The Hadmere Players – Part 6

With Christmas road traffic in mind, Francesca decided to take the train up to London the next morning. Hadmere still seemed full of Christmas cheer, despite the tragedies that took place just a few days earlier. People have their own lives to be getting on with, she considered, and if anything, Catherine and Dan’s deaths are great conversation starters. Who doesn’t love a scandal?

Patches of melting snow were scattered across green fields as the train rolled along. A thick fog permeated the air and through the fog Francesca could see an icy lake. She imagined a spectral figure on the other side of it… an elusive yet persuasive figure who wanted to tempt her onto the lake, where inevitably the millimetre thick layer of ice would crack and she would find herself submerged in the water. The layer of ice, so easy to crack when on top, would become an impenetrable barrier from below when fighting to stay alive… What festive thoughts, she thought, shuddering. Francesca planned to visit the Richmond and Shepherd’s Bush homes belonging to Catherine and Dan. She could also pay a visit to Gareth and Hana’s homes, too. Such selfish kids, Francesca thought. Probably feeling hard done by that yet again the attention has been taken away from them, and any attention they’ve received during this tragedy only has a negative connotation – with them as part of an unlikely suspect line up.

The train travelled past dark graffiti covered buildings as it approached Victoria station, the Shard and London Eye visible in the distance. Francesca picked up a sandwich at the station before jumping on the District line. It was packed. She realised that she and Bill Gregson were alike in at least one way – she absolutely preferred the quietness of small-town life. She made her way to the affluent suburb of Richmond. Once out of Richmond station, she walked past what seemed like an obscene amount of Italian restaurants until she arrived at Richmond Green. She located the white-brick townhouse. She had a warrant to search the premises and was told by Mick that a neighbour held a spare key for access. That was not necessary, however, as she spotted movement through a downstairs window. She knocked on the front door. A blonde haired man, late twenties possibly, opened the door sheepishly.

“Oh… can I can help you?”

“I’m DCI Francesca Palandri. I have a warrant to search Dan Argenta’s residence. Who are you, may I ask?”

“Ah, I’m a friend of Dan’s… I was just picking up some things.”

“Your things?”

“Yes, yes I had a few things here…”

“How did you get in? The neighbours?”

“The neighbours? What do you mean?”

“They have the spare key.”

“Oh, I see. Um, no, I have my own spare key. I’m not sure what’s happening to this house so I needed to come by sooner rather than later.”

“What’s your name?” Francesca asked, entering the house.

“Michael. Michael Lemac.”

“And you knew Mr. Argenta well? For a long time?”

“Well. Not too long. A few months. But we were good friends. This past week has been absolutely devastating, to say the least. ”

“Not too long, you say? Long enough for him to give you a spare key.”

Francesca looked around her. The house was airy, white and quite sparse. Francesca had the impression that Dan never spent too much time here.

“Maybe you can help me with some questions, Mr. Lemac. Dan moved into this house with his girlfriend at the time, didn’t he? Lucy Barnes. They were no longer in a relationship when he died, I think?”

“No, they weren’t together for too long at all, actually. They broke up quite a while ago.”

“So, Dan had the place to himself after that.”

“Yes, but he was out so often. He worked hard. He partied hard.”

“Yes. Often with Catherine Ratcliffe I’ve been told. Did you ever meet her?”

“I’ve met her several times. It’s true, they often attended parties together. They were extremely good friends. Mother and son like, to some extent.”

“They would leave the parties together too, I understand.”

“Yes. That always surprised me a bit… well, he drove her home a lot of the time I think. From the West End – where most of the parties took place – Shepherd’s Bush was on the way back home for Dan. But… I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to be in a car with Dan after he’d been to a party, personally.”

“Oh?”

“I mean, he partied hard, as I said. But when I met Catherine for the first time I could tell she had a soft spot for him. Blind eye, you know.”

“I hear. Did you ever feel they shared secrets with each other?”

“Secrets? I don’t know. I do know they helped each other out of a spell of depression they were both suffering. About a year ago.”

“I heard Catherine was depressed, but not Dan so much,” Francesca said curiously.

“Oh, well, I don’t know really…” Michael said vaguely. He picked up a fantasy book from a small table and added it to a large box of his belongings that he was rounding up.

“Sounds like you do know. Sounds like he had a rough time over something also. His parents did mention he had a ‘moody’ spell, but overall most people point to Catherine having struggled at this time, and Dan was there for her to confide in. To comfort her.”

“Oh, well, he just said he had a tough time. I don’t know the details. He has the better poker face, anyway. He has an image to protect, don’t you get that? Maybe that’s why Catherine’s rough patch was more obvious. She wore her heart on her sleeve.”

“It seems like it was important for Dan to protect his image, I’m realising. Quite a lot of your stuff here I see,” Francesca said, nodding at the box.

“Yes, it just accumulates I guess. This was a nice house to hang out in, you know. Dan often had guests over, not just me!”

“Sure. Did you ever meet any of the other Hadmere players besides Catherine?”

“No. They talked about them sometimes, but I never met any of the others.”

“Who did they talk about?”

“Well, Gareth and Helen mostly, I would say. Dan mentioned Gareth often as they were good friends. Before I knew Dan – that’s why I never met Gareth. If I had known Dan for longer I’m sure I would have.”

“Did Dan seem upset that they weren’t as close anymore? Did he give any indication as to what happened?”

“I think he was upset, yes. He thought it was a shame how they had drifted apart. But I think he was also angry at Gareth for not understanding Dan’s point of view.”

