An Undertaking by Bill Tope

Funeral director Mose is built robustly enough to have survived an attempt on his life, but what will he do next? By Bill Tope.

Image generated with OpenAI
Mose lay upon the earthen bed beneath the house, where he'd been interred. The soil was moist and redolent with earthy scents. It was quiet as death. But he was not dead. It's true, he had two bullets in his head, thankfully not near enough to his brain to be fatal. His assailants had shot him and, taking him for dead, pulled up the floorboards of the old country estate and deposited him beneath the house and then rather haphazardly pounded the boards back in place. Mose had been only dimly aware that this was all going on, preoccupied as he was with getting shot and all. The November air was chilly and he longed for his warm bed.

"Vic is going to meet us at Midland," Julie Gold told Mose, her husband of eight years, referencing Mose's family estate outside town. "He has to work a little late tonight, but he'll be there around six."

"Great," remarked Mose, who was a funeral director and married to the woman of his dreams. Vic Taylor, Julie and Mose's best friend, and an employee at the mortuary, often spent intimate evenings with the pair. They had been close for years. "Julie, you don't have to cook, you know," Mose told her.

"I want to. This is your birthday, this is special. It's something I want to do for you. You usually do most of the cooking or else we get take-out, and I want to fix everything you like."

Mose licked his lips. "Fried chicken?" he speculated.

Julie grinned. "All you can eat!"

"I hope the cops caught the hooligans who've been vandalizing the property out at Midland," said Mose with feeling. Midland was all he had to remember his parents by; that and a thriving, $3 million business.

At dinner that evening, Mose had a vague inkling that something was up, but he just couldn't put his finger on it. Julie and Vic were acting strangely, Maybe they were going to surprise him with a special gift? They knew he liked to save money; perhaps it was a new safe? These were the two most important people in his life. An often-expressed sentiment between the trio was that "I'd give my right arm for you, man; nothing's too much." The sentiment went all three ways.

"Eat up, Mose," enjoined Julie. "I fixed all your favorites in honor of your birthday." She smiled, but her expression was strained. Julie hated cooking, Mose knew, even for a special occasion. Which made him love her all the more. The three best friends had gathered round the dinner table at the estate. Vic reached for a piece of chicken, but Julie wordlessly shook her head and he withdrew his fingers. "I know you like BBQ ribs, Vic, so I made them special for you," she said.

Vic helped himself. "Don't you like ribs, anymore, Mose?" he asked, looking at his friend.

Mose shook his head no. "Lately, I have a problem digesting pork," he explained, and helped himself to the chicken.

Vic started to spoon up a helping of potato salad, but again Julie frowned, shook her head no. "Here, Mose," she said, "have some potato salad. Just the way you like it, with double mustard."

"Do I have the best girl or what?" Mose asked Vic, grinning.

Vic grinned back at him. "You said it! You know I'm gonna steal her away." They all laughed.

The meal proceeded apace. Mose was hungry, and ate no less than six pieces of fried chicken. Vic demolished most of a side of ribs, and together the three of them drank a 12-pack of beer. Julie seemed to have little appetite.

"I dunno, babe," murmured Mose afterward, patting his lips with a napkin. "The mayo in the potato salad might be a little off."

"What do you mean?" squeaked Julie excitedly, her eyes grown wide.

"It tastes a little metallic is all," he said apologetically. "I'm sure it's okay," he assured his wife. He didn't want to alarm her for nothing. "But the chicken," he went on. Her head snapped up again. "It was delicious, babe," he told her. She sighed with apparent relief. What was on her mind? wondered Mose. He shrugged it away. This was his birthday, after all. Today he turned 40, and he was on top of the world.

After dinner, the three friends sat around the living room of the old manor house, smoking reefer and getting gloriously high. The beer kept flowing, too. After they had gone through several powerful bowls, Mose noticed that Julie and Vic, sitting across from him on a sofa, kept staring at him inquisitively. Wow, he thought. That dope was powerful; he was getting paranoid. Mose felt very mellow, nearly nodded off to sleep, while Julie and Vic kept vigil, staring expectantly at him. Finally, he'd had it.

"What's up, guys?" he asked seriously, but with a goofy grin. They became instantly alert.

"What do you mean?" demanded Julie, frowning anxiously.

"You feel okay, man?" asked his friend Vic, leaning forward solicitously.

"Yeah," gushed Mose. "Super. Just higher than usual, you know what I mean? Hey, maybe there was some Paraquat in that pot, huh?" He grinned stupidly. Slowly, Mose nodded off to sleep.

