4 - Cold Storage
Case of the Partially Missing Barber
Betsy hummed. Kowalski hummed. She kept the better tune, but he had legs and could talk so he didn’t feel so bad about it.
They both watched as a little white van with the name Dignity in Death printed on the side puttered up to the side entrance of the morgue. A middle aged ant with a pot belly stepped out of the cab and pulled open the van’s rear doors. Inside was a half-full stretcher draped respectfully in a white sheet, as well as a younger ant with headphones in his ears and his feet up on the cadaver. The older ant yelled something and angrily rolled up his sleeves, causing the youngster to leap out of his seat and scuttle deeper into the van.
He raised a bedpan as a shield.
The morgue doors slammed open and out came the hunched coroner’s assistant. The hunch came not from age or injury but from his ridiculous height, and even then it was less from fear of bumping his head on the ceiling than an unwillingness to clean powdered ceiling out of his monobrow each night before curling up for bed. He was built like a bull-ant and his name was Bolt or Rock or something similar, which was probably more syllables than he was comfortable with.
The walking excuse for weight limits on elevators lumbered over to the van, by which time the ants inside had brushed themselves off and put on a professional face. They knew not to bother with small talk - no amount of talk was small enough for Garg the Destroyer of Toilet Bowls - which meant Herbert got discharged into the meaty hands of the coroner’s assistant in record time.
Kowalski was out of the car the moment the morgue doors flapped shut. He’d spent the last couple of hours with only his thoughts for company, so the idea of running headfirst into probable death was beginning to appeal to him. He crept across the street right as the van pulled out of the alleyway, then sidled along the wall until he reached the side entrance of the morgue.
With the likelihood of the coroner being on Spelter’s payroll, despite how much he couldn’t begin to imagine it, he’d been left with two choices. He could enter from the front, sign in, make sure everyone knew he was there, and be guaranteed some quality time with a little bit of Herbert. Then he could get stabbed or shot or crowbarred to bits at his leisure, and with equal certainty.
Or he could sneak in, avoid the coroner, steal a peek at Herbert’s money-maker, and get out with no-one the wiser. He’d get to keep his head intact while getting the proof he needed to put Spelter away. It was a win-win. If he managed to pull it off. If not, he gave the coroner a reason to kick him out and would come away with no evidence of wrongdoing, which coincidentally was how they would find his body. If they found it at all. A lose-lose-lose; it was quite the gamble.
Kowalski was no stranger to a bet, however, and any chance of coming out of this alive was worth the roll of the dice. So that’s what he did, and he slowly swung the side door open.
Inside was a long corridor of green tiled walls and floor. It looked freshly cleaned, and smelled it too. Kowalski had never been to a morgue that didn’t smell like the gift bag at a bleach convention, and this was no exception.
Along the sides of the corridor were doors and windows into vacant rooms packed full of storage boxes and unused equipment. The morgue ran almost perpetually understaffed, partly because who the hell wants to work in a morgue, but mostly because the coroner was just about the strangest ant Kowalski knew since Samurai Steve got himself committed for public nudity with a deadly weapon.
Kowalski reached the intersection and pressed himself up against the wall. He peeked his head carefully around the corner to check that the coast was clear, and that was when he heard a cough behind him. He spun around ready to release his pent up fear in a flurry of terrible violence, but it was only the janitor. They watched each other in silence, one with mop in hand and a confused frown on his face, the other posed like a martial arts action figure by a kid whose parents had yet to tell him he was being held back a year.
When Kowalski’s heart stopped beating in his ears, he relaxed his Death Stance and flipped out his badge. No matter how paranoid he got, he refused to believe that Spelter had a janitor on his payroll. What next, the girl that took his order at the Burger Queen? If Spelter wanted to keep tabs on Kowalski that badly he would be happy to place his order in person; one large serve of justice please. With extra sauce.
The janitor rolled his eyes and went back to work. Crisis averted.
Kowalski crept down the next hallway, taking extra care so as not to stumble upon a gardener or a floor waxer or whatever cruel joke the universe was planning for him next. Unbeknownst to him, however, the almighty universe was both bored to tears and feeling a little bitter at being constantly misrepresented, so now he had a kidney stone to look forward to in three to six weeks.
He turned the final corner and there at the end of the corridor stood an ominous pair of heavy doors labelled Cold Storage. It was time for his light feet to earn their keep though, because harsh white light spilled out of one of the autopsy rooms on the left. Music too, something Kowalski wanted to believe was classical because of the violins but, knowing the coroner, was more likely to be some kind of snuff song.
Kowalski slumped down against the wall by the door and fished in his pockets for something to use as a mirror. He came out with a bottlecap and two tufts of lint. Then he remembered his belt, and as silently as a librarian’s funeral he undid the buckle and slipped it all the way off. He bent it back on itself and ever so slowly slid the buckle along the floor until it was just inside the light.
He could just make out the coroner inside. Maybe there was some head banging, but he definitely saw a ‘patient’ laid out upon the table over which the stumpy coroner was perched on a footstool. With their back to Kowalski.
Then the coroner went still, and with the gravity of early onset dismemberment proceeded to turn towards the door. Kowalski snatched the belt back with a barely audible clank, but it was enough to make his whole life flash in front of his eyes. Damn, he thought, I never cancelled my gym membership. Then his primary goal in life became not to wet himself.
A few seconds passed. And a few more. His breathing switched from safety, to fully automatic, to semiautomatic. And still his head was attached to his shoulders. Ever so carefully, he slid the buckle back into the light to see the coroner once again laying into the corpse on the table.
