Unsub in the morgue

Story by Warrigal Mirriyuula

Zero Sum

01 A Confounding Death and an Impossible Disappearance (2006 and 2009.

The note found at the scene simply read, “It wouldn’t have been any good.”, under which was an alphanumeric string of 9 characters, a hyphen, and then five more characters, “r4xw28n6w-15f19”, all written in a clear blue biro hand with minimal embellishment in the middle of the top page of a plain A4 paper pad. There was no explanation as to what “it” may have been, or why “it” wouldn’t have been “any good”, or what the alphanumeric string signified.

There had been no doubt that the body found slumped over a desk in the stacks of Fisher Library at Sydney University was dead; though it looked as if in life it had just put it’s head down for a quick nap. Perhaps “lifeless” would have been a more accurate descriptor.

In time the Coroners Report read, “Cause of Death: Undetermined” and that seemed to be an end to it. There’d been no missing person fitting the corpse’s description, no one had claimed the body and there had been no identifying documents, not even a tag or brand on any of the clothes; which were all clean, of good quality if somewhat rural in style, and had been brought to that comfortable softness that characterises well worn favourite clothes.

The wallet had no driver’s license, credit cards, membership or security cards, no health-fund or Medicare card, in fact no cards, not even a Fisher Library card; which alone begged many unanswerable questions. It was empty except for a fat wad of cash, almost $2,000, all in crisp new non sequential 50’s and 100’s, but chasing that trail also led nowhere. The notes had been distributed to ATM’s all over the country and there was no telling how they had all ended up in the same wallet having apparently not suffered any visible wear and tear.

There were no marks on the body suggesting violence or some final paroxysm or fit. Indeed the body seemed to be that of a tall lean, unusually healthy late middle-aged man. The toxicologist found nothing out of the ordinary and, also unusually for a person of an age finally agreed as “early to mid sixties”, there was no trace of the usual drugs often found in such investigations. No statins for cholesterol, no agonists or antagonists for various problems associated with senescence, no mood modifiers, nothing, not even aspirin. Traces of THC were found but it was impossible to say how it had been taken. Besides, it couldn’t have contributed in any way to the death.

The contents of the gut indicated that the man had last ingested porridge, orange juice, tea and a piece of vegemite toast. A modest breakfast, but apparently no lunch or dinner.

In the end no cause of death could be determined. Privately the pathologist had admitted to colleagues that the body was a mystery. It had simply stopped, all systems simply shut down and the body heat fading to room temperature, but there was none of the usual indicators of sudden death. Indeed, if not for the palpable fact of the body’s lifelessness, it seemed that if some animating force could be applied in some way, the body would wake up, perhaps shake its sleepy head and get back to its calculations.

The note made no sense without context, but if it hadn’t been for that cryptic missive there’d have been no speculation about suicide at all, and being unable to determine the identity of the body meant that it was impossible to pursue that line of enquiry in any event. Suicide was possible but it would take further evidence as to how the body had self terminated to support that proposition, and that evidence was completely lacking.

Besides, was the note a suicide note? It seemed a little ambiguous. The alphanumeric string was worked on by cryptographers but to no avail. They just couldn’t crack it, though they assured the investigators that if they had the “key” they’d have it deciphered in no time.

The pens and pad on the desk were common brands you could buy at the Co-Op or The Union, and while a few of the librarians said that they recognised the man, none of them had seen him on the day he was found in the alcove. None of them knew his name or what he had been doing in the stacks. He’d been coming to the library for a few weeks, regularly at 10 AM each morning, and always occupied the same alcove on level six, head down over the books or working assiduously, manipulating data on a laptop.

That laptop had been of great interest to the forensic IT people until it was determined that there was something about the way the operating system and the internal programming worked that just produced nonsense when the device’s higher functions were accessed by the investigators. That operating system, they said, was similar to Linux, but that it did things that Linux couldn’t do, and they were sorry, but they couldn’t work out how. Their investigations had to stop when the device finally ceased working altogether after they’d opened it up to try and get a look at the motherboard. There was no brand on the laptop, nor on any of the internal components. The spooks at ASIO and The ONA were contacted, but while they were more than happy for a copy of the data stored on the laptop to come to them, they uncharacteristically claimed unequivocally that the dead man was not one of theirs, nor did they have anything that might add to the investigation. None the less they did demand that the laptop be forwarded to them immediately the police investigation of the device was concluded. They had sent an agent to personally accompany the device to their Canberra lab where the device dissolved into the miasma that is “national security”. Shhhh…, not a word.

The files cached in the memory indicated that the man had been working on calculations to do with gravity waves and dark energy in the Zero Point Field, but some of the mathematics and many of the algorithms were entirely novel. It wasn’t that they were wrong, it was that no-one the police or coroners investigator had contacted for an insight into the work could provide anything other than a shrug and the suggestion that the work was obviously brilliant but unfortunately incomprehensible beyond a certain point in the calculations. Curiously, when the body was discovered there had also been an old, well worn bamboo slide rule in the body’s left hand, the cursor marking a solution for which the problem remained a complete mystery.

