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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