Monday, October 7, 2013

Deadly Slumber by Victor J Banis

In Deadly Slumber by Victor Banis (now available as an audio book) The House of the Dead is 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 with Stanley's name on it. Deadly Slumber indeed.

Deadly Slumber (#4 in the Deadly Mystery Series)
MLR Press (August 2009)
ISBN: 978-1-60820-090-0 (print)
978-1-60820-091-7 (ebook)

The casket, still on its conveyor belt, had paused outside a steel door in the crematory. Horace raised the door with a chain and sprocket pulley. Blistering waves of heat poured into the room from within the furnace. He touched another switch, and the casket again moved forward and fell with a thump onto the firebrick floor within the furnace.
Horace lowered the door with a clang and a clatter. The controls sat on a small console just to the side of the door. He stood before them and worked a valve. They heard a little explosion within the furnace as the fire ignited, followed by a prolonged hiss of a gas jet.
"Come," he said. He put a hand on Stanley's shoulder and guided him to one of two porthole like windows in the side of the crematory. Stanley stared through it with morbid fascination, wanting to see and not wanting to see at the same time, while Horace adjusted the controls.
As Stanley stared through the glass, fire filled the interior of the furnace, dancing and leaping and looking like something from the end of time, hellish tongues of flame that had already in those few seconds charred the wood of the coffin, peeling it away from itself like the rind being stripped from a burning orange.
"At first, we use gas," Horace explained, speaking in a monotone as if he were lecturing a roomful of students. And perhaps, Stanley thought, he had done that in the past. "We need to build the heat up to a thousand degrees or so. Then we introduce the oil. In the old days, they used the oil alone, but it makes smoke. When folks see the smoke coming out of the chimney, they complain, they think they can smell the bodies burning, although of course they can't. So, we use gas to begin, and the science, the art if you will, is in getting just the right blend when we introduce the oil. Enough heat, and no smoke."
Stanley wanted to look away from the inferno beyond the thick glass of the window, but his eyes remained riveted. He started when the lid of the coffin suddenly seemed to vanish. One minute it was still there, charred but intact, and the next, the lid and the sides as well just disappeared, consumed by the fire, and there was the body of Molly O'Neil. Or so he supposed. Already, it would have been impossible to say for certain.
Stanley's gut turned over. He wanted to look away, and found that he couldn't. Some horrible fascination held him in thrall. It was like watching one of the old horror movies as a child; you knew what was coming, you wanted to look away or close your eyes, but you continued to gape at the screen regardless.
"I'm going to turn on the oil now and shut off the gas," Horace said, in his same matter-of-fact voice. "In no time flat, the heat will reached twenty five hundred degrees or more. It will burn up everything. There will be nothing left. Oh, maybe a few bone chips. Insignificant, really."
He adjusted his valves and the flames became more yellow than red. Stanley glanced sideways at Horace. He was rapt, his attention fully engaged in the display within. He appeared to be enjoying himself immensely.
"Ah," he said, with a note of satisfaction.
Stanley looked through the porthole again. The flesh had all but burned away from the body within, revealing the bones beneath. They looked eerily white and clean. The ribs seemed to dance as he watched, violet colored fingers of flame jetting from their tips.
Suddenly the skull fell free, dropped to the floor and rolled underneath Stanley's window. A trail of something he did not even want to put a name to escaped from its sockets and sizzled briefly on the floor. Molly O'Neil—what was left of her—seemed to leer up at Stanley accusingly. He put a hand out to one metal-sheathed wall to steady himself. The bones beyond the window had begun to crumble now. Even the skull had disappeared.
"Molly's gone, Stanley," Horace said, his voice sounding to Stanley as if it came from a great distance. "There's nothing left of her, nothing at all, nothing that you could really call Molly. It's as if she never even existed."
"Ashes," Stanley said around the bile rising in his mouth.
"Those? Just soot. Really. It's the perfect way to dispose of a body. Remember that the next time you kill someone. Afterward, there's no way, even, to say who it had been."
"No DNA?"
"Not in that." He made a dismissive gesture toward the furnace. "Just a few oxides. Oxides of sodium, potassium, calcium, iron, a trace of magnesium. All of it inorganic. All the organic matter has burned away. The DNA with it."
Stanley might have fallen, his legs had grown so weak. "Ah, now, no fainting," Horace said. He stepped quickly behind Stanley. "It had to be, you see. No one will know what happened to her. This too was pre-ordained. Molly had to disappear, once she'd served her purpose. She just vanished, the same way Alice vanished. Here one moment and, the next, poof."
Stanley didn't need to point out that he knew what had happened to Molly. Almost certainly Horace did not intend to leave him behind as a witness.
"I don't," Stanley said, starting to turn around, and saw that Horace had a small bottle in one hand and a cloth in the other. Stanley tried to step back, but he was against the metal wall of the furnace, nowhere to go, and he felt weak from what he had just witnessed.
Horace moved quickly. He clamped the damp cloth, smelling sickly sweet, over Stanley's mouth and nose.
Ether. Stanley gasped, surprised, and in doing so breathed deeply, and felt as if his lungs were suddenly on fire. He brought his own hands up, trying to claw at the hands holding the cloth to his face, but he had reacted too slowly and the ether was acting too swiftly. Already the room was beginning to darken. In another moment, his legs gave out and he sank into the arms waiting for him.
* * *
Stanley woke slowly. Even when his eyes fluttered reluctantly open, he was still in darkness, total darkness. He lay for a moment, trying to comprehend, blinking. No glimmer of light penetrated the enveloping blackness. He'd never seen a darkness so complete.
He tried to sit up, but he could raise his head only slightly before it banged against something solid above him. He could barely move at all, in fact.
His hands were folded across his chest. He put them out to his sides. Again, he could move them no more than an inch or two before his fingertips touched cushioned silk. He reached up, and felt silk there too.
At first, he could not understand. Or, would not. The reality of his situation was so horrible, his mind did not want to accept it. He lay unmoving, trying not to think, trying not to accept the truth of where he so obviously was.
Recognition would not stay away, however. He knew. Knew and did not want to accept the truth: He was in a coffin. His breath seemed to crowd into his throat. This couldn't be real. Surely it was only a nightmare, from which he would awaken any minute now.
"Wake up, Stanley," he told himself, actually mouthing the words aloud. "Wake up, damn you. Now."
Even as he said the words, however, he knew this was no figment of his dreams.
He lifted his shaking hands again, tried to shove the lid away, but it did not budge. Not just in a coffin, then—sealed in a coffin.

For another excerpt from Deadly Slumber, see August 1, 2011

To purchase the ebook from MlrBooks, click


Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

Ever since Alfred Hitchcock had his television tales about being trapped in coffin I'd been terrified yet at the same time mesmerized by them, savoring ever evil viscous word. Now those are the tales I really love, the horror and macabre, as so manifested by Victor Banis. Excellent job!

Anonymous said...

I've never witnessed a cremation, but I feel like I have now. Beautifully written, Victor!

One of my greatest terrors, to be buried alive. Such a powerful scene...