A Stab in the Dark, software manuals and knife

Bill Watson had arrived at the restaurant a few minutes early and had no sooner sat down when he saw his sister taking off her coat at the door. He got up as she came over and gave her a kiss on both cheeks: “This is well overdue, at least I can take a breather since we completed the last PINT (Police Intelligence using New Technology) project for the Home Office. How about you, you look a little tired?”

Jo Watson sat down: “That’s par for the course since my promotion. Apart from the extra responsibility, I am building a new team, they are all pretty young and somewhat green. I have to spend a lot of time mentoring them, and keep a discreet eye on what they are up to of course. I have to let them make mistakes or they won’t learn but I have to be prepared to do some firefighting to stop it all getting out of control. So, long days rather than anything specific.” She took the menu from the waiter and ordered a dry sherry and continued “Anyway enough of the job, how about you”

They made family small talk punctuated by giving their order. Hot Goats Cheese Salad and Magret de Canard for Jo, Scallops with Black Pudding followed by Fillet of Venison for Bill and they agreed to share a bottle of red wine, a Nuits St George from Chateau de Premeaux. By the time they had finished their starters they were pretty well caught up with friends and family. Bill leaned back “Well, Ma’am, ” he smiled,  his running gag since Joanne had been promoted to Detective Chief Inspector and was clearly on the fast track. She could well make Superintendent in a couple of years and then the path to a Chief Constable rank should open up. “What’s going on?  There is something on your mind, you are definitely distracted”

She laughed “You know me too well. As I said I have a young team, the great thing is they are keen but they do tend to jump to conclusions. Tim Kersall is a newly promoted inspector, he is good and he wants to make his mark. I have no problem with that as he is a nice guy”. The main course arrived and they concentrated on appreciating the food and the conversation moved on to their shared love of good food and distrust of over-elaborate food “art”.

They finished the wine and both ordered cheese and coffee rather than dessert.  Jo picked up from where she had left the work conversation—they always avoided, well almost always, mixing work and food. They felt both were important and therefore needed to be paid proper attention. “Anyway, we have an investigation under way which on the surface looks like a straightforward murder. The 30 year old victim, Jim North, was found in the kitchen of his home, a small detached house on the Bellhill Estate. He had been stabbed in the chest with a narrow bladed kitchen knife, we think it’s one from the block on the worktop. The house was unlocked and the door was ajar, a neighbour discovered him when he went round to invite the victim over for a coffee. The only fingerprints, which are very smudged, appear to be the victims and his wife’s. She was away visiting her mother in Spain, she is pregnant with their first child and it was her last chance to get away for a while as the baby is due in about three months.”

As Jo paused to take a sip of coffee Bill responded “So far it sounds pretty straightforward, so why the concern?”

“Well, nothing appears to be missing, and there seems to have been no struggle. He is a pretty ordinary character, he was a computer programmer with the council until he was made redundant a few months ago.  So it seems unlikely it is a gangland hit or to have any other criminal connection. We haven’t spoken to the wife, she and her mother are on her way back, so we don’t have the domestic story. However we have spoken to the neighbour who is a close friend and he says Mr North was very depressed since his redundancy as he was struggling to find a new job; obviously with a baby on the way he was concerned about the family’s financial situation. The neighbour also wondered whether the victim had other health issues as his doctor had been doing tests.”

“Any idea what the problems was?” Bill asked “if the death had been less dramatic you would have been considering suicide I guess? What does your young inspector think?”

Jo took a deep breath, “I agree, but I can hardly tell the press that there are no suspicious circumstances, can I? Inspector Kersall wants to create a full blown murder investigation, he thinks there must be something dark and mysterious behind this death. He sees it as a contract killing because of the lack of evidence and wants to use it to make his mark. Unfortunately I see that as unrealistic I but I don’t have the evidence, or even any other ideas, to curtail his enthusiasm. I want him to use it effectively on investigations which need it. I do not want him to feel I am interfering without reason, that I have no imagination.”

Bill laughed “No one who knows you could think that.” Her promotion had come on the back of a leap of then Detective-Inspector Joanne Watson’s imagination which had unlocked a stalled serial murder investigation. She had been asked to review the investigation when the previous lead detective had gone off on long term sick. “Let’s go into the bar and have another glass of wine, I have nothing on tomorrow. We can explore this curious incident further”.

