Authors: DB Gilles
Tags: #murder, #amateur sleuth, #small town murder, #psychological suspense, #psychological thriller, #serial killer, #murder mystery
Colder Than Death
by D.B. Gilles
Copyright 2012 by D.B. Gilles
Published by Black Mask Publishing
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Cover Design: Don DeMaio
Also by D.B. Gilles
I Hate My Book Club
For Screenwriters Who Can’t
The Screenwriter Within:
New Strategies To Finish Your
Screenplay & Get A Deal
The Portable Film School
Turn Your Sense of Humor
into a Lucrative New Career
The Legendary Stardust Boys
The Girl Who Loved the Beatles
W. The First 100 Days: A White House Journal
(with Sheldon Woodbury)
Table of Contens
To my sister, Kathy,
for all her support, love and encouragement over the years.
Love is colder than death.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Colder Than Death
I wasn't sure if he was going to bury me alive or kill me first, but I knew that one way or another the grave I was digging was my own.
He made me dig at gunpoint. So I wouldn't scream, he put duct tape over my mouth, not that I would have been able to utter even a peep, my throat was so dry. He had me stop digging at what seemed like three feet deep and two feet across. Too narrow for a coffin, but just right for a body.
I can't remember how long it took because I was so petrified with fear that I lost all track of time. Had he said it took me four hours or thirty minutes, I would have believed him either way.
“Give me the shovel,” he said desperately, his breathing as heavy as my own.
I did, but no more than five seconds after I handed him the shovel, he raised it and swung it into my face. I fell into the hole, on my back. He hit me three more times in the head, twice over my left ear and once directly over my forehead. I tried to raise my arms to protect myself, but I was so weak from digging I couldn't. My head ached and my left eye had swollen to a point where vision was impossible. Out of my right eye, if I squinted, I could see, barely.
It was somewhere in the middle of the night. The only light was from the moon, which was slowly being shrouded by smoky, fast-moving clouds. I was able to see him raise the gun and point it at me. His hand was shaking.
“I made a mistake with the girl,” he muttered. “Got lazy. Should've put her in the ground.” I heard the cock of the hammer. “Ground burial is always better. But digging a grave by hand is hard work.”
He steadied the gun with both hands. I prepared to die. He pulled the trigger. Once. Twice. Three times.
I heard no gunfire, only the deadened click of a pistol that had jammed. He mumbled something to himself, slapped the gun barrel twice, then pulled the trigger three more times. Again, silence. He threw the gun down. Within seconds, despite the darkness, I saw the three-inch long blade.
He stepped into the grave, straddled me and stuck the blade into my chest two times fast. He looked at me quizzically, no doubt trying to make sure I was dead. Roughly, he grabbed my jaw with his right hand, stared closely at me again for a few seconds, then stepped out of the hole and feverishly began shoveling dirt over me.
Almost at the precise instant that the first shovelful of cold, stony dirt smashed into my face, it started to drizzle. Another clump of dirt landed half in my hair and half on my brow. Some of it trickled into my eyes, causing me to blink in a fluttery motion.
I tried to keep my eyes shut, but a particle of some kind had found its way into the corner of my left eye and the irritation was driving me crazy. I wanted to lift one of my hands and rub my eye, but I wanted him to think I was dead, so I shut my eyes hoping that the particle would somehow settle or be dislodged by the liquid in my eye, which is what happened after about thirty seconds. By then, I was starting to drift off into what I thought would be death.
I waited for my life to begin passing before my eyes. But one thought kept running through my head: the fact that I was lying in this grave because of a murder.
I'd been head Funeral Director at Henderson's Funeral Home for seven years and, including my apprenticeship, which began eight years before that, I'd dealt with every type of death imaginable from fatal illnesses to nasty falls to crashes involving vehicles ranging from lawn mowers to wheelchairs to garbage trucks.
But the one type of death I'd had no experience with was murder. As far as murder goes, it's something else. Death I understood. But no matter how much I tried, I could never place murder in its proper context. And although I'd analyzed and thought it through from every angle, I never got to the point where I completely understood the taking of someone else's life.
Death is natural, a completion. Murder is perverse, an interruption.
The dirt being shoveled onto me was becoming heavier, but despite the pain of the knife wounds, the blows from the shovel and the indescribable exhaustion I felt, as I waited to be suffocated by the crud that was working its way up my nose and into my mouth, I had enough presence of mind to conclude that he didn't know I was still alive.
And as I wondered if anyone would find me in this unmarked grave, how it all began crashed unexpectedly into my mind.
The coffins get dusty.
Two times a week I go downstairs to the Selection Room and give them a once-over. A little Fantastic and an old Fruit of the Loom t-shirt do the trick. That’s where I was on the Sunday morning the phone call came. We had no bodies on view. No one was scheduled to come in to make arrangements. I was alone. Usually, there was at least one person around to talk with, but not that day.
