First Monday Free Fiction: Kitchen Witch

Welcome to the May 2020 edition of First Monday Free Fiction. To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month. It will remain free to read on this blog for one month, then I’ll take it down and post another story.

May is the season for fresh spring green and fresh herbs. It is also the season for wild garlic – or would normally be, because this year, the wild garlic was early and already arrived in late March.

Nonetheless, to celebrate the season I have a mystery for you this month, in which fresh spring herbs in general and wild garlic plays in particular an important part. Kitchen Witch is part of the Helen Shepherd Mysteries series. This time around, Detective Inspector Helen Shepherd and her team have to solve the mysterious death of Eudora Pembroke, a self-styled witch who died after ingesting a poisonous plant. But would an experienced herbalist like Eudora Pembroke really make such a beginner’s mistake? And was her death a tragic accident or foul play? You can find out in…

Kitchen Witch

Rosslyn Grove was exactly what it sounded like, a quiet leafy Hampstead sidestreet lined with Victorian semi-detached houses rendered in red brick.

Once upon a time, these houses would have been middle class homes, occupied by lawyers, doctors, professors, merchants and civil servants, not to mention artists, writers and intellectuals of every stripe. But those days were long gone and nowadays, like all of the nicer neighbourhoods of London and a few of the less nice ones, Rosslyn Grove was the province of millionaires only.

Cause in point, when parking at the curb, Detective Inspector Helen Shepherd of the Metropolitan Police had to squeeze her clunky dark green Rover between a silver gleaming S-class Mercedes and a cute little BMW convertible. Helen suspected the millionaire owners of those luxury cars wouldn’t be too happy about that, but then she didn’t give a damn. They should consider themselves lucky she didn’t have their cars towed for obstructing access to a crime scene.

Rosslyn Grove 22 was something of an exception to the rule of the street, since it was a freestanding single rather than a semi-detached house. It was equally Victorian, equally red brick and surrounded by the same type of wall as the other houses on the street, yet something was different.

For starters, there was no car in the driveway, only an old black bicycle leaning to the wall. And while the garden behind the brick wall was certainly beautiful, it was also a lot less manicured than those of the adjacent homes. All over the garden, chimes and crystal ornaments dangled from the branches of trees and shrubs. Fairy circles sprouted from the grass and in a corner, there was a small altar, covered with stones, sea shells, pieces of wood, candles and little figurines. It was all very enchanting, but certainly not the latest fashion in garden design. What was more, the current tenant of Rosslyn Grove 22 seemed to be fond of growing herbs and vegetables in the front garden, something that millionaires rarely felt the need or urge to do.

The front door was flanked by two mischievous looking stone gargoyles, which seemed to positively snuggle up to the two uniforms guarding the entrance. Dangling from the canopy above the door, there were yet more crystal chimes, a veritable riot of them.

“Good morning, ma’am,” Police Constable Martin Jackson, one of the uniforms guarding the door, greeted Helen, “Quite the fairytale glade, isn’t it?”

“It’s certainly lovely,” Helen agreed, “Though not quite the design sensibility I would expect in this neighbourhood. Camden Town, sure, but here? Too wealthy and too upper class for chimes and vegetable gardens.”

“Well, it is Hampstead,” PC Jackson replied, “And Hampstead always had its share of artsy folk.”

“Though nowadays, the only artsy folk who can afford to live in this neighbourhood are washed-up rockstars and actors with delusions of poshness.” Helen looked around the garden again. “I suspect our victim was neither.”

“Not a famous name, at any rate.” PC Jackson pointed at the ceramic tile beside the door that bore the tenant’s name in a script so heavily ornamented that Helen had to squint to make it out. As far as she could tell the current inhabitant of Rosslyn Grove No. 22 was one Eudora Pembroke.

“Though I have to admit, I only read the gossip mags when I’m visiting my gran,” PC Jackson said.

Helen nodded absentmindedly, because a movement glimpsed from the corner of her eye had attracted her attention.

“Talking of gossip, Constable, it seems we have attracted some attention.” She nodded towards the wall separating the garden of 22 Rosslyn Grove from the adjacent one, a wall behind which someone had just ducked in a clumsy attempt to hide themselves.

“She’s been watching us for at least fifteen minutes now, ma’am,” PC Jackson replied, “Seems to be harmless, though. I noticed her as soon as we arrived.”

“Your garden variety nosey neighbour then,” Helen said with a devilish smile, “Come on, Constable, let’s make her day and find out, if she’s seen anything.”

Together they walked over to the garden wall. “Miss,” Helen called out to the woman who rather unsuccessfully tried to duck behind a manicured azalea bush. “Excuse me, do you live here?”

The woman looked up, barely able to contain her excitement. She seemed to be in her early forties, with the sort of casual elegance that required hours spent in spas, cosmetic studios and hair salons to achieve. She was dressed in elegant light beige pants and a cream white silk blouse, both of which looked entirely unsuited to garden work.

“Yes. Can I help you?”

“I’m Detective Inspector Helen Shepherd and this is Police Constable Martin Jackson.”

“Oh my God!” The woman’s hand flew to her mouth, feigning surprise, as if she hadn’t been watching the police vehicles parked along Rosslyn Grove as well as the various officers walking in and out of house number 22 these past fifteen minutes. “Has anything happened to Miss Pembroke?”

“All I can tell you at this moment is that we are investigating a suspicious death and that investigations are ongoing,” Helen said, while the neighbour lady emitted another “Oh my God!” for good measure.

“Did you know Miss Pembroke well?” Helen wanted to know.

“No… I mean yes… well, I knew her like you know your neighbours on a street like this. We said ‘Good morning’ and ‘Good afternoon’ and sometimes we chatted across the fence. You know, like you do with neighbours…”

Helen nodded, though to be honest she rarely talked to her own neighbours.

“Miss Pembroke was quite a character,” the neighbour lady said, “She’s been living in here since forever and knows everybody, including all the celebrities who used to live around here. Oh yes, and she is — was — a witch.”

“A witch?” Helen repeated, trying to keep her voice as neutral as possible.

“Well, not a broomstick-riding, pointy-hatted, wart on her nose witch like in Harry Potter, of course,” the woman explained, “Miss Pembroke was more like a Druid or a Wiccan or whatever you call these people. She knew a lot about herbs and she gave me a herbal salve for my sciatica once, which worked a lot better than the stuff the doctor prescribed…”

The woman held her back, as if talking about her sciatica had brought the pain back.

“Besides, Miss Pembroke had that altar in her garden and sometimes she would do rituals, chanting and the like.”

“I guess that explains the unusual garden décor, ma’am,” PC Jackson remarked.

“And…” The neighbour lady lowered her voice. “…I think sometimes Miss Pembroke went dancing on the Heath by night…” She lowered her voice even further. “…you know, naked.”

A self-styled witch performing rituals in her garden and dancing naked on Hampstead Heath by the light of the full moon. That probably didn’t make her exactly popular with the city millionaires who had infested Hampstead of late.

“Did anybody have any problems with Miss Pembroke’s more… unusual activities?”

The neighbour lady shook her head. “Not really. Well, there was gossip, but… you don’t move to Hampstead, if you don’t like the colourful characters who live here. And Miss Pembroke certainly was a colourful character.”

“Did you notice anything unusual today, Miss…?” Helen asked.

“Carnes. Annabel Carnes,” the neighbour lady supplied, “And no, I didn’t. It was just a day like any other. This is a quiet neighbourhood, you know?”

Except for the chanting, ritual-performing self-styled witch, that was.

“Did you see Miss Pembroke today?”

“Not today, but yesterday morning. She said ‘Hello’ to me and got onto her bicycle.”

“Do you know where she went?”

Annabel Carnes shrugged. “To the shops, I think. At any rate, she came back with shopping bags hanging from the handlebars.”

“Did you see anybody else in or near Miss Pembroke’s house?”

Annabel Carnes shook her head. “Just Mr. York.”

“Mr. York?”

“I think he’s her nephew or something. A relative, at any rate. He often drops by to visit Miss Pembroke and check if everything is all right.”

PC Jackson consulted his notebook and leant towards Helen. “She’s talking about one Nicholas York, aged thirty-four, the victim’s nephew. He found her.”

“And where is he?” Helen wanted to know.

PC Jackson pointed at the house behind them. “Inside, with DC Walker.”

Helen turned around, took in the house, the garden and the empty driveway. She frowned.

“Does the nephew live in the neighbourhood?”

