Swathed in a bulky fireproof suit, Sergeant Danny Ross peered out through the half centimetre thick, black-glass visor of his helmet, trying to see through the dense pall of smoke and poisonous gases which reduced visibility to less than a metre.
A giant of a man, nearly two metres tall, with a great barrel-shaped chest and bulging muscular arms and legs, Ross was affectionately known as "Bear" by his friends and colleagues in the Glen Hartwell police. Although not a vain man, Bear usually prided himself on being almost fearless. But as he watched the chemical flames engulfing wood, metal, flesh and bones alike, saw men and women burnt black until their flesh cracked and pitted like badly burnt toast, he found himself on the brink of crying from a mixture of fear and anger.
Glen Hartwell was a country town with a population of barely two thousand. The fire which engulfed the chemicals, plastics and highly flammable glues produced by Megarithe Chemicals would burn for a week, but already the local fire chief, Donald Esk, was putting the death tally at almost two hundred.
* * *
A tall, thickset man, Jerry Green liked to think of himself as strong and virtually unmoved by death. The local coroner since 1979, over the last fourteen years he had seen hundreds of corpses, often of young children, many the victims of hideous mutilations or horrendously disfiguring ailments. So he should have been hardened to death by now. But as he led Gloria Baradine down to identify the corpse of her younger sister, Holly Ulverstone, Jerry felt more than just remorse at the loss of one personal friend and the grief of another. He also felt a great guilt, since it had been upon his recommendation six years earlier, that Holly had been employed as a biochemist at the local chemicals plant. I killed her! thought Jerry. If it weren't for me, Holly would still be alive today! Looking across at the tear-stained face of Gloria Baradine, he wondered if she was thinking the same thing. He wanted to place a consoling arm around her shoulders, but was afraid she would reject him, blaming him for the death of her sister.
With so many corpses, the bulk of them badly incinerated, many to the point where the remains could have fitted inside a shoe box, the bodies had been stored almost indiscriminately throughout the half dozen or so rooms of the morgue. But Jerry had arranged to have Holly lain out upon a small metal table in a room by herself for the viewing.
"She looks...looks just like she's sleeping," said Gloria.
"Yes," agreed Jerry. He was thankful that Holly had been one of the very few killed by the poisonous gases, not the flames of the inferno. He almost voiced the thought aloud, but stopped himself just in time, realising how banal it would sound.
As Gloria stared almost entranced by the sight of her younger sister, Jerry in turn watched Gloria. The two women were very much alike in looks: both honey blondes, with pale blue eyes, both tall and fashionably thin. But they were very unlike in most other ways. Whereas Gloria had always been content with the role of housewife, happy to be the good woman behind her famous engineer husband, Holly had been a devoted career woman, determined not to be any man's shadow.
Not wanting to cut in on her grief, but not knowing how not to, Jerry asked, "Will Mallory be coming home for a while?"
"He's already taken time off," said Gloria, "but, of course, the plane from New York takes about thirty hours, so he won't be back here for a while yet."
As Gloria broke down and began sobbing pitifully, Jerry rushed to take her into his arms to comfort her, thinking, Why did I ever let you go? Why did I ever let that dumb slob marry you, when I should have married you?
* * *
For nearly twenty-four hours after being taken from the ruins of the Megarithe factory, Holly Ulverstone felt no sensation at all. When finally she returned from the dead, she was overwhelmed by two sensations: darkness and coldness. It was late at night, in the back of the morgue in Baltimore Drive when she "awakened", which explained the darkness. But it was the hottest part of the Victorian summer. Even at night the temperature was more than 30 Degrees Celsius. So there was no accounting for the sensation of near Antarctic cold which assailed Holly, causing her teeth to chatter audibly.
"Who's there?" demanded the night watchman, Nathaniel "Col" Collingwood, hearing the sound of Holly's chattering teeth.
Lying on her back in the dark, Holly could only vaguely make out the shape of the man standing at the opposite end of the room. Although the tall, spindly old man looked harmless, Holly wasn't sure if she could trust him. She still hadn't fully recovered from her death and rebirth, and was disorientated, very mistrustful.
* * *
"I know you're there," said the old man. He tried to sound sure of himself as he peered across the top of the fourteen small tables, looking for whoever might be lurking nearby. Body snatchers! he thought, not really believing it, but wondering. The Glen had been plagued by a gang of body snatchers at the turn of the twentieth century. With the morgue and hospital both now overflowing with bodies from the still blazing factory, it seemed as likely a time as any for the body snatchers to start up again.
