I’m not finished with this yet—but it’s getting there….

 
 

1
The business line rang, shocking Liam from a deep sleep like an ice water bath.  He sat up groggy, gathering himself before answering.  His small digital clock on the nightstand showed 2:35 a.m. and Liam wondered why he ever decided to follow his father into the mortuary business

 

 

I hate my job.

 

He cleared his throat and picked up the phone, trying his best to shake the fog from his brain. “Denham and Sons,” he croaked.  

 

A lady spoke, her voice feint and monotone.  “This is the hospice nurse at the Billings residence.  To whom am I speaking with?” He noticed a hollow sound indicating an open line and Liam knew his father was listening in.  He waited a few beats, hoping dad would step in but no dice.

 

“This is Liam Denham,” he stammered.

 

“You are the funeral home of record for Mrs. Mary Billings.”  She was stating a fact, a hint of impatience in her tone.

 

Liam didn’t know.  The odds were good that Mrs. Billings was in their system, but at 2:30 a.m. he was lucky to be speaking let alone recalling a prearrangement.  There was a list of clients downstairs in the funeral home. He was about to place the nurse on hold when his father cut in from his home line.

 

“Yes she is.  We’ll be there as soon as we can.”

 

 

“One moment,”  the nurse said.  “The family thought it best to move her from her home.  She is at her son’s residence.  Do you have it in your records?”

 

 

There was rustling and heavy breathing, the rumblings of his father grasping for a pen.  “No.  I’ll just need the address.  We have a GPS.”

 

 

The nurse answered, slow and deliberate, her voice reminding Liam of a bored librarian.  “I’m afraid it will not be on your GPS.  The home is in a new subdivision in Indian Hill.”

 

 

“Didn’t know there were new developments out in those parts.  What’s the main road you’re off of?  I know the area well.”

 

 

“Remington.”

 

 

“And the address?”

 

 

“1215 Rosedale.  If you’re coming north, it’s the fourth street on your left.  There’s a long gravel road leading down a wooded lot. Follow that road all the way until it dead ends…we’ll be waiting for you.”

 

 

“May I speak to the son?”  His dad asked but the line quickly disconnected.

  

We’ll be waiting for you?

 

 

He hung up, the strange comment vanishing behind a cloud of anger. Liam thought things would change once he graduated from mortuary college. He should have known better.  Once a control freak, always a….

 

 

The phone rang again and Liam let it go. He imagined his dad’s puffy cheeks turning red, his face puckering like a rotten orange.  He savored each ring, the heavy cloud of anger fading. After ten rings he answered,  “Denham and….”

 

“Why didn’t you answer the phone?” his father demanded.

 

“I just did.”

 

“You don’t remember Mary Billings?  For crying out loud, son!  You did the prearrangement with her.”

 

Her name didn’t ring a bell.  He sat in silence, listening to his father’s blustery breaths.

 

“Be ready in twenty minutes,”  his father said.

 

“But…it’s my night on.  I can handle…”

 

“She’s a big lady and died at home,”  His dad said before the line went dead.

 

Okay then…

 

 

****

 

 

Denham Funeral Home was an old victorian style home stuck right in the middle of urban hell like some white washed mountain.  From his third floor bedroom, Liam could look out over the entire back lot, taking in several blocks of picturesque shotgun shacks, scattered trash and beaten chain link fences. The view came in handy when neighborhood thugs were on the prowl.  But Liam wasn’t looking for gang bangers this morning.  He eyed the empty lot nervously, throwing on a pair of wrinkled dress slacks, white collared shirt and blue blazer.  True to form, his dad’s van rolled up the side drive right on time.

 

 

Twenty minutes exactly.  How does he do it?  

 

 

He hurried down his apartment steps hitting the second floor hallway with a thud. 

 

 

“Goddamn dancing bears!”  his grandfather yelled through the thin walls of his bedroom.  Gramps had lived at Denham Funeral Home for over sixty years and was a light sleeper.  Liam slowed his pace to a creep.  He didn’t want Gramps stumbling around alone and hoped the old man would go back to sleep without incident.  He crept down the long hallway, the smell of pipe tobacco tickling his nose.   

 

 

“What’s going on next door?”  his father yelled from the first floor. 

 

 

Liam stopped just short of the front staircase, gritting his teeth.

 

 

“Go on,”  Gramps called.  “I’ll be fine.  Be sure to tell your father to calm the hell down.”

 

 

“Will do,”  Liam said smiling. He found his father waiting at the foot of the steps, a can of Tab cola perched in his chubby fingers. 

 

 

“There’s three police cruisers over at the pastor’s house.” his dad said.

 

 

Liam grunted.  At half past three in the morning, Jesus could be next door for all he cared.

 

 

“Didn’t you see the beacons?  You are a piece of work.”

 

 

“And you’re a controlling fat tub of shit,” he said to himself. 

 

 

They hurried through the main floor of Denham Funeral Home, passing through the viewing area and lounge before heading out the side door. Liam walked out to the side porch, squinting from the beacons flashing next door.

 

 

Damn that’s annoying.

 

 

He looked away from the lights, following his walking feet across wooden planks until a pair worn out sneakers came into view.

 

 

“What’s up buddy?” 

 

 

The voice surprised him and Liam nearly jumped off the side porch. “Jesus Dave!  You scared the piss out of me!”

 

 

Dave’s gaunt and unshaven face stared blankly back at him.  He wore a thin hoody and skinny jeans that made the frail old man appear like a teenage punk.  “You know pastor Vreeland?  You know the pastor?  Well, he died.  Yep buddy.  He died.  Bad men buddy.  Bad men.”

 

 

“I’m sure,”  Liam said, pushing past him.  He heard his father greet Dave as Charley stepped out from the funeral home. Liam kept walking.  Dave had a habit of running his mouth and he was in no mood for his crazy stories.  Just yesterday the old coot told him that Johny Bench was dead. Before that it was David Letterman, then Nicholas Cage, Oprah…and the list went on and on and on.  Dave would rather talk to his father anyway.  Charley was the only person to give him any attention and this morning was no different.  It took Liam’s dad nearly ten minutes before he fumbled into the van, sliding in the passenger seat next to him.   

 

 

“Thought you were in a hurry,”  Liam said absently.  

 

 

“Dave said he saw two men carry Vreeland out of his home.”

 

 

“And you believe him?”

 

 

Charley drummed the dashboard.  “No.”

 

 

“What the heck is he doing up this early anyways?  Don’t they have someone watching over him?”

 

 

“Group homes aren’t what they used to be.  Come on.  We have a long drive ahead of us.”

 

 

As usual, Liam did the driving, his dad more comfortable in the role of “navigator.  It was an easy thirty minute drive up interstate I-75, Liam guiding the black Caravan in silence. That all changed once they reached exit 11.

 

 

“Okay, okay…just stay in this lane and follow it all the way to Old Indian Hill Road.  It’s by the chapel where our last service was held…you remember?”

 

 

He shrugged and yawned, his eyes burning from lack of sleep. At first the road ran through an area of small shops lit by rows of ornate street lights, reminding Liam of a sleepy southern town.  But once they bounced over a set of train tracks and onto Old Indian Hill Road, the night pressed in around them like a black sack. He smelled the mix of stale coffee and spearmint gum as his dad leaned towards him.

 

 

“Slow down.  Slow down,”  his father said, sweat running down his double chin. “The street should be right up here.  I’ve never been to the subdivision she was talking about but it seems pretty cut and dry by her directions.” 

 

 

Liam nodded, trying his best to stay awake. he couldn’t see anything, the yellow double line his only guide.  His dad turned down the radio before nudging him with a meaty forearm. “Fourth street on left she said.  Keep your eyes peeled.”

 

 

“Uhuh.”  He was dreaming of warm sheets, wishing this pickup was over.  

  

 

They traveled another five minutes before his dad started getting jumpy.  “We’ve gone past three streets already.  Did you miss it?”

 

 

“You were here with me.  I didn’t see any signs.  How far does Old Indian Hill go?”

 

 

“Another twenty miles.  We must have missed it.”

 

 

“Why don’t you call them?”  

 

 

“Nah!  Just start looking for a place to turn around.”

 

 

“I think we should go a little farther.”

 

 

“No!  No!  Noooo!  This is too far out,”  his father sputtered just as the green sign for Rosedale Lane reflected brightly outside Liam’s window. 

 

 

Liam slowed the van.  “I see it.”  He made the turn onto Rosedale, the bumps of rocks and unpaved dirt paths wobbling the van left and right.

 

 

“Watch it.”

 

 

“I can’t see anything.”

 

 

“Well slow down then.  Crimony, you’ll blow a tire.”  I’m not seeing any homes…are you?”

 

 

“No.”  Liam said spotting a forklift and dump truck parked beside a mess of pipes and other construction gear.  He followed the road, winding around trees thick on both sides.  “Hopefully it’s down here.”  A nervous wave began to flutter in his guts.

 

 

“There,”  his dad said, a fat finger pointing through the windshield.  “That’s where the road ends.  Just keep following it.”

 

 

He followed the gravel road until his high beams hit a house resting atop a dirt hill.  The home was still under construction, it’s wood frame extending like rib bones into the autumn night. Liam looked for another path, another way past the structure but there was none, only thick woods framing in from all sides.  He stopped the van. “This can’t be it.”

 

 

“Godammit,” his father yelled, throwing his door open and rolling out. 

 

 

Liam cut the engine, the van’s high beams still lit against a skeleton of wood and metal.  He walked out to a night alive with the creek of crickets and moaning frogs, stars blinking across a black canvas. “There’s nothing here.” 

 

 

His father was shaking.  “If I find out who pulled this stunt….I’ll….I’ll…kill him!”

 

 

Liam was silent.  He knew this wasn’t the time for consolation.  His dad would rant for a few minutes, kick some gravel and then fume all the way back to northside. All he had to do was wait him out and be quiet.  He walked around the front of the van, his eyes focusing on the half constructed home. The hum of the night life was steady now, but Liam heard something else, a low growling sound coming from behind his father.

 

 

“What the hell?”  his father said turning to the sound.  

 

 

Liam squinted, the headlights temporarily blinding him.  As his night vision adjusted, he heard pattering on the gravel.  A figure stood behind the van, his features drenched in red from the taillight beams.  He was slight in stature and build, wearing a long trench coat and cowboy hat.  His back was turned to them. 

 

“Mr. Billings?  Mr. Billings, I’m Charley Denham from Denham and Sons…” his father said, walking towards the man.

 

“Dad?”  Liam said, trying to hold his panic in check.

 

 

The figure stood like a statue, his long black hair whipping around his neck and shoulders. 

 

He didn’t like this, his gut screaming to stop his father and get back in the car.  “Dad!  Wait!”

 

Charley Denham stood directly behind the silent man, waiting for a response.  “Hello?”  he said reaching out just as the figure disappeared with a loud “pop.” 

 

Liam squinted, not believing his eyes. He reached for the passenger door, his father still standing as though shaking hands with a ghost.  The low growling returned, louder and closer than before.  “Come on…let’s get out of here,”  he yelled as a sudden gust of autumn wind roared through bare tree branches. 

 

His father remained frozen, looking out into the black night.  When he spoke, his voice was raspy and weak as though someone had just punched him in the stomach.  “Easy.  Don’t want to spook them.”

 

Them?

 

Liam look past his father, spotting black shapes with glowing eyes.  They were not human, moving close to the ground, circling the van slowly. The growling intensified, the shapes emerging, white fangs flashing in the dim light.  “Jesus, they’re wolves.”

 

“For God’s sakes, Liam,”  dad said in a harsh whisper, his voice cracking.

 

Liam eyed the wolves creeping towards them, knowing any sudden movement would start a feeding frenzy.  He was between his father and the van, his hand on the passenger door. He brushed the cold surface of a door handle just as the headlights went out, plunging them into darkness.

 

“Liam!”  his father shouted, the night erupting in sounds of tearing and screams.  Liam lunged out into the darkness, searching, swinging blindly, the sounds of his father’s misery his only guide.  Then something slammed into his head knocking his world away. 

 

****

 

2 (Maybe add some frustration with the cop—self dialogue regarding Charley’s case going unsolved…)

 

Liam aimed a few inches below her belly button then plunged the trocar needle into Mrs Watts.  He worked slowly, sliding the stainless steel point back and forth through her chest cavity trying to remember the proper sequence.

 

…near abdominal wall about 4 inches towards the left anterior-superior iliac spine…then inserting it forward into the cecum of the colon…

 

 

Thudding footsteps approached from the back staircase.  Gramps was up early.  He jerked the needle out and sighed.  

 

 

Grandpa crept down the steps before shuffling through the back lounge, his wrinkled skin turning ghostly in the florescent lights of the prep room. He wasn’t awake yet, dressed in a raggedy robe and slippers. He leaned over the body, inspecting her as though looking for a lost contact lens. Liam’s jaw tightened.  Gramps could be a real ball-buster when he wanted to be.

 

 

“I know I should have waited a few hours before aspirating but…”

 

 

Gramps was panting, still recovering from the steps.  “I don’t…I never used to do that.  What’d you hit her with?”

 

 

 

Liam’s reminded himself to breathe.  “Autoflex then Hydrotone—16 ounces per gallon.”  

 

 

 

Grandpa reached down a shaking hand and squeezed the thin, pale arm of Mrs. Watts.  “Give her another gallon then aspirate.”

 

 

 

“Will do,” Liam said, covering Mrs Watts up again, warmth spreading through his chest.  He saw restoring the dead as art, mixing chemicals and cosmetics in just the right amounts, bringing life back to a lump of human clay. Of course he would rather be painting on a canvas than cosmetizing jaundice skin but as his father used to say, There are more starving artists than starving morticians.

 

“Used to say….yeah he used to say that,” Liam thought before swallowing hard.

 

“What’s going on next door?”  Gramps asked.

 

Liam pulled down his mask, smelling the tang of arterial fluid in the air.  “I didn’t notice anything.”

 

 

“Jeez kiddo, I know you’re not that observant but there’s a Mayflower truck blocking our driveway.  Looks like we finally have some neighbors.  Wonder what low life Raddenhaver rented to this time?  The man owns half of northside but you never see him.”  

 

He cringed.  The only thing worse than talking politics with Gramps was discussing the down trend of his beloved neighborhood.    Liam ripped off his apron and sweaty latex gloves.  “I’ll see what’s up.”  

 

Gramps held up a hand.  “There’s also a cop snooping around next door at Pastor Vreeland’s place, did you notice that?”

 

“Where’s your walker, old man?”

 

“Screw it.  That thing slows me down too damn much.”

 

“That’s the point.”  He marched past Gramps, through the back lounge and into the garage.  He hit a button and watched the garage door open, the steady hum of chains echoing as he recalled his neighbor Vreeland.  The good pastor disappeared the same night he and his father were attacked. 

 

The same night dad died. 

