The driveway in front of the funeral home was long and curved. Several limousines were pulling in ahead of us as I approached the entrance. I followed them in, but when they bore left to pull up to the canopied front door, I turned right down a short service drive that took me around to the back of the building. I killed the lights and found a spot next to a ramp that angled down to a door set slightly below ground level. I got quietly out of the car, crept down to the door and tried it. It was open. I waved to Sonya, who got out of her side of the car and quickly joined me. She had brought a flashlight from the car and she handed it to me. I clicked it on and pushed the door open, and we both entered the building.
In the dim light reflected by the flashlight, I could see rows of large shapes gleaming dully in the darkness. I swung my beam onto one of them. It was a casket. Rows of metal caskets were stacked on either side of us. Cautiously we made our way down the narrow aisle between the grim containers until we reached a door that stood slightly ajar. There was a light on in the next room. I stopped and listened at the crack in the door, Sonya close behind me.
"We'll deal with Georgie later," came a voice I recognized as Lou Furo's. "He won't be hard to find."
"I don't like the way this is going, Lou," came a deep voice I hadn't heard before. "First that nosy P.I. won't mind his own business, then you get little Miss Chopsticks involved, and now your muscle guy has taken off and we can't find the other two. It seems like things are just going to hell, Lou. Is this what I'm paying you for?"
"Look, Mr. Milkbone," Lou said, and I could hear the edge in his voice, "It wasn't my idea to get that mutt involved. In fact, I told you not to do it."
"I thought it would be insurance. I couldn't have counted on Marlene to go along with us otherwise."
"Well, that insurance has wound up costing us plenty."
"Lou, there's no point going over past mistakes. We've got to finish this thing up. We can tie up the loose ends later."
The ferret sighed. "Yeah, boss, I know. Sorry, you're right. It just would have made things a whole lot easier to have Sonya Mao here tonight."
"Yes, but we can't have that, unless she and that gumshoe decide to show up here of their own accord, which I highly doubt they will. Now, is everything else in place?"
"Yes, sir. Scorch was in here this afternoon. He planted four canisters up under the floor of the main viewing room. They've got enough bang to take out anybody in that room and burn this whole place to the ground in no time flat. The whole shebang works off a radio control, which we've got. Scorch bought all the parts back east in the Lupos' home town, and he's already on a train back to the ranch."
"Very well. And my better half?"
"She's on ice in the next room. She's having herself a nice little nap, and by the time she wakes up it'll be all over."
There was a pause in the conversation, and I heard the sound of slow, deliberate pacing. Then Milkbone spoke again. "And you are sure of this coyote fellow? He'll be able to get the right people into the right place at the right time?"
"Don't worry, I've got Mack sewn up tighter than a banker's purse. He's not like Georgie - he won't give out on us. He knows how to take orders and he's good in a pinch."
The pacing stopped. "Well, then. I suppose I'd better go up and meet my guests. See that nothing else goes wrong tonight, Lou. If we can just play out this final act, we'll all take our bows and go home." I heard him walk to a door on the other side of the room and go out. Motioning to Sonya to stay put, I eased up to the crack in the door to see what the ferret was up to. There were two doors in the room - the one directly across from me was open, but the ferret was going through a door that faced in another direction. A quick scan confirmed there was no one else in there. I leaned back and told Sonya to wait where she was, to get out of sight behind a casket if anyone came in. Then I drew my gun and went into the room.
Lou had left the door slightly ajar, and I approached it cautiously. I leaned in and nudged it open, to try and get a sense of what I was walking into. I don't know what I'd expected to see, but it wasn't what met my eyes as I looked into the dimly lit room.
The room seemed to be a small storage room. It was lined with wooden shelves, which held all manner of stuff: jars, pieces of equipment, tools, an old radio and quite a number of cemetery vases. Directly opposite the door, Marlene Milkbone sat slumped in a chair, unconscious. Furo had his back to me, he was squatting next to her, pulling something out of a small black bag that sat on the floor next to the chair. "Sorry about this, sweetheart," he said. He lifted his hand and I could see what had been in the bag - a hypodermic syringe. He pressed the plunger and a few drops of liquid squirted out of the tip. "Those knockout drops we gave you won't keep you down for the count, and your hubby and I can't afford to have anything unexpected happen tonight. But with this little cocktail in you, you'll sleep like a baby." He moved to push the needle into her arm.
"That's far enough, Furo," I said. He froze, the tip of the needle poised in midair. "And don't try any fast moves," I continued, "I've got you covered. Just put it down, nice and slow, and keep your hands out where I can see 'em." I kept my gun leveled on him as he slowly put the needle on the floor and turned back over his shoulder to look at me.
"Spaniel," he said. "You really are a piece of work. This is the last place I'd have figured on seeing you."
"Well, I was a little offended at not being invited, seeing as I was such a close friend of the deceased. But it seems like she's not quite as deceased as she used to be."
"So is Sonya Mao here, too?"
"Sonya's safe. I came here when I figured out what you and your boss were up to. I knew you were a stinker, Furo, but I gotta admit, it never occurred to me you'd sink this low. How many people have to die to save your boss' skin?"
"As many as are necessary. No more. And you're on the list, Spaniel. I don't know what good you thought you could do by coming here."
