The Hadmere Players – Part 1

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What will she be crying about?”

“A boy, most likely.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

‘Heya Helen,” Bill said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Still! That’s super impressive.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© Intrigue Inn

 

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The Pearl Of Taiwan – Day 7

After a quick trip to check something vital to my theory, I meet Freddy at Kuo Noodles early in the morning to explain it. He’s the best person to talk to right now. He brings some dumplings and minced pork rice to the table for us to share.

“So, you said you’ve worked out what happened that day? Who do you think murdered Cindy?” Freddy asks, handing me a pair of chopsticks and pouring us some glasses of water.

“Well, I had to think back very carefully to the day Cindy died. Cindy was with Naomi and I at the hotel in the morning. She was wearing the necklace. She ate some of her popping pearls, spooning some in to her milk tea. No reaction. She left, and Naomi and I followed around fifteen minutes later. When we arrived at the cafe, the poison from the pearls she added to her taro bubble tea had already taken effect. All sources claim that Cindy entered the cafe quite hot and bothered and spent a few minutes talking with Chih Ming. She ordered her tea and took a seat. The drink would have only taken a few minutes to make. Before the drink arrived, Pauline and Michael approached Cindy and asked to see her necklace, noting that she wasn’t wearing it. Other sources cannot remember if she was wearing the necklace or not, but suggest not. Cindy told Pauline and Michael to leave her be and they returned to their seats. Cindy’s drink arrived and she added the popping pearls. She put them back in her bag. This container of popping pearls was not there when the police inspected the contents of her bag later on, however. This implies that they were taken from her bag sometime between her putting back the container and her bag being taken by the police at the scene of the crime.”

“A few minutes after she started drinking, she began suffering from cyanide poisoning. Now, it is most likely that Cindy removed her pearl necklace en route. Seeing as she chatted with Chih Ming in the cafe, waited for her bubble tea, spoke with Pauline and Michael and the fact that we only left her for fifteen minutes, we therefore know a little about the length of her journey from the hotel to the cafe. Whatever confrontation occurred on her way must have been very quick. On an obscured spot on the stone stairway I found a photo of Alma and Kevin, and a few items that I suspect had fallen out of Cindy’s bag – a little loose change, a bit of a receipt and a couple of popping pearls. I believe her confrontation took place here.”

“Cindy said she would never take the necklace off and was certainly wary of new people. Therefore, unless the necklace was removed with force, she may have given the necklace to someone she knew and trusted. Someone who I believe scared Cindy by showing her a photo of Alma, revealing to Cindy that the daughter of Robin Lindholm was right there in Jiufen, looking for her. When I met Alma, I wasn’t sure whether I believed her story about being lured to Jiufen by a fake letter. But seeing the photo of them yesterday, unaware they had been photographed, confirmed that Alma was being used. It’s possible, of course, that the photo I found was one Cindy took herself, but I never saw her with a Polaroid, for a start. No, I think someone was showing Cindy a picture they had taken. Understandably, this would have scared Cindy. I imagine the murderer then pushed the idea of Cindy being in danger as Alma was so close and wanted to take back the necklace. The murderer suggested that Cindy give the necklace to them to keep it safe! The murderer, you see, was someone Cindy would never suspect of foul play, so she agreed, took off her necklace and handed it over.”

“But there was more. The container of popping pearls Cindy had at the cafe cannot have been the same one she had at the hotel that morning. The containers were switched at some point during this meeting on the stairway. The murderer knocked Cindy’s bag over, making it look accidental. Perhaps while Cindy was removing her necklace. When helping to put her belongings back in her bag, the murderer switched the container of pearls over. A few small items were missed when putting back the belongings – the loose change and so on. Cindy would have been understandably shaken at this point. The murderer then suggested she relax, have a comforting bubble tea and try not to panic. The murderer must have known Cindy was on her way to the cafe. They were expecting her to eat the poisoned popping pearls soon in order for the next part of the plan to work. The meeting ended, Cindy continuing on to the cafe, and the murderer left the scene.”

“In the cafe, Cindy would have been under a lot of stress working out what to do. Some of that stress she took out on Chih Ming. She ordered a drink and added some of the pearls from the new poisoned container, completely unaware. When Cindy started reacting to the poison, a crowd of people gathered around her. As Cindy’s bag was on the floor, the container of popping pearls could have been taken by someone while the focus was on Cindy. However, this someone was not the same person Cindy met on the stairway. We have two murderers working together here. This second person decided to take the pearls in order to remove the evidence. This person covered part two of the plan.”