Kowalski rose to his unsteady feet, out of a puddle of what he sure hoped was sweat. With a peek and then a lunge he crossed past the door and was back on his way to Herbert.
When he reached the doors to Cold Storage, the part of his brain that he’d honed with long years of not swallowing his tongue when he passed out decided to speak up. “What about the assistant,” it said, and he threw himself against the wall. A moment later the huge doors were thrown open and out trudged the woefully miscast coroner’s assistant. Kowalski avoided getting pancaked against the wall by the door only by happening to aim for the corner, and by being somewhat malnourished.
The doors squealed as they swung back and forward in the giant’s wake, but thankfully he didn’t look back. Honestly, he probably wasn’t able to turn his head. Kowalski waited for him to round the corner then snuck in through the doors himself.
There were two sections to the freezer. Cold, and really cold. Having both a name and presumably no plans for an autopsy, Herbert should be in the former, so Kowalski focused his search there. Each drawer in the wall had a small card with a name written on it, but they had been written by the assistant and Kowalski wasn’t fluent in second grade doodle.
He settled for pulling each drawer out one at a time to check if they were only half occupied. The rails screeched and wailed like a newborn baby that had just watched a documentary about homeless teens and bank foreclosure, which made him look over his shoulder each time to make sure someone wasn’t about to stick a knife in it. Thankfully, he found the less talkative half of Herbert before long and got to business.
He pulled back the white sheet and took a good long look at the bite wound. Up until now Kowalski would admit he’d harboured more than some doubt about this whole thing. His eyes weren’t exactly the most reliable pair in the city, and some particularly uncharitable people might call him a paranoid drunk. An ant might be reasonably forgiven for assuming he’d misread the entire situation rather than believe that Spelter and a vanload of forensics ants were dirty.
But he’d been right.
Deep in Herbert’s side, surrounded by dry blood and the puffy crust of punctured flesh, was a wound that could only be caused by one thing. A massive tooth. Kowalski thought morbidly that he could fit his fist inside if he wanted to, which he did not. Instead, he slipped a camera off of his neck and took a series of pictures.
Earlier, while waiting for the body to arrive at the morgue, Kowalski had spent some time at the mall. He’d started with a sit-down lunch in the food court - a cheeseburger and soda combo deal that came with a free toy - and for dessert a hazelnut choc-chip waffle cone from Baskant-Robbins. Then he’d needed a new pair of trousers, because his had reached peak lifetime absorbency after the spill that morning and were beginning to stiffen up. But the new pair had been too big and kept threatening to slip off and get him put on a list, so he’d bought a belt for the first time in a long time - which as it turned out had been quite fortuitous.
Finally, he’d gone looking for a polaroid camera, which had been the whole point of the trip in the first place. An acne-riddled teenage clerk with a soulless look in his eyes had tried to upsell him, but Kowalski wasn’t a fool. Why did he need fifty sheets of extra film when it already came with ten? He was only taking a picture of one hole after all.
He used up all the film photographing the bite from every angle he could think of, plus one of himself with a thoughtful expression on his face and Herbert in the background.
That one was for Spelter.
He slung the camera back over his neck and tucked the photographs into his pocket. Then he closed Herbert’s drawer right as the door swung open behind him. Light flooded into the room, followed by a massive shadow that stretched up to the roof.
With the eagerness of an aphid rustler before the noose, Kowalski turned greet the coroner’s assistant.
Except it wasn’t the assistant. It was someone much, much worse - the elderly coroner herself. Age might have shrunk her, but long years carving up bodies had kept her lean. Her thick plastic apron was splattered with congealed blood and bits of what could only be person. She was backlit by a heavy torch she’d set down on the tiles, the halo of which made her quite unpleasant to look at, but not so much as the mad grin splitting her face. Or so he thought, until he saw her hands.
In her right she held a dripping bone saw, and in her left… He hoped to Mother that wasn’t a kidney.
She looked straight out of a horror movie, and Kowalski thought he knew how this one ended: with one more victim.
“Kowalski, dear, I thought I smelled you tiptoeing around back here. The scent of cheap wine with a hint of urine, I would recognise it anywhere.” She tilted her head and looked pointedly at his belly, before continuing in a rasping whisper, “Your liver must have led an interesting life, Kowalski. I bet if I were to open you up, it would tell me stories all through the night and long into the morning. I imagine I would barely be able to get a word in!
“I like stories, Kowalski. I do. So rarely do I get visitors that can tell them, you see. A woman drowned, a man shot, a babe choked in her sleep. It can all get so very repetitive. And you are so… Fresh. So would you stay? Just for a while, I promise.
“I think you would be good at telling stories.”
Earlier, while waiting for the body to arrive at the morgue, Kowalski had spent some time at the mall. He'd started with a sit-down lunch in the food court - a cheeseburger and soda combo deal that came with a free toy - and for desert a hazelnut choc-chip waffle cone from Baskant-Robbins. Then he'd needed a new pair of trousers, because his had reached peak lifetime absorbency after the spill that morning and were beginning to stiffen up. But the new pair had been too big and kept threatening to slip off and get him put on a list, so he'd bought a belt for the first time in a long time - which as it turned out had been quite fortuitous. Finally, he'd gone looking for a polaroid camera, which had been the whole point of the trip in the first place. An ache-riddled teenage clerk with a soulless look in his eyes had tried to upsell him, but Kowalski wasn't a fool. Why did he need fifty sheets of extra film when it already came with ten? He was only taking a picture of one hole after all.