THE HUMAN CONDITION
Part ii – GOING DOWN
That’s how long we’ve been sat here now. That’s how long we’ve been sat here doing nothing except shouting, arguing and fighting with each other. This can’t go on much longer.
John Proctor slumped against the wall and held his head in his hands. He watched the others through the gaps between his fingers. Christ, how he’d grown to despise these people over the last week and a half.
In every aspect of his life before this disaster, John had always been taught (and had taught others) to look for the good in other people. But trapped up here on the top floor of the hotel, waiting to either starve to death or be flushed out by huge crowds of bodies, he couldn’t help but concentrate on the faults and irritating personality traits which made the five other survivors trapped with him the worst cell-mates imaginable.
Barry Bushell. Now there was an interesting character. It had taken John a considerable length of time to work that one out, and he still wasn’t sure whether or not he understood what the dress-wearing man was about. Barry had been understandably annoyed when the other survivors had arrived and compromised the safety of his precious hotel hideout. Even now he continued to maintain a slight distance between himself and the others, spending a lot of time alone in the master bedroom. No one else ever went in there. John had initially admired his confidence in openly wearing women’s clothing in public but he struggled to understand why he did it. There must be some underlying sexual issue or confusion, he’d thought. Whatever the reason, he’d been surprised when, a couple of days ago, Barry had reverted to wearing more ‘normal’ clothes. He’d asked him why he’d made the change, and Barry had explained that he’d done it to shut the others up. He’d said he’d had enough of the constant digs and jibes from Nick and Elizabeth, and the tireless, pointless questions and sideways glances from that bloody annoying woman Doreen. Why couldn’t they just leave him alone, he’d asked. What difference did it make to any of them what he was wearing? That said, John found it easier to relate to Barry when he was wearing jeans and a T-shirt rather than full drag. It really shouldn’t have made any difference but it did. Barry now sat on his own in the doorway of his bedroom, quietly reading a book that he’d already read once this week.
Elizabeth and Nick had a strange relationship. One minute they were fighting, laughing with each other the next. They were of a similar age and background, and maybe that was the connection? John sensed that the decision to fight or laugh was usually made by Elizabeth. She was fairly attractive (very attractive in comparison to Doreen who was almost forty years her senior) and although he hadn’t seen or heard it for himself, he suspected she used her femininity to twist Nick around her little finger. Perhaps he was doing her a disservice? Perhaps he was jealous?
Now Doreen Phillips he couldn’t stand. There were no ifs, buts or maybes when it came to Doreen, he simply couldn’t abide the woman. He hated her grating voice and her witch’s cackle of a laugh. He hated her smell and the cloud of cigarette smoke which followed her around the room. He hated her wizened, wrinkled skin and her yellow teeth. Most of all he hated the fact that she moaned constantly about everything and anything to anyone who’d listen. She had more aches, pains and problems each day than the rest of them combined. No matter how low or desperate someone may have been feeling, Doreen had it worse. It had reached the stage where John now tried to avoid all contact with her, which wasn’t easy when they were trapped in such a confined space.
It was interesting just how little the rest of them had to do with Paul Jones. Nick in particular hardly ever spoke to him. Perhaps there was an element of competition? Did they both consider themselves the all-important alpha male of the group? Whatever the reason they kept their distance from each other, although in all fairness Paul kept his distance from everyone. He both infuriated and fascinated Proctor. Such an isolated and solitary person who, when he could be persuaded, added so much to the group. He was obviously intelligent, perhaps too bright for his own good? His distance from the rest of them came across as an unpleasant arrogance. Maybe he just wasn’t very good at relating to other people? Or did he think he was better than the rest of them?
Funny, John thought, that these six people should easily overlook the good and find so many faults with each other. There they were, all living under the same cloud of uncertainty and fear, and yet they couldn’t bring themselves to work together for love nor money. He was as bad as the rest of them and he’d freely admit it. He found it sad that they focused on their trivial differences rather than trying to work together for the common good. It spoke volumes about the human condition.
Doreen and Nick were sat at the dining table playing cards, their poker faces emotionless. Close by, Elizabeth dozed on a couch. Like Barry, Paul also had a small area of turf which he’d marked out as his own. His usual position was sitting on a chair looking out of the wide floor-to-ceiling window at the front of the hotel. From there he could just about see the rear-end of the bus sticking out of the gaping hole in the wall where the building’s main entrance had once been. Even now more bodies were still stumbling through the rubble to get into the building. Ten days on and the volume of dead flesh which had forced itself into the building was continuing to increase.
An uncomfortably familiar mixture of boredom and curiosity forced John to get up from where he’d been sitting and wander over to Paul. Paul noticed him but didn’t react, hoping that if he didn’t acknowledge the other man he’d go away again. He didn’t.
“What do you think?”
Why the hell did you ask that question, Paul silently wondered? Was he really that desperate to talk, or was he just too stupid to look out of the window and see for himself?
“Still more of them coming?”
“You’d think they’d have given up by now, wouldn’t you?”
“Fuck all else left to distract them, isn’t there? Just the noise up here.”
Taking that as a personal dig, John was about to walk away when he stopped himself. He knew that he was annoying Paul, but he couldn’t help asking incessantly unnecessary questions. It was a coping mechanism, he’d long-since decided.
“Think they’ll ever stop?”
“What, stop moving or stop trying to get in here?”
“Yes they’ll eventually stop moving and yes, they’ll eventually stop trying to get in here.”
“Quarter past six tomorrow night. Christ, Proctor, how the fuck should I know?”
“They’ll stop moving when they’ve rotted down so much that they just can’t do it any more and they’ll stop trying to get in here when there’s so many of them crammed into this fucking building that there’s no more room. And please don’t ask me which is going to happen first because I don’t have a fucking clue.”
John took that as his cue to move. A sudden tirade like that from Paul meant that he’d had enough of speaking to you and it was time to disappear before he told you where to go. Dejected, he ambled slowly back into the middle of the huge penthouse apartment. It had been an impressive sight when they’d first arrived there; palatial, immense. Now the Presidential Suite looked as dilapidated and rundown as the rest of the decomposing world, like a millionaire’s home taken over by squatters.
John walked into the kitchen area to look for scraps of food he knew he wouldn’t find. They were rapidly running out of everything, but he kept looking regardless. Maybe he’d find something in the rubbish that one of the others had missed...
