Love, Lies and Liquor

Agatha Raisin Mysteries (Volume 17)

M. C. Beaton

St. Martin's Paperbacks

LOVE, LIES and LIQUOR (CHAPTER ONE)

ONE

JAMES LACEY, Agatha Raisin's ex-husband with whom she was still in love, had come back into her life. He had moved into his old cottage next door to Agatha's.

But although he seemed interested in Agatha's work at her detective agency, not a glint of love lightened his blue eyes. Agatha dressed more carefully than she had done in ages and spent a fortune at the beautician's, but to no avail. This was the way, she thought sadly, that things had been before. She felt as if some cruel hand had wound the clock of time backwards.

Just when Agatha was about to give up, James called on her and said friends of his had moved into Ancombe and had invited them both to dinner. His host, he said, was a Mr. David Hewitt who was retired from the Ministry of Defence. His wife was called Jill.

Delighted to be invited as a couple, Agatha set out with James I from their cottages in the village of Carsely in the English Cotswolds to drive the short distance to Ancombe.

The lilac blossom was out in its full glory. Wisteria and clematis trailed down the walls of honey-coloured cottages, and hawthorn, the fairy tree, sent out a heady sweet smell in the evening air.

Agatha experienced a qualm of nervousness as she drove them towards Ancombe. She had made a few visits to James in his cottage, but they were always brief. James was always occupied with something and seemed relieved when she left. Agatha planned to make the most of this outing. She was dressed in a biscuit-coloured suit with a lemon-coloured blouse and high-heeled sandals. Her brown hair gleamed and shone.

James was wearing a tweed sports jacket and flannels. "Am I overdressed?" asked Agatha.

One blue eye swivelled in her direction. "No, you look fine."

The Hewitts lived in a bungalow called Merrydown. As Agatha drove up the short gravelled drive, she could smell something cooking on charcoal. "It's not a barbecue?" she asked.

"I believe it is. Here we are."

"James, if you had told me it was a barbecue, I would have dressed more suitably."

"Don't nag," said James mildly, getting out of the car.

Agatha detested barbecues. Barbecues were for Americans, Australians and Polynesians, or any of those other people with a good climate. The English, from her experience, delighted in under-cooked meat served off paper plates in an insect-ridden garden.

James rang the doorbell. The door was opened by a small woman with pinched little features and pale grey eyes. Her grey hair was dressed in girlish curls. She was wearing a print frock and low-heeled sandals.

"James, darling!" She stretched up and enfolded him in an embrace. "And who is this?"

"Don't you remember, I was told to bring my ex-wife along. This is Agatha Raisin. Agatha, Jill."

Jill linked her arm in James's, ignoring Agatha. "Come along. We're all in the garden." Agatha trailed after them. She wanted to go home.

Various people were standing around the garden drinking some sort of fruit cup. Agatha, who felt in need of a strong gin and tonic, wanted more than ever to flee.

She was introduced to her host, who was cooking dead things on the barbecue. He was wearing a joke apron with a picture of a woman's body in a corset and fishnet stockings. James was taken round and introduced to the other guests, while Agatha stood on a flagged patio teetering on her high heels.

Agatha sighed and sank down into a garden chair. She opened her handbag and took out her cigarettes and lighter and lit a cigarette.

"Do you mind awfully?" Her host stood in front of her, brandishing a knife.

"What?"

"This is a smoke-free zone."

Agatha leaned round him and stared at the barbecue. Black smoke was beginning to pour out from something on the top. "Then you'd better get a fire extinguisher," said Agatha. "Your food is burning."

He let out a squawk of alarm and rushed back to the barbecue. Agatha blew a perfect smoke ring. She felt her nervousness evaporating. She did not care what James thought. Jill was a dreadful hostess, and worse than that, she seemed to have a thing about James. So Agatha sat placidly, smoking and dreaming of the moment when the evening would be over.

There was one sign of relief. A table was carried out into the garden and chairs set about it. She had dreaded having to stand on the grass in her spindly heels, eating off a paper plate.

Jill had reluctantly let go of James's arm and gone into the house. She reappeared with two of the women guests carrying wine bottles and glasses. "Everyone to the table," shouted David.

Agatha crushed out her cigarette on the patio stones and put the stub in her handbag. By the time she had heaved herself out of her chair, it was to find that James was seated next to Jill and another woman, and she was left to sit next to a florid-faced man who gave her a goggling stare and then turned to chat to the woman on his other side.