“No. He lives in… I’m not actually sure where, but it’s quite a way off,” Annabel Carnes said.

“Then how did he get here? By tube? Cause there is no car.”

“Mr. York always parks on the street,” Annabel Carnes replied.

“Even though his aunt’s house has a perfectly usable driveway?”

“Miss Pembroke… well, she didn’t want Mr. York to park his car in the driveway. She said it disturbed the harmony of the garden and disrupted the flow of cosmic energy.” Annabel Carnes shrugged helplessly. “Like I said, she was a bit eccentric.”

“Was there anything unusual about Mr. York today or yesterday?”

Annabel Carnes scrunched her forehead — or rather she tried, for the Botox keeping her face smooth made that expression quite impossible. “Not really. That is, he had a bag with him yesterday.”

“What sort of bag?”

“A plastic bag, like a shopping bag. He carried it when he walked up the driveway, but it was gone, when he came out again. He probably brought her food or something. He sometimes did that.”

“Thank you, Ms. Carnes,” Helen said, “You’ve been a great help.”

***

PC Jackson took up his post at the door again, while Helen ventured quite literally into the den of the witch. Though as witches’ dens went, Eudora Pembroke’s home was surprisingly cosy.

The furnishings were antique, but of the slightly battered and eclectic sort you might expect to find an underground antique market rather than in the boutique stores of Chelsea and Kensington.

The rooms were pleasantly cluttered. Every square centimetre of wall was covered with paintings, plaques and wall hangings. Shelves were stuffed full of books, sofas were covered in quilts and embroidered pillows and there were statues, candleholders, decorative vases and bowls everywhere. The lamps all had beaded and fringed shades, crystal chimes were dangling from the ceiling and the persistent smell of incense hung in the air.

Detective Constable Kevin Walker met Helen in the hallway. “Morning, boss,” he said, “You’ve sure been taking your time.”

“PC Jackson and I have been talking to a nosy neighbour.”

“And…?”

“Nothing of substance yet, but we got some prime gossip about the victim. So, what do we have here, Constable?”

“Well, the victim is one Eudora Pembroke, age…” DC Walker checked his notebook, “…seventy-two. Her nephew, one Nicholas York, came to check on her this morning and found her. He called an ambulance, the paramedic suspected foul play and called us.”

“Any evidence that the paramedic may have been on to something?” Helen wanted to know.

“You’ll have to ask Dr. Rajiv. He’s with the victim in the living room.”

“And the nephew?”

“Waiting in the kitchen with a uniform,” DC Walker replied, “So who do you want first, victim or nephew?”

“Let’s take a look at the victim and see what Dr. Rajiv has to say,” Helen declared, “The nephew can wait.”

DC Walker made a face. “He won’t like that.”

“The impatient type, is he?”

DC Walker nodded.

Helen’s mouth formed a wicked smile. “Well, in that case he can definitely wait.”

***

The living room looked much like the rest of the house, cosy and pleasantly chaotic. The cosiness of the surroundings stood in sharp contrast to the body that sat slumped in an overstuffed armchair. The sickening smell of various bodily fluids hung in the air, so strong that not even the pervasive scent of incense could dispel it.

Dr. Rajiv was kneeling before the body, taking the temperature. When Helen and DC Walker entered, he looked up, dark eyes sparkling behind gold-rimmed glasses.

“I wish you a pleasant morning, Inspector.” He nodded to Helen. “Though I fear the morning was not quite so pleasant for poor Miss Pembroke here.”

He examined the thermometer he had stuck into Eudora Pembroke’s liver. “I correct, the morning was not just not pleasant for Miss Pembroke here, she didn’t even live to see it, since she died last night.”

“When precisely?”

“Sometime between nine and eleven, I’d say.”

“That matches the report from the paramedic,” DC Walker explained, “She said that when she arrived the telly was still running, likely left on from last night.”

Helen took a few steps forward, until she stood right next to the forensic medical examiner, and looked down at the body.

For a woman in her seventies, Eudora Pembroke looked surprisingly fit — if not for the fact that she was dead. She had the look of an aged hippie, long free-flowing grey hair and loose linen clothing in cheerful colours. Around her neck, she wore a silver pendant adorned with a gleaming crystal, some kind of amulet obviously. She’d apparently reached for it at the moment of death, for her hand was still curled around the amulet. Her fingers were raw and reddened, though whether that was the result of her death or merely a perimortal allergic reaction Helen could not say.

Eudora Pembroke’s featured were twisted, her eyes wide open, suggesting that she had not died easily.

“Any chance that this was a natural death?” Helen wanted to know, “A fatal heart attack or something?”

Dr. Rajiv shook his head. “Unlikely. Fatal heart attacks only occasionally lead to vomiting…” He pointed at a discoloured spot, where something had dried on the carpet. “…and almost never to bloody diarrhoea.”

“How about a ruptured appendix or something along those lines?”

“It’s not impossible, but if you want my best guess — though we’ll have to wait until the post-mortem to be certain — I’d say that Miss Pembroke was poisoned.”

“Poison, huh?” Helen emitted a whistle through her teeth. “Do you have any idea what the poison was?”

Helen looked around the room, but saw no glass, plate, cup, hypodermic or other obvious means of poisoning someone.

“Or how she might have ingested it?” she asked.

“Lots of possibilities at this point,” Dr. Rajiv said, “Arsenic, Parathion, Paraquat, Prazosin, turpentine, amanita, Spanish fly…”

DC Walker began to giggle at the idea of a seventy-two-year-old woman using a potentially fatal aphrodisiac. A pointed glance from Helen quickly silenced him.

“…privet, water hemlock, autumn crocus, daphne, corn cockle and so on. Lots of substances can cause the symptoms seen in Miss Pembroke. We’ll have to wait for the post-mortem and the tox screen to be sure.”

“Arsenic, you say?” DC Walker stroked his chin. “Could this be an accident like the case of the dead intern at the Victoria and Albert? After all, she has lots of old stuff here.”

“Anything is possible, Constable,” Dr. Rajiv said, “Like I said, we’ll have to wait for the post-mortem.”

“According to the neighbour, the victim was something of a herbalist…” Helen said, “…and apparently, a practitioner of magic rituals of some kind. So is it possible that her death was caused by ingesting a poisonous plant?”

“Of course, Inspector. There are several poisonous plants which might cause the sort of symptoms Miss Pembroke experienced. Though again…”

“…we’ll have to wait for the post-mortem to be sure,” Helen completed, “Yes, I know.”

***

Eudora Pembroke’s kitchen had the sort of cosy, homey look you’d expect to find in a photo spread in Country Living. The kitchen cabinets and the table were solid wood, counters and walls covered in Delft style tiles. Shelves held various jars and tins, all neatly labelled. A copper kettle waited on an Aga stove, the curtains were cheerful and chequered.

The kitchen would have looked pleasantly inviting, if not for scene of the crime officer Charlotte Wong in her white coverall, who was eagerly dusting and bagging various kitchen implements.

Charlotte beamed at them, as soon as Helen and DC Walker entered, though Helen had no illusions that the smile was meant for her, for DC Walker and Charlotte Wong had been dating for a while.

“I’ve found a used tea pot and cup as well as a salad bowl,” Charlotte Wong announced, “I also found remnants of salad and what seems to have been some kind of herbal tea in the garbage.”

“Excellent,” Helen said, “Dr. Rajiv says the victim was poisoned, so bag anything that might have contained the poison.”

Charlotte executed a mock salute. “Will do, boss.”

Charlotte Wong returned to her work and began sifting through Eudora Pembroke’s kitchen garbage, while Helen turned her attention to the man who was sitting at the kitchen table.

He was in his late thirties with dark hair that was gradually thinning and a body that was gradually accumulating fat. He was wearing a suit — not tailored, but decent enough — and a burgundy silk tie that was slightly askew. For someone who had just found his elderly aunt dead in her favourite armchair, he seemed remarkably calm.

Helen walked right up to him. “Mr. York? I’m Detective Inspector Helen Shepherd and I will be investigating your aunt’s death.”

Nicholas York looked up. “Pleased to meet you, Inspector. Will this take long? Because…” He consulted his wristwatch. His hands and fingers were reddened and raw, probably due to some kind of allergy, since he did not look like the type for manual labour. “… I have a meeting in forty-five minutes.”

“I’m afraid your meeting will have to wait, Mr. York,” Helen said, “The death of your aunt has been declared suspicious, so we have some questions for you.”

