Scarlet Stiletto Awards: Highly Commended 2015
The Coffee Cup Crime, copyright Marilyn Chalkley
There was just a head sticking out of the water, bobbing slightly, dead eyes staring, black hair tangled. It turned out the woman had heavy concrete blocks tied to her feet, but the murderer hadn’t managed to make her disappear altogether, in the shallows on the edge of Lake Burley Griffin.
The news of the body in the lake was still screaming out over Canberra, from every radio and TV station, every Twitter feed and Facebook post when I heard about it going home. There were even a few Snapchatters who had managed to get themselves in a selfie with the row of police cars and boats as a backdrop.
It wasn’t until the next day I found out it was Giovanna. She had a few days off so we weren’t expecting her back in the café until the following week. I was making coffee as usual, with Carlo, his man bun tied back to keep the black hair out of his eyes. Our well-practiced rhythm produced the creamy full flavoured brew so beloved by our queue of customers. Our shiny red La Marzocco coffee machine and the grinds, bangs, twists and tamping required for a perfect golden crema added to the drama in each cup, the steam for the cappuccinos hissing from the wand.
Janny, one of my favourite customers, leaned over the counter and said quietly, ‘Tam, isn’t that Giovanna?’ She pointed to a photo of a sad pale face coming up on her iPhone. ‘She’s the body in the lake.’
Oh my God. I stopped, appalled. ‘Don’t show Carlo yet,’ I whispered. I continued making coffee on automatic pilot, my heart beating fast. It wasn’t possible. Giovanna was a lively strong vibrant woman. How could that be her? We got through the line of customers, then I took Carlo aside, while Aduk shut up shop, putting a sign on the door saying Closed for Urgent Family Business. Carlo sat at one of the tables, weeping.
Soon the police arrived, two burly men embarrassed the picture had got out before they had had time to tell the family. I waved them over to Carlo.
Stan came out of the kitchen, his chef’s uniform looking crumpled and grubby. He was a small stubby man with a quiff of blond hair kept upright with the help of an excessive amount of hair product. ‘Aduk just told me the news. Wonder what’s going to happen now,’ he said. ‘Stupid woman. Why did she have to go and get killed? Who’s going to roast the coffee? Do you think we’ll have jobs? I can’t afford this.’ He was anxious and as usual more concerned about himself than his boss who, only yesterday, was floating in the lake. ‘You could be a bit more sympathetic,’ I sighed. I was used to Stan.
Giovanna wasn’t a bad boss, but she wasn’t the loveliest person in the universe. She was a ruthless businesswoman and a control freak, and a really tough mum to Carlo. I wasn’t at all sure he was up to running the café, and the coffee roasting business that was the basis of Giovanna’s success. And as for Luigi he was Giovanna’s other son who had a good line in threats. One of his talents was debt collection. He was the last person you’d want running a café, although his flash cars made one think he had a side line in illicit substances.
Luigi knocked at the door and I let him in. I looked at his red puffy face, he had obviously been weeping too. ‘So sorry mate,’ I muttered.
He nodded, his round belly stretched over his white T-shirt under a black leather jacket and went over to Carlo. I got a whiff of cloying aftershave as he brushed past me. The policemen stood up and shook hands, Luigi gripped Carlo’s shoulder, Carlo covered his hand and squeezed it in in reply and then they all sat down at the table, talking in low voices.
‘This is a terrible thing that has happened,’ exclaimed Aduk our tall willowy waitperson from South Sudan ‘I will make us tea.’ Her appearance added an exoticism to the café that Giovanna had liked. Her lilting voice was soothing, and I suddenly realized how tense I was. Giovanna had been murdered, killed by whom? I was sure she had many enemies, but what sort of person would tie concrete blocks to her feet and throw her in the water? Someone strong, that’s for sure. Someone angry, someone with real hatred in their heart.
I smelt a whiff of coffee – burning coffee. Shit, the roaster! We had all ignored the alarm that had been sounding in the background for the last 15 minutes in the room out the back, I rushed through the café to sort it out.
