Cold Heart – Stephen Edger

‘I can’t believe it’s been a week already,’ Mrs Kilpatrick said, as she squeezed back behind her desk. A conservatively dressed woman in her late forties, she had the face of someone who had seen it all and come out the other side to tell the tale. Kate didn’t think there was much that could shock her. ‘Take a seat,’ she offered, pointing at the two chairs opposite her desk, both of which had worn patches where the stuffing was starting to poke through the stitching. ‘Budget cuts,’ she explained, as she saw DI Kate Matthews eyeing the fabric. ‘Can’t even afford new chairs, yet they expect me to lose another ten per cent by Christmas.’ The office wasn’t very big and along both main walls were cabinets overflowing with textbooks and binders. A large monitor sat in one corner, surrounded by piles of paper and pots of lidless pens. The clock on the wall behind her showed it was nearly seven and a dark, menacing sky enveloped the window below it. The winter blizzard had yet to arrive, but there was no doubt it was on its way. ‘We’d like to thank you for allowing us to be in the school today,’ Kate said, keen to keep relations with the head teacher as amicable as possible. DS Samir Patel lowered himself into the remaining chair beside her. ‘Did you find anything that might aid your investigation?’ Mrs Kilpatrick asked. ‘The teachers and students we’ve spoken to have certainly helped us develop a better understanding of Daisy’s character,’ Kate responded, not wishing to divulge anything pertinent to the enquiry. ‘Before we wrap up for the day, we hoped you might be able to share your personal experiences and views about Daisy as a pupil.

’ Mrs Kilpatrick’s chair squeaked as she leaned back in it slightly and looked off into the distance. ‘I don’t know what else I can tell you that her tutors haven’t already said: she’s a popular girl, keeps her head down and achieves strong grades. Her behaviour has never been questioned until…’ Her words trailed off. Kate narrowed her eyes, keen to extract any clue – however minor – to help her understand why fifteen-year-old Daisy Emerson never made it home seven days ago. ‘And you’re not aware of anything that might have been troubling Daisy in the days or weeks before her disappearance?’ Mrs Kilpatrick’s tight dark curls shook with her head. ‘I’m sorry, but no. Unfortunately, it’s usually the troublemakers of this school who capture my attention. She was a good girl, and I’m afraid that’s about as much as I can tell you.’ It was the same message Kate and Patel had heard from everyone they had questioned over the course of the day. The picture being painted was of a girl who was destined to go on to great things; a girl who worked hard, wasn’t any trouble and made friends easily.

But in Kate’s experience, even the most innocent of victims had secrets they kept well hidden. ‘Mrs Kilpatrick,’ Patel said, picking up on the break in the conversation, ‘what can you tell us about Mr Vardan?’ ‘Ismael?’ Mrs Kilpatrick asked, looking puzzled. ‘What about him?’ ‘He’s Daisy’s form tutor, correct?’ Patel asked, keeping his face taut. The doubt remained. ‘That’s right. He joined us this year. And a very competent teacher he is too.’ Kate watched her reactions as Patel continued to speak. ‘And presumably all his Disclosure and Barring checks came back clear?’ Mrs Kilpatrick looked from Patel to Kate. ‘The DBS checks were fine.

What exactly is it you are trying to imply?’ ‘We just want to understand how much you know about Mr Vardan, that’s all,’ Patel answered, adding a non-threatening smile. ‘You’re referring to those internet articles, aren’t you?’ Kate remained silent, still watching. ‘Ismael was very open about all that when he came for interview,’ Mrs Kilpatrick retorted. ‘We completed our due diligence, and there were no question marks left against his reputation. He’s a very good teacher from a difficult background.’ ‘And you signed off on his approval for the role, didn’t you?’ Patel pressed. Mrs Kilpatrick’s cheeks reddened. ‘I did. He passed all of the thorough checks the county undertakes and those internet articles were proved to be false. I’ve personally encouraged him to take civil action against the individual responsible for them.

