Someone dumped a body in an open grave at the cemetery, and the undertaker isn't happy about it. But he isn't happy about the police trying to solve it, either.
Mystery Amateur Detective/Cozy
||Washington, District of Columbia
||7 publishers interested
The Body in the Hole is an amateur detective murder mystery featuring the unlikeable and morally ambiguous Yvgeny. Yvgeny is an undertaker who lives with his mother in a mortuary in middle-Georgia.
Don’t let Yvgeny’s career choice turn you away from my book; while some of Yvgeny’s antics will make you cringe, there is nothing gory or violent.
While preparing for a funeral one afternoon, he is annoyed to find someone dumped a body in the grave dug for the day’s festivities.
Always looking for a way to make some extra money, he searches the victim’s body and finds a watch, which he removes and hides before calling the police.
Yvgeny doesn’t like the detectives called out to investigate the crime, and, perhaps because of a small dose of guilt over taking the watch, (although not enough guilt for him to hand it over to the police), he tries to beat the detectives at their own game and solve the crime.
Yvgeny teams up with a cast of not always like-minded characters in this small Georgia town, trying to stay one step ahead as the mediocre detectives close in. He drafts a motley assortment of local talent to help him: there's the mentally deficient one eyed owner of the army-navy surplus store, and the local doctor/deputy coroner who is a recovering hippie with a Tom Selleck fetish.
In the middle of everything, Yvgeny falls for the crude and vulgar granddaughter of an old man buried in his cemetery. She is turned off by his bizarre Victorian era dress and strange interests, but Yvgeny’s persistence pays off.
I had a lot of fun writing this book, and if you are looking for a murder mystery that will make you laugh as you try to figure out whodunnit, then The Body in the Hole is for you!
My chapter summaries are intentionally brief and slightly vague so as not to ruin the story for my readers.
Introduction to Yvgeny and Alfred, discovery of the body.
Yvgeny inspects the body, finds a watch, decides to keep it, then calls the police.
The police and a detective arrive, the detective inspects the body, then calls for Coroner, who takes body to the GBI.
Yvgeny meets Brianna. Yvgeny’s character is developed.
Yvgeny visits his friend Reuben at his pawn shop, pawns some jewelry, shows Reuben the watch.
Yvgeny decides to try to solve the murder himself. He and his mother discuss the mortuary business. Yvgeny believes the victim was Jewish, begins searching the area for synagogues. Introduction to Rabbi Shalom Shachter and his grandson.
Yvgeny goes on a date with Brianna. The next morning he pays a visit to the detectives investigating the murder. Tells them
he thinks the victim was Jewish.
Introduction to the detectives, Harry Newsome and Bubba Johnson. Detectives talk about case with GBI pathologist Rufus Kincaid.
The detectives and Yvgeny each begin their parallel but separate investigation. The detectives begin to suspect Yvgeny is interfering with their investigation.
Development of Rabbi Shachter’s character, introduction of his grandson and his friends. Yvgeny tries to enlist the Rabbi’s help but is turned down.
The detectives enlist the Rabbi’s help.
The detectives tell Yvgeny to stay out of investigation, then get more clues from the pathologist (Kincaid). Yvgeny convinces Rocko, the pawn shop owner, to help him.
The detectives begin working on the clues they received from Kincaid. They meet with a colleague in a neighboring county, Lieutenant Barry Jameson. Meanwhile, Rocko tries to get involved in the investigation, ends up getting arrested. The
detectives discover he was helping Yvgeny, and also learn an important clue from Rocko.
The detectives enlist the help of Crawford County K9 Officer Thomas Nathan Thomas (“TNT”).
Yvgeny posts bail for Rocko. Rocko unwittingly shares with Yvgeny the detectives’ next move and Yvgeny beats the detectives to the destination. Unfortunately, the detectives arrive just in time to catch Yvgeny and Rocko at the scene.
The detectives return to the Rabbi with more questions, but the Rabbi was about to start services and asks if they can meet
later. The detectives agree, then run into TNT, who insists on joining them at the Rabbi’s. At the Rabbi’s later that day, TNT’s K9 gets loose, sniffs his way to a new clue.
