The Hadmere Players – Part 3

The next morning, Zave entered the scene of the crime. He had been wondering if the waitress Darren mentioned would be there. Melinda’s, which before yesterday was a cafe associated with cosiness and rustic charm, would now be known as the ‘murder cafe’. The cafe itself was closed from the public and instead a young police officer and a woman stood inside, who judging by her stern, dark eyes and thick, black, bushy hair, must be the Italian detective. She recognised Zave and walked towards him.

“Ah, Zave Wilson? I recognise you from the reports. My name is Francesca Palandri, and this is Bates,” she said, pointing at the young officer besides her. 

“And I’m a suspect, I presume?” Zave asked wearily.

“Well, we cannot exclude anyone at his point. Forensics has reported back to us this morning. The coffee cup has clear traces of strychnine. It could have been put in by anyone, including Catherine Ratcliffe herself.”

“If that was the case, it would be her best performance yet,” Zave remarked, with an ironic smile, a comment met with blank stares.  “You’ll be questioning everyone present at the time, then?”

“Indeed. We will continue to question the waiting staff and other customers.”

“Well, it may interest you to know that one of the customers spotted Dan Argenta adding Catherine’s sweetener to her coffee. A couple of the waiting girls were watching him like a hawk, so I’d imagine they saw him do this too… if not, this customer is wrong. I don’t like to suggest that Dan is culpable, but I believe this is important.”

Officer Bates nodded. “We’ll check that out.” He took the details of the customer in question – Darren Wilcross.

“For full disclosure, the rest of us players planned a dinner this evening to celebrate our reunion properly. As far as I know, everyone is still meeting up, but it’s become a sort of remembrance meal for Catherine, I suppose. Or a support group. I’m not too sure, to be honest.”

Francesca gave a slight sympathetic look. “Thank you for letting us know. We’ll be in touch, Mr Wilson.”

As Zave left he heard Bates talking to Francesca. “‘Catherine Ratcliffe… my mum loves that show she’s on, the dancing one. She’s always been popular, hasn’t she? Apart from that time she was a keeping herself a bit low-key. Before that affair. I think we’re all pretty eager to find out what happened here… well, we solved that case in Lornbridge Hills pretty quickly so hopefully…”

*

It was true that the players had all agreed to stick with the dinner plans at Farfalle in the evening. Everyone agreed it would be a good opportunity to discuss the tragedy that had occurred yesterday, and while the atmosphere would most certainly be the opposite of what was originally intended, they would at least be able to gain comfort from each other and come together for Catherine’s sake and celebrate her life. This had been what Helen Burbank had said, anyway. Zave wasn’t sure if it would go down like that, and wondered if accusations would start flying. He had agreed to the dinner though and the others followed suit.

Helen was on her way to Farfalle. She walked past Gregson’s and noticed it was closed. Bill must have closed shop rather than have Mel take over while he attended the dinner, she guessed. She imagined that working in a shop wouldn’t be helpful right now. Staring at newspapers with a front page story about the death of a woman you had been infatuated with. Usually Bill was not one to let anything get in the way of his daily work routine, but that would be too much for anybody. How interesting, Helen thought, that when the story of Catherine’s affair broke the dowdiest picture that could be found was used, and after her death, it was the one with the biggest smile. As Helen walked she noticed stares for the first time. Perhaps people had been staring since Catherine died and in her upset state she hadn’t noticed. She didn’t like the stares. She supposed that for people like Dan Argenta it wouldn’t make a spot of difference, even if since Catherine’s death they were staring for a different reason.  Maybe they’re wondering if I killed her, she thought as she entered Farfalle.

Shortly after Helen, Dan climbed a narrow wooden staircase with candles on the side of each stair. He felt like he was entering some mysterious cult. He should have just taken the lift up. The voices from the packed bar downstairs started to trail off and a more subdued atmosphere could be felt as he reached the top of the stairs and entered Farfalle’s restaurant area. It was a small seating space, only a handful of tables. Tonight a middle aged couple sat in one corner, conversing quietly. The only other people present, besides a waiter cleaning glasses at the bar, was Helen Burbank, sitting with her head down and a table laid out for seven in a window alcove. Plates and cutlery were already laid out and there was a bread basket in the middle. 

“Helen,” he said, almost in a whisper.

She glanced up slowly and gave a sad smile. ‘Hello, Dan.”

Dan awkwardly took a seat across the table from Helen.

“Is this a good idea, Helen? Being here? All of us?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to do exactly.” She paused. “I organised all this.”

“Do you think…. Do you think it was one us? Because… I don’t know, maybe Bill…”

“Oh, Dan, don’t. Please,” Helen protested. “You can’t… You can’t start accusing…”

“I can’t help it. I’ll be watching everyone closely tonight. And if I can’t work it out, I want the police to. Soon. You didn’t know her like I did, Helen. Catherine was such a pure soul. She was not tainted by celebrity. She was something special.”

“Oh, I know that without having to spend as much time with her like you do. Catherine wouldn’t hurt anyone. I’m sure.. So why someone would hurt her? ”

The sound of stiletto’s coming up the stairs could be heard, and a a few seconds later Hana appeared and made her way over to the table.

“This is horrible. I can’t bear the thought of eating this food,” she said as she sat down. “What a waste of money. I can’t stop thinking about her face as I was talking to her… To think she was talking to me when it happened. I don’t think I will ever be able to forget that look in her eyes… ”

Gareth and Bill came up the stairs looking sombre. Bill’s eyes were red and puffy. Gareth said hello quietly and Bill said nothing, sitting down in a chair. Zave was next in. There was still one empty chair available. The chair meant for Catherine. Helen gave an ‘oh’ of realisation. “Oh… I didn’t think… I should have changed the reservation…”

“It’s okay, Helen,” said Zave. “I think, she can still be here in spirit?” There was a murmur of agreement as the waiter came over with hesitation and asked for drinks. He looked as scared as a mouse, afraid to intrude on the reunion that had turned into a wake.  Helen and Zave just asked for a jug of water for the table. Gareth and Bill took a beer, Helen a prosecco, and Dan an expensive glass of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The waiter took the order and left as quickly as he could, mumbling that they should help themselves to bread, and that the paler roll was gluten free.

“Where are the toilets,” Bill demanded, speaking for the first time.

“Past the bar and the kitchen, Bill,” Helen replied softly. Bill pushed his chair out aggressively and brusquely walked off.

“Have they spoken to the staff at the cafe?” Hana asked. “I was thinking one of those waiting girls could have done this!”

“What exactly would an 18 year old waitress want to kill a celebrity for?” Dan answered.

“Jealousy! They were jealous that we’re all successful and they’re stuck in a cafe in this tiny town! I mean, several of us ordered coffees, after all. They just poisoned one and it didn’t matter who drank it – they were making a statement!”

“Right, Hana,” replied Dan, a little loudly. “So the 18 year old girls conspired to kill one of us and laced the coffee with poison. Nonsense.”

“Maybe it was one of us who was jealous,” Helen suggested. 

Bill returned from the bathroom, his eyes looking even puffier and redder than before. No one else was quite sure what to do, comfort him or let him be.

“Where is that waiter, I need that damn drink,” remarked Dan, looking around the small restaurant. The middle aged couple were exchanging furtive glances, looking over and whispering  every so often. A new couple, younger and well dressed came up the stairs at that moment. The waiter came over from beyond the bar area and greeted and seated them. A minute later he arrived with the tray of drinks for the players.

“Is a glass of wine that expensive really worth it right now?” Zave asked Dan.

“Yes. Especially under the circumstances,” replied Dan. “It’s my favourite.” He took a large gulp of his wine before all the drinks had even been put on the table.

He was dead five minutes later.

*

What the hell is going on here? Francesca wondered. Her first thought was that the members of the players were being picked off, one by one. There would certainly be no more drinks as a group, that was certain. The reunion was well and truly over. Two celebrities dead. The remaining players had all come by the Hadmere police station once more to give their statements. This time Francesca was present. It was a good opportunity to see them all in quick succession. They were all shell shocked, but who was faking it? 

The next morning, she was keen to speak with the witness Zave had mentioned earlier, Darren Wilcross. It had been confirmed that the empty packet of sweetener found at Melinda’s did indeed contain traces of the poison also. She rang the buzzer for Darren’s upper storey flat on an inconspicuous door besides a bank.

Once inside a very minimalist flat, she sat down with Darren to talk.

“I’ve been unable to keep still,” said Darren, clearly agitated. “I’d seen Dan Argenta put that sweetener into the coffee… but now Dan is dead – so maybe I was completely wrong? It was poison too, with Dan? This whole situation is just insane!”

“Yes, his wine was poisoned. The bottle of wine itself, should I say.”

“Maybe Dan did murder Catherine, and he was then being punished for doing so by someone else murdering him?”

“Well. That’s an interesting theory. But you leave the detecting up to us, Darren. Is there anything else unusual that you saw?”

“No, it was just that particular thing that stood out when I was in the cafe. You should talk to the waitress there. The one who prepared their drinks and took them over.”

“I certainly will. May I also ask, why didn’t you come to the police with this information first? You visited Zave Wilson.”

“I didn’t know if I was reading into things too much. I wasn’t really sure what to do. Now with Dan dead… I don’t know. It must have been one of the other players that killed both Catherine and Dan. But I didn’t really notice their movements.”

“So it was only Dan you were watching closely? Why?”

“Erm, well, he’s the most famous. And the most attractive. It was hard not to look.”

*

After her talk with Darren, Francesca went to meet Bates, who was having coffee at the Starbucks a few doors down.

“I’ve asked the players to stick around in Hadmere until further notice, as you requested,” Bates said, sipping a frappe. “The ones who no longer live here anyway.”

“Thank you, Bates. I need to speak to that waitress from Melinda’s, and I was thinking you could come with me. The waiter at Farfalle also needs to be interviewed.”

“Right. Listen, the analysis came back from the wine. It wasn’t strychnine this time. It was cyanide. Interesting, eh? Did you learn anything from everyone’s statements after Dan’s death?”

“It became clear just how close Dan and Catherine were. They’ve become even closer recently, it seems, according to a few of our suspects. And there is definitely jealousy in the air. With Gareth and Hana, especially. And Helen and Zave I suppose, in a more discreet way. Bill denies any interest in celebrity and fame, and therefore that should rule him out on the jealousy front, but there is the talk of his unrequited love for Catherine. You know, if Dan did kill Catherine as our witness suggests, Bill may be the most likely to seek revenge if he found out. But Dan killing Catherine just doesn’t fit, given their friendship. Anyway, let’s go chat with this waitress of ours. You have the address?”

Bates nodded, finished his coffee, and they drove down to nearby Magnolia Street in Francesca’s Volvo. They knocked on the door and it opened slowly. The dull, grey face of the young waitress came into view. She nervously looked behind her.

“Danielle, isn’t it?” asked Francesca kindly. “I’m DCI Francesca Palandri, this is Bates. You must be in bad shape, but may we come in for a quick chat?”

“The police already asked me some questions… but yes, okay…” She led them inside.

“It’s hard to remember a lot of details,” Danielle told them. “But I remember Zave Wilson ordering the drinks and paying Will – another waiter. I listened to the order as it was made and started preparing a tray at the bar. With napkins, spoons, sugars.”

“Did you put any sweeteners on the tray?”

“No. We don’t give those out unless requested. Just a few white and brown sugar packets on the tray.”

“I see. Do you remember the movement of the players while you were preparing drinks?”

“Well, after Zave paid, he went back to sit with the others. Dan went to the toilet and then Helen also. The toilets are at the back, beyond the bar area. Then the drinks were all ready on the tray and I went to take it over. It was quite heavy, and I was nervous, so Gareth took the tray from my hands and placed it on the table.”

“Did you watch what happened after that?” Asked Bates.

“Well, they all grabbed their drinks and then some of them took their sugars too. I did notice Dan putting some sugar in Catherine’s coffee.” Danielle went red, embarrassed that she had watching Dan so closely. “I can’t believe Dan is dead too now…” She finished.

“Danielle, have you heard that it was actually sweetener that was put in to Catherine’s coffee?”

