If you ask me, Dame Cecile Savoy was overdoing it. Chewing the scenery, in fact. I'm as sympathetic as the next person - providing the next person isn't Evangeline - but she was beginning to set my teeth on edge.
I mean, widow's weeds were all very well in their day, I suppose, but I can't imagine where she'd even found any in this day and age. They must have been left over from some ancient theatrical production - East Lynne, perhaps. Especially that long, all-enveloping, rusty black cloak.
The draped black veil concealed her face. Judging by the whimpering snuffling noises coming from behind the veil, that was probably a mercy From time to time, a black-gloved hand holding a black-bordered handkerchief slipped under the veil to dab at streaming tears.
Evangeline rolled her eyes at me and I rolled mine back. We were both trying to ignore the inert body in the pet carrier on the jump seat facing us. Dame Cecile had adamantly refused to allow it to be placed in the boot.
It was going to be a long day.
'Now then ...' Eddie shut the door on us and climbed into the driver's seat. We had hired his taxi for the day to take us down to Brighton from London. 'Where to? The pet cemetery, is it? I don't have The Knowledge down 'ere. You'll have to tell me where - '
'Stuff Yours!' Dame Cecile said in a muffled voice.
'Eh?' Eddie turned to look over his shoulder at us. His eyebrows would have disappeared into his hairline, if he'd had a hairline. 'That's not very nice.'
'Stuff Yours!' Dame Cecile repeated.
'Now, now, Cecile,' Evangeline said between clenched teeth. 'We realize you're distraught and it's all terribly sad but, after all, the damn - er, the dear creature was about two hundred and fifty years old in human terms. It isn't as though it were cut down in its prime.'
'In any case,' Evangeline decided to be pedantic about it, 'I believe the correct expression is "Up -"'
'Stuff Yours!' Dame Cecile trumpeted, in a voice that would have rattled the opera glasses in the chairbacks of the second balcony. 'Stuff Yours - the taxidermist, you fool!'
The day was going to be even longer than I had thought.
It had all started with that telephone call yesterday morning. Some day I'm going to train myself to stop answering the phone. But I had been expecting a call from my daughter, Martha, who had been hinting for days that she was soon going to have something wonderful to tell me - and so, I took the call.
'Hello? ... Hello?' At first, I thought the person on the other end of the line was under water. The strange gasping, gulping, bubbling noises sounded more as though they emanated from a faulty water supply pipe in an aquarium than from any human source.
'Ev - hoo-hoo - Evan - hoo-hoo ... vangel - hoo-hoo ... sniff ...'
'You want to speak to Evangeline?' I guessed wildly. 'Who's calling, please?' It didn't sound like a call she'd be delighted to receive.
'Let me talk to her!' The voice found itself and became almost coherent. 'I'm desperate! I need human warmth, sympathy, understanding ...' it wailed.
'And you want Evangeline?' She must be desperate. Orelse there was some other Evangeline in the city 'What number are you calling?'
'Trixie! Stop playing the fool and put me through!' The momentary whiplash of command in the voice - which was beginning to sound familiar - was ruined by several more hoo-hoos and sniffs. 'This is an emergency!'
'On your head be it,' I muttered and called out, 'Evangeline, it's for you!
'At this hour?' It was barely 10 a.m. and, although we were both up, we weren't really functioning yet - just sitting around waiting for the caffeine in the first cup of coffee to kick in enough to enable us to pour ourselves a second cup.
'She said she wants - ' This was no time to repeat the warmth and sympathy routine. 'She wants to speak to you.'
Evangeline snatched the phone from me with a dirty look, as though I had been personally responsible for engineering the call just to annoy her.
'Who is it?' she snapped. 'Do you know what time it is? Or hasn't anyone explained the big hand and the little hand on the clock to you yet?'
Well, it was warm enough, I supposed, practically sizzling, in fact. But somehow I doubted that it was quite what the caller had had in mind.
Unusually for Evangeline, there was a long silence while the other person held forth. Even more unusually, Evangeline began to smile. It was not a pleasant smile. That was more like her.
'Oh, my poor dear Cecile,' she cooed unconvincingly, confirming my suspicion that it was Dame Cecile Savoy on the line. 'How too, too tragic for you. You mustn't worry about a thing at a time like this. Of course we'll do it for you.'
'What time like this?' I bleated. I didn't trust that smug look on her face for one second. 'What will we do?'
