It was a perfect day for a funeral. Overcast, cool, no rain; sweaters, not coats. The wind was light and fresh, and although fall had arrived (as much as it ever did in California), the grass remained a bright jewel green.
From a purely objective perspective, it couldn’t have been better…though, in truth, Bryn Davis, funeral director, didn’t much care for the cemetery itself. This was a modern-style interment facility, so instead of picturesque Gothic headstones or marble sculptures, there were long expanses of lawn, spreading trees, and gently rolling hills—the impression of undisturbed nature, but oh so carefully created. Except for the recessed vases, some holding bright bouquets of flowers, it might have been a golf course. She wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see a cart roll over the hill and someone line up a difficult five-iron shot past the tent that covered the mourners and casket.
But then, she didn’t have to like this place, really; that was the family’s burden. She just had to give the impression of calm dignity as she stood with her hands folded. Until the ceremony was finished, her job was on hold—Mr. Raines’s remains had been processed and prepped, dressed and finished; the coffin had been sealed and carefully polished (nothing worse than seeing sweaty fingerprints on the shiny surface); flowers and memorial handbooks had been delivered and arranged; hearses and limousines had been freshly washed, stocked with tissues, and neatly parked. The actual graveside ceremony was Bryn’s downtime; it was her opportunity to run through the checklist in her head, over and over, to be sure she hadn’t dropped any details.
Next to her, Joe Fideli, her second-in-command, leaned closer. “Red alert. Mistress at your four o’clock,” he whispered, and she glanced in that direction without moving her head. He was, of course, absolutely right. The widow, dressed formally in black, sat ramrod-stiff in the front row beside the coffin, but they’d already been warned that she wasn’t the only woman in Mr. Raines’s somewhat colorful life.
His mistress had gone with mourning color, at least. She’d chosen a Little Black Dress, more appropriate for clubbing than a funeral, and paired it with heels that were too stiletto for the grass on which she was walking. Those shoes resulted in more of a stagger than a controlled stride. Lots of leg on display, and glossy, overdone hair.
She was headed for the funeral like a torpedo for a stationary ship, and Bryn could well imagine the spectacular bang that would make.
“Let’s avoid the drama,” Bryn whispered back, and Joe nodded. He was a big man, but he was light and quick, and besides, all eyes were on the priest. Joe faded back in slow, almost imperceptible movements, and put himself in the path of the other woman.
The priest finished his message, and the prayer began. Most bent their heads, including Bryn, but she continued to watch through her lashes just in case. That was how she saw the mistress try to continue to move forward, and Joe smoothly block her, put a gentle hand on her shoulder, and bend to whisper something to her.
She burst into tears, which was a bit remarkable. She seemed to be the only one who was actually sorry to see the old man go; the dry-eyed wife certainly had never displayed a speck of feeling in all the time Bryn had spoken with her, and wasn’t showing any now. Neither did the children, both in their teens, who looked bored. At least they weren’t texting.
The prayer finished, the priest walked to offer his (probably unneeded) comfort to the wife and kids, and right on cue, the soft music that Bryn had arranged for began to play, signaling the end of the public gathering; she’d cautioned the cemetery employees that she wouldn’t tolerate any jumping of the gun, and she was pleased to see that they were still hanging well back, pretending to be gardeners until the time came for the actual burial. There was another tent erected across the way. She knew they were pressed on their schedule to get the next funeral ready, and she was sympathetic to their need to get things moving, but still. She was a great believer in respect.
Joe had engaged the mistress in tearful conversation, and was walking her away from the graveside. The woman might have been planning a dramatic flinging-herself-over-the-coffin moment, or at the very least, a shrieking catfight with the more legally bereaved. Mrs. Raines was already heading for the limousine that would take her home; the mistress was too far away now for any effective dramatics. Deprived of any other possible entertainment, the assembled mourners—not that Mr. Raines had many—were scattering fast.
Bryn caught up with Mrs. Raines and offered her last condolences, which the widow accepted with a distant, frosty confidence. She was already basking in the soft, warm glow of being a rich woman of means, motive, and opportunity.
Poor man. His mistress, for all her tears, probably wouldn’t mourn him much longer than it took to pawn whatever he’d bought her. Bryn’s mind wandered off into lurid pulp magazine plots of poisoning, evil widows, sinister mistresses, eager-to-inherit children—but truthfully, she had no reason to suspect any foul play. It was just something to do to pass the time, standing in the cool wind, watching the living depart and leave the place to the dead.
