The Hadmere Players – Part 4

The week was full of Christmas spirit and the office Christmas party was looming for Hadmere Events.  Things were winding down in the office, despite the multitude of Christmas events on their way; they had all been organised and planned in November and now it was simply a case of confirmation and final touches. The annual candlelight parade had already taken place midweek with typical success, and tonight carol singing and busking in the town square was to be expected. Darren had been heavily involved in organizing it. Now, he suddenly found himself with a lot more time to himself. He had been expecting to make several trips up to London over the next few weeks. But now he had no boyfriend to visit, and no other reason to make the journey. Some workers felt sorry for Darren when he told them he had no real plans for Christmas anymore. They were already treating him with fragility after he witnessed Catherine Ratcliffe’s death.

“You’ll be spending Christmas with your parents then now, I suppose? I think you should Darren, after what you saw in Melinda’s,” one of his older co-workers, Miriam, asked.

“I could…” Darren pondered. “But it’s just not that exciting is it? They live in Nutbourne. Depressing Christmas. Small-town boredom…” He seemed deep in thought.

“Why?” Asked Miriam. “What’s wrong with it? You’re just not satisfied unless you’re in the big smoke, I think. I can tell you want more from life, Darren. I mean, look at the Hadmere players for example, swanning about here. I bet you’d like to be more like them. But look what happened! Complete tragedy. Two of them dead. The high life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, you know.”

“That’s true. It isn’t, is it?”

“And now we pay the price! Hadmere Events will have to work twice as hard in the new year to cover up this mess. To bring joy back into this town. It’s going to be a long recovery. You should feel satisfied, Darren. You have a great job, and this a lovely town. Enjoy Christmas with your parents!”

“I’ll try, Miriam. I’ll try.”

*

Francesca and Bates were on their way to Sentel Road, home of Mr. and Mrs. Argenta. They had received confirmation that Dan had been gluten intolerant, and kept to a strict gluten free diet for roughly five years.

“I was thinking,” said Francesca, “That to know Dan was gluten free, you’d have to know him, but not especially well. Reasonably so. I mean, you could probably find that out on the internet if you were a fan of his. To know that he enjoyed expensive wine, in particular Chaeauneuf-du-Pape, you would have to know him even better, however.

“So the person who killed Dan was quite close to him? And poisoned both the bread and the wine? Just to double the chances I suppose. In case he didn’t touch the bread, or didn’t order that wine…”

“Hmm. Maybe.”

“Not sure why our murderer used two different poisons though…” Bates commented curiously.

They arrived at the small terraced home of the Argenta’s. Given Dan’s fame, Francesca was surprised the Argenta’s still resided here. Mrs. Argenta looked weary as she let them in.

“I’m sure you’ve been receiving a lot of support,” Francecca said as she indictaed they sit down on a dusty sofa. 

“Well… support! More like attention! Today is one of the first days the press hasn’t tried to intrude. We can barely grieve in peace. He wasn’t even staying here with us while he was down for the bloody reunion! God, I’ve been wishing every second that he had just stayed up in London…”

“He came to visit you, though? I mean, you had a good relationship with your son?”

“Of course. He just, I don’t know, he has a different life now. Had…”

“He supported you and your husband? Financially?”

“Well, cheques in the mail yes. Every month. He never missed a month, apart from when he went through that moody spell last year.”

“Oh?”

“I don’t know. He never said what the problem was. He tried not to let it show. I don’t think most people noticed. But a mother always knows! It wasn’t a career thing – he’d just landed a part in that gangster film. So I put it down to a girl thing. His relationships were always so short lived though, so who knows.” 

“Do you have any idea why this could have happened?”

“People were jealous, it’s quite clear. It’s a good thing I haven’t seen any of those other ‘actors’ in town – I know they’re around. I walked past Gregson’s the other day and felt like marching in. For all I know that man killed my son. Luckily for him he wasn’t there. It’s jealousy, pure and simple! What other reason? Catherine was murdered too, and she’s the only other successful one. And Dan and Catherine were so close. He used to tell me how he would drive Catherine around everywhere in London. They would attend parties  – they loved a drink together. Film premieres as well, you know. He would always pick her up and drop her off back home. She lived in Shepherd’s Bush, I believe. Dan had the looks, the good TV roles, the nice house… And I hear some of those players are quite bitter. What nasty creatures… to do something like that out of spite.”

“It may not have been one of the Hadmere players.”

“Maybe. It’s horrible to think. Perhaps it was someone else, a random attack, someone who managed to sneak into that restaurant. I don’t know what’s more frightening – the thought that one of his supposed friends and former colleagues killed him, or that a madman is running around Hadmere poisoning famous people’s drinks… My poor son, what a waste.”

“Well, Dan achieved more success than most people his age, more than most people achieve in his lifetime.”

“He was a lucky boy. His looks served him well and he landed good parts.”

“He was very talented,” Bates reassured her. 

“Oh, I don’t know. I think it was more his charm that opened doors. But he was also a very private person. I feel like I really didn’t know him well, sometimes. He was good at showing you the version of himself he wanted you to see, you understand? Putting on a show, every day. Well, that would be his charm. He could always switch it on and get what he wanted.”

“You knew of no one who didn’t like him?”

“I don’t know how it works up in the acting world but I can guess. You have to be a bit ruthless in that businesses. I wouldn’t doubt that Dan, and Catherine too, had to tread on a few toes to get to where they were. And you know, Dan and Gareth Lawler used to be quite good friends. But I don’t think they were going out together much recently. Maybe they fell out, I’m not sure. There’s the jealousy, obviously, but it was more than that. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.”

“You think your son was ruthless? In his ambitions?”

“We loved our son, and naturally we were incredibly proud. Who wouldn’t be? But he could be a bit pushy. We noticed a change in him too. Gradually becoming more and more self-entitled. He became the kind of person who wouldn’t let anyone or anything get in his way of success. It was a shame, but I suppose all the young guys and girls who shoot to stardom let it go to their head a bit. So, no big deal. I figured his head would shrink back to normal over the years…” 

“I understand. Show business is a funny thing, and I’m sure can do funny things to people.”

She shrugged in agreement. Francesca and Bates expressed their sympathies and left the Argenta residence.

*

It turned out that making a roux was not as easy to master the first time round as Zave expected, and he swore under his breath as he stirred it for what felt like the millionth time. He could have eaten out, but keeping a low profile in Hadmere was really the best option these days. If the stares weren’t bad enough – just because he was implicated by association, people were now formulating their own theories and the general consensus was that one of the other players had committed both crimes, not someone else who had been in either the café or restaurant. He checked the recipe again. Leave to boil for one hour. Add the chicken and simmer for a farther hour. Two hours! He added the stock, vegetables and pre-cooked smoked sausage and left the gumbo to boil, when suddenly the doorbell rang.

When he opened the door, It was the gruff face of Bill Gregson that greeted him, who had never in the previous ten years since they worked together visited him alone at his house. The only time had been as part of a group with others for work on the play, and a toast to success after the London show dates were announced. He had seemed a little uncomfortable then – the play was clearly getting out of hand for Bill and the newfound attention made him an awkward mess. In subsequent years Bill had learnt how to deal with the attention, how to remove himself from it in the best way and still live in Hadmere – to the point that no one really put the connection to him any longer – it was as if most people had dissociated him with the other Hadmere Players. He had gained control over his life, necessary for him as a creature of habit who wanted a simple life.

“Bill!”

“Zave, I’m sorry, I should have called maybe. I just- I just really need to talk to someone about all this. Someone in the same boat.”

Zave wondered initially why he hadn’t gone to Helen instead, she was the talker, she would have been perfect. And then he realized. This conversation would revolve around Catherine and his feelings, and he would prefer to speak to another man about that.

“Well, I’m just cooking some gumbo that I’ve discovered needs another 2 hours… so this a great timing. You must take some with you home, if it doesn’t turn out to be a disaster.’

“You’re pretty good at everything you try Zave, so I doubt it.”

“Hmm. Try telling that to all my plays after Water Ghost.”

“I don’t really want to think about that play right now.”

“Of course not. One second, Bill.”

He went into the kitchen, grabbed a bottle of Chianti and poured two glasses. He thought about Dan’s poisoned wine as he poured, and shook his head confused. Who could have done that? Who knew to poison that particular bottle of wine? It had been on his mind since they all saw Dan collapse at the dinner table in Farfalle. Zave was completely shocked. They’d all barely sat down and ordered drinks, it was completely unexpected. He sighed, tried to shake the thoughts of the Chateauneuf out of his head and brought the glasses out to the lounge.

“Oh no Zave! You’re….”

“Can you blame me?”

“But Zave, you have to be careful.”

“I will be. It’s been five years and I can handle myself right now.”

“Hmm,” said Bill unconvinced, sipping his wine.

‘How have you been the last couple of days, Bill? I’m sorry, to be honest I’ve been avoiding town most of the time. I didn’t know if it would be good for you, Helen and I to meet up.”

“I don’t know. But if we do meet up it shouldn’t be in Hadmere. Everyone is watching. I’ve had the shop closed since yesterday.”

‘Yeah, you’re right about that. A lunch someone else. Maybe not even at a restaurant. I’m more than happy to do it here.”

“Oh, I’m sure Helen would oblige also. Zave, the worst thing about this is that it puts a big GUILTY sign over my head. Perfect crime of passion right there. And now, I can hardly move round in the town without feeling afraid. And on top of that. I’m still alive… and she’s not. My God… Zave, smiling one minute, and the next…”

“Yeah. I know. I cannot get the images of the two of them out of my head. Unsuspecting… unaware.”

“I need to know who did this. My money is on Gareth and Hana. The scheming duo. I’m sure of it. The most jealous pair of us all. And we would never think they would work together on such a plot after the whole love drama and rejection… which, I suspect, was all set up for press attention anyway…”

“Wait, so you reckon they’re a secret couple?”

“I don’t know about that, Maybe, maybe not. But they colluded together alright, it makes perfect sense.”

“Is jealousy enough motive though..?”

“You’d be surprised, Zave, what simple emotions can do. Jealousy is a vicious, vile creature…”

Zave knew what he was talking about. Catherine and her affair with Benjy Mantle. Imagine what Bill must have thought, selling the gossip magazines with pictures on the front page of the pair on a beach in the Canary Islands!

“I remember how I was feeling before I heard about that affair,” Bill said. “Catherine was keeping a low profile. I think she was depressed. Well, you remember what she told me, don’t you? Helen had her accident. Gareth being forced to come out publicly. Hana being made to look like a fool in the media. It wasn’t a fun time.”

“Yes, not a good era for us players.”

“I don’t really blame Cath for the affair… I suppose she’d hit a brick wall in her career, was a bit unsure of herself, the roles she was taking… well, that’s what she told me.”

“But her career was doing just fine.”

“True. I did wonder if she was hiding something. She seemed… so full of regret. It was strange. I bet Dan knew what was going on. They were spending even more time toegther then, if I remember rightly. But nothing seemed wrong with him.”

“Nothing ever seemed wrong with him.”

