A living man or woman can be anything; an author, a philosopher, an inventor or actor. Why waste such potential on breaking rock or picking trash when a stiff can do the job just as well?
In an all too familiar repeat of his childhood, a heavy blow sent Andrew down to the floor. Pain exploded across his face and rattled his thoughts.
The goon had stepped back to deliver another blow but stopped. Andrew’s mouth filled with blood and it dribbled down onto the concrete floor beneath him. Agony radiated out from the side of his skull. Just like old times.
“Help him up, please,.” Kerensky said. Blood dripped into his eyes and blurred Andrew’s vision. The squat, bald man leaned against his cane as the goon hauled Andrew back to his feet and brushed him off.
“Andrew, you know, I don’t like this.” Kerensky removed a handkerchief from his suit pocket and handed it to another of his associates. It was forced into Andrew’s hands. He pressed it against the gash that had opened across his head, but it did little to stem the flow of blood.
“You know this, yes?”
“Yeah, of course, boss,” Andrew said. A raucous cheer invaded from outside the barren factory floor, a landscape of rotting wood and rusting iron.
“But how long has it been now? When I gave you that money, you promised that it would be repaid promptly. Where is the money, Andrew?”
He had no answer, but Kerensky knew that.
“I’m working on it.” Andrew did his best to smile. His throat felt dry and his voice cracked. “Listen, I really am. You know how it is here.”
“I like you, Andrew. You’re smart.,” The old man smiled and put his hand on Andrew’s shoulder. “But this is one promise you can’t run away from.”
Andrew flinched and said nothing. He could barely hear the noise from the other room over the sound of his own beating heart. The entire world was no larger than the empty factory room, and the pause was an eternity before Kerensky spoke again.
“I know I can trust you to bring me the money, right?” The old man smiled, revealing a mouth full of rotting teeth.
“Of course,” Andrew said. “Soon.”
“That’s what I thought. Good lad.” Kerensky clapped Andrew on the shoulder again. “Now run along. Go enjoy the show. Really enjoy it.”
Andrew stumbled back as Kerensky and his entourage left. He crumbled to the floor among the dust and decay, eyes fixed out into the darkness. As adrenaline left his body, the pain returned in full and he groaned. Pain meant that he was still alive, and that meant he was still worth more than a stiff. It was a small consolation, but the only one he had.
He climbed back to his feet and dusted himself off. Jeers and shouting came echoing through the door. After another moment in the dark, Andrew opened it and ventured back into the room beyond. The light stung his eyes and the cheers of the crowd became painfully loud. The old factory had long been abandoned, stripped of machines and the men that worked them. It reeked of sweat and alcohol, heated by the press of the crowd and open fires.
Two stiffs faced off in the center of the room. Rope tied to barrels formed the edge of an arena and the two zombies were mauling each other inside of it. The ground was splattered with old blood and embalming fluid, leaking from the undead. Greatest sport in the world, Andrew thought.
Each undead had been prepared for the bout with razor-wire wound tightly around their arms and muzzles covering their faces. Each moved mechanically, like marionettes on wires. Shouted commands from either side of the ring guided each blow and move but without much precision. The zombies slipped and crashed into each other before retreating to resume the exchange of blows. Andrew moved closer to watch the fray and realized that one of the undead competitors looked familiar. The pallid face was almost unrecognizable behind the metal cage that trapped it, but it was poor old Lloyd.
Watch closely, Andrew thought to himself. Like him, the old drunk had owed a debt to Kerensky and his gang but had never repaid it. Despite the heat, Andrew shuddered as he watched the corpse of the drunkard dance to the tune of the controller. Even dead, Lloyd’s luck was little better, and he was soon down on the ground with the other zombie over him, bashing his skull against the hard concrete. Someone shouted and cursed, and the match stopped. The undead meekly parted and money traded hands as bets were won and lost.
He watched as the stiffs were herded away. It was a career Andrew was not keen to follow. The hiss of steam and the reek of barely embalmed corpses mingled in the air. He had to squeeze his way past the workstations where the undead were stationed, methodically doing their part along the span of the assembly line. Some had been seated so long that they looked fused to the factory floor by clumps of fuzzy mold and debris. Andrew sucked in his stomach and held his nose as he pressed between two half-naked undead and their work, trying his best not to step on the rotting pile of rags around their feet. Conveyor belts whirred on just past them at a slow and steady pace. Few came this deep into the factory and the controller’s chair was empty, coated with a thick layer of dust. Only when something went wrong did they venture here, leaving Andrew free to make his way past the brightly lit parts where there were still living men and women working.
He paused as he reached the door, hand resting on the wood. Light flickered from underneath the door’s gap, a stabbing contrast to the barely lit gloom behind him. He didn’t want to be here, but the dull pain where the goon had struck him and the image of Lloyd’s rotting face forced his hand to push open the door. Andrew smiled widely and walked into the room.
“Honey, I’m home!”
The Nekromechanic workshop was laid out like the mad dream of a butcher. Arms and legs were neatly stacked like cordwood and tucked away in a corner. Entire torsos hung from meat hooks at the far end of the room, blood dripping down into the grates below. The concrete floor had turned a dull, sickly brown with only patches of grey still visible. Everywhere, there were saws and scissors, knives and hatchets. The short, bald woman halted the order she had been giving the stiff across the table from her and whirled to face the voice.
She frowned. “You look like shit.”
“Hello to you, too.” Andrew forced another smile. He walked down the short steps to the workshop. A feeble gust of wind from the ventilation tried and failed to dispel the stench. He put a hand over his mouth, feeling his throat seize up. Lily frowned again and put down the meat-cleaver she had held—a good sign. Andrew had seen her work.
“What do you want, Andrew?”
“Can’t a friend just come to visit, Lil?” He kept his hand over his mouth.
“No. It’s always something with you.” Lily turned back to the undead she had been talking to. His face was covered in a blank metal mask, leaving only his milky eyes visible. Unlike the forgotten dead among the assembly, this corpse was dressed in sturdy clothing, stained with gore.
“Pick that up.” She pointed to the lower half of a body. The feet were mangled; the kind of damaged merchandise that could easily go missing. “And put it over there.”
