While the 88’s watched the oversized tow truck drag the damaged red Corvette up out of Malibu Canyon late Tuesday morning, Markus spent half an hour driving eight miles north on the 405. Traffic in both directions on the five-lane freeway always moved at a crawl. Even though he was in no hurry to see Alexei for the third time, Markus insisted on driving as fast as possible. People were such retards. They were such slow drivers, poking along in the left-hand lanes doing less than 60. At the Victory Boulevard exit, Markus took the ramp too fast, jammed on his brakes and almost rear-ended a man in a BMW. When Markus pulled up at the red light, the man put down his window, shook his fist at Markus and yelled, “You moron.” Before Markus could respond, the light turned green and the BMW took off. Markus turned right and headed east toward the Gates of Heaven in Burbank.
Although he had a confrontation or a near miss every time he drove, Markus had been involved in only one serious incident, in San Pedro, the port city south of Los Angeles. When he moved to Los Angeles and found a job, one of the first things Markus did was search for a custom set of vampire teeth. He found Dr. Damian, the premier vampire dentist, located in San Pedro. On his first trip down to see him, Markus was so excited that he changed lanes on the freeway without looking and sideswiped another car. It happened in the middle of the day and the freakin’ CHP officer kept him out in the searing sunlight for almost an hour. By the time Markus arrived at Dr. Damian’s office, he had one of his humongous sunlight headaches.
During the consultation, Dr. Damian told Markus that he made all the fangs for the vampire movies. He explained, “It’s an art to design something that’s strong and fits in the mouth. You want something that looks good.” The good doctor recommended his trademarked Damian’s Dental Daggers.He assured Markus they would be both realistic and comfortable.
On the first visit, he took molds of Markus’ upper and lower jaw. On the second visit, Markus saw a wax model of his upper teeth with the new cuspids. Markus studied the mold. “I like it,” he said, “but the fangs are too short, they need to be a little longer,” The doctor took another mold of the roof of his mouth. Two weeks later, after a $950 charge to his credit card, Dr. Damian presented Markus with a set of Dental Daggers that fit over his real upper eyeteeth. The porcelain fangs were bonded to gold, which in turn was fused to a paper-thin titanium plate that rested against the roof of his mouth.
“This is state of the art,” the doctor said. “The plate won’t interfere with your speech and you can pop it in or out in a second. If you really want to bite into flesh, this’ll do the job. The teeth won’t move.” He inserted the Daggers into Markus’ mouth and held up an oval mirror.
Markus lifted his upper lip and said, “Badass!” as he gazed at his frightening image with red eyes and vicious teeth. “Ahhh, I will drink your blood,” he growled in his best Transylvanian accent.
He only wore his Dental Daggers a few times before he realized it was foolish to have spent money on vampire teeth. They looked good at Goth clubs, but were otherwise useless. Only wannabees wore them. No one of Markus’ stature, who really wanted human blood, would try to rip open someone’s neck with vampire teeth. That was a movie stunt. A needle or knife was the only way to go. Markus realized he was beyond vampire teeth; he was into the real thing. He put his Dental Daggers away in a drawer and never wore them again. It was a complete waste of money, but the encounter eventually led Markus to Alexei.
Markus had seen conversations in chat rooms about funeral parlors secretly carving up bodies scheduled for cremation. There were rumors that brokers bought body parts, patches of skin, teeth, corneas and arteries for resale to surgeons, medical and research laboratories, even to medical schools. A fresh corpse in good condition was supposed to be worth thousands of dollars.
Markus thought about how sweet it would be to show up at a bloodsucker’s gathering and flaunt a human hand. It was the kind of thing the others would expect from him. He mentioned the stories about body parts to Dr. Damian, who gave a sly smile and said, “Who knows what happens to a body before cremation? If you’re interested, I know a Russian named Alexei. He runs Heaven’s Gate in Burbank. Just be careful around him.”
