Murder at the Railway Arms: A short story by Liam Saville

Posted: 04/05/2016 in Uncategorized
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Murder at the Railway Arms

by

Liam Saville

A short story written for the 2015/16 CWA Margery Allingham Short Story Competition.
Liam Saville is the author of the military crime thrillers Predator Strike and Resolute Action.

 

The drive from Kings Lynn to Downham Market took fifteen minutes longer than Detective Inspector Josh Bradshaw had anticipated. The traffic, heavier than normal due to roadwork on the A10, had reduced their pace to a crawl, and only the skilful driving of Detective Sergeant Andy McMillan, and the liberal use of their police siren, had prevented it from taking even longer.

“Do you know this pub in the railway station?” Bradshaw asked.

“Sure, the Railway Arms. Everybody knows it, sir.”

“Not everybody, Andy.”

“No, quite right. Not those who’ve only lived here a few days. My apologies. It’s quite famous though, featured on Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys a few years back.”

“The train show on BBC2, you watch that? If you ask me, there’s nothing remotely enjoyable about train travel. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to think of anything worse.”

After a twelve-month secondment to the capital with the Metropolitan Police, it was Bradshaw’s first week back with his home force, the Norfolk Constabulary. Previously posted to Norwich, on the other side of the county, he hadn’t spent much time in the Kings Lynn district.

McMillan slowed as they entered the market town and headed for the railway station.

“No offence, sir, but with the name Bradshaw, I’d have thought you’d be right into trains and rail travel.”

“Well, you don’t get to choose your name. I’m not at all related to my family’s famous namesake, I haven’t written any railway guidebooks, and rest assured, as long as I have any say in it, I won’t be taking any long train journeys.”

McMillan parked in an empty space opposite the railway station near a car dealership. They walked to the main building on the southern side of the station, where a uniformed constable stood on the porch behind blue and white police tape that had been strung along the building’s aging brick façade.

Bradshaw held up his badge and warrant card. “DI Bradshaw and DS McMillan, Kings Lynn CID; we’re after Sergeant Cruickshank.”

At that point, they knew only the basics. The publican was dead—he was alive when the last customers left the night before and found dead when his staff arrived in the morning.

The constable wrote their names on the crime scene log. “The sergeant’s in the bar with the police doctor. Through the corridor to the platform, then first on your right. You can’t miss it—big blue door with a sign above it.”

Bradshaw and McMillan walked through the corridor and onto the platform on the other side. There, Bradshaw looked around and saw another uniformed constable standing by the blue door. He also noted that the section of Platform One, which stood adjacent the building, had been cordoned off with police tape. With nothing more than a nod to the constable, Bradshaw opened the door, and the two detectives stepped inside.

“Smaller than it looks from the outside. You’d be hard-pressed to get a dozen or so drinkers in here.”

“Particularly the way it looks now,” McMillan said.

The small bar was a mess. Books and papers were everywhere, with all the cupboards and draws around the room open, their contents strewn about. On the far side of the room, by the bar, a uniformed sergeant, who Bradshaw took to be Matt Cruickshank, the Downham Market Safer Neighbourhood Team Leader, and the police doctor were crouched over the victim’s body.

As they entered, Cruickshank stood and walked over. “Andy, thanks for coming,” he said, shaking MacMillan’s hand. “A right mess this one. Burglary gone wrong by the look—probably one of the local gypsies. Shouldn’t be too hard to track down the culprit.”

McMillan made the introductions.

“So a creeper break, sergeant?” Bradshaw said. “Why don’t you run us through your theory?”

Cruickshank nodded. “We’ve got Damian Zammit over there on the floor. Owner of the Railway Arms. He won big on the lottery earlier this year; bought the pub with his some of his winnings. He’s rich, but clearly he’s seen better days. He was stabbed once in the back and once through the chest.”

Cruickshank paused and checked his notes.