“Now, as suspicious as they were, Pauline and Michael could not have committed this crime. They were together in the cafe. Neither of them met up with Cindy on the stairway. Winnie had only just arrived at the cafe, so it’s definitely possible that she could have confronted Cindy on the stairway beforehand. But the problem is I don’t think Cindy really knew or trusted her enough to hand over the necklace. Plus, Winnie did not go near Cindy or the huddle of people around her to pick up the popping pearls. This is really most of the suspects covered. So I had to think carefully, until it hit me.”

“Who could it have been, then?” Asks Freddy.

“It took me a while to realise just how misled I’ve been. And not just misled, I now understand what part I had to play in this murder myself, without even knowing. As I could see from the fake letter written to Alma, this murder had been planned thoroughly. By two people who had to know Cindy’s movements perfectly in order for the plan to work. They had to know about her love of mango popping pearls in order to prepare poisoned mango pearls in advance. They had to know Cindy always wore the necklace and that she would not want to take it off, especially int the company of people she didn’t know or trust. They also decided, when I conveniently stepped on to the scene a week ago, to use me as an alibi. I’m the outsider who could confirm that it was impossible for them to have a part in this. But actually, it’s completely possible. One of them was able to meet Cindy on the stairway. The other was able to remove the pearls out of her bag in the cafe. And those two people are Josh and Naomi.”

“Josh’s movements on the day of Cindy’s death, as explained by him and Naomi and even confirmed by the guard at their apartment complex, were not actually correct. Josh left in the morning for work. He had told me, two days previously that he would be working. Naomi told me this also, and the guard saw him leave the apartment complex in the morning and return several hours later. The problem is, I should have checked when I doubted them earlier if Josh actually went to work. He didn’t. This morning I visited Bangka Models. They told me Josh had no booking that day.  A few hours is enough time to travel to Jiufen and return to Taipei, you see. And then go back up to Jiufen shortly after that. He travelled to Jiufen, met Cindy, came back home, then returned to see Naomi and I. Maybe he took the Polaroid that morning in Jiufen before he met Cindy. Or perhaps Naomi took it and gave it to Josh before she had breakfast with Cindy at the hotel.”

“When Cindy left the hotel, Naomi checked her phone. I think she was sending the signal to Josh, to let him know Cindy was on her way and he should be prepared. He was waiting for her on the stairway. This wasn’t a chance encounter. I expect Josh then messaged back after the confrontation was over, giving Naomi an idea of when to leave. Having me stay with her the entire time – asking me to talk about my travels – meant that I could back her up if she was ever questioned. Cindy and Naomi shared a room. That’s great for learning everything about Cindy, but not good for pearl swapping with no alibi. I needed to be there that morning to see Cindy eat the pearls, proving it was her regular container. We walked to the cafe together, Josh by now on his way back to Riufang station, and we entered the cafe right on cue. Cindy had ingested the poison. At this point, I remember Naomi making her way into the crowd and crouching down by Cindy’s side. How easy it would have been to remove the container of poisoned popping pearls and put them in her own bag! She then got up, came back out of the crowd and started talking to me. Later, Naomi and I gave our matching stories at the police station and Josh came back up to Jiufen to support us. The next morning, I remember how they couldn’t wait to get out of Jiufen, and I just thought it was due to the shock of Cindy’s death. But after this point, they distanced themselves from me a bit. I was the only one contacting them. I was useless to them now, you see. I had played my part perfectly. Josh was never really interested in me as a person. Once he found out I was going to Jiufen when we met at the gay bar, he started working out how to use me as part of their plan. I trusted him straight away. I saw his desire to book me into his sister’s hotel as nothing but kindness. They come across as very warm and friendly people. No wonder Cindy felt comfortable enough to give Josh the necklace. He told me they had only met once before in Rochester. Given his natural charm and the bond Cindy had built up with his sister, this was certainly enough for her to trust what Josh was saying and give him the necklace to protect it from Alma.”

“But why devise this complicated plan? Why did they want the necklace?”

“Well, it’s a five million dollar necklace. That’s tempting for a lot of people. And they wanted it very badly. I should have known something was off with the fact I really know nothing about Josh and Naomi’s lives before Taiwan. They don’t have social media. They said this was because they didn’t want their agency looking them up, but I now realise they don’t want anyone looking them up. They like to keep a low profile, especially after this crime. I wasn’t sure what they were hiding, but something you told me came to mind – that some foreigners coming to Taiwan are looking to escape something. Or they seek a better life. You also mentioned people get into trouble with Taiwanese gangsters if they owe them money – like gambling problems, right?”

“Yes. Gambling is illegal here in Taiwan.”

