Dennis hurried along the corridor as fast as his overweight frame would carry him. In one hand he held a handkerchief, which he used to dab at the sweat gathering on his forehead. In the other he clutched the briefcase tightly, trying not to think about what was inside.
Dennis was a liquidator, the representative of a firm brought in when organisations failed and their assets needed to be rapidly converted into cash to pay off their creditors. Sometimes this was challenging, for example when a company’s tax-dodging owners had fallen foul of the law and had their assets frozen. For Afterlife Cryonics, its assets being frozen was kind of the whole point.
From the very first moment it had landed on his desk, Dennis had known this would be an unusual assignment. The start-up had been almost entirely funded by the estate of Andrew Carmichael, the deceased animation mogul whose millions had transformed Afterlife from a rather laughable refrigerated shed into a sprawling, state-of-the-art facility. His corpse had been the very first one preserved in the new premises (‘vitrified’ was the correct term, apparently, a flash-freezing process that prevented the formation of ice crystals that would damage the brain and other organs – Dennis liked to understand the organisations he was shutting down, if only out of a sense of guilt). This had attracted a great deal of publicity at the time; but crucially, fatally, not enough new clients.
Then the human trafficking scandal had engulfed the Carmichael family and its coffers had been drained by court costs and settlement fees. Afterlife had found its main funding source had suddenly dried up; the deceased animator had no ink left to sign the cheques. Peterson & Peterson was brought in, and they deployed Dennis to unravel the whole sorry mess, a nightmarish legal tangle that involved transferring dozens of frozen bodies to other cryonics providers or, in the case of those that had encountered financial difficulties, back to their families for burial or cremation.
Carmichael, a legend whose name was synonymous with classic children’s movies like Hansel & Gretel and A Squirrel’s Tale, was one of the many that could no longer afford to stay in the cooler.
Dennis realised he had crushed the handkerchief in his fist, his nails digging into his palm. Ellie loved A Squirrel’s Tale. Watching it with her was one of the few memories of her childhood that was really vivid to him, a precious moment of fatherly connection amidst the blur of work, missed birthday parties, work, skim-read report cards, work, forgotten clarinet recitals, work work work. And what had it all been for? Now his thirteen-year-old daughter was in the clutches of ruthless criminals, and if he ever wanted to see her again, he must pay their grisly ransom.
He thought again about the briefcase, and hurried on.
Carmichael was entombed in Afterlife’s largest ‘long-term care suite’, a chamber the size of a luxury hotel room. At its centre was the gleaming, computer-controlled sarcophagus in which the celebrity’s body had been stored in liquid nitrogen. Dennis thought about the upright metal tanks into which other, less financially endowed customers had been crammed, four complete strangers crushed into an intimate circle until some future civilisation conjured the means (and the desire) to revive them. In the interests of efficient space utilisation, the centre of these tanks housed the clients that could only afford the budget end of Afterlife’s product range, their severed heads stacked inside metal containers the size of wastepaper bins.
Dennis looked at the similarly proportioned, collapsible canister he had removed from the briefcase, and at the diamond-tipped bone saw alongside it. His gaze moved to the cadaver he had unceremoniously ejected from its frozen repose, laid out on a gurney with its eyes peacefully closed and a dusting of ice crystals in its perfectly preserved moustache. Carmichael was oblivious to the fact that his fortune had evaporated like the nitrogen now dissipating around him, and equally unaware that he too would soon be slumming it in economy class.
Dennis picked up the saw and got to work.
It was surprisingly easy to slice through the solidified strata of Carmichael’s throat: flesh, sinew, even the layer of spinal cord at its centre like the filling of a gruesome cake, all yielded to the saw’s serrated teeth. Still Dennis found himself nauseated, pausing repeatedly as he gagged and retched.
When the ghastly operation was finally complete, he sealed the head into the ice-packed canister, twisting the lid to secure it just like the hoodlums had instructed him, once they’d been sure he was paying attention. The sight of his daughter gagged and tied to a chair had affected his concentration for a while; the pistol one of them had held against his kneecap had proved a remarkably effective way of restoring it.
Trying to apply a similar focus to the job in hand, Dennis gripped Carmichael’s now-headless body beneath the armpits, grunting as he began to hoist it back into its hi-tech coffin.
He froze as he heard the sound of approaching footsteps in the corridor outside.