“Oh, no. I didn’t know that. Really? Well, unless I put a sweetener out by mistake… but no, I’m pretty sure. That didn’t come from us.”

“That’s very helpful, Danielle. Thank you.”

Francesca and Bates said goodbye and left.

“Okay,” said Francesca. “Next stop is the waiter on shift at Farfalle’s last night. It’s just a couple of streets from here. Let’s get these witnesses out the way and then we can think more about the players themselves.”

*

When Samuel, the Farfalle waiter, opened his front door, he looked just as grey in the face as Danielle had done. Like Danielle, he led Francesca and Bates inside and looked at them gloomily as they all sat down.

“I feel at fault, in a way,” he told them. “I should have known better. We rarely serve that wine Dan asked for, I mean, Hadmere is a pretty affluent town, right? But that Chateauneuf-du-Pape is still marked at a price most can’t justify. I certainly couldn’t, gosh. Even if I had the money. But yeah, the strange thing is, I noticed the bottle was open when I went to pour a glass for Dan. I just assumed another member of staff had opened it by mistake and put it back. None had been taken out, it was a full bottle, but it was open. It definitely wasn’t a couple of days ago.”

“How did you know that?”

“I was doing a wine stock up and also dusting some of the bottles that had been in the racks for a while. The Chateau was one of the dustier bottles. We have a large wine rack underneath the bar, at least 30 columns. Each column is full of one type of wine, except for the house wines where we fill two columns, and the ones that are rarely opened, we just put a couple in. We had just one bottle of the Chateau.”

“Has anyone ever ordered it before?”

“One couple did when I first started here, about seven months ago. I didn’t serve it though. To be honest we don’t usually serve this wine by the glass. It’s not worth it. So when Dan Argenta ordered a glass quite confidently, even though it doesn’t list a price per glass on the menu, I wasn’t sure what to do. But when I noticed the bottle was open, I thought why not. His friend had just died after all and I guessed he would probably order a second glass anyway…” He grimaced. “I asked everyone who could have opened the bottle. My manager thought it was me, and that I was lying, at first. But why would I open a 120 pound bottle of wine for no reason?”

“And you did your wine bottle dusting just two nights ago, you said?”

“Yes, the night before Dan’s death,” he replied. “It was a slow one. If I’m resorting to dusting wine bottles it means I’m pretty bored. The death the day before scared everyone off, maybe…”

“So, someone could have opened this bottle the day Dan died and put the poison inside?”

“Yes.”

“Did you notice anything unusual that day? Anyone up in the bar area who shouldn’t have been?”

“I don’t remember anything like that, to be honest. And we don’t have cameras or anything. But it would have been quite easy for someone to go into that bar when no one was about. There is a busy bar area downstairs. It’s always packed. The restaurant area is only open in the evenings, but anyone could walk upstairs from the bar during the daytime. People usually don’t, I mean it’s just an empty restaurant with the lights off.”

Francesca and Bates left Samuel’ s house a few minutes later. As they walked back to the Volvo, Francesca received a message from Mick. She frowned as she read it, clearly confused.

“What is it? What’s happened?” Bates asked, noticing her expression.

“The CSI team took away as much as possible from the crime scene at Farfalle’s to be analysed. And they’ve found poison somewhere else.”

“Where?”

“In one of the bread rolls from the bread basket in their table. A gluten free one. It was full of strychnine.”

“Really?” Bates was surprised. “How strange… Catherine’s sweetener contained strychnine also, but the wine at Farfalle’s had been poisoned with cyanide. Why would one of the bread rolls be poisoned as well? And not with cyanide?”

“It is very strange, Bates,” Francesca replied. “Very strange indeed.”

 

© Intrigue Inn

 

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The Hadmere Players – Part 2

The plastic bags clinking against Darren’s front door as he turned the key were a reminder that tonight he was leaving his emotions in the hands of two mid-priced bottles of Sainsbury’s own brand red wine. It was the day before Catherine Ratcliffe’s murder. Darren had decided that he couldn’t work out for himself whether to revel in frustration and sadness or perk up, think positively and do something productive. Let the red wine decide, he had concluded. He had deliberately opted for the medium priced bottles. Go for the cheap and he was setting himself up for failure already, the feeling of sitting alone at home with vinegary tasting bottom shelf wine was enough to make anyone feel sad. Go for the higher end range and there would be high expectations; better quality wine could, perhaps, results in better quality thoughts. No, two bottles for twelve pounds was the happy medium required to throw all his negativity into them and see what the end result would be. Although if he worked his way through two of them the end result could well be passing out. He shrugged at the thought. Not a bad solution. He entered his small flat, kicked his converses off and dumped the bag on the floor. He made his way into the bedroom and flopped onto the best, arms outstretched.

For twenty-five-year-old Darren, the last two days had been a dizzying and stressful combination of extreme highs and extreme lows. He could not think of another time in his life where such good fortune had been intertwined with such negativity. This was not supposed to happen this year. This was meant to be the year or productivity.  ‘Smash it 2018’ he had called it. Yet, here he was, exhausted on his bed on a Saturday night, bottles of wine and pre-made lasagne for one at the ready, even after receiving the most promising job offer in a long time. He had been invited out tonight, but he preferred the solitude. He wanted to drink in silence, not in a rowdy pub.

Darren lived on Hadmere High Street. He had been working in event planning for the last two years for Hadmere Events, their most recent success story being the Hadmere Halloween Hijinks Festival in which Darren was pretty proud of himself for coming up with a number of the most popular events and attractions. His Ghosts of Hadmere scavenger hunt had been a particular success. He liked the job very much, although he butted heads with a couple of infuriating co-workers, but the yearning to actually use his psychology degree had been burning inside of him for at least a year now. Around two months ago he took the plunge and began applying to various counselling and social worker jobs in the area, keen to start somewhere in the field. Finally, he’d had an offer this morning and it was even better than expected. A support worker position for a three months ongoing role right in Hadmere! When he applied to this particular job he’d just assumed it was the basics, mainly admin work for the organization.  Not only did the job allow Darren to work as support to clients with mental health issues, young parents, and young people, but it offered the opportunity to work alongside the counselling team and be trained by them. It was much more than what Darren had imagined. The pay wasn’t great, but it was a start. would have jumped for joy if it wasn’t for the fact that this news was tarnished by the events of the night before, in which he’d violently broken up with his boyfriend. Although they had been together for only five months, the relationship was moving at such an alarming emotional speed in which Darren, he could now admit, had allowed himself to be carried by a whirlwind. Swept off my feet, he thought bitterly. A lesson learned – don’t get so carried away. He was, it transpired, being two timed the whole time. Easy for it to happen, considering his boyfriend lived in London. His boyfriend had been so sincere… So casual. In fact, he remained casual, which was simply bizarre and even more distressing to Darren. Darren had found out when he received messages from another man who had also been dating his boyfriend.

Darren was about to switch off his phone when a message came through from his friend Sandra.

Did you know the Hadmere Players are reuniting this week in town?! Up for a bit of stalking?

Darren laughed. He certainly did know that. The Water Ghost Beckons. What a name. He never saw it. He was only fifteen at the time. But it had been a huge buzzword.

Darren knew he would have to cancel on Sandra. He was not planning on going anywhere the next day. He got up and proceeded to open the first bottle of wine.

*

Catherine Ratcliffe was dead. Catherine Ratcliffe, star of an amateur show, now the housewives favourite, dead. Zave imagined the nation’s reaction. He and the other players would not be able to forget this in a hurry. The media would be saturated with this story for weeks. Catherine had been poisoned, the police had declared. Potentially an allergic reaction, but most likely poison. The players had stayed at the police station for two hours. The police asked for official statements and asked various questions – where had everyone been sitting? When had people left their seats to use their toilets or for any other purpose? The police were assuming the poison was in the coffee, and that one of the players had done it, Zave guessed. And that was just the start. They were all told a detective would be in touch. Zave had forgotten her name already. Some Italian woman.

He walked past The Fox and Hounds and resisted the temptation to enter. He could do with a drink. No, must resist. Now, especially, was not the time. He forced his legs to carry him past the comforting cacophony of noises emanating from the pub. I need my bed, he thought. He walked straight home and wondered how the others were doing. Shocked, of course. Hana had seemed the worse off, she was a noisy wreck and it had taken her the longest to calm down. Helen slipped into sorrow much more quickly and remained quiet at the station and during the interview process. Dan Argenta had almost been as noisy as Hana but what somewhat dumbstruck too. No surprises there, he was the closest to Catherine out of all them. Bill had been in a state of tearful silence, staring forward, even quieter than Helen. Gareth had perhaps seemed the most normal, answering question in fairly calm, even relaxed manner and betraying little emotion.

Zave arrived home and switched the kettle on. There was a knock at his door. The detective already? He opened the door. It wasn’t an Italian woman. It was a young man.

“Hi, Sorry – I know this can’t be a good time – my name’s Darren and I need to talk to you. I was at the cafe and I think I saw something important.”

*

There were times in Darren’s life when he felt like the Fates had decided to drop him into a particular situation deliberately like the little yellow man on Google Maps or someone controlling their SIMS characters. That afternoon had indeed been one of them. Darren had decided to leave his flat after all and visit Melinda’s café. It was seconds from his flat, they made a great coffee and he was quite hungover from the wine the night before. He usually preferred the Starbucks further up the High Street, but Melinda’s looked so warm and cosy from the outside he couldn’t help himself.  He took a bite of his carrot cake feeling a little older than his years and in walked Gareth Lawler. Darren recognised him immediately but perhaps he was the only one in Melinda’s to do so – Gareth did not have the same status as Dan Argenta did. Hana came in just behind him – wearing clothes more suited for a midsummer garden party than snowy early December. He knew Hana’s first name but couldn’t remember her last. A woman in a wheelchair came in. Helen Burbank. Darren couldn’t believe it. The reunion was happening here! The others all followed suit, including Dan. Darren felt foolish for watching him with so little discretion, but he couldn’t help it.

He tried to occupy his thoughts with his new job instead of staring at the reunion in front of him. He had almost managed to block out the player’s conversation, feeling like they should be allowed some privacy (although if they wanted that, why not reunite somewhere not in public?) when he was brought back into the focus when Catherine Ratcliffe made a toast. His eyes on Dan, he noticed the young actor adding a packet of sweetener into Catherine’s coffee.

His eyes drifted back to his phone but less than a minute later they darted back to the reunion as Catherine Ratcliffe fell to the floor. He remained transfixed in his seat at first, unsure of what was happening. The other customers did the same, just staring on for a minute while the players all gathered around Catherine. It was Hana Payne’s scream that made people proactive. As Darren stood up he felt his shoulder being knocked into as a middle-aged man bounded past him towards the players to help. The crowd surrounding Catherine was becoming too big and he felt like he didn’t know what to do with himself – go and join the crowd even though there was nothing he could do, or stand back and look uncaring? The young wait staff looked to be in a similar situation, the young girl who had been so eager to wait on their table before was now panic-stricken as she lingered cautiously around the group of people. Darren could hear various exclamations: “Oh God, Catherine….” “Is she…? Is she dead?” “What the hell is happening?!” A minute later, sirens rang and approached. Someone had called an ambulance pretty quickly, then.

Darren sat in a daze as the ambulance came, followed by the police, who took his contact details, along with all the other customers. Having paid close attention to the players, as he couldn’t help keep his eyes off Dan Argenta, he felt like the actions of all the players leading up to Catherine’s collapse were quite clear in his mind, and in light of her demise, some things now seemed a little peculiar to him. He went over a particular point in his head and wondered what he should do with it. He went home, lost in his thoughts when out of his window he noticed Zave Wilson walking along the High Street. He grabbed his coat and followed him to his house.

He already knew roughly where Zave lived.  Deborah Mankron at work had mentioned it a while ago when the planning of a murder mystery evening lead to a discussion of Zave Wilson and The Water Ghost Beckons. Darren remembered that his crush on Dan Argenta had come out during that conversation and had been met with nods of agreement. Who didn’t find Dan attractive? He knocked on Zave’s door a minute after Zave had gone through it.

