FORTUNATELY, I AM NOT OF A FAINTING DISPOSITION.
--BRAM STOKER, DRACULA
Corky Washburn picked the lint from the corpse's navel and grunted. Never fails, he mused. Show me a dead man's belly button and I'll show you some lint--unless he's an outie, he corrected himself. But then, there weren't many of those anymore; after fifteen years as an autopsy technician, Corky had come to the unshakable conclusion that the majority of people were innies. Definitely more innies than outies. Either way, most of them had something stuck to their navels when they went to meet their Maker.
Corky smiled, then resumed washing the corpse. Ninety-nine people out of a hundred probably didn't know that little tidbit of knowledge, he thought smugly, whereas he knew all kinds of unusual things like that. The gates ofHeaven may be the place where your soul is stripped naked for God to see, he reflected facetiously, but the morgue gets your body--you can't hide anything from Corky Washburn, either. Having a rather morbid nature, he had always considered that one of the job's perks.
After finding himself prematurely discharged from the Army at the tender age of twenty-one, Corky had quickly discovered that jobs were hard to come by in Chicago. Uncle Walter, the Washburn family's professional Democrat, had gotten him one in the morgue at the Cook County Institute of Forensic Medicine. Corky only took it to tide himself over until something better came along. For the last fifteen years, nothing ever had.
To tell the truth, Corky ruminated, the job had turned out to be okay. At first it was kind of weird; handling dead bodies had taken some getting used to. Usually by the time he got them, rigor mortis had already set in; other times he didn't get them until after it had passed, and the bodies were soft and pliable again. Regardless, they'd always felt creepy to the touch, even when he was wearing gloves. It also didn't help that they were always so cold. Common sense told him that was because they were kept in a refrigerated room, but something else--his imagination, maybe--insisted that the cold came from within, from deep inside the dead man's core, independent of room temperature. Still, to tell the truth, he had to admit that the average corpse was no colder to the touch than his exwife's butt on most winter nights. And sometimes not even half as creepy. Eventually he'd gotten over his squeamishness about touching dead bodies. His wife had remained another matter.
Yeah, the job had turned out okay. It was the pay that was lousy; after fifteen years as a city employee, Corky was still barely squeaking by. Looking down at the body on the table, a suicide that had come in that afternoon, he cursed the irony of the situation--the dead woman had been rich, but wished she wasn't, or so the story went. Once again the dayman's words ran through Corky's mind"You know how tough it is being rich, Washburn," he had said sarcastically, "it's such a burden."
"Yeah," Corky said out loud, "I should get the chance at such a burden." He peered into the woman's lifeless blue eyes, then grunted and turned her over. "That's okay," he said as he started washing her bare back, "tonight's Corky Washburn's turn to get a piece of the pie ... ." He leaned over and whispered in the corpse's ear, "And I'll tell you something else, old girl--I won't feel the least bit guilty about it, either." Corky chuckled, then, without thinking, slapped the woman heartily on the back. He winced in pain. Her muscles, still rigid with rigor mortis, were unyielding; Corky's hand felt like he'd just hit a brick.
Ten minutes later the disinfecting was done and the corpse was ready to join the others. Corky tied a tag inscribed with a case and tray number to the woman's big toe, then gave her a quick visual once-over, just to make sure he hadn't missed anything. Satisfied that he hadn't, he strolled over to the large roll of polyethylene sheeting mounted on the wall and pulled off a dark green rectangle with which he draped the body. He'd find a place for it in the stacks later--Lefferts and Jankowski were due in fifteen minutes, and Corky wanted to be ready in case they showed up early.
Forty-five minutes later there was a single knock at the receiving entrance. Already poised by the door, Washburn waited for another knock, just to be sure it was them. When nothing happened, he angrily shook his head and pressed the intercom's button. His voice was tight with barely suppressed anger: "Yeah?" he growled into the speaker.
Corky rolled his eyes. It was Jankowski. Finally.
He stabbed at the button to unlock the door, then angrily flung it open. He was greeted by a blast of winter air and two figures in bulky winter coats. "Where the hell haveyou two been?" he complained. "You're half an hour late!"
"Lefferts forgot the pliers," Jankowski calmly explained as he came inside. "You ever try to buy a pair of decent pliers this late at night? Believe me, it ain't easy. We must've gone to five or six places before we got lucky."
Washburn looked at Lefferts, who only shrugged, nonplussed. "Take it easy, Corky," he said, glancing around. Still, draped forms were stacked five and six high in rows of trays all around the cavernous room. "From the looks of things, these people aren't going anywhere. We've got all night."
