The Hadmere Players – Part 7

“So, let me get this clear,” Detective Superintendent Mick said as he prepared himself a coffee with his dusty drip coffee machine, “You want to arrest two people?”

“That’s correct,” Francesca replied, sitting opposite Mick in his office. She could see snow falling lightly outside the window.

“Two people working together. Two players. Interesting…” Mick said.

“No, wrong on both counts there, Mick.”

“Two people working independently?”

“Yes. And that’s what really confused me at first with this case. When I realised I was dealing with two separate culprits who had two separate motives, it began to make sense. To add to the confusion, one of our culprits did try to kill both victims. But they were beaten to the second murder by culprit number two.”

Mick nodded slowly and took a gulp of coffee from a chipped mug. “Dan Argenta? Two people tried to kill him?”

“Exactly. Which explains the strychnine in the bread roll and the cyanide in the wine.”

“I see. And whoever used the strychnine also used it to poison Catherine. Spit it out, Fran. I need to send the call out to make the arrests.”

Francesca was expecting him to add ‘if your theory is correct’ at the end of his sentence. The fact that he didn’t made her smile. He was clearly confident that she had the case solved. She did have her history in Nutbourne and Lornbridge Hills to back her up, after all.

“Well, once I explain their motives you can arrest Zave Wilson and Darren Wilcross.”

Mick looked at her curiously. “Darren Wilcross? Wait a second, wasn’t he one of the witnesses? In Melinda’s, if I remember correctly? He was the one who-”

“The one who told Zave Wilson that he saw Dan put the sweetener in Catherine’s coffee.”

“So he incriminated Dan and then murdered him? What’s going on here?”

“I made an interesting discovery yesterday during my visit to Dan’s house in Richmond. Dan Argenta was gay. And very secretive about it, in order to protect his public persona. He used a string of very short relationships with women to cover up his sexuality. I met a man by the name of Michael Lemac at his house who claimed to be a friend. But it was clear he was more than a friend. I think he had recently become involved with Dan. It wasn’t hard to figure out the truth Dan had been hiding. And it made sense in the context of Dan’s relationship with Gareth Lawler. I was told by more than one person that after Gareth came out publicly, his friendship with Dan weakened. I believe that Gareth was upset that Dan was able to continue his successful life and career with his sexuality a secret but he couldn’t. Certainly some resentment there.”

“But who cares if they’re gay? What does it matter? Why keep it a secret these days?”

“Very progressive of you, Mick. Well, as sad as it is, it apparently still counts for something in showbiz. I bet you there are plenty of male celebrities in the closet because the truth would affect a casting director’s decision.”

And what does this all have to do with Darren Wilcross?”

“Well, Darren is also gay. I know that from my short meeting with him after Dan’s death. Now, how does that simple connection make him a murderer you’re wondering? Well it goes a lot deeper than that. Until very recently, Darren was in a relationship with Dan.”

“What? How do you know that?”

“It was a hunch. Darren, by his admission, could not keep his eyes of Dan Argenta in the cafe. This was not solely due to Dan’s looks. Darren and Dan had recently split up, so naturally Darren could not help but watch Dan closely when he entered the cafe, hurt and upset by the break up. Yesterday I just wondered if there was some sort of friendly connection, or infatuation, however I confirmed that Darren had recently ended a relationship by checking in at his work place, Hadmere Events, this morning. A colleague of his, Miriam Baker, told me how badly Darren had taken this. The break up happened the day before Catherine Ratcliffe died. Miriam Baker told me that Darren’s boyfreind lived in London, so Darren made frequent trips there. And he kept the relationship very secretive. No one had met his boyfriend, or even knew his name. Now, Hadmere is a small town. It’s not quite a ‘the only gay in the village’ situation, but it’s close. Darren and Dan meeting in Hadmere would not be far fetched. The day Catherine died, Dan ignored Darren in the cafe, or he didn’t even notice him – which is probably worse. Seething, Darren already had a desire for revenge before Catherine collapsed. Who wouldn’t feel upset? Dan was lapping up the attention from the locals and enjoying the reunion of a famous play, and Darren was sitting at the back of the cafe, ordinary and heart-broken. Dan had beeen two-timing him with Michael Lemac, and in the end had decided to go with Michael. After watching Dan pour sweetener into Catherine’s coffee, his revenge plan was clear – he could incriminate Dan by passing on this piece of information, whether Dan was guilty or not. I thought it was strange how he went to Zave Wilson rather than us, so I was always suspicious. I think that he was concerned the police would see through what he was trying to do – get Dan into trouble. So he played on the emotions of the shocked players, not realising that Zave had in fact killed Catherine.”

