The One That Got Away

So here is the latest short fiction piece I wrote for the weekly contest I enter.  The prompt was titled “Get Schooled.”  The story simply had to be set at one of the schools they listed. The options were things like Clown College, College of Renewable Energy, and College of Funeral Services.  I chose funeral services.  I found out yesterday that my story didn’t win so I can now post it here.  Enjoy.  I always love constructive criticism.  Feel free to leave in the comments section.

 

The One That Got Away

Just stick to the rules.  That’s what I told myself when I first got into this business.  Set rules to mitigate the obvious risks and then stick to them. That’s how you survive and don’t get caught.  Rule One: Don’t know too much. With what I did, the less I know, the better. Knowing too much is what gets people caught or killed.  

As a professor of mortuary affairs at the College of Funeral Services, I was in the unique position of having a legitimate means of disposing of human remains.  I taught the Embalming I class and clinical lab to accompany it. Included in this course was cremation services. The school had an older but still effective crematorium that we used as a teaching tool.  We worked with some of the local funeral homes to get deceased bodies to show the students how the process worked. It was my unique position of having these means of disposal that attracted the Russian mob to me in the first place.

Well, to be honest, it was my dumb cousin Ronnie that really attracted them to me.  If he hadn’t come up with the brilliant idea of using me to dispose of the bodies, they would still be burying them or dumping them in lakes or whatever they did before me.  Either way, it was what it was and I now knew more Ivans, Anatolys, Vladimirs, and Pavels then I knew what to do with.

Rule Two: No live ones.  I had made that one absolutely clear at the very beginning.  I was not a killer. I was not an interrogator. I was a disposer, nothing more.  My crematorium was not a threat and not a weapon, it was tool. My job within their organization was very clear and defined and I wanted nothing to do with anything outside of it.  

Ronnie?  Ronnie was just a delivery boy.  But he was a delivery boy that violated Rule One.  His job should have been just as clearly defined as mine.  Pick up a package at Point A and take it to Point B. Leave said package at Point B while retrieving an already agreed upon payment for said package.

However, as I may have mentioned, Ronnie is an idiot.  He was forever trying to meddle in the affairs of the Russians and learn everything there was to know.  As if he had a chance to move up the hierarchy. We shared the last name of Müller which made us about as Russian as sauerkraut.  Odd that after seventeen years of running deliveries for the Russian Mob, Ronald Müller hadn’t climbed the ladder to become a boss.  I had tried to talk to him several times about it and he was somehow still convinced that there was a future in it for him.

I, on the other hand, kept doing what I was doing for the simple fact that I knew the future for me if I ever decided not to.  My motivation was not so much hoping for a positive consequence as it was avoiding a decidedly negative one.

“So why did you get into funeral services?”

The voices of the first year students in my lab shook me back into reality.  We were in the Embalming I Clinical lab and the students chatted aimlessly as they went about their work.  

“Well, I figured it was a solid career choice.  I mean it’s a business everyone is dying to get into.”

I cringed.  There were bad jokes and then there were bad jokes about funeral services.  A whole different level.

“Yeah. I don’t think that the profession is going under anytime soon.”

It just kept getting worse.  I looked at the clock. Fifteen minutes to go.  My cell phone buzzing on my desk next to me was a welcome distraction.  It was a text from Ronnie. “One coming in tonight. Crazy story. Tell you all about it when I get there.”  I replied with a simple. “Rule One. I’ll see you when you get here.”

Ronnie knew my rules but sometimes was so excited about the backstory that he felt he had to tell me.  Most of the time, I put headphones in and worked while he prattled on, not caring that I wasn’t hearing a single word he said.

My phone buzzed again. “No, this is different. You’ll want to hear this.”  His next text included a link to a news article. I went against my better judgement and opened the article. The opening headline read, “Daughter of Russian Diplomat Goes Missing.”  I didn’t read the rest of the article. Better not to know.

Class ended and the students filed quickly out.  They had much better things to do on a Friday than hang about an embalming lab.  It was 6:30 and Ronnie wouldn’t be at the school until after 9. We used a maintenance road and back entrance to get the bodies into the crematorium.  When the buildings on campus had undergone a maintenance and security upgrade back at the turn of the millenium, the cameras that had been planned for the back of the building and entrance had been cut due to budget constraints.  It was convenient but we still had to wait until dark. I decided to head to the Panera right down the road to get dinner while I waited for Ronnie.

As I sat down to my bread bowl with black bean soup, I looked at my phone and, against my better judgement again, reopened the link to the news article.  Irina Stepanov, the 27 year old daughter of Marat Stepanov had been in the States visiting her father when she had gone missing yesterday evening. The news article included a photograph and, I had to say, she was not a woman who was difficult to look at.  She had wavy dark hair and strikingly dark eyes to match. Her features were defined without going so far as being sharp or pointed. In the photo she had a slight smile that hinted of humor and her eyes belied intelligence.

Without thinking, I Googled her name and clicked on her wikipedia bio.  My intuition about her eyes had been correct. She had begun attending St. Petersburg State Polytechnic University at 14 years old.  She had received her undergraduate degree in applied mathematics and then completed a double master’s degree program in informatics and computer science by the time she had turned 20.  Very impressive.

The events and circumstances surrounding her disappearance were both mysterious and questionable according to the newspaper.  She had been seen stumbling toward the bathroom in a restaurant but hadn’t been seen since then. According to Ronnie, I’m sure the events and circumstances were much less mysterious and questionable.  

I looked down at my phone and saw that I had spent nearly an hour and a half reading.  I cleared my tray and headed to my car to go back to the school.