 As they settled down in a quiet corner Bill asked “What time did he die?”

“About 3am, he was in his dressing gown. There was a half-drunk glass of whisky in the lounge, just one glass with only his fingerprints, and from his blood tests he had drunk quite a lot that evening. Not drunk but certainly not fit to drive. As far as we can tell he had been at home all day, in fact we don’t think he had been out for a couple of days, possibly since he took his wife to the airport. From his stomach contents we think he had eaten a fish pie earlier that evening. There was another portion of fish pie in the fridge that was probably meant as his dinner or lunch the next day. ” Jo sipped her wine and was about to continue…

“Mmm, the dark watches of the night, classic time for suicides according to research. I wonder why the door was open?” Bill mused.

Jo picked up on that “that is what Kersall is basing his murder theory on, that and as he was stabbed. Hardly a classic suicide mechanism, slashed wrists or throat perhaps, but a stabbing?  How? Anyway you may not have anything on tomorrow but I do so I will need to be going.”

Bill finished his drunk and got up to leave: “OK, I have a couple of things for you to think about and explore.  Look at the orientation of the victims more obvious, hopefully latest, finger prints on the knife. And unless you can describe it I need to see a photo of the blood spatter pattern.”

Jo interrupted “I can’t remember the details but there was not a huge amount of blood, he died pretty quickly as the knife went right through the heart”

“OK, get me a photo of the blood and a plan of how the victim was lying. When will you be talking to his doctor?”

“First thing tomorrow and the wife should be back in the afternoon. I’m glad I am not doing that interview, I will leave that to DI Kersall, he’s a pretty sympathetic guy in such circumstances—one of the reasons I like him.”

“Tonight is Thursday. If you are free why not come round for lunch on Saturday? I’ll make us a light lunch and we can kick some ideas around. Do you want to bring your DI?”

“I can do that, but I will make sure DI Kersall is working though” she laughed “Anyway, you are my secret weapon, I am not sharing you. Well, not until I make Chief Constable!”

Bill winked “Sorry Ma’am. Just another thing, if there’s blood spray on the wall see if there’s a mark in the centre of it, a dent or scratch perhaps. See you about 12ish Saturday lunchtime, we’ll eat about one”.

As she walked home Jo pondered on what Bill had said. Where was he going with it? She had learned to accept his intuition—he was intellectually different from most people and made connections that few other people spotted until they were pointed out. It had made him a successful consultant and he was frequently called upon by government departments; the Home Office was a frequent client as was the Metropolitan Police for business strategy and turning round problem projects. PINT had been such a project and had got in the way of their monthly dinner several times recently. She was already looking forward to Saturday lunch, Bill was a good cook and specialised in tasty but simply presented food. She would need to call him to find out what wine to take, they would both want that to be right.


DCI Watson was in the office early and had already cleared her overnight email when a bleary eyed DI Kersall came in. “God, you look rough.” she exclaimed “What have you been up to?”

“I was working on the victim’s papers, and there was a lot of them, and then on his computer until the early hours. I found his password list on a piece of paper in the back of a rather obscure programming manual. I only managed about four hours sleep” he groaned “But I will be much better when I have got through a bacon cob and this” he waved his take out coffee “It’s wonderful what an extra shot in a large black Americano will do”

“OK” Jo responded “Get your brain kick-started and we will have a chat in an hour or so. I’ve got some questions.” She turned back to her office and over her shoulder asked “By the way, did you find anything in all that stuff last night?”

“I am not sure; my brain was pretty fried by the time I left. I need to go over my notes, and some other stuff, with fresh eyes. It does not seem to make sense at the moment, it’s all very confused. Before you ask, there was no suicide note or even a diary or emails that suggested he was depressed.”

Meanwhile Bill was searching the Internet for cases similar to the one his sister had described but with not much joy. He did ponder searching the Police National Computer, despite being a consultant Bill held one the highest security clearances, DV, higher than most civil servants and police officers. With his current, now part-time, role he had access to the Police National Computer and considered extending his search there. As he had no official role on Jo’s investigation he decided against it; he did not want to compromise his standing by what could be seen as improper use of sensitive computer systems. He would have to ask Jo to make any search or delegate it to her detective inspector.