 

 

He knew the tears would come, so he let them, wiping his eyes with a clenched fist.  The attack was only six weeks ago and memories still burned like acid.  Shuffling footsteps approached from behind him.  He pushed aside the grief that came in steady waves, leaving him helpless in its wake. Gramps ignored Liam, teetering past him through the open garage door and into the back lot.  Pastor Grooms lived in a small ranch home off to the left while Radenhaver’s “shack” sat to his right. Both homes were within twenty feet of the funeral home, seperated by a driveway which ran from the front entrance to their back parking lot like a blacktop moat. 

 

 

Liam sniffed back a laugh as Gramps’ white head swiveled from side to side, trying to keep both homes within his sights.   

“I’ll take care of it,” Liam said.  He walked towards the shack, making a right turn down their driveway.  He wondered how the dump had lasted this long with an oversized garage gobbling up most of the lot. The first owners had used the property as a body shop but left when the area began to decline.  Now all that was left was a tiny shotgun home with a crumbling four car garage. The last tenants left months ago and locals didn’t waste time busting the place up, leaving used rubbers and gang signs behind. He was a few steps from the shack when he noticed a cop sauntering up the other drive. The policeman was African American, barrel chested with his hat pulled low over shifty eyes.  He swaggered up to Gramps like a cowboy from one of those old western flicks, chomping on his gum. 

 

 

“Evening gentlemen.  Mind if I ask you all a few questions?” The officer asked, his lips smacking. Liam approached smelling cigarets and Brute cologne.

 

 

Gramps took the lead.  “Something wrong?”

 

 

The cop’s smile melted away.  “You might say that.”  He thumbed over his shoulder towards the Vreeland home.  “Your neighbor here seems to be missing.  Got a frantic call a few weeks back from his daughter begging us to check it out, but haven’t turned up a darn thing.  When’s the last time you fellows seen him?”

 

 

Gramps looked to Liam, puckering his cheeks which usually meant he was about to say something stupid.  “We already answered a bunch of questions about this.  That guy before you…”

 

The cop cut in, “That officer is no longer on the case. We’ve had a few too many disappearances around here with no answers.  You hear me?  Now I’m trying to establish a timeline and would appreciate your total cooperation.”  He was brushing fingers across the handle of his .38, or was that just Liam’s imagination?  The cop turned to Liam.  “According to my records, you was the last one to see the pastor alive.”

 

Liam swallowed but there was no spit left in his mouth.  “I didn’t know that.”

 

“Yup, yup,” the cop said, his eyes wide.  “Now that don’t necessarily make you a suspect, but it don’t clear you neither.  You see, this here funeral establishment sits right in the middle of our investigation.  All of the missing peoples lived within a few blocks of here.  Now how do you explain that?”

 

 

Gramps staggered in front of Liam. “Look ever since Obama became president, you colored people think you can just—”

 

 

“Hey!  Hey!  Come on now, Gramps.  The officer just wants some information.”  Liam held the old man back laughing nervously.  The cop didn’t seem to notice, standing calmly with his meaty arms crossed, jaw moving rhythmically.  “Like I said before, I was with pastor Vree on a Thursday.  I know that because Thursday night is garbage night and I helped him carry his cans out.  That’s the last I saw him.  As for missing people, I haven’t heard anything about that in the news.”

 

“All of them was either druggies or thugs so you wont hear about them.”  The police officer stroked his thin mustache with spreading fingers, humming like a man who just finished some homemade pie. “You saw him that Thursday, same day his daughter last talked to him.”  He hummed again. “Ever seen any strange folk hanging out at the good pastor’s home?”

 

 

Gramps answered. “He’s a preacher, there’s strange folk over there all the time.”

 

 

Officer cowboy frowned looking scarily similar to Cuban Gooding Jr. “Well if you boys think of anything else, give me a call.”  He pulled a card from his breast pocket and passed it to Liam.  It had a picture of a yellow star badge with Sgt.Terrance P. Thompson, Housing Division across the center in dark blue lettering. There was a telephone number at the bottom. He smacked his lips, talking directly to Gramps.  “Never can tell about these old fellows.  I’ve seen them forget where they live and wander around for days before they found.”

 

Gramps opened his mouth to respond but Liam beat him to the punch.  “We’ll be sure to keep in touch.”

 

 

Officer Thompson gave a sly smile.  “You do that. I’ll be back Friday for a full report.  You hear me?”

 

 

Liam held out his had for a goodbye shake but Thompson was already moseying back to his patrol car.  

 

Gramps shook his head, watching the cop drive away.  “You believe that spook?  He did everything except charge us for murder.”

 

 

 “His color had nothing to do with it,”  Liam snapped.  

 

 

“Maybe. Hey, have you checked with the coroner’s office lately?  Seems to me we should’ve gotten a few indigent burials by now.”

 

Liam sighed.  The closest he had ever come to running a business was a manager position at McDonalds.  He was used to his dad running the show and taking responsibility for things like the indigent burial contract.  

 

Gramps continued.  “Probably a good idea to call and take care of any pending burials before we get busy.  Can’t imagine why they haven’t called yet.”  He shook his head again, peering over towards the Mayflower truck.  “And someone needs to move that God forsaken truck.  It’s taking up half of the damn street.”

 

 

“Breathe, old man.  Your blood pressure is already sky high.  I’ll call the coroner’s and deal with the truck.  Happy now?” Liam stared through the chain links bordering Pastor Vreeland’s back yard. He shivered from a cool breeze, recalling the cop’s words. Why would gangs target pastor Vreeland?  He was startled by an elbow to the ribs.

 

“Lookie what I found,” his grandfather whispered nodding towards the shack next door.

 

Liam froze as a tall blonde strutted up their driveway carrying a large cardboard box. She was slender, yet shapely, dressed in tight jeans and a red v-neck sweater that hugged her body in all the right places. He watched her long legs disappear through the back door of the shack. 

 

 

Gramps folded his arms.  “Now there’s a lady.”

 

 

Liam stood there in stunned silence, not believing his eyes.  He was used to neighbors that belonged in Walmart, not Victoria’s Secret. 

 

“Yesiree!…someone is gonna hear about that truck,” Liam thought with a grin.

 

Another chilly breeze bit into his bare neck and arms and he turned to Gramps. “Let’s get you back inside.  It’s cold out here.” 

 

 

Gramps wasn’t listening, his face blank as if someone had unplugged his brain.  Liam waved a hand at his face, but the old man just stared past him muttering.  Liam followed his gaze, back across the lot and saw what Gramps was mumbling about. Men dressed in orange biohazard suits were unloading boxes and crates from the Mayflower truck. 

 

 

“Now what do you suppose this is about?”  Gramps said, more to himself than to Liam.

 

 

Liam wasn’t sure.  All he knew was that his day just got a hell of a lot more interesting.

 

#####

 
3
“What the hell is going on over there?” Gramps gasped.  The old coot was pushing ninety years with a grocery list of health issues, but emphysema wasn’t one of them.  Liam followed Gramps’ gaze down the driveway, towards the front walk where an eighteen wheeler was parked.  He stepped out of their six foot patch of back yard grass and onto the side driveway.  Gramps grabbed him by the shirt tail.  “Where do you think you’re going?”
 
 
“Getting a closer look.”  He noticed four lanky, teen boys in white T-shirts wandering near the moving truck. Gangs were always a problem in Northside and with the pastor missing…..well he didn’t know what to make of that but best to be careful, especially when your half-demented grandfather was standing right next to you. “Why don’t you go back inside?  It’s chilly out here.”
 
 
“I wouldn’t mess with them Lee.  Those kids aren’t worth a nickel.”
 
 
“I’m not worried about them.  Someone needs to move that truck.”  One of the boys, thicker than the rest was staring at Liam, his baggy jeans riding low across pin stripped boxers.  He put one hand to his crotch before spitting a large wad of phlegm towards them, the green luggie hitting with a splat on the cool blacktop. Liam’s stomach churned.
 
 
Someone needs a decongestant.  
 
 
Gramps gave Liam a confused look, one that was becoming more and more common these days.  “You’re worried about the movers? They’re dressed in hazmat suits, son.  You really think they give two shits about blocking our drive?  Forget I mentioned it.”
 
 
“Those aren’t hazmats.  They don’t have oxygen tanks.”  He shook his head at one of the workers bustling up the drive past them with boxes piled high on a moving dolly. The man’s face lay hidden behind tinted plastic, his body encased in crinkly orange fabric. He stomped up the pavement, peeling off into their neighbor’s yard where stacks of crates and boxes sat in neat rows.  From there, another mover took over, using a platform deck with knobby tires to maneuver everything into the large garage.   “At least they could ask to use our driveway,”  Liam said.  “What’s up with those suits?  I’ve never seen anything like that.”
 
 
“I have,” Gramps said. “Your father and I used to help clean up crime scenes.  Never bothered me too much, but your father always wanted to pull out the damn crash suits.”
 
 
“Crash suits,” Liam repeated, his attention now divided between the movers and wannabe gang bangers.  The group of teens suddenly lost interest and scampered off in a gaggle of laughter.  The ache in Liam’s stomach eased up.  “The lawyers are coming over to make it official.  You sure you’re okay with me running this funeral home now that dad is….gone?” 
 
 
The old man didn’t answer right away so Liam cleared his throat and waited. The truth was Gramps didn’t have many options left. After Charley’s death there were a few inquiries about buying the business, mostly young whippersnappers who couldn’t afford it or large corporations.  The big boys paid in stocks and would want the old man off the property once the ink on any deal dried.  Gramps had spent his entire life in northside, sixty years as owner of Denham Funeral Home and the idea of getting stocks rather than cash for his business didn’t sit well with him. He would rather die than leave northside and since the building was paid for, it made more sense to stay put and have Liam run the show rather than sell the business.    
 
 
“Of course I am,” Gramps said, releasing his grip on Liam’s shirt.  “Go on and see what you can do.”  He reached up a gnarled finger, poking Liam on the side of his head.  “Try and think with this head, not the other dummy swinging between your legs.  I’ll be in the back room if you need me.”  He shuffled off, teetering like a drunk as he went.  Liam winced, clenching his teeth until Gramps was out of sight.  

 

 

The old Crow was mildly demented, but he was right. Liam’s motivation involved more than a moving truck.  His groin warmed at the memory of tight jeans and long blonde hair whipping past him while he watched, frozen like some fat kid at a pool party.

 

 

Time to meet our new neighbors.  

 

 

He began to walk next door, looking up through the side windows of his neighbor’s home.  They were dusty, without blinds or drapes giving him a murky view of an empty kitchen. He glanced at another set of small windows near the top and noticed a dark silhouette watching him. It was a large shape, featureless against the dusty screens and glass.  Before Liam could stop himself, he waved to the shape, calling out, “Hey there neighbor!”  The black shape remained in the window like a menacing judge, unmoving. He felt a chill tingle up and down his spine, then a heavy force pushed him forward, nearly knocking him over.  He stumbled sideways, the worker blowing past without stopping.  

 

 

Did he just push me?  Son-of-a-bitch!

 

 

“Hey!”  he yelled at the worker, steam building in his ears.  “I’m talking here!”  He followed the man across the drive and into his neighbor’s muddy yard.  The mover ignored him, pulling his dollie across the mounds of dirt and sparse grass until he disappeared into the grey monstrosity of a garage. Liam was paces away from the four car garage when he stopped, looking back to his neighbor’s shack-home.  

 

 

The shape was gone, the windows blank and empty.  He wondered if he had imagined the whole deal and continued towards the large cement structure, creeping around the side wall.  He didn’t know what to expect, his heart galloping into overdrive.  It wasn’t everyday you confronted a silent man dressed in a knock-off hazmat suit.  Liam turned the corner, his eyes adjusting to the dimly lit room. It was large, warehouse-large, with fluorescent tubes flickering the ceiling. Two rows of steel tables, the kind you see wheeling down dark hospital corridors, lined the center of the room with dingy sheets spread across their empty surfaces. The floor was slick under his feet while a musty mix of gasoline and mold wafted through the air. Liam’s chills returned when he spotted the two workers sliding a large drum against the back wall. They were identical in size and cadence, their movements reminding Liam of a spider’s legs crawling in perfect symmetry.

 

 

Weird. 

 

 

“Excuse me?”  he barked. The workers either didn’t hear him or chose to ignore his words, dead focused on the large drum.  Liam’s face dripped sweat, his shirt pressing around him like a straight jacket.  Confrontation was not his thing, at least not when he was outnumbered, but anger drove him forward.  He weaved his way through the darkness, avoiding discarded boxes and tables, every step  bringing him closer to the baggy orange men.  They were crouching, their backs facing him when Liam poked the nearest man in the back.

 

 

Both movers whirled around like startled watch dogs, freezing him in his tracks.  They looked like aliens, their faces hidden behind bulging goggles, grey masks and orange hoods.  When they stood, each towered over Liam, diffusing most of his anger. Suddenly he had to piss.  “Uh, I didn’t mean to interrupt but I live next door and—” One of the workers shot out a black glove, advancing towards him like a zombie robot.  “You speak English?” Liam asked peddling backwards, but neither goon answered drawing closer with shuffling boots.  He threw up his hands, “Look, I just want to know what’s going on—” his words were cut short when his back hit against something hard. Liam’s years of martial arts finally came in handy, his feet side-stepping the attacker. 

 

 

The man who lunged past him made the orange duo look like McDonald’s happy meal toys, his girth blocking out the fluorescent bulbs.  He was ripped with muscle, looking like a giant He-Man doll in his black tank top and running shorts.  His head was anvil-like, square and wide complete with a sandy brown crew cut.  He spun around like a WWE wrestler, swaying back and forth.  “What the fuck are you doing in here?” he screamed, his voice the cross between a shout and growl.  

 

 

Liam sputtered, trying to form words. He had pivoting out of harms way, only to find his back literally pinned against a cement wall.  His only route of escape was now blocked by an enraged giant.  

 

 

So much for nijitsu training.  

 

 

“I-I saw the guys in suits and thought I would…” He reached out for a handshake, but quickly realized it was a pointless gesture. “Look, I don’t want to start off like this, but–” 

 

 

The giant’s eyes gleamed yellow, like cat’s eyes.  “But what? I find you sneaking around, looking inside our garage? Give me one reason why I shouldn’t kick your teeth in?”

 

 

Coming from him, the threat had weight. Yes, he could certainly see this guy kicking his teeth in. “I’m your new neighbor…?”

 

 

Before Liam could react, He-Man closed the distance wrapping his iron arms around him with heart stopping speed. The funk of rot and manure pressed against his face, his ribs screamed from the pressure.  The orange goons joined their leader, crowding on either side as Liam gasped for air, his shoes barely scraping the garage floor.  Muscle memory took over, honed through hours of ninjutsu classes, allowing him to relax and lower his center of gravity becoming dead weight.  The giant leaned forward from the force, lowering him back to the floor. Liam’s arms remained pinned, but now he was within striking range. His hand, slick with sweat, snaked from its hold and grabbed He-Man’s testicles, ramming them forward.

 

 

The results were impressive, forcing the giant to release his hold and stumble backwards. He cursed at Liam, checking his junk with massaging fingers.  “I’m gonna tear your faggot head off!”  he screamed, crouching for a second attack.

 

 

“Orinoco!  Orinoco!” someone shouted, the voice sounding like a young James Earl Jones.  

