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Why Don’t Sheep Shrink? an exclusive short story from M.W. Craven

 

 

‘I’m not sure we should trust a thermometer calibrated for a dog’s rectum.’

That’s what started it. Thirteen words. There was a pheasant too, of course. Or maybe it was a peacock? And there was a smell that might have been something in the fridge, but could have been coming from behind the fridge. That was never resolved.

But mainly it was the words. Thirteen words. Thirteen unlucky words.

Unlucky for Detective Sergeant Washington Poe.

Much unluckier for someone else . . .

 

Day 1

 

Tilly Bradshaw said Poe’s cough was continuous. Poe said it wasn’t. Said he’d just eaten a crisp the wrong way.

‘And there are hardly any cases in Cumbria,’ he added.

Bradshaw shook her head.

‘That doesn’t matter, Poe,’ she said. ‘This doesn’t spread like the flu. Flu’s R-naught is about one point three. That’s the mathematical term that indicates how contagious an infectious disease is. But this virus’s R-naught is three, and no one has been vaccinated. That means if one person infects three people, and those people infect three people, and so on, by the end of the tenth day that first person has indirectly infected fifty-nine thousand people. Three days after that the number is over a million.’

‘You’re joking!’ he said.

She wasn’t, of course. She rarely made jokes, and when she did, they were never about maths. There was more chance of the Pope saying Jesus’s last words on the cross were, ‘I’ll be back in three days; don’t eat my Easter eggs,’ than Bradshaw making a joke about maths. It would be sacrilegious to her.

‘But I’ve not left the house in ages.’

‘You were at the pub last night.’

‘Apart from the pub, I’ve not left the house in ages.’

‘You were at the butcher’s on Tuesday.’

‘OK, yes, and the butcher’s.’

‘You were there on Wednesday as well.’

‘I’d forgotten my sausages. But apart from that, I’ve hardly seen anyone.’

I’m here, Poe.’

She was. The Serious Crime Analysis Section – SCAS, the National Crime Agency unit that investigated serial killers and apparently motiveless murders – was in the rare position of having no active cases. Poe had accrued a lot of leave. He had said he’d rather be paid for it but his boss, Detective Inspector Stephanie Flynn, had told him to piss off.

‘I’m not having you go a whole year without taking leave again, Poe,’ she had said. ‘That was ridiculous. Tilly needs a break too, and you know she won’t take time off unless you do. Take it before the country is locked down.’

So here they were. Cumbria in springtime. Glorious weather. Newborn lambs frolicking. Birds nesting. Daffodils everywhere. Bradshaw had taken a room at the nearby Shap Wells Hotel. She had drawn up an itinerary of things to do and then the virus had begun spreading across the country. The places she’d wanted to visit were closing because of the virus, so they needed a rethink. Which was what today was supposed to be about.

Or would have been about if Poe hadn’t started to cough . . .

 

*

‘Do you have a temperature, Poe?’

He felt his forehead. ‘No.’

‘I think we should check anyway.’

‘Fine,’ he said. ‘I’ll go out and get a thermometer tomorrow.’

Some battles weren’t worth fighting. And it was the responsible thing to do. Bradshaw’s R0 numbers were astonishing.

‘It’s OK, Poe; I have one here,’ she said. She picked a thermometer off the side of his sofa and leaned over. ‘Open up.’

He did. Bradshaw popped the thermometer in his mouth and he manoeuvred it under his tongue. He thought that was how you were supposed to do it.

‘Where oo get ’at from?’ he said.

‘Excuse me?’

Poe briefly removed the thermometer.

‘I said, where did you get that from? I know you come prepared when you visit, but even you wouldn’t have brought a thermometer.’

‘It’s yours, Poe. I came across it yesterday when I was looking for an apple.’

‘You found it? Here?’

‘Well, I certainly didn’t find an apple.’

Poe popped it back in his mouth and frowned. He had never owned a thermometer in his life.

‘’Ow me ’ere oo got it from.’

‘What did you say, Poe?’

He pulled the thermometer out again. ‘Show me where you got it from, Tilly.’

Bradshaw walked over to a cupboard and retrieved a wooden box. She held it up so he could see.

‘Oh, you’ve got to be kidding!’ he said.

