On a blustery Thursday morning, Kirstie James pushes an overburdened stroller across Victoria Square towards the smaller of two red brick Victorian buildings, past the WWI memorial up to the Gamble Building. Acclimatising to the rush of warm air inside, she adjusts her vehicle and passenger in the lift before the steel doors part to deposit her into a diminutive landing with two lime green doors, leading to the Central Library. Read & Rhyme will start in 15 minutes, and Kirstie is always one for punctuality, with grace of 10 minutes before her preferred time of arrival. It was important to get her little boy to learn early and often, there was no one else to do it with her.
She enters and sets down an energetic little boy with a light brown tousled hair.
“Hilton, no running!” she chides and notices, for the first time, that something is not right. The usual early morning hum is turned into a crackling with more than the usual number of adults rushing about. The main space of the library is occupied by a large rusty red cardboard structure, with the words TIGHT MODERN written alongside the side of the what should be a chimney, if it were a functioning building. The miniature construction blocks the view to the back, where tables with flat screen monitors flank the edges and corners. This temporary art exhibition has been up for a week, and is not what attracts Kirstie’s’ attention. She’s taken aback by the two strips of blue and white tape with POLICE repeated between the stripes that are stretched across the arches leading to the Lending Room. A policeman with his legs apart and arms folded stood to the left of the bust of Alderman Sir David Gamble Bart.
Kirstie flags down a young woman with large glasses.
“Michelle! What’s going on? Is something wrong?” The librarian looks at Kirstie with red rimmed eyes that looked even puffier magnified through her thick lenses.
“Oh Kirstie! Oh there’s been a murder! Just there!” Michelle waves her arm towards the Reading room.
“We have to cancel all our programmes for the day. I think it’s best you come back later. Sorry, I have to go – the police…”
Kirstie looks around and sees some familiar faces through the narrow arched entrance leading to the Children’s room. The most spacious area in the library has been turned into gathering space for the patrons and curious onlookers, the main hall empty except for people who looked extremely busy and doing very important work. Kirstie sidles up to the mothers, holding Hilton around her legs, to catch the conversation.
“..some maniac, no doubt! A body in the library, can you imagine?” Kirstie tries to find a thread, but everyone is talking at once.
“Say he was stabbed, the hall keeper nearly had a heart attack when he found him just lying there!”
“Did he have a heart condition? I heard it was a stroke or heart attack? No, it can’t be a murder! How ridiculous!” The cry came from a slight, older woman with short faded blond hair. Beth Birchall usually had the air of someone who always knows what is going on. It was distressing to see her out of sorts. “We must get everyone out of here, but they are saying staff can’t leave yet.”
“Maybe it’s a gang related thing? They use knives, don’t they?” one anxious woman whispers.
“Nonsense! They wouldn’t come into a library! Probably allergic to all them books.” someone else interjects.
A mother from the group notices Kirstie and puts a hand on her arm.
“Kirstie, they say its Paul Astley! You know him don’t you?” All eyes turn towards Kirstie and she feels a heat rising up from her chest to her face. Uncomfortable being the centre of attention, Kirstie murmurs
“Paul? That’s impossible! Who would want to kill him?”
There is a moment of silence before further speculation resumes.
“ …taken the body away, but they’re interviewing everyone…”
“..looking for the wife and son. Can’t find them anywhere – very suspicious don’t you think?..”
“Oh and I have my group later, and that’s been cancelled. No one knows for how long.”
Kirstie felt like she’d been hit with Hilton’s squeaky rubber hammer, her head enveloped in a fog of chirping and twirling. She slips away while people exchanged more theories.
She rushes to the official standing sentry. “Excuse me, can you tell me what’s going on?” The man in the bulky navy tunic looks down at Kirstie not unkindly and shook his head.
“I’m sorry but you’ll have to step back. This is a crime scene, that’s currently under investigation. You’ll be notified at the appropriate time, that’s all I can tell you.” He looks down at her but avoids her eyes.
“But you’re the police, come on, you’re suppose to help.” Kirstie puts an arm on man’s sleeve. “Just tell me who it is. That’s all. I think it’s someone I know.” Kirstie says, slightly panicked. She looks up pleadingly at the young man, who remains firm but gives her a strained smile. The young man gently but firmly removes her hand and says
“I’m sorry but you’ll have to wait with all the others. There’s nothing to see, the body has been taken away.”
Kirstie balls up her hands and shoves them deep in to her pockets.
“Look, I know your not real police, you’re just a PCSO! You’re suppose to help the community!”
The young man sets his grin tighter and says “It would be best for all if you left the library till further notice.”
Kirstie bends her head, massaging her temples. She feels a light tap on her shoulder and turns to look into the moist grey eyes of a stocky man with a grey face. His thick fingers are clutching a small notepad, and twirling a black ball point pen with the other.
“Look, I couldn’t help but overhearing; if you want to know what’s going on, perhaps I can help?”
