arrangement, he ran his hand down top of the mahogany coffin.
J Christopher slid down in the front pew. He peeled the wrinkled paper bag back far enough to read the label of the Tennessee mash. He nodded his approval. A good brand was worth drinking just about anywhere, even in a funeral home. He pulled off the bag and let it fall to the floor.
“You worked here a long time,” he said as he unscrewed the cap.
Kevin nodded. “A good job is a hard to come by.”
“Good and job are two words that don’t go together.” J Christopher said and then laughed at his own witticism. He took a long swig from the bottle and winced at the taste. “Damn,” he said, staring at the bottle as if it could unlock some mystery. He wiped his mouth with the back of his shirt sleeve. He held the bottle out to his host, but Kevin shook his head.
“No,” he said. “I feel good.”
“It ain’t about feeling good,” J Christopher said. “It’s about feeling right.” He took another long swig. “I’m starting to feel right.” He let out a loud cackle. “I ain’t there yet, but I’m getting close.”
Kevin flashed a set of square white teeth. “I heard that,” he said. He backed up against the coffin, pressed his palms against the lid for leverage, and then hoisted himself into a sitting position on top.
“You shouldn’t sit on a casket,” J Christopher said. “It’s disrespectful.”
Kevin tilted his head toward the head of the coffin. “He don’t mind. Besides, I like it up here.”
J Christopher’s face twisted. “You mean there’s a body in there?”
Kevin shrugged. “This is a funeral home. What’d you expect?”
“Don’t know,” said J Christopher. “But I’ve heard some stories.”
“The dead can’t hurt you.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” J Christopher said.
“The dead aren’t the ones you have to worry about,” Kevin said.
J Christopher took another swig of mash. “I heard your old boss got sent up to the state pen after a same-day funeral.” He laughed again. “He tried to bury the evidence, but got caught.”
“Naw,” Kevin said, still smiling. “Ernie’s okay.”
J Christopher drained the rest of the bottle. “If there’s one thing that man ain’t, it’s okay. He’s as bad as they come.” He gestured toward Kevin with the empty bottle. “He’s the one you have to worry about.”
“Ernie’s got his fingers in a lot of pies, that’s all. A funeral home is a handy thing to own when you got your finger in a lot of pies.”
“Pies, shit. You talk like you own it,” J Christopher said. He dropped the empty bottle on the pew beside him.
“I don’t own it,” Kevin said, shaking his head. “I never owned it. I just ran it for him while he was away.”
“What do you mean was?”
The voice came from the doorway. All of the mirth drained from J Christopher’s eyes as they dropped from Kevin to the casket in front of him.
Kevin hopped down and strolled to the back of the room. He greeted Ernie with a half handshake, half hug.
J Christopher never turned around. He just kept staring ahead at that mahogany casket.
Ernie strolled to the front of the room, slid into the pew beside J Christopher. He picked up the empty liquor bottle.
“Still like Jack Daniels, I see.”
J Christopher looked down and away from Ernie. His hands fidgeted in his lap. “When did you get out?” he asked after a long pause.
Kevin called from the back of the room. “J Christopher was just telling me he couldn’t wait to see you again.”
“Is that right?” Ernie put his arm around J Christopher, almost like a man comforting a mother who has just lost a child. “Well, you can thank my lawyer then. You see, a life sentence don’t really mean life anymore, and a 15-year sentence don’t mean you’ll do the whole stretch. It’s the nature of our legal system.”
For the first time, J Christopher peaked at Ernie out of the corner of his eye.
“You ain’t gonna burn me up, are you?” he asked.
Ernie let out a long, loud laugh. “No,” he said. “I learned my lesson. Fires attract too much attention.”
He made a motion to Kevin in the back of the room and Kevin disappeared.
J Christopher turned and tried to follow him with his eyes, but all he could see was an empty doorway. “Where’s he going?”
“Relax,” Ernie said. He squeezed J Christopher’s shoulders. “He just went to get you another drink. Wouldn’t you like another drink?”
