Mrs. Bloxby, wife of the vicar of Carsely, looked nervously at her visitor. "Yes, Mrs. Raisin is a friend of mine, a very dear friend, but she is now very busy running her detective agency and does not have spare time for ---”
"But this is such a good cause,"interrupted Arthur Chance, vicar of Saint Odo The Severe in the village of Comfrey Magna. "The services of an expert public relations officer to bring the crowds to our annual fête would be most welcome. Proceeds will go to restore the church roof and to various charities."
"Yes, but ---”
"It would do no harm to just ask, now would it? It is your Christian duty."
"I hardly need to be reminded of my duty," said Mrs. Bloxby wearily, thinking of all the parish visits, the mothers’ meetings and the Carsely Ladies’ Society. Really, she thought, surveying the vicar, for such a mild, inoffensive-looking man he is terribly pushy. Arthur Chance was a small man with thick glasses and grey hair which stuck out in tufts like horns on either side of his creased and wrinkled face. He had married a woman twenty years his junior, Mrs. Bloxby remembered. He probably bullied her into it, she thought.
"Look! I will do what I can, but I cannot promise anything. When is the fête?"
"It is a week on Saturday."
"Only about a week away. You are not giving Mrs. Raisin any time."
"God will help her," said Mr. Chance.
Agatha Raisin, a middle-aged woman who had sold up her successful public relations business to take early retirement in a cottage in the Cotswolds, had found that inactivity did not suit her and so had started up her own private detective agency. Now that it was successful, however, she wished she had more time to relax. Also, the cases which poured into the detective agency all concerned messy divorces, missing children, missing cats and dogs, and only the occasional case of industrial espionage. She had begun to close the agency at weekends, feeling she was losing quality time, forgetting that when she had plenty of quality time, she didn’t know what to do with it.
For a woman in her early fifties, she still looked well. Her hair, although tinted, was glossy and her legs good. Although she had small eyes, she had very few wrinkles. She had a generous bosom and a rather thick waist, which was her despair.
On Friday evening, when she arrived home, she fussed over her two cats, Hodge and Boswell, kicked off her shoes, mixed herself a generous gin and tonic, lit a cigarette, and lay back on the sofa with a sigh of relief.
She wondered idly where her ex-husband, James Lacey, was. He lived next door to her but worked as a travel writer and was often abroad. She rummaged around in her brain as usual, searching for that old obsession, that old longing for him, but it seemed to have gone forever. Agatha, without an obsession, was left with herself; and she forgot about all the pain and misery that obsession for her ex had brought and remembered only the brief bursts of elation.
The doorbell shrilled. Agatha swung her legs off the sofa and went to answer the door. Her face lit up when she saw Mrs. Bloxby standing there. "Come in," she cried. "I’m just having a G and T. Want one?"
"No, but I’d like a sherry."
Sometimes Agatha, often too aware of her slum upbringing, wondered what it would be like to be a lady inside and out like Mrs. Bloxby. The vicar’s wife was wearing a rather baggy tweed skirt and a rose-pink blouse which had seen better days. Her grey hair was escaping from a bun at the back of her neck, but she had her usual air of kindness and dignity.
The pair of them, as was the fashion in the Carsely Ladies’ Society, always called each other by their second names.
Agatha poured Mrs. Bloxby a sherry. "I haven’t seen you for a while" said Agatha. "It’s been so busy."
A brief flicker of guilt crossed Mrs. Bloxby’s grey eyes. "Have you still got that young detective with you, Toni Gilmour?"
"Yes, thank goodness. Excellent worker. But I think we will need to start turning down cases. I really don’t want to take on more staff."
Mrs. Bloxby took a sip of sherry and said distractedly, "I knew you would be too busy. That’s what I told him."
"Mr. Arthur Chance. The vicar of Saint Odo The Severe."
"An Anglo-Saxon saint. I forget what he did. There are so many of them."
"So how did my name come up in your discussion with Mr. Chance?"
"He lives in Comfrey Magna ---”
"Never been there."
"Few people have. It’s off the tourist route. Anyway, they are having their annual village fête a week tomorrow and Mr. Chance wanted me to beg you to publicize the event for them."
"Is there anything special about this vicar? Any reason why I should?"
"Only because it’s for charity. And he is rather pushy."
Agatha smiled. "You look like a woman who has just been bullied. Tell you what, we’ll drive over there tomorrow morning and I will tell him one resounding no and he won’t bother you again."
"That is so good of you, Mrs. Raisin. I am not very strong when it comes to saying no to good works."
In the winter days, when the rain dripped down and thick wet fog covered the hills, Agatha sometimes wondered what she was doing buried under the thatch of her cottage in the Cotswolds.
But as she drove off with Mrs. Bloxby the following morning, the countryside was enjoying a really warm spring. Blackthorn starred the hedgerows, wisteria and clematis hung on garden walls, bluebells shook in the lightest of breezes, and a large blue sky arched overhead.
Mrs. Bloxby guided Agatha through a maze of country lanes. "Here we are at last," she said finally. "Just park in front of the church."
Agatha thought Comfrey Magna was an odd, secretive-looking village. There were no new houses to mar the straggling line of ancient cottages on either side of the road. She could see no one on the main street or in the gardens or even at the windows.
"Awfully quiet," she commented.
"Few young people, that’s the problem," said Mrs. Bloxby. "No first-time buyers, only last-time buyers."
"Shouldn’t think houses would be all that expensive in a dead hole like this," said Agatha, parking the car.
"Houses all over are dreadfully expensive."
They got out of the car. "That’s the vicarage over there," said Mrs. Bloxby. "We’ll cut through the churchyard."
