Doctor Jonathan Trope, chief medical examiner, was not a squeamish man. In his twenty-three years as a licensed medical professional, he had seen more blood and guts than an unsupervised ten year old at a horror movie marathon. He had sliced through muscle, torn and sewn up flesh, felt beating hearts in the palm of his hand. He had seen people die in inexplicable ways, felt the terror of knowing that death had come with a silent hand, under the radar of weak human minds. Yet none of that – not one terrible sight in over two decades of work – repulsed him like the body of Scott John Roby.
He had first come into contact with the dead man late last night, when he and his team were called to a dark North End alley in the middle of a rainstorm. Though he wouldn’t admit it to his colleagues, Trope had forced himself not to gag behind his mask. The body was torn to shreds in several places; two limbs disconnected, the others bent at horrifying angles. Half the face was destroyed, and that was the worst of all: if the entire face was gone, Trope might have been able to tell himself that the mass of blood and flesh on the alley floor wasn’t a human being at all, but some sort of twisted organism from another world. But with that half-face, so perfectly preserved in deference to the rest of its late owner’s body, Trope was forced to recognize the truth: where a mere twelve hours before had been a living, breathing man, there was now something beyond words, something indescribable in its grotesque mockery of the human form.
Now, again standing over the bloodstained tatters that had once been a man, Jonathan Trope wondered how in God’s name he had forgotten to call out sick today.
“We have a twenty-seven-year-old Caucasian male,” began Doctor Briggs. A microphone recorded his words for posterity. He removed the sheet and allowed full visibility to the horrific wretch. “Black hair, brown eyes. Five-foot-ten, athletic build. Weight, 193 on last examination. Positively identified as one Scott John Roby originally of New York City, a graduate of Harvard. Autopsy performed at 9:02 on the fourth of October, 2015; attended by Detective Isaac Parry, Boston PD.”
Trope shot a glance at the detective. He stood there, staring down at the remains, looking for all the world like a scruffy, blond Dick Tracy. At least, Dick Tracy in a paper safety mask.
Doctor Briggs continued his report. “There are an indeterminate number of lacerations all across the body in seemingly random order, as well as deep wounds going past the skeletal structure.”
“Deep wounds,” Trope thought. Don’t sugarcoat it, Briggs.
“The ribcage appears to be mostly destroyed, with the ribs snapped in half and piercing what remains of the chest. Right leg has been torn off at the patella, with minimal damage to the fibula. The left humerus has been snapped in two and the flesh above torn clean off. The left patella and the right lateral epicondyle have been bent backwards to unnatural positions.”
Trope realized he was holding his breath, and released it. They hadn’t even started cutting.
Doctor Briggs stepped over to the head of the table. “The skin and muscle on the left half of the face has been entirely ripped away, exposing the skull. The left half of the skull is cracked in several places. The right half of the face retains its flesh and muscle, perfectly preserved aside from a few minor lacerations. The left eye is completely gone, and has not been located at this point.”
Don’t forget the most obvious part, Trope thought. He had known Briggs since Briggs was Mass General’s newest recruit, and had always felt a certain paternal instinct around him – mainly wanting to see him into success.
Briggs, as Trope suspected, had indeed forgotten the most obvious part. But just as he was finishing with the skull, he seemed to remember and stepped back to the middle of the table.
“The subject’s genitalia are completely missing as well. Deep lacerations around the groin area suggest that the penis and scrotum were forcibly torn from the subject’s body.”
Trope felt a spark of pride at the younger man for his thoroughness. He also felt a surge of nausea at the idea of someone’s joystick being torn clean off their body.
“So…what is this?” asked Detective Parry. “Do you know anything yet?”
“I was just explaining the victim’s situation for the record,” Briggs told him, squinting through his glasses and safety mask. “We haven’t even done any cutting yet.”
It was funny, but ever since Trope had been given the pleasure of making Scott Roby’s acquaintance, he hadn’t felt much like a doctor. If anything, he felt how he imagined men like Isaac Parry would feel. There was something going on here. If not something big, then definitely something interesting. Was it murder? Was it some sort of accident? Had that petite witness been carrying some sort of body-shredding weapon that she had turned on Scott before sitting down in a puddle?
“Where the hell are you gonna cut?” Parry demanded, his voice muffled behind the blue paper. “There’s more cut on him than there is skin.”
“Well, to be perfectly honest,” Briggs muffled, “I’m not entirely sure. Jonathan?”
Trope let out a breath, but his mask pushed most of the air back onto his face. He stepped over to the table, felt the revulsion again rising in his throat.
“Usually we start with a Y-shape, you know that.”
“Yeah,” Briggs replied.
“But like Detective Parry said, there’s hardly any flesh left on the chest to cut. So what you’ll wanna do is cut away what little flesh there is to expose the organs.”