“Yet in the end he decided to go one step further than incrimate Dan and actually murder him instead – going for the ultimate revenge.”

“Right. I expect he realised that with one player dead and another reunion lined up at Farfalle – which he would have known all about from being with Dan, he could murder Dan and the suspicion would fall on whoever killed Catherine. Most people would surely think that Catherine and Dan’s were murdered by the same person! I did, at first. So he entered Farfalle the following day, was able to sneak upstairs and lace Dan’s favourite wine with poison. I knew only someone very close to Dan would have this knowledge about the Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Darren would have spent more than enough time in Dan’s Richmond townhouse to know this.”

“And Zave killed Catherine and Dan? Why?”

“Well, as coincidental as it sounded at first, the evidence began pointing to Dan and Catherine covering up a seriously incriminating incident. A hit and run, specifically, after a night out at one of their boozed up social events. Dan would drive Catherine home, often inebriated. Around the same time as their incident, Helen Burbank and her husband were knocked down in a hit and run in Notting Hill. I studied possible driving routes from the West End to Shepherd’s Bush, where Catherine lived. Dan and Catherine would have passed through Notting Hill every time. I realised that Catherine and Dan were responsible! Against the odds, they hit one of their fellow Hadmere players while driving under the influence! And what did they do about it? Nothing. They kept it to themselves, Catherine struggling with guilt far more than Dan. She was a mess, and it culminated in her affair with Benjy Mantle. Michael Lemac revealed that Catherine and Dan could often be found discussing Helen’s accident in angry or upset tones. Clearly, they were trying to protect each other and their careers, but it was tough going for them emotionally and mentally for a while. ”

“Incredible! It’s like some horrific sequel to that plays of theirs. What a bizarre turn of events. But Zave killed them? Not Helen? How does that make sense?”

“Well, Helen and Zave were the principal organisers of this reunion. I was already suspicious of them both at the very beginning. In the cafe, Zave made the drinks order at the bar and Helen used the toilets before the drinks arrived at the table. Both had the opportunity to quickly place a packet of poisoned sweetener on the player’s drinks tray at the bar as they walked through the restaurant. After figuring out Dan and Catherine were the ones who ran over Helen, Helen was of course my prime suspect. Could anyone else know what had happened, though? Who could piece it together? Bill Gregson mentioned to both Helen and Zave that Catherine had done something horrible. One of them could potentially connect the dots – look at the timelines and Catherine and Dan’s whereabouts on the evening Helen was hit. I wasn’t convinced Helen would consider this. Bill certainly wouldn’t. Zave, therefore seemed more likely. But why? Why would he kill them like this if he knew this awful piece of information? Why not approach them? Tell the police? And then it hit me. The Water Ghost Beckons. In this situation, Zave was the water ghost. He took on the role gladly. He knew a terrible secret about these two people and wanted to draw them close and punish them, just like the spirit through the fog. He lured them back down to Hadmere. I suspect he suggested the reunion in the first place. Then he killed them for the sins they had committed, still wrapped up in the success of his play a decade later. A recovering alcoholic, Zave’s glory days are behind him. That play was his peak and if there’s anyone out of those players who hasn’t moved on from it, it’s him. Bill and Helen still live in Hadmere, but Helen has had quite enough on her plate to deal with and Bill left that play behind the second he walked off the stage.”

“It went to his head a bit, to say the least?”

