Lornbridge Hills – Day 2

I return to the Kowlinski household in the morning. I’m keen to look at Sian’s room and create a better picture of this young woman in my head.

I climb a spiral staircase and find Sian’s bedroom down the hallway, the second door on the right. It’s a big room. A large four poster bed is the room’s centrepiece. There are a combination of traditional furnishings and Sian’s own touches – for example, a large Van Gogh print ornately framed (Cafe Terrace at Night) amongst several music posters. I recognise a Coldplay poster but I’ve certainly never heard of the bands Bracket and Drunk in Public who appear on others. There’s a messy walk-in closet with one of Warhol’s bold Marilyn prints hung up inside. I step over a pile of jackets towards a collection of at least thirty pairs of shoes. I search the closet thoroughly and find something in an offensive pair of Alexander McQueen heels – a rolled up wad of cash at the bottom of one of the shoes. I count it up: 3,000 pounds. Since when do 20-year-old girls keep their savings in their shoes, no matter how well-off their families are?

I search the rest of the room. There are bits and pieces lying around everywhere – soft toys (a Minion, a Donald Duck, and a large boxer dog toy of unknown origin) and things collected over the years, some of them souvenirs from her recent travels abroad. I spot a shot glass with a picture of the Acropolis on it, a wall plate depicting a beach and traditional house on a Greek island, a German beer mug, a small wooden alphorn, a couple of Venetian masks. Plenty of sweets from around the world too – Baci, Loukoumi, and Chocolat Frey. I get the feeling I could search this room for hours and still never find the floor. Sifting through the clutter of souvenirs from mainland Europe is hard work. A bunch of rolled up punk rock posters lie under the bed. She was really into her alternative music, it seems. I reach for a small red box and find it contains a fancy new looking Swatch watch. There are DVDs of old classics – Casablanca, It’s A Wonderful Life, Strangers on a Train… I’m a little surprised that Sian was into much older films. She didn’t seem the type. But she did seem to get on better with people older than her, so maybe that applied to films too. I notice golf paraphernalia scattered about. I also didn’t realise how taken she was with golf. Probably because of Joseph. Joseph must have had a big influence on her, and she was clearly very fond of him. And wait, what’s this? A positive pregnancy test… Good job I was persistent in my search through this mess. I bag and pocket the test.

There’s a closed laptop on the desk towards the back of the room. I open the lid. It switches on and Sian’s most recent activity appears on the screen. I spot many interesting clues across her open tabs. In the top left there’s an email conversation with a company called Dunginabox. What is that? I note an email address so I can get in touch. Sian’s latest correspondence with them is full of anger, demanding they stop sending her packages. There’s a Yahoo messenger conversation top centre with emilybeal94, dated the afternoon of December 29th, just hours before she left this house. They were discussing an upcoming trip to Greece that Sian was taking. This is backed up by a Booking.com search for double rooms in Athens. I’ll need to check with Aisling and Joseph who emilybeal94 is, and if they knew about the upcoming trip. There’s also a Spotify playlist featuring some of the bands I saw on Sian’s posters. 

I head downstairs and sit down with Aisling and Joseph for further questioning. I’m specifically interested in what I saw on her laptop, as well as the pregnancy test. Aisling and Joseph tell me that Sian’s best friend was Emily Beal when I inquire about the Yahoo conversation.

“They went to secondary school together and they’ve remained best friends. And Sian, well, she didn’t really have many friends her own age,” says Joseph. “They also travelled to Europe together. Emily has been informed of the bad news but is away on a holiday with her family at the moment, detective. I’ll provide you with her contact details.” As usual, Joseph is very formal in his manner. He gives me Emily Beal’s number. Aisling looks fairly bored, until I mention the pregnancy test. Her eyes widen and she turns to Joseph immediately, who frowns.

“Prgenant? But… who? How?” He splutters.

“Let’s not kid ourselves here,” Aisling says cooly. “She had a lot of attention and she enjoyed it. I know girls and I know Sian. I would have expected her to be more careful, though.”

As I leave I call Emily’s number but she doesn’t answer. I send her a short email.

*

Bates has provided me with a list of neighbours who’ve been at home over the holidays. The landscaper Eddie Cho, who found Sian’s body, will be my next stop, and then it’s time to visit each house.

