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Lornbridge Hills – Day 6

The next morning at Lornbridge Hills, I spot Eddie Cho watering plants and confront him.

He sighs heavily and then begins to breaks down. I mention Serafina Morton’s name and he explains the secret affair. He admits that they were meeting secretly on “walks” every morning and afternoon. It turns out that they met at a spot in the copse of trees less than ten metres from where Sian’s body was hidden. They would spend 30-45 minutes together, and leave separately. On the evening the body was found, they had arrived just before 4pm. The sun had not quite set, and they had seen the body. Serafina had been almost impossible to calm down, so Eddie sent her home. This doesn’t surprise me, given Serafina’s behaviour yesterday. Unfortunately, she was seen by Johanna on the way back, who later realised that the claim of Bagel finding the body at 4:30pm could not have been correct, especially as the sun would have set by then making Eddie’s claim of seeing a hand “as clear of day” impossible. Eddie had waited until Serafina was safely home before alerting the police, and wasted some time deliberating whether or not he should call the them at all. Hoping that no one knew just how well trained his dog Bagel is, he claimed that the dog ran into the forest and found the body.

“What bad timing for us!” He says emotionally. “We thought Ariel Kowlinski spotting us embrace last week was a big problem but nothing prepared us for Sunday!”

Yes, how inconvenient that a dead girl should ruin your secret rendezvous, I think, but I understand how keeping this all in must have made Eddie Cho feel – not just the lie, but the truth about his miserable home life. Best not to judge, I just let him know that Bates will be along shortly to take him down to the station to provide a full statement.

“One more thing, Eddie. Is limestone used anywhere on the golf course?”

“It is, yes,” he replies, confused by my question. “Unfortunately, it makes for terrible bunkers because the sand cakes up so I’d quite like to sort that out soon, if I get the chance.”

*

I decide it’s time to speak to Ariel Kowlinski again. I’d like to confirm with her that she was the one who saw Eddie and Serafina embrace, not Sian. I knock on the Kowlinski’s door. Aisling opens it and glares at me. She doesn’t look impressed. Joseph comes over to speak to me and Aisling walks off.

“Sorry, detective. My wife is getting frustrated. She doesn’t understand why you haven’t found the murderer yet.”

“Getting there, Mr Kowlinksi.” I realise that this cannot be the only reason for Aisling’s demeanour. I know through Bates that she’s been told about Sean/Sharon being found. Apparently she’s decided to not share this information with Joseph yet, but it can’t remain a secret forever. Soon, the truth will be revealed about Aisling’s knowledge of Sean’s disappearance and her blackmail. I wonder what Joseph will think of it all.

“I was actually wondering if Ariel was at home?” I ask. I see Zabina walk past with Roquefort gurgling in her arms.

“Ariel?” Joseph looks surprised. “Yes, she’s here. Come in, detective.”

A minute later I sit down with Ariel who is dressed ready for cricket practice. 

“I did see them, yes,” she confirms, when I ask about Eddie and Serafina. “It wasn’t Sian. Not everything is about Sian, you know. And if you want to ask me about Sian, well Sian and I didn’t even speak much. She spoke to Peter Burbank and the Haverfords more than me. You’d be better off speaking with them to find out what Sian was like.”

Naturally, with Sian being the more attractive and more talked about Kowlinksi daughter, there was bound to be some jealousy. But I suspect there’s more to it, and I continue to ask questions.

“I expect all the attention Sian received bothered you, and I don’t blame you, Ariel. It’s okay. But you can’t have been happy about the attention she was getting from Court Neal?”

“Why do you say that?” She asks sharply. She looks tense.

“You liked him, didn’t you? In fact, I suspect you and Court became closer than anyone suspected. He liked Sian, it’s true. But that didn’t stop him.”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Ariel says, tears forming at the corners of her eyes. “I’m going to be in so much trouble!” She gets up and storms off. It’s not worth persuing this any further right now, so I thank Joseph Kowlinski and leave. He tries to keep a straight face. Everyone’s keeping up with appearances by maintaining a vibe that reminds me of the movie Pleasantville, or maybe The Truman Show. I really don’t think I could live here.  I walk around the neighbourhood and consider how samey the houses are, everyone tending to their rhododendrons (even the flowers are the same for everyone!) Their daily routines full of Chianti galas and plant watering… no wonder Sian wanted to spend some time seeing the world. 

*

I decide to pay Margaret Haverford another visit who greets me warmly at the door, gloves and shears in hand. Ariel is right, the Haverfords and Sian were close, so perhaps Margaret can help me.

“Ah, detective, nice to see you again. I was just doing some gardening. Come in, I’ll make you some of my tea. I was just about to phone my Mitchell, but that can wait.”

I walk towards the outdoor terrace with it’s now finished patio where we sat last time. I thank her for the offer of honey tea but decline. 

“I noticed a construction van outside last time – the man says you finished the job off yourself?” I ask.

“Yes,” says Margaret, “It was a little untidy and I’m not keen on mess. So I finished off the irrigation ditches myself. Mitchell isn’t here so it’s up to me to complete these jobs.”

“He must miss out on so much, I imagine? The benefit, for example.”

“It really is a shame,” she says regretfully, “but work is work and Mitchell had to fly to the office on that Friday. He was still at home when I left for Marrington, just getting ready to travel by taxi to the airport. I came home ill that evening after the benefit, stomach ache and sickness, to an empty house – how sad!”

“What caused the sickness, do you think?”

“Oh, I’m not sure – stress from organising the benefit I expect.”

I nod again and ask her where she thinks Sian might have gone on the evening of the benefit.

“I don’t know. The problem is, as I mentioned, we haven’t been as close recently. And I was so wrapped up in preparations for the benefit. I did fear she was reverting to some of her old ways, but I suspect she was just with friends from college. A male friend, even. I’m surprised you haven’t spent much time investigating her college friends.” 

“I’m not sure she had too many,” I reply. And she seemed to prefer older men rather then college students, anyway. “I have been in contact with Emily, though,” I tell Margaret. 

“Emily Beal? Oh, I know her. Nice girl, a little immature. More of Sian’s follower, really. They enjoyed a trip together in Europe last year. Around 8 months ago, I believe. I wish I could spend more time travelling. But I do enjoy the peace and quiet of the estate. Mitchell does his thing and I do mine.”

I thank Margaret for her time. As I leave I notice the pictures of Mitchell Haverford with Margaret on the mantelpiece and I wonder if he prefers Switzerland to Lornbridge Hills. I decide to call his phone again after I leave Margaret’s, but there’s still no answer. It might be worth phoning his office in Interlaken instead. As well as finding out whether he has any helpful information about the day of Sian’s disappearance, it would be useful to know what Mitchell thought of Sian.

*

Clarissa Neal greets me at her front door. After what Court told me yesterday, she knows that the truth has been partially revealed, and that she might as well finish the story. She shakes her head, bites her lip and sits down in the white armchair Court was occupying the day before.

“He’s told you about his little story sharing with Sian, has he? Well. What else could I do when he told me? I had to find some way to keep her quiet.”

I don’t say a word.

“Yes, we bribed her,” she sighed. “Is it really the worst thing in the world? I didn’t kill her, if that’s what you’re wondering. I just fixed my son’s mess while he was busy working out which Kowlinski daughter he wanted to kiss. Or worse.”

Bribery… of course. I remember what Johanna Howell said, about Clarissa trying to butter her up, and Clarissa’s internet history. Gifts for teenage girls and young Women.

“Jewellery, money, that kind of thing,” Clarissa tells me. “Most recently a wad of cash. 3,000 pounds I believe. Pocket money to her really, but I had to do something.”

I nod, thinking of the cash I found in Sian’s bedroom. And meanwhile, poor Court Neal hearing about Sian’s death had probably thought his mother had decided that jewellery and wads of cash were not going to be enough, and that Clarissa would silence Sian in a different way. No wonder he’s been having nightmares. The poor boy needs to have a word with Ariel Kowlinksi also, because they have an unplanned teenage pregnancy to deal with. After talking with Ariel today, I realise she’s the one who is pregnant. She must have thrown her pregnancy test into Sian’s room, probably as a way to get her own back on the true object of Court’s affections. I predict difficult times ahead for the Neal’s, not just for Chase and Clarissa with the shady business dealings being exposed, but for Court as well.

