“You know, I did this, back in the army,” Eldin said with a chuckle as he rested against the side of the elevator. “Uncle Sam said that where my abilities was best utilized. Now who he to judge me? I guess seein’ where they put me, they was sayin’ I got no abilities.” He shook his head. “So what about you? Why you wheelin’ stiffies in the deep dark night?”
The man standing across from Eldin shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said quietly, a confused look passing over him, “but I’m here now.”
Eldin laughed. “The man don’t even know why he’s here. Boy, you look like you fell from the sky and hit every branch on the way down. Now, what you say your name was?”
“You can call me John,” came his soft reply.
“You know, I had a boy worked down here before you, look like you and him could be brothers, like opposite sides of a coin, see. Is that the way it is?”
John shook his head. “No.”
Eldin shrugged. “Well…okay, you know, whatever, right? He gone, you’re here.”
John rubbed his forehead. “So it seems.”
The elevator bumped to a halt, and the doors opened to reveal a dim corridor. Eldin glanced down at the paper in his hand before looking to the gurney between them. “Selma Sawyer?” He grinned, poking the body with a finger. “See that? Don’t see that name much no more, Selma. Now I know this here is an old stiffie without even lookin’. So how about that?” he said with a self-congratulatory tone. “And the big men told me I got no ability. Look at that! The stiffies may be dead, but the story still go on.”
John stared. “Selma Sawyer,” he repeated under his breath.
Eldin snapped his fingers. “I know that tone, so listen up-- she was, not she is,” he said, guessing at John’s thought. “Don’t go weird on your first night, John-boy. Then I got to wait until they find another replacement. I hate to wait. Don’t matter, though. Time don’t mean nothin’ down here. Way I see it, we either dead or soon to be dead, so it don’t make no difference anyhow, right? Right and wrong, that’s just a waste of time. Take old Selma here. Maybe she was good, maybe she was bad, but one thing for sure now, she’s dead.” He grabbed the side rail of the gurney and tipped his head for John to follow suit. “Stiffy Sawyer’s last ride,” he said with a push to get the gurney moving. “Goin’ to the place where name don’t mean nothin’, don’t mean nothin’,” he went on in a sing-song and then fell into a hum as they made their way along the corridor.
The lights flickered as a deep rumble sounded over them. It was a damp corridor, cold-- more a tunnel than a corridor, despite the hospital’s attempts to mask the age of that old path. It ran beneath the city street in front of the hospital, and beneath the subway line that lay beneath the street, to link to the sub basement of an abandoned warehouse. The hospital, in its financial decrepitude and physical disrepair, could not afford to expand, so space had been rented where forgotten city planners had once deemed it necessary to create, in the belly of the urban underworld.
As the corridor opened to the mortuary crypt John looked about in disbelief, to which Eldin simply nodded. “Lots of stiffies, John-boy. Got no family, got no money, and now got no life, so they stay here until the city come and do pick-up.” He nodded to himself. “Lots of stiffies, yes sir.”
John’s eyes played across the little rectangular doors set in the crude concrete walls. His nose began to tingle.
“Natural refrigeration,” Eldin said, pointing to their misting breaths as he picked up a clipboard from his small desk. “Always cold down here. Real cold. Well, all we have is, what, two months of summer, then deep freeze all year? Ain’t like home, John-boy.” He chuckled to himself as he noted the morgue’s newest admission. “Ain’t gettin’ warmer here unless Mister Devil-man decides to run up the fires down below, you know what I’m sayin’?”
John stared at him.
“Ah, now don’t tell me you one of them Bible types,” Eldin said with a sigh. “If you is, well then you be helpin’ the Lord do His work, John-boy. He the Creator, we the desecrator; His makin’ leaves a mess, we clean up more the less. Now what you say to that?” he asked before letting out a laugh, a great booming laugh that reverberated in the cold crypt.
John frowned. “I say we should put her away.”
* * *
“He agreed to this?”
“Said he understood, said he was ready. I don’t trust it, Pete.”
Pete shrugged, resting his head against the frame of the one-way window to study the man sitting in the little stark room before them, slowly writing on the legal pad Pete had given him. “You sure about this? You checked?”
“I checked,” came the tired reply. “I went through the drill and he just sat there. Then he looks at me, same empty expression, and says he wants to ‘write my tale’, and that I should tell you he’s doing it freely.”
