Passing the cemetery, Peter Gray took the next turn, a narrow road up a steep incline. Within headlights frost glistened at the edge of the pavement. The road snaked through the woods passing homes on large lots. Spotting the stone sign illuminated by two spotlights on the ground, he pulled into the drive which curved around a grove of tall evergreens emerging into a parking lot at Thyme Funeral Home.
The old Ford Fairlane was beginning to seem like his car. He had inherited the classic from Kandice Knight through an intermediary business run by Steve Reynolds. However, he still felt Kandy all over the interior. Giving her ghost a ride now and then didn’t seem so bad as long as the spirits left the driving to him. He parked his Fairlane beside an old hearse, a Caddy from the sixties if he wasn’t mistaken. Two black classy cars sitting side-by-side, alone, at night. Automobile romance, he thought.
Slipping his phone from his jacket pocket, Peter held it while gazing out at the buildings. On the far left stood an early twentieth-century house with a newer addition jutting out the side. A walkway connected the home to the funeral building which consisted of an office, a showroom, and a chapel, distinct structures, but connected together. The chapel appeared more recently built, or re-built, likely during the seventies or eighties given the boring structural design. The rest of the property held a stylish look with decorative eaves and window shutters matching the house.
Tapping the screen, he selected his messages. He read the brief note Nine had sent yesterday again. She hadn’t made it in for her shift at the restaurant because her father had been arrested. Earlier in the day Peter had called twice to check in, leaving her messages both times. He called her again and disconnected after the third ring.
Feeling bad about dropping in like this, he considered heading back to the restaurant.
Peter had another reason for driving out here though. According to records, his sister had been buried in the graveyard on the hillside. He still couldn’t believe he had imagined seeing Tara in the restaurant. Having conversations with her! He needed to see the grave with his own eyes.
Light illuminated the window beside the office door and another in the big showroom window revealing several caskets inside.
Concerned about business, he called the restaurant. The new bartender, Tigris, answered. Everything running peachy, according to her. Satisfied, he put his phone away, climbed out of the car, and ambled up the walkway to the office door.
Curtains hid the interior.
Peter knocked and listened for movement. Trying the door, he found it unlocked and pushed it open. Barely large enough for three or four visitors, the office appeared cramped with a spacious desk built back in the day when craftsmen worked with real wood. The desk held a decorative lamp and an iPad. Two leather chairs for guests sat to the side, an old filing cabinet stood behind the desk, and an antique chaise consumed a corner. At the back, a closed door held a sign by the handle. Another door stood open leading to the showroom.
“Hello?” said Peter.
Strolling into the showroom, he glanced around at the various caskets of different styles. No coffins, he noted, feeling odd he knew there was such a difference between a casket and a coffin. Nine had taught him that coffins had a single lid. Caskets came with dual lids, one for showing. Directly across the room, double doors blocked the entrance to the chapel.
Back in the office, he went to the door at the back and checked the sign.
“Ring buzzer for service.”
Beside the door, he found the button attached to the wall with a painted wire stapled in place running down into the floor. He pressed the button and heard the muted buzz from somewhere deep within the building.
He listened while he waited. A pop came from the ceiling. Pressing the button again, he listened to the buzz coming from somewhere below.
Someone had to be here, he thought, and grew curious about the number of workers the Thyme family employed. Inattentive employees it seemed, but they likely didn’t get many visitors after dark even in winter when the sun set before five in the evening. Grasping the handle, he opened the door and peeked into a hallway.
Peter called out his greeting.
The house stood to the left, so he turned right and reached the end of the short hall at the top of the stairs. At first he thought he descended into a basement, but recalling the property sitting on a hillside, and spotting the exterior-looking double doors at the bottom, he realized he had found the lower section down the hill behind the chapel. A hallway stretched from the double doors past a door on either side ending at a wide door with a sign overhead labeled, crematorium. A door on one side was labeled, viewing room. The other door, the mortuary, had to be where the buzzer reached.
Grasping the cool knob sent a shiver up his arm, and he froze. He imagined an employee working with music playing over headphones and hadn’t heard the buzzer. Not wanting to surprise anyone, or walk in to see something disgusting, he knocked loudly.
“Hello? I’m looking for Nine.”
He heard a faint hum coming from inside.
Opening the door, Peter felt cool air rush over him and smelled refrigerant of an old air-conditioning system. Quickly, he stepped inside and closed the door to keep the heat out of the mortuary.
Three stainless steel tables, islands on crisp white tile, ran down the center before a wall with rows of large, square drawers for holding bodies in cold storage. Beside them, an industrial freezer and rows of shelves. The nearest table was empty, the second held a pile of clothing. A body rested on the last.
Peter stood near the door and gazed at the corpse in the back. Pale flesh, a female entirely exposed. Her dark hair fanned out within a bowel-shaped head rest. Young, too, she appeared a teenager or a not much older. Studying the ridge of the corpse’s nose, the cleft in the chin, the curve on those blueish lips.
The corpse held an uncanny resemblance to Nine.
Sneaking closer, Peter felt a pang in his gut as he spotted the edge of the tattoo on her lower arm. He quickened his pace and his shoes screeched on the tile. This close left no doubt.
Nine’s arm felt cool as if she had been recently removed from cold storage. It felt wrong gazing at her nude body. Morticians worked on naked corpses, naturally, but it still felt improper to look upon her body.
Glancing around the room, Peter searched for signs of an employee. Would they just leave a body out unattended? Someone needed to tell him what had happened.
Which, if foul play, they’d still have the body at police morgue. A day was too soon to go from illness to the morgue.
Nothing made sense.
Bending over, Peter took a closer look. Perfectly still, not a breath she took.
“Nine,” said Peter.
She opened her eyes.
Leaping back, Peter skidded on the tile, heart thumping and head rushing. Catching hold of the other table, he managed to remain standing.
Sitting up like the dead reawakening, she gazed at him. No laughter, not even a smile for the cruel joke. She just sat there, legs over the edge of the table, her hands at her sides. When she spoke, her voice sounded hollow.
“Hello, Peter Gray.”