The stiff shuffled away to obey, dragging the legs along the ground by the ankle.
“I’ve missed you.” Andrew smiled. He was rewarded with another frown. It wasn’t working. “But, ah, I’m in some trouble, you see.”
“Now there’s a surprise.” Lily picked up the meat-cleaver again and Andrew took a step back. For the first time since he had entered, she smiled. “What other news do you bring? That water is wet and the dead are walking?”
“I—” He was interrupted as she lifted the cleaver and hacked away at an arm on the table. Lily severed the hand from the rest of the limb, tossing the damaged hand into a chute. The arm went into a large container with the rest of the raw material.
“I owe a bit of money. To Kerensky.”
Lily had brought the hatchet up but stopped to look at him.
“Please—please tell me you didn’t say you’ve borrowed from my boss.”
“It was an emergency. I had no choice.” He lowered his hand to gesture. The cloying, rancid air made him gag again. “But I can’t find any work.”
“Well, why would you?” Lily brought the hatchet down again. Another handless arm went into the metal bin. “Even if you had the heart for honest work, you can’t compete with a stiff. See?”
Lily gestured. The stiff had returned, standing there quiet and waiting.
“Reliable. Hard-working. Trustworthy.”
“I get it, I get it. All the things I’m not.” Andrew clenched his fists. Lily didn’t need the hatchet to damage him. “That’s rich coming from you, stealing material for Kerensky and his gang.”
“A woman has to eat.” She shrugged. “And who’s going to miss an arm here or a leg there? As long as the war’s going on, I don’t think we’ll run low on material.”
“He’s going to kill me, Lily!” Andrew walked forward and put his hands on the table. He looked into her eyes. “Look, I wasn’t... When we were... But he’s going to kill me.”
It worked. Lily glanced away.
“I can’t lend you any money. I don’t have that kind of cash.” Lily looked back at him and hesitated. “I guess I could use another assistant... Maybe. But promise me—promise me that this time will be different, Andrew.”
“Not like I have much of a choice, is it?” Andrew said. “Come on, give me a chance.”
It wasn’t the first time he had said that to her.
“Well… Make yourself useful while I go talk to the manager. Maybe we can spare the expense for a day-laborer,” Lily said. “There’s a bunch of material to sort and toss.”
She left the room, heading away from the gloomy belly of the facility from which Andrew had entered. The stiff followed with her. Andrew breathed a sigh of relief and wandered the workshop. He’d been in one before, in other parts of the city. Corpses came by truck and ended up in rooms like these. He lifted an arm from the floor, severed above the elbow with the bone sticking out of the flesh. It lurched at an unnatural angle when he turned it, then tossed it into the chute. Some parts were just too damaged to use, which was where butchers like Lily found their work. He peered into the container where she had already finished; legs with different feet stitched onto the ends and secured with metal bolts. Andrew could see where the flesh had been cut apart and guessed that the ankles had been reinforced on the inside, too. Very little went to waste here.
The door opened and the zombie entered again. It shambled to the far end of the room and stood there.
“No, no. You rest, I’ll just do this by myself,” Andrew said. The corpse did not answer.
Unlike the bodies along the assembly, this stiff had been properly embalmed and preserved. He could only guess how long it had been working here in the charnel pit. With no idea where he could start, Andrew continued to wander. Lily had left her jacket hanging by the hook near the door. He walked over and carefully lifted the jacket to see what she might’ve left in it. A wallet poked out of the inner pocket and—the door rattled open.
Andrew stepped back and placed himself near the door when Lily entered again.
“Well, how’d it go?” he asked.
“About as well as you’d expect.” Lily sighed. “But they’ll pay for a day of labor. Just put your back into it and they might go for another one.”
“Of course.” Andrew smiled. “I can always count on you, right?”
Lily stared at him and said nothing. She pushed past him and returned to the table.
“Right, sorting.” She took a deep breath. “One of the things the stiffs still aren’t any good at.”
She gestured for him and Andrew walked to the other side of the table. Lily bent over and struggled to haul a headless corpse up on top. The limbs were stiff, and the skin had assumed a bleak tone, but it looked otherwise intact. Lily shoved the legs onto the table and wiped her forehead.
“What are we sorting? I mean, one corpse or another, what’s the difference?” Andrew asked.
“Condition, for one.” Lily held up the left arm of the corpse. “Some of them come in damaged. Especially from the front. Can’t well use a hand with no fingers, for instance.”
She let the arm fall back onto the table, rattling the collection of bloody tools around it.
“We’re looking for damage, first of all.” She picked up the cleaver again and used it to measure. “This one looks in pretty good shape. Younger corpses fetch a better price than old ones. Less wear and tear.”
“Young and old, whole and broken? Sounds easy enough.”
“It’s a start, yeah.” Lily nodded. “Size is another. Muscles don’t matter much, but the small ones can’t carry as heavy a load. Good for mines, and good enough for factory work.”
Andrew followed her eyes as she glanced into one end of the room. Haphazardly stacked bodies had been piled off to the side, with a strong chemical odor prickling his nose. Some of the corpses were much smaller, little more than children. All had been undressed and limbs bound together.
“This one,” Lily began, as she slapped the corpse’s chest and brought his attention back to it with a start, “doesn’t have a head. That’s not as much of a problem as you’d think. We just need to find him another one.”
“What happened to it?”
Lily shrugged. She trailed the blade across the arm, leaving a cut in the dead flesh here and there before moving onto the next.
“Someone might’ve recognized him. Trophy, maybe.” She left another cut on the torso and moved down to examine the legs. To Andrew, the corpse looked good enough. It must have been fit in life, but Lily frowned as she reached the knee.
“People sometimes pay good money for a stiff they recognize. They don’t stop being famous just because they’re dead.”
“Yeah.” Andrew smiled and looked down on the corpse. It’d soon be time to go home.
“What?” Lily paused and looked at him. “What’s the matter?”
“Oh, nothing.” Andrew smiled wider. He clapped his hands together and rubbed them. “What do you want me to do? Sorting, yeah?”
“Right… Sorting and gutting.” She left the cleaver on the table and picked up a large wicked knife. With one deft move, she plunged it into the side of the corpse’s stomach and sawed in a circular motion around it. Andrew’s smile left him as Lily pulled back the flesh to expose the inside. He covered his mouth with a hand and hunched down.