He looked at the thermometer then flung it away as if it were red hot. It landed on his rug. He ran to the sink and swilled out his mouth. Gargled for a full minute.

‘Whatever’s the matter, Poe?’

‘That’s Edgar’s thermometer, Tilly!’

At the mention of his name, the springer spaniel opened his eyes and thumped his tail on the floor.

‘Edgar’s?’ Bradshaw said.

‘Yes, Edgar’s! The vet wanted me to monitor his temperature after he ate that dead seagull and couldn’t stop spewing.’

Bradshaw frowned. ‘But how does Edgar know to keep it in his mouth?’

‘It’s a rectal thermometer, Tilly. It goes up his bum.’ He looked at the thin glass tube on his rug. It was glistening with his saliva. ‘And I’ve just had it in my bloody mouth.’

Bradshaw looked at it. ‘Oh,’ she said. She picked it up. Scanned the reading, then glanced at him.

‘What?’ he said.

‘You have a temperature, Poe.’

 

*

‘Anyway, so that’s how I ended up with a mouth full of dog shit,’ Poe said to the laptop.

Flynn’s face filled the screen. Poe’s was in a small box in the top corner. He hated videoconference calls. He didn’t see why it was necessary to see the person with whom you were on the phone. He certainly didn’t know why he had to be on the screen as well. He suspected it was the latest desire of the egomaniac: to look at yourself while you were speaking.

‘Tilly says you need to self-isolate,’ Flynn said.

Poe could tell she was trying hard not to laugh. ‘Tilly’s not a doctor,’ he said.

‘Yes, I am,’ Bradshaw chipped in.

‘Not a real doctor.’

She was polishing Edgar’s thermometer. She held it up so Poe could see how clean it was. He glared at her.

‘OK. What did the medical doctor say?’ Flynn said.

‘That I was fine.’

‘Tilly, what did the doctor say?’

‘That Poe has to self-isolate for seven days.’

‘Anything else?’

‘Yes. When she asked Poe if anything else was bothering him, he said, “Why don’t sheep shrink when it rains?”’

Flynn didn’t immediately respond. ‘I find it oddly comforting that you’re a dickhead to everyone, Poe,’ she said eventually.

‘All I’m saying is, I’m not sure we should trust a thermometer calibrated for a dog’s rectum,’ he said.

‘Tilly tells me you also have a cough?’

Poe said nothing. He didn’t feel ill, but Bradshaw’s number of 59,000 was rattling around his head.

‘Poe?’

‘Fine,’ he sighed. ‘I’ll stay here for seven days. Not a moment longer, though.’

‘I really don’t know what you’re complaining about, Poe,’ Flynn said. ‘You and Edgar, all on your own on that fell of yours. A government instruction not to interact with anyone. Isn’t that your idea of nirvana?’

Bradshaw cleared her throat. She looked uneasy.

‘What is it?’ Poe said.

‘DI Flynn has missed an important point.’

‘Which is?’

‘I have to self-isolate as well.’

‘Why? You’re not coughing. And don’t think I didn’t see you stick Edgar’s arse thermometer in your mouth earlier. If you have a temperature, you’d have said.’

‘No, she’s right, Poe,’ Flynn said. ‘The guidance is explicit. Anyone in the same house as someone displaying symptoms is required to self-isolate too. Fourteen days.’

‘That’s no big deal,’ he said. ‘Tilly’s almost as bad as me for wanting to be left alone.’

Flynn smirked. ‘I don’t think you realise what I’m saying,’ she said. ‘Tilly can’t go back to her hotel and she can’t go home.’

‘I don’t understand – where’s she supposed to stay?’

But all of a sudden he did understand . . .

‘You don’t mean here!’

‘It’ll be fun, Poe,’ Bradshaw said. ‘We can learn a foreign language.’

Poe put his head in his hands and groaned.

‘This is going to be epic,’ Flynn said.

Day 2

 

‘You’re not listening, are you, Poe?’

‘That’s a funny way to start a conversation, Tilly.’

‘Oh, ha ha. I asked what you were doing. You’ve been on my laptop for an hour now.’

‘I’m emailing people I don’t like to tell them that, due to having the plague, I’m unavailable for meetings.’