"You don't have all night!" Corky shot back. "How many times do I have to tell you? You've got one--maybe two--hours, tops! And that's if you're lucky! Hell, we get fifteen to twenty-five new arrivals every day--you think they all come in between nine and five? I could get a delivery at any moment."
Lefferts was still unruffled. "Calm down, Corky! It was just a little joke. Shit."
Jankowski cut in. "You seem nervous, Corky," he said in a voice that had suddenly lost its cordiality. "You're not having second thoughts, are you?"
"No, I'm not having second thoughts," Corky retorted, immediately defensive. "This was my idea in the first place, remember?"
"Yeah, I remember. But all the same, you look nervous to me."
"Well, I'm not."
"Good! Because it's a little late to be getting cold feet." Jankowski smiled mirthlessly and produced a pair of pliers from a coat pocket. "Besides, I'd hate to think that we went to all that trouble finding these for nothing--"
"You can say that again," Lefferts chimed in.
"--and I think my partner would probably insist on finding a suitable use for them before we leave, just to test them out, if nothing else."
"No doubt about it," Lefferts agreed. "I'd at least have to test them out."
"Wouldn't really matter on who," Jankowski added.
"Not really," Lefferts echoed, staring indifferently at Corky. "Anybody would do."
Now Corky began to get genuinely nervous and he cursed himself for being a fool. It wasn't that he felt any compunction robbing the dead, but he should have known better than to include two cops in the deal; it automatically made him low man on the totem pole. And with these two responsible for fencing the gold, he'd probably be lucky to get even a third of the take, much less the fifty percent they had agreed on.
Still, it was a done deal. And even if he'd had the nerve to welsh on it, he didn't have the connections to turn the gold into cash.
And he certainly didn't want to find out how creative Lefferts could be with a pair of pliers.
"Look," Corky said, trying to reassert some control, "now that you're finally here, let's get started, okay? Maybe this is just another picnic to you two, but it's serious business for me."
"Yeah," Lefferts observed, deliberately ambiguous, "he could lose his job over this."
Jankowski smiled. "Worse than that, he could go to jail."
With what he hoped was a steely gaze, Corky stared first at one cop, then the other. "We could all go to jail," he warned them. Two--or three--could play that game.
The stakes having been upped, each side glared at the other in a silent show of machismo, ready to call it quits or, maybe, to opt for violence. But when Corky realized the whole operation was about to go down the toilet--along with the new car he'd planned on buying--he decided a more conciliatory tack was in order. "Listen," he said, doing his best to sound apologetic, "I'm sorry I was a little uptight. It's just that when you didn't show up on time, I started getting worried." He smiled, then added,"Working around dead people all the time makes you kind of jumpy, if you know what I mean." That was pure bullshit, but he figured it was the kind of excuse they'd buy from someone who worked in a morgue.
He was right. Jankowski smiled at Corky the way he'd smile at an old daft aunt, and said magnanimously, "Forget it."
"And we were only kidding about the pliers," Lefferts added, looking just the smallest bit disappointed. "That's not our style, anyway."
"No," Jankowski chimed in, "not really."
Corky laughed, genuinely relieved. "I never thought it was," he lied. "Well, what do you say we get to work?" The cops nodded, and Corky walked over to a desk on the other side of the room.
He returned with four sets of protective gloves, two for each man. As they put them on, Corky glanced around the huge storage room at the network of stacking trays. Only about a third of the five hundred slots were filled, and many of those were out of reach without using the lift truck. That meant Lefferts and Jankowski would only work the bottom two rows. Even so, there'd be plenty to keep them busy. "I pulled the sheets back on the best ones, so you wouldn't have to waste valuable time looking at all of them," he explained, referring to the corpses. "So if you see a face uncovered, go for it."
"Very efficient," Jankowski, commended him.
"Yeah," Lefferts agreed, "that sounds simple enough."
Jankowski handed the pliers to Lefferts, then withdrew a good-sized leather pouch from one of his coat pockets. "Well, partner, you ready to go to work?" The other cop nodded his assent, and both men sauntered over to the stack Corky remained near the front of the room, intending to keep watch in case he got an unexpected visitor or a delivery.
It wasn't long before he found himself creeping closer to watch Lefferts and Jankowski instead..
Corky had to stifle a laugh as he watched them do theirfirst one. Despite Jankowski's tough-guy veneer, it was painfully obvious that he was having a difficult time working up the nerve to put his fingers in a dead man's mouth. Corky was amused, but he couldn't help but empathize--even after fifteen years, the memory of that first one never left you: the cold, rubbery feel of the lips, the noxious puff of escaping air as they were parted, and the genuine surprise when fingers stuck to tissues that were dry instead of wet.
