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Chapter 1 of my upcoming novel

To be released Walgurgisnacht (April 30) on Amazon Kindle. Comments welcome.

 

MY BABYLON

A NOVEL IN FIVE EPISODES

EPISODE I: BODY

BY JAMES L. WILBER

 

 

Jesus said, “If the flesh came into being because of spirit, it is a wonder. But if spirit came into being because of the body, it is a wonder of wonders. I am amazed at how great this wealth has made its home in this poverty.”

- The Gospel of Thomas

 

Chapter 1

 

One of the hardest things to steal is a human body. By comparison, money can be taken easily, though the amounts make a big difference. You can grab a dollar out of a tip jar or bash on a vending machine to liberate a buck without much fuss. If you ask the right person the right way they might just hand you a dollar. They never give away bodies. Not here in the U.S. of A.. Not in any “civilized” country.

People think money means everything. They sell themselves into servitude for the majority of their waking hours. Give over their liberty to soulless corporations that exist only to make even more money for rich bastards. I do it.

A cadaver only costs about a grand. Anyone could whore themselves or offer manual labor for a couple of months and come up with a grand. You don’t even need a real job or any skills. Trust me. I could manage a scheme to steal a thousand dollars much easier than stealing that corpse. But even if you had the cash, no one will give you a body without the backing of a medical license and a mighty institution—school, hospital, or laboratory.

Yeah, I suppose if you had enough money you could buy a body. Parts and whole corpses get sold on the black market all the time. One in good shape can reap tens of thousands of dollars under those clandestine circumstances. Freshness does count. It has to be properly preserved. I wanted intact but not necessarily pristine. Coming up with that kind of money takes years of hard work, or stealing from a bank, or jewelry store, or some other repository of liquid assets. Just as hard as robbing a morgue. People get upset when you steal that much money. I went for the morgue.

You may ask that if freshness didn’t matter why not dig one up like old Dr. Frankenstein? I’ve buried enough family to rule out that course of action. Sure, graveyards have limited security, most don’t even have cameras. Once you bypass the fence you’re in a secluded spot. You can take your time excavating your treasure. The only problem is, that since the turn of the century undertakers have been placing coffins in burial vaults. This means the casket sits nestled in a half-foot of concrete strong enough to prevent the weight of all that earth collapsing in when they drive across it with a back-hoe. The family may also opt for a liner made of plastic or metal to keep water out of the grave. Even the most determined re-animator and loyal hunchback lack the brute force necessary to pluck a body from a modern grave using hand tools.

The one other obvious method of obtaining a corpse—making one yourself—never entered my realm of possibility. I abhor inflicting hurt on others. Despite everything I’ve done. No matter how perverse my personal creed seems to most, I refuse to kill another human being. I know that my theft of that girl’s body caused grievous emotional harm to her family. For some reason we hold dear those lifeless tissues. Perhaps because they are a symbol of the spirit that left them. Honestly, it was because of its power as a symbol that it was worth so much to me. I still anguish over the trauma I caused the relatives and friends. They would never know, never believe, that my plan was designed to inflict the minimum amount of suffering on the planet. The corpse, of course, didn’t mind. As Marla Singer so eloquently put it, “They’re dead, and I’m alive, and I’m suffering.”

The longing came over me last fall. I suppose from watching all those college students return for the coming year. I live in an old neighborhood. The houses, some almost two-hundred years old, have been split into duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes, and those get shared by up to a half-dozen incoming college students that descend on the town every September. The district’s old growth trees, cracked sidewalks, and sagging faded homes, attract bohemians and artists and loners like me. But when the nights turn cool, the residents brace themselves for the onslaught of keg parties, loud music, vomiting in the bushes, and other of obnoxious late night behaviors. I’m a night person, so it doesn’t bother me much. It’s not like they’re waking me up. I consider it a challenge to keep perfect concentration while the windows are rattling. The students also drive up the rent on Winchell Avenue and the surrounding streets well beyond my means, but my landlord and I get along well. She knows I won’t tear the place up, and she doesn’t need to go looking for new tenants in the summer.

The parade of young girls ready to experiment with their newfound freedom made me think of her. I thought she was different. She was different. I just don’t know if it was in the ways I assumed. I still think about her every single day. I believed, still believe, that none of those tittering and nervous co-eds passing by my door could replace her. Even if they could, I couldn’t do that to another human. I wouldn’t be responsible for leading them down that path of self-consumption. I spiral alone now. No, that’s a lie. I’m not entirely alone anymore.

Despite the burning ache, I took my time. The ache isn’t the worst part anyway. The worst part comes when you wake up in the morning, get in the shower, and realize you’ll never feel that again. You’ll never be that alive again. The watching gave me purpose. I might not have made it out the door those days without it.