The vicarage was an old grey building with a sloping roof of old Cotswold tiles, the kind that cost a fortune but that the local council would never allow anyone to sell, unless they were going to be replaced with exactly the same thing, which, of course, defeated the purpose.
As they entered the churchyard, Agatha saw a man straightening up from one of the graves where he had been laying flowers. He turned and saw them and smiled.
Agatha blinked rapidly. He was tall, with fair hair, a lightly tanned handsome face, and green eyes. His eyes were really green, thought Agatha, not a fleck of brown in them. He was wearing a tweed sports jacket and cavalry-twill trousers.
"Good morning," said Mrs. Bloxby pleasantly, but giving Agatha’s arm a nudge because that lady seemed to have become rooted to the spot.
"Good morning," he replied.
"Who was that?" whispered Agatha as they approached the door of the vicarage.
"I don’t know."
Mrs. Bloxby rang the bell. The door was opened by a tall woman wearing a leotard and nothing else. Her hair was tinted aubergine and worn long and straight. She had rather mean features --- a narrow, thin mouth and long narrow eyes. Her nose was thin with an odd bump in the middle, as if it had once been broken and then badly reset. Pushing forty, thought Agatha.
"You’ve interrupted my Pilates exercises," she said.
"We’ve come to see Mr. Chance," said Mrs.Bloxby.
"You must be the PR people. You’ll find him in the study. I’m Trixie Chance."
Oh dear, thought Mrs. Bloxby. She often thought that trendy vicars’ wives did as much to reduce a church congregation as a trendy vicar. Mrs. Chance was of a type familiar to her: always desperately trying to be "cool," following the latest fads and quoting the names of the latest pop groups.
Trixie had disappeared. By pushing open a couple of doors off the hall, they found the study. Arthur Chance was sitting behind a large Victorian desk piled high with papers.
He rushed round the desk to meet them, his pale eyes shining behind thick glasses. He seized Agatha’s hands. "Dear lady, I knew you would come. How splendid of you to help us!"
Agatha disengaged her hands. "I have come here," she began, "to say ---”
There was a trill of laughter from outside, and through the window Agatha could see Trixie talking to that handsome man.
"Who is that man?" she demanded, pointing at the window.
Arthur swung round in surprise. "Oh, that is one of my parishioners, Mr. George Selby. So tragic, his wife dying like that! He has been a source of strength helping me with the organization of the fête, ordering the marquees in case it rains. So important in our fickle English climate, don’t you think, Mrs. Raisin?"
"Certainly," gushed Agatha. "Perhaps, if you could call Mr. Selby in, we could discuss the publicity together?"
"Certainly, certainly." Arthur bustled off. Mrs. Bloxby stifled a sigh. She knew her friend was now dead set on another romantic pursuit. She wished, not for the first time, that Agatha would grow up.
George Selby entered the study behind the vicar. He smiled at Agatha. "Are you sure you want to do this?" he asked. "Mr. Chance can be very persuasive."
"It’s no trouble at all," said Agatha, thinking she should have worn a pair of heels instead of the dowdy flat sandals she was wearing.
But Agatha’s heart sank as the events were described to her. There was to be entertainment by the village band and dancing by a local group of morris men. The rest consisted of competitions to see who had created the best cake, bread, pickles, and relishes. The main event was the home-made jam tasting.
She sat in silence after the vicar had finished outlining the events. She caught a sympathetic look from George’s beautiful green eyes and a great idea leaped into her mind.
"Yes, I can do this," she said. "You haven’t given me much time. Leave it to me." She turned to George. "Perhaps we could have dinner sometime in the coming week to discuss progress?"
He hesitated slightly. "Splendid idea," said the vicar. "Plan our campaign. There is a very good restaurant at Mircester. Trixie, my wife, is particularly fond of it. La Belle Cuisine. Why don’t we all meet there for dinner on Wednesday? Eight o’clock."
"Fine," said Agatha gloomily.
"I suppose so," said George with a marked lack of enthusiasm.
Agatha’s staff, consisting of detectives Phil Marshall, Patrick Mulligan, young Toni Gilmour and secretary Mrs. Freedman, found that the usual Monday-morning conference was cancelled. "Just get on with whatever you’re on with," said Agatha. "I’ve got a church fête to sell."
Toni felt low. She had been given another divorce case and she hated divorce cases. But she lingered in the office, fascinated to hear Agatha Raisin in full bullying mode on the phone. "Yes, I think you should send a reporter. We’re running a real food campaign here. Good home-village produce and no supermarket rubbish. And I can promise you a surprise. Yes, it is Agatha Raisin here. No, no murder, hah, hah. Just send a reporter."
Next call. "I want to speak to Betsy Wilson."
Toni stood frozen. Betsy Wilson was a famous pop singer. "Tell her it’s Agatha Raisin. Hullo, Betsy, dear, remember me? I want you to open a village fête next Saturday. I know you have a busy schedule, but I also happen to know you are between gigs. The press will all be there.
Good for your image. Lady-of-the-manor bit. Large hat, floaty dress, gracious --- come on, girl, by the time I’m finished with you I’ll have you engaged to Prince William. Yes, you come along and I’ll see if I can get the prince." Agatha then charged on to tell Betsy to arrive at two o’clock and to give her directions to Comfrey Magna.
"Thick as two planks," muttered Agatha, "but she’s coming."
"But she’s famous!" gasped Toni. "Why should she come?"
"Her career was sinking after that drugs bust," said Agatha. "I did a freelance job and got her going again."
She picked up the phone again. "News desk? Forget about the healthy food. Better story. Fête is to be opened by Betsy Wilson. Yes. I thought that would make you sit up."
Toni waited until Agatha had finished the call and asked, "Can you really get Prince William?"
"Of course not, but that dumb cow thinks I’m capable of anything."
