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The Body at Bloody Bridge

Updated: Jul 16, 2023

a short story by Nicholas George


 

The woodland trail was narrow but easy to distinguish by the tall growth of ferns on either side. I looked ahead where it swung around, disappearing into a shadowy grove of trees. The sight, inviting and mysterious, warmed my soul. What would I find around that bend?

That was the delight of English country walking. A surprise can lurk over every hill or around every hedge—a broad meadow to traverse, a burbling stream to cross, a stile to climb over, a viewpoint from which to see the surrounding dales and villages.

It was a landscape as far removed as possible from the that of my home in north San Diego County, where the hillsides and canyons are all covered with the same desiccated foliage: sagebrush and cactus, gnarled scrub oaks and withered shrubs. Occasionally I encounter a bloom of wildflowers, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. Those surroundings offered their own coarse beauty, and I can appreciate them at odd moments, but my true love is the more verdant countryside of Britain.

This day’s walk in Northern Ireland was a spur-of-the-moment adventure I’d planned when my partner Doug informed me he was taking his mother to a doctor’s appointment. We’d come to Newcastle the week before so he could check in on her—she was battling a mostly non-aggressive cancer in her spinal column and he wanted to make sure she was getting the best care possible. Edith was in good spirits and looked, to all outward appearances, as healthy as a proverbial horse, but she was at an age where looks can be deceiving.

With Doug and his mother at the appointment, I had a few hours to myself. I always kept apps on my cellphone that show local walking trails, just in case. Among the trails near Newcastle I found the 6.2-mile Bloody Bridge trail, used by in the 18th century by smugglers who brought brandy, wine, spices, and other contraband to the Irish coast from the Isle of Man. The trailhead was an easy three-mile drive south of the town. Doug let me use our rental car; he called an Uber to get to the doctor’s office.

After reaching the carpark I laced up my hiking boots, grabbed my walking stick, and easily found the trailhead. I began climbing the lower slope of Millstone Mountain. It was technically not a mountain as we define them in California—more of a large hill, really—but it was an invigorating climb nonetheless, and a bit of a challenge for my sixty-seven-year-old legs, which hadn’t had a good workout for weeks.

I was alone on the path, which was good, because solitude was what I needed. I’d spent five days morning-till-night with Doug and his mom and needed some alone time. The day was cool and crisp with a few stray clouds punctuating the deep blue sky. Brightly colored heather formed a springy carpet on the hills before me, dragonflies and butterflies fluttering overhead.

Once I crested the hell the path descended into a small valley and crossed a stone bridge across a stream. Was this the Bloody Bridge that gave the trail its name? I paused on its far end to sit and take a drink of water. Above me a peregrine falcon silently swooped. I breathed deeply, the clean, moist air expelling the stress of the past few days. The sweet fragrance of heather penetrated my lungs and birdsong caressed my ears. At that moment everything was right with the world.

“Oh!’ a sharp voice called out. “I didn’t see you there.”

My eyes snapped open. Before me stood a short woman with tightly-curled grey hair who looked to be in her late seventies. She wore a multicolored sweater with a small daypack tied around her waist, and held a walking stick. She was likely a local out for a morning respite.

“I didn’t mean to give you a scare,” I said. I understand very well how a large, bearded man like me can present an intimidating figure.

“No, not at all! I’m glad to see someone else out here. I was beginning to think I’d lost my way.” From her accent I knew she was no local, but an American like me.

“Did you come from that way?” I asked, pointing to the trail behind me.

She broke into a smile. “You’re a Yank! Or are you Canadian?

I smiled back. “I live in California. My name is Rick. Rick Chasen.”

“Pleased to meet you. I’m Billie Mondreau, from Burlington, Vermont.” We shook hands delicately.

“Have you done much walking here in the U.K.?” I asked.

“Only once, a couple of years ago, when I came over with my sister on a whirlwind, If-It’s-Tuesday-It-Must-Be-Brighton tour. This time I came back to explore a little more. But it’s scary to do on your own.”

I smiled in agreement. “It sure is, which is why I like to join group walks and leave the navigation to a professional guide. But this walk today was a last-minute decision.”

