Authors: Catriona King
Tags: #Mysteries & Thrillers
The Coercion Key
Copyright © 2014 by Catriona King
Photography: Anna Merzlyakova, invisiblesk
Design: Crooked Cat
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or Crooked Cat Publishing except for brief quotations used for promotion or in reviews. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
First Black Line Edition, Crooked Cat Publishing Ltd. 2014
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About the Author
Catriona King trained as a doctor and a police Forensic Medical Examiner in London, where she worked for many years. She worked closely with the Metropolitan Police on several occasions. In recent years, she has returned to live in Belfast.
She has written since childhood; fiction, fact and reporting.
The Coercion Key
’ is the seventh novel in the Craig Crime Series. It follows Superintendent Marc Craig and his team through the streets of Northern Ireland investigating a series of apparent suicides.
Book eight in the Craig Crime Series, ‘
The Careless Word
’ will be released soon. Book nine is currently in edits.
My thanks to Northern Ireland for providing the inspiration for my books.
I would like to thank Crooked Cat Publishing for being so unfailingly supportive and cheerful.
My thanks also to Andrew Angel for beta-reading this book.
And I would like to thank all of the police officers that I have ever worked with, anywhere, for their unfailing professionalism, wit and compassion.
Belfast, August 2014
The Craig Crime Series
A Limited Justice
The Grass Tattoo
The Waiting Room
The Broken Shore
The Slowest Cut
The Coercion Key
The Careless Word
Discover more at:
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The Coercion Key
Belfast. Wednesday, 2
April 2014. 10 p.m.
It was a long way to fall and it was going to hurt; hurt like hell. But the fall that wasn’t at his feet would be even greater and take longer than he could bear. Drawn out for months of computer seizures and looks of disgust, then court hearings, prison rape and his name on a register for the rest of his life.
Nelson Warner shook his head and gazed down at the River Lagan, wondering how cold it was and if the tales of it being haunted by sailors who’d drowned there would prove true. It looked forbidding; the April wind whipping its waves into tall peaks that warned off even the gulls overhead. He gripped the balcony railing hard, whitening his knuckles until they hurt, and marvelled at the flock of starlings swooping above the Albert Bridge. They did it every evening, performing their perfectly synchronised dance. A natural wonder, like so much else in the world. Such a pity that he’d always focused on other, less savoury things.
He cautiously mounted the frail wicker chair, part of a set that his sister had bought him, so that he could sit out on his balcony and admire the view. He teetered inelegantly for a moment, laughing at his poor balance; it had never been very good, no career in gymnastics ahead for him. Glancing back towards the living room, at the thing that had forced him to this point, Warner nodded in acknowledgement, accepting that they’d won.
Then he jumped.
The Lab. Friday, 5 p.m.
“Of course, you realise it’s out of your hands now, don’t you?”
John Winter didn’t answer, so Craig continued, on a roll.
“It’ll be endless hotel brochures, colour schemes and wedding lists from now until the big day.”
Craig laughed, seeing his friend’s terrified expression. “There’s no escape and nothing you suggest will ever be right. So just smile and say ‘yes dear’ to whatever you’re asked; that’s my advice.”
John tapped his computer screen into sleep mode and glared at his friend. They were sitting in his small office in the pathology lab having a rare relaxing drink after work. Rare in the sense that it normally occurred in Bar Red in the centre of town; there was nothing rare about the amount of whisky they were knocking back. His own consumption had dropped slightly since his engagement to Natalie. He wasn’t sure why. She drank like a fish, so it wasn’t as if he was marrying Sister Mary of the Abstentionists who expected him to take the pledge. It was more a sense that he didn’t need to get drunk to have a good time anymore, when he could have it just by being with her. Craig’s drinking, on the other hand, was becoming an issue.
John gazed through doctor’s eyes at his unfeasibly handsome friend and wondered what was going through his head. He rarely looked at Craig, really looked that was, in the way that you look at someone when you don’t know them at all. But now he did and what he saw would have made any sane woman happy. Six feet plus of tanned, muscled male with a handsome face and navy eyes so blue that they almost looked unnatural. Craig also had brains, a loving family and a job that he excelled at, so why did John feel unhappiness oozing from his every pore?
