Ben Cheetham

Blood Guilt


With cold, sweaty hands, Harlan Miller unconsciously reached into his pocket and pulled out his Marlboros. Shooting nervous glances all around the room, he withdrew one and moved it towards his mouth. It was a sterile- smelling room, furnished with a desk, a phone, three chairs, and a doctor’s examining-couch. On the walls hung some framed medical certificates, and a picture of a sperm wriggling its way into an egg with the words ‘It takes more than this to be a parent’ underneath. It wasn’t until Eve gave him a frowning look and hissed his name that Harlan noticed the cigarette. “Sorry,” he said, returning it to the packet. Managing a strained little smile, Eve reached to give his hand a squeeze.

Harlan jerked around at the sound of someone entering the room. As soon as he saw the doctor’s face, he knew it was bad news. He’d always had a talent for reading people. It was part of what made him so good at his job. He had a sudden urge to jump up and run from the room. As if sensing this, Eve tightened her grip.

The doctor sat down, looking first at Eve. “I’m afraid it’s good news, bad news time. The good news is, you have no fertility problems.” His gaze shifted to Harlan. “The bad news is, you have a very low sperm count and a high percentage of your viable sperm are abnormal.”

A tightness rose in Harlan’s throat, giving his voice a husky edge. “What do you mean, abnormal?”

“They have misshapen heads or tails, which severely reduces their chances of reaching the egg.”

“So basically what you’re saying is I’m infertile.”

“You’re not completely infertile, but as things stand you’re going to find it very difficult to conceive.”

Harlan shook his head in stunned bewilderment. “But I never had a problem before.”

“You’re thirty-five now. Fertility goes into decline after thirty.”

“Is there anything he can do to improve his fertility?” asked Eve.

The doctor started talking about diet, vitamins and exercise, but Harlan wasn’t listening. He was thinking about Thomas, about the way he’d looked the last time he saw him. He’d looked perfect, except his cheeks were very pale and the edge of a bruise was visible on his forehead by his hairline. It was a freak accident, a doctor had explained. Kids fall like that all the time. They usually walk away unharmed, or at least they walk away. Not Tom, though. Eve had told Harlan that Tom never even cried out when his head hit the ground. He’d just lain with closed eyes, motionless as a doll.

The urge to leave came over Harlan again, stronger than before, irresistible. It pulled him to his feet, wrenching his hand out of Eve’s. “Harlan,” she called after him as he hurried from the room. He didn’t stop, didn’t look back, didn’t reply. Eve caught up with him on the steps of the clinic. “Wait. For Christ’s sake, wait! Where are you going?”

Harlan avoided Eve’s eyes as if he had something to be ashamed of. “I don’t know. I just couldn’t stay in there any longer.” He took a shuddering breath. “Jesus, I can’t have children anymore.”

“That’s not what the doctor said,” Eve gently pointed out. “He said it’d be difficult, not impossible. There’s still a chance.”

“What chance? My sperm are crippled. How are you going to get pregnant if the little fuckers can’t even swim to the egg?”

Eve tried to put her arms around Harlan. “Come back inside and talk to the doctor.”

He shook his head, pulling away. “I just need some time alone.”

For hours Harlan wandered the city’s streets. He bought a litre of Scotch and drank it like water. Somehow or other, he found his way to the playground where the accident had happened. He sat on a bench, zombie-eyed, just staring. He watched parents watching their children. That will never be me, he thought, and a sense of crushing loss almost as painful as when Thomas died hit him, wrenching a sob from his throat. Noticing that he was drawing glances from the people around him, he stood to leave. His mobile phone rang. Jim Monahan’s name flashed up on its screen. Harlan stared at his phone, trying to decide if he was up to taking the call. Probably not, he decided, but the pain was so intense he knew he’d better do something to distract himself from it.

Taking a steadying breath, Harlan put the phone to his ear. “What’s up, Jim?”

A voice roughened by years of smoking replied, “We’ve got a body. Man about thirty or thirty-five years old.”




Jim told Harlan the address, and Harlan told Jim he’d be there as soon as possible. He left the park and hailed a taxi. It was a bright, cold afternoon, but during the drive dirty white clouds moved in, obscuring the sun. When the taxi arrived at the address, a uniform waved it to a stop. Harlan flashed his ID and the uniform stepped aside. The street was clogged with police vehicles. Another uniform stood at the end of a large detached house’s driveway. Forensic bods in white suits were visible through the house’s windows. Jim was waiting at the front door, wearing his usual alert but world-weary veteran’s expression. On seeing Harlan, he said matter-of-factly, “You look like shit.”

“I’m fine. So, what’s the story?”

“Married couple. Name Lee and Susan Burke. Mrs Burke says they were in bed having sex when-”

“A married couple shagging on a weekday afternoon,” Harlan broke in doubtfully, following Jim into the house. Somewhere overhead a woman was sobbing hysterically.

A crooked smile tugged at the corners of Jim’s mouth. “Yeah, I know. That’s what I thought too. Anyway, she says they were doing the business when they were disturbed by the sound of breaking glass downstairs. Mr Burke went to investigate while Mrs Burke phoned us.”

Mr Burke was lying naked face down in the kitchen, limbs splayed like a dried starfish, his back a bloody latticework of cuts and stab wounds. Glass from a broken window was scattered over the lino and the corpse. The half-brick that’d been used to smash it lay against the foot of the opposite wall. “Twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty…” a forensics guy was saying, as he counted the stab wounds. A raw breath of air that smelled of snow blew into the room and everybody shivered, except the dead man and Harlan. The whisky sloshing around inside his otherwise empty stomach insulated him from its touch.

“She’s lying,” said Harlan, blearily studying the corpse.

“What makes you think that?”

With his foot, Harlan rolled the body onto its side. “Hey!” said the forensics guy. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Harlan ignored him. “There’s glass on and around the body, but not under it. Which means the window was smashed after he died. And which also means Mrs Burke is a lying, murdering bitch.”

Harlan spoke loudly — loud enough for anyone within fifty feet to hear — with a harsh slur in his voice. When he finished, the house was silent. Everyone in the room — uniforms, forensic bods, photographer — stared at him. He lifted his eyes and called at the ceiling, “That’s right, lady, don’t waste your time blubbering. Call a lawyer because you’ll need one.”

“Detective, can I speak to you outside,” said Jim.


Somewhat unsteadily Harlan stepped over the body, leaving a partial footprint in the blood pooled on the lino as he headed for the backdoor. Frowning, Jim followed him. “What the hell were you trying to do in there?” he demanded.

“My job.”

“Yeah, well you won’t have a job much longer if you keep this up. When word of this gets back to the DCI, you’ll be lucky if he doesn’t bring you up on disciplinary charges.”

Harlan’s lips curled into a sneer. “Aw, fuck Garrett.”

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