Polished wood and burnished metal reflected the warm hue coming from the lights that glowed in sconces set along the off-white walls. Mortuaries were exempt from the ban on incandescent bulbs, the Aldermen reasoning that their warmth comforted the dying and their families. Moss liked their softness, so he didn’t argue with that reasoning, regardless of what experience told him.
He made his way to his usual spot, off to the side, in front of the caskets – and as far as he could manage from the sickly sweet smell of the flowers. The cloying scent didn’t quite cover the tinge of chemicals and death, at least not to his trained sense of smell. He scratched at his nose and tucked a stray hair behind his ear.
He breathed deeply as he waited in the muted room, his eyes closed. Despite his uncle shelling out thousands on the sound suppression system, Moss could still hear the faint hum of the city and feel the distant throb of its heartbeat. He opened his eyes and looked at the clock.
Soon. He checked his tie, smoothed the front of his black suit, and tugged at the cuffs of his white shirt.
The doors hissed open. The sounds of the city outside snuck in along with the harsh fluorescent light of the arcade. His uncle Peder entered. The door slid shut behind him, and the room was again cut off from city. Spongy grey tiles absorbed the sound of Peder’s genuine leather shoes striding across the floor.
“Everything in place?” Peder asked, as he ran a handkerchief over his nearly hairless head. The red stones in his cufflinks glinted in the warm light.
“Everything is ready for when they arrive.” It was always ready when the client arrived. Moss made sure of that.
His uncle pulled a watch from his pocket and checked the time. “Any minute now, if they’re on time.”
Moss looked at the clock on the wall behind his uncle. The clients to this mortuary were almost always on time. “Any minute now.”
A few seconds later, the doors whispered open again. An older woman entered, dressed all in black except for the purple scarf tied around her neck. She held her head high, her dark hair, streaked with silver, piled in a neat knot on top. Her sharp eyes passed over Moss and landed on his uncle.
“So you’re the mortician?” she asked Peder, her lips pursed.
“Mrs. Salomon.” Peder bowed his head slightly. “I am the Undertaker, here to counsel you through this difficult time. My nephew Moss is the mortician; he sees to the actual arrangements.”
Moss nodded and tried not to flush as the old woman’s eyes changed target and found their way back to him. Her given name was Deodara, Moss had read in the file, though he couldn’t imagine calling her anything but Mrs. Salomon.
A middle-aged woman, her face blotchy and wane, entered trailed by two younger women, barely out of their teens. Mrs. Salomon’s daughter, Linden, and granddaughters, Juniper and Rowan. So Moss had read.
One of the granddaughters looked near to Moss’ own age, and the resemblance to her mother was obvious, down to the black dress and red eyes – Juniper, the eldest. The other, Rowan, was a couple of years younger. She wore dove grey, natural fibres like the rest, but her hair was ash blonde instead of dark brown of her mother’s, and her face stony. It was when her eyes fell on Moss and stayed there that he saw her resemblance to her grandmother.
“Let’s get on with it then,” Mrs. Salomon said, still looking at Moss.
His uncle stepped forward. “Are there any questions I can answer for you before we get started?”
“No,” the grand dame said, pulling up straight.
“Yes,” Linden said, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief which she then used to blow her nose. “Yes, you can tell me why, why now?”
“There is no rhyme or reason, my dear,” his uncle said, his voice low and even. He unclasped his hands and took one of hers. “The Good Lord calls for us all, each in our own time. We can but answer that call.” He patted her hand. “All I can do is to try to make the transition as easy as possible.”
“The Good Lord be damned,” Linden said, straightening her back. Everyone else went silent and stared at her. Except Rowan, who continued to stare at Moss.
“Dear, please,” Mrs. Salomon said. “That doesn’t help.”
“I’m sorry,” Linden said, her voice losing its fight, as she blew her nose on the handkerchief Peder offered, his arm around her shoulder.
“It’s just not fair.”
“It’s perfectly fair, sweetheart,” the old woman said, taking her daughter’s hand.
“When your name is called, it’s called. And that’s all there is to it.”
Linden pulled her hand away, looking at the amethyst ring that was now in her palm instead of on her mother’s hand. “How can you be so calm? When it all comes down to this?” Her voice rose again and she made an indistinct wave. “It shouldn’t be this way.”
“Linden Rose Salomon!” the old woman said, her shout muted by the sound dampening system. Her voice broke as she continued. “I said, enough.”
She placed her hands on Linden’s shoulders, and looked at her daughter without saying a word. Despite her age, she was of a height with her daughter, who calmed under the weight of her mother’s gaze. The shouting stopped, the sobs turned to silent tears, and the red splotches faded to pink.
After a long minute, Mrs. Salomon took her hands from her daughter’s shoulders and removed the necklace and earrings that matched the ring, handing them to her daughter.
“Take care of your daughters. Look after the family business, for them if not for yourself. I believe you can take it in hand.”
She hugged Juniper, who was crying like her mother, just more quietly. Finally, she came to Rowan, and cupped the girl’s face in her hands. She hugged her tightly.
“Remember to feed my cat, will you?”
Rowan nodded but still didn’t cry.
“Linden, dear, would you please take them to the waiting room?” Linden didn’t say anything, but after a minute, she stopped crying, took her daughters’ hands and followed as Peder led them away.
When the door closed, Mrs. Salomon turned back to Moss and handed him the chit with her name on one side and the face of the Good Lord on the other.
Moss scanned the code embossed below her name. “Deodara Violet Salomon, you understand that the Good Lord has called your name –”
“We can dispense with the formalities, young man. I know my time’s up.”
He stood open-mouthed for a second, trying to work out how to react.
“Well, come on then lad,” Mrs. Salomon continued. “Let’s take a look at these coffins. I need to decide which one I’m going to die in.”
Moss reached out to direct her around the room, and thought that he might finally have a client choose one of the plain fibre boxes at the back.