"You'd better show yourself," warned Col. He moved down a thin aisle between two rows of tables, wishing he had a better weapon than the slim, plastic flashlight which he carried. He looked carefully around and under every table, but didn't bother to check the bodies themselves, because corpses cannot make sounds.
* * *
Watching the old man as he moved across the darkened room, Holly decided that he was harmless. Since he was obviously more afraid than she vas, she took a chance and sat up suddenly upon the metal table.
* * *
"What...?" said Col, dropping his torch in fright. As the flashlight smashed against the concrete floor, he thought, Stupid bugger, it's just gas makes 'em do that! Col had read about it somewhere, so, although he had never seen it before in his nine years as a night watchman at the morgue, he knew it had to be true, Else they wouldn't be allowed to print it!
"Lie down like a good girl," he said, taking Holly gently by the shoulders.
As he began to push her back down onto the table, she struggled free of his grip and said, "Don't want to lie down."
"V...v...vampire!" stammered Col, backing away in fright until he almost fell over the body on the next table. "Vampire!" he shrieked, finally getting the word out as Holly swung her legs over the side of the table and stepped down onto the cold floor.
* * *
As the old man fainted to the floor, Holly also fell as her legs cramped up after twenty-four hours on the hard table and at first refused to support her.
It took Holly almost five minutes to regain the use of her legs. When at last she was confidant of walking, Holly placed the old man on the table and pulled the white sheet up over his head, since that was how she had been when she had awakened, so naturally she assumed it was the correct thing to do. Then, after a fruitless search around the room for a wardrobe, in the hope of finding a thick overcoat to combat the icy cold that assailed her, she staggered across to the door and out into the hallway.
Although she was dressed her feet were bare and seemed to almost stick to the cold linoleum that covered the hallway. Cold, so cold! she thought, shivering from head to toe, despite the heat of summer.
She walked slowly down the bare corridor, still a little unsteady on her feet, occasionally stopping to peer into the small adjoining rooms, most of which were identical to the room in which she had awakened. Small rooms containing bodies on tables awaiting dissection or release to next-of-kin.
At one door she peered in through the small viewing window and saw three or people standing around a table, operating upon a charred corpse. Holly was about to move away, when she recognised the tall, thickset man holding a small, electric saw in one hand. Jerry! she thought, trying desperately to remember her past life, despite the heavy mist which seemed to block out most of her memory.
Jerry...Jerry Green! she finally remembered. The saw began to buzz and he started to cut away at the blackened corpse, which was so charred that it seemed as though he were slicing through badly burnt toast.
Holly watched, fascinated as the dissection continued. She wondered what had happened to the man -- ? woman? -- to leave him in such a state. Unable to feel horror herself, she nonetheless recognised it on the face of Terry Green, who from time to time gulped as though forcing down rising bile. Holly watched, entranced as his Adam's apple bobbed each time he gulped and decided that he was too sensitive a person for the job that he did.
Watching his face, Holly wondered why Jerry seemed so familiar to her; wondered what his relationship was to her? My...my husband? she thought. But vaguely she recalled that she wasn't married. My...my boss? she wondered. She dimly recalled that she had worked amongst test tubes and scalpels. She wondered whether she had been a doctor of some kind herself.
Jerry Green? she thought again, certain that he was related to her in some way. Gloria! she suddenly thought, recalling her older sister. At first she thought that Gloria and Jerry were married to each other. Then she remembered that although they had been engaged nine years ago, they had split up, remaining good friends.
Gloria? thought Holly, shivering against the cold assailing her. Got to find Gloria! She'll know why I'm so cold! So, after one last look into the operating theatre, she turned away and continued down the corridor.
Somehow -- probably because everyone was working frantically in a bid to cope with the Megarithe Chemicals disaster -- Holly managed to reach the front door of the morgue and ambled outside without being seen or stopped.
It was early morning so there was no one about on Baltimore Drive. Street lights were few and far between, so, with at least three hours until dawn, Holly could hardly see more than a few metres in any direction. She knew she had to find Gloria, but where exactly should she search?
After standing, shivering for a few moments, she started down Baltimore Drive. She walked for ten minutes past various small streets, before reaching a major intersection at the corner of Lawson Street and Baltimore Drive. For a moment Holly stood on the corner undecided. Then, as the icy cold became almost unbearable and her teeth began to chatter again, she forced herself to start walking. Partly to ward off the cold, partly from some inexplicable knowledge that if she stopped for too long the coldness might overtake her completely, and she might fall into death again.