As time passed and the investigation ground down for want of good information; the body went from being that mystery, to a conundrum, and finally a simple curiosity. As no one had come forward to claim the body and it had remained unidentified and the cause of death remained unknown; the body went into refrigerated storage and there it stayed, waiting on further information before its final disposition could be determined.

After almost twelve months of fruitless investigation everyone involved in the matter had moved on to other more pressing and tractable problems and the death in the alcove on Fisher level 6 slipped from memory.

That was until a graduate student working late in the stacks one night had been disturbed by a lone voice in a nearby alcove remonstrating with itself over a number problem. The student had been researching an academic paper she was to present at a conference on Jane Austen so the mathematical mumblings from the other alcove made no sense to her literary sensibilities, but it was disturbing to her concentration so she determined to say a word or two to her noisy neighbour.

When she looked all the alcoves were empty. She looked again at the next alcove on each side. Still nothing, in fact she determined that she was the only person on level six as far as she could tell.

The experience was a little unnerving and had put an end to her study. As she left the library she stopped at the front desk and told the sole librarian on late shift what she thought had happened. As she told the story to an obviously bored student librarian, a security guard, who had up to this point been watching his favourite cop drama on a nearby portable TV, his big booted feet up on the desk, eating from a Chinese takeaway container, put down his food and turned to look at the student.

“Alcove 4 on level six did you say?” He fixed her with his best narrow eyed, rent-a-cop stare.

Somewhat surprised by the man’s intervention in the conversation, her reply, “ er, yes…”, was as uncertain as the guard seemed cryptically interested.

Not taking his eyes off her and obviously looking for a reaction, he said, “That’s were that guy died a few years ago. I don’t think they ever worked out how or why.”

“Oh…, well then…,” was all the academic offered.

A little disgruntled that the mystery of the thing seemed to have failed to light the literary academic’s imagination, the guard’s face briefly assumed a caste of disappointment and he reluctantly decided, “Well, I better go and take a look then I s’pose.”

He brushed some crumbs and scraps of noodle off his shirt, swung his legs down and got up out of the chair, leaving the cop drama to play out unwatched.

Making great show of adjusting the various tools on his utility belt; his few symbols of empowerment; twirling, then pushing his heavy MagLite into its ring holster and adjusting his radio, he set off across the lobby to the lifts.

Level 6 was silent and the air still, filled with the faint smell of slowly decaying paper and old ideas slumping into a forgotten superannuation. The guard moved down the aisles checking all the alcoves, leaving 4 till the last.

When he finally turned into number 4 he was surprised to be confronted by a man hurriedly exiting the alcove, his arms full of paper files. They crashed together and the files went everywhere. Both stooping to pick up the scattered papers, their heads cracked together in a continuing comedy of collision.

The man, rubbing his head with one hand was sweeping up his papers with wide swings of his other arm, muttering annoyedly about “being late” and gathering the scattered papers to his chest while the guard picked up the outliers.

Over in the lift lobby a bell rang indicating the arrival of a lift on L6. The guard pivoted to the lobby, absently handing the papers he’d collected to the man now behind him. The lift doors opened but no-one alighted. After a moment the bell rang again and the doors closed. The level display indicated that the lift was returning to the ground floor The guard turned to comment to the man expecting him to still be gathering the scattered papers.

The aisle was entirely empty; no man, no scattered files, nothing.

The guard, his mind spinning in place wondering where the man had disappeared to, extended himself cautiously up to his full height, hitched his utility belt for courage and hesitantly entered the alcove. It too was entirely empty, except for the faint whiff of something just managing to hang in the air; not smoke, nothing to really get your nose into, just a burnt, composty smell that seemed to fade as he sniffed for it, to be overlain once more with the musty fragrance of old books.

The guard was not a man of great imagination and he soon exhausted the possible answers as to where the disappearing academic had gone, and he was definitely gone. A quick further check showed that L6 was unoccupied. He’d thrown a “hoy” into the fire-stairs. There was no reply. He laughed nervously and shook his head. The bloke must have found some other way out, maybe…

In the lift on the way back to the ground floor the guard determined that he wasn’t about to put himself on offer for the ridicule of his workmates. Disappearing academics in the stacks would make him a joke. He would say nothing, and it wouldn’t be entered in the night’s Incident Log.

When the bell rang and the lift doors opened on the main lobby he strode confidently out of the lift, across the floor and took up his former position, feet up on the desk, Chinese food, now cold, back on his paunch. The Austen academic had gone. The junior librarian was playing a game on his phone and barely noticed the guard’s return.

The guard re-committed himself to shovelling the cold food into his mouth, “Nuf’thin…’ere.”, he finally said over his shoulder to the librarian, the words finding their way around a mouthful of cold Hokkien noodles and fried rice.

The librarian, who had never been interested anyway, grunted; a minimalist, non-committal response. They both relaxed with their seperate entertainments and their seperate thoughts, and again the matter of alcove 4 on level 6 just slipped back into the mist of library memory.

That night, at the morgue across Parramatta Road from the Uni, something related but totally unprecedented had happened. A body in cold storage had disappeared from its assigned space in the locked long term cooler. Those bodies were only checked once a month and the last check had only been three days ago.