Undead and Undermined

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PROLOGUE

When the awful racket started up, when the coroner got ready to open my skull with what I later found out was a Stryker autopsy saw, I was fine with it.

No, more than that . . . it seemed like a really, really good idea. Not just a good idea for me. It would be great for everyone involved. And if you took the long view, it would be good for humanity. Because I’d had enough. Case closed, everybody out of the pool, time to shut off the lights and lock up, hit the trail, shake a leg, beat feet, get gone, get out.

I was out.

How sucky was it that I knew, knew the one thing worse than waking up on an embalming table was waking up inside a body bag? I did not ever want to know that. No one should know that.

Oh, and while we’re compiling a list of things no one should know? No one should know that they grow up—grow old, anyway—to torture their friends. That they either brought about (or didn’t bother to prevent) a scary-ass nuclear winter apocalyptic event resulting in the very real possibility of freezing to death on the Fourth of July.

No one should know that, on the off chance they turn into an ancient evil vampire crone, they forget all sense of fun and, worse, fashion. Gray dresses! What the fuck?

So even though the buzzing whine of the saw felt like the coroner was already slicing me open, I laid still and did my impersonation of a corpse.

Hey, everybody’s good at something.

Graham Benton lit a cigarette with trembling fingers. He did not smoke but had been able to score a butt and a lighter from a member of the I’m-Cutting-Back-I-Swear tribe. Graham did not smoke, had never smoked, but was determined to start immediately.

The door to the doctor’s lounge wheezed open and Graham observed his attending, the extraordinarily hairy Dr. Carter (and didn’t the two of them get shit, Dr. Benson and Dr. Carter? Like he needed another reason to hate NBC), practically tiptoe into the close, windowless, burnt-coffee-and-disinfectant-smelling room.

Carter’s beard had recently been trimmed, so the ends merely brushed his throat instead of his nipples. His dark, curly chest hair was trying to burst through his scrubs shirt. He had begged permission to jettison the de rigueur lab coat and, after he’d proven to the other chief residents that his mat of body hair kept him adequately warm, they relented. Hairy Carter was perturbing enough; Sweaty Red-faced Hairy Carter was an abomination unto the Lord.

“Sooooo.” Carter coughed. It sounded like a truck laboring uphill in the wrong gear. “Bad night, Dr. Benson?”

“It’s the wee hours of the morning, Carey.” This was a breach of etiquette; interns and residents did not call department heads by their first names without invitation. And Graham would never, ever ask. Nor would he ever think twice about breaking any etiquette guideline. His intelligence, drive, and skill were why he got away with it.

“ ‘Bad night’ isn’t just dumb, Carey. And it isn’t just inaccurate. It’s dumb. And, yeah. I said that already.” He sucked on the sullenly smoldering cigarette and thought, Millions of people smoke these things? Several times a day? For years? Voluntarily? I was right all along: 99.5% of the human race is comprised by idiots, and the other 0.5% by morons.

“Listen, we’re all with you. Except for your new weird habit. I’m worried about you.” Benson shook his head at the almost-extinguished cigarette. “And there’s not a person in this department who doesn’t sympathize.”

He fingered his collar. The scrubs were soft from many washings. “Lie.”

“There’s at least one person in this department who sympathizes, probably.”

“Gee whiz. I feel so much better. The steaming, fretful masses view me with pity. Or at least one does. Probably.”

“You have to admit, it’s not every day a patient wakes up in the middle of an—”

Graham felt his teeth meet, and most of the cigarette fell out of his mouth, decapitated by his involuntarily chomp. “She didn’t wake up, she was dead. She wasn’t in a coma. She didn’t have hypothermia. She was dead. There was nothing to wake up from.”

“Okay, Graham, but semantics won’t—”

“Flatline! Brain dead! Pupils fixed and dilated! Body temp falling . . . body temp almost room temp, do you get that? Guess what? People don’t wake up from that! You want to guess why? Because when you’re at room temp, you! Are! Dead!” He grabbed at his neck again, restlessly kneading the fabric.

“So, help me out here, are you saying she woke up then yelled, or yelled and then woke up?”

Graham slumped forward and rested his forehead on the cracked, pitted tabletop. “You’ve come here to kill me, haven’t you? But you’ve gotta bug me to death to do it, right? Remember your oath, doctor, and summon the decency to make it quick.”

Finally! This must be the slowest or sleepiest coroner in the history of forensic science. It was like he didn’t know there were people in his morgue who had an agenda. I couldn’t speak for the other dead guys in this chilly tomb, but I couldn’t afford to loll around on an autopsy table all night. I wondered if he knew how selfish he was being. Just because I was dead didn’t mean I wasn’t in a hurry.

Bad enough I had given up on life/death and was resigned to permanent exile to . . . where do the souls of sadistic despots-in-training go after death-for-real? Hell?

Not for what they’ve done, but what they will do? Or do we still get to heaven because we didn’t live long enough to bring about (or don’t bother to prevent) the end of the world? Because we hadn’t quite gotten the chance to turn on friends and family in order to save our own ass?

Wherever I was supposed to end up, I’d be there in a couple more minutes. Then this would be done. I’d be done.

(Oh where oh Elizabeth where oh my own where are you?)

I softly groaned, which was drowned out by the saw. I could shut my eyes (as I was) and I could clamp my hands over my ears (which I didn’t dare), but couldn’t shut my brain off. Couldn’t block my husband’s thoughts.

I had to, though. His life and my soul depended on it.

“Of course I remember everything.” Graham pinched the bridge of his nose. He wore the expression of a man forced to tolerate exceptional stupidity. He looked like that a lot. “It was half an hour ago. I’m freaked out, not brain dead.”

“Do you . . . do you mind going over it again?”

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