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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Liam

Creator of Intrigue Inn - A home for murder mysteries, board games and more .

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