Billie looked down at the folded map in her hand. “I came up from that parking area.” Nodding in the direction I had taken, she said, “But I saw another trail branch off back there and wondered if I should have gone that way.”

I pulled out my map from a plastic sleeve I used to protect it against unexpected rain. I pointed out our location. “If you want to end up back at the car park, you’re on the right trail,” I said. She thanked me and I asked, “What brings you all the way to Ireland?”

She took a small sip from her water bottle. “Well, I was a librarian back home, and I always wanted to see the homeland of Joyce and Beckett and Sean O’Casey. And the best way to do that is on foot, isn’t it? Walking is such a tonic. There’s nothing like it. What brought you over here, Rick?”

“Please call me Chase, like my friends do.” I briefly explained about Doug and his mother.

We decided to plunge forward on the trail together. I felt a camaraderie with Billie, perhaps because we were two Yanks in a (relatively) strange land halfway around the world from home.

Before leaving the bridge, Billie paused to take another look at it. “So this is the famous Bloody Bridge! I read up on it. In 1641 a group of Protestants were being taken by some Catholics down to the harbor for an exchange. But they learned that Catholics in Downpatrick had been killed, so they murdered the Protestants. Cut them into pieces and threw them into the river.”

“Hence the name Bloody Bridge River,” I said. It was difficult to imagine such grisly horrors taking place in such a bucolic setting.

We began walking. The path became narrower and twisted up a rise on the other side. We stepped carefully around overgrown shrubs and ducked beneath errant tree branches. Soon we reached a ladder stile that required some dexterity to master. I got over first and helped Billie.

“Mercy!” she said as she stepped back on the trail. “I wasn’t expecting such a climb.”

After ensuring she was fit to continue (I would later learn that Billie was nowhere nearly as frail as she seemed) we began walking again but I suddenly stopped.

“Is something wrong?” Billie asked.

At my feet I saw a small, dark red blotch. I knelt down to examine it more closely.

“What is that?” Billie asked. “I know we were just at the Bloody Bridge, but…it can’t be blood, can it?”

I bent down, dipped my index finger into the blotch. It was still damp but barely viscous. I looked closely at it. “It’s blood, all right,” I said.

“Human or animal?” Billie asked.

I looked to my right at the fronds of a large fern. Moving them aside, I spotted a hiking boot. A closer look revealed that the boot was attached to a leg, which in turn was attached to the body of what seemed to be a man in his mid-twenties.

“Oh, no,” Billie said in a tremulous voice. “Is he okay?” The young man didn’t look okay. His eyes were open, staring vacantly to the side. I performed a quick check on his vitals. He had no pulse and his skin was cold.

“He’s dead,” I said.

Dead?”

“I’m afraid so.” My training kept me from moving the body and possibly contaminating valuable evidence.

“Look there,” Billie said. She pointed a dark red hole on the man’s neck, from which, no doubt, the blood had seeped.

“He must have been stabbed,” I said.

“Oh my…” Billie said before looking at me. “We should notify the authorities, shouldn’t we?”

I got to my feet and fished my cellphone from my pocket. After punching in 9-9-9 and reaching an operator, I explained what we’d discovered and where we were located. After the call ended, I pocketed my phone and told Billie they’d be sending a helicopter.

Her face contorted with a mixture of fright and sadness. “You handled that call very efficiently,” she said. “Like you’ve done it before.”

I gave her a grim smile. ”Very perceptive. Yes, I was a police detective for many years. I had to deal with many crime scenes through the years.” That reminded me to take a moment and examine the crime scene more thoroughly. I studied the ground around the man’s body. There was no murder weapon to be seen—just an empty potato chip bag. The ground was too mossy for any footprints to have registered. The man held nothing in his hands. He was wearing a backpack. I studied his face: handsome, classically proportioned, with a mole on his upper right cheek.

Billie bent and looked again at the man’s neck. “That wound is a small one. The killer must have used a very slim knife.”

I looked closer as well. “Directly into the carotid artery, though. That accounts for all the blood. But you’re right. It indicates a slim tool. The murderer didn’t slit the throat, which would have been quicker.”

Billie shuddered and looked around. “Do you think the killer is still around here somewhere?”

I shook my head. “Unlikely. Given the condition of the blood, I’d say this guy has been dead for around a half hour or more.”

