Chapter One – A Quiet Corpse

I rushed to the embalming machine. “What are you doing?”

“My job, Imogene.” Alphonso’s voice held no humor.

To say he was distracted was an understatement. Alphonso was technically my boss, the head embalmer at Greener Pastures Mortuary, where I was a lowly assistant. Lately, however, I’d had to follow him around like the mother of a toddler, making sure he didn’t do anything he shouldn’t.

“The machine hasn’t been cleaned.” I spoke gently as I moved him away from what looked like a blender on steroids but was, in fact, our embalming machine.

“It’s not like the dead can catch malodors from each other.”

Alphonso was from an Eastern European country, maybe Romania, I wasn’t sure. What I did know was that English wasn’t the language he was raised with. I often had to . . . ah . . . interpret the meaning of his words. Malodors were most likely maladies, but I wasn’t going to point that out. He was struggling.

“Let me take care of that.” I nudged him aside with my hip, and he walked away grumbling.

As I disinfected the embalming machine, I pondered his very valid point. It wasn’t as if the dead could catch malodors—or maladies—from each other, but cleaning the machine between clients was protocol. I was into protocol.

I attended Cavendish School of Mortuary Science, so the rules and regs were fresh. I knew which i’s to dot and which t’s to cross when it came to embalming procedures, funeral home etiquette, burial customs from around the world and many other death-related things the general public ignored.

I would ignore Alphonso’s bit of logic, I decided, as I dried my hands with a paper towel. Machine cleaning was most likely for the living, something I hoped to do for many years to come.

I wheeled the embalming machine to the client on the table. Alphonso had laid out his tools on a nearby crash cart like a surgeon before an operation. His favorite trocar gleamed reassuringly. Scissors, scalpels, needles, and other sharp implements glistened in the overhead neon lights.

The white sheet covering the body hid its identity, so I picked up the manilla folder on the counter. We always kept an old-fashioned paper file on our clients. Inside would be photos along with details about their deaths and their lives to help us create a positive last impression for their loved ones.

I flipped it open. Jake Warring was an 82-year-old African American Vietnam veteran who’d become a successful pharmacist after the war. He’d died of pneumonia three weeks ago after a battle with what started as nothing more than a common cold. The photos showed a large, attractive family. We needed to do our best for them.

I shifted my weight nervously. Alphonso hadn’t been doing his best at anything lately. Ever since Fredericka, his new ladylove, had disappeared, he hadn’t been firing on all cylinders.

My boss filled the embalming machine with fluid, attached the appropriate hoses, and snapped on a pair of gloves. My job didn’t start until his ended.

Prior to coming to work at Greener Pastures, I’d been a hairstylist. In fact, that’s how I ended up working here. Before one of my clients from Harry’s Hair Stop died, she requested I make her lovely for her funeral. I’d done such a good job, Carlton Baldowski, the owner of the mortuary, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I now did the hair and makeup of the deceased and occasionally gave them baths.

“Why are you being an airplane?” Alphonso asked.

“An airplane?” I didn’t know what he meant.

“You are,” he said, raising a hand in the air, “flying over me, watching me.”

“Oh, helicoptering,” I said.

“Yes. Why are you doing this?”

I stared at him, not wanting to tell him the truth, that he’d made so many mistakes lately I feared for him—and for me. Not only could we lose our jobs, but grieving relatives could be litigious.

I swallowed. “Sorry.” I turned to the back of the room and plodded toward the computer. There was always paperwork to do. As I shimmied onto the high stool by the counter, Alphonso ripped the sheet from the body on the table.

I did my best to keep my eyes averted so he wouldn’t accuse me of being an airplane again. The schwing of metal sounded as he brandished a scalpel, the embalming machine motor purred to life, and the scent of formaldehyde filled the air.

It wasn’t until the strangled sob that had escaped his lips all too often lately met my ears that I glanced up. I gasped. He’d raised a scalpel above the body on the gurney as if preparing to plunge it into its chest.

That, however, wasn’t what had made me gasp. My horror wasn’t due to the violence about to be inflicted on a poor, innocent corpse. My horror was due to the color of its skin. The man on the table was as white as a ghost.

“Alphonso, no,” I yelped and darted toward him. I grabbed his hand just before the scalpel struck. The knife flew from his grasp and bounced across the cold tile floor. He jerked away from me. I lost my balance. And, to add one more horror to the already horrible event, I fell headlong into the body.

Although I knew better, my hands shot forward to protect my face. A split second later, the fingers of my right hand were tangled in the man’s matted sandy-brown hair, my left resting on his chest. I groaned.

“Imogene, what is your problem?” Alphonso didn’t sound the least bit sorry that he’d thrown me onto our client.

I straightened and stared at my hands in something like a state of shock. This is a good moment to mention that I have a strange ability. Some call it a gift. I beg to differ. Normally, when I touch the hair of the deceased, a blast of their final life sensations courses through me.

“Imogene?” Alphonso repeated.

I dragged my gaze from my hands to his face. He looked irritated, but I barely registered the expression. I was too confused.

Granted, the sensations I get from a corpse don’t last long, but I’m aware of them for at least an hour. Unless the person was murdered, of course. If they’d been murdered, I was in for it.

Turns out there is life after death. I don’t understand all that entails, but I do know that murder victims hang around until their killers are exposed. And for some unknown reason, they expect me to expose them.

I’d been emotionally manipulated, coerced into doing things I’d normally never do, made depressed, inexplicably cold and incredibly itchy often enough that I never willingly touched the dead without a nice thick shield of latex between us.

But this man’s hair had no effect on me. There were no lingering emotions. No other-worldly sensations. I’d felt nothing.

“What?” I finally said.

“Why did you implode my work?”

“What?” I said again, too dazed to translate.

“Implode. Stop. Get in the way.”

“Impede,” I mumbled, not caring if I insulted him.

“Implode. Impede. It is the same, no?”


He growled in frustration. “Why did you grab my hand?”

I waved at the man on the table. “This isn’t Jake Warring.”

Alphonso narrowed his eyes. “Of course it is.”

“No.” I grabbed the folder and flopped it open to a photo of the real Mr. Warring. “This—“ I tapped a finger on the picture, ”—is Jake Warring.”

Alphonso’s eyes narrowed even more. He grabbed the folder from my hand and squinted at the contents.

I gestured to the man on the table. “This man is nowhere near eighty-two, and he’s white.”

“Maybe someone put the wrong picture in this folder?”

I didn’t bother responding to Alphonso’s feeble attempt to save face. Instead, I strode to the walk-in refrigerator at the rear of the embalming room, threw open the door and pointed inside dramatically. “Mr. Warring is right there.” An elderly, African American man who looked suspiciously like the person in the photos lay on a gurney nestled up to one wall.

“Hmph.” Alphonso turned on his heel and marched out of the embalming room. The heavy metal door clanged to a close behind him.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>