Laura Ellen Scott
Petey Prickles vs. Funeral Steve: An ALL-NEW Petey Prickles Caper!
A really good-looking man is a Blind Angel. Blind Angels scan the
horizon, failing to recognize rocks, trees, high tension lines, the
highway. What they do see is childhood, ancient settlement, and the energy
that binds all matter. You get it, right? Blah, blah, blah, I took one
look at you and I just knew . . .
Still, she liked that kind of guy. Officer Dumasha glimpsed a Blind
Angel at the edge of the crowd where pajama-clad citizens gawked at a
scene of carnage; two bodies had been discovered at dawn in the magic-free
zone of the DC suburbs.
A man can either look for objects or he can look for meaning, and you
can tell which is which by how his eyes swim or harden in the morning sun.
The Angelís eyes were milky. Dumasha watched him shuffle away, bare
footed, toward the cul-de-sac. His blonde hair shimmered, and his naked
chest was rosy from sleep. A red coffee cup tilted in his weak grasp, but
she could see that it bore an image of a cartoon favorite--the unrepentant
Petey Prickles. The Blind Angel kissed his lips to the rim but didnít
drink. An insouciant bagginess in the crotch of his flannel pants seemed
so promising. Dumasha shivered once, sub-vocalizing an mmmf of
appreciation. Then she forgot him.
Joss was morally unstable, ever promoting his own interests ahead of
others, but he wasnít evil. And when he experienced a revelation or had a
deeper understanding of some crucial event, he often failed to consider
the general usefulness of his perspective, opting instead for a quiet and
handsome self protection.
He saw what he saw, he read the message. He thought heíd best keep it
His loverís body had been found next to that of a 14 year old boy, and
both were face down in the stinking pine mulch under the swing set at the
tot lot. The boyís arms and legs were thrown out like an X. But Ivyís arms
were bent at the elbows, one fist up, one down, and her torso was twisted
as if sheíd died dancing. Her knees squared the angles, positioned far
She looked like a human swastika, but that wasnít the message.
Jossís memory of the previous evening was foggy, but he knew he had
made love to her only six hours ago. She was still protected by that worn
out t-shirt with the 7-up logo across the back. The shirt must have been
at least ten years old, and sheíd refused to take it off during sex. She
sent him home right after. Ivy never let Joss stay, never let him fall
asleep in her bed. And he doubted that she ever drank 7-up in her life.
She was a swastika, the boy was an X, but fringe politics was not the
The technicians rolled the boy, and Joss glimpsed the mutilation just
before the cops shouted the crowd back to the parking lot.
The killer had carved lines across the boyís eyes, digging two vertical
gouges from brow to cheek, intersecting and crossing the natural seam
where the lower and upper lids met. Detectives hovered, like betrayed
actors from a canceled TV series, to cast shadows over the bodies and
share intuition with one another.
But you didnít need intuition. The information was there. Joss
understood the message.
He knew a field biologist who couldnít enjoy movies if the flora was
wrong: "God damn it, thatís a monkey-nut tree," heíd say, outraged all by
himself. Talk about someone who couldnít see the forest for the fucking
inaccurate trees. Similarly, Joss was possessed of his own eccentric
expertise and had no interest in the big picture. All he saw, all he
needed to see, were the details: crosses over the eyes, absolute symmetry,
and ludicrous arms akimbo . . .
Only in cartoons did Death look like this.
It was a joke. But this time the coyote wasnít going to peel his own
flattened carcass up off the highway, snap himself back into shape, and
begin the hunt anew.
Joss nibbled at the edge of his empty cup, wishing for more than
coffee. Cartoons were a means of telling children about untethered,
unmediated rage. Cartoons depended on a reliable set of symbols that
everyone understood as shorthand for horror and destruction.
Ivyís ridiculous pose was more extravagant than any heíd seen her
perform in life. She was conservative, even cold with him. That sheíd been
murdered was not an impossible thought, but that her body could be shaped
this way was damned hard to conceive.