Heading east from the 405 to Alexei’s funeral parlor, Markus drove through neighborhoods of small homes with metal grates on the windows and front yards full of dirt and weeds. Check cashing businesses, liquor and convenience stores with bulletproof glass, and even a marijuana dispensary, clustered on the street corners. The scenery didn’t change in Burbank.
Heaven’s Gate Funeral Parlor was one block from the entrance to Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery. On the far side of Valhalla lay the Burbank Airport. At regular intervals, red and blue Southwest jets thundered in on the glide path, shaking the ground and rattling the gravestones. There was no rest for the dead in Valhalla.
Markus drove into a parking lot occupied by a black Cadillac hearse and a beat-up van. White flowers lined the front walk. The mortuary was a shabby gray Victorian house that needed a fresh coat of paint. The steep roof had two third-story attic rooms with tiny windows. If the house was haunted, the attic would be where the ghosts lived. White shutters framed large bay windows on the main floor. A deep porch with a sagging wooden balustrade ran along the front of the house and connected with a gazebo on one side. White gingerbread wood trim, broken away in places, bordered the top of the porch.
Markus climbed the wooden steps, walked across the porch to the front door and paused. He looked around and imagined a crowd of mourners, dressed in black, standing outside and consoling each other after a memorial service. While they wiped away their tears, the staff inside dismembered the deceased. They carved up the corpse with a chainsaw, probably a small quiet electric model, and placed the body parts in an ice chest destined for a medical lab.
Markus pushed the door open. Inside, the dim light was a relief and he removed his sunglasses. In the entrance, a vase of roses and a leather bound memorial book from the last funeral greeted him. Markus added his name to the list of mourners, and wrote in large ornate letters, “HAVE A NICE TRIP.” A sharp, sweet smell, stronger than the scent of flowers, filled the air. A dark red carpet covered the floor and the short hall leading into the chapel. Markus looked around for Alexei.
On his first visit, Markus had found the Russian standing in the hallway. He was a large, corpulent man with a shiny bald head, dressed in a dark suit. Markus immediately mentioned Dr. Damian’s name.
Alexei cut him off and launched into a discussion of caskets. “Steel is cheapest,” he said. “Wood is nice, but even expensive wood casket eventually rots. Copper-bronze model is best and lasts forever. Famous statues everywhere made from bronze for that reason. Prices from $750 to $15,000. What kind of casket you want?” Alexei paused and stared at Markus. “You are albinos?”
“Cremation is the least expensive,” Markus responded, ignoring the question and using the exact words Dr. Damian had laid out for him. “I’m interested in a cremation.”
“Da nu. Yes, cremation is best,” Alexei agreed, still eyeing him.
“Just ashes and maybe a hand left over.”
Alexei gave him a how-do-I-know-you’re-not-a-cop look and walked to the front entrance.
“What’s the price range?” Markus asked, trailing Alexei.
“Cremation service comes with urn. You have memorial service with choice of scented candles.” Alexei held the front door for Markus.
“The cost?” Markus persisted.
Alexei scratched his nose and said, “Ya zanyat. I am busy now. Come back next Monday. Bring $1,200 cash and we discuss. In meantime, I check with Dr. Damian. You are really albinos?” Alexei came closer to Markus and looked at him from head to toe. “Albinos,” he repeated.
Markus had emptied his bank account, took a $700 advance on his credit card and returned the following week.
Alexei wasn’t any friendlier on the second visit and got right down to business. “We sell doctors and medical laboratories. I never have request from…ah…private person like you.”
Markus handed Alexei the manila envelope with the cash. “I want a hand, a woman’s hand,” and imagined all the things he could do with it. He thought of his mother and felt her soft, fleshy hands caressing him.
“Is not so simple.” Alexei opened the envelope and looked inside. “I cannot run downstairs and get hand. I match supply and demand for whole body. You choose left or right, but not man or woman.”
“Is a left hand cheaper?”
“Yes, left is cheaper. Is still another $1,200, payment on delivery. You take male or female, whatever comes. People don’t die so often in summer. Everybody outside, having fun, no time for death. I give you couple day’s notice.”
