Lornbridge Hills – Day 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

Neal Residence

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

Burbank Residence

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

Howell Residence

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

Haverford Residence

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

Morton Residence

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

Cho-Durante Residence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello?”

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

“Now? What did you have a mind?”

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

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

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

 

© Intrigue Inn

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Lornbridge Hills – Day 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© Intrigue Inn

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The Indigo Bar – Day 6

My first stop of the day is Maria Banks’ house. She looks nervously behind her, the door ajar.

“Look, give me two minutes. We can talk at a cafe,” she whispers.

She returns shortly, having left the twins with her husband, and accompanies me to a small Portuguese cafe nearby, ordering a large gin and tonic on arrival. It’s Saturday morning. I try not to raise an eyebrow. I’ve lived in Britain long enough now to understand the drinking habits here. As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to daytime drinking, a glass of wine is acceptable at lunchtime followed by an aperitivo later in the day, early evening usually. 11 am is a little classless. She has reason to calm her nerves, though, so I try to be sympathetic.

“So you sussed out the affair did you?” Her drink arrives on the table and she takes a big gulp.

“I wondered if you were the new woman in Billy’s life, yes. His mother mentioned she thought he’d met someone. A few other clues fell into place after that. Other people’s comments. And you seem a little out of place in the gaming group.”

“Look, it got out of hand. We met at a bar one night while Adrian was flying to Morocco. I didn’t even find Billy that attractive. He’s reckless and all over the place. I don’t even know how I ended up back at his… he just, he knew what to say, I suppose. I needed to feel wanted and he knew how to do it. I suppose that’s why I let it continue, despite my suspicions about what kind of man he really was. Those questions I suppressed like why has he moved around so much? Why is he pumping ideas out of these people and they don’t even realize? He does it to everybody. He even liked to snoop around The Indigo Bar when no one was around. He told me these board game nights would be fun, but really I was befuddled most of the time. This card means I can take that artefact, that artefact means I can take this card… it’s too confusing. I guess you probably realized how little I knew about these games and wondered why I was there, then? If you want to know why I lied about it, well of course I lied, I don’t want news of this breaking and I’m asking you, please, do not let it.”

I almost laugh out loud, she’s asking me – ordering me, even, to keep this quiet when she’s committed perjury here. I feel the sympathy I mustered up earlier ebb away.

“The other gamers assured me they wouldn’t mention it. It was sort of unspoken universal knowledge that something was going on between Billy and me, and the rest of the group knew how incriminating it would look after his death. Dora told me she’d keep everyone quiet.”

Even better, group perjury.

She laughs bitterly. “I couldn’t contribute anything to that silly board game so I contributed to his life in other ways. And no, it does not give me more reason to kill him. Why would I want to get rid of one of the only things making me happy? Having an affair didn’t make me any wiser about tarot cards, anyway… I’m clueless either way. I honestly have no idea what the three of knives or whatever card was stuck in his hand means at all. Adrian said you checked in with him as an alibi anyway. He told you I was at home, and that’s the truth. He’s definitely suspicious of an affair happening, though.”

She stops talking and finishes the rest of her drink while I suddenly feel grateful to be living a romance-free life. Adrian did confirm yesterday that Maria was at home, but how reliable is the testimony of a loved one? The same could be said for the other alibis, too. All the family and friends I contacted certainly sounded sincere, though, and I’m inclined to trust their words. If they were sure of what they were saying then it’s possible these alibis have been hoodwinked themselves, somehow.  Only Dora has no alibi. She was alone before Phoebe arrived at her cottage to pick her up. 

“It was horrible seeing his body like that,” Maria says. “What was interesting, mind you, was seeing Phoebe, Dora and Albert shocked, but not sad. None of them were! The gamers anyway. Jon looked upset. Bet he regrets letting us all in every week now, eh?”

She sighs heavily. “Look, I know what Billy was like. He didn’t involve me in that board game because he knew I wouldn’t be able to help much, I was there for him, not the games, but I think he also wanted to keep me somewhat separate from his ulterior motives. I’m not stupid, though. Anyone could see what he was doing. Dora was furious when he presented that tarot game to everyone. You could see it in her eyes. She’s an old spinster, but she would have been quite happy quietly plotting her revenge as she calmly claimed a monastery in a game of Carcassonne. Oh, that’s one of the few games I did understand. It was shoved down my throat so much I had no choice! But tarot? No, I knew nothing about that. This was some sort of symbolic death involving the meaning of tarot. I couldn’t tell you anything about it, except for the fact it’s a load of rubbish.”

*

Following Maria’s admission, it’s time to get one out of Albert. I digest Maria’s info dump and debate her innocence before Albert arrives at the same cafe thirty minutes later. I’m fed up with all the back and forth over the last few days. I told him he can come to me, his lie about his involvement is the reason we’re speaking, after all.

Albert looks nervous when I place his CV in front of him.

“What’s this about?” he asks, confused.

“I found this behind Indigo’s bar and I’m curious to know about your work history. In particular, your time spent at Room Xcape West End last summer.”

Albert opens his mouth to challenge me but then changes his mind and closes it. He nods slowly before responding, having rethought his answer.

“Look, I guess I’m guilty of something, but I don’t know what, exactly. I love board games. That’s true. But, uh… I didn’t join this group because of my personal interest. There was another reason, but truly, honestly, I don’t know the full extent of it. I was in the dark a little. I was told to join the gamers by my former manager at Xcape. I wouldn’t have participated otherwise. Why would I? I mean, I have my good friends to play board games with. I’d rather play an intense session of Eldritch Horror with Coral than have Maria asking questions over Takenoko every two minutes. I don’t really need that dysfunctional group. And now… what have I gotten myself into?” He’s beginning to look distressed. “Pablo asked me to keep an eye on Billy and report back to him. We were planning to meet and discuss what Billy was up to a few days ago, in fact. But my news ended up being that Billy had died. Pablo wanted me to note down anything shady, and, well, I had a list. Especially after the game reveal last week. But that’s all that happened, I swear.” He breaks eye contact and starts looking out the window.

I nod and tell him I’ll be in touch. It could be that he was simply asked to keep an eye on Billy and didn’t see why not, especially as it allowed him to network with fellow board gamers. He must have had some idea what was going on, though. Then again, this is a young man with his head in the clouds, wrapped up in his geek life. After he leaves, I give Pablo a call and tell him to meet me at the cafe also. It’s not just laziness. They make the best cappuccinos I’ve had all week.

*

“I didn’t think it was worth mentioning,” Pablo says a little while later, sat down in the seat occupied by his partner in crime Albert earlier. I just nod. It’s a shame, really. I was toying with the idea of getting to know Pablo better, on a personal level. But now he just looks nervous, stressed and caught out. Most off-putting.

“Honestly, though, it was just building up information to strengthen our case. That would have been great for us in court – proof that Billy was continuing to steal other people’s ideas – this time at a poky bar in Nutbourne. Or an admission of what he’d done to us, perhaps. A long shot, I know. I tracked Billy’s whereabouts on social media and when I found out he was back in his hometown, where Albert also lived, I got in touch with Albert and asked if he would be interested. It was perfect for him to join up as a board game fan. Well, I hadn’t spoken to Albert in a while, not since he worked for us, but Albert’s a yes man so he agreed. And we learned a lot from that. I came down on Tuesday, as I already told you. Albert met me at the train station – I wasn’t expecting that – and told me Billy was dead. Poor kid was nervous as hell. Thought he’d become caught up in some murder plot. I assured him that it wasn’t anything to do with me or the court case. As I said, looks like someone else Billy ticked off decided to take a more dramatic revenge.”