‘I don’t fucking know where it’s gone! Someone must have got here before us.’
In his panic, Dennis had stuffed himself under another gurney, beneath the tarpaulin that had been dumped on it along with various pieces of medical paraphernalia. He could see the woman through a small tear in the fabric; she was talking on a cellphone, and looked like she was having to take great care not to crush the device in her massive, gloved hands. She was colossal, well over six feet tall and built like a professional wrestler, dressed in a terrifyingly professional looking all-black outfit. Dennis was so scared he was worried she’d hear his bones rattling.
‘You tell me! Maybe there’s another streaming service that thinks they can hack someone’s ideas from their dead brain?’
He could hear only her side of the heated conversation. She sounded British, or maybe Australian. She also sounded so angry that she might be about to tear off one of Carmichael’s legs just to cheer herself up.
‘Yes, I can take care of it,’ she snapped. ‘But my fee didn’t include taking out a rival operative, so if I don’t see another hundred Gs hit my account in the next thirty seconds then the deal’s off.’
She hung up, and Dennis’s heart felt as frozen as Afterlife’s clientele as she glanced around the room, listening intently. At one point she seemed to look straight at him, her eyes a shade of blue as piercing as laser sights. He could barely suppress an immense sigh of relief when she stalked out into the corridor.
Moving faster than he’d ever done in his adult life, he squeezed out from under the gurney, carrying his macabre trophy under one arm. He left the bone saw behind, instead snatching up a scalpel from on top of the trolley as though it might offer some protection against a giant hitwoman who probably knew a hundred different ways to (literally) disarm him.
He’d visited the facility several times since being granted special access privileges, but his knowledge of its layout was limited; the only way he knew back to the exit was the same way the woman had gone. He headed in the opposite direction, perspiration dripping into his eyes, trembling so violently he could barely hold on to the scalpel and the plundered cargo. He reached a T-junction, staring in desperation at a signpost that helpfully directed him towards Administration to the left, or to Liquid Nitrogen Storage to the right. He gawped, quaking, unable to decide, breath coming in ragged gasps.
He blinked. Sometimes one’s brain played tricks, and the sound of a rattling radiator or a mewling cat sounded exactly like someone speaking. Pattern recognition, the skills that had helped humans thrive, making sense of the chaos into which we were born without any–
‘I said go right.’
The voice was male, muffled, and seemed to be coming from inside the canister.
Oh god, I’ve finally snapped, thought Dennis. Then he heard footsteps behind him, and a different voice, shouting. ‘Oi, you!’ This voice was unmistakably the woman’s, and the footsteps were suddenly hastening towards him.
‘Just bloody do it, fatso,’ hissed the canister.
He went right.
Liquid Nitrogen Storage turned out to be a very long room, made narrow by the pair of enormous metal tanks along each of its sides. At its other end was a fire exit. Dennis, utilising the closest approximation of a sprint he could muster, had completed about three quarters of his dash for freedom when a gunshot boomed behind him. He yelped and fell forwards, somehow managing not to impale himself on the scalpel as it fell beneath his midriff, the canister rolling away to rest against one of the tanks at his side.
‘Get up.’ He gaped at the black mark the bullet had made on the floor, inches from his staring eyes. He rolled himself awkwardly onto his back, labouring into a sitting position. The woman was striding towards him, a pistol aimed at his face. ‘This body bag was supposed to be for Carmichael,’ she said, nodding at the roll of fabric she was carrying in her other hand. ‘Hopefully it’ll be big enough for you instead.’ She gestured with the gun at the canister. ‘That his head you’ve got there?’
Dennis nodded wretchedly. He knew he should at least try to reason with her, to explain that he wasn’t some sort of enemy agent she needed to eliminate, that he was just an overpaid liquidator who’d been preyed upon because he had access to the facility, knew how to disable its security systems, and would be a convenient scapegoat if the operation went as badly wrong as it was threatening to.
‘Pick it up,’ she said, stopping metres away from him, dropping the body bag on the floor so she could aim the gun with both hands. Dennis’s bowels undulated alarmingly. He was fairly sure she already knew he wasn’t an enemy agent. He was also fairly sure she was going to kill him regardless.
‘Pick up the scalpel instead,’ the canister whispered to him.
Evidently the day’s trauma had unravelled Dennis’s mind. He ignored the imaginary voice as he began to haul himself to his feet.
