Working Stiff Page 1

Author: Rachel Caine

Series: Revivalist #1

Genres: Horror , Science Fiction

Chapter 1

Bryn’s first embalming instructor had told her, straight up, that two kinds of people entered the death business: freaks and true believers. Bryn Davis didn’t think she was either one of those. For her, it was a prime career opportunity—a genuine profession.

Oh, she’d picked up odd paychecks during college as an office temp, a dog walker, and one memorable afternoon at a chicken factory, but none of those had ever felt real to her. Joining the army after college had seemed like a good idea at the time (steady job, good wages), but four years in Iraq hadn’t made her want to be a career soldier; it had, though, given her a bedrock understanding of the fragility of human life. After that, dead bodies didn’t scare or disgust her.

One good thing she could say for her time in the military: it had led her to where she was now, to this job … a good, stable one, and even better, an important one.

Bryn smiled a little at the thought. Maybe she was a true believer, after all.

She smoothed the white lab coat—with her name stitched on the left breast—and felt a warm surge of accomplishment. Bryn Davis, Funeral Director, Fairview Mortuary. Her business cards rested in a neat little cardboard box on her shiny new desk, all sober black ink in raised type, with the Fairview logo embossed in the corner. They wouldn’t stay in the box for long; Fairview had furnished her with nice wooden desk accents, including a business card holder, and just as soon as possible, she intended to make that desk her own. She’d never had an office before.

The cards and desk were elegant, like everything here. The room was neat and clean, filled with sober antique furniture and soft, dark cloth. Deep carpets. Subtle fragrances. Not a lot of flowers to overwhelm the already raw senses of the grieving.

She was a little nervous, but she also felt proud and happy. In fact, she felt ready. She tried not to feel too happy, though; it didn’t seem appropriate to be so glee-filled about starting a job that was all about someone else’s loss. The mirror on the wall confirmed that there was still a smile hiding in the corners of her mouth that she couldn’t quite get rid of, and for a moment, she worried about the shade of her lipstick. She’d chosen a light pink, but was it too light? A little too festive? She’d spent too many years in khaki, far away from the fairy-tale world of Maybelline.

There was a knock on her office door, and before she could say come in, it swung open to admit the head man … Lincoln Fairview. Mr. Fairview was the fourth Fairview to operate the funeral home, and he looked the part, from his sober, well-tailored suit to his impeccably cut gray hair and soft, kindly face.

She felt her whole body jolt with adrenaline when she saw him. This was the man she had to impress with her professionalism. Hoo, boy. She worried, again, about the lipstick.

He crossed the room with a confident stride and shook her hand. “Hello, Bryn. Good morning. How are you settling in?”

She unbuttoned the lab coat and put it on the hanger in the small closet. Even the hangers were solid wood, and nicer than anything in her apartment wardrobe. “Everything’s fine, sir,” she said, and glanced down at herself to be sure she still looked okay. Her business suit was new, and a little stiff, but it was a solid dove gray color, and the soft pink shirt seemed like a nice match. Her new gray pumps pinched her toes, and she was afraid she was going to have to endure the blisters they were bound to raise, but overall … she thought she was presentable. Except for the lipstick, maybe. “Am I properly dressed?”

He gave her an X-ray stare, up and down, and then nodded. “Perfect,” Mr. Fairview said. “Soothing, professional, everything I could ask. Perhaps a touch less on the lipstick next time; a pretty girl like you really doesn’t need to emphasize her youth and beauty. Go on, have a seat, Bryn.”

Oh, she knew it: the lipstick sucked. Bryn tried not to seem nervous as she settled into her leather chair on the other side of the desk. Mr. Fairview stayed on his feet. He studied her for a few seconds, and then said, “I assume that in your course work, you did live role-play on handling difficult clients.”

“Uh—yes, sir.” What an odd way to start…. She’d at least expected to get a tour of the building, maybe an introduction to the staff. At least she’d thought he’d show her the coffee machine and the bathroom. Pretend he’s your new commanding officer, she told herself, and that steadied her. She’d gone through plenty of those meetings, and she knew the drill. Impress them early, and a lot, and they’d never bother you again. Bryn felt her spine straighten to military correctness. “Shall I be—”

“You’ll be you. I’ll be your client. Let me go out and come back, and we’ll get started.”

She steeled herself as he left the room, hastily blotted her lipstick with a tissue. She missed her lab coat. Her lab coat had given her an air of … scientific detachment, and there was always something comforting about wearing a uniform.