“Right. I didn’t realise that at the time. If I had known that when I saw Josh’s poker table with evidence of a recent session, it would have made me question who he entertains in their apartment. I didn’t think anything of it. That’s just popular entertainment in America. The guard said lots of people visit their apartment. And Josh paid for breakfast yesterday using a screwed up wad of cash. He said it was from work, but I saw pay slips when I found their US passports. More likely poker money.”

“So, he’s a gambler.”

“Yep. Now, I expect plenty of foreigners here like a poker game or two with friends just for fun, but with Josh, I bet either he’s run into some trouble with gangsters, or he’s escaping some gambling debts from back home. If Josh has been hosting gambling sessions in his apartment and gangsters became involved, this could help explain how he got his hands on cyanide also – he had contacts.”

“And Naomi?”

“Well, Naomi simply has expensive taste. She likes to live beyond her means. Rochester wasn’t enough and she wanted a more glamorous lifestyle. She was very easily wowed by anything fancy in Jiufen. The luxury purchases in her grotty apartment are two very contrasting things! And talking of that apartment… Josh and Naomi kept telling me how well looked after they were by their agency, but that apartment wasn’t pleasant. It made me wonder how looked after they were, really. And in the few days I’ve known Naomi, she hasn’t worked once! I don’t think Bangka Models is all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, I think it’s like the other agencies Josh mentioned – the ones that don’t live up to their promises once foreigners sign a contract and come over. This was supposed to be their breakthrough, shooting them both into modelling success so they could leave Rochester behind. But it hasn’t worked out. They’re due to go back home in less than a week. Their dreams didn’t exactly come true. Add Josh’s gambling issues in to the mix, and Cindy’s necklace becomes very desirable indeed…”

“Who wouldn’t want that necklace, as you say… And Cindy trusted them completely. No wonder they started planning it out straight away.”

“Yes. Once Cindy had told Naomi that she was coming back to visit Taiwan, they began to prepare. It was easy for them to find Alma Lindholm on social media. Plus, Cindy probably divulged some information about the Lindholm children being in Taipei, and likely mentioned to Naomi about her old boyfriend in Jiufen. Important details for the siblings to remember when it came to framing others for this crime. They wrote a letter to lure Alma up to Jiufen. They devised a way for Cindy to die from a drink that her ex gave her in a cafe he worked at. To get the poison into that drink while they were both absent when the drink was prepared and drunk, they came up with a clever way of injecting poison into Cindy’s beloved popping pearls. Fiddly, but possible. After that, all they needed as a bonus was an extra person to be there to back them up. And when I stumbled into Ximen’s gay district, that person became me.”

“How are you feeling about that?”

“Well, your soup helps. Food always helps me and I’m in the perfect city for it right now, at least. I’ve been neglecting my food writing since the murder, naturally, but I intend to make up for that. Once we work out what to do with all this information, I want to go for mochi waffles. As for my relationship with Josh, well, many encounters between foreigners in another countries can be fleeting. There are no pained feelings there. But I do feel foolish for being taken on a ride by those two, strung along while they carried out their disturbing plan. You know, my website is all about people, really. So I just hope this incident doesn’t affect my attitude as I continue to travel, eat and write.”

Freddy smiles. “I don’t think it will. You will just learn to be more careful. Let’s go together for waffles. But we must go to the police station first. I was thinking that it may be tricky finding the evidence to convict them. But if there are gambling issues to look into, this will definitely help the case against them.”

“Well, and the fact they have or had the pearl necklace. Even if they’ve sold it on, I’m sure this can be traced. Two blonde hair, blue eyed Americans? It’s tough for them to be inconspicuous anywhere here!”

“This is true! Okay, well there is no time to lose – let’s go!”

I finish off the last dumpling and Freddy and I head outside. I may have lost two people who I thought were friends in Josh and Naomi, but I’ve definitely gained one in Freddy. As shocked as I was when I realised Josh and Naomi were behind this murder, it’s taught me to keep one eye open as I travel. I’ll bear that in mind when I fly to my next destination, Thailand. But hopefully I’ll be experiencing nothing but good tom yum soup and massaman curries…

 

© Intrigue Inn

 

 

 

 

 

The Pearl of Taiwan – Day 4

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

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

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

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

“Yes. I knew Cindy, a little.”

“Oh… you are the food writer. Okay.”

“Yes… how do you know that?”

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

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

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

“Confused that this could happen?”

“Confused because I made her the drink!”

“The taro bubble tea?”

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

I sit down next to him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have ideas?”