"You know as well as I do. Give it up, Furo, you're beat. Come on outta there." I stepped to one side, gun still pointed squarely at him, and motioned him to move. He stood up and walked towards me, I backed up to give him a wide berth. He stepped into the next room, and I followed him. He looked back, and I waved the gun towards the coffin storage room.
He was turning towards the door when my luck ran out. Mack the coyote came around the corner and into the room. He spotted Furo first. "Boss - what..." Then he caught sight of me. He went for a gun. I turned my luger on him, but before I could fire, Furo had turned quicker than lightning and lunged at me. I blocked his first blow, but I went down, and he was on top of me. He was wiry and moved fast. He hit me in the head a couple of times, while expertly blocking my attempts to hit him back with the butt of my gun. I held onto my piece, but kept my finger clear of the trigger. He grabbed for the gun, and I rolled over, pinning him underneath me.
For a split second I caught a glimpse of Mack with his gun drawn, pointed in our direction. I knew if he got the chance for a clear shot, I was a goner. Furo started to wriggle out from under me. I was heavier, but he moved like a serpent. I grabbed hold of his coat to keep him from getting too far, while fending of his blows with my gun hand as best I could. I felt a series of sharp pains as his other paw connected with my ribs several times. I got in a glancing blow of the side of his head with my gun. He shook his head and caught sight of the coyote, who was watching us anxiously, uncertain of what to do. He kept trying to move in while keeping his gun pointed at us, as well as trying to stay clear of the barrel of my gun.
"Don't shoot, Mack," Furo hissed at him. "No guns! No guns!" I brought my empty fist up into Furo's gut, and the air whooshed out of him. He was right - a gunshot here would blow the cover off their whole plan. I started to reach for the trigger of my piece, then in a flash a mental image came to me - Milkbone hearing the shot and running for the detonator in his car. It was a possibility I couldn't ignore. I kept my finger on the side of the gun and brought it around to smack against the side of Furo's head. He was dazed for a moment, and I let go of his coat, rolled over and threw him off of me with all my strength.
I could see Mack about to lunge at me. I brought the barrel of my gun around and pointed it straight at him, while swinging my legs around into a sitting position. He froze. From the corner of my eye, I could see Furo recovering his wits. I sprang to my feet and took a few steps backwards, into the storage room. I grabbed the door and swung it shut. There was a lock on the door, and I twisted it closed. I heard the door handle rattle as they tried it from the other side. "Gotta be faster than that, Lou," I called through the door. "Is this what Mister Milkbone is paying you for?"
I holstered my gun and went over to the little black bag on the floor. Marlene Milkbone sat slumped in the chair, breathing softly. She was just as pretty as ever. What was her part in this? She obviously wasn't in it as much as Lou and Georgie - otherwise, why knock her out? I tried to figure the angle as I scooped up the syringe on the floor and retreated to my position next to the door. I braced the door with my foot as I heard the jingle of keys from the other side. A key scraped in the lock, and the door was shoved inward, but not with enough force to displace my foot and open it. I moved to the front of the door and blocked it from straight on with the sole of my shoe, leaning on it as well with my right paw while my left gingerly slid the syringe just up my sleeve. "Didn't your mother teach you any manners, Lou?" I called to him. "You're supposed to knock before you enter a room."
"Spaniel!" came his furious reply, "When I get my hands on you I'm gonna ring your shaggy, canine neck!" He threw his weight against the door, but I held it in place. He hit it a second time, seemingly with Mack helping out, because I barely held it. I sprang out of the way, as the two of them hit the door a third time and came barreling into the room. Lou turned and saw me, a look of absolute rage on his face. I reached into my shoulder holster to draw my gun and he leapt for me, claws outstretched, looking to make good on his threat.
He hit me and I went back against the wall, my gun arm pinned to my chest, with his paws at my throat. He began to squeeze my windpipe in earnest, and I could feel his claws digging in to my neck. My left arm was at my side; I slipped the syringe down into my paw and jabbed it into his thigh, pushing the plunger home. He yelped and backed off a little, enough for me to force him away with my arm and pull the syringe free of his leg. He came at me again, but I dropped the needle and got my left paw up to his shoulder. I struggled with him, preventing him from getting a stranglehold.
Mack, who had been watching us warily, began to move towards us to help out his boss. I glanced over to Lou's face, just in time to see the fire go out of his eyes. Suddenly, his attack had none of its former fury, and a moment later he went from trying to throttle me to trying to grab on to me to support himself. I gave him a hard shove, and he stumbled backwards into Mack. The coyote caught him and staggered back, a look of astonishment on his face, as Furo went limp in his arms. I drew my gun and leveled it on the two of them and Mack just gave it up, going down on his tail with the helpless Furo in his lap, head lolling to one side.
Mack looked up at me, his face a picture of sorrow. I didn't like to think what hold Furo must've had over him. "What now?" he said simply.
"Now you sit tight," I said, and backed out of the room. Sonya was just leaning her head out of the coffin storage room. She glanced quickly at the other door to make sure no one else was about to join us, then stepped lightly into the room, her gun held in both paws and angled towards the floor.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
She nodded towards the storage room. "What's in there?"
"An old friend," I replied.
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