I woke up with the sun stabbing me in the eyes as the worst hangover in human history played hell on the inside of my shattered skull. My chest was a giant purple bruise that burned into my lungs with every breath I took and the ribs around it ached in a sympathetic solidarity with the contusion. The bandage on my wrist was in desperate need of changing and every muscle from my toes up ached. I was naked and alone in a hastily made pallet in the floor. Gladys had slipped out some time before I woke up, not that I could blame her. It’s one thing to look at me in the middle of the night with half a bottle of cheap bourbon running through your veins but looking at me mangled on the floor in the sunlight, nah, I couldn’t blame her for leaving. I slid the worn pair of black fatigue pants on and found the least dirty of my black t-shirts piled up near my cot and pulled it over my head. As I was struggling to pull myself off the floor, the door opened.
Gladys came in sweetly holding a brown paper bag and a cardboard holder with two cups of coffee steaming from under their white plastic lids. She set it all on my foot locker and helped me up onto the cot. She was radiant, skin glowing gold in the early morning sun cutting through the window. She smelled like a familiar, musky cologne that used to hide in a bottle under my sink and, despite wearing the clothes she had on last night seemed clean and pristine as she stroked my hair with her fingers.
“Two chocolate glazed and a cup of black coffee, two sugars,” she said, handing me a cup and the paper bag. “My taxi is waiting out front so I will see you at the office in a little while.”
She kissed me softly on the lips, ran her hand across my jaw and started to the door.
“Why not just ride in with me?”
“Because,” she giggled. “Sam Watson called your cell while I was in the shower this morning. He needs you down at the morgue as soon as possible.”
I fell back onto my cot as she shut the door behind her. Getting my ass kicked on a Tuesday was nothing compared to a Wednesday morning hangover at the morgue.
“Those things’ll kill ya’, buddy,” some smart ass in blue scrubs muttered as he walked past me in the parking lot of the hospital. He was one of those spindly framed, better-than-you types who probably wore those thick framed glasses and “skinny” jeans when he wasn’t pretending to be a nurse. I took another drag off my cigarette and blew the smoke in his wake. I had been waiting for an hour near the ambulance bay because it was the only place near the hospital where I could still smoke. It was a gorgeous morning and I would have loved to have been lying in a hammock with a cold beer enjoying the warmth and sunshine. Instead I was sitting on a bench near an emergency room waiting for the coroner to show up and explain why he was ruining an otherwise perfect date. I flicked the last of my cigarette onto the pavement between my feet and snuffed it out with the toe of my boot. I was about to light another when the coroner’s van pulled up alongside me.
Sam Watson was the busiest medical examiner in the South East thanks in no small part to the work I provided him. He was a short, fat little man with bushy salt and pepper hair in a horseshoe around his head except for the shining patch of bald scalp above his even bushier eyebrows. Like a tiny, pudgy Caesar he stepped out of the large coroner’s van a triumphant hero crossing the Rubicon. He wore large, aviator style glasses that gave him a bug eyed, comical appearance that seemed to distract from the fact that he was really a genius in his field. He smiled at me as he grabbed a clipboard and a lab coat from the passenger’s seat and waved for me to follow him into the hospital.
“Thanks for coming out, Charlie,” he said as we walked into the emergency room and towards the elevators. “I hate doing this on my own.”
“And what, exactly, are we doing out here, Sam?”
“Well, the sheriff’s office found a body in a box over in those apartments by the railroad tracks. You know? It’s that rundown little roach motel off Main.”
I knew exactly the place. I’d been calling it home since my divorce five years ago. At least that explained the ambulance and sirens last night during the more… passionate moments of my evening.
“Did it get back up?” It seemed the next logical question. Ever since the dead started coming back to life, undertakers had been busy trying to kill as many of them as we could. Being the only undertaker in town, it was starting to make sense.
“Not yet,” he said as we stepped into the elevator. “But I’m expecting it soon.”