“Oh, I’m sure jealousy was involved also. Only Hana and Bill harboured no jealousy towards Catherine and Dan. As for killing Dan, it would have been easy for him to switch bread rolls just before everyone arrived, sneak back out and come back after a few of the others had arrived. He knew which table had been booked by Helen so he was able to swap over the correct gluten free roll. Dave hadn’t seen much of Dan lately but his gluten intolerance was common knowledge.”

“Pfft. Gluten intolerance… Well, Fran, let’s bring them down to the station, but it sounds like a well done needs to be said in advance here.”

“Thank you, Mick. It’s a hat trick, I suppose? But I think that will be all for the time being. No more small-town murder investigations just yet. I need some time away, a chance to focus on my personal life. Once this is all over I think I’m going to take Jeremy to Italy.”

“For a holiday?”

“Maybe, maybe not. He could find work in the furnishing industry easily over there. If he likes it, of course. Watch this space. For the short term, however, I have a holiday in medieval Japan lined up – all with cards, tokens and a game board in hand.”

“Enjoy it. Wrapping this case up before Christmas suits me also, so I’m not going to complain. Not sure how I feel about you leaving, Fran, but we can discuss that more in the new year. Now… it’s time to pay Zave Wilson and Darren Wilcross a visit.”

 

© Intrigue Inn

 

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The Hadmere Players – Part 6

With Christmas road traffic in mind, Francesca decided to take the train up to London the next morning. Hadmere still seemed full of Christmas cheer, despite the tragedies that took place just a few days earlier. People have their own lives to be getting on with, she considered, and if anything, Catherine and Dan’s deaths are great conversation starters. Who doesn’t love a scandal?

Patches of melting snow were scattered across green fields as the train rolled along. A thick fog permeated the air and through the fog Francesca could see an icy lake. She imagined a spectral figure on the other side of it… an elusive yet persuasive figure who wanted to tempt her onto the lake, where inevitably the millimetre thick layer of ice would crack and she would find herself submerged in the water. The layer of ice, so easy to crack when on top, would become an impenetrable barrier from below when fighting to stay alive… What festive thoughts, she thought, shuddering. Francesca planned to visit the Richmond and Shepherd’s Bush homes belonging to Catherine and Dan. She could also pay a visit to Gareth and Hana’s homes, too. Such selfish kids, Francesca thought. Probably feeling hard done by that yet again the attention has been taken away from them, and any attention they’ve received during this tragedy only has a negative connotation – with them as part of an unlikely suspect line up.

The train travelled past dark graffiti covered buildings as it approached Victoria station, the Shard and London Eye visible in the distance. Francesca picked up a sandwich at the station before jumping on the District line. It was packed. She realised that she and Bill Gregson were alike in at least one way – she absolutely preferred the quietness of small-town life. She made her way to the affluent suburb of Richmond. Once out of Richmond station, she walked past what seemed like an obscene amount of Italian restaurants until she arrived at Richmond Green. She located the white-brick townhouse. She had a warrant to search the premises and was told by Mick that a neighbour held a spare key for access. That was not necessary, however, as she spotted movement through a downstairs window. She knocked on the front door. A blonde haired man, late twenties possibly, opened the door sheepishly.

“Oh… can I can help you?”

“I’m DCI Francesca Palandri. I have a warrant to search Dan Argenta’s residence. Who are you, may I ask?”

“Ah, I’m a friend of Dan’s… I was just picking up some things.”

“Your things?”

“Yes, yes I had a few things here…”

“How did you get in? The neighbours?”

“The neighbours? What do you mean?”

“They have the spare key.”

“Oh, I see. Um, no, I have my own spare key. I’m not sure what’s happening to this house so I needed to come by sooner rather than later.”

“What’s your name?” Francesca asked, entering the house.

“Michael. Michael Lemac.”

“And you knew Mr. Argenta well? For a long time?”

“Well. Not too long. A few months. But we were good friends. This past week has been absolutely devastating, to say the least. ”

“Not too long, you say? Long enough for him to give you a spare key.”

Francesca looked around her. The house was airy, white and quite sparse. Francesca had the impression that Dan never spent too much time here.

