The Resurrection Men
It was a beautiful service. As expected, for I spared no expense. To honor her in death as I did in life, or so I told my father in law when we organized it together. Truthfully, a desperate reflex. As though if I spent enough, I could bring her back.
During the somber procession to her grave, I noticed many of the upper class graves were covered by wrought iron cages. Not to keep vengeful revenants from escaping, as I’d thought when I was small.
Rather, a precaution against those basest of scoundrels who might dig up the dead to rob them of any jewelry, fine raiments or other valuables they were buried with. It is also a poorly kept secret that many cadavers used by medical schools are obtained this way.
Resurrection men, in the common parlance. Grave robbers. The most audacious of which are why the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, and the pyramids themselves for that matter, are a pale shadow of their former glory. There’s some poetry to it, however. Every breath drawn by the living is in some sense stolen from the dead they’ve replaced.
All graves but those of the poorest also feature an air tube, capped at the top by a small deflector to keep rain out, and a bell. The bell could be rung by someone accidentally buried alive by tugging a string which trails from the bell, down the air pipe and into the coffin.
A non-trivial added cost. Much less than the cages, but today I could understand at last why they are so common. Apart from the alarming frequency with which death is wrongly diagnosed these days on account of the immature state of life sciences, grieving families must cling to any remote hope that their loved one is among those who may yet ring that bell.
I vaguely recall a tale from my youth, told breathlessly to a small group of us by the ringleader of a midnight excursion to the local graveyard. The sort of frivolous, and in retrospect dangerous adventure any proper boy’s childhood is replete with. The tale goes that one evening, a gravekeeper heard one of the small bells ringing and dashed to that grave, that he might calm down the poor soul trapped below while arranging to have them brought up.
Only, when a woman’s voice echoed up the air pipe begging to be exhumed, the gravekeeper rebuked her. “Madame”, he supposedly said, “The papers for this grave say you were buried in January. It is now April. I do not know what you are, but alive you are not, and I shan’t dig you up.” With that, he disconnected the string from the bell, and was done with the matter.
It’s a shame that it took such a tragedy to collect us all in one place. All those assurances that we’d gather for a grand dinner this year, or the next, or the next. Like so many plans put off ‘til the morrow, it never occurred. Like the plans I made with Annika.
When the casket was open, I could not bear to look. However I might’ve wanted to savor her perfect, pale skin one last time, I resolved soon after she died never to look upon her remains. So as to remember only the living, ravishing, delicate beauty I met that adventurous Summer after the close of the war.
Having picked up a taste for motoring during my service, I’d purchased a motorbike with which I decided to tour the English countryside. Petrol shortages led the fellow I bought it from to build a great ungainly wood gas mechanism into the sidecar, which I first thought to remove as it was a blemish on an otherwise beautiful machine.
However, petrol stations are still rare, especially so as you get away from cities. Accordingly, I did not tamper with it after all. It soon proved its worth, as I could periodically stop along some wooded region, chop down some saplings, convert them to pellets in the span of an hour, then be back on the road for another hundred miles or so before having to repeat the process.
It was during one of these stops, as I roasted a rabbit I’d shot and skinned over a campfire while reducing yet another sapling to pellets, that I first encountered Annika. Ghostly maiden of the woods, I thought. A tantalizing mirage. She fit so perfectly into the natural beauty surrounding her, I could hardly conceive that she was a real woman, but some feminine manifestation of Summer.
Those who knew her would forgive me. In many ways, I was right. She so loved God’s creatures, and it only enriched my love for her. I recall her first words to me were angry Russian, shouted from a distance as she approached. Soon clarified in English as “You are on private property. By what right do you cut down our trees?”
Her ancestral town had the misfortune to be devastated by the war. Many survived, working the fields outside the town when the bombs fell. There was just nothing to rebuild. So they went their separate ways, seeking their fortunes elsewhere. As fate would have it, Annika’s family resettled in England.
I must’ve made quite a picture. Hair wild from the wind, as I was never one to wear a motorist’s helmet. What’s the point of such a contraption except to feel the wind whipping your hair about as you thunder down the road? Oil stains all up and down my shirt and trousers. Not thinking, I pawed at my face, to wipe some of the sweat away. All I accomplished was to smear it with oil. It was the first time I heard the sublime music of her laughter.
For an unaccompanied young woman to go motoring with a man she’s only just met, sans escort, would be unthinkable. Had she been English. Our courtship was handily expedited by her peasant background, and her family’s discovery that I stood to inherit my father’s industrial empire. That some of his factories make munitions seems to disturb only me.
“Go! Be young!” Her stout, muscular mother urged us. After a long, and at times subtly threatening discussion concerning when I was to return her, and in what condition. So, we went. And we were young. Still the highest point of my life, never more clear than when viewed from the lowest.
The motorbike is not yet commonplace enough that musicians should write songs glorifying the experience of tearing down a country road with a beautiful woman on the back, clinging to you. Hands wandering about your chest and stomach, under the pretext of securing a safer hold. Stops now chosen not just for the preponderance of trees, but picturesque views against which to admire Annika.
I thought I’d exhausted my tears the day I learned of her death. Drowned in a waterway when a bridge collapsed under her motor carriage. Of all the damnable things. She’d never learned to swim, understandably. That set me to agonizing over whether I could have saved her, had I only thought to take her swimming now and again. Or if I’d accompanied her that day.
A bystander was quick to retrieve her, but not quick enough. I met with the man once, only to assure him I placed no blame on his shoulders. I returned to drinking for a time. Not for too long, I am more disciplined than that. But I could scarcely function if sober. My limbs would not answer commands to move me from the bedroom to the kitchen, that I might eat. I did not bathe, nor read mail, nor leave the house.
Death is not felt discretely when that person is dearly beloved. By all who know her, not just myself. Ripples of grief spread out from the event, her poor mother wanting no part of a world without Annika living in it. A sentiment I deeply understand. Every day which passed after that felt wrong. As if I was being carried by the merciless currents of time into a future I refused to inhabit. “Until death do us part”, I once said. Taking for granted that we’d both go at once.