“Suspicious, really?” Nicholas York repeated, “My aunt was seventy-two years old and had health issues. It was very sudden, I know, but elderly people sometimes do die suddenly.”

“That may be true, but our forensic medical examiner has reason to believe that your aunt may have been poisoned.”

Nicholas York’s eyes went wide. “P… poisoned?”

He brought his hand down on the table with surprising force, considering how calm he had seemed just a moment ago.

“Damn it, I knew this would happen someday!”

“How could you know this would happen?” Helen asked, her interest piqued, “Were there threats against your aunt’s life?”

“Threats?” Nicholas York repeated the word as if he didn’t quite know what it meant. “No, the only threat to Aunt Eudora’s life was Aunt Eudora herself.”

“So you believe that your aunt may have committed suicide, Mr. York?”

“Suicide?” Nicholas York shook his head. “No, Aunt Eudora wasn’t the suicidal sort at all. She enjoyed life way too much for that.”

“So why do you believe she was a threat to herself?” Helen wanted to know.

“Well, with all that herbal crap she was always taking, an accident was bound to happen sooner or later,” Nicholas York replied.

“So you believe that it was the herbal preparations your aunt took that poisoned her?”

Nicholas York ran a hand through his thinning hair. “What else could it have been? She was always drinking that herbal tea. And herbs can be lethal, when taken in the wrong dose. Aunt Eudora would’ve been the first person to agree with that.”

“But I understand your aunt was a skilled herbalist, Mr. York,” Helen said, “So surely she would have known the correct dosage.”

“Yes, twenty or thirty years ago, she would have known. But Aunt Eudora was getting on in years. Her eyesight and her memories weren’t what they once were.”

“Was your aunt displaying symptoms of dementia?” Helen probed.

“Dementia, old age — I don’t know what it was. All I know is that Aunt Eudora had always been weird and only got weirder as she grew older.”

“Are you referring to the fact that your aunt reportedly practiced some kind of pagan ritual?”

“Pagan ritual. God, you make it sound so politically correct, so respectable, as if it’s something that normal people do…”

“Actually, plenty of normal people practice paganism, Wicca, Neo-Druidism or other alternative religions,” DC Walker pointed out.

“Well, maybe some ‘normal people’ do, but Aunt Eudora wasn’t one of them. And all that herbal lore, the charms, the chants, the dances and the rituals, it wasn’t some kind of ancient knowledge handed down through the ages…”

By now, the previously so calm and placid Nicholas York had turned almost savage.

“No, Aunt Eudora made it all up from whole cloth, taking bits and pieces from all those books on occultism she read. Her father, my grandfather, was a minister, for goodness sake. And she only got involved with all that New Age stuff to spite him.”

“But given your aunt’s age, your grandfather is surely dead by now,” DC Walker said.

“Oh, he’s been dead for twenty-five years now,” Nicholas York said. He rubbed his hands together in agitation. “In fact, I barely remember him. But did that stop Aunt Eudora? No. Instead, she started believing that she really was a witch.”

“Are there any other relatives?” Helen asked.

Nicholas York shook his head. “Well, there was my mother, Aunt Eudora’s younger sister, but she died a couple of years ago. Cancer. Now there’s no one left except me.”

“Were you close to your aunt?” Helen asked.

“When I was a kid, she used to babysit me, while Mum was working. Cause unlike Mum, Aunt Eudora never had to work a day in her life, considering she inherited the house as young woman and could live here rent-free to indulge in her various eccentricities.”

Nicholas York paused to take a sip from a bottle of mineral water that someone had given him, since nothing in the kitchen was safe to consume until tested for poison.

“I mean, this whole ‘I’m a witch’ thing was fun when I was a boy and Aunt Eudora took me herb gathering on Hampstead Heath. But I’m an adult now, we’re all adults and this whole witchcraft thing was just embarrassing. For goodness sake, the neighbours were talking…”

“We talked to one of your aunt’s neighbours, one Ms. Carnes,” Helen said, “She told us that she liked your aunt and found her eccentricities endearing.”

“Oh please, of course she’ll say that now. After all, no one wants to speak ill of the dead, especially not if the police are involved…”

No one except Nicholas York, it seemed.

“But they were all whispering Aunt Eudora behind her back and sometimes even, when she could hear it. But did Aunt Eudora care? No, she didn’t. She was so busy celebrating her precious individuality that she didn’t even notice that it made her a laughing stock.”

Nicholas York took another sip from his bottle. “We tried to get her help, my wife and I, you know? We tried to persuade Aunt Eudora to move into an assisted living facility. But of course, she would have none of that. She insisted that she could take care of herself, even as her health was failing.”

“Is this why you visited your aunt this morning? Because of her failing health?”

“I dropped by to check on Aunt Eudora all the time,” Nicholas York replied, “I live all the way out in Ashford, because I can’t afford to live in London — unlike some people, who got lucky enough to inherit a Victorian home in Hampstead — but I always drive here just to check on Aunt Eudora. And she wouldn’t even let me park in her driveway, because my car allegedly upsets the Feng shui in her garden or something.”

“Uhm, actually Feng shui is Chinese,” DC Walker pointed out.

“Like I said, Aunt Eudora assembled her own mythology of bits and pieces from everywhere. As if religion were a Meccano kit.”

“When was the last time you saw your aunt alive?” Helen wanted to know.

“Yesterday morning,” Nicholas York said, “I came to check on her and show her some leaflets for some very nice homes for the elderly…”

Well, that explained the shopping bag Annabel Carnes had seen. Though it raised a new question.

“Where are those leaflets?” Helen interrupted, “Cause we didn’t find any.”

“How the hell should I know? I just gave them to her and asked her to look at them. I don’t know what she did with them. For all I know, she might have used them to make paper planes or love spells.”

“Uhm, boss, I think I found the missing leaflets,” Charlotte Wong piped in, “In fact, I’m currently scraping tea leaves from a leaflet for a place called ‘Shady Acres Home for the Elderly’.” She shuddered. “Ugh, that sounds like a cemetery and not a place where anybody would want to live.”

“Total namefail there,” DC Walker agreed.

“See, that’s just what Aunt Eudora was like,” Nicholas York exclaimed, “I drive all the way just to bring her those leaflets and she just tosses them into the bin.”

“So what happened after you gave your aunt those leaflets?” Helen wanted to know.

“We made a bit of smalltalk. Weather, telly, family, you know, that sort of thing. I told her about the children and how they’re doing at school. She talked about a program she wanted to watch that night, Jonathan Ross and Mr. Something.”

“You mean Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,” Charlotte interjected, “It’s such a brilliant adaptation of the novel.”

“And then?” Helen asked.

Nicholas York sulked. “She more or less shooed me out of the house, because she needed to go somewhere.”

“Do you know where?”

Nicholas York shrugged. “Hampstead Heath, I guess. She always went there to gather herbs for her teas and salves.”

“She didn’t grow the herbs here in the garden?” Helen asked.

“Some of them, yes, but she also picked a lot of herbs on the Heath.” Nicholas York shook his head. “She said wild herbs were better than cultivated herbs. One of the many crazy things she said.”

“Do you know where precisely on Hampstead Heath your aunt went to gather herbs?”

Nicholas York considered for a moment. “No idea,” he finally said, “She sometimes took me along to gather herbs on the Heath, but that was twenty-five years ago. I don’t really remember which spots she favoured or whether she still went there.”

“Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. York,” Helen said.

Nicholas York blinked in confusion. “That’s it? I can go?”

“For now,” Helen said, “But please keep yourself available in case we have further questions.”

Nicholas York pushed back his chair and got up. He took a few steps towards the door, carefully stepping past Charlotte Wong who was still sifting through the kitchen garbage.

At the door, he paused. “Uhm, Inspector, when will you be finished here? With the house, I mean. And Aunt Eudora, of course. Cause I’m her only relative and heir and… well, there are arrangements to be made.”

“We’ll let you know, Mr. York,” Helen said.

“What a fucking jerk!” DC Walker exclaimed as soon as Nicholas York was safely out of earshot.

“I totally agree,” Charlotte added, “That poor woman, to have to endure such a faux concerned relative.”

“Nicholas York may be thoroughly unpleasant and a class one jerk, but that doesn’t make him guilty,” Helen pointed out.

“Given the way he talked about her, I wouldn’t put it beyond him to poison his aunt himself,” Charlotte said.