In the next room, Vic and Julie took one another's counsel.

"Shit, Julie, did you put enough poison in his food?" Vic asked.

"Of course," she snapped irritably. "Besides, he ate practically the whole bowl of potato salad, plus a half dozen pieces of chicken. It was laced with the arsenic and the other stuff," she said. "What could have gone wrong, Vic?" she asked tearfully. "We planned this out to the nanosecond."

"Maybe Mose has a super tolerance to toxins," suggested her co-conspirator. "You know, when the Russkies poisoned Rasputin, they used enough poison to kill an army, and it had no effect. Maybe he's just a physical freak."

"What'll we do?" she asked in a frightened voice.

"Look," said Vic with renewed fortitude. "We got him to sign over the funeral home franchise to you for tax purposes, so we're going to go through with this, no matter what!" Julie nodded silently.

When Mose awoke in his chair, he was confused. His stomach hurt and he felt queasy. The room smelled like beer and stale pot. Vic was suddenly standing over him with a prodigious knife. Mose shook his head. What was happening? Suddenly Vic's extended arm slashed down viciously, slicing through Mose's shirt and into his chest. At that very moment, Mose threw up his arms, which deflected and dislocated the knife, and Vic scrambed for the weapon.

"Why, you sonofabitch!" shouted Mose through the red wave of pain. He grappled for the big knife as well, but soon Julie was standing over him, his father's .38 police special clutched in her tiny hands. "Julie," he yelled, "kill the bastard."

She swore, and put two bullets into Mose's skull. He collapsed like a sack of potatoes.

So, Mose found himself lying on his back, two feet beneath the floorboards of the old family home, no longer wondering, how did I get here? He remembered, in vivid detail. Now, he faced a choice: bleed out below ground or fight his way out. He chose to fight. Suddenly, the trapped man vomited. At the odious smell, he retched anew. Then he thought; I smell mint, the mint that was in the brand of embalming fluid used at the funeral home. Those bozos, thought Mose angrily. They'd tried to poison him with formaldehyde.

Mose's head felt like a gourd which had ruptured. Blood oozed from the wounds levied by his loving wife; he thanked God she was such a poor shot. But still, it hurt like the very devil. He peeped through the cracks between the planks of the floor; they'd left the lights on, he noted. That'll run up the light bill, he thought critically, always mindful of a dollar, but then shook himself to clear his mind. How would he get out of here?

Mose placed his hands against the unfinished boards enclosing him from above, and felt a pang of agony; the chest wound was screaming and gnashing its teeth at him. He withdrew his hands and then slowly, painfully, drew his hips back until the soles of his shoes were flat against the planks. Through another escalating wave of pain, Mose flexed his thighs and pushed. With a shriek, the boards gave way; the attempted murderers hadn't replaced all the nails they'd torn out. Why would they? he reasoned. They thought Mose was dead.

Julie and Vic lay in what they now considered as "their" bed, in the McMansion that Mose and Julie had occupied for years. They were making furious, desperate love. Soon they climaxed together. They always did so together, or so Julie led Vic to believe, a habit of long-standing that she'd developed with Mose. Duplicity in personal relationships just seemed to come naturally to Julie. With a satisfied grunt, Vic rolled off his lover and said, "This was a long time in coming, baby. I worked for that skinflint for years, but it finally paid off. No more, 'turn down the AC, cut your lunch to twenty minutes, flip off the lights...'"

"Couldn't happen too soon for me, Vic," murmured Julie, nuzzling his neck. Suddenly she sobered. "Are you sure we're in the clear? Are you positive that - the body - won't be discovered?"

"We'll go back in a few days or so and take proper care of - the body," Vic told her. "We've already got the grave dug. The Midland property is in your name. No one else has a reason to go out there. Nobody's going to discover anything; trust me."

"I do, baby," she whispered, and nuzzled him again.

Mose finally gained his feet and stumbled into the bathroom, took stock in the mirror over the sink, and nearly threw up again. His front was covered with vomit and blood, but the wounds in his skull were, curiously, both in the back of his head. Staring at his reflection, he couldn't even tell that he'd been shot. There was surprisingly little blood. He felt behind his head, detected two deep creases in his skull. Huh! he thought. She had only grazed him. Was that lucky, or what? He smiled. Then he had a reckoning with reality. His wife, whom he'd loved more than life itself, and his best friend, had conspired to murder him. That put a bit of a damper on things, he thought.

