THE CORPSE MOVED
The morgue—or what passed for a morgue in Leesville, population 29,201—was quiet as Thomas Aster took over for the graveyard shift. He bade Leo a good night as he entered, and the two exchanged small talk briefly.
“Think it’ll rain?” Leo asked.
“Might at that,” Thomas agreed.
“Yep, gonna be good for the crops.” Leo referred to his garden, in which his wife took great pride. Thomas had sometimes sampled the bounty, and he had to admit that Leo’s wife did an admirable job with tomatoes.
A moment of silence settled on the two men as they had nearly exhausted their usual topic of discussion.
“Well,” Thomas said, breaking the silence, “you drive safely.”
“Thanks. Have a quiet night.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me a bit.”
Leo grabbed his empty thermos and his jacket. Soon, Thomas was alone in the small building.
As he settled into the chair and slid around to get Leo’s shape off the cushion and replace it with his own, Thomas reflected on the state of his life. Leo’s wish for a quiet night almost always was assured. Bodies were few and far between, and those that did come in were usually natural or accidental deaths, delivered to the morgue for only brief stays before the next of kin made other arrangements.
He took out the round mirror in the top right drawer and smoothed his hair. The cerulean sky of the early afternoon had given way to darkening clouds by 4:30, and a cold wind had picked up in the last half hour. Thomas’s hair showed the effects of that wind. As he made himself presentable, he thought about his job, his life. Generally, things were good. He lived in a small town and had a job with so little work that it nearly amounted to a sinecure, though he had come by the position honestly when he had answered an ad in the paper. Most nights, he could count on hours of uninterrupted solitude. He put the time to good use reading or, when there was a game he wanted to see, watching the portable television he sometimes brought.
His duties were few. He had to check the locks on each of the three doors. If a body came in, he had to fill out some paperwork and see to storage until the medical examiner arrived in the morning. Other than these few details, though, he had eight hours of available time most nights, and he was even paid for it. Yes, life was good.
Thomas was not an especially social animal by nature, so the odd hours of the midnight shift did not bother him as they might have others. He had a few friends, and they suited him just fine. Indeed, Leesville suited him well. Most of the people were content to lead their lives and let him lead his. In fact, he had only had one enemy during his eight years in the city. But that was in the past, Thomas thought as he got up to check the three doors. Yes, Leesville was just fine, and life was good.
The morgue had been a ranch house many years ago, presumably with a happy family—husband, wife, and 2.3 children. The city somehow had come into possession of the building and converted it into a functional morgue. It probably would have been cheaper to use a building more appropriate for the function, but its location, at the end of a short but isolated cul-de-sac, seemed appropriate for a sleepy burg and also assured that the only people who showed up had business.
The second of the doors Thomas checked was the front door. Through the windows, he could see a few splatters of rain against the glass. He tried to listen to gauge the strength of the rain, but he could hear nothing but his own breath.
“Eh,” he said to the silence, and he went to check the last of the doors, the one that led from the garage (or what had originally been the garage but was now the loading dock) to the body room, as both Thomas and Leo called it. There were two bodies, Thomas knew. He opened the door to the freezer anyway, just to check. Strictly speaking, his duties did not include verifying that the bodies were where they were supposed to be, but Thomas had a streak of morbid curiosity. The first body was that of a sixteen-year-old boy who had apparently died of alcohol poisoning. The second belonged to an elderly woman. From every indication, it was simply her time. She remained in the freezer until her relatives, all of whom were out of state, gave instructions. It had been nearly a week since she had arrived, and Thomas suspected that she might be there another week. She had not been wealthy, and it had taken a great deal of effort even to locate her next of kin. None of the other residents of the small apartment building that catered primarily to Leesville’s elderly population had heard the woman talk of her family.
