Free Necropath by Eric Brown

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Authors: Eric Brown
    Vaughan watched Chandra hurry from the restaurant. He glanced at his handset. It was almost time to be setting off for the ghats.
    * * * *


    Vaughan made the edge in five minutes and shared a downchute cage with a dozen Taipusan cultists, a Hindu sect that practised self-mortification as a means of purifying the soul. They were naked and emaciated, old men with stick-limbs and long hair matted into stiffened hanks. They had anointed their limbs and torsos with grey ash and painted their foreheads with Hindi script. Six of the group had arms or legs missing. One sadhu, reposing in a plastic tray on castors, was a limbless torso, his huge member slung across his abdomen. They were making their way to the burning ghats to eat the flesh of the Hindu dead.
    Vaughan turned his back on them and stared through the mesh gate as the cage descended. He was aware of their minds behind him. The collected energy of their thoughts hummed at a low threshold, a deep, vibrant note sustained serenely without fluctuation.
    Through the mesh, which cut the scene into a grid pattern, he watched the ghats come into sight. The dark margin of the stepped platform, raised above sea level, encircled the Station like a plinth. Countless fires burned on the broad upper step, a succession of roseate beacons diminishing into the distance. Each pyre illuminated a knot of mourners, dark figures washed in the ruddy glow of the flames. Vaughan counted fifty individual fires before they merged into one long, unbroken line.
    The cage clanked to a halt and Vaughan hauled open the gate. The sadhus filed past him, pushing their limbless compatriot in his cart and murmuring an eerie, monotone chant as they stepped out onto the holy ground. A crowd of hawkers and beggars swarmed outside the cage. They allowed the holy men through without hassle, then surged at Vaughan, thrusting everything they had to offer—joss sticks, images of Buddha and Kali, holy relics, and amputated stumps—into his face. He pushed through the crowd, ignoring their cries, swatting away the more persistent hands that tugged at his jacket.
    The fires extended in both directions, north and south, each pyre located in a narrow strip cordoned off from the next by a length of white tape. On the sheer, polycarbon fa ç ade of the Station bold black numbers were painted on circular white backgrounds. Vaughan stood before a massive numeral Sixty-Seven. For a period of perhaps thirty seconds, disoriented by the unfamiliarity of the place, drink, and chora, he searched his memory for the number the funeral director had given him over his handset. It was something in the forties. The ghats numbered from one to fifty were Buddhist, he realised; from fifty-one to one hundred, Hindu. He set off at a hurried walk along the crowded ghats. It was almost one o’clock.
    His progress was impeded by the passage of mourners crossing his path from the many funeral parlours set into the wall of the Station. On biers they carried their dead, swaddled in crimson, white, or saffron winding sheets, to the waiting pyres beside the sea. From the cremations already in progress came the stench of petrol fumes and burning meat, and the ululating cries of prayer. The heat from the fires swept the ghats like a desert wind.
    He paused before the great painted number Forty-Five. The parlour beneath was deserted but for a tiny, orange-wrapped figure laid out on a trestle table. Slowly, his steps retarded as if he were walking through mud, Vaughan approached the cut-price catafalque. The tightly wound material robbed Tiger’s body of individuality, reduced her to just another anonymous corpse-shape.
    An old woman in funeral whites appeared from the shadows of the parlour and prattled at him in Thai.
    “I’m sorry...”
    She switched to English, “You here at last. Come to collect...” She rattled off a Thai name of many consonants.

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