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Death By Chocolate

by Phelim 

Posted: 05 April 2004
Word Count: 3964
Summary: After accidentially uploading the lot (doh), here is part of a cosy crime novel. Based in a rural English village it may appear to be a D L Sayers/Agatha Christie type story, but looks can be decieving. I hope its not too long.

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Chapter 1

The smoke moved across the room like a ghostly tide, slowly turning the furniture into something seen in a badly focused crystal ball. Amongst the mist forms moved, shadow puppets without strings. Within the haze someone seemed to stumble.

With the visual equivalent of a crash, lights came on, drowning out the ghostly attributes that had existed and revealing a stage set for a performance. With the flood of light came people hurrying across the platform to deal with any casualties, both human and scenic.

“ My dear Sophie, are you all right?” enquired one man who appeared to be dressed in homage to Oscar Wilde.

“More importantly,” came a gruff voice from off the stage, “is the scenery still in one piece?”

The girl addressed raised herself from where she had landed amongst the props, “Just a little bruised, Gareth,” she said shakily.

Grasping hold of her, Gareth, a tall red head in his early thirties, completed the transformation into an arch-lovey, “But Sophie, darling, your my leading lady. If part of the set was damaged all that would be needed was some nails and some paint, if you had broken something then the whole production may have had to been postponed, or worse cancelled.” As if to enforce the danger that Sophie had placed the play in by her accident Gareth pulled a face like he was talking about a delicate subject that was not suitable for polite company.

Sitting down Sophie spat her words at Gareth. “If this is so important why set the smoke machine so no one can see what is going on on the stage anyway.” Her eyes carried the same anger as her voice making it clear to all present, well all except Gareth, that this was not a question. Muttering something about “atmosphere” Gareth left Sophie rubbing her side from where she had landed, to discuss something with someone about a minor and less troublesome aspect of the play.

Much of the village of Wykmead was looking forward to the Murder Mystery Comedy “Death by Chocolate” in the new theatre that had been built in the village. To a similar degree much of the village was not. Never in the history of the community had one building caused as much upset. In a way reminiscent of the American Civil War, brother was fighting brother. It seemed at times that the word's of Jesus about turning families against each other could have been spoken specifically about the building and running of this venue.

The site occupied by the theatre had previously been built on during the Second World War. Many of the older inhabitants could remember when the land was an open space for impromptu games of football or cricket, and the setting for the village November 5th bonfire. To many villagers Wykmead had greater needs than a theatre. As with much of the country the only provision for youth was the uniformed groups, including a boy's brigade run by the parish church. There was a desperate need for something more.

Other's would have preferred some form of sporting facility. While Wykmead was too small for its own swimming pool the nearest sports centre was a good six miles away and inaccessible for most except on Wednesday's when a bus service was provided to take people to the market held in the near by town of Southdean. Outside of the public house, the convenience store which doubled as a post office, the village school and the church Wykmead was devoid of large building and social venues. The tennis club had a couple of tarmacked courts, the cricket club was able to use the village green with it's pond, there were a couple of golf courses, one attached to a hotel and business centre who's sports facilities were not open to the public. The football team had a couple of old shed's as changing facilities and used the school's playing field. As such it was generally agreed that Wykmead had more pressing needs than a place for plays who's seating capacity was greater than the total village population, unless maybe you counted the dogs and cats.

The theatre had been built through the efforts of Gareth Highfield. To the outsider, Gareth appeared as if he lived permanently in a time-warp based around the 1930's. From the furniture in his house to his clothes to his Morgan sports car, Mr Highfield seemed to have walked out of P G Woodhouse's Jeeves and Wooster. He was never known to mention modern actors such as Branagh, Dench, Hopkins, Bean, Lindsay or Rigg, preferring to speak of such luminaries as Evans, Olivier, Irving, Tree, Leigh or Coward even if his era's were mixed. Such names as Guinness, Gielguid and Mills crept into his vocabulary but their use left you feeling that they were, in someway, an embarrassment to the man.