At first I think I need to spend the evening alone, putting all the pieces together. But right now it feels like so much information and I need a diversion, something to take my mind off it all. I call Jeremy and ask him to meet me at a nearby bar.

*

Half an hour later, Jeremy is ordering two gin and tonics as we relax on shiny bar stools.

“How’s it going in the land of the other half?” He asks. I haven’t told him too much about the case, but he knows enough from the news stories. “You look tired, Fran.”

“I am. And I’m just about ready to be done with cream leather armchairs and all-white marble kitchens,” I reply. “Tell me, Jeremy, your company isn’t fond of such characterless furnishings, is it? Please tell me that’s not the case.”

Jeremy laughs, his green eyes sparkling and dimples forming. It takes away from the deep wrinkles around his eyes, although he is nearly 50.

“No, not really. We prefer a bit of a variety.”

“Good. It all feels so… empty. Bland. Too much space, almost. But my flat is tiny, maybe that’s why.”

“I wouldn’t know,” says Jeremy, possibly hinting that he’d like to. He drinks his gin and tonic.

“This is good gin,” he remarks.

“How do you know? What makes a good gin, anyway?” I ask. I enjoy a Negroni every now and then but don’t know much about the spirit.

“Dry, a balanced bouquet. Don’t look at me like that. I’m not a gin snob. I’ve just drunk enough if it to differentiate the wheat from the chaff,” he grins. “With gin, it’s all about the botanicals. It’s amazing what substances you can extract from plants, don’t you think?  These natural flavours have been distilled and balanced perfectly here. I must check the brand.”

‘Maybe it’s just good tonic water,” I suggest, smiling. “But yes, that is quite interesting.”

“It’s interesting how someone once decided that a certain mix of botanicals would create a drink that’s now been enjoyed for several centuries. I mean, there must have been trial and error with different plant substances. Dangerous at times, I expect. For example, some seemingly innocuous flowers can in fact contain poisonous nectar.”

I pause mid sip and stare at Jeremy.

“What’s wrong?” He asks, noticing my expression. “Something I said?”

“Yes, actually. Yes… Sorry, Jeremy, I think I’ll have to leave after this drink. Don’t take it the wrong way. You’ve just helped me massively. I’ll explain tomorrow.”

We finish up and I reassure Jeremy that this abrupt end to our impromptu fourth date has nothing to do with him, or us. On the contrary, if all goes as I think it will tomorrow I may just reward him with an invite to my flat.

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Lornbridge Hills – Day 5

My ringing phone wakes me up from a deep sleep. It’s Bates. I rub my eyes and sigh.

“Morning.”

“Detective, some interesting developments. Chase Neal is currently being detained. Some seriously dodgy things going on in his company, apparently. Well, isn’t this an interesting neighbourhood! We’re not sure how much Clarissa knew. She’s being questioned too. Did their son know, I wonder? Not sure what your instincts were in that household. Anyway, there may be some links to Sian. Chase Neal was working with Joseph Kowlinski’s law firm, after all.”

“True. I’ll visit the Neal’s today, see how they’re reacting.”

Before that though, I need to have a chat with Samantha Burbank.

*

Samantha is visibly shaking when I walk into the Burbank residence one hour later. The scent of their rhododendrons wafts through the lounge.

“I didn’t kill that girl! Since when is sending animal waste to someone a death threat!?”

I calm her down with Peter’s help. She takes a seat in a cream leather armchair and buries her head in her hands.  A minute later she looks up at me.

“It was just me, Peter knew nothing about it. I only sent it twice. I was frustrated. She was such a wicked girl, sneaking her way in, causing trouble wherever she goes. As an estate agents and developer, I can’t be associated with slander, detective. That video was so embarrassing. I just didn’t know what else to do. Yes, it was childish, but I had to do something. Peter and I have worked too hard for this to have some snot-nosed, spoilt, slutty brat tear us apart. She won’t do the same thing she did to the Howells to us!”

“Sorry, the Howells?”

“Go speak to Johanna. I’m sure she’ll share.”

I hope she does. As for Samatha, the dung was childish and spiteful, but that may well be the extent of her revenge. She’s a jealous woman, though, and jealousy can do terrible things. Dunginabox may not have been enough to satisfy her.

“I’m so sorry, darling,” Peter says, as he comforts his wife. “I felt a little sorry for the girl… I didn’t realise we were excluding you.”

“It’s her way,” Samatha replies. “It’s her way with men. She made you feel sorry for her! She knew what she was doing.”

I thank the Burbanks and leave.

*

Court Neal answers the door when I knock. Excellent, this is a great opportunity to find out why Sian’s death is making him such a nervous wreck. I just need to get him talking. His father is still being detained. His mother has been let go after questioning. I ask the petrified looking boy if I can have a few words and in a quavering voice he acquiesces and invites me in.

“They’ve let my mother go. She’s at the health club trying to calm her nerves, she told me. I’m still scared.”

Scared? Scared of his own mother, does he mean? Sure, it looks like Chase Neal has been working fraudulently for many years and his wife probably knew about it, but it seems a little odd for him to feel so frightened.

“Are you scared of your parents?” I ask, and he nods slowly.

“She knew…” he utters in a trembling whisper. “She knew…”

“Your mother knew about what your father was doing, you mean?” I  ask cautiously, trying to be delicate with the boy who looks like he’ll run off crying at any moment.

He shakes his head. “No, I don’t mean my mother… I mean yes, my mother knew what dad was doing… but SHE knew, also – Sian…” .

“Sian? Sian knew what your father was doing? How?”

He starts crying. “I told her! I told her and now she’s dead! I think it’s my fault! I think –“ He pauses for a minute and lowers his voice, “I think my parents did it…”

For the second time so far today, I find myself calming someone down and leading them towards an armchair. Court composes himself and begins to explain.

“Growing up I always knew two things that might be important to you… how my father runs his business and my feelings for Sian. We used to hang out and I knew she was never into me, she was into older guys, you see. I couldn’t help my feelings, though. Turns out, of course, it was Ariel that was interested in me, not Sian. Ariel’s closer to my age, and… well, that’s another story… Anyway, not long ago, I blurted the truth about my father to her. About how dodgy he is. You see, my father was working with hers on an acquisition and I was worried that he would screw Joseph Kowlinksi over. Sian loved her father. You can imagine how she took that piece of information, detective….”

I nod, having noticed the close relationship Sian had with her father.

“The thing is, I got scared about telling Sian all that, and my mother noticed something was up… I told her what had happened.”

“Ah, I see. So I need to speak with your mother.”

I pat Court on the shoulder and sigh. It’s difficult to reassure Court until I speak with his mother. I let him know I’ll be returning soon when Clarissa is home.

*

Later in the afternoon, Johanna Howell is calm and unsurprised to see me when I knock on her door.

“I expected you earlier detective. I realised you must have noticed my own amateur detective work when you came to look through my computer.”

She pushes a plate of biscuits towards me as we sit down, more shortbreads.

“Sunset right? You tell me how you can spot a body in the dark in a forest at 4:30pm. The sun set on the 31st at 4:05! Eddie Cho must have owl’s eyes. That story does not add up. I saw him and Serafina at around 4pm on my walk! She must have been helping with his evening check-up of the grounds. You mark my words, one of these people here is the murderer. And I almost had him. Don’t waste your time on the small fry detective. These people have been plotting and scheming their whole lives. And all these little plots and schemes will just distract you.”

I enquire about the older men with younger women internet search. I’ll deal with Serafina and Eddie myself later. 

She raises a cup of tea to her mouth, her lips are hidden behind the cup as she audibly sneers, “Dear little Sian. Dear little slut if you ask me. She tore my marriage apart, and who knows how many others she’s been working on since?” Her hand is trembling now as she takes a sip. She places the cup down, the rattle almost reflecting her state of mind “But I didn’t kill her, no. You’d never have known if I did it.”

I raise an eyebrow at this remark.

“Am I sad that our dear little Sian is gone? Not a bit. But I can’t have anyone thinking they can kill people when Johanna Howell is around!”

“Your ex-husband, Mrs. Howell, where is he now?”

“He’s in New York, of all places. We haven’t spoken since the divorce a year ago. But if you really need to speak him, I’ll give you his number.”

I take Mr. Howell’s number willingly and a shortbread unwillingly before letting myself out, making an international call to ask Mr Howell what his ex-wife thought of Sian.

