Slippery Identity

Chapter 1 – Friends Reunited

Monday, 22 September 2008 – 09:48

London Metropolitan Police forensic laboratory

Magdalena Beauchamp alternated her glare from the pipette in her left hand to the DNA sample tub in her right, the timer on the heating block on the workbench and the clock on the wall.

“Beauchamp!” She suppressed a startle as the door of her glass walled lab crashed open and Warren Johnson, her arsehole of a boss, burst in. He held out a stoppered vial with no label in his ungloved hand. Magdalena’s heart sank.

“Drop everything. I need this sample processed yesterday.” Warren looked about for her lab partner. Thankfully Martin Sixsmith was off skiving today. Not like that was any different to his usual performance.

Fuck you Warren. I’m not letting thirty two samples spoil because of your urgent job. Sample failure rate in this place is already a disgrace.

When Magdalena processed a DNA sample, she was setting it on a conveyor belt of precise chemical interaction, temperature and time. Any interruption risked spoiling the sample. Usually not enough to upset the database matching algorithm, but enough to compromise the longevity of the sample IF the case made it to court and IF the case was appealed so the sample would have to be run again. But try telling that to this chump. She plucked up her guts. If her personal quest was to bring down the sample spoilage rate in this lab then she would have to pick a moment and plant her flag.

“No room Warren. It’ll have to wait until the next batch.”

“Not good enough Beauchamp. The perp will walk if I can’t get a match on this by 2:00.”

“DNA only cooks so fast, Warren. I’ve got no space right now, see for yourself.”

Warren turned his bright blue eyes in his billiard cue ball of a head to the heat block where thirty two colour coded samples were patiently decomposing into DNA at precisely thirty six degrees.

He reached over to the heat block and plucked out a teal stoppered vial. Magdalena felt her eyes widen in shock. Sure, the teal-stoppered vials were low priority, but they were samples all the same. Someone had suffered or sinned and their essence was in that tiny long jar. A piece of a puzzle. And if that piece was destroyed the puzzle would remain incomplete.

He held out the red-stoppered vial in his hand. Magdalena briefly fantasised smashing it into his face before extending her gloved hand.

“There’s no label.” Yet another dreadfully lax habit in this damn lab.

“Never you mind about that. No excuse Beauchamp. I want that sample cooked and through the database by 2:00 or it’ll be on your record for your probation interview.” Having delivered his disrupting task and the impossible timeframe, Warren turned back to the door. “Probably be your exit interview at this rate.” He slammed the glass door behind him. Magdalena watched the light warp up and down the door as the glass flexed in its housing. Warren stalked off into the main office floor. A wave of heads bowed to desks ahead of him.

Magdalena let her breath out in a slow stream counting to ten. She looked left and right across the empty glass cubicles. And they wonder why there’s such a high staff turnover rate here.

Her eyes rested on the ejected sample. It also had no label. Magdalena knew that coming from academia to police forensics would be a culture shift, but she hadn’t expected such a culture shock. Especially with the extraordinary importance of each and every sample. It was just roller coasting from one urgent schedule wrecking crisis to the next.

Oh how she missed Professor Duncan and his stickling standards.

Magdalena set aside the red-topped urgent sample and grabbed a piece of masking tape, wrote U/K 163 and stuck it on the ejected teal stoppered sample. One hundred and sixty three unknown samples. So damn mickey mouse.

She tucked the vial against the edge of the heat block hoping that the residual heat would be enough to continue its maturation and turned her attention to the urgent sample.

Then she wrote U/K 164 on another piece of masking tape and labelled Warren’s urgent red-topped vial.

By shaving a few corners that bloody well should remain square, Magdalena pushed the urgent sample into the DNA database at 1:38pm, hoping she wouldn’t hit a slow processing patch. It popped up with a hit.

Reginald Okiwame – age 19. Address – somewhere in Hoxteth.

Hmmm … good looking kid. Hope he hasn’t done anything stupid.

She had swapped the ejected teal vial – Unknown sample 163 – back into the final maturation batch and pushed it through next. Take that Warren.

Warren crashed back through the door casting his judgmental gaze over the scene of carefully shepherded chaos.

“Beauchamp, you better have that bloody sample ready.”

Bent over the heatblock, she wordlessly flicked her eyes at the printout neatly floating into the printer tray with as much insouciance as she could get away with. Warren picked up the printout and drummed his fingers on it as he scanned through it.

QA-ing my work in front of me. Magdalena knew that it was an unworthy straw, but she felt it weigh heavily upon her back.

“Yep, doing the rest now. Even the one you pulled out.” Warren frowned and fixed her with a look. She dropped her eyes and regretted the brag. Now he was going to assume she could push through 33 a batch.

Warren loitered near the DNA database terminal for a moment tapping away. He looked up at her, gave a gruff nod, picked up the printout and walked out.

That is bloody IT! Magdalena straightened up feeling a crick in her back. She threw her pen on the workbench and hauled back from the edge of tears.

