Comments from judge, Rachel Seiffert:

"A dark and very well-crafted mini thriller, with a finely-drawn detective protagonist, who must seek to understand the disturbed mind of her main suspect in order to solve the crime."

BURIALS by Rob McInroy, winner of ChipLitFest's 2018 Short Story Competition

The only thing that was clear was that Jack O’Brien did not kill Samantha Hedges. On Saturday afternoon he walked unaccompanied into Crieff Police Station and confessed to the murder of the twelve-year-old missing girl whose body had been found the previous afternoon following a six day search. He stood at the counter and quietly explained to Sergeant Kellaway how he had abducted the girl as she walked home from school, taken her to a remote area of the Knock hill and murdered her, then buried her in a grave covered by several inches of soil and topped with rotting beech leaves.

“I buried her,” he said. “That’s how it should be done.”

Roger Neet and Laura Russell knew something was wrong. Hoax confessions were easy to detect. Because cranks didn’t know how the crime was committed they would invent. Get facts wrong. They would repeat false details planted in news reports. They would miss essentials. Eventually, they would descend into fantasy. Their confessions would be logged and they’d be charged with wasting police time. It was an irritant.

But Jack was different.

His voice was soft, barely modulated. It was difficult to catch his words and the detectives had to ask him several times to speak up for the recording. He continued as though he hadn’t heard them. He related again and again how he took the child, how he led her to a patch of woodland near the Witches Crag, how he killed her and buried her. He retained eye contact with the officers at all times, which was unusual. He appeared unflustered, which was common, but to a degree that unnerved them. During the entire interview he rested his hands, palms upward, on the table. He asked for nothing, never spoke to his appointed brief, barely moved.

“The way the blood pulsed out of her back, it was like a hose spurting water.”

“Tell us more about that,” said Neet.

“It was red and black and purple. It bubbled. It smelled. I didn’t expect it to smell. It didn’t run away into the ground. You couldn’t stop it. It wasn’t until I buried her that it went away.”

“You buried her?” said Laura.

“Yes.”

The detectives were left with a dilemma. Their press statement had revealed that the cause of death was a knife wound to the left kidney, so it was unsurprising that Jack described spurting blood. But the statement also suggested, as a trap for hoaxers, that the body had been left beneath a light covering of leaves when it had, in fact, been buried. Nobody knew that.

Except, it seemed, Jack.

There was no DNA match. In any case, experience told them it wasn’t him. But he had confessed, and he appeared to know unknowable detail. They were frustrated by the impasse. Both had family the victim’s age. Each had unsolved cases in their pasts that still haunted them. Shane Groves. Mary Gill. Their names were like a litany of shame and they were damned if they were going to add Samantha Hedges to it.

Laura Russell tried to break the permafrost around Jack. “You feel badly about this murder, don’t you, Jack?” she said. “All of us do. It’s a terrible thing. Abusing children. They’re supposed to be able to trust us, aren’t they? Childhood is that glorious time. Should be. Happiest days. Do you want to talk about that? Tell me about your childhood?”

“I did it,” said Jack.

“Did you?”

“I’ve explained it to you.”

“No you haven’t. You’ve told us many, many times. But the one thing you specifically haven’t done is explain. How, Jack? And why? It seems out of character. You’re a young man. Intelligent. Quiet. Good job. Do you see the trouble I have? I look at you and don’t see a cold-hearted killer.”

“It wasn’t a cold-hearted killing.”

“Is there another sort? Can you get warm-hearted killers?”

“But that’s it exactly.”

“You’re a warm-hearted killer?”

“Yes.”

Neet swore. “I’ll be sure to tell Mr and Mrs Hedges that,” he said. “It’ll make it much better for them.”

“That’s what I want you to tell them,” Jack said, his voice softer than ever.

“What is?” said Russell.

“She didn’t die badly.”

“What do you mean, not badly?” There was silence as Jack looked from Russell to Neet and back again. He seemed to be searching for the words. “Jack?”

“I want them to know that I was there and that she wasn’t in pain and she wasn’t frightened and it didn’t hurt.”

“She just died peacefully?”

“Yes.”

Russell shook her head. “She was murdered, Jack,” she said. “It wasn’t peaceful.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

Jack nodded his head vigorously, as though seeking to convince them with his certainty. This was the first time he had displayed any agitation in three hours of interrogation. That was good, thought Russell. Time for some pressure.

