Monday 25 June 2018

The Chocolate Murders

by Pat  Jourdan 

 dark chocolate

 It was interesting to sit here in the airport. Pisa airport was smallish, but did have the usual array of shops and cafés, with an escalator up to an extra layer of shops. Tessa wandered around for a while but seeing a row of seats, made for them, to have a rest.

Stopping at the general store, she was already stocked with another bottle of spring water to cope with the heat. It was amazing to see the display of cigarettes spread behind the counter. For a couple of years now it had been forbidden in England to show any cigarettes for sale. They were always hidden behind sliding cupboard doors and a customer had to ask particularly, humbly, if they wanted to purchase any packet of cigarettes.

Her friend, Moira who worked at the Co-op, said that if the sliding doors were open even slightly, the shop would get fined £4,000. It looked as though different rules were obeyed or broken in the EU, as here in Italy surely the same rules existed. It was all a mess of decisions criss-crossing each other.
The young woman sitting next to her was engrossed in her phone, a private existence in a public space. Beside her were two large suitcases wreathed tightly in layers of bright light-green plastic, almost phosphorescent.

A young man stood in the middle of the concourse, a Green Wrap hero with bolts of plastic, and a contraption ready to festoon any baggage with green wrapping. Once done, it looked so complete that the traveller would not be able to open their luggage without unweaving all the layers. What on earth did the silent girl have in those two cases, or was she going through several stopovers and needed extra security?

Tessa, bored now, went off for another walk round the corridors and deposited her own small suitcase through the handlers’ counters. As she walked back, the same seat was empty so she sat down again in the same place.

Suddenly the girl turned to her and with a warm smile and offered Tessa some chocolate. It was the end of the bar, a couple of broken segments in the silver-paper wrapper. They introduced themselves. Gina was from Argentina and on her way to Spain to visit her sister. Tessa was going back to England after visiting relatives on holiday in Florence.

“I’ve got to write a murder story for a writers’ group by next week and you’ve given me an idea. This chocolate could be poisoned and there would be no trace of how it happened. Of course there could be CCTV of us here now, but I can’t see any cameras. I think there’s some rule that they have to be observable if it’s a public place or perhaps that’s an urban myth. But thank you.”

  Tessa wandered outside to throw away the remains of her bottle of water before going through passport control. Outside in the humid heat, two young soldiers stood on duty. She asked if it was all right to throw the water onto a potted plant and the dark-haired soldier signalled yes. The bush would need some water today, surely. She slung the plastic bottle into the nearby rubbish bin and that was the last she saw of Italy. The trademark dark plumed Italian trees were far
away beyond the humdrum layout of the airport buildings and its carpark.

Back home, Tessa looked up poisonous plants and remembered laburnum, and sure, there it was. All parts of the plant were (or are) poisonous although mortality could be rare. Symptoms of laburnum poisoning included intense sleepiness, vomiting, convulsive movements, coma, frothing at the mouth and, the reference said, unequally dilated pupils. Who would notice that in the midst of all the other signs?

Tessa set to work. This was too exciting to waste on mere writing. Along the suburban lane on the way to the park, a magnificent laburnum tree swept over the wall of an old mansion waiting for redevelopment. Its long trails of bright yellow flowerets could be seen from afar; it was always a sign of late spring. She waited until the seedpods were formed and picked several when no one was about.
Buying some bars of dark chocolate, with their strong, almost bitter taste, she melted the bars, folding in the ground-up seeds. Leaving the lot to set, she had to think out the next step. In some of the crime books she had read, a poisoner tried out their doses on something smaller like a cat or dog. Wasn’t it Bywaters and Thompson who had also given the husband a mild dose at first, gradually increasing the amount weekly. Mixed in with a stew or fish and chips or cheese on toast it would have been well disguised. There was some sort of medical protocol that if a person had been unwell for some time, and if that person had been seen by a doctor in the week previous to their death, then an inquest would not be necessary.

Tessa of course could not embark on such a slow process with any strangers. But a small experiment with next-door’s cat was amazingly successful. She tried to look upset on learning that the fat malevolent moggy had been taken seriously ill. It had died before the vet had been able to arrive as there was a violent thunderstorm at the time.

“Perhaps it was heart failure?” Tessa said airily. “We don’t know how animals react in the middle of a thunderstorm, they must get affected. When I was a child our dog always hid under one of the fireside chairs and wouldn’t come out until it was all over.”

She made another batch, upping the amount of laburnum seeds. Somewhere in the past, perhaps in the sixth form, they had studied George Orwell’s The Decline of the English Murder. He had suggested that when divorce was unobtainable in the lower classes, domestic poisonings were the only way out for discontented wives (usually the wife) or husbands. While some, stupidly in fact, went to a chemist’s and asked for arsenic to kill rats, other, cleverer ones collected poisonous innocent-looking plants like foxglove or laburnum. Those who bought arsenic from chemists’ shops had to sign a Poisons Book, which was one of the first things police would inspect. But few police could trace a walk down a country lane and some leaves or seeds gathered into a bag or pocket.

With her new bus pass, Tessa went off to Heathrow and arrived full of enthusiasm. The new red wig and glasses gave a different image. She found a seat and offered some chocolate to the first person who sat next to her.

About the author

Pat Jourdan, winner of the Molly Keane Short Story Award and second in the Michael McLaverty Short Story Award, has also published collections of stories, poetry collections and two novels 'Finding Out' and 'A Small Inheritance.' Trained as an artist, she has held exhibitions in England and Ireland.

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