The usual words are spoken by the man of God. That she is with the heavenly father now. That what he gives to us is also his to take, and that it is not ours to understand why. Can this really be meant to comfort? What cosmic plan requires that my wife drown due to a collapsed bridge? My insides writhe for the remainder of his speech, but I remain silent.
The casket is lowered, ever so slowly, into the grave. The cold, wet Earth swallowing up the only source of warmth and beauty in this world, so far as my heart will acknowledge. A young man hops gingerly into the grave, to check the bell mechanism. All present know it is a futile gesture. He lingers, fiddling with some unseen task, then climbs out.
“All great works of literature written in the Queen’s tongue consist of just twenty six letters. Sufficient, even so, to capture the greatest heights of beauty and the darkest depths of human despair. But I defy the masters of that craft to capture the smallest fragment of my sorrow today. For me, the world burned on the day I learned of my darling’s….”
I choked up. Some part of me still refused to say aloud that she was gone. I scanned the faces of those present. All but the children shared in my pain. Blessed, enviable children, who do not yet know what death is. I composed myself, as much as I could in such a state.
“Annika, likewise, eludes satisfactory description. One of the great beauties of our time. Gentleness beyond compare, an angel’s constitution. To say that she was the combined light of every heavenly body, every star in the sky, every stunning sunrise over the now desolate, frozen landscape of my life does not begin to convey it. Though the future is known only to God, I vouchsafe that I will not remarry, as there is not in all the world another woman who compares. My lone sustaining hope is that there is a world after this one in which we might be reunited.”
I lingered after the ceremony. All present meeting with me one by one to say their piece. I sincerely found scraps of healing in it, and told them so. The still living who knew her in life vowing not to let our shared memories of her fade. Last of them was a baron known to my father, whose own wife was one of those falsely believed dead, saved only by the little bell above her grave. Lucky him, I bitterly thought.
His wife, who’d accompanied him to the funeral, appeared lily white to the point that I imagined I could see through her skin. Symmetrical, doll like features shielded from what little sun broke through the cloud cover by a veil and frilly black parasol.
The baron, a great mountainous beast of a man, offered his heartfelt condolences. As well as a business card. I inquired about it but was hushed, and told to call the number on the back as soon as I returned home.
What a queer thing to do at a funeral. I assumed I would find it was well intentioned when I called. Perhaps someone who specializes in memorializing the deceased. I thanked him for his kind words, pocketed the card and headed home. The gravity of the day crushed, again, my will to resist the bottle and I soon resigned myself to a long night of drinking.
In this piteous stupor, I remembered the card. Stumbling to the coatrack I fished it out of my jacket pocket and studied it more closely, even as the sharp black print swam around on the paper in defiance of my efforts to read it. “Beady and Scholls Resurrection Services”. The address, surprisingly, was directly adjacent to the graveyard I’d just returned from.
I wondered at the name. A metaphor of some kind, but it wasn’t clear what for. I don’t recall when I passed out, only that it was in the livingroom, for that’s where I next regained consciousness. A loud rapping at the door pierced my skull with every impact. I cringed at the thought of appearing before some door to door salesman, a man of my stature, afflicted with such a hangover.
Instead, it was my sister. Accompanied by a lovely young thing in a sky blue dress and floppy sun hat. “My dear sister”, I stammered. “Whatever can you want so early in the morning?” She looked disturbed. “It’s four in the afternoon, Charles. Goodness, don’t tell me you’ve taken up drinking again.” I glared. Her face softened somewhat, presumably recalling why it is she’d found me like this.
The girl with her glanced around nervously, most likely unsure of whether she was wanted. I invited them both in. Shortly, my sister introduced me to the visitor. Beverly Wainsborough. I dimly remembered meeting her at a charitable gala.
Pretty enough, with long brown curls falling down either side of her face, a petite upturned nose and high, narrow cheekbones. I silently scolded myself for looking appreciatively on the features of some strange woman, just a day after Annika was given over to the worms.
This private shame erupted into rage when my sister clarified the purpose of her visit. I am not a hateful man, and under better conditions not the least bit unstable. But despite myself, when it became clear that my sister meant to set me up with this stranger not more than twenty four hours after Annika’s funeral, all restraint evaporated.
“OUT! BOTH OF YOU!” I bellowed, nostrils flared. “You’ll not mend my heart so easily as foisting some new woman on me, the very day after my wife was laid to rest! The bed not yet cold, her wardrobe still full! That you would dare try this nauseates me! Get from this house and bring nobody after this!”
I knew I’d pay for it later. And really, I’d reacted too strongly to what I knew in my heart was a well intentioned gesture. Yet I could not bear what she’d done. For a woman to have so little understanding of the ways of the heart astonishes me, but is not unprecedented for my sister, who because of that quality remains unmarried.
She must’ve meant for me to spend the day getting to know poor Beverly, who I expected would have some choice words about me for her family and friends. I resolved to smooth it over sometime soon. Should her family still be as influential as I recall, I might’ve put my foot in it by turning her away so rudely.
Yet, I now found myself with the day freed up. The hangover still beating at my brow from the inside, I judiciously shelved my liquor and instead rang the number on the business card. The recollection was so vague I wondered if the card had said something more mundane.
“Hello? Re….Resurrection...services?” I mumbled, not anticipating how difficult it would be to hold a conversation in this state. “Indeed! First things first. Who referred you?” I fed the voice on the other end the baron’s last name and the nature of my family’s connections with his. “Very good. When can you stop by our offices? It’s best to get things moving as soon after death as possible, for freshness.”
I raised an eyebrow. As soon as Annika’s death made the paper, being that I am a man of wealth I was approached by all manner of hucksters peddling “electric spirit-phones”, seances, and other purported means of speaking with the dead. I worried this was something along those lines. Sensing this, the man assured me they dealt not in the supernatural but in cutting edge medical technologies known only to those with the means to pay for them.
“What use are medical technologies to the dead?” I asked rhetorically, mostly just thinking out loud. “The line between life and death is ever changing, dear fellow. That mysterious threshold driven ever backwards by advances in our understanding of what forces animate the human figure, why they cease, and how to replenish them. But if you find all of that too dubious, simply come to our offices. I’ve arranged for a small demonstration.”