I hate a lot of things in this world, especially elevator music. You can only hear Girl from Ipanema so many times before you just snap and go on a spree. The lights above us blinked slowly. There was a dull beep as we passed from ground floor to basement and again as we went further into the morgue. There was a final, triumphant bell chime as the doors opened. It was short lived and quickly drowned out by the fire alarm raging above us.
“What the hell is that?” It was meant as a rhetorical question, more as to what was going on as opposed to what I was hearing.
“Fire alarm,” Sam answered.
“Thanks, captain obvious,” I said, drawing my pistol. “Why is it going off?”
Sam shook his head. “Don’t know. Could be a fire in the kitchen, an orderly having a smoke… anything really.” Then he grimaced and took a step back in the elevator. “It’s also protocol in the morgue if someone reanimates before a coroner or an undertaker arrives. They walled up the stairs years ago. Only way in or out once you’re down here is through the elevator. It’s built like a bunker really. A bomb could level the place and the morgue would still be standing.”
“Then let’s go back up.” I said, pressing the button. Sam pointed at the red sign above my finger.
“During a fire, the elevators stop,” he said, wringing his chubby hands together. “We’d need to reset the alarm and use the master key that they have in the morgue.”
I climbed up on the handrails and popped open the emergency hatch with my free hand.
“Get going,” I told Sam as I stepped down onto the elevator floor. “Get up on the roof and wait until this thing starts moving again. When you hit the first floor, get out of here and get some help.”
“What about you?”
“I reckon I’m going to find a key and an alarm panel. Be back in a second.”
The elevator opened up into a long, narrow corridor barely large enough to wheel a stretcher through. It was poorly lit and ended in a set of double doors with the word “morgue” in glowing letters like an exit sign above them. The windows looking in were covered in a thin film of blood –not the most promising sign of things to come. I peeked inside to get an idea of what I was dealing with. To my surprise it looked pretty simple. Among the rows of coolers and empty tables was a single, naked fat man hunched over an orderly on the floor. I smiled and pushed the doors open.
Never in my life have things been as simple and easy as they looked, yet there I was, taking it at face value as I strolled into the room. As soon as I cleared the door I felt a blow between my shoulder blades. The gun slid across the floor and clanged against an autopsy table. I rolled over to see a little blonde orderly, the front of her blue scrubs wet in fresh blood, standing triumphantly over me. Her eyes were glazed over, the bones of her lower jaw exposed where something had bitten off a sizeable piece of her face. I didn’t have time for this. I pulled a knife from my belt and jammed it forward as she dropped down on me. For such a little thing she was heavy as the blade slid through her right eye and broke the bone separating it from the rest of her brain. It crunched and fresh maroon ran down my hand and onto my shirt. I rolled her over into the floor and got to my feet. The gun slid against the door as I moved towards it. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why.
The human blob that had been dining on the second orderly was standing by the table now, his foot kicking the gun away as he shuffled towards me. How big was the box they found this guy in, anyway? I stepped back, formulating one hell of a plan as I moved. I’d springboard myself off the wall, roll across the floor and land by my gun. Continuing to roll I’d come up beside the corpse he’d been eating, sight my target and take him down. It was foolproof, except for the first orderly lying in the floor behind me with a knife in her skull. I tripped backwards over her and landed sitting with my back to the wall. Tons of fun took another step towards me. I was out of gear and fast running out of plans when something clattered in an office on the other side of the room. The ghoul turned to look. I rolled for the gun. By the time it knew what was going on I had it dead in my sights. The shot echoed like thunder trapped in the small basement autopsy. Thanks to adrenaline and tunnel vision it wasn’t too bad. I quickly shot the other orderly before he could get up and try to finish what the first two deaders had failed to do and walked into the office.