“Sian went from just a girl to a woman real quick,” Simon Howell tells me. “I’m really sorry to hear what happened. I didn’t mean to let things go that far. Yeah she flirted now and then. I was Joseph’s friend- how could I tell him his daughter was coming on to me? And who would believe me anyway? I’m an old man. They’d all say I’m wishing she’d come on to me. Anyway, one day Johanna saw a message Sian had sent. She went ballistic. I swore I didn’t do anything. I really didn’t, detective. I loved my wife. But she didn’t believe me. Johanna thinks she’s a detective, see? I’m surprised she didn’t try to take over your investigation. She thought she had some sort of evidence, but I swear to you detective, I wouldn’t cheat on my wife. Especially not with my friend’s daughter.”

*

Eddie Cho is away today, shopping for gardening supplies. Serafina, however, is at home. She’s been busy attending to her flowers again.

“Does everyone around here enjoy their flowers?” I ask out of interest.

“Oh yes. We all pride ourselves on our gardens, we all know quite a bit about flowers. Well some more than others, I suppose,” she tells me.

She looks as though she’s hiding something. She almost wriggles under my glare when I confront her. I’ve already figured out that she has feelings for Eddie. She comes clean, admitting that it is true, but she claims that he feels the same way for her. It turns out Eddie Cho is bisexual, and they’ve been having an affair for the last couple of months. She quickly looks up and begs me to tell no one. She starts to cry.

“I feel like I can’t control herself around him… but he told me he was feeling guilty about the affair. Honestly, I was trying to convince him to run away with me.”

“But before you ran away together, was there something you needed to take care of?” I ask. “What are we going to do about the Kowlinksi girl?” I repeat the text message I read on her phone.

Serafina has to sit down at this reveal.

‘N-nooo, n-o, n-not what you think. I didn’t ever concern myself with Sian. The message wasn’t about her. It was Ariel. Ariel… she saw us together! You’ll have to speak with Eddie… Please,” she says, and I understand way. This woman is a mess right now, and can’t get her words out. It looks like Eddie will be the one to provide the full details here.

*

I sit down with a packed lunch in the grounds, mulling over the circumstances of Sian’s death. The blow to the head didn’t kill her (although it can’t have helped – what kind of state would she have been in after that?) so it must have been the poison which only left a minimal trace. The coroner is still unsure of what substance actually killed Sian. After her death, a rushed attempt was made to dispose of the body, if the shallow grave is anything to go by. I’ve been thinking about how someone in this estate could have transported the body and have an idea. I walk beyond the row of houses towards the pathway between them and the golf course. The pathway, which leads to the copse where Sian was found, is littered with golf carts. How easy it would have been for one of these residents, including the Kowlinskis themselves, to smuggle Sian’s body into a cartand drive down to the copse…

My thoughts are interrupted by a call from Bates. I pick up.

“Detective, you may want to check out a lead we’ve secured on the Marrington storage break in. We have footage of a BMW near the site. A search brings up the owner’s name as Sean Dermot Degianis… and the storage compartment belongs to Aisling Kowlinksi!”

“But the CCTV clearly showed a woman,” I reply, although the answer hits me as soon as the words leave my mouth. The pink lipstick on the annual correspondence Sian and Aisling receive. I understand now.

“We’ve located the car parked outside an apartment in Marrington, detective.”

‘I’m going there now, Bates. I’ll take it from here.”

Half an hour later, I arrive at the apartment in Marrington and find it empty. A search of the place reveals pictures of a woman with red hair. Her name is clearly Sharon, as it is autographed on a stack of the pictures I find in one corner of the room. Escort? Dancer? I can’t really tell, but one thing I do know is that Sean is Sharon. I hear the door behind me open up. It’s him…or rather, her. She pulls off the wig and sits down. “Care to tell me why the police are now raiding apartments without warrants officer?”

“Sharon-”

“It’s okay. You can call me Sean,” he interrupts me. “I can guess why you’re here.”

I find out a lot while interviewing Sean. He reveals that he is ready to reappear after years of hiding away. I ask the obvious question: “Why did you abandon your family?” and it turns out Sean has been Sharon for a long time. He confesses that he identifies as both Sean and Sharon. Aisling happened to come home unexpectedly one day while Sharon was home. She had been filming an amateur show on the internet when Aisling found him. She threatened to reveal it, effectively destroying Sean’s family name. Sean knew he couldn’t allow it.

“I begged Aisling to see reason, to stay together for Sian’s sake, but Aisling blackmailed me into leaving by threatening to reveal everything to Sian. I had reached a point where I didn’t care about anyone else, but the thought that my daughter would know paralysed me. So, I was forced to leave our shared account at her disposal and disappear without a trace. However, I thwarted Aisling’s plans to inherit the money from my estate by having me declared dead by sending a package containing a broken piggy bank – to represent the money she so badly wanted – and a note with my initials in lipstick. Every year. Years have passed now, and my family’s company has passed on to my older brother. With Sian’s death, there is no reason to hide any longer, I suppose…”

I wonder to myself if Sian would have cared at all. But I choose to say nothing; this man has enough regret on his plate. He appears uncomfortable initially when I bring up the storage break in, but then admits that it was him.

“The storage compartment belonged to Aisling, as you’ve probably discovered. I thought that she might have kept the video I had been filming in there. With it, I can prove that she blackmailed me. My poor Sian… All the years I could have spent with her. You must find whoever did this, detective. Please. We’re certainly a dysfunctional family but I don’t believe Aisling is responsible in any way. A good mother? Questionable. A good person? Even more debatable. But a murderer? I doubt it.”

 

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Lornbridge Hills – Day 4

The next morning I receive an email from Emily Beal over a breakfast of bread, jam and Nutella. Wiping the breadcrumbs from my hands, I open the email and read.

Hi DCI Palandri

I’m on holiday so I can’t tell you much about what’s been happening on Sian’s estate. Look, Sian and I were cool, but she was becoming really distant over the last few months. She was always secretive, but she was even more so lately. I was going to travel to Greece with Sian next month but I had to cancel because my exam schedule conflicted with Sian’s dates. Sian decided to travel anyway, which she would never have done before. It’s definitely weird. We went to Europe together during spring last year. Greece, Germany and Italy. It was great fun. But I wouldn’t have expected her to go alone, even though she was quite independent on our trip. She would frequently go at night by herself and not always return until the next morning.

Emily

I imagine Emily felt a little hard done by when she wasn’t invited on this forthcoming trip. My phone rings. I half hope it’s Jeremy, calling to tell me how much he enjoyed Cinema Paradiso once more perhaps. Unfortunately, it’s only Bates.

“So, that Dunginabox Sian was emailing is a company where you can send hate mail in a, uh, pretty novel way. It’s a website where you can send animal dung to other people anonymously. It looks like it was actually being sent from Lornbridge Hills, so you’ve been given a warrant to search the residences.”

“I see. Snooping around. Never a bad thing, especially when you’re catching suspects off-guard.”

“Like a stealth mission! Secretly checking out their internet histories when they’ve got their backs turned!” Bates exclaims enthusiastically. “Too bad I’ve got to stay here and finish up the alibi report. ”

“Or I could just ask them, you know. Anyone smart would have deleted their internet history already, anyway.”

“Yeah, I suppose you could just ask…” He says, a little dissapointed. Poor Bates. Detective work is often not as movie-like as he hopes.

As I prepare to leave for my not so adventurous stealth mission, Mick sends me the important information from the coroners report. I read it as I walk down to my car.

The coroner says that the time of death is uncertain, but likely to have been the day before her body was found. No signs of abuse. The victim had her wallet in her pocket containing a small sum of money (57 pounds) and identification, as well as her phone, which was sent to HQ for analysis. Initial tox screens are negative for alcohol and typical date rape drugs. The victim’s clothes were intact – her shirt was tucked into her jeans, her sneakers were on and tied, and her hair was tied in a ponytail. There were no tears or breaks in her clothing. She had no puncture marks on her skin.

The depressed skull fracture found in the left tempero-parietal area was reasonably clean – there was a small amount of blood in the wound, but the area around the wound was clean. Skin tearing was minimal but there was significant bruising around the skull wound. Internal examination revealed a blunt force type of skull fracture with moderate depression and corresponding meningeal haemorrhage consistent with a single hit. However, the skull wound occurred at least 24 hours earlier than the time of death. The brain stem was unremarkable.