Bill’s thoughts turned to what he would be cooking for lunch on Saturday. It needed to be simple as it would be a working lunch and he did not want to be tied up in the kitchen. He would go round to the Bath Street Market and see what looked good. Getting his mind off the investigation would allow his subconscious to make sense of it—the ideas would then come when they were ready He knew he could not force it, especially as there was no pressure on him to get a result. He was just helping out; but it was fascinating though. He did love these problems Jo set him, they had always made a good team, she was observant and could summarise and describe a problem. He was creative but the creativity did not manifest itself as it might an artist; that was more Jo’s field but Bill felt she did not properly recognise her talent. It did mean she could describe or sketch a crime scene down to fine detail and she did bring that visual creativity to her work, she saw patterns and shapes in the “picture” an investigation created.


DCI Watson called her young colleague into her office, he was looking a lot brighter and up for continuing the investigation. As part of a routine progress review she set out the questions that Bill had asked the previous evening and also asked DI Kersall to pull together the additional information she said she wanted to review; there was no need for Kersall to know about her brother at this stage, if at all. Kersall looked at her quizzically, they were strange questions, but with an uncertain “Of course, Ma’am” said he would pull it all together before the end of the day so she could take it home over the weekend.

Kersall had also got some additional information from his all-nighter. Apparently the victim had taken out a major life insurance policy on his own life and in favour of his wife and unborn baby. He had also been to see a solicitor at about the same time. Kersall had also found a couple of hospital appointments in the victim’s diary on the computer, the last one later in the morning he had taken his wife to the airport. It did not say who the appointment was with but Kersall had spoken to the victim’s family doctor who would not talk about the victim’s medical history over the telephone but had confirmed he was seeing a neurologist. The GP suggested that the consultant, Dr Fitzsimons, would be able to give a fuller explanation of the victim’s medical condition. Kersall was going round to see the consultant that afternoon and then would visit the wife on Saturday morning; she and her mother were staying with her sister.


Jo dialled her brother’s phone number and it rang twice before Bill answered “Hi Jo, how are you this fine morning?” He’s in good spirit she thought “I feel better for having had an early night and an undisturbed night’s sleep. I was calling to ask what wine I should bring for lunch”.

“It’s fine” Bill replied “I am doing a Thai vegetable curry and I have some beers from a new local brewery for you to try. They should go well with a curry, especially at lunchtime on a day as warm as this” Jo smiled to herself and reflected on Bill’s passion for finding new small food and drink producers who were doing something special. Even better that he loved sharing them with likeminded friends and family. “That sounds good, something long and cool should really hit the spot on a day like today. What time do you want me over?”

“Come whenever you are ready, the food is prepared, so I just need to do some rice and finish off the curry when we are ready to eat. Until then I am chilling out and will be opening a beer very soon so feel free to join me, there will be a lot to talk about if you got the answers to my questions.”

“OK, I will be over in about half an hour. DI Kersall has filled me in with his investigation and he pulled a pack to together for me of the stuff you asked for. I must admit I have not really had time to get my head round where you are going but I am sure you will explain. See ya shortly.” Jo rang off and changed into something lighter, the day was promising to be a hot one.

When Jo arrived at Bill’s flat the door was ajar and she walked straight in without knocking. Bill was on the terrace, beer in hand, dressed in shorts and polo shirt. He looked very relaxed but then the investigation was just another interesting intellectual challenge to him; it was not a problem he had to worry about. He turned when he heard her “Would Ma’am like a beer? I can recommend the Franc in Stein as a refreshing start”

“That would be great. I never tire of this view” Jo looked out across the country side of the Trent valley with County Hall and Trent Bridge Cricket Ground in the middle distance. It was easy to forget that you were in the middle of the city of Nottingham until you looked down into the grounds of the Castle across the road.

Bill handed her a pint glass of golden beer with just a hint of condensation on the outside. “It is cool but not chilled, it is a British beer so it shouldn’t be too cold. I know our Aussie friends joke about our flat, warm beer but you know my views: their beer is so fizzy and tasteless you need it to be icy cold to numb the taste buds to make it drinkable.” He winked. “Let’s sit down and see what you have got” He pulled a second chair to the table.

