SCAVENGERS by John Tavares

After Lee lost his job as a credit risk analyst during what was described as the seventh wave of the pandemic, he simply couldn’t find a job in financial services. As soon as Lee was informed he was unemployed, he was kicked out of the office, and escorted from the building by a pair of security guards. Angry, irate, Lee also found himself being pushed and jostled by pedestrians and commuters violating social and physical distancing guidelines as he tried to enter the subway station and descend the grimy concrete stairwell. Remembering the pandemic liquidation sale he noticed up the street in an Army and Navy surplus store, Lee turned back. He looked in the display window and saw an advertisement for an infantry knife, worn, the ad said, by paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division during their drop behind enemy lines in the early morning hours of D-Day. Skeptical of the advertisement claim but fantasizing of revenge, he bought the sharp gleaming stiletto and, for utility purposes, a Swiss Army knife.
During the successive waves of the pandemic, the world around Lee had turned dog-eat-dog, and he found the need to survive, as opposed to thrive, urgent and pressing. Despite the fact the central bank and federal government was taking drastic measures to stabilize the economy and subsidizing everybody, from the poorest single parent to the largest multinational corporation, no industry, no employer, no company in the investment business and wealth management, was hiring. Lee couldn’t even find work as a takeout server in a fast-food restaurant or at the coffeehouse chains. Then he did something that he never expected he would do, something he told himself he would never do; he didn’t start day trading exactly, but he started to invest all his savings and investments in the stock market, trying to take advantage of market volatility during the pandemic. Yes, he did something else he told himself he would never do: he bought stocks and volatile options on margin. When the seventh wave of the pandemic struck, the economy was forced into lockdown again, businesses shut down, and the stock market crashed again. Margin calls forced the sale of his stock and option portfolio at vastly diminished prices, which caused him heavy losses. When the markets crashed further, the broker made a margin call, and all his positions were sold. After the debts were settled and interest and fees paid, and his accounts were closed, he tallied his losses and realized he completely lost his savings and investments.
As the months dragged on and the pandemic surged, ebbed, and waned, and surged again, Lee was unable to find work, despite his strenuous efforts. He was forced to apply for pandemic relief and shelter, which translated into his eligibility for a city owned public housing apartment, a bachelor unit, for which he was grateful – appreciative because he never expected he would feel more comfortable, secure, and safe in a smaller apartment. Thus, he learned the hard way one of the advantages of downsizing—an unexpected advantage in his mind.
Now Lee’s days were filled with coffee drinking, reading, and note taking, including entrepreneurial ideas, businesses that would survive the pandemic and thrive in the new economy. While he enjoyed these activities, and found they kept him occupied, he felt his life, at least according to his practical side and nature, left him somewhat empty and bereft, and he needed money. He prided himself on being a realist and pragmatist, and felt as if he needed to contribute to the economy, to work, even though there were no jobs available. At times he felt a bit lonely, but single life never bothered him, and most of the time he preferred solitude. The pandemic, though, forced him to acknowledge he did appreciate and enjoy the friendship and relationships he somehow managed to cultivate in his work as a credit risk analyst in a cubicle at the regional head office of a credit card and payments processing company.
Pasha, his neighbour in public housing, a member of his social bubble, showed off his brand-new e-bike as he rode the electric bicycle up and down the corridor of their apartment building. He proudly told him he bought the bicycle with money he earned from recovering bodies and turning them into the morgues of the teaching hospitals for research purposes and infection control. Lee read about the freelance work in the newspapers, before some of the news media outlets started shutting down. He had personally questioned the veracity of the reports of these body recovery specialists, this new line of work in the gig economy. But now he was faced with a firsthand report. And why would Pasha lie? The income he earned may have left him ineligible for pandemic relief, which was indexed to a complicated formula that accounted for income and hyperinflation. For whatever reason, Pasha felt comfortable bragging about his side hustle and the money his moonlighting paid him.
“Where do you find the bodies?”
“The bodies are everywhere. The latest mutation of the virus, the new variant, is so virulent, so infectious, so pervasive, that virus victims are dropping down dead everywhere. Surely you can see that—the carnage?”
Pasha had been a registered nurse in the emergency department of a large teaching hospital on hospital row, University Avenue, in downtown Toronto, before he was forced to go on pandemic relief. Even though a shortage of healthcare professionals arose from the coronavirus pandemic and nurses were in great demand and coming out of retirement because of the call to arms and the incentives and pay increases offered, Pascha experienced difficulty finding work as a nurse again; his addiction to prescription medications, synthetic opioids, had been so severe.