Pete looked to his partner. “‘Write my tale?’ Who talks like that?”
“This guy does.” His partner, Frank, crossed his arms on his chest. He looked at his watch. “Why do these things always happen at night?” It was an empty question, but it lingered as he looked back at their suspect.
“I don’t like this,” Pete thought aloud.
“That’s got to be the tenth time I’ve heard that,” Frank said. He tipped his head to either side before his eyes settled on Pete. “So what are you thinking? Thinking we got something more on our hands?”
“No…but something isn’t right.”
“That’s an understatement. The hospital has no record of him as an employee. We don’t have an address for him. His prints pulled up a big fat nothing. Hospital doesn’t have any record of an employee past or present with the name on his work badge. They don’t know how he got the badge, but he managed to pass himself off as a legitimate employee. Maybe he’s got a fetish,” Frank said with a shrug. “Hospital said the last guy who worked before him got fired after getting caught messing with some dead hooker. This guy looks like he could be his baby brother, but the necrophile dropped off the face of the earth. No records on him after being fired. No family. Probably dead somewhere.” He shook his head. “People are sick. Getting on a dead hooker. That’s just plain evil.” He fell silent, realizing Pete wasn’t listening to him, his brow wrinkled in thought. “What?”
“What’s the chance of a hospital as old as that dump never having had an employee by this guy’s name? It just doesn’t sit right.”
Pete opened his hands. “We have nothing on him, not a single solid trace of his existence. So who is he?”
At that their suspect looked up, peering through the mirrored glass at them as if there was no window at all. Frank leaned away in surprise, but Pete stared at the man, his brow still furrowed. “He said something to me when we brought him in…”
“Said he didn’t do it.” Frank snorted, turning from the window as their suspect resumed his writing. “Everybody says they didn’t do it.”
Pete shook his head. “No, it was something he said to me. I mean, he purposely turned to me and said it when I brought him in the room. He said he’d be going before the night was over.”
Frank waved it off. “Head games. Where can he go? Nothing to it.”
* * *
The ring of the morgue phone broke the silence of the crypt like a crack in glass. Eldin jerked upright in his chair, startled by the sudden racket. He rubbed his eyes and face before picking up the phone, waving as John wiped down a gurney from their latest admission. Eldin kept his voice low, something so astray from his usual boisterous banter that John watched him carefully. After several moments Eldin slammed the phone down and pushed himself from his chair, laughing. “Pork grind tonight, John-boy!” He studied John for a moment before slapping his hands together. “You know, you been workin’ here, what, two months? Never seen nor heard you talk about nothin’ at home, so I figure either you ain’t got one, or the one you got ain’t so good. So tonight we get a little show. Let me introduce you to a good friend of mine.”
He led John deep into the morgue, back to a corner. There was a walkway hidden in the shadows, which went past the broken warehouse elevators to reveal a crowded knot of rooms. “They was gonna do the slicin’ and dicin’ here, but they decided to keep it at the hospital. But they left the table, and now I rent it out, for those times when a certain call goes out to certain people in our fine establishment.”
John stared at the cold metal table in the abandoned exam room. “Here?” he said in disgust. “Next to all that empty death out there?”
Eldin nudged him with an elbow. “Come on man, think private, see? These rooms even got heat. I got the only key. Ha! Now I got a hotel too! I can give you a share; you don’t talk to no one. Man, some of them even let me watch. Maybe you watch too John-boy and put some action in your life!” He let out one of his booming laughs and slapped John on the shoulder.
“This is unreal,” John said in disbelief.
Eldin set a mocking eye on him. “Let me tell you somethin’, John-boy. You think I’m some know-nothin’ reject down here? I been to school, I been to the army, I been around the world, and you know what? It’s the world made me this way, that mess out there told me life don’t mean nothin’, so I came down here-- man, I ran down here. Down here, in the dark, at night, I get to make my own sense of it. Life, people, all that noise, I get to judge it here. Down here, you’re in Eldin’s world! And who’s to judge me? Nothin’ but a bunch of stiffies, and they all be goin’ out with the trash.”
John looked to him. “You’re unreal, too.”
Eldin grinned. “No, I’m Eldin. Who the hell are you?”