On his third visit, after Alexei called to say the “item” was available, Markus had already maxed out his credit cards and arrived without the second payment. Alexei was actually friendly and said, “Go ahead, take treasure. Do what you do with it.” He handed Markus a small styrofoam container.
Markus removed the top and saw a left hand, neatly severed at the wrist, nestled in shaved ice. Markus was disappointed big time. It was a skinny, almost emaciated hand of an old man. The skin was brown and blemished. What a bummer. Who wanted an old geezer’s hand? It wouldn’t work; there was nothing erotic about it. How had he let himself be forced into paying so much for such a lame, crappy piece of flesh? Alexei had screwed him. He wanted to tell fucking Alexei the Russian that this was not what he had in mind.
Before Markus could speak, Alexei looked at him and smiled in a way that was not a smile. “You have one week. Come back Tuesday with money.”
Now, on Tuesday, a week later, Markus was back at Heaven’s Gate for the fourth time. A blue suit met him at the entrance to the chapel, but it wasn’t Alexei.
“Who’re you?” Markus asked.
“I am Grisha.”
Markus looked at Grisha and immediately disliked him. He was big, and his suit was a size too small. He wore a white shirt, a thin black tie and scuffed black dress shoes. Grisha’s hands had bruises and cuts and his nails were filthy. He needed a shave. All the people Markus hated in his life, which was just about everyone, were bigger than he was. Grisha fit right in. “It’s important. Tell him Markus is here.”
“I know who you are. Wait.” Grisha walked into the chapel and disappeared through a doorway at the far end.
Markus paced back and forth. He knew his measly $175 wouldn’t impress Alexei.
Grisha came back through the door and left it open. He brought with him an odor that Markus could smell from the other end of the chapel. “Alexei’s working in the basement. Go on down.” Grisha went to a large vase at the side of the chapel and began arranging a bouquet of white flowers.
Markus thought Grisha resembled a gorilla foraging for something to eat. “Nice flowers,” he said. Markus had no interest in flowers. They grew in the sun.
“Gladiolus Iridaceae,” Grisha growled.
Markus walked to the door at the back of the chapel. As he started down the stairs, an overpowering chemical stench assaulted him. He opened his mouth and tried not to breath through his nose, but the odor was too strong, Markus could almost taste it. At the bottom of the stairs, he saw fluorescent light and a white tile floor. He thought of the reflected light in the Colony at CU and put on his sunglasses. When he reached the basement, the temperature felt like 50 degrees. He started to shiver as he entered a prep room for embalming bodies. The first thing he heard was the chugging sound of a small pump. Pans of stainless steel instruments were lined up on a table. The tools were all oversized, and were made for sawing, slicing and puncturing. Curved needles, the size of large fishhooks, were threaded with white filament.
Alexei looked up. Today he wore a long-sleeve white gown that buttoned at the back, a paper cap over his shiny head, a mask over his nose and mouth, blue latex gloves and clear plastic glasses. The body of a naked old man lay on a porcelain table, his clothing neatly folded on a countertop. It could have been a wax figure. The pallor of the skin was pale, almost translucent. The body was clean, the hair trimmed, the face smooth. Markus glanced at the hands. Even this old fart on the embalming table had better-looking hands than the one Alexei had sold him. Again, Markus wanted to complain to Alexei about the crappy hand.
Two tubes protruded from an ugly red gash on the right side of the cadaver’s neck. Markus watched as the noisy pump sucked pink embalming fluid from a small tank and forced it into the man’s neck through one of the tubes. A mixture of fluid, blood and dark red clots came out through the second tube, spread across the floor and emptied into a drain. Alexei wore ankle-high grey plastic boots, which were covered with flecks of the same dark red color. The odor of formaldehyde hung in the air and began to make Markus sick.
