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?

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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