The doctor walked down the sterile hallway. Everything about it was that — plain sterile. There wasn’t a germ to be found on his hands or on the walls or even on his shoes. But there was one lurking in his mind.
He opened and closed the door abruptly. He picked up his charts, attached to the clipboard.
“Richardson?” He said.
The man grunted through the tape-gag which bound him to the table, along with the cuffs. The top of his head was shaved, and thin metal strips were laid on it. These were soaked in a liquid which smelled foul — vaguely like vinegar. They were attached to lightbulbs which surrounded his head, where it extended off the table, in a halo. They flickered on and off at random, like a scurrying spider.
“Ready?” The doctor asked.
The man screamed. It was muffled by the pressure of the things lain upon him.
“Gentleman,” the Doctor stood in front of a long and expensive looking wooden table. What kind of wood was it? Teak? Mahogany? The doctor didn’t know; he was no carpenter. Today he had exchanged the lab coat for a cleaner suit, without the splatters of bodily fluid.
“I have devised a method which is the utmost improvement in the regrettable necessity of execution.”
The men, sitting in green suits and uniforms, scribbled something on notepads. The one with blonde hair, swept back, looked severely disinterested.
The doctor continued, “Executions, you see, used to be the most gruesome of feats. Not for their occurrence — no, any self-respecting society must get rid of those who commit such heinous acts beyond respect — but gruesome in their methods, in the execution’s execution.” The doctor considered himself clever, and was looping around with flows of words where only a few would suffice. He knew it. But, of course, once the demonstration was shown, the men would buy the product anyways. And he would have his long desired resources.
“In medieval times, the crowds would gather round, would make a day of it. The savagery was the selling point — chopping off the head, pulling the limbs apart from the torso by means of a horse! Even covering a poor sap in honey, and making ants lick him clean to the bone. That drew out the entertainment, yes — then, the show was in town for a few days, or weeks. Even months!” The doctor’s sadism began to show through his beating and waving hands.
“Subjected to this, subjected to this were not only the ruffians themselves — who, of course, so often had to go — but the children, the wives, all those watching. Many people came out to watch, but what of those that had to watch? Had to watch the painful decaying of a live corpse? Gentleman, in the bath of freedom and glory offered by America, we have lesser of these incidents, undoubtedly. But, as a self respecting society, we must get rid of the undesirables. And we must watch, to make sure the act is complete — if only a handful of jailers and guards and the widowed of the affected. It is a job, gentleman. A regrettable but necessary job, like the garbagemen, or the men which must spelunk into the sewers to unclog the pipes. It is our job to repay them — for their service — by hurrying it along. Help the boys on the front, as it were.”
“Even our modern methods, firing squad, electrocution, they all leave guilt, leave blood spray, leave a singed odour of flesh in the air. The witnesses are nasal cannibals! Inhaling a dead man’s burnt hair molecules. Likely that he’s not dead, in fact, but struggling, in the chair, gradually falling limp. It is painful. It is atrocious — for all those involved. The prisoners, the ones who must watch, and the ones who flick the switch. Regrettable, but necessary.”
“But what if there was such a way to render killing absolutely painless, for both the killer and the kill-ee? To render it motionless, say for a shut of the eyelids? To render it silent, undetectable. Just a blink and – wham,” the doctor snapped his fingers, “they’re gone.”
“Too good to be true,” the blonde man barked above his grey canvas uniform. Military — something or other. The doctor didn’t know. He had never served. Only lingered outside the bootcamps, waiting for…
“That’s what they told us the Chair would be. And half the time you fry the scalp till it looks like burnt bacon — and they’re still screaming cause they’re not dead.”
“Well, Gentleman, as a man of science I ask you not to take my word for the truth, but — empirical demonstration. And that is what I have here for you today!”
The doctor ripped a cloth off of the large wooden crate that was stood behind him. Under the wooden frame, only made in edges like a canopy bed, Richardson sat in a chair, his hands tied behind his back, his mouth wrapped tightly with a rope.
Some of the men at the table gasped.
This caught the doctor slightly off guard; it was clear Cooper had not told them.