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

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

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

“Do you know anything more about the poison?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© Intrigue Inn

The Pearl of Taiwan – Day 3

Naomi, Cindy and I all agree on a slow start the next day. I have breakfast alone in the dining room and Winnie brings over some sesame and peanut mochi she made for me to try. Afterwards, I take a walk to digest and admire the views before returning. Naomi and Cindy are having a late breakfast so I pull up a chair. I notice only Naomi is eating the hotel breakfast – a dough stick and warm soy milk. Cindy sips on what looks like milk tea, adding some of the mango pearls she’s obsessed with.  I notice Winnie isn’t in the kitchen anymore, instead her mother is washing dishes.

“Good Morning, Greg!” Naomi greets me cheerfully.

“What are you two up to today?” I ask.

“Well, Cindy is about to head off to her favourite cafe, I thought we could join her there in a bit? She says their bubble tea is better than what we had yesterday. Well, I liked the one we had, but those mango pearls did make it better,” Naomi admits, nodding in the direction of Cindy’s tea.

“They make everything better,” Cindy agrees. “Maybe we will go hiking up Keelung Mountain later. The trail begins close to the golden waterfall.” She fiddles with her necklace while she talks, it’s more visible today. I notice it’s a pearl necklace, but knowing nothing about jewellery I can’t be sure if they’re real pearls or not.

“Okay, that sounds good to me. That’s a really pretty necklace, by the way.”

Cindy gives me a strange look and puts her hand over the necklace, as if to protect it.

“Yes,” she replies simply.

“As long as I’ve known you, you’ve never taken that necklace off,” Naomi comments.

“I’ll never take it off,” Cindy replies. “Okay, I will see you soon.” She finishes her tea, grabs her handbag and leaves.

“She really loves that cafe!” I remark. And that necklace, I think to myself.

“I think she knows people who work there. Old acquaintances,” Naomi says as she checks her phone. “Oh, Josh just messaged that he’ll be done with work in a few hours, he’ll probably come and join us. Winnie told me there’s still a couple of rooms free here so he’s good to stay overnight if he wants. So that’s good. But enough about Josh! I want to know more about you.”

We chat for around fifteen minutes about my travels while Naomi finishes her meal, we then grab our bags and make our way up to the road above on the stone stairway. We turn left and pass several small houses and homeware shops.

“The cafe is along here I believe… Ah, here we are. Daydreams and Tea.”

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We walk in. It’s clear something is wrong the second we enter the cafe. It’s the wrong noise. There’s a nervous energy. There are various booth style tables around the room with a counter and kitchen to the left. In the middle of the cafe there are several tables also, and it’s around one of these that several customers and staff are gathered. Without sound it would look like someone is demonstrating a cool trick or performance of some kind, but this isn’t the case. We both stand for a second, confused, then Naomi steps forward.

“Is that-” She rushes over to the crowd. As I look closer I understood the word she doesn’t say is “Cindy”. It’s hard to make out, but something is definitely wrong with Cindy. A few customers are standing up at their tables, hesitant to join the crowd, watching on concerned. I spot Winnie amongst them, standing besides her own small booth set for one. At the counter a young girl in a blue apron stares at the scene open mouthed.

“What’s happened?” I ask her.

She looks at me, closes her mouth and opens it again.

“Sick. She’s sick.”

I join the crowd. I can see Cindy clearly now, in severe discomfort, slumped back in her chair. With her head back, her neck is exposed and I instantly notice it’s bare – no necklace. Naomi ducks down in order to weave in between the crowd. She looks up at me, her expression panicked. She kneels down next to Cindy and stays there, trying to comfort her and work out what’s wrong.

“She’s not moving!” cries a familiar voice. It’s Pauline, a few steps in front of me. She looks around wildly, noticing me behind her.

“Greg! Oh My God… she just started off a few minutes ago… some kind of reaction… Oh Lord!”

“Someone’s called an ambulance?”

“Er, yes…the manager, I believe,” she nods her head in the direction of a middle aged woman in another blue apron. One more apron is present in the crowd, belonging to a young man with the most stressed look of all on his face, speaking rapidly and shaking Cindy’s shoulder.

Naomi squirms her way back out of the crowd.

“Greg, what do we do? I don’t get it!”

“Is it an allergic reaction?” I ask. “Although she seems to eat anything…”

I look at Cindy’s table and see only a familiar purple drink, two thirds empty.

“Taro bubble tea… she drinks that all the time,” Naomi says. “She shouldn’t have a bad reaction to it.”

The manager shouts something and people begin to move away from Cindy. Naomi, Pauline and I shuffle back. Michael appears from the middle of the crowd.

“I can’t believe it,” he says, shaking his head.

“Is she dead?” asks Mary.

“There’s a pulse. I checked. But…” But it doesn’t look good.