“Leave the lungs. Everything else, we’re going to get rid of.” Lily set aside the knife and reached down to start pulling out the organs. It’d been dead long enough that there wasn’t much blood left beyond some half-coagulated gel. Once out of the body, she began cutting them free and dumping them into the chute, one at a time.
“You can’t be serious.” Andrew looked down at the body.
“You wanted to work, Andrew.” Lily put her hands down on the table and looked at him. “So, work.”
Andrew had never thought about the process that turned a dead man or woman into a stiff. In his mind, they just emerged from butcher shops and corpse farms, fully formed and masked. He trudged to the mass of tangled bodies and picked over the pile for one that did not look so heavy. He stayed away from the deep corner, where the small bodies were, and settled on an old man. The smell was stronger here, and the bodies were still covered in a thin sheen; something to cover up the miasma, he reckoned.
It didn’t take long for Andrew to start sweating, his muscles burning as corpse after corpse was carried from the pile. Corpses too maimed to be of use were dumped into the chute whole. Full ones went to the table, where Lily examined each, cut them open and removed the organs. Limbs that would be of no use were hacked off. After the third, Andrew slowed and rested against the table. Gore stained his arms up to the elbows. When the knife cut through dead organs one more time with a soft, sucking noise, Andrew hunched over and emptied his stomach on the floor. He didn’t stop until there was nothing left. The taste of vomit mixed with the smell of decay inside his mouth.
“Why don’t you take a break?” Lily looked at him. He couldn’t tell if there was pity or contempt in her eyes. “I need to go grab something, anyway.”
Andrew waved at her and slumped down on the ground. The concrete was slick beneath him, seeping into his pants. His throat burned and he could only watch as Lily took her jacket and left the room. The wallet went with her. He wiped his lips with the arm of his coat.
“Fuck this.” Andrew got up. The wallet was gone but Lily had left a newspaper lying on the bench by the door. Andrew tucked it under his arm and gave the butcher shop one last look before slipping out the way he’d arrived.
Home, sweet home.
The apartment complex was built like a fortress; a dull box of concrete, the walls scarred by smog. Tiny windows peered out onto the streets and trash piled around it, despite the few roaming stiffs that picked at it. Andrew passed a group of children who were amusing themselves by throwing trash and watching the corpse amble after each one to pick it up. The government stiffs didn’t go inside the building and the rot had started to set in. Paint flaked from the walls and the light bulbs had been unevenly replaced in the long hallway of identical doors. He stepped over a pile of trash at the top of the stairs and kicked it down in an attempt to get rid of the obstacle for the next person. The halls were empty and quiet, each home wrapped in a thick concrete cocoon and isolated from the rest. He headed down the hall and paused briefly at one of the doors, where a brown envelope hadn’t quite been shoved down the slot. He leaned in and, hearing nothing, plucked the letter and continued to his apartment.
Room 403, housing for the poor. He fit the key into the lock and opened. Another brown letter rested on the floor just beyond the small apartment. It was no more than a couple of rooms with a dull beige wallpaper and bare wooden floor. He bent over and picked up the envelope, tossing both onto the kitchen table. Food rations for those with no work, like almost every soul who lived there. At least he’d have extra this week.
“Dad? Get out here,” Andrew called. A muted shuffle from the other room responded to the order and the corpse walked out. The embalming had done its job well. Despite the sunken eyes and sickly grey skin, he looked almost as he had on the day he died. He could almost hear his father’s voice in his head. Andrew lashed out, slugging the corpse as hard as he could and then again until it fell to the ground.
It hadn’t been cheap, thus the loan from Kerensky. Andrew watched the stiff crawl to its hands and knees, then kicked it in the ribs. Days like this, it was worth every penny and every bruise that Kerensky’s goons gave him.
“And how was your day?” Andrew asked. “Get up.”
The zombie slowly rose back to its feet and turned toward him. Andrew looked into the vacant eyes and dull expression, his good mood souring. The mortician had offered him a fair sum for the corpse.
‘Strong man, in good condition’, he had said, ‘dead well before his time’. Andrew kicked the stiff in the stomach with enough force to send it back to the floor then turned back to the room with a huff.
The empty bottles and dirty dishes had piled up in the sink, spilled over onto the rest of the cupboards and then spread to claim the floor nearby. Andrew sifted through the mess before finding a bottle of liquor that still had something to give. He sat down on the kitchen chair. Another day, another riot. The headlines of the newspaper screamed of battles in faraway fields and in the streets. Andrew flipped through the paper and had a swig of his drink when providence struck.
“Champion slain in ring”, read the news. Andrew stopped and skimmed the text. Even in this day and age, there were still fights d between the living. Andrew could never fathom why—fighting a stiff was a far less dangerous match. The papers agreed with him. Journalists and public figures alike called for an end to the barbaric practice.
“It is far more humane for the undead to be used in such sports, and tragedies like this can be avoided,” Andrew read aloud. “The athlete’s exceptional body is to be preserved and auctioned.”
Andrew drummed his fingers against the table. He knew the place where the boxer had died. It wasn’t too far away. Why not pay the debt of one corpse with another? Kerensky’s little boxing ring would get a celebrity combatant, and the corpse would keep its fame.
“And you said I never had any good ideas.” Andrew laughed at the prone stiff across the room.
“Are you sure this is gonna work?”
Joey was almost a decade younger than Andrew. The mop of blonde hair and chubby cheeks made him look even younger. He was a good kid and no matter what Andrew did, he followed him around like a lost puppy. Rain was pouring down on the city when Andrew went back out, and he had almost turned around when the wet crept through his coat.
“Course it is, Joey.” Andrew put an arm around his shoulders and grinned at him. “Don’t tell me you’ve never lifted a stiff before.”
“Well, yeah.” Joey held a newspaper over his head in an attempt to ward off the rain. “Remember the old hag on the fourth floor? We nabbed her when she croaked… But look at this place.”
Andrew had only been at the industrial morgue once before. When his grandmother passed and there had been no one to take her, his father had loaded the corpse into the car and drove it there. Little Andrew had not ventured inside with him, waiting instead at the mouth of the facility. He watched as corpses came and stiffs went, wondering about the miracles of science that happened within.