DC Walker nodded. “He certainly had the means, too, considering he visited her almost every day,” he said, “As for the motive, it’s kind of obvious that he’s after his aunt’s house. He didn’t even bother to hide it.”

“A Victorian house in Hampstead has to be worth a couple of million quid,” Helen mused, “And it was clear that Eudora Pembroke had no intention of moving out. So her nephew decides to help matters along and poisons her, hoping her death will be classified as ‘due to old age’. Yes, it’s possible. But we still need to prove it.”

“Shouldn’t be too difficult, once we know what the poison was,” DC Walker said.

“We also need to reconstruct what Eudora Pembroke did yesterday in order to determine how and where she might have come into contact with the poison,” Helen said, “Nicholas York claimed that she went herb gathering in Hampstead Heath, but the neighbour said she saw Eudora Pennington returning home with shopping bags.”

“Maybe she used the bags to transport the herbs,” DC Walker suggested, “Or maybe she went both shopping and herb gathering.”

“Talking of shopping, I found some receipts in the garbage.” Charlotte Wong held up evidence bags containing slightly soiled pieces of thermal paper. “All issued yesterday. Tesco Express, Budgens and some place called the New Moon Esoteric Shop.”

“Now that sounds promising,” Helen said, “Let’s pay them a visit.”

***

The New Moon Esoteric Shop sat in a leafy part of Haverstock Hill, nestled between an organic coffee shop on the one side and a book shop of the snooty, gilt-letter kind on the other. The shopfront was painted in a cheerful red, indigo and purple, adorned with gilded stars and esoteric symbols. Gleaming crystal pendants and pendulums adorned the display windows, casting multicoloured highlights over a selection of books, tarot cards and various supernaturally themed knick-knacks.

A chime jingled, as Helen opened the door. She stepped into the little shop, followed by DC Walker, and was immediately hit by the pervasive smell of incense. Not joss sticks either, but real frankincense smouldering in a brass burner.

The offerings inside the shop matched those on display in the window. The walls were lined with shelves full of books on any esoteric subject imaginable as well as a sizeable collection of fantasy novels. Chimes and crystals were dangling from the ceiling. One spinner rack displayed dowsing pendulums, another joss sticks in fifty different scent combinations and a third held test tubes containing different blends of incense. There was a table full of incense burners, cauldrons, candleholders and statues depicting gargoyles, dragons, fairies and witches. Another table held a bewildering array of tarot decks and rune casting sets. A cabinet contained magic wands and daggers, another held silver and brass charms as well as gemstone pendants. A cat — black, of course — lounged on a chair in the corner, guarding the shop with inscrutable patience. Behind the polished mahogany counter finally, there was an enormous selection of dried herbs, spices, resins and other substances, all kept in neatly labelled tins and jars.

DC Walker was thumbing through the fantasy novels on offer, while Helen focussed on the jars and tins behind the counter, when the beaded curtain leading to the backroom was swept aside and a woman entered. She was in her mid-twenties, and certainly matched every stereotype of the pretty young witch. Her hair was ginger and fell to her shoulders in frizzy curls, her eyes were sparkling and moss green, freckles dotted her milk-pale skin. Her appearance was complimented by a swinging gypsy skirt in a floral print and an embroidered peasant blouse tied at the midriff.

“Welcome to New Moon,” she said, her voice as perky as her appearance, “Are you looking for anything in particular or just browsing?”

“I’m Detective Inspector Helen Shepherd and this is Detective Constable Kevin Walker.” Helen pulled her ID from her jacket. DC Walker did likewise.

The friendly smile on the young woman’s face vanished, as she took in their IDs.

“Whether it’s satanic graffiti, goths having a midnight party in Highgate Cemetery or someone sacrificing a cat on the night of the full moon, I’m not responsible for any of it.”

She crossed her arms in front of her chest.

“I just run a shop, like the owner of the bookstore next door. And amazingly, no one has ever tried to hold him responsible for every murder or robbery that happens in London, even though half his stock consists of crime novels.”

“Relax, Miss…?”

The woman did not uncross her arms. “Willows, Tara Willows.”

“There has been no complaint against you or your shop, Ms. Willows. We’re merely here to inquire about one of your customers.”

“I’m not responsible for my customers’ actions either.”

“We’re not insinuating that you are, Ms. Willows. In fact, we’re investigating the suspicious death of one of your customers, Miss Eudora Pembroke.”

Tara Willows’ already pale skin blanched even further. “Eudora is dead?”

“Miss Pembroke died sometime last night under suspicious circumstances. We understand that she was a customer at your shop.”

Tara Willows slumped down on a chair behind the counter and wiped her forehead with an embroidered cloth handkerchief. “I can’t believe Eudora is dead,” she finally said, “She was here only yesterday.”

The cat, sensing the mood of her mistress, jumped down from her chair and made her way behind the counter to rub herself against Tara’s legs.

“What did Miss Pembroke purchase during her visit yesterday?” Helen wanted to know.

“Just the usual.” Tara Willows scooped up the cat and settled her down on her lap.

“Which is?”

“Herbs. Mainly the mixture for her nightly relaxation tea, though she also bought herbs to make tinctures, salads, and so on.”

“I thought Miss Pembroke grew her own herbs and gathered the rest herself on Hampstead Heath,” Helen said.

“Eudora used to gather her own herbs,” Tara Willows explained, “But in recent months, her back started to trouble her, so she bought them at my shop instead, since she knew that my herbs were always freshly gathered in the wild under the most favourable conditions.”

“How often did Miss Pembroke visit your shop?”

“Two or three times per week, to buy herbs and talk craft.”

Tara Willows stroked her cat which purred contentedly.

“Most of my customers are muggles, posers — no offence…”

“None taken,” Helen assured her.

“But Eudora… well, she was the real deal. A skilled practitioner.”

“Of magic, you mean?” DC Walker asked.

“Whatever you want to call it,” Tara Willows said, still stroking her cat, “And yes, I know you probably won’t believe me, but Eudora knew her stuff. She was an excellent tealeaf reader and she knew more about herbs and their uses than anyone I ever met.”

Tara sobbed and pressed the handkerchief to her face.

“Eudora’s death is a great loss to the community.” She rubbed her eyes with her handkerchief. “Sus… suspicious circumstances, you say?”

“We have reason to believe that Miss Pembroke was poisoned.”

“Poison?” Tara Willows gathered her cat closer to her chest. “Whatever happened, it wasn’t my herbs that killed her. True, a lot of rituals do use poisonous substances, but I don’t sell such herbs here, because the potential for abuse or accident is too great. I’m a responsible practitioner and so was Eudora.”

“Relax, Ms. Willows, you’re not a suspect,” Helen said soothingly, “At this point, we’re merely attempting to reconstruct Miss Pembroke’s daily routine to determine how and where she might have come into contact with the poison.”

“Do… do you know what it was?”

“There are several possibilities at this moment,” Helen replied, “Did you and Miss Pembroke talk about anything other than herbs and magic during her visit yesterday?”

Tara Willows ran a hand through her unruly hair, considering.

“We were both really excited about the adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, so we talked about that,” she finally said, “Oh yes, and that grisly nephew of hers had bothered her about moving to a care home again.”

“You know Nicholas York?” DC Walker inquired.

Tara Willows shook her head. “Not personally, but I know he’s a jerk, cause Eudora complained about him all the time.”

“What precisely did she complain about?” Helen wanted to know.

“He was always dropping by at her house unannounced, as if to check that she wasn’t doing anything he disapproved of — and that nephew disapproved of everything Eudora did. And he kept hounding her to move into a care home.”

“Mr. York told us that he was concerned about his aunt’s failing health,” Helen said.

“Oh please!” Tara snorted with derision. “Eudora was incredibly sharp and healthy, given her age. Sure, she had a bad back, but otherwise she was in great health.”

“Mr. York claimed that his aunt was displaying signs of dementia,” DC Walker said.

“Yeah, he’d like that, would he? So he can have her declared incompetent and get his grubby hands on her house.”

“So you think Mr. York was after Miss Pembroke’s house?”, Helen asked.

“What else would he be after?” Tara Willows countered, “A house in Hampstead is worth a fortune. Everybody knows that. And Eudora said her nephew was always complaining about high prices and short money and long commutes, cause he lived somewhere in Kent or Surrey or Sussex — far out, at any rate.”

As potential motives went, it certainly made sense. And Nicholas York wouldn’t be the first greedy relative who got tired of waiting for an elderly relative to pop their clogs and decided to help matters along a little.

