Many hours later, after a trip to the Griffin, then a visit to the White Hart Tavern in a vain attempt to meet their crew mate William Falke, Anthony Hunter, Moira Wycliffe and Thorias Llwellyn walked quietly along the deserted street towards Blake Hospital. Krumer Whitehorse, after some consideration and much lengthy debate, had remained behind with the Griffin in case the others did indeed attract unwanted attention. Attention, such as in the form of the hospital caretaker, or worse yet, the police constables.
The shadows stretched long across the road, due to the waxy yellow moon overhead which was partially obscured by the clouded night sky. Buildings loomed tall with a foreboding, silent air broken only by the occasional dim glow of light from a window. Gas lamps stood at regular intervals on either side of the road. They were welcome islands of feeble light in a sea of otherwise gray and black shadows. Within the swells of darkness, the skittering of rats racing across the cobblestones haunted the night air.
Most rats were of the four-legged kind, but the more nefarious had two, and sported well-used pocket knives or clubs. Fortunately, both kinds chose wisely to avoid the small group.
“I should never have left.” Hunter growled, his face a storm cloud of anger. “What with all we’re involved with, I should have immediately shaken the Grassmarket apart until he fell loose.”
Thorias paused and withdrew his watch from his vest pocket. He shook it once, and the firefly oil contained inside immediately ignited to produce a soft, chemically-induced glow beneath the watch face, illuminating three numbers. “Don’t be rash. Mrs. Carpenter was quite explicit about the whole of the situation. William never had a chance to make it back to the tavern, what with being carted off by the constabulary.”
“What could he be doin’ anyway? Fight ’em off? I’d not even be tryin’ that.” Moira added with a shrug.
The doctor snapped the watch shut and dropped it back into his vest. “In either case, it’s too late to deal with it now. At this hour, the police would likely turn us away if we asked to see him. Unfortunately, William will have to sit where they’re keeping him until the morning, whether we like it or not.”
Hunter rubbed his eyes, then pushed his hands into the pockets of his aged and weather-worn brown long coat. “If I can help it, he won’t be staying there much past the morning.”
Moira shook her head. “I don’ think that’s any better. They’ll put the pinch on ya too. Remember, they’re wonderin’ if yer the killer.”
“I know, Moira, I know.” Captain Hunter replied with a hard sigh of exasperation. “I’ll deal with that as well, I’m just not certain how to, as of yet.”
Thorias checked his watch again. “We should go. We’ve only a hour or two while the caretaker does his evening rounds, from what Benjamin mentioned.”
“He goin’ to let us in?” Moira asked.
The doctor shook his head. “What he told me was told in conversation. I didn’t elaborate on the details of our little … outing.”
The trio hurried down a dark side alley that ran along the left side of the hospital. Dark and damp, the alley echoed with the faint sound of their footfalls on cobblestones peppered with the occasional viscous puddles of rank-smelling fluids. After a few feet, the alley opened up into a wide courtyard formed from the conjunction of the hospital, the building in which the mortuary was located, and a two-story wooden building that was the old carriage house for the former estate.
Moira knelt down at the corner and peered around. The warm glow of gas lamps illuminated the decorative gray-green hedgerows that surrounded the hospital like a living barricade. An occasional stunted, thin tree reached upwards towards the sky. Its shadow grasped out at the cobblestones that paved the path towards the mortuary door. In the hospital itself, most windows were black as pitch, but a rare few burned with the feeble glow of a desk lamp.
“Looks empty,” She commented.
Hunter, looking past her for himself, nodded in agreement. “Then the caretaker should be on the other side of the hospital grounds?”
Thorias stepped out of the alley. “Quite so, I believe. I’ve the key. So if we don’t tarry too long inside, we should be in and away before he returns. However, we still should have at least an hour or so.”
From the alley, they raced across the courtyard to the mortuary itself. Instead of the wide, front double doors that were braced by a pair of narrow, dark windows, Thorias led the others to a smaller side door that sat under a feeble, poorly burning gas lantern.
The lithe elven doctor withdrew a key from his vest pocket. Beside him, Hunter kept a sharp watch over the silent courtyard, its foreboding shadows, and the dark, manicured hospital grounds beyond. Moira, however, was intently peering into the long window that sat to the right of the small door. Experimentally she tried one to see if it was locked. It was.
“They are always careful to lock the windows from the inside.” Thorias commented as he watched the young lady tug slightly at the windows.
“Just curious.” Moira replied with a grin.
The key slipped into the lock, then turned smoothly with barely any sound. Without a word, Thorias turned the door latch, pushed the door open, and slipped inside.
Captain Hunter chuckled, then whispered quietly to Moira. “Capital idea to check the windows in any case, given how often the moment arises for us to leave through one.”
“My thinkin’ too … well … mostly anyway.” Moira agreed, stepping through the open door. Captain Hunter followed a moment later.
