The Deadly Dance

Agatha Raisin Mysteries (Volume 15)

M.C. Beaton

St. Martin's Paperbacks

THE DEADLY DANCE (Chapter 1)

THE thing that finally nudged Agatha Raisin into opening her own detective agency was what she always thought of as the Paris Incident.

Made restless by the summer torpor blanketing the village of Carsely in the Cotswolds, Agatha decided to take a week's holiday in Paris.

She was a rich woman, but like all rich people was occasionally struck by periods of thrift, and so she had booked into a small hotel off Saint Germain des Prés in the Latin Quarter. She had visited Paris before and seen all the sights; this time wanted only to sit in cafés and watch the people go by or take long walks by the Seine.

But Paris, after the first two days, became even hotter than Carsely and her hotel room did not have any air-conditioning. As the heat mounted to 105 degrees Fahrenheit and she tossed and turned on her damp sheets, she discovered that Paris never sleeps. There were two restaurants across the road with outside tables, and, up until one in the morning, the accordion players came around to get money from the diners. Agatha, as she listened to another rendering of "La Vie en Rose," fantasized about lobbing a hand grenade through the window. Then there was the roar of the traffic and the yells of the tourists who had drunk not too wisely. Later on, as they felt not too well, she could hear moans and retching.

Nonetheless, she decided to see as much of Paris as possible. The Metro was cheap and went all over the place.

On the fourth day of her visit, she went down into the Metro at Maubert-Mutualité. She sat down on a hard plastic seat on the platform and pulled out her subway map. She planned to go to W. H. Smith on the Rue de Rivoli and buy some English books.

As she heard the train approaching, she stuffed the map back in her handbag, flipped open the doors of the carriage with that silver handle which had so bemused her when she had first tried to board, and went inside, aware that someone was crowding behind her, and at the same time feeling a sort of tremor reverberating from her handbag up through the shoulder strap.

She glanced down and saw that her handbag was open again and that her wallet was missing.

Agatha stared wrathfully at the man who had crowded behind her. He was of medium height, white, with black hair, wearing a blue shirt and blue jeans.

"Here, you!" Agatha advanced on him. He nipped out of the carriage and into the next one, with Agatha in pursuit. Just as she was leaning forward to grab him and the train was moving out, he wrenched open the doors of the carriage and escapedonto the platform, leaving Agatha, who did not have the strength to do the same thing, being carried furiously away to the next station.

Agatha blamed the hairdresser. A Parisian hairdresser had told her that there was no crime around Maubert because of the huge commissariat. So Agatha took the Métro back to Maubert, darted up the escalator and demanded directions to the commissariat. She was told it was just round the corner.

It was an ugly modern building with steep steps up to the main entrance. Dripping with sweat and bad temper, Agatha erupted into the entrance hall. There was a very beautiful girl with long dark hair sitting behind bulletproof glass.

Agatha poured out her tale of the mugging, expecting to be shown to some detective's room immediately, but the girl began to interview her. Agatha thought sourly that someone so young and attractive should give way to someone with a bit more authority.

She was fortunate in that she had only had sixty euros in her wallet and that she had left her credit cards in the hotel safe. Her passport was in another compartment of her bag.

After she had been interviewed and had handed over her passport, she was told to take a seat and wait.

"Why don't you have air-conditioning in this place?" she grumbled, but the beautiful girl merely smiled at her benignly.

At last a tall policeman came out and led her into a side room. He sat down behind a desk and waved her into a chair opposite. He looked like those illustrations of Don Quixote of La Mancha. Once more, she described the mugger in detail, ending with "Paris is crawling with gendarmes. Why don't you get down the Metro and catch thieves?"

"We do, every day," he said calmly in perfect English.

"I myself am a detective," said Agatha grandly.

"Indeed!" said Don Quixote, showing a glimmer of interest. "To which police station in England are you attached?"

"I'm not. I mean, I'm going to open my own detective agency."

The flicker of interest died. "Wait here," he said.

There was a mirror behind his desk. Agatha rose and stared at her face in it. She was bright red with heat and her normally glossy brown hair was damp and limp.

Agatha sat down again as he re-entered the room with a typed letter for her to sign. All in French.

"What's this about?" demanded Agatha.

"It is for your insurance and states that if we catch him, he will receive three years in prison and a fine of three thousand euros. If we find your wallet it will be sent to the British Embassy. Sign here."

Agatha signed.

"That will be all."

"Wait a minute. What about mug shots?"

"Please?"

"Photographs of criminals. I'd know that bastard anywhere."

