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Agatha's First Case
By M. C. Beaton
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 M. C. Beaton
All rights reserved.
Agatha Raisin had made it to Mayfair. She was twenty-six years old and for the past six months had been working as secretary to Jill Butterfrick, head of Butterfrick Personal Relations. The offices were in South Audley Street; the pay was not very good and the hours were long. But ambitious Agatha wanted to put clear water between herself and her unfortunate past, fleeing the Birmingham slum where she had been brought up, escaping her drunken parents, and walking out on a disastrous marriage to Jimmy Raisin.
She sometimes felt she should divorce Jimmy, but kept putting it off until she assumed that, like her parents, he had probably died of drink. Agatha could only afford a one-room flat in Acton. She carefully bought designer clothes in thrift shops and tried to elocute as much of her Birmingham accent out of her voice as she possibly could.
Apart from her eyes, which were small and bearlike, she presented an otherwise attractive appearance. She was slim with very long legs and shiny brown hair worn in a pageboy.
Jill was a bully and often kept Agatha late when there was no reason for it. Agatha quickly gathered that practically all the clients were "friends of Daddy," and guessed that the inefficient Jill would otherwise probably have no clients at all. The public relations officers consisted of three languid debs who seemed to do very little.
All of the dogsbody office work was handled by Agatha. She only put up with it because she wanted to absorb Mayfair. Soon she would move on and, she cynically thought, have to be replaced by at least three employees.
She had previously tried to get employment with a reputable top PR agency. Agatha had thought the interview had gone well and the boss had said he would let her know. He had called in his secretary as she was leaving. Agatha paused by the secretary's desk to check her makeup and, to her horror, heard the boss say, "That one just won't do. Bit of a toughie. Not enough polish for us. Give it a couple of days and send her a rejection." Agatha had left, her face flaming with mortification. Two Agathas warred in her soul. The quivering inside Agatha wanted to give up her ambitions but warred with another Agatha, who snarled, "One day I'll show you!"
But the life of Agatha Raisin was about to change. Jill summoned her one morning. Agatha waited politely for instructions while her inner voice said, What, now, you nasty-faced bitch?
Jill had a long horsey face and very large teeth. Her carefully tinted blond hair hung about her face in the latest style, which seemed to involve looking as if one had just crawled out of bed.
"We have a problem," she said. "Have you heard of the merchant banker, Sir Bryce Teller?"
"I read about him," said Agatha. "The papers think he's going to be arrested for murdering his wife."
"Yes, well, he's a friend of daddy's, and all that. But I have the reputation of this agency to consider. He wants us to deal with the press. Go round there — better to tell him in person — and say that in the circs, we cannot represent him. But best wishes and all that. He lives in Wigmore Street, so just trot round there. Here's the address."
Heart beating hard, Agatha left Jill's office. On the road out, she snatched up a pile of the morning papers and took ten pounds out of the petty cash. "Is that authorised?" drawled a girl called Samantha.
"Wouldn't do it otherwise," said Agatha, and made her escape. It was a sunny July day. Agatha found a café with a table outside and ordered a sandwich and coffee. After she had finished her sandwich, she lit a cigarette and opened the newspapers and began to read everything about the murder that she could. The facts were stark. Sir Bryce had been heard shouting at his wife. His wife had been found in the morning strangled with a cheese wire that Bertha Jones, his housekeeper, said was missing from the kitchen. Bertha Jones had been given leave to visit her aunt in Dorset and his gentleman's gentleman, Harry Bliss, had gone to the theatre, let himself in and had gone straight to bed. But a Dr. Williamson, who had a home and surgery next door, said because it was a warm night and all the windows had been opened, he had heard Sir Bryce shouting at his wife and saying he would kill her.
Sir Bryce did a lot for charity and that was where the agency had come in, publicising fund-raising balls and parties. There was a photograph of Sir Bryce and his wife, Nigella. Trophy wife, thought Agatha cynically. Nigella had been willowy and blond, married for the second time at the age of thirty, while Sir Bryce was fifty-nine. His first wife had died of cancer. Agatha studied his photograph. He had silver hair and a clever face.
