In this thrilling installment in the John Wayne Cleaver series, Dan Wells brings his beloved antihero into a final confrontation with the Withered. Nothing Left to Lose is a conclusion that is both completely compelling and completely unexpected.
Hi. My name is John Cleaver, and I hunt monsters. I used to do it alone, and then for a while I did it with a team of government specialists, and then the monsters found us and killed almost everyone, and now I hunt them alone again.
This is my story.
There are only so many ways to get a good look at a dead body.
You can always just make your own, of course, which is what most people do. It’s quick, it’s cheap, and you can do it with things you have lying around your own home: a hammer, a kitchen knife, a relative who won’t shut up, and bam. Your very own corpse. As DIY projects go, murder is easier and more common than painting your living room, though—to be fair—significantly harder to hide. And it has other downsides as well: first, it’s murder. So there’s that. Second, and more pertinent to my own situation, it’s only really helpful if the dead body you want to see is one you have ready access to while it’s still alive. With the really good bodies, this is rarely the case. Let’s say you want to examine a specific corpse, like, oh, I don’t know, an old lady who died of mysterious causes in a small town in Arizona. Just to pull an example out of the air. Then it gets much harder.
If you need to look at a specific body, it helps to be an actual cop or, better yet, an agent of the FBI. You could mock up some quick excuse as to why this particular dead body was a key part of your investigation, go in, flash a badge, done. It might even be true, which would be a nice side benefit but isn’t really necessary. If you weren’t actually in law enforcement but you knew enough about it, you could waltz in with a fake badge and try to accomplish the same thing. But if you were also, for example, eighteen years old, convincing the local law enforcement to believe you would be easier said than done. The same goes for a teenager pretending to be a coroner, pretending to be a forensic examiner, and pretending to be a reporter. I’ve used the “I’m researching something for the school paper” line a couple of times, and it works well enough, but only when the something you’re researching isn’t a decaying human being.
That leaves three main options: first, if you can get there quick enough, you can try to trick the coroner into believing that you’re the new driver for the local mortuary, assigned to pick up the body and deliver it to the embalmer. You’d need some fake paperwork but, honestly, not as much as you might think. And since “driver” is an entry-level position, your age isn’t going to matter. And if you grew up in a mortuary and assisted in the family business since you were ten and knew the whole industry backward and forward—again, just to pull an example out of the air—you could do it pretty easily. But only if you got there in time.
Let’s say you didn’t, because you were two states away and travel solely by hitchhiking (or, honestly, whatever reason—you just can’t get there in time, is the important part). In that case, you move on to the second option, which requires more or less the same skills: break in to the mortuary after hours and show yourself around. I say “more or less the same skills” because you never know how good the mortuary’s security system is going to be, and you’re a teenage mortician, not a cat burglar. In a small town, or even a biggish city, if the funeral home is old enough, you might be able to make it work because they don’t always have the funds to update their equipment. It’s kind of an industry problem.
But let’s say they did update their equipment—no cameras, but an alarm with a motion sensor—and that you definitely don’t want to get caught breaking into a funeral home. I mean, I guess nobody would want to get caught breaking into anything, but let’s say for this example that you really, really don’t want it. Let’s even go so far as to say that the law enforcement agencies we mentioned earlier, which our totally hypothetical teenage mortuary expert was briefly tempted to impersonate, are, in fact, actively searching for him. So anything illegal is out of the question. That leaves us with only one option: we have to wait until the mortuary opens its doors, pulls the corpse out of the back room, and invites anyone who wants to see it to just come in and look at it. Which is never going to happen, right?
Wrong. It’s called a viewing, and it happens every day. They don’t let you really get in there and poke around, but it’s better than nothing. And Kathy Schrenk, a little old lady who died under mysterious circumstances in the Arizona town of Lewisville, had a viewing today. And a teenage mortician with an FBI background stood outside hoping his suit didn’t look too filthy.
Hi. My name is John Cleaver, and my life sounds kind of weird when I describe it like this.
I’ll describe it another way, but it’s not going to sound any more normal: I hunt monsters. I used to do it alone, and then for a while I did it with a team of government specialists, and then the monsters found us and killed almost everyone, and now I hunt them alone again. The monsters are called Withered, or sometimes Cursed, or sometimes Blessed if you catch one in a good mood, but that’s pretty rare these days. They’re old, and tired, and clinging to life more out of stubbornness than anything else. They used to be human, but they gave up some intrinsic part of themselves—their memory, or their emotions, or their identity; it’s diferent for each of them—and now they aren’t human anymore. One of them told me that they were more than human, and less, all at the same time. They’ve spent ten thousand years with incredible powers, ruling the world as kings and gods, but now they just grit their teeth and survive.
