The phials have had long enough in the machine. Our new guest lying silent on the steel table between us, I start the checklists while Petros watches the monitor fill with graphs.
Not on anything then?
It’s a routine check: you’d be surprised how many are. Even respectable types. It’s a wonder anyone survives crossing the street. I run through the standard questions.
Maybe later – I’m a little busy?
You know what I meant…
Nah, no trace. And see? No wrinkles. Either he was a good boy or he moisturised.
He says it with an unspoken wink, a delicate jab at my grey-templed vanity.
Now now. Even you straight boys aren’t averse to a little squirt of cream nowadays. Anything else?
He ignores my innuendo and checks the read-outs, his squint making him scowl.
A tiny trace of cannabis. About what you’d get standing downwind at a hipster’s barbecue. Not recent. Remnants in fat tissue. Faint trace of hair dye: nothing more than you’d register yourself. Matey’s only on two things: candid camera and the slab.
He waves cheerily at the observation cameras and starts the next set of tests.
Between our guest’s temples – between the gravel embedded in the left and the purple swelling around the damage on the right, the eye-socket fracture rimmed with flakes of London Transport red – you can tell he was quite a looker. Well cared for, even if the teeth hadn’t always been, but that’s nothing unusual for a Brit. And still smiling, even now. Not even a London bus has wiped that grin away.
Not young, per se, but youthful for whatever age he’d been. We’ll know soon enough: for now, he’s a well-groomed enigma. His phone was smashed beyond hope and his pockets didn’t yield much: a company bank card, travel cards and an unsigned gallery season ticket. And a business card for a cake-decorating shop, still clenched in his hand. He’s not letting go of that, no matter what.
I start to undress him, trying to decipher signals in his wardrobe choices. Clean lines, nothing in too sharp a colour or cut too closely, chosen to accentuate a mature palette rather than the muffin top he’d cultivated underneath. A few seasons behind the catwalk, but quality pieces: he’d had an eye for detail. Might even have got a job here, under other circumstances.
Forensics is like adult pass-the-parcel: you never know what will emerge under the next layer. We’re used to decoding, reading bodies like biographies. Sometimes, when I’m bored on the tube going home, I mentally strip the person opposite: tattoos only an intimate would ever see, scars that mark traumatic chapters as clearly as bookmarks. We get unexpected finds here to keep us cheerful. I’ll never forget the South African guy with the king-sized 22-carat gold butt-plug. Melted down krugerrands, shoved exactly where his ex had so often suggested.
As I remove our man’s white briefs – obviously clean that morning, a courtesy to our profession we thank stern mothers for daily – Petros slathers his gloves with sterilising lubricant, pulling at the latex cuffs to tuck his forearm hairs inside.
Quite a specimen, as they go…
I meant the man, Mikey. Although you forget. I’ve seen as many of these as you have.
He straightens the specimen in question against our visitor’s stomach.
Almost, darling, almost. I am older.
There’ll be enough statistics in the next half-hour without dragging in figures we don’t need to air. The ones we can’t avoid will be disrespectful enough.
DPW though, eh?
The latest acronyms often pass me by, even ones we’ve invented for a moment’s levity. Some of the people in this room are still living, and humour’s scarce.
Mikey, that’s one of yours. Definitely Postcard Worthy, remember?
I see where his eyes are indicating and allow him a smile. Our visitor’s pubic topiary is as neat as a bonsai exhibition: the kind of thing that will have him marked as ‘my team’. I gently steer Petros back on course with a question. We have a script to follow, a protocol.
Last time and date of use?
We’re here to establish cause of death, and it’s usually connected to at least one of the Three Ws. Wallets, wills, and willies. Cash to ashes, lust to dust. Although it’s pretty obvious what did for this fella. A number 484 bus. It even said so on the docket.
I watch Petros insert the slender steel rod into the specimen in question and wait for the read-out. I’ve seen it done a hundred times, and still I wince.
9 or 10 hours ago, give or take?
So not implicated?
Not a direct cause of death. Possibly a minor contributory – he was a man. Wandering minds and all that. Although….
After the required re-sterilisation, he’s now running the tip of the wand through the man’s chest hair, and it beeps faintly as it nestles against an unresponsive nipple.
Well, unless our man had two sets of DNA, he had company. Male company. I’d better run two sets of database matches. Hey, you okay?
Of course I am.
With straight men, we hide from the horror behind a wall of banter. Schoolboy humour to stop us thinking ‘there but for the grace of’ and all that. With the women, we’re both respectful – Petros even seems nervous. Strict Greek family, and the first few spooked him a bit, much as he pretended otherwise. There was a young Portuguese girl, hit and run victim. Seventeen and beautiful, and she left him in tears: I don’t think he’d seen many living women stripped and supine back then. It’s unprofessional, I know, but I still feel awkward when it’s another gay man. This one is even wearing the same cologne as me.