Jo brought Bill up to date with DI Kersall’s new findings. Bill drew a sharp intake of breath at the news of the hospital visits and the insurance policy “That is interesting”. Jo explained “Apparently, Jim North had always suffered with migraine but they had been getting worse and there were other symptoms, dizziness, lack of concentration; apparently there had been problems with his work before he was made redundant, and mood swings. To get to the essentials Mr Fitzsimons, his neurologist had broken the latest diagnosis to the victim at that last appointment. A scan had shown that he had a tumour; he did not know at that stage whether it was cancerous or benign. He told the victim about possible treatments, some likely to be unpleasant, but he thought it had been caught in good time and his chances were probably better than evens.” She paused and enjoyed the coldness and taste of the beer.

“Apparently Mr North burst into tears, said something about ‘my baby’ and then pulled himself together. Mr Fitzsimons offered to call someone to take him home but he said he was OK and would drive himself.”

Bill interrupted “that would explain the insurance policy and probably the visit to the solicitor. You will almost certainly find it was to sort out a will and possibly a trust for the insurance money. He was obviously a conscientious family man who took his responsibilities seriously.”

Bill leaned back and took a long draught of his beer “Our victim looks more and more like a candidate for suicide but he was stabbed, apparently by a third party.” He stared into space and was clearly in deep thought; Jo knew not to disturb him so she sat and enjoyed the view and the excellent beer, Bill had been right, this new brewer was a good find. She would have to stock up with some herself.

Bill came out of his reverie “What else have you got? What did the blood pattern look like?”

Jo put her glass down and pulled out a folder from her bag. She found the photograph and explained:”As you can see there was very little blood on the wall, but there were a couple of scratches as you suggested. In fact there was not a great deal of blood; most of it was in a pool underneath where he was lying. Apparently he was lying facedown with his left arm under him”

“I bet he was left handed” Bill interjected.

“Yes, he was. How do you know?”

Bill was getting excited “What about the finger prints?”

“They were pretty smudged but the last time he had hold of the knife it was probably in his left hand and he might have been holding it pretty much in his fingertips, point uppermost” Jo hesitated “They were very smudged so it is not definite”. She did not need Bill jumping to conclusions as well as DI Kersall.

“Right, time to get lunch” Bill got up and went in to the kitchen and called out “get another beer, same again for me, I need to think things through”. Jo fetched the beers, and settled in the terrace lounger and dozed in the sunshine.

The problem was put to one side as they ate. They were both rather quiet, Jo because she still did not see what Bill was obviously seeing and Bill because he was into the end game; he was just finalising his thoughts on the events that cost Jim North his life.

Bill put a pot of coffee on the table and sat down. As Jo poured the coffee Bill started to explain “We always felt that his murder was very odd, he appeared to be very ordinary with no enemies, and robbery was not a motive. The lack of any sort of struggle is particularly unusual; most people would put up some sort of fight. You saw that from the start so you were worried that your young inspector would go off on a wild goose chase using precious resources” He paused for coffee.

“Yes, it felt strange. Resources are always a challenge, especially with the tight budgets we have at the moment, so I can’t afford to waste them. That said I still have to do right by victims and their families. I was totally confused on this one. Ok, so what do you reckon is the story?”

Bill finished his coffee. “Consider what we do know. Jim North had always been a hard worker but his work had gone off recently and then he had then been made redundant. He and his wife had their first baby on the way and he was struggling to find a new job. That is stressful for anyone, at any time, but doubly so in the victim’s circumstances. Especially as he obviously had health problems both physical and it would seem with his mental health, although that is not confirmed. Kersall will have to follow up on that with the wife and the family doctor; I won’t be surprised if he was being treated for depression.”

Jo smiled “I am glad there is still something for Kersall to do; I was worried that you had solved it and he would be put out”.

Bill responded “I may have the story but your job is to feed what we speculate to DI Kersall in a way that gives him a part in solving the mystery and putting the evidence together. You have to keep him motivated and onside, he needs to see you as one of the supportive, good guys. I appreciate that is your style in any case.

“Anyway. The story as I see it is that Jim North’s depression and fears about his health led to him wanting to take his own life. He kept control sufficiently to realise the coroner’s verdict must not be suicide if his wife and baby were to get the money from the insurance company. I suspect in his fragile mental state the diagnosis of a possible brain tumour was enough to tip him over the edge. His wife was not around to support him and he just brooded on things and he took what he saw was his only way out.”