'Be quiet!' Evangeline snarled. 'No, no, not you, Cecile.Trixie, er, dropped a cup. So clumsy - and noisy. Do go on.'
I picked up the nearest dish and made threatening gestures with it. I would drop it - right on her head.
'Yes, yes, of course we will. Tomorrow, I promise. We'll be with you first thing in the morning. Er, that's when we'll start out. We should be with you by noon. No, no - don't thank me. What else could we do but stand by an old friend in her hour of grief?'
'What grief? What's happened?'
'Until tomorrow, then.' Evangeline replaced the receiver and turned to me with a triumphant light in her eyes. 'Trixie, we've got our play back again!'
'What play? What's going on?'
'We're going on! At the Royal Empire Theatre, Brighton, in the revival of Arsenic and Old Lace that was rightfully ours! The Show Must Go On - and Cecile is too distraught to step out on any stage for the foreseeable future. So you and I, Trixie, are going to step in and Save the Show!'
'Oh, no, we're not,' I said. 'We have our own brand new show being written for us!'
'Oh, yes.' Evangeline was momentarily abashed, 'I'd forgotten that in the heat of the moment.'
'What moment? What grief? Why can't Cecile go on?'
'Oh, she's lost that revolting little floor mop she was so attached to. Fleur-de-Mal, or whatever it was called, has finally popped her tiny clogs and Cecile is taking the whole thing rather badly.'
'Fleur-de-Lys has died?' I gasped. 'Oh, poor Cecile! No wonder she feels so awful. She adored that cute little Pekinese - and she'd had her practically for ever.'
'Exactly.' Evangeline poured her second cup of coffee. 'There's no need for her to take on so. The thing has gone through about ten normal doggie lifetimes. I'd begun to think the damned creature was immortal. And so, I suppose, had Cecile.'
'And what's all this about tomorrow?' I persisted.
'I told Cecile we'd stand by her during the final rites.'Evangeline began to look more shifty than usual. 'After which, of course, we can go over to the theatre and get in some rehearsal time. They're opening in a week.'
'What do you mean, we? So Cecile can't - or won't - go on with the show. But what about Matilda Jordan? She's co-starring and I can't see her going into deepest mourning just because Dame Cecile has lost her dog. She'll still want to play her own part.'
'That's a point,' Evangeline admitted. 'We'll have to work on that one.'
'What we'll work on,' I said coldly, 'is getting Dame Cecile back on stage herself. We agreed it would be bad strategy to present ourselves as a pair of dotty old eccentrics and we've commissioned a bright new playwright to create a musical especially for us. Everything else apart, suppose we did do Arsenic and Old Lace and it was a big hit and we got stuck in a long run? We could lose the new show and the theatre Nigel is arranging for us. And I don't even want to think about Matilda Jordan's reaction to being dumped.'
'It would be a hit - with us in it.' Evangeline was weakening. 'But I'm sure Nigel could persuade his uncle to hold the theatre for us. He's such a dear helpful boy - and so misunderstood.'
'Mmmm ...' In my opinion, people understood Nigel only too well. That was why he had lost most of the clients he had been financial adviser to. Mind you, so long as one didn't get financially involved with him, he was quite a pleasant chap and he did have an uncle with a jewel box of a theatre he'd kept dark for decades, but might be willing to release to us. But that was in the future and this was now.
'All right,' I said. 'We'll go down to Brighton and see Dame Cecile through her darkest hour - but we're going to persuade her to get back on that stage herself. No way are we going to get tied up in Arsenic. We have better things to do!'
'Stuff Yours,' Dame Cecile said. 'Here we are.' She gave a muffled sob.
Eddie pulled up in front of a dingy shop sprawled across the end of a shallow cul-de-sac. Behind its grubby plate glass window, a variety of wild and domestic species were frozen for eternity in poses that were presumably typical of them in life.
'I can't go on,' Dame Cecile moaned, falling back against the seat. 'Not without my darling Fleur.'
I resisted a strong impulse to kick her out of the cab. Besides, it isn't so easy to do from a sitting position.
'Be brave, Cecile.' Evangeline rose to the occasion. 'Fleur would have wanted you to be.'
'That's true,' I chimed in. 'Fleur loved you dearly. She never would have wanted to think that she was causing you any pain.'
