Bogleech.com"s 2015 Horror Write-off:
"Dr. L████’s first narrative"
Submitted by Huw Saunders
It is an unsettling feeling, seeing your own words written down. I turn over the page, and sure enough, there are the conversations the night nurses had with Euan Jones over the following days. Each transcript is briefer and less coherent than the last – he tried to bite the poor kid who changed his bed-pan.
“How’d you get this?” I ask smiley Sir Francis. He just turned up on my doorstep, introduced himself very nicely, then handed over the transcript. The way he stands there, hands casually by his sides, makes it clear he wouldn’t think twice about forcing his way in, and his not having done that makes it clear he has no need to. “You bug the hospital?”
“In a manner of speaking,” he replies, showing yet more teeth. “Your phone.”
“I turn my phone off when I’m at work.”
“Technology’s marvellous, isn’t it? We do it with a very nice piece of kit we’ve leased from Langley. Land of the free, eh?”
I glare. “This is what you do for fun, is it? Tap innocent women’s phones?”
“Have you ever heard the phrase ‘the innocent have nothing to fear’? Doctor, I am a professional, not a tabloid. I wouldn’t tap your phone, or anybody’s phone, without a pretty good reason.”
My shoulders slump in defeat. “You want to come in?” I’m not mad on the idea of having him in my house. But that would actually be less intimidating than standing in the doorway, watched from afar by his huge, sinewy driver, who glares at me from under a good old flat cap he could probably use as a deadly weapon.
Sir Francis bustles in like he owns my house. He pours us glasses of my good gin and lemonade off the sideboard, and relaxes into my armchair. “Lovely leather,” he says, running a hand down the arm. “It must be – what, aniline?”
“I just sit in it.”
He flashes me a mechanical smile. “So, what did you find when you examined Subject one’s body?”
I don’t sit down, I pull my phone halfway out of my pocket. “You tell me, Sir Francis.”
He chuckles. “Please, don’t get medieval. You can call me Francis of the Home Office. Come on now, humour me.”
Finally I take a seat – opposite him, on the visitor’s sofa, like I’m sitting down to open up to a professional. “A lot of necrosis around the neck.”
“Nothing else strange?”
I have the most horrible out-of-body feeling, like this is going to get transcribed too. I’d like to see them censor this, how many Sir F-s of the H- O- can there be? “Extremely localised. It was high up on the neck. Almost around the base of the skull. The flesh was so weak his head could have fallen off under its own weight.”
“And the head itself?” The way he says this, it feels just like med school – they’d know what was up with the body and I’d have to stammer it out.
“When we looked inside there was a lot of damage to the soft tissues and to the brain, like it had been scored out, mainly the prefrontal cortex – I suppose that might account for the loss of impulse control.”
“A lot like what the night shift saw with the late Subject two.” I react to this – he did know! – and he says, “Euan Jones died tonight. Around an hour ago.”
“You think it was infectious?”
It snaps into place as I say it, I feel like the world’s worst Sherlock Holmes. Euan’s degeneration to the same state – my God, the blood all over him, over his face. And Subject one seeming to be partially decomposed already. This fits too well.
“You’re from the Home Office, Francis of the Home Office,” I say broadly, to try and deflect the horror of what’s been happening in my head. “Do zombies exist?”
Francis grins, he’s doing it so much I can almost make out the line of his jaw through the skin. “Oh, that depends. If you mean dead bodies rising from the grave and going for the delicious brains of the living, then no. Absolutely not. Can’t be done.”
I breathe a little in relief.
“If, on the other hand, you mean a loss of higher brain functions, but the continuation of something like life following baser simian impulses, yes, perfectly possible. There have been recorded instances of this in Haiti through the administration of tetradoxin and alkaloids – good old folk chemistry – but what I’m inclined to think we’re dealing with here is a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.”
I shiver, because CJD is what the lab came up with – based on the loss of speech and coordination, and those telltale marks on the brain, where clusters of damaged protein eat away at the brain cells in true zombie style. I remember holding that brain, how it felt like a sponge, or a meaty chunk of Swiss cheese.
“On its own, this wouldn’t make the man’s head fall off, but if there was some kind of necrotising infection involved to turn him a bit –”
“This is insane,” I say, now feeling dizzy. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, obviously this is what’s happening.”
“Yes,” replies Francis, who hasn’t changed his tone or his grin through this whole journey of discovery. “God willing, we’ve got the old standby of removing the head or destroying the brain. On another topic entirely, I’m going to need the names and addresses of anyone who had any contact with either subject. This thing could already be spreading. Maybe your brain’s getting scored out, right now.”