The smug little hipster orderly was cowering behind the desk clutching a paperweight that looked like a miniature version of the Stanley Cup in his hands. The fire alarm was beside me at the door. I pushed the handle up and grabbed the key that was conveniently placed under the alarm. I reset the whole mess and smiled at him for a moment. Fumbling in my pockets I found my lighter and smokes and lit one in the small office. I blew a triumphant cloud towards him.
“Be careful,” I said, walking back into the morgue. “Those things will kill you.”
I found Sam still in the elevator car, struggling wildly to reach the roof access. I reset the elevator with the key and then tapped on the sole of his shoe. I was about to give him the all clear when I caught a foot to the face and rolled out into the hallway again. He was panting, winded from his struggle and fell from the sheer panic. Once he caught his breath he licked his palms and slicked back the tufts of hair that seemed just a bit more wild than usual on the side of his head.
“So,” he said, smiling. “How’d it go?”
“How big was that damned box,” I asked, fishing my bent cigarette off the floor. “The guy was huge.”
He thought for a moment, did some sort of mental calculation that he drew in the air with his fingers and then laughed. “That was mister Oberkirsch,” he said. “Choked on a chicken bone or something. Medics told me he was already down. Guess I’ll have to file another complaint.”
“Why am I here, Sam?” I asked again. “Other than to kill your staff and make a mess all over myself.”
He looked me up and down and then shook his head. Without a word he raced into the autopsy room. He paid little attention to the blood and carnage scattered across the room, the three dead bodies and the fourth quivering in his office and waved me towards the large cooler in the back. I followed at a casual pace into the cold and pulled the door shut behind me. The box was sitting alone in the floor, surrounded by walls covered in makeshift shelves holding frozen corpses. Big Fred from yesterday was on a lower shelf taking up most of the back wall. I shuddered at the memory, realizing that this room was a tribute in a way, a representation of the legacy I’d created for myself. Dead bodies, dozens of them, all of whom I’d had a hand in creating. All except for the one in the box.
It was the size of my foot locker, molded and stinking of rot and that pungent earthiness that comes from digging deep into the wet ground. The box itself could hardly contain a full grown person which left me to believe one of two grotesque assumptions: either it was only half a man or, worse yet, a child. I’d seen a lot of horrors, a lot of terrible things in my time that would fill the rest of my life with nightmares but none of them compared to the cruelty I’d witnessed delivered to children. Sam must have seen the thoughts running through my head. He reached up with a chubby hand and squeezed my shoulder.
“It’s not that bad,” he said solemnly.
Carefully, he stepped back to the box and lifted the lid. Even in the preservative cold it was almost impossible not to cringe at the smell of perforated bowel and rotten meat that escaped in a gust from inside. The body was desiccated; an indeterminate sex with much of the lower half hacked away. The arms and lower jaw were gone leaving only the skeletal top of the face, its eyeless sockets peering blackly out towards me. The head moved stiffly from side to side but the rest of the torso was secured, riveted with steel bolts into the bottom of the box.
“Look at the chest, Charlie,” Sam told me. “Look at those incisions between the stomach and the pectorals.”
I took a step closer and looked down. While the scars didn’t seem to have a definitive meaning, their precision and design was clear. Horned spheres, phallic beasts clawing at stars and half-moons in a deliberate pattern curled around the back and across the torso.
“Necromancy,” I muttered to myself.
“At least that’s what they want it to look like,” Sam said. “I saw some real stuff back when I was in Louisiana a few years ago visiting a colleague who works in a border town near the bayou. Sheriff’s turned this one over to you, Chuck. Whether it’s the real deal or someone playing at it, well, that’s for you to figure out.”
“Take some pictures and document everything,” I said as we walked out of the cooler. “Let me know everything you can as soon as you can.”
“Where you headed off to?” He asked as I pushed open the door leading out to the hallway.
“I need to go see a man about some voodoo.”
