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Authors: Allen Wyler

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BOOK: Dead Ringer
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“Say again. What’s the problem?”

“Let me back up. I’m at the Hong Kong Neurosurgical Society or whatever, right?”

Ditto dropped into his desk chair, pulled over the keyboard. “Yeah?”

“The thing is, the cutter doing the demonstration isn’t from here. He’s American and—get this—he’s from Seattle. Can you believe that shit?”

Ditto’s gut tightened. “Go on.”

“Thing is, the course organizer, Dr. Wong, says this Seattle doc says he knows the guy whose head it is.”

Ditto sat back in the chair. Was that possible? Yeah, possible. Just not highly fucking probable. But Murphy’s Law said that it could happen in spite of their policy of shipping specimens to places as far away as possible from where they’d been procured.

He’d heard a story once from a professor at a medical school. A kid’s mother died while the kid was in premed, and her wishes were to have her body donated to the medical school. Problem was, nobody gave the anatomy department a heads-up that the donor’s son was an incoming freshman. Murphy’s Law pretty much predicted what would happen. And sure enough, it did. First day of gross anatomy, the kid’s mom was on a dissecting table ready to be taken apart.

Ditto asked, “What’s his name?”

“Who? The doctor or the donor?”

. “The doctor.”

“Lucas McRae. Know him?”

He thought about all the courses that had been held in the classrooms downstairs and came up with a blank. He’d remember the name Lucas because of the John Sandford character. Loved that dude. “No, doesn’t ring a bell.”

Leo didn’t say anything.

Ditto asked, “The specimen, what’s the identifier?”

“Got it right here. Figured you might want to know.”

“Hold on a sec.” Ditto set the phone on the desk and pulled up the Hong Kong order on the computer. There it was: an order for four heads. No specified sex or decade of age, which made it easier to fill. The problem was some guy named Wong had specifically requested fresh material, meaning the heads couldn’t be preserved with formaldehyde. A request occurring more frequently these days because some asshole claimed non-preserved material more closely resembled the texture of living tissue. Well, duh. Fresh was fresh; that’s why they called it fresh. It pissed Ditto off. Didn’t those prima donnas realize how much hassle that caused him?

Orders for formalin-fixed material were pretty easily filled from inventory. But fresh material? Unless you were lucky, the specimens were never in stock the day the order came due. Mostly because inventory was difficult to maintain. Just like steaks from the butcher shop, the tissue begins to spoil and break down if stored too long. So if he didn’t have the items in inventory, he had to buy them from a competitor. Which he hated because those heartless bastards knew that he was up
against the wall and charged him up the ass. And they loved to see him squirm.

But this Hong Kong order …
. Each specimen number had an asterisk beside it. That was Ditto’s code to designate it had been “procured.” He swallowed and double-checked.

Heart racing, he picked up the phone. “Still there?”

“Something wrong?” Leo’s words had the watery, echoic quality of a low-grade satellite connection.

Then a thought hit: what were the chances of this conversation being monitored? After all, with that detective being here … Or was he being overly paranoid?

“Hold a second longer.” Ditto slicked back his hair and took two deep breaths, then stared at his favorite Tigers poster, the 1968 original he’d framed for its inspirational value. On the last day of the 1967 season the club had been eliminated. But the next year they returned with a vengeance, rebounding from a 3 to 1 deficit to beat the favored Cardinals in game seven of the World Series.
was the kind of strength he needed now.

He heard Leo’s voice on the phone say, “Bobby?”

“I said, hold on a second.” Wiping sweat from his eyes, he tried to think, tried to take a step back to look at things objectively. Point number one: the detective was looking for the hooker, not her john. Point number two: even if some surgeon recognized the face in Hong Kong, what he was going to do about it? Not a goddamn thing.

The hooker no longer existed, having been completely harvested within hours of procurement. Ligaments used as replacement parts in knee surgery. Skin for bandaging burn patients. Bones cut up for jaw reconstructions or spine
fusions. Hair sent to wig makers. They would’ve used her corneas, but her head was worth a lot more intact if you factored in its primo condition. Same with her john.

He felt deep pride at his ethics for dealing with such tough choices. Choices that weren’t always easy. What benefited society more? One set of corneas for only one person or a head used for teaching twelve surgeons? In this case the answer was obvious, but there were other times when it wasn’t. He always erred on the side of the majority because that made the most sense. Choosing the course that benefited the most people was always the right thing to do. Doing the right thing was something else Dad had taught him.

“Waste not, want not,” was one of the rules of life Dad drummed into him. In their family no bottles were ever thrown in the trash; they were recycled. No faucet dripped very long before being fixed. Lights were turned off when leaving a room. Some people called such frugality a depression-era ethic, as if once the Great Depression ended people were free to waste things. They weren’t. He fucking despised waste.

Ditto clicked on that record. “The person in question was Andy Baer.” He remembered seeing the john’s real name from the contents of his wallet before turning it into ashes along with his clothes. “Never leave evidence” was another cardinal rule Ditto unwaveringly observed. “This the same guy your doc thinks it is?”

“Don’t know, didn’t ask. You want me to find out?”

“If the opportunity arises. If not, let it pass. No sense drawing attention to ourselves.”

Call finished, Ditto sat drumming his thumbs on the desk, mulling over what had just happened. It was bad, these two things coming—bam, bam—right in a row. A sign.

