Read an Excerpt
Bryn's first embalming instructor had told her, straight up, that two kinds of people entered the death business: freaks and true believers. Bryn Davis didn't think she was either one of those. For her, it was a prime career opportunity—a genuine profession.
Oh, she'd picked up odd paychecks during college as an office temp, dog-walker, and one memorable afternoon at a chicken factory, but none of those had ever felt real to her. Joining the Army after college had seemed like a good idea at the time (steady job, good wages), but four years in Iraq hadn't made her want be a career solider; it had, though, given her a bedrock understanding of the fragility of human life. After that, dead bodies didn't scare or disgust her.
One good thing she could say for her time in the military: it had led her where she was now, to this job… a good, stable one, and even better, an importantone.
Bryn smiled a little at the thought. Maybe she was a true believer, after all.
She smoothed the white lab coat—with her name stitched right on the left breast—and felt a warm surge of accomplishment. Bryn Davis, Funeral Director, Fairview Mortuary. Her business cards rested in a neat little cardboard box on her shiny new desk, all sober black ink in raised type, with the Fairview logo embossed in the corner. They wouldn't stay in the box for long; Fairview had furnished her with nice wooden desk accents, including a business card holder, and just as soon as possible, she intended to make that desk her own. She'd never had her own office before.
The cards and desk were elegant, like everything here. The room was neat and clean, filled with sober antique furniture and soft, dark cloth. Deep carpets. Subtle fragrances. Not a lot of flowers to overwhelm the already raw senses of the grieving.
She was a little nervous, but she also felt proud, and happy. In fact, she feltready. She tried not to feel too happy, though; it didn't seem appropriate to be so glee-filled about starting a job that was all about someone else's loss. The mirror on the wall confirmed that there was still a smile hiding in the corners of her mouth that she couldn't quite get rid of, and for a moment, she worried about the shade of her lipstick. She'd chosen a light pink, but was it too light? A little too festive? She'd spent too many years in khaki, far away from the fairy-tale world of Maybelline.
There was a knock on her office door, and before she could say come in, it swung open to admit the head man… Lincoln Fairview. Mr. Fairview was the fourth Fairview to operate the funeral home, and he looked the part, from his sober, well-tailored suit to his impeccably cut gray hair and soft, kindly face.
She felt her whole body jolt with adrenaline when she saw him. This was the man she had to impress with her professionalism. Hoo boy. She worried, again, about the lipstick.
He crossed the room with a confident stride and shook her hand. "Hello, Bryn, good morning. How are you settling in?"
She unbuttoned the lab coat and put it on the hanger in the small closet. Even the hangers were solid wood, and nicer than anything in her apartment wardrobe. "Everything's fine, sir," she said, and glanced down at herself to be sure she still looked okay. Her business suit was new, and a little stiff, but it was a solid dove-gray color, and the soft pink shirt seemed like a nice match. Her new gray pumps pinched her toes, and she was afraid she was going to have to wear out the blisters they were bound to raise, but overall… she thought she was presentable. Except for the lipstick, maybe. "Am I properly dressed?"
He gave her an x-ray stare, up and down, and then nodded. "Perfect," Mr. Fairview said. "Soothing, professional, everything I could ask. Perhaps a touch less on the lipstick next time; a pretty girl like you really doesn't need to emphasize her youth and beauty. Go on, have a seat, Bryn."
Oh, she knew it, the lipstick sucked. Bryn tried not to seem nervous as she settled into her leather chair on the other side of the desk. Mr. Fairview stayed on his feet. He studied her for a few seconds, and then said, "I assume that in your course work, you did live role play on handling difficult clients."
"Uh—yes, sir." What an odd way to start… she'd at least expected to get a tour of the building, maybe an introduction to the staff. At least she'd thought he'd show her the coffee machine and the bathroom. Pretend he's your new commanding officer, she told herself, and that steadied her; she'd gone through plenty of those meetings, and she knew the drill. Impress them early, and a lot, and they'll never bother you again. Bryn felt her spine straighten to military correctness. "Shall I be—?"
"You'll be you. I'll be your client. Let me go out and come back, and we'll get started."
She steeled herself as he left the room, hastily blotted her lipstick with a tissue. She missed her lab coat. Her lab coat had given her an air of… scientific detachment, and there was always something comforting about wearing a uniform.
