The walk from the carpark to the house was short and leafy. Miss Flava lifted some of the leaves up – glossy, broad deep green leaves that reminded her of those of a rubber plant, only smaller – and checked. The plant was growing over a red-brick wall that defined the passage. Ahead of her, Playfair was unconcerned about the route, and seemed intent on getting to the house. Behind her (she checked when she didn't hear the click of claws on the paving stones) Calamity had decided to wee on the wall and the plant. Given that Calamity's bladder apparently held enough to flood small rooms (and Miss Flava was sure that Playfair had been teaching her tricks about holding it in as well) she was relieved that the dog was relieving herself outside.
She came to the end of the passage and turned a corner. The wall stopped and a short lawn spread out before her, leading to white-painted, glass-panelled French-doors. A very shallow flight of steps led up to the doors, where Playfair was rapping impatiently on the glass. As the doors opened, Calamity came galloping up behind her, brushed past her at full speed, and charged towards Playfair. Miss Flava said nothing, knowing that her boss would somehow be expecting this.
"Who are y–" said a man in an angry voice. He cut off as Playfair stepped neatly aside and Calamity leapt at him, her paws landing heavily on the shoulders of his suit and bowling him over. He fell backwards, letting go of the door, which Playfair caught and held.
"That's my dog," he said in his best outdoors voice. "Please stop molesting her. Now!"
The man on the floor, who was being frantically licked by Calamity, stopped trying to push her off him and submitted to her cleaning. A thin woman in an uncomfortable-looking blue and mauve dress hurried over from a table against the far wall of the room. She was still holding a china cup of tea, and its matching saucer.
"Oh, dear! What...? What...? Ronald? Are you under that dog?"
"Don't start!" snarled the man on the floor, turning his head to the side to try and escape Calamity's tongue.
"Well, I'm only asking!"
Playfair gestured, and Miss Flava walked in. The room appeared to be a function room of some kind: it was large, with a wooden floor that seemed highly polished. Seats were stacked against both end walls, and a few large, simple tables were pushed up against the front of a small stage. The stage curtains were drawn across, so that only the apron could be seen. When she looked up, she could see lighting gantries across the ceiling, and tracing them across with her eyes she found a black-painted ladder in the shadows of one corner, obviously the way up there. Underneath the tables were large packing cases and trunks, and on top of the tables were a tea-urn, some china cups and saucers, a plastic half-litre carton of milk with a blue top, and a couple of foil trays of rather dry-looking sandwiches with the cling-film pulled half-back.
"No-one seems to have come to your party," said Playfair, who'd come in silently behind her. "Calamity, dear, please leave the man alone. He's stopped attacking you now."
"Are you Calamity?" said the thin woman, turning to Miss Flava with a terrifying smile. Her teeth were varying shades of yellow and brown and looked badly decayed.
"No," said Miss Flava coldly. "That's Calamity." She pointed at the dog, who had started to get off the man on the floor and then found something interesting to sniff. "Calamity!" The dog lifted her head, saw the expression on Miss Flava's face and quickly retreated behind Playfair.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," said the woman. "I assumed, with that name, that Calamity must be human. Calamity Jane, I'm sure?"
If you're so sure, thought Miss Flava, why are you making it a question? But she held her temper in check. "Yes, Calamity Jane."
"My favourite Crimean nurse," said Playfair, as he always did when someone asked about Calamity's name. The thin woman nodded and smiled, not seeing anything wrong with this statement, which made Miss Flava hate her even more.
"Who are you?" she said pointedly, realising that the woman wasn't going to offer her name.
"She's Melissa," said the suited man, finally up off the floor. "She's my sister-in-law. I'm Ronald Verges." He emphasized the last syllable of his surname. "And who the hell are you two? You'd better not be part of the act."
"What act?" said Playfair quickly. Miss Flava pulled her warrant card out anyway.
"If you don't know that, you'd better be quick at explaining why you're here," said Ronald, his face hardening and his eyes tightening into a squint.
"I was rather thinking the same myself," said Playfair, sounding cheerful. "You see, we're the police, and the Great CumuloNimbus is dead. So: who let you in, and why the hell are you here?"