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

 

 

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Lornbridge Hills – Day 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What caused the sickness, do you think?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

I don’t say a word.

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is good gin,” he remarks.

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

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

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

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

I pause mid sip and stare at Jeremy.

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

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

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

© Intrigue Inn

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The Indigo Bar – Day 7

I feel a certain level of sympathy for the murderer as I approach their house. Either I’m becoming softer or I simply empathise with the cause, as abhorrent and desperate as murder is. It’s true that this case involved a leech of a man, to use Pablo Whitten’s words. A man who in someone’s eyes had to be stopped, violently, in order to protect both themselves and another.  An attempt was also made to frame someone else in the process. I knock on the door, which opens a few seconds later.

“Hello, Craig. Can I come in and chat, please?”

Craig nods slowly. Perhaps he knows what I’m here for.

It’s not easy arresting Craig, a young man with his whole life ahead of him. He knew what he was doing, however. This wasn’t an intently thought out act, but it also wasn’t spur of the moment. He denies everything at first, as expected, but quickly breaks down and acquiesces. It’s not a pleasant conversation. I’m glad his mother is asleep while we talk. I call Mick afterwards.

“The tarot card was a ploy, Mick. A diversion set in place to frame someone who knew about that world in order to take the heat off Jon and Craig. Specifically targeting Phoebe after she rejected him and made him feel like a fool when she accused him of stalking her. She’s now back with her ex-boyfriend, and the unfairness of it, in his eyes, seeped through him. Humiliation turned into anger. After a few days of interviewing suspects, I started to wonder if the board game and the tarot card were really that important at all, as everything had been deliberately set up to point to this game being the cause of his death. It was all a show.”

“I see. But he didn’t kill Billy simply to go after Phoebe Moore, I assume?”

      “Oh no, that was just an additional thought in his process. No, Craig killed Billy to protect Jon and his business – a man and a venue that had done so much for Craig. It became quite clear to me that Billy was looking for his next big idea. Even though the board game was in its early stages, he was already keen to move on to the next thing, especially after being rejected by Sirius Games. After spending some time at The Indigo Bar, Billy had his eye on these new, exciting cocktails Jon was working on. It seems like Billy was a man who just couldn’t help himself when something new and shiny came along. And those cocktails were certainly unique and imaginative, however bizarre they seemed to me. Billy had expressed an interest in these creations, even snooped around to potentially copy some of the ideas. Craig saw what Billy had done with the board game, how he had a way of getting close to people and pumping ideas out of them, as Maria Banks put it. He was terrified of Billy copying their ideas next – the very project that Craig was so excited about, producing these flashy drinks with Jon, who was not just a mentor but really a sort of father figure. Together, they could move towards big things and away from mediocrity, and Billy could have spoiled everything. Jon really saved Craig. He’s a 22-year-old man, struggling to look after his mother, and Jon went above and beyond to assist in looking after her, as well as helping Craig achieve his goals. I imagine Craig felt indebted to Jon. He clearly cares for his mother and Jon’s help would have been a huge relief. And now, with these cocktails, along comes an opportunity that in the long run could help Craig to support himself and his mother financially.”

“Craig correctly suspected that Billy wanted to come to Indigo early on Monday and have the place to himself so he could snoop until his heart was content, all under the pretence of needing some extra time to prepare his prototype. He’d seen Billy prying. Even Maria Banks mentioned her confusion at Billy wanting that extra time beforehand. It was the time to strike, and only Craig was fully aware of Billy’s intentions. Craig must have known how Jon tends not to notice the problems right in front of him. I certainly did. Jon realises there are issues but doesn’t look beyond them. It would be so easy to fix up that bar, for example! He knows it’s failing but he can’t see why, as plain as it may be to others. In the same vein, he could tell Billy was potentially bad trouble, but he had no idea he was looking to steal his ideas. Even I became a little infuriated this week as I noticed how unobservant he is, so it must have been painful for Craig as he foresaw what was happening.”

