Endicott Zayle is a dentist to the rich and famous—as well as to public relations partners Doug Perkins and Gerry Tate. Now, he desperately needs their help. It looks like his use of an experimental anesthetic has come back to bite him, and a beautiful model lies dead in his dentist’s chair.
There may be more to the story, though—and Perkins and Tate, with Pandora the cat at their side, will have to fill in the missing pieces in this rollicking mystery from an Agatha Award winner praised for her “very funny dialogue” (The New York Times Book Review).
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Simple things amuse simple minds. I was deriving quite a bit of amusement from the early edition of the evening paper. I had just made a note of the rapidly rising actress on page seven, who had been photographed against the background of her antique silver collection, holding the prize piece of carved jade from her treasury of objets d'art, and captioned by a melancholy quote saying how much she was going to miss her little mews cottage and her treasures during the next three months when she would be filming in Spain. I underscored her name and made a notation to get in touch with her after the burglary when she would be looking for another — and brighter — public relations person.
"Stop that!" I shouted as a bandit-masked whirlwind sprang from an ambush of late-afternoon shadows and hurled herself at my Biro. Capturing it successfully, she tumbled over and over across the desk, kicking at it with her hind legs and uttering loud yowls of defiance.
You had to laugh at the little clown. A fact she constantly used against me. "Behave yourself." I tried to recapture the Biro, but she rolled away from me with it, growling as though she really meant it. Only the rakish tilt of her ears betrayed her playfulness.
"Come on, give it back." I feinted for it again, and her tail lashed menacingly her slanted blue eyes glittering. She was having a lovely time.
"Be a good cat," I said. I had dropped the paper by now and she had my full attention. Which was what she'd wanted all along.
Suddenly, she abandoned the game. The Biro dropped from her mouth and rolled across the desk unnoticed. She was taut and alert, blue eyes staring at the door. I followed her look, seeing nothing but the closed door. After a moment, though, I heard it, too.
Someone was taking the stairs two at a time. Someone gained the tiny hallway and pounded on the door, but didn't wait for any social niceties like being invited to enter. He burst through the door, slamming it behind him and leaning against it, looking around wildly, gasping for breath. His eyes were bulging, his face purple, but he was just recognizable — the white coat helped.
I gazed at him in mild amazement. True, I was three or four months overdue for my semiannual checkup, but you don't really expect your dentist to get emotional over a fact like that. Particularly as Gerry and I were practically the only National Health patients he had on his eminent and star-studded roster of Famous Mouths I Have Looked Into.
"You've got to help me," he choked. "You've got to help me, now. Quickly!"
It was a good line, and probably one he had picked up from patients ringing in the middle of the night with throbbing abcesses. But it seemed to be slightly misdirected.
"Are you sure you have the right place?" That was as near as I dared get to asking him if he knew where he was. "This is Perkins and Tate —"
"Public Relations, Limited," he finished for me. "Of course, it's the right place. Public relations — that's what I need right now. God! How I need public relations!"
It was a statement to warm the cockles of many a heart at the Institute of Public Relations, but it simply made my blood run cold. I mean, public relations isn't usually something you need immediately, like a fix, or a stiff drink. If you do, it means the horse has bolted, the barn has burned to the ground, the ground has caved into a previously unsuspected mineshaft, and somebody is handing you a rusty hasp and demanding that you put it all back the way it was.
Pandora glared at him, twitching her nose, then abruptly dived under the desk, hissing. She had recently had the last of her booster shots, and men in white jackets smelling, however faintly, of antiseptic were at the top of her Hate Parade.
He ignored her; I doubt that he even noticed her. He was still staring wildly in my general direction, waiting for me to wave the magic wand and make everything all right again.
"Why don't you sit down, and we'll talk this over," I suggested.
"Sit down? We haven't time! We've got to get into action now, you fool! Don't you understand? She's dead. Morgana Fane! She died under the anaesthetic in my dental chair. My God! Morgana Fane!"
I instantly needed a stiff drink myself. Morgana Fane — the Model of the Moment — of this decade. About to be the Bride of the Year. That mesmeric face, which had decorated a thousand magazine covers, launched a thousand styles, and — it was rumoured in the peephole press — shipwrecked a few dozen marriages, now stilled forever. It was the end of an Era.
Fortunately, the company was fairly solvent at the moment, and there was a bottle of Scotch in the kitchen cupboard. Going for it, I asked, "What did the police say about it?"
"I haven't called them!" He was affronted. "Not yet. That's why I came to you. I want a press representative with me before I do."