John waded through the discarded boxes, bags, wrappers and other litter that covered the floor, and thought about what Jones had just said. He was right, the bodies would keep trying to force their way into the building until there was no more space. That was a terrifying thought, and one which had generated a lot of very animated discussion but little action over the last ten days. If things kept progressing as they had (and there was no reason to suggest they wouldn’t) then a time would inevitably soon come when the building in which they now sheltered would be filled to capacity with dead flesh, leaving the group stranded and starving. But what could they do about it? They’d talked and argued about their situation on and off without reaching any conclusions or workable solutions. There had been enough food in the kitchen and enough space between the living and the dead for them to put off making difficult decisions until tomorrow, and then the day after that, and the day after that. The only thing on which they all seemed to agree was their reluctance to do anything until they absolutely had to. John sensed that very soon, one way or another, they’d have no choice but to take action.
John had, for his part, tried to do something constructive. Granted it wasn’t much, but (as he frequently reminded them), it was more than the rest of them had done. A once keen photographer, five days ago he’d found a camera and batteries lying around the Presidential Suite. Barry had brought them back with him from an early trip into town but had never used them. In a moment of unexpected initiative he’d crept out onto the landing, attached the camera to the end of a fire-hose, and lowered it down the middle of the staircase. Through trial and error he’d managed to work out what length of hose was necessary to lower the camera to the floor below, then the floor after that and the floor after that. At the same time he set the camera’s timer and flash to take a single picture once the required level had been reached. With surprising accuracy he had soon developed a means to take photographs of the main staircase at each level (albeit only as far down as the hose would reach) and, therefore, he’d found a way of measuring the speed and progress of the dead when they finally appeared. Their incalculably vast numbers meant that the bodies at the front of the crowd were continually being pushed and shoved forwards, actually beginning to climb the stairs. With corpses continuing to pour through the bus-shaped hole in the hotel’s outside wall, once the ground floor reception had been completely filled with flesh there was nowhere else for them to go but up. Moving almost as one huge mass, the enormous crowd was slowly being channelled, funnelling itself deeper and deeper into the hotel, climbing higher and higher.
Each time John hauled the camera back up to the top floor the group crowded around the little screen on the back of its casing to monitor the progress of the slowly climbing cadavers. There had been no sign of them initially, but Proctor had continued to take his photographs every morning regardless. And then, yesterday, the furthest advanced of them had been photographed on the twenty-second floor. It was a simple enough calculation to make – the dead had covered twenty-two floors in about nine days. They were climbing at the rate of just over two floors a day. The second simple calculation the group made was altogether more disturbing. It was Thursday today. If their rate of climb continued at the same speed (and there was no immediate reason why it shouldn’t) then the bodies would reach the twenty-eighth floor sometime on Saturday or by Sunday morning at the very latest.
John found a strange sense of enjoyment in his role of chief cameraman and body-watcher. It gave him a purpose. Perhaps even more importantly, it gave him a role which he could hide behind and use as an excuse for not doing anything else. He saw the camera as a potential way out of some of the pretty bloody unpleasant and downright dangerous jobs which would inevitably need to be done over the course of the next few days.
Three forty-five. The afternoon sun had begun to drop down towards the horizon, filling the Presidential Suite with harsh orange light and long, dragging shadows. Rather than spreading themselves around the edges of the apartment, on this rare occasion the six survivors were sat together around the dining table. There was no food to be shared this afternoon. The reason for sitting together was to finally confront the issues they’d avoided for the last ten days. The agenda for their discussions was dishearteningly short and simple. Firstly, they had hardly any food supplies left. Secondly, according to the photograph Proctor had taken earlier, the bodies were now close to reaching floor twenty-four.
“So exactly how much food have we got?” Doreen asked.
“Enough for a day,” Barry replied, “maybe two at the very most. After that there’s nothing.”
“We must have something?”
“No,” he said again, shaking his head, “we won’t have anything.”
“But what?” snapped Nick. Christ, how did they get through to this bloody woman? “Listen, Doreen, we’ve got nothing, okay? We’re down to our last crumbs. We haven’t got an extra little stash of food tucked away for emergencies. After this we’ll have absolutely nothing. Fuck all. Zip.”
Doreen slumped back in her seat and stared into space.
“So what are we going to do?” she eventually asked. More sighs from around the table.
“That’s what we’re trying to decide, you stupid cow!” Nick groaned. “Bloody hell, are you on the same planet as the rest of us?”
“Wish I wasn’t.”
“So we’ve got two problems,” John summarised, trying his best to control the direction of the conversation. “We need to try and get out and get supplies but-”
“-but this building is full of bodies,” continued Barry, “thanks to the hole you lot made in the front door.” He glanced across at Nick as he spoke. Uncomfortable, Nick looked down and did his best to avoid eye contact with anyone.
“So what do we do?” Doreen asked again.
“Is there any way of getting out of here and back up again?” Elizabeth wondered.
“Don’t think so,” Barry answered quickly. “Getting down’s no problem, we can use the fire escape.” He nodded towards an inconspicuous looking door in the far corner of the room. “The problem is what to do once you’re down there. Open the fire escape door on the ground floor and you’ll probably find yourself face to face with a few thousand bodies. And if you manage to get outside, Christ knows how you’re going to get back in again afterwards. It’d be impossible if you were carrying supplies.”
“But there must be a way?”
“Get a sheet, hold it like a parachute, climb up to the roof and jump off,” Nick suggested to Doreen, less than seriously.
“Do you think that will work?” she asked, her bewilderingly stupid response meeting with groans of disbelief from several of the others.
“Try it, Doreen,” he suggested.
“But how would I get back up again?”
“Flap your arms,” Paul sneered.
“We should get out of here,” Nick suggested. “We should go downstairs and torch the place on our way out. Set light to the building and watch the whole fucking place go up in flames.”
“What good’s that going to do?” Barry wondered.
“It would distract them. Christ, the heat and light this place burning would generate would be more than enough of a distraction for us to be able to get away. They’re not going to be interested in a handful of people sneaking out the back door if that’s going on, are they?”
Nick’s suggestion was met with an awkward, muted silence from the others. They each thought long and hard about it, but none of them were sure. It wasn’t the wanton destruction that put them off, rather it was the thought of being on the run again...
“What about the cradle?” John said suddenly. “We’ve talked about it before, haven’t we? Barry said there’s a window-cleaner’s cradle half way up the side of the building. We could use that to get us down, couldn’t we? We could use it to get back up as well...”