“But Eudora always said that when she died, her nephew would get a nasty surprise, cause she’d made sure that he wouldn’t inherit anything except what he deserved.”

“So Miss Pembroke disinherited Mr. York?” Helen probed.

“That’s what she said, at any rate. I hope she got around to it.”

“Do you know who the beneficiary of the new will is?”

Tara Willows shook her head. “No idea.” She shrugged. “Some kind of charity probably. Eudora didn’t have any other relatives aside from that ghastly nephew.”

“Thank you, Ms. Willows. You were a great help.”

Helen handed Tara Willows her card, while DC Walker paid for a book he’d picked from the shelf. The cover showed a young woman dressed in skin-tight leather, with tattoos on her arms and back. The woman was holding a sword in one hand and shooting lightning bolts from the other.

When Helen frowned at the cover, DC Walker shrugged apologetically. “It’s the latest in a series and Charlotte — I mean, Ms. Wong — is a fan.”

***

“We should definitely follow up on the will,” Helen said, as they walked back to the car, “Check out if Eudora Pembroke really did change it and who the new beneficiary is, since that might give us a suspect who’s not even on our radar yet.”

“Unless the new beneficiary really is a charity,” DC Walker said. He was clutching a bag emblazoned with the New Moon logo. “Cause charities usually don’t murder people for their inheritance.”

“Depends on how desperate for donations the charity is,” Helen said dryly, “It will also be interesting to see if Nicholas York knew his aunt had changed her will or was planning to change it. Cause that would influence his motive.”

“We could ask him,” DC Walker suggested.

“And hope he tells the truth this time around?” Helen countered, “After all, Nicholas York has lied to us before, about his aunt’s health, about where she got her herbs from…”

“He might not have known about the herbs,” DC Walker said.

“Maybe. At any rate, we should check his finances, see if he is in debt and could use an infusion of cash in the form of a Victorian house in Hampstead.”

“Already on it, boss”,, DC Walker said. He paused. “You know, it might still turn out to be an accident. Or suicide.”

“It might,” Helen agreed, “But until the post-mortem tomorrow morning, we won’t know for sure. And until then, the death of Eudora Pembroke remains suspicious.”

***

Both Helen and DC Walker showed up on time for the post-mortem at eight o’clock sharp the next morning, even though Helen had enjoyed a pleasant dinner at a fine Indian restaurant with DCI Simon Westmoreland from the Counter Terrorism Command (and for once Helen had a case that was more exciting than his, cause a poisoned self-styled witch certainly trumped an inept terrorist wannabe) the night before, while DC Walker had done whatever it was that he and Charlotte Wong did during their time off.

The morgue was freshly scrubbed and smelled of disinfectants, as always, and Dr. Rajiv seemed almost indecently cheerful, given the early hour.

“My initial suspicions have been confirmed,” he announced, as soon as Helen and DC Walker entered, “Eudora Pembroke was poisoned.”

“Do you know what the poison was?” Helen asked.

“Colchicine,” Dr. Rajiv replied, “Not exactly the most common of toxins. In fact, I think this is the first fatal colchicine poisoning I’ve had here on my slab.”

“How would a person come by colchicine?” Helen wanted to know.

“Colchicine is contained in the seeds, blossoms, leaves and tubers of the autumn crocus plant. But it’s also available in synthetic form for a variety of medical uses such as the treatment of gout, familial Mediterranean fever, Behçet’s disease, pericarditis and atrial fibrillation. There have also been trials to use colchicine for cancer therapy. Finally, the substance also has a couple of botanical uses in the crossing and breeding of plants.”

“So it’s a common substance?” DC Walker inquired.

“Not really,” Dr. Rajiv said, “The medical uses are all fairly specialised and many of those diseases are rarely found in people of North West European origin.”

“Gout isn’t exactly rare,” DC Walker countered, “My Uncle Theo and Aunt Edna both had it.”

“But nowadays, with safer and more modern substances available, colchicine is only used to treat gout in patients who cannot tolerate nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs,” Dr. Rajiv explained, “And such patients are fairly rare.”

“Eudora Pembroke reportedly had extensive knowledge of herbalism,” Helen interjected, “Is it possible that she used colchicine to self-medicate and accidentally overdosed?”

Dr. Rajiv shook his head. “Unlikely. To begin with, Miss Pembroke suffered from none of the ailments against which colchicine is normally prescribed. On the contrary, she was very healthy for a woman her age, though she did have chronic low back pain according to her GP. And besides, the dosage was much too high for any medical use. A trained herbalist would have known that.”

“What about those botanical uses you mentioned?” Helen asked, “Miss Pembroke grew various herbs in her garden. Is it possible that she accidentally came into contact with colchicine while gardening?”

“Unless Eudora Pembroke was involved commercial plant breeding via genetic manipulation or was trying to solve the sterility problem associated with certain hybrid plants, it’s highly unlikely.”

“So that leaves the plant you mentioned,” Helen said, “Is it common in Britain?”

“Common enough,” Dr. Rajiv said, “But I guess at this point I’d better hand over to Ms. Wong.”

Charlotte Wong stepped forward, also inordinately cheerful given the early hour. DC Walker beamed at her and Charlotte smiled back.

“I have analysed the contents of Eudora Pembroke’s stomach and also the remnants of her salad and her nightly tea which we found in her kitchen,” Charlotte announced, “The herbal tea mixture contained a whole lot of harmless to beneficial herbs.”

“So the poison wasn’t in the tea then?” Helen asked.

Charlotte shook her head. “No, it wasn’t. The poison was in the salad, which contained one plant that is definitely not harmless, namely…”

Charlotte Wong pressed a button on a remote control, while Helen suppressed a sigh. This was going to be another Power Point presentation about the life story of the poison in question, whereas Helen only cared about who had used it to kill Eudora Pembroke.

On cue, a photo of a pretty purple flower appeared on the computer screen in the morgue. The expression on DC Walker’s face was positively rapturous, though Helen suspected it was due to the lovely Ms. Wong rather than the purple flower.

“…Colchicum autumnale, commonly known as autumn crocus, meadow saffron or naked lady. Very pretty, but also very toxic. Even handling the plant can cause skin irritation, ingesting it is fatal, unless immediate counter measures are taken.”

Charlotte pressed a button on her remote and another picture of the same plant, this time a drawing from an old herbarium, appeared.

“Every part of this plant is toxic. The blossoms in particular, but also the leaves, stems, bulbs, seeds.”

“Can you tell which part of the plant was in the salad?” Helen wanted to know.

“The leaves.”

“Why not the blossoms?” DC Walker asked, “Considering they’re the most toxic part.”

“Because the blossoms are not in season,” Charlotte explained, “There’s a reason the plant is commonly known as autumn crocus, you know? Because it blooms in autumn. Coincidentally, Colchicum autumnale’s late bloom also explain the curious common name ‘naked lady’, since the blossoms often appear when the leaves have already wilted, leaving the lady — err, blossom — naked, so to say.”

“Is it possible that Eudora Pembroke consumed the leaves by mistake and that her death was accidental?” Helen asked.

“Actually, that’s rather likely. For you see, the leaves of Colchicum autumnale happened to closely resemble the leaves of Allium ursinum, also known as ramsons, buckrams, wild garlic or bear’s garlic…”

Another press of the button and two photos of leafy plants appeared next to each other. To Helen they looked utterly identical.

“The photo on the left shows Allium ursinum, the plant on the right is our friend Colchicum autumnale,” Charlotte said, “As you can see, it’s easy to get them mixed up. Except that Allium ursinum is edible and may be used for salads, pesto and the like, while Colchicum autumnale is highly toxic. Foragers occasionally get one mixed up with the other, so accidental poisonings happen.”

“Could it have happened here?” Helen wanted to know.

“Could, sure,” Charlotte said, “Did… I’m not so sure about that. After all, everybody said that Eudora Pembroke had in-depth knowledge about medicinal and magical herbs. And getting wild garlic mixed up with autumn crocus is a beginner’s mistake.”

“A mistake that neither Eudora Pembroke nor Tara Willows would have been likely to make,” Helen mused.

“Besides, if the source was an accidental mix-up at Tara Willows’ shop, we would have had reports of other poisonings,” DC Walker pointed out.

Helen turned to Dr. Rajiv. “Did you check if there have been other colchicine poisonings in the past few days, fatal or non-fatal?” she asked.