“Craig couldn’t just stand back and watch Billy take advantage of Jon and his plans, then,” Mick says. “Stealing them, repackaging them as his own. Seems a bit drastic to kill him perhaps? I would have just sat Billy down and told him what’s what.”

I laugh. “You’re a middle-aged man, the Superintendent! Craig is a shy, lonely and sensitive young man. In his eyes, Billy had to go. Murder was the easier route. A coward’s way, attacking from behind rather than attempting a confrontation.”

“And meanwhile his mother was none the wiser?”

“His mother said he was at home, as any trusting mother would do, and this is a mother who was bedridden upstairs. Craig could have snuck out or made up anything he liked, before and after the murder. Talking with Billy’s mother, Miriam, and thinking of Phoebe’s, I was reminded of how mothers always want to see the best in their children. Craig’s alibi was his mother. A mother shocked at the suggestion of him being involved. A suffering, housebound mother who may not have always been aware of what Craig was doing. When I thought about it, it was surely the weakest of the alibis. Now, Dora Murphy didn’t even have an alibi, but I ruled her out early on, despite her knowledge of tarot. It just seemed too obvious. All the alibis I called spoke with conviction, but Craig’s mother could have been fooled easily. What do mothers really know, Phoebe told me. It made me think of my own mother, too. But that’s another story.”

“Framing Phoebe just made sense as he got carried away with his plan. He naturally rifled through Phoebe’s shopping bag once he found out she’d left it behind the week before. That bag contained the pack of tarot cards from which the card in Billy’s hand came from. When you’re infatuated with someone you often can’t help being nosy. At this point, days before Billy’s death, the crazy idea of murder had already taken hold I imagine, and now a new idea of framing the girl who had just hurt him was presenting itself. Throw the suspicion onto her. Make the motive look tarot related. A quick internet search will tell you which tarot cards represent betrayal. It was easy enough for me to pick up. Plus, Phoebe’s a chatterbox who loved to talk about her new hobby and would have shared various details with Craig. She was trying to get him into it. So, Craig was able to select a card from the pack that suited his purpose with ease. Not only was the Seven of Swords true for what he preempted Billy doing to Jon, but he’d seen it happen with his own eyes when Billy presented the game prototype to the gamers. The swords were all their ideas, and he’d run off with them, or was planning to, anyway. It was perfect for Craig to throw suspicion onto the gamers and away from him and Jon after witnessing this. Next step, use a weapon that out of all the gamers, only Phoebe knew where it was stored – the ashtray.”

“You know, I think you’re feeling a bit sorry for the kid, Fran,” Mick tells me. “You’re changing! You usually don’t like anyone. And this one bashed a man’s head in. Thank you, though. You’ve put this one to rest with speed and efficiency.”

“That’s my job,” I reply simply.

“I know, I know. Listen, fancy joining Helen and I for dinner tonight? You need to get out of that flat of yours more. Maybe the new restaurant on the seafront I mentioned?”

“Wow, so you liked it, then?”

“I surprised myself. I was going to play it safe with a salmon pasta but I tried some kind of seafood stew – chopini? It was decent.”

I try not to wince at his pronunciation. If there’s anything I’ve learnt during this investigation it’s that less surliness and a greater tolerance for these small town Brits would serve me well. After all, understanding the importance of Craig’s desire to go beyond his cul-de-sac and embrace greater things is partly what helped me solve this case.

 “Cioppino. I’m impressed,” I tell Mick. “My mother would be happy to know that. Maybe it’s time you join one of our weekly meals.”

“Well, your mother sounds quite formidable, I wouldn’t want to offend. Then again, I’ve been dealing with you for the better part of a decade now, and you’ve become formidable enough yourself.”

“I hope you mean that in reference to my detective work.”

“Oh, absolutely, Fran.”

I laugh. “Well, I’d love to join you and Helen tonight. Thank you.” He’s right. I’m one cat away from becoming a lonely, grumpy stereotype. A nice meal out is a start, but it may not cut it. I think it’s time for a holiday soon.

Before all that though, I have a date with David Attenborough and a glass of Chianti.

 

© Intrigue Inn

The Indigo Bar – Day 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even better, group perjury.