I thought at first to infiltrate a funeral home and obtain a body that way. I knew I couldn’t just go to work for one. The first suspects when a body goes missing from a funeral home are the employees. Plus, I have a job I can tolerate, as a dishwasher. The pure mechanical nature of it keeps me in the profession. I rent out my body for $9.00 per hour, but my mind remains my own. At work, I am on autopilot. I can perform my tasks with the most limited thought, leaving me to think of what I want. The only indication of the passage of time is the growing pain in my feet planted on the slick rubber mat, and ache in my back bent over the sink. After my shift, I walk away and don’t give a single fuck about my job until the next one. So while I lack funds I have copious amounts of free time and patience. This I used to stake out the local mortuaries.

I spent over a year on recon and planning. During my intelligence gathering, I eschewed my nocturnal routine and actually left my home in the AM. I donned something dark and non-descript, which pretty much describes my entire wardrobe anyway, and walked down to the coffee house to get something large, black, and hot. After I meandered over to one of the local parlors, I found a nook or perch where I could watch the back entrance without being seen and whiled away the hours until work. A grueling task when standing in place or sitting on cold concrete, subjected to the frigid November wind, huddling around a cup of coffee for warmth.

My original plan entailed somehow intercepting an incoming corpse during the receiving process. It took a few weeks to accept the futility of the endeavor. In every case, an ambulance would pull up to the loading dock, and not long after, one or more representatives of the funeral home would emerge. Without being able to get into the home itself, or even hear most of their conversations, I watched the expressions and body language of the participants in order to gain the gist of each transaction.

For a typical delivery, the ambulance pulled down the alley at a snail’s pace. One of the crew would hop out and guide the driver as he backed the behemoth, reverse warning alarm screeching the whole time, as close to the raised platform as possible to ensure a smooth roll-off. Usually during this process, one of the morticians would open the back door, grinning and waving. Considering the task at hand they always seemed happy to see each other, that normal human reaction when getting to see someone only every so often at work. They hang around long enough for pleasantries, but are gone before they annoy each other. You have to make an effort to be hated in such a short period of time. Most people don’t have it in them.

The key was that the intake crew seemed to always know when the ambulance would arrive. Either the ambulance crew called ahead and made arrangements, or the funeral workers heard those ear-piercing klaxons. In any case, no opportunity to grab the body presented itself, either through impersonation or neglect. On my days off, I even watched at night. No deliveries came after normal business hours, enforcing the theory that all were arranged.

My ray of hope came when I started watching my third home. It required skipping a few packages of ramen during those weeks because I needed to pay for two bus rides each day, but it was worth it. At this larger establishment, deliveries went the same. But on my first day I witnessed two instances of an unmarked van leaving the garage, and two morticians returning with a gurney laden with the object of my desire. This even happened at night, though that required the crew to rendezvous at the home, drag-tail and sleepy-eyed from being called in, and then take the van out for the pick-up.

This led to the conclusion that a weak link may be found at the hospital. A good thing, because casing the funeral homes lasted well into December, and the onslaught of a Michigan winter could deter even me. I switched from suspicious alley lurker to distraught visiting family member. Even in a small city like Kalamazoo, it takes months to learn the layout of a hospital. Corridor upon corridor of identical non-descript rooms sows confusion. I needed to learn not only how to navigate quickly, but which halls, entrances, and exits were most likely to be watched, and when.

Entire nights were wasted noting the positions of cameras and when each desk would be un-manned. To develop a cover, I learned which waiting rooms were most often used by the families of cancer patients, and other illnesses that took long-term care. Not at all a cheerful endeavor, but I felt I deserved some pain. To make myself one of them, I sat too close to large groups, refusing to leave an empty seat between us as decorum dictates, even when the rest of the room was empty. Of course, they would never break the social contract by insisting that I move. The proximity made my skin crawl, and I could not help but wonder if it would be their relative stolen. If I would so happen to chance upon Jake, or Margo, or Lloyd, the names I heard the families repeat over and over, I doubted I could go through with it. But because of this, security and staff assumed I belonged with the grief stricken. Even when I took to wandering they marked me as a bored visitor, walking to keep awake. By February I was invisible.

The conspicuous largess of the American medical system worked to my advantage. Most hospitals maintain tight security, surveillance, platoons of guards, requiring badges and codes to enter work areas. However, that security lapses in the ubiquitous construction zones. It seems no hospital can resist wasting wads of cash on bigger, newer, and more luxurious facilities. Visit your local medical temple sometime and witness for yourself the installation of enough marble and glass to rival palaces in Europe. Come the day of the heist, I could count on an unmonitored staging area. Discovering all this took over a month. Only after this initial infiltration did finding the morgue become a priority.

Exterior stake-outs of the hospital loading zones, however, required a reason to stand around in strange places. I took up smoking again. I started smoking at sixteen. The summer before grad school I noticed my lung capacity decreasing. Not willing to compromise my ability to project my voice, the cigarettes had to go.

To my surprise, it took twelve days to track down that white van. In that time I examined what I knew about human nature. No doubt the hospital called the funeral home when they had a pick-up ready. Once again, the transaction was always expected, but having it work the other way around gave me some advantage. People at work take the path of least resistance. Morticians want to get corpses as soon as possible and hospitals want to get rid of them. Even if the timing is a bit off, the mortician shows up too early or too late, there’s always another body that needs to go. Barring some flagrant behavior, no reason to be suspicious of a mortician. My next hurdle was looking like I worked at a funeral home.