Gareth Highfield could be described as having an obsession with what he called the “Golden Age of Theatre”. The building, which Gareth was often heard to describe as “my home” was furnished with all the opulence of the West End from between the wars, though on a smaller scale. No Lloyd Webber, Aykborn or Bennet script, however good, would ever darken the doors of this house. At a push Porter, Berlin, and Rogers and Hammerstien might be allowed, especially at Christmas, but the staple diet was Gilbert and Sullivan, Wilde, Shaw, Chesterton, Shakespeare, Bacon and their ilk. In this way “Death by Chocolate” was an anomaly, being a modern production, but one which was easily accounted for by its author, producer and director being, in his humble opinion, Rada's best never student - Gareth Highfield. It would therefore be safe to presume that over the saga of the theatre Gareth had made a good number of enemies.

As Gareth's leading lady was loosing her footing amongst the smoke, the rest of Wykmead was getting on with life or, as some of his critics would have said, reality. The school bus was dropping the children who attended the comprehensive off by the village green.

Looking out of the drawing room window of her cottage towards the village green, Miss Foster sat in her rocking chair thinking. Where as Gareth Highfield lived in a 1930's that had more to do with the fiction of Hollywood, Miss Foster could look back on this era through the rose tinted spectacles of memory. As her knitting needles marked a sharp staccato rhythm Miss Foster was doing just that, remembering the village how it used to be. The field , where the theatre stood now, suddenly taken over for the army with the outbreak of World War 2. With a sigh Miss Foster thought about the new building. It reminded her of the theatres of her youth, when she had “come out” into London society as a débutante. Of young Peter who she had loved and all ways would. It was because of this love that she had never married, even though her betrothed had died in his Spitfire during the war. But, Miss Foster thought to herself, the theatre was all wrong. Society had moved on, whether forwards or backwards she was not sure, but times had changed. Even those who had known Miss Foster and called her by her first name had all but gone the way of all flesh, and now here was one man attempting to get hold of something from forty years before he was born and only catching a personal fairy tale. Putting down her knitting, Miss Foster picked up her large print copy of “A Murder At the Vicarage” and chuckled to herself. “It's a good thing we don't live in St Mary Mead” she said to no one in particular, “or it would be a headless body in the duck pond before Christmas.”

On the opposite side of the Green to Miss Foster's cottage stood the building used by the Parish Council as its offices. Inside Colonel Arnold Orr was sounding off about his favourite hobby horse to any of his fellow councillors who would listen. “That impudent fellow needs a good whipping.” Colonel Orr's face was slowly turning the same colour as his bow tie. “While I know it is not the done thing to speak evil of your predecessors on the council, Highfield must have had some control over the previous council to get that.” The Colonel paused for the right word, “that place built.”

This was a speech that the council had heard many times before, in fact people joked behind the colonel's back that they could do it better than him. Not that many of them disagreed with him. The whole building of the theatre and the way planning permission was given seemed more than slightly odd. People were suddenly able to move to larger, grander houses, or seriously up grade their car. It was just that there were the letters in the newspaper. Each one said “Name and Addressed Supplied” but otherwise kept the writer's identity a secret. A number of people though recognised the colonel's way with words. These letters were not winning the argument.

Colonel Orr's voice came across the room, “he has to be stopped.”

In no other situation other than a small community like a English village is the edict “innocent until proven guilty” so turned on its head. Elderly spinsters, next door neighbours, and many others are quick to label someone as guilty, even if evidence proves otherwise. Similarly in no other situation, save the English village, does the smallest event become hot news . As such, nestling as it does in a small valley,the arrival of a new vicar to Wykmead was worthy of a full house in the church on the Sunday after his arrival. The church in itself was unspectacular. Local records spoke of a chapel for pilgrims who passed that way during Medieval times, that was incorporated into an Elizabethan structure. No evidence of this former building remained as it had been demolished and a Victorian box was erected in its place. This was done through the gifting of the Lord of Wykmead to compliment his new country seat. It could be seen as poetic justice then, that after the MOD had finished with it, after the Second World War, the house had gone through a number of hands, finishing as a posh conversion into flats, with the title of the builder having died out.