At long last, Jankowski slid his fingers between the corpse's lips. The policeman shuddered--just barely, but Corky caught it--then slowly pushed his fingers deeper inside. He hesitated once more, then pried the pale lips apart and held the mouth open while Lefferts shone the flashlight's beam inside.
One, two ... three teeth gleamed with shiny gold.
For the space of a long, hesitant breath, neither cop moved as looks of disgust played across their faces. But no sooner was that breath finally relinquished than the look of revulsion vanished with it, replaced just as strongly with jaded greed.
Corky observed it all through narrowed eyes, silently nodding. He knew that feeling, too.
The taboo finally having been broken, Jankowski maneuvered the pliers inside the corpse's mouth and clamped onto the first gold tooth. After resisting the first few determined tugs, it finally came free with a sickening squelch. Jankowski cautiously withdrew the pliers and held the prize high in the light for all to see. Then, with a flourish, he dropped it into the leather pouch at his side. "One down, one hundred to go!"
Lefferts nodded. "Candy from a baby!"
Corky said nothing, but he could almost smell the leather of that new car's interior.
Ten minutes later, the other two prizes had joined the first in the pouch, and it was time to move on. The next one only had one gold tooth. Still, it took every bit of ten minutes. The one after that had two, but it only took halfas much time. By the time they'd reached the fifth body, Jankowski's technique had gotten decidedly more skillful. With no hesitation at all, he'd slip his fingers into the corpse's mouth, pry it open, deftly home in on the gold, and then with a series of quick, sharp twists, extract the tooth and drop in into the pouch.
After an hour's practice, he was poetry in motion.
An hour after that it was time to stop. When all three men looked at the pouch, they were surprised to see that it was three-quarters full.
Jankowski beamed. "Well?"
"You're amazing," Lefferts proclaimed. "A master extractor!"
"You missed your calling," Corky joined in. "You should've been a dentist."
Jankowski patted the bag. "Just a little more and it'll be full. What d'ya say? It wouldn't take me long--I'm on a roll."
Lefferts immediately agreed. "Sounds like an excellent plan to me."
Corky was tempted, but it was already four-thirty; before long the early-morning deliveries would start. "We better not," he said, with real disappointment in his voice. "Too risky; it's getting late."
"How about letting us take a stroll through the safe, then?" Jankowski suggested, pointing to the door of the vault where personal affects were kept until their owner's body was claimed. "It would only take a minute, and it'd be easy pickings." His eyes were almost feverish with greed.
"There's nothing in there you'd want," Corky hedged, anxious to get them out of the building. "It's mostly junk: cheap watches, clothes, eyeglasses. Stuff like that."
"There's got to be more than that," the cop persisted. "You forget we probably delivered half these stiffs ourselves. I've seen some diamonds come in here that were big enough to choke a horse."
"That may be," Corky argued, "but those aren't the onesthat stick around for long. The rich ones come and go pretty quick."
Jankowski looked unconvinced, but before he had a chance to say so, his partner's voice preempted him from across the room. Surrounded by carts bearing that day's late arrivals, Lefferts stood next to the body of the woman Corky had washed just prior to the cop's arrival. "Yeah, well, here's one that hasn't checked out yet," he said excitedly, "and look what she forgot to put in the safe!"
Corky didn't even have to look to know what Lefferts had found; it had almost taken his breath away when he had first seen it a few hours earlier. It was a ring--a garishly big diamond ring that was stuck on one of the corpse's fingers.
Lefferts looked like he'd just discovered buried treasure. "I can't believe somebody didn't pocket this already," he said to Corky. Washburn only grinned. As soon as Lefferts tried to remove the ring, the cop found out why.
Between rigor mortis and the natural pudginess of the woman's fingers, the ring might as well have been glued on. "Even if you manage to budge it from the groove in her finger," Corky said, offering his professional opinion, "you're still not going to get it past the knuckle--it's locked solid. Rigor mortis, my man."
Lefferts kept trying anyway.
Meanwhile, Jankowski was checking out the other new arrivals, hoping to make his own lucrative last-minute find. To Corky's growing consternation, he went from cart to cart, throwing back the sheets to examine the bodies underneath, then moving on, leaving each one uncovered.
At first, Corky could only stare in heartsick disbelief. Never trust a cop to break the law in moderation, he chastised himself; you might as well turn an anxious virgin loose in a bordello and expect him to read. Yet what had he done? Thrown in his lot with not one, but two anxious virgins. He only hoped he could settle them down before it was too late.
He first turned to Lefferts, who was working on thecorpse's ring finger with unflagging determination. "Quit it, you idiot! Just leave it!" he hissed.