At dinner on the Wednesday night, only Trixie Chance greeted Agatha’s news that Betsy Wilson was to open the fête with delight. George Selby said anxiously, "But the village will be overrun by teenagers and press. It’ll be a disaster."
Agatha felt panicky. She now had the nationals coming as well as the local newspapers.
"I’ve got it," she said. "Vicar, you open the fête with a prayer. Get yourself a good sound system. Think of the size of the congregation. I’ll get Betsy to sing ‘Amazing Grace.’ Set the tone."
The vicar’s eyes shone. "I can see it now," he said, clasping his hands as though in prayer.
"Yes, so can I," said George. "Mess and rubbish everywhere."
Trixie squeezed his arm. "Oh, Georgy Porgy, don’t be a great bear. Little Trixie is thrilled to bits."
She’s five feet eight inches, thought Agatha sourly, and people who refer to themselves in the third person are always crashing bores.
"It’ll be marvellous," said Agatha. "It’ll really put Comfrey Magna on the map!"
She wondered how she could manage to engineer an evening with George on his own. Mustn’t seem too needy. Men could smell needy across two continents.
In vain during the meal did George try to protest against the visit of the pop star. The vicar and his wife were too excited to listen to him.
What was worse, George was beginning to look at her with something like dislike in those grass-green eyes of his.
He leaned across the table, interrupting the vicar’s enthusiastic plans and said coldly, "I’ve decided I don’t really want to be part of this."
"But George," wailed Trixie, "we depend on you to organize the marquees and things."
"I am sure the very efficient Mrs. Raisin can take over from me. I only chipped in because Saint Odo’s is a beautiful church and the fête was one way to raise funds towards the necessary repairs as well as sending some money to charity."
"Listen," said Agatha, panicking as gorgeous George seemed to be vanishing over the flat horizon of her present manless life, "here’s an idea which will get you so much money you could build a cathedral. It will only mean one day of chaos. You put up barricades at the two roads leading into the village. You charge five pounds a head for entry. You get a couple of farmers, say, to contribute fields for parking. Haven’t you any Boy Scouts or Girl Guides?"
"Yes, we do," said the vicar.
"Draft them in to park the cars and dib, dib whatever, you’ve got a fortune."
There was a startled silence. The vicar looked as if someone had just presented him with the Holy Grail. George gave a reluctant smile.
"I suppose it could work. We don’t have much time."
"Call an emergency meeting in the village hall tomorrow," said Agatha eagerly.
"There are only a few days left," cautioned George.
"We can do it," said Agatha. "I know we can do it."
"What about all these crowds that are going to come? We’ll need to inform the police."
Agatha quailed at the thought of her friend Detective Sergeant Bill Wong’s reaction. "I’ll do that," she said, "and I’ll hire a security firm to police the area."
"You are an angel," said the happy vicar.
But George looked uneasy. "I feel no good will come of this," he said.
The dinner party finished at eight because the vicar liked to eat early and get to bed early.
Agatha cast one longing look after George’s retreating well-tailored back as he headed for his car.
She must find out more about him. Surely Mrs. Bloxby knew something.
Later that evening, Mrs. Bloxby listened in alarm to Agatha’s plans. She felt that as Agatha had bulldozed ahead, there was now little point in making any protest. And when Agatha left, commenting on the incredible beauty of the Cotswolds spring, Mrs. Bloxby repressed a sigh. Agatha’s perception of beauty, she felt, was prompted by her hormones. If only Agatha hadn’t seen that handsome man in the graveyard. She knew her friend of old. Agatha was heading for another obsession, and while it lasted, the Cotswolds would be beautiful and every pop tune would have a special meaning.
Agatha sustained a visit from a very angry Bill Wong on Friday evening. "You might have told me first what your plans were," he complained, "and I would have done my best to stop you. Betsy Wilson! It’s as bad as hiring Celine Dion for the occasion."
He was only slightly mollified by the news that Agatha had engaged a security firm that had promised to put as many of their men as possible on the ground.
Bill was the product of a Chinese father and a Gloucestershire mother. He had inherited his father’s almond-shaped eyes, those eyes which were looking suspiciously at Agatha. "Who is he?" asked Bill.
"You’ve fallen for someone."
"Bill, can you not for once believe something good about me? I’m doing this for charity."
"So you say. I’ll be there myself on Saturday."
"How’s your love life?" countered Agatha. "Still dating my young detective, Toni Gilmour?"
"We go around together when we both get some free time, but...”
"Agatha, could you try to find out what she thinks of me? Toni is very affectionate and likes me, but there’s no spark there, no hint of passion. Mother and father like her a lot."
Agatha eyed him shrewdly. "You know, Bill, you can’t go after a girl just because your mother and father like her. Do you yearn for her?"
"Don’t be embarrassing."
"All right. I’ll find out what her intentions are."
"I’d better go. See you tomorrow."
Agatha, who had been sitting on a kitchen chair, rose with one fluid movement to show him out.
"You’ve had a hip replacement!" exclaimed Bill.
"Nonsense. It wasn’t arthritis after all. A pulled muscle."
Agatha had no intention of telling Bill or anybody else that she had paid one thousand pounds at the Nuffield Hospital in Cheltenham for a hip injection. The surgeon had warned her that she would soon have to have a hip replacement, but now, free of pain, Agatha forgot his words. Arthritis was so ageing. She was sure it had been a pulled muscle.
George Selby had to admit to himself that it looked as if the day was going to be a success. Betsy Wilson was a rare pop singer in that she appealed to families as well as teenagers. He also had to admit that had she not arrived to open the fête, only a few people would have attended.
What was considered the height of the fête was the tasting to find the best home-made jam. Little dishes of jam were laid out, and people tasted each and then dropped a note of their favourite in a ballot box.