Beyond the door was a small room, once used as a pantry. Now, it was more storage room than pantry, what with the stacks of dust-covered brown boxes and an odd assortment of sealed gallon of jars labeled with unusual sounding chemical names. Across the door to the outside sat a plain wooden door.
Hunter looked around at the dusty collection of disorganized boxes with a small frown. “How soon before the caretaker inspects the mortuary itself?”
Thorias locked the door behind them, then hurried across the small storage room. “Unless I was misinformed, he should’ve already been by. Fortunately, his rounds take enough time that he only does a check of the entire grounds every two hours or so.” The doctor tried the latch on the door. It obediently turned and opened with a soft click. “Ah, success. It’s not locked. Step quickly now. The bodies will be in the basement, since that’s likely to be the only place large enough to hold the gas chambers for the refrigeration machines.”
With Thorias in the lead, they quietly slipped out of the storage room and into the hallway, dimly lit by the distant light from outside gas lamps. Slowly, they felt their way along the hall towards the rear of the building. Through a large room with long wooden tables and a lingering scent of embalming fluid drifting in the air, the group descended a set of stairs to the basement.
The basement’s ancient wooden stairs creaked in protest as the small group reached the bottom. Thorias reached around in hope of finding a winding key to crank the clockwork motor that would power the gas lamps. Fortunately, he was not wrong. His fingers soon encountered a small metal crank set against the wall just within reach. A few turns later, a clockwork motor hummed like a muffled bee as a soft, yellowish glow appeared in the wall-mounted gas lamps scattered around the perimeter of the room.
Hunter looked around at the hum. “Clockwork-powered gas lamps? Seems a bit expensive for just a mortuary.”
Thorias shook his head. “Given what could happen to a man careless with an open flame about a jar of formaldehyde, I’d say not. The fuel is likely burning in a controlled chamber with its own air intake and expulsion to the outside somewhere above. The light here? Merely reflected.”
“Brilliant.” Hunter said impressed.
“Indeed ingenious. Although, lighting aside, might I present to you … the mortuary.” The doctor said in a heavy tone and a sweep of an arm. “Complete with quite a compliment of residents.”
“Well … yeah. Which are the ones we want ta see?” Moira said, stopping while her eyes swept the room. “There’s quite a few.”
Hunter’s frown deepened while he took in the view. The basement, by and large, was still one large room roughly forty feet wide and sixty feet long. Given its proximity to the main building of the former estate, the captain guessed that it might have been a root cellar. Perhaps the only one. However, it was no longer used to store roots.
In three orderly rows, weathered wooden tables sat neatly close together. Anthony counted fifteen tables in all. While some were empty and well dusted, a part of his mind noted that most of the tables were currently in use. Ten of the tables each supported a mysterious figure draped in a white linen sheet. Ten, which was seven more than he had expected – or wanted – to find.
Beyond the tables, four small rooms – each no larger than what might be a closet – had been built against the aged stone subterranean walls. These rooms sat side by side in a short row across from the stairs the group had just descended. Outside the left-most room was the large brass and steel refrigeration machine that kept the basement the temperature of a brisk winter day. A most unwelcome sensation after the trip above ground in the damp air. Next to that sat a collection of stained barrels. Some were marked ‘formaldehyde’, others ‘fuel’ or ‘power coils’.
Captain Hunter sighed with the sound of a man who carried the labor of the world. “We can’t just search them all, we wouldn’t know who or what we’re seeing. Now, the police know they have a mad-dog killer loose on the streets, we can take that much for granted. However, they’ll need to keep track of his actions. Anything he leaves behind as a trail.”
Moira nodded in understanding. “Then they’d be careful where they be keepin’ the bodies, cause they might want ta come see ’em later.”
“Quite.” Hunter replied. “Which means while the families will eventually get their say, the police would keep the bodies isolated as long as they can.”
Thorias had already walked past the rows of silent corpses, and had come to a stop at the collection of doors. “One of the exam rooms, then. I’ve known some mortuaries to keep a body or two in them for quite some time while they repair any grievous damage to a corpse before burial.”
Quickly, he pulled open each door and peered inside. The first room was a disappointment, as inside was only a small, water-stained desk. Around it, wooden shelves sagged under the labor of numerous anatomy books, a rune-carved skull, and jars of preserved animals.
The second room proved more fruitful. Inside, three tables were stuffed next to each other, nearly filling the tiny room. Thorias walked carefully inside and gently pulled back each of the three linen sheets.
“Two men and one woman.” He reported to Hunter and Moira. “Correct gender for what we’re searching, even if we are missing one woman. Since she was the recent arrival, my guess earlier is likely true. They have her in the hospital proper for some reason.”
Hunter, though, had stopped at the first room. His eyes wandered among the stacks of papers that decorated the desk. They were held down by an old stone, which looked remarkably like one of the stones from the basement wall itself. “Capital. Thorias, look them over closely. I want your professional eye looking for anything unusual beyond the wounds themselves.”
“What’ll we do?” Moira asked curiously.