This time, when the knock came at the door, Bryn stood and walked around her desk to meet him, shaking his hand and making and holding eye contact, just as she would have to establish her bona fides back in the war zones. Firm handshake, not too firm; chin up, eyes steady and straight. Convey a sense of solid competence and trustworthiness. "Sir, thank you for coming to Fairview. Please, have a seat. How may I assist you today?"
She indicated the sofa and chairs grouped in the corner of the office. Mr. Fairview took a place on the sofa, looked around, and leaned forward as she settled into a polite, alert pose on the chair—within reach, but giving him space. "I'm sure that this is a very hard day for you," she said, in her most soothing voice. This, at least, was something she felt confident doing, even on her first morning of the job. "How can I help?"
Mr. Fairview didn't even give her a nod of approval. He stared over her shoulder instead. "It's my brother," he said. "He passed away yesterday."
"I'm so sorry." Bryn knew how to steer the conversation; she'd been through the training, and she knew better than to ask the emotional questions immediately. "May I get you a coffee, or tea, or—"
Fairview's gaze shifted to her face. "He was hit by a truck."
She had an instant, vivid flashback of the armored personnel carrier, of a screaming face outside the dust-smeared window, of the crushing thump of the wheels. Of the body in the dirt, blood leaking dark into the packed road, head crushed into a shape that was no longer human.
Bryn took a deep breath and forced the images away. Focus, she thought. He's talking about reconstruction work. That was pricey, a definite plus for the business. "That must have been a terrible shock."
"It certainly was for him."
Oh God, was he trying to make her laugh? Bryn didn't feel any inclination to it; the memory of that body in the road had drained all the laughter out of her. Her voice, when it came, was just a shade too cool. "I meant for you, sir."
"I never liked him anyway. Now I'm stuck paying for him. Dumb son of a bitch never knew how to drive anyway. I want the lowest price you can give me, understand? I'm not spending a cent more on his drunken corpse than I have to."
Bryn opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She'd had a course section on dealing with aggressive customers, but those brain cells had shut down and were refusing to cooperate. Mr. Fairview was selling the angry brother for all he was worth, and her instinct was to fight back—which she couldn't do, in this position.
She took a deep breath. "I'm sure we can work with you to find something within your budget, sir," she said. Oh God, that was weak. "Let's talk about some options—" She reached out for the brochures and books, and realized that she'd left them across the room, sitting on her desk. Of course. She felt her face grow a bit warm at the oversight, but covered it by calmly standing and walking to retrieve them, talking as she walked. "I'm sure you'll find the Paradise plan the one that fits your needs, sir, it's a good combination of quality and price. We can also work with you on floral choices, which can save you a great deal of money." She held out the brochure to him as she returned to her seat.
He didn't take it.
Fairview let her dangle and suffer for a moment, then suddenly sat back and relaxed, arms spread out across the top of the sofa. "Good," he said, and nodded with a warm smile. "Very good. You made me feel welcome, established trust, competence, and a human connection; you seated me where you wanted me, and offered me refreshment. You didn't let me throw you off when I showed you sarcasm and anger. That's always the worst part, I think."
"Did I forget anything?"
"Tissues," he said. "Always keep the tissues here, next to the sofa, where they're easy to reach. Make sure the trash can is visible, but discreet, so they know where to dispose of them. And, of course you've already realized how important it is to keep sales materials at hand, but don't make it obvious; this isn't a furniture store. If you can't do the math in your head, keep a calculator with them so you can quickly update your figures; they'll always want to make changes to standard packages, and that will require re-pricing."
She nodded. "Anything else?"
"Upsell, my dear. Always upsell. Higher priced options may not be within their budget, but they're certainly factored into mine." Mr. Fairview rose and offered her his hand. "I'll introduce you to Lucy when she comes in, and of course you will have to meet Freddy downstairs, but later. For now, I think you're ready for your first intake session. I'll be sitting in, so don't worry; if you go off script, I'll bring you back."
She wasn't fooled by that; he wasn't there to help, he was there to give her a job evaluation. Fairview had a reputation of being strict, a stickler for regulations, and for making the best profits in the industry. He also had a reputation for going through funeral directors like bags of dinner mints.
She took a deep breath, smiled, and stood as Mr. Fairview went to get her first real customers.
Upsell. You can do this!
