Warm and Nicely Buried

“Mrs. Marotta, Jose is gone.”

The woman took Fragua’s hand and patted it as if consoling him.

“Yes, my son is dead.” She assured him that her feet were planted firmly on real ground.

“Mrs. Marotta, I don’t know how to tell you this. I’m really sorry.” These words were coming harder than the ones last night delivering the news of the boy’s death. “Someone broke into Fonda’s Funeral Home last night and they took Jose’s body.”

The woman’s head turned so that she could take the deputy in fully. Then she shook her head. She looked as if she just couldn’t make the words have meaning.

“Jose is gone. His body was stolen and we don’t know where it is.”

The woman crumpled, fainted, fell over away from Fragua onto the sofa as if she’d been shot.

“Christ!” Lem said.

The daughter came running from another room and let out a short scream. Fragua lifted the woman’s head in his hands, stroked dark hair from her face. Lem went to the phone to dial the paramedics. “Mama, mama,” the girl pleaded with her mother to regain consciousness. Fragua told the girl to go get a glass of water.

Lem put down the phone.

“They’re on their way. Is she all right?”

“I think so. She’s breathing okay.”

The girl came back with the water and a damp rag. Fragua took the rag and let her hold the glass while he wiped the woman’s face. Lem watched the girl tremble as she watched the still and silenced face of her mother. This was why he worked this job, to see this, to learn something about life, but he had learned nothing, was learning nothing. Life was empty here in this house where this woman kept things so clean, so tidy, and her god was not here for her, he believed this. Then on the wall he saw it. He hadn’t noticed it last night, but there it was, a crucifix affixed to the plaster and a bare-chested Jesus Christ wrapped in a skirt. These people were Penitentes. The Penitentes were a secret order of Catholics who practiced rather severe bodily penance and recondite burials of their dead. Not having a body to put in the earth was going to be a very big deal for the Marottas. Lem felt close to crying as he watched the old woman begin to come around. He heard the paramedics’ truck squeal to a halt outside. He went to the door and let them in with a blast of cold air that he was certain would aid in the woman’s revival. Fragua stood away and let the medics work.

Lem went to the girl. “Are you okay?”

She nodded.

He pulled strands of her long dark hair from her face. “My name is Lem. What’s yours?”


“Rosa, everything’s going to be all right.” He put his arm around her and gave her a hug. “Will you show me which room is your brother’s?”

She nodded and walked down the hall. Lem and Fragua followed. She stood away from the door. Fragua entered while Lem bent to address the girl, “Your mother’s probably going to need you out there.”

“I’ll start looking over here,” Fragua said as Lem entered. He was sitting on the unmade bed, opening the drawer of the nightstand.

Lem went to the dresser by the window. “These people are Penitentes,” he reported.

Fragua looked at him. “That’s real tough.”

They went back to their searching. Lem had worked his way to the bottom drawer of the beat-up dresser, peeling past the boy’s sweaters and T-shirts, when Fragua said, “Oh my god.” He turned to see the Indian holding a blue notebook in his lap. “Look at this.”

Lem looked on from beside him. The pages were filled with drawings of pentagram-marked monsters and horned devils and bloody, ripped-up bodies, all done in black ink, each figure underscored by a rough rust-colored streak. “Do you suppose that’s blood?” Lem asked.

Fragua swallowed hard. “I think it is. It’ the same all the way through.”

“You know teenagers draw shit like that all the time. I mean, that’s nothing unusual,” Lem said.

“I suppose.”

“Where did you find that?” Lem asked.

“Top shelf, closet.”

Lem went to the close and pulled a shoe box down from the same shelf, uncovered it. “Howdy, boys.” He tilted the container toward Fragua so he could have a look at the stack of bills. Lem counted them out. “Two hundred sixty-three dollars and this little stash here.” He held up the small vial of white powder to the light through the window. He unscrewed the cap, dipped his finger, took a taste. “Yep.” He sighed. “And this. What do you think it is?”

Fragua looked at the plastic bag that Lem dangled in his face. “Looks like some little animal’s heart.”

“That’s what it looks like to me, too. What was this kid? A devil worshipper or something?” He sat on the bed next to his partner.

“Listen, I’m just a dumb cowboy. This is too much for me.”