THE PROMPT: They were in the middle of raiding the pantry when a cough came from behind them …
Steve had booked a country house for Adele’s special birthday weekend, and invited a group of friends. He’d also bought one of those murder mystery packs for the weekend as the weather forecast couldn’t be relied upon at this time of year. He worried in case it was a bit cheesy, but everyone their friends had been keen, thinking it would be fun. He was careful to pick something set in the twenties so the outfits would be easy, and the bonus was that Adele’s vintage clothes business meant she’d have her choice of outfits, and could shine… which is what Adele liked to do in any gathering.
Antique crystal glasses filled with champagne greeted them as they entered the grand hallway, quickly followed by their guests– chinking glasses and calling out birthday greetings. Adele’s laugh tinkled out across the gathering and Steve began to relax – it seemed he’d got it right.
The staff, resplendent in their uniforms, gently encouraged guests to make their way upstairs to change for cocktails and dinner. Gathered once more in suitable garb, the butler was displaying his encyclopedic knowledge of cocktails. Even while serving them, he managed the snooty down-his-nose look perfectly.
Decked out in his white sharkskin dinner jacket, bought specially and altered to fit, Steve was delighted with the sight which awaited them as he walked Adele into the dining room. The long table positively sparkled. Lit with a vast array of candles in silver candelabras running down the centre, they glinted off the vast array of silver cutlery and crystal glasses. The table was set for a formal multi-course dinner, and although Steve had worried that many courses would leave people uncomfortable full – the portions proved to be well balanced, absolutely delicious and beautifully presented.
They remained in character for a twenties dinner party, the time when the men would typically to retire for coffee and cigars. It being Adele’s party, she wasn’t going to be left out of anything, so the whole party retired to the drawing room for coffee and liqueurs. It was there the murder occurred.
In true country house murder mystery style, the lights went out, rapidly followed by the sound of a single shot. When the lights came back up, the under-butler was lying, theatrically clasping his chest, where a red stain was spreading across his perfectly starched dress shirt. Steve had to admit he was impressed how realistic those fake blood capsules looked.
The rest of the evening and much of the next day followed the script of an Agatha Christie country house murder. The detective behaved in an imperious manner, asking questions (according to the script provided) and insisting that “nobody leave” without his permission. Steve had chosen Adele’s ex-boyfriend to play the detective – an actor by profession, if not yet hugely successful – he carried out his part with great aplomb.
Saturday’s schedule was packed. A full cooked breakfast was followed by detective playing his part to the full, as he interviewed each guest in turn, until the butler finally called in positively plummy tones: “luncheon is served”. A large cold spread partnered with home-baked bread and home-made pickles greeted the party, accompanied by soft drinks and locally brewed beer. The guests laughed at feeling like naughty children when, luncheon over, the butler suggested they might all enjoy a walk in the landscaped grounds. The fresh air proved surprisingly enjoyable, and it gave them the opportunity to speculate on the identity of the killer.
Afternoon tea served in a striking Clarice Cliff tea service, allowed them to wile away the afternoon, before breaking out their finery once more, dinner was an equally sparkling affair as the night before. Yet something seemed off, and Steve couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
Just as he was dozing off, Adele shook his shoulder. Despite insisting that she was too full to eat her chocolate brownie desert, she now had a craving for it. Wondering how on earth he would fulfil her request, he was pathetically grateful to hear the butler had whispered to her that he’d put a serving aside in the pantry, in case she changed her mind. And she had. Could they…?
Adele in a full length chinoiserie dressing gown and Steve in newly purchased silk pyjamas, both giggling like naughty school kids, finally located the pantry. There, as promised, was a plate of chocolate brownie desert. Picking up the plate, Steve nearly dropped it again when there was a cough behind them.
Recognising the butler, he breathed in relief. But the butler gave him his most supercilious of looks to date, saying in his most snooty tone “why am I not surprised to find sir raiding the pantry?” Turning to Adele for support, Steve was surprised to see her standing beside the butler, her arm linked in his.
“What’s going… “
But before he could finish, Steve saw the butler reach out and touch his shoulder. Yet he felt no pressure on his skin, only coldness – a deep, bone numbing cold. Feeling as if his body suddenly weighed a ton, Steve tried to reach out, but his limbs didn’t respond. Crying out, he was terrified to realise he’d made absolutely no sound at all.
Two weeks later, the group gathered again – this time without Adele or Steve. The actor who’d played the part of detective took centre stage once more.
“She’d planned it all after he made a will. Poor bugger had absolutely no idea. She’d been monitoring his emails from the word go, and when she found the booking, she arranged with her new man to get the part.”
When the shock had subsided and the questions started flying, he raised his hands for silence.
“He slipped something into Steve’s bedtime hot drink. They planned that he’d faint in the pantry, where they could fabricate an accidental hitting of his head on the marble table. But something happened. He had some sort of strange allergic reaction – and went stone cold – then his heart stopped.”
Adele’s best friend shook her head…
“I never understood what she saw in Steve. She had a proper penchant for actors, and he was all heart on his sleeve – not her sort at all. Never thought she’d kill him though.”
© Debra Carey, 2021