The office wall clock chimed forlornly. Archie's neck hurt a little from the awkward angle in which he'd fallen asleep.
He inquired aloud to no one in particular: "Do you know where your children are?"
Sighing, he flipped back through a stack of bills. The rain was falling harder now. It was a good night to be home in bed. The phone rang, in that rough insistent way it had.
"Hello?" Archie said, feeling sleepy and informal, and wishing hard for midnight.
"Arch? It's Charlie."
"Hey Charles, how goes it?" The line cracked with static. Charlie seemed real excited. The wind outside rattled the windows.
"Hey, I just gotta tell you what happened."
"We been so busy I didn't get a chance."
"Joanie fell by here after you picked her up. She was lookin' pretty upset, man."
"Well she wanted to hit the prom anyway, you know? I mean without Davis."
"So I took her in the tow truck. I mean I dropped her off."
"Unh hunh." Archie wasn't sure how he felt about that.
"Arch, it was fantastic man. We pull in as pretty as you please and she's lookin' like a queen, Arch. And old Rog Davis…I coulda driven my truck through his jaw, man. We just blew him away."
Archie worked hard to picture it.
"I wish I could've been there."
"Me too, Arch. It was the best."
"So listen, take it easy tonight. Maybe we can get together, hang out a little."
"She said she likes you very much, man."
Archie smiled at last.
"I'd say you're on the right track, killer."
"I hope. Check you later, Charles."
"OK, Arch. Oops! There goes the scanner! Gotta blast. Later"
Archie hung up and sat back quietly for a minute, thinking. Then he stood up and left the office. The way the mortuary creaked and groaned in the storm gave him the creeps.
He flicked on the lights in the prep room, moved slowly to the vault and opened a drawer. He was adjusting the polyethylene sheet over Gracie's body—at long last finally almost at rest—when the telephone rang again.
Archie punched up the speaker phone and started to fool around with some of the bottles there on the table as he answered:
There was a very poor connection. He could barely make out McCloud's voice: "Archie? Hello?"
"Hello?" said Archie. "Hello?"
"What are you a goddamn parrot? This is your employer speaking. Can you hear me?"
"Just barely, sir," said Archie. "Unh…affirmative."
"Alright. Listen carefully." McCloud spoke slowly, carefully emphasizing his instructions:
"Get in the station wagon and meet me at the intersection of the Old Post Road and Route 23." There was a pause. Archie took a deep breath. "Immediately. You got that?"
"And bring four kits with you," McCloud continued. "Four. There's been—" His voice broke off, knifed to death by static.
"Say again?" said Archie.
McCloud's response came through, garbled. The static increased. Finally there was nothing but dead air.
"Mr. McCloud? Hello?"
The intersection was less than ten minutes away, but in this weather Archie took it slow. The rain blasted down the windshield the way the car wash used to when he was a kid, riding inside as a special treat. He'd been driving for ten minutes before he realized he hadn't turned on either the radio or the heater. Four kits. Shit. He'd be up all night.
He got a funny feeling while the accident scene was still some way off. There was something about the way the lights from the emergency generators, and the red and blue strobing of the police cars, and the ambulance behind the hill—the way the future pulsed at him—as he approached. It was vaguely theatrical, the way the rain slanted down through the darkness, a kind of light show every now and then as the lightning struck. This was one hell of a storm.
The station wagon crested the hill and came upon the first of a magenta line of flares siphoning traffic away from the carnage.
Oh no, thought Archie. God.
A cop with a flashlight motioned for him to pull in front of the ambulance. Not that he was an expert at this sort of thing yet, but that ambulance was in no hurry to leave the scene. It was definitely a bad one.
He threw the wagon into park and, getting out, noticed Charlie Washington's tow truck. Charlie was talking with a cop at the bottom of a small gully, and there—just beyond them—lay the exquisite corpse of the Deathmobile. Ludicrously, Archie heard music. An old old song by the Rolling Stones he thought:
Oh help me, please doctor I'm damaged
There's a pain where there once was a heart
Its sleepin, its a beatin'
Can't ya please tear it out, and preserve it
Right there in that jar?