Thomas lifted the sheet covering the woman and looked at her thoughtfully. There was something sad in this sight, he knew, but he could not feel the emotion. It was like, he thought, hearing a joke in a foreign language. The teller’s tone conveys that there is something funny, but without knowing the language, a person just does not get it. The same was true with this woman. He knew that there was something sad, perhaps even tragic, about a woman who lay in the morgue, unclaimed and maybe forgotten. But Thomas just could not appreciate the emotion. He spent his own life a virtual hermit most of the time. He had had but one visitor to his apartment during the past month. The visitor had been there earlier today, but there was no indication that anyone other than Thomas had been there. There were not two glasses on a coffee table to indicate that two people might have chatted over drinks. In the dish rack next to the sink, there was a plate, a fork, and a knife, all of which Thomas had used for his dinner during the afternoon. Any visitor to Thomas’s apartment now would see only the well-kept home of a man who did not entertain often. Anyone who did a thorough search - and who would? - might find the two grams of cocaine that were hidden inside a sock at the back of his closet behind the shoe tree.
His phone bill would show few calls. He seldom spoke on the telephone and failed to see the attraction the device had for many people. For Thomas, who liked solitude and had no qualms about lying unclaimed in the morgue one day, this woman’s situation did not mean much except in the abstract.
He covered her, closed the door to the freezer, and returned to the desk, where he planned to spend most, if not all, of the next seven and a half hours. He took out the book he had brought for the night, a dog-eared copy of The Stranger that he had picked up for a dime one morning at a yard sale, and opened it to find out what happens to Mersault after he commits murder.
After twenty pages, Thomas had to put down the book when the phone rang.
Thomas recognized the voice as that of Linda Park, one of Leesville’s few female police officers. His predilection for cocaine made him leery of the police as a rule, but his job required a certain amount of interaction.
“Yes,” he said.
“We’ve got a delivery headed your way.”
“Probably ten minutes. Not long.”
“I’ll be ready.”
He hung up and marked his place in the book. Looking at the clock, he made a note in the log and rose to prepare the way for the delivery. He walked through the body room and opened the door to the garage. Though the city had spent tens of thousands of dollars to convert the building into a morgue, the garage door was still manual. Apparently, nobody had thought it worth the extra money to come up with an automatic door. So Thomas went into the garage, turned on the light, and opened the door. After a period of time that seemed more like twenty than ten minutes, a pair of headlights cut through the rain—it was falling pretty heavily now—and approached.
The transfer went quickly and with a minimum of talk. Two men lifted a black body bag out of the back of a van and loaded it onto a gurney. Thomas signed the appropriate forms and received some paperwork in return. Soon, the van backed out of the garage, turned around in the end of the cul-de-sac, and disappeared into the night. Thomas then turned to his duties. He looked at one of the forms he had been given. The body belonged to an unidentified male, approximately thirty-five. There were two boxes on the form to check in order to indicate whether there had been any visible injuries. Neither was checked. Thomas scanned the page to find the name of the officer who had filled out the form. When he saw the name, Thomas understood. Bill Jordan was an alcoholic, a fact he hid badly. Jordan often had to rely on others’ reports and others’ memories to prepare his testimony. Thomas could not imagine why Jordan remained on the force, but such was small-town life sometimes. Eccentricities and peccadilloes are overlooked, so why not more serious problems sometimes?
Thomas read the forms thoroughly and found only the sketchiest of reports. As he read, he heard the drip, drip, drip as rainwater fell from the body bag to the floor below. The sound was disconcerting, and Thomas had to stop to think. The body bag must have been in the rain for a little while before being loaded into the van, he thought. It could not have become wet during the transfer from van to morgue since that transfer took place under cover. Or maybe the body had been out in the rain for a while, and the water was coming out of a hole in the body bag.
Thomas took the forms and left the body room, leaving the newcomer untouched. He went to the phone and called the police dispatcher. He asked to be put through to Officer Park. When he heard her voice on the phone, he asked, “What’s with the body?”
