Agatha Raisin and the Wellspring of Death (Agatha Raisin Series #7)by M. C. Beaton
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This time, in M.C. Beaton's Agatha Raisin and the Wellspring of Death, the feisty sleuth stumbles upon the victim of an unnatural death in Cotswold village's famous natural spring. Who was the unlucky corpse? The Ancombe Parish Council chairman-and the only uncommitted member voting on whether to allow the Ancombe Water Company to tap into the town's spring. Add ex-fiance James, watery politicians, and slippery entrepreneurs to the mix, and you have Agatha Raisin up to her neck in a murky murder mystery.
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Agatha Raisin and the Wellspring of Death
By M.C. Beaton
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1998 M. C. Beaton
All rights reserved.
Agatha Raisin was bored and unhappy. Her neighbour, James Lacey, had returned at last to the cottage next door to her own in the Cotswold village of Carsely. She tried to tell herself that she was no longer in love with him and that his coldness towards her did not matter.
She had almost married him, but her husband, still then very much alive, had surfaced at the wedding ceremony, and James had never really forgiven her for her deception.
One spring evening when the village was ablaze with daffodils, forsythia, magnolia and crocuses, Agatha trudged along to the vicarage to a meeting of the Carsely Ladies' Society, hoping to find some gossip to enliven the tedium of her days.
But such that there was did not interest her because it concerned a spring of water in the neighbouring village of Ancombe.
Agatha knew the spring. In the eighteenth century, a Miss Jakes had channelled the spring through the bottom of her garden, through a pipe in the garden wall, and into a fountain for the use of the public. The water gushed out through the mouth of a skull — a folly which had caused no end of criticism even in the grim days of the eighteenth century — then to a shallow basin sunk into the ground, over the lip of the basin and down through a grating and under the road. On the other side, it became a little stream which meandered through other gardens until it joined the river Ancombe.
Some lines of doggerel, penned by Miss Jakes, had been engraved above the skull. They read:
Weary traveller, stop and stare
At the water gushing here.
We live our days in this Vale of Strife.
Bend and drink deep of the Waters of Life.
Two hundred years ago, the water was held to have magical, restorative properties, but now only walkers paused to fill their flasks, and occasionally locals like Agatha brought along a bottle to fill up and take home to make tea, the water being softer than the stuff which came out of the tap.
Recently, the newly formed Ancombe Water Company had attempted to secure permission from the Ancombe Parish Council to drain water from the spring each day, paying a penny a gallon.
"Many are saying it is sacrilege," said Mrs. Bloxby, the vicar's wife. "But there was never anything religious about the spring."
"It is bringing a sour note of commercialism into our gentle rural life," protested a newcomer to the ladies' society, a Mrs. Darry, who had recently moved to the Cotswolds from London and had all the incomers' zeal for preserving village life.
"I say it won't bother anyone," said the secretary, Miss Simms, crossing her black-stockinged legs and showing with a flash of thigh that they were the hold-up variety. "I mean ter say, the truck for the water's going to come each day at dawn. After that, anyone can help themselves as usual."
Agatha stifled a yawn. As a retired businesswoman who had run her own successful public relations company, she thought it was a sound commercial idea.
She did not like Mrs. Darry, who had a face like a startled ferret, so she said, "The Cotswolds are highly commercialized already, bursting with bus tours and tea-shops and craft-shops."
The room then split up into three factions, those for the business plan, those against, and those like Agatha who were heartily bored with the whole thing.
Mrs. Bloxby took Agatha aside as she was leaving, her gentle face concerned.
"You are looking a bit down in the dumps, Agatha," she said. "Is it James?"
"No," lied Agatha defensively. "It's the time of year. It always gets me down."
"'April is the cruellest month.'"
Agatha blinked rapidly. She suspected a literary quotation and she hated quotations, damning them as belonging to some arty-farty world.
"Just so," she grumped and made her way out into the sweet evening air.
A magnolia tree glistened waxily in the silence of the vicarage garden. Over in the churchyard daffodils, bleached white by moonlight, nestled up to old leaning tombstones.
