A Taste of... Dark Malice

Chapter One

Candace Redding tapped her pen against the front of her notebook like windshield wipers during a downpour. The black ink began to blur in the pen’s clear casing, much like Candace’s mind as she worried about what she was about to do.

How had it come to this?

The first time they had asked for her help, the extra money had seemed like a dream come true. On a secretary’s salary, half her meals consisted of ramen noodles while trying to make rent. She’d never been handed such a large stack of bills at one time.

She dropped her face into her hands. What had she done in exchange for all that cash?

Sell her soul.

No, Candace wasn’t proud of what she’d been doing, but the money had gone a long way toward making her feel better. Or it used to, anyway. These days, the price on her soul had increased. A girl had to keep up with inflation.

She scoffed and fingered the five-thousand-dollar tennis bracelet she’d bought for herself while singing “7 Rings” in the jewelry store. In reality, the only thing that had inflated in Candace’s life was her taste for luxury.

After selling her soul, she might have gone a bit overboard, but having come from a poor family who shopped in thrift stores and lived off food stamps, Candace had been due a little bit of the good life. At least that’s what she’d told herself.

When that first payment had hit her hands, she promised herself she’d never buy another pack of ramen or eat at a fast-food joint. If she wanted takeout, she’d grab steak from West Lounge.

She’d been so happy to know those days were behind her.

She lived in a beautiful apartment. And forget the beat-up Toyota Corolla that had lived through Clinton’s presidency. She now drove a Mercedes with a push-start ignition.

And now?

Now, the money that had once appeared as large as the Empire State Building had become a puddle to her.

She needed more.

No…she deserved more.

Despite living in the lap of luxury, Candace had slowly become trapped in the cycle she was stuck in while broke. She lived from paycheck to paycheck again, trying to pay for her luxury apartment.

Why should she needlessly struggle to pay the bills again? Surely her time was worth more than that now. For these men, she was essential. At most jobs, one was replaceable, but not at this position. At least, it wouldn’t be easy to find a substitute.

Candace glanced at the cherrywood grandfather clock ticking away the seconds in the mortuary lobby. The normally innocuous clicking of the second hand grated on her ears. It may as well have been nails on a chalkboard. They’d arrive any minute now, and Candace had to be ready to make her demands.

She swallowed hard. It was five minutes until one in the morning. Maybe today wasn’t the right day, after all.

Though she was normally a hard sleeper, she’d woken up at exactly 5:55 yesterday morning. Damn fives. That was her unlucky number.

On her fifth birthday, she’d fallen off the pony ride at the petting zoo and broken her wrist. In the fifth grade, she’d contracted mono and spent fifteen weeks home in bed, barely able to stay awake. And somehow, every May, Candace managed to experience a minor catastrophe. Last May, she had gotten appendicitis and needed emergency surgery. The May before that was the month her grandma had passed away from an ugly battle with Alzheimer’s.

Candace gingerly massaged her temples, willing the pulsing headache to fade away. Hadn’t she talked this through with her therapist? Her tendency toward superstition was just another manifestation of her OCD. She couldn’t continue to give in to the intrusive thoughts.

Waking up to all fives on her alarm clock was not an omen of bad things to come, but an inconsequential coincidence. Would she even have noticed if it had been any other day?

“Stop it.”

Her voice was loud in the quiet office. She knew what she was doing…pleading for reasons to back out of what she was about to do.

But she wouldn’t because she had to do this. If she didn’t, she’d spend the rest of her days wishing she had enough money to support her now-luxurious lifestyle.

What an idiot she’d been to accept the original cash payment. Why hadn’t she considered the mental toll this was going to take? Before this, she’d never even needed a therapist.

Candace hadn’t always suffered from fear of being haunted, hearing whispers of ghosts in her ear as she fidgeted at her desk. The mortuary didn’t bother her when she first started working there. In fact, it had been a place of comfort. But back then, she didn’t believe any of the deceased had a reason to be angry with her.

Candace’s regrets stirred in her stomach, a rapid whirlpool of anguish and sunken dreams. If she could go back, if she could refuse the money, she would do it in a heartbeat. But unless she found a time machine, there was no way she could end this. They had explained to her that once she agreed, she’d never be able to stop, not without losing her life.

