The man advanced with a nonchalant step on the path hammered by the rain, putting Alain's nerves on edge: despite his attempts to keep his eyes glued to his boots sinking into the mud, it didn't stop him from seeing them out of the corner of his eye.

“Mr. Aubry has already found his place, but I'll probably have to bring him in if this deluge doesn't stop soon,” said the other in a casual tone.

They continued to sink into the field, laboriously getting closer to the large white building with barred windows. The curtain of beads formed by the rain on his hood made the shadows of the night dance all around him, and he had to restrain himself from looking up, thinking he saw movement in one of the cages around them.

“Calm down, old man,” he thought. “This is not the time to lose it...”

Yet, his stomach was getting tighter.

“It's not much different from what you see in those damn ambulances...” he resumed in his head.

But he kept his eyes fixed on his shoes.

They turned right, following the path, now skirting a parcel of land eaten away by the forest: there, in the darkness cast by the wet branches, one could guess the outlines of silhouettes, sheltered from the rain and prying eyes. The man pointed to a cage almost at their feet and seemed to explain something to him, but Alain wasn't listening: the pestilential smell of the black and swollen shape under the iron bars had reached his nose, and he was trying as hard as he could not to throw up on himself.

“Fuck, what am I doing?” he lamented.

They didn't have much further to go: they had arrived at the level of the pond – Alain felt his heart beat faster, visualizing despite himself the two half-submerged cages whose contents were overflowing – and they had only a few steps left to reach the lab.

“There you go,” said the man, stopping on the path while Alain bumped into him. “Our brand-new resident.”

Mr. Aubry was swaying slowly in a rudimentary cage with rusted bars, a few meters from them. With his whitish skin and still hollow belly, he looked like a ghost from the hills. The rain streamed down his naked body to his feet and watered the grass a few centimeters below. The rope tightened around his neck was attached to the horizontal bars serving as his roof.

Alain swallowed, his legs beginning to tremble: the corpse, aside from its typical scar from the coroner's scalpel, simply looked asleep. Nothing like the others on the farm, here for days, even weeks. One could believe he was about to open his eyes at any moment. That he was going to wake up, slowly raise his arm to point at Alain with his bony finger:

“Yes,” he would say, “it's him. He's the one who killed me! May he burn in hell!”

And suddenly, the sound of the rain seemed to stop, and time froze. Alain's heart was pounding as he felt as though heavy gazes were all around him. Accusing gazes. He could almost see the empty sockets, darker than the night, staring at him with rage and hunger.

“This one will serve as a study subject for my doctoral student,” announced the man, making him jump.

Alain snapped out of his stupor, grumbled something in response, and they went to take shelter in the regional forensic anthropology lab.


They hung their jackets on the coat racks under the harsh light of the halogen lamps. They were in a small room serving as a break room, the only somewhat cozy place in the building: it featured a few photos, mugs or flasks emblazoned with various exotic landscapes, and children's drawings taped to a small fridge.

“Can I offer you a coffee?” asked the man.

Alain, still eyeing the fridge, recalled the time when the appliance had broken down for a solid week and Byron had simply started storing his meals in the cold room at the back of the laboratory.

“No thanks, Byron,” he replied, imagining him stirring his coffee with a human bone.

The man, in his fifties, almost resembled the corpses he studied on his operating table, with his pale complexion, balding skull, and hunched back. Byron, in charge of the “body farm”, studied their decomposition under various conditions to aid law enforcement in their investigations. Some bodies were buried, others submerged, or simply laid on the ground. However, almost all were kept in cages to protect them from rodents and various predators: only insects were welcome to assist in his research.

The mere idea of waking up every morning to observe increasingly decomposed bodies made Alain sick. And in some way, it was a bit frightening to him.

“And your doctoral student, is she around?” asked Alain in a low voice.