Joss walked away. No one knew who he was or what his relationship to
the deceased might have been, so his retreat went unnoticed. He wondered
how long it would take before he was discovered, questioned, suspected. He
knew a lot about Ivyís death. Too much, as they say.
And hell, he might well have shot her; he could have. He didnít really
remember not doing so.
But the notion of offering his insight or possible confession to the
authorities only dimly lit the periphery of his concern. He assigned
priority to shaping and arranging his grief. As he entered his home, the
living room was jolly with morning sun zooming through half empty bottles
and smudged tumblers. The mounded ashtrays reeked. It looked like heíd had
a party in here. He decided to go back to bed and dream.
Before Joss was born, his older brother died from aniline poisoning.
Little Henry, at two years old, had drunk a bottle of ink from his
fatherís office, and more ironically than anyone had the stomach for,
turned greenish red, stopped breathing, and died. Joss knew Little Henry
from a single photograph from the top of Motherís piano, and in dreams the
flat image jittered and screeched just like Daddyís inky creations: See
you in the funny papers, see you at the movies, chump.
The police would figure it out eventually. The victims were cartoons
and only cartoons can kill their own kind. Pop! Bam! Crash! Joss
drank against the sadness.
In the days that followed, Joss waited for the police. He was, after
all, Ivyís lover and the last person to see her alive. But they never
came. Joss stayed in his house for two days before he ventured out again.
He spent his time smoking and looking over images of violence and death in
Daddyís sketches; "Splatt!" with a double "t" was a trademark expression
of impact in Hanky Bellsí cartoon world.
On Wednesday he lunched at Mableís Downtown with his brother Declan, a
prison guard. Dec paid, of course. They discussed an upcoming gallery
event, a retrospective of their fatherís career in comics and cartoons.
They also talked about tuxedos and invitations, but they didnít talk about
Ivy. They didnít discuss the murders at all, despite the revelations that
were burning in Jossís throat. He passed the herbed butter, he passed the
salt, and he made sure that the waiter gave Declan an extra wedge of lemon
for his tea. Dec had asked twice for himself, but his manner was
habitually too small to be effective. Jossís careless beauty burned
through the ruddy layers of a tequila hangover; he merely needed to raise
his finger and service was rendered.
But he failed to introduce the subject of Ivyís death. Oh, and that boy
as well. Who the hell was he anyway? Joss found it hard to concentrate on
the boy at all, or to remember that it was the childís body that carried
so much information. Jossís body missed Ivyís, and that fact managed to
assert a kind of selfish priority to which he was already predisposed.
More ice water please. And a Stoli. Fish, potatoes, slippery zucchini
pieces speared on forks, and one of the brothers was a cartoon killer.
Joss visualized Declan in the act of killing Ivy, and he was jolted by how
easily the scene came to him. He then bolted to the menís room to be sick.
Iím pretty torn up about this. He wiped his brow and studied his
face in the long mirror over the basins. Slight lines around his eyes were
a warning that he may have just passed his youth by no more than an hour
or so. He practiced saying, "It has been so difficult," and "She was a
Ivyís breasts. Perfect spheres of accusation. She should have taken off
that damned t-shirt. Especially since it was going to be their last time
together. Joss didnít know it, but he was one of those handsome guys
ensnared by a plain, militant woman. It happens sometimes, an unappealing
woman gets hold of a wolf, and she keeps him by virtue of her cruelty, her
humorlessness, and her inability to be charmed. The poor guy walks around
addled, as if heíd been thunked by a sledgehammer. Thunk! Another good
Declan followed Joss into the rest room. Essentially, Dec was a younger
copy of Joss, but for some reason he was invisible and spiritless, without
the gorgeous light that informed his older brotherís features. Someone
once joked that Declan was born when Hanky Bells used Silly Putty to
create a warped duplication of Joss.