Development of the new clue leads to an arrest.
Geny enlists the help of Dr. Jimmy Flowers.
Yvgeny and Flowers stake out a potential suspect while the detectives interrogate theirs.
Officer Thomas’s K9 sniffs a potential crime scene, finds evidence, and the detectives make two arrests. A dispute ensues regarding jurisdiction.
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
The detectives take their two arrests to jail, interrogate them in their cell and collect enough information to interview yet another suspect. The detectives finally get a positive id on the victim.
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
The detectives visit another suspect who also identifies the victim.
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
The detectives return to the GBI and talk to the pathologist about the evidence they found the previous day. Meanwhile,
Yvgeny prepares for a funeral that afternoon.
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
The detectives and Officer Thomas visit one of the previous crime scene because new evidence is found. The K9 goes into action. Later, while Yvgeny presides over the funeral, the detectives go to the magistrate seeking a search warrant.
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
Yvgeny follows a hunch to a suspect’s home. While he is there, the detectives arrive with their search warrant.
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX
The crime gets solved.
Based on my research, the majority of readers (and writers) of the "cozy" sub-genre of the murder mystery are women. Think Agatha Christie.
I believe The Body in the Hole straddles the line between cozy and standard amateur detective murder mystery. I base my opinion on the description offered by Kristen Houghton in her online article, "The Immense Popularity of the Cozy Mysteries" (The Blog, February 4, 2016):
“Cozies are fun to read. . . . The amateurs in such stories are nearly always well educated, intuitive women. . . . Murderers in cozy mysteries are generally intelligent, rational, articulate people, and murders are pretty much bloodless and neat. Violence and sex are low-key and supporting background characters bring comic relief to the story.”
Except for Yvgeny being a man, The Body in the Hole neatly fits that description.
According to Linda Rodriguez, in her online article “Who Reads What: Thrillers, Mysteries, and Gender Lines,” (Criminal Element.com, May 8, 2013), “Women are the majority of readers throughout the spectrum . . . and women write roughly half the books in the entire combined mystery/thriller genre.”
A survey from 2010 noted “when it comes to mystery and thriller readers, 68% are women, 35% live in the south, 48% are suburban dwellers, and 26% are 65 or older.” How to Market Mysteries & Thrillers, by Jessica Schein (Lulu Self-Publishing, July 11, 2012).
Given my research, my book would be appealing to those looking for a murder mystery. I also believe cozy readers would enjoy it, but my challenge will be luring them in without Yvgeny's career choice scaring them off.
Jonathan has written three novels: Death and Repair (Black Rose Writing, 2017), The Body in the Hole, and a third novel, The Ledger (complete but not yet brought to market). He is currently writing the sequel to The Body in the Hole.
Jonathan has a degree in English Literature and advanced degrees in Law and Philosophy. His career spans almost twenty five years, including service as a police officer, assistant district attorney, and special agent of the FBI. Jonathan's career has included assignments on both coasts and most continents; home is currently Virginia.
Jonathan has the following additional publications:
- Voluntariness with a Vengeance; Miranda and a Modern Alternative, 14 St. Thomas L. Rev. 109 (2001).
- Vehicle Pursuits. (The FBI Investigator, Fall 2014 Edition.)
- Death and Repair (Blackrose Writing, 2017).
- Writing as Steven Starklight:
- Grammar Saves Lives: Professional Writing for Law Enforcement Officers (Soothsayer Press, 2012.)
- How to Become a Police Officer: The Best Tactics to Get Police Officer Jobs and Enter the Police Academy. (Equity Press, 2012.)
- Vengeance: A Short Tale of the Golem. (Soothsayer Press, 2012.)
- Sins of the Father. (Beautiful Minds Magazine, 2016.)
I am currently marketing The Body in the Hole on Facebook, Instagram, and through e-mail campaigns with Mail Chimp.
I am also using Facebook ads, and have printed bookmarks with my campaign information on one side, and my previous novel on the other. I leave them at local libraries, bookstores, and keep them handy whenever I am meeting new people.