She looked at him blankly. ‘Why? You always say you’re unavailable for meetings anyway.’

‘To annoy them.’

‘You’re wearing your T-shirt inside out,’ she said eventually.

*

‘What time is Victoria Hume coming?’ Bradshaw asked.

‘Soon. She’ll leave everything outside so we don’t have any contact with her. It’s lambing season so she can’t afford to get ill.’

Despite living two miles away, Victoria was Poe’s nearest neighbour. She was a sheep farmer and they were good friends. She looked after Edgar when Poe was away and he let her use his land for free. He’d called her and asked if she could drop off some stuff to see them through the next seven days.

‘What is she bringing?’

‘Fuel for the generator,’ Poe said. ‘Meat. Potatoes. A thermometer that hasn’t been up a dog’s arse. The usual.’

‘Is she getting anything for me?’

Poe nodded. ‘I sent her a text with what you wanted. She had to go all the way to Ulverston, though. Eventually got it all in a weird little shop run by a woman called Moonchild.’

‘I’ll make us a nice lentil loaf tonight, Poe.’

‘You’re spoiling me,’ he said.

‘And tomorrow, we have to find something to do.’

 

Day 3

 

‘Shall we go for a stroll, Poe?’

‘Yes, Grandma.’

‘Pardon?’

‘Old people take strolls, Tilly. A walk might be nice, though. Edgar wants to go out anyway.’

*

‘What are you doing?’ Poe said.

‘I’m looking to see if there are reports of an escaped peacock.’

‘I told you!’ he snapped. ‘It was a pheasant!’

‘It was a peacock,’ she said stubbornly.

‘We need something to do,’ he said.

 

Day 4

 

There was a weird smell in the fridge. Poe had been taking things out one by one and sniffing them. So far, he hadn’t been able to locate the source. He had thrown out a bunch of food, though. A bag of lettuce he’d bought in a moment of ill-advised optimism. A bit of cheese so mouldy it was a short evolutionary jump away from developing lungs. He’d thrown out the milk, too. Not because it was sour – it wasn’t. It was to stop Bradshaw ruining his cup of tea. She had a once-in-a-generation mind but clearly didn’t understand what ‘just a splash’ meant.

Poe gave up. The smell was still there but it wasn’t the food. He wondered if it was coming from behind the fridge. There wasn’t much of a gap between the top of the fridge and the bottom of his kitchen bench, so he had to wiggle it out.

And as he manoeuvred the fridge towards him, something fell down the back.

He reached behind and pulled it out.

It was a file.

An old case file.

He smiled.

Finally, he had something for them to do.

They could start tomorrow.

 

Day 5

 

‘This was one of the most infuriating cases I ever worked, Tilly,’ Poe said. ‘In fact, apart from me, no one even believed there was a case.’

The file that had fallen behind the fridge was an old investigation. An unofficial investigation, to be accurate. A sort of hobby case. One he couldn’t let go of. Kept going back to it whenever he had some spare time. Poe remembered hiding the file under the kitchen bench before SCAS had met at Herdwick Croft during the Immolation Man case. He’d forgotten it was there.

‘When was this, Poe?’ Bradshaw said.

‘A couple of years before you started, Tilly. I was still the DI and DI Flynn was my sergeant.’

‘What was the victim’s name?’

‘A man called Michael John Sims.’

‘I don’t remember that on the case-referral database, Poe.’

‘It was never official. It was Mary Picken, Michael’s sister, who tried to make the referral.’

‘Tried?’

‘The coroner returned a verdict of death by misadventure. No crime, no case.’

‘So why did Mary Picken contact SCAS?’

‘I’d better tell you what happened, Tilly.’

*

‘Michael John Sims drowned in the bath after having an epileptic seizure,’ Poe said. ‘This is a fact and it’s undisputed. Not even Mary Picken thinks otherwise.’

‘I see,’ Bradshaw said.

‘The bathroom door was unlocked but otherwise the house was secure.’

‘He lived on his own?’

‘With his partner.’ Poe picked up the file, found a photograph and passed it across. ‘Heather Fitt. Worked in adult education. She has a degree in English Literature.’

Bradshaw snorted.

