The Cadaver and the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo
(The Amulet Chain - Book Five)
(The sequel to The Maia Calendar)
One morning while travelling to work I imagined a scene in a mortuary - weird I know, but... the principle character was a cadaver... who talked. I fleshed out some of his adventures and the two characters who would accompany Max Mortimer, Isis and Macbeth, and then ran out of plausible ideas that did not remind me of a certain weekend by the beach at the movies. That was until a news report of an Italian painting, circa 1496. It had the curious distinction of depicting a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, a bird native to the east coast of Australia, which had yet to be discovered by Europeans. It would be another 300 years before Captain Cook graced the shores of Terra Australis. The two ideas merged, as it was obvious to me that the only way the cockatoo could be painted three centuries before its time would be if a time traveller contributed to the painting. Thus The Cadaver and the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo was born. It is now complete, at just under 80,000 words, click on the link below to sample some chapters.
There is no death.
There is only life, then nothing.
Who amongst you remembers death, do you? If not, as I suspect, how can death be a state of being?
If a statue of a weeping angel falls from its perch in a cemetery, a forest of the dead in Tunguska pose, would anyone hear? Did it really fall… or was it pushed?
There is no death.
There is only life
The angel fell on my watch, but I am no winged martyr. Life slipped through my fingers, the fruit of the vine fermented with time. The waste deplorable, as was my use of Time.
There is no death.
I should know, for I am dead. If there is death, I am it, and I am nothing if not a cadaver.
“What do you want?”
“I want you, Max. I want the time you stole from me.”
“Time, what time? I don’t even know you.”
“Perhaps you should look more carefully.”
There was something about this man; the bold arc of his eye brows, the prominence of his cheek bones, and those hypnotic eyes. Max shook his head; it had been so many years, perhaps twenty. The face did not match the time continuum. Where had he seen his face?
“You can’t place it, can you, Max? Of course, it could be the pony tail. They seem to be quite, shall we say, trendy for men of my age in this time. Perhaps you expected it to be grey?”
“Given your age, yes.”
“How’s that then?”
Max stepped back as the stranger’s waist length pony tail morphed from blond to silver. The hair still stifled recognition, but this action made perfect sense.
“You’re one of them.”
“Not so loud, Max, someone might hear.”
“What do you want? I don’t know you, even if we have met. How could I steal anything from someone I don’t know?”
“That’s a fair question. Perhaps it wasn’t you, but you do have the clues to the resolution of the theft. I want my lineage back, Max, and I intend to take your skin.”
Goose bumps rippled across every inch of Max’s flesh, but not from the chill of fear. His skin rippled from the heat of the anger within, much as paint bubbled with the heat of nearby flames. Max half imagined the man’s salivating suckle of teeth on lips behind his Lecter sneer.
“Why would you...?”
“Don’t play the fool with me, Max. I know about the child. You can’t possibly think I would let it live after tracking you for so long. He’s the last link in the chain, the rest I know about, it won’t take long to deal with them on more familiar territory.”
Max backed away further. There were two exits to this kitchen. The more obvious was covered, but the obscure cabinet beside the red brick chimney was a nuance with no seeming purpose, at least not until now. It led to the adjoining lounge and the freedom of the Victorian hallway beyond.
“I don’t know who did what to you, but I can see why.”
“Don’t be like that. I only want what is rightfully mine.”
“My skin is not yours to shed.”
“It would not exist if not for me, Max.”
“You’re not taking credit for my artistry.”
“I have never claimed to be an artist.”
“And yet you are a bloody bullshit artist!”
Max felt the lip of the hearth beneath his foot and knew escape was in his grasp. He turned, opened the cabinet door and stepped through the cobwebs that guarded the exit. The other side was accessed before the noise of the chase reached his ears and he leapt the antique chest used as a coffee table en route to the hall.
His assailant was to his left, the length of a room away, the front door to his right was ajar. Freedom was only a half dozen steps from his grasp, but Max paused, the consequences of flight weighing on him. He ran across the hall to the study there and slammed the door behind him. It was the only internal door in the house with a lock. The key turned effortlessly; this lock was well oiled and for good reason. The room represented his life’s work; the journeys he had detailed so meticulously and the quest he had been faced with so close to the end.
His nemesis did not attempt to kick the door in, nor did he beat his feet against it, demanding entry. He did attempt guile, however. Max could hear the man pacing the squeaky floorboards, the footfalls emulating the cogs within.
“What will you do now, Max, leap through the window? I’m not sure I noticed one on that side of the house.” There wasn’t, it had been boarded up to protect Max’s life work from the sun. “You can’t hide from me forever. I have your mobile phone. Should I call the police or the fire department? Would you like me to slip a toasted sandwich under the door?”
Max could hear the man’s footsteps trail off up the hall. He dare not poke his head outside. The room was everything; his past, his present, and the future.
The footsteps retuned. Shadows accompanied the movement, ghosting through the gap beneath the door; big enough to deliver a prison dinner. Max was afforded a delivery; wisps of smoke that slowly billowed and crept up the wall, filling the void above the picture rails.
Wallpaper, so meticulously layered as if a jigsaw puzzle, began to bubble and peel. Max placed his hands on the wall, but quickly withdrew them. He understood the heat there and the crackling from beyond the door. The door handle was his next target. It seared his palm. He pulled out a handkerchief to protect his skin already scorched and turned the key. It turned, breaking off in his hand.
