The black smears on the white board walls were remnants of slaughtered ideas. They cried failure to Skunk. In the dead of night the vandal struck again. Every time Skunk closed his eyes, he could see the vandal’s tongue waggling arrogantly at him.
“A near blind woman named Mrs. Herald claims she saw strange birds hanging over the branches of the trees by the library two hours past midnight,” reported Ninny. She was a member of Officer Fanny Duster’s new police squad. “It was later discovered by Temaru that these ‘birds’ were in fact books,” she continued. There was a screeching of chairs as Ninny returned to her seat and Temaru stood.
“A window was found open on the top floor of the library. We believe the vandal hurdled the books out the window into the tree adjacent to the building,” he relayed.
Skunk pinched his eyes and downed his second shot of espresso. He’d recently ensured that all the public buildings of Belleville were alarmed and under guard.
“Books were dumped from the shelves and strewn all over the interior of the library as well,” Temaru continued. “The library is currently closed to allow the librarians time to fix the disorder.”
The white board walls now squeaked as Officer Fanny Duster adamantly scribbled words on their gray-washed faces. There were only three ways the vandal could have gained access to a locked and alarmed building: either he knew the code to the alarm, had the keys to the library and managed slipped past the guards, or…
“He was hiding in the library the entire time,” Skunk said. The squeaky scribbling ceased and was replaced by a contemplative silence. Skunk could almost hear the police squad’s thoughts. Could the vandal be living amongst the town people? What if he was hiding in plain sight?
Temaru voiced his thoughts aloud, “Why would anyone go to all that trouble just to make a mess? I mean, camping out in a library just to overturn a few book shelves? Who does that?”
“Why does anyone do anything?” Skunk asked. He exhaled bitterly and stood from his place at the long narrow table. Glancing at his watch, he found that it was only an hour until Spine Less’ funeral service. Officer Fanny Duster caught him staring at his watch and knew immediately it was time to wrap up the meeting.
“Alright, ladies,” he said, white board marker still in hand, “I want four of you questioning the librarians at the library and four of you checking the security tapes from last night. If any of you happen to stumble upon a loafer snoring amongst the piles of books, don’t hesitate to cuff him! For all we know, the vandal is still in the building.” Papers ruffled and shoes clacked as the squad scrambled to follow orders. “Oh, and just in case any of you have forgotten why we’re going to all this trouble, I want to see every one of you present for Spine Less’ funeral. Keep your distance, as the family has requested for privacy. If you see anyone or anything suspicious, report it immediately.”
“Of course, Officer.” Temaru bowed before leading the squad out. Skunk and Officer Fanny Duster followed suit. Skunk made sure to keep behind the group. He wasn’t in the mood for conversation. Funerals did that to him―they made him distant. Skunk often wondered how it was he never became a recluse. After the heinous circumstances surrounding his parents’ deaths it was a wonder he remained sane. Unless he hadn’t…
“We’ll wait until after the funeral ceremony to question the undertakers,” Officer Fanny Duster said. The officer must have waited for him to catch up. Skunk said nothing. He just nodded and placed his hands in his pockets. When he felt the weight of the canister in his fingertips, a sinking sensation flooded his gut.
He should have been proud of his accomplishment. He successfully altered the chemical composition of his spray, rendering it nonexplosive while increasing the potency of its smell. Instead, all he felt was guilt. His motivation behind the cocktail’s origination was pure criminal. So many years had passed since his father’s death, and so many more since his mother’s murder. But the pain never left Skunk. Not even revenge could satisfy the sorrowful anger he felt. The bitter emotions would swamp through his veins like oil, consuming his heart so it beat five times as fast. His brain would become a thundercloud soaked in inky gloom. Suddenly nothing would matter except the beast-like animosity crawling beneath his skin, threatening to break free.
“Is something wrong, Mr. Mayor?” Officer Fanny Duster asked. Skunk gave the officer a haphazard smile. He stared at the frosted pavement for a moment before making eye contact.
“Have you ever felt as though you're bursting at the seams?” Skunk wanted to take back the words as soon as they left his mouth. Officer Fanny Duster snorted with laughter.
“All the time!” he exclaimed, patting his ample gut. Embarrassed, Skunk slid into his car. He had never been very good at explaining his emotions. “Feeling a little gassy are we Mr. Mayor?” Officer Fanny Duster chuckled. “A little bloated, perhaps?”