Dr. Rajiv nodded. “I did and there were none. At least none that have been reported.”

“Why would Eudora Pembroke have consumed that other plant anyway?” DC Walker asked, “I mean, does it have any known medical uses or did she simply want a tasty salad?”

Allium ursinum shares some of the medicinal properties of the other plants of the genus Allium,” Dr. Rajiv said.

“Which are?” Helen asked.

“Onions, regular garlic, chives. They are all beneficial in cases of high blood pressure and blood circulation problems, arteriosclerosis and the like. Allium ursinum is also used as a remedy for some respiratory and gastrointestinal issues.”

“What is more, wild garlic is rather tasty, when freshly gathered,” Charlotte added, “So maybe she simply liked it.”

“But if she was such an expert, wouldn’t she have noticed that her salad was made from the wrong herbs?” DC Walker wanted to know.

Allium ursinum and Colchicum autumnale tend to look even more alike, when you have only the leaves, not the entire plant,” Charlotte replied, “There are still subtle differences, of course, but you’d only notice them, if you were explicitly looking for them. And Eudora Pembroke apparently wasn’t.”

“Why didn’t she call 999, once she got sick?” DC Walker asked, “Maybe she could have been saved, if she’d been taken to the hospital at once.”

“Colchicine is a slow acting poison,” Dr. Rajiv said, “Several hours can pass between consumption and the onset of symptoms. The skin rash on her hands was probably the first warning she got and that’s far from conclusive. She might not even have made the connection, especially if she had no reason to suspect that she had been poisoned. And by the time the vomiting and the diarrhoea set in, it was too late.”

“So the fact that she didn’t notice she was using the wrong herb and didn’t call 999 when she got sick suggests that Eudora Pembroke had no reason to mistrust the source of the herbs,” Helen mused, “Which means that she got the poisonous herbs from someone she trusted, someone whose knowledge and judgement she wouldn’t question.”

“Which leaves the nephew, whom she would probably have trusted,” DC Walker said, “Though I don’t really see him as the type to bring his aunt fresh herbs. Not sure if he has the knowledge either”

“He did mention that he used to go herb gathering on Hampstead Heath with his aunt, when he was a child,” Helen pointed out, “That means Nicholas York might have the knowledge required.”

“There’s also one person who definitely has the herbal knowledge required,” DC Walker said, “Namely Tara Willows.”

“Yes, Tara Willows has the knowledge and the means,” Helen agreed, “But she doesn’t have a motive.”

“Actually, she does,” DC Walker pointed out, “Because I talked to Ms. Pembroke’s solicitor and she really did change her will three months ago. According to the new will, Nicholas York only gets a few family mementos, but the house and the main part of the estate goes to… — drumroll — …Tara Willows.”

“Now that’s a surprise,” Helen said, “And coincidentally, it also gives Tara Willows a most excellent motive.”

“Of course, the question is, did Tara Willows and Nicholas York know about the changed will and its contents?” DC Walker mused.

“Only one way to find out,” Helen said, “We ask them.”

***

Two and a half hour later, Helen and DC Walker stepped once more into the New Moon Esoteric Shop, their arrival announced by a jingling chime.

Tara Willows was behind the counter this time, selling an incense blend to a young woman with lots of piercings. Her cat was in its usual spot in the cosy armchair in the corner.

She handed the bag with the incense to the customer with a smile and turned to Helen and DC Walker.

“Good morning, Inspectors. Do you know anything more about what happened to Eudora?”

Her expression was open, her tone concerned. Innocence? Or just good acting?

“Our forensic pathologist has been able to determine that Ms. Pembroke died of colchicine poisoning,” Helen said.

“Colchicine?” Tara Willows pressed her hand to her mouth. “But that’s autumn crocus, isn’t it?”

“So you’re familiar with the substance, Ms. Willows?” Helen probed.

“Yes, I… it’s part of my job to be familiar with toxic plants.”

“Because some toxic plants are used in magical rituals, aren’t they?” Helen asked.

“Yes, they are. Wolfsbane, hemlock, henbane, belladonna, mandrake root, black hellebore, tansy, devil’s trumpet…”

“What about autumn crocus?” DC Walker wanted to know.

“Regular crocus is sometimes used in love potions,” Tara Willows said, “And according to the Ancient Egyptians, burning crocus blossoms will bestow visions revealing the identity of thieves.”

“Now that would be a neat trick,” Helen remarked.

“But there aren’t all that many ritual uses for autumn crocus, though it has been used as a remedy for gout in times of old.”

“Do you sell any part of the autumn crocus plant here at your shop, Ms. Willows?” Helen wanted to know.

“No.” Tara Willows shook her head emphatically. “I don’t sell any toxic plants here. The potential for abuse is too great.”

“What if someone needs a poisonous plant for a ritual?” DC Walker asked.

“Then they’re either experienced enough to know where to find it or they shouldn’t be undertaking the ritual in the first place,” Tara Willows said firmly, “Many of the poisonous plants used in rituals are dangerous to handle, because the toxins can be absorbed via the skin, so you absolutely shouldn’t use them, unless you know what you’re doing.”

“What about autumn crocus? Can the toxin by absorbed via the skin as well?” Helen wanted to know.

“It causes skin irritations, but it doesn’t kill you, if you only touch it,” Tara replied, “You’d have to ingest it…” She broke off, horrified. “Is that what happened to Eudora? Did she somehow ingest autumn crocus?”

“It was in her salad,” DC Walker said, “Apparently, she mistook it for wild garlic.”

“No way,” Tara insisted, “Eudora would never have made such a stupid rookie mistake.”

“We have reason to believe that it wasn’t a mistake, but foul play,” Helen said, “Someone deliberately passed off autumn crocus leaves as wild garlic and handed them to Miss Pembroke. Someone she had no reason to mistrust.”

It was only now that Tara Willows recognised the suspicion in Helen’s voice and gaze. She took a step backwards, stumbling against the shelves behind the counter.

“And you think I did it? No. No way. Why would I poison one of my best customers?”

“You told us yesterday that Miss Pembroke was planning to change her will and disinherit her nephew,” Helen said.

“Yes, I did.” Tara crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Shouldn’t you rather be looking at the nephew then? After all, he actually had a reason to kill her.”

“We have been able to ascertain that Miss Pembroke indeed changed her will three months ago,” DC Walker said.

“Good for her,” Tara snapped, “At least it means that jerk of a nephew won’t get a single penny. But what has this got to do with me?”

“Do you know who the beneficiary of the new will is, Ms. Willows?” Helen asked.

Tara shook her head, ginger curls bobbing. “No, of course not.”

“Miss Pembroke never mentioned it, not even in passing?” Helen probed further.

Tara shook her head again. “No, why should she? Eudora was a customer and a fellow practitioner. We talked magic, not finances.”

“The main beneficiary of Eudora Pembroke’s new will, Ms. Willows, are you,” Helen said.

“What?” Tara’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh my goodness!” She stumbled and finally collapsed onto a wooden chair behind the counter.

Helen and DC Walker exchanged a glance. “Constable, would you please make Ms. Willows a cup of tea?” Helen ordered, “She looks as if she needs one.”

“Top shelf on the far right,” Tara whispered weakly, “Nerve calming blend.”

“Got it,” DC Walker said. He pulled a tin from the top shelf and vanished through the bead curtain into the backroom.

Meanwhile, Helen walked around the counter and crouched down beside Tara Willows.

“And you had honestly no idea that Miss Pembroke was planning to leave her house to you?” she asked.

Tara shook her head. “None. Eudora never said anything, didn’t even drop the slightest hint.”

Tara’s cat brushed past Helen to jump onto the lap of her mistress. Tara gathered the cat to her chest and began stroking it absentmindedly.

“Why would she do such a thing?” Tara wondered, “I mean, Eudora always came to my shop, we chatted, perhaps we were even friends. But to leave her house, her whole legacy to me…” Tara shook her head in disbelief.

“Miss Pembroke had no living relatives apart from Nicholas York,” Helen said, “And Miss Pembroke probably thought that you would be a better custodian for her legacy than Mr. York.”

Helen couldn’t even blame her. Tara Willows might be flighty and a tad strange, but as heirs went, she still was a much better choice than Nicholas York.

“Don’t get me wrong, I feel honoured that Eudora trusted me so much, but I… I’m speechless.”

The cat purred and snuggled closer to Tara.

