“You realize you are breathing on my neck?” Hugo tried to sound as mild and amenable as he could. “Do I take it you are interested in pathology, Detective …er..?”
“Sergeant, Doctor. Detective Sergeant Sims.” The young policeman wanted to apologize for inconveniencing the pathologist. “Sorry.” He said, lamely.
“Ah, truly? So young to be a Detective Sergeant. You must be very diligent, I think, to volunteer this task upon yourself so late in the day. Most of your colleagues would have chosen to leave by this time.” He motioned to the space opposite him, across the table. “You can watch from the other side, you know. Your view will be much better. ”
“Thank you. Yes, I’m interested, Doc.” Paul Sims moved around the table, past the bare white feet of the corpse and alongside the still white legs until he stood opposite Albricht. “Poor old bugger. He hasn’t an ounce of flesh on him, has he?”
“Age is very cruel, young man. Yet it comes to us all. How was he found, this poor old – bugger – as you call him? Do you have a proper name for him?”
“Not yet. He was in bed, or on it. A small bedsit up the road in Bayswater, but there was no information about him there, no letters, no credit cards, not even a bus pass. No relatives as far as we can find out, no-one else in the block knows him. Lucky, really, he could have laid there for months, had a young woman not made the discovery. She was doing a pamphlet round and she said she just felt something was wrong. Women, eh?”
“A very clever woman. Very intuitive.”
“Yes. Unusual name, too. Eladora – suppose it’s Mexican, or something.” Sims did not feel it appropriate to mention how the black hair and emerald eyes of Eladora had intoxicated him, or how flirtatious she seemed, once the shock of discovering the old man’s body had passed.
“The door was open – on the latch. I just pushed, and there he was.”
Sims had given her his phone number and he was certain they would be arranging a date before the week was out.
“You’ve opened the chest, Doctor. I thought this one was routine?”
Hugo smiled indulgently. “In pathology we avoid terms like ‘routine’, Detective Sergeant. We leave such words to middle ranking policemen with a high case load. This is an autopsy, certain rules must be observed. However, everything here would indicate a death by natural causes.
Paul Sims sighed: “Just that old age thing, then. How old must he be? Ninety?”
“Ah, who can say?” Hugo surveyed the parchment-thin, wrinkled flesh of the specimen lying before him. “I believe more. Yes, I believe a little more than ninety.
“Well, you may be the night-owl if you wish, but I have to leave this for tonight.” The Pathologist said. “Let me see, what is it you need to know – is it a suspicious death? I will run further tests, of course, but in my preliminary opinion what we see here is just the work age, or dementia, sometimes does. Starvation killed this man. With no-one to look after him, he did not eat. See? See how the stomach is shrunken, the heart muscle so weak and thin? His body has been eating itself, because he has taken no nutrition in weeks, even months maybe. But this is still a natural process, so heart failure is my most likely conclusion. We shall put our mystery friend back into his new one-bed apartment and I’ll finish off in the morning. The report will come through the usual channels, yes? It is not urgent, I take it?”
“Fine Doc. No rush.”
“By the way, young man: not ‘Doc’. I am a consultant pathologist, not a Doctor. I do not mind the error, but there are those who might.” Albricht smiled. “And may I say well done, Detective Sergeant Sims. You remained resolute when many an intern would have been flat on the floor by now. It was a privilege to meet you!”
The consultant pathologist shepherded Sims to the door and watched the young policeman’s retreating form as it departed along the corridor outside, smiling to himself as he contemplated the enthusiasm of youth. Then he shrouded the old man’s body and slid it into its shelf in the cold chamber, returning to his office to remove his scrubs and prepare for the evening. His phone was waiting on his desk, flashing and vibrating in spasmodic fury.
As his wife vented her impatience over a dispassionate ether, Albricht waited stoically. “Yes, my dear. I worked late, you see? No, no. Just an everyday thing, but tomorrow I would like to be free in time for the conference, so…
“Yes I am finished now. We have to be at the Ferguson’s by eight-thirty, remember?
“Remember, yes. Of course I remember…just a minute, my dear, there’s a knocking on my door. I’ll call you back. No, no, I will. I promise. I must deal with this now. I’ll come straight home.”
The man who stood in the mortuary doorway was tall with regular features and of Mediterranean extraction, as Albricht guessed. His darker skin glowed with the health of someone who clearly looked after himself.
“Mr. Albricht?” His voice had a soft, melodious lilt. “I’m so glad I caught you!”
Albricht frowned because he could not remember leaving the door open. “Yes, you caught me, indeed. I was just leaving, in fact. How can I help you?” Hugo Albricht felt he knew the face in front of him from somewhere, though where he could not quite recall.
“Yes, I appreciate it is late. I wouldn’t trouble you, but I’m on something of an urgent errand. Look, I’d better explain: I’m from the Coroner’s office – in Helmesford? I have some ID.” The man held his green Identification card up for Hugo to inspect.
“Mr. Pulman. You’ll forgive me, Mr. Pulman. My errand is also somewhat urgent. Could this not wait until morning?”
“I would really rather get this over with, if you don’t mind. It’s a simple matter of identification. The local police tell me they brought the body of an elderly male here this afternoon. We believe we can offer an identity. The man in question is the subject of one of our open files.”
“You want to see the body? I was just working on it, this last half-hour. I’m afraid it isn’t really prepared for an identification…”
“That’s all right, Mr. Albricht. I’m used to this sort of thing. As long as the face…”
“Yes. Yes,, of course. The face. Come, I’ll show you the gentleman.” Albricht led the way back into the mortuary. “I should inform you it is a quite straightforward case. Natural causes is my preliminary finding.”
Pulman nodded. His eyes were keen and bright with knowledge, a quality that aroused Albricht’s admiration. This was a very clever man, he decided. “This death may not be as straightforward as it appeared to you, Mr. Albricht.” Pulman said.
“Well, well. We gave him this room for the night, at least.” Albricht opened the door he had closed for the night, not twenty minutes earlier, and rolled out the shrouded form of his mystery cadaver. “You are sure you are ready for this?”
“Yes, Mr. Albricht.”
“He is very old of course.”
“Yes. About two thousand years.”
Albricht thought; this is the second man to stand too close and breathe on my neck tonight. Why? But he did not mention it again, merely pulled back the shroud. There was nothing beneath. Although its contours had been faithfully followed by the shroud, the space that should have been occupied by the body was empty.
“Two thousand years?” He said, slowly, as the shock abated and his understanding grew. “I have heard of you people, but never believed. Why here?”
“A novel game we play from time to time, Eladora and I. Once every century or so I have to rejuvenate, and I need younger blood. A mortuary – where is better? And when we have feasted on the dead, there is always one in attendance who is not dead – something warm to round off the evening.”