 

 

Liam craned his neck, peering over his enraged attacker, catching a glimpse of a dark figure approaching from outside the garage.  

 

 

The giant reacted like a scolded child, hanging his head and shuffling towards the voice while the movers dispersed, returning to their job with erie swiftness. Whoever this guy was—he certainly had control over these freaks.  

 

 

Liam felt like puking, dizzy and weak as though emerging from a car wreck. The room spun around and he closed his eyes, hoping to ground himself.  Passing out was not an option.  Not when you were trapped in a garage with three or four lunatics.  He took a few breaths then opened his eyes, finding a tall man smiling down at him.  The guy was foreign, possibly of arabic blood with wide eyes both welcoming and intimidating. He had expensive taste, his black pinstripe suit perfectly tailored for his wide chested frame.  Liam guessed the man was in his thirties but it was difficult to tell, his hair slightly receding at the edges.  “You must be Charly’s boy,” the man said.    

 

 

Liam gave a slow nod, his stomach still doing flip flops.  He brushed himself off, feeling like a geek after a beat down. 

 

 

The man turned towards He-Man, a scowl plastered across his long face.  “What happened here?”

 

 

He-Man looked lost, a shadow of his steroid-rage self.  His eyes darted toward the floor.  “He was dicking around without permission.  How was I supposed to know…?”

 

 

The man cut him short, “Enough.  He is our neighbor now and deserves your respect.”  There was a standstill, both men holding their ground, but it was obvious who the “alpha” was in this relationship.  The dark skinned man turned back to Liam and crossed his arms. “You must excuse my son Dae.  He is very protective of our family. Are you injured?”

 

 

“I’m fine.  Your son hugs like a little girl.  I just came in here to see if someone could move that truck.  It’s blocking our driveway.”  He was breathing hard, adrenalin masking his aching ribs. He looked to Dae who stared through him with hallow, yellow eyes.

 

 

The man smirked, extending his arm.  Liam had never seen such reach. He and his neighbor were at least five feet apart, yet they shook hands easily.  “I’m Javan Prayther, owner of Prayther Biocore among other things.”

 

 

“And I’m Liam Denham, your friendly assaulted neighbor.”  He broke mid-shake, pain shooting through his ribs, doubling him over. He straightened up slowly, gasping between words.  “So…what’s with the hazmat suits?”

 

 

Liam expected Javan to fein concern but found his neighbor grinning calmly, towering over him like an NBA center.  “My business is in human tissue technologies.”  He spread out his arms.  “What you see here are just samples used for seminars and the like.  The hazmat suits, as you call them, are standard procedure.  We like to do things by the book.”

 

 

The pain in his side smarted with each breath. “I know a little about biotissue. They come in and harvest leg bones…stuff like that. My father used to call them body snatchers.”  He ran his hand across the hard surface of a nearby crate and began lifting the lid. “Whatcha got in here?”
 
 
Dae burst forward nearly bowling his father over, shouting in some weird foreign language.  Javan grabbed the giant and threw him back, pressing his forearm against his son’s neck. His eyes narrowed, like a lion tracking a kill.  “Dae,” he whispered, struggling to hold the giant at bay.  “Go tell the boys to move their truck.”   
 
 
Dae stopped fighting and leveled his yellow gaze on Liam, causing dread to seize his heart.  If eyes were windows to the soul then Dae was as dead as any cadaver Liam had pumped full of formaldehyde.  The giant who nearly crushed him to death snorted before rumbling out of the garage.
   

 

Javan continued the conversation cooly, without missing a beat. “Some of these crates hold costly samples that must be unpacked with extreme care.  We harvest much more than mere leg bones. Biocore is responsible for helping the visually impaired, the deaf…”

 

 

“You’re a modern day Jesus Christ.  Look, I don’t mean to be difficult here but since meeting your family, I’ve been shoved, attacked and nearly killed so you’ll forgive me if I’m not in the mood to hear a discourse on biotissue miracles.”  He began walking towards Javan who blocked his only exit. 
 
 
Javan wasn’t moving.  “Since you seem curious, why not join my daughter and I for dinner sometime?  Perhaps talk business?”
 
 
Daughter?  The hot blonde is Lurches daughter? Liam paused, reminiscing once more on that fine piece of woman who graced his presence earlier. “I have a lot on my plate right now.  Thanks for the offer, but I’ll have to get back with you.”  He waited for Javan to step aside.  There was a heavy silence.  Javan was still grinning, his arms crossed like a Wall Street bouncer.  
 
 
He slid his right leg back, preparing for the worst. Then heard a familiar voice calling for him.
 
 
“Lee?  What’s up buddy?  You okay in there?  Hey buddy?”
 
 
It was Dave, his nutty neighbor from the group home.

He pointed past Javan.  “I have to see what he wants,” 
 
 
Javan’s smile faded as he stepped aside.  “Of course.” 

 

Liam squeezed passed Javan, catching a whiff of cloves on his way out of the garage. He kept his eyes forward, trying to avoid any more awkwardness. When he saw Dave’s faded hoody standing in their side yard, he wanted to kiss the old man.

 

“There you are buddy!   Hey, hey, you know Pete Rose?  You know the hit champ, Pete Rose?  He died.”
 
 
“You don’t say?”  Liam put his arm around Dave’s scrawny neck and pulled him towards him.  “Thanks.”
 
 
“Bad men.  Those are bad men, buddy,”  Dave whispered.  “Stay away from them, Lee.  Stay away.”
 
 
“Okay, okay,”  Liam reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a ten dollar bill.  “Go and get yourself some pop.”  He handed the bill to Dave who snatched it with clapping hands.  He bounded off as fast as his elderly legs could carry him, heading to the UDF a few blocks down the road.
 
 
Gramps called from the side porch. “Where the hell you been? I called the coroner’s office and they have an indigent case for us.”
 
 
“Just one?” Liam said as calmly as his shaky nerves would allow. 
 
 
“Better than nothing.  If you go now, you’ll miss the lunch hour.”
 
 
Liam nodded in agreement.  Nothing was worse than showing up at the county morgue at break time.  The place moved at glacial speed as it was. “Okay, okay.  I’m on it,” he said jogging to their Caravan parked in the back lot.  Liam let out a breath, trying to settle his frazzled nerves.  He climbed into the driver’s seat and sat back, finding Javan Prayther staring at him through the front windshield.  “Jesus!” he shouted, gripping the steering wheel.   
 
 
“I look forward getting to know you, Liam.” Javan Prayther said. “Expect a visit from us this week.”
 
 
“A visit?”  He repeated but Javan was already walking back to the four car garage.  A visit? A visit from us?  Who does he think he is…Jacob Marley?  Liam chuckled to himself.  It felt good to laugh.  He quickly slammed his door and started the engine. 
 
####
 4
 
 
Liam couldn’t think straight, the run-in with Javan hovering over him like a swarm of angry bees.  Between caring for gramps and their failing business he already felt tore in a thousand directions and adding a lunatic neighbor didn’t help. Denham Funeral Home stood on the brink of bankruptcy, success or failure within his control.

 
What would dad do?
 
Liam cringed at the thought, a pang of sorrow rising in his chest.  His father wasn’t much of a people person, more at home with embalming fluid and stinking corpses than friends.  But when it came to protecting his business, Liam’s dad was a warrior.  The moving truck across their driveway?  He would have climbed in the damn truck and moved it himself—hazmat goons be damned! 
 
That’s not me.  I can’t do this.
 
 
Denham Funeral Home had been losing business for years.  Add to that a crumbling neighborhood known more for gangs than commerce and the conclusion was obvious. 

 

 

Liam’s cell phone buzzed.

 

 

He pictured his father’s body,rotting in a ten thousand dollar mohogany box, shredded face held together with modeling clay. 

 

 

You should have known better. You should have sold the building and moved the business out into the burbs when you had the chance. You should have supported me when I wanted to get my fine arts degree instead of saying “there are more starving artists than starving morticians.”  Most of all, you should never have dragged me into this fucking business. You knew better than anyone where it was headed.  

 

 

The phone buzzed again.

 

 

He wanted to scream at his dad until his throat went raw.  Wanted to grab him by his fat neck and shake him until…until…until….

 

 

He pulled into a packed parking lot, driving up a narrow path leading to the back of a simple brick building. He quickly pulled next to a sign marked “Loading Area 15 minute limit” and parked.  He fumbled for his phone and answered, “Denham funeral home.”

 

 

“Mr Denham?  This is Eric Millham, do you have a minute?”

 

 

The name sounded familiar.   “Well, actually…”

 

 

“Won’t take a minute. Just wanted to say how sorry I was about your father.  He was a good man, but I’m sure you already know that.”
 
 
“Uh huh.  Look,  Mr. Millham….”
 
 
“He really wanted the best for you, always talking about how much you sacrificed to follow him into the family business.”
 

“He did?”
 
 
“Yes. Well, I won’t keep you.  I just wanted you to know that we at Millham Brothers are here for you.”  
 
 
“Okay.” Liam could sense a struggle in the man, as if he were about to break some terrible news.  
 
 
“And…if you have ever thought of…walking away from the mortuary business, just know that I’m here.  I’m here for you, Liam.  Goodbye now.”  


He pressed the silent phone to his ear surprised at the anger stewing in his guts, his hands shaking from the conversation.  
 
 
Walk away?  Is that what he said?  Walk away and sell the business to Millham Brothers?  
 
 
The name and voice snapped into focus. Millham was the largest non-corporate firm in Cincinnati. The bastard had a lot of balls calling up out of the blue, but Liam knew the rich prick was right.  He wasn’t cut out for this.  Sure, he could hang on for a few years, holding the jagged pieces of Denham together but Liam knew what sat just around the corner.  Until now, Liam had never thought about selling the business.  He smiled, pulling out his cot from the back of the van and rolling it to the service entrance.

 

This doesn’t have to be forever.

 

 

He ran his cot up to a large metal door, where a roving camera watched his movements. Beside the door was an intercom unit. Liam pushed a button and spoke, “Liam Denham from Denham and Sons.”  There was a click, releasing the lock and he banged the door open, pushing his cot through.  

 

 

Someone was already yelling at him from inside.  It was one of the attendees. “What do you think you’re doing?”

 

 

Shit, Liam thought. “Hey there, Anthony.”

 

 

“You’re supposed to wait for one of us,” Anthony growled, his 120 pound frame standing in his way. “I could get fired if you walked in here alone. I thought we sent that memo out to all you directors.”

 

 

“You may have, but I don’t have time to read memos.”

 

 

“Figures.” Anthony let out a sigh and stepped aside, waving his arm like a traffic cop. “Come in. Never fails all you coming at the same time.  This is supposed to be my break time.”

 

 

“My ass bleeds for you,” Liam mumbled. Ever since the new regime took over all the friendly faces had vanished, replaced by prick’s like Anthony. The attendant ran ahead of him, powder blue scrubs disappearing through the first doorway, leaving Liam in a mud colored hallway.  He pushed his cot forward, wheels squeeking across shiny tiles.  He noticed the strong scent of clorox and was about to commend Anthony on his cleanliness when a beautiful face peered out into the hallway.  Liam froze, his feet suddenly made of concrete.

 

 

“Are you Liam Denham?”  the girl asked and he recognized her as the bombshell from next door.

 

 

“Yes.  Yes I am,” he answered.

 

 

She stepped all the way out into the hall, dressed in a white blouse and dress skirt with tall black boots.  Her hair was pulled back showing off her delicate face, full lips, cold blue eyes.  She held out her hand.  “I’m Sherry Denham, your new neighbor.”

 

 

He lunged forward, hitting his groin on the cot.  Sherry giggled.

 

 

 “I need your paperwork,” Anthony called from inside the morge.

 

 

 “Coming” Liam said, his face hot with embarrassment. He skitted around the cot and took her hand.  “I’m Liam.”

 

 

“I know,” she said laughing. 

 

 

“Paperwork!  This ain’t social hour,”  Anthony yelled. 

 

 

“Okay, okay…”  He walked past her into a cold room of white and silver, the thick smell of decay assaulting his nostrils.  Anthony sat at a metal desk, mulling through stacks of papers. Behind the attendant stood a metal wall resembling a large meat locker. The shiny door of the locker was open, giving Liam a glimpse of the covered bodies that lay inside. He pulled out a folded authorization form from his blazer pocket and handed it to the attendant. Anthony took it without looking up, riffling through papers scattered across his table.

 

 

“Dammit!”  Anthony yelled, jumping up from his chair and marching out of the room.

 

 

“Intense,” Sherry said.

 

 

Liam glanced back at her.  “You should see him on a bad day. So why are you here?”

 

 

“Same reason you are.”

 

 

“I’m a funeral director.”

 

 

“So am I.”

 

 

He felt like the slow kid, not understanding the punchline to a knock knock joke.  “So your family is…are…you’re all…”

 

 

“Morticians.  Among other things.”

 

 

“Other things?”

 

 

Anthony returned, a yellow piece of paper flapping in his clutched fingers.  He slammed the form down and pointed a thin finger.  “Sign and date.  I’ll go get her.”  The attendant rushed through the locker door.

 

 

“Sorry about your father,” Sherry said.  “From what I have heard, he was a very generous and kind man.”

 

 

He tried signing the yellow form, scribbling on the side to get ink flowing.  “He was a pain in the ass, but he knew the business.”

 

 

“And you don’t?”

 

 

“I didn’t say that…”

 

 

Anthony flew out of the locker, spewing curses as he ran from the room.  “Should have known she was a damn Coroner’s case!”  he yelled, his voice trailing off outside in the hallway.

 

 

 Liam’s eyes met Sherry’s and they both started laughing. “He has some serious issues.  So who are you getting?”

 

 

“Nobody. Just talking business.”

 

 

“With Anthony?  Good luck with that…”

 

 

“Not Anthony.  I’m waiting for Ed Duverick.  You know him?”

 

 

“Sure. I’ve known him for years but why…? 

 

 

He was cut off by Anthony, who blustered back into the morgue room like grumpy the dwarf, tufts of black hair creeping out from under a tiger stripe surgical cap.  “Okay we’re set.  Come on!”  He waved Liam to follow him, bustling around the desk and into the locker.  Liam looked to Sherry and shrugged, following the attendant.

 

 

Why would she want to talk to the Chief Deputy? 

 

 

 

The locker was about the size of a small basement, crammed with bulging grey bags on rolling tables. Each body bag had a tag with a name scribbled across it in black marker. Liam pulled his shirt collar around his neck and shuffled inside, eager to find Tanner’s tag. He had grown up in the funeral business and was not easily spooked, yet he felt an unsettling stillness here. 

 

 

Anthony chugged up ahead, searching each bag like a German Shepherd for drugs. He was suddenly excited.  “You hear what happened to this one? She was brought in on Monday, found dead by her cleaning lady.”  

 

 

For a guy worried about his job, Anthony had a big mouth.  Liam shuffled deeper into the meat locker, frantically checking tags. The room grew darker with each step, the only light seeping in from under the cracks of the metal door. Dozens of body bags surrounded him as the stench of putrid flesh filled his lungs. 