Family responsibilities divided predictably. Dec managed the estate,
and Joss looked pretty. It was a blessing that neither of them had
ambitions, anymore. In art school Joss had tried his hand at cartooning,
but the only finished project heíd produced was a sophomoric porno parody
of "Petey Prickles." The short film played in college theaters for one
summer in 1987 before the family embarrassment became overwhelming.
"Maybe you shouldnít have vodka for two meals in a row."
Side by side in the mirror, the brothers looked like the alter
personalities for a discontinued comic book hero. In black cotton silk and
calfskin, Joss was unavoidably glamorous. Heíd combed his golden hair with
a little bit of gel--not enough to shine, but just enough to create
honeyed undertones. A subtle stud in his ear lobe was only perceptible
when the light was perfect. But Declanís only vanity was his high school
ring, which he still wore with pride. His guard uniform looked okay on
him, but civilian garments fit like threats. The mustard cord jacket was
too tight against his chest, and a knobby brown tie shaped a fist at his
Could Dec have killed Ivy?
Joss felt strange inspiration. "Iíve got to go to Ivyís funeral
tomorrow. The viewing is tonight. You wanna come with me?"
They arrived an hour early because Joss drove, and because Declan
refused to kill time in the bar across the street from Smithley and Sons.
He had a point; if the press were waiting, they'd wait there. Moderate
celebrity necessitated moderate caution.
Annoyed, Joss lurched into a parking spot at the funeral home. "Fuck
it. Arenít you going to ask me about Ivy?"
"Weíre too early Joss." Dec gnawed at his knuckle.
Outsiders always assumed that Hanky Bells had modeled the mischievous "Petey
Prickles" after one of his own children. And at different stages of their
lives, both Joss and Declan had been nicknamed "Petey." In high school,
Joss bore the moniker with fragile grace, knowing that as he became an
adult he would make it impossible for others find pleasure comparing him
to a cartoon. Dec, on the other hand, grew into the teasing, having
escaped it as a child. It wasnít until he started at the prison that his
secret past was unlocked, and murderers, rapists, and fellow guards
started to call him "Mr. Prickles," or "Officer Petey." Given the
dangerous environment, given his dangerous life, Dec couldnít afford much
of a sense of humor.
Nor could he afford patience for his brotherís sense of drama.
"She was important to me," Joss continued. "It was mainly sexual on the
surface, but there was more than that. She fascinated me."
"Jesus. I hope you arenít doing the eulogy."
Perhaps the only good thing about being identified with Petey Prickles
was that it was an experience the brothers shared. Beyond that they were
bound by a strong, mindless sense of family, though neither had sought to
create his own. They never discussed their permanent bachelorhood. Jossís
secret lover, now dead, had a fat orange cat and maybe in life the three
had comprised a kind of crippled, dry family unit, but surely that was
straining the concept. Only by rare accident had Ivy, Joss, and Gubar ever
been present all at once in the same room.
Dec would never rise to the bait.
"Ivy put a spell on me. She wasnít good looking, she was mostly mean.
She never let me hang around."
"You sound like a woman, Joss."
"Sometimes it seemed like she hated me. Hell, letís go in."
"No oneís here yet."
But Joss bolted from the car and trotted up the ramped entrance. Dec
followed at a more conservative pace. The brothers were greeted in the
foyer by an enormous man whose smile seemed as permanent and natural as a
"Welcome, gentlemen." Jim Smithley offered Dec the warmest, softest
handshake heíd ever felt. "Weíre awaiting Mr. Oppel, but in the mean time
please allow me to show you to the Memory Lounge. Coffee?"
Sweet, familiar music floated overhead.
"We want to go in there," Joss said, pointing to the main gallery.
"Iím sorry siró"
Joss paid no heed. He rushed the viewing room with inappropriate
energy. As Dec entered he saw a wall of mismatched flower arrangements
sent by Ivyís relatives and co-workers. White vases offered yellow roses
snuggled into nests of babyís breath and lacy ferns. Cheaper bouquets of
tinted carnations filled the gaps. But there were also several bizarre,
tropical arrangements of spiky greens and lurid, wide flowers that seemed
Some people knew Ivy Oppel, some people didnít.