Abruptly, the front door slammed open and shut again. Were the killers returning to the scene of the crime? Moving stealthily, he crept back towards the living room. Hiding behind a doorway, he peeped into the room and beheld there two nondescript teenagers, who were busily sifting through the dregs of the marijuana that the three friends had incinerated mere hours before.

"I tol' you I smelled shit," cackled one of the two, lifting a half-smoked doobie from an overflowing ashtray.

"Right on, Elliott," agreed the other young heathen, taking out a disposable lighter and striking it to life.

"Hey!" growled Mose malevolently, feeling rather put out by this intrusion, all things considered.

"Shit!" gasped Elliott, dropping the lighted joint to the carpet.

"Whut happen' to you, man?" squawked the other boy.

Mose frowned thoughtfully, drew his hand to his face. "Cut myself shaving," he explained.

"Whoa," breathed Elliott. "D'you need, like some help, man?"

A little light bulb could be seen to virtually flame over Mose's head and he asked the two teens, "You guys wanna make five hundred bucks - apiece?" The two boys smiled.

Later that morning, Mose showered and dressed in clean clothes, and inveigled Elliott and the other boy, who went by the moniker "Diesel", to ferry him in their '64 GTO into town, where Mose purchased supplies. As always, in order to get the best deals, he directed them to first one retail store and then the next.

First, they stopped at home furnishing stores, and then at a pawn shop. Mose entered the stores and did the shopping, while the boys maintained their level of inebriation in the car. At length, supplies in hand, the trio journeyed back to the estate, where Mose went upstairs, to the fourth floor A-frame attic, and went to work. Down in the living room, drinking beers they'd discovered in the fridge, the teens could hear Mose whistling a merry tune. Looking at each other, they shrugged. After a couple of hours, Mose returned to the living room, where he gave the boys their final instructions. Next, it was off to the city.

What, wondered Mose more than once, would be Vic and Julie's explanation for Mose's sudden absence? At length, after sneaking around the lovebirds' new home to eavesdrop, he discovered their plan.

"We're lucky Mose didn't have any family," remarked Vic, churning up a smoothie in the blender. "Do you think people will believe he went to the Bahamas to 'find himself'?"

"We were his only friends," agreed Julie, with an unexpected wave of guilt. "He always said he didn't need anyone else in his life, just you and me."

"I told him I'd give my right arm for him," smirked Vic. Julie said nothing. "I guess we should go out to Midland on Saturday," Vic suggested. "Take care of things."

Julie stiffened for a moment at the grisly prospect, then nodded. "Okay."

Mose was in readiness when his wife and best friend next visited the manor house. Their arrival was expected. Hidden in the kitchen, he heard the door open with a creak and then slam shut. Julie's was the first voice he heard.

"Oh, my God!" she cried. "He's gone!" She was swiftly followed into the living room by Vic, who drew up short.

"Someone dug him up!" he exclaimed excitedly.

"Maybe it was a bear?" ventured Julie.

"A bear wouldn't have shut the door behind him," advised Vic, pulling back a protruding board and peering into the hole.

Suddenly Mose made his appearance. They didn't notice him at first, till he cleared his throat theatrically; they jumped and then froze.

"Mose," squeaked Julie, with a grotesque smile. "Thank God you're okay." Mose made no reply but to wave the revolver he clutched in his hand. Silently they obeyed his tacit instructions, preceding him up three flights of stairs to the fourth floor. At the top of the stairs, they halted before a tiny aperture, wide enough to permit just one person to enter the attic at a time.

"You first, Vic," invited Mose, and his friend of twenty years climbed through the slot, with difficulty. "You next, babe," said Mose, waving the gun for emphasis. "Now, both of you back up against the wall." They did so, and then Mose squeezed his larger, six-foot frame through the tiny door. The captives' eyes remained fixed on Mose, who then said, "Look around. I've outfitted this room with all the comforts of home."

They looked around, saw there two pairs of handcuffs, a bottle of water and a battery-powered circular saw. "What are you going to do to us, Mose?" Julie had the nerve to ask.

"Remember how we always used to say, 'I'd give my right arm for you?'" asked Mose. They said nothing. "Well, I'm going to give you the opportunity to prove your words. Put the cuffs on: Julie's left arm to Vic's right, and then the opposite." He waited, but not for long. Taking aim, he put a bullet within an inch of Vic's head. The smell of cordite was thick in the air.

Moving rapidly now, they manipulated the manacles and were soon bound together, facing one another. Together, they presented much too large an item to pass through the aperture to the attic.

Julie said, "What if we have to go to the bathroom?" Mose laughed aloud, a harsh and ugly cackle.

