Harlequin No.7

December 14, 2012 at 12:00 PM
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“The world is indeed comic,
but the joke is on mankind.”
-       H.P. Lovecraft

My town has gained some notoriety in recent weeks. Maybe you’ve heard about the strange electrical storm that showed up in Charlottesville, N.C. overnight and then disappeared just as quick, or maybe you’ve read in the paper about the sudden outbreak of mental illness and cerebral aneurysms. Don’t worry though if you haven’t been keeping up with the crackpot news outlets, I’ll fill you in. How do I know so much about this? Well, let’s just say I was there.

For starters, the only reason I moved to this God awful backwater hell in the first place was because my career choice made employment somewhat difficult to find. You see, most funeral homes are family owned, so naturally the laws of nepotism apply. It didn’t matter that I had a degree in mortuary science, or that I had already completed my apprenticeship and directors certification by age 24, the fact that my daddy didn’t own a crematorium meant I would be facing an endless hallway of closed doors until who knows when. That was of course, until a visit to Bailey Meadows (my birth town.) prompted enough boredom to look up an old friend, Terry Liddell.

I met Terry around the summer of ’05, at this cruddy little bar called “The Broken Window,” where bands would sometimes play shows if they couldn’t find anywhere decent. He and I hit it off in a totally-not-homosexual way and we spent a huge chunk of time around each other because Bailey Meadows was the most boring fucking place in all of North Carolina. That, and the Window was the only place within a twenty miles drive of my house that would serve minors.

So, after wrapping up my apprenticeship in Raleigh, I moved back in with my parents due to the unemployment thing (Apprenticeships do pay, but the position was considered temporary at best.), e-mailed my résumé along the entire East Coast, started going stir crazy, and finally worked up enough motivation to drive my Charger west along Highway 42.

Having spent the last 4 years in Raleigh made me forget what a shit hole Charlottesville truly was. It’s the kind of place where people don’t mow their lawns because of all the scrap metal hiding under the weeds. The folks here were a strange breed of redneck, a cross between the Appalachian variety and the lower dwellers of the marshland. The town itself is just as terrible. There’s the strip mall where all the stoners hang out, a library that smells like piss, a trailer park, the Trinity Baptist church, a hospital, and the downtown area.(includes the Broken Window, a couple of family-run business, the post office, and the courthouse.) The rest of Charlottesville is nothing but a series of abandoned farm houses for about a five mile radius and the ruins of an old paper mill that blew up in ’88.

I found Terry at the Window, behind the counter wearing a Sonic Youth t-shirt and wiping off the mugs. Turns out he and some dude named Franklin bought the place three years back and had pretty much kept things the same since. “Don’t fix what ain’t broke.” Terry said.
After catching up on recent news and laughing about the time we spray painted Mrs. Patterson’s dog over a few shots of Wild Turkey, finally Terry mentioned that the Burnswick funeral parlor needed a new embalmer because the old one went crazy and hung himself or something. Just like Terry to get me good and drunk before telling me something of actual importance. I called him an asshole and we both laughed so hard that I fell of the barstool. That was when Terry made me hand over my car keys.

I woke up the next morning feeling the way I imagined a corpse would feel if it were to be dug up and smacked across the face with a shovel. Numb, but somehow still in pain. The next thing I noticed was that I was not in my parent’s house. I was on Terry’s sofa, or at least I hoped Terry’s. Dragging myself to the kitchen, I drank at least a gallon of water straight from the tap before puking it all back up. The sound of me retching out my innards must have been loud, because the next thing I knew there was an unfamiliar voice coming from behind, a girls voice.

“You must be Stephan. Terry said you were a lightweight.” I turned around to match the voice to a face. She was about a head shorter than me, pale skinned, skinny as a twig and with one of those asymmetrical haircuts that have grown quite popular. Also she was wearing a black t-shirt two sizes too small and no pants. Just a pair of pink panties with a zipper down the front.

“Call me Harris, and Terry’s a dick. He should know to keep me off the firewater, ever
since I hurled all over his drum kit.” I said, wiping barf off my lips while trying not to stare at her crotch. Naturally I assumed that this chick was either Terry’s girl, or at the very least someone not to be caught with while pitching a tent.

