“Are you sure he’s dead?”

Dean Pauley drawled out again, mouth agape. He watched as I steadied the scalpel for the first cut. I didn’t know if I should try to explain to him again that his brother was indeed dead. If his simple mind could latch on to it.

“Dean, you know he is. I know you do. Now go in the other room, like I asked. I’ll get you when I need you.”

“But Harley?”

He saw my look, mouth quivering, deciding not to complain about being scared, and shambled off to Uncle James’ office. I heard the light switch flip and Dean settle into our uncle’s chair.

“Damn it.” I said to myself, looking down at Frank. My cousin’s body lying naked on the cold steel of the autopsy table. And me standing over him with a scalpel acting like I knew what to do with it.

Sure, I’d seen it done. At least a hundred times by my Uncle James, or one of his assistants. It wasn’t my job, though. I was the janitor. Sometimes I’d prep the body, stripping and cleansing the corpse. Most times I just cleaned up after. Sanitize for the next one. And the next one.

Burdette Family Funeral Home was the only funeral home in the County, and my Uncle James was the only certified coroner in three counties. So the Home was never without bodies. That meant Uncle James always had work, even for a convict. For family.

I came to work at the Home after a second stretch. Kept my nose clean almost two years. Then Frank Pauley showed up, Dean in tow. They were my cousins on my Mother’s side. And Uncle James didn’t feel obliged to help them out.

He warned me to keep my distance from Frank.

“He’ll get you back in jail. Sure as shit.”

That thought hung with me now as I cut the final long incision from his chest to his prick. Blood beaded slightly along the cut. Not much left in him.

Five after two, it had been a long night. Not unexpected. If you’d told me earlier that I’d have my hands fist deep in a dead man’s body. I wouldn’t have been surprised.

That was the plan. Sort of.

Since working at the Home was out, Frank managed to get a job at the Texaco down in Crossings. Most people pumped their own gas nowadays. Pay at the pump. That left Frank to push a broom and stock the shelves with junk food and overpriced conveniences.

What Frank did mostly though was watch the Millie’s across the road. Day in and day out, people would come and go. All hours.

Frank grew obsessed with the place.

I’d never been inside a Millie’s, but I knew what the place was. On the outside it looked like a diner. You didn’t go to Millie’s for food. Mostly you went there to drink a beer or two, overpriced, smoke without county restrictions, and gamble. Video gambling was the mainstay for these quaint places with friendly names that popped up across the tri-state in shopping centers and strip malls. Making money hand over fist.

“Harley. Three guys could just walk in. Take it. Nobody could stop us. Nobody.”

I can’t say I wasn’t itchy. Playing it safe for two years working for Uncle James wasn’t exactly exciting. The problem with Frank’s plan. Any of the plans he thought up, was that they were short sighted. The money was easy, but not worth the risk.

We both were two-time losers. A possible twenty year stretch didn’t equal the money a walk-in would get us. But this Millie’s job had some meat. The angle was just wrong.

I told Frank I’d think about it.

It took me a couple weeks. I agreed.

Millie’s looked like a Mom and Pop. Probably, more than likely, managed by a syndicate. Every couple nights a black SUV would stop by and two wannabe wiseguys in suits picked up a bag of laundry. Only it wasn’t linens they were picking up.

The SUV stopped at a dozen different Millie’s a day, but Frank’s was the last one on the route as far as I could tell. They were like Wells Fargo without the armor.

That was the plan. We’d hit the SUV after the last pick up on a desolate stretch of county road. The next part Frank didn’t like.

“We can’t spend the money.”

Frank was pissed. He was afraid I was trying to keep the money.

Uncle James, while a respected man, wasn’t always a good man. After hours, with a few beers in him, he’d tell stories.

He was a bootlegger in his wild young days. Running corn mash across county and state lines. Never once caught. Concealing moonshine under the dead was genius. What Uncle James did with the money, was just morbid.

Paranoid by the Feds and ATF, Uncle James hid nearly every bit of his money in the bodies of the unclaimed dead. Buried them in a cemetery he ran out on the back lot of the Home.

Really, who checks a corpse?

That was the plan. Steal the money. Come back to the Home. Bag up the money in an unclaimed body.

Frank bleeding out on a desolate county road. That wasn’t the plan. A ricocheted shot right through his Carotid. Less than a millimeter to the right, and the bullet would have just grazed Frank’s neck.

Instead Frank laid lifeless on cold steal table with his guts stuffed with nearly a hundred thousand dollars stolen from two dead thugs on a county road. Frank’s brother Dean bawling in the other room.

I hooked the curved Hagedorn needle though Frank’s skin, pulling the incision tighter loop after loop.

I wasn’t going to have Frank put me back in jail. So I let him keep the money.

For now.