So, if she couldn’t stop, if she had to continue to help them, at least she could get a more comfortable life out of it. Living in a constant state of heightened stress while simultaneously worrying about money wasn’t what Candace had in mind when she’d taken the job.

The burner phone she carried echoed out its familiar ring, and Candace shot up in response. Her fingers shook as she lifted it to her ear.

“Kirkland Funeral Home. This is Candace speaking.” Though it was nearly one in the morning, and there was only one person who could be calling, Candace answered the phone this way out of habit.

“Five minutes.” The hollow voice said nothing else before hanging up.

Another damn five.

Candace painstakingly pocketed the phone while her pounding heartbeat radiated into her temples. She would have to do this in five minutes. What could go wrong?

She couldn’t believe she’d even asked the question.

“What could go wrong?” She snorted to herself.

Well, she was dealing with cold-blooded killers, so they could always murder her. But they wouldn’t do that. That would be an illogical move on their part.

Right?

There was no reason to kill her when they could continue to use her. Candace was indispensable to them, a necessary component of their operation. Because of this, they would give her the money she was going to ask for.

After that, things would get better. She would at least be able to forgo financial stress.

You can do this.

Letting out a shaky breath, Candace stood and straightened her pleated plaid skirt. She traced the black and gray lines with her fingertips before moving to the mirror to check her hair and makeup. The ruby lipstick made her green eyes pop like pine needles against red Christmas ribbon. Her auburn bob sat in a perfect line on her shoulders. Candace knew these gentlemen didn’t work with her just because she was attractive, but that didn’t mean looking her best wouldn’t still help during these negotiations.

Her skirt swayed from side to side as she walked into the office where the bay of security cameras sat and turned off the camera for the side door.

Oops.

She made a mental note to turn the camera back on after her visitors had left. After that, she strode across the lobby to make sure those doors were locked. When she flipped the switch, the overhead lights vanished to match the dark September night outside. There was only the lamp of the back room shining through the cracks in the door to guide her.

She was technically supposed to leave the lobby light off the entire time she was waiting so that nobody noticed someone was in the funeral home offices, but it bothered her so severely that she couldn’t sit still in the pitch black. As if what she had to do wasn’t eerie enough.

The back room had no windows. It was fine to leave that light on, so she waited by the side door, running her hands down her skirt to keep the dampness at bay.

Knock. Knock. Knock.

Candace jumped, though she’d known the sound was coming. Time to put her game face on.

She held the door open to allow the large man on the other side entrance. “Hurry, before someone sees you.”

A black body bag flung over broad shoulders blended in with the dark clothes the man was wearing. “You think I’d let anyone see me? Use your brain. Are we good to go?”

Candace hurried toward the back of the building, to the cremator room. She paused at the door. “We are, but I was hoping I could talk to you first.”

“Don’t you think this is a little more urgent?” He readjusted the weight he was carrying. He didn’t have even the hint of an expression on his face.

In her head, she’d nicknamed him “No-Face,” like the monster in her niece’s favorite childhood movie Spirited Away. Although she hadn’t seen the film in years, she remembered the character vividly. This man also had an obsession with money, much like the Spirited Away monster.

Candace was never allowed to call them by name, and besides, she only knew the name of one of her bosses. They’d assured her the less she knew about the organization, the safer she would be.

And that suited Candace fine. Knowing the names of everyone she worked for wouldn’t ease her superstitious mind. Neither would it help assuage her guilt to know that these people, like the one tossed over No-Face’s shoulder, may have spouses, children, and families who were waiting for them.

Still, over the last four years, she’d managed to take detailed notes on each body for her own security.

“This is urgent too. Look, I don’t think I can do this anymore, un-unless…” Candace had practiced this line multiple times in her bathroom mirror, but the words weren’t coming out as smoothly as they had when it was only her and her reflection. Despite her best efforts to swallow the stutter forming in her words, they reverberated out of her throat.

No-Face towered over her. “Unless what?”

“Unless you can compensate me a little better.” The words tumbled out of Candace’s mouth as a bead of sweat trickled down the small of her back. “This is a lot on me, you know. It takes hours in the middle of the night for this process to take place. If anyone ever found out about this, I’d lose more than my job. I’d end up in federal prison with a whole slew of charges.”

