Blazing heat poured into the hall. The two occupants didn’t mind, though, waiting quietly within their cramped boxes for their turn. The dead never argued.
Lamia complained, cursing as she cleared the retort. It wasn’t the heat that bothered her, though. According to her half-spoken words, her sensitive nose found the smell most disagreeable. Nine couldn’t help but laugh as she fetched the empty gurney pulling it into the hall. Glancing over shoulder, Lamia flashed a cruel look then burst out laughing.
Autumn was the busiest season at Thyme Funeral Home second only to May, for reasons Nine could never quite wrap her head around. Suicides were highest during the rainy winter months, but death came most often in Autumn and Spring. At least it did in Roseland. Nine often wondered if funeral services in other cities enjoyed busy seasonal periods. Whatever the reasons, the family funeral home required extra help during these periods, and that was when Lamia worked evenings and weekends.
A busy week actually worked out well as the old retort required a great deal of warm-up time. The trade-off was having to clean out and prepare the retort for the next cremation without letting it cool down all the way first. And at nearly two hours per burn, three cremations resulted in a long day. Occasionally a family member wished to view the cremation, in which the Thyme’s always processed individually with the crematorium and hall kept perfectly clean and tidy. No loved one requested a viewing this week, thankfully, allowing them to prepare the caskets and park them out of the way in the hall. As Lamia liked to say, box ‘em and burn ‘em.
Lamia had begun her part-time seasonal employment when Nine was a young girl. At that early age, Nine had trouble pronouncing Lamia’s true name, and instead had taken to repeating her grandfather. The old man had jokingly called the seasonal employee Lamia on account of the woman’s sharp teeth. The name stuck like a nail in a coffin, and to this day, Nine still couldn’t recall the woman’s given name.
A vampire, the seasonal helper was not. That much Nine had understood since as far back as she could remember. Lamia’s people called themselves Itoril, named for some warrior back in the day long before anyone considered writing the Bible. The Itoril people didn’t exactly live in secret, but they were good at smiling closed-lip for family photos and appearing cool wearing sunglasses at night. Hell, a few of them had become mayors or movie stars, their unusual traits seldom noticed by humans. Except for sharp teeth and nearly iridescent eyes, Itoril appeared like everyone else. Lamia kept to herself, not to hide her vampire-like jaws, but because she wasn’t sociable.
“I thought Sebastian was working tonight,” said Lamia. She began emptying the contents of the catch each into a tin receptacle.
Nine shook her head. Her father seemed more distant lately, and she hadn’t been keeping track of him much. The extra work kept her busy, so she didn’t mind her father’s absence.
A buzzer snapped Nine from her thoughts, and she jerked around. There were no deliveries scheduled, and at the late hour, it had to be Diego with a drop-off. Diego’s special deliveries were rare, four to eight per year, but seemed to have picked up lately. This would make the second in a week, and that had Nine mildly concerned.
Popping open the double doors revealed Diego pulling a stretcher from the ambulance. The EMT spoke his greeting in a voice far too cheerful for the bleak evening. The back parking lot was dark and dreary, a cold mist soaking the leaves to the pavement. Diego always appeared cheerful no matter the weather. Nine hated the cold, and frowned.
The deliveries usually arrived in black zippered bags, but this body lay open on the stretcher dressed in blue jeans, a white shirt, and leather bomber jacket. Diego’s smile was business as usual, so Nine grabbed the foot end of the stretcher while Diego pushed at the head. From this angle, Nine could easily see the fangs within the gaping mouth.
She guided the stretcher down the narrow hall and into the mortuary. There, Diego helped her lift the body onto a steel gurney. The EMT went straight for the pockets and discovered a wallet containing cash which he dumped onto the body’s chest. Nine snatched up a pair of twenties and held one out for Lamia. Finders-keepers was the primary rule for shady work, but Diego always insisted on sharing. As far as the night delivery guy was concerned, none of them were paid well enough. The body disposal arrangement that had started with Grandpa Augustus hadn’t kept up with inflation, or the obedient son, Sebastian, wasn’t as good with re-negotiating terms. Nine didn’t care to know the details. Rising property taxes threatened the business, and the share-the-spoils agreement with Diego helped out. This poor Itoril trash didn’t have much on him, but no one complained. Not vocally, anyway.
The snarl on Lamia’s face could have scared the piss out of a young boy. She started poking at the body searching for anything the EMT might have missed before setting her cruel gaze on the delivery man. She didn’t trust an everlasting grin.
“All yours ladies,” said Diego. He tapped two fingers to his forehead and waved goodbye all the while smiling like he held the best damn job on Earth. He even whistled a snappy tune as he pushed his stretcher out the receiving doors.
Something else had captured Lamia’s attention. Head lowered, she appeared to be sniffing the corpse. Doubting the woman could smell gold, Nine took a closer look at their arrival. Lamia uncovered a pair of bullet wounds, one just below the collar bone and another in the gut.
Lamia whispered an unrepeatable word and tugged the gurney into the hall banging into a cardboard casket waiting on a gurney. Urgency spread over Lamia’s face like wildfire, and she gave a hard tug dragging the other gurney scraping against the wall.
Rushing over, Nine grabbed the tail end, straightening the gurney out, and helped push it into the crematorium. Lamia moved in a hurry, and Nine not wanting to anger the woman with questions, took the other side of the corpse. Together they lifted the body into the chamber. As Nine pushed the arm over the chest, the hand grabbed hers.
Nine shrieked, and jumped back.
Heart pounding, she glanced at Lamia and pointed at the body. She started to speak, lost her breath, and took in a gulp of air instead. Lamia finished settling the body in place and opened the retort door.
Finding her voice, Nine spoke at last. “He’s not dead!”
It was too late. Door closed, Lamia pulled the lever. The furnace blazed, and the room turned orange. Along with the rolling waves of heat, cries of agony escaped the inferno.
Held captive by horror, Nine stared at the retort door. Suddenly, the screaming ended.
Crackling sounds filled the room.
Lamia grinned with cruel satisfaction. The woman enjoyed watching her own kind burn, but Nine had never witnessed anything so terrifying.
Light headed, Nine sat down on the floor. Her insides burned hot, but nothing came out. They had murdered a man. An Itoril man, but a man just the same.
Lamia knelt down on one knee. “Common, Nine-girl. It had to be done.”
Jaw dropping open in shock, Nine slowly shook her head. She had never. She would never. Disposing of bodies was one thing, but murder was the job for some nameless person. The killer out there. Not here.
“They pay us to burn ‘em,” said Lamia.
“Oh God,” said Nine. She hid her face in her hands. “They’re supposed to be dead already.”
“We burn ‘em, Nine. No questions. And we burn ‘em good.”
Lamia smiled in a comforting manner that to Nine felt all kinds of wrong.
“Get used to it, Nine-girl. We’re damn-awful bad folk, and someday we’ll burn for all we’ve done.”