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© Intrigue Inn

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The Indigo Bar – Day 5

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

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

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

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

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

I ask him about the court case.

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can agree with that.

*

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

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

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

“Hello?” Craig’s voice calls out.

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

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

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

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

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

“What were you doing before this?”

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

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

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

“And were you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

“Oh! Hello, Phoebe – are you okay?”

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

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

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

“Was he stalking you?”

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

“More than Billy, probably.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

© Intrigue Inn

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The Indigo Bar – Day 3

I battle blustery winds outside, rendering my umbrella useless. The natural curls in my hair that I hate so much are being flung in every direction and the bottom of my black trench coat is flapping away. I can’t wait to step inside Dora Murphy’s seaside cottage and escape this weather. While Florence was no Bora Bora in December, I don’t remember it ever being as consistently bad as the south of England.

“They promised sunshine today,” Dora tuts as she lets me in. “Then again, that’s living by the Great British seaside for you.” Her bracelets and necklaces clacker about as she leads me into her small home. She’s a thin, bony woman who seems to hover as she walks.  Spiritual and mystic paraphernalia is apparent from the start – large crystals and incense burners, dreamcatchers and astrological charts adorn every nook and cranny.

“This isn’t just a set of four walls that will serve as a welcome break from the elements, detective. You’ll likely feel a sense of calm and serenity – a chance for your mind to heal after the cogs spinning during your investigation. You probably feel calmer already?”

I actually feel a little claustrophobic from the small rooms and their clutter of objects, and the incense is suffocating, but best to bite my tongue, unlike my mother last night who accused me of not having children just to spite her. I responded by drinking half a bottle of Chianti and I’m feeling the effects now. This house isn’t helping.

“Human to human, I’m naturally very sad about the death of a troubled man, on a spiritual level. But speaking truthfully, I never did warm to Billy. The man was a fraud, and it didn’t take a reading to figure that out. If I’d known he would start using the endless information I provided on the complex subject of tarot reading for his own personal glory, I’d have been less inclined to share. I just thought it important to help someone who appeared a little lost in life. When he mentioned he was keen to incorporate tarot into a board game prototype, I thought it was wonderful – tarot reaching a new audience through board gamers, if it takes off. Need more youngsters getting involved. Although lovely Phoebe Moore is a start.”

“Did he take any ideas of yours, then?”

“When he showed us all the game last week, I picked up a few of the game cards he had written and noticed the descriptions were practically verbatim to the emails I sent him. But is that a good enough reason to murder someone? I think not, detective!” She pauses for a minute to ensure I understand this point. “But using tarot cards for his own gain with such blatant disregard for their true purpose – self-growth and empowerment, well, says a lot about a person doesn’t it! Unfortunately, it was Phoebe and I who found the body. She met me at around 7:00 here and we walked down together, chatting about general misinterpretations of the Lovers card – she loves a good student-mentor chat – and we walk in and oh, what a sight! His body bent over like that, so unnaturally!” She shudders. “His lack of respect for anything and anyone finally caught up with him. I understood he went to visit Psychic Mist. That’s a specialist shop here in Nutbourne. The owner sells so many lovely tarot sets. But he didn’t have good things to say about Billy the last time I popped in there. Well, Seven of Swords in his hands when they checked Billy’s body. That says it all really, doesn’t it?”

“What does that card mean? And could you explain how the game worked a little?” I had intended to do my homework on tarot last night. How naive of me to think I’d be returning from a family dinner fresh and ready to learn. I note the name of the specialist shop. It’s a good idea to head there next.

“Well, the mechanics of the gameplay came mostly from Albert. I just spoon-fed Billy all the tarot information he required. It’s always been my problem… I give and I give and people take advantage. The gameplay revolved around trying to form a Celtic Cross spread in accordance with your objective cards. Very simple objectives. Not much to it, actually. Needed more depth. I mean, when you think about how complex each individual tarot card is, reducing all of that to a few broad objectives…” She shakes her head. “Deception. That’s the Seven of Swords. Trying to get away with something unnoticed. Well, he was trying to get away with something, and it has certainly been noticed now.” She raises her eyebrows and purses her lips.

