Phoebe’s purple hair and large floral dress cut a striking figure as she walks in. She’s come to meet me at The White Hart, a large pub near Nutbourne train station.
“Just getting a drink, you’re making me nervous,” she says with a slight laugh.
She comes back with two beers. I didn’t ask, but it’s a kind gesture and I thank her for it. A pity that the only people who buy me drinks these days are potential murder suspects.
“Am I allowed to do that? Is that weird, buying a drink for the detective who’s about to interview me because they think that maybe, possibly, I murdered a man? I expect you know I’m the only one who really used that ashtray. That’s no secret. Oh, well, I buy drinks for everyone.” She waves her hand as if to forget these concerns. “I used to bring beers and wine to the group all the time. Made some of the competitive games more fun!” She gives a cheeky smile, flirtatious even. “I was hoping we’d do a Cards Against Humanity night soon. It would be hilarious with that lot.”
Her cheery demeanour seems a little forced, but given the circumstances and her connection to the murder weapon, it’s no wonder she’s nervous.
“You’re an art student, correct?”
“That’s right. You’ve already seen some of my work, I think.”
“Yes. Billy’s head fell into it,” she grimaced, “I did the artwork for his prototype. The item cards, and so on. It was pretty cool to do actually, seeing as I enjoy the subject matter so much.”
“Have you always been into board games? And what about tarot?”
“Well, I enjoyed a Christmas Day game of Monopoly growing up, but until I met my sort of ex-boyfriend Aaron, I didn’t know much. He loves board games and has a big collection. We began playing Ticket to Ride religiously and then we moved on – Lost Cities, Carcassonne, Citadels, Catan of course… Well, our relationship is a bit on and off these days – on again currently – but either way I’m always keen for games. I saw a sign while having a drink at Indigo one night. Craig told me more about it and I decided to give it a go. Craig’s such a sweetheart. There’s history there, a very brief one, but no need to get into that. Prefers computer games, you see. Not my thing,” she laughs. “Just kidding. He’s just a bit too shy for me, and I was pretty honest about that. He and Jon are great guys, though. Have you tried their craft cocktails? Oh, my word. So awesome.”
I smile at the idea she has of me sitting at Indigo, leisurely sipping on these weird cocktails as I ponder who killed Billy.
“They’re just at the experimenting stage,” she says. “Jon’s got some wonderful ideas, very unique. Those sort of drinks would help that place be a hit! I don’t know how a murder will affect that, but you know, sometimes it brings attention. Any news is good news, as they say.”
“Anyway,” She continues, barely taking a breath, “I did find Billy a bit overbearing. Smart, or at least he sounded it, but quite full on at times. I got sucked in like the others did with that game. But I didn’t want to turn down the opportunity of contributing artwork to a big project, you see. Billy seemed certain it would be a success and I believed him for a while. After last Monday and the realisation of what he’d done, I just wanted him to go away. Let us serious gamers get on with things. Well, Dora, Albert and myself anyway. Maria just came for…” She pauses. “… To get out of the house, I suppose? Billy wasn’t really interested in board games, I understand that now. He was keen for the tarot game to work, but if not, I’m sure he had ideas up his sleeve for another project. Or using someone else’s ideas, should I say. No mention of marking me as a contributor to the game design or anything. I bet you he had no intention.” She takes a large swig of beer. “It was horrible seeing his dead body though, you know. I was caught up in conversation with Dora and then BAM you see that.”
“And you walked from your house to pick Dora up at her cottage?”
“Yes. That’s what I usually do. It’s only a few minutes away. Sometimes I walk straight to Indigo, or my mum drops me off. I like going to Dora’s, though. Such a lovely cottage.”
From the outside, perhaps.
“And what does your mum think of all this?”
“Well, what do mothers really know?” She sighs. “As much as they say they do know. I haven’t told her about the ashtray. I’m trying to keep a brave face.”