“Maybe you can help me with some questions, Mr. Lemac. Dan moved into this house with his girlfriend at the time, didn’t he? Lucy Barnes. They were no longer in a relationship when he died, I think?”

“No, they weren’t together for too long at all, actually. They broke up quite a while ago.”

“So, Dan had the place to himself after that.”

“Yes, but he was out so often. He worked hard. He partied hard.”

“Yes. Often with Catherine Ratcliffe I’ve been told. Did you ever meet her?”

“I’ve met her several times. It’s true, they often attended parties together. They were extremely good friends. Mother and son like, to some extent.”

“They would leave the parties together too, I understand.”

“Yes. That always surprised me a bit… well, he drove her home a lot of the time I think. From the West End – where most of the parties took place – Shepherd’s Bush was on the way back home for Dan. But… I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to be in a car with Dan after he’d been to a party, personally.”

“Oh?”

“I mean, he partied hard, as I said. But when I met Catherine for the first time I could tell she had a soft spot for him. Blind eye, you know.”

“I hear. Did you ever feel they shared secrets with each other?”

“Secrets? I don’t know. I do know they helped each other out of a spell of depression they were both suffering. About a year ago.”

“I heard Catherine was depressed, but not Dan so much,” Francesca said curiously.

“Oh, well, I don’t know really…” Michael said vaguely. He picked up a fantasy book from a small table and added it to a large box of his belongings that he was rounding up.

“Sounds like you do know. Sounds like he had a rough time over something also. His parents did mention he had a ‘moody’ spell, but overall most people point to Catherine having struggled at this time, and Dan was there for her to confide in. To comfort her.”

“Oh, well, he just said he had a tough time. I don’t know the details. He has the better poker face, anyway. He has an image to protect, don’t you get that? Maybe that’s why Catherine’s rough patch was more obvious. She wore her heart on her sleeve.”

“It seems like it was important for Dan to protect his image, I’m realising. Quite a lot of your stuff here I see,” Francesca said, nodding at the box.

“Yes, it just accumulates I guess. This was a nice house to hang out in, you know. Dan often had guests over, not just me!”

“Sure. Did you ever meet any of the other Hadmere players besides Catherine?”

“No. They talked about them sometimes, but I never met any of the others.”

“Who did they talk about?”

“Well, Gareth and Helen mostly, I would say. Dan mentioned Gareth often as they were good friends. Before I knew Dan – that’s why I never met Gareth. If I had known Dan for longer I’m sure I would have.”

“Did Dan seem upset that they weren’t as close anymore? Did he give any indication as to what happened?”

“I think he was upset, yes. He thought it was a shame how they had drifted apart. But I think he was also angry at Gareth for not understanding Dan’s point of view.”

“Point of view in what?”

“Oh, well I couldn’t really say,” Michael answered unconvincingly.

“And they talked about Helen also, you said?”

“Yes. She had that horrible accident, didn’t she? They were very upset about it when it came up in conversation. I don’t think Catherine liked to talk about it, though. Probably because she knew how an accident like that can ruin a career. I mean, imagine if that had happened to Catherine!”

“It came up in conversation frequently?”

“It seemed to actually, yes. Not in front of me, necessarily. I often caught them discussing it. Quite animated discussions sometimes. Heated and emotional. She was their good friend, after all.”

“A good friend who they never saw in person after the accident?”

“Well, Helen lives all the way down in Hadmere.”

“I just travelled from near Hadmere this morning. It’s not that long a journey. Two hours at the most.”

“They were very busy!”

“Oh yes, attending all those parties of course. So, it sounds like maybe they were sharing secrets after all, no?” Michael shrugged. “Mr. Lemac, were you aware Dan was gluten intolerant?”

“Of course. Most people knew that. He was very strict about it. And vocal.”

“I see. And you mentioned he enjoyed drinking. Did he enjoy wine in particular?”

“Yes, I’d say it was his drink of choice. At home especially. He’d always be walking around this place with a glass of wine in his hand.”

“And you only know that from your visits here.”

“Um, yes.”

“Did he have a wine collection?”

“Yes, there are a couple of racks in the kitchen.”

“I’d like to see them.”