The sun shone from a cloudless sky on the beauty of spring. It had been a cold, damp early spring, and now, with the sudden heat and good weather, it seemed as if everything had blossomed at once: cherry and lilac, wisteria and hawthorn and all the glory of the fruit trees in the orchards around the village.
Betsy Wilson, in a gauzy dress decorated with roses, made a short speech, clasped her hands and sang her latest hit, "Every Other Sunday." It was a haunting ballad. Her clear young voice floated up to the Cotswold hills. Even the hardened pressmen stood silently.
She sang two more ballads, finished by singing "Amazing Grace,"and then was hustled into a stretch limo by her personal security guard. The band which had accompanied her packed up and left, to be replaced by the village band.
Then Toni, who was with Agatha, tugged her sleeve and said, "That’s odd."
"What’s odd?"asked Agatha.
"Look at all those teenagers queuing outside the jam tent."
"Really? If I thought it was going to be such a popular event, I’d have charged an extra admission fee."
"Could someone be peddling drugs inside that tent?" asked Toni.
"Some of the people coming out look stoned."
Agatha was about to walk towards the tent when she heard screams and commotion coming from over by the church. People were pointing upwards. A woman was standing at the top of the square Norman tower, her arms outstretched. As Agatha ran over to the church, followed by Toni, she heard someone say, "It’s old Mrs. Andrews. Her said something about how her could fly."
Agatha saw George running into the church and ran after him, with Toni pounding after her. George was disappearing through a door at the back of the church where stairs led to the tower. Agatha ran up the stairs, panting and gasping as she neared the top. She staggered out onto the roof.
Mrs. Andrews was standing up on the parapet. "I can fly," she said dreamily. "Just like Superman."
George made a lunge for her --- but too late.
With an odd little laugh, Mrs. Andrew sailed straight off into space. George, Agatha and Toni craned their heads over the parapet. Mrs. Andrew lay smashed on a table tombstone, a pool of dark blood spreading from her head.
George was white-faced. "What on earth came over her? She was a perfectly sane woman."
"The jam," said Toni suddenly. "I think someone’s put something in the jam."
"Get down there," said Agatha, "and tell the security guards to seal off that damned tent."
She was about to run after Toni when George caught her arm. "What’s this about the jam?"
"Toni noticed that an awful lot of teenagers were queuing up outside the jam tent and coming out looking stoned. I’ve got to get down there."
When they arrived outside the church, a woman came up to them looking distraught. "Get an ambulance. Old Mrs. Jessop’s jumped into the river."
Police were beginning to shout through loudhailers that everyone was to stay exactly where they were until interviewed.
"Thousands of them," gasped Toni. "I told Bill there was something wrong with the jam."
“Trixie’s quite attractive,” commented Charles as he and Agatha walked along the village street.
“If you like ageing hippies,” said Agatha waspishly.
“She has beautiful hair, you must admit that. Like Rapunzel?”
“Who?” demanded Agatha. Fairy stories had not been part of her deprived childhood.
“Never mind. Who’s this George character?”
“Just some villager who was helping out with the fete,” said Agatha casually, aware of Charles’s searching eyes on her face.
“You’re off again.”
“I don’t know what you mean. There’s the pub. It looks like a converted shop. No wonder I didn’t notice it before.”
“And here’s Rose Cottage. Ring the bell.”
“There isn’t one.”
“So knock the knocker.”
Agatha seized the brass knocker in the shape of a lion’s head with a ring in its mouth and rapped hard.
A lace curtain beside the left hand window twitched. Agatha waited impatiently for what she envisaged as a couple of elderly spinsters.
The door opened and a young woman stood there, hands thrust into a pair of worn jeans. She had a round rosy face and glasses and short hair in a gamin cut.
“I’m looking for Miss Tubby and Miss Tolling,” said Agatha.
“I’m Maggie Tubby. What do you want?”
“My name is Agatha Raisin. This is Sir Charles Fraith. I am a private detective who has been asked by your vicar to investigate what happened at the fete. I would like to ask you a few questions.”
“You’d better come in. We’re in the garden.”
She led the way through the small cottage to a long garden at the back where a woman was weeding. “Phyllis!” called Maggie. “Visitors.”
Phyllis straightened up and stood wiping her hands. Agatha guessed she was in her thirties. She was tall with prematurely grey hair and a catlike face. What a lot of grey hair there is around this place, thought Agatha. Do they never think of getting their hair tinted?
Maggie explained the reason for the visit. Phyllis indicated a garden table and chairs. “Let’s sit down,” she said.
“I gather you both contributed jam to the tasting,” said Agatha.
“Yes, plum jam. It’s our speciality.”
“Did you taste any of the exhibits?”
“Oh, yes,” said Maggie. “What a trip!”
“Which one was it?”
“It was Miss Triast-Perkins marmalade. Everything went funny. I began to see flashing lights.”
“Didn’t you think to warn anyone?”
“I just thought the jam was badly preserved – like some people we know.” Maggie shot a sly look at Phyllis. They both looked at Agatha and giggled.
I wish you precious pair had jumped off the tower, thought Agatha.
Charles asked. “Have you any idea who might have done such a thing?”
“Of course,” said Phyllis.
“Who?” demanded Agatha eagerly.
“Why, none other than Sybilla Triast-Perkins.”
“What proof have you?” asked Charles.
“Only that she has murdered before so it was probably easy for the unhinged creature to murder again.”
“Murdered who?” Agatha almost shouted the question.
“Sarah Selby, poor little thing.”
“George Selby’s wife? The one who fell downstairs?”
“Pushed,” said Maggie.
“Then why wasn’t she arrested?”
