The Pearl of Taiwan – Day 1

I stand cautiously above a staircase on Taipei Main Station’s ground floor, like a nervous swimmer about to dive into the deep end for the first time. The labyrinthine confusion of passageways one floor below me that make up the principal metro, train and bus hub of Taipei present a daunting challenge. I’m tempted to procrastinate by exploring the station’s food court one floor above, but I don’t really have time. I can’t help it. I generally end up following my nose. It’s lead me all the way from England to Taiwan, after all. But I can’t imagine I’ll find any hunched over grandmothers cooking up a generations old recipe on the floor above. It’s probably all franchise restaurants, and that generally goes against the content of my website, Wanderstuffed. 

Around me there are a few scattered food stalls selling fruit, mochi and souvenirs, as well as a 7-Eleven of course – they’re ubiquitous in Taiwan. Close by is an ice cream stand and the young man working it has spotted my hesitation and wondering eye and flashes me a smile that I can’t resist. I head over and buy a black sesame soft serve from him. It’s the second time I’ve tried black sesame ice cream and I can’t get enough of it. No more stalling, though. I need to get going. One last smile from the soft serve man and then down I go.

I manage to find the MRT blue line after a long underground walk and laugh aloud as I realise my destination, Ximen, is only one stop away. Well, I’m here now. I swipe a Hello Kitty themed transit card through the turnstiles and stand in line for my metro before boarding a shiny carriage. The Ximen-ding district is an entertainment area full of shops, restaurants and bars. Sounds like there’ll be plenty to explore until my tour of a night market later this evening.

Minutes later, I exit the Ximen station and find myself surrounded by high rise neon and crowds of people. I make my way across the street and walk into an area with a series of market stalls selling clothes on both sides of the street. A large red octagonal building in front catches my attention. I walk around it and come across a group of open air bars. A string of fairy lights has been placed around the outdoor area of the bar nearest me. Below the lights, a svelte waiter bounces away disinterestedly after taking an order from a man alone at a table. I look up and notice the bar is called G Bar. Aha! I’ve stumbled upon a gay district. It’s definitely refreshing to accidentally walk into an area of openly gay establishments – that certainly wasn’t the case with my previous stop, Korea. Taiwan is known to be more open minded towards homosexuality than many of it’s Asian counterparts, with the constitutional court ruling in favour of same sex marriage last year.

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I walk in and the bouncy waiter offers me the drinks menu, an electro-lounge version of Lionel Ritchie’s All Night Long playing softly as I enter.

“Go for the Zhujiang beers, they’re not bad. And it’s two for one,” the man who has just been served tells me in an American accent from his table nearby.

I smile and glance over the menu quickly. “Oh, I’ll just have one of these non-alcoholic cocktails… A Virgin Mary, please.” The waiter nods and bounces away.

“Interesting choice. Laying off the alcohol this evening?” The American asks.

“Ah, my love of food is enough of a vice to be getting on with,” I tell him. “So I rarely drink.”

“Very sensible of you.”

I take a look at the man properly and almost do a double take. He has alarmingly symmetrical looks, very model-like. He looks to be in his late twenties. A good ten years younger than me, at least.

“Feel free to take a seat,” he says, motioning to the three empty chairs at his table. I have no reason not to, especially not with those looks, so I join him.

“Foodie, then?” He asks.

“I suppose. It’s what I’m here for.”

“Oh, more pleasure than business?”

“Both, actually. My business is food. Or writing about it, should I say. I have a website, Wanderstuffed. It’s a glorified food blog really, but I’m lucky enough to be able to live off it these days.”

“Wow, that’s nice. Wanderstuffed? Let’s see… ” He flicks through his smartphone, brings up the website and scrolls through a couple of pages. “Oh, this looks good. Professional! Lot’s of… people stories?”

I nod and smile. “I like to focus on the people behind the food almost as much as the food itself. Provide some background info, a bit of history and context. A lot of my time travelling has been spent interacting with the people who cook or own the restaurants I eat at. That doesn’t just enrich my experience as a traveller, but hopefully the reader’s experience too.”

“Very neat,” he says, as my drink arrives. “I’m Josh, by the way.” He holds out his hand.

“Greg,” I say, shaking it. “Nice to meet you. What are you up to in Taiwan?”

“I’ve been working here a while. Six months nearly.”

“Teaching?”

“Oh no, I’m with a modelling agency.”

“Of course,” I laugh. “That does not surprise me.”

“What surprises me is how you can drink that stuff,” he says, pointing at my mocktail. “I mean, individually I like Tabasco and I like Worcestershire sauce. But with liquid ketchup? No m’aam. Guess you grow to like it? I could say that for a for a few Taiwanese dishes.”

“If you’re beginning a debate on Taiwanese food, well, I could settle into this chair for the night.”

“Oh really? And what’s your favourite?”

“Well, I’ve only been here for a couple of days. Had the most amazing beef noodle soup yesterday at a tiny, inconspicuous restaurant. The owner is taking me around the nearby night market a bit later, actually. We ended up talking for quite a while.”