The vocal lurched and leeched itself luridly into some part of Archie's consciousness. The smell of wet grass and cow manure
swirled around him as he half-slid, half-fell down the gully.
"Oh no," Archie said, and then he found himself thinking a kind of prayer. Charlie spotted him almost immediately.
Charlie nodded grimly.
"The worst, Arch."
Archie crossed the gully, both hurrying and, in a way, trying not to go to the van.
"They took out a deer, a big buck, and then they caught the tree."
Archie touched the hand-painted side of the Deathmobile. It was perfect, of course. The damage was all up front. And, of course, inside.
"Shit, Arch." Charlie was on the verge of tears. "We were just with them this afternoon."
Archie lost the gist of his friend's words as he looked inside the van. The paramedics were using the "jaws of life" to get to the victims on the other side. The noise was deafening. It seemed wrong, this cacophony of generators, gnashing metal upon metal, police radios, Rolling Stones.
Archie spotted McCloud, hovering at the edge of the action with calm professional concern. There was one body outside the van, covered unceremoniously with a jacket advertising Stockport Lumber. Summer softball. Hotdogs and bad public address systems. The jaws of life stopped suddenly. The police radios chattered on.
"Jesus," somebody said. "Smells like a brewery in there." McCloud nodded gravely.
They tossed some debris in Archie's direction. A beer can rolled to a stop at his feet. Archie kicked at it savagely.
"This one's definitely bought it," said a paramedic, after squeezing his way through to the driver. Archie stiffened. "Steering column's right through the thorax, and the goddamn deer's rack lobotomized him."
"Nice buck," somebody said.
"Eight, nine, ten pointer," the paramedic commented, as they worked to pull the driver through the opening they had prised.
It was almost impossible for him to tell, but Archie was fairly certain it was Rog. The hair looked right, and judging from the size and shape of what was left of his head….
McCloud moved in to help lay the corpse out on a stretcher. Archie stood frozen in shock.
"Well come on, boy," yelled McCloud, "let these men do their job and let's us do ours!"
"Ugh-lee! Jesus!" said a paramedic, referring to the corpse of the driver. Archie felt the tears coming.
"Oh shit, Rog!" he bleated. "Shit!"
"You knew this guy?" asked McCloud.
Archie nodded. McCloud automatically improved on the disposition of the corpse by brushing its hair down over the skewered eye socket. He turned the head and rearranged the shirt so the injury to the thorax wasn't visible. It seemed an oddly kind thing for him to do and Archie took note of it through his tears. In this position Rog looked strangely life-like, somewhat bewildered, as if someone had interrupted him in mid-sentence and he was cocking his head to listen.
"Will somebody turn off that fucking music!?" screamed a state trooper.
"Yep. Rock and roll'll kill ya, man," said another. He reached into the wreckage and jerked the battery cable loose in frustration and anger.
"What are the vitals on the girls?" screamed the first paramedic in the direction of the ambulance.
Archie realized instantly that everybody was out of the van. There was the body on the ground and Rog and….He sprinted over to the ambulance.
The driver was leaning over a stretcher. Behind him was another stretcher, the body already covered. He worked feverishly over the first victim, injecting adrenaline.
"We've lost one!" he yelled back. He positioned an oxygen mask, monitoring an electrocardiogram on a small screen as well. There was in the instant a sustained electronic beep, filling the air like a scream.
"Goddammit!" said the driver, looking helplessly at Archie. "She's arresting! The other one's going into arrest!"
He removed the oxygen mask as he turned to a companion standing just to the rear of Arch.
"Get over here! Defibrillation! Now!"
Archie took a second to look back and forth between the two men, and then, as though the awful paddles had been placed upon his own heart, he realized the worst of tonight's horrific truths. The girl they were working on, with the blonde hair and the black strapless evening gown was Joanie.
The paramedic tore the gown roughly away and placed the defibrillator paddles on Joanie's beautiful chest. Her body jerked spasmodically, dancing to the frug-jolt of electricity.
"Come on, Joanie," Archie prayed, like he had never prayed before in his life. "Come on baby." As the defibrillation continued, McCloud was joined by the County Coroner a short distance away.