“Hi, Sorry – I know this can’t be a good time – my name’s Darren and I need to talk to you. I was at the cafe and I think I saw something important.”

“Excuse me?” Asked Zave. “What are you talking about? You were at the cafe? You need to give any information to the police. As you can imagine I’ll be needing some time alone.”

“I did speak with the police… but then I remembered something.”

The director raised one eyebrow. “Yes?”

“Dan… Dan Argenta…  I saw him put something in Catherine’s coffee when she wasn’t looking… and then, a minute later… it happened. I don’t know if anyone else noticed this. I could be looking into it completely wrong, but given what happened seconds later…”

Zave opened the door wider and let Darren in.

Darren was guided though Zave’s smart riverside apartment. No sign of bachelor living here. Realising he was once again beginning a bachelor lifestyle, he wasn’t convinced his own apartment would buck the stereotypical trend.

“Tea? Coffee?” Zave asked, “I’d prefer to go for something a bit stronger myself, following the circumstances, but no can do.”

“No thanks, I’m okay,” said Darren.

“Take a seat son,” Zave gestured. “I’ve been thinking back to what happened myself in those moments before Catherine….” He shook his head and waved a hand away. “Anything any witness has to add will help a great deal. But I can’t imagine people were watching closely before the incident.”

“Well, I don’t know about that. There were a couple of major celebrities at that table, people were watching alright. I admit I was,” Darren said with an embarrassed shrug. “I know one of the young waitresses was watching Dan Argenta’s move.” And I wasn’t too far behind her, he considered.

“If that’s so, son – what’s your name? Darren?”

“Darren Wilcross.”

He nodded. “Darren, if that’s the case then this waitress should also have seen Dan pouring something into Catherine’s drink.”

“I expect so, yes, that’s what I’m getting at. She should be able to back me up here.”

‘You seem pretty on the ball, kid. The police will want to know all these details. But you chose to come to me?”

“Well, you were there, you knew the victim personally, I thought you might like to know. And I was worried I was reading too much into it.”

“You know, given the circumstances of her death, it would be a good guess that someone in the cafe at the time did it. Quite possibly one of the Hadmere Players. What if you just walked into the home of the killer?”

Darren hesitated for a minute, unsure of how to respond to this statement. “You’re right,” he said after a minute. “Everyone’s a suspect. Including me. I was there, what if I poisoned Catherine’s drink? I could have gone to the bar, quickly put something in her drink and then to divert attention paid a visit to you to offer some false evidence to lead you and the others on a different trial…” He breathed deeply, feeling reckless, wondering why he’d just given possibly implicated himself or given suggestion to something he’d just made up.

“Oh, nice comeback. Or somehow added poison to a sweetener packet if that’s how it happened? But! The young waitress who was transfixed by Dan Argenta, what about her? Why would you mention her if you were making up evidence…?”

“Well, there are a couple of possibilities… One, I bribed her or planted the idea in her head for whatever reason. Two, looking at this young, emotional girl she looks very… malleable, and could easily be persuaded that she saw something she didn’t, or panic if asked about it and questions her own memory.”

Zave nodded. “Well, there we go. Two armchair detectives here, aren’t we. Or two murder suspects. Sorry, Darren. You look confused. I think my storytelling nature has taken over a bit. That happens a lot. What do you for do for a living?”

“I, uh, work for Hadmere Events… event planning. Well, I might be leaving soon.”

“How come?” Zave asked, finishing off the last of his coffee.

“Well, I just got offered a job with a local counselling house, actually. It’s something I’ve been looking to get into for quite a long time.”

“Very interesting… I see. Look, thank you for this information. It will help us all on finding out who killed a woman who as I far as I knew, wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

“She did seem very personable, for a celebrity,” Darren agreed. He tried to imagine how he would cope if was in a similar situation, a university reunion perhaps, seeing people who had known nearly ten years ago but since then had only kept in occasional contact with. He probably wouldn’t really know how to cope, either.

Zave sighed as he nodded. “She apparently has changed very little since the time I knew her, when she was just a local social butterfly. I don’t know for sure as I didn’t see much of here. The player who was still close to Catherine was Dan, which makes what you saw very interesting. Yes, how could that be right? They were friends; he couldn’t have possibly done something like this. But what if that friendship was in the process of a particularly nasty ending, one where some inner circle secret had been discovered… Well, that wouldn’t surprise me with Dan, He always was a snoop. His ‘nosy neighbour’ character in Water Ghost was not a difficult jump acting-wise for him, let’s say. Maybe he found something out that required him to kill Catherine?”

“I wouldn’t know… So, do you think I should mention this to the police?”

“Of course, why wouldn’t you? Tell them everything else you saw, even if you may not think of it as important. If anything else comes to mind don’t hesitate to let me know, either.”

*

That evening, DCI Francesca Palandri poured herself a glass of Australian chardonnay. She smiled at what her proud Italian mother would say if she knew she was drinking something made outside of Tuscany, let alone Italy. Francesca had to cancel board game night this evening with her boyfriend, Jeremey, so she allowed the small things to make her smile. Since working on the Billy Grahame case in Nutbourne, the idea of playing a board game had started to take hold of her. She hadn’t cared at the time, but the enthusiasm the members of the Nutbourne gaming group had for their hobby had rubbed off on her. Out of curiosity, her and Jeremy invested in Carcassonne. They enjoyed it and had since acquired more gateways games in Pandemic and Takenoko. This week Jeremy had purchased Tokaido and the plan was to try it tonight. However, Chief superintendent Mick had assigned her to investigate Catherine Ratcliffe’s death. Everyone knew who Catherine Ratcliffe was and Mick wanted this handled with care. After Francesca’s success with the Billy Grahame case, and most recently the Sian Kowlinski murder in Lornbridge hills, it was an easy choice for Mick to opt for Francesca. So now Francesca was doing her research on the Hadmere players of 2008, and the play that put them on the map.

Francesca had already begun reading about Zave Wilson. He penned the popular play while working as a chauffeur and was keen for a change of career. The Water Ghost Beckons was quite a misanthropic play in Francesca’s opinion. And the reviews were extremely over the top. Although she had to admit it was well written. Catherine Ratcliffe and Bill Gregson had played the parents. Hana Payne and Gareth Lawler the children. Dan Argenta played a neighbouring young man who interfered and Helen Burbank played Catherine’s haphazard and clumsy sister who joined them on their trip to Dorset. The second act revealed that all was not as it seemed amongst the ‘perfect’ family, with each member holding their own dark secrets and personal issues. One by one they were lured by a frightening water ghost in the foggy Dorset countryside who said nothing, but instead sang an ethereal yet deadly song, leading them to the icy cold depths of a lake.

Catherine Ratcliffe clearly struck a chord with her performance. Francesca read how she was always keen to get a foot into the acting world and was prepared to put the hard work in, but it was not necessary. Parts were offered to her in order for her to become the new face of ‘housewife TV’ starring, to begin with, in various gentle dinner time dramas in supporting roles, and then eventually leads. She was currently starring in the second season of Dance, Mary, Dance which Francesca had never seen, but it was a buzzword she found herself constantly subjected to online or overhearing in passing conversation. To Francesca, Catherine had always seemed an amiable, vibrant woman.

Catherine was not completely unattached to scandal, however. Francesca remembered hearing about her affair with high-profile director Benjy Mantle roughly a year ago, who’s awarding winning London gangster movies had elevated him to Hollywood known status. Benjy Mantle was already married to morning TV presenter Hilary Dent, although they were now divorced – not altogether surprisingly, following his affair with Catherine. Catherine had little to say on the matter once the news story broke, but simply apologised publicly to Hilary. She had, Francesca could tell, been a private woman when it came to personal issues. Darren scrolled through old reports on the matter which generally included, inevitably, a picture of Catherine walking down the street in loose-fitting clothes in an attempt to make her look worse off than usual. Before the affair, Catherine had also been keeping a relatively low profile given her success. She had been all over every TV channel and then took an unexpected break. The affair happened half a year later. Some cynics wondered if it was her way of getting back into the public eye.

When it came to privacy, there was no player who came close to Bill Gregson. Bill Gregson rejected fame and acting opportunities completely and carried on as normal running his shop. Francesca had been into the shop a couple of times whenever she was in Hadmere. Bill had always seemed a tad belligerent, but not aggressive or unkind. Just a man with grumpy tendencies who liked to keep to himself, and had once branched out into amateur theatre to try something a little different. Bill Gregson was known as a man who wore his heart on his sleeve and his emotional inklings towards Catherine Ratcliffe had been quite apparent to the other players, and word spread. It was common knowledge these days that he had always had a thing for Catherine, but for whatever reason, he had never acted on it, not that anyone knew of, anyway. The only time he had made a voice for himself was during the weeks of press scandal involving Catherine and Benjy’s affair. Reporters who had discovered his unrequited love for Catherine wanted to hear what Bill had to say on the matter, and for several days Bill had to keep reporters at bay, saying little except a few reported quotes, which Francesca read on a popular British entertainment website, “She would not have knowingly dated a man who was still married, I am sure of it. What’s been reported is utter nonsense.” Since then there was really nothing of note to say about Bill Gregson.

Dan Argenta was handsome with a rough, working-class appeal. Francesca was quite convinced that Dan’s success was based on his looks and not acting talent. That was not to say he was a bad actor, just mediocre given the roles he had landed. And what well-paid roles they must have been, as she clicked up headlines such as ‘Dan Argenta and model girlfriend Lucy Barnes move into 1 million pound Richmond townhouse.’

Francesca didn’t know too much about Gareth except for the media drama with Hana Payne and his eventual coming out, but she did vaguely remember him having a small role in a popular mid-week hospital drama. The character suffered a dramatic death when Gareth wanted to pursue other roles, although he suffered the fate of many soap opera stars who leave the show with a bang and never actually land anything bigger afterwards like they hoped. Gareth had, it turned out, been appearing in various London stage productions and according to his bio was currently preparing for a minor role in an upcoming musical celebrating the greatest UK chart hits of the eighties. Most information online covered the reveal of his sexuality. Before his hand was forced, Gareth and Hana had been notably close. With her striking facial features, Hana had gained some moderate success abroad in modelling and then had returned to Sussex to begin work as a local TV presenter in a show about garden wildlife, a show that Francesca was quite sure she couldn’t care less about – the fake ‘oh’s’ of surprise after seeing a dormouse scurry past on a night vision camera following an all-night camp out just did not ring true to Francesca, unless she really had been harbouring a fascination for small English rodents her entire life. She was also known as a bit of an ‘It’ girl, her picture and/or name sometimes being mentioned at various fashion shows and trendy nightclubs in London. A year ago it had come out, thanks to a friend who had betrayed Hana’s trust and sought a quick cash deposit by reporting to the papers, that Hana had always held feelings for Gareth. The story grew bigger however when Gareth laughed it off and ignored the rumours. Hana had been quite upset at his reaction. The pair were then spotted in a London cafe having what looked like a heart to heart. Another customer heard Gareth tell Hana he was gay and went to the press immediately. Gareth then decided to come out publicly. Gareth and Hana have since remained friends, although it is rumoured that Hana still wants more from the relationship.

Francesca sat back from the computer, rubbed her eyes and finished her chardonnay. She would certainly need some one on one time with this mixture of household names and Z-listers to understand why any of them would want to kill Catherine, if it had indeed been one of the Hadmere Players.

 

© Intrigue Inn

 

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The Indigo Bar – Introduction

The Indigo Bar is the first story we released at Intrigue Inn, and the first Francesca Palandri mystery. The DCI Palandri mysteries take place in Sussex, UK, with fictional town names.

Billy Grahame has been found murdered at a small hipster bar. He was the host of a small board gaming group who met at the bar every week. His body was found slumped over the prototype of a tarot inspired board game he had created…

Click here to start reading Day 1 of this mystery!

We’ve included bonus content with this mystery – five reviews of board games you might like to try after you’ve read the story!

The Indigo Bar was a live mystery when it was released, allowing readers to comment and interact with the story as installments were published, and readers could send in their accusations before the culprit was revealed. Feel free to comment on the installments with your suspicions as you progress!

