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Fiction Crime Horror

This story contains sensitive content

CW: discussion of injury and murder, relatively dark themes though the story takes place after anything graphic so it’s not actually seen, brief mention of domestic abuse, very brief suggestions of alcoholism.

DI Cray had learnt a long while ago that the gregarious and the homicidal often went hand in hand. 

She was used to it. Her day to day was seeped with it. The people-people. The ESTPs. The Neutral Evils. The Geminis. She’d seen it all before.

Graham Burnley had all the charisma of a Rich Tea Biscuit gaffer-taped to a piece of cardboard. Cardboard from a box of Bran Flakes, most likely. 

If he were a colour, he’d be beige. If he were a shoe, he’d be a loafer. And ironically, Graham had worn both. Beige jumper, brown loafers. Before they were stripped off and placed in a number of plastic evidence bags, that is. Each piece of clothing had been stained with an equally boring brown – the shade Cray knew to be born from that unmistakable fire-engine red.

She’d seen his house, after all. 

The dried-out stains on both him and the furniture matched as clearly as if they were cast by the same stamp. The stains on Mikey Milligan’s lifeless face had been the same too. It was understandable, Cray supposed. Each splodge of colour was mixed in the same 17-year-old paint pot. Tumbled about in a Man-City-shirted, acne-covered ink shaker, masquerading as the only son of Mr. and Mrs. Milligan. 

She’d seen the autopsy diagram too. And the others. Seventeen of them – the same number of years Mikey was allowed to live. Seventeen morbid games of Operation, scribbled onto creased cardstock and tucked into an orange folder.

Cray placed that very folder down onto the table. The marmalade plastic hit its surface with a thud. 

“Hello, Mr. Burnley.” 

Cray pulled the chair out with as much grace as she could muster. She wasn’t given any grace in return, just a plain look on dry lips and a dull stare from the balding man before her. 

“Hello, Detective.” Graham said. 

Bland. Starchy. A dry, tasteless cracker for the ears. 

He sipped the mug of tea he’d been given. Cold, of course – regulation demanded it – and doused with enough milk to make it the same insipid shade as his jumper. Cray watched him suck it through chipped, yellow teeth. A grin, painfully polite, hung on the mouth that owned them. But there was nothing amiable about it. Nothing charming about that wonky smile and the gaze of brown eyes. 

It was just there. He was just there.

The talkative ones, the ones who picked up on a conversation and went running for miles on end – well, Cray had always found them rather easy. Graham Burnley was a lot of things, but easy was certainly not one of them. 

Pulling her eyes from those crooked pearls, she found herself tapping neatly manicured nails across the folder.  “I hear you’re refusing a lawyer, Mr. Burnley.” 

“Don’t like lawyers,” Graham gave a half-hearted shrug, words simpler than his Eton timbre made the mind expect, “Don’t need one.”

Cray’s brow pinched together. 

She felt her eyes narrow.

Finally, she pulled a piece of paper from the folder.

“Autopsy reports,” her voice spoke before she was even aware of it, “Michael John Milligan. Seventeen years old. Are you good at maths, Mr. Burnley?”

Another shrug.

“Seven stab wounds for each year of his life. That’s one hundred and what, Mr. Burnley?”

Graham paused.

“One hundred and seventeen.” He finally said.

Cray’s lips formed her own polite smile. 

“One hundred and nineteen, actually. But you knew that. We found him in your airing cupboard, after all. So, yes, Mr. Burnley,” the grin dropped, “You do need a lawyer.”

And it appeared polite smiles were dropping like flies.

“I don’t want a lawyer, Detective.” 

Still bland. Still no tone or lilt. Just there, just as he was, but telling Cray that her words had chiselled in just that little bit. The flavourless crumbs were beginning to fall from his mouth, it would seem. A bitterness was the only thing left in their place. The burnt scraps Graham had left to blacken on the tray, hoping that perhaps they might remain ignored. 

Cray had always liked the bitter things in life. They made her job more interesting. She’d take the label of being shameless just to pick through those crispy pieces and find something useful. Something damning. 

“And I’m sure Michael didn’t want to die. Fortunately for you,” Cray dragged her smile up from the ground, “I’m inclined to make my job as easy as possible. If you don’t want a lawyer, Mr. Burnley, so be it.”

