Gunner James was a cleaner—a crime scene cleaner, that is. He spent his days, and some nights, cleaning up the messes left behind by death. From the time his work started to the time it ended, he was surrounded by grief: devastated spouses and family members of the deceased, people whose heartbreak was so fresh you could feel it just by being near them. It always surprised him that so few people knew his job existed, that they would have to call someone like him to clean up the messes they never dreamed they’d have to. For some reason, it was a common misconception that the police were responsible for cleaning up after the bodies, making sure the family could go home without having to look at Uncle Joe’s brains on the wall, but that just wasn’t the case.
People were fascinated by his line of work, always asking for pictures, details…things Gunner would just as soon not talk about off the clock. Not talk about ever, if given the choice. He hated talking about the things he’d seen. He didn’t like to discuss the chemical he had to pour onto the hardwood floors to discover if any blood had seeped into the cracks; he didn’t like to talk about how every time he went down the cheese aisle at the grocery store, he had to stop himself from looking around for a rotting corpse.
Gunner was good at death. He understood death. Everything about death was scientific, it could be measured. There was a process, a set of stages from the moment your heart stopped beating. And once he arrived, he had his list of tasks. There were no surprises, not if he followed all the rules. Once he was finished, if he’d done his job correctly, there’d be no sign he’d been there at all. Unlike life, death could be cleaned—erased. Death was easy. Life was where things grew complicated.
So, when he walked into his apartment building that night, at half past two, he knew what was waiting the second the scent hit him. He knew it well, the indescribable, unforgettable fragrance of a decaying body.
The halls were empty and quiet. Gunner walked up the stairs quickly, listening. He walked past his own apartment, his nose in the air as if he were a dog. The smell grew stronger as he walked down the solemn hallway. He’d grown numb to it. It had been years since the smell had made his stomach churn like it used to. He stopped in front of apartment 204, six doors down from his own. The smell was strong there, overwhelmingly so. He put his fist to the wood of the door before he could talk himself out of it, knocking cautiously. Placing his ear close to the door, he listened. There was no sign of movement, though he hadn’t truly expected it. He knocked once more, a bit louder this time.
“Hello?” he called, his voice echoing down the silent hall. “Hello? Is anyone in there?” After a while, with still no signs of movement, he reached into his back pocket, pulling out an iPhone with a small crack in its screen that he’d been putting off having repaired.
Just then, he heard a door open on the floor below him. He paused, listening as someone began climbing the staircase.
“What the hell is going on up here?” His super’s voice echoed up the stairwell, his short breaths labored. When he made it to the top, his hands on his portly belly, he sighed. Gunner walked toward him. “Oh, Gunner, it's just you. What are you doing? Have you any idea what time it is? You’re going to wake the whole building.”
Gunner pointed up, as if the smell were just above their heads. “Do you not smell that?” he asked.
“It’s not a pest problem, Hermy. Someone’s dead in 204.”
“What?” the man asked, staring at him, and then past him toward the apartment, in disbelief.
“I’m calling the police. Someone is dead.”
“It’s not an animal. You don’t need an exterminator, Hermy. You need me. But first,” he paused, holding up his phone, dialing 9-1-1 and placing it to his ear, “you need the cops.”
When the police arrived a few minutes later, Gunner saw it in their eyes. They knew it too: the smell, the look on Hermy’s face—they knew what they were going to find.
“What apartment?” an officer asked.
“It’s 204,” Gunner responded, looking to Hermy who held out a key hesitantly.
“Hermy, you’ll want to stay here.” Gunner followed the officers back up the stairs, anxious to see what would be discovered. He tried to remember if he’d ever seen the face of the tenant, his neighbor, if he’d ever offered a kind word or smile as he passed them in the hallway. New York was different than where he’d grown up. You didn’t know your neighbors here—didn’t care to know them.
As the door to the apartment was opened, the smell surrounded him, further confirming what he’d known. No one flinched, the professionals in the hall all too familiar with the stench of death.
“In here,” he heard one of the officers call out and then came the hurried footsteps. They’d located the body. He sank to the ground, sure he should go to his apartment and stay out of their way, yet he couldn’t move. Some sick part of him wanted to see the body—the part of the disaster he never got to see, the maker of the messes he spent his life cleaning up.
He heard Hermy approaching him and looked his way. The man walked toward him cautiously, his mouth covered by his shirt, eyes watering. “Is she?” he asked.