I pulled a sample of the beans out of the side of the roaster. Damn! They were very dark. We might be able to sell it as a very dark Italian roast, or heaven forbid an almost black Spanish roast, otherwise that was 15kilos down the drain. Giovanna would have been furious. And only she knew the recipes for the coffee blends – one of the things that made Carlo angry was that she wouldn’t tell him the secret. In time Carlo, in time, she would say. ‘I will leave the recipes in my will, then you will have control.’ My stomach clenched. Surely not? Carlo was too much of a wimp to do anything so evil to his Mum. But it made me wonder. He was strong enough. He worked on his abs and biceps, so his muscles rippled in his tight white T shirts, with the Lady G logo in espresso brown on the front.
The blends were the key to the business. Although single origin coffee was the trend of the moment, there was always a queue of people for Lady G, Giovanna’s special blend, only available from the café, its rich full flavor with a hint of sweetness and apricots. We sourced coffee from a number of places, Mexico, Tanzania, Panama but only Giovanna knew how to balance and blend the flavours. People liked to buy the bags of beans and we did a busy line in wholesale.
Keeping ahead in the coffee wars was tough. Some companies did it with free umbrellas and café screens for all their wholesale customers, their logos large and bright, others with events and special occasions but Giovanna, she did nothing except roast very special coffee. Every year she won prizes, the best coffee, the best coffee in a café, and got heaps of attention. ‘Mama, please let us do some marketing,’ Carlo would beg. ‘It’s madness. We are being overtaken, especially by that bloody Kaffee Bitte crowd.’
A couple of months ago she relented. She was a small plump woman with fierce blackcurrant eyes, so she had to look up at Carlo. ‘What I am going to do Carlo, is bid for some rare Hacienda Yesenia coffee beans in an auction, costs about $200 a kilo, then we can create a lot of excitement about it. The espresso of a lifetime!’ She smiled at him, her red lipstick gleaming.
Carlo could hardly believe what he was hearing ‘I can’t wait to try coffee that costs 5cents a bean. I will tweet the hell out of it! The punters will love an early morning tasting.’ On the morning of the event customers started queuing up at 5 am. ‘See what marketing can do, Mama’, said Carlo.
It was the Kaffee Bitte crowd who were grumpy. Willem, Giovanna’s former husband, powered down to the café that afternoon just as we were closing. He and Giovanna shut themselves in the coffee roasting room, but we could hear him shouting in his heavily accented English through the glass. ‘You fucking bitch I taught you everything you know about coffee. I have been selling Hacienda Yesenia each year, its bullshit to talk about it as an exclusive. And where are you getting this rubbish from?’ he ran his hand through an open hessian bag of green beans, lifting them up and dropping them. ‘Don’t you know anything? How dare you set yourself up as an expert? I grew up on a coffee plantation, I know more than anyone else in this town. And all those bullshit posh cafes you are selling to – you stole my customers with all your sweet-talking.’
By this time we were all cowering round the coffee machine, only Aduk was slowly pushing the broom across the floor, listening intently. ‘You just watch yourself Madam’ he said as he stormed out. ‘I am not happy, not happy at all. There is nothing more dangerous than an enraged Kaffee Meister.’
Aduk, Stan and I glanced at each other. None of us knew Willem well, but we suspected Giovanna had left him because he was violent. Carlo and Luigi hated him with the fierce hatred that you can only have for a family member.
One of the large cops came up to me and I lurched back into the present. ‘We’d like to interview you now, Ms Gooch,’ he said.
We sat at the table.
‘Where were you, on Saturday night? ‘
I blushed and was annoyed with myself. ‘With my friend Ned Hughes. I can give you his number.’
It had been a typical Canberra party – everyone crowded into the small galley kitchen, lots of exuberant exchanges about the latest political bastardry of the government and its Ministers, and the departmental heads.
I felt a touch on my elbow and turned to see my mate Ned smiling down at me. ‘How are you going Tam?’ he asked in his deep voice. Ned had a great voice and real presence, tall with a shaved head, and scary sunglasses.
We moved together to the end of the garden. ‘It’s really good to see you, Tam,’ said Ned giving me a big hug. I leaned against him, and it went downhill from there. Before long we were in his airy apartment in a passionate embrace, and more. Which I didn’t want to share, especially with the police.
After they left Carlo asked. ‘Can you hold the fort for the next few days, Tam?’ he asked. ‘This is bloody hard.’
‘I can’t even organise her funeral, they won’t release the body,’ he said, his voice flat and weary. ‘And I think the cops believe I did it, I was just home on my own on Saturday cos me and Jenna had a big row and she went to stay with a girlfriend.’
