You wake in the middle of the night, your arms and feet pinned by strong hands. As you thrash your way to consciousness, a calm voice says, “Steady. We’re here to help.” Your mind registers a paramedic, a policeman, an ambulance. You are lying on the lookout at Keeper’s Point, the lookout Amanda Creen supposedly threw herself off. And you have absolutely no idea how you got there.
Aaron Rowe walks in his sleep. He has dreams he can’t explain and memories he can’t recover. Death doesn’t scare him—his new job with a funeral director may even be his salvation. But if he doesn’t discover the truth about his hidden past soon, he may fall asleep one night and never wake up. A potent, intense psychodrama that will keep you gripped to the very last page.
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Scot Gardner is a critically acclaimed YA author, whose books have been shortlisted for several awards in his native Australia, including the CBC Awards and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for Young Adults. The Dead I Know was published by Allen & Unwin in Australia in 2011; it is the first of his books to be published in Canada. Scot lives with his family in rural Victoria, Australia.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The office of JKB Funerals was a majestic orange-brick addition to a modest orange-brick house. It had the boxy gabled ends of an old chapel with tall narrow eyes of stained glass to suit. There were concrete urns on either side of the entry door, spilling with white flowers. I checked my front for breakfast crumbs and then rapped on the door.
It opened with the smoothness of automation, but there was a man at the handle, a round man with half a smile on his easy, ruddy face. He looked me up and down, then shielded his eyes as if my head were at the top of a distant mountain.
“You must be Aaron,” he said. “Please, come in.”
I wiped my feet more than necessary, and stepped past the man into the cool silence of the building. The door hushed shut, and he held out his hand.
We shook. It was a strange sensation. I’d never shaken hands with anybody.
“Please, come through. Have a seat.”
The chairs were deep, lugubrious leather—more comfortable than anything I’d ever sat in.
“Thank you for coming in, Aaron. Your school counselor speaks very highly of you. I’m proposing a three-month trial period, at the end of which we’ll sit here again and assess how we’ve gone. The work you’ll be doing will be varied. There’ll be some fetching, heavy lifting, and cleaning. Is your back okay? Need a good back in this line of work.”
“Good. Now . . . appearance. Do you have a black suit?”
I shook my head.
He snatched a pen from a plastic holder and made notes on a pad. “No matter. I’ll have Mrs. Barton measure you up, and we’ll get something tailored.”
“I have a black tracksuit,” I said.
John Barton looked up, startled. “Tracksuit? No, I mean dress suit. What size shirt are you?”
I shrugged. “XL?”
He wrote some more. “You have an accent, Aaron. Where are you from? America?”
I shrugged again. “I grew up here.”
“Is that so? What are your parents’ names? I may know them.”
“I doubt it,” I said.
The words hung in the air like a balled fist. John Barton dug no deeper.
“Right,” he said. “First things first. How would you feel about getting a haircut?”
One more shrug. “Fine.”
“The first one is my treat.”
John Barton gave me a fleeting tour—office; chapel and viewing room with visitors’ bathrooms between them; display room; storeroom full of plastic-wrapped coffins standing on their ends; cool-room door—on our way to the garage at the rear of the establishment. There was a quietness and studied neatness to the whole place. The service areas smelled of flowery air freshener, with a metallic underscore of disinfectant. The garage, on the other hand, smelled of cool oiled dust. There were three vehicles parked inside—a fine silver Mercedes sedan, a white van that looked like an unmarked ambulance, and the hearse. The hearse’s chrome and black luster rendered it catlike and serious in the glow from the skylight. There was a discreet crest painted on the driver’s door containing three curlicue letters: JKB. The customized number plates echoed the starkness of the hearse’s exterior—THEEND. If I’d been alone, I might have smiled at that.
“We’ll take the Merc. Do you have a license?”
I shook my head.
“We’ll have to do something about that.”
It was a smooth ride, scented with leather and more air-freshener flowers. John Barton drove with an easy poise, as if he operated at a more precise speed than the rest of the world. He double-parked on Chatswood, in front of the barber’s red and white spiral pole.
“The proprietor is Tony Henderson. Tell him I’ll be paying. I’ll be back in twenty minutes.”
I nodded once and slipped out of the car. The door shut with a quiet huff of air, and I felt . . . something. Hard to say what it was—some gray wake of a distant emotion, perhaps.
It was early in a barber’s day, but the floor already boasted small piles of gray and brown hair. Tony Henderson nodded a greeting.
“John Barton will pay,” I said.
He ushered me to a chair.
“How would you like it?”
He chuckled. “Enough said.”
He touched my head and I flinched.
“Sorry,” he said, and then looked at his hand. “Okay?” I nodded and clenched my jaw. I hadn’t planned to flinch. I noticed his aftershave and the dark hair on his knuckles. I avoided the mirror by staring at my cloaked knees as great long hanks of hair skidded over the smock and onto the floor. I tried to remember my last haircut and could think only of a time in fifth grade when I had been forced to remove a wad of gum from my hair with scissors. It was Westy—one of the drunks now living in caravan fifty-seven—who put it there, and he’d squealed with laughter when it stuck.
Tony Henderson shifted my head this way and that. He lifted my chin, but stood between the mirror and me as he did so.
“A shave?” he asked.
Foam and a brush that had seen better days. Sharp steel in a practiced hand. I could see my shape in the mirror, but I didn’t let my eyes focus.
Tony Henderson stood back and admired his handiwork. “I think you’ll pass.”
As if on cue, the bell on the door tinkled, and John Barton entered.
“Morning, Tony. I sent my new lad in here earlier. Did you see . . .”