“What about power,” Paul said from the end of the table. “How do you think you winch it up and down? Think the window-cleaners used to pull themselves up thirty floors by hand? No power, no cradle.”
Another idea quashed.
“Seems to me that if we can get out of here in one piece then maybe that’s what we should be looking to try and do. Maybe we’re going to have to find ourselves someplace else to hide,” Elizabeth said dejectedly.
Barry shook his head.
“I don’t want to leave here,” he sighed. “I can’t see any point in running.”
“Of course there’s a point,” Doreen said.
“Yes...” she stammered, sounding far from sure, “there must be...”
“Let me know when you think of something.”
“So what are we actually saying?” Nick asked. He pointed at Barry. “Does she just want to sit here and starve? Fucking good plan, well done!”
“But what are you running for?”
“I’m running because I don’t want to die,” he answered quickly.
“Good answer. Why don’t you want to die?”
“No one wants to die, do they?”
“But is it the end of your life you’re worried about, or is it death itself that scares you?” Barry said.
“What? You’re just talking bollocks now.”
“No I’m not. Are you worried that you’re not going to achieve everything you’ve always wanted to achieve, or is it the prospect of being torn apart by hundreds of bodies that bothers you most?”
Nick couldn’t immediately answer. Neither could any of the others.
“What point are you making, Barry?” John wondered.
“Sorry, I guess I’m just thinking out loud really. I’m not trying to wind you all up. I think what I’m saying is that I genuinely can’t see an easy way out of this. If we run we’ll find somewhere else to hide for a while, then something will happen and before you know it we’ll be moving on again, and again, and again...”
“Not necessarily,” Elizabeth protested.
“No, but that’s probably what will happen, and we have to accept that. We’re not in control here. Christ, I thought I’d hit the jackpot finding this place until someone drove a bloody bus into the building.”
“But running’s got to be better than just giving up and waiting to die, hasn’t it?”
“I’m not so sure,” Barry said. “That’s what I used to believe, but I just don’t know any more. Every morning when I wake up, it’s clearer and clearer to me that my life is just about over. We’re massively outnumbered and society is finished. Christ, we’re sitting here talking about risking our necks just to get food. What kind of a life are any of us going to have if getting the basics like food and shelter are so difficult?”
“Still don’t understand you,” Doreen admitted. “What were you saying about death and dying?”
Barry rubbed his tired eyes and explained further. “I don’t want to keep struggling and fighting forever,” he said sadly, “and I don’t think any of you do either. If I’m completely honest, I just want to relax and let things happen naturally. We’re in the minority, and I don’t think we were supposed to survive. So while I don’t relish the idea of letting those things out there tear me limb from limb, I’m not too bothered if I die.”
“But that’s-” John started to protest.
“It’s not normal, I accept that,” Barry interrupted. “It’s not what any of you were expecting me to say. We’ve been pre-programmed and conditioned by society all of our lives to keep fighting and keep struggling. All I’m saying is that there’s no point any more. Just sit back and relax and let nature take its course.”
“No,” Nick said suddenly. “There’s no way I’m just going to sit here and wait to die. Absolutely no way...”
“I’m with you,” Paul said, similarly unimpressed. John looked up in surprise. He couldn’t remember when the two men had last agreed on anything. Strange how their apparent dislike and mistrust of each other had immediately been forgotten now that their backs were against the wall.
“So what do we do?” asked Elizabeth.
That was the million dollar question which no one could answer. The ominous silence continued as the six people quietly considered their limited individual options and the apparent hopelessness of their situation.
“Exactly how full of bodies is this place?” Paul asked.
“They’re almost up to the twenty-fourth floor, I told you that a few minutes ago. You don’t listen to a word I-” John started to answer before being interrupted.
“No, you told us how far up the staircase they’ve managed to get, you didn’t tell us how full of bodies the building is.”
John struggled to see the difference and he wasn’t alone in his confusion.
“What do you mean?” Elizabeth wondered.
Paul shook his head. Christ, these people infuriated him. More to the point he was annoyed with himself. Why hadn’t he thought of this before?
“A couple of minutes ago we were talking about getting out of here, weren’t we?”
“So how was Barry talking about getting out?”
“Do you always answer questions with questions?” she snapped.
“Do you?” he replied infuriatingly before re-phrasing and asking his previous question again. “There’s another way out of here, isn’t there?”
“The fire escape,” Barry answered.
“Which is still clear, correct?”
“As far as we know. Why, what are you thinking?”
“Is the fire escape anywhere near the main staircase?”
“Of course not,” John interjected. “What would be the point of that? The fire escape needs to be on the other side of the building so that-”
“And your point is?” Elizabeth sighed.
“What I’m saying,” Paul replied, “is that the fire escape gives us a way of moving around the building that’s well away from the main staircase where we think the bodies are.”
“And there’s a good chance the bodies are still only on the staircase,” Nick continued, picking up where Paul left off. “Which means that if we’re careful we could still go onto the floors and into the rooms.”
“What’s the layout of a typical floor?” Paul asked.
“Just one U-shaped corridor,” Barry answered. “Staircase in the middle, fire escape at either end I think.”
“And when you first set yourself up here, did you clear the place out?”
“I checked all the rooms for bodies and I took what I needed but-”
“Did you take everything?”
“No, I didn’t need to.”
“So there’s your answer,” Paul said smugly, rocking back on his chair and almost looking down his nose at the others. “We go back down as far as we need to and grab what we can. Should keep us from starving to death for a few days longer. Delay the inevitable.”
“But that’s all you’re going to do,” Barry reminded him. “You’ll just be delaying what you know is going to happen anyway.”
“He’s right, isn’t he?” Doreen said. ‘It’s not going to change the fact that those bloody things will be up here with us in the next couple of days, is it? It’s not going to help us get away.”
“No,” Paul agreed, “it won’t. But it will give us a little time and space.”
“For deciding how we get out of here and where we go.”
Eight thirty-five. Pitch black. Paul, Nick and Elizabeth crept cautiously down the fire escape staircase towards the lower floors of the hotel. Hunger, claustrophobia and fear had combined to deadly effect to kick-start the instinctively cowardly survivors into action. Their hastily considered and half-improvised plan seemed increasingly risky with every step of descent. Jones had suggested they head all the way down and work their way back up. They had only made their way down as far as the seventeenth floor when he stopped and turned around to face the others.