I looked at him sympathetically.
‘I loved my Mum even though we didn’t agree on many things. I would never have hurt her, you know I’m not that sort of guy.’ His eyes pleaded with me.
But the next day he was arrested and charged with murder.
When the morning rush was over I rang Ned. ‘The police have arrested the least scary of the three men in Giovanna’s family. The trouble is he’s got no alibi, so I’m assuming the other two have. What the hell can we do? I have been working with this guy for a year now, in hot steamy conditions, under heaps of pressure. He’s always calm, he’s always kind, he’s not your average grumpy barista at all. And he’s a coward. That time we got robbed by that insane druggy who tried to hold us up with a pair of scissors, he just hid behind the coffee machine! I ask you, is that a murderer?’
Ned grunted. ‘Maybe he got ridiculously angry and the blood rushed to his head?’
‘You don’t tie concrete blocks to your mum’s feet if you have a rush of blood to the head. That’s cool and calm,’ I said.
Ned grunted again
‘Got to go. Minister on the rampage. See you honeybun.’ He hung up. Honeybun. That was new. Ned was getting soft.
Suddenly a crowd walked in for coffee. We had gained a reputation
overnight, and suddenly we were the go to place for the ghoulish and the thrill seekers.
And so it went on for the next few days while Carlo was locked up waiting for his hearing. We were getting through the coffee and no-one had roasted any, so we were days behind schedule. The trouble is we didn’t have the coffee blend recipes. I didn’t know what to do, and then on the afternoon of the court hearing Carlo walked in. ‘I thought you were in the slammer,’ I exclaimed. ‘I was, but my dad, Willem, got me a good lawyer, and I’m on bail. They’ve only got the word of one witness who said he saw me putting my mum in the lake on Saturday night, saw my car down at Yarralumla bay near the jetty. But it’s rubbish.’
‘Carlo, I hate to raise this now – but we have to roast some coffee, our wholesale customers are all ringing asking what’s going to happen – we’ll lose them if we’re not careful.’
He looked down at his feet. ‘Would you mind coming to my Mum’s house? I’ve got to rescue her cat. And we can look for the coffee blend recipes, so we know what to roast and mix. She used to say she would give them to me in her will. Maybe they are filed somewhere in her house.’
‘Carlo, we have to find the killer, or you’ll go down.’ He looked bleak.
It only took us ten minutes to get to the white weatherboard cottage, which was cute, with climbing roses and jasmine around the windows. As Carlo unlocked the front door a furry yowling streak brushed past our legs and disappeared.
‘Shit,’ said Carlo. ‘He’s gone ballistic. Romulus,’ he called, disappearing behind the house. I followed him. ‘Let me look for the cat while you look for the recipes’ I suggested. ‘Ok, thanks’ he said and went inside. I saw the whisk of a grey tail disappear under the house. ‘Oh no you stupid animal’ I groaned. ‘Don’t you know what’s good for you?’ I got down on my knees and found that the house, like many old places, was on stumps, and there was a person sized gap between the ground and the floor of the house. I knelt down and put my head under the building and sneezed. It was dry and dusty. ‘Romulus, puss, puss,’ I called. The grey cat was sitting in the middle of the grey dust, almost invisible in the gloom, staring at me with round green eyes. How strange I thought. Someone’s insulated the house by taping white padded bags underneath the floor. It stretched right under the entire house just above our heads. There was a piece of dirty gaffer tape hanging down near the cat, and more relaxed now he batted it with his paw. He did it again, finding enjoyment in the tape swinging. The next time his outstretched claw slashed the bag. White powder poured out. Jesus, I breathed, this is not insulation. I looked again. This is drugs. Cocaine? I taste-tested a few grains and my tongue went numb. Yes. But surely Giovanna wasn’t a drug dealer? No way. She didn’t fit the profile.
Romulus moved towards me and rubbed against my face. I was still on all fours. I leaned back on my haunches and stroked him thoughtfully, my head almost touching the white plastic bags. I stifled a sneeze. There must be millions of dollars’ worth of drugs stuck unobtrusively under this house. I wondered if Giovanna had found out? Then I heard a souped-up car roar into the drive, a door slam and quick footsteps up to the house. Then a second car, more footsteps, heavier this time.
