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The White Box
About the Author: E R Brown’s first novel Almost Criminal was a finalist for an Edgar award (Best Paperback Original) and an Arthur Ellis award (Best First Novel), and named a Book of the Year by The 49th Shelf. His short stories have been published in Canadian magazines and dramatized by the CBC. He lives in Vancouver.

The reason for your trip, the American border guard asked, business or pleasure? Matt Brodsky knew better than to say business—that’s a one-way trip to the mirror room—but pleasure? For a second there he nearly spoke his mind. That’d get him turned back for sure. Which might be for the best, it’d give him an excuse not to deal with this, his gut was already screwed tight and the sweat streamed down his back. But no, he gave the guard a shit-eating grin and got his passport handed back with nothing more than an enjoy your visit.

Enjoy your goddamn visit. As if.

A couple hours later and he parked his pickup at the funeral home. Wilton and Sons, a plain stucco building at the end of a strip mall in Lynnwood, a flat little suburb north of Seattle. A cop car at the door, no surprise, with a government issue Dodge beside it.

He’d not even had a chance to see Luke’s dead face, if there was one.

Only yesterday the phone had rung and told him what he had already suspected—he followed the news—but you keep hoping, don’t you? There could have been a mistake. How do they identify what’s left after a bomb goes off? They didn’t ask for Matt’s DNA, and Luke’s his damn brother. 

No matter how little remained, no matter how hard it would have been to look at, he wished they’d held off. But no, the cremation couldn’t wait, they said. Policy. 

He dried his palms on his Levis. Time to get this done. 

A few cars down, something moved, someone in the driver’s seat turning for a looksee. Then a heavyset woman was after him, swinging a microphone, using Luke’s name, but Matt kept his head down and kept moving.

Inside, the funeral home was hushed and dimly lit. A man at the front desk stood at Matt’s approach, a beanpole in a floppy dark suit, dark bags under wary eyes. He was twitchy, not sure what to do with himself. Didn’t offer a handshake. Probably used to consoling grieving children or weeping parents, not the brother of the notorious bomber who’d been in the headlines all week. He explained the procedures for taking possession of Luke’s ashes as he led Matt from the thickly carpeted lobby to a room in the back. A staff room, probably, just a lunch table and some stackable vinyl chairs. 

On the table, a white cardboard box. 

According to the DEA, Luke’s bomb had taken out a Lincoln Town Car and the Mexican drug boss in it, but the idiot had gotten himself blown to pieces in the process. And now this guy couldn’t meet Matt’s eyes and say he was sorry, just wanted to get the paperwork done and Luke off his hands.

Matt remained standing, giving the cold-fish stare, determined not to make it any easier for the sonofabitch. Cardboard with a glue-on label. That’s the best they could manage. 

A knock sounded, and pair of cops walked in. A DEA woman in jeans with a grey jacket, looking business-casual, and a younger guy from the Seattle PD carrying a tray of Starbucks coffees. The funeral guy left, telling Matt not to leave without seeing him first, that there was a form to fill out. 

The woman took charge, pulling up a chair and indicating where Matt should sit. The box of ashes between them. The Seattle cop placed a coffee in front of each of them, dropped a handful of creamers and sugars on the table, and sat, leaning back in his chair. He was young, early thirties, with a shaved head and muscles, looked like he’d be good in a scrap. A set of smart eyes on him. 

The woman crossed her hands on the table and took a moment. Gave Matt a careful look. “Mr. Brodsky, I’m sorry for your loss. This must have been a terrible shock.”

Matt took a breath. One word of sympathy was all it took and he was ready to crack. Keep it in, he told himself. He cleared his throat. “It is what it is, eh?”

She kept her voice low and unaffected, as if this were routine. As if she wasn’t facing a man whose dead brother’s remains sat on the table between them. He was a regular guy, he wanted to explain. Managed a storage depot. Nothing to do with any Mexican cartels. It was the truth, but you can’t just jump up and say something like that, it sounds like you’re guilty. 

She continued. “A few things we want to clear up. For the record.” She began with the basics. Background questions she already knew the answers to. Trying to settle his nerves before getting down to it. 

This story appears in our MAR 2020 Issue
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Reader Discussion

Well done! Suspenseful! I'm like, "Oh, No! Don't do that!"
By Susan R

Wow! That was tense. You made us feel for the two brothers when you gave us the details of their back story. But, still. Luke involved his brother in something that could get him killed. So Luke is not particularly a sympathetic character. I'm hoping Matt has a plan to get out of this...
By Catherine Peacock

What a great story, from start to finish! Good plotting, good characterizations, all of it.
By Elizabeth Varadan

Great story. I absolutely loved it. It kept me reading.
By K Gall

Great suspense! Terrific job on the story line. I enjoyed the read...and that’s what it’s all about. Bravo!
By Tina Jude

Thanks for your kind comments!
By E R Brown

That was one terrific ride to USA. Enjoyed it enormously. Congrats E R Brown!
By George Garnet

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