The Crime Readers' Association

The Key, by N M Brown

DC Heather Armitage made frequent glances at her watch as she paced around the kitchen of her stone cottage on the edge of the moor. Dressed in a pair of faded jeans and a shapeless jumper,  she held an open bottle of beer from which she would take regular sips. The north wind outside had been picking up all evening and now sudden gusts in the darkness would throw rain against the windows with such ferocity that it sounded like a barrage of small stones.

The kitchen was the only part of the former farmhouse which was illuminated, although in the adjoining sitting room a couple of burning logs were casting a hypnotic flickering glow in the shadows.

Occasionally she would look towards the window where the raindrops had beaded the glass. The sky outside had fully faded from blue to black, which meant Heather would be able to see the headlights of DCI Caulder’s approaching car.

As she imagined what she might say to her visitor, Heather felt anxiety beginning to stir in her stomach. If she was correct in her suspicions about him, Heather had potentially made a mistake by inviting Caulder to her home. If things went wrong – if she got hurt her or worse – her colleagues would think that she had been bloody stupid. But to Heather that was a secondary consideration – people came to the job for different reasons. Some were simply attracted to the power, others were in possession of a fundamental belief in justice – regardless of the personal or professional risk. And then there were those like Caulder who used the job as a mask to hide their dark desires. Tonight she would get to the truth.

In the previous six months, the area in and around Stirling had been plagued by a series of grim murders – three young women had been strangled and left behind the industrial bins of various budget hotels. Despite the fact that countless scene of crime officers in their white coveralls had descended on each scene like a flock of strange birds, no conclusive or consistent evidence had ever been found. In each case, the victim had been found covered in an inch-thick coating of human hair.  It was later concluded that the killer had gathered waste from the bins of local barber shops and then, after the murders had sprinkled it over the naked victims to negate any potential hair or fibre matches. The latest killing involved a young man pulled like a strange fish from the holding tank of a sewage treatment plant in Stirling. As was the case with the dead women, the location of the man’s naked body meant all DNA analysis would be impossible.  Whoever had put him in there was clearly smart and extremely dangerous.

Heather’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of frantic pounding on the solid oak door.

She crossed the tiled floor and opened the door to find her supervising officer standing on the doorstep. His black hair was soaked and hung down on his pale forehead like saw blades.

‘God, what a nasty night, Armitage. Can I come in or what?’

‘Of course, sir.’ Heather stepped aside. ‘In you get.’

Caulder stepped forward and had to tilt his head to make it through the doorway. He was a big man, almost six foot, and at fifty-five years of age his diet of red meat and beer meant his torso was beginning to assume the shape of a barrel

Heather glanced outside and frowned. Her jeep was the only vehicle in the dark patch of gravel that served as parking area.

‘Where’s your car?’

‘Ah, had a bit of trouble.’ Caulder mumbled, ‘I’ll explain later.’

Heather closed the door and turned around to find Caulder pulling up a barstool to the small centre island. He was still wearing his raincoat and drips of water were trickling down his forehead like sweat. Despite his state, Caulder couldn’t take his eyes from the half-open pack of beer on the counter.  This fact was not lost on Heather who had seen her senior officer sink a pint in under six seconds on the Xmas night out.

‘Help yourself to a beer. They’re just out of the fridge,’ Heather said as she pulled up a stool on the opposite side of the counter.

‘You having one?’ he asked as he pulled a bottle opener attached to a key chain from his pocket.

‘No, I’ve got one here.’ Heather said and reached for her own bottle.

Caulder didn’t need a second invitation. He grabbed a bottle and flipped off the lid in one practised gesture. He then laid down the opener and held his bottle up towards Heather.

‘Cheers!’ he said, and they clacked the glass bottles together. While Heather took a sip of her beer, Caulder fastened his mouth to the lip of the bottle and tilted his head up like a trumpeter. He must have drunk almost a third of the beer in one two gassy gulps and then placed the bottle back down. Heather watched him suppress a burp, then wipe his mouth with the sleeve of his coat. It was impossible to read his mood.