“Gentleman,” the doctor stammered a bit, tossing a fleck off of his stretching ego, “This man is a criminal, a convict! And what’s more, he has agreed to donate his body to science. What’s the matter with the donation occurring — prematurely?”
“Where did you get him?” The military man barked.
“Cooper — it was a willing exchange on the part of Lockgate.”
Some of the men turned to face the sheepish one at the end: black hair in a brush cut, bespectacled. “This is highly—” the military man began.
“Responsible,” the doctor finished for him, incorrectly. “Gentleman, think of the pain this man could save! Surely a little change in protocol is warranted.”
The military man grumbled in his chair, for a moment.
The doctor continued, “On with the show.”
Richardson’s head thrashed about. The doctor walked over to a golden box, which was fastened to the side of the wood frame. A metal rope ran from it to his patient’s ear. A small tube diverged from a piping apparatus just before, and extended up Richardson’s nostrils as well. His head was pinned down like an insect in a box, against a spider’s worth of machine fingers.
The doctor removed a covering on his controls, revealing a dial and a blue button seated next to it. Richardson caught this out of the corner of his eye. He tried to turn his head, to speak, but it all was too restrained. The glass tubes jostled in his nostrils, but they were not flexible; one poked through the skin on the other side, drawing blood. The military man hid his head in his palm, instinctively preparing for the thick odour of a human barbecue.
“Presto,” the doctor said, pressing the button. A sound like the release of steam jolted along the metal wire. The men could briefly see the clear tubes at the end fill with a puff of blue smoke, and rapidly dissipate to clarity again. The man stopped moving — no thrashing, no burning, no waiting. Nothing.
“Amazing!” Cooper stood up and began applauding the man’s death, “So humane! So incredibly humane! I knew you had it in you all along, Doctor, I knew it.” In between claps, he glanced nervously at the other men, waiting for their approval. The military man unsheathed his squinting eyes from behind his fingers. “I’m surprised,” his words trailed up. They were slow, and deliberate. “Surprised… impressed even. My goodness, I’ve seen a lot of death in my life — too much death — but, my goodness, never that still. It’s like he went to sleep, like he never died at all!”
In fact, he hadn’t died. The puff of blue smoke was only the doctor’s own take on a blend he gleaned from witch priests and voodoo doctors during his draft-dodging trip to South America, when World War 1 raged. An odd brew. The locals insisted it was zombie powder. Kept the men alive, making it look like…
Cooper rushed up to the box and grasped the man’s wrist, peering over his body at the others still sat at the table. He counted for a few beats. “No pulse!” He exclaimed. But of course, this was only an effect of the powder, and not the indication with its usual meaning.
At this, however, the military man stood up, and he began applauding. “Painless! Remarkable! Absolutely humane! Doctor, you’ve done it. Generations to come will thank you. Widows may thank you, for taking their husbands kinder than nature would have — than cancer, say. Doctor, if attitudes change, this has a future not only with our contracts, but in the private sector as well! One of these will be needed at every hospital.”
“Thank you, really, but my intentions never were to make money. Not at all. That is why I am willing to offer it at such a low price…” He reached into his bag to grab the documents he had prepared.
A day later, the man was already buried. They arranged for the burial on Cooper’s own farmland, such that their off-the-books experiment might remain off the books. The doctor pulled up, exited the car, marched crisply toward the spot he had been with Cooper and the labourers mere hours before. He found the rock he had used to mark it with. He muttered under his breath, hoping the box had contained enough air for the time he was forced to be away. It was night now, and Cooper was sure not to venture this far out into his own fields at such an hour. He could only hope Cooper’s dog was equally contented, or, at the least, leashed to the porch or locked inside. The doctor thrust his shovel into the ground.
The grave had originally been dug shallow, to keep the ruse with the labourers that it was a simple — if suspiciously small — irrigation trench. Nonetheless, the doctor dug frantically, counting with his own heartbeat the dwindling air in the box. Thump. It was soon to be running out. Thump. Thump.