I mean, he was… batting for your team, Mikey. Am I right?
I let the pause linger.
Mikey, tell me he wasn’t. You haven’t, you know… Rules are rules. No next of kin, no next of skin.
I know the whole drill. No jewellery, no religious insignia. My wedding ring and Petros’ crucifix are locked in the office drawer next door, in case there are reviews or accusations of bias. What we unearth isn’t always welcome.
Never laid eyes on him, honest. Or any other part of me, before you ask.
Cool. Just checking. Let’s turn him over, shall we?
We roll our guest over to his left to avoid any more damage to the right side of the head. I watch as Petros runs a gloved finger round the nape of the man’s neck and up behind the left ear.
Mmm, didn’t expect that. He’s chipped. An early model, but should still be readable. Quite the modish number, this fella.
I always let Petros handle the tech stuff. Modern miracles still spook me, although we’ve had them a few years now. He reaches into the cabinet for the sensors.
I’ll try re-running the cache so we can check his FARTs.
Silly, I know, but this is one acronym I always remember: Fully Automated Recall Transcripts. The shorthand version just fits with the territory. You can always tell the newbies, turning white when they roll a body over and it belches or breaks wind. The dead don’t talk, but they’re not entirely silent.
But what this stuff brings out… well, it’s more than just trapped air. A memory store, a browser history for the head: their thoughts, their responses, sights and sounds, the memories they’ve accessed. It’s like peeling an onion, without quite as many tears. I’ve seen the final reel of a thousand biopics. Mostly horror movies or tragedies, and the spoilers are always slightly too obvious.
I moisten the suction pads and flinch at the noise as they grip to skin. Data leeches, I call them, sucking out someone’s final moments like a vampire’s kiss. Clearing the poison too late for any hope of cure.
Am I wrong to hope for a happy ending?
Petros looks up from combing the man’s chest hair back into place.
Oh, give or take a day in the office, I’d say he had one of those.
We finish tidying him up as we wait for the download. However they reach us, we like them to leave with as much dignity as the job allows. Detritus picked from between molars, dandruff scraped from under fingernails, lipstick polished from necks, from thighs, from buttocks…
We’re in luck, Mikey. Looks like we have the files. Replay the last 10 minutes?
I nod as we pull up our chairs at the monitor. There’s a time stamp in the corner of the screen: 16 August 2039, 16:22:51. The map insert is showing West India Quay station on the Docklands Light Railway.
As Petros hits ‘Play’, the screen shows a view towards the river. Our man is gazing out of the window as he heads west towards the city, the picture jiggling with the movement of the train. The mode icon is blue: we’re seeing whatever he saw. Reliving a day he never will.
A few seconds in, the screen goes fuzzy. I thought the glitching was a fault the first time I saw it. Whenever they closed their eyes to recall a memory, the mode icon turns red and the screen calls up whatever they were replaying in their head.
There’s a flood of images. A garden, beautifully kept but exotic: not an Englishman’s taste. A short wiry man pours wine into over-sized glasses, a knowing leer on his face. Garbled conversation, some of it strongly accented, much of it slurred by drink. A dimly lit room, our subject’s eyes scanning down from the ceiling to a skinny, furry chest. Clearly not his. A hairy arm yanks desperately at something unseen and there’s a sharp cry. The biometric sensors flash high stress levels. If these are memories, they’re not as happy as they should be.
Relax, Mikey. This isn’t yesterday. Just a flashback. Somewhere near here, maybe? Triggered by the view from the train.
Sure. And the other man? Can we identify him?
I can try the facial recognition files?
He taps in a few commands and resumes playback. We see a few more seconds of blurry recollections before our man opens his eyes as the train pulls into Westferry and he disembarks. His pulse slows, that distant moment back in the past once more.
He stands on the platform, checks the cake shop business card and then the maps on his phone before he takes the steps down to street level. He blunders down dead ends for a few minutes, getting stranded on traffic islands as cars and lorries surge past, until he can translate the map into this maze of underpasses and flyovers.
At 16:29 he finds a bus stop and the screen zooms in as he scans the timetables, eyes darting up and down. After a few seconds, his gaze lifts up and across the road to another bus stop.
He’s realised he’s on the wrong side of the road. Petros, I have a horrible feeling…
Let it play, Mikey. We can’t change history now.
Our man’s eyes focus on a road-crossing a few yards ahead. In the read-outs, we see his heart rate slow a little. If he’s panicked, the moment has passed. As he reaches the crossing, we see his hand reach out to press the button and then down into a pocket. He pulls out the business card and turns it over.
We couldn’t read it when he pried it from his fingers, its flipside covered in blood and drips of oil from the bus, but now we can. ‘Ready to collect 5pm Tuesday.’
Good handwriting. That don’t teach that nowadays.
Okay grandad, I get the point.
Did you write down the number on the card?
