At around midday, I walk into the county court building on Christchurch Road – an ugly square brick of a place – and greet the receptionist warmly with my most cheery smile. Let’s see how much I can get out of her. On the way here I made a call to Jon Montgomery. He’ll meet me this afternoon back at Indigo.
“Let’s see…” a mousy receptionist says, flicking through information on her system. “Yes, I can confirm Billy Grahame was due to appear in court following a dispute with a London based company, Room Xcape West End. I’m unable to provide you with further details, detective, but I’d be happy to pass on their contact info. I have a number – let me email that across to you. The company will have to be informed,” she sighed, apparently not looking forward to drafting a letter to let them know the dispute won’t be settled due to death. Although that’s about as settled as it could possibly get, I suppose.
I email Room Xcape West End in between bites of a prawn mayo sandwich and a glance at today’s new stories online – a famous singer dyeing their hair above details of the latest nuclear testing threats. Seems balanced. Hopefully, Xcape will get back to me soon. Chatting with the board gamers is important, but there’s a chance that Grahame’s angered many others as he hopped from one industry to the next.
One unsatisfying supermarket meal deal finished, I drive back to The Indigo Bar to meet Montgomery.
Jon Montgomery looks weary as we sit down at one of his bar tables opposite the one Grahame was slumped over. The board game and backpack have been taken away now. Montgomery looks to be in his late thirties with messy brown hair to match his faded, torn jumper. He’s also sporting a severe handlebar moustache that makes me want to trust him less.
He shakes his head. “Of course,” he sighs. “Why wouldn’t there be a murder here?”
“Oh. Business not good, Mr. Montgomery?” I adopt the casual concerned tone I always take with suspects. A few prompts and a sympathetic look can go a long way.
“Just the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae that’s started to melt… If things weren’t going well for the bar before… Sorry, detective, don’t think I’m heartless. I’ve already gone through the shock of Billy being murdered. What I didn’t contemplate until coming back now and seeing the police presence is how badly this affects me. It’s not been a good year.”
“When did you open this bar?”
“Just over ten months ago. I had all these ideas. Ideas I’m still playing around with. Interesting decor, specialized drinks and quirky food that matches the theme I have in mind.”
Looking around, I have no idea what possible theme that could be.
“I’ve been working on a couple of new beverage trends I could really see taking off. These drinks are the big thing right now to push ourselves. Equipment and ingredients for those aren’t cheap, though. I guess I just don’t know how to market this place properly. Business is slow. An unpredictable rush here and there, nothing amazing.”
Has he seen this place from the outside? I have a few ideas about marketing straight off the bat.
“People appreciated what we were trying to do but the word of mouth tactic just wasn’t paying off. So, when Billy asked if he could use the venue on Monday nights for a small fee, I didn’t hesitate. Every little helps. We’re still closed to the public on Mondays, I just come in to open up for the group. But I mostly left them to it. We’ve been doing a bit of brainstorming lately, that’s myself and Craig, my one, one employee – it’s not busy enough here for more than one,” he laughs while shaking his head, deep wrinkles around his eyes. “So we’ve been around a bit more on the Monday evenings lately.”
“What impression did you get from Billy?” I ask. “And the rest of the gamers?”
“Well, they’re an interesting collection, really. Different backgrounds all coming together over an interest in throwing dice. Not really my thing, but to be honest it fits in with the quirkiness of the bar. Well, board games aren’t quirky in themselves… but board game bars are a little different around here, I suppose. I was contemplating a chat with Billy about making it more than just an exclusive Monday night thing. Why not bring it to a wider audience? And more paying customers? Unlikely now though, eh? As for Billy, bit of an odd character. All over the place. Full of ideas with fingers in many pies, I suspect. Told me he’d been through many jobs. He came here for a drink one night and that’s when we got chatting. I will say, he did have a way with words. He told me this would be the perfect venue for a gaming group he wanted to start. Before I knew it, I was offering him the opportunity to host board game nights here. Board games are a hot trend now, he told me. He presented himself as being a man of many talents, malleable to any vocation you could think of, but now I think he was just restless. His latest project just happened to be this board game he’d ‘created’.”
“And why do you say it like that?”
“Oh, there was very little of Billy in that game from what I heard. I wonder if he even cared about tarot. Well, you’d have to ask the other gamers about that. I’m just going off what I observed. As you probably know now, he was planning to play that game last night. I gave him a spare key so he could come in early. He said he wanted to prepare the game. A bit trusting of me, perhaps, but my office requires a separate key so I thought there’s no harm in having Billy let himself in. Either myself or Craig, or both of us, would usually open up at around 7:15 for their 7:30 session. Seeing as Billy was opening up yesterday I decided to arrive a bit later, and I told Craig to as well.”
