Edgar Award Finalist: A mob boss’s right-hand man must track down a missing cache of heroin. The corpse isn’t anybody special—a low-level drug courier—but it has been so long since the organization’s last grand funeral that Nick Rovito decides to give the departed a big send-off. He pays for a huge church, a procession of Cadillacs, and an ocean of flowers, and enjoys the affair until he learns the dead man is going to his grave wearing the blue suit. Rovito summons Engel, his right-hand man, and tells him to get a shovel. Inside the lining of the blue suit jacket is $250,000 worth of uncut heroin, smuggled back from Baltimore the day the courier died. When Engel’s shovel strikes coffin, he braces himself for the encounter with the dead man. But the coffin is empty, the heroin gone, and Engel has no choice but to track down the missing body or face his boss’s wrath.
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The Busy Body
By Donald E. Westlake
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1966 Donald E. Westlake
All rights reserved.
Engel's knees hurt. This was the first time he'd been inside a church in twelve years, and he wasn't used to it any more. He'd come in here, all unknowing, and the first thing he knew he was on his knees on this hard wooden plank, and pretty soon the kneecaps had started burning, and then shooting pains had developed up and down the legs, and by now he was almost sure something was broken down there and he'd never walk again.
To his left, blocking the aisle directly in front of the altar, was Charlie Brody's casket, draped with a black cloth bearing a gold embroidered cross. It was really very fancy-looking, and a nutty rhyme began to circulate around in Engel's head: A tisket, a tasket,/A black and yellow basket,/Charlie Brody kicked the bucket/And now he's in a casket,/A casket,/And now he's in a casket.
The rhyme struck him funny, and he grinned a little, but then out of the corner of his eye he saw Nick Rovito giving him the fish-eye, so he dummied up again. Then his left knee suddenly gave him a particularly vicious twinge, and he got on his face an expression Nick Rovito couldn't possibly object to. He leaned as much weight as possible on his forearms resting on the back of the pew in front of him, and he wondered how much longer this foofaraw was going to take.
In a way, none of this was even necessary, since Charlie Brody hadn't kicked off in the line of duty, hadn't been gunned down or anything like that. All he'd had was a heart attack. Of course, he'd had it just when he was putting some water on to boil for instant coffee, and he'd fallen over with his head in the flame, so he was just as much a mess now as if he had been rubbed out—closed coffin and all, no viewing the remains, the whole bit—but nevertheless, in the old days this sort of big-shot funeral had been reserved either for VIPs or guys sliced down on the job.
It was because of the New Look, that's what it was. With the New Look, practically nobody ever got rubbed out any more, not so's the body was left around, not since Anastasia, and that was just some guys showing off. With the New Look, there weren't any rival organizations to have gang wars with, because the Central Committee gave everybody a territory and then settled all jurisdictional disputes itself at the conference table down in Miami. And with the New Look, nobody shot it out with the cops any more, they just went along nice and quiet and let the organization lawyers handle everything. So, because of the New Look, it had been years and years since the organization had been able to throw a really first-class supercolossal Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza of a funeral.
And now here was Charlie Brody, not much more than a punk. A courier is all he was, between the organization here in New York and the suppliers down in Baltimore. But he was dead, and he was the first active member of the organization to kick off in three or four years, and when Nick Rovito heard about it he'd rubbed his hands together and got a gleam in his eye and said, "Let's us give old Charlie Brody a send-off! What I mean, a send-off!"
The other guys around the table had all looked pleased and said sure, good old Charlie Brody, the guy deserved a good send-off, but it was obvious they hadn't been thinking about good old Charlie Brody at all, they'd been thinking about the send-off.
Engel was still pretty new at these meetings, so he hadn't said much of anything, but he too had been pleased at the idea. He'd joined the organization too late to have any memories of send-offs himself, but he could remember his father talking about them when he was a kid. "That was a grand sendoff," his father used to say. "The church packed to the rafters, five thousand people on the sidewalks outside, mounted cops all over the place. The Mayor showed up, and the Sanitation Commissioner, and everybody. That was a great send-off!"
Not that Engel's father had ever been high enough in the organization to rate a seat at a send-off like that, but more than once he'd been a part of that crowd of five thousand on the outside. At his own funeral, three years ago, there'd been only twenty-seven people. None of the bigwigs in the organization had shown up except Ludwig Meyershoot, who'd been Engel's father's boss for eighteen years.
But now, nostalgia in their eyes, the boys were deciding to give the recent Charlie Brody a grand-slam all-stops-out good old-fashioned send-off. Nick Rovito rubbed his hands together and said, "Somebody call Saint Pat's."
Somebody else at the table said, "Nick, I don't think Charlie was Catholic."
