A Tidy Summation
Periwinkle’s Cough Drops Co. Ltd. had been crumbling for some time. Incomings were down, production had shrunk and workers on the factory floor had peeled off one after the other until now only four remained. The great cogs of the family company were grinding to a halt.
At its height, the factory on Burton Street had carved itself a furrow in the hearts of every household in the small town. The factory fed and clothed most of the town’s residents as it employed most of its men, and Periwinkle’s pale blue logo with its bright red mouth, open in a half smile as if soothed by its own cough drop, was a calming staple in the medicine cabinets of all.
The last two years has seen the decline, to the angered confusion of the town’s inhabitants. It played out in the bickering between couples and escalated into a shattering of plates against living room walls.
At the start severance packages had been given and gratefully received under the direction of Periwinkle Snr. Frail and weakened with age, Periwinkle Snr had ceded the business to his son. Junior had told Senior that any worries he had had, any anxieties about running the company, managing the staff, balancing the books, would be relieved, as if by ritual with the passing on from father to son. A great weight would be lifted, like a stone uncoiling from the man’s neck. A mantle to be passed on.
At first, Periwinkle Snr had been pleased with this. Hadn’t it happened to him when his own father signed the business over? It was only right that this inheritance should continue onto the next generation. Some guilt piqued at the edges, but this was minor, the company would rise again, the family simply needed a bad winter, cooler temperatures and a new strain of influenza. Dips had been countered in the past.
But as months passed and one year of bad returns turned into two, Periwinkle Snr began to falter. The little corner of fear grew a voracious hunger, and rose from the pit of his stomach to a stifling grip on his lungs.
He knew he would have to act fast.
Audrey sat at her kitchen table and waited for the toaster to pop. It felt like such a long time since her last piece of work, and as she buttered the singed slices she wondered yet again if it had been a good idea to quit her job, and to quit it in such a heightened, public rage. Maybe not.
She looked over to Squid, who looked back through beady black eyes. He was the only thing keeping her sane, she often thought. Squid grumbled empathetically.
Yesterday she had sat on the couch watching the television with a half-heart, wondering what she had done with her life. Squid sat in the wing back chair and chuckled as border collies hypnotised sheep on the televised sheep dog trials. It was impossible to go back, hang-dog and ask for forgiveness, thought Audrey. The very idea made her queasy. It would mean admitting defeat, admitting that her attempt to work independently as a freelance forensic accountant was a failure. She had had only one client since leaving the large firm, and the pet shop, which had specialised in terrapins, had not posed a significant puzzle. Bankruptcy in that case would have almost always been inevitable.
Today sitting at the kitchen table with Squid by her side, Audrey thought she might have to face the fact that she too was inherently, inevitably a failure.
As she had remained on the couch for most of the previous day, she hadn’t read the mail which had found its way through the letter slot. Padding over to the front door now, she found amongst the usual circulars for supermarkets and flyers for gyms and dog walkers, there at the foot of the door was a letter. A real letter, with a proper stamp, postmarked and addressed to her in a neat cursive hand.
Scalloping the envelope with her index finger, she unfolded the letter and read:
“Dear Ms. Brown,
I hope you may remember me as a client from your time at Thackett & Thackett. Our previous dealings centred on relatively routine trifles, but recently things have come to light which have given me cause for concern.
I understand that you have left the firm and I would like to engage you in a private capacity to investigate some issues which have been troubling me.
Please visit me at the above address at your nearest convenience. Unfortunately my current locale gives me limited access to the telephone.
I would appreciate your utmost discretion with this matter. Yours sincerely,
J. Periwinkle Snr.”
Audrey sat back in her chair and scanned over the letter again. She remembered him of course. Periwinkle Cough Drop Co. Ltd. An elderly man, embarking on retirement. The cough drops had been in decline, but they had decided to absorb the deficit through staffing cuts which had seemed to work. Thackett & Thackett hadn’t heard from them again that she knew of over the lapsed two years.
