Today, I feel like sharing the first chapter of my debut novel, Messy Death for FREE! (Of course you can preview this chapter on Amazon too, but hey. I felt like putting it out there.) I am so humbled by the amount of support that has been thrown my way. Getting here was more of a struggle then it needed to be. Now that I’m here, I know it was totally worth it. Still, I can’t wait to get back to focusing writing. Messy Life is going to be a fun story to write.
Perspiration slicked my cleavage as I made my way across stage. Wearing a V-neck in front of horny adolescents wasn’t classy by any means, but at least I’d have their attention. If that didn’t work, the tub of body parts I carried was bound to get some interest. When I learned public speaking was in my immediate future, I had one thought. How the fuck am I going to talk about my job for thirty minutes?
My next thought was, how can I make sure I never have to do this again? The answer came from my second in command, Lentle Maste.
He had a friend who worked in the meat packing district molding beef into human cuts of steak, roasts and so on. Apparently, eating meat that looked like limbs was all the rage these days. I wasn’t into it personally, but fetishes were universal. Humans, Paranormals—it didn’t matter. Every species enjoyed perversion.
Last week, I made Principal Varmin pass out and retrieve signed release forms. This was an educational presentation, but the staged death scenes were gruesome. If any of these weak-stomached bastards went home crying emotional trauma, me and mine were safe from lawsuit.
As I made my way to the podium, I could feel Principal Varmin’s anger pulling at my skin until it felt as tight as the shirt stretching across my chest. She’d been fine with our presentation because each showed the five levels of Crime Scene contamination. My tub of beef didn’t represent anything other than carnage. Or so she thought.
A pissy comment made its way through my brain only to stall out as we not-so-cordially passed each other. Mrs. Varmin was looking seriously green around the gills. I’d noticed it when she walked through our death scenes earlier, but it had gotten considerably worse since the students filed in. Enlisting college art, drama, and special effects majors to craft the grisliness of our job clearly paid off.
Just outside the audience’s field of vision, I took in Principal Varmin one last time. Black hair pinned in a proper French twist; grey pants suit and sensible flats. Everything on her accompanied the judgment lingering in that glare. “Good morning,” I said, setting the tub on a tall stool beside me. My stomach gave a quick flutter as if to say, “Don’t fuck up.”
This gig was a favor for our recently retired CSCU president, Jeff Varmin. His wife, AKA the Principal, wanted her students exposed to all sorts of career opportunities. How that translated into me working for free, I didn’t know, but these heathens were going to get a shitload of “exposure” today. “My name is Vira Silk, and I’m here to talk about Crime Scene Clean Up.” Bodies shifted in their seats. A few kids exhaled. Loudly.
I gave a dramatic flick of my arm then waited as the curtain hiding my crew raised. Sighs turned into gasps and coughs of surprise. A few feet from where Principal Varmin had herself hidden away, Lent’s normal grimace brightened. “Hit ‘em with gore,” he’d suggested days ago. “Kids love gore. Being disgusted entertains them. If they ain’t listening after that, they ain’t gonna.”
Since making things bloody was his idea, I put him in the messiest simulation on stage—a chemical plant explosion we’d worked four years ago. There were two victims; one suffered severe, external burns and another showed the effects of inhaled biohazards. Comparatively, our crispy critter was less disgusting. Charred remains were easier to detach from.
The lack of features made disassociation easy. Other bodies, the ones that were plump, oozing, and covered in flesh, made disconnecting harder even if they weren’t human. In Lent’s scene, actor number two was recognizable. Bio hazardous fumes had split his lips. Blood leeched from every pore and heat from the fire coupled with chemical spray had melted the man’s eyeballs.
I had to admit, our special effects crew did a great job capturing the decedent’s end, but reality was always worse. That Sweep had twisted me up for days. Seventeen workers spread across three miles of plant rubble. We worked through meals, nausea, intense heat, and constant disintegration of the surfaces around us. It wasn’t an easy payday by any means.
