#4 in the Deadly Mystery Series
|Author||Victor J. Banis|
|ISBN#||978-1-60820-090-0 (print) $14.99|
|978-1-60820-091-7 (ebook) $5.99|
|Release Date||August 2009|
|Cover Artist||Deana C. Jamroz|
The House of the Dead: a mortuary whose directors are drop dead gorgeous and terminally horny-and one of them up to mischief. Stanley and Tom try to separate the naturally dead from the murdered dead and find themselves awash with coffins-until they come to the one Stanley’s name on it. Deadly Slumber indeed.
The House of the Dead.
He hadn’t known, when he made the appointment, how appropriate that old sobriquet would be before the day, before the hour, even, was out.
That’s what they had called Bartholomew’s Mortuary when David Solomon was growing up just a few blocks from here—never dreaming that one day he would be standing outside like this, looking up at the pseudo-Italian palazzo, and summoning his courage to go inside for a job interview.
“You’re going to work at the House of the Dead?” his sister Rose had asked, laughing.
“I hope. And live there too, if I get the internship.”
“Won’t you feel, you know, icky? All those dead people?”
“Dead people are just dead, Rosie. You want icky, I’ll take you to a gay dinner party or two. You’ll come to welcome a non-bitchy corpse.”
He’d been so used to seeing the building, though, that as anachronistic as it was here in San Francisco’s near-Mission, midst crumbling mansions and almost mansions, he had long since ceased to take any particular notice of it.
Today, however, perhaps because it had taken on a new significance in his life, or maybe it was only a trick of the early morning sunlight, but when he came around the corner from 17th Street, he saw it with new eyes, the way you catch sight of a different you in a store window’s glass. Pausing outside to really look at the mortuary’s facade, he could suddenly fully appreciate it for the beautiful monstrosity that it was, in a way he’d never done before.
Built for a gold field millionaire whose fortune had vanished as quickly as it accrued—apparently before he’d spent so much as a single night in his new mansion—the palazzo looked, as wags sometimes put it, “about as Venetian as an amusement park funhouse.” It was generally said, though, with an affectionate scorn. It was bastard architecture, to be sure, but fascinating in its own way.
The millionaire who’d commissioned the building had quickly vanished into obscurity, and the palazzo’s subsequent history had been checkered: an expensive bordello, a brief and unsuccessful stint as a hotel (Victorian era guests apparently shied away from sleeping in a former bordello), a gambling casino, a speakeasy, a bordello again (“A whorehouse,” some insisted this time), and for a year or so a boarding house, after which it had sat empty for ten years or more before Percy Bartholomew Senior, looking about for a place to establish a business, had seen it and said, “There, that will be Bartholomew’s Mortuary.”
The building was enormous, and for years Bartholomew’s had needed only the first floor. The top three floors were used for storage and an apartment in which the thrifty Percy lived when he was not hard at work, which was seldom. It had been then a one-man operation, Percy serving as his own embalmer, funeral director, grief counselor, maintenance man, and accountant.
That remained the case for years, and might have continued for the life of the mortuary, had it not been for one twist of fate: the AIDS epidemic.
“It’s an ill wind,” Percy had been fond of saying, though this wind did not blow until after his demise.
When the AIDS plague first struck, many mortuaries did not want to deal with the bodies of its victims. The families of many of those who died conspired with the funeral homes in ordering hasty cremations, often with no kind of service, often without even posted obituaries. People just disappeared. They were there and then they weren’t.
“No services,” was the order of the day.
Enter Bartholomew’s. Percy Bartholomew Junior, son of the now deceased founder, made a momentous decision, which he trumpeted throughout San Francisco’s gay community: “Bartholomew’s will provide full funerary services for AIDS victims, just as with any other deceased.” An announcement, as it happened, heard round the world.
The ill wind of AIDS had been the making of the mortuary’s fortunes. Additional slumber rooms, in the old fashioned terminology still in use at Bartholomew’s, were opened. A growing list of interns came here to work for little more than slave wages while they finished their schooling, and served their apprenticeships.
