In life, all of our worst nightmares come true, sooner or later. No one could have dreamed this.
This was his best suit and his underwear was obviously silk. The air was close and warm and heavy with moisture. Sweat and tears stung his eyes. The blackness was profound. The silence was worse, only the thudding of what must be trucks going down a road nearby came through the hard-packed earth with any clarity. Dragging up his arm in the tightly-enclosed space, the ticking of his watch and the faint glow of the dial was the only reality. Time must soon run out for Frederigo.
His thoughts raced. He knew what must have happened.
The trouble with the alarm button was that there was no way to test it, as if any living person had ever thought to do so. No one had ever considered the possibility that it wouldn’t work.
Life was too precious to take a chance. He thought he hadn’t.
Frederigo Velasquez, born and bred in Buena Vista, was a cautious man, but also a successful man. It all seemed so logical at the time.
When it came time for the hard-working owner of a small chain of laundromats in this thriving city to do some estate planning, a pre-paid funeral plan seemed like a good idea. Maria had been plaguing him about his health for some time, and finally Hector got in on it.
It really would be in their best interest, to save taxes and avoid withdrawal penalties.
His family, whom he loved dearly, and undoubtedly they loved him just as dearly, wouldn’t have to worry about a thing. It was all taken care of now, all paid for, and first-class all the way.
He had provided for the eventualities as thoughtfully as anything else he did.
Like several of the small businesses he had painstakingly built up and then sold over the last twenty-five years, it was a turn-key operation. Although Maria didn’t much appreciate the morbid humour, his son had.
At the last minute, on the suggestion of Uncle Leo, an uncle on Maria’s side it must be said, he had cheerfully put down a little extra for a very special coffin. It had an alarm bell. He remembered the original news stories, when they first came out. It was good for a laugh, and the perpetual optimist that was Federigo laughed easily. It was a small price to pay for peace of mind.
He could make a joke at his own expense and get away with it. Or so he thought.
At fifty-seven, Federigo was still a young man, and might have thirty or forty years, some of them very good years, still ahead of him. He sobbed at the thought of dying, so very, very slowly in there.
He was going to die today. Now. In the next few minutes.
No one would ever know what happened to him; for how could they?
His thoughts raced. Where did he go wrong?
After all those years of hard work, it had felt so good to give in to an insane impulse. Word of the coffin alarm-button quickly got out, whether via an employee or a relative, no matter, and his business had enjoyed a brief spurt in terms of sales. It lasted about two weeks.
Everyone in town came to use the machines, to do their laundry, as clean as a whistle, or so the radio ads said, and to gossip, and to marvel at his foolishness. To be fair, he had made the money back quite quickly.
Federigo came from the barrio. Fighting his way up from the dregs and the sewers had taken a long time, but it had been worth it, eminently so.
He’d been in a few tough spots in his life. He didn’t think he was going to get out of this one, and the emotions overcame him.
The terrible truth about the alarm button was that it didn’t work. The size, shape and length of the box he was in said everything. The hard knob of the button, dead center on the bottom of the lid, was undeniable. He could see it in his mind’s eye.
“Oh, mama.” His lips moved in prayer.
He must have had one of his spells. They must have taken him for dead. He must have been out of it for a few days this time. His gratitude at not being dissected and en-balmed in his sleep was offset by the fact that the button didn’t work.
The fear was unbearable. He couldn’t stop shaking.
He began to scream, and to pound weakly in the limited space at the silk-lined lid of his coffin.
The terror was beyond his control as he kicked and flailed and screamed like a madman.
Rain pelted down outside the open veranda windows and it seemed as if the city had gone silent.
Only the occasional swishing of a vehicle in the street outside broke through the hiss of the rain, quickly fading as they passed.
They were alone at last.
Who could say it was wrong for the funeral director, the charming and rakishly handsome Luiz Alvarro, to comfort the bereaved widow?
Maria dried her eyes.
“Are you sure it will be all right?”
They sat on the couch. He took her hands in his.
“Absolutely.” He nodded tenderly.
She looked away, tragically beautiful with her upturned nose and dimpled chin, her long dark hair sweeping down past the pale oval of her face. Her matronly figure only excited him the more. The simple luxury, the room and its bright complementary colours right out of a magazine, said much about her.
She bit her lip.
“He didn’t suffer. I promise you that.” Luiz lifted and kissed her hands tenderly. “Trust me. It’s better this way. He wouldn’t have liked a divorce, especially coming at him out of left field like that. He would have fought like a tiger—you know that. He was insanely jealous, and ultimately, a very possessive man.”
She nodded, still unable to look at him. Over the last years, she had come to hate Federigo, for his tirelessness, his selflessness when it came to the business. There was never enough time for family. There was never enough time for them. But they always had enough money. That was what angered her the most.
It was time for them, for him, and for her. Frederigo, he could never see it that way.
“You’ll get a million and a half for the laundry chain.”
She nodded, raising her eyebrows slightly and finally looking hopefully at Luiz. She never looked more beautiful to him than at that moment.
“Do you think so?”
“Sure. Absolutely. And you know what I was thinking?”
She gazed fondly into those eyes and somehow knew it would be all right.
“No, my love. What were you thinking?”
“Well, we should think about it a while, I guess. But if I sold the funeral home, maybe you and I, and Hector, we could go away somewhere nice.” He’d been waiting for a good opportunity to bring it up.
There was no time like now.
She would need time to think, and to worry, but he was sure she would come around.
“What? Where?” The very thought lifted her spirits.