Craig smiled broadly, making a lie of John’s assessment. If he’d been able to read his friend’s mind he mightn’t have been grinning.
“What are you staring at me like that for? You know I’m right. You proposed marriage and now Natalie’s planning her wedding, not yours. All that’ll be required of you for the next however long is to nod, say ‘yes dear’, and turn up on the day. So you’d better set a date. The sooner you do the sooner your torture will be over.”
“I hope that was an mmm… of agreement. Because you know that I’m right.”
John realised that he was still staring at his friend and changed the subject to other things. “I might have a case for you.”
Craig leaned forward eagerly. “Might have? You mean you have a body but you’re not sure that it’s dead.” He laughed at the ridiculousness of the idea. “Or it’s definitely dead but you’re not sure it’s murder.”
John puffed out his cheeks and frowned as he realised something. He mightn’t just have one body for Craig, he might have several. He crossed to a cabinet in one corner of the office and started rifling through the top drawer. After a moment he tutted loudly and closed it, yanking out the one underneath. He repeated his search several times until he had three files in his hand, then he sat back down and tapped the cover of the top file triumphantly.
Craig had watched the performance hopefully. They’d been quiet since the Carragher case in February, apart from a couple of domestic murders. He hadn’t really minded. The Carragher case had opened a huge can of worms, with the discovery of bodies buried at two different sites in Newcastle and Bangor. Twenty-five bodies in all; one adult female and twenty-four children. They already had Ryan Carragher, their only living suspect, in custody, so the past eight weeks had just been hard graft, wrapping it all up for court. But they were almost there now. Time for a new case.
Craig set his whisky glass on the desk and waited for John to start. When he didn’t he prompted him encouragingly.
“OK. Let me guess. This case that you weren’t sure was a murder has now turned into three that might be. Yes?”
John startled, wondering how Craig had landed on the exact number, then he realised that he had three files on his desk. He nodded thoughtfully as Craig continued.
“And you’re not sure why you think they might be murder, except that your gut instinct is saying so.”
“Scientists don’t believe in gut instinct.”
“You do, because you’ve seen it in action so many times.” Craig held out his hand for the files. “If I’m right, not only do you think you may have three murders on your hands, but you think that they might be linked in some way?”
John nodded again, but instead of handing the files to his friend, he left them firmly on his desk.
“I want to go through them one by one. OK?”
Craig shrugged and reached for the whisky bottle to top himself up. He caught John’s disapproving glance and smiled. “OK. Get it over with, John.”
John’s eyes widened innocently. “What?”
“You know what. The lecture. No, wait, I’ll give it myself.” Craig turned to the side as if he was talking to someone else.
“Marc, you’re drinking too much.” He turned his head again, replying. “Yes, I know.” He swapped sides again. “Well why? And what are you going to do about it?”
He was just about to turn his head again when John banged the desk in irritation. “You can take the piss all you like, Marc, but it’s true. You are drinking too much and I am worried about you.”
The expression on Craig’s face changed from amusement to hostility, and then to defiance. John sat back, astounded.
“I haven’t seen that face since you were sixteen and one of the masters at school tried to tell you what to do.”
Craig realised how he must have looked and laughed so hard that it washed all his attempts at anger away. John joined in. When their laughter tailed off he stared at his friend again.
“It’s true and you know it.”
Craig nodded grudgingly and screwed the top back on the bottle, setting it to one side. He walked to the percolator against the wall and poured a coffee instead, saying something so softly that John strained to hear. John could only make out one word: alone.
“You’re spending too much time alone? Or carrying too much responsibility alone?”
Craig smiled at how well John knew him, but then thirty-odd year’s acquaintance will do that. He sat down again and said one more word. “Time.” Then he reached over and tapped the top of John’s files. John knew the conversation had gone as far as Craig would allow, but he had all the information he needed. Craig was lonely and he was going to do something about it.
John opened the top file and scanned the summary sheet then he shot Craig a puzzled look.
“These three cases came over my desk in the last six weeks and at first glance, actually even at second glance, they all seemed like suicides. The scenes fitted, the methods were the usual…”
“How did they kill themselves?”
“All differently. One was a hanging, one an overdose and the latest jumped off his balcony into the Lagan two nights ago and drowned.”
