The Hadmere Players – Part 7

“So, let me get this clear,” Detective Superintendent Mick said as he prepared himself a coffee with his dusty drip coffee machine, “You want to arrest two people?”

“That’s correct,” Francesca replied, sitting opposite Mick in his office. She could see snow falling lightly outside the window.

“Two people working together. Two players. Interesting…” Mick said.

“No, wrong on both counts there, Mick.”

“Two people working independently?”

“Yes. And that’s what really confused me at first with this case. When I realised I was dealing with two separate culprits who had two separate motives, it began to make sense. To add to the confusion, one of our culprits did try to kill both victims. But they were beaten to the second murder by culprit number two.”

Mick nodded slowly and took a gulp of coffee from a chipped mug. “Dan Argenta? Two people tried to kill him?”

“Exactly. Which explains the strychnine in the bread roll and the cyanide in the wine.”

“I see. And whoever used the strychnine also used it to poison Catherine. Spit it out, Fran. I need to send the call out to make the arrests.”

Francesca was expecting him to add ‘if your theory is correct’ at the end of his sentence. The fact that he didn’t made her smile. He was clearly confident that she had the case solved. She did have her history in Nutbourne and Lornbridge Hills to back her up, after all.

“Well, once I explain their motives you can arrest Zave Wilson and Darren Wilcross.”

Mick looked at her curiously. “Darren Wilcross? Wait a second, wasn’t he one of the witnesses? In Melinda’s, if I remember correctly? He was the one who-”

“The one who told Zave Wilson that he saw Dan put the sweetener in Catherine’s coffee.”

“So he incriminated Dan and then murdered him? What’s going on here?”

“I made an interesting discovery yesterday during my visit to Dan’s house in Richmond. Dan Argenta was gay. And very secretive about it, in order to protect his public persona. He used a string of very short relationships with women to cover up his sexuality. I met a man by the name of Michael Lemac at his house who claimed to be a friend. But it was clear he was more than a friend. I think he had recently become involved with Dan. It wasn’t hard to figure out the truth Dan had been hiding. And it made sense in the context of Dan’s relationship with Gareth Lawler. I was told by more than one person that after Gareth came out publicly, his friendship with Dan weakened. I believe that Gareth was upset that Dan was able to continue his successful life and career with his sexuality a secret but he couldn’t. Certainly some resentment there.”

“But who cares if they’re gay? What does it matter? Why keep it a secret these days?”

“Very progressive of you, Mick. Well, as sad as it is, it apparently still counts for something in showbiz. I bet you there are plenty of male celebrities in the closet because the truth would affect a casting director’s decision.”

And what does this all have to do with Darren Wilcross?”

“Well, Darren is also gay. I know that from my short meeting with him after Dan’s death. Now, how does that simple connection make him a murderer you’re wondering? Well it goes a lot deeper than that. Until very recently, Darren was in a relationship with Dan.”

“What? How do you know that?”

“It was a hunch. Darren, by his admission, could not keep his eyes of Dan Argenta in the cafe. This was not solely due to Dan’s looks. Darren and Dan had recently split up, so naturally Darren could not help but watch Dan closely when he entered the cafe, hurt and upset by the break up. Yesterday I just wondered if there was some sort of friendly connection, or infatuation, however I confirmed that Darren had recently ended a relationship by checking in at his work place, Hadmere Events, this morning. A colleague of his, Miriam Baker, told me how badly Darren had taken this. The break up happened the day before Catherine Ratcliffe died. Miriam Baker told me that Darren’s boyfreind lived in London, so Darren made frequent trips there. And he kept the relationship very secretive. No one had met his boyfriend, or even knew his name. Now, Hadmere is a small town. It’s not quite a ‘the only gay in the village’ situation, but it’s close. Darren and Dan meeting in Hadmere would not be far fetched. The day Catherine died, Dan ignored Darren in the cafe, or he didn’t even notice him – which is probably worse. Seething, Darren already had a desire for revenge before Catherine collapsed. Who wouldn’t feel upset? Dan was lapping up the attention from the locals and enjoying the reunion of a famous play, and Darren was sitting at the back of the cafe, ordinary and heart-broken. Dan had beeen two-timing him with Michael Lemac, and in the end had decided to go with Michael. After watching Dan pour sweetener into Catherine’s coffee, his revenge plan was clear – he could incriminate Dan by passing on this piece of information, whether Dan was guilty or not. I thought it was strange how he went to Zave Wilson rather than us, so I was always suspicious. I think that he was concerned the police would see through what he was trying to do – get Dan into trouble. So he played on the emotions of the shocked players, not realising that Zave had in fact killed Catherine.”

