The Walkers of Dembley

Agatha Raisin Mysteries (Volume 4)

M.C. Beaton

St. Martin's Paperbacks

THE WALKERS OF DEMBLEY (Chapter 1)

AGATHA Raisin watched the sunlight on the wall of her office in the City of London.

It was shining through the slats on the venetian blind, long arrows of light inching down the wall as the sun sank lower, the sundial of Agatha's working day.

Tomorrow it would all be over, her stint as a public-relations officer, and then she could return to her home in the village of Carsely in the Cotswolds. She had not enjoyed her return to work. Her short time away from it, her short time in retirement, had seemed to divorce her from the energy required to drum up publicity for clients from journalists and television companies.

Although she had enough of her old truculence and energy left to make a success of it, she missed the village and her friends. She had gone back initially for a few weekends when she could get away, but the wrench of returning to London had been so great that for the past two months she had stayed where she was, working at the weekends as well.

She had thought that her new-found talent for making friends would have worked for her in the City, but most of the staff were young compared to her fifty-something and preferred to congregate together at lunch-time and after work. Roy Silver, her young friend who had inveigled her into working for Pedmans for six months, also had been steering clear of her of late, always claiming he was "too busy" to meet her for a drink or even to talk to her.

She sighed and looked at the clock. She was taking a journalist from the Daily Bugle out for drinks and dinner to promote a new pop star, Jeff Loon, real name Trevor Biles, and she was not looking forward to it. It was hard to promote someone like Jeff Loon, a weedy, acne-pitted youth with a mouth like a sewer. But he had a voice which used to be described as Irish parlour tenor and had recently re-recorded some old romantic favourites, all great hits. It was necessary then to give him a new image as the darling of middle England, the kind that the mums and dads adored. The best way was to keep him away from the press as much as possible and send in Agatha Raisin.

She went to the staff bathroom and changed into a black dress and pearls, suitable to foster the staid image of the client she was representing. The journalist she was to meet was new to her. She had checked up on him. His name was Ross Andrews. He had once been a major-league reporter but had been demoted to the entertainments page in middle age. Ageing journalists often found themselves relegated to reporting on the social or entertainments page or, worse, to answering readers' letters.

They were to meet in the City, Fleet Street being no more, the newspaper companies having moved down to the East End.

She had agreed to meet Ross in the bar of the City Hotel and to eat there as well, for the restaurant was passable and its windows commanded a good view of the river Thames.

She twisted this way and that in front of the mirror. The dress, a recent purchase, looked suspiciously tight. Too many expense-account dinners and lunches. As soon as she got back to Carsely, she would take the weight off.

As she walked down to the entrance hall, the doorman, Jock, sprang to open the door. "Good night, Mrs. Raisin," he said with an oily smile, and muttered under his breath once Agatha was out of earshot, "Rotten old bat!" For Agatha had once snapped at him, "If you're a doorman, then open the bloody door every time you see me. Hop to it!" and the lazy Jock had never forgiven her.

Agatha walked along with the thinning home-going crowds, a stocky, pugnacious woman with a short hairstyle, bearlike eyes, and good legs.

The hotel was only a few streets away. She left the evening sunlight and plunged into the gloom of the hotel bar. Although she had never met this Ross Andrews before, her experienced eye picked him out immediately. He was wearing a dark suit and a collar and tie, but he had that raffish seediness about him of a newspaper journalist. He had thinning hair of a suspicious black, a fat face with a smudge of a nose and watery-blue eyes. He might have once been good-looking, thought Agatha as she walked towards him, but years of heavy boozing had taken their toll.

"Mr. Andrews?"

"Mrs. Raisin. Call me Ross. I ordered a drink and put it on your tab," he said cheerfully. "It's all on expenses anyway."

Agatha reflected that quite a number of journalists were expert at putting in fake restaurant bills for clients they should have entertained and never did, pocketing the money themselves. But when it came to anyone else's expenses, it seemed to be a case of no holds barred.

