The perfect corpse, p.1
The Perfect Corpse,
THE PERFECT CORPSE
First published in Great Britain by Prospero Press
Copyright © Giles Milton 2014
The right of Giles Milton to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
All the contemporary characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons living is entirely coincidental.
Cover design: Laura Bamber
GREENLAND, JUNE 1944
GREENLAND, JUNE 5th, 1944
GREENLAND, JUNE, 1944
Ferris Clark had grown so used to solitude that he no longer realised when he was talking to himself. Even now, as he stared blankly out of the window, he was only dimly aware of the voice in his head.
Only thirteen more days, Ferris, and then you’re off for a month. A whole goddam month!
The isolation had preyed on his mind at first. Here he was, six hundred miles from nowhere, his pre-fab cabin anchored with wires to a lonely outcrop of icy-rock. What if he fell into a crevasse? What if his wireless failed? What if? In the early days, any number of disasters had run through his head. But as each day passed and there were no mishaps, he decided that he hadn’t pulled the short straw after all.
Jeez Ferris, there’s plenty worse places to be sent. Lester and Gerald and the others, probably right now being bombed to shit by some band of squint-eyed Japs.
He glanced out of the cabin window and slowly shook his head. The sky was stained like an ashtray and storm clouds were banking up on the horizon. He knew those clouds. They’d bring eight hours of snow and send the mercury plunging to twenty below.
He reached for his matches and lit the kerosene lamp. A yellow glow filled the small room, slowly brightening to metallic white as the flame took hold of the wick. The light sent shadows scuttling into the darkened corners. As he glanced around, he glimpsed the shadow of his head and shoulders looming improbably huge on the wall behind him.
He stoked the Tromso stove and felt the clothes that he had hung up to dry. His woollen socks, all steaming, were strung up like a row of so many kippers. Then he reached for the nightclothes that he kept folded on his army camp bed. Pyjamas, slipper-socks and long woollen scarf. Even with the stove burning it got bitterly cold at night.
He undressed, got into his night-gear and sat down on the bed. It was so low on the floor that it was almost touching the floorboards. Then he pushed his legs under the covering and drew the blankets upwards until they were tight around his chest.
A final glance around the cabin before extinguishing the lamp.
He had no idea what time it was when he was jolted from his sleep. It was pitch black in the cabin and there was no hint of light from the window. He could hear the wind driving horizontal, scouring the surface of the ice field. It whipped the roof of the cabin and hit the window like a muffled machine gun. Tak-tak-tak-tak.
But it was not the storm that had woken him. Rather, it was the noise of the huskies roped up outside. They were barking loudly.
Why are they doing that?
He sat up in the darkness. Shivered. Couldn’t be because they were unsettled by the storm. They liked it best when it was biting cold and the snow was chucking it down.
Instinctively he reached for the kerosene lamp, pushing his hand outwards from underneath the blanket. He always kept it close to his pillow.
It wasn’t there.
He felt again, his hand tapping lightly across the floorboards. He could have sworn that’s where he left it, next to his head. He could even smell the scent of kerosene.
But it was gone.
He pushed his hand further into the darkness and as he did so he felt his innards shrink in on themselves, like a fist squeezing his gut.
There was the faint sound of breathing.
He shivered. Felt a lump in his throat. He pushed himself downwards into the camp bed, as if it might protect him from danger. And then gingerly, without making a sound, he drew the blanket over his head.
Get a grip, Ferris. You’re imagining things. You’ve been too long alone. That’s why they never let you do shifts longer than eight weeks.
Thinking like that, it made him feel better.
There’s no one outside. There’s no one breathing. And in just a few hours it’ll be morning again.
He lay absolutely still, listening intently. Inched his head to one side and drew back the blanket a fraction so that his right ear was exposed.
There. See. It’s gone. You woke from a nightmare, that’s all.
He was hot under the blanket yet he could feel that his skin was cold with sweat. He took three deep breaths to relax himself.
The dogs had stopped barking and the night was returning to normal. He hated what tricks the darkness could play.
Reassured, he rolled slowly onto his back and tightened the blanket around his chest. Must be the early hours. He’d try to get some more sleep.
But just as he did so he heard it again. The faint sound of breathing. And now – oh Jesus God – he could feel the floorboards under his camp bed shifting and squeaking ever so gently, as if they were moving on heavy springs. And this time – help me God - it was for real. Someone, somehow, had got inside his cabin.
He felt the footfall coming towards him. Coming closer. And then it stopped. Came to an abrupt halt. Right by his head.
