Pretty Broken ThingsMelissa Marr
Pretty Broken Things
Copyright © 2020 by Melissa Marr
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Partial Book List
To order signed copies of my books (with ebook included in many cases), go to MelissaMarrBooks.com
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Recent Adult Fantasy :
The Wicked & The Dead (2020)
Cold Iron Heart (2020)
Cursed by Death (2020)
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Upcoming Adult Urban Fantasy:
The Kiss & The Killer (March 2021)
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Backlist of Interest:
Adult Fantasy for HarperCollins/Wm Morrow
The Arrivals (2012)
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Tales of Folk & Fey (2019)
Dark Court Faery Tales (2019)
This Fond Madness (2017)
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Young Adult Novels with HarperTeen
Wicked Lovely (2007)
Ink Exchange (2008)
Fragile Eternity (2009)
Radiant Shadows (2010)
Darkest Mercy (2011)
Wicked Lovely: Desert Tales (2012)
Carnival of Secrets (2012)
Made For You (2013)
Seven Black Diamonds (2015)
One Blood Ruby (2016)
Faery Tales & Nightmares (short story collection)
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All Ages Fantasy for Penguin
The Hidden Knife (2021)
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Coauthored with K. L. Armstrong (with Little, Brown)
Loki’s Wolves (2012)
Odin’s Ravens (2013)
Thor’s Serpents (2014)
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Co-Edited with Kelley Armstrong (with HarperTeen)
Shards & Ashes
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Co-Edited with Tim Pratt (with Little, Brown)
Rags & Bones
To all of you who are fighting for the silenced or violated, you are superheroes.
5. A Girl with No Past
10. A Girl with No Past
13. A Girl with No Past
15. A Girl with No Past
17. A Girl with No Past
20. A Girl with No Past
22. A Girl with No Past
26. A Girl with No Past
29. A Girl with No Past
33. A Girl with No Past
37. A Girl with No Past
COLD IRON HEART
The Wicked & The Dead (Faery Bargains Series)
About the Author
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The dead girl is in a grave so shallow it wasn't hard to find her. That’s all I know.
Dispatch doesn’t add that it’s awful, not directly. All she says is, “This is one for you, Juliana.”
There’s an unpleasant familiarity to this moment. I’ve only worked at my uncle’s funeral home for a few years, but I apparently have the stomach for the sorts of cases that he can’t handle. He’s not great with brutal death--like the bodies the Carolina Creeper has left behind.
“Is it . . .”
The woman on the phone doesn’t reply. “What’s your ETA?”
I glance at my watch. “Twenty. Thirty if there’s traffic.”
“At this hour?”
“So, thirty then.” I disconnect and take a moment to find a quiet place in my head.
My uncle used to do this part on his own, but the last few years, Uncle Micky hits the bottle every time he ends up at the scene of an ugly death.
Some of the worst ones come back to me when I close my eyes at night. It’s like having a photographic memory—but only for the things I’d rather never have seen.
* * *
Such is the fate of those of us who work as ferrymen for the dead. Morticians have a very high rate of alcoholism, divorce, and suicide.
I don’t drink much. I find my solace in other things.
I worry about Uncle Micky, and can’t help but wonder if that’s my future, too. Did he used to be more or less okay? Is his reaction to the work where I’ll end up if I stay in this business? Morticians have a high rate of alcoholism—and an equally dismal divorce rate.
Today, though, a dead woman needs me. Protecting Uncle Micky from more nightmares and retrieving the dead, those are my priorities today. I’ll deal with the rest another day.
I poke my head into the preparation room. “Is there gas in the bus? I’m headed out to Umstead.”
"Filled it this morning."
"I'll need to drop the client at the M.E.'s office," I add, clarifying without details that it’s very much not a natural causes run.
In this part of North Carolina, the medical examiner’s office is supported by a network of professionals. I often do transport. I do a number of preparations, and if I need to, I could do autopsy. It's not unusual. Plenty of states subcontract their work. It's cheaper for them than hiring full-time, and it's extra money for morticians who sign on.
After a longer than usual pause, Micky looks up from the body he’s preparing for viewing. He hears the parts I don't say.
"Are you good?"
I nod, even though I'm not. Seeing the dead who've been mistreated is never easy—and there's more likelihood of violent death than a heart attack today. I worry most about the dead who seem to show up in my jurisdiction more than anywhere else. His victims.