The first one wasn't too bad; it was a middle-aged woman making arrangements for her father, and she seemed crisp and businesslike about it, or so Bryn thought, until she realized that there was a glaze of shock and misery over the woman's apparently clear eyes. Still, she didn't cry, didn't argue, bargained reasonably, and walked away with a relatively modest coffin, middle-of-the-road funeral package, and a slightly better than average floral package, as well as the higher-priced memorial notice in the newspaper and online.
Mr. Fairview sat off to the side, saying nothing of any real substance, looking solid and helpful. After it was over, he saw the woman to the door and walked her out; Bryn watched from the window as he escorted her out to her car, head bent down as if he was listening. Halfway there, in the lovely little garden grotto with its beautiful angel statue, the woman just… collapsed, as if she'd been hit in the solar plexus. Mr. Fairview didn't seem surprised. He eased her down to a bench and sat beside her. Bryn watched, fascinated by the silent drama of it. His body language told the whole story—warm, kind, understanding. After a few moments, the woman managed to stand up and walk to her car, and Mr. Fairview came back inside.
"Wow," Bryn sighed; she was half admiring, half resentful. She hadn't read the woman as being ready to drop, but obviously Mr. Fairview had much more experience at this than she did. She had a lot to learn.
And to think she'd come in hoping to impress him.
By the time he arrived back in her office, she'd already gotten a good start on the paperwork and opened up the new folder with the deceased's name on it. Everything was paper here, still; she thought maybe she could teach them a thing or two about automating it. Maybe if they all had tablet PCs they could do all this at the initial meeting… so much simpler to avoid all this laborious writing after the fact… show the pictures of the caskets and floral packages right there, zoom to show the detail…
Mr. Fairview came back inside and took the chair across from her. Bryn looked up, brows raised. She wanted to ask, but she was humiliatingly afraid what he was going to say.
"Relax," he said, and she although she would have sworn she really wasn't thatnervous, she felt some hidden tension deep in her stomach slowly release. Wow. That felt good. "You did well enough, Bryn. Not a perfect job, of course, but solid. If you continue to sell that well, you'll have a bright future in the business. Do you know what you missed?"
"Well, obviously, she was ready to collapse," Bryn said, and bit her lip. "I didn't see it. You did."
"I've had considerably more experience at reading the recently bereaved. Don't blame yourself." He smiled at her, and the striking gray of his eyes reminded her suddenly less of silver than of dead ashes. It was just a flicker, and then it was gone. Probably her imag¬ination running away with her. Again. Her imagination had always been a problem for her, which was partly why she'd stubbornly decided on a job in the death business… because imaginative people didn't usually choose working with corpses and grief. Bodies didn't scare her, no indeed, but she couldn't help but imagine the pain that had brought them to this last, painless end. Unlike most funeral directors, she'd not only seen death, she'd seen dying in many forms—quick, slow, painful, painless. It was the wrenching emotional process of that she wanted to avoid.
The dead didn't feel.
"Thank you for taking care of her," Bryn said. "She seemed—kind."
"Did she?" There was something odd in his look, as if Bryn was speaking a foreign language all of a sudden. "Well, I'm sure we'll all have time to get to know her better over the next few days and see if your assessment is correct. She'll be back for the detail arrangements. I assume you're all right with handling those."
"Oh, yes sir."
"That would include deciding on music, speakers, choosing the display room, liaising with her chosen minister… the family is Lutheran, I believe… as well as things like funeral dress and makeup."
There were a dreadful lot of details about being dead, Bryn thought. She'd never had to arrange a funeral herself on the buyer's end, but it seemed almost as complicated as buying a house, and just as prone to larceny. Right, note to self, she thought. Don't ever care enough for anybody to have to do this for them. Oh, and don't die. Two very silly thoughts, but they made her feel better.
Mr. Fairview seemed satisfied, because he checked his expensive Rolex watch and said, "Ah, I see it's time for lunch. Plans, Bryn?"
"I—no sir." She'd brought her lunch. PB&J, just as she'd had all through her high school and college. After MREs, having a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich seemed like heaven in her mouth. Her tastes were pretty simple, but she didn't really want Mr. Fairview to think that; he seemed more the filet mignon type of guy. She bet he drank Perrier water, too.
"Well, then, you must join me to celebrate your first day. Do you like French food?"
She'd no idea, so of course she nodded, smiling, and tried not to seem as out of her element as she felt. She was glad now she'd gone with the nicer suit.Another note to self: buy way more business clothes. She hadn't thought about it back at her apartment, but now that she was here, she could see that wearing the same two suits five days a week was bound to get old—not just for her, but for her coworkers, who'd think she was a charity case. That was something that hadn't really occurred to her; she was used to having uniforms for work, same thing, different day—all crisply laundered and starched, but nothing individual.
