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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Witches' Tree

An Agatha Raisin Mystery

Agatha Raisin Mysteries (Volume 28)

M. C. Beaton

Minotaur Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

Chapter One


The evening was not going well. The late Agatha Christie would have been amazed to learn that she was destined to be the ruin of some genteel dinner parties. Otherwise intelligent people, after a move to a village in the Cotswolds, can become keen to “do the village thing,” getting ideas of what it should be like from her detective stories.

That was why Sir Edward Chumble and his wife, Tiffany, had invited the vicar of St. Edmund in the nearby village of Sumpton Harcourt and his wife to dinner. “I mean, one is supposed to invite the vicar,” said Tiffany.

The other guests were Tiffany’s friend, Jane Oliver, an odd woman with a look of perpetual bad temper, an elderly judge, Lord Thurkettle, and two “bright young things,” Brenda and Bengy Gentry who were in fact in their forties but chasing perpetual youth.

The vicar, Rory Harris, was not meek and scholarly. He was built like a rugby prop and had a deep commanding voice. His wife, Molly, was a truly glamorous redhead and that put Tiffany, who regarded herself as the fairest of them all, in a vicious temper.

The Chumbles had recently moved to the Cotswolds and Sir Edward was determined to play the role of squire. But no one touched their forelocks at his approach: in fact the locals seemed to find him a bit of a hoot. He had retired from the Foreign Office after a brief stint as ambassador in some former part of the Soviet Union that no one seemed to have heard of.

As ambassador, he had hoped to hold grand receptions in a palatial mansion, but the embassy was like a modern bungalow and the locals were insolent.

By moving to the Cotswolds, he fantasised of being head of a little fiefdom: gracious tennis parties, strawberries and cream and all that other lovely old England business. But the village, Cuckleton, although pretty enough, showed a marked lack of interest in the newcomers. To even be considered not worth gossiping about was a sad blow.

Although the vicar and his wife were more down to earth, they had been rather startled by the grimness of their village, Sumpton Harcourt. It was little more than a hamlet, a group of thatched cottages huddled around a pond, dominated by a blasted oak called the witches’ tree. It was said that there had once been a coven in the village.

Tiffany recognised the dress Molly was wearing because she had seen it hanging up in a supermarket in Evesham, priced at a mere fifteen pounds. “So clever of you not to waste money on clothes, Molly,” she cooed across the table. One of the talents necessary to being a good vicar’s wife was the capacity to tell blatant lies.

“You mustn’t tease me,” said Molly. “You know this is Armani. I am just too shockingly expensive, amn’t I darling?”

“Worth the money,” boomed her husband. “Prettiest woman in the room.”

Tiffany took another slug of carefully decanted South African hearty red and said, “So sorry. But darling, it does look like a Primark one I saw in Tesco’s.”

“Poor you,” said Molly. “I wouldn’t be seen dead in Tesco’s. Of course, Foreign Offices’ pensions must be too dire.”

A maid hired for the evening came in with a trolley of coffee. Tiffany had hired her from a card on the post office bulletin board. The maid was called Mrs. Batterty and she looked to be in her nineties, which, in fact, she was, being ninety-five years old and creaking with arthritis. She was almost bent double. Pink scalp showed through her thinning white hair. Rory leapt to his feet to take coffee cups from her trembling hands.

When she had tottered from the room, Tiffany said, “I didn’t know she was going to be so old, now did I?”

“That reminds me,” said Molly, jumping to her feet. “We’ve left our darling with a sitter we don’t know that well. Got to rush. Must excuse us.”

“Didn’t know you had a child,” said Tiffany, escorting them to the front door and giving them each a limp hand to shake.

“We don’t. It’s our cat. Gets in a frightful state if we’re away too long.”

“I could kill that bitch,” muttered Tiffany as she stalked back indoors. She confined herself to sweetly murdering the characters of the vicar and his wife. “So terribly sad,” she told the remaining guests. “No children. Only to be expected. You see, the poor Church of England does attract closet gays, so they up and marry someone who will play along.”