Possibly, unless there’s more to Albert and Pablo’s story. They’ve omitted information already, so maybe there’s more to be revealed. I take some notes after Pablo leaves. It’s probably time to get going. Three cappuccinos is certainly enough.

Before leaving, I decide to call Jon Montgomery to check the details of Phoebe’s left behind shopping bag containing her steampunk tarot set.

“So you placed the bag behind the bar and it remained there for a couple of days before Phoebe picked it up?” I ask Jon over the phone.

“Right. I suppose anyone could have come in and looked through it as we always have the front door open. I don’t really expect anyone to be walking in when I’m in the back. Especially not anyone suspicious. Not in Nutbourne, anyway. I mean, most people walk past Indigo without even realizing it’s there.”

Because you’ve done nothing to make it stand out, that’s why. It’s an interesting pattern I’ve noticed with Jon. He seems aware that problems exist but he doesn’t have any idea why. Issues so glaring but he just can’t spot them. It should be so obvious that the front display needs a makeover. It’s almost infuriating to see his business failing when it could so easily be fixed.

“And you never saw anyone snoop around the bar? One of the gamers, perhaps?”

“No. Not that I can think of. According to Craig, Billy himself liked to snoop, although I never noticed. But I’m guessing that doesn’t help you. I was very focused on testing a new cocktail idea that week. A bacon flavoured vodka served in a quail’s egg.”

“Oh, right. Interesting.” How do you respond to that? It doesn’t even sound practical. It’s certainly novel. “Thank you, Jon.”

I hang up and tap my thumb on the side of the table as I think. The loose threads are coming together, and I’m almost certain I have all the information I need. I just need to go home and dissect it all to be sure.

 

© Intrigue Inn

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The Indigo Bar – Day 5

Pablo Whitten, short, tanned and compact (I can’t help notice) strolls into The White Hart in messy shorts covered in paint and a polo shirt. He looks roughly around my age. If we’re having drinks, I hope Pablo’s buying like Phoebe did. It’s seven pounds for the house white here. That’s a crime in itself.

“Sorry, I’ve just come straight from the new room, it’s a bit of a mess. It’ll look fantastic when it’s finished, though. It’s ocean diver themed,” he tells me enthusiastically.

I’ve never tried an escape room so I just smile back. Mick has told me I’d fly through them, but I can’t decide if being locked in a room for an hour is something I’d actually like to pay money for.

Pablo orders a chai latte and nothing for me. I’ll just sit here sipping air then.

“Well. Billy dead,” he says, opening his hands and then clasping them together. “I don’t know if I’m surprised or not. The man was all over the place, constantly on the move looking for someone new to take advantage of. We just wanted to take him to court. Looks like someone else had more of a quick fix. Bit drastic, though.”

I ask him about the court case.

“He came as a customer to our venue about a year ago and we chatted afterwards about marketing and how we were building our business. He said he was keen to help and later sent me an email offering some suggestions and recommendations, and that he’d love to get involved. I didn’t really know much of his background, but he seemed professional. Spoke well. There’s a mistake I won’t be making again with people. It’s the car salesman technique! If I knew he was such a drifter… a leech looking for the next big ‘fad’ he could jump on, absorb everything he could find out and regurgitate it as his own material later down the line, well, obviously I wouldn’t have encouraged him. I ended up telling him all about a new idea we had, something new in the world of London escape rooms – I can’t speak for the rest of the world – that needed some promotion. It basically involved the elements of an escape room outside mixed with an assault course. Well, after that we didn’t hear much from Billy. He said he was currently busy with other projects. Turns out his other project was just a copy of our new idea. A few months later he was working with an events company and he ran an outdoor event in Oxford which took every key element of our assault course escape. Puzzles I’d talked about had been replicated, word for word. Now, I just don’t have time for that. I reported the situation at once. I had all the emails filed away, I wasn’t about to let this go. He was due in court next week. Not sure what will happen now… I see board gamers became his next target? There would always have been something with Billy. Whatever made a quick buck suited him fine, then it was time to move on. How can you live like that? And feel proud of your accomplishments? It’s totally bizarre to me.”

I shrug sympathetically to encourage his emotions. “As you mentioned in your email, you only came down to Nutbourne on Tuesday? So you weren’t around when Billy was murdered?”

“Right. I can show you the train ticket if it’s really necessary.”

It’s not, at least for the moment, anyway. I thank Pablo for his time, not before mentioning how thirsty I am, taking a jug of water and a glass from a nearby stand. It’s petty, and there’s absolutely no reason why suspects should buy me drinks, but I can’t help myself. I push away a thought that’s it because I find Pablo attractive and was hoping he’d act as a gentleman towards me also.

*

I decide it’s time to swing by Indigo to search for any missed clues. On the way, I can drop by the rented flat of the two regulars Bates mentioned to me. Jennifer and her girlfriend Sam have been regulars at the Indigo Bar for a couple of months, according to Bates’ notes. I knock on the door to their small second floor flat on Haden Road, just a few doors down from Indigo. Jennifer opens the door with a cup of tea in her hand.

“Oh! We were expecting someone to follow up, come in. Sam is out right now. Sorry, it’s a bit of a mess in here.”

What’s new in this town? I thought Brits liked to keep up appearances! She removes a tie-dye throw from a grey armchair next to a wonky Christmas tree and offers me a seat.

“If you’re keen to know, we didn’t see anything… We don’t know who came and went that evening. We were too busy with The Great British Bake Off and only looked outside when we saw the flashing ambulance lights….”

“Well, so let us know if anything comes to mind,” I say. “May I ask, what did you enjoy about the Indigo Bar, proximity aside?”

“Well, it was quiet, for one thing. It had a quirky, different vibe and decor that we liked. And their new craft cocktails! Jon seems pretty humble, he won’t admit what a great mixologist he really is! He’s one of the best we’ve come across. I’m sure he and his staff have a lot of fun creating various drinks. It’s more than just liquid nitrogen and foam, you know, like other drink trends going around. Some drinks you have to order an hour in advance to let them infuse, like his tea-based cocktails. Ice that lasts all night, colourful multilayers, edible flowers… there’s nowhere else in this part of England, let alone this county that’s serving drinks like that, and don’t let Jon tell you otherwise. I don’t think you could find drinks like this in London, even. And the smells! That one with a floating cloud of bay leaf and rosemary… Wow. He likes to use a lot of international spirits that not many people have heard of also – soju and palinka, for example. It’s such a shame people aren’t coming to this bar! But as I said, we like it that way. It’s our little secret, this tucked away goldmine, while everyone else hits the high street pubs for a standard pint of overpriced beer. If Jon put his mind to it he could be featured in one of those fancy dining magazines in a list like ‘5 UK Bars to Watch Out For!’ He just needs some confidence in what he’s doing. And marketing. Some decent marketing would definitely help.”