“Yes. So different from Gareth who has always been a sensitive soul. I just wish I knew Catherine. Like Dan knew Catherine. I was jealous of their relationship, I suppose. I’m sorry, Zave. I know what kind of let-downs you’ve had in your life too, and here I am going on about my issues.”

“Your problems are no lesser than mine, Bill. It’s one thing I’ve come to understand. As we’ve all gone off on our separate paths. We all face problems in our lives; it’s how we deal with them that’s the real issue. How we deal with the consequences of our actions. You always knew your way Bill, you knew what you wanted. Well, in the case of your love life, perhaps not… But you’ve always been so sure of yourself. I like that.” 

“I like consistency. I’ve had a nice life. And I can be happy for Catherine that she lived a wonderful life.”

“She lived a charmed life, she reached great heights and no one can say that her years were wasted. Dan’s also.”

“I think I should go. Thanks for the wine. I won’t stay for gumbo, it sounds a bit too foreign to me. Let’s organise that dinner soon, though.”

 

© Intrigue Inn

 

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The Hadmere Players – Part 3

The next morning, Zave entered the scene of the crime. He had been wondering if the waitress Darren mentioned would be there. Melinda’s, which before yesterday was a cafe associated with cosiness and rustic charm, would now be known as the ‘murder cafe’. The cafe itself was closed from the public and instead a young police officer and a woman stood inside, who judging by her stern, dark eyes and thick, black, bushy hair, must be the Italian detective. She recognised Zave and walked towards him.

“Ah, Zave Wilson? I recognise you from the reports. My name is Francesca Palandri, and this is Bates,” she said, pointing at the young officer besides her. 

“And I’m a suspect, I presume?” Zave asked wearily.

“Well, we cannot exclude anyone at his point. Forensics has reported back to us this morning. The coffee cup has clear traces of strychnine. It could have been put in by anyone, including Catherine Ratcliffe herself.”

“If that was the case, it would be her best performance yet,” Zave remarked, with an ironic smile, a comment met with blank stares.  “You’ll be questioning everyone present at the time, then?”

“Indeed. We will continue to question the waiting staff and other customers.”

“Well, it may interest you to know that one of the customers spotted Dan Argenta adding Catherine’s sweetener to her coffee. A couple of the waiting girls were watching him like a hawk, so I’d imagine they saw him do this too… if not, this customer is wrong. I don’t like to suggest that Dan is culpable, but I believe this is important.”

Officer Bates nodded. “We’ll check that out.” He took the details of the customer in question – Darren Wilcross.

“For full disclosure, the rest of us players planned a dinner this evening to celebrate our reunion properly. As far as I know, everyone is still meeting up, but it’s become a sort of remembrance meal for Catherine, I suppose. Or a support group. I’m not too sure, to be honest.”

Francesca gave a slight sympathetic look. “Thank you for letting us know. We’ll be in touch, Mr Wilson.”

As Zave left he heard Bates talking to Francesca. “‘Catherine Ratcliffe… my mum loves that show she’s on, the dancing one. She’s always been popular, hasn’t she? Apart from that time she was a keeping herself a bit low-key. Before that affair. I think we’re all pretty eager to find out what happened here… well, we solved that case in Lornbridge Hills pretty quickly so hopefully…”

*

It was true that the players had all agreed to stick with the dinner plans at Farfalle in the evening. Everyone agreed it would be a good opportunity to discuss the tragedy that had occurred yesterday, and while the atmosphere would most certainly be the opposite of what was originally intended, they would at least be able to gain comfort from each other and come together for Catherine’s sake and celebrate her life. This had been what Helen Burbank had said, anyway. Zave wasn’t sure if it would go down like that, and wondered if accusations would start flying. He had agreed to the dinner though and the others followed suit.

Helen was on her way to Farfalle. She walked past Gregson’s and noticed it was closed. Bill must have closed shop rather than have Mel take over while he attended the dinner, she guessed. She imagined that working in a shop wouldn’t be helpful right now. Staring at newspapers with a front page story about the death of a woman you had been infatuated with. Usually Bill was not one to let anything get in the way of his daily work routine, but that would be too much for anybody. How interesting, Helen thought, that when the story of Catherine’s affair broke the dowdiest picture that could be found was used, and after her death, it was the one with the biggest smile. As Helen walked she noticed stares for the first time. Perhaps people had been staring since Catherine died and in her upset state she hadn’t noticed. She didn’t like the stares. She supposed that for people like Dan Argenta it wouldn’t make a spot of difference, even if since Catherine’s death they were staring for a different reason.  Maybe they’re wondering if I killed her, she thought as she entered Farfalle.

Shortly after Helen, Dan climbed a narrow wooden staircase with candles on the side of each stair. He felt like he was entering some mysterious cult. He should have just taken the lift up. The voices from the packed bar downstairs started to trail off and a more subdued atmosphere could be felt as he reached the top of the stairs and entered Farfalle’s restaurant area. It was a small seating space, only a handful of tables. Tonight a middle aged couple sat in one corner, conversing quietly. The only other people present, besides a waiter cleaning glasses at the bar, was Helen Burbank, sitting with her head down and a table laid out for seven in a window alcove. Plates and cutlery were already laid out and there was a bread basket in the middle. 

“Helen,” he said, almost in a whisper.

She glanced up slowly and gave a sad smile. ‘Hello, Dan.”

Dan awkwardly took a seat across the table from Helen.

“Is this a good idea, Helen? Being here? All of us?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to do exactly.” She paused. “I organised all this.”

“Do you think…. Do you think it was one us? Because… I don’t know, maybe Bill…”

“Oh, Dan, don’t. Please,” Helen protested. “You can’t… You can’t start accusing…”

“I can’t help it. I’ll be watching everyone closely tonight. And if I can’t work it out, I want the police to. Soon. You didn’t know her like I did, Helen. Catherine was such a pure soul. She was not tainted by celebrity. She was something special.”

“Oh, I know that without having to spend as much time with her like you do. Catherine wouldn’t hurt anyone. I’m sure.. So why someone would hurt her? ”

The sound of stiletto’s coming up the stairs could be heard, and a a few seconds later Hana appeared and made her way over to the table.

“This is horrible. I can’t bear the thought of eating this food,” she said as she sat down. “What a waste of money. I can’t stop thinking about her face as I was talking to her… To think she was talking to me when it happened. I don’t think I will ever be able to forget that look in her eyes… ”

Gareth and Bill came up the stairs looking sombre. Bill’s eyes were red and puffy. Gareth said hello quietly and Bill said nothing, sitting down in a chair. Zave was next in. There was still one empty chair available. The chair meant for Catherine. Helen gave an ‘oh’ of realisation. “Oh… I didn’t think… I should have changed the reservation…”

“It’s okay, Helen,” said Zave. “I think, she can still be here in spirit?” There was a murmur of agreement as the waiter came over with hesitation and asked for drinks. He looked as scared as a mouse, afraid to intrude on the reunion that had turned into a wake.  Helen and Zave just asked for a jug of water for the table. Gareth and Bill took a beer, Helen a prosecco, and Dan an expensive glass of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The waiter took the order and left as quickly as he could, mumbling that they should help themselves to bread, and that the paler roll was gluten free.

“Where are the toilets,” Bill demanded, speaking for the first time.

“Past the bar and the kitchen, Bill,” Helen replied softly. Bill pushed his chair out aggressively and brusquely walked off.

“Have they spoken to the staff at the cafe?” Hana asked. “I was thinking one of those waiting girls could have done this!”

“What exactly would an 18 year old waitress want to kill a celebrity for?” Dan answered.

“Jealousy! They were jealous that we’re all successful and they’re stuck in a cafe in this tiny town! I mean, several of us ordered coffees, after all. They just poisoned one and it didn’t matter who drank it – they were making a statement!”

“Right, Hana,” replied Dan, a little loudly. “So the 18 year old girls conspired to kill one of us and laced the coffee with poison. Nonsense.”

“Maybe it was one of us who was jealous,” Helen suggested. 

Bill returned from the bathroom, his eyes looking even puffier and redder than before. No one else was quite sure what to do, comfort him or let him be.

“Where is that waiter, I need that damn drink,” remarked Dan, looking around the small restaurant. The middle aged couple were exchanging furtive glances, looking over and whispering  every so often. A new couple, younger and well dressed came up the stairs at that moment. The waiter came over from beyond the bar area and greeted and seated them. A minute later he arrived with the tray of drinks for the players.

“Is a glass of wine that expensive really worth it right now?” Zave asked Dan.

“Yes. Especially under the circumstances,” replied Dan. “It’s my favourite.” He took a large gulp of his wine before all the drinks had even been put on the table.

He was dead five minutes later.

*

What the hell is going on here? Francesca wondered. Her first thought was that the members of the players were being picked off, one by one. There would certainly be no more drinks as a group, that was certain. The reunion was well and truly over. Two celebrities dead. The remaining players had all come by the Hadmere police station once more to give their statements. This time Francesca was present. It was a good opportunity to see them all in quick succession. They were all shell shocked, but who was faking it? 

The next morning, she was keen to speak with the witness Zave had mentioned earlier, Darren Wilcross. It had been confirmed that the empty packet of sweetener found at Melinda’s did indeed contain traces of the poison also. She rang the buzzer for Darren’s upper storey flat on an inconspicuous door besides a bank.

Once inside a very minimalist flat, she sat down with Darren to talk.

“I’ve been unable to keep still,” said Darren, clearly agitated. “I’d seen Dan Argenta put that sweetener into the coffee… but now Dan is dead – so maybe I was completely wrong? It was poison too, with Dan? This whole situation is just insane!”

“Yes, his wine was poisoned. The bottle of wine itself, should I say.”

“Maybe Dan did murder Catherine, and he was then being punished for doing so by someone else murdering him?”

“Well. That’s an interesting theory. But you leave the detecting up to us, Darren. Is there anything else unusual that you saw?”

“No, it was just that particular thing that stood out when I was in the cafe. You should talk to the waitress there. The one who prepared their drinks and took them over.”

“I certainly will. May I also ask, why didn’t you come to the police with this information first? You visited Zave Wilson.”

“I didn’t know if I was reading into things too much. I wasn’t really sure what to do. Now with Dan dead… I don’t know. It must have been one of the other players that killed both Catherine and Dan. But I didn’t really notice their movements.”

“So it was only Dan you were watching closely? Why?”

“Erm, well, he’s the most famous. And the most attractive. It was hard not to look.”

*

After her talk with Darren, Francesca went to meet Bates, who was having coffee at the Starbucks a few doors down.

“I’ve asked the players to stick around in Hadmere until further notice, as you requested,” Bates said, sipping a frappe. “The ones who no longer live here anyway.”

“Thank you, Bates. I need to speak to that waitress from Melinda’s, and I was thinking you could come with me. The waiter at Farfalle also needs to be interviewed.”

“Right. Listen, the analysis came back from the wine. It wasn’t strychnine this time. It was cyanide. Interesting, eh? Did you learn anything from everyone’s statements after Dan’s death?”