Gunner nodded. “Dead. Like I told you.”
“What happened?” he whispered, horrified.
“I haven’t heard. They’ll bring the body out soon.”
“They always are,” Gunner said.
Hermy looked at him, a confused look on his face but Gunner didn’t elaborate. They were always “so nice”. He’d worked with thousands of grieving families in the eight years since he’d been working bio decontamination, and the dead were always revered. He’d never met anyone who didn’t have something nice to say about the dead girl in her bed or the dead man in his rocking chair. He supposed it had something to do with the whole ‘don’t speak ill of the dead’ thing, but also the idea that death was timeless—final. Everything horrible the dead had ever done disappeared the second their heart stopped beating and they shit themselves. Suddenly it didn’t matter so much that the pretty girl who had swallowed a bottle of pills had also created a Facebook page solely to mock an overweight classmate. In death she was always so kind or young or innocent. Take your pick, he’d heard them all.
The man who had, in an alcoholic rage, beaten his wife and child and then died in a drunk driving accident would be called smart and funny by all who knew him. They would say he was too soft for this cruel world. They would spew out lies about his character and no one would dare disagree because he was dead, so what did it matter anymore? Same story, different day.
After what seemed like hours of sitting in silence, waiting for the police to finish up, he finally saw the stretcher and body bag being brought up the stairs. By that time, several neighbors had woken up, poking their heads out into the hallway to see what was causing the commotion.
An officer approached them, rubbing his dark mustache. “Are you the one who called this in?” he asked Hermy.
“Me,” Gunner told him, standing up. “That’d be me.”
“I need to take your statement,” he said, turning to address him. He pulled out a notepad and flipped it open. “How did you know there would be a body? And where to find it?”
“And no one else smelled it?”
“I thought we had a dead animal in the walls,” Hermy said apologetically. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
The officer nodded, writing something down and looking back to Gunner. “But you knew differently?”
“And you knew all of this because…?” The officer looked at him, his expression suspicious.
“Because it’s what I do,” he said, reaching in his back pocket and pulling out his wallet.
“You’re…what? A detective? A medical examiner?”
He handed the man a business card. “A biomedical cleaner,” Gunner told him.
“No,” Gunner said, “I’m not home much. I don’t know any of my neighbors.”
“Except him.” The officer gestured to Hermy.
“This is Hermy, my super. So, yeah, I know him.”
Hermy stepped forward. “What happened to her?” he asked, his voice filled with worry.
“Yes, of course.” He nodded, putting his finger to his chin as he thought out loud. “She’s new to the city. Just moved in two months ago. Heather…Hannah…no, Holly, I think.” He held up his hand. “Let me go check my records.” He walked away, disappearing down the stairwell.
Gunner stared at the cop. “Are you going to tell us what happened to her?”
“But you have suspicions?” Gunner asked, his brow raised.
“Did you hear anything? See anything?” The officer turned the questioning back to him.
“No. The building is basically pretty quiet, but again, I’m not home very much.”
“Right,” the officer said. “Well, okay. If you think of anything else, I trust you’ll call.” He handed over his own business card before waving Gunner’s in the air. “This has your up-to-date contact info?”
“Of course,” Gunner assured him. “I’m in apartment 214 too, if you need me.” Hurried footsteps could be heard on the stairs as Gunner slid the officer’s card into his pocket.
“I’ve got her lease here,” Hermy huffed when he reached them. He held it up, flipping it over so he could see the front. “I was right. Her name was Holly. Holly Orrick. Pronounced like the vacuum, I think.”
Gunner’s breathing grew shallow and he looked at Hermy, ripping the papers from his hand hurriedly. His eyes darted over the lease, reading her name twice.
“What on earth?” Hermy asked, trying to take the lease back from him. Gunner looked up at the cop, his face turned stone.
“What?” he asked.
Without answering, Gunner barreled past the men, his chest growing tight. He couldn’t move fast enough. No. No. No. It couldn’t be her.
“Wait!” the officer yelled, trying to catch him but failing. Gunner busted into her apartment, his heart beating rapidly. She lay on the bedroom floor, half her body shielded by the black bag they’d begun placing her in. He stared her over, her dark hair pooling around her bloated and blue face. Her eyes were glassy and sunken in and foamy blood seeped out of the corner of her mouth.
“I need to change my statement,” Gunner repeated. “I knew the victim.”