Michael nodded nervously and led Francesca towards the kitchen. On a large marble countertop there were two wooden wine racks. There were roughly a dozen bottles in total. She picked up one at random. It was a white – Chateau-Pape-Clement-Blanc. She picked a red. Chateauneuf-du-Pape. She showed Michael the bottle.

“This one. Did he drink this frequently at home?”

Michael studied the label. “I don’t really know all the names of the wines he drank. But the label is familiar. Yes, he liked this one I think.”

“And he wouldn’t really drink this type of wine at parties?”

“Well, at parties he would just drink whatever was available. Champagne, for example.”

“I see. And you say he had lots of guests in this house? That would come over as frequently as you?”

“Well, sometimes, yes.”

“And all those other guests would leave their belongings here, too? This house seems pretty empty to me.”

Michael was flustered. “Uh, I suppose I made myself more at home than the others…”

Francesca nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll leave you to it, Mr. Lemac. But I’ll likely want to speak to you more, so I’ll be needing your contact details. What do you do for a living?”

“I work in film production. I’m an assistant, really. I met Dan on the set of a film he was starring in.”

Francesca took Michael’s details. “Okay. Well, have a good day. I think you might need another box for your belongings there. That one is getting quite full.” She glanced at the box overflowing with clothes, toiletries, accessories, books, and games before she left. She planned on coming back later today to inspect the house after Michael had left. However, she wondered if she already had all the information she needed. Michael had revealed a lot of important details, mostly indirectly.

It was time for a spot of lunch, so Francesca decided to visit a bar along the river – the Thames ran through the heart of Richmond. As she wasn’t driving today she ordered a pint of Peroni with her meal – chicken livers and mash. She sat at the bar, mulling over the events of the last few days.

“You look like you’ve just escaped an office Christmas party,” the bartender remarked.

“Do I look that tired?” Francesca asked with a laugh.

“A bit. We had a guy in here last night who had had enough of his Christmas party, said he can’t stomach most of the people he works with… he bailed out and came here for few drinks.” He chuckled as he finishing drying a wine glass and placed on an oak lacquered shelf behind him.

“No Christmas party for me. I’m just up in London for the day. From Sussex. Near Hadmere.”

“Oh good Lord… where the murders happened?”

“That’s the one.”

“Oh wow, now I see what you’re escaping from! Although you know… Dan Argenta was murdered and he lives here in Richmond! So I think you’ve come to the wrong place to get away from all that. I’ve been following the story. I remember that play. The Water Ghost Beckons.”

“I always forget the impact that play had,” Francesca said.

“Oh, I just really liked the story. Weird parallel though, isn’t it?

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, what happened to the characters in the story. Their deaths. And now the actors dying in real life. Terrible.”

“Well, in the play, the characters had all committed serious crimes or sins. That implies Catherine and Dan did the same in real life.”

“Who knows? It’s just interesting. And we wouldn’t know if they did, would we? If it was the same scenario as the play, I mean. Because the characters kept their sins a secret. Only the water ghost knew.”

“Exactly,” said Francesca as her food arrived, thinking about the story of The Water Ghost Beckons. She ate leisurely; she realised she was in no rush. She didn’t even need to visit Catherine’s house in Shepherd’s Bush. She was quite sure she had this mystery solved.

 

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The Hadmere Players – Part 4

The week was full of Christmas spirit and the office Christmas party was looming for Hadmere Events.  Things were winding down in the office, despite the multitude of Christmas events on their way; they had all been organised and planned in November and now it was simply a case of confirmation and final touches. The annual candlelight parade had already taken place midweek with typical success, and tonight carol singing and busking in the town square was to be expected. Darren had been heavily involved in organizing it. Now, he suddenly found himself with a lot more time to himself. He had been expecting to make several trips up to London over the next few weeks. But now he had no boyfriend to visit, and no other reason to make the journey. Some workers felt sorry for Darren when he told them he had no real plans for Christmas anymore. They were already treating him with fragility after he witnessed Catherine Ratcliffe’s death.

“You’ll be spending Christmas with your parents then now, I suppose? I think you should Darren, after what you saw in Melinda’s,” one of his older co-workers, Miriam, asked.

