Agatha Raisin was bored.
Her detective agency in the English Cotswolds was thriving, but the cases were all small, niggling and unexciting, and yet took a great deal of time to solve. She sometimes felt if she had to deal with another missing cat or dog, she would scream.
Dreams and fantasies, that cushion she usually had against the realities of life, had, to her astonished mind, disappeared entirely. She had dreamed so long about her neighbour and ex-husband, James Lacey, that she would not accept the fact that she did not love him any more. She thought of him angrily as some sort of drug that had ceased to work.
So although it was only early October, she tried to fill her mind with thoughts of Christmas. Unlike quite a number of people, Agatha had not given up on Christmas. To have the perfect Christmas had been a childhood dream whilst surviving a rough upbringing in a Birmingham slum. Holly berries glistened, snow fell gently outside, and inside, all was Dickensian jollity. And in her dreams, James Lacey kissed her under the mistletoe, and, like a middle-aged sleeping beauty, she would awake to passion once more.
Her friend, the vicar’s wife, Mrs. Bloxby, had once pointed out that Christmas was to celebrate the birth of Christ, but Agatha’s mind shied away from that. To her, Christmas was more Hollywood than church.
Christmas advertisements were already appearing on television, and supermarket aisles were laden with Christmas crackers, mince pies and puddings.
But something happened one crisp morning early in the month to take her mind off Christmas.
She was sitting in her office in Mircester, going through the files with her secretary, Mrs. Freedman, wondering whether to handle another dreary job herself or to turn it over to one of her two detectives, Phil Marshall and Patrick Mulligan. Her erstwhile detective, young Harry Beam, was now studying at Cambridge, and Agatha missed his hard-working energy.
“I nearly forgot,” said Mrs. Freedman, “but this letter arrived for you. It’s marked ‘personal,’ so I didn’t open it.”
Agatha picked it up. The handwriting on the envelope was spidery and there was no return address. She opened it. She read:
Dear Mrs. Raisin,
I have learned of your prowess as a detective through the local newspapers and I wonder if you might find time to call on me. I think a member of my family is trying to kill me. Isn’t the weather warm for October?
The paper was expensive. The address in raised italic script at the top gave the address of the Manor House, Lower Tapor, Gloucestershire.
“Nuts,” said Agatha. “Barking mad. How are our profits?”
“Good,” said Mrs. Freedman. “It is amazing how grateful people are to get one of their pets back.”
“I miss Harry,” sighed Agatha. “Phil and Patrick don’t mind the divorces, but they do hate searching for animals. They think it’s all beneath them, and I think it’s beneath me.”
“Why don’t you employ a young person to cope with the missing animals? A girl, perhaps. Girls are very keen on animals.”
“That’s a very good idea. Put an ad in the local paper and we’ll see if we can get anyone. Say we want a trainee.”
A week later, Agatha, after a long day of interviews, felt she would never, ever find someone suitable. It seemed as if all the dimmest girls in Mircester fancied themselves as detectives. Some had come dressed in black leather and stiletto-heeled boots, thinking that a Charlie’s Angels image would be appropriate. Unfortunately, with the exception of one anorexic, the rest were overweight with great bosoms and buttocks. Weight would not have mattered, however, if any of them had shown the least spark of intelligence.
Agatha was about to pack up for the day when the door to her office opened and a young girl entered. She had blonde hair that looked natural and pale-blue eyes fringed with thick fair lashes in a neat-featured face. She was conservatively dressed in a tailored suit, white blouse and low-heeled shoes.
“Yes?” asked Agatha.
“My name is Toni Gilmour. I believe you are looking for a trainee detective.”
“Applicants are supposed to apply in writing.”
“I know. But you see, I’ve just made up my mind to try for the job.”
Actually, Toni had been lurking in the street outside for a good part of the day, studying the girls who came out after their interviews, examining their faces and listening to what they said. She gathered that no one had got the job. She deliberately calculated that if she turned up last, then a desperate Mrs. Raisin might take her on.
But Agatha was anxious to get home to her cats and relax for the weekend.
“Go away and write your application,” she said. “Send in copies of your school certificates plus a short description of why you think you might be suited for the job.”
Agatha half-rose from her seat behind her desk but sat down again as Toni said, “I have brought my school certificates with me. I am well educated. I work hard. People like me. I feel that is important in getting facts.”
Agatha scowled at her. Agatha’s way of getting facts was usually either by lying or emotional blackmail or outright bullying.