David put a plate of blackened charred things in front of Agatha. She helped herself to a glass of wine. The conversation became general, everyone talking about people Agatha did not know. Then she caught the name Andrew Lloyd Webber. "I do like his musicals," she said, glad to be able to talk about something. There was a little startled silence and then Jill said in a patronizing voice, "But his music is so derivative."

"All music is derivative," said Agatha.

"Dear me," tittered one of the female guests. "You'll be saying you like Barry Manilow next."

"Why not?" asked Agatha truculently. "He's a great performer. Got some good tunes, too." There was a startled silence and then everyone began to talk at once.

I will never understand the Gloucestershire middle classes, thought Agatha. Oh, well, might as well eat. She sliced a piece of what appeared to be chicken. Blood oozed out onto her plate.

James was laughing at something Jill was saying. He had not once looked in her direction. He had abandoned her as soon as they entered the house.

Suddenly a thought hit Agatha, a flash of the blindingly obvious. I do not need to stay here. These people are rude and James is a disgrace. She rose and went into the house. "Second door on your left," Jill shouted after her, assuming Agatha wanted to go to the toilet.

Agatha went straight through the house and outside. She got into her car and drove off. Let James find his own way home.

When she reached her cottage, she let herself in, went through to the kitchen and kicked off her sandals. Her cats circled her legs in welcome. "I've had a God-awful time," she told them. "James has finally been and gone and done it. I've grown up at last. I don't care if I never see him again."

"What an odd woman!" Jill was exclaiming. 'To go off like that without a word."

"Well, you did rather cut her dead," said James uneasily. "I mean, she was left on her own, not knowing anyone."

"But one doesn't introduce people at parties any more."

"You introduced me."

"Oh, James, sweetie. Don't go on. Such weird behaviour." But the evening for James was ruined. He now saw these people through Agatha Raisin's small bearlike eyes.

"I'd better go and see if she's all right," he said, getting to his feet.

"I'll drive you," said Jill.

"No, please don't. It would be rude of you to leave your guests. I'll phone for a taxi."

James rang Agatha's doorbell, but she did not answer. He tried phoning but got no reply. He left a message for her to call back, but she did not.

He shrugged. Agatha would come around. She always did.

But to his amazement the days grew into weeks and Agatha continued to be chilly towards him. She turned down invitations to dinner, saying she was "too busy." He had met Patrick Mulligan one day in the village stores. Patrick worked for Agatha and he told James they were going through a quiet period.

When Sir Charles Fraith came to stay with Agatha, James began to be really worried. Charles, he knew, had once had an affair with Agatha. He dropped in and out of her life, occasionally helping her with cases. For the first time, James realized with amazement, he felt jealous. He had always taken it for granted that Agatha would remain, as far as he was concerned, her usual doting self. Something would have to be done.

"So how's your ex?" asked Charles one Saturday as he and Agatha sat in her garden.

"I told you. I neither know nor care. I told you about that terrible barbecue."

"They sound like shiters but we all know weird people."

"He abandoned me! And when they all started sniggering about Andrew Lloyd Webber, he did nothing to defend me."

"Oh, well. It's nice to see you off the hook. If you are off the hook."

But Agatha was addicted to obsessions. Without one going on in her head, she was left with herself, a state of affairs she did not enjoy.

"So no murders these days?" asked Charles.

"Not a one. Nothing but lost teenagers and cats and dogs. I feel guilty. I persuaded young Harry Beam, Mrs. Freedman's nephew, to stay with me another year before going to university. He's finding things very dull."

"Is everyone else still with you?"

"Yes, Mrs. Freedman is still secretary. Then there's Harry, Phil Marshall and Patrick Mulligan as detectives."

"Why don't you take some time off? Go away somewhere. Get away from brooding about him next door."

'lam not brooding about him next door I"

Charles was so self-contained and neat in his impeccably tailored clothes and well-cut fair hair that Agatha sometimes felt like striking him. Nothing seemed to ruffle Charles's calm surface. She often wondered what he really thought of her.

"Anyway," Agatha went on, "I'm taking time off from the office today. Mrs. Freedman will phone me if anything dramatic happens. What's up with Andrew Lloyd Webber anyway?"

