Chapter One – Hot Times
A black body bag lay on the gurney. My hand crept toward the zipper. Our clients weren’t usually hidden from view. If one was, it couldn’t be pretty, but I was curious. I pulled the metal tab a few inches. An unpleasant scent wafted out, and dizziness washed over me.
“Alphonso?” I called from the refrigerator.
“Yes.” He yelled over the noise of the club music that was a constant whenever he was in Death Valley, our affectionate term for the basement of Greener Pastures Mortuary.
“Am I supposed to do anything for—“ I glanced at the tag on the bag. “Patricia Helm?”
“No. The funeral is in an hour. It’s a closed casket.”
I zipped the bag back up and headed out of the fridge. As I crossed the threshold, I tripped and stumbled into the embalming room. After I regained my balance, I glanced behind me. Weird. It almost felt as if someone shoved me, but there wasn’t anyone there.
Of course, there wasn’t. Alphonso, my supervisor, and I were the only living, breathing inhabitants in the basement at the moment.
“You okay?” He was disconnecting tubes from a machine that looked like an oversized blender. The scent of formaldehyde was in the air.
“Yeah, fine.” I pulled my gaze away from the refrigerator. “What happened to the body-bag lady?” I asked.
“She fell asleep in a Jacuzzi. The maid found her the next day.” He grimaced like he’d bitten into something bitter.
“Ugh.” I shuddered, my dislike of hot tubs reinforced. In my opinion, steeping in hot water should be reserved for tea bags. “How does that happen?”
“It happens.” Alphonso shuffled in his protective gear to the sink at the rear of the room. He dumped the hoses into it. “The champagne is perfectly chilled, the water a little too hot.”
“There was alcohol in her blood?” According to her file, Patricia Helm was a healthy, forty-seven-year-old woman, but I assumed she’d had an autopsy due to the nature of her death.
“And doxepin. Not a good combination.”
“Isn’t that for insomnia?”
“Or depression,” Alphonso said.
“She was a doctor, wasn’t she?”
“A dermatologist,” he said. “But doctors can be sad.”
“Still.” Another thought struck me. “The ME didn’t think it was suicide, did he?” Not that I had a lot of confidence in Conrad Schrader, the Orange County Medical Examiner. He might be good at his job, but he was a cad. I couldn’t prove it, but I believed he was involved in the corpse smuggling ring I stumbled into last month.
“No dermatologist would kill herself in a Jacuzzi.”
There was no arguing with that, so I dropped the subject. Instead, while Alphonso finished cleaning up his tools, I perused the file. I couldn’t get past the fact that a doctor should’ve known better than to combine alcohol and doxepin, never mind imbibe on that solution then jump into a hot tub.
The photos in the file showed an attractive woman with a suspiciously unlined forehead. I wondered if Botox could’ve played a role in her death. It was one of the most toxic substances known to man. I’d never understood the special form of insanity that caused people to inject it into their faces.
There were pictures of Dr. Helm with groups of friends on what appeared to be a cruise ship, at restaurants, and several of her posing with a cute little Pomeranian. None of the shots showed a man by her side and, from what I could see, she wasn’t wearing a ring. “Single?” I asked.
“Divorced.” Alphonso rolled the “R,” making divorce sound dark and ominous.
“Ah,” I said as if I understood why he’d rolled his “R,” which I didn’t. Maybe he thought divorce made it likely there’d been foul play. I was suddenly glad Dr. Helm wouldn’t be needing my services. Murder victims had a way of disturbing the routine of my life.
“Is Mr. Driscoll ready for me?” I jutted my chin toward the body he’d just finished embalming.
“I didn’t clean him.”
“I’ll do it.” I opened the closet that contained protective gear, removed a coverall and mask, and began to suit up. Now that I’d finished a full semester at Cavendish School of Mortuary Science, Alphonso had increased my duties at Greener Pastures. Previously, I’d only done the hair and make-up of the deceased. Now antiseptic baths and oil massages were added to my to-do list.
One of the requirements for licensure in California was to assist an embalmer with 100 human remains. A few months ago, I’d wondered if I’d ever reach that number. Someone had been stealing corpses out of Orange County funeral homes. Consequently, the public had been taking their loved ones to San Diego, Los Angeles, and Riverside counties rather than risk losing them. Things had been dead at Greener Pastures.
