About a Vampire (Argeneau #22)(2)

by Lynsay Sands

“Get a grip,” Holly muttered to herself.

The sound of her own voice in the night was a bit bracing, but not enough to make her move in the direction of the crematorium.

Holly shuffled her slippered feet briefly, and then sighed and turned to unlock the door again. Perhaps there was an umbrella or something in the office that she could carry with her. Having a weapon, even a mostly useless one, might help boost her courage for the trek ahead.

When a quick search of the offices didn’t turn up an umbrella, a cane, or a flame thrower to fend off those imagined zombie corpses, Holly resorted to grabbing a large pair of scissors she spotted sticking out of the pencil holder on the reception desk. She hefted them briefly, considered their size and then decided they would do. She probably wouldn’t need anything anyway. She was just being a ninny, but felt better clutching the scissors as she headed back outside.

Sadly, there had been no helpful gust of wind to sweep away the fog during the few minutes she’d been inside. If anything, it seemed to her that the fog had thickened, but that might have simply been her own anxiety making it seem that way. It had probably been just as thick earlier as it was now, she reassured herself and wished she had a flashlight.

The thought made her glance toward the parking lot. She kept a flashlight in the glove compartment for emergencies. Holly hurried to her car, unlocked it and settled in the passenger seat to open the glove compartment and make a quick search. Not finding it, she sat back with a sigh, then grabbed the papers and the scissors and got out. She left her purse inside. It would eliminate the possibility of accidentally leaving it behind in the crematorium, she thought as she locked the door.

Trying not to think of movies like The Fog or Night of the Living Dead, Holly headed determinedly in the direction of the crematorium. She moved as quickly as she dared along the paved path, her ears straining for any sound that might indicate she wasn’t alone. Now that she was resigned to the task, getting it over with and getting back home was all she cared about. It was always better to get unpleasant tasks done quickly.

Unfortunately, it did seem that the unpleasant tasks often took the most time. She knew it was probably just her fear and anxiety, but the walk to the crematorium seemed to be taking much longer than it should. Holly actually began to worry that she’d headed in the wrong direction in the fog and lost her way, that she could be wandering the graveyard in her pajamas until the sun rose to burn away the fog, so was relieved when she spotted the weak glow of a light ahead. Knowing it must be the wall sconce over the building entrance, Holly headed for it at a faster clip, relieved when she was able to see the door beneath it.

Holly released a little pent-­up breath of relief once she slipped inside. She’d made it, alive and well and unmolested by rotting corpses.

“Awesome,” she said, and grimaced at how weak her voice sounded in the dimly lit entryway. Giving herself a little shake, Holly started forward, moving quickly past the doors to both chapels and through the columbarium with its niche banks full of urns. Some were visible behind glass, some were hidden by brass plates with names and dates on them, and a lot had flowers and whatnot stuck in special holders on or beside them. Her gaze skated to the floral tributes and then determinedly away as she passed. Holly used to love flowers, but two weeks of working here had changed that. She now associated flowers with death.

She should have been more relaxed now that she was inside. After all, the urns held only the ashes of the dead, which couldn’t spontaneously form into bodies to clamber after her in search of brains, but Holly found herself still anxious and jumpy. It didn’t take much thought to figure out why. She was about to head into the crematorium itself, where coffins holding the newly departed waited to be burned.

During that tour on her first day working here, the process of cremation had been explained to her in fine detail. Definitely more than she’d wanted to know, but apparently, the fact that she was a temp in the office to work on the taxes and wasn’t a sales associate didn’t remove the possibility of her having to explain things to customers. Holly hoped to God that never happened, because she would not want to explain those details to the loved ones of the newly deceased. It had all seemed gruesome to her.

Holly had never really thought much about cremation, but if she had, she would have assumed that the coffin was rolled into the retort, flames shot out and poof, a nice urn of ashes came out the other end. Not so. First of all, it took much longer than she’d imagined. Despite reaching temperatures of 1600 or 1700 degrees, the actual cremation could take two to three hours. And no neat little urn of ashes came out at the end. The ashes, which weren’t all ashes, remained in the retort to cool, and then a magnet was used to remove anything metal such as fillings and pins. Once cooled, the ashes were swept out onto a tray using a corn broom as if the remains were so much debris on the floor. They were then allowed to cool further before being placed into a cremulator, which looked much like a garbage disposal unit to Holly when she’d peered inside. There the remains, including some bone that didn’t break down completely, were pulverized to make it all smooth and ash-­like before it was placed in the urn if one was supplied. Otherwise it was bagged and boxed for the family to take away.

Gruesome, Holly thought as she pushed through another door into a short hall.

Here the dim lighting gave way to glaringly bright fluorescents overhead, and cinder-­block walls painted a pale cream. It was almost sterile in its lack of color, and Holly paused and blinked, the buzz of the fluorescents loud in her ears as her attention shifted to the door ahead.

John Byron worked the 4:30-­to-­12:30 shift and should still be on duty, she thought, glancing at her wristwatch. She’d met him several times and while he was a bit of a cynic, with a sarcastic, self-­deprecating sense of humor, he seemed a nice enough guy. She didn’t think he’d give her too hard a time, although she’d no doubt have to explain why she was at the offices this late. Holly hoped he was alone though and Rick Mexler hadn’t yet arrived. Rick was the man who took over the crematorium from 12:30 to 8:30. She didn’t start work until 9:00 so hadn’t yet met him, but had heard he was a grumpy S.O.B. who didn’t like ­people. That really wasn’t something she wanted to have to deal with, so she was a bit alarmed when she stepped through the door into the crematorium and heard two men’s voices.

The crematorium was a large long rectangle, but the cooler took up a ten-­by-­ten space along the left on entering. The rest of the room was a large L shape, with the retorts against the wall that was around the corner of the cooler, out of sight. That was where the voices were coming from, so she didn’t at first see the men. But Holly assumed it was John and Rick.