“It became clear just how close Dan and Catherine were. They’ve become even closer recently, it seems, according to a few of our suspects. And there is definitely jealousy in the air. With Gareth and Hana, especially. And Helen and Zave I suppose, in a more discreet way. Bill denies any interest in celebrity and fame, and therefore that should rule him out on the jealousy front, but there is the talk of his unrequited love for Catherine. You know, if Dan did kill Catherine as our witness suggests, Bill may be the most likely to seek revenge if he found out. But Dan killing Catherine just doesn’t fit, given their friendship. Anyway, let’s go chat with this waitress of ours. You have the address?”

Bates nodded, finished his coffee, and they drove down to nearby Magnolia Street in Francesca’s Volvo. They knocked on the door and it opened slowly. The dull, grey face of the young waitress came into view. She nervously looked behind her.

“Danielle, isn’t it?” asked Francesca kindly. “I’m DCI Francesca Palandri, this is Bates. You must be in bad shape, but may we come in for a quick chat?”

“The police already asked me some questions… but yes, okay…” She led them inside.

“It’s hard to remember a lot of details,” Danielle told them. “But I remember Zave Wilson ordering the drinks and paying Will – another waiter. I listened to the order as it was made and started preparing a tray at the bar. With napkins, spoons, sugars.”

“Did you put any sweeteners on the tray?”

“No. We don’t give those out unless requested. Just a few white and brown sugar packets on the tray.”

“I see. Do you remember the movement of the players while you were preparing drinks?”

“Well, after Zave paid, he went back to sit with the others. Dan went to the toilet and then Helen also. The toilets are at the back, beyond the bar area. Then the drinks were all ready on the tray and I went to take it over. It was quite heavy, and I was nervous, so Gareth took the tray from my hands and placed it on the table.”

“Did you watch what happened after that?” Asked Bates.

“Well, they all grabbed their drinks and then some of them took their sugars too. I did notice Dan putting some sugar in Catherine’s coffee.” Danielle went red, embarrassed that she had watching Dan so closely. “I can’t believe Dan is dead too now…” She finished.

“Danielle, have you heard that it was actually sweetener that was put in to Catherine’s coffee?”

“Oh, no. I didn’t know that. Really? Well, unless I put a sweetener out by mistake… but no, I’m pretty sure. That didn’t come from us.”

“That’s very helpful, Danielle. Thank you.”

Francesca and Bates said goodbye and left.

“Okay,” said Francesca. “Next stop is the waiter on shift at Farfalle’s last night. It’s just a couple of streets from here. Let’s get these witnesses out the way and then we can think more about the players themselves.”

*

When Samuel, the Farfalle waiter, opened his front door, he looked just as grey in the face as Danielle had done. Like Danielle, he led Francesca and Bates inside and looked at them gloomily as they all sat down.

“I feel at fault, in a way,” he told them. “I should have known better. We rarely serve that wine Dan asked for, I mean, Hadmere is a pretty affluent town, right? But that Chateauneuf-du-Pape is still marked at a price most can’t justify. I certainly couldn’t, gosh. Even if I had the money. But yeah, the strange thing is, I noticed the bottle was open when I went to pour a glass for Dan. I just assumed another member of staff had opened it by mistake and put it back. None had been taken out, it was a full bottle, but it was open. It definitely wasn’t a couple of days ago.”

“How did you know that?”

“I was doing a wine stock up and also dusting some of the bottles that had been in the racks for a while. The Chateau was one of the dustier bottles. We have a large wine rack underneath the bar, at least 30 columns. Each column is full of one type of wine, except for the house wines where we fill two columns, and the ones that are rarely opened, we just put a couple in. We had just one bottle of the Chateau.”

“Has anyone ever ordered it before?”

“One couple did when I first started here, about seven months ago. I didn’t serve it though. To be honest we don’t usually serve this wine by the glass. It’s not worth it. So when Dan Argenta ordered a glass quite confidently, even though it doesn’t list a price per glass on the menu, I wasn’t sure what to do. But when I noticed the bottle was open, I thought why not. His friend had just died after all and I guessed he would probably order a second glass anyway…” He grimaced. “I asked everyone who could have opened the bottle. My manager thought it was me, and that I was lying, at first. But why would I open a 120 pound bottle of wine for no reason?”

“And you did your wine bottle dusting just two nights ago, you said?”

“Yes, the night before Dan’s death,” he replied. “It was a slow one. If I’m resorting to dusting wine bottles it means I’m pretty bored. The death the day before scared everyone off, maybe…”

“So, someone could have opened this bottle the day Dan died and put the poison inside?”

“Yes.”

“Did you notice anything unusual that day? Anyone up in the bar area who shouldn’t have been?”

“I don’t remember anything like that, to be honest. And we don’t have cameras or anything. But it would have been quite easy for someone to go into that bar when no one was about. There is a busy bar area downstairs. It’s always packed. The restaurant area is only open in the evenings, but anyone could walk upstairs from the bar during the daytime. People usually don’t, I mean it’s just an empty restaurant with the lights off.”

Francesca and Bates left Samuel’ s house a few minutes later. As they walked back to the Volvo, Francesca received a message from Mick. She frowned as she read it, clearly confused.

“What is it? What’s happened?” Bates asked, noticing her expression.

“The CSI team took away as much as possible from the crime scene at Farfalle’s to be analysed. And they’ve found poison somewhere else.”

“Where?”

“In one of the bread rolls from the bread basket in their table. A gluten free one. It was full of strychnine.”

“Really?” Bates was surprised. “How strange… Catherine’s sweetener contained strychnine also, but the wine at Farfalle’s had been poisoned with cyanide. Why would one of the bread rolls be poisoned as well? And not with cyanide?”

“It is very strange, Bates,” Francesca replied. “Very strange indeed.”

 

© Intrigue Inn

 

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The Hadmere Players – Part 2

The plastic bags clinking against Darren’s front door as he turned the key were a reminder that tonight he was leaving his emotions in the hands of two mid-priced bottles of Sainsbury’s own brand red wine. It was the day before Catherine Ratcliffe’s murder. Darren had decided that he couldn’t work out for himself whether to revel in frustration and sadness or perk up, think positively and do something productive. Let the red wine decide, he had concluded. He had deliberately opted for the medium priced bottles. Go for the cheap and he was setting himself up for failure already, the feeling of sitting alone at home with vinegary tasting bottom shelf wine was enough to make anyone feel sad. Go for the higher end range and there would be high expectations; better quality wine could, perhaps, results in better quality thoughts. No, two bottles for twelve pounds was the happy medium required to throw all his negativity into them and see what the end result would be. Although if he worked his way through two of them the end result could well be passing out. He shrugged at the thought. Not a bad solution. He entered his small flat, kicked his converses off and dumped the bag on the floor. He made his way into the bedroom and flopped onto the best, arms outstretched.

For twenty-five-year-old Darren, the last two days had been a dizzying and stressful combination of extreme highs and extreme lows. He could not think of another time in his life where such good fortune had been intertwined with such negativity. This was not supposed to happen this year. This was meant to be the year or productivity.  ‘Smash it 2018’ he had called it. Yet, here he was, exhausted on his bed on a Saturday night, bottles of wine and pre-made lasagne for one at the ready, even after receiving the most promising job offer in a long time. He had been invited out tonight, but he preferred the solitude. He wanted to drink in silence, not in a rowdy pub.

Darren lived on Hadmere High Street. He had been working in event planning for the last two years for Hadmere Events, their most recent success story being the Hadmere Halloween Hijinks Festival in which Darren was pretty proud of himself for coming up with a number of the most popular events and attractions. His Ghosts of Hadmere scavenger hunt had been a particular success. He liked the job very much, although he butted heads with a couple of infuriating co-workers, but the yearning to actually use his psychology degree had been burning inside of him for at least a year now. Around two months ago he took the plunge and began applying to various counselling and social worker jobs in the area, keen to start somewhere in the field. Finally, he’d had an offer this morning and it was even better than expected. A support worker position for a three months ongoing role right in Hadmere! When he applied to this particular job he’d just assumed it was the basics, mainly admin work for the organization.  Not only did the job allow Darren to work as support to clients with mental health issues, young parents, and young people, but it offered the opportunity to work alongside the counselling team and be trained by them. It was much more than what Darren had imagined. The pay wasn’t great, but it was a start. would have jumped for joy if it wasn’t for the fact that this news was tarnished by the events of the night before, in which he’d violently broken up with his boyfriend. Although they had been together for only five months, the relationship was moving at such an alarming emotional speed in which Darren, he could now admit, had allowed himself to be carried by a whirlwind. Swept off my feet, he thought bitterly. A lesson learned – don’t get so carried away. He was, it transpired, being two timed the whole time. Easy for it to happen, considering his boyfriend lived in London. His boyfriend had been so sincere… So casual. In fact, he remained casual, which was simply bizarre and even more distressing to Darren. Darren had found out when he received messages from another man who had also been dating his boyfriend.

Darren was about to switch off his phone when a message came through from his friend Sandra.

Did you know the Hadmere Players are reuniting this week in town?! Up for a bit of stalking?

Darren laughed. He certainly did know that. The Water Ghost Beckons. What a name. He never saw it. He was only fifteen at the time. But it had been a huge buzzword.

Darren knew he would have to cancel on Sandra. He was not planning on going anywhere the next day. He got up and proceeded to open the first bottle of wine.

*

Catherine Ratcliffe was dead. Catherine Ratcliffe, star of an amateur show, now the housewives favourite, dead. Zave imagined the nation’s reaction. He and the other players would not be able to forget this in a hurry. The media would be saturated with this story for weeks. Catherine had been poisoned, the police had declared. Potentially an allergic reaction, but most likely poison. The players had stayed at the police station for two hours. The police asked for official statements and asked various questions – where had everyone been sitting? When had people left their seats to use their toilets or for any other purpose? The police were assuming the poison was in the coffee, and that one of the players had done it, Zave guessed. And that was just the start. They were all told a detective would be in touch. Zave had forgotten her name already. Some Italian woman.

He walked past The Fox and Hounds and resisted the temptation to enter. He could do with a drink. No, must resist. Now, especially, was not the time. He forced his legs to carry him past the comforting cacophony of noises emanating from the pub. I need my bed, he thought. He walked straight home and wondered how the others were doing. Shocked, of course. Hana had seemed the worse off, she was a noisy wreck and it had taken her the longest to calm down. Helen slipped into sorrow much more quickly and remained quiet at the station and during the interview process. Dan Argenta had almost been as noisy as Hana but what somewhat dumbstruck too. No surprises there, he was the closest to Catherine out of all them. Bill had been in a state of tearful silence, staring forward, even quieter than Helen. Gareth had perhaps seemed the most normal, answering question in fairly calm, even relaxed manner and betraying little emotion.

Zave arrived home and switched the kettle on. There was a knock at his door. The detective already? He opened the door. It wasn’t an Italian woman. It was a young man.

“Hi, Sorry – I know this can’t be a good time – my name’s Darren and I need to talk to you. I was at the cafe and I think I saw something important.”