Eduard Thibodeaux was indisputably the most intelligent and educated man in the entire town. He had an eclectic assortment of knowledge composed from colleges and universities and a brief stint in a seminary school as well as the sort of education you can only find by traveling through the dark backwoods where folklore and legend are as real and powerful as the air you breathe. With all his knowledge he had a spirituality that I never really understood. He was tall, broad and muscular with chocolate skin and a shaved head covered in scars that, despite being a dear friend he refused to explain. He was a houngan, a leader of the legitimate voodoo community that had cropped up in Berry Hill. Everyone called him Brother Eddy.
He smiled at me as I sat down in his office in the little farm house near the edge of town that served as both his “church” and his business. He sold voodoo dolls and “magic” trinkets to tourists to fund his research and his religious beliefs and he was not only an expert in the occult but the only person in town who could supply an amateur with the sort of things they’d need to make some bad magic come to life.
“How’s the chest,” he asked. His bass voice boomed and rattled through my bones as he spoke softly in the tiny hole in the wall he called his office. “I heard about your run in yesterday morning. Glad you’re in one piece. Well, mostly.”
“Thanks,” I replied.
He looked over my shoulder to make sure no one else was in the house with us. He’d put the “closed” sign up when I came in and sent out his daughter and the rest of the folks who were inside. He had ears everywhere and he knew when the hearse came rolling up the gravel driveway that I was here on business.
“How bad is it, Chuck?”
I explained the body, how it had been found in a box dismembered and mummified with faux satanic symbols carved into the chest. The look on his face gradually changed from curiosity to pain. Then I mentioned the note that I’d found in Herb West’s pack of cigarettes.
“That’s bad news for all of us,” he said solemnly, reaching under the desk. He pulled out a worn, leather bound journal and flipped through the pages. “The dick devils or whatever they are is just gibberish but the way the body was done, that is knowledge.”
“It’s not a ‘voodoo thing’ before you even ask,” he said as he handed me the journal. “About year twelve after the plague was the height of the religious explosion in the south. I mean, Moral Majority aside, there were a lot of fringe groups, cults that came up with all sorts of sick notions about ways to get the dead to stay dead or to make a slave army out of them. It was all bullshit but they dreamed up gods and devils and, if it all went bad, they called it voodoo and blamed the nearest non Trinity affiliated faith there was. I was in seminary the first time I saw it. Unfortunately for the folks in that little town where I was learning about God, there were only Christians, Jews and Muslims and no one was willing to blame any of them for fear of the holy war they’d start.”
I looked at the book. There was a detailed sketch of the thing in the box, only this one was clearly a woman because the excised sex organ had been placed on the chest with a candle lit on it. I closed the book and handed it back.
“So what happened?”
He sighed and placed the book back under his desk where it had been hidden. “Eventually, they blamed it on a mental defective that had grown up out there. I left the day after they hanged him but not before figuring out that the real culprit had been the young doctor in town and his daughters experimenting with some notions of controlling the dead. I still don’t understand the idea behind it but it scared the hell out of me so I ran as fast and as far as I could. I heard about similar instances a few times over the years since but nothing in the last ten or so. The carving is just to throw you off, make you think it’s some devil worshipper or necrophiliac getting himself off on this sort of thing. The dead are very impressionable. Everyone grow up knowing about some form of dark magic thanks to movies and books and when you trap a corpse in a box and put it on display, well, the rest of them start getting the idea that you control them.”
“Any advice on how to track him down?” I was really hoping for some nugget of wisdom, a key to unlock the door and maybe make this whole mess a little easier.
“I came across the doc making a second box when I helped bring the corpse of the hanged man to him,” he said. The memory was written on his face, in his eyes. It was something he’d never be able to unsee no matter how hard he tried. “Unless you stumble upon this guy, you’re going to find a few more of these mystery boxes lying in the woods around town.”
“What was his name?”
“Philip Mangrum.” Eddy spat the name like poison out of his mouth. “He had two daughters: Daphne and Lilith.”
