Transcript – The Price of a Life

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Scroll & Dagger presents
The Pensive Tower
Episode Seventeen: The Price of a Life

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This is the memory of Doctor Roderick delNox. Human, aged sixty-two, identified as male. Memory regards his dealings with the serial killers Burik and Cullen, and was donated on the eighth of the month of Trevall in the year 719. Inscribed by Paxton Ferox on the twenty-fourth of Sunsfall, 729.

We Begin.

I didn’t know what they were doing. I just want to make that abundantly clear before we go any further. I didn’t know where they got the bodies, I didn’t know the kind of people they really were, it never occurred to me that they weren’t being honest, that they were not simply fulfilling the final wishes of their departed friends and relatives. Not at first anyway.

And the lawkeepers believe me. I was never arrested or convicted; I was only accused because of evidence that was circumstantial at best. I am not a monster, as some people seem to think. I am a simple scholar, a scientist. I was trying to understand anatomy, my work was intended to help people! And that work, as distasteful as it might be to some, requires a lot of fresh cadavers.

But I shall start at the beginning. I am a doctor of medicine. I have been practicing for nearly forty years now. I graduated top of my class from the University of Brana and completed my medical training with distinction from the Elalton medical academy. I now run my own practice in Hy-Braelyn, which operates under the Federal Health Service. It’s not as profitable as the private hospitals but it’s well funded enough that I get enough spare time to pursue my own research.

The problem was that all the funding in the world is no good if there are no cadavers for sale.

I know we’re supposed to be respectful of peoples’ final wishes and their spiritual beliefs but really. All the things that I could learn and it quite literally goes up in smoke. And why? Because that’s the way it’s always been done. That’s the real reason. I mean, who really believes in the gods anymore?

But you can’t say such things in polite society, of course. You even imply that a person could be called selfish for not donating their body for medical research and they give you the kind of look usually saved for the dangerously insane.

So, I have to get by on the few and far between donations of the rare scientifically minded individuals who would rather aid their fellows here in the mortal world rather than have their body burned and sent up to join their soul in the Halls of Serenity.

On average, I get maybe one or two bodies every few months. Generally, they’re humans or orklins with the occasional raekn. Sometimes I’ll be lucky and see a taurox body donated. In all my years, I have seen one diman. They’re even more precious with their corpses than any of the other peoples in my experience, something to do with their dead returning to sand or something to that effect.

I had enough to study to make some progress with my research but nowhere near enough to make the kind of strides I needed, that the whole field of medicine desperately needed.

We like to fool ourselves that we’ve left the dark age long in our past, that we’ve reached a new golden age of scientific discovery… but the truth is we still know so little about ourselves. We’ve lost and forgotten so much. And we are not as proofed against disease and infection as we’d like to think.

We need to do more.

So it was that when the two men came to my door one gloomy evening and told me they were there to enact the last wish of their recently departed friend, I asked very few questions.

I remember I was rather surprised when I first opened the door and saw the pair. You don’t see many canrians in general in the Federation and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a turshen this far north. They introduced themselves as Assander Burik and Assander Cullen. Quite the coincidence, I thought at the time, though now I’m fairly certain that those were not their real names.

They were decently dressed, but there was a slight but noticeable shabbiness to their attire that told me these two were likely from the poorer districts of the city.

Burik, the canrian, giving me a wide smile of pointed teeth, told me that a mutual friend of theirs had passed away recently and it had been her wish that her body be donated to medical research and they had heard my practice had a standing bounty for cadavers.

I told them that was indeed the case. We paid the families of the departed five hundred dollars in compensation for them donating the body.

Burik, still grinning, told me that was good to hear as they had the cadaver in their cart outside and could bring it in right then and there if I had the money.

That did make me hesitate a second. Normally, when a cadaver is donated, there will be an opportunity for me or one of the other doctors to discuss things directly with the family. When I told this to the pair, the other one, Cullen, told me brusquely that she had no family and that they would be taking the payment.

Burik added, rather quickly, that they would be making a charitable donation in her name. He sounded sincere but I didn’t miss the loaded look that he shot his companion. Mr. Cullen appeared to take the hint and did not speak again for the remainder of the exchange, though I did notice his long ears twitching and he never lost his rather surly expression.

I’m not an imbecile. I could tell that there was something was off about this pair. What I failed to understand was just how off they were.

I thought, I’d just pay them and if the lawkeepers did come asking questions or if I saw any missing posters going up, then I could let them know what I knew. For the time being, however, I had a cadaver on offer and the money to pay for it. I told Burik and Cullen to retrieve their deceased friend and I would have the payment ready for them when they returned.