I whisper a prayer that today will not be another victim of the Creeper.
During my retreat to my own thoughts, Micky's attention returns to the woman on the table. Comforting the grieving and preparation are the parts of the job where my uncle excels. He can reconstruct expressions, apply make-up, and by the time he’s done, the mourners will see their loved one. It’s an art. No one ever suggests that the people he prepares look “wrong.”
I don’t have the patience for the make-up. Restoration and embalming, those are fine. Retrieval runs, paperwork, and marketing—because, yes, this is still a business and marketing matters—those are all fine, too. Make-up perplexes me; it always has. I can manage it, but not like him. Not on the bodies we prepare, and not on my own face.
Uncle Micky holds my gaze just long enough to make me want to tell hi
m it’s okay. We both know he realizes that there’s a rough call. Uncle Micky might not offer to go in my place, but he would go if I asked. He’s good people. That’s a tried and true fact.
“Can you handle everything here while I’m out?” It’s not exactly saying that I’m okay or that I can handle it, but we aren’t direct like that.
He nods. “You’re a good kid, Jules.”
“I’m thirty-two,” I remind him.
He smiles. “I swear you were twenty-five last time I checked.”
I snort. “And this is why I do the books. You’re lousy with math.”
I walk outside, and feel like a wet blanket hit me. Carolina weather. It’s always humid, or at least it feels that way.
Murder smells worse in humidity. The scent of things best never smelled gets caught in the wet of the air, and I swear it clings. To my clothes. My hair. My skin.
I drive out to the park. I’ve hiked here. It’s almost six thousand acres of land with trails, campsites, and lakes. A part of me wants to believe this was a shooting or an accidental death. The logical part of my mind can’t quite do that. The park is well traveled enough that there is little chance of death by exposure or animal. A shooting here is likely to have drawn attention, but it’s not impossible to stealthily shoot or stab someone in the park.
The worst possibilities play in my mind: a child, sexual assault, murder suicide, group suicide, multiple graves. Sometimes, my mind wanders down paths I wish it wouldn’t. It’s a consequence of my job: I see the unvarnished truth, the details that are half-hidden or soft-focused before the family or friends hear about it. The truth is that people are cruel. It’s why Uncle Micky drinks. It’s why I check my locks more than once at night. It’s also on the long list of reasons I’m lousy at dating. Better to be single and haunted by my nightmares than to raise a child in this world.
I park at Umstead in the lot closest to the crime, and get out.
I force my steps to be even, my expression neutral, as I walk over to the taped off area of the park. My part-time function with the medical examiner’s office means that I have credentials to get past the police tape—not that I need them today. The officers here all know me.
“Jules.” Henry nods to me. His eyes take me in like he can read things in my skin and stance. He probably can.
I nod back, and for just a moment, I let myself look at him.
Henry’s young for a detective, the sort of man who has the indeterminate age that could be anywhere from early thirties to late forties. Ex-Army. Descended from freed slaves. One tattoo. Proud nose. Military haircut. No glasses. He’s born Southern, raised Southern, and undoubtedly will die here, too.
He also kisses like a man who enjoys desserts and fine whiskey, slowly savoring each moment. That particular detail is one I shove back into the box where I prefer to keep it. Late night mistakes are best forgotten, even when they’re rich with promise . . . perhaps especially when they are.
“Male or female?” I ask, silently hoping it’s a man. The Creeper doesn’t kill men.
“Woman.” Henry’s expression is unreadable, even to me. That’s not an accident. Even that single words feels heavier in his rich deep bass voice, though.
I’m not going to think about his voice or any other aspect of the mystery that is Henry Revill. Henry and I are just colleagues these days. When we were younger, we were something else. A few times, I’ve slipped up and fallen into his bed after deciding we were done with that part of our history. Right now, though, our past means we know each other too well to be standing over a body together without stealthily checking in on the other one's well-being.
I slip on my gear. My gloves are purple. Uncle Micky thought I’d like them better, but they stand out too much, too bright at the edge of death. The only thing keeping me from ordering a box of the black ones is fiscal responsibility. I focus on retrieving my coveralls, glasses, and gloves.
It’s too damn hot to want to wear any of it longer than necessary, but contaminating the scene forensically is not an option.