The address at the top of the page had been printed professionally as personalised stationery, and it spoke with a saddening pathos of a somewhat faded glory. Neatly, in teal blue, the print read:
Mr. J. Periwinkle Snr, O.A.M., B.Com Hons, Myrtle Retirement Complex for the Elderly, 15 Larkspur Crescent,
Audrey looked at Squid, “Should we go? We should go shouldn’t we?” She looked back at the letter again, “It will probably come to nothing, but at least the old chap will get a visit.”
Squid gave her a toothy grin.
It would be a two day trip, Audrey told herself, like a weekend away but taken mid-week, and because of this the traffic would not be as bad. This was some consolation as Bromley was a three hour drive from their home.
Squid settled in to the passenger seat and with the radio tuned to the carefree sounding Hearts station, they hit the road.
Audrey first met Squid years ago on another road trip. Driving along a deserted motorway, the outline of a furry creature came into view. The animal lay in the middle of her lane. She slowed the car and pulled onto the side of the road.
Getting out of the car, she approached cautiously, fearful of what she was about to see. If it was still alive, it might be able to be saved if she took it to the animal rescue centre a few kilometres away. She looked closely, but sadly the Tasmanian devil was dead.
She was the kind of frizzy-haired girl who was willing to muck-in. Retrieving a shovel from the boot of her car, she gently lifted the body to move it out of the way of the traffic and onto the side of the road. As she began to lift the creature, she spotted a small foot and then the full pinkish-black body of a baby devil. The little joey moved and Audrey gasped.
She ran back to the car and found her cardigan scrunched up on the passenger seat. She wrapped the tiny form of the joey in her cardigan and carefully placing him on the seat next to her, she sped off to animal rescue.
The vet nurse looked at the little pup with thinly veiled exhaustion and exasperation. The hospital was full. There was little she could do. But the joey’s vital signs were good – this one seemed to have the spark of a little fighter, and the girl seemed more than capable with her calm and caring approach to the tiny beast.
“Would you be willing to look after the joey until he’s old enough to fend for himself?” the nurse asked Audrey, “He’s about three months old now, so it would be around another two to three months until you could set him free in the wild. I can give you all of the supplies you’ll need. It’s a big commitment and the devils get a bad rap for being snappy, but they’re really quite friendly once you get to know them.”
Audrey took the little devil home, and it wasn’t long before he grew a pelt of fine black fur. Two little white spots appeared above his eyes, outlining his eyebrows, and a white band of fur slung round the front of his neck like a torc. Soon he wandered out from his snug bed and followed Audrey around the house, and after a time of table legs being gnawed and curtain ends being shredded, Squid settled in to Audrey’s flat as his new home.
Now, curled up in the passenger seat of Audrey’s boxy Toyota Yaris as they drove the winding way to Bromley, Squid stretched out a paw and emerged from the cottonwool of sleep.
“Aren’t we there yet?” he yawned, looking out the window and then over to his driver. “Not quite. Almost.” Audrey replied, shifting gears and turning to smile at her friend.
It hadn’t taken long for Squid to talk, and although he could, the taciturn devil kept his quips to a minimum. Audrey generally did most of the talking.
“I wonder what we’re going to find. Will the old guy still be completely with it?” she asked, thinking aloud.
Not long later, they pulled into Larkspur Crescent. Myrtle Retirement Complex sat at the end of the loop in a long, low rectangle of beige. A gardener had made attempts to make the structure less deadeningly boring by dotting white clematis along the fence. Tendrils reached out towards the footpath and waved at passers-by. Within the fence, hot pink and red petunias glared up as ground cover.
Audrey and Squid made their way in to the reception. A plump woman with thick rimmed spectacles sat behind the desk.
“Yes?” said the woman, pulling herself away from her magazine to look up blankly at Audrey.
Across a double-spread, the magazine showed an enraptured Kate Middleton in various poses – bub in her arms, toddling George at her side, sapphire ring resplendent in the autumn sun.
“Hello,” said Audrey smiling, “I am looking for Mr. Jeremy Periwinkle.”