She nodded and sat down opposite him, signalled to the waiter and ordered a gin and tonic for herself. "Call me Agatha," she said.

"How are things on the Daily Bugle?" asked Agatha, knowing that it was pointless talking business until the journalist considered he had sunk enough booze to warrant a few lines.

"On the skids, if you ask me," he said gloomily. "The trouble is that these new journalists don't know their arses from their elbows. They come out of these damn schools of journalism and they're not a patch on the likes of us who had to learn to fly by the seat of our pants. Come back off a job and say, 'Oh, I couldn't ask him or her that. Husband just dead,' or some crap like that. I say to them, 'Laddie, in my day, we got it on the front page and the hell with anyone's feelings.' They want to be liked. A good reporter is never liked."

"True," agreed Agatha with some feeling.

He signalled the waiter and ordered himself another whisky and water without asking Agatha if she was ready for another drink.

"It all happened when they turned the running of the newspapers over to accountants, seedy jealous bods who cut your expenses and argue about every penny. Why, I remember..."

Agatha smiled and tuned him out. How many times had she been in similar circumstances, listening to similar complaints? Tomorrow she would be free and she would never go back to work again, not as a PR anyway. She had sold her own PR firm to take early retirement, to retire to the Cotswolds, to the village of Carsely, which had slowly enfolded her in its gentle warmth. She missed it. She missed the Carsely Ladies Society, the chatter over the teacups in the vicarage, the placid life of the village. Keeping a practised look of admiration on her face as Ross wittered on, her thoughts moved to her neighbour, James Lacey. She had had a drink with him on her last visit to the village but their easy friendship seemed to have gone. She told herself that her silly obsession for him had fled, never to return. Still, they had had fun solving those murders.

As Ross raised his arm to order another drink, she forestalled him by suggesting firmly that they should eat.

They walked into the dining-room. "Your usual table, Mrs. Raisin," said the maître d', showing them to a table at the window.

There had been a time, reflected Agatha, when being known and recognized by maître d's was gratifying, underlying how far she had come from the Birmingham slum in which she had grown up. No one said "slum" these days, of course. It was Inner City, as if the euphemism could take away the grime, violence, and despair. The do-gooders chattered on about poverty but no one was starving, apart from old-age pensioners who were not tough enough to demand benefits owing to them. It was a poverty of the very soul, where imagination was fed by violent videos, drink and drugs.

"And old Chalmers said to me when I came back from Beirut, 'you're too wiley and tough a bird, Ross, to get kidnapped.' "

"Absolutely," said Agatha. "What would you like to drink?"

"Mind if I choose? I find the ladies know nothing about wine," which Agatha translated into meaning that the ladies might order inexpensive wine, or half a bottle, or something unacceptable. She thought, he will choose the second most expensive wine, being greedy but not wanting to appear so, and he did. Like some of his ilk, he ordered in the way of food what he thought was due to his position rather than because he enjoyed the taste of it. He did not eat much of it, obviously longing for the brandy at the end of the meal and for someone to take all the expensive muck away. So he barely ate snails, followed by rack of lamb, followed by profiteroles.

Over the brandies, Agatha wearily got down to business. She described Jeff Loon as a nice boy, "too nice for the pop world," who was devoted to his mother and two brothers. She described his forthcoming release. She handed over photographs and press handouts.

"This is a load of shit, you know," said Ross, smiling at her blearily. "I mean, I checked up on this Jeff Loon and he's got a record, and I mean criminal record. He's been found guilty on two counts of actual bodily harm and he's also been done for taking drugs, so why are you peddling this crap about him being a mother's boy?"

The pleasant middle-aged woman that had been his impression of Agatha Raisin disappeared and a hard-featured woman with eyes like gimlets faced him.