"Don't ask me. I never could understand the middle classes."

Fuelled by jealousy, James did not pause to think whether he really wanted the often-infuriating Agatha back in his life. He watched and waited until Charles left and then watched some more until he saw Agatha leaving her cottage on foot. He shot out of his own door to waylay her.

"Hullo, James," said Agatha, her small eyes like two pebbles. "I'm just going down to the village stores."

"I'll walk with you. I have a proposition to make."

"This is so sudden," said Agatha cynically.

"Stop walking so quickly. I feel we got off to a bad start. It really was quite a dreadful barbecue. So I have a suggestion to make. If you're not too busy at the office, we could take a holiday together."

Agatha's heart began to thump and she stopped dead under the shade of a lilac tree.

"I thought I would surprise you and take you off somewhere special that was once very dear to me. You see, I may have told you I've given up writing military history. I now write travel books."

"Where did you think of?" asked Agatha, visions of Pacific islands and Italian villages racing through her brain.

"Ah, it is going to be a surprise."

Agatha hesitated. But then she knew if she refused, she would never forgive herself. "All right. What clothes should I take?"

"Whatever you usually take on holiday."

"And when would we leave?"

"As soon as possible. Say, the end of next week?"

"Fine. Where are you going?"

"Back home to make some phone calls."

Inside her cottage, Agatha looked at the phone and then decided she must simply communicate such marvellous news to her friend Mrs. Bloxby, the vicar's wife. She let her cats out into the garden and then hurried off to the vicarage.

With her grey hair and gentle face, Mrs. Bloxby always acted like a sort of balm on the turmoil of Agatha's feelings.

"Come in, Mrs. Raisin," she said. "You are all flushed."

Both Agatha and Mrs. Bloxby were members of the Carsely Ladies' Society and it was an old-fashioned tradition among the members that only second names should be used.

"We'll sit in the garden," said Mrs. Bloxby, leading the way. "Such a glorious day. Coffee?"

"No, don't bother." Agatha sat down in a garden chair and Mrs. Bloxby took the seat opposite her. Please let it not be anything to do with James, prayed Mrs. Bloxby. I do so hope she's got over that.

"It's James!" exclaimed Agatha, and Mrs. Bloxby's heart sank.

"I thought you were never going to have anything to do with him again."

"Oh, it was because of that terrible party that I told you about. Well, just listen to this. He is arranging to take me on holiday."

"Where?"

"It's to be a surprise."

"Is that such a good idea? It might be somewhere you'll hate."

"He's a travel writer now and travel writers don't write about dreary places. I must lose weight if I'm going to look good on the beach."

"But how do you know you are going to the beach?"

Agatha began to feel cross. "Look, he obviously wants to make it a romantic holiday. You're a bit depressing about all this."

Mrs. Bloxby sighed. "Of course I hope you will have a wonderful time. It's just..."

"What?" snapped Agatha.

"It's just that James has always behaved like a confirmed bachelor and he can be quite self-centred. This holiday will be what he wants, not what he would think you would like."

Agatha rose angrily to her feet. "Well, sage of the ages, I'm off to do some shopping."

"Don't be angry with me," pleaded Mrs. Bloxby. "I most desperately don't want to see you getting hurt again." But the slamming of the garden door was her only reply.

*   *   *

Agatha threw herself into a fever of shopping: new swimsuit, filmy evening dress, beach clothes and beach bag. In her fantasies, James and she stood on the terrace of a hotel, looking out at the moonlight on the Mediterranean. He took her in his arms, his voice husky with desire and he said, "I've always loved you."

Patrick Mulligan, Phil Marshall and Harry Beam all assured her they could easily cope in her absence.

When the great day of departure arrived, she could hear James tooting angrily on the car horn as she packed and repacked. At last, heaving a suitcase that was so heavy it felt as if it had an anvil in it, she emerged from her cottage. The lover of her fantasies fled, to be replaced by the very real and present James Lacey. He lifted her suitcase into the boot and said, "I thought you were going to be in there all day."

"Well, here I am," said Agatha brightly.

Agatha had been unable to sleep the previous night because of excitement. Shortly after they had driven off, she fell into a heavy sleep. After two hours, she awoke with a start. Rain was smearing the windscreen. The scenery seemed to consist of factories.

"Are we at the airport yet?" she asked.