A few minutes later we heard the whirr of a helicopter overhead. It hovered in place as a figure descended down on a line. It turned out to be a policewoman, who dropped on the ground and spent a moment to get her bearings.

When she saw me, she asked, “Are you Mr. Chasen?”

We told her our names and how we found the body. She walked over to the dead man. “And he was like this when you found him?”

“Yes. About fifteen minutes ago,” Billie responded.

The woman walked around the corpse, studied it, and pulled out her phone. “Send a basket down,” she said to a colleague in the helicopter.

Soon a platform containing a bed-like shroud was lowered. I helped the woman hoist the body upon it. It was pulled up, and the line was dropped again to pull her back up. Before she went got in the harness she thanked me and said, “Go to the Harbour House at the trailhead. Got it? Don’t leave.”

“Harbour House,” I confirmed. “Right.”

We watched her ascend. As the helicopter went off, Billie and I turned to one another.

“Not the best way to end a day’s walk, is it?” she said with a grim laugh.

I couldn’t help but laugh as well. “You can say that again. Let’s get moving. It’s not too far a walk back.”

Soon we came to the top of the hill and were treated to a view of Dundrum Bay and the surrounding County Down countryside. We followed the trail down to the Mourne wall in the Annalongh Valley.

“There’s the car park, up ahead,” I said.

“I took an Uber,” Billie said. “Would you mind giving me a lift to the inn?”

“Of course.” I led her to the rented Fiat and soon we were heading toward the Harbor House. The discovery of a dead man weighed heavily upon us, so we spoke little. The inn was easy to spot, the first one off the roadside. I parked and we went inside to the pub. Beside the door were three backpacks, all in a row, all the same somber brown color. Two young men and a woman were nearby, gathered in in a corner with beer glasses in hand. Billie and I ordered ales at the bar and went to join them.

The woman, who looked of Indian heritage, noticed our walking clothes. “Have you come from the Bloody Bridge trail?”

“We have,” I confirmed.

“Did you see anyone there?” asked one of the men, a young man with short cropped hair. He spoke with an Irish accent. “One of our mates hasn’t returned.”

Billie and I exchanged looks. “We did see someone,” she said. She looked at me, as if to ask how much information she should divulge. I nodded. She said, “Unfortunately, he was dead. It looked as if he had been killed.”

The three looked at one another in shock.

Killed?” the woman asked. “Are you serious?”

“There can be little doubt of it,” I confirmed.

“Oh my God,” said the other man, in an American accent. He was a tall fellow with corn-straw-colored hair and a flushed face. He looked at his companions. “It’s Colin, isn’t it?”

“Don’t jump to conclusions, Drew,” the woman said. “Colin likes to take his time. He just hasn’t made it back yet.”

“Get real, Shreya,” said the Irishman. “Who else could it be?”

“It doesn’t seem possible, Brendan. It just can’t be.”

The barman brought our beers and I processed what I’d just heard. Could this group’s missing companion be the dead man?

The American looked at us. “Can you tell us more about the man you found?”

“What did your friend look like?” Billie asked.

The Irish man said, “Mid-twenties. Dark black hair. Mole on his upper right cheek.”

“Yes, that sounds like the man we saw,” Billie said. The three others gasped.

I said, “But until the authorities make an identification, we can’t know for certain.” The three accepted this news soberly. “What is your relationship to this man?”

The Irishman said, “His name is Colin McDaniel. He was a flatmate of ours from our days at uni. We’ve stayed close ever since.”

“We were all in pre-med programs together,” said the woman.

The American looked down at the floor, shaking his head. “It can’t be him, Shreya. Colin murdered? Who would murder Colin out here in the middle of nowhere?”

Brendan turned to him. “What difference does the location make, Drew? The bigger question is, who would murder Colin at all?”

Billie and I exchanged glances.

“It’s daft,” said the woman. “Colin’s not the kind of person anyone would murder. And for what reason?”

There was an extended silence as the other two pondered that question. Billie and I took a sip from our beers. Finally, Brendan said, “Let’s face it…Colin isn’t as innocent and squeaky-clean as all of that, Shreya. You’ve resented him ever since you have him the idea for his best-seller and he never even shared one cent of the profits with you.”