 

 

“Crazy ass lady said that wolves were in there. Said they ran past her when she opened the apartment door, but this Tanner…she didn’t have no dogs.”  He snickered.  “But you know what?  The boys told me her body looked like a shark attack.  You believe that shit?”  He threw up a fist.  “There she is!”  He scrambled through a thin wedge, twisting between rows of gurneys, snatching the top of the rolling table.  “Let’s go!”

 

 

They rolled the body out, the stench of refrigerated meat leaving a awful taste in Liam’s mouth.  When they emerged from the frigid darkness, Sherry stood with Ed Duverick, the two chatting like old chums. 

 

 

“Hey Ed,”  Liam said weakly, jiggling his arms for warmth.  They were out of the locker now, Anthony’s obligations aparently over.  He peeled out of the room leaving Liam alone with Mrs Tanner. Ed and Sherry continued to chat away, oblivious to his presence.  He couldn’t blame Ed.  It wasn’t everyday a goddess graced you with her presence.  He waited with the stinking body bag until Sherry noticed him.

 

 

She stepped aside.  “Sorry Liam.”

 

 

Liam decided to drop a bombshell.  “So I hear this one was eaten?”

 

 

Ed smiled his steely grin.  Years in homicide had clearly made it impossible to rattle him.  “Not exactly.”

 

 

“I can leave,” Sherry said.

 

 

Ed shook his head.  “No, it’s fine.  Truth is we don’t know what really happened.  We posted her and everything has been recorded now it’s CSI’s turn.  I’ve been meaning to call you Lee.  Found a few things out about your father’s case that might interest you.”  He waited a few beats.

 

 

“Okay—NOW I’ll leave.  But first,”  Sherry said touching Liam’s arm.  The brush from her finger tips sent bolts of excitement shot through his skin, the smell of rose perfume intoxicating.  He could lose himself forever in those icy blue eyes.   “My father would like you over for drinks.  How does Friday sound?”

 

 

“Friday works.  Sure.  That would be good,” he stammered.

 

 

“Good.  We’ll pick you up at eight.”  She turned to Ed, “Thank you so much. I’ll be seeing you soon.”  She glided out of the room, Liam watching her along the way. He turned to Ed and found the Deputy Coroner still following Sherry’s tight skirt. 

 

 

“She’s a fine lady,” Liam said.

 

 

Ed ignored the comment.  “As I was saying, they’ve called an animal expert to the case.  She’s supposed to be one of the best, coming all the way from Seattle.”

 

 

Liam clutched the cot.  “It wasn’t an animal, Ed.  I told them that!”

 

 

“They’re just covering all the bases cause they don’t have anything else to go on.  But you didn’t hear that from me. That Prayther gal is something else huh?”

 

 

“You got that right.  What’s she doing here anyway?”

 

 

“Oh her firm is planning to bid for the indigent contract.”

 

 

“What?  But we have the contract.”

 

 

“I realize that, but it ends in October.”

 

 

“Good!  They can have it.  It’s not like we make any money from it.  I never understood why dad got us involved in the first place.”

 

 

Ed folded his arms.  “Because he was a good man.  He wasn’t thinking about turning a profit.  All Charley wanted was to provide a service for the poor. Told me that himself!  He always did things the right way, no matter who the client was.”  Ed patted Liam’s shoulder.  “You need help with this?”

 

 

Liam drooped his head, the weight of guilt forcing him to look away.

 

 

He knows dad better than I do.

 

 

Liam quickly retrieved his cot from the hallway and and rolled it beside Tanner’s bag. He unzipped the cot and began unbuckling its straps. “You guys find any relatives on this one?”

 

 

“None.  At least not yet.  The cleaning lady was hired through some home agency.  Other than that, the deceased didn’t have contact with anyone else.”

 

 

Liam moved to the head of the crash bag, Ed taking the foot.  They slid the silver body bag from the rolling table into the pouch, the contents jiggling around like a hundred pounds of jello.  “Shit, that was weird.”

 

 

Ed concurred.  “I would be careful with her.  There’s not much there.  Whoever did left her…how does that song go?  Like a jigsaw without some of the pieces.”

 

 

Liam buckled the bag in and zipped a cloth cover around it securing it in place.  He looked over to Ed who appeared deep in thought. “I heard that people are going missing around the city.  Is there anything to that?”

 

 

Ed suddenly snapped back to attention.  “I was in homicide not missing persons.  You take care now.” He walked out, leaving Liam alone inside the county morgue, his only companion a  butchered old lady in a crash bag.

 

 

 

 

#####

 

5

 

Liam noticed the slow traffic on Chase Avenue and hit the steering wheel, his patience running on empty.  He was a few blocks from the funeral home when flashing lights alerted him to an ambulace parked in front of the funeral home. 

 
 
What the hell? 
 
 
It took five minutes to crawl the remaining 200 feet, his hands growing clammy.  He pulled past crowds of gawkers and into the funeral home parking lot.  Gramps sat on the side steps, head in his hands.  Three large men with purple latex gloves stood around him, their bulky black bags strewn across the blacktop.  Liam parked and ran to the porch, trying his best to keep his emotions in check. Gramps was wheazing, oxygen canulas streaming from his nose.  He looked like a holocaust victim, spindley arms wrapped over knobby knees.   
 
 
“I’m his grandson! What happened?”
 
 
Gramps looked up.  “Liam?  Oh geez.”
 
 
Liam parted the workers and knelt beside Gramps, wiping sweaty palms across his pants.  “What happened?”
 
 
One of the EMT’s spoke up. “So you’re related?” 
 
 
“Unfortunately.”
 
 
“Lifeline reported a fall so we came over and found him stumbling out here on the porch.  He’s talking about your neighbors changing into wolves.  Is that something he’s done before?”
 
 
“Lifeline?  I should have gotten a call.”  He pulled out his phone and saw that the power was off. 
 
 
How fucking stupid can you be?
 
 
“Sir?”  the EMT guy asked Liam. 
 
 
“No, he’s never mentioned wolves but he’s been diagnosed with mild dementia.”
 
 
“That’s bullshit!”  Gramps shouted.  “The only one demented here is you.  I know what I saw!”
 
 
“What did you see?”  Liam asked.  The EMT workers all stopped to listen.
 
 
Gramps looked around as though he was on the witness stand.  “Ahhh forget it.  Nobody’s gonna believe me. I’m telling you all, wait until you get my age.  You think you all have it together now, well when you’re over 50 people look at you like you’re a fool.”
 
 
Liam lowered his voice, trying to calm the old man.  “Nobody’s saying anything.  Come on…what happened?”
 
 
Gramps coughed into his hand then spoke.  “I was taking a dump upstairs when something skittered outside the bathroom window.  I thought it was birds roosting…you know how they do that, so I ignored it until it got louder.  It sounded like a damn parade was going on out there.  So I peeked out the window and saw this face staring in at me.”
 
 
“A face?  But I thought he mentioned a wolf….?”
 
 
“I’m getting to that!”  Gramps yelled, smacking his thigh.  “Well that face scared me something awful.  I jumped back and was halfway out of the bathroom when I started having doubts. I mean why would someone be hovering two stories up and outside the shitter?  So I gathered myself for a second look and checked the window again, but nothing was there.  It was like the guy vanished you know?  So I dismiss it as one of my senior moments.  Well, when I finally managed to come out of the bathroom and into the hallway, there was this goddamn wolf standing there!  Bigger than a great dane!  I must have passed out after that cause the next thing I know, these assholes are banging on our door.”
 
 
One of the EMT guys wrapped a blood pressure cuff around the old man’s skinny arm and began pumping it up.  “Some medications can cause hallucinations.  When is the last time you ate or drank anything?”
 
 
Gramps frowned.  “Shit, I don’t know.  This morning I guess.”
 
 
He placed a stethescope to his arm and listened, letting the air in the cuff out with a hiss.  “It’s after six ocklock Mr. Denham.  Had any recent changes in your routine?”
 
 
“We had neighbors who just moved in,”  Liam added.
 
 
“Uhuh.  I suggest you get some food and water in you, then get rest.  Do you have a medication list?”
 
 
“Nahh.  I don’t take that shit, just medamusal to keep me regular.”
 
 
The EMT finished checking Gramps, recommending an appointment with his PCP in case a specialist was needed. After making sure Gramps could stand, the men left packed up and left, chugging away in a neon yellow ambulance.  Liam remained with his granfather, sitting in silence.   
 
 
“Do you believe me?”  Gramps finally asked.
 
 
“I believe that you saw something.  But a wolf?  Maybe if we lived near Yellowstone…”
 
 
“You wouldn’t be laughing if you saw what I saw.”
 
 
“I gotta get this body in a cremation box.  You gonna be alright?”
 
 
Gramps nodded slowly. 
 
 
####
 
 
“Be careful with her,” he recalled Ed saying.  “She’s like a jigsaw puzzle…”
 
 
The cremation tray was a flimsy cardboard box taped together with duck tape.  It sat in the garage on a rolling truck ready for Mrs. Tanner.  Liam had done this dozens of times but loading a body into a tray alone was tricky.  If the body hit the box the wrong way, it could tip it over leaving a nasty mess.  Sweat dripped down his nose, the medicinal smell of arterial fluid in the air.  He rolled the tray against a wall to hold it steady then pushed the body in with a quick shove.  The bag flopped awkwardly, hitting the bottom of the box  with a loud thump.  The tray tilted sideways, careening against the wall, the rolling truck moving out from under it.  Liam grabbed the box, saving a disaster.  He placed it back into place and peered down into it.  Streams of red fluid ran down the crash bag, dripping out into the box.
 
 
You gotta be ram-rodding me.
 
 
He cursed, knowing that their could be a leak.  If it was a small one then a few shakes of embalming powder and rags would do the trick, but if the autopsy bag had ruptured he would need to double bag her.  Either way, he had to see where the leak was coming from.  Liam carefully unzipped the bag, the odor of latex mingling with rot.  Inside there was red muck covering hunks of skin, the body resembling a half nuked pot of hamburger helper.  He had seen ravaged bodies before, but never like this, bite marks covering every inch of discernible flesh.  

Only an animal could tear up a body like that.  Tanner’s cleaning lady saw wolves….Gramps said he saw a wolf…what the hell is going on?


Liam quickly zipped the bag up and retrieved a spare body bag from the storage closet. He had just finished double bagging Mrs. Tanner when the front door buzzed. 
 
 
Now what?
 
 
He dragged his weary bones through the funeral home, already looking forward to the soft sheets of his bed. But once he saw Sherry through the front window, Liam forgot how tired he was.  He opened the door.
 
 
She was in a red halter style mini dress, the front cut low between her perky breasts. There were ruffles hugging her hips, Liam watching them tousle against her tan thighs.  “Ready?” Sherry asked.
 
 
Liam stood speechess like a dumb ape. 
 
 
“We’re going out for drinks tonight remember?”
 
 
“Now?  I’m sorry but Gramps isn’t feeling well and we have a funeral…”
 
 
“Nonsense!  Dad’s waiting for us out front.” 
  
 
Excitement rushed through him, the sight of her breasts enticing a stare.  He tore his eyes away, reality crashing down.  “I’m sorry Sherry.  Believe me there is nothing more I want more than to go for drinks with you but…”  
 
 
Gramps bursted into the scene, walker clanging down the front steps.  “Where are you going? Jeez Louise, we finally get a little business and you’re flying the coop?”
 
 
“No.  I was just telling Sherry here what happened and….”
 
 
“What happened?  Shit!  Nothing happened.  I’m just an old fart having a panick attack.  Pleased to meet your acquaintance Sherry.”  He nodded like Fred Astair.  All that was missing was his top hat and coat.
 
 
“Nice to meet you as well.  You have a beautiful building here.”
 
 
“Oh it’s a piece of crap.  But it’s home.”  He patted Liam on the back.  “Go ahead son.  I can manage.”
 
 
“You sure?  The medic said…”
 
 
“He said to get something to eat and go to bed.  I can manage that without you up my ass.  Go ahead and have a night.  Lord knows you need it.”
 
 
“FIne, but I won’t be long and I’ll have my cell on.”
 
 
Three minutes later, Sherry and Liam were walking down the front steps, Javan’s black Escalade waiting.
 
 
“You sure I’m dressed up enough for this?” Liam asked Sherry.
 
 
“Don’t be a dork,” she said with a laugh. “Get in.”
 
 
She escorted him to the back door where he slid in, enjoying the plush leather seats. Javan sat in the front passenger seat. He extended his long arm to Liam.
 
 
“There he is,” Javan said brightly. “Our future partner in crime.”
 
 
Liam watched his hand disappear in the man’s grasp. He gave a feeble shake before sitting back. “Where are we heading?”
 
 
Sherry’s eyes watched him from the rear view mirror. “Ever been to the Den?” she asked.
 
 
The Den? She’s not serious. (Get rid of Den reference in Moonshadow’s dream–too obvious)
 
 
“Isn’t that some type of S and M club, built inside a warehouse?” Liam asked.
 
 
Both Sherry and Javan looked at one another and laughed.
 
 
“Some have said as much,” Javan said. “There’s a growing population in this area who crave unique experiences. When Roscolf Construction went out of business, I saw it as an opportunity.”
 
 
Liam buckled his seat belt. “So you help run the place?”
 
 
“I should hope so, since I own it.”
 
 
The club was only a few blocks away, located off industrial block. It sat inside a fortress of steel and concrete, rising above the pavement like a metal mountain. Its imposing appearance had no effect on the crowds, who swarmed through the streets like killer bees. Throbbing jungle beats churned from the Den, luring goths, bikers and furries through the main entrance. Sherry snaked the Escalade around the mob to a fenced-in lot, filled with cars.
 
 
Where did all these people come from? In Liam’s experience, nobody came to north side unless they were lost. 
 
 
Sherry was stopped by a security guard who manned the parking entrance. He wore a leather vest and skin-tight pants, revealing layers of muscle. Liam quickly realized it was Dae, the burly gorilla who nearly lost his nutsack a few days ago.  She rolled down her window, the feint whiff of marijuana rushing in from the streets. “Quite a crowd you got here bro.”
 
 
Dae didn’t answer, directing his gaze to Liam. Both Sherry and Javan got out of the car, with Liam frozen in his seat. When Dae opened his door, Liam’s awareness kicked into fight mode.
 
 
“Here we are,” Sherry said. “Must be a full moon with all the freaks out.”
 
 
Liam gave a dry laugh and shot out of his seat. He stood up, his eyes level with Dae’s chest. “Thanks there big fella,” he said looking up at the giant.  

Dae’s yellow eyes glared through him.  “You’ll be seeing a lot of me from now on,” he growled.

“Looking forward to it. Love the tights.”  Liam said strutting away with Javan and Sherry.
 
 
He was surprised when Javan took a detour away from the crowd, weaving around construction signs to the side of the building. Liam struggled to keep up, jumping through mesh barriers and around yellow barrels on his way to a loading area.  Javan’s baritone voice boomed from the dock. “You’ll excuse the mess. We’re planning on expanding soon.”
 