“Yet in the end he decided to go one step further than incrimate Dan and actually murder him instead – going for the ultimate revenge.”

“Right. I expect he realised that with one player dead and another reunion lined up at Farfalle – which he would have known all about from being with Dan, he could murder Dan and the suspicion would fall on whoever killed Catherine. Most people would surely think that Catherine and Dan’s were murdered by the same person! I did, at first. So he entered Farfalle the following day, was able to sneak upstairs and lace Dan’s favourite wine with poison. I knew only someone very close to Dan would have this knowledge about the Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Darren would have spent more than enough time in Dan’s Richmond townhouse to know this.”

“And Zave killed Catherine and Dan? Why?”

“Well, as coincidental as it sounded at first, the evidence began pointing to Dan and Catherine covering up a seriously incriminating incident. A hit and run, specifically, after a night out at one of their boozed up social events. Dan would drive Catherine home, often inebriated. Around the same time as their incident, Helen Burbank and her husband were knocked down in a hit and run in Notting Hill. I studied possible driving routes from the West End to Shepherd’s Bush, where Catherine lived. Dan and Catherine would have passed through Notting Hill every time. I realised that Catherine and Dan were responsible! Against the odds, they hit one of their fellow Hadmere players while driving under the influence! And what did they do about it? Nothing. They kept it to themselves, Catherine struggling with guilt far more than Dan. She was a mess, and it culminated in her affair with Benjy Mantle. Michael Lemac revealed that Catherine and Dan could often be found discussing Helen’s accident in angry or upset tones. Clearly, they were trying to protect each other and their careers, but it was tough going for them emotionally and mentally for a while. ”

“Incredible! It’s like some horrific sequel to that plays of theirs. What a bizarre turn of events. But Zave killed them? Not Helen? How does that make sense?”

“Well, Helen and Zave were the principal organisers of this reunion. I was already suspicious of them both at the very beginning. In the cafe, Zave made the drinks order at the bar and Helen used the toilets before the drinks arrived at the table. Both had the opportunity to quickly place a packet of poisoned sweetener on the player’s drinks tray at the bar as they walked through the restaurant. After figuring out Dan and Catherine were the ones who ran over Helen, Helen was of course my prime suspect. Could anyone else know what had happened, though? Who could piece it together? Bill Gregson mentioned to both Helen and Zave that Catherine had done something horrible. One of them could potentially connect the dots – look at the timelines and Catherine and Dan’s whereabouts on the evening Helen was hit. I wasn’t convinced Helen would consider this. Bill certainly wouldn’t. Zave, therefore seemed more likely. But why? Why would he kill them like this if he knew this awful piece of information? Why not approach them? Tell the police? And then it hit me. The Water Ghost Beckons. In this situation, Zave was the water ghost. He took on the role gladly. He knew a terrible secret about these two people and wanted to draw them close and punish them, just like the spirit through the fog. He lured them back down to Hadmere. I suspect he suggested the reunion in the first place. Then he killed them for the sins they had committed, still wrapped up in the success of his play a decade later. A recovering alcoholic, Zave’s glory days are behind him. That play was his peak and if there’s anyone out of those players who hasn’t moved on from it, it’s him. Bill and Helen still live in Hadmere, but Helen has had quite enough on her plate to deal with and Bill left that play behind the second he walked off the stage.”

“It went to his head a bit, to say the least?”

“Oh, I’m sure jealousy was involved also. Only Hana and Bill harboured no jealousy towards Catherine and Dan. As for killing Dan, it would have been easy for him to switch bread rolls just before everyone arrived, sneak back out and come back after a few of the others had arrived. He knew which table had been booked by Helen so he was able to swap over the correct gluten free roll. Dave hadn’t seen much of Dan lately but his gluten intolerance was common knowledge.”

“Pfft. Gluten intolerance… Well, Fran, let’s bring them down to the station, but it sounds like a well done needs to be said in advance here.”

“Thank you, Mick. It’s a hat trick, I suppose? But I think that will be all for the time being. No more small-town murder investigations just yet. I need some time away, a chance to focus on my personal life. Once this is all over I think I’m going to take Jeremy to Italy.”

“For a holiday?”

“Maybe, maybe not. He could find work in the furnishing industry easily over there. If he likes it, of course. Watch this space. For the short term, however, I have a holiday in medieval Japan lined up – all with cards, tokens and a game board in hand.”

“Enjoy it. Wrapping this case up before Christmas suits me also, so I’m not going to complain. Not sure how I feel about you leaving, Fran, but we can discuss that more in the new year. Now… it’s time to pay Zave Wilson and Darren Wilcross a visit.”

 

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The Hadmere Players – Part 6

With Christmas road traffic in mind, Francesca decided to take the train up to London the next morning. Hadmere still seemed full of Christmas cheer, despite the tragedies that took place just a few days earlier. People have their own lives to be getting on with, she considered, and if anything, Catherine and Dan’s deaths are great conversation starters. Who doesn’t love a scandal?

Patches of melting snow were scattered across green fields as the train rolled along. A thick fog permeated the air and through the fog Francesca could see an icy lake. She imagined a spectral figure on the other side of it… an elusive yet persuasive figure who wanted to tempt her onto the lake, where inevitably the millimetre thick layer of ice would crack and she would find herself submerged in the water. The layer of ice, so easy to crack when on top, would become an impenetrable barrier from below when fighting to stay alive… What festive thoughts, she thought, shuddering. Francesca planned to visit the Richmond and Shepherd’s Bush homes belonging to Catherine and Dan. She could also pay a visit to Gareth and Hana’s homes, too. Such selfish kids, Francesca thought. Probably feeling hard done by that yet again the attention has been taken away from them, and any attention they’ve received during this tragedy only has a negative connotation – with them as part of an unlikely suspect line up.

The train travelled past dark graffiti covered buildings as it approached Victoria station, the Shard and London Eye visible in the distance. Francesca picked up a sandwich at the station before jumping on the District line. It was packed. She realised that she and Bill Gregson were alike in at least one way – she absolutely preferred the quietness of small-town life. She made her way to the affluent suburb of Richmond. Once out of Richmond station, she walked past what seemed like an obscene amount of Italian restaurants until she arrived at Richmond Green. She located the white-brick townhouse. She had a warrant to search the premises and was told by Mick that a neighbour held a spare key for access. That was not necessary, however, as she spotted movement through a downstairs window. She knocked on the front door. A blonde haired man, late twenties possibly, opened the door sheepishly.

“Oh… can I can help you?”

“I’m DCI Francesca Palandri. I have a warrant to search Dan Argenta’s residence. Who are you, may I ask?”

“Ah, I’m a friend of Dan’s… I was just picking up some things.”

“Your things?”

“Yes, yes I had a few things here…”

“How did you get in? The neighbours?”

“The neighbours? What do you mean?”

“They have the spare key.”

“Oh, I see. Um, no, I have my own spare key. I’m not sure what’s happening to this house so I needed to come by sooner rather than later.”

“What’s your name?” Francesca asked, entering the house.

“Michael. Michael Lemac.”

“And you knew Mr. Argenta well? For a long time?”

“Well. Not too long. A few months. But we were good friends. This past week has been absolutely devastating, to say the least. ”

“Not too long, you say? Long enough for him to give you a spare key.”

Francesca looked around her. The house was airy, white and quite sparse. Francesca had the impression that Dan never spent too much time here.

“Maybe you can help me with some questions, Mr. Lemac. Dan moved into this house with his girlfriend at the time, didn’t he? Lucy Barnes. They were no longer in a relationship when he died, I think?”

“No, they weren’t together for too long at all, actually. They broke up quite a while ago.”

“So, Dan had the place to himself after that.”

“Yes, but he was out so often. He worked hard. He partied hard.”

“Yes. Often with Catherine Ratcliffe I’ve been told. Did you ever meet her?”

“I’ve met her several times. It’s true, they often attended parties together. They were extremely good friends. Mother and son like, to some extent.”

“They would leave the parties together too, I understand.”

“Yes. That always surprised me a bit… well, he drove her home a lot of the time I think. From the West End – where most of the parties took place – Shepherd’s Bush was on the way back home for Dan. But… I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to be in a car with Dan after he’d been to a party, personally.”

“Oh?”

“I mean, he partied hard, as I said. But when I met Catherine for the first time I could tell she had a soft spot for him. Blind eye, you know.”

“I hear. Did you ever feel they shared secrets with each other?”

“Secrets? I don’t know. I do know they helped each other out of a spell of depression they were both suffering. About a year ago.”

“I heard Catherine was depressed, but not Dan so much,” Francesca said curiously.

“Oh, well, I don’t know really…” Michael said vaguely. He picked up a fantasy book from a small table and added it to a large box of his belongings that he was rounding up.

“Sounds like you do know. Sounds like he had a rough time over something also. His parents did mention he had a ‘moody’ spell, but overall most people point to Catherine having struggled at this time, and Dan was there for her to confide in. To comfort her.”

“Oh, well, he just said he had a tough time. I don’t know the details. He has the better poker face, anyway. He has an image to protect, don’t you get that? Maybe that’s why Catherine’s rough patch was more obvious. She wore her heart on her sleeve.”

“It seems like it was important for Dan to protect his image, I’m realising. Quite a lot of your stuff here I see,” Francesca said, nodding at the box.

“Yes, it just accumulates I guess. This was a nice house to hang out in, you know. Dan often had guests over, not just me!”

“Sure. Did you ever meet any of the other Hadmere players besides Catherine?”

“No. They talked about them sometimes, but I never met any of the others.”

“Who did they talk about?”

“Well, Gareth and Helen mostly, I would say. Dan mentioned Gareth often as they were good friends. Before I knew Dan – that’s why I never met Gareth. If I had known Dan for longer I’m sure I would have.”

“Did Dan seem upset that they weren’t as close anymore? Did he give any indication as to what happened?”

“I think he was upset, yes. He thought it was a shame how they had drifted apart. But I think he was also angry at Gareth for not understanding Dan’s point of view.”

“Point of view in what?”

“Oh, well I couldn’t really say,” Michael answered unconvincingly.

“And they talked about Helen also, you said?”

“Yes. She had that horrible accident, didn’t she? They were very upset about it when it came up in conversation. I don’t think Catherine liked to talk about it, though. Probably because she knew how an accident like that can ruin a career. I mean, imagine if that had happened to Catherine!”

“It came up in conversation frequently?”

“It seemed to actually, yes. Not in front of me, necessarily. I often caught them discussing it. Quite animated discussions sometimes. Heated and emotional. She was their good friend, after all.”

“A good friend who they never saw in person after the accident?”

“Well, Helen lives all the way down in Hadmere.”

“I just travelled from near Hadmere this morning. It’s not that long a journey. Two hours at the most.”

“They were very busy!”

