A man collapses at a chocolate factory. A private investigator suspects foul play.
A lovely friend entered me into the Midnight NYC writing competition for Christmas. I was assigned a mystery, a tasting and a wannabe… I had 8 days to write in a totally new genre – here is what I crafted. Will find out if I hit the mark in March.
Death by Chocolate
My sister pops another chocolate into her mouth and tries to look sophisticated as she says, “Rich with undertones of nutmeg.”
I glance at the ingredients on the tasting menu and laugh. “Not quite, Lillian.”
“Oh.” She looks disappointed. “I mean, the dulcet vintage notes—”
“I don’t think ‘vintage’ chocolate is a good thing. Or have you moved onto critiquing the wine?”
Lillian stifles a giggle, drains her glass, and grimaces. I’m sure she’d rather be drinking those sugary RTDs that teenagers love, but she’s determined to be ‘sophisticated’ this evening: wearing Mum’s fancy evening dress, drinking wine and sampling chocolates. It’s sweet, really, and although she’s a total wannabe, at least there’s nobody here to call out her act.
Then she collapses onto the counter, groaning. Her hair covers her face, strands the same colour as the chocolates on the platter beside her.
“You dying?” I ask.
“Mmmhmm.” She pushes the platter away. “Too much chocolate.”
“You sure it’s not the wine?”
“Definitely not the wine,” she says, hiccoughing.
The waiter approaches with a bottle, but I wave him away. “You having a good nineteenth birthday, Lillybelle?” I ask, propping her up.
“Sure am, Janie. I might not have a hot date feeding me chocolates like the couple over there—”
“Oi! I’m a hot date.”
“But spending an evening with my favourite sister—”
“—is pretty special.”
The group on the far side of the room laughs raucously. They’ve been loud and annoying all night, but they are the only other people at the venue so we can’t complain. It’s some sort of work event, and despite the fact they’ve chosen a Wednesday to celebrate, they appear to have drunk even more than my sister. I guess it’s covered by the company card.
“Time to go home now,” I say, gently helping Lilly to her feet.
“Is anyone a doctor?” The panicked question from the far side of the room silences all chatter.
I stare at the blonde woman outside the bathroom, whose face is alternating between pale and blotchy red.
“I’m studying to be a nurse,” Lillian says, swaying slightly.
“No Lilly, I don’t think—”
The woman crosses the floor quickly, almost yanks my sister’s arm off, and drags her towards the men’s lavatory. Her voice is high-pitched, frightened. “It’s my boyfriend, he’s collapsed.” The waiter follows them into the bathroom, muttering something about being First Aid trained. I trail behind, reluctantly.
There are four people still sitting at their table. “Don’t worry, Margery,” calls a man with dark hair, “Julian’s probably just had too much to drink.”
“Hey Regan,” says a younger man, slurring his words. “If Julian makes a fool of himself, maybe they’ll revoke his promotion, and you’ll be Boss Man after all.”
“Or at least have the day off tomorrow.” They laugh and clink glasses, while the only woman at the table—thin, with perfectly manicured nails—rolls her eyes.
There’s a sound from the bathroom, and then my sister’s voice, panicked. “Call an ambulance!”
Perfect Nails is instantly on her phone. “Ambulance…” she says. “Yes, my boss has collapsed… Julian Grey… The Chocolate Factory on Morrigan’s road… yes… we were out celebrating his promo—yes. Yes.” She enters the bathroom, her shoes clip-clopping on the floor.
I’m pleased to see the two men are no longer joking about the situation. I suppose shock can swiftly sober anyone up.
The bathroom feels stifling as the waiter manoeuvres the unconscious man out of the toilet cubicle.
“Heart attack?” I ask my sister.
“Maybe,” she says, helping move the body. Her hands are steady. Good.
Perfect Nails holds the phone to her chest and stares at us, wide-eyed. “Is he breathing? Margery, is he breathing?”
Margery doesn’t answer as she tries unsuccessfully to pull her boyfriend’s pants up and give him some dignity.
Together, they roll the body of Julian Grey over. I recoil as I catch a glimpse of his face. It is swollen and disfigured into a monstrous grimace, a dribble of chocolate running down his chin.
My sister goes white. “I don’t think it’s a heart attack.”
The first EpiPen does nothing. Neither does the second.
“What’s he allergic to?” asks Lillian. All trace of intoxication has disappeared from her demeanour.
“I don’t know,” says Margery. “Nothing. Do something. For goodness’ sake, do something.”
Perfect Nails goes a shade of green but dutifully relays the situation through the emergency line.
Lillian gives me a look. “Best get Margery out, hey? We’ll do CPR until the ambulance gets here.”
“You, stay,” I say to Perfect Nails. “Keep talking to emergency services.”