For the second time in a day I felt as if I was going to be sick. The Mangrum sisters were old acquaintances of mine. I’d been an undertaker since I was thirteen years old, an apprentice under my grandfather. I could list on one hand how many lives I’d had to take and Daffy Daphne and Lunatic Lil were at the top of that list. I burned down an entire wing of a hospital to destroy those foul bitches and the evil they’d tried to concoct in their father’s name. I saw their charred corpses limp out of the debris and I’d put a bullet in them both. In a world where the dead walk, I refused to believe in ghosts and I didn’t like the thoughts I was grappling with now. Either someone had decided to pick up their work where they had left off or I was about to have to kill something that had already died twice.
Business had been too good lately and it was late that afternoon when I found out why. The border fence out by the city limits was thirty years old and maintained in large part by the Corps of Engineers. Breaks were common and, thanks to this one, more than a few visitors had found their way into town. Living along the border was like living with a lazy roommate: no matter where you turn there’s always one mess or another to clean up and the place always stinks. Most nights you can still smell them through the fences on the outskirts if the wind is blowing your direction and that godless noise they make echoes with the breeze. The gurgling death rattle is miserable one-on-one but when a few hundred of them start a chorus at the fence it can be a deafening nuisance. Pete and Gladys, my associates and really the only thing close to a family that I had, were taking shifts with me as we tried to contain the steady flood of dead bodies shambling through our quiet town. The sheriff’s office had lent a hand where they could but they were spread as thin as almost everyone else these days.
Even so, we were managing, controlling the symptoms even as the disease was spreading. I’d been out all morning at Possum Branch Farm out by the city limits. Herb Barrett, the owner, had told me he thought there was a crack in the wall. When I arrived, a ten foot section of chain link and concrete had collapsed and he and a dozen hands were fighting off the over flow with pitch forks, axe handles and a single barrel, break action shotgun. A few hours and a lot of bullets later the place looked like the set of a disaster movie. We patched the fence as best we could, I filled out my paperwork and the coroner hauled off as many of the corpses as he could in the first trip. All I wanted was a cigarette, a beer and a shower. All I got was more trouble.
The hearse broke down on me two miles from the funeral home thanks to a box of nails that had flown out of someone’s tool box. Both tires on the driver’s side were flat and all I had was a donut spare with a leaky valve. I called Herb and he agreed to send one of his boys with the rollback they used to haul up stuck farm equipment but he told me it might take a while. I made good use of my time, smoking the last cigarette in a weathered pack of Marlboros before I set to work on the flats. The sun was baking me, not that black coveralls and a hat are airy to begin with but the summer heat was killing me. More and more a beer sounded nice. My shoulders were tense and, having the vivid imagination that I have, it wasn’t too shocking when I imagined a strong pair of hands kneading my aching muscles. Of course every dream has to end and that’s when I noticed the smell. If you’ve ever been around a body that’s been baking in the sun for a few days, you know it. If you haven’t, consider yourself lucky. My stomach churned and sloshed the handful of pretzels and RC that had been my breakfast up towards my throat. They weren’t the warm, inviting sort of hands that said help has arrived. These were more like the hands of something that wanted to bite my face off.
He was wearing a mechanic’s coveralls with a name tag that read Tinker in blue cursive over the left breast. He was fresh… well, fresh in the sense that he had only been dead a day or so. If I’d seen him in passing I’d have never pegged him for a goner, at least not as tired as I was. His teeth were chipped and worn into glistening white razors. Judging by the looks of him, I was going to be his first. Hell of a way to lose a cherry. His teeth scraped along my collar, catching in the Kevlar lining as he tried to take a chunk out of my shoulder. I wriggled free and rolled, inadvertently taking three nails into my thigh. Damned if they hadn’t got me again! It hurt like hell too but I managed to stagger up to my feet and draw my gun as Tink came lumbering up to me. His legs weren’t right. I couldn’t quite place it as he wobbled towards me but there was something just wrong about the way he was walking, even for a cadaver. My first shot went wide and took him in the chest just under his name tag. He stared down at the wound, looked at me and then bared his teeth again. Rule one of successful undertaking: always hit the head! The next one sank in his leg and twisted him up against the hearse still up on jacks on the shoulder of the road. Plastic splintered and fell out of his pants as his prosthetic limb crumbled and sent him rolling under the car. There was a groan, metal on metal this time, as the jack came loose and the car fell on top of his head.
