The Seventh: Esther Diamond Novel
Esther, Max, and Lucky examine evidence at the Chen family’s mortuary.
“So that’s Mr. Capuzzo?” I looked down at the corpse in the Chens’ workroom.
The body lay on its stomach in an ungainly sprawl, neck in an awkward position so that the face was looking up. I was glad the eyes and mouth were closed. I think I’d have had nightmares if the face were frozen in a rictus of screaming horror. For example.
“Yep,” said John. “That’s him.”
Although I’m not overly squeamish, I would rather not have joined the others in examining the corpse. But it had been generally assumed that I would do so, and I didn’t want to seem like I couldn’t hold up my end.
“His hair looks good,” said Lucky, who was holding Nelli’s leash.
“Thanks,” said John. “I tried some new product—”
“Let’s not talk about his hair,” I said. “Let’s talk about the fact that he’s lying about five feet away from his coffin.”
It appeared that Mr. Capuzzo had been all ready for his viewing, right before he got up and tried to leave. He was dressed in a nice suit, hair and makeup finished, expensive coffin wide open. Add a bunch of floral arrangements, and it would be a classy wake.
“How did he die?” asked Max.
“Heart failure,” said Nathan.
The deceased looked like he’d been well into his eighties. He was a short, trim, well-groomed man—though the grooming was the Chens’ handiwork, of course. He might have been a slob in life, for all I knew.
“Where exactly was he when you first saw him in motion?” Max asked Nathan.
“He was just finishing his, um, exit from the coffin.” With an expression that indicated how uncomfortable he was doing this, Nathan demonstrated what he had seen, showing us how Capuzzo had braced himself on the edge of the coffin while lowering his feet to the floor. Then John’s father took several slow, awkward steps the way that the dead man had done. He said to Max, “He moved . . . strangely. I didn’t for a moment suppose he was alive. I couldn’t see his face, but even from behind, he didn’t . . . didn’t look alive. Even though he was in motion. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but—”
“Oh, it does,” Max assured him. “Reanimated bodies do not resemble the living. Well, not in my experience.”
John had indeed summoned the right person to help with this weird situation. Max knew what he was talking about, having encountered more than one sort of still-lively corpse over the course of his long and varied life.
Nathan said, “Then Mr. Capuzzo collapsed right there, as you see. John came through the door only a second or two later.”
“And I saw Capuzzo lying here in a heap, and Dad staring at him and screaming,” added John.
Looking a little bored, Nelli sat down.
“Hm,” said Max. “Did the corpse make any sounds?”
“I don’t know.” Nathan paused, then said, “If it did, I don’t think I would have heard it after I started screaming.”
“Was there an odor or unusual smell?”
John shook his head. “I don’t think so. But I was so confused by the scene—and then so freaked out by what Dad told me—I’m not sure I’d have noticed any odors.”
“I don’t recall any smells,” said Nathan. “But I was even more shaken than John, so . . .” He shrugged and shook his head, indicating he couldn’t answer with confidence.
“And I gather the electricity didn’t fail? You weren’t plunged into darkness?”
“Hm.” Max walked around the corpse, studying it with a frown of concentration on his face.
“Just looks like a dead guy to me,” said Lucky—and he certainly spoke from experience. “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, Nate, but we gotta ask the question. Are you sure about what you saw?”
Nathan didn’t take offense. This was evidently his first full-body contact with a mystical event (which was indeed what this seemed to be), and he was obviously well aware of how crazy his story sounded.
“Alberto,” he said solemnly, “I swear on the memory of my wife, I saw exactly what I’ve told you I saw. I’ve spent most of my life working with the departed, and I’m not fanciful, let alone prone to hallucinations. I didn’t imagine this. I’ve never imagined something like this. It really happened, just as I’ve described.”
“Okay.” Lucky nodded, accepting this. He trusted Nathan and, unlike his friend, he’d actually had a number of mystical encounters, so the story didn’t sound as crazy to him as one might suppose. “So what do we think, Doc?”