The mysterious nature of Kathy Schrenk’s death is classic tabloid news: she drowned far away from water, her body soaked while everything around her was dry as a bone. Weird, but not automatically supernatural; Miss Marple could probably knock this one out on her lunch break. Nine times out of ten—nine thousand times out of nine thousand and one—it’s just a plain old human—jealous, or angry, or greedy, or bored. We’re horrible people, when it comes right down to it. Hardly worth saving at all.
But what else am I going to do? Stop?
I stared at the mortuary a little longer: Ottessen Brothers Funeral Home. I picked a piece of lint of my sleeve. Smoothed my hair. Picked another piece of lint. It was now or never.
This is what I’d been doing for months now, ever since the team had died and I’d sent Brooke home and I’d gone out on my own, hunting the Withered with no backup and no guides and no intel. I looked for anomalies, and I followed them up. Most of them didn’t pan out, and I simply moved on.
I went inside.
My hypothetical situation from earlier, about growing up in a mortuary, wasn’t hypothetical. You probably guessed that. My parents were both morticians, and we lived in a little apartment upstairs from the chapel. I started helping with funerals when I was ten, and with the actual embalming a few years later. Stepping into Ottessen Brothers was like stepping into my past. The tastefully understated decorations, at least a decade behind the times; the little half-moon table with a signing book and a faux-fancy pen. The unsettled mix of sophistication and generic religion, and a drinking fountain by the wall. I touched the wallpaper—elegant but rugged, designed to withstand bustling crowds and untrained pallbearers—and thought about my home. I hadn’t seen it in almost three years, though I’d glimpsed it now and then on the news. My sister and my aunt ran the mortuary now, but who knew how long that was going to last. They couldn’t run it on their own. My father wouldn’t help, and my mother… well, she wasn’t around to help either, was she?
Her corpse had been so damaged that I couldn’t embalm her. It was the one thing we’d shared, and even that was taken away.
The crowd in the Schrenk viewing was sparse, mostly other old ladies not long from a viewing of their own. A handful of old men. Someone had placed a table by the door with an arrangement of photos and memorabilia, and while there were plenty of group shots, Schrenk was all alone in the portraits. Never married, never had kids. Some photos included what looked like her twin sister. One of the photos showed Schrenk standing in front of the mortuary itself, her arm around a thick-waisted woman somewhere in her fifties. An odd place for a photo—maybe another friend’s funeral? But no, neither of them wore go-to-a-funeral kind of clothes. Employees, then? The rest of the table was covered with various little yarn hats and scarves, so I assumed Schrenk was a knitter.
I moved past the table and into the viewing room itself: the coffin on the far wall, flanked by flags, with various chairs and sofas scattered around the edges of the room, most of them full of old women having hushed conversations. One corner held a refreshments table with an assortment of crumbly cookies.
“I think she looks terrible,” said an old lady by the food, “whispering” to a small cluster of concerned women. I couldn’t tell if she was pretending to whisper but wanted to be heard, or if she legitimately didn’t know how to regulate her own volume. “I’ve never seen a body look less lifelike in my life.”
I walked slowly past them toward the coffin, trying to look like I belonged.
“Hello,” said a man, stepping forward and offering his hand. I shook it. “Are you a friend of Kathy’s?” He looked about sixty, maybe sixty-five.
“Acquaintance,” I said quickly, spooling out my prepackaged lie. “She was friends with my grandmother, but she couldn’t make it today so she wanted me to pay our respects.”
“Wonderful!” he said. “What was your grandmother’s name?”
“Julia.” I didn’t know any Julias, but it was as good a name as any.
“I think I heard Kathy mention her,” said the man, though I couldn’t tell if I’d stumbled onto an accidentally accurate name or if he was just being polite. “And what was your name, young man?”
“Robert,” I said, hoping it was generic enough that he would forget it if anyone asked. I tried to never use the same name twice, thanks to the whole FBI thing. I looked at him a moment: a well-worn suit, too high on the ankles; a plain white shirt already fraying at the creases in the cuffs and collar. This was a man who wore these clothes a lot, and I made an educated guess: “Do you work for the mortuary?”
“I do,” he said, and offered his hand again. “Harold Ottessen, I’m the driver.”
“The driver?” There goes my bit about drivers being young. “I assume your brother is the mortician, then?”
“He was,” said Harold. “But I’m afraid he passed away about twenty years ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“These things happen,” he said. “We’d know, in our family. Margo runs things now; she’s around here somewhere.”