Byron simply shook his head and slowly crossed the break room to head towards a corridor. Alain guessed he had to follow – he had gotten to know this old madman over time – and they traversed the laboratory. They first passed a small room resembling a control center: one could see multiple dials and lighted indicators numbered to monitor and record the temperature and humidity around the corpses. They then walked along the analysis room, a large space plunged into shadow in which one could make out autopsy tables, microscopes, and all sorts of intimidating instruments. To their left, was the cold room. They turned to finally stop in Byron's office: nothing more than a closet with a table, a chair, and a small bench where towers of books threatened to collapse and bury him at any moment. Byron sat at his desk, opened a drawer, and took out an envelope which he placed on the desk.

“Here is for our arrangement,” he announced in a flat tone, “but it's the last one I can take from you.”

Alain's mouth went dry. He grabbed the envelope, a bit more roughly than he had intended, and studied its contents: it was indeed the agreed sum, but the hospital bills were so high it felt like he was holding mere scraps of scribbled paper.

“Am I really going to do this? Am I going to stoop this low?” he thought.

“Listen...” he croaked.

“I can't, Alain. Look at this rain outside: almost all my study subjects are affected. The last one was for my new doctoral student, who is going to do a thesis on ligature marks and bone trauma, and tomorrow morning we're going to struggle to find the space to bring him in, I know it.”

“You don't understand...”

“I've told you, Alain,” he replied like a teacher with a difficult student, “I was assigned a doctoral student, my budget is affected. I can't just pull out money that easily. Moreover, this rain has been going on for days, and I already don't have the space to shelter my current study subjects, I simply can't take another one for a while. You should-”

“I want more money,” he cut in sharply.

Byron raised his head and looked at him warily. His eyes shone under the industrial neon lights, and Alain was all too aware of all the silhouettes of prisoners scattered across the fenced-in terrain. Byron understood what he was asking, no doubt.

“You've fucked up, you poor bastard,” he said to himself, blood pounding in his temples. “But it's too late to back out now.”

He imagined Byron getting angry, leaping up, and confronting him: all the cages on the farm would open, and his army of the living dead would slowly march towards the laboratory. Was he going to end up in one of those cages, too?

“Don't lose your cool, old man...” he tought.

“Do I hear what you're asking me correctly?” Byron asked cautiously.

“Our arrangement isn't exactly legal,” he replied in a trembling voice that didn't sound like him, “if I weren't here to talk with the family, you wouldn't have any bodies, and no job. But that you divert part of your research budget to procure corpses, your superiors wouldn't like that. I need money right now.”

He couldn't believe he had gotten himself into this situation: was he that desperate?

Byron stood up silently and positioned himself near the door. He answered him with a calm that sent chills down his spine:

“Alain, even though I put myself in a delicate position to keep my job here, I'm not stupid. I have no proof, I don't know if I'm right, but I suspect something is going on with these corpses. Statistically, I've been receiving too many since you've been around.

If my hunch is really correct, then it's an irony beyond words that I dedicate my life to helping solve murders; but retirement isn't far off for me, and my research will be what remains of me. In the end, I'm convinced that all of this will be justified.

You're right, Alain, if our arrangement were to be disclosed, my career would take a serious hit. But if I'm right, then you, you have much more to lose. You'd end up in prison. So don't come talking to me about blackmail. I know what you're going through, I know your situation. So out of respect for the health of your daughter, I won't say anything. A man must do what he has to do to protect his family. But I'm going to ask you to leave now, and to consider that our agreement ends tonight. I don't want anything more to do with you.”

Alain simply lowered his eyes and let himself be guided to the exit. But internally, his rage was boiling. Who did this asshole think he was? He felt like grabbing him by the collar and stuffing him into one of his fucking cages, in place of a corpse. He would come every Sunday to watch him slowly rot under the rain, with some beers and his camping chair, until this son of a bitch turned to dust.

“No, you old fuck,” a voice in his head said, “it's you who should be caged.”

“But I need the money, damn it,” he replied. “For Camille...”

He retraced his steps in the opposite direction, this time alone, though accompanied all the way by dead gazes filled with judgment.

When he got back to his car, he had his phone to his ear, taking the rain while he waited for the ring. When his interlocutor picked up, Alain's voice had regained its confidence:

“Romuald, it's me. How much does that diver job pay?”