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AGATHA RAISIN AND THE HAUNTED HOUSE
By M.C. BEATON
ST. MARTIN'S MINOTAUR Copyright © 2003 M.C. Beaton
All right reserved.
Chapter One FOOT-AND-MOUTH disease had closed down the countryside. Country walks and farm gates were padlocked. The spring was chilly and wet, with the first daffodils hanging their yellow heads under torrents of rain.
The thatch on Agatha Raisin's cottage dripped mournfully. She sat on the kitchen floor with her cats and wondered what to do to ward off a familiar feeling of approaching boredom. With boredom came nervous depression, as she well knew.
An interesting-looking man had moved into the cottage next door, formerly owned by her ex-husband, James, but interest in any man at all had died in Agatha's bosom. She had not joined the other village ladies in taking around cakes or homemade jam. Nor had she heard any of the gossip because she had just returned from London where, in her capacity as free-lance public relations officer, she had been helping to launch a new fashion line for young people called Mr. Harry. All it had served to do was make middle-aged Agatha feel old. Some of the skinny models-heroin-chic was still the fashion-had made her feel fatter and older. Her conscience had disturbed her because she knew the clothes were made in Taiwan out of the cheapest material and guaranteed to fall apart at the seams if worn for very long.
She got to her feet and went upstairs to her bedroom and studied herself in a full-length mirror. A stocky middle-aged woman with good legs, shiny brown hair, and small bearlike eyes stared back at her.
Action, she said to herself. She would put on make-up and go and see her friend Mrs. Bloxby, the vicar's wife, and catch up on the village gossip. Agatha put on a foundation base of pale make-up, reflecting that it was not so long ago when bronzed skin had been all the rage. Now that the unfashionable could afford to go abroad in the middle of winter, it was no longer smart to sport a tan or even to wear brownish make-up. She plucked nervously at the skin under her chin. Was it getting loose? She slapped herself under the chin sixty times and then was cross to see a red flush on her neck.
She changed out of the old trousers and sweater she had put on that morning and changed into a biscuit-coloured linen suit over a gold silk blouse. Not that this sudden desire to dress up had anything to do with the new tenant in the cottage next door, she told herself. At least, as the cliché went, time was a great healer. She hardly ever thought of James now and had given up any hope of seeing him again.
Downstairs again, she shrugged into her Burberry and picked up a golf umbrella and went out into the pouring rain. Why on earth had she worn high heels? she wondered, as she picked her way round the puddles on Lilac Lane and headed for the vicarage.
Mrs. Bloxby, a gentle-faced woman with grey hair, opened the door of the vicarage to her. "Mrs. Raisin!" she cried. "When did you get back?"
"Last night," said Agatha, reflecting that after London, the formal use of her second name sounded odd. But then the village ladies' society of which Agatha was a member always addressed one another formally.
"Come in. Such dreadful weather. And this foot-and-mouth plague is frightening. Ramblers have been told not to walk the countryside, but they won't listen. I really don't think some of those ramblers even like the countryside."
"Any foot-and-mouth around here yet?" asked Agatha, taking off her coat and hanging it on a peg in the hall.
"No, nothing round Carsely ... yet."
She led the way into the sitting-room and Agatha followed. Agatha sank down into the feather cushions on the old sofa, took off her shoes and stretched her wet stockinged feet out to the fire.
"I'll lend you a pair of wellingtons when you leave," said Mrs. Bloxby. "I'll get some coffee."
Agatha leaned back and closed her eyes as Mrs. Bloxby went off to the kitchen. It suddenly felt good to be back.
Mrs. Bloxby came back with a tray with mugs of coffee.
"What's the gossip?" asked Agatha.
"Er ... James was here when you were away."
Agatha sat bolt upright. "Where is he now?"
"I'm afraid I don't know. He only stayed for an afternoon. He said he was travelling abroad."
"Rats!" said Agatha gloomily, all the old pain flooding back. "Did you tell him where I was?"
"Yes, I did," said the vicar's wife awkwardly. "I told him where you were living in London and gave him your phone number."
"He didn't call," said Agatha miserably.
"He did seem in a bit of a rush. He sent his love."
"That's a joke," said Agatha bitterly.
"Now drink your coffee. I know it's early, but would you like something stronger?"
"I don't want to start down that road, especially for a creep like James," said Agatha.
"Have you met your new neighbour?"
"No. I saw him when he moved in, I mean from a distance, but then I got the chance of this PR job and took off for London. What's he like?"