The Hadmere Players – Part 1

The tenth anniversary of the Hadmere Player’s production of The Water Ghost Beckons was approaching. This may not have sounded like a big event, but one decade ago this small town production was precisely that. The play experienced unprecedented success for a local amateur show. It became more than just a small piece of entertainment for the community and neighbouring villages – usually the case for such an event – several flyers through the doors and a handful of performances.

The Water Ghost Beckons told the story of a family torn apart in what the entertainment section of the town’s newsletter described as ‘the most harrowing, humanly affecting fashion.’ During an autumnal break in the Dorset countryside, the family was singularly lured, entranced and picked off, until there remained one sole survivor, by an ethereal and seductive water ghost whom for each character was representative of their personal fears and desires. It was said that what made these later scenes particularly powerful was the time spent on establishing a family dynamic in the play’s first act – an act filled with laughter and familiarity, hitting the nail on the head when it came to a contemporary nuclear family. The contrast of a laughter fuelled first act and a devastating second one made for a particularly striking play.

A combination of word of mouth and local media allowed the play to grow bigger than was ever expected. Perhaps the theme of the play captured the zeitgeist of a new millennium; representing the fear of the unknown felt by society as one by one each character met their fate. Maybe it was the snappy dialogue and clever wordplay that turned local newspaper critic’s heads. Perhaps the balance of comedic and tragic performances captivated the small town community. It was said that the director, Zave Wilson, had struck gold with his casting; the chemistry between the six actors was reported as electric – a pulsating energy that was felt by the audience even in exchanged looks and unspoken scenes. The conversation came across both intense and natural; a strong allegiance between the family members especially was always present.

Whatever the reason, the play was a success. The initial six-day run was extended with another six dates added. Of the added dates, every performance was a full house – a rare sight in Hadmere’s poky townhouse theatre. On the night of the final performance, the cast celebrated with sheer surprise and amazement, taken aback by the attention their little six-person play had received. The upcoming reunion had been planned to coincide with the final performance in Hadmere’s theatre, December 7th. The players were immediately offered the opportunity to perform a string of dates at the festival theatre in nearby Nutbourne. After this, a couple of performances around the greater Sussex area and finally a number of shows were put on at independent theatre houses around London. The cast and crew decided to call it a day after that. They could have taken it further if they had wanted to. Go out on a high and leave them wanting more, Zave Wilson had said. Doors had been opened now. Opportunities for further work in theatre and beyond presented themselves for the actors, and over time a couple of them began to make names for themselves in the entertainment industry. Not everyone chose to further pursue the acting path, though. And not everyone who did follow that path made it as big as they would have liked.

*

Helen Burbank was preparing to leave her Victorian townhouse on Knoll Street and make the short journey into the High Street to The Fox and Hounds. The first snow of the season had begun falling today and she searched for her best winter jacket on the coat hanger, hooking it with a stick when she’d located the brown pea coat.

She started to wonder what exactly she and Zave would talk about. Just two thousand people in this town and we haven’t caught up for at least two years, she thought. How does that happen? Life happens. A lot has happened over the last ten years, she considered. Too much. Those of us who stayed behind don’t see each other as often we should. But we don’t work together anymore, after all, she supposed. All former colleagues do the same thing. They may live in the same town but generally, they’ll catch up just once in awhile for a morning coffee – somewhere like Melinda’s café with its cosy decor or possibly The Quay, especially in summer with it’s neat and colourful terrace. But most former colleagues didn’t create a unique bond when they worked together like the Hadmere Players of 2008 did. We created something quite special, thought Helen, special enough for us to plan a reunion. Only three of the players still remained in Hadmere. Herself, Zave Wilson, and Bill Gregson. When did she ever really chat with Bill anymore either? Yes, she frequented the corner shop on the town square often, but it had become small talk most of the time. ‘Just this milk Bill, I’m in a bit of a rush!’ or ‘Oh, lovely day Bill, be sure to get yourself outside later!’

She worried about Bill sometimes. She wasn’t sure why. He probably didn’t worry about himself too much. He seemed quite content, and always had done. She was quite sure he worried about Catherine Ratcliffe though, the lead in the play and arguably the most successful of them all now. Ten years had not been enough to suppress certain feelings and desires on Bill Gregson’s part, she was positive about that. It would be interesting to see how those two would interact come Friday afternoon. It would be interesting to see how everyone would interact, for that matter. They were all at very different stages of their lives, at different levels of success, and, she believed, different levels of happiness.

Her coat was on, buttoned all the way up, and she pushed herself toward the front door. She passed the cabinet in the hallway and put two fingers to the picture of her and another man which sat on top. The man had messy grey and brown hair. His cheeks were rosy and his head was tilted back in laughter. She paused for a minute, resting her fingers on his face. She did this every time she left her house. Then she moved her fingers from the picture to the wheels of her wheelchair and left to face the snow.

*

Zave Wilson was already inside the pub when Helen came in. He had been lucky to secure a small table; The Fox and Hounds was beginning to heave with customers. Locals moved back and forth; some entered, raising their voices in delight as they caught sight of their friends. Others came in alongside their friends, laughing mid-joke. Some had their hands full with shopping, already on the ball with Christmas, rolls of wrapping paper with little snowmen on poking out the top of large plastic bags. All seemed grateful to leave the cold and embrace the heat radiating from the open fire within and the closely packed bodies. It was a good atmosphere, he couldn’t deny it. It was just the festive predictability of it that bothered him.

“Director Wilson!” Helen exclaimed as she approached him. She was dressed smartly, a grin on her flushed face. “What a place to meet!” She cried. “It was like Where’s Wally trying to locate you in here!” Helen threw her pea coat over the small round table. “Let’s get drinks?” Navigating her wheelchair through the pub hadn’t been easy, but as Zave looked at the crowded bar and made a concerned face, Helen winked at him and made her way slowly toward it. People began making way for her chair as she moved to the front. Zave quickly followed her before the gap closed and become impenetrable again. He reached into his pocket for his wallet, but Helen was already ordering the drinks with cash in hand from a busty middle-aged woman behind the bar with short cropped hair. She had that typical no-nonsense expression on her face that most female pub managers of her age seemed to have, he thought. He nodded to the manager as he took the drinks a minute later. He bit his lip as he carefully made his way through the all the warm bodies with a pint of orange juice Helen had ordered for him and a small glass of Merlot for herself. As he placed the drinks down on their table, a group of girls in their late twenties or early thirties entered the pub loudly. (Quite a feat considering the level of noise in the pub already.) Zave observed them, unimpressed.

“Thanks for getting these, Helen. We might have to leave soon, though, unless you want to witness a ‘Girls night out.’” He shuddered at the thought.

Helen pushed her wheelchair closer towards the table. “Oh, really?”

“If they sit anywhere near us we can expect ear popping cackling, an onslaught of swear words and sexual innuendo, lemons from their double Malibu and Cokes being thrown at each other and the chorus of a Taylor Swift song being belted out. Badly.”

Helen laughed. “Belligerent as ever then Zave, even as the festive season approaches! I’m surprised you know who Taylor Swift is,” she remarked as she took a sip of her wine. “Anyway, cheers.” She raised her wine glass and he clinked it with his pint.

“Cheers, Helen. The pitfalls of being a daily internet user. You are subjected to information about people and events you couldn’t care less about.”

She laughed. “You strike me more of a newspaper man. The kind of man who would lead a crusade against the increased use of e-books, chanting about the ‘death of print.’”

“E-books and the internet are more than useful inventions. It’s inventions like the selfie stick I have problems with.” He looked behind him. “Ah, it’s okay. They’re standing near the back. And you know one of them will be crying soon. This is the standard protocol of their nights out. This will cause a divide in the group; over half of them will proceed to escort the crier to the toilets while the others will sit and bitch about her life choices.”

“What will she be crying about?”

“A boy, most likely.”

“You know, if it wasn’t for the fact I remember you mentioning you enjoy Christmas, I could be mistaken for thinking you were the reincarnation of Scrooge.”

“I like aspects of Christmas,” Zave grumbled. “So you booked for Farfalle?” He asked.

“Yes. Hopefully, we’ll get that nice table in the alcove. You’ve been there before, right? Should fit seven, even with my chair.”

“Great. Well done, Helen, really. You’ve been responsible for most of the organisation here.”

“Well, why not? I live the closest to the High Street. I know the restaurants and cafés in town the best I would say, out of you, Bill and I. You know, Zave, you’re looking much better these days,” she said, looking at the orange juice in his hand.

Zave waved a hand. “Oh, don’t. Have to say, though, not drinking has done wonders for my mental health. You look great as well, Helen. And I didn’t get a chance to congratulate you on your latest show yet.” He raised his glass in the air and they made another toast.

They caught up with each other’s lives for half an hour or so before Zave checked his watched and told Helen he’d have to be getting on with a job that involved a bit of a drive. Although neither of them would admit it, it was a great relief for both of them to leave the pub.

*

Traffic was slowing down on the approach to Hadmere. Dan Argenta felt an excitement rise inside of him unexpectedly as he saw the large church perched on the hill through the front windows of his Audi. The church he’d spent so many masses, choir practices and school plays in. He’d forgotten how the view of Hadmere Church as you drove towards the town always struck him as one the most beautiful views in the world every time he saw it. Maybe he wouldn’t have forgotten if he had come to visit more often, he wondered. Besides the aesthetics of the town and his family, though, what was there to keep him down here? Maybe when he was older he would buy a house here, perhaps one situated a little out of town for space, and spend weekends in it every so often. It would make a nice contrast to his Richmond townhouse. He could probably afford a small farmhouse down here now if he wanted it, he realised, but he knew he wouldn’t use it. Just because you can afford it doesn’t mean you need it, Catherine had once told him, teaching him the importance of justification, and he always took Catherine’s advice to heart.

Dan Argenta was one of the biggest success stories to come out of the Hadmere players. Interestingly, he had had one of the smallest roles. The nosy neighbour who had followed the family to Dorset was the first character to be lured through the fog by the water ghost. It was a pivotal role in that he was responsible for exposing some of the family secrets, yet ultimately a peripheral one. That didn’t stop the string of successful auditions and exciting stage and TV offers that lead Dan to where he was today. He knew that many wondered if it was because the British public loved a rags to riches tale. They always rooted for the underdog. Not only was Dan an underdog in the play itself, but he came from pretty humble beginnings in real life. Dan grew up on Sentel Road. It was essentially the working class road leading out of town. If anyone deserved success it was Dan, many of his supporters had always said. And he had started to believe it.

*

The unexpected pulp in his orange juice had made Zave feel a bit sick. The Fox and Hounds had been a terrible idea. He looked in the rearview mirror and to him, the bags were striking. How anyone could not be drawn immediately to them, he thought. Helen had said he was looking better!

He sighed and switched on the radio. It was going to be a bit of a drive to Nutbourne in this weather. He had a few teaching jobs on the go at the moment – one on one acting classes – and he was currently involved with the local school’s Nativity play. He wondered what the other players would think of him now as he started driving down the High Street. Would the likes of Catherine and Dan look at him with pity, knowing the course his life had taken over the last ten years? No big success, alcoholism… while they had risen from strength to strength. Although Dan was a hit with the younger generations Catherine was probably the better-known household name. She was currently the lead in popular prime-time drama Dance, Mary, Dance (the story of a mother who lost everything but was slowly getting her life back through modern dance) and this was on the back of a raved about performance as Grizabella in Cats up in Manchester. People hadn’t known Catherine had such a great voice inside of her. Even Zave hadn’t, which annoyed him a little. Hana and Gareth had enjoyed success to a degree, but not quite on the same level. It had all started well for Helen of course, but her tragedy put a sharp halt to that.