This time, when the knock came at the door, Bryn stood and walked around her desk to meet him, shaking his hand and making and holding eye contact, just as she would have to establish her bona fides back in the war zones. Firm handshake, not too firm; chin up, eyes steady and straight. Convey a sense of solid competence and trustworthiness. “Sir, thank you for coming to Fairview. Please have a seat. How may I assist you today?”

She indicated the sofa and chairs grouped in the corner of the office. Mr. Fairview took a place on the sofa, looked around, and leaned forward as she settled into a polite, alert pose on the chair—within reach, but giving him space. “I’m sure that this is a very hard day for you,” she said in her most soothing voice. This, at least, was something she felt confident doing, even on her first morning of the job. “How can I help?”

Mr. Fairview didn’t even give her a nod of approval. He stared over her shoulder instead. “It’s my brother,” he said. “He passed away yesterday.”

“I’m so sorry.” Bryn knew how to steer the conversation; she’d been through the training, and she knew better than to ask the emotional questions immediately. “May I get you a coffee, or tea, or—”

Fairview’s gaze shifted to her face. “He was hit by a truck.”

She had an instant, vivid flashback of the armored personnel carrier, of a screaming face outside the dust-smeared window, of the crushing thump of the wheels. Of the body in the dirt, blood leaking dark onto the packed road, head crushed into a shape that was no longer human.

Bryn took a deep breath and forced the images away. Focus, she thought. He’s talking about reconstruction work. That was pricey, a definite plus for the business. “That must have been a terrible shock.”

“It certainly was for him.”

Oh, God, was he trying to make her laugh? Bryn didn’t feel any inclination to it; the memory of that body in the road had drained all the laughter out of her. Her voice, when it came, was just a shade too cool. “I meant for you, sir.”

“I never liked him anyway. Now I’m stuck paying for him. Dumb son of a bitch never knew how to drive anyway. I want the lowest price you can give me, understand? I’m not spending a cent more on his drunken corpse than I have to.”

Bryn opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She’d had a course section on dealing with aggressive customers, but those brain cells had shut down and were refusing to cooperate. Mr. Fairview was selling the angry brother for all he was worth, and her instinct was to fight back—which she couldn’t do, in this position.

She took a deep breath. “I’m sure we can work with you to find something within your budget, sir,” she said. Oh, God, that was weak. “Let’s talk about some options….” She reached out for the brochures and books, and realized that she’d left them across the room, sitting on her desk. Of course. She felt her face grow a bit warm at the oversight, but covered it by calmly standing and walking to retrieve them, talking as she walked. “I’m sure you’ll find the Paradise plan the one that fits your needs, sir; it’s a good combination of quality and price. We can also work with you on floral choices, which can save you a great deal of money.” She held out the brochure to him as she returned to her seat.

He didn’t take it.

Fairview let her dangle and suffer for a moment, then suddenly sat back and relaxed, arms spread out across the top of the sofa. “Good,” he said, and nodded with a warm smile. “Very good. You made me feel welcome, established trust, competence, and a human connection; you seated me where you wanted me, and offered me refreshment. You didn’t let me throw you off when I showed you sarcasm and anger. That’s always the worst part, I think.”

“Did I forget anything?”

“Tissues,” he said. “Always keep the tissues here, next to the sofa, where they’re easy to reach. Make sure the trash can is visible, but discreet, so they know where to dispose of them. And, of course, you’ve already realized how important it is to keep sales materials at hand, but don’t make it obvious; this isn’t a furniture store. If you can’t do the math in your head, keep a calculator close so you can quickly update your figures; they’ll always want to make changes to standard packages, and that will require repricing.”

She nodded. “Anything else?”

“Up-sell, my dear. Always up-sell. Higher-priced options may not be within their budget, but they’re certainly factored into mine.” Mr. Fairview rose and offered her his hand. “I’ll introduce you to Lucy when she comes in, and of course you will have to meet Freddy downstairs, but later. For now, I think you’re ready for your first intake session. I’ll be sitting in, so don’t worry; if you go off script, I’ll bring you back.”

She wasn’t fooled by that. He wasn’t there to help—he was there to give her a job evaluation. Fairview had a reputation of being strict, a stickler for regulations, and for making the best profits in the industry. He also had a reputation for going through funeral directors like bags of dinner mints.

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