I consider my own mother, her words yesterday evening, and how little I actually tell her about why I chose my job over a family. I can empathize.
“On Mondays, we meet at Dora’s at about 7 pm and get to the bar at 7:15,” Phoebe continues. “We’re usually the first ones there so we have a drink of whatever we’ve brought with us before the others arrive. They don’t mind us using their glasses and stuff. Billy did mention the Monday before that he’d be arriving earlier than usual to set up the game. So we expected to see him there. But you know, alive.”
I’ve been waiting to see if she would mention the Seven of Swords. As she hasn’t, I flick through my phone’s photo gallery and show her the picture of the man in the top hat, running off with his swords.
“This must have been familiar to you when you found him, correct?”
Phoebe bites her lip.
“The man in this picture, after doing just the minimal amount of research into the aesthetic, can certainly be described as steampunk. I know you bought a steampunk themed tarot set yourself, so this must have been instantly recognizable when you and Dora found Billy dead?”
Phoebe nods. “Yes. Yes, I’m sorry, it did. And I know it came from my pack. I just… I’m already the only one who used that ashtray, the fact that that’s my card too… I – I just decided to not mention it. I saw that ashtray, and then I saw my card in his hands, it was all a bit much.” She looks overwhelmed.
“Could anyone else have known you own this particular set, besides Dora and the owner of Psychic Mist?”
“I don’t think Dora really noticed what I was purchasing there, she was too busy talking. She certainly didn’t say anything about the card when we found Billy, and I didn’t like to mention it. The thing is, I suppose anyone else could have seen it and taken it, Billy included. The Monday before, we went straight to Indigo after visiting the shop – a bit of a change from our normal routine, and I accidentally left the shopping bag there. I rang Indigo when I got home. Jon was still there and said he would put the bag behind the bar and I could collect it whenever. I went back two days later. I didn’t notice the Seven of Swords was missing when I glanced through the deck later on. I haven’t really used the set properly enough to notice.”
“You really have no idea who could have taken it?”
“Well, Jon moved the bag. But why would Jon take it? Anyone could have seen me leave that bag behind. Just like anyone could have seen me take and put back the ashtray when I went for a smoke. I know this all looks bad for me but why would I kill Billy? He used his charm to get me to do his artwork and I fell for it, I’ve no one to blame but myself, quite frankly.”
We finish our beers as I try and digest Phoebe’s rapid-fire chatter and work out whether I believe her story. I need to get going though so I can meet Albert in time.
I check my watch just as Albert walks into the little seafront cafe we arranged to meet at. He’s late. I’ve heard All I Want For Christmas twice already. He sits down, out of breath. Albert Liu is, in his own words, a truly excitable nerd, and apparently, that’s why he’s late meeting me.
“Sorry. I’m generally not punctual,” he says in an Australian accent, pushing his square-rimmed glasses up a little. “My mind doesn’t work that way. That’s the best excuse I can give you.”
He laughs. I don’t.
“I get distracted so easily by some idea, or some game or movie reference…. Something I have to look up and know the answer to immediately, you know.”
I make a mental note to avoid any pop culture references. I may be here all day, otherwise.
“That’s why I was a little late to the board game meetup on Monday. I usually am.” He gives an apologetic shrug. “On this occasion, it was a blessing. I would not have wanted to be first… poor Dora and Phoebe! Finding Billy like that and having to call the police. Good job Maria wasn’t the one to find him. Uh, well, anyway, I just walked from my flat share on Turner Square to Indigo Bar, as usual, this time running late because my roommate Coral mentioned that Temple of Doom is the best Indiana Jones film, and I couldn’t just leave after hearing such an absurd statement.”
“Naturally,” I reply. We’re certainly building up a group of alibis here. I’ll have to start checking in with them – Albert’s Coral, Jon’s roommate Phil, Craig’s mum and Phoebe and Maria’s families. I ask Albert about his job.