“Well Harris, I’m glad you made room for breakfast, ‘cause I’m making waffles.”
Fuck yeah, waffles. During breakfast I found out that her name was Billie-Joe Kimble, and yes, she was Terry’s girl. Fiancé in fact. They met each other at The Broken Window three years ago. Billie was the bassist for a band called “Chop the Willow”, which she joined after moving here from Jacksonville. Why she would willingly relocate to this cesspool was beyond me, but she seemed to like it here. “It’s got something you can’t find in the city,” She said. “This place has mystery.” Looking back on things, Billie was probably right.

Here’s a bit of a historical mystery to keep you from getting bored. As I mentioned earlier, there was a paper mill just outside of town that caught fire in 1988. Some sort of industrial accident or some such. Anyways, a lot of people died in the resulting explosion and it pretty much crippled the town economy. That’s not the strange part. The topic of interest here was that the police couldn’t figure out what caused the fire in the first place. No signs of arson or failed equipment, just a bunch of confused head scratches and rumors. What were these rumors you ask? Well, from the witness testimonials, several floor workers reported that they heard laughter just before the fire started. Maniacal laughter, like someone was in on some sick joke.

After breakfast I took a shower and got ready to head over to Burnswick. Lucky for me I was already wearing a suit, so I didn’t feel underdressed. I thanked Terry and Billie for letting me crash on their couch and they wished me luck. Actually, Terry wished me luck AND offered to give me a ride. I declined, on account of Charlottesville being so damn small that the only reason anyone living here should need a car would be so that they could drive the hell away. Seriously, it took me about fifteen minutes to get to the funeral parlor on foot. I would have gotten there sooner if I hadn’t stopped at the Fill-U station for a pack of Camel. (I cannot stress this enough, smoking is a terrible habit. It eats up all your money and limits your ability to run for extended periods of time.)

When I walked into Burnswick Funerals, the first thing I noticed was the complete lack of reception. Normally there should be someone to oversee the front room, usually from a desk or nearby office. True, it’s often better to call in advance to make funeral arrangements, but there really needs to be some sort of oversight for the possible walk in. The second thing I noticed were the dead nightshade flowers on the coffee table. Rather unprofessional in my opinion. White lilies or orchids would have been better, and preferably not old ones. In any case, I decided to wait for someone to show up, and in the meantime I walked around the viewing room, looking over the black and white photographs framed about the walls. Fairly standard display: Trees, sleeping animals, churches, old Victorian portraits, other vaguely mournful images. Appropriate décor if I ever saw it. Interesting thing about 19th century portraits and why they often seem somewhat creepy; most of the people you’ll see in them are actually dead. Old school photography was a time consuming process, meaning subjects would have to remain still for a few hours while the silver nitrate imprinted the light. Also it was very expensive and therefore only used on special occasions, funerals being one of them. And since the person/persons getting their picture taken were post-mortem, there would be no need to worry about fidgeting. I was pondering this knowledge while viewing a picture of a little girl with dead eyes propped up in a chair when I heard a door close somewhere in the lobby. Turning around, I saw a confused looking man staring at me.

“Can I help you sir?” He finally asked after a few awkward moments. He was an older gentleman, somewhere in his mid to late fifties. He wore a pair of wire framed glasses and showed signs of unwanted balding, but no signs to immediately raise the question of whether or not he liked to sodomize the dead. Trust me, necrophilia is not a desirable employer trait.

“Yes you can, actually, I heard that you’re in need of a new embalmer,” I extended my hand for approval “I think I might just be the man for the job. I’m Stephan D. Harris, a pleasure to meet you Mr…”

“Burnswick,” He replied, shaking my hand. “Alfred Burnswick. And yes actually, I lost my main undertaker a few weeks back, a real shame too what happened.” He sighed in frustration before going on. “It’s just been me and Lenard running this place since. Let’s talk. First of all, have you done any apprenticing?”