“Search this office.” Hunter replied. “Following the idea that the police would separate the bodies because of their investigation, there would likely be separate records also. I’ll join you as soon as I look at the young lady in here.”
“Aye, Cap’n.” Moira said before walking into the office getting to work.
Anthony took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Death was ever an unwelcome guest, but a death from murder was just that much more unsettling. The captain walked over to the table with the young woman and pulled back the sheet to examine her features.
The woman, when alive, might have been early in her thirtieth year, as best as Hunter could guess. Her raven-black hair cascaded around her face with its olive-tan complexion. Even though he was a little disappointed, he was also relieved. This was not Allison Newt. So Allison might still be alive. Respectfully, Hunter replaced the sheet over the unknown woman’s face. Quietly, he left the room to join Moira in her search.
Meanwhile, Thorias stepped into the small room next door to begin his own grisly task. Being a trained doctor, examination of a body – either alive or dead – was nothing new. However, he was trained to save lives, something he took as his personal life’s work. Given the longer lives that most elves naturally enjoyed, he took that choice very seriously. So when he did have to examine a corpse, it was a heavy weight on his heart. It was a feeling that, even if there had been nothing he could have done about it, he had lost one more battle against his relentless opponent, Death.
He lifted the sheet from the first victim, a man named ‘Warren Mullins’ according to the stained piece of paper tied to the dead man’s toe. The view of what he found nearly caused him to lose his professional demeanor. He felt his face turn white.
The dead man’s clothes were a bloody ruin. Thorias peeled away the top-most layer of cloth, a ruined tan shirt, to reveal his chest.
“Bloody hell,” Thorias said in a hoarse voice.
Hunter stepped out of the office and looked into the room where the doctor was. “What, Thorias?”
“This … ” He replied with a shake of his head. “This is barbaric beyond words … and yet … there is something familiar here.”
“Indeed?” Anthony said with a look of surprise. “How so? You’ve heard of someone killed in this manner before?”
“It’s not the manner, it’s the technique.” Thorias said thoughtfully. He pointed to the edge of the longest cut on the man’s chest. “See here, very precise. Yes, the man here was skinned, but this was not a hunter skinning a deer. That cut, and the others that follow are very specific.”
The doctor let the sheet fall over the dead man’s legs while he searched around the tiny room. “There must be some instruments here somewhere … ah, here.” From a drawer, he produced a pair of long, narrow metal pincers. With these he carefully pulled open the wound in the corpse’s chest. Thorias nodded, excitement in his voice.
“Aha, see, there.” He gestured with his free hand. “A portion of the man’s right lung is missing. Just a portion the size of a fist mind you, and … his heart. The cuts here were very careful, very precise.”
Captain Hunter, while no stranger to a dead body, took a deep breath to steady both his nerves and his stomach. A corpse was one thing, but he never did quite develop the tolerance for all of Thorias’ chosen profession. Anthony nodded. “I see. So we’re after a surgeon, then?”
The doctor shook his head. “I’m not certain. Heaven above help us, it could be. But if it was, pray tell why is there so much collateral damage in and around the ribs? And these other wounds on the arms – cut right to the muscle. Those are not nearly as precise. They are more jagged, almost manic.”
Hunter took another deep breath, then released it slowly while his stomach threatened mutiny. The captain leaned over to look into the exposed chest wound in the corpse. As he did, he saw a momentary reflection of wet metal within the space where a part of the man’s lung had once sat. He squinted into the white-gray spongy material of the ruined lung. “What’s that? That bit of metal there? It looks very like a small bolt-clamp.”
Thorias squinted in the dim light until he, too, located the metal object. With his free hand, he reached in to tug on it. “It’s a tiny valve. Smartly attached to our bloke here, too. What it was a valve for, I can’t fathom.”
“Cap’n?” Moira’s voice echoed from the other room.
Hunter stepped out of the examination room, grateful for a brief change of scenery. “Yes, Moira? Find something?”
“More like I what I didna find.” She said sourly. “I found the list o’ the ‘guests’ all laid out here, but there are just a bunch a numbers by their names when I get ta their medical records. Like serial numbers. Got a note here too sayin’ that the records fer the three next door are set aside in the ‘records room’ for safe keeping.”
Hunter nodded thoughtfully. “Then they possibly won’t even be here in the mortuary.”
Moira dug out a blank piece of paper to copy down the numbers. “So where they keepin’ ’em? Upstairs?”
“A ‘records room’ suggests the hospital records,” Thorias suggested from the other room. “It would be the proper place to keep them, not to mention efficient, what with the mortuary being right here.”
“Quite convenient,” Hunter commented, “given that is our next stop.”
Suddenly the muffled sound of keys rattling on a metal ring echoed faintly down the stairs from above. A pair of voices, two men in conversation, followed close behind that.
Moira looked wide-eyed at Captain Hunter. “Unless we got company!”
“Damnation!” Thorias swore quietly. “The caretaker is back early!”