She gave a little sigh and decided to leave the newspapers. The day was getting hotter and she did not want to carry them all the way to Wigmore Street. As Agatha strode along in her high-heeled sandals, wearing a dull green raw silk suit she had bought in a thrift shop, she suddenly wished she were not so driven by ambition. Her secretarial skills were excellent. Why not move to a more congenial office? But Agatha had held on to two dreams. One was working in Mayfair. The other was that one day she would buy a cottage in the Cotswolds. She had visited the Cotswolds as a child on a camping holiday with her parents. They had drunk themselves silly with boredom, complaining that they should have gone to a holiday camp as usual, but the young Agatha had been enchanted by the beauty and peace of the place.
Suddenly, she was in Wigmore Street and found herself wishing she could go back to the office and lie and say Sir Bryce had not been at home. The sun flashed on the brass plates of doctors and medical specialists. Agatha wondered why such a rich merchant banker would choose to live in such an area. Surely Regents Park, Hampstead, or Mayfair would be more in keeping. She arrived outside the Edwardian townhouse. The street was quiet: hard to believe it was so close to the commercial noise and bustle of Oxford Street.
Agatha rang the brass bell and waited, hoping against hope that no one would answer. But the door was open by a man in a black suit and discreet tie. He had thinning fair hair and a boxer's face. This, thought Agatha, must be Harry Bliss, the gentleman's gentleman.
"I am from the Jill Butterfrick Agency to see Sir Bryce," said Agatha.
He stood aside to let her enter. Agatha's first impression of the town house was that it was claustrophobic. The square hall was thickly carpeted. Blinds at the long windows shut out the sunlight. Bliss led the way upstairs and into a long room with windows front and back.
"Girl from the PR agency," announced Bliss. A man who had been sitting at a desk by the far window rose slowly to his feet and turned to face Agatha. He looked much older, more crumpled, that his photographs.
Sit down," he ordered.
Agatha sat on the edge of an overstuffed armchair. The other chairs and sofa were equally plump and had an unused look about them. The blinds were down and the windows were framed by heavy brocade-lined curtains. There was a Victorian fireplace against one wall and above it, an Empire mirror in a gold frame. Bowls of fresh flowers decorated several side tables. The wall opposite the fireplace was lined with books.
He sat in an armchair opposite her. He was wearing a well-cut tailored suit, a white shirt, and a silk tie.
"Name?" he asked.
"And you are?"
"Secretary to Jill Butterfrick."
"Sent to tell me that her precious agency will not represent me?"
Agatha gulped. "Well, yes."
"Would you like coffee?"
"Yes, please." Agatha noticed a large crystal ashtray on a table next to her. She suddenly longed for a cigarette. The pair studied each other. I could be facing a murderer, thought Agatha, but he looks so kind and normal. Then the intuition that was to serve her so well in the future sparked in her brain. For some reason, she was suddenly convinced he did not do it.
"I hate this," she burst out. She looked at him and grinned. "You know what? This is the end. I am not under contract. I am going back there and I am going to resign. Whew!"
Sir Bryce rang the bell. When Bliss appeared, he ordered coffee and said to Agatha, "You may smoke if you wish."
He waited until Agatha had lit a cigarette and said, "Tell me about yourself."
Agatha was about to give him a fictitious account of her happy childhood in the Cotswolds with adoring parents, but there was something in the shrewd grey eyes surveying her that stopped her. So she told the truth, every bit of it.
"So, why were you working for Jill?" he asked.
"I wanted to learn the PR business," said Agatha. "I could be good at it. Jill hasn't a clue. She takes me along as a dogsbody when she is entertaining journalists. I keep a private file on them all. I know their weaknesses. I know how to apply pressure."
"You are a scary lady. Ah, here's coffee. How do you take it?"
"Black, please," said Agatha.
When Bliss had left, he said, "So how would you go about it?"
"Jerry Rothmore of the Sketch is your biggest critic," said Agatha. "I happen to know he is cheating on his wife. Jill went to powder her nose one day when we were having lunch with him. He went on as if I didn't exist. Phoning someone called Cynthia and talking sex. His wife is called Beryl. I checked. I'd start with him. I wish I were a PR. I'd soon get the vultures off your back."
Bryce looked at the pugnacious face opposite him and suddenly smiled.
He rang the bell again and when Bliss came in, said, "Tell George to get round here as fast as possible."
When Bliss had left, Bryce turned to Agatha. "George is my man of business. Do you know South Molton Street?"