“There are thousands of ways a person can die,” I began. “Fire, stabbing, car crash, drowning, disease, gun shot, decapitation, animal attack, poisoning. Here at the CSCU, we have a classification, or level, for every scenario.” I pointed to the first scene on my right. An elderly woman lay in her hospital bed, wrinkled face slack, eyes milky and vacant. “Kali May is in the middle of an L1 Sweep. Level Ones are usually natural deaths that pose no environmental threat.
“Almost all L1s are transfer cases, meaning we move a body from their place of death to the morgue and that’s it. Because the decedent in Kali’s case has been dead less than a day, pathogen saturation is so low that protective gear isn’t needed.” Nobody heckled, and much as I hated admitting it, that was a huge relief.
“Death isn’t easy for the living. I’ve worked CSCU for six years. During that time, I’ve never witnessed a clean or beautiful passing.” To keep things icky, I reached into my meat bucket, grabbed a rump roast cleverly disguised as someone’s severed foot, and threw it into the audience. As expected, there was an explosion of noise. Everything from shrieks to yelps of laughter. Slinging raw meat into an unsuspecting crowd probably broke all Principal Varmin’s health and safety codes.
Unfortunately, she’d turned the reigns over to me, and I was all about shock and awe. Especially if it kept me off the guest speaker list. “Who caught it?”
“I did,” screamed a boy. He sounded thirty days shy of his first big boy hair, poor fucker.
“Stand up,” I ordered casually. “Read what it says.” Earlier, I’d written fun CSCU facts on the faux appendages using a non-toxic butcher pen. No need tainting perfectly good food. Now these kids would leave my lecture with knowledge and something for dinner. It was a generous move on my part, though Principal Varmin’s horrified ‘eep’ made me think she’d disagree.
Beside the main aisle, I saw movement. “Death,” the kid began, “is a viscous, congealed breakdown of one’s body.”
I nodded. “That’s exactly right. Death is sick, disgusting shit. People swear they’ve seen family or friends drift away peacefully. They claim hope fills the room after their loved one’s moved on. Well, I call Bullshit on that kiddies. Flat out, bullshit.”
More gasps and chuckles echoed through the open space. Across stage, I could feel Mrs. Varmin seething. She and her husband brought me here to talk about my job and, by fuck, that was what I’d do. Another roast, this one mimicking a human’s mangled hand, flew from my grip into the crowd. Seconds later, a mousey girl read:
“CSCU members wear a safety suit for protection on dangerous Sweeps.”
I pointed at our second death scene. Team member Emon Nowl was standing amidst the carnage of his first job. Pedestrian versus street cleaner. Because the accident had environmental hazards and mechanical components, he was wearing his Halo Suit.
“L2 thru L5 Sweeps require CSCU workers wear suits to avoid pathogens. L2 Sweeps usually involve an accidental or natural death, but the de-comp and pathogen saturation is always more advanced than an L1 because they take place outside a sterile environment.”
I took a few moments to highlight how advanced our gear was by comparing it to primitive suits of the 21st century. I refrained from talking about budget cuts that kept us from getting the latest Halo upgrade even though our Sweeps earned more money than other teams half a decade running. They were scary facts, just not the kind a hall full of teenagers cared about.
“Separating yourself from urine, feces, bacteria, bloat explosions, and the bugs that accompany death is easy with the Halo Suit you see most my colleagues wearing.” I gestured to the white uniforms then began explaining how they worked. Comprised of four separate pieces—boots, gloves, full sleeve shirt, and pants—the body of our suit fused together seamlessly when worn.
This merge technology provided safety from chemical, fire, water, and pressure breaches. The fifth and probably most essential piece of protective gear was our Halo Band. Six inches of thick electronic equipment attached to the back of our skulls, via microscopic needles, formed a near invisible shield around our head and neck. This shield cast a circle of golden light above us that disappeared after being set. Hence the name Halo.
The fact that needles kept the device in place horrified a few people into asking questions. “Because of their miniature size and anesthetic coating, the Halo Bands are painless to put on.”