My local county library carries my other novel, and I will be speaking there later this month about the book, and about publishing generally.
Toward the end of my campaign I may offer a glimpse at a couple of chapters of the second book in the Undertaker series.
I imagine many writers would like publishers to believe their book is unlike any other on the market. In my case, I would say this is half true.
There are many recent top selling cozy mysteries, but few feature a male character, and only one features a mortician or undertaker. See, generally, https://www.cozy-mystery.com/blog/mystery-books-with-men-as-sleuths-male-amateur-sleuths-that-is.html.
My novel is unique in that it is clearly a cozy amateur detective murder mystery, but it features a male lead character who is an undertaker. Cozies are hot sellers. (Again, see Kristen Houghton's online article, "The Immense Popularity of the Cozy Mysteries" (The Blog, February 4, 2016).) My novel is unique enough to stand apart from the rest of the cozies available, and I believe it will sell.
Below, I list those books available on Amazon that are closest to The Body in the Hole, only to provide a complete picture of what is available.
The West Country Mysteries is a series of four books written by Rebecca Tope in the United Kingdom between 1999 and 2003. The main character is an "undertaker in training" and it received positive reviews.
According to Amazon, as of 9/1/2017, there are 26,673 hits for books in the "mystery/thriller" section with a keyword of "cozy." Adding keyword "undertaker" reduces that number to 21. Six of those hits belong to a self published series titled "The Undertaker Series" by Kendra Ashe. Unfortunately, her main character is the Grim Reaper, not an actual undertaker.
The remaining novels are part of the Ghostly Southern Series by Tonya Kappes. Her novels feature a female undertaker, flawed characters, and dark humor. All her reviews are positive, and her books "have graced numerous bestseller lists, including One of the main differences, however, is her victims appear as ghosts.
(Note, a search substituting "mortician" for "undertaker" yielded one result- an audio book, "Biggie and the Mangled Mortician.")
"Ah, Randall. Randy, Randy, Randy, what a day!"
Yvgeny glanced at the words chiseled into the grave marker's face, then turned and leaned against it, legs straight out, ankles crossed.
"Still feels like summer up here. They say it's a heat wave. I say it's global warming."
Yvgeny shimmied across the mossy, pock-marked headstone to take advantage of the shade cast by a nearby weeping willow. Then he crossed his arms, shook his head, and after a polite pause, made a clucking sound with his tongue.
"That grand-daughter of yours, she's late again."
He received no response, and spent a minute listening to the rise and fall of the crickets rubbing their wings together. He re-crossed his ankles, one foot kicking over the desiccated remains of a bouquet of flowers.
"You hear that chirping, Randy? They're trying to attract mates. Those are the boy crickets. It's their way of making music. You and me, all we see is a cemetery, but to them, it’s one big insect disco."
Again, Yvgeny's ramblings were met with silence, and he squirmed against the headstone. The shade kept the sun at bay but not the humidity, and the sweat began to pool in the small of his back.
Yvgeny, or Geny to his few friends, looked across the cemetery, glanced toward the street, then took out his iPhone and checked his hair using the camera app's "selfie" feature. Then he patted the top of the headstone and re-crossed his ankles a third time.
"You know, Randy, she's a real looker. I was thinking, well, I've been meaning to ask you - you know what? Never mind."
He yawned, scratched his cheek. The he sniffed loudly, his nose starting to run from all the smells of autumn.
"What's that? Ah, Randy, maybe she overslept. Or got stuck in traffic. I wouldn't worry."
Geny chuckled softly and again changed position on Randall's headstone, rolled his neck in one direction, then the other. He cocked his head.
"I gotta tell you, I think she'd be perfect for me, too. And you'd make a great grandfather-in-law."
Geny pushed off the headstone and stood, then stretched. He felt the need to urinate, twisted away from Randall's marker to handle his business, and turned back to look over his shoulder while relieving himself.
"We could have it right here, surrounded by all our friends. And hell, pretty soon, maybe you and my mother will finally be able to meet.” Geny paused, then muttered “Sooner, with luck.”
Geny reflexively glanced back toward the funeral home, shook, then buttoned up his Livingston trousers.