The tone of the rapid chatter around us changes and I turn to see two paramedics in orange and black come through the door, walking swiftly to Cindy’s table. One of them starts talking to the manager while the other attends to Cindy.

She was just sitting, drinking, when this began?” I ask Michael and Pauline.

“Yes,” says Pauline. “We were the first to notice it, I think. She just started making noises and waving her hands around, she looked in pain. The manager hurried over and then a few others, including us.”

A police officer walks into the cafe and surveys the room. Naomi joins the manager and paramedic and begins speaking emotionally with them, trying to get across what she can in English. The blue apron male employee joins them, looking tearful. Without understanding their words, it looks like the paramedics want to take Cindy away as quickly as possible. Sure enough, a third paramedic enters the scene with a stretcher seconds later. Pauline puts her hand to her mouth.

I’ll never take it off. Cindy’s words no longer than half an hour ago echo in my mind. What happened to her necklace? We left Cindy for twenty minutes or less. What on earth happened during that time?

Naomi comes back to join us, while Winnie tentatively walks up to the male employee who is still talking with the officer. I follow her.

‘Winnie, are you okay?”

“Oh! Hello, Greg… She drinks her drink and then this!”

She’s probably in that cafe again. This time, I remember what Winnie said to me yesterday.

I have a lot of questions on the tip of my tongue, but right now isn’t the time to ask them.

I walk over to the small huddle of Naomi, the police officer and the manager. The male employee has left the group, his head in his hands. He looks up and sees Winnie in front of him. They stare at each other briefly and then hug. 

The police officer nods at me and speaks to the manager, who turns to face me.

“Sorry, the policeman does not speak English well. And me, but it’s better.”

The police officer speaks again and the manager translates.

“You know this girl. There is other policeman for English. You can talk to him. At the police station.” She pauses and then shakes her head. “I’m sorry.”

She is sorry, but it’s clear there’s an element of why did this have to happen in my cafe about her.

The older police officer indicates we should follow him. I mention the missing necklace and he nods, I’m not sure if he understands me or not. His car is parked outside. I wonder if it had been necessary to drive. Probably quicker to run, the police station isn’t far.

Minutes later we pull into the small station close to our hotel. It feels so strange to be here, for this to be happening at all in this charming, beautiful town. Naomi messages Josh and asks him to come as soon as he can. Inside the station, a younger officer approaches us.

‘Hello,’ he says nervously, seemingly regretting being the only officer with English language skills.

The next half hour is a blur as the officer informs us that Cindy has died on her way to the hospital, suspected poisoning. Naomi is stunned into silence for a while, and when she’s ready to talk, the officer asks us a few questions.

“You are just here for a visit? How did you know Ms. Xiu?”

“I’m working in Taipei. Cindy is my friend,” Naomi tells him. She explains how they met in the USA.

The officer nods and turns to me. “And sir, you?”

“I only met Naomi and Cindy yesterday,” I say, feeling a little useless. “Naomi’s brother who I’ve met here on my travels put me in touch with them. We were both visiting Jiufen at the same time, so we arranged some sight seeing together.”

“And the trip it has been… as expected? Nothing strange happening?”

“Not that I… we can think of,” Naomi says looking at me and shrugging. I agree.

“We understand her necklace is missing. What can you tell us about that?”

“I noticed that, but I know very little about it,” I admit.

“I only know a few things,” says Naomi. “She was given that necklace in Sweden. By her employer. He gave it to her before she left Sweden. He was terminally ill, she told me. I don’t know too much about it, but it looked expensive.”

“We will find out more about this necklace. Please, tell me when you last saw her?

“It was just before midday. She left the hotel to visit the cafe and we went to join her just fifteen minutes later…”

After a few more questions and filling out written statements, we walk slowly back to the hotel. We’ve been asked to stay in Jiufen today in case of further questioning.

“I’m so sorry, Greg. You shouldn’t have seen any of this. To be dragged into something so miserable…”

I tell her not to worry and comfort her as best as I can.

“I couldn’t remember much about the necklace, I tried to write as much as I could on the statement,” she tells me. “She really loved her employer… she used to talk about him with such reverence. A very wealthy family who lived on the outskirts of Stockholm. Lindholm was the family name, I remember that. Her employer, an elderly man, remarried a younger Taiwanese woman.”

