I battle blustery winds outside, rendering my umbrella useless. The natural curls in my hair that I hate so much are being flung in every direction and the bottom of my black trench coat is flapping away. I can’t wait to step inside Dora Murphy’s seaside cottage and escape this weather. While Florence was no Bora Bora in December, I don’t remember it ever being as consistently bad as the south of England.
“They promised sunshine today,” Dora tuts as she lets me in. “Then again, that’s living by the Great British seaside for you.” Her bracelets and necklaces clacker about as she leads me into her small home. She’s a thin, bony woman who seems to hover as she walks. Spiritual and mystic paraphernalia is apparent from the start – large crystals and incense burners, dreamcatchers and astrological charts adorn every nook and cranny.
“This isn’t just a set of four walls that will serve as a welcome break from the elements, detective. You’ll likely feel a sense of calm and serenity – a chance for your mind to heal after the cogs spinning during your investigation. You probably feel calmer already?”
I actually feel a little claustrophobic from the small rooms and their clutter of objects, and the incense is suffocating, but best to bite my tongue, unlike my mother last night who accused me of not having children just to spite her. I responded by drinking half a bottle of Chianti and I’m feeling the effects now. This house isn’t helping.
“Human to human, I’m naturally very sad about the death of a troubled man, on a spiritual level. But speaking truthfully, I never did warm to Billy. The man was a fraud, and it didn’t take a reading to figure that out. If I’d have known he would start using the endless information I provided on the complex subject of tarot reading for his own personal glory, I’d have been less inclined to share. I just thought it important to help someone who appeared a little lost in life. When he mentioned he was keen to incorporate tarot into a board game prototype I thought, well how wonderful – tarot reaching a new audience through board gamers, if it takes off. Need more youngsters getting involved. Although lovely Phoebe Moore is a start.”
“Did he take any ideas of yours, then?”
“When he showed us all the game last week, I picked up a few of the game cards he had written and noticed the descriptions were practically verbatim to the emails I sent him. But is that a good enough reason to murder someone? I think not, detective!” She pauses for a minute to ensure I understand this point. “But using tarot cards for his own gain with such blatant disregard for their true purpose – self-growth and empowerment, well, says a lot about a person doesn’t it! Unfortunately, it was Phoebe and I who found the body. She met me at around 7:00 here and we walked down together, chatting about general misinterpretations of the Lovers card – she loves a good student-mentor chat – and we walk in and oh, what a sight! His body bent over like that, so unnaturally!” She shudders. “His lack of respect for anything and anyone finally caught up with him. I understood he went to visit Psychic Mist. That’s a specialist shop here in Nutbourne. The owner sells so many lovely tarot sets. But he didn’t have good things to say about Billy the last time I popped in there. Well, Seven of Swords in his hands when they checked Billy’s body. That says it all really, doesn’t it?”
“What does that card mean? And could you explain how the game worked a little?” I had intended to do my homework on tarot last night. How naive of me to think I’d be returning from a family dinner fresh and ready to learn. I note the name of the specialist shop. It’s a good idea to head there next.
“Well, the mechanics of the gameplay came mostly from Albert. I just spoon-fed Billy all the tarot information he required. It’s always been my problem… I give and I give and people take advantage. The gameplay revolved around trying to form a Celtic Cross spread in accordance with your objective cards. Very simple objectives. Not much to it, actually. Needed more depth. I mean, when you think about how complex each individual tarot card is, reducing all of that to a few broad objectives…” She shakes her head. “Deception. That’s the Seven of Swords. Trying to get away with something unnoticed. Well, he was trying to get away with something, and it has certainly been noticed now.” She raises her eyebrows and purses her lips.
En route to Psychic Mist, I receive an email from Pablo Whitten, owner of Room Xcape West End, writing to let me know he’ll be in Nutbourne this Friday if I want to meet. I confirm that I do. As I make my way, I start flicking through images on a tarot website. It’s pretty easy to pick up basic interpretations of various cards and it’s surprisingly more interesting than I expected. Twenty minutes later, now with a rudimentary understanding of the Major Arcana, I climb a rickety wooden staircase and find myself in a cramped space full of mystic knick knacks. I thought Dora’s cottage was bad, but this takes it to another level. There are books and fancy figurines everywhere, and a large shelf dedicated to all sorts of tarot decks. I spot a cosmic, Egyptian and even a Dante themed pack – a fellow Florentine. From behind a dusty corner, I see an elderly man stocking books, obscured by a large crystal ball in front of me. I feel like I’ve entered the beginning of an 80’s adventure movie.
“Ah hello, there. What are you looking for today? Or just browsing?”
“I’m actually a detective, investigating the death of-”
“Oh, Billy Grahame?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“Yes, yes… I heard all about the tarot card in his hand and the game he was making. Dora Murphy likes to think she’s a bit of recluse, but actually, she’s quite the gossip. You’ll have interviewed Dora, I expect, and now you’ve come to ask me what I know.”
He carries a few large folio books over to the counter and puts them down. “He came in here, you know. Billy. A few weeks back.”
