It was Christmas Eve and the rest of the houses on the street were lit up and noisy. This one was dark and quiet but the owners were at home, he knew they were. He pressed the bell and knocked loudly and confidently on the door. Silence.
He tried again with the same result. Then he took a key from his pocket and let himself in.
'Hello. Anyone at home?'
'It's me, I've arrived. Anyone at home?'
The house was cold inside and no lights were on downstairs. But there was a dim glow from the upstairs landing, and some quiet voices.
Cautiously, he went up the stairs to the source of the light and the voices. Entering a room at the back of the house, he saw the old man on the bed with the bedside light on. The voices came from the radio by the bed. The man was not breathing. Dead.
Checking the other rooms upstairs he found the old woman on the bathroom floor. Dead. A younger man was in the front bedroom, also dead. Going downstairs he entered the kitchen and the young woman was sitting at the kitchen table, slumped forward. Dead.
'Hello, police and ambulance please.' He replaced the receiver and sat down in the living room.
Against a backdrop of blue flashing lights and an increasing number of people arriving at the house, he tried to explain to the detective who was interviewing him what he had found. The police officers who initially arrived with the ambulance had long since departed to be replaced by a forensics team and two detectives.
DCI Barnes had checked the positions of the bodies and given permission for them to be removed to the morgue. Four deaths in different rooms changed the house from the location of some tragic accident to a potential crime scene. But there was no obvious sign of trauma on the bodies, no blood anywhere and no signs of a struggle.
The house was tidy and there were signs of preparation for Christmas. There were four Advent calendars in the kitchen, the type that irritated DCI Barnes as they had nothing to do with Christmas. Instead they offered a chocolate each day: teddy bears and bunnies, nothing to do with Christmas. 'How stupid' he thought.
Neighbours were being interviewed and now he turned to the young man who had dialled 999 in the first place. They were in the living room.
'I'm sure you told the uniformed officers and my assistant everything, and I'll be checking their notes, but please tell me again.'
'I don't know what else to say' said the young man. 'I arrived for Christmas, let myself in and found them all dead.'
'What's your link with the family and why were you here?'
'I'm a friend. I knew the younger couple, the son and daughter-in-law of the older couple. I was at school with him and they invited me here for Christmas.'
'I'm on my own and they had been out of the country for a few years and we planned to get together. I know – knew – the parents well too.'
'You had a key.'
'Yes, I've had it for years. I was asked to keep it in case I had to look after the house while the old couple were away.'
'And did you? Did you have to look after the house?'
'No. In any case, I live over 100 miles away and don't come here a lot.'
'Well, you can't stay here. But I don't want you to leave town either. We may need to interview you again, we may need fingerprints.'
'Of course. I've already booked a B&B.'
'OK. Let my assistant have the details of how to contact you. Do you have a mobile?'
'No, left it at home. I wanted a break from texts and emails over Christmas.'
'OK. We'll be in contact. You're free to go.'
But as the young man was leaving, DCI Barnes said 'And we'll need the key that you have. This is a potential crime scene so it will have to be treated as such.'
'Of course' replied the young man. 'Oh, just one thing, I left my bag in the kitchen. The key’s in it.' He returned to the living room and handed the key over, shook hands with DCI Barnes, and left the house.
DCI Barnes called his assistant back into the living room; he was clearly enjoying speaking to the young female from forensics.
'For God sake concentrate. Let's take one final look at all of the rooms.'
'But forensics, Sir...' DCI Barnes cut him short 'Forensics what? They look for small things and miss the big ones. Let's take one last look, together.'
They started upstairs and visually swept each room. Given the nature of the deaths, they were not sure what to look for, but DCI Barnes knew how important it was to have a clear visual image of the scene before returning to the CID offices to consider the evidence and read the forensics and post-mortem reports.
They finished in the kitchen. While they were leaving, DCI Barnes stopped and turned.
'Anything wrong, Sir?' asked his assistant.
'Yes, something's different in here' said DCI Barnes.
'Of course, Sir, there was a body at the table when we arrived.'
‘Very funny’ replied DCI Barnes ‘That wasn’t what I meant’.
The post-mortem report stated: ‘poisoning by arsenic’. The forensics team had nothing to report and the neighbours on either side of the house could only recall the family being unwell just before Christmas. Headaches and diarrhoea a few days before Christmas Eve. They said they were probably going to 'lie low' for a few days and have a quiet Christmas. The neighbours did not recall if they had heard the family mention expecting a visitor for Christmas.
'How do you get arsenic poisoning?' DCI Barnes was speaking to the police pathologist on the phone.
'Seems you get it by ingestion – eating or drinking it – probably over a few days.' DCI Barnes was explaining the outcome of his telephone conversation to his assistant. The headaches and shits they reported add up. Also, they reported them over a few days. They died on Christmas Eve and since they died in different rooms or were too confused to think – another sign of arsenic poisoning – nobody raised the alarm.'
'Suicide?' suggested the assistant, with a sarcastic tone.
'Don't try to be funny. But it had gone through my mind' said DCI Barnes.
'Did one of them kill the others?'
'Unlikely, the cause of death was identical and the dose of arsenic was much the same in each of them. Someone wanting to kill the others would want to make sure they were dead first. We can't rule it out, but it's just very unlikely.'
'How'd you get them all to take the arsenic?' asked the assistant.
'If we knew that, we'd have the killer. Assuming there is one' DCI Barnes replied.
'It's a bloody mystery then, Sir.'
DCI Barnes stared hard at his assistant.
'It's not a fucking mystery any more. I've got it.' DCI Barnes picked up his car keys and started running and his assistant ran after him.
'Get uniformed over to the B&B, I'd like him there at the house' shouted DCI Barnes.
In a blaze of blue lights and a cacophony of sirens, DCI Barnes and his team arrived at the house.
'He's not at the B&B, Sir' reported DCI Barnes' assistant.
‘Of course he’s not – and, conveniently, no mobile phone either. I’ll bet his address is false – did anyone check that out? I’ll bet not.’
They entered the house and went to the kitchen.
'Perfect' said DCI Barnes 'Bloody perfect.'
'What is, Sir?'
'How do you think a group of people were all poisoned over a few days? Nobody suspected anything, they thought they had a Christmas 'bug' and didn't seek any help. Why? And not done by anyone in the house. How? Clever.'
'You've lost me, Sir. Do you think the visitor did it? How?'
'Think will you? What's missing from the kitchen? What did he remove? More to the point, why did we let him come in here?'
'He did, didn't he? But he did it so quickly that we couldn’t stop him. Didn't seem like there was a problem.' The assistant looked puzzled.
DCI Barnes exploded: 'The Advent calendars, they're what's missing. He came back in here and removed them.'
'OK, so they're missing'
'Yes, missing. That's how you get people to take small doses of poison over a few days, send them stupid Advent calendars. The chocolates must have been laced with arsenic.'
'Don't worry, Sir, we'll get him.'
'No we won't.' Said DCI Barnes.