I found Ronnie already waiting for me at the back entrance to the building, a stupid grin spreading across his face.  “This is my shot man. I’m telling you. This is my shot and I killed it. This is big for me. This is my shot.” He had this annoying way of repeating himself when he was excited, which he clearly was.  I just wanted to get out of there and settled onto my couch with a glass of Moscato to binge watch The Office for the third time. I heard him talk without really listening. However, as much as I didn’t want to, I caught parts of how he had been the perfect candidate for the job because he was American and used to be a waiter.  Apparently he had dropped something in her drink. She had gone to the bathroom and the rest was history.

“I’m telling you man, this is”

“Your shot Ronnie.  I know. I heard.”

Really I just wanted him to leave.

“You know, why don’t you just head home.  I’ll finish up here. Go celebrate buddy.”

I didn’t need to repeat myself there.  He was gone quicker than a shot of cheap vodka leaving me with the body of Irina Stepanov; billionaire genius.  

I stepped toward the body to begin the process of moving into the crematorium when I thought for a second I thought I saw the chest move ever so slightly.  My heart stopped. I paused and watched intently. Nothing. Then again, almost undetectably, the chest rose and fell in the faintest hint of a breath.

“Shit.”  Ronnie had now violated rules number one and two in the same day.  I had no idea how to proceed. In over ten years of disposing of bodies for the mob, this had never happened before.  

In a split second I made my decision.  There was no way I could do it. I was simply a disposer, not a killer.  It took me about five minutes to head to the parking lot, pull my car around through the maintenance road to the back entrance, and get back into the lab outside the crematorium.  

By the time I got back inside, Irina’s chest was rising and falling faintly but steadily with an undeniable rhythm that showed she was in fact alive.  Ronnie was even stupider than I thought. Whatever he had used to drug and then kill her was obviously not as effective as he thought or had been administered in a faulty manner.  My instinct told me it was the latter.

I was now faced with the difficulty of how to get her back to my house.  Now that I knew she was alive, I didn’t feel right putting her in the trunk.  I was about to go Weekend at Bernie’s with her either though. However, if I laid her down in the backseat and for some reason was stopped by the police, it would be a hard thing to explain.  However, I decided that was my best option and placed her gently on her side in the fetal position.

The drive was mercifully uneventful.  She stirred slightly once or twice but didn’t wake.  My house has an attached garage so transporting Irina from the car to the house was equally uneventful.  

The next two days were spent caring for her as she drifted in an out of consciousness.  It was not nearly as awkward as I might have thought it to be. There was no screaming and trying to escape as she’d lost most of her motor control.  She seemed to be in much of a dreamlike state. Each time she awoke I spoke calmly and plainly, letting her know who I was, where she was, and what had happened.  I found that as soon as she heard me speak in English, she only communicated that way and did so very well. She had no noticeable accent and was as well spoken as someone who had been drugged mostly to death could be.

By Sunday afternoon, she was fully conscious and beginning to regain control of her nervous system and major muscle groups.  She knew exactly who she was and could recall all of the events leading up to her abduction. This surprised me. I don’t know if I had been watching too many movies and was expecting temporary amnesia or something, but it did.  

I found talking to her easier than with any human I had ever encountered before in my life.  In the space of 5 hours I had told her everything about me. I had told her about how I hadn’t every really had a serious relationship.  I told her how I hated working for the mob. How when my baby teeth had started falling out we had found out that I had something called anodontia, a condition in which the permanent teeth never grow back.  When Monday came around, I was legitimately disappointed to leave my usual lonely domicile and head back to work. When I returned home and found Irina still there, I was ecstatic. Now we simply had to answer the question of what to do now.

“Well they can’t know that I’m alive.” she said. “Then they’ll have me to hold over Papa’s head again.”

“But can he know you’re alive?” I asked.  Her reply took a long time.

“No.” she said sadly. “He can’t. If anyone but you finds out that I didn’t die, we’re both as good as dead.”

“Right.” I said.  “So what do we do?”

“Well that depends.” she said. “Can you live the rest of your life and keep this a secret? Also, what if something somehow does happen and the mob finds out that I’m still alive?  You’d be dead before you realized what was happening.”

“So you’re saying I need to get out too?” I asked.

“Absolutely.” She answered.

“Impossible.  There’s only one way out, and it’s through my crematorium.”

“Well then that’s how we’ll do it.  A crematorium.”

The “crematorium” she had in mind was actually my car.  It was a fairly simple operation. Crash my car hard enough into a pole to make it believable that it would catch fire somehow and then light it on fire.  My anodontia further simplified the matter. The fire from the car would ruin any DNA so the only way to identify a body would be through dental records. After the fifth grade, I had no dental records to speak of.  Just a set of false teeth that would also be destroyed in the fire. As for who we would be after I died, having someone with a master’s degree in informatics and computer technology helped us obtain complete new identities.  I was to become Joshua Thompson and was pleasantly surprised to find that she had given herself the same last name, Nadia Thompson.

After that, it was simply a matter of waiting until Ronnie produced another body that was the same height and relative build that I was.  Luckily, the world is not in short supply of 5’10” males and he texted me two weeks later that he had another delivery.

As Irina and I stood there watching my car and my entire past life burn, she turned to me and asked if I thought I would miss it.

I was truly ashamed of my reply. “Well, teaching at the College of Funeral Services was a great way to urn a living, but I’m ready to move on.”

Her laugh was genuine as she retorted with, “Well then, I think that this will be a very fine undertaking for you then.”

Pure gold.