But now, the whole place looked ready for an invasion. Fences surrounded the building, topped with barbed wire. The windows were covered with heavy bars and the gates were shut, opening only for the occasional corpse-cart.
“It’s all for show, Joey.” Andrew’s confidence was infectious. The young man beside him straightened up again. “Trust me. Nothing more than to keep kids and hobos out of there.”
“Alright, uh, yeah. What are we grabbing? Just some stiffs?”
Andrew nodded. “Just some stiffs.”
“So, uh, how’s Lily?”
Andrew touched the welt that had formed on his head and winced from the pain. Maybe this had not been such a good idea after all, but the thought of going back to the apartment and the damnable corpse there empty-handed made his blood boil.
“Great, yeah. I just talked to her the other day. She asked about ya, buddy.” Andrew winked at his friend, pushing the look she’d given him before he walked out of the butcher shop from his mind. “Maybe you can buy her something nice from the score today, yeah?”
It had the desired effect. Joey grinned at him widely and the two set off from the little alcove they had sought shelter in. The cobblestone streets were slick under their feet—and empty. Few were out in this weather, and fewer still ventured anywhere near the morgue unless they had to. Andrew hurried his step before Joey could ask any other questions, causing him to slip and skid down an incline and into the fence at the side of the morgue. A dog stared at him from the other side, but its eyes were dead and its flesh stitched together underneath the patches of fur still on it.
Andrew jumped up with a yelp, but the undead only watched. Whatever its orders were, they didn’t include his side of the fence. He stepped away from the thing just as Joey caught up to him.
“Yikes, look at that thing!” Joey rested his hands on his knees, catching his breath. He looked through the fence at the dog and bared his teeth but there was no reaction. The stiff halted briefly, then continued its slow patrol around the morgue.
“See? Nothing to worry about.” Andrew looked at him. “You go over the fence and I’ll keep an eye out.”
Joey looked up at the wicked tangle of wire that crowned the fence and hesitated before he started to climb. His fingers dug through the gaps of the chain links as he pulled himself up, inch by inch. Andrew glanced around but there were no signs of the living. A few stiffs shambled in the distance, heedless of the rain.
Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea after all. It was almost certainly what Lily would’ve told him. “Almost there, come on!” Andrew pushed.
He blinked the water out of his eyes as Joey fumbled to reach the top—and reached too far. His hand closed on the barbed wire and the sharp spikes cut into his palm. The boy yelped and pulled away, one of his feet slipping from the fence. For a moment, he couldn’t do anything but dangle from the fence with his arm flailing to try and find his hold. He hit the fence and bounced back around. It allowed him to find his grip again, and he hauled himself up just below the wire. Beneath, the dog had completed its previous route and was standing on the other side. It looked up at him, even as the rain fell right into its upturned eyes.
“Scram! Get out of here, mutt!” Andrew yelled, kicking the fence for good measure.
Joey carefully hoisted himself to the top of the fence, then pulled himself up and over. He landed on the reanimated dog with a sickening crunch. The spine of the dead animal was twisted around, the upper half of the body lolling from the rest. Joey groaned and rolled away from it, struggling to get his balance. The dog crept after him on its three remaining limbs, the fourth mangled.
“Fuck! Andrew! Help!”
“Quiet! You’re gonna give us away!” Andrew hissed. He grabbed the fence and started to climb, but a movement out of the corner of his eyes made him pause. Several shapes started to emerge from hatches along the fortress-morgue.
Joey kicked the dog again. The head was pitifully twisted to the side and the jaws worked as best they could to grab him. A final kick and the head snapped with a loud crack, then again and again until the head came loose and rolled away on the muddy ground.
“Hah! Take that. You were right, Andrew. This is going to be easy!” Joey gave the corpse another kick before he climbed to his feet.
“Joey, get the fuck back up the fence!” Andrew watched as the other dogs crawled out and silently advanced. Joey blinked and whirled around. There were only a few meters between him and the dogs. Andrew dropped back down and kicked and slapped the fence, but the dogs kept their eyes on Joey.
Joey stood transfixed as they crept closer without sound. When he turned around and scrambled to scale the fence, they were too close. One dog latched onto his left ankle. Another started to chew on his right leg.
“Come on, climb!” Andrew looked around. There were no guards or workers on the other side of the fence, no one there to control the stiffs.
Another dog crawled close enough to close its jaw around Joey’s leg. It almost came loose from the stiff’s skull when Joey started to thrash and scream. He clung to the fence and flailed his legs at the gathering stiffs, but more bit into him. One hand slipped, then the other, and Joey crashed to the ground.
The dogs swarmed over him and Joey screamed. Andrew stepped away from the fence, heart racing in his chest.
Another scream jolted him and he kicked the fence again, but the dogs ignored him. There was no way he was going over the fence. The stiffs bit hard and held on, the flesh tearing loose from Joey’s arms and legs as he struggled to get free. When Joey kicked them away, they clawed and nipped until they could find their grip again.
Andrew jammed a finger through the links and into the eye of the closest dog. It popped like a cyst, spilling out over his finger. The dog kept its grip on Joey’s shoulder. Andrew hooked his fingers inside its skull until he found a grip, then pulled. The teeth sheared through clothes and meat as the dog followed his grip. Andrew grabbed the fence for leverage and strained until the head of the stiff pressed into the fence, metal cutting into the rotting flesh.
Sharp teeth closed around the fingers of his other hand and pressed hard. Andrew yelped and turned to see another of the stiffs closing its maw around them. It felt like his bones would crack, pressed together like a vice in the zombie’s mouth.
He battered it with his other hand, the stiff he had just let go of lunging for Joey’s throat, his screams for help becoming choked.
“Get… the fuck… off me!” Andrew beat at the fence and tried to pull, then stumbled back and fell. The two fingers remained in the dog’s mouth and it stared at him through the fence. Andrew felt his entire body go numb and the world became quiet. He looked down at his hand, where blood spurted from the severed ends of his middle fingers. They had been cut through at the second and first joint. The moment passed and a burning pain spread from his hand down his arm. He howled and clutched his hand close to his body, blood smearing over his jacket. Andrew looked once at Joey. He had kicked the dogs away from his face and was screaming again.
