By William H. Duquette
A bit of hardboiled fiction. Sort of. I wrote this in 2004, or thereabouts, when I was still an Anglican, and well, you’ll see.
It was one of those funerals you go to mostly to be sure the guy won’t ever be bothering you again. I’ve been to a lot of those, but this one was different. This time it was strictly business, and I had never met the poisonous old so-and-so we were solemnly off-kissing. I don’t think many of the others in the church had met him either, especially the ones driving the news cameras and the bright lights.
It was a sight to see, all right. Dozens of young boys with candles on sticks sauntered up the aisle, followed by a handful of clergy, including, if I was not mistaken, the Archbishop himself. Joe-Joe must have been a heavy donor. I admire that about the Catholic church–they don’t much care about appearances, or what the public thinks. They’ll take your money, and do good with it, and when you die they are remarkably flexible (much more than you might think) about making sure all of the important things get done, quietly if need be.
I’m not a Catholic myself, but I’ve been to enough Catholic funerals to choke the average horse on, and I soon let my attention wander. Out of habit, I patted the case on the pew beside me, just to make sure it hadn’t wandered off, too. It would be a Bad Thing if I lost it. Then I went back to flipping through the pages of the program. The Order of Service, I guess they call it. There was a brief bit on the deceased’s life. Guiseppe Giovanni Valenti was born in New York City in 1945, of reasonably well-heeled parents; he’d gone to Notre Dame as a freshman, and stayed there until he’d gotten a law degree. I wondered if it had been a disappointment to the family when he’d hung his shingle in Los Angeles, instead of joining the family business. From where I was sitting, I couldn’t tell whether the loved ones had come in droves or dribbles.
By the mid ’80’s, Joe-Joe Valenti (Joseph to his face) had his own law firm, and was quite the name in trademark-infringement and intellectual-property circles. If you ran a newspaper ad featuring a big-nosed cartoon dog with black ears and black spots, you’d hear from Joe-Joe Valenti. If you made a movie that had any three points in common with a script that came over the transom and into the wastebasket, you’d hear from Joe-Joe Valenti. The joke in the industry was that if your kid scribbled a picture of a purple dinosaur in kindergarden, you’d hear from Joe-Joe Valenti. And if your kid had scribbled that picture at an early enough date, why, he’d be glad to represent you against the corporate powers that be. He played both sides, did Joe-Joe. Some would have it this showed his basic integrity–that he was always willing to help the little guy. But which ever side he represented, Joe-Joe was the only party guaranteed to make a buck. The bucks were more sizeable coming from the big companies, but I had the feeling he took on the smaller jobs for pleasure…the pleasure of squeezing the last drop of blood out of the little guy’s body. So to speak.
Not that they had put all of that in the program. I’d gotten most of it over lunch with Charlie a couple of months previously, and the rest in dribs and drabs over the phone. He wasn’t briefing me, or anything. Charlie had been concerned with Joe-Joe for quite a piece of time, and you talk about what’s on your mind.
I slid the program into the slot on the back of the pew in front of me.
There was some music, and some incense, and some reading, and various fol-de-rol, and then we got to the part I’d been waiting for: the part where the guy with the collar (or in this case the funny hat and shepherd’s crook) gets to stand up and pretend he knew the deceased and tell all of us what a great guy the dearly departed was. I’m always interested to see how they handle that bit, especially since, at least at most of the funerals I’ve been to, they know perfectly well what kind of guy the dearly departed really was. The Archbishop, I must say it, was particularly adept. He played up Joe-Joe’s strong points (he’d contributed mightily to the new cathedral, no big surprise there) and described him as a loving family man, which nearly made me choke. But the bish’ didn’t overdo it, either, and he summed it all up quite neatly with a few lines about dust-to-dust and resting eternally (no mention of peace, though) and the joy that comes after a long, productive life is over. He was talking about our joy, I’m thinking, rather than Joe-Joe’s, but it didn’t show at all. Just as well. You can’t have the TV news leading off with, “Local Archbishop Insults Deceased At Society Funeral”.
After that there was some more chanting and incense and like that, and then it was time to go up and view the body. The mourners filed out of the pews, up the center aisle to the casket, and back down the sides. I stayed put right where I was, at the outside edge of the last pew on the left, out of the way; I had no need to stand in line just to see the body. My turn would come.
The funeral was being held in a largish church on L.A.’s West Side; it might even have been over the line into Santa Monica. I don’t get over there much, and when I do I never quite know where I’m at. It’s like a foreign country to me. The interment would be closer to home, though, at Forest Lawn. It was a perfect location, situated as it was near the junction of the Ventura and Golden State Freeways. The old customs are mostly a bucket of hogwash, as no one knows better than I, but the fact pleased me anyway. Sometimes you can’t be too careful. I patted the case beside me again. Still there, ready to go.
I wondered how Joe-Joe had kicked it. Charlie hadn’t been in any kind of shape to tell me how it had all played out, not from a bed on the third floor of Our Lady of Perpetual Insomnia hospital. That’s where Charlie told me he was, anyhow. Knowing Charlie, that could be any hospital in the greater Los Angeles area. For that matter, I wondered how Charlie had gotten himself damaged. When he’d called, just a couple of hours ago, he’d refused to talk much about it. Instead, he’d asked me to cover for him at Joe-Joe’s obsequies. There wasn’t much I could say, and anyway it didn’t matter. Charlie couldn’t make it, and somebody had to be there. It’s a professional thing, like with actors. The Show Must Go On. So here I was, on the far side of town, drowsing through the tail end of Joe-Joe Valenti’s funeral.
Eventually things wound down, and I prepared to leave quietly with the rest of the crowd. In my business it doesn’t pay to make too much noise; publicity is too much hassle, when it isn’t just plain fatal. So I picked up the case and eased out of the church with the crowd, and walked slowly around the block to the far side of the church property. Back there was a door that quietly lead to the warren of rooms behind the altar, where Joe-Joe and the bish’ were no doubt waiting patiently for me. I sauntered across the parking lot to the door, taking care to look like I was supposed to be there, and opened the door and went in. One of the bishop’s understudies was on me in seconds.
“Excuse me, may I help you? Only we’re rather busy at the moment.” He didn’t smile.
“Gregory Bullers, at your service,” I said. “Mr. Camperdown was unavoidably detained, and requested that I come along in his place.”
“Ahh, come right in, then. We’re almost ready for you.” I followed him into a larger room filled with brocade and lace-covered heavenly bodies and one damned soul in a casket. “Everyone,” said the understudy, “This is Mr. Bullers. He has come in place of Mr. Camperdown.” There was a general round of handshaking and pleased-to-meetchas, and I found out that the bish’ wasn’t really the bish’, or at least he wasn’t the archbish’. He was a sort of supplementary bish’. Joe-Joe hadn’t rated as highly as I’d thought. Then the understudy went round locking all of the doors, checked everyone in the room, and said, “All right. We’re ready now, Mr. Bullers.”
I laid the case on a counter and unlocked it with the smallest key on my keychain. I could sense the assembled clergy watching in sick fascination as I opened the lid. Out of exactly shaped recesses in the foam-filled interior I pulled a heavy wooden mallet and a carefully sharpened oaken stake.
“I’m ready, too,” I said.