“What’s the matter?” Elizabeth asked, immediately concerned.
“I want to have a look.”
“What do you think?”
“But you said...”
“I said nothing. We know they’re on the stairs. We don’t know where else they are, do we?”
She shook her head. Paul moved towards the door and gently pushed it open a fraction. He shone his torch out onto the landing.
“Can’t see any movement,” he replied, his voice barely a whisper. “I’m going to have a look around.”
Without waiting for a response from either of the others, Paul slipped out onto the landing. He switched off his torch, concerned that the light might attract unwanted attention, and then slowly moved down the dark hallway to the first corner. The layout, as far as he could see in the gloom, was pretty much as Barry had described. A long, wide corridor with a right-angled right turn which ran towards the central part of the building where, he presumed, the staircase and tens of thousands of rotting bodies would be. He moved closer to the corner and peered around, holding his breath for fear of making any sound which might tip the balance and alert the dead to his presence. He couldn’t see anything. It was too dark.
Paul felt his way along the wall and paused at the door to one of the hotel’s many bedrooms. Did he go inside? It would be worth having a quick look around the room before he returned to the other two waiting on the fire escape staircase. He wanted to see the layout of a typical room so that he could get a feel for what they were dealing with. How quickly would they be able to thoroughly check a room for food? What were they likely to find? Would there be a mini-bar or similar? Christ, he needed a drink. His stomach started to growl at the thought of eating again.
Paul tried the handle. Damn thing was locked and it needed a swipe card. No surprise really. Barry had a few master cards which he’d taken from the bodies of cleaners and other staff. Elizabeth had one with her. He shoved the door again, hoping it would open. It didn’t matter. He’d go back to Elizabeth and...
What was that?
He sensed movement up ahead. He felt something brush against his arm and he froze. He lifted his torch and switched it on. Ahead of him the whole corridor was filled with bodies, all of them oblivious to his presence until he’d started messing with the door.
“Fucking hell,” he mumbled as he tripped back away from the dead. Illuminated now and then by the unsteady light from his shaking torch, he saw that the corridor was filled with corpses which had obviously spilled out from the staircase. Almost as one they began to stumble towards him. He turned and ran back to the fire escape and hammered on the door. Elizabeth opened it slowly.
“Move!” he yelled, forcing himself past her and slamming the door shut behind him.
“Bodies?” she asked as she instinctively began to climb back up.
“Fucking hundreds of them,” he answered breathlessly. He looked for Nick but he’d already gone and was way ahead of them both. Cowardly bastard. He made a mental note never to put himself in a position where he needed to rely on Nick for anything.
They pounded up the stairs, suddenly not concerned about the volume of noise they made, just desperate to get back to the Presidential Suite. As he climbed, Paul thought more about the progress of the bodies he’d just seen.
“Wait a minute,” he shouted, stopping Elizabeth in her tracks. Breathless, he shone his torch at a small sign on the back of the nearest fire door. Floor twenty-six. It was worth taking a chance to see if this floor was the same as the one ten floors below.
“What are you doing?” Elizabeth asked.
“According to John they haven’t reached this floor yet,” he said. “We should see if we can find anything before we go back.”
She agreed. He was right on two counts. Firstly, if the bodies hadn’t yet made it this far up the staircase, they wouldn’t have made it up to this floor at all. Secondly, it looked likely that this was definitely their last chance to get food before the dead reached the Presidential Suite.
They crept through the fire door (leaving it propped open with a fire extinguisher) and moved slowly along the corridor to the first corner. Jones put his head around and shone the torch down its length.
“Clear,” he whispered, the relief in his voice obvious. “Stick to this end of the corridor and stay away from the stairs.”
“Suits me,” Elizabeth replied.
The layout of floor twenty-six was different to floor seventeen. Here there were several large suites instead of many smaller rooms. Elizabeth opened the nearest door and the two of them slipped inside.
“So what are we looking for?” she asked.
“Anything,” he replied. “Just make sure you split what you find into two piles. Keep one for yourself and we’ll share the rest with the others.”
“-that’s completely fair. How many of those fuckers are down here with us? If they want more they can come and get it themselves.”
He turned around and began to ransack the room.
A little under an hour later Elizabeth and Paul returned to the Presidential Suite. They had with them the entire contents of the drinks cabinets of the Executive Suites on the floor immediately below. They’d found little in the way of any substantial food, but that didn’t seem to matter any more. The others gratefully took what they were given and ate it quickly as they were told about what they’d seen on the other levels.
“Feels like a last supper, doesn’t it?” Barry said quietly. He didn’t know who, if anyone, was listening. No one had lit any lamps this evening.
“So what do we do next?” John asked, sitting on his own a little way behind Barry. “Just sit here and wait for them, or run?”
“We’ve been through this before,” Elizabeth sighed.
“Nick will run,” Paul smirked, looking at the coward who’d left them on the fire escape. “He’s good at running.”
“Shut your fucking mouth,” Nick said angrily, glad of the dark because he didn’t know how to react. He was angry and he didn’t like being mocked, but why bother to retaliate? What was going to happen tomorrow was much more of a threat than Paul and his snide comments.
“So what do we do?” John asked again, desperate for someone to answer.
“Let’s just think about it logically, shall we,” Barry suggested. “They’re still coming in through the front door, aren’t they? And they’re climbing the stairs because of the growing pressure of other corpses behind them. So what’s going to happen when they reach the top of the stairs? They’re not going to turn back around and start heading for the ground floor again, are they?”
“They’re going to keep coming,” Paul said ominously. “They’ll spread onto the landings like we saw downstairs.”
“And even when there’s no more room on the landing up here,” Barry continued, “they’ll keep coming. Before we know it they’ll be up against our door and then, when the pressure gets too great, it’ll give and this place will be filled with the damn things.”
“Lovely,” mumbled Doreen.
“So you really don’t think there’s anything we can do?” asked Elizabeth.
“It’s like I said earlier,” Barry replied, “what’s coming is coming. I think we’re all going to die. The only choice we each have left is how we do it. Now I don’t personally intend on being torn apart, but I also don’t like the idea of running either.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Not sure yet. I haven’t decided.”
“You haven’t got long.”
“I’m running,” Nick muttered to himself.
“You would,” laughed Paul. “But fair play, I’ll probably run too.”
“What about you, Doreen?” Elizabeth asked.