The Reverend Philip Weaver was surprisingly young for a vicar of the community. Also, much to the congregations horror he was single, something unheard of for the parish. In his mid thirties with greying hair Mr Weaver had a varied background having qualified as a psychologist and counsellor before returning to college and training for ordination. If being young and single was not bad enough for some folk, the final insult to such a traditional parish was that the new minister had not been through Oxford or Cambridge, instead having been to more modern universities. To Colonel Orr, councillor and ex-church warden, this was not an appropriate state of affairs. While happy to lead services in the high church manner the congregation of St Hilda's Church in Wykmead were used to, the new reverend was that horrible thing, to many of the traditionalists mind, an Evangelical who took the Bible literally. Even so he had been appointed, and had become part of the ministry team at a near by Christian Healing centre.

Another black mark in the life of Philip Weaver was that he was not from a military or hunting family. In fact Philip had been brought up on a housing estate in a market town in Northern England. He did not hunt, shoot or fish but was addicted to logic problems and cryptic crosswords. The vicar had even been seen sat on a bench by the pond attempting the crossword at the back of the Times. Even his clothes were unsuitable with jeans instead of suit trousers. He did though have a passion for classical music, and a good baritone voice, but even this was ruined in the eyes (or ears) of many by his listening to the new station Classic FM rather than Radio 3. Then there was his car. Not the Volkswagen estate of the previous incumbent, but an open top two seater sports car, made in Japan. In the eyes of Colonel Orr and many others the Reverend Philip Weaver was too modern and untraditional for their own good.

One point of pride within Wykmead was the fact that they were well and truly a village. Most people around thought of the collection of houses more as a hamlet that had got out of control, a concept that was abhorrent to the Wykmeadans. Being so small there was one doctor who had a surgery attached to her house, even then she only practised part time. The gender of Suzette Goodwin M.D. was another source of complaint to such traditionalists as Colonel Orr. The Colonel refused to see the village doctor for all but extreme emergencies and, when he did, insisted on referring to her a “nurse”. Not that Dr Goodwin minded. The fact that those elderly people who could went to see a male doctor in Southdean allowed Suzette to get on with wider activities. These included further training as a coroner and her work as a police surgeon. Before training as a G.P. Dr Goodwin had almost gone into psychiatry and found this, and the fact they were both “aliens”, leading to her spending much of her spare time socialising with the vicar.

On the evening after Colonel Orr's speech the village pub was, as usual, visited by those wishing to escape the endless television diet of soap operas and cookery programmes. While not full The Stag the customers were representative of the community. People from all groups were there,and the patrons had gravitated into their usual huddles and camps. Sat quietly in the corner, people watching, were the two outsiders. Their conversation like much of the previous day's concerned village politics.

“Who was it that said something about the many varied evils of an English village?”

The doctor sipped at her Archers and lemonade. “As par normal”, she said thoughtfully, “you are misquoting badly.”

“Yet, I know what you mean.” She added, her eyes twinkling as if at some silent joke. “If we were not in the twenty first century the two camps would be at each other with swords or pistols. Instead they assassinate one another through badly written letters.”

Philip Weaver looked thoughtfully at his empty glass that had, until a few moments before, held Guinness. “May be it would be better if there was some form of battle as in the old days.”

Suzette Goodwin glanced sideways at him as he carried on. “While grievous bodily harm is carried out through the letters to the editor, people are becoming more entrenched in their views. When they meet each other face to face they are painfully polite to each other, hiding their true feelings behind the stereotypical British reserve. Letters are not always printed in full, journalists misquote in order to sell stories. We know some of what people have said but not how they have said it. What has been their mood, what was their body language. If looks could kill the population of this parish would have decreased dramatically over the last months, and the place would be swarming with police.”