Tony Henderson spun my chair, unclipped my smock, and dusted my neck and face with a soft brush. I waded through the clippings on the floor. I avoided the mirror and, in doing so, looked straight at my new employer.
He was smiling and shaking his head. “Are you sure it’s the same fellow?”
Tony Henderson seemed pleased with himself. “Who’d have thought, hey? Tall, dark, and handsome.”
“With the emphasis on dark,” John Barton added, not unkindly.
“True,” Tony Henderson said. “That’s a bonus in your industry, isn’t it?”
John Barton drew his wallet from his pocket and laid a fresh fifty on the counter. He patted it and turned to leave. “Keep the change.”
“Very kind of you, John. Thank you.”
“No, thank you, Maestro. Thank you.”
John Barton had bought two white dress shirts, and he handed me the bag as the garage door whined shut behind us.
“Come,” he said, and I followed him through a side door into a small grassy garden between the office and the residence. A clothesline full of white shirts and incongruously bright silk boxers creaked idly in one corner. John Barton caught me staring.
“Yes, they’re my shorts. The suits are always black, but I’m happy underneath.”
Too much information, I thought. I mean, underpants pride?
A disheveled ginger cat mewed a mournful greeting as we passed. John Barton mumbled a reply and bent to rough its head.
“Morning, Moggy,” he said. “This is Aaron. Aaron, this is Moggy.”
“I . . . um . . . Good morning, Moggy,” I said. I gave the cat a quick pat on the back.
John Barton smiled. “She’s an oldie but a goodie. Just recently she’s decided that the whole house is her litter box. Pays to wear slippers in the morning.”
The house was full of television—all blue, blinking fury and noise. John Barton found the remote and poked it until the commercials became conversational.
“Dearest?” he called.
“In here,” came the reply.
“We have a visitor.”
The woman who walked into the room wore a peach apron over a floral nightmare of a dress. Her hair was gray and limp like Mam’s. She grinned to reveal crooked teeth and shook my hand with enthusiasm, her fingers cool and soft.
“Goodness, you’re a tall one!”
“Aaron Rowe, Delia Barton. Mrs. Barton to you.”
“Oh, please call me Delia,” Mrs. Barton said.
“Respect where respect is due, dear.”
“Don’t be so stuffy! Cup of tea?”
“Yes, please,” John Barton answered. “Any messages?”
Mrs. Barton swished off to the kitchen. “Mrs. Gray is ready to be collected.”
John Barton sighed. “At rest at last.”
A stillness settled over the room. Were they speaking about a death? Was Mrs. Gray being collected from the mall with her shopping, or pried from a car wreck on the highway?
“Could you measure Aaron, my dear?” John Barton called. “He needs a suit.”
“Of course!” his wife replied.
John Barton inspected a scrap of paper beside the phone. “Best put one of those shirts on,” he said. “There’s a bathroom just along the hall.”
I closed the bathroom door behind me quietly. A hairy brush rested in the sink. There was no room for it on the bench with all the beauty products and pill bottles. A wet mat was bunched on the floor beside a pile of discarded teddy-bear pajamas and underwear. The air was all talcum, wet towels, and fake flowers.
And there, in the mirror, was a stranger I had once known. His face was longer and leaner than I remembered, his skin smooth and clean. His black hair fell to the brow above the eyes it used to conceal. He had ears—two—and a new jawline.
“Sorry about the mess in there,” Mrs. Barton called.
Her voice shattered my reverie, and I hurriedly tore open a shirt packet.
“We have a small piglet who lives with us. We call her Skye.”
The stiff, clean cotton felt rich on my skin. It was a good fit, and I tangled with the buttons until there was no doubt about who was wearing whom. I undid my heavy belt and tucked the tails away inside my black jeans. I’d never worn white. I screwed the packet into a ball, but it wouldn’t fit in the bin overflowing with tissues and empty toilet rolls. I carried it back into the lounge.
Mrs. Barton whisked it from my fingers and looked me over.
“Ah,” John Barton said. “Now we’re getting somewhere.” He tapped his chin with an index finger, then departed.
Mrs. Barton held up a tape. “Measurements.” She smiled and stretched her arms wide like a scarecrow.
I imitated her, and she fluttered over me, mumbling and penning numbers on a pad she pulled from her apron pocket.
When John Barton returned, he carried a sash of deep green silk. He draped it over my outstretched arm. A necktie.
“Right,” Mrs. Barton said. “That’s you done.”
“Thank you, my dear,” John Barton said. “Could you arrange for Tommy So to make one jacket and two pairs of pants?”
I felt the heavy silk of the tie between my fingers. It was suddenly all too much: the haircut, the shirts, and the suit. I had no idea how to knot a tie.
“Here,” Mrs. Barton said, and snatched the tie. “Do up your
“You’ve done enough,” I said, and she stopped.
The television fell quiet and amplified the hole in the air I’d made. They stared.
“Nonsense,” John Barton grumbled. “We’ve only just begun.”
I looked at my shirt.
“If you were starting work at McDonald’s, you’d need a silly uniform and one of those delightful hairnets. Think of the tie as our hairnet, and let Mrs. Barton put it on for you. She’s the best in the business.”
He smoothed his own tie, and Mrs. Barton tittered.
“Bend down,” she said.
I lowered myself to one knee, and she tied the flat silken band around my neck. I felt like a character in a fairy tale.
“There you are,” she said, and patted my shoulder.
I stood and stroked the tie. Embroidered in thread of the same green were three florid letters: JKB.
“Now, to work,” John Barton said.
The cup of tea would have to wait, it seemed.
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Book Description Razorbill Canada, 2012. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 143182129
Book Description Razorbill Canada, 2012. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 0143182129