“He recently became engaged. Local woman by the name of Kate May. He was last seen alive by two staff, Gail Bridges and Clare Harris, who along with a customer left when the bar closed at ten-thirty. Zammit stayed behind to do some paperwork after closing while the others left. Miss Harris turned up at nine this morning to open the pub. That’s when she found him dead on the floor. The night’s takings are missing, as are Zammit’s Rolex and wallet. She’s already back at Downham Police Station, waiting to provide a formal statement. I haven’t contacted Miss Bridges yet, nor the fiancée, Kate May, she’s out of the country.”

Bradshaw took out his own notebook and started writing, and then turned his attention back to Cruickshank.

“The customer, what do we know about him?”

“Well, this may sound odd, but you passed him on your way in; PC Steve Bedano is keeping the crime scene log at the front. He stopped in for a swifty after work last night and left with the two staff members when the bar closed. He says Zammit was alive at the time.”

“Do you agree, doctor?” Bradshaw asked. “Does that work, in terms of his wounds?”

“Most likely. Given the blood loss, I’d say they were fatal; although I won’t know for sure until the post-mortem. If I had to guess, I’d say he was stabbed in the back first—as that wound doesn’t look too deep—then after he turned to face his attacker, he was stabbed a second time in the chest. The second stab is likely the one that killed him. As for the timeline, given his state of rigor, I’d put the tentative time of death of between 9pm and 1am last night.”

Bradshaw added the details to his notebook.

“Other than the missing property, and the mess in here, do we have anything else to support the burglary turned murder theory, sergeant?”

“In the back room, the ceiling is lower than in the main bar.  There’s a loft hatch that was open in there this morning—it wasn’t open last night.  I think the killer waited until the pub closed, and then thinking he was alone, he climbed in through the roof. It’s easy enough to slide a few of the old tiles to the side and slip into the loft space and down out of the hatch. Problem was that the pub wasn’t empty, so there was a confrontation with the victim.”

Bradshaw gestured towards the backroom. “Is there a ladder?”

“Not here, but I can get one brought down from the police station,” Cruickshank said.

With Cruickshank gone to arrange the ladder, Bradshaw looked over the body.

“Is this how Mr Zammit was found, doctor? Was he lying on his side like this?”

“No. He was face down when the paramedics arrived. They turned him to check for signs of life. That’s how I was able to see both stab wounds.”

“I don’t see any signs of a struggle on the body, no scratches or marks on his hands or face?”

“No, neither did I.  Still, I’ll be sure to get samples of any material under his fingernails. We might be lucky.”

“Yes, thank you. So, Andy, what’s your take on this? Are we looking at a burglary or robbery gone wrong, or something else entirely?”

McMillan looked around and considered his answer for a few moments.

“Based on what we know so far, Sir, Sergeant Cruikshank’s scenario fits. If the attacker surprised him after dropping down out of the loft in the other room, it may explain why he was first stabbed in the back, and then when he turned around, stabbed again through the heart.”

“Yes, but a bit excessive, don’t you think? If you were here for a burglary, and dropped in through the roof to find somebody here, would the first thing you do be to stab the person? Chances are you’d be in just as much shock as they are. Besides, the noise of climbing in through the roof would likely alert the victim to your presence—”

“But if that’s the case, then—”

“Then there would be no surprise attack, and a better than average chance that the victim would have fought back.”

“I think you’re right, sir. It could be that Mr Zammit was the target all along, and the robbery only an afterthought. Perhaps he didn’t hear the attacker climbing through the roof, because he was already in the loft space. If he was up there waiting, he might have been able to lower himself quietly and sneak up behind him.”

Bradshaw walked into the backroom and had a look at the ceiling. It was a lot lower in this room, probably closer to eight feet above the floor as opposed to the fourteen or so feet it was in the main bar. Even so, would a person be able to lower themselves from that height without alerting somebody working in the next room?

Within minutes, Sergeant Cruickshank returned with a ladder and set it up below the open hatch. It was an old wooden a-frame type that had clearly seen better days.

“Have you got your working at heights certificate, sir?” he said in jest, as he stepped aside for Bradshaw.

“Pull your head in, sergeant.”

