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.

 

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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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The Indigo Bar – Day 6

My first stop of the day is Maria Banks’ house. She looks nervously behind her, the door ajar.

“Look, give me two minutes. We can talk at a cafe,” she whispers.

She returns shortly, having left the twins with her husband, and accompanies me to a small Portuguese cafe nearby, ordering a large gin and tonic on arrival. It’s Saturday morning. I try not to raise an eyebrow. I’ve lived in Britain long enough now to understand the drinking habits here. As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to daytime drinking, a glass of wine is acceptable at lunchtime followed by an aperitivo later in the day, early evening usually. 11 am is a little classless. She has reason to calm her nerves, though, so I try to be sympathetic.

“So you sussed out the affair did you?” Her drink arrives on the table and she takes a big gulp.

“I wondered if you were the new woman in Billy’s life, yes. His mother mentioned she thought he’d met someone. A few other clues fell into place after that. Other people’s comments. And you seem a little out of place in the gaming group.”

“Look, it got out of hand. We met at a bar one night while Adrian was flying to Morocco. I didn’t even find Billy that attractive. He’s reckless and all over the place. I don’t even know how I ended up back at his… he just, he knew what to say, I suppose. I needed to feel wanted and he knew how to do it. I suppose that’s why I let it continue, despite my suspicions about what kind of man he really was. Those questions I suppressed like why has he moved around so much? Why is he pumping ideas out of these people and they don’t even realize? He does it to everybody. He even liked to snoop around The Indigo Bar when no one was around. He told me these board game nights would be fun, but really I was befuddled most of the time. This card means I can take that artefact, that artefact means I can take this card… it’s too confusing. I guess you probably realized how little I knew about these games and wondered why I was there, then? If you want to know why I lied about it, well of course I lied, I don’t want news of this breaking and I’m asking you, please, do not let it.”

I almost laugh out loud, she’s asking me – ordering me, even, to keep this quiet when she’s committed perjury here. I feel the sympathy I mustered up earlier ebb away.

“The other gamers assured me they wouldn’t mention it. It was sort of unspoken universal knowledge that something was going on between Billy and me, and the rest of the group knew how incriminating it would look after his death. Dora told me she’d keep everyone quiet.”

Even better, group perjury.

She laughs bitterly. “I couldn’t contribute anything to that silly board game so I contributed to his life in other ways. And no, it does not give me more reason to kill him. Why would I want to get rid of one of the only things making me happy? Having an affair didn’t make me any wiser about tarot cards, anyway… I’m clueless either way. I honestly have no idea what the three of knives or whatever card was stuck in his hand means at all. Adrian said you checked in with him as an alibi anyway. He told you I was at home, and that’s the truth. He’s definitely suspicious of an affair happening, though.”

She stops talking and finishes the rest of her drink while I suddenly feel grateful to be living a romance-free life. Adrian did confirm yesterday that Maria was at home, but how reliable is the testimony of a loved one? The same could be said for the other alibis, too. All the family and friends I contacted certainly sounded sincere, though, and I’m inclined to trust their words. If they were sure of what they were saying then it’s possible these alibis have been hoodwinked themselves, somehow.  Only Dora has no alibi. She was alone before Phoebe arrived at her cottage to pick her up. 

“It was horrible seeing his body like that,” Maria says. “What was interesting, mind you, was seeing Phoebe, Dora and Albert shocked, but not sad. None of them were! The gamers anyway. Jon looked upset. Bet he regrets letting us all in every week now, eh?”

She sighs heavily. “Look, I know what Billy was like. He didn’t involve me in that board game because he knew I wouldn’t be able to help much, I was there for him, not the games, but I think he also wanted to keep me somewhat separate from his ulterior motives. I’m not stupid, though. Anyone could see what he was doing. Dora was furious when he presented that tarot game to everyone. You could see it in her eyes. She’s an old spinster, but she would have been quite happy quietly plotting her revenge as she calmly claimed a monastery in a game of Carcassonne. Oh, that’s one of the few games I did understand. It was shoved down my throat so much I had no choice! But tarot? No, I knew nothing about that. This was some sort of symbolic death involving the meaning of tarot. I couldn’t tell you anything about it, except for the fact it’s a load of rubbish.”

*

Following Maria’s admission, it’s time to get one out of Albert. I digest Maria’s info dump and debate her innocence before Albert arrives at the same cafe thirty minutes later. I’m fed up with all the back and forth over the last few days. I told him he can come to me, his lie about his involvement is the reason we’re speaking, after all.