“Too tired to run, too scared not to,” she answered dejectedly. “We’ll just have to see what tomorrow brings, won’t we?”
Next morning. First light. Proctor picked up his camera and nervously walked across the landing, intending to carry out his self-imposed daily duty and measure the progress of the dead. He walked out to the staircase and leant over the banister before immediately pulling his head back again. There was no longer any need for cameras tied to fire-hoses. He could see them. They still had several flights of stairs to climb, but he could now see the first few bodies. He ran back to tell the others.
“How far?” Elizabeth asked as he burst back into the room breathlessly.
“Couple of hours.”
Doreen began to sob with fright.
“Shut up you silly cow,” Nick snapped with his typical lack of compassion or concern, “all you’re going to do is get them up here quicker with your stupid whining.”
“Do we just sit and wait?” John asked.
“That’s what I’m doing,” a voice suddenly said from behind him, “but I’m not ready to die just yet.”
The group turned around as Barry emerged from his bedroom wearing a skirt and blouse, a blond wig, full make-up and his favourite high-heeled boots. He stormed into the main part of the suite with a bright confidence, completely at odds with the others who sat around dejectedly, each contemplating the decisions that they would soon have to make and the horrors they were about to face.
“I did a lot of thinking last night,” he explained.
“And...?” Paul pressed.
“I tried to see if I was wrong. I wanted to know whether I’ve been looking at everything the wrong way.”
“And?” he pressed again.
“And I think I’m right,” he sighed sadly, “and the more I think about it, the more I realise our situation really is hopeless. We’re up against it and I can’t see any obvious way out, and I’m not just talking about the hotel here, I’m talking about what’s left of our lives in general. Whatever we do, wherever we go, we’re fucked.”
“Seriously, just stop and think about it. I’m not being defeatist here, I’m just being honest. Whatever we decide to do, it’s going to be a struggle. We’re going to have to fight for absolutely everything, and that’s bloody stupid when you think there’s probably only a few people left. The world’s our oyster, but I don’t think we can take any of it. What does that say to you?”
Blank, confused looks. Silence.
“Like you said,” Elizabeth mumbled, “we’re fucked.”
“Exactly. The end’s coming and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. We’re massively outnumbered and no-where’s safe. The only thing we have any control over now is what we do with the time we have left.”
“But we don’t know how long that is,” John protested.
“We never have done,” Barry argued. “Seems to me that we can spend our last few days and weeks hiding in the shadows out there, starving to death, running from place to place and freaking out every time someone farts...”
“Or we can stop trying so hard to survive and just let things happen naturally. Go out with a little dignity.”
“You’re talking crap,” Nick protested nervously.
“Am I? Am I really? Do you really think you’re supposed to survive all of this? There are some things that are bigger than us.”
“Please don’t start talking about God and divine retribution and all that shite,” John sighed. “I’ve given all of that up. It’s taken me until now to finally see what a load of old bollocks all that really was.”
Barry smiled and brushed away a stray wisp of long, blond hair.
“That’s not what I’m talking about at all. What I’m saying is that whatever happened here was the twenty-first century equivalent of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.”
“What?” Paul said. “Now you’ve really lost me.”
“This is our ice-age. This is our apocalypse. This is the end. We should just accept it and let nature take its course.” Barry's comments were met with silence. Keen to press his point he spoke again. “Our problem is we’ve all fallen foul of the programme. We think we’re so bloody superior and we think the planet can’t go on without us. It’s part and parcel of the human condition. Truth is the world’s going to thrive without us here to keep screwing it up.”
“The human condition?” Nick sneered. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“I can’t think of a better way to put it,” Barry explained. “I was looking out of the window last night, watching birds flying from building to building . . .”
“Fucking hell,” Paul interrupted, “he’s lost it. I’ve long had my doubts about him but I think he’s finally lost it.”
“I was watching the birds,” Barry continued, ignoring him, “and I started thinking about the difference between us and the animals. Seems to me there’s one huge difference that doesn’t often get talked about.” He paused to give the others opportunity to make a cheap joke or to throw another insult in his direction but, unusually, they remained quiet. “The difference is,” he explained, “we know we’re eventually going to die and they don’t. Animals strut about the place thinking they’re going to go on forever, we spend our lives worrying about how they’re going to end. That’s what I mean when I talk about the human condition. We’re too preoccupied thinking about death to enjoy life.”
There followed an unusually long moment of contemplation and reflection which was only disturbed when John remembered the bodies on the stairs.
“That’s all well and good,” he said anxiously, “but what are you going to do now? Are you going to wait for the bodies to get in here, or are you going to kill yourself and get it over with?”
“I’m going to sit in here and relax, and what will be will be. I’m going to try and slow the bodies down, then let nature take its course.”
“What are you on about now? Are you high? How are you going to slow them down?”
“Well we’ve already established that they’ll keep moving forward until they can’t go any further, so instead of letting them stop here on this floor where we are, let’s help them keep going.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“Channel them up onto the roof.”
“And that’s it. What they do up there is their business. If they stay true to form they’ll follow each other up, one after another, until there’s no room left.”
“Then they’ll either come back down which I doubt, or they’ll start forcing themselves over the edge.”
“Brilliant,” Paul grinned with genuine enthusiasm. “That’s absolutely fucking brilliant!”
He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. A man in a dress was suggesting they spend their last few days on Earth sitting in a luxury hotel suite watching three week old corpses push each other off the roof.
“It’s got to be worth a go, hasn’t it?” Barry said.
“Okay,” Paul agreed, surprising even himself, “let’s do it.”
The roof of the building was reached via a narrow flight of steps accessed from an unremarkable looking doorway at the top of the main staircase. With the bodies continuing to make unsteady progress towards them, Paul and Barry crept up towards the hatch that would lead them outside.
“It’s locked,” Barry grunted as he tried to push the door open.
“Don’t you have the key? You’ve got keys to everywhere else.”
“Smash it open then.”
“What about the noise?” he instinctively asked. Paul looked down the staircase behind them, back into the heart of the building. Even from this distance he could see the constant shuffling movement of the dead.
“Bit late to worry about that,” he mumbled.
With limited space to manoeuvre his coiffured bulk, Barry swung himself back using a handrail, then crashed his shoulder against the door. It rattled in its frame but didn’t open. Another couple of attempts were equally unsuccessful.
“Let me,” Jones said, pushing the other man to the side. “You’re not wearing the right shoes for breaking and entering.”