At this point, DC Walker returned with the tea in a mug emblazoned with images from the Major Arcana. He handed the mug to Tara, who promptly wrapped her hands around it and lowered her head to inhale the scented steam rising from the mug.

Tara looked up. “What do I have to do now? About the house, I mean. And Eudora’s funeral, of course. If I’m her heir, it’s only fair that I should organise it.”

“Miss Pembroke’s solicitor will contact you in time,” Helen said soothingly.

Tara took a sip of her tea. “Is that why you think I’m the killer?” she wanted to know, “I’m Eudora’s heir, so I’m the killer?”

DC Walker shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time that the person who inherits turns out to be a killer.”

“Money and property are always strong motives,” Helen added.

“But I didn’t do it,” Tara insisted, “For goodness sake, I didn’t even know that Eudora had changed her will. And wherever she got the autumn crocus passed off as wild garlic, it wasn’t from me.”

“But you are selling fresh wild garlic in your shop.” DC Walker pointed at a crate on the counter, which contained bundles of wild garlic leaves.

“Yes, I do. A lot of my customer ask for it and the markets and grocery stores don’t always carry it, even when it’s in season.” Tara got up, chasing away the cat, and set the mug down on the counter.

“And if you want to analyse my wild garlic, be my guest!” She picked up the crate and shoved it at the rather startled DC Walker.

“But Eudora didn’t even buy wild garlic at my shop the day before yesterday. Check the receipts if you don’t believe me.”

“Did she normally buy wild garlic at your shop?” Helen wanted to know.

“Originally, she used to gather her own on the Heath,” Tara replied, “She used wild garlic to make some kind of tincture. Once Eudora’s back troubles got worse, she started buying it at my store instead. But not the day before yesterday.”

“Why not?” Helen asked, “If she bought it regularly, then why not on the day she died?”

“I’m not sure actually…” Tara scratched her chin, considering. “Come to think of it, I actually asked her if she wanted some wild garlic the last time she was here. But Eudora said she didn’t need any that day, cause some kindly soul had already brought her some.”

“Did she say who?”

Tara scrunched her forehead, thinking hard. “No,” she finally said, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right,” Helen said, “You’ve been very helpful, Ms. Willows.”

“So am… am I under arrest now?” Tara wanted to know.

“Not unless you wish to make a confession,” Helen said.

***

“Do you buy that story about the mysterious benefactor who brought Eudora Pembroke some autumn crocus laced wild garlic on the morning of her death?” DC Walker asked once they were back outside, strolling along Haverstock Hill to where Helen had parked the Rover. He was lugging the crate full of wild garlic that Tara Willows had given them.

“It would explain how she came by the poisonous leaves,” Helen said, “And why she wasn’t suspicious.”

“I still think it’s a bit too convenient…” DC Walker insisted, “…that someone just shows up one morning and gives Eudora Pembroke the fatal greens. And besides…” He scowled at the crate of wild garlic of was carrying. “…if this batch of the stuff turns out to be clean, it still doesn’t prove anything. Tara Willows would only have needed a single bunch of tainted leaves — maybe tied with a different coloured ribbon or something like that — which she just happened to hand to Eudora Pembroke.”

“True,” Helen said, “But I still don’t think Tara Willows is our killer. Her surprise and shock at learning that she was the sole beneficiary of Eudora Pembroke’s new will seemed convincing to me.”

“I found her convincing as well,” DC Walker admitted, “But that doesn’t mean she isn’t lying.”

“At any rate, we should have Ms. Wong test the wild garlic Tara gave us,” Helen said, “We should also go back to Eudora Pembroke’s house and see if we can locate this tincture that Tara Willows mentioned, the tincture she supposedly made from wild garlic. There were all sorts of jars and bottles in the kitchen, maybe one of them contains the tincture in question.”

“Uhm, boss, what do you want with Eudora Pembroke’s wild garlic tincture?”

“Have Ms. Wong check whether it really contains wild garlic or autumn crocus. Maybe she can even determine where the autumn crocus was picked or something like that, which might lead us to the identity of the mysterious benefactor. Besides…”

Helen spotted her Rover parked at the curb. She pulled her car keys from the pocket of her jacket, aimed and pressed the button. In response, the headlights of the Rover flashed briefly.

“…if the tincture really turns out to be made from toxic autumn crocus, it’s best to remove it from the premises before someone else manages to poison themselves.”

“So where are we going now?” DC Walker wanted to know, “Back to the house?”

“First to the house to pick up the tincture, then to the lab to drop off the wild garlic and the tincture for Ms. Wong and then we’ll go to see our other suspect, Nicholas York, in… — where did he live again, Constable?”

DC Walker set down the crate and consulted his notebook. “Ashford.”

Helen sighed. “Oh dear. That’s the fucking end of the world and the M20 is chronically congested these days.”

***

A long one and a half hours later (because Ashford really was the fucking end of the world, the M20 really was chronically congested and the line of lorries waiting for processing at the Eurotunnel that stretched all the way to back Ashford due to tightened security measures didn’t help either), Helen’s Rover finally came to a halt in front of Nicholas York’s nice suburban bungalow in a nice suburban street.

“If I had to live out here in the boondocks…” DC Walker commented, “…I’d commit murder as well to get my hands on a house in Hampstead.”

“I’m sure there are some mitigating factors to living here…” Helen remarked, “…though I cannot for the life of me imagine what they might be.”

“If Nicholas York turns out to be not in…” DC Walker said, as they trotted up the driveway to the Yorks’ bungalow, “…then I shall be very cross.”

“His employer claimed that he stayed at home today to make preparations for his aunt’s funeral,” Helen said.

“I really hope he didn’t do a runner,” DC Walker said darkly, “The Eurotunnel is nearly next door.”

“Even if he did, with the traffic jam and the extra security measures, he likely won’t get far,” Helen countered.

“Never thought I’d ever say anything positive about those stupid anti-refugee measures,” DC Walker remarked.

Helen rang the doorbell and after a few tense seconds, a somewhat harried looking dark-haired woman opened the door. “Yes?”

“Mrs. York? I’m Detective Inspector Helen Shepherd and this is Detective Constable Kevin Walker. Is your husband in?”

Mrs. York nodded. “He’s busy planning the funeral of his aunt. There’s so much to do in cases like this…” She shrugged helplessly. “You never know until it actually happens.”

“I can imagine how hard this must be for you and your husband,” Helen said, infusing her voice with a sympathy she did not feel.

“Do you know when your investigations will be finished and we’ll be able to bury Eudora?” Mrs. York asked, “Because all this uncertainty is really hard on Nick.”

Interesting. So Mrs. York cared more about when the investigation would be finished than about what had happened to Eudora Pembroke. Because she already knew how Eudora Pembroke had died? Or because she just didn’t care?

“At the moment our investigation is still ongoing,” Helen replied, “However, we have some questions to ask of your husband, which will hopefully help us to bring the investigation to a speedy conclusion.”

“Oh, I’m sure Nick will be pleased to help you,” Mrs. York said, “Just come one in. Would you like some tea, by the way?”

“Some tea would be excellent,” Helen said.

Mrs. York ushered Helen and DC Walker into the living room, where Nicholas York was sitting on a cream-coloured sofa that had seen better days, various folders and papers spread out on the low table in front of him. His smartphone was pressed to his ear and he seemed in the middle of a heated conversation.

“No, she wasn’t a church member as far as I know. It’s just that we’d like her buried with my mother and grandparents.” Nicholas York paused to jot something down on a piece of paper. “Yes, cremation will be completely sufficient, I’d say…”

“Darling, the police are here,” Mrs. York said before vanishing into the kitchen to make tea.

Nicholas York looked up, grey eyes blinking behind half glasses. “Oh, Inspectors! Is there any news about Aunt Eudora yet? And do you know when we can bury her?”

At least, he asked about what happened to his aunt before he asked about the funeral, Helen thought. But then if he was the killer, he’d of course be very interested in the state of the investigation.

“You’ll be pleased to hear that we’ve been able to determine your aunt’s cause of death,” Helen said, “Our initial suspicions have been confirmed, since it turns out that your aunt was poisoned.”

“Poisoned,” Nicholas York repeated, blanching ever so slightly, “Do you know how?”

“The toxin in question was a substance named colchicine,” Helen continued, “Have you heard of it, Mr. York?”

“Colchi-what?” Nicholas York shook his head emphatically. “No, I can’t say that I have.”