Kirstie frowns at the man, pulling her arms tighter around your torso. “Aren’t you a reporter?” She asks.
The man cups her elbow and leads her across the room towards the iHub.
“We can talk in here, it’s quiet.” They sit on the swivelling chairs and the older man sticks out an open hand.
“Shane Greenall, St Helens Express. I have a desk here on Wednesdays.” Shane gestures in a general direction outside. Kirstie nods. She’d noticed the crumpled looking man before, who mostly seemed to just read the paper, looking on the verge of falling asleep. She had not given him much thought before. Her objectives during her visits to the library were always very focused, either for Hilton or to use the computers to go online. Now she turned her full attention to him.
“What happened? Is the dead man Paul?”
“They say a man was stabbed to death last night in the library. Nothing’s been confirmed but it looks like a Paul Astley, a local businessman.”
Kirstie whispers softly, “It’s true then? It seems unreal. Do they know who did it?”
Shane sits on a chair, riffling through his notes.
“Well, the police have the son for questioning. I’m not saying he’s a suspect, but lots of people heard him arguing with Paul yesterday, in the library.”
“That’s ridiculous, Jason’s not a killer. There must be some mistake. I know him. He’s a good man.”
Kirstie looked at Shane with distrust. “Look, do you know anything or not? I need to find Jason, this can’t be happening.”
Shane looks over Kirstie’s shoulder. “It looks like a crime of the personal type. He wasn’t robbed or beaten. Just a clean blade through the back. It must have been someone close to him.”
“It’s not his son. I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead, but he wasn’t a saint.” Kirstie thought of the worry Jason went through when he was being confronted by his father.
“Do you want to tell me more?” asks Shane. Kirstie looks skeptically back at him. “What do I need to do?”.
“First” Shane said rubbing his hands together, “I’d like to treat you to some coffee. Need to thank you for creating that distraction!”
The Lime Tree cafe is less than 5 minutes walk from the library, serving everything a proper local café should, with generous portions to boot. Shane and Kirstie sip from their mugs whilst Hilton squirms next to her, playing with a plate of chips. Kirstie sits with her arms folded and back straight, while Shane engulfs the tables with the huge swaths of cloth of his sleeves. He is telling Kirstie what he has found out so far, from the discovery of the body by the hall keeper at 7:30am to the police sending down detectives and the other officials, to the Detective-Inspector conducting interviews with all members of the staff in the library office room. Kirstie stops him mid way, looking at the photo from Shane’s phone, the one he managed to snap whilst she was arguing with the PCSO.
“I want to get something straight. I can help you with your investigations.”
Shane leans in closer. “I’d love to get your story too.”
“No, I mean I can help you find out the real murderer” Kirstie stated as a matter of fact. Shane gave her a smile that made her flush again.
“Are you talking about investigative journalism or detective work? What about your little one? Are you going to take him along when you’re tailing people?”
“No. I can talk to people. People here don’t like talking to police or reporters. They will talk to me. I’m local.”
Shane grins and says “The implication is that I’m not. Our very own Miss Marple? Want to try your hand at a little sleuthing?” Kirstie shrugs. “I just want to make sure Jason’s okay.”
Shane shrugs in return and continues with his story.
“Several people saw Paul come down to the library around 5pm, and was by the bookshelf looking up old maps. Jason came looking for him, perhaps 30 minutes later and what started off as a whispered conversation quickly escalated to a heated argument. That PCSO had to come and break up the fight. Many many witnesses to that.”
Kirstie’s frown furrows deeper. “That’s not really motive, though is it?”
Shane shakes his head slightly “Ah, but the knife he was stabbed with was a fancy chef’s knife. And it’s been mentioned Jason is a chef. Jason was seen storming out, but haven’t found anyone who saw Paul leave.”
Kirstie snorted “A trainee chef. Besides, it could have been any chef, he’s not the only one who cooks.”
“Well, then where was he last night? Where were you?”
Kirstie blushes “We don’t live together. We’re not together any more. I don’t know where he was last night, I don’t know where he is most nights.”
A chime breaks the silence and Kirstie fumbles for her phone. “It’s Jason.” She stares intently at her phone. “I guess I should text back…” Kirstie’s fingers dance across the screen, writing and sending messages.
Shane starts doodling on his notepad. Paul Astley, murdered, Jason, his son wanted for questioning, Jason also has a son, Hilton and now he’s sitting with the boy’s mother, a teenage single mother. Too bad for the little kid, Shane thinks, though it seems there wasn’t much contact.
The idea of children led his mind to toys, then games. Was there something that reminded him of this, something he’d seen or heard earlier? He thinks back to what the hall keeper said.
“Nearly fell over dead myself! Could have knocked me with a feather. That shiny blade, through that purple jumper, turning bits of it darker. All that blood….and in the library!”
Kirstie abruptly interrupts Shane’s reverie.
“He says he was framed. One of his knives is missing from his set.” she says, returning her phone to the table.