She didn’t except herself from that description. In truth, Bryn was just as dead as Mr. Raines. She just wore it a whole lot better.
Bryn finally nodded to the cemetery staffers, who with quick, efficient movements stripped off the flower covering on the casket, and began the less-than-photogenic process of the actual burial. They dropped the sides of the tent for the mechanics of it. A third uniformed worker began folding up the chairs and picking up fallen programs from the Astroturf that had been laid down around the tent. While she was watching that happen, Joe Fideli came back across the carefully manicured lawn. There was still something a little intimidating about him no matter how much tailoring might have gone into his very nice suit; maybe it was the shaved head, or the way he moved, but he had a hell of a lot of presence.
Made a pretty good funeral director, though. And an even better bodyguard.
“Thanks for that,” she said to Joe, and he nodded.
“She looked like she was powering up for a full-on drama explosion,” he said. “So. That’s lunch, then.”
The death business, Bryn thought, was so strange. It was all about emotion and pain and stage management, and then suddenly…lunch. “You know,” she said as she and Joe walked toward the Davis Funeral Home sedans, “it occurs to me that what we do is pretty much like being wedding planners…just with a much unhappier ending.”
He smiled. “Oh, I don’t know. Depends on the wedding,” he said. “I’ve seen some that might have been better off as funerals. You think people are capable of mayhem here, you should see what they get up to with a little champagne under their belts.”
Joe had a unique perspective on mayhem, Bryn thought; he might work for her as a funeral director, and he was a good one, but that was hardly his main vocation.…She’d never met anyone who was quite so comfortable with violence. And considering she herself had been in the army, that was saying something. She strongly suspected he had a background in special forces—Rangers, SEALs, something secretive and highly trained. For all that, he was a nice guy. Just very, very deadly.
And he was her very own private security. She knew, in fact, that he was armed with at least one weapon, possibly two; he usually doubled up when they went out in public, mostly because she hadn’t been able to find a sidearm that was easily concealable under her tailored jackets. He’d made her drill on the procedures of what to do in the event that he ever had to go for those concealed weapons: one, get behind him; two, be ready when he pitched her the second gun; three, fall back to cover while he laid down fire.
Most funeral directors, Bryn thought, never needed to think about those kinds of contingency plans. Lucky them.
Her watch alarm went off with a tiny vibration, just at the time Joe checked his cell phone and said, “Time for meds, boss.”
“I know,” she said. It came out a little sharp, and she shot him an apologetic glance. “Sorry. I don’t think I’ll ever stop hating the needles.”
“More than the alternative?”
That didn’t deserve an answer. “I thought Manny was working on some kind of pill form.”
“You know Manny.” Joe shrugged.
“Well, not really. Do you?”
He snorted and let that one go, because the fact was, she had a point. None of them really knew her chemist, Manny Glickman, and since her life depended on the man to a great extent these days, that bothered Bryn more than she liked to admit.
“Anyway,” Joe said. “No arguments. Time for the booster.”
“I thought I was the boss.”
“You are,” he agreed. “You sign the checks and everything. Don’t mean that you can make me ignore the schedule, since that’s definitely part of what you pay me for, right?”
Right. It wasn’t that Bryn necessarily needed a reminder for this, but having one made her feel less…vulnerable. In oh so many ways. “Meds,” she agreed. “As soon as we get back to the office.”
For answer, he slid a syringe out of his coat pocket, held it up, and said, “No need to wait. We can take care of this in the car.”
Bryn glanced around. Nobody was watching them. “Easier out in the open,” she said, and unbuttoned and removed her suit jacket. Under it, she wore a light blue silk top, sleeveless…the better for shot access, unfortunately. She took a deep breath and presented her shoulder to him, and Joe uncapped the syringe, plunged it home with a quick flick of his hand, and pressed the plunger, fast.
The contents spread into her system in a slow, steady burn that traveled through muscle, entered her bloodstream, and suddenly bolted like fiery acid through her entire body. She was familiar with pain, intimately; fortunately, so was Joe, and he put a supporting hand under her elbow in case her knees gave way. They didn’t this time, but it was close. The fire began to cool, and she kept the scream locked down, pressed tight into a faint moan.
“So,” Joe said, in a neutral tone, “any better?”