About an hour later the deal was sealed, I’d finally broken into my target occupation. So what if it was in Charlottesville? I could always relocate after a few years, but for now, it was my time to shine. It didn’t take long for me to get used to things under Mr. Burnswick, in fact, after the first embalming he pretty much left me to my own thing. After all, I’d been training my entire adult life for this line of work. Whenever I had a question as to where a particular wound filler or sanitizer was kept, I’d just ask Lenard. (Lenny ran the cremation end of Burnswick, but would also fill in as an embalmer from time to time) but for the most part it was the same basic procedure that I’d been doing in Raleigh. First I’d scrub down the cadaver, then I’d massage the limbs to relieve rigor mortis. Following that I’d plug up the orifices, seal up any open wounds, begin the arterial embalming, wire the mouth and eyelids shut, finish up the hypodermic embalming, dress the cadaver, apply makeup, and deliver the body to the viewing room. I didn’t even have to deal with any of the surviving family members or review any death certificates, Mr. Burnswick as the lead funeral director would take care of all that noise. The only other regular of the funeral home was the flower girl/receptionist/grief counselor, Madelyn Wade. Now, before I move on, I would like to say that business at Burnswick Funeral was moderately steady, but this was not because people in Charlottesville were dying all of the time. Most of our clients came from a wide group of people in Pitt County who chose us based mainly on our comparatively modest fees.

So after about a month I had saved up enough money to straight-up buy my own house in Charlottesville for the price of a used car. It was an okay little place on Milton Street about two blocks away from The Broken Window. Things were alright for the most part. I hated the town and all those confederate flags but getting back into the groove with Terry made it tolerable. After work most nights I’d just walk over to the Window, drink a few glasses of Wild Turkey, and argue with Terry about which actors from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” were actually dead. Other nights I’d stop by to listen to Chop the Willow practice their set in Terry’s garage before turning in for the night. Billie’s band was surprisingly decent, I must admit. They had that kind of outlaw sound of The Black Angels or Murder by Death that went over well with a mostly southern blue-collar audience. To sum it all up, life was getting comfortable. Until the day I found the thing in a jar.

At first I didn’t know what the hell it was I was looking at. Actually, I still have no freakin’ clue, but I mean I REALLY didn’t know what it was. I found it on a shelf in the storage closet one day at work when our embalming machine busted a tube and I had to look around for a possible replacement. Up on the top shelf shoved into the far back was a cardboard box labeled ‘miscellaneous’ that at first seemed promising. I got on a step stool, and just like any other day I pulled something off a shelf. What I found inside the box… didn’t actually startle me. Not at first, but it did peak my interest. Surrounded by random pieces of newspaper and spare calipers was an average sized mason jar coated in a layer of dust and grime. It was definitely full of some sort of fluid. (Dark green, so it wasn’t formaldehyde.) Also it had a label on the side that read “Harlequin No.7,” which seemed cryptic to say the least. The layer of dirt on the outside and the dark liquid inside made it almost impossible to see what sat in there, so of course I cleaned it off with damp rag and held the jar up to the florescent light for a better look. Whatever that thing was, it was ostensibly organic, based off of the pale flesh tone color. It looked like some sort of mutated potato, but that’s a stupid comparison. If I had to guess I’d say that it was an extracted tumor, or maybe a diseased pancreas. The top half was bulbous, with little protruding bumps here and there. The bottom half had a curved tail similar to the spine of a mammal fetus. Also along the midsection were several thick tendrils that corkscrewed off in every direction. It was an odd thing, but not so odd as to alarm me. True, it was uncommon to find such things in a mortuary, but on the other hand, coroners would often keep certain specimens of interest when discovered, usually out of scientific curiosity. Who’s to say what sort of things Lenard or my predecessor or even Mr. Burnswick have found while poking around inside of people. I’d have kept it if I were the one to find it, only I wouldn’t have hidden it away in a box.

I put the Harlequin on the counter next to the hand sink and went about looking for a replacement tube. I found one eventually, thank God, so the rest of the day went on as normally as ever, save for the occasional glance at the green jar. I resolved to ask Mr. Burnswick if he knew anything about the thing-in-a-jar after the viewing service upstairs was over. I really didn’t want to pester him, but I couldn’t leave an enigma like that unanswered, it was just too nagging to ignore.