“Oh, please. Yes, I was chuffed, but Colin needs the money far more than I do.”

“What best-seller is this?” Billie asked.

Finding the Missing Toxic Agent,” the American said. “It was the focus of Shreya’s senior project at med school. She mentioned the premise to Colin and…the rest is history. He’s made a pile and all she got was a nice mention in the dedication.”

“Drew, don’t be an ass,” the woman said. “I didn’t write the book, Colin did. And I’m not the only one who’s been ticked at him. You’ve been on his case ever since he rejected you when you came onto him.”

“I did not ‘come onto’ Colin!” Drew said. “Sure, I was attracted to him at first. But when I found out what a raging homophobe he is—”

“Just because he wouldn’t let you into his pants doesn’t make Colin a ‘raging homophobe,’” Brendan said. “You flirt with him mercilessly. It makes him—"

Drew stepped up to Brendan. “And what about you? You’ve never forgiven Colin for blowing the whistle on you.”

“That was all a misunderstanding,” Brendan said.

Misunderstanding?” Shreya said. “It was much more than that, Brendan, my lad. You hacked the answers for your chemistry final from the professor’s laptop, Colin caught you red-handed, and because he is such a boy scout he felt obliged to turn you in.”

“It was never proven I did anything of the kind, Shreya—”

“Only because your moneybags dad threw a packet of cash into the school’s endowment fund,” Drew said. “That made them turn a blind eye and let you graduate.”

“How dare you! Are you saying I didn’t earn my degree?”

At that moment our attention was diverted by the arrival of a large, dark-haired man in an ill-fitting suit, accompanied by a smaller man in a police uniform.

The large man approached us. “Good afternoon. I’m Detective Chief Inspector Peter Flintlock. Are you the lot who found the body?”

I explained that Billie and I were the ones who happened upon the corpse.

He turned to the other three. “And who might you be?”

Brendan introduced himself and the others. “We’re mates of the man who might be the…person in question. Colin Ferguson.”

Inspector Flintlock gave a slow bow of the head. “Very well. I’ll need to speak to each of you.” He turned to Brendan. “Let’s start with you. Will you follow me and DC Barrowsby?”

They led the Irishman to a small table at the far corner of the pub where they spoke privately. “I need another drink,” said Drew, and headed off to the bar.

“Drew never has a second beer,” Shreya said. “It must be the stress.”

Billie set her beer down. “This certainly is stressful,” she said, “and I have a better way than beer to handle that.” She sat, pulled out a ball of yarn and knitting needles from her hip pack. They were attached to a barely formed garment of some kind.

I sat beside her as she began knitting. “Quite impressive. Did you knit that sweater you’re wearing?”

“Like it?” She gazed down to admire its pattern. “Knitting helps me relax. When I’m not walking, that is.”

I couldn’t imagine summoning the focus and concentration required to create something so intricate, especially after having just encountered a corpse. Finding a dead body made me restless, wanting to take action. I stood and walked away to leave Billie to her knitting. The inspector speaking to Brendan in the corner, and Drew and Shreya were engaged in a sober discussion nearby. I walked back to the entrance to the pub, and again eyes the three backpacks near the door. They seemed, at first glance, identical. Greyish-brown, showing the signs of moderate wear. Given that the owners were longtime mates, it stood to reason that they procured them from the same vendor, a website or an outdoors outfitter. But they didn’t all look quite alike…

Brendan returned from his interview and told Shreya that the inspector wished to speak to her next. After she walked off, he turned to us. “This is all bollocks, isn’t it? They should be out looking for Colin’s killer rather than wasting time with us.”

Drew came over, beer in hand. “I still can’t believe it. The person you found couldn’t have been Colin. Just watch. He’ll walk in that door any minute.”

“You all went to university together?” Billie asked.

“That’s right. We went off in different directions from there—I became a vet, Colin an author of books espousing questionable medical theories, Shreya a researcher. Only Brendan here became a proper M.D. But we’re all good friends, believe me. We’d never harm Colin.”

I didn’t want to dissuade him, but the fact that both Colin and the dead man had a mole on their cheek seemed too much of a coincidence to ignore.

Shreya returned and directed Drew over to the inspector and constable.