“Yes, I’ve seen,” Lee said, having observed with gruesome fascination the dead bodies in the street. The previous evening, during an errand to the supermarket, he had seen two scavengers struggling over the body of a jogger, a young fit and healthy-looking woman, who had slumped dead on a park bench after she stopped to rest during a jog when she started to feel vaguely unwell and frankly short of breath, the victim of an undetected congenital heart defect and an undiagnosed and undetected variant of the coronavirus.
“Don’t you need a hazmat suit?”
“Yeah, but they’re so commonplace now you can buy them in a corner drugstore.”
“True enough,” Lee noted.
After that conversation, Lee decided he would purchase a hazmat suit and personal protective equipment like latex and rubber gloves, disposable face masks, and safety glasses. He started researching the work of body recovery. While most of the authors on websites discouraged newbies from the new trade, if you could even call it a trade, competition had increased and intensified but with each new genetic mutation of the deadly virus, with each new frightening variant, the number of bodies abandoned was increasing. Some observers and news commentators were calling it a sign of the decline of civilization. Either way, hospital budgets—at least in Toronto and all of Canada had increased as the deadly impact of the pandemic grew.
Lee started to comb the parks and beaches where he studied as a student during the years he had first moved to the city. Back then, Lee was restless and fidgety at his home in co-op, so he always found it considerably easy to study outdoors, in a park, or at a sidewalk café, if the temperature was right and there was no precipitation. Lee scoured the Toronto Islands, where hipsters, boaters, and beautiful people frequented the beaches, pathways, and recreational trails, but his searches were fruitless.
Lee was ready to surrender, to give up this pursuit, which he began to think wasn’t worth the time or effort. Then he walked along the point to the island airport, and several dozen metres away he spotted her. He dropped his back pack on the grass, donned his hazmat suit, and pulled out the zippered body bag. She had quite an attractive figure, a physique he undoubtedly would have lusted after, as a typical male chauvinist, if she was alive, but now she was dead, her skin yellow and sallow. First, to document his find, he took out his digital camera, a single lens reflex camera with a telephoto lens, from a time when his office work had him craving for a hobby, and took several pictures from different angles. He even photographed separately the pill container of Xanax tablets and the half empty bottle of vodka beside her. He eventually slipped her into several plastic bags, concerned the odour or even bodily fluids might permeate a single bag, if he transported the body in a single bag alone. Then he lifted the body over his shoulder and carried the one-hundred-pound corpse over his shoulder on the trail to the ferry docks.
As he waited for the ferry, he thought there might be questions, so he made notes of how he had found her, with a half empty liquor bottle and a bottle of pills, Xanax, at her side. Lee realized that she might have not been the victim of the deadly virus, but that was for the coroners and researchers at the hospital lab to decide. Apparently, they were interested in all abandoned bodies, since they were researching the pandemic from the perspective of multiple disciplines, drawing on the expertise of numerous medical and health science researchers, and the pandemic was taking a toll on the mental health, as rates of parasuicide and suicide had increased.
Lee carried her along the trails and tourists and residents hardly noticed. The attendants and ferry captain saw nothing – Lee could have been one of the binners who collected beer cans and liquor bottles for the recycling fee refund, but he attracted no peculiar looks or strange gazes. Even hauling a corpse in a body bag, he was just another masked, vaxxed day tripper to the island. Everyone, it seemed, with each new damaging wave of the pandemic and growth in the lethality of the virus, had grown immune to the sight of dead bodies. On the subway train as he carried the body no commuters, socially distanced, made any observation. Wearing disposable latex gloves—purple seemed a favorite color—face masks, in every variety and color, and even tinted safety glasses, with neat little plastic bottles of clear fluid, hand sanitizer, attached to their handbags and backpacks, the passengers said nothing, voiced no objection. The silence of the mostly empty subway trains, streetcars, and buses everywhere Lee commuted during the pandemic was slightly uncanny.
At the hospital morgue, at least one of the doctors, nurses, and research assistants must have noticed Lee was hungry. Doctor Bellastrada offered him freshly baked muffins, doughnuts, and coffee. There was plenty of paperwork, forms completed on a computer tablet, but Doctor Bellastrada was not discouraging in the least. In fact, she reassured Lee these were policies and procedures the hospital research lab was forced to follow with first time suppliers. She also told Lee he didn’t need to double wrap or triple wrap the body in plastic; a single body bag was sufficient, but, even though she was an expert, a professional with sharp looks and integrity, Lee didn’t think she was factoring the potential problem of a fulsome and repugnant odour from decomposition and the decaying process. In the end, she handed Lee a freshly minted check for ten thousand dollars. While the fee, it appeared, wasn’t indexed for hyperinflation, it was still an impressive amount, in Lee’s mind. At least now he could afford a variety of nutritious groceries, including fresh fruit and vegetables, even though he oftentimes preferred eating his least expensive and favorite staple, natural peanut butter on whole wheat bread, day after day for weeks on end. He even decided to buy a bottle of spiced rum from the liquor store on the commute and walk home to celebrate.