Neal Residence

Chase Neal (51) – Corporate Merger Executive, Clarissa Neal (46) – Part-Time Event Planner, Court Neal (17)

Burbank Residence

Peter (36) and Samantha (37) Burbank – Property Developers

Howell Residence

Johanna Howell (53) – Local councilwoman and Retired Professional Golf Champion

Haverford Residence

Mitchell Haverford (49) – CEO – Haverford – West Tax Consulting, Margaret Haverford (47) – Charity Fundraiser

Morton Residence

Juno Morton (62) – Retired, Serafina Morton (37) – Local Bank Manager (part-time)

Cho-Durante Residence

Matthew Durante (38) – Sports writer and commentator, Eddie Cho (37) – Executive Landscaper and owner of Cho Gardens Landscaping Firm, Amal Cho-Durante (5)

Like the Kowlinski’s, many of the neighbours were in attendance of a benefit in Marrington on the 29th, organised by Margaret Haverford. Bates will check everyone’s whereabouts and get back to me. Having Bates check information has been extremely useful so far. I could certainly get used to this set-up. It allows me to stay on-site and focus on getting to know the Kowlinski’s and their neighbours.

I head away from the house and onto the grounds in order to get a feel for the area. As I walk I see a short, compact man who is surveying the grounds surrounding the Mansion. This must be Eddie Cho. He smiles when he sees me. I can tell his usual demeanour is a cheerful one, but that must clearly be tainted with the events of this week.

 “Hi, detective. I was thinking you’d probably want to come and see me. I feel like I’m in a bit of a daze… I keep staring into space, forgetting what I’m doing.”

 I ask him to go over the details of finding the body once more.

 “Well, it’s like I said in my statement. I was conducting my daily inspection of the grounds when Bagel ran off and began barking at something. Not like him at all, so I could tell something was up. That’s when I saw it. The hand. As clear as day. I couldn’t believe it. Bagel started digging and I saw poor Sian’s face appear. I’ve never seen a body in my life. I thought I was going to faint. I called him away and we went back to the path,” he says. He takes a deep breath and I take the opportunity to confirm the time.

 “It was just after 4:30pm, detective. I remember looking at my watch a few times. After about 5 minutes, I called the police and waited with Bagel. They arrived a few minutes later.”

 Checking my notes I see Bates has written that Eddie Cho is married to a man by the name of Matthew Durante. I ask him to to tell me about his husband.

 “Matthew is a golf commentator and sports writer. You might have heard some of his commentary in some of the big games. He’s often away for work. I never realised it would be so frequently when we married… He’s been gone all last week, since Boxing Day. Amal, our son, has been at his grandparents’ place since the 28th. I would have sent him to stay with Matthew for a few days but I don’t think Matthew would have been up for that.” He smiles sadly.

Although an understanding of domestic issues is so often important, I decide not to push the matter right now. There are certainly signs of dissatisfaction in Eddie’s life. I thank Eddie and move on to the Neal residence.

*

Chase and Clarissa’s home is neat and elegant. You wouldn’t think a teenager lives here. Every ornament, rug, and furnishing has been carefully thought about. First impressions of Clarissa Neal indicate that she is very keen to present herself and her home as tasteful and elegant. She smells of a subtle citrus, her blonde hair is immaculate, and her skin is smooth. She walks me through the kitchen with a martini in hand, casually stirring it as she offers me a seat in the dining room.

“Yes, I’ve heard the news from Mr Vahr,” she says. “Not to worry, I know how to keep a secret. Dreadful. Hardly great for the estate’s image, is it? And so close to the house!” She shudders at the thought. “Not that I heard anything, I expect that’s what you were going to ask. My husband is at work right now, I’m afraid. I was just going over some of the plans for the upcoming Chianti and charcuterie gala at the Mansion. I’m hoping for quite a turnout. My idea, you know. And very hard work it’s been preparing for it. Johanna Howell said we should cancel it in light of the girl’s death, but I refuse. I think a community like ours needs something positive at a time like this. What with all the patrol cars and cameras being installed, it feels like we’ve all been put in jail!  I’ve been doing a little research into buying our holiday home too. I think Court needs a break from all this horrible experience. He’s been having nightmares. Tuscany sounds lovely, don’t you think? Or perhaps somewhere in the south of France? Or even Greece! I haven’t been, Chase has, he tells me the islands are to die for!”