Xavier Wilson was, most people agreed, the key to Water Ghost’s success. He had directed and written the play, and was also responsible for casting the six actors. At the time, he had known the script was a good one. He had also known that Hadmere had an abundance of local talent in the unlikeliest of places. But the play’s success had shocked him just as much as it did the others. For Zave, directing was just a hobby in 2008. A theatre enthusiast, he wanted only to put his fingers into different pies after quitting work as a chauffeur. He was never too forthcoming with his reasons for leaving the profession, but it was common knowledge that he’d suffered from alcoholism. Directing had freed him, focused his mind. The success was also the beginning of a second personal downfall, however. He was never able to reach the heights of Water Ghost again and his special band of Merry Men had disbanded. Only Bill Gregson and Helen stayed in Hadmere. Bill had no interest in performing further and while Helen was eager at first, the accident saw an end to that for a while. He was never able to find any local performers quite as good. The chemistry was never the same. Dropping back slowly into old habits, he put down his director’s cap and picked up a wine bottle instead.

*

Gregson’s had been run by Bill Gregson for the last twenty-five years. A small matter of having a lead role in an unexpectedly successful play hadn’t stopped that. It was straight back to the shop for Bill, and having him around, carrying on with his positively normal daily routine, made the idea of Helen being a local celebrity sound strange – that status came from the same place Bill had come from, and most people didn’t think of him as any kind of celebrity. Helen entered Gregson’s and waited for an elderly couple to pay for a newspaper. They collected their change and shuffled to the door, preparing themselves for the snow.

‘Heya Helen,” Bill said.

“Hi, Bill! Just had a drink with Zave! Booked us in for Farfalle on Friday too.”

“Lovely,” he said, in a restrained voice. He was trying, she thought. He didn’t care for the reunion, she knew that. But of course, he would come. Catherine would be there.

“Coffee too in the daytime tomorrow, Melinda’s probably, you can make that too, right?

“Why are we meeting twice?” he asked, baffled.

“Good question,” she laughed. “Well, not everyone could make the meal at first so coffee was suggested, but then when dinner was good for everyone it just sort of stuck. I think it will be nice, though. Be a bit of an icebreaker; make dinner more relaxed for us all.” It made her wonder where the idea for a reunion had come from in the first place, and she couldn’t be too sure – it had been on a group message chat between all of them except Bill, absent because everybody just assumed he would have no idea how group messaging worked she supposed.

“Okay, Helen. Coffee’s fine too I guess. Mel will be taking care of business here tomorrow anyway, so I’m free.”

Helen gave what she hoped was a genuine smile as she picked up two packets of chicken stock cubes from a shelf near the counter. Cold weather and snow meant one thing: it was soup season, so stocking up on stock cubes was a must. She worried the smile may have been a sad one. She couldn’t help but feel sad, even though she knew she shouldn’t. She just didn’t understand how some people like Bill could be content with so little. Especially after having a taste of something greater. She loved small-town life, it was true, and even if the ‘accident’ (hah!) hadn’t happened she would have been happy to stay in Hadmere, as a base. But she still had dreams and ambitions. There had been some severe stumbling blocks, but she was making progress once again. Music had become the second love of her life in recent years. It had always been a passion, but comedy had come more naturally. Helen was one of only two Hadmere players who had been on a stage before The Water Ghost Beckons, where she’d played the comedy relief as the husband’s sister, providing the majority of the laughs in the play’s first act before the tone darkened dramatically in the second. She hadn’t done that much beforehand. Mainly open mike nights and a couple of local comedy festivals. Her dreams of performing at the Edinburgh Fringe came true after the play’s success. She was on her way to making a name for herself – one-woman shows, bigger audiences… you’re the next Miranda Hart her agency had told her. Although her dreams grew bigger, when the car hit her and John she realised her original dream of playing in Edinburgh would have to suffice. John had died instantly. Helen had fared worse, or so she believed for a long time. Paralysed from the waist down and told she would never walk again, mourning her husband, she hated the fact she was still alive at first. Her sense of humour couldn’t help her. The only thing she could muster up were variants on playing with the words ‘stand-up comedy’. A laugh out loud Miranda Hart level set in the making it was not. No, that little dream would have to be plucked and put on a jar on the shelf with only a remote possibility of ever being opened again.

The cello had been her solace. In bed watching the Japanese movie Departures, she felt inspired. She devoted her time to the instrument so as to take her mind off everything else consuming her. Eat, cello, eat, bed became her life. Realising that she both needed to do something with her life and that she was really quite a good cellist, Helen took to some local performances. A comeback, people had said. A wonderful sob story for people to enjoy… dead husband, ruined comedy career, burying her sorrow in the rich, mellow sounds of the cello only to master her craft and put on captivating performances. Bravo. Not a dry eye in the house. Back on the stage but under circumstances no one could have foreseen. Much like the sound of her instrument, her successful performances are bittersweet, one local newspaper wrote. Bittersweet would not be the world Helen would use to describe a horrific incident resulting in tragedy and some middling success as a cellist.

Helen bid farewell to Bill in a resolve to train her mind to not feel sorry for him, and much like the elderly couple beforehand she messed around with her scarf and jacket before heading back into the snow.

*

The next day, Gareth Lawler bowed his head to enter the low-ceilinged coffee shop, Melinda’s. The drive down had been hellish due to snow, all for a coffee in a room where he couldn’t even stand up properly. Hana, his carpool companion, tottered in behind him. She shivered, inevitably. It was December, there was snow on the streets and she was dressed to impress, not for comfort. She had suggested they wait a while, take a drive together for a bit longer to continue their catch up, one on one. Sure, he knew how she still felt about him – anyone who read a celebrity gossip magazine did – but he couldn’t help think that she wanted to be fashionably late and make an entrance in her black Tom Ford dress. As it stood, they were the first ones there. We’re first and Bill’s shop is literally three seconds away, Gareth thought.

“This place is the same, Gaz!” Hana remarked.

“Everything is still the same here,” he replied with a sigh. He remembered coming to Melinda’s as a child and by the looks of it the interior had not changed one bit. Looking at the fluffy cushions on each chair which were filled undoubtedly with decades of dust, Gareth felt a little depressed.

Just behind them, the bell above the door rang as it opened and Helen entered. It was a shock for Gareth to see the wheelchair. He knew about it, of course, but this was the first time they’d met since her accident.

“Gosh, you two,” Helen gushed. “Give us some warning next time… Hadmere can’t handle two sets of dentures that bright and perfect…”

“Oh, Helen! It’s great to see you!” Hana beamed and they embraced each other, Gareth followed suit, and they waited for the others to arrive, taking seats on fluffy mismatched chairs around a large table. Sure, there’s some rustic charm to places like this, considered Gareth. But he definitely preferred things more on the neat and polished side. Bill was next in through the door, followed by Dan. They all embraced with a slight British awkwardness which Gareth observed with some embarrassment. Who decided reunions were ever a good idea? he thought. They are just full of constant awkward exchanges, the desire to out-impress each other and compare oneself to everybody else. It was stressful. The serving staff at Melinda’s appeared to be finding it all a bit much, too. A couple of them may not have been old enough to remember The Water Ghost Beckons (although they certainly knew about it, as Hadmere citizens) but they recognised Dan Argenta straight away. Most of them knew Hana also, and a couple recognised Gareth but were not quite able to place him. A flustered girl of around sixteen eagerly started setting up the table. There was definitely some interest from the customers too, not very well hidden, Gareth observed, noting a man of around twenty-five sitting alone at the back of the cafe who was trying not to stare.

Zave was next in, wearing a long trench coat. Likeable enough but a bit too intense and irritable for Gareth’s liking at times. Warm smiles, hugs, and exclamations of surprise once more.

“No Catherine yet?” Zave asked, flopping his jacket over a seat.

“I got a message from her, she’s on her way,’ Helen replied. “Making an entrance!” She laughed. Hana did not look impressed.

“Good idea on the coffee catch up today Helen!” said Dan. He was beaming, and for good reason thought Gareth wryly, the serving staff were practically falling over at the sight of him. He wasn’t sure who was winning between the youngest looking waitress and the twenty-five-year-old customer.

“Thanks, Dan. God, it’s so surreal to see everyone back together!”

“Bill, you haven’t changed one bit!” Hana chimed in.

“Yes… no fancy dental work for me, eh,” he replied with a smile. Hana and Gareth weren’t sure what to quite make of that statement.

“And you’re still at the shop?” Hana asked with what was clearly meant to come across as casual politeness, but the note of derision was unmistakable.

“Yes…” said Bill with a short smile. “I know I haven’t been venturing out, gallivanting around London town like some of you lot, but I love Hadmere. Always have, always will. Just look at it – especially today in the snow. It’s like something from Dickens.”

They all responded in agreement as the bell above the door rang once more and Catherine Ratcliffe entered, a large grin on her face as she spotted the others. She removed her jacket and shook it on the doormat to get rid of some of the settled snow. Catherine Ratcliffe looked the part of a middle-aged star, her short-styled curly hair immaculate and her red and black dress flattering without being revealing. Now here’s a woman who knows what to do with her age, thought Gareth. In spite of himself, he started laughing inside at what poor Bill must be thinking right now. Why he never made a move, Gareth would never understand. Catherine carried her thick black faux fur jacket and a handbag matching her dress and took a seat beside Dan after hugs and kisses. Chanel No. 5 wafted up Gareth’s nose as he thought how unsurprising it was for Catherine to sit next to her celebrity buddy Dan.

“Sorry, all! I had a surprise visit from Margo before leaving this morning – my agent – she’s been on the phone with one of those celebrity Saturday night dancing shows. I’ve been trying to decide if I want to embarrass myself or not… Still not sure!” She gave an embarrassed shrug and laughed.

“You know what I would say Cath,” said Dan, “Go for it. You always tell me to grab opportunities.”

Ha, thought Gareth, he just had to get a mention of how he and ‘Cath’ are pals. Gareth wondered if he was the only one thinking that.

“Let me go and order some drinks – what’ll it be guys, coffees?” asked Zave, getting ready to stand up.

Most of the group ordered americanos except for Hana who preferred tea and Dan who ordered the most expensive smoothie he could find on the menu. Zave went to the bar to order and Dan went to use the toilets. The rest of the group had broken off into separate conversations. Catherine and Hana were discussing Hana’s current local Sussex TV gig while Gareth, Bill and Helen talked about the differences between London and Hadmere.

“I’m a best of both girl, really,” said Helen. “Love small town life here but it’s good to remember there’s more going on in this world and just how busy it can be with a trip up to London now and then.”

“Do you have any upcoming shows in London, Helen?” asked Gareth. “Surely with the success you’ve been having down here?”

“One’s in the pipeline, yes. It’s a bit scary – the idea of a big London audience… it’s been a while. Well, big London audiences are nothing to you Gaz – has your latest show finished it’s run yet?

“Yeah, couple of weeks back. I only had a small part, though…”

“Still! That’s super impressive.”

“I don’t feel the need to go to London much, to be honest,” said Bill. “I know what it’s like. It’s dirty and frantic and everyone looks stressed and tired. I don’t need regular visits to remember that.”

Zave and Dan, once back at the table, had joined Hana and Catherine’s discussion. Helen went to the toilets and then shortly after she came back the young waitress brought over the drinks on a shaking tray. Gareth took the tray from her hands to help her out and placed it on the table.

“I just don’t know why the bigger modelling agencies haven’t picked up on you yet, Hana. You’re so stunning, more so than ever,” Catherine said. She wasn’t wrong. With her perfect skin, large blue eyes and sleek chestnut hair, Hana Payne often made people do a double-take when they first saw her. She’d had middling success with modelling, having worked internationally with a recent tour around Asia.

“Lot of luck in modelling, Cath.” Hana replied. “It’s why I moved on to presenting.”

Catherine nodded sincerely. “I understand that. Keeping options open is always wise, I say. Well, cheers everyone!” She said, turning to the others and taking her coffee, as everyone had been fiddling around with sugar packets and stirring their drinks. “I’m so happy this is happening! I’m not lying when I saw that despite the play being a decade ago now you lot never leave my mind. I’m always wondering what everyone’s up to.” They cheered and clinked their cups and glasses and sipped their drinks before resuming their conversations.

“Well if you know of any contacts, Catherine, please let me know,” said Hana. But Catherine wasn’t listening. Catherine was trying to fight off the paralysing sensation that had suddenly overtaken her entire body.

“Catherine?” Hana asked, but the poison was already taking its fatal effects.