“No actual proof and she’s a friend of the chief constable. She was visiting at the time. She said that Sarah had gone up the stairs to fetch the breakfast tray. George always gave her breakfast in bed. She tripped, said Sybilla, and tumbled down onto the stone flags of the hall and broke her neck. But here’s the thing. According to the rigor mortis, Sarah had been lying there dead for an hour before Sybilla called the ambulance and police.”
“What was her excuse for not calling them immediately?” asked Agatha.
“Sybilla said that she fainted with shock and when she came to, she felt dizzy and sick and it took about an hour for her to get the strength to phone,” said Phyllis.
“Why would she want to kill Sarah Selby?” asked Agatha.
Phyllis and Maggie exchanged glances. Phyllis said, “She was crazy about George. Always visiting his house on some pretext or other, but before that fatal visit, she never called except when George was at home. He has an office in Mircester though sometimes he works from home. He’s an architect.”
“Does everyone in the village suspect her?” asked Agatha.
“No, only us. They’re all a bit backward in this backwater. You know, tug their forelocks to the lady of the manor. Some lady. Okay, the Triasts were upper crust but old man Perkins made his money out of biodegradable cats’ toilets.”
“Place looked a bit rundown,” said Agatha.
“She’s mean, that’s why,” said Maggie.
“So why doesn’t she sell off that lodge house, for example?”
“Blessed if I know,” said Maggie. “Maybe she concocts poisons there.” She and Phyllis laughed heartily.
“And what do you do for a living?” asked Agatha. “Manufacture LSD?” She had not forgiven them for that badly preserved remark.
“I paint,” said Phyllis, “and Maggie throws pots. Don’t you feel a bit guilty? If it hadn’t been for your grandiose ideas about the fete, this wouldn’t have happened.”
“If you think it was Sybilla who did it,” said Agatha, “then it really doesn’t matter how many people attended the fete.”
She and Charles took their leave. As they walked back, Agatha plunged into a rosy dream. She would solve the case of Sarah Selby’s death. She would break the news gently to George, holding his hands and gazing into his eyes.
“Thank you,” he would breathe. “Now I have closure. I thought poor Sarah could never been replaced, but now....”
“Wake up, Aggie,” said Charles. “You’re wandering along with a silly smile on your face.”
“I was thinking about the case.” Agatha was angry at having her dream interrupted. As they came in sight of the vicarage, Agatha saw George saying goodbye to Trixie. She laughed at something he said and kissed him on the cheek.
Hair extensions, thought Agatha. That’s it. I must get hair extensions.
Toni came running to meet them and told Agatha about finding the phial. “Who ever put the LSD in the jam must have thrust the phial into one of the seams of the canvas,” she said.
Agatha heard herself being hailed and turned round with a smile to greet George. “I’m very worried about all this. Have you any clues?” he asked.
“Got quite a few,” said Agatha.” An idea struck her. “Look, I’m busy at the moment. Here’s my card. Why don’t you come to my cottage in Carsely this evening for drinks, say at seven and I’ll fill you in.”
“Right,” said George, tucking the card into his top pocket. “I’ll see you then.”
Now, thought Agatha, I’ve got to get rid of Charles.
Agatha decided to call it a day. She told Toni and Charles that with all the press haunting the outside of the village and police crawling all over the place, it would be better to come back the following day when things might have cooled off a bit.
Scouts were dumping bags of all the refuse they had collected outside the mobile police unit and a squad of tired looking policemen were starting to go through the bags.
She saw two elderly women being led to the police unit. “That’s Mrs Glarely and Mrs. Cranton, I think,” said Toni. “I’ll phone Bill tonight and see if he’ll tell me what they said.”
Agatha was just steeling herself to say something to Charles when he said, “I’ve got to go out tonight. Maybe see you later or tomorrow.”
“Do you want me to do anything more today?” asked Toni. “Or will I stay here and scout around on my own?”
“See if you can collar Bill and get anything out of him,” said Agatha, now anxious to leave and begin beauty preparations for the evening ahead.
But duty nagged and she knew she had better call in to her office before she went home.
Motherly Mrs. Freedman was serving a man with coffee and biscuits when Agatha arrived. “This is ex detective sergeant Jimmy Wilson,” she said. “Jimmy, your boss, Mrs. Raisin.”
Jimmy was a medium-sized pugnacious-looking man. He had a round face with small eyes and a squashed nose above a pursed mouth. To Agatha’s relief, he seemed to be in his early fifties.
“Did you take early retirement?” she asked.
“I had cancer,” said Jimmy. “By the time I got over it, I felt like taking a long break so I resigned. But I’m fit and ready for work now. I’ve got good contacts with the police.”
“We’re overloaded with work,” said Agatha, “but Mrs. Freedman will give you some jobs to get started on. Did you sign a contract?”
“Yes, my cousin here gave me all the papers.”
“Cousin?” queried Agatha, scowling at Mrs. Freedman.
She blushed. “Well, you needed someone and I knew Jimmy here was a good detective.”
“We’ll see how you go,” said Agatha. “I may want you to check with your police friends to find out anything you can about this business at Comfrey Magna. But we’ll deal with that when you’ve cleared up some of the backlog. I’ve got to rush. I’ve got an important interview to do with the case I’m on.”
Agatha had just removed a face pack and was washing her face when her doorbell rang. She cast an agonised look at her watch. Six o’ clock. It couldn’t be George. She towelled her face dry and ran downstairs and opened the door. It was Mrs. Bloxby.
“Oh, come in,” said Agatha. “I’m expecting someone this evening for drinks and I was just cleaning myself up. Coffee? Sherry?”
“Nothing for me,” said Mrs. Bloxby, following Agatha through to the kitchen. “You were asking about George Selby?”
