The Perfect Paragon

Agatha Raisin Mysteries (Volume 16)

M.C. Beaton

Minotaur Books

THE PERFECT PARAGON (Chapter 1)

EVERYONE in the village of Carsely in the English Cotswolds was agreed on one thing--no one had ever seen such a spring before.

Mrs. Bloxby, the vicar's wife, stepped out into her garden and took a deep breath of fresh-scented air. Never had there been so much blossom. The lilac trees were bent down under the weight of purple and white blooms. White hawthorn hedges formed bridal alleys out of the country lanes. Clematis spilled over walls like flowery waterfalls, and wisteria decorated the golden stone of the cottages with showers of delicate purple blooms. All the trees were covered in bright, fresh green. It was as if the countryside were clothed like an animal in a deep, rich pelt of leaves and flowers.

The few misery-guts in the village shook their heads and said it heralded a harsh winter to come. Nature moved in a mysterious way to protect itself.

The vicarage doorbell rang and Mrs. Bloxby went to answer it. Agatha Raisin stood there, stocky and truculent, a line of worry between her eyes.

"Come in," said Mrs. Bloxby. "Why aren't you at the office? No cases to solve?"

Agatha ran her own detective agency in Mircester. She was well dressed, as she usually was these days, in a linen trouser suit, and her glossy brown hair was cut in a fashionable crop. But her small brown eyes looked worried.

Mrs. Bloxby led the way into the garden. "Coffee?"

"No," said Agatha. "I've been drinking gallons of the stuff. Just wanted a chat."

"Chat away."

Agatha felt a sense of comfort stealing over her. Mrs. Bloxby with her mild eyes and grey hair always had a tranquillizing effect on her.

"I could do with a really big case. Everything seems to be itty-bitty things like lost cats and dogs. I don't want to run into the red. Miss Simms, who was acting as secretary, has gone off with my full-time detective, Patrick Mulligan. He's retired and doesn't want to be bothered any more with work. Sammy Allen did the photo work, and Douglas Ballantyne the technical stuff. But I had to let them go. There just wasn't enough work. Then Sally Fleming, who replaced Patrick, got lured away by a London detective agency, and my treasure of a secretary, Mrs. Edie Frint, got married again.

"Maybe the trouble was that I gave up taking divorce cases. The lawyers used to put a good bit of business my way."

Mrs. Bloxby was well aware that Agatha was divorced from the love of her life, James Lacey, and thought that was probably why Agatha did not want to handle divorce cases.

She said, "Maybe you should take on a few divorce cases just to get the money rolling again. You surely don't want any murders."

"I'd rather have a murder than a divorce," muttered Agatha.

"Perhaps you have been working too hard. Maybe you should take a few days off. I mean, it is a glorious spring."

"Is it?" Agatha gazed around the glory of the garden with city eyes which had never become used to the countryside. She had sold up a successful public relations company in London and had taken early retirement. Living in the Cotswolds had been a dream since childhood, but Agatha still carried the city, with all its bustle and hectic pace, inside herself.

"Who have you got to replace Patrick and Miss Simms? Are you sure you wouldn't like anything? I have some home-made scones."

Agatha was tempted, but the waistband of her trousers was already tight. She shook her head. "Let me see... staff. Well, there's a Mrs. Helen Freedman from Evesham as secretary. Middle-aged, competent, quite a treasure. I do all the detecting myself."

"And for the technical and photographic stuff?"

"I'm looking for someone. Experts charge so much."

"There's Mr. Witherspoon in the village. He's an expert cameraman and so good with computers and things."

"I know Mr. Witherspoon. He must be about a hundred."

"Come now. He's only seventy-six and that's quite young these days."

"It's not young. Come on. Seventy-six is creaking."

"Why not go and see him? He lives in Rose Cottage by the school."

"No."