“Couldn’t tell you, to be honest,” Park said. “It wasn’t my call. I just heard about Jordan’s finding it and went to the park to see if he needed any help. He said he didn’t, so I called it in since I figured he’d forget.”
“Where in the park?”
“By the stream, I think. Why?”
Thomas knew, as did Officer Park, no doubt, that Jordan often went behind a small copse of trees to drink his whiskey. A small stream wrapped around the trees. A body in the stream would explain the dripping in the body room.
“So Jordan handled the whole thing?” he asked, not answering her question.
“S’far as I know.”
Linda Park hesitated before answering as if weighing her response.
“He seemed normal to me.” She put a slight stress on the word “normal,” and Thomas understood. Jordan had been drunk.
“So you can’t tell me anything about this one?”
When he returned to the body room, Thomas heard again the drip, drip, drip of the water from the body bag. The sound could get annoying after a while, he thought. He opened the body bag just enough so that he could see the face and looked in. Thomas knew the man, who called himself Jack but probably had something different on his birth certificate. Thomas had purchased cocaine from the man in the past. Jack, or whatever his name really was, looked to be in pretty bad shape, but the effect was probably due more to the rain and stream water than anything. There were no visible marks on the body, and Thomas nearly resolved to check the appropriate box on the form that Jordan should have filled out. Thomas realized before he acted, though, that he had not seen the entire body, and checking the form would not have been a good idea.
He pulled to him one of the wheeled chairs and began to fill out the two easy-to-complete forms that he had to execute for every body. Once he settled into the chair, the only sounds he heard were the sound of the ballpoint pen on the paper and the drip, drip, drip from the body behind him. The dripping was becoming annoying even faster than Thomas had expected. He turned to look at the body bag, a motionless and vaguely human-shaped pile on the gurney. He then returned to the forms, realized that he had marked “p.m.” instead of “a.m.,” and grunted. He scribbled over the incorrect entry but thought the form looked amateurish, as if he had been nervous. Being around dead bodies did not bother Thomas, and he had no desire to give anyone the impression that he was nervous, especially tonight. He crumpled the form, pulled another copy out of the space that held them, and began again.
Drip, drip, drip.
Damn! that sound is annoying! he thought.
He would be happy to put this one in the freezer. He filled out the second form and then double-checked both of them. Everything was proper, he saw. He put the forms in their places and stood, pushing the chair away. The wheels of the chair sounded as they moved across the floor, and the sound was a welcome relief to the infernal dripping. He moved to the gurney to push it into the freezer.
His heart nearly stuck in his chest when he saw the plastic of the body bag appear to move. Calm down, he told himself. It happens all the time.
He was right about that. It did happen all the time. Body bags were hardly rigid, and they did settle and move from time to time, especially when he pushed a gurney and the weight of the body reacted to the impetus.
But he hadn’t even moved the gurney yet, he realized with a feeling of apprehension. He looked at his hands, as if to verify by inspection that they had not of their own volition touched the gurney.
Thomas thought of all the things that could have happened. The body’s hand could have slipped from wherever it had originally rested. Sure, that could have happened. After a moment, Thomas was composed, and he chided himself mentally for his apprehension. He honestly was not nervous about being around dead bodies, but sometimes things could happen. Heck, they could happen anywhere. He recalled a time when he thought he had heard someone in his apartment in the middle of the night. As it turned out, he had simply forgotten to turn off the VCR. The tape, a six-hour tape he had recorded himself, had simply played to the end of its six hours and, four hours after he had gone to sleep, automatically rewound in and ejected from the VCR.
Sometimes, people just got the creeps, Thomas realized. Besides, if corpses truly were in the habit of coming back to life, the news media would have taken note.
He put his hands on the gurney handles and watched his fingers wrap around the rubber handholds. His gaze moved to the body bag, which remained, in the finest body-bag form, still.
The corpse moved.