When I finally got a chance to show him the strange thing, he took a close look into the cloudy green jar after reading the label, but in the end he just shrugged and said it was probably just a gaffe, or a weird prank set up by the previous mortician Ryan Wilcox. Not a huge stretch, the name “Harlequin” kind of made it seem plausible that the whole thing was a joke. Still, I wanted to be sure. I kept a dissection kit at home in my medicine cabinet, and being licensed as both an embalmer and as a funeral director I was legally allowed to handle and transport human remains, if that was indeed what the Harlequin was. Seeing no qualms about bringing it home for further study, I cleaned up the “undercroft” and headed home with the mysterious jar. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to inspect it more closely until the following night. I had Sunday off and I had planned to go out to the open field gun range with Terry and Billie-Joe while the rest of the town wasted their time in Church. More space for us.

I had a good time blowing apart teddy bears and tacky lamps at the range. Billie kept shouting, “It’s coming right for us!” right before unloading a round from her 12-gauge into one of the stuffed bears, and Terry was and always has been such a terrible shot that he eventually became so irate that he threw down his handgun and proceeded to smash apart a lamp with a tire iron he got out of his trunk. I even managed to get a few good shots off myself, of course I would have done better if Terry hadn’t been shouting things like, “score one for the corpse fucker” and other such distracting remarks. Eventually Billie joined in on the mocking and asked me if it was true that morticians go around killing people to promote business.

“No, that’s Burnswick’s job actually, I just set up the marionette strings for the puppet shows.” I responded, jokingly of course.
“Hey, do what you gotta do,” chimed in Terry, “just don’t go crazy like the last one.”
“Yeah, hey I’ve been meaning to ask about that. Why’d Wilcox off himself anyway?” I asked.
“You don’t know? It was in his obituary. Apparently, Ryan Wilcox’s wife died in the paper mill fire, and he started to get more and more depressed and withdrawn over the years. It sorta makes sense, he had to deal with all the funerals of nearly everyone who died there, his wife, her coworkers and friends and all that. He just couldn’t live with it anymore. Said so in the note he left.”  Billie kicked the dirt with one of her chunky motorcycle boots, clearly getting bored with the conversation. “You think we can talk about something a bit less depressing? We’re here to have fun and ignore gun safety, not get all emo ‘n shit.”

“I didn’t mean to be such a downer,” I said while loading up my revolver. “I just wanted to know why. I found something at work yesterday that might have been his.” Terry started to giggle. “No, it wasn’t porn Terry, you ass. It was some weird thing in a jar, like a maybe a mutant organ or something. I was planning on slicing it up today, actually.”

“Can we watch?” Asked Terry and Billie in unison. *sigh. Some people are really into the macabre I guess.

We got back to my place a few hours later after the gun range shenanigans and a late lunch at the local greasy spoon. The sun had already started to set, basking the early autumn sky in an orange glow. Terry sat in the passenger seat of my Charger, Billie-Joe in the back with her shotgun lain across her lap. Pulling into the gravel pit that constituted a driveway I delegated the camcorder to Terry and requested that Billie refrain from poking things. I don’t have a copy of the home video we made, I destroyed the original after mailing a couple of copies to various news outlets a few days after Billie and I had finished hunting down the surviving cultists, but I remember enough of it to cobble together a transcript.

Video Recording: The scene starts with a shot of Mr. Harris walking out of his bathroom. He is wearing a black apron over his suit and a pair of latex gloves. His face is partially obscured by a surgical mask.

Terry:(Behind the camera) Are you ready to win the Nobel Prize for Incredibly Fucked up Pseudo-Science?
Harris: Absolutely! Those morons hunting for Bigfoot won’t stand a chance this year.
Billie-Joe:(Outside of view) Hey guys, let’s get this over with. I wanna use the afterbirth to make soup. Chuckles.

Terry follows Mr. Harris into the living room, where he has set up a few card tables to organize his equipment. On it we can see several empty mason jars, one jar full of what appears to be formaldehyde, a discectomy kit (includes two scalpels, a pair of tweezers, tissue scissors, a curved probing tool, a hypodermic needle, and a clamp)a microscope, and a copy of The Physician’s Desk Reference Vol. 29. Last, in the center on a metal cooking tray sits the Harlequin.