There were abrasions over the anterior aspects of both iliac crests, the anterior aspects of the victim’s thighs and knees, and the dorsal foot area. Particles of sand were extracted from the abrasions and preliminary investigation revealed it to be limestone.

The listed mechanism of death is cardiac arrest of unknown cause. We are still awaiting further toxicology screening because an obscure toxin is currently suspected, quite possibly a plant based toxin, but we aren’t sure exactly what killed Sian Kowlinski right now.

*

I begin my Dunginabox search with Juno and Serafina Morton’s home. I explain the warrant and browse Serafina’s internet history. Google searches for top ten destinations in Asia, bisexuality, anxiety disorder…. No mention of Dunginabox here. I hear a buzzing sound and notice Serafina’s phone next to the computer. I can’t help but pick it up and have a look. Perhaps Bates’ enthusiasm for sneakiness has affected me. There might be something on here, and after all, the Dunginabox orders could have been made from a phone rather than a laptop. There aren’t so many messages, though. Not surprising, really. Serafina strikes me as a lonely woman. A few texts from ‘Ed’. I scroll down, passing friendly, even flirtatious texts. Eddie Cho? This is interesting. I open up a message from a few weeks ago and read it. What r we gonna do about the Kowlinski girl? I hear Serafina coming and put the phone down. I thank her for her time and move on. I need a little time to digest this message before I ask her about it.

*

Next up is the Haverford residence. There’s a construction company van outside the house and a confused looking construction worker walking towards it, shaking his head. “Supposed to finish this off today and she’s done it herself… too neat and tidy for her own good that woman, couldn’t bear a little mess for a few weeks.”

I see Margaret, prim and proper as ever. “Ah, detective, nice to see you again. I was just on the phone with my Mitchell, actually. He’s only been back in Interlaken a week now and I already needed some administration advice for Lost Stars.”

Do you mind giving me Mitchell’s number, actually?” I ask. “He may have seen or heard something before he left for the airport.”

“Certainly. He mentioned he’s going to be very busy for the rest of the day so you may not reach him, but I expect it’s worth a try.”

She shows me his number on her phone and I copy it down. I explain the warrant and browse Margaret’s internet history. Google searches for  garden irrigation planning, balderdash online, loneliness, outdoor pavilion furnishings… Again, no mention of Dunginabox. I thank Margaret.

“No tea for you?”

“No time, I’m afraid, but thank you.” Remembering how her tea made me feel yesterday, I’m glad I have the excuse of needing to get a lot done today. I call Mitchell but there’s no answer. I’ll try again later when he’s less busy.

*

Next is Johanna Howell’s house. Google searches for golf championships 2018, sunset on December 31st 2017, how to recognise a murderer, my husband left me for a younger woman – what do I do now?… No mention of Dunginabox, but some interesting search terms nonetheless. I notice a post-it note stuck to the computer with a scribble saying ‘Dec 31st – sunset at 4:05pmOnce I’ve done the rounds here I’ll certainly be checking in with Johanna again. She knows far more than she’s let on. On the Dunginabox front, this may well be a fruitless mission, but at least I’m beginning to penetrate the real goings-on in Lornbridge Hills.

“Shortbread, detective?” Johanna asks as she walks in.

“Not right now, but I’ll gladly help you finish them off soon!” I reply. It always feels best to appease Johanna Howell in some way. Not that she scares me – very few people do – but I’d rather have her on my side during this investigation.

*

Next is the Neal residence. As I enter the house I see Court Neal sitting in the lounge. He freezes when he sees me. It’s the first time we’ve met and the poor kid looks terrified. “Everything okay?” I ask. “I’m just here to check your parents’ laptop… sorry if I surprised you. I understand this must be a difficult time for you.” This seems to terrify Court even further. “Oh no, oh no…” he repeats and runs upstairs. Intriguing…

I browse Clarissa Neal’s open laptop. Google searches for best Chianti 2015, gifts for teenage girls and young women, adolescent crushes…  No hint of a dunginabox.com here. I let myself out.

*

My penultimate stop is the Durante-Cho residence. Matthew Durante is in the house and busy writing on his laptop. He’s back from his work trip and looks completely disinterested in my presence in his house. I explain the warrant and decide to check Eddie Cho’s internet history. Google searches for best rhododendron fertilizer, is my husband cheating on me, child custody…  Poor Eddie. I thank Matthew and leave.

*

Finally, the Burbank residence. I browse Peter’s laptop first.  Nothing in the history except for punk rock websites. Next I try Samantha’s. Google searches for punk bands: learn more, is my partner after someone younger, dunginabox.com… Aha! The Burbanks were the ones sending Sian animal dung? How curious…

Peter Burbank enters the room. “My wife has popped out; she has a meeting with some other property developers…”

“Mr Burbank, I need to speak with you,” I interrupt. I explain my discovery and Peter looks confused and surprised. Is he faking it?

“Dunginabox… honestly… I’ve never heard of it, detective…”

“And your wife?”

“Well I mean there was the video… but sending Sian animal dung… Look, she had a feeling Sian liked me a lot. And that maybe I liked her, too. Not in that way, but Samantha is a very jealous woman. Sian and I shared a love of punk music that Samantha couldn’t keep up with. She always felt a little left out. We argued about it. I agreed that I’d stop inviting Sian over so often.  Well, Sian being Sian, she knew the reason she was no longer getting invited over.”

“And what was the video?”

“She pranked my wife… asked her what she thought of several made up punk bands. Samantha, being the proud woman she is and also assuming they were real bands gave her opinions. Sian was secretly filming all this. She put the video up on social media. I found out about it and well… it’s just teenagers being teenagers, right? I mean, I wasn’t angry… I didn’t do anything…  I tried to keep it from Samantha but maybe she found out and sent Sian this dung in retaliation? Oh God… ”

“Will Samantha be at home later today? Tomorrow morning, perhaps?”

“Yes, yes… She’ll be here…”

“Then expect to see me again shortly, Mr. Burbank.” I leave him panic stricken and head to my car. I’ve received a message from Bates during my search of the Burbank residence and open it now.

I’ve composed an alibi list for you based on information you’ve found out and my own calls to the residents, along with their individual statements. Please find attached. Thought I’d be resting after this, but turns out there’s an incident in Marrington I’ve got to check out… some storage holding break in. Let me know if there’s anything I can do after that.

I click on the attachment and scroll through the report.

Neal Residence

Chase and Clarissa Neal – December 29th: Lost Stars benefit, left at 11pm. 31st: Chase played golf with friends and stayed in, Clarissa went to meet friends for lunch in the aftternoon.

Court Neal – Stayed home alone on the night of the 29th because he was not feeling well. He felt better the next day and was spotted chatting with Ariel Kowlinski on the grounds. 

Burbank Residence

Peter and Samantha Burbank both attended the benefit on the 29th, but left early because they had a meeting with their architect the next morning to look over the plans for their new house again. They say that some adjustments had to be made to the plans to fit more harmoniously into the style of the neighbourhood. The Burbanks report that they were home the rest of the time.

Howell Residence

Johanna Howell attended the benefit. She was the last to leave because she promised Margaret she would close the event. She arrived home at 12:45am and woke up the next morning at 10am to play golf. She went over to check on Margaret first. Margaret was exhausted working in the back garden clearing weeds and digging new holes for her new plants. They spoke for about 15 minutes before she left. Johanna went to a council meeting on the 31st, but returned home at 2pm. She played online scrabble for a couple of hours before taking a walk. She reports that she passed Eddie and Serafina walking along the course at 4pm. They were chatting like old friends and the mood seemed lighthearted.

Haverford Residence

Mitchell Haverford – Reported by Margaret to have caught a flight out to Interlaken on the evening of the 29th. Messages from Mitchell to Margaret show that he arrived at Interlaken late that night.

Margaret Haverford – Attended the benefit hosted by herself and her husband (who was not in attendance due to his flight schedule conflicting with the event). She had an upset stomach and a bad headache and had to leave at 8:30pm. She drove home and messaged Johanna, who had agreed to look after the event, to say that she arrived home. She felt slightly better the next day and decided to tackle her garden. She was therefore alone at home for the rest of the weekend.