“It’s not glamorous,” said Agatha. “Your job will be to try to find missing dogs and cats. It’s tedious work and you will often find that the animal has been killed on the road or has probably been stolen. When did you leave school?”
“Last June. I’m seventeen.”
“Are you employed at the moment?”
“Yes, I work at the pharmacy counter at Shalbeys.” Shalbeys was one of the local supermarkets. “I work the late shift.”
“The difficulty is that I need someone to start right away.”
“That’s all right,” said Toni. “I can get the sack.”
“Don’t you want to go to university?”
“I can’t bear the idea of having a bank loan for my studies around my neck for years. Mrs. Raisin, it would do no harm to give me a trial.”
“I don’t like the idea of you trying to get the sack. You’ll be letting your employers down.”
“There are plenty of girls to take my place. I think I am showing initiative. You cannot want a detective who plays by the rules the whole time.”
Agatha realized how tired she was. Toni had a clear, precise manner of speaking, hardly ever heard in the local youth these days, where the glottal stop was considered de rigueur.
“All right. Report here on Monday morning at nine o’clock. You’d better wear flat shoes and clothes you don’t mind getting messed up.”
“How much will I be paid?” asked Toni.
“Six pounds an hour and no overtime while you are a trainee. But do well and I’ll give you a bonus. You may claim reasonable expenses.”
Toni thanked her and left.
“Odd girl,” commented Agatha.
“I thought she was nice,” said Mrs. Freedman. “Quite old-fashioned.”
Toni cycled to her home in one of Mircester’s worst housing estates. She pushed her bike up the weedy garden path and propped it against the wall of the house. Then she took a deep breath and let herself in. Her brother, Terry, was sitting slumped in front of the television with a bottle of beer in one hand and a fish supper in the other. “Where’s Mum?” asked Toni.
“Passed out,” said Terry. Unlike his slim sister, Terry was a mass of bulging muscles. A scar from a knife fight in a pub marred his right cheek.
Toni went upstairs and looked in her mother’s bedroom. Mrs. Gilmour was lying fully clothed on top of the bed. An empty vodka bottle lay on the bed beside her. The air stank of sweat and booze.
Toni went to her own room and took off the suit she had borrowed from a friend. She hung the suit away carefully and then put on jeans and a clean T-shirt.
Downstairs, she took down a denim jacket from a peg on the wall and put it on. She opened the door and began to wheel her bike back down the garden.
Her brother appeared in the doorway behind her. “Where you goin’?” he shouted.
“Work. Late shift,” yelled Toni. “Remember that stuff called work? Why don’t you get yourself a job, you wanker?”
Agatha was about to put a packaged curry into the microwave for her dinner when the doorbell rang. When she opened her front door she saw her friend Mrs. Bloxby carrying a box of books.
“These books were left after the sale at the church,” said Mrs. Bloxby. “They’re the old green-and-white Penguin detective stories. I thought you might like to have them.”
“Suits me fine. Come in and put them on the kitchen table. I plan a lazy weekend and you’ve saved me a trip to the bookshop.”
Mrs. Bloxby sat down at the kitchen table. Agatha looked at her friend with sudden concern. The vicar’s wife looked tired. The lines under her gentle eyes were more pronounced, and strands of wispy grey hair were escaping from the bun at the base of her neck.
“Let me get you a sherry,” said Agatha. “You look worn-out.”
“Alf has a cold,” said Mrs. Bloxby. Alf was the vicar. Agatha always thought Alf was a stupid name for a vicar. He ought to have been called Peregrine or Clarence or Digby or something like that. “I’ve been doing the parish visits for him. Honestly, half of them don’t even bother coming to church.”
Agatha placed a glass of sherry in front of her.
“I don’t suppose anyone’s frightened of God any more,” commented Agatha. “People like a good fright.”
“Cynical, but true,” said Mrs. Bloxby. “Ecology is the new religion. The planet is dying, the poles are melting, and it’s all your fault, you sinners. Did you get a girl for your dogs and cats?”
“I’m trying someone out. She’s neat and clean and somewhat old-fashioned in her speech and manner. Odd, these days.”
* * *
“You’re always trying to brush against my boobs, you old perv,” Toni was saying to the pharmacist, Basil Jones.
“There’s not much space here,” said Basil, outraged. “I was merely trying to get past you.” Basil’s anger was fuelled by the fact that he had deliberately brushed against her.
“You’re nothin’ but a sad old sack,” said Toni.
Basil’s face was now mottled with anger. “You’re fired!”
“Okey-dokey,” said Toni cheerfully.