Craig nodded. They were all common methods of suicide. About the only ones missing were slashing your wrists or a bullet to the head.
“Who did the investigations?”
“I post-mortemed the last two and Mike Augustus did the first. There was nothing to suggest foul play in any of them. I spoke to the coroner and the first couple were declared suicide. But…”
Craig leaned forward eagerly. “You’re not sure. Why?”
John screwed up his face for a moment and then shook his head. “I don’t know. I can’t put my finger on it. It’s just…”
John laughed loudly then shrugged. “OK. Maybe. Even though I definitely don’t believe in it. I’m sure there’s something odd going on here though. Would you…”
“In a heartbeat. We’ve pretty much finished preparing the Carragher prosecution; we can’t do anything more until we get a court date. And Liam’s bored.”
“Which means he’s disrupting the whole squad?”
Liam Cullen was the squad’s Detective Chief Inspector and Craig’s right-hand-man. He was a brilliant street detective with a true copper’s nose. He was also known throughout the force for his sense of humour and tendency to say outrageous things. Both made him a familiar target for the political correctness brigade. When Liam was on form he made the worst case easier to bear, but when he was bored he behaved like a recalcitrant teenager. Right now Liam was bored.
Craig had been about to suggest that he took a holiday, but a new case would be even better. He grinned, feeling his own enthusiasm grow. He poured them both fresh coffees and propped his feet up on John’s desk.
“OK, John. Let’s take it from the top. Tell me about the first death.”
Dockland’s Coordinated Crime Unit.
Monday, April 7
, 8.30 a.m.
“Everyone drop whatever you’re doing. We have a case.”
Craig scanned the Murder Squad‘s open-plan floor, expecting a flurry of activity. Instead he was greeted by two empty chairs where Annette and Jake, his Inspector and Sergeant, should have been, and a paper plane flying between Liam and Davy Walsh, their analyst. He was just about to start shouting when the silence was broken by the huskiest voice in the thirteen-floor Coordinated Crime Unit.
“Easter fever. You’ll have to shout louder than that if you want to get through to them.”
Craig turned to face Nicky Morris, his P.A., and his eyes were quickly drawn to her feet. She was wearing over-the-knee silver boots that looked like they were made of tin-foil! His gaze travelled to her face, registering a purple cat-suit on the way. To say that Nicky’s fashion sense was ‘out there’ would be an understatement, but Craig knew better than to comment, even with a pointed glance.
“Easter’s not for another ten days. Where are Annette and Jake?”
Nicky stared at the ceiling, as if she was trying to remember something, then she nodded. “Annette’s taking a few hours’ personal time, remember? You signed it off weeks ago. And Jake, well I don’t know where Jake is, but it’s not even nine o’clock yet.”
Just as she said his name Jake McLean appeared through the floor’s glass double-doors. He caught Craig’s eye and strolled over to him innocently. “Did you want me, sir?”
“Yes. I want all of you.” Craig waved towards the improvised flight-path that Davy and Liam were making of the floor. “Grab those two and come into my office. We have a case.”
Two minutes later they were crammed into Craig’s small corner office and the coffee was being poured. Liam leaned his six-feet-six frame against the back wall and folded his arms. His pose was bored and his expression matched.
“What sort of case, boss? Only if it’s not urgent I was going to ask for a couple of weeks off, seeing as it’s Easter next weekend.”
Craig tapped the files in front of him, looking thoughtful. He couldn’t say that it wasn’t urgent; after all three people were dead. But then again, was it really urgent, when they weren’t even sure that it was murder? His gut instantly dismissed the question. It was murder all right; they just had to prove it. He turned to Liam.
“We’re not on call next weekend so you’ll all get Good Friday and the Monday off. I’ve no objection if you want to tag on some holiday either side, Liam.”
Liam squinted at him. ‘No objection’? That sounded suspiciously like he’d be missing something if he did. He broke with the habit of a lifetime and pulled up a chair to sit down. Davy did the same, following his lead. Davy was still at the stage of hero-worshipping detectives and mimicking their every move. Someday soon he’d stop doing it, but for now it amused them all.