“How many needles does it have?” a squeaky girl wondered.
Shit, I didn’t know the exact number. They were so teeny tiny that counting them would’ve taken longer than my whole fucking spiel. Panicked silence filled the space between my mouth and microphone. Ah, hell. Lying was better than looking like dumbass. “Well,” I said, clearing my throat. “I believe there are—”
“Thirty-six,” Lent offered loudly. “Two rows of twelve on both sides and one in the middle.”
“That’s right,” I agreed, eager to move past this question. “Thirty-six mini needles hold the band in place.”
“And you really don’t feel them going into your head?” the same girl asked.
“They’re thinner than a strand of hair and sticky as a spider’s web,” was my answer.
“Wouldn’t something sticky get tangled in your hair?”
I searched the crowd until a pristinely quaffed girl raised her brows at me. “I’m not a scientist or an electronic engineer so the only answer I have for you is no. They don’t get tangled in anyone’s hair.” They did provide purified oxygen for us to breathe though. Not that Curious George cared.
She and her beautiful blond locks were gearing up for another question when I tossed another fake appendage into the front row. An older kid, probably in his senior year, read, “After the Paranormal Reveal of 2012, fear and hate threw our country into the longest non-regimented war ever recorded.”
“We already know that!” someone screamed. I was trying to segue into the history portion of my lecture and the groans filtering about told me exactly what they anticipated. Boredom ahoy. “In 2012, the military tried restoring order to the battle between Paranormals and humans, but humans were a militia onto themselves. They went from sneak attacks to killing Paranormals whenever and wherever they could. Eventually, the fight became so consuming that neither side had time to bury, burn, or gather their dead.”
Some of this information would’ve been covered in history classes, but not the parts pertaining to CSCU. “In 2019, both sides realized a cadaver disposal treaty needed to be reached. Because they were operating outside a recognized battle creed, humans and Paranormals asked the military for arbitration support. During their talks, the army convinced both sides to band together under a regime that finally gave our leaders what they wanted. A civilized war.”
“Talk about dead bodies!” someone yelled.
“Yeah!” Another voice followed. “Get back to the sick stuff.” Titters of laughter erupted, forcing Principal Varmin to settle the crowd. I could only assume the ‘you deserve everything you get’ look she gave before leaving the podium was my cue to continue.
“2019 was the year our CSCU department became a sanctioned necessity. Back then it was called Cadaver Site Clean Up.”
“How long did it take to gather the bodies?” I recognized that voice. It was the person who demanded I get back to ‘sick stuff.’
I pivoted in what I thought was his direction. “When Diablo Canyon was bombed, the first order hadn’t finished its West Coast Sweep.” This elicited whistles of shock. As it should. Two years into the war, while humans attempted to eradicate Paranormals legally, terrorists bombed the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Reactor.
Their goals were simple minded—devastate both species with loss, fuel hatred and fighting, and remind us of their never waning presence. What they actually accomplished was simply remarkable. “Did CSCU clean up the nuclear stuff?” a Wendigo girl asked. “Before Paranormals offered aid?”
Typically, Wendigos weren’t easy to spot. It was only during a full moon that they changed into their gray, skeletal shapes and went hunting for food. In school, we learned that Wendigos weren’t Werewolves, though they had been mistaken for them in years past. Pretty sure wearing those hideous animal skins was the reason.
Nobody knew why they did weird crap like that. On their own, Wendigos were scary as hell to look at, but they didn’t have an ounce of body fat when they shifted, so I imagined the fur kept them warm during their night hunts. Thankfully, the girl speaking to me had on clothes, not dead animal skin. I only knew what she was because the words ‘Wendi’ and ‘Pride’ were painted on each cheek.
“We retrieved and delivered decedents to the pyre after Blood Witches, Practioners, Fae, and other Paranormal beings contained the fallout.”
“You don’t still burn people, do you?” the same girl asked.
I shook my head no. “After the Sweep of the Nation…” I paused for clarification. This was high school which meant more than a few assholes weren’t paying attention. “That’s what we called the first order’s Sweep because each team swept across the nation disposing of bodies.”