Bradshaw gave the ladder a shake then climbed to the top. There, he switched on the torch on his mobile phone and stuck his head up into the loft. His inspection took just seconds.

“Well, that’s the end of that theory,” he said as he climbed back down. “The hatch might have been open, but there was no way anybody used it to gain entry to the pub.”

“You can tell that from a two-second glance?” Cruickshank asked.

“Sure, take a look yourself.”

Cruickshank didn’t need to be asked twice. He pulled a Maglite torch out of his duty belt and climbed to the top.

“I don’t get it,” he said a few moments later, with his head still in the loft space. “There’s plenty of room up here, sir. How can you possibly know nobody was up here?”

“To coin a phrase, sergeant, that’s elementary. Have a look around the edges of the hatch, where your fingers have just been. What do you see?”

“Dust, it’s very dusty up here.”

“Close, sergeant, very close. What you’re seeing is where your hand has disturbed the dust. Now look around the rest of the space. You’ll see it too is quite dusty. There probably hasn’t been anyone up there in years, and that’s the point. If the offender had climbed in through the roof, or simply been up there hiding, he would have disturbed the dust everywhere he touched. The dust hasn’t been disturbed, because nobody was up there.”

Bradshaw turned to his partner.

“Andy, give the security guys at Great Northern a call. See if we can get access to the last twenty-four hours of CCTV from the station. Then track down Clare Harris and see what you can do about tracing the fiancée. I’ll meet you up at the Downham Police Station shortly.”

“Leave it to me,” McMillan said.

With McMillan tasked, Bradshaw walked out of the bar and back to the front of the building.

“Constable Bedano,” he said, “you were here when the bar closed last night. Care to run me through what you saw?”

“Well, sir, I stopped by the bar after work last night, about ten-fifteen, I suppose. It’s something I often do when working the late shift. I share a small terrace up on Bennett Street, which is just round the corner from here, and both my flat mates work here at the bar.”

“Clare Harris and Gail Bridges, they’re your flatmates?”

“Yeah, they were working last night. Clare finished about an hour before close, but stayed for a few beers, and Gail knocked off when the bar closed at ten-thirty. About five minutes after close, we all left together. We were the last to leave, and Damian was fine at that time.”

Bradshaw consulted his notes.

“You definitely all left together?”

“Well, yes. Clare and I stepped out first while Gail finished a quick half-pint, but she was only a minute behind us.”

“So, Gail was alone inside with the victim?”

“Yes, but it really was just for a few seconds. The moment we walked out, Clare realised she’d left her jacket, so she stuck her head inside to grab it. It was cold out, and she didn’t notice she’d left it until we were outside. Besides, I could hear her talking to Gail and Damian the whole time. I was just outside the door, and then we all left together. I heard Clare tell Damian she’d open up in the morning as she walked out with Gail and saw her pull the door shut on the way.”

“Right, got it, so there was no way Gail could have stabbed him, because Clare would have seen it. What about the victim? How well do you know Damian Zammit?”

Constable Bedano dropped his gaze to the ground.

“What is it, constable?”

“Well, it’s just… well, I’ve known him for years; we went to school together and sort of hung out a bit. He was a bit of a hell-raiser when he was younger, got into a bit of strife. Nothing too serious, but he had a few run-ins with the police back in the day.

Bradshaw nodded and then jotted down more notes.

“Did you kill Damian Zammit, constable?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then you’ve got nothing to worry about, do you? Now, what more can you tell me?”

“He’s had a few jobs over the years, worked as a labourer mainly, but no career so to speak; at least not until he won twenty million quid in that triple roll-over jackpot last year. That’s when he bought the bar.”

“What about his fiancée, Kate May? When did she come onto the scene?”

“Now that was something I didn’t see coming. I didn’t even know he was seeing anybody seriously. Damian always fancied himself as a ladies man. Never really had much luck, though, until he was rich. After he won the money, he had no problem picking up. Even Clare and Gail were sniffing around, trying to land the cash. I really didn’t see him as the type to settle down, and not with somebody like Kate May. He’s certainly punching above his weight with her.”

