It was late and the waning moon was high in the clouds as the Hearse rolled into town. The truck’s headlights sliced through the fog. Thomas wiped his brow with the red pocket square plucked from his suit jacket. He was close.
It was just then that a man strode down the center of the road; a swagger wrapped in a sensible trench coat and derby hat. Thomas hit the brakes; the hearse ground to a halt with a rattle of glass. He wondered if he should’ve hit the man.
Agent O’Hara tapped on the driver’s window. Thomas cracked the door open.
“A little late for a funeral,” O’Hara said around a lit cigarette that dangled under a wide brown mustache.
“The Grim Reaper don’t wait ’til sunrise, sir,” Thomas replied. He adjusted the brim of his herringbone newsboy cap. O’Hara scowled.
“Who’s the stiff?”
“Mr. Ambrose’s great aunt,” the boy said. “On the level.”
O’Hara’s eyes searched the carved wooden sides of the truck, as if he could see right through the black velvet curtains and through the pine coffin to the poor, cold corpses of whiskey bottles hidden within.
For a moment, Thomas thought to reach for the wad of bills inside his jacket pocket, but he’d heard about O’Hara’s work in the surrounding hills — he’d shot up stills and smashed bottles of moonshine with a wild look in his eyes. Perhaps the snub-nose under the seat instead, Thomas thought. Sweat dripped in his eyes.
“I think the old lady can wait a minute while I have a look around,” O’Hara said.
O’Hara bent down to inspect the chassis, leaving a ghostly hole in the midnight fog where he’d been standing. Finding nothing, he popped the hood to search for bottles. Then, crossing the path of the headlights and throwing a glare at Thomas, the Prohibition agent went to the back of the hearse and opened the rear door.
Thomas leaped from the driver’s seat and ran to the back of the truck and stood in the doorway.
“What’s the big idea?” he demanded, his cowardice masquerading as courage.
The back was empty, except for the coffin. O’Hara stood over it, his hands suspended above it, as if frozen on the way to throw open the lid.
“You tell me there’s a dead old broad in here?” O’Hara asked quietly.
“As old and as dead as they come,” Thomas said with a nod. His breath came quickly.
“And if I open this casket, I won’t find any booze?”
“You open that, that’s discrimination!” the boy hissed.
“Desecration,” O’Hara corrected him.
“You wouldn’t.” Thomas crossed his arms.
“I would,” O’Hara said sternly. “And I’d arrest anyone transporting liquor. Even my own nephew.”
The two men were silent. The law had split many families. Some saw duty, others saw opportunity. Theirs was no different than hundreds of others who disagreed on the Volstead Act.
“No need for that, I hope,” O’Hara said. He raised his eyebrows, asking the question. Thomas fumed for a moment. He wanted to throw a punch, wished he’d grabbed the snub-nose and then was glad he’d left it behind. Finally, he shook his head.
O’Hara climbed out of the Hearse. Handcuffs flashed on his belt in the moonlight. He placed his hand on Thomas’ shoulder.
“Don’t keep Mr. Ambrose waiting,” he said to the boy in a voice so low it growled. He watched Thomas climb back into the cab. He shook his head as the Hearse growled its way down the street.
Thomas tried to calm his racing pulse as he drove off into the nighttime fog. In the back, the bottles clinked every time the Hearse hit a bump.
— 30 —
Jonny Eberle is a writer and history buff living in Flagstaff, AZ. Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments and follow him on Twitter: @jonnyeberle.