“Ah,” said the woman, flicking her eyes down to a list of residents in a manner which combined with the upturned outer edges of her glasses to remind Audrey of an agitated, lethargic cat getting ready to swipe. “Mr. Periwinkle Snr is in Room 23.”
“Thank you” said Audrey, and followed the direction of the woman’s purple taloned hand, down a corridor on the left.
The door to Room 23 was open. Audrey knocked and Squid peered around the frame. They could see that on this cool November morning the windows were thrust up, making the room a good ten degrees colder than the stifling heat of the corridor.
There was no answer.
“Mr. Periwinkle? It’s Audrey Brown.” Audrey stepped inside. “I got your letter, and I came as soon…”
Audrey’s voice tailed off. Mr. Periwinkle sat in an armchair. His pale blue eyes were wide and his mouth was open as if poised to speak, but no words emerged and none ever would. They had come too late.
The room was small, with everything in one place. A single bed lined one wall. There was a kitchenette close to the door and Mr. Periwinkle’s chair faced out to the small front garden. A visitor’s chair sat nearby. Not much, thought Audrey, for a man who had had a cough drop empire.
She was about to call for a nurse, when something caught her eye. Squid had been sniffing around the man’s feet and knocked one of his tartan slippers onto its side from its spot on the floor. Now, glinting up from where the slipper had been was the silver foil of a chocolate wrapper with half a chocolate still inside. Squid had sniffed it out. His tummy was usually always rumbling, but he turned his nose up at the half-eaten chocolate and hissed, giving it his fiercest look. Audrey bent down to pick it up.
It was a bright green Roses chocolate. Peppermint. Putting it up to her nose, she could smell beneath the bold scent of mint, something sour and chemical. She looked up at the dead man. She was close to him now, and at this distance she could see that a trickle of milk chocolate drool had run down his chin.
Affronted by the offending chocolate, Squid felt he had had a close call.
Audrey found a nurse not far down the corridor. She put the chocolate and the wrapper in her jacket pocket.
A doctor and another nurse arrived and Jeremy Periwinkle was pronounced dead, most likely due to natural causes. The door was shut, cordoning off the room.
Audrey and Squid said their goodbyes and were about to leave when the second nurse, Lucy, stopped them quietly in the corridor.
“Mr. Periwinkle said he was expecting you. He asked me to look after these in case anything happened. He wanted you to have them.”
“Thank you. What are they?” asked Audrey, taking the bundle of papers from the nurse.
“I’m not sure. He didn’t tell me and I didn’t look. He was a lovely old gentleman, always very thoughtful and kind. It felt disrespectful to look.” She nodded at the file in Audrey’s hands, “He gave me the impression that they were confidential. I thought it might be a will or something like that.”
Audrey waited until they were back in the car, and then opened the folder. Squid craned his neck to see.
A litany of documents filled the file. Periwinkle Snr had made meticulous copies of the past five years annual reports for Periwinkle Cough Drops Co. Ltd. Graphs showed the precipice and revenue descent from the successful heights of only a few years before. In the margins, in different places throughout the files, Periwinkle Snr had written “Bluebell.”
“What is ‘Bluebell’?” said Audrey with exasperation. Audrey always considered herself capable of logical deduction, but this just did not add up.
Tired and in need of the caffeine hit, Audrey and Squid were now in a coffee shop on the Bromley high street a few blocks away.
“If Periwinkle Snr knew what was going on, he didn’t leave us many clues,” huffed Audrey. “What could it mean? Is it someone’s name? Is it another company?”
“Or a race horse,” chipped in Squid.
Squid’s paw fell on a thin file stuffed between pages 30 and 31 of last year’s tax declaration.
Within the file were records of the company’s expenses over the past few years. On page after page, a monthly expense had been circled in blue. “Honey Bee’s Syrup Co.” appeared on cue at the beginning of each month. Turning to the back of the file, to the first year recorded there, “Baxter’s Sugar Syrups Ltd.” appeared in the other’s place now circled in pink. The amounts had gone up in the switch between suppliers, but, Audrey reflected, a few hundred dollars could simply mean a change to a better quality product and normal inflation.