I can agree with that.

*

I’ve been eager to snoop around Indigo for a couple of days now. With everything I’ve learned over the last few week, there may well be clues that I or the CSI team missed. Especially amongst all that clutter. I almost drive past the bar, again. I phoned Jon in advance and he told me Craig would be at work, preparing for the Friday evening shift.

I head inside, there’s no one there. Craig must be in the cramped office. I use the opportunity to snoop around and go behind the bar. There’s a collection of folders and loose paperwork, internet printouts and brainstorming scribbles tucked underneath. There are some papers detailing a lava lamp style cocktail.  Honestly… what’s wrong with a classic Negroni? I pull out a layer of messy papers underneath – mainly bills, a couple of them reminder notices. Poor Jon. A few CV’s from people looking for bar work. They came to the wrong place here. There’s barely enough for Craig to do. I pause on the third CV, it belongs to Albert Liu. Scrolling through his work history I notice some time spent in London working at Room Xcape West End. I shake my head. Albert mentioned he had worked at an escape room, but I didn’t imagine it would be Pablo’s. I’ll be keeping hold of this. I look through more cocktail ideas scribbled down with a post-it on top marked ‘Put away with the other notes – keep private!’

I search the back room but it’s basically alcohol stock, plus ingredients and equipment for the out-of-the-ordinary cocktail creations, as well as several props that haven’t found their way into the bar’s interior yet – a Venetian carnival mask, a string of fairy lights and some Japanese street signs. Trying to decipher a link between these props would be a game in itself. There are a couple of photos at the back of the room lying on a shelf, with a post-it marked “Create a board of customer photos?” The photos feature mainly Jon, Craig and Phoebe. There’s also a middle-aged woman I don’t recognize. These three seem closer than they’ve let on.

“Hello?” Craig’s voice calls out.

“Hi Craig, Detective Palandri here,” I say formally as I step out of the storage cupboard, to serve as a reminder that I’m entitled to look wherever I please when I’m snooping. I realize I have the photos in my hand still so decide to share them with Craig.

“Just seeing if there’s anything we’ve missed. If you don’t mind my asking, who’s the woman in these pictures?”

“That’s okay. Billy used to snoop around so I guess I had flashbacks there for a second.” He looks at the pictures. “Ah, that’s my mother there, when she was still able to get out of the house regularly,” he tells me sadly, frowning at the picture. “Jon used to make sure she was social when he could, he’d make sure she was always invited for a drink here. He’s really helped a lot – these days while she’s housebound he comes around, often with food and chats with her. All this as well as involving me in the business.”

“You really take pride in this job, don’t you?”

He blushes a little. “Well, it’s an investment on my part that should lead to big rewards working here. You must have noticed our cocktails notes. Jon has really looked after me, and my mum. So, I want to look after Indigo.”

“What were you doing before this?”

“I was just working in a little bakery before. Nothing much to talk about. I was quite experimental there, too. With the bakes. Or at least I tried to be. The managers weren’t fond of me trying to create new and interesting flavours. They just wanted to stick with the tried and tested pastries. Here, I feel like… it feels like we could do such great things!”

“Phoebe joins you for get-togethers also?” I ask.

“She did for a short while… I just, I don’t know… I’m not sure where we stand exactly, so it’s hard to say if she still will. I don’t think it’s going to work out, not that there was anything going on in the first place, and that’s okay.” He pauses. “She told me I was stalking her.”

“And were you?”

“I liked her… but I wouldn’t say I was stalking her… she’s just really… cool, you know?”

Youthful infatuation. It was about time someone felt that for me again. Or vice versa. Unfortunately though I think my cool days are over.

“Craig, I wanted to ask you, were you aware of a shopping bag left by Phoebe here the Monday before Billy’s death? Jon would have left it behind the bar.”

“Oh, I did see a grey bag. I remember Jon mentioning it was Phoebe’s. I don’t know what was in it, just left it where it was, then noticed a couple of days later it was gone.  She came to pick it up I assume. Why?”

I smile. “Just working out some small details.” I leave Craig to it and get in touch with Albert Liu to discuss a certain omission in our earlier chat – I’ll certainly be checking in with him in the morning.

As I leave, Mick calls to inform me that the coroner’s report only confirms what we already knew. Blood, hair and bone found on the ashtray all belong to Grahame. Several blows to the skull. Our murderer had to be certain, it appears. Or needed a bit of strength. There were no signs of defence. He didn’t see it coming. Time of death estimated between 6:30 and 7 pm, which makes sense with Grahame being at Indigo an hour before the group start time. Time to check in with those alibis.

*

As I fully expected, the alibis all confirm that the suspects were at home between 6:30 and 7 pm. I drive home, thinking through their responses, and spot Phoebe’s familiar purple hair. Looks like she’s on her way to Dora’s cottage, and she’s clearly upset. I slow down and find a spot to park a street ahead of her. As I get out of the Volvo, she turns a corner and I feign surprise.

“Oh! Hello, Phoebe – are you okay?”

“Oh… Detective… how are you? I- I’m fine… I was just on my way to Dora’s to do a reading. I need to figure a few things out. Just Billy’s death, plus I’m back with my ex… Craig’s ignoring me…” She looks like a lost little girl, big-eyed and overwhelmed.

“Oh no, what’s been happening?” I ask, trying to sound like a well-wishing maternal figure.

“Things aren’t going well there, to be honest. With Craig. He probably thinks I screwed him around – I was just being honest, probably too honest. I thought that would be much better! He was clearly hurt, though.

“Was he stalking you?”

“Well, not really stalking, I said that as a joke. He was just a bit persistent. I told him I wanted to be back with Aaron and that he should stop… pursuing me. I know I embarrassed him. Now that I am with Aaron again, I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do, I don’t know if he’s changed at all. My instincts tell me to give him a second chance, though. I did a tarot reading yesterday and it really lined up with my instincts – key themes of forgiveness and regret – the 6 of cups and judgment! It all made sense. You know, I’m so glad I took the time to study tarot. Dora has been invaluable. I tried to get Craig involved, but no, not his thing. Aaron isn’t really into it either. He understands the basics though.”

“More than Billy, probably.”

“Oh yes… Well, he couldn’t care less about it as we all know now. And to be honest that game of his was too black and white. Tarot has many layers to it, just as people do, and I think the game objectives missed that. There was an element of interpretation to it which Dora really pushed him to do, using various cards to reach the outcome in your objective, but really, there’s so much more that could have been done!” She was getting angry now. “It would have been a sad thing if he made money from it. And here I am, getting angry, when I know you probably think I did it! Why wouldn’t you? I used the ashtray, I owned that tarot set, I arrived at the bar with someone else as an alibi…! But it wasn’t me. It wasn’t!” She stares at me defiantly.

“I didn’t say it was. There’s still plenty of leads we’re looking into, Phoebe.”

She looks down at the cracked pavement. “I better go. I’m sorry.” She gives me a nod before walking off.

“Look after yourself, Phoebe,” I call out. Murderer or not, all I want to do is feed her a warm bowl of wild boar ragu. That helps me when I’m upset. Hmm. Maybe that maternal act wasn’t completely fake after all.

