It's around midnight in the basement of the Los Angeles County coroner's office, the grim, blue-gray loading and receiving zone for the region's dead.
Sitting at a long white table, the county coroner's assistants are passing around a carton of malted milk balls and joshing while Chuck Berry's "No Particular Place to Go" issues from a small radio near a steel crypt crowded with bodies.
"Welcome to our slumber party," quips graveyard shift supervisor Carlos Garcia, 37, a 10-year veteran of the department.
They are enjoying a respite between calls in a business like no other: fetching corpses from hospitals and the sites of all accidents, homicides and suicides from Malibu to Pomona and from Lancaster to Santa Catalina Island.
It's a bustling, 24-hour operation, and the graveyard shift is as busy as any other, even more so on hot summer nights when the homicide rate spikes predictably.
About half of the 9,000 cases requiring assistance from the coroner's office countywide last year involved the 17 people assigned here, in what Garcia described as "the backbone of the coroner's department where all the critical work gets done."
Here, in the eerie blue light of a bug zapper, the bodies are measured, fingerprinted, photographed, wrapped in plastic, and then placed on refrigerated shelves. In homicide cases, the attendants extract samples of hair, fingernails and possible gunshot residue.
On this night, the crypt holds 377 bodies. In the preceding 24 hours, the coroner's crew has handled 17 field calls: four homicides, three suicides, eight accidental deaths and two natural ones.
"If the county supervisors ever came down and saw what we did every day, they'd rewrite our pay scale," supervisor Joseph Cronin says.
Nursing a cup of coffee, Cronin recalls retrieving bodies from flood canals, wrecked cars and railroad tracks, from bedrooms and under homes, in bathtubs and sailboats, in cars with motors running, at the shooting range and hanging from rafters.
"I got used to it pretty quick," Cronin says. "But this work isn't for everybody. We test prospective employees by giving them a tour of the place."
Being a coroner's attendant, which pays about $25,000 a year, also requires focus and self-control in the presence of sometimes overwhelming grief.
"The only time I ever had nightmares was after picking up the body of a friend who was murdered," says coroner's attendant Aimee Roberts, 26. "The only time I ever cried was when I had to pick up the body of a 5-year-old girl. I was about to take her out to the van when her grandfather said, 'Excuse me, miss. Can I carry my granddaughter out? It's the last time I'll ever have to hold her.' "
The people in this line of work, Roberts says, "see things every day that the average Joe Schmo will never see in a lifetime."
It's late as coroner's attendant Natalie Jenkinson, 25, arrives at a garbage-strewn apartment to pick up the body of an elderly West Hollywood recluse who appears to have died days earlier.
Armed with a flashlight and numbered body tags, Jenkinson and a colleague move the woman's body through narrow passageways in the trash piled five feet high. Outside, she places the body on a gurney, wraps it in a sheet and rolls it to her van.
Slipping off her plastic gloves and climbing into the cab, Jenkinson, who hopes to become a homicide detective one day, says, "I was a waitress and bartender before I started working for the coroner. This is much easier, trust me."
On the same night, coroner's attendant Ted Morris, 28, is sent to Long Beach to retrieve a 250-pound man from the bedroom of a third-floor apartment where he has been shot in the back of the head. There is no elevator, so Morris and a partner wrap the body in a sheet and carry it down steep flights of stairs.
At the office, just as he finishes processing the body, he is sent out again, this time to a hotel in South-Central.
There are no tedious nights.
"I'd love to see, just one day in this city, when nobody dies--no hospital calls, no field runs," Cronin says, staring at the Los Angeles skyline.
"It hasn't happened yet. I don't think it ever will."