"Well, Randy old pal, duty calls. Gotta ice 'em and dice 'em. Toodles!"
Yvgeny slapped the headstone with the palm of his hand and returned to the funeral home. He got there just in time to see Alfred, the gravedigger, pacing on the stoop, holding a shovel caked with red clay. The moment he saw Yvgeny approach, Alfred stopped pacing and called out "nnng! Ungh ungh nnng!"
Alfred was a deaf mute who spoke mostly by gesticulation and facial expressions. Yvgeny tried to interpret Alfred's rudimentary language; sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. He watched as Alfred poked a long, brown finger toward the cemetery grounds and stamped his feet. His pale blue and rheumy eyes pinned like a nervous robin's. The grunts and clicking in his throat emphasized his level of distress.
Yvgeny followed the direction of Alfred's finger, then shrugged.
"Dunlap? What about him? The funeral isn't until 2pm. That's hours away!"
Alfred's nostrils flared and the clicking in his throat grew louder. His expression reminded Geny of an agitated bull seeing the matador. He resumed his pacing, back and forth, and began smacking his shovel against the wood with each step, leaving a trail of moist clay in his wake. Yvgeny glanced over Alfred's shoulder toward the Dunlap plot again. He took measure of the faded green canvas canopy, and beside it, the discolored tarp covering a mound of dirt. Beside the mound, poles and velvet ropes marked the hole that would soon receive Mr. Dunlap, followed by the mound of dirt. The canopy swayed gently against the deep blue Middle Georgia sky.
Alfred examined Yvgeny, growing more impatient, now pounding the shovel against the stoop, wet earth falling in clumps from the shovel upon the warped wooden boards. He thrust his gnarled index finger over and over toward the Dunlap family plot. His clicking and wordless mumbling grew louder.
Yvgeny cast a furtive glance toward the upstairs windows of the funeral home. Then he held out his hand, motioned with his palm down, and whispered "ok, ok, Jesus Alfred, come off the stoop, you could wake the dead with that racket!"
Alfred clopped down the two steps onto the ground, smacking the shovel with each step, and when Yvgeny outstretched his hand toward the Dunlap plot as if to say 'be my guest,' Alfred loped ahead like a dog who had successfully lured his master out for a romp in the grass. One of his legs was slightly shorter, exacerbating his odd gait. He continually turned back to Yvgeny, motioning for him to follow, dragging the shovel beside him. The sticky humidity glued his Edwardian collared shirt to his back.
Watching Alfred's hunched and withered frame, Yvgeny wondered how old he was. He had memories of Alfred as a younger man, when he still had his hair in a tight afro, when he had all his teeth. He was the only black man he had ever seen with blue eyes. Alfred had aged to a point where his race and age were no longer apparent. His afro had all but disappeared, and his skin had the cracked, brownish appearance of a dried out Medjool date. The whites of his eyes had yellowed like old parchment, and set deep within his face. The irises had faded over time to a milky, grayish blue. It seemed life in the cemetery was slowly digesting his humanity, consuming more of him each year, and Yvgeny believed one day he would come outside to find Alfred standing among the headstones, carved from granite, immovable, with chalky dried excrement from countless pigeons decorating his shoulders.
It had rained all night, and the clay was too dense to absorb the water, leaving it standing on the grass for him to slosh through in his shoes and grey felt spats. Luckily, he didn't have too far to walk. The Dunlap family plot was close to the mortuary. The first dead Dunlap was buried there generations earlier, in 1912. By Yvgeny's count, he and his father buried around a dozen Dunlaps, give or take. Alfred probably dug over half those holes.
He followed Alfred to the grave site, shaking his head. The old man had always been strange, but this was unusual even for him. Yvgeny reached behind himself and peeled his shirt away from his damp and overheated skin. In Middle Georgia, autumn was a long way from winter, and the humidity ruined an otherwise beautiful morning. As they stood still, tiny gnats hovered in large clusters right at face level in another impressive display of reproductive competition. Waving at them with his hand, his thoughts again turned to Brianna Schtumpf. He imagined her in one of his top of the line coffins, the Goliath 20 gauge thirty-six inch Galaxy model, champagne velvet and satin interior, continuously welded bottom, brushed aluminum hardware. He had a beautiful dove gray floor model upstairs that could easily accommodate both of them. His mind began to wander.