 
Liam was panting. He followed Javan up a steep ramp and through a set of swinging doors, entering the building. It was damp and cold inside, reminding him of the morgue meat locker. He fumbled around, trying to make sense of his surroundings.  “Hey! Wait up. I can’t see a damn thing in here,” Liam said, his voice echoing around him.
 
 
“Up here,” Sherry answered. “Just keep going straight. This area doesn’t have any electricity yet.
 
 
“No shit,” he mumbled. He stumbled forward, trying to stay on a straight path towards Sherry’s voice. The room had a moldy smell to it and he sneezed repeatedly until he reached a brick wall.  “Sherry?” Liam called out, but there came no reply. “Shit.”  He pressed against the wall and followed it, shuffling sideways until he found an opening. There came a noise from the far end, like a sack being dragged across the floor. Just then a foul stench, like raw chicken liver assaulted his senses.
 
 
“Javan? Sherry?” Something slithered towards him. He recoiled, retreating, but it was on him, breathing in his face with terrible breath. The stench made Liam retch.
 
 
“Well look what we have here,” the voice hissed. “A visitor to my cellar. What brings such a sweet looking boy to my humble home?”
 
 
Liam’s skin crawled.  He tried to answer but his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. He raised his arms, punching at air. “I’m with Sherry and Javan. We’re s-supposed to have a meeting. Who are you?”
 
 
The stranger remained close, breathing in his ear one moment, then disappearing the next. “So sweet and naïve.” Liam couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman by its raspy voice. “I mean you no harm. Listen boy, you’re safer here with me than those two. Why don’t we have a meeting of our own?” Liam reached out again, catching a mess of slimy skin in his hands.  The sensation was revolting, moving under his hands like worms.  He jumped back as writhing scales brushed against his cheek. “Sssssssee you around.”
 
 
He punched out, trying to strike but the thing was gone, slithering off through the blackened corridors. “Sherry? I can’t see a damn thing in here,” Liam stammered, the air returning to his lungs.
 
 
“Up here!” Sherry called.  After his encounter with snake-boy, her voice sounded a thousand miles away. 
 
 
He pulled out his I-phone and swiped the pad, light illuminating a concrete wall. “I’m at a wall!”  Delicate fingers wrapped around his wrist, pulling him away from the concrete.  He jumped at her touch, but Sherry’s grip held true, leading him through the dark room until they reached Javan standing in their path. 
 
 
“As I said before, we are in the process of renovation. Obviously, this area needs to be rewired.”
 
 
Liam walked with them out of the darkness and down a long corridor lit with Luminara candles. “Who was that, back there?”
 
 
“Don’t concern yourself with him,” Javan scoffed.  “He’s my nephew and I’m afraid he isn’t well. I’m sorry if he frightened you.”
 
 
“He just surprised me that’s all,” he stammered. “Does he work here?”
 
 
“Yes. Mostly a handyman of sorts. Just up ahead is our private meeting room.” 
 
 
He was lead into a large dining hall with a long table sitting in the center. The table was loaded with huge portions of food including meats, cheeses and fruit reminding Liam of his trips to Las Vegas.  
 
 
“So Liam,” Javan said, spooning some pate onto his plate. “Why do you think you are here tonight?”
 
 
“I really haven’t given it much thought. It’s been a crazy week.”
 
 
Javan smiled as he took a bottle of red wine, pouring Liam a glass. “You are a trusting lad aren’t you?”
 
 
Liam stole a look across the table at Sherry. “Well, we are neighbors so why not have an open mind?”
 
 
“Did your father have an open mind?” Sherry asked.
 
 
“Not really. He was old school in a lot of ways.”
 
 
“I can sense that you are not traditional,” Javan said. “You probably had a lot of ideas that your father dismissed away.”
 
 
“No. It was more like dad had his own way of doing things. He had been in the business for over thirty years, so I just followed along.”
 
 
“Well now you are the boss. Denham Funeral Home is now controlled by your ideas and plans. How does that feel?”
 
 
“Overwhelming, but what does that have to do with our meeting?”
 
 
“Everything!” Javan said. “As you can see, I am a businessman and I sense potential in you.”
 
 
Liam took a swig of wine, eying the stacks of ham. “You don’t even know me.”
 
 
“I know that you feel alone. I know that your life has been pulled out from under you and you are trying to hold everything together. The business…your grandfather… these are your responsibilities now. And I know you wish you didn’t have them.”
 
 
He gulped down the rest of his glass. “What makes you say that?”
 
 
Please don’t take offense Liam, but I make it a habit to know my competition. I have studied you and your family for quite some time.”
 
 
“Is that why you want to run us out of business?”
 
 
“Liam!” Sherry said. But Javan raised his hand at her word, as though to dispel the confrontation.
 
 
“Why am I here?” Liam asked his hosts.
 
 
Javan’s voice dropped a few octaves. “You agreed to come tonight. Why don’t you answer that yourself.”
 
 
The truth was, Liam didn’t know why he had come other than Sherry’s red dress.  “Curiosity mostly. One minute the shack next door is nearly condemned by the board of health, the next, you are setting up shop and planning a full scale business. Pretty amazing.”
 
 
Javan smiled, picking at his teeth with a toothpick. “I was like you once Liam.  I knew that if I didn’t succeed, my family would suffer. You too have such responsibilities, with your grandfather. He depends on you and I can tell you are dedicated to him.”
 
 
Liam was comforted by Javan’s words.  “He’s all I have left. So how did you do it? How did you make it?”
 
 
“I was lucky. Unlike you, I have a mentor who taught me everything he knew about building capital. He’s like a father to me.”
 
 
“So he’s still living?” 
 
 
“Quite.  Still making grand plans as always.  In fact he is the reason we are here.  He sees great potential in your city.  Now enough about me. How can we be of assistance to you, Liam?”
 
 
Liam chewed half a dinner roll. “What?”
 
 
“I would like to extend my friendship to you. If you accept, I will give you access to anything you wish. Ask me any question, learn as much or as little as you would like.”
 
 
“What’s the catch?”
 
 
“There is no catch Liam. All I ask, is that we remain friends. Your trust will suffice.” Javan raised his wine glass towards Sherry and Liam. “To friendship and trust!”
 
 
The three raised their glasses together, just as Liam’s phone rang. “Sorry. The business lines are forwarded to my cell.”
 
 
“By all means take it,” said Javan.
 
 
“Denham and Son’s.”
 
 
“This is Julie from Glenn Security. We are receiving an alarm in Quadrant Four of your home security system.”
 
 
“Shit.”
 
 
“Are you on the premises?”
 
 
“No ma’am.”
 
 
“I’m afraid we will have to send out a unit to check things out.  I would advise that you return to your place of residence as soon as possible.”
 
 
Liam hung up his cell, his hands shaking. “I have to leave.”
 ###

6

 
As soon as they turned onto Chase Avenue Liam’s heart began to gallop. Down the block an ambulance sat in front of the funeral home, lights flashing, back doors open wide.

Not again…


Sherry gunned the SUV, bringing it to a screeching halt in her driveway.  Liam jumped out and sprinted towards the funeral home.  A terrible voice whispered in his mind repeatedly,

Your grandfather’s dead…

A stretcher emerged from Denham Funeral Home with two men banging it down the front steps. Gramps lay unconscious, thick belts strapped across his legs and stomach, an oxygen mask clasped over his face.  Liam caught up just as his grandfather was lifted into the back of the ambulance.  He waved down one of the workers, recognizing the paramedic from before.

“What happened?”

 

 The EMT looked at him with cold eyes.  “Your grandpa is having a stroke. Must have tripped the alarm when he fell down the front steps.”

 

 

Liam’s chest tightened.  “Fell down the steps? Is he gonna be alright?”

 

 

“It doesn’t appear as though he broke anything, but we need to get him to a hospital. We’ll be taking him to University Hospital. He should never have been alone.” Liam stepped back, the ambulance doors slamming shut. He watched it speed away, sirens blaring.

 

 

He felt someone touch his shoulder.  “I’m so sorry, Liam,” Sherry said.

 

 

Liam turned to see her standing beside him. “I should have been here.  I should have been here for him.”

 

 

She wrapped an arm around his waist.  “What can I do?”

 

 

He pulled away, pacing in nervous circles. “Nothing. Unless you can run my business, heal Gramps and bring my father back.”

 

 

She crossed her arms and looked over her shoulder towards the Escalade. “We can help with the business.”

 

 

“What?”

 

 

“You need to be with your grandpa. Look, I feel bad for dragging you out tonight.  We can cover the phones and make the necessary arrangements if a call should come in.”

 

 

“No…No that’s fine. I can handle it.”

 

 

Sherry walked up to Liam, her angel face inches from his. “If you don’t go, you’ll regret it the rest of your life. The business will always be here for you.  Let me help.”

 

 

His throat tightened at the thought of Gramps, laying alone in the hospital. “Fine. All I need is a few hours.”

 

 

“Take all the time you need,” Sherry said. “I’ll stay at the funeral home until you come back.”

 

 

“I can’t ask you to do that.”

 

 

“Go be with your grandfather. I have your cell number and will call if anything comes in, okay?”

 

 

She was offering a few hours of relief, where he could focus entirely on his grandfather. Gramps needed him, and the business would be in capable hands. “I’ll call you when I know more,” he said. “I can’t thank you enough for this. Are you sure your dad won’t mind?”

 

 

“It was my father’s idea.”

####

 

The fall resulted in three cracked ribs, a fractured humerus and possible brain damage. MRI results were pending but doctors were certain there had been a stroke. Liam fielded hundreds of questions from nurses and hospital administrators ranging from cafeteria food to hospice care. 

 

 

“He’s going to pull through,” Liam told one of the attending docs. “The man was a submariner in world war two.  He’s a lot tougher than you all think.” 

 

 

The doc blew her nose into a crinkled tissue, unphased by his assessment.  “We must think of your grandfather’s quality of life.  He’s nearly ninety so the odds of recovery are slim.”  She walked away, tissue pressed to her long nose. He was standing outside of Gramps’ room, the steady sound of computer clicks tapping at his skull. He looked through a large window and saw his grandfather curled into a fetal position.

 

 

What should I do, dad?  I can’t just give up on him but….dammit!  This is your fucking job not mine!!

 

 

 Liam’s phone vibrated. He dug it out of his pants pocket.  “This is Liam.”

 

 

“It’s Sherry.  You just got a death call.  Someone named Nick Brody?  The family says it’s a direct cremation.  What do you want us to do?”

 

 

He stared at Gramps, skin stretched over bones.  “Go ahead and pick him up and box it.  I’ll call the family tomarrow.  I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this.”

 

 

“You holding up?”

 

 

“Barely.” 

 

He hung up, pressing the phone to his face. Liam could almost smell her flowery perfume. He chuckled to himself.  Those Praythers were a strange bunch, but tonight they had come through for him.  Liam walked into Gramps’ room and found an oversized chair.  He slid it over beside the old man’s bed and fell in, falling asleep instantly….

 

…It was night and he was flying through the chilly air in search of something.

Or someone?

A large building burned below him.  He swooped down for a closer look, returning to a hospital. At first he thought it was his grandfather’s room, but something was off about this place.  For starters, everything was red with long black snakes covering the walls and the stench of raw sewage hung in the air. Despite these strange details, Liam knew it was a hospital room.  There were no windows or doors and he began to search for a way out when suddenly a screeching sound, like some prehistoric bird caused him to spin around. 

An exotic looking lady sat on a hospital bed.  She was much older than Liam but held her age well, feint smile lines crinkling across her eyes and face.  She wore a flowing aqua blue dress with gold bracelets encircling her wrists.  Her eyes were soft brown yet lively.  When she spoke, her words were slow and few reminding Liam of George, his native american friend.
 

“Greetings Liam.” The walls hissed at her words. “We don’t have much time.  I’m so sorry.”

 

 

 “What for?  I don’t under…”

 

 

“Shhh!  Listen.”

 

 

Liam listened but only heard the increasing hissing of the snakes, growing louder with each passing second.

 

 

“You are about to change.”

 

“Okay?”

“Remember the dragon, Liam.”

“Like Bruce Lee?  What are you trying to tell me?”
 

 

She began to change, her dark eyes turning green.  The transformation took place in less than a second, yet it occurred in stages, her face elongating, chest widening, course black fur sprouting over tan skin, teeth becoming white, then sharp and long until Liam sat next to a giant black wolf…..

 

 

He awoke in the hospital room to his buzzing phone. He glanced over at Gramps still crumpled in the fetal position.  Liam fished out his Android, noticing the time of 7 am.  The bustling of hospital workers gathering for another day rumbled out in the hall as he tried shaking the cobwebs from his head. His phone buzzed again, Burning Bob displayed across the screen.  He took a deep breath and shook his head, trying his best to wake up.

 

 

“Yeah.”

 

 

“It’s Bob.  You better get here pronto.”

 

### 

7

 
The Denhams had considered building their own cremation ovens, but the funeral home stood within city limits and wasn’t zoned for cremation. The process of securing a permit was lengthy and since the Denhams didn’t have a couple hundred grand to spare all cremations went through Roselawn, one of the few free standing crematoriums left in the area. Burning Bob and his wife Leann, ran the place and had forged a tight bond with the Denhams over the years.
 

When Liam arrived at Roselawn, Bob was sweeping the garage, dressed in an old Pittsburgh Pirates hat, black t-shirt and jeans. Before Liam could park, Bob was knocking on his window.
 

“Sorry I’m late,” Liam yelled through his window, placing the van in park.  Bob started right into one of his jokes, ignoring the fact that he was blocking Liam’s door. “You heard the one about Minnie and Micky getting a divorce?” Bob said. “The judge says to Minnie, ‘I see you plead insanity?’ so Micky pipes up, ‘No I said she was fucking Goofy!”
 

Liam knew this was coming. He squeezed through the door, while Bob cackled like a mad man.  “Good one. Classic,” he said.
 
 
Bob’s face turned serious. “Cripes. I haven’t seen you since–” Bob took off his hat. “Sorry I didn’t make it to your papa’s funeral. They had me working all day and I couldn’t get away. How you holding up?”
 
 
“I’m not. Been stressed out, trying to hold everything together.”
 
 
Bob put his hat back on and winked. “Just have the little lady play a tune on your skin flute. Works for me.”
 
 
“If I had a little lady.” Liam tried pushing the image of burly Bob and his wife away but it was too late. 
 
 
“What about that peach you sent here last night? She seemed sweet enough.”
 
 
Liam’s heart pounded at the thought. “Sherry? Oh, she’s just a business associate.  Look, you said to hurry over…”
 
 
“Business associate,” Bob repeated with a chuckle. “I’d like to associate her with my business. Nice little onion on that one.” He waved Liam into the garage.  “Come with me governor.”
 
 
Bob waddled back through the garage, where two retorts sat like giant pizza ovens. There was a body burning in one, smoke dancing across the sides of its grated metal door. Off to the side, lawn equipment and calenders littered the work area. Bob emerged from the back,wheeling a long, flat gurney. He pulled out his hanky and wiped sweat from his face.
 