“Would you, a man of God, advocate bloodshed over peace?” His companion's voice held an undercurrent of surprise.

“No, bloodshed very rarely produces an answer, except more bloodshed.” Philip's eyes misted over as he continued in a barely audible whisper, “Anger and hate is growing like a cancer. Even if bloodshed is not what lies a head, the whole issue will become much more bloody before we see the end.”

As no one else could hear the word's of the vicar, the noise in the Stag continued as people sat in their groups putting the world to rights. Yet as Philip finished speaking a hush fell on the room. The door to the Lounge Bar had crashed open, turning heads towards the hole. The entrance was a theatrical one. Gareth Highfield sauntered across the room. Whether he realised that many had muttered something under their breath and then ignored him or not Gareth continued to walk to the bar and order his usual sherry as if he was in a spotlight.

Gareth was dressed for the part. His tweed jacket and hat, brogues and plus fours gave him the appearance of a reject from a badly made period drama. Gareth slowly looked around the room, arms outstretched ready to make his usual over the top gesture if he met a friend.

Catching only the eye of Colonel Orr, Highfield moved across to an empty table on the other side of the bar. Gareth had chosen the table carefully. From there he could see who was in the bar, who came in and who left. Most importantly, to Gareth at least, he could easily be seen by any who he wanted to see him.

At his table, Colonel Orr let out a sound like a kettle attempting to boil but not quite making it. Turning his reddening face towards Gareth, the Colonel downed the rest of his whisky. Throwing the glass onto the table, Colonel Orr got up and stormed out into the street. Gareth picked up his sherry, lent back and smiled to himself. Colonel's Orr exit was good, but could be dramatically improved, he thought.

Chapter 2
It was not that Colonel Orr was not a modernist. It was just that, like so many others, he preferred that it was not the area where he lived that was modernised. This being the case not only was Wykmead's new theatre unneeded, it also spoiled what should have not been spoiled.

As the engine of his Land Rover coughed into life, Colonel Orr thought about how life was weighted against people like himself. What with Highfield's folly of a playhouse, and new fangled ideas in the parish church, what was the world coming too? Switching on the radio in the attempt to silence the diesel engine brought no respite with the report being about the government's bill to ban fox hunting.

Colonel Orr followed the pattern of many an arm chair philosopher and debater by joining in the argument by shouting at the radio, as if his views could swing opinion. “What you idiots don't realise, is that hunting is vital for the rural economy.” Slowly the alcohol was beginning to take its toll on the counsellor's reactions. “It's also a dammed good place to meet my friends,” he slurred.

The Land Rover lurched to the right then swung left as Colonel Orr weaved his way into his drive and home.

Back in the Stag, Gareth Highfield was thinking over the day's events. The problem with the smoke machine was a minor detail. The major problem was Sophie. She did not have the right stage presence to be his leading lady. While she had the modern idea of looks, on Sophie the clothes of the 1930's appeared as if they were on a shop mannequin. This was not helped by her acting skills being just as wooden. But Sophie father was one of the counsellors who had helped the theatre be built and was a major financial backer. This “angel” had claimed a right to see his little angel's name in lights.

Humming the tune to Noel Coward's “Don't put your daughter on the stage Mrs Worthington”, Gareth Highfield looked with the critical eye of a second rate actor round The Stag. The sight of a female doctor, and a vicar in jeans made Gareth wince. While, like many brought up in the country who had experience of the city, he was anti-hunting and aware enough to recognise that many of the new generation of fox hunters were those who had earned enough to live in the country and commute, those who had come in and taken up hunting as a traditional country pursuit. Gareth also saw that the gathered hunters gave the pub the right atmosphere, and atmosphere was important.

Turning his mind back to the problem of Sophie, Gareth decided that he had to replace her somehow. For the sake of art, of course. Having decided this Gareth turned his mind to how this could be achieved without loosing the financial backing.