Alexei turned to adjust the pressure of the pump. “How you like?”he asked. “This is embalming for public display of body. Fluid in carotid, blood out jugular.” His voice was muffled behind his mask. He tapped the corpse’s chest. “No parts here for you. Family come tomorrow for open casket viewing. We provide nice picture.”
Markus gagged. “I have to talk to you about the hand.”
“Shto? What about hand?”
Markus gagged again, his stomach heaved and sour fluid rose in the back of his throat. Markus wanted to tell Alexei what he thought of the lame hand, but settled for, “I need more time to pay you.” He reached into his pocket, withdrew a roll of bills and handed it to Alexei.
Alexei pushed the clear plastic glasses up on top of his paper cap. He took the wad of money, placed it on a counter and spread out eight $20’s, a $10 and a $5. “Babki. You are kidding. Where is rest?”
“I need more time.”
Alexei glared at Markus and picked up a small pistol from the counter. A needle protruded from the barrel. He pointed it at Markus and walked toward him.
Markus backed away. “Alexei, no,” he cried.
Alexei held the gun up to Markus’ forehead, then laughed and turned to the cadaver. He tilted the head back and opened the mouth. It was stuffed with cotton. He lifted the upper lip and pointed the gun at a spot above the teeth on the gum. It made a small popping sound when he fired, and the needle wedged in the upper jaw. “I run business,” Alexei said. “I don’t know what you do with hand, but you buy it and you pay for it.” He went back to the counter, reloaded the pistol, waved it at Markus again, then returned to the cadaver and shot another needle into the lower gum. “Pay, or I send Grisha to do mayhem on you. Understand? Not a happy visit.” Alexei took a wire, wrapped it around the two needles and tied the mouth of the cadaver shut. When he finished, he cut off the ends of the needles with a wire cutter and smoothed the lips. He stepped back, looked at his handiwork and smiled. “So peaceful. Today is Tuesday. You are back next Monday by six in evening with rest of money.”
Markus watched Alexei lift the cadaver’s eyelids. Underneath, the eye sockets were empty. Alexei took two wads of cotton and stuffed them into the hollows. He took two half-round pieces of plastic the size of bottle caps and placed them on top of the cotton. Each piece had tiny barbs. Alexei pulled the eyelids down over the spikes and pressed them in place.
The pump continued. Markus looked again at the blood and body fluids running into the floor drain. The odor of the formaldehyde became overpowering. It filled Markus’ nose. It was in his mouth, on his tongue. His eyes burned.
Alexei looked at Markus, waved his hand and glared. “Vsyoh. That is all, albinos.” He took a two-foot long metal tube attached to a plastic hose, and shoved the pointed end into the corpse’s body just above the belly button.
Markus saw yellow liquid start to flow out of the corpse through the hose. His stomach convulsed, this time delivering a mouthful of bile. He stumbled up the stairs out of the basement and past Grisha who was still arranging flowers in the chapel. Markus ran to the front door, flung it open and nearly fell down the front stairs as his half-digested lunch filled his mouth and washed over his tongue. Markus bent over the flowers lining the side of the walk, clutched his stomach and threw up.
As he dribbled the last of his vomit on the tiny white petals, he felt astaggering pain in his tailbone and saw a white flash of light before his eyes. Markus fell forward onto the flowers and the contents of his stomach. He looked up and realized Grisha had kicked him.
“Hey albino.” Grisha stood over him in his white shirt and too-small blue suit. “Don’t heave in my Brassicaceae.”
“What?” Markus wiped his mouth and tried to brush the vomit off his shirt. He tried to stand up, but could only groan when he tried to move.
“You threw up all over my alyssum.” Grisha stood over him for a moment, then walked across the mortuary’s small parking lot and got into the van.
Markus rolled over onto the grass, choked back another surge of vomit and felt the pain in his lower back spread through his body.
Grisha rolled down the window of the van. Over the idle of the old engine, he said, “Bring our money, albino.”
The odor of the formaldehyde in Markus’ nostrils dissipated, but the smell of vomit and fear replaced it.