Andrew forced his legs to obey, crawling up to his feet before turning back around and running as fast as they would carry him away from the morgue. Joey’s screams chased him, weakening as he put more and more distance between them. Andrew didn’t stop running until he barreled through the door to his apartment and crashed down onto the floor. Bottles spilled out in all directions and liquor mixed with his blood, dripping out between his fingers. He held the stumps as tightly as he could, but they wouldn’t stop bleeding.
He dragged across the floor and past the stiff in his apartment still laying where Andrew had left him. The small bedroom was damp and suffocating, with bottles of liquor stacked up near the window gathering dust and mold. Andrew pulled over the drawer near the door and clothes spilled out onto the floor. He found a shirt that didn’t look so dirty and wound it tightly around the maimed hand. It soon became heavy and red. He saw how his father was looking at him.
Andrew grabbed a bottle of liquor from the windowsill, the rest crashing down around him. He emptied it over his wrapped hand and winced as it stung; it was a throbbing pain now. He brought the bottle to his lips and drank until there was nothing left in it, then hurled the empty bottle at his father. It bounced off his skull, whipping the head back before it fell down to watch Andrew again.
“This is all your fault!” he screamed. He found another bottle, its contents gushing out onto the floor, and grabbed it.
“No, you fucking listen to me!” Andrew stumbled back to his feet. Pain shot through his hand when he placed it on the bed for support, staining the sheets with red. “If you hadn’t been such an asshole, none of this would’ve happened!”
He found his footing and sat on the bed, drinking again from the bottle. It was soon empty, before he was done. He threw it and missed, the glass shattering against the floor, shards spreading across the grime.
“Don’t you dare call me a disappointment.” He jabbed an accusing finger towards the corpse, still on the ground. “I always tried to do whatever you wanted me to, and look where that got me!”
All the other bottles were empty or broken, puddles of liquor forming on the floor of the bedroom. Andrew stumbled out of the room, stepping on the back of the stiff. The shards of glass crunched under his shoes. He swept empty bottles out of the way and sent them crashing to the floor, searching for one that still had something in it. He found one and drained the last dregs of alcohol into his mouth. He closed his eyes and saw Joey in front of him, the last look he had seen before fleeing. He could hear the screams.
Andrew flung the bottle into the wall then hunted for another, crashing through the unsteady piles on his sink. He found one, drank it all, and then another.
“Get up… Get up!” He turned his attention to the corpse. The stiff obediently climbed to its feet. Even dead, how did he look so disapproving?
Andrew looked away, then gritted his teeth. He grabbed a bottle from the sink and pounced the stiff, smashing it over his head. He started beating the corpse, punching and kicking. The alcohol was beginning to dull the pain of his mangled hand and without thinking he slammed it into the corpse. Agony exploded down his arms and he stumbled back with a howl. The stiff had been pushed back but never raised its arm, never responded. It watched him with jagged pieces of glass stuck to its head, waiting.
Andrew’s temper flared again. He heaved the kitchen chair over his head and swung it down on his father with as much force as he could muster. When the stiff fell, he started to kick it. His shoe cut into the side of the flesh and cut the stitches that kept it together. It spilled open and a foul-smelling mixture of decayed organs and embalming fluids erupted out over the floor and over his shoe. The stiff kept looking at him, its gaze never wavering until Andrew had stomped its head in. Andrew drew hard, ragged breaths and stumbled back. What remained of the stiff was little more than a disfigured heap of flesh. The spine twisted at a sharp angle, broken bones jutting out of the skin. The head had been caved in, its brains leaking out on the floor. It moved, struggling to sit up again. Even here, with all his anger, Andrew had failed in the eyes of his father. He kept kicking and striking the lump of flesh until it stopped moving.
Then he drank, until the floor rushed to meet him and all was black.
Andrew groaned and rolled over. His head was pounding, and his lips were parched. He was covered in blood, interrupted by a streak of vomit splashed down his body. The embalming fluid had spread to where he lay, sticking to his clothes and hair. There was an unrecognizable mass of meat at the end of the room with two legs sticking out of one end. It was all that was left of his father; the entire reason for his debt.
Everything hurt and it was only disgust that compelled Andrew to move. He rolled away from the pile of vomit and gore before pushing himself to his feet. Fresh pain sprung from his hand. The fingers were still gone, severed at the joints. The bone had been broken apart into sharp little splinters.
The only way I’m getting into the morgue is after Kerensky catches me, he thought. “Looks like you were wrong after all.” Andrew laughed, without much joy. “You said I would never amount to anything, but it looks like I’m going to be a boxer!”
The laugh made him cough, his throat dry and hurting. Death couldn’t be much worse than this. He walked into the bathroom and did his best to clean himself, scrubbing the dried vomit from his torso. There would be no point in trying to scale the fence again, even if he could get past the dogs. Someone would have found Joey—or what was left of him—and it was hard to imagine they wouldn’t keep a better eye out. It was a small comfort, but at least that meant he’d be shot instead of eaten alive. He wondered if they would drag his body right into the morgue or if there was paperwork first.
He stared into the mirror. A beaten man looked back at him, bruised and bloodied. He’d make a cheap stiff for someone. But if he looked the part already…
Andrew finished washing himself off and changed. He hurried out of the apartment, leaving the door unlocked. There was little left for anyone to steal and no one could wreck it as thoroughly as he already had. If this didn’t work, it didn’t matter anyway.
Andrew waited this time. He watched the trucks drive into the maw of Lily’s workshop. The drivers would exit; corpses would be loaded into the back of the truck. Others would dump unprocessed bodies down on the concrete and cart them into the factory by wheelbarrow. The trucks were orderly and the timing precise—probably Lily’s doing, he wagered. She had never been very pleased when he was late.
He waited for the next truck to arrive and watched. The drivers got out of the truck and exited into the factory without so much as looking into their vehicle. It was a pick-up. Andrew sauntered over to the corpse cart. There were no barbed wires here and no dogs that guarded the truck, no rain to make him miserable. He hurried his step as he came closer to the truck, counting the minutes until he guessed they would come back out again with their cargo. The driver compartment was cramped, two seats with nothing behind them.