Morton Residence

Juno Morton – Was at home all weekend, all day. She never really leaves the house.

Serafina Morton – Attended the benefit. Arrived home at 1:30am according to her mother. Worked the next two days at the post office until 3pm and was otherwise in the area all weekend.

Cho-Durante Residence

Matthew Durante – Has been away since the 27th. Returned yesterday.

Eddie Cho – Attended the benefit and arrived home after 1am. Says that he inspects the grounds every morning and early evening to ensure that the course looks good and is clear of branches and debris. Did four rounds of inspection over the 30th and 31st (Sat and Sun morning and evening walks). Says that he saw Sian’s body at 4:30 on the 31st.

Hope this helps

Bates

Before I can begin to think about this report, my phone dings to notify me of a crime alert Mick has sent through to everyone at the station. It must be the storage break-in Bates mentioned.

At 3:26am this morning, a large storage company, Storage Solutions in Marrington, was broken into by an unknown person. Police are still searching for the suspect who very carefully avoided looking directly at the cameras. The suspect is likely to be a female with long curly red hair and a butterfly tattoo on the inside of her right forearm. She was wearing a red mini-skirt and black fishnet stockings. The suspect had a large pair of sunglasses on, making it difficult to identify her. The suspect wore gloves and broke into a storage container that was apparently not in use for over 6 years. Storage Solutions have so far declined to comment on the contents of the container and have referred all reporters to us.

Hopefully Bates and other officers are planning to take care of this break in, because I really don’t have time to worry about it. I have a long list of suspects all hiding their own secrets. The question is which secret caused the death of Sian Kowlinski?

 

© Intrigue Inn

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Lornbridge Hills – Day 3

Samantha and Peter Burbank’s home is a rather in your face, gaudy affair, much like Samantha Burbank herself. Peter, on the other hand, has a style more akin to what some would label ‘hipster’. I’m having Indigo Bar flashbacks. I enter their spacious living room, home to a rather peculiar variety of paintings and ornaments – a grotesque gargoyle formation on the mantelpiece and a surreal painting of a rock band performing naked, among other assorted atrocities of ‘art’. There is also quite the wine collection on a set of wooden shelves near the back of the room and a decorative flower arrangement on the dining table which is a bit over the top – hibiscus, rhododendrons, echinacea and chrysanthemums. I can smell them from the other side of the room. Peter notices me observing and begins the conversation.

Ah, I see you’ve noticed our interesting collections… we like to keep things a little different. We hope the new home will be even more eclectic. We are planning to construct a new house on the grounds here. The building itself will be quite striking in style, also. It’s just a bunch of limestone right now.”

We’re property developers, you see,” says Samantha. “Thought it about time to develop our own! A glass of wine, detective?” She points to the extensive wine collection.

I decline the offer of wine and bring up the subject at hand: Sian. I ask if they knew her well.

Peter answers first. “Not too well, but sometimes she did come and visit us. Not so much recently, but she used to enjoy our company. I guess we’re a little younger than some of the other neighbours around here. Maybe not quite as pretentious, you know? I mean, we haven’t been here for centuries like the Mortons, although lovely people they are, so we’re a bit more… worldly, I suppose. She liked that. Didn’t like spending a lot of time at her own home, I don’t think. She appreciated Samantha’s style and she loved that I used to be in a rock band. We all have pretty similar music tastes. I couldn’t believe it when she said she knew Thought Riot! Right, Sam?”

Um, those are the ones from Finland?” Samantha asks, looking confused.

What? No! Who are you thinking of?” Peter shakes his head. “Well, it was pretty cool talking about these bands with her. Kind of got me back into the whole punk scene a bit…”

“And she just LOVED my alternative style,” Samantha chimes in eagerly. “I think she really liked to think outside the box, just like me.”

I’m not sure I would classify Samantha’s sense of style as alternative as much as nightmarish. I find myself drifting, humming the Cinema Paradiso score once more in my head. Time to leave.

After the film last night, Jeremy nervously took me to a small gelato pop-up near the cinema. He was worried I’d turn my nose up at an anglicised gelateria, but I couldn’t fault it. I taught him about stracciatella as he pointed out a few of his local haunts. I couldn’t help but hope that soon they might become my haunts, too. 

*

Quite unlike the bold stylings of the Burbank residence, the home of Juno and Serafina Morton is plain and fairly characterless. Serafina Morton invites me in, a little surprised. She is an ordinary looking woman in her mid thirties with mousy brown hair.

Sorry, we don’t normally have visitors… wasn’t expecting anyone. I don’t mind at all, of course, just a bit of a shock for mum I expect. She’s in the study. But naturally, given the circumstances…. sit down, sit down. I was just tending to the flowers in the garden. We have so many to look after.”

I ask a little about the Mortons and then proceed to enquire about Sian.

Well, I work at the bank.” She says it simply, her hands outstretched, like there’s nothing more to it – her job or her existence. “Mum used to, too. But she’s here at home now. She just can’t go out much. Agoraphobia you see… it’s very crippling in it’s own way. She’s had it for years and it’s just getting worse and worse. But I’m here to take care of things just like I take care of everything at my second home, the bank. My father was very well off when mum met him. He bought this house outright. Now that he’s passed, it’s up to me to look after mum and the house.”

“Does Sian’s death surprise you, Serafina?” I ask.

“Well yes, it’s surprising in the way any death would be. Especially when it’s on your doorstep. I’ve lived here my whole life almost and nothing like this has ever happened. But is is surprising that it was Sian? If I had to pick someone around here…”

“Why do you think that?”

Well, I didn’t know Sian particularly. Didn’t really know any of the Kowlinski’s too well. But you hear stories, and you see what she looks like… the get up on her, gallivanting around, up to no good most of the time.” She shakes her head. “Troubled girl, I guess. Troubled family life maybe! Her dad leaving! He died I think. I forget. Stepfather takes his place. She gets on wonderfully with Joseph though, so I hear. I heard she went on a trip to Europe recently too. Italy, Germany and Greece. Her mother mentioned her itinerary. How lovely. I’m glad she got to see some of the world before she.. Well…” She stifles a small sob.  

*

Margaret Haverford opens the door. She’s small, compact and proper. Old money, and she looks the part. She invites me in and offers me honey tea, which I gladly accept. The house is smart and restrained, like her closely confined greying hair. I notice several pictures on the wall, some of Margaret with a man who must be her husband Mitchell, and others of the two of them with various children. Outside the window is a nearly completed outdoor pavilion. It looks like it just needs a few finishing touches. A few patio stones still need to be fixed in place, as well as the loose iron posts of a fence. Irrigation ditches have been mostly filled. It does look lovely, I have to say. Margaret smiles slightly and answers my unspoken questions.

“Mitchell and I wanted to renew our vows next year and we wanted to do it in a private place. He surprised me with this. It’s been difficult for my garden, especially my poor rhododendrons. But I’m a great believer in patience, time and understanding, detective. That’s the only thing that got Mitchell and I through 25 years of marriage. Are you married, detective?”

I shake my head as I’m guided to sit down on the outdoor terrace overlooking the beautiful garden. Margaret places a cup of hot tea in front of me.

“I’ve been drinking tea practically non-stop since Aisling told me. Dear me. In an estate like this, it’s really the last thing you would expect. Oh, Sian…” She bites her lip. “I daren’t even imagine how they’re dealing with it next door. Sian and I were quite close.” She notices me looking around, back into the house. “Oh, the pictures? Mitchell and I run a fund for unprivileged children. Lost Stars. It started as a small project and now it’s my full time job! I take care of most of the administration for Mitchell, and since he’s in Interlaken, some of the older children we’ve helped to graduate perform duties for the office. Mitchell is away for nearly half the year, you see. He owns a corporate tax firm with offices there. He left less than a week ago when I was up in Marrington for the Lost Stars benefit I was hosting there. It’s such a shame he couldn’t come, I mean it’s his benefit too. Gosh, that was just a couple of days before Sian was found.” She shudders. “So yes, six months here and six months in Switzerland for Mitchell – alright for some, isn’t it? Is it ideal? Perhaps. We’ve stayed together for so long, detective, probably because we get to spend half a year apart missing each other.”

I think that just living in Lornbridge Hills by itself is more than alright for some. I ask more questions about Sian.