“I could…” Darren pondered. “But it’s just not that exciting is it? They live in Nutbourne. Depressing Christmas. Small-town boredom…” He seemed deep in thought.

“Why?” Asked Miriam. “What’s wrong with it? You’re just not satisfied unless you’re in the big smoke, I think. I can tell you want more from life, Darren. I mean, look at the Hadmere players for example, swanning about here. I bet you’d like to be more like them. But look what happened! Complete tragedy. Two of them dead. The high life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, you know.”

“That’s true. It isn’t, is it?”

“And now we pay the price! Hadmere Events will have to work twice as hard in the new year to cover up this mess. To bring joy back into this town. It’s going to be a long recovery. You should feel satisfied, Darren. You have a great job, and this a lovely town. Enjoy Christmas with your parents!”

“I’ll try, Miriam. I’ll try.”

*

Francesca and Bates were on their way to Sentel Road, home of Mr. and Mrs. Argenta. They had received confirmation that Dan had been gluten intolerant, and kept to a strict gluten free diet for roughly five years.

“I was thinking,” said Francesca, “That to know Dan was gluten free, you’d have to know him, but not especially well. Reasonably so. I mean, you could probably find that out on the internet if you were a fan of his. To know that he enjoyed expensive wine, in particular Chaeauneuf-du-Pape, you would have to know him even better, however.

“So the person who killed Dan was quite close to him? And poisoned both the bread and the wine? Just to double the chances I suppose. In case he didn’t touch the bread, or didn’t order that wine…”

“Hmm. Maybe.”

“Not sure why our murderer used two different poisons though…” Bates commented curiously.

They arrived at the small terraced home of the Argenta’s. Given Dan’s fame, Francesca was surprised the Argenta’s still resided here. Mrs. Argenta looked weary as she let them in.

“I’m sure you’ve been receiving a lot of support,” Francecca said as she indictaed they sit down on a dusty sofa. 

“Well… support! More like attention! Today is one of the first days the press hasn’t tried to intrude. We can barely grieve in peace. He wasn’t even staying here with us while he was down for the bloody reunion! God, I’ve been wishing every second that he had just stayed up in London…”

“He came to visit you, though? I mean, you had a good relationship with your son?”

“Of course. He just, I don’t know, he has a different life now. Had…”

“He supported you and your husband? Financially?”

“Well, cheques in the mail yes. Every month. He never missed a month, apart from when he went through that moody spell last year.”

“Oh?”

“I don’t know. He never said what the problem was. He tried not to let it show. I don’t think most people noticed. But a mother always knows! It wasn’t a career thing – he’d just landed a part in that gangster film. So I put it down to a girl thing. His relationships were always so short lived though, so who knows.” 

“Do you have any idea why this could have happened?”

“People were jealous, it’s quite clear. It’s a good thing I haven’t seen any of those other ‘actors’ in town – I know they’re around. I walked past Gregson’s the other day and felt like marching in. For all I know that man killed my son. Luckily for him he wasn’t there. It’s jealousy, pure and simple! What other reason? Catherine was murdered too, and she’s the only other successful one. And Dan and Catherine were so close. He used to tell me how he would drive Catherine around everywhere in London. They would attend parties  – they loved a drink together. Film premieres as well, you know. He would always pick her up and drop her off back home. She lived in Shepherd’s Bush, I believe. Dan had the looks, the good TV roles, the nice house… And I hear some of those players are quite bitter. What nasty creatures… to do something like that out of spite.”

“It may not have been one of the Hadmere players.”

“Maybe. It’s horrible to think. Perhaps it was someone else, a random attack, someone who managed to sneak into that restaurant. I don’t know what’s more frightening – the thought that one of his supposed friends and former colleagues killed him, or that a madman is running around Hadmere poisoning famous people’s drinks… My poor son, what a waste.”

“Well, Dan achieved more success than most people his age, more than most people achieve in his lifetime.”

“He was a lucky boy. His looks served him well and he landed good parts.”

“He was very talented,” Bates reassured her. 