Andrew peered into the back, eyes adjusting to the gloom. The bodies were naked and bald, torsos sunken in. Some were a jumble of flesh, new limbs stitched and bolted onto old bodies. He hesitated, but he could hear the creaking wheelbarrow from the factory. Andrew took a deep breath, then vaulted into the truck and sunk in among the corpses. He shoved them aside and burrowed down, pulling another body over his as cover. Moments later, another corpse landed heavily on top of him. He could hear them laugh and talk, but they hadn’t seen him. Andrew held his breath and waited.
“What’s the matter, Lily?” a woman’s voice asked. Another corpse was tossed into the back. “See someone you recognize?”
“I thought so,” Lily’s voice was muffled as more bodies were stacked into the truck and over him. The weight crushed down on him, cold clammy flesh pressing against his face. “But I’m not that lucky.”
The loading stopped and the squeaking wheelbarrow slowly faded out. The truck started again, gasoline and rot mixing in the back, then it moved. So far, so… good.
All he had to do now was get out before they could get a good look at him. Andrew groaned and tried to shove the bodies piled over him to the sides, shifting the weight of dead flesh away from him. He couldn’t see anything. The truck drove along the narrow streets, the sky blocked out by towering structures of bleak concrete and brick. He pinched his nose shut and breathed through his mouth in a futile attempt to block the smell from the corpses. It was thick and cloying, sickly sweet even through the heavy coating of preservatives and embalming. His stomach turned as he felt cadavers press against him. Fingers and faces shifted and moved against him with every bump in the road.
Andrew wasn’t sure how long they drove for. The world turned black and the truck’s engine echoed outside. They were close now. Every muscle in his body tensed when the engine stopped, and he strained to hear the workers move outside. The back of the truck opened.
This is my chance.
He waited, holding his breath. The press of bodies eased, and he could see the corpses get pulled out. He peered between the tangle of arms and legs until he couldn’t see any movement, then pushed to get free.
He was stuck.
Andrew pushed again; his legs were jammed in between several bodies. He grabbed a hold of his legs and pulled. One leg came loose, and he placed the foot on the one of the bodies, then pushed. His feet started to sink into the corpse, and he thought it might go through. It gave, followed by the corpses piled over it. Several bodies tumbled out of the truck and onto the floor outside, with Andrew following them. His landing was cushioned by the mess of bodies that fell first. He rolled off the mound with a groan. He couldn't make out where the drivers had gone but he heard footsteps echo. He looked around for some escape but could make out very little against the harsh glare of the daylight that flooded in behind him. A trail of rot led to an open pit, with nothing but gloom beneath. Without looking, Andrew crawled to the edge. The stink from it made his eyes water and he could make out bodies. The steps were getting closer.
He plunged into the darkness, falling a few beats before hitting the surface. A carpet of bodies bobbed on a bed of liquid. It burned his skin and Andrew lifted his head away from the surface, paddling with his feet to stay afloat. The mass of bodies around him shifted and merged as one single thing. They formed an unbroken carpet of bodies, limbs and preservatives that disappeared into the gloom. He half-crawled and half-swam across the bloody pit. He crested a heap of bodies that had clumped together like an island and hung on.
Behind him, something fell through the pit he had just entered, then another. He waited and watched as several more were dumped in through the hole. Something was pulled over the opening and darkness enveloped him.
All he could hear was the sea of preservatives lap against rotting flesh, rippling out from his paddling legs. The stench made his head swim. His weight proved too much for the body he hung onto and it came loose from the rest. It tumbled and Andrew went with it, head plunging down beneath the surface. He’d opened his mouth to scream, the chemical water burning his throat on the way down. He closed his eyes tightly and pushed upwards with all his might. He sputtered and coughed, drifting down the darkness. It felt like hands reached for him from below, fingers snagging a hold as he passed them by.
Light pierced the gloom further down and a hook came to snag one of the bodies, pulling it back into the light. Andrew started to swim towards it, no longer caring whether or not he was caught. He reached up towards the ceiling and towards the light but couldn’t reach the edge.
“Wait, help!” The hatch had started to close again. The words spilled out before he could stop them. The pit ahead of him opened wide again, and someone peered down.
“What in the hell? Here! Hold on!” The hook was lowered down again, and Andrew clung to it. It lifted him up from the pit until he could reach the edge. A strong hand grabbed a hold of his wrist and pulled him the rest of the way.
“What the hell were you doing in the tank? Are you okay?” someone spoke.
He could barely hear him. Andrew coughed and sputtered, his eyes and throat seared with boiling heat. He rolled around and crawled away from the pit. Machinery thrummed around him. It wasn’t a large room, dominated by a stained and rusting conveyor belt that continued past the wall.
“You wait here, I’ll get some help.” The man who’d helped him was a large, brawny type with blonde hair. For a moment, Andrew almost thought he looked like Joey. But if he stopped here, what use would any of it be?
Andrew dragged himself to his feet and grasped a heavy wrench from the floor. If he got caught Kerensky would kill him, and Joey would have died for nothing. He clutched the wrench tight, knuckles turning white. His rescuer hadn’t seen it, and was moving towards the door when Andrew sprang on him.
The wrench cracked into the back of his skull and sent the man sprawling forward into the ground. Andrew struck again and bone broke. He lost count of how many more times he struck before the bloody wrench fell to the floor. Andrew fell back, heart pounding in his chest and eyes wild. Adrenaline made him forget, but only for a moment.
He had just killed a man.
The realization made him numb. The room was humid, but he felt cold and a shudder ran down his spine. It was different from a stiff. Blood was pumping out from the shattered skull and pooling around the body. No grey ooze or embalming fluid, no stitches that could be reknit. No fuzzy mold, spilling out from some crack that the butchers missed. Nothing like the expression on the man’s face, contorted in shock and pain.
Andrew’s stomach twisted itself into a knot and strength drained from his limbs. He sat down against the floor and sobbed. Tears mingled with the liquid from the tank and dripped down onto the floor beneath him. The machines rattled on behind him, drowning out his long, jagged cries.
It was him or me. If I don’t get this body, Kerensky will kill me.