“For the website? Or for your own interests?” He laughs.

“Ah, he has a certain charm… he’s just a genuine, humble man dedicated to his restaurant. So, where do you stay for work? Does the agency provide you with a place for yourself?” I ask.

“They do. Small place about five minutes from here. Close to Lungshan temple. The agency arranged it. It’s not too bad, save for the occasional flying cockroach. It only happened once,” he adds, noting my expression. “And luckily it flew into my sister’s face, not mine!”

“That’s… horrendous. Your sister is here with you also?”

“Yes, she’s working with the agency, too. We came over together.”

“Really? Good genes,” I comment.

“Oh, we’re nothing too special in the States, but over here our look goes over well. Blue eyes. Blonde.”

“And it’s been a good experience?”

“Yeah, absolutely. Ready to go home soon but I’ll miss this place after a while I expect.”

“Where’s home?”

“Rochester. Ever been to the US?”

“A couple of times. I’m keen to do a big road trip.”

“Brits always tell me that. Well, I’m glad. At least you want to visit! Some people are so anti-US right now they look at vacationing elsewhere.” He finishes his drink and as he does I recognise Stevie Nicks’ carefree vocals on a remix of Dreams. Fleetwood Mac are one my favourite bands and generally remixes don’t do any of their songs justice, but this is really well done – not overproduced.

“What’s up?” Josh asks after ordering another Zhujiang.

“I just really like this remix. Never heard it before.”

He nods and holds up a finger indicating I should wait, takes his phone from his pocket and after clicking on something holds it up on the air. It’s an app to recognise music, one of those things I would never think to download but really should.

“There we go… what’s your number? I’ll message you the name of it.”

Oh, I see. Smart.

I give him my number and we chat a bit more about our jobs and impressions of Taipei, before I realise I have to meet Freddy soon. I thank Josh for the conversation and settle up my bill.

“I actually have to meet my sister for dinner,” Josh says.  You’re going to Ningxia, right?”

“Yeah, near Zongshan station.”

“Right. My sister and I are eating around Zhongshan so if you want another beer, or Virgin Mary should I say, you have my number now. Feel free to message me!”

“Okay, great. I’m planning to visit Jiufen tomorrow but no need for an early night I suppose.” Josh seems quite direct, and I like that.

“Oh, no way! My sister is going there tomorrow for a night or two. She’s meeting a friend there. I should ask her if she has any tips. Her friend knows Jiufen well.”

“That sounds great, I appreciate it! It’s a bit of a last minute decision so I need to find accommodation if I want to stay the night. I’ve heard so much about how charming it is at night with all the lanterns lit up.”

“Me too. I’ve not been. But I know it inspired the setting of some anime movie…”

Spirited Away, I believe.”

“That’s the one. Alright Greg, maybe catch you later!”

*

It doesn’t take me long to walk to Ningxia night market. I spot Freddy’s square face and black rimmed glasses amongst a throng of people eager to get their hands on various street foods. He greets me with a small nod and a firm handshake.

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“You are always dressed so smart!” Freddy Kuo remarks. It’s true. I usually like to dress in a well-ironed shirt and chino combo, even when I’m being a tourist. “I hope you are hungry,” he says. There’s a lot to eat here. It’s not big like Shillin market – that’s the biggest and most famous. But many locals like to come here and enjoy oyster omelette or taro cake.” Freddy speaks very good English, in part due to personal studies and also his regular visits to stay with his sister now living in Melbourne. He told me many details about his close family yesterday, which I made notes on to use for my article about his restaurant, Kuo Noodles. Freddy is Han Chinese, but considers himself completely Taiwanese. His father identifies as both Taiwanese and Chinese having come to Taiwan at the age of seven, along with roughly two million other Han Chinese immigrants after the Chinese civil war.

I listened carefully to what he had to say about beef noodle soup, a Taiwanese staple. The Taiwanese style of beef noodle soup – using red braised beef, is made especially tender using ingredients including sherry and star anise. This style became popular with Han Chinese veterans who had fled to Taiwan. I imagine recipes shared between close knit communities, being adapted using different local ingredients to what they were used to. Freddy’s father had learnt the recipe from his veteran father and he and his wife set up Kuo Noodles in the seventies. With nearly forty years using a tried and tested method, slight perfections being made every so often, no wonder I was still craving the soup 24 hours later. The restaurant does offer a few other items including pan fried buns and pork noodle dishes, but the main attraction is the soup. Two options are available – spicy and regular. I opted for the spicy soup, deep red in colour with fresh noodles and generous chucks of beef  falling apart in my mouth the second I began chewing. Freddy’s mother came over with a small version of the regular soup just so I could compare. The restaurant itself is small and nondescript. The best ones often are. The only indication of happy customers is a board on the wall near the counter with around 40 photos of worldwide travellers and Taiwanese celebrities who had paid a visit, all smiling alongside Freddy or his mother.

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Freddy and I walk past stands selling clothes and mobile phone covers, the traffic and noise increasing as we enter the main strip. It’s a compact market with stalls and and sit down eateries.