I must buy a plot in the churchyard, thought Agatha. How comforting to rest one's last under that blanket of shaggy grass and flowers. She sighed. Life at that moment was just a bowl of withered fruit, with a stone in every one.
She had almost forgotten about the water company. But a week later Roy Silver phoned her. Roy had been her employee when she had run her own business and now worked for the company which had bought her out. He was in a high state of excitement.
"Listen to this, Aggie," he chirped. "That Ancombe Water Company — heard of it?"
"They're our new clients and as their office is in Mircester, the boss wondered if you would like to handle the account on a freelance basis."
Agatha looked steelily at the phone. Roy Silver was the one who had found her husband so that he had turned up just as she was about to get married to James.
"No," she said curtly and replaced the phone.
She sat looking at it for a few minutes and then, plucking up courage, picked up the receiver and dialled James's number.
He answered after the first ring. "James," said Agatha with an awful false brightness. "What about dinner tonight?" "I am very sorry," he said crisply. "I am busy. And," he went on quickly, as if to forestall any further invitation, "I shall be busy for the next few weeks."
Agatha very gently replaced the receiver. Her stomach hurt. People always talked about hearts breaking but the pain was always right in the gut.
A blackbird sang happily somewhere in the garden, the sweetness of the song intensifying the pain inside Agatha.
She picked up the phone again and dialled the number of Mircester police headquarters and asked to speak to her friend, Detective Sergeant Bill Wong, and, having been told it was his day off, phoned him at home.
"Agatha," said Bill, pleased. "I'm not doing anything today. Why don't you come over?"
Agatha hesitated. She found Bill's parents rather grim. "I'm afraid it will just be me," went on Bill. "Ma and Pa have gone to Southend to see some relatives."
"I'll be over," said Agatha.
She drove off, eyes averted from James's cottage.
Bill was delighted to see her. He was in his twenties, with a round face and a figure newly trimmed down.
"You're looking fit, Bill," said Agatha. "New girl-friend?" Bill's love life could be assessed from his figure, which quickly became plump the minute there was no romance in the offing.
"Yes. Her name is Sharon. She's a typist at the station. Very pretty."
"Introduced her yet to your mother and father?"
So he would be all right for a little, thought Agatha cynically. Bill adored his parents and could never understand why the minute he introduced one of his lady-loves to them, the romance was immediately over.
"I was just about to have lunch," said Bill.
"I'll take you somewhere. My treat," said Agatha quickly. Bill's cooking was as awful as that of his mother.
"All right. There's quite a good pub at the end of the road."
The pub, called the Jolly Red Cow, was a dismal place, dominated by a pool table where the unemployed, white-faced youth of Mircester passed their daylight hours.
Agatha ordered chicken salad. The lettuce was limp and the chicken stringy. Bill tucked into a greasy egg, sausage and chips with every appearance of enjoyment.
"So what's new, Bill? Anything exciting?"
"Nothing much. Things have been quite quiet, thank goodness. What about you? Seen much of James?"
Agatha's face went stiff. "No, I haven't seen much of him. That's over. I don't want to talk about it."
Bill said hurriedly, as if anxious to change the subject, "What's all this fuss about the new water company?"
"Oh, that. They were talking about it at the ladies' society last week. I can't get excited about it. I mean, I don't see what the fuss is about. They're coming at dawn each day to take off the water and for the rest of the day everything will be as normal."
"I've got a nasty feeling in my bones about this," said Bill, dousing his chips with ketchup. "Anything to do with the environment, and sooner or later some protest group is going to turn up, and sooner or later there's going to be violence."
"I shouldn't think so." Agatha poked disconsolately at a piece of chicken. "Ancombe's a pretty dead sort of place."
"You might be surprised. Even in dead-alive sort of places there can be a rumpus. There are militant groups who don't care about the environment at all. All they want is an excuse for a punch-up. I sometimes think they're in the majority. The people who really care about some feature of the environment are usually a small, dedicated group who set out on a peaceful protest, and before they know where they are, they find themselves joined by the militants, and often some of them can end up getting badly hurt."