Declan heard his brother shout.
"Joss?" As Dec turned he saw Joss at the end of the gallery, arms
splayed as if heíd just lost something precious.
Ivy Oppelís open casket rested on a carnation covered dais, and
overhead, rose-threaded bunting scalloped an imaginary entryway to the
afterlife. The music was a little louder here, and diffuse golden light
from recessed panels in the ceiling struggled to give the body a lifelike,
"Whoa," Dec whispered.
The casket was pink.
Not just pink, but pearl pink, lipstick pink, the kind of pink one only
sees on pony-festooned notebooks belonging to nine year old schoolgirls.
Ivy Oppel lay in state in a candy dish.
Dec pressed his knuckle against his lips in an effort to keep his
cruder impulses at bay.
Lightly, Joss stepped forward, as if he feared he might wake his loverí
"They put make-up on her."
"They usually do, Joss." Some cross between alarm and humor had taken
hold of Decís diaphragm. His scalp percolated with wild nerves.
"No, I mean eye make-up. Lip liner. She didnít even own that stuff.
Mennen Speed Stick was the fanciest she ever got." Joss touched the golden
scroll on the front panel in disbelief.
"Who would do this to her?"
Jim Smithley coughed before he interrupted them. "Excuse me. It is
customary for the family to receive mourners, but the family hasnít
arrived yet. Might I ask you to wait in the lounge, please? I know itís
"Who did this to her?" Joss demanded.
Smithley blinked, and Dec sensed false innocence in the funeral
"My sister does the make-up."
"You know what I mean."
"It is a dramatic presentation. I worked with the loved oneís uncle, I
believe. He said that this was her favorite color."
"Maybe when she was four," Dec said. "This is crazy. Why do they even
make pink ones in this size?"
"Container style is tremendously varied these days. This model was
"You must be joking. Her family paid extra for this?"
"Er, not really. This unit had been ordered by another customer, but it
was never used. We were able to offer it at a discount to Ms. Oppelís
family, which, along with the fact that it was her favorite color, made it
Joss closed his eyes in denial. "It wasnít her favorite color. I donít
even think she liked colors."
"Perhaps," Smithley said, "But now is not the time to make an issue of
it, sir. I implore you to respect the familyís wishes."
Dec placed his hand on his brotherís shoulder. "It isnít like you have
a choice, anyway."
Joss sagged a little.
Declan looked into the "container." Ivy Oppel lay buoyed on mounds of
pale gold satin, her head cushioned by a tiny fringed puff pillow. This
was Decís first close-up look at Ivy Oppel, and his last. Defiantly plain,
the womanís face belied the efforts of the make-up technician who had
clearly struggled to feminize thin lips and piggy eyes. Dec hoped Joss
could see that, could see the real Ivy through all the gunk. Ivyís stiff
hair was teased over her brow in a kind of 50s pomp. Then Dec remembered
that Ivy had been shot in the head. A wig had to be styled to cover what
putty and make-up couldnít.
Joss pouted. Dec hoped he wouldnít do something extroverted and
embarrassing like kiss a dead woman on the lips.
"It isnít fair." Jossís voice wavered with more emotion than heíd shown
at his own fatherís funeral.
"Sheís gone. She doesnít feel this. Besides, you owe her the courtesy
to be cool, even if her family are a bunch of cheap bastards."
"Quite so," added Smithley, with perhaps more candor than was prudent.
"As I mentioned before, it is customary to wait to be received by the
"Itís seven now. Where the hell are they?"
"Running late, I suppose. It happens." Smithleyís assurance sounded
like an embarrassed lie.
"Bet it doesnít," said Dec.
Joss was suddenly alert, and the anger was replaced by another light in
his eyes. "Whereís your stock room, Jim?"
"Where do you keep the vampires, buddy? Surely this isnít the only
coffin in town?"