He dared to open his eyes a fraction. It was still completely dark yet he could just make out the blur of a heavy white boot, inches from his face. It smelled musty, wet, like it was splashed with snow-melt and slush.
And then -
There was a violent crunch of bone and a burst of stars shattered across his eyes. The boot slammed deep into his right temple and a shaft of agony lurched through his neck.
He screamed, crumpled his head into his arms. He yanked the blanket over his pulsing head. Another kick and a second welter of stars played tricks with his eyes.
Jesus – Jesus –
There was a shaft of freezing air as the latch to the cabin door snapped open. In an instant everything was moving and there was noise and shouting and the clatter of guns. Flashlights sent a chaos of light through the darkness. Their hands ripped off
Three flashlights exposed his body, a fourth shone into his eyes.
An iron grip wrapped round his ankles and the room spun upside down. They dragged him over to a lump of frozen driftwood and tied up his wrists and ankles. Then they seized the wood, wrenched him over the high step and out into the blinding snowstorm. His head hit the ice with a solid crack.
He felt his body shudder uncontrollably, lungs, kidneys, shaking in rhythmic spasm.
Then a desperate cry.
‘Why - ?’
Jack Raven stood by the open window of his study and drained his coffee in a single slug. There was still a glimmer of daylight in the London sky, even though it was almost eleven, and the air was full of summer warmth. In the garden square opposite, groups of people were sitting on the grass and drinking wine and beer.
He closed the window with a downwards thrust, locked it and drew down the blind. Then he turned back to face the room, still distracted by his thoughts. On his desk, neatly packed in a box, was a plaster replica of Napoleon’s death mask. On the screen of his computer, blown up to scale, was an image of the same mask.
Jack sat down and pulled the keyboard towards him. He clicked on the Resurrect icon, typed in a code and then shifted the cursor slightly. He paused for a moment, his finger held in suspended animation. And then he hit the return key.
‘Go for it, you bastard.’
He studied the screen intently.
It began so slowly that at first it was almost imperceptible. Yet he could see that something was starting to happen. The image of the death mask was beginning to inflate. The cheeks were swelling slightly as if they were being pumped with air and the drawn features were losing their creases and lines. The plaster-grey pallor of the death mask was transforming itself into pinkish flesh.
‘Go my beauty.’
He stretched his fingers towards the screen. The mask was resurrecting itself into a living face. The rigid angularity of death was falling away and in its place there was a fleshly presence. Napoleon was being conjured back from the dead. No longer was he the hollow-cheeked cadaver of his deathbed. This was Napoleon, but alive.
The image stalled for a moment.
‘No, no. Don’t stop now baby.’
He clicked the keyboard.
There was a ripple in the upper face and he noticed the brow contract slightly. He hit another key. As he did so, the eyelids blinked open one by one.
Napoleon was staring him directly in the eye, his chilling blue-grey pupils glinting sharply in the light of the anglepoise.
‘Beautiful. Just beautiful.’
Death masks were a lie. Jack had known that for years. Even if wet plaster was slapped onto a face within an hour of death, it never captured the genuine, living face. Within minutes of a person dying, the muscles collapse and the flesh sinks like a soufflé, turning the cheekbones into high and bony ridges.
He turned his gaze from the screen to the death mask, still tucked neatly into its box. Napoleon’s face was shrunk into a wizened old hag, with airless cheeks and tight-pinched lips.
The idea had come to him twelve months earlier. If you filmed enough people dying, filmed the hours that took them from living soul to lifeless cadaver, then you could find patterns in the collapse of a face. Feed this into a computer and you could design a programme that would accurately reverse the process.
It was a simple idea, one that could conjure the past to life. He could take any death mask, scan its image into a computer and use the programme to recreate the living face. If it worked for Napoleon, there was no reason why it wouldn’t work for Beethoven, Tolstoy, Robespierre, Cromwell. There were thousands of death masks in existence. Half the most famous people in history had been moulded after their deaths. And now he, Jack, could breath life back into their features.
Tennyson. He knew there was a death mask of Tennyson. He also knew there were recordings of him reading his poems. If he lip-synched the recordings to the reanimated mask, he could watch Tennyson himself reading the Charge of the Light Brigade.
‘Frigging macabre, Jack.’ That’s what Karin had said when he’d first told her about the project. ‘Next you’ll be digging up old graves.’
He got up from his chair, walked over to the fireplace. Above the mantelpiece hung the hugely magnified scan of a human brain. A parting gift from the Innsbruck team, digitalized, all green and red pixels, with specks of brain coloured lighter than the rest. He knew those specks better than anyone else in the world. Each one was an ice crystal of shattered blood – cells that had frozen and exploded into microscopic fragments.