‘That’s not a real degree,’ she said. ‘How can reading stories for three years be a degree?’

‘My point, Tilly, is that for some reason she wanted me to know about her English Literature degree. I never found out why.’

‘What did the post-mortem reveal?’

‘Sims had what is called a tonic-clonic seizure. It made him lose consciousness and he drowned.’

‘The coroner’s verdict appears correct then,’ Bradshaw said. ‘He had an epileptic fit in the bath and drowned. Why did you think otherwise?’

‘His sister seemed so sure,’ Poe said. ‘She said her brother was wealthy and that Heather Fitt had only ever been in it for his money. She’d been trying to get pregnant for ages but had just found out she couldn’t conceive.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Mary Picken thought the only reason Heather wanted children was to secure her future.’

‘And when she found out she couldn’t conceive, she had him killed.’

Poe nodded.

‘But how?’ Bradshaw said. ‘He was an epileptic who died during a seizure, inside a locked house. It is very sad, obviously, but this does happen.’

‘Mary didn’t know how. Just that her brother was murdered.’

‘Did Heather Fitt inherit everything?’

‘The house. Shares and savings,’ Poe said. ‘Added up to almost three million quid. So, initially, to satisfy my curiosity, I did some digging. I reviewed the coroner’s files, the PM report and the police investigation. Accessed her phone records. The usual.’

‘What did you find, Poe?’

‘Dick all. Nothing remotely suspicious.’

‘Why do you have a secret file then?’

‘Because when I told Mary Picken her brother hadn’t been murdered, she asked me to speak to Heather Fitt before I closed my investigation.’

‘And you did?’

Poe nodded.

‘And she let something slip that convinced you there was more to Michael John Sims’s death?’

‘She did more than let something slip, Tilly,’ Poe said. ‘She said she murdered him.’

‘What?’ Bradshaw said. ‘Why isn’t she in prison then?’

‘Because when she was formally interviewed she denied that was what she’d said.’

‘You arrested her?’

‘She’d just confessed to murdering her partner. You’re bloody right I did.’

‘What happened next?’

‘She denied it.’

‘She said you were telling fibs?’

‘Implied it. Told the interviewing detectives that she felt responsible. Michael wasn’t supposed to have baths when he was on his own and, as she didn’t try to stop him when she found out he was still having them when she wasn’t at home, his death was partly her fault. Her solicitor said I had deliberately misinterpreted her words.’

‘Why do you think she confessed at all, though? Do you think she panicked before she took legal advice?’

‘I don’t think that at all, Tilly. I think she wanted someone to know how clever she’d been. That she’d committed the perfect murder. Enjoyed knowing there was nothing I could do about it. I pushed it for a while, of course. Even went to see her all mic’d up. Nothing. Never uttered another self-incriminating word. Eventually her solicitor made a complaint against me and I was ordered to stay away from her. The case was officially designated as no criminal activity having taken place.’

‘What a scoundrel,’ Bradshaw said. ‘How did she know Michael John Sims was having a bath, and not a shower, if she wasn’t at home?’

‘She said she had been missing him. Called to tell him as much. He told her he was about to get in the bath and could they speak later. She said she’d go one better.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘She asked him to tell her when he was in the bath. She said she then sent him a video of herself naked. She said it was to stop him thinking about other women.’

‘Oh,’ Bradshaw said. ‘And did she send it?’

‘We think so. There was a message on his phone but we couldn’t see it. It was on an app called FlitTalk. I don’t understand the technical side of it, but I’m told that as soon as the message has been viewed it sort of self-destructs. Apparently, it’s to stop people becoming victims of revenge porn months, even years, later.’

Bradshaw nodded. ‘FlitTalk use Public Key Asymmetric Encryption, so it’s secure to most forms of cyberattacks. A bit like Snapchat. Deleted messages are kept on their servers for twenty-four months, but users can’t access them after they’ve been viewed.’

She may as well have been talking duck. He said as much.

‘FlitTalk use the recipient’s public key along with the private key that matches the public key. The user sends a message encrypted with the public key, which is then decrypted by the recipient’s matching private key.’

Edgar whined. So did Poe. ‘I bet remembering that makes me forget something important,’ he said.