Sickness. To prey on the hopes of a man who has lost the great love of his life. But they must count on that nagging splinter of doubt which I found tugging at the back of my mind to budge potential customers. It did the trick. Before long I found myself motoring back to the graveyard, those cages and bells still fresh in memory.
I’d paid handsomely for Annika’s little Baker electric carriage to be fished out of the water, repaired and reupholstered. Everything she’d ever touched was to remain immaculate, for however long I could keep it that way. I’d finally found the limits of my desperation when, upon noticing one of her recent footprints in the garden, I considered making a plaster impression of it.
The little buggy is somewhat embarrassing to drive. The primary market for electrics these days is women, and it shows. The cockpit is like a little sitting room, comfortable plush seating all around, small ornate electric lanterns completing the feel of piloting an unusually cramped tea house down the road at a modest twenty miles per hour. It still smells of her perfume.
What would I find there? What could I possibly find? Some ruse to tug at the wreckage of my heart, sucking the money from my bank account like hungry little ticks. How the vultures eagerly circle when the wife of a wealthy man passes away. Yet I drove onward, soon arriving at the squat two story brick building across the street from the cemetery.
“Welcome! I expected you sooner. Traffic?” He glanced over my shoulder at the Baker electric. “Nevermind. Come in! Let me take your coat.” He introduced himself as Roderick Beady, one half of the titular Beady and Scholls. My inquiry as to where the other half was hadn’t fully escaped my lips before the fat bearded fellow entered the room.
The two made a comical sight. Scholls portly to the point of hanging over his belt, Beady every bit as stickly thin as his name would lead a stranger to visualize. It’s satisfying when a name fits somebody so well. With the three of us seated, Beady began his spiel.
A brief history of the company, the basis in mythology for humans returning from the dead, that sort of thing. “Did you know the pyramids were intended as sun powered resurrection machines, to cast the spirits of dead pharaohs into the sky?” a song and dance I knew to anticipate.
“You said something about a demonstration.” His eyes lit up. “Oh yes! Just a moment.” He scampered off like an excitable little goblin and returned with a dead frog on a plate. I groaned. Did he take me for some sort of rube? Voltaire’s experiments with using electricity to momentarily animate the muscles of frogs are known to every schoolboy.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was based on early misunderstandings of those experiments, as some mistook them for proof that electricity is some sort of life force. Vital principle. Prana, or Qi, as the Orientals refer to it. But, he produced no battery or wires. Instead, with a grunt, he heaved an odd looking contraption up onto the desk from the space under it.
“This was our original prototype” he offered. As he plugged it into the wall, confirming electricity still played some part, I again wondered if it wouldn’t be smoke and mirrors. A rudimentary deception to exploit men with more money than brains. “Just a few more treatments are needed”, I imagined them promising their gullible patron, before disappearing soon after with the advance deposit.
He opened a hatch in the top of a glass cylinder filled with what looked to be saline solution. Depositing the limp frog into the fluid, he shut the hatch, made airtight by means of a rubber seal around the rim. Then, satisfied that he’d captured my attention, he flipped a switch. A pump rattled to life and as I looked on, a cloudy black fluid issued forth into the cylinder, billowing outward as it mixed with the salt water.
Once fully saturated, the water appeared hazy and fog-like. I could just make out the form of the frog, floating motionless inside. Beady toggled a second switch. A loud hum sounded, and brilliant blue arcs of electricity spread through the liquid, sending the frog into violent spasms.
As I thought. The trivial application of current, to give the appearance of life to a dead animal. Before I could ask that they spare me any further insult to my intelligence, Beady turned off the current. Yet, the frog continued moving. Thrashing about frantically within the cylinder as if in need of air. I blinked in disbelief.
“I can imagine what you must’ve thought when you read our card. We encounter a great many skeptics. But the demonstration never fails to make believers out of them.” He opened the hatch, and seized the still frantic animal from inside.
It croaked loudly several times before settling down. “They’re frightfully strong when freshly reanimated. The glass has to be very thick or they’d smash through it. That initial buzz will taper off in time. Of course, without regular injections it eventually de-animates.”
Injections? Scholls produced a leather case from within his vest. Inside, a neat row of syringes, all filled with the same thick black fluid I’d seen enter the cylinder. I demanded to know what was in them.
“Oh come now. As a man with a background in business, surely you know that we cannot freely share our proprietary formula. As of yet, we have no competitors, and I’d like to keep it that way.” He flashed me a knowing grin. I did not reciprocate.
“I can tell you it’s adulterated somewhat, with additives that help keep the revived organism in good condition” he offered. “Preservatives mainly, of the sort commonly used for embalming.” I balked. “Poisons! Surely they would only return one to the grave if ingested?” He laughed.
“There is much about the physiology of a resurrected creature that defies conventional understanding. They have no need to breathe, but do so out of reflex. No need or ability to digest victuals. Their hearts do not beat unless electrically induced, for which we include a small device. It’s necessary to maintain bloodflow for a minute or so, in order to circulate the injected materials throughout the body.”
My stomach began to churn. A feeling familiar to me as instinctive warning of unseen danger. As yet I did not believe anything except that they had resuscitated a frog. Perhaps one they’d put into a deep sleep by refrigeration, making a big show of startling it back to wakefulness? Yet, the splinter in my mind only grew stronger. I now dared to hope. However foolish, however certain my disappointment.
So it was that I descended with them into the building’s basement where I found a subterranean tunnel, with a small electric tram positioned as if to enter it. “All aboard the grave-y train! Do you get it? A little levity helps in this line of work.”
Why he imagined I would laugh under such conditions is a mystery to me. I piled into one of the precarious steel carts. As he twisted a knob, I heard the electrical whine of a motor under load, and we began to move.
I experienced my first pangs of hesitation as the train entered the tunnel. Had I done the right thing in coming here? Might they be abducting me with the intent of seeking ransom from my father? But as the little train trundled noisily down the damp, pitch black corridor, I pictured Annika ahead. The light at the end of the tunnel. The impossible possibility which drew me here. I had to know.
We came out into an astonishingly vast underground warehouse of sorts, with “Gravestation 001” stenciled in letters twenty feet high along the far wall. I held my nose as the stench hit me. The source of it soon became apparent as the train passed by heaps of waxy embalmed corpses. “What is this unholy place” I muttered, wondering again what I’d gotten myself into.