“Well the thing about Sian is she really became an extension of the project. Now there was a girl in need of an intervention if I ever did see one. Poor girl. She was really doing so well. We used to chat in the front garden from time to time and she started to become interested in what Mitchell and I were doing, you see. She helped out with Lost Stars and often opened up to us. Her grades and attitude began to really improve. Johanna Howell wasn’t really convinced, but I could see some definite changes in her. Aisling just needed to take a real interest in her daughter, but she’s so consumed with her own social life. When the time came for her to choose a University, I of course suggested London for a young, confident girl and Joseph agreed. But she insisted on staying here, attending a local college. That’s when she started to withdraw. She stopped confiding in me, stopped visiting. I assumed that she was dealing with the stress of being young in this corrupt world. I wish I had known where her behaviour was leading.”

I thank Margaret and decide it’s time to leave, I’m feeling a little heady from the sweetness of the tea and need some fresh air. One more resident to go.

*

Johanna Howell immediately strikes me as a bustling, gung-ho, no-nonsense kind of woman. She’s dressed in tweed and walks me through her busy looking household. There’s golf paraphernalia everywhere.

“Come in, come in! That’s it. Shoes off please, detective, lovely. I always take mine off so I don’t bring in too much sand and dirt from the golf course. Coffee?” She points to an armchair in the lounge indicating I should sit down.

I accept the offer of coffee almost meekly, after Margaret’s slightly sickly tea I’m not keen but it seems best to acquiesce to a woman like Johanna and sit down where I’ve been ordered to. A minute later she’s back and puts a mug down on the coffee table in front of me before taking her own seat.  

“Well it’s terrible news of course,” She begins. “No one can deny that. But let me get this out the way now detective, before you hear it from someone else – my thoughts are pretty common knowledge around here.” This fact doesn’t surprise me. “That girl was bad news. I’m sorry things had to end this way for her, really I am, but I’m not altogether surprised. Drink your coffee before it gets cold, my dear!” I continue to sip the scalding liquid as she continues her barrage. “I don’t really know what kind of things Sian got up to, but one thing I do know is she got around a bit, if you know what I mean.” She pauses for a minute, apparently lost in her thoughts. “Yes… she liked the attention did Sian.”

I ask a little more about Johanna. I read on Bates’ notes that she’s a professional golf champion and apologise for not being familiar with the sport.

“Well that’s a shame, detective. We need more women of your age getting into the game. I’m retired now. Still get all my practice in on these lovely grounds Mr. Cho maintains so nicely for us. Bless that man. But I’m also quite preoccupied being on the regional council these days. I’m on the Board of Trustees for the course here and estate too. Busy, busy, that’s the way I like it! No quiet retirement for me!” She shoves a plate of biscuits in my direction.Shortbread, detective? Take three. You look exhausted. Clarissa Neal gave them to me and they’re quite terrible, I’m trying to get rid of them.” She gives a bark of a laugh. “Giving me shortbread biscuits to try and butter me up, literally, so she can get her own way with this dreadful sounding Chianti and charcuterie gala of hers coming up! Just like her to do that! She’s given me a bunch of her rhododendrons and pansies, too. Well I already have enough of those in my garden! I’m also involved with the organisation of events around here like Clarissa, you see, and we don’t always see eye to eye. Margaret’s got the right idea by having little to do with that family. Hah! Now there’s a woman with real class, not whatever Clarissa Neal thinks class is! And don’t even get me started on Samantha Burbank…”

We chat a little more about golf while I wait for my coffee to cool down. When it’s finally a more manageable temperature I knock it back, thank Johanna and leave. There’s certainly an interesting mix of personalities residing at Lornbridge Hills. The question is, are they all being truthful with me?

 

© Intrigue Inn

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Lornbridge Hills – Day 2

I return to the Kowlinski household in the morning. I’m keen to look at Sian’s room and create a better picture of this young woman in my head.

I climb a spiral staircase and find Sian’s bedroom down the hallway, the second door on the right. It’s a big room. A large four poster bed is the room’s centrepiece. There are a combination of traditional furnishings and Sian’s own touches – for example, a large Van Gogh print ornately framed (Cafe Terrace at Night) amongst several music posters. I recognise a Coldplay poster but I’ve certainly never heard of the bands Bracket and Drunk in Public who appear on others. There’s a messy walk-in closet with one of Warhol’s bold Marilyn prints hung up inside. I step over a pile of jackets towards a collection of at least thirty pairs of shoes. I search the closet thoroughly and find something in an offensive pair of Alexander McQueen heels – a rolled up wad of cash at the bottom of one of the shoes. I count it up: 3,000 pounds. Since when do 20-year-old girls keep their savings in their shoes, no matter how well-off their families are?

I search the rest of the room. There are bits and pieces lying around everywhere – soft toys (a Minion, a Donald Duck, and a large boxer dog toy of unknown origin) and things collected over the years, some of them souvenirs from her recent travels abroad. I spot a shot glass with a picture of the Acropolis on it, a wall plate depicting a beach and traditional house on a Greek island, a German beer mug, a small wooden alphorn, a couple of Venetian masks. Plenty of sweets from around the world too – Baci, Loukoumi, and Chocolat Frey. I get the feeling I could search this room for hours and still never find the floor. Sifting through the clutter of souvenirs from mainland Europe is hard work. A bunch of rolled up punk rock posters lie under the bed. She was really into her alternative music, it seems. I reach for a small red box and find it contains a fancy new looking Swatch watch. There are DVDs of old classics – Casablanca, It’s A Wonderful Life, Strangers on a Train… I’m a little surprised that Sian was into much older films. She didn’t seem the type. But she did seem to get on better with people older than her, so maybe that applied to films too. I notice golf paraphernalia scattered about. I also didn’t realise how taken she was with golf. Probably because of Joseph. Joseph must have had a big influence on her, and she was clearly very fond of him. And wait, what’s this? A positive pregnancy test… Good job I was persistent in my search through this mess. I bag and pocket the test.

There’s a closed laptop on the desk towards the back of the room. I open the lid. It switches on and Sian’s most recent activity appears on the screen. I spot many interesting clues across her open tabs. In the top left there’s an email conversation with a company called Dunginabox. What is that? I note an email address so I can get in touch. Sian’s latest correspondence with them is full of anger, demanding they stop sending her packages. There’s a Yahoo messenger conversation top centre with emilybeal94, dated the afternoon of December 29th, just hours before she left this house. They were discussing an upcoming trip to Greece that Sian was taking. This is backed up by a Booking.com search for double rooms in Athens. I’ll need to check with Aisling and Joseph who emilybeal94 is, and if they knew about the upcoming trip. There’s also a Spotify playlist featuring some of the bands I saw on Sian’s posters. 

I head downstairs and sit down with Aisling and Joseph for further questioning. I’m specifically interested in what I saw on her laptop, as well as the pregnancy test. Aisling and Joseph tell me that Sian’s best friend was Emily Beal when I inquire about the Yahoo conversation.

“They went to secondary school together and they’ve remained best friends. And Sian, well, she didn’t really have many friends her own age,” says Joseph. “They also travelled to Europe together. Emily has been informed of the bad news but is away on a holiday with her family at the moment, detective. I’ll provide you with her contact details.” As usual, Joseph is very formal in his manner. He gives me Emily Beal’s number. Aisling looks fairly bored, until I mention the pregnancy test. Her eyes widen and she turns to Joseph immediately, who frowns.

“Prgenant? But… who? How?” He splutters.

“Let’s not kid ourselves here,” Aisling says cooly. “She had a lot of attention and she enjoyed it. I know girls and I know Sian. I would have expected her to be more careful, though.”

As I leave I call Emily’s number but she doesn’t answer. I send her a short email.

*

Bates has provided me with a list of neighbours who’ve been at home over the holidays. The landscaper Eddie Cho, who found Sian’s body, will be my next stop, and then it’s time to visit each house.

