The Hadmere Players – Part 1

The tenth anniversary of the Hadmere Player’s production of The Water Ghost Beckons was approaching. This may not have sounded like a big event, but one decade ago this small town production was precisely that. The play experienced unprecedented success for a local amateur show. It became more than just a small piece of entertainment for the community and neighbouring villages – usually the case for such an event – several flyers through the doors and a handful of performances.

The Water Ghost Beckons told the story of a family torn apart in what the entertainment section of the town’s newsletter described as ‘the most harrowing, humanly affecting fashion.’ During an autumnal break in the Dorset countryside, the family was singularly lured, entranced and picked off, until there remained one sole survivor, by an ethereal and seductive water ghost whom for each character was representative of their personal fears and desires. It was said that what made these later scenes particularly powerful was the time spent on establishing a family dynamic in the play’s first act – an act filled with laughter and familiarity, hitting the nail on the head when it came to a contemporary nuclear family. The contrast of a laughter fuelled first act and a devastating second one made for a particularly striking play.

A combination of word of mouth and local media allowed the play to grow bigger than was ever expected. Perhaps the theme of the play captured the zeitgeist of a new millennium; representing the fear of the unknown felt by society as one by one each character met their fate. Maybe it was the snappy dialogue and clever wordplay that turned local newspaper critic’s heads. Perhaps the balance of comedic and tragic performances captivated the small town community. It was said that the director, Zave Wilson, had struck gold with his casting; the chemistry between the six actors was reported as electric – a pulsating energy that was felt by the audience even in exchanged looks and unspoken scenes. The conversation came across both intense and natural; a strong allegiance between the family members especially was always present.

Whatever the reason, the play was a success. The initial six-day run was extended with another six dates added. Of the added dates, every performance was a full house – a rare sight in Hadmere’s poky townhouse theatre. On the night of the final performance, the cast celebrated with sheer surprise and amazement, taken aback by the attention their little six-person play had received. The upcoming reunion had been planned to coincide with the final performance in Hadmere’s theatre, December 7th. The players were immediately offered the opportunity to perform a string of dates at the festival theatre in nearby Nutbourne. After this, a couple of performances around the greater Sussex area and finally a number of shows were put on at independent theatre houses around London. The cast and crew decided to call it a day after that. They could have taken it further if they had wanted to. Go out on a high and leave them wanting more, Zave Wilson had said. Doors had been opened now. Opportunities for further work in theatre and beyond presented themselves for the actors, and over time a couple of them began to make names for themselves in the entertainment industry. Not everyone chose to further pursue the acting path, though. And not everyone who did follow that path made it as big as they would have liked.

*

Helen Burbank was preparing to leave her Victorian townhouse on Knoll Street and make the short journey into the High Street to The Fox and Hounds. The first snow of the season had begun falling today and she searched for her best winter jacket on the coat hanger, hooking it with a stick when she’d located the brown pea coat.

She started to wonder what exactly she and Zave would talk about. Just two thousand people in this town and we haven’t caught up for at least two years, she thought. How does that happen? Life happens. A lot has happened over the last ten years, she considered. Too much. Those of us who stayed behind don’t see each other as often we should. But we don’t work together anymore, after all, she supposed. All former colleagues do the same thing. They may live in the same town but generally, they’ll catch up just once in awhile for a morning coffee – somewhere like Melinda’s café with its cosy decor or possibly The Quay, especially in summer with it’s neat and colourful terrace. But most former colleagues didn’t create a unique bond when they worked together like the Hadmere Players of 2008 did. We created something quite special, thought Helen, special enough for us to plan a reunion. Only three of the players still remained in Hadmere. Herself, Zave Wilson, and Bill Gregson. When did she ever really chat with Bill anymore either? Yes, she frequented the corner shop on the town square often, but it had become small talk most of the time. ‘Just this milk Bill, I’m in a bit of a rush!’ or ‘Oh, lovely day Bill, be sure to get yourself outside later!’

She worried about Bill sometimes. She wasn’t sure why. He probably didn’t worry about himself too much. He seemed quite content, and always had done. She was quite sure he worried about Catherine Ratcliffe though, the lead in the play and arguably the most successful of them all now. Ten years had not been enough to suppress certain feelings and desires on Bill Gregson’s part, she was positive about that. It would be interesting to see how those two would interact come Friday afternoon. It would be interesting to see how everyone would interact, for that matter. They were all at very different stages of their lives, at different levels of success, and, she believed, different levels of happiness.

Her coat was on, buttoned all the way up, and she pushed herself toward the front door. She passed the cabinet in the hallway and put two fingers to the picture of her and another man which sat on top. The man had messy grey and brown hair. His cheeks were rosy and his head was tilted back in laughter. She paused for a minute, resting her fingers on his face. She did this every time she left her house. Then she moved her fingers from the picture to the wheels of her wheelchair and left to face the snow.

*

Zave Wilson was already inside the pub when Helen came in. He had been lucky to secure a small table; The Fox and Hounds was beginning to heave with customers. Locals moved back and forth; some entered, raising their voices in delight as they caught sight of their friends. Others came in alongside their friends, laughing mid-joke. Some had their hands full with shopping, already on the ball with Christmas, rolls of wrapping paper with little snowmen on poking out the top of large plastic bags. All seemed grateful to leave the cold and embrace the heat radiating from the open fire within and the closely packed bodies. It was a good atmosphere, he couldn’t deny it. It was just the festive predictability of it that bothered him.

“Director Wilson!” Helen exclaimed as she approached him. She was dressed smartly, a grin on her flushed face. “What a place to meet!” She cried. “It was like Where’s Wally trying to locate you in here!” Helen threw her pea coat over the small round table. “Let’s get drinks?” Navigating her wheelchair through the pub hadn’t been easy, but as Zave looked at the crowded bar and made a concerned face, Helen winked at him and made her way slowly toward it. People began making way for her chair as she moved to the front. Zave quickly followed her before the gap closed and become impenetrable again. He reached into his pocket for his wallet, but Helen was already ordering the drinks with cash in hand from a busty middle-aged woman behind the bar with short cropped hair. She had that typical no-nonsense expression on her face that most female pub managers of her age seemed to have, he thought. He nodded to the manager as he took the drinks a minute later. He bit his lip as he carefully made his way through the all the warm bodies with a pint of orange juice Helen had ordered for him and a small glass of Merlot for herself. As he placed the drinks down on their table, a group of girls in their late twenties or early thirties entered the pub loudly. (Quite a feat considering the level of noise in the pub already.) Zave observed them, unimpressed.

“Thanks for getting these, Helen. We might have to leave soon, though, unless you want to witness a ‘Girls night out.’” He shuddered at the thought.

Helen pushed her wheelchair closer towards the table. “Oh, really?”

“If they sit anywhere near us we can expect ear popping cackling, an onslaught of swear words and sexual innuendo, lemons from their double Malibu and Cokes being thrown at each other and the chorus of a Taylor Swift song being belted out. Badly.”

Helen laughed. “Belligerent as ever then Zave, even as the festive season approaches! I’m surprised you know who Taylor Swift is,” she remarked as she took a sip of her wine. “Anyway, cheers.” She raised her wine glass and he clinked it with his pint.

“Cheers, Helen. The pitfalls of being a daily internet user. You are subjected to information about people and events you couldn’t care less about.”

She laughed. “You strike me more of a newspaper man. The kind of man who would lead a crusade against the increased use of e-books, chanting about the ‘death of print.’”

“E-books and the internet are more than useful inventions. It’s inventions like the selfie stick I have problems with.” He looked behind him. “Ah, it’s okay. They’re standing near the back. And you know one of them will be crying soon. This is the standard protocol of their nights out. This will cause a divide in the group; over half of them will proceed to escort the crier to the toilets while the others will sit and bitch about her life choices.”

“What will she be crying about?”

“A boy, most likely.”

“You know, if it wasn’t for the fact I remember you mentioning you enjoy Christmas, I could be mistaken for thinking you were the reincarnation of Scrooge.”

“I like aspects of Christmas,” Zave grumbled. “So you booked for Farfalle?” He asked.

“Yes. Hopefully, we’ll get that nice table in the alcove. You’ve been there before, right? Should fit seven, even with my chair.”

“Great. Well done, Helen, really. You’ve been responsible for most of the organisation here.”

“Well, why not? I live the closest to the High Street. I know the restaurants and cafés in town the best I would say, out of you, Bill and I. You know, Zave, you’re looking much better these days,” she said, looking at the orange juice in his hand.

Zave waved a hand. “Oh, don’t. Have to say, though, not drinking has done wonders for my mental health. You look great as well, Helen. And I didn’t get a chance to congratulate you on your latest show yet.” He raised his glass in the air and they made another toast.

They caught up with each other’s lives for half an hour or so before Zave checked his watched and told Helen he’d have to be getting on with a job that involved a bit of a drive. Although neither of them would admit it, it was a great relief for both of them to leave the pub.

*

Traffic was slowing down on the approach to Hadmere. Dan Argenta felt an excitement rise inside of him unexpectedly as he saw the large church perched on the hill through the front windows of his Audi. The church he’d spent so many masses, choir practices and school plays in. He’d forgotten how the view of Hadmere Church as you drove towards the town always struck him as one the most beautiful views in the world every time he saw it. Maybe he wouldn’t have forgotten if he had come to visit more often, he wondered. Besides the aesthetics of the town and his family, though, what was there to keep him down here? Maybe when he was older he would buy a house here, perhaps one situated a little out of town for space, and spend weekends in it every so often. It would make a nice contrast to his Richmond townhouse. He could probably afford a small farmhouse down here now if he wanted it, he realised, but he knew he wouldn’t use it. Just because you can afford it doesn’t mean you need it, Catherine had once told him, teaching him the importance of justification, and he always took Catherine’s advice to heart.