Oh, fine. At the rate he was going, a solicitor would be more help when the police arrived. They were not going to take kindly to playing second fiddle to a public relations man. Although I appreciated the good dentist's problem. A society/show business practice, of the kind he had built up, depends on word-of-mouth recommendations and confidence. Lots of confidence. He could go out of style as fast as an old-fashioned abortionist if the death of a famous patient wasn't handled properly. Faster. And Morgana Fane — I found myself echoing the dentist — my God!
"Didn't she respond at all to the kiss of life?" I turned just in time to catch the shifty look that flashed across his face. He hadn't bothered to try. He'd been too worried about his own skin. He'd flown for a press representative — probably leaving her still there in the chair. That would look great in the headlines.
I took the drink I had poured for him and put it back in the cupboard beside the bottle — Gerry could drink it later. We were going to have enough problems without our dentist facing the music with liquor on his breath. It would be all the press needed — and I didn't think the police would react too favourably to it, either.
"There was no point in trying," he defended hastily, having evidently caught the look that flashed across my face just before I turned away. "Any fool could tell that she was gone."
There was a steady hissing sound emanating from beneath the desk. I just looked at him, my face as blank as I could possibly make it. I felt like joining Pandora under the desk for a hissing session, but it was a luxury I was denied.
This expensive dentist had not carried Perkins & Tate (Public Relations) Ltd. on his National Health books just because he could not resist our winsome faces. It was one of those tacit understandings, and Gerry and I had dutifully seen to it that his name was planted in a few columns and the discreet mention was inserted wherever possible. Very discreet — the dental profession being as twitchy as the medical on the subject of publicity. It had worked quite well and to our mutual satisfaction for several years. This time, however, the piper was really presenting the bill — and with a vengeance.
"She's still there," I said flatly. Just checking, I didn't expect any contradiction.
I didn't get one. "Right where she expired," he said. His face twitched with indignation. "In my dental chair!" He made it sound as though the only decent thing she could have done was to crawl into an anonymous gutter to die.
"What about your nurse?"
"She wasn't there today. Fortunately, she has the flu." It was obvious that he was grateful for a woman with some grasp of fundamental decencies.
"Does anyone know you've come here?" That was the first thing. If we could cover his tracks to Perkins & Tate, we might have a chance of retrieving the situation.
"I didn't tell anyone — if that's what you mean. And no one saw me leave the office."
That checked out. The reception and waiting rooms were on the ground floor, the torture chambers were upstairs. The front door opened into the hallway and faced the stairs, you had to detour through a door on the left into the reception area and the waiting room. The nurse notified you when your number had come up, and with a brave smile, you went through the door and up the stairs to whatever doom awaited you. The door was always closed, presumably so that the nervous clientele in the waiting room couldn't see the victims staggering out after they had been worked on.
Since Endicott Zayle hadn't had the bad luck to encounter someone actually entering as he was slipping out, he would not have been seen. If we could get him back in again without being seen, there might be a fighting chance.
"When did this happen?"
He seemed calmer, now that he had thrown the burden on someone else's shoulders. "About ten minutes ago."
That wasn't so bad. If he'd had to go and call in the wrong people, at least he hadn't let any grass grow under his feet about it. He didn't seem wholly aware of the enormity of what he had done, or how it would sound if the papers got hold of it. He was too concerned with the fact of her death to consider his own desertion of her.
"How did you get here?"
"I took a taxi."
He must have been fairly conspicuous in that white jacket. Could we take a chance that no taxi driver would remember? Even a doctor on the most urgent emergency call would throw on a coat before going out in weather like this. But taxi drivers, as a whole, are the most sophisticated social group in England, as well as the most discreet. With good reason — if they told all they knew, a few bastions of our society would crumple, and we don't have all that many left.
"You didn't do anything silly" — it was better to find out the worst right away — "like keeping the taxi waiting, did you?"
"Certainly not." He bristled. "I realize it wouldn't look too well if the police discovered I came to you before I called them."
It would look bloody awful, but I was relieved to fine he had some inkling of the fact.
"Naturally I've prepared a story in advance," he said "In case they find out."
This cheered me a bit more. Perhaps he was brighter than he had previously given indication of being. "What story?" I asked hopefully.
"I shall say" — a crafty light glittered in the depths on his tiny eyes — "Everything Went Black. And when I came to, I was here." He waited triumphantly for my applause.
I looked at him bleakly. To get away with that one you have to be 36-22- 34 and preferably blond. At 44-52-58 and going bald, it just wasn't on. I tried to break it to him gently. "That one went out with 'I didn't know the gun was loaded.'"
He bristled, about to take umbrage again, when the steady hissing sound from under the desk unnerved him "What's that?" He looked around uneasily. "Is something going to explode?"
"Only the cat," I said.
"Cat?" Locating the source of the sound, he crouched to look under the desk.