Albert looks nervous when I place his CV in front of him.

“What’s this about?” he asks, confused.

“I found this behind Indigo’s bar and I’m curious to know about your work history. In particular, your time spent at Room Xcape West End last summer.”

Albert opens his mouth to challenge me but then changes his mind and closes it. He nods slowly before responding, having rethought his answer.

“Look, I guess I’m guilty of something, but I don’t know what, exactly. I love board games. That’s true. But, uh… I didn’t join this group because of my personal interest. There was another reason, but truly, honestly, I don’t know the full extent of it. I was in the dark a little. I was told to join the gamers by my former manager at Xcape. I wouldn’t have participated otherwise. Why would I? I mean, I have my good friends to play board games with. I’d rather play an intense session of Eldritch Horror with Coral than have Maria asking questions over Takenoko every two minutes. I don’t really need that dysfunctional group. And now… what have I gotten myself into?” He’s beginning to look distressed. “Pablo asked me to keep an eye on Billy and report back to him. We were planning to meet and discuss what Billy was up to a few days ago, in fact. But my news ended up being that Billy had died. Pablo wanted me to note down anything shady, and, well, I had a list. Especially after the game reveal last week. But that’s all that happened, I swear.” He breaks eye contact and starts looking out the window.

I nod and tell him I’ll be in touch. It could be that he was simply asked to keep an eye on Billy and didn’t see why not, especially as it allowed him to network with fellow board gamers. He must have had some idea what was going on, though. Then again, this is a young man with his head in the clouds, wrapped up in his geek life. After he leaves, I give Pablo a call and tell him to meet me at the cafe also. It’s not just laziness. They make the best cappuccinos I’ve had all week.

*

“I didn’t think it was worth mentioning,” Pablo says a little while later, sat down in the seat occupied by his partner in crime Albert earlier. I just nod. It’s a shame, really. I was toying with the idea of getting to know Pablo better, on a personal level. But now he just looks nervous, stressed and caught out. Most off-putting.

“Honestly, though, it was just building up information to strengthen our case. That would have been great for us in court – proof that Billy was continuing to steal other people’s ideas – this time at a poky bar in Nutbourne. Or an admission of what he’d done to us, perhaps. A long shot, I know. I tracked Billy’s whereabouts on social media and when I found out he was back in his hometown, where Albert also lived, I got in touch with Albert and asked if he would be interested. It was perfect for him to join up as a board game fan. Well, I hadn’t spoken to Albert in a while, not since he worked for us, but Albert’s a yes man so he agreed. And we learned a lot from that. I came down on Tuesday, as I already told you. Albert met me at the train station – I wasn’t expecting that – and told me Billy was dead. Poor kid was nervous as hell. Thought he’d become caught up in some murder plot. I assured him that it wasn’t anything to do with me or the court case. As I said, looks like someone else Billy ticked off decided to take a more dramatic revenge.”

Possibly, unless there’s more to Albert and Pablo’s story. They’ve omitted information already, so maybe there’s more to be revealed. I take some notes after Pablo leaves. It’s probably time to get going. Three cappuccinos is certainly enough.

Before leaving, I decide to call Jon Montgomery to check the details of Phoebe’s left behind shopping bag containing her steampunk tarot set.

“So you placed the bag behind the bar and it remained there for a couple of days before Phoebe picked it up?” I ask Jon over the phone.

“Right. I suppose anyone could have come in and looked through it as we always have the front door open. I don’t really expect anyone to be walking in when I’m in the back. Especially not anyone suspicious. Not in Nutbourne, anyway. I mean, most people walk past Indigo without even realizing it’s there.”

Because you’ve done nothing to make it stand out, that’s why. It’s an interesting pattern I’ve noticed with Jon. He seems aware that problems exist but he doesn’t have any idea why. Issues so glaring but he just can’t spot them. It should be so obvious that the front display needs a makeover. It’s almost infuriating to see his business failing when it could so easily be fixed.

“And you never saw anyone snoop around the bar? One of the gamers, perhaps?”

“No. Not that I can think of. According to Craig, Billy himself liked to snoop, although I never noticed. But I’m guessing that doesn’t help you. I was very focused on testing a new cocktail idea that week. A bacon flavoured vodka served in a quail’s egg.”

“Oh, right. Interesting.” How do you respond to that? It doesn’t even sound practical. It’s certainly novel. “Thank you, Jon.”