The thought rang hollow to him. He heaved, the contents of his stomach threatening to spill out again.
It’s their fault that Joey died. Him, controlling those dogs. Those little monsters. They’re all murderers. They killed him.
Andrew didn’t look at the body and could not muster any real anger in his heart. When the last of the adrenaline ebbed from him, all he felt was cold and numb. It didn’t feel real - he almost felt disconnected. As if he was puppeteering his limbs, forcing them to move.
Like a stiff, he thought to himself.
He should take the man’s coveralls and use them to blend in, to get to the parts of the facility where they’d keep the rich. Andrew reached for the body but froze before he could touch it. No matter what he told himself, he couldn’t reach any further.
Andrew crawled to his feet and grabbed the long, hooked pole that the man had used to fish corpses out of the tank. A few bodies hung from hooks, waiting to be sent further down the line. He snagged the man’s foot and pulled, then pushed, until the dead man rolled down into the pit. He disappeared out of sight, consumed by the mass. The last thing Andrew saw of him was the dead eyes, staring up at him.
Andrew forced himself to move. He wanted out of the room and away from the pit. He opened the door and peered outside. Deep inside the morgue, he had little idea where he was or where he needed to go. It was a labyrinth of stone and iron. In a stroke of luck, there was no one in the corridor outside and a short distance down he came across a small room full of lockers. He snagged one of the coveralls hanging from a hook outside. The fabric was stiff as a board, thick with old sweat and dried blood.
But it didn’t come off a dead man. Andrew flexed the overall until it softened and then got dressed. The legs dragged on the floor below his shoes and the arms extended past his arms, but it would have to do. He rolled up the sleeves and the legs to make them fit, then tried to figure out where he would go next. With no other plan, he headed down the hallway.
The space opened into a cavernous vault, the air reeking of death. There were flies everywhere. Conveyor belts passed down the hall and deeper into the facility, corpses stacked neatly on the band. Andrew put his hands over his ears to shut out the thundering machinery. Along the belt, workers inspected the dead and one grabbed a hold of a body to pull it off.
He continued down the hall, skirting along the wall to stay out of the way. This place was nothing like Lily’s little butcher shop. Dozens of people labored over limbs, torsos, and heads, stitching the dead together and sending them down the line. Further down, he could see someone shaving the dead and putting the hair into a barrel. Andrew stepped aside and pressed into the wall as he was passed by a man with a wheelbarrow full of heads. He kept going, hurrying down until he reached the end of the chamber. He pushed through the door and into the corridor beyond, drawing in a deep breath. The air was not so humid here, not so crawling with rot-hungry flies.
In another stroke of luck, there were signs here. One pointed to “Mass Reanimation” and the other to “Necromancers”. Andrew didn’t think they’d dump a prized body like the one he had read about into one of those charnel pits. He didn’t really know much about the Necromancers—
only that they reanimated the dead. No matter how mangled the body, pieces would find themselves sewn together and revived. If the champion’s body was anywhere, it’d probably be with them. Andrew only hoped that they weren’t there right now.
He followed the signs down the maze of corridors, cutting past another hall. The corpse-factory was quiet here, the thrum of machines subdued behind heavy concrete. There were no grubs or mold on the floor or walls. He continued, quieting the voice in his head that screamed at him to get out.
The door at the end was open and after peering in through the crack, Andrew entered. The air was cool here, almost chilling him through the thick coveralls. Somewhere nearby, someone was whistling.
Andrew froze and pressed himself against the wall. Down the hall, one of the doors began to open and a man in a heavy coat walked out. He was whistling, walking in the other direction before disappearing behind the bend. He had left the door open and Andrew took the chance to slip inside.
Sterile white tiles and gleaming metal basked in a cold light on the other side of the door. Only a few corpses were in the room, each one placed on its own table with great care. They were old and withered, except for one. It was the corpse of a large man, perhaps the same age as him, with a heavy, athletic build. It was the champion’s body he had been looking for. Andrew almost shouted, trembling as he ran over to the table.
Even in death, he was a fearsome specimen. Unlike the crude butcher cuts of the corpses outside, bloodless incisions splayed apart arms and legs, pinned aside with needles. Tubes went into the body and to buckets by the sides of the table. All blood had drained away, leaving it white as the tiles of the room.
Kerensky would pay a fortune for this. Andrew felt jubilation rise in his chest. He could still set things right. He could get things squared with the loan-shark and use the rest to make things up to Lily. To Joey. All he needed to do now was get out.
Andrew stared at the massive corpse. How in the hell was he going to get out?
Distant whistling started again, creeping closer. Andrew grabbed the tubes and yanked them from the body. He bent down, hoisted the dead man over his shoulder and heaved. His knees almost buckled under the weight. He groaned and staggered towards the door with his prize. It would only be a short time before the necromancers noticed that the body was missing. If he was still here by then, his chances of making it out again as anything other than a stiff looked grim. He hurried back out into the factory and sprinted down the corridor as fast as his burden allowed him. The corpse was heavy, and Andrew stumbled into the wall as he tried to turn. Unable to catch his balance, he crashed into the concrete floor, knocking the wind out of his lungs. He groaned and crawled away.
Lily said they liked a corpse they recognize. Andrew looked at the body. He remembered the headless corpse at her shop.
He shoved the head of the corpse in between some pipes near the floor, propping the body up against the wall. He took a deep breath, then stomped on the throat of the dead body. There was a crunch as his foot slammed the neck into the pipe and he stomped again. A few more times and he’d broken the bone, then kicked away the flesh and skin that tethered it. Andrew picked up the head and cradled it in his arms, then ran.
He only stopped after he’d put distance between himself and the body. He slowed to a jog, his lungs burning. His legs wobbled and almost gave. He needed to get out of here—and fast. The windows had looked very secure from the outside, but now they seemed like the only way out.
Andrew started to go along the wall from window to window. They were secured on a wooden frame, thick iron bars more suitable for a fortress. Andrew clutched the head to his chest as he kept searching. One of the windows had a frame where the wood had become wet and rotted, splitting in places.