I nodded, already bored of the small talk. “It was very nice to meet you, Harold. I’m going to pay my respects.”
He nodded and offered his hand to shake a third time, but before I could extricate myself, another old lady walked up with a stern look.
“It’s completely disgraceful,” she said. “Can’t you do anything about it?”
“I’ve told you,” said Harold, “this is just how they look sometimes.”
“But it’s your job,” said the woman. “Why are we even here if you can’t do your job?”
I was desperate to see the body by now, wondering what kind of horror everyone was complaining about, so I left Harold to fend for himself and walked to the coffin. There was another woman standing beside it, though she was much younger—barely older than me, maybe nineteen or twenty, and dark-skinned. Mexican, maybe? She screwed her face into an unhappy scowl but hid it when she saw me out of the corner of her eye.
The body was, after all the anxious hype, pretty normal. Kathy had been thin in her photos and looked thin now, with curly gray hair and a pale, gaunt face. I’d been expecting some visible injuries, something I could tie directly to a Withered attack—maybe a giant bite taken out of her face. Or, failing that, some kind of problem with the embalming itself, like maybe they’d set the features poorly and now she had sunken eyelids or hollow cheeks or something. Something to justify the mortified attitude from all of her friends. What I saw was far simpler, and so surprising I said it out loud.
“They did her makeup wrong.”
“Excuse me?” asked the girl next to me.
“Sorry,” I said. “It just took me by surprise, is all.”
“You’re a dick,” she said.
She smirked. “It just took me by surprise, is all. Isn’t that what we’re doing, narrating our lives out loud? Let me keep going: We’re standing by my dead friend. Some random douchebag is mocking her makeup, of all things.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I’ll shut up now.”
“Oh good, we’re still doing it. I’ll stop talking, too, and then I’ll stand here waiting for you to leave.”
This was going great. “Just… give me a minute.” I tried to ignore the young woman and looked at the body again. Part of a mortician’s job—arguably half of it, after the actual embalming—was to make the dead person’s body look as close as possible to what it looked like when they were alive. Poor Ms. Schrenk looked wrong, in ways a person of the street probably couldn’t put a finger on but which all worked together to make her seem off. Profoundly corpselike, instead of resting in peace. It was disconcerting, but a trained eye could see that they’d actually only missed a couple of key things.
First of all, the foundation looked good. Dead bodies don’t have blood in their skin, so they look much lighter than they did in life, but the mortuary’s makeup artist had used a dark foundation under a lighter one to add some color back into her face. The other major problem was the eyes, which tended to have dark circles around them, like black-eye bruises. But the makeup artist had hidden those as well. And that was hard to do right, which is why it was so confusing that whoever had done Kathy Schrenk’s makeup had missed a much simpler detail: shading. We’re so used to seeing people vertical, that when we see them lying flat, especially in the weird light of a viewing room, their facial features look all wrong. They don’t have the right shading, in subtle places like the nostrils and the lips. A trained mortuary makeup artist should have caught that, but nobody had.
The woman next to me spoke again. “Are you from Cottwell’s?”
“Yes, genius, Cottwell’s. ‘Lewisville’s oldest funeral home,’ or whatever garbage tagline they’re using these days. You’re not a spy or anything?”
“I’m not from Lewisville,” I said. “But I am from a mortuary, kind of. I apologize again for being rude about your friend.” I paused then, thinking for a moment. Why would she be so bothered by Cottwell’s, or think they were sending a spy? I could only think of one reason. “Do you work here, at this mortuary?”
She narrowed her eyes. “How do you know that if you’re not a spy?”
“Why would one mortuary spy on another one?”
“I don’t know, what did they tell you when they hired you?”
“They didn’t.… Look, I’m sorry I was rude, okay? I insulted your friend who passed away, and I also apparently insulted your friend who works as the makeup artist—oh crap.”
She flashed a smug smile, watching the realization hit me. “Yup.”
“It’s you, isn’t it? You’re the makeup artist.”
“Fill-in makeup artist,” she said. “Normally I’m just an embalmer. It’s kind of funny to watch how slowly you figure all this out.”
“I bet it is,” I said. I needed more information and this woman was my only lead so far, so antagonistic or not, I tried to draw out the conversation. “So, who’s the permanent makeup artist?”
“Don’t worry; you’ll get this one too.”
I closed my eyes as yet another piece of the puzzle fell into place. “It’s Kathy Schrenk.”
“That’s why a twenty-year-old is friends with an old lady,” I said. “You’re coworkers. And that’s why the makeup is wrong, because the only person who knows how to do it is dead, and none of you wanted to ask the Cottwell’s makeup person for help.”
