A COFFIN TOO SMALL

By Anthony Lukas


Even from the back of the church, Donovan could tell that the coffin was too small.

He sat next to his partner, Charlotte Hanley, fidgeting some, trying to find a way to make his tall lanky frame fit in the cramped hard wooden pews. Charlie gave him one of her “What are you doing?” looks. Easy for her, he thought, being a good deal shorter than he was, she fit just fine in the pews. He looked at the backs of heads of the others filling the church. The young Philipino priest had started going on about something but Donovan wasn’t listening. He’d stopped listening to priests some time back.

Not that he wasn’t religious in some broad sense of the word.  But somewhere along the line he had adopted an old Irish perspective on God, not a supplicating kind of worship, not beseeching the Deity for favors, but demanding them.  Not a, “Please help us,” but a “Hey, we have a problem here. What are you going to do about it?” No need for intermediaries in that kind of prayer. No priests required. 

He studied the backs of the people, recognizing some from having talked to them over the last few days, or at least having tried to talk to them, folks who said little and saw less, or so they wanted him to believe.

Charlie nudged him and nodded to the side entrance and Donovan saw Mr. Theiu and his son coming in and sliding into a pew. Theiu the grocer. They had talked to him in his busy little produce store, among the neat bins piled high with vegetables and fruits.

“I heard the shooting,” Theiu had said, “I looked out, but didn’t see anything.” Donovan had sighed, looking through the big windows at the front of the store with their clear view of the street and everything on it.  Uh huh, he’d thought, couldn’t see a damned thing.

There had been a kid of eleven or so in an apron stacking apples in the front of store.  Donovan had given Charlie the eye and then wandered over to the boy while she kept chatting with Theiu, something she could manage to do for some time, Donovan knew.

“Did you know Mark, the boy that was shot out there?” nodding toward the street. The kid had just stared at first, but then nodded. “Were you a friend?” Again quiet and then another nod, and a look back toward his dad, who Charlie had managed to turn around so his back was to Donovan and the boy.

Donovan had said, “I’m sorry. You doing okay?” The silence then the nod. “We could really use help if we’re going to get the guy the who killed your friend. You want us to do that, don’t you, get the guy that killed your friend?” The boy had started to tear up but Donovan had pressed on. “You were here when it happened, weren’t you? You saw what happened?” And again with the silence and then the nod and then Mr. Theiu was there saying, “My son did not see anything,” and Charlie was behind with an apologetic shrug and that had been the end of that. 

Donovan watched Thieu and son settle into a pew and grunted in frustration which drew another look from Charlie.  What really bothered him was that they knew who had done the shooting.

“Tommy Vang,” Scarpino, one of the neighborhood’s beat cops, had told them some days before. “That’s the name everyone whispers to me when no one else is around. And I believe it. Vang’s a punk up from LA not too long ago. Gets here and starts pushing his weight around, forming up a band of similar dimwits calling themselves the 24th Street Hoods. He was shooting at some shit from the 20th Street Vandals, missed and hit the kid.”

“Vang‘s got quite the juvenile rap down south and was beginning on his adult record. I spoke to one of the gang detectives there and he knew Vang.  He said he wasn’t the brightest turd in the pile and word is he crossed the wrong guy down there and had to split.” Scarpino shook his head. “The detective didn’t know he had come up here, but he says,‘Do us a favor and keep him.’”

Keep him is not what Donovan wanted to do with Vang. But with the grocer and other neighbors they had talked to not cooperating, there wasn’t much they could do. 

Donovan spotted a streak of orange down towards the front of the church and saw Sara, Mrs. Phuong’s granddaughter, the orange streak in her hair standing out from the mostly black around her. Donovan shifted slightly and saw Mrs. Phuong next to Sara, her head barely visible through the other mourners. They had interviewed Sara and her grandmother in their tidy apartment with its bay windows that overlooked the part of the street where the kid had been shot, but of course…

“My grandmother says she saw nothing,”  the teenager had translated.

Of course not, Donovan had thought, Sittin’ in that rocker in the bay window much of the day, how could she possibly have seen anything.

Charlie persisted with a few more questions for the old lady, but she just sat, bent and grey-haired in her rocker, shaking her head.  Finally Donovan asked the girl  “How did your grandmother come to be in America?”

The girl seemed surprised to be directly asked a question. “Uh, her family escaped to Cambodia when the North Vietnamese took over the South. Then they escaped

Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge took over there and spent a few years in a refugee camp in Hong Kong before coming here.” 

Khmer Rouge!  Jesus, how old was this woman? looking at her with fresh eyes. He asked, “Did you live in a village in Cambodia?”