“Now now”, Mr. Beady admonished, “Your family fortune was made by filling countless graves. Can you blame us for emptying a few? Besides, did not Lazarus rise from the dead by God’s will? Did not Christ also rise from the grave, that we might all have eternal life? Does it particularly matter how we accomplish that? I say it doesn’t.” He harrumphed, stopped the train and hopped off. Scholls followed, his considerable mass tipping the little train as he climbed out.
A great grid of tracks stretched out across the floor of the facility. Along it, a sort of bi-directional motorized carriage scooted along, with what looked to be a hydraulic elevator mounted to it. As it raised the platform to one of countless sliding hatches in the ceiling, receiving a casket from it as it opened, I realized we were standing directly beneath the cemetery. Long transparent rubber tubing ran up the walls, connecting to a spigot beneath each grave.
“Do you mean to tell me….!” I exclaimed. He nodded, plainly proud of his handiwork. “Every grave is individually addressable. The caskets removed from below, with no visible disturbance above. Really diminishes the danger of our work. In the old days we’d slink out there under cover of dark with shovels, looking like common criminals. Too many close calls. When I found out that the remains of an abandoned tube station lay beneath the cemetery, I hatched a plan to excavate from there, which eventually resulted in what you see before you.”
What exactly was I looking at, though? Industrialized grave robbing. Under everyone’s noses, the remains of their dearly departed extracted from what was to be their final resting place by this bizarre little man and his burly counterpart. “For...what...possible reason?” I managed. Still dazed, I was herded towards the centerpiece of the installation, a scaled up version of the little machine he’d demonstrated for me in their office.
Five cylinders rather than one. “Business is booming. Had to increase throughput. More than enough to pay off various coroners, though.” It dawned on me that the rash of mistaken burials were a cover story. He confirmed it. “You’re far from the first to avail yourself of our services, young man. A great many men and women in the city above us, attending galas, taking tea with friends, sitting even now in theatres and even parliament, are-”
“No. It can’t be...” I cut in. He slowly nodded, not breaking eye contact. “Of course, they’re sworn to secrecy. As are you from this point on. No paperwork necessary. If we get away with all of this undiscovered, I’m sure you realize how easily we could dispense with you. Even with your connections, there are enough powerful people who depend on our outfit to keep them supplied with injections that they’d gladly throw you under the bus if you tried to go public with any of this.”
I assured them I had no such intentions. As yet I couldn’t really say what I intended to do except gawk at the disturbing spectacle around me. The gentle throb of a nearby generator intensified. One of the glass cylinders, the fluid inside the same hazy black as I recalled from the model, now pulsated with current. Resembling a storm cloud, arcs of lightning leaping from one part of it to the other.
Then the throb died down and the arcs vanished. Below the cylinder, a sort of silicone sphincter bulged. As I watched in morbid fascination, it birthed a nude man coated head to toe in the filthy black slime. He gasped for air as Beady and Scholls rushed to wrap him in a blanket. “How do you feel? Do you remember your name?” He struggled for a time to orient himself, then after that to form words. But soon he was able to answer their questions.
He looked no older than twenty. Athletic physique, pale as the moon. “The paramour of a certain lady of high standing. It is not our place to judge, of course.” He winked as Scholls lifted the quivering young man onto a gurney and wheeled him towards a small but well equipped lab at the edge of the great warehouse.
“What happens to him now?” I pried. Now secure that I did not intend to share any of it, he was more candid than before. “A warm bath. Any open wounds stitched shut. They will never heal of course, but can be handily concealed with cosmetics. She’ll be around to collect him after we’re done with you. Once a month, providing payments continue, we’ll send her a set of five injections. What’s needed for the coming month plus a small reserve for emergencies.”
I again inquired as to where it comes from. He became mildly irate. “It is not your concern where it comes from. Do you realize what we can do for you? Would you really look this particular gift horse in the mouth?” I thought of Annika, and bit my tongue. They led me to the motorized hydraulic lifter which was now busy retrieving a new casket. As it descended into view, I gasped in recognition.
Only yesterday I’d watched the same casket descend into the Earth. Never imagining it would descend further. Never imagining I would glimpse it ever again. I trembled, envisioning her cold, lifeless body inside. I still did not want to see it. Sensing this, Beady spoke up. “You don’t have to watch. There’s a waiting room by the lab.” But, could I come this far and still look away during the crucial moment? I felt as if I had to see it with my own eyes to believe.
Several times I began to object as they undressed her. “That’s my wife”, I might’ve said. Was my wife. Still, I dared to hope. It only continued to grow, refusing every effort to tame it. Could I believe? Was it safe? Having reinforced my heart for a lifetime of solitary misery, was it truly possible that I might walk out of here with Annika beside me?
Scarcely breathing, I stared, enraptured, as they dumped her into the cylinder. She flailed aimlessly, sinking to the bottom before the slight buoyancy afforded by gases which accumulate during decomposition propped her somewhat upright. The intense vulgarity of it, to do such things with a corpse. Yet, if I could believe it, soon it would no longer be one.
Beady slid a throttle gently upward. A jet of the black fluid blasted forth into the chamber, soon achieving the desired mixture. Amidst it, I could see her hair gently swaying in the fluid like seaweed in a current. Still, I dared to hope. So strongly now that I wanted to shout. To tear at my clothing, at my hair. On the verge of losing my mind. Could it be? Could I believe it?
Beady toggled a switch. I felt the small hairs on my body stand on end as some unseen electrical field radiating from the chamber engulfed us. Muffled pops signalled electrical arcs within the chamber, the same rapid blue flashes as before. Then, suddenly, confirmation. Of what I both dreaded, and desperately wished for. She began to move.
Sluggish at first but then suddenly violent. Thrashing about in a panic. “She won’t drown, will she?” I cried out. “You said they can’t drown!” Scholls put a hand on my shoulder to steady me. “Settle down, it’s nearly finished.” The silicone orifice dilated as Annika, coated in a thin film of oily residue, slipped through it. At once, I was beside her.
