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Swan Song
Wendy & Steve's marriage is a magnificent affair. But there is an insidious secret here.

Part I

At the crack of dawn, Steve was sitting at the kitchen island, contemplating the coffee dregs swirling round the bottom of his mug, and pondering whether he should opt for a fifth cup of java. Larry the cat padded the length of the counter and peeped into the mug and voiced his opinion:


"Mrrow," he said.

"Yeah, Larry," said Steve, "but what do you know?"

Larry's whiskers twitched evocatively, but he had no more to say. Steve had his fifth--and then a sixth--cup of coffee. His days always started late and ended early. He gazed lazily at his $5,000 coffee maker.

By nine a.m., Steve was seated upon the sofa, waiting expectantly for his significant other, Wendy, to make her mid-morning appearance. Wendy always stopped by Steve's on her way to work, in order to discuss their upcoming nuptials. Steve glanced out the window and saw Wendy's frizzy blond head and ravishing green eyes peeping through the glass. He started. After dating for two years, the lion had been bearded, and Steve wasn't about to be let off the hook by the persistent Wendy. Wendy was a mortician's assistant and looked forward to the day when she could relinquish her devotion to abdominal sutures and the like. Steve was a wealthy L.A. record producer, and he could, she thought, take her away from all that. She waved at him. With a jerky, caffeine-fuelled enthusiasm, he waved back. Steve wasn't much to look at, he knew, but Wendy seemed smitten. He smiled complacently.

Using her own key, Wendy entered the palatial house and bussed Steve on the cheek. "Hello, lover," she said dramatically, running her finger provocatively through the belt loop of his robe.

"What's on the agenda today?" he asked her warily. "Do you want forty bridesmaids instead of the twenty we'd planned? Or the New York Philharmonic to play at the reception? Or the Archbishop of Canterbury to perform the service?" Wendy's demands had mushroomed over the four months since they'd set the date, and showed no signs of abating. He smiled affably, to rob his words of the annoyance that he genuinely felt.

"No, dear," she cooed, smoothing his pyjama collar. "All the plans have been implemented." His expression perked up. "All we have to do is wait for June 6th," she said.

"The banquet hall..." he began.


The band..."


"The catering service..."


"The invitations..."

"Sent out," she said conclusively.

He paused for an instant. "There is one thing I bet you've forgotten," he baited her with a little smile.

"Try me," she dared, her eyes alert, cat-like.

"We have to find a date for Larry," he said. Wendy scratched Larry behind the ears. She loved that cat, Steve knew.

Wendy seemed to be taking Steve's suggestion seriously for a moment, but then she tweaked his nose and said, "I got to get going."

"Big day today?" Steve asked.

"Whole family, got wiped out on Highway 140 three days ago," she said with relish. "The Coroner just released them this morning." She kissed him again and made her way to the door. "Later, baby," she called, as she swept through the door.

"Have fun," he called after her.


Part ii

The wedding was a stupendous affair, as was the reception. It was located at the City Market Social House out of necessity -- it was the sole L.A. venue with a capacity great enough to accommodate the 4,500 guests the newlyweds expected. And it was large enough and expensive enough for even Wendy's extravagant tastes. And while the Philharmonic didn't perform, Elton John, Beyonce, and Taylor Swift did, in turn, taking the stage. Anything less would have been a poor reflection on Steve who, as the recording industry's foremost producer, was expected to be bigger than life in all that he did.

