Story by Edward Punales
Illustration by L.A Spooner
DIARY OF INSPECTOR NORMAN SACKER, 9/10/1892 – I served in the royal marines during the Afghan War, and afterward became a police officer, a profession to which I have devoted twelve years of my life. I have seen many dead bodies in my time. It’s an ugly, yet unsurprising aspect of my life, considering the occupations which I have held. My heart has long grown accustomed to the sight of blood, pale skin, and blank staring eyes. Such things do not disturb me anymore.
And yet, I confess that what I saw on the night of October 3, in the mortuary of the St. Abraham’s Hospital still causes me to gag, and shiver at the slightest remembrance.
It began when a frantic orderly burst through the door of our police station, screaming about a ghastly murder. I can still recall his bloodshot eyes, his trembling hands, and hoarse desperation in his cries. If fear is like an illness, then this man looked very sick indeed.
The orderly was eventually calmed down and interviewed by one of my colleagues. His name was Crawford, and he claimed to have found one of the doctors dead in the mortuary.
The precise details of his tale were fantastical, to say the least, but we were obliged to investigate. Four of us went out that night; myself, fellow Inspector William Rance, the orderly Crawford, and Dr. Langham, a surgeon whom I often worked with.
We entered the hospital, and Crawford led us to the mortuary entrance, which was surrounded by a small gaggle of nurses and doctors. Many of them seemed positively alarmed, their nervous glances darting between each other and the large white doors leading to the mortuary.
The orderly refused to accompany us inside the mortuary. This sat well with me. I detested the presence of civilians during crime scene investigations.
We entered the mortuary, and my blood went cold.
A short, bald man, with a thick white beard, lay on the ground, staring up at the ceiling. He had wide, frightened eyes, and a mouth frozen in a scream. The horrified contortions that accompany death are as familiar to me as the smell of saltwater to a fisherman. But this is not what makes me tremble at night, which makes my skin writhe, even now as I write this.
Our man’s entire body, from the neck down, had been picked almost clean.
The skeleton was coated in bright red, with bits of flesh clinging to it in spots, like the meat on the remains of a Christmas goose. It was as though his skin had been peeled away, and his organs ripped from their cavities. The area around the deceased was dotted with a few spots of blood, but not the thick puddle that this kind of carnage would’ve demanded. The lack of blood disturbed me.
To my credit, I managed to keep my composure and only gagged once. Inspector Rance, bless his soul, immediately bolted from the room. I could hear him retching in the hall, apologizing to the staff gathered there. Dr. Langham was the least affected of the three of us. Even still, I noticed him shiver, as he knelt beside the body, pull out a magnifying glass, and begin his examination.
I remained by the entrance, not daring to move an inch closer, lest I take leave of my senses and faint. I looked around and spotted a small revolver by the body’s side. I pointed it out to Langham.
“Looks like a personal item,” Langham said, examining it in his hand. “Poor man probably kept it on him just in case he ran into any troubles.”
“Has it been fired?” I asked, careful to avert my gaze from the bloody skeleton.
Langham checked the gun’s cylinder and smelled the barrel. “Yes. He likely used it during the attack.”
I nodded. It didn’t seem to have helped much.
After a few moments, Langham looked up at me, his expression stoic, yet pale.
“There isn’t much for you to do until I’ve examined the body,” Langham said. “Perhaps you should speak to the orderly.”
I nodded and quickly made my way out of the room.
— ♦♦♦ —
The dead man’s name was Dr. Michael Sloan.
Crawford, who had been Sloan’s assistant, led me to Sloan’s office, not too far from the mortuary. Rance, recovered from his “dizzy spell” as he called it, accompanied me. I felt ashamed of having to escape the crime scene. To think that I, a hardened veteran of Scotland Yard, who’d presided over numerous grisly murder cases, could still be unnerved by a simple dead body.
But this was no simple dead body.