“Samantha was a twelve-year-old child who was abducted on the way home from school,” she said. “She was going back to her family. Mum, Dad, sister, dog, two cats. Sister’s called Harriet. Aged eight. Grandparents, too. Friends. Loads of them. She was a popular girl. First year of High School. She was taken from outside the school by an assailant unknown and for the next six to ten hours we do not know exactly the course of events. She would have been alone, though. With a psychotic killer. She would have been very, very afraid. Some terrible things happened to her, Jack. We know that. Terrible things. Would you like me to explain what they were?”

“She died peacefully.”

“She was taken to a dark wood and repeatedly abused. She suffered a serious and sustained sexual assault. Vaginal and anal. She would have been screaming for her family. Crying for her mummy. Wanting to live. Not wanting to die. And then she was brutally murdered.” Russell could see, finally, flickers of emotion on Jack’s face. “Then left to rot.”

“It wasn’t like that.”

“You weren’t there, Jack. You don’t know.”

“It’s how I explained it. I was there and she didn’t suffer. Tell them.”

“Tell who?”

“The family.”

“The family already know,” said Neet. “They have to know the details. Unlike perverts like you who just get a kick from it.”

“Have you got some kind of Jesus Christ complex?” said Russell. “Trying to take the pain of the world on your shoulders? Is that what this is? Are you just trying to protect that family from pain?”

“No.”

“Because if you are, however well intentioned it might be, you’re actually increasing their suffering. Don’t you see that?”

Jack lowered his head. “You can’t increase their suffering,” he said. “It goes on forever. And then it starts again. And then it starts again. You can’t change that.”

“So what can you change?”

“She didn’t suffer.”

“Is that what you’re trying to change?”

“No. She didn’t suffer. I did it.”

“I know you didn’t do it, Jack. It’s what you did do that worries me.”

Jack looked up and smiled. Russell watched in amazement as his face transformed itself, as though a mask had been peeled from it. “Jack?” she said.

“I killed my brother.”

***

“Tell me about how your brother died.”

Neet and Russell sat forward, straining to hear Jack’s voice. After a ten minute break during which they detailed Logan and Murray to check Jack’s story, they had recommenced the interview. Russell held a vague hope this might be the breakthrough they needed, but when Neet looked at Jack’s emotionless face he still couldn’t detect a murderer within.

“We were just playing.”

“When was this, Jack?”

“Ten years ago. Eleven. It was the SAI mill they were pulling down at MacRosty Park. It was secured at night by a chain fence but we could get in easily. There was this old laundry room. It had a chute that zigzagged over our heads into the floors above. We would climb into the chute and jam ourselves against the sides. They were metal-lined. We’d twist and pull ourselves up and over the ninety degree turns each floor until we reached the top. We’d hold ourselves steady for as long as we could, until we couldn’t hold on any longer and then we’d let go. We’d fly down the chute, battering against the walls and tumbling over the bends until we landed on the laundry room floor...”

“Sounds dangerous.”

“Not really. Not usually.”

“Carry on.”

“I don’t know how it happened. Probably through the demolition works. A large slab of metal lining came loose near the bottom of the chute. We never noticed. Simon went up first and I waited at the bottom. I could hear him yelling as he bumped all the way down and finally he rocketed down the chute into the room, and his body sliced through the metal. It tore a massive hole in his side, right up to his intestines. Straight away there was blood all around him. He didn’t even know it had happened.

“He said, ‘I feel a bit funny, I think you better get some help.’ And…” Jack stopped.

“And?”

“He died.”

He sat for some moments with his head bowed. They waited. Finally, Russell spoke.

“Why did you tell us about this, Jack? Is it connected to Samantha?”

“Everything’s connected.”

“Maybe so. But how? Do you feel responsible for your brother’s death? You said you killed him. But you didn’t, did you? It was an accident.”

“Not really.”

“Do you blame yourself?”

“No.”

“I think you do. Why do you blame yourself, Jack?”

“Because I didn’t go for help.”

“What did you do?”

“I ran away.”

“Why did you run away?”

“Because I was scared. All that blood. He was crying. He was dying.”

“And… What happened?”

Jack’s voice was almost inaudible. He had shrunk into himself, staring at the table in front of him, hunched, almost as though he wasn’t occupying the same physical space as before. “It was a week before they found his body. There was a big search, appeals on TV, everything. I said nothing. I couldn’t.”

Russell pressed forward in her seat. “That must have been agonising, knowing all that time where he was and not being able to tell anyone.”

“Yes.”

“You probably had nightmares?”

“All the time. He kept coming to me in dreams. Standing over me. Staring.”