Max staggered away from the door. He was beginning to sweat and cough. This was the end. He slumped into his favourite arm chair, the leather creaking in forlorn response. Twenty years and it had all come down to this; one room, a collection of works and a solitary photograph.
He coughed again, but this time it hacked out as the vapours filled his lungs, bruising his ribs as he heaved with regret. Max reached out to the photo, collapsing as he did, knocking the three-legged table over in the process. The young woman in the photo smiled at him, her fluorescent green eyes sparkling in the sun, hair streaked with jet and strawberry blonde. His finger stroked the cracked pane, nail catching on the shards.
“Forgive me, Maia. I never meant to be away so long.”
Each step echoed through the mortuary’s halls, dissipating as death itself. Macbeth remembered the chill during his first rite of passage; it reminded him of the day he sliced open his first cadaver. The incision was a formality for any medical student, as were the ashen faces and the bag filling colleagues, some of whom never returned.
Macbeth had named his first cadaver Yorrick, in honour of his father. A strict disciplinarian, he force fed Macbeth the classics and signed him up for medical school, despite his son’s penchant for history. Macbeth was not disappointed. He loved the classics and the sciences came as naturally as the humanities.
His key pass beeped, four or five times according to the echo, and Macbeth pushed through into autopsy room number three. The night job here was another of his father’s bright ideas; learn what to do with the dead and the living will come easier. He wasn’t wrong, he rarely was, and the latest director had spotted the medical student’s obvious talent. A week into his reign and Macbeth was setting up at night by himself.
“Well, what have we got today?” Macbeth logged into the autopsy room’s PC and checked the daily log. “Only one; male, 35-45 years, name, John Doe. No one deserves to die alone and unwanted. Let’s see if we can’t find you a name, mate.”
The cadaver slid out of the storage drawer and onto the awaiting gurney without the hollowness of the hallway beyond. The acoustics here had been deadened. Macbeth felt quite at ease, despite being alone, as he gloved and suited up.
“So, who are you, le Mort? No, nothing, Death got your tongue? Nasty old scythe that, bet it cut right through in a single sweep.”
Macbeth uncovered the remains with a nonchalance he inherited from his M.D. father, but was taken aback by the condition of the corpse. Visions of concrete boots and horses’ heads played into his mind as the extent of the man’s tattoos became evident. Only the man’s hands and feet had been spared the tattooist’s ink, and the artwork seemed to wrap around his rear extremities.
“Someone’s been busy or very naughty or something else, perhaps.” Macbeth studied the cadaver’s tattoos with the eye of a physician rather than the speculation of a journalist. It was a technique the former mortician had taught him. They weren’t looking for the sensational here; they were looking for scientific plausibility. Macbeth was certain this type of artistic expression had never been under the microscope in this room before.
The tattoos in question were not your typical fantasy figures, skulls, prison gang staples or family dedications. These could only be one thing; maps, but archaic in style. There were baroque ships, spouting whales, mermaids and other more fantastic creatures amidst lines of latitude and longitude that seemed awry. Macbeth’s attention was drawn to a land mass he recognized quite well, an incomplete map of New Zealand, missing the occasional headland and inlet. It was accompanied by the east coast of Australia, labelled New South Wales & New Holland, which faded into obscurity about the Victorian coast in the south and beyond the northern tip of Queensland. This was a map of discovery, in more ways than one.
The medical student traced his gloved fingers along the lines of latitude without physically touching the deadened flesh, so alive its aged ridges acted almost as a three dimensional relief globe, like the one he had as a child. He remembered tracing his fingers over the Himalayas and the Andes; Australia’s Great Dividing Range was a mere freckle in comparison.
He paused at the sternum where he discovered the one piece of art that was not a map. It was a painting, perhaps renaissance in origin, and Macbeth knew the image intimately. The painting, by Andrea Mantegna, had been mentioned on the radio that morning and on the front page of the newspapers. It had been the topic of bitter debate in the main common room of Melbourne University, which he attended as a fourth year medical student.
Macbeth found himself hovering over the cadaver, inches from the surface of the decaying flesh. The artwork was meticulous and in full colour, matching the original painting he had poured over on the Internet earlier in the day.
The crackle from the sound system startled him. Slipping on the polished concrete floor, Macbeth lurched over the cadaver. He grabbed onto the nearest object, attempting to avoid contact, only to find he had the dead man’s arm, which was now slapping him in the face with an open palm.
He mistook the voice, from the direction of the cadaver’s arse, as a release of gas, fumbling again before falling to the floor. His sterile gloves were no more as laughter flooded the chamber from all corners. Macbeth peeled off his gloves and threw them on the floor, as he imagined a Roman would a Jew, and glared at the ceiling.
“For Christ’s sake, Templar, not bloody funny! I’m trying to work.”
“Yeah, and he’s trying to get some shut eye.” The medical student shook his head. It wasn’t the first time the lab technician had unsettled him. “How’s the pants, Mac? Need the name of my dry cleaner? I might need them myself, laughing my arse off up here.”
