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Jul 19, 2020

Mystery

Ten years had passed since he’d finished Law School, and the reunion for the Class of ‘72 promised to be a lively affair for Steven Deeks. Much had happened since then; he’d passed the bar examinations and moved south to join a prestigious law firm in the City. Weaving through commuter-filled streets, he checked the address on the invitation: 5pm - Temple Bar, Broad Street. He didn’t recognise the name of the wine bar, but soon familiarised himself with the area; after all, he’d spent five years studying here. Half an hour early, and with the venue supposedly only two minutes from the station, he stopped off at a nearby branch of M&S to buy a sandwich. He’d need to line his stomach before the drinking games began. The train’s buffet service had only offered the most unappetising egg and cress fillings, and green was not his colour - especially when it came to food.

From the outside, Temple Bar looked like all the other buildings in the street. With a tinted glass door set into a cream painted brick wall facade, it had all the makings of a financial or property agency. Yet, once through the door, his senses were assaulted by flashing neon signs and Duran Duran’s ‘Hungry like the wolf’ blaring from the loudspeaker system.

“Stevie, is that you?” A voice from the bar yelled, the arms of its owner waving in a frenzy.

Steven recognised the familiar face. Though short hair and a refined suit had transformed his old friend from boy to man, from student to entrepreneur. “Joel, great to see you.” The two exchanged friendly hugs, then withdrew to give each other the once-over. “I thought you’d abandoned us for the tax haven of Monaco. When did you get back?”

“Flew in yesterday. Staying with the parents, then heading back next week. Couldn’t miss this, could I?” He gestured to the bar, his gold watch gleaming under the florescent lighting. “What can I get you?”

“A glass of red would be most welcome.” Steven leaned in to whisper, “Who else is here?”

“The usual suspects…and Mark. Unfortunately!” Joel winked.

Steven flinched at the news. Mark had been the thorn in his side during their student days: loud, leery and lazy.

“I thought you’d be pleased about that,” Joel punched his friend gently in the shoulder. “Even better news, though. He hasn’t changed a bit.” His deep brown eyes twinkled and a smile of Colgate proportions consumed his face. “Come on, let’s go meet the mob.” He handed the wine glass to Steven and indicated with a nod of his head where the group was sitting. Steven followed him and, spotting his nemesis, he pulled up a chair at the opposite end of the long table.

After much handshaking, back slapping and one-armed hugging, the group settled down to chat and swap life stories.

“So, Stevie boy. What have you been up to?” Mark asked, seizing the opportunity to jump into the vacated seat besides him, after another of the gang had made a beeline for the gents. Steven cringed at the ‘boy’ comment, remembering how Mark always had to appear the biggest, strongest and loudest of their group.

He gave a thin-lipped smile, “Just working, you know.”

“Don’t be coy, Steven. We all heard about you passing the bar and getting a swanky job in the City.” Another friend, Mikey, piped up, as Steven blushed from the scrutiny.

“Well, you all knew that was my goal. And, I always did have blinkers on, eh?” He grinned and the group nodded, murmuring their agreement.

“All sounds a bit stuffy to me,” Mark said, ignoring the raised eyebrows of everyone else. “I gave up all the law stuff, traded it in for a proper man’s job.” He thrust out his chest, all fifty inches of it.

“Really?” Steven replied, leaning back from Mark’s hulking figure and choosing not to question him further in the hope he’d get the message and stay quiet. He leaned over to Joel, “Who the hell invited him?” he whispered, tapping his fingers on the table.

“Yes,” Mark spoke up, his voice loud enough to drown out everyone else. “I joined the Army. Just back from the Falklands, doing my bit for the country.” He scanned the faces along the table, expectant.

Seeing his face fall, Joel stood and patted him on the back. “Good for you, Mark. We’ll all sleep better knowing that. Let me get you another drink.” The rest of the group sighed with relief as Mark took up the offer and marched over to the bar with Joel.

“Stevie, you got any good cases to tell us?” Mikey asked.

“Plenty, Mikey. But, I’ll never forget that first case I had as a duty solicitor, before I moved down south. D’you remember it? You should’ve got the call-out, but were delayed elsewhere.” Steven relaxed in his seat as memories of his first murder case came flooding back.

Mikey slammed his palm on the table, jolting Steven and sending a few empty glasses to their grave. “Blimey, yes. The Cherry Stone murder. That was a humdinger of a first case.”

Joel returned to take his seat, “Mark’s not feeling too well. He’s had to go home.” He spoke to a sea of blank faces. “What did I miss?”

“Stevie was just reminiscing about his first murder case.” Mikey said. “Go on, Stevie. Take us down memory lane.”

“Yes, please do,” Joel lifted his glass. “A toast to good memories.”

Steven cleared his throat, “Well, it was a dark and misty night.”