Not even a darn acknowledgement from the bastard that I pulled off the impossible. Do I really want this job? She shook her head feeling her springy curls rustle under her elasticized paper cap. Stupid question. Pointless sentiment.

The funding for her confidential PhD project with Professor Duncan back in Boston had been cut leaving her out of work, with no green card, and with nothing substantial to put on her CV. The global financial crisis had vanished billions out of the economy. It was this lowly paid job at the London Metropolitan Police crime lab or a job as a checkout chick at Tesco. Actually, right now, Tesco looked pretty good.

Her phone buzzed in her pocket startling her out of her funk.

A text message. From Diego! Hey.

Her world shifted sideways two feet. Hey? You disappear off the face of the planet under the most mysterious of circumstances 15 months ago and it’s just Hey?

With a quick look through the glass wall for attention in her direction, she shifted out of the CCTV field of vision and texted back – Hey yerself.

The three dots waved at her.

Coffee?

Magdalena’s innards yawned. It had been two hours since her last caffeine hit. She was vaguely aware that her habit was spiraling. Least of her problems right now.

Sure. Where?

The Ghastly Bean. Came the reply.

Magdalena probed her mental map of the nearby coffee houses. The Ghastly Bean was a few blocks away. Far enough away that it was unlikely to encounter anyone from work. She looked up at the ever present clock. 2:45. An hour and a quarter until knock off time.

Fuck it. They owe me a bazillion hours. And with Martin inexplicably absent again, there was little danger to her current sample batch on the heat block. She could risk it. She left her coat and handbag on the hook taking her coin purse and phone and slipped out into the London drizzle.

She found The Ghastly Bean easily enough and took a moment to check for tails and plants.

Wow, working for the Met is really starting to rub off on me. No one following her and no one she recognized was inside.

Except for him. Diego Bertolocci. Former lab partner and hopefully-not-former friend sitting in a booth staring at his clasped hands on the table and jigging his right foot. Wow. Something was certainly up. Diego was the chillest guy she knew.

Feeling the drizzle start to penetrate her curls and tickle her scalp, she opened the door, and successfully didn’t cringe at the loud tingle of the bell as she opened the door into the coffee shop. Diego looked up and met her eyes. There was a crack down the left lens of his glasses. Magdalena ordered and took a seat opposite him. Aside from a fleck of grey above his ears he looked just as handsome as ever, but a bit dishevelled. Normally Diego was impeccable in his personal habits.

“Hi.” He smiled and gripped her hand in lieu of a hug.

“So …” she opened.

“Gosh darn it Magdalena it is just swell to see you. You’re looking great.” Diego was parodying her parodying Professor Duncan’s clipped British tones. He couldn’t pull it off though. His thick Boston accent peeked through.

Such an irony that they both ended up here in London with Professor Duncan still back in Boston waiting for the axe to swing and the redundancy package to fall. The wait must be excruciating. At least when the UGLystick program was axed the severance for Diego, Peter Evans and herself was quick, if paltry.

“Thanks. You too. How’s Molly and baby Bridie?”

“Oh much the same.”

“Come on now it’s been more than a year.” And where the hell were you? “She must be walking and talking by now. Has Molly got her school all lined up? Only the best for her right?”

Diego winced. Magdalena stopped her small talk. Something was definitely not right here.

The awkwardness of the moment broke as the waiter came over with two coffees. Diego smiled with embarrassed gratitude which Magdalena waved off.

They sipped in silence for a long moment.

Diego slipped a mug across the table. It wasn’t any old mug. It was chipped and stained and emblazoned with Garfield glaring gloomily out at her holding out his own empty cartoon mug. With a pleasant jolt, Magdalena recognised it as her own mug from their time back in Professor Duncan’s lab. Inside the mug was a sample jar. There was no label. Just hr1 written on the jar with a marker pen.

Inside the sample jar was a cheek scraper stick.

“What’s this?”

Diego gave a wincing shrug. “This is me asking you for a favour. And Magdalena I am aware that on the favour front I owe you more than I can ever repay.”

She shrugged in non-denial. Diego had certainly left her to carry the can in the dying days of the project while he had secretly pursued some sort of side project. Surmising that Diego had Professor Duncan’s tacit approval for whatever he had been up to, she had let it slide. It had all been for naught anyway.

Her thoughts slid to the set of USBs in a small pink zipper case in her handbag. She tried not to let her eyes follow.

Diego was one of the most straight dealing people she had ever known in the backstabbing world of academia. And yet here they sat. In a grubby London cafe staring at each other over a grimy Formica table top. Not a PhD between them. Years of their lives flushed down the toilet.

“Did you take a copy?” he asked.

She fixed him with a warning glare.

He put up his hands and dropped the subject.

Magdalena fixed her eyes on the vial in the Garfield coffee mug. “You’re going to need to give me a bit more Diego. What is this and what do you need?” Magdalena looked quickly at the mirror behind the counter and the reflection in the dirty aluminium siding facing the door. Still no one she recognised from work in the cafe. Diego dropped his eyes to his empty cup of coffee clearly wondering how to begin.