He went back to his desk and drew the keyboard towards him. Napoleon was still staring at him in 3-D. Alarmingly, his eyes had started to blink. He saved the face into a new file and switched screens in order to check his emails. A new message flashed up on screen. Subject: Greenland Corpse. Sender: Tammy Fox.
Dear Doctor Raven,
Apologies for this unsolicited mail but I am writing to you for possible assistance. ZAKRON Inc., Nevada, (see attachment) has recently taken delivery of a corpse that was found entombed in the Greenland ice. The identity of this corpse is as yet unknown, as is the cause of death. But it seems certain he died in suspicious circumstances, not least because his body was found naked. I was wondering if you might be able to help us with our investigations.
The glimmer of a smile registered on Jack’s face as he sat back in his chair, leaning just enough weight against the backrest to hear it crack. An unidentified corpse. Suspicious circumstances. And naked. Just perfect.
ZAKRON will, of course, pay you for your time and reimburse you for travel expenses for the duration of your stay. There is now considerable urgency to this matter and your response would be much appreciated.
It was so exactly what he needed at this moment in his life that he immediately reached for his electronic diary and began flicking through it, double-checking to see that he had nothing on. A lecture in Durham in the second week of August and a pathology conference in Stratford on the Friday of that week. And then there was the whole press business in Leicester for King Richard III. He had to be there for that, but it wasn’t for another three weeks. Otherwise, every day until the end of August was still marked Italy hols.
He leaned back in his chair again and stared blankly into space. Italy hols. If only Karin hadn’t done what she’d done.
He shifted the anglepoise lamp a fraction in order to remove the glare from the screen. Then he re-read the email a second time. Nevada. He’d never been there. It was where Aureol Kampfner had found those three American Indian mummies. He remembered reading it in Scientific American. That was back in the seventies.
He clicked on the email’s attachment and waited a few seconds while it downloaded. It provided a little background information about ZAKRON and gave a link to the company website.
‘ZAKRON Inc. is the world’s leader in cryonics, including cryonic research and technology. Our principal goal is to use ultra-cold temperature to conserve and preserve human life.’
The final page was ZAKRON Research. ‘For some years ZAKRON has been occasionally involved with the FBI and other agencies, charged with undertaking scientific and forensic analysis on unidentified bodies in order to help these agencies with their enquiries. Most notably, we were involved in the recovery and subsequent identification of three American pilots whose George One plane crashed in 1946 in West Antarctica.’
The George One case. He remembered it well. As a matter of fact he’d been asked to help out on that occasion too, but he was halfway up the Tyrolean Alps at the time, working on the Utzi case. He clicked back onto his mailbox and started typing.
Dear Ms Fox,
Many thanks for your email. The Green
Dr. Jack Raven, Bsc., (hons) Msc., Forensic Archaeology, IfA.
A reply came back almost immediately. ‘Great news. Will get provisional times and dates for tickets and get back to you. Many thanks, Tammy.’
He was about to close the laptop when he had another thought. He typed Tammy Fox into Google to see what came up. There was a link back to the ZAKRON website. ‘Tammy Fox is ZAKRON’s senior lab technician with responsibility for the long term care of our cryo-preserved patients. She worked on the George One Antarctic case. She is an honorary member of the ZAKRON board and her grandfather, Ronald C. Fox was the founder of the company (then ZAKRON prosthetics) in 1946.’
Jack closed his laptop and stood up abruptly, swinging round to face the self-portrait that stood unfinished on the easel. It glared back at him with improbably huge eyes. Karin had liked it. ‘It’s got attitude. Like you.’ It made him look older than forty-two but then, Christ, he’d lived more than most forty-two year olds. ‘You can’t expect to look forty-two, Jack, when you’ve spent two years of your life chucking spirits down your throat.’
Out of the corner of his eye he noticed one of Karin’s cardigans dangling from the back of a chair. He took it in his hands for a moment and held it to his nose, breathing in deeply. Then he flung it into the corner of the room.
He walked back to his desk and picked up his mug, half wishing it was full of Talisker. Don’t go there, Jack. Do not even go there. Then he went through to the kitchen, switching off the light to his study.
It was gone seven-thirty in the evening by the time the plane made its final descent into Hanford Airport and almost nine when the cab pulled up outside ZAKRON. Jack paid the driver and stepped out into the night air. Christ it was hot, like a fan-heater on full tilt. He shed his linen jacket.
The Perfect Corpse by Giles Milton / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes