The Hadmere Players – Part 5

Francesca had cleared her day to allow for interviews with the Hadmere Players. She still felt none the wiser when it come to Catherine and Dan’s deaths, and she knew that Gareth and Hana were itching to get out of the small town and return home. She was also personally itching to begin her Christmas celebrations with Jeremy. It would be her first Christmas in  along time where she had a great excuse to not spend it with her family. She would be able to eat and drink whatever she liked, and play some quality board games rather than an argumentative round of Scattergories in her parent’s house. Bates was busy compiling a report on the movements of all suspects at both Melinda’s and Farfalle. Francesca walked up the High Street, past the 12-foot tall Christmas tree in the town square, and turned right into Knoll Street. She knocked on the door of Helen Burbank’s town house, who let her in to a well-maintained home, just like the woman herself.

“I’ve been keeping to myself since the reunion,” she explained. “Tidying the house to busy myself. Staying away from all the festive activities – it just doesn’t feel right.”

Francesca asked Helen to tell her a little more about herself, and Helen recounted her comedy roots and aspirations, and how the accident had changed everything forever.

“Losing John left me completely useless. Everything had been going so well for us. And then a hit in run in Notting Hill. Wrong place, wrong time. John and I were staying with friends in Ladbroke Grove at the time. I was performing a string of small shows in Notting Hill and John was on business. The culprit was never found. We had been celebrating that night. John had pulled in a few lucrative deals and my shows had been met with excellent reviews. I tell you, the feeling of numbness I have now very much reminds of my mental state then. And that was only a year ago, so it’s not been a great 2018, to say the least.”

“I heard you managed to find solace in your music?”

“Yes, I have. And I’ve recently put on a few performances. The feedback has been marvellous, but I’m still struggling to move on from everything. I’m building myself back up again.”

“Were you looking forward to the reunion?”

“I’m not sure. I was wondering what we would all talk about. A decade is a long time. I haven’t seen some of them since I ended up in this chair. So, I was apprehensive, I suppose. It was surreal in a way, when I saw Dan and Catherine. They’re famous now. They seemed like different people to when I knew them during the play.”

“You obviously know now that a poisoned sweetener packet killed Catherine.”

“Yes, and the rumours that Dan emptied the contents into Catherine’s coffee. I wasn’t watching to be honest. I just came back from the loo and then we were making a toast, and all of a sudden Catherine started reacting to her coffee. It all happened so quickly.”

*

Bill Gregson’s flat above his shop was fairly spartan. He clearly was a man who didn’t enjoy small talk, which was fine by Francesca, but made her wonder why he opened up a shop in the first place – a business which one would think required a healthy dose of small talk with customers every day.

“If you’re looking for answers, I have nothing for you. Didn’t care for Dan much. Wouldn’t want him dead though. Didn’t know too much about him. Catherine, well, read what you want in the press about that.”

“You did hold an affection for her, though?”

“I liked her. Same age. Knew her the longest,” Bill said, not giving anything away. “Felt protective of her.”

“You must have been very worried during the press scandal due the affair, then.”

“Obviously. Don’t know what got into her head. She was a mess around that time. Had been for several weeks.”

“I heard she’d been keeping a low profile before the affair.”

“Something had spooked her. Don’t know what. She was upset. I know Dan was there to support her. I reckon he knew what was going on. Got a call from her once, you know. After I spoke to the paparazzi and defended her.”

“Oh? What did she say?”

“Just said thanks. She was in tears. She said she should never have done it. With Benjy Mantle. But she told me something horrible had happened, so she was all over the place. Never told me what, but I think she wanted to. She hesitated quite a bit. Well, I mentioned this to Zave and Helen when they visited the shop. Zave doesn’t come in often at all, Helen is in quite frequently however, picking up one thing or another. I was concerned that something bad had happened to Catherine. Didn’t dwell on it too much with Helen, her accident was still quite fresh at that time. Well, Cath was back on her feet soon enough. Was in a big TV hit recently.”

Dance, Mary, Dance.