“Guys! Catherine –” But everyone understood now as Catherine Ratcliffe fell limply from her chair, causing Dan next to her to act immediately and grab her before she hit the floor, holding her as she shook, yelling her name but to no avail – a minute later, she was dead.

 

© Intrigue Inn

 

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The Pearl of Taiwan – Day 6

I make a plan to travel to Jiufen in the early afternoon. I did intend to go earlier, but I ask Josh and Naomi if they’d like to meet for breakfast first. Josh hasn’t been messaging much since the murder, understandably of course. I’ve been the one asking them to meet up since (although yesterday that was to check I could actually trust them – paranoia at it’s finest) and I want to be careful to not pester them too much. Saying that, I do think it’s important to catch up regularly while we’re all in Taipei. It can potentially help the healing process of such a traumatic event.

I’m also keen to catch up with Michael and Pauline before they leave for the next stop on their cruise. I have no contact information, so I phone up their hotel in Jiufen to see if they would be willing to pass on their details. The lady on the phone doesn’t have a number to give me, but their registration form states which hotel Michael and Pauline Chapman are staying at in Taipei.

Josh sends me his location – an American diner in Ximen. I decide to walk there, headphones on and listening to The Eagles, while seeing if there is anything I can find out about Michael and Pauline online. Social media has been a valuable resource in investigating some people so far but it’s not helping me now. I type their names into a search engine instead.

The top result is a community forum on a website called ‘Joyful Over Jewels‘, a website dedicated to luxury vintage and antique jewellery. The search results indicate Pauline and Michael are members of the forum, having racked up an impressive post count. There are various discussions on different cuts and evaluations, but the couple’s main activity seems to be centred around a sub-forum discussing expensive jewellery items around the world. Their history, value and movement are all analysed in depth by the members frequenting this sub-forum. As I read, I recall the couple mentioning their love of gold – visiting museums in South Africa and now here in Taiwan. They are clearly enamoured by jewels and precious minerals. Not a promising sign. As I scroll down the thread titles I spot one called ‘Sansberg Necklace – Where Is It Now?‘ with members discussing the current whereabouts of the extortionately valued pearl necklace. Michael and Pauline are very active in determining its current location, and on several occasions they comment on how beautiful they find the piece. Their sleuthing has been successful, and they’ve tracked the necklace to Cindy. ‘How ridiculous! Giving such a unique and fabulous piece to the nanny! Lindholm had zero respect for fine jewellery,’ reads one of Pauline’s comments. ‘This is possibly the most beautiful pearl necklace in the world!’

I stop reading as I arrive at the diner. I join Josh and Naomi for American breakfast and milkshakes. I try to put aside what I’ve just read until I visit the Chapman’s hotel later.

“This place is not as good as back home, of course,” says Josh as our food arrives. “But it satisfies a craving. How are you feeling today, Greg?”

“I’m still confused by everything, to be completely honest,” I reply.

Naomi gives me a sympathetic look. ” I was too, up until yesterday. But now they’ve arrested that ex-boyfriend. It’s over.”

“Greg doesn’t think he did it,” says Josh.  “I suppose it could have been someone else. I didn’t really think that Cindy could have enemies. But now that I understand a little bit more about that necklace and its worth, it’s entirely possible. Naomi mentioned that Cindy told her about the relationship she had with her boss, and that Lindholm’s family may have been jealous.”

“Yes,” says Naomi. “It occurred to me after her death that her family may not have been happy with Cindy receiving that necklace. It was clearly worth a lot. I mentioned this to the police officer in Jiufen when he told me they’ve arrested Chih Ming. That could be something for them to look into! But they think they have their guy, so that’s that.”

“Its worth five million dollars, by the way. I looked it up.” I tell them. “It was easy to find out.”

Josh nearly spits out his pancakes. “What? What the hell was she doing wearing it every day? Obviously it was expensive, but wow.”

“Maybe she didn’t know its true value…” I suggest. ” I think she wore it more out of respect for Robin Lindholm than for how luxurious it is.”

“She only told me bits and pieces, but I always wondered what kind of relationship they had,” says Naomi. “I did suspect romantic. But it’s hard to imagine isn’t it? She was a strange girl, really. Very wary of new people. If she hadn’t met someone before, she didn’t trust them. She was shy with me at first, back in Rochester. Not for too long, though.”

“That’s because you’re so friendly and easy to get along with,” I compliment Naomi. “You both are. I noticed she wasn’t so forthcoming with me at first. But she seemed very protective of that necklace. So maybe she did know its value, and that’s why she was wary of people who tried to befriend her.”

We finish our meals and Josh pays from a screwed up wad of cash in his bag.

“Some bookings like to pay the old fashioned way,” Josh says frowning, nodding at the cash.

“We should be using that to eat more local food, instead of this stuff! Only a week left for us here,” Naomi says. ”

“Oh, so soon!” I say. “I didn’t realise. How did the billboard bookings go, cash payments aside?” I ask Josh.

“Oh, not bad!” he says, but I can hear disappointment in his voice. I wonder, despite the good things they’ve mentioned about their agency, if they were expecting more by the time their contracts were up.

“Well you’ve gained some great experience over here, I expect. It’ll put you in good stead back home.”

“Hopefully,” Josh says vaguely. Frustration at modelling sucesss aside, the spark Josh and I had is fading, I can see it. There’s a detachment. Cindy’s death has sort of put a damper on our flirting and I can tell that he and his sister probably just want to move on from the ordeal. Unfortunately, I became a part of that ordeal and am therefore included in this dark chapter that the two of them would preferrably rather forget.

“I’ll probably only be in Taiwan a few more days myself,” I tell the siblings. “But please, feel free to talk anytime. We may be able to help each other make sense of it all. I’d add you both on social media but you’re not on there?”

“Private profiles to avoid prying eyes at our agency,” Naomi explains. “We’ve heard horror stories about foreigners being fired based on their online photos and statuses.”

“Oh wow. We can just text. And guys, please do eat more Taiwanese food in your final week. Especially you, Josh! You are seriously missing out. Look up a place called Kuo Noodles. You won’t regret it.”

*

Pauline and Michael’s hotel is in the same area as mine, in the Taipei Main Station area. It’s worth a try to see if they’re around, I have to go to the main station anyway to travel up to Jiufen.

At the hotel I ask a receptionist about the couple. He tells me that they have checked out, but left their suitcases here. They should be collecting them shortly as they have to leave for their cruise ship. I wait in the lobby seating area. Michael and Pauline come back twenty minutes later and are clearly annoyed to see me at first, but sit down with me to talk.

“Look, we need to leave in a few minutes. We can’t talk for long,” Michael tells me. “What do you want? They’ve made an arrest. It was on the news.”

“Honestly, I want to talk about Joyful Over Jewels. You told me you didn’t know Cindy at all, but that’s not quite true.”

“Greg, why are you snooping?” Pauline asks, exasperated. “I know it’s suspicious but we didn’t do anything- we tried to help her when she started choking!”

“Okay, so clearly you’ve read our comments on the forum,” Michael says. “You know, we didn’t come to Taiwan specifically because of Cindy, if that’s what your getting at. It was a happy coincidence that she was in Taiwan during our cruise. We did however choose to visit Jiufen based on her movements. We couldn’t resist getting a look at the Sansberg necklace! But steal it? And kill Cindy? No, absolutely not.”

“You were, it appears, the last two people to speak to her,” I mention.

“Yes. She came into the cafe that we had decided to visit – by chance may I add. Once she sat down we decided it was worth a try asking her about the necklace. Just wanted to see it. And perhaps ask her why Lindholm gave it to her. Out of curiosity, you know. She wasn’t even wearing it anyway, like she was the day before. Saw a glimpse at the waterfall. Well, she was very rude and told us to leave her alone. We were only asking, for goodness sake.”

“And you noticed nothing unusual otherwise?” I ask, unsure whether to trust them or not.

“No. We tried to help,” Michael repeats. “You were there, so you know this. Now, Greg, we have to go. We suggest you leave this matter be. I just hope they can locate the necklace and find a good home for it.”

*

My journey to Jiufen is quick, and this time I manage to find the bus stop outside Riufang station. After the bus drops me off, my first stop is the hotel I stayed at. I spot Winnie in the kitchen and she’s surprised to see me.

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“Oh, Greg! What are you doing here?” Cindy puts down a knife and walks into the dining area.

“I heard Chih Ming has been arrested. It doesn’t seem right to me, at all. I came back to see if I can help in any way.”

“It’s horrible,” she sighs, sitting down with me at one of the dining tables. “I was so upset with him. And Cindy. I could see them getting close again… I’m not stupid. He mentioned her occasionally in the past. This week, I realised it was her, and I couldn’t believe she was staying at our hotel! But it’s so horrible that Cindy is dead and Chih Ming has been blamed… We haven’t been dating for long, but there’s no way he would do this. And they’ve found no evidence of poison at Daydreams and Tea. In the bubble tea machine, on the counters, nowhere. That poor manager there… either this is going to be great for her business or no one will visit anymore. Oh, wait there a second… I have something for you to try. I made some traditional style cheese balls.”

She brings a plate of them over and we share a few of the doughy balls filled perfectly with hot cheese piped in to the centre.

“Wow, these are great, thank you.”

“I’m glad you like them. I’m becoming very good with desserts now.”

“Winnie, why did you go to the cafe that day? When did you get there?”

“I got there just a minute before Cindy did. It was my morning off. I was taking a long walk and then decided to visit the cafe so I could chat with Chih Ming when his shift was over. Cindy seemed very flustered when she arrived, I don’t know why. I had just sat down at one of the booth tables when she walked in. She was looking in her bag carefully. Like she was double checking she had everything on her. She then sort of argued with Chih Ming for a few minutes. Because I was there. She saw me. But I think she was actually just emotional or stressed about something else at the time. She was very shaken.”

“She wasn’t like that when she left this dining room just fifteen minutes before. What happened after she ordered her drink?”

“Well, she sat down and then two foreigners came and spoke to her. They wanted to know about her jewellery, I think, but Cindy wasn’t happy about it so they went to sit down again. They were very disappointed. Then Chih Ming came over with her bubble tea. She added some popping pearls from a container to her drink. She put the container of popping pearls back into her bag on the floor. Very weird. Who carries popping pearls around with them? I noticed she added them to her drinks at breakfast here. Anyway, a few minutes later she was sick…”

“That’s very interesting. Thanks. You know, that necklace is worth a lot of money.”

“I heard. Whoever has it now, if they sell it, they can do anything they like in this world… Escape anywhere, buy anything they want… Imagine.” She sounds jealous. “I didn’t see anyone take it, though. I didn’t notice if she was wearing it. I mean, maybe when everyone gathered around her but it would be very difficult. If the necklace was in her bag maybe someone could grab it, but around her neck no way. Someone must have taken the necklace before she came.”

I thank Winnie for her food and conversation and once again retrace the path from the hotel to Daydreams and Tea. I am more sure than ever that something happened on her short journey to the cafe. As I climb the stone stairway, I look carefully for a sign, a clue, anything. I climb a particularly overgrown part of the stairway and spot something half submerged in the dirt next to one of the steps. As I look closer, I see it’s a Polaroid picture. I pick it up. It’s a picture of Alma and her boyfriend Kevin, here in Jiufen, walking along Old Street among a crowd of people. They’re not looking at the camera. I don’t think they knew the picture was being taken. Who took it? Why is it here? Why take a picture of them unawares? I look at the spot where I picked up the Polaroid more carefully, pushing a shrub to one side. Popping pearls! Just two of them, half covered by dirt.  There’s also a fragment of a receipt and two coins. I take a picture with my phone of the items and keep the Polaroid on me.

I walk back down the stairs and to the police station. The young officer seems confused, but takes it from me as I tell him there are a few other bits and pieces by the steps that could be considered evidence. I strongly advise him and his team to think about this case carefully, because I’m positive that Chih Ming has nothing to do with this. Whoever did this knew that Chih Ming would be an easy target, and in case he wasn’t, well, it would appear they hatched a plan to lure the daughter of Robin Lindholm to Jiufen while Cindy was here, making her look extremely suspicious.