"Zachary," said the coroner, who was a younger, shorter, perhaps less angry-looking version of his brother. "You know this isn't what's known as 'going by the book'." He signed some papers and handed them to McCloud.
"Appreciate you making the trip, Frank. Sorry it had to happen on your poker night."
"Sorry my ass!" said Frank, swiping at his brother with the ten-gallon hat he favored. "You took fifty bucks offa me! You planned this, you buttmuncher! Get out of here while the gettin's good!" And he concluded with mock annoyance: "Here! Take your goddamn death certificates!"
The defibrillation was a failure. With each attempt at coaxing Joanie back to life, the paramedics seemed to grow weaker and more discouraged. The electrocardiogram sang its wicked solitary note till Archie thought his brain would explode.
"OK," said McCloud, perusing the death certificates. "We got Allen Palumbo, Roger Davis, Roberta Eliot…and…" he glanced in the direction of the ambulance. There was a look of genuine concern, and hope, on his face for the poor girl in her beautiful dress lying there. Archie saw the look and was truly moved. "And…that's it, right?" said McCloud. "Just three?"
"You can take this one too," said Joanie's paramedic. "She's gone."
With a bump and a clank they lifted Joanie Snowland out of the ambulance. The coroner, brother Frank, shined a penlight into her eyes, sighed, and closed her eyelids gently.
"Joan S-n-o-w-l-a-n-d," he spelled it out. "Done." He signed her death certificate. It was wet from the rain. "That makes four," he said.
"Of a kind," said McCloud, somewhat distractedly. "Full house."
"You're hot, Zachary," said Frank. Must be your night."
It took some time, but they finally got the last of the blanket-wrapped kids in the wagon. Archie walked stiffly to the door, opened it, and slumped into the driver's seat. He sat there for quite a while as Charlie pulled out onto the highway with the Deathmobile in tow.
McCloud drove up next to Archie and gave him thumbs up. Archie nodded grimly that he was OK and waved McCloud on ahead. He glanced over at the empty passenger seat, then sadly into the rearview mirror past the dead. The tears rolled softly down his cheeks and he took no notice of them. They were natural as the rain.
McCloud was in mortician's heaven. He was poking at Palumbo's body and rattling instructions to his assistant. The only other sound in the prep room was the pump, rattling away incessantly. The needles were in place, in Palumbo's neck and thigh.
"OK, Arch. Read back what you've got."
"What do you mean," asked Archie, numbly. "Everything?"
"Skip the structural stuff," said McCloud. "I know we'll have to break some bones to straighten these stiffs out. Christ," he grunted, "he's like a pretzel."
"So just reconstruction details?"
McCloud nodded patronizingly.
"Right," said Archie. "unh…he needs a new right ear. Right nostril is split. Maxillary work…either stock dentures or break and repack his jaw…"
McCloud worked his finger deep inside Palumbo's mouth. "Ow!" he yanked his hand back. "What the hell…? Well, this is a first."
"He had a pop-top from a beer can lodged in his soft palate." McCloud held it up: "I coulda cut my finger off!"
The top pinged metallically when he threw it in the waste basket. "You oughta be damn thankful I'm not working on you," McCloud continued.
"I saved your life tonight. These were your friends, right? If you weren't working when you coulda been out riding around with these drunks, right?"
Archie didn't answer. It wasn't worth it, really. He looked silently at his feet, then to the drain basin.
"Mr. McCloud," he said, "I don't think he's draining right. He's taken almost four and a half liters, and look…." He held up a plastic jug with about a pint of brown liquid in it. The tube connected to it was barely dripping.
McCloud checked the pump.
"Hmmm," he said. "Compression's at twenty." He pulled the needle out of Palumbo's neck. The fluid pulsed from the needle, and a tiny jet of formaldehyde tinted with blood spurted from the hole in his neck. McCloud moved to the foot of the table and Archie turned off the pump.
"Plumbing's definitely backed up," said McCloud. "Severe internal injuries can do that. He's probably hamburger inside. One big clot."
He pulled back the plastic covering the torso, revealing a severely distended belly. Archie winced. McCloud gestured to Palumbo's gut.