Holly walked down Lawson Street, until reaching the corner of Lawson and Boothy Streets. She started to head up toward McEwan Avenue, when a little voice inside her head told her that this was where he should turn next. Having to force her legs to move against the increasing cold which seemed to be creeping up her limbs, she began to lurch up Boothy Street.
She walked ever more and more slowly for another three or four blocks, before finding herself outside the wrought-iron gate of a three-storey, terrace house. For more than a minute Holly leant against the iron gate, before forcing her freezing legs to carry her up the concrete path.
She lay against the front door for nearly five minutes, fighting to keep her eyes open as she was overwhelming by a rush of tiredness as though stopping had brought home to her limbs the shock of how far she had walked since waking from the dead. With a mixture of Antarctic cold and weariness threatening to send her back to the dead, Holly mustered up the last vestige of her strength to rap lightly on the front door.
* * *
Lying awake in bed, Gloria Baradine heard the knocking downstairs and for a moment wondered whether it could be her husband Mallory home from the United States. But then she realised it would be at least another eight hours before his plane touched down in Sydney, then another few hours to fly to Melbourne Airport then drive to Glen Hartwell in the Victorian countryside.
Glancing at the clock on her bedside table she saw that it was a little after 2:30 a.m., and wondered who could be calling at that hour. If she had been able to sleep she would have ignored the knocking, however, wiping the tears from her eyes, she decided that any company would be better than no company at all.
* * *
"Yes, who's there?" asked Gloria, opening the front door.
"Gloria?" pleaded Holly, desperate for help against the murderous cold which was sweeping through her system.
"Holly?" said Gloria in disbelief. She recognised her sister's voice, but was unable to believe what her ears told her.
"Gloria?" begged Holly again as Gloria switched on the porch light.
"Holly...I..." said Gloria. She stared in shock at the re-animated corpse of her younger sister for a moment before fainting.
"Gloria?" pleaded Holly. She furiously rattled the locked screen door in a vain bid to force her way into the house before the chill of death overwhelmed her senses again.
* * *
Bear Ross had been off duty, Jerry Green in surgery, when Col Collingwood finally awakened and went running down the corridor shrieking that a vampire was on the loose in the morgue. It took the coroner more than five minutes to calm the old man dawn enough so he could tell his story, then another five minutes to confirm that Holly's corpse was missing from the morgue.
"She's a vampire I tell you! She just got up off the table and walked out," insisted Col, telling the truth although neither man believed him.
An hour later, after a hysterical telephone call from Gloria Baradine, Bear went to Boothy Street and found Gloria cradling the corpse of her sister in her arms, close to a complete nervous breakdown, crooning, "My baby's come back! My baby has come back to me!"
Three hours later Gloria was under heavy sedation in a private room in the Glen Hartwell and Daley Community Hospital, and Holly was back on her table in the morgue.
"She must have taken Holly's body from the morgue," insisted Jerry Green. He, Bear Ross, and Gina Foley all sat around in Gina's book-lined office in the hospital.
"But how?" asked Gina, a tall, lithe brunette in her early forties, co-ordinator of the hospital. "I agree that Holly's corpse could hardly have got up and walked out of the morgue as Col claims, but how could Gloria have abducted a body from the morgue and carried it home without being seen by anyone?"
"Could someone else have done it as a sick joke?" asked Bear. His face flushed red from anger as the thought occurred to him.
"Of course they could have," replied Gina, "but who? And why?"
* * *
As night began to fall again, Holly awakened from the dead a second time. This time there was no one around as she sat up on the metal table in the morgue.
Holly could vaguely recall having awakened before, having set out to find Gloria. But that was all she could recall since her original death two nights earlier.
Gloria! thought Holly as she wandered out into the corridor again.
This time she was seen by a guard as she left the morgue, but he assumed that she was one of the medical staff leaving late.
Holly could vaguely remember walking up Lawson Street the night before, so, since she bad ended up back at the morgue, this time she continued up along Baltimore Drive. She had reached Patterson's Lane (little more than a loading zone for delivery vans) when she heard a woman's shrill scream.
Despite the coldness which overwhelmed her and the knowledge that the cold could send her back to the dead, Holly stopped for a moment, trying to peer into the darkness of the alley, in a bid to make out where the scream had originated from.
As the woman screamed again and her limbs began to ice up, Holly forced herself to amble forward into the darkness, until she was able to make out the shapes of four youths who were in the process of stripping a middle-aged redhead who had been foolish enough to wander down the dark alley alone at night. They had already cut away her blouse and brassiere with their flick knives, exposing the woman's huge, pendulous breasts, which was why she had screamed.