Mrs. Bloxby's normally mild eyes hardened a fraction. Agatha said hurriedly, "On the other hand, it wouldn't hurt me to go along for a chat." Agatha Raisin, who could face up to most of the world, crumpled before the slightest suggestion of the vicar's wife's displeasure.

Rose Cottage, despite its name, did not boast any roses. The front garden had been covered in tarmac to allow Mr. Witherspoon to park his old Ford off the road. His cottage was one of the few modern ones in Carsely, an ugly redbrick two-storeyed affair. Agatha, who knew Mr. Witherspoon only by sight, was prepared to dislike someone who appeared to have so little taste.

She raised her hand to ring the doorbell but it was opened and Mr. Witherspoon stood there. "Come to offer me a job?" he said cheerfully.

Much as she loved Mrs. Bloxby, in that moment Agatha felt she could have strangled her. She hated being manipulated and Mrs. Bloxby appeared to have done just that.

"I don't know," said Agatha gruffly. "Can I come in?"

"By all means. I've just made coffee."

She telephoned him as soon as I left. That's it, thought Agatha. She followed him into a room made into an office.

It was impeccably clean and ordered. A computer desk stood at the window flanked on either side with shelves of files. A small round table and two chairs dominated the centre of the room. On the wall opposite the window were ranks of shelves containing a collection of cameras and lenses.

"Sit down, please," said Mr. Witherspoon. "I'll bring coffee."

He was an average-sized man with thick grey hair. His face was not so much lined as crumpled, as if one only had to take a hot iron to it to restore it to its former youth. He was slim.

No paunch, thought Agatha. At least he can't be a boozer.

He came back in a short time carrying a tray with the coffee things and a plate of scones.

"Black, please," said Agatha. "May I smoke?"

"Go ahead."

Well, one good mark so far, thought Agatha. "I'll get you an ashtray," he said. "Have a scone."

When he was out of the room, Agatha stared at the plate of scones in sudden suspicion. She picked up one and bit into it. Mrs. Bloxby's scones. She would swear to it. Once again, she felt manipulated and then experienced a surge of malicious glee at the thought of turning him down.

He came back and placed a large glass ashtray next to Agatha.

He sat down opposite her and said, "What can I do for you?"

"Just a social call," said Agatha.

A flicker of disappointment crossed his faded green eyes.

"How nice. How's the detective business?"

"Not much work at the moment."

"That's odd. There's so much infidelity in the Cotswolds, I would have thought you would have enough to keep you busy."

"I don't do divorce cases any more."

"Pity. That's where the money is. Now, take Robert Smedley over in Ancombe. He's very rich. Electronics company. Madly jealous. Trunks his wife is cheating on him. Pay anything to find out."

They studied each other for a long moment. I really need the money, thought Agatha.

"But he hasn't approached me," she said at last.

"I could get him to."

Agatha had a sizeable bank balance and stocks and shares. But she did not want to become one of those sad people whose lifetime savings were eaten up by trying to run an unsuccessful business.

She said tentatively. "I need someone to do bugging and camera work."

"I could do that."

"It sometimes means long hours."

"I'm fit."

"Let me see, this is Sunday. If you could have a word with this Mr. Smedley and bring him along to the office tomorrow, I'll get my Mrs. Freedman to draw you up a contract. Shall we say a month's trial?"

"Very well, you won't be disappointed."

Agatha rose to her feet and as a parting shot said, "Don't forget to thank Mrs. Bloxby for the scones."

Outside, realizing she had forgotten to smoke, she lit up a cigarette. That was the trouble with all these anti-smoking people around these days. It was almost as if their disapproval polluted the very air and forced one to light up when one didn't want to.

Because of the traditions of the Carsely Ladies' Society, women in the village called each other by their second names. So Mrs. Freedman was Mrs. Freedman even in the office, but Mr. Witherspoon volunteered his name was Phil.

Agatha was irritated when Phil turned up alone, but he said that Robert Smedley would be along later. After he didn't protest at the modest wages Agatha was offering him, she felt guilty and promised him more if his work should prove satisfactory.

