The taste of death always made Tandra nervous. It was an automatic reaction—when the scent wafted under her nose, her hands trembled and her mind scrambled. And death had a taste, just like a horrific fart in a tight, enclosed space. It burned the nose and somehow clawed at the taste buds, making Tandra’s gag reflex tear at her empty stomach. She hated death, but she relied on death. She profited from death. Tandra needed death to survive.
It was the flaw of being a Cleaner; the ramification of facing life’s feces on a weekly basis. It wasn’t worth it—wasn’t worth scrubbing herself until her skin peeled raw, trying to remove all DNA and accidental evidence. Wasn’t worth the blank dreams, nights of black voids behind closed eyelids, showing her soul’s destination was nothing more than a vast black hole.
Being a Cleaner had cost her everything. But the painful price was internal. Externally, Tandra was the shit. She was the best Cleaner in the city—the only professional Cleaner left. There were others on the come-up, but the top dogs used her. Seth, her mentor, had retired as soon as she was old enough to handle the connections. He had placed his business in her hands. Only the elite knew of her, only the top crime scenes needed her, and very, very few could afford her. When she came in, the scene was cleaned—no matter how contaminated it had been. Her reputation was all
she had and it was contingent on her clients walking away clean from any charges; no links to the scene. Ever.
Tandra swallowed. The scent of death had overwhelmed her when she and Lenora stepped into the small apartment. The call had come a few hours after the damage had been done—the time it had taken for the fools to report their own stupidity to their boss, to admit that unchecked emotions or a chemical-induced high had caused them to murder an apartment full of people and leave a homicide detective’s wet dream in their wake.
If the call hadn’t come directly from Crown, Tandra wouldn’t have answered it. Shit, Tandra still shouldn’t have answered. She observed the mess in front of her with disgust. Crown’s people were taking her services for granted, getting messier and messier with their shit by the job. She and Crown were going to have a talk; that much was fucking evident. It was a talk that she dreaded, but at the same time, it couldn’t be avoided. Murder was a grueling enough business, sloppiness was an unnecessary detraction, and for the waste of her damn time to take the extra cleaning steps necessary, she was going to charge Crown much, much more.
“Watchu think?” Lenora stood next to Tandra, her little sister in spirit. “Is it worth it?”
Tandra glanced at Lenora. It was a stupid question. “What is there to think?” Tandra lowered her eyes and finally acknowledged the dead body at her toes. “We’re here now. Ain’t no walking away.”
“True.” Lenora shrugged.
Tandra moved her foot until the dead man’s cheekbone rested at the tip of her slanted stiletto boots. The boots were a necessity on these jobs. During job entry and observation, they kept her step light and narrow. More importantly, the smooth bottom with silicone covering left no shoe imprint in the blood on the floor.
The dead man was handsome, even in the early hours of death. That was rare to observe. Tandra pushed him with her toe, pressed in his cheek with the sharp tip point of her stiletto. He looked familiar, but she couldn’t place the face—not at the moment. Too bad he was dead. Tandra imagined that he might have been worth testing out. But he had crossed Crown or tangled with Crown’s people, either directly or vicariously. He should have known that death would be the price.
“Stupid bastard,” Tandra snorted as she stepped over him. Her nerves were resetting themselves like they always did within minutes of her observing a scene. She refused to let her weakness show, not even to Lenora, whom she trusted with her life. This game was just like any other, filled with people trying to gain access through illegal means. Weakness could never be exposed, not even to Lenora.
“Let’s get to it, then.” Lenora turned away from her and stepped gingerly back to the front door where they had placed their supplies.
“How much time?” Tandra stepped over another body and took three more steps to the center of the room. She always counted her steps, always knew just how quickly she could enter or exit any space. It was a necessary practice in this line of work.
“Long enough.” Lenora bent over to touch her toes, stretching out her long thin body in the tight-fitting bodysuit that clung to her like a second skin. “What did Detrick say?”
“Detrick is an asshole. What would he know?” Tandra surveyed the dingy room.
Detrick was the connection to Crown whom Tandra normally went through. At first, Tandra had thought the job was a set-up. She could never be sure, never know who was next to try to replace her. Until a few hours ago, she had never heard Crown’s voice. When the proper English accent filled her Bluetooth, the voice
calm, cold and exact, Tandra thought for a second that her time had finally come. She lived every day knowing that it was around the corner. When Crown had laid out the job details, Tandra knew it was for real. She had to cut him off midsentence; she didn’t discuss business over the phone. While she was below the radar, Crown definitely wasn’t, and Tandra wasn’t going to risk taking on heat talking on a tapped line. Instead, Tandra had arranged for the details to be delivered to her by one of Crown’s nobodies. Crown’s guidelines were very specific, although they were rules Tandra followed, anyway: No evidence; no discussion of any kind with anyone about the job; and Tandra was to meet directly with Crown upon completion.
But Detrick should have made the call to Tandra, not Crown, and the fact that he didn’t made Tandra uncomfortable. For now, she didn’t trust anything related to this job.
“Why you got to call Detrick an asshole, Tandy, damn.” Lenora shrugged. “He’s never been wrong before.”
Tandra didn’t answer. She didn’t fill her employees in on the details, whether she loved them or not.
Blood was splashed against the wallpaper and pooled next to another body that sat propped in the corner. The curtains against the picture window were torn and shabby, and also covered with blood. Food sat half-eaten on the dining room table. “It’s gonna be a full job. We will need at least five hours.” Tandra glanced along the bottom of the curtain, looking for evidence of another body.
“Be safe; do it in less than three.”