"And you cut the crap, sweetie," growled Agatha. "You know damn well why you were invited here. If you had no intention of writing anything even half decent, then you shouldn't have come, you greedy pig. I'll tell you something else: I don't give a sod what you write. I just never want to see your like again. You chomp and swig like the failed journalist you are, boring the knickers off me with apocryphal stories of your greatness, and then you have the cheek to say that Jeff is a phony. What about you?

"Oh, it's not on for PRs to complain, but hear this! I'm going to break the mould. Your editor is going to hear all your stories, verbatim, and get it along with the price of this evening."

"He'll never listen to you!" said Ross.

She fished under the napkin on her lap and held up a small but serviceable tape recorder. "Smile," said Agatha. "You're on candid camera."

He gave a weak laugh. "Aggie, Aggie." He covered her hand with his own. "Can't you take a joke? Of course I'm going to write a nice piece on Jeff."

Agatha signalled for the bill. "I couldn't care less what you write," she said. Ross Andrews had sobered rapidly. "Look, Aggie..."

"Agatha to you, but Mrs. Raisin will do now that we've got to know each other so well."

"Look, I promise you a good piece."

Agatha signed the credit-card slip. "You'll get the tape when I read it," she said. She got to her feet. "Good night, Mr. Andrews."

Ross Andrews swore under his breath. Public relations! He hoped never to meet anyone like Agatha Raisin again. He felt quite tearful. Oh, for the days when women were women!

Far away in the heart of Gloucestershire in the market town of Dembley, Jeffrey Benson, seated in the back of a schoolroom which was used for the weekly meeting of the rambling association, the Dembley Walkers, was thinking pretty much the same thing as he watched his lover, Jessica Tartinck, address the group. This feminist business was all very well, and God knew he was all for the equality of women, but why did they have to dress and go on like men?

Jessica was wearing jeans and a workman's shirt hanging loose. She had a pale scholarly face--she held a first in English from Oxford--and thick black hair worn long and straight. She had superb breasts, large and firm. She was rather thick about the thighs and did not have very good legs, but then the legs were always in trousers. Like Jeff, she was a schoolteacher at the local comprehensive. Before she had somehow declared herself leader of the Dembley Walkers, they had been a chatty, inoffensive group of people who enjoyed their weekend rambles.

But Jessica seemed to delight in confrontations with landowners, whom she hated like poison. She was a frequent visitor to the Records Office in Gloucester, poring over maps, finding rights of way which, buried in the mists of time, now had crops planted over them.

Jessica, on arriving to teach at the school a few months before, had immediately looked around for A Cause. She often thought in capital letters. She had learned of the Dembley Walkers through a fellow teacher, a timid, fair-haired girl called Deborah Camden who taught physics. All at once Jessica had found her cause, and in no time at all, without any of the other ramblers' knowing quite how it had happened, she had taken over. That her zeal in finding rights of way for them across private land was fuelled by bitterness and envy and, as in a case of her previous "protests"--she had been an anti-nuclear campaigner on Greenham Common--by a desire for power over people, never crossed her mind. Jessica could find no fault in Jessica, and this was her great strength. She exuded confidence. It was politically incorrect to disagree with her. As most of the genuine ramblers who just wanted a peaceful outing had left and been replaced by ones in Jessica's image, she found it easy to hold sway. Among her most devout admirers, apart from Deborah, was Mary Trapp, a thin, morose girl with bad skin and very, very large feet. Then there was Kelvin Hamilton, a professional Scot who wore a kilt at all times and made jokes about "saxpence," claimed to have come from a Highland village but actually came from Glasgow. There was Alice Dewhurst, a large powerful woman with a large powerful backside, who had known Jessica during the Greenham Common days. Alice's friend, Gemma Queen, a thin, anaemic shop-girl, did not say much except to agree with everything Alice said. Lastly were two men, Peter Hatfield and Terry Brice, who worked at the Copper Kettle Restaurant in Dembley as waiters. Both were thin and quiet, both effeminate, both given to whispering jokes to each other and sniggering.