“Yeah. Okay,” the girl called peevishly, “Sweep of the Nation. Clever. Do you still burn people or what?”
“No,” I answered sharply. “In 2023, the selfless acts at Diablo Canyon earned Paranormals Being Status. That’s when CSCU restructured. The war was over, so medical examiners and morgue storage were reinstated. This made CSCU less important, so we became a department that could be hired out.”
“Did you torch people during the second Paranormal war?” Boy, this girl was really paranoid about crime scene cremation.
“Actually, yeah, but the second Paranormal versus Human war followed regime. Both sides halted battle to collect the dead and every soldier had proper ID.”
The girl huffed loudly. “So you don’t burn them now?”
“As of this year, 2247, the CSCU doesn’t have a say on what happens to a decedent’s body. When we’re hired by local law enforcement, we’re bound to respect their laws while following protocol. And, before you ask, no. Protocol absolutely does not allow on site burning unless it’s a Center of Disease Control thing.”
I grabbed half a foot and chucked it into the crowd. Ribbons of ruined flesh danced through the air. It was a mock-up based on something I’d seen my third year in. Man versus angry wife with lawnmower. Angry wife with lawnmower won.
“I got it!” an excited boy wearing a jersey yelled.
“So read it,” I yelled back.
“In CDC cases, protocol depends on how hazardous the material or infection may be.”
I took a deep breath and pointed to Lent. He was my L4/L5 demonstrator and L5s were all about mass disaster, disease, and CDC events. I explained how L5s and L4s were always violent deaths and could involve de-comp past the four or five day mark. Had that plant tragedy involved infectious elements, the CDC would have mandated we pyre all remains and be quarantined directly after the Sweep.
Gam’s L3 death scene was the last to be explained. It was a bathtub slip and fall that contained the bloat and intestinal explosion I’d mentioned earlier. L3 Sweeps had less than three days’ worth of contaminants and de-comp. Pathogens weren’t overwhelming like they were in an L4 or L5, but that didn’t make them any less nasty.
“When all is said and done,” I finished, “we mostly just clean up bodies and goo so a scene is safe for the general populace.” Out of nowhere, questions started pouring in.
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?”
“How long does it take to become a CSCU member?”
“Have you ever had to clean up someone you know?”
I gestured for them to stop. “Everything I’ve seen is horrible,” I explained. “I’ve been to each of the scenes on stage. They were real people, places, and deaths. Each was crappy in its own right.” Question after question pelted me. I didn’t bother keeping track. My goal was to answer the easiest ones and ignore the rest.
“It takes two years to become a CSCU member,” I said, gesturing for more silence, “if you pass the entrance exam. If you fail, you can still be accepted into the program. It’ll just take longer because you’ll need more classes. I haven’t cleaned up anybody I know, but I can’t speak for the rest of my team.”
In front, some kid grunted loudly. “Are you trying to tell us you’re in charge of these people?” His disbelief caused me to curl my fist atop the podium.
“As a matter of fact,” I said, my eyes zeroing in on his dopey, zit-ridden face. “That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
His lip twitched skeptically. “Are you an Elf or something? You look younger than me.” A girl three seats down from him sat straighter. Her cloud-white complexion, small bones, and ageless face led me to believe she actually was an Elf. Unlike me.
Before I could answer, Lent moved out of his scene in two thundering steps. “Ask somthin’ that ain’t so rude,” he roared, “or I’ll shove one of those roasts up your cocky little ass.” I didn’t need to see my second-in-command to know his downturned eyes were glittering fiendishly. Lent enjoyed his temper almost as much as he enjoyed backing it up.
Principal Varmin inched toward the podium, fully prepared to end my lecture, but not before Zit Face managed another question. “H-h-how long have you been in charge?” he stuttered.
I tilted my head, wishing like hell that fucker had asked anything besides that. “This is my first day.” ~ Messy Death by Jennifer Starks ©