“Don’t touch her just yet”. I had in fact meant to shake her, but obeyed the instruction lest I somehow disrupt the procedure. She clumsily struck at empty air, kicked, and gasped like a fish out of water. Then slowly, she grew docile, and her eyelids began to flutter.
The hope building within me until now reached its climax as, in defiance of everything I knew to be impossible until today, her eyes opened. The pupils constricted, she squinted on account of the bright lights overhead. Then looked at me.
“...Charles?” I burst into tears. There was no controlling it. I fell to my knees beside her, holding her cold, frail hands in mine. “Why am I so cold?” she weakly inquired. Scholls and Beady gently helped me to my feet and set about wheeling her off to the lab, with myself in close pursuit. I insisted that I be the one to bathe her. They produced a fresh set of clothing. “Best that she not leave here in the gown she was buried in”, Scholls cautioned. I could see the wisdom in that.
She fell silent on the trip back to the office. No doubt finding her surroundings as strange as I did on the way in. I was content simply to hold her close to me, warming her body with mine. Marveling at how taking a chance on that business card had restored my life, my heart, and my reason to continue in this world.
As we departed, Beady assured me he would handle the official side of things. The coroner who’d originally pronounced Annika dead would publically reverse himself, attributing the diagnosis to the nascent state of science where death is concerned. After which I knew a great many people would be eager to confirm it for themselves.
For her part, Annika seemed surprised. And troubled. I could feel nothing but elation to be sitting across from her as I drove home. “It was quite a lot of trouble to get this heap running again after they pulled it out of the drink”, I quipped. “Motor, wiring, batteries, the whole lot needed replacement. But it’s your favorite. I knew you’d want-”
She finally spoke. “Charles, how did I get here? I remember now. The bridge collapsed. I couldn’t get out of the car. Gulped down water, and blacked out. Am I dead?” It took the wind out of my sails, but I quickly recovered. “Not anymore.” It just confused her. “What was that place, Charles? I saw bodies.” I didn’t have an easy answer for that which I thought would satisfy her. So I told her the truth. Most of it.
“You were believed dead. But death is still poorly understood. There are men who, by remarkable technology, can pull the apparently deceased back from the brink. For a steep price.” Still, she looked unsettled. As if struggling to remember something.
“Annika, put all of that out of your mind. What’s important is that you’ve come back to me. All I’ve thought about since the accident was the Summer that we met. The happiest time of my life. When I thought I’d lost you, winter took hold. That was to be the rest of my life. Wandering the barren wastes alone, in freezing darkness until at last my body gave up the fight. To see your beautiful face is as though the clouds have parted, the sun has emerged, all the snow and ice melting to make way for Summer’s return.”
Faintly, she smiled. As I relished it, I became aware of the weight of a leather case jostling about in my jacket. Five full syringes. I insisted she get some rest when we arrived at my estate, against her protestation that she felt fine. I spent the rest of the evening making calls. Her mother and father would be the first to visit.
The depth of their anguish quite possibly exceeded my own following the accident. So, as expected, their euphoria upon learning she was alive bordered on the explosive. I almost couldn’t stop them from visiting that night. After she spoke with them at length on the phone, they agreed to delay their visit until the following day. Also the first day I would administer an injection.
It was a frustrating affair. She didn’t understand the necessity of it and simply wanted breakfast. When she gets hungry there’s no reasoning with her. But no sooner had she chewed and swallowed the muffin than it came right back up. I held her hair as she emptied her stomach into the toilet. “What’s wrong with me?” she whined.
Thereafter it was easier to convince Annika that the syringes were necessary. I told her it was medicine, relating to the treatment which revived her the day before. She’s never liked needles and had to scrunch her eyes shut as I did it. Then came the heart stimulation. The little wand plugged easily enough into the outlet and, upon pressing the trigger, emitted a satisfying electrical crackle.
“That’s really going too far” she whimpered. But I insisted the injections would do her no good otherwise. So, she rolled up her nightgown and laid back, small conical breasts exposed, as I searched for a heartbeat. Of course I didn’t find one, and felt foolish for a moment, having forgotten such a detail. Instead I felt for my own to get an idea of where to place the wand electrodes on Annika.
Once in place, I pressed the trigger and held it. The instructions said to maintain current for a little over one minute, in order to ensure at least a single full circulation through the vascular system. I held it for two, just for good measure. I studied her face waiting for some color to return. Of course it never did, but she soon proclaimed that her hunger and nausea had vanished.
“I feel wonderful! Whatever it is they gave you, it really does the trick.” She threw her arms around me. For a time I sat there, deep relief coursing through me. Happy simply to be holding my wife again, even though she was still distressingly cold. When her mother and father arrived by cab I insisted on paying their travel expenses. Both wept openly the moment they saw her emerge from the house, dress flowing behind her in the wind.
I could understand none of it. A solid ten minutes or more of incomprehensible Russian blubbering as the two took turns embracing her, touching her face and otherwise convincing themselves that she’d truly returned to the land of the living.
“It was this one!” her father proudly thundered, throwing one arm around me and clasping my back with the other. “You never gave up on our little girl. To the last. No doubt, you pay for finest medical treatment. Fool doctor still confuses her for death, but I can only sing of my happiness that she is return. A miracle from God.”
No sense disputing any of it. If they were willing to accept it so easily, I was content to let them, without providing any of the discomforting details. I sensed Annika wanted to tell them, and resolved to keep an eye on her in order to prevent it.
They spent all day with us, simply eager to be around Annika. To laugh with her, to take tea, gushing with relief that the Lord in his infinite mercy had seen fit to restore their daughter. All the while I tensely watched, wondering.
“I do not think it was a miracle”, she started. The two appeared confused. Before she could go on, I interjected. “What she means is, there are many matters of physiology not yet understood. We should not be hasty to proclaim something supernatural has transpired. The Vatican, after all, has its own process for determining that. We must not presume to know better. Nor am I in any hurry to rock the boat by publishing such astonishing claims. And really, is it ours to ask why? I think not, let us simply be thankful.”
Both considered it, then nodded sternly. Annika stared at me with visible irritation. When her parents finally headed off, we got to arguing about how much even our immediate families should be told about the circumstances of her return. “You didn’t tell me everything. I know it now. If it was as you said, you’d not have hesitated to tell them. What really happened? What is it you injected me with? I’ll know if you’re lying.”