It was certainly possible that Phoebe could have murdered Billy, then walked to Dora’s house, walking back to the bar with her. Her mother said she was around at home before 7pm, but wouldn’t any mother? Dora lives a fifteen-minute walk from Indigo meaning Phoebe, if it was her, would likely have killed Billy between 6:30 and 6:45, walked to Dora’s and made the journey back together at Indigo for 7:15. All fitting in with the time of death. They all knew he’d be there an hour before, Maria mentioned he’d shared this with the group. There was no guarantee he’d be alone, though – what if Jon and Craig had been there? Jon hadn’t mentioned to any of the gamers that he would be coming in late. And this is all assuming Jon and Craig weren’t involved in the crime. I’m getting closer, though. A few check-ups on a few liars tomorrow and I should have an even better idea of what’s going on.

 

© Intrigue Inn

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The Indigo Bar – Day 4

Phoebe’s purple hair and large floral dress cut a striking figure as she walks in. She’s come to meet me at The White Hart, a large pub near Nutbourne train station.

“Just getting a drink, you’re making me nervous,” she says with a slight laugh.

She comes back with two beers. I didn’t ask, but it’s a kind gesture and I thank her for it. A pity that the only people who buy me drinks these days are potential murder suspects.

“Am I allowed to do that? Is that weird, buying a drink for the detective who’s about to interview me because they think that maybe, possibly, I murdered a man? I expect you know I’m the only one who really used that ashtray. That’s no secret. Oh, well, I buy drinks for everyone.” She waves her hand as if to forget these concerns. “I used to bring beers and wine to the group all the time. Made some of the competitive games more fun!” She gives a cheeky smile, flirtatious even. “I was hoping we’d do a Cards Against Humanity night soon. It would be hilarious with that lot.”

Her cheery demeanour seems a little forced, but given the circumstances and her connection to the murder weapon, it’s no wonder she’s nervous.

“You’re an art student, correct?”

“That’s right. You’ve already seen some of my work, I think.”

“I have?”

“Yes. Billy’s head fell into it,” she grimaced, “I did the artwork for his prototype. The item cards, and so on. It was pretty cool to do actually, seeing as I enjoy the subject matter so much.”

“Have you always been into board games? And what about tarot?”

“Well, I enjoyed a Christmas Day game of Monopoly growing up, but until I met my sort of ex-boyfriend Aaron, I didn’t know much. He loves board games and has a big collection. We began playing Ticket to Ride religiously and then we moved on – Lost Cities, Carcassonne, Citadels, Catan of course… Well, our relationship is a bit on and off these days – on again currently – but either way I’m always keen for games. I saw a sign while having a drink at Indigo one night.  Craig told me more about it and I decided to give it a go. Craig’s such a sweetheart. There’s history there, a very brief one, but no need to get into that. Prefers computer games, you see. Not my thing,” she laughs. “Just kidding. He’s just a bit too shy for me, and I was pretty honest about that. He and Jon are great guys, though. Have you tried their craft cocktails? Oh, my word. So awesome.”

I smile at the idea she has of me sitting at Indigo, leisurely sipping on these weird cocktails as I ponder who killed Billy.

“They’re just at the experimenting stage,” she says. “Jon’s got some wonderful ideas, very unique. Those sort of drinks would help that place be a hit! I don’t know how a murder will affect that, but you know, sometimes it brings attention. Any news is good news, as they say.”

“Anyway,” She continues, barely taking a breath, “I did find Billy a bit overbearing. Smart, or at least he sounded it, but quite full on at times.  I got sucked in like the others did with that game. But I didn’t want to turn down the opportunity of contributing artwork to a big project, you see. Billy seemed certain it would be a success and I believed him for a while. After last Monday and the realisation of what he’d done, I just wanted him to go away. Let us serious gamers get on with things. Well, Dora, Albert and myself anyway. Maria just came for…” She pauses. “… To get out of the house, I suppose? Billy wasn’t really interested in board games, I understand that now. He was keen for the tarot game to work, but if not, I’m sure he had ideas up his sleeve for another project. Or using someone else’s ideas, should I say. No mention of marking me as a contributor to the game design or anything. I bet you he had no intention.” She takes a large swig of beer. “It was horrible seeing his dead body though, you know. I was caught up in conversation with Dora and then BAM you see that.”

“And you walked from your house to pick Dora up at her cottage?”

“Yes. That’s what I usually do. It’s only a few minutes away. Sometimes I walk straight to Indigo, or my mum drops me off. I like going to Dora’s, though. Such a lovely cottage.”

From the outside, perhaps.

“And what does your mum think of all this?”

“Well, what do mothers really know?” She sighs. “As much as they say they do know. I haven’t told her about the ashtray. I’m trying to keep a brave face.”

I consider my own mother, her words yesterday evening, and how little I actually tell her about why I chose my job over a family. I can empathize.

“On Mondays, we meet at Dora’s at about 7 pm and get to the bar at 7:15,” Phoebe continues. “We’re usually the first ones there so we have a drink of whatever we’ve brought with us before the others arrive. They don’t mind us using their glasses and stuff. Billy did mention the Monday before that he’d be arriving earlier than usual to set up the game. So we expected to see him there. But you know, alive.”

I’ve been waiting to see if she would mention the Seven of Swords. As she hasn’t, I flick through my phone’s photo gallery and show her the picture of the man in the top hat, running off with his swords.

“This must have been familiar to you when you found him, correct?”

Phoebe bites her lip.

“The man in this picture, after doing just the minimal amount of research into the aesthetic, can certainly be described as steampunk. I know you bought a steampunk themed tarot set yourself, so this must have been instantly recognizable when you and Dora found Billy dead?”

Phoebe nods. “Yes. Yes, I’m sorry, it did. And I know it came from my pack. I just… I’m already the only one who used that ashtray, the fact that that’s my card too… I – I just decided to not mention it. I saw that ashtray, and then I saw my card in his hands, it was all a bit much.” She looks overwhelmed.

“Could anyone else have known you own this particular set, besides Dora and the owner of Psychic Mist?”

“I don’t think Dora really noticed what I was purchasing there, she was too busy talking. She certainly didn’t say anything about the card when we found Billy, and I didn’t like to mention it. The thing is, I suppose anyone else could have seen it and taken it, Billy included. The Monday before, we went straight to Indigo after visiting the shop – a bit of a change from our normal routine, and I accidentally left the shopping bag there. I rang Indigo when I got home. Jon was still there and said he would put the bag behind the bar and I could collect it whenever. I went back two days later. I didn’t notice the Seven of Swords was missing when I glanced through the deck later on. I haven’t really used the set properly enough to notice.”

“You really have no idea who could have taken it?”

“Well, Jon moved the bag. But why would Jon take it? Anyone could have seen me leave that bag behind. Just like anyone could have seen me take and put back the ashtray when I went for a smoke. I know this all looks bad for me but why would I kill Billy? He used his charm to get me to do his artwork and I fell for it, I’ve no one to blame but myself, quite frankly.”

We finish our beers as I try and digest Phoebe’s rapid-fire chatter and work out whether I believe her story. I need to get going though so I can meet Albert in time.