After he left, she said, “I could use another beer too. This is all so unreal.”

Brendan offered to go get her another brew.

“Do the four of you travel together often?” I asked Shreya after he went off.

“Not really, no. Once we graduated we kept meaning to get together but…well, you know how life is. The little mundane things interfere, and we have our own careers to think of. But Drew suggested this weekend, coming out here to take a couple of walks and catch up. For once we all had available time on our schedules.”

“Have you been getting along?”

She shrugged. “Of course. I mean, the boys rib each one another, as blokes do, but it’s harmless fun. Certainly nothing to make us want to kill each other.”

Drew returned and told Billie that she was next in the hot seat. She smiled, set down her knitting, and walked off.

“She’s a weird bird, isn’t she?” Drew said. “Your wife?”

I bristled. “As it happens she’s not. But if she was, I wouldn’t take kindly to hear her described as a ‘weird bird’.”

“Oh, no offense, pal,” he said. “I mean with the knitting and all. You don’t see that much these days.”

Billie returned and it was my turn to face the inspector. He was studying his cell phone when I reached him. I cleared my throat to announce my presence.

He looked up. “Oh, yes. Mr. Chasen, is it? Please have a seat. Now. Can you tell me precisely how you came upon the body?”

After I gave him the details, he said, “Yes, that matches what Miss Mondreau said, letter to letter.” He paused and asked how long I’d been in Northern Ireland. I explained my circumstances, and how I enjoyed walking, and that I’d discovered the Bloody Bridge trail on my phone’s walking trail app.

“So you have no acquaintances here in this country?” he asked.

“I’ve never been here before. My partner’s mother lives here, but we’ve never visited her together.” After a pause, I added, “Listen. I was a police detective in my former life. I participated in many homicide investigations.”

He gave a patronizing smile and said, “Yes, I’m sure you’re—”

“And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my experience, it’s how to read people. I can tell you with some degree of certainty that one or more of these people is lying.”

That made him raise his brows. “Indeed? And what makes you say that?”

I sat and took a breath. “Because they’re all too guarded in their responses to my questions. There’s always a hesitation, a weighing of words. They don’t want to speak honestly.”

DC Barrowsby spoke up. “I noticed that too, sir.”

Flintlock’s eyes widened. “Dear me. I must be slipping. If there was one person I thought might be pulling the wool over my eyes, it was Miss Mondreau.”

Billie?” I said. “But…why would she want to kill a stranger in Ireland? She just arrived here from the States like I did.”

“To take a rigorous walk in the countryside? She doesn’t look like the type.”

“The type who would take country walks?” I asked. “And what type is that?”

He looked down and shook his head. “Oh, you know. A local, or someone more fit, an adventurous type…”

I leaned forward. “Let me enlighten you. People from all over the world come to the British Isles to enjoy your walking trails. There are young people, middle-aged people, fit people, unfit people, men, women and children. And certainly there are people like Miss Mondreau.”

Flintlock sat back. “Of course, Mr. Chasen. I apologize for giving in to stereotypes. But in my experience, stereotypes can sometimes serve a purpose.”

“Then how’s this for a stereotype?” I said. “Four friends room together at university. They become friends and share plans, ambitions, desires…as most friends do. Jealousies and resentments grow. After graduation, they go their separate ways, with varying degrees of success. Yet the resentments and jealousies fester. They grow over the years until they reach a crescendo. Either they’re resolved through discussion and negotiation, or they explode and result in—”

“Murder,” said the inspector.

I leaned back. “Exactly.”

Flintlock considered this. “Very well. Let’s rejoin the group so I can speak with them together. Sometimes that can lead to revelations which don’t surface in individual interviews.”

I couldn’t have phrased it better myself. Before we rose to return to the others, though, I said, “Have you checked their rucksacks?”

“I plan to,” said DC Barrowsby. “According to the medical examiner, the murder weapon was a long knife of some sort. It could be stowed in one of those packs.”

“Precisely so,” said the inspector.

We joined the others and Barrowsby announced he wanted to inspect everyone’s rucksack. None appeared concerned.

The constable went off to perform this task, and the inspector and I sat at one of the round tables near the bar. His cellphone pinged and he studied its screen for a moment.