“And this child, Samantha Hedges, she was missing for a long time, too, wasn’t she? Six days. Did that make you think about Simon?”

“Not really.”

“Not really?” This man was hermetically sealed, she thought. He was suffering some huge mental trauma and he had no way of explaining it. She doubted even he knew what it was, not fully, so deep had he buried it in his psyche. She studied his face, his soft, full mouth and aquiline nose, fine eyelashes, beautiful, longer than hers, and those curious, mismatched eyes, one blue, the other a multi-coloured blue-grey. He was enigmatic. He seemed small, somehow. All of him seemed small. He was a tall man, over six feet, and yet he seemed… diminished. Compressed.

“You were only a child,” she said. “Frightened. I can understand how you must have felt. And I can understand how you must feel now. Are you very lonely, Jack?”

He nodded.

“Are you angry? With yourself?”

He nodded.

“When you read about the murder of Samantha Hedges, how did that make you feel?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Did it make you feel more angry? More lonely? Did it remind you of Simon? How old was Simon when he died?”

“Thirteen.”

“About the same age as Samantha.”

“Yes.”

“Is this confession about guilt transference, Jack? Because you feel guilty about Simon? If it is, we could all understand that, couldn’t we?” Russell gave him an encouraging smile. Neet remained motionless, watching.

Jack looked at her. “There’s no smoke without fire,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

He closed his eyes.  He opened them again and looked around him as though uncertain where he was.

“What do you mean by that?” she repeated. But the connection was gone. Jack had withdrawn.

There was a knock on the interview room door and Logan entered and whispered into Neet’s ear. Neet shook his head.

“Well,” he said. “Guilt transference? Confessing to a murder because you feel guilt about the death of your brother all those years ago? That’s what you’re suggesting is it?” He scraped his chair across the floor and rose stiffly. Russell followed suit. “Enough of this crap.” He reached towards the tape recorder. “Interview ends, three thirty-eight. You see, Jack, the trouble is you never had a brother. You’re an only child.”

***

They watched Jack on the CCTV. He sat on the cot in his cell, knees up, hands clasped, and stared straight ahead.

“He’s a fantasist,” said Neet. “Pure and simple. He didn’t kill the girl. Get rid of him.”

“How did he know she was buried, then?”

“Lucky guess.”

“I agree he didn’t kill the girl. But there’s something there. He’s hiding something.” Eliminate the impossibles, she thought, isolate the improbables, eventually you emerge at the truth. The trouble was everything with Jack was either impossible or improbable. He didn’t stack up. There was a piece of him missing.

“He’s just a nutcase,” said Neet. “I mean, why would he lie about his brother? A brother he hasn’t got. He knew he couldn’t get away with it. Only a nutter would say that.”

“But that story, it’s so detailed. Precise. Convoluted, even. Who would invent that?”

“Well, he obviously did, since it didn’t happen.”

“So why?”

There was a knock on the office door and PC Logan entered with an email print-out. She handed it to Neet. He read it and threw it on the table in front of him.

“New analysis from the lab,” he said. “We appear to have a DNA match after all.”

Russell studied the email. “That doesn’t make sense,” she said. “That’s trivial.”

“It means he was there.”

“But not that he killed her. There’s a trace of his DNA on her blouse and her shoes. That’s all.”

“So there’s somebody else.”

“They don’t usually work in pairs.”

“Unusual. But not unknown.”

Russell frowned.  The DNA match created more problems than it provided answers. Jack was definitely there. But he didn’t rape Samantha Hedges. Which made it unlikely he killed her, either. So who did? And what was Jack’s involvement? She stared at him in the CCT camera again. “Who are you, Jack O’Brien? What are you running from?”

***

“Interview commencing seven forty-five. Detectives Neet and Russell in attendance. Ms Carrington acting for Mr O’Brien. Jack O’Brien, your DNA has been identified on the clothing of Samantha Hedges. When I advised you of this development I strongly recommended that you speak with your solicitor. Have you in fact done that?”

Lianne Carrington shook her head.

“For the tape, Ms Carrington indicates that her client has declined to discuss anything relating to this investigation with her. That isn’t smart, Jack. You could get life for this.”

“Good.”

“Who did you do it with?” Jack looked confused. “Your accomplice, Jack.”

“No-one. I did it myself.”

“Jack, there’s a barrel-load of spunk inside that body and none of it is yours. So unless you killed her and buried her, and some nasty man came along afterwards and dug her up again and then had his way with her, which you must accept is highly unlikely, that tends to suggest you had an accomplice.” Jack remained silent. “Your accomplice, Jack. Name?”