Naomi needs some time alone so we go to our rooms and I suggest she rests before Josh arrives. I try to rest myself, but it’s impossible. I open up my laptop. I need to know more, if I can find out more, about the Lindholm family. It looks like this necklace is at the centre of all this. Who would be able to take it from Cindy? She told us she would never take it off. Half an hour later, she’s dead and the necklace is missing. I try a few search terms and eventually find an article detailing well respected entrepreneur Robin Lindholm’s death. The article focuses on Robin’s wealth and his beneficiaries, but points out that his most prized possession, the Sansberg pearl necklace, had been previously given away. The light cream and white natural pearl necklace has been valued at four million dollars. I inhale sharply as I read this. It’s apparently one of the most expensive pearl necklaces in the world. Is this really the same necklace Cindy wore? Why would she wear such an alarmingly expensive necklace every day? Did she know how much it was worth – did Robin tell her? She said she would never take it off, but I wonder if that was more for sentimental value than anything, she clearly had a soft spot for Robin.

An hour and a half later, Josh arrives at the hotel. We speak briefly in the lobby and he checks I’m okay, reiterating his sister’s apology of me bearing witness to this tragedy.

“Sorry I couldn’t be here earlier. As soon as Naomi told me I went home to grab a few things and made my way. I’m going to check in with Naomi now – I’ll come and see how you’re doing later on?”

I tell him to spend as much time as he likes with Naomi. Some time later, he knocks on my door and asks if I’d like some fresh air. I do, so we decide to visit the A Mei Teahouse.

“The police officer called Naomi to fill her in some more details. They are looking into what she drank at that cafe. They’re quite sure it’s poison. It was some kind of bubble tea?”

“Yes, a taro bubble tea. It was nearly finished though, so the poison took a while to act? If the poison was in the drink at all, that is.”

Josh sighs. “The whole thing is… surreal. I only met her once back in Rochester. I didn’t know her like Naomi did. It’s not like Naomi and her were the best of friends either, but still. And apparently this is all over a necklace? Poisoned for a necklace? What is this, 1935?”

“It doesn’t make sense, though. She wasn’t wearing the necklace when we entered the cafe. I hope they’re taking witness statements from all the customers and employees there at the time. If Cindy’s necklace was taken from her while in the cafe, someone would have surely seen that. Maybe it was taken when everyone gathered around her after she was poisoned. Someone could have stayed close to her under the pretence of checking if she was okay, and taken the necklace. That seems incredibly risky though.”

“Why poison someone and then take the necklace in a situation where you can’t be sure that you’ll have the opportunity to do it? What if all those people didn’t gather around Cindy?”

“True, it’s just that Cindy said she would never take the necklace off.”

Josh shakes his head. “I don’t know. But someone must have seen something unusual happening, surely.”

20180328_111439

We arrive at the tea house and are greeted by a hostess who escorts us up to the veranda. The view is breathtaking, but it feels strange to enjoy it. Or maybe I should appreciate it even more? The whole day has been so destabilising, I don’t know how I should feel or act. Cindy is dead. I only knew her for one day, but it was long enough to want to understand her and get to know her better. Then I tried to comfort a girl who I’d also known for just one day. Now I’m the one being comforted and checked on by someone who I’ve known for just a day longer than Cindy and Naomi. I feel so out of place. But at the same time, I have so many questions. Something is off about the whole situation, I just can’t work out what. 

Josh orders the regular tea set. It’s a little pricey by Taiwanese standards. Our hostess brings a tray of tea and snacks over and explains the traditional way of making the tea.

20180328_111414

“Will Naomi be okay?” I ask Josh.

“I think so. I think she’s a little frightened, actually. The fact Cindy was poisoned. In this quaint little place. Did she have any enemies here? I mean, she has friends here, I heard. Who would want to kill her?”

I don’t answer but certain people do pop into my mind. Why did Winnie stare at Cindy so curiously? And Pauline and Michael also when we visited the waterfall? All three of them just happened to be at the cafe at the same time… And of course, who are the mystery couple? What did they want with Cindy? I never did get a chance to ask Cindy about them. Also, the male employee at Daydreams and Tea reacted differently to everyone else in the cafe. He really seemed more distraught than anyone. We drink with minimal conversation, both shell-shocked after the day’s events, but I’m glad Josh is here. The quiet companionship is needed. We finish our tea and walk slowly back to the hotel. We head to our rooms and I try and process my thoughts before getting some sleep. Perhaps I can help in some way, and there are certainly several people I’d like to talk to tomorrow to begin with.

© Intrigue Inn

Lornbridge Hills – Day 7

After meeting Jeremy last night at the bar, the pieces of this mystery finally clicked into place. I should have caught on sooner. With so many lies and ulterior motives on one estate, it’s hard to keep up.

This morning I had to make a phone call to confirm a growing suspicion, one which became far more sinister than I expected as I pondered on it overnight. The phone call went exactly as I thought it would, and now I’m ready to pay a visit to the murderer’s residence.