I’d really like to tell him that I’d know, but obviously the brain has no nociceptors so I wouldn’t. I’m not feeling stupider, just scared. He sits forward, actually showing a little concern.
“That was a joke,” he says. “You seem far too together to be infected. That is, in its way, an advantage, just how fast this thing moves. With Subject two it went straight from initial contact to death in four days.”
“Creutzfeldt-Jakob shouldn’t even be blood-borne.”
“Well, there we are. We need to contain it and see what we’re dealing with.”
“Variants of Creutzfeldt-Jakob have been transmitted through blood transfusions,” says Francis triumphantly, reading aloud from his phone as we are driven to the hospital. I can’t help but feel how I’ve already done this today already, and how it’s throwing out my schedule. Then I look at the houses we’re passing and imagine them as the scene of the apocalypse.
My phone is not as cooperative as Francis’s. It bleats at me that it wants something or other, and I wonder why I even need to be here calling admin – surely the Home Office could have simply lifted my address book while they were rooting around on it.
We take a corner at speed. Another car sideswipes us, and I see the driver screaming silently, waving his arms at us in impotent rage, eyes like fire. “Do not stop for any reason, Mr Morris,” says Francis quickly. Mr Morris’s leather gloves creak tighter on the steering wheel. I shiver, because I’ve instantly thought of that other driver being infected – Jesus, the thought of infectees with no impulse control at the wheel of a car, the chaos it would unleash. I hope, I pray, he’s just a terrible driver.
My phone dies, making the little trailing-off noise, and I grind my teeth at it. “I can’t get through to them.”
“That’s alright. We’re isolating the hospital now. We can sort it all out there.” His optimism really is admirable, the idea that something like this can be sorted out. My mind flashes back to a thousand dark rooms, with screens showing me terrible visions – flesh tearing, piles of the dead, and the army trying to keep order and failing. If people find out there are shlock horror monsters on the loose, they won’t know what to believe. I certainly don’t.
“Nothing like this has ever happened before?” I ask warily. Coming from Francis I might well believe it. A nod, a wink, a smooth declaration that it’s classified under the Official Secrets Act.
“Nothing like this,” he echoes, and as the streetlights roll across his face I see him serious for a second. It’s reassuring, how he’s actually worried too. He must have seen the same films as me.
Soon we draw near the hospital, on the edge of town, and we hit traffic. The car in front of us leans on its horn. Without a word from Francis, Mr Morris pulls off to the side of the road, parks, and gets out to open our doors. When we’re nearer the hospital I see why – there are police barricades along the front of the hospital, and the tailback stems right from the entrance.
At the front of the jam, a man stands in the open door of his car, arguing with a policeman. “’sit bloody closed?” he keeps demanding. As we come closer, I see a heavily pregnant woman in the passenger seat, with a white-knuckle grip on the window crank.
“Safety,” responds the policeman, and tries to turn away. Closer to, I see the police cars behind the barricades are different, they lack the Welsh ‘heddlu - police’. I realise the officer has a London accent.
“What’s so unsafe about it?” the man demands now. I instantly feel for the agony on the officer’s face.
“Bomb scare,” supplies Francis, and slaps the man on the shoulder. “Nothing to worry about.”
The man looks like he wants to point out the flaw in this, but in the face of Francis’s insane confidence, he gives in, and retreats inside his car to reassure the woman.
Now Francis turns to the policeman. “Tell the Kingfish that the Majestic has arrived,” he says.
“Go right in, sir. They’re expecting you,” comes the reply. ‘The Majestic’, I would almost expect Francis to introduce himself as that anyway. The officer stands aside and we walk past into the hospital grounds, to stares of wide-eyed disbelief from the entire traffic backlog.
Behind the police line it’s even more chaotic. Two men in Hazmat suits wrestle with Dr Quinn, trying to stop him clocking off and going home for the day. Squads of armed police officers loiter around, silently smoking. Masked men order people out through the front doors of accident and emergency, where they are checked off against a clipboard, then most of them are sent off to the left and back inside, but some go to the right, into the back of a lorry.
“Sir Francis!” declares an older officer rushing for us, silver-haired with bits of shiny braid on his uniform. And this must be the Kingfish. “How the devil are you?”
“Making work for idle thumbs,” says Francis, no grin now as he goes in to shake, just a tight smile. “Keep this under control. Keep the press on their side of the line, understand?” Two infectees we know about, and we’re drawing up battle lines.
“There’s a couple of nurses,” the Kingfish says, voice lowered, thinking I can’t hear, “going a little gaga.”
“Can’t be sure, not as of yet.” Francis slaps the man on the back, reassuring him.
