This short story was shortlisted for the CWA Margery Allingham Short Mystery Competition in 2018
It was only after swallowing the fourth dumpling that Chief Willows realized that something wasn’t quite right, perhaps even terribly wrong.
I’m just too damn old, he mused bitterly as he felt the dumpling ride its way down his throat, inexorably towards his stomach. Had it been just a few years earlier, he would have certainly picked up that slight aftertaste the very moment the delicate parcel of steamed dough touched his tongue. The eighty-year-old ex-copper cursed his old age, more disappointed in his fading abilities than angry at whoever had tricked, and quite possibly murdered him with such ease.
It was poison, and not the gentle kind. During his many years in the force, the Chief–as he still insisted on being called–had become quite familiar with the multitude of death concoctions that took the lives of adulterers, old wealthy relatives, and unwanted rodents every day. Some poisons made victims slowly drift away without pain, fall asleep as if in a sudden onset of narcolepsy. Others worked their magic so quickly that one might have thought the lights had simply gone out, if one were still able to think past that point…
Unfortunately, what the Chief had detected was a special and potent neurotoxin that he was actually quite familiar with: tetrodotoxin; as ominous a name as any poison. It caused just about every horrifying symptom imaginable: from seizures and gradual paralysis, to vomiting, diarrhea, and even madness. The slight, unusual aftertaste of old fish had tipped him off, as the unrefined form of the poison could be extracted quite easily from the organs of fugu pufferfish: a delicacy he had once tried during a trip to Japan. Extremely potent, the toxin present in a single fish could kill several people if butchered incorrectly before serving. But whether in its pure tasteless and odorless form or as unrefined, blended fish guts, it wasn’t ever a pretty way to go. The Chief had already gobbled up four of the delectable poison-laced dumplings, so he estimated he had about ten minutes before things started to get ugly.
Like every year at the Willows’ family Chinese New Year dinner, the Chief’s personal bamboo steamer lay on the table before him, a little to the right of his pint of lager. Two glistening dumplings still sat quietly within, looking rather harmless, and actually quite enticing. Like every year, he had the honor of his own personal steamer of these special dumplings crafted to his taste. Other than the slight aftertaste of neurotoxin, the dumplings were a very successful reproduction of his late wife’s signature recipe, which she had adapted to his preferences over their many decades of marriage. This meant that the poison had indeed been meant for him, and only him, rather than the other members of his family who were now gathered around the circular table.
The table, draped in a bright crimson tablecloth, was strewn with all manners of delicious dishes that the Chief had once found exotic, but had since grown accustomed to through exposure to Chinese and Hong Kongese culture through his wife, Yee. A steamed whole flounder, red-cooked pork belly, stir fried lobster, longevity noodles, deep-fried custard balls, and an assortment of other, less deadly dumplings were but a few of the dishes twirling round and round the red circle, riding the Lazy Susan from each family member to the next; each one seemingly oblivious to the fact that he had been murdered…
And indeed, each one a suspect…
Of course, after a long career of fighting crime, one would have been expected to have made a few enemies on both sides of the law. But though Chief Willows tried, he could not think of anyone from his professional life that would have gone to all this trouble to poison him, especially after all this time. For one, Willows had been an admirable and thorough officer, quite liked by most of his peers, and at least respected by the criminals he’d taken down. Furthermore, the Chief had basically outlived all who might have disliked him enough to add pufferfish poison to his food. All this left very few people with a motive and, to his knowledge, those very few were all sitting around the red table that night.
Now it might seem that this meant Chief Willows had been an incompetent or ineffective father. A possibility, but he thought that he’d done a pretty damn good job considering how much he’d also put into his career. In the end, he knew that what he thought didn’t really matter; people always found reasons to commit murder, no matter how misguided or unreasonable. Additionally, the clearest and most indubitable fact of the matter was that no one other than the people around the table had actually participated in the preparation of the meal. As such, the only questions that remained were: which one and why?
As he scanned the faces of the family members, he felt his mouth and the back of his throat start to tingle. There was also an odd tightness starting to take root in his belly, as well as numbness creeping steadily up from his fingertips, from knuckle to knuckle. He didn’t have much time left.