*

I check my watch just as Albert walks into the little seafront cafe we arranged to meet at. He’s late. I’ve heard All I Want For Christmas twice already. He sits down, out of breath. Albert Liu is, in his own words, a truly excitable nerd, and apparently, that’s why he’s late meeting me.

“Sorry. I’m generally not punctual,” he says in an Australian accent, pushing his square-rimmed glasses up a little. “My mind doesn’t work that way. That’s the best excuse I can give you.”

He laughs. I don’t.

“I get distracted so easily by some idea, or some game or movie reference…. Something I have to look up and know the answer to immediately, you know.”

I make a mental note to avoid any pop culture references. I may be here all day, otherwise.

“That’s why I was a little late to the board game meetup on Monday. I usually am.” He gives an apologetic shrug. “On this occasion, it was a blessing. I would not have wanted to be first… poor Dora and Phoebe! Finding Billy like that and having to call the police. Good job Maria wasn’t the one to find him. Uh, well, anyway, I just walked from my flat share on Turner Square to Indigo Bar, as usual, this time running late because my roommate Coral mentioned that Temple of Doom is the best Indiana Jones film, and I couldn’t just leave after hearing such an absurd statement.”

“Naturally,” I reply. We’re certainly building up a group of alibis here. I’ll have to start checking in with them – Albert’s Coral, Jon’s roommate Phil, Craig’s mum and Phoebe and Maria’s families. I ask Albert about his job.

“The bookshop is great. It’s independent and we have an awesome fantasy section with old books that fall apart when you open them. So much better than an e-reader. I also podcast, well that’s something I do with Coral and a couple of other friends. We cover DOTA, mainly. Board games are awesome too though – I play with the rest of my friends and then there are game nights at Indigo, of course. They were pretty good, too. I love escape rooms also – I’m originally from Sydney and there are quite a few there now. I used to work at one up in London. There are a couple around here, but really London is the best place in the UK. I like to travel a lot, so I enjoy checking out escape rooms and board game cafes as I explore. That’s great additional content for the podcast as we get more international listeners.”

“Did Billy ever listen to your podcast?”

“Oh, no. I don’t believe so, anyway. I’ve heard the others say he wasn’t genuinely interested in these things, but I don’t see why you’d bother involving yourself in them if you’re not? Some of the group thought he just liked to copy ideas, that’s what they’ve been murmuring since last week. But with every board game, every escape room, every book, movie and so on, isn’t there always going to be something shared? Similar ideas? Nothing is completely original these days. You can hardly blame Billy for that. Although someone did, apparently. I have a friend, Clara Mullaney, who works at a board game publishing company. Sirius Games. She mentioned Billy was going to meet them a couple of days ago. I haven’t spoken to Clara about it yet. Would you like her details?”

“Absolutely,” I say, clicking the memo app on my phone. “Tell me a little more about how the game works, if you can? I did glance over it the evening of Billy’s death. Dora mentioned you helped with the actual rules?”

“Yeah, I did help a lot to be fair, but I was pretty proud of that! It was great to see my ideas come to life. I was also trying to come up with a name but couldn’t think of anything original. Tarot Wars, perhaps. Anyway, you probably saw there’s a narrow board to hold various card decks including tarot cards, objective cards, and item cards, along with three discard piles for each card type?”

I nod vaguely. The components confused me so I can’t really remember.

“Objective cards are selected at random at the beginning of the game. You take two cards and choose one of them. Then it’s time to begin constructing a Celtic Cross spread with the item cards that line up with your objective. You can trade and discard cards from your hand as you try to fulfil your objective, all while deducing other people’s plans and making cards they need don’t end up in their spread.  That’s the basic idea. Easy to learn!”

I nod once more. I’m still not totally clear but I’m beginning to wonder if that matters. What’s important is how each of these board gamers, bar Maria, contributed in different ways to this game, essentially putting the pieces together to make the finished product themselves. Billy was able to get away with this, at first.  His looks may have started to fade, but apparently his charm didn’t.

*

I’ve been able to set up a meeting in town with Sirius Games along Drake Street. Clara Mullaney greets me warmly once I’m inside.

“Hi, detective. Thank you for coming. I’ve arranged a chat with Dana Mulgrove, the MD. She spoke with Billy Grahame about his submission so better talking to her than me.”

Minutes later, I’m drinking terrible coffee with Dana Mulgrove. She shows me a couple of their latest approved submissions, two family card drafting games. I feign a few understanding oohs and aahs.

“We’re an indie publisher specializing in strategy games. We’re really focusing on family orientated projects right now.”

“I wouldn’t say Grahame’s idea would have worked for the family market, then? From what I’ve learned about it.”

Dana laughs. “No, his board game wasn’t going to work full stop, really. Too dull. Plus I’ve seen tarot themed games done better. Much better. Look, it wasn’t a terrible idea, just a little simple, perhaps. He did seem upset when I told him. He was quite defiant and told me that he had other business ideas up his sleeve so it didn’t matter if this didn’t take off. Doesn’t sound like someone passionate, does it? I was trying to be diplomatic but he seemed quite offended. He hadn’t really done his research, so I don’t know why he acted in that way. He’s got to learn. You can’t get something for nothing.”

Indeed. I like Dana’s style. She seems busy so I keep our conversation short. I don’t mind. I’m keen to get home and take stock of what I’ve learnt so far.

 

© Intrigue Inn

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The Indigo Bar – Day 3

I battle blustery winds outside, rendering my umbrella useless. The natural curls in my hair that I hate so much are being flung in every direction and the bottom of my black trench coat is flapping away. I can’t wait to step inside Dora Murphy’s seaside cottage and escape this weather. While Florence was no Bora Bora in December, I don’t remember it ever being as consistently bad as the south of England.

“They promised sunshine today,” Dora tuts as she lets me in. “Then again, that’s living by the Great British seaside for you.” Her bracelets and necklaces clacker about as she leads me into her small home. She’s a thin, bony woman who seems to hover as she walks.  Spiritual and mystic paraphernalia is apparent from the start – large crystals and incense burners, dreamcatchers and astrological charts adorn every nook and cranny.

“This isn’t just a set of four walls that will serve as a welcome break from the elements, detective. You’ll likely feel a sense of calm and serenity – a chance for your mind to heal after the cogs spinning during your investigation. You probably feel calmer already?”

I actually feel a little claustrophobic from the small rooms and their clutter of objects, and the incense is suffocating, but best to bite my tongue, unlike my mother last night who accused me of not having children just to spite her. I responded by drinking half a bottle of Chianti and I’m feeling the effects now. This house isn’t helping.

“Human to human, I’m naturally very sad about the death of a troubled man, on a spiritual level. But speaking truthfully, I never did warm to Billy. The man was a fraud, and it didn’t take a reading to figure that out. If I’d known he would start using the endless information I provided on the complex subject of tarot reading for his own personal glory, I’d have been less inclined to share. I just thought it important to help someone who appeared a little lost in life. When he mentioned he was keen to incorporate tarot into a board game prototype, I thought it was wonderful – tarot reaching a new audience through board gamers, if it takes off. Need more youngsters getting involved. Although lovely Phoebe Moore is a start.”

“Did he take any ideas of yours, then?”