“The bookshop is great. It’s independent and we have an awesome fantasy section with old books that fall apart when you open them. So much better than an e-reader. I also podcast, well that’s something I do with Coral and a couple of other friends. We cover DOTA, mainly. Board games are awesome too though – I play with the rest of my friends and then there are game nights at Indigo, of course. They were pretty good, too. I love escape rooms also – I’m originally from Sydney and there are quite a few there now. I used to work at one up in London. There are a couple around here, but really London is the best place in the UK. I like to travel a lot, so I enjoy checking out escape rooms and board game cafes as I explore. That’s great additional content for the podcast as we get more international listeners.”
“Did Billy ever listen to your podcast?”
“Oh, no. I don’t believe so, anyway. I’ve heard the others say he wasn’t genuinely interested in these things, but I don’t see why you’d bother involving yourself in them if you’re not? Some of the group thought he just liked to copy ideas, that’s what they’ve been murmuring since last week. But with every board game, every escape room, every book, movie and so on, isn’t there always going to be something shared? Similar ideas? Nothing is completely original these days. You can hardly blame Billy for that. Although someone did, apparently. I have a friend, Clara Mullaney, who works at a board game publishing company. Sirius Games. She mentioned Billy was going to meet them a couple of days ago. I haven’t spoken to Clara about it yet. Would you like her details?”
“Absolutely,” I say, clicking the memo app on my phone. “Tell me a little more about how the game works, if you can? I did glance over it the evening of Billy’s death. Dora mentioned you helped with the actual rules?”
“Yeah, I did help a lot to be fair, but I was pretty proud of that! It was great to see my ideas come to life. I was also trying to come up with a name but couldn’t think of anything original. Tarot Wars, perhaps. Anyway, you probably saw there’s a narrow board to hold various card decks including tarot cards, objective cards, and item cards, along with three discard piles for each card type?”
I nod vaguely. The components confused me so I can’t really remember.
“Objective cards are selected at random at the beginning of the game. You take two cards and choose one of them. Then it’s time to begin constructing a Celtic Cross spread with the item cards that line up with your objective. You can trade and discard cards from your hand as you try to fulfil your objective, all while deducing other people’s plans and making cards they need don’t end up in their spread. That’s the basic idea. Easy to learn!”
I nod once more. I’m still not totally clear but I’m beginning to wonder if that matters. What’s important is how each of these board gamers, bar Maria, contributed in different ways to this game, essentially putting the pieces together to make the finished product themselves. Billy was able to get away with this, at first. His looks may have started to fade, but apparently his charm didn’t.
I’ve been able to set up a meeting in town with Sirius Games along Drake Street. Clara Mullaney greets me warmly once I’m inside.
“Hi, detective. Thank you for coming. I’ve arranged a chat with Dana Mulgrove, the MD. She spoke with Billy Grahame about his submission so better talking to her than me.”
Minutes later, I’m drinking terrible coffee with Dana Mulgrove. She shows me a couple of their latest approved submissions, two family card drafting games. I feign a few understanding oohs and aahs.
“We’re an indie publisher specializing in strategy games. We’re really focusing on family orientated projects right now.”
“I wouldn’t say Grahame’s idea would have worked for the family market, then? From what I’ve learned about it.”
Dana laughs. “No, his board game wasn’t going to work full stop, really. Too dull. Plus I’ve seen tarot themed games done better. Much better. Look, it wasn’t a terrible idea, just a little simple, perhaps. He did seem upset when I told him. He was quite defiant and told me that he had other business ideas up his sleeve so it didn’t matter if this didn’t take off. Doesn’t sound like someone passionate, does it? I was trying to be diplomatic but he seemed quite offended. He hadn’t really done his research, so I don’t know why he acted in that way. He’s got to learn. You can’t get something for nothing.”
Indeed. I like Dana’s style. She seems busy so I keep our conversation short. I don’t mind. I’m keen to get home and take stock of what I’ve learnt so far.
© Intrigue Inn
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