‘So, DC Armitage, I was a bit confused when you wanted me to come over to discuss a case. I’m not even sure about which one you meant. The petrol station robbery at Bannockburn?’

‘No, sir – the Travel Lodge girls.’

There was a moment of silence as if a shot had been fired.

‘Well,’ Caulder said as he stretched his arms out, ‘as far as I know that case is just shelved. You know yourself it was going nowhere, so I’m not sure what there is left to discuss.’

‘There’s just a couple of things that still bug me about it,’ Heather said.

‘Like what?’

‘Each of the crime scenes were just too clean – too careful. Whoever had killed those poor girls had known precisely what forensics teams would be looking for.’

‘So what?’ Caulder shrugged his large shoulders. ‘Anybody who watches CSI would know that.’

Heather took a deep breath then spoke again.

‘But I remember how at the scene of the second victim – Jenny Mearns – I found that key in the grass near the body. I gave it to you. Yet somehow it never made into the evidence.’

‘You certain about that?’ Caulder tried to look casual as he took a sip of beer.

‘Yeah,’ Heather nodded, ‘I checked the evidence log yesterday morning. It was never entered.’

‘No, because I lost it. Human error, darling.’ Caulder chuckled. ‘You better get used to it if you want to survive in this game.’ He picked up his beer and took another gulp.

‘You were the senior investigating officer, and you lost the only piece of evidence in a major murder enquiry?’

‘It appears so.’ Caulder’s tone was a cocktail of defiance and boredom. He glanced around at the window and the doorway to the living room.  ‘So you live out here all alone?’ he asked.

‘I do, yes.’

‘Don’t you ever feel a bit vulnerable out here away from the rest of society?’

‘No, I prefer it.’

‘But anything could happen to somebody living alone out here.’ Caulder fixed Heather with a steely gaze.

Heather pushed back. ‘So we have three dead girls and for you it’s simply a matter of case closed.’

‘I hope it is.’ Caulder grinned.

‘I bet you do,’ Heather said flatly

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ A darkness suddenly crossed Caulder’s expression.

‘It was you, wasn’t it? You’re the one who killed those girls?’ Heather had said it earlier than she had planned.

‘Don’t be bloody stupid.’

‘You remember the key you supposedly lost?’

‘The one I lost – no supposedly about it, darling. Anyway what about it?’

‘It’s turned up again.’ Heather said, the emotion in her voice barely concealed.

‘I doubt that,’ Caulder said.

‘It’s on the key chain next to you.’

Caulder followed Rose’s gaze to the bundle of keys attached to his bottle opener. He let out a brief unconvincing laugh before his face became utterly serious.

‘Which one?’

‘The brass one,’ Heather said quietly.

‘That just looks like the one you gave me. Keys are all pretty much the same.’

‘Only they’re not. They are pretty individual. On the morning I found that key, I took a photograph of it with my phone, and I’ve looked at it every day for months. I reckon it’s the key to the Yale lock on the door of your house. That’s why you couldn’t just throw it away. It probably came off when you were dragging the body to the location. Am I right?’

Something in Caulder’s expression shifted and Heather realised she was now seeing behind the mask.

‘They fell out of my pocket.’ he said absently. That’s the problem with avoiding being seen under the cover of night– you can’t just use a torch. So I only heard them fall, and managed to reach out into the darkness and find them. I didn’t realise that one of them had fallen off until you found it.’

‘I knew it would be something like that.’

‘So you’ve got it all figured out. A real smartarse, eh.’

‘Why did you do it?’

‘Because they were vermin and I could, darling.’

‘Where’s your car?’ Heather asked.

‘Parked outside the gym in town, conveniently beneath a CCTV camera too. I also left my mobile phone in one of the gym lockers, and used my electronic pass to sign in for a session in the steam room. Then I slipped out of the side exit  and walked all the way out here – ruining an expensive pair of shoes too. But the benefit is that essentially, DC Armitage, I’m not actually here right now – so whoever kills you tonight can’t be me.