The body they returned with was that of a human woman in early middle age. I asked how she had died. Mr. Burik told me she was an alcoholic and the drink had, unfortunately, finally killed her. He asked if that would be a problem. I told him it would not be.

I gave them the money and thanked them. Mr. Cullen said nothing but gave this amused snort. Then turned and left. Mr. Burik thanked me for my time, and pocketed the money.

As he left, I told him to keep me in mind next time someone he knew passed away. I intended it as a joke but Mr. Burik looked back and assured me that they would remember.

He then turned and left.

The manner of their departure made me more wary about the origin of this cadaver but, fortunately for me, if angry relatives did come calling, I had a secret that would allow me to examine the cadavers without doing anything that might be considered desecration.

You see, my mother had this family heirloom, passed down generations, since the Dark Age. It’s a small stone circle, about the size of a dollar coin. I don’t know what type of stone it is, I’m not a geologist, but it’s a deep black with white veins running through it and has been worn smooth over the years. And it has a hole through the centre of it. Not much to look at, you might think, and you’d be right. However if you looked through the hole, your eye would suddenly be able to see through solid objects.

The special eye, as my mother used to call it, had come into my possession nearly five years previously after her death and it had proved an invaluable tool in my work.

With dissections, I’m always so aware that I’m seeing the internal body after it’s been exposed to the open air, after there’s been cutting and moving things about. With Mother’s eye, after I’d properly figured out how to use it, I could see the insides of the body as they existed in nature. I could see how everything was connected without having to pull things out and fit them back together like a gory jigsaw puzzle.

So, I began my first examination with no scalpel, using only my stone eye. I examined the liver and, going off the discolouration and the scarring, I could tell that, at the very least, Burik and Cullen had not been lying about the woman’s alcoholism. Based on the cirrhosis I could see; it was clear she’d been abusing drink for many years. Going off that, I began examining the other organs. Alcohol’s effect on the liver was well known but I was curious how such apparent heavy drinking would affect other parts of the body, as that was not so well documented. I began with the kidneys. I knew they played an important role in keeping the body clean so I was expecting to see similar signs of damage there.

However, what I saw looked a lot closer to internal bleeding than cirrhosis. And, as I examined the rest of the body, I saw similar damage to the heart and the brain. It was fascinating. Sorry, I suppose in your line of work you’re not used to hearing details like this.

I’ll refrain from any more of my clinical analysis but, suffice to say, I was able to learn a great deal from this body about alcohol’s effect on the internal organs and about anatomy in general.

I didn’t perform a practical examination until about a week later. I kept the body in the cold room to keep it as fresh as possible, but I wanted to be absolutely sure that I would not be visited by any angry relatives or lawkeepers.

But there was nothing. Nothing about a missing person was announced. I have a friend in the lawkeepers’ office and they said nothing about a missing person, or at least nothing that matched the description of my cadaver.

With the benefit of not having them in the room, and some time passing, I began thinking that I must have misjudged them, that they had been truly honest about the cadaver. Just a friend who had passed away with no family of her own.

So, I performed my examination and, once I had learned all I could, passed the cadaver along for disposal. And I thought that would be the end of it.

I was, of course, wrong.

It was about two weeks later, I remember, the middle of a particularly chilly winter, and I was once again visited by Mr. Burik and Mr. Cullen. This time they had they body of an orklin man in his late thirties who was, they said, a street sweeper.

They told me he had passed away from exposure and, with no family to speak of, they had brought me the body to see if I could make use of it.

Now, strictly speaking, I can only take a cadaver if it was the express wish of the deceased. At the very least, I need to have the family’s permission. I told this to the two men. Mr. Cullen shrugged and said there was nothing to say that it hadn’t been his wish to serve the noble pursuit of science, and he assured me there was no family that would object to my using his body.

I hesitated for only a moment. I should have turned them away. I know I should have. Even without knowing what I do now, I should have still told them no, rules are rules and they’re there for a reason. But I needed cadavers for my work, work that might help save who-knew how many lives.

Surely, I thought, it was worth bending the rules a little in the pursuit of a greater good. And, really, what harm would it do? The man was already dead. What would happen to the body if I said no? It would be taken by the Witnesses and burned, that’s what, and all I could learn would be lost.

I paid the two of them and they went on their way, and I got to work.

Orklin cadavers are the kind I see most often. Orklins aren’t usually as… spiritually stubborn as the other peoples. Still, there was plenty I learned from this chap, especially with the last examination being so recent, I could note the differences in human and orklin musculature as well as the similarities and differences in how our skeletons develop. This time, not as worried as the last time, I conducted my first examination with Mother’s eye and then went straight to the dissection.

