Chapter One, part 1
There is nothing more intimidating than a clean white canvas and a palette of colors. – TJ Wilde
I’m TJ Wilde-Mason, soon to be simply TJ Wilde again – Tammy Jean Wilde to be exact. My mother was a big country western fan. No one and I mean no one, calls me Tammy Jean, not even my mother. Before I entered kindergarten I began the resistance and would only answer to TJ. It was an epic battle.
“Tammy Jean, I just spoke to your teacher. Misbehaving and it’s only the first week of kindergarten, what am I going to do with you? Tammy Jean? Tammy Jean, don’t you give me that silent treatment. Stubborn as your father, may he rest in peace. Tammy Jean?”
I had no desire to end up a big haired country western singer with fake eyelashes and even faker boobs…or working a stripper’s pole. I had definite ideas as a child. Not much has changed.
I bet you’re wondering what I’m doing standing in the dark with my ear pressed against the door. Fair question. I’m afraid the answers are more complicated than I have time for right now, considering I’m running for my life at this precise moment, but I’ll give you the highlights. I’m standing in the dark because this is embalming room number two at Butterfield Funeral Home and Crematory and if I turn on the light, what I will see is Mr. Frank Absom in all his glory laid out on table one. On table two, depending on who you believe, a Deputy U.S. Marshal who died in the line of duty or a dirty cop who got caught up in a gambling ring in the heart of Peoria, IL. He’s naked as the day he was born and since I almost went out on a date with him, I’d rather not see him in that condition. Don’t get me wrong, naked is fine when your equipment still works, but he’s long past that point.
If I sound cold and disrespectful, it’s is only because if I stopped to think about what that really means, I wouldn’t be able to breathe. In a situation like this, denial is your friend. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.
The first thing you realize when you work at a funeral home – oh and I do work at this funeral home, temporarily, until my divorce is finalized. Well, actually, until my Soon-To-Be-Ex finally decides to sign the papers, come out of the closet, and get on with his life, then I am out of here, never to be seen again. That is if I make it out of this room without needing this room. Anyway, as I was saying, the first thing I realized after I was here just a few weeks, there is no dignity in death. No matter how much an undertaker tells you that your deceased loved one will be treated with dignity and respect, you learn very quickly there is no such thing. It’s not that they are lying to you; it is that the business of death is messy and clinical. The dead are laid out naked on a shiny metal table, their neck elevated on a wooden block. Depending on the family’s wishes, they are either placed in a giant oven, baked to very well done, or a tube is stuck into a femoral artery and all their bodily fluids are drained out and replaced with embalming fluid. Don’t even ask me about the horrors if rigor mortis has set in. And that is only week one for me.
Now Mr. Absom, he’s an interesting story. Eighty-four, died in the arms of thirty year old Maggie Smith. Not his wife. Cliché, I know, but if you have to go, that is the way to go. Scuttlebutt around town is he was quite the womanizer and no one, including his wife, was surprised by the manner he shuffled off his mortal coil. The Deputy U.S. Marshal? He’s the reason I’m running – okay hiding – for my life right now. How I became tangled up in all of this I’m not quite sure, I’m still trying to suss out that one.
To my current dilemma, I’m hiding from some really Scary Dudes. I figure that if I can stay hidden here until 7:30 a.m., when Jim Johnson arrives to open up the funeral home, I might stand a chance. He’s the groundskeeper and handyman. He comes in, turns on all the lights, starts the heat or air conditioning and begins to tidy up the rooms and the yard before everyone else gets here around 8:30. If I can remain undetected until he arrives, I may make it out of here, still breathing. Generally, I’d say I could take care of myself. I’m a first degree black belt in Kendo and to work off the stress of divorce, financial insecurity, and my sexual frustration, I’ve become a hardcore kickboxer. However, my instincts tell me Scary Dudes are serious. Considering everything that has transpired in the last few days, I’m subscribing to the safety in numbers philosophy – unless the other team is packing, then no one is safe. I think it must be about 6 a.m. now, maybe even 6:30, with all that’s happened I’ve lost track of time. There is no clock in the room, it’s not like the occupants have any pressing need for one. I don’t have a watch and my cell phone is in my purse. My purse is in my car.
My car, a cute little black and yellow Mini Cooper, is in a ditch about two miles from here after being deliberately run off the road by Scary Dudes in their big, black Cadillac Escalade. In my haste to get away, I left my bag under the driver’s seat. I’m hoping they were distracted enough chasing me that they didn’t think to steal it. It’s a bitch having to cancel all those credit cards and get a new driver’s license. Although, I could use a new picture and maybe I could change my name back while I was at the DMV. There’s always a bright side, right?
Luckily, I managed to grab my car keys, which also had the keys to funeral home on the ring. I was on my way here anyway, so I continued on foot, running through the trees, between houses, avoiding street lights. A regular secret agent, I am. I was congratulating myself on my physical fitness because I arrived at the funeral home in what I believed was record time. Unfortunately, Scary Dudes must have been on their way here, too, seeing that when I turned the corner, breathless and sweaty, the Escalade was in the parking lot, with the lights off, engine running. They seemed to be waiting for something or someone. In case it was me, I decided sneaking in would be prudent. The back door to the funeral home is not visible from the parking lot or the street. It’s tucked away between the garage and the tall lilac hedges. The perfect location for bringing in the dead without drawing attention to them, also, not a bad way for a regular Ninja Girl to sneak in without tipping off Scary Dudes.
Why does everyone want to be at the funeral home before dawn on a Monday morning? I doubt it’s to see Mr. Absom. No, the more likely explanation is that late yesterday I figured out that a key piece of evidence, one that could end this whole nightmare, might be in the personal effects of dead Deputy U.S. Marshal Michael Fraser. Moreover, I’m willing to bet Scary Dudes are thinking the same thing. What I can’t figure out is if they’re smart, if they’re somehow monitoring me, or, in my nightmare of nightmares, if the only person I’ve trusted since all this began had betrayed me.
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