Dan Argenta was one of the biggest success stories to come out of the Hadmere players. Interestingly, he had had one of the smallest roles. The nosy neighbour who had followed the family to Dorset was the first character to be lured through the fog by the water ghost. It was a pivotal role in that he was responsible for exposing some of the family secrets, yet ultimately a peripheral one. That didn’t stop the string of successful auditions and exciting stage and TV offers that lead Dan to where he was today. He knew that many wondered if it was because the British public loved a rags to riches tale. They always rooted for the underdog. Not only was Dan an underdog in the play itself, but he came from pretty humble beginnings in real life. Dan grew up on Sentel Road. It was essentially the working class road leading out of town. If anyone deserved success it was Dan, many of his supporters had always said. And he had started to believe it.

*

The unexpected pulp in his orange juice had made Zave feel a bit sick. The Fox and Hounds had been a terrible idea. He looked in the rearview mirror and to him, the bags were striking. How anyone could not be drawn immediately to them, he thought. Helen had said he was looking better!

He sighed and switched on the radio. It was going to be a bit of a drive to Nutbourne in this weather. He had a few teaching jobs on the go at the moment – one on one acting classes – and he was currently involved with the local school’s Nativity play. He wondered what the other players would think of him now as he started driving down the High Street. Would the likes of Catherine and Dan look at him with pity, knowing the course his life had taken over the last ten years? No big success, alcoholism… while they had risen from strength to strength. Although Dan was a hit with the younger generations Catherine was probably the better-known household name. She was currently the lead in popular prime-time drama Dance, Mary, Dance (the story of a mother who lost everything but was slowly getting her life back through modern dance) and this was on the back of a raved about performance as Grizabella in Cats up in Manchester. People hadn’t known Catherine had such a great voice inside of her. Even Zave hadn’t, which annoyed him a little. Hana and Gareth had enjoyed success to a degree, but not quite on the same level. It had all started well for Helen of course, but her tragedy put a sharp halt to that.

Xavier Wilson was, most people agreed, the key to Water Ghost’s success. He had directed and written the play, and was also responsible for casting the six actors. At the time, he had known the script was a good one. He had also known that Hadmere had an abundance of local talent in the unlikeliest of places. But the play’s success had shocked him just as much as it did the others. For Zave, directing was just a hobby in 2008. A theatre enthusiast, he wanted only to put his fingers into different pies after quitting work as a chauffeur. He was never too forthcoming with his reasons for leaving the profession, but it was common knowledge that he’d suffered from alcoholism. Directing had freed him, focused his mind. The success was also the beginning of a second personal downfall, however. He was never able to reach the heights of Water Ghost again and his special band of Merry Men had disbanded. Only Bill Gregson and Helen stayed in Hadmere. Bill had no interest in performing further and while Helen was eager at first, the accident saw an end to that for a while. He was never able to find any local performers quite as good. The chemistry was never the same. Dropping back slowly into old habits, he put down his director’s cap and picked up a wine bottle instead.

*

Gregson’s had been run by Bill Gregson for the last twenty-five years. A small matter of having a lead role in an unexpectedly successful play hadn’t stopped that. It was straight back to the shop for Bill, and having him around, carrying on with his positively normal daily routine, made the idea of Helen being a local celebrity sound strange – that status came from the same place Bill had come from, and most people didn’t think of him as any kind of celebrity. Helen entered Gregson’s and waited for an elderly couple to pay for a newspaper. They collected their change and shuffled to the door, preparing themselves for the snow.

‘Heya Helen,” Bill said.

“Hi, Bill! Just had a drink with Zave! Booked us in for Farfalle on Friday too.”

“Lovely,” he said, in a restrained voice. He was trying, she thought. He didn’t care for the reunion, she knew that. But of course, he would come. Catherine would be there.

“Coffee too in the daytime tomorrow, Melinda’s probably, you can make that too, right?

“Why are we meeting twice?” he asked, baffled.

“Good question,” she laughed. “Well, not everyone could make the meal at first so coffee was suggested, but then when dinner was good for everyone it just sort of stuck. I think it will be nice, though. Be a bit of an icebreaker; make dinner more relaxed for us all.” It made her wonder where the idea for a reunion had come from in the first place, and she couldn’t be too sure – it had been on a group message chat between all of them except Bill, absent because everybody just assumed he would have no idea how group messaging worked she supposed.

“Okay, Helen. Coffee’s fine too I guess. Mel will be taking care of business here tomorrow anyway, so I’m free.”

Helen gave what she hoped was a genuine smile as she picked up two packets of chicken stock cubes from a shelf near the counter. Cold weather and snow meant one thing: it was soup season, so stocking up on stock cubes was a must. She worried the smile may have been a sad one. She couldn’t help but feel sad, even though she knew she shouldn’t. She just didn’t understand how some people like Bill could be content with so little. Especially after having a taste of something greater. She loved small-town life, it was true, and even if the ‘accident’ (hah!) hadn’t happened she would have been happy to stay in Hadmere, as a base. But she still had dreams and ambitions. There had been some severe stumbling blocks, but she was making progress once again. Music had become the second love of her life in recent years. It had always been a passion, but comedy had come more naturally. Helen was one of only two Hadmere players who had been on a stage before The Water Ghost Beckons, where she’d played the comedy relief as the husband’s sister, providing the majority of the laughs in the play’s first act before the tone darkened dramatically in the second. She hadn’t done that much beforehand. Mainly open mike nights and a couple of local comedy festivals. Her dreams of performing at the Edinburgh Fringe came true after the play’s success. She was on her way to making a name for herself – one-woman shows, bigger audiences… you’re the next Miranda Hart her agency had told her. Although her dreams grew bigger, when the car hit her and John she realised her original dream of playing in Edinburgh would have to suffice. John had died instantly. Helen had fared worse, or so she believed for a long time. Paralysed from the waist down and told she would never walk again, mourning her husband, she hated the fact she was still alive at first. Her sense of humour couldn’t help her. The only thing she could muster up were variants on playing with the words ‘stand-up comedy’. A laugh out loud Miranda Hart level set in the making it was not. No, that little dream would have to be plucked and put on a jar on the shelf with only a remote possibility of ever being opened again.

The cello had been her solace. In bed watching the Japanese movie Departures, she felt inspired. She devoted her time to the instrument so as to take her mind off everything else consuming her. Eat, cello, eat, bed became her life. Realising that she both needed to do something with her life and that she was really quite a good cellist, Helen took to some local performances. A comeback, people had said. A wonderful sob story for people to enjoy… dead husband, ruined comedy career, burying her sorrow in the rich, mellow sounds of the cello only to master her craft and put on captivating performances. Bravo. Not a dry eye in the house. Back on the stage but under circumstances no one could have foreseen. Much like the sound of her instrument, her successful performances are bittersweet, one local newspaper wrote. Bittersweet would not be the world Helen would use to describe a horrific incident resulting in tragedy and some middling success as a cellist.

Helen bid farewell to Bill in a resolve to train her mind to not feel sorry for him, and much like the elderly couple beforehand she messed around with her scarf and jacket before heading back into the snow.

*

The next day, Gareth Lawler bowed his head to enter the low-ceilinged coffee shop, Melinda’s. The drive down had been hellish due to snow, all for a coffee in a room where he couldn’t even stand up properly. Hana, his carpool companion, tottered in behind him. She shivered, inevitably. It was December, there was snow on the streets and she was dressed to impress, not for comfort. She had suggested they wait a while, take a drive together for a bit longer to continue their catch up, one on one. Sure, he knew how she still felt about him – anyone who read a celebrity gossip magazine did – but he couldn’t help think that she wanted to be fashionably late and make an entrance in her black Tom Ford dress. As it stood, they were the first ones there. We’re first and Bill’s shop is literally three seconds away, Gareth thought.

“This place is the same, Gaz!” Hana remarked.

“Everything is still the same here,” he replied with a sigh. He remembered coming to Melinda’s as a child and by the looks of it the interior had not changed one bit. Looking at the fluffy cushions on each chair which were filled undoubtedly with decades of dust, Gareth felt a little depressed.

Just behind them, the bell above the door rang as it opened and Helen entered. It was a shock for Gareth to see the wheelchair. He knew about it, of course, but this was the first time they’d met since her accident.

“Gosh, you two,” Helen gushed. “Give us some warning next time… Hadmere can’t handle two sets of dentures that bright and perfect…”

“Oh, Helen! It’s great to see you!” Hana beamed and they embraced each other, Gareth followed suit, and they waited for the others to arrive, taking seats on fluffy mismatched chairs around a large table. Sure, there’s some rustic charm to places like this, considered Gareth. But he definitely preferred things more on the neat and polished side. Bill was next in through the door, followed by Dan. They all embraced with a slight British awkwardness which Gareth observed with some embarrassment. Who decided reunions were ever a good idea? he thought. They are just full of constant awkward exchanges, the desire to out-impress each other and compare oneself to everybody else. It was stressful. The serving staff at Melinda’s appeared to be finding it all a bit much, too. A couple of them may not have been old enough to remember The Water Ghost Beckons (although they certainly knew about it, as Hadmere citizens) but they recognised Dan Argenta straight away. Most of them knew Hana also, and a couple recognised Gareth but were not quite able to place him. A flustered girl of around sixteen eagerly started setting up the table. There was definitely some interest from the customers too, not very well hidden, Gareth observed, noting a man of around twenty-five sitting alone at the back of the cafe who was trying not to stare.

Zave was next in, wearing a long trench coat. Likeable enough but a bit too intense and irritable for Gareth’s liking at times. Warm smiles, hugs, and exclamations of surprise once more.

“No Catherine yet?” Zave asked, flopping his jacket over a seat.

“I got a message from her, she’s on her way,’ Helen replied. “Making an entrance!” She laughed. Hana did not look impressed.

“Good idea on the coffee catch up today Helen!” said Dan. He was beaming, and for good reason thought Gareth wryly, the serving staff were practically falling over at the sight of him. He wasn’t sure who was winning between the youngest looking waitress and the twenty-five-year-old customer.