“Point of view in what?”

“Oh, well I couldn’t really say,” Michael answered unconvincingly.

“And they talked about Helen also, you said?”

“Yes. She had that horrible accident, didn’t she? They were very upset about it when it came up in conversation. I don’t think Catherine liked to talk about it, though. Probably because she knew how an accident like that can ruin a career. I mean, imagine if that had happened to Catherine!”

“It came up in conversation frequently?”

“It seemed to actually, yes. Not in front of me, necessarily. I often caught them discussing it. Quite animated discussions sometimes. Heated and emotional. She was their good friend, after all.”

“A good friend who they never saw in person after the accident?”

“Well, Helen lives all the way down in Hadmere.”

“I just travelled from near Hadmere this morning. It’s not that long a journey. Two hours at the most.”

“They were very busy!”

“Oh yes, attending all those parties of course. So, it sounds like maybe they were sharing secrets after all, no?” Michael shrugged. “Mr. Lemac, were you aware Dan was gluten intolerant?”

“Of course. Most people knew that. He was very strict about it. And vocal.”

“I see. And you mentioned he enjoyed drinking. Did he enjoy wine in particular?”

“Yes, I’d say it was his drink of choice. At home especially. He’d always be walking around this place with a glass of wine in his hand.”

“And you only know that from your visits here.”

“Um, yes.”

“Did he have a wine collection?”

“Yes, there are a couple of racks in the kitchen.”

“I’d like to see them.”

Michael nodded nervously and led Francesca towards the kitchen. On a large marble countertop there were two wooden wine racks. There were roughly a dozen bottles in total. She picked up one at random. It was a white – Chateau-Pape-Clement-Blanc. She picked a red. Chateauneuf-du-Pape. She showed Michael the bottle.

“This one. Did he drink this frequently at home?”

Michael studied the label. “I don’t really know all the names of the wines he drank. But the label is familiar. Yes, he liked this one I think.”

“And he wouldn’t really drink this type of wine at parties?”

“Well, at parties he would just drink whatever was available. Champagne, for example.”

“I see. And you say he had lots of guests in this house? That would come over as frequently as you?”

“Well, sometimes, yes.”

“And all those other guests would leave their belongings here, too? This house seems pretty empty to me.”

Michael was flustered. “Uh, I suppose I made myself more at home than the others…”

Francesca nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll leave you to it, Mr. Lemac. But I’ll likely want to speak to you more, so I’ll be needing your contact details. What do you do for a living?”

“I work in film production. I’m an assistant, really. I met Dan on the set of a film he was starring in.”

Francesca took Michael’s details. “Okay. Well, have a good day. I think you might need another box for your belongings there. That one is getting quite full.” She glanced at the box overflowing with clothes, toiletries, accessories, books, and games before she left. She planned on coming back later today to inspect the house after Michael had left. However, she wondered if she already had all the information she needed. Michael had revealed a lot of important details, mostly indirectly.

It was time for a spot of lunch, so Francesca decided to visit a bar along the river – the Thames ran through the heart of Richmond. As she wasn’t driving today she ordered a pint of Peroni with her meal – chicken livers and mash. She sat at the bar, mulling over the events of the last few days.

“You look like you’ve just escaped an office Christmas party,” the bartender remarked.

“Do I look that tired?” Francesca asked with a laugh.

“A bit. We had a guy in here last night who had had enough of his Christmas party, said he can’t stomach most of the people he works with… he bailed out and came here for few drinks.” He chuckled as he finishing drying a wine glass and placed on an oak lacquered shelf behind him.

“No Christmas party for me. I’m just up in London for the day. From Sussex. Near Hadmere.”

“Oh good Lord… where the murders happened?”

“That’s the one.”

“Oh wow, now I see what you’re escaping from! Although you know… Dan Argenta was murdered and he lives here in Richmond! So I think you’ve come to the wrong place to get away from all that. I’ve been following the story. I remember that play. The Water Ghost Beckons.”

“I always forget the impact that play had,” Francesca said.

“Oh, I just really liked the story. Weird parallel though, isn’t it?

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, what happened to the characters in the story. Their deaths. And now the actors dying in real life. Terrible.”

“Well, in the play, the characters had all committed serious crimes or sins. That implies Catherine and Dan did the same in real life.”

“Who knows? It’s just interesting. And we wouldn’t know if they did, would we? If it was the same scenario as the play, I mean. Because the characters kept their sins a secret. Only the water ghost knew.”

“Exactly,” said Francesca as her food arrived, thinking about the story of The Water Ghost Beckons. She ate leisurely; she realised she was in no rush. She didn’t even need to visit Catherine’s house in Shepherd’s Bush. She was quite sure she had this mystery solved.

 

© Intrigue Inn

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The Hadmere Players – Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

Dan awkwardly took a seat across the table from Helen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was dead five minutes later.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you put any sweeteners on the tray?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francesca and Bates said goodbye and left.

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

*

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

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

“How did you know that?”

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

“Has anyone ever ordered it before?”

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Where?”

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

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

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

 

© Intrigue Inn

 

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The Hadmere Players – Part 1

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What will she be crying about?”

“A boy, most likely.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

‘Heya Helen,” Bill said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Still! That’s super impressive.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© Intrigue Inn

 

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The Pearl of Taiwan – Day 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow, these are great, thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

 

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Lornbridge Hills – Day 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© Intrigue Inn

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