“Do you think Craig may have made some observations also?”
“Hmm. He’s young, and I think the most he observed was Feebs – Phoebe. But he’s a good kid, and sure, he may be in the know more than me. I was just consumed with trying to keep things afloat around here. He lives just down the road on Morgan Avenue.”
I take Craig Hughes’ address and decide to stop there next.
“And Jon, what were you doing before you came here yesterday evening? What time did you leave your house?”
“Oh, around 7:30. It’s a 15-minute walk. I was just having dinner before that. You can ask my housemate, Phil. He was in, watching Netflix.”
I take Phil’s details. “And that ashtray – one of yours I understand?”
“It is, but we kept it out the back in the storeroom. Didn’t know what to do with it – too big. Gave it to Phoebe sometimes as she’s the smoker in the group. She’d take it outside with her. Even wash it in the bathroom and put it back in its drawer in the storeroom now and then. Another good kid, Phoebe – Don’t be getting suspicious of her over that.”
“I’ll be speaking to everyone in equal measure,” I assure him, though naturally, I’m of course suspicious of Phoebe, until proven otherwise.
As I leave, John Montgomery shuffles past the bar and into his office with a deep sigh. Hipster bar aside, he and Mick would probably get along.
It’s an easy five-minute walk to Craig Hughes’ house from Indigo. He lives in bog standard cul-de-sac housing with identical front gardens. Not my taste, but I shouldn’t be judgemental when I live in a fifty square foot flat. Mick thinks being judgemental is what gets the job done, but it’s listening to my gut rather than plain judgement. (Which right now is telling me that meal deal from earlier barely touched the sides.) I’d like to think of myself as more open-minded than Mick, anyway. As long as things meet Italian standards, that’s all. Judging books by their covers doesn’t solve murders, good instincts do, as well as the ability to spot the most relevant chapters behind those covers. I must remember that next time I’m staring at Jon Montgomery’s heinous moustache.
Craig, pale, blonde and in his early twenties, looks tentative and a little overwhelmed as he invites me into his home. It’s a small, messy house with a sink piled high with dishes and piles of unfolded laundry shoved into a corner of the living room, where I sit down in an armchair. Craig takes a seat on a leather bean bag.
“Sorry I didn’t answer the door straight away, I was just giving mum a cup of tea. She’s upstairs, where she always is these days.” He pauses before feeling the need to explain. I let him. I generally keep quiet when I first meet people. Most of them love to fill the silence with more chatter.
“She’s got fibromyalgia,” he carries on. “It’s rare and leaves her tired, aching all over, and for the last month she’s been bedridden. But yeah, you’re here because of Billy, right?”
“Yes. Just getting what info I can,” I say with the soft, comforting tones of a daytime TV presenter to make Craig feel relaxed.
“Well, I’m still in shock. I’m just glad I wasn’t one of the first to arrive. I got to Indigo after Jon, and he told me not to enter the building. He’s protective like that,” he shrugged. “But I’d already seen enough through the door… his body slumped like that…”
“You arrived at the bar at 8:00?”
“Yes, around then. I was making dinner for mum before I left. We chatted for a bit and then I got going.”
“Craig…” A curious voice calls out.
“It’s okay, mum,” Craig shouts upstairs. “It’s a detective, she’s here about Billy.”
“Yes, mum. It’s fine.” His face is pink.
Yes, she. I try not to roll my eyes, considering the poor woman is bedridden.
“Were you familiar with Billy and the other gamers?” I ask.
“A bit. Billy would try and get me to do things like I was on full work time and ready to serve them at the click of his fingers. That annoyed me, I will say. I was mainly there to help Jon with the business. Albert was a bit demanding also, but he’s on another planet.”
“What about the other gamers – Dora, Maria, Phoebe – Feebs for short right?
His face is now red at the mention of Phoebe.
“They were fine.” He pauses. “Yes, it is Feebs for short,” he adds.
“The women were nicer to you, then?”
“Yeah, I’d say so. But even then, besides Feebs, I didn’t speak to them much.”
“How long have you been working at the Indigo Bar?”