 
“You ever seen a 400 pounder?” Bob said. “Come on over here and let me pop your cherry.” Bob was easily distracted and it could be maddening, especially if you were in a hurry.  Liam followed him over to a smoking oven and pressed a red button. A metal door slid open, revealing charred skin and bone sizzling like a giant slab of bacon. Liam had seen cremations before, but this one was different. The heat felt as though his face lay on his backyard grille.
 
 
“Just like one big grease fire,” Bob said proudly. He hit another button and the door groaned shut. “That’s what they look like until they are processed. After that, you could fit what we just saw into a box the size of my dick.”
 
 
“That small?” Liam said, but Bob was already in motion, rolling his loader over to the cooler.  Liam ran to meet him and opened the metal door with a slight tug, feeling the suction give way. Inside the small walk-in freezer sat a cremation box. It was the size of a coffin but made of cardboard. Sherry had sealed it with nylon straps, but the cords sat in a tangled heap on the floor.
 
 
“No handles on these cheap ass trays,” Bob said.
 
 
“So what’s the problem?” Liam said, grasping the lid of the box. He gave it a hard jerk, pulling the lid free and sending him careening backwards. He landed in Bob’s arms, his face inches from a nicotine stained beard.
 
 
“Hi there sweetie,” Bob said, his breath thick with coffee and cigarettes.
 
 
Liam quickly broke from Bob, avoiding his eyes. “Uh thanks. Didn’t see that coming.” 

“Take a look inside.”
 
 
He returned to the box, confused at what he saw. Brody’s body was split down the middle, his chest cavity hollowed out and filled with paper sacks. Flaps of skin lay where arms and legs should have been. Liam looked for a head but only found a nose and chin buried in shredded flesh. He reached over and tapped one of the sacks. It was thick and hard like a bag of cement or sand.
 
 
Both men stood over the tray, mesmerized by its contents.  Bob lit a cigarette and took a long drag. He was sweating something fierce and Liam could smell the funk of his armpits. “That saucy little lady said her outfit was filling in for you, so I let them drop the body off last night. I wouldn’t do that for nobody else.” 
 
 
“Thanks,” Liam said, his voice wavering.

Bob grunted with a nod.  “I was up to my elbows in bodies all day yesterday so I told her I would get to this Brody first thing in the morning.  She wasn’t too happy about that, but since she didn’t have a permit nothing short of a good hummer would have changed my mind.  Anyways, today I come in here and do the standard check for medical equipment, pacemakers…you know,”  Bob stopped to take another drag from his cigarette, exhaling slowly.  “Anyways, I thought you would want to see this before you sign off on anything.”
 
 
Holy fucking hell.
 
 
He turned to Bob. “What should I do?”

“I’d burn him up.  Since it’s through your papa’s company, you’d be liable for everything. Tell you what though—-I’d think twice before using those people again.”   
 
 
He looked again at the mangled remains, weighing his options.  “I’ll help you into the oven,” Liam said.
 
 
Bob waved him off, wiping the sweat from his brow. “No need. I can manage from here. You’d just be getting in my way.” He pulled out another cigarette from his shirt pocket.  “I hear that these Praythers are involved in tissue sales.  You don’t suppose they were getting low on volunteers?”
 
 
“That’s what I need to find out.” Liam fished out five twenties from his billfold and passed them to Bob, who shoved the wad into his sweaty T-shirt.
 
 
Bob leaned towards Liam with a wink. “Consider this between you, me and God.”

 
8
 

Cutting up bodies and selling their parts? The idea was draconian and Liam couldn’t believe Sherry was a part of it. But after seeing Brody laying in that cardboard box like a gutted trout, what other explanation was there? He stormed home hoping to find Javan or Sherry next door, but thePraythers were gone, their shack of a home locked up and deserted. He pulled out his cell phone, ready to fire a call to Sherry, but suddenly stopped.

 

 

I know where they are.

 

 

He jumped jumped back into the van, disturbing thoughts clouding his mind.  

 

 

What if the cops found out about Brody? How many others had the Praythers used for spare parts? 

 

 

The black van roared to life. He would find the truth, even if it meant confronting that dumb bastard Dae. Liam threw the van into gear and was speeding down the driveway when a large animal ran across his path. He slammed on the breaks, hitting his head on the steering wheel. “Fuck!” he screamed, rubbing his head and looking through the dusty windshield. Something large and white loped through the front yard. From his view in the van, it looked like a German Shepherd until it stopped at looked back at him. 

 

 

Is that a wolf?

 

 

It trotted across the street, it’s sleek body disappearing through a patch of bushes. Liam hit the gas, speeding out of the driveway, hoping to catch another glimpse, but the wolf was gone. He drove to the end of the street and back tracked up a few side roads, but there was no sign of the animal. Between Gramps falling and the incident at Bob’s, Liam had forgot all about his grandfather’s supposed wolf siting. He made a mental note to call animal control in the morning, and headed to the Den.

 

###

 

It was unseasonably cool, the night air whipping through his grey dress slacks.  A mob gathered in the streets, shuffling towards the immense front doors of the Den. He ignored his mounting dread and merged with the crowd, the scent of incense and pot in the air. Goth chicks and bikers gathered around him along with several people in animal costumes.The costumes ranged from the plush Scooby Doo to a half naked man with pink feathers covering his prick.  Liam thrust his head down, feeling like a teenager thrown in jail.

 

 

What the fuck am I doin here?

 

 

He followed the herd until someone seized him by the arm, stopping him cold.

 

 

“We’ve been waiting for you,” Dae said, flashing a set of perfect teeth. He wore a black leather vest across his bare chest and skin tight leather pants, revealing layers of muscle. 

 

 
“What the hell are you talking about?” Liam said, trying to pull away, but his arm remained in Dae’s crushing grasp. He swung his free arm around, slamming knuckles into Dae’s hand as if he were knocking on a door. The giant howled, releasing his hold and spinning off into the crowd.  Liam made a bolt for the front entrance but Dae easily cut him off, moving like a stalking panther.


Damn, he’s fast… 


The giant lunged at him, bringing his fists down like two jack hammers, but Liam slid sideways avoiding the blows.  He prepared to counter with a roundhouse kick when his feet flew out from under him.  His head cracked against the asphalt, knocking him senseless. He watched a shadowy figure disappear quickly from site as Dae dragged him, knocking a path through the hordes of scattering leather worshipers. He skidded through the entrance way and across a slick dance floor, Dae yanking him along by his leg.  Techno beats pounded his ears and vibrated the floor. Flashing lights pierced through clouds of mist, making it difficult for him to see. He groped the floor, trying to slow his attacker until they stopped.

 

 

Dae pulled him to his feet. “I’m gonna enjoy eating you,”  he said. The room spun around and Liam felt like puking, his head throbbing to the dance beat. He swung a haymaker, striking Dae’s shoulder like a wounded fly. The giant launched him into a nearby wall. When Liam hit the hard surface, it spun open, sending him toppling through to another room. He lay there dazed for a few minutes, massaging his aching forehead.

 

 

Round two goes to the over-sized gorilla.  Bastard.

 

 

He found himself in a barren dark room, lit by black lighting. There were walls standing about twenty feet high connected at various angles.  The path within these walls resembled a giant maze sprouting in all directions. Liam sat up and tried pushing his way back through the secret passage but it was locked into place. Techno rhythms continued their assault, vibrating his teeth from the dance floor on the other side. Liam considered himself an expert on obscure music but this song eluded him until…  

 

 

Psychoz!  Industrial crap.

 

 

He staggered to his feet and began exploring the purple mist in search of an exit. He pounded the walls and found them sturdy, like concrete.  They were too high to see over and impossible to climb unless you were a world class high jumper.  Liam followed the main path, creeping around blind corners.  A sick thought occurred to him, Dae lurking around the next bend waiting to kill him without witnesses. The idea stopped him cold.  There was a break in the music and Liam heard a woman moaning from within the maze.

 

 

“Please…please…don’t stop…”  she cried. 

 

 

He felt a warm tingle spreading in his pants, her pleading voice intoxicating.  Fingers of light danced down the pathway inviting him to follow. Liam crept down the hall until it opened to he stood in a square space lit by tiki torches.  A group of two women and a man, gathered at the far end, oblivious to his presence. They were mostly naked, wearing masquerade masks and leather thongs. His breathing hitched when he saw a nude girl kneeling among them. She was chained to a raised table, manacles encircling her wrists and ankles.  A blindfold wound tightly around her eyes, her succulent body writhing in extacy. She cried out, clawing the table while the broad chested man fondled her breasts. Behind her, one women stood in thigh high red boots, brandishing a long dildo. She appeared nervous, holding the dong as if it were a poisonous snake. 

 

 

Her companion, a stout amazon with curly red hair plucked the device from her. “Gentle now,” she said.  “We don’t want her to cum just yet.”  She licked the dildo before sliding it into their captive.  

 

 

The submissive let out a cat scream, pleading, “Yeah…uhuhnnnn, more, more….”

 

 

Red boots took over, drawing the dildo back, turning and thrusting while the sub begged for more. 

 

 

Liam was entranced, euphoria sweepin through him. He rubbed his prick and sighed, backing away to remain hidden in the shadows.

 

 

Strike one.

 

 

Ded Maus took over for Psychoz, filling the room with heavy thumping.  Liam retraced his steps hitting his back against a concrete wall.  He scanned the maze, noticing a few paths branching off to the right. He headed that way, zig zagging through several sharp turns before coming to a narrow passage partitioned with thick crimson curtains. Groans of pleasure rang out like shivering ghosts drawing him to the first curtain.  Liam peeked in on a shapely woman strapped to a large wooden X. Two girls in white lingerie ran vibrators across her sweaty flesh, rubbing and stroking her sensitive areas. He watched for awhile, licking his lips as the gorgeous sub writhed against her bonds. He was starting a hard on when one of the doms spotted him.

“Unless you’re paying, get the fuck out!” she screamed.  “Security!”

 

 

Strike two.

 

 

He yanked his head back from the curtains, ready to make a run for it when suddenly he heard Sherry’s voice barking orders from down the hall.

 

 

“You little worm.  You really don’t want to piss me off tonight.”

 

 

He followed her voice until he stood outside the last curtain.

 

 

“Look at me you fucking pig,” she growled from inside.

 

 

He eased through the heavy curtain and found her standing over a bound and gagged man. She wore a skin tight cat suit and brandished a riding crop at her sub, ignoring Liam’s presence.

 

“Move you worthless prick,” she yelled, but the poor bastard was helpless, his limbs lashed with straps. The man struggled heroically as Liam held back laughter. He never understood the whole submissive thing until now. What could possible be erotic about getting the shit kicked out of you? But watching this petite “girl next door” control a grown man made his dick bark. He had come for a fight, but now only imagined Sherry’s thighs wrapping around his head. She turned to Liam, acknowledging him with a cool nod.

 

 

She’s not phased at all!

 

 

Sherry smacked her prisoner’s bare ass. The sub yelped, fighting the ball gag shoved into his mouth, but then fell silent. Judging by his hard-on, he was clearly liking this.  “Impotent fuck! You want me to beat you.” She bent over and picked two clips from the floor then knelt beside her sub. Within seconds, he was howling in agony, his nipples held fast by the clips. She spoke through pouty lips, grabbing the worm’s face. “Now be a good boy and stay there for a few minutes.” She slapped his face a few times before strutting over to Liam.

 

Liam watched her breasts bouncing towards him. He quickly looked away. “I’m interrupting…”

 

 

“Of course you are. It’s okay…Marvin will wait all night for me, if that’s what it takes. Isn’t that right love?”

 

 

Marvin didn’t answer. Instead a steady groan escaped from his gagged mouth.

 

 

“I was hoping to find you in the banquet hall again, but…” Liam glanced over to poor Marvin, drooling all over himself. “Can we talk somewhere else?”

 

 

Sherry raised her hand in a fist and swung at Liam. He ducked away before her hand slammed into the wall behind him.

 

 

“Jesus! What the fuck?” Liam cried, bracing himself for another strike.

 

 

She laughed pointing to an open passage way.

 

 

“Oh shit.”

 

 

Sherry spoke through giggling gasps, slowly regaining her composure. “Go on–it’s my dressing room.”

 

 

He pressed through the cramped passage, stepping into a dimly lit room. 

 

 

Why is everything always so friggin dark?  These Praythers must save a shit-load on electricity.

 

 

Sherry called it her “dressing room” but Liam saw it more as an apartment sized bedroom, with a medieval canopy bed taking up center stage. Shaggy maroon chairs surrounded the bed, while Christmas lights covered the ceiling, twisting in various constellations. Liam took a seat on one of the chairs, marveling at the size of the place.

 

 

Sherry pulled out her hair bungie and sat beside him, her breath hot on his neck. “So what’s up?”

 

 

“I needed to see you,” he said, his voice cracking.

 

 

“About?” She placed her hand on Liam’s thigh sending bolts of excitement through his prick.

 

 

“Well, I went to Bob’s and…” his words fell silent by her touch. She ripped open his shirt tracing down his chest with her tongue.   She smelled of cinnamon and jasmine, her hair brushing against his skin.

 

 

“Poor Liam—so lost,” She purred. “You don’t have to be alone anymore.” She slid her hand up his thigh and unfastened his belt.

 

 

“Who said I was alone?” he sighed.

 

 

She pressed a finger to his lips. “Shhhhh. Just relax and let me take care of you.”

 

 

He closed his eyes, allowing her spell to take control.

###

 9

 

The covers were pulled over Liam’s head, shutting out the world.  His body throbbed with exhausted pleasure as the previous night replayed in his mind. The delicious taste of her lips, her fingernails digging into his back, his body trembling for more and more…  It had been awhile since his last romp.  After his father’s death, Liam hadn’t thought much about women or a relationship.  

 

 

Is that what you call this?  A relationship?

 

 

He reached out for Sherry but his hand brushed empty covers. Suddenly there was movement in the room and Liam pealed leopard print covers from his face ready to welcome his lover back into bed. Instead Javan’s voice shocked him to attention.  

 

 

“Ahh, the junior Denham returns to the land of the living,” Javan boomed. He sat in a chair, a glass of red wine perched in his hand. 

 

 

Liam shot up, as though burned by an iron. “Shit Javan you scared me.” 

 

 

Javan took a sip from his glass, staring at Liam.

 

 

Liam covered himself with a crumpled sheet and searched for his clothes. He began to dress, donning his jeans like a fireman responding to a four alarm. His neck grew hot under Javan’s silent gaze. “I came by last night but couldn’t find you…I…I just had a few questions.” 

 

 

“Then by all means ask them.” 

 

 

He grabbed his shirt from under the bed and slung it on, fumbling with the buttons.  “I got a call from Bob Walcheski.  He said the body you brought him had been…tampered with.”

 

 

Javan held up a hand, cutting Liam off. “I apologize for not calling you. My youngest dropped the cot during transport. Thankfully, it all happened inside our garage but it resulted in quite a mess. I’m surprised Sherry didn’t mention that to you last night.”



“No.  It didn’t come up.” Liam knew this story was bullshit.  A dropped body doesn’t suddenly lose its legs and head.  He knew Javan was hiding something but discussing it now didn’t seem appropriate. Not after bony the man’s daughter. 


“Unfortunate,” Javan said.  He pulled out a leather billfold.  “We will compensate for your inconvienince.”