Macbeth had watched the tech set up a number of students from the confines of the monitoring centre. Every inch of this place was wired for sound and captured on disk. The system was highly sophisticated and why not, technician Templar was more than a lab tech, more the I.T. guru; the mortuary’s very own IT girl.
“What the hell are you doing here, Isis, it’s not your shift?”
Isis Templar, all of 160cm, slender and bejeweled in ear, nose, tongue and eyebrow, tucked a strand of purple hair beneath her Bob Marley-like knitted hat as she bounded into the room.
“I’m putting in an advanced system for the new chief. He said you’d be in, said he’d be late. Betcha didn’t know that.”
“Oh, don’t be like that, Mac. You know, just between me and you… and the stiff, I think the new boss has a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock. You should see all the expensive shit he’s got me wiring up. I think he wants to capture ghosts on film or something.”
“You’re pulling my leg, right?”
“I could be or I could show you my stuff.” Isis may have been known at the morgue as the IT girl, but she was far from alluring. In fact, Macbeth had no idea what shape she was. Isis was all sloppy hoody and baggy fatigues, with USB sticks for bracelets; one was rumoured to be from a Springsteen concert, loaded with the actual three and a half hour show. “But you have to show me yours first.”
Isis reached out to Macbeth’s protective pants, grabbed a handful and drew him over to the cadaver. Despite his Fosbury flop across the deceased, the body was still in one piece. Macbeth had half imagined having to put him back together like a toy, but there was no need, although he was missing a moustache.
“Does he look alright to you, Isis?”
“Yeah, but was he clean shaven, I was kinda distracted.”
“So what, you think it popped off when you fell on him?”
“Like Mr. Potato Head?”
“What’s his name, soon-to-not-be-operating-on-me-even-if-my-life-depended-on-it student?”
“He doesn’t have one.”
A shade of female melted onto the face of Isis. She didn’t mind all the death, but the loneliness of an unwanted soul. “Don’t be mean, Mac. Don’t try to make me cry.”
“I’m not; it’s all there on the computer, John Doe.”
“That’s sad. What’s with all the ink?” Macbeth had always expected Isis of being covered with tattoos like this, but the demeanor on her face suggested otherwise.
“That’s what I was trying to work out. They’re all maps, except the image in the centre of his chest.”
Isis leant over the cadaver. She recoiled quickly, but not out of disgust. “Hey, I know that. That’s the Renaissance painting with the sulphur-crested cockatoo. Bullshit if you ask me. Do you think this guy’s the forger? That they killed him to keep him quiet?”
“The painting’s not a forgery!” Macbeth had had a dozen similar arguments already today. The painting, Madonna della Vittoria, by Andrea Mantegna did not make sense. Painted in 1496 and depicting a bird not known in the Europe until Captain Cook discovered the east coast of Australia in 1770, as this species was only found on that coast before white settlement.
“So you’re telling me Marco Polo travelled further than he thought?”
“That Columbus was right then, there is no America and he sailed directly to the East Indies?”
“I hate to tell you, but there are two continents named after Amerigo Vespucci.”
“Have you been there, Mac?”
“Then you haven’t seen them.”
“So how do you know they exist?”
“How do I know death exists, except I can see it before me?”
“You sure he’s dead? If I cut him with this scalpel will he scream?”
“I doubt it. No, wait, you can’t do that, procedure!”
“Do you ever have any fun, Mac?”
Isis wrapped a sympathetic arm around the medical student. She knew exactly how he felt; screw up parents and no siblings. One day they would be here on the slab with no one to claim them and no permission to be laid to rest for eternity.
“I don’t care what you say, the painting’s not real, it has to be faked. Are you gonna make the first cut or are you leaving it to me?”
“It’s an incision.”
“Why are you so much more fun with the cadavers than with people?” Isis only recognized the barb in what she was saying as the words hung decaying in the air between them. “Sorry, you make the first incision. I’ll just step back here and watch. I’ve seen it on camera heaps of times and it’s in H.D. now, but I always wanted to be in the room.”
Macbeth changed his gloves. “I love the smell of latex in the mortuary.”
“You did not say that.”
“Just for you, Isis, just for you.”
Macbeth chuckled to himself, or was that a chortle? He remembered an old English teacher who abhorred the use of that word. Perhaps the mere thought was worth more mirth. He leant over the cadaver preparing to make the standard T incision. Medical school had prepared him for this well, yet it was short on the destruction this action would cause. He had never sliced open such a fabulous piece of body art. Macbeth imagined himself stealing into a darkened room, hovering over an unsuspecting Duncan and soliloquizing… is this a dagger I see before me…?4.
The scalpel hung in the air, reflecting the sulphur-crested cockatoo, the essence of taxidermy etched into the flesh of the cadaver. Macbeth imagined a flurry of white feathers fluttering forth as the knife met the skin. The image was fanciful.
“A little to the left.”
Macbeth dropped he blade. It spun on the mapped chest lie a maniacal compass atop Hanging Rock searching for a picnic.
“Not funny, Isis.”
“I… I didn’t say anything… he…”
The medical student spun on his heels, catching the horror on the technician’s face in a flash of fiction before circling around. There was no one else in the room and the gallery appeared empty.
“Where I come from most people have that reaction first up. You should take a seat, you’re paler than me.”