Jessica looked particularly attractive that evening because she had found fresh prey. There was an old right of way across the land of a baronet, Sir Charles Fraith. She herself had surveyed the territory. There were crops growing across the right of way. She had written to Sir Charles herself to say that they would be marching across his land the Saturday after next and that there was nothing he could do about it.

Deborah suddenly found her hand shooting up. "Yes, Deborah?" asked Jessica, raising thin black eyebrows.

"C-couldn't we j-just once," stammered Deborah, "j-just go for a walk like we used to? It was fun when old Mr. Jones used to lead us. We had picnics and things and..."

Her voice trailed away before the supercilious expression on Jessica's face.

"Come, now, Deborah, this is not like you. If it weren't for rambling groups like ours, there wouldn't be rights of way at all."

One of the original pre-Jessica ramblers, Harry Southern, said suddenly, "She's got a point. We're going back to farmer Stone's land this Saturday. He chased us off with a shotgun a month ago and some of the ladies were frightened."

"You mean you were frightened," said Jessica haughtily. "Very well. We will put it to a vote. Do we go to farmer Stone's this weekend or not?"

As her acolytes outnumbered the others, the vote was easily carried. Even Deborah no longer had the courage to protest, and after the meeting, when Jessica put an arm around her shoulders and gave her a hug, she felt her doubts ebbing away and all her usual slavish devotion returning.

POETS day in the City, the acronym standing for Piss Off Early Tomorrow's Saturday, had arrived at last. Agatha Raisin cleared her desk. She had an almost childish desire to erase all the telephone numbers of contacts on the Filofax to make it harder for whoever replaced her, but managed to restrain herself. Outside her door, she could hear her secretary singing a happy tune. Agatha had gone through three secretaries during her short stay. The present one, Bunty Dunton, was a big jolly county girl with a skin like a rhinoceros, and so Agatha's often virulent outbursts of temper had seemingly left her untouched. But she had never sounded so happy before.

But it would be all right when she returned to Carsely, thought Agatha. She was popular there.

Her office door opened and Roy Silver edged in. His hair was slicked back with gel and now worn in a pony-tail. He had a spot on his chin and his suit was of the type where the jacket appears to be hanging off the shoulders and the sleeves are turned back at the cuff. His silk tie was broad and a mixture of violent fluorescent colours which seemed to heighten the unhealthy pallor of his face.

"Off then?" he asked, looking poised for flight.

"Oh, sit down, Roy," said Agatha. "I've been here six months and we've hardly seen anything of each other."

"Been busy, you know that, Aggie. So have you. How did you get on with the Jeff Loon account?"

"All right," said Agatha uneasily. She was beginning to wonder why she had gone over the top like that. Not that she had actually taped the creep. She just happened to have had her tape recorder in her handbag and had taken it out while he was absorbed in bragging about himself and put it on her lap under her napkin to trick him.

Roy sat down. "So you're off to Carsely. Look, Aggie, I think you've found your niche."

"You mean PR? Forget it."

"No, I meant Carsely. You're a much easier person to know when you're there."

"What d'you mean?" demanded Agatha truculently. She held up a silver paper-knife she had been about to drop into a box on her desk along with her other belongings. Roy cringed but said firmly, "Well, Aggie, I must say you've been a success, back on your old form, rule by fear and all that. I'd got used to Village Aggie, all tea and crumpets and the doings of the neighbours. Funny, even murder in your parish didn't bring out the beast in you quite the way PR has done."

"I don't indulge in personality clashes," said Agatha, feeling a tide of red starting at her neck and moving up to her face.

"No?" Roy was feeling bolder now. She hadn't thrown anything at him. "Well, what about your seccies, love? Darting along to personnel in floods of tears and sobbing their little hearts out on Mr. Burnham's thirty-four-inch chest. What about that rag-trade queen, Emma Roth?"

"What about her? I got a spread on her in the Telegraph."