"Seems pleasant and clever."
"What does he do?"
"He works in computers. Free-lance. He's just finished a big contract. He says he's glad it's over. He was commuting to Milton Keynes and back every day."
"That's a long haul. No murders?"
"No, Mrs. Raisin. I should think you've had enough of those. There is a small mystery, however."
"Alf was recently asked to perform an exorcism, but he refused." Alf was the vicar. "Alf says he only believes in the divine spirit and no other kind."
"Where's the ghost?"
"It's a haunted house in Hebberdon-you know, that tiny village the other side of Ancombe. It belongs to an old lady, a Mrs. Witherspoon, a widow. She has heard strange voices and seen lights in the night. Alf has put it down to the village children playing tricks on the old lady and has suggested she call in the police. She did that, but they couldn't find anything. But Mrs. Witherspoon sticks to her story that she is being haunted. So, do you want to investigate?"
Agatha sat for a moment and then said, "No. I think Alf's probably right. You know, sitting here I've decided to stop rushing around, finding things to ward off boredom. Time I broke the pattern. I'm going to become domesticated."
Mrs. Bloxby looked at her uneasily.
"You? Do you think that's a good idea?"
"The garden's full of weeds and this rain can't go on forever. I'm going to potter about and do a bit of gardening."
"You'll get fed up soon."
"You don't know me," said Agatha sharply.
"Possibly not. When did you make this decision?"
Agatha gave a reluctant grin. "Five minutes ago."
Her stubborn pride kept her from revealing that James's visit and the fact that he had not tried to contact her had hurt her deeply.
As the wet spring finally dried up, it did indeed look as if Agatha Raisin had settled into domesticity at last. Tired of lazy gardeners, she had decided to do the work herself and found it alleviated the pain she still felt over James. The ladies of the village of Carsely informed Agatha that her neighbour, Paul Chatterton, was a charming man but not at all sociable. For a moment, Agatha's competitive instincts were aroused, but then she thought dismally that men meant pain and complications. They were best left alone.
She was sprawled in a deck-chair in her garden one sunny day, covered in a careful application of sunblock and with her two cats, Hodge and Boswell, at her feet, when a tentative voice said, "Hullo."
Agatha opened her eyes. Her neighbour was leaning over the garden fence. He had a thick shock of pure white hair and sparkling black eyes in a thin, clever face.
"Yes?" demanded Agatha rudely.
"I'm your new neighbour, Paul Chatterton."
"So? What do you want?" asked Agatha, closing her eyes again.
"I wanted to say hullo."
"You've already said that." Agatha opened her eyes and stared at him. "What about trying goodbye?"
She closed her eyes again until she felt he would have fully appreciated the snub. She cautiously opened them again. He was still standing there, grinning at her.
"I must say you make a refreshing change," he said. "I've been besieged by village ladies since I arrived, and now I decide to be sociable, I happen to pick on the one person who doesn't want to know me."
"Bother someone else," said Agatha. "Why me?" "You're the nearest. Besides, I hear you're the village sleuth."
"What's that got to do with it?"
"I read in the local papers that there's some old woman over at Hebberdon who is being frightened out of her wits by ghosts. I'm going over there to offer my services as a ghost buster."
Agatha's recently dormant competitive instincts rose. She sat up. "Come round the front and I'll let you in and we'll talk about it."
"See you in a few minutes." He waved and loped off.
Agatha struggled to her feet, thinking that old-fashioned canvas deck-chairs like the ones in the Green Park in London had been expressly designed to make one feel old. She found she could not struggle out of it and had to tip it sideways and roll over on the grass to get to her feet. She gave it a furious kick. "You're for the bonfire," she said. "I'11 replace you with a sun lounger tomorrow."
She hurried into the house, stopping only in the kitchen for a moment to wipe the sunblock from her face.
Agatha hesitated before opening the door to him. She was wearing a faded house dress and loafers. Then she shrugged. Men! Who needed to bother about them?
She opened the door. "Come in," she said. "We'll have coffee in the kitchen."
"I'd rather have tea," he said, trotting in after her.
"What kind?" asked Agatha. "I've got Darjeeling, Assam, Earl Grey, and something called Afternoon Tea."
"Darjeeling will do."
Agatha put the kettle on. "Aren't you working at the moment?"
"No, I'm between contracts. Going to take a brief holiday."