As difficult as ever to hide anything from her. She knows me too well. So at last, I told her the whole story. All the while she sat opposite me on the couch, eyes wide, hands over her mouth. “Come”, I urged, “surely I did the right thing? Was I really to turn them down? You’ve been given a new life.” She slowly turned to stare at me, eyes still wide and now beginning to tremble. “But I’m not alive, Charles. Am I.”
I searched for some way to disagree but found nothing. The more she discovered, the more difficult it was to talk about it in delicate terms. She fought my every effort to pretend it was something other than what it was. “I’m...an animated corpse. How did you do this? No, you couldn’t. It was those men, wasn’t it?” she continued to interrogate me, slowly growing more upset as the picture became clear to her.
“I’m not supposed to be here, Charles. What have you done? I’m so cold. I shouldn’t be here. I’m dead. I belong in the ground. So cold. What have you done?” The more I tried to console her, the more panicked she became. So I embraced her slender frame, holding her tight until it passed. I could hear crying. But when I held her before me and studied her face, no tears were coming out.
“Make love to me.” I tensed up. Somehow this eventuality hadn’t occurred to me, in all the excitement. Hesitation was not the reaction she’d hoped for. “Make love to me, Charles!” Some judicious, soft words later I found myself shopping for lubricants and lambskin condoms. Not the sort of thing I relished purchasing in broad daylight, so I’d disguised myself as best I could.
Except, because Annika’s return had made today’s paper, there was little hope of evading notice entirely. The shopkeeper watched me closely as I browsed his wares, only speaking up once satisfied that I was the same fellow from the article. “I don’t often see men of your standing in my little shop”, he remarked. “You saw no such thing” I snapped.
The instructions tucked into the syringe case offered no advice for intimacy. I improvised, turning my thoughts away from the cold leathery sensation, struggling not to become queasy. Eyes closed, I pictured Annika as I remembered her on our wedding night. Face flush, golden hair spread out over the pillows.
I waited until she was asleep to shower. Shuddering all the while, hurriedly scrubbing every inch of my body. One part more thoroughly than the rest. Intensely regretting what should’ve been the joyous unity of man and wife, if only her heart would beat. I began thinking of ways to curb her desire going forward. Not something I’d had any reason to give thought to before now, as my own appetites always kept pace with hers.
It was then that I began planning a Summer outing. Touring the countryside on the same old wood gas motorbike I’d been riding when we met. Wonderfully romantic, and a handy way to ensure that, so long as we’re outdoors, her mind does not turn to prurient matters. Now fully unable to sleep, I took a stroll to the separated garage.
Beneath a dusty cover I found the old beauty just as I’d left her. Some small maintenance would need to be done, cleaning out the burner, replenishing oil and so forth. Enough to tire me out. So I went to work. By the time the sun began to peek over the horizon I’d completed the job, including polishing every metal surface and bringing the tires up to an appropriate pressure.
As I made my way back to the house, now sorely in need of a second shower, I spotted what I thought was a woman atop the roof. A trick of the light I assumed. But as I drew closer it was revealed to be Annika. Still in her nightgown, tossed about by the wind. “Annika! What’s gotten into you? It’s dangerous! Come down from there!”
So, she did. My jaw hung open, face locked into an expression of horror as I watched her fall. As if in slow motion. Gripped by the agony of watching her die a second time. But could it happen so easily? I seized on the hope, as I barreled towards the house, that in her present condition a simple fall like that could not do her in.
It all might’ve ended there, had I been wrong. She would be committed again to the soil, this time for good, my selfish defiance of the natural order forcibly set right. But of course, she was still moving when I found her. Both legs broken as well as one arm. She was laughing.
“It doesn’t hurt!” she exclaimed, continuing to babble indifferently as I fretted over her injuries. I couldn’t very well take her to the hospital. They’d notice straight away that she was cold as ice and with no discernible pulse. That left but one possible destination. She continued laughing on the way, no apparent concern for the terrible fright she’d given me.
Beady and Scholls did not greet me when I burst into their office. Nor did I find them in the basement. I decided I could apologize for my trespass once I found them. Surely given the urgency of my visit, they would not hold such a thing against me. I carefully laid Annika’s broken body in one of the train cars, padded by my coat. She’d settled on quiet giggling now.
It was a trick to figure out the controls. Made me wish I’d watched Beady more closely the first time. But soon enough we were on our way through the tunnel. Then before long we emerged into the warehouse. The track continued around the edge, and I did not halt the train for I could see neither Beady nor Scholls anywhere.
Finally the train arrived at a second tunnel. Bracing myself as I knew not what to expect on the other side, we entered. This was a much longer trip. At first I thought my ears deceived me but as we approached the next stop, there was no mistaking it. The sound of rousing music.
Expecting to find those two at the source of it, I stopped the train. The station appeared to be a refurbished tube stop with wooden trim added, ornate lanterns hanging here and there, and posters advertising all manner of brands I’d never heard of. I left Annika on one of the benches, vowing to return soon with help. She didn’t seem to care about that one way or the other, much less appear interested in where she was.
The source of the music turned out to be a theater. Some sort of dance number by the sound of it. But when I poked my head through the curtains, I received an unbearable shock. Row after row of gaudily dressed theater goers looked on in delight as some sort of ribald comedy played out on the stage.
The actors, insofar as I can call them that, were inanimate human remains. Dressed to the nines, but moved about by strong fishing line tied to circlets at their wrists, neck and ankles. Life sized marionettes.
One slapped the other’s hat off, and the audience laughed uproariously. Scanning the audience, I noticed a number of them injecting themselves with the black fluid. That explained the sickly sweet stench. Not a warm body among them.
“Take your seat or close the damned curtain” someone harshly whispered. So I closed the curtain and doubled back towards Annika. I found her still giggling, but laid out across the tracks. “What are you doing, you foolish girl?” I cried. How did she move from the bench? All I could figure was that she’d dragged herself with her one good arm. “No matter”, she tittered. “None of it matters. There is nothing!”