“When he showed us all the game last week, I picked up a few of the game cards he had written and noticed the descriptions were practically verbatim to the emails I sent him. But is that a good enough reason to murder someone? I think not, detective!” She pauses for a minute to ensure I understand this point. “But using tarot cards for his own gain with such blatant disregard for their true purpose – self-growth and empowerment, well, says a lot about a person doesn’t it! Unfortunately, it was Phoebe and I who found the body. She met me at around 7:00 here and we walked down together, chatting about general misinterpretations of the Lovers card – she loves a good student-mentor chat – and we walk in and oh, what a sight! His body bent over like that, so unnaturally!” She shudders. “His lack of respect for anything and anyone finally caught up with him. I understood he went to visit Psychic Mist. That’s a specialist shop here in Nutbourne. The owner sells so many lovely tarot sets. But he didn’t have good things to say about Billy the last time I popped in there. Well, Seven of Swords in his hands when they checked Billy’s body. That says it all really, doesn’t it?”

“What does that card mean? And could you explain how the game worked a little?” I had intended to do my homework on tarot last night. How naive of me to think I’d be returning from a family dinner fresh and ready to learn. I note the name of the specialist shop. It’s a good idea to head there next.

“Well, the mechanics of the gameplay came mostly from Albert. I just spoon-fed Billy all the tarot information he required. It’s always been my problem… I give and I give and people take advantage. The gameplay revolved around trying to form a Celtic Cross spread in accordance with your objective cards. Very simple objectives. Not much to it, actually. Needed more depth. I mean, when you think about how complex each individual tarot card is, reducing all of that to a few broad objectives…” She shakes her head. “Deception. That’s the Seven of Swords. Trying to get away with something unnoticed. Well, he was trying to get away with something, and it has certainly been noticed now.” She raises her eyebrows and purses her lips.

*

En route to Psychic Mist, I receive an email from Pablo Whitten, owner of Room Xcape West End, writing to let me know he’ll be in Nutbourne this Friday if I want to meet. I confirm that I do. As I make my way, I start flicking through images on a tarot website. It’s pretty easy to pick up basic interpretations of various cards and it’s surprisingly more interesting than I expected. Twenty minutes later, now with a rudimentary understanding of the Major Arcana, I climb a rickety wooden staircase and find myself in a cramped space full of mystic knick knacks. I thought Dora’s cottage was bad, but this takes it to another level. There are books and fancy figurines everywhere, and a large shelf dedicated to all sorts of tarot decks. I spot a cosmic, Egyptian and even a Dante themed pack – a fellow Florentine. From behind a dusty corner, I see an elderly man stocking books, obscured by a large crystal ball in front of me. I feel like I’ve entered the beginning of an 80’s adventure movie.

“Hello, sir…”

“Ah hello, there. What are you looking for today? Or just browsing?”

“I’m actually a detective, investigating the death of-”

“Oh, Billy Grahame?”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“Yes, yes… I heard all about the tarot card in his hand and the game he was making. Dora Murphy likes to think she’s a bit of recluse, but actually, she’s quite the gossip. You’ll have interviewed Dora, I expect, and now you’ve come to ask me what I know.”

He carries a few large folio books over to the counter and puts them down. “He came in here, you know. Billy. A few weeks back.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. Asking me various questions. Which tarot cards would appeal to a large audience, my favourite artwork style, this kind of thing. Questions about how to best package a tarot-themed game and have it look most interesting to the public.”

“And you gave him a lot of information?”

      “Oh, on the contrary. I gave him very little. The man was clearly thinking about money and had no real interest in tarot whatsoever. It was painfully obvious. That’s the way the world works now, I’m afraid. It’s so very, very sad. So, no, I did not feel like being forthcoming with someone whose only interest in the subject was how to make the most profit. Dora, on the other hand, is probably kicking herself that she divulged so much. Maybe her little protégé is as well, Phoebe is it? Nice girl. Seems to have a genuine interest, quite probably she’s doing more research into it than Dora ever did. Quite the chatterbox when she came in here. I suppose anyone who discovers a new hobby is always keen to go on about it? She visited with Dora and purchased a rather lovely steampunk themed set. At least she’s a paying customer. Dora mainly just comes to chat these days. She enjoys the company of a like-minded enlightened being, you see.” He gives a self-satisfied smile.

“And do you?”

“Oh, sometimes. But solitude and keeping one’s passions to oneself is a nice thing too, don’t you think? I’d rather be doing this, busying myself in my quiet, little shop than being duped by the powers that be where nothing matters in life except money. Look where that got Billy Grahame.”

*

I’ve had a slow afternoon thanks to the hangover, but I need to crack on with suspects. Phoebe and Albert have confirmed they can meet tomorrow. Maria hasn’t got back to me, so I take a chance and rock up at her townhouse.

Maria Banks wipes her blonde fringe from her eyes as she opens the door, revealing a stressed look on her face. She’s a thin woman, a little hard faced and haggard, but still attractive. She’s ageing better than I am, anyway.

“Sorry, detective. It’s the nightly bedtime ritual for the twins. Fun and games every night. My husband can deal with the terrible twosome for a bit if you want to talk.”

I assure her that I won’t take up much of her time as we sit down at a cluttered wooden dining table in the middle of a large kitchen. Expensive looking Christmas decorations have been carefully placed around the room. All this clutter… Am I just a minimalist? To be fair, there’s no room in my flat for clutter, and I have to admit, it’s an attractive, well-designed house. Maria and her husband must be comfortable financially. She tells me he’s a pilot and often away, leaving her with twins Amy and Jolene a lot of the time.

“Billy’s death shook me. It shook us all.” She sighs and looks down at the kitchen table, biting her lip. “I don’t know if there’s much I can tell you, though. I certainly didn’t know anything about the game he was making, except that we were planning to play it that evening. He told us all that he’d be there an hour early to set it up and check it was ready to play.”

“So everyone was aware he’d be there?”

“Yes. I remember him clearly saying that because at the time I was thinking about how uninterested I was in playing it. I don’t know anything about tarot. I did think it a little strange that he wanted to come in earlier to set up. I mean, he sets a game up for us every week but just does it when we’re all there, so why did he need that extra time on Monday? Perhaps he was anxious, seeing as it was his own creation and wanted to make sure everything was perfect.”

“You didn’t contribute ideas towards the game, then?”

“No, I didn’t contribute. The others did, under the illusion it was all just brainstorming, excited that some of their ideas would be included in this game, which Billy promised would be published and successful. When you think about it, how can you guarantee the success of something like that? Everyone just got caught up in the moment there. Well, last Monday he showed everyone the prototype at the end of the night. “Look at the game that I’ve created… thanks for helping with a few of the ideas, guys,” he told them. You could see the emotion on their faces when they studied it. It’s like the wool had been pulled right over their eyes. Total disbelief. Phoebe and Dora, anyway. Albert’s a bit of a pushover. The girls were seething. They held it in, though. I wasn’t really impressed that he’d done that, either. But I didn’t say anything. So British of us, isn’t it?”

“So, you were just happy to enjoy the games every Monday evening?”

“Yes, yes.”

“May I ask, what’s your favourite board game?”

“Oh, um… well, I don’t know really. I enjoyed Pandemonium. No, Pandemic it was called. Yes. Pandemic. Fun,” she adds, as an afterthought.