"It doesn't interest me," said Agatha. "In fact, to be honest, nothing much interests me these days."
He looked at her in affectionate concern. "What you want is for me to produce a murder for you to investigate. Well, I'm not going to do it. You can't go around expecting people to be murdered just to provide you with a hobby."
"It's a bit rude calling it a hobby. What is this crap?" She pushed her plate angrily away.
"I think the food here is very good," said Bill defensively. "You're just being picky because you're unhappy."
"I'm slimming anyway. The wretched Roy Silver phoned me up wanting me to do public relations for this water company."
"There's a thing. Their office is right here in Mircester."
"And unhappy and miserable. Why don't you take it on?"
But Agatha was not going to tell him the real reason for her refusal. Days away at the office meant days away from James Lacey, who might miraculously soften towards her.
After they had parted, Bill went thoughtfully home. On impulse, he phoned James.
"How are things going?" asked James cheerfully. "I haven't seen you in ages."
"You've been abroad. I've just been having lunch with Agatha and realized I hadn't spoken to you for some time."
"Oh." And James's 'oh' was so frigid that Bill thought if he were holding some cartoon phone receiver there would be icicles forming down the wire. So he chatted idly about this and that while all the while he wanted to ask James why he did not give poor Agatha a break and take her out for dinner.
A week later Agatha had just finished her usual breakfast of four cigarettes and three strong cups of black coffee when the phone rang. "Let it be James," she pleaded to that anthropomorphic God with the long beard and shaggy hair with whom she often, in moments of stress, did deals. "Let it be James and I'll never smoke again."
But the God of Agatha's understanding owed more to mythology than anything else and so she was hardly surprised to find out it was Roy Silver on the other end of the line.
"Don't hang up," said Roy quickly. "Look, you've still got a grudge against me because I found your husband."
"And ruined my life," said Agatha bitterly.
"Well, he's dead now, isn't he? And if James doesn't want to marry you, that's hardly my fault."
Agatha hung up.
The doorbell went. Perhaps He had heard her prayer. She stubbed out her cigarette.
"Last one," she said loudly to the ceiling.
She opened the door.
Mrs. Darry stood there.
"I wondered if you would do me a favour, Mrs. Raisin."
"Come in," said Agatha bleakly. She led the way into the kitchen, sat down at the table, and gloomily lit a cigarette.
Mrs. Darry sat down. "I would be grateful if you refrained from smoking."
"Tough," said Agatha. "This is my house and my cigarette. What do you want?"
"Don't you know you are killing yourself?"
Agatha looked at her cigarette and then at Mrs. Darry. "As long as I am killing myself, I am not killing you. Out with it. What do you want?"
"There's water in the tap. Has yours been cut off?"
"No, you do not understand. My mother is coming to stay."
Agatha blinked. Mrs. Darry she judged to be in her late sixties.
"Mother is ninety-two," went on Mrs. Darry. "She is very partial to good tea. I do not have a car and I wondered whether you would get me a flask of water from the spring at Ancombe?"
"I did not intend to go to Ancombe," said Agatha, thinking how much she disliked this newcomer to the village. She was such an ugly woman. How odd that people could be so ugly, not particularly because of appearance, but because of the atmosphere of judgmental bad temper and discontent they carried around with them.
She was wearing one of those sleeveless quilted jackets, tightly buttoned up over a high-necked blouse. Her pointed nose, her pursed mouth and her sandy hair and her pale green hunting eyes made her look more than ever to Agatha like some vicious feral animal, always looking for the kill.
"Is there no one else you could ask?" Agatha considered offering Mrs. Darry coffee, and then decided against it.
"Everyone else is so busy," mourned Mrs. Darry. "I mean, it's not as if you have much to do."
"As a matter of fact I do," retorted Agatha, stung to the quick. "I am going to be handling the public relations for the new water company."
Mrs. Darry gathered up her handbag and gloves and got to her feet. "I am surprised at you, Mrs. Raisin. That you who live in this village should be aiding and abetting a company that is out to destroy our environment is beyond belief."