“No. No. I assure you, I am not. Bad choice of words, Officer. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to prepare for a funeral.” Skunk drove off, leaving Officer Fanny Duster laughing and choking in the stream of exhaust fumes.
“What the hell happened to you!” Jaune’s concern did not flatter Terence. She gasped upon seeing his broken nose and split cheekbone. As Terence preferred not to revisit the painful encounter with Carina, he told Jaune to talk to Ash for an explanation.
“Wait! Terry!” Jaune clasped Terence’s hand as he pressed by her. Terence tore himself from her grasp just as the grim visions were beginning to take shape. He heard the sound of an ECG beep along with the zip of a plastic bag before he broke contact with her. Thankfully, he never got a chance to decipher the glowing numbers.
“What?!” he demanded, a little more forcefully than intended. He could feel the perspiration gnawing at his palm. Jaune apologized before responding. She often forgot about his ‘germaphobia.’
“You really shouldn’t see Spine Less’ family looking like that. You look like a mob victim!” Terence unraveled the scarf from his neck. He hadn’t even got a chance to take his coat off and already he was being bombarded by the woman. A cool waft of air nipped Terence from behind as both Ash and Miss Fairweather made their way through the door.
“It’s chilly out there!” Ash declared, his face pink and cheery. “Nice nose, Terence.” Ash winked cryptically at him before climbing up the stairs. Jaune lifted an eyebrow after him and pursued closely behind. Evidently she was more interested in poking her nose where it didn’t belong than doing her job. Terence would keep this in mind when it came time to write her performance review sheet.
“Come with me, Miss Fairweather. I think I hear Spine Less calling for us,” Terence said. He swooped his long black coat over a nearby chair, making it appear as though it was gobbled by an oversized bat.
Terence wrinkled his nose at the smell of stale coffee. He winced. It hurt to wrinkle his nose. Fingerprints laced the glass covers on the wooden table tops along with coffee crop circles.
“Where are those damn assistants when I need them,” he grumbled to himself. He approached Spine Less’ casket and was pleased to see him looking just as he had the day before. A number of his paintings were set up on a small table beside him: one of his ancient mother and another of his even more ancient grandmother. Spine Less’ mother requested her son be dressed in the suit he wore to her third wedding. In lieu of a collared shirt, Spine Less adorned his iconic stripes beneath the blazer.
Terence was mentally congratulating himself on a job well done, when a maggot exited Spine Less’ nostril and squirmed beneath his lapel. Terence gasped and took Miss Fairweather by the shoulder.
“Did you see that?” he asked. Miss Fairweather’s fair skin flushed crimson.
“See what? I didn’t see anything,” she answered. Terence fixed his eyes on the dead man. Perhaps he only imagined the worm. Or perhaps Miss Fairweather was lying.
“Did you choose the chemicals for this case, Miss Fairweather?” The blonde girl shook her head defensively.
“No. You did. You never let me select the chemicals,” she moped.
“What percentage of formaldehyde was in the solution?” Terence pressed further.
“Five percent,” she responded. Terence uttered a sigh of relief. He could feel his heart fluttering like an anxious butterfly. Spine Less had been dead for seven days. Judging by the fragility of his skin, Terence guessed he was submerged under water for at least a day. If anything could accelerate the rate of decomposition, it was moisture. Along with the thirty-two ounces of cavity fluid and precautionary bottles of Dispray, Spine Less should have been well preserved.
“Did you see any flies in the prep room during the time we spent embalming this man?” Terence knelt so that he could look his intern square in the face. Her eyes went immediately to his bruised and crooked nose.
“Uh,no.” The girl must have thought he was tripping.
“Good. I’m just hallucinating.” Terence returned to his full height. “Do me a favor and clean this place up. Or am I hallucinating this mess?” Miss Fairweather shook her head. “Excellent. In the event that you do see a maggot, squish the damn thing before it inevitably has little wormy babies. Understood?” Miss Fairweather nodded. “If you need me, don’t.” Terence turned on his heels, his thin legs carrying him out in long stork-like strides. Poor Miss Fairweather was left confounded and in the company of death.