Graham’s eyes narrowed just as Cray’s had a moment before. 

“Will it be quicker without a lawyer?” He asked.

“Perhaps.”

“Well, then,” something filled Graham’s tone, mocking enough to almost have character, “So be it. I have a cat to feed. I have plants to water. I have things to doDetective. Quicker is better. So, go on, ask me the question.”

“And what question would that be?”

Another sip of tea passed Graham’s lips – lips that Cray almost believed to look smug. “Don’t insult yourself by pretending you don’t know, Detective. Every person I’ve met today has asked me it.”

Cray shuffled in her seat before she could stop herself. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”

The nod Graham gave was only an inch away from utter stillness.

“Did they use my trowel?”

She could practically feel the quickness of that change in her neck. Whiplash, it felt like. A subtle ache. 

“Your trowel?”

“To dig them up,” Graham clarified, “The lads. I know your team went looking in my garden. I know they found them. I suppose I just wanted to know if they used my trowel. It’s awfully good for the tricky bits, you see. I bought it from Kew.”

“The forensics team have their own equipment, Mr. Burnley.”

“Yes. I thought they would. But it’s a good trowel,” Graham spoke mostly to himself, eventually raising his voice so that Cray knew without a shadow of a doubt that she was being talked to once more, “Ask the question, Detective. Go on. Everyone has.”

Cray didn’t know what that meant. She wasn’t sure she knew what any of this conversation meant, with its triple axel turns that spun between maths equations and well-loved trowels. In the end, she could only guess. Men like Mr. Burnley always wanted you to ask the same thing, didn’t they? Whether it was the age of her growing out a perm or spending each morning slathering on the that God-awful nude lipstick or taking those newly prescribed heart pills, Cray had met a lot of those men before. They liked you to ask because they wanted more than anything for you to know. Cray didn’t need to ask to know but, still, she would ask them the question each time. 

This time was no different.

“Why did you kill them, Mr. Burnley?”

There.

Out in the open. A dense cloud in the stale air. 

But Graham didn’t seem all that keen to breathe it in.

“Hm,” he almost huffed, “Why did I, indeed. You’ll have to ask my father that. Whatever I am now was beaten into me.”

“So, you take no blame?”

A greying eyebrow rose on a wrinkled forehead. 

“Blame? Who said anything about blame, Detective? There is no blame to be given. Not with this. Perhaps I took the lives of a few boys. Perhaps I asked them into my house and they so politely followed. Perhaps I buried them in my garden. Perhaps when I ran out of space and the newest body was there dead on my floor, I tucked him neatly away in my airing cupboard. Perhaps. But this isn’t about blame, Detective. Blame is rather pointless, don’t you think? It has about as much power over the world as a mere man does. Blame does nothing. Blame won’t bring those boys back. This,” he gestured vaguely at the interview room around them, “Is formality. Whatever will happen to me has already been decided in your minds. Blame doesn’t enter into it, I’m afraid. Point a finger and I will simply…” Graham grasped for the right words, “Bite it off. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Let it be said that I’m no cannibal. The reason I did what I did, well, that’s for me to know, Detective.”

“And the families of those boys?” Cray said, “It isn’t for them to know either?”

“Do you think it would help? Honestly, Detective. Tell me honestly. Do you think it would help?”

If Cray’s anger would have let her, she’d have sighed.

“No.”

“No,” Graham nodded, “No. Precisely.”

“But I think any damage was done the moment they saw those boys, their sons and brothers and nephews, lying dead on a metal slab. Seventeen victims. Seventeen families worth of pointing fingers that aren’t going to stop pointing just because it suits you. Don’t you think so, Graham?”

Six letters, in place of the previous nine, seemed enough to begin the great big push over the edge of the man before her. Tumble, tumble, tumble, he would hopefully go. Down into a pit of equal parts boring and vile. 

But even though Cray could see the falling in his eyes, he didn’t slip on the outside. His face glued itself back into place – a still, silent place that’s ordinariness alone could kill. 

“Quite right,” his well-mannered smile crawled back up, “You’re very perceptive, Paula.”