"There aren't any facilites beneath the floorboards in the living room, either," he pointed out. "Should you find you need to get out in a hurry," remarked Mose conversationally, "you can avail yourself of the circular saw." Together, they both glanced at the red plastic saw. "And don't worry, the charge isn't enough to do much damage to your prison." He tittered, then slowly withdrew through the small doorway, back the way they'd come.

"Mose, wait," called out his wife. "Don't leave us here."

Mose shook his head. "That ship has sailed, Julie," he said with finality, and backed away.

As Mose placed a boot on the landing, the loose carpet tripped him up and he plummeted the length of the stairs, landing hard and rendering himself unconscious.

Vic and Julie tried, but they couldn't see what had become of their nemesis.

"Maybe we can tear the panels from the doorway," Julie suggested. They regarded the boards composing the reduced aperture: it was all two-inch lumber, secured by long, thick nails. Vic depressed the button on the saw and it buzzed weakly. Clearly it was not powerful enough to make a dent in the fortress that Mose had constructed. He replaced the saw on the hardwood floor. "I wonder what he has planned?" he said aloud.

Down at the foot of the stairs, Mose moved not a muscle, though his eyes were open and staring. He was aware that all his plans had suddenly gone awry. His neck was broken.

The living room door banged open yet again, and Elliott and Diesel entered, bearing a five gallon can of gasoline. "This is what I call easy money, Dude," remarked Diesel like the stoner he was.

"Hey, we woulda' burned down the joint for free," said Elliott, who loved fires, "but five large apiece, that's gravy, bro. Old man Gold is righteous! Maybe he'll have some more jobs for us later on?"

Spreading the fuel over the furniture, the floors and walls, they stood in the doorway and ignited a book of matches, waited a moment, and then tossed it into the room.

W H O O M P F!

On the third-floor landing, as well as in the attic, they thought at the same precise moment, "Is that smoke I smell?"


  1. Bill, what a gripping Poe-esque tale. Mose survives a knife to the chest and two bullets to the head, yet breaks his neck descending a ladder, and then burns with his “loved one’s.” The two teens asked him if he needed help…but what he asked for was gruesome. Do the pair use the saw to escape the fire? We don’t know. Such irony. Wonderful writing!

    1. Hi June, I guess every reader will reach her own conclusions, though I did make the saw battery-powered and with a weak charge. Was it enough? As you so delightfully point out, we’ll really never know. You described the story as Poe – esque. How flattering, thank you! Your critiques are always a joy.

  2. Great story! I enjoyed the fast paced storytelling. The build-up of tension and resolution were satisfying. Very entertaining!

    1. Thanks a lot, Mat, for reading and taking the time to comment.

  3. I have read enough of Bill Tope’s great short stories to propose a Tope style:
    “darkly comedic misadventures with consistent understatement and strong characterization.”

    This story is an archetypal Bill Tope story :-)

    Examples from the text include:
    “Mose had been only dimly aware that this was all going on, preoccupied as he was with getting shot and all.”
    “His wife, whom he'd loved more than life itself, and his best friend, had conspired to murder him. That put a bit of a damper on things, he thought.”

    Thanks for sharing our stories Bill!
    When will your anthology come out?

    1. Adam, I never thought about my “style” in those terms before, but I guess you’ve got me pegged. I actually put together – rather haphazardly – an anthology of sorts, a 359 page collection of short stories. All I need is a publisher. Then I can compete on Amazon with the self-acclaimed “worst seller on Amazon,” FOTW’s own much-published Doug Hawley. Thanks as lot for reading and commenting again, Adam, I always enjoy what you write.

  4. As I've said so often "Yikes". Musty

    1. Doug, you stole my line! You’ll be glad to learn that I plugged your book. Yay!

  5. Well done, Bill! Your story has an intricate and suspenseful plot with unexpected twists, making it engaging and entertaining to say the least. Mose, Julie and Vic are well-developed such that the reader cares about what’s going to happen next. And because we care, we appreciate the unexpected all the more!
    —David Henson

    1. David, I appreciate your flattering critique. It means that much more, coming from another writer that I admire.

  6. I enjoyed the horror/humour in this story. "The potato salad might be off." I love it that he can still function with his bullet grazed skull. Again, this story is very cinematic. I would make a great short film...

    1. Apologies. I meant to write, "It would make a great short film... "

    2. Thanks a lot, Rozanne. Maybe I can become a screenwriter as my 2nd act. You guys manage to make me feel better about my writing with your insights. Thanks again.