*

En route to Psychic Mist, I receive an email from Pablo Whitten, owner of Room Xcape West End, writing to let me know he’ll be in Nutbourne this Friday if I want to meet. I confirm that I do. As I make my way, I start flicking through images on a tarot website. It’s pretty easy to pick up basic interpretations of various cards and it’s surprisingly more interesting than I expected. Twenty minutes later, now with a rudimentary understanding of the Major Arcana, I climb a rickety wooden staircase and find myself in a cramped space full of mystic knick knacks. I thought Dora’s cottage was bad, but this takes it to another level. There are books and fancy figurines everywhere, and a large shelf dedicated to all sorts of tarot decks. I spot a cosmic, Egyptian and even a Dante themed pack – a fellow Florentine. From behind a dusty corner, I see an elderly man stocking books, obscured by a large crystal ball in front of me. I feel like I’ve entered the beginning of an 80’s adventure movie.

“Hello, sir…”

“Ah hello, there. What are you looking for today? Or just browsing?”

“I’m actually a detective, investigating the death of-”

“Oh, Billy Grahame?”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“Yes, yes… I heard all about the tarot card in his hand and the game he was making. Dora Murphy likes to think she’s a bit of recluse, but actually, she’s quite the gossip. You’ll have interviewed Dora, I expect, and now you’ve come to ask me what I know.”

He carries a few large folio books over to the counter and puts them down. “He came in here, you know. Billy. A few weeks back.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. Asking me various questions. Which tarot cards would appeal to a large audience, my favourite artwork style, this kind of thing. Questions about how to best package a tarot-themed game and have it look most interesting to the public.”

“And you gave him a lot of information?”

      “Oh, on the contrary. I gave him very little. The man was clearly thinking about money and had no real interest in tarot whatsoever. It was painfully obvious. That’s the way the world works now, I’m afraid. It’s so very, very sad. So, no, I did not feel like being forthcoming with someone whose only interest in the subject was how to make the most profit. Dora, on the other hand, is probably kicking herself that she divulged so much. Maybe her little protégé is as well, Phoebe is it? Nice girl. Seems to have a genuine interest, quite probably she’s doing more research into it than Dora ever did. Quite the chatterbox when she came in here. I suppose anyone who discovers a new hobby is always keen to go on about it? She visited with Dora and purchased a rather lovely steampunk themed set. At least she’s a paying customer. Dora mainly just comes to chat these days. She enjoys the company of a like-minded enlightened being, you see.” He gives a self-satisfied smile.

“And do you?”

“Oh, sometimes. But solitude and keeping one’s passions to oneself is a nice thing too, don’t you think? I’d rather be doing this, busying myself in my quiet, little shop than being duped by the powers that be where nothing matters in life except money. Look where that got Billy Grahame.”

*

I’ve had a slow afternoon thanks to the hangover, but I need to crack on with suspects. Phoebe and Albert have confirmed they can meet tomorrow. Maria hasn’t got back to me, so I take a chance and rock up at her townhouse.

Maria Banks wipes her blonde fringe from her eyes as she opens the door, revealing a stressed look on her face. She’s a thin woman, a little hard faced and haggard, but still attractive. She’s ageing better than I am, anyway.

“Sorry, detective. It’s the nightly bedtime ritual for the twins. Fun and games every night. My husband can deal with the terrible twosome for a bit if you want to talk.”

I assure her that I won’t take up much of her time as we sit down at a cluttered wooden dining table in the middle of a large kitchen. Expensive looking Christmas decorations have been carefully placed around the room. All this clutter… Am I just a minimalist? To be fair, there’s no room in my flat for clutter, and I have to admit, it’s an attractive, well-designed house. Maria and her husband must be comfortable financially. She tells me he’s a pilot and often away, leaving her with twins Amy and Jolene a lot of the time.