Her credit card would stand another couple of purchases… well, barely; that last trip to Crate & Barrel hadn't been strictly necessary. When was payday for this job? Oh yeah, not for at least two more weeks. Damn. She hoped the bill wouldn't come due in the meantime. Awkward.
"Let me get my purse," she said. She retrieved it from the desk drawer—a cheap leatherette thing, but as nice as she could afford. She hoped he wouldn't look too closely, or judge too harshly. He seemed very well tailored, the kind of man who paid attention to designer labels and the little details. She'd never really been like that. If her shoes were cheap and made in China, well, so what, who cared… but she could already see that her attitude was going to have to change about such things. Permanently. She thought she'd left all that spit-and-polish crap behind her, but she should have known; once in the Army, always in the Army. This was just an army that wore business suits, and her new CO was almost certainly going to turn out to be a total pain in the ass.
They nearly always did.
Getting out of the funeral home was a shock, because Bryn still hadn't gotten used to the beauty of being home. Well, not home home—her family lived in the not-very-scenic town of Clovis, New Mexico—but being back in the States had given her a new appreciation of how lovely it could be.
Especially southern California. It was a land of contrasts—the cool blue of the Pacific rolling into the distance, shrouded with a cloak of mist at the horizon, and the pale desert hills studded with cacti and patches of scrub trees. Stark and lovely.
Bryn couldn't believe she was living here. Couldn't believe it was her home now. It still seemed like some kind of dream; any second now, she'd wake up sweating in her uncomfortable bunk and start another day of IED Russian roulette.
No, it's real, she told herself. This is real. She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath of sweet, clean air—dry, warm, but not the oppressive stinging heat of Iraq.
"Bryn?" Mr. Fairview was standing at his Town Car, holding open the passenger door.
"Sorry, sir," she said. "Just enjoying the view. It's beautiful."
Fairview smiled a little, and to her eyes, it looked cynical. "It's expensive," he said. "When my great-great-grandfather built this place, I'm sure he did it for the cheap land; today, the taxes alone are ruinous." She shot him a startled glance. "Oh, not that we're hurting for money, Bryn. One thing about the dead: they just never stop coming."
That was one of the more unsettling—and yet weirdly comforting—things Bryn had ever heard.
The drive down the winding road to the restaurant in La Jolla took only ten minutes, but it seemed longer simply because of the silence in the car. Fairview, Bryn discovered, was not prone to chat. That was fine; she was used to silence—loved it, in fact. Her family life had been full of noise and chaos, and most of her college memories were of loud hall parties and stereo wars, not studying. The army, though, had introduced her to a whole new scale of what it meant to be noisy.
She'd learned to sleep through anything, when she had the chance to sleep; she'd also learned to relish the calm, cool peace of silence.
It settled between her and Fairview like the fog on the ocean.
"Here we are," he finally said, and turned the car onto La Jolla's main drag, lined with colorful shops, restaurants, and high-priced hotels. It was beautiful, in a way that most other shopping districts couldn't quite pull off. Maybe it was the sea view, since the hill sloped right down to the rocks and the gently rolling waves. Fairview expertly negotiated the narrow parking space with the big car and shut the engine off.
As he reached for the handle of his door, Bryn said, "Sir, can I ask a question?"
He glanced over at her, surprised. "Of course."
"You have relatively few employees, sir. I mean, there are only four of us that I'm aware of; is that right? The receptionist, you, me, and—"
"Freddy," he said. "Our downstairs man. Yes."
"That's a very small crew for even a small mortuary. I'm a little concerned about our ability to cover—"
"Don't you worry; we'll do fine," he said. "We used to employ a half dozen people in your position alone, but the fact is, even though people keep dying, our business has fallen off some. More people choosing cheaper corporate-run funeral homes; you know how it is. But that doesn't mean we don't have work. Some days it'll be hectic, but I'm sure you can handle it. I outsource body pickups. That's half of the work right there."
He walked her to the door, opened it gallantly, and the maître d' showed them to a table. It was all very fancy, to Bryn's eyes: real tablecloths, crystal, fine silverware, and china plates. The waitress wore nicer shoes than she had on.