The office consisted of one low-beamed room above a shop in the old part of Mircester near the abbey. Agatha and Mrs. Freedman both had desks at the window: Phil was given Patrick's old desk against the wall. There was a chintz-covered sofa and a low coffee table flanked by two armchairs for visitors. Filing cabinets and a kettle on a tray with a packet of tea and ajar of instant coffee, milk and sugar cubes made up the rest of the furnishings.

Mr. Robert Smedley arrived at last and Agatha's heart sank. He looked the sort of man she heartily despised. First of all, he was crammed into a tight suit. It had originally been an expensive one and Mr. Smedley was obviously of the type who would not admit to putting on weight or to spending money to have the suit altered. He had small black eyes in a doughy face shadowed by bushy black eyebrows. His flat head of hair was jet-black. Hair dyes are getting better these days, thought Agatha. Almost looks real. He had a small pursed mouth, "like an arsehole," as Agatha said later to Mrs. Bloxby, and then had to apologize for her bad language.

"Please sit down," said Agatha, mentally preparing to sock him with a large fee and get rid of him. "How may I be of help?"

"This is very embarrassing." Mr. Smedley glared round the small office. "Oh, very well. I think Mabel is seeing another man."

"Mabel being your wife?" prompted Agatha.

"Yes."

"What makes you think she might be having an affair?"

"Oh, little things. I came home early one day and I heard her singing."

"Why is that so odd?"

"She never sings when I'm around."

Can't blame her for that, thought Agatha sourly.

"Anything else?"

"Last week she bought a new dress without consulting me."

"Women do that," said Agatha patiently. "I mean, why would she need your permission to buy a new dress?"

"I choose all her clothes. I'm an important man and I like to see my wife dressed accordingly."

"Anything else?"

"Isn't that enough? I tell you, if she's seeing someone I want evidence for a divorce."

In that moment Agatha could have strangled both Phil and Mrs. Bloxby. She had been inveigled into hiring a geriatric all on the promise of this case and now it seemed that Smedley was nothing more than a jealous bully.

So in order to get rid of him, she named a very heavy fee and expenses. He took out his chequebook. "I'll give you a thousand pounds down and you can bill me for the expenses and for the rest if you are successful."

Agatha blinked rapidly, thought of her overheads, and accepted the cheque.

When Robert Smedley had left, Agatha said crossly to Phil, "This is all a load of rubbish, but we may as well make the moves. You and I will go over to Ancombe and stake out the house. Have you got your camera?"

"Got a car full of them," said Phil cheerfully

"Okay, let's go."

Ancombe was only a few miles from Carsely. They quickly found Smedley's home. It was on the outskirts of the village in a heavily wooded area, perched on a rise. It had originally been a small eighteenth-century cottage built of the local mellow golden stone, but a large extension had been added to the back. Phil parked his car a little way away off the road in the shelter of a stand of trees. He took out a camera with a long telescopic lens.

"I'm slipping," mourned Agatha. "I should have asked him for a photograph of her."

Phil peered down the road. "There's a car just coming out of the driveway. Here, you take the wheel. We'll follow."

Agatha swung the wheel and followed at a discreet distance while Phil photographed the car and the number plate.

"She's heading for Moreton," said Agatha. "Probably going to buy another dress or something evil like that."

"She's turning into the station," said Phil. "Maybe going to meet someone."

"Or take the train," said Agatha.

A small, dowdy-looking woman got out of the car. "I hope that's her and not the cleaner," said Agatha. "If he chose that dress for her, he should be shot."

Who they hoped was Mabel Smedley was wearing a cotton shirtwaister in an eye-watering print. The hem practically reached her ankles and she was wearing patent leather shoes with low heels. She had dusty, sandy hair pulled back in a bun. She was obviously much younger than her husband. Smedley, Agatha guessed, looked around late forties. If this was Mrs. Smedley, she looked in her early thirties. Her face, devoid of make-up, was unlined and with no outstanding features. Small tired eyes, regular mouth, small chin.