Neal Residence

Chase Neal (51) – Corporate Merger Executive, Clarissa Neal (46) – Part-Time Event Planner, Court Neal (17)

Burbank Residence

Peter (36) and Samantha (37) Burbank – Property Developers

Howell Residence

Johanna Howell (53) – Local councilwoman and Retired Professional Golf Champion

Haverford Residence

Mitchell Haverford (49) – CEO – Haverford – West Tax Consulting, Margaret Haverford (47) – Charity Fundraiser

Morton Residence

Juno Morton (62) – Retired, Serafina Morton (37) – Local Bank Manager (part-time)

Cho-Durante Residence

Matthew Durante (38) – Sports writer and commentator, Eddie Cho (37) – Executive Landscaper and owner of Cho Gardens Landscaping Firm, Amal Cho-Durante (5)

Like the Kowlinski’s, many of the neighbours were in attendance of a benefit in Marrington on the 29th, organised by Margaret Haverford. Bates will check everyone’s whereabouts and get back to me. Having Bates check information has been extremely useful so far. I could certainly get used to this set-up. It allows me to stay on-site and focus on getting to know the Kowlinski’s and their neighbours.

I head away from the house and onto the grounds in order to get a feel for the area. As I walk I see a short, compact man who is surveying the grounds surrounding the Mansion. This must be Eddie Cho. He smiles when he sees me. I can tell his usual demeanour is a cheerful one, but that must clearly be tainted with the events of this week.

 “Hi, detective. I was thinking you’d probably want to come and see me. I feel like I’m in a bit of a daze… I keep staring into space, forgetting what I’m doing.”

 I ask him to go over the details of finding the body once more.

 “Well, it’s like I said in my statement. I was conducting my daily inspection of the grounds when Bagel ran off and began barking at something. Not like him at all, so I could tell something was up. That’s when I saw it. The hand. As clear as day. I couldn’t believe it. Bagel started digging and I saw poor Sian’s face appear. I’ve never seen a body in my life. I thought I was going to faint. I called him away and we went back to the path,” he says. He takes a deep breath and I take the opportunity to confirm the time.

 “It was just after 4:30pm, detective. I remember looking at my watch a few times. After about 5 minutes, I called the police and waited with Bagel. They arrived a few minutes later.”

 Checking my notes I see Bates has written that Eddie Cho is married to a man by the name of Matthew Durante. I ask him to to tell me about his husband.

 “Matthew is a golf commentator and sports writer. You might have heard some of his commentary in some of the big games. He’s often away for work. I never realised it would be so frequently when we married… He’s been gone all last week, since Boxing Day. Amal, our son, has been at his grandparents’ place since the 28th. I would have sent him to stay with Matthew for a few days but I don’t think Matthew would have been up for that.” He smiles sadly.

Although an understanding of domestic issues is so often important, I decide not to push the matter right now. There are certainly signs of dissatisfaction in Eddie’s life. I thank Eddie and move on to the Neal residence.

*

Chase and Clarissa’s home is neat and elegant. You wouldn’t think a teenager lives here. Every ornament, rug, and furnishing has been carefully thought about. First impressions of Clarissa Neal indicate that she is very keen to present herself and her home as tasteful and elegant. She smells of a subtle citrus, her blonde hair is immaculate, and her skin is smooth. She walks me through the kitchen with a martini in hand, casually stirring it as she offers me a seat in the dining room.

“Yes, I’ve heard the news from Mr Vahr,” she says. “Not to worry, I know how to keep a secret. Dreadful. Hardly great for the estate’s image, is it? And so close to the house!” She shudders at the thought. “Not that I heard anything, I expect that’s what you were going to ask. My husband is at work right now, I’m afraid. I was just going over some of the plans for the upcoming Chianti and charcuterie gala at the Mansion. I’m hoping for quite a turnout. My idea, you know. And very hard work it’s been preparing for it. Johanna Howell said we should cancel it in light of the girl’s death, but I refuse. I think a community like ours needs something positive at a time like this. What with all the patrol cars and cameras being installed, it feels like we’ve all been put in jail!  I’ve been doing a little research into buying our holiday home too. I think Court needs a break from all this horrible experience. He’s been having nightmares. Tuscany sounds lovely, don’t you think? Or perhaps somewhere in the south of France? Or even Greece! I haven’t been, Chase has, he tells me the islands are to die for!”

I just nod. Nice for the Neal’s, but we can’t all afford to jet off to Santorini on a whim. Berlin was only possible as I was on Christmas break and EasyJet had a special on.

“I’m afraid I can’t be much help when it comes to the Kowlinski girl. We have, out of choice, very little to do with that family. That mother…” She cringes at the thought of Aisling Kowlinski. “A cunning woman if I ever did see one. Beautiful, yes. Classy, no. Unfortunately I’ve had to deal with the family a little recently, indirectly anyhow. My husband is currently helping Joseph with an acquisition of some sort. I don’t know the details,” she says, waving a hand away. “Well anyway, Joseph’s not as bad as Aisling, I suppose.”

I want to know when she last saw Sian. She thinks about this for a minute. “Sometime last week, I believe… going out with her father onto the golf course. It’s hard to remember exactly. She did love her golf, though. Or maybe just her time spent with Joseph.”

As I leave the Neal residence, I hear my phone ring. It’s Jeremy. I’m a little surprised, most of our communication has been by text so far. I answer.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Francesca. Are you free? How about date three right now?”

“Now? What did you have a mind?”

“My local independent cinema is showing Cinema Paradiso all week. I’ve heard it’s good.”

“It’s excellent. Worth seeing for the musical score alone. Count me in.”

I smile as I hang up. Top marks for the film choice. A dose of nostalgia and perfect escapism from this stuffy estate, but it will be full on tomorrow as I visit the remaining residents. I make my way to my Volvo and start humming Ennio Morricone’s beautiful theme to the Sicilian-set film.

 

© Intrigue Inn

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Lornbridge Hills – Day 1

I arrive at the gates of the Lornbridge Hills Golf Estate and a screen of trees forbiddingly stares at me. I follow a small driveway up the hill towards the obviously named “Mansion”. The Mansion functions as both a club house and event venue, according to Mick. Driving in, I swear I can smell the money here. Bates sits next to me, the junior officer assigned by Superintendent Mick Thomson to help with this case. We first met at The Indigo Bar in Nutbourne. While I may not be the Italian vixen of his dreams, he certainly holds a level of respect for me after I solved the mystery of Billy Grahame’s death. He’s doing well despite an obvious hangover. It’s New Year’s Day so I can hardly blame him. I spent New Year’s alone, but this time I’m not fussed. I’m feeling a little less lonely these days thanks to a chance encounter in Berlin before Christmas. Bates points the way to the Kowlinksi house, but a man in a blue pinstriped suit motions for us to stop. I stop my Volvo and get out. The stranger shakes my hand warmly.

“Good afternoon Detective Palandri! We’ve been expecting you. I am Neil Vahr, the General Manager of Lornbridge Hills Golf Club and Estate. Please understand that I have tried to keep this… matter… utterly quiet. We have a policy of absolute discretion here at Lornbridge Hills. Our aim is to extend that to our guests, and especially, to our residents. Can we rely on your office to do the same?”

I arch an eyebrow and nod, squinting at the winter sun. It’s one of those cold but sunny days, beautiful clear skies. An encouraging start to the year ahead, despite a murder investigation so soon into it. 

“Rest assured, Mr Vahr. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to start the investigation. Bates here will keep you updated.”

I get back into the car and let Bates direct me to the house. A couple of minutes later, we arrive outside the Kowlinski residence, a large brick manor house. The estate reminds me of the cul-de-sacs in Nutbourne, only enlarged. The family has been told the bad news and that they should stay at home today. Mick phoned me early this morning and it wasn’t to wish me a Happy New Year. The body of a young woman was found yesterday evening at the estate. The body was identified by a resident as Sian Kowlinski, also resident at the estate. The cause of death is unknown, pending the local coroner’s report.

Sian was found dead roughly 70 metres from her home, in a dense underbrush of a copse of trees running along the perimeter of the residential area. Eyewitness reports state that she had a visible injury to her head which was slightly obscured by dried blood. Her clothing was intact and undamaged, and relatively clean. She was found buried in a very shallow grave of soil and leaves. The Landscape Executive and resident, Mr Eddie Cho, says that he found the body while inspecting the grounds with his pet Beagle, Bagel. The dog, which is apparently exceptionally well-trained, suddenly dashed into a nearby copse and began to bark. Mr Cho left the path to investigate when he came across a hand protruding from the underbrush. He reports that he did not touch the body and immediately phoned the police. Mick received the call at 16:35, and two officers were sent to conduct a preliminary investigation. The crime scene has since been closed off pending further investigation. No weapon was found at the scene.

