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A Dangerous Place: A Maisie Dobbs Novel

Chapter 1

April 1937


Arturo Kenyon stood in the shadows of a whitewashed building opposite a small guesthouse known locally as “Mrs. Bishop’s,” though it had no sign to advertise the fact.  He was waiting for a woman who had taken a room under the name of Miss M. Dobbs to emerge.  Then he would follow her.  She had, after all, been instrumental in not allowing the dust to settle on the death of one Sebastian Babayoff, a photographer of weddings, family events and contributor of photographs to the odd tourist pamphlet. Not that there were the usual number of tourists in Gibraltar at that very moment.  Refugees – yes.  Government officials – yes.  Increasing numbers of soldiers and sailors – yes.  Black market profiteers – of course.  And to top it all, more than a few like himself, working on behalf of their country in a role not specified on any identification documents, but considered important all the same.  In fact, the town was crawling with men – and, he had no doubt, women – with a similar remit:  To be the eyes and ears of their government’s most secret services in a place seething with those dispossessed by war across the border.  This place of his birth wasn’t a good place to be.

Kenyon’s father had been a navy man stationed in Gibraltar when he’d fallen for a local girl of Maltese heritage named Leonarda.  Such a love affair was not an unusual occurrence – Gibraltar was, after all, a military garrison.  An only child, Arturo had grown up on tales of Lord Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar, and the strategic importance of his home.  His father had been killed in the war, but his loss at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 did not deter Arturo from following in his footsteps and joining the Royal Navy, albeit under the name Arthur Kenyon.  It wouldn’t have done him any favors to be an Arturo on board ship.  An injury sustained while at sea should have mustered him out of the senior service, but instead he was – as his commanding officer termed it – “reassigned” to another role.  Which is how Kenyon found himself working for naval intelligence, now back in Gibraltar under the name by which he had been known until he left his mother’s house at sixteen on a quest to follow in his father’s footsteps.  Fluent in Spanish and English, and the strange hybrid of those two languages that could be heard in Gibraltar, he was a good man to have at their disposal as far as the government were concerned.  Especially now, when the Spanish were killing each other across the border.

The body of Babayoff, a Sephardic Jew, had been discovered by the Dobbs woman when she was out walking one evening – that was another thing about her; she walked alone at night, despite curfews in place to protect the citizenry.  At first it appeared as if she would not pose too much of a problem – Mrs. Bishop had informed a policeman that Miss Dobbs would likely book a passage to Southampton soon, based upon what had happened.  But instead she remained and began asking questions and visiting Babayoff’s people, one of the older Gibraltarian Jewish families.  She wasn’t doing these things in a hurry, Kenyon had noticed.  It was as if each day she took it upon herself to make an attempt to tidy an ill-kempt room – dust a little here, sweep there, remove a cobweb or two.

Dobbs was a strange one, thought Kenyon as he lit a strong French cigarette and drew until the tip almost enflamed.  He’d followed her a couple of times since receiving orders.  She was tall with chin-length hair almost jet black, though he’d noticed a few gray hairs at her temples.  And those eyes – she almost caught him looking at her once, and he thought, then, that those eyes might see right through a person, though the person in question might not see anything in return.  If eyes were windows into the heart of a human being, then hers were locked tight, as if a port cullis had come down across her soul.  Kenyon – whose hair was almost as black as the woman for whom he waited, though his eyes were the pale blue of his blond father – was used to watching people, was well-versed in discovering the truth about someone just by observing them about their daily round.  He thought this woman, Maisie Dobbs, carried something inside her, as if she didn’t really want to be involved in the death of Sebastian Babayoff, but could not help herself.  It was as if she felt a responsibility to him, having found his body.  What was it she’d said to the police at the time?  He’d read her statement in notes acquired from his man at the police station.  His death deserves our attention, so his family can be at peace.  There is a duty here, and it cannot be ignored.

Peace?  That was a fine word – everyone who entered Gibraltar now wanted nothing more than to be enveloped by peace.  Perhaps this Maisie Dobbs was looking for something too.  According to a report he’d received from Whitehall, she might have been traveling under another name, because Dobbs was not the name on her passport.  She’d begun her journey in India, bound for Southampton, yet had disembarked in Gibraltar three weeks ago.  She should have continued on to her final destination, but for some reason she’d decided to remain, having left the ship against the advice of the captain.  What was more interesting to Arturo Kenyon, was that a man named Brian Huntley, from one of those no-named government departments in London, seemed pleased to know where she was, and had given orders for her to be accounted for.  Not intercepted, not approached and questioned, or even—he dreaded the word, “eliminated.” His brief was to keep an eye on her. 