He launched a barrage of well aimed kicks at the lock. The wood began to splinter and crack. Another few heavy boots and it flew open. The two men scrambled out onto the roof. A phenomenal wind threatened to blow them off their feet.
“Jesus,” Paul said, having to shout to make himself heard, almost enjoying the volume of his voice, “bit blustery, isn’t it.”
Barry didn’t answer. He was already busying himself trying to pull the door off its hinges. For the bodies to be able to keep moving forward the doorway would need to remain unobstructed and the only way to make completely sure that happened would be to remove it. Paul picked up a strip of metal lying on the asphalt and, using it as a jemmy, began to prise at the hinges. A couple of minutes of grunting and groaning and the wood splintered and gave way.
“That’s it,” Barry said, “let’s get back inside.”
The two men clattered back down the staircase towards the Presidential Suite. Paul peered down at the bodies still moving towards them. Was it his imagination, or had they begun to move slightly quicker now? He tried to think logically as he watched the distance between the living and the dead rapidly evaporate. Previously the bodies had been driven by the pressure of others pushing them from behind, but now those corpses furthest up the stairs knew there were survivors above them. Rather than wait to be pushed forward, those at the front of the queue were now beginning to move under their own steam. Paul stood on the landing and watched the nearest of the rotting figures awkwardly climbing towards the top floor of the hotel. Barry stood next to him.
“They’re getting faster,” Paul said quietly, not quite believing what he was seeing. “I think we should-” He stopped speaking immediately when one of the bodies looked up at him. Was he imagining it? No, now Barry had seen it too. The foul creatures were looking at them...
“Move,” Barry said, and Paul didn’t argue.
“Done it?” John asked hopefully as they burst back through the main doors together.
“Sort of,” Barry said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“We might have a problem...”
“What’s the matter?” Doreen asked, concerned.
Paul still stood by the open doors, looking back down the corridor. The first bodies appeared on the landing. Elizabeth covered her mouth in horror and stifled a terrified scream. John scrambled away from the open door which Paul slammed shut.
“Fuck me,” gasped Nick.
“They saw us,” Paul mumbled pathetically. “There was nothing we could do. They know we’re here.”
“Did you open the door to the roof?” Doreen asked.
“Yes, but...” Barry began to say.
“You pair of bloody idiots,” she screamed at them both.
“Be quiet, Doreen,” John pleaded from behind the sofa. “Please, Doreen, don’t let them hear you.”
“Bit late for that,” she sneered. “So is that it? All that noise and effort and that’s it? That’s all you’re going to do?”
Barry tried to mumble a response but he couldn’t coordinate his brain and mouth enough to make it happen.
“What else can we do?” Paul yelled at her. “We’re completely screwed.”
“Pathetic,” she spat. “If you think I’m going to sit here and wait for those damn things to have their way with me, then you’re very much mistaken. I’m a woman with standards. I’ve still got my pride.”
More interested in the relentless approach of the dead than the prattling of a nervous old woman, no one paid her any attention. Infuriated by the lack of response from the others, Doreen took it upon herself to take action.
“You’re bloody useless, the lot of you,” she grumbled. “Enjoy your little party or whatever it is you’re planning...”
Doreen was tired. She really had had enough. Wiser and more shrewd than any of them gave her credit for, she’d listened to everything that Barry had said and she’d agreed with him completely. Death was inevitable, and she didn’t have the energy or the desire to go on running. She pushed past Paul and opened the door again, turning back and slamming it in his face as soon as she was outside. With a complete lack of nerves she walked towards the bodies and pushed her way through them. Although their numbers were imposing, they were individually weak and even with her bad back and countless other ailments, getting past them was easy. They swung their rotting fists at her and tried to grab at her with gnarled, talon-like hands but she was as wiry and thin as they were and she slipped past, weaving between them with the sudden grace and subtlety of a woman whose various disorders and complaints were ten per cent physical and ninety per cent attention seeking bullshit. She pushed her way deeper into the throng until she reached the foot of the stairs up to the roof. She then gave a loud whistle and threw herself up the last few steps and out onto the asphalt. Distracted by Doreen’s sudden speed, noise and movement, several of the bodies turned away from the door to the Presidential Suite and followed her.
Bloody hell it was cold outside. Doreen wrapped her thin cardigan tightly around her willowy body and braced herself against the wind. Now what did she do? She hadn’t quite thought this through. She knew what she was doing, but now that she was standing unprotected on the roof, the consequences of her actions really began to hit home. This was it. No more running or hiding or sleeping on the floor. No more fear or confusion or disorientation. No more arguments or fights. It was finally time for a long overdue rest.
Doreen walked to the edge of the roof and peered down. Bloody hell, she thought, it was higher than she’d expected. That was probably a good thing, she decided. Although she was only a few feet higher here than she’d been in the suite just below, the difference was stark. Perhaps it was because the protection of glass and concrete had gone. Perhaps it was because now there was nothing between her and the rest of the world.
The first few bodies staggered out onto the roof.
This is it then, she thought, time to do it. She’d been toying with the idea of suicide for a few days, a few weeks if she was completely honest, but she’d always clung onto the slim hope that things would get better. Like Barry had said, she’d just keep trying to survive. Suicide had always seemed like the coward’s way out before today, but after listening to him earlier she’d come to realise that this was far from a cowardly act. Her fate was sealed, whatever she did. By ending her life this way she would manage to hold onto some dignity and control, and that was all she had left. And she might even help some of those miserable bastards in the Presidential Suite too.
She climbed up onto the low concrete wall which ran around the perimeter of the building. The wind seemed even stronger there as she gingerly stood up straight. She held out her arms like a tightrope walker and tried to keep her balance. Bloody hell, she thought, I can’t do this. I can’t go through with it. She looked down past her feet towards the street many hundreds of feet below. Save for the occasional body staggering by, the pavement on this side of the hotel was relatively clear. Her mind began to fill with stupid questions now: was this going to be painful? Would it definitely kill her or would she somehow survive and end up lying helpless on the ground with her arms and legs broken as the dead swarmed over and around her? She thought about the old adage she’d heard countless times before – it’s not the jump off the top of the building that kills you, it’s hitting the ground that does it – and she managed half a smile. Would she feel anything? What would the fall be like? Would she know when she’d hit the ground or would it all be over before then...?