I hang up and tap my thumb on the side of the table as I think. The loose threads are coming together, and I’m almost certain I have all the information I need. I just need to go home and dissect it all to be sure.

 

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The Indigo Bar – Day 5

Pablo Whitten, short, tanned and compact (I can’t help notice) strolls into The White Hart in messy shorts covered in paint and a polo shirt. He looks roughly around my age. If we’re having drinks, I hope Pablo’s buying like Phoebe did. It’s seven pounds for the house white here. That’s a crime in itself.

“Sorry, I’ve just come straight from the new room, it’s a bit of a mess. It’ll look fantastic when it’s finished, though. It’s ocean diver themed,” he tells me enthusiastically.

I’ve never tried an escape room so I just smile back. Mick has told me I’d fly through them, but I can’t decide if being locked in a room for an hour is something I’d actually like to pay money for.

Pablo orders a chai latte and nothing for me. I’ll just sit here sipping air then.

“Well. Billy dead,” he says, opening his hands and then clasping them together. “I don’t know if I’m surprised or not. The man was all over the place, constantly on the move looking for someone new to take advantage of. We just wanted to take him to court. Looks like someone else had more of a quick fix. Bit drastic, though.”

I ask him about the court case.

“He came as a customer to our venue about a year ago and we chatted afterwards about marketing and how we were building our business. He said he was keen to help and later sent me an email offering some suggestions and recommendations, and that he’d love to get involved. I didn’t really know much of his background, but he seemed professional. Spoke well. There’s a mistake I won’t be making again with people. It’s the car salesman technique! If I knew he was such a drifter… a leech looking for the next big ‘fad’ he could jump on, absorb everything he could find out and regurgitate it as his own material later down the line, well, obviously I wouldn’t have encouraged him. I ended up telling him all about a new idea we had, something new in the world of London escape rooms – I can’t speak for the rest of the world – that needed some promotion. It basically involved the elements of an escape room outside mixed with an assault course. Well, after that we didn’t hear much from Billy. He said he was currently busy with other projects. Turns out his other project was just a copy of our new idea. A few months later he was working with an events company and he ran an outdoor event in Oxford which took every key element of our assault course escape. Puzzles I’d talked about had been replicated, word for word. Now, I just don’t have time for that. I reported the situation at once. I had all the emails filed away, I wasn’t about to let this go. He was due in court next week. Not sure what will happen now… I see board gamers became his next target? There would always have been something with Billy. Whatever made a quick buck suited him fine, then it was time to move on. How can you live like that? And feel proud of your accomplishments? It’s totally bizarre to me.”

I shrug sympathetically to encourage his emotions. “As you mentioned in your email, you only came down to Nutbourne on Tuesday? So you weren’t around when Billy was murdered?”

“Right. I can show you the train ticket if it’s really necessary.”

It’s not, at least for the moment, anyway. I thank Pablo for his time, not before mentioning how thirsty I am, taking a jug of water and a glass from a nearby stand. It’s petty, and there’s absolutely no reason why suspects should buy me drinks, but I can’t help myself. I push away a thought that’s it because I find Pablo attractive and was hoping he’d act as a gentleman towards me also.

*

I decide it’s time to swing by Indigo to search for any missed clues. On the way, I can drop by the rented flat of the two regulars Bates mentioned to me. Jennifer and her girlfriend Sam have been regulars at the Indigo Bar for a couple of months, according to Bates’ notes. I knock on the door to their small second floor flat on Haden Road, just a few doors down from Indigo. Jennifer opens the door with a cup of tea in her hand.

“Oh! We were expecting someone to follow up, come in. Sam is out right now. Sorry, it’s a bit of a mess in here.”

What’s new in this town? I thought Brits liked to keep up appearances! She removes a tie-dye throw from a grey armchair next to a wonky Christmas tree and offers me a seat.

“If you’re keen to know, we didn’t see anything… We don’t know who came and went that evening. We were too busy with The Great British Bake Off and only looked outside when we saw the flashing ambulance lights….”

“Well, so let us know if anything comes to mind,” I say. “May I ask, what did you enjoy about the Indigo Bar, proximity aside?”