"Push off," said Agatha.
Left alone, she lit another cigarette. On and off during that day, she turned over in her mind the idea of representing the water company. Of course, the offer might not still be open. If she was employed in the launch, then she would need to work very hard, and if she was working very hard, she would not be impelled to make any more silly phone calls to James and suffer the inevitable rejection.
A poor evening on television did little to lighten her mood. She ate a whole bar of chocolate and felt the waistline of her skirt tighten alarmingly. In vain did she tell herself that the constricting feeling at her middle was probably psychosomatic. She decided on impulse to take a flask and walk over to Ancombe and get some water for tea, and to take another look at the spring.
It was another beautiful evening. Bird cherry starred the hedgerows, orchards on either side of the road glimmered with apple blossom. She trudged along, a stocky figure, feeling diminished by the glory of the night.
The walk to Ancombe was several miles and by the time she approached the spring, she was weary and already regretting her decision not to take the car.
The spring was at the far end of the village, the unlit end, where the houses stopped and the countryside began again.
As she approached she could hear the tinkling sound of the water.
She was about to bend over the spring when she started back with a gasp of alarm and dropped her flask. For lying at her feet, staring up at the faint light from the moon and stars above, was a dead man.
Very dead, thought Agatha, feeling for his pulse and finding none.
She ran back to the nearest house, roused the occupants and phoned the police.
Waving aside offers of brandy or tea, Agatha returned resolutely to the spring and waited. Word quickly spread around the village and by the time the police arrived, there was a silent circle of people around the body. The skull above the spring glared maliciously at them from over the dead man's body.
Agatha learned from the hushed whispers that the body was that of a Mr. Robert Struthers, chairman of Ancombe Parish Council. Blood was seeping from the back of his head into the spring, blood, black in the night, swirling around the stone basin.
Sirens tore through the silence of the night. The police had arrived at last. Bill would not be among them. It was his day off.
But Agatha recognized Detective Inspector Wilkes.
She sat in one of the police cars and made a statement to a policewoman. She felt quite numb. She was told to wait and a police car would take her home.
At last she was dropped off at her own cottage. She hesitated on her doorstep, looking wistfully towards the cottage next door. Here was a splendid opportunity to talk to James. But the shock of finding the dead man had changed something in her. I'm worth better than that, thought Agatha, as she unlocked her door and went in.
She was just making herself a cup of coffee when the doorbell rang. This time she did not expect to see James standing on the doorstep and it was with genuine gratitude and relief that she welcomed the vicar's wife, Mrs. Bloxby.
Excerpted from Agatha Raisin and the Wellspring of Death by M.C. Beaton. Copyright © 1998 M. C. Beaton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
M. C. Beaton, who was the British guest of honor at Bouchercon 2006, has been hailed as the "Queen of Crime" (The Globe and Mail). In addition to her New York Times and USA Today bestselling Agatha Raisin novels, Beaton is the author of the Hamish Macbeth series and several Edwardian mysteries. Born in Scotland, she currently divides her time between the English Cotswolds and Paris.
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Love this series.
Agatha Raisin's books are always fun to read. Make a cup of tea with a biscuit on the tray and prepare for a relaxing afternoon.
A good read. Agatha and her men, through in a murder, a receipe for a delightful who done it
Love, Love, Love it. Can not wait for the next one!!! Quilter75
It is rather difficult to review just one in the series, as they build upon one another. It is more like reading a huge book, one bite at a time. I'm so glad I found this series after several years, so I can read one, then grab another. It would most likely drive me insane to have to wait until the release of another. However, soon, I will catch up with the publication of the series. Now about the books. They are fun to read, quick to pick up and put down, and it definitely makes you feel better about your own life. I have found many typos through out the series, things like the "he" for "her" as if the editing wasn't done well. At first it really put me off, then I began to find them endearing, akin to playing Where's Waldo. The plot becomes rather second in importance to the character development and situations they create for themselves. Fun way to spend time.
must read all her books!