I make my way to the bus stop. I think I’m done here. I have a lot to think about, and when I’m finished I’m going to need a bowl of beef noodle soup and a long chat with Freddy Kuo. I’m keen to discuss my thoughts with him and seek advice on how I should proceed from here.

© Intrigue Inn

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The Pearl of Taiwan – Day 5

It’s a slow start to the morning after a restless night’s sleep. Following the realisation that Cindy’s popping pearls were missing from her bag at the police station, I also started wondering about Robin Lindholm’s children, and a disturbing thought plagued my dreams. Lindholm had two children in the late eighties, a couple of years apart – a boy and a girl. I know two people who would fit that description, and they have the Swedish blonde hair and blue eyes to match. It’s outrageous to think they could concoct such an elaborate plan and a steady string of lies, but are Josh and Naomi Lindholm’s children? From what I know about English speaking Swedish people, it is often hard to tell they are Swedish because their English pronunciation is so clear. The minimal trace of a Swedish accent could make it nearly impossible. My online research yesterday revealed that Lindhom’s children went on to live in America and more recently Taiwan, perhaps it was Rochester and Taipei specifically… I really don’t know anything about Naomi and Josh’s lives before Taiwan, after all.

Trying not to panic too much about this, I message Josh and ask if I can drop by their apartment to see how they’re doing. I can’t find either Josh or Naomi on social media so there’s a chance I could find something in their apartment that confirms this crazy theory instead. Josh tells me to come over, so I make my way to their place next to Bangka Park, close to Lungshan Temple.

I enter the lobby of a worn down apartment complex. There’s a guard on duty behind a small, dusty glass window. He may be able to help with a question of mine. I ask if he speaks English. He looks slightly concerned but still nods.

“I’m a friend of Josh and Naomi’s,” I tell him.

“Ah. The models. Yes. Always with the friends visiting.”

Oh, I bet they always do have ‘friends’ over, both being young, beautiful and single.

“I have a question. Did you see Josh yesterday? Leaving and coming back?”

“Yes, yes. I saw him,” the guard says.

“Do you remember when?”

He thinks for a minute. “Left early. Dressed for work. White T-Shirt, black jeans. Hm. He came back a few hours later. Maybe 4 hours. Then he left again quickly after that. He was moving quickly.”

“Thank you, that’s very helpful.” He doesn’t seem at all concerned that I was asking about Josh’s comings and goings. The guard’s words confirm Josh’s movements on the day Cindy died. He had a modelling booking in the morning. He came back home, and then left again quickly as Naomi had told him to come up to Jiufen as soon as possible. Naomi was with me while Cindy was poisoned, so neither of them could have killed Cindy. This does not quite reassure me, though. They could have hired someone to kill her. One of these gangsters Freddy mentioned.

I nervously make my way up to their apartment. Josh greets me and we walk into a small, dingy space decorated with various items from home. Naomi is out. I walk past her room and notice plenty of designer bags, shoes and accessories. Josh did say they are doing well with their agency, and it seems like that’s just as well because Naomi has expensive taste. She can’t be fond of the mould growing in the corners of the ceiling, then.

“Let me make you some tea,” Josh says. “I know for you Brits that’s your solution to anything. I prefer the stronger stuff, however. Naomi and I have been on that since the murder…”

He heads into a poky kitchen area and I use the opportunity to search the living space, looking for any clues of a Swedish background.

Behind a poker table with cards and chips scattered across it, I notice a dusty chest of drawers that may contain the answer. I open the bottom drawer and spot a bunch of documents – contracts, random pay slips and discarded portfolio photos. Aha! US passports. And on closer inspection of their contracts, the identity info makes it very clear. Josh and Naomi are US citizens through and through. I breathe a huge sigh of relief. It’s just coincidental. Thinking about it, why would Lindholm’s children be living in this tiny, grubby apartment working as models? They’re a wealthy family. If his children are in Taiwan right now they probably have some swanky apartment. In hindsight, it was an absurd theory and I panicked. Something is bugging me though, and it’s to do with the idea of Swedish people and their generally flawless English accents. They must make mistakes occasionally, and this triggers a memory.

I want to get some use.”

The auburn haired woman’s words in Jiufen that confused me at the time. The sentence seemed so strange. Useuse… what does that mean? She wanted to go in to the 7-Eleven and get some use. 

Josh brings me my tea.

“You look deep in thought. Try not to overthink this horrible situation, Greg. The police are doing everything they can. It seems quite cut and dry that this ex-boyfriend is the killer. They’ll probably be making an arrest soon, I would bet on that with confidence.”

“I really don’t think it’s Chih Ming,” I tell Josh. “There are too many other things to consider here.”

I sip the tea, a lemon and ginger mix. Juice! I suddenly realise. I want to get some juice. With a silent J, it sounded like the word use to me. This certainly sounds like it could be Scandinavian pronunciation error. I need to find out where the mystery couple are. I drink my tea with haste, feeling guilty that I want to leave Josh quickly so I can find out more, adding to the guilt I already have at thinking Josh and Naomi could be responsible for Cindy’s death. I have a flash-forward, imagining Josh and I dating each other and then a few year from now I say, ‘It’s quite funny, really, but one time I thought you were a murderer.’

On my way home, I pop into a small mart and after finding the right aisle I pick up a container of popping pearls. These ones are strawberry flavoured, but the flavour is not important. I also need a syringe with a needle and I manage to find one at a 7-Eleven, which really seems to sell anything you could possibly want. While there I pick up some interesting looking snacks to try.

I arrive at my hotel and unpack the thin needle syringe and open the container of popping pearls. I then fill the syringe with a small amount of water. I need to test the idea formulating in my mind because I can’t be sure that it’s physically possible. I take one of the small pearls and carefully pierce the skin with the needle, injecting a tiny amount of water. The skin bursts and the water plus the juice from inside the pearl ooze out. Hmm. I try again, same thing. On my third try, however, I start getting the knack for it and only a little juice and water come out. After ten tries I have it down. I’m able to successfully inject a small amount of water into a pearl without it bursting. What if the popping pearls had been injected with cyanide? It would explain why there was only a minimal trace of cyanide in the taro milk. That could come from a few of the pearls bursting in the drink and any residue on the surface of the pearls. Cindy loved her mango popping pearls and added them liberally to her drinks, so enough poison could probably enter her system, even though these pearl cannot hold much liquid. As she enjoyed them so much, it was likely she sucked up all the pearls quickly. None left in the drink for the police to analyse. Also, the irony is not lost on me. Popping pearls being the cause of death means that Cindy was killed by pearls for her pearls. The murderer’s sick little joke. It is certainly quite an effort to inject poison into so many of these small pearls, but it’s a great way to baffle the police. And Cindy’s container of mango pearls was not in her bag after she died. Someone could have removed that in the cafe, or potentially at the police station if they were able to get away with it. Remove the evidence and leave the police confused. The only problem is that Cindy was eating the pearls just before she left for Daydreams and Tea on the day she was murdered. I saw her put some into her milk tea at the hotel. She didn’t react to them. They can’t have been injected with poison at that point. So how does this idea make sense?

I sigh, frustrated and move on to finding our what I can about Robin Lindholm’s children, specifically his daughter. There’s barely any information available, but a little Nancy Drewing on social media reveals a name that matches one article about the Lindholm family. Alma Lindholm. This could be Robin’s daughter. I click on her Facebook profile picture. It’s her – the auburn haired woman! Scrolling through her pictures, I realise she has only recently dyed her hair auburn. There are various pictures of her with friends, her brother – who looks very typically Scandinavian – and also her boyfriend Kevin, the Taiwanese – American man who accompanied her to Jiufen. Her personal info lists a job position in a law firm located in Taipei 101. Well, I was planning to visit the tower some point soon anyway. The international law firm Nilsson and Wu is on the skyscraper’s 63rd floor.

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I take the red MRT line to Taipei 101 Station and walk for a few minutes to the base of the skyscraper. Looking up, I can appreciate the intention to construct Taiwan 101 like a giant stalk of bamboo, making it different from the generally homogeneous design of so many skyscrapers. The ground floor is a mall of various fashion brands and franchise restaurants. A sign directs people seeking the entrance and elevators to the observation deck to the 5th floor. I need the business entrance, not the tourist one. I find out there is a service centre on the 35th floor that I can access, so I make my way up and walk over to a reception desk.

“I need to speak with Alma Lindholm of Nilsson and Wu, please. Floor 63.”

“Do you have an appointment with the company?” A small, neat woman asks me.

‘No, but it’s a situation of a private matter regarding her family.”

She looks at me sceptically. “Has she granted you an access card?”

“No, she told me I should come by and she would issue me one.”

‘Please wait a second.”

She makes a phone call and a few minutes later I see the familiar hair colour out of the corner of my eye. I turn towards Alma as she walks towards me. She stops dead in her tracks.

“You were in Jiufen. How did you find me?”

“We need to talk, Alma. I know who you are.”

She looks at me, completely unimpressed, and motions that I should follow her. She signs me in and I’m given an access card. We take the elevator up and walk in to a corner office of Nilsson and Wu which offers spectacular views of the city. She closes the door behind us.

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“Sit down. Before we begin, I need to know that this conversation will be confidential. And, I’d also like to know who the hell you are.”

“My name is Greg Newman and I’m a travel food writer. I assure you our conversation will stay in this office.”

She looks at me as if I’m stupid. I tell her about my connections to Cindy. I reassure her that I am outsider in all of this and am merely trying to assist the investigation and ensure the wrong person isn’t arrested. I remind her of the death penalty laws in Taiwan. Even though there has been very few executions in recent years, it’s something to bear in mind.

“I’m aware of the laws, thank you. In case you’ve forgotten already, this is a law firm.”

I ignore the dig. “You were looking for Cindy. Why?”

“Cindy had something that didn’t belong to her.”

“Do you now have that something?”

“No, I do not.”

“Why do you say it didn’t belong to her? She was given the necklace by your father. As a gift.”

“So we were led to believe.”

“If you don’t have it, them I’m only trying to help work out where it is now.”

“Look, our family lawyers back in Stockholm informed us that Cindy was not given the necklace and that she blackmailed my father.”

“Blackmailed over what?”

“The letter didn’t say.”

“The letter?”

Alma goes red in the face. “As I mentioned this matter is strictly confidential. In part because I am extremely embarrassed over this whole situation. My reckless actions have potentially brought unwanted attention to my family. You’re the first. But you won’t be the last. Or the most worrying. You’re not the police. You’re just nosy.”

I try to stand my ground. “Yet I have connections and may be able to help you.”

She pauses and walks over to her desk. She reaches into a drawer and hands me an envelope.

“I received this last week. Even on close inspection, it is has been made with incredible accuracy. I did not evaluate it closely at the time because I was consumed with rage.”

I read the letter, addressed to Alma and detailing how evidence that Robin Lindholm did not give the Sansberg necklace to Cindy Xiu as a gift has been found. It was instead taken by threat of blackmail. Their sources have traced Cindy’s current whereabouts to Rochester, New York State.

“When I received the letter I immediately thought about how to find Cindy Xiu. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long, or travel far. Her social media told me she was back in Taipei, just visiting. Her posts specifically mentioned a trip to Jiufen. I decided to take matters into my own hands. I was going to track her down myself. My brother is currently working in Dubai so it was up to me. I’m not sure how I’d ever find her in Taipei, but in a small town like Jiufen there was a possibility. I used her socials to check what she looked like – I never met her, you see, she was a nanny to the children my father had with his second wife, Shu Chen. I went to Jiufen with my partner Kevin. A foolish act. I hadn’t even bothered to contact our lawyers. Then, Cindy dies while I’m in the town. If anyone important realises who I am and that I was there at the same time as this murder, well, it doesn’t look good for me, does it?”

“And so the letter isn’t real?”

“On the day Cindy died, Shu Chen told me she never received a letter like this and contacted the lawyers. They confirmed that they had never sent such a thing out to any of us, and that the claims were false. So I risked all that, for nothing. You can imagine how nightmarish this is for me, working for Nilsson and Wu. The fact that I didn’t go through the proper procedures after the letter had been sent, or doubt the way they had presented this information, not requesting their sources. I look like a fool. I was just so angry! I even walked straight past her at one point when we were asking various hotels if she was staying there. I realised it was her afterwards. You were with her.”