Liam was fully dressed now, looking for an exit.  “Oh that isn’t necessary Javan.” 

 

 

Javan looked amused. “Any why not? The funeral was done under your name. Surely you don’t think I would knowingly misuse your trust?”  He stood and walked over to Liam, placing a stack of crisp bills onto the bed.  “There is $4000.  Let me know if it is not enough.”

 

 

“No, I didn’t know there was an accident.  I can’t accept this.” 

 

 

“Consider it a deposit then.” 

 

 

Deposit? 

 

 

“I was hoping to have this talk under more appropriate circumstances, but now is as good a time as any.  I would like to buy Denham and Son’s Funeral Home.” 

 

 

Liam was stunned. “Who said I was selling the funeral home?” 

 

 

“Look at this as an opportunity. I see promise in you, Liam. Promise that will be wasted unless you are under the right guidance.” 

 

 

“And you’re the one to take me to the promised land.”

 

 

Javan smirked at the remark a growl rumbling deep within his chest. 

 

 

“Look, I appreciate everything your family has done. I was in a rough spot and you helped me through it, but—” 

 

 

“The rough spot, as you put it, is only the beginning.” 

 

 

“What?” 

 

 

Javan’s eyes flashed.  “My guidance will change your life. I will help you reach your full potential.” 

 

 

“I don’t want your help.” Liam said, swiping the money, scattering paper bills across the floor.  He slipped on his jacket, feeling like a caged rat. The bedroom seemed to jump thirty degrees, sweat pouring from his arm pits. “Where’s the exit in this place?”

 

 

“I don’t think you fully comprehend what has transpired,” Javan growled. 

 

 

“Enlighten me.”

 

 

“You are one of us now.  There’s no turning back. With my help you will become something extraordinary.  Without me—you are nothing.”

 

 

 

“Nothing?  What kind of crazy juice are you drinking? Money doesn’t make you a God…doesn’t make you above the law.  I saw the body you supposedly dropped. It was tore apart!  I don’t want to involve to cops so just stay away from me!”  

 

 

Liam tried pushing past him, but Javan ensnared his arms from behind. He struggled, unable to move, all the strength draining from his limbs. Javan whispered in his ear. “Oh it’s the police you wish to include? That would be most detrimental to our relationship.” His grip grew tighter, forcing Liam’s elbow’s closer together. “Do you think what happened to your grandfather was an accident?” 

 

 

The words jarred like buck shot, but Liam remained imobile, pain shooting through his shoulders.  “You fucking bastard!”

 

Javan chuckled at Liam’s words. “Interesting choice of words considering your recent activities.” 

 

 

A sinking sensation began to engulf Liam as though his guts were being pulled towards the center of the earth. Rage surged through him, but there was no strength to act.  Instead he was paralyzed, hanging like a corpse in a tree. 

 

 

“We have much to learn about one another. Soon you and I will reconvene to discuss the terms of our new business partnership. Oh and before considering the police, I suggest you take a peek in your basement.” 

 

 

The small lights on Sherry’s ceiling faded as piss ran down Liam’s leg. He was sinking, a dark tide pulling him deeper until he passed out.

 

###

 

He awoke facedown, bones aching.  He tried sitting up but was too weak, flailing his arms and legs against the gritty surface. What happened?  Liam had studied martial arts for years, disecting thousands of possible attacks and counter manevers, but Javan’s technique hit him like a magnet, draining his vital energy. 




That’s impossible.  He drugged me….slipped chloroform or some shit over me when I wasn’t looking.
 


It was dark, the sounds of traffic alerting him that he was outside.  Slowly Liam pushed himself up, the night coming into focus. He sat near the docking area.  A set of metal steps stood before him, leading back up to a rear entrance of the Den. He watched two dark shapes prowl down the staircase towards him. 

 

 

Wolves! 

 

 

Liam lurched to his feet, stumbling over gravel and orange construction cones. He screamed for help, garbled cries echoing through empty streets. He glanced behind him, the wolves hitting the pavement running.  A surge of adrenalin charged his rubbery legs sending him pounding through the parking lot, hell bent on escape.  

 

 

I’m not going to make it…oh Jesus…

 

 

His lungs burned like fire, a stabbing pain piercing his side. Fear fueled him, but that fuel was nearly tapped out. He raged against the pain, trying to continue his rabid pace. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the wolves closing in.

 

 

Dad…help me…help me… 

 

 

Liam saw a lone van parked across the street. He charged towards it, giving one final burst of effort.

 

 

Please be open…please may the doors be open…

 

 

His face was numb as he slammed against the passenger door.  He fumbled for the door handle, frantically jerking, yanking, but it was locked. Obscenities streamed from his mouth as he beat against rusty metal. Liam braced for an attack, lowering himself against the van. He screamed and spun around to an empty street corner. 



“Hey!  HEY!  What are you doing out there?” a man shouted from the porch of his shotgun shack.  “Get outa here for I call the cops, crack head!”


Liam smelled cigarette smoke and wiped his mouth.
He felt like throwing up. “I was being attacked!  You didn’t see that?”

“All I see is a junkie littering my sidewalk and banging against my van!  All you burnouts can die a slow death for all I care.  I’m tickled somebody’s killin you all.  Now get off my property!”

“Who’s killing who?”  Liam said.

 
 
“Boy, you haven’t been paying attention lately have you?”  His neighbor continued to cuss, calling down Jesus and his angels to wipe the world clean of all druggies.
 
 
Liam shuffled off, checking to see if any wolves were following.  It took all of his strength to make the four block trip home, ambling up the empty sidewalks of trash like a mindless zombie.  When he finally reached the front walk of Denham, he remembered Javan’s words;

“I suggest you take a peek in your basement.”

###

10 

The morning sun lay hidden behind a dark mist of fog, the perfect weather for his current mood. Liam didn’t want to go into the funeral home. He stood on his side porch peering across to the Prayther home. As usual, the place was empty, no Escalade parked in the driveway, no boogy man staring at him through the window.

 

 

Nobody home…thank God.

 

 

He trudged across the porch, floor boards creaking. The last 72 hours had been a nightmare, more than his frazzled nerves could take.  His body shook all over and he felt as though he could sleep for years. Liam opened the side door, his mind full of disturbing thoughts. 

 

 

Wolves…black wolves…just like Gramps said before.

 

 

“What the fuck is going on?” he mumbled to himself, entering the old victorian funeral home. The familiar funk of rotten meat hit him imediately and his gut told him it was coming from the basement. Liam wanted to leave Denham as fast as his wobbly legs could run, but if Javan wanted him dead, he could have easily killed him at the Den.  The basement door stood in front of him, tall and grey. He opened it with a squeak, the awful stench growing stronger. He yelled down the staircase, “Hello!  Anyone there?”  

 

 

As if someone’s gonna answer…idiot! 

 

 

Even though Liam had lived at Denham most of his adult life, he hated the basement.  It reaked of mold with cobwebs and dust covering the rafters giving his asthma fits.  But more than that, there was a presence down there, a pressing feeling that someone was always watching. He stood, looking down the steps, the odor of death increasing his dread. 

 

 

Fuck it! This is my house.

 

 

 

He plunged down the steps, hitting the bottom landing in record time.  The only sound was his rasping breaths as Liam looked over the dimly lit room. To his right an old furnace sat in silence like an iron spider, while the left revealed piles of dirty laundry strewn across a Sears front loader.  

 

 

Been meaning to get to that…

 

 

From there the basement opened up, extending further back a hundred feet or more where rows of caskets and unused furniture crammed the bowels of the place. A narrow pathway lead from the steps to the back wall, allowing the Denhams to move caskets and other materials out as needed.  Liam crept down this path, an uneasy ache fluttering through his stomach.The putrid smell continued to build, growing stronger the further back he went. Something stirred  in front of him causing a plastic cover to rustle against several caskets.
 

 

“Who’s there?” he stammered. 

 

 

Dae, crouching in the darkness, waiting to chop you into little tiny pieces….that’s fucking who.

 

 

“Shut up!” he told himself and continued his search. The collective mess of shipping crates, supplies and caskets crowded around him as usual and nothing appeared to be out of order.  He noticed a light bulb dangling in front of him from a wire and switched it on with a quick tug.  Light danced around his head, throwing moving shadows across rows of caskets. He exhailed slowly, trying his best to breath through his mouth, the rotten odor choking him.  Liam was ready to move on when his feet kicked against something hard.  He stumbled, catching his balance on a grey cloth covered casket.  A bulky object lay at his feet covered by a black tarp. Liam knelt down for a closer look. He pulled back the cover, revealing curly hair, blank eyes, pale skin.  He jumped back gagging, the tarp falling back over the ghastly face. 

 

The front doorbell buzzed.  Liam froze, still staring at the tarp.  He waited, heart pounding, hoping the person would go away but the buzzing continued. Liam stepped back, weighing his options.  If it was a pre-need customer, he could explain how busy he was and promise to get back with them as soon as possible. Easy fix. It could be someone screwing around, but he doubted it.  The neighborhood was full of delinquents but they preferred destroying property or stealing rather than ringing doorbells.  The only other possibility was a salesman. 

 

 

The last thing I need is one of those assholes snooping around.

 

 

He climbed the steps and locked the basement door behind him, mulling over his options. The front door was only a short walk through the visitation room.  It was mostly glass with a metal frame, providing a clear view of officer Thompson waiting outside.  

 

 

 

Oh shit.

 

 

Thompson frowned when he saw Liam approaching, placing his hands to his hips.  Liam chewed on his lip.  If Thompson caught a whiff of the body who knows what kind of questions he would ask.  He cracked the door.   “Officer Thompson, good to see you again.  What can I do for you?”

 

 

The cop grunted, sucking on a toothpick.  “May I come in?”

 

 

 

“Things are pretty busy here.  I just got a call and…”  

 

 

Thompson cut him off.  “Heard you had a little mishap the other day.”

 

 

Liam looked away.  “Yeah, Gramps is in the hospital.  You heard about that?”

 

 

“Uhunnnn.”  He pulled out an envelope from the breast pocket of his uniform and passed it to Liam.  “Take a look at those.”

 

 

Liam propped the door open and opened the envelope.  Inside were four pictures, each of a young man staring over a series of numbers.    “Mugshots?”

 

 

“Uhunnnn.  Any of those fools look familiar to you?”

 

 

He scanned through the pictures and handed them quickly back.  “Nope.”

 

 

“You sure now?  You didn’t look too hard.”  Thompson shoved the papers back into Liam’s face.  “Look again, Partner.”

 

 

He stared at the hollow expressions, each kid trying their best to look like a hard ass.  “Maybe I’ve crossed their path sometime but I don’t remember. What are they wanted for?”

 

 

“Nothing that I know of.  They already served their time.  No, these knuckle heads got in over their heads.  All four of them disappeared this month.  For such a small town that’s a lot of people gone missing, don’t you think?”

 

 

“Yeah.”  He folded up the pictures, placing them back into the envelope. “Guess that’s what you get with gangs.”

 

 

 

“What makes you think they’re in a gang?”

 

 

“They all had records, the mug shots drew me to that conclusion.”

 

 

“Only two were gang members, the other two had records on account of drug possession. Thing is, people round here don’t give a shit.  They just see all this as a public service.  They don’t realize these idiots have families too. What’s your take, boy?  You think they got what they deserved?”

 

 

“Look I’m really busy here…I have a call I need to get to.”

 

 

Thompson ignored him, sniffing the air.  “What’s that smell?”

 

 

Liam’s heart skipped a few beats. “I’ve been meaning to fix our vents.  There’s a lot here that needs upgrading.” 

 

 

“Vents huh?  I thought the embalming room was in the back.”

 

 

“It is,”  Liam said, eyeing Thompson closely. “Anything else?” 

 

 

 

“Yes, there is something else.  I’d like to come in and take a look around if you don’t mind.” Thompson was twirling his toothpick between his teeth.

 

 

 

“I do mind.  I have a business to run and don’t have time to play follow the leader.” Suddenly a piercing scream came from inside the funeral home. 

 

 

“What was that?” Officer Thompson said, gun drawn. He pushed past Liam, entering the funeral home.

 

 

 

“Wait!”  Liam shouted.  He followed the cop, clenching his teeth. A girl, somewhere in the back room continued screaming, sounding as if her skin was being ripped from her bones.  Both men entered the empty room panting. 

 

 

Thompson yelled out,  “Police!  Come on out now hun.  Nobody’s gonna hurt you.” His words went unanswered.  Thompson sniffed the air and waved an arm in front of his face.  “Whew!  That’s awful!”  He tried the basement door, rattling it against locked hinges. 

 

 

“Look, I don’t know who the hell is down there but before you go, I should explain…”

 

 

“Help!” a girl screamed from the basement.  “Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeellllllllllp meeeeeeeeeeee!”

 

 

“You stay right here unless you want a bullet in your head,”  Thompson said.  He unlatched the basement door and opened it, gagging on the rotten fumes that billowed out.  He pulled his undershirt over his nose, holding his gun with both hands before disappeared down the steps.

 

 

My life is over, Liam thought. Jesus!  What’s going to happen to Gramps?  

 

 

He paced as the lunatic continued her screaming.  Why wait until now to scream?  Was she hiding when he came down earlier?  Or maybe she was another victim? The screaming stopped leaving an unsettling silence.  Liam crept over to the top of the steps. He couldn’t see Thompson, but heard the burly cop’s boots stepping across the cement floor. Officer Thompson coughed then let out a harsh yelp.  “Come on out of there.  Nobody’s gonna hurt you.”

 

 

Liam leaned closer to the steps, looking down to the landing.  A girl was crying somewhere in the darkness.

 

 

“It’s okay now.  You safe with me,” Thompson said.  

 

 

“Am I?”  a scratchy voice answered, the sound of a witch. 

 

 

Thompson cried out, his words muffled by gunshots. Liam’s hands braced the walls as three blasts thundered up the staircase.  His ears buzzed from the deafening sound.  “Officer Thompson?” he called out.  “Officer?  You okay?” Liam heard sucking sounds as if someone was slurping the last bit of milk from a giant bowl of cereal.  He stepped down to the landing and looked over the basement. 

 

Thompson lay sprawled, his shirt ripped open. A girl hunkered over him, her long blonde hair streaked with blood. 

 

 

“Sherry?”

 

 

Sherry turned to him, at least he thought it was her.  The blue eyes were yellow, her lower jaw jutting out and crammed with fangs. Patches of black fur randomly clumped the neck and arms, a wide grin spread across her distorted face.  She continued devouring chunks of flesh, meat spilling down her chin.  “Hello lover.”

 

###

 
11
He stared in disbelief, unable to make sense of the scene.  Sherry sat hunkered over the dead cop like a lion over her kill, slathered in guts.  She looked up from her meal, yellow eyes flashing.  “What`s the matter, lover?”

“I`m not your lover,” he whispered, arm hairs tingling. Twelve hours ago he would have died to taste her beautiful body, but now the sight of her terrified him. 
 