Macbeth’s revolution continued as the voice fell dead in the sound proofed room. The lips of the technician did not move. He ripped off his surgical mask and stepped about, away from, yet facing the cadaver. It had not moved on its gurney. The scalpel pointed to the space that should be Victoria, in southern Australia, an eerie portent.
“I’d shake your hand, but this bloody rigor mortis has got me all seized up… I fear relaxing my sphincter.”
“Did… did its lips just move, Isis?”
“Yes… no… Jesus, if you’re fucking with me, Mac.”
“Then I’d be fucking with myself.”
“Not a good mental image, mate.”
“Please tell me you’re a ventriloquist, Isis.” She shook her head as Macbeth turned to check on her. The fear in her eyes intensified. He completed a third revolution before focussing on the object he now feared; the cadaver and the sulphur-crested cockatoo.
“What’s your name?”
“You…” Macbeth could not pass more than a single word.
“What, you’re telling me you’re a sheep?”
“No, you… you’re talking… to me.”
“I’d prefer the cute babe with the purple hair behind you, but it seems to be ghosting and she seems a little timid. I’m Max, Max Mortimer… you know, I’ve forgotten the rest.”
Macbeth could see the lips moving, yet the face of the cadaver was otherwise expressionless, staring up at the ceiling unblinkingly. Stepping forward with caution the medical student offered a greeting. “Macbeth, Macbeth Duncan, but you’re kidding with the Mortimer thing, aren’t you?”
“Do I look like I’m laughing? I told my folks someone like you would make that joke one day, just didn’t think it’d be so soon.”
“How come… how can your lips move if you’ve got rigor mortis? Are you still alive in there?”
“I wish, but seriously, do I really look alive? You were about to cut me open for Christ’s sake.”
“Well, you are quite colourful.”
“Stop pussy-footing around. I’m dead, that’s all.”
Macbeth’s scientific curiosity kicked in as he stepped in closer. “Aren’t you scared, um, Max?”
“That’s your job. It’s always harder for the living.”
“Have you done this before?”
“Not from this angle, you moron. Jesus, I get forty-eight hours and I get lumped with a dunce and his purple Bob Marley hat. Did you knit that?”
Isis was at Macbeth’s side, clinging onto his arm. “No, that was my mum, bit of a pot smoking hippy.”
“Yeah, that’s a pretty mum thing to do.”
“Did you say you have forty-eight hours where you come from? What for?”
“To say goodbye.” The cadaver, so matter of fact and stony-faced until now, seemed to quiver at the throat; a gurgle atop a cathedral. “But I feel so far from home… what is the date, anyway?”
“March 20th, 2014.”
“Then you really don’t know, do you? Just my luck.”
“Can we help?”
“Why the fuck do you think you’re here, girlie? Jesus, two morons. Don’t you get it? There is no death, there is no God waiting at some pearly gates in the clouds ticking off the good and kicking the rest to Hell. This is not His revenge for all my sins, for not respecting His ultimate creation. This is just the end. There’s no spectre in the night, no hooded claw, no great sweeping scythe. There is just this. And before you get all teary, it’s not all bad. It’s not cold; there are no fires of Hell. Hell, I can’t feel anything; rigor mortis, remember? I’m just waiting to fade out of existence, out of the memories of others. Lost to time and space… sounds morbid, I know, but it’s not that bad. Personally, I’d prefer the Vulcan way. Dump all your unfinished business on someone else and then laugh your arse off as they go running around trying to resurrect you so they don’t have to do it.
“So what are you saying is…?”
“There is no resurrection, Macbeth, there’s just this.”
The mortuary was silent as the cadaver allowed his words of wisdom to sink in. Macbeth flinched as the fingers Isis dug into his arm drew blood. Her action sparked his own, the conversation with the cadaver clearly requiring clarification.
“How could you know all this if this is your first time?”
“Now that’s a good question, there’s hope for you yet.” Max sighed, although for no apparent reason, there was no air in his lungs. “Where I come from we have practiced After-life for decades. The government laces the drinking water with an enzyme.”
“The After-life enzyme?”
“Very good, Mac, you’re coming on in leaps and bounds. Shame I won’t get to see the final result.” Max managed a sliver of a smile. “Not a very dry imaginative term I know, but it serves its purpose. Anyway, the theory is simple, for every decade you drink After-life, twenty-four hours is added to the end. I should get forty-eight hours.”
“But you look much older than twenty.”
“Thanks very much, girlie, so do you!”
“No, I mean.”
“Just messing with you, you pegged me, I’m closer to forty, but I’ve been away for twenty years, as far as I can make out, so I lost twenty years. You going to finish that incision? Make a good show for the camera and I’ll try not to move. That would make a good funny home video entrant, though. Oh my God, the body moved, it’s not dead, aaauuuggghhh.”
“Don’t you want to tell us how to find your family, to say goodbye? Isn’t that what your After-life is for?”
“Yes, yes, but I can’t remember anything at the moment, takes a bit to kick in. Must be all the freezing you guys do. We keep the body warm, much more effective, gets the juices flowing. So while we’re waiting, pick up your blade, a little to the left. Don’t worry, I won’t feel a thing and I’ll try not to ooze all over the place, although I can’t promise what the other end will do.”