Caulder drained the last of the beer and placed the empty bottle down. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of blue latex gloves and a piece of rubber-covered cable. Heather recognised it as being consistent with the indentations on the necks of the dead girls.

She glanced at the door and back to Caulder.

‘You can try making a break for it if you like,’ he said, ‘but I doubt you’ll make it.’

‘Your DNA will be all over this place.’ Heather said quietly, knowing that it meant little.

‘It’s okay,’ Caulder smiled, ‘because I’ll be the one who drives up here after being at the gym and discovers your lifeless body. That will mean the techies can eliminate me from your inexplicable murder.’ Caulder began pulling on one of the gloves, but seemed to be struggling with his fingers. ‘I’ll make it quick-ish. But just so you’re able to rest in peace, I should probably let you know that I didn’t kill that last one. The one found in the sewerage place.’

‘No, of course you didn’t,’ Heather said as if the notion was ridiculous.

‘What makes you so sure?’  Caulder asked as the gloves fell from his hands.

‘He was mine,’ Heather said proudly.

‘What did you say?’ Caulder attempted to stand up but his legs buckled beneath him and he slid off the stool, cracking his chin on the edge of the edge of the centre island as he fell.

Heather stood up and walked to the sink where she casually poured the remaining half-bottle of beer away.  She opened the door of a cupboard and removed a folded tarpaulin.  After walking to the other side of the unit, she crouched down next to Caulder, who lay twitching on the floor. Two teeth lay beside him like a couple of corn kernels. His hands were grasping at nothing and his eyes were wild and fearful.

‘There’s no point in fighting it,’ Heather said calmly, ‘the paralytic effect of the drug in your beer will be stronger than your will. Just so you can rest in peace, I should probably tell you that the body I put in the sewerage tank was another murderer just like you – he killed his girlfriend last year, but you probably don’t remember. He didn’t even get convicted.’

Heather unfolded the material and laid it out on the floor next to Caulder. Then she proceeded to arrange his limbs so she could roll him on to the tarpaulin. She carried on speaking quite amiably as she worked.

‘So I met him in the bar of the Golden Lion hotel for a drink. I planned to get him pissed and push him down some stairs, but would you believe the idiot tried to spike my drink with the same clear chemical you are sampling right now.  I sat at a table and watched as he went to the bar, ordered a couple of drinks, then pulled a bottle from his pocket and poured the stuff into my glass. So when he arrived the table, I told him to get some condoms from the toilets and he was too excited to even think. While he was away, I switched the glasses around and he enjoyed a taste of his own medicine – literally. By the time I helped him to stagger out of town to the sewage plant he could hardly stand. He was barely conscious when I stripped him and rolled him into the tanks.’

Heather stood up and looked down at the trembling man now lying neatly on the material. ‘You see, DCI Caulder, that’s how it is in the world – women have been disposable for centuries and the law does nothing to protect us. So I applied to work in job that would allow me to administer justice to those who the law ignored. I just didn’t expect to find a killer as my senior officer. How lucky am I?’

Heather went to a kitchen drawer and returned a moment later with a length of blue nylon rope. She crouched down once again and gathered the end the tarpaulin. After wrapping it around Caulder’s feet, Heather used the rope to secure it into position.

‘Right, all done!  You look like a half-wrapped toffee. I just need to tie the end of this rope to the tow bar on my jeep, then I’ll drag you down into to the fields. I have a place ready for you. There’s room enough for plenty more too.’

Heather began looping the end of the rope into a figure-of-eight knot.

‘You know the ancient Celts used to believe that a blood sacrifice in a barren field would mean a better harvest the following year. Maybe sacrificing people like you will help yield a better society.  If nothing else, all that blood and bone will be good for the potato crop.’

Caulder attempted to scream, but the sound he made was little more than a stifled yawn.

‘Now don’t you go getting upset, sir,’ Heather said cheerfully. ‘Think of it like this – you’re not actually here just now; you’re at the gym in town, so nobody is ever going to come looking for you, and whoever I end up murdering down in the potato field tonight, it can’t be you…’




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