“Yeah, aren’t they all. Cut the crap and tell the bloody story.” Mikey interrupted, and Steven stuck out his tongue, his playful mood infected by the group’s good humour.

“It was a dark and misty night,” he repeated, glaring at a tutting Mikey. “Well, it was November.” He added, his tone sharp and defiant. “I got the call late one night, as the wife of a recent victim had been taken in for questioning. The husband, let’s call him John Smith, had died three days earlier of a presumed heart attack. However, an observant paramedic commented on a strange smell on the victim’s breath, comparing it to his Nana’s Christmas marzipan figures. Together with a pinkish hue to his face, the coroner requested a postmortem examination be performed.”

“What did he suspect then?”

“Cyanide poisoning,” said Steven, with a knowing nod. “And the results proved he had ingested high quantities of the poison, which led to the police calling his wife in for questioning.”

“Ooh!” Joel sniggered, “A proper little mystery then.”

“Indeed. When I arrived at the police station, Mrs Smith was already in the investigation’s room. With puffy, bloodshot eyes she seemed every inch the grieving widow. She greeted me with a limp handshake and returned to snivelling into her pristine, white handkerchief. The interrogation began, and she struggled to even answer simple questions at first. Her sobbing muffled her statement of both her name and address several times to the extent that the officer-in-charge grew quite impatient with her. After repeatedly asking her to clarify her responses, he left the room demanding a comfort break. Not sure who got the most comfort from his absence though, me or her. It was tense in there. No love lost between them throughout the rest of the interview. When asked if she had killed her husband, she burst into tears and wept for another ten minutes solid. I recall checking my watch and wondering what time I would get home that night.”

“You have no heart, Deeksy.” Joel rubbed his eyes as if crying himself.

“Yeah, right. I was tired, I’d been on the job for ten hours at that point and had been looking forward to a golfing weekend. Which I might add, I had to cancel.” His facial muscles journeyed down his face into an exaggerated pout.

“Always the victim, you poor thing.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah! Anyway, where was I? When asked if she had poisoned his food, she kept saying she only fed him with love, always giving him what he asked for. By this time her tears had stopped and she launched straight into storytelling mode.”

Once again, Steven coughed to clear his throat before assuming the character of the grieving widow, his voice higher, his gestures flimsy and effeminate. “Johnnie was never one for going out. He would say there was no restaurant on earth that could beat my cooking. ‘Hey, Sweetie, how ‘bout another slice of pie?’ was his trademark question. And I was happy to oblige. You see, Mummy always said the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. She was right too. ‘Honey, I’m ravenous,’ he’d say with a gap-toothed smile so wide you could drive a Limo through it. When I asked him what he wanted, he’d stare at me, all wide-eyed. ‘You have to ask, Sugar? Just walking through the doors get my juices flowing,’ he used to say. He wasn’t just talking about my food, you know. She glanced at each of us men in the room in turn. It was a tad awkward.”

“Aha, so she’s the perfect little wifey then. A domestic goddess and a slut in the bedroom.” Joel raised his hand in a high-five gesture. “It’s a no-brainer. He had another woman. She found out and killed him.”

Leaving him hanging, Steven glowered at Joel, his forehead puckering at having been interrupted so abruptly.“There’s just a minor thing called evidence. And there wasn’t any. Subsequent interviews with friends and colleagues only confirmed her statement. John Smith was a glutton, and his wife treated him to sumptuous pies and pastries, excessive dinners and lunches. She even sent him to work with extra goodies to share with his colleagues. The last week of his life, his co-workers testified to feasting on cherry pie, cherry cobbler and cherry cheesecake. They couldn’t praise her enough.”

“I take it that cherries were in season then?” Mikey asked, beating Joel to the comment and enjoying the moment as Joel shrank back into his seat, defeated this time.

“You know the answer to that and how it ends. Stop ruining it for everyone else. Now, are you going to let me continue?”

Mikey nodded, pulling faces and nudging his neighbour, like a schoolboy caught out in the classroom for misbehaving.

“In the search for evidence, the police took away all her kitchen appliances to check for poison. They emptied her cupboards, pantry, took swabs galore, but found nothing. They had no option to let her go.”

“So, how did they pin it on her?” Joel leaned in, now showing more interest since the mystery was not as clear-cut as he’d imagined.

“It took some time, quite a bit of time actually. And the story does become somewhat convoluted.” Steven grinned, ready to play his ace. “A few weeks after the funeral, Mrs Smith’s next-door neighbour took his cat, Clive, to the vet, because he was convulsing and hyperventilating. The vet immediately assumed the cat had been poisoned. Unfortunately, the cat was suffering too much and any treatment was too late in coming. But the vet was an inquisitive man and was determined to find the cause of the poor animal’s demise. He was on the phone talking to Mr Russell, the neighbour and Clive’s owner, when the conversation was overheard by another customer: the officer-in-charge of the investigation was visiting the vet for his bulldog’s annual boosters.