After a hair-raising experience, I’d helped crack that case, and business was finally picking up. It was heartening. I now had a hope and a prayer of becoming a mortician before I needed one.
Alphonso pulled off his headgear and smoothed his hair in the mirror. I checked his reflection reflexively. He looked so much like Bela Lugosi’s Dracula I couldn’t help myself.
“You leaving?” My mask muffled my voice.
He widened his eyes and laid a finger across his lips. “We’re shooting this afternoon. Don’t tell Carlton.”
Carlton Baldowski owned Greener Pastures, but he wouldn’t be overly concerned if I did tell him. A month or so ago, Alphonso had bagged his first movie deal since the early 2000s when he’d had bit parts in a couple of grade-B horror films. He was now Vampire Number Three in Bloody Midnight Two, which didn’t sound like a break-out role.
Alphonso plucked his phone from the speaker dock and the club music stopped mid-thump. Blessed silence reigned. We’d argued about the music when he’d first come on board, then came to a compromise. He’d turn down the volume if I’d stop nagging him about it. I did, and he did.
“See you tomorrow,” I said.
Alphonso threw a black scarf around his neck and glared at me from under hooded eyes for a long, drawn-out moment. “Tomorrow.” He whispered the word, spun on his heel and stalked from the embalming room. He was getting into character. He’d been doing stuff like that for the past three weeks. Hence, the reason I checked mirrors every time he was near one.
I padded over to Mr. Driscoll’s gurney with a big bottle of disinfectant. “This might be a little cold,” I said, as I squirted him down.
While talking to the deceased may seem strange to some, and definitely seemed strange to me when I started here, I’d learned a thing or two since then.
The first time I’d darkened the door of Death Valley, I was a hair stylist. One of my clients died and left a request for me to do her hair and makeup for her funeral. Honestly, I was creeped out by the suggestion, but Harry—my boss at Harry’s Hair Stop—assured me it was an honor. I’d also been strapped for cash at the time, so I’d agreed.
What happened next changed my life. Forever. I’d touched Trudy Rosenblum’s hair, and it was as if I’d touched a live wire. Rage and frustration coursed through me. I’d had no idea what had happened.
Since then, I’ve discovered—often the hard way—that when I touch the hair of the dead, I am inundated with their final sensations in life and some of their postmortem ones, too. Thankfully, the feelings fade fairly quickly.
Unless the person was murdered. If they were murdered, they won’t leave me alone until their killer is exposed. It’s a cry for justice, I guess.
Mr. Driscoll’s file said he’d died of natural causes, but one could never be too careful. I snapped on a thick pair of rubber gloves to protect myself from the natural and the supernatural spirits and got to work.
When he was squeaky clean, I applied lotion to his skin, followed by foundation. Alphonso was a reconstructive specialist, an artist with clay, but I was a makeup master. My goal was to give each and every client back to their families, gift-wrapped with care, even if it was only for one more day. In order to do that, I needed to make them look more than natural. I needed to make them look as close to the way they had in life as possible.
I patted Mr. Driscoll on the shoulder. “You look great.” My voice echoed off the tile walls of the embalming room. I understood why Alphonso felt the need for music as he worked. It had taken me a while to adjust to the lack of sound down here in the Valley, but now I welcomed the peace.
I felt more in tune with my clients when it was quiet. Unlike Alphonso, I understood they were often still in residence for a short time after their deaths, and I wanted them to know I respected them. While I wasn’t eager to touch their hair, I did like to establish a connection. Just not the kind that followed me home.
I wheeled Mr. Driscoll toward the fridge and hesitated. Its cold reached into the embalming room and into my bones. I’d been working in Greener Pastures for almost a year now. I was used to the dead, but a reluctance to enter our refrigeration room wrapped itself around me like a shroud.
I shook it off, walked inside, and settled Mr. Driscoll into his spot. As I turned to go, my gaze dropped to the body bag again. I paused.
It was possible that even though Dr. Helm’s body had been vacant for almost a week, she was still hovering nearby. I thought about my conversation with Alphonso regarding her death. It hadn’t been very respectful. I’d probably sounded judgy. I had been judgy. “Sorry,” I mumbled and fled from the room.