What do you do when you wake up with a tattoo you didn’t have the night before?
Huh. Well, that’s odd, was the first thing that ran through Lydia’s mind as she looked down at the mark on her forearm.
It looked like any old tattoo. It was small, about the size of a nickel, and done as if in a single pass with black ink from a needle. It was just a single symbol—archaic, strange, and nothing she recognized. After attacking it with rubbing alcohol and bleach, all she succeeded in doing was making her skin red. Slowly and reluctantly, Lydia concluded the ink really was under her skin.
Or, at least, it looked like ink.
She was pretty damn sure it wasn’t a spontaneously appearing black, thin-lined birthmark. One that looked like a backward N with a spiral cut through the middle. It really looked like tattoo ink.
The problem was, it hadn’t been there last night. Lydia hadn’t been out drinking and hadn’t blacked out. Sleepwalking? No. She had gone to bed at about two in the morning after being up late playing video games—no tattoo parlor in the city would’ve been open. She didn’t know any tattoo artists with a sick sense of humor. Lydia had gone to bed, woken up, and—poof. Nickel-sized tattoo. Right there on her forearm, no missing it, no mistaking it.
It was incredible how the human mind processed the seemingly impossible. After attempting to remove the thing for an hour, Lydia’s mind simply decided that it simply could not process the issue. The mystery was upended by the simple and much more approachable problem of being late to work. That one she could wrap her head around. That one she could solve.
Instead of sinking into the panic of debating what the thing was on her arm, she just…went about her day. Lydia scrambled to get ready, threw on some eyeliner, and brushed her hair before rushing to the T. She didn’t know why she bothered. It wasn’t like her “coworkers” would notice. They weren’t the most sociable, chatty, and observant people. Nothing against them—they couldn’t help it.
They were dead, after all.
Lydia was a forensic autopsy technician. With every person she ever met, she had to explain why her job was not like that thing they saw on CSI that one time. It was hardly that interesting. Her job was only to collect the data. Record the numbers. There were more important, better-paid, smarter people who sat at a desk and actually solved the crimes. She just stuck plastic sticks in dead people, cut bits and pieces out of them for various reasons, and took a whole lot of gross photos.
Now, that wasn’t to say Lydia didn’t have real coworkers. It was just funnier to think about the people on the slab that way, to put them in a slightly humorous, if sardonic light. Otherwise, she’d have to take her job seriously, and that was no way to live. Her real coworkers were friendly, ordinary people with details in their lives about which she had no clue. They were all okay with it that way.
Contrary to popular belief, nobody worked the night shift at a morgue, even if horror movies told you otherwise. She had a normal, nine-to-five, humdrum life, just like most people. Even if hers had to do with dead people. Well, hey, somebody had to do it. It did sometimes leave her with the scent of chemicals, though. She had to use mint shampoo because if she used anything floral, she just came off smelling like a funeral parlor.
Leaning against the side of the train car, she looked down at her phone and flicked her thumb over whatever soup-du-jour game she had downloaded that week. The green line was late getting into South Station. Again.
It was funny that in the city of Boston, you could hit the start of your workday by fifteen minutes in either direction, and honestly, nobody cared. Boston’s T was America’s oldest subway station, and it showed. At this point, she suspected if a pigeon shit on the rails, the train would have to wait twenty minutes for it to dry.
She didn’t even want to think about what happened when it snowed.
Lydia had come to enjoy Boston, if admittedly against her will. She’d moved out here from the New Hampshire countryside to go to college, got an internship, got hired, and got stuck. Now she had a typical life for a late-twenties single professional. Some houseplants, a job, some friends, some hobbies, and—a mark of personal progress in the city of Boston—a one-bedroom apartment to herself.
Lydia’s pattern was, like most people, wake up, work, go home, fill some time, sleep, wake up, work, day after day. Every few days, she’d hang out with friends or catch a beer with her breathing coworkers. Smatter in a date or two, and life was good.
That was a successful life, right?