“Thanks, Dan. God, it’s so surreal to see everyone back together!”

“Bill, you haven’t changed one bit!” Hana chimed in.

“Yes… no fancy dental work for me, eh,” he replied with a smile. Hana and Gareth weren’t sure what to quite make of that statement.

“And you’re still at the shop?” Hana asked with what was clearly meant to come across as casual politeness, but the note of derision was unmistakable.

“Yes…” said Bill with a short smile. “I know I haven’t been venturing out, gallivanting around London town like some of you lot, but I love Hadmere. Always have, always will. Just look at it – especially today in the snow. It’s like something from Dickens.”

They all responded in agreement as the bell above the door rang once more and Catherine Ratcliffe entered, a large grin on her face as she spotted the others. She removed her jacket and shook it on the doormat to get rid of some of the settled snow. Catherine Ratcliffe looked the part of a middle-aged star, her short-styled curly hair immaculate and her red and black dress flattering without being revealing. Now here’s a woman who knows what to do with her age, thought Gareth. In spite of himself, he started laughing inside at what poor Bill must be thinking right now. Why he never made a move, Gareth would never understand. Catherine carried her thick black faux fur jacket and a handbag matching her dress and took a seat beside Dan after hugs and kisses. Chanel No. 5 wafted up Gareth’s nose as he thought how unsurprising it was for Catherine to sit next to her celebrity buddy Dan.

“Sorry, all! I had a surprise visit from Margo before leaving this morning – my agent – she’s been on the phone with one of those celebrity Saturday night dancing shows. I’ve been trying to decide if I want to embarrass myself or not… Still not sure!” She gave an embarrassed shrug and laughed.

“You know what I would say Cath,” said Dan, “Go for it. You always tell me to grab opportunities.”

Ha, thought Gareth, he just had to get a mention of how he and ‘Cath’ are pals. Gareth wondered if he was the only one thinking that.

“Let me go and order some drinks – what’ll it be guys, coffees?” asked Zave, getting ready to stand up.

Most of the group ordered americanos except for Hana who preferred tea and Dan who ordered the most expensive smoothie he could find on the menu. Zave went to the bar to order and Dan went to use the toilets. The rest of the group had broken off into separate conversations. Catherine and Hana were discussing Hana’s current local Sussex TV gig while Gareth, Bill and Helen talked about the differences between London and Hadmere.

“I’m a best of both girl, really,” said Helen. “Love small town life here but it’s good to remember there’s more going on in this world and just how busy it can be with a trip up to London now and then.”

“Do you have any upcoming shows in London, Helen?” asked Gareth. “Surely with the success you’ve been having down here?”

“One’s in the pipeline, yes. It’s a bit scary – the idea of a big London audience… it’s been a while. Well, big London audiences are nothing to you Gaz – has your latest show finished it’s run yet?

“Yeah, couple of weeks back. I only had a small part, though…”

“Still! That’s super impressive.”

“I don’t feel the need to go to London much, to be honest,” said Bill. “I know what it’s like. It’s dirty and frantic and everyone looks stressed and tired. I don’t need regular visits to remember that.”

Zave and Dan, once back at the table, had joined Hana and Catherine’s discussion. Helen went to the toilets and then shortly after she came back the young waitress brought over the drinks on a shaking tray. Gareth took the tray from her hands to help her out and placed it on the table.

“I just don’t know why the bigger modelling agencies haven’t picked up on you yet, Hana. You’re so stunning, more so than ever,” Catherine said. She wasn’t wrong. With her perfect skin, large blue eyes and sleek chestnut hair, Hana Payne often made people do a double-take when they first saw her. She’d had middling success with modelling, having worked internationally with a recent tour around Asia.

“Lot of luck in modelling, Cath.” Hana replied. “It’s why I moved on to presenting.”

Catherine nodded sincerely. “I understand that. Keeping options open is always wise, I say. Well, cheers everyone!” She said, turning to the others and taking her coffee, as everyone had been fiddling around with sugar packets and stirring their drinks. “I’m so happy this is happening! I’m not lying when I saw that despite the play being a decade ago now you lot never leave my mind. I’m always wondering what everyone’s up to.” They cheered and clinked their cups and glasses and sipped their drinks before resuming their conversations.

“Well if you know of any contacts, Catherine, please let me know,” said Hana. But Catherine wasn’t listening. Catherine was trying to fight off the paralysing sensation that had suddenly overtaken her entire body.

“Catherine?” Hana asked, but the poison was already taking its fatal effects.

“Guys! Catherine –” But everyone understood now as Catherine Ratcliffe fell limply from her chair, causing Dan next to her to act immediately and grab her before she hit the floor, holding her as she shook, yelling her name but to no avail – a minute later, she was dead.

 

© Intrigue Inn

 

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The Pearl Of Taiwan – Day 7

After a quick trip to check something vital to my theory, I meet Freddy at Kuo Noodles early in the morning to explain it. He’s the best person to talk to right now. He brings some dumplings and minced pork rice to the table for us to share.

“So, you said you’ve worked out what happened that day? Who do you think murdered Cindy?” Freddy asks, handing me a pair of chopsticks and pouring us some glasses of water.

“Well, I had to think back very carefully to the day Cindy died. Cindy was with Naomi and I at the hotel in the morning. She was wearing the necklace. She ate some of her popping pearls, spooning some in to her milk tea. No reaction. She left, and Naomi and I followed around fifteen minutes later. When we arrived at the cafe, the poison from the pearls she added to her taro bubble tea had already taken effect. All sources claim that Cindy entered the cafe quite hot and bothered and spent a few minutes talking with Chih Ming. She ordered her tea and took a seat. The drink would have only taken a few minutes to make. Before the drink arrived, Pauline and Michael approached Cindy and asked to see her necklace, noting that she wasn’t wearing it. Other sources cannot remember if she was wearing the necklace or not, but suggest not. Cindy told Pauline and Michael to leave her be and they returned to their seats. Cindy’s drink arrived and she added the popping pearls. She put them back in her bag. This container of popping pearls was not there when the police inspected the contents of her bag later on, however. This implies that they were taken from her bag sometime between her putting back the container and her bag being taken by the police at the scene of the crime.”

“A few minutes after she started drinking, she began suffering from cyanide poisoning. Now, it is most likely that Cindy removed her pearl necklace en route. Seeing as she chatted with Chih Ming in the cafe, waited for her bubble tea, spoke with Pauline and Michael and the fact that we only left her for fifteen minutes, we therefore know a little about the length of her journey from the hotel to the cafe. Whatever confrontation occurred on her way must have been very quick. On an obscured spot on the stone stairway I found a photo of Alma and Kevin, and a few items that I suspect had fallen out of Cindy’s bag – a little loose change, a bit of a receipt and a couple of popping pearls. I believe her confrontation took place here.”

“Cindy said she would never take the necklace off and was certainly wary of new people. Therefore, unless the necklace was removed with force, she may have given the necklace to someone she knew and trusted. Someone who I believe scared Cindy by showing her a photo of Alma, revealing to Cindy that the daughter of Robin Lindholm was right there in Jiufen, looking for her. When I met Alma, I wasn’t sure whether I believed her story about being lured to Jiufen by a fake letter. But seeing the photo of them yesterday, unaware they had been photographed, confirmed that Alma was being used. It’s possible, of course, that the photo I found was one Cindy took herself, but I never saw her with a Polaroid, for a start. No, I think someone was showing Cindy a picture they had taken. Understandably, this would have scared Cindy. I imagine the murderer then pushed the idea of Cindy being in danger as Alma was so close and wanted to take back the necklace. The murderer suggested that Cindy give the necklace to them to keep it safe! The murderer, you see, was someone Cindy would never suspect of foul play, so she agreed, took off her necklace and handed it over.”

“But there was more. The container of popping pearls Cindy had at the cafe cannot have been the same one she had at the hotel that morning. The containers were switched at some point during this meeting on the stairway. The murderer knocked Cindy’s bag over, making it look accidental. Perhaps while Cindy was removing her necklace. When helping to put her belongings back in her bag, the murderer switched the container of pearls over. A few small items were missed when putting back the belongings – the loose change and so on. Cindy would have been understandably shaken at this point. The murderer then suggested she relax, have a comforting bubble tea and try not to panic. The murderer must have known Cindy was on her way to the cafe. They were expecting her to eat the poisoned popping pearls soon in order for the next part of the plan to work. The meeting ended, Cindy continuing on to the cafe, and the murderer left the scene.”

“In the cafe, Cindy would have been under a lot of stress working out what to do. Some of that stress she took out on Chih Ming. She ordered a drink and added some of the pearls from the new poisoned container, completely unaware. When Cindy started reacting to the poison, a crowd of people gathered around her. As Cindy’s bag was on the floor, the container of popping pearls could have been taken by someone while the focus was on Cindy. However, this someone was not the same person Cindy met on the stairway. We have two murderers working together here. This second person decided to take the pearls in order to remove the evidence. This person covered part two of the plan.”

“Now, as suspicious as they were, Pauline and Michael could not have committed this crime. They were together in the cafe. Neither of them met up with Cindy on the stairway. Winnie had only just arrived at the cafe, so it’s definitely possible that she could have confronted Cindy on the stairway beforehand. But the problem is I don’t think Cindy really knew or trusted her enough to hand over the necklace. Plus, Winnie did not go near Cindy or the huddle of people around her to pick up the popping pearls. This is really most of the suspects covered. So I had to think carefully, until it hit me.”

“Who could it have been, then?” Asks Freddy.

“It took me a while to realise just how misled I’ve been. And not just misled, I now understand what part I had to play in this murder myself, without even knowing. As I could see from the fake letter written to Alma, this murder had been planned thoroughly. By two people who had to know Cindy’s movements perfectly in order for the plan to work. They had to know about her love of mango popping pearls in order to prepare poisoned mango pearls in advance. They had to know Cindy always wore the necklace and that she would not want to take it off, especially int the company of people she didn’t know or trust. They also decided, when I conveniently stepped on to the scene a week ago, to use me as an alibi. I’m the outsider who could confirm that it was impossible for them to have a part in this. But actually, it’s completely possible. One of them was able to meet Cindy on the stairway. The other was able to remove the pearls out of her bag in the cafe. And those two people are Josh and Naomi.”