*

There were times in Darren’s life when he felt like the Fates had decided to drop him into a particular situation deliberately like the little yellow man on Google Maps or someone controlling their SIMS characters. That afternoon had indeed been one of them. Darren had decided to leave his flat after all and visit Melinda’s café. It was seconds from his flat, they made a great coffee and he was quite hungover from the wine the night before. He usually preferred the Starbucks further up the High Street, but Melinda’s looked so warm and cosy from the outside he couldn’t help himself.  He took a bite of his carrot cake feeling a little older than his years and in walked Gareth Lawler. Darren recognised him immediately but perhaps he was the only one in Melinda’s to do so – Gareth did not have the same status as Dan Argenta did. Hana came in just behind him – wearing clothes more suited for a midsummer garden party than snowy early December. He knew Hana’s first name but couldn’t remember her last. A woman in a wheelchair came in. Helen Burbank. Darren couldn’t believe it. The reunion was happening here! The others all followed suit, including Dan. Darren felt foolish for watching him with so little discretion, but he couldn’t help it.

He tried to occupy his thoughts with his new job instead of staring at the reunion in front of him. He had almost managed to block out the player’s conversation, feeling like they should be allowed some privacy (although if they wanted that, why not reunite somewhere not in public?) when he was brought back into the focus when Catherine Ratcliffe made a toast. His eyes on Dan, he noticed the young actor adding a packet of sweetener into Catherine’s coffee.

His eyes drifted back to his phone but less than a minute later they darted back to the reunion as Catherine Ratcliffe fell to the floor. He remained transfixed in his seat at first, unsure of what was happening. The other customers did the same, just staring on for a minute while the players all gathered around Catherine. It was Hana Payne’s scream that made people proactive. As Darren stood up he felt his shoulder being knocked into as a middle-aged man bounded past him towards the players to help. The crowd surrounding Catherine was becoming too big and he felt like he didn’t know what to do with himself – go and join the crowd even though there was nothing he could do, or stand back and look uncaring? The young wait staff looked to be in a similar situation, the young girl who had been so eager to wait on their table before was now panic-stricken as she lingered cautiously around the group of people. Darren could hear various exclamations: “Oh God, Catherine….” “Is she…? Is she dead?” “What the hell is happening?!” A minute later, sirens rang and approached. Someone had called an ambulance pretty quickly, then.

Darren sat in a daze as the ambulance came, followed by the police, who took his contact details, along with all the other customers. Having paid close attention to the players, as he couldn’t help keep his eyes off Dan Argenta, he felt like the actions of all the players leading up to Catherine’s collapse were quite clear in his mind, and in light of her demise, some things now seemed a little peculiar to him. He went over a particular point in his head and wondered what he should do with it. He went home, lost in his thoughts when out of his window he noticed Zave Wilson walking along the High Street. He grabbed his coat and followed him to his house.

He already knew roughly where Zave lived.  Deborah Mankron at work had mentioned it a while ago when the planning of a murder mystery evening lead to a discussion of Zave Wilson and The Water Ghost Beckons. Darren remembered that his crush on Dan Argenta had come out during that conversation and had been met with nods of agreement. Who didn’t find Dan attractive? He knocked on Zave’s door a minute after Zave had gone through it.

“Hi, Sorry – I know this can’t be a good time – my name’s Darren and I need to talk to you. I was at the cafe and I think I saw something important.”

“Excuse me?” Asked Zave. “What are you talking about? You were at the cafe? You need to give any information to the police. As you can imagine I’ll be needing some time alone.”

“I did speak with the police… but then I remembered something.”

The director raised one eyebrow. “Yes?”

“Dan… Dan Argenta…  I saw him put something in Catherine’s coffee when she wasn’t looking… and then, a minute later… it happened. I don’t know if anyone else noticed this. I could be looking into it completely wrong, but given what happened seconds later…”

Zave opened the door wider and let Darren in.

Darren was guided though Zave’s smart riverside apartment. No sign of bachelor living here. Realising he was once again beginning a bachelor lifestyle, he wasn’t convinced his own apartment would buck the stereotypical trend.

“Tea? Coffee?” Zave asked, “I’d prefer to go for something a bit stronger myself, following the circumstances, but no can do.”

“No thanks, I’m okay,” said Darren.

“Take a seat son,” Zave gestured. “I’ve been thinking back to what happened myself in those moments before Catherine….” He shook his head and waved a hand away. “Anything any witness has to add will help a great deal. But I can’t imagine people were watching closely before the incident.”

“Well, I don’t know about that. There were a couple of major celebrities at that table, people were watching alright. I admit I was,” Darren said with an embarrassed shrug. “I know one of the young waitresses was watching Dan Argenta’s move.” And I wasn’t too far behind her, he considered.

“If that’s so, son – what’s your name? Darren?”

“Darren Wilcross.”

He nodded. “Darren, if that’s the case then this waitress should also have seen Dan pouring something into Catherine’s drink.”

“I expect so, yes, that’s what I’m getting at. She should be able to back me up here.”

‘You seem pretty on the ball, kid. The police will want to know all these details. But you chose to come to me?”

“Well, you were there, you knew the victim personally, I thought you might like to know. And I was worried I was reading too much into it.”

“You know, given the circumstances of her death, it would be a good guess that someone in the cafe at the time did it. Quite possibly one of the Hadmere Players. What if you just walked into the home of the killer?”

Darren hesitated for a minute, unsure of how to respond to this statement. “You’re right,” he said after a minute. “Everyone’s a suspect. Including me. I was there, what if I poisoned Catherine’s drink? I could have gone to the bar, quickly put something in her drink and then to divert attention paid a visit to you to offer some false evidence to lead you and the others on a different trial…” He breathed deeply, feeling reckless, wondering why he’d just given possibly implicated himself or given suggestion to something he’d just made up.

“Oh, nice comeback. Or somehow added poison to a sweetener packet if that’s how it happened? But! The young waitress who was transfixed by Dan Argenta, what about her? Why would you mention her if you were making up evidence…?”

“Well, there are a couple of possibilities… One, I bribed her or planted the idea in her head for whatever reason. Two, looking at this young, emotional girl she looks very… malleable, and could easily be persuaded that she saw something she didn’t, or panic if asked about it and questions her own memory.”

Zave nodded. “Well, there we go. Two armchair detectives here, aren’t we. Or two murder suspects. Sorry, Darren. You look confused. I think my storytelling nature has taken over a bit. That happens a lot. What do you for do for a living?”

“I, uh, work for Hadmere Events… event planning. Well, I might be leaving soon.”

“How come?” Zave asked, finishing off the last of his coffee.

“Well, I just got offered a job with a local counselling house, actually. It’s something I’ve been looking to get into for quite a long time.”

“Very interesting… I see. Look, thank you for this information. It will help us all on finding out who killed a woman who as I far as I knew, wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

“She did seem very personable, for a celebrity,” Darren agreed. He tried to imagine how he would cope if was in a similar situation, a university reunion perhaps, seeing people who had known nearly ten years ago but since then had only kept in occasional contact with. He probably wouldn’t really know how to cope, either.

Zave sighed as he nodded. “She apparently has changed very little since the time I knew her, when she was just a local social butterfly. I don’t know for sure as I didn’t see much of here. The player who was still close to Catherine was Dan, which makes what you saw very interesting. Yes, how could that be right? They were friends; he couldn’t have possibly done something like this. But what if that friendship was in the process of a particularly nasty ending, one where some inner circle secret had been discovered… Well, that wouldn’t surprise me with Dan, He always was a snoop. His ‘nosy neighbour’ character in Water Ghost was not a difficult jump acting-wise for him, let’s say. Maybe he found something out that required him to kill Catherine?”

“I wouldn’t know… So, do you think I should mention this to the police?”

“Of course, why wouldn’t you? Tell them everything else you saw, even if you may not think of it as important. If anything else comes to mind don’t hesitate to let me know, either.”

*

That evening, DCI Francesca Palandri poured herself a glass of Australian chardonnay. She smiled at what her proud Italian mother would say if she knew she was drinking something made outside of Tuscany, let alone Italy. Francesca had to cancel board game night this evening with her boyfriend, Jeremey, so she allowed the small things to make her smile. Since working on the Billy Grahame case in Nutbourne, the idea of playing a board game had started to take hold of her. She hadn’t cared at the time, but the enthusiasm the members of the Nutbourne gaming group had for their hobby had rubbed off on her. Out of curiosity, her and Jeremy invested in Carcassonne. They enjoyed it and had since acquired more gateways games in Pandemic and Takenoko. This week Jeremy had purchased Tokaido and the plan was to try it tonight. However, Chief superintendent Mick had assigned her to investigate Catherine Ratcliffe’s death. Everyone knew who Catherine Ratcliffe was and Mick wanted this handled with care. After Francesca’s success with the Billy Grahame case, and most recently the Sian Kowlinski murder in Lornbridge hills, it was an easy choice for Mick to opt for Francesca. So now Francesca was doing her research on the Hadmere players of 2008, and the play that put them on the map.

Francesca had already begun reading about Zave Wilson. He penned the popular play while working as a chauffeur and was keen for a change of career. The Water Ghost Beckons was quite a misanthropic play in Francesca’s opinion. And the reviews were extremely over the top. Although she had to admit it was well written. Catherine Ratcliffe and Bill Gregson had played the parents. Hana Payne and Gareth Lawler the children. Dan Argenta played a neighbouring young man who interfered and Helen Burbank played Catherine’s haphazard and clumsy sister who joined them on their trip to Dorset. The second act revealed that all was not as it seemed amongst the ‘perfect’ family, with each member holding their own dark secrets and personal issues. One by one they were lured by a frightening water ghost in the foggy Dorset countryside who said nothing, but instead sang an ethereal yet deadly song, leading them to the icy cold depths of a lake.

Catherine Ratcliffe clearly struck a chord with her performance. Francesca read how she was always keen to get a foot into the acting world and was prepared to put the hard work in, but it was not necessary. Parts were offered to her in order for her to become the new face of ‘housewife TV’ starring, to begin with, in various gentle dinner time dramas in supporting roles, and then eventually leads. She was currently starring in the second season of Dance, Mary, Dance which Francesca had never seen, but it was a buzzword she found herself constantly subjected to online or overhearing in passing conversation. To Francesca, Catherine had always seemed an amiable, vibrant woman.

Catherine was not completely unattached to scandal, however. Francesca remembered hearing about her affair with high-profile director Benjy Mantle roughly a year ago, who’s awarding winning London gangster movies had elevated him to Hollywood known status. Benjy Mantle was already married to morning TV presenter Hilary Dent, although they were now divorced – not altogether surprisingly, following his affair with Catherine. Catherine had little to say on the matter once the news story broke, but simply apologised publicly to Hilary. She had, Francesca could tell, been a private woman when it came to personal issues. Darren scrolled through old reports on the matter which generally included, inevitably, a picture of Catherine walking down the street in loose-fitting clothes in an attempt to make her look worse off than usual. Before the affair, Catherine had also been keeping a relatively low profile given her success. She had been all over every TV channel and then took an unexpected break. The affair happened half a year later. Some cynics wondered if it was her way of getting back into the public eye.