Of the six other people sitting around the dinner table, chatting away cheerfully as they dug into the sumptuous celebratory feast, Chief Willows could already discount two. Though he had seen many unfathomable crimes in his time, Willows was unable to place his granddaughter Autumn amongst the suspects. The bright, adorable eight-year-old girl was his daughter’s only child, and she adored him as much as he did her. There was simply no way she could have been involved in the poisoning.
The other one Willows eliminated from the get-go was the only guest at the table he had never met before that night: his son Anthony’s latest girlfriend, who was sitting to the chief’s left. Her name was Jennifer… or was it Katie, or some other cliché name? An American from the Midwest, she had moved from her backwater hometown to Brooklyn to work in some creative industry the Chief had never heard of, before subsequently coming to Europe to experience the culture, find herself, blah blah blah… There was not enough time to dwell on the tedious circumstances of the young woman’s impossibly mundane backstory.
Still, she was quite fetching: athletic, with straight blonde hair, blue eyes, and a dazzling smile. Oh, the things he might have done, back in the day. Now, in his old age, all he could do was muse about how being pretty was probably her only quality. Though the Chief had admittedly met many cunning and devious criminals hidden behind naive, innocent exteriors, there was still an objectively high probability that the girl wasn’t very bright, as indicated by the fact she was screwing his son. In any event, it was enough to know that she was a newcomer, and that they shared no connections other than the aforementioned son-screwing, to keep her out of the suspect pool for now.
As you might have guessed, the Chief wasn’t very proud of his son; a fact which had been painfully apparent to everyone else in the family ever since the day a three-year-old Anthony had discovered what would become a lifelong passion for painting, and subsequently used his pots of finger-paint to deface and destroy his grandmother’s portrait collections. Despite the Chief’s best efforts, he had never managed to extract the infuriatingly misguided creative impulse from his son. Part of the reason for this, he suspected, was that Yee had gone behind his back and encouraged their son to pursue his dream of being a painter. His wife had also been passionate about art, and never truly given up on her bizarre abstract sculptures made of clay, many of which still adorned corners and shelves of the apartment. The misshapen, vaguely anthropomorphic blobs had never meant much to the Chief, but he had quietly accepted them, as he knew Yee enjoyed creating them, for whatever reason. Even now, one of her works stood in the center of the rotating Lazy Susan, a red and orange monstrosity which was supposed to represent joy, or at least something happy, but just looked like a old rusty cauliflower. The sculptures were a poor reminder of the vibrant, beautiful woman that his wife had been… Well, that and their son.
Anthony was currently describing his new project, something he did very often without ever producing anything. It seemed like the satisfaction he got from imagining great works was enough to satisfy the impulse without requiring any actual work… As he described how he planned to channel Warhol and Lissitzky while running his wiry fingers through his spiky, jet-black hair, the Chief felt bile rise in the back of his throat and wondered for an instant if it was another symptom of the poison, or a physical manifestation of his disgust and disappointment. His feet and fingers had now gone completely numb, however, and that was unquestionably due to the tetrodotoxin.
Their relationship had always been difficult, but had it been too much for Anthony? Was he tired of living a life under the disappointed gaze of his judgmental father? Doubtful. The Chief knew that his son reveled in the disapproval. In fact, Anthony probably thought that a dysfunctional relationship with his family made him a better ‘artist’. Moreover, even though the boy was poor as shit–as wannabe cool artists tended to be–killing his father would not help in that regard, as the Chief wasn’t a particularly rich retiree. Still, considering Anthony’s fiscal history, the few thousand pounds he would inherit might indeed have been motive enough for patricide!
Starting to feel a little dizzy, the Chief turned to the other side of the table, where his daughter was sitting with her husband and their daughter Autumn. Sharon had always been the good daughter, a stark contrast to the Anthony the degenerate son. Though not especially bright or good at anything in particular, Sharon had always worked hard, never been in trouble, and done her best. Compared to the exasperating whirlwind that followed Anthony wherever he went, Sharon had always been an oasis to both her parents; an obedient, hardworking girl who did what she was told, and to the best of her abilities. On top of all those qualities, Sharon was quite pretty, prettier than either of her parents, and it had always been agreed that she’d be the one to go far with her work ethic, calm disposition, and looks.
