I REMOVED THE sheet covering the cadaver and tried not to focus on the overall appearance of the deceased. This was not quite a routine post mortem: the dead man was the husband of a colleague in the public hospital – this hospital – where I worked. My colleague, Barbara, is a good doctor. I had not had the opportunity to offer her my sympathy on the sudden death of her husband. She hadn't yet returned to work following the shock.
He had died in his office in the large government department where he was deputy secretary. He was fifty-nine. There had been no warning: he had seemed in good health, hadn't complained of pains or anything physically amiss. I had actually met him a couple of times. Canberra is a small town and it was simply good luck that had prevented me from opening up a dead neighbour, a tradesperson I'd dealt with, an acquaintance from the tennis club. This was a first for me. My task was to establish the cause of death. Foul play was not suspected.
Automatically, I picked up a scalpel from the tray next to the trolley. I prepared to make an incision in the man's chest. Robert Price, a highly regarded public servant, a confidante of prime ministers and other members of Canberra royalty. I imagined the scene of his demise. In the Australian public service, I am told, there is a strict rule – applying from the bottom right up to the top – that one's desk must be clear at the end of the day. No papers left anywhere except under lock and key. I imagined Barbara's husband sitting upright, stiff, dead in his suit before a large, desolate wooden desk, brown and bare. His hands would have been locked to the report he was reading, or perhaps frozen to his desktop keyboard.
When I had met him for the first time at a social function organised by our section in the hospital, his handshake had been cool, matching his manner. He was one of those people, I guessed, who gave little away. He had slipped into the room, perfect in his expensive jacket, straight from the office. He carried one of those oversized black leather briefcases so commonly seen on the ends of the arms of senior bureaucrats. He put it down at his feet and didn't move away from it. Obviously it contained confidential documents, ministerial briefs on delicate matters. He drank a soda water handed to him by his wife. They left before the rest of us.
In contrast to his dry demeanour, Barbara was warm and kind. This is what made her so good at what she did as a physician, dealing with very sick people and their distressed relatives. On her desk I had often noticed a photograph of Barbara and her husband, young lovers, laughing, arm in arm against a backdrop of mountains. They had been on their honeymoon, Barbara told me when I inquired. She was clearly an older version of that happy young woman, but Robert was hardly recognisable. He had changed. They had a couple of kids, now in their twenties and both living in Sydney. I had felt a bit sorry for Barbara, stuck at home with no one but that stiff, unforgiving presence.
Now I placed the scalpel on the chest, in the vicinity of the heart, and drew it down the body. It did not penetrate the flesh. I felt resistance, hard resistance. I pressed harder. The scalpel slid across the chest, making a shrieking noise like a fingernail on a blackboard. I focused.
The scalpel had come to rest in a shallow lateral groove on the surface of the torso. The belly and chest were pale, pinkish beige, striped with a series of these soft, darker coloured brown furrows, separating the hard pieces on the exterior of the body. It was shell, rock-hard armour, striated into horizontal segments, slightly curved, convex. At the sides the segmented plating met the edge of a much thicker back covering, divided it seemed into two major plates and a few smaller ones. This back-shell was a carapace of about five centimetres in thickness, though the bulk tapered off where the shell segments overlapped. The structure was so heavy that I could not lift the corpse to turn it over and examine it more carefully. Morbid fascination drove me forward. I managed to raise the body a couple of centimetres before I lost my grip and dropped it. Its smooth sheen gave me little purchase. It rocked very slightly on impact with the slab.
My momentum of curiosity evaporated in revulsion. I sat down, reeling. I had no idea what to think, or how to think. Perhaps I was hallucinating. Going mad. I put that thought aside. I reached out and felt the hard surface through my surgical glove. No, it was real.
How had Robert Price carried this around? Why had he not collapsed under its weight? It must have required superhuman effort. How had he managed to hide his ghastly appearance from his colleagues? And from his wife, for God's sake? Had she noticed? Did she have sex with this monstrosity? Perhaps they slept in separate rooms.
I STEPPED BACK from the table to get a better overall view of the general configuration of the shell covering. Something scuttled out of the back of my mind. A cockroach. Mr Price resembled a giant cockroach. His head was small and pointy, encased in a beige helmet. There was a cluster of long, hair-like feelers growing out of the top of it, and more on the sides. His legs and arms were thin and excessively hairy, also covered under the hairs by thorny shell. He had a tiny pair of extra limbs, perhaps residual, located on the sides of the trunk halfway between shoulder and hip. He must have kept these hidden. If I tapped on the shell, front or back, there was a distinctly deep, hollow sound. A dead sound.