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Each day wasn’t too different from the last. That also was most people’s opinion of a successful life. Just slowly wandering into the sunset, doing the same thing—predictable and routine.
To be fair, today was just a little different than usual, though.
Lydia kept scratching her arm over her sleeve. The heavy chemicals she used on her surprise tattoo were itching like mad. Maybe she shouldn’t have attacked it with a Brillo pad and bleach, but she had been frantic. Rolling up her sleeve, she tried to surreptitiously glance at it to see if it had magically disappeared. Maybe the bleach had done its trick. But no. There, surrounded by a red rash of her own doing, was the mark.
It didn’t even hurt like she had expected a new tattoo probably should. It hadn’t felt like anything until she attacked it trying to get it off. It was like it had been there for years.
She knew how tattoo ink on human skin should look. She knew how it got that slightly grayish, fuzzy edge to it, no matter how good of a job had been done by the artist. She didn’t have any ink of her own, but more of the bodies that ended up on her table had them than not.
The thing on her arm wasn’t possible. It had no business being there. She should be rushing to the hospital, but what the hell would they say? Tell her not to do drugs, and maybe she wouldn’t wake up with a tattoo she didn’t remember? They wouldn’t believe her when she said she had a Diet Coke, played some PlayStation, and went to bed. They’d assume she either got drunk and didn’t remember it or got roofied at a bar.
Either way, the cops would be called in, she’d fill out a report, and absolutely nothing would be done about it. Nobody was hurt, nobody had been killed, nothing had been stolen, and there was nowhere to start looking. Best case, they’d come to check out her apartment for signs of breaking and entering. She’d already looked; there weren’t any. The cops would be left to simply shrug at the situation and go.
So, what on earth was she going to do? Call out of work? Sit on her floor and sob uncontrollably? Call an exorcist?
Lydia wasn’t the type to cry and panic. She considered herself a rational, reasonable, logical human being. In college and med school, she had worked as an entry-level EMT. She had learned the “act first, panic later” mantra from a few of the older, far more beautifully jaded and saltier Boston paramedics.
They were a particular bunch.
The method was clear—solve the problem, then have a breakdown if you had to. More than once Lydia had shown up to an accident where the person who had the original issue was just fine and the person who had made the call needed help because of a panic attack.
Act first, panic later. Lydia kept repeating it to herself in her head to try and stave off the rising tide. She had a tattoo on her arm she didn’t remember getting, one that was impossible. But nothing was impossible, just momentarily unexplainable. Like stage magic, once you knew the secret, it was all a joke. Once she learned the trick, it’d seem obvious.
All the way to work, she scratched absentmindedly at the spot on her arm. Now it was seriously burning. Like a mosquito bite, rubbing at it only made it worse. But like a mosquito bite, she couldn’t help it.
Passing the front desk, she threw her bag onto the track of the x-ray machine. Government building, government security. It was the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, after all, and it wasn’t exactly in the nicest part of town. Even if it was attached to the Boston Medical Center, it was a few blocks from the corrections center and in that no man’s land between the South End and I-93 where it came back out of the Big Dig.
All sorts of people tried to wander in, some high, some nuts, most somewhere in between.
“Hey, Nick,” she said to the security guard. He was younger than most of the other guards. He had initially been a Boston University intern with her almost six years ago. Nick had a penchant for not trying very hard unless he was really interested. Very little interested him, and so security was the perfect spot for him.
“Hey, Lyd,” Nick said with a grin and looked up from his iPad. “Beer? Tonight?” The guy had an endearing, lopsided grin and scruffy brown hair. She figured he spent as little time as possible combing it without looking like a complete hobo. He was the kind of guy who always wore a t-shirt, over which he always wore either a hoodie or his uniform. That was pretty much all she’d ever seen him wear.
Lydia and Nick had hit it off as good friends years ago, and they were still close. He was crass, and most people found him to be more than a little bit of an asshole. The issue was that Nick didn’t know how to communicate, even on the scale of people who dealt with the dead every day. He couldn’t help himself and not say what he thought at every possible moment. Lydia found the humor in it, and he put up with her weirdness, so here they were.