This went on for about ten months, in which time Burik and Cullen brought me about fourteen cadavers in total. The stories of how they’d come by them varied a little but they were typically friends or people they knew from poor backgrounds. One rather salacious story, provided by Mr. Cullen upon the delivery of a human woman, was that she was a prostitute he had frequented who had been killed by her Madam.

That one I did look into before beginning my examination and I found that Madam Magret of Shimmerway House, the bordello on Satin Street, had indeed been arrested for the murder of one of her girls. Of course, we now know that she was innocent and it was actually Mr. Cullen who did the deed and then framed Madam Magret.

It was the last two, of course, that finally caught the public’s attention and led to the downfall of Burik and Cullen.

It had been a couple of weeks since their last delivery, another orklin who was rather scrawny by their standards. I was returning to my office after giving a lecture at the university. When I was told someone was waiting for me, I was half expecting Burik or Cullen with another cadaver for me. You can’t expect that sort of thing, of course, but they had been so regular for the past few months that it had become part of my routine. I know, I should have seen what was going on, it’s obvious in hindsight, but I’m a busy man and I just didn’t realise it at the time.

The man who was waiting for me was not Burik or Cullen. He was a human, tall and, at first glance, slightly built. But he stood up as I entered and I could see there was a lean toughness to him. He was well dressed in a suit of good quality silk. His face was hard and angular, a thin scar ran along his right cheek. He had long, dark hair which he wore tied back in a tail and bright, piercingly green eyes.

He asked me if I was Doctor delNox. I told him I was and what could I do for him. The stranger smiled this cocky smile and told me he was actually there to do something for me.

He took something out of his pocket then and, with a flick of his thumb, tossed it in the air like a coin. As it reached the height of its spin and began to fall, I realised that it was Mother’s stone eye.

No one knew I had that. I had always been careful to keep it secret and locked away in my desk. Mother had never told a soul except for myself. No one other than me should have known it even existed.

The stranger saw the look on my face and laughed, tossing the eye into the air again. I asked him what he thought he was doing, how had he gotten that out of my desk.

I made sure not to give away what it actually was, thinking maybe he’d opened my desk to rob it and just found what he thought would be an ordinary keepsake.

The stranger caught the stone and held it to his face so that he was looking at me through the hole.

Knowing what he would see, I unconsciously moved to cover myself before I could think. The stranger laughed again.

“Secrets are my business, friend,” he said before gently tossing me the stone. I caught it and quickly pushed it into my pocket before demanding to know who this stranger was.

He introduced himself as Finton Thurlow and said he represented a group who were very interested in the cadaver I had been brought just over two weeks ago.

I immediately began imagining angry relatives and lawsuits and the worries I’d had at my first meeting with Burik and Cullen rose up. I began blustering that I had simply been brought the body and I could not be blamed for how the body had come into my possession.

Never losing that smile, Thurlow calmed me, his voice soothing, and told me he was not there to harm me in any way, he simply wished to know who had brought the orklin’s body to me.

I did not hesitate. I was grateful to the two men, of course, but I was not about to suffer for their benefit. If they had incurred someone’s anger, it was for them to deal with, not me.

I told them all I knew, which was really not much, just their names, that they were a canrian and a turshen and I had first met them a little over nine months previously.

Thurlow thanked me, shook me by the hand and, without another word, left my office.

I didn’t see Burik and Cullen for nearly a month after that. To be honest, I thought I had seen the last of them. No such luck. They paid me one, final visit. Just a little over three weeks ago.

It was seven o’clock in the evening, I’d seen my last patient of the day and I was just getting ready to leave when there came a frantic knocking on my door.

I opened it to find Mr. Cullen standing there, looking more dishevelled than I’d ever seen him before.

He told me that he and Burik had procured two more cadavers for me. This was the first time they’d brought me more than one at one time so I was rather taken aback. That coupled with Mr. Cullen’s current state, not to mention that visitation from Mr. Thurlow which was still fresh in my mind, I was on edge to say the least.

I asked who they were. Mr. Cullen told me it was an elderly diman woman who had owned a small tinker shop on the outskirts of town and a young man, also a diman. Then he demanded, rather sharply, whether I wanted the bodies or not.

I felt as I had the first time I’d met the pair. Extremely hesitant and nervous. The way Mr. Cullen’s long ears twitched, the way his lips were pulled back to show his teeth in what could never be called a smile, the way his eyes were almost bulging from his skull, I knew this was unlike any of the other times they had brought bodies to my door.

But, on the other hand, I had not had chance to study a diman body in more than a year. And Mr. Cullen was so on edge that I feared what he would do to me if I turned him away. So, I agreed to take the bodies and went to retrieve the funds while Mr. Cullen went back outside, presumably to his cart.