"We're not going to the airport. Shut up, Agatha. This is supposed to be a surprise."

Must be going to take the ferry, thought Agatha. Oh, how marvellous it would be to get out of dreary grey England and into the foreign sunshine. The factories and then some villas gave way to rain-swept countryside where wet sheep huddled in the shelter of drystone walls. A kestrel sailed overhead like a harbinger of doom.

"Where are we?" asked Agatha.

"Sussex."

"Which Channel ferry runs from Sussex?"

"Don't spoil the surprise, Agatha, by asking questions."

With rising apprehension, Agatha watched the miles of rainsoaked countryside go by. Were they going to Brighton? Now that would be really unoriginal.

James drove along a cliff road, then turned off. After two miles, he pulled into the side of the road in front of a sign that said "Snoth-on-Sea."

"This is the surprise," he said portentously. "This is one of the last unspoilt seaside resorts in Britain. I used to come here as a boy with my parents. Beautiful place. You'll love it."

Agatha was stricken into silence, thinking of all the light clothes and beachwear and all the bottles of suntan lotion, face creams and make-up that were weighing down her suitcase. She tried to get Mrs. Bloxby's gentle voice out of her head. "This holiday will be what he wants, not what he would think you would like."

James drove slowly down into the town, prepared to savour every moment. On the outskirts, he received his first shock. There was a large housing estate--a grubby, depressed-looking housing estate. With rising anxiety, he motored on into the town. He had booked them rooms at the Palace Hotel, which he remembered as an endearingly grand Edwardian building facing the sea and the pier. Oh, that wonderful theatre at the end of the pier where his parents had taken him with his sister to watch vaudeville shows.

As he headed for the seafront, he saw that all the little shops that used to sell things like ice cream and postcards had been replaced by chain stores. The main street that ran parallel to the seafront had been widened and was full of traffic. He longed now to reach the genteel relaxation of the Palace. He edged through a snarl of traffic. On the front, the black-and-grey sea heaved angrily, sending up plumes of spray. There was the pier, but the part where the theatre had been had fallen into the sea.

He parked in front of the Palace and waited for someone to rush out and take their suitcases. No one appeared. There was a flashing neon sign at the side that said, "ar ark," two of the necessary letters having rusted away. He drove in. Agatha was ominously silent. He heaved their cases out of the boot and began to trundle them round to the front of the hotel. A gust of rain met them as they emerged from the car park, and Agatha's carefully coiffed hair whipped about her face. Inside, the entrance lounge, once a haven of large armchairs and log fire and palm trees, was dotted about with fake leather chairs, and where the log fire had been was an electric heater.

James checked them in. In his youth, the staff had worn smart uniforms. But it was a languid, pallid girl with a nose stud who checked the reservations.

Separate rooms, thought Agatha. I might have known it. There was no porter, so James had to lug the suitcases into the lift. "You're in room twenty," he said brightly. "Here's your key." No modern plastic cards at the Palace. The only relic of the old days lay in the large brass key he handed to Agatha.

She took it from him silently. He unlocked the door for her. "See you downstairs in about--what--an hour?"

"Sure," said Agatha. She wheeled her case into the room and shut the door on him.

She sat down on the bed and looked around. A massive mahogany wardrobe loomed over the room. There was a round table at the window covered with a faded lace cloth. The carpet, which had once been green and covered with red roses, had worn down to a uniform dull colour. There was a badly executed seascape on one wall. A reminder of the hotel's glory days was a marble fireplace, but the hearth had been sealed up and a two-bar electric heater squatted in front of it. Beside the fireplace was a meter box for coins. No mini bar. No free coffee or tea. Rain rattled against the window and the wind moaned like a banshee. The bed was covered in a slippery pink quilt, the forerunner of the duvet and the kind of covering guaranteed to slide off the bed on a cold night.

Agatha wondered what to do. Common sense told her to ring down for a taxi and get the hell out of Snoth-on-Sea. Fantasy told her that the weather might change and the sun might shine and James and she would get married again.

Fantasy won.

But the one bit of common sense left urged her to get some warm clothes. In the main street, she had noticed a shop that sold country wear. Glad that she had worn a coat for the journey, she went downstairs. At least they had some umbrellas for guests in a stand by the door. She took one and battled against the wind round the corner and into the main street. In the shop, she bought warm trousers and socks, a green Barbour coat and a rain hat. Then she went into a department store next door and bought several pairs of plain white knickers to replace the sexy flimsy things she had brought with her, and a cheap pair of serviceable walking shoes.