His face didn’t give even a hint of what he was thinking, but it never did. He was the most stoic of the group. But with that came a calm demeanor that the others didn’t share. If Candace had to make this request, she would rather make it to him. No-Face may be a formidable man, but at least with him, there was no instantaneous rage to deal with.

“And how much more are you expecting?” He barreled past her and into the crematorium, giving Candace no indication of his thoughts. No-Face unceremoniously plopped the body bag down on the stainless-steel loading table.

She followed him inside. “I was thinking…d-double, maybe?” Candace hadn’t intended for the answer to come out with such a squeaky tone.

“Double, huh?”

The voice came from behind her, and fear crawled down Candace’s spine. She froze, her body becoming a statue. She swallowed hard, but it didn’t rid her of the softball-sized lump in her throat.

She wasn’t expecting him to be here. He often wasn’t. And if she had known he was going to be, she wouldn’t have asked this today. She couldn’t ask him. It had to be anyone but this man.

An ache formed in her stomach, unlike anything she’d ever experienced before as she turned to him, lifting her chin. “I m-mean, I’m open to negotiations.”

“You warmed this thing up?” The foul man Candace thought of as “Slick” pointed toward the cremator. His dark hair was always slicked back, with never a hair out of place.

“Of c-course. I’ve been here for thirty minutes, as always. As you know, I’ve n-never been late. I show up on only twenty-four hours’ notice. I’m a g-great asset to you.”

Why was she talking to him like this was a job interview? She sounded like a seventeen-year-old trying to nab a barista position at the local coffee shop.

No-Face stepped backward, no longer taking part in the conversation. This only made the lump in Candace’s throat grow larger. The shrimp alfredo she’d had for dinner threatened to come back up.

Screw her damn therapist. She should have listened to the fives!

With the other man leaning back against the wall, she was left to deal with the body while this psychopath breathed down her neck. His hot, sticky breath enveloped her. It only quickened her already racing heart.

“We need that bag back.”

Maybe Candace shouldn’t discuss the money any further. After all, if these fiends needed to reuse body bags, maybe their funds were more limited than she’d imagined. Why hadn’t she thought of that before?

She couldn’t go back in time, though. She prayed that if she followed his directions closely, he’d forget about it and let this go.

The metal zipper chilled her fingertips. When it separated, it revealed a young man with a dark goatee and a single bullet hole in his forehead.

Still inches behind her, she swore that Slick sniffed her hair. “So, if we don’t double your pay, this is the last body you’re going to take for us, huh?”

So much for not discussing the money.

Candace could back down now, take back her request for more cash. But if she did that, she would never receive more. It would end the conversation for good.

Despite the tremor in her legs at the mere sight of this man, she couldn’t do that. Living in financial straits while harboring the shame of her actions would not lead to a fulfilling life. She had to stand by her request.

She rested her hands at her sides, resisting the urge to fidget with her watch. “I just d-don’t think I can. Last time, I was nearly caught. I need to make sure I’m taken care of.”

The way this funeral home was set up was perfect for Slick’s needs because the cremator was located on a different floor than the embalming room, which was in the basement. The door between the basement and this floor was always locked at night so the interns and night workers didn’t have access to the offices. But last week, the door had been left unlocked and Candace hadn’t thought to check it. It was only by the grace of God that she’d heard the door click open before one of the night workers had found her scraping ashes into a box.

Slick’s thin mouth twitched at the right corner before forming a sinister smile. “You want to be taken care of, huh?”

Candace let out a shaky breath. “I d-do.”

Slick stepped toward her. “You gonna just stand there, or are you gonna fry this guy?”

She jumped into motion, rushing to do as instructed, as Slick stepped over to where No-Face stood. Her hands shook badly as she removed the body bag from the man who, in addition to the bullet to the head, had been shot in the chest at least twice that she could see. A couple missing fingers showed that his last moments in life had been torturous.

One.

Two.

Three.

The minutes ticked by as she worked, and beads of sweat formed on her brow. How long could she stand the silence?