“Penelope is not staying with my boyfriend,” says Margery with surprising vehemence, snatching the phone off the small woman.
I shrug, walking Penelope out.
The three men are still sitting at the table. The balding man looks shocked. The one with dark hair, Regan, is still drinking, while the younger one appears to be making jokes again. I suppose everyone deals with stress in their own way.
“Who are you?” Regan asks in a drawling voice.
“Jane,” I reply, holding out my hand.
He shakes it firmly. “Regan Munson,” he says, “2IC of People and Culture at Trentworth Industries.”
“I didn’t realise we were being so formal,” I say. “Jane Peterson, Private Investigator.”
The effect is instant. “Bullshit,” he says, letting go of my hand as though it burns.
I reach for my wallet and show him my ID. He doesn’t need to know that my job generally involves stalking social media to determine whether a spouse is being unfaithful.
The young man who joked about the promotion goes pale. “Oh,” he says flushing, “I didn’t mean—it’s not—”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Tom,” drawls Regan. “Jane knows we couldn’t plan a heart attack, as much as we might like to.”
“It wasn’t a heart attack.”
Regan raises an eyebrow.
“It was an allergic reaction.”
“Far out,” says Tom. “What’s he allergic to?”
“That’s what the paramedics would like to know. Well,” I prompt, “who made the booking?”
All eyes turn to Perfect Nails—Penelope. “Oh,” she says. Her voice is as small as her stature. “Yes, I made the booking. Umm… I got Regan’s gluten intolerance. Margery’s allergy to eggs…”
“And Julian?” I prompt.
She goes pale. “I don’t remember seeing any dietary requirements for Julian. I don’t remember. I’m sure that I checked.” She bursts into tears. Nobody comforts her.
“God, Penny. You killed the boss,” says Regan.
Tom’s gaze flicks towards his friend. “He’s not dead.” Then he looks at me. “Is he?”
I shrug. “Focus. We need to know what he’s allergic to.”
The balding man leans forward, pulling out his phone. “I’ll check the employee records.”
“That’s the way, Greg,” says Regan, clapping him on the back. “That’s what you get working at Trentworth your entire life. Initiative.”
I tap my finger on the table. There are half-empty tasting platters strewn across the table. Many of the chocolates are unwrapped, but there are a few flashes of red or blue or gold foil. “Who has access to the employee records?”
“All of us,” says Greg. “I mean, we are the People and Culture Department.”
“And yet, none of you knew he had an allergy.”
“And he must have been in the bathroom for a while. Nobody thought to check on him. So… he wasn’t missed, right? You were all having a merry time celebrating his promotion without him.”
Tom and Regan exchange a glance. I hear sirens in the distance. Good.
“I get why Regan has a bone to pick with Julian—he clearly pipped you at the post and got the promotion over you. But what about the rest of you?”
“Ah. So, who else went for the job?”
“Greg did,” says Regan. “And Penelope.”
“Not me,” said Tom. “I’m fine without that sort of responsibility.”
“Did Julian deserve to get it?”
“No,” says Regan, at the same time as Penelope says, “Yes.”
“Just because you’re sleeping with—”
“I am not,” says Penelope, going red.
“Look, Julian’s a tool,” says Regan. “He’s a yes-man to the big-wigs above. That’s why he got the promotion.”
“The only reason,” Tom chimes in.
“So it would be karma if he got sick at his own party,” I say, pointedly.
Regan shifts in his seat. “Look, woman, nobody even knew he had an—”
“Psyllium,” says Greg.
The older man shows me his phone. “The records say Julian has a psyllium allergy.”
I rise from the table. “What’s psyllium?”
“It must be an ingredient in one of the chocolates,” says Tom. “Poor bastard.”
Penelope looks like she’s about to hyperventilate. “I swear I didn’t know.”
“The lady doth protest too much,” says Regan. “Guess that’s why you didn’t get the promotion, because you’re shit at your job.”
“Or maybe somebody edited the records,” says Penelope, glaring at Regan.
“Well, that’s far-fetched.”
I shove a tasting menu across the table. “Penelope, figure out which chocolate has psyllium in it.”
She nods, dashing the tears off her face.
When I enter the bathroom, my sister looks tired, but determined. “Great birthday,” she says, pressing down on Julian’s chest. “Top notch.”
I turn to Margery who is huddled in the corner, clutching the phone. “Tell them he has a psyllium allergy.”
She relays the message as I stare down at Julian Grey. He looks paler and more hopeless than before. There’s a silver wrapper on the ground—perhaps from the offending chocolate. I grab it on my way out.
When I get back to the table, everyone is quiet. Penelope, tight-lipped, tells me that there’s no chocolates on the menu with psyllium in them.
“I even asked,” she says, burying her face in her hands.
“Actually, psyllium isn’t an ingredient used in chocolate,” says Greg. “It’s in laxatives. I googled it.”