J Christopher’s hand’s and head began to shake.
“A drink would settle you down,” Ernie said. “You’re all nervous.”
A flash of defiance entered J Christopher’s expression. “I ain’t nervous,” he said. “I ain’t afraid of what’s coming.”
Kevin entered and handed J Christopher a glass of whiskey over ice.
“That’s right,” Ernie said. “You’ve got nothing to be afraid of.”
* * *
Deputy Sheriff Ford leaned against his cruiser and watched the paramedics load the body. He shook a cigarette out of his packet and used his elbow to shield the flame from the wind.
A van pulled up behind him. The reporter, Jim Easton, climbed down from the driver’s seat and walked up beside the deputy. “Morning,” he said
Ford cranked the flint, but his Zippo was out of fluid. After ten more tries failed to ignite, he pulled the cigarette out of his mouth and dropped it in his shirt pocket. He continued to roll the flint with the pad of his thumb. “You’re out awfully early.”
“What’s going on?” Jim nodded to the two stretcher bearers lifting a still figure out of a patch of yellow grass.
The deputy stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets. “Some nigger had too many and wandered out into the cold and froze to death.”
“How did he freeze?” Jim asked. “The low temperature last night was 37.”
“Too much to drink then. Either way, he shouldn’t have been wandering the highway in the middle of the night.”
“Who is it?”
“Who is what?” asked the deputy.
“The man who died.”
“The deceased has not yet been identified.”
“You mind if I take a look?” Jim asked.
“I suppose it wouldn’t hurt him any.” The deputy sheriff cupped one hand over his mouth and called out to the two paramedics. They had the body lowered onto the ground to open the back door of the hearse. “You two bring him over here for a second.”
The two paramedics looked at each other and then did as they were told. They carried the body over to the sheriff and the other white man.
Even on a windy morning, Jim detected the odor of liquor mixed with a pungent body odor emanating from the stretcher. No sheet covered the body, and so nothing hid the contorted expression brought on by rigor mortis. Jim could barely stand to look at the corpse, but Ford appeared to revel in the deceased man’s apparent anger. “You had yourself a hard night, didn’t you brother?” He asked the body.
Jim looked up at one of the two paramedics, both of whom stood waiting patiently.
“Hey Kevin,” Jim said, looking up at the taller, more slender of the two attendants. “Got yourself a new partner?”
Kevin grinned. “Yes sir. This is Evan. He’s a new hire.” The other man said nothing. He was a large man, maybe 6’4” and 300 pounds, and wore a blank expression.
Jim forced himself to look at the dead man. “Wait a second,” he said. “I know this man.” He looked at Kevin. “Isn’t that Christopher Baxter?”
“You two friends also?” Deputy Ford smirked.
Jim pointed at the corpse. “That’s Christopher Baxter,” he said. “That’s the Reverend’s brother.”
* * *
The toxicologist’s report landed on Sheriff Maddox’s desk. He opened the folder and studied the numbers printed on the paper.
Ford walked in. “Is that it?” he asked.
Maddox glanced at his deputy. “Toxicology report.”
“Let me guess. The man had alcohol in his system.”
Maddox continued to read the report. “The man had a lot of alcohol in his system. In fact, I don’t think there’s a human alive that could consume as much alcohol as this man had in his system.”
“You never met my cousin Henry,” Ford said, cackling.
“This is serious,” Maddox said. “I believe this man was murdered.”
“So what if he was?” Ford said, turning serious. “It ain’t like we can do anything about it. We ain’t got any evidence. We ain’t got any case.”
Sheriff Maddox closed the report, dropped it on his desk. “I don’t like it. People thinking they can disregard the law.”
“We all know who done it, Sheriff.”
“You think so, huh?”
“I know so,” Ford said. “And he’s gonna keep on doing it too.”
“I won’t let that happen. There’s no such thing as the perfect crime.”
“What are you going to do about?” Ford asked. It was just a question, but Maddox took it as a challenge.
“I don’t know,” he said, “but I’m going to do something.”
Go to Chapter 15