“Reanimation doesn’t seem to have damaged the corpse,” Max said pensively. “Sometimes there can be . . . oh, a sort of internal combustion as mystical forces devour the dead organism. It can leave behind cooked flesh, charred remains, corpses that appear to have been partially cremated, melted organs—”
“But not in this case,” I interrupted, not wanting to hear the whole list.
“No,” Max agreed. “Nor does there appear to be any liquidation of the physical form.”
“Liquidation?” John repeated.
“Let’s not digress,” I said, eager to avoid more revolting imagery.
“Esther is right. Let’s proceed with what’s here, rather than discussing what is not,” said Max. “Will someone assist me in turning him over?”
I took Nelli’s leash from Lucky and stepped back as he and John dealt with Mr. Capuzzo. They did it efficiently and without hesitation, both being accustomed, in their separate ways, to handling dead bodies.
Now that the deceased was lying on his back . . . he still just looked like an elderly man who’d been well prepared for his upcoming wake.
Looking more alert now, Nelli rose to her feet and approached the corpse. Lucky let go of her leash as she lowered her head and began sniffing Mr. Capuzzo with focused interest.
“Nelli is examining the body for traces of mystical influence,” Max explained.
I saw a somewhat dubious glance pass between the Chens.
After about a minute of sniffing, Nelli seemed to lose interest—and then she whined a little and licked Mr. Capuzzo’s ear.
“Oh, Nelli, don’t,” I blurted. “No!”
She paused, looked at me, then gave the ear another slurp with her long pink tongue. Revolted, I picked up her leash and tugged on it, urging her to leave the body and come to me. After she did, I told her to lie down. Nelli remained standing.
“Did she learn anything, Doc?” Lucky asked.
“Apparently not.” Nelli was looking around the room now, cheerful and relaxed. “Her reaction indicates she can detect no lingering traces of whatever animated this body.”
“Well . . . good,” said John.
“Now what?” asked Nathan.
After a moment of gazing down at the dead man, Max got down on his knees beside the corpse. “I wonder if . . .”
I looked away when he prized open one of Capuzzo’s eyes and leaned close to peer into it.
“Do you need a penlight?” John asked.
“Ah, yes. That would be most useful.”
John found one and handed it to him. Lucky and the Chens watched attentively while Max spent the next few minutes examining the corpse by looking into various orifices and tapping on various bones.
I mostly tried to look elsewhere.
When it came to examining a corpse, I was prepared to lend moral support but not to lend a hand. Protecting New York from Evil is Max’s job, so he has to be able to stomach tasks like the one he was engaged in now. But for me, this kind of thing is just . . . let’s call it volunteer work.
I don’t help Max confront Evil because I’m nobler than the average person (though I’m flattered that Max thinks I am). I mostly do it because it’s a matter of common sense and self-preservation to stand up and do something when someone’s trying summon a demon that will eat half of Manhattan (where I live and work), or kill a bunch of New Yorkers (of whom I happen to be one) to appease dark forces, or commit human sacrifice with innocent bystanders (such as me, my friends, or my potential employers) to gain riches and power.
Yes, I’ve seen things.
And now there was this situation, where I was afraid that Quinn, the gun-toting person with whom my mostly off-again boyfriend spent all his working hours, was mystically dangerous—a phrase which, based on what I’d encountered since meeting Max, rarely meant “might cause someone a migraine” and very often meant “will terrorize people and take lives.”
The possibility that Quinn was animating the dead for some nefarious purpose filled me with dread. We had previously encountered someone who was raising zombies, and that was a very dangerous situation—and a ruthless, deadly foe. I was extremely worried about the prospect of Lopez spending his time with someone like that.
A wave of cold washed through me as I suddenly recalled something Quinn had said to me recently about Lopez.
“I swear, there are days he’s so hard to live with, I’m not sure it’s a good idea for me to be carrying a loaded gun.”
He’d been complaining to me Lopez’s prolonged bad mood, caused mostly by problems between us. At the time, I assumed Quinn was being facetious. Now I found myself wondering if the comment was, instead, an indication of how lightly he viewed the prospect of killing his partner.