Doc Sullivan took the service elevator down to the hospital basement, to the morgue. He made his way down the hallway, deserted now, every other panel of lights overhead left off to conserve energy. Past locked doors opening into rooms he’d never seen, towards the steel-blue double doors at the far end. They kept the AC down here cranked up to freezer levels. Doc shivered.
On a cold metallic slab in the room ahead, Lucas Vale waited for him.
*Just get it over with.*
Doc went inside and flipped the wall switch, filling the room with sterile white light as the fluorescent tubes blinked awake above him. The air smelled heavy with antiseptics. So quiet he could hear the hum of the generators on the far side of the building. Vale’s body had been laid out for him, naked and pale, washed in preparation for the procedure. Left alone in the cold. Unfit company. Vale’s eyes were open.
*Just him and me down here.*
Doc pushed a gurney over next to the autopsy table and locked its wheels into place, began laying out his equipment. Scalpels, rib-spreader, bone saws, scissors, probes, a box of disposable latex gloves. He put on his lab smock, tied it in place and smoothed down the wrinkles. He put a pair of safety goggles on over his glasses, adjusting them on the bridge of his nose. He pulled on a pair of the latex gloves. His hands shook.
*He’s dead. He ain’t goin’ to bite you.*
Doc sighed. He picked up a magic marker and traced a blue line down Vale’s chest and abdomen, then went back over it again, making sure it would be visible enough for him to follow. Starting at the exposed tissue where Vale’s throat had been torn open, now turned a rich purple color, all the way down to the shrunken penis. Doc put down the marker and picked up one of the scalpels.
Doc hated autopsies in general, but he had dreaded this one in particular. Lucas Vale made him nervous. He’d seen Vale’s handiwork in all its gruesome glory. He’d seen what this man had done, and it didn’t make sense. Would this thin body stretched out on the autopsy table before him have been capable of tearing a grown human being in half?
Doc reached for Vale’s face and spread the lips apart, looking at his teeth. Normal.
*Those teeth didn’t chew on any bones.*
Doc shrugged, dismissing such thoughts from his mind. He only had to do his job and be done with it. Let the police or somebody else try to explain it all. As soon as he finished this autopsy, Lucas Vale would no longer be his problem.
Doc made the first cut. The pale skin opened with little resistance. Doc knew he should be recording the event. But he never did and no one had ever complained. If, in the future, the Ironwood PD wanted to go to a more professional, modern-thinking physician for such tasks, Doc would be glad to hand over his tools. Otherwise, he’d do it his way.
Doc went through the motions, trying not to rush. He shouldn’t be in any hurry. Gladys had been on his ass all day long, and if he got home too soon, she’d just drag him along to Miner Days with her so she could chew on his ass in public. Doc did not relish the idea, but he had to admit it was more appealing than spending the entire evening with Lucas Vale. He just wanted to be done with the whole mess, the sooner the better.
Doc picked up the rib-spreader and went to work on Vale’s breastbone, grunting with the effort. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve. The sternum separated, the ribcage opening like a set of jaws, exposing the chest cavity. A rank, rotten odor filled the lab. Doc grimaced, stepping back, waving his hand to clear the air.
Doc crossed to where an electric fan sat atop a countertop, flipped it on. *He ought not be that ripe already.* Doc pulled up a stool and sat down, letting the cool air from the fan wash over him. Could the freezer be on the fritz again, the body getting thawed out? Didn’t stink like that a minute ago. Doc wiped his forehead again.
A sudden noise, a tearing sound, made Doc look up.
Vale’s stomach moved. Stretched. Something poked out. Several somethings. Sharp-tipped. The stomach tore apart, and an arm reached out.
An arm had grown out of Lucas Vale’s stomach.
And a hand. Five thick, gnarled fingers, curving talons, covered with black fur, slick with bile. It raked the air, reaching upwards, then back down to dig into Vale’s exposed viscera. A second hand emerged from the coils of Vale’s small intestine.
Doc couldn’t run. He found that he lacked the strength to even stand. The sight before him had somehow numbed him, robbed him of any ability to react. He opened his mouth to scream but could not release his breath. He could only watch.
With an effort that shook Vale’s lifeless body and threatened to topple it from off the autopsy table, a snout poked out from behind the liver, a long, thick snout, then the whole head. Something like a giant wolf’s head, or a bear’s, as big as a cow’s. And teeth. Doc had never seen so many teeth. Long, jagged, crooked, some protruding from the sides of the jaws like tusks. So many teeth the mouth couldn’t hold them all. Jaws snapped the air. Two red eyes, eyes that seemed to glow in the bland fluorescent light, turned to stare at Doc.
And now Doc knew what had killed those people. He’d been right. It hadn’t been Lucas Vale after all.
The Beast grasped the sides of the table with its hands, pulling itself out. Doc found it curious that the thing was too big to fit inside Vale’s body, yet could emerge from within it. He watched as the torso appeared. Bony spikes that curved towards the posterior ran down the length of its spine; a hairless underside that looked scaled, almost plated. Out came the hindquarters and a pair of thick legs. A long, hairless, serpentine tail, tufted at the tip like a lion’s, swished back and forth, painting the floor and walls with Vale’s bile. And black, all of it black, fur and flesh. Except for its eyes.
The eyes stayed on Doc the entire time.
The Beast leapt from the table to the floor. It walked towards him on two legs. Doc’s bowels turned loose and he soiled himself, yet he still couldn’t scream. The Beast lifted its arm, drawing back a monstrous claw the size of a catcher’s mitt. Doc watched it coming down towards his head.
He never felt the impact.
* * *