Bradshaw finished his interview and walked back into the bar to wait for the scene-of-crime officers to arrive and start the forensic investigation. It was a slow, methodical process that took several hours. Eventually the police doctor took control of the body, and Bradshaw had Cruickshank accompany it to the mortuary. Then, with the crime scene under control, he headed up to the Downham Police Station.

At the station, Bradshaw made himself a strong cup of tea and then took a seat at the empty desk next to McMillan.

“Any luck with the CCTV from Great Southern?”

“Yeah, they emailed me a secure link that we can stream from here. We can control the footage from all of the cameras on the station, and if necessary, go back up to twenty-eight days. I’ve already had a look; the views from the cameras are first rate. Clear, unobstructed vision right around the building. The downside is that there are no cameras inside the bar.”

“I noticed that when I was there, but that’s not the worst of it, though, is it?”

“Actually, no, it’s not. When I looked through the footage, I couldn’t see anybody coming or going from the building. From the time customer and staff leave, right up until Clare Harris returned to open up this morning, nobody approaches it. But somehow, you already knew that, didn’t you, sir?”

“Not for certain, Andy, but I’m not surprised.”

He could see that he’d totally confused his partner, so Bradshaw took a few minutes to recap what he’d learnt at the scene, including confirmation from the scene-of-crime officers that the murder weapon was not left on site, and that it likely came from the victim’s own kitchen knife block that was located behind the bar.

“Any luck tracing the fiancée?” Bradshaw asked.

“Yes, and that’s one thing that I do have clear. Immigration has confirmed that she left the country for Athens the day before yesterday and hasn’t returned yet. I managed to track her down to a hotel in the Greek Islands. She was planning her wedding, of all things.”

“So you’ve spoken to her?”

“Yeah, she already knew Zammit had been killed, though. It seems news spreads fast around here. She took a call from a friend half an hour before I spoke with her; she’s on her way back.”

Bradshaw nodded and then updated his notebook.

“I’m still confused, though, sir. The victim was alive when the witnesses left. Nobody entered the bar all night, yet he was dead when Gail Bridges arrived in the morning. It’s not possible.”

Bradshaw grinned. “Clearly, it is, as that’s what happened. Show me the CCTV footage of the group leaving last night; I need to check something before I tell you who the murderer is.

McMillan played the footage, and the scene looked just as Bedano had described it. He’d walked out with Clare, who had left without her jacket. She ran back to the door, only to come out seconds later with Gail, who was carrying her jacket for her.

“That’s it, that’s the key,” Bradshaw said.

“What? I don’t see it. Gail couldn’t have killed him. Clare would have seen it, and besides, there was not time for her to ransack the place.”

Bradshaw left McMillan pondering the question for a few moments while he made another cup of tea.

“Have you worked it out?” he said, when he returned.

“No, I’m still lost.”

“What if I told you that there were two killers?”

Suddenly, a smile formed across McMillan’s face.

“That works,” he said. “Gail stabbed him when Clare and Bedano left, then Clare stuck her head in to provide an alibi for her. They didn’t ransack the place. There wasn’t time. Clare did that when she got in this morning, and she also opened the loft hatch to make it look like a burglary gone wrong.”

“Right,” Bradshaw said. “Which explains why Zammit had no defensive wounds; he knew his killer. And what better cover for them both than a police officer who’d honestly swear they didn’t do it? The only thing you missed is that despite Clare being cold and going back for her jacket, she didn’t put it on.”

“Of course, Gail carried it out. She probably needed to hide the blood stains and conceal the murder weapon. My only question is why did they do it?”

“At this stage there are only two people that can answer that. My guess is that we’ll find a complicated love triangle behind it all. It’s amazing how desirable someone can become when they have money.”

“So much for the romance of the railway then, sir.”

“Right again, Andy. Now, get typing. We need a warrant to search a terrace house up on Bennett Street.”

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Comments
  1. Roy C says:

    Excellent story that had a ‘real life’ content feel to it and kept me interested throughout the whole story!

  2. Md karim says:

    Great selection of characters, interesting short story.Loved it.

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