The Evans Funeral Home used a limited uniform. The driver and partner wore black slacks, white button down shirt, black windbreaker with logo patch, and baseball cap with logo. I had the shirt and pants covered. I found a similar windbreaker at the Salvation Army store for five bucks. I knew it could pass without the logo, especially if I had one on the hat. The design was nothing special. You can count on the funeral business to be sedate.

Considering my total lack of spending money, this took quite an investment. My paranoia kicked in, and I considered it wise to make my purchase as far away from the scene of the crime as possible. Someone would remember a guy buying a custom made hat for a funeral home. Even though I didn’t intend to take the corpse for several months, better safe than someone’s prison bitch. People incarcerated for crimes against taboo seldom fare well behind bars. I wasted a day off and twenty-five dollars on a round-trip Greyhound from Kalamazoo to one of the big malls in Grand Rapids.

Funny, this part of the operation took more will than most of what came next. I fucking despise malls. There’re the ostentatious displays of wealth. New malls in rich areas are particularly loathsome. Once again, enough marble and glass to make a Bourbon monarch feel at home. That’s not counting the displays of astronomically priced merchandise made to appeal to the brand conscious. How do people do it? How do they enjoy doing that? Jamming themselves together to purchase status on the flimsiest of pretexts? As soon as I walk through the doors, the bright lights, shit music, and roar of banal dialogue overwhelms me. Who are these people talking about sports, and celebrities, and clothes designers like they matter? The smell of artificial food and perfumes makes my stomach turn. It takes all my concentration to make sure I don’t overhear any conversation and risk exploding into a tirade sure to lead to my arrest. When I go to my favorite café on the corner, (no, not the coffee abattoir with the green mermaid), I can listen to street people with library card educations discuss theology, philosophy, and physics. At the mall, amongst those given all the advantages in the world, I hear about last night’s reality TV show.

Before I even left my home I consulted a floor plan of the mall and charted the most direct course to the store I needed—a custom embroidery kiosk off the food court. Armored with my largest pair of over-ear headphones, hood up, eyes straight ahead, I pushed through the doors and fast-walked the thirty-five yards to the stool of a listless sales girl Facebooking from her phone. My sudden appearance gave her a start, and she neglected to hide her loathing and disgust for just a moment before switching to retail-robot cheerleader.

“Hi, Can I help you find something?”

“Yes. I would like to buy a full-cloth black baseball cap with custom embroidery.” I provided all the information as succinctly as possible to keep contact to a minimum.

“Sure, what style?”

I missed the mark. Either she did not possess the processing power necessary to assign two characteristics to one object at the same time, or she was so lacking in give a shit, whatever a customer said passed through her mind like an eel in a fish tank. “The full-cloth, not the mesh back.”

“Great….”

Why was my choice in hat subject to praise? Was it because making the choice quickly made her life more bearable?

Her head tilted to one side as if she had trouble keeping me in focus. “Would you like to look through the font choices?”

“I looked through the typefaces online, I would like number eighteen, Book Antiqua.”

The unusual lack of transaction banter started to make her uncomfortable. I wanted to just start telling her what size lettering and what it should say, but I reasoned waiting for her to ask would help to normalize the situation.

She picked up her pen and blank order form, noted what I already told her, and retreated into deep concentration for an aeon. Someone nearby said, “And oh God, she looked like such a skanky ho….” The sales girl must have noticed me wincing, which jarred her faculties back into motion.

She looked back at me with the rictus grin. “What would you like it to say?”

No amount of preparation would make it any easier for her. “The top line should say ‘Evans’ in forty-eight point bold all caps. The second line should say ‘Funeral Home’ in twenty-eight point normal lettering with ‘F’ and ‘H’ capitalized.

She nodded as she wrote, and then kept nodding as the meaning of the words sank in. Her head went up and down for what I would swear was a good twenty seconds.

I had prepared an explanation. Not a good one. I don’t think a good one exists.

“I lost my hat at work. My boss will charge me fifty dollars to replace it.”

It gave her enough normalization to stop bobbing her head. “Oh, you’re a mortician.”

“Yes.”

Another painful pause. I know that decorum dictates some kind of apology or excuse for having a job until recently performed only by untouchables. Better to leave as little memory behind as possible in case she gets questioned.

Putting my headphones back on, I took a seat on a nearby bench until she completed the cap. Her hands shook as she took the blank hat off the rack and fed it into the clever machine that did the stitching. If I had only known that working at a funeral home would cause people to recoil in terror, I would have made it my trade a long time ago. Or at least have worn the uniform. Alas, with my upcoming crime I couldn’t risk attracting attention to myself that way.

I tried not to watch. Looking too eager would only add to her suspicions. Instead, as I have practiced doing for the past decade, I closed my eyes, leaned back, and retreated into my own mind. It was time to plan the next phase.

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