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The Indigo Bar – Day 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even better, group perjury.

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© Intrigue Inn

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The Indigo Bar – Day 5

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

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

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

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

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

I ask him about the court case.

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can agree with that.

*

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

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

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

“Hello?” Craig’s voice calls out.

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

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

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

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

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

“What were you doing before this?”

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

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

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

“And were you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

“Oh! Hello, Phoebe – are you okay?”

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

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

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

“Was he stalking you?”

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

“More than Billy, probably.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

© Intrigue Inn

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The Indigo Bar – Day 4

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re an art student, correct?”

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

“I have?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the outside, perhaps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phoebe bites her lip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

He laughs. I don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

“Did Billy ever listen to your podcast?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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