“We can sit down, if you want,” Freddy tells me, speaking a little louder as we become part of the crowd. We pass stalls serving beef noodle soup, squid on a stick and glazed fruit, strong aromas filling the air. Freddy points to a small eatery. “This one has my favourite oyster omelette. Shall we try it?” I agree and let him lead the way.

Five minutes later, our omelettes hit the table, filled with oysters, scallions and other vegetables covered in a sauce that Freddy tells me is mainly ketchup, soy sauce and vinegar. We start eating and suddenly I hear a commotion behind me. I turn around to see a small fight happening, looks like it’s between a customer and a stall owner.

“Oh… that’s not so usual. Sorry for you to see that,” Freddy tells me, concerned. I tell him not to worry. “That kind of thing doesn’t happen often in Taiwan. Maybe it’s gangsters…” He wonders.

“In public?”

He nods. “Most people in Taiwan don’t come into contact with the gangsters unless they owe money – maybe gambling issues, or if it’s for prostitution. Otherwise you don’t see them, ever. Maybe the stall owner became involved with something?”

The fight breaks up after a few minutes and the crowd dissipates. We finish our omelettes and continue to explore, Freddy sharing more info on his background and grandparents as we walk, of which I take a mental note. After some fermented bean curd (which Freddy warns me is not popular amongst foreigners but I love) and taro waffles we finish the tour. I thank Freddy and promise him I’ll be making another trip to Kuo Noodles before I leave Taiwan. The night is still young so I message Josh who isn’t too far away.

*

I meet Josh at a cocktail bar along Zhongshan North Road, roughly halfway in-between the market and my hotel.

“Hey, I bought you a non alcoholic one,” he says as he greets me at the bar, his blue eyes dazzling. I thank him and we take a seat.

“I was thinking,” he says, “There are some interesting themed restaurants around here, you know? Would they work on your site? There’s a restaurant in Ximen where everything is served in toilet bowels. I wonder what your readers would make of that…”

“No way,” I shake my head. “A mention maybe, but no need to go to a novelty restaurant that’s likely more style over substance. Is a soup served in a pretend toilet bowl actually going to taste good or is it all just for the quirky Instagram moment?” I pause for a second, hearing myself speak. “Pretentious?”

Josh shrugs. “Probably just your age,” he laughs.

I give him a mock scandalised look. I’ve just turned 40 and I think I dealt with it extremely well, so I’m not bothered.

“I showed your website to Naomi – my sister,” Josh says. “I didn’t realise how popular it was when looking closer!”

“Ah, it’s taken a while to build up.”

“Very detailed articles, as you said. I like how informative they are. Different to what the bloggers normally write.”

“Yeah, I didn’t really want to go down that flashy graphics  ‘top ten things to eat in Taipei’ route that seems pretty en vogue.”

“That’ll be you age again,” he teases, taking a swig of beer. “Just kidding,” he adds as I raise an eyebrow. “You’re right, that is the style of the social media friendly blogs. But hey, you took a different approach and look how it turned out! All those hits! Don’t you love it when a gamble pays off?”

“Well, thanks. I’ve been lucky. It was noticed by a researcher for EAT – big food mag in the UK. Bit hipster. But some interesting reads. They offered me a monthly write up, full page. That lead to a weekly column on Miriam Romaine’s travel food website, which was really, really amazing and now it all supports each other, I suppose.”

“I’m impressed. You need to try the soup dumplings here. The xiaolongbao. I gotta be careful, actually. My agency won’t be impressed if I start ballooning due to too many of those.”

“They’re quite strict?”

“They are, but I won’t complain. They look after Naomi and I well, and that security is something other Americans modelling here with different agencies haven’t had, from what I’ve heard.”

“They get shafted? With pay?”

“Yeah, mostly. Promise of big work, magazines and billboards, but ends up being really shady. Contracts not adhered to. Or models not reading what they sign a lot of the time. That’s a problem, too. We read everything through very carefully. I think this should lead to big things!” He says it confidently, but I can tell he has his fingers figuratively crossed.

“That’s a pity. Oh well, I’m glad it’s worked out for you. Well, look at you. I can see how you’d do well here. And those Taiwanese men must be all over you.”

“It’s been a good time…. I admit,” he laughs. “Listen, I spoke to my sister about Jiufen. Her friend could be a real asset to your website if you plan on writing about the place. She knows the town and I’m sure she could help out with food recommendations. You should definitely meet up with them. You wanted to stay the night right?” I nod. “Great, well I asked Naomi to check if there’s any room left at their hotel so we’ll see what she says. Her friend has been there for a couple of days already. Catching up with old acquaintances I believe.”

“Oh, you really didn’t have to do that.”

“No problem. You wouldn’t mind? I assumed you would be keen to network but you don’t have to meet up with them. Even if you stay at the same hotel!”

“No, no, that sounds great!”

I’m always keen to network and meet new people. It really adds to not just my personal experience but to Wanderstuffed also. As Josh says, this friend could be very helpful. It crosses my mind that spending time with the sister of a man I’ve just met and was certainly attracted to might be a little strange, but spending my time in Jiufen with a little company would be nice.