Harris: (Holding Harlequin No.7 up for the camera.) This sick little puppy here is something I found in a mortuary yesterday. We’re not yet sure what it is exactly, but my working hypothesis is that it’s an alien fetus. Either that or a times ten scale model of Terry’s penis.

The frame is briefly blocked by Terry’s extended middle finger.
Terry: Fuck you Stephan!
Harris: Right then, move over here. I am now about to open the jar.

Terry moves to a better angle and zooms the camera into focus over the Harlequin.
Harris: (Twisting the lid off with a slow hiss followed by a loud pop.) Holy hell it stinks. (Grimacing) Nurse, please note that the subject smells like someone barfed into a diaper.
Billie-Joe:(Now in frame)I’m not the nurse damn it, I’m just in charge of soup.
Harris:(Returning to frame) Alright, I am about to remove the specimen from its protective jar. (Mr. Harris inserts a pair of salad tongs into the jar and removes the Harlequin proper. Note here that a minor distortion affects the shot.) Well, it’s definitely organic, judging by how squishy it is. (Carefully placing the subject onto the cooking tray) Oh wow, this might actually be an alien after all. Check out these veins wrapping around the head bubbles. And… Jesus is that an eye?

Terry directs the camera for a closer inspection. From what we can see, there does appear to be an orb that closely resembles the likeness of an eye. Also during the close-up, another line of distortion moves across the length of the screen.
Terry: Dude, you should poke it with something.
Harris: Science is more than just poking shit you know. But yes, I should take a look under these flaps here.

Mr. Harris tentatively prods the strange orb with the blunt end of his probing tool. Unfortunately, the screen pixelates slightly so we do not get a chance to view this maneuver. Also during this scene the camera begins to pick up audio feedback, despite there being no reason for it to do so.
Harris: (Jerking his hand back) The fuck?
Billie-Joe: What’s wrong?
Harris: (Looking startled into the camera) Shit, did you catch that Terry?
Terry: I didn’t catch anything man. Your camera is acting all stupid.
Billie-Joe: What’s going on? What happened?
Harris: I thought I saw it twitch a little. I probably just bumped the table or something.
Billie-Joe: Are you fucking with us?
Terry: (To Billie) Yeah, he’s fucking with us.
Harris: (waving his hands in frustration) Forget it. Terry, move back a little, you’re crowding me. I’ll start over.

Mr. Harris resumes his attempt to investigate Harlequin No.7. He lifts one of the supposed eye lids with his probing tool, and as before the camera pixelates slightly and picks up feedback, but the overall video quality is decent enough to grasp the situation. A minute goes by with Mr. Harris handling several tools before the light above the card tables begins to flicker. At first, only Billie notices this effect.
Billie-Joe: Hey guys, um… (Points to the light)
Terry: (Directing the camera between Billie, the light bulb, and Mr. Harris) Okay, hey, I’m getting kinda creeped out now.
Harris: (In center frame) Right, okay, let’s do this later. (Mr. Harris attempts to handle Harlequin No.7 with the salad tongs.) Holy shit, it’s moving!
Billie-Joe: Get ride rid of it! Get it out of here!

At this point the audio drops and the screen becomes highly distorted. From the few images that remain somewhat clear, we can infer that Mr. Harris is struggling to reinsert the Harlequin into its original container.  The camera also manages to capture several yellow-green pulses of light, but it is unknown whether or not this effect can be contributed to the near constant visual distortions. This portion lasted for approximately forty three seconds, ending when audio is restored with a loud gunshot. When the visuals stabilize, we can see that Billie is pointing her shotgun at the splattered remains of the Harlequin. We can also see that her nose is bleeding.
Harris: (Nose also bleeding) Thanks for that.
Billie-Joe: (Breathing heavily) Yeah, no problem.
Terry: (Yelling) What the fuck was that?!
Harris: (To Terry) How much of that did you manage to film?
Terry: I don’t know man, the goddamn video kept going out! If I coul… Oh… I don’t feel so… (The camera becomes shaky and we can hear the sound of Terry vomiting.)
Billie-Joe: (Running to Terry’s side.) It’s alright, we’re all alright. Just calm down.
Terry: Don’t tell me to fucking calm down! Or did you forget that the room almost exploded just now? What were those noises?