Lashing her tail, Pandora retreated, switching from a hiss to a growl. She knew his sort, she informed him. They petted you and chucked you under the chin and called you sweet names, and just when you were preening yourself that you'd made a new conquest, they jabbed a dirty great needle into your rump.
"I don't think she likes me," he said.
"She's shy," I said. "Don't worry about her." It seemed superfluous to tell him to worry about himself; it was amazing that anything could distract him from that absorbing concern.
He and Pandora continued staring at each other, which ordinarily, would have been all right. However, it was wasting time, and back at the surgery, his partner, a restless patient, or even a just-recovered nurse might open the door to his office and discover the Corpse of the Year — with the dentist gone missing. Even the most loyal partner might be forgiven for jumping to conclusions under those circumstances — not to mention the police.
"Look," I said. "The best thing for you to do is get straight back to your surgery and call the police. Take my coat — you're pretty conspicuous in that white jacket — I'll pick it up later. I'll follow along right behind you. Then if the police question my presence, I'll say I had a sudden toothache and dropped in for emergency treatment." It might not be the best story in the world, but it was several cuts above his. And I might be able to knock together a better one between now and the time the question actually came up.
He didn't move.
"Hurry up," I urged. How long did it take a body to cool? Long enough for the police to detect the length of time between death and the time they were called in? "We haven't much time."
"I — I haven't told you everything — yet," he said. He seemed more interested in gazing into Pandora's eyes — however baleful — than in looking up and meeting mine. "You don't know the worst."
I usually don't. "Go ahead," I said grimly. "Surprise me."
"Morgana is — was — desperately afraid of hypodermics. I did everything to try to save that tooth — I've babied it along for years. But it was no use anymore. And she'd never had a tooth out before. The very thought made her hysterical. I assured her that the extraction was necessary but she'd worked herself up into such a state —"
He still hadn't looked away from Pandora. She was working herself up into quite a state, too. "Go on," I said.
"Well, Tyler Meredith — my partner — has been developing a new anaesthetic. A gas type. He's worked on it for a long time, with very good results. We thought ..."
I began to see where this was leading, but I didn't want to believe it. I closed my eyes and hoped that, when I opened them again, the nightmare would have run its course.
It hadn't. He was still there, still staring into Pandora's eyes, still babbling on.
" ... I can't understand it. We had such wonderful results with the laboratory animals —"
"Just let me get this straight," I interposed weakly. "You mean that you used Morgana Fane as a guinea pig for an untried anaesthetic?"
"No! No!" He quivered with shock and tore his eyes away from Pandora at last. "I told you we'd tested it on guinea pigs — real guinea pigs. The results were excellent. Economy of operation, foolproof administration, the patient went under immediately, knew nothing, recovered in a minimum of time, with no side effects —"
"Except that the patient died."
"She agreed." He was almost tearful.
"In writing?" I asked hopefully. Perhaps we could build her up as a willing martyr to science. A heroine, undergoing risks, so that others might never know the terror —
"No," he said reluctantly. "I never thought of that."
I stood there and wondered if a few tiny hunks of silver amalgam were worth it. But it was too late to give them back.
"Here." I crossed to the closet and took out my overcoat. "Put this on and get back to your surgery. You'll have to level with the police, but we ought to be able to work out a story for the newspapers later."
He hesitated. "Are you sure —?"
"Do we have a choice?"
He looked as though he'd thought of an answer to that one, too, but I didn't want to hear it. With his type of brain, it undoubtedly involved moving the body to some neutral ground and trying to pretend that she'd never kept her appointment. Judging from the speed with which he'd come running to Daddy, I didn't have any illusions about who had been cast as the corpse remover, while he stayed snug in his surgery establishing an alibi.
"Believe me, it's the only way," I said firmly, shoehorning him into my coat. It was a snug fit, but it buttoned enough to hide the white jacket, which was the important thing.
"If you're positive ..." He was still dragging his feet. I didn't exactly blame him. I wasn't too anxious to look on the last remains of Morgana Fane myself. A little of the zest goes out of living — even if only temporarily — when one of the legendary ones dies.
And Morgana Fane was as legendary as they come. Since she was discovered while performing in some quaint act at a remote seaside pier some fifteen years ago, she had been propelled into a fame which had never subsided. She was not only breathtakingly photogenic, she had a gift for getting into headline-dominating situations. The manner of her demise was going to be no exception. It wouldn't be easy, trying to soft-pedal this.
"I'll come downstairs with you." I took Zayle's arm, allowing him no escape. "And I'll be in the taxi right behind yours. All you have to do is get back upstairs to your own surgery without being seen. I'll go straight into the waiting room and you can leave the rest to me."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "In the Teeth of Adversity"
Copyright © 1990 Marian Babson.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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