Candace couldn’t take it anymore. When she was finished prepping the dead man, she opened her mouth, ready to tell Slick she didn’t need any more cash, when he spoke up.

“Well, if you want to be taken care of, we’ll take care of you.”

Relief washed over Candace, and she let out a nervous laugh, turning to face Slick again. “R-really?”

“Absolutely.” He glanced at No-Face. “You wanna help me take care of her?”

Both men stepped forward, and in a split second, her relief turned to dread. The world around her moved in slow motion, as if she were a movie character about to experience her last moments.

Was she?

She flung both hands up, and they shook wildly in front of her face. “No, wait! Please, it’s fine. I’ll keep w-working for you at our agreed price. It’s no big d-deal. Really!”

Candace squeezed her eyes shut, praying this was only an intimidation tactic to keep her in line. Strong arms grabbed her, powerful fingers closing around her elbows like a vise.

In that moment, the hope that had burned in her chest was snuffed out like a light.

“No!” She kicked and screamed, but her own voice was foreign before becoming muffled by the hand slapped over her mouth.

Slick grabbed Candace’s chin and leaned down until they were eye to eye. “I don’t take well to threats. Can’t trust people that threaten me, either. Let’s just say you won’t be working for us anymore.”

Panic exploded in Candace’s chest, and she had an instant urge to vomit. She wrenched her chin free of the vile man’s grasp, turning wildly to No-Face. “Don’t do this.” She managed to pull his fingers from her mouth just enough that she could speak. “P-please. You can t-trust me, I swear. I’ll do whatever you w-want.”

But her pleas fell on deaf ears. She knew he listened to the demands of the boss. He always had.

As though she weighed no more than a child, No-Face lifted her until she was sprawled across the dead man on the loading table. With a push of a button, the cremator door slid open. A gust of hot lava rushed toward Candace’s feet.

No!

She screamed again, and blood filled her mouth as the hand slammed back down, cutting her lips on her teeth.

This couldn’t be how her life ended. She had so much left to do. Since she was a little girl, she’d wanted to get married. Candace had never fallen in love, never had kids. All she’d done was chase money endlessly, and now it would cost her the most precious thing she had. Her life.

“Please! I don’t want to die!” Her sobs were heavy, her body heaving as she wailed. She was a defenseless rabbit caught in a rushing river, drowning in the waves.

Mustering every ounce of strength she had, Candace writhed as hard as she could. But she was one hundred and ten pounds soaking wet, and these men were nothing but muscle. Moving her arms against them only created a burning friction on her skin.

Tears blurring her vision, Candace slammed the heel of her hand into Slick’s nose.

Rage contorted his face, and his grip loosened around her arms, allowing a flame of hope to ignite in her chest once more. Twisting her body, she managed to lift her leg and knee him straight in the groin with all her might.

He stumbled backward in pain, releasing Candace from his grip. “You little bitch!”

Wrenching away from No-Face, Candace rolled off the dead man and sprinted toward the door. If she could just make it outside, she could hide somewhere and call the police. She was going to make it. She was going to live.

An iron fist came out of nowhere, yanking her to a stop before dragging her toward the cremator once more. “It’s over.”

Candace jerked and kicked, but the monster’s arms of steel continued to drag her across the floor.

“Noooo!”

Slick joined his partner, grabbing Candace’s legs. “I hate that it has to end this way. You’ve been so…helpful.” A slow smile spread across his wicked face.

As they moved her closer to the cremator, Candace clawed at everything she saw along the way, but she was grasping for straws.

She’d heard that, in one’s last moments, their life flashed before their eyes, but she’d just assumed that was a figure of speech. Now forced to look death in the face, Candace’s memories came rushing to the surface. Her sixth birthday party, when her father had taken her to ride a horse for the first time. The last time she’d held her mother, whom she hadn’t visited in ages.

Why did she never go see her? What had been more important than family?

Salty tears streaked down her cheeks. “Please! P-please don’t do this. I’ll do anything you ask. Anything. I—”

She shrieked as heat seared the bottoms of her feet as she was tossed onto the dead man again, and the loading table began to move into the primary chamber. Hands held her in place, and she was powerless to stop the men from pushing her inside.

Mama. Oh, Mama, I’m so scared.

