Frank was new on the job. He had heard all the stories already, had had all the tricks played on him. It had finally dawned on his colleagues that working night-shifts in the morgue really did not bother him, and the practical jokes had subsided. So now he did his rounds in relative peace, kept his lunch in the cold store, and never heeded the faint noises from the busy hospital above while reading old magazines and drinking lots of coffee.
Frank's steps echoed through the long corridors of the basement. The floor was smooth and shiny, reflecting the pale green walls and the white ceiling. He could see his own reflection as he proceeded down towards the cold store where he kept his lunch box. His face looked like a greyish blob on top of a large, dark, bulky blob.
Inside the cold store it was almost dark. Only a small lamp on the table next to the door shed some light on the work tables and the equipment - and on the rows of empty gurneys. All along one wall were the storage chambers. Each compartment a refrigerator capable of holding one dead body fresh (as they would jokingly say) for days. There were bodies in the chambers now, Frank knew. The slots on the doors held the little cards, similar to the card tied around the chamber-inhabitant's big toe. The thought didn't bother him. He was hungry.
He opened the nearest chamber door - with no card in the slot - and pulled out his lunch box. The chemical smell of formalin and strong cleaning fluids wasn't too bad, once you got used to it. Then he settled down by the table to eat. As he chewed his sandwich he kept an ear open for the telephone. It was located at the end of the corridor by his desk, and could easily be heard here in the storage.
Frank stopped chewing. The sound had definitely come from the storage chambers' general direction. There were two rows with nine chambers in each row. All the doors were closed. Twelve of the doors had cards. Six did not.
Tap... Tap, tap... The sound was a bit louder this time.
Frank smiled slowly. That would be Pete or Chris or both. Stupid sods. They already tried that act; it hadn't scared him then, and it didn't scare him now. He placed his half-eaten sandwich on the lid of his lunch box and stood. Quietly but quickly he walked to one of the empty chambers and yanked the door open. Empty. Damn. He tried the next, and the next. And again. Shit.
Frank returned to his sandwich and took a bite. The guys had to be in the next room. The next room was not behind the chamber wall, but sounds travelled in weird ways in this basement. Stuffing his mouth with the last of the sandwich Frank left the store room and hastened down the corridor.
The room next door was an office. It was empty. Frank looked behind the table, under the table, and behind the door. Empty. Irritated he half-ran back past the cold store, to the washing room. They had to be there then, Pete and Chris.
They weren't. The washing room was empty too.
Tap, tap, tap. Tap... TAP, tap.
Now Frank was getting angry. He didn't mind being the butt of a joke, but it had to end some time. They had had their fun. Starting all over was just plain stupid. He'd find them and haul them out by their ears, and then they'd have to buy him a couple of beers when he got off his shift. Morons.
Frank went back into the cold store. The tapping was quite loud now. It definitely came from one of the chambers. Somewhere in the middle of the row...
One of the first nights of Frank's employment, Chris had crawled into one of the chambers, and had leaped out on him when he came by on his round. He might very well have the same idea tonight for some reason. Chris was not the fastest deer in the woods, and perhaps leaping out and yelling BOOOH was the only prank he could come up with.
Cautiously Frank opened one of the occupied chambers. The body on the shelf was covered with a sheet, but the toes were free. He didn't read the tag. He closed the door and opened the next.
TAP... tap, tap, TAP...
'Stupid fucks!' Frank looked at the black body bag on the shelf, and closed the door again. 'I'll bloody well kick your asses!'
He closed the door on the next white-shrouded body, but then changed his mind. The feet under the sheet... were they pale enough? Were they at all cold? He touched one foot. It was cold all right, but then again...
Frank went back to the first door and opened it. Methodically he worked his way through the storage chambers, tickling every foot he could get his hands on. But he got no reaction. All the feet were the feet of dead people.
Frank suddenly became aware of the tapping: or rather that it had stopped. He smiled. Pete, or who ever it was, had to be hiding somewhere where they could see him. The fact that he wasn't scared or spooked at all had probably put them off. He looked around, now searching for a hidden camera.
Tap, tap... Boing...
The loud sound was coming from directly behind him. He made a standing jump, almost across the room, and cried out.
'God DAMN it, guys! That wasn't funny!'
His voice echoed through the room and the long corridor outside. His heart pounded and his mouth had gone dry. He could hear no sound but the sound of his own pulse and rasping breath. Damn... His shirt and jacket suddenly felt really tight. Too small.
He must have stood there, staring at the chambers, for ages. He was very hot. Or cold. He managed to undo the buttons of his jacket, but his hands shook too much to take on the shirt collar-button. The tie was too tight, and he felt out of breath.
'Cut it out, you guys. You're way out of line!'
His voice was not very steady or even very loud. In the silence the words seemed to hang in the air, slowly spinning around. No more tapping or boinging was to be heard, and Frank's heart rate dropped from "racing madly" to "speeding". Minutes passed. No sound.
Finally Frank convinced his hands to move. He reached down to his back-pocket to pull out his cell phone.
'Oh... Hi, Jessica', he said as Pete's wife answered his call. 'It's Frank Donahue. Is Pete in?'
A moment later he heard Pete's voice. 'Hey, Frank. What's up?'
'So... I... You wouldn't happen to know where Chris is at?'
'He's at his cabin. It's his son's birthday. Why do you need to know?'
'Oh... No reason. Well, actually I thought he might be here, playing tricks on me... Someone's been making noises down here'.
Pete chuckled. 'Maybe some of the nurses are up to no good'.
'Yeah... Maybe. So... See ya tomorrow then'. Frank hung up and looked at the phone for a long time before putting it in his breast pocket. So... It wasn't Pete and it wasn't Chris. The nurses could not get to the basement without him knowing, since the only route to the morgue was via the long corridors, right past his desk at the entrance. Where he had been sitting right up until hunger had made him go to get his lunch.
The lone light by the small desk was reflected dimly in the metal chamber doors as Frank walked towards them. He had to open them all. He had to see... Make sure there was nothing there. He was sweating and feeling cold at the same time, and his left arm felt weirdly numb. His shirt was very tight, or maybe it was just because of the sweat, soaking the fabric. Little coloured spots danced in the dark; the chamber doors were shining out to him as he approached.
He opened the doors one by one, and left them ajar after checking the cold feet inside. No living thing emerged. No sound was heard. Nothing. Only cold air and a smell of death. He leaned against the middle, top-door, breathing heavily, fighting the feeling of not being able to get enough air. Hell, he was ready to call in a nurse or a porter to cover for the rest of his shift. Maybe he was coming down with something...
The door he was leaning on shuddered and was pushed open. With a screeching sound as of tortured metal the shelf inside, corpse and all, began to slide out towards him. Eerie light shone out to him, dancing on the cold mists. A hollow voice from inside said: 'Holy crap! There's a cold stiff in here!'
Frank stumbled backwards, staring at the corpse, fighting for breath so he could scream. The icy cold feet pointed accusingly at him as he lost his balance and fell over. A heavy weight descended on his chest, and his flailing arms failed to get hold of the cell phone when it slipped from his breast pocket and slid across the floor.
The last thing Frank saw before his heart gave up was a head poking out of the chamber, staring at him with a large, burning eye.
'Fuck!', said Bernie as he turned off the small flashlight he held in his mouth. 'I knew you couldn't read a map worth shit, Marvin! This isn't the bloody jewel-store! It's a morgue! We should've turned left by the storm-drain as I told ya, dumb ass! Hey... I think there's another dead dude on the floor...!'