“Oh yes, attending all those parties of course. So, it sounds like maybe they were sharing secrets after all, no?” Michael shrugged. “Mr. Lemac, were you aware Dan was gluten intolerant?”

“Of course. Most people knew that. He was very strict about it. And vocal.”

“I see. And you mentioned he enjoyed drinking. Did he enjoy wine in particular?”

“Yes, I’d say it was his drink of choice. At home especially. He’d always be walking around this place with a glass of wine in his hand.”

“And you only know that from your visits here.”

“Um, yes.”

“Did he have a wine collection?”

“Yes, there are a couple of racks in the kitchen.”

“I’d like to see them.”

Michael nodded nervously and led Francesca towards the kitchen. On a large marble countertop there were two wooden wine racks. There were roughly a dozen bottles in total. She picked up one at random. It was a white – Chateau-Pape-Clement-Blanc. She picked a red. Chateauneuf-du-Pape. She showed Michael the bottle.

“This one. Did he drink this frequently at home?”

Michael studied the label. “I don’t really know all the names of the wines he drank. But the label is familiar. Yes, he liked this one I think.”

“And he wouldn’t really drink this type of wine at parties?”

“Well, at parties he would just drink whatever was available. Champagne, for example.”

“I see. And you say he had lots of guests in this house? That would come over as frequently as you?”

“Well, sometimes, yes.”

“And all those other guests would leave their belongings here, too? This house seems pretty empty to me.”

Michael was flustered. “Uh, I suppose I made myself more at home than the others…”

Francesca nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll leave you to it, Mr. Lemac. But I’ll likely want to speak to you more, so I’ll be needing your contact details. What do you do for a living?”

“I work in film production. I’m an assistant, really. I met Dan on the set of a film he was starring in.”

Francesca took Michael’s details. “Okay. Well, have a good day. I think you might need another box for your belongings there. That one is getting quite full.” She glanced at the box overflowing with clothes, toiletries, accessories, books, and games before she left. She planned on coming back later today to inspect the house after Michael had left. However, she wondered if she already had all the information she needed. Michael had revealed a lot of important details, mostly indirectly.

It was time for a spot of lunch, so Francesca decided to visit a bar along the river – the Thames ran through the heart of Richmond. As she wasn’t driving today she ordered a pint of Peroni with her meal – chicken livers and mash. She sat at the bar, mulling over the events of the last few days.

“You look like you’ve just escaped an office Christmas party,” the bartender remarked.

“Do I look that tired?” Francesca asked with a laugh.

“A bit. We had a guy in here last night who had had enough of his Christmas party, said he can’t stomach most of the people he works with… he bailed out and came here for few drinks.” He chuckled as he finishing drying a wine glass and placed on an oak lacquered shelf behind him.

“No Christmas party for me. I’m just up in London for the day. From Sussex. Near Hadmere.”

“Oh good Lord… where the murders happened?”

“That’s the one.”

“Oh wow, now I see what you’re escaping from! Although you know… Dan Argenta was murdered and he lives here in Richmond! So I think you’ve come to the wrong place to get away from all that. I’ve been following the story. I remember that play. The Water Ghost Beckons.”

“I always forget the impact that play had,” Francesca said.

“Oh, I just really liked the story. Weird parallel though, isn’t it?

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, what happened to the characters in the story. Their deaths. And now the actors dying in real life. Terrible.”

“Well, in the play, the characters had all committed serious crimes or sins. That implies Catherine and Dan did the same in real life.”

“Who knows? It’s just interesting. And we wouldn’t know if they did, would we? If it was the same scenario as the play, I mean. Because the characters kept their sins a secret. Only the water ghost knew.”

“Exactly,” said Francesca as her food arrived, thinking about the story of The Water Ghost Beckons. She ate leisurely; she realised she was in no rush. She didn’t even need to visit Catherine’s house in Shepherd’s Bush. She was quite sure she had this mystery solved.

 

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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.

 

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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 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 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!