“Yes,” said Agatha. “In fact he’s coming here this evening for drinks.”
“Because he wants to know how I’m getting on with the case,” said Agatha tetchily.
“Do you know how his first wife died?”
“Yes, she fell down the stairs. A Miss Triast-Perkins was there but evidently too shocked to phone for an ambulance until after an hour had passed.”
“It’s all gossip, of course,” said Mrs. Bloxby reluctantly, “and you know how unreliable gossip can be.”
“I heard about Miss Triast-Perkins having a crush on George.”
“There’s a bit more to it than that. The rumour is that Mr. Selby encouraged her attentions.”
“How Victorian you sound! Encouraged her attentions indeed.”
“If you don’t want to hear it...”
“Sorry. Yes, I do. Why should he encourage her? She’s hardly a glamour puss.”
“Miss Triast-Perkins is very rich. She does not like spending money but it seemed that Mr. Selby had encouraged her to let him draw up plans to rebuild the lodge and make expensive alterations and repairs to the manor. She then used this as a sort of bait to keep him calling, dithering and delaying. Miss Triast-Perkins did not call when Mr. Selby wasn’t at home and it is certainly odd that she called that day and so early in the morning as it was just after Mr. Selby had left. Also, at that time Mr Selby was in financial difficulties. He had just completed an expensive job for someone who then went bankrupt and couldn’t pay. His wife’s life was heavily insured. Village gossip, which can be very spiteful as you know, was that George, having become impatient at getting the contract out of Miss Triast-Perkins had more or less promised to marry her if he were free, therefore encouraging her to push his wife down the stairs. Oh, is that the time? I really must get on.”
And having delivered herself of that bombshell, Mrs. Bloxby hurried off.
“Snakes and bastards,” muttered Agatha, fleeing upstairs again. “Can’t be anything in it.”
But her anticipation and excitement over the evening ahead had dwindled somewhat. She knew she had the reputation of being a very rich woman. She would see. If George started suggesting that he could remodel her cottage, she would be prepared.
By seven o’ clock, Agatha was ready for her visitor dressed in a very short skirt, sheer stockings, white silk blouse and very high heels.
When she opened the door to George, she found to her dismay that he was casually dressed in an open-necked striped shirt, well-worn sports jacket and chinos. She invited him into her sitting room, fixed him the whisky he requested, poured and gin and tonic for herself and then wondered where to sit. She should never have worn stockings with a short skirt. If she sat on the sofa or armchair, her skirt would ride up exposing stocking tops. Agatha settled for a seat on a hard upright chair.
George sat on the sofa and cradled his drink in his hands. “This is a bad business,” he said moodily. “Any suspects?”
“At the moment, there’s just one,” said Agatha.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Sybilla wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“She was in the tent before the exhibition was officially open. Her marmalade was one of the ones we know was laced with LSD.”
“I was in the tent as well. She did not go near the jam.”
“Wait a bit! We’re forgetting the tent was empty. They set it up at six in the morning and then went off for breakfast! Anyone in the village could have sneaked in then. I know they had pinned cloths down over the jam but it would be so easy to lift the cloths and put the LSD into the jam.”
“Agatha. I myself was out at dawn checking all the marquees and making sure they were secure. I hoped you might have some hard news but all this is the same old speculation.”
We forgive beauty such a lot, thought Agatha suddenly. If he was a little balding man with thick glasses, I might get a bit tetchy.
“But this is the way cases are solved!” she said. “You talk and talk and turn it over. The main clues are often in the characters of the suspects. What about Trixie?”
He threw back his head and laughed. “Trixie! Really, Agatha. That is just too far fetched.”
“Why?” demanded Agatha stubbornly.
“Because she is a charming lady and the vicar’s wife.”
He looked quite cross so Agatha hurried on. “What about the organisers? Mrs. Glarely and Mrs. Cranton?”
“Innocent ladies. Do a lot of good work in the village. Nothing sinister there.”
Agatha sighed. “Can you think of anyone at all?”
“Somehow, I think it must be one of the outsiders.”
“But none of the visitors had any opportunity.”
“They may have.”
“The thing I must find out,” said Agatha, “is when exactly Mrs. Andrews and Mrs. Jessop sampled the jam. My assistant, Toni, tried to talk to them but their husbands chased her off. Now if you were to ask them…?”
He suddenly smiled. Agatha blinked at him, dazzled.
“There’s no time like the present. Why don’t we drive over there and I’ll see what I can do.”
Agatha felt elated as they drove off in George’s Audi. As his car purred through the Cotswold lanes, she felt the countryside had never looked more beautiful.
At Comfrey Magna, George drove straight along the main street and parked outside Mrs. Cranton’s home. Mr. Cranton answered the door. He was a small, waspish elderly man. “Evening, Mr. Selby. The missus is right upset.”
“I would really like to have a word with her,” said George soothingly. “It won’t take long. You must see that it’s important to find out who did this dreadful thing.”
“Okay, but don’t spend too long. Her be fair shook up.”
Mrs. Cranton was sitting in a stuffy, cluttered front parlour, drinking tea and eating biscuits. “Why, Mr. Selby,” she said. “How nice of you to call.”
“I was worried about you,” said George.
A cynical little voice in Agatha’s head said, “He can turn that charm of his on and off like a tap.”
“This is the detective, Mrs. Raisin. Mr. Chance has employed her to find out who did this dreadful thing. How are you now?”
“Not so bad. I only had a little taste of the awful stuff. I ‘member it was Miss Tubby’s plum jam. Last year she left stones in it. I said to Doris – that’s Mrs. Glarely – let’s make sure she hasn’t done that again. We take our jam making seriously in this village but Miss Tubby and Miss Tolling go on as if it’s all a joke. So I tasted a little and then Doris did and then we came over all funny.”