“Oh, I don’t know. I think it was more his charm that opened doors. But he was also a very private person. I feel like I really didn’t know him well, sometimes. He was good at showing you the version of himself he wanted you to see, you understand? Putting on a show, every day. Well, that would be his charm. He could always switch it on and get what he wanted.”

“You knew of no one who didn’t like him?”

“I don’t know how it works up in the acting world but I can guess. You have to be a bit ruthless in that businesses. I wouldn’t doubt that Dan, and Catherine too, had to tread on a few toes to get to where they were. And you know, Dan and Gareth Lawler used to be quite good friends. But I don’t think they were going out together much recently. Maybe they fell out, I’m not sure. There’s the jealousy, obviously, but it was more than that. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.”

“You think your son was ruthless? In his ambitions?”

“We loved our son, and naturally we were incredibly proud. Who wouldn’t be? But he could be a bit pushy. We noticed a change in him too. Gradually becoming more and more self-entitled. He became the kind of person who wouldn’t let anyone or anything get in his way of success. It was a shame, but I suppose all the young guys and girls who shoot to stardom let it go to their head a bit. So, no big deal. I figured his head would shrink back to normal over the years…” 

“I understand. Show business is a funny thing, and I’m sure can do funny things to people.”

She shrugged in agreement. Francesca and Bates expressed their sympathies and left the Argenta residence.

*

It turned out that making a roux was not as easy to master the first time round as Zave expected, and he swore under his breath as he stirred it for what felt like the millionth time. He could have eaten out, but keeping a low profile in Hadmere was really the best option these days. If the stares weren’t bad enough – just because he was implicated by association, people were now formulating their own theories and the general consensus was that one of the other players had committed both crimes, not someone else who had been in either the café or restaurant. He checked the recipe again. Leave to boil for one hour. Add the chicken and simmer for a farther hour. Two hours! He added the stock, vegetables and pre-cooked smoked sausage and left the gumbo to boil, when suddenly the doorbell rang.

When he opened the door, It was the gruff face of Bill Gregson that greeted him, who had never in the previous ten years since they worked together visited him alone at his house. The only time had been as part of a group with others for work on the play, and a toast to success after the London show dates were announced. He had seemed a little uncomfortable then – the play was clearly getting out of hand for Bill and the newfound attention made him an awkward mess. In subsequent years Bill had learnt how to deal with the attention, how to remove himself from it in the best way and still live in Hadmere – to the point that no one really put the connection to him any longer – it was as if most people had dissociated him with the other Hadmere Players. He had gained control over his life, necessary for him as a creature of habit who wanted a simple life.

“Bill!”

“Zave, I’m sorry, I should have called maybe. I just- I just really need to talk to someone about all this. Someone in the same boat.”

Zave wondered initially why he hadn’t gone to Helen instead, she was the talker, she would have been perfect. And then he realized. This conversation would revolve around Catherine and his feelings, and he would prefer to speak to another man about that.

“Well, I’m just cooking some gumbo that I’ve discovered needs another 2 hours… so this a great timing. You must take some with you home, if it doesn’t turn out to be a disaster.’

“You’re pretty good at everything you try Zave, so I doubt it.”

“Hmm. Try telling that to all my plays after Water Ghost.”

“I don’t really want to think about that play right now.”

“Of course not. One second, Bill.”

He went into the kitchen, grabbed a bottle of Chianti and poured two glasses. He thought about Dan’s poisoned wine as he poured, and shook his head confused. Who could have done that? Who knew to poison that particular bottle of wine? It had been on his mind since they all saw Dan collapse at the dinner table in Farfalle. Zave was completely shocked. They’d all barely sat down and ordered drinks, it was completely unexpected. He sighed, tried to shake the thoughts of the Chateauneuf out of his head and brought the glasses out to the lounge.

“Oh no Zave! You’re….”

“Can you blame me?”

“But Zave, you have to be careful.”

“I will be. It’s been five years and I can handle myself right now.”

“Hmm,” said Bill unconvinced, sipping his wine.

