BY ROB MCINROY
The only thing that was clear was that Jack O’Brien did not kill Samantha Hedges. On Saturday afternoon he walked unaccompanied into Crieff Police Station and confessed to the murder of the twelve-year-old missing girl whose body had been found the previous afternoon following a six day search. He stood at the counter and quietly explained to Sergeant Kellaway how he had abducted the girl as she walked home from school, taken her to a remote area of the Knock hill and murdered her, then buried her in a grave covered by several inches of soil and topped with rotting beech leaves.
‘I buried her,’ he said. ‘That’s how it should be done.’
Roger Neet and Laura Russell knew something was wrong. Hoax confessions were easy to detect. Because cranks didn’t know how the crime was committed they would invent. Get facts wrong. They would repeat false details planted in news reports. They would miss essentials. Eventually, they would descend into fantasy. Their confessions would be logged and they’d be charged with wasting police time. It was an irritant.
But Jack was different.
His voice was soft, barely modulated. It was difficult to catch his words and the detectives had to ask him several times to speak up for the recording. He continued as though he hadn’t heard them. He related again and again how he took the child, how he led her to a patch of woodland near the Witch’s Crag, how he killed her and buried her. He retained eye contact with the officers at all times, which was unusual. He appeared unflustered, which was common, but to a degree that unnerved them. During the entire interview he rested his hands, palms upward, on the table. He asked for nothing, never spoke to his appointed brief, barely moved.
‘The way the blood pulsed out of her back, it was like a hose spurting water.’
‘Tell us more about that,’ said Neet.
‘It was red and black and purple. It bubbled. It smelled. I didn’t expect it to smell. It didn’t run away into the ground. You couldn’t stop it. It wasn’t until I buried her that it went away.’
‘You buried her?’ said Laura.
The detectives were left with a dilemma. Their press statement had revealed that the cause of death was a knife wound to the left kidney, so it was unsurprising that Jack described spurting blood. But the statement also suggested, as a trap for hoaxers, that the body had been left beneath a light covering of leaves when it had, in fact, been buried. Nobody knew that.
Except, it seemed, Jack.
There was no DNA match. In any case, experience told them it wasn’t him. But he had confessed, and he appeared to know unknowable detail. They were frustrated by the impasse. Both had family the victim’s age. Each had unsolved cases in their pasts that still haunted them. Shane Groves. Mary Gill. Their names were like a litany of shame and they were damned if they were going to add Samantha Hedges to it.
Laura Russell tried to break the permafrost around Jack. ‘You feel badly about this murder, don’t you, Jack?’ she said. ‘All of us do. It’s a terrible thing. Abusing children. They’re supposed to be able to trust us, aren’t they? Childhood is that glorious time. Should be. Happiest days. Do you want to talk about that? Tell me about your childhood?’
‘I did it,’ said Jack.
‘I’ve explained it to you.’
‘No you haven’t. You’ve told us many, many times. But the one thing you specifically haven’t done is explain. How, Jack? And why? It seems out of character. You’re a young man. Intelligent. Quiet. Good job. Do you see the trouble I have? I look at you and don’t see a cold-hearted killer.’
‘It wasn’t a cold-hearted killing.’
‘Is there another sort? Can you get warm-hearted killers?’
‘But that’s it exactly.’
‘You’re a warm-hearted killer?’
Neet swore. ‘I’ll be sure to tell Mr and Mrs Hedges that,’ he said. ‘It’ll make it much better for them.’
‘That’s what I want you to tell them,’ Jack said, his voice softer than ever.
‘What is?’ said Russell.
‘She didn’t die badly.’
‘What do you mean, not badly?’ There was silence as Jack looked from Russell to Neet and back again. He seemed to be searching for the words. ‘Jack?’
‘I want them to know that I was there and that she wasn’t in pain and she wasn’t frightened and it didn’t hurt.’
‘She just died peacefully?’
Russell shook her head. ‘She was murdered, Jack,’ she said. ‘It wasn’t peaceful.’
Jack nodded his head vigorously, as though seeking to convince them with his certainty. This was the first time he had displayed any agitation in three hours of interrogation. That was good, thought Russell. Time for some pressure.
‘Samantha was a twelve-year-old child who was abducted on the way home from school,’ she said. ‘She was going back to her family. Mum, Dad, sister, dog, two cats. Sister’s called Harriet. Aged eight. Grandparents, too. Friends. Loads of them. She was a popular girl. First year of High School. She was taken from outside the school by an assailant unknown and for the next six to ten hours we do not know exactly the course of events. She would have been alone. With a psychotic killer. She would have been very, very afraid. Some terrible things happened to her, Jack. We know that. Terrible things. Would you like me to explain what they were?’
‘She died peacefully.’
‘She was taken to a dark wood and repeatedly abused. She suffered a serious and sustained sexual assault. Vaginal and anal. She would have been screaming for her family. Crying for her mummy. Wanting to live. Not wanting to die. And then she was brutally murdered.’ Russell could see, finally, flickers of emotion on Jack’s face. ‘Then left to rot.’