“When was this?” asked Agatha.
“Why it were right before the tent was opened. The vicar and his wife and you, Mr. Selby, and, oh, Miss Triast-Perkins and Mr. Bassett had just left.”
“So someone could have crept in while you were off for breakfast?” said Agatha.
“But the marquee was closed. We tied the flap over the entrance.”
“Someone could have untied it. I mean, was anyone else about so early?”
“I saw Mr. Selby here. Then Miss Corrie was setting up the tombola stand. Let me see…no, can’t remember anyone else.”
“We want trouble you any further,” said George. “We’ll leave you alone.”
Mrs. Glarely’s husband delivered himself of a tirade against hippies and druggies, leaning on two sticks and glaring at them. George listened carefully and then said. “Of course you are upset. But the sad news is that the jam seems to have been poisoned before any of the visitors arrived.”
Mr. Glarely was a tall thin man with an old face marred by a lifetime of discontent. “S’pose you’d better talk to the wife,” he said reluctantly.
Another front parlour. Mrs. Glarely was drinking a clear liquid, which from the smell, Agatha judged to be neat gin. She gave them a bleary glance. She looked like a twin of Mrs. Cranton – grey hair, tightly permed, wrinkled face, pale eyes.
George explained what they had learned from her friend and then asked, “So when you were both leaving after setting up the exhibits, did you see anyone about?”
But Mrs. Cranton had only seen Miss Corrie at the tombola stand.
“I suppose we’d better call on Fred Corrie,” said George when they left the Crantons’ cottage.
“I thought she was a Miss Corrie.”
“Oh, Fred’s her name. Short for Frederica. Great sport.”
Agatha groaned inwardly. She pictured a sturdy hearty woman with a tweedy brain. “Just a few doors along,” said George.
But the woman who answered the door was elfin, something straight out of the Lord of the Rings. She had long silvery straight hair, a sweet face and a perfect figure shown off to advantage in a clinging dress of white Indian muslin.
She stood on tiptoe and kissed George on the cheek. “Do come in. Who is this?”
George introduced Agatha. Fred led them through her cottage to where a large conservatory had been built on the back. It was furnished with cane-backed chairs and sofas with plump cushions. A few exotic-looking plants rose up out of ceramic pots.
It was very quiet except for the evening song of a blackbird perched on a lilac tree in the garden outside.
“I wonder if you can help us,” said George. “Mrs. Raisin here is trying to find out who doctored the jam. You were up very early setting up the tombola stand. Did you see anyone?”
“I saw those two ladies, Mrs. Cranton and Mrs. Glarely, leaving the marquee. I wasn’t really paying much attention. I had had a restless night so I got up early to put out the goods and then decided to go back to bed and try to get some sleep.”
“Weren’t you frightened someone would pinch some of the prizes?” asked Agatha.
Fred gave a tinkling laugh. “No, it’s always the same old rubbish except for a bottle of whisky and a bottle of gin and I didn’t leave them out. And nobody was going to run off with the tombola wheel. Once the visitors started to pour in, I sold tickets very quickly, turned the wheel and I managed to get rid of everything, even that tin of sardines in tomato sauce that turns up every year.”
“Maybe if you could think about the early morning bit again,” said Agatha. “You saw the two organisers leaving the tent and walking off home. After that, did you even hear anything?”
“Only a cat yowling. I thought there was some animal in pain. It was coming from the churchyard. So I went over and searched but I couldn’t find the animal.”
“So someone could have slipped into the tent while you were away,” said Agatha eagerly. “Did you try the jam yourself?”
“No, I was too busy turning the wheel and getting rid of the usual old drek.”
Agatha’s stomach rumbled. She looked hopefully at George. “Gosh, I’m hungry.”
“So am I,” said Fred, “and I don’t feel like cooking. Let’s all go to the pub and get something.”
Agatha groaned inwardly. Gone were her hopes of a dinner date alone with George.
The small pub only had two customers when they walked into the low-ceilinged bar room.
“What have you got on the menu tonight, Bruce?” asked Fred.
“Wasn’t expecting folks but I’ve got a rare bit of ham. You could have that with an egg and chips.”
“Great,” said Fred. “We’ll have three of those.”
Agatha wanted to say pettishly that she would select her own food, but, then, there didn’t seem to be anything else on offer.
They collected their drinks and sat at a round table which was scarred and stained with years of use. To Agatha’s delight, there was a large glass ashtray in front of her.
With a sigh of relief, she pulled out a packet of Benson & Hedges.
“You’re never going to smoke!” exclaimed Fred.
Agatha lit up and sighed with pleasure. “Too right I am.”
“Well, I’ll be relieved when the smoking ban comes into force,” said Fred. “Do you not worry about passive smoking, because I do?"
“The pub door is open,” said Agatha. “Fresh air is whizzing all around us. I notice a Range Rover parked outside your cottage. Your carbon footprint is a whopping great size twelve. Mine is only a toe mark.”
“Has anyone ever told you that you are a very rude woman?” said Fred.
“Maybe. But no one has ever accused me of interfering with anyone’s liberty. Oh, belt up, do. I know what the trouble is. Did you used to smoke?”
“Thought so,” said Agatha gloomily. “You lot are like converted Catholics. I’m not having any fun any more so you’re not going to have any either. Take this global warming scam. They say, we are taxing your hide off to save the planet. Bollocks! It all goes into that black hole called the Treasury and disappears forever and bugger all is done to save the earth.”
To Agatha’s horror, large tears appeared in Fred’s eyes and rolled with crystal purity down her cheeks.
“Now, look what you’ve done,” said George angrily. He put a comforting arm around Fred shoulders and handed her a clean handkerchief.