As such, it was a catastrophe when Sharon dropped out of University College after falling for some Spanish guy who proceeded to get her pregnant and disappear, which led to an abortion, depression, uncontrolled weight gain, and a few years of wallowing in sorrow. The Chief and Yee had almost given up hope when Sharon, nearly obese and riddled with symptoms of depression and anxiety, met Mike, an architect from Leeds. He was a good guy, though he did have a tendency to be fiercely overprotective. It was something which had helped during her difficult time but was now starting to get a bit tiresome and patronizing after a decade of marriage. Still, Sharon seemed to tolerate it, and even somewhat enjoy the way he didn’t allow her to help herself, followed her to the washroom, called her ‘pumpkin squash’, and squeezed her plump cheeks in front of the whole family.
When Yee had died the previous year, Sharon did not speak to her father for several months. When they’d started talking again, neither of them mentioned this long silence. He wondered, as he felt his left forearm tingle and his breath shorten, if she had somehow discovered or realized something, perhaps something Yee had told her about him, something which might have made her bitter and angry.
Bitter enough to murder him, though? It still seemed like a stretch. Or perhaps it was Mike? Behind his prim and proper appearance, under his slicked back, thinning red hair, his thick, horn-rimmed glasses, his too-wide smile… Maybe the architect had conceived of this devious plan to rid the world of the father who had so wronged his little chubby pumpkin?
Yes, Yee had always been closer to the children, seeing as the Chief had always been focused on his police work. This had been especially difficult during their teenage years. As a mother, Yee had done a lot of the heavy lifting while the Chief had been content to offer advice from a more theoretical, hands-off point of view. This had aggravated Yee to no end. She couldn’t believe he had the arrogance to think he could raise children without talking to or even seeing them. Willows had never seen the problem with a little separation between theory and practice. Maybe Yee had been right all along, and his failings as a father had come back to haunt and murder him.
But there was still one other person at the table. She sat right across from the Chief, staring straight at him with dark eyes behind large, pink, oval spectacles.
Auntie Jane was Yee’s younger sister. Thirty years prior, she had moved here from Hong Kong upon her sister’s recommendation. Those first few years, she lived with them as she gradually settled down in this foreign country and searched for the right opportunity. She eventually found a job with a local fashion company and gradually grew to become one of the most important people in the regional fashion scene. Jane had always been fiercer, tougher, and more goal-oriented than her elder sister, something which the Chief had admired and found rather refreshing from the first moment he’d laid eyes on her at the airport.
Now, he couldn’t quite tell why Jane was eyeing him. Could she see that something was wrong? Or was she watching in gleeful silence as her homicidal plan unfolded? Of all the people around the table, she was perhaps the most likely to have poisoned the dumplings. She had the skills, the knowledge, and most importantly: an actual motive.
The Chief could now feel his stomach burning as beads of sweat formed above his brow, rolling down to his neck. His heart too, was aching, but this was not from any pufferfish venom, and rather from the bittersweet memory of that time when Auntie Jane had been living with them, in that small apartment on Essex Street. Ten years Yee’s junior, she’d been such a breath of fresh air to the Chief, who had been growing a little tired of Yee’s lack of interest in finding a job, picking up a hobby, or showing any sign of ambition. All his wife did was sit at home, take care of the kids, and craft those grotesque clay figures, day-in, day- out, filling their home with their wretched, twisted forms. Compared to that, Jane had reminded the Chief of what Yee had seemed like when they’d first met in Hong Kong: curious, exciting, exotic, and full of youth…
To the Chief’s shame, though he wouldn’t go quite so far as to say regret, he and Auntie Jane had fooled around regularly for quite a few years before she left to London to pursue career. And even a handful of times after then… Both of them had vowed to keep the secret for the good of their family, and Jane had even gone off to marry a few times, though she’d never had children of her own. This affair, in some ways, had actually helped the Chief get through many rough patches between him and Yee. Plus, they’d had fun…
Had Jane’s conscience suddenly caught up with her? Did she blame him for what they’d done behind her sister’s back, and decided to exact revenge? It was the most convincing explanation the Chief had considered so far. But what could have made her change her mind after all these years? Perhaps Yee’s death had precipitated this change of heart. Faced with death, people tended to reexamine their lives, no matter how old, wise, or stubborn they were.