Aisling Kowlinski opens the door and is exactly what I expected. Richly draped in fur, dramatic, sign of tears having fallen down her face, but she remains remarkably composed. I recall the family detail and put names to faces as I enter.

  • Joseph Kowlinski (46)
  • Aisling Kowlinski (39)
  • Sian Kowlinski  Deceased (20)
  • Ariel Kowlinski (18)
  • Roquefort Kowlinski (1)

Joseph and Aisling were married on March 22nd 2013. They have both been married before. Joseph lost his wife to brain cancer and Aisling’s husband disappeared.

Bates informed me during the drive here that Aisling has a previous arrest without conviction at age 18 for cocaine possession, in Brighton. She was given a warning. She denies taking any drugs subsequently and says that she has been clean since. The rest of the family have no criminal record.

Joseph is a prominent lawyer. He is the largest shareholder and CEO of the law firm, Kowlinski, Kubrick, and Koch, which has handled some of the highest profile cases in southern England during the last decade. They are currently negotiating an acquisition with a smaller competing firm, which has kept him in London most nights of the week for the last month.

Ariel is a slight girl, with strong features. Looking at her, she will never be beautiful, possibly not even pretty. She has the same unassuming smile I remember seeing on myself in old photos. According to Bates, she is incredibly intelligent, having achieved almost perfect scores at secondary school since day one. She is a shoe-in for Oxford, with her father’s connections. Her chosen major is Bionanotechnology, and she plans to research “drug delivery to cells via nanoparticle transmission”. Her University entrance paper was a discussion on the “fine line between poisons and potions”.

Roquefort is the new baby. He cries and eats. He has jet black hair and I think I can see his father’s features in him. The nanny, Zabina, whispers that she has “no idea what happens to the poor kiddo when I’m not around” as she walks past. She works weekdays only and the family looks after itself on weekends at Joseph’s insistence.

Bates says the family were all at home yesterday afternoon and evening. However, Sian has been absent for three days. On Friday December 29th at about 8pm, Sian left the house and said she was going to a friend’s place, and told her parents not to worry if she didn’t come home that night. Apparently this was quite common for her and she didn’t say which friend.

Zabina was already home at the time in nearby Marrington, since she doesn’t work weekends.

No one knows if Sian was in a relationship, but she’s had boyfriends over before, and as far as they know there was no one new. 

“Mr and Mrs. Kowlinski, may we speak privately?” I ask.

Aisling glares at me. I wonder what she thinks of me, this slightly overweight middle-aged Italian woman leading the investigation of her daughter’s death. Looking at her again, I notice her fiery hair, pale skin, and green eyes. She had a difficult childhood, due to poverty, she says. She continues to look at me defiantly as she relates her story, daring me to judge her. She had been working at a bank at the time she was arrested for possession. She claims that the drugs belonged to a wealthy male friend whose coat she was wearing at the time. She met her first husband, Sean Degianis, a while later when he came to the bank branch she worked at as an auditor. He was the son of the CEO of a large auditing firm, and he was both fiscally and professionally secure. She says if it wasn’t for love, at least it was security. She reports that the marriage was reasonably successful. They weren’t madly in love, but they didn’t hate each other.

Sian was their only child. When Sian was a young girl, Sean suddenly disappeared. Aisling relates bitterly that he probably went looking for someone younger and bustier. However, he wasn’t heard from again. His accounts were untouched, his car disappeared, and no one reported seeing him, despite a missing persons ad Aisling kept up for six years. They hadn’t had a fight, and no, she hadn’t killed him she says. The incident was thoroughly investigated at the time, and camera footage showed Sean at a newsagents on his way into London, while Aisling was home. Her alibi was strong, there was no evidence of a murder, so the case was listed as a missing persons case.

Things became a little trickier though. Sian and Aisling, who were living on the small fortune Sean had left in his and Aisling’s joint account, began to receive disturbing mails. Aisling sneers as she tells this part of the story. They received the same package in the mail every year since Sean left, on the anniversary of the day he left- a box containing the shards of a broken piggybank and a small note signed S. D. D in pink lipstick. Because of this ‘harassment’, as Aisling calls it, the state refuses to declare Sean dead in absentia.

They were otherwise untroubled, and Sian grew up. Aisling met Joseph a few years ago. He helped her get a divorce in absentia, which was allowed on the grounds of abandonment. Aisling declared that the shared account was almost empty and she would need access to money from his estate to support Sian, whose huge trust fund was only due when she turned 21. The government, however, froze his domestic accounts and refused to release the money until he could be declared dead. If she chose to divorce, she would not be able to claim anything from the estate for herself. Aisling says she was so frustrated by that point, that when she met Joseph she felt her prayers had been answered. After Joseph assisted Aisling with the divorce they decided to marry. Aisling and Sian were once again financially secure. As a bonus, Sian took to Joseph immediately.

“She was my baby, my only daughter, detective,” Aisling says. “I had a tough life growing up. It wasn’t easy. But I knew what I looked like. And I had a brain. My Sian had the same thing. She was so beautiful. Why would anyone want to take that away from my daughter? We had our fights like any young mother and daughter. But we always stuck together. Ever since her dad left us all those years ago, we’ve only had each other. I would have known if there was someone she was seeing at college. She hasn’t been scared of bringing boys for dinner before. She didn’t care if we liked them or not. That was my Sian. Fierce and proud and beautiful.”

Joseph has much less to say. He is taking over the smaller firm with the assistance of a merger specialist who is also a resident of the estate. The firm was doing very well, and the acquisition is a happy one for both parties. Joseph says that he’s done his best to make sure no one loses their job in the merger. So far, so good he says.

“Did Sian’s dissapearance concern you?” I ask. “It’s been three days, after all.”

“Not at first,” Joseph replies. “Sian was an independent spirit, like her mother. She would often spend days at a time out with friends. She is… was… 20 now, after all. Not seeing her yesterday for New Year’s was concerning, however. We were eager to locate her and then the officer knocked on our door… Aisling and I went out on the 29th to a benefit hosted by Mrs Haverford next door. It was in Marrington and it ended quite late. We didn’t see Sian after that. She had left a message that she was going out so we thought nothing of it at the time.”

I nod and ask to have a word with Ariel. Compared to Aisling, it’s very difficult to get young Ariel to speak. She stares and stammers, and she insists she knows nothing, perhaps a little too much so. I notice a picture on the mantelpiece of her playing cricket and decide to ask about it, taking a different angle. She tells me a little, and contrary to expectation, she is an avid cricket fan and player, and plays in the local youth team every second weekend. She watches matches during the season whenever she can, but her father is usually too busy on the golf course, and Aisling detests the very idea of sitting and watching a full game. She will tell me nothing more. I get the feeling that I should give Ariel some time before questioning her further.

I thank the Kowlinski’s for their time and leave with Bates. I ask him to take me to the crime scene. There is nothing really to see, but I need the visual. The copse of trees where Sian’s body was found lies in-between the row of resident’s houses and the golf course behind them. Once inside the copse, I look up, down and all around. Nothing, except the shallow grave which looks hastily thrown together. The light covering of leaves, soil and twigs mean it’s likely that even if Eddie Cho’s dog hadn’t found it, someone would have sooner rather than later.

I decide to call it a day. Bates’ hangover is getting worse by the minute and I’m eager to return to the plans I had set in place this morning before this case interrupted them. Right now I’m meant to be on a third date with Jeremy, my Berlin Christmas market encounter. I booked a much needed last minute getaway after the Billy Grahame case. We started chatting after we simultaneously reached for the same wooden Nutcracker soldier. I was annoyed at first, until he flashed an apologetic smile and made a clever joke about nut-cracking that would likely put him on Babbo Natale’s naughty list.  We continued to chat and found ourselves at a spiced mulled wine stall, where we discovered that we lived half an hour from each other back home. Jeremy was in Berlin on business, attending a trade show at Messe Berlin to represent his home furnishings company. Right now, it’s simply enjoyable evenings with a smart individual outside of the work and family sphere. I don’t fall for people easily – they need to earn my trust and respect first. But there’s something about him… He’s certainly captured my attention in a way I didn’t expect. The last man to do that was David Attenborough. I message Jeremy. After a little back and forth we decide to leave date three for another day. I need to process my thoughts on the Kowlinski family first, anyway.

 

© Intrigue Inn

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