“But you haven’t any children, sweetie, have you?” demanded Brenda Gentry. “Surely Edward isn’t gay. Or was he shagging the peasants when you were out in God knows where? Joke! Don’t bristle up. I’ll have some more of your box wine.”

“That is a fine vintage,” boomed Sir Edward.

“But I went in to the kitchen to see if I could help and there was your missus decanting stuff out of a box of South African red into a decanter.”

“She was leaving a drink for the servant,” said Edward desperately. “Good God! That the time? Sorry, folks. Long day. Must ask you to leave.”

* * *

After the guests had left and his wife had gone to bed, Sir Edward remained at the table, brooding over the dirty dishes. Although he adored Agatha Christie detective stories, he saw himself more as Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey. He could feel one of his headaches coming on. How ghastly the Cotswolds had turned out to be. Perhaps it was because they had arrived at the dying end of the year. Come summer and surely he would be asked to open fetes. His eyes half closed as he went off into a dream of croquet on the lawn, cricket in the field, and strawberries and cream with everything.

* * *

“What a shit of an evening,” said Molly who was driving. “I can hardly see in this bloody fog.”

“You should have let me drive,” said Rory.

“You wanted to drink, remember? Oh, why didn’t you get a parish in Oxford or somewhere where there are lights and shops? Sumpton Harcourt is the arsehole of the world.”

Molly hunched over the steering wheel. A breeze started to move the fog which danced in swaying pillars in front of her headlights, somehow even more difficult to drive through than the previous thick fog. As she approached the village, through the shifting fog, she saw the lightning blasted limbs of the witches’ tree, as it was called.

“Look, Rory,” said Molly. “Some idiot’s dancing around in this…” She suddenly slammed on the brakes and screamed, “It’s a body!”

Rory got a torch out of the glove compartment, hoping against hope some children had slung a dummy up on the branches. But the torch lit up the dead, contorted features of elderly Miss Margaret Darby, one of the church helpers. The vicar took out his mobile and then remembered that Sumpton Harcourt was one of those Cotswold villages which did not have a mobile phone signal. He went back to the car. “It’s old Margaret Darby. Better phone from the vicarage.”

“You go,” said Molly. “I’d better climb up and make sure the poor thing is really dead.”

It was at moments like these that Rory realised why he had married her.

He handed her the torch and ran off in the direction of the vicarage. Molly climbed up the branches and shone the torch into the swollen face. Fighting down a feeling of nausea, she stretched out a hand to the woman’s neck and felt for a pulse. There wasn’t even a flicker.

She retreated to the car. How had they failed the poor woman? She cleaned the brass in the church and arranged the flowers. She had seemed happy enough. If only she had asked for help.

Molly switched on the engine and turned on the heater. After a mere ten minutes Rory came running back. “Police and ambulance on their way.”

He climbed in beside her and put an arm around her shoulders. “Did you have any idea she was suicidal?”

“No,” said Molly. “We only exchanged platitudes. Things like, nasty weather. Isn’t it cold?”

“It’s pity they closed down all the village police stations,” complained Rory. “Where do they have to come from now? Cheltenham? Mircester? Oh, I hear a siren.”

A police car was the first to arrive. Only five minutes later, the ambulance arrived. A policeman donned a forensic suit, mask, gloves and boots and climbed up to examine the body. He shouted down to the paramedics that the body must be left where it was until a forensics team arrived.

“How awful,” whispered Molly through white lips. “It seems indecent to leave the poor woman hanging there.”

The companion of the policeman who had climbed up to examine the body came over to their car and took down their names and addresses. “Before you go any further,” said Rory, “we’ve had a shock. You can find us at the vicarage round the next corner next to the church if you want statements.”

“Very well, sir.”