* * *
"Take it all off!" ordered the leader of the youths, Lennie, ignoring the woman's pleas. He gazed down in lust at her enormous breasts as she sat helpless on the cobblestones at his feet.
"Help me! Please help me!" begged the redhead, Cathy, catching sight of Holly standing in the shadows a short distance away.
"What?" asked Lennie. The four youths turned to see who had stumbled onto them.
At first they could see no one. Then slowly Holly walked out of the shadows and began to shamble toward them.
"Hot stuff!" said Lennie. He decided that despite her deathly pallor, Holly was a better prize than the redhead.
"Hot!" agreed another youth, nicknamed Squizz because of his coke-bottle glasses.
"Cold!" responded Holly, in protest at the biting cold that only she could feel.
For a second none of the youths said anything, then Lennie, a tall, thin youth, dressed all in leather, as though he, like Holly, was impervious to the summer sun, burst out into laughter.
The other youths started to snicker, and Lennie said, "Did you hear that? What a sense of humour! She's about to get gang banged and she's crackin' jokes!"
"Cold!" protested Holly again. She shambled toward the four youths as though the cold had iced up her limbs, making it almost impossible for her to move.
"I don't know, Lennie," said a youth called Bonce, so named because of his large, Neanderthal head. He didn't like the deathly pallor of Holly, or the strange, zombie-like way she shuffled along. "Maybe we orta get outta here?"
"Yeah," agreed the last youth, Luther, so named because his parents were Lutherans, "why don't we settle for the redhead and leave this zomb alone?"
"What's wrong with you dorks?" demanded Lennie, loud enough so Luther and Bonce both paled under his anger. "Settle for a fat, old bag like that," pointing toward Cathy, "when we could have a real spunk like this?" He waved toward Holly.
"But look at the dizzy way she shambles along, like something out of a Lovecraft story!" protested Squizz, an avid science fiction reader.
"So what?" demanded Lennie. He walked across to Holly. "She doesn't have to know how to move. We'll do all the moving, she just has to lie there!"
Despite their mounting apprehension, the three youths were afraid to cross their leader, so reluctantly they followed him across toward Holly.
Mistaking Holly's shivering for fear, Lennie said, "Ha, the dumb bitch has finally woken up!" Then as the others continued to hold back, he ordered, "Bonce grab her arms! Squizz, Luther grab her legs and get her into position!"
As he snapped off their names the three youths hurried to comply with their leader's orders.
"Cold!" protested Holly as the three youths grabbed her.
"Don't worry, we'll soon warm you up!" said Lennie, drawing snickers from the others. "Now just hold still," he said, holding up his opal-handled flick knife, to cut away Holly's dress. "This is gonna hurt you a lot more than it does me!"
Misunderstanding what the knife was for, Holly reached out with one hand, which she effortlessly tore out of Bonce's grip, and grabbed Lennie by the throat.
At first the hand was only a minor irritation to the youth, but as Holly started to squeeze Lennie was unable to breathe. The other youths could hear his throat crushing like egg shells in Holly's grip.
"What the...?" said Squizz. His eyes shone with fright through the thick lenses of his glasses as Lennie fell to the cobblestones in front of them.
Luther released Holly to quickly examine Lennie before announcing, "Dead! He's dead! This bloody zomb has murdered him!"
"Cold!" said Holly, as her limbs felt as though they were freezing up.
"Cold!" shouted Luther. "I'll make you cold, you murdering bitch!" He grabbed her by both arms, intending to break them. But to his surprise Holly was much stronger than him.
"Hurt!" said Holly. Then to the horror of Bonce and Squizz, she effortlessly lifted Luther off the ground and threw him high into the air.
They never knew whether she meant that Luther was hurting her, or warning that she intended to hurt him. But at any rate it was Luther who was hurt as he crashed with a sickening thud about three metres off the ground, into a yellow brick wall abutting the lane.
Bonce and Squizz watched incredulous as Luther's corpse slid down the wall, leaving a thick, red trail of blood oozing down the yellow bricks. The corpse hit the ground and fell over onto its back.
"Jesus!" said Bonce. He stared in horror at the bloody, pulped remains of Luther's face, which had been squashed flat by the impact with the wall.
"Let's get the Hell out of here!" cried Squizz. He took off without waiting for Bonce to reply.