“Yes. Asking me various questions. Which tarot cards would appeal to a large audience, my favourite artwork style, this kind of thing. Questions about how to best package a tarot-themed game and have it look most interesting to the public.”
“And you gave him a lot of information?”
“Oh, on the contrary. I gave him very little. The man was clearly thinking about money and had no real interest in tarot whatsoever. It was painfully obvious. That’s the way the world works now, I’m afraid. It’s so very, very sad. So, no, I did not feel like being very forthcoming to someone whose only interest in the subject was how to make the most profit. Dora, on the other hand, is probably kicking herself that she divulged so much. Maybe her little protégé is as well, Phoebe is it? Nice girl. Seems to have a genuine interest, quite probably she’s doing more research into it than Dora ever did. Quite the chatterbox when she came in here. I suppose anyone who discovers a new hobby is always keen to go on about it? She visited with Dora and purchased a rather lovely steampunk themed set. At least she’s a paying customer. Dora mainly just comes to chat these days. She enjoys the company of a like-minded enlightened being, you see.” He gives a self-satisfied smile.
“And do you?”
“Oh, sometimes. But solitude and keeping one’s passions to oneself is a nice thing too, don’t you think? I’d rather be doing this, busying myself in my quiet, little shop than being duped by the powers that be where nothing matters in life except money. Look where that got Billy Grahame.”
I’ve had a slow afternoon thanks to the hangover, but I need to crack on with suspects. Phoebe and Albert have confirmed they can meet tomorrow. Maria hasn’t got back to me, so I take a chance and rock up at her townhouse.
Maria Banks wipes her blonde fringe from her eyes as she opens the door, revealing a stressed look on her face. She’s a thin woman, a little hard faced and haggard, but still attractive. She’s ageing better than I am, anyway.
“Sorry, detective. It’s the nightly bedtime ritual for the twins. Fun and games every night. My husband can deal with the terrible twosome for a bit if you want to talk.”
I assure her that I won’t take up much of her time as we sit down at a cluttered wooden dining table in the middle of a large kitchen. Expensive looking Christmas decorations have been carefully placed around the room. All this clutter… am I just a minimalist? To be fair, there’s no room in my flat for clutter, and I have to admit, it’s an attractive, well-designed house. Maria and her husband must be comfortable financially. She tells me he’s a pilot and often away, leaving her with twins Amy and Jolene a lot of the time.
“Billy’s death shook me. It shook us all.” She sighs and looks down at the kitchen table, biting her lip. “I don’t know if there’s much I can tell you, though. I certainly didn’t know anything about the game he was making, except that we were planning to play it that evening. He told us all that he’d be there an hour early to set it up and check it was ready to play.”
“So everyone was aware he’d be there?”
“Yes. I remember him clearly saying that because at the time I was thinking about how uninterested I was in playing it. I don’t know anything about tarot. I did think it a little strange that he wanted to come in earlier to set up. I mean, he sets a game up for us every week but just does it when we’re all there, so why did he need that extra time on Monday? Perhaps he was anxious seeing as it was his own creation and wanted to make sure everything was perfect.”
“You didn’t contribute ideas towards the game, then?”
“No, I didn’t contribute. The others did, under the illusion it was all just brainstorming, excited that some of their ideas would be included in this game, which Billy promised would be published and successful. When you think about it, how can you guarantee the success of something like that? Everyone just got caught up in the moment there. Well, last Monday he showed everyone the prototype at the end of the night. “Look at the game that I’ve created… thanks for helping with a few of the ideas, guys,” he told them. You could see the looks on their faces when they studied it. It’s like the wool had been pulled right over their eyes. Total disbelief. Phoebe and Dora, anyway. Albert’s a bit of a pushover. The girls were seething. They held it in, though. I wasn’t really impressed either that he’d done that. But I didn’t say anything. So British of us, isn’t it?”
“So, you were just happy to enjoy the games every Monday evening?”
“May I ask, what’s your favourite board game?”
“Oh, um… well, I don’t know really. I enjoyed Pandemonium. No, Pandemic it was called. Yes. Pandemic. Fun,” she adds, as an afterthought.
She taps the table a few times with her nails, chipped red nail polish all over them, as the piercing scream of a child pauses conversation. She leans closer to me.
“Actually, between you and I, it started with a bit of online gambling. Card games especially. Just needed a thrill outside of this house. A weekly board game meetup sounded like a much healthier outlet. Saw the sign while walking Hobbes – that’s our retriever, and thought I’d give it a try. Quite a learning curve on some of the games to be honest, and Billy turned out to be a bit overbearing for a quiet Monday evening get-together, but still, got me out of the house. It was fun while it lasted. Well, it’s not going to continue now, is it? He was in charge of the whole thing.” She looks at me and I can tell she’s holding back the tears.
“Sorry, detective. I really must go and help Adrian with the twins now. Thank you for stopping by.”
It’s a brief visit, but informative, despite what certainly feels like Maria holding back, although that could just be her children distracting her. She seems to know so little about the hobby group she’s a participant of, and that makes me wonder what her role in all this might be.
© Intrigue Inn
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