When it came to privacy, there was no player who came close to Bill Gregson. Bill Gregson rejected fame and acting opportunities completely and carried on as normal running his shop. Francesca had been into the shop a couple of times whenever she was in Hadmere. Bill had always seemed a tad belligerent, but not aggressive or unkind. Just a man with grumpy tendencies who liked to keep to himself, and had once branched out into amateur theatre to try something a little different. Bill Gregson was known as a man who wore his heart on his sleeve and his emotional inklings towards Catherine Ratcliffe had been quite apparent to the other players, and word spread. It was common knowledge these days that he had always had a thing for Catherine, but for whatever reason, he had never acted on it, not that anyone knew of, anyway. The only time he had made a voice for himself was during the weeks of press scandal involving Catherine and Benjy’s affair. Reporters who had discovered his unrequited love for Catherine wanted to hear what Bill had to say on the matter, and for several days Bill had to keep reporters at bay, saying little except a few reported quotes, which Francesca read on a popular British entertainment website, “She would not have knowingly dated a man who was still married, I am sure of it. What’s been reported is utter nonsense.” Since then there was really nothing of note to say about Bill Gregson.

Dan Argenta was handsome with a rough, working-class appeal. Francesca was quite convinced that Dan’s success was based on his looks and not acting talent. That was not to say he was a bad actor, just mediocre given the roles he had landed. And what well-paid roles they must have been, as she clicked up headlines such as ‘Dan Argenta and model girlfriend Lucy Barnes move into 1 million pound Richmond townhouse.’

Francesca didn’t know too much about Gareth except for the media drama with Hana Payne and his eventual coming out, but she did vaguely remember him having a small role in a popular mid-week hospital drama. The character suffered a dramatic death when Gareth wanted to pursue other roles, although he suffered the fate of many soap opera stars who leave the show with a bang and never actually land anything bigger afterwards like they hoped. Gareth had, it turned out, been appearing in various London stage productions and according to his bio was currently preparing for a minor role in an upcoming musical celebrating the greatest UK chart hits of the eighties. Most information online covered the reveal of his sexuality. Before his hand was forced, Gareth and Hana had been notably close. With her striking facial features, Hana had gained some moderate success abroad in modelling and then had returned to Sussex to begin work as a local TV presenter in a show about garden wildlife, a show that Francesca was quite sure she couldn’t care less about – the fake ‘oh’s’ of surprise after seeing a dormouse scurry past on a night vision camera following an all-night camp out just did not ring true to Francesca, unless she really had been harbouring a fascination for small English rodents her entire life. She was also known as a bit of an ‘It’ girl, her picture and/or name sometimes being mentioned at various fashion shows and trendy nightclubs in London. A year ago it had come out, thanks to a friend who had betrayed Hana’s trust and sought a quick cash deposit by reporting to the papers, that Hana had always held feelings for Gareth. The story grew bigger however when Gareth laughed it off and ignored the rumours. Hana had been quite upset at his reaction. The pair were then spotted in a London cafe having what looked like a heart to heart. Another customer heard Gareth tell Hana he was gay and went to the press immediately. Gareth then decided to come out publicly. Gareth and Hana have since remained friends, although it is rumoured that Hana still wants more from the relationship.

Francesca sat back from the computer, rubbed her eyes and finished her chardonnay. She would certainly need some one on one time with this mixture of household names and Z-listers to understand why any of them would want to kill Catherine, if it had indeed been one of the Hadmere Players.

 

© Intrigue Inn

 

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The Indigo Bar – Introduction

The Indigo Bar is the first story we released at Intrigue Inn, and the first Francesca Palandri mystery. The DCI Palandri mysteries take place in Sussex, UK, with fictional town names.

Billy Grahame has been found murdered at a small hipster bar. He was the host of a small board gaming group who met at the bar every week. His body was found slumped over the prototype of a tarot inspired board game he had created…

Click here to start reading Day 1 of this mystery!

We’ve included bonus content with this mystery – five reviews of board games you might like to try after you’ve read the story!

The Indigo Bar was a live mystery when it was released, allowing readers to comment and interact with the story as instalments were published, and readers could send in their accusations before the culprit was revealed. To maintain an element of this interaction, the final part is password protected. Simply message us on our contact page or in the comments below Day 6 with the phrase INDIGO BAR – DAY 7 to find out whodunit. Why not tell us your theory when you do? We will congratulate you on our social media pages if you’re correct!

The Indigo Bar – Board Games

Did The Indigo Bar Mystery spark an interest in the world of board gaming? Or add to an existing interest in the hobby? We’ve written five reviews of games we recommended you try! We’ve listed these reviews from simplest game to the most challenging.

 

Timeline

Deliberating when barbed wire was invented may not sound like the most thrilling game, but Timeline makes history fun again.

It’s a card game with a minimal learning curve (literally a minute or two) that can last five minutes or an hour depending on how many rounds you want to get through.

Timeline consists of cards depicting a historical event, invention, discovery, movie release or musical composition on one side, and the date on the other. You can buy themed packs depending on your interests. A good place to begin is the Diversity pack which involves a little of everything mentioned above. I’m partial to the movies and music set but only because that’s where my strengths lie (i.e. I’ll win).

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The way we play is by dealing four to six cards to each player from a shuffled deck with the date side face down. Place one card in the middle of the table date-face down – this will be the starting point of your timeline. It’s then up to each player to guess the date of this card. When everyone’s guessed, flip the card over and the player with the closest guess begins. In the unlikely event of a tie, establish who looks more the distinguished historian, and get on with the game. This first player will look at their set of cards, choose one and place it on either side of the starting card chronologically. If you’re right, well done for being a history buff – sit back and relax. If you’re wrong, move the card to the correct place on the timeline and take a new card from the deck. The first player with no cards remaining wins the round. As the timeline grows, it becomes more difficult to slot cards into their correct place.

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Being knowledgeable about your dates is one thing, but being completely off is often more fun. Try being 8000 years out for the domestication of cattle. I don’t know that I’ll ever be allowed to live that one down. Competitive players who feel confident with their cards can also employ a little strategic element and slot in cards with dates close to each other, making it tricky for other players. To help yourself, playing cards you’re more uncertain about first, when the timeline is smaller, always helps. Sometimes you’ll inadvertently help other players, however. I played the ‘Start of the Hundred Years’ War’ card, revealing the date. What did one of my opponents have? ‘End of the Hundred Years’ War’…

After a round ends, you can clear the slate and begin a new timeline, but maybe you’ll want to challenge (or embarrass) yourself further by keeping the existing timeline in play. It will get messy, but you’ll feel an even greater sense of achievement when you get one right.

The potential drawback to Timeline is that after a few plays you may begin to remember the dates of some cards, affecting overall replayability. On the flip-side, you’ll be able to impress everyone at dinner parties with tons of pointless information. While this might be a concern for some players, it hasn’t made much difference for me, as I shuffle four different sets into one game, each set being 109 cards. Plus I have a terrible memory, which helps.

 

Lost Cities

Pick up your map and safari hat. You’re now an intrepid explorer, ready to embark on expeditions to far-flung corners of the globe and make the discoveries you’ve been dreaming of! Set out towards the Himalayas, the bottom of the ocean, the Central American rain forest, volcanic islands and harsh Egyptian desert climates to unearth lost cities. Your globetrotting jaunts won’t come cheap, though. You’ll need financial backing first due to a limited supply of resources. Let’s hope you can pay back those investments, otherwise you’ll be returning home in severe debt…

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Lost cities is a two-player hand management game that revolves around the risk and reward factor of playing cards into your own set. The game consists of a board placed between the two players and 5 sets of  12 cards. Each card set is a different colour – red, blue, green, yellow and white – representing the 5 different locations mentioned above. Each coloured set has cards numbered from 2 – 10 plus three investment cards. 45 expedition cards and 15 investment cards in total.

At the start of the game you’ll shuffle all 60 cards and place them face down next to the game board. Each player then receives 8 cards. Looking at the game board, you’ll notice 5 card spaces, one of each colour. These will be used as discard piles and also to indicate where you should begin expeditions of a corresponding colour.

On your turn you have two options. You may use one of the cards in your hand to begin a new expedition, or you can discard a card face up on the game board.  You’ll probably be eager to start your journey, but remember the costs! Each expedition costs $20,000. Are you sure you can make that money back and not incur a loss? During an expedition you’ll lay down cards of a certain colour in a column, beginning from the same coloured space on the game board. You must ensure that by the end of the game the combined total of each expedition equals more than 20 (i.e. $20,000) in order to score points. The problem is, once you’ve placed a card the next one must always be higher in value. Remember, each set of cards is numbered from 2 -10. Beginning an expedition with an 8 would be unwise, unless you have both the 9 and 10 in your hand, or you feel confident you can obtain them from either the discard piles or the draw pile. If your opponent secretly has those cards in their hand and is venturing on the same expedition, you’re in trouble. Ideally, you’ll want to begin an expedition with lowest value possible.

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What if you’ve started a red expedition with a 4 and then later pick up a 3? Well, it’s too late, that card is no use to you now. Best to discard that card on the game board. Be sure to check you’re opponent’s progress, though. Perhaps they’ve also begun a red expedition with a 2. If you discard the 3 then you may as well place the card right in their hand. There is a benefit, therefore, to keeping cards in your hand that you don’t need if it prevents your opponent from accessing them.

Lost Cities has an extremely simple mechanic but creates interesting dilemmas and engaging game-play. You want to get going with a green expedition but you’re waiting for low value cards, let’s say. Should you continue to bide your time or just begin with a 6 and hope for the best? Look at what your opponent has played so far. How likely is it that there are green cards you need at the top of the draw pile? Throughout the game you’ll frequently be lacking the cards you need at the right time and must consider your moves with all the information available to you.

Risk-takers will appreciate the added investment aspect of the game. If you’re feeling particularly confident about your Nepalese mountain trek then why not secure a large investment first? If you place an investment card at the start of your expedition it will multiply that column’s total score. Sounds great, but if you don’t break even on that expedition then you’ll be multiplying your loss. Ouch. There are 3 investment cards of each colour and you can use more than one per expedition. If you make a profit on an expedition backed by more than one investment then you’ll really be making it rain, but score lower than 20 and you may as well stay in the Himalayas and start living out your life with only the Abominable Snowman for company.

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The game ends when the draw pile expires. You can manipulate the length of the game and either draw out proceedings by taking cards from the discard piles instead, or speed things up by choosing the draw pile every turn. What suits your purpose will depend on your progress. I love the rounds that create a hilarious desperation as they get closer to concluding. There may be five cards left in the draw pile, but if you don’t start a yellow expedition now with a card value of 7 then you’re opponent will finish with the upper hand. Can you make a profit before time is up?

Some may find the math-heavy scoring system a little awkward or off-putting, especially when investment cards are involved. It took me a few minutes to make sense of it as I’m woefully inept when it comes to maths. I’m also aware that the theme is completely tacked on – this is nothing but a game of numerical organisation. However, I love using my imagination when I play board games so I still like to embrace the story. Paper-thin theme and maths homework aside, I really think this is an excellent 2-player game. The gamble of drawing the cards you need to fulfil expeditions, especially when you’ve added investment modifiers, allows for agonising decisions and a high stress factor in a 10-15 minute game.