"Sir, the arrangements are final. There is no way--"
"Anything will do, Jim. Cost is no problem. Whereíre your showroom
models? Back here?" Joss didnít wait for the funeral directorís protests.
In the hallway he started trying doors.
"For Christís sake, Joss."
Joss entered a brightly lit kitchenette and crossed through it, powered
by a faulty instinct. Another door opened into a brick-lined workshop. Far
behind but in pursuit, Jim Smithley breathed hard, both to keep up and
keep his dignity. "Please donít," he called.
The workshop was lined with counters, chemical containers, and
instruments that resembled giant, steel mantises. A sharp green smell
permeated the air, and at the center of the room were two steel tables,
piled with shop rags and electrical cords. Refrigerated cabinets hummed
against the wall.
"Body shop," Joss muttered to Dec. Impatiently he called out, "The
caskets, man. Where are they?"
Smithley had lost interest in the struggle. "One more," he said,
indicating a door across the work-shop. "Though it isnít the customer
The casket showroom adjoined the viewing gallery on the opposite side,
and they had navigated an unnecessary horseshoe tour through the building
to get there. The pastel walls of the showroom were decorated with silk
flower baskets and peaceful paintings of woodland streams. It was an ideal
room for the consumption of dry cookies and mint tea, except that there
were so many caskets in the way. Eight sample boxes with wood and metal
finishes waited on felt covered platforms. One model was snow white
laminate with gold hardware.
On a desk near the exit was a binder labeled "Themes"; it was open to a
glossy picture of a casket covered with a photo realistic NASCAR mural.
Against a sky blue field, numbered cars bearing commercial logos zoomed
around the perimeter of the box, and the faint image of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
in sunglasses smiled through the clouds on the lid. Declan chose not to
distract Joss with an "it could be worse" scenario.
The models on display all looked the same to Joss. Not pink. "Weíll
take this one." He selected a simple maple box nearest the viewing room
Smithley said, "This isnít a furniture store, sir."
"The fuck it isnít. How much for the box? Seven, eight grand?"
"You donít understand. You cannot return the current container. It has
already been paid for by the family."
"No problem," said Joss. "Iíll reimburse them for the pink princess,
and Iíll buy this one. Thatís two coffins for one bodyóthatís a good day
in a slowing economy, bud."
Smithleyís expression was neutral. "Your credit card, sir. Iíll need to
confirm with the bank."
Joss handed over his platinum card and Declan winced. Smithley cleared
the mellow timbre from his voice, replacing it with icy clarity: "The
transfer is up to you sir. Those units are on wheels, and thatís the door
to the gallery. Let us hope that none of the family has arrived yet. And
"Yeah?" Joss stared at the maple box as if he were searching for the
"No take-backs this time."
"I donít think you do," said Dec.
Twenty after seven and still no mourners had arrived. Declan opened the
accordion door that camouflaged access between the viewing gallery and the
showroom. Joss pulled the draped cart and casket over the carpet. His
progress was awkward, conflicted as he was by care and urgency. As he
passed Declan, he tried to endear him with a comical expression.
Dec wasnít having any of it. "Just get this over with." A noise came
from the foyer. "Shit."
Joss aligned the maple box next to the pink one.
More noise from the outer hall. "Someoneís here," said Dec. "How are
you going to--"
"Just go deal with it." Joss raised the lower half of the pink coffin
lid and gazed down at Ivyís body. Theyíd dressed her in a long ivory
nightgown. Matching ballet slippers encased her feet.
He thrust his arms into Ivyís coffin.
"Oh!" he said with surprise, but Declan was already gone.
A middle-aged couple and their two sons had arrived, and Dec watched
Smithley greet them. Through the glass paned doors the milky shapes of
more mourners became more definite as they neared the entrance.
Smithley glanced at Dec with confident serenity that communicated
volumes. Jossís credit--under Decís sponsorship--was excellent, and the
promise of a tasteful hereafter for Ivy Oppel was assured.
