Short Stories

This blog is the home of some old short stories I'd written five or six years ago for "challenges" (contests) at the Writers BBS. In such challenges, someone else sets the topic, genre, word length limit, and time in which to complete the story.

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Location: California, United States

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Death's Dominion

This story was written for a Fantasy Challenge on the subject of love

As Sam pulled open the morgue's heavy door, the familiar odors of formaldehyde and death swirled out to greet him. He stepped in and scanned the room - it seemed empty, at least of the living, containing only a desk, a few gurneys and walls lined with stainless steel refrigerated drawers.

The morgue attendant must be on a break, Sam guessed. He'd have to wrestle the corpse onto a gurney and wheel it up to the autopsy suite himself. As he picked up a clipboard from the desk and ran his finger down a listing of the dead inhabiting the drawers, the door behind him swung open and Dr. Anna Weston, the medical examiner and his boss, breezed in, a thick book under one arm.

Sam's gaze was drawn to her wan face, the dark smudges under her eyes. Devastated after her husband's death, she'd thrown herself into her work and this last week she'd been especially driven for some reason. He suppressed a sigh, wishing there was something he could do to help, but Anna had always kept him at an emotional arms length. "What are you doing down here? I was just checking the list for our next customer."

Dropping her book on the morgue attendant's desk, Anna began to search through a stack of files. "Forget the list, Sam. They sent a DB over from the city jail - hanged himself in his cell. That's who we're opening up next."

Sam shook his head, puzzled. "They can't add him to the top of the list, unless ..."

Anna snatched the clipboard from his hand to punctuate her terse reply. "We're doing who I say we're doing - okay?"

Sam raised his hands in surrender and sat on the edge of the desk, watching as Anna opened and closed refrigerated drawers, looking for the correctly toe tagged corpse. As he waited, he glanced down at the book she'd left on the desk, expecting to see a tome on forensic pathology. His eyes widened as he read the title - The Shadow Grimoire. Grimoire ... ritual magic? What in the name of Pete was Anna doing with a book on magic?

Sam's attention was drawn away from the book by the sound of muted cursing. Anna was having difficulty transferring the stiff body she'd chosen from its drawer to one of the gurneys.

"Need some help?" he ventured.

She leveled a look at him that needed no translation and Sam rose from the desk with a smile. As he gazed at her across the corpse that lay between them, his smile faded. At this distance, Anna's features bore clear evidence of fatigue, melancholy and something new - a kind of grim resolution. But Sam saw through this sad patina to a deeper loveliness that caught at his heart. Maybe he should try again with her.

Anna tugged at the heavy body to no avail. "Come on - help me with this."

Not moving, Sam took a deep breath. "I was wondering ..." His voice trailed off under her questioning stare. He cleared his throat and began again. "Dr. Weston - Anna ... if you're not busy later tonight, I thought we might go and get something to eat."

Heart thudding, Sam waited, watching that sad/lovely face go through a series of expressions as she grasped his intent. He'd surprised her - probably not a good sign. He noticed her distractedly twisting the wedding ring she still wore as she formulated her answer and guessed he wouldn't like what he was about to hear.

"I'm flattered, really, but I think it's a mistake for people who work together to ... well, to form romantic attachments . You understand ... it's nothing personal."

Nothing personal? Sam felt his face grow warm but he nodded, forced a smile, began to shift the refrigerated corpse. "Sure, I understand."

As Sam pushed the laden gurney towards the door that Anna held open, he glanced again at the Shadow Grimoire she clasped so tightly in one hand. He wondered if there was a spell in that book powerful enough to make Anna fall in love with him. Then he shook his head - given the way she still felt about her husband, it would more likely take an act of God.

* * * * *

Anna entered the autopsy suite, her assistant Sam holding the door for her. She sighed as she glanced at her watch - 9:45 pm. It had been an incredibly busy day and, with the bodies stacked like cordwood in the morgue, she and Sam had been forced to work a double shift. The autopsy room through which she walked was large, with a tiled floor and cabinets, stainless steel sinks, a refrigerator and an empty gurney but Anna had eyes only for the case file Sam handed her. She opened it and as she read the details once again, her breath caught.