“Sure,” Lydia agreed to after-work beers without really thinking about it. “Why not?” Screw it. She could use a drink. Maybe she could show Nick the mark on her arm and he might—might—not think she was crazy.
“Cool,” he said and went back to his iPad, dismissing her from the conversation. Oh, Nick and his stellar lack of people skills.
Lydia picked up her bag from the other side of the x-ray machine. Nick hadn’t even bothered to look at the screen; he never did. Lydia shouldered her pack and walked to the lab she shared with two other people. But as it was the week before Thanksgiving, most people had taken an extended vacation. Shannon and Dan, her real officemates, were both out for the rest of the weekend.
Today should be a dull day. But surprise tattoo chorused in Lydia’s mind. Fine, a slow workday. She sat down at her desk, flicked on her computer, and checked her email. She had a few cases to button up, boxes to click, photos to upload, and so on.
Lydia scratched the mark on her arm and sighed. It was like a fly, buzzing around her head. Hey! Hey! It was making it very hard to focus now that she wasn’t moving. Idiot, you have a thing on your arm. You should panic. Hey! Hey, idiot!
As she was in the room by herself, Lydia rolled up her sleeve and glared down at the mark. Sure enough, it was still there, under the skin that had now turned a pinkish-red with all her incessant scratching and previous chemical abuse.
Lydia leaned back in the chair and held it up to look at in the light. It’d take a tattoo artist all of five minutes, if that, to put down. So, some goon broke into her apartment and set up all his equipment and tattooed her. And the noise and the pain hadn’t woken her up somehow. They must have drugged her first, then.
That seemed laughably like the most logical option. Lydia went to the bathroom and started searching herself for injection marks. She was good at finding them—that was her job, after all. Half an hour in the bathroom, using her phone on selfie mode, and no dice. Nothing to show for it except confirmation that looking at herself up the nose was never attractive, ever, and didn’t do anything for her self-esteem.
She even checked for the classic serial killer trick and looked between her toes and under her nails. Lydia let out a low breath, took her long blonde hair out of her ponytail, and combed both her hands through the loose waves and tried to think. She scratched her scalp with her fingernails as she desperately tried to get her brain to work faster. It was required to keep your hair under a shower cap while working on a corpse, so Lydia always kept it tied up. But honestly, she preferred it down.
No injection marks. Maybe it was somewhere really well-hidden, and Lydia was missing it. Well, she couldn’t just sit in the bathroom all day and look. Somebody was going to notice she wasn’t at her station eventually.
Flopping down at her desk, Lydia realized there was a body on her metal table. It was still in its bag, likely having just been dropped off. Lydia blinked. There wasn’t one scheduled for today. A folder on her desk had a sticky note on it, saying in fine-point Sharpie scrawl, “You’re the lucky winner. Jim.”
Jim was her boss. He was funny, they had a friendly and casual working relationship, and he trusted her to get her job done. Even better, he didn’t over-manage her, and in exchange, she didn’t ask him for a damn thing except for time off. Lydia was as self-reliant as employees came and managed her own time without an issue. It was a pleasant, peaceful coexistence.
But it also meant when he needed to get something done and done fast, it was her job.
Sighing, Lydia picked up the folder and opened it. The body would have been in the fridge, except Jim had pulled it specifically. Upcoming holiday weekend and schedule be damned.
Death was hard to plan, after all. Especially the kinds of death they handled. The gentle term they used on the website for this kind of death was “unexpected.” Lydia, with her off-color sense of humor, had long since dubbed it “murdery.”
There were a few different kinds of people who worked in the dead-people business. There were those who had simply turned that part of them off and handled everything they saw and did like a bank clerk. No big deal, nothing to see here, move right along. There were those who internalized it to the point they became dead inside themselves. And then there were ones like her, who handled it with humor. It was a crass and morbid way of dealing with the world, but at least it was good for a laugh.
Better that than winding up like that guy from Phantasm. What was his name again? The Tall Man. Right. It’d been a while since she’d seen that one, and if she could recall right, he’d been some weird brain-sucking alien or something. She didn’t remember, except that he had those bizarre floating silver orbs.