Macbeth plucked the scalpel off the cadaver’s chest and raised it with intent. The flesh was willing, yet his mind had been sucked into a vacuum of impossibilities. He could sense the voice of Max urging him on. The blade broke the skin where Andrea Mantegna’s Renaissance altar piece now hung. The cockatoo did not venture a squawk, but there was a protest.
Macbeth withdrew his scalpel. “What, can you feel that, I’m sorry Max?”
“Just kidding, can’t feel a bloody thing.”
“Why is your mouth flinching?”
“Nervous tick? You could be a butcher for all I know and go all Hannibal Lecter on me.”
“He’s very good, Max.” Isis had remained silent, fascinated. Macbeth was surprised she leapt to his defense. “I’ve watched him work; I think he’ll make a wonderful surgeon.”
“Go on then, I really can’t feel a thing, sort of helps where I come from if some huge mother of a beast grabs your leg between its teeth and starts gnawing away.”
Macbeth placed the scalpel on the flesh again, keeping an eye on Max’s face in case he failed to miss the spot. Acutely aware he should be concentrating on the incision. Isis stepped in closer; being in the room was more of a rush than she expected.
Macbeth paused again. “Is that your football team?”
“No, my suburb, my house… Rathmines Road, Hawthorn. It’s all there.”
“What’s all there, what’s the house number, Max?”
“I don’t know, where did I die… in the burnt one… I remember the smoke, I remember her picture.”
“Whose picture, Max?” Isis was at the cadaver’s head now, the pain of his recollection reducing his voice to a whisper.
“Who is Maia?”
“That’s not important, but I must say goodbye, I have to apologize for being away so long. Everything is there, in my study. I know I left it there, as clear as the ink on my skin.”
“If we go there will we find a way to get you back home?”
“Home, you can’t get me back home, Mac. I’m sure he’s already seen to that, but you can save the child. That’s why I came back here. I remember now, I was so close. The maps are on my walls.”
“The maps are all over you, Max.”
"Yes, but I don’t have double sided skin.”
Isis looked at Macbeth. Macbeth ignored Isis. They were no longer alone. There was movement in the corridors of the City Morgue. Macbeth was concentrating on the maps, but they were not sinking in; his mind was all sinews and skeletal structures and internal organs.
“Let me do that, Mac, photographic memory, no idea where I got that, but I remember everything at a glance. Always helped during exams; partied up to the night before, crammed for a few hours, certified genius.”
“So why are you working in this place?”
“I don’t know, it’s a job. Why do people dig graves when they can dig up car parks? It pays the rent and I can have a bit of fun with your lot. Roll him over so I can see his back, at least then we’ll know what maps to concentrate on.”
Macbeth rolled the cadaver. There was no hint of gentleness in his actions; the cadaver was a dead weight. It was the first time he had considered using bare hands on a body; such was the slippery nature of the latex gloves.
“Get a grip, man!”
“Cork it, Max, or I’ll leave you without the evidence you need us to take.”
“Why don’t you? Where am I going to go, Mac?” His voice trailed off again. “You’re my only hope.”
Macbeth was waiting for the tag. He could not read Max’s dead eyes any more than he could read his own father’s. Isis nodded once she had the images of the tattoos in her head. Max’s lips retained all rigor as the medical student rolled him back into position with an ominous glare. Their compulsion to assist the talking cadaver was purely scientific, yet there was a dreamy quality about this evening, verging on the nightmare. Macbeth didn’t know if he would be leaving the morgue in search of answers or sanity or something in between.
“You right, Mac?”
“Yes, but we should go. We should stash Max here back in his drawer before someone else comes and starts cutting him up or making wallpaper out of his skin.”
“Are you coming with me or do I have to look for this child on my own?”
There was no simple answer to the question Isis posed. “You can’t look during the day, someone might see you.”
“I’ll take that as a yes then.”
“Guys have been thrown in gaol for assuming that much.”
“Shut up, Max.”
“My lips are sealed. Nary a word will pass these alien-blue lips until you return. Not a word shall I speak, flat out I’ll remain, like a lizard drinking. You couldn’t pry these lips open with a barge pole.”
“Where’s the wet cement when you need it, Isis?”
“I don’t think it’d help, come on.”
Macbeth wheeled the cadaver back into cold store. On closing the door he half expected the wave of the Grail Knight from The Last Crusade. There was no movement, only the gentle hum of the Raider’s Theme, and then a purge of air as rubber suctioned onto stainless steel.
* * *
The possum that skittered across the overhead power line paused mid wire as if searching for his balancing beam. His blackened eyes bobbled in the street light above a twitching, pointed nose, all pink and whiskered. One of his cousins had taken out an entire block by crossing the streams; reversing the polarity and destroying dozens of computers. The carcass was nothing like a cartoon creature, crimped and smoking; it was charcoal, featureless. Macbeth had no clue as to how this one survived a similar trapeze as it scurried along the wire and leaped into the nearest over-hanging Elm.
“They still have police tape up.”
“What does it say, Isis, Zombie Hazard, KEEP OUT?”
“Don’t be silly, Mac. Did Max try to eat your brain?”
“Did we give him a chance?” Isis did not respond, but her silence was not convincing. “How do we know he didn’t send us here with intent to follow, before luring us into a dark spot?”