Nick Rovito looked indignant and said, "Who cares what the hell Charlie was? No church on earth can give you a send-off like the Catholic Church. Whadaya want, a bunch a Quakers sitting around, looking gloomy, spoiling the whole occasion?"
Nobody had wanted that, so Charlie was getting a good Catholic send-off, with Latin lyrics and sharp costuming and good strong incense and a lot of holy water and the whole complete routine. It wasn't Saint Pat's, that had already been reserved, but it was a church over in Brooklyn, almost as big, and nearer the cemetery anyway.
Only if he'd remembered about the knees, Engel told himself, he would of come down with a virus this morning and let somebody else play pallbearer, the hell with it.
Well. The service was anyway grinding to a close. Nick Rovito got to his feet, and the other five pallbearers got to their feet right after him. Engel's knees cracked so loud you could hear an echo bounce back off the stone wall of the church. Nick Rovito gave him the fish-eye again, but what could Engel do? He couldn't stop his knees from cracking, could he?
His legs were so stiff he was afraid for a second he wouldn't be able to walk. They were all over pins and needles, like there hadn't been any blood getting down there in quite a while. He flexed them, doing half a deep-knee bend before he realized he was in the front row of the church practically and everybody could see him, so he straightened quick and went on out to the aisle with the others.
His place was at the left rear. They all stood there in position a second, their backs to the altar, and Engel could see all the people jammed into the church. Not counting the undercover FBI agents and the undercover Crime Commission agents and the undercover Treasury agents and the undercover Narcotics Squad agents, and not counting the newspaper reporters and the wire service reporters and the photographers and the lady reporters to write the human interest stories, there were still maybe four hundred people in the church that had been invited by Nick Rovito.
The Mayor wasn't there, but he'd sent the Housing Commissioner in his place. Besides him there were three Congressmen that had come up through the ranks and gone on to represent the organization down in Washington, and a few singers and comics that were owned by the organization and fronted night clubs and restaurants for the organization, and a lot of lawyers in very conservative suits, and a few doctors looking fat and dyspeptic the way doctors do, and some sympathetic-looking people from the Department of Health, Education & Welfare, and some television and advertising executives that hadn't known Charlie Brody at all but did know Nick Rovito socially, and a lot of other notables. It was a very distinguished crowd, all in all, and Charlie Brody would have been flabbergasted if he could have seen them.
Nick Rovito, at the front right slot, nodded his head in the signal, and Engel and the other pallbearers bent and fumbled under the black drape for the coffin handles, and then straightened and lifted the coffin up onto their shoulders. One of the ushers quick wheeled the coffin rack out of the way so it wouldn't show in the news pictures, and then the pallbearers started down the aisle with flashbulbs popping all over the place. Engel was the tallest pallbearer, so he was the one carrying most of the weight; with the coffin grinding down onto his shoulder, he was forgetting all about his knees.
They marched on down the aisle, in slow time, with the faces on both sides looking solemn and serious, thinking about life and death and eternity and would some damn fool of a photographer take their picture by mistake even after the warning Nick Rovito had given the newspapers, and then they marched out into the sunlight and down the long shallow steps toward the hearse.
It was really quite a sight. The sidewalk was roped off on both sides, and just inside the ropes there were cops standing around with white helmets reflecting the sun, and back of the ropes there was a sea of people in Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts. It all made Engel think of fruit juice, and that reminded him he was thirsty, and that reminded him he was dying for a smoke. Well. Later.
He knew his mother was down in the mob somewhere, and he knew she was probably jumping up and down and waving the Daily News to try to attract his attention, so after the first quick glance at the mob he kept his eyes straight ahead, staring at the hearse. He was feeling a little stage fright anyway, out there in front of all those people, and if he should happen to see his mother jumping up and down and waving a newspaper at him besides, it would be too much. He knew his mother was proud of him for making it so much bigger than his father, who until the day of his death was never more than a store-front bookie and game operator in Washington Heights, but later on would be time enough to look at her and listen to her praises.
He and the others marched across the sidewalk now to where the undertaker was standing beside the hearse. The undertaker was so tanned he looked like he'd been covered with bronze paint. When Engel got closer, he saw it was paint, that stuff you can get in the drugstore to give yourself a fake tan. The way he could tell, the undertaker hadn't gotten it on even; up close, his face looked blotched and patchy, like he was a map of Europe done in shades of brown.
The undertaker was smiling so hard Engel was afraid he'd rip his cheeks. He kept motioning at the hearse like he wanted the pallbearers and everybody to just climb right on in and they'd take a spin through Chinatown, but they didn't. There was a hydraulic slab covered with purple felt that swung out from the interior of the hearse, and this is what they set the coffin on. Then the driver of the hearse pushed a button on the dashboard and the hydraulic slab swung back in again, and the undertaker and one of his assistants shut the doors. The undertaker said to Nick Rovito, "It's going beautifully, wouldn't you say?"