I scooped her up and continued to scold her as I set her securely in one of the train cars. We were unexpectedly joined by a strange gentleman before I could set the train in motion. “Dear me” he exclaimed. “She looks to be in poor repair. Are you on your way to the surgical center?” I asked where I might find it. “Is this your first visit, chap? It’s the very next stop.”
The next stop, indeed. It resembled nothing less than the main street of a prosperous town, but buried deep underground. All manner of colorful electric signs competed for my attention. I passed a boxing ring out in the open with spectators gathered to bet on the outcome.
One pugilist soundly struck the other, I heard bone splinter, and the poor fellow’s head hung back over his shoulders like a dangling hood. Yet he seemed more disappointed than hurt. The crowd, mostly men in their thirties, ate it up. “Off to the clinic with him. He’ll be fighting fit within the hour”, barked the bookie.
Appalling. To think, I’d gone the better part of my life with all of this beneath my feet, none the wiser. I knew of tall tales concerning shanghai tunnels, used to spirit away drunks who would then wake up aboard ships headed out to sea. Slave labor until arrival. If I’d been told such an operation were going on beneath the city, I’d have laughed it off. Yet something far stranger now surrounded me.
I passed a series of brothels as I followed signs indicating the general direction of the clinic. Did my best to avert my eyes, and most of them took the hint, but one particularly bold madame obstructed my path. “What’s the hurry, love? Don’t you like me?”
She was positively Amazonian, over six feet tall but with a wasp-like waist. Such a grossly exaggerated hourglass figure as to be more comical than lewd. I took note of four syringes loaded with the black stuff strapped to her muscular thigh.
Striving to establish eye contact past her abruptly protruding bosoms, swaying about as if conspiring to prevent it, I answered as politely as I could that I was on urgent business. “If you don’t like these, I have some smaller ones back in my room.” She produced a needle and thread from her cleavage and winked at me. “I’ll even let you attach ‘em.”
I recoiled in disgust, twirled around her as expertly as any rugby player you can name and ran the rest of the way to the medical pavilion. The lighting there proved mercifully less garish. Sterile white, save for the giant internally illuminated red cross above the entrance. As soon as I was satisfied I could find it a second time, I headed back and fetched Annika.
Her broken limbs made the most distressing noises as they shook about, dangling as they did despite my efforts to hold her firmly. "You're wasting your time" she whispered. "All the king's horses and all the king's men cannot put me together again."
"You're delirious" I muttered. "But you're in denial" she answered, eyes placidly shut as though asleep. "Can't you see I'm dead?" She burst into another fit of giggling. It was a trek this time on account of her weight burdening me. I attracted many concerned stares as well. But before long she was in the care of the local doctor and a trio of nurses.
One of them looked ‘enhanced’ nearly to the same degree as the woman I’d escaped earlier. Feeling my eyes on her, she explained “I get all my work done here. Doctor McCullough is a genius.” By some strange definition, perhaps. He entered through a pair of windowed doors. Broad shouldered but a touch shorter than myself, wearing a surgeon’s frock and some manner of queer device on his back.
Once he began cutting into Annika despite my startled cries, it became clear what it was for. One of his forearms had, most likely by his own hand, been replaced by an electrical surgical saw. Once finished with it, he simply popped that forearm off as you might remove a glove, placed it on the rack slung from his shoulder with the others, and withdrew the arm he needed next.
It struck me as similar to a quiver. But with a variety of motorized surgical prosthetics instead of arrows. A voltaic cell on his belt, perhaps the size of a soup can, recharged the arms docked to the rack while not in use via a thin black cable. Like nothing I’d ever seen, or had any desire to. “She’s done quite a number on her tibia. Fell, I take it?” I nodded, not taking my eyes off his crude mechanical limb as he worked.
“You’re in luck, I just received a new shipment of those. May need some bolts here and there, particularly in the arm. One of my nurses will draw up the bill while I’m working. That’s everything I need from you, I don’t like an audience.” The shapely nurse from before shooed me out of the room and, following some preparation, presented me with paperwork to sign.
It was difficult to leave Annika in such a place, but all things considered she was safer here than anywhere else. I paced outside for a few minutes before getting it in my head to explore this place a bit. Imagining, I suppose, that I’d seen the worst of it already. That it held no more surprises.
A modern day necropolis. No exaggeration to say so, a real city of the dead if ever there was one. Bustling with shoppers, merrymakers, businessmen and all manner of compact electric carriages. I searched for petrol models but saw none, eventually reasoning that their fumes would only accumulate to intolerable thickness in this enclosed space.
A wild young fellow zipped past me in a roadster built out of a coffin, a Jacob’s ladder mounted to the hood sparking as he accelerated. Two more on battery motorbikes followed in close pursuit, whooping raucously. Despite everything, I smiled. But once the commotion died down, my gaze fell on a pair of iron double doors in the far wall.
No sign above them. No locks either, one hung ajar as if inviting me. Would I be held accountable for trespassing if they’d not even bothered to chain it up? Although it wasn’t even clear to me that I was welcome down here at all, so far coasting along under the pretense that I belonged. It was my father who taught me to carry myself that way, when first he began introducing me to his business partners.
With some grunting and heaving, I moved the door on its rusty hinges enough to grant me passage. Then shut it behind me lest anyone unexpectedly follow. The corridor was hewn from solid rock, descending still further into the earth and dripping with moisture. In the distance I heard bats screech as they flapped about.
Humming bulbs strung at intervals lit the way, almost more of a hinderance than a help as they prevented my eyes from adjusting to the dark. Soon I arrived at the far end of the tunnel. another pair of iron doors. Not wanting to have come this far only to turn around, I put my shoulder against one of the doors and with no small effort worked it far enough open that I could peer through.
I could not comprehend the sight before me. Row after row of nightmarish creatures resembling nothing more than immense insects lay restrained in rows, as their pulsating abdomens were milked for the familiar black fluid by motorized suction pumps. Long, clear rubber hose trailed from each stall up along the ceiling, then to a central reservoir.
