She took a couple of deep breaths before even trying to answer. “If you mean ‘Does it still feel like I’m being flayed?’ the answer is yes,” she said, but by the time she finished saying it, the pain had rolled through her and vanished, except for a few last whispers haunting her joints. “Maybe a little less painful than last week’s formula, but this one has a worse aftertaste.” She wanted to scrub it off her tongue with a wire brush. Manny changed the formula about once a week, trying to fine-tune and improve it, but that didn’t mean it was a joy to experience. Especially when she had to endure it every day.
“Don’t suppose that aftertaste would be, say, chocolate.”
“More like bleach and sewage,” she said, and couldn’t help the gag reflex. He held on to her until this, too, passed, and silently handed over a tin of Altoids mints. She chewed two of them, and the relief of getting that awful taste out of her mouth was worth the intense peppermint burn. “Wow, that was not pretty.” She pulled her jacket on again as Joe stepped back, assessing her with a professional kind of analysis that made her feel less like a woman and more like a machine in need of maintenance. “I’m fine.”
“Okay,” he said. “Manny said to watch out for tremors and signs of decomp. He’s still working out the kinks on the combo formula. This one should suppress the Protocols better, but there may be some side effects. Could also burn off faster. Hard to know.”
Bryn had long ago accepted that her status in this world was going to be lab rat, but that didn’t make it any easier to take pronouncements like that. “So I should watch out for tremors first, or decomp?”
“Both,” Joe said. “But stay calm while you’re doing it.”
Yeah, that was her life. Keep calm, and watch for decomposition. She got a shot, every day; they were still trying out new formulas to counter different nasty things built into the nanites that rushed through her bloodstream, acting as her life-support system and keeping her…well, if not alive, then a very convincing copy. She never knew what the day’s shot would bring. Every day was a new surprise, and most of them were unpleasant.
Her cell buzzed for attention, and she checked the screen. “We should be getting back,” she said.
“Uh-huh. Trouble?” She sent Joe a long look, eyebrows raised. “Never mind. Stupid question.”
Joe took the driver position; she wasn’t allowed in the front, or to sit directly behind him. On his insistence, she always sat in the sweet spot where she would—theoretically—be the safest in the event of a gunfight. Bryn thought it was bullshit, because in the event of a gunfight, she could hold her own, and besides, she was relatively damage-resistant. Thanks to the nanites, the curse that kept on giving.
She’d never intended this to be her life. She’d just taken a job, a regular job as a funeral director, and discovered her boss was reviving the dead for profit in the basement. That had ended badly for her, with a plastic bag over her head, and a one-way retirement.
Except that Joe and his boss, Patrick McCallister, had brought her back to find out what had happened, and now she was stuck here, taking shots to stay on her eternal treadmill between life and death.
Because getting off that treadmill meant having to die all over again, and not nearly as neatly and quickly.
It meant rotting alive.
While Joe drove back to Davis Funeral Home—once Fairview Mortuary, but recently renamed since she’d taken it over—Bryn checked her e-mails.
“Crap.” She sighed. Joe sent her a look in the rearview mirror. “My mom’s e-mailing. She wants to know if I’ve heard anything from Annalie.” Her sister’s disappearance hadn’t caused too much of a stir yet.…Mom was accustomed to Annie taking off for weeks at a time, gadding about on sailboats or backpacking trips or affairs with boyfriends that never quite worked out. So she was just casually asking right now, with a tiny flavor of concern.
But that would change, soon, and the problem was that Bryn did know what had happened to Annie. She just couldn’t tell her family.
Joe nodded. “Does she still think Annie’s on vacation?”
“Yeah. But I can’t keep this up much longer. It’s been too long, and sending Mom the occasional text from Annie’s phone number isn’t cutting it anymore. She’s going to want to see her daughter. Soon.”
Not that Bryn could do anything about it. Annie was missing. Waiting for information was the worst part…and while she waited, there wasn’t anything else she could do except test out new shots, hope for some new intel, and hope for the best. Wait for the government, who now solely owned the raw formula of the drug Returné that Manny worked from, to decide what to do with her, and all the others addicted to this drug. She’d signed papers. Papers that meant, essentially, that she was trading cooperation with them—ill defined as that was—for continued life. Apparently, the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness wasn’t guaranteed after you’d actually died.