Unfortunately, his fantasy was interrupted when he noticed his grey spats rimmed red from the wet Georgia clay. That will never come out!
Alfred stood before the hole, his arms stretched out, shovel in one hand, as if presenting royalty to a swooning crowd. Yvgeny looked around, a bemused expression on his face. Alfred's triumphant smile faltered.
"So what’s so important, Alfred?"
Alfred's shoulders slumped, and he pointed into the hole, then pantomimed digging while nodding hopefully at Yvgeny. Yvgeny crept closer, looked down into the hole. He could smell Alfred, who seldom bathed, and briefly evaluated whether he smelled worse than the corpses he serviced each day.
The grave was empty, as it should have been, but it was at least a foot too shallow. He glanced over at Alfred, shaking his head. Beyond him, Yvgeny saw movement behind a headstone; another stray cat. At least a dozen lived around the property, and they usually followed Alfred around as if he was the Pied Piper. This one was watching them intently.
"You brought me all the way out here to show me an empty hole? Come on, Alfred, you know it's a foot too shallow. Just finish the hole, there's still plenty of time. And perhaps a bath would be in order before the guests arrive?"
Alfred's mouth opened and the sounds came again. His gesticulations grew even more agitated and he began stomping his feet and pointing at the earth. The clicking in his throat was insistent, angry. Yvgeny watched him carefully, trying to divine the meaning behind his movements.
"Did the rain fill it in? That's ok, Alfred, just dig it back out. There's nothing to worry about. Seriously. You have hours."
When Alfred grew frustrated enough, he sometimes raised his head and made a blood curdling howl, like a wolf. He made one then, fists clenched, eyes squeezed shut, rousting dozens of birds from the nearby trees. The nosy cat froze, distracted by the sound, then scurried behind a headstone. Alfred deflated, then took his shovel in two hands and hopped into the hole. Yvgeny winced at the sound of Alfred's body creaking and cracking from the impact. Yvgeny sighed and took a step closer to the hole. He could just see the top of Alfred's head as he dug. After a very short time, just seconds, Alfred stopped, and stood straight, staring down, his mouth open, breathing heavily, and then he did something Yvgeny had never before seen, not in all the years he had known Alfred; he made the sign of a cross over his chest. Yvgeny took another step forward, to the lip of the grave, and looked down. There was a depression where Alfred had started digging, and in the hole he saw pale white flesh.
Geny turned back to the mortuary, scanned the windows and, seeing no movement, sighed in relief.
"Alfred, quickly, load it up and bring it inside." He then leaned a little closer and in a hushed tone added "and do it quietly!"
Geny ran ahead to change and prepare the embalming room. Alfred climbed out of the hole and trudged past his shed to a small barn like structure. He laid his shovel against the wall, then approached a large object covered in a tarp, which he lifted to reveal a golf cart, modified to carry coffins. Instead of a passenger seat, it bore a platform that rested long ways across the cart and had straps permanently attached for securing a coffin. Until that morning, the cart had never been used to bring a body away from the cemetery, and certainly had never been used to transport a body without a coffin.
Alfred drove the cart to the grave site then stared into the grave, contemplating his options. Again, lifting bodies out of holes was an unfamiliar task. After some internal deliberation, he implemented a mixture of brute force and stubborn determination to lug it out of the hole. He first walked to the edge of the property to check the street, then again jumped inside the grave. He cleared away most of the soil, stared for a moment at the body, then lugged it up over one shoulder, hoisted it over the lip of the grave, then climbed out. Squatting low, he grabbed the arms and dragged it all the way out, then over and up onto the cart.
Meanwhile, Geny rushed back to the mortuary, giddy about the find. Buried treasure! He shut the door slowly, carefully, tiptoed into the kitchen, then stood stock still, listening for movement. Eventually he sighed with content; the house was still silent. With luck, he thought, she will sleep until noon, as usual.