* * *

The vicarage was much as it had been under the tenancy of the previous vicar. It was dark and gloomy even on a sunny day because it was covered on the outside with ivy. There was no central heating and the floors were stone flagged. “Let’s use my study,” said Rory. “The fire’s laid. I only need to strike a match.”

The study did service as a living room because it had the one fire that did not smoke. It was dominated by a large desk with squat carved legs ending in griffins’ heads. In front of the fire which Rory lit were two horsehair armchairs, slippery and uncomfortable. They kept meaning to replace them but ever since Rory had taken up his new post a month ago, there never seemed to be any time. He was also expected to preach at four other villages. Even Molly was kept busy with parish visits, and the various clubs held in the church hall: Women’s Institute, Mothers’ Union, Baking Night and Bible readings.

Like the Chumbles, they had been seduced by the thought of idyllic village life. Rory had been vicar of a parish in the East End of London. On a good Sunday, the congregation would amount to around twelve elderly people. On a bad one, much fewer as the church was invaded by drunken youths from the pub next door shouting insults. Tired of the hopelessness of trying to bring the word of God to people who did not want to hear it, tired of the squalor, horrified by a final attack they could not even bring themselves to talk about, they had been delighted at the chance to move to the beautiful Cotswolds. Also, there was a fairly large congregation on Sundays, people coming from neighbouring villages, attracted by the novelty of a handsome vicar …

They had seemed to live under constant threat in London and both were surprised to feel an undertone of fear in the village. Of course, the weather hadn’t helped. Ever since they arrived, it had either been pouring rain or cold nights with thick fog. Then they were inclined to put it down to the village’s Tudor buildings with their thatched roofs, crouched round the village green.

“I am so tired,” said Molly, stifling a yawn. “And to think I believed that once we were in the Cotswolds all that I would have to do was to occasionally twitch the lace curtains. Rory!” She sat up straight. “Why wouldn’t that policeman let the ambulance men cut her down?”

“You mean, was she murdered? No. Just routine. Like car accidents hold everything up on the motorway these days because of Health and Safety rules that say nothing to be shifted until the transport police and you name it have examined the wreckage.”

“The villagers will have gathered to watch,” said Molly. “Should I be out there with the tea urn?”

“No. They’re probably having the time of their lives. You know, there’s something ghoulish about them. That’s the door. I’ll get it.”

Rory came back with two detectives who introduced themselves as Detective Sergeant Wong and Detective Constable Peterson. Wong looked half Chinese and Peterson was a pretty woman with dark curly hair.

“Would you like some tea or coffee?” offered Molly. “Something stronger? Detective Peterson?”

“Oh, do call me Alice. I would love a cup of strong coffee and I am sure Bill here could do with one as well. I’ll come and help you.”

“I’ll begin with you, sir,” said Bill. “Where were you this evening?”

“We were at a dinner party at Sir Edward Chumble’s in the next village, Cuckleton. We left about eleven o’clock. Molly was driving. The mist made it difficult to see anything.

“Then Molly and I saw the body in the headlights just as the fog shifted. There is no mobile phone signal here so I went back to the vicarage to call and Molly, my wife, climbed up to make sure the woman was really dead. Why did that policeman stop the ambulance men from bringing her down?”

“We have to wait for forensics when there is any death like this,” said Bill. “So you left Sir Edward Chumble’s home at, say, eleven o’clock. Are you sure of the time?”

“Oh, yes. It was a horrid dinner party and I kept looking at my watch and praying, ‘Bring on the cheese! Oh, please, bring on the cheese.’”

“Who else was there?”

“Lady Edward, her aunt, a Jane Somebody, Lord Thurkettle and Brenda and Bengy Gentry.”

“Were you the first to leave?”

“Yes. I hadn’t met any of them before and it will be a cold day in hell before I want to meet any of them again.”

“Why do you think you were invited?”

“The Cotswolds seem to be full of incomers all determined to do the village thing, you know, go to church at Easter and Christmas, invite the vicar and his wife, drive a four by four, wear green wellies and talk knowledgably about crops. Because my last parish was pretty rough, I did indulge in a bit of rural fantasy.”

“Hang on until the spring comes,” said Bill. “It becomes the prettiest place on earth.”

Molly and Alice entered pushing an old creaking oak trolley laden with coffee cups, cafetière and biscuits. Once coffee was served, Bill took Molly over her account. When she had finished, he said, “I’ll save you a trip to police headquarters. I’ll send someone tomorrow with your statements and get you to sign them.”

“I believe the one traditional thing you do have in the Cotswolds is a Miss Marple,” said Rory.

“Not that I know of,” said Bill.

“But I read about her. Agatha Raisin! That’s it.”

Alice said, “Mrs. Raisin is not elderly, nor does she knit. She is a private detective with offices in Mircester. She is rather attractive.”

A picture of the policeman who had climbed the witches’ tree came into Rory’s head. He had been young and looked to be highly intelligent. “What’s the name of that policeman who examined the body?” he asked.

“That would be P.C. Harold Turret.” Bill would have liked to elaborate and say that Turret’s nickname was Ferret. He not only worked extremely hard on cases but he also had a nasty habit of finding out everything he could about his fellows’ private lives. Bill and Alice were secretly engaged because any liaisons between members of the force were frowned on. Unfortunately the Ferret showed every sign of being attracted to Alice.

“Are you sure,” pursued Rory, “that it is suicide? She never seemed depressed or anything like that.”

“We won’t really know until the forensic team have put in their report. Good evening. Someone will call tomorrow with your statements.”

When they had left Molly said in a small voice, “Do you think we made a mistake coming here?”

“No,” said her husband bracingly. “Wait till spring. People say it’s marvellous then.”

“Wouldn’t it be awful if poor Miss Darby was murdered?” said Molly as they mounted the stairs.

“It wouldn’t somehow,” said Rory. “I feel guilty about the idea of her being driven to suicide and us not knowing she was in such distress.”

The bedroom was cold. It contained one of those mammoth Victorian wardrobes like the one in The Chronicles of Narnia and a four-poster bed, but without the hangings, Molly having torn them down.

“Are we going to bed in our muck?” asked Molly.

“You bet,” said her husband, beginning to tear off his clothes. The bathroom was at the end of a long draughty corridor, and a monument to Victorian plumbing.

Molly sat down at the dressing table and began to remove her makeup with cosmetic wipes. Her face looked odd in the old glass, rather like some other Molly than a reflection.

“Hurry up!” called her husband. “I’m freezing!”

“That’s all I am to you,” said Molly. “A hot water bottle.”

They had only been married a year but had planned to put off having children.

They decided, as they finally snuggled up together, not to have sex that night; decided by that odd marital telepathy that well-matched couples are lucky enough to have. Molly was just drifting off to sleep when a vivid picture of that body rose up in her mind. She could see it in the headlights, high up on the slippery branches of … “Rory! Wake up!”

“What! Who!”

“It’s Margaret Darby.”

“Oh, do go to sleep.”

“Listen. The odd thing about Miss Darby was that she always wore high heels. Not stilettos but not kitten heels either. She still had them on!”

“So?”

“They didn’t have any straps. They were patent leather pumps. She was high up in the slippery branches and the branches were gleaming with wet. She couldn’t possibly have climbed up in those shoes.”

“There’s a song about that,” mumbled Rory sleepily, “something like ‘What? In these shoes?’”

“But Rory…”

“Look, if she’s been murdered, the police will find out who did it. That is not our job. Don’t interfere.”

* * *

And neither the vicar nor his wife would have dreamt for a moment of interfering in police work had it not been for the fact that their statements were brought to them the next day by Police Constable Turret. Molly thought he had a clever interesting face, although critics might find something ratlike about it. He had small brown eyes.

