Miss Flanagan was really enjoying helping out with the ‘Locals Come Dancing’ competition that was in full swing in the parish of Benford.
Ten local people had been attending dance classes and fundraising for months with a view to competing first in a special Benford gala dance night and then in a bigger competition against other parishes. Already there was a huge buzz in the locality about these great events coming up.
Now the local final was only a week away and tension was mounting.
Miss Flanagan was in charge of keeping all the contestants’ costume changes name-tagged and in order and helping the women change as they needed to.
What a selection there was, she thought, as she put them in order on a clothes rail. The colourful dresses in particular would add a huge amount to the glamour and glitz of the event.
It brought back memories of the old days when people really made an effort to look well when they were going out dancing – and put effort into learning how to do steps properly beforehand as well!
She would have to make sure that everything was on the rail for quick changes, that there were no ladders in tights and that shoes were well shone. The dress rehearsal had gone well but ‘spot polishing’ as Clara, the dance teacher, called it, would take place for all couples, one at a time, after the well-deserved tea-break.
Miss Flanagan was delighted that everything was going so well. Dave, the sound guy had his work perfected as had Roy on lighting and the MC, Ben, in tuxedo, would certainly add gravitas to the proceedings next week.
As she poured tea and coffee for the participants, Miss Flanagan couldn’t help noting how the atmosphere in the place had changed since the classes began, however. Now they were all watching one another because they were in competition with one another and she had heard at least two catty remarks passed by one contestant about another.
Gabby Faulkner, wife of Roy, the lighting man, was dance partnering with Frank Doyle, a local insurance salesman, and she was the most accomplished dancer, having lived in London and taken classes before.
Lena Stewart, a local mother-of-two, who worked in the community centre, was the next best and desperately wanted to win and could be seen frequently looking daggers at Gabby.
“But that’s competition for you,” Miss Flanagan said to herself. “It’ll all add grist to the mill.” Tea-break over, everyone returned to the hall where the light was muted and the spotlight ready to follow Gabby and Frank who were first on the list to do their tango again.
Yes, they certainly looked wonderful, movements measured, precise, graceful, legs turning, smooth swivelling, eyes locked as if in romantic mode… Then there was a shock, a scream – Gabby had fallen! The music stopped, lights and OMGs went up and everyone gathered round. “Be careful! The floor is treacherous! That’s why she fell,” Frank was shouting. Gabby was on the floor. “My ankle!” Another competitor with medical training went to assist. “It’s probably broken,” she said. “You’d best call an ambulance.”
Roy, Gabby’s husband, was beside her, looking pale and trying to comfort her. “It’s okay, it’s not the end of the world…” “But the competition – I won’t be able to dance..” “Ssh.. We’ll get you to hospital and get you sorted out. Try not to worry.” Miss Flanagan was thinking about what Frank had said about the floor being treacherous. Lena Stewart, Gabby’s rival and the person who put dance wax on the floor each night before the classes, was already defending herself. “I did it the same way as I usually do – sparingly and brushing it in well. I know how dangerous it is if you don’t use the right stuff and put it on right.” As Gabby was put on the stretcher she shouted at Lena. “You did this to get me out of the competition, I know you did!” “I didn’t – honest! I’m being blamed in the wrong here!”
Oh dear… Miss Flanagan asked everyone to stay in the community hall until she tried to establish what had happened. She made everyone move off the dance floor and talked firstly to Frank Doyle. “The floor was fine until we turned on that corner. I nearly fell myself. It wasn’t like that before the tea break.”
Everyone agreed that the floor had been fine earlier. Miss Flanagan suggested everyone have another cup of something in the tearoom while she examined and photographed the floor with the chairperson, John Duggan. “It does look like too much polish was put on here – you can see that it wasn’t distributed evenly,” he said. “This is all we need – crime in the parish hall!” “That’s life,” said Miss Flanagan, “and we have to deal with it, but I’ll do my best to find out what happened.”
She was already scribbling in her notebook, desperately trying to remember who had left the tearoom during the break – yes, Lena had gone to make a phone call, Davy Miller for a cigarette, Roy Faulkner, who had gone to the hospital with his wife, was late coming in because he was adjusting one of the lights. Who else had been absent? She couldn’t think of anyone.
The people involved didn’t take kindly to being asked exactly how long they’d been gone, however. “I didn’t do it,” they all said. “I was gone for five minutes,” Lena said, “you can see on my phone how long I was outside and Dave can testify to that – he was standing there having a smoke so he saw me!” “The tin of dance wax for the floor – where is it kept?” Miss Flanagan asked. “In its usual place – and I put it back after using it!” Miss Flanagan asked to be shown where it was – in an unlocked cupboard in the kitchen. Anyone could have had access to it, she thought…
Miss Flanagan had a sterile plastic bag out now and she was putting the partly-used tin into it. It was evidence, after all. “Did anyone notice anyone other than Lena near that cupboard tonight?” Everyone shook their heads. So, no one had seen anything – or no one was prepared to say…
This could get very nasty if she didn’t find out quickly what had happened. Next day, the news wasn’t good about Gabby. She had broken her ankle, Roy told Miss Flanagan. “She’ll be hard to live with, not being able to dance, but what can you do?” Had Roy noticed anyone with the tin of dance floor wax, other than Lena, she asked? “No, definitely not. She just mustn’t have spread it right before they started. It’s an important job, putting that on.” Miss Flanagan knew he was right. A person who enjoyed ballroom dancing once herself, in her ‘palmy’ days, as her father used to call youth, she always ‘tested’ the floor on the first time round it, being cautious.