He plucked his rubber apron from its hook and placed it over his head, then went to the window to watch from afar as Alfred struggled with the body. Eventually, he got it loaded on the cart, and Geny rubbed his hands together and started tying the waist laces of his apron.
Geny paced back and forth until he heard the squeak of the rear double doors, then Alfred’s shuffling footsteps as he approached. Geny had stepped up to his mirror to check his hair as Alfred entered to retrieve the cart, and by the time Geny turned away, Alfred was gone, his retreating footsteps now accompanied by the sound of rolling casters against the tiled floor. Geny returned to the window, smiling, then his smile faded.
Alfred had left the modified golf cart parked outside in clear view of the street, the dead body draped across it, uncovered. Geny briskly walked toward the front of the mortuary and into the main receiving room and looked out the large windows overlooking the street. Checking in each direction, he sighed in relief; the streets were empty.
Geny jogged back down the hall and out the back doors. Alfred was at the cart, one foot stabilizing the gurney, dragging the body from the cart to the gurney. Alfred froze when he saw Geny, his ancient joints struggling under the weight of the dead body and the awkward position.
Geny exclaimed "Jesus, Alfred!” Then, while glancing left, then right, then left again, whispered “I said hurry, but don’t be stupid! At least put a sheet over it!"
Alfred blinked several times but otherwise remained still. Geny let his air out with a whoosh and shook his head, then muttered something about plucking an oyster from its shell as he turned and passed through the doors.
As his father had taught him, and his mother incessantly drilled into his head with each waking breath, reputation was everything in the mortuary business. One little old lady out for a stroll seeing a body draped across a golf cart would be all it would take.
Dead bodies were as ubiquitous to Geny as shoes to a cobbler, although his insouciance toward them took years of exposure to acquire. As a queasy child stumbling into the embalming room and seeing his father working on a body, he could barely stifle his urge to retch. His father turned slowly at the sound, blinked at him, then pulled the trocar out of the body upon which he had been working and said Yvgeny, these bodies are just broken machines. Broken, unplugged machines.
Now, given the population of Comstock and his study of actuarial tables, he could generally count on sharing his home with three to five of those broken, unplugged machines at any given time. They laid in chilled lockers while Geny slept in his back office on a second-hand cot purchased from the army surplus store in town. He had slept upstairs until his father died, after which Mama slowly acquired living space like a real estate developer in a buyer's market. More business meant more inventory, and it wasn't long before Mama evicted Geny from his old bedroom to expand her second floor empire. There wasn’t space for a bed on the main level, and for a time Geny equivocated about sliding one of the display coffins into his room; the better ones would have been more comfortable than his Army surplus cot, but the floor models were simply too expensive and anyway, Mama would not have approved.
Geny's cot was good enough, however. He got it for a song from Rocko, who ran the Army surplus store. Yvgeny liked him. Rocko lost an eye during his service in Vietnam. A broken machine. Rocko saw the world through a stark lens of black and white, one to which Yvgeny could relate. Mama called him retarded, but Rocko once told Geny his story about how he lost his eye, and Geny could only assume the injury did more than take an eye. Rocko always referred to himself in the third person, which, when combined with the man's size and somewhat grumbly voice, made Geny think of him as a white and less fuzzy Cookie Monster. Yvgeny recalled Rocko's sales pitch when he purchased the cot.
"Rocko say cot is good. Beat sleeping on floor. Dogs sleep on floor. You are not dog."
"Yes, Rocko, I am not a dog. How much do you want for the cot?"
"Ten dollars for cot. Rocko give you good deal. Not like crooks at Walmart. Crooks charge you fifty."
"Yes, Rocko, they are crooks. Can you help me get it into the car?"
Rocko nodded and on his way out, stopped by a display of dull machetes. Suddenly Rocko hefted one and turned back to Geny, giving him a start, and asked "Undertaker man need machete? Good for cutting. You can chop up dead guys, fit them in smaller boxes. Save money. Buy better cot."
"No, thank you, Rocko, I don't need to chop up any bodies at the moment."