John was speechless. He watched as Eldin sprayed down the table before opening a draw to produce some fresh bedding supply. John recognized the neatly folded sheets; Eldin had asked him to get them several nights ago. The request had struck him for the simple reason that they had no need for fresh bedding supply…and then for no apparent reason Eldin let out another booming laugh, shaking his head as he spread out a foam liner and covered it with the sheets. “Make some money tonight, yes sir!”
“Eldin?” a woman’s voice called.
“That you Rose?” Eldin threw his hands up. “Come on in!”
John turned as a young woman came up behind him, but she stopped short, her eyes wide on him. She looked with uncertainty to Eldin, but Eldin waved a hand at John. “John-boy’s good. So how’s my Rose tonight?” he asked, but she did not answer, instead keeping her gaze on John as she walked into the exam room. Eldin laughed again as she passed him. “That’s my Rose, smelling like a fresh cut daisy,” he joked and left the room, poking John with an elbow.
John was about to turn and leave when he heard a rustle from the exam room. He stepped into the doorway. Rose had her back to him, but he could see her emptying her pocket, the baggy excess of her blue scrubs crinkling across her shoulders. She had short brown hair, and from the visible bulges of her vertebrae up the back of her neck, he could tell she must be quite thin, thinner than even the excess of the scrubs suggested. He had the dim suspicion that he had seen her before, but she showed no recollection of him.
She rolled up the sleeve of her left arm, but feeling his gaze, she glanced over her shoulder and stopped. She had a tourniquet in her right hand and the barrel of a syringe pressed between her lips. Despite that, he looked into her eyes, and was struck by the sadness he saw there, the sad emptiness. She was an ordinary looking woman, yet he believed she had the potential for beauty, but he knew that would never happen, at least not that way, not in that place.
She strapped the tourniquet on her arm and took the syringe from between her lips. “I’m off duty,” she said. When it was done a frown played out on her lips, her eyelids drooping as she continued to stare at him. “What’s your name again?”
He hesitated, paling at the sight before him. “John.”
“You look like an honest man,” she said with a sigh. “Time for you to go away.”
“Time to go away,” another voice agreed.
He spun around, finding himself face to face with one of the night security guards. The guard immediately turned his face to Rose, his eyes widening as he grinned at her. “There’s my Rose,” he said eagerly, raising his hands at his sides.
“I’m going away,” came her disembodied reply. “Simon…?”
Simon put a meaty hand on John’s shoulder and slowly pushed him aside. “You need to talk to Eldin,” he said, his eyes on Rose. He stepped by John, into the room, as he pulled his belt from his pants. Rose leaned forward to rest her head on the gurney atop her folded arms. Her eyelids drooped and closed over her glassy gaze as she began to hum a broken tune.
John returned to the crypt, his hands clasped over his head. Eldin was at his desk, feet up on its worn surface. He was chuckling to himself as he counted some worn bills, a collection of ragged singles. “Now see here, they could go anywhere,” he said to John’s unspoken question, “but only at Uncle Eldin’s are they guaranteed no one ever gonna know. Simon gives me dough, so I hide the know!” His great laugh boomed once again. “And the big army men said I got no skills, but I’m what you call a ‘venture capitalist’: I see, and then I venture to make some capital!” He clapped his hands and threw his head back with a little howl. “How about that, John-boy?”
John shook his head. “This…this is unreal,” he said, his mind flashing images of what he had left behind him. He dropped his hands to his sides and turned to Eldin. “You do know what’s happening back there, don’t you?”
Eldin’s brow sank, his eyes rising from the money in his hand. “Oh, come on now, John-boy. Time to grow up. Don’t mean nothin’ down here, no right or wrong to it. This here is Eldin’s world, and it don’t belong to no other world. We’re in between, you could say.”
John’s eyes widened in disbelief. “Do you know what he’s doing to her?”
Eldin slapped the money on his desk and stood. “John-boy, now listen here, and listen good. Don’t you go all mournin’-the-fallen-angel on me now. Ain’t nobody forced her. She come here on her own.”
John’s nose bunched up in disgust. “Stuffed with drugs.”
Eldin leaned on his desk. “I said, she come here on her own. Nothin’ more to it, John-boy. That’s the way it is, and it ain’t mine or yours to ask, so you best leave it alone.”
* * *