Sian’s killer isn’t at home, so I walk around to the back of her house and look at the patio and the filled in ditches that she did herself.  Why wouldn’t an ageing woman let the construction company do this task for her? Why be in such a rush to fill over those ditches? Through the large french windows at the back of the house I spot a pot of honey tea boiling. I felt quite lightheaded when I drunk it during my first meeting with Margaret Haverford. At the time I put it down to stress, but now I know the truth. On Friday December 29th Margaret Haverford returned from her benefit, sick. At this point it was reported that Mitchell had left for the airport as he was due to be leaving that evening. However, Margaret did not find the house empty upon her return as she claimed.

I look towards the back of the garden where the golf course is visible. Little golf carts are scattered around nearby. I turn around, Margaret has arrived home.

“Oh, hello! Here for another chat? Honey tea, detective?”

“No, no tea for me. And I recommend you stop drinking it yourself. It’s making you sick. Margaret Haverford, you’re under arrest for the murders of Sian Kowlinski and Mitchell Haverford.”

*

Later on, I sit with Mick and Bates at the station. Mick can hardly believe that the refined middle aged woman I’ve brought in could be responsible for two deaths. I can see Bates working it out though, the gears in his head turning.

“The coroner’s report indicated a plant toxin was responsible,” I tell them both. “Everyone knows about their flowers in Lornbridge Hills so it was difficult to identify who was using plant substances to kill. It was only when a friend of mine, Jeremy, mentioned the word nectar that I was able to hone in on one particular suspect, a suspect that I still had a few questions about. I instantly made the link between nectar and the honey tea Margaret constantly drinks. I think she’s developing an addiction to it. The small doses of rhododendron honey she uses are enough to cause sickness. Rhododendrons are ubiquitous on the estate so they immediately came to mind. When I arrived home last night I researched rhododendron toxicity.  It turns out this mad honey toxin can cause nausea, dizziness, loss of balance and difficulty in breathing. Just one cup of that tea made me feel a little strange.”

“Sian was home from college last weekend. On Friday 29th, she had been chatting to her friend Emily while searching Booking.com for rooms in Greece, where she was planning to meet Mitchell Haverford. Sian, as we know, had a thing for older men and Mitchell, who I believe had been having affairs for years, was her next pursuit. It was clear Sian gravitated to older men – look at how close she was with her father, for example. At first it made me wonder if Joseph was somehow involved, but no. That was purely paternal. Mitchell, on the other hand, was reciprocating. He couldn’t believe his luck, I expect. He had been sending Sian souvenirs from Switzerland. I found some in her room. She never went to Switzerland on her trip with Emily. It was made very clear by her parents, Emily Beal, and even Serafina Morton, that she travelled to Italy, Greece and Germany. Yet in her room I found a Swatch watch, Chocolat Frey and a souvenir alphorn. All distinctly Swiss. I imagine Mitchell and Sian had been meeting secretly when Mitchell was back in Lornbridge Hills last year. While he was in Switzerland, I believe he travelled to Greece to see Sian, with Emily unaware. Emily mentioned that Sian went out alone several nights and didn’t return until the next morning. Plus, Greece was the country of choice for meeting up again once Mitchell was back in Switzerland. Not that he ever made it to Switzerland this time, of course.”

“On the evening of the 29th, Sian left her house to meet up with Mitchell at the Haverford residence so that they could say goodbye to each other before Mitchell’s flight. She waited until Margaret had left for the benefit. It’s likely that Mitchell timed his flight back with the evening of the benefit so Margaret wouldn’t be there, and told her that his flight was earlier than it actually was. This plan of one last night together would prove fatal for them both.”

“Unfortunately for them, Margaret came home earlier than expected, sick from her continous honey tea intake, and found them together on the outdoor terrace. In a rage, she picked up one of the iron fence posts still to be fixed in place and slammed it against Mitchell’s head with intent to kill. This weapon of choice is speculative, but once they dig up Mitchell’s body from the irrigation ditch on the terrace, I do believe this will be the proven weapon.” Bates gives an audiable gasp. I continue. “She also hit Sian with the post, her heart still full of rage, but without the same intent to kill. However after this blow to her head, Sian collapsed.”