He and Burik brought the bodies in, carried in large hessian sacks as all the others had been.

Mr. Burik looked as worse for wear as Mr. Cullen did. I wondered what had happened to them. Their attire had never been of the highest quality, true, but they had always carried themselves with a certain dignity and class. Not so much now.

I handed the money to Mr. Burik who, despite his dishevelled appearance, was still as courteous as he ever was. He pocketed the money, told me it had been a pleasure doing business with me, then he and Cullen were out the door before I even had chance to ask why it sounded as if I would not be seeing them again.

Not that I had any intention of asking. The pair had put me very much on edge and I think I had an inkling of what was likely to be coming to them as well as any who associated with them. So I was grateful that I might be rid of them so easily.

I knew I would have little more time, so I set to my work.

The lawkeepers arrived the very next morning.

I walked into the reception room and there, waiting for me, were two humans and an orklin, all wearing smart maroon tunics, side-swords on their hips and shiny golden badges on their chests.

Keeper SinTayya was in charge and she asked me if I had had any dealings with two men by the names of Burik and Cullen.

I told her I had, that over the past year they had been bringing me bodies to aid me in my work. I noticed the other human, a fair skinned man, his eyes widened in shock and the orklin let out this angry growl.

Keeper SinTayya asked me how many bodies the two of them had brought me.

Around sixteen, I told her, including the two last night.

The orklin actually spat at hearing that.

Keeper SinTayya asked if I had done anything with the two new bodies.

I told her I had not. And this was the truth. The bodies were still whole and intact. Obviously, I did not tell her about Mother’s Eye.

I had been able to learn quite a bit about diman anatomy from my examinations the previous night.

Keeper SinTayya asked if they could come through and see the bodies. I was under no illusion that it was actually a question.

I led them through to the examination room I was keeping the cadavers in. I asked Keeper SinTayya what all this was about.

She told me that, about a week ago, the mother of one of the city council members had been abducted, along with her grandson. There had been no sign of them until that very morning, when someone had come into the lawkeepers office to report that they had seen two men carrying what looked like two bodies into the back of a cart.

The witness was a well-known drunkard who had passed out in the gutter shortly after seeing this, but they had investigated and followed the cart’s trail to my practice.

And the rest is public knowledge. The cadavers I had been given were indeed the missing woman and her grandson, a simpleton by all accounts who was cared for by his grandmother.

I was taken into custody to answer further questions, but I was never arrested. I daresay there was the possibility of being sent down as an accessory but there wasn’t enough to prove anything. I was just a doctor doing his job, making use of donated cadavers, I couldn’t be held accountable for where those bodies came from. And the fact that no one noticed the first fourteen murders, I do not consider my problem.

I have had to move from Hy-Braelyn, of course. Even if I did nothing wrong, few people wish to associate themselves with me or see the doctor who ‘helped’ the serial killers. I’m moving south, setting up a new practice under a new name. Perhaps they’ll have more respect for my work there. Though, I rather doubt it.

Final Notes. I remember the Burik and Cullen case. It made the front page of the local newspaper. I was in university at the time and I remember discussing the details with a friend of mine who fancied herself an amateur criminologist.

The disappearance of Mrs Szemanta Htimas and her grandson, Mattisz caused a public outcry in the Thresherstine of 719, I’m surprised that Doctor delNox was unaware of it until the two bodies were almost literally dropped on his doorstep.

We do have a copy of the official report, signed by Keeper SinTayya. It seems the doctor’s testimony did help the lawkeepers build their case against Assander Burik and Assander Cullen for the murders. It was presumed that the other fourteen that Doctor delNox mentioned were also murdered but, unfortunately there were no bodies anymore and nothing in Doctor delNox’s notes indicated foul play so they weren’t able to make anything stick.

Not that it mattered, Burik and Cullen disappeared before any arrests could be made and remain at large to this day. I believe they are still in the top ten of the Federation’s most wanted list. We could not find this other person featured in the memory, this Finton Thurlow, on any Federal censuses, nor could we track down Doctor delNox, or whatever name he is going by these days. So, we were unable to follow up on anything related that might have happened since. This is a shame as I very much wished to discuss this item Doctor delNox talks about, what he called his Mother’s Eye.

At first glance it sounds like a kismotic item, but Szelia had a chat with her friend in the Alkismotists Guild and the description does not match any item in the current Kismotic Compendium. So, just what was this thing? And how did Doctor delNox’s family come to possess it?

Inscription complete.

[The venoscribe clicks, and the whirring stops.]

[The end theme plays and the Announcer recites the credits.]