Pushing stray locks of hair under her surgical hat with a hand that trembled slightly, Anna walked to the metal autopsy table in the middle of the room. Sam had already deposited her carefully chosen corpse and bright overhead lights illuminated the pale nude body. Sam joined her, checking a camera and then opening a sterile pack of surgical instruments for the coming procedure. Watching him, Anna was relieved - he seemed to have forgotten that awkward moment in the morgue. He couldn't have known, of course, but this night was the worst possible moment for him to have voiced his feelings for her.

Pulling up her mask, Anna snapped on two pairs of latex gloves and nodded to Sam. She pulled the overhead microphone/recorder a little lower and then began to speak into it as Sam started shooting documentation photos of the body. First, she checked the corpse for surface wounds and abnormalities, all the while describing and recording her findings. The cause of death seemed as obvious as the ligature marks on the corpse's neck ... the man had been caught by police while committing a murder and was said to have hung himself later in his jail cell. But in San Francisco, all suspicious deaths required autopsies and in this case, Anna was glad to oblige.

Taking up a scalpel, she began the large Y shaped incision on the torso of the body that would open it up for investigation. Anna saw Sam wince as the scalpel cut deeply from the point of the right shoulder and down to end at the sternum. She smiled fondly behind her mask, wondering for the umpteenth time why someone as sensitive as Sam had chosen such a career. She made a another incision in the corpse from the left shoulder to meet the first cut and then continued down the middle of the body, skirting the belly button, to end at the pubic bone.

As Anna and her assistant began to peel the soft tissue back from the Y incision, a faint butcher-shop stench rose from the exposed interior of the corpse. There was little blood, however. What there was dripped down into the side gutters of the slanted table, ending up in a bucket out of sight below. As Anna took up a a small electric saw and began to cut the ribcage away from the sternum, her eyes strayed momentarily to a plaque in Latin hanging on one of the walls - Hic locus est ubi mors gaudet succurrere vitae - This is the place where death rejoices to teach the living. Anna prayed that this corpse would teach her what she needed to know ... how to bring her husband back to life.

* * * * *

Sam walked through the medical examiner's annex toward Anna's office, worried. She'd dismissed him from the autopsy early, saying that she wanted to finish it up by herself. When he'd protested, she'd pulled rank on him. Sam shook his head - his boss was spending far too much time alone, he thought, alone with the memories of her husband, Jeremy. It had been almost a year since Jeremy's death but instead of moving on, Anna seemed to only grow more morose with the passage of time. Sam had been envious of Jeremy while he lived but it was only after his death that he'd grasped how close the two had been, how futile his feelings for Anna were. It was anything but easy to compete with a ghost.

When his knocking went unanswered, Sam let himself into Anna's empty office. He'd hoped to catch her before she left for home, hoped she'd changed her mind about going out, but it appeared he was too late. Sam was about to leave, disappointed, when a book that lay open on her desk caught his attention - the Grimoire. Curious and a little disturbed, Sam took a seat in Anna's chair and began to read the contents of the pages to himself ...

"The Hand of Glory Spell - a spell of necromancy used to raise the dead. Said to have originated with Albertus Magnus in the Middle Ages, the Hand of Glory Spell is traditionally used to paralyze and control evil, usually of a lesser sort. Occasionally, if the need is great, it can be used to confound great evil as well, and what greater evil is there than death? First one must procure the hand of a criminal who has died of hanging. The severed hand should be dipped into hot wax, and hairs from the dead man's head affixed to the tips of the fingers, thus turning the hand into a kind of candle. Lighting the fingers at midnight, one begins then to speak the words of power, and ..."

The phone on Anna's desk rang, and Sam flinched, his concentration broken. He picked up the receiver, shaken, but before he could speak, the caller spat out, "What the hell's going on over there?"