“Bullshit.” Tandra took eight steps to the window—another body lay beneath the windowsill. “Impossible.”
Lenora shrugged. “Got to try, Tandy. It’s best to be safe, anyway. We got to be out of here before sunrise.”
“Let Detrick know we are charging double—no less than forty for this job.”
“If you say so, mamacita.” Lenora continued removing the squares of folded plastic that they normally used to cover furniture while they painted.
Tandra glanced over her shoulder. “You might as well save those. The furniture has to go.”
Lenora looked at the mess around them. “You’re right.”
Tandra counted fourteen steps to the bathroom and glanced in. “All the walls have to be painted. Gonna have to call in Breeze.” The bathroom was empty. Relieved, she took nine more steps to the small bedroom in the back.
“Gotdamn, I don’t want to deal with Breeze’s ass tonight. She always got some smart shit to say. I don’t want to hear nothing about her, her women or her damn dildos.”
Tandra laughed, a quiet chuckle. She moved silently into the bedroom, careful not to touch the walls or any of the furniture. Blood was everywhere. She had on the same black bodysuit that Lenora wore. Its tight fit came in handy, minimized the risk of her touching anything or leaving fabric residue of any kind. A man lay with his throat slit against the open closet door. “How much acetone did we bring?”
“A gallon,” Lenora softly called.
Another body lay at the foot of the bed, a bullet hole through his forehead. This was the largest job Tandra had been given. “Tell Breeze we need more acetone, more Burner, more paint, more paint thinner. She gonna have to bring the van, too. Black dropcloths for the windows. Ten of them. Tacks. Two more boxes of
garbage bags. One box of Ziploc gallon bags. Two fluorescent flashlights—there’s gonna be a million prints up in here and we got to get them all. A Shop-Vac. Tell her a new one is in the back of the warehouse, by the shelves.” Burner was the special mix of chemicals that Seth had created years ago, which ate away flesh and weakened bone. Tandra mixed it—she was the only other person who knew the formula.
“Anything else, ma?”
“Tell her ass to open and put the Shop-Vac together before she gets here.” Dealing with Breeze, the instructions had to be detailed. “I don’t want no big-ass boxes left in the Dumpster here.”
Tandra never had to worry about Lenora forgetting anything. Her mind was like a tape recorder—another reason that Tandra never said anything to her that might be sensitive. Lenora stored everything in that computer brain of hers.
Tandra listened as Lenora spoke softly into the phone, placing the call to Breeze on the disposable cell phone. Text messages were out; anything written was forbidden. The phones had been purchased and distributed that morning, a weekly routine among Tandra’s employees. She was careful with her people, with their careers, with their lives.
As careful as she could be.
Tandra observed the lumpy, king-size bed. It was pushed against the far wall; its footboard faced the door. Tandra clicked her tongue. “These folks obviously don’t know a damn thing about feng shui.”
“Feng shui. They got the feet of the bed facing the door.”
Lenora laughed. “Here you go with your karma shit. Feet can’t face the door, because…?”
“You surely don’t listen—I told you this before. The dead are carried out feet first. So you don’t sleep in that position with your feet toward the door. Horrible for your energy and alignment.”
“Tandy, I am sure the idiot who lived here ain’t thinking about that right now. He’s trying to get his soul into heaven, no doubt.”
“No doubt,” Tandra whispered as she approached the bed. Either her eyes were playing tricks on her, or the end of the sheet, on the other side of the bed had moved. The movement was slight, like the tickle of a breeze. But there was no breeze in this cold-ass apartment.
“Tandy, I already called Breeze. Don’t start fussing, with your impatient ass. She was already on her way, but she is going to stop by the warehouse.”
“Lenora, come here.” Tandra tried to keep her voice calm. Her steady eyes counted four more steps between the dresser and the bed.
Tandra could hear Lenora moving quickly as she changed for the gruesome task ahead. “I am not about to call Detrick. You the one always pressing me about not using a cell on the job. Always worried about our location being tracked. So I damn sure ain’t calling Detrick on his for real cell from this spot.”
The sheet moved again; it lifted just a hair of an inch. Tandra snatched the Beretta that was strapped to the leather band around her thigh. She aimed at the sheet. The lump wasn’t undefined anymore. Now Tandra made out the outline of a person, lying among the bundled mess, under the sheets.
Fear hadn’t etched its way into her mind yet. She didn’t know what to expect, but her first instinct of shoot first, question later, hadn’t taken over yet. Tandra trained her gun on the bed as she slowly
backtracked to the bedroom door; her eyes locked on the bed. “Nora.”
Lenora stopped talking. Their eyes met. Lenora tilted her head, questioning. Tandra nodded forward to the room, confirming. Lenora snatched off her wig, threw it in the box in front of her, and trotted quickly to the other side of the doorframe as she snatched the Glocks that were strapped to either of her thighs.
The two women waited in thick silence. Seconds clicked by. Tandra nodded her head at Lenora, who stepped back into the room. Tandra followed. Both ladies had the bed covered, three fully loaded barrels ready to rain hell down upon whatever lay beneath the sheet. They stood on either side of the bed. Lenora took careful aim at center mass. Tandra yanked at the blanket and sheet from the foot of the bed. The mess tumbled to the side.
Handcuffed to the side of the bed frame was a young woman; blood was splattered across her forehead, smeared on her chin and sprinkled across her naked body.
The victim’s wide eyes blinked with fear.
“Shit—,” Tandra whispered.
“—she’s alive,” Lenora said, completing Tandra’s thought and speaking aloud their worst fear.