Lefferts ignored him and kept on working.
Corky groaned in frustration and stormed across the room to Jankowski instead. The policeman was standing in an almost worshipful pose beside a cart bearing the body of a man in a dark expensive-looking suit. As he drew closer, Corky could see that there were diamonds here, too: a ring, a stickpin, a watch on a gold chain that Jankowski held in his hand. It was odd that such valuables hadn't been removed upon delivery and put in the safe; Corky could only surmise that the body had deliberately been left that way until the M.E. could see it.
Which was all the more reason to leave it alone.
"Come on, Jankowski! We've got enough already!",
The cop paid no attention. Instead he asked, "What's the story on this one?" as Corky came up beside him.
"A maid found him dead in his room at the Mayfair Regent this afternoon," Corky answered impatiently. "Now move it! Get your partner and get out of here before somebody shows up. We're running late!"
Jankowski nodded, but made no move to leave, only stood there holding the watch and staring down at its owner's pale dead face.
Corky clapped a firm hand on Jankowski's shoulder, but before he could nudge him along, Lefferts' voice rang out from behind them. "Enough of this shit!" he fumed, still trying to remove the ring from the corpse's finger. "I'm just going to break her knuckle and get it over with!"
Corky wheeled around and glared at Lefferts. "You do," he warned, "and I'll break all of yours!" Then he turned his attention back to the cop and corpse at hand.
As soon as Corky turned his back, the sound of breaking bone rang through the morgue like a pistol shot--crack!--followed by Lefferts' triumphant cry.
At the exact same instant, the eyes of the corpse in front of him flew open.
Corky blanched. Stepped back. Froze.
Jankowski dropped the watch and did the same--except he forgot to step back.
For a heartbeat, no one said a word, and then the man who was supposed to be dead spoke first. His voice was startlingly clear and strong, a rich unaccented baritone. "Would you mind opening your shirt?" he asked, peering intently into Jankowski's eyes.
If the policeman had looked bewildered before, he seemed doubly so now that the corpse was speaking to him. Still clutching his gold-filled leather pouch, he struggled for a reply, finally answering in a thick voice with a question of his own: "What?"
The man on the cart calmly repeated his request. His voice was at the same time soothing, condescending, commanding--an iron fist in a silken glove. "I said, open your shirt for me ... please!"
After only a moment's hesitation, Jankowski nodded his assent, and even Corky had to admit to himself that the man's request suddenly seemed the most reasonable--and desirable--thing in the world. Yes, he silently urged the policeman, open your shirt for him.
Slowly, as if in a pleasurable daze, Jankowski let the leather pouch slip from his hand and complied as the bag fell to the floor, spilling its contents at his feet. Once his coat was removed, his fingers fumbled with the buttons of his heavy insulated shirt, gradually exposing his smooth, muscled chest, until finally the shirt hung open to the waist. Then, unbidden, he shrugged it off.
The corpse smiled.
The cop smiled back.
And then, with one deft and powerful movement, the man on the cart threw his arm around Jankowski, dragged him down to the cart, and sank two extraordinarily long, pointed teeth through his bare chest, driving them deep into his beating heart. The first spurt of blood was a shock, the second an alarming confirmation. And then, even more horribly, the attacker began to drink from the wound like a thirsty child from a gushing fountain, some of the liquidsplashing his face, most if it managing to find his mouth while the overflow dribbled down his chin.
As if the pain had suddenly snapped his fatal daze, Jankowski fought back, flailing at his attacker with frantic fists. He screamed for his partner and tried to pull away. but like a fish with a hook snagged securely in its mouth, he was caught by the fangs buried deep in his chest, and his efforts to break free of his attacker's hold did absolutely nothing--the arm around his body didn't give an inch. Eventually he stopped struggling and grew frighteningly still. His screams trailed away, and his expression of pain became one of serenity, as if he had embraced his death-in-progress as an irresistible final pleasure.
Moments later, as Corky looked on in wide-eyed disbelief, the policeman shuddered once, twice, then grew deathly still. The man on the cart tossed his pale, dead body aside and stood up, turning to Corky with a crimson smile.
Corky's first thought was that Jankowski couldn't have died in a more appropriate place. The second was far more sobering: unless he regained the use of his legs in the next few seconds, he was surely going to be next.
Unfortunately, his legs refused to move.
Fortunately, Lefferts butted up in line.
As he pushed past Corky, the policeman was grim--a man channelling his shock and rage into the gun at the end of his outstretched arm. Corky braced himself for more violence, more blood, knowing that Lefferts would exact a terrible vengeance.