THUMP. Louder than his heart beat, over it; over the moon. He hit the top. And dug it out, quickening his pace. He lurched it up, at an angle, away from the loose dirt. It cost him great exertion and left him with pools of sweat. He was not used to such physical labour. The patient should be coming out of it, by now. The heartbeat back, but the mind still groggy, if not outright comatose. Enough to get Richardson back to the lab, with perhaps one more jolt of a sedative — served intravenously — to lull him during the trip.
Enough for the experiments to continue. The blue button press had only been the brief culmination of a longer experiment to date. The doctor had already tried a few others — introducing bacteria to his gums. The rot, the puss, the gaps down to the skull and the black color was blocked by the rope around his lips. Fitting a tapeworm into the eye. The gradually changing colour was still almost imperceptible, though he figured the thing would dislodge from its socket soon. He was careful with these first few experiments — nothing that would show too clearly, twenty feet away, to the men at the table betting the government’s chips.
Now he didn’t have to worry about bruises or bites, or even the absence of limbs. Now he could really play — or, research, he reminded himself. And he would have an endless supply of bodies to pick up, from every prison in the country.
He wasn’t selling them a fraud — just an opportunity for himself. After all, the ones he didn’t pick up would die in their boxes, only slightly delayed from when he promised. And imperceptible — to anyone outside of the box — the victim — themselves. It was still true that the crowds and the guards wouldn’t see their gruesome last gasps. His sales pitch was mostly true, only exaggerated in key places. And all salesman did that.
The doctor inserted the end of the shovel to the small gap between the board and the box it was nailed too. He pried with all of his might. It splintered open. A limp body fell, in tattered clothing. Its skin was torn from scratching, writhing against the rough wooden box. It spilled out onto the dirt. Good, the doctor thought, he is unconscious. He bent down to grab Richardson’s feet. When the hand came near, however, they kicked his arm and bent it with a horrible splintering sound. The doctor shrieked and fell into the pit of dirt himself.
Richardson pushed himself up, staggering. Only it wasn’t himself — his face was puffy, bloated, decaying. Rotting from the bacteria and the multiplying parasites. His eye had fallen out. It was replaced with a black socket, with depth that stared all the more intensely. Bloody drool leaked from his mouth. The doctor began clawing backwards away from the thing. He rested his considerable weight against his fractured arm, and winced, falling over himself and back into the powdered dirt.
The remnant of Richardson raised his hands, wearily, like he was teaching himself to do it all over again. And grabbed the Doctor by the throat.
Cooper was walking his hunting dog around the property when he came upon the pock mark in the land the next morning. His dog sniffed the ground briefly, then took off to the tree line. Cooper hardly noticed; his heart sank and his glasses fell off his face and onto the padding of grass and powdered dirt, strewn all over. What could he do? Nothing had ever been there in the first place.
He tried telephoning the doctor, all throughout the day, but he received no response. Nearing the end of the day, his paranoia heightened. He considered who he could call, what he could reveal without revealing too much. They had said Richardson had escaped. This is what they told the other police, the FBI. And all of them together hunted for him in the woods, at the train stations, on the highway — for three weeks. His wanted poster had been up across four states. They looked everywhere but the basement at the doctor’s office, where the experiments had started.
Cooper wringed his hands, sitting at the oak table in the den of his farmhouse. Now he needed them looking. But what could he say? A missing man can’t go missing again.
This thinking wasn’t getting him anywhere. Richardson wasn’t gone. He couldn’t be. It was animals. It had been a shallow grave. Cooper shot up and threw his hands over his sweating face. It was insane thinking, he told himself. Thinking that wasn’t getting him anywhere, that wasn’t true. Yet he couldn’t push it out of his mind. It stayed, pacing with him into the wee hours of the morning. He hadn’t noticed yet that his dog had never come back. He went to bed to sleep on it, concluding he might be willing to sound crazy by the next sunrise. To lose his job, or worse. It was worse; he didn’t make it that far.
The thing that had been Richardson lumbered once more into the fields of the farm, drenched in the thick night, and disappeared. The doctor’s planned experiments took on a new and unplanned form: how long the death-cheating mixture would allow him to cheat death. What it would do to him. Unfortunately, nobody would know the answer. Because this time, nobody went looking for him. They already had.