We entered the office and were treated to Sloan’s records from the past few weeks. Rance and I examined them carefully, occasionally posing questions to the young Crawford. With this review, Rance and I were able to surmise the following:
A few weeks prior to his death, Sloan had been tasked by another station with examining the body of an unidentified young woman. She’d been found in an alleyway, pale, unresponsive, and naked, but without any apparent sign of injury or illness. Sloan, known by his colleague as a tenacious and severe practitioner, gave himself to his duty with the fanaticism of a crusader. He worked on the body day and night, skipping sleep and meals, in a determined frenzy, to discover the nature of this woman’s untimely death.
Scotland Yard grew impatient with his slow progress. Without any family members howling for justice or any apparent evidence of foul play, they were content to rule it as an unremarkable case of accidental death. Even still, Sloan requested that the body be left with him, so he could continue his examination. The authorities raised no objection, and the hospital administrators were content in allowing it, provided it did not conflict with Sloan’s other duties.
Sloan’s notes recounted the long, agonizing nights spent examining and scrutinizing the cadaver. The woman’s cause of death eluded him, no matter how thoroughly he performed his autopsy. Her body was without a single blemish or scrape. The girl didn’t appear to be malnourished, there were no signs of an infection, nor any bruising or open wounds.
This seeming lack of symptoms was not the only peculiarity remarked upon in the good doctor’s notes. There was also the absence of any sign of decomposition.
His notes contained photographs of the woman, and these attested to her remarkable state of preservation. Looking at them, I couldn’t tell that this woman had been dead for as long as she was. The body had been at the hospital for nineteen days and had apparently not shown any sign of decay. The maiden’s thick black hair never fell out. Her skin, though pale and cold to the touch, was nonetheless soft and intact, with no bacterial breakdown or repugnant discoloration. The limbs remained soft and pliable, without a hint of rigor mortis. Even the staff we interviewed were quick to note the absence of odor or other typical signs of festering.
Her body was preserved with grace and perfection, beyond even the most advanced embalming techniques know to man.
Eventually, out of frustration, the good Dr. Sloan decided to cut her open, and examine her innards. But this too proved challenging, for no matter what method he employed or tools he utilized, he could not penetrate the cadaver’s skin. His knives and saws grew blunt against the young woman’s flesh, and even his most acidic agents merely pooled and bubbled, never so much as staining her complexion.
The details of this maiden were significant, not only due to the mysteries they posed to medicine but in their relation to Dr. Sloan’s death. Her body had disappeared the night he was murdered.
— ♦♦♦ —
I, Rance, and Dr. Langham returned to the station and delivered a full report to our superior.
Chief Constable Rheon sat silently at his desk, with a dark frown on his face. His thick handlebar mustache twitched at some of the more gruesome details, and his beady eyes narrowed at the theft of the body, but he was otherwise rather stoic.
“We were not able to find any evidence of forced entry,” I said. “None of the staff were able to name any persons who might harbor ill will toward Dr. Sloan, or who could be capable of…of performing such a unique operation on the human body.”
When I finished, The Chief leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling.
He cleared his throat and scanned the room.
“I do not suppose that any of you three have ever encountered anything quite like this, correct?” He asked.
I shook my head. Rance continued to sit in the corner, staring at the floor, breathing heavily. He wouldn’t be of much use to anyone for a while. Dr. Langham frowned intently, as though something was on his mind.
“Langham, did you hear me?” Rheon asked.
Langham turned to the chief with a start. “Oh. Uh, sorry, sir.”
“Don’t apologize, just answer the question.”
Langham paused for a moment before simply stating, “No.”
“No.” Rheon nodded. He looked down at his desk, at the typed report I’d give him. “My god. What vileness are we dealing with?”
I turned to Langham, who looked away. He seemed to have his mind on something else, something that troubled him, but that he didn’t wish to share.
He knew something.
— ♦♦♦ —
I waited until Langham and I were out of the chief inspector’s office before I began to question him.
We were walking down the deserted cobblestone street, outside the station. The hour was late, and most of the lamplights had burnt out. Our only source of light was the dim moon, as it struggled to shine through the thick gray clouds above. The air was cold, but not bitterly so. Squat buildings lined the streets, towering over us like titans of glass and brick.