Briggs did as he was told, slicing through the lengths of flesh and muscle like a butcher carving up a pound of veal. When the skin lay in ragged flaps on either side of the torso, Briggs and Trope set about removing the broken shards of what was once a ribcage. Trope felt slightly less disgusted now that he was actually helping out: with the torso opened as it was, he could almost pretend that this was an ordinary patient who had been opened up by their skilled hands, and not by unseen forces in a dark alleyway. For his part, Parry stifled a few gags and stepped back a few feet. Trope couldn’t help feeling a spark of triumph at this.
Dick Tracy would have been fine in this situation, he thought.
“Detective Parry,” Briggs said.
“What?” The detective turned back to face the operating table.
Briggs held up a splintered bone in each hand. They were both coated in blood, with plenty of muscle and tissue still attached. “I was just gonna invite you over for ribs,” he said.
The detective made a surprised gagging sound.
Trope dug his teeth into his lower lip to keep from laughing. That was why he loved the kid, he remembered. Dark humor was always a winner, especially in hospitals. That was really the trick, wasn’t it? And after a while, dark humor just becomes regular humor, and morbid becomes the new dark.
“Alright you two,” Parry muttered from his place far away from the body. “I hate to cut in on your buddy-buddy time, but this autopsy could help the Boston PD catch a murderer, so I’d like it if we could speed it up a little.”
“I still don’t get how this is gonna help,” Briggs said. “I mean, this wasn’t done by one person, so it couldn’t have been the girl he was with. And it wasn’t done by several people either. In my humble opinion, this was either some kind of machine, or a big group of people who all had crowbars and sledgehammers and that kind of thing. Are we sure the girl didn’t see anything?”
Sledgehammers? Trope thought. Come on. If Briggs had thought for a second before speaking, he would have recognized that very little of the damage on Mister Roby was the result of blunt force trauma. He hadn’t been cut either, so sharp weapons were out of the question. Scott Roby had been literally torn apart, like a Christian in the Circus Maximus.
“No, we’re not sure,” Parry replied. Trope could hear the irritation in his voice. “I didn’t get a chance to see her cause Noran let her go early. But I doubt she saw anything, she was kind of busy at the moment.”
“Doing what?” Briggs put forward.
“Trying not to get raped,” Parry almost spat. “Did you not know he was waiting for her in the alley?”
“No,” Briggs replied, shooting the detective a pointed look, “No one told me.”
Parry shifted his weight to one leg. “Noran checked her out, nothing happened. So you’re not gonna find her DNA on him.”
Trope had known what Scott Roby was about just before his life ended, and he had assumed Briggs did too. He could forgive the miscommunication, whoever’s fault it had been – tensions were high at Mass General, and probably even higher at the district. “Briggs,” he gestured, “Look for anything non-organic on those flaps of skin. I’m going to check out the organs.”
“Yes sir,” Briggs responded, beginning to hold up each flap of skin in turn, searching carefully for anything that could hint towards the man’s demise.
Trope sliced through the tissue that held both intestines to Scott’s interior, removing and weighing them in turn.
“I’ll get the brain as a last resort,” he told Briggs, “But I really don’t want to, so find me something juicy.”
“Aye aye,” Briggs replied, amiably enough.
Having already freed up the intestines of the lower torso, Trope did the same for their upstairs neighbors by removing the thyroid and parathyroid glands. Next came the heart and thoracic aorta. These were also weighed and stored properly. Trope found nothing out of the ordinary in any of these organs, and was about to continue with the process by removing the lungs when something caught his eye.
He wasn’t a hundred percent sure he had seen anything – probably just a twitch of his vision, or something in the lens of his safety glasses. But he could have sworn there had been something, just there, where the mottled gray lungs lay exposed to the –
“Hey!” Trope exclaimed, sudden enough to make the other men jump.
“What?” Briggs said.
Trope tore the safety glasses from his eyes, felt the uncomfortable shift of his younger colleague.
“Right there,” he said, waving his blue-gloved index finger at Scott Roby’s lungs. “Do you see it?”
Briggs moved closer. Parry stepped up to the table.
“In the lungs. Every few seconds…” Even as he spoke, there was another jostle. Something was moving inside the lungs.
“What is it?” Briggs swallowed. “What’s in his lungs?”
“I don’t know,” Trope admitted. This case wasn’t getting easier.
“Well do something about it!” Parry commanded.
“Alright alright alright.” Trope held out his arms, gesturing for the other two to step back. “Hold on. Lemme think this through.” He bit down on his lower lip and wracked his brain for any possibility that didn’t involve what he already knew needed to be done. They were looking for evidence, weren’t they? Signs of the unusual. And a fluctuation in the lung’s outer membrane was nothing if not unusual – at least, when the lung belonged to a dead man.
For one horrible moment, Trope wondered if the cadaver wasn’t in fact breathing. But, no, it couldn’t be. Even if Scott John Roby still had all his organs, his lungs weren’t slowly growing and shrinking, like they naturally would. They lay still and deflated, except for every so often when a small lump would appear in the membrane and move in a random direction for a second before returning to the center of the lung.