Petros sighs, pauses, and rewinds a few seconds. I see him tap the shop name and number into the keyboard for the office to chase up.
Only a few seconds left. Ready?
I nod, watching his fingers stretch forward to hit the button.
Our man is still gazing down at the card when the screen glitches and blurs again, the traffic dissolving into steam. Another man, different from the first: older and heavier boned. He’s stirring on his side in half-sleep, his back towards us, rubbing his stubble against his pillow. The room is dark and his features are hard to discern. A digital clock on the bedside table says 07:01, 16 Aug 2039. This morning. This, presumably, is home.
Our man’s pulse increases again. If the screen had an icon for love, or even lust, it might be flashing. The second man grows closer and falls further into shadow: our man has leant over him for a lingering kiss. On the playback, we hear a rapid high-pitched beeping.
Is that a road crossing signal?
Similar, but I don’t think so. Bleeps are slightly too far apart. It’s a lorry reversing, I reckon. That car park behind him?
Our man’s eyes jolt open, he takes one last look down at the card and steps forward. I can see Petros’ hands hover over the Stop button, not really wanting to watch.
And then the world turns sideway in a squeal of brakes. Our man’s eyes slowly focus on the card clenched tight in his outstretched hand, its corner caught under the edge of his wedding ring. And then the biometrics drop to zero and everything goes black. End of File, says the monitor screen.
We sit in silence for a few seconds before Petros speaks. He knows I hate the senseless endings, the silly deaths. And that I both love and hate how business-like he will be now, for both our sakes.
So… positive ID of the deceased, two faces to trace, two sets of DNA, a cake shop to call for details of expected collections. I’ll get the office on it. Tea? Coffee?
Tea. I’ll tidy up while we wait.
As I gather the man’s belongings into evidence bags and fold his clothes neatly, I’m thinking of all those times I’ve lost concentration for a moment and Don has steered me quietly round a lamppost or a little girl on a scooter. The way he’s grabbed my hand to stop me stepping off the pavement to pass a slow walker when I’ve forgotten how electric vehicles glide past unheard. I dread the possibility of going blind.
Petros returns, two mugs in hand, and we gather back at the monitor, ready for the assistants to send through the results.
Foreign guy first?
I nod as his face comes up on screen and Petros summarises.
Daniel Iain Frasier. Born 15 February 1994, Windhoek, Namibia. Moved to UK 2010, applied for citizenship in 2019 but left the country before it could be processed. Garden designer. No criminals: medical records show treatment for drink problem and Hep C. Files picked up some dodgy associates and donations to some dubious fringe groups. Could just be bad judgements on his part, but probably not the best choice for a blind date.
It’s this job that makes him sound blasé, but I can’t imagine Petros on a blind date. His folks came in a few years ago on Annual Family Day, and he told me not to say anything about what we do. ‘You know, the intimate stuff. I’m not supposed to touch people until I marry them. Even with gloves on.’ I wonder what they’ve asked him about me.
And we’ve had some luck with the cake shop too. An anniversary cake, due for collection by our guy – I’ll give you the details in a minute – paid in full in advance. A rabbit made of Swiss meringue. Hollow inside and filled with Belgian chocolate hearts flavoured with navy rum. They emailed a picture.
As his hand reaches for the mouse, I tell him I don’t need to see it.
And our man?
Phillip Dunston, born 19 June 1988 in Hastings. BA in Fine Art, MA in Conservation Studies. Used to work at the Museum of London, now for a heritage consultancy. Clean as a whistle, legally speaking. Stopped smoking with doctor’s help five years ago, otherwise good health. Lives in Streatham with his husband. Married ten years ago tomorrow.
I don’t want to hear the rest, although I know I must. Our man is 51: a year younger than me, married two years less. ‘There but for the grace’ indeed.
And the second man?
Lorraine’s just sending the info through. Hang on…
A face appears on the screen. Good looking after a shower and a shave, if the likeness is recent. I read the details on the screen. James Joseph Lincoln, born 6 August 1986, Devizes. MSc in Forensic Medicine. Senior Lecturer at …
Petros? You Okay?
I should leave…
The rules, Mikey. Okay, it’s not kin or skin, but…
This man. He was my tutor. At Med School. If it wasn’t for him, I’d be selling kebabs in Stepney. A lovely man. Really kind. I never knew he… Oh, how’s anyone going to tell him?
I pass him a roll of tissue and without even thinking I put my arm round his shoulder. Normally he’d jump if I did that: reflexes rather than suspicion. Today, I just feel him slump against my chest.
The cameras gaze down in silence at three men, motionless in a cold, sterile room. Only one of them is smiling.
Dave Wakely has worked as a musician, university administrator, librarian and editor in cities across Europe. His writing has been shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction and Bath Short Story awards, and appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Online Programme Manager for Milton Keynes Literary Festival and one of the organisers of the Lodestone Poets, he lives in Buckinghamshire with his husband.
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