No wonder he had died. The amazing thing was that he had not done so sooner. Or perhaps this transformation was recent? Sudden, maybe, while he sat there at his desk? I guessed not, somehow.
Now I was desperate to examine the body's internal workings. I had no idea what I might find. I shook with anticipation and also with horror, but the anticipation prevailed.
After a bit of trial and error, I found that I could insert a thin scalpel into the seam along the edge of one of the underbelly segments, and follow its line. As the instrument penetrated the body cavity and slid sideways I felt resistance at some points, none at others. I heard a rasping noise and some cracking as I cut into whatever material made up his organs and flesh.
I repeated the slicing action on the other side. The first segment came away, detached. Grasping both pointy ends of the curved, shield-like structure, I lifted it. My hands trembled.
I should have found a heart. In its place I discovered a misshapen, hollow chamber. Its brittle walls were thin. I cut into it and confirmed that, while the vertical septum separating the sub-chambers was intact, and the horizontal separations too, the thing was no more than empty shell. In a couple of corners there were tiny pools of a thick, pale brown, viscous liquid. The substance was in the process of solidifying on the walls and floor of the chamber, where the moist surface was slightly darker in colour. There was a hint of a sour and pungent smell.
I sliced away a couple more segments to get a better look at the lungs. On one side of the body – the left – I cut into nothingness, while as my scalpel moved to the right I heard the crackle of splintering shell. Underneath, I found that the left lung was an empty space. It had been completely devoured, as if sucked out by the solid encasement through channels reaching up to meet the surface at the segment joints. This exterior apparently had a kind of life and needed constant feeding. The right lung was also partly eaten away, but several large patches were filled with clumps of delicate, paper-thin sheets, closely packed and standing vertically to the outer casing. I ran my gloved finger over their frilled ends and they chipped and tore at my touch.
I cut out the remaining outer shell segments, piling them untidily on the floor beside the table, and examined the other organs.
The pancreas and liver, I was to discover, were no more than empty shell shapes. I removed them carefully before piercing them with a knife. They shattered. The stomach remained slightly pliable. It did not shatter when I cut into it, but opened easily under my hand. Inside, I found the largest concentration yet of the sticky brown fluid, clinging to the sides but also pooled in the base. I guessed this was the shell's nourishment, what happened to the fuel taken in by Robert Price. It maintained and thickened his protection, his casing. This casing was what shielded him from the poison of the acidic environment in which he felt obliged to exist. With the word "casing", a series of memories came flooding back.
THE FIGURE OF my first wife, Angela, flashed into my mind. I no longer thought about her often – not since, two years after we had divorced, I met Karen. Angela still lives in Canberra, still climbing the ladder of the national bureaucracy, but I rarely see her. We move in different circles these days. Karen, my second wife, whose first marriage had also failed, was a high school teacher of English. We were now the parents of twins, aged six. I had never been happier. We were talking about a tree change, escaping Canberra. Life as a country GP was an attractive prospect, and they were crying out for teachers in the bush.
Angela and I had moved to Canberra so that she could further her career. She had joined the Commonwealth public service in our home town, Adelaide, but seven years into her job they – the hierarchy – had insisted that she move to the capital. It was that, or career's end. I was a medico who could work anywhere. I put up little resistance. I adored her for her drive, her intelligence. I needed her. We were happy, except for one thing: I was impatient to have kids and she didn't seem to care. She was on the way up. The move happened when Angela was thirty-four. I was conscious of the time we had left.
Every six months or so, I would carefully raise the question of a baby. Before we upped sticks to Canberra, it had been: "Wait till we've moved. Then I'll think about it." After we shifted it was: "What, now? I've just started in the new job. Are you mad or something?" She held herself erect at her slim shoulders and stared brightly straight in my face. Her raven hair framed her, swinging, indignant.
Not long after that conversation, I noticed something about those clean-sculpted shoulders. She was undressing for bed one evening. She had turned off the main light of the bedroom and was brushing her hair at the dressing table mirror, her body illuminated obliquely by the bedside lamp beside me, across the room. I caught a flash of metallic reflection in a strip from the base of her neck to the top of her right arm. Then another one, on the left.