She carried her purchases back to the hotel and changed into a sweater and trousers, warm socks and the walking shoes, and went down to the bar.

James was sitting at a table in the corner of the bar, looking out at the heaving sea. Piped music was playing in the bar. Agatha sat down opposite him and said, "I would like a stiff gin and tonic."

James signalled to a waitress, who took the order with a look on her pasty face as if he had just insulted her. When her drink arrived--no ice and a tired bit of lemon--Agatha took a fortifying swig and opened her mouth to blast him.

But he disarmed her by saying ruefully, "I've made a dreadful mistake. I'm sorry. It used to be a magical place for me. It was so quiet and peaceful. This hotel used to be so grand with an orchestra playing in the evenings. Look at it now! Because I came here as a child, I suppose I only remembered the sunny days. I'll make it up to you. We'll only stay a couple of days and then we'll move on somewhere. Go to Dover and take the ferry to France. Something like that.

"I checked the dinner menu. It seems pretty good. We'll have another drink and go into the dining room. I'm hungry. You?"

Agatha smiled at him fondly. "I would love something to eat."

The dining room was cavernous and cold. The chandeliers of James's youth had been replaced by harsh lighting. There were very few guests. A large table at the window was occupied by a family, or what Agatha judged to be a family. A plump woman with dyed blonde hair and a fat face had a harsh grating voice that carried across the dining room. Beside her was a small, crushed-looking man in a suit, collar and tie. He kept fiddling with his tie as if longing to take it off. A young woman dressed in black leather was poking at her food and occasionally talking to a young man with a shaven head and tattoos on the back of his hands. An older man with neat hair and a little Hitler moustache was smiling indulgently all around. His companion was very thin, with flaming red hair and green eye shadow.

The woman with the fat face caught Agatha staring at them and shouted across the dining room, "Hey, you there! Mind yer own business, you silly cow."

James half rose to his feet, but Agatha was out of her chair and across the room to confront the woman.

"You just shut your stupid face and let me get on with my meal," hissed Agatha.

"Shove off, you old trout."

"Screw you," said Agatha viciously and stalked back to join James.

"Remember Wyckhadden?" asked Agatha. "It was a lovely place compared to this."

"I would rather forget Wyckhadden," said James coldly. Agatha blushed. Although she had been working on a murder case there, she had forgotten that James had found her in bed with Charles in Wyckhadden.

They had both ordered lobster bisque to start. It was white, lumpy and tasteless.

"I want a word with you."

The shaven-headed man was looming over them. "This is mam's honeymoon and you insulted her."

"She started it," protested Agatha.

"Look, just go away," said James.

"Think you're the big shot," sneered Shaven Head. "Come outside."

"Don't be silly."

"Come outside or I'll shove your face in here."

James sighed and threw down his napkin and followed Shaven Head from the dining room.

"That's the stuff!" jeered Fat Face.

"If you harm one hair of his head," shouted Agatha, "I'll murder you, you rotten bitch."

The manager hurried into the dining room. "What's all this noise? What's going on here?"

"Nothing," said Fat Face.

Agatha hurried out of the dining room. James was just coming back into the hotel. "The rain's stopped," he said mildly.

"Are you hurt?"

"Not as much as the other fellow."

They returned to their table. Shaven Head limped in nursing a fat lip. The family at the round table talked in urgent whispers, throwing venomous glances at Agatha and James.

The next course was chicken á la Provengal. It was rubbery chicken covered in tinned tomatoes.

Agatha threw down her fork in disgust. "James, let's get out of here and find a pub or a fish and chip shop."

"You wait here," said James. "I'm going to have a word with the manager first. I'm not a snob, but that family from hell should never have been allowed to stay here. They're terrorizing the other guests."

"In all the row, I didn't notice the other guests."

Agatha turned round. An elderly couple were eating as fast as they could, no doubt wanting to make a quick escape. A young couple with a small child had their heads bent so low over their plates, they looked as if they wished they could disappear into them.

"I'm not staying here with the family from hell," said Agatha. "I'm coming with you!"

LOVE, LIES AND LIQUOR Copyright © 2006 by M. C. Beaton