Josh checks his phone and smiles. “You’re in luck. There’s availability at their hotel. 1900 NTD for the night. Should I confirm?”

“Yes, that would be fine, go ahead. Please thank your sister.”

“I will. Put a pic of Naomi on your site as a thank you. She’ll love the free publicity,” he jokes. “Shame I can’t come now, but not worth skipping on my bookings for the next couple of days. They’re paying well. Maybe I can come join later in the evening, I’ll see how tired I am.”

We chat a little longer, with increased levels of flirting and a few more jabs at my age, until I check my watch and realise I should head home. We say goodbye and I put my earphones in and listen to the Fleetwood Mac remix Josh found for me as I walk back to my hotel.

 

© Intrigue Inn

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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Lornbridge Hills – Day 5

My ringing phone wakes me up from a deep sleep. It’s Bates. I rub my eyes and sigh.

“Morning.”

“Detective, some interesting developments. Chase Neal is currently being detained. Some seriously dodgy things going on in his company, apparently. Well, isn’t this an interesting neighbourhood! We’re not sure how much Clarissa knew. She’s being questioned too. Did their son know, I wonder? Not sure what your instincts were in that household. Anyway, there may be some links to Sian. Chase Neal was working with Joseph Kowlinski’s law firm, after all.”

“True. I’ll visit the Neal’s today, see how they’re reacting.”

Before that though, I need to have a chat with Samantha Burbank.

*

Samantha is visibly shaking when I walk into the Burbank residence one hour later. The scent of their rhododendrons wafts through the lounge.

“I didn’t kill that girl! Since when is sending animal waste to someone a death threat!?”

I calm her down with Peter’s help. She takes a seat in a cream leather armchair and buries her head in her hands.  A minute later she looks up at me.

“It was just me, Peter knew nothing about it. I only sent it twice. I was frustrated. She was such a wicked girl, sneaking her way in, causing trouble wherever she goes. As an estate agents and developer, I can’t be associated with slander, detective. That video was so embarrassing. I just didn’t know what else to do. Yes, it was childish, but I had to do something. Peter and I have worked too hard for this to have some snot-nosed, spoilt, slutty brat tear us apart. She won’t do the same thing she did to the Howells to us!”

“Sorry, the Howells?”

“Go speak to Johanna. I’m sure she’ll share.”

I hope she does. As for Samatha, the dung was childish and spiteful, but that may well be the extent of her revenge. She’s a jealous woman, though, and jealousy can do terrible things. Dunginabox may not have been enough to satisfy her.

“I’m so sorry, darling,” Peter says, as he comforts his wife. “I felt a little sorry for the girl… I didn’t realise we were excluding you.”

“It’s her way,” Samatha replies. “It’s her way with men. She made you feel sorry for her! She knew what she was doing.”

I thank the Burbanks and leave.

*

Court Neal answers the door when I knock. Excellent, this is a great opportunity to find out why Sian’s death is making him such a nervous wreck. I just need to get him talking. His father is still being detained. His mother has been let go after questioning. I ask the petrified looking boy if I can have a few words and in a quavering voice he acquiesces and invites me in.

“They’ve let my mother go. She’s at the health club trying to calm her nerves, she told me. I’m still scared.”

Scared? Scared of his own mother, does he mean? Sure, it looks like Chase Neal has been working fraudulently for many years and his wife probably knew about it, but it seems a little odd for him to feel so frightened.

“Are you scared of your parents?” I ask, and he nods slowly.

“She knew…” he utters in a trembling whisper. “She knew…”

“Your mother knew about what your father was doing, you mean?” I  ask cautiously, trying to be delicate with the boy who looks like he’ll run off crying at any moment.

He shakes his head. “No, I don’t mean my mother… I mean yes, my mother knew what dad was doing… but SHE knew, also – Sian…” .

“Sian? Sian knew what your father was doing? How?”

He starts crying. “I told her! I told her and now she’s dead! I think it’s my fault! I think –“ He pauses for a minute and lowers his voice, “I think my parents did it…”

For the second time so far today, I find myself calming someone down and leading them towards an armchair. Court composes himself and begins to explain.

“Growing up I always knew two things that might be important to you… how my father runs his business and my feelings for Sian. We used to hang out and I knew she was never into me, she was into older guys, you see. I couldn’t help my feelings, though. Turns out, of course, it was Ariel that was interested in me, not Sian. Ariel’s closer to my age, and… well, that’s another story… Anyway, not long ago, I blurted the truth about my father to her. About how dodgy he is. You see, my father was working with hers on an acquisition and I was worried that he would screw Joseph Kowlinksi over. Sian loved her father. You can imagine how she took that piece of information, detective….”

I nod, having noticed the close relationship Sian had with her father.

“The thing is, I got scared about telling Sian all that, and my mother noticed something was up… I told her what had happened.”

“Ah, I see. So I need to speak with your mother.”

I pat Court on the shoulder and sigh. It’s difficult to reassure Court until I speak with his mother. I let him know I’ll be returning soon when Clarissa is home.