‘Sometimes speaking to you is like speaking to a Martian, Poe,’ Bradshaw sighed. ‘It basically means that the moment Michael John Sims opened that message, it couldn’t be retrieved by anyone who didn’t have access to the FlitTalk servers.’

Poe rolled his eyes. ‘Isn’t that what I said two minutes ago?’

Bradshaw nodded. ‘The other day you said you wanted me to explain the science behind absolutely everything,’ she said. ‘So I am.’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I did say that, Tilly. On an unrelated note, how are you getting on with those irony-recognition exercises I set you?’

‘I think I’m getting good at them, Poe.’

He smiled at his friend. ‘Anyway, here’s the file. It’s everything I’ve managed to put together. I’ve been through it hundreds of times and I’ve never passed “Go” once.’

It was about an inch thick and contained interview transcripts, mobile-phone records, post-mortem and toxicology reports. A few other things he’d cobbled together.

Seeing the case through Bradshaw’s eyes would be useful. She had no preconceptions, no inventory of similar cases percolating in the back of her mind. She’d look at the evidence in a way he couldn’t: as a singular problem with data to analyse.

‘Do you need anything explained?’ he said.

‘Why don’t you go for a stroll with Edgar?’

‘Because I’m not ninety years old.’

But Bradshaw was no longer listening. She had her laptop open and her nose in the data. She would be like that for a while.

‘Come on, Edgar. Let’s go for a walk,’ he said.

*

‘I heard what you said, Poe,’ Bradshaw remarked when he returned. ‘There’s nothing wrong with the word stroll.’

‘You find anything?’ he said. ‘It’s OK if you didn’t. I’ve had the file for years and got absolutely nowhere. I might have to learn to live with the fact that Heather Fitt got away with murder. And I do have other cold cases we can review. More promising ones.’

Her laptop beeped. She swivelled and read what was on the screen.

‘Aha!’

‘What is it?’

‘I’ve solved it,’ she said.

*

‘You’ve solved it?’ Poe said. ‘You’ve had the file less than an hour and you’ve solved it? How’s that even possible?’

‘I just need to check this database first.’

He looked at her laptop. ‘They’ll never give you permission to access that, Tilly.’

‘Why would I ask for permission?’

He winced. Bradshaw had a peculiar blind spot to the law when it came to accessing databases. She ignored it.

‘OK. Then what?’ he said.

‘Then you’re going to do one of those interviews when you get someone to tell the truth by telling them a fib.’

‘I told you,’ he said, ‘I’m not allowed to speak to Heather Fitt. I’m not even allowed to be in the same room as her. I assume that includes videoconferencing.’

‘I don’t want you to speak to Heather Fitt, Poe.’

‘You don’t?’

‘No, I want you to speak to a man called Andrew Hill,’ she said. ‘And here’s what you’re going to say to him . . .’

 

Day 6

Andrew ‘Call me Andy’ Hill was a well-built man with silver hair and a ready smile. He had a permanent squint, like he was trying to read the specials’ board in a restaurant. He was in an interview room at Oxford police station.

Flynn was sitting opposite him.

‘Mr Hill,’ Poe said into the laptop’s camera. ‘You understand that this is an informal interview? That you can leave at any time?’

‘I do.’

‘And that DI Flynn is present because I’m currently self-isolating? Otherwise, I’d do you the courtesy of being there in person.’

‘What’s this about, Sergeant Poe? I can’t imagine I’ve done anything that would bring me to the attention of the National Crime Agency.’

‘No?’

‘No.’

‘How long were you having an affair with Heather Fitt?’

‘Who?’ he said, fooling no one.

Flynn opened a file on the desk and passed him a document.

‘These are guest records for a hotel in the village of Harwell, Oxfordshire,’ Poe said. ‘DI Flynn has highlighted several dates where your credit card was used to book a room or to buy drinks in the bar. Can you confirm that you were there?’

Hill wasn’t stupid. He knew they had him and there was no point lying.

‘I was.’

‘You live and work nearby,’ Poe said. ‘Why would you spend so much time in a hotel?’

‘We sometimes go for a drink after work. Occasionally, I have too many and, rather than disturb my wife, I take a room.’

‘What is it you do, Mr Hill?’