I just nod. Nice for the Neal’s, but we can’t all afford to jet off to Santorini on a whim. Berlin was only possible as I was on Christmas break and EasyJet had a special on.

“I’m afraid I can’t be much help when it comes to the Kowlinski girl. We have, out of choice, very little to do with that family. That mother…” She cringes at the thought of Aisling Kowlinski. “A cunning woman if I ever did see one. Beautiful, yes. Classy, no. Unfortunately I’ve had to deal with the family a little recently, indirectly anyhow. My husband is currently helping Joseph with an acquisition of some sort. I don’t know the details,” she says, waving a hand away. “Well anyway, Joseph’s not as bad as Aisling, I suppose.”

I want to know when she last saw Sian. She thinks about this for a minute. “Sometime last week, I believe… going out with her father onto the golf course. It’s hard to remember exactly. She did love her golf, though. Or maybe just her time spent with Joseph.”

As I leave the Neal residence, I hear my phone ring. It’s Jeremy. I’m a little surprised, most of our communication has been by text so far. I answer.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Francesca. Are you free? How about date three right now?”

“Now? What did you have a mind?”

“My local independent cinema is showing Cinema Paradiso all week. I’ve heard it’s good.”

“It’s excellent. Worth seeing for the musical score alone. Count me in.”

I smile as I hang up. Top marks for the film choice. A dose of nostalgia and perfect escapism from this stuffy estate, but it will be full on tomorrow as I visit the remaining residents. I make my way to my Volvo and start humming Ennio Morricone’s beautiful theme to the Sicilian-set film.

 

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Lornbridge Hills – Day 1

I arrive at the gates of the Lornbridge Hills Golf Estate and a screen of trees forbiddingly stares at me. I follow a small driveway up the hill towards the obviously named “Mansion”. The Mansion functions as both a club house and event venue, according to Mick. Driving in, I swear I can smell the money here. Bates sits next to me, the junior officer assigned by Superintendent Mick Thomson to help with this case. We first met at The Indigo Bar in Nutbourne. While I may not be the Italian vixen of his dreams, he certainly holds a level of respect for me after I solved the mystery of Billy Grahame’s death. He’s doing well despite an obvious hangover. It’s New Year’s Day so I can hardly blame him. I spent New Year’s alone, but this time I’m not fussed. I’m feeling a little less lonely these days thanks to a chance encounter in Berlin before Christmas. Bates points the way to the Kowlinksi house, but a man in a blue pinstriped suit motions for us to stop. I stop my Volvo and get out. The stranger shakes my hand warmly.

“Good afternoon Detective Palandri! We’ve been expecting you. I am Neil Vahr, the General Manager of Lornbridge Hills Golf Club and Estate. Please understand that I have tried to keep this… matter… utterly quiet. We have a policy of absolute discretion here at Lornbridge Hills. Our aim is to extend that to our guests, and especially, to our residents. Can we rely on your office to do the same?”

I arch an eyebrow and nod, squinting at the winter sun. It’s one of those cold but sunny days, beautiful clear skies. An encouraging start to the year ahead, despite a murder investigation so soon into it. 

“Rest assured, Mr Vahr. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to start the investigation. Bates here will keep you updated.”

I get back into the car and let Bates direct me to the house. A couple of minutes later, we arrive outside the Kowlinski residence, a large brick manor house. The estate reminds me of the cul-de-sacs in Nutbourne, only enlarged. The family has been told the bad news and that they should stay at home today. Mick phoned me early this morning and it wasn’t to wish me a Happy New Year. The body of a young woman was found yesterday evening at the estate. The body was identified by a resident as Sian Kowlinski, also resident at the estate. The cause of death is unknown, pending the local coroner’s report.

Sian was found dead roughly 70 metres from her home, in a dense underbrush of a copse of trees running along the perimeter of the residential area. Eyewitness reports state that she had a visible injury to her head which was slightly obscured by dried blood. Her clothing was intact and undamaged, and relatively clean. She was found buried in a very shallow grave of soil and leaves. The Landscape Executive and resident, Mr Eddie Cho, says that he found the body while inspecting the grounds with his pet Beagle, Bagel. The dog, which is apparently exceptionally well-trained, suddenly dashed into a nearby copse and began to bark. Mr Cho left the path to investigate when he came across a hand protruding from the underbrush. He reports that he did not touch the body and immediately phoned the police. Mick received the call at 16:35, and two officers were sent to conduct a preliminary investigation. The crime scene has since been closed off pending further investigation. No weapon was found at the scene.

