I hate it when we get a vampire in the funeral home. You get a call, take in a body thinking it’s just a normal human and then you come back the next morning to find it missing. I hate finding newly turned vampires because I’m supposed to destroy them. I mean if they’re the property of an older vampire who wants them, they wouldn’t have come to the funeral home in the first place, right?
Zombies are almost as bad, but they’re not usually smart enough to get through the door locks we have on the closet. Vampires will hammer their way out unless they know how to pick a lock. Of course, we have a latch, so the door gets destroyed a lot.
I’d had a feeling about this body the day we got it. It had minimal blood left. Of course the neck had been peeled open so that could have been a lot of things. Hellhounds sometimes kill like that not to mention a lot of other spells and creatures I don’t care to think about.
“What do you think?” I asked my boss, Honser. Honser is tall and thin and as pale as many of our clients. He was bent over the wooden table like a tree, sniffing it. The old wood beneath his feet hardly made a sound as he shifted slightly. He’s so slight he might be something ethereal but he’s human, although barely.
“Not sure. Gotta take it though. Law.” Honser is a man of few words. I guess that’s what happens when you work in the funeral industry long enough. You get used to the fact that your clients don’t talk. Well, our real clients are usually families of those who have died but we’re not exactly an upscale funeral home, or else we wouldn’t have problems with vampires. No, we’re in the poorer part of town, you know, the one you don’t like to walk past at night? Yeah that’s us.
The place sits up against the walls. We actually have a little hidden door that we can take the bodies out to bury them outside the walls, although the ground is consecrated. We’re just two doors down from the Watch, which is convenient for them. We get a lot of unknowns, like this guy, torn up by who knew what and ready for burial.
“Least they don’t expect us to know those kinds of things,” I muttered. I’d heard from my friend Leesie that her boss was having to come up with information for the Castle guards on how and why someone might have died. But then again they mostly did deaths in the castle. I could see how knowing how someone was killed up there got to be important.
Different funeral homes had different areas of specialty as well as areas of the city. Of course, Olivett’s Funeral Homes were expanding and even down into the neighborhoods nearby. That didn’t affect us just yet, but Traggert’s Funeral Home was now taking in some of the creatures that used to be exclusive to us. And believe me, Traggert was not happy about it. Course, I like to think we still gave better service.
“Ummm…” Honser made a sound, bringing me back to my work. He was bent over the body tracing the neck wound. He licked his finger, wrinkled his nose.
“Been lying out there for some time. At least twelve hours,” he said. Honser takes his job seriously. I have never, nor do I plan to ever, start tasting blood.
I nodded. It was getting late and I was off shift in an hour. I could start the process of cleaning the body or I could set it aside for the next day. I decided on the latter.
“Not a vampire though?” I asked again. The timing was a little off, but Honser’s tasting was really only a ballpark. Just to be clear, I really hate chasing them down and destroying them. If they’ve fed before I get to them there’s blood everywhere. It’s a mess. And it’s not like I make enough money to have a ton of new clothing and that much blood leaves a trace no matter what you do. Leesie gets an allowance for spelling the stains out of her clothing. Once a month she can have as much done as she wants. I wish Honser offered that sort of perk.
“Can’t taste a taint. There’s enough there to work with. Iffin it was a vampire, he got interrupted. Maybe too soon to have turned this un.”
Great. Now I’d have to worry.
“Should I stake him to be sure?” I asked.
Honser shrugged. “I wouldn’t. Course I’m not the one to chase im down again, am I?” He cackled a little before shuffling off to the other side of the room. There was a long narrow section with knives and tubes and rags to wash off the bodies. We had three large tubs so that we could wash in stages if we had to.
“Maybe I will,” I said.
“Stake’ll come out of your pay iffin he’s not,” Honser said. He continued to chuckle.
And of course if the thing didn’t turn, I couldn’t prove I’d been acting proactively so I’d be paying for the stake. As if I had that kind of money. Working for Honser is annoying sometimes. But the work is interesting. I mean because we are the place where the Watch brings the unclaimed dead, we see merfolk, goblins, gnomes, dwarves, and even some elves, although they’re hard to kill. We have to do different things to each of them when preparing them for burning or burial, depending. Honser seems like a slave driver, but he’s a font of information about little known rituals.
I rinsed off the wound area lightly before putting the body away for the morning. I went home hoping against hope that it was just a hellhound gotten the better of some poor slob but no matter what I told myself, I wasn’t convinced. Maybe it was the fact that there were clouds in the sky and it was raining and I’ve never had luck in the rain. Some folks find the rain lucky, but not me.
The next morning, it was still raining out, harder than I liked. I hadn’t convinced myself that the new body wasn’t a vampire. I pulled my cloak around me and walked the few short blocks over the cobbles, going more slowly than usual so I didn’t fall and get splattered. I suspected it wouldn’t matter anyway. I had my oldest cloak so I didn’t stay as dry as I might. Not that it mattered because I had on my oldest shirt and trousers. I wouldn’t be going for drinks with Leesie that night unless I changed. I found that thought disappointing. I realized I was taking a fancy to her. Not something I really thought was smart, mind, because while Leesie and I might work in the same industry, she was miles ahead of me in class.