She taps the table a few times with her nails, chipped red nail polish all over them, as the piercing scream of a child pauses conversation. She leans closer to me.

“Actually, between you and I, it started with a bit of online gambling. Card games especially. Just needed a thrill outside of this house. A weekly board game meetup sounded like a much healthier outlet. Saw the sign while walking Hobbes – that’s our retriever, and thought I’d give it a try. Quite a learning curve on some of the games to be honest, and Billy turned out to be a bit overbearing for a quiet Monday evening get-together, but still, got me out of the house. It was fun while it lasted. Well, it’s not going to continue now, is it? He was in charge of the whole thing.” She looks at me and I can tell she’s holding back the tears.

“Sorry, detective. I really must go and help Adrian with the twins now. Thank you for stopping by.”

It’s a brief visit, but informative, despite what certainly feels like Maria holding back, although that could just be her children distracting her. She seems to know so little about the hobby group she’s a participant of, and that makes me wonder what her role in all this might be.

 

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The Indigo Bar – Day 2

At around midday, I walk into the county court building on Christchurch Road – an ugly square brick of a place – and greet the receptionist warmly with my most cheery smile. Let’s see how much I can get out of her. On the way here I made a call to Jon Montgomery. He’ll meet me this afternoon back at Indigo.

“Let’s see…” a mousy receptionist says, flicking through information on her system. “Yes, I can confirm Billy Grahame was due to appear in court following a dispute with a London based company, Room Xcape West End. I’m unable to provide you with further details, detective, but I’d be happy to pass on their contact info. I have a number – let me email that across to you. The company will have to be informed,” she sighed, apparently not looking forward to drafting a letter to let them know the dispute won’t be settled due to death. Although that’s about as settled as it could possibly get, I suppose.

I email Room Xcape West End in between bites of a prawn mayo sandwich and a glance at today’s new stories online – a famous singer dyeing their hair above details of the latest nuclear testing threats. Seems balanced. Hopefully, Xcape will get back to me soon. Chatting with the board gamers is important, but there’s a chance that Grahame’s angered many others as he hopped from one industry to the next.

One unsatisfying supermarket meal deal finished, I drive back to The Indigo Bar to meet Montgomery.

*

Jon Montgomery looks weary as we sit down at one of his bar tables opposite the one Grahame was slumped over. The board game and backpack have been taken away now. Montgomery looks to be in his late thirties with messy brown hair to match his faded, torn jumper. He’s also sporting a severe handlebar moustache that makes me want to trust him less.

He shakes his head. “Of course,” he sighs. “Why wouldn’t there be a murder here?”

“Oh. Business not good, Mr. Montgomery?” I adopt the casual concerned tone I always take with suspects. A few prompts and a sympathetic look can go a long way.

“Just the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae that’s started to melt… If things weren’t going well for the bar before… Sorry, detective, don’t think I’m heartless. I’ve already gone through the shock of Billy being murdered. What I didn’t contemplate until coming back now and seeing the police presence is how badly this affects me. It’s not been a good year.”

“When did you open this bar?”

“Just over ten months ago. I had all these ideas. Ideas I’m still playing around with. Interesting decor, specialized drinks and quirky food that matches the theme I have in mind.”    

Looking around, I have no idea what possible theme that could be.

“I’ve been working on a couple of new beverage trends I could really see taking off. These drinks are the big thing right now to push ourselves. Equipment and ingredients for those aren’t cheap, though. I guess I just don’t know how to market this place properly. Business is slow. An unpredictable rush here and there, nothing amazing.”

Has he seen this place from the outside? I have a few ideas about marketing straight off the bat.

“People appreciated what we were trying to do but the word of mouth tactic just wasn’t paying off. So, when Billy asked if he could use the venue on Monday nights for a small fee, I didn’t hesitate. Every little helps. We’re still closed to the public on Mondays, I just come in to open up for the group. But I mostly left them to it. We’ve been doing a bit of brainstorming lately, that’s myself and Craig, my one, one employee – it’s not busy enough here for more than one,” he laughs while shaking his head, deep wrinkles around his eyes. “So we’ve been around a bit more on the Monday evenings lately.”

“What impression did you get from Billy?” I ask. “And the rest of the gamers?”

“Well, they’re an interesting collection, really. Different backgrounds all coming together over an interest in throwing dice. Not really my thing, but to be honest it fits in with the quirkiness of the bar. Well, board games aren’t quirky in themselves… but board game bars are a little different around here, I suppose. I was contemplating a chat with Billy about making it more than just an exclusive Monday night thing. Why not bring it to a wider audience? And more paying customers? Unlikely now though, eh? As for Billy, bit of an odd character. All over the place. Full of ideas with fingers in many pies, I suspect. Told me he’d been through many jobs. He came here for a drink one night and that’s when we got chatting. I will say, he did have a way with words. He told me this would be the perfect venue for a gaming group he wanted to start. Before I knew it, I was offering him the opportunity to host board game nights here. Board games are a hot trend now, he told me. He presented himself as being a man of many talents, malleable to any vocation you could think of, but now I think he was just restless. His latest project just happened to be this board game he’d ‘created’.”

“And why do you say it like that?”

“Oh, there was very little of Billy in that game from what I heard. I wonder if he even cared about tarot. Well, you’d have to ask the other gamers about that. I’m just going off what I observed. As you probably know now, he was planning to play that game last night. I gave him a spare key so he could come in early. He said he wanted to prepare the game. A bit trusting of me, perhaps, but my office requires a separate key so I thought there’s no harm in having Billy let himself in. Either myself or Craig, or both of us, would usually open up at around 7:15 for their 7:30 session. Seeing as Billy was opening up yesterday I decided to arrive a bit later, and I told Craig to as well.”

“Do you think Craig may have made some observations also?”

“Hmm. He’s young, and I think the most he observed was Feebs – Phoebe. But he’s a good kid, and sure, he may be in the know more than me. I was just consumed with trying to keep things afloat around here. He lives just down the road on Morgan Avenue.”

I take Craig Hughes’ address and decide to stop there next.

“And Jon, what were you doing before you came here yesterday evening? What time did you leave your house?”

“Oh, around 7:30. It’s a 15-minute walk. I was just having dinner before that. You can ask my housemate, Phil. He was in, watching Netflix.”

I take Phil’s details. “And that ashtray – one of yours I understand?”

“It is, but we kept it out the back in the storeroom. Didn’t know what to do with it – too big. Gave it to Phoebe sometimes as she’s the smoker in the group. She’d take it outside with her. Even wash it in the bathroom and put it back in its drawer in the storeroom now and then. Another good kid, Phoebe – Don’t be getting suspicious of her over that.”

“I’ll be speaking to everyone in equal measure,” I assure him, though naturally, I’m of course suspicious of Phoebe, until proven otherwise.

As I leave, John Montgomery shuffles past the bar and into his office with a deep sigh. Hipster bar aside, he and Mick would probably get along.