‘Pick up the scalpel, then take me out of the container.’
When Dennis had been a child, he’d been a huge fan of magic tricks. His parents had bought him a book, which had come with little bits and piece of magical apparatus, like bogus cards and loaded dice and even a top hat. He’d been so excited to show his friends, practising for weeks before he finally presented his magic show in the school playground. They’d all laughed at him, of course, especially when his fat fingers had somehow fumbled the cards, sending a whole deck of identical aces scattering across the asphalt.
One day he’d taken Ellie to a magic show, and she’d loved it. His heart had felt so full and happy it might have burst. He’d even started practising again, hoping to delight her with some sleight of hand of his own. Now he deftly picked up the scalpel as he rose, secreting it in his palm as moved towards the nitrogen tanks. Scooping up Carmichael’s head, he turned to face his assailant.
‘Now give it to me,’ she said, with menace. Her trapezoid muscles were so big that her bulging arms looked as though they were attached directly to her jawline.
‘Don’t you dare,’ snarled the canister. ‘Take me out and put the scalpel against my temple.’
Dennis embraced his insanity. Twisting off the lid, he grabbed a fistful of Andrew Carmichael’s brittle, frozen grey hair, and yanked out the head. He jabbed the scalpel close enough to its skin to draw blood, or whatever cryoprotectant fluid had been pumped into the body in its place. The cannister fell to the floor, scattering fragments of ice around their feet.
‘Don’t move, or I’ll turn his precious brain into a shish kebab,’ Dennis barked.
The woman’s glacier blue left eye twitched, once. Visibly quivering with rage, she replied slowly. ‘And I’ll turn your brain into Swiss cheese if you don’t give that fucking thing to me, right now.’
Dennis paused. Ellie. What am I supposed to do?
‘Press the button on your right,’ said the head calmly. ‘It’s an emergency pressure release valve for the tank.’
If the woman could see the head speaking, she showed no sign. But its voice, a Texan drawl that matched the rare interview footage Dennis remembered seeing of the reclusive Carmichael, was as clear and unequivocal as a Liquidation Notice.
Dennis glanced at the control panel.
‘The big red one,’ said the head witheringly.
Dennis jabbed a pudgy finger into the button, and the woman screamed as a fountain of liquid nitrogen erupted into her face. He stared, horrified, as she staggered backwards, the deadly fluid still gushing into her as though spewing from a hire hose. It vapourised almost instantly, filling the room with swirling gas, mercifully obscuring his view of her as her skin froze, peeled, cracked and split like old parchment, as her hands twisted into beseeching claws as though she was begging the laws of thermodynamics to work differently.
‘Put me back in the container you idiot,’ rasped the head. ‘And get the hell out!’
Dennis scooped up as much of the spilt ice as he could without venturing too close to the still-gushing chemicals, shovelling it into the canister before he stuffed the head back into the makeshift chiller. As he did so he saw that Carmichael’s eyes were closed, the former millionaire’s moustachioed face a mask of tranquility.
If Dennis’s life had been a movie, the head would have carefully laid out its plan to take out the bad guys and recover his daughter safely, asking only that he reunited it with its body in payment. It would have explained how it was able to speak, perhaps that Carmichael’s real body was stored in an underground bunker beneath his mansion, and that the head was in fact a clever robotic fake designed to draw out his enemies.
In a different type of movie, Dennis might have found his daughter already dead, and he and the head would have embarked upon an odd-couple revenge mission, his disembodied companion slung from his gun belt.
But it wasn’t a movie, and the head didn’t speak again while he drove to the meeting point, a seatbelt carefully strapped around the metal capsule. The two thugs honoured their end of the bargain, and brought his daughter along alive and unharmed, wearing a hood over her head. They released her when Dennis handed over the ransom, and he never heard from them again. That was a good enough ending for him, and the greatest magic trick he could imagine.
Jon Richter writes dark fiction, and is the author of four crime thrillers (Chains, Rabbit Hole, Never Rest and Deadly Burial) as well as three collections of short horror fiction (Jon Richter’s Disturbing Works: Volumes One and Two, and his latest release DARK FICTION), cyberpunk thriller Auxiliary, and psychological techno-thriller The Warden.Jon lives in London and loves immersing himself in all things dark and sinister, whether they’re books, films, video games or even board games – any way to tell a great story!