*

Later in the afternoon, Johanna Howell is calm and unsurprised to see me when I knock on her door.

“I expected you earlier detective. I realised you must have noticed my own amateur detective work when you came to look through my computer.”

She pushes a plate of biscuits towards me as we sit down, more shortbreads.

“Sunset right? You tell me how you can spot a body in the dark in a forest at 4:30pm. The sun set on the 31st at 4:05! Eddie Cho must have owl’s eyes. That story does not add up. I saw him and Serafina at around 4pm on my walk! She must have been helping with his evening check-up of the grounds. You mark my words, one of these people here is the murderer. And I almost had him. Don’t waste your time on the small fry detective. These people have been plotting and scheming their whole lives. And all these little plots and schemes will just distract you.”

I enquire about the older men with younger women internet search. I’ll deal with Serafina and Eddie myself later. 

She raises a cup of tea to her mouth, her lips are hidden behind the cup as she audibly sneers, “Dear little Sian. Dear little slut if you ask me. She tore my marriage apart, and who knows how many others she’s been working on since?” Her hand is trembling now as she takes a sip. She places the cup down, the rattle almost reflecting her state of mind “But I didn’t kill her, no. You’d never have known if I did it.”

I raise an eyebrow at this remark.

“Am I sad that our dear little Sian is gone? Not a bit. But I can’t have anyone thinking they can kill people when Johanna Howell is around!”

“Your ex-husband, Mrs. Howell, where is he now?”

“He’s in New York, of all places. We haven’t spoken since the divorce a year ago. But if you really need to speak him, I’ll give you his number.”

I take Mr. Howell’s number willingly and a shortbread unwillingly before letting myself out, making an international call to ask Mr Howell what his ex-wife thought of Sian.

“Sian went from just a girl to a woman real quick,” Simon Howell tells me. “I’m really sorry to hear what happened. I didn’t mean to let things go that far. Yeah she flirted now and then. I was Joseph’s friend- how could I tell him his daughter was coming on to me? And who would believe me anyway? I’m an old man. They’d all say I’m wishing she’d come on to me. Anyway, one day Johanna saw a message Sian had sent. She went ballistic. I swore I didn’t do anything. I really didn’t, detective. I loved my wife. But she didn’t believe me. Johanna thinks she’s a detective, see? I’m surprised she didn’t try to take over your investigation. She thought she had some sort of evidence, but I swear to you detective, I wouldn’t cheat on my wife. Especially not with my friend’s daughter.”

*

Eddie Cho is away today, shopping for gardening supplies. Serafina, however, is at home. She’s been busy attending to her flowers again.

“Does everyone around here enjoy their flowers?” I ask out of interest.

“Oh yes. We all pride ourselves on our gardens, we all know quite a bit about flowers. Well some more than others, I suppose,” she tells me.

She looks as though she’s hiding something. She almost wriggles under my glare when I confront her. I’ve already figured out that she has feelings for Eddie. She comes clean, admitting that it is true, but she claims that he feels the same way for her. It turns out Eddie Cho is bisexual, and they’ve been having an affair for the last couple of months. She quickly looks up and begs me to tell no one. She starts to cry.

“I feel like I can’t control herself around him… but he told me he was feeling guilty about the affair. Honestly, I was trying to convince him to run away with me.”

“But before you ran away together, was there something you needed to take care of?” I ask. “What are we going to do about the Kowlinksi girl?” I repeat the text message I read on her phone.

Serafina has to sit down at this reveal.

‘N-nooo, n-o, n-not what you think. I didn’t ever concern myself with Sian. The message wasn’t about her. It was Ariel. Ariel… she saw us together! You’ll have to speak with Eddie… Please,” she says, and I understand way. This woman is a mess right now, and can’t get her words out. It looks like Eddie will be the one to provide the full details here.

*

I sit down with a packed lunch in the grounds, mulling over the circumstances of Sian’s death. The blow to the head didn’t kill her (although it can’t have helped – what kind of state would she have been in after that?) so it must have been the poison which only left a minimal trace. The coroner is still unsure of what substance actually killed Sian. After her death, a rushed attempt was made to dispose of the body, if the shallow grave is anything to go by. I’ve been thinking about how someone in this estate could have transported the body and have an idea. I walk beyond the row of houses towards the pathway between them and the golf course. The pathway, which leads to the copse where Sian was found, is littered with golf carts. How easy it would have been for one of these residents, including the Kowlinskis themselves, to smuggle Sian’s body into a cartand drive down to the copse…

My thoughts are interrupted by a call from Bates. I pick up.

“Detective, you may want to check out a lead we’ve secured on the Marrington storage break in. We have footage of a BMW near the site. A search brings up the owner’s name as Sean Dermot Degianis… and the storage compartment belongs to Aisling Kowlinksi!”

“But the CCTV clearly showed a woman,” I reply, although the answer hits me as soon as the words leave my mouth. The pink lipstick on the annual correspondence Sian and Aisling receive. I understand now.