Colonel Orr came to a juddering halt as the brakes on the Land Rover attempted to do their job on a gravel drive. As he fumbled with the door handle a figure came from the side of the house, and opened the car door.

The colonel peered through the dark at the figure, slowly focusing from the alcohol induced haze onto the face in front of him.

“Hello there, what brings you up here?”

The reply was drowned in the noise of gravel where Colonel Orr fell over. Gathering himself, Colonel Orr got up and weaved towards the house.

“Want a drink.” It was not a question. Neither was there a reply. Suddenly, as Colonel Orr approached the steps, two hands moved sending the already unstable colonel towards the stone. Even as Colonel Orr landed, the darkness swallowed whoever had been there.

Inside the house, Mrs Orr sat listening to the radio. Unconsciously she had heard the sound of the Land Rover as it came up the drive, the sound of the car door, and the footsteps of the gravel. Now something was not right. Turning down the radio Mrs Orr listened for the sound of her husband. Uneasy she made her way to the window and looked out. Seeing the outline of a prostrate figure she muttered to herself and went to the front door.

“Drunken fool” muttered Mrs Orr as she switched on the outside light and stepped out the door. Then, seeing the dirty red of blood, she turned and rang for the phone.

In The Stag, the clientèle heard the sound of sirens as the ambulance rushed along the road. As the moment passed, heads turned back towards their neighbours. Nobody looked up as Gareth Highfield came in from the direction of the toilets.

Margaret Orr sat by the bed of her husband. For the stitches on his head, and the ever present sense of “nurse”, he could have been asleep in his own bed. As it was the colonel's wife heard the noise of the hospital somewhere on the edge of her subconscious as she waited for him to leave the drug induced stupor. The recovery would, she had been told, take some time. The colonel was not in the first flush of youth, the bleeding had been made worse by the alcohol in his blood stream. After stitching him, they had had to wait till the following day to start giving him pain killers. Many people had come past, rung the house, or sent cards to wish a speedy recovery. To Mrs Orr, the faces were all a blur and the sentiments unreal. Questions had been asked as to how it happened. Sat knitting, in the company of Radio 4, she was ignorant of what had led to her husband lying where she found him, and the colonel's wife had said so. Yet as she thought back to that evening Margaret Orr was conscious of another presence, even after the ambulance had left her. Not the spiritual type, she was unwilling to put it down to something supernatural, but even so someone, no something (it was probably a fox or badger Mrs Orr said to herself) was there.

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Comments by other Members

Friday at 18:16 on 28 April 2004  Report this post
Hi Phelim,

Chapter One
Great start, I liked the idea of starting with the stage in a haze and the stumble. It worked well.

One thing, If you changed:
‘Within the haze someone seemed to stumble.’
To - Within the haze someone stumbled.’ - it’s reads stronger.

I liked Gareth from the beginning. An instant likeable character. For him ‘life is theatre’, which should prove interesting.

I would liked to have seen Sophie’s costume and perhaps some details on the stage setting, was it a living room? dining room? That sort of thing.

Miss Foster – Lovely old woman!!! I expect her to start lots of trouble for the play.

I got a good feel for Wykmead and it’s people.

Chapter Two

Colonel Orr – I’m not surprised somebody wanted to push him over. I liked the first reaction of his wife thinking he is just drunk, then seeing the blood.

Gareth again – he is really a strong character.

I liked how you started chapter one with a stumble and ended chapter two with one. Neat.

Great ending to Chapter Two – makes me want to read. Chapter Three.

This is a very good start a novel Phelim, it’s fun. Full of interesting characters who live in a cosy world and all want to start trouble. Please carry on with it.
I enjoyed reading it,

kaspar at 11:31 on 11 May 2004  Report this post

Hi Phelim

I like this , I'm going to read the rest. It's a very good start.
You set the starts and ends of the chapters beautifully.

rgds kaspa (Andrew)

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