"Three other people have had goods stolen this morning by the same man. They are French. There is no need for your services."

Wrathfully, Agatha got to her feet. "I could do a better job than you any day."

He gave a faint, uninterested sort of smile. "Then I wish you luck."

Agatha went straight back to her hotel and checked out. She was going home and she was going to start her own detective agency. She had been dithering about it for weeks, but the theft of her wallet had left her with a feeling of not being in charge of events. Agatha Raisin liked to be in charge of everything.

At Charles de Gaulle Airport, she was just heading for the gate but ran into a crowd of people being held back by police. "What's happening?" she asked a man next to her.

"Someone's left a suitcase or package unattended."

Agatha waited, fuming. Then there was a huge blast. From the chatter around her, she gathered that they had blown up whatever it was with a controlled explosion. At Heathrow or other airports they might appeal to the owners to come and claim their suitcase or package, but in France it seemed that they just went ahead and blew it up.

As Agatha drove from Heathrow, black clouds began to pile up in the sky and by the time she turned down the road to Carsely, the countryside was rocking and rolling under the blows of a tremendous thunderstorm.

Agatha's two cats, Hodge and Boswell, came to meet her when she opened the door. Her cleaner, Doris Simpson, came round every day while Agatha was away to feed the cats and let them in and out of the garden.

Agatha dumped her suitcase in the hall and went through to the kitchen and opened the back door. Rain poured down from the thatch overhead, but the air was cool and sweet. Anxious not to lose her determination to set up her own detective agency, Agatha decided to visit her friend, Mrs. Bloxby, the vicar's wife.

Ten minutes later, Agatha rang the bell of the vicarage with a guilty feeling that she should have phoned first.

But Mrs. Bloxby answered the door, her gentle featureslighting up in a smile of welcome. "Mrs. Raisin! How nice. Come in. Why are you back early?"

"I got mugged," said Agatha. She recounted her adventure.

"Well, you got pickpocketed," corrected Mrs. Bloxby mildly. "Unlike you to let something like that put you off Paris. I thought you loved Paris."

"I do, most of the time," fretted Agatha. "It was mainly the heat and the lack of sleep. And being dismissed by the police, just like that! The trouble is they spend all their time policing demonstrations, they haven't got time for the public."

"You don't know that."

"Anyway, it gave me the jolt I needed to start my own agency. You do think it's a good idea, don't you?"

"Oh, yes," agreed Mrs. Bloxby. Although she thought the work would be dreary and sordid, it would occupy her friend's restless mind and keep her from falling in love again and getting hurt. Agatha was addicted to falling in love.

"I've been thinking about starting a detective agency for a time," said Agatha. "I feel I need some official status. I'm a good businesswoman and I feel sure I could make it work. The police are so busy these days and the countryside police stations have been closed one after the other. The police haven't got time for small burglaries, missing teenagers, or errant wives and husbands."

"And if it doesn't work out?" asked the vicar's wife.

Agatha grinned. "I'll take it off my taxes. Anyone taken James's cottage?"

It had not been Agatha's ex-husband James Lacey's cottage for some time, but Agatha always dreamt that one day he would come back to the village. She could never think of that cottage next to her own as belonging to anyone else. Agatha had fallen in love with two of the previous owners.

"Yes, as a matter of fact. A Mrs. Emma Comfrey, retired civil servant. You should call on her."

"Maybe. But Eve got a lot to do. I'll go to the estate agent's in Mircester tomorrow and see what's on offer in the way of an office."

Mrs. Bloxby reflected ruefully that Agatha's interest in her new neighbour had died as soon as she found out it was a woman, and a retired one at that.

It took much more money to set up a detective agency than Agatha ever dreamt it would. Brought up on Raymond Chandler-type movies, she had assumed that one sat in an office and waited for the beautiful dame with the shoulder pads to come swaying in--or something like that.

She quickly found out by surfing the net that detective agencies were supposed to offer a wide range of services, including all sorts of modern technology such as bugging and de-bugging, photographic or video evidence and covert and electronic surveillance.

Then someone would be needed to man the phones while she was out of the office. Agatha was shrewd enough to know now that one-woman operations were for novels. She would need to invest heavily in employing experts if she expected to get any return.

Once she had found an office in the centre of Mircester, she put advertisements in the local newspapers. For the photographic and video evidence, she hired a retired provincial newspaper photographer, Sammy Allen, arranging to pay him on a freelancebasis; and she secured the services of a retired police technician, Douglas Ballantine, under the same terms to cope with the electronic stuff.

But for a secretary, Agatha wanted someone intelligent who would be able to detect as well.

