The Highway

The Highway by David Macfie

 The main road in and out of town was popularly known as the Highway. Fletcher thought the title was presumptuous, since the road in question had only one lane either way. But that thought was back of his mind this brisk morning in early winter. He was standing with the driver of the mortuary van and two patrol cops. The body was lying in the short grass about a meter and a half off the tar.

“We got a call from a salesman, who was driving out of town just at first light. His lights got a reflection from the stiff’s glasses. He slowed down, saw the body and phoned in. But he was in a hurry so he didn’t stop,” explained, Mahoney the elder of the two uniforms. “Forensics are on their way.”

Fletcher walked closer but stayed on the tar, where he couldn’t disturb the area round the corpse. The guy was lying on his back, but his head was in a peculiar position, angled up and turned as if to watch the cars leaving town. Fletcher could clearly see the stones, behind the neck, that were holding it there. There were no signs of injury or assault – no blood, no torn clothes and no apparent weapons. The clothes were clean and the shoes un-scuffed. The body looked as if it had been carefully laid out. The legs were straight and the feet and knees together. The arms were bent at the elbow and crossed over the chest, with the left hand tied on the right shoulder and the right hand tied on the left shoulder. The only possible cause of death that Fletcher could see from this distance was the neck, which had to be broken just from the unnatural angle, at which it rested.

Fletcher turned back to the others.

“Any of you recognize this guy?” he asked.

“It’s Will Donnelly, the librarian,” replied Mahoney. “I know him from taking my kids there.”

“Tell me about him.” Said Fletcher.

“Nerdy sort, not married, lived alone,” listed Mahoney. “Nice enough guy but kind of wimpy. Kept to himself most of the time. Only seemed to come alive when he was reading or telling people about books.”

“Why would anyone bother to kill a nothing sort of guy like that?” mused Fletcher.

His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of the forensics team, who quickly set about their business. Fletcher watched, but his mind was far away, tussling with the apparent contradiction of the corpse. After about an hour, forensics approached the small group at the mortuary van.

“You can load him up, Johnnie,” said one to the mortuary driver. “The coroner will do the autopsy, but it looks as if he was suffocated then his neck was broken quite a long time afterwards. The force needed to twist him like that was large but there’s no bruises. He probably died during the night. There’s nothing else around the body that gives any clues about how he got here. And there’s nothing that might point to the killer, either. Good luck with this one, Fletcher.”

With this brief explanation, the forensics team left the scene. The cops helped Johnnie load the body into the van and the patrol car followed the van back into town, leaving Fletcher, standing thoughtfully on the verge, staring at the space left by the departed. Finally, he shook himself out of his reverie and started to examine the area around where the body had lain. He didn’t really expect to find anything, but he felt compelled to try, at least. He started where the body was found and worked outwards in a spiral. There was nothing between the body site and the tar, and there were no footprints in the hard ground. But, about three meters further into the grass, perpendicular to the Highway, Fletcher found a matchbook from the motel and a crushed cold drink can. These items weren’t hidden so forensics clearly hadn’t searched this far out from the corpse. Fletcher headed for the motel.

“Morning, McGiver,” he said to the manager. “I’ve got a couple of questions for you.”

“You again, Fletcher?” queried the fat man. “We’ve had no more trouble here, since the murders.”

Fletcher put transparent bags containing the matchbook and the crushed can onto the counter.

“These both came from here, right?” asked the detective.

McGiver had a good look and confirmed the origin of the two items.

“The can, McGiver? That brand isn’t common any more. Do you remember who bought a can like that recently?”

“Yea, I remember, ‘cos it was old stock and it was the last one. Guy came in two nights ago. Bought the soda when he left this morning, early.”

“You got a name, contact details, any other information?” asked Fletcher.

McGiver checked the registrations’ ledger.

“Name’s Robert Bradshaw. He was a real big guy, muscles everywhere. Wore dark glasses all the time, and a Stetson. This morning he had on a check shirt, blue jeans with a thick belt. Didn’t notice his feet. Drove out in a blue Dodge pick-up.”

He turned the book to Fletcher.

“Cell number and registration, right there. Said he was heading out south on the Highway.”

“Did he have any visitors last night?”

“That weedy librarian came just after dark. Asked for the guy. Had a pile of books for him. I gave the number of the room. Librarian went there.”

“Did you see him leave?”

“Nope. Didn’t leave. He’s still in the room. Car’s here too. Didn’t ask questions. Not my business what people do in my rooms.”

Fletcher snorted in disgust and asked for the keys to the room. On the way he phoned the station, gave the details and descriptions of the guy and the vehicle and asked that the guy be detained on suspicion of murder. He also asked for forensics to come to the motel. He waited outside the room until forensics arrived. He briefly told them what to look for and lounged at the door until they were done. The bed was a mess. Traces of blood and semen were found on the sheets and several pubic hairs also. The pile of books was on the table with two dirty glasses and an empty whiskey bottle. One of the glasses had been wiped clean of prints on the sides, but a print was found on the bottom. The other had prints and so did the neck of the bottle.

Several hours later, Fletcher got a call to say that Robert Bradshaw was in custody. The autopsy showed that the librarian had been violently sodomized, while heavily intoxicated. His neck had been broken by being suddenly wrenched first to one side then rapidly to the other. He hadn’t put up a fight so the coroner suggested he might have been unconscious from the drink at the time of both assaults. After the DNA analyses had been completed, it was clear that Bradshaw’s semen and pubic hairs were next to the librarian’s blood in the bed and Bradshaw’s prints were on the bottle and the base of the one glass. The prints on the other glass belonged to the deceased. Prints matching Bradshaw’s were also found on the soda can and the matchbook.

When this evidence was presented to Bradshaw, he broke down and confessed to the murder. He said he’d left the body arranged as a sign of contrition and had propped the head so that the glasses would reflect headlights. He said he wanted to be sure that the corpse would be found.