'Yes, yes, you're so right.' Dame Cecile mopped at her eyes and struggled forward in her seat. 'She was such a dear loving little darling. I must always think of her that way.'
'That's right,' Evangeline encouraged, adding, a little tactlessly, I thought, 'Besides, you'll soon have her back again - even if not in quite the same form.'
Dame Cecile gave a heart-wrenching sob. Eddie opened the door and swung the pet carrier off the jump seat, which promptly snapped shut.
'Do be careful!' Dame Cecile cried.
'Why?' Evangeline asked. 'It can't hurt the - Ouch!' The hard push I gave her reminded her that she could still be hurt. She scrambled out of the cab with more haste than dignity.
'Place looks closed.' Eddie peered through the window into the deserted showroom.
'It can't be! They're expecting me!' Dame Cecile swept past him and rattled the doorknob. The door swung open and we stepped into gloom and silence.
'Sure you want to go through with this?' Eddie looked around uneasily and I didn't blame him.
We were surrounded by dead creatures. They stared at us with glassy eyes from dark corners. Birds perched on rocks beneath glass domes, a fox lurked in the shadows behind a trestle table, on top of which white mice paraded in increasing sizes from a baby mouse up to a large white rat. In a spotlit showcase in a corner was a Victorian tableau of baby squirrels enjoying a tea party. Beside the showcase, a hooded cobra coiled, ready to strike.
'Cor!' Eddie shuddered. 'This place doesn't 'alf give me the screaming 'abdabs.'
'And how!' I agreed. All those small creatures that had once vibrated with life, now frozen for eternity in lifeless display, chilled me. As well as those not so small: how could I have overlooked the horse dominating another corner of the room? Or the huge golden eagle, wings outspread, suspended from the ceiling?
Eddie deposited the carrier containing the late Fleur-de-Lys on the counter and shook his head.
'Where is Mr Stuff Yours?' Dame Cecile looked around impatiently. 'He promised he'd take care of me personally.'
Coming from him, that sounded more like a threat than a promise to me. Only Evangeline was unfazed.
'Shop!' She strode forward and thumped the old-fashioned bell on the counter, sending out a sharp ping to disturb the atmosphere and perhaps summon a shop assistant. 'Shop!'
The echo died away, the dust motes stopped dancing in the air, the place became quieter than ever.
'Maybe he forgot the appointment,' I suggested.
It was the wrong thing to say. Both Evangeline and Dame Cecile turned looks upon me designed to make me shrivel up and blow away. The honour of an appointment with one of the grandes dames of the British theatre was not to be forgotten by a mere taxidermist.
'Or else - ' I remained firmly unshrivelled and standing my ground - 'something more important came up.'
'More important than Fleur?' And me? hung in the air.'Don't be absurd! He knows how important this is.' And I am! 'He was so obsequious I thought grease was going to begin dripping out of my telephone. He would never - '
'Perhaps 'e left a note. "Back in five minutes" or something,' Eddie said. 'It could 'ave blown off the counter when we opened the door. Why don't we look around for it?'
'Good idea.' There was a half-open door immediately behind the counter: a sudden sharp draught could have sent a piece of paper flying through it.
I started in that direction. Eddie headed for a door at the far end of the showroom. Dame Cecile swept off her cape and handed it to Evangeline, in lieu of a maid. Evangeline looked at it incredulously and let it drop to the floor.
I detoured to pick up the cloak before Dame Cecile noticed - we'd had enough hysterics for one day - and continued on my way with it draped over my arm, leaving Dame Cecile and Evangeline wandering around the showroom peering vaguely into dusty corners.
The door behind the counter led into a very untidy office. Papers spilled out of filing cabinets and across a desk. The waste basket was overflowing. Any note that had blown in here was as good as lost, I might as well give up the search. That didn't mean I was ready to go back into the showroom quite yet. The silence in this room was not quite so oppressive and it was bliss to enjoy a few Garboesque moments alone. It might be my only chance all day.
I went behind the desk and sank down into the swivel armchair, letting my gaze rove around the office. It might be a mess, but it had something curiously soothing and familiar about it. Perhaps because half the agents and screenwriters I had known had had offices like this.
Well, perhaps not just like this. Tools of an unsettling and unfamiliar trade were also scattered around. I averted my gaze, not wanting to think about what they might be used for.