“Margaret would have dragged Mitchell’s body to the irrigation ditch. She therefore had to finish the construction of the ditch herself to hide the body, to the construction man’s confusion a week later. Her internet searches revealed research on irrigation ditches. Sian, meanwhile, was in a state of semi-consciousness. She was dragged by Margaret along the unfinished terrace and into the house, unsure what to do with her, causing the limestone abrasions I was confused about. At first, I wondered if the limestone found on Sian came from the golf course, or even the Burbank’s new house. But of course, limestone is often used for patio stones. Sian was then force fed large quantities of the toxic mad honey to keep her delirious, gathered from the rhododendrons, of which Margaret and many other neighbours have many. Margaret had been experimenting with this rhodendendron honey for a while. We’ll have to question her to determine how long exactly. She began to enjoy the heady feeling small quantities of the honey gave her when prepared as a tea. Because Sian consumed nothing but this over the weekend in her half awake state, nothing was found in her system – the honey toxin had already left.”

“When I checked Margaret’s activity for Saturday she stated she was tackling her garden,” Bates says, shocked. Johanna saw her in the garden as well… turns out she’d been burying her husband!”

“Yes. With the irrigation ditch now mostly filled, what could she do with Sian after she died from the toxin on the 31st? Margaret decided to take her to the woods later that afternoon by using a golf cart and driving behind the neighbouring houses. She quickly dumped Sian’s body, only shallowly burying her because she heard Eddie and Serafina on their way, who discovered the body.”

“Margaret, usually so neat and orderly, knew her husband was having affairs, I suspect. I could hear it in the way she spoke of her marriage. But the fact he was having one with Sian was what broke her and make her lash out in rage. She had been trying to help Sian for many months, and the two of them had thrown it back in her face by doing this. She realised that the reason her and Sian had grown apart was because Mitchell and Sian had grown closer. She had refused to believe the bad words Johanna Howell and other neighbours had been saying about Sian, but she now accepts that they were right all along. Sian betrayed her so she lashed out. Mitchell however, her husband of 25 years, should have known better than to choose Sian as a distraction. It was too close to home, and Sian was so young. It ruined the image of everything the Haverfords had built up – the perfect, neat and orderly life in Lornbridge Hills with the one small issue of Mitchell’s affairs out of sight, out of mind.”

“This morning I just had to make a call to Mitchell’s office in Interlaken to confirm he’s not there. I was informed by a receptionist that he’s been sending messages through to let them know he’s been delayed and has decided to work from home a while longer. These messages must have been sent by Margaret using his phone, stalling until she works out where to take it from here. After a little probing, the receptionist also told me that during his last stay in Interlaken he could often be found wrapping gifts and sending them to Lornbridge Hills. The receptionist assumed they were for Margaret. Now, the problem is Margaret showed Bates messages from Mitchell that she’d sent herself saying he was in Switzerland, yet the messages she sent to the receptionist say he wasn’t. She was playing with fire.”

“And here I was thinking that the Neal’s had something to do with this, or perhaps Sian’s mother!” Mick says, shaking his head.

“Oh, Aisling Kowlinksi has her own murky past as we now all know, but she loved Sian. She would never kill her. There was never a reason for her to do so. As for the Neals, well, the most likely culprit would have been Clarissa – but the difference between Clarissa and Margaret is Margaret’s connection to Sian. This was an emotionally fuelled act. Clarissa’s motivations were all very superficial. Bribery, in order to keep up appearances. These people don’t like being made fools of, you see. Look at Samantha Burbank and her Dunginabox revenge, or Johanna Howell’s hasty decision to divorce her husband.

“I thought it was Eddie Cho,” Bates says, blushing.

“Ah, all Eddie wants is a little happiness, I think,” I reply. “Poor man. He loves his work, but his unsatisfactory home life has lead him to wonder what he really desires. I would be curious to know if he’s even bisexual at all, as perhaps all he’s looking for is a stable, predictable routine at Lornbridge Hills and that’s exactly what Serafina Morton offers.”

“Well Fran, good job. And thanks to your, uh, “friend” too.” I roll my eyes. “Bates, you’ve worked hard here as well.” Bates smiles and nods. I imagine in his mind he’s saying that it’s not a problem, but he wouldn’t mind spending more time investigating and less time completing paperwork on the next case. I’d be happy for that to happen. I quite like the kid. One person I like more though is Jeremy, and he’s my first call when I leave the station. I think a few gins right now is a suitable ending to this case.

© Intrigue Inn

 

 

Lornbridge Hills – Day 4

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

Hi DCI Palandri

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

Emily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

“No tea for you?”

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

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

“And your wife?”

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

“And what was the video?”

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

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

“Yes, yes… She’ll be here…”

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

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

I click on the attachment and scroll through the report.

Neal Residence

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

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

Burbank Residence

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

Howell Residence

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

Haverford Residence

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

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

Morton Residence

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

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

Cho-Durante Residence

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

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

Hope this helps

Bates

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

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

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

 

© Intrigue Inn

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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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