He didn’t answer.

‘Why don’t we come back to that?’ Poe said. ‘Can you show him the next two documents, boss?’

Flynn slid them across the desk.

‘The first is the mobile-phone record for Heather Fitt during that same period,’ Poe said. ‘The second is a report showing triangulation data from the mobile base stations that “pinged” Heather’s phone. I know you understand this stuff so I won’t insult you by explaining what it means. As you can see, on the dates you stayed at this hotel, Heather Fitt did too. And the funny thing is, each time she was there, she texted her husband that she was somewhere else entirely.’

‘OK!’ he snapped. ‘Yes, we were having an affair. It’s not illegal and we’re not seeing each other any more.’

‘Jolly good,’ Poe said.

‘Have you seen her, Sergeant Poe?’ Hill said, smiling lewdly.

‘I have, as it happens.’

‘She approached me in the bar one night. Bought me a drink. I was hardly going to kick her out of bed for eating biscuits, if you know what I mean.’

‘No,’ Bradshaw said. ‘I don’t.’

‘Who is this, please?’ Hill said.

‘A colleague,’ Poe said.

Bradshaw was watching the interview but wasn’t facing the screen. She could see Hill, but he couldn’t see her.

‘A colleague who recognised the name Harwell, as it happens,’ Poe continued. ‘Do you want to know why?’

‘I doubt I could stop you telling me.’

‘She says there’s a place nearby called the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus.’

‘She’s right.’

‘And one of the agencies on this campus is the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. They’re sort of the Ministry of Defence’s research and development wing. A bit like Q-branch in the James Bond films, only far more insidious, I imagine.’

Hill said nothing.

‘You work for DSTL, don’t you, Mr Hill?’ Poe said. ‘Specifically in the Emerging Technology for Defence Programme.’

‘How can you possibly—’

‘My colleague knows about the Emerging Technology for Defence Programme as she had discussions about joining them,’ Poe cut in, dodging any questions about whether Bradshaw had or hadn’t illegally accessed their database. ‘Unfortunately, it didn’t work out.’

Hill smirked. ‘We have extremely high entrance standards,’ he said. ‘Very few people have the intellect, I’m afraid. She shouldn’t get disheartened.’

‘You misunderstand me, Mr Hill. She wasn’t applying for a job: DSTL was trying to recruit her. They didn’t turn her down, she turned them down.’

‘Bullshit. No one turns down DSTL.’

‘I now want to talk about secrets,’ Poe said. ‘Did you know they fall broadly into two categories: the secrets you own and the secrets that own you?’

Hill squirmed in his seat. Even via the stop-start juddering image of the videoconference, Poe could see his forehead was beaded with sweat.

‘You have a secret, don’t you, Mr Hill?’ Poe said. ‘A secret that owns you.’

‘I think I’d like to leave now,’ he said.

‘I wouldn’t if I were you,’ Flynn said. ‘You’re only going to get one shot at this.’

‘I questioned Heather Fitt when her partner died, you know,’ Poe continued. ‘Two things stood out: one was extraordinary, the other was odd. The first thing is that she told me she’d murdered Michael John Sims.’

Hill’s jaw dropped.

‘No, I didn’t think she’d have told you that,’ Poe said. ‘And the other thing, the odd thing, is that she kept banging on about her degree in English Literature. Made no sense at the time. Now I understand she was simply making sure I understood that she had no technical expertise whatsoever.’

Hill’s brow furrowed.

‘But you have technical expertise, don’t you, Mr Hill?’ Poe said. ‘And one of the things my colleague told me is that the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory had completed research on whether or not it would be possible to inflict physical harm on someone over the internet.’

‘I wouldn’t know about that,’ Hill said. ‘And even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.’

‘It’s OK, Mr Hill. I’m told it was unsuccessful and the research was shelved.’

‘There you go then.’

‘A report was written summarising what had been done.’

‘I’m sure it was. We’re accountable to the taxpayer.’

‘And in the addendum of this report was a paper on one possible use. Do you want to know what this was, Mr Hill?’

‘Not really.’