But by the time the cop stood face-to-face with his partner's killer, something had gone obviously, terribly wrong. Looking more like a supplicant than a crazed avenger, he held out the gun as if it were a gift, not a weapon. And his face bore the same otherworldly expression Jankowski's had borne, as if he had suddenly forgotten his shock and rage, and was listening instead to the pleasant murmurings of some interior voice.
Before long the gun lay on the cart, discarded, and thepoliceman was kneeling as the tall deadly stranger towered imperiously over him. Incredibly, as Corky watched from a few feet away, Lefferts bared his wrist and demurely offered it. The stranger smiled--the same alluring but deadly smile he'd shown just moments before--then hungrily brought the arm up to his bloody lips. Fangs flashed, sank easily into the exposed, throbbing veins, and the vampire--for Corky could no longer deny that he was anything else--opened his mouth wide and drank the blood.
The worst part about it was that he stared at Corky the entire time.
Oh, shit. Corky reflexively scanned the room, wondering which of the berths would be his tomorrow.
For there was no longer any question of escape--not only couldn't he move, but before long he couldn't even pull his eyes away; they seemed to be drawn in a tight, straight line to those of the vampire. All he could do was watch, and wait his turn ... which came a few minutes later, when Lefferts' body slumped to the floor, empty and dead.
Wiping the blood from his chin with a red silk handkerchief pulled from his breast pocket, the vampire stepped past the bodies to where Corky stood. Soon they were face-to-face, mere inches apart. Nothing was said, but the air between them crackled with the promise of danger, the probability of death. As Corky looked into the vampire's disconcerting eyes, he knew that he was perilously close to both.
For an agonizingly long time nothing happened, and Corky felt like a man waiting face-up in a guillotine: every second was a heart attack.
But after a while, he sensed a change--indistinct, subtle, finally palpable--in the vampire's attention. The inky black pupils of his eyes no longer played out scenes of death--Jankowski's, Lefferts', Corky's--but grew unfocused as they seemed to acquire depth. Unable to resist, Corky felt himself drawn deep inside.
A glamorous panorama of luxury and excess played out all around him.
Gold and diamonds.
Sports cars, limos.
To his utter amazement, Corky realized that he was being offered a choice: a slow, excruciatingly painful death, or a fantasy life that had always been beyond his means. The temptation was immediately as overwhelming as the fear of dying had been. It was an offer only a fool would refuse.
As if his reaction somehow had been sensed, the panorama immediately shifted from the material to the temporal. Momentary slices of time paraded past him in a seemingly chronological sequence, temporal snapshots on parade. Usually in different places, always in different times, each scene nonetheless had a single common denominator--a tall aristocratic man with a mane of raven hair and piercing violet eyes. Intuitively, Corky understood the message: this creature had lived for hundreds of years, and would undoubtedly live for hundreds more.
If immortality were part of the offer, Corky most definitely wanted that, too. And if it wasn't, he resolved without hesitation, he'd do whatever was required to earn it.
Abruptly, the visions ended and he was again conscious of familiar surroundings. He could sense that he was free to move, but chose only to kneel. He was free to speak, but didn't. A moment later, the vampire did.
"This city is new to me," he began, almost offhandedly. "I have need of someone who knows it well; someone"--he said, gesturing to the cart where he had recently lain--"to make sure this doesn't happen to me again." For an instant his eyes blazed with a formidable fury, and when he spoke again, Although he smiled, there was no mistaking the inherent warning in his words: "I have every confidence you'll make sure that it doesn't."
Corky nodded, but found no voice to reply.
"Very good," his new employer responded; the matter was closed. He looked at the clock, frowned, then glanced at the bodies of Jankowski and Lefferts. He turned back to Corky and issued his first set of orders, rapid-fire:
"Stay here and deal with the authorities--I'm sure you're capable of concocting a story that will satisfy them and exonerate you at the same time.
"Tomorrow, give your notice--no one will think it unusual after tonight.
"As soon as the police no longer suspect you--and not a moment before--go to this address," he said, naming an office building on Michigan Avenue. "Tell them you were sent by Mr. Kane. Nathan Kane. You'll be expected."
Kane looked down at Corky. "Is everything clear?"
Corky started to reply, then lost the nerve.
"Well?" Kane demanded. He reached down and easily lifted Corky to his feet. As his long manicured fingers lovingly stroked the spot over Corky's hammering heart, his lips parted, showing ready fangs. "Do you understand?" he asked once more, leaning closer.
And Corky Washburn, keenly aware that he was the last survivor in a room full of dead men, finally found his voice. Trembling with fear and overwhelming awe, he looked into the vampire's eyes, whispered, "Yes, Master," and then burst into tears as Kane smiled and walked away.