Even when an intern did not eventually join the firm, everyone knew that an internship at Bartholomew’s was worth its weight in gold at any mortuary anywhere in the country.
“Be gay,” was a sort of unofficial motto for those applying for internship. It was generally understood, though rarely discussed openly, that being gay was a bonus for an applicant. At the very least, one must be fully comfortable with gay clients. Being especially good looking, and gay oriented, was practically a call to apply.
David Solomon, having completed his first year in mortuary school, and blessed with the sort of good looks that made passersby stop on the street and stare after him, had heard the call.
§ § § § §
The first of the tour busses was just pulling up outside Mission Dolores, down the street. The early morning breeze was strengthening to a wind, tossing David’s dark curls, and making his blazer billow out behind him.
He pushed his way through the wrought iron gate, climbed the wide, shallow steps, and shoved open the elaborately carved front door. The vestibule in which he found himself, and that he had never seen before, was no less fantastic than the building’s exterior. Elaborately inlaid marble covered the floor in an intricate pattern of sand, ocher and umber. In the very middle of the space, an airy staircase of black wrought iron spiraled upward, and when he glanced up he saw, four floors above, a domed ceiling painted in garishly impressive frescoes.
He stood for a long moment, craning his neck to study with a guilty sense of pleasure what surely must have been inspired by the Sistine Chapel, if it had fallen well short of its inspiration. It reminded him of the cheap plastic replicas of Michelangelo’s David that one saw in the tawdrier souvenir shops at Fisherman’s Wharf, but on a much more grandiose scale. Kitschy, but not unlikable. Like the building itself, really.
Someone cleared his throat. David tore his attention from the artwork overhead, and looked to his right. A tall man, whose good looks were just beginning to fade, with pale blond hair so carefully arranged and with so bright a sheen that it might have been made of ceramic, came from behind an ornate teak counter.
“Mister Solomon?” he said.
“Yes.” David came forward, hand outstretched. “I’m David Solomon.”
“Cyril Bartholomew.” Cyril Bartholomew looked him up and down, seeming pleased with what he saw. “Jewish.”
“Yes. Non practicing.” And was immediately embarrassed to have said it. What did that have to do with anything? It was something entirely private, wasn’t it, whether or not he practiced his family’s religion?
“I don’t think we’ve had a Jewish director before. Our directors, of course, are chosen for qualities other than their religious practices. Or non practices, as it may. My Uncle Percy will be interviewing you this morning. He’s the managing director of the firm. Come with me, please.” He turned in the direction of the reception desk and the doors that opened behind and on either side of it, and hesitated.
“Normally,” he said, “we’d take the elevator or the stairs from the business wing. But, this being your first visit, perhaps you’d prefer the scenic route, through the public spaces?”
“I would, actually.”
Cyril nodded, as if in approval, and led the way to the curving stairs.
“What are they?” David asked.
The blond man paused with one foot on the first step. “I beg your pardon?”
“What are the qualities for which your directors are chosen?”
Cyril took a moment to look him over again, slowly, from head to toe, and back. He might have been smiling faintly, but his face was a mask. It was difficult to be sure. Certainly there was a gleam in his eye that came from something more than the gilded chandelier above them.
“You have the look,” he said, and started upward.
David followed, resisting the temptation to take another glimpse at that outrageous ceiling overhead, and kept his eyes instead on Cyril Bartholomew’s ramrod straight back. Cyril was ahead of him up the stairs, though, with the result that his buttocks were practically on a level with David’s eyes. David found himself looking at them, then, rather than Cyril’s back.
Nicely sculpted buttocks they were, too, as David was altogether aware, with lush curves like a ripe peach, a similarity enhanced by the tawny silk of the trousers encasing them. David could not help thinking that, like a peach, they invited one to sink one’s teeth into them. He was mesmerized by the play of muscles as their owner climbed upward, and found himself actually leaning toward them. He caught himself with a start.