“We’ve located the car parked outside an apartment in Marrington, detective.”

‘I’m going there now, Bates. I’ll take it from here.”

Half an hour later, I arrive at the apartment in Marrington and find it empty. A search of the place reveals pictures of a woman with red hair. Her name is clearly Sharon, as it is autographed on a stack of the pictures I find in one corner of the room. Escort? Dancer? I can’t really tell, but one thing I do know is that Sean is Sharon. I hear the door behind me open up. It’s him…or rather, her. She pulls off the wig and sits down. “Care to tell me why the police are now raiding apartments without warrants officer?”

“Sharon-”

“It’s okay. You can call me Sean,” he interrupts me. “I can guess why you’re here.”

I find out a lot while interviewing Sean. He reveals that he is ready to reappear after years of hiding away. I ask the obvious question: “Why did you abandon your family?” and it turns out Sean has been Sharon for a long time. He confesses that he identifies as both Sean and Sharon. Aisling happened to come home unexpectedly one day while Sharon was home. She had been filming an amateur show on the internet when Aisling found him. She threatened to reveal it, effectively destroying Sean’s family name. Sean knew he couldn’t allow it.

“I begged Aisling to see reason, to stay together for Sian’s sake, but Aisling blackmailed me into leaving by threatening to reveal everything to Sian. I had reached a point where I didn’t care about anyone else, but the thought that my daughter would know paralysed me. So, I was forced to leave our shared account at her disposal and disappear without a trace. However, I thwarted Aisling’s plans to inherit the money from my estate by having me declared dead by sending a package containing a broken piggy bank – to represent the money she so badly wanted – and a note with my initials in lipstick. Every year. Years have passed now, and my family’s company has passed on to my older brother. With Sian’s death, there is no reason to hide any longer, I suppose…”

I wonder to myself if Sian would have cared at all. But I choose to say nothing; this man has enough regret on his plate. He appears uncomfortable initially when I bring up the storage break in, but then admits that it was him.

“The storage compartment belonged to Aisling, as you’ve probably discovered. I thought that she might have kept the video I had been filming in there. With it, I can prove that she blackmailed me. My poor Sian… All the years I could have spent with her. You must find whoever did this, detective. Please. We’re certainly a dysfunctional family but I don’t believe Aisling is responsible in any way. A good mother? Questionable. A good person? Even more debatable. But a murderer? I doubt it.”

 

© Intrigue Inn

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Lornbridge Hills – Day 4

The next morning I receive an email from Emily Beal over a breakfast of bread, jam and Nutella. Wiping the breadcrumbs from my hands, I open the email and read.

Hi DCI Palandri

I’m on holiday so I can’t tell you much about what’s been happening on Sian’s estate. Look, Sian and I were cool, but she was becoming really distant over the last few months. She was always secretive, but she was even more so lately. I was going to travel to Greece with Sian next month but I had to cancel because my exam schedule conflicted with Sian’s dates. Sian decided to travel anyway, which she would never have done before. It’s definitely weird. We went to Europe together during spring last year. Greece, Germany and Italy. It was great fun. But I wouldn’t have expected her to go alone, even though she was quite independent on our trip. She would frequently go at night by herself and not always return until the next morning.

Emily

I imagine Emily felt a little hard done by when she wasn’t invited on this forthcoming trip. My phone rings. I half hope it’s Jeremy, calling to tell me how much he enjoyed Cinema Paradiso once more perhaps. Unfortunately, it’s only Bates.

“So, that Dunginabox Sian was emailing is a company where you can send hate mail in a, uh, pretty novel way. It’s a website where you can send animal dung to other people anonymously. It looks like it was actually being sent from Lornbridge Hills, so you’ve been given a warrant to search the residences.”

“I see. Snooping around. Never a bad thing, especially when you’re catching suspects off-guard.”

“Like a stealth mission! Secretly checking out their internet histories when they’ve got their backs turned!” Bates exclaims enthusiastically. “Too bad I’ve got to stay here and finish up the alibi report. ”

“Or I could just ask them, you know. Anyone smart would have deleted their internet history already, anyway.”

“Yeah, I suppose you could just ask…” He says, a little dissapointed. Poor Bates. Detective work is often not as movie-like as he hopes.

As I prepare to leave for my not so adventurous stealth mission, Mick sends me the important information from the coroners report. I read it as I walk down to my car.

The coroner says that the time of death is uncertain, but likely to have been the day before her body was found. No signs of abuse. The victim had her wallet in her pocket containing a small sum of money (57 pounds) and identification, as well as her phone, which was sent to HQ for analysis. Initial tox screens are negative for alcohol and typical date rape drugs. The victim’s clothes were intact – her shirt was tucked into her jeans, her sneakers were on and tied, and her hair was tied in a ponytail. There were no tears or breaks in her clothing. She had no puncture marks on her skin.

The depressed skull fracture found in the left tempero-parietal area was reasonably clean – there was a small amount of blood in the wound, but the area around the wound was clean. Skin tearing was minimal but there was significant bruising around the skull wound. Internal examination revealed a blunt force type of skull fracture with moderate depression and corresponding meningeal haemorrhage consistent with a single hit. However, the skull wound occurred at least 24 hours earlier than the time of death. The brain stem was unremarkable.