"What's that on your shoulders?" I asked, casually.
She ran her fingers over one of them. "Nothing. What are you talking about?" Another flash.
Within a few weeks I saw steel armour blades, shiny, long and narrow, curving from the upper chest over on to her back. They grew slightly longer every day. They glistened in the half-light. They became a breast-plate of fanned, narrow, knife-shaped panels, stretching correspondingly down on her upper back. At the top of the shoulder, the razor-sharp blades were articulated so that Angela could, by an act of will, force them erect, swivelling them up on their sides, symmetrically. She developed the capacity to raise the edges higher, out of her skin, so that they stood several centimetres tall. They made a dangerous, hostile collar of shiny knives that she used to silence me. She could shred me at a glance.
Always slender, she was growing thinner by the day. It was as if the metallic razor casing was stealing her substance. The curve of her shoulders at the top of her two-sided metal shield grew ever sharper.
"You are becoming harder, in this job," I had ventured, tentatively. "And you're losing too much weight. I don't like what they're doing to you."
She had been scornful, dismissive. "You need to grow up. Life's tough. It's the price I pay."
Angela had upset my mother with her scorn over some issue to do with plans for Christmas. "Come back to Adelaide for a week?" she had repeated, impatient. "What does she think I do for a living? I can't take a week to traipse all over the country! I have to be available in case the minister wants to make a big announcement she's got planned. I have to stay here and that's that."
"But Mum was crying after you and she spoke. You hurt her. We haven't been back home for two years now. She wants a family Christmas. Surely that's understandable?"
"Oh, she'll get over it," Angela had shrugged her shiny steel shoulders, the blades bolt upright. "I'm not worried."
Eventually I gave up on the baby question because the most passing mention of the issue caused her blades to shoot up, piercing and painful. "I have a career," she would say, aggressively. "Get used to it. A baby now and I'm dead."
The razor-edged plates, fanning out from her spine on her back, and from the seam at the centre of her chest and stomach, spread. They emerged blade first, slowly, relentlessly, one by one, out of her skin, progressively down her body until her torso was completely encased in cold stainless steel. In bed she turned her narrow steel body towards me. It was chilling and cruel. "I can't ... do this any more," I said.
"Okay," she had said, casually.
We split up. I missed her. I worried about her. She would phone occasionally, to chatter about her latest promotion, her latest victory. I inquired, once, about her steel plates and she asked coldly if I thought I might be losing the plot. Then I met Karen. She was softer, gentler, matching my own untidy temperament. We were both in our late thirties and kids were our priority. The arrival of our IVF twins was the best thing that has ever happened to us. Thank God for medical science.
A YEAR OR two ago, I heard Barbara repeat the words I had used about Angela. She had been sitting in the lunch room we shared with eight or so others. "I don't like what they've done to Robert," she had said. Not steel armour in his case, but another metamorphosis. A rock-hard shell fortress that was sucking out his substance.
Now, as I delved deeper into Robert Price's body, my scalpel struck something of a different texture. It made a solid sound, not a hollow one. I looked closely. It was white, not beige. Bone, bleached leg bone. As fast as I could I excavated. I uncovered a shrunken human skeleton, Robert Price's skeleton, huddled in foetal position, legs bent up against the ribs. The skull grinned maniacally. The bones were picked, sucked and polished dry, cleaned of all vestiges and scraps of flesh. Robert Price lay hunched in lonely agony on a hard bed of solid, crinkled sheets, surrounded by the desiccated edifice of his shell-chambered fortification.
This was how he had died. Hidden in his encasement, the man had obviously been dead for some time. A cockroach, they tell me, walks around even after its head is torn off. Robert Price's giant insect body had lived on although it had stripped his human bones bare and sucked out his organs. Eventually, however, the juggernaut had run out of fuel. It simply stopped moving. At that point it was decided by onlookers that he had expired.
Barbara must have guessed the truth a long time ago. I knew how she felt.
I had no idea what I would put in my report. I would write it up tomorrow, when I'd had a chance to clear my mind. Dumping my notes on my desk, I left the building.
I drove home to Karen and the kids. They ran out of the house and grabbed my legs, one each, hugging tight. Their heads, under my hands, were silky and warm. "Let's go out for a pizza," I said.
"Good idea ..." Karen responded, smiling.
Time to get out of this town, I thought. Something poisonous is in the air. The price is too high.