Agatha Christie: Death in the Clouds

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    Death in the Clouds
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Agatha Christie


Death in the Clouds

Chapter 1

The September sun beat down hotly on Le Bourget aerodrome as the passengers crossed the ground and climbed into the air liner "Prometheus," due to depart for Croydon in a few minutes' time.

Jane Grey was among the last to enter and take her seat, No. 16. Some of the passengers had already passed on through the center door past the tiny pantry kitchen and the two wash rooms to the front car. Most people were already seated. On the opposite side of the gangway there was a good deal of chatter – a rather shrill, high-pitched woman's voice dominating it. Jane's lips twisted slightly. She knew that particular type of voice so well.

"My dear, it's extraordinary – no idea… Where do you say?… Juan les Pins?… Oh, yes… No, Le Pinet… Yes, just the same old crowd… But of course let's sit together… Oh, can't we?… Who?… Oh, I see."

And then a man's voice, foreign, polite:

"With the greatest of pleasure, madame."

Jane stole a glance out of the corner of her eye.

A little elderly man with large mustaches and an egg-shaped head was politely moving himself and his belongings from the seat corresponding to Jane's on the opposite side of the gangway.

Jane turned her head slightly and got a view of the two women whose unexpected meeting had occasioned this polite action on the stranger's part. The mention of Le Pinet had stimulated her curiosity, for Jane, also, had been at Le Pinet.

She remembered one of the women perfectly – remembered how she had seen her last, at the baccarat table, her little hands clenching and unclenching themselves; her delicately made-up, Dresden-china face flushing and paling alternately. With a little effort, Jane thought, she could have remembered her name. A friend had mentioned it; had said, "She's a peeress, she is. But not one of the proper ones; she was only some chorus girl or other."

Deep scorn in the friend's voice. That had been Maisie, who had a first-class job as a masseuse, taking off flesh.

The other woman, Jane thought in passing, was the real thing. "The horsey county type," thought Jane, and forthwith forgot the two women and interested herself in the view obtainable through the window of Le Bourget aerodrome. Various other machines were standing about. One of them looked like a big metallic centipede.

The one place she was obstinately determined not to look was straight in front of her, where, on the seat opposite, sat a young man.

He was wearing a rather bright periwinkle-blue pullover. Above the pullover, Jane was determined not to look. If she did, she might catch his eye. And that would never do!

Mechanics shouted in French; the engine roared, relaxed, roared again; obstructions were pulled away; the plane started.

Jane caught her breath. It was only her second flight. She was still capable of being thrilled. It looked – it looked as though they must run into that fence thing – no, they were off the ground, rising, rising, sweeping round; there was Le Bourget beneath them.

The midday service to Croydon had started. It contained twenty-one passengers – ten in the forward carriage, eleven in the rear one. It had two pilots and two stewards. The noise of the engines was very skillfully deadened. There was no need to put cotton wool in the ears. Nevertheless, there was enough noise to discourage conversation and encourage thought.

As the plane roared above France on its way to the Channel, the passengers in the rear compartment thought their various thoughts.

Jane Grey thought: "I won't look at him – I won't. It's much better not. I'll go on looking out of the window and thinking. I'll choose a definite thing to think about; that's always the best way. That will keep my mind steady. I'll begin at the beginning and go all over it."

Resolutely she switched her mind back to what she called the beginning – that purchase of a ticket in the Irish Sweep. It had been an extravagance, but an exciting extravagance.

A lot of laughter and teasing chatter in the hairdressing establishment in which Jane and five other young ladies were employed:

"What'll you do if you win it, dear?"

"I know what I'd do."

Plans, castles in the air, a lot of chaff.

Well, she hadn't won it – it being the big prize. But she had won a hundred pounds.

A hundred pounds!

"You spend half of it, dear, and keep the other half for a rainy day. You never know."

"I'd buy a fur coat, if I was you – a real tip-top one."

"What about a cruise?"

Jane had wavered at the thought of a cruise, but in the end she had remained faithful to her first idea. A week at Le Pinet. So many of her ladies had been going to Le Pinet or just come back from Le Pinet. Jane – her clever fingers patting and manipulating the waves, her tongue uttering mechanically the usual clichés, "Let me see. How long is it since you had your perm, madam?… Your hair's such an uncommon color, madam… What a wonderful summer it has been, hasn't it, madam?" – had thought to herself, "Why the devil can't I go to Le Pinet?" Well, now she could!

Clothes presented small difficulty. Jane, like most London girls employed in smart places, could produce a miraculous effect of fashion for a ridiculously small outlay. Nails, make-up and hair were beyond reproach.

Jane went to Le Pinet.

Was it possible that now, in her thoughts, ten days at Le Pinet had dwindled down to one incident?

An incident at the roulette table. Jane allowed herself a certain amount each evening for the pleasures of gambling. That sum she was determined not to exceed. Contrary to the prevalent superstition, Jane's beginner's luck had been bad. This was her fourth evening and the last stake of that evening. So far she had staked prudently on color or on one of the dozens; she had won a little, but lost more. Now she waited, her stake in her hand.

There were two numbers on which nobody had staked. Five and six. Should she put this, her last stake, on one of those numbers? If so, which of them? Five or six? Which did she feel?

Five – five was going to turn up. The ball was spun. Jane stretched out her hand. Six – she'd put it on six.

Just in time. She and another player opposite staked simultaneously. She on six, he on five.

"Rien ne va plus," said the croupier.

The ball clicked, settled.

"Le numéro cinq, rouge, impair, manque."

Jane could have cried with vexation. The croupier swept away the stakes, paid out. The man opposite said: "Aren't you going to take up your winnings?"

"Mine?"

"Yes."

"But I put on six."

"Indeed you didn't. I put on six and you put on five."

He smiled – a very attractive smile. White teeth in a very brown face. Blue eyes. Crisp short hair.

Half unbelievingly, Jane picked up her gains. Was it true? She felt a little muddled herself. Perhaps she had put her counters on five. She looked doubtingly at the stranger and he smiled easily back.

"That's right," he said. "Leave a thing lying there and somebody else will grab it who has got no right to it. That's an old trick."

Then, with a friendly little nod of the head, he had moved away. That, too, had been nice of him. She might have suspected otherwise that he had not let her take his winnings in order to scrape acquaintance with her. But he wasn't that kind of man. He was nice. And here he was, sitting opposite to her.

And now it was all over, the money spent, a last two days – rather disappointing days – in Paris, and now home on her return air ticket. "And what next?"

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