The Crime Readers' Association

The Deadly Morris Dance

By PJ Quinn

There can’t be many company bonding days that end in murder.

The weekend started well. It was a lovely autumn morning as Tony and I arrived at the Harrogate office. Jenny and Sarah were waiting. Dan from Design turned up soon afterwards. Bill was already waiting for us. With me from IT and Tony from Human Resources, the management team was almost complete. Only Mick from Sales was missing.

Jenny’s mouth was set in its usual sour line.

“You’re late,” she called.

I bit my tongue and smiled. We were probably being assessed already. Bill pretended to be an easy-going employer, but he was ruthless. If anyone failed to meet his standards, they were out. Starting at the crack of dawn could be our first test.

Mick arrived in a Mercedes, driven by a stunning brunette.

“This is Karen,” he announced. “She’ll be joining us for dinner.” He made a big show of kissing her goodbye, no doubt for our benefit, before she sped off.

Dan whispered, “I wonder how he got a lift so early?” and laughed softly.

“What’s this one called?” Bill demanded from the doorway. We were used to Mick turning up with his latest date. At the barbeque it was Carol. Irena came to the Christmas meal. We didn’t put a name on invitations any more, just “Mick Plus One”.

“Karen Fosdyke,” Mick announced proudly. Not that her name meant anything to us.

Bill seemed annoyed about something, but his smile soon returned. “Well, good for you,” he replied amiably, “she’s beautiful. Now let’s find our hidden talents.”

Everyone nodded vehemently.

The first two activities were quite enjoyable. We started by orienteering in the woods along the Chevin ridge. To our relief, our trail didn’t drop down the steep paths towards Otley, but even so we were soon out of breath trying to keep up with Mick. He was very fit.

“All that chasing after women,” Tony whispered to me. A few moments later Mick slipped on some leaves and fell flat on his back. He had the grace to join in the laughter at his expense. He must have been aching  and glad to finish. I know I was. Learning to shoot sounded easier.

It rained a little towards the end of our session at the shooting club, but we hardly noticed. The instructor was fun and we were soon having a good time. Jenny proved to be the best shot. I’ll admit I wondered if she’d been practising so she could impress Bill. We all knew he was a keen member of a shooting club. I wouldn’t have put it past her. She always showed absolute devotion to him – whether real or out of ambition I could never decide.

At twelve we adjourned to Darnley Court for lunch. After eating in the cafe, we trooped across the lobby to the private dining hall.

“We’re going to learn to Morris dance,” Bill announced.

“I didn’t know we’d be dancing.” Jenny sounded shocked.

“It’s an excellent way of building team spirit,” Bill enthused. “Everyone has to play their part, or the dance doesn’t work. I’ve hired an expert to teach us an old English dance. Here he is!”

A newcomer entered the hall. He must have been sixty but looked fitter than all of us.

“Afternoon,” he said. “My name’s Gideon and I’m here to teach you the Donkey Dance. Now, who’s volunteering to be the donkey? I’ve got a genuine nineteenth-century head for you to wear.” He didn’t sound like the country bumpkin we’d expected, more like a retired head teacher.

Everyone looked around, embarrassed. The dining hall was grand but it was also long and cold. Glass doors faced onto an inner courtyard. None of the ancient windows fitted properly, and with an open door at each end of the hall, there was a fierce draught. I could see a similar room on the other side of the courtyard, also with French windows. It looked like a library.

The tables and chairs had been pushed to one side, leaving space for us to practise. I hoped the room would be warmer with the velvet curtains drawn and reaching to the floor. Otherwise, it would be a chilly dinner.

“Come on,” Gideon insisted. “It’s quite simple. Six of you dance a jig around the donkey. At the end, the donkey runs down the middle and bounces off a trampoline. Here’s one I made earlier, as they say.” He pulled a small trampoline from the corner. “After dinner tonight, we’ll put on a show for your partners and colleagues. I’ll announce that you’re entertaining them, so you’ll have to learn how to do it, won’t you?”

“Blackmail!” Dan pointed out. We all laughed, but no one stepped forward.

“All right. I’ll wear the donkey head,” Bill said. “Then at least we’ll get started.” It was a big, heavy thing. When it was on, his face was completely hidden. He looked like Bottom in Midsummer’s Night Dream, but we didn’t dare laugh.

All afternoon we learnt the dance, getting hot and tired. At first the jig was more like a scrum, but by the fifth attempt we’d got the idea. Bill was surprisingly fit, despite his ample midriff. Though he puffed and landed heavily, he became quite good at running up the hall and jumping off the trampoline with a flourish. There was a lot of shared laughter and banter. Even Jenny joined in. We were indeed bonding.

“Now for your gear,” Gideon said, fetching a large basket. He took out a supply of white shirts, black trousers and black shoes, each carefully named. “Bill’s PA guessed your sizes. You can swap if necessary. They’re all identical. Here are the bells to put around your right leg and left arm.” He passed a set to Bill. “And here’s your donkey costume,” he added, giving him a patchwork tunic to pull over the shirt and trousers.

“Help me put these bells on, Tilly,” Tony begged me. “I’m hopeless at this sort of thing.”

At seven o’clock the “other halves” and friends joined us. Dan and I had finally admitted we were more than “just colleagues” and asked to sit at the same table. Neither of us wanted to make polite conversation with a guest; nor were we bothered by the prospect of office chatter.

After an excellent meal, everyone waited expectantly. The waitresses stood in front of the doors to prevent interruptions. With the curtains pulled across the French doors and candles on the tables, the room looked quite cosy.

As the dance was short, we’d decided to do it three times. Between each donkey bounce, Gideon would perform a sword dance of his own. At first all went as planned. We did the jig; the donkey ran down the middle, launched onto the trampoline, boing, then landed on both feet. Gideon followed with an amazing sword dance.