"Give a push here, will ya?"
Archie pushed down. The corpse's mouth gurgled, and a yellowish fluid bubbled forth. McCloud scowled. He removed a handkerchief from the breast pocket of his lab coat and stuffed it in Palumbo's mouth. Returning to the foot of the table, and leaning close to the corpse, nodding at Archie: "Again."
Archie pushed. There was a distressing flatulent sound, and a large mass of clotted brown fluid plopped out on the table, staining McCloud's sleeve.
"Aw shit," he exclaimed. "This is no good. Get me a number three canula.
Archie removed the shiny stainless steel object from the drawer of a side table. It resembled a straight version of the gas station spout you use to pour oil into your crankcase. McCloud wrestled with the body to turn it on its side.
"Number three canula," said Archie, handling it to McCloud.
"McCloud grabbed a steel mallet from the row of tools laid out next to the table and hammered the canula into Palumbo's back, to one side of the spine near the bottom of the rib cage.
"There," he said, smugly satisfied. "In Mort Sci we used to call these self-basting broilers."
Archie smiled weakly.
"We were always cutting up. Haw haw haw. Help me here," he said, motioning.
Together they turned Palumbo's body face-up, placing his feet into a pair of raised stirrups to facilitate the draining process. McCloud observed that Archie was unusually pale.
"It helps to laugh, Archie. Without humor in this business you go right up the wall."
Yanking the original useless needle from Palumbo's thigh, he wheeled the table over to the vault.
"Right," said Archie, not entirely convinced.
"OK, Archie!" snapped McCloud as he seemed to get a second wind. He opened the vault drawer with Rog's body in it. "What's the story on Mr. Davis here? Jesus D. God, look at that face!"
Roger was a mess. Between the horn-job by the deer and the chest-crushing effect of the steering column, there wasn't much to write home about.
"Why they all insist on open-caskets is beyond me," said McCloud. "But it pays the bills, hey?" He deftly plucked what was left of Rog's right eye, what looked something like a two-minute egg on the end of the optic nerve, into the garbage can. "That will be of absolutely no use to us."
Archie was beginning to hyperventilate. McCloud recognized the symptoms of incipient nausea, glared at the boy impassively, and removed a ping-pong ball from his pocket. He threw it violently to the floor, caught it on the bounce, and inserted it in the vacant cavity, the way you might place a bingo-ball in the numbers-called tray.
"Can't take the heat, Archie my boy?" taunted McCloud.
"Do you really need me for this, sir?"
McCloud slid the drawer quickly shut.
"This is no time for squeamishness," he said. 'Yes, Archie. I need you for this. His eyes grew bulbous like Marty Whatshisname in the movies. Feldman. "And anyway, I've saved the best for last."
With a flourish, he motioned Archie to join him at the final body. Together they wheeled it into position by the embalming station. McCloud unfastened the canvas belts that secured the blanket-wrapped body to the tray. Archie, very much against his will, helped him remove the blanket. He couldn't look at the corpse.
"I'm sorry," he said. "It's just that I knew these kids and…"
McCloud stood motionless, waiting for Archie's attention to stop wandering. After long seconds, the boy gazed finally at what the blanket had been covering.
Joanie lay there. Her gown was damp with what looked like wine. One elegant high-heeled pump was missing. Her panty hose was torn. Archie swallowed hard.
"Scissors," barked McCloud.
Archie handed him the scissors. The mortician began to cut away Joanie's clothing. Archie stared at her face. So sadly, she seemed only to be sleeping. McCloud handed Archie the pieces of the gown.
"These will be very good as polishing cloths," he said. "Nice and soft. Velvet, hey? There…." He hummed to himself, something like that old army song: "over hill, over dale, dum de dum de dum de dum…Hmmm. Very nice indeed."
McCloud stopped, as if to make a very important point.
"I'd say this girl is in very good condition—excellent condition—except for those scalp lacerations…eighteen years old, my my…and eternity is always just around the corner."
McCloud was taking too much time inspecting Joanie's body. As he ran his fingertips down her leg, Archie screamed out:
"Mr. McCloud! She's not dead!"