Lydia loved horror movies. She adored them. They were a pastime and a hobby. From the age of eight and on, her dad would take her to the local Blockbuster every Friday, where she could rent two VHS tapes. So she did, and every week, they were always from the horror section. Lydia had spent her childhood working alphabetically through from 13 Ghosts all the way down to Wolfman.
None of it ever scared her. As a kid, all she’d ever wonder about the movies was whether Michael Myers ever got lonely, or how Pinhead slept at night with all those things in his face. Did he have to straighten them all back out in the morning with the back of a hammer?
It was part of her love of horror that led her to do what she did for a living. It was easier to handle, in some weird way, if you just pretended it was all movie magic. These weren’t real squishy people—they were just props.
The folder contained the police report. The guy had been found the night prior in an alley between some buildings in Boylston. All that was scribbled down was that the man had died from an apparent shotgun wound to the chest. No other descriptions, no other boxes checked. Even the little box that indicated if a weapon was found nearby was left blank. Freaking cops. They never wrote down anything that mattered. More than once, she had wound up doing a cast of a blade only to be told another department had the knife the whole time.
With a sigh, Lydia stood and walked up to the body. Putting on a sterile hair cap, she suited up and threw on a pair of gloves from the table next to it and unzipped the bag. She pulled it all the way down past the toes before opening it up.
“Well, hey there, buddy,” Lydia greeted the dead body incredulously and tilted her head to the side. That was something you didn’t see every day. The man was dressed in what looked like Victorian clothes. Shirt, vest, and coat, all extremely dated and all in shades of white and cream. Even his shoes were white and polished. Was this guy on the way to a wedding? Or a costume ball, maybe?
Blood had oozed from his forehead and ran straight down his face, revealing it had been there while the man was standing. It covered the right side of his face, obscuring what would have been otherwise reasonably handsome features. He had short black hair, the only thing about him that wasn’t white, cream, or in the case of his skin, the familiar lifeless pale blue of a corpse.
“Signs of an altercation before death,” Lydia mumbled to herself as she wrote it down on her notebook. That would be the only reason he had blood streaking down his face toward his chin. What had killed the man was pretty clear—a broad swath of small holes in his chest, each circled and ringed in dried blood. A shotgun blast to the chest, and it looked like it was done from close range and been packed with buckshot. Great. That would make for some serious fun all afternoon as she picked each individual ball out of his chest. Lydia sighed. So much for a short day.
The man had no identification on him at the scene. In fact, his pockets had been entirely emptied. That wasn’t uncommon, even if most people didn’t generally get mugged with a shotgun on the way to a costume ball. Lydia had to admit at least that part made it interesting.
First step, photos, then strip a layer of bizarre Victorian clothing, and more snaps with her camera. The clothes weren’t cheap and didn’t seem like they were costumes. Once the body was naked, she took more pictures, bagged and tagged the clothes, and put them in a little plastic bin on the bottom shelf for the more traditional forensic teams to examine.
The lab would want a blood sample. They always did, no matter how obvious the cause of death might be. Lydia took a red washable pen, circled a mark on his femoral artery on this thigh, and inserted a syringe. He’d only been dead twelve to fourteen hours, as far as she could tell, so it’d be easy to get a blood test. When she pulled back the plunger, it was dry. Just air.
She threw the needle into the hazmat bin by her feet and picked up another one, and this time, circled a different spot on the femoral artery. Lydia drew back the plunger and…nope. Nothing. No blood.
Okay, the subclavian, then. No blood. All right. Screw it. Screw this guy. Going to a stack of drawers, she rummaged through a bin and found a cardiac stick. Go for the gold. She unwrapped it, went to the body, and fed it into his heart.
Okay! Okay, fine. He had no blood in his body. Completely exsanguinated. Sure, why the hell not. She took off her gloves and started to write notes on one of her forms, detailing what she’d found, or, in this case, not found.