Dec retreated as Smithleyís honeyed murmur stalled the mourners with
useless information about eveningís schedule and where the coffee could be
found. Declan slipped back into the gallery to see the amazing image of
Joss standing with his arms full of satin bunting gathered around Ivy
Oppelís doll-like, dead body.
Like a reverent child, he declared: "It all comes out."
He struggled to lower Ivy and her wrapping into the maple box, and she
slopped around like a sack of birdseed.
Declan felt a sudden rush of awe for his big brother.
"Hurry. Theyíre coming."
Joss poked the satin back in place and readjusted the pillow.
"Her wig! Joss, it shifted."
Joss straightened the ugly wig, then yanked the pink coffin away from
the arc of flowers and draped backdrop. Some carnations fell loose and one
side of the fabric sagged, but he managed to jam the maple coffin
correctly into place.
Dec seized the pink box like a careless stock boy with a shopping cart,
leaving Joss to rearrange the display. Dec wrenched the accordion door
closed just as Smithley lead Ivyís cousins into the viewing room.
It didnít look too bad. Except for Joss wheeling around like a cornered
Joss extended his hand to the middle-aged gentleman he assumed was
Ivyís uncle. There was no immediate family resemblance, except that the
older manís face was breathtakingly grim, a canvas of old skin gathered
around young eyes that glowed unhappily. Joss recalled the same trace of
holocaust in Ivyís eyes.
The uncle took in the room, assessing, calculating. His black liquid
gaze registered every detail. Nothing escaped his notice. Finally he
settled his accountancy on Joss.
Joss withdrew his unaccepted hand. "We arrived early. I apologize for
"Bells," said the uncle, weighing yet another bit of information.
Behind him his wife stiffened. She stared at the wall of flowers, but it
was clear that her attention was dedicated to her husbandís responses.
Their teen-aged sons moved towards the casket, and she shifted sideways,
prepared to body block them if she had to.
"Iím surprised to see you here," said Ivyís uncle.
Joss gestured for Declan to come forward. "I was very close to Ivy."
The uncle barely nodded. "Fine, fine. But you have to go now."
"Steven," his wife said.
"He probably killed her, Omi." Oppelís voice was dry, but definite.
Joss shook his head and whispered, "No sir, no."
A half dozen mourners meandered near the rear wall of the gallery; the
exchange between Oppel and Bells had drawn an invisible curtain across the
"Leave, or I will make you leave." It was a statement of fact, without
emotion. Steven Oppel had successfully reserved his feelings for the
ceremony to come, and he wasnít about to spend any resources--material or
spiritual--beyond the budget heíd planned.
"Smithley, exactly what is this? Look at her coffin; Iím not paying for
Smithley moved toward Joss and said, "There is a very comfortable
"He shouldnít be here. This isnít a sideshow." A slight tremor in the
tight line of Oppelís face signaled an excess of feeling; he had gone
further than he needed to, and his eyes burned against his sallow temple.
"I loved her," Joss said.
Oppelís neck pulsed.
Dec sensed a level of danger beyond what was obvious. He could smell
it, like ozone. He gripped his brotherís bicep and urged him back. "Itís
time for us to go." He tugged Joss through the gathering crowd. By now
even more people had assembled, and though most of them were clearly
family members and friends of Ivy Oppel, a few stood out as oddly
Of these, two men and a woman stared as the brothers left the gallery.
Dec wondered, are they cops or reporters? Especially the woman, she seemed
too alert. Too ready for this.
Steven Oppelís fading complaints followed the brothers outside.
Then Steven Oppel followed them out. He couldnít help himself.
Declan didnít wait to be accosted. He merely said, "Back off," and the
man halted in his tracks.
Oppel stood in the gravel and glowered as the Bells brothers make their
way towards their car. His navy suit was perfect, with perfect buttons, a
perfect tie. His horrible face, pocked as it was by haunted confidence,
confirmed a vocation bestowed by nature: to offer or accept condolence. No
one could bear pall with more grace, more sincerity of burden, than he.