She turned into the ticket office. As usual, there was a queue, so they were able to stand a few people behind her. They heard her order a day return to Oxford.

When it came their turn, they asked for day returns as well and then went over the bridge to the platform.

Phil had unscrewed the telescopic lens and snapped several discreet shots of Mrs. Smedley waiting for the train.

The train was ten minutes late in that usual irritating way of trains--like some boss keeping you waiting ten minutes outside his door to stress what a busy and important man he was.

She got out at Oxford and began to walk. They followed. Agatha took out her mobile phone and called Mrs. Bloxby. "Do you know what Mrs. Smedley looks like?"

"Yes, you must have seen her before, Mrs. Raisin, but maybe you didn't notice her. She does a lot of work for the Ancombe Ladies' Society. She's small and thin with sandy hair. I think she's about fourteen years younger than her husband. Very quiet. What... ?"

"Tell you later," said Agatha and rang off. "That's her, all right," she said to Phil. "Wonder where she's going?"

They followed her along Worcester Street and then along Walton Street. At last, Mrs. Smedley stopped outside the Phoenix Cinema and went in.

"Don't get too caught up in the film," hissed Agatha.

They bought tickets. The cinema was nearly empty. They took seats three rows behind her. The film was a Russian one called The Steppes of Freedom. It was beautifully photographed, but to Agatha's jaundiced eyes, nothing seemed to happen apart from the heroine either bursting into tears or staring out across the steppes. Obviously Mrs. Smedley was as bored as Agatha because, before the end, she got up. They gave her a few minutes before following. Back along Walton Street and so down to the station.

Back on the train to Moreton and from there they followed her home.

"Maybe she hoped to meet someone," said Phil, "and he didn't turn up. I mean, it seems odd to go all that way to sit through a dreary film."

"You got photos of her going into the cinema?"

"Of course."

"I know," said Agatha. "Let's go and see Mrs. Bloxby. She seems to know all about Mrs. Smedley."

They drove to the vicarage. Alf Bloxby, the vicar, answered the door and his face hardened into displeasure when he saw Agatha.

"If you've come to see my wife, she's busy," he said.

Mrs. Bloxby appeared behind him. "What are you talking about, Alf? Do come in, Mrs. Raisin. And Mr. Witherspoon, too."

The vicar muttered something like pah under his breath and strode off to his study.

"Let's go into the garden," said Mrs. Bloxby. "Such a fine day. It won't last, of course. As soon as Wimbledon comes around, then the rain comes down again."

They sat at a table in the garden. "I see you've employed Mr. Witherspoon," said Mrs. Bloxby brightly.

"For the moment," retorted Agatha. "He's on trial. The case we're on involves Mrs. Mabel Smedley. Her husband thinks she's having an affair."

"That doesn't seem very likely. I mean, a small place like Ancombe. Such news would soon get out."

"What's she like?"

"Hard to tell. Have you forgotten, Mrs. Raisin? The Ancombe Ladies' Society is having a sale of work the day after tomorrow and some of us are going over to help. You could come along and see for yourself. Mrs. Smedley works very hard for good causes, but she is quiet and self-effacing. They've only been married for two years."

"Any children?"

"No, and none by Mr. Smedley's first marriage either."

"What happened to the first Mrs. Smedley?"

"Poor thing. She was subject to bouts of depression. She committed suicide."

"I'm not surprised. Married to a creature like that." Agatha described him in trenchant terms, ending up with that description of his mouth.

"Mrs. Raisin! Really."

"Sorry," mumbled Agatha.

Phil stifled a laugh by pretending he had a sneezing fit.

"I think Mr. Smedley is just unnaturally jealous," said Mrs. Bloxby.

"Oh dear," sighed Agatha. "It all seems such a waste of time. We'll leave it for today, Phil, and you can drive me back to the office so I can collect my car. I'll see you in the office tomorrow. I've a few things to work on."