Agatha leaned against the kitchen counter. Paul's intelligent black eyes surveyed her and Agatha suddenly wished she were wearing something more attractive, or, at least, had some make-up on. He was not strictly handsome, and yet there was something about that white hair combined with black eyes in a white face and a long athletic figure which, she thought, would disturb quite a lot of women-except, of course, she reminded herself, Agatha Raisin.
"I believe my cottage once belonged to your ex-husband, James Lacey," he said. The kettle began to boil. Agatha lifted down two mugs and put a tea-bag in one and a spoonful of instant coffee in the other.
"Yes," she said. She stirred the tea-bag, lifted it out and put the mug down in front of him. "There's sugar and milk in front of you."
"Thanks. Why Raisin? Did you get married again?"
"No, that was my first husband's name. I kept on using it even when I was married to James. Are you married?"
There was a short silence while Paul carefully added milk and sugar. He stirred his tea. "Yes, I am," he said.
"And so where is Mrs. Chatterton?"
Another silence. Then he said, "Visiting relatives in Spain."
"So she's Spanish?"
"What's her name?" "Um ... Juanita." Agatha's bearlike eyes narrowed. "You know what I think? I think you're not married at all. I think there isn't any Juanita. Look, I invited you in here, not to get into your trousers, but because I'm interested in this ghost thing."
His black eyes sparkled with amusement. "Are you usually this blunt?"
"When I'm being lied to, yes."
"But there is a Juanita. She has long black hair-"
"And plays the castanets and has a rose between her teeth. Forget it," snapped Agatha. "So what do you plan to do about the haunting?"
"I thought I'd run over there and offer my services. Care to join me?"
"Don't see why not," said Agatha. "When shall we go?" "What about now?"
"Okay. Finish your tea and I'll get changed."
"No need for that. Your housewifely appearance might reassure Mrs. Witherspoon."
"Tcha!" said Agatha. She left the kitchen and ran upstairs. She put on a cool pink-and-white-striped shirtwaister dress and then carefully applied make-up. She longed to wear high heels, but the day was hot and swollen ankles would not look chic. She sighed and pushed her feet into a pair of low-heeled sandals.
She was half-way down the stairs when she realized she had forgotten to put on tights. A hot day minus tights would mean the straps on her sandals would scrape across her feet and the skin of her thighs under the short dress might stick to the car seat. She went back to her bedroom and struggled into a pair of tights labelled "One Size Fits All," reflecting that whoever put that slogan on the packet had been thinking of a skinny fourteen-year-old. She looked in the mirror. The effort of putting on the tights in a hot bedroom had made her nose shine. She powdered it too vigorously and got a sneezing fit. By the time she had finished sneezing, her make-up was a wreck, so she had to redo it. Right! A last look in the full-length mirror. God! The buttons at the bosom of her shirtwaister were straining. She took it off and put on a white cotton blouse and a cotton skirt with an elasticated waist.
Fine. Ready to go. One more look in the mirror. Damn. She was wearing a black bra and it showed through the white cotton. Off with the blouse, on with a white bra, blouse back on again.
Resolutely not looking in the mirror this time, Agatha darted down the stairs.
"You shouldn't have gone to so much trouble," said Paul.
"I haven't gone to any trouble," growled Agatha.
"You were away ages and I thought ... Never mind. Let's get going. You'd better take a pair of wellingtons."
"Because there's still foot-and-mouth around and she may live near a farm and we might have to wade through disinfectant."
"Right," said Agatha. "I've got a pair by the door. Whose car? Yours or mine?"
His car was a vintage MG. Agatha groaned inwardly as she lowered herself down into the low seat. She felt as if she were sitting on the road. He set off with a roar and Agatha's hair blew forward about her face.
"Why is it in films," she said, "that the heroine in an open car always has her hair streaming behind her?"
"Because she's filmed in a stationary car in a studio with a film of landscape rolling behind her and a studio fan directed on her hair. If it's bothering you, I can stop and put the top up."
"No," said Agatha sourly. "The damage is done. Whereabouts in Hebberdon does this Mrs. Witherspoon live?"
"Ivy Cottage, Bag End."
Agatha fell silent as the countryside streamed past, the ruined countryside, the countryside destroyed by foot-and-mouth. If she had still been in London, she wouldn't have given a damn. But somehow she now felt she belonged in the countryside and what happened there affected her deeply.
Excerpted from AGATHA RAISIN AND THE HAUNTED HOUSE by M.C. BEATON Copyright © 2003 by M.C. Beaton. Excerpted by permission.
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