Good luck on your worldwide quest for high value cards!

 

Ticket to Ride

I bypassed Ticket to Ride for the longest time. I knew how popular it was, but the idea of connecting railway routes sounded like an express train to boredom. That was until my friend selected it at a board game cafe several years ago. I was surprised at how much I loved the game’s simplicity and the competitive stress it creates in trying to complete all your routes in time. It was a lesson in being open-minded towards themes that might not strike me as interesting at first glance.

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The original game includes a map of the USA. Subsequent editions – and there are a lot of them – have added new rules and features. Having tried them all, the one I always find myself coming back to is Ticket to Ride: Europe. I find the Europe edition still retains the game’s accessibility while offering a few tweaks to make things more interesting. If you’re new to the game, either USA or Europe is the best starting point. You can then try out the expansion maps if you’re keen for more rail exploration. Ticket to Ride has a well designed app featuring most of the expansions, so checking those out first to see what you enjoy is a good idea cost-wise. 

Regardless of which edition you’re playing, the basic rules remain the same throughout. You’re given a set of destination tickets at the start worth various point values. You must then try and complete these tickets by collecting coloured train cards and claiming routes with those cards along the map, marking a route with your own set of train shaped counters. You may also collect more destination tickets as the game progresses, but become too ambitious and you run the risk of not completing them all, and those points are deducted from your final score. In the USA, connecting from city to city is simple enough. In Europe, however, you’ll be crossing seas and heading through mountain ranges, adding variants to the way you claim routes.

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The best part about Ticket to Ride is the stress in trying to build routes before your opponents either take them or block them, sometimes deliberately by players with a loco-motive of their own, feeling mischievous and/or open to ruining friendships. You’ll be surprised at how much tension this game creates, especially when routes start getting claimed in highly sought after areas of the map. You’ll be scrambling for sets of coloured train cards and crossing your fingers in the hope that a route you desperately need isn’t taken before your next turn. 

It’s probably down to an uncountable number of plays, but I have a high win rate with Ticket to Ride. My trick is to quietly build up my routes and collect destination tickets while other players start blocking each other, causing mass pile ups. Meanwhile, I made it from Edinburgh to Athens without an obstruction in sight! However, this is a game where you can also derail in grand style. One time I confidently declared I was on track for victory and then proceeded to not score even one of my destination tickets. The lesson there? Bad conduct won’t help you reach your destination.

Ticket to Ride is often referred to as a gateway game, a name given to board games with simple rules that can attract newcomers to the hobby.  This is certainly true from my experience of introducing Ticket to Ride to others. Most new players enjoy the base game and are often eager to try out other maps. India and Switzerland are my recommendations, but there are so many expansions to choose from. Enjoy your journey, and may the course you take be full of 20 point destination tickets!

 

Castles of Mad King Ludwig

It’s the 1800s in Bavaria and reclusive King Ludwig II’s personal fortune has been rapidly depleted thanks to his obsession with medieval castles. Head of state duties? What are those? Better to spend time on the throne thinking up designs for a home so magnificent that it goes far beyond the private needs of any normal ruler! Neuschwanstein Castle is already under construction, elevated on a hill above the village of Hohenschwangau so it can be admired in all it’s glory when it’s finally completed. But it’s not enough. Ludwig wants you to oversee the construction of a new castle with even more guest rooms, servants quarters, grottos and entertainment areas than Neuschwanstein. Are you up to the challenge?

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Castles of Mad King Ludwig is not simply a castle builder, although that’s naturally a huge part of this game’s appeal. As a contractor, you’ll need to be sharp and thrifty as you try to find the best deals on rooms and sell your services to other contractors, all while thinking about landscaping and floor plans. There are many different ways to score points in the game so think carefully about the layout of your creation and which rooms offer the best value for money. You’ll also need to accommodate Ludwig’s whims as he’ll be providing you with his room preferences at the start. Perhaps he’ll decide that square shaped rooms are in vogue, or that utility rooms should be ubiquitous in his new dream home. If you complete more of the King’s favours than your opponents then you’ll be rewarded for it at the end of the game.

Rooms for the castle come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and types. Consider the King’s favours and your own personal bonus cards, but you’re probably quite keen to build a castle that suits your style as well. Some contractors may be looking for a sensible layout – a comfortable bedchamber with a private garden, all the necessities such as a pantry and a bathroom, and a few individual touches like a sauna or a french gazebo. Others will happily allow their designs to spiral out of control, ending up with two fungus rooms, a buttery and a secret lair with no where to sleep.

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Each round, rooms will be selected from a draw pile and placed on a bidding chart by the master builder – a role that moves clockwise around the table. So don’t become too consumed by your own creation. You should think about what your rivals are up to, and as a result how you would like to price your rooms. When another contractor purchases a room during that auction they’ll be paying you directly for it. Can you preempt which room will tempt them the most and place it in a lucrative spot on the chart? Over the course of the game you’ll collect rooms, bonuses and Deutsche marks according to your objectives, all before the final room gets taken to auction. Then it’s time to see if you’ve done enough to please the mysterious King!

Not happy with your castle? Well, Castles of Mad King Ludwig allows for plenty of replays as your castles will be vastly different every time. New rooms will make it to the auction and a fresh combination of King’s favours will be drawn, creating a unique set of objectives that will affect your final masterpiece. There may be a little downtime while contractors overthink their options, especially when it comes to the auction – that includes the master builder’s decision of where to place rooms and the purchaser’s decision of what to buy. I personally find the auction aspect of the game a little tricky, but seeing the shape and theme of my castle come together makes it worth it. Now, shall I place a panic room next to my tapestry chamber or a crypt?

 

Shadows Over Camelot

As one of the first co-operative board games I ever played, as well as a provider of many fun memories, Shadows Over Camelot is a perfect choice for Intrigue Inn’s first board game review. Prepare to divide and conquer, but beware! There’s a traitor in your midst…

In Shadows Over Camelot you play as Knights of the Round Table, heading off on various quests while dark forces close in on Camelot – Mordred, Morgan, the Saxons, the Picts, and myriad others are always looking to disrupt your quests in their own nefarious ways. Even Guinevere is an antagonist here, cutting your quests short with a delinquent pout because you’ve been gallivanting around instead of spending quality time with her.

Throughout the game knights must fill up the round table with white swords by successfully completing quests such as the search for Excalibur or the search for the Holy Grail. Failing quests results in black swords being placed on the table. Six black swords means disaster, and the traitor emerges triumphant whether they’ve been unmasked or not.

How does the traitor aspect work? At the beginning of the game each player is given a loyalty card which is kept secret. One lucky (depending how you look at it) guy or girl gets to be the traitor. The traitor must try to derail things by encouraging other players to partake in never-ending quests, hold back useful cards, waste time and resources without the others realising, and do anything else that could potentially disrupt or slow down everyone’s progress. Knights can accuse each other of being the traitor but should exercise caution; a false accusation means placing a black sword down on the table and a general feeling of mistrust.

From my experience, some people relish playing the traitor and excel where others fail. One memorable game involved the traitor cracking under the pressure when it was hinted that she could be a traitor, causing her to throw her hands up in the air and cry out ”Yes! You’ve got me!”

Other players have wreaked total havoc, yet managed to remain undetected. It’s possible to have games without a traitor, where no one draws the black traitor card. This makes for a very interesting game as suspicions fly around despite everyone being on the same side.

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Each turn evil progresses, and players are allowed a single heroic action. The progression of evil can mean picking up a black card resulting in some unfortunate event or summoning a villain to cause trouble, losing life points, or placing a siege engine around the walls of Camelot. Ah, the dreaded siege engines. Place a twelfth siege engine down and the loyal knights automatically lose. And those siege engines build up quickly.

With so many quests, events, and opportunities for failure, Shadows Over Camelot requires teamwork and coordination from the brave knights who attempt the challenge. It’s an immersive game and players get out of it what they put in, like stepping into character and addressing their follow knights in proper medieval fashion. Mount your steeds and gallop into Camelot, gallant knights!

 

 

 

 

 

The Hadmere Players – Part 1

The tenth anniversary of the Hadmere Player’s production of The Water Ghost Beckons was approaching. This may not have sounded like a big event, but one decade ago this small town production was precisely that. The play experienced unprecedented success for a local amateur show. It became more than just a small piece of entertainment for the community and neighbouring villages – usually the case for such an event – several flyers through the doors and a handful of performances.

The Water Ghost Beckons told the story of a family torn apart in what the entertainment section of the town’s newsletter described as ‘the most harrowing, humanly affecting fashion.’ During an autumnal break in the Dorset countryside, the family was singularly lured, entranced and picked off, until there remained one sole survivor, by an ethereal and seductive water ghost whom for each character was representative of their personal fears and desires. It was said that what made these later scenes particularly powerful was the time spent on establishing a family dynamic in the play’s first act – an act filled with laughter and familiarity, hitting the nail on the head when it came to a contemporary nuclear family. The contrast of a laughter fuelled first act and a devastating second one made for a particularly striking play.

A combination of word of mouth and local media allowed the play to grow bigger than was ever expected. Perhaps the theme of the play captured the zeitgeist of a new millennium; representing the fear of the unknown felt by society as one by one each character met their fate. Maybe it was the snappy dialogue and clever wordplay that turned local newspaper critic’s heads. Perhaps the balance of comedic and tragic performances captivated the small town community. It was said that the director, Zave Wilson, had struck gold with his casting; the chemistry between the six actors was reported as electric – a pulsating energy that was felt by the audience even in exchanged looks and unspoken scenes. The conversation came across both intense and natural; a strong allegiance between the family members especially was always present.

Whatever the reason, the play was a success. The initial six-day run was extended with another six dates added. Of the added dates, every performance was a full house – a rare sight in Hadmere’s poky townhouse theatre. On the night of the final performance, the cast celebrated with sheer surprise and amazement, taken aback by the attention their little six-person play had received. The upcoming reunion had been planned to coincide with the final performance in Hadmere’s theatre, December 7th. The players were immediately offered the opportunity to perform a string of dates at the festival theatre in nearby Nutbourne. After this, a couple of performances around the greater Sussex area and finally a number of shows were put on at independent theatre houses around London. The cast and crew decided to call it a day after that. They could have taken it further if they had wanted to. Go out on a high and leave them wanting more, Zave Wilson had said. Doors had been opened now. Opportunities for further work in theatre and beyond presented themselves for the actors, and over time a couple of them began to make names for themselves in the entertainment industry. Not everyone chose to further pursue the acting path, though. And not everyone who did follow that path made it as big as they would have liked.

*

Helen Burbank was preparing to leave her Victorian townhouse on Knoll Street and make the short journey into the High Street to The Fox and Hounds. The first snow of the season had begun falling today and she searched for her best winter jacket on the coat hanger, hooking it with a stick when she’d located the brown pea coat.