‘No?’ Poe said. ‘I think I’ll tell you anyway.’ He picked up a document and read from it. ‘However, if a ten-second strobe GIF with a flicker rate of between sixteen and twenty-five times per second was sent to a person with photosensitive epilepsy, it will be possible to trigger an attack remotely.’ Poe put the document down. ‘That wouldn’t be a problem usually, but if someone were in the bath . . .’

Silence filled the room.

Poe continued. ‘I imagine Heather told Michael she’d send him a naughty video as soon as he was in the bath. I bet he even dimmed the lights. Probably amplified the effects. Never once suspected he was opening a bespoke death message.’

‘That’s a nice story, Sergeant Poe,’ Hill said. ‘But it sounds like science fiction to me. Unprovable science fiction. And I think you know that, hence this informal interview.’

‘My colleague doesn’t think it’s science fiction. She says it’s entirely plausible. She also says that even if it hadn’t worked, Michael Sims wouldn’t have remembered anyway. And she understands science far better than me. Far better than you as well. I can guarantee that. She also thinks it’s provable. That the evidence will be out there and, now we know it exists, it’s just a matter of searching the right database. Applying for the right warrant. She thinks we’ll be in a position to charge in a fortnight.’

Hill frowned. ‘You keep mentioning this mystery “colleague”, Sergeant Poe,’ he said. ‘Does she have a name?’

‘Of course,’ Poe said. He swivelled the screen so the laptop’s camera was facing Bradshaw.

‘Hello, Andrew Hill,’ she said. ‘My name is Matilda Bradshaw but you can call me Tilly.’

Hill’s lips moved without making a sound.

‘Tilly Bradshaw . . . Tilly Bradshaw,’ he finally mumbled. ‘Where have I heard that name before?’

Uncertainty rippled across his face. The swagger disappeared.

‘Not the Tilly Bradshaw? The Tilly Bradshaw who solved the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture when she was just sixteen?’

‘The what?’ Poe and Flynn said together.

‘It’s an open problem in the field of number theory,’ Hill said. ‘It’s widely recognised as one of the most challenging mathematical problems of all time.’

Despite his precarious situation, he seemed to be fan-boying Bradshaw.

‘Was that you, Tilly?’ Poe said.

‘It was easy, Poe,’ Bradshaw said.

‘Tilly now works for the National Crime Agency, Mr Hill. She put all this together in under an hour. Do you believe me when I tell you there’s no such thing as anonymity on the internet where Tilly’s concerned? There are no firewalls she can’t breach. No database you can hide in.’

Hill nodded. ‘I doubt even the CIA are safe,’ he said.

‘And do you believe me that if you don’t admit to writing a strobe GIF program for Heather Fitt for the express purpose of murdering Michael John Sims, we will go and interview Heather next. Get her side of things. She’s waiting in a cell not far from you. I am told she’s desperate to make a statement.’

As far as Poe knew, Heather Fitt was still at home. That was the fib Bradshaw had said he’d have to tell. He needed Hill to panic. To think he was about to be left chairless when the music stopped.

‘She will then be offered the same chance to explain herself,’ Poe continued. ‘The first person to talk might convince the CPS they were just an unwitting accomplice. That person might not be charged with murder. The other person, though, they’re going down for at least twenty-five years.’

Poe let that sink in.

‘In exactly one minute, DI Flynn will put you in a cell and we’ll take this offer to Heather Fitt. See if she has any interest in self-preservation.’

Hill’s face turned ashen.

Poe looked at his watch and said, ‘Tick tock.’

*

Hill couldn’t roll over on Heather Fitt quickly enough.

He admitted to writing a program for the express purpose of triggering an epileptic attack, although he said he didn’t know it would be used to commit murder. He was lying but it was about damage limitation now. A jury would sort that out later. In addition to his statement, he provided all the evidence they would need to convict Heather Fitt of the murder of Michael John Sims. Bradshaw made sure it was robust and couldn’t be challenged.

After they had finished, Bradshaw stretched in her seat and yawned. She removed her glasses and polished them with the little rag she always carried with her.

‘That was fun,’ she said. ‘What shall we do tomorrow? If it’s a nice day, would you like to go for a walk?’

 

 

If you loved this story and want more Poe and Tilly adventures, make sure to pre-order M.W Craven’s brand new novel The Curator below.