Craig took a sip of coffee and started. “Right. John brought three cases to my attention on Friday because he felt uneasy about them. In a moment I’ll tell you why. But first, you need to know that this isn’t a straightforward murder case.”
Liam interrupted. “What is it then, boss? ’Cos it’s not like we need to go looking for work.”
The others nodded, thinking of the twenty-five buried bodies they’d discovered two months before, not to mention the quadruple murder that had led to them. Craig stilled their growing murmur with a glance and turned back to the files. He tapped the top folder.
“These are three cases of death, the first two apparently by suicide. At least that’s what the pathology and forensics showed and what the coroner was quick to agree.”
Liam leaned forward to interrupt again but Craig shook his head and carried on. “John got the third case last Wednesday. On first impressions it seemed like another suicide, except that he doesn’t think it was and neither do I.”
Davy signalled to interrupt. “Even if they killed themselves and there’s nothing to s…say otherwise?”
Davy was a brilliant analyst. Far too brilliant for what he was paid, but he loved the work, especially the detecting side. He was also shy, but not as shy as he’d been when he’d joined the squad two years before. As his confidence had grown so had his dry sense of humour, and his stutter, once so strong on ‘s’ and ‘w’, had diminished; until now it had almost disappeared.
“It’s a valid question, Davy. I’ll answer it once I’ve outlined the cases.” Craig spread the files across the desk and opened the first.
“OK. Jonathan McCafferty. Forty-five years old, divorced, father of three small children. He was the manager of the Malone Road branch of NIBank, earning over one hundred and fifty thousand pounds per year. He hanged himself at the beginning of March and left a note saying that he was depressed and had nothing to live for.”
He opened the second file. “Diana Rogan. A thirty-three-year-old married mother of two, aged eight and four years old. She worked as a middle manager at a company in town. Mrs Rogan killed herself eight weeks ago with an overdose of Paracetamol, leaving a note saying she was depressed and had nothing to live for.”
Craig turned to the third. “This Wednesday evening fifty-six-year-old Nelson Warner’s body was fished out of the Lagan. He drowned after he apparently jumped from the balcony of his apartment overlooking the river. When the police arrived they found a chair pulled up to the balcony’s edge and a note saying that he was depressed and had nothing to live for. He was a retired stockbroker who had been married for thirty-five years. And he’d just booked a cruise with his wife to celebrate their wedding anniversary in June.”
Liam removed the pen he’d been chewing from his mouth and shrugged. “People kill themselves every day, boss. And none of them ever look as if they have enough reason to do it.”
Craig nodded. “That’s true. But when people are lonely, in debt or a hundred other situations, we accept that it might have felt that bad to them. But not these people. These people have nothing in their lives to explain their actions and their families are devastated. So ‘why?’ would be my first question. The second is the wording of their suicide notes. It’s identical for each one. Not an apostrophe out of place. ‘I am depressed and have nothing to live for.’”
Jake interjected. “But isn’t that pretty standard? I mean no-one suicidal writes a note that says they’re happy, do they?”
Craig shook his head. “No they don’t. But unfortunately Liam and I have both seen too many suicide notes and they’re rarely as neat and logical as this.”
Liam nodded grudgingly, conceding the point. “That’s true, lad. They’re usually messy or rambling, and there’s almost always something personal in them. Something that they wanted to tell someone but never did; like, I’m sorry I cheated on you, or I love you.” He turned to Craig. “Was there anything like that?”
Craig slipped three photocopied notes from the files and everyone leaned forward for a closer look. Nicky had entered a moment before with fresh coffee. Now she stood behind Craig, peeping over his shoulder and teetering on her five-inch heels. On the desk in front of Craig were three sheets of A4 paper, each bearing the hand-printed words ‘I am depressed and have nothing to live for’. Nothing else. Not a kiss or a name. Nicky gasped. It was wrong. More wrong than suicide normally was.
Even Liam’s eyes widened. It was like nothing he’d ever seen before. He gestured at the notes.
“Is that definitely their handwriting?
Craig nodded. “Des says yes. He checked handwriting samples for all three. The victims definitely wrote the notes.”
“You want us to look at possible connections, backgrounds, phones and computers, boss? The works?”
Craig scanned their faces and saw that everyone agreed. They definitely had a case.