“The toxin is contained in a plant known as Colchicum autumnale or autumn crocus,” DC Walker added, “Does that ring a bell?”

“Autumn crocus…” Nicholas York rubbed his hands together, which — Helen noticed — were still reddened and covered in some kind of eczema. “Yes, I know that plant. Aunt Eudora mentioned it sometimes when she took me herb gathering on Hampstead Heath back when I was a boy. It’s poisonous and easily confused with another non-toxic plant, woodruff or wood garlic or something.”

“Wild garlic, actually,” DC Walker said.

“Wild garlic, yes, that was it.” Nicholas York frowned. “Aunt Eudora used to gather it on the Heath to make some kind of tincture. Ghastly stuff.” He shuddered. “Is that what happened to Aunt Eudora? That she got autumn crocus mixed up with wild garlic and accidentally managed to poison herself?” He shook his head. “I knew this would happen someday.”

“Actually, we have reason to suspect that your aunt’s death was due to foul play,” Helen said.

“Foul play, really?” Nicholas York said, “And you’re not just overreacting? I know you’re just doing your jobs, Inspectors, but…”

He spread his hands wide in a gesture clearly designed to make him appear harmless. Helen noticed the reddened skin again and frowned.

“…as I said, Aunt Eudora was getting on in years and her eyes and memory were no longer what they once were. It was probably just a tragic accident.”

“Oddly enough, you’re the only one who claims that your aunt had vision and memory problems,” DC Walker pointed out, “Everybody else said that your aunt was surprisingly healthy for a woman her age.”

Nicholas York met his gaze squarely. “Everybody else didn’t know Aunt Eudora as well as I did,” he declared, “After all, I was her only family.”

“Even her GP said that your aunt with perfectly healthy apart from some lower back pain,” DC Walker countered, “And yes, we talked to her.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time an overworked doctor didn’t notice a patient’s symptoms, while the family did,” Nicholas York insisted, “And while I understand that you have to investigate my aunt’s death and am certainly grateful for your thoroughness, I still think you’re wasting your time here.”

He adjusted his half-glasses to glare at Helen and DC Walker.

“The most likely explanation is that Aunt Eudora accidentally picked the wrong leaves on Hampstead Heath and ended up poisoning herself. Like I said, a tragic accident.”

“Actually…” Helen drew out the word deliberately. “…your explanation is not at all likely, because your aunt no longer gathered herbs on Hampstead Heath.”

Nicholas York swallowed hard. “She — uhm — didn’t?”

Helen shook her head. “No, due to her persistent back pain, which her GP confirmed, your aunt had taken to buying herbs at a local esoteric shop instead.”

“Well, then investigate that shop, since that’s obviously where she got the toxic herbs from,” Nicholas York exclaimed, “And anyway, wasn’t it just typical of Aunt Eudora to buy her herbs not at a respectable store, but at some kooky New Age shop?”

“Our lab already analysed the wild garlic sold at the shop in question…” DC Walker replied, “…and it really was just wild garlic.”

“And besides…” Helen added, “…the owner of the shop told us that your aunt didn’t even buy wild garlic there on the day before her death.”

Nicholas York blanched.

“In fact, when the shopkeeper asked your aunt whether she wanted any wild garlic, your aunt replied that she didn’t need any, because a kindly soul had already brought her some.”

Nicholas York was struck speechless.

“Of course, we wondered who that kindly soul might be…” Helen continued, “…especially since the only person seen visiting your aunt on the day before her death was you, Mr. York.”

“What… what are you implying?” Nicholas York sputtered.

“I’m implying that you were the person who gave your aunt the toxic autumn crocus leaves, passing them off as harmless wild garlic,” Helen said calmly, “And since you were family, her only family, your aunt saw no reason to mistrust you.”

Nicholas York rubbed his hands together in agitation. “Do you really think I’d bring my aunt wild herbs to support her… silly, eccentric lifestyle?”

“If it served your purpose, why not?” DC Walker said.

“And what purpose would that be?” Nicholas York demanded. He was frantically scratching his hands now. Apparently, the stress of finding himself accused of murder had caused his skin rash to flare up again.

“You were very eager for your aunt to move out of her house, presumably so you could either sell it or move in yourself,” Helen said, “Maybe you simply got tired of waiting.”

“So I poison my own aunt?” Nicholas York’s relentless scratching on his hands had drawn blood now, but he did not seem to notice. “With some obscure poisonous plant?”

“Autumn crocus isn’t all that obscure,” DC Walker said, “It’s actually quite common in Britain, found in parks and gardens around the country, including Victoria Park right here in Ashford. Yes, we checked with the council.”

“And you certainly had the knowledge both to recognise autumn crocus and to know about its resemblance to wild garlic…” Helen continued, “…all thanks to your herb gathering expeditions on Hampstead Heath with your aunt, when you were a child.”

“She probably never suspected that one day you would use the very knowledge she imparted to kill her,” DC Walker added.

“You have no proof…” Nicholas York said, “…just wild suspicions.”

“Actually, we do have proof,” Helen began.

DC Walker turned to her. “Uhm, we do, boss?”

“That’s a nasty rash you have there on your hands,” Helen continued.

Nicholas York stopped scratching his hands and instead looked down on the reddened skin.

“I’ve had it for a couple of days now,” he said, “It’s probably just an allergic reaction. No idea against what — I’m not normally allergy prone. But for some reason, I can’t seem to get rid of the itching and the rash.”

“You really should have listened to your aunt,” Helen said, “She would have told you to wear gloves, when handling autumn crocus, because the toxin tends to cause a skin rash. A rash very much like the one you have on your hands.”

For a second or so, Nicholas York stared at his reddened hands in horror. Then he stuffed them between his clenched knees as if hiding the evidence would erase it.

“I didn’t mean to kill her,” he said tonelessly, “I merely wanted her to get sick, so she would move into a care home. It wasn’t even all autumn crocus, some of it really was wild garlic.”

He lowered his eyes.

“Normally, she only took a little bit of that wild garlic tincture every night. How was I to know that she’d take more that evening?”

“You aunt used the surplus leaves to make herself a salad,” Helen said, “It was the salad that contained the lethal dose of colchicine.”

“How the hell was I supposed to know that?” Nicholas York exclaimed, “I even made an extra stop at Aunt Eudora’s place that morning, so I could take her to the doctor, if she got too sick.” He buried his face in his rash-covered hands. “It was an accident.”

“You deliberately gave a plant you knew to be toxic to your aunt and passed it off as harmless,” Helen pointed out, “That’s no accident, whether you intended to kill your aunt or only to make her ill.”

“I didn’t mean to kill Aunt Eudora,” Nicholas York repeated, “I only wanted her to move out of her house, so we could sell it. Do you know what a house like that in Hampstead is worth?”

“Actually I do, Mr. York,” Helen said, “But you would never have inherited the house anyway. For you see, your aunt changed her will three months ago. She disinherited you and named Tara Willows, the woman from whose shop she bought her herbs, as the beneficiary instead.”

“What?” Nicholas York exploded, “She can’t do that. I’ll contest that will. I’ll…”

“From prison? That’s rather unlikely. Never mind that the law explicitly forbids criminals from profiting from their crimes.”

Helen turned to DC Walker. “Cuff him and take him away.”

***

Two days later, once Nicholas York had repeated his confession at the police station, all the paperwork was done and the killer safely in custody, Helen and DC Walker met with Tara Willows in front of the house of the late Eudora Pembroke, while Tara’s cat explored the garden.

“And all this is really mine now?” Tara asked, as Helen handed her the keys.

“As soon as the formalities regarding the will have been handled”, Helen said, “Which might take a few weeks.”

“Oh, I’m no hurry. I actually like my little flat at Alexandra Road, though it can’t compare to something like this.” Tara spun around. “And of course Alistair will love having a real garden to prowl.” She cast a glance at her cat which was currently rubbing its flank against Eudora Pembroke’s little garden altar.

Tara’s face sank. “I still can’t believe that Eudora is dead,” she whispered, “And that her nephew would kill her just for a house, even one as lovely as this.”

“Sadly, greed is always a common motive,” Helen said, “Probably the most common one.”

“But luckily, we caught the killer red-handed,” DC Walker added, “Literally.”

Helen shot him a sideways glance. “For how long have you been waiting to make that particular pun?”

“Ever since we arrested Nicholas York.” DC Walker grinned. “Come on, boss, it was too good to resist.”

The End

***

That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new story will be posted.

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