Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - Alive and Well by Matthew Grainger
Popcorn Fiction
About Popcorn Fiction Previous stories Letters to the editor Subscribe Submissions

Government agents and two illegal voyeurs take a peek inside a coffin in this fun tale from Matthew Grainger.

Alive and Well

Kenworthy takes out the jar of Mentholatum, but doesn't take his eyes off the scene in front of him as he unscrews the lid and dabs a little under his nose with a daintiness at odds with his stubby fingers. The scent roars icily through his sinuses, and he brushes tears from his eyes as he puts the jar back in his pocket and approaches the gaping hole in the ground.

For an instant, as his tired old irises grind into focus in the dim light, Kenworthy fancies that he can't see the bottom—that the edge of the grave is an abyssal shelf, tempting him to lean too far over its precipice.

A flashbulb lights the side of the marquee and snaps him out of it. He belches, then tells a couple of the security guards to check outside again. You can seal these things up as tight as a pigeon's chuff, but the paparazzi are like ants, slipping in wherever there's a crack, looking for something to chew on. Tear a hole in the tent to piss out of and they'll stick a lens through it the second you take your pecker out. And they'll happily stand in your puddle to get what they came for.

The guards snap-to with military efficiency, running with an adrenalized spring in their step. Kenworthy credits the coffee, the brewing of which he personally oversaw. He glances around nervously, looking up at the canvas flapping gently above him. His eyes invade every shadow, every crevice, every fold and tear. There's got to be a camera, there's got to be. It's getting to the point where he'll be disappointed if there isn't one.

Kenworthy turns back to the hole, where the earth-mover stands idle, fine soil still raining from its jaws. Two officers drop down with shovels. One of them says, "I can't believe I'm doing this ...I can't believe it."

"Tell that sonofabitch to shut the fuck up," Kenworthy says mildly to one of the cops standing at the edge. He doesn't know any of these people. None of the regular guys are on at this time of night. A friendly face might shake this paranoia, but Kenworthy's shit out of luck.

The security guards reappear, and Kenworthy collars one of them. "What's going on out there?"

"They got cameras everywhere, Agent Kenworthy, but the barrier's holding. The best they're gonna get is a shot of the tent and some cars."

Kenworthy doesn't believe it, not for one second. "Good. Put two guys out there anyway, at the top of the drive. Let the bugs take as many pictures of them as they want. Shit, let the cops pose naked if it turns 'em on. But I don't want them getting in here."

The image on the monitor looks like shit, and Maxwell looks royally pissed.

"Just fucking sort it out," he growls at Farnton. Despite the colorful nature of his teenage vocabulary, nowadays Maxwell makes an effort to be cool and only uses profanity on special occasions. Three months of planning, trying to get in and at long last succeeding all falling apart because of bad wiring seems to him to constitute pretty fucking special.

As Farnton roots around under the table and curses under his breath, Maxwell watches him with that particular disdain reserved for tech geeks. Ponytails who pride themselves on being able to plug things in, but who shrug and blame The Operating System—a mythical entity created by other tech geeks—when it all turns to shit. Right now Farnton is about one idea short of a shrug; all else having failed, he reaches out a greasy, porcine fist and thumps the side of the monitor. There's a wash of white noise, and then the image clears.

"Thank fucking Christ for that. You taping?"

Farnton hits a couple of buttons on the Digi-Beta deck beside the monitor. "Rolling."

Maxwell squints at the screen, at what seems like a mess of grey-green pixels and noise. "Is that even people?"

"Sure it's people. That's a head, there ...two guys there ...and that's the hole."

Maxwell stares, flummoxed. "What are they doing?"

"We're bringing it up."

The winch starts up with a whine, and the coffin begins to jerk slowly out of the hole in the ground. The winch struggles, emitting a rending groan that sets Kenworthy's teeth on edge.

"Jesus," says a cop standing next to Kenworthy, "that's one heavy sonofabitch."

"I heard he used to shoot people who talked about his mother that way," Kenworthy remarks, taking the Mentholatum out of his pocket once again. "You want some of this?"

"You got a bigger jar?"

Kenworthy doesn't smile. Instead, he unscrews the lid and dabs a little more under his own tiny nostrils. They flare as he inhales sharply, once again filling his brain with the angry buzz of eucalyptus.

Several cops step in as the coffin clears the grave, helping to keep it steady as the winch lowers it to the ground. A couple of them lay their hands on its dull wood, once white but now spotted with thick black rot, and close their eyes for a moment out of respect. No, not respect—reverence.

Kenworthy watches them, fascinated. For a moment, he has an inkling of the magnitude of this night—a sense of being a large, well-oiled cog in a hugely important machine, a machine that could change the world in the seconds it will take to do the job he's come here to do. He shakes his head and wonders.

And then his inkling is gone, as his attention once again turns back to the marquee and the barrier.

Farnton's having an apoplexy. "They're opening it, they're opening it!" Even his fingers seem to be pouring sweat.

"Shut up, you asshole. They won't open it outside. Switch to two." Maxwell stares unblinking at the screen, trying to ignore Farnton's body odor, a sharp, oddly hairy stench that seems suddenly to have reached critical mass in the confined space.

Farnton tugs at his ponytail.