“Josh’s movements on the day of Cindy’s death, as explained by him and Naomi and even confirmed by the guard at their apartment complex, were not actually correct. Josh left in the morning for work. He had told me, two days previously that he would be working. Naomi told me this also, and the guard saw him leave the apartment complex in the morning and return several hours later. The problem is, I should have checked when I doubted them earlier if Josh actually went to work. He didn’t. This morning I visited Bangka Models. They told me Josh had no booking that day.  A few hours is enough time to travel to Jiufen and return to Taipei, you see. And then go back up to Jiufen shortly after that. He travelled to Jiufen, met Cindy, came back home, then returned to see Naomi and I. Maybe he took the Polaroid that morning in Jiufen before he met Cindy. Or perhaps Naomi took it and gave it to Josh before she had breakfast with Cindy at the hotel.”

“When Cindy left the hotel, Naomi checked her phone. I think she was sending the signal to Josh, to let him know Cindy was on her way and he should be prepared. He was waiting for her on the stairway. This wasn’t a chance encounter. I expect Josh then messaged back after the confrontation was over, giving Naomi an idea of when to leave. Having me stay with her the entire time – asking me to talk about my travels – meant that I could back her up if she was ever questioned. Cindy and Naomi shared a room. That’s great for learning everything about Cindy, but not good for pearl swapping with no alibi. I needed to be there that morning to see Cindy eat the pearls, proving it was her regular container. We walked to the cafe together, Josh by now on his way back to Riufang station, and we entered the cafe right on cue. Cindy had ingested the poison. At this point, I remember Naomi making her way into the crowd and crouching down by Cindy’s side. How easy it would have been to remove the container of poisoned popping pearls and put them in her own bag! She then got up, came back out of the crowd and started talking to me. Later, Naomi and I gave our matching stories at the police station and Josh came back up to Jiufen to support us. The next morning, I remember how they couldn’t wait to get out of Jiufen, and I just thought it was due to the shock of Cindy’s death. But after this point, they distanced themselves from me a bit. I was the only one contacting them. I was useless to them now, you see. I had played my part perfectly. Josh was never really interested in me as a person. Once he found out I was going to Jiufen when we met at the gay bar, he started working out how to use me as part of their plan. I trusted him straight away. I saw his desire to book me into his sister’s hotel as nothing but kindness. They come across as very warm and friendly people. No wonder Cindy felt comfortable enough to give Josh the necklace. He told me they had only met once before in Rochester. Given his natural charm and the bond Cindy had built up with his sister, this was certainly enough for her to trust what Josh was saying and give him the necklace to protect it from Alma.”

“But why devise this complicated plan? Why did they want the necklace?”

“Well, it’s a five million dollar necklace. That’s tempting for a lot of people. And they wanted it very badly. I should have known something was off with the fact I really know nothing about Josh and Naomi’s lives before Taiwan. They don’t have social media. They said this was because they didn’t want their agency looking them up, but I now realise they don’t want anyone looking them up. They like to keep a low profile, especially after this crime. I wasn’t sure what they were hiding, but something you told me came to mind – that some foreigners coming to Taiwan are looking to escape something. Or they seek a better life. You also mentioned people get into trouble with Taiwanese gangsters if they owe them money – like gambling problems, right?”

“Yes. Gambling is illegal here in Taiwan.”

“Right. I didn’t realise that at the time. If I had known that when I saw Josh’s poker table with evidence of a recent session, it would have made me question who he entertains in their apartment. I didn’t think anything of it. That’s just popular entertainment in America. The guard said lots of people visit their apartment. And Josh paid for breakfast yesterday using a screwed up wad of cash. He said it was from work, but I saw pay slips when I found their US passports. More likely poker money.”

“So, he’s a gambler.”

“Yep. Now, I expect plenty of foreigners here like a poker game or two with friends just for fun, but with Josh, I bet either he’s run into some trouble with gangsters, or he’s escaping some gambling debts from back home. If Josh has been hosting gambling sessions in his apartment and gangsters became involved, this could help explain how he got his hands on cyanide also – he had contacts.”

“And Naomi?”

“Well, Naomi simply has expensive taste. She likes to live beyond her means. Rochester wasn’t enough and she wanted a more glamorous lifestyle. She was very easily wowed by anything fancy in Jiufen. The luxury purchases in her grotty apartment are two very contrasting things! And talking of that apartment… Josh and Naomi kept telling me how well looked after they were by their agency, but that apartment wasn’t pleasant. It made me wonder how looked after they were, really. And in the few days I’ve known Naomi, she hasn’t worked once! I don’t think Bangka Models is all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, I think it’s like the other agencies Josh mentioned – the ones that don’t live up to their promises once foreigners sign a contract and come over. This was supposed to be their breakthrough, shooting them both into modelling success so they could leave Rochester behind. But it hasn’t worked out. They’re due to go back home in less than a week. Their dreams didn’t exactly come true. Add Josh’s gambling issues in to the mix, and Cindy’s necklace becomes very desirable indeed…”

“Who wouldn’t want that necklace, as you say… And Cindy trusted them completely. No wonder they started planning it out straight away.”

“Yes. Once Cindy had told Naomi that she was coming back to visit Taiwan, they began to prepare. It was easy for them to find Alma Lindholm on social media. Plus, Cindy probably divulged some information about the Lindholm children being in Taipei, and likely mentioned to Naomi about her old boyfriend in Jiufen. Important details for the siblings to remember when it came to framing others for this crime. They wrote a letter to lure Alma up to Jiufen. They devised a way for Cindy to die from a drink that her ex gave her in a cafe he worked at. To get the poison into that drink while they were both absent when the drink was prepared and drunk, they came up with a clever way of injecting poison into Cindy’s beloved popping pearls. Fiddly, but possible. After that, all they needed as a bonus was an extra person to be there to back them up. And when I stumbled into Ximen’s gay district, that person became me.”

“How are you feeling about that?”

“Well, your soup helps. Food always helps me and I’m in the perfect city for it right now, at least. I’ve been neglecting my food writing since the murder, naturally, but I intend to make up for that. Once we work out what to do with all this information, I want to go for mochi waffles. As for my relationship with Josh, well, many encounters between foreigners in another countries can be fleeting. There are no pained feelings there. But I do feel foolish for being taken on a ride by those two, strung along while they carried out their disturbing plan. You know, my website is all about people, really. So I just hope this incident doesn’t affect my attitude as I continue to travel, eat and write.”

Freddy smiles. “I don’t think it will. You will just learn to be more careful. Let’s go together for waffles. But we must go to the police station first. I was thinking that it may be tricky finding the evidence to convict them. But if there are gambling issues to look into, this will definitely help the case against them.”

“Well, and the fact they have or had the pearl necklace. Even if they’ve sold it on, I’m sure this can be traced. Two blonde hair, blue eyed Americans? It’s tough for them to be inconspicuous anywhere here!”

“This is true! Okay, well there is no time to lose – let’s go!”

I finish off the last dumpling and Freddy and I head outside. I may have lost two people who I thought were friends in Josh and Naomi, but I’ve definitely gained one in Freddy. As shocked as I was when I realised Josh and Naomi were behind this murder, it’s taught me to keep one eye open as I travel. I’ll bear that in mind when I fly to my next destination, Thailand. But hopefully I’ll be experiencing nothing but good tom yum soup and massaman curries…

 

© Intrigue Inn

 

 

 

 

 

The Pearl of Taiwan – Day 5

It’s a slow start to the morning after a restless night’s sleep. Following the realisation that Cindy’s popping pearls were missing from her bag at the police station, I also started wondering about Robin Lindholm’s children, and a disturbing thought plagued my dreams. Lindholm had two children in the late eighties, a couple of years apart – a boy and a girl. I know two people who would fit that description, and they have the Swedish blonde hair and blue eyes to match. It’s outrageous to think they could concoct such an elaborate plan and a steady string of lies, but are Josh and Naomi Lindholm’s children? From what I know about English speaking Swedish people, it is often hard to tell they are Swedish because their English pronunciation is so clear. The minimal trace of a Swedish accent could make it nearly impossible. My online research yesterday revealed that Lindhom’s children went on to live in America and more recently Taiwan, perhaps it was Rochester and Taipei specifically… I really don’t know anything about Naomi and Josh’s lives before Taiwan, after all.

Trying not to panic too much about this, I message Josh and ask if I can drop by their apartment to see how they’re doing. I can’t find either Josh or Naomi on social media so there’s a chance I could find something in their apartment that confirms this crazy theory instead. Josh tells me to come over, so I make my way to their place next to Bangka Park, close to Lungshan Temple.

I enter the lobby of a worn down apartment complex. There’s a guard on duty behind a small, dusty glass window. He may be able to help with a question of mine. I ask if he speaks English. He looks slightly concerned but still nods.

“I’m a friend of Josh and Naomi’s,” I tell him.

“Ah. The models. Yes. Always with the friends visiting.”

Oh, I bet they always do have ‘friends’ over, both being young, beautiful and single.

“I have a question. Did you see Josh yesterday? Leaving and coming back?”

“Yes, yes. I saw him,” the guard says.

“Do you remember when?”

He thinks for a minute. “Left early. Dressed for work. White T-Shirt, black jeans. Hm. He came back a few hours later. Maybe 4 hours. Then he left again quickly after that. He was moving quickly.”

“Thank you, that’s very helpful.” He doesn’t seem at all concerned that I was asking about Josh’s comings and goings. The guard’s words confirm Josh’s movements on the day Cindy died. He had a modelling booking in the morning. He came back home, and then left again quickly as Naomi had told him to come up to Jiufen as soon as possible. Naomi was with me while Cindy was poisoned, so neither of them could have killed Cindy. This does not quite reassure me, though. They could have hired someone to kill her. One of these gangsters Freddy mentioned.