But Nick Rovito wouldn't say anything during a send-off; a send-off was too solemn an occasion. Engel saw him give the undertaker the fish-eye, and then he saw the undertaker decide to keep his trap shut from now on.
Nick Rovito motioned, and he and the other pallbearers stood to one side for a minute. The hearse drove forward, down the cleared space along the curb, and one of the flower cars drove up behind it. There were three flower cars. Ushers began carrying flowers out of the church, and in just a few minutes all three flower cars were full up, and then the procession cars came along.
The procession cars were Nick Rovito's idea. They were all black Cadillac convertibles, with the tops down. "This is going to be a modren send-off," Nick had said. "Not just a great send-off, a modren send-off." One of the other guys at the table had said, "To symbolize the new era, huh, Nick?" and Nick Rovito had said, "Yeah."
Now the people started coming down out of the church, in twos, with Charlie Brody's widow and Archie Freihofer in the lead. Archie Freihofer ran the girl part of the operation. Since Charlie Brody hadn't left any insurance, and since his dying outside the line of duty meant his widow wouldn't be getting any pension from the organization, and since she was a fine-looking blonde even in basic black like today, she was going to go back to working for Archie again now, like she was before she married Charlie, so it was only right that Archie should escort her at the send-off.
The undertaker had a little notebook where he'd written down who was going to go in what car, and now he read off, "Car number one, Mrs. Brody, Mr. Freihofer, Mr. Rovito, Mr. Engel."
Nick Rovito got into the back seat first, and then Charlie's widow, and then Archie Freihofer. Engel got in front next to the driver, and the convertible slid forward to close the gap with the flower car in front, and the other four pallbearers got into the second car.
For the next fifteen minutes it was stop and go, stop and go, while back there in front of the church the convertibles got filled, one after the other. There were thirty-four of them, which was Nick Rovito's idea. "One for every year of Charlie's life," he'd said. Somebody else at the table had said, "That's real poetic, Nick," and Nick Rovito had said, "Yeah."
Everybody was silent now for a while. It was hot out here in the sun with the top down. Engel smoked a cigarette, not looking to see if Nick Rovito wanted to give him the fish-eye or not, and he watched the people on the sidewalk point out Nick Rovito to their kids. "That's Nick Rovito, the big gangster," they told their kids. "He's got millions of dollars, and beautiful women, and imported booze, and influence in high places. He's a very evil man and I don't want you to grow up like that. See him in the fancy car there?"
Nick Rovito just kept looking straight ahead. Most times he'd wave to kids, and smile, and wink, but this was too solemn an occasion for that.
After a while Charlie's widow began to cry. "Charlie was a right guy," she said, crying. "We had seventeen beautiful months together."
"That's right, honey," said Archie Freihofer, and he patted her knee.
"I wish there could of been a viewing," she said. She dabbed at her eyes with a little handkerchief. "I wish I could of seen him one last time. I give them his good shoes and his French undies and his Brooks Brothers shirt and his Italian tie and his good blue suit, and they decked him all out, and nobody couldn't even see him to say a good-bye."
She was getting more and more broken up about it. Nick Rovito patted her other knee and said, "That's okay, Bobbi, it's better to remember him like he used to be."
"I guess you're right," she said.
"Sure I am. You got him all decked out, huh? Blue suit and everything. Which blue suit was that?"
"He only had one blue suit," she said.
"The one he traveled in."
"Every time he come home, that's what he was wearing." The thought broke her up all over again, and she went back to crying.
"There, there," said Archie Freihofer. He squeezed her knee this time.
Finally all the cars back there were full, and the procession got on the road. They drove over to the Belt Parkway and headed south. The speed limit was fifty miles an hour, but the church ceremony had run a little over, so they took Charlie to the cemetery at seventy miles an hour.
The cemetery was out by Paerdegat Basin, out back of a new housing development glistening in the sunlight over there like a lot of shiny new toys from Japan. Everybody got out of the cars, and the pallbearers got the coffin and carried it over to where the grave workers had the straps laid out. They put the coffin down on the straps, and then the priest made a speech in English, and the grave workers pressed a button that made the machinery around the straps buzz and lower the coffin into the hole, and then it was all over. Engel, now that he was out standing on grass, was thinking what a nice day it was for golf, and wondering if the municipal golf course would be too crowded by now. Probably would be. (His mother had made him get interested in golf, because she said it was the game executives played.)
On the way back to the cars, Nick Rovito came close to Engel and said, his voice low, "Mark where they planted him."
Engel looked around, marking it, and said, "How come?"
Nick Rovito said, "On account of tonight you're digging him up again."
Excerpted from The Busy Body by Donald E. Westlake. Copyright © 1966 Donald E. Westlake. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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