Doreen looked around and watched more bodies continue to pile unsteadily out of the door and onto the roof. They hadn’t seemed to notice her yet. They wandered around aimlessly like the empty, soulless vessels they were. She turned her back on them again and looked forward across the town. There was no going back. Even if she changed her mind, she couldn’t get back inside now.
Do I do it now or wait for them to get closer to me? Do I wait until the last possible second? Is it worth clinging onto a few more seconds of life? What good will it do? Do I want to stand here, freezing cold and terrified, trying to keep my balance and not think about those bloody things behind me, or do I just let it happen? Think about finally being able to stop and rest. Think about not having to run and hide...
Doreen closed her eyes, tipped forward and let gravity take over.
“Well?” Elizabeth sobbed. Barry peered out onto the landing through the spy-hole in the door.
“Not good,” he sighed. “There are too many of them. They know we’re in here now.”
Elizabeth began to cry uncontrollably. John tried to put his arms around her and comfort her but she just pushed him away.
“So what do we do?” Nick asked, sounding nothing like the confident, cocksure man who’d first arrived at the hotel.
“Can’t see that anything’s changed, really,” Barry answered, his face still pressed against the door.
“I mean it’s quieter now that Doreen’s gone, but I can’t see that much else has changed. We’re still in here, they’re still out there. They’re just a little closer than we hoped they’d be at this stage, that’s all. Seems to me you’ve got the same two options you always have had. Sit here and wait for the inevitable, or run for a few hours, then stop and let the inevitable happen anyway.”
“I’m running,” Paul said, already edging closer to the door to the fire escape. “I’m not just going to sit here waiting for them to get in. Fuck that. I’m getting out of here...”
“Me too,” Nick agreed.
Barry looked at John and Elizabeth, although he didn’t really care what they were going to do. John began to nervously edge closer to the two men waiting by the fire escape. Elizabeth, struggling to hold herself together, instinctively did the same.
“Come on,” she pleaded. “Don’t stay here. It’s suicide.”
“I know,” Barry smiled. “You don’t have to keep fighting. You can choose not to. That’s the difference between us in here and those things out there. You can stop and switch off if you want to, they’re cursed to keep going until there’s nothing left of them.”
“Come on, Barry,” John said quietly.
“Nah,” he replied, smoothing a wrinkle in his skirt. “I think I’ve had enough.”
Not about to waste any more time, the four remaining survivors left through the fire escape door and began their dark descent down towards the ground floor.
The hotel suite was suddenly quiet, save for the thumping noise coming from the mass of decomposing bodies on the other side of the main door. More to the point, Barry’s space was his again. His and his alone. Just how he’d wanted it.
Tearful (because he knew he didn’t have long) he walked around the vast suite dejectedly, collecting together his things. He salvaged everything he could from the little that was left and packed it all against the wall of the master bedroom. Another noise from outside distracted him, and he peered through the spy-hole and saw that the corridor was now a solid mass of flesh. It wouldn’t be long before they broke through. He wiped a tear away from the corner of his eye (taking care not to smudge his make-up) and then took one long, final look around the suite which had been his home for the last few weeks of his life. Ignoring the increasing noise outside he took a moment to walk around and look out of each of the windows in turn, staring at the remains of the city where he’d lived and remembering everything and everyone that had gone and been left behind. The memories were harder to deal with than the thought of what was to come. It still surprised him how much it hurt to remember all he’d lost. Thinking about the little he had left to lose didn’t seem to matter now.
With the door rattling and shaking in its frame as more and more of the damn things threw themselves against it, Barry slipped quietly into the master bedroom. Once inside he shoved the bed across the entrance to the room and wedged it into position with other furniture and belongings. If he’d had a hammer and nails, he thought, he would have nailed it shut. That door wouldn’t be opening again.
Barry Bushell, with tears streaming down his cheeks, selected another outfit from his wardrobe and got changed. Finally feeling presentable, he lay down on the bed and picked up a book. With his hands shaking so badly that he could hardly read, he lay there and waited.
“Keep moving,” Elizabeth yelled, slamming her hands into the middle of Nick’s back and sending him tripping further down the last few stairs towards the ground floor.
“Watch it!” he protested, grabbing hold of the handrail to stop himself from falling.
“What now?” John asked, hesitating a little further back. They’d finally reached the bottom. It was another of his pointless questions, pointless this time because they now only had one choice. Nick edged closer to the door and teased it open before, equally carefully, closing it again.
“Well?” Elizabeth asked hopefully.
‘Not as bad as I thought,” he replied. “There are hundreds of the fuckers, but I was expecting more. We’ll probably make it through if we’re fast and we keep moving.”
Paul shoved Nick out of the way and peered around the side of the door. He pulled his head back in and composed himself.
“This is it then. It’s goodbye. I’d say I’d had fun, but I’d be lying.”
“Goodbye?” Elizabeth said, surprised.
“We’ll stand more of a chance if we split up.”
Paul shrugged his shoulders.
“Who knows. Anyway, I’m going.”
He took a deep breath, opened the door again and slid out into what was left of the hotel reception. It was surprisingly bright after the enclosed gloom of the fire escape. The air, although still heavy with the noxious odour of death and decay, was somehow fresher. Several of the nearest bodies noticed his sudden appearance and immediately turned and began walking towards him. Paul, terrified and pumped full of adrenalin, ran, pausing only to stare in disbelief at the main staircase of the hotel which was a solid column of still climbing flesh.
Without direction he skipped and weaved through the lifeless corpses which even now continued to drag themselves around the rubble-strewn ruin, then he burst out onto the street. The bodies were fewer in number outside, but he knew they would be upon him soon. Not knowing where he was going or why, he ran.
“Bastard,” Wilcox moaned as bodies began to slam against the other side of the fire escape door. “That bloody stupid bastard, he’s let them know exactly where we are.”
“Don’t think it matters now,” John said as he descended the final few steps. The three remaining survivors stood together at the foot of the staircase in stunned silence. What the hell did they do now? Elizabeth thought about Barry, twenty-eight floors above them, and the sense of his actions became painfully clear. It was no longer about surviving, it was about choosing where and how to die. Still tearful, and without saying anything to either of the others, she opened the door and barged past the rancid corpses clawing against the other side. In a blind panic, John ran out after her.
Nick froze. He couldn’t do it.