London at night has a way of unnerving the tourists, making them feel oppressed and claustrophobic. I adore London at night; the quiet, the darkness, the shadows, help me feel at peace.
But on this night, the shadows had taken on a mysterious, malicious quality. The London I knew, with its virtues and vices, was being contorted into something strange and eerie. One can live in the most wretched and forlorn places in the world, so long as one understands the evil that surrounds them. But on that night, I felt like a stranger in my city. The evil I knew had gone, replaced by one wholly alien to me.
But not quite to Dr. Langham.
“You’ve seen something like this before,” I said. It wasn’t a question.
Langham didn’t speak at first. He merely stared at the ground, his face blank, as if caught in some frightful reminiscence.
I pressed him. “Doctor, why didn’t you share your knowledge with me and the Chief?”
“I have no knowledge,” Langham said. “No expertise. I know nothing about the true nature of the thing we pursue. I know only…that it is not human.”
“What killed Dr. Sloan?” I asked. “And why did it steal the girl’s body?”
“Why do you assume the body was stolen?” Langham said. A grim, bitter smile had overtaken his features.
“Because it wasn’t there,” I said. “A dead body cannot simply stand up and walk out of a hospital.”
“The same way that a dead body does not decompose after three weeks? The same way a dead body doesn’t rot or discolor?”
I stopped and felt my innards churn. “Doctor, what are you suggesting?”
Langham looked away. The bitter smile had vanished from his face. His eyes darted up and down the street, as his hands trembled.
“What do you know?” I asked.
Finally, he said, “Fifteen years ago, when I began my practice, I had a partner. A friend from Medical School. His name was Thomas. We were young, ambitious, prepared to meet any challenges or mysteries that the world could deliver us.
“We’d been tasked by Scotland Yard to assist in a murder case. The body of a nameless young man discovered in the street. The authorities set about identifying him and his potential killer, while myself and Thomas examined the body. Weeks went by, and the authorities were no closer to finding a culprit. And our efforts at identifying a cause of death were fruitless. There was not a single bruise, broken bone, laceration or blemish on his entire body.
“And it would not decay. It remained as fresh and lustrous, as that of a living specimen.”
I felt myself grow hollow and cold.
Langham could see the distress in my eyes and nodded. “Yes, very much like what our dear Dr. Sloan had seen.”
“What became of the body you examined?” I asked.
Langham didn’t answer right away. His mind seemed to wander…his eyes darting about the dark streets. Exhaustion and fear gripped him. For a moment I suspected he’d become catatonic.
Then his mind snapped back to the present. He shivered and grabbed hold of me. “It is not safe here. We must get indoors!”
I calmed him down somewhat, and we hurried to his house.
— ♦♦♦ —
We sat in Langham’s study, bathing in the orange glow of the fireplace. The doctor sat in his armchair, quieting sipping a cup of tea. He was no longer frantic, but he hadn’t spoken since we’d entered his home.
I sat on the couch, across from him, waiting patiently for him to resume his tale. A large part of me wanted him to remain silent for the entire night and spare me the horrific details which were sure to follow. I was content to sit there and scan the thick leather volumes on the bookshelves that lined his study. But I would not be spared that night.
“It was very late,” Langham said suddenly. I turned to him. He stared at the fire, lost in thought. “Almost four weeks after the body had been delivered to our lab. I remember I…I was in the storage room, looking for something.
“Then I heard Thomas scream.”
Langham paused, I feared for a moment that he may again go silent. He took another sip of tea and proceeded.
“I ran as fast as I could until I came to the operating room. Thomas was standing against the wall. He looked terrified. Our body was still on the examination table. But it was sitting up.”
Langham’s body trembled. He turned to me. His eyes were wide, frightened, and desperate. “Sacker, I know this sounds mad, but you have to believe me.”
“I do,” I said, not sure if I actually did, or should.