Kenyon was watching the whitewashed house with window boxes of trailing geraniums when the door opened and Maisie Dobbs stepped out into the sunshine.  Though her clothes were made of cotton and linen, she was not dressed for fine weather as a tourist might garb herself.  A black blouse with a narrow black skirt to mid-calf emphasized her slender shape, and she wore plain black leather shoes with a peep-toe.  She wore no stockings, which was something of a surprise to Kenyon.  That woman could do with a bit of fat on her, he thought, and as he watched, Maisie Dobbs looked up at the sky, took off her hat and put on a pair of dark glasses.  Replacing the narrow-brimmed hat, she glanced both ways before setting off along the narrow passageway towards Main Street.  It was clear that she was not short of funds – something about her demeanor suggested a confidence that attended the well-heeled.  The guesthouse proprietress had informed him – in return for folding money – that Dobbs had paid one month in advance.

 Kenyon waited just a moment before stepping out of castellated shadows cast by late-morning sunshine against mismatched buildings, and kept her in view as she went on her way.  He wondered why a woman of means would not be staying at The Ridge Hotel.  Only a few years old, the luxurious hotel had become a mecca for the rich.  And he wondered what had come to pass in her life, and why she’d chosen not to continue on her journey – for surely being safe at home in England would be more desirable than lingering in a town overrun with people running from hell.  


March 20th, 1934

Darjeeling, India


Maisie Dobbs sat at a desk of dark polished teak set in a bay window looking out across terraced tea gardens that seemed to sweep up into the foothills of distant mountains.  She held her pen over a sheet of writing paper, but was distracted by converging thoughts as she watched a cadre of women pick young “first flush” tea shoots.  Their hands moved across the bushes with speed as they snatched at the soft rubbery leaves of Camelia Sinensis, more commonly known by the name for the place in which it now grew across the vast estate.  She continued to watch the women as they filled the deep baskets resting on their backs, held steady with a belt across their foreheads. 

Soon she would leave this place where she had found a measure of calm.  March and April brought spring to Darjeeling, days of crystal light and pearls of dew on rhododendrons of peach and magenta, and on flora she had never seen and might never see again.  There were light breezes filled with a sweet fragrance, and days when she turned her face to the sun and felt its warmth flood her body.  It had been a chance meeting in Bombay, where she had spent several weeks helping a man named Pramal set up a school in honor of his dead sister – a woman whose killer Maisie had found – that led her to Darjeeling, and an opportunity to rent this bungalow for some three or four months.  The journey had been long and arduous, by train for the most part, and then all manner of transportation, including her first – and to this point, only – passage atop an elephant.   But it was worth it for the peace.  Yes, for the peace.  In London—how many months past, now?  Was it six even so soon?—she had begun to doubt herself, to question what she had believed for so many years was her vocation. On behalf of those who came asking for her help, it was her task to uncover the truth and lies that stood in the way of their personal contentment.  Sometimes the truth and lies were held within one tormented individual, and they sought out Maisie in her role as psychologist to unravel the contradictions underpinning their turmoil.  There were those who had more simple requests – a missing piece of jewelry, or a profligate business partner who had hidden evidence of funds misplaced.  But among the clients who came to the Fitzroy Square office of Maisie Dobbs, Psychologist and Investigator, were those touched by the unresolved and perhaps mysterious death of someone dear, someone whose memory was tightly held.  And Maisie brought every element of her training, every ounce of her character, and every last ache in her soul to the task of bringing peace to the bereaved.  Then it had been her turn to find peace.

Amid the tea gardens and mountains, and in the solitude she craved – a different solitude, away from even those she loved – she felt the war was truly behind her.  In fact, all her wars were now behind her.  It was as if the laundry had been washed and aired, ironed and folded, put away in a cupboard and locked.  She had accepted what she considered to be her failings, and had come to terms with her powerlessness against fate itself.  Now, with the sleepless nights of dark thinking behind her, she felt as if she were walking along a road that became ever narrow until it reached the vanishing point.  She had come to a juncture where she could consider what might come next.   And she knew the responsibility awaiting her.  She had made a promise to come to a decision.  On March 31st she would send a telegram to James Compton with her answer.  Yes STOP.  Or, No STOP.  

A Dangerous Place: A Maisie Dobbs Novel
by by Jacqueline Winspear