’ Kate couldn’t blame Mrs Kilpatrick for jumping to the defence of one of her teachers; she would do the same for any of the detectives in her team. But Kate also couldn’t ignore what they’d been told. ‘The pupil who posted those stories,’ Kate said evenly, ‘he was one of Vardan’s pupils at his last school, correct?’ Mrs Kilpatrick glared at Kate. ‘I assume you’ve read what the boy posted, but he admitted to making up the allegations in order to try and blackmail his teacher into giving him better grades. Ismael was found innocent of all of the allegations and handled what must have been a horrific situation with commendable dignity. When he applied to join us here at St Bartholomew’s, he wanted a fresh start at a more accepting facility. Thus far, I have no reason to regret my decision to offer him the second chance he craved.’ ‘What was Vardan’s relationship with Daisy?’ Kate asked. Mrs Kilpatrick glared at her. ‘He was her form tutor and English teacher.

’ Kate sat forward. ‘What I mean was: did they get on? Did the two of you ever discuss Daisy Emerson formally, or informally?’ Mrs Kilpatrick sighed. ‘We meet every term to discuss his class and any concerns he has over pupils’ aptitude or behaviour. He never presented any concerns about Daisy that I can recall.’ ‘What about your other teachers?’ Kate pressed. ‘What about them?’ Mrs Kilpatrick fired back. ‘Did any of them express concern about Vardan’s relationship with Daisy?’ ‘What are you getting at, detective?’ Kate glanced at Patel, before continuing. ‘I’m simply asking whether any of the other faculty members ever expressed concerns to you about Vardan’s relationship with his pupils, Daisy in particular.’ ‘Nothing that caused me any concern. Forgive me, detective, but if you’re alluding to something specific, you’ll have to enlighten me.

’ Kate folded her arms. ‘So that we’re clear then, none of your staff members or pupils came to you to express concern or worry about Ismael Vardan’s behaviour towards, or treatment of, Daisy Emerson?’ Mrs Kilpatrick looked like she wanted to say something, but instead she tightened her lips and shook her head. Kate didn’t like it when people lied to her, but she forced a smile. ‘Do you have the paperwork that you completed when hiring Mr Vardan?’ ‘I do, but I’m not about to hand it over until you tell me why you want it. If you’re insinuating that Ismael had anything to do with Daisy running away, I think you need to—’ ‘I’m not insinuating anything, Mrs Kilpatrick,’ Kate interrupted. ‘But I need to be thorough with my investigation into what could have happened to Daisy. You’ve seen the kind of media coverage her disappearance has generated already, so I’m sure you understand that I need to dot every “i” and cross every “t”. So far, we’ve yet to establish why Daisy decided to run away last Friday. When I’m told that she had a close relationship with a form tutor, a man previously accused of inappropriate behaviour with a pupil, it would be amiss for me not to ask awkward questions.’ Mrs Kilpatrick was doing a poor job of hiding her contempt, but she reluctantly scribbled a note on the pad in front of her.

‘It’ll take me a bit of time to dig it up. Can I email it to you?’ Kate threw one of her business cards onto the desk. ‘You understand that I need this information as quickly as possible?’ Mrs Kilpatrick dropped the card into her desk drawer. ‘I’ll send it as soon as I can.’ Kate glanced at Patel again, who shrugged to confirm he had no other questions. Kate clapped her hands together and stood. ‘Well, we’ll be on our way now. I do hope you’ll keep us informed of any other rumours you hear involving Daisy? It’s only a matter of time before we track her down, and any support you and your staff here can provide will be gratefully received.’ A sudden commotion caused the three of them to spin round as an older man with cropped white hair and a thick, bushy moustache burst through the office door. ‘Thank God you’re still here.