“Billy’s death shook me. It shook us all.” She sighs and looks down at the kitchen table, biting her lip. “I don’t know if there’s much I can tell you, though. I certainly didn’t know anything about the game he was making, except that we were planning to play it that evening. He told us all that he’d be there an hour early to set it up and check it was ready to play.”

“So everyone was aware he’d be there?”

“Yes. I remember him clearly saying that because at the time I was thinking about how uninterested I was in playing it. I don’t know anything about tarot. I did think it a little strange that he wanted to come in earlier to set up. I mean, he sets a game up for us every week but just does it when we’re all there, so why did he need that extra time on Monday? Perhaps he was anxious, seeing as it was his own creation and wanted to make sure everything was perfect.”

“You didn’t contribute ideas towards the game, then?”

“No, I didn’t contribute. The others did, under the illusion it was all just brainstorming, excited that some of their ideas would be included in this game, which Billy promised would be published and successful. When you think about it, how can you guarantee the success of something like that? Everyone just got caught up in the moment there. Well, last Monday he showed everyone the prototype at the end of the night. “Look at the game that I’ve created… thanks for helping with a few of the ideas, guys,” he told them. You could see the emotion on their faces when they studied it. It’s like the wool had been pulled right over their eyes. Total disbelief. Phoebe and Dora, anyway. Albert’s a bit of a pushover. The girls were seething. They held it in, though. I wasn’t really impressed that he’d done that, either. But I didn’t say anything. So British of us, isn’t it?”

“So, you were just happy to enjoy the games every Monday evening?”

“Yes, yes.”

“May I ask, what’s your favourite board game?”

“Oh, um… well, I don’t know really. I enjoyed Pandemonium. No, Pandemic it was called. Yes. Pandemic. Fun,” she adds, as an afterthought.

She taps the table a few times with her nails, chipped red nail polish all over them, as the piercing scream of a child pauses conversation. She leans closer to me.

“Actually, between you and I, it started with a bit of online gambling. Card games especially. Just needed a thrill outside of this house. A weekly board game meetup sounded like a much healthier outlet. Saw the sign while walking Hobbes – that’s our retriever, and thought I’d give it a try. Quite a learning curve on some of the games to be honest, and Billy turned out to be a bit overbearing for a quiet Monday evening get-together, but still, got me out of the house. It was fun while it lasted. Well, it’s not going to continue now, is it? He was in charge of the whole thing.” She looks at me and I can tell she’s holding back the tears.

“Sorry, detective. I really must go and help Adrian with the twins now. Thank you for stopping by.”

It’s a brief visit, but informative, despite what certainly feels like Maria holding back, although that could just be her children distracting her. She seems to know so little about the hobby group she’s a participant of, and that makes me wonder what her role in all this might be.

 

© Intrigue Inn

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The Indigo Bar – Day 1

“So, what kind of place is the Indigo Bar?”

I check my watch, it’s nearly nine. I have an episode of Planet Earth ready on Netflix and a glass of wine waiting on the kitchen counter. A call from Mick is the last thing I want right now, yet midway through his inspection of the crime scene he decides to hand this one over to me.

“Hipster type on Haden Road, Nutbourne. Old rubbish hanging on the walls that no one wants any more, you know. Weird drink names.”

“Not sure you’re the target audience, to be honest.” I shake my head as I speak.

“Probably not,” Mick sighs. He was fond of turning his nose up at anything that fell outside his idea of normal. Even a gastropub was a little too much for Mick to handle.

“Deceased is Billy Grahame, found at 19:15 this evening by a Ms. Dora Murphy and Miss. Phoebe Moore at the bar.”

“The bar was open for business?”

“Usually closed on Mondays. But the owner allows a local board game group to use the bar for their weekly get-togethers. The group is run by Grahame. The two women were the first regular members to arrive. They found him alone, slumped over a board game. One of his own creations, I believe. The back of his head was beaten repeatedly with a heavy marble ashtray found on the floor near the body.”

I raise my eyebrows. “Pleasant. Anything else at the scene?”

“His backpack. He was also found with a tarot card in one hand.”

“A tarot card?”

“The game was based on tarot…” There’s a slight note of disdain in his voice.