“See, initiative,” says Regan.
“Probably why he didn’t bother raising it as a dietary requirement—he didn’t think he’d come into contact with it at a chocolate factory. So someone slipped him a laxative—”
“Why the hell would someone do that?” Regan throws up his hands. “Sure, we all thought Julian was a dick and didn’t deserve the promotion, but that doesn’t mean that we would try to kill him.”
I lock eyes with Regan. “Not kill him. At least, not deliberately. Just have a bad night. Karma.”
“It does sound like something you’d do,” says Greg.
“Like when you—”
“I said, shut it.”
“Regan’s a bit of a trickster, hey, Greg? It’d be funny to have the boss running to the bathroom all night.”
“Didn’t what? Realise he was allergic? It’s all fun and games until somebody collapses.”
Regan fumes. “I didn’t do anything.”
“Then who did?” I ask. “Who would want to prank Julian? Greg, who’s been working at Trentworth all his life and gets overlooked for the promotion?”
Greg looks uncomfortable.
“Or Tom, who doesn’t like responsibility, but wanted Regan to get the job. Unless…” My gaze lands on Penelope. “Unless the chocolate wasn’t meant for Julian.”
The sirens are closer now, they must have reached the end of the street.
“Does Margery work at Trentworth Industries too?”
Regan snorts. “No.”
“So, nobody else brought their partners along, which tells me one thing…”
“That he’s whipped?” says Regan, and Tom laughs. He’s like a stupid puppy hanging off Regan’s words.
“That Margery wanted to keep an eye on Julian,” I reply. “That she didn’t trust him. Or her.” I nod towards Penelope.
Penelope flushes. “Look, I don’t see what—”
“Even when Julian was lying incapacitated on the floor, Margery didn’t want you left alone with him. How long have you been sleeping with him?”
“I’m sure you were just thrilled to have his girlfriend tag along tonight.”
She blinks. “What are you suggesting?”
“Who arrived first this evening?”
All eyes rest on Penelope. Her voice quavers. “I came in early to make sure it was set up perfectly.”
“Plenty of time to place a laxative-laced chocolate on Margery’s tasting platter. Except…”
“Except Julian must have eaten one of his girlfriend’s chocolates,” says Greg, picking up my thought thread.
“Or she fed it to him by accident,” I say, pulling the wrapper from my pocket. “My sister did mention a couple feeding each other chocolate.” I smooth the foil out with a fingernail, noting there are no other silver wrappers on the table.
Penelope’s eyes go wide. She’s seen it before. Gotcha.
There’s a burst of sound as two paramedics jog through the foyer and enter the bathroom. Penelope is babbling on, but I barely hear her as Julian is carried out on a stretcher, Margery and Lillian traipsing along behind.
“Margery,” I call, and she turns. “Penelope has something to confess.”
“That bitch has nothing to say to me.” Her eyes narrow.
“Oh.” The threads pull apart and re-arrange. “Oh, I see. Silly me.”
“What?” asks Regan.
“Right train, wrong track.” I hold up the silver wrapper. “Penelope, this was from your platter, wasn’t it?”
She nods. “It was, but I didn’t even think—”
“Lillian, who did you see feeding chocolate to each other earlier?”
Lilly frowns, clearly exhausted. Then she straightens. “I saw that woman”—she points at Penelope—“feeding Julian chocolate. They were standing around the corner, as though they didn’t want to be seen. That’s why I noticed them.”
“You witch,” says Margery. “I knew there was something going on between you, I knew it.”
“You don’t like Penelope very much, do you,” I say, mildly.
Margery looks at me, radiating hatred.
“Enough to put a laxative-laced chocolate in her tasting tray to make her go home early?”
A vein throbs in her temple.
“Oh, Margery. You silly, silly woman. That chocolate you wanted to feed Penelope was eaten by Julian. And what was in the laxative? Psyllium. You had no idea that he was allergic, did you?”
She goes white.
“He would have felt a gripe in his stomach, excused himself to go to the bathroom, and then his airways closed up.”
“No,” says Margery.
“Ma’am, are you coming with us to the hospital?”
Her mouth opens and closes. “This is all your fault,” she says to Penelope. “If you’d kept your hands off him—” She sniffs a couple of times as tears flood her eyes. “Or just eaten the bloody chocolate.” She turned on her heel and storms after the paramedics.
“Good birthday?” I ask Lillian, as she collapses beside me.
“Eventful. But I think I need one last chocolate.”
She makes a show of inhaling the aroma and placing the chocolate on her tongue.
“You are such a poser,” I mutter.
“Dark,” she says, clicking her tongue, “with a hint of… what is it…”
“Adultery?” I suggest. “And a touch of neuroticism?”
She catches my eye, smirking. “I was just going to say laxatives.”