Even suede soles wouldn’t give the right slip and grip on a floor that had been treated incorrectly. She’d heard all sorts of horror stories about totally inappropriate substances like baby powder and soap flakes being sprinkled on dance floors – accidents waiting to happen! The professional product had several different kinds of waxes in it along with rice flour, she knew – especially tailored for the purpose. Lena Stewart was overwrought when she rang her a few minutes later. “I’m going to pull out of the competition!
Two people have already accused me of trying to put Gabby out by messing up the floor. It’s all around the town. I’m like a leper and I haven’t done anything wrong. I’m good at putting on the polish – I’ve looked after that floor for years so why would I mess up it up now? I could have hurt myself by not doing it right, for God’s sake!” “Try not to worry. I’ll get back to you if I have any news,” she said. After taking fingerprints from the tin, Miss Flanagan now examined a teaspoonful of the contents of the polish tin under her microscope. She would send it to a lab immediately for examination but she wanted to have a look herself. It was fine-ish powder.
Bowing her head to look through the eyepiece she noticed a familiar, slightly antiseptic smell. Did dance floor wax smell like that normally, she wondered or had the polish been interfered with? Deciding that she would need a baseline sample for the lab to compare the used tin sample with, she went back to the community centre and took a sealed tin of the polish with her to courier to the lab also. All she could do on that front now was wait, after the courier left with the package. The fingerprint exercise didn’t lead to much. Lena’s prints were on it, of course, but everything else was smudged and useless. What could she do now but think about motivation… Lena certainly had motive – there was jealousy there, she knew. Lena’s nose was out of joint with Gabby stealing her thunder on the dance floor. And there were prizes at stake for the couples too.
Maybe it was someone else, though, who had a grudge against Frank Doyle, Gabby’s dance partner. Maybe they wanted him out of the competition. It would be impossible to tell unless she could come up with some hard evidence. In the meantime she would have another chat with everyone who had left the tea-room during the break.
Davy Miller was a bit cross about being asked. “I’ve never hurt anyone ever in my life and you know it, so I’d appreciate it if you’d direct your questions somewhere else.” Ouch… Miss Flanagan had to continue with her questioning however – how else was she to get a breakthrough? She decided not to annoy Roy Faulkner, questioning him again about noticing anyone in the hall when he was fixing the lights. He had enough to be doing to look after his wife at the moment. He’d had to take today off from the pharmacy in Kilmullen where he worked, she knew, all because of the accident.
At least he was a helpful husband. She seldom saw Gabby out without him, in general. Pity he wasn’t a good dancer, though, or he could have partnered his wife in the competition but sure, not everyone has that talent, she thought.
Miss Flanagan got the lab report by email the following morning. Yes, the dance floor wax contained all the ingredients that were in the sealed tin but ‘boric acid was also present in considerable quantity’, the report said, in sample a, from the opened tin. Boric acid! That’s why she’d got that familiar smell!
She’d often used it as a homemade pesticide, mixed with sugar and flour to kill ants in outhouses. She knew it had many other uses, too, sometimes as a mild antiseptic or anti-fungal treatment. On dance floors it would be dangerous, though, leading to slips and falls. Boric acid, she thought – it wasn’t the sort of thing generally available in shops. You’d have to go to the chemist’s to get it, she knew. Chemist’s… pharmacy… What if…? Grabbing her bag and her bike, she set off immediately for Kilmullen. Dillon’s Pharmacy was busy enough for a Thursday. Roy Faulkner was behind the counter, she saw. Gabby must be feeling a bit better…
Getting ready to choose her words very carefully, Miss Flanagan approached him. After asking how Gabby was and making general conversation, she told him what she wanted to buy. “Boric acid, yes,” she repeated.
Roy Faulkner had looked shocked for a second. “Not many people look for that nowadays,” he was saying. Had he smiled a little too quickly? “I know, but it’s useful for many things and I want it to get rid of some insects. It does get rid of pests very successfully, doesn’t it?” Roy Faulkner had turned pale. “Is something wrong?” “No, no…” “Good. Funny thing is that I’ve had the dance floor polish analysed and it contained a lot of boric acid – not something you’d want on a dance floor now, is it?” Roy Faulkner had turned even paler. “No.” Leaving the pharmacy Miss Flanagan was 99% sure she had her culprit. Jealousy was a terrible thing and seeing your spouse dancing the tango very romantically, even in performance, could lead an over-active imagination to suspect deeper bonds…
Time to get Sergeant Reilly to have a word with Roy Faulkner. “It was the green-eyed monster all right, Brigid,” the Sergeant told her. “He was afraid of losing his wife to Frank Doyle, who he considered ‘a bit of a lad’. He had access to the boric acid easy enough, working in a chemist’s, and had the opportunity to mix some into the tin and sprinkle it on one corner of the hall, knowing that his wife and dance partner would be doing their ‘polishing’ first after the break.
He was happy she was out of the contest even though it wasn’t her that he wanted to get hurt, of course – it was Frank Doyle. “He’s a bit of a control freak in that marriage, I think. Very insecure in himself really, though you wouldn’t think it. He’s admitted to it all so Lena is off the hook and the competition can go on with the rest of the contestants, so it looks like you’ve tripped the light fantastic again, Brigid, in the investigating sense!”