After they had signed their statements, he asked, “Any chance of a cup of coffee, love?”

“If you are talking to me,” said Molly, frost in her voice, “ask properly.”

“Oh, Gawd!” said Turret, giving what he fancied as a jolly laugh. “One of them women libbers, hey!”

Molly shrugged, suddenly wanting him to go, but she left the room to fetch coffee.

“Have you anything to ask me or are you waiting to patronise my wife again?” asked Rory.

“Sorry about that,” said Turret, making a mental note to make the vicar’s life miserable in some way. “Now, you and the missus are like the first suspects.”

“Like how?” demanded Rory. “Twenty minutes before we found the body we were taking our leave of Sir Edward. We’ve signed our statements to that effect.” He got to his feet to open the door for Molly because he had heard the creaking approach of the old trolley.

“I had it all ready in the hope that nice detective would come back,” said Molly.

Turret leapt to his feet. “Can I help, gorgeous?”

Rory said evenly, “We can help ourselves. Molly, why don’t you find out if Miss Darby had any relatives?”

“Good idea,” said Molly, thankful of the chance to escape. It wasn’t Turret’s comments that upset her: it was the way his eyes seemed to crawl over her body, and, yes, there was something frightening about him. She decided to go over to Carsely and call on the vicar’s wife there, Sarah Bloxby. Sarah seemed to know about everyone for miles around and might know the dead Margaret’s relatives.

As soon as she drove out of Sumpton Harcourt she could feel a weight of anxiety lift from her shoulders. The day was dark and misty and drenched fields stretched from side to side.

To her disappointment, when she was ushered into the vicarage drawing room in Carsely she found another visitor there, a fashionably dressed woman with a good figure, long legs and small bearlike eyes.

Mrs. Bloxby performed the introductions. She served coffee and said, “It must have been very upsetting for you, finding the body.”

“I wish someone would upset me with a dead body,” grumbled her other visitor. “I’ve got nothing but lost cats and divorces on the books.”

“Oh, you’re that Agatha Raisin,” exclaimed Molly. “You know, if we had the money, I would be tempted to employ you.”

“Perhaps Mrs. Raisin might be interested in a few facts,” said Mrs. Bloxby.

Agatha laughed. “Mrs. Bloxby knows I am always interested in dead bodies.”

“You use second names?” asked Molly.

“A bad habit,” said Agatha, “developed when we had a genteel Ladies’ Society here. It’s hard to break.”

Molly leaned her back against the feathered cushions on the old sofa and told them about the dinner party and how they had found the body. The wood fire crackled on the hearth and from outside came the sweet sound of the tenor bell in the church tower. “The wind must have got up,” said Mrs. Bloxby.

At first Molly talked about the dinner party and then how she had found the body. She went on to describe the two detectives and then the visit from Turret. Suddenly, she found herself crying and hiccupping and gasping out how horrible the vicarage was and how beastly the bloody Cotswolds had turned out to be. A box of tissues was placed on her lap and Mrs. Bloxby’s quiet voice said, “Drink this.” Molly dried her eyes and took a gulp. It was sweet and warming. “What is this?” she asked.

“It’s dandelion wine,” said Mrs. Bloxby. “Early in the day for alcohol but it contains a lot of sugar.”

“I don’t know what came over me,” said Molly. “I’m pretty tough. It’s the village. It’s creepy.”

“That vicarage is pretty awful,” said Mrs. Bloxby. “So big and nothing changed since Queen Victoria. I’ll drive over and see if I can do something to help.”

“We’ll go now,” said Agatha. “Saturday, and not even a date.”

How old was she? Molly began to worry. This Raisin woman was middle-aged but she carried an aura of sensuality. The trouble with being a vicar’s wife was one often had to deal with women getting crushes on your husband. So far, not one had been anything to worry about, but Agatha Raisin might be another matter.


Copyright © 2017 by M. C. Beaton