 
Sherry lurched towards him, bounding like a marionette.  “Hummmmmmm!  That`s not what you said the other night.”  She flicked her tongue, dangling it across her furry chest.  He sprinted up the steps, legs on autopilot, but there was nowhere to run. Blocking his path was a black wolf, fangs jutting from its growling muzzle. Sherry was behind him, sharp fingernails digging into his shoulders. “You`re one of us now,” she said, her breath hot in his ear.

 
Liam knees knocked together, trapped between the murderous witch and wolf. “So what happens now?” he stuttered. 
 
 
They crowded closer, pinning him between them, Sherry`s mouth dripping hot spit down his neck.  “Look at your hands,” she purred.
 
He glanced down at the stubby fingers.  Thick claws stemmed out from each knuckle.  “Wh-what`s happening?” he gasped as his thumbs rolled under and melted into his palms.  The room pulsed around him, ebbing in and out like a funhouse mirror. Painful vibrations racked his chest like a chain saw. He clutched his throat, fighting for air.
 
 
“Be still,” Sherry whispered. “It will all be over soon.”
 
 
But it wasn`t over, the terrible vibrations tearing Liam apart from the inside, forcing his shoulders and hips back, throwing him sprawling to his hands and knees. A tidlewave of sensations assaulted him, suffocating in their intensity. The noxious stench of rug shampoo, a wall clock hammering the seconds, bristling fur burning his skin….
 
 
He heard Sherry`s voice echo in his head.  “In time your body will adjust.  For now focus on my voice.”  He cowered on four legs, listening to her soothing words amidst the chaos. “You are no longer bound by human flesh.  You are now a creature of power.  You are to serve the pack, for the greater good of all.  We are your family now.  We are your everything.  You belong to us and we belong to you.  Our communion is forever.”  She continued to speak calming words draining his pain away.  The flood of smells and sounds continued, but they no longer bothered him.  All that mattered was Sherry…his lover…his queen.

 
The terrible vibrations suddenly stopped and a calmness settled over him.  He was aware of Sherry and the wolf huddling close by and could sense their excitement.  It was as though they all were connected by a cord of energy, each feeding off the others.  When they spoke to him, Liam heard their voices inside his head as though he were wearing ear buds. 
 
The black wolf stepped forward and Liam knew this was Dae, guardian of the pack. Liam watched as recent memories raced through his mind like a movie screen on fast forward.
A wolf chasing him through the streets, closing in until Liam slammed against an old beat up van…the wolf watching him struggle with the door…

 
“You!  It was you who chased me.”
 
 
The scene played out like a vivid day dream, the black wolf watching Liam before retreating back into the shadows, leaving him cowering against the van. Dae`s voice interrupted the vision, growling inside his head.  “We are brothers now, but I am watching…always watching.”

Sherry crept up beside Liam, her haggard appearance no longer disturbing. “We are family,” she cackled, placing her claws across his back.  “Family is forever.”  Liam sensed the energy swarming from her.  It flowed through him, penetrating his chest in warm waves like a hit of heroin. 
 
Feed…Feed…Feed…
 
 
His euphoria turned to cramps of hunger twisting through his stomach with reptilian want.  He sniffed the air, noticing the thick scent of meat trailing up the basement staircase.
 
Feed…Feed…Feed…

 
In his fragmented state of awareness, Liam recalled the cop, lying dead in their basement.  The memory blocked his hunger pains, bringing Liam temporarily back to his senses.  For a few seconds, he considered running away, escaping this nightmare.  But the hunger returned, gnawing at his guts.

 
Feed…FEED…FEED…
 
He was driven by hunger, the promise of meat drawing him down the steps and back into the basement. There were no thoughts, nothin to consider as his new desire took control.  Without pause he tore into the dead cop, his jaws snapping ribs, ripping through muscle and bone.  He gorged on his prey, devouring skin and bone with powerful bites.  A few moments later he was joined by the black wolf. 
 

Come…come…follow me…
 

Liam followed the larger wolf.  They raced through an open cellar door and bounded out into the northside night. His feet were made for grass and earth, not concrete and Liam scuffled on the hard surface. Wolf Dae growled, spurring him on until they came to a sparse clump of bushes spread beside an abandoned playground.  They crawled into the bushes, hiding amongst the smell of pine.  Liam watched his guide, in tune with Dae`s movements. There was someone in the playground, shuffling feet scurrying across dead leaves.  He sensed Dae`s excitement yet remained still, holding close at his leader`s side. A man was singing.
 
 
“Wander slowly though the fields…slowly…slowly through the fields…”
 
 
In a flash Dae sprang from the bushes.  Liam followed, running over crumbling rocks and glass, tongue cool with the night air. Dae veered past a set of monkey bars then stopped.  Liam slammed into his rear.  Dae growled, nudging him back.
 

That way…
 

They seperated, circling in opposite directions around a series of picnic benches.  Dae disappeared but Liam could sense he was near. Liam knew what to do.  He would follow the human`s voice.  Follow the human`s scent.  Follow it and wait. 
 
 
“I touch the leaves…to the sky…just you and me…in the fields of joy…”
 
 
The singing stopped but Liam continued to close in on his target, following the husky scent past a set of metal garbage cans. He licked his chops, his hunger not yet satiated. He lowered himself, remaining hidden until he was a few feet from a hodded figure sitting on top a wooden picnic table.  The man was frail, his skinny legs crossed indian style under him. A flicker of light danced across the man`s face, revealing a wood pipe. The smell of sweat and skin drew Liam closer. He crept within a few feet then froze.
 
 
“Whoa!”  the hooded man cried out.  “Good doggie!  Good do—”
 
 
Dae pounced out of the blackness, driving the hodded man backwards and off the table. Liam rushed to Dae`s side while his leader held the screaming man down. Arms and legs flailed helpless, the great wolf pinning his prey with his girth.
 
 
Kill him.
 
 
Liam moved forward, ready to obey…until he saw the figure`s face.  Staring back at him, with terrified eyes was Dave.  (need to add a quick scene with Dave earlier). The old man pleaded for his life, thrashing helplessly against the giant black wolf. 
 
 
KILL HIM!
 
 
Dae`s command echoed inside him like the voice of God, driving Liam forward.  The scent of Dave`s blood stirred his cravings as Dae pulled back, waiting for Liam to finish the old man off.  But when Liam saw his struggling neighbor, his euphoria to feed vanished and as if he were thrown into icy waters. 
 
 
“Please doggie…don`t bite…please…don`t bite..bite…?”  Dave`s eyes grew wide.  “Lee?  Lee?  Is that you buddy?”
 
 
Liam touched the old man`s face, his fingers spreading out, returning to human form. 
 
 
Dave`s face lit up.  “Got me some pops..thirsty for some pops…” Dave giggled.  “What happened to your clothes buddy?”

A cool breeze whipped across Liam`s bare skin, causing gooseflesh to ripple up his back and arms.  He was naked, shivering on wobbly legs.  “I don`t know.  What are we doing here?”

The old man shook his head, staring at something behind Liam. Dave screamed as Liam turned to see what was behind him…

 ###
 
 
 
Liam lay on his stomach, the light piercing his eyes like razors.  His joints ached, arms and legs heavy as though covered in iron blankets. Nausea spread over him, chills running up and down his spine.  He lifted his chin and heaved, spraying red puke across the floor.
 
Am I dying?
 

“Pitiful, aren`t we?” A round face leaned over him, pale with freckles.  He was older, sporting wide rimmed sunglasses and curly red hair. “Don`t fret, Love. The first time is usually the worst.”
 

Liam mummbled through numb lips, “How?”
 

The red headed man raised his bushy eyebrows above the round lenses,  “Wouldn`t we all like to know.”  He was dressed in a white jumpsuit, a pale boa constricter draped across his neck. They were back in the basement, Sargent Thompson`s carcass propped up next to him like some ghoulish store front mannequin. Liam tried sitting but was too weak. 
 

“Poor child. We haven`t had one like you in a long, long time.  Good thing Dae didn`t kill you.”
 
 
“What`s wrong with me?”
 
 
Red stroked his boa.  “Oh I don`t even know where to begin.” He smiled yet his raspy voice was clinical, like a doctor speaking to his terminal patient.  “For starters you shifted last night. Do you know what that means?”
 
 
Liam grunted, spitting a red luggie across the room.
 
 
“I`ll take that as no.”  Red knelt down, setting his snake on the floor beside him.  “The quick answer?  Shifting is changing from one form to another.  In your case, you shifted from human to wolf, a fairly typical transformation. The trouble is, it takes time for your body to adjust.   When you saw your friend…well it must have triggered something inside of you.  Honestly, all I know is what that brute Dae told me.”
 
 
The snake crawled across the floor, forked tonge flicking Liam`s face.  “Dave?  Wh-what?  What happened to him?”
 
 
“Your friend?  I haven`t the foggiest. I don`t concern myself with such things.  We have minions who deal with that end of it.”
 
 
He pushed himself up, struggling against tired limbs until he reached a seated position. “He`s an innocent man.  He`d never harm anyone…anything!”
 
 
Red clapped his hands together.  “Priceless!  You sound just like your dear father.”
 
 
The nausea had passed and Liam slowly got up, his head feeling as though it weighed a thousands pounds.  Red stood as well, curly red locks dancing just below Liam`s chin. Liam was shaking but couldn`t tell if it was from fatigue or rage.  “What did you just say?”
 

Red pulled off his glasses and looked up at him.  Just the sight of those eyes made Liam`s stomach turn, round and golden with slitted pupils. “I knew your father.  We all did.  That`s why we were so saddened by your loss.”
 

Liam grabbed Red by his white coat and yanked him closer.  “What do you know about it?”
 

“Poor, poor tulip,”  Red said.  “Still trying to piece it all together.”  He laughed, spewing his rancid breath.  Liam nearly passed out from the stench, reminding him of soured milk. “You`ve been on our radar for quite some time. Pity, your father didn`t tell you as much.”
 

“Zinzer!  That`s enough!”  Javan said.  The elder Prayther waltzed into view. 
 

“Awwwww, but the lad and I are having so much fun.” 
 

Liam threw Red aside and turned to Javan.  “You killed him.  You and your family of freaks murdered my father!”
 

“What happened to Charles was…unfortunate.  But I can assure you that we had nothing to do with it.”
 

“Bullshit!  I was there.  I saw who did it and the fucker changed…shifted or whatever you call it.  Shifted into a wolf.  Now you tell me…is that a coincidence?”
 

Red chimed in.  “You`re father got what he deserved.  I`m sorry, Love, but it`s true.”
 
Liam lunged for the fat bastard but missed, tripping over his own feet and falling onto Sergent Thompson with a wet thud. He tried pushing himself up, but kept slipping in the dead man`s guts.  Unfortunately, Javan was there to help.  Liam`s hair was tore from his scalp as Javan yanked him to its feet.  Liam screamed.  His hands gasped Javan`s arm, trying to lessen the pressure on his scalp. 

“Bravo!”  Red cheered.  “My he is a spirited one.”
 
 
Liam tried kicking his attacker, but Javan held him at bay with one outstretched arm.  “You will do as we say.  Disobedience to the pack will result in grave consequences, do you understand?”
 
 
“Eat me,”  Liam said.  He swung at Javan but was unable to reach him, each movement sending shocks of pain through his head. 
 
 
“Eat you?”  Javan looked to Zinzer and chuckled.  “How amusing.”
 

Red shuffled closer and Liam was again struck by his rancid breath. He placed a sweaty palm across Liam`s forehead. “Hmm, low grade fever. That`s consistent.”
 
 
“What are you doing?” Liam asked.
 
 
Zinzer stepped back, sizing Liam up with a devilish grin. “Javan here says you are part of the pack, but I`m not so sure. A creature with your abilities can be either an asset or a liability.  I vote for the latter.” 
 

There was something familiar about his voice.  Something that reminded him of his first trip to the Den. A slithering image popped into his head and Liam blurted out,  “You`re the snake man.”
 

“Ah, you remember me. How sweet.” Zinzer leaned in and began to sniff around his neck, moaning in ecstasy. “Ahhhhhh the smell of fear.  So sweet….so delectable.” 
 
 
Liam struggled against Javan`s grasp, tears of pain streaking down his cheeks.  “I’m not afraid..” 
 
 
“We only wish for obedience, not fear,”  Javan said, releasing his grip. “I believe your talents can provide and enormous benefit to our cause.  In addition, your business will serve us well.”
 
 
The terrible pressure in his scalp relented.  Liam rubbed  his head. “You can threaten me all you want.  I’m not selling.  Coma or no coma, Gramps would die if I sold this place.”
 
 
Javan and Zinzer loomed before him in silence.
 
 
I’m dead…
 
 
 
Suddenly, Zinzer`s neck expanded and twisted, his head rising towards the ceiling.  His body bobbed like a loose garden hose with folds of fat peeling away revealing slithery scales. Liam screamed, as knife-like fangs shot towards him. He was driven backwards, the giant snake striking his chest and slamming him against the staircase.
 

“Noooooooooo!,”  Javan shouted, pulling the snake back.  Zinzer hissed, wrapping himself around Javan’s arms and torso, striking out repeatedly.  The shifters struggled for control, Javan holding Zinzer at bay with his powerful arms.  Liam watched them in a daze.  He began crawling up the staircase when fire shot through his chest and stomach doubling him over in agony.

“That’s the venom,”  Zinzer said.  “If you really are one of us then it will only tickle for awhile and won’t…”  He gagged unable to continue. 

Liam watched through blurry eyes, torrents of pain burning through him like acid. Javan held Zinzer just behind his snake head, crushing the creature in his bare hands.  Zinzer’s forked tongue quivered, his golden eyes bugging out as he gasped for air. He was shrinking, his scales fading and giving way to white, doughy flesh.  Javan let him collapse to the ground, unconscious and naked. 

“Obedience.  That is all I ask for,”  Javan said. He moved calmly over to Liam, leaving the naked fat man sprawled behind him. Liam blinked, trying to keep the room in focus.  The pain boiled through his chest, branching out into his stomach and legs with fingers of fire. Javan sat next to him.   
 
 
“Soon the venom will take complete control.  When that happens you will experience unimaginable pain and suffering.  I can take the pain away.  I only ask for one favor.” 
 
 
“Anything….please…take it away…”
 
 
“When you wake, you will be in your apartment.  You are to stay there until I come for you.  The authorities are bound to come by and ask about our unfortunate visitor.  You may allow them to enter and search at will.  The basement will be cleaned, the police car disposed of.  Answer any questions by explaining you had a death call and were not on the premises.  A body is in the embalming room…Edith Etter.  We will perform the services, all you need to do is convince the officer that you were in transit, picking up Etter. I will leave all of her information next to your bed. You will be accompanied by Sherry who will keep you company until it is time.”
 

Liam gritted his teeth.  “Time for?”
 

“Time for your glorious change.”  He placed his giant hands across Liam’s chest, pressing into the slash marks with firm pressure.  Cool waves blossomed from Javan, spreading through his body.  A memory flashed into his mind.  He and his father swimming in the cool, blue waves off the shore of Sanibell Island.  He focused on the memory, the sound of seagulls, smell of ocean air, the gentle rocking motion dragging him out further into the sea.
 
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