Everyone was watching and clapping when Tony whispered, “One of us is missing.” Urgently we looked round. It was Dan. We were about to take our positions for the second Donkey Dance and Dan had disappeared.

Sarah swore. “Probably gone for a smoke,” she said caustically. I recalled a waitress relighting the candles on one of the tables. A draught must have blown them out when Dan slipped outside. I was furious.

All we could do was rope Gideon in to take his place. Luckily the dance went well again. The donkey skipped down the middle, jumped onto the trampoline, twang, then landed lightly on one foot. Gideon did an even more complicated solo.

By the third Donkey Dance, we had six dancers again. Dan was full of apologies. He hadn’t realized how short Gideon’s sword dance was and had popped out for a smoke.

“Idiot!” Jenny hissed. For once I agreed with her.

We did the final dance with Gideon watching from the side. The donkey ran down the middle to the trampoline, launched himself with a boing, and landed to tremendous applause. He was the boss after all. Even our guests felt obliged to congratulate him.

They were still applauding when we heard the most appalling scream from the other side of the courtyard. I shall never forget it. One of the waitresses had found Karen Fosdyke’s body in the library. She was shaking and sobbing when she ran into the hall. “I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it!” she kept crying, wringing her apron in her hands. “She was on the floor when I went in. Poor, poor lady…”

It was chaos after that. Everyone ran to the exits to see what had happened. Jenny and I headed for the far door knowing it led to the lobby, but we were turned back by a waitress. I tripped over the trampoline, almost falling flat on my face. Pushing myself back up, I saw there was mud on my hands. In the way that you fix on a silly detail in a crisis, I wondered how it had got there.

After that, the police arrived. We didn’t know Karen. Mick had only been dating her a few weeks. But it was awful to think of her being murdered. Sarah and Jenny started crying and I couldn’t stop shivering. The poor woman had been stabbed with one of the steak knives from dinner. The knife was still in her back.

Our guests were sent home, with names and addresses noted, but we were detained. We weren’t even allowed to talk to each other. That was when we realized we were suspects.

For hours we sat in miserable silence as each of us was called into the manager’s office and questioned. Though it was only October, the nights were getting cold and by now it was well after midnight. My mind kept going round and round. It was the proverbial bad dream. How could one of us have killed Mick’s girlfriend? We had all been dancing. It must have been an outsider. Yet the staff insisted no one could have entered the building. The outer doors were locked and there was a receptionist in the foyer. Everyone else was watching us. Jenny might have had a motive: jealousy perhaps or wanting to protect Bill in some way. But she had never been out of my sight, other than when she went to the Ladies room. Could she have got round to the library in that time?

I’ve always liked solving puzzles. I suppose that’s why I work in IT. To keep calm, I started to go over what had happened. Karen’s body was found in the library, which ran parallel to our hall. You could get to it by leaving the hall through the North door and going through the lobby. I hadn’t noticed Karen go out, but I was   getting ready for our dance and not watching the guests. No one could have gone that way after the dancing started without being spotted. There was another route however: through the glass doors, across the courtyard and into the French windows opposite. Our windows were hidden behind curtains, so perhaps someone could have sneaked out. But no one could have done that without disturbing our dance. Except Dan. In horror, I realized that Dan must be prime suspect. He was the only one who’d left while we were performing. No wonder he’d been with the police so long. I couldn’t believe Dan would kill anyone, much less Karen. He’d only met her today. Besides, he hadn’t been gone that long.

Then I recalled the candles blowing out. Maybe the French doors had been opened by someone other than Dan? The courtyard was paved but not particularly well: it was muddy in parts. And there was mud on the floor. Or was it on the trampoline?

I couldn’t help it. I looked up sharply towards Bill. He was sitting in the far corner, well away from us. Our eyes made contact and I felt a chill pass through me. Quickly I lowered my eyes. I couldn’t be right. Bill was dancing the whole time. Besides, what motive would he have? He didn’t know Karen was coming. None of us did until Mick introduced her. So, if someone wanted to kill her, it couldn’t have been planned in advance.

My mind was racing. The Donkey Dance would have been the perfect cover. Bill could have slipped behind the curtain to the French windows while Gideon did his sword dance. There were differences in the three dances. The first and third time, the donkey sounded heavy. The second time, he seemed lighter and made more of it: he skipped. The enormity of what I was thinking made me feel sick. Dan was much lighter than Bill. What if Bill swapped with him? That would have given Bill time to sneak out. Maybe Bill said it was a joke, or that he was tired. Dan would do whatever the boss asked. No one would have noticed with the tunic hiding the donkey’s body.

My theory was growing. Mud on the trampoline could have only got there if the donkey had gone outside. Bill must have asked Karen to meet him in the library, and crept up behind her. Then he returned to do the third dance. But why should Bill kill Karen? The question pulled me up short.

He’d seemed annoyed when Mick introduced her. Maybe they’d met before. Then I remembered some office gossip. According to Sarah, Bill had gone to Mauritius to be married but returned single. He’d never mentioned it himself, but Sarah said he’d been stood up at the altar. That was why he was so crotchety. His fiancée’s name was Karen. Could it be the same woman?

How do you accuse your boss of murder? Dan would never do so but he must by now be realising he had been used. If I accused Bill, I could kiss my job goodbye. And I had no real evidence. Yet I had to help Dan.

Feeling weak, I got up and walked towards the policewoman.

© PJ Quinn (Pauline Kirk and Jo Summers)

An earlier version of this story appeared in More Exhibitionism: Poems and Prose from the Spoken Word, ed. Glen Taylor, Stairwell Books, 2016.

You can read more about PJ Quinn and their writing here.

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