I quietly got my phone out and put it on silent, my heart beating fast. I sent a text to Ned not sure if he’d get it. HELP! stuck under Giovanna’s house with millions of dollars of coke and a cat, drug dealers in house. Come with cops. I gave the address. I had no doubt now that Luigi was the dealer, possibly the murderer, but I wasn’t at all sure about the other footsteps. Now there was shouting, the acoustics were good, I must be just underneath them.
Carlo shouted – ‘what are you doing here? You know Mum didn’t like you near her place. Well that hasn’t changed. ‘
Luigi’s voice said – ‘well you killed her, so you could have the house and the coffee recipes, that’s pretty obvious.’
‘You effing c’ – then there was a lot of swearing by Carlo – ‘how dare you, was it you that set up that witness? What have you got to gain by her death? ‘
‘Nothing. Why would I set up my own brother?’ That was Luigi.
‘Carlo, what’s in that envelope?’ That was Willem
‘None of your business.’
‘Give it her.,’
‘No way.’ There was a scuffle, a shout and the sound of crashing furniture.
I let go of the cat, extracted myself from under the house and ran quietly to the front door, and into the hall. I couldn’t let Carlo battle those thugs on his own. I peeped round the door and then pulled back. Carlo was sitting astride Willem who was lying on his face on the floral carpet yelling out in a muffled voice. ‘So this is the gratitude I get for finding you a lawyer?’ Carlo had tucked the envelope in his belt and was holding both of Willem’s hands by the wrists in a firm grip. The gym hadn’t gone to waste then. Luigi was standing there with crossed arms, smiling unpleasantly.
Suddenly Romulus stalked past me, his tail vertical. I could see now that he had come out of the gloom that he was covered in white powder. He went into the living room miaowing. Luigi looked at him. ‘Where the hell has that cat been?’ he exclaimed. ‘Under the house,’ said Carlo.
‘Jesus,’ said Luigi and ran out, past me, came back, grabbed me by the neck and pushed me up against the wall in the hall. ‘Where have you been missy?’ he said, his face a few centimetres from mine. I could see the enlarged pores round his nose and the sweat on his forehead. ‘Just in the garden’ I said as casually as I could. He pulled a gun out from a holster under his arm and the cold metal cut into my throat. It was all clear now. It wasn’t the coffee blend recipes that were the reason Giovanna was murdered. It was the millions of dollars of cocaine under the house.
‘So it was you ‘I said in a loud voice so Carlo would hear. Might as well go out with a bang I thought idiotically. ‘Giovanna found out about the cocaine you hid, and threatened to dob you in. She never did approve of drugs.’
‘How did you find out bitch?’ sneered Luigi, pushing the gun hard against my throat. ‘So you killed her,’ I went on, ‘and took a couple of those concrete bricks I saw in the back garden and tied them to her feet. But you didn’t do the physics and the blocks weren’t heavy enough to keep her totally submerged. You killed your own MOTHER.’ I stared hard at him, my heart beating fast. Luigi looked down for a second in shame and Carlo and Willem, released from the carpet, quietly appeared behind him. Carlo grabbed his arms, Willem wrenched the gun from his hand, and a shot fired into the gyprock ceiling.
‘You bastard’ yelled Carlo, slamming him against the wall. At that moment Ned and the police arrived. ‘Boy am I pleased to see you’ I said as Ned rushed in and grabbed me in a protective sort of a way. ‘Are you OK? I heard a shot.’ He was white.
‘I’m fine’ I said pulling away, ‘it’s all under control.’ I felt slightly weak- kneed, but I wasn’t going to reveal that.
Carlo refused to give the coffee blend recipes to Willem, who was pretty angry about it but could do little to persuade him, short of violence, because Giovanna had indeed left them to Carlo in her will. They continued in fierce competition. Luigi went down for a long time which made life much more pleasant for everyone, the witness who said he saw Carlo at the lake that Saturday night went to jail too – he was one of Luigi’s dealers. The coffee shop thrived – a little notoriety is good for business. And Carlo became a blender of very fine coffees, there must be a gene for it. The winner from the whole event was Romulus who became a famous Internet cat, his glistening green eyes glowing from his own Facebook page, curated by Carlo, the million-dollar cat who found the biggest haul of cocaine Canberra had ever seen. And me? I got a taste for solving crimes.