He continued, “It climbed off the table. I still remembered how it moved. Very slowly, mechanically. And it looked at me. Its eyes…they were glowing.
“I still see them, sometimes in my sleep. I try to forget them, but I can’t. Like little green stars, twinkling at me. It wasn’t human!”
Langham shuddered. He took another sip of tea and stood up. He began to pace up and down the room nervously. His hands trembled, he began to sweat, and his breathing grew more intense. The story he told had awakened within him a most painful sort of fear. I’d seen such things only in some of my comrades in the marines; men who’d witnessed the horror and carnage of warfare, whose minds were forever broken. A sad, scared kind of madness.
I recalled many occasions when a friendly gathering of old marines transformed into a tense standoff with a disturbed chum. The best thing to do in such times, I had found, was to be gentle, and patient. To give the ill friend time to relax, and work through the demons eating away at their mind. Perhaps even offer them a little brandy to soothe their nerves.
But I needed to know. Call it selfish, call it mercenary, call it what you like, but I needed to know. The doctor’s tale had aroused within me, a dreadful curiosity, that would not be satiated, until I heard the doctor’s full account of what transpired that night.
In a calm voice, edged with impatience, I urged Langham on, “What happened?”
The doctor turned to me, an expression of pain on his face. “It just stood there. It didn’t move, didn’t even breathe. It just stood there, staring at us. Then Thomas…oh god why did he do that?”
“Do what?” I asked.
“He was always so talkative; always trying to be neighborly and sympathetic. He could’ve been face-to-face with a wild boar, and he’d still try to be friends with it.”
“What did he do?”
Langham pause again before continuing. “He tried to talk to it. He told it not to be scared. Like a mother trying to calm her infant. He wanted to comfort it. He thought it was frightened.” At this Langham began to laugh; a mad, sullen, bitter laugh. “He thought it was frightened. As though something like that could feel fear or feel anything. Oh, Thomas, you were such a fool.”
The bitter laugh continued for a time, before dying a slow and painful death.
“Then it turned to him. It began to walk toward him. I wanted him to run, to get as far away from this fiend as possible. I tried to shout, but I was frozen in fear. I watched as that thing approached him, watched as he held out his hand, beckoning it forward like it was a dog.
“It stopped just feet from him and looked at him. Then it opened its mouth.” Langham’s features went blank, and he continued as if in a trance, staring off into space, his voice flat and monotone. “It wouldn’t stop opening. It’s like it’d become unhinged, opening wider and wider, like a python about to devour an antelope. I can still see the face, twisted and morphed, stretched to beyond the limits of any human face. Its teeth, tongue, and gums glistened. I remember the smell of its spit, dripping onto the floor. The mouth just kept growing, getting bigger and wider, until it was large enough to…”
I froze. I was afraid to press him, afraid to ask what happened.
“He tried to run, but it grabbed him. Bit into him. We had a pistol in one of the cabinets. I pulled it out, but the bullets simply bounced off its skin. Nothing could stop it. It didn’t even flinch. All I could do was watch.
“Its tongue wrapped around his torso, and he stopped screaming. I watched its teeth strip his bones clean. His legs kicked about inside its mouth, banging against the cheeks. He couldn’t fight it. It was all over so quickly. That thing…It was so strong. So fast.
“But it didn’t touch his head.” Langham turned to me. “Didn’t take a single strip of flesh from above the neck. To this day, I don’t know why. Maybe it wanted him to watch.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Langham said the beast left after that, not even glancing at him as it left the lab. Then Langham hid his friend’s body.
I tried to ask him why he did this, why he didn’t call the police. I received only vague answers, about not wanting to look at the body, about the stench. The whole ordeal no doubt put Langham into a state of shock. I believe that he was behaving less out of rational necessity, and more out of a primal urge to forget what had happened; as though erasing the evidence erased the crime.
Thomas was soon reported missing, and an investigation was launched to find him. No one ever asked about the body he and Thomas had been examining. No one cared. It was just some random person found in the street, with no money or name.