As they watched, the shifting objects seemed to come more frequently.
“This is…very strange,” Trope breathed, “For lack of a better word.” Then, remembering the voice recorder: “Subject’s lungs, both remarkably intact, appear to contain one or several small objects moving on their own accord. Currently unidentified but visible through movement in the outer membrane.” He retained his defensive stance, as if he expected one of the others to attack the body at any moment. In reality, he expected nothing – and, simultaneously, everything. Anything. Anything could happen.
“What are you gonna do?” Briggs whispered from behind him.
“I have to open the lung,” Trope said, thankful that he hadn’t given himself time to reconsider the statement.
“But what if it’s – ” Isaac began, then stopped himself. His hesitancy was fairly obvious, and they all felt it: they had literally no idea what it could be.
A solid object in the lungs was a big no-no, as far as being a human went. Those God-given internal balloons were meant to hold air, and nothing else. But add to this strange presence the fact that the object was moving, and…well…
What was it the other CSI had found on the scene early that morning? He had picked it up with a pair of tweezers and dropped it in a glass vial, almost apologetically explaining that in his training he’d learned that even something like that needs to be recorded for the purpose of investigations. Trope had approved, but almost laughed, and now…
Slowly, taking great pains to breathe steadily, Trope reached for his scalpel. The lungs’ movements were growing more intense, more frequent: by the time Trope held the blade protectively in front of him, the lungs were in constant flux.
“I have to,” he whispered, though this was mostly aimed at himself, rather than his companions. He wasn’t sure he would be able to go through with cutting into the lung, now that the blade was in his hand and the organs were shifting like balloons full of pebbles.
“Do it!” Parry hissed.
Trope slowly extended the blade – held tightly in both hands – until it rested in the air directly above the quivering lungs of Scott John Roby.
“On the count of three,” Trope murmured under his breath. “Three.”
The lungs continued to crawl, deforming long past their natural shape.
The three men held their breath. Scott Roby was no longer a human being in their minds: he was a vessel for whatever vile thing they were about to come face to –
Trope plunged the blade downwards, his eyes closing on instinct. He heard the squelch of metal piercing tissue, and when he opened his eyes, all he saw was a black cloud engulfing him.
For a second, he didn’t move. The other men were shrieking and falling back, but Trope stood still. Until he realized exactly what was inside the lungs.
They were everywhere – swarming across his clothing, ravaging the corpse, attacking the medical equipment. Their tiny brown bodies and eight piercing legs seemed to cover every square inch of the room.
Trope stumbled backwards, grabbing handfuls of the spiders and throwing them in every direction, trying to force the thousands of tiny feelers away from him.
He didn’t know what part of the room he had ended up in, and didn’t care. He fell to his knees, swiping at all of his body’s surface area, his revulsion growing as the arachnids swarmed into every fold of his clothing, crawled across every inch of his flesh.
He wasn’t sure how long the swarm lasted, or whether or not he had maintained consciousness the entire time. When he opened his eyes, the room was still.
Slowly pushing himself to his feet, Trope took a quick inventory of the scene.
The tiny brown specks covered nearly all flat surfaces, though he now saw there weren’t half as many as he’d thought. They lay across the tables, the floor – even in the trays that held Scott Roby’s organs.
The important thing, he noted, was that the spiders were no longer moving.
With every ounce of caution he could muster, Trope lifted his foot, bringing it down on a spot of floor that was relatively clear. In a single sweeping motion, he slid a great pile of the tiny monstrosities away from him, clearing a place to stand.
He leaned over the operating table and, careful not to touch the bugs, even through his gloves, he picked up a pair of tweezers and, in turn, picked up one of the spiders.
The dead arachnid was of a mottled brown color, with a gray splotch on its back similar to a trident or a three-pronged fork. It was no spider he had ever seen before.
A rustle from his right reminded Doctor Trope that there were supposed to be two other people in the room.
Detective Parry was getting to his feet, brushing spiders off his clothes and out of his tousled hair. As Trope watched – more nauseated than ever – the policeman drew a couple brown arachnids from between his lips.
Briggs, likewise, was making his way back to his feet. This took him a couple tries.
Now that he saw his companions were safe and alive, Trope turned his focus back to the corpse.
Scott John Roby was in roughly the same shape he had been before, with two key differences: his lungs were torn open and there was a scalpel sticking where his chest should be, looking for all the world like the murder weapon itself.
“What,” Parry began, his voice a tone of stark disbelief, “The fuck, was that.”
Trope surveyed the scene: hundreds, if not thousands, of brown, eight-legged specks covered every surface in the room, all identical to the one Trope’s assistant had tweezed off the asphalt last night. “Even something this insignificant,” he’d said. Insignificant. Three men – two doctors and an officer of the law – stood there in shock as the most unexplainable murder in recent memory became all the more complicated.
Doctor Trope let out a deep breath, causing a few of the dead arachnids to flutter where they lay. “I have no idea,” he said.
DECEMBER 1, 2021