I nervously make my way up to their apartment. Josh greets me and we walk into a small, dingy space decorated with various items from home. Naomi is out. I walk past her room and notice plenty of designer bags, shoes and accessories. Josh did say they are doing well with their agency, and it seems like that’s just as well because Naomi has expensive taste. She can’t be fond of the mould growing in the corners of the ceiling, then.

“Let me make you some tea,” Josh says. “I know for you Brits that’s your solution to anything. I prefer the stronger stuff, however. Naomi and I have been on that since the murder…”

He heads into a poky kitchen area and I use the opportunity to search the living space, looking for any clues of a Swedish background.

Behind a poker table with cards and chips scattered across it, I notice a dusty chest of drawers that may contain the answer. I open the bottom drawer and spot a bunch of documents – contracts, random pay slips and discarded portfolio photos. Aha! US passports. And on closer inspection of their contracts, the identity info makes it very clear. Josh and Naomi are US citizens through and through. I breathe a huge sigh of relief. It’s just coincidental. Thinking about it, why would Lindholm’s children be living in this tiny, grubby apartment working as models? They’re a wealthy family. If his children are in Taiwan right now they probably have some swanky apartment. In hindsight, it was an absurd theory and I panicked. Something is bugging me though, and it’s to do with the idea of Swedish people and their generally flawless English accents. They must make mistakes occasionally, and this triggers a memory.

I want to get some use.”

The auburn haired woman’s words in Jiufen that confused me at the time. The sentence seemed so strange. Useuse… what does that mean? She wanted to go in to the 7-Eleven and get some use. 

Josh brings me my tea.

“You look deep in thought. Try not to overthink this horrible situation, Greg. The police are doing everything they can. It seems quite cut and dry that this ex-boyfriend is the killer. They’ll probably be making an arrest soon, I would bet on that with confidence.”

“I really don’t think it’s Chih Ming,” I tell Josh. “There are too many other things to consider here.”

I sip the tea, a lemon and ginger mix. Juice! I suddenly realise. I want to get some juice. With a silent J, it sounded like the word use to me. This certainly sounds like it could be Scandinavian pronunciation error. I need to find out where the mystery couple are. I drink my tea with haste, feeling guilty that I want to leave Josh quickly so I can find out more, adding to the guilt I already have at thinking Josh and Naomi could be responsible for Cindy’s death. I have a flash-forward, imagining Josh and I dating each other and then a few year from now I say, ‘It’s quite funny, really, but one time I thought you were a murderer.’

On my way home, I pop into a small mart and after finding the right aisle I pick up a container of popping pearls. These ones are strawberry flavoured, but the flavour is not important. I also need a syringe with a needle and I manage to find one at a 7-Eleven, which really seems to sell anything you could possibly want. While there I pick up some interesting looking snacks to try.

I arrive at my hotel and unpack the thin needle syringe and open the container of popping pearls. I then fill the syringe with a small amount of water. I need to test the idea formulating in my mind because I can’t be sure that it’s physically possible. I take one of the small pearls and carefully pierce the skin with the needle, injecting a tiny amount of water. The skin bursts and the water plus the juice from inside the pearl ooze out. Hmm. I try again, same thing. On my third try, however, I start getting the knack for it and only a little juice and water come out. After ten tries I have it down. I’m able to successfully inject a small amount of water into a pearl without it bursting. What if the popping pearls had been injected with cyanide? It would explain why there was only a minimal trace of cyanide in the taro milk. That could come from a few of the pearls bursting in the drink and any residue on the surface of the pearls. Cindy loved her mango popping pearls and added them liberally to her drinks, so enough poison could probably enter her system, even though these pearl cannot hold much liquid. As she enjoyed them so much, it was likely she sucked up all the pearls quickly. None left in the drink for the police to analyse. Also, the irony is not lost on me. Popping pearls being the cause of death means that Cindy was killed by pearls for her pearls. The murderer’s sick little joke. It is certainly quite an effort to inject poison into so many of these small pearls, but it’s a great way to baffle the police. And Cindy’s container of mango pearls was not in her bag after she died. Someone could have removed that in the cafe, or potentially at the police station if they were able to get away with it. Remove the evidence and leave the police confused. The only problem is that Cindy was eating the pearls just before she left for Daydreams and Tea on the day she was murdered. I saw her put some into her milk tea at the hotel. She didn’t react to them. They can’t have been injected with poison at that point. So how does this idea make sense?

I sigh, frustrated and move on to finding our what I can about Robin Lindholm’s children, specifically his daughter. There’s barely any information available, but a little Nancy Drewing on social media reveals a name that matches one article about the Lindholm family. Alma Lindholm. This could be Robin’s daughter. I click on her Facebook profile picture. It’s her – the auburn haired woman! Scrolling through her pictures, I realise she has only recently dyed her hair auburn. There are various pictures of her with friends, her brother – who looks very typically Scandinavian – and also her boyfriend Kevin, the Taiwanese – American man who accompanied her to Jiufen. Her personal info lists a job position in a law firm located in Taipei 101. Well, I was planning to visit the tower some point soon anyway. The international law firm Nilsson and Wu is on the skyscraper’s 63rd floor.

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I take the red MRT line to Taipei 101 Station and walk for a few minutes to the base of the skyscraper. Looking up, I can appreciate the intention to construct Taiwan 101 like a giant stalk of bamboo, making it different from the generally homogeneous design of so many skyscrapers. The ground floor is a mall of various fashion brands and franchise restaurants. A sign directs people seeking the entrance and elevators to the observation deck to the 5th floor. I need the business entrance, not the tourist one. I find out there is a service centre on the 35th floor that I can access, so I make my way up and walk over to a reception desk.

“I need to speak with Alma Lindholm of Nilsson and Wu, please. Floor 63.”

“Do you have an appointment with the company?” A small, neat woman asks me.

‘No, but it’s a situation of a private matter regarding her family.”

She looks at me sceptically. “Has she granted you an access card?”

“No, she told me I should come by and she would issue me one.”

‘Please wait a second.”

She makes a phone call and a few minutes later I see the familiar hair colour out of the corner of my eye. I turn towards Alma as she walks towards me. She stops dead in her tracks.

“You were in Jiufen. How did you find me?”

“We need to talk, Alma. I know who you are.”

She looks at me, completely unimpressed, and motions that I should follow her. She signs me in and I’m given an access card. We take the elevator up and walk in to a corner office of Nilsson and Wu which offers spectacular views of the city. She closes the door behind us.

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“Sit down. Before we begin, I need to know that this conversation will be confidential. And, I’d also like to know who the hell you are.”

“My name is Greg Newman and I’m a travel food writer. I assure you our conversation will stay in this office.”

She looks at me as if I’m stupid. I tell her about my connections to Cindy. I reassure her that I am outsider in all of this and am merely trying to assist the investigation and ensure the wrong person isn’t arrested. I remind her of the death penalty laws in Taiwan. Even though there has been very few executions in recent years, it’s something to bear in mind.

“I’m aware of the laws, thank you. In case you’ve forgotten already, this is a law firm.”

I ignore the dig. “You were looking for Cindy. Why?”

“Cindy had something that didn’t belong to her.”

“Do you now have that something?”

“No, I do not.”

“Why do you say it didn’t belong to her? She was given the necklace by your father. As a gift.”

“So we were led to believe.”

“If you don’t have it, them I’m only trying to help work out where it is now.”

“Look, our family lawyers back in Stockholm informed us that Cindy was not given the necklace and that she blackmailed my father.”

“Blackmailed over what?”

“The letter didn’t say.”

“The letter?”

Alma goes red in the face. “As I mentioned this matter is strictly confidential. In part because I am extremely embarrassed over this whole situation. My reckless actions have potentially brought unwanted attention to my family. You’re the first. But you won’t be the last. Or the most worrying. You’re not the police. You’re just nosy.”

I try to stand my ground. “Yet I have connections and may be able to help you.”

She pauses and walks over to her desk. She reaches into a drawer and hands me an envelope.

“I received this last week. Even on close inspection, it is has been made with incredible accuracy. I did not evaluate it closely at the time because I was consumed with rage.”

I read the letter, addressed to Alma and detailing how evidence that Robin Lindholm did not give the Sansberg necklace to Cindy Xiu as a gift has been found. It was instead taken by threat of blackmail. Their sources have traced Cindy’s current whereabouts to Rochester, New York State.

“When I received the letter I immediately thought about how to find Cindy Xiu. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long, or travel far. Her social media told me she was back in Taipei, just visiting. Her posts specifically mentioned a trip to Jiufen. I decided to take matters into my own hands. I was going to track her down myself. My brother is currently working in Dubai so it was up to me. I’m not sure how I’d ever find her in Taipei, but in a small town like Jiufen there was a possibility. I used her socials to check what she looked like – I never met her, you see, she was a nanny to the children my father had with his second wife, Shu Chen. I went to Jiufen with my partner Kevin. A foolish act. I hadn’t even bothered to contact our lawyers. Then, Cindy dies while I’m in the town. If anyone important realises who I am and that I was there at the same time as this murder, well, it doesn’t look good for me, does it?”

“And so the letter isn’t real?”

“On the day Cindy died, Shu Chen told me she never received a letter like this and contacted the lawyers. They confirmed that they had never sent such a thing out to any of us, and that the claims were false. So I risked all that, for nothing. You can imagine how nightmarish this is for me, working for Nilsson and Wu. The fact that I didn’t go through the proper procedures after the letter had been sent, or doubt the way they had presented this information, not requesting their sources. I look like a fool. I was just so angry! I even walked straight past her at one point when we were asking various hotels if she was staying there. I realised it was her afterwards. You were with her.”

“Yes. You looked so focused you weren’t even paying attention.”