“Alright, and the women called the police?”

“Police were called by Dora Murphy at 19:16 and minutes later other members of the gaming group arrived, Maria Grant, followed by Albert Liu who arrived just after 19:30 when the session was meant to begin. Emergency services were already on the scene at this time.”

“And the bar owner?”

“Jon Montgomery. He was contacted while on his way to the bar. He got here at 19:45. Just before 20:00 his employee Craig Hughes also arrived on the scene.”

I jot down a few details as I realize David Attenborough and his dulcet tones would have to wait for a while. “I’ll head down there now.”

“Please. Look, Fran, the local press will love this one. Board games and bohemian bars, plus this tarot aspect. It’s quirky. Let’s try and wrap it up quickly. The tarot card in his hand suggests someone in that circle, but sniff around and do what you do best.”

“And you?”

“Once I’m done here I’m taking Helen out for a late dinner. I’ve already liaised with CSI but there’ll be some evidence left for you to get an idea. You’ll catch up. Then we’re off to that new Mediterranean place on the seafront. I hope it’s not all strange seafood and foreign dishes.”

Detective Superintendent Mick Thomson is a worldly man.

*

Twenty minutes later, I’m in my Volvo approaching Nutbourne town centre. A quick social media search to get an impression of the deceased brings up Grahame’s profile. I scan through pictures of a man who I guess was in his early forties, but it’s better to delve into this properly off the road, especially as it’s starting to rain – fat droplets that came from nowhere. Grahame looked like he used to be somewhat attractive before time took its toll.  Piercing blue eyes and a strong jawline stood in his pictures out despite heavy, wrinkled bags under his eyes and patchy receding hair.

I pass by white regency architecture along the seafront and turn right into Haden Road, nearly driving past the Indigo Bar – It’s ridiculously nondescript. There is a small, barely legible name sign above the bar’s door, the bar itself nestled in between offices to let and a grubby looking corner shop, all illuminated by a consistent row of streetlights. I find a tight parking space a little further along and after squeezing in I step out into the drizzle and wind, tightening the buttons on my brown trench coat.

A young officer rocking back and forth on his feet stands outside the bar’s front door, a yellow folder in his right hand.

“Are you waiting for me?” I ask, walking up.

“DCI Francesca Palandri?”

“Just call me Fran,” I answer, holding out her hand.

He shakes it vigorously, introducing himself as Officer Samuel Bates, and welcomes me warmly inside as if I had just arrived at his housewarming party.

“You don’t really have an accent,” Bates says as we enter. “They told me an Italian detective was on her way.”

It sounds like he had been caught up in his fantasies and imagined an exaggerated stereotype, a sultry Monica Bellucci-esque figure with a thick, sensual accent. He must be severely disappointed.

“Oh, I left Florence a very long time ago,” I reply. I’m becoming more and more like a dour Brit every day, I almost add.

The bar is small, dark and cluttered. It’s not a complete hole, but it certainly needs a good spring clean. I walk past a purple (or should that be indigo?) bike wheel hanging on the wall and some sort of South Pacific tribal ornament on a shelf. It’s a hodgepodge of everything tucked into a space that should really only hold a handful of tables. I can only imagine Mick’s face when he was here earlier. A dark wooden bar in need of a good scrub at the rear is positioned next to a narrow corridor leading to toilets and a small office. The old wooden tables in the bar look like they are ready to serve a medieval feast. It’s all a bit unnecessary.. Along the left side of the room there is a large, long table, I realise that it was here that Billy Grahame was murdered as I spot an unplayed board game setup in the middle of the table. It’s been labelled by the CSI team with a box of disposable plastic gloves next to it, for my benefit I assume.

While Bates keeps position at the entrance, I head over to the gaming table of choice. The game is bloodstained and in disarray. Repeated blows to the head would have certainly produced an ample stream of blood. The game consists mostly of cards; the game board itself quite small. I don’t know where to start; I’m no game expert. The last board game I played was a round of Scattergories during Easter weekend 2014, after which my sister Maria decided not to speak to anyone in the family for two days when we refused to accept her answer of Gibraltar for countries beginning with G. I don’t know why she took it so badly. She was wrong, after all.