Joanie's toes seemed to be twitching.
"Look! Look at her foot!"
"Don't be ridiculous," said McCloud. "Of course she's dead. I've got the papers to prove it!"
"Her foot just moved!" argued Archie. "There! There it goes again! We gotta call a doctor!"
"Archie, calm down."
"She needs oxygen!"
"She needs formaldehyde!"
He turned hard on Archie:
"Face it, Archie," he said. "She's dead. Any movement is pure spinal reflex. Look." He grabbed Joanie's hair and shook her head from side to side.
"Broken neck. Her brain is dead. She's going into rigor mortis, Archie. That's why her foot moved."
"But couldn't you—"
"NO! It's not my job! I'm a mortician, goddammit! The coroner says she's dead, she's dead!"
To underline his point, McCloud turned on the pump. Grabbing up the draining needle, he forcefully inserted it into Joanie's thigh. "Now shut up and help!"
He shoved Archie to the head of the table and handed him the other needle.
"I trust you can find the jugular?" He stalked over to the bottles of embalming fluid, yanked one up and began to pour it into the hanging reservoir.
Archie seemed paralyzed. His hand was poised next to Joanie's neck and was trembling. The needle began to spurt.
"Stick it in, dammit, boy! You're making a mess!"
"I can't do it, Mr. McCloud."
McCloud grabbed Archie's hand and forced the needle into the girl. As it penetrated Joanie's jugular, her neck muscles twitched spasmodically. Her mouth opened as if to gasp, and for a second her eyes flickered open, then closed to glazed slits. The pump clattered on.
"You just did it," said McCloud quietly. "What's done is done."
Archie backed away from the table in disbelief, holding his own neck, shaking his head.
"I killed her," he said.
McCloud sighed and looked at Archie with an expression of worry tinged with contempt.
"Little boys should be in bed," he said. "Go on, Archie. Get outa here. Go home."
The moped always ran better in damp weather. Archie didn't know why. By the time he got home, the moon had come up and you could actually see some stars past the silver-tinged edges of clouds.
He opened his front door and quietly entered the living room. He hung his raincoat on a gilt baroque hat rack by the door and sank into a doily-bedecked morris chair. He could hear rain drops falling on the tin roof, but they were old raindrops, dead rain drops, so to speak, falling from the leaves of the big trees that surrounded the house.
"Archie?" That was Auntie Lou, sounding sleepy, calling from her bedroom down the hall.
"Yeah, it's me, Auntie Lou," he replied. "Just me. Go back to sleep."
"Archie," she said, appearing in the doorway with her hair down and her worn housecoat pulled around her. "It's past two o'clock in the morning." She wore a look of concern, but that was usual. She yawned.
"Have you eaten dinner?"
"I'm not really hungry," he said. "Honest."
"Nonsense," she said. You must be starved to death."
She took him gently by the ear and marched him over to the dining room table, where a plate and silverware were laid out for him. Archie reluctantly sat down, and Auntie Lou removed the domed lid from her casserole crock-pot.
"Ghoulash!" she said, plopping a too-large serving on his plate. "Mmmm mmmm. With lotsa paprika. Just like you like it!" She beamed at him with aging sleepy eyes.
"Thanks, Aunt. Good night."
She kissed his forehead and turned to go back to her bedroom.
"Goodnight, sweetheart. Help yourself to some fresh banana cream pie in the fridge." And she held up a finger in mock sternness. "And don't stay up too late!"
She disappeared down the hall. Archie stared blankly at the plate of ghoulash before him. He sighed. He took a bite.
Later that night he would find time and opportunity to be as violently ill as he had wanted to be for hours. And then he would lie in bed, clutching his pillow like a child with a teddy bear, eyes too bright for sleep, glistening in the moonlight.
Next: a little plumbing problem, and something about the electricity too. Don't forget your biology homework!
one thing you don't want is a thaw
our little life is rounded with a sleep
"Those suckers are alive!"
In the darkness the undead quarterback
highway to hell in a handbasket
fill 'er up and check the oil
hell hounds on my trail
are you on drugs or just having one of those days?
Freeman and me and the rest of the world