The Crime Writers' Association

Heartbridge Homicides - Camilla Macpherson

‘Haven’t seen you before,’ said Janet, as she approached the thin, nervy-looking man waiting at the red and white parking barrier. Beyond the barrier (so near, but yet so far) lay the studio where Heartbridge Homicides was filmed. ‘Like a cup of tea?’ she added. ‘Must be nearly time for elevenses and it’s nippy out here today.’

She was already rummaging for her thermos and her spare mug. She always carried at least two mugs. No one really wanted to share. The man took the mug and she poured out. Then he dug around in the pockets of his mac and pulled a packet of custard creams out of one and pink wafers out of the other.

‘Want a couple?’ he said.

‘Don’t mind if I do,’ she said, taking one of each. ‘So is Heartbridge Homicides your favourite detective show?’ She knew most of the regulars at the studio gate by now. The Heartbridge Homicide Hangers-on, they called themselves. This one was new. Still, always nice to add someone to the gang.

The man gave a shy nod.

‘Me, I love them all,’ she continued, wanting to put him at ease. ‘Midsomer Murders. Vera. Inspector Morse. Always try and beat them to it. As soon as I reckon I know who did it, I write their name in my notebook with the exact time. Personal best is five minutes thirty-three seconds after the opening credits. Death in Paradise, that was.’

‘Blimey, you must be clever,’ said the man. ‘Solving crimes without even leaving your living-room.’

‘Motive, means and opportunity, that’s all there is to it,’ said Janet. ‘Still, not the same as doing it for real. Now, who do you like best?’

The man cleared his throat. ‘Grace Demspey. Plays DI Johnson.’

He really must be a fan. It wasn’t everyone knew that Grace’s character got promoted from detective sergeant last week. He was holding a white envelope, Janet saw now. Must know it was her birthday too. Didn’t matter, she told herself. A card was nothing, not when she’d made a cake.

‘She’s my favourite too,’ she said. ‘Now, here comes Ted. Have you met Ted? Works on the gate. Used to be in the SAS, or so he says. Morning, Ted!’

‘Morning, Janet,’ said Ted. ‘How’re you doing?’

Janet bounced over. ‘You’ll never guess, Ted. I think we’ve got a new member of the Heartbridge Hangers-On. Meet – meet -’ She turned around to ask the man’s name but he’d gone. All that was left was the envelope, dropped on the ground. ‘Oh well, another time. Listen, Ted. I’ve got a little something for Miss Dempsey’s birthday.’

Ted scratched his head. ‘How’d you know it’s her birthday?’

‘Read it in Hello last week. Didn’t you see that interview with her and Charlie? Must have been eight pages long what with all the pictures. Lovely couple. Lovely place too, though it could do with a bit of carpet. Too many candles for my liking too. And as for all those cushions on the couch, how are either of them meant to sit down?’

‘You bring me a copy next time, Janet, and I’ll have a proper look. So, what’ve you got for Grace?’

Janet opened up the box. ‘Vanilla sponge. I made it myself. I put a little model of the two of them on top. Just a bit of a hint. Vanilla’s her favourite. Remember when they did Celebrity Bake-off together? That vanilla millefeuille was something else. Now, would you give it to her?’

‘Give it to her yourself,’ said Ted. ‘Here they are.’

An open-topped red sports car had pulled up at the barrier. Grace Dempsey was in the driving-seat, her blond hair windswept and sunglasses framing her face. Proper classy, she was. Charlie Barraclough was next to her, frowning down at his phone. Not that Janet minded when he frowned. She liked the rugged look.

‘Nice to see you, Janet,’ said Grace, pushing her sunglasses up onto her forehead and flashing her lovely teeth.

Janet blushed. ‘Happy birthday, Miss Dempsey,’ she replied. ‘Or should I say DI Johnson? You’ll be out of that uniform and in plain clothes before you know it. Maybe Charlie next.’

‘You’d best have a word with the script writers,’ Grace replied. Charlie just grunted.

‘Janet’s made you a cake, Miss Dempsey,’ said Ted. ‘And I’ve got something for you myself. Hope it’s alright.’ He took a thick packet out of his pocket and handed it to her. ‘Open it when you’re on your own, OK?’ he added with a wink. Grace winked back, and Charlie grunted a bit more loudly.

‘Janet, you’re to bring that cake up to the rehearsal room yourself, OK?’ said Grace. ‘We’ll eat it at the morning tea-break. You can meet the whole cast.’

Janet could feel herself trembling and gripped the box with both hands. It would be awful to drop it now.  ‘I couldn’t possibly,’ she said, but Grace was already driving away, waving cheerfully.

