"You'd think I'd be used to the smell of embalming fluid by now." Sadie Witt fanned her fuchsia fingernails under her nose. She grimaced as the odor hit her again. "At least it hasn't affected my brain."
"I wouldn't be so sure." Sadie's sixty-four-year old twin sister raised her head and peered over the recipe magazine she had propped against Mr. Bakke's urn. The urn of ashes sat in the center of the kitchen table. "Remember the magazine article? It said the afflicted person would be the last to recognize the symptoms. Aren't you supposed to wear a mask when you use embalming fluid?" Jane sniffed the air. "That's one powerful stink. I thought Nan told you to rinse off when you finished embalming."
"I did. I toweled everything off. You know how fussy Nan is. The embalming cart glistened like a mirror." Sadie lifted the hem on her hot-pink crop top and took a deep breath. "I hope this smell doesn't ruin my new outfit. I plan to wear it tonight to the Fertile Turtle."
"You mean you dressed like a floozy for work? That's disgusting."
"I had my lab coat over it so Nan couldn't see it." Sadie raised the lid on Mr. Bakke's urn and peeked in. "Good morning Mr. Bakke."
"I'm not going to Senior's Night if you wear that outfit. When you bend over in your mini skirt, you'll clear the dance floor before the band knows what happened." Jane tucked her fists under her elbows. "Look at your hair. What color did Big Leon use? It looks like a flamingo exploded on your head."
"I'll have you know Big Leon played with colors for twenty minutes before he found the perfect shade to go with my outfit." Sadie picked at her heavily-moussed hair making sure the tapered ends stood erect. "Just because you dress like a cadaver doesn't mean I can't wear color." Jane had no taste whatsoever when it came to fashion. Her twin wore neutral colors to make her voluptuous five-foot-six frame appear smaller. It didn't. "I don't know why you bother to go shopping because all you ever buy is beige. Beige is not a color. It's a disease."
A twinge of optimism tapped on Sadie's brain. For too long she had endured the shroud of gloom trudging alongside Jane no matter where she went. But this week appeared different. Jane had finally regained some of the spunk she'd lost since Mr. Bakke's tragic death. Although Sadie would have preferred her sister's return to normalcy to lean more toward renewed energy than to sarcasm, Sadie welcomed the barbs once again effortlessly rolling off Jane's lips.
The fact that Jane considered going to the Fertile Turtle might constitute a miracle. It left Sadie speechless. Not a single crosser showing up at Cabin 14 for over a week might also be a miracle. Crosser free. Not a dead guest in residence. It still concerned Sadie that even after six months Jane refused to discuss the deceitful crosser who triggered Mr. Bakke's demise. Most recently departed who failed to cross over were gentle souls. But once in a while a downright nasty crosser made an appearance.
"I wonder if all funeral directors are as fussy as Nan. If I follow the rules and keep everything bacteria free, she thinks I'm doing a good job."
"Did you know the assistant's job would be so complicated?"
"It's not really complicated. After watching Mr. Bakke assist Nan all those years, I had a pretty clear idea. It's those darn regulations. They don't make me nervous, but Nan worries about a Health Department inspection, so she's forever scrutinizing my work. It drives me nuts."
"Maybe if you followed directions, she wouldn't check your work."
Sadie caught a glimpse of movement on the cabin's porch and strode over to the screen door. "Did you notice anything?"
"Did I notice what?" Jane placed a checkmark next to a recipe in the magazine.
Sadie put her hand over her eyes to shield the sun. Her gaze scanned from left to right before settling on the swaying porch swing. "I thought I saw a man on the porch."
Sadie joined Jane at the table. "Offering to assist Nan is the least I can do. It wasn't her fault she lost her helper. I was the murderer's target. Not Mr. Bakke."
"Are you sure he really wanted you dead?"
"Of course I'm sure. He wanted me dead so he could cross back over to the other side with me," Sadie explained. "He was too lazy to seek someone on the brink of death by himself, so he decided to take the easy way out. He set the trap to kill me. That worthless bugger intended to encroach on my light. Unfortunately, Mr. Bakke stepped in front of me."
"I know a horrible circumstance changed our lives forever, but it's not your fault you're a death coach. It must be a hateful job." Adding to Jane's already pinched expression, she continued, "It's not fair you have two jobs and I don't have any."
"Oh, not this again." Sadie released a weary sigh. "I don't have two jobs. Working as a funeral assistant is my real job. Serving as a death coach isn't a job. It just happened. Don't tell me you don't have a job. You're co-owner of Witt's End Resort."
"Since we hired a manager, it doesn't seem like a job," Jane said. "I'd rather be busy like you. You're either dealing with the crossers or helping Nan at the mortuary. I sit here and twiddle my toes. Maybe you should find someone else to be a death coach."
"You know it's my duty to guide them. How else will they learn to cross over?"
"The fact they couldn't cross over shouldn't be your problem. Let them find their own way." Jane exhaled slowly as she ran her hand lovingly across the back of Mr. Bakke's chair. "It's nice not having any crossers this week. Thanks for spending time with me. It helped me relax."
"The crossers do take a lot of my time, don't they?"