“Yes. You looked so focused you weren’t even paying attention.”

“It’s a five million dollar necklace. You can understand my emotions.”

“The big question of course is who wrote that letter?”

“Whoever did, they are probably out there right now laughing at me. I fell for that one, hard. I suppose I’ve always resented the fact that my father gave the necklace to her. It’s made me hate her. I created an image of her in my mind that is probably not correct. I didn’t even know what I was going to do once I found her in Jiufen. I don’t think I want to know. Maybe it’s a good thing someone got in there first and killed her before I could… ”

“I really think you should tell the police. This letter is evidence. If this is a fake letter written by Cindy’s murderer it means we’re dealing with a very thorough, premeditated plan here.” That’s if Alma is telling me the truth, of course.

“No. I’m not prepared to do that. Not right now anyway. I’d be happy to take your contact details in case you find out more. Why are you so invested in this anyway?”

“Something has felt very off about this situation since I witnessed Cindy dying in that cafe. I’m just trying to discover what that is.”

Alma shows me out. As I take the elevator down, I receive a message from Josh. Chih Ming has been arrested. I shake my head. I’m running out of time here. The Jiufen police were just eager to blame someone. I think I need to return to Jiufen and see what more I can learn there.

 

© Intrigue Inn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pearl of Taiwan – Day 4

Naomi and Josh decide to leave early in the morning and catch the train to Taipei. For Naomi, staying in Jiufen longer than necessary is clearly traumatic, however I decide to stick around for a while. They gather their things – Naomi has a lot of luggage so Josh helps her carry it, and I say goodbye and promise them that we will meet up soon. I feel they may need some space to themselves for a little while. Yesterday I didn’t know what to do with myself. Overnight, I decided to make a more productive use of my time as a witness and a link to Cindy.

I check out of the hotel with Winnie’s mother and try get the point across that I’d like to leave my bags here for a short time. Winnie is absent which is a shame, not just because of communication issues with her mother, but also because I’m keen to chat to her after yesterday’s events. In a small town like this, everyone knows about what happened. I may not be able to understand the language, but I can tell it’s the subject on everyone’s lips.

I retrace the steps Naomi and I took to Daydreams and Tea. Presumably this is the same route Cindy took – up the stone stairway. The stairway feels quiet and secluded, helped by the overgrowing fauna on either side. The cafe is closed, understandably, but the young male employee I saw on the scene yesterday is sitting outside the front door smoking. We acknowledge each other.

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“You were here yesterday,” he says gloomily. “I remember.”

“Yes. I knew Cindy, a little.”

“Oh… you are the food writer. Okay.”

“Yes… how do you know that?”

“Cindy told me. My name is Chih Ming.”

“You knew her? As a customer?” I know Cindy liked to visit this cafe regularly so perhaps got to know the staff, but it was also mentioned she knew some of the employees personally.

“I knew her. I knew her very well. We were dating before she left to work in Sweden. Now she comes back here and I can’t believe she died. Here! They say she was poisoned. And I’m so upset, and so confused.”

“Confused that this could happen?”

“Confused because I made her the drink!”

“The taro bubble tea?”

“Yes! And my manager, she told the police I made it! I don’t understand. I made it just like she always enjoys it. Semi-sweet, many tapioca balls. I used the machine like normal. The machine we use for everyone. I took the tea to her table. And five minutes later she is dying.”

I sit down next to him.

“You must be extremely shaken. Did you see anything strange?”

“Maybe something. We talked for a little bit when she came in. It was a bit stressful, the conversation. She asked for the tea. She sat down and some other people came to talk to her. Older couple. Foreigners. They were asking about something, I couldn’t understand what it was. Cindy looked very unhappy. She told them to leave her alone.”

“I see. And why was it stressful speaking to Cindy?”

“It was very awkward. Because I sort of started dating another girl recently. But now Cindy and I were getting very close again. And it was stressful because the other girl was in the cafe at the time, too. They were both unhappy with me.”

“It’s Winnie, isn’t it? I saw her hug you.”

“Yes,” he nods sadly.  “You know, other people wanted to speak to Cindy also. Yesterday morning an American woman and an American-Taiwanese man asked me about her. They said they saw her come into this cafe twice already. And they know which hotel she was staying at. But they couldn’t find her to stop and talk to her yet. It was like they were spying on her! I was a little scared. When Cindy came into the cafe yesterday she seemed a little scared herself. Very… bothered by something. I wanted to ask her about it later in the day, but…”

“Oh really? Did you notice her necklace missing at any point?”

“Oh, the necklace. It was so nice… a gift from her boss in Sweden. A beautiful necklace. They say she wasn’t wearing it when she died but I can’t remember. I must try harder to think about that. I definitely did not see anyone take the necklace from her neck, you know. I would have seen that. I’m surprised she even took it off.”

“She was wearing it when she left us to come here.”

“Well, I think she took it off before she even came into the cafe then. On her way here. Something must have happened on her journey.”

I sit with Chih Ming while he finishes another cigarette and then I walk back along the road and down the stairway. I continue walking past the hotel to visit the police station, maybe they will have an update before I leave Jiufen. The young English speaking officer looks exhausted.

“Everyone is upset here because this murder was on the news. It brings bad repuation to our town. So we want to make an arrest soon.”

“Do you have ideas?”

“I don’t think so yet, sir. But we have Ms. Xiu’s belongings now, and maybe there are some clues.”

I notice the contents of Cindy’s handbag have been casually laid out on a nearby desk – her purse, phone, a make up kit, moisturiser, a lip balm, and some loose change and receipts.

“We will be looking through her phone. Perhaps she has been in contact with someone that will provide us with more information.”

“Do you know anything more about the poison?”

“Yes. Autopsy this morning. The early autopsy results show cyanide in Ms. Xiu’s system. We have analysed the taro tea she drank, and yes there are traces of cyanide. It’s strange though, because it is a very small trace. To compare it to the amount of cyanide in the body, it is not much at all. So, we are a little confused.”

That does sound peculiar indeed. I thank the officer and ask him to keep me updated.

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My last stop before I collect my bags is Pauline and Michael’s guest house. I was planning on speaking to them either way before I leave, but now with the information Chih Ming has told me I’m extremely curious to find out what they have to say. I remember the name of their guest house from our taxi journey together, it’s just a minute’s walk from my hotel. Walking in, I see the middle-aged couple sitting on a sofa in the lobby. Their packed bags sit at their feet and they’re drinking coffee from paper cups. I greet them and take a seat on an armchair next to them.

“I’m still so shaken,” says Pauline. “Didn’t sleep a wink. How about you? You knew her, it must have been terrible.”

“I was in and out of sleep. You didn’t know her at all, did you?”

“No, no. Not at all. Still shocking to see that happen, though.”

I think about the way the couple looked at Cindy when we were at the golden waterfall, as well as the confrontation at the cafe I’ve just been made aware of. It’s tricky to think of a way to ask them about it without sounding accusatory.

“She was a soft spoken girl,” I tell them. “If you had heard her speak you would wonder why anyone would want to do this to her. I certainly do.”

“Oh, I’m sure,” says Michael. ‘”Well, it was nice to meet you, Greg. Too bad about the circumstances… We have to go back to Taipei now. Enjoy the rest of your trip.”

The couple both shake my hand and leave quickly. They certainly aren’t prepared to give any information away. I watch them leave, frustrated. What are they hiding?

Despite my stops around Jiufen, there’s no sign of the mystery couple. I was hoping I might see them. They’ve been popping up everywhere else, and now when I want to see them, they’ve disappeared.

After picking up my bags, I hop into a taxi and begin the journey back to Taipei. I need some company. Some non Jiufen related company. Once back in the capital city, I decide to pay a visit to Kuo Noodles. Hopefully Freddy won’t mind my sombre travel update. When I tell him the news he orders me a large bowl of beef noodle soup immediately. He sits down with me to talk about it.

“You didn’t know anything about her, really. Maybe it was Taiwnaese gangsters. Hired to take that necklace. You said it’s five million dollars? Hm. Remember I told you about the gangsters here… she maybe got caught up in something. Jiufen is not a place for murder.”

“Yes… it was surreal. I can’t believe she wore the necklace daily. I mean, she seemed very protective of it but that’s still a bit much.”

“I think you should do some more research on this Lindholm family. If Lindholm’s second wife was Taiwanese then there could be some links here. What can you find out about the wife? Was she expecting the necklace when Lindholm died? Maybe she hired the gangsters here. She waited until Cindy came back to visit Taiwan because she had contacts in her home country that could take care of this…”

“Maybe. The cafe is a curious choice to murder her. Her old boyfriend was the one who served her the drink. If he really had nothing to do with it, then perhaps whoever did wanted to pass the blame.”

“Yes. The Jiufen police will want to make an arrest. This boyfriend is an easy choice.”

“But he has no motive. Why kill Cindy? The police should be able to see that. He was happy to see her again. He was obviously conflicted because he’s now seeing a local girl, Winnie, but that’s not a reason to kill. If anything, Winnie is the one that has a motive. Cindy kept returning to the cafe and the former couple were getting closer again.”

“Maybe the police will be bribed… they will arrest this boyfriend even if they know it’s not right. But maybe not? Perhaps the boyfriend and Winnie plotted together. Maybe they knew the value of the pearl necklace and made a plan. They both probably wanted to move out on from their current situations. The boyfriend wants to get out of that cafe, I expect. And Winnie has been helping her struggling family for many years it sounds like. But she has dreams and passions that cannot be fulfilled there. As nice as it is in Jiufen, you don’t want to live there as a young man or woman. Everyone is always looking to escape. Look at the foreigners who come to Taiwan to teach English or find other work. Often they are escaping something. But you know, that never usually works out for people.”

“This is true. I really want to speak to Winnie again. At least I know where to find her. I have no idea where the American – Taiwanese couple are. Something very strange happening there. They just kept appearing! And they asked about Cindy at our hotel and at the cafe. They were clearly intent on talking to her, and the woman seemed quite stressed.”

“Maybe you need to take another trip to Jiufen to satisfy your curiosity. You can talk to this Winnie, and maybe ask around about this strange couple.”

I finish my soup, just as delicious as last time and especially comforting today. I thank Freddy for both his food and his advice – he refuses my attempt to pay and tells me to come down every day until I leave if I like. I may well take him up on that offer.

Back at my hotel, I research a little more. Reading further about the Lindhom family, I find out that Robin had two children with his first wife in the late eighties, just a couple of years apart. The children have gone on to have successful careers, working outside of Sweden in both the USA and Taiwan, thanks to the influence of Lindholm’s second wife.

I imagine the children wern’t too impressed at Cindy being given a five million dollar necklace either. I’m not sure how helpful this all is, though. I close my laptop and realize I need a walk. I want to explore and discover something new, free my mind from yesterday’s events. I decide to visit the Chiang Kai Shek memorial, one of Taipei’s most famous attractions. The national monument was built in memory of this former president.

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After a thirty minute walk I arrive. The landmark is situated on a huge courtyard – I love how wide the space is. The memorial itself is an impressive white building with a blue octagonal roof. The multi arched gate at the entrance to the landmark and the two colorful and ornate buildings on either side of the courtyard are equally stunning. Around the area are well kept lawns, flower beds and ponds. I head towards one pond and take a seat on a conveniently placed rock by the pond’s edge. I put my headphones on, begin listening to Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night album, and lose myself to the view in front of me. Behind the memorial the Taipei skyline is clear, a reminder that beyond this tranquil area is a bustling city of nearly three million people. Taipei 101, once the tallest building in the world, stands out amongst the other skyscrapers. At first I think about nothing except the music and sights around me, but gradually I begin to process the information I learnt today. In a moment of clarity, I realize I completely missed something earlier, and that’s because it was missing from the contents of Cindy’s bag that were laid out at the police station.

The pearls from the necklace are not the only pearls that have gone missing.

 

© Intrigue Inn