What a way that would be to begin his experience at Bartholomew’s, he thought, laughing silently at himself—biting into the butt of one of the directors! He wasn’t altogether sure, though, whether that would be a bad thing for his career, or a good one. The invitation they offered did not seem entirely unintended. It appeared to him Cyril Bartholomew wore nothing between his flesh and the silk of his trousers.
He made a mental note to observe if this state of dress was unique to Cyril alone, or indicated a style suggestion for staff members. After all, he very much wanted to fit in—if he got the job. And, he thought his own buttocks were rather nicely shaped. They’d look just fine, he felt sure, in tightly fitted silk, without the hindrance of underthings. He wished in fact that he’d thought of that beforehand. Everyone in the industry understood looks mattered when it came to Bartholomew’s, and he had a notion that his own butt was one of his best features.
Once, Cyril looked back over his shoulder and smiled, and David had the impression that he was not at all unaware of the sight he was presenting to the young man following him up the stairs.
They reached the second floor. David had a glimpse of a chapel, filled with flowers, the perfume of roses and lilies and chrysanthemums seeming to flow out the open door like a fog of scent.
“Our original slumber rooms are on the ground floor. Of course, everyone wants them. The selection room is there as well, and the embalming room. I’ll skip that for today. The newer parlors are here, on second,” Cyril said, waving a hand at the second floor corridor. “They’re a bit smaller, but also more up to date. Depending upon your interview, we can look at those later. The offices and the staff rooms are on the next level, along with a small kitchenette and cafeteria for our employees, and a quite good coffee shop for our guests.” He started up another flight of stairs. “The top floor, that would be the fourth, is the dormitory for our interns.”
David was suddenly aware of the silence that surrounded them. It seemed total. The thick carpet on the stairs swallowed up their footsteps, and when Cyril spoke, it was in little more than a whisper, though it had the effect almost of a shout. No breeze stirred the thick forest green brocade of the draperies. The air was not just still, it seemed gelid, as if they moved through it only with effort.
His mother would have said his imagination was running away with him. The atmosphere here was supposed to be hushed. Except in ghost stories, the dead weren’t given to clatter.
They reached the third floor and went down a long corridor, past an open door where two or three well-dressed and handsome men were having coffee. They glanced at David with some interest as he went by but no one spoke, and Cyril did not pause for introductions.
He knocked at a tall mahogany door at the corridor’s far end, waited for a respectful moment, then knocked again, a little louder. Finally, he pushed a door open, tentatively.
“Uncle Percy?” he said, stepping into the room, and then, in a sibilant whisper, “Oh, Jesus!”
Crowding in behind him, David first saw the enormous desk centered before the two green draped windows, the morning sunlight streaming in so boldly that for a few seconds he was all but blinded. It was another moment before he followed the direction of Cyril’s wide-eyed gaze, and saw the man stretched out on the roan leather sofa against one wall.
He was dead. Even with only a year of training at the San Francisco Mortuary College, David could tell that at a glance. Eyes were open but unseeing, and a small trail of vomit had trickled from his mouth, staining one cheek. His shoes were on the floor beside the sofa, and near them, a large liquor bottle, on its side; a smaller bottle also, with a prescription label on it, too small to read at this distance, an empty glass and—tellingly—a syringe.
Cyril Bartholomew stepped to the corpse. One hand clutched a sheet of paper. Cyril took it from the lifeless fingers and, unfolding it, glanced at it briefly before folding it again and slipping it into the pocket of his suit jacket.
“Suicide?” David said.
“Obviously,” was the answer. “You’d better go down to the reception desk. Take that elevator there, it’ll be quicker. Matt’s office is just behind reception. Tell him to come here. And stay there yourself, to welcome any guests. Mister and Mrs. Bunderson are due shortly. Escort them into the front parlor, the Rose Room, and make them comfortable. There’s a bell pull there. If you need anything, coffee or whatever, ring for Armando. He’ll take care of it.”
David knew then that he had gotten the job.