Aisling Kowlinski opens the door and is exactly what I expected. Richly draped in fur, dramatic, sign of tears having fallen down her face, but she remains remarkably composed. I recall the family detail and put names to faces as I enter.

  • Joseph Kowlinski (46)
  • Aisling Kowlinski (39)
  • Sian Kowlinski  Deceased (20)
  • Ariel Kowlinski (18)
  • Roquefort Kowlinski (1)

Joseph and Aisling were married on March 22nd 2013. They have both been married before. Joseph lost his wife to brain cancer and Aisling’s husband disappeared.

Bates informed me during the drive here that Aisling has a previous arrest without conviction at age 18 for cocaine possession, in Brighton. She was given a warning. She denies taking any drugs subsequently and says that she has been clean since. The rest of the family have no criminal record.

Joseph is a prominent lawyer. He is the largest shareholder and CEO of the law firm, Kowlinski, Kubrick, and Koch, which has handled some of the highest profile cases in southern England during the last decade. They are currently negotiating an acquisition with a smaller competing firm, which has kept him in London most nights of the week for the last month.

Ariel is a slight girl, with strong features. Looking at her, she will never be beautiful, possibly not even pretty. She has the same unassuming smile I remember seeing on myself in old photos. According to Bates, she is incredibly intelligent, having achieved almost perfect scores at secondary school since day one. She is a shoe-in for Oxford, with her father’s connections. Her chosen major is Bionanotechnology, and she plans to research “drug delivery to cells via nanoparticle transmission”. Her University entrance paper was a discussion on the “fine line between poisons and potions”.

Roquefort is the new baby. He cries and eats. He has jet black hair and I think I can see his father’s features in him. The nanny, Zabina, whispers that she has “no idea what happens to the poor kiddo when I’m not around” as she walks past. She works weekdays only and the family looks after itself on weekends at Joseph’s insistence.

Bates says the family were all at home yesterday afternoon and evening. However, Sian has been absent for three days. On Friday December 29th at about 8pm, Sian left the house and said she was going to a friend’s place, and told her parents not to worry if she didn’t come home that night. Apparently this was quite common for her and she didn’t say which friend.

Zabina was already home at the time in nearby Marrington, since she doesn’t work weekends.

No one knows if Sian was in a relationship, but she’s had boyfriends over before, and as far as they know there was no one new. 

“Mr and Mrs. Kowlinski, may we speak privately?” I ask.

Aisling glares at me. I wonder what she thinks of me, this slightly overweight middle-aged Italian woman leading the investigation of her daughter’s death. Looking at her again, I notice her fiery hair, pale skin, and green eyes. She had a difficult childhood, due to poverty, she says. She continues to look at me defiantly as she relates her story, daring me to judge her. She had been working at a bank at the time she was arrested for possession. She claims that the drugs belonged to a wealthy male friend whose coat she was wearing at the time. She met her first husband, Sean Degianis, a while later when he came to the bank branch she worked at as an auditor. He was the son of the CEO of a large auditing firm, and he was both fiscally and professionally secure. She says if it wasn’t for love, at least it was security. She reports that the marriage was reasonably successful. They weren’t madly in love, but they didn’t hate each other.

Sian was their only child. When Sian was a young girl, Sean suddenly disappeared. Aisling relates bitterly that he probably went looking for someone younger and bustier. However, he wasn’t heard from again. His accounts were untouched, his car disappeared, and no one reported seeing him, despite a missing persons ad Aisling kept up for six years. They hadn’t had a fight, and no, she hadn’t killed him she says. The incident was thoroughly investigated at the time, and camera footage showed Sean at a newsagents on his way into London, while Aisling was home. Her alibi was strong, there was no evidence of a murder, so the case was listed as a missing persons case.

Things became a little trickier though. Sian and Aisling, who were living on the small fortune Sean had left in his and Aisling’s joint account, began to receive disturbing mails. Aisling sneers as she tells this part of the story. They received the same package in the mail every year since Sean left, on the anniversary of the day he left- a box containing the shards of a broken piggybank and a small note signed S. D. D in pink lipstick. Because of this ‘harassment’, as Aisling calls it, the state refuses to declare Sean dead in absentia.