Flames came to life as the fire found new food to consume.

I’m so sorry.

As the flames melted her flesh, all her thoughts disappeared. There was only searing agony, unlike anything she’d ever known.

Her screams echoed against the cremator walls…until they didn’t anymore.

Chapter Two

Un-freaking-believable.

Detective Charlotte Cross took one last longing glance at her computer screen before exiting the browser. As much as she wanted to daydream about a tropical vacation, she had a case to investigate.

She pushed her desk chair back and turned to her partner. “So much for a break between cases.”

Detective Matthew Church flashed Charli a grin as he headed out the door to catch up with their boss. “That’ll happen when pigs fly.”

Charli hurried to catch up with Matthew. For the thousandth time, Charli wished she had longer legs. She stepped through the doorframe of their boss’s office. “Kirkland Funeral Home, huh?” Charli had heard of the place, although she’d never had a reason to go inside.

Sergeant Ruth Morris was already seated at her desk. “That’s the one. Evidently, three employees didn’t show up for work this morning.”

“That hardly seems like an issue requiring police assistance.” Matthew echoed Charli’s thoughts as he lowered himself into a chair across from Ruth.

The sergeant straightened a stack of papers on her desk. “It wouldn’t be. Except that one of their cars is still in the parking lot, and something about a body being stolen. The 911 caller wasn’t very clear.”

“Who the hell steals bodies from a mortuary?” Charli glanced between her boss and her partner.

The sergeant rolled her chocolate brown eyes. “That’s what I want you two to find out. A few officers are down there now, and out of ‘an abundance of caution,’” Ruth air quoted the words, “the first officer to arrive established the funeral home as a crime scene. I want you guys out there five minutes ago.”

Matthew rose from his chair. “Then we’re already driving. Aren’t we, Charli?”

Charli pulled her keys out of her pocket and dangled them in the air. “Sure are.”

There was a bit of pep in Matthew’s step on the way to the car.

“Relieved you’re not stuck answering phones?” Charli sped up to keep his stride.

“Not only do I not have to answer phones, but there are no gruesome bodies waiting to be identified. Sounds like a pretty good day to me.”

Matthew couldn’t stand gore, but Charli rarely had an issue with it. Not that she enjoyed seeing mangled bodies, but it didn’t cause her any undue stress. To her, a dead body deserved her complete attention so she could gather the clues it provided and do her best to make sure whoever hurt it was caught and brought to justice.

With a grin, Charli opened the car door for Matthew, since his right arm was full of stitches from their last case, when the perpetrator had unexpectedly pulled a knife and attempted to plunge the blade into Matthew’s chest. His arm had blocked the blow, but he hadn’t escaped without injury. Today was his first day back on the job, and he seemed delighted to have managed to escape desk duty for a new case.

Matthew bowed into an exaggerated curtsy. “What a gentleman you are.”

Charli stifled a laugh, the grin growing wider. “Don’t get used to it.”

Kirkland Funeral Home was only ten minutes from the precinct. Charli was familiar with it because one of her favorite Chinese food places stood right across the street. Too bad it was nine in the morning. A little early for a container of Kung Pao shrimp.

Yellow police tape surrounded a black Mercedes in the funeral home parking lot, and Charli assumed it belonged to one of the employees who had failed to show up for work. Officer Donnie Langston stood outside the entrance, logbook in hand.

Charli took the book to sign in before holding it out for her partner to sign. “Hello, Officer. What have you got for us? Something about a missing body?”

The lanky officer rubbed a finger across his neatly trimmed mustache, the same shade as his blond comb-over. “Well, since that call was made, we’ve managed to straighten a few things out.”

Charli frowned. “What do you mean?”

“When the manager came in this morning, he found the cremator still on, though it wasn’t supposed to be used the previous day or night. At first, he believed it was a mistake of one of his employees, until he found enough ashes inside for two bodies.”

Matthew was still scrawling his awkward left-handed signature when his head snapped up. “So, no one stole a body from the mortuary?”

Officer Langston reached for the logbook as Matthew finished signing in, a sheepish smile creeping onto his face. “Well, that’s what I thought initially. There was a bit of…confusion. Anyway, it’s a long story, and the funeral director is in his office waiting to speak to you.”