"Chop, chop! Good machete." By the door was a large wooden Indian statute. As Rocko passed by to follow Geny outside, he smacked the machete into the side of the Indian and left it, blade still wobbling.
Yvgeny's daydream crashed to a halt when Alfred pushed the shiny steel gurney into the embalming room and parked it beside the supply cabinet. Alfred glared at him a moment, then turned to study the contents of the cabinet, sweating and dirty. Behind him, on the cart, the body lay under a sheet. Geny shook his head as he noticed several orange and red smudges on the sheet from Alfred's clay caked hands. One whitish blue foot peeked out from beneath the shroud. At least he remembered the sheet.
While looking in the mirror to check his hair again, Geny said "Thank you, Alfred. That will be all for now. Is the Dunlap site ready?"
Satisfied, Geny turned to Alfred, who was staring at the body, nodding. Geny extended his arm out toward the body and waved a hand to get his attention, waited for Alfred to look in his direction.
"Are the chairs all set up?"
Alfred shook, then lowered, his head, and with a deep breath, turned and shuffled away, taking one more look at the body before leaving. Geny approached the body and lifted the shroud. His eyebrows raised in surprise. There was no head.
He pulled back the sheet completely, discovering there were no hands, either. He tossed the sheet into the corner and looked the body up and down. The body was dressed in old slacks and a knit crew sweater, threadbare but serviceable. Streaks of clay ran along the pants and sweater, either from Alfred or the killer, or perhaps both. The pants were torn at the knees. The body looked to be male, but he couldn't be certain about gender until he looked beneath the clothing.
A vague thought bubbled up to him, that his grave was now a crime scene, and that he should notify the police, but after he glanced at the clock, he shrugged off the thought. Dunlap was at 2pm. He couldn't risk having cops crawling all over the cemetery, especially considering the Dunlaps had not yet paid in full. I will call them after the ceremony, he thought, then donned a pair of rubber gloves.
He ran his hands down the body, over the pockets. All empty. He crouched and took a closer look at the extremities. The head and hands were removed by something relatively sharp, the bones cut cleanly. Like a machete, he thought. The neck was a little messier and must have taken a few chops, as the blade grazed the left shoulder a couple of times. The chops were post mortem, in his estimate. No real struggle, not too bloody. He ran a finger along the wound, the skin already beginning to recede from the body. Yes, he thought to himself, sharp, but not too sharp. And a strong hand.
As he removed the pants he could hear creaking from the second floor. He cringed and froze, waiting for footsteps on the stairs. Fortunately, none came and he relaxed a bit. But one thing was certain: she was awake.
Geny inspected further and confirmed it was a male, probably early eighties, in fair enough shape for his age, not overweight, but not emaciated, either. There was no apparent cause of death, other than the missing head. He glanced back over the clothing; none of it could be repurposed. And no hands meant no rings. He clucked with his tongue, shook his head. Nothing of value.
Yvgeny learned all the tricks of the trade from his father, who had never been squeamish around bodies, having acquired the gift of detachment by necessity as a young man in Poland. It took Geny longer to fully embrace his father's dispassionate perspective, but by grade school, Geny was fascinated by the bodies of the dead. While other children played stick ball and ogled girls, Geny made alterations to clothing so they would fit properly for loved ones' funerals. When he was a little older and his hopeful peers asked girls to the junior prom, Geny pedaled around Comstock looking for road kill upon which to practice his embalming skills. Unfortunately, his work with the dead did not prepare him for the revulsion expressed by the living, especially those of the opposite sex.
Geny, a virtual outcast by high school, spent his formative years watching funerals from behind thick red velvet curtains; his friends and only company were the stiffs he or Alfred rolled into the mortuary, relationships that generally expired after a few days, epitomizing the old adage comparing house guests to fish.
The more alienated he became from the living, the more Yvgeny focused on the dead. He poured himself into his work, taking advantage of any opportunity that presented itself. A closed casket funeral became free embalming practice. Cremations were even better, allowing him to take bigger risks and to learn from his mistakes.
