The rituals of death are carefully observed by each culture.
But in the Gutter death brings new rituals.
But in the Gutter death brings new rituals.
Dead Girls Don't Sing by Paul Heatley
A dead body lies on the table. It’s hard to tell, but she’s famous. Since the car crash the night before that snapped her neck and tore off half of her face, she’s the most famous she’s been in twenty years.
“Had her friend in a coupla weeks ago,” the attendant says. “That chick she used to do all the duets with, remember her? She hadn’t been in no crash, but she looked worse, believe that? Drank herself to death. You shoulda seen the colour of her.” He grins. He shifts his weight from one leg to the other and adjusts his balls.
There are three men in the morgue. The attendant is bald on top, though he has allowed his hair to grow long round the sides and back of his head, and he wears it in a ponytail. He has a greasy smile that he won’t put away, yellow, crooked teeth beyond bulbous, wet lips.
Lars works with the attendant, though not in the morgue. He spreads word. He takes payment. He keeps one ear to the ground and the other to a police radio for news of dead and dying starlets, starts advertising before the attendant has signed them in.
The third man says his name is Henry, but that’s probably a lie. He’s tall, wears glasses. His hands are in his jacket pockets and they fidget there. It’s his first time, Lars knows this. He’ll be nervous. His eyes have never left the dead singer’s face, taking in the halves ruined and untouched.
“I think she was all messed up about losin' her friend,” the attendant says. “You know what these famous types are like. Morose. They feel everything more than we feel things, because they gotta play up for the cameras. I don’t reckon she was planning on James Dean’ing it when she went rip-roaring through the night.”
Lars shoots the attendant a look. Sometimes he talks too much.
The attendant clears his throat. “So. Were you a big fan?”
Henry shakes his head. “No.”
Lars and the attendant look at each other. “That ain’t what you told me,” Lars says.
Henry had approached him in the bar, told Lars he’d overheard him discussing business a couple of weeks before. Lars was pissed. He keeps his business private, which means Henry was eavesdropping. But he seemed interested, and looked like he had cash. Asked if there was anything on. Lars took a guess on his age, figured he might be interested in the old singer, dropped her name. Henry had cash. He paid. Seemed eager.
“I just had to see it,” Henry says. “For myself.”
Lars rolls his shoulders, annoyed. “Look, you ain’t gotta fuck her, but you gotta pay. It’s a lotta work getting folk in and out of here unseen, you hear?” Lars is the muscle of their operation, too. If Henry is a flake, he will have to ensure his silence.
Henry ignores him. “They all end up here, huh?”
“Most of them,” the attendant says. “Actors, actresses, singers, dancers. OD’s, murders, suicides –” He indicates the corpse. “Crashes. Sometimes we even get an honest-to-God natural causes, you believe that?” He sniggers.
Henry nods. It’s hard to tell if he’s listening.
The attendant coughs. “Thing is, when they come in like this, you can never be sure if anyone’s gonna be interested. I mean, this is a kinda niche market and folk willing to fuck dead people usually ain’t too fussy about the state they’re in, but then you got the kind that wanna pretend these celebs are alive still, and everything’s gotta be pristine.”
“Couple of months ago, there was another car crash,” Henry says. “You remember that?”
“I’m gonna need specifics.”
“Actress, twenty-two. She’d only made three movies, but she was red hot. Critics said she was going places. Everyone said she was going places.”
The attendant’s eyes light up.
“Yeah, yeah, I know the one.”
Henry nods. “She come here?”
“Oh yes. But you’re a little late for her, buddy. She’s long buried by now.”
“Or cremated,” Lars says.
“One or the other,” the attendant says. “You gotta be quick, man.”
Henry stares at the corpse still. He takes one hand from his pocket, reaches out and touches her cold arm. He tries to speak, but his voice chokes. He clears his throat. “Was she popular?”
“Yeah,” the attendant says. “She was.”
Lars watches Henry. “Why?”
“Either of you take a ride?” Henry says.
The attendant and Lars exchange looks, then the attendant smirks and shrugs one shoulder.
Henry pulls his other hand from his pocket. He has a boxcutter. The blade opens Lars’ throat. Lars makes a choked sound, then his knees buckle. He hits the ground. His blood sprays between his clutching fingertips, runs darkly through the spaces in the floor tiles.
Henry turns to the attendant. The attendant backs off, wide-eyed, hits a gurney and almost falls. Henry takes off his blood-spattered glasses, folds them, puts them down next to the dead singer. “She was my daughter.”