“Well, it was quiet, for one thing. It had a quirky, different vibe and decor that we liked. And their new craft cocktails! Jon seems pretty humble, he won’t admit what a great mixologist he really is! He’s one of the best we’ve come across. I’m sure he and his staff have a lot of fun creating various drinks. It’s more than just liquid nitrogen and foam, you know, like other drink trends going around. Some drinks you have to order an hour in advance to let them infuse, like his tea-based cocktails. Ice that lasts all night, colourful multilayers, edible flowers… there’s nowhere else in this part of England, let alone this county that’s serving drinks like that, and don’t let Jon tell you otherwise. I don’t think you could find drinks like this in London, even. And the smells! That one with a floating cloud of bay leaf and rosemary… Wow. He likes to use a lot of international spirits that not many people have heard of also – soju and palinka, for example. It’s such a shame people aren’t coming to this bar! But as I said, we like it that way. It’s our little secret, this tucked away goldmine, while everyone else hits the high street pubs for a standard pint of overpriced beer. If Jon put his mind to it he could be featured in one of those fancy dining magazines in a list like ‘5 UK Bars to Watch Out For!’ He just needs some confidence in what he’s doing. And marketing. Some decent marketing would definitely help.”

I can agree with that.

*

I’ve been eager to snoop around Indigo for a couple of days now. With everything I’ve learned over the last few week, there may well be clues that I or the CSI team missed. Especially amongst all that clutter. I almost drive past the bar, again. I phoned Jon in advance and he told me Craig would be at work, preparing for the Friday evening shift.

I head inside, there’s no one there. Craig must be in the cramped office. I use the opportunity to snoop around and go behind the bar. There’s a collection of folders and loose paperwork, internet printouts and brainstorming scribbles tucked underneath. There are some papers detailing a lava lamp style cocktail.  Honestly… what’s wrong with a classic Negroni? I pull out a layer of messy papers underneath – mainly bills, a couple of them reminder notices. Poor Jon. A few CV’s from people looking for bar work. They came to the wrong place here. There’s barely enough for Craig to do. I pause on the third CV, it belongs to Albert Liu. Scrolling through his work history I notice some time spent in London working at Room Xcape West End. I shake my head. Albert mentioned he had worked at an escape room, but I didn’t imagine it would be Pablo’s. I’ll be keeping hold of this. I look through more cocktail ideas scribbled down with a post-it on top marked ‘Put away with the other notes – keep private!’

I search the back room but it’s basically alcohol stock, plus ingredients and equipment for the out-of-the-ordinary cocktail creations, as well as several props that haven’t found their way into the bar’s interior yet – a Venetian carnival mask, a string of fairy lights and some Japanese street signs. Trying to decipher a link between these props would be a game in itself. There are a couple of photos at the back of the room lying on a shelf, with a post-it marked “Create a board of customer photos?” The photos feature mainly Jon, Craig and Phoebe. There’s also a middle-aged woman I don’t recognize. These three seem closer than they’ve let on.

“Hello?” Craig’s voice calls out.

“Hi Craig, Detective Palandri here,” I say formally as I step out of the storage cupboard, to serve as a reminder that I’m entitled to look wherever I please when I’m snooping. I realize I have the photos in my hand still so decide to share them with Craig.

“Just seeing if there’s anything we’ve missed. If you don’t mind my asking, who’s the woman in these pictures?”

“That’s okay. Billy used to snoop around so I guess I had flashbacks there for a second.” He looks at the pictures. “Ah, that’s my mother there, when she was still able to get out of the house regularly,” he tells me sadly, frowning at the picture. “Jon used to make sure she was social when he could, he’d make sure she was always invited for a drink here. He’s really helped a lot – these days while she’s housebound he comes around, often with food and chats with her. All this as well as involving me in the business.”

“You really take pride in this job, don’t you?”

He blushes a little. “Well, it’s an investment on my part that should lead to big rewards working here. You must have noticed our cocktails notes. Jon has really looked after me, and my mum. So, I want to look after Indigo.”

“What were you doing before this?”

“I was just working in a little bakery before. Nothing much to talk about. I was quite experimental there, too. With the bakes. Or at least I tried to be. The managers weren’t fond of me trying to create new and interesting flavours. They just wanted to stick with the tried and tested pastries. Here, I feel like… it feels like we could do such great things!”

“Phoebe joins you for get-togethers also?” I ask.

“She did for a short while… I just, I don’t know… I’m not sure where we stand exactly, so it’s hard to say if she still will. I don’t think it’s going to work out, not that there was anything going on in the first place, and that’s okay.” He pauses. “She told me I was stalking her.”

“And were you?”

“I liked her… but I wouldn’t say I was stalking her… she’s just really… cool, you know?”

Youthful infatuation. It was about time someone felt that for me again. Or vice versa. Unfortunately though I think my cool days are over.