‘Why don’t I give you a lift up in my golf-cart?’ said Ted. ‘Come on, they won’t bite. They’re just like the rest of us deep down.’

‘Alright then,’ she replied. The envelope that the man in the mac had dropped was still on the ground. She picked it up and passed it to Ted.

‘I’ll add it to the fan mail,’ he replied. ‘All aboard?’

‘Room for a little one?’ came a voice behind them. The woman trotting towards the gate was a less elegant version of Grace. Her hair was more mousy than blond, and more dry than windswept. The sunglasses didn’t quite suit. She had a fancy bag that might, or more likely might not, have been the real thing. Janet recognised her at once. Grace’s twin sister, Gail. She’d seen them interviewed together in the Sunday Times. Gail was a nurse, Janet remembered, but they’d both started out in TV. Nothing wrong with nursing, far from it, but it wasn’t quite the same as Saturday primetime. She wondered if they got on as well as they had said they did.

Ted shrugged. ‘Come on then, hop in,’ he said.

*

Just wait until she told the Heartbridge Hangers-On about this, thought Janet as she circulated (yes, actually circulated) around the cast and crew handing out slices of cake. Grace had taken one of the bigger slices, she noted happily. She was glad now she’d used pink icing, despite the extra effort, pink being Grace’s favourite colour. Charlie hadn’t had any, but Janet knew from his interview in last week’s Male Fitness that he’d gone sugar free and never felt better. He could do with losing a bit of weight to be honest. He was looking a bit chunky in the tummy department today. Still, he’d given her a nice smile, one of the ones that made his eyes go crinkly at the edges, before telling her he was off to the canteen to get himself some porridge instead.

‘Another slice?’ she said to Tallulah Trefusis, who played a community support officer on Heartbridge Homicides. This meant that she was always either making the tea or going out on the beat.

‘Don’t I recognise you from somewhere?’ said Tallulah, leaning forward. Janet caught a whiff of lavender. Reminded her of her Gran, God rest her. Funny for a girl Tallulah’s age to be using a perfume like that.

‘You’ll have seen me at the gate,’ she said.

‘Of course! You’re one of those funny fans, aren’t you?’

‘We don’t think we’re funny,’ Janet replied tartly, while at the same time resolving not to nominate Tallulah for best newcomer in the Detective Drama Awards of the Year.

But Tallulah wasn’t listening. She was looking over Janet’s shoulder, a nasty look on her face. Janet turned around. Grace was there, holding the white envelope and talking rapidly to Ted. Even when she was worried she looked lovely, thought Janet. No wonder Tallulah was jealous. Grace had done a stint at the RSC, for goodness sake. Everyone knew that Tallulah had come straight from that awful daytime TV show, Medics and Matrons.

She glanced down at her plate. One of the runners had taken the last slice of cake. No one seemed to want to chat now. Well, they were all busy people. Nothing for it but to go back home.

No one noticed her leave. She trudged back to the gate (no lift from Ted this time around either) and got in her car. You’re never going to believe this… she typed in the Heartbridge Hangers-On WhatsApp group. Then (let them stew on that for a while) she set out for home.

Her phone started pinging while she was still on the dual carriageway. By the time she’d negotiated a tricky parallel park outside her maisonette, she had fifty-three messages. Goodness, they were eager, she thought. Then she read the most recent message. Turn on the TV, it said. Now.

*

…Police are investigating the murder earlier today of actress Grace Dempsey.

Janet felt her knees go weak.

Miss Dempsey was found in her dressing-room during filming for Heartbridge Homicides. She died after inhaling poisonous fumes from a lavender-scented candle. The candle is believed to have been left in her room during the morning break from filming.

Janet collapsed down onto the sofa.

Martin Matthews, who had a history of stalking Miss Dempsey and is believed to have left a threatening note for her at the set today, is helping the police with their enquiries.

A photo flashed up. It was the man in the mac. A stalker? He had seemed so harmless. Janet tutted. Then the photo was gone and Charlie appeared, sitting behind a table with Gail on one side and the director of Heartbridge Homicides on the other. She turned up the volume.

‘The acting world has lost one of its greats today,’ said Charlie, as the camera closed in on the tears running down his cheeks. ‘And I have lost the woman I loved, and the future I dreamed of.’ He looked dreadfully pale, and his hands were shaking. Gail passed Charlie a tissue, then put a hand carefully on his. Her hair, Janet noticed, was looking rather more coiffed than it had that morning. Charlie had better watch out.