“When was the last time you heard a zombie speak? And when did you ever see a lucid one?”
“I never saw a zombie before.”
“Then how do you know he wasn’t one. Keep up, Mac. We have a job to do, a promise to keep.”
The logic Isis conveyed was sound, yet she made no sense. Neither did standing in a streetscape darkened by fire and the spectres of elm trees against the moon. Macbeth was in uncharted territory, looking for maps. His life had been framed so precisely by his father, almost to the millisecond of a degree. He had never rebelled because the logic was sound, yet he was rebelling now, from the direction Isis had drawn him. There was something new here, something he had never felt winding about his spine with the chill tentacles of a deep sea giant squid; unease.
“Why do I feel like this is a Godric's Hollow moment?”
“I have no idea, Isis.” This was a lie, yet it wasn’t intended as such; self-preservation was a different beast.
“Don’t you, really?”
“I do have goose bumps, but I’m not sure if it’s from this place or from you.”
“I don’t think I’ve given a guy goose bumps before.”
“I find that hard to believe.”ce piece another map emerged beneath and it displayed a perfect New Zealand, while its New Holland partner was incomplete.
“You don’t have to bullshit me, Mac. I know what I am and I know what I’m not. You can go back to the Morgue if you want. I don’t care, I’m used to being alone. I just don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to know.”
Beyond the yellow police tape, which dangled limply without care across a singed hedge, smouldered the remains of the house Max had alluded to, the only burnt-out house in the street. The brick work remaining suggested the nineteenth century, probably 1880’s judging by the suburb. The three chimneys lone sentinels amidst the twisted corrugated iron and charred-beam remains. The elegance of the former roof line could still be imagined, enough for a restoration effort, but they both knew something modern and pre-fabricated would replace this gem. Concrete formwork would be dropped in here by a crane and propped up by steel reinforcement. The suburb was slowly going to Hell in a Roman box… we came, we saw, we concreted.
“Of course I want to know, I’ve got a torch in my back pack.”
“You were a scout, weren’t you, Mac?”
“No, but I’m yours now. Come on; let’s get this over with, before I change my mind. I have no idea why I’m here or why I believe we just spoke to a cadaver.”
“At least that makes two of us… wait.”
A hum from along the footpath had captured the attention Isis always kept for sound bites. Detail was her thing. The dual lights to their left suggested a car on the path between the trees and the hedges, but the speed and the hum belied this hypothesis.
Isis stepped back onto the nature strip, sinking into the hawthorn grass, dragging Macbeth with her. Whatever was approaching would need the space they occupied. Neither spoke as the lights hummed into the arc of the street lights and rolled to a deliberate halt exactly where they had stood.
The motorized walker; four wheels, a carry basket and handles, was a crimson tone that sparkled in the moonlight. The eyes of its driver reflected in a similar manner despite their age.
“Nasty business that.”
“You saw what happened, um?”
“Frank, live next door, smoke blew t’other way. Makes me a suspect ‘cause I have a weather station and they didn’t have to evacuate me.”
“Did you call it in, Frank?”
“No, can’t see the bleedin’ numbers to dial anymore, could use one of those Hitchcock phones from Dial M for Murder. I have this instead,” the old man tugged a necklace from under his bow tie. Macbeth recognized the symbol emblazoned there immediately; Care-Alert. Press one button and it dials up to five emergency numbers. “I have my son and the ambulance, but not the fire brigade. Good for me, no bloody good for that poor bastard.”
“Did you know him?”
“Can’t say I did. Odd family, house been with them for generations, but didn’t really know any of them, least of all him. Always had the gardens professionally done, though. Shame about that hedge, private mind you, but best in the street.”
Frank scratched his chin, the sound of cracked finger nails off silver gristle akin to a rasp on wood. The hedge, as he described it, would have provided cover, especially now they had an audience who didn’t seem likely to move on any time soon, but it was a sad excuse for a barrier now.
“So, who rang the fire brigade?”
“No one knows, odd though, and I didn’t tell you this, but they found him in a sealed room. A safe room they called it, in that old house. People do the strangest things, like you two, gawking at a tragedy in the middle of the night. One might think you knew him, or started the fire. Well did you?”
Isis and Macbeth exchanged a glance. It was enough for a rope, yet the old man loosened the noose, stepping on the gas and humming away along the street as they replied in the negative. Frank’s voice trailed off along his own driveway.
“Lots of curious sorts about these days, careful you don’t speak to the wrong one, if you haven’t already. It’s not wise to be neighbourly, not like in my day; folks can be bastards, even to cripples like me.”
Macbeth stepped into the shade of the nearest elm. Isis stepped over the police tape and through the charred hedge. Kicking himself as a lone car sped by, Macbeth followed the I.T. girl as would a Cumberbitch follow Benedict to the edge of a high rise drop.
Isis possessed no stealth mode. She strode along the feng shui curve of the path, lifted at its edge by the roots of the hawthorn grass, and mounted the verandah, complete with its Planetarium-style atrium. The Southern Cross watched on from centuries in the future and Macbeth bumped in behind Isis as she paused before the ruin.
The house was a shell of blackened walls, glistening in the moonlight where the paint had blistered and was soaked by fire hoses. The stained glass on either side of the front door dripped with lead, the kookaburra within no longer laughing, a demented hunch bedeviling its feathers. Isis stepped inside, careful to test the remaining floor boards with each tentative foot.