Lee continued to wander the city in search of bodies. At Trinity Bellwoods Park, a haven for hipsters and millennials, who liked to play and party outdoors, he found what appeared to be a motherlode of bodies. Each night he went into the park where hipsters liked to meet in violation of social and physical distancing guidelines, masking mandates, and limits on gatherings and congregations. Sometimes they even hosted anti-vaccination parties, not because they didn’t believe in vaccinations, a woman said, but because they believed in freedom of choice, like abortion, freedom to deny medical care and invasive treatment of their bodies. The artist who engaged Lee in conversation at the gatherings asked him if he was vaccinated against the virus. He told her he was triple vaxxed and would gladly take another booster shot, if public health officials made the extra shot available. The partiers drank beer, socialized, conversed, and partied, and listened to music and danced, as Lee stood at the edge of the scene uneasily.
In the city park, in the morning twilight, at four or five am, Lee would invariably start wandering the grounds in search of bodies, and discover and recover one, two, three, four, or even more bodies. Once he even recovered five bodies in a cluster, in what Doctor Bellastrada speculated might have been a suicide pact, as she asked about any notes at the site. That had been Lee’s supposition: a mass suicide, or, perhaps group suicide was a better term. Lee had indeed even called the police, but officers were so preoccupied and understaffed they never sent any officers.
Lee’s relationship with Doctor Bellastrada at the university hospital was so cordial she welcomed him to the staff room with coffee, which she remembered he preferred with one sweetener, a bit of soy milk, and his favorite raisin bran muffins, each time he arrived. Lee got to listen to the gossip and rumours making the rounds of the wards and corridors of the antiseptic smelling, brightly illuminated medical institution. He never expected doctors would be interested in chatter about dating, affairs, and office politics. The questions they asked were chatty and friendly. As he became a regular contributor—a freelancer, a contract employee—he was never certain how he could describe his Wild West work—at the research wing of the hospital his income grew. He even took to wearing a hazmat suit, with blaze orange and florescent green markings, with the logo Body Recovery Services, even though he wasn’t legally incorporated, but he thought the logo looked both cool and professional. A few nurses and laboratory technicians in the autopsy department even complimented him on his new work outfit. Then, Pasha, resentful of the amount he was earning in the trade to which he introduced him, reminded him, he was at risk of losing his city housing subsidized apartment because his side hustle was so lucrative—so profitable he could soon become homeless.
Lee would be forced to ride the subway trains and streetcars that drove up and down Queen Street all day and night, overflowing with the homeless and the infected, those who tested positive for the virus and were virulent and ill, sweating, short of breath, red-eyed, aching, sore. Lee didn’t understand how Pasha could resent him and seethe, disgruntled, and complain about the money he earned because Pasha was indeed still recovering more bodies than him. Lee thought he was jealous of the relationship he had developed with Doctor Bellastrada and envious of the new e-bike and accessories, a trailer his bicycle could haul, he bought with the proceeds of recovered bodies.
Then the pandemic entered yet another wave and the government and health officials introduced more lockdowns, restrictions, and dusk-to-dawn curfews. Even the lawless hipsters and outlaw bikers were forced to stay at home instead of drinking their beer in the park, the only place they could party and socialize. And the police were strictly enforcing lockdowns and curfews. Still, Lee liked to appeal to Pasha’s better nature and tried to ingratiate himself. After all, Lee reminded him, they were friends, but Lee believed Pasha now regretted getting him started in the trade and viewed him as a threat and competition. Still, Lee plunged deeper into the trade, and his philosophy for the time being became love your enemy.
Lee wanted to know what was the secret to Pasha’s success – since his business had dried up with the latest lockdowns, restrictions, quarantines, and curfews. That weekend Pasha took him to the Condo Projects, the low cost, single unit condo buildings, that were built on a massive scale before the condo market peaked and crashed. They were the sites of mayhem and numerous riots after police shootings of visible minorities in the neighbouring districts. Pasha literally walked into the condominium building of his choice and started pounding on doors. If the door was open, unlocked, he simply walked inside and searched for bodies, and sometimes he found them. Wasn’t this break-and-enter or trespass at the very least? Usually there was nobody home, if the occupant or resident was still alive, but sometimes someone was home, since the condo, despite the riots and subsequent vandalism, were still occupied and squatters occupied some of these apartment units, many of which had been vandalized and had fallen into disrepair, and called them home. When Pasha entered condo units with occupants, these tenants and squatters acted nonchalantly, realizing society had descended into chaos and near anarchy. At this point these residents may have realized they were more valuable dead than alive. They felt fortunate Pasha and Lee were scavenging for bodies and resumed smoking cannabis, drinking, eating snack food, watching movies on streaming services, reading, playing video games, and dining.
