Her smile, teeth barely visible, held a well-worn appearance just shy of the natural side. And spooky. Something about her, maybe the way her emerald eyes caught the light, felt a shade creepy. Her dark hair, black as a raven and wavy, framed those orbs like a pretty picture. A beautiful, spooky gal, that was Nine Thyme in a nutshell.
Of course, Peter had to admit the spooky side had more to do with her being the daughter of a third generation funeral home owner. Her extensive knowledge of caskets and coffins, including comfort levels, could put the willies into just about anyone. She’d be popular at Goth nightclubs, though.
For the job interview, Peter had asked Nine to help with Hallowe’en decorations. She had shot him some quirky remark about free labor along with a teasing grin. He wasn’t comfortable sitting at a table and watching someone. He preferred staying busy. Besides, too many tasks needed finishing for opening day.
While hanging fake webbing with giant rubber spiders on the wall, Nine recited her work history. It wasn’t much; cashier at a quickie mart, a very short stint as a catalog model, package handler at UPS, and, of course, she helped her father in the family business, which was oddly named, Old Thyme Funeral Home. Her sharp attire met the old man’s expectations, but her work experience came up short. She needed more zing to pass the old man’s tests, but Peter needed bodies. All of this barely tracked across his mind, though, and instead of digging deeper he asked about her name.
“No, it isn’t a nickname or short for anything.” Sticking a friendly-looking paper ghost to the wall, she glanced over her shoulder. “Just Nine like the number. My parents are odd that way.”
Looking at her hands, Peter spotted a tattoo on the inside of her arm just above her wrist. Chinese characters seemed popular lately. Noticing him watching her, Nine held her hand out allowing him a closer look.
“I can wear long sleeves if it’s a problem,” said Nine.
Taking her hand, Peter inspected the calligraphy, its brush-like strokes. The old man never mentioned tattoos, but the subtle mark shouldn’t be a problem. He asked about its meaning.
“A corpse possessed by a lost soul,” said Nine. Her smile faded, and she withdrew her arm. “Like a Chinese version of a vampire.”
“You have a dark side, don’t you?”
“Listen, Peter,” said Nine. The corner of her mouth twisted into a coy smile. “I help my father out by dressing corpses, applying make-up, and see things that would make most people lose their lunch. I’m dark enough.”
A vampire tag on an arm seemed plenty dark, and maybe it belonged to other secrets in Nine’s life. Realizing he was still holding her hand, Peter unwrapped his fingers. He began to move on to a real question about waiting on tables, but Nine had more to say on the subject of her dark side.
“Unless I’m out clubbing,” said Nine, “this is how I dress. Sensible clothes and comfortable shoes. I like classic rock and tattoos, but that doesn’t mean I go for bikers or tough guys. No drugs. I don’t even smoke. Dark comes with the family business, and I don’t need more of it.”
“Fair enough,” said Peter. Selecting a paper jack-o-lantern cut-out, he taped it to the wall.
Holding a gob of decorative webbing, Nine glanced around. “You must be proud.”
“My old man’s dream,” said Peter.
The old man had wanted his sister, Tara, to manage the restaurant, but she had her own dream, a vineyard out in the countryside. Nearly a decade older, Tara had practically raised Peter developing a strong sense of responsibility and a nose for business. In the army, Peter had learned how to repair tanks, handle weapons and go several rounds at boxing. Running a business wasn’t his idea of fun. The old man on his death bed had finally given in to Tara’s resistance and had made Peter promise to look after the restaurant.
“My only contribution,” said Peter. He motioned to the balcony level. “It was a closed floor originally, but I figured people would like to see the stage better.”
“I would have guessed the stage was your idea.”
“There all along. This was a jazz club and hotel way back when. If I had my way this place would be a bar, loud music and all.”
“Roseland is full of pubs, cheap eats, and strip clubs.” Nine shook her head. “You couldn’t compete.”
Thundering steps carried Boris out of the kitchen, and he muttered curses on his way over.
“Boss, the freezer door will be here the day after tomorrow.” Boris growled and waved a fist at the kitchen. “You’re stuck with the coffin, but I want it out of my kitchen. I can’t work with coffin in my kitchen.”
Looking at the fake spider webbing in hand, and realizing there wasn’t much time to return the box, Peter decided the coffin would make nice decoration near the front door. Webbing and a big rubber spider would complete the look.
Boris took the smaller end of the coffin, Peter grabbed the head, and together they lifted it out of the crate. Something inside shifted, and Peter couldn’t help thinking about bones. No stench meant no decayed body, and whatever was inside sounded dense, like metal, as it shifted around. Nine marveled at their strength in a teasing voice. Heavier than expected, carrying the box required short, careful steps through the dining area to the front along the wall beside the podium.
Gaze falling on the sticky note on the corner of the coffin, the message came back to him. What was inside he shouldn’t peek at until Hallowe’en? He didn’t know anyone twisted enough to send an expensive morbid joke for the holiday. The usual cheap tricks, sure, but nothing like this. His sister was too uptight and too broke to send him any gifts.
Kneeling beside the coffin, Nine ran her hand over the black surface. It appeared like she was caressing the damn thing. Finger following the groove along the edge, she looked closely at the crack in the lid.
“I think it’s sealed,” said Nine. Sitting up, she shrugged. “Opening it will likely cause damage making it more difficult to return or sell.”
Breaking the box could ruin it as decoration, too, and Peter didn’t feel like lugging it upstairs or outside. The prankster may even show up for the big reveal on Hallowe’en.
“Why would it be sealed?” Peter snatched a wad of webbing from the decorations box. “Other than to keep me from opening it until the magical day.”
“Some cemeteries require sealed caskets for interment above ground,” said Nine. She rapped her knuckles on the lid and listened. “An air-tight casket may result in putrefied liquefaction. Trust me, very gross.”
Cringing, Peter tried pushing the image of the sticky mess away.
“Peter,” said Nine, with playful grin. “Why would someone seal your coffin without letting you get inside first?”
A beautiful, spooky, fun gal, that was Nine Thyme.
Choose your path in Venom. You may continue following Peter’s side of the story, or switch to others for a chronological experience of the full story.