She began to despair. The applicants were very young and all seemed to be decorated with various piercings and tattoos.

Agatha was just wondering whether she should try to do any secretarial work herself when there came a knock at the door of the office. The door did not have a pane of frosted glass, which Agatha would have found more in keeping with the old-fashioned idea she had of detective agencies.

"Come in," she shouted, wondering if this could be her first client.

A very tall, thin woman entered. She had thick grey hair, cut short, a long thin face and sharp brown eyes. Her teeth were very large and strong. Her hands and feet were very large, the feet encased in sturdy walking shoes, and the hands were ringless. She was wearing a tweed suit which looked as if she had had it for years.

"Please sit down," said Agatha. "May I offer you some tea? Coffee?"

"Coffee, please. Two sugars, no milk."

Agatha went over to the new coffee machine and poured a mug, added two spoonfuls of sugar and placed it on the desk in front of what she hopefully thought was her first client.

Agatha was a well-preserved woman in her early fifties with short, shining brown hair, a good mouth and small bearlike eyes which looked suspiciously out at the world. Her figure was stocky, but her legs were her finest feature.

"I am Mrs. Emma Comfrey."

Agatha wondered for a moment why the name was familiar and then she remembered that Mrs. Comfrey was her new neighbour.

Agatha found it hard to smile spontaneously but she bared her teeth in what she hoped was a friendly welcome. "And what is your problem?"

"I saw your advertisement in the newspapers. For a secretary. I am applying for the job."

Mrs. Comfrey's voice was clear, well-enunciated, upper-class. Agatha's working-class soul gave a brief twinge and she said harshly, "I would expect any secretary to help with the detective side if necessary. For that I would need someone young and active."

Her eyes bored into Mrs. Comfrey's thin face and flicked down her long figure.

"I am obviously not young," said Mrs. Comfrey, "but I am active, computer-literate, and have a pleasant phone manner which you might find helps."

"How old are you?"

"Sixty-seven."

"Dear God."

"But very intelligent," said Mrs. Comfrey.

Agatha sighed, and was about to tell her to get lost when there came a timid knock at the door.

"Come in," called Agatha.

A harassed-looking woman entered. "I need a detective," she said.

Mrs. Comfrey took her coffee and moved over to a sofa at the side of the office.

Vowing to get nd of Emma as soon as they were alone again, Agatha asked, "What can I do for you?"

"My Bertie has been missing for a whole day now."

"How old is Bertie?"

"Seven."

"Have you been to the police? Silly question. Of course you must have been to the police."

"They weren't interested," she wailed. She was wearing black leggings and a faded black T-shirt. Her hair was blonde but showing dark at the roots. "My name is Mrs. Evans."

"I fail to see ..." Agatha was beginning when Emma said, "Bertie is your cat, isn't he?"

Mrs. Evans swung round.

"Oh, yes. And he's never run away before."

"Do you have a photograph?" asked Emma.

Mrs. Evans fumbled in a battered handbag and took out a little stack of photographs. "That's the best one," she said, standing up and handing a photograph of a black-and-white cat to Emma. "It was taken in our garden."

She sat down beside Emma, who put a comforting arm around her shoulders. "Don't worry. We'll find your cat."

"How much will it cost?" asked Mrs. Evans.

Agatha had a list of charges but that list did not include finding stray cats.

"Fifty pounds plus expenses if we find him," said Emma. "I am Mrs. Raisin's secretary. If you will just give me your full name and address and telephone number."

Numbly Agatha handed Emma a notebook. Emma wrote down the particulars.

"Now, you go on home," said Emma, helping her to her feet, "and don't worry about a thing. If Bertie can be found, we'll find him."

When the door closed behind a grateful Mrs. Evans, Agatha said, "You're rather high-handed, but here's what I'll do. Find that cat and you've got a job."

"Very well," said Emma calmly, tucking the notebook into her capacious handbag. "Thank you for the coffee."

And that'll be the last I'll hear from her, thought Agatha.

Emma Comfrey checked the address in the notebook. She went into a pet shop nearby and bought a cat carrier and asked for a receipt. Mrs. Evans lived on a housing estate on the outskirts of Mircester. Emma tucked herself into her small Ford Escort and drove out to the housing estate. She noticed that Mrs. Evans lived in a row of houses whose back gardens bordered farmland. The farmers had been getting the harvest in and Emma knew that meant lots of field mice for a cat to chase.