Magdalena could feel the hand of the clock in the lab moving forward. The heat block timer ticking down. The increasing likelihood of Warren walking past and noticing her absence.

She leaned forward, “Diego, you and Molly and your baby vanished over a year ago. I was interviewed, under caution by my own colleagues in my third month into my probation in a shitty lab tech job that I had to practically go on the game to get.”

Diego’s face fell. He spread his hands and placed them on the table. There was dirt under his nails. He had callouses. What on earth has he been doing?

“I’m really sorry about that Magdalena. And I really can’t get too far into the details here, but that,” he nodded at the tube sitting in the Garfield coffee mug, “is part of it.”

He paused. Magdalena squashed down on her irritation. There was something very badly wrong here. In spite of it all, she really wanted to help. The last communication from Diego had been a bad selfie of him, Molly and their gorgeous baby Bridie in front of Molly’s Folly. An old tower on the west coast of Ireland that she was renovating into a trophy home. Bad photography aside, the scene was idyllic. The chessboard rook-shaped tower at the end of a field of daffodils with a standing stone circle behind.

“Molly’s renovation project ran into trouble.” He paused and looked around obviously. Such an amateur. It was okay, the waiter looked on the verge of catatonia through boredom. “With the IRA.”

Magdalena repressed the urge to scoff. The peace deal in Ireland had held for ten years now. The terrorist squad down the hall was looking practically bored. London was now as peaceful as it had been prior to the IRA’s heyday.

“We had to get out. We couldn’t pay what we owed. There were threats.” Okay, now this was getting a bit more likely. Splinter groups of retired IRA hardmen had been moving into the extortion business. “We’ve been hiding out. In a caravan. We’re practically homeless.”

Wow.

Magdalena reached out and took Diego’s hand. He met her eyes. Behind his cracked glasses they were wet. And wary.

“But that’s not why I’m here.” Okay. Magdalena sat back and crossed her arms.

“We …” he weighed up how to begin. “got involved in a … situation.” His Boston drawl dragged out the syllables.

The pause stretched out. Having been on the receiving end of an interrogation herself, Magdalena knew the power of silence to draw out the truth. She tried not to think about her yawning absence at her lab station and the ten minute walk to get there.

“A kid.” Uh-oh.

Magdalena kept listening.

“When we were on the road, I was doing odd jobs to make ends meet and Molly met this woman. She had a daughter. Claire. About nine years old.”

Diego’s eyes twitched left and right.

“This woman had a baby. And that baby had died. Natural causes as far as I know.” Diego took a deep draw. “She confessed to Molly that she had been wandering around Dublin after her baby died. Just taken with grief. And then she saw this other little baby in a pram. And that baby looked just like her own baby daughter. And she …” Magdalena’s throat tightened. Oh no.

“She distracted the mother and took the baby.” Magdalena bit her fist. She just couldn’t do this. Even at the sanitised butt-end of the chain that processed the samples that linked the defilers to the defiled, she just could not lose her basic human horror at the horrors basic humans could visit on each other, every bloody day of the damn week.

“Where is she?”

“The mother? I don’t know. She left Claire with us and split. I don’t think it went well.”

Her eyes dropped to the sample sitting in the Garfield mug as innocently as a freshly swaddled infant.

“Okay. I get it. But Diego, this is a criminal matter. In a different jurisdiction. You need to get social services involved.” Magdalena hated the words the second she spoke them. Social services around here were as bad as the religious institutions that they had replaced. So many of her sad little samples were from kids in care.

Who was the woman? When was this? Where in Dublin exactly? Magdalena held back on the questions for fear of scaring Diego off.

A happy fantasy hit Magdalena. A grieving family reunited with their baby stolen nine years ago. The rarest of all rare things in police work. A happy ending.

She nodded. She could keep this one under wraps and away from the prying eyes of Warren bloody Johnson. She was only risking a job she hated. She could handle it. Just one more unlabelled sample.

“Okay. Might be a bit tricky getting into the Interpol database, but I think I can do it.” She had no idea how, but suddenly it seemed a surmountable problem on the way to a happily-ever-after.

Diego visibly relaxed.

“Hey there,” Magdalena reached out again and took his hand. “You’re looking for work right?” His eyes brightened as a thought occurred to him that he was stunned that he had missed. “Have you got a CV? Professor Duncan can stand you a reference. And we’re pretty desperate for staff where I am. The pay is not much better than minimum wage, and the samples …” she couldn’t finish the sentence.

Diego sat forward, his eyes alight with thanks and glistening with tears.

Goodness, this last year had been tough on him. Did her have a breakdown?

“Thanks Magdalena. You’re a gem.”

She swiped at the air with a ‘don’t!’ gesture.

“Just one more thing.” Diego looked suddenly worried again. “In a purely theoretical sense, if I happened to have something that was highly dangerous and illegal, how would I go about surrendering it to the authorities?”

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