‘What’s going to happen to the show?’ shouted one of the journalists.

‘Well, I think we all know what Grace would have wanted,’ said the director. ‘As we say in the business, the show must go on. I am pleased to announce that Gail Dempsey, Grace’s sister and of course a talented actress herself, has kindly agreed to step in and play DI Johnson for the rest of the season.’

Talented indeed, thought Janet. If Gail was that talented she’d be looking sad right now, not like the cat that got the cream.

She turned off the TV, made herself a cup of tea and had a good cry. It was a dreadful thing to happen. And to think, she’d been practically on the scene herself. By rights, the police should be talking to her.

She opened a packet of chocolate digestives. The biscuits made her think about Martin Matthews, sitting in a cell somewhere. You can solve crimes without leaving your living-room. That was what he had said. He’d called her clever too, and (she patted her hair smugly) he was right. She hardly ever missed a clue.

She blew her nose firmly, reached down the side of the sofa for her notebook and pencil, and glanced at her watch. Three o’clock. She’d miss Diagnosis Murder, but it was the least she could do for poor Grace. She turned to a fresh page and wrote the time at the top. Motive, means and opportunity, that was all it was, just like she’d told that Martin.

Start with him. Martin Matthews, she wrote firmly. No one liked a stalker. You never knew when they might turn nasty.

Gail Dempsey. Doing a bit too well out of Grace’s murder. Probably her sister’s next of kin too, and Grace must be worth a fair bit.

Tallulah Trefussis. Out for what she could get, no doubt. She wouldn’t be pleased about Gail muscling in. Might have learnt a bit about poisons on Medics and Matrons too.

Charlie. Nothing to gain from Grace dying. Together they were the perfect couple. He might not find it so easy on his own. Janet picked up her phone and took a quick look at his Instagram. He had posted something nice about Grace, bless him, and it had already been shared nearly a thousand times. His followers must be up by 50,000 already. It’s an ill wind, she thought, then stopped herself. Poor Charlie.

Ted? He’d stayed on at the set after Janet left. Easy for him to leave that candle in Grace’s dressing-room. or it might have been in that package he slipped her. Maybe he was a bit too fond of Grace. Something like that could drive a man mad, especially when he had to keep seeing her with Charlie. He didn’t look like the murdering type. Then again, maybe he wasn’t joking about his time in the SAS.

Truth was, it could be any of them. They all had the opportunity, and most of them had a motive. Time for Janet to do some serious work. She turned on her iPad and reached for her Heartbridge Homicides clippings box.

At five thirty, she wrote a name in her notepad (two hours and thirty minutes it had taken her, which didn’t seem too bad), underlined it, and went to make herself some beans on toast.

*

‘Morning, Janet,’ said Ted. ‘Wasn’t expecting you today.’

‘I want to see the police,’ she said. ‘The ones investigating the murder. It’s important.’

‘I’m sure they’ll be in touch if they have any questions for you.’

Janet stood firm. ‘Well, I’m sure they’ll speak to me now. I do after all’ – she cleared her throat, wanting to get it right- ‘have information pertaining to their investigation.’

*

She entered the rehearsal room just as Tallulah was being handcuffed. The rest of the cast were standing around looking embarrassed but relieved. Ridiculous. Of course it wasn’t Tallulah. She tutted loudly, and a man in a Chief Inspector’s uniform (the real one, not the Heartbridge Homicides version) turned around. He didn’t look too friendly, but Janet stuck to her guns.

‘You don’t think she did it, do you?’ she said. ‘I know there was no love lost between her and Grace, but she’s no murderer. You won’t want to make another mistake I’m sure.’

‘Mistake?’

‘You know, like Martin Mathews. There’s no way he could have got past Ted without him noticing. Ted’s highly trained. Well, you’ll have checked the CCTV by now I expect. That’ll prove it. Anyway, he didn’t have room in his pockets for any poisoned candle either. He was carrying too many biscuits around.’

The Chief Inspector’s mouth was hanging open.

Janet ploughed on. ‘Anyway, he never gave Grace any serious grief did he? Or not that they ever reported on the news. Just stupid letters, no more than that. Now, what’s all this fuss about Tallulah? It’s because that candle was lavender-scented, isn’t it?’

The Chief Inspector finally found his voice. ‘Who the hell are you? And who let you in?’

‘Janet Jones, fan of the show,’ she replied. ‘Now, lavender is Tallulah’s lucky scent. Reminds her of the auntie who used to watch her in her school shows. Of course you’d know that if you read TV Quick.’