“He decided to create a murder scene. He tried to drive the knife into his chest against the wall but his nerve and strength failed him.”

“Ah” Jo said “that is what caused the scratches on the wall; they were at chest height. So that is what you were looking for”

“Yes, but it obviously hadn’t worked otherwise there would have been blood spray on the wall around the scratches. Then I saw the position of the body and I knew what he had done and probably why he needed so much alcohol. He held the knife against his chest and just let himself fall forward. His body weight drove the knife deep into his chest. Once he let himself fall, he was pretty much committed, there was not really any going back. That is why he was lying face down on the knife”

“And why the fingerprints were not in the position one would create using the knife normally on a chopping board” Jo added.

“Quite, and why he was lying on his dominant arm”.

“But why was the front door left open?” Jo asked.

“I don’t know, my guess is that it was so he would be found before his wife got home. Anyway I need to leave something for your and young Kersall to sort out. I am going to get another beer do you want one or would prefer another coffee?”

“Another beer would send me to sleep, I’ll have a tea, I’ll make it” As Jo stood up her work mobile phone rang. “Kersall, what’s up?” She paused for the answer “Oh, that is sad. I have never known it get to you like that. Look, get off home and I will see you on Monday. I’ve got some thoughts but they will wait until then. We might be able to do something.” She turned to her brother “That was Kersall and he was very upset. He had been to see the wife and she was devasted as you might expect but he really felt for her. Apparently they had been trying for a baby for several years and had been through the infertility testing and had about given up on having a child. Then she had got pregnant and they had been delighted; especially the husband. Our victim decided to take out a big insurance policy so that if anything happened to him his wife and baby would be financially secure. Because of the size of it he had to have a medical which showed nothing untoward. He had been having migraines since he was a child so they had not thought his recent headaches were anything else; he had been trying to manage with other techniques such as hypnotherapy. He had given up on traditional medicine for his headaches.”

Bill looked slightly puzzled “so the insurance was a red herring, it predated both redundancy and the concern that his headaches were more than migraines. I was going to say I thought the policy was in vain because it would have not paid out for a known existing problem but that is not the case”

Bill looked at Jo “You realise that if you do your job conscientiously and show that it was suicide his death will have been in vain, the wife and baby will get nothing?”

With tears in her eyes Jo said “That’s not all Kersall told me. He has the post-mortem report, it seems the tumour was probably benign and may well have been treatable. So there is no reason our victim would not have recovered to live a normal life and see his child grow up.”

Bill put his hand on her shoulder “That’s tough. I would hate your job. For me these are just interesting problems to solve, for you it is about real people. It sounds as though Kersall is much the same, he seem to be a good lad. What are you going to do?”

“I think I will have another beer after all. I really don’t want to leave this as it is. Our victim had tried to do the rights things by his family and now it seems they will be left in the financial lurch. I know Kersall will be dismayed; he was upset enough after meeting the wife. He will find the truth very difficult.”

Bill looked thoughtful “Well, we could see if there is another interpretation that can be put on the facts we have. The facts are not yet really conclusive, we need DI Kersall to pull it all together so if we can give him another story that fits I am sure he will be able to do the rest”. It obviously can’t be murder or you will be wasting resources on a wild goose chase so you and I need to work out how this terrible accident happened.”

Jo said “Pass me that picture of the body. I think I remember something.” Bill glanced at the photograph as he handed it over. “I think I see what you might be thinking”

“Yes, look by his foot, that’s the corner of a cat litter tray. They had a cat; is that why the door was open perhaps?”  Jo asked.

Bill interjected: “That would fit, and it could explain the knife as well. Get Kersall to check the chopping board – there is bound to be something like fish or cat food on it.”

“Or even on the knife itself”  Jo picked up the story “So; Jim North had obviously been drinking, tripped over the cat he had just let in, we know he was suffering with occasional dizziness anyway,  and the knife he was using to prepare some food for the cat went into his chest. The food would have disappeared because the cat would have had it as soon as it could. I think that will give Kersall what he needs, he should find enough evidence for the coroner to conclude it was a tragic accident. I am sure when I have spoken to him that DI Kersall will not think the scratches on the wall are relevant. They could have happened anytime…” She winked “As soon he has written up the report and spoken to the coroner I will get him to tell the wife about this terrible accident.”



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