He believed in signs. Not like some of those over-the-top whackos who saw signs in everything. But now and then something appeared that you’d be a fool to ignore because it could end up being a sure path to destruction. That detective and the doctor both somehow connected with the two specimens was a very creepy sign.

But what was the honest-to-God risk here? The two bodies had been completely harvested and the remains cremated. So there was nothing left to incriminate him. Except for the heads. And the moment Leo came back with the heads, they’d go into Old Smokey and the ashes disposed of. There was nothing to worry about. Well, except for that detective. She still gave him pause. Damn Suburban.


around to face the window. As he stared outside, he contemplated the potential pitfalls. The customary records for the two bodies? No problem there; there were none. The tissue would be disposed of. Leaving what? He and Leo Gerhard were the only ones who knew the truth. And Leo? A rock solid, stand-up guy he’d trust to never admit to anything.

He remembered how they met in the army—both eighteen, new to Fort Lewis, Gerhard assigned to the bunk above his. They were sitting on Ditto’s bunk polishing their boots.

Leo casts him a glance and asks, “Why’d you sign up?”

Ditto laughs, spits on the boot toe, working it in with a circular motion. “Look at it this way: I’m from fucking Hamtramck, Michigan. Ever been there?”

A broad smile flashes across Leo’s face. “Hell, man, I’m from Detroit.”

Ditto stops working. “No shit? You ain’t black and don’t look like one of those fucking Polacks. Who the hell else lives in that godforsaken town?”

“Germans,” he says proudly, flashing a Heil Hitler salute.

“My man!”

They high-fived.

Gerhard asks, “How did you end up here in the mortician corps?”

With a grunt Ditto sets the boot down, picks up the other one. “Wasn’t my choice. I signed up to be a Delta. But you know how that goes. They agree to anything, but then once you enlist, they fuck you over. So the fucking CO sees that my dad runs a mortuary. They figure I don’t have a problem being around stiffs, so here I am. Fucking can’t seem to get away from it. You?”

Leo gets a faraway look in his eyes. “I dunno. Always sorta liked dead people. Sure as shit more interesting than live ones. Least most of ’em, anyway. Delta, huh? You really wanted to go through all that shit?”

“Actually, what I wanted was to play pro hockey, be a Red Wing, another Gordie Howe. But, you know, those fuckers are crazy. Have no regard for their own bodies.”

“And Delta ain’t crazy?”

“Yeah, but they’re the best. So what’s your story?”

Leo shrugs, then spits on the boot in his hand. “I was forced to join. Sorta.”

“Sorta? The fuck does that mean?”

Leo sets down the boot, leans forward, elbows on knees, staring at the floor. “I used to hang at a boys’ club a lot on account of my folks are always gone. Dad shucks steel. That is when he ain’t blotto and can get work. Mom works. So …” He shrugs. “Anyways, this fucking counselor, fucking fag, tried to get friendly. Know what I’m saying?”

Bobby nods. “Fucking queers. Hate ’em.”

“One day I had enough. I got this ice pick and stuck him in his belly to send a message. Wasn’t trying to kill him or nothing. Let him know he couldn’t punk me. Fucker damn near dies, ends up paralyzed. Me, I end up in juvie. Judge gives me the choice of
doing hard time or signing up. What kinda choice is that? But now that I’m here, I kind of like it.”

Ditto thinks about that a moment. “Paralyzed? You stuck him in the gut? How the hell does that work?”

“Judge asked the same thing, and a quack told him I hit some blood vessel. Shit, I don’t know exactly, but that’s what they said.”

Ditto says, “Hey, we got forty-eight hours coming up Saturday. What do you say we go get some pussy together? You know, double team some bitch?”

Leo shoots him a look of gratitude. “Hell, yeah. There’s this place, been there a couple times.”

takes him to a shotgun cottage. Flat roof, clapboards flaking faded green paint, striped awning on the window. Gerhard knocks.

A woman answers, barefoot, in a royal blue satin robe, hair slightly mussed.

Gerhard leans on the jamb. “We looking for some pussy.”

She spits on the concrete at his feet. “Get on your way. Thought I told you, don’t want your type round here no more.”

Slack-jawed, Bobby watches Leo bust open the door, grab her by the neck, and squeeze, glowering in rage as her face flushes from red to purple, gagging the whole while. Finally she stops moving and Ditto realized she is dead. Never says a word. Not one fucking word. Just drops her in a pile on the throw rug.

Then they’re out the back door, running down a dark alley, Ditto wondering what the hell he’s gotten himself into.

No one ever questioned them. But Ditto knew this would always give him leverage over Gerhard.

years later Ditto’s army stint is winding down, and he’s making plans for after discharge. He and Leo were playing chess in the enlisted men’s quarters. Ditto’s turn to move, when he asks Leo, “Hey, why not come to work for me?”

Leo glances up from the board. “Work? This is the fucking army, man. This is work.”

“I mean after we’re discharged.”

With a derisive grunt, Leo shakes his head. “Ain’t leaving. I re-upped.”

Ditto can see the Army life working for Leo. Structured, no decisions to make, put in your twenty years and walk away with a pension. Not great money, but enough to live on. If you wanted to live in a single wide out in Buttfuck, Nowhere. Made him a little sad because he’d grown close to Leo, discovered they shared a lot of the same ideas.

BOOK: Dead Ringer
9.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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