‘How have you been the last couple of days, Bill? I’m sorry, to be honest I’ve been avoiding town most of the time. I didn’t know if it would be good for you, Helen and I to meet up.”

“I don’t know. But if we do meet up it shouldn’t be in Hadmere. Everyone is watching. I’ve had the shop closed since yesterday.”

‘Yeah, you’re right about that. A lunch someone else. Maybe not even at a restaurant. I’m more than happy to do it here.”

“Oh, I’m sure Helen would oblige also. Zave, the worst thing about this is that it puts a big GUILTY sign over my head. Perfect crime of passion right there. And now, I can hardly move round in the town without feeling afraid. And on top of that. I’m still alive… and she’s not. My God… Zave, smiling one minute, and the next…”

“Yeah. I know. I cannot get the images of the two of them out of my head. Unsuspecting… unaware.”

“I need to know who did this. My money is on Gareth and Hana. The scheming duo. I’m sure of it. The most jealous pair of us all. And we would never think they would work together on such a plot after the whole love drama and rejection… which, I suspect, was all set up for press attention anyway…”

“Wait, so you reckon they’re a secret couple?”

“I don’t know about that, Maybe, maybe not. But they colluded together alright, it makes perfect sense.”

“Is jealousy enough motive though..?”

“You’d be surprised, Zave, what simple emotions can do. Jealousy is a vicious, vile creature…”

Zave knew what he was talking about. Catherine and her affair with Benjy Mantle. Imagine what Bill must have thought, selling the gossip magazines with pictures on the front page of the pair on a beach in the Canary Islands!

“I remember how I was feeling before I heard about that affair,” Bill said. “Catherine was keeping a low profile. I think she was depressed. Well, you remember what she told me, don’t you? Helen had her accident. Gareth being forced to come out publicly. Hana being made to look like a fool in the media. It wasn’t a fun time.”

“Yes, not a good era for us players.”

“I don’t really blame Cath for the affair… I suppose she’d hit a brick wall in her career, was a bit unsure of herself, the roles she was taking… well, that’s what she told me.”

“But her career was doing just fine.”

“True. I did wonder if she was hiding something. She seemed… so full of regret. It was strange. I bet Dan knew what was going on. They were spending even more time toegther then, if I remember rightly. But nothing seemed wrong with him.”

“Nothing ever seemed wrong with him.”

“Yes. So different from Gareth who has always been a sensitive soul. I just wish I knew Catherine. Like Dan knew Catherine. I was jealous of their relationship, I suppose. I’m sorry, Zave. I know what kind of let-downs you’ve had in your life too, and here I am going on about my issues.”

“Your problems are no lesser than mine, Bill. It’s one thing I’ve come to understand. As we’ve all gone off on our separate paths. We all face problems in our lives; it’s how we deal with them that’s the real issue. How we deal with the consequences of our actions. You always knew your way Bill, you knew what you wanted. Well, in the case of your love life, perhaps not… But you’ve always been so sure of yourself. I like that.” 

“I like consistency. I’ve had a nice life. And I can be happy for Catherine that she lived a wonderful life.”

“She lived a charmed life, she reached great heights and no one can say that her years were wasted. Dan’s also.”

“I think I should go. Thanks for the wine. I won’t stay for gumbo, it sounds a bit too foreign to me. Let’s organise that dinner soon, though.”

 

© Intrigue Inn

 

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The Indigo Bar – Introduction

The Indigo Bar is the first story we released at Intrigue Inn, and the first Francesca Palandri mystery. The DCI Palandri mysteries take place in Sussex, UK, with fictional town names.

Billy Grahame has been found murdered at a small hipster bar. He was the host of a small board gaming group who met at the bar every week. His body was found slumped over the prototype of a tarot inspired board game he had created…

Click here to start reading Day 1 of this mystery!

We’ve included bonus content with this mystery – five reviews of board games you might like to try after you’ve read the story!

The Indigo Bar was a live mystery when it was released, allowing readers to comment and interact with the story as installments were published, and readers could send in their accusations before the culprit was revealed. Feel free to comment on the installments with your suspicions as you progress!

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.

20180329_112631

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