Speaking of death, Willows wasn’t quite sure how many minutes had passed, but was certain that the poison was starting to work its malevolent magic throughout his entire body. He was now sweating profusely and having trouble both breathing and moving his limbs. In response, Auntie Jane’s look had suddenly turned to one of clear concern. Was it all an act? Or perhaps she wasn’t the one.
Dammit, there simply wasn’t enough time. In all his years, the Chief had never been required to solve a crime quite so quickly. It was becoming very possible that he may never get to the bottom of this before it all ended. He took some small consolation from the fact that at least he’d been challenged all the way to the very end.
He became aware of movement to his right, an dangled his head in that direction, which caused searing pain to shoot from his neck down his spine, making him wince. Autumn, his much-loved granddaughter, was eyeing him curiously:
“You’re sweating grandpa!” she exclaimed with a giggle, blissfully unaware of the macabre reason for his perspiration.
He tried to speak, but the words were caught in his throat, burning like hot coals.
Shrugging, Autumn grinned sheepishly as she grabbed a pair of chopsticks. Sneakily, she leaned over the table and reached in an attempt to grab one of the dumplings in his personal steamer.
In the split second before Autumn’s chopsticks reached the poisoned dumpling, the Chief looked up and scanned the faces of everyone sitting around the table. The girl, Anthony, Auntie Jane, Mike, Sharon, all of them simply watched Sharon with tenderness and affection. No one seemed worried that the child was about to bite into a deadly dose of neurotoxin.
As Autumn caught the dumpling between her chopsticks, the chief mustered every last ounce of strength he had, and swung his right arm towards her, knocking the chopsticks out of her fingers and sending the dumpling flying across the table. It landed with a splatter of meat juice on the glassy surface of the Lazy Susan.
At first, everyone just stared at the Chief in surprise, expecting an explanation, but soon realized that something was wrong. He was hunched over the table now, wheezing painfully as his vision got blurry.
Anthony was the first at his side:
“Dad?” said the son. “What’s wrong?”
“Are you okay?” said Auntie Jane.
The chief could only groan in response.
“What’s going on? Is it your heart?” Sharon said as she stood. “Dad!”
“Mike, call an ambulance,” Anthony said, panicked.
“Oh my God! Is he having a heart attack?” Auntie Jane sobbed.
“No…” the Chief managed to say. “Dumplings…”
“What do you mean?” Sharon asked, confused.
“Who… made dumplings?”
“It’s mum’s recipe,” Anthony said. “Same as every year. She left some dumplings in the freezer, labeled for you especially. She must’ve made them before she died.”
Perhaps Yee had found out about him and Auntie Jane. But it was likely something more, something deeper, darker that had gnawed at her soul for years, decades. After all, he’d never believed in her, never believed she could be a mother without him, never believed she’d be a successful artist. This was his fault, it was. He’d just never thought that the things he’d said and the way he’d acted could have hurt her so deeply, eroded her happiness away, wringing her into a being made of frustration, anguish, abandoned and alone. He’d never thought it would turn her into a murderer.
Now, she had answered in kind, in her own way. She had never been one to answer back, never one to argue. She had kept it all bottled inside and carefully planned for this moment: a posthumous murder.
How could she have been sure that the rest of the family wouldn’t be put in danger? Maybe they knew, maybe they had simply suspected, or maybe she just knew them better than he did. After all, he had believed his own children capable of the act. The question had never been who or why, as the answers had always been there, in every old dusty corner of the apartment, on every shelf, in every word…
As he felt his body ignite in painful spasms as the hands of his children steadied him, his bleary eyes turned upward from the red tablecloth. He saw a lone dumpling lying broken on the surface of the slowly rotating Lazy Susan, at the foot of Yee’s orange sculpture; that ugly mass of fiery clay in the center of the table which now seemed to dance as it undulated slowly in the dim light.
The Chief couldn’t help but let a smile creep onto his tingling lips.
He finally understood what it all meant.
Alexandre Sadeghi, 2018