She met Joe’s gaze in the mirror for a second before he focused back on driving. “If we find her, do you think this formula will work for Annie?” Because her sister, like her, was dead in every way that didn’t show. Dead, and addicted to the drug that had Revived her.
“We can give it a try,” he said. “But she’s been on the Pharmadene formula for a long time now, with all the Protocols activated. We’d have to detox her, and frankly, Manny hasn’t had enough test subjects to know if there are some people who might be resistant to the new mix. But try to be patient, okay?”
She wasn’t patient at all, and he knew that. But first they had to find Annie, then worry about the detox period, so patience was all she had right now. Patience, and running the business of caring for the dead.
Her cell phone rang before she could tell Joe what she thought about being patient. When she thumbed it on and answered, “Davis Funeral Home, Bryn Davis speaking,” she knew she sounded less than her usual soothing self, so she added, in a deliberately warmed-up voice, “How may I assist you?”
“Funny you should ask that. I have a job for you,” said the voice on the other end. A familiar one—brisk, female, businesslike. The caller ID was blank. “Assuming you’re not in the middle of a corpse you can’t put aside.”
“Hello, Riley Block,” Bryn said aloud, for Joe’s benefit. She saw his eyebrows raise a little as he glanced in the rearview mirror at her. “How goes the FBI’s dirty work?”
“Tolerably well,” Riley said, with just a cool trace of amusement. “How goes the death business?”
“Never a dull moment,” Bryn said. “What do you want?”
“I’ll be at your office in thirty minutes. We can discuss it then.” Meaning, of course, that Riley Block, professional paranoid, wasn’t going to talk about it over the airwaves.
“Fine,” Bryn said, and hung up. She liked Riley, despite all the reasons she shouldn’t; the FBI agent had started out working undercover in the funeral home, and had almost gotten her killed, but hell, half her friends had that last particular honor. Not to mention at least one relative.
“So,” Joe said. “Riley. Great. Are we going to her, or is she coming to us?”
“She’s coming to us.”
“Want me to shoot her, or bake her cookies?”
“I’ll let you know.” Bryn sighed. She felt tired and achy, but that was a side effect of the shot. It was a little more painful this week than last. She wished that Manny would finalize his formula once and for all; she was tired of not knowing how she’d feel, what the side effects would be. They seemed to be getting worse, not better. And that was worrying. It wasn’t as if this process had been tested and FDA approved. “Jesus, I’m in a bad mood. Tell me something good, Joe.”
“Well, the profits are up, I think the sun’s coming out tomorrow, and your six-month anniversary as boss of this flaky outfit is coming up. I’m thinking I’ll get you some flowers.”
She shuddered. “Please. Don’t.” Flowers were one thing they both saw way too much in this business, and besides, he knew perfectly well that the six-month anniversary also tokened something else, something grim: the anniversary of her death.
The anniversary of her murder.
Bryn had been brought back for information, and hadn’t been able to offer much in exchange for her daily infusions of life-support nanites. She’d been lucky to survive at all; she knew that. Every extra day of her life—such as it was—had to be looked on as a gift.
But that didn’t mean she had to celebrate it, either.
Joe was quiet for a while, navigating the turns, and finally said, in a totally different voice, “Bryn. Don’t do that.”
“Drift,” he said. “It’s a long way back to shore when you do that. And I’m not sure you’re that good a swimmer yet.”
Maybe not, she thought. But one thing was sure: she had plenty of lifeguards.
She shook her head, and went back to checking her e-mail.
Davis Funeral Home had some of the nicest hillside real estate outside San Diego…which made it expensive to maintain, but restful and lovely, and as Joe Fideli took the turn up the drive, past the bus stop where Bryn had once had to wait for her transportation, Bryn looked up to enjoy the view. Down the hill was the winding road, leading toward the spill of pastel houses near the sparkling bay. Today, the ocean was a dull lead gray, and the colors were muted, but it was still breathtaking.
The funeral home itself had been built in the twenties, with solid art deco lines and beautiful gardens. It really was gorgeous in its own right, and she still got a mingled thrill and a jolt of alarm seeing her last name on the sign. The old Fairview Mortuary sign had been original to the building, but she’d tried to match the style as best she could. She felt a certain kinship with the old place.…After all, she’d come into it a new, eager employee, and died on day one. Like her, the building was a bit of a Frankenstein monster, repaired and brought back to life.