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.”

 

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