An artist that spent all his time on still life paintings would quickly grow bored. Such was the case for morticians. Working on the elderly eventually loses its charm. Luckily for Geny, some people die terrible, gruesome deaths, whether by accident or homicide. Geny liked the variety. And on that rare occasion when the decedent's family insisted on an open casket funeral, Geny accepted the challenge with gusto. Again, he credited his father for helping him hone his talents. His father had been a master. An artist. A virtuoso. He could piece together bodies, faces, limbs, with the ease of a child working on a jigsaw puzzle. But it required practice, and it was a perishable skill.
When Yvgeny was a teenager, his father somehow got on the list of approved morticians maintained by the Georgia State Department of Corrections. To those lucky few came the bodies of executed inmates that had no family to claim them. Like an artist provided with free canvasses, Geny sharpened his skills on these murderers and rapists, and he always made sure not to waste one inch of flesh. Of course, Georgia required an affidavit certifying the body had been treated with dignity and was disposed of properly, but that was but a formality, and one that did not deter Geny's father; he had always put his son's training and experience first.
Geny removed the corpse's sweater. First one sleeve, then up and over the space where the head should have been, then he peeled the whole thing off over the remaining arm. The sweater got hung up around the forearm, and when Geny grasped the sleeve to give it a tug he felt something hard, metallic. He tugged harder and the sleeve gave way, revealing the glint of metal. Gold. A watch had snagged on the rough seam of the sweater.
It was a gold watch; it looked old. He held it up to his ear and heard the rhythmic tick of a proper timepiece. He turned it over, saw an inscription, but it was too small to read. He turned it around in his hands several more times, and was about to slide it over his hand to test its fit when he heard shuffling footsteps behind him. He twisted around quickly, hiding his hands behind his back, and came face to face with his mother. How did I not hear her on the stairs, he thought, then cursed at himself for not tossing a sheet over the body.
"Mama, what are you doing down here?"
His mother stopped a foot away and spied him with a raised eyebrow. In a heavily accented voice she said "What, I need permission to come downstairs in my own house?" Then she looked over Geny's shoulder toward the body. "Gówno, where's Dunlap's head?"
"It's not Dunlap, Mama."
Mama shook her head. "Oi, my Tygrysek, this is no time for playing around. Guests will be here soon. Put away your toys and get back to work! And what did you do with his head?"
When Geny didn't respond, his mother smiled and shook her head.
"Always the comedian, Tygrysek. Just make sure you put it somewhere the guests won't find it." Mama glanced at the body one more time, smiled, tousled Geny's hair, then turned and shuffled away. Geny waited for her to leave, then slid the watch over his hand and onto his wrist, where he found it fit rather well. He kept it there. He would bring it to Reuben. He heard his mother start slamming cabinet doors in his kitchen, and he returned to his task, relieved.
He tossed the sweater onto a pile with the remainder of the victim's clothes on the lower shelf of the rolling body cart, then he stood back and looked at the body from neck to foot. Some of his colleagues preferred "modesty towels" to cover a corpse's genitals, but Geny scoffed at the practice. Dead men had no modesty. They didn't care.
Alfred shuffled back into the room, his muddy shoes squeaking on the white tile. He had a camera in his hand. He looked down at the body again, then looked up to Geny, said "nng, nng," his Adam's apple bouncing with the effort. Geny knew what he meant this time and smiled, nodded his head, and walked toward the phone on the wall.
"Yes, of course, Alfred, I was about to call them. I do hope you've finished preparing the site for the Dunlaps."
Alfred glanced toward the window, toward his shed, then began absently picking at his ear. When Geny picked up the handset from the cradle, Alfred dropped the camera on the body and shuffled quickly out the door.
He watched Alfred leave, then replaced the handset on the cradle and turned back to the body. He equivocated about whether to call the police. He didn't like cops. Never had. Irreconcilable differences, Geny thought to himself, a fitting euphemism, the same one used by angry divorcees tired of their slovenly husbands. Plus, cops were bad for business. But . . . he began tapping his foot, glancing between his watch and the body, then finally cursed and picked the phone back up. Alfred was right, he thought to himself with a groan, if I wait they will only ask more questions, cause more problems. He made the call, then quickly photographed the body.