More conferring and the old lady suddenly laughed. “She says you Americans all think we lived in rice paddies.” More conferring and Sara translated, “My father was a businessman in Saigon and my husband a mechanic at the airport in Cambodia.”

What happened to your husband?” asked Charlie.

Silence. A change of expression, a glance at a black and white photo sitting on a small table.  Through her granddaughter she said, “Thugs wanted him to steal parts for the black market. He refused so…” and both the old woman and the girl shrugged.

“A good man,” said Charlie.

The girl translated this, and the old woman said something, sitting up straight in her chair as she did. “She says he was an honest and hardworking man,” and Mrs. Phuong nodded and then stared at Charlie and Donovan.

“Do you know Vang?” asked Donovan.

Silence for a moment then the old woman spat out a few words that the made the granddaughter start. “Ah, he’s, ah, no good,” translated Sara.

Donovan smiled.  “A loose translation, I take it.”  Sara gave a little embarrassed nod.

“Did you know the boy who was shot?” Charlie asked the old lady. 

“Yes, of course. He played on the street. I know his parents and grandmother.”

“He was a nice boy, a good boy?”

The grandmother was silent after Sara translated and her eyes took on the look that the young Thieu boy had had. “Yes,” was the answer after just a bit.

Charlie said, “We can’t let Vang shoot another good boy, someone else’s son.” 

The old woman sat silent. After what seemed a long while she spoke and Sara translated, “They are very bad. I am very old and alone much of the day, except for my young granddaughter.”

“We can protect you,” said Charlie, and not even Donovan really believed that. But the old woman looked into Charlie’s eyes…wanting to believe what Charlie said? Just for a moment Donovan saw a glimmer of hope, but then she shook her head. 

Donovan had signaled Charlie and they had risen to leave, Donovan seeing the photo of the hard working and honest Mr. Phoung. “I wonder if he would have seen something,” pointing at the photo.  Charlie and the old woman looked at him sharply, then the old woman looked at the photo, but the granddaughter then had stood, “She didn’t see anything,” and Charlie and Donovan had left.

His frustration with these “witnesses” had caused him to be in a foul mood as they had descended the Phoung‘s front stairs. He had growled something at Charlie’s “What now?” and she had put him in his place with a “Hey, same side here, don’t take it out on me,” and of course she was right.

As he often did when the job was getting to him he thought to go to his Dad’s shop, which was only about five blocks from the shooting. “Come on, I’ll buy you a coffee.”

Charlie had been delighted to learn that Donovan’s father’s candy shop was in the neighborhood. “I’ve never met your dad. Is he as charming as you?” she asked with a straight face. Donovan groaned. He was going to regret this.

His dad’s chocolate shop was in the middle of a busy block surrounded by a growing number of trendy restaurants, shops and clubs. “I stay the same and the world changes around me,” his dad had often said.

They went through the door and were enveloped in the smell of chocolate, and Donovan was instantly a kid again, working in the store, helping his father dip caramel apples. His Dad stood behind the counter, with white hair and twinkling blue eyes, smiling in the midst of his “little bit of heaven”  as he often said. Donovan introduced Charlotte and told of his frustrations. 

His father had shrugged. “Most of these people came from a place where the police were not just not to be trusted, but feared. Not friendly and attractive cops like yourself, my dear,” he had said, smiling at Charlie.

She had grinned. “Oh, Mr. Donovan, your just full of the boloney aren’t you?”

“That’s ‘blarney’,” Donovan had said, moving behind the counter to the little espresso machine to make their coffees. 

“You know a lot of the people in the neighborhood, Mr. Donovan?” asked Charlie.

“Seamus, please, my dear. ‘Mr. Donovan’ makes feel even older than I am. I’ve had this shop for over thirty years, and I’ve watched an awful lot of people come and go.”

“Do you know the Phoungs, Seamus?”

“I do. They are pretty regular customers. The granddaughter likes the caramel apples and the grandmother likes the chocolate covered ginger.”    

“How about the Theius,” asked Donovan.

“The produce grocer? Sure, the son comes in for the sour gummy worms. Mister doesn’t seem to have a favorite, he seems to try different things.” And he went on, naming others in the neighborhood and naming their favorites. Donovan had shaken his head. How the hell did he remember all that, the people and what they ordered. “How about the victim?”

His dad had suddenly looked tired. “Peanut brittle,” he had said quietly, then busied himself getting sugar for Charlie for the cappuccino that Donovan had handed her. She sipped and said, “Good foam, Donovan. You taught him well, Seamus.”

“The espresso maker was my idea,” said Donovan, “I learned the recipes and techniques.”