There were abrasions over the anterior aspects of both iliac crests, the anterior aspects of the victim’s thighs and knees, and the dorsal foot area. Particles of sand were extracted from the abrasions and preliminary investigation revealed it to be limestone.

The listed mechanism of death is cardiac arrest of unknown cause. We are still awaiting further toxicology screening because an obscure toxin is currently suspected, quite possibly a plant based toxin, but we aren’t sure exactly what killed Sian Kowlinski right now.

*

I begin my Dunginabox search with Juno and Serafina Morton’s home. I explain the warrant and browse Serafina’s internet history. Google searches for top ten destinations in Asia, bisexuality, anxiety disorder…. No mention of Dunginabox here. I hear a buzzing sound and notice Serafina’s phone next to the computer. I can’t help but pick it up and have a look. Perhaps Bates’ enthusiasm for sneakiness has affected me. There might be something on here, and after all, the Dunginabox orders could have been made from a phone rather than a laptop. There aren’t so many messages, though. Not surprising, really. Serafina strikes me as a lonely woman. A few texts from ‘Ed’. I scroll down, passing friendly, even flirtatious texts. Eddie Cho? This is interesting. I open up a message from a few weeks ago and read it. What r we gonna do about the Kowlinski girl? I hear Serafina coming and put the phone down. I thank her for her time and move on. I need a little time to digest this message before I ask her about it.

*

Next up is the Haverford residence. There’s a construction company van outside the house and a confused looking construction worker walking towards it, shaking his head. “Supposed to finish this off today and she’s done it herself… too neat and tidy for her own good that woman, couldn’t bear a little mess for a few weeks.”

I see Margaret, prim and proper as ever. “Ah, detective, nice to see you again. I was just on the phone with my Mitchell, actually. He’s only been back in Interlaken a week now and I already needed some administration advice for Lost Stars.”

Do you mind giving me Mitchell’s number, actually?” I ask. “He may have seen or heard something before he left for the airport.”

“Certainly. He mentioned he’s going to be very busy for the rest of the day so you may not reach him, but I expect it’s worth a try.”

She shows me his number on her phone and I copy it down. I explain the warrant and browse Margaret’s internet history. Google searches for  garden irrigation planning, balderdash online, loneliness, outdoor pavilion furnishings… Again, no mention of Dunginabox. I thank Margaret.

“No tea for you?”

“No time, I’m afraid, but thank you.” Remembering how her tea made me feel yesterday, I’m glad I have the excuse of needing to get a lot done today. I call Mitchell but there’s no answer. I’ll try again later when he’s less busy.

*

Next is Johanna Howell’s house. Google searches for golf championships 2018, sunset on December 31st 2017, how to recognise a murderer, my husband left me for a younger woman – what do I do now?… No mention of Dunginabox, but some interesting search terms nonetheless. I notice a post-it note stuck to the computer with a scribble saying ‘Dec 31st – sunset at 4:05pmOnce I’ve done the rounds here I’ll certainly be checking in with Johanna again. She knows far more than she’s let on. On the Dunginabox front, this may well be a fruitless mission, but at least I’m beginning to penetrate the real goings-on in Lornbridge Hills.

“Shortbread, detective?” Johanna asks as she walks in.

“Not right now, but I’ll gladly help you finish them off soon!” I reply. It always feels best to appease Johanna Howell in some way. Not that she scares me – very few people do – but I’d rather have her on my side during this investigation.

*

Next is the Neal residence. As I enter the house I see Court Neal sitting in the lounge. He freezes when he sees me. It’s the first time we’ve met and the poor kid looks terrified. “Everything okay?” I ask. “I’m just here to check your parents’ laptop… sorry if I surprised you. I understand this must be a difficult time for you.” This seems to terrify Court even further. “Oh no, oh no…” he repeats and runs upstairs. Intriguing…

I browse Clarissa Neal’s open laptop. Google searches for best Chianti 2015, gifts for teenage girls and young women, adolescent crushes…  No hint of a dunginabox.com here. I let myself out.

*

My penultimate stop is the Durante-Cho residence. Matthew Durante is in the house and busy writing on his laptop. He’s back from his work trip and looks completely disinterested in my presence in his house. I explain the warrant and decide to check Eddie Cho’s internet history. Google searches for best rhododendron fertilizer, is my husband cheating on me, child custody…  Poor Eddie. I thank Matthew and leave.

*

Finally, the Burbank residence. I browse Peter’s laptop first.  Nothing in the history except for punk rock websites. Next I try Samantha’s. Google searches for punk bands: learn more, is my partner after someone younger, dunginabox.com… Aha! The Burbanks were the ones sending Sian animal dung? How curious…

Peter Burbank enters the room. “My wife has popped out; she has a meeting with some other property developers…”

“Mr Burbank, I need to speak with you,” I interrupt. I explain my discovery and Peter looks confused and surprised. Is he faking it?