Dec put Joss inside the car, and Oppel made another approach, placing
his hand on the passenger door.
"I said back off, crypt-keeper." Dec crossed to the driverís side.
Joss was unresponsive. Oppel paused to gauge the level of threat Declan
posed, and then swooped down to whisper into Jossís ear.
Dec heard an explosion of gravel, and suddenly Joss was gone. He didnít
see Oppel, either. Dec ran around the front of the car to find them both
on the ground, struggling against each other in the dusty lot.
As far as skirmishes go, this one was subdued. The men gripped each
otherís lapels and rolled against each other, kicking up clouds of pebble
dust. Occasional grunts were uttered, as if theyíd agreed that a wrestling
match in the parking lot of a funeral home should be a fairly silent,
For a while Oppel had the advantage, rolling Joss over and over until
his black clothing was utterly coated in gray dust. But then Joss had
managed to fix his knee against Oppelís groin and was pressing in.
Declan was a professional, specially trained to break up brawls, but
his sense of duty was not as strong as his curiosity. He had never seen
his brother like this.
Eventually he felt compelled to intervene. "Cut it out!" Declan
hollered. The volume of his voice seemed more violent than the fight. Ivy
Oppelís mourners exited the funeral home to bear witness to the battle,
unofficially lead by Smithley and the attentive woman from the hall. The
woman pulled back her jacket to reveal a gun holstered under her armpit.
Another man, also armed, stood behind her waiting his charge.
Joss and his opponent indulged in two more full revolutions, but their
passions had diminished. Dumasha announced that she was a police officer,
ordered them to stop, and placed her hand on her weapon. Both men
collapsed away from each other as if theyíd been awaiting permission to
Holding his groin, Oppel rolled to one side and gritted his teeth. His
face didnít look all that different in pain as it did at rest. His moans
of "shit, shit" seemed almost dignified.
Joss fell over and faced the sky. His clothes were caked with gravel
dirt and tears made blue mud streaks on his face. His pupils disappeared
as he stared up, into the clouds and beyond. Heíd suffered no apparent
injury, but his body heaved with sobs.
Officer Dumasha shared a disgusted look with her partner. Nothing going
down today. Not here. Nothing useful, anyway.
"Mr. Smithley?" she asked.
Smithley shook his head, eager to dismiss the incident. "As long as
they vacate the premises, I donít care what happens."
Steven Oppelís wife crouched by his quietly agonized body. She crowded
him with her arms and uttered calming words directly into the mottled
flesh of his neck. Their sons stood back on the front stoop of the funeral
parlor, fists jammed deep into the pockets of their church pants, looking
on with smothered glee.
Declan knelt by Joss. "You ready to go now?"
Joss didnít answer, but after a moment he raised up on his elbows.
Oppel stopped cursing, and he sat up with his head hung over his knees.
He concentrated on his pain, as if that were the only option for survival.
His wife continued her caresses.
Dumasha studied Steven Oppel and tried to figure out what he was like
outside the culture of funerals. Did he rake leaves, eat meatloaf, make
love? No way.
And Joss Bells. She couldnít imagine two more different men. Bells
radiated while Steven Oppel sucked light. Fall apart, pull together.
Theyíd been waiting their whole lives for this conflict, this war.
And it was a draw.
Poor Ivy Oppel. She never had a chance.
Dumasha tapped her holster and closed her coat. What a difference a gun
Joss ran his hand over his mussed hair, but not out of concern for
his appearance. "Declan?"
"Right here Joss."
"Dec," he croaked. He was so tired. "If I didnít do it, and you didnít
do it . . ." He didnít have the heart to complete the clichť.
"Then who did."
Dumasha and her partner froze in place, waiting for this surprise
butterfly to land. Declan sensed the sudden tension in the two cops,
especially in her. Her thighs flexed and her fingers waited rigidly over
Dec blew a tight sigh, and then lowered himself onto the gravel. He
tried to explain it as simply as he could. "It doesnít fucking matter
Joss. Sheís dead. Who did it, it doesnít matter."