They were otherwise untroubled, and Sian grew up. Aisling met Joseph a few years ago. He helped her get a divorce in absentia, which was allowed on the grounds of abandonment. Aisling declared that the shared account was almost empty and she would need access to money from his estate to support Sian, whose huge trust fund was only due when she turned 21. The government, however, froze his domestic accounts and refused to release the money until he could be declared dead. If she chose to divorce, she would not be able to claim anything from the estate for herself. Aisling says she was so frustrated by that point, that when she met Joseph she felt her prayers had been answered. After Joseph assisted Aisling with the divorce they decided to marry. Aisling and Sian were once again financially secure. As a bonus, Sian took to Joseph immediately.

“She was my baby, my only daughter, detective,” Aisling says. “I had a tough life growing up. It wasn’t easy. But I knew what I looked like. And I had a brain. My Sian had the same thing. She was so beautiful. Why would anyone want to take that away from my daughter? We had our fights like any young mother and daughter. But we always stuck together. Ever since her dad left us all those years ago, we’ve only had each other. I would have known if there was someone she was seeing at college. She hasn’t been scared of bringing boys for dinner before. She didn’t care if we liked them or not. That was my Sian. Fierce and proud and beautiful.”

Joseph has much less to say. He is taking over the smaller firm with the assistance of a merger specialist who is also a resident of the estate. The firm was doing very well, and the acquisition is a happy one for both parties. Joseph says that he’s done his best to make sure no one loses their job in the merger. So far, so good he says.

“Did Sian’s dissapearance concern you?” I ask. “It’s been three days, after all.”

“Not at first,” Joseph replies. “Sian was an independent spirit, like her mother. She would often spend days at a time out with friends. She is… was… 20 now, after all. Not seeing her yesterday for New Year’s was concerning, however. We were eager to locate her and then the officer knocked on our door… Aisling and I went out on the 29th to a benefit hosted by Mrs Haverford next door. It was in Marrington and it ended quite late. We didn’t see Sian after that. She had left a message that she was going out so we thought nothing of it at the time.”

I nod and ask to have a word with Ariel. Compared to Aisling, it’s very difficult to get young Ariel to speak. She stares and stammers, and she insists she knows nothing, perhaps a little too much so. I notice a picture on the mantelpiece of her playing cricket and decide to ask about it, taking a different angle. She tells me a little, and contrary to expectation, she is an avid cricket fan and player, and plays in the local youth team every second weekend. She watches matches during the season whenever she can, but her father is usually too busy on the golf course, and Aisling detests the very idea of sitting and watching a full game. She will tell me nothing more. I get the feeling that I should give Ariel some time before questioning her further.

I thank the Kowlinski’s for their time and leave with Bates. I ask him to take me to the crime scene. There is nothing really to see, but I need the visual. The copse of trees where Sian’s body was found lies in-between the row of resident’s houses and the golf course behind them. Once inside the copse, I look up, down and all around. Nothing, except the shallow grave which looks hastily thrown together. The light covering of leaves, soil and twigs mean it’s likely that even if Eddie Cho’s dog hadn’t found it, someone would have sooner rather than later.

I decide to call it a day. Bates’ hangover is getting worse by the minute and I’m eager to return to the plans I had set in place this morning before this case interrupted them. Right now I’m meant to be on a third date with Jeremy, my Berlin Christmas market encounter. I booked a much needed last minute getaway after the Billy Grahame case. We started chatting after we simultaneously reached for the same wooden Nutcracker soldier. I was annoyed at first, until he flashed an apologetic smile and made a clever joke about nut-cracking that would likely put him on Babbo Natale’s naughty list.  We continued to chat and found ourselves at a spiced mulled wine stall, where we discovered that we lived half an hour from each other back home. Jeremy was in Berlin on business, attending a trade show at Messe Berlin to represent his home furnishings company. Right now, it’s simply enjoyable evenings with a smart individual outside of the work and family sphere. I don’t fall for people easily – they need to earn my trust and respect first. But there’s something about him… He’s certainly captured my attention in a way I didn’t expect. The last man to do that was David Attenborough. I message Jeremy. After a little back and forth we decide to leave date three for another day. I need to process my thoughts on the Kowlinski family first, anyway.

 

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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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