Written for this week´s DPChallenge: A Picture Is Worth 1.000 Words
When we got the call about ten to ten at night, we sighed and only reluctantly left the station. We were sure that the victim was a drug addict, sure to have died from an overdose. There is usually not much to do. We write a report, send him to the morgue and leave it at that. Drug addicts have no family, no relatives and usually nowhere they call home. There is no one to call and no one to bother. It is sad that they die all alone. No one ever comes to claim the body.
We got out the station and walked over to our car. We didn´t hurry. He was dead already, we told each other. There is no need to run. It was cold outside; we could see cold exhalation coming from our mouths. There was a drizzling rain and mist rose from the earth. Little droplets got entangled in our hair and ruined the do, but we were used to it and didn´t bother much.
It was a short ride in the car. We drove carefully and stopped at every red light. We didn´t turn the siren on. There was no need. As we arrived at the site, another police car was already there. We got out of the car and were briefed by our colleagues. We took over from there. They shooed the few gapers away and then roped off the site.
We walked over to the body. It lay contorted on the side of the road, the head in a puddle close to the gully. Dirt und leaves washed up and were stopped by his head. The body´s left arm was twisted funny and we sensed it was broken or dislocated. The legs stretched across the sidewalk. One shoe was missing, the other wasn´t laced, as if someone had tried to steal the dead man´s shoes and had been interrupted by someone.
We got the camera from the car and shot a few pictures. We captured the position of the body, its naked foot, the empty bottle of whiskey two feet away from the body, though we were not sure if the bottle belonged to the body. We shot pictures of the surrounding as well, of broken shop windows, deserted houses, spray painted walls; pictures that would match the other dozen pictures we had shot of surroundings in this area. A drug addict, no doubt, we thought. Thus, we were perfunctory in our duties. We did the minimum, assuring that we could write a full report and no one could call on us, but we were sure that there was no mirthless truth to this man that we hadn´t heard before.
We thought how much we wanted to be home now, putting our feet up on the ottoman, watching something stupid on TV and forgetting about the day. We were hungry and tired, but this body kept us from the peaceful night at home we now thought of.
As the coroner arrived, we had put the camera back into its bag and the bag back into the car and were waiting around. The rain had stopped and we could feel the cold air on our faces. The coroner went to business and we stood there watching him. It would take a while, so we lit a cigarette and puffed, again lost in our thoughts.
The coroner finally gave permission to take the body to the morgue, so we packed up as well and drove back to the station. Procedure asked of us to wait around for the coroner´s report, so we sat down at our desks and wrote a preliminary report. It didn´t take as long, since the majority of the fields on the form remained blank. No name, no address, no marital status, nothing. We couldn´t answer any of the questions regarding the dead, we only wrote down the time of the call, where we had found the body, its condition, and what we had done at the site. We signed the form and waited around for the coroner´s call.
It came about a quarter past midnight. We had almost fallen asleep at our desks. It was warm in the station and the warmth and our general tiredness had made us doze off. We straightened our uniforms and went to meet the coroner in the basement. He told us what we had already known. No identity, nothing to pinpoint his whereabouts, no valuables. The man, the coroner told us, died from a violent blow to the head. Possibly a wooden plank.
But the coroner couldn´t confirm our assumptions about the man. He hadn´t been on drugs when he died. He seemingly had never taken any at all. No needle punctures neither in his arms, his legs nor between the toes. We had suspected Crystal Meth, but the coroner had found no trace of any drug in his body. Not even alcohol.
We looked at the man on the table, his face white and soaked from the puddle it had been in for God knows how long. No life in his features, no soul in his body, we suddenly felt sorry for him. We owed him more respect than we had given him so far, we told each other, and took the only thing the coroner had found in the pocket of the man´s summer coat.
We stared at the faded picture. On the back it said September ´68. We don´t know, if the man in the picture is the man we found dead in the gutter. He looks much older now, his face bloated, his features changed, but we imagined to see some resemblance.
We left the morgue and went back to our desks, suddenly unable to think about going home at all. We were wide awake now and we were fully aware of the negligence of our actions at the site. Driven by the unuttered desire to make amends, we searched the missing people database till early in the morning, but we didn´t find him. So we wrote John Doe in the report and left it at that.
But even at home, the face of the man haunted us. We were restless. We were sure that there was someone waiting to hear where he went, walking impatiently up and down in the living room, pacing, wringing hands, waiting for any news at all, but with only a picture from the sixties we had no clue as to where to begin our search. All day long, we thought of John Doe and his picture seemed anchored in our minds.
We couldn´t sleep at night, got up early and left the house before sunrise. Back at the station, we went through the site pictures again, checking and rechecking every fact, but we came to the same result as the day before. How sure we where that out there in the world were a brother and a sister waiting for their father to call. Had they yet noticed his absence? Had they called the police? We checked the database again, but after long hours, the computer found no match to the body in our morgue.
We tried to find new evidence on the weapon, but we only had the four little splinters taken from the wound in Doe´s head. The plank, we concluded, must come from one of the barricaded shops in that area, but we couldn´t tell which shop.
Two days after the call, we were on edge, agitated even. His fate seemed a mystery to us, yet we felt the burning desire to solve it. With whatever means we had, we put all effort into finding out anything that might help us. But after one week we resigned. John Doe was buried on the local cemetery, no name written on his tombstone. The town paid for the funeral, but there was no service as there were no relatives.
Over years to come, we visited the grave and decorated it with flowers of the season. John Doe´s face never vanished from our minds. We never forgot about him, and every now and then, we checked the missing people database again, but we were unable to find him.
Ten years after that day, we took the picture from the vault and pinned it on the fridge at home. With every move, every change in our lives, we took the picture with us. It was our reminder of our own negligence, it told us not to judge too quickly, to pay respect to the dead and never to stop trying to solve a mystery.
As we were dying, we thought of John Doe and we believed to see his face in every person walking past our room down the hospital´s hallway or in the hall of the retirement home. As we dozed off into the eternal sleep, the only picture on our nightstand was that of John Doe and his family.
The nurse that cleaned up after us and packed our belongings to send them to the family winced as she saw the pictures of John Doe. She hadn´t known that we had family and she thought it was sweet that we kept the picture on the nightstand. She just hoped she wouldn´t have to be the one who had to tell the boy and the girl, now man and woman, that their father had passed away.
The little box with all our valuables remained sitting on the high shelves in the basement of the retirement home for a very long time. Like John Doe, no one came to claim our bodies. We had dedicated our lives to finding John Doe. Finally, they threw the reminders out. It is sad that you reduce a deceased person to the things he had with him when he died. John Doe´s pictures was mistaken as a picture of our family and landed in the trash, next to the our badge, a John Doe´s case file and the neat pile of clothes that we possessed and will soon be stolen from the trash container by one of the homeless people.