While the two youths sped off into the darkness, Holly staggered across to where the redhead still sat upon the cobblestones.
"D...don't hurt mall, pleaded Cathy staring up at Holly in terror.
"C...cold!" responded Holly.
* * *
For a couple of minutes Cathy sat upon the ground, her enormous breasts fully exposed, while Holly stood over her swaying slightly. Then, since the strange, pale-skinned woman made no move to harm her, Cathy reached for the remains of her blouse to cover her breasts. She scrambled to her feet, and started off down the alley, in the opposite direction to that taken by Bonce and Squizz.
Trying her best not to panic, Cathy walked quickly, not daring to run as she heard a soft patter-patter of footsteps on the cobblestones behind her. She tried not to look back, but with less than a block to go to her street, she glanced over her left shoulder and saw the pale figure of Holly stumbling along behind her.
Gasping from fear and exhaustion, in the dark Cathy almost ran straight past her own house, not recognising it from the back, since like so many other houses in the residential area of Glen Hartwell, the back yard was hidden from the back lane by a two-metre tall, grey deal wood fence. But as she was passing she recognised the wrought-iron gate and almost fell flat on her face as she tried to pull up too quickly. For a second or two one of the high heels of her shoes caught in the gap between two cobblestones.
Panting aloud, almost crying from frustration; the pounding of her heart in her ears blocking out the patter of the footsteps behind her, Cathy was forced to look back. And saw that although Holly was still a fair way off, she was gradually gaining on her. After finally freeing her heel from the cobblestones, Cathy fumbled with the latch of the gate, her fingers numb from fear.
Finally, she managed to fumble the latch open, then rushed into the yard and slammed the gate shut behind her. But then, as Cathy lay with her back against the wooden fence, she remembered how Holly had thrown Luther high through the air, and realised Holly could easily push her way into the back yard.
With the sound of Holly's cold-numbed fingers rattling the iron gate, Cathy ran across the lawn to the back of her house. Fifteen minutes later she had the doors and windows all safely barricaded and locked and had changed into her night attire. Although too scared to fall asleep, she forced herself to go to bed in the hope that when she awakened it would turn out to have all been a bad dream.
When she awakened around noon the next day, Cathy found Holly standing with her face pressed hard against the locked screen door at the back of the house.
"Cold! Cold!" yelled Holly, pleading to be let into the house.
For more than an hour Cathy tried to ignore Holly's pleas. But remembering that Holly had saved her from being pack-raped and possibly murdered the previous night, the redhead finally relented and unlocked the screen door.
"Cold!" muttered Holly again, despite the burning midday summer sun, as she almost fell in through the doorway.
Shrieking from terror, Cathy retreated into the corridor followed by the shambling figure of Holly.
"Cold!" repeated Holly as they reached the spaciously appointed lounge room.
Cathy fell over backward onto a lush armchair and for a few moments Holly stood over her, swaying gently from side to side as though about to fall on her. Finally, to the redhead's relief, Holly sat -- ? fell? -- onto a green, vinyl sofa beside her.
For nearly five minutes the two women sat staring at each other, before finally Cathy summoned up the nerve to ask, "Who...who are you?"
"Holly," she answered. Then dimly remembering she must also have a second name, she wrinkled up her brow as she desperately fought to dredge up knowledge from the murky depths of her feeble memory of the time before her death. Finally she muttered, "Ulver...st...stone...Holly Ulverstone."
For a few seconds Holly sat staring at Cathy, who finally realised that she ought to give her name too and said, "My name is Gardner, Catherine Gardner."
* * *
"But I didn't steal...couldn't steal Holly from the morgue," insisted Gloria Baradine. Close to tears, she looked first at Mallory Baradine who sat tentatively upon the lime green, plastic stool beside her bed, then toward the tall, graceful figure of Gina Foley standing near the bedroom door.
"Nobody is accusing you of that," insisted Gina. She glanced down at the notes upon her clipboard for a moment. "But..." she hesitated for a moment, searching for the right words, "but if you didn't steal Holly, how did she get from the morgue to your house?"
"I've already told you how she got there!" insisted Gloria, looking toward her husband for support. But Mallory Baradine was staring noncommittally at his hands in his lap. "Besides, if I had stolen Holly's body, how could I possibly have got her home? Over a kilometre's distance from the morgue!"
* * *
"I ain't done nothin'!", insisted Squizz, peering up at the barrel-chest of Bear Ross, from where he sat on a hardwood chair in the police sergeant's office. In another room Bonce was being interrogated by two other pol