After donning plastic gloves, I pick up one card from the untidy deck. There’s a picture of chains drawn roughly on it. It looks like an early draft but the artwork is decent. I pick up another, this one depicting a jug of water. I put them back and take a card marked ‘objective’ which reads

Present: Difficult Times

External Influences: Nurturing

Hopes/Fears: Success

This means little to me, having never explored the world of tarot. I put the card back. The tarot card Grahame was holding has been removed from his left hand and set aside, marked and bagged. It looks bigger and different – this is a professionally designed card, likely taken from a full set. Unlikely to be a part of this amateurish looking game. The card reads ‘Seven of Swords’ and depicts a man wearing a top hat with golden goggles around the rim. He’s swiftly sneaking away somewhere, the swords in his hands. Grahame was found with his head on the board, and this card in hand, so what was the importance of this self-designed game?

I spot the backpack nearby on the table and rummage through it. It contains Grahame’s wallet, keys and a few papers – mainly bills, and one eye-catching letter from Nutbourne Crown Court. A reminder to Billy about a court appearance set for next week. That’s a keeper. Billy’s head on his own game prototype seems symbolic. Did he steal something perhaps, sneaking off like the man on the tarot card?

I’m eager to meet the other members of this group. If one of them was responsible then they had to do a double loop – commit the crime and then come back as if they had just arrived for the night. Given the choice, what would I do to avoid suspicion? Arrive in the middle of the pack like Maria Grant? Be there right on time like Albert Liu? Or be the first to arrive, but with someone else as an alibi and then alert the police? I’m definitely keen to have a chat with Dora and Phoebe first.

“Bates,” I call out, “What have you been told? About Grahame?” He should have information for me. Mick would have seen to that.

“So sorry France- Fran! Here’s his bio I was meant to give to you.” Bates removes a document from his folder and passes it over.

The same balding man from Facebook smiles at me from the page. A few details underneath reveal Billy was 37 – he certainly looked older – and list an address for 12 Apostle Avenue, Nutbourne.

“Does he live alone, do you know? Partner? Family?”

“Single, I understand. Lives alone, but it’s a glorified closet. His mother lives in a semi-detached just a few streets away. Northmayer Crescent. According to the gaming group who were all interviewed earlier briefly, Grahame seems to be a man who jumped from job to job and place to place, but currently, he was out of work. His last place of employment was at an event planning studio in North West London, now closed down. He moved to Nutbourne earlier this year. This is his hometown. Looks like he hasn’t made many friends during his travels – a little digging shows he’s been accused of plagiarism at least once before.”

I nod. The man running away with the swords comes to mind.

“And everything inside here?”

“That’ll all be taken soon for analysis. Hopefully, something will come up. Montgomery confirmed the ashtray belongs to the bar. You haven’t seen these yet, hang on…” He flicks through his folder and pulls out photographs taken of Billy after he was found. “What do you think?” he asks, as he shows me the awkwardly positioned body.

“Well, I don’t think it looks natural, the way he’s slumped over. Looks like someone pushed his head on to the game after killing him. A little rearranging of the body, definitely.”

“The whole set-up implies we have a killer trying to make a statement here.”

“Quite possibly,” I reply. “Thanks, Bates.” He looks so young I feel like I should be giving him a packet of sweets for his information.

“Oh! Here’s a list of the gaming group. Ages, professions and contact details. I also have the contact details of two regular customers who live three doors down. They came by after noticing the police presence. Broken CCTV along this road, unfortunately, so maybe they saw something.” He bites his lip as if it’s his fault the CCTV was broken.

I study the key details of the gaming group.

Dora Murphy, 56.  Tarot reader

Phoebe Moore, 23. Art student

Albert Liu, 30. Book shop employee

Maria Grant, 42. Housewife

“Thank you, Bates. I’ll be heading off now.” He says goodbye as I walk back to my car, wondering how long he’ll have to wait there, poor kid.

 

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