"But you told the old bat she had the manners of a pig and her fashions were shoddy."

"So she has, and so they are. And did she cancel her account with us? No."

Roy squirmed. "Don't like to see you like this. Get back to Carsely, there's a love, and leave all this nasty London behind. I'm only telling you for your own good."

"Why is it," said Agatha evenly, "that people who say they are only telling you things for your own good come out with a piece of bitchery?"

"Well, we were friends once..." Roy darted for the door and made his escape.

Agatha stared at the door through which he had disappeared, her mouth a little open. His last remark had dismayed her. The new Agatha surely made friends, not lost them. She had blamed London and London life for her loneliness, never stopping to think that by sinking back into her old ways, she had once more started alienating people.

There was a separate box on her desk, full of cosmetics and scent, products of her various clients. She had been going to take it home. She called out, "Bunty, come in here a moment."

Her secretary bounced in, fresh face, no make-up, ankle-length white cotton skirt and bare feet. "Here," said Agatha, pushing the box forward, "you can have this stuff."

"Gosh, thanks awfully," said Bunty. "Too kind. Got everything packed, Mrs. Raisin?"

"Just a few more things."

There was something lost and vulnerable in Agatha's bearlike eyes. She was still thinking of what Roy had said.

"Tell you what," said Bunty, "I've brought my little car up to town today. When you're ready, I'll give you a run to Paddington Station."

"Thank you," said Agatha humbly.

And so Agatha, unusually silent and not back-seat driving one bit, was taken to Paddington Station by Bunty. "I live in the Cotswolds," volunteered Bunty. "Of course, I only get home at weekends. Lovely place. We're over in Bibury. You're near Moreton-in-Marsh. If I'm home during the week, I go with Ma to the market on Tuesday." And so she rattled on while all the whole time Agatha kept thinking of how lonely her stay in London had been and how easy it would have been to make a friend of this secretary.

As Agatha got out of the car at Paddington, she said, "You have my address, Bunty. If you ever feel like dropping over for a meal, or just coffee, please do."

"Thanks," said Bunty. "See you."

Agatha trudged onto the train, taking up the seat next to her with her boxes. When the train moved out, gaining speed, and London fell away behind her, Agatha took a long slow breath. She was leaving that other Agatha behind.

Carsley again. After a long dreary winter and a cold wet spring, the sun was blazing down, and Lilac Lane, where Agatha had her cottage, was living up to its name, heavy with blossom of white, mauve, and purple. She saw James Lacey's car parked outside his house and her heart lifted. She admitted to herself that she had missed him--along with everyone else in Carsely, she told herself sternly. Her cleaner, Doris Simpson, who had been caring for Agatha's two cats while she had been away, had been looking out for her, and came out on the step with a smile of welcome.

"Home again, Agatha," she said. "Coffee's ready, and I got a nice piece of steak in for your dinner."

"Thank you, Doris," said Agatha. She stood back a moment and looked affectionately at her cottage, squatting there like a friendly beast under its heavy roof of thatch. Then she went indoors to a chilly reception from her cats, who in their catlike way would not stoop to any raptures on the return of an owner who should have had more consideration than to go away.

Doris carried Agatha's boxes in and put them in the small hall and then went through to the kitchen and poured Agatha a cup of coffee.

"I forgot about the garden," said Agatha. "Must be a right mess."

"Oh, no, the Ladies Society took it in turns to do a bit of weeding, and that Mr. Lacey did quite a bit. Why, what's the matter, Agatha?"

For Agatha had begun to cry.

Agatha took out a serviceable handkerchief and blew her nose loudly. "I'm glad to be home," she mumbled.

"It's London," said Doris, nodding her head wisely. "London never did folks any good at all. Me and Bert go up now and then to the shops. It's all crowds and push. Glad to get back to where it's quiet."

The cleaner tactfully turned away until Agatha had composed herself.