"You're just noticing?" A smarter-than-my-twin revelation tweaked Jane's lips before it faded. "It would be easier if I could see them. You know how embarrassed I get when I sit on them." Jane waved her hand toward Belly LaGossa, the rotund canine snoozing on a braided rug. "Even our stupid dog can see them. It's not fair."
Sadie had to deal with the crossers and Jane lived the life of a normal mortal. That's what wasn't fair. Sadie lived as a mortal, but nowhere near normal. To observers, their twin status wasn't obvious, either. They looked nothing alike. Petite at five feet, if Sadie could get her hands on the man who deemed her a death coach, she'd stuff cheese in his nose. It had to be a man. What sane woman would saddle her with the responsibility of guiding the dead on their final journey?
Sadie caught another glimpse of movement on the porch and stepped back toward the screen door. "Did you notice anything?"
A tear rolled down Jane's cheek. Jane's bottom lip bounced in uneven tremors as Sadie put her arms around her sister. "It's not the crossers, is it? It's Mr. Bakke." Sadie pressed her mouth against Jane's temple. Air from her lips softly fluttered Jane's hair. "I know you miss him. I do too. I think about him every day."
"I do." Jane sobbed deeply. "I can't stand it without him."
Sadie rubbed her hand up and down Jane's arm. "If I could have prevented his death, I would have."
Jane dabbed at her eyes with her apron. "I'll always regret not telling him I loved him the day he died."
"He knew. Mr. Bakke knew how much you cared about him. He had a good life because of you."
Belly jerked his head up off the rug and stared at the door. He cocked an ear before drawing in a deep, inquisitive sniff.
"I'm not looking forward to any new crossers. I hope they're gone for good." Jane dabbed at her eyes again. "I hate dealing with their crap."
"For your information, it's not crap. It's important," Sadie argued. "You don't have to deal with the crossers. I'm the death coach. Not you."
"Why can't just one crosser enjoy a peaceful visit for a change?" Jane's voice rose as she finished the question. "They're always in turmoil."
"That's because they have unfinished business and aren't able to cross over. Death decisions aren't peaceful. They're stressful. Quit worrying about it."
"Then quit telling me about them."
"Then quit asking," Sadie snapped back.
Belly barked and nudged the door with his nose.
Jane glanced at the screen door. "What do you want, you silly thing? I just let you in ten minutes ago. Go back to sleep."
Sadie parted the curtain and peered out the window.
"What's so interesting?"
"A bare ass." Sadie crossed to the screen door and strained her gaze to see the right end of the porch.
"Someone in one of those nasty thong swimming suits?" Jane huffed in disgust. "They should be outlawed. I can't imagine how anyone can walk around with a string between their butt cheeks."
"Well this guy doesn't have one on. All I see is a bare ass." Sadie frowned and turned toward Jane. "Did you read the newspaper this morning?"
"Yes. Why?" Jane joined Sadie at the screen door.
"Was Jed Perry's name listed in the obituaries?"
"Not that I recall." Jane craned her head in the direction Sadie pointed. "Why would his name be listed?"
"I think Jed's about to join us."
"Good. I always liked Jed. Do you think he's looking to rent Mr. Bakke's cabin?" Jane pushed Sadie aside and grabbed the door latch.
"I doubt it. I think he's dead."
"No! Are you sure?" Jane pushed through the door. "Where is he?"
"I'm positive. He's standing three feet in front of you with his hospital gown flapping open. He's either dead, or he took a wrong turn in the hospital."
Jane shook her head slowly as Sadie's words sank in. "Do you realize what that means? Jed's parents never found a trace of his sister since her disappearance. Now you're telling me Jed is dead?"
Jed Perry's shoulders stiffened and he turned to face the sisters. He hung on to the porch railing with one hand trying to keep a breeze from swirling his hospital gown up around his chest with his other hand.
He tugged at the fabric. His gaze darted from side to side as fear and confusion clouded his expression.
"What's going on?" Jed moved closer to Jane. "Why am I at Witt's End?"
"That's a shame." Jane retreated into the cabin. "Jed was such a nice man. Who'd have ever thought he'd end up in Cabin 14?"
"Jane?" A puzzled expression channeled Jed's brow. He turned to follow her.
"Jane can't hear you, Jed. She can't see you either." Sadie held the door open. "You'd better come in."
Jed looked down at his hospital gown. "What's going on? I'm supposed to be at the hospital. I'm scheduled for surgery." He grabbed at the back of his gown, clasped the edges together, and backed toward the railing.
"I think you should come in and sit down," Sadie held the door open. She gave a twiddle of her fingers to encourage him toward the entrance.
"I'm not going anywhere. I want to know what's going on." He patted his index finger over the bridge of his nose. "I'm dreaming. I'm having sinus surgery and I'm hallucinating, aren't I?" He nodded briskly at Sadie. "Aren't I?"
Sadie shook her head. Watching Jed sort through the terror and uncertainty left her unable to draw a breath. If she faltered, her overwhelming compassion for a friend and neighbor would rob her of the strength she banked on to deal with her new crosser.
"No, Jed. You're not hallucinating. You need to come with me. I've got something to tell you."