She started to wonder what exactly she and Zave would talk about. Just two thousand people in this town and we haven’t caught up for at least two years, she thought. How does that happen? Life happens. A lot has happened over the last ten years, she considered. Too much. Those of us who stayed behind don’t see each other as often we should. But we don’t work together anymore, after all, she supposed. All former colleagues do the same thing. They may live in the same town but generally, they’ll catch up just once in awhile for a morning coffee – somewhere like Melinda’s café with its cosy decor or possibly The Quay, especially in summer with it’s neat and colourful terrace. But most former colleagues didn’t create a unique bond when they worked together like the Hadmere Players of 2008 did. We created something quite special, thought Helen, special enough for us to plan a reunion. Only three of the players still remained in Hadmere. Herself, Zave Wilson, and Bill Gregson. When did she ever really chat with Bill anymore either? Yes, she frequented the corner shop on the town square often, but it had become small talk most of the time. ‘Just this milk Bill, I’m in a bit of a rush!’ or ‘Oh, lovely day Bill, be sure to get yourself outside later!’

She worried about Bill sometimes. She wasn’t sure why. He probably didn’t worry about himself too much. He seemed quite content, and always had done. She was quite sure he worried about Catherine Ratcliffe though, the lead in the play and arguably the most successful of them all now. Ten years had not been enough to suppress certain feelings and desires on Bill Gregson’s part, she was positive about that. It would be interesting to see how those two would interact come Friday afternoon. It would be interesting to see how everyone would interact, for that matter. They were all at very different stages of their lives, at different levels of success, and, she believed, different levels of happiness.

Her coat was on, buttoned all the way up, and she pushed herself toward the front door. She passed the cabinet in the hallway and put two fingers to the picture of her and another man which sat on top. The man had messy grey and brown hair. His cheeks were rosy and his head was tilted back in laughter. She paused for a minute, resting her fingers on his face. She did this every time she left her house. Then she moved her fingers from the picture to the wheels of her wheelchair and left to face the snow.

*

Zave Wilson was already inside the pub when Helen came in. He had been lucky to secure a small table; The Fox and Hounds was beginning to heave with customers. Locals moved back and forth; some entered, raising their voices in delight as they caught sight of their friends. Others came in alongside their friends, laughing mid-joke. Some had their hands full with shopping, already on the ball with Christmas, rolls of wrapping paper with little snowmen on poking out the top of large plastic bags. All seemed grateful to leave the cold and embrace the heat radiating from the open fire within and the closely packed bodies. It was a good atmosphere, he couldn’t deny it. It was just the festive predictability of it that bothered him.

“Director Wilson!” Helen exclaimed as she approached him. She was dressed smartly, a grin on her flushed face. “What a place to meet!” She cried. “It was like Where’s Wally trying to locate you in here!” Helen threw her pea coat over the small round table. “Let’s get drinks?” Navigating her wheelchair through the pub hadn’t been easy, but as Zave looked at the crowded bar and made a concerned face, Helen winked at him and made her way slowly toward it. People began making way for her chair as she moved to the front. Zave quickly followed her before the gap closed and become impenetrable again. He reached into his pocket for his wallet, but Helen was already ordering the drinks with cash in hand from a busty middle-aged woman behind the bar with short cropped hair. She had that typical no-nonsense expression on her face that most female pub managers of her age seemed to have, he thought. He nodded to the manager as he took the drinks a minute later. He bit his lip as he carefully made his way through the all the warm bodies with a pint of orange juice Helen had ordered for him and a small glass of Merlot for herself. As he placed the drinks down on their table, a group of girls in their late twenties or early thirties entered the pub loudly. (Quite a feat considering the level of noise in the pub already.) Zave observed them, unimpressed.

“Thanks for getting these, Helen. We might have to leave soon, though, unless you want to witness a ‘Girls night out.’” He shuddered at the thought.

Helen pushed her wheelchair closer towards the table. “Oh, really?”

“If they sit anywhere near us we can expect ear popping cackling, an onslaught of swear words and sexual innuendo, lemons from their double Malibu and Cokes being thrown at each other and the chorus of a Taylor Swift song being belted out. Badly.”

Helen laughed. “Belligerent as ever then Zave, even as the festive season approaches! I’m surprised you know who Taylor Swift is,” she remarked as she took a sip of her wine. “Anyway, cheers.” She raised her wine glass and he clinked it with his pint.

“Cheers, Helen. The pitfalls of being a daily internet user. You are subjected to information about people and events you couldn’t care less about.”

She laughed. “You strike me more of a newspaper man. The kind of man who would lead a crusade against the increased use of e-books, chanting about the ‘death of print.’”

“E-books and the internet are more than useful inventions. It’s inventions like the selfie stick I have problems with.” He looked behind him. “Ah, it’s okay. They’re standing near the back. And you know one of them will be crying soon. This is the standard protocol of their nights out. This will cause a divide in the group; over half of them will proceed to escort the crier to the toilets while the others will sit and bitch about her life choices.”

“What will she be crying about?”

“A boy, most likely.”

“You know, if it wasn’t for the fact I remember you mentioning you enjoy Christmas, I could be mistaken for thinking you were the reincarnation of Scrooge.”

“I like aspects of Christmas,” Zave grumbled. “So you booked for Farfalle?” He asked.

“Yes. Hopefully, we’ll get that nice table in the alcove. You’ve been there before, right? Should fit seven, even with my chair.”

“Great. Well done, Helen, really. You’ve been responsible for most of the organisation here.”

“Well, why not? I live the closest to the High Street. I know the restaurants and cafés in town the best I would say, out of you, Bill and I. You know, Zave, you’re looking much better these days,” she said, looking at the orange juice in his hand.

Zave waved a hand. “Oh, don’t. Have to say, though, not drinking has done wonders for my mental health. You look great as well, Helen. And I didn’t get a chance to congratulate you on your latest show yet.” He raised his glass in the air and they made another toast.

They caught up with each other’s lives for half an hour or so before Zave checked his watched and told Helen he’d have to be getting on with a job that involved a bit of a drive. Although neither of them would admit it, it was a great relief for both of them to leave the pub.

*

Traffic was slowing down on the approach to Hadmere. Dan Argenta felt an excitement rise inside of him unexpectedly as he saw the large church perched on the hill through the front windows of his Audi. The church he’d spent so many masses, choir practices and school plays in. He’d forgotten how the view of Hadmere Church as you drove towards the town always struck him as one the most beautiful views in the world every time he saw it. Maybe he wouldn’t have forgotten if he had come to visit more often, he wondered. Besides the aesthetics of the town and his family, though, what was there to keep him down here? Maybe when he was older he would buy a house here, perhaps one situated a little out of town for space, and spend weekends in it every so often. It would make a nice contrast to his Richmond townhouse. He could probably afford a small farmhouse down here now if he wanted it, he realised, but he knew he wouldn’t use it. Just because you can afford it doesn’t mean you need it, Catherine had once told him, teaching him the importance of justification, and he always took Catherine’s advice to heart.

Dan Argenta was one of the biggest success stories to come out of the Hadmere players. Interestingly, he had had one of the smallest roles. The nosy neighbour who had followed the family to Dorset was the first character to be lured through the fog by the water ghost. It was a pivotal role in that he was responsible for exposing some of the family secrets, yet ultimately a peripheral one. That didn’t stop the string of successful auditions and exciting stage and TV offers that lead Dan to where he was today. He knew that many wondered if it was because the British public loved a rags to riches tale. They always rooted for the underdog. Not only was Dan an underdog in the play itself, but he came from pretty humble beginnings in real life. Dan grew up on Sentel Road. It was essentially the working class road leading out of town. If anyone deserved success it was Dan, many of his supporters had always said. And he had started to believe it.

*

The unexpected pulp in his orange juice had made Zave feel a bit sick. The Fox and Hounds had been a terrible idea. He looked in the rearview mirror and to him, the bags were striking. How anyone could not be drawn immediately to them, he thought. Helen had said he was looking better!

He sighed and switched on the radio. It was going to be a bit of a drive to Nutbourne in this weather. He had a few teaching jobs on the go at the moment – one on one acting classes – and he was currently involved with the local school’s Nativity play. He wondered what the other players would think of him now as he started driving down the High Street. Would the likes of Catherine and Dan look at him with pity, knowing the course his life had taken over the last ten years? No big success, alcoholism… while they had risen from strength to strength. Although Dan was a hit with the younger generations Catherine was probably the better-known household name. She was currently the lead in popular prime-time drama Dance, Mary, Dance (the story of a mother who lost everything but was slowly getting her life back through modern dance) and this was on the back of a raved about performance as Grizabella in Cats up in Manchester. People hadn’t known Catherine had such a great voice inside of her. Even Zave hadn’t, which annoyed him a little. Hana and Gareth had enjoyed success to a degree, but not quite on the same level. It had all started well for Helen of course, but her tragedy put a sharp halt to that.

Xavier Wilson was, most people agreed, the key to Water Ghost’s success. He had directed and written the play, and was also responsible for casting the six actors. At the time, he had known the script was a good one. He had also known that Hadmere had an abundance of local talent in the unlikeliest of places. But the play’s success had shocked him just as much as it did the others. For Zave, directing was just a hobby in 2008. A theatre enthusiast, he wanted only to put his fingers into different pies after quitting work as a chauffeur. He was never too forthcoming with his reasons for leaving the profession, but it was common knowledge that he’d suffered from alcoholism. Directing had freed him, focused his mind. The success was also the beginning of a second personal downfall, however. He was never able to reach the heights of Water Ghost again and his special band of Merry Men had disbanded. Only Bill Gregson and Helen stayed in Hadmere. Bill had no interest in performing further and while Helen was eager at first, the accident saw an end to that for a while. He was never able to find any local performers quite as good. The chemistry was never the same. Dropping back slowly into old habits, he put down his director’s cap and picked up a wine bottle instead.

*

Gregson’s had been run by Bill Gregson for the last twenty-five years. A small matter of having a lead role in an unexpectedly successful play hadn’t stopped that. It was straight back to the shop for Bill, and having him around, carrying on with his positively normal daily routine, made the idea of Helen being a local celebrity sound strange – that status came from the same place Bill had come from, and most people didn’t think of him as any kind of celebrity. Helen entered Gregson’s and waited for an elderly couple to pay for a newspaper. They collected their change and shuffled to the door, preparing themselves for the snow.

‘Heya Helen,” Bill said.

“Hi, Bill! Just had a drink with Zave! Booked us in for Farfalle on Friday too.”

“Lovely,” he said, in a restrained voice. He was trying, she thought. He didn’t care for the reunion, she knew that. But of course, he would come. Catherine would be there.

“Coffee too in the daytime tomorrow, Melinda’s probably, you can make that too, right?

“Why are we meeting twice?” he asked, baffled.

“Good question,” she laughed. “Well, not everyone could make the meal at first so coffee was suggested, but then when dinner was good for everyone it just sort of stuck. I think it will be nice, though. Be a bit of an icebreaker; make dinner more relaxed for us all.” It made her wonder where the idea for a reunion had come from in the first place, and she couldn’t be too sure – it had been on a group message chat between all of them except Bill, absent because everybody just assumed he would have no idea how group messaging worked she supposed.