“It appears that the deceased was carrying a passport and other identification,” he said in a voice loud enough for us all to hear. “Unfortunately, he is your colleague, Colin Ferguson.”

Shreya let out a muffled wail and buried her head in Brendan’s shoulder. The two men looked at each other in shock.

“This is madness!” Brendan said. “We come to a quiet village for a pleasant outing, and it ends in disaster. How can this be? The killer must be someone local. Have there been other murders hereabouts recently?”

The inspector took a moment to respond. “This is a very peaceful country, but of course such crimes do happen.” He looked Brendan in the eye. “And when they do, I’m very good at catching the culprits.”

Barrowsby returned. “I didn’t find any murder weapon, sir,” he reported.

“Of course you didn’t,” Drew snorted. “None of us is a killer, as I keep saying.”

I studied the faces of the other two to detect any sign of relief at Barrowsby’s announcement. They both looked nonplussed. I wasn’t particularly surprised at the result of the detective constable’s search. It would have been easy for the killer to have simply disposed of the knife in the wilderness.

Beside me Billie was at work with her knitting needles, weaving a pink string of yarn into a larger pattern. A pink string….

I looked again at the backpacks lined up on the floor. As I noticed earlier, those belonging to the three friends looked identical, except for one small detail. I got up and went to study them more closely. Each pack was green with strongly reinforced corners. I ran my fingers down one and was surprised at its rigidity. A subtle blue stitch kept it in place. The same was true for the second pack. But the lining on third pack was…pink. That was the difference I had spotted earlier. It was the only thing that differentiated it from the other packs, and it stood out.

“Inspector?” I said.

“Yes, Mr. Chasen?”

I nodded for Flintlock and Barrowsby to join me. “Could you indulge me and check this one again?” I pointed to the pack I had just examined. “I’m particularly interested in the support along the side edge. Do you have something to cut it open?”

“I think so,” Barrowsby said, reaching into his shirt pocket for a small utility switchblade. He held up the pack and positioned the knife’s blade at the seam.

As I expected, this brought Drew to his feet. “Now, hold on a minute! What are you doing to my pack? I paid a lot of money for that!”

Barrowsby slit open the seam, and a long, thin knife fell out. He quickly pulled on a rubber glove and picked it up off the floor.

Sheyra came over with Brendan and looked at the knife. “It’s a Dieffenbach.” Turning to Drew, she said, “What are you doing with a surgical knife in your backpack, Drew?”

“And look at this, sir,” Barrowsby said, turning the blade of the knife toward us. It was clearly stained with dried blood.

Brendan looked at Drew. “I’d say we know very well why you have that knife. How could you do it? Just because Colin wouldn’t return your…affections?”

Drew’s face went through a metamorphosis—from anger to panic. He made a run for the door, but DC Barrowsby was too quick for him. He darted forward and grabbed Drew by his jacket. Flintlock came over to help secure him while he dug a pair of handcuffs from his coat.

Drew choked back a sob and looked pleadingly at his friends. “Colin wanted me! I know he did! We came close to making it, many times. But he was so deep in the closet, he never could go through with it. So I bided my time. Took it slow. When we got together this time I thought the time was right. But he lashed out—called me sick, called me a pervert—you can’t believe the things he said...” Drew struggled to breath. “…even though he knew I loved him, that I always have—I couldn’t take it anymore—" Drew broke down in sobs as Barrowsby led him away.

The inspector thanked us for our help, and informed us that we might be asked to provide further testimony later. He left us standing there, stunned.

At last Shreya said, “I can’t believe it. Drew, of all people.”

Brendan put his arm around her. “You think you know someone. But you never do, really, do you?”

Billie and I said our goodbyes and walked to the bar. “It’s sad that two friends can be at odds over something so basic,” I said, remembering the many times when my sexuality had caused problems in my work and personal life. “Love is such a powerful force. It can bring people together and pit them against one another.”

Billie stared at me. “That’s very profound, Chase.”

I reached and squeezed her shoulder. “Oh, don’t accuse me of that! I make it a habit never to be profound. At least, not until I’ve had at least two glasses of beer.”

“Sounds good to me,” Billie said with a slight smile, raising her hand to signal the barman.


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