Lew Henderson, owner of the Home, was in the middle of a month-long vacation in Florida. It was something he'd done every October since the death of his wife seven years before. Lew considered himself semi-retired after Karen died, but he came in every day to shoot the breeze, maybe go over the books, handle things if I needed time off, before heading to the golf course.
Clint Barnes, my assistant, was at ten o'clock Mass at St. Ann's Catholic Church in Croybridge, the next town over, where he and his wife, Cookie, lived. Sunday was Clint's day off unless we were swamped with several funerals at once.
Nolan Fowler, our primary embalmer and restoration man, was at a weekend Seminar in Cincinnati sponsored by the National Embalmers Society. He was due back on Monday. And our cosmetologist, Elaine Whurley, only came in when we had bodies. Elaine was a fifty-eight-year-old beautician who for years had moonlighted for us and DiGregorio's, the other Funeral Home in Dankworth.
I'd worked my way through twelve of the sixteen coffins on display when the telephone across the hall in the Embalming Room rang. We don't keep a phone in the Selection Room. The process of choosing a coffin is of such a delicate nature a ringing phone might be a jarring disruption. And I always turn off my iPhone when I’m giving a showing. I dropped the T-shirt onto the base of the coffin and trotted into the hallway.
I went straight to the cream-colored door with the word PRIVATE stenciled on it in two-inch thick chocolate brown letters, opened it and stepped into the clammy aroma of formaldehyde which hung in the air like the scent of new tires in a Sears Automotive Department. The telephone was on the wall. Taped beneath it was last year's inspection certificate from the Ohio Board of Health.
“Henderson's Funeral Home,” I said. “May I help you?”
“Who've I got?” said the deep-set male voice which I recognized instantly as belonging to Perry Cobb, Chief of Police of Dankworth. ”You ghouls all sound alike.”
“It's Del,” I said, thinking so much for his perception.
Nolan, Lew, Clint and I sounded nothing alike.
Lew's rich baritone made him sound like an announcer on a classical music program, which was in contrast to my modulated, soft-spoken greeting which, I was once told, made me come off like a priest answering the phone in a rectory. When Nolan took a call he would blurt an inappropriately cheerful “Henderson's!” into the receiver as if it were happy hour at a bar. And Clint's tentative voice had a disarmingly childlike quality.
I reached for the pen in my shirt pocket, held it up to the lined yellow notepad hooked onto the wall next to the phone and prepared to write down the name and address I assumed Perry would be giving me.
“What do you need, Perry?” I asked, my tone businesslike. I ignored the ‘ghoul’ remark, just as I always disregarded his jibes. He’d been ragging on me ever since my mother and I moved to Dankworth after my father died when I was in high school. As my mother would say about someone's poor behavior, ‘It was his way,’ and I'd accepted it. I had to. When Perry Cobb called it usually put money in my pocket.
Because Dankworth is only a township we don't have our own Coroner. We fall under the umbrella of the County, so when a body needs to be transported to the Coroner's office for autopsy, Perry calls us or DiGregorio's. We get a small fee for this: fifty dollars plus gas mileage.
“I'm at Elm Grove cemetery,” he said. “How soon can you get a hearse up here?”
“Twenty minutes. What's going on?”
“Seems the grave robbers have struck again,” he said, the last word slightly slurred, no doubt because of the chewing tobacco in his mouth.
Over the last six months somebody had been breaking into turn of the nineteenth century mausoleums and above-ground crypts at Elm Grove cemetery looking for jewelry and valuables on corpses. Cemetery management considered themselves lucky that whoever was doing it wasn't interested in body parts for satanic rituals or potions.
“What's that got to do with you needing a hearse?”
“We got a body. A female.”
“You have an exhumation, Perry?”
“Not quite. There's been a murder.”
I leaned back against one of the four portable embalming tables. The icy chill from the stainless steel ran through my slacks and reached the backs of my thighs, instantly sending a mild tingle up my spine.
“Where'd you find her?” I asked.
didn't. Vaughn did.” Vaughn Larkin was night watchman of the cemetery and a good friend of mine.
“When Vaughn was making his midnight rounds he heard a noise. Checked it out and found that the entrances to seven mausoleums were broken into. One had the corpse in it. Hurry your ass up here. I want to get her autopsied so maybe I can find out who the hell she is...
. We're in Section Nine.”
“I'll leave right now.”
“Good. Oh, Del, do me a favor. Bring me some coffee. Milk and sugar. And a chocolate donut with those multi-colored sprinky things. Haven't had my breakfast yet.”
Perry was laughing as he hung up.
I knew the request for a favor would be coming. He knew that I would
to do what he asked if I wanted him to continue throwing business my way.