The funeral home door was old and in need of a good coat of pain. In fact, the wood was getting so old, it wouldn’t hurt to have it be replaced. I used my key in a lock that wobbled as I inserted it, hoping that this was a good sign. After all, if our unidentified person had been a vampire, chances were he’d have found the door and left.
The door opened to our little reception area. I was allowed to use the front door when coming and going from work, so long as I didn’t have a body with me. If I had a body, I needed to go out the little door through the wall. If that wasn’t where they were to be buried or burned, I had to come back around through the side gate and by the Watch, telling them my business and then onto my destination. I really hated those types of funerals.
I walked across the little reception room which was the only area most people saw and as such was the only area that was at all decorated, if you could call it that. It had a stout wooden bench long enough for three sitting against one wall and some spelled flowers on a low stool in front, to make it look cheerier. A square table with a wooden surface shined through spells sat in the corner with two chairs. Honser and I would talk to the person who was planning the funeral and make notes there. We had an upright chest behind us that allowed us to store information. There was an old painting Honser had taken for payment and while the light had faded the colors you could still make out the shapes of trees in the picture.
There was a door in the corner, designed to blend in with the dull blue and brown décor so no one would really notice it. I opened it to go in back after lighting a lamp. We had small windows in the front but as the back of the building was against the wall, there were no windows there. I moved past the supply table and went over to the closet where we kept the bodies. Bad sign. That door was open. We never left those doors open overnight.
It had a latch on the outside, which made me look again. Usually if a vampire woke up, it would pound its way through the door making a mess. That hadn’t happened here. Someone had opened the door and gone in.
“Honser?” I called. Something wasn’t right.
He didn’t answer. Fortunately nothing else did either. I lifted the lamp and turned up the wick as high as it would go. Nothing else seemed out of place. All our knives and tubes and tubs were stacked as they should be. A few of the rags we used to clean were in the dirty rag bucket, ready for me to take out to wash when we had a slow day.
I walked across the floor. It creaked slightly with my foot falls. I’m heavier than Honser even though I’m not very big. It’s amazing what we have to do when we get an ogre. I looked in the closet. The body should have been the only one there but I counted four legs. The first body was lying on the floor. Another, tall and thin lay beside it. I could see a dark puddle by that one.
“No,” I moaned. I got closer, kneeling down. I could see the thin white hair that had covered Honser’s head. I put my hand on his chest, pulling away when I felt the chill. He’d been dead for a long time. Had he stayed late and the vampire had been pounding on the door? It would be like him to think only of the money and open the door to make sure the vampire didn’t break it down.
I looked for a stake, but there wasn’t one. That in itself was strange. Honser might be cheap but he wasn’t a fool.
I stood and backed up. This was beyond me. I might have to deal with the bodies but I needed to inform the Watch that something had killed Honser. I figured it had to be related to the body they brought by the day before. I closed the closet and set the latch. Then I went out the front, still carrying the lamp.
I must have looked a fool, hurrying down the street, bedraggled as they come in my thin cloak, hurrying through the rain holding a lit lamp even though there was plenty of daylight to go around. Fortunately the Watch was only two doors down.
“Bellossia Tursin,” the Watch commander said. He sat at a desk writing something down. He barely glanced up at me when I entered. The Watch’s office was thick white brick like they make down at the river so it was quite bright with the shutters opened and my lamp on high.
“Something killed Honser,” I said. I could tell I wanted to weep but that would look womanish and I was already looking a fool.
That got the Commander’s attention. Honser was an icon in this area.
“What got him?” Iryas asked, standing. He pulled the cloak from the peg behind him. “Pell! Raven!” He called.
“Don’t know,” I said. “Had that body from yesterday. It was in the closet. I set the latch. I know I did. But I came in this morning and Honser was there on the floor with that body. I was worried it might have been a vampire…”
Iryas nodded as if he understood my babbling. Maybe he did. No doubt he heard more than his share of babble when something happened.
Pell and Raven entered from the back of the Watch Barracks.
“Pell, watch the desk. Raven with me. Honser’s been killed.”
“She didn’t do it did she?” Pell pointed at me.
“Doubtful,” Iryas said. He turned but I got the distinct impression he rolled his eyes. Pell wasn’t likely to be getting a promotion any time soon.
We walked out into the rain. The lamp was still on high and looked even sillier as the day had brightened and the rain wasn’t falling so hard. I sniffled. I got a whiff of wood smoke from beyond the wall in the short time we were outside. Nothing out of the ordinary. Just a fish wife starting her day, hoping the roof would hold off the rain to keep the home fire burning so she could do her work in peace.
We entered the Funeral Home. I’d forgotten to lock it but no one had come in. We went through to the back, with me in the lead. Iryas was tall enough that like Honser he had to duck his head to get through the door. Raven was more my height, but he was strong, like an ox. I wouldn’t want to have to take care of him on my own if something happened. I’d need an apprentice, I supposed, always assuming I could take over the home and Honser hadn’t made other arrangements.