This time, there could be no doubt. Thomas distinctly saw the body bag move in a way he had never seen before. The side farthest from Thomas, where the head was, had moved upward about two inches. Then it had fallen back to the gurney.
The fear, the sense of foreboding, that Thomas had felt earlier was not there now. Instead, he felt a sense of resolve, as if he had rehearsed for this moment and his time had at last come.
He pulled the gurney directly under the brightest light and reached for the zipper. He tried to pull it open, but the zipper only pulled the bag with it. Holding the bag with one hand, he tried to pull the zipper with the other, but it would not budge. For some reason he could not later identify, Thomas looked at the clock and noted the time. He did, however, later remember thinking that there was no form for reanimated corpses on which he would have to note the time. Still, he noted the time before returning to the problem at hand. He thought for only a few seconds before spotting a drawer and racing over to it. Inside, he found a scalpel, which he grabbed.
The body bag gave easily as he sliced the scalpel the length of the man’s body. As soon as he pulled the sides apart, Thomas could see that the man, Jack maybe, was almost certainly still alive. Traces of foam appeared at one corner of Jack’s mouth, and his eyes were just barely open. Jack’s pupils moved without apparent purpose until they eventually found, but did not focus on, Thomas.
“Do you know where you are?” Thomas asked since he could think of nothing else to say.
Jack did not respond except for a slight sputter as he seemed to try to get his breath.
Thomas waited, and Jack slowly seemed to come closer to sensibility.
“Don’t try moving,” Thomas cautioned. “Do you know where you are?”
Jack, wearing a look of befuddlement, shook his head almost imperceptibly.
“You’re in the morgue, but you’re okay. Do you know what happened?”
Jack shook his head again, this time more noticeably.
Thomas noticed that he felt fear again. In a moment of self-awareness, he also realized that he was acting without any plan, asking questions that seemed to have no purpose. Should he call a doctor? The police? He put those thoughts out of his head and focused on Jack carefully.
“Do you know what happened?”
This time, Jack shook his head sideways before a spasm wracked his body, which soon shook under a paroxysm of coughing. Saliva and other fluids, expelled from Jack’s mouth, landed on Thomas, but he maintained his position, trying to look like a concerned helper. He was fairly sure that Jack did not recognize him. In fact, Thomas was not sure that Jack knew anything.
“You were found in the park,” Thomas said. “Do you remember that?”
Jack gave no clear response.
“Apparently, you’d been there for several hours. Do you remember what you were doing during the afternoon?”
Whether it was an actual response or simply a response to the recent coughing was not clear, Thomas could not tell with certainty, but he interpreted the sound as an affirmative answer.
“So you remember this afternoon?”
Jack’s eyes moved to Thomas again.
“Do you remember what happened?” Thomas persisted, his voice encouraging. He did not expect a coherent answer.
He was correct. It took Jack nearly twenty minutes before he could issue a coherent and unequivocal syllable. “Park,” he said.
Thomas, who had not moved and still held the scalpel he had used to slice open the body bag, suddenly came fully to attention.
“Yes, you were found in the park. Do you remember what happened?”
“Dr . . .”
“What?” Thomas thought that Jack had caught himself before saying “drugs.”
“Meeting someone.” Jack pronounced the words poorly. “Meeting” sounded more like “me-wing.”
“Do you remember who it was?”
“From behind,” Jack said.
Thomas found he had to lean closer to hear Jack, and he put both hands on the edge of the gurney for balance.
“What from behind?”
“Stabbed? With a knife?” Thomas asked with evident confusion.
“Needle. Put something in me.” His words were clearer now.
“Jack, this is very important. Did you see who did it? Do you know who did it?”
Jack’s head turned slightly, and he focused on Thomas for what appeared to be the first time. His eyes grew wide with recognition just as Thomas brought the scalpel up and then down in a swift motion. After a minute or two, Thomas heard again . . .
drip, drip, drip.