Once served, Bryn stared doubtfully down at a plate full of what looked like weeds drenched in sauce, and picked around with her fork. She decided the green stuff looked safe enough, and tried it. Like lettuce, but with spice. Not too bad. Mom would have called it yard salad, she thought, and almost choked on a suppressed laugh. Ain't we grand now?
"How's your appetizer, Bryn?" Mr. Fairview asked. He stirred a cup of coffee, making it look like the most elegant thing in the world, with carefully ordered swirls of his spoon in the small china cup, never once making any uncouth noise about it.
She swallowed and managed a smile. "Very good, sir. Thank you." She'd let him order for her, and if the salad was this weird, she had no idea what she was in for with the main course—but she'd eaten worse overseas; that much was certain. It was part of why her tastes remained so damn simple.
"I have to admit, you're the first woman I've ever hired who served in the military," he said, and nodded to the hovering, perfectly dressed waiter who waited to refill their water glasses. The whole restaurant had that hushed, whispering elegance to it that made Bryn feel every thread of her not-designer clothes and Payless shoes. There were ladies in here wearing jewelry that cost more than her annual salary. "I'm very interested to hear about your experience. You served in Iraq, I understand?"
Baghdad seemed like it wasn't in the same universe as this place, and Bryn felt a creeping sense of unreality in even tackling the topic. "I'm afraid it's not very interesting," she said, hoping he'd take the hint. She quickly took another bite of the salad. Not so bad. She could get used to it. You could get used to anything, in time.
"On the contrary, I find it fascinating that someone like you would choose to sign up during a time of war," Mr. Fairview said. "That tells me quite a bit about your character, you know."
Not so much about her character as her upbringing, Bryn imagined, but she didn't see any need to tell him about growing up poor in a family with two parents on minimum wage and six brothers and sisters, and doing it in a semirural town where aspiring to go to an Ivy League college was looked on as suspiciously elitist. Joining the military was a good, proper thing to do—even for a girl, these days—and if it paid off those expensive college bills, well, that was all right. Her brother Tate had followed in her footsteps, right into the uniform. He was a smart kid, the only smart one in the family, really. She had hopes for him.
She'd taken too long to answer, she realized, and covered it with a smile that felt shy. "You flatter me, Mr. Fairview," she said. "The army seemed like the best option to help me pay off my student loans. It trained me, showed me the world, and gave me a good start for the rest of my life." That sounded straight out of the recruiting brochures, and it said nothing at all about the sheer hell she'd gone through—the merciless and constant hazing, the blatant discrimination, the harsh conditions and constant fear of her surroundings and even of her comrades. She'd learned a lot, all right.
Mostly, she'd learned she never wanted to go to war again, and to avoid those who did want to.
And to keep her mouth shut about all of it.
"You're a very private person, aren't you, Bryn?" her boss asked, and she got the laser examination from those weirdly cold gray eyes again. "Not that I mind that. I like to keep things professional at the office, of course. But one more question: working with the dead and the bereaved doesn't bother you? Because I find that a number of recent entrants to the funeral home profession aren't emotionally suited to the requirements."
It seemed a weird time to be asking the question; after all, he'd already hired her. But she remembered that Fairview was known—notorious, in fact—for going through funeral directors quickly. She had the feeling that every conversation, every seemingly innocent moment, was another evaluation.
Yeah, that was relaxing. She tried to breathe and eat her salad without letting him see her discomfort.
"I don't mind the dead," she said, after she'd swallowed her bite of who knew what kind of weeds. "Bodies are just shells built of muscle and bone. They smell, and they're messy—alive or dead. But there's nothing frightening about a corpse once you get over the idea that they're…" She couldn't think how to put it, and then it clarified in her mind. "Once you get over the fact that you're just like them. And will be them, in the end."
"Ah," he said. She'd surprised him, apparently, or at least that was how she interpreted the quick up-and-down motion of his carefully groomed eyebrows.
She looked down at her salad and continued, more quietly. "We shouldn't ever forget that, out of respect."
"No," he agreed, in the same tone. "No, we shouldn't."
The waiter arrived and whisked away her uneaten salad, and delivered the main course. To her relief, it was some kind of chicken in sauce. Delicious. She didn't miss her PB and J at all, and when Mr. Fairview poured her a glass of wine, she let herself drink it and enjoy the rest of the meal.
She almost regretted going back to work, in fact.
I could get used to this, she thought.
Especially if she didn't have to pay the crazy expensive bill.