We go around to the labs, and there’s young Dr Pat – the other on-call pathologist – standing outside having a cigarette. He straightens up when he sees me approaching, then clocks Francis and Mr Morris and throws his fag-end.
“You’re here,” he says, relieved. There’s rings around his eyes like he’s been up too long. He got a bit queasy when he eviscerated his first floater, so God knows how he’s taking this. “It was the same. Euan Jones – he was the same. His head came off too. The brain, the holes, the localised necrosis, everything.”
“We need to see it,” says Francis.
“Look!” says Pat. “Do you see it?”
We are in the cosy, warm histology lab. Francis is frowning into a microscope, over a sliver of Euan Jones’s neck. “You know, I really meant the cadaver.”
“The cadaver doesn’t matter, we left that downstairs – look! Those larger bubblegum swirls, those few remaining nuclei scattered playfully across them like blackcurrants, that tissue is dead! And it’s been dead for longer than Euan Jones.” Pat gives this point a triumphant wave of his finger.
Francis rises from the eyepiece, weary for a second. “Well, doctors, I’m convinced – they must be zombies. I wish it wasn’t so, but here we are.”
“Oh God,” says Pat. “Right. Okay. What, what kind? Are we talking about, like, your kind of Dawn of the Dead zombies, or those 28 Days Later zombies, the fast ones?”
Mr Morris blinks, like he’s forgotten his keys. “The cadaver – downstairs!” he says hurriedly, looking towards the stairs expecting to see something shambling up them.
“Its head’s off,” says Pat, waving the idea away.
“We still don’t know fully what we’re dealing with,” says Francis. “We need to check it.”
So we walk downstairs to the morgue, and I’m completely lost. We know what we’re dealing with, it’s blood-borne and sets in just slowly enough that we never noticed at first. Francis seems to know his stuff as well as I do. What more can he be wanting? It seems like he’s putting this on a bit, for our benefit – to show us he’s serious about tackling this.
Pat stops dead and throws out his hand. “Look!” he croaks, pointing breathlessly at his own shadow. Mr Morris instantly draws his gun.
“For God’s sakes put that away,” I say. We’re in a hospital, after all. I catch Francis’s eye and he gives me a little approving nod. I’m torn between disgust and pride at that.
We get to the room. All the glassware’s still laid out on the side, Pat must have got a scare, I don’t know if I blame him. The whole scene’s laid out before us, body here, head over there. I should really take a better look at the brain tissue, see exactly what’s going on there – I must be missing something.
“The state on his head,” says Mr Morris in fascinated horror, approaching it like he’s tempted to touch.
“We have dissected that,” says Pat, irritated as he swats a fly away from his face. Now I look around, there’s a couple in the room, a few buzzing about by the lights, some in the corners relaxing. I clock off for three hours, and the night shift lets this happen.
“Yes,” hums Francis, poking at both ends of the split neck. “Yes, yes – yes.” He straightens up, and wipes off his hand on the sheet over the cadaver. He’s still grinning away, but now he looks a little dazed. “Right we are.”
Francis texts the whole way as we walk back outside. One second through the doors, I see the consequences – a mob of news reporters and cameramen, poorly contained in a ring of police. I try to drift behind Mr Morris’s broad shoulders. I don’t want mum to know I’m in the middle of a mess like this, if that didn’t kill her, being asked for quotes about me would.
Francis raises a hand for hush. “It has come to the attention of the Home Office that an unknown viral infection has so far led to the death of two people.”
I squeeze around Mr Morris, and hiss at the back of Francis’s head “A viral infection? Are you insane?”
“More palatable to them,” he says aside, then turns back to his audience. “The infection is highly contagious and is known to be transmitted through bodily fluids. Home Office officials are currently working to control this outbreak. In the meantime I urge caution until we can release more information. Report anyone acting strangely or aggressively to the authorities. If you have experienced a loss of impulse control, or persistent head and neck pains, then please, go to hospital, get yourself checked out.”
He sweeps away, leaving me standing here in the glare of all those lenses. I’ve already missed the opportunity to leave professionally. “I – oh, God. It’s, it’s in the blood,” I say weakly, trying to clarify. It doesn’t help. Suddenly all those media people, they look as scared as I feel.
“It’s zombies!” one of them says, hand in the air to underline the point. “They’re zombies, aren’t they?”
That was directed squarely at me. I avoid their gaze. To my relief, Mr Morris places a firm hand on my shoulder and brings me aside. The entire crowd starts gabbling, either down their phones or to each other. And off to the side, Francis is talking to the Kingfish again, saying “You find the officer who brought in Subject one. You find him tonight.”