‘What’s that got to do with the murder?’

‘My point exactly. She doesn’t smell of lavender because she messed with the candle that killed Grace Dempsey, if that’s what you’re thinking. She smells of lavender because she thinks’ – Janet couldn’t help giving a small, disdainful sniff – ‘That it improves her acting. Do you have anything else on her? Because if not, I suggest you take those cuffs off. If you ask me, she was set up.’

‘Who’d want to do that?’ said Gail. She was standing by a window, chewing a fingernail.

‘You, for one,’ said Janet. ‘Nothing to lose, everything to gain. Your nursing training must have taught you a bit about poisons. And convenient that you happened to be at the studio on the day Grace was killed. I’m here at least once a fortnight, and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen you.’

Gail’s eyes were looking wild. ‘Charlie, are you just going to let this – this lunatic – talk to me like that?’ she said. ‘And what about you?’ She glared at the Chief Inspector. But he was sitting back in a chair, just like Janet when she was watching Heartbridge Homicides. He seemed to be enjoying himself. Well, maybe he was a fan of the show too.

‘No need to over-react,’ said Janet. ‘Didn’t do you any favours in Celebrity Big Brother that time, did it? And just because you could have done it doesn’t mean you did do it. Now you on the other hand -’

She pointed straight at Charlie.

‘You’re right, Gail. The woman’s clearly crazy,’ said Charlie. His voice seemed higher than usual. ‘I loved Grace. I’d never hurt her.’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Janet. ‘Loved yourself, more like. Jealous, that’s what you were. Don’t deny it. Always Grace and Charlie, wasn’t it? Never Charlie and Grace. You’d never have got that slot on Bake-off without her, or that photo spread in Hello. We both know it. Her with her million followers on Instagram, and you with your 54,000.’

‘Not anymore,’ he said, unable to conceal the excitement in his voice. ‘I’m going to hit 200,000 today. The endorsements are going to come rolling in.’

‘Only because Grace is dead.’

‘But I couldn’t have done it. I was in the rehearsal room in the tea-break. You saw me yourself.’

‘For part of the time. But I saw you leave too.’

‘I was going to the canteen to get some porridge.’

‘I’m afraid not, Charlie,’ said Janet. ‘You were going to leave that candle in Grace’s dressing-room. You knew she loved candles. They’re all over the place in your fancy new flat, aren’t they?’

‘Penthouse apartment actually,’ he flashed back. ‘So where did I have this candle then?’

‘Well, you’re looking slimmer today than you were yesterday. Must be quite the diet. Unless you had something stuffed down your front.’

‘I went to the canteen, I tell you.’ Charlie was frowning darkly.

Janet smiled ruefully. She was going to miss his good looks when he was off the show. ‘Of course you didn’t. It was Wednesday yesterday. That’s your juice day, remember? I realised as soon as I saw your hands shaking in that press conference. You must be starving by the end of the day.’

She reached into her bag, pulled out the article from Male Fitness and passed it over. Charlie Barraclough’s Weekly Routine – Sticks to it like Clockwork, said the headline. She had circled Wednesday with a Sharpie. Celery juice detox three times a day and two litres of water.

‘Not easy, fasting,’ she added. ‘Could never do it myself.’

For the second time in as many days, Charlie began to cry.

*

‘So why wasn’t I a suspect?’ asked Ted, gulping tea from one of Janet’s mugs. Charlie had just been driven away in a squad car.

‘You were,’ she said. ‘Though I didn’t think poison would be your weapon of choice, what with you being ex-SAS and only needing your bare hands. Still, I thought you might have had a bit of a thing for her. You know, a crime of passion. It wasn’t that, though, was it?’

Ted shook his head. ‘No. I was worried about her. Something wasn’t right, I could tell. It felt like she’d started acting all the time, even when she was off the set.’

‘So what was in the package you gave her?’

‘A book on how to get out of toxic relationships. She never got the chance to open it. The police told me.’

‘Well, at least you tried,’ Janet replied, pulling a packet of biscuits out of her bag. ‘Fancy a chocolate bourbon?’

‘Course I do,’ he said, and dug in. ‘See you next week, then?’

Janet hesitated. ‘You know, Ted, I don’t think so.’ She gestured towards the studio. ‘I mean this lot are just making it up. I reckon I’ve got a taste for the real thing.’

Just then, the Chief Inspector drew up to the gate in his sleek black car. He opened the window. ‘Fancy a lift, Janet?’ he said. ‘Want to pick your brains about a couple of my other cases.’

‘Don’t mind if I do,’ she said, and hopped in.