As the fire door had swung shut, one of the bodies had become trapped, leaving it propped open. More of the sickly cadavers immediately began to gravitate towards it, clambering over the trapped corpse. Nick watched as the first of them moved closer to him. What did he do? Paralysed with fear and still breathless from the sudden descent, he began to climb back up again.
This is bloody stupid, he thought to himself as he hauled himself up the steep steps. He wanted to slow down but the claustrophobic fear he felt kept him moving forward at an uncomfortable speed. He was soaked with sweat and his legs felt like lead but it didn’t matter. He’d left those fucking things at the bottom of the stairs for dust.
It was more than half an hour later when he reached the fire escape door on the twenty-eighth floor. He pushed through it eagerly, keen to find Barry and apologise for everything he’d said and-
-and the suite was full of bodies. He looked up, terrified, and saw that the main door had been broken down. The cadavers had noticed his sudden and unexpected arrival via the fire escape, and they reacted to his appearance en masse. They surged towards him like a tidal wave of green-grey gore and knocked him clean off his feet. As their sharp, bony fingers dug into his flesh he lay on the ground and looked across at the open fire escape door through which he’d just emerged. If he really tried, he thought, he might be able to crawl through it and give himself a little more time. Maybe get back down to another floor and wait there until...
What’s the fucking point, he thought sadly as warm blood began to gush from the gaping wounds in his gut that the dead had torn open. He screamed in agony and, for a second, tried to kick them off. Then he stopped. Barry was right. Just give up, lie back, endure the pain, and wait for it all to be over.
Elizabeth wasn’t aware that John had followed her out until she heard him shouting for her to slow down. She glanced back over her shoulder and saw him running after her. She wasn’t interested. She didn’t want to be with anyone else now, certainly not him. She kept moving, increasing her speed. Not knowing the city particularly well, she didn’t have a clue where she was going. She’d wanted to head out of the centre but, instead, had inadvertently found herself running deeper into the main shopping area. The bodies there were still relatively dense in numbers but she moved with enough speed and control to be able to barge through them.
She needed to rest and took a left into a dark alleyway. Momentarily free of the dead, she stopped running for a moment and rested with her hands on her knees, sucking in as much precious oxygen as she could. There was a door halfway down the alley. She peered in through a small, dusty window but couldn’t immediately see any movement inside. She pulled the door open and slipped through, too tired to care what might be waiting for her.
Bloody hell, she thought as she climbed a narrow but clear, white marble staircase. Of all the doors in all the alleys, she seemed to have chosen the staff entrance to Laceys department store. She’d never been able to afford to shop there although she’d always wanted to. It was one of those places that made you feel dirty and unworthy if you walked in without a purse full of gold and platinum credit cards. Today, of course, it was a grim shadow of its former self just like everywhere else, but what the hell, she thought, it was still Laceys.
Barry Bushell’s words continued to play heavily on her mind as she climbed further up the stairs and deeper into the building. How right he’d been. She couldn’t think of anywhere she’d be completely safe anymore, and even if she could, she had no way of getting there now. She continued to climb, stopping when she reached the jewellery department on the third floor. There were no bodies around that she could see. Always a sucker for gold and pretty stones, she found herself drawn to the cobweb-covered display cabinets. They were still filled with beautiful pieces that would have been worth a fortune a month ago. Today they were worth nothing. But hell, she could dream, couldn’t she? Dreaming was just about all she had left...
Elizabeth finally enjoyed her long-overdue shopping trip around Laceys. She worked her way through the building floor by floor, hiding from the occasional lurching corpse and staring in wonder at all the things she’d wanted but never been able to afford. When she reached the ladies clothing department she changed out of her dirty clothes and dressed in the most expensive outfit she could find. She climbed to the very top floor and sat on a plush leather sofa. She drank wine, ate chocolate and took enough headache tablets to kill an elephant.
Paul Jones had also decided to take his own life.
He stopped running and hid in a paper shop until the after-effects of his sudden appearance and disappearance had faded away and the bodies had lost interest again. Fortunately Elizabeth and the others – whatever they had decided to do – seemed to be causing enough of a commotion to take the pressure off him for a while. He lay on the floor of the shop behind the counter and read the last ever editions of half a dozen newspapers and lads’ mags until the sun had disappeared and the light had faded away. All the headlines on the newspapers that had once seemed so important and relevant now seemed puerile and trite. All the glamorous girls he lusted after in the magazines were dead.
Walking slowly through the gloom of early evening without fear or concern, Paul eventually reached a construction site. With a rucksack full of booze on his back, he climbed to the cab at the very top of the tallest crane he could find which stood in the middle of the foundations of a partially-built office that would now never be finished. Protected by the height and enjoying a view which was even more impressive than the one from the hotel, he drank and slept.
In the morning, when the sun finally came up, he looked back across town at the hotel he’d left behind and watched the occasional stupid body fall from the roof. It was hours later, but even now the dumb fuckers were still dropping like stones. He laughed out loud without fear of retribution.
Paul Jones had decided to take his own life, but not yet. He’d do it when there were no other options left.
Once John had lost sight of Elizabeth he’d stopped running. He’d slowed his pace to match that of the dead and, for a time, had been able to walk among them undetected. I can do this, he thought, I can outwit them. I can move around them and between them and I can do this. Barry was wrong. They were all wrong. I don’t have to run and I don’t have to give up. It’s not over yet...
For almost a day he managed to survive, but his foolish confidence proved to be his undoing. It took only a glance into the sun and a single sneeze to blow his cover. One sneeze in the middle of a vast crowd of bodies and his position was revealed. And John, being a cowardly man, tried to run. Instead of standing his ground and continuing to mimic the actions of the bodies all around him, maybe blaming the sneeze on the corpse next-door, the stupid man tried to run. Deep in the middle of a mass of several hundred rancid, rotting, dripping cadavers, he didn’t stand a chance. They ripped him to pieces before he had chance to scream for help.
Wouldn’t have mattered. No one would have come.
Barry Bushell lasted for several more days. The hotel suite was overrun with bodies but, as far as he could tell, they didn’t know he was in the bedroom. He remained quiet and still. Without food, water and exercise, however, he quickly became weak.
Barry died a relatively happy man. He’d rather not have died, of course, but he’d managed somehow to retain the control he’d so desperately wanted - the control that death had stripped from the millions of bodies condemned to walk tirelessly along the streets outside until they were no longer able to move.
Dressed in a silk negligee and lying in a comfortable (if slightly soiled) bed, he died peacefully in his sleep halfway through a good book.