Cray wasn’t going to let five letters get to her, defiant as she was. Those five letters had been lobbed against enough walls to bruise them and taint their very existence. They had become separate to her a long while ago. Too separate for a Farley’s Rusk of a man to use as ammunition. 

“So I’ve been told.”

“Hm,” that nearly non-existent sound entered the air once again, “But you still haven’t asked the question, Paula.”

“I asked you why you–”

“No, no,” Graham tutted, “We both know that’s not the question you want to ask. You don’t care about why I killed them. You’ve probably conjured up the reason in your mind already. So, I’ll say it again: ask the question.

“I don’t have a question, Mr. Burnley.”

In the back of her head, buried somewhere between her shopping list and the memory of her first day on the job, Cray could feel the prickles of those words like needles on her grey matter. 

Ask the question.

Ask the question.

Ask the question. 

But she didn’t have a question.

She didn’t have a question. 

“I know you want to ask it, Paula,” his look turned ever so slightly confused, “I know you do. Ask it.”

“This is getting tedious, Mr. Burnley.”

Ask the question. 

Ask the question. 

Ask the question. 

Graham didn’t falter. 

“Quite right. So, ask the question.”

Ask the question. 

Ask the question. 

Ask the question. 

Cray stopped.

She dug that bothersome little string of words from the back of her brain and dragged it forward. Chucked it up into the air like a rusted penny. 

Ask the question, Paula. 

And, with nothing but anger in her eyes and the folder under her fingertips, Cray did just that.

“Why did they go inside your house?”

The penny clanked to the ground. 

Graham smiled, pleased to let it spin and roll along the floorboards. 

“Would you elaborate, Paula?”

Cray, as unfathomable as it was, gave a grunt at that. 

“Why did they go into your houseMr. Burnley?” she snapped, “What could have possibly persuaded them to do so? You’re a stock broker. You obsess over trowels. You smell like Bordeaux and dust. You have the charisma of a gin-addicted housewife who volunteers at a post office. You are dullMr. Burnley, and you are ordinary, and nobody in their right mind would pay you any mind because everything you are can be summed up by the pattern of your tie and the cut of your trousers. Why did they go into your bloody house?”

She knew kindness and she knew being a good neighbour and she knew the occasional thoughtlessness of teenagers. 

But she also knew how the world was now. She knew the lessons, the unspoken rules that were drilled into kids these days the way good manners had once been. She knew the mist of danger that every child breathed and had done ever since one to many news stories came and went of children who went but didn’t come back. Cray knew these things. 

She knew them like the backs of her aging hands, shaken up by too many nights of £5 bottles from the wine aisle. 

From that glint in his gaze, as sharp as a pin, Graham knew these things too. 

His lips finally made a proper smile, vile in all its toothiness.

And Cray knew, right there and then, that gregariousness didn’t have to enter into it. It was a spice in the broth, nothing more. It didn’t actually matter.

Graham told her exactly why. 

“Dullness is a mask, Detective,” Graham downed his tea, “It makes you invisible. Charm is a siren. When you make no noise, nobody believes you’re capable of anything.”

November 12, 2021 23:42

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3 comments

Alex Sultan
20:30 Jan 07, 2022

You wrote some very convincing dialogue in this one. I like Graham's speech about blame a lot, I think it was my favourite part, and it's clever how you meshed italics into it for emphasis. It's also cool how you write with a UK style, if that makes sense. It's not what I usually read and I find UK writers all have a different approach to writing. The repeated "Ask the question" was well done - the use of repetition in style can be tricky, and I think you worked it well here. Where did you find the inspiration for this, if you don't mind me...

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Elizabeth Napier
21:16 Jan 07, 2022

Thank you for the lovely comment! The prompt was to do with writing something based around a song so I chose Charmless Man by Blur - in terms of story, it doesn't have much to do with the song but I was interested in doing something about someone who doesn't have the charisma one might think necessary for the type of person that they are if that makes sense? I'm interested in true crime so a fair bit of the inspiration comes from that too! Graham was supposed to be like a sort if anti-Ted Bundy in terms of his personality as it is always s...

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Alex Sultan
21:23 Jan 07, 2022

Now that you brought it up, I do see the connection to a sort anti-Ted Bundy with Graham's personality. That's an interesting base for a character! I look forward to reading more of your stories.

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