Henry looks away as I shimmy into my coveralls. There’s nothing improper about it. My clothes stay on under them, but to a lot of Southern men, modesty matters. Respect matters, especially respect toward women. And as much as we are in a modern part of the South, there are still those who look at a Black man with a different level of scrutiny. Henry and I having a past doesn’t erase that reality either.
From behind me, I hear, “We aren’t making any statements.”
Officer McAllister glares at the reporter who’s craning his neck as if seeing what’s behind the black tarps would be wise.
Those hanging tarps aren’t erected just for the deceased’s privacy. The tarp hides the sight of what’s sure to be awful, yet do nothing for the scent of death.
It takes a certain sort of mindset to bury a body here. It means that he—and yes, most serial killers are men—managed to take his victim into a well-trafficked area. She was either alive and killed on-site, or he carried a dead body into the woods. Both scenarios tell us something about him. I'm only contracted to transport bodies, but after a few years doing so, I couldn't help but learn more than a little about investigations.
People talk. Morticians listen better than most folks realize.
“You ought to send the old man out on these,” Mac mutters just loud enough that I can’t miss it, but low enough that he can pretend I wasn’t supposed to.
Maybe he’s trying to piss me off so I can better face the dead girl. Maybe he’s just more of an asshole than I realized. Either way, I don’t reply. I might be a woman, but I’m stronger than my uncle when it comes to this. Hell, according to my mother, it’s because I’m a woman. A Southern woman. No wilting lilies here.
I glance at Henry. His expression has grown even sterner. “Detective?”
Henry nods, and we step behind the make-shift curtain.
These days, I’ve had far too much familiarity with violent death. I’ve been the caretaker for five of the Creeper’s victims.
“It’s him, isn't it?”
Henry doesn’t reply. He’s behind me, but he says nothing.
For a moment, I need to go through my checklist again to settle my nerves: My feet are covered in booties, and my clothes are under coveralls.
The only excuse I have to pause is to straighten the goggles on my face.
Finally, I look at her: The dead woman is covered in blood-stained clothes, leaves, and dirt.
Brown hair. Caucasian. Late twenties.
I squat so I’m crouched beside her. The smell makes me glad I hadn’t eaten.
I catalogue her injuries. Broken radius and ulna. Six stab wounds. Bruising from restraints. I don’t need to see the crude tattoo on her wrist to know it’s there. The Creeper. She was killed by him.
Still, I brush away the dirt gently until I see it: Flower buds. It’s new. The ink doesn’t have that washed out tone that older tattoos have. He marks them.
“He sent a letter this time, Jules.”
I look up at Henry.
“Chief says you ought to be kept away from this.” He glances at the girl. “But . . . I convinced him that you’d be safer around us, so we ought to make use of you.”
I laugh. Henry’s not enough of an asshole to really think that, but he knows how to keep me from the panic that is already starting to fill me. There’s an art to managing people, whether it’s at the police station or a funeral home. It's one of too many things Henry and I share.
“What did the letter say?”
After a pause, Henry says, “’Thank Juliana for looking after all of my pretty things.’”
“They’re not things, and they’re not his.”
I look at her, the nameless dead girl in front of me. I can’t erase the last days she’s suffered, but I will give her the respect he hasn’t. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I face my nightmares. It’s the same thing that drives Henry: we are their last resort, t
he ones who protect the dead after they are no longer able to be saved.
“He sent a message to you, Jules.”
“My name’s in the paper.” I bite out the words. The truth, though, I know it’s not because he’s read my name. This was personal before I was in the paper. I’m not sure why, but I think the Creeper has targeted me. Henry thinks it, too. Still, I lie. I pretend I think it’s not personal because if it is . . . I’m not sure how I’ll sleep at night.
“Jules . . .”
I look at Henry and carry on with my illusions. “My identity is not exactly a secret. I work for the county, so he knows my name. It's not a crisis.”
“You know it’s not that simple.”
We both know. My Uncle Micky will know it too. Someone will leak the note, and the newspapers will examine it to the point of absurdity. People will speculate again. There’s nothing I can say or do to prevent any of that from happening.
None of it means I know what to do about the larger situation. What’s the right thing to do when a killer knows your name? They don’t cover that in any of the various classes I’ve taken, not mortuary science classes or my assorted college courses or even the floral arranging ones at the community college. I collect classes and facts the way most people collect shoes. It’s never enough. Sorting out facts helps keep me from sinking into depression. It's a far sight better than some of the things morticians do to keep it together.