“Craig, I wanted to ask you, were you aware of a shopping bag left by Phoebe here the Monday before Billy’s death? Jon would have left it behind the bar.”

“Oh, I did see a grey bag. I remember Jon mentioning it was Phoebe’s. I don’t know what was in it, just left it where it was, then noticed a couple of days later it was gone.  She came to pick it up I assume. Why?”

I smile. “Just working out some small details.” I leave Craig to it and get in touch with Albert Liu to discuss a certain omission in our earlier chat – I’ll certainly be checking in with him in the morning.

As I leave, Mick calls to inform me that the coroner’s report only confirms what we already knew. Blood, hair and bone found on the ashtray all belong to Grahame. Several blows to the skull. Our murderer had to be certain, it appears. Or needed a bit of strength. There were no signs of defence. He didn’t see it coming. Time of death estimated between 6:30 and 7 pm, which makes sense with Grahame being at Indigo an hour before the group start time. Time to check in with those alibis.

*

As I fully expected, the alibis all confirm that the suspects were at home between 6:30 and 7 pm. I drive home, thinking through their responses, and spot Phoebe’s familiar purple hair. Looks like she’s on her way to Dora’s cottage, and she’s clearly upset. I slow down and find a spot to park a street ahead of her. As I get out of the Volvo, she turns a corner and I feign surprise.

“Oh! Hello, Phoebe – are you okay?”

“Oh… Detective… how are you? I- I’m fine… I was just on my way to Dora’s to do a reading. I need to figure a few things out. Just Billy’s death, plus I’m back with my ex… Craig’s ignoring me…” She looks like a lost little girl, big-eyed and overwhelmed.

“Oh no, what’s been happening?” I ask, trying to sound like a well-wishing maternal figure.

“Things aren’t going well there, to be honest. With Craig. He probably thinks I screwed him around – I was just being honest, probably too honest. I thought that would be much better! He was clearly hurt, though.

“Was he stalking you?”

“Well, not really stalking, I said that as a joke. He was just a bit persistent. I told him I wanted to be back with Aaron and that he should stop… pursuing me. I know I embarrassed him. Now that I am with Aaron again, I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do, I don’t know if he’s changed at all. My instincts tell me to give him a second chance, though. I did a tarot reading yesterday and it really lined up with my instincts – key themes of forgiveness and regret – the 6 of cups and judgment! It all made sense. You know, I’m so glad I took the time to study tarot. Dora has been invaluable. I tried to get Craig involved, but no, not his thing. Aaron isn’t really into it either. He understands the basics though.”

“More than Billy, probably.”

“Oh yes… Well, he couldn’t care less about it as we all know now. And to be honest that game of his was too black and white. Tarot has many layers to it, just as people do, and I think the game objectives missed that. There was an element of interpretation to it which Dora really pushed him to do, using various cards to reach the outcome in your objective, but really, there’s so much more that could have been done!” She was getting angry now. “It would have been a sad thing if he made money from it. And here I am, getting angry, when I know you probably think I did it! Why wouldn’t you? I used the ashtray, I owned that tarot set, I arrived at the bar with someone else as an alibi…! But it wasn’t me. It wasn’t!” She stares at me defiantly.

“I didn’t say it was. There’s still plenty of leads we’re looking into, Phoebe.”

She looks down at the cracked pavement. “I better go. I’m sorry.” She gives me a nod before walking off.

“Look after yourself, Phoebe,” I call out. Murderer or not, all I want to do is feed her a warm bowl of wild boar ragu. That helps me when I’m upset. Hmm. Maybe that maternal act wasn’t completely fake after all.

It was certainly possible that Phoebe could have murdered Billy, then walked to Dora’s house, walking back to the bar with her. Her mother said she was around at home before 7pm, but wouldn’t any mother? Dora lives a fifteen-minute walk from Indigo meaning Phoebe, if it was her, would likely have killed Billy between 6:30 and 6:45, walked to Dora’s and made the journey back together at Indigo for 7:15. All fitting in with the time of death. They all knew he’d be there an hour before, Maria mentioned he’d shared this with the group. There was no guarantee he’d be alone, though – what if Jon and Craig had been there? Jon hadn’t mentioned to any of the gamers that he would be coming in late. And this is all assuming Jon and Craig weren’t involved in the crime. I’m getting closer, though. A few check-ups on a few liars tomorrow and I should have an even better idea of what’s going on.

 

© Intrigue Inn

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