She parked the car and made her way to a path that led to the fields. She walked into the first field, her sensible shoes treading through the stubble. The day was warm and pleasant, with little feathery wisps of cloud on a pale blue sky. Emma studied the field and then looked back to where the Evanses' back garden was located. There were a bordering of gorse bushes and tall grass at the edge of the field. She made her way there and suddenly sat down on the ground, feeling rather shaky. She could not believe now that she'd had the temerity to ask for the job, and felt sure there was no hope of finding the cat.

Emma had been married in her early twenties to a barrister,Joseph Comfrey. He had a good income, but barely three weeks after the honeymoon, he said that it was bad for Emma to sit around the house and she should get work. Emma, an only child, had been bullied by her parents, and so she had meekly taken the Civil Service exams and settled into boring secretarial work for the Ministry of Defence. Joseph was mean. Although he spent quite a lot on himself--the latest Jaguar, shirts from Jermyn Street and suits from Savile Row--he took control of Emma's wages and only gave her a small allowance. When she retired, he grumbled day in and day out about the paucity of her pension. Two years ago he had died of a heart attack, leaving Emma a very wealthy woman. She did not have any children; Joseph did not approve of children. At first she had spent long days and nights alone in their large villa in Barnes. The habits of strict economy forced on her by her husband were hard to break. She could still hear his nagging, hectoring voice haunting the rooms.

At last she found courage to sell the house. She packed up her husband's clothes and gave them to charity. She presented his law books to an aspiring barrister and bought the cottage in Lilac Lane next to Agatha's. Although the women in the village were friendly, she became interested in the stories she heard about her next-door neighbour and then she saw Agatha's advertisement for a secretary. Time was lying heavy on her hands. It took a great deal of courage to walk into Agatha's office and ask for the job. Had Agatha been less pugnacious, the normally timid Emma might have apologized her way out of any chance of securing the post, but Agatha's manner brought forcibly to Emma's mind her bullying husband and various nasty people she had worked with over the years and that had given her courage.

Emma sighed. Her little moment of glory was over. The wretched cat could be anywhere: picked up as a stray, flattened by a truck. Emma had been brought up as a Methodist, but gradually she had ceased to attend the services. She still believed vaguely that there must be a power for good in the universe. She sat for a long time, hugging her bony knees and watching cloud shadows chase each other across the golden stubble. She suddenly felt at peace, as if the past and its miseries and the future and its uncertainties had all been wiped from her mind. At last she rose and stretched. Time to go through the motions of looking for the cat.

Just as she was turning away, a shaft of sunlight struck down on the tall grass and gorse bushes and she caught a glimpse of something. She parted the grass and peered down. A black-and-white cat was lying fast asleep.

Emma went quietly back to the car and got the cat box and returned, hoping against hope that the cat was still there. Her luck held. She bent down and caught the cat by the scruff and popped it in the box. She looked at the houses and at the Evanses's house in particular. No one in sight.

"First bit of luck I've had in my life," said Emma. "Just wait until that Raisin female sees this!"

Agatha looked up hopefully as the door of the office opened, and her face fell when she saw Emma. And then she saw the cat carrier. "Good heavens! Is that Bertie?"

"Indeed it is."

"Are you sure?"

"I found him in a field at the back of his home. I've checked with the photographs. I have a receipt for the carrier and I will need to buy cat food and a litter tray and litter."

"Why on earth? I mean, phone the woman up and get her here."

"Not a good idea."

"May I remind you who's boss here?"

"Listen. Would it not be better to wait until this evening? Don't want to make it look too easy. Tell her we found Bertie wandering on the motorway and saved his life. Then I'll phone the Mircester Journal and give them a cosy story about the new detective agency."

Agatha, who had never been outclassed when it came to public relations before, felt a stab of jealousy. As Agatha never recognized jealousy in herself, she put it down to too much coffee.

"Very well," she said gruffly.

"So I've got the job?"

"Yes."

Emma smiled happily. "I'll just get the necessary for the cat and then we can discuss my wages."

The Mircester Journal knew that happy stories were what really sold the paper. After some discussion, Emma and Agatha decided to keep the cat in the office overnight, present it to Mrs. Evans first thing in the morning and make sure a reporter and photographer were present.

Emma could barely sleep. She had visions of Bertie dying in the night and of one of Mrs. Evans's neighbours coming forward to say that she had seen a woman snatching the cat out of the field the day before.

But everything went amazingly smoothly. Agatha longed totake all the credit but could hardly claim any with Emma standing there. She felt quite sulky when the Mircester Journal used a photograph of Mrs. Evans, Emma and the cat, but did mention the new detective agency.

THE DEADLY DANCE Copyright 2004 by M. C. Beaton.