“Me.”

“Your DNA has been discovered on the school uniform worn by Samantha Hedges. Specifically her blouse and her shoes. Can you explain how it got there?”

“When I killed her.”

“Why would there only be DNA on her blouse and shoes? The person who killed her also sexually assaulted her. Why is there none of your DNA on the rest of her clothing or her body?”

“No bodily fluids were exchanged.”

“Exactly. It’s one of the prerequisites of sexual intercourse, the exchange of bodily fluids. Where are yours?”

“On the blouse and shoes.”

“You didn’t fuck her shoes.”

Russell shook her head. “The thing is, Jack, the amount of DNA we’ve found, it isn’t enough. It puts you in contact with the body but it doesn’t necessarily link you to the murder.” She paused and stared at him. “Were you just the sidekick?” she said. “Were you along for the ride?”

Jack slumped back in his chair. For the first time he lifted his hands from the table. He rested them on his thighs and stared at the opposite wall and told them he had taken Samantha into the woods and killed her.

“She was raped,” said Neet.

Jack shook his head.

“Anally.”

“I killed her.”

Neet threw down his pen. “This is pointless,” he said. “Interview adjourned. Eight twenty-seven.”

The detectives sat in their office and stared at the evidence wall. Frustration spilled over into anger and they argued bitterly about the DNA match and what it meant.

Neet smoked his pen like a cigarette. “The more I see him, the more I think he’s done something bad. Really bad.”

Russell remained silent. She was rapidly coming to the opposite conclusion. This man was massively damaged but, increasingly, she saw fragility rather than violence beneath the blankness of his demeanour. He was concocting an elaborate story around the crime scene, making it safe, vanilla, unthreatening. In his version there was no rape, not even any murder, just a painless, peaceful death. She found it difficult to believe Jack knew anything of the brutal reality of Samantha’s murder.

“Sir?” PC Murray entered the room and laid a file on the table in front of Neet. “We’ve been doing background checks on O’Brien. Eleven years ago his best friend was killed. Cress Tyler. Twelve year old girl. It was a week before they found her body in an old mill. The coroner ruled it was an accident, but the Tyler family always suspected Jack was there when it happened and knew where she was all the time she was missing. They wanted him prosecuted but it was never proved.”

“Shit,” said Neet.

***

“Interview commences nine o-seven.” Neet smoothed his hand over his face. He was tired. He wanted to sleep but he knew he wouldn’t until the killer of Samantha Hedges was caught. He looked at Jack and tried to judge whether this was the man.

“Jack, who is Cress Tyler?”

The impact on Jack was instant. He started, sitting upright and staring at the door as though planning an escape. An expression of confused agitation overtook his face. Neet whistled. Bingo.

“Jack?” said Russell.

Lianne Carrington sat forward. “This is a new line of enquiry. I wish to discuss it with my client before he makes any statement.”

Neet grinned. “If you want,” he said. He nodded at Jack. “If he wants…”

But Jack shook his head. “Cress Tyler,” he said. “She was my best friend. In school.”

“Girlfriend?”

“We were only twelve.”

“And?”

“She died.”

“You’re a lucky guy to be around.”

Jack had regained his composure. He was sitting upright once more, staring at the detectives, his arms outstretched, palms upward. “It was her. The accident. Not my brother. It was exactly as I described it, but it was Cress, not my brother.”

Neet groaned. “So you told us the true and unexpurgated version of your childhood tragedy, except you somehow mistook your girlfriend for the brother you never had?”

“Yes.”

“For fuck’s sake.” He slapped his hands on the desk in frustration. “The thing is, Jack, this now links you to the sudden deaths of two twelve-year-old girls. And that changes everything.” He stopped and shook his head. “ Here’s a question for you, because I’m sick of asking the other one. Did you kill Cress Tyler?”

Jack shot upright. “No,” he said urgently. “It was an accident.”

“You see, the difficulty we have, Detective Russell and I, is that once a lying bastard always a lying bastard. Do you see what I’m saying? Ever since you walked into this station you’ve been taking us for a ride. Is there a single word you’ve spoken, a single word, that is actually true?”

“I killed Samantha Hedges.”

“Forget Samantha Hedges. Let’s concentrate on Cress Tyler. Did you kill Cress Tyler?”

“No.”

“Well, like I say, who can believe you, Jack? That’s why I’m going to apply for an order to exhume her body.”