He put down the head and jumped, grabbing the bars. They were high enough so that he dangled with his feet off the ground. With his remaining strength, he pulled himself up and put his feet on the wall. Step by step, he climbed further up until he was almost hunched over by the wall, then pushed with his legs. So close to the window, he could taste the cool air, free from industrial death. At first, nothing happened. He pushed again, straining until he thought his legs would give out. His foot was beginning to slip just as the wood gave and the bars came loose, the iron and Andrew both falling back down to the floor. He caught himself just enough for his head not to bounce off the concrete. The heavy iron bars clattered down just inches from him.
Andrew groaned and rolled over, right into the head. It rolled down to the far side of the wall, leaving a small, wet trail. Andrew crawled over to grab it and briefly considered tossing it through the window to keep his hands free for climbing but thought better of it. He opened his overall and jammed the head inside as best he could, half closing the zipper over it. It was now or never. Andrew rubbed his hands together and with a running start made for the narrow window. He jumped and grabbed the ledge, pulling himself out. It was a tight fit, the bulging clothes snagging in the wood. With one final push, he squeezed through.
Never had the grey and smog-choked city been such a welcomed sight. Below him, a river cut through the city landscape. Open pipes from the factory spewed garbage, blood, and mold into the waters. Even from here, it looked less like water now and more like a river of rot. A layer of grubby slime covered the surface, giving it a sickly grey color mixed with streaks of crimson. Andrew took a deep breath, clutching the head tightly under the coveralls, and jumped.
He plunged beneath the surface and the water tore him from his course. He tumbled, the rushing water pulling him down the stream. The water was thick with corpse-sludge and it clung to him. It was moving much faster than he had guessed from above and now he was spinning around under the water. Andrew couldn’t see more than a few feet and without light he couldn’t even tell which way was up. With one arm still holding the head under his coveralls tightly, he started to kick and swim. He struggled and fought, taking the breath from his lungs. They burned and it forced his mouth open, water rushing down his throat. Another riptide pulled him down and he felt himself rush down the stream faster.
Andrew broke the water as it spewed out past an edge and fell freely. The filthy waterfall roared down the slope and crashed into a stagnant pool below. It ripped at him with such force that the stolen uniform was beginning to come apart by the zipper. He sucked air in as best he could before he hit the water again and started to sink. Releasing the grip of his prize, Andrew swam towards the light with eyes closed. Pushing through the surface was like breaking a thick coat of slime and he gasped for air again. A few yards from him, the head of the champion bobbed gently on the water, torn from his grasp by the water. Then it started to sink.
Andrew dove back into the muck. It hadn’t gone far, and his exit had made a hole in the grime for light to filter through into the water. He could see something drift downwards and kicked down, hands closing around something. He could feel a nose and ears, then pulled it towards him. The head clutched tightly to his chest, Andrew broke the surface again and lifted it. One of the ears had almost come off and cuts marred the preserved face, but it was the right one. Andrew gave a jubilant shout and turned to swim to the shore.
Something hit him, vomited out from the river above him. A mass of organs and entrails, wound together by rope, struck him like a hammer. Andrew sank again with the weight, then pushed away and came back up. By the time he had made it back to the garbage-strewn shore, the head was nowhere to be found, lost again beneath the water. He retched, clumps of coagulated rot and muddy water emptying out from his stomach.
In an all too familiar repeat of his childhood, Andrew waited for the old man to strike him. Kerensky was red and flustered, waving his arms as he spoke. The heavy hands on Andrew’s shoulder kept him down on his knees in the middle of the broken glass and blood-soaked alcohol of his apartment. Outside, people had closed their doors and locked them.
Kerensky pointed an accusing finger at him and said something, but Andrew wasn’t listening. His heart was beating in his chest; every ounce of power he had was spent. How had it come to this? He had been so close. The reason for his debt was a clump of meat, rotting against the wall. He felt no satisfaction from the way his father’s reanimated corpse had come apart and watched the flies swarm over it.
I wonder what they did with Joey, Andrew thought. The image of the young man with his mop of blonde hair cut like a knife. He imagined the lad stretched out on one of Lily’s tables, disassembled for spare parts. Or maybe drowning in the charnel pit under the morgue. He wondered if Lily would miss him. It didn’t seem likely, and now he was a killer. A murderer. There was another lurching twist of his stomach and he almost threw up again, even with an empty stomach.
“Give me another chance.” Andrew’s voice was cracked and weak. He had pleaded until it gave out. “I tried. I was so close to getting you that stiff.”
“A chance to do what, Andrew? Get more people killed? Get the entire city up in arms, looking for us?” Kerensky scowled at him. “For god’s sake, why didn’t you just do the job Lily gave you?”
Andrew opened his mouth, but his voice faltered. The last thought he had before the wire tightened around his throat from behind was of his father.
Lily had worked on corpses she recognized before. Accidents happened around the factory every day, sometimes with fatal results. Most had signed their bodies over to the factory on the event of their death and considered it a small price to pay for steady work, a vanishingly rare thing. But this was a first. Andrew had an ugly blue bruise around his neck and his bulging eyes were shot through with blood. She’d have to do something about the bruise. Cheap as life and death was, it wouldn’t do to have the marks of a murder displayed on the stiff.
The movements were mechanical. Cut, open, and disembowel. It helped to put a cloth over his face so she didn’t have to see it as she hollowed the corpse. Without a face, the body just became inert meat, like any other she had handled before this. She considered removing the head but knew that Kerensky would like to keep it—perhaps one of the few who would remember Andrew. Instead, she removed the bruised skin with a knife and flayed it from the throat. Once it was done, she stitched some treated cloth in its place. The stiff wouldn’t mind either way.
Lily lifted the left arm and examined the hand. Two fingers were missing and would have to be replaced. The body had plenty of scrapes and bruises still fresh on the skin, but they were nothing she’d normally patch up. She’d been furious when she had returned and found that—once again—Andrew had broken his word. Again, he’d left her to pick up the pieces of whatever mess he had made, forcing her to explain why the help she had said they should hire had just vanished.
The last time she saw him was in the ring, the latest stiff to fight. Lily steadied her nerves with more drink than was good and watched the walking dead beat each other to a pulp. Andrew ended the night standing over the other stiff, smashing its face until it stopped moving.
Finally, a victor.