’ He inhaled heavily as he tried to compose himself. ‘You’ve got to come with me.’ ‘What is it, Mr Linus?’ Mrs Kilpatrick asked for the three of them. ‘The sports hall,’ he panted back. ‘There’s someone in there.’ Kate could see the concern in his eyes. ‘And that’s unusual because?’ ‘The hall’s been out of use for several months,’ Mrs Kilpatrick confirmed, standing and reaching for her coat. ‘It’s due to be demolished in a few weeks. It’s been locked up for some time. Who’s in there, Mr Linus? Students?’ He waved a hand in disagreement as he continued to suck in air.

‘No, not students… the place is still locked up, but as I was doing my rounds… I looked through the window… and… and… there was a body.’ 2 Kate hurried along the corridor, surprised at the pace the wiry caretaker was keeping. He’d taken off from the office so fast that Kate hadn’t yet been able to confirm exactly what he’d seen. She followed him through a maze of darkened school corridors, only stopping when they reached the set of double doors leading outside. Light from a nearby lamppost flooded through the glass panels in the doors. Fishing into his pocket, a ring of keys jangled as he removed them and searched for the one needed to unlock the fire doors. Mrs Kilpatrick and Patel joined them a moment later, each wearing looks of confused concern. Linus cursed as the keys fell from his hands and clattered to the floor and Kate seized her chance, stooping to pick them up for him and looking him dead in the eye. ‘Just take a moment and tell us what you saw, Mr Linus.’ His hands trembled as she placed the keys into his open palm.

‘It was like I said: a body.’ Kate rested her hand on his to steady it. ‘Where, Mr Linus? Where was this body?’ He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. ‘I was doing my nightly rounds, you see; checking the school is locked up. I have a routine. I do all the outer buildings first, and then move to the main facility. But when I approached the sports hall… there was something not right… nobody’s been near the place in weeks – well, apart from the building inspector and project manager – but someone’s changed the padlock on the door.’ His story still didn’t explain the pallid nature of his face, or the sweat clinging to his temple. ‘Go on,’ Kate encouraged. ‘What next?’ ‘Well, I know the lock was new, because it didn’t have any rust like what the old one did, and none of my keys fitted it.

But I swear it wasn’t there a couple of days ago when I let the building inspector in. Someone has changed it.’ Kate spun and looked to Mrs Kilpatrick for support. ‘Is it possible one of the builders or teachers changed the padlock?’ But Mrs Kilpatrick frowned back at her. ‘I don’t know why any of them would. There’s nothing valuable left in there; we only have the padlock to keep the students getting in. It’s not safe, you see – the roof, I mean – that’s why it’s going to be knocked down. The council can’t afford to improve our budget, but it seems they can afford to put a swimming pool in its place. Work starts in a few weeks.’ Kate turned back to Linus.

‘And where is this body you saw?’ Linus’s skin seemed to pale further. ‘I continued my check of the building – there’s a fire exit and window at the rear – and it was as I looked through the window that I saw her.’ ‘Her?’ Kate’s pulse quickened. He nodded ominously. ‘It was covered by a cloth of some sort – but the shape… definitely female.’ Kate’s mind raced for a satisfactory alternative as to why Linus thought he had seen the outline of a female inside a locked and disused sports hall, but nothing fit. ‘Okay, Mr Linus. Take us to this window.’ Once outside, Kate shone the torch on her smartphone through the window into the dark hall, but it was almost impossible to see anything more than ten feet away. Pressing her nose to the glass, she studied the floor inside as she moved the beam around.

Then she spotted it. Almost out of sight, a bundle beneath a blanket. ‘We’d better take a look inside,’ Kate muttered to Patel. She looked back to Mrs Kilpatrick. ‘You said it wasn’t safe to be inside, what exactly is wrong with the building?’ ‘Some of the ceiling tiles are starting to come loose. The building inspector and I have been in several times without injury; I have hard hats you can use if you want to go in, but just be careful.’ Kate nodded for her to fetch the equipment, before facing Linus, who looked like he might keel over at any moment. ‘Do you have any kind of bolt cutters? Or something we can use to cut through that padlock?’ He didn’t respond at first, still staring at the glass. Kate gently touched his arm. ‘Mr Linus?’ He looked up.

