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Parlor Tricks (VILE: Part I)

I took a final draw on my cigarette, holding it just long enough to feel a burning at my fingertips before flicking it to the lobby floor. The smoke from my lungs flowed out the open window to mingle with the fog of yet another Rust Belt sunset. Seconds later, a vacuum whirled to life behind me, and I turned in time to watch my wife ram the heavy metal upright into the backs of my heels. Her long mouth twisted into a scowl as she yanked the plug from the wall.

“We have a viewing tomorrow… first one in days! The business can’t look like you run it.”

“You think anyone cares, Nadine? A dirty fucking funeral parlor for a dirty fucking town.” I gestured toward the abandoned paper mill across the street, half expecting the foundation to crumble on cue. “This place is killing us. Nobody our age wants to stay. The minute they’ve put in their fifty, they go die in Florida.”

“A few more months of this, and we’ll end up like Maloney and Sons. I remember how hard I laughed when they went under. Figured… how can we fail now? We’re the only funeral home for twenty miles. But the clientele just isn’t there.”

“When things were tight in the old days, Dad would take out a fake life insurance policy, then he’d use one of those bodies to stage an accident a few towns over. You couldn’t get away with that anymore. Grave robbing’s not what it used to be, either.”

“Unless you rob ‘em while they’re fresh.” My wife came over and put a hand on my shoulder, her wedding ring dangling from a claw-like finger. “Suppose there was a way to make some money and drum up some business at the same time.”

“What a casual way to suggest murder.”

“We deal in death, Harlan, one way or another. Don’t tell me you still look at those poor bastards on the table and care how they died.”

“The bodies wouldn’t come straight here, you know. There would be inquests. Murders are medical examiner cases.”

“So then charge extra for embalming around the autopsy gashes! I mean, say you go out to one of those houses on the edge of the county… the secluded ones. You find someone who’s single, or maybe a couple with no kids. You knock ‘em off like deer and steal what they’ve got, then bill the family for a funeral. Most of the town is broke, Harlan. The harmless neighborhood funeral director isn’t gonna be anyone’s prime suspect for a burglary-gone-wrong unless you leave a trail. And you shouldn’t… you’ve got enough experience being sterile.”

“Not to mention my wife as a built-in alibi. I guess it could be done.”

“Yes, tonight. It could be done tonight… before the electric bill is due.”

And indeed, one silent dinner later, I was winding my truck through some of the last patches of clean air that this industrial armpit of the state had to offer. I looked down at the rifle in the passenger’s seat with grim apprehension. The fact that my stomach was more upset over my wife’s god-awful mashed potatoes than the deed ahead was all too telling about what this kind of life can do to someone. With a sigh, I turned off my headlights and stopped in front of a dilapidated modular home. The couple that owned it was visible through the dining room window. They looked to be in their late seventies – any children they had were long gone. Perfect. I squeezed the trigger; the man fell from his seat. The widow jumped away, screaming. I spent a few moments watching her hysterics through my scope, then sent her to her husband as she reached for the phone.

Unfortunately, killing was the easy part. The hard part was trying to hoist myself through the broken window on arthritic joints. It took several seconds of groaning, and at least one tear to my embalming gear, to finally make it into their house. I ended up taking a wallet, a purse, and an expensive-looking jewelry box before heading for the front door, but stopped with my gloved hand on the knob. “Don’t want to deal with decomp,” I murmured, dialing the police from the landline. It was thrown in between the bodies without a word.

I went to bed that night not expecting to see the murdered couple for another few days. And yet, I woke up with them standing over me. That site alone nearly stopped my heart. Their head wounds were still gaping, black blood oozing down between two sets of filmy gray eyes. I tried to sit up, to crawl away, but I was paralyzed. All I could do was lie there and watch while their cold, limp fingers ran up and down my arms in an attempt to siphon the heat from my skin. When I finally did manage to scream, my whole body shot back against the headboard. They disappeared instantly.

“What?” my wife groaned. I reached for my smokes.

“It- well, it was just… a very vivid dream. That couple was… here.”

Nadine actually laughed. “Not until at least Friday. They’re probably still sitting in that house, whiter than the hair you have left. Now go to back to sleep. Mrs. Haltermann will be here at noon, and we have to lug her fat husband up from the cooler. The dead can’t hurt you.”

I ran my hand through my hair and put out my cigarette. She was right, after all, which is why it was such a relief to stare down at the couple’s lifeless bodies when they were finally hauled into the mortuary. I opened up the woman’s carotid artery to start the embalming process, then quickly brought my hand up to my own neck with a wince. Heart racing, I ran for the office mirror, only to find my skin perfectly intact. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. When I opened them again, the couple was standing beside me. They looked just as pale and dead as they had moments ago. I screamed, choking on the scent of disinfectant as they closed in. And that feeling… oh god, that feeling of their naked, sagging bodies brushing against me. They were reaching for my shoulders, their heads tilted as if surprised by my fear. “Don’t touch me!” I shouted. “Don’t ever touch me!” And then it was over – my attackers were gone with a single flicker of the fluorescent light.

Still, that was enough for the day. I couldn’t even bring myself to put the corpses back in the cooler. I simply drug my trembling legs up the stairs, Nadine catching me halfway through the kitchen. “Where do you think you’re going?” She threw an envelope from the gas company onto the table. “Between that and taxes, we’re gonna need at least three more bodies. Get to it. And try to find someone with real jewelry to steal this time! I hate that Joan Rivers costume shit.”

“I’m not doing that ton-”

“Don’t even start! Can barely bring in business. Can’t finish the business you do bring in. What the hell are you good for?” She was pushing me toward the door. “Go. Family of three. Either you grow a pair, or we lose everything!”

“She has a point,” I sighed after clambering into my truck. As it happened, I’d seen the perfect family while scouting for my last victims – a middle aged couple living with their twenty-something-year-old son in a newer farmhouse. I took them out much the same way, too, shooting the father and son through the front window. The wife went down seconds later after she came to investigate. Fortunately, this family was far better off than the last, and I left with a decent haul. I was actually beginning to feel a bit better when I glanced into the rearview mirror and saw all five of my victims huddled onto the back seat. The truck nearly slammed into a tree as I swung my rifle around the now-empty cab.

When I got home, the first thing I did was march down to the mortuary, gun still in hand, to assure myself that the elderly couple hadn’t moved. “The dead can’t hurt you,” I whispered. “It’s the living you have to worry about.” My hands had finally steadied enough to try and light a cigarette, and I took a long, slow drag. Then another. My heart rate was starting to come down. “I just need to relax. I just need… sleep. The stress of the week is get-” Something smacked me on the back, causing me to swallow the still-lit cigarette.

In that instant, my insides seemed to catch fire. I screamed as the searing pain spread throughout my gut, and a thick cloud of smoke bellowed from the back of my throat. My victims’ faces began to take shape in the plumes. I could see their angry eyes and snarling noses as they swirled around my head, howling for my blood. That’s when I knew – I’d never be free. The dead have no concept of time… no concept of defeat. They would hound me until I gave them what they wanted. So, temples pounding and eardrums ready to burst, I reached for my gun one last time. All of the ghostly visages nodded in approval, then abruptly turned to my wife in the doorway. She was staring right past them, eyes fixed on the barrel beneath my chin.

“Didn’t take you long to crack, huh? You’re not half the sociopath you need to be. Well, anyway, don’t make a mess. Looks like I’m the one who’s gonna have to sell this shithole.” She let out a huff and flicked off the lights. “Maybe I’ll move to Florida.”

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Fiction, Horror

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