“It’s a five million dollar necklace. You can understand my emotions.”

“The big question of course is who wrote that letter?”

“Whoever did, they are probably out there right now laughing at me. I fell for that one, hard. I suppose I’ve always resented the fact that my father gave the necklace to her. It’s made me hate her. I created an image of her in my mind that is probably not correct. I didn’t even know what I was going to do once I found her in Jiufen. I don’t think I want to know. Maybe it’s a good thing someone got in there first and killed her before I could… ”

“I really think you should tell the police. This letter is evidence. If this is a fake letter written by Cindy’s murderer it means we’re dealing with a very thorough, premeditated plan here.” That’s if Alma is telling me the truth, of course.

“No. I’m not prepared to do that. Not right now anyway. I’d be happy to take your contact details in case you find out more. Why are you so invested in this anyway?”

“Something has felt very off about this situation since I witnessed Cindy dying in that cafe. I’m just trying to discover what that is.”

Alma shows me out. As I take the elevator down, I receive a message from Josh. Chih Ming has been arrested. I shake my head. I’m running out of time here. The Jiufen police were just eager to blame someone. I think I need to return to Jiufen and see what more I can learn there.

 

© Intrigue Inn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pearl of Taiwan – Day 2

The next morning I’m back at Taipei Main Station with a small overnight bag. I grab a milk tea from the 7-Eleven and head across the check-board patterned discourse to the ticket counters. I buy a ticket for a local train to Riufang. From this town I can catch a bus or take a taxi to Jiufen. I head underground and try to figure out the way to my platform. I pass a stand selling Taiwanese lunch boxes which I’m keen to try – I made a mental note to remember this place after my return trip. I find my platform and the train arrives a few minutes later. It’s a local, therefore a little older and grubbier than the MRT, but perfectly comfortable.

“This is the one.” An American voice stands out amongst the Taiwanese chatter as I board, whether it be Mandarin or other dialects. I look left to see an auburn haired woman slightly out of breath, followed by a man carrying a travellers rucksack.

“If we had to wait for the next one, it would be okay,” he says.

The woman sweeps her long hair back, bites her lip a little and sighs. She looks agitated.

“Yes, Kevin, I just -”

“I know. It’s okay. Relax.”

They look around for free seats and spot some at the opposite end of the carriage, their voices fading as they walk away.

I should be working on my latest article for EAT (detailing the historical significance of kimchi) but instead I put my headphones on and listen to some David Bowie while looking out at the scenery. We leave a series of grey high rise buildings behind and enter green mountainous countryside. The train passes a few derelict looking train stations. We arrive at the fairly small and slightly shabby looking Riufang station forty minutes later. I spot the American sounding couple leaving the train quickly and walking with purpose. They look like they knew what they’re doing so I follow them until I get caught up in a line. An efficient looking woman in a black uniform cap is taking tickets. The couple have already handed in their tickets and I soon loose sight of them.

There’s a taxi rank to my left when I leave the station, but I’m sure I can find the bus stop easily so walk directly ahead. I’m starting to get quite hungry and the small barbecue stalls selling mystery meat along the road aren’t helping, but I should probably wait until I meet Naomi and her friend. There’s no sign of the bus station, so I promptly turn and see an English looking middle aged couple walking towards me – a balding man dressed in a white polo top and shorts and a woman with a short mousy hair. Both are carrying overnight backpacks.

“Excuse me! Is this way to the bus stop, do you know?” The woman asks in a southern English accent.

“Doesn’t look like it,” I reply. “Think we’ve both made the same mistake.”

“Oh dear! It’s getting too hot for this! Michael, taxi?”

It doesn’t feel that hot to me, but their backpacks do look quite heavy.

“Yeah, go on then,” says Michael, wiping his brow. “Where are you off too, Jiufen? Come, jump in the taxi with us!

I agree and we return to the taxi rank together. “You’re English? Where are you from?” The woman asks.

“Winchester originally, and you?”

“Oh, lovely! We’re from Weybridge. Not too far really. What brings you here?”

“The food, mostly.”

The man chuckles but the woman interjects. “Oh you like it? It doesn’t all agree with me I’m afraid. I hope there are some foreign restaurants in Jiufen. A nice pasta place maybe.”

Given the tiny size of Jiufen and much of it’s popularity stemming from it’s traditional delicacies, I fear she will be disappointed.

“I’m sure it will lovely to look around either way,” she continues. “One of the crew called it the Pearl of Taiwan. The Positano of the East! And Positano is absolutely beautiful.”

“Yes, but you won’t be getting your spaghetti marinara so easily here, Pauline. We’re mostly excited about the gold museum, anyway,” Michael says. “Jiufen, please!” He speaks a little too slowly and clearly to a driver waiting outside his car. We all step in.

“Yes!” says Pauline excitedly. “Now THAT should be fascinating.  Will be hard to beat the one in Cape Town, though. Gold of Africa.” She gasps. “Wow, that was dazzling. And that jewellery museum in Hong Kong…” Her eyes light up at the thought.

We tell the taxi driver the names of our respective hotels which turn out to be quite close to each other. I find out a little about the couple during the ten minute journey through bumpy roads and past ramshackle isolated buildings. They’re on a cruise through northern Asia and their previous stop was Hong Kong. They have only a few days in Taiwan before moving on. The road begins to wind around coastal cliff edges and a stunning blue sea is visible as we ascend steeply.

“Oh, wow,” says Pauline softly, looking out the taxi window. “Isn’t that pretty!”

It certainly is. We pass an ornate orange tiled temple set into the cliff side and the narrow road curves to the left. Michael seems a little more concerned with how fast our taxi is going. My hotel is first as we pass by a police station.  I give Pauline my share of the taxi fare and and thank them.

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“Hope to see you around the town!” Michael calls out from the taxi as I leave.

My hotel is set against another cliff. I wander into the main entrance of the hotel and enter a lobby with a small office area and a few dining tables to the left. Two old men chatter away while eating at a corner table.

“Greg?” A voice asks tentatively.

I turn around to see a tall blonde woman. Naomi is naturally stunning, with the same piercing blue eyes her brother has.

“I’m Naomi,” She says, shaking my hand warmly. “Josh said if you spot an English silver fox, you’ve got your man. Well, I haven’t heard you speak, but it’s pretty obvious!”

A thin, unassuming girl stands shyly just behind Naomi.

“This is Cindy. I bet she’ll have a lot to say to you about your food blog!”

Cindy doesn’t look like she has anything to say at all. She shakes my hand delicately and gives me the faintest hint of a smile.

“Are you hungry, Greg?” Naomi asks.

“It’s all I’ve been thinking about out for the last hour. Come to think of it, It’s generally all I think about.”

“Well, of course, with your website!” She laughs. “So this place does breakfast, I know it’s nearly lunchtime but they can still make you up something, I asked. But let’s get you checked in first, I’m getting ahead of myself here, sorry.”

“Okay,” I agree, amused at her enthusiastic manner. “I’ll just check in quickly. What are you up to now? Please don’t wait on my behalf if you have somewhere to be.”

“Oh, no, don’t worry about that. We’re heading to Jinguashi later so you should definitely join! It’s the next town over. Cindy says it’s really worth the visit.”

Cindy just nods.

“Sounds good to me,” I reply.

“Great!” She claps a little.

I walk over to the counter where an older woman is looking through paperwork. She looks up and I say hello. Instead of replying to me she yells loudly in Mandarin towards the kitchen. A young woman pops her head around the kitchen door and replies. Cindy then steps forward and speaks to the two of them, the old woman nodding and the girl disappearing into the kitchen again.

“She was asking her daughter to help check you in,” Cindy explains, speaking to me for the first time. “Because the daughter can speak English. But I said it’s okay because I can help. You should show the old lady your passport.”

I retrieve my passport from a secure back compartment in my bag and a few minutes later I’m checked in, walking up a large wooden staircase to my room.

“You’re 205?” Naomi asks. “We’re 201, just down the hall. The rooms are very cute.”

As we climb the staircase I notice a display cabinet full of various knick-knacks – ornaments from around the world and an assortment of movie posters. The landing is home to a shelf with about 15 teddy bears of different sizes and shapes.

“Interesting style,” I comment.

“Bit of a mish-mash, right? I like it though,” replies Naomi.

As we reach the door of 205 Cindy and Naomi stop.

“We’ll leave you to it! Why don’t we meet in the lobby in a hour and we’ll walk together the bus stop? Jinguashi is just a ten minute ride away. Then later on we can explore Old Street, right Cindy?”

“Yes,” Cindy agrees. “There are many things to look at in Old Street. But now it’s very busy. So we can go to Jinguashi and maybe the street will be less crowded when we come back.” She speaks very matter-of-factly. The manner of the two girls is quite a contrast.

I thank them and enter my room. It’s large and airy with a view of the ocean across the road. I take a quick shower before heading down to the dining area. The owner’s daughter is cleaning away the old men’s dishes who have now left.

“Hello, can I still get something to eat or is it too late?” I usually become very self aware at these moments about my lack of foreign language skills and the Westerner’s expectation that everyone understands English. In this case however, I know that the daughter can understand me.

“It’s fine, please, sit,” she gestures. “I’ll prepare you a plate. Taiwanese breakfast.”

I thank her with a big smile – I’ve been wanting to try a traditional breakfast. She returns shortly with a tray full of various items, explaining to me what they are. There’s a deep fried stick of dough called youtiao, an egg crepe roll called dan bing, a turnip cake – buo gao and a bowl of warm soybean milk.

“What’s your name?” I ask as I begin eating.

“I’m Winnie.”

“Winnie, would you mind if I mention you on my website? I have a food website where I write about different meals when I travel. It would be nice to mention your name and the breakfast here briefly, seeing as it’s homemade by yourself. And it’s really delicious.”