Mr. Harris appears to try to say something, but stops himself when a thunderclap shakes the living room. No one says anything for several seconds, until a flash of yellow-green is seen coming from the nearby window, followed by a second thunderclap.

Harris: Outside. Now.

Terry follows Billie and Mr. Harris outside onto his front lawn. Billie and Harris are looking directly overhead, followed by the camera doing a sweep over the night sky. What we see is a massive thunderhead approaching from the East, and several flashes of chartreuse lightening entangling the dark clouds.
Harris: Terry, Billie… get back inside.

The video ends there.

So yes, we did manage to film the previous events, all the way up to our view of the approaching storm. Unfortunately a good deal of what was recorded ended up being completely unwatchable, so I’ll have to fill in the damaged bits.

First of all, when I was attempting to remove the part that looked like an eye, the Harlequin started writhing and squirming around, which was highly unexpected, to say the least. The next thing I knew, the lights in my house began to pulse and the air in my living room started to shimmer like hot asphalt in June. I panicked and tried to put the Harlequin back into its jar, hoping that would make it stop doing whatever it was that was making the high-pitched screaming that seemed to be coming from all around us. It didn’t, even after I secured the lid. In fact, after I shoved it back into the fluid the damn thing started flashing this blinding green light that made my head feel like it was about to explode. I still have a hard time remembering at what point Billie returned with her shotgun, but after she blew the Harlequin into little giblets everything stopped. Except for the storm.

On September 23rd, 2009, fifty six men, women, and children claimed to have seen the bizarre electrical storm that passed over Charlottesville beginning at approximately 9:13 p.m. EST. These eyewitnesses were the only apparent claims of any weather phenomena, as not a single meteorological study supported such accusations. The storm in question lasted only a few minutes, but because of the witness statements, phone calls, and the complete disregard of the professional news outlets, people in town referred to it as a sign of the End Days. The most vocal of these statements came out of the Trinity Baptist Church, which is a whole separate story in itself. More on that some other time.

Now, after cleaning up my living room and storing what little of the Harlequin remained into sample jars, Billie and Terry went home for the evening. I didn’t sleep that night. I had too much to reflect upon from had transpired.

I was exhausted the next day at work. Exhausted and nervous. Some part of my brain had been switched to panic mode and it refused to shut down. I tried to just move along in my work, hoping that it would help take my mind off that horrible otherworldly screeching. Looking for any excuse to preoccupy myself, I volunteered to pick up a body from the Charlottesville General Hospital. Madelyn got a message from earlier in the morning and had arranged to fulfill a preneed tomorrow afternoon for a Mr. Havenbrook, who had died sometime last night. I didn’t bother asking for any details, I just fired up the hearse and left.

I got to the hospital about ten minutes after filing the paperwork at the courthouse. I didn’t get a chance to talk to Dr. Sarah Liddell (Terry’s aunt and the Pitt County Coroner) which was a bit of a disappointment, but I did have an interesting conversation with her assistant, Robert.

“So how’d this guy kick it?”  I asked Rob while he helped me load Mr. Havenbrook into the hearse.
“Well, from what I heard from Sarah, he and his wife were checking out that freaky lightning storm last night, when all of a sudden this guy drops to the ground and starts having a seizure. By the time the ambulance arrived he was already gone.”
“Weird,” I said out loud, “What did the autopsy show?”
“Aneurysm,” said Rob, pulling out the MRI shots of Mr. Havenbrook’s head. “Probably brought on by the seizure. See that blotch right there at the base of his brain stem? That’s a popped artery.”

I shut the back of the hearse and thanked Robert. From his point of view, everything seemed fine. Flashing lights are known to cause seizures, so big deal right? I however regretted ever leaving the mortuary. I was looking for a way to forget about the events of last night, instead I found out that I may have inadvertently caused the death of a perfectly innocent man. It was a very unwelcoming feeling, like an omen of doom.