My attention was caught by the bough of a tree on atable in the far corner. Beside it was a wire cage containing a furry lump of some unfortunate animal. On the other side of that, an empty display case waited.
Curious, I got up and went over to it, even though my better judgement warned me that I might regret too close an inspection.
A typed white card was attached to the top of the wire cage:
CHO-CHO-SAN Japanese Bobtail Cat
To be mounted on bough, left forepaw raised, head up and tilted to right side, tail semi-extended.
The rest of the card had been torn off.
'Poor little Cho-Cho-San,' I sighed 'You look so young and pretty What happened to you?'
The bundle of tortoiseshell and white fur stirred and uncurled itself, two slanted gold eyes opened and stared up at me. She chirruped a pleased greeting.
'You're alive!' I gasped.
She blinked agreement and gave an almost apologetic little cough.
'But what are you doing here?' It was a silly question. The instructions for mounting attached to her cage had already provided that answer.
'But why?' Perhaps she was sick, dying - and some callous owner had brought her here to cough out the last of her life and be ready for ... for ... the moment she expired.
The bright eyes regarded me inquiringly, hopefully. She didn't look as though she were on her last legs.
Cautiously, I extended a forefinger and poked it through the wire. She surged forward to rub against it enthusiastically.Her movement was smooth and fluid, her tiny nose was cold and wet, her fur was sleek and glossy, her eyes were bright and alert.
'You're not dying! You're not even sick!'
She chirruped agreement, cocking her head to the right to look up at me. She gave another delicate cough.
Then I smelled it, too. A strange nasty acrid smell and - over and above it - smoke.
"Ere - ' I heard Eddie bellow from another room. 'There's a dead bloke in 'ere!'
A flickering red glow intensified at the back of one of the filing cabinet drawers. There was a crackling sound and grey smoke billowed out suddenly, followed by a shower of sparks and a burst of flame. At the same moment, I saw a dark wisp of smoke curl up from the laden depths of the waste basket.
'Fire!' I screamed. 'Fire!' Instinctively, I threw Dame Cecile's cloak over Cho-Cho-San's cage and swept it into my arms, running into the showroom.
'Get out of here! The place is on fire!'
Evangeline beat us all to the door, then had the nerve to act as though she was opening it for us.
'But what about the dead bloke?' Eddie emerged from the back room, took one look at the inferno erupting from the office and paled. 'Out!' he shouted. 'Out!'
'Fleur!' Dame Cecile wailed. 'My dear little Fleur! We can't leave her here!'
'It's all right!' Eddie grabbed Dame Cecile by the shoulders and propelled her through the door. 'Trixie's got 'er!'
Through the thickening smoke, Dame Cecile saw the bulky object in my arms, swaddled in her cloak, and allowed herself to be rushed into the open air.
We slammed the front door behind us and watched helplessly as the flames invaded the showroom.
'The fire brigade!' Evangeline dived for the cellphone in her handbag.
'Not you - they'll recognize your voice!' Eddie grabbedit from her. 'They'd recognize any of your voices. We want the good old anonymous call. When they get the fire out and find that body, they're going to start asking questions - and we don't have any answers.'
The crackle of flame and snapping wood was an effective background to Eddie's quick report to the fire brigade. We watched in stunned silence as the flames encroached more rapidly and virulently than we would have believed possible. It was all being destroyed so fast. Too fast. That nasty acrid smell must have been some sort of accelerant - and the fire had burst out of both the filing cabinet and waste basket. How many other spots around the shop had been booby-trapped?
'Right!' Eddie snapped off the cellphone and returned it to Evangeline. 'Let's get the 'ell out of 'ere!'
'Fleur! My little Fleur!' Dame Cecile tugged at the cloak covering the cage. I tugged back, trying vainly to keep it concealed. It was a losing battle against her infatuated determination. The cloak slipped and fell away
Cho-Cho-San blinked with interest at the new world so suddenly revealed.
'Fleur!' Dame Cecile gave a piercing scream. 'That's not Fleur! My baby is still inside! Being immolated!' She lurched towards the burning building.
'Ohmigawd!' Eddie snatched the cloak, hurled it over Dame Cecile's head and bundled her into the back seat. Evangeline and I dived in after her. Eddie leaped into the driver's seat and gunned the engine.
We sped away as the fire sirens sounded in the distance.
THE CAT WHO WASN'T A DOG. Copyright © 2003 by Marian Babson. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.