"So what's been going on in the village?" asked Agatha.

"Not much, I'm glad to say. Reckon as how us is in for a nice quiet time. Oh, there's a new thing. We've got a ramblers' group."

"Who's running that?"

"Mr. Lacey."

Agatha was suddenly conscious of the expense-account rolls of fat around her middle. "I'd like to join. How do I go about it?"

"Don't think anyone joins, 'zactly. Us meets up outside Harvey's after lunch on Sunday, about half past one. Mr. Lacey takes us on one of the countryside walks and tells us about the plants and things and a bit o' the history. Lived here all my life and the things I don't know!"

"No trouble with the landowners?"

"Not around here. Lord Pendlebury's people keep the walks nice and neat, and signposted, too. We did have a bit of trouble over at Mr. Jackson's." Mr. Jackson owned a chain of computer shops and had bought a large piece of land. "We was following the marked path and came up against a padlocked gate right across it and there was Harry Cater, Jackson's agent, with a shotgun, telling us to get off the land."

"He can't do that!"

"No, but Mr. Lacey said with so many nice places around, it wasn't worth the trouble making a fuss. Miss Simms, she told Cater what to do with his shotgun and where to put it, and with the vicar and his wife listening and all. I didn't know where to look."

"Rambling," said Agatha thoughtfully. "Now there's a thing." This was Friday. On Sunday she would see James again if she did not run him to earth before then.

Roy Silver walked into Mr. Wilson's office the following morning, wondering why he had been summoned to work on a Saturday.

Mr. Wilson, the boss of Pedmans, was sitting with a copy of the Daily Bugle spread on his desk in front of him.

"Seen the paper this morning?" he asked.

"The Daily Bugle? No, not yet."

"Our Mrs. Raisin has turned up trumps again. Lovely piece about Jeff Loon, worth thousands in free publicity. My God, if she can promote a pillock like Jeff Loon, she can promote anything. He was your account and we turned it over to Mrs. Raisin when you weren't getting anywhere with it."

"Well, no one wanted to know," said Roy defensively.

Mr. Wilson looked at Roy over the top of his gold-rimmed glasses.

"I'm not blaming you. I don't think anyone else in PR could have pulled off a coup like this." He leaned back in his chair. "I thought you and Mrs. Raisin were best friends."

"So we are."

"I noticed you seemed to avoid her while she was here. I overheard her asking you to go for a drink with her after work one day, and heard you coming out with the lamest of excuses."

"Must have heard the wrong thing. I adore Aggie."

"You see, I want you to get close to that woman. I want you to talk to her about money, lots of money. I'll even make her a partner. She can choose her own accounts. She doesn't like me. If there's any affection left between you..."

"Lots," said Roy fervently.

"Okay, get down there. Take your time. Don't rush her. Look for a way to get her back."

"Maybe next weekend?"

"Nothing up with the present."

"Of course, of course. I'll go now."

Roy rushed off home to pack a weekend bag and then took a taxi to Paddington. He had not phoned Agatha, fearing she would suggest another weekend or put him off altogether. If he just arrived on the doorstep, so he reasoned, she could hardly turn him away.

Had James Lacey been in the Red Lion that Saturday evening, which is where Roy finally ran Agatha to earth, then she might have told Roy to get lost. But the thought of seeing James again on the Sunday was filling her with nervous anticipation. To have even the weedy Roy along might mean she would not be tempted to monopolize him. So she ungraciously said, "I am surprised an ex-friend should be so anxious to stay with me, but I suppose I'll have to put up with you putting up with me. Prepare for an energetic day tomorrow. In fact, it'll probably bore the pants off you and serve you right. Tomorrow morning we go to church, and after that we join the Carsely Ramblers for a long and healthy walk."

"Just what I need," said Roy, smiling ingratiatingly. "Ready for another drink, Aggie?"

THE WALKERS OF DEMBLEY Copyright 1995 by M. C. Beaton.