“The left side of the house is almost gone, but the other side of the hall still has its walls and part of the roof.”
“I’d say the firemen got in here real quick, Isis. There’s too much left. I think Max suffered a smoke inhalation death, preserved the skin.”
“But Max said his skin was only half the story.”
“Then someone doesn’t know about the maps he said were in here and if they do, they don’t know the full story they tell. Come on.”
Macbeth surprised Isis with his newly discovered ebullience. He checked the first room to the left; bedroom. It had a matched pair to the right of the hall, only in better condition. The second to the left was a lounge judging by its crumbling bookcases and four footed square ash shadows. To the right of this there was damage inconsistent with a fire, forcible entry into a room with no window; a room where the wallpaper peeled off the walls in twisted charred ribbons, layer upon layer, decade after decade of renovated ideas.
“Where’s your torch?”
Macbeth slid his thumb along the switch, the beam presenting itself across the floor, unseen from the street.
“Great minds, eh?”
“I could have used it along the hall.”
The sarcasm was not missed, but Macbeth was up to the challenge. “Suck it up, princess. We shouldn’t even be here and we have no logical excuse. I don’t know why I’m here and neither do you.”
“Sometimes you have to feel life, Mac.”
“That’s hippy bullshit.”
“My folks weren’t hippies!”
The moonlight wielded a meteor Macbeth’s way that shot through the veneer of Isis’s façade and she almost made sense for the first time. Multi coloured hair, often different from day to day, knitted hat, baggy men’s clothing, an attitude instilled with a free-willed confidence, and decorative piercings… hear no piercing, see no piercing, speak no piercing. He wondered if Isis could link a chain to each and be led to an arena in Provence… ole!
“Where’d you grow up?”
“What the hell are you doing this far south?”
“The hash smoke made me sneeze.” Isis smiled at Macbeth’s eerily accurate deduction. She had lived in Melbourne for years now, through university and into her job at the City Morgue. No one had ever pieced her together before. Most guys, and a few girls, were too busy attempting to deconstruct her look into nakedness.
Macbeth allowed the revelation to settle into the ashes, training his torch on the walls, which seemed to flake away from every surface; the wallpaper charred into odd shapes and ghostly imagineerings. He stepped over a fallen ceiling beam bringing him within centremetres of the nearest wall. Tugging at a ribbon of wallpaper, it curled upon itself, and powdered. The remains of plaster dusted through the beam of his torch.
“What’s that, Mac?”
“I think the wallpaper’s holding the wall together. The fire might have crept inside and burnt the wood of the lathe and plaster.”
“Then don’t disturb it.”
“We have to, to examine it more closely.”
Macbeth held out his hand and assisted Isis across the fallen beam. The light of the torch yellowed the wallpaper here, or so it seemed. The patterns were not the more typical flowery designs they had both seen in various university digs, these were charts. Where Macbeth had peeled away a charred surface.
“I need a paint scraper.”
“Will this do?” Isis slid one out of her pants pocket.
“Why the hell would you have one of those?”
“Long story, later, OK?” Macbeth nodded. He wasn’t to know just how anal his partner in crime was. How she had spent the day carefully scraping an Oz Comic-Con poster from a brick wall beneath a rail bridge not far from here. Why would she do that? Because her rent was too high and she had no spare cash and Benedict ‘Sherlock’ Cumberbatch was only visiting Adelaide and Sydney in April, not Melbourne. So disappointing. She would have so loved to meet him.
She handed Macbeth the paint scraper. It was a delicate operation. Insert scraper between wall and map and push down with care while pulling back charred paper. Five centremetres in, the back was revealed, complete with markings, Latin text. Beneath this map there was another. The room was layered and these maps were ancient, not reproductions. Max was a collector on body and in soul.
While Macbeth peeled away the layers of time, Isis slid out her Galaxy S4. She snapped away freely, careful to connect the photos and overlap them. She did not miss an inch of what remained on the four walls, yet once she was finished, the mystery of the room remained.
There were no obvious patterns or links here. Maps from differing times were pasted across and over each other. The subjects also appeared to have no obvious correlation. She discovered a map of Northern Italy from the 1700’s centred on Mantua over-laying a map of Batavia or Indonesia, which pre-dated Cook’s discovery of Australia. The origins of the atlas also differed; French, German, Italian and English cartographers were all represented.
Isis attempted to peel away several sections, photographing as she did, but without a scraper her efforts caused more damage than information revealed. Giving up in deference to preservation, she sat in the middle of the room between two sheets of twisted corrugated iron and watched Macbeth work. He was meticulous, a true surgeon in the making. She regretted her earlier quip at the morgue to Max, before realizing her regret was cloaked by the spectre of a cadaver. Macbeth was right, this was mad. Perhaps they had both succumbed to a toxic gas and were hallucinating. This was a crime scene, they should not be here, she had to call him off.
