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

 

If you enjoyed part 1, please consider giving it a like and/or commenting your thoughts below!

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.

20180329_112555

“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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lornbridge Hills – Day 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Intrigue Inn