“Have you heard from Mr. Lacey?” Mrs. Bloxby asked.
“No, he’s gone off somewhere. Don’t care. Though if he comes back in time, I might invite him to my Christmas dinner.”
“Oh, no, Mrs. Raisin! Not again!”
Agatha had previously had a disaster of a Christmas dinner when she had used the oven in the church hall to cook an enormous turkey, turned the gas up too high and filled the hall with acrid black smoke.
“It’ll be perfect this time!” Both Agatha and Mrs. Bloxby called each other by their second names, an old-fashioned custom in the Carsely Ladies’ Society, to which they both belonged.
“It’s only October,” said the vicar’s wife plaintively. “No one should be allowed to mention Christmas before the first of December.”
Agatha grinned. “You’ll see. I’ll have it one week before, so it won’t interfere with anyone’s family arrangements.”
Mrs. Bloxby finished her sherry and rose wearily to her feet. “I’ll drive you to the vicarage,” said Agatha.
“Nonsense. I can walk.”
“I insist,” said Agatha.
The vicar was sitting reading a book with a box of tissues on a table beside him. “Hullo, dear,” he said faintly.
“How are you?” asked Agatha briskly.
“Still very weak.”
“Your wife is exhausted,” said Agatha, “so I’m going to look after you and give her a break.”
He looked at Agatha in horror. “There’s no need. In fact, I’m feeling better by the minute.”
“We can’t have your wife falling ill with overwork, now can we?” Agatha gave him a wide smile, but her small bearlike eyes were threatening. The vicar turned to his wife. “Please go and lie down, dearest. I assure you I am now well enough to fix us a light supper. Mrs. Raisin, your services will not be needed!”
“Alf, you’re shouting,” protested Mrs. Bloxby. “Mrs. Raisin was only just trying to help.”
Agatha drove back to her cottage with a grin on her face. Men, she thought. Typical. Women get colds and men get flu.
After dinner, she took the box of books through to her sitting room. She selected a detective story by Marjorie Allingham and began to read. The next day, she chose one by Edmund Crispin and followed that up with one by Freeman Willis Croft. She was fishing in her handbag for her cigarettes when her fingers touched an envelope. She drew it out. It was that odd letter from Mrs. Tamworthy. Agatha, her mind full of detective stories, reread the letter with new eyes.
What if the threat to this woman was real? Perhaps she would be invited to stay. Mrs. Tamworthy would be an elegant silver-haired aristocratic lady. She would have a plump, pompous son with a bitchy wife. Her daughter would be the gruff, hunting sort who had never married. She would have one fey granddaughter, very beautiful, engaged to an actor; and another granddaughter, a straightforward no-nonsense girl who was secretly in love with the actor and . . .
The telephone rang shrilly, interrupting her fantasy.
The call was from Roy Silver, a young man who had once worked for Agatha when she had owned a public relations firm.
“How’s things?” asked Roy.
“Cruising along. What about you?” Roy now worked for the public relations firm that had bought Agatha’s business.
“I’m pushing a new perfume. It’s called Green Desire. It’s made by an Irish company.”
“I’ll bring you a bottle.” There was a pause. “As a matter of fact, I took the liberty of driving down.”
“Where are you?”
“Round the corner.”
“Come along, then.”
Agatha went to her front door, opened it and waited for Roy. It was unlike him to arrive unexpectedly. He always wanted something. He was probably having trouble with the Green Desire account.
Roy drove up, got out, opened the boot and dragged out a large suitcase.
“Going somewhere on holiday?” asked Agatha.
“Here, if you’ll have me, sweetie.”
“Roy, wait a minute. This is a bit of an imposition.”
To her horror, Roy burst into tears. His thin body in his Armani suit shook with sobs, and tears trickled down through his designer stubble.
“Bring that case in,” ordered Agatha, “and I’ll fix you a stiff drink.”
She told him to leave his case in the hall, led the way into the sitting room and poured him a strong measure of brandy from the drinks trolley. “Here, get that down you,” she ordered. “Don’t wipe your nose on your sleeve. There’s a box of tissues on the table.”
Roy sank down onto the sofa. He blew his nose vigorously, took a swig of brandy, and then stared miserably into space.
Agatha joined him on the sofa. “Now, then, out with it.”
“It’s been an Irish nightmare,” said Roy. “I’m all broken up. I’ve handled nasty drug-ridden pop groups and prima-donna models, but never anything like this.”
“Who’s producing the stuff? The IRA?”