“Honey Bee Syrup might simply be more delicious,” mused Squid.
“Maybe,” said Audrey, puzzled, “but why circle them? There must be something here.”
She returned to the graphs of the company’s annual returns which Periwinkle Snr had photocopied and meticulously annotated, and looked particularly at a monthly sales chart included with the reports. It was clear that only a couple of months after the switch to the Honey Bee Syrup Co. sales started to dip.
“Perhaps it didn’t taste nice at all,” said Audrey, as a frown spread up from her mouth to her brow, contorting her face in concentration. “Let’s get back to the rest home. Maybe we missed something.”
Squid had noted that there was a side door which led to Room 23 and circumvented reception. They knew that they did not have much time before things would begin to be removed and what remained was refreshed for the next, waiting inhabitant.
Squid led them through the side door and down a light filled corridor which had windows opening out to the garden beyond.
Inside Room 23 everything was still. The armchair was empty, and the unsettling presence of the body had been replaced with a quiet, nervous energy.
The room was sparsely furnished. Beside the single bed there was a bedside table and near the armchair there was a bookcase. The spines it displayed gave the only real hints of the man Jeremy Periwinkle had been. A man of action, thought Audrey, as she noted Tom Clancy and John Grisham’s names picked out boldly in red.
“Let’s check under the mattress,” she said, lifting it up and revealing only the springs beneath, “Nothing, and nothing under the bed either.”
They looked behind the bookcase and the bedside table, underneath the armchair and tentatively beneath its cushions. Nothing. A search of the wash room and bathroom cabinet frustratingly revealed the same.
“This is becoming tedious,” moaned Squid, who had lain down on the floor next to the bed and was resting his chin on the back of one paw.
“You’re right,” said Audrey, slumping down next to him. “We won’t find anything. There’s probably nothing to find. Unless..” she paused.
She was staring at the bookcase, now eye-level with its top shelf. The thick hardback spines stared back. It only took two attempts, as she hungrily turned the pages and shook the spines of A Time to Kill and Our Kind of Traitor, before alighting on One for the Money. With a flick of the wrist, a single folded sheet of A4 fell from its pages and floated to the floor.
“Dear Mr. J. Periwinkle Snr, Thank you for your recent letter.
In normal circumstances, protocol dictates that account holder information remains private and confidential. However, due to the nature of your relationship with the account holder and my own personal vouchsafe for your character as an upstanding member of the community, I am happy to make an exception in this case.
Acc. Name: Honey Bee Sugar Syrup Co.
Acc. Holder: Mr. J. Periwinkle Jnr.
I trust you are in good health and that you are enjoying your new home. Kind regards,
Bromley TAS 7023
“What is that?” A figure stood at the door, outlined by the light of the corridor behind. As he moved into the room, Audrey recognised the dead man’s son. Standing there was James Periwinkle.
Audrey and Squid stood up quickly. Cornered in the small room, both felt frozen to the spot, as if caught in a high beam.
“We know what you’ve done,” said Audrey, fixing her eyes on the man’s face; willing herself to not look away or weaken to his stare.
James smiled. “What?” he scoffed. “What are you talking about?”
“We know you killed your father to cover up the stolen funds. There’s no point denying it.” “What?” he sounded incredulous. “I didn’t kill my father. I loved my father. I’d never do anything to hurt him.” He paused and looked over to the empty chair. “I thought he had a heart attack.”
“A heart attack caused by a poisoned chocolate,” Audrey snapped back. “We found a half-eaten chocolate and the wrapper. I’m sure if they do an autopsy they’ll find whatever you poisoned him with. I can trace the stolen money right back to you through Honey Bee. Your father asked me to investigate and I have all of the evidence we need to prove you did it.”
The man looked flustered. His cheeks flushed.