Winnie blushes a little. “Oh, okay, it’s fine. I’m glad you like it. I really enjoy cooking and sharing traditional Taiwanese foods with visitors. I also like to make a lot of cakes and candies. It’s fun to experiment! I would love to leave Jiufen and go to a good cookery school. But it’s hard. I have to support my family here.” She sighs. “Is this your first time in Jiufen?”

“Yes. I haven’t seen anything yet apart from the beautiful ocean views and this hotel.”

“Oh, you have many foods to try here then for your website.”

“Any recommendations?”

“The taro balls of course, it’s very famous here in Jiufen. You can find so many other snacks and things to try, though. You must go to the tea houses, too.”

“Any in particular?”

“There are big ones like A Mei but also some very good ones closer to this hotel. There is one I really like. It is called Daydreams and Tea. Your Taiwanese friend mentioned it already, actually. She must know about it.” She looks very pensive as she says this.

“Oh, okay, I’ll remember it. How long have you and your parents had this hotel, Winnie?”

“About ten years now. My parents had a small shop near Old Street before that. But this is a bit better, I think. We really struggled with that shop.”

“It’s certainly a great location here.”

Winnie agrees before going back to the kitchen. I finish my meal and Naomi and Cindy appear shortly after. I notice Winnie staring at Cindy curiously from the kitchen doorway.

As we walk out a couple walk in, and I clock the auburn hair immediately. It’s the couple from the train. Like before, the woman appears very determined and walks up to the counter with purpose. The three of us take a left until we came to a steep stone stairway cut into the cliff.

“We can go this way,” says Cindy.

“You’re the boss,” replies Naomi. “You know this place.”

“So you used to live here, Cindy?” I ask.

“No. But I spent a lot of time here when I was at University in Taipei.”

She says nothing more so I turn to Naomi as we climb the staircase and ask how they know each other.

“Cindy is working as a nanny in Rochester. The kids she looks after were getting some professional photos taken one day at a studio I was working at. We started chatting and when I realised she was Taiwanese I told her all about my upcoming trip here! We hung out a few times before I flew over. She’s just back now for a couple of weeks visiting friends and family.”

We reach a street with a large viewing platform to our left jutting out towards the ocean. Several tourists are taking pictures with selfie sticks.

We cross the road and there’s another stairway up.

“Sorry, one more,” says Cindy. “But this street has some nice shops and cafes. My favourite cafe is along here.” We climb once more and this stairway takes us to a far busier street next to a large 7-Eleven (naturally) with people pouring into what looks like a narrow alleyway on our right.

‘That’s the start of Old Street,” Cindy points out. “See? So busy.”

“Wow. That is paaaacked tight,” says Naomi. “Good idea to hold back on that one, Cindy.”

We turn left and wait at a bus stop below another observation deck, many tourists moving around above us. Once we’re on the next bus I ask about Jinguashi.

“Do you know about the gold mining history?” Cindy asks me. I shake my head and she begins to tell me how the small town is known for it’s gold and copper mines. I remember Michael and Pauline mentioning a gold museum earlier. “When the Japanese ruled here it was one of the biggest copper mines in the world,” she explains. “You can still see all the old mining tunnels there. We will go to a waterfall called the golden waterfall. All the metals from the river make it this interesting colour. I think you will enjoy taking a photo there.”

“Thank you, Cindy. It must be so nice for you to visit this area again. Do you like America?”

“It’s okay. I’ve been there just one year. Before that, I was a nanny in Sweden. Three years. It was wonderful there.” As she talks her hand fiddles with a necklace underneath her white blouse.

“I’d love to go to Sweden,” I remark.

“It’s so beautiful. I had a really good relationship with my employer in Sweden. He died just two months ago. It’s so sad… ” She continues to play with her necklace. I can’t quite make it out with the blouse covering, but it looks like a pearl necklace. “USA employer is just okay. Maybe it’s time to come back to Taiwan forever soon…”

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Our winding journey ends and we exit the bus. The golden waterfall in front of us is not huge, but definitely eye catching with it’s unusual colour. There are a few tourists taking pictures and among them I notice Michael and Pauline. They spot me too, and look a little surprised, turning to each other and murmuring.

“Didn’t take long to bump into you two again!” I say as I walk towards them.

“Hi Greg! So pretty, isn’t it?” We’re stopping here and then off to the gold museum. Are you here with friends?” Pauline says, looking over at Naomi and Cindy.

“New friends,” I reply. “Friends of a friend, you could say.”

“Ahh… very interesting.” She certainly seems interested, her eyes still on Naomi and Cindy.

“I better go join them actually, rude of me to wonder off when Cindy is showing me around!”

Michael and Pauline look at each other as if something has been confirmed. They’re acting a little strangely so I say goodbye and leave them to it, although they look like they want to talk more. Naomi, Cindy and I take a few pictures before moving on to explore some of the old mining tunnels. We spend an hour walking around, at which point I realise I should really get back to the hotel and work on my kimchi article. We agree to meet up in the hotel lobby later in the afternoon.

“Bring your stomach,” Cindy recommends. “Many things for you to try.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I always do.”

*

A few hours later I wait for Naomi in the hotel lobby. Cindy left earlier to spend time at her favourite cafe, so we’ll meet her at the entrance to Old Street. I make a little small talk with Winnie who is tidying up the dining area.

“Some people were asking about your friend. Cindy,” Winnie tells me. “They asked me if she is staying here. They were very eager to know. Maybe you tell Cindy?”

“Oh, sure. What were their names?”

“They didn’t want to tell me. It was a couple. An American woman and American-Taiwanese man. The girl had kind of red hair. So if you tell that to your friend maybe she will know who they are. She’s probably in that cafe again.” Winnie sounds distinctly unimpressed by Cindy’s frequent trips to Daydreams and Tea, which seeing as they don’t know each other is a little odd.

The couple from the train… They walked right past us earlier. Why didn’t they stop Cindy then? Do they not know what she looks like? Why do they want to know about her whereabouts then? The woman was on some kind of mission, and appeared quite stressed about it. The man seemed to be there more for support. What has Cindy got to do with this?

“Thank you, Winnie. I’ll pass it on.”

Naomi arrives and we climb the stairways up to the entrance of Old Street. We talk a little about Naomi and Josh’s modelling experiences in Taiwan as we climb. Naomi reiterates how well they are looked after at Bangka Models compared to other foreign models and their agencies.

“They found Josh an excellent billboard booking for this week. Too bad he couldn’t come join us. But he doesn’t like the Taiwanese food too much and we’re about to go eat everything Jiufen has to offer… so maybe for the best!”

We look for Cindy once we reach the top of the stairs. I see a glimpse of auburn in front of me and spot the mystery couple outside the 7-Eleven. What’s going on with these two?

“Kevin, I want to get some use. Let’s go in here,” the woman says. They enter the convenience store and I wonder what she means by ‘get some use’, but Naomi distracts my train of thought by excitedly pointing out some Spirited Away soft toys on sale in nearby shop.

“Ooh, so cute!” Naomi cries. “I must buy a No-Face before we leave!”

We meet Cindy and enter the narrow Old Street, food stalls and shops packed tight all the way down. Cindy begins to point out various snacks that are either her personal favourites, or popular choices with locals and tourists alike. The street is still quite busy. There are tour groups all over the place. I feel sorry for the poor guides trying to hustle their groups through. Sleeping dogs lie near the entrance ways to shops or in the shops themselves. The shops are full of souvenirs, packaged sweets, handbags and small ocarinas which seem to be everywhere. Cindy informs me that Jiufen is well known for the wind-instruments and they make great souvenirs. We lose Naomi for a minute who gets caught up in an expensive leather goods shop, eyeing up various items. When she catches up we stop outside a stall selling gelatinous translucent dumplings with a red centre – Cindy refers to them as red meat dumplings. Now that we’ve spent a little time together, she’s definitely becoming friendlier. She seemed somewhat wary of me earlier in the day.

“You must try these and then soon we’ll have some fish balls in soup… Then definitely we’ll buy some taro and sweet potato balls and also a kind of peanut and ice cream roll…”

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One hour and plenty of food pictures later, we’re all fit to burst.

“Well you’re certainly living up to your website name… I’m feeling pretty wonderstuffed myself right now,” says Naomi.

“Let’s stop at a cafe,” Cindy suggests. Naomi and I agree (walking is hard after all those snacks) and we stop at the first bubble tea cafe we come across and take a seat.

“We will go to a proper tea house too, of course,” Cindy says after we order three taro bubble teas.

“Ooh, yes!” Naomi exclaims. “I want to go to the Spirited Away one! And Greg, are you just going to stay tonight or should we book you in another night at the hotel? I’m going back to Taipei on Thursday. Cindy will probably stay a while longer.”

“Oh, that’s right,” I reply. “Cindy, you have some friends here you’re catching up with, right?” Cindy just nods. “I think I will stay another night. I’ll talk to Winnie when we get back to the hotel.” Our bubble teas arrive, vibrant purple with plenty of black tapioca balls visible at the bottom. Cindy reaches into her handbag and pulls out a container full of small yellow spheres. She puts a spoonful of them into her drink and stirs.

“What are those, Cindy?” I ask.

“They’re popping pearls. Little balls with juice inside. You can add them to bubble tea. These ones are mango and they’re my favourite.”

“I’ve seen you carrying those around since we arrived, you must really love them!” Naomi chimes in.

“I take them everywhere. Here, try some.” She offers me and Naomi a spoonful. I start drinking, sucking up tapioca pearls and popping pearls with my straw. The tapioca balls are chewy and the popping pearls burst in my mouth, the mango flavour strong and sweet. By the time we finish our teas it’s dark outside and Old Street has taken on a new appearance with all the red lanterns lit up, strung along both sides of the street. It really does feel whimsical, and we walk at a leisurely pace until we reach the famous A Mei Tea House. It’s completely packed so we go for a beer at a nearby bar instead.

“We can try again tomorrow, hopefully it’ll be a bit quieter,” suggests Cindy.