“No, it’s a Dublin fashion house called Colleen Donnelly. They decided to launch into the perfume market. They wanted it pushed as a ‘family’ perfume, the sort of thing you could give to your old granny. So the publicity shots were taken in various front parlours out in the bogs with gran, mam, dad, and the kids. It’s been going on for months. I am awash with tea and boredom. I thought if I had to listen to someone’s uncle stand in front of the fire and sing ‘Danny Boy’ just one more time, I would scream.”
“Should have been a joy to promote,” said Agatha. “Sounds as if it would lend itself to some good photos for the glossies.”
“Oh, I got them a good show. It’s not that. It’s Colleen Donnelly herself. She isn’t Irish. She’s from Manchester. Real name, Betty Clap.”
“You can see why she’d want to change her name.”
“She’s a bitch. She’s the worst bitch I’ve ever worked for and that includes you, Aggie.”
“Here, wait just one minute—”
“Sorry. She turned up the whole time, jeering at me in front of the camera crew and everyone, calling me a wimp and a half-man. I told the boss, Mr. Pedman, but he said it was a big launch and to stick with it. Then, just before the final big launch party, she phoned the agency and asked for another public relations officer. She said . . . she said, she was sick of dealing with a twittering idiot. He sent Mary Hartley.”
“Some cow who’s jealous of me and has always been trying to steal my accounts. I’m a failure. I can’t bear it. I had holiday owing, so I just took off in the car and I found myself driving towards you.”
“Have you got a bottle of the stuff with you?”
Roy fished in his pocket and pulled out a green glass bottle with a gold stopper. Agatha took off the top and dabbed a little on her wrist.
“It’s lousy, Roy.”
“But it’ll get good publicity and all because of me, and Mary will take the credit.”
Agatha handed him the television remote control. “You sit there and finish your drink and watch something silly. I’ll see what I can do.”
* * *
Agatha went into her study and logged on to her computer. She opened the file which held all her old journalist contacts. Then she switched off and picked up the phone and called Deirdre Dunn, top woman’s editor on The Bugle. To her relief, Deirdre was working late.
“What is it, Agatha?” asked Deirdre. “I thought you were into the detective business.”
“I am. But I want you to do me a favour and knock a perfume called Green Desire.”
“Why should I?”
“Remember I accidentally found out you were having an affair with the foreign secretary, Peter Branson?”
“Do you have to rake that up?”
“Only if necessary.”
“All right, you old whore. What am I supposed to do?”
“Take this down.”
Twenty minutes later, Agatha returned to the sitting room. “All fixed,” she said cheerfully.
“What is?” demanded Roy.
“Deirdre Dunn is putting a piece in the Sunday edition of The Bugle, saying that Green Desire is one crap perfume, despite the brilliant public relations work of one Roy Silver, whom the thankless Betty Clap betrayed with her lack of business acumen by firing him at the last minute and exchanging him for someone with considerably less experience. She’s also sending her assistant out into the streets to do a vox pop, spraying people with the stuff and asking them what they think of it. She’ll only print the bad comments. Deirdre has great power. The stuff’s doomed. Revenge is thine.”
“I don’t know how to thank you, Agatha. How did you persuade Deirdre?”
“Oh, we go back a long way. We’re great friends.”
Roy looked at Agatha uneasily. Deirdre, all skeletal elegance and cut-glass voice, had once said to him that if Agatha ever died, she would cheerfully piss on her grave.
“Will it work?” he asked.
“Well, thanks, Aggie. How can I repay you?”
“Just don’t stay too long.”
Agatha came down to the kitchen the next morning to find a plate of fresh croissants on the table, and Roy sitting reading the newspapers.
“Where did you get the croissants?” she asked.
“The village shop. Some woman in the village has started making them. I’ve made coffee.”
Agatha opened the back door and let her cats out to play. She poured herself a cup of coffee, sat down at the table and lit a cigarette.
“Must you?” asked Roy, flapping his hands.
“Yes, so shut up.” Agatha saw she had left Mrs. Tamworthy’s letter lying on the table. She handed it to Roy. “Read that and tell me what you think about it.”
Roy read it carefully. “She sounds mad.”
“She might not be. I might read about her death in the newspapers and feel guilty.”
“It’s a nice day,” said Roy. The morning mist was lifting. Agatha’s cats, Hodge and Boswell, were chasing each other over the lawn. “We could both go over and talk to her.”
“Wouldn’t do any harm,” said Agatha. “That way we’ll find out whether she’s bonkers or not.”
Copyright © 2007 by M. C. Beaton. All rights reserved.