“I didn’t poison him!” He put his hands up to his face, covering his eyes and pushed back against his temples, pulling his skin towards the hairline. He exhaled with a high pitched sound, more like a pained cry than a sigh. “I stole the money. But I didn’t kill him. I’d never hurt him. She must have… she must have done it.”
“Who must have?” said Audrey.
“Sheryl. Sheryl Cook. I knew she was crazy, but this!” he said throwing his hands up. “I gave her the money, wasn’t that enough?” He looked from Audrey to Squid, desperate. “We had a stupid, meaningless fling, and then, when I told her I wasn’t interested, the letters started arriving and photos of my daughter going to school. I was in the middle of a custody dispute. My wife didn’t need any more ammunition. I thought Sheryl was just trying to get to me. I didn’t think she was really dangerous. I started paying her to keep her quiet. She was sending letters to work and signing them from “Bluebell”! They had filthy things in them. Mad, mad things. She sent some to Dad.”
“But Honey Bee is in your name,” said Audrey sceptically.
“I changed suppliers to hide that I was taking money from the company. I’ve been transferring the money across to Honey Bee each month, then buying a cheap and crappy syrup alternative, and transferring the rest to Sheryl.”
“That’s why your sales have dropped.”
“Yes. The new drops taste disgusting. They’re bitter and foul! I’ve been watching my business tank right in front of my eyes and I’ve let it happen. Dad’s business. And now he’s dead.” He looked at Audrey and Squid, tears now falling down his cheeks. “I’m gonna kill her!”
He turned and ran down the corridor. Audrey and Squid chased after him. They rounded the corner.
“James!” The receptionist stood up, her arms outstretched open for an embrace. “It’s so sad James. Don’t worry, I’ll be here for you. We will finally be together. Lovers reunited at last.”
“Like hell we will!” yelled James, lashing out at her as her arms locked him in a tight embrace. He backed away.
“But we’re meant to be together. The old man was the only thing still keeping us apart. You said he’d never approve.”
“I said I didn’t want you to tell him what happened! You killed my father.” “But can’t you see, we’re destined to be together. I’m your Kate Middleton.” “No you’re not!” choked James, almost laughing at the thought.
Rage descended across Sheryl’s face. The muscles around her jaw clenched. She picked up the letter opener on her desk which gleamed with a sharp point, and she ran at James. Aiming her violet nails at his face, she gouged at his eyes and forced the blade towards his throat.
Squid acted in a split-second. He didn’t use his teeth in this way often, preferring to have his meals served up to him on a plate since moving in with Audrey, but now his bite was needed. He leapt and bit down hard on Sheryl’s ankle. She dropped the blade and screamed, felled.
James pulled himself away and after a moment Squid released his grip. Audrey pulled out her phone to call for the police.
After statements were taken, evidence was explained and handed over and a howling Sheryl was manacled and placed in the back of a police car, Audrey and Squid checked themselves in to a nearby B&B and breathed a sigh of relief.
Squid lay in the passenger seat of the little white Yaris, in the cosy warmth of Audrey’s red merino scarf. Audrey seemed to be taking an age to settle the bill inside the petrol station, and he was beginning to get impatient for the Cherry Ripes he had ordered.
Perhaps he would act petulant when she came back?
He decided he would see if she brought any extra treats.
They were on their way back home and it wouldn’t be long til they were back to their normal routine. He had enjoyed the excitement, even if his teeth ached a bit, but he was looking forward to sleeping in his own bed.
He could see Audrey was returning to the car now. She was waving something in the air. Outside the car, she held it up to the window for him to see.
The front page headline of the Tassie Times read: “Devil Bites and Sums Add Up for the Win: Detective Duo Solve Cough Drop Murder”
Audrey climbed into the car, slid her sunglasses down to her nose and slotted the key into the ignition. “Squid, I can see the start of a new chapter! We could call ourselves Accounting Forensically or Accounting for Crime – well, maybe not that one…”
Perhaps, thought Squid, as he settled down with his haul of chocolate and Audrey started the engine, this might be the new normal.
By Susannah Smith from Australia