Once a mature woman panicked when they walked inside; she was a refugee from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the destruction and carnage of which dragged on through the early stages of the pandemic. She wore an ethnic costume that Lee thought Ukrainian. Why would she be wearing a traditional Ukrainian costume in Toronto? When she saw Body Recovery on Lee’s orange jumpsuit she calmed down.
Lee continued to proceed with Pasha throughout the building, seeking more victims of the pandemic. Usually on every floor they surveyed and scavenged, they found a body, sometimes barely alive, in which case they offered basic First Aid and called an ambulance, albeit aware it was unlikely any first responders would arrive in time. Lee was happy to help Pasha, even though he only paid him ten per cent of what he received for a body. And Lee felt guilty. He thought the work they did was unethical and immoral, as well as downright illegal, but law enforcement, since the pandemic, was stretched to the limits and only responded to the worst calls, in the best and safest neighbourhoods. As the pandemic worsened, assailing the populace with successively more contagious and deadly variants, those afflicted by its consequences, and fear of infection filled first responders with fear and loathing and abhorrence for the common resident of the cosmopolitan metropolis, and made them unable to fulfill their duties as law enforcement officials.
Still, Pasha continued to make ominous warnings, threatening him with the loss of his apartment, the place he lived, the only place in the city, and indeed the whole chaotic planet he could call home, because of the income he earned, from his side hustle, which still seemed tentative, and which was bound to face tighter regulation, if the pandemic didn’t end as everyone expected, in which case normal employment could become available. Lee realized then Pasha wanted to completely crush and eliminate the competition. He realized he was ready to talk to the building superintendent.
Lee thought he was protected: he was dressed in a hazmat suit; he would leave no DNA; his face and distinctive features wouldn’t be identifiable in any video because of his protective gear and personal protective equipment, his visor, dark lenses, black mask.
The duo found a body in the apartment of a man who looked like a linebacker, freshly dead on the couch. So, as Pasha crouched over the body, and tried to fit him into a body bag, Lee slipped the paratroopers knife, which he had taken to wearing on a sheath strapped to the calf of his leg, into his chest, aiming for the heart. Lee had learned the location of the heart in relation to the sternum from the anatomy charts he had studied in the medical literature Doctor Bellastrada at the hospital research laboratory had given him, when she discovered he liked to read and learn. Then Lee positioned the bodies to suggest that there might have been a titanic struggle, a life and death fight between Pasha and the person represented by the fresh corpse, into whose hands he placed the handle of the paratrooper’s dagger from which he wiped his fingerprints and perspiration. If there was even a police investigation, this scenario and scene should provide sufficient evidence: self defense against body scavengers. Then Lee walked out of the building.
In the evening, he burned his hazmat suits and protective gear, along with the paper receipts from his work as a scavenger, in a barrel near a dumpster in the parking lot of the city owned apartments. In the light of the bonfire, he deleted his e-mails, calls, and voicemails from Pasha on his smartphone, which he rarely used but which Pasha insisted he carry everywhere he went. The future became more uncertain: Lee decided he was finished with the body recovery business and prayed the pandemic, the lockdowns, the restrictions, and the death and anarchy would end soon.
Then, one Monday, after he printed off his freshly composed resume, to drop off with human resources at an office building downtown, he felt a pervasive chill and deep aching throughout his body. After he donned his suit and jacket and laced his polished shoes, he collapsed into his folding chair, feeling weak, short of breath, and a vague sense of malaise. At first, he thought that he was suffering food poisoning, having eaten a takeout pizza, which he had refrigerated overnight, but he remembered Pasha’s final moments and struggle, his hunger for air. Lee thought he should head to a clinic or hospital, but he believed he was suffering a mild case of the flu and dreaded the thought of the emergency department and the adjacent intensive care unit, the heart monitor, the ventilator, the intravenous needles, intubation, and tube feeding. The fact he might be infected with the virus put him in a state of denial. Short of breath, wheezing, he opted to stay at home, lying on the folding bed, struggling to listen to an audio book while he languished. He saw Doctor Bellastrada looming above him, pulling back her long dark hair, removing her lab coat to reveal a luminous naked body. His condition worsened as he ached, shook, trembled, soaking his sheet with sweat, and struggled for air, gasping, hungry for vital gases, the essence of life. He had never felt so short of breath in his life. He was gasping so hard at one point he even wished, beneath the damp sheets of his bed, he would die. And it was not until a week later that the building superintendent found him, cold, motionless, and rigid, his eyes sunken, flaccid, and clouded, after Doctor Bellastrada’s knocks at his door and calls to his phone went unanswered.