Just as Agatha was setting down to a dinner of microwaved chips and microwaved lasagne that evening, the telephone rang. "Don't dare touch my food," she warned her cats, Hodge and Boswell.

She answered the phone and heard the slightly camp voice of her former assistant, Roy Silver.

"I haven't heard from you in ages," he said. "No more killings down there?"

"No, nothing. Just a divorce case and I hate divorce cases."

"Stands to reason, sweetie. You being such a reluctantly divorced woman yourself."

"That is not the reason! I just find them distasteful."

"Divorce cases are surely the bread and butter of any detective agency. Why I'm phoning is to ask you if I can come down for the weekend."

"Next weekend? All right. Let me know which train you'll be on and I'll meet you at Moreton."

When Agatha rang off, she felt cheerful at the thought of having company. She had endured a brief unhappy marriage to James Lacey. They hadn't even lived in the same house. But after it was over, she found herself getting lonely when she wasn't working full out.

Then Agatha realized she hadn't tackled Mrs. Bloxby over manipulating her into employing Phil. She rang up the vicar's wife.

"Mrs. Bloxby," began Agatha, "I feel you forced me into employing Phil."

"Mr. Witherspoon. I suppose I did push you in that direction."

"Why? You're not a pushy woman."

Mrs. Bloxby sighed. "I happened to learn that he has only a small pension. He made some bad investments with his capital. He is desperately in need of money and was ready to sell off some of his precious cameras. You needed a photographer, he needed work. I couldn't help myself."

"Oh, well," muttered Agatha, somewhat mollified. "We'll see how he works out."

"Going to Ancombe?"

"Of course. I forgot to ask you what time it begins."

"Two in the afternoon."

"I'll be there."

Agatha returned to the kitchen to find her cats up on the table, tucking in to her dinner. "You little bastards," she howled. She opened the kitchen door and shooed them both out into the garden. She scraped her dinner into the rubbish bin and suddenly burst into tears.

She finally mopped her eyes on a dishcloth and lit a cigarette with a trembling hand. Agatha was in her early fifties, but recently had been assailed with a fear of getting old and living alone. On damp days, she had a stabbing pain in her hip but stoically ignored it. She couldn't possibly have arthritis. She was too young!

"Pull yourself together," she said aloud. Was this the menopause at last? She had been secretly proud of the fact that she had not yet reached that borderline.

The phone rang again. Agatha wearily went to answer it.

"Charles, here."

Agatha's friend, Sir Charles Fraith.

"Oh, hullo, Charles. Where have you been lately?" Agatha gave a gulping sob.

"Have you been crying, Aggie?"

"Don't call me Aggie. Bit of an allergy, that's all."

"Have you eaten?"

"I was about to but the cats got to it."

"I'll be right over. I was to entertain some luscious girl to a picnic and she never showed. I'll bring it right over and we'll have a picnic in your garden."

"Oh, thanks, Charles."

"So dry your eyes."

"I haven't been crying!" But Charles had rung off.

He turned up half an hour later, which had given Agatha time to bathe her face in cold water and put on fresh make-up.

She was glad to see Charles, even though she occasionally found him irritating. He had fair hair and neat features and was as self-contained and independent as a cat.

He carried a large hamper into the garden and began to set things out on the garden table.

"Duck breasts in aspic, asparagus, champagne ... you really must have thought a lot of this girl."

"She is very ornamental," said Charles. "Unfortunately for me, she knows it."

They ate companionably while Agatha told him about the Smedley case.

"Might go with you," said Charles. "Mind if I stay the night?"

"No, you know where the spare room is."

"I've got my bag in the car. I'll get it later."

The sun slowly set behind the trees at the bottom of the garden. Agatha thought uneasily about her burst of tears. It all seemed like madness now.

THE PERFECT PARAGON Copyright 2005 by M. C. Beaton.