“Ooh!” Joel said again, “the plot thickens.”

“Hearing the vet state the cause of death had been down to cyanide poisoning, the officer waited for the vet to hang up and then questioned him on the matter. You see, cyanide poisoning in pets is extremely uncommon. When the officer discovered the owner’s address, well, he was over there in a jiffy. Grabbing the chance to solve the case and catch Little Miss Innocent off guard meant even leaving Bruce the bulldog with the vet until his son could fetch him.”

“Now that’s a dedicated copper.” Mikey said.

“Bruce might disagree,” added Joel. “What?” He said in response to Steven’s questioning tilt of the head.

“Mr Russell, stunned by the policeman turning up on his doorstep, was nonetheless still upset over the loss of his cat and was frantically searching his garage in search of the poison that had caused his pet so much pain. The officer had to plead with him to stop the search and promised to get a team down to check the area. They retreated to the kitchen for tea and a chat, whereupon Mr Russell was distracted by the blender on the worktop. ‘You’ll need to check this too,’ he told the policemen, ‘I used it to mince up Clive’s food yesterday. Not my machine though. Found it in the skip between my house and next-door’s. She must have thrown it out. Damn cheek, if you ask me. My skip, bought and paid for. Not for every Tom, Dick an’ ‘Arry to go chucking their unwanted stuff in.’”

A couple of Steven’s friends clutched at their heads over his appalling attempt at the local dialect, but Steven ignored them. “On hearing that information, the copper grew excited and asked Mr Russell to elaborate. Well, he didn’t need asking twice. Couldn’t shut the old guy up. He told him how he’d found the blender in the skip and was about ready to knock on his neighbour’s front door and give them a piece of his mind when he heard that Mr Smith had died.”

“That took the wind from his sails, I’ll bet.”

“Apparently so, but only after he’d droned on for a while about how he’d had the skip delivered because he was having a new bathroom suite installed. I remember the officer telling us the old man’s wife was insisting on avocado green.” Steven’s laughter was swamped by mutual groaning from his friends. “Anyway, he confirmed that he’d found the blender the day after Mr Smith had died and what with all the coming and going of police vans, funeral directors and so on, he decided it wasn’t the right time to confront his neighbour about it. After a few weeks had passed, he had calmed down and saw an opportunity to make use of the blender. Convinced Mrs Smith had no further use of it, he proceeded to use it to mince up some meat he’d found at the bottom of the freezer as a treat for Clive. The next day, after eating said minced meat Clive began vomiting and twitching. Convulsions wracked his tiny body and Mr Russell sped off to the emergency vet.”

“Aha, so the blender was the murder weapon then?” Mikey asked, with a triumphant expression.

“Sort of. By realising there had to be a connection, the officer took the blender in for testing and traces of cyanide were evident. Which led to Mrs Smith being called in for more questioning. Faced with the blender, she crumbled and confessed to killing her husband. In her defence she tried to claim that she had only ever given him what he asked for, and that was more food. But recently his behaviour had changed. He came home hungrier than ever, his shirt flapping loose, his tie askew. He tried to blame the heating at the office being on the blink.”

“Hmm, yeah well that was his downfall then. Ignorance is no defence.” Mikey said.

“You might be distorting that phrase slightly, ignorance of the law is no excuse, although plain, dumb stupidity might get you killed. But, I haven’t told you how she did it yet.” Steven raised his hand to settle them down again.

“Go on then, Jackanory time continues. But hey, I was right after all.” Joel slipped the boastful comment in before Steven had a chance to speak.

“SO,” Steven said, directing his voice at Joel. “You’ll recall it was cherry season, as Mikey so generously pointed out, and that Mr Smith had feasted on an assortment of cherry dishes in the days preceding his death. Clearly, as his co-workers also ate these items, the poison was not present in those treats. Mrs Smith confessed to grinding up the stones in the blender to make a paste, which she spread on his toast for breakfast over subsequent days. The amygdalin within the cherry stones was released during the blending process, and given the vast quantity of stones, there was sufficient to cause his death, particularly considering his excessive weight and blood pressure problems.”

“Nice! And she nearly got away with it, too. She was right though, the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach.” Joel said. I think that calls for another round. “What d’you fancy - Cherry B cocktails anyone?”

The group shouted a resounding no and Joel backed away to the bar, hands raised in surrender and laughing. Steven revelled in calls for more stories, until the barman returned with a tray of glasses and a bottle of champagne. “Hold on, chaps,” Steven said, as Joel poured, “I think we should raise our glasses to the unsung hero of this story. To Clive!”

“To Clive!” They all replied, clinking glasses.

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