“Does that make us sound petty?” she asked. “Because I want to make sure we sound petty.”
“I’m not a spy from a rival mortuary,” I said, “as thrilling as that BBC miniseries would be.” I looked around the room quickly—no one was looking at the body but us. “But I am a mortician, and I can help you fix this.” I looked at the young woman again. She had bronze skin—not super dark, but dark enough. “Do you have some makeup handy?”
She raised her eyebrow. “You want to mess with her makeup right here?”
“It’ll take me sixty seconds at the most,” I said. “Close your eyes.”
“I’m not going to hurt anything,” I said. “The problem is the shading—like here, and here. You did a pretty good job on her, but the shading thing is unique to dead bodies, which is why you didn’t think to do it. It’s super simple, but I need some dark brown makeup, and I’m guessing that your eye shadow will be perfect. May I please look at it?”
She stared at me, probably trying to decide if I was crazy, then sighed and closed her eyes lightly, so the eyelid rested over the eyeball without wrinkling. I studied it a moment, then looked back at the dead body.
“Yeah, that should be perfect,” I said. “Do you have it on you? I can fix this in sixty seconds, tops.”
She dug in her purse and pulled out a small makeup compact, but when I reached for it she pulled it back slightly, tightening her grip. She glanced around the room, seeing Harold still locked in conversation with a crowd of displeased future customers. The girl sighed and looked back at me. “Sixty seconds?”
“At the most.”
“And I get to stab you if you screw it up?”
“With the pointy implement of your choice,” I said. She hesitated another moment, and then surrendered the eye shadow. I opened it up. The color looked good. I picked up the sponge, brushed it over the makeup, then dabbed a little on my arm to gauge how easily it transferred from brush to skin. I didn’t want to smear a huge blob on the dead woman’s face. It went onto my arm fairly smoothly, so I started dabbing small, subtle lines on the body’s face—lightly at first, then more confidently as the old muscle memory took over. The crevices around the nostrils; the philtrum above the upper lip; the line below the lower lip; a dot or two on the chin. I paused partway through, breathing deeply, savoring the unexpected intensity of my emotions as I worked—it was shocking, almost embarrassing, how right it felt to be working on a dead body again. This is who I’d been for years, and who I’d always hoped to be for the rest of my life. A mortician. I felt a reverence for death, and for the caretakers who guided the bodies of the dead into their final repose, so to be here again, in this place, touching this body, was…
I realized that a tear had tracked down my face and I wiped it quickly, hoping the girl hadn’t seen it. I looked at the body one last time, moving my head to see it from different angles, and dabbed one last bit of makeup on the chin. I clapped the box closed and handed it back to the girl. But before she could take it, Kathy Schrenk’s twin sister inserted herself between us, leveling her finger at the body in a sign of accusation and said:
“See! Look how… oh.”
“Let me see,” said another woman, her voice stronger than the others, and I turned to see a whole group walking up behind me: Harold; a gaggle of old, frail women; and the large woman I’d seen earlier in Kathy’s photo. Margo, I assumed. The funeral director. She stepped forward, looked at the body, then looked back at the women.
“She looks fine to me.”
“Are you blind?” asked one of the old ladies. “She looks like you dredged her out of a river.”
Margo stepped aside, allowing more of the old women to approach, and one by one their eyes softened as they looked at their friend.
“She looks wonderful,” said one.
“So peaceful,” said another.
“It must have been our eyes,” said the sister. “Or the light.” She looked at Margo and smiled. “We’re so sorry to have bothered you. I think maybe one of these lights was malfunctioning before, but she looks wonderful now.”
“Thank you,” said Margo. “And thank you for coming.”
As the women crowded around the casket, Harold looked up, confused, and Margo pulled the Mexican girl aside. “That’s not what she looked like when we wheeled her out of the back,” Margo whispered. “What’d you do?”
“Calculated risk,” said the girl, and pointed at me. “If I can’t trust some rando of the street, who can I trust?”
Margo glanced at me, sizing me up, then looked back at the girl and raised her eyebrows. “You let someone touch a body? Without consulting me?”
“It worked,” said the girl. “You saw what a good job he did.”
Margo sighed, then looked at me again, raising her chin in a way that made her look abruptly open and professional. “Thank you very much for your help.” She stuck out her hand. “I’m Margo Bennett.”
“Robert,” I said, and shook her hand.
“Where’d you train?”
“Family mortuary,” I said. “No formal training.”
“You do good work,” she said, and turned back to the girl. “Next time, ask me first.”