“Dunginabox… honestly… I’ve never heard of it, detective…”

“And your wife?”

“Well I mean there was the video… but sending Sian animal dung… Look, she had a feeling Sian liked me a lot. And that maybe I liked her, too. Not in that way, but Samantha is a very jealous woman. Sian and I shared a love of punk music that Samantha couldn’t keep up with. She always felt a little left out. We argued about it. I agreed that I’d stop inviting Sian over so often.  Well, Sian being Sian, she knew the reason she was no longer getting invited over.”

“And what was the video?”

“She pranked my wife… asked her what she thought of several made up punk bands. Samantha, being the proud woman she is and also assuming they were real bands gave her opinions. Sian was secretly filming all this. She put the video up on social media. I found out about it and well… it’s just teenagers being teenagers, right? I mean, I wasn’t angry… I didn’t do anything…  I tried to keep it from Samantha but maybe she found out and sent Sian this dung in retaliation? Oh God… ”

“Will Samantha be at home later today? Tomorrow morning, perhaps?”

“Yes, yes… She’ll be here…”

“Then expect to see me again shortly, Mr. Burbank.” I leave him panic stricken and head to my car. I’ve received a message from Bates during my search of the Burbank residence and open it now.

I’ve composed an alibi list for you based on information you’ve found out and my own calls to the residents, along with their individual statements. Please find attached. Thought I’d be resting after this, but turns out there’s an incident in Marrington I’ve got to check out… some storage holding break in. Let me know if there’s anything I can do after that.

I click on the attachment and scroll through the report.

Neal Residence

Chase and Clarissa Neal – December 29th: Lost Stars benefit, left at 11pm. 31st: Chase played golf with friends and stayed in, Clarissa went to meet friends for lunch in the aftternoon.

Court Neal – Stayed home alone on the night of the 29th because he was not feeling well. He felt better the next day and was spotted chatting with Ariel Kowlinski on the grounds. 

Burbank Residence

Peter and Samantha Burbank both attended the benefit on the 29th, but left early because they had a meeting with their architect the next morning to look over the plans for their new house again. They say that some adjustments had to be made to the plans to fit more harmoniously into the style of the neighbourhood. The Burbanks report that they were home the rest of the time.

Howell Residence

Johanna Howell attended the benefit. She was the last to leave because she promised Margaret she would close the event. She arrived home at 12:45am and woke up the next morning at 10am to play golf. She went over to check on Margaret first. Margaret was exhausted working in the back garden clearing weeds and digging new holes for her new plants. They spoke for about 15 minutes before she left. Johanna went to a council meeting on the 31st, but returned home at 2pm. She played online scrabble for a couple of hours before taking a walk. She reports that she passed Eddie and Serafina walking along the course at 4pm. They were chatting like old friends and the mood seemed lighthearted.

Haverford Residence

Mitchell Haverford – Reported by Margaret to have caught a flight out to Interlaken on the evening of the 29th. Messages from Mitchell to Margaret show that he arrived at Interlaken late that night.

Margaret Haverford – Attended the benefit hosted by herself and her husband (who was not in attendance due to his flight schedule conflicting with the event). She had an upset stomach and a bad headache and had to leave at 8:30pm. She drove home and messaged Johanna, who had agreed to look after the event, to say that she arrived home. She felt slightly better the next day and decided to tackle her garden. She was therefore alone at home for the rest of the weekend.

Morton Residence

Juno Morton – Was at home all weekend, all day. She never really leaves the house.

Serafina Morton – Attended the benefit. Arrived home at 1:30am according to her mother. Worked the next two days at the post office until 3pm and was otherwise in the area all weekend.

Cho-Durante Residence

Matthew Durante – Has been away since the 27th. Returned yesterday.

Eddie Cho – Attended the benefit and arrived home after 1am. Says that he inspects the grounds every morning and early evening to ensure that the course looks good and is clear of branches and debris. Did four rounds of inspection over the 30th and 31st (Sat and Sun morning and evening walks). Says that he saw Sian’s body at 4:30 on the 31st.

Hope this helps

Bates

Before I can begin to think about this report, my phone dings to notify me of a crime alert Mick has sent through to everyone at the station. It must be the storage break-in Bates mentioned.

At 3:26am this morning, a large storage company, Storage Solutions in Marrington, was broken into by an unknown person. Police are still searching for the suspect who very carefully avoided looking directly at the cameras. The suspect is likely to be a female with long curly red hair and a butterfly tattoo on the inside of her right forearm. She was wearing a red mini-skirt and black fishnet stockings. The suspect had a large pair of sunglasses on, making it difficult to identify her. The suspect wore gloves and broke into a storage container that was apparently not in use for over 6 years. Storage Solutions have so far declined to comment on the contents of the container and have referred all reporters to us.

Hopefully Bates and other officers are planning to take care of this break in, because I really don’t have time to worry about it. I have a long list of suspects all hiding their own secrets. The question is which secret caused the death of Sian Kowlinski?

 

© Intrigue Inn

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