‘Do you have any kind of tool we can use to cut through the padlock?’ Kate repeated. ‘Uh… yes, yes I do. I have bolt cutters. They’ll work, right?’ Kate nodded. ‘Thank you. We’ll meet you back at the front door to the sports hall.’ She waited until Linus had moved away from the building. ‘Thoughts?’ Patel raised his eyebrows. ‘We’re in a secondary school as secure as they come. You saw the security cameras at the gate where we entered this morning? A girl is missing and everyone here is on edge.

Do I really think there’s a dead body in that sports hall covered in a tarp? No, but it’ll only take us five minutes to know for sure.’ Kate cupped her hands and breathed warm air onto them. ‘Agreed.’ Patel and Kate completed a perimeter inspection of the sports hall building, finishing back at the entrance. Kate shone her light on the padlock. ‘It definitely looks new.’ Patel stifled a yawn, and nodded his agreement. ‘Here you go,’ Mrs Kilpatrick said, as she approached them holding out yellow hard hats. ‘I can call the building inspector out if you think it would help?’ ‘Could you check whether he or any of his team know anything about this new padlock?’ Kate replied. ‘Between the three of us, I doubt there’s anything to be worried about inside, but we’ll check to put Mr Linus’s mind at ease.

Tell me, how long has he been the caretaker here at St Bartholomew’s?’ ‘He’s been here longer than I have,’ she replied, affectionately. ‘He’s part of the infrastructure.’ ‘And is he prone to…’ Kate searched for the right word. ‘Delusions?’ Mrs Kilpatrick offered. ‘I was going to say overreacting.’ ‘No, he knows his job and he carries it out with the minimum of fuss.’ Kate thanked her as Linus reappeared holding a pair of the bolt cutters. As he approached them, Kate was sure she could smell the faint trace of whisky on his breath. He passed the cutters to Patel, who quickly snapped the lock. ‘I’d like the two of you to remain out here,’ Kate warned Linus and Mrs Kilpatrick, before opening the door and reaching for the light switch immediately to her left.

Darkness remained. ‘The lights aren’t working?’ ‘Oh, power’s been cut,’ Linus confirmed. ‘Building inspector wanted everything switching off ahead of the demolition. I can find you a torch if you’d like?’ Kate shook her head, flicking the torch from her phone back on and encouraging Patel to do the same. ‘Never mind. What can you tell me about the layout?’ Linus pointed ahead of them. ‘The main hall is through those doors there. Off to the left there are doors leading to storage rooms where we used to house the vaulting horses and such. Oh, and there is a room to the right where the old gymnasium equipment is now kept; exercise bikes and the like. The window we looked through is at the far side of the hall.

I’ll see what I can do to get some power back in there for you.’ Closing the door behind them, Kate shone the beam around the inside of the entrance. Immediately to their right were two doors, leading to what would have been the boys and girls changing rooms and toilets. Bypassing those, they pulled open the door to the hall and were greeted by a stale smell of dried sweat and varnished wood. ‘The window is over there in the south-east corner,’ Patel offered, shining his light ahead of them, ‘which means the tarpaulin should be ahead of us here.’ Walking side-by-side, their torch beams slid over the soft wooden floor following the faded painted lines marking out various courts. Kate shuddered as a draught overhead ruffled through her hair. ‘This place gives me the creeps,’ Patel muttered. Kate could understand; there was a deathly silence, and their phone lights were throwing strange shadows across the walls where the beams hit PE apparatus on the walls. It was hard not to think of their own kids in a place like this; wondering if they were safe, tucked up at home and waiting for them.

They crept towards the tarpaulin, the air suddenly feeling much cooler around them. ‘Shall I do the honours?’ Patel offered, nudging the material with his foot. ‘Together,’ Kate proposed, bending and clutching the end of the material. It felt damp. She waited for Patel to grip an edge, and then the two of them carefully raised it up and over the mound. Kate’s phone clattered to the floor as she saw the lifeless eyes staring back up at her.

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