Terence snatched his coat before exiting the funeral home and flung it over his shoulders. The black vehicles were like stallions lined up and glinting in the sunlight. A pair of purple lights topped the lead car, which Terence would be driving in procession to the Belleville Cemetery. Paul stepped out of the hearse and saluted when he saw Terence.
“Morning, Boss!” he called. Terence swallowed hard. There was a ball welling in his throat. The name Alabaster Bloom echoed in his skull. The last time Terence questioned Paul about the missing body of Alabaster Bloom, Paul fell asleep. Terence couldn’t believe he’d never noticed the man’s narcoleptic behavior. A man with a tendency to fall asleep spontaneously shouldn’t be driving.
“I need to talk to you, Paul,” Terence said. Paul nodded and followed Terence through the door to the garage. The floors were wet―a product of freshly washed funeral vehicles. A musty odor floated up from the drain. Terence cleared his throat, uncertain of how to phrase his concerns to Paul.
“What’s up?” Paul asked, his hands slung in his suit pockets. “Am I in trouble or something?”
“No.” Terence rubbed his forehead. “It’s about Alabaster Bloom.”
“The dead guy? What about him?”
Terence lowered his voice and peered behind him to ensure no one was listening in, “I don’t remember his body.” Paul fingered the wrinkles on his forehead and gazed at a boot print on the dusty floor.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Boss. He was a wrinkly old brute with no hair―”
“The mayor of Belleville has his medical certificate of death,” Terence declared. He sucked in his cheeks and crossed his mantis-like arms. “Explain that to me.”
Paul looked up from the boot print. “I can’t,” he said. Terence felt his chest tighten. Paul was messing with him. Somebody was trying to make Terence look bad, and Paul was in on it. A flood of paranoid energy consumed Terence and before he knew it, he had Paul squirming in his grasp.
“I know what you’re doing, Paul. Somebody in this funeral home wants me out and you struck a deal with them.” Terence’s accusation cut through the dank air like a knife.
“Boss, please! I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Paul squealed.
“There never was a man named Alabaster Bloom!” Terence shouted. “You created him, made up a fraudulent document and paid a homeless man to play doctor!” Paul looked genuinely shaken. Pinned against a wall and breathing haggardly under Terence’s choking grasp, he shook his head.
“You’re hurting me, Boss!”Paul exclaimed. Terence dropped the man. He felt like he was being torn apart from the inside out. His head swarmed with images. A shriveled face. A glinting scalpel. Eyes wide open. Horror. Shock. Blood.
“Terry!” Terence felt a hand yank him from his recurring nightmare: the man he embalmed alive. Jaune looked from Paul to Terence, her dark eyes welling with concern. Paul dusted himself off and darted into the funeral home like a startled cat. Terence wheezed. A layer of clammy sweat coated his forehead. He was unspeakably dizzy.
“I need to sit down,” he said, wavering slightly. Jaune took him forcibly by the arm and dragged him upstairs to the lounge where she plunked him into a chair. Terence had to hand it to the woman, she was surprisingly strong.
Terence heaved a dilapidated sigh and buried his face in his hands. Jaune lingered next to him. She wouldn’t leave until he provided her with an explanation.
“I suspect Paul and someone else are working to push me out of Bob’s chair,” Terence told her. She licked her plump lips, hiked up her skirt and took a seat at the table.
“Terry,” she said, raking her long nails affectionately down his arm, “no one is trying to get rid of you. You’re overworked. You’ve taken one day off since Bob’s passing―and only because I made you. Do yourself a favor and take a few days off before you make yourself sick.” Before leaving, she added, “You look like hell.”
Terence felt like hell. He had no idea who he could trust anymore. What if Jaune was the one scheming and ordering Paul around behind his back? What if it was Wilson?
“Terence, your family is here,” Ash announced. He stood at the entrance of the lounge. Terence flushed his thoughts aside and went with Ash to greet Spine Less’ family.
Spine Less’ mother was a bent-over haggard woman with drooping sad features. Her hair seemed to be a cross between white and a brownish-yellow. Her husband was a toothless fellow with a lazy eye. When they stuck their tobacco stained hands out for Terence to shake, he winced and rubbed his knuckles.
“You’ll have to pardon me. I’d shake your hands, but the arthritis in my fingers causes me a great amount of pain this time of year,” he lied. The couple nodded in understanding and bundled their other children under their arms. They then trudged grimly into the visitation room to see their beloved Spine Less for the last time.