I cringed at the sight.
Very few things have made me sick over the last fifteen years, but I’ll be the first to admit that I almost puked. His legs, well, leg plus shattered stump were still flopping around as the roll back from Possum Branch stopped in front of me. The driver, a kid about nineteen-years-old, got out of the cab, looked at me, looked at Tinker and then puked his lunch up in the middle of the street. After about ten minutes of this he staggered to the opposite side of the truck and stared at me.
“Goin’ my way, stranger,” I asked with a grin.
“How can you joke at a time like this?” The indignant tone in his voice was real and one that I’d all but forgotten over the years. I looked at the hearse and Tinker, now completely still on the side of the road. I looked back at the wrecker driver.
“It’s either joke or ask you what’s for lunch back at the farm. Come to think of it, I’m kinda’ hungry.”
Again, the driver erupted in a shower of spew that last until I was certain he was going to pass out. When he’d composed himself, we hitched up the hearse and pulled it onto the bed of the truck. The site was no prettier than before and led to another round of upheaval from his stomach. The coroner’s van was heading back to collect the rest of the cadavers from Possum Branch and I flagged the driver down. I filled out my papers, handed it all over to the deputy coroners and got behind the wheel of the wrecker as my ‘savior’ was all but unconscious in the passenger seat. On the way back to the farm he turned, lurched I guess is a better description, and looked at me weakly.
“I’d never seen a dead guy up close before today,” he said. “Does this ever get any easier?”
“Depends,” I told him. “What did Misses Barrett fix for lunch?”
After choking down what might have been an epic geyser of what could only be bile and water at this point, he looked straight ahead and said, “Spaghetti and meatballs with jell-o for dessert.”
I laughed. “Then, no, today is pretty well gonna’ suck.” Then, as an afterthought I added, “Breakfast might be better so long as the eggs aren’t scrambled. Speaking of, did you see that guy?”
He rolled down the window and heaved along the gravel road as we rolled up to the house.
Two flat tires, a busted jack, brains on the quarter panel and nails in my leg. With a mess like this, I needed a laugh no matter how cheap it was.
She looked like the devil’s daughter with red hair and eyes so brown they could have been black. Her red lips were curled up in a wicked smile as she continued to jab the knife over and over into my guts. Cackling like the witch she was old Daffy Daphne, the older of the Mangrum sisters pulled the blade out and licked the blood that was dripping off of it. She reached into my wounds and tugged until she was holding my rib cage in the air above her. The blood showered down in a torrent of red and tiny, putrefied hands reached up from the darkness for it.
I fought to get up but I couldn’t move. She was straddling my waist, her knees had barbs that dug into my guts and sank into the bones. The more I struggled, the deeper the hooks went. From behind her, another delicate pair of arms wrapped around her torso and began to wipe up the blood that Daphne had bathed in. Green eyes glowed from the shadows and even though the face was still hidden I knew it was Lunatic Lil, the other half of the gruesome duo I’d put an end to nearly ten years ago.
“Drink up, babies,” Lil said from the darkness to the creatures clawing at my body in her sister’s hands. “There’s more where this came from.”
I woke in a cold sweat, panting, struggling desperately for the kabar knife I kept under my pillow. I was completely alone; intact save for a few moments of my sanity. The alarm clock glowed 3am in fiery red characters from the nightstand. I put the knife away and lit a cigarette in the darkness. It was going to be a long day.