The two men walking into the house wear white protective suits and rubber boots. The house is dark and hollow, like a dead tree decomposing from the inside out. They are met with an overpowering smell of decay and rot that hangs in the air like a thick cloud of dust.
“What’s that smell?” Manuel asks, cupping his hand over his nose. Thick rubber gloves hide the young man’s fingernails, which are manicured and polished to a high sheen.
The older man is short, displaying a full-time alcoholic flush on his face. He points, and says, “That.”
A half a dozen bodies are piled up in the corner. The male corpse on top stares lifelessly toward heaven. The cloudy eyes bulge out of the sockets, and the tongue protrudes from the mouth. The skin along the face has a bluish discoloration, a blotchy patchwork like a jigsaw puzzle. The putrid odor intensifies and smacks Manuel in the face. He zips the protective suit over the bridge of his nose. “Jesus.”
“The worst part of this job is the smell,” Luis says, “but you get used to it after a while.”
“Why are the eyes bulging?”
“These guys have been dead for three or four days,” says Luis. “Bacteria and enzymes have begun to break down the body, which produces gases. Did you know that when pregnant women die, the gas buildup sometimes creates enough pressure that they plop out the fetus? That’s called coffin birth. You gotta figure it happens quite a bit to actually come up with a name for it.”
Manuel sees that all the windows are covered with aluminum foil. The only light comes from a Jesus nightlight plugged into an outlet that casts a swath of light on the filthy carpet. There are tiny footprints in the blood that look like they belonged to a young child. Manuel’s eyes linger on the footprints. They tell a story of tragedy, and he decides that he doesn’t want to know how the story began or ended.
Luis pulls a pen from his pocket protector and pokes the shredded and bloody shirt of one of the corpses. The flesh on his chest looks like spoiled ground beef, turning a bluish green from rot. Something moves in the flesh, undulating inside the wound. “Nasty. Maggots.” The translucent larva wiggles as it feeds on the dead flesh.
“I wasn’t prepared for this,” Manuel mutters.
“Nobody is.” Luis nudges a corpse with the tip of his boot. “So what do you think? Any ideas”
Manuel shrugs. “Can we dress them all in black?”
“I don’t see why not.”
“There’s a chainsaw in the van, right?”
Manuel kneels down and inspects the corpse’s head, gently moving it to test the range of motion. The icy grip of rigor mortis has seized the body, making it rigid. “I think we’ll cut off their heads, dress them all in matching black outfits, and have them sitting in chairs alongside Highway 92.”
“It’s a holiday weekend,” Manuel says. “Lot of traffic in the morning with people heading out of town.”
Luis pats the new recruit on the back, and says, “I told the bosses that you were the guy for the job. Knew it the first time I saw your mannequin display at the department store.”
“The one where the family is barbequing,” Luis says.
“The one that had the fan in the barbeque blowing the red streamers to look like flames.”
Manuel frowns. “That was Leonard’s.”
They stand there for moment and stare at the pile of bodies.
“Which one did you do?”
“My favorite was the couple on a tandem bike with the backdrop of Paris behind them.”
“I don’t think I saw that one,” Luis says.
“And I did the two children swinging on the swing set,” Manuel says.
“Kids are hard,” Luis says. “Thank God we rarely have to deal with them.”
“Rarely? I don’t—”
Luis interrupts, saying, “They’re similar jobs — arranging mannequins for a department store and arranging corpses for the Frontera cartel.”
“Both are an attempt to elicit feelings.”
“Feelings?” Manuel says.
“Department displays try to get people to buy.”
“And the Frontera cartel?”
“The only emotion that people of power care about,” the older man says. “Fear.”
BIO: Christopher E. Long’s numerous articles and short stories have been published in magazines, including Flaunt, 30 Days of Night: Bloodsucker Tales, and Thuglit. His writing for comic books has been published by a variety of publishers, including Marvel Comics, DC Comics, IDW Publishing and Image Comics. He lives in Southern California with his wife and son.