Planting her hand in the ashes, Isis prepared to stand, only to draw blood on a shard of glass. She did not cry out, she grew up in a commune where most things were rough. There was no glass in her fingertip as she wiped and inspected it, so she sucked on it, musing about the inner vampirism in everyone. Her uninjured hand poked around amongst the ashes as Macbeth successfully extradited another map from the wall. The glass was loose and scattered, not melted, so had escaped the heat of the fire as much of this room had. Its origin was obvious, a frame of aged Banksia, intricately carved with all manner of imps and chimera with a more classical winged gargoyle seated head in hands at the rear, acting as a stand. The figures were curious and worth more than a fleeting glimpse, yet all paled into insignificance compared to the subject of the picture frame. A young woman smiled at Isis, her hair streaked with jet and strawberry blonde, with eyes like emerald fire in the moonlight. Her face was worn beneath those eyes, yet still inviting.
“Macbeth,” the whisper from Isis was careful, but it echoed about the ruined room and the medical student fumbled his paint scraper to the floor.
“Sorry, but you have to see this.” Macbeth abandoned his task and picked his way through the debris. Isis handed him the picture frame. His fingers traced the designs, but his eyes focussed on the woman.
“Do you think this is his wife, or a sister?”
“Dunno, but I did expect a frame of his to be…”
“More outer worldly?”
“Me too. She fits though, just look at her eyes. Who has eyes like that?” The woman’s hair had also captured their attention yet neither of the pair was keen to hypothesize on that subject. “Listen, Isis, I’m not going to get all these maps off in one night and we have less than forty-eight hours to find what is buried amongst them.”
“We have to get them off. If it rains they’ll turn to mush.”
“What if we take these, and the ones that match his tattoos, to see if they jog his memory?” Macbeth waited for an answer, watching the eyes of his most unusual partner in crime flitting left and right, up and down. He followed them with his torch, quickly picking up on her search, aiding her with his perception.
“There, that’s from up above his left shoulder blade, and over there, that one is from his buttocks. Did you notice he had a map of Paris centred on his groin?”
“Do you want to know where the Eiffel Tower was?”
Isis laughed at Macbeth’s coyness, but not for long, she was still trying to work out if it was ego or humour on Max’s behalf. It certainly didn’t seem like an Arc de Triomphe in its flaccid state.
They scraped and peeled until an hour before dawn, secured the maps by wrapping them in the exaggerated top Isis wore and climbed out through the ruins. The street was empty, all houses dark except one, Franks; his shadow quite clearly highlighted on the venetian blinds in his lounge room window. Macbeth raised his arm and the gesture was repeated, shadow-boxed beyond the boxed hedge.
“We need to go.” Isis shivered as she clutched their booty to her chest. “Before the day shift clocks in at the morgue. There has to be something in this collection that will jog his memory.”
“Yes, of course, lead on Macduff.”
There were no signs of the day shift or the Director when the duo returned to the City Morgue. It was as they had left it. Macbeth threw Isis his lab coat for warmth. Had it only been hours since they clocked in? The possibilities of the night suggested days or weeks; such was the prosaic existence they both lived.
Solid careers in I.T. and medicine seemed so far removed from a life of crime, breaking and entry, theft and body snatching. Macbeth locked the lab door behind them while Isis crept off to retrieve the cadaver. It was still quite difficult to call it a him let alone Max. Macbeth was not surprised by the squeal Isis emitted, he suspected Max might be bored and had another joke in him.
He was so wrong.
“I just, this is the cabinet where we left him, isn’t it?”
“Second from the left.”
“Oh my god, Mac, he’s gone!”
A second look did not solve the mystery, nor did checking through the rest of the cabinets. Max was missing and he hadn’t even signed out.
“Perhaps he was a zombie after all.”
“Or we were hallucinating.”
The words Isis had thought all night without speaking were a wakeup call from sanity and Macbeth’s search came to an abrupt end as the ramifications of his actions began to sink in. He was a surgeon’s son, he had almost completed medical school and he had been a successful assistant at the City Morgue. There was not a single blight on his record; no driving offences, drug convictions or misdemeanors. He was the last one to sign Max out, he was supposed to have been taking care of ‘the shop’ as his latest boss called it and now he was liable.
Isis spotted the despair on the medical student’s face. Her comforting hand on his arm was no panacea. There was no connection to her in this matter whatsoever; she could sign in and out at will being technically a day shift worker who dropped in for technical emergencies. Due to her floating shifts she understood the workings of the morgue like no other and her brain shifted a gear, much as it had the first time Max spoke.
“I can clear the logs, Mac. Buy you some time. I can even see who else came in, to see if…”
“I’m being set up.”
“OK, Isis, what else am I going to do, who else can I trust? My career’s over either way if Max doesn’t show up. I just can’t believe it, I’m such an idiot. Jesus!”
There was nothing to cling onto as Macbeth slumped to the floor, weak at the knees. Isis could not hold him up, but she did prevent his head from collecting the wall before easing him back against it. She grabbed his face between her hands and kissed him on the forehead, giving Macbeth a look of it’s OK, I can fix this. She wasn’t sure she could, but Isis was tapping away at the terminal a metre or so away within seconds.
The memory of the certainty on Isis’s face was something for Macbeth to cling on to as her features drew down at the mouth and creased into parallel furrows between her eyebrows. Her fingers were playing a circular game with the terminal; type, enter, reject and repeat. She had been locked out of the system and Isis had administrator privileges. She returned to Macbeth and sat herself down beside him.
“Rod Stewart, eh?”