Charli flashed the officer a smile. “We’ll go speak with him now. Thanks.”

The director’s office was pretty much what Charli expected of a funeral home administrator. It was a dreary room with deep green walls that almost looked black at first glance. His dark wood desk was empty, devoid of any family photos or decorations. Putting up photographs of loved ones in a place where people would be grieving their own family members probably wasn’t advisable. Still, the room could’ve been designed to be a little more inviting.

A tall man with strawberry blond hair that had more white than red sat at the desk. Charli imagined the man’s hair had been a brilliant shade of auburn in his youth. “You must be Detective Cross and Detective Church. I’ve seen you guys on the news. You helped with the Mowery case, right?”

Charli didn’t much enjoy being recognized this way. This was one of the many reasons she hated doing press conferences. “We are, yes.”

He stood up from behind his desk to extend a hand. “I’m Bernie Cobb.”

Matthew was the first to shake it. “What is your position at this establishment, Mr. Cobb?”

The man smiled and smoothed his crimson tie. “I’m the director. I handle the day-to-day operations, since the owners are rarely here.”

Charli took a seat in one of the black leather chairs in front of the executive desk. “My partner and I would like to ask you a few questions, Mr. Cobb.” The director nodded his acquiescence. “Can you tell us what time you arrived at the funeral home this morning?”

His brow furrowed. “I’ve already explained all of this to the other officers.”

Matthew settled into the seat next to Charli. “We understand, but we have to keep our own records.”

The director sighed. “Well, I came in at eight as I do every morning. I was expecting three employees to be here already, but only Candace Redding’s car was in the lot. I wasn’t surprised by that, considering she’s my most punctual employee.” He leaned back in his chair, concern marring his features. “Until I came in, and she was nowhere to be found.”

Charli jotted the details down in her notebook. “I noticed a security camera on top of the back door marked ‘employees only’ when we came in. Is that camera functional? Have you checked it to see when Ms. Redding arrived?”

Cobb brushed away an imaginary speck of dust from the corner of his desk. “It is, and I did. She came in a little before twelve-thirty this morning.”

Charli’s pen froze in its spot. She glanced up from her notes. “Is it normal for your employees to be here in the middle of the night?”

Bernie shrugged. “We run three shifts, so there are employees here around the clock. And although Candace typically works from eight to five, it’s not unusual for her to show up at odd hours to do paperwork. As I said, she is a very reliable employee.”

That made no sense whatsoever. Even if Candace was an excellent employee, what kind of person rolled out of bed in the middle of the night and went to their job to do paperwork? Even if she was diligent, why wouldn’t she just stay late after her shift or come in early the next day?

Matthew cleared his throat. “We’re going to need that security camera footage.”

The funeral director leaned down and rummaged in a desk drawer, pulling out a black leather-bound book and setting it on the middle of his desk. “I already gave it to the other officer, but you’re going to see exactly what I did. Candace shows up at 12:24 this morning, walks in from her car, and then never leaves.”

The detectives made brief eye contact, and Charli knew they were on the same wavelength. If Candace didn’t leave, one of the bodies in that cremator could be hers.

“Is it possible for someone to put their own body into the cremator?” Charli didn’t want to ask about whether Candace could lock herself in specifically. She saw no reason to make that assumption aloud, but the director filled in the gaps for her.

“Are you asking if Candace could have cremated herself? I mean, anyone can throw their own body in, but you can’t close the door from the inside, and it was locked shut.”

Mr. Cobb was awfully blasé about the possibility that his secretary had been burned to a crisp. But perhaps that was what working with death day in and day out did to a person. After all, hadn’t Charli and Matthew acquired a very dark sense of humor after years on the job?

Charli wasn’t leaning toward suicide, but she had to rule out every possibility. Burning to death wasn’t how most sane people would choose to die. But sometimes, when a person was suffering from psychosis, they made some very odd choices. This early in the investigation, the detectives had to keep an open mind.

Matthew leaned forward, putting his good arm on his knee. “And did you see anyone else come and go on the security footage?”

“Nope. It was only Candace.” The director picked a piece of lint from his dark suit jacket. “Though, a strange thing did happen.”