“I c-can’t s-stand angry voices,” hiccupped Fred.
“Sorry,” said Agatha gruffly. “Got a bit carried away."
“I f-forgive you.” Fred dabbed at her eyes but as she lowered the handkerchief, Agatha caught a look of steely venom before she smiled and said, “Silly little me.”
“There now,” said George. “No one could call you silly.”
The food arrived. Fred talked animatedly to George about people Agatha did not know. The pair seemed to have forgotten her existence.
At least she would have George to herself when he ran her home. Her mind drifted off. She would invite him in for a drink. Perhaps light the logs in the fire. Soft lights. She would be comforting. Get him to talk about his wife. Sit next to him on the sofa and hold his hand, and…”
“Oh, dear, what’s the matter George? Are you getting one of your migraines?”
“I think I’ve got one coming on,” said George, “but I’ve got to run Agatha home.”
“I’ll do that,” said Fred. “Off you go and take your pills.”
At that moment, Charles sauntered into the pub. “Hi, Aggie.”
“Oh, Charles,” said Agatha with relief. “Can you run me home? George here has a migraine coming on.”
“What about a drink first?”
“We’ll get one at my place.”
“Aren’t you going to introduce me?”
Agatha made hurried introductions. Charles smiled at Fred but was soon hustled out of the pub by Agatha.
“What did you do to upset that fair maiden? Her eyes were red,” asked Charles as he drove off.
“She was complaining about me wanting to smoke.”
Charles grinned. “And you blasted her?”
“Not quite. There was no reason for her to start to cry. You know, I am sure that one can cry at will. Nasty little actress. Also, she was around setting up the dreary tombola stand at dawn before the fete got started. She could easily have sneaked into the tent and put LSD in the jam.”
“You’re jealous. You are ruthlessly pursuing George and I bet you don’t even know the first thing about him.”
“Talk about something else,” growled Agatha.
“Okay. Don’t you think it’s possible that one of the young people at the show doctored the jam?”
“No. They weren’t interested in any of the exhibits. They all came to hear Betsy. Trust me. It was one of the locals. Anyway, I’ve proof the jam was doctored before the fete opened. I’ve taken on a new detective, Jimmy Wilson. He’s supposed to have good contacts with the police. I’ll ask him to find out if the police know how many were affected with the LSD and who they are. Apart from a few young people who might have got some of the stuff after the word went around, I think we’ll find it was the locals who suffered. Apart from the women who contributed the jam and one pig farmer who loves the stuff and the lady of the manor, I really don’t think anyone else in the village was much interested. It’s more of a hamlet than a village and I think most of them had something on display at one of the other tents.”
Disappointed and feeling silly over her pursuit of George, Agatha decided to concentrate on work the next day. She gave instructions to Jimmy Wilson to find out who had been affected by the drugged jam. Then she settled down to concentrate on other cases until some of the fuss had died down.
The following day, Jimmy came in with his report. He said, “The police cleared the tent when they heard about the possibility of drugs. They said only six teenagers they managed to get hold of seemed to be a bit spaced out. The forensic reports on the jam are not yet in because, despite what you see on TV, it takes ages. But it seems that both Mrs. Jessop and Mrs. Andrews each had a good taste of Miss Tubby’s plum jam. They think there might have been more in that dish than in any of the others, or even that only a few of the dishes might have been drugged.”
“Surely they can find that out quickly,” complained Agatha. “It’s a simple test. Doesn’t need a DNA expert.”
“Well, it may do,” said Jimmy, “if they want to find out who handled the dish.”
Agatha groaned. She began to have an uneasy feeling that this might be the one case she could not solve. She would not admit to herself that her defeatist feelings were because she now felt a fool for having so blatantly pursued George.
That evening, Toni braced herself to clear up matters with Bill. He wanted her to come to his home for dinner but Toni said she would rather have a quiet drink in a pub because there was something personal they needed to discuss.
Bill met her, looking wary. His previous girl friends, the few that had been straight with him before dumping him, had always said seriously that they wanted to discuss something personal.
After he had bought them drinks, he said wearily, “Out with it. We’ll always be friends and yakkity-yak.”
“It’s just that I don’t love you – meaning I’m not in love with you,” said Toni bravely, “and what’s more, you’re not in love with me.”
“That’s not true!” protested Bill. “Mum and Dad were so pleased. Dad was even going to find a house for us…”
His voice trailed away before the startled expression on Toni’s face.
“Look, Bill,” she said gently, “you can’t marry someone just because your parents like them. And any girl you turn out to be really in love with won’t want your parents butting in to choose where you are going to live once you are married. We’ve never even been to bed together. And that’s because neither of us has been carried away by passion.”
“What do you know about passion?” asked Bill sulkily.
“Nothing. But I’d like to. Think about it, Bill. You must have come across someone at some time you felt you couldn’t live without.”
Bill sat in silence, remembering at least two girls he had yearned after, dreamt about, but somehow, after he had taken them home, romance had died.
“You’ve been trying to suit your parents,” Toni went on. “Next time, try to find someone you want and don’t take the girl home until after you’ve got the ring on her finger.”
“I love my parents,” said Bill.
“And I envy you that,” said Toni. “At least you know who your father is. My Mum will never tell me about my father and sometimes I even wonder whether she knows herself.”
“Is she still sober?”
“Yes, and doing very well.”
“Well, that’s that,” said Bill. “I mean – us.”
“I know you don’t want to hear about the friends bit,” said Toni. “But honestly, I think we were really meant to be friends.”
Bill gave a reluctant smile. “Sometimes, Toni, you seem older than Agatha.”
Excerpted from A SPOONFUL OF POISON © Copyright 2011 by M. C. Beaton. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Minotaur. All rights reserved.