“Yep. And then the reunion. Helen and Zave were the key organisers there, I just went along with it all. Wasn’t keen. Couldn’t really get out if thoough could I. Melinda’s and Farfalle both just around the corner. But I had no interest in catching up with the London lot. Not Dan’s biggest fan as I said, and I didn’t have a lot of time for Gareth and Hana either. All seemed a bit pointless to me. And of course now I wish it had never been organised.”

*

Zave Wilson made Francesca a strong Lavazza coffee and offered her some chicken gumbo leftovers which she appreciated but declined.

“You’ve been busying yourself cooking?” She asked.

“Yes. I’m not a huge cook, but it’s a been a good distraction these last few days.”

“I noticed a bottle of opened wine in the kitchen, but I heard you’re tee-total these days?”

“Well, I was, until Dan’s death… That was more for a guest, anyway. Bill came to visit me last night, you see. He’s concerned about how it all looks for him. You know, his feelings on Catherine and all.”

“He seemed quite put-together when I saw him earlier today,” Francesca remarked.

“Well, he puts on a stoic attitude. That’s his way. He’s rattled.”

“I heard he was quite rattled during Catherine’s affair also. She told him something horrible had happened.”

“Yes… he mentioned it to me in the shop back then. Cannot imagine what. I expect Dan knew, but you can’t ask him now…”

“Tell me a bit more about The Water Ghost Beckons. I remember the acclaim when it came out. What inspired you to write this story?”

“Oh, well, I suppose I’ve always been interested in small-town dynamics. And the fact that there’s always more going on under the surface than you would think! I always loved the idea of an atmospheric, foggy setting on stage too. Very ominous. Deepest-darkest Dorset. We got good use out of the smoke machine during the play, I can tell you. I had been doing some research around the time on Korean and Japanese mythology. That’s where my idea for the water ghost came from. A judge of sorts, I liked that – there to reveal and punish all the characters for the sins they had committed and kept to themselves.”

“Theft, violence, even rape if I remember rightly?”

“Yes…it was quite heavy stuff, wasn’t it? But I think that’s why it worked. Plus our brilliant cast, of course.”

*

Francesca interviewed Gareth and Hana together as they were both staying at the same bed and breakfast.

“After this interview, can we leave? I need to get out of this b&b,” said Gareth, exasperated. “What more use could we be to you?”

“He’s right,” Hana chimed in. “We’re victims too, in a way! Watching our friends die! Right in front of us. I was speaking with Catherine right when she collapsed, you know!”

“I’m afraid we will need you for just a bit longer. You do understand you’re suspects?’

“It’s ridiculous. How could we have done this. Poison in a sweetener packet and then in a bottle of wine… That’s all a bit too extravagant for me. I have nothing against Dan and Catherine,” Gareth said firmly.

“I did hear you and Dan were friends but had a falling out? After your coming out publicly?”

Gareth went a little red in the face. “You know how the media exaggerates. I was just a little annoyed he wasn’t there for me, that’s all. He was busy swanning around London, off to all the best social functions, often with Catherine in tow. He didn’t spare too much time to see how I was doing. And that was a very difficult time for me.”

“All their west end parties! Alright for some,” said Hana. “Enjoying his Richmond penthouse! He was in a world of his own most of the time, I think.”

“Would you say Dan was hedonistic, then?”

“He liked a drink. I know that,” answered Hana. “Catherine too. How they made it home some nights I do not know. And then ready to perform the day after! I like a cleaner lifestyle. I have to stay alert for my nature show. And keep my body in shape for any potential modelling bookings. Those parties are so pretentious, anyway.”

“The two of you have remained good friends, it seems. Since all the press coverage about your relationship?”

“I just felt stupid,”Hana said. “I was angry with Gareth for ignoring me when it came out that I liked him. Romantically. Then when Gareth told me he was gay it all made sense. No harm done. I felt so silly for my reaction. And now we just laugh about it! Don’t we, Gareth?”

“Oh, er, yes. Sure,” replied Gareth. “Look, detective, there’s not much more we can say. You should be up in London if you want to find out more, not down here in this miserable place.”

He was right, and Francesca had already prepared for a trip to London tomorrow. She was hoping for some useful information in either Catherine or Dan’s homes or their local haunts. She was starting to put a theory together, and just needed more concrete evidence.

 

© Intrigue Inn

 

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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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