The one nearest me seemed to notice my gaze. It emitted a high pitched series of clicks and chirps, writhing about impotently under its leather straps. Then, Roderick Beady appeared. “Settle down, you.” he murmured, scowling at the earwig-like monstrosity. He produced an electric wand identical to the one he’d sent me home with and used it to jab the creature in the mouth parts. It shrieked. I heard prolonged sizzling and smelt some sickly burnt aroma.
Beyond the stalls, I glimpsed something like a massive subterranean excavation site. Men in hard hats shouted and gestured at one another, a crane slowly pivoted bearing a palette of crates, and then there was the centerpiece of it all: A porous mound in the middle of the cavern, with a hole at the top leading down into the Earth.
A buzzer sounded. Six men in the sort of protective armor you often see worn by dog trainers approach the mound, collectively holding a long pole with a loop of cord at the end. Then, one of the giant insects, perhaps the size of a bear, crawls out of the hole. Before it can react, the loop is slipped around its bulbous head and tightened. It chirps loudly and struggles to free itself.
It eventually takes another two men in addition to the first six to subdue it. The electric wands are employed, but only seem to enrage it, so it becomes a game of endurance. Finally exhausted, the six legged beast is herded off into an empty stall and strapped down. I now have a good idea of what fate awaits it, and briefly feel a strange sort of sympathy for the ugly thing.
With some questions answered but many more raised, I backed away from the spectacle and turned to make my way to the tunnel entrance. Only to be confronted by Mr. Beady. “Wandered off from the tour, did you?” His voice dripping with acid. I told him of Annika’s leap from the roof and resulting injuries. It seemed to soften him up somewhat.
“You’ve seen it all now. I can’t say as I expected a principled man like you to violate my trust so casually.” I fell over myself apologizing for it and insisted I was no more inclined to breathe a word about any of this now than I was before. The promise of a generous additional sum finally put the matter to rest and, while walking back to the clinic, he addressed the matter of Annika’s erratic behaviors.
“Aside from the standard preservatives, the injections also contain a substance developed for interrogation which suppresses short term memory. Besides the importance of reviving the body before it has significantly decomposed, there is also the problem of doing so within the window of time necessary for the memory serum to be of any benefit.”
I told him I was sure I didn’t understand the connection. “Without the serum, they are paralyzed by madness. They can only be restored to sanity by making them forget where they were before we brought them back.” I thought to inquire about the insects but elected not to press on a sore spot.
He went on about how I may have received an irregular batch with insufficient memory serum, apologized and offered a replacement set of syringes. “If you went to McCullough, he’s likely to send you home with some nerve tonic. He’s a bit liberal with the stuff, but in your case I recommend it.”
Sure enough, upon releasing Annika to my care he produced a pair of green glass bottles shaped like flasks with some soupy translucent concoction inside. The label, covered in decorative flourishes, read “Doc McCullough’s restorative nerve tonic. Appropriate for the treatment of hysteria, insomnia, diminished vigor, possession and rickets.” Bit suspect that he brewed his own, but I thanked him all the same.
Annika curled up next to me as we rode the tram back to the warehouse. Fine little stitches marked where Doc McCullough had gone in to replace shattered bones. I wondered how she could heal so quickly before it occurred to me that she could not heal at all. Must greatly simplify a doctor’s work. As we passed by the tangle of transparent rubber tubing leading up to each of the grave hatches overhead, I inquired what they were for.
“Haven’t you pried enough?” he snapped. I reminded him of my generosity, and once again his lips loosened for it. “A preservative gas is piped up into the caskets. This slows the rate of decay, in advance of potential resurrection orders or in case we need to borrow bits and pieces for...maintenance.” I thought back to Doc McCullough’s windfall of fresh tibias.
Annika resumed her soft, demented giggling. I pushed the tonic on her but could not make her drink. While I was in Beady’s lab writing him a check I meant to compensate for my indiscretions, she wandered aimlessly about the warehouse.
If only I’d kept a closer eye on her. I might’ve seen her unscrew the hose which carries black fluid to the resurrection chambers and lug it over to the gas distribution juncture, twisting it into place before returning to the control panel. A lazy press on the throttle and the black fluid surged up through the clear hoses and into the graves.
An ear splitting alarm sounded. All around the perimeter of the warehouse, klaxons blared and red lights strobed. Beady was on his feet in a flash. “You damned idiot! Get away from there!” He shouted, knocking her to the floor. His eyes bugged out of his head as they traced the re-routed hose to its new destination. Beady withdrew an electric wand from his vest, and motioned as if to jab Annika with it.
A sudden fist to his jaw put a stop to that. No real mass to him, the blow sent him tumbling across the cold concrete floor. I worried I might’ve done more damage than I meant to. But glancing over my shoulder, I spotted curious spectators beginning to emerge from the tunnels to see what the noise was about. Time for a hasty exit.
Rather than bother with the little train, we simply hoofed it down the remaining length of tunnel into the basement level of Beady and Scholls’ office. Once we climbed the stairs and exited onto the street, I located Annika’s carriage and set about lifting her into the passenger seat.
That’s when I heard it. If I stood still for a moment, over the distant echoes of the sirens, something else wafted to my ears from the graveyard across the street. The sound of thousands of little bells, frantically ringing.
We were off as soon as the sun rose. Thick plumes of black smoke rising from various points in the city, desperate cries of terrified mothers searching for their children. The handy little motorbike, Annika perched on the rear seat in a lovely sun dress, proved able to edge around the piled up motor carriages on the way out of the city. Riding up on the sidewalk at times...but then, the police had their hands full with more pressing matters.
At the edge of the city, the voice of an elderly man issues forth from loudspeakers mounted outside the church. “The earth shook, the rocks split, and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many saints who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, went into the holy city, and appeared to many.”
The voice trailed off into the distance, now only empty country road ahead of us. I wondered at just how many graveyards were part of Beady’s network. If there were any city we could settle in after this which was not presently crawling with...unwelcome guests.
If none, I concluded that it would trouble me very little. For I had with me everything necessary for my happiness. The freshly born Summer, a gleaming motorbike, the open road winding about the vast, beautiful countryside...and Annika.
I’d packed only a month’s worth of victuals, not expecting to need more. In the leather case under my seat, the four remaining syringes rattled about. And next to them, a handsome little pistol.
Did you enjoy my story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, Alex BeymanWrite a Review