‘It wasn’t like that.’
‘You weren’t there, Jack. You don’t know.’
‘It’s how I explained it. I was there and she didn’t suffer. Tell them.’
‘The family already know,’ said Neet. ‘They have to know the details. Unlike perverts like you who just get a kick from it.’
‘Have you got some kind of Jesus Christ complex?’ said Russell. ‘Trying to take the pain of the world on your shoulders? Is that what this is? Are you just trying to protect that family from pain?’
‘Because if you are, however well intentioned it might be, you’re actually increasing their suffering. Don’t you see that?’
Jack lowered his head. ‘You can’t increase their suffering,’ he said. ‘It goes on forever. And then it starts again. And then it starts again. You can’t change that.’
‘So what can you change?’
‘She didn’t suffer.’
‘Is that what you’re trying to change?’
‘No. She didn’t suffer. I did it.’
‘I know you didn’t do it, Jack. It’s what you did do that worries me.’
Jack looked up and smiled. Russell watched in amazement as his face transformed itself, as though a mask had been peeled from it. ‘Jack?’ she said.
‘I killed my brother.’
‘Tell me about how your brother died.’
Neet and Russell sat forward, straining to hear Jack’s voice. After a ten minute break during which they detailed Logan and Murray to check Jack’s story, they had recommenced the interview. Russell held a vague hope this might be the breakthrough they needed, but when Neet looked at Jack’s emotionless face he still couldn’t detect a murderer within.
‘We were just playing.’
‘When was this, Jack?’
‘Ten years ago. Eleven. It was the SAI mill they were pulling down at MacRosty Park. It was secured at night by a chain fence but we could get in easily. There was this old laundry room. It had a chute that zigzagged over our heads into the floors above. We would climb into the chute and jam ourselves against the sides. They were metal-lined. We’d twist and pull ourselves up and over the ninety degree turns each floor until we reached the top. We’d hold ourselves steady for as long as we could, until we couldn’t hold on any longer and then we’d let go. We’d fly down the chute, battering against the walls and tumbling over the bends until we landed on the laundry room floor...’
‘Not really. Not usually.’
‘I don’t know how it happened. Probably through the demolition works. A large slab of metal lining came loose near the bottom of the chute. We never noticed. Simon went up first and I waited at the bottom. I could hear him yelling as he bumped all the way down and finally he rocketed down the chute into the room, and his body sliced through the metal. It tore a massive hole in his side, right up to his intestines. Straight away there was blood all around him. He didn’t even know it had happened.
‘He said, ‘I feel a bit funny, I think you better get some help.’ And…’ Jack stopped.
He sat for some moments with his head bowed. They waited. Finally, Russell spoke.
‘Why did you tell us about this, Jack? Is it connected to Samantha?’
‘Maybe so. But how? Do you feel responsible for your brother’s death? You said you killed him. But you didn’t, did you? It was an accident.’
‘Do you blame yourself?’
‘I think you do. Why do you blame yourself, Jack?’
‘Because I didn’t go for help.’
‘What did you do?’
‘I ran away.’
‘Why did you run away?’
‘Because I was scared. All that blood. He was crying. He was dying.’
‘And… What happened?’
Jack’s voice was almost inaudible. He had shrunk into himself, staring at the table in front of him, hunched, almost as though he wasn’t occupying the same physical space as before. ‘It was a week before they found his body. There was a big search, appeals on TV, everything. I said nothing. I couldn’t.’
Russell pressed forward in her seat. ‘That must have been agonising, knowing all that time where he was and not being able to tell anyone.’
‘You probably had nightmares?’
‘All the time. He kept coming to me in dreams. Standing over me. Staring.’
‘And this child, Samantha Hedges, she was missing for a long time, too, wasn’t she? Six days. Did that make you think about Simon?’
‘Not really?’ This man was hermetically sealed, she thought. He was suffering some huge mental trauma and he had no way of explaining it. She doubted even he knew what it was, not fully, so deep had he buried it in his psyche. She studied his face, his soft, full mouth and aquiline nose, fine eyelashes, beautiful, longer than hers, and those curious, mismatched eyes, one blue, the other a multi-coloured blue-grey. He was enigmatic. He seemed small, somehow. All of him seemed small. He was a tall man, over six feet, and yet he seemed… diminished. Compressed.
‘You were only a child,’ she said. ‘Frightened. I can understand how you must have felt. And I can understand how you must feel now. Are you very lonely, Jack?’
‘Are you angry? With yourself?’
‘When you read about the murder of Samantha Hedges, how did that make you feel?’
‘I don’t remember.’
‘Did it make you feel more angry? More lonely? Did it remind you of Simon? How old was Simon when he died?’
‘About the same age as Samantha.’
‘Is this confession about guilt transference, Jack? Because you feel guilty about Simon? If it is, we could all understand that, couldn’t we?’ Russell gave him an encouraging smile. Neet remained motionless, watching.
Jack looked at her. ‘There’s no smoke without fire,’ he said.
‘What do you mean?’
He closed his eyes. He opened them again and looked around him as though uncertain where he was.