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After a couple of beers I leave Cindy and Naomi to it and make my way back to the hotel. I arrange an extra night’s stay with Winnie before going to my room. I manage to finish off my EAT article and email it in. My phone beeps with a new message as I click send. It’s Josh.

Tired of my sister yet? Hope you’re having fun!

We message back and forth for a while before I decide to call it a night. I realise I completely forgot to mention the mystery couple to Cindy so I’ll pass it on in the morning. I’m curious to find out what they want, and if Cindy doesn’t know who they are then I’m sure she will be too.

© Intrigue Inn

 

Lornbridge Hills – Day 7

After meeting Jeremy last night at the bar, the pieces of this mystery finally clicked into place. I should have caught on sooner. With so many lies and ulterior motives on one estate, it’s hard to keep up.

This morning I had to make a phone call to confirm a growing suspicion, one which became far more sinister than I expected as I pondered on it overnight. The phone call went exactly as I thought it would, and now I’m ready to pay a visit to the murderer’s residence.

Sian’s killer isn’t at home, so I walk around to the back of her house and look at the patio and the filled in ditches that she did herself.  Why wouldn’t an ageing woman let the construction company do this task for her? Why be in such a rush to fill over those ditches? Through the large french windows at the back of the house I spot a pot of honey tea boiling. I felt quite lightheaded when I drunk it during my first meeting with Margaret Haverford. At the time I put it down to stress, but now I know the truth. On Friday December 29th Margaret Haverford returned from her benefit, sick. At this point it was reported that Mitchell had left for the airport as he was due to be leaving that evening. However, Margaret did not find the house empty upon her return as she claimed.

I look towards the back of the garden where the golf course is visible. Little golf carts are scattered around nearby. I turn around, Margaret has arrived home.

“Oh, hello! Here for another chat? Honey tea, detective?”

“No, no tea for me. And I recommend you stop drinking it yourself. It’s making you sick. Margaret Haverford, you’re under arrest for the murders of Sian Kowlinski and Mitchell Haverford.”

*

Later on, I sit with Mick and Bates at the station. Mick can hardly believe that the refined middle aged woman I’ve brought in could be responsible for two deaths. I can see Bates working it out though, the gears in his head turning.

“The coroner’s report indicated a plant toxin was responsible,” I tell them both. “Everyone knows about their flowers in Lornbridge Hills so it was difficult to identify who was using plant substances to kill. It was only when a friend of mine, Jeremy, mentioned the word nectar that I was able to hone in on one particular suspect, a suspect that I still had a few questions about. I instantly made the link between nectar and the honey tea Margaret constantly drinks. I think she’s developing an addiction to it. The small doses of rhododendron honey she uses are enough to cause sickness. Rhododendrons are ubiquitous on the estate so they immediately came to mind. When I arrived home last night I researched rhododendron toxicity.  It turns out this mad honey toxin can cause nausea, dizziness, loss of balance and difficulty in breathing. Just one cup of that tea made me feel a little strange.”

“Sian was home from college last weekend. On Friday 29th, she had been chatting to her friend Emily while searching Booking.com for rooms in Greece, where she was planning to meet Mitchell Haverford. Sian, as we know, had a thing for older men and Mitchell, who I believe had been having affairs for years, was her next pursuit. It was clear Sian gravitated to older men – look at how close she was with her father, for example. At first it made me wonder if Joseph was somehow involved, but no. That was purely paternal. Mitchell, on the other hand, was reciprocating. He couldn’t believe his luck, I expect. He had been sending Sian souvenirs from Switzerland. I found some in her room. She never went to Switzerland on her trip with Emily. It was made very clear by her parents, Emily Beal, and even Serafina Morton, that she travelled to Italy, Greece and Germany. Yet in her room I found a Swatch watch, Chocolat Frey and a souvenir alphorn. All distinctly Swiss. I imagine Mitchell and Sian had been meeting secretly when Mitchell was back in Lornbridge Hills last year. While he was in Switzerland, I believe he travelled to Greece to see Sian, with Emily unaware. Emily mentioned that Sian went out alone several nights and didn’t return until the next morning. Plus, Greece was the country of choice for meeting up again once Mitchell was back in Switzerland. Not that he ever made it to Switzerland this time, of course.”

“On the evening of the 29th, Sian left her house to meet up with Mitchell at the Haverford residence so that they could say goodbye to each other before Mitchell’s flight. She waited until Margaret had left for the benefit. It’s likely that Mitchell timed his flight back with the evening of the benefit so Margaret wouldn’t be there, and told her that his flight was earlier than it actually was. This plan of one last night together would prove fatal for them both.”

“Unfortunately for them, Margaret came home earlier than expected, sick from her continous honey tea intake, and found them together on the outdoor terrace. In a rage, she picked up one of the iron fence posts still to be fixed in place and slammed it against Mitchell’s head with intent to kill. This weapon of choice is speculative, but once they dig up Mitchell’s body from the irrigation ditch on the terrace, I do believe this will be the proven weapon.” Bates gives an audiable gasp. I continue. “She also hit Sian with the post, her heart still full of rage, but without the same intent to kill. However after this blow to her head, Sian collapsed.”

“Margaret would have dragged Mitchell’s body to the irrigation ditch. She therefore had to finish the construction of the ditch herself to hide the body, to the construction man’s confusion a week later. Her internet searches revealed research on irrigation ditches. Sian, meanwhile, was in a state of semi-consciousness. She was dragged by Margaret along the unfinished terrace and into the house, unsure what to do with her, causing the limestone abrasions I was confused about. At first, I wondered if the limestone found on Sian came from the golf course, or even the Burbank’s new house. But of course, limestone is often used for patio stones. Sian was then force fed large quantities of the toxic mad honey to keep her delirious, gathered from the rhododendrons, of which Margaret and many other neighbours have many. Margaret had been experimenting with this rhodendendron honey for a while. We’ll have to question her to determine how long exactly. She began to enjoy the heady feeling small quantities of the honey gave her when prepared as a tea. Because Sian consumed nothing but this over the weekend in her half awake state, nothing was found in her system – the honey toxin had already left.”

“When I checked Margaret’s activity for Saturday she stated she was tackling her garden,” Bates says, shocked. Johanna saw her in the garden as well… turns out she’d been burying her husband!”

“Yes. With the irrigation ditch now mostly filled, what could she do with Sian after she died from the toxin on the 31st? Margaret decided to take her to the woods later that afternoon by using a golf cart and driving behind the neighbouring houses. She quickly dumped Sian’s body, only shallowly burying her because she heard Eddie and Serafina on their way, who discovered the body.”

“Margaret, usually so neat and orderly, knew her husband was having affairs, I suspect. I could hear it in the way she spoke of her marriage. But the fact he was having one with Sian was what broke her and make her lash out in rage. She had been trying to help Sian for many months, and the two of them had thrown it back in her face by doing this. She realised that the reason her and Sian had grown apart was because Mitchell and Sian had grown closer. She had refused to believe the bad words Johanna Howell and other neighbours had been saying about Sian, but she now accepts that they were right all along. Sian betrayed her so she lashed out. Mitchell however, her husband of 25 years, should have known better than to choose Sian as a distraction. It was too close to home, and Sian was so young. It ruined the image of everything the Haverfords had built up – the perfect, neat and orderly life in Lornbridge Hills with the one small issue of Mitchell’s affairs out of sight, out of mind.”

“This morning I just had to make a call to Mitchell’s office in Interlaken to confirm he’s not there. I was informed by a receptionist that he’s been sending messages through to let them know he’s been delayed and has decided to work from home a while longer. These messages must have been sent by Margaret using his phone, stalling until she works out where to take it from here. After a little probing, the receptionist also told me that during his last stay in Interlaken he could often be found wrapping gifts and sending them to Lornbridge Hills. The receptionist assumed they were for Margaret. Now, the problem is Margaret showed Bates messages from Mitchell that she’d sent herself saying he was in Switzerland, yet the messages she sent to the receptionist say he wasn’t. She was playing with fire.”

“And here I was thinking that the Neal’s had something to do with this, or perhaps Sian’s mother!” Mick says, shaking his head.

“Oh, Aisling Kowlinksi has her own murky past as we now all know, but she loved Sian. She would never kill her. There was never a reason for her to do so. As for the Neals, well, the most likely culprit would have been Clarissa – but the difference between Clarissa and Margaret is Margaret’s connection to Sian. This was an emotionally fuelled act. Clarissa’s motivations were all very superficial. Bribery, in order to keep up appearances. These people don’t like being made fools of, you see. Look at Samantha Burbank and her Dunginabox revenge, or Johanna Howell’s hasty decision to divorce her husband.

“I thought it was Eddie Cho,” Bates says, blushing.

“Ah, all Eddie wants is a little happiness, I think,” I reply. “Poor man. He loves his work, but his unsatisfactory home life has lead him to wonder what he really desires. I would be curious to know if he’s even bisexual at all, as perhaps all he’s looking for is a stable, predictable routine at Lornbridge Hills and that’s exactly what Serafina Morton offers.”

“Well Fran, good job. And thanks to your, uh, “friend” too.” I roll my eyes. “Bates, you’ve worked hard here as well.” Bates smiles and nods. I imagine in his mind he’s saying that it’s not a problem, but he wouldn’t mind spending more time investigating and less time completing paperwork on the next case. I’d be happy for that to happen. I quite like the kid. One person I like more though is Jeremy, and he’s my first call when I leave the station. I think a few gins right now is a suitable ending to this case.

© Intrigue Inn

 

 

Lornbridge Hills – Day 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What caused the sickness, do you think?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

I don’t say a word.

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is good gin,” he remarks.

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

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

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

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

I pause mid sip and stare at Jeremy.

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

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

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

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Lornbridge Hills – Day 5

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

“Morning.”

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

“Sorry, the Howells?”

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

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

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

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

I thank the Burbanks and leave.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

I raise an eyebrow at this remark.

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serafina has to sit down at this reveal.

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sharon-”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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