“About eight months now. It’s not the busiest work, but it’s nice to be a part of the place and help Jon build things up, slowly. It’s just the two of us, and I like it that way. I suppose if things pick up we’ll need extra staff which will be weird, but it’ll be good for Jon to finally be busy. With all his new ideas I hope it will be! Although… I can’t imagine it will pick up now if this murder gets out. Unless people have a sort of morbid curiosity? Well, his new ideas will work in Indigo or somewhere new, it doesn’t matter. Our plans are unique enough to hold their own anywhere,” he says with a strong sense of pride.
“What were you coming into work to do yesterday?”
“To both help Jon with some cocktail ideas and to be ‘on call’ if the gamers needed anything, as usual. Jon didn’t like Billy much, as time went on anyway, so I think he liked me to be around to deal with him. He trusted me to handle Billy’s obnoxious attitude.”
“And besides annoying you with his demands, what did you observe of his personality?”
“I could just see how he wound people up. He was forceful. He basically forced that board game group into the Indigo Bar like he was trying to force that weird tarot game onto the gamers. They pretty much made it for him, anyway. They were all shocked when he showed everyone the prototype the Monday before. I can’t believe they were so surprised, to be honest, it was pretty clear to me what he was up to. As someone looking in from the outside, anyway. I think they all fell for his charms and persuasions in one way or another. Jon too, even.”
Leaving Craig’s, Mick phones to tell me he’s been speaking with Billy’s mother and that she’s expecting me over. Mick loves a little micromanaging now and then, but it’s a good call to head over there sooner rather than later. I’m still fairly new to detecting solo, having been promoted to DCI only last year. However, you would think seven years in the force with Mick would be enough for him to leave me to make my own calls to the victim’s mother.
Miriam Grahame is a fragile-looking woman with short grey hair. She looks like she spends her Sundays admiring pictures of pressed flowers. There’s that judgment again. Is this what entering middle age is like? Miriam, puffy eyed from all her tears, leads me to her living room and I take a seat on a dusty sofa. Does nobody look after their house in Nutbourne?
“Shall I put the kettle on? Do you want a tea? No? Well, I’m just going to put in on for myself…”
She busies herself with tea making before coming back, taking a seat and staring into space for a few seconds, breathing deeply. Clearly keeping busy has been her go-to since yesterday evening.
“Mrs. Grahame, I know this can’t be easy for you. I understand that your husband also passed away last year?” Thanks for that one, Mick.
“Yes.” She gives a little bitter laugh. “And then there was one…” She sips her tea, her hands shaking a little.
“How did your husband die?”
“Car crash. He lost control of his vehicle on the A27 and the car went right into an oak tree. Honestly, the weather was good, he wasn’t drunk, and he was a good driver… It was just the good old Grahame bad luck streak. And now Billy, just months after moving back here to be there for me, things going well for him, even found himself a lady – I’m sure of it… oh the irony of it all. Hosting a board game group of all things! Who would think that there would be a murderer in the midst of such a boring activity!”
The mention of a possible girlfriend is interesting, but I let her continue.
“I didn’t even know Billy was into board games. Goes to show. He always surprised me with his ability to try anything…”
“From what I understand Mrs. Grahame, he was always on the lookout for new business and financial opportunities. It looks like board game production was his latest.”
“Oh, Billy was always extremely talented in many areas. He was always so good at using his initiative and trying different things. Very entrepreneurial, he was.” She nods and sips from her teacup. “What wasted talent… all that he could have achieved still.”
“Ah, yes, I’m sure. Although, did you know much about any plagiarism claims made against him? I was wondering if you could help me with that.”
“What? Plagiarism? Isn’t that what happens when kids copy things off the internet for their school coursework? Billy was a 37-year-old man!”
“It’s just something I was informed of, Mrs. Grahame.”
“People slandering the dead by the sounds of it. It’s disgusting.” She finishes her tea and her eyes shine with fresh tears. “Billy was a bright spark. Always asking me for money to help him with his little projects, even more so since moving back to Nutbourne. Of course, I always supported him financially, I wouldn’t want to halt the progress of his exciting ideas, would I? What kind of mother would I be then?”
One who expects her son to be a self-dependant adult, I imagine. I thank Miriam and leave, it’s almost time for Palandri family dinner Tuesdays. Being late is not an option unless I want my mother knocking on my front door with a gun pointing at me. I’m 43 years old and she still likes to take charge of my eating habits. She’d die if she saw the state of the prawn sandwich I ate earlier. First stop tomorrow is definitely Dora, who according to Bates’ notes lives along the seafront. I look forward to waddling there after being forced to eat my own body weight in ribollita tonight.
© Intrigue Inn
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