Steve stood alone and admired the quiet opulence of the venue. As much as he had made a big deal out of Wendy's growing demands and expensive tastes, in truth he was relieved by the arrival of  his wedding day. Before Wendy agreed to become his bride, she had dallied with her boss, "the undertaker," as Steve had pejoratively dubbed him. Sam Unser, proprietor of Unser's Mortuary, was an up-and-coming funeral director, with a half dozen "parlors" in the greater L.A. area, who had evinced a great interest in the woman who had today become Steve's wife. And who could blame him? Wendy was perhaps the prettiest, sexiest, most alluring woman that Steve had ever known, and he'd known plenty of them. Besides, Steve could afford whatever it cost. Anything for Wendy. It was Wendy's idea to invite virtually everyone that Steve had ever met. Strangely, few people who were known just to her had received an invitation. "Your family and friends are my family and friends now," she'd said. There was bad blood in Wendy's family, Steve had concluded. And, apparently, she had no large reservoir of close personal friends. She declined to invite even her co-workers to the ceremony. Which suited Steve right down to the ground; he felt what she did for a living was creepy. But, she had resisted resigning her job and moving in with him, prior to the wedding, choosing not to become a kept woman. He could kind of respect that. But, she had a certain fealty to her employer; thanks to Wendy, and with the reluctant help of Steve, Unser Mortuary had become the so-called "Mortuary to the Stars," and had snagged virtually every high-profile client in the past three years.

Part iii 

The first part of the evening went off without a hitch. There was a beautifully orchestrated sit-down dinner, featuring Chateaubriand, yanagidako, scrod, and almost literally a ton of caviar. The wine flowed like, well, wine. And streaming copiously at the reception was Palmos Spirytis Rektyfikowany vodka, a Polish spirit which, at 192 proof, was the closest thing to be found resembling lighter fluid. In short order, almost everyone was stewed on Palmos.

The party continued into the wee hours of the morning, until at length, Steve drank champagne from Wendy's slipper. Everyone fell about the place. The caterers had erected a vodka fountain with the Palmos, and Elton John slipped and fell in. But he resurfaced, unharmed, bobbing to the surface like a cork, and everyone laughed with merriment. Although there was a fire code admonition against smoking in the venue, guests, now in their cups, cast caution to the wind and were soon lighting up, both tobacco and pot. Some musicians even dared to free-base cocaine. Why not? They were all indestructible, weren't they? Thinking ahead, Steve and the wedding planners had opted to exclude the press from the festivities before things got really out of hand. Which by now they had. But that had been hours ago. Guests had also voluntarily given up their cell phones.

Thoughtfully fingering the huge, garish, hedge ball setting of the ring that Steve had solemnly slipped on her finger during the ceremony that afternoon, Wendy gazed with utter contempt at the effete, spoiled, disgusting creatures who had gathered to celebrate her wedding to Steve. More like, they were there to get wasted -- again. A liveried man lurking in the wings caught her eye and, almost imperceptibly, she nodded. The man approached the vodka fountain and without further ado, ignited a book of matches and tossed it into the well of the fountain. With a deafening WHOOMPF, the fountain burst into flame. In a heartbeat, the curtains caught fire, then the walls, the carpet, and the very clothes the guests were standing around in. People shrieked, tried to flee, but succeeded only in spreading the blaze. Suddenly, Steve ran up.

"Wendy," he said frenziedly, grabbing for her arm. "Let's get out of here!" She stared dispassionately into his eyes. Her own eyes seemed dead. She observed the banana-sized joint he clutched in his fingers. Without a thought, she took up a glass of Palmos from a nearby table and tossed the 96% alcoholic drink over his torso, drenching him from the waist up. Immediately he burst into flame, and blazed like an incandescent torch. His agonized scream was lost in the many hundreds of other such outbursts. Without a word, Wendy vacated the wedding venue through the only door which had somehow remained unlocked. Upon her departure, the door locked into place again with a little click.


Part iv

Unser Mortuary, now offering services at 24 locations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, was unofficially known as the Mortuary to the Stars. It was too garish a moniker for professional usage, Sam Unser, the CEO, thought. Since the infamous wedding venue tragedy, more than four years before, things had gone rather splendidly for Sam, business-wise. He was making money hand over fist. Personally, too, it had gone well for him. His wife of nearly three years, Wendy, was expecting the devoted couple's second child, a son, to accompany the daughter she'd had before. They hadn't decided yet on a name; eventually, they would eschew their first two choices -- Sam Junior and Steve -- and settle on Wendy's personal favourite: Larry.

Writing on a Paper

Bill Tope is a retired social worker and hotel cook and construction laborer and one-time nude model for university art classes, who now lives with his mean little cat Baby in Illinois, U.S.A. He has several score publishing credits.

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