*

It’s an easy five-minute walk to Craig Hughes’ house from Indigo. He lives in bog standard cul-de-sac housing with identical front gardens. Not my taste, but I shouldn’t be judgemental when I live in a fifty square foot flat. Mick thinks being judgemental is what gets the job done, but it’s listening to my gut rather than plain judgement. (Which right now is telling me that meal deal from earlier barely touched the sides.) I’d like to think of myself as more open-minded than Mick, anyway. As long as things meet Italian standards, that’s all. Judging books by their covers doesn’t solve murders, good instincts do, as well as the ability to spot the most relevant chapters behind those covers. I must remember that next time I’m staring at Jon Montgomery’s heinous moustache.   

Craig, pale, blonde and in his early twenties, looks tentative and a little overwhelmed as he invites me into his home. It’s a small, messy house with a sink piled high with dishes and piles of unfolded laundry shoved into a corner of the living room, where I sit down in an armchair. Craig takes a seat on a leather bean bag.

“Sorry I didn’t answer the door straight away, I was just giving mum a cup of tea. She’s upstairs, where she always is these days.” He pauses before feeling the need to explain. I let him. I generally keep quiet when I first meet people. Most of them love to fill the silence with more chatter.

        “She’s got fibromyalgia,” he carries on. “It’s rare and leaves her tired, aching all over, and for the last month she’s been bedridden. But yeah, you’re here because of Billy, right?”

“Yes. Just getting what info I can,” I say with the soft, comforting tones of a daytime TV presenter to make Craig feel relaxed.

“Well, I’m still in shock. I’m just glad I wasn’t one of the first to arrive. I got to Indigo after Jon, and he told me not to enter the building. He’s protective like that,” he shrugged. “But I’d already seen enough through the door… his body slumped like that…”

“You arrived at the bar at 8:00?”

“Yes, around then. I was making dinner for mum before I left. We chatted for a bit and then I got going.”

“Craig…” A curious voice calls out.

“It’s okay, mum,” Craig shouts upstairs. “It’s a detective, she’s here about Billy.”

“She?”

“Yes, mum. It’s fine.” His face is pink.

Yes, she. I try not to roll my eyes, considering the poor woman is bedridden.

“Were you familiar with Billy and the other gamers?” I ask.

“A bit. Billy would try and get me to do things like I was on full work time and ready to serve them at the click of his fingers. That annoyed me, I will say. I was mainly there to help Jon with the business. Albert was a bit demanding also, but he’s on another planet.”

“What about the other gamers – Dora, Maria, Phoebe – Feebs for short right?

His face is now red at the mention of Phoebe.

“They were fine.” He pauses. “Yes, it is Feebs for short,” he adds.

“The women were nicer to you, then?”

“Yeah, I’d say so. But even then, besides Feebs, I didn’t speak to them much.”

“How long have you been working at the Indigo Bar?”

“About eight months now. It’s not the busiest work, but it’s nice to be a part of the place and help Jon build things up, slowly. It’s just the two of us, and I like it that way. I suppose if things pick up we’ll need extra staff which will be weird, but it’ll be good for Jon to finally be busy. With all his new ideas I hope it will be! Although… I can’t imagine it will pick up now if this murder gets out. Unless people have a sort of morbid curiosity? Well, his new ideas will work in Indigo or somewhere new, it doesn’t matter. Our plans are unique enough to hold their own anywhere,” he says with a strong sense of pride.

“What were you coming into work to do yesterday?”

“To both help Jon with some cocktail ideas and to be ‘on call’ if the gamers needed anything, as usual. Jon didn’t like Billy much, as time went on anyway, so I think he liked me to be around to deal with him. He trusted me to handle Billy’s obnoxious attitude.”

“And besides annoying you with his demands, what did you observe of his personality?”

“I could just see how he wound people up. He was forceful. He basically forced that board game group into the Indigo Bar like he was trying to force that weird tarot game onto the gamers. They pretty much made it for him, anyway. They were all shocked when he showed everyone the prototype the Monday before. I can’t believe they were so surprised, to be honest, it was pretty clear to me what he was up to. As someone looking in from the outside, anyway. I think they all fell for his charms and persuasions in one way or another. Jon too, even.”

Leaving Craig’s, Mick phones to tell me he’s been speaking with Billy’s mother and that she’s expecting me over. Mick loves a little micromanaging now and then, but it’s a good call to head over there sooner rather than later. I’m still fairly new to detecting solo, having been promoted to DCI only last year. However, you would think seven years in the force with Mick would be enough for him to leave me to make my own calls to the victim’s mother.

*

Miriam Grahame is a fragile-looking woman with short grey hair. She looks like she spends her Sundays admiring pictures of pressed flowers. There’s that judgment again. Is this what entering middle age is like? Miriam, puffy eyed from all her tears, leads me to her living room and I take a seat on a dusty sofa. Does nobody look after their house in Nutbourne?

“Shall I put the kettle on? Do you want a tea? No? Well, I’m just going to put in on for myself…”

She busies herself with tea making before coming back, taking a seat and staring into space for a few seconds, breathing deeply. Clearly keeping busy has been her go-to since yesterday evening.

“Mrs. Grahame, I know this can’t be easy for you. I understand that your husband also passed away last year?” Thanks for that one, Mick.

“Yes.” She gives a little bitter laugh. “And then there was one…” She sips her tea, her hands shaking a little.

“How did your husband die?”

“Car crash. He lost control of his vehicle on the A27 and the car went right into an oak tree. Honestly, the weather was good, he wasn’t drunk, and he was a good driver… It was just the good old Grahame bad luck streak. And now Billy, just months after moving back here to be there for me, things going well for him, even found himself a lady – I’m sure of it… oh the irony of it all. Hosting a board game group of all things! Who would think that there would be a murderer in the midst of such a boring activity!”

The mention of a possible girlfriend is interesting, but I let her continue. 

“I didn’t even know Billy was into board games. Goes to show. He always surprised me with his ability to try anything…”

“From what I understand Mrs. Grahame, he was always on the lookout for new business and financial opportunities. It looks like board game production was his latest.”

“Oh, Billy was always extremely talented in many areas. He was always so good at using his initiative and trying different things. Very entrepreneurial, he was.” She nods and sips from her teacup. “What wasted talent… all that he could have achieved still.”

“Ah, yes, I’m sure. Although, did you know much about any plagiarism claims made against him? I was wondering if you could help me with that.” 

“What? Plagiarism? Isn’t that what happens when kids copy things off the internet for their school coursework? Billy was a 37-year-old man!”

“It’s just something I was informed of, Mrs. Grahame.”

“People slandering the dead by the sounds of it. It’s disgusting.” She finishes her tea and her eyes shine with fresh tears. “Billy was a bright spark. Always asking me for money to help him with his little projects, even more so since moving back to Nutbourne. Of course, I always supported him financially, I wouldn’t want to halt the progress of his exciting ideas, would I? What kind of mother would I be then?”

One who expects her son to be a self-dependant adult, I imagine. I thank Miriam and leave, it’s almost time for Palandri family dinner Tuesdays. Being late is not an option unless I want my mother knocking on my front door with a gun pointing at me. I’m 43 years old and she still likes to take charge of my eating habits. She’d die if she saw the state of the prawn sandwich I ate earlier.  First stop tomorrow is definitely Dora, who according to Bates’ notes lives along the seafront. I look forward to waddling there after being forced to eat my own body weight in ribollita tonight.

 

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