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“Ready?” said Phoebe with an anxious glance at the wall clock – almost 3 am – tick-tocking a touch louder than necessary it seemed, slightly more grating than regular time, like a persistent reminder to the dead stowed in their lockers, you’re being left behind. Despite the ungodly hour she fretted Slater and/or Sampson might drop by the funeral home at any moment, perhaps to ensure their charges weren’t getting any funny ideas from the clock, and catch us red-handed, nothing to see here boss.
“It looks like a pizza box,” I said, running my finger along one of the corrugations in the rigid cardboard crate whose name ‘cremation container’, as surmised from the big block letters emblazoned in blaring red down the side, hinted at a dearth of imagination in the mortuary business. Set out on a roller top trolley parked in front of a black mouthed furnace, tuck-in lid hanging open over the edge, it was one of the standard issue no money, no funeral ‘coffins’ that lay stacked in a corner, also like pizza boxes. Picturing Carrick Mayweather lying in one, head stitched closed after they’d scooped out his brain, I ventured, “Can’t we just leave her in the hockey bag? I’m kind of used to it.”
“No. It has to be a fully combustible container.”
“Fully combustible? I thought you said this thing cranks up to 1,700 degrees. What doesn’t get totally incinerated in that kind of heat, except for maybe Lucy’s meatloaf?”
“You’d be surprised,” she said in the dry tone of an emergency room doctor at a cocktail party answering the question “how does somebody get that stuck inside them?” Lifting a silencing finger in anticipation of my next question she said, “And no, we can’t just put her in with no container at all.”
“The container keeps the body from moving around.”
“From moving around?! What, because it’s getting too hot in there?”
“It’s against the regulations, okay?” she said tersely. This was some classic Phoebe in play. No matter that we’d broken into her place of employment to dispose of a murder victim’s body in violation of who knows how many state and federal laws, by standing firm on such a banal rule, because from her perspective there was no good reason to break it, her moral rectitude remained uncorrupted. Delusion akin to the prism through which she viewed Dylan (and me)? Or something more inspired, visionary even, in her unhesitating ability to break with convention when necessity demanded while otherwise toeing the line and keeping an eye on the big picture? I suspected if the five of us, me, Phoebe, Dylan, Dani, and Lucy were on that life raft in the middle of the Pacific, smacking our lips at the sight of a steaming Hal Topper Porterhouse where a companion’s head should be, it would be Phoebe who’d take charge, keep us from each other’s throats until calmly informing the time had come to draw lots to decide who would be killed so the rest could eat, who’d cut the lots herself and, because it would be unthinkable for anyone but her to draw the short one, would ensure that she drew it and would stoically slit her own throat to spare us the anguish of having to do it.
“Okay,” I grumbled. Leadership was what it was, I guess. The day before, we had driven into the city to go to the VA medical center and ask after Raymond Richards, how to find him. And even though we were there for Phoebe’s peace of mind (ostensibly Dylan’s too but since that wood chopping frenzy out back which had produced an Everest of kindling fit for a pyromaniac he was more calm and Zen than I’d ever seen him), shewas the one who took my hand when we passed through the burnt and broken bodies wing under the brooding stares of men being helped into prosthetics, the sounds of shouts and wheelchairs skidding around instead of squeaking sneakers coming from a basketball game in the gym, knowing this was the last place my adoptive parents had been before Carrick Mayweather blew them up at The Tightrope. And after we’d come away emptyhanded, the best they could do with Raymond Richards classified as itinerant in their records was post Phoebe’s appeal for contact to an online message board and hope he would see it, she was still more focused on my equilibrium than her own. Especially when I stopped in front of the doors to the burnt and broken minds wing, their crash bars unbudging without an access card, and pressed my face to a narrow rectangular window searching for my father through the frosted whorls.
“Let’s get her out,” she said, unzipping the hockey bag in one long tug which, with a layer of soil from her grave carpeting the bottom, released the earthy odor and attendant memories of 116 Primrose Way. After being stuffed in there by Raymond Richards and all the subsequent buffeting around the skeleton had arranged itself into a fetal position, doubly unnerving with that thumb jammed between two rows of bared teeth.
Fault lines breaking out over Phoebe’s brow, I muttered, “Like she’s sleeping and dreaming something nice.”
“Mm,” grunted Phoebe, not hearing. Then shaking off her own thoughts on the matter, seismic activity in her brow subsiding, she grabbed the ankles with fresh resolve and straightened out the legs. “What’s that you said?”
“Like the job’s been done for you.”
“Come on, let’s lift her up,” she said with a shrug, no time now for deciphering Paul’s gibberish, and pointing with her chin.
Crouching over, her arm bones looked as spindly and delicate as a spider’s legs, so I gripped the natural handlebars of the collar bones instead. “Ready.”
“Lift,” said Phoebe, and as I straightened up the skull lolled back at a hideous angle on vertebrae hyperextended like accordion bellows. Freeing a hand to cradle it, there was a sharp bubble wrap pop and it came clean off. Slipping through my fumbling fingers, the skull rolled unevenly across the granite floor and came to rest facedown with a soft crunch at the foot of the pile of pizza boxes.
“This just has to be a lot more against the regulations,” I said, Phoebe still holding onto the ankles of the headless skeleton. What was it Bob Calloway had ranted on about when the authorities finally released to him the flake of concrete Sarah was smeared on? Something about abuse of a corpse (“it’s a fucking crime, I looked it up”), so unhinged at the time there was no convincing him that equating a blood droplet with a corpse made apples and oranges look like identical twins. This scene here, on the other hand, was maybe a shade closer to the mark.
“Try not to think about it,” said Phoebe quietly as we stood at the side of the trolley, Lena’s two pieces now more respectfully arranged on her cardboard bed, me fixating on the scored cervical disc where the head had come away, where Carrick Mayweather had given up on his decapitation efforts. Why was that? Overcome by a wave of mouth-dabbing ennui with all the violence? Homicidal inspiration interrupted by another Porlock figure? Stalled by an exotic sense of guilt over it being his own mother (our mother) this time around? Chances are, none of the above.
“Maybe it’s for the best he didn’t finish the job,” I said, recalling what he had done to the severed heads of his other victims, the two holes in the skull now taking on a dark functionality. Now there is abuse of a corpse, Bob. Of course, Lucy would scoff at the whole notion and chide, “She’s dead, Paul. D-E-A-D. The dead don’t care what happen to them.” I couldn’t help it. Looking into those bottomless eye sockets, two black wells of aggrievement, cremating her bones seemed almost like an act of euthanasia.
And what was I to feel when Phoebe gently closed the lid of the pizza box, tucked in its flaps nice and snug, gently rolled it into the furnace, pushed a fat green button on the wall that sent gas flames spurting from two long rows of sooty nozzles, the steel door slowly lowering until only a line of flickering orange at the bottom where it rasped closed hinted at the inferno within? I hadn’t known her or loved her in life. It was Nicole Manson who’d come to me in the night when I had a bad dream or storm light was casting goblin shadows on the walls, get into my bed and sing me back to sleep in that soothing lullaby voice that melted fear. So afterwards, when Phoebe set a clunky contraption with an air of agricultural menace to angrily grinding up Lena’s left-over bone fragments and teeth like an espresso machine fed metal beans, just what was I supposed to feel?
To be continued…
*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available at: http://bit.ly/2u7rqcL
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