Margo nodded and left, and the girl looked at me again. “Well then. I guess I don’t get to stab you.”
“It’s not as fun as people expect,” I said, handing back her compact. I wasn’t much for small talk, or really any talk for that matter, but I still needed information, and this was probably my best chance to get it. “What did you say your name was?”
“Jasmyn,” she said. “With a Y.”
“Nice to meet you, Jasmyn.” I almost said “Jasmyn with a Y,” but small talk or not, I still had some self-respect. “So you’re, um, training as an embalmer?”
“I am,” she said. “About a year now.”
I nodded, and then wondered if I was nodding too much, and stopped. I had the opportunity to ask questions, but I didn’t know which questions to ask. “So.” I hesitated way too long, trying to think of a follow-up. “How do you like it?”
“You’re definitely not a spy.”
“Because you suck at it. This is seriously, like, the worst small talk I have ever heard.”
“To be fair, I hate talking to people.” It was a risk, but if I was reading her right she’d respond to it.
She smirked and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, tell me about it. People are the worst.”
“I’m going to drown my sorrows in cookies,” I said, and pointed to the side table. “Want one?”
“They’re also the worst,” she said. “But why not?”
We walked to the food table and I picked up a cookie. It fell in half partway to my mouth, the bottom falling back onto the tray.
“See?” said Jasmyn. She took a crumbly bite. “Margo insists on them, but she won’t pay for good ones.”
“Our mortuary never had cookies,” I said.
“That’s exactly what I tell her,” she said. “Nobody has cookies at a viewing, unless the family brings them or something.” She took another bite. “Maybe she has stock in the cookie company.”
“Does Cottwell’s do cookies?” I asked.
Jasmyn shook her head. “No. So maybe that’s why Margo does—she’s trying to stand out.”
“So, um…” I wanted to ask about the body, and I thought I’d finally come up with a normal way to do it. Well, normal-ish. “So Kathy Schrenk drowned, right?”
“So they say,” said Jasmyn. “Nobody knows how, though. She was in her backyard, and she doesn’t have a pool or anything. And she doesn’t live anywhere near the canal.”
This was where I relied on her inexperience as an embalmer. “Drowned bodies are so weird,” I said. “You always get that weird black goop.” This, of course, was a lie, and a fairly transparent one. Nobody who drowns has black goop, unless they literally drown in a pool of black goop. I mean, the goop wouldn’t have come from the drowning, it would have come from a Withered. They called it soulstuf, and it was like a kind of greasy ash that got left behind at a lot of their attacks. I think it’s what their bodies were made of, under their human-looking disguise, because every time I killed one they dissolved into a noxious little pile of it. If Schrenk was killed by a Withered, Jasmyn might have seen some soulstuff during the embalming. And if not, well, she was new enough at her job that she wouldn’t necessarily call me on the lie.
I looked back at Jasmyn, feeling a surge of hope—could this be it?
Nope. She looked confused. “Really?” she asked. “Black goop?”
I sighed. “Sometimes,” I said. “I figured it didn’t hurt to ask.”
“Hey Jazz,” said Harold, “can you help me with something?”
“Sure,” said Jasmyn, and she hurried after him. I retreated to the wall, wondering what to do next but mostly just happy to be in a mortuary again—not because it was especially wonderful, but because it was familiar. The people and the wall hangings and the music and the casket and the body. I didn’t really know how to hunt monsters, though I’d been doing it for years. I didn’t really know how to hitchhike and be on the road and evade the police and how to do all the things my life had forced me to do. But I knew how to be in a mortuary. I was never more comfortable anywhere else than there.
A movement caught my eye, and I looked across the room to see another woman had just come in through the doors. She looked about thirty, but she wore an old-style, A-line dress, so filthy it looked like she’d been wearing it for years. Her hair hung in ratty tendrils around her face. The other guests shied away from her as she stepped in, looked around, and then focused on me. I glanced around for the mortuary staff—for Jasmyn, or Harold, or Margo—but they’d all stepped out for something. The ragged woman walked toward me, and I could see that her face and arms were as dirty as her clothes; her nails were chipped and crusted with old blood; and her feet were bare and streaked with grime. She walked strangely, like she was unaccustomed to it, and kept her eyes locked on my face. She stopped a few feet in front of me, staring.
“I know you,” she said at last.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Do you know me?”
I shook my head. “I don’t. I’m sorry.”
The woman stared again, then leaned in close.
“Run from Rain,” she whispered.
Then she turned around and ran out the door.
Excerpted from Nothing Left to Lose, copyright © 2017 by Dan Wells.