Jack jumped up, knocking his chair backwards against the wall. He looked around wildly and screamed, a high, piercing shriek that emanated from deep inside him. He paused for breath then screamed again, and again, and again. The detectives watched in horror as Jack convulsed in front of them, out of control, his body contorted like an animal in pain, still screaming, shrieking, yelling. He looked up and stared at Neet as though seeing him for the first time and lunged across the desk at him. Russell ran for the door and shouted for help as Jack took aim for Neet’s throat with his hands. They fell together against the back wall and struggled for some moments, Jack scratching at Neet’s face and neck. Neet beat him away and swung him round and pulled his arm hard behind his back and pushed him hard against the wall. He struggled to catch his breath and braced himself for a further assault but Jack fell limp and leaned into the wall and pressed his face against it and started to cry. Logan and Murray rushed into the room and Murray handcuffed Jack and led him away. Russell and Neet stared at one another.

“Interview concluded nine eighteen,” said Neet. “Ms Carrington, that man needs help. Make him talk to you.”  Lianne Carrington, shocked into silence, nodded doubtfully.

The detectives decamped to their office. Russell slammed her files on the table. “You never mentioned anything to me about an exhumation.”

“No. I just made it up on the spot. And you saw the impact it had on him…”

“But what justification would we have? We have no evidence he did any harm to Cress Tyler. The coroner’s report says it was an accident. No suspicious circumstances.”

“You saw how he reacted in there. He’s got to be hiding something. You said so yourself. If we didn’t have evidence before, that performance gives us reasonable doubt. You can’t deny his behaviour is highly suspicious?”

“Everything about him is suspicious. That doesn’t mean he’s a murderer.”

“So exhume the body and find out.”

Russell shook her head. Eliminate the impossibles, isolate the improbables. It was  highly improbable that Cress Tyler died as a result of foul play. It would have been investigated at the time. Forensics weren’t so advanced eleven years ago, but they were still pretty efficient. If there was any indication of foul play it would have been on the record and it wasn’t. Therefore, Cress probably died as a result of an accident. And the implication of that was clear: Jack didn’t kill her. But, if Jack’s description of the accident was true he must have come into contact with the body.

Next: it was highly improbable that Jack murdered Samantha Hedges because the DNA in the semen wasn’t his. All the same, there was a minor DNA match which meant he had definitely come into contact with her. The big question, then, was whether Samantha was alive or dead when that happened? Alive: improbable, because she was in the hands of a murdering paedophile. Dead: therefore probable.

Was it impossible that he buried her? Or improbable? No, and no. So: a possible. Jack possibly buried the probably dead body of Samantha Hedges.

Two converging patterns. Jack did not cause the deaths of Cress Tyler and Samantha Hedges. But he knew about them.

She outlined her thinking to Neet. He looked unimpressed.

“The obvious question is why,” he said. “I mean, if you come across the battered and mutilated body of a murdered child hidden in the undergrowth you don’t tidy it away. What is he, a fucking Womble?”

“Because,” said Russell, suddenly weary, but the explanation forming in her head, “because he didn’t do right by Cress. He left her and she lay undiscovered for a week. Think how that would affect a twelve year old boy. He’d be seeing phantoms, zombies, whatever. Everywhere he turned he’d be seeing her, like Banquo’s ghost come to haunt him. He’s clearly still in trauma over it. That’s something we can definitely agree on. He’s completely rewritten it in his mind so that it wasn’t even Cress who died. So what happens next? He’s out walking and he discovers this body – dead body. What happens? His brain explodes. It’s Cress. It’s his little girlfriend. So what does he do? This is his chance. This time – finally – he does the right thing. To his way of thinking. He buries the body. Properly. Cress. The dead dead. Not walking dead.”

There was silence. “You’d have to be one screwed-up mindfuck to think that,” said Neet.

“Well, that’s one way to describe clinical psychosis. But don’t you see? This whole thing is about getting rid of the guilt over Cress. It’s tortured him all his adult life. He’s never been able to escape her, or the memory, or the sense of failure. And now, now he finally manages to bury her. To say that she died without pain and that she’s comfortably at rest. And what are you going to do? Dig her up again. Literally. You’re going to exhume her body. No wonder he went fucking mental in there.”

Neet laughed.

“It’s not funny.”

“It is actually. Tragic, I’ll grant you, but definitely funny.” He laughed again and Russell watched with disgust. She walked out of the interview room and into the corridor. She stood outside the cell in which Jack O’Brien was being held for questioning about the murder of Samantha Hedges and the death of Cress Tyler. She opened the spy hole and looked at the forlorn body buried beneath a blanket. She wanted to connect, but there was no possibility.

 

 


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