“Okay, Helen. Coffee’s fine too I guess. Mel will be taking care of business here tomorrow anyway, so I’m free.”

Helen gave what she hoped was a genuine smile as she picked up two packets of chicken stock cubes from a shelf near the counter. Cold weather and snow meant one thing: it was soup season, so stocking up on stock cubes was a must. She worried the smile may have been a sad one. She couldn’t help but feel sad, even though she knew she shouldn’t. She just didn’t understand how some people like Bill could be content with so little. Especially after having a taste of something greater. She loved small-town life, it was true, and even if the ‘accident’ (hah!) hadn’t happened she would have been happy to stay in Hadmere, as a base. But she still had dreams and ambitions. There had been some severe stumbling blocks, but she was making progress once again. Music had become the second love of her life in recent years. It had always been a passion, but comedy had come more naturally. Helen was one of only two Hadmere players who had been on a stage before The Water Ghost Beckons, where she’d played the comedy relief as the husband’s sister, providing the majority of the laughs in the play’s first act before the tone darkened dramatically in the second. She hadn’t done that much beforehand. Mainly open mike nights and a couple of local comedy festivals. Her dreams of performing at the Edinburgh Fringe came true after the play’s success. She was on her way to making a name for herself – one-woman shows, bigger audiences… you’re the next Miranda Hart her agency had told her. Although her dreams grew bigger, when the car hit her and John she realised her original dream of playing in Edinburgh would have to suffice. John had died instantly. Helen had fared worse, or so she believed for a long time. Paralysed from the waist down and told she would never walk again, mourning her husband, she hated the fact she was still alive at first. Her sense of humour couldn’t help her. The only thing she could muster up were variants on playing with the words ‘stand-up comedy’. A laugh out loud Miranda Hart level set in the making it was not. No, that little dream would have to be plucked and put on a jar on the shelf with only a remote possibility of ever being opened again.

The cello had been her solace. In bed watching the Japanese movie Departures, she felt inspired. She devoted her time to the instrument so as to take her mind off everything else consuming her. Eat, cello, eat, bed became her life. Realising that she both needed to do something with her life and that she was really quite a good cellist, Helen took to some local performances. A comeback, people had said. A wonderful sob story for people to enjoy… dead husband, ruined comedy career, burying her sorrow in the rich, mellow sounds of the cello only to master her craft and put on captivating performances. Bravo. Not a dry eye in the house. Back on the stage but under circumstances no one could have foreseen. Much like the sound of her instrument, her successful performances are bittersweet, one local newspaper wrote. Bittersweet would not be the world Helen would use to describe a horrific incident resulting in tragedy and some middling success as a cellist.

Helen bid farewell to Bill in a resolve to train her mind to not feel sorry for him, and much like the elderly couple beforehand she messed around with her scarf and jacket before heading back into the snow.

*

The next day, Gareth Lawler bowed his head to enter the low-ceilinged coffee shop, Melinda’s. The drive down had been hellish due to snow, all for a coffee in a room where he couldn’t even stand up properly. Hana, his carpool companion, tottered in behind him. She shivered, inevitably. It was December, there was snow on the streets and she was dressed to impress, not for comfort. She had suggested they wait a while, take a drive together for a bit longer to continue their catch up, one on one. Sure, he knew how she still felt about him – anyone who read a celebrity gossip magazine did – but he couldn’t help think that she wanted to be fashionably late and make an entrance in her black Tom Ford dress. As it stood, they were the first ones there. We’re first and Bill’s shop is literally three seconds away, Gareth thought.

“This place is the same, Gaz!” Hana remarked.

“Everything is still the same here,” he replied with a sigh. He remembered coming to Melinda’s as a child and by the looks of it the interior had not changed one bit. Looking at the fluffy cushions on each chair which were filled undoubtedly with decades of dust, Gareth felt a little depressed.

Just behind them, the bell above the door rang as it opened and Helen entered. It was a shock for Gareth to see the wheelchair. He knew about it, of course, but this was the first time they’d met since her accident.

“Gosh, you two,” Helen gushed. “Give us some warning next time… Hadmere can’t handle two sets of dentures that bright and perfect…”

“Oh, Helen! It’s great to see you!” Hana beamed and they embraced each other, Gareth followed suit, and they waited for the others to arrive, taking seats on fluffy mismatched chairs around a large table. Sure, there’s some rustic charm to places like this, considered Gareth. But he definitely preferred things more on the neat and polished side. Bill was next in through the door, followed by Dan. They all embraced with a slight British awkwardness which Gareth observed with some embarrassment. Who decided reunions were ever a good idea? he thought. They are just full of constant awkward exchanges, the desire to out-impress each other and compare oneself to everybody else. It was stressful. The serving staff at Melinda’s appeared to be finding it all a bit much, too. A couple of them may not have been old enough to remember The Water Ghost Beckons (although they certainly knew about it, as Hadmere citizens) but they recognised Dan Argenta straight away. Most of them knew Hana also, and a couple recognised Gareth but were not quite able to place him. A flustered girl of around sixteen eagerly started setting up the table. There was definitely some interest from the customers too, not very well hidden, Gareth observed, noting a man of around twenty-five sitting alone at the back of the cafe who was trying not to stare.

Zave was next in, wearing a long trench coat. Likeable enough but a bit too intense and irritable for Gareth’s liking at times. Warm smiles, hugs, and exclamations of surprise once more.

“No Catherine yet?” Zave asked, flopping his jacket over a seat.

“I got a message from her, she’s on her way,’ Helen replied. “Making an entrance!” She laughed. Hana did not look impressed.

“Good idea on the coffee catch up today Helen!” said Dan. He was beaming, and for good reason thought Gareth wryly, the serving staff were practically falling over at the sight of him. He wasn’t sure who was winning between the youngest looking waitress and the twenty-five-year-old customer.

“Thanks, Dan. God, it’s so surreal to see everyone back together!”

“Bill, you haven’t changed one bit!” Hana chimed in.

“Yes… no fancy dental work for me, eh,” he replied with a smile. Hana and Gareth weren’t sure what to quite make of that statement.

“And you’re still at the shop?” Hana asked with what was clearly meant to come across as casual politeness, but the note of derision was unmistakable.

“Yes…” said Bill with a short smile. “I know I haven’t been venturing out, gallivanting around London town like some of you lot, but I love Hadmere. Always have, always will. Just look at it – especially today in the snow. It’s like something from Dickens.”

They all responded in agreement as the bell above the door rang once more and Catherine Ratcliffe entered, a large grin on her face as she spotted the others. She removed her jacket and shook it on the doormat to get rid of some of the settled snow. Catherine Ratcliffe looked the part of a middle-aged star, her short-styled curly hair immaculate and her red and black dress flattering without being revealing. Now here’s a woman who knows what to do with her age, thought Gareth. In spite of himself, he started laughing inside at what poor Bill must be thinking right now. Why he never made a move, Gareth would never understand. Catherine carried her thick black faux fur jacket and a handbag matching her dress and took a seat beside Dan after hugs and kisses. Chanel No. 5 wafted up Gareth’s nose as he thought how unsurprising it was for Catherine to sit next to her celebrity buddy Dan.

“Sorry, all! I had a surprise visit from Margo before leaving this morning – my agent – she’s been on the phone with one of those celebrity Saturday night dancing shows. I’ve been trying to decide if I want to embarrass myself or not… Still not sure!” She gave an embarrassed shrug and laughed.

“You know what I would say Cath,” said Dan, “Go for it. You always tell me to grab opportunities.”

Ha, thought Gareth, he just had to get a mention of how he and ‘Cath’ are pals. Gareth wondered if he was the only one thinking that.

“Let me go and order some drinks – what’ll it be guys, coffees?” asked Zave, getting ready to stand up.

Most of the group ordered americanos except for Hana who preferred tea and Dan who ordered the most expensive smoothie he could find on the menu. Zave went to the bar to order and Dan went to use the toilets. The rest of the group had broken off into separate conversations. Catherine and Hana were discussing Hana’s current local Sussex TV gig while Gareth, Bill and Helen talked about the differences between London and Hadmere.

“I’m a best of both girl, really,” said Helen. “Love small town life here but it’s good to remember there’s more going on in this world and just how busy it can be with a trip up to London now and then.”

“Do you have any upcoming shows in London, Helen?” asked Gareth. “Surely with the success you’ve been having down here?”

“One’s in the pipeline, yes. It’s a bit scary – the idea of a big London audience… it’s been a while. Well, big London audiences are nothing to you Gaz – has your latest show finished it’s run yet?

“Yeah, couple of weeks back. I only had a small part, though…”

“Still! That’s super impressive.”

“I don’t feel the need to go to London much, to be honest,” said Bill. “I know what it’s like. It’s dirty and frantic and everyone looks stressed and tired. I don’t need regular visits to remember that.”

Zave and Dan, once back at the table, had joined Hana and Catherine’s discussion. Helen went to the toilets and then shortly after she came back the young waitress brought over the drinks on a shaking tray. Gareth took the tray from her hands to help her out and placed it on the table.

“I just don’t know why the bigger modelling agencies haven’t picked up on you yet, Hana. You’re so stunning, more so than ever,” Catherine said. She wasn’t wrong. With her perfect skin, large blue eyes and sleek chestnut hair, Hana Payne often made people do a double-take when they first saw her. She’d had middling success with modelling, having worked internationally with a recent tour around Asia.

“Lot of luck in modelling, Cath.” Hana replied. “It’s why I moved on to presenting.”

Catherine nodded sincerely. “I understand that. Keeping options open is always wise, I say. Well, cheers everyone!” She said, turning to the others and taking her coffee, as everyone had been fiddling around with sugar packets and stirring their drinks. “I’m so happy this is happening! I’m not lying when I saw that despite the play being a decade ago now you lot never leave my mind. I’m always wondering what everyone’s up to.” They cheered and clinked their cups and glasses and sipped their drinks before resuming their conversations.

“Well if you know of any contacts, Catherine, please let me know,” said Hana. But Catherine wasn’t listening. Catherine was trying to fight off the paralysing sensation that had suddenly overtaken her entire body.

“Catherine?” Hana asked, but the poison was already taking its fatal effects.

“Guys! Catherine –” But everyone understood now as Catherine Ratcliffe fell limply from her chair, causing Dan next to her to act immediately and grab her before she hit the floor, holding her as she shook, yelling her name but to no avail – a minute later, she was dead.

 

© Intrigue Inn

 

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Coming Soon: The Hadmere Players

Thank you to everyone who filled out our survey! The responses really helped us a lot. 

Tomorrow our fourth murder mystery begins! The first instalment of The Hadmere Players will be released on Monday 21st May. It’s back to the UK and Francesca Palandri starts investigating when the ten year reunion of a well known amateur play goes horribly wrong…

Like our last mystery, The Pearl of Taiwan, instalments of The Hadmere Players will be released every few days. If you’re keen to read the mystery all at once then bide your time until the end of the month!

Can you guess whodunit before all is revealed in the 7th instalment? Good luck!