The crowd of camera-wielding journalists reluctantly parts to let the black limousine through. They continue to take pictures, even though the windows are heavily tinted.

Kenworthy's there to meet the limo as it pulls around to the back of the marquee. He sucks in his considerable paunch, then remembers that the time for making an impression has long since passed, taking with it any opportunity for promotion.

Stanford, Harding and then Douglas step out and shake his hand. The four of them cross to the rear of the marquee, where the coffin is being wheeled into the building on a trolley, flanked by a wall of security guards. As they push the trolley clear of the marquee, the assembled masses on the driveway get a clear view for a few seconds, and the patter of flashbulbs paints the air.

And now they're in the building, wheeling the trolley down the long hallway, their footsteps ticking crisply along the polished floor. They pause outside a door marked with a hastily-scrawled 'EXAM' sign, before opening it and pushing the trolley inside.

Douglas, Stanford and Harding enter the room, followed by Kenworthy, who pauses at the door and turns to the cops in the hallway.

"Anyone who comes into this room is going to get shot by me. Understood? Anyone who comes into this room is going to get shot by me. This is a matter of national security."

The door bangs shut behind him.

"Switching to number two," Farnton says, as a new interior appears on the monitor. His voice is quivering with anticipation.

The picture's better this time, and Maxwell looks happier. He and Farnton watch as the four men stand beside the coffin. A single spotlight above the table illuminates the casket and the figures beside it. Maxwell recognizes one of them as Donald Harding, Assistant Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This is big. This is really big.

Farnton and Maxwell watch as the short fat agent takes a screwdriver out of his coat pocket.

"Hard work, Kenworthy?" Harding says, and Kenworthy instantly envies his composure.

"Yeah. I can't wait until I get to be A.D. Then I get to sit back while some poor asshole does the grunt work."

Kenworthy grunts as the last screw securing the hinged section of the coffin lid slips free and tinkles away into the darkness. He sends the screwdriver after it with a plastic clatter. "You want to do the honors?" he asks Harding.

"Be my guest, Agent Kenworthy—you have, after all, been doing all the grunt work."

Kenworthy tries to conceal his satisfaction, but as he starts to lift the lid, he's smiling.

Staring at the monitor, Maxwell's smiling too. Truthfully, it's not important what is or isn't inside the casket—all that matters is the legitimacy of his merchandise. He's already anticipating the firm grip of the client's hand when they meet the following day, the reassuring weight of the briefcase containing the digital tapes in his left hand as he greets the client with his right. He's already experiencing the sensation of taking one of the wads of thousand dollar bills and rifling it with his fingertips as you might a deck of cards. He can hear the paper fluttering, soft like skin, and feel the cash-scented breeze stroking his face.

And right now, Maxwell can reach into his inside pocket and feel the shape of the cardboard wallet containing the air tickets to Trinidad and Tobago, his first stop on the way to somewhere infinitely better than this.

Kenworthy heaves the lid off the coffin and the four F.B.I. agents stare into it.

They stand transfixed for a moment, then Kenworthy reaches up and solemnly wipes the Mentholatum off his upper lip.

Maxwell shrieks, breaking the silence and startling Farnton so much he nearly wets his pants. "I knew it! I knew it, I fucking knew it!" He slaps Farnton on the back. "My friend, you have just been one of six people to witness an historic moment. Get the tape out."

Farnton keeps on staring. He can see it. He just can't quite believe it.


Farnton snaps out of it, then reaches over and ejects the deck marked 'Camera Two'. He takes out the tape, and is about to hand it to Maxwell when he notices that the tape is still wound to the beginning. His breath hitches in his chest. Beads of sweat sprout across his forehead.

"Oops," says Farnton, ever the master of understatement.

Kenworthy looks up at Harding, waiting for him to say something. Harding stares into the coffin, teeth tightly clenched.

"It wasn't us," Harding says at last in a small voice.

"Uh-huh," Kenworthy says with a shrug, apparently already bored. He lowers the coffin lid back into place, produces a handful of screws from the pocket of his coat and peers into the shadows for the discarded screwdriver.

"It wasn't us," Harding says again, as though trying to convince himself.

Stanford turns to Douglas. "Call Art Chaney at the C.I.A.. Tell him I want to see him in my office in one hour with some answers, and I don't give a shit if he's in Boston for his daughter's graduation."

The door to the exam room opens, and the four men emerge, pushing the trolley. Harding, Douglas and Stanford immediately hurry away down the hallway as Kenworthy turns to the cops.

"Put this thing back in the ground. Anyone who opens it and looks inside gets the chair." He trots after his colleagues, out through the doors, and across to the marquee where the limo is still waiting, its engine running, headlights illuminating a curtain of fine rain. All four of them get inside.

The paparazzi sea parts once more to let the car pass, flashbulbs straining to penetrate the limo's windows as it drives slowly down the driveway, through the gates of Graceland, and away into the Memphis night.

About the Author

Matthew Grainger is a screenwriter, producer and script editor based in Wellington, New Zealand. His latest film, Under the Mountain, will be released on DVD in the U.S. in August. He procrastinates by taking his daughter to the zoo to point at spider-monkeys, re-ripping his CD collection, and making impressively mediocre espresso.