I got Havenbrook’s body back to the mortuary not long after. Lenny was off that day and Mr. Burnswick was busy with a client, so I had move the cadaver downstairs myself. The funeral home had an elevator installed for just this purpose, and while the stretcher helped, Mr. Havenbrook weighed at least three hundred pounds, so it took a good deal of effort on my part to move his fat ass onto the slab. Once I got him up onto the embalming table I took a few minutes to catch my breath before proceeding with my work, all while trying not to think about who this man was.

Step one was to wash the body in antibacterial soap and water. I always hated this part due to the fact that there’s always fecal matter residue caked around the ass cheeks and upper thighs, but at least it’s far less disturbing than the second step. Ever give a full body massage to a dead guy? Well I have. The embalming process requires that a body’s circulatory system be un-constricted, and for that the muscles need to be relieved of rigor-mortis (The stiffening of muscle tissue due to an interruption in the ATP cycle.) Interestingly enough, Mr. Havenbrook had hardly any stiffness to him, something that I had not noticed until this point. Rigor mortis sets in at around three hours after death, peaking at around twelve hours before dissipating between forty eight to sixty hours. Havenbrook had been dead for a little over thirteen hours. His back was red and purple from livor mortis (Internal body fluids succumbing to the forces of gravity.), so clearly his heart muscles had ceased functioning. The only rational explanation would be extremely rapid decomposition, a hypothesis that I was capable of testing myself by simply jamming a cooking thermometer into his gut. (Yes, I was obligated to investigate this issue, as it may be health-safety related .Think bio-hazard C.D.C. guys lining the mortuary in yards of yellow tape.) I gave the thermometer a couple of minutes to warn up while I got myself into a haz-mat suit, just in case. The internal body temperature of the post-mortem lowers quite rapidly after death, but will eventually elevate as microbes multiply from within. Mr. Havenbrook had spent most of the night in a cooler, so if he was any warmer than the air conditioned room temperature then I would have to call in the cavalry. Also Dr. Liddell would probably be fired for not taking a proper blood test.

And the internal heat index was… sixty four point three degrees Fahrenheit. One degree lower than the room.  He was fine, and I felt like an asshole in a scuba suit. That and now I had to patch up the hole I had put in his intestinal wall. Good job Harris, now you won’t get to have a lunch break. I didn’t bother taking off the hazard suit while I rushed to make up the lost time. Probably a good thing too, in retrospect.

After I had sealed up the hole and plugged up the anus with cotton swabs, I began the long process of embalming. I started the same way I always had: By making a small incision into the right common carotid artery, the other into the jugular vein. The embalming fluid would be pumped into the carotid artery, which pushes the “displacement,” out through the jugular and down a drain. For a man the size of Mr. Havenbrook, the whole thing would take about an hour and a half to complete, so I started up the pumps while I prepped for the hypodermic stage. As I walked towards the sink to wash off my gloves, I noticed that the lights were beginning to flicker. I stopped walking mid stride, my heart dropped into my stomach as I began to hear a wet smacking noise coming from the supposedly lifeless cadaver of Mr. Havenbrook. What I saw when I turned around made me drop the surgical tray to the ground.

His eyes were open. And they were staring directly into mine. His mouth was opening and closing as though he were trying to say something, but no noise was being made, save for his right arm limply slapping at the tubing in his neck. I didn’t know what to do, didn’t know what to think. All I could do was stand there, motionless with my back pressed against the sink. For the first time in my life, I wished that I had gone to law school.

It wasn’t until the air started to shimmer that I realized what was happening, when I finally understood why the Harlequin was numbered. Twenty four years ago, Ryan Wilcox found himself in this exact same situation. The storm, the aneurysm, the blotch at the base of Havenbrook’s brain: There was more than one Harlequin, at least six others, and they were parasites. They lived inside of people, lying dormant until the time came to awaken. Something else also came to mind. Just before it burst out from the back of his skull, Havenbrook began to smile. Just before the squirming thing slithered down the drain, I heard the sound of laughter.
Maniacal laughter, like someone was in on some sick joke.

Credit To: Stephan D. Harris

Read the continuation here: The Kindness of Strangers

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