Lydia could start doing a cut-down and pull open the guy’s ribcage to see if he was utterly devoid of blood, but that was a hell of a lot of work to do without being explicitly told to do it. The corpse hadn’t started decomp yet, so he hadn’t been dead long enough that the blood would have pooled into the tissue. The man didn’t have bullet wounds large enough to have bled him out. Where did all the blood go?
Whatever. Let someone further up the food chain solve the mystery.
Lydia took a few more photos of the shotgun wounds on his chest before taking a swab and beginning to clean each one. It seemed that the only blood this guy had was the dry stuff on the outside of his body. Oh, well.
Picking up a small pile of little red sticks, she began to feed each one into the bullet wounds. It always reminded her of playing KerPlunk. Taking a photo, she wrote that the weapon was likely operated by someone standing between three to five feet away and at chest level. Pulling all the red sticks back out and dropping them into the hazmat bin, it was time to stop avoiding the inevitable.
Picking up a pair of thin, needle-nose tweezers, she began plucking out the little balls of lead, one by one.
A little lead ball went into the tray. At least the wounds weren’t too deep. A few inches at most. Enough to kill and wind up in the lungs and the heart, but not enough that she had to really go digging.
So much for a peaceful last day before Thanksgiving break.
She was going to be at this for way too long. It had already been forty-five minutes, and Lydia was barely halfway through.
Each time she pulled out a ball, she marked the wound with a tiny red dot of her washable pen. That way, she wouldn’t have to play the guessing game of which ones she had already done. That was the worst.
The mindless, repetitive task let her mind wander. Of course, naturally, it strayed right back to dwelling about the mark on her arm. What the hell was it? How the hell did it get there? What kind of sick joke was this?
How could she get the stupid mark off her forearm?
At least she was almost done with the buckshot. Just a few more little pieces of lead to go. That last one had been deeper than the others.
Lydia nearly jumped a foot in the air as her desk phone rang. With a sigh, she put down the tweezers, pulled off her goggles and gloves, and went to answer it. “Yeah?”
“Hey, Lydia,” answered her boss, Jim. “Wondering if you could take a mugshot of our dapper John Doe. Upstairs wants to circulate a description before they leave for the day.”
“It’s not even two in the afternoon.”
Lydia shook her head. Must be nice. “Yeah, sure, I’m on it.”
“You’re the best. Oh, and don’t forget a dental impression for I.D.,” Jim replied, and she heard the click as he hung up. Lydia hung up the phone and put on yet another pair of clean gloves. “All right, Dapper John,” Lydia said, having to give Jim some credit for the fitting nickname. “Time to smile for the camera.”
Taking a few more shots of his face with the blood smear, she then set to work cleaning the dry, congealed substance from his features to get a clean shot for the folks who had offices upstairs. It was when she went to get some of the blood off his temple that she paused. It looked like something else was there, under the blood.
What the hell was this? This guy was just full of surprises.
Tossing the bloody swab into the hazmat, she picked up another to scrub at that spot further. It looked like there was…white ink on his skin. Two marks looked as though they were tattooed on him. White tattoos were rare, especially on the face. A gang member, maybe? Once she had cleaned the rest of the blood off, she turned his head to the side, stiff but still flexible, to get a better look at the marks.
Lydia pulled back, her eyes wide.
It matched the symbol on her arm. Her “surprise tattoo.” His marks weren’t exactly the same—no backward N with a spiral—but the style was unmistakable. Like different characters from the same alphabet. Esoteric and strange, looking like a something out of Hellraiser or some other occult movie.
Wide-eyed and dumbfounded, Lydia froze. How was this possible? How was any of this possible? Lydia’s heart was pounding in her ears as she tried to make sense of what she was seeing. All at once she was thinking too quickly and not fast enough, her thoughts a jumbled mess as they tried to vie for supremacy.
Nothing had a chance to win the fight and rise to the surface.
A hand snapped around her wrist. Cold, deathly, and wrong. The face of the corpse turned to look at her of its own accord. Eyes, dilated and ringed in red, met hers.