"I'm sorry, what ..."

"This is the morgue. That stiff you just sent us arrived minus one of his hands. You know you have to account for all the missing parts and I don't see any paperwork here that ... "

Sam slammed down the receiver and bolted for the door, horror lending him speed. He knew where Jeremy's body lay - if Anna was doing as he suspected, she was in a terrible way and needed his help.

* * * * *

Anna knelt on the damp grass of Holy Cross Cemetery, the moon her only illumination. Before her stood Jeremy's marble tombstone, the etching of his name barely discernible in the uncertain light. This was the first time she'd come here since the funeral. For a moment, despair threatened to overtake her but then, chest aching, she brushed away tears and renewed her resolve - she wasn't here to mourn but to retrieve what had been taken from her. I will leave this place with Jeremy, she vowed.

Lifting the waxy severed hand from her purse, Anna situated it, fingers reaching toward the stars, on the bottom lip of the tombstone. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and imagined a circle forming in the grass around the area of the grave. Then striking a match, she carefully lit the hairy wick of each dead finger and began the incantation she'd memorized from the book. "Mists from north, south, east and west ... hide this place at my request." Anna bit her lip, eyes wide. She hadn't really expected this to work, but as she stared, tendrils of fog began to coalesce around Jeremy's grave site. Swallowing dryly, she continued. "Hand of glory, hand of power ... blazing at the witching hour ..."

As she spoke the final words that she hoped would bring her husband back to her, Anna saw the area over his grave begin to tremble. Before her astonished eyes, slender fingers rose up from between the blades of grass, fingers so different from those burning nearby. She held her breath, beginning to hope. Then gracefully, as if rising from a pool of water, Jeremy ascended from the shivering grass. He stood before her, beautiful and new as if reborn. She lost herself in his gaze until he reached out a hand, softly spoke her name. Anna brushed past his hand and embraced him instead, needing to feel the beat of his heart next to hers.

* * * * *

Running under the dripping trees of the cemetery, slipping on the wet grass in his haste, Sam cursed himself. He should have seen this coming - if something happened to Anna ... As he approached Jeremy's grave site through the mist, he glimpsed bits and pieces of the dead man's strange resurrection. What he saw was enough to make him doubt his own sanity. The hair rising on his neck, Sam shouted at Anna as he ran. Startled, she stumbled away from Jeremy and, falling against the tombstone, knocked over the burning Hand of Glory. There was an audible pop and the mist surrounding the grave site instantly disappeared.

With a look of sadness, Jeremy sighed, turned away from his wife, and began to walk slowly back toward his final resting place. Realizing that the spell must have been broken, Anna flung herself at her husband and tried to hold him back, but his progress, while slow, seemed inexorable. Then he paused a moment to gently push her away. "Try to understand - I have to go back, Anna. With the spell undone, that grave requires a body."

Hearing this, Anna started for the grave herself. Sam reached her side before she could sacrifice herself and held her back. "Stop it, Anna. Let him go. What you're doing here is wrong, unnatural."

She fought Sam with the strength of desperation until he realized she was beyond reason and snapped her head back with a punch. Catching her, he laid her gently on the grass and then turned to stare wonderingly at the thing that had once been Jeremy. To his surprise, the other stopped again and returned his gaze.

"You love her, don't you ... have for a long time," said Jeremy - a statement rather than a question.

Speechless, Sam nodded woodenly.

"Then, take care of her for me."

Jeremy resumed his advance to his empty grave but not before Sam had the chance to plumb the depths of the other's eyes. He wasn't sure what he'd expected to see there ... dread, anger, a ravening hunger for continued life. But instead all he'd seen was a calm acceptance. And love. A love for Anna so intense that Sam feared he'd fail to match it even if given a lifetime in which to try. Sam sighed and closed his eyes for a moment, opened them and took a last look at Anna. Then, sprinting past Jeremy, Sam dove into the waiting grave.