“Fall back if the whole cop thing didn’t work out?” asked Charlie, looking all innocent.

Seamus laughed. “Love spirited women,” taking her hand. “But tell me, my dear, no leads as who did the shooting that killed the poor boy?”      

“Oh, we know who did it,” Charlie had said, and explained about Vang. “But, you know,” she shrugged, “no one wants to talk.

“They’re scared,” his father had said, being brave got you dead where they came from. They don’t understand how it is here.” A fact that Donovan had to admit he already knew from his years as a cop in the City, but that didn’t do anything to ease his frustration. His father had paused, then “Let me talk to them, if they come in. You never know,” and he had shrugged.

There was movement next to him in the pew and his father sat down next to Donovan. Seamus patted his son’s hand and leaned forward to wink at Charlie.  Donovan rolled his eyes then looked out at the congregation again seeing others they had interviewed, all with similar results to Mr. Theiu and the old lady. 

And that’s where things stood as the Mass wound down, the casket carried out and loaded into a hearse, some people getting into cars to follow the coffin to the cemetery and others filtering back into the neighborhood.  Seamus left to reopen his store.  Donovan said to Charlotte, “Let‘s take a walk.”

They were walking down the block where the kid had been shot.  There up on her stoop was Mrs. Phoung, sitting on a stool in the sun.  Across the street, the Theiu kid was out in front of his store, arranging produce.  And then Donovan’s blood ran cold.

There, turning the corner was the punk Vang, swaggering along with a couple of his minions, all dressed in too big shirts and drooping pants.  He stopped just about where he had shot the kid, and leaned against a parked car, laughing and joking and staring at the block. He smirked at Mr. Theiu, watching him from the door of the little store and glanced at the kid, who had stopped stacking fruit and was now just standing, looking across the street.

Vang stared back, his grin becoming sly.  He stood up from leaning against the car and it looked like he was about to cross the street. Well, thought Donovan, we’ve got a problem here.  What are you going to do about it?

Donovan saw Vang turn his head to look back at his minions and then glance up at the old woman’s house and Donovan saw him freeze. Donovan looked up and there on her porch was old Mrs. Phuong, now standing, staring down at Vang. As Donovan watched she straightened to her full four feet something, slowly raised her arm, her index finger straight as her arthritis would allow, and pointed at Vang. She said nothing, did not move, just a weathered statue staring and pointing at the no longer grinning Vang. Vang stared back then said something to his buddies and laughed and turned back to the produce store and stopped again. Donovan looked and saw that the Thieu kid and come away from the front of the store and was now standing at the curb. As Donovan watched, the kid’s arm came up and he too was pointing at Vang, saying nothing, just standing and pointing. Donovan motioned to Charlie and they started down the block.

Mr. Thieu, who had been standing in the store’s door talking to another young man who held a grocery bag in his hands, now looked between Mrs. Phuang on her porch and his son standing in the street. The customer said something and then both he and Mr. Thieu moved forward to stand next to the young Thieu. After a moment staring at Vang, they too raised their arms and pointed.

Donovan was watching this tableau as he and Charlie closed on Vang, the four neighbors motionless, Vang just standing like the dope he was. Then he started to reach for his waist, pulling up the hem of that stupidly big shirt.

Vang at first couldn’t get what was happening. These stupid people, standing there, pointing at him. This was his block, who did these stupid peasants think they were. Well, he thought, as he started pulling up his shirt, time for the peasants to remember who was the predator and who the prey. He saw movement to his side and for the second time froze. A tall guy and a short woman were coming at him, guns pointing right at him. The woman yelled, “Freeze! Police!” Vang did freeze, but it wasn’t the woman yelling that had stopped him. It was the tall guy, who had said nothing but had a wide grin and intense stare that made Vang feel like was looking at a hungry wolf. The woman had her gun on his homies while the wolf came up to him and said in a voice Vang could barely hear, “Want to die today?”

Vang stood very still as the tall guy reached under Vang’s shirt, took his gun and then put his hands behind his back and even from across the street, Mr. Thieu could hear the snap! of the handcuffs.



Anthony Lukas is a former attorney and former deputy district attorney. He has recently retired from owning and operating a chocolate shop for twenty years. He began writing stories about two years ago. Four of his stories have been published on  omdb! – Dwight (May, 2015),  With a Side Of… (September, 2014), The Old Damned Fool” (April, 2014), and  Death of Mr. Putnam (July, 2013 ).

The author has also been published in Bewildering Storiesmysterical-e magazine, and has stories accepted for future publication in YellowMama.


Copyright 2016 Anthony Lukas. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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