Iryas looked at the latch, noting as I did that it wasn’t damaged. Then he looked at the door.
“Think a vampire would have busted out,” Raven said quietly. His voice was hushed. Iryas lit his own torch before opening the closet.
He stepped inside, holding the torch high. Raven followed. Iryas knelt. Raven took the torch in practically one motion. I waited back in the workroom, letting them examine the closet and the two bodies.
“Too much blood for a new vampire, don’t you think?” Iryas said in a stage whisper.
“Would have lapped that up at once.”
“Zombie?” Iryas said.
“Who’d want something like that to go after Honser?” Raven asked. “Easier ways to get at the old man.”
“Maybe it’s not just the old man,” Iryas said.
I waited, thinking. There was Traggert four streets over. Of course, let’s face it, Traggert had the disadvantage of a name that was known and everyone knew he was lazy. Gnomes wouldn’t use him at all. In fact, they removed their dead from him at first notice. I’d heard that Traggert was far enough up the food chain that he could afford to not do ogres and anyone suspected of vampirism, up until recently.
Hadn’t I heard him a week ago complaining about ogres and their smell?
“Traggert,” I said out loud without thinking. He couldn’t really have wanted me gone too, could he?
Iryas looked up.
“What about him?” Raven had stepped back into the work room, taking the torch with him.
“Business is off for him. He was complaining about having to take an ogre last week, which he never used to do. Honser wasn’t happy exactly but not unhappy either. Ogres smell up the place for months after.”
Iryas frowned. “Olivett’s new place?”
“Traggert’s the last man I’d want around here taking up the ruffians. He doesn’t care about their rituals. Just wants the silver,” Iryas said. “Better go talk to him.”
Raven snuffed the torch with an odd hand motion. I tried not to look startled. He must have some elven blood somewhere to be able to do that, I thought. He didn’t look the least bit eleven with his stocky build.
He grinned a little, enjoying my discomfort.
“Latch the closet. If something wakes, get out,” Iryas said. “We’ll be back.”
I didn’t respond. I just latched the closet behind me. I even went out to the front and pulled my cloak about me and sat in the reception area behind the table. I wrote up some notes about Honser. I looked through a bit of the paperwork to see who I should talk to about his death. At some point I remembered to trim the wick on the lamp and let the light fade. I didn’t hear anything from the other room.
The rain stopped pattering on the roof and the sun started to peek through the clouds into the main room. Voices were chattering away outside. Someone screamed. I smelled horse manure and sighed. Someone hadn’t cleaned up after themselves or hadn’t paid one of the boys to do it. I could only hope the Watch really was watching and could fine them. I hated having to clean up the street. Of course, soon enough I’d have an apprentice and I could make them clean up the street outside.
My stomach was growling, reminding me that normally I’d have taken a copper and gone to the tavern for the special that day, when Iryas came back.
Raven wasn’t with him.
I looked up at him, expectantly.
“Traggert’s dead too. Looks like he’s been there for a full day.”
“Then who?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine Olivett doing that.
Iryas smiled. “Caught me a gnome who had a family member desecrated by Traggert. Made Traggert think it was his own idea to hire a necromancer to raise a zombie. Course Traggert was enough of a fool to think he could talk to the new zombie to order it around. Didn’t know only the necromancer could do it.”
I rolled my eyes. Talk about dumb. Everyone knew you didn’t mess with zombies. “What about the gnome?” I asked.
“Racial immunity. Not illegal to be a necromancer in his part of the world and he’s here with the ambassador. Why he was willing to talk to us.”
I sighed. “So we don’t get justice?”
Iryas shrugged. “You got Traggert and he’s the one who wanted Honser dead.”
“And what about the zombie?” I wasn’t at all thrilled about going in there if it thought it had more to do.
“Gnome assures me you’re safe. He says you did a good job with his family after they got him away from Traggert.”
“That was Honser, not me,” I protested. “Fool. I don’t know half the rituals that Honser did.”
“Guess you got some learning to do,” Iryas said.
“Haven’t found the paperwork yet,” I said. “Honser could have left this place to family.”
“He left me the paperwork,” Iryas said. “He liked you. Didn’t want you getting all honest on him and giving away the business looking for his family, who, he said would take it all away and leave nothing for you.”
“Really?” I asked. I’ve been called many things, but rarely honest. But really, I liked Honser and respected what he did. I didn’t want to overstep and become some underground funeral lord or something. We don’t have those here, but you know, other cities have them and all.
“Really,” Iryas said. “So get those two cleaned up and ready. I’ll find Honser’s family.”
I nodded. Iryas left. I sat at my table slightly stunned. Then I let myself cry for my boss just a little. And for me because I didn’t have help and didn’t know half what I wanted to know before starting out. In some ways this was scarier than a dead body or even an undead one.
If you liked this story, you can find purchase this story or others by Bonnie Elizabeth at your favorite retailers. Check out “Dead Surprise” here.