Dumasha winced and managed to send a telepathic scream into her
"Shit," said Dec. "I still think you did it. Most people do." Dec
surveyed the crowd that had wandered from the gallery into the parking
lot. It was so obvious now. He could tell exactly which ones were family,
which ones were cops, and which ones were scummy reporters. It was a new
way of seeing, just like when he learned all the names of the wildflowers,
or when he figured out that child molesters didnít play handball quite the
same way that armed robbers did. It was a new way to look at an old world,
and something you had to accept. You always know more, you never know
less. It was too bad. The woman cop waited for more. Well, fuck her all to
hell. This was family.
"Joss, it doesnít change anything. Doesnít change who you are, whether
you did it or not. Doesnít change how I feel about you, either. Youíre
such an ass."
Dec grinned for Dumasha. "Isnít that insane? That thereís probably
nothing a guy can do? Canít even murder somebody to make yourself
Joss accepted his little brotherís ugly love. He let Declan help him to
his feet, and they limped back to the car as the small crowd watched.
Officer Dumasha strained to catch a last glimpse of Joss Bells sliding
into the passenger side. Under cover, in her street clothes, she was a
sexy contender, someone Joss would have noticed. Before following the
Oppel family into Smithleyís, sheíd been stationed in the bar across the
street and was disappointed that Bells had made uncharacteristic choices
But for now the gray dirt on his black clothes made him seem like an
ancient, dusty god in a pagan theologyónot the god, but one of many
in the shrinking heavens, still occupying a dying religion. Men like him,
the unnatural beauties, had become irrelevant, and the believers in Blind
Angels were losing faith, fading out . . . A lot of them were dead.
She suppressed a pang of tart desire with the not-so-sad knowledge that
the next time sheíd see that pretty man heíd be in shackles, stumbling
towards a holding cell. And that was important, for Dumasha sensed that
Ivyís murder was the last of its kind, and that the natural history of
pretty men was finally coming to a close.
Dumashaís pager vibrated, and she nodded to her partner. They moved
towards their vehicle.
"You think theyíll go back into the funeral home?" she asked.
"Who? The family? I dunno."
"Iíll bet they donít. Bet they skip out. Take advantage of the
distraction." Dumasha imagined several watery great-aunts-by-marriage
backing away from this raw experience, scrambling to the safety of their
Would any of themóeven Funeral Steve--bother to show for the morning
service? Dumasha tried a little sigh of female sadness. It would happen to
her someday, too. A funeral populated by uncomfortable, distant relations.
Ivy Oppel was one hard cousin to cry for. And a hard woman, too. "Hard"
used to be a bad thing for a woman. Then it was a good thing for about two
and a half years in the late Ď80s. Now it was just a thing, like "blue
eyes," "conservative," or "computer literate."
A hard woman, but Ooops! Kapow! Thereís a hole in her head. Not hard
Iím harder, thought Dumasha. A girl with a gun can have some fun in
The unattractive brother drove angry, spinning up gravel as they
pivoted in the lot. Dumasha paused to get another good look at Bells
through his window.
"Bye-bye Petey Prickles."
Her partner snickered along with her. And even though the window was
rolled up tight, Joss turned as if heíd heard.
The age of Blind Angels passed long ago. There were just these last few
stragglers who depended on the earthly hustle of clear-eyed, well-armed
Dumasha to effect passage into oblivion.
Joss stared, recognizing her from some place, and settled his
centerless blue eyes onto her unyielding expression. There was no youth or
flirt left in him, but an imperative sexuality bloomed and died in his
beautiful face; the bright light flickered on, then off--perhaps
permanently--as he accepted her immovable nature.
Laura Ellen Scott teaches writing at George Mason University, in
Fairfax Virginia. Some of her work can be found online via the
Ploughshares and Eclectica.org Magazine sites, and her fiction
has been nominated for the E2ink-2 best of the web 2003 anthology.