Langham spent the next decade trying not to think about that night. And he’d been mostly successful. Until the night of October 3.
— ♦♦♦ —
Langham, wouldn’t speak anymore. He retired to his room, and I slept on the couch in his study. I had long, restless dreams, about green eyes, of my legs being swallowed whole by tremendous, unhinged jaws. When I awoke at dawn, I’d barely slept.
I walked into the kitchen to find Langham already there, in a bathrobe, drinking a glass of scotch. He had bags under his eyes, and he poured me a glass.
We sat in silence for a time. The sun rose higher, as did the quantity of alcohol in my bloodstream. Gripped by a frustrating fear, and emboldened by liquor, I dared to ask, “Where are they now?”
He turned to me.
I said, “The one you saw, and the one that got Sloan…no one knows where they are. There haven’t been any other reports of…of what we’ve seen.”
“None that we know of,” Langham said. “None that may have eluded the police, that have stayed out of the papers. A lot of things can happen in the world, without us hearing about it.”
I didn’t say anything. I looked out the window. The streets were bathed in a golden light. People walked up and down the cobblestones, going about their business as if everything was fine.
“What do you think is wrong with them?” I asked. “What has caused these people to change?”
“Who’s says that a change has occurred?” Langham said.
“Are you suggesting these people have always been like this?”
“I don’t know. But I find it suspicious that in both cases, the “person” was not identifiable in any way. As though they never existed.”
I nodded. The fact that no one ever tried to claim the bodies was unusual.
Langham paused a moment before speaking again. “Are you familiar with Neanderthals Sacker?”
I shook my head.
“They were a race of men, similar to our ancestral cavemen.” He explained. “Anthropologists believe that our Homosapien forefathers fought with these brutes for control of the land and that we won. Either by cunning, physical strength, or some other advantage granted us by nature, we bested them, and became the dominant species.”
“So, these, things with the green eyes…they’re another species of humans? Like Neanderthals?”
“Perhaps yes.” Langham nodded. “Except in this instance, we may not be the ones who win.”
I shivered. “You think there may be more?”
Langham looked at his drink for a long time, before downing what was left, and pouring himself another. He said, “When Thomas was killed, I prayed that what I saw would not be repeated. That it was a fluke; a chance misfortune, the world had gone mad for just a moment, and that it would surely right itself for good.
“Now it’s happened again, and I don’t know what to think.” He continued to drink.
— ♦♦♦ —
That was five days ago. I still haven’t been able to return to work. Chief Rheon thinks I’m ill and is being patient with me. Rance is feeling better. Langham is missing. I don’t think he’s been hurt, at least I hope not.
I’ve been reading a lot, checking the papers for anything unusual, keeping in touch with my colleges in the police, trying to keep abreast of current events. I don’t sleep anymore. I just read.
Two days ago, on the front page of the London Evening News, I read about the bodies they found in Coventry; one behind the library, the other one on the outskirts.
I sent a telegram an associate of mine in the Coventry police department. He sent me a letter, confirming a few suspicions I’d had. As I’d guessed, the bodies were all naked, young, and possessed no obvious sign of injury or illness. A chill went up my spine as I read that letter.
There are more of them out there. And they are still coming.
I cannot tell say exactly how long we have left, or how many more attacks will occur. I only know what I have seen from the cases of Dr. Sloan and Dr. Thomas. I’m not sure what we are dealing with, nor how to stop it. Maybe we can’t stop it. Maybe we’re not supposed to stop it.
Anyone reading this will likely think I’ve gone mad. And I certainly hope you’re right. I’d rather spend the rest of my days narcotized in an asylum, than face one of these…I don’t what to call them.
They are nameless.
— ♦♦♦ —
The Vanishing City By Harold R. Thompson, Art by Carol Wellart
“Tarmoff,” Gerard says, his voice soft. “Every seven years, for four hours. An empty city, filled with gold.”
Mrs. Harcourt gazes at the City without expression. “Let’s go,” she says.