Charli loved when strange things happened because those incidences were usually a clue. “What’s that?”

“Well, the camera for the employee entrance stopped working at 12:55 this morning.”

Well…well…well…it was, in fact, another clue, though this one might create more questions than answers.

“Only that camera?” Matthew asked.

Bernie nodded. “I turned it back on when I noticed it wasn’t functioning.”

Dammit. In doing so, Bernie probably destroyed any fingerprints they could have taken, but Charli made a note to test the system for prints anyway.

The detectives exchanged another brief glance, and Matthew straightened in his seat. “You said there were enough ashes for two bodies, correct? Is it possible the other burned body came from within the funeral home?”

Bernie’s face contorted in dismay. “Oh, heavens no. That would be impossible. We keep a very detailed record of all our deceased and what services they’re scheduled for. Besides, it’s illegal to cremate multiple bodies at the same time in the United States.” The director took out a logbook from a drawer behind his desk and slid it over to Charli. “All our deceased have been accounted for, and there was no one on the schedule to be cremated last night or this morning. Neither of those cremated bodies was one of our…guests.”

What a word.

Charli flipped to a new page in her notebook. “So, if one of your employees couldn’t have cremated themselves and all your, um, guests, are accounted for, how could at least two bodies’ worth of ashes be discovered in the cremator?”

Blind spots. Charli already knew the answer but wanted the director’s input.

Bernie ran a hand through his hair. “Detectives, though security is a primary concern, there are blind spots within our monitoring system that would make it possible for someone to leave or arrive without being spotted. If someone were to walk up to the back door, for example, from the left sidewalk, they would not be detected on our footage. Those bodies could belong to anyone.”

But how would they have gotten inside? And why?

“How many entrances are in the building?”

Bernie sighed as he pulled out a map of the funeral home to answer Charli’s question. “We have five doors. Our main lobby entrance as well as the entrance where our hearses receive the deceased following a memorial service. Then there is a side door near the crematorium, which is used for the office staff who work on this floor. Those three are all on this level.”

Charli examined the map. “And downstairs?”

Bernie pointed at a door. “This is the entrance and exit for mortuary staff.” He pointed again. “And this one is used for receiving the deceased.”

Matthew tapped that part of the map. “Who uses those doors?”

The funeral director gave another long sigh, seeming to be annoyed with the question. “Hearses, ambulances, coroner vans.”

Five doors with blind spots would widen the scope of the case a great deal. If anyone could walk in or out undetected, then Candace may have walked out of the building herself. If that were the case, it was possible she wasn’t one of the deceased bodies, after all. Though it would be strange for her not to go back to her car after leaving. Still, Charli had to keep in mind all possibilities.

“You said two other employees failed to show up for work today, correct?” Matthew took the floor while Charli wrote down details about the security camera. “Can we get their names?”

“That would be Jacob Pernell and Elwood Sanders. Elwood does custodial and maintenance work for us. Honestly, he’s a bit of an airhead, and it wouldn’t be the first time he failed to show up. But I keep him around because he does a good job when he’s here. Jacob, like Candace, is usually punctual, though. He’s one of my assistants. I’ve got an employee directory with their numbers and addresses.”

Charli stopped her note-taking to meet Bernie’s eye. “We’re going to need that entire directory to contact other employees as well.”

Just because these three were the ones who failed to show up for work today didn’t mean other employees weren’t potentially involved. Anyone who had access to the building was a potential suspect.

The director flashed a patronizing smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Absolutely. I’ll make sure you have the contact information for all twenty-eight of them.”

Matthew lifted his eyebrows. “You have twenty-eight employees at this funeral home?”

Charli was just as surprised. How many people did it take to run this small building?

“Detective Church, we’re one of the busiest funeral homes in Savannah. Every body that is unclaimed by a family member is sent to us by the county. As I mentioned, we’re open every day, twenty-four hours a day. We have receptionists, secretaries, morticians, custodial staff, director’s assistants, interns, and other staff members.”

Evidently, Charli had no idea how much manpower it took to keep a funeral home running.

 It seemed she was about to find out.


To continue reading Dark Malice click HERE! 

Dark Malice by Mary Stone

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