Hector was her eighteen year-old son, the last one still living at home. He was employed in his father’s business as a handy-man. The young man was in his room behind closed doors as usual, probably on the computer. The boy didn’t have a girlfriend as far as Luiz knew. Hector could have the internet anywhere, and would soon make new friends. The boy seemed to have that gift. Luiz had put some thought into all of this. The death certificate, the funeral—it all went like a piece of cake. It was unbelievably easy to do away with someone as long as there was no hint of violence. They had all the right witnesses, and there was a good medical explanation. The right pill mixed into the right drink, at a suitable time and place, the right doctor, and the right men waiting to pick up the body.
It didn’t even cost that much, not today. Not in what Mexico had become in recent years, or perhaps more likely, it had always been this way. If only he had known.
“Somewhere nice—like Cannes, or Rio, or somewhere like that. Somewhere like Tahiti, you know?”
It would get them away from the city, the noise, the crime, and the raised eyebrows, of which there were certain to be at least a few. But waiting was madness. There was no time to waste.
They had talked all about this before. Luiz was a patient man. She was sweet, and vulnerable, and of good family, and very much worth the having. He wasn’t getting any younger himself, and maybe it was time to take a rest. She knew all his thoughts. They had talked about it, and dreamt together often. His own wife had left years ago, but he was over all that.
The silence had gone on too long.
“We’ll think about it.” He leaned over and gave her a dry peck on the lips.
“Yes, my love.”
Suddenly she was clinging to him, stirring him with her warmth and her scent. The heavy feel of her breast in his hand was comforting and disturbing at the same time. Her eyes were inches away, and again she was blinking back tears.
“Please don’t leave me.”
He held her tight, loins stirring. She was a magnificent sight in bed, but he wondered if they dared, so soon after the interment…?
And of course the boy was home. They would have to be as quiet as the little mice that somehow eked out a living from the crumbs left behind after Sunday Mass, which was a kind of saying they had around here.
Luiz snored lightly on the pillow beside her. His lean, aquiline face was accentuated by the moonlight, filtered by the window coverings. She loved him dearly. He had brought something back into her life, call it excitement. That pencil-thin mustache and huge eyes, the high cheek bones had caught her bored eye. His manners were impeccably romantic, just like out of a book from the thirties. Luiz dressed beautifully, and he had a nice, hard, hairy body.
He was very solicitous of her. He paid attention to her. He loved her, and she knew it. She had no doubts.
Call it hope, call it opportunity knocking. Call it a gamble.
Not turning the bedside light on, she lifted the downy comforter and swung her feet out of bed.
The floor was deliciously cool. Going by the dim light of the hallway, coming in through the crack under the door, as the amber light of a streetlight threw her shadow into sharp detail, she stepped into her slippers and wrapped the housecoat around her.
All was silence in the great, rambling one-floor conglomeration that was their home. It was her home, now. Completely happy to add on a room, and finally a whole new wing, Frederigo had refused to move to the suburbs. He loved the city and its people, another thing that set him apart in their new world of the recently-successful. Her friends professed to hate the city, and she did too. She’d hated this place for a very long time.
Maybe they should go away.
Carefully closing the bedroom door behind her, noting the harsh line of light still visible at this late hour under Hector’s door, she shuffled to the kitchen in hopes of an easy snack. Her mouth just watered at the thought of those rich treats. She really ought to watch her waistline, but the times they were unfortunate. A young widow, or fairly young, recently-bereaved, could be excused some small indulgence.
After the Celebration of Life for poor dear Frederigo, the leftover trays were brought home by a thoughtful Aunt Inez, the thought of which brought some guilt. Aunt Inez was a saint. She’d noticed them in the fridge earlier. Her stomach rumbled at the thought of food, after the long and tedious ordeal of the day, a day of fakery, and a kind of sublime witchcraft.
Poor, poor Frederigo.
How tiresome it must be, to be dead, for one so vibrant, energetic, and full of life.
She had loved him very much, years ago. Now all she had was regrets. He had made her life a boring hell.
When she turned on the lights, flooding the big, open plan peasant-style kitchen with crystalline blue light from the overheads and the under-the-cabinet fixtures, at first, she didn’t comprehend the meaning of the dark stains and the crunch of grit and drying muck underfoot.
Her mouth opened, but the maid was obviously off at this late hour and there was no one there to hear.
There were foot-marks and spots of wet filth all over her beautiful parquet floor, hand laid by the finest craftsmen the local area had to offer. The stuff, whatever it was, was tracked all over the place.
“Nom de Dios…?”
There was the clink of glass on glass and she snapped her head around to confront an apparition.
Her heart stopped dead in her chest as she took in the snack tray, clear plastic wrap peeled back.
A filthy hand popped a petit-four into a gaping red mouth…
A ghastly form, black and wet and muddy and covered in leaves and grass and filth, raised a glass of fine brandy judging by the bottle standing open on the black granite countertop.
It spoke to her in the voice of Frederigo.
“Hello, my love.”
It was the rain, of course, and the soft soil, and the fear. The desperation, and the adrenalin.
The refusal to die.
That’s what saved him, the sheer stubbornness, that, and one last desperate bid for life, when he rolled over and got his knees scrunched up under him. The rain, the life-giving rain, that and a burial plot in soft soil, right on the edge of a ravine, that was all that had saved him.
She almost died on the spot, chin up, gasping for air and clutching at her throat. Her feet refused to budge.
“Well, my dear. It’s been a hell of a day.” The grotesque figure swallowed and gasped in fiery gratification. “Perhaps lover-boy would like to join us, eh?”
“Ah, ah…ah.” Words died before they were formed.
“That’s all right. I never liked him anyway.”
Those baleful eyes promised much.
That’s when she screamed, and the glass crashed to the floor. In order to silence her, Frederigo’s big hands found her throat.
No jury in the land would ever convict him.
Besides, he was already dead.