"Yes," said Agatha.
"I have property there I was about to sell. An office above the shops. You may set up your own PR business and represent me. I will fund you to hire staff and advertising. If you aren't any good, I will drop you. Are you prepared to meet the challenge?"
"Oh, yes!" said Agatha, although she was hardly able to believe her ears. "But there is one thing. If I am to handle you, I need your view on your wife's murder."
"Of course you do. May I have one of your cigarettes? I'm not supposed to smoke."
Agatha rose and gave him one from her packet and then lit it for him with hands that trembled.
"Yes, I did have a row with my wife. The windows were open and that interfering doctor next door heard it all. I had been checking the accounts. She had been buying expensive things like an Oyster Rolex and yet couldn't produce it. I felt sure she was buying presents for a lover. I regretted marrying her but I was damned if I would end up in the divorce courts and pay her anything. She stormed out after I had threatened to kill her and told her I was cutting off her allowance. See how bad it looks? I went to bed. Didn't hear a thing after that. Got up in the morning, came in here and nearly tripped over her dead body. She was lying by the fireplace with a sort of garrotte around her neck. Wooden handles on the ends. Sort of thing they cut cheese with. The police have only circumstantial evidence but the doctor's evidence is pretty damning. And worst of all, I love cheese and had used the cutter that evening to slice off a bit. My prints were on the handle. Also, there was no sign of a break-in. I pointed out that I often helped myself to a slice of cheese so it stood to reason that my prints would be on the handle and that the murderer would wear gloves, but they said that in that case the prints would be more blurred. So it looks bad."
"That is bad," said Agatha. "Why haven't they arrested you?"
"Any day now. I have a good lawyer and powerful friends."
"That's odd," said Agatha.
"When someone attacked your wife and strangled her, you should have heard screams and her feet maybe thudding on the floor. Do you take sleeping pills?"
"Did you tell the police that?"
"No. They didn't ask."
"Oh, sir, really!"
"Call me Bryce."
The doorbell had been ringing for some time. "Ignore that," said Bryce. "The press are gathering for their daily hounding."
Agatha thought quickly. "I'd better start by dealing with them. Have you a room I could put them in with lots of drinks?"
"There's one downstairs off the hall. But ..."
"Have you a prescription for those sleeping pills?"
"Yes, it's in my desk."
"Let me have it and leave the vultures to me. Wait a bit. The housekeeper was away. Why didn't Bliss hear anything?"
"He sleeps on the top floor and keeps a noisy fan running all night because of the heat."
* * *
Half an hour later, seven reporters clutching various glasses of liquor looked up as Agatha marched into the room.
Agatha felt her courage draining away. She somehow could not find her voice. She looked at the press and they looked at her.
"Are you the maid, or what?" demanded one voice.
A spurt of humiliation helped Agatha find her voice. The maid, indeed. She'd show them.
"I have some news for you," said Agatha. "I represent Sir Bryce Teller. I am head of the Agatha Raisin Public Relations Agency. On the night of the murder, he had taken a heavy dose of barbiturates, which is why he did not hear a thing. His doctor is Giles Friend, three doors down. You can check. Here is the prescription. Examine it and let me have it back. Now, if you want any more titbits from me, you will need to play nice and stop crucifying the man."
"How can we contact you?" asked the man from the Daily Mail.
As Agatha hesitated, the door opened and Bliss came in. He handed her a box of business cards. Agatha stared at them in delight. How had he managed it so quickly? But they looked like the cheap ones which could be got from a machine in one of the stores in Oxford Street. She passed them around.
"That will be all for today. Except Mr. Rothmore. Just a word in your ear."
When the others had left, Jerry said, "Yeah, what?"
"I am sure you would not want your wife to know about Cynthia," said Agatha.
He stared at her, appalled. "You wouldn't!"
"Write something nice and I won't. Otherwise, I damn well will. Now, push off."
* * *
When Agatha returned to the sitting room, George South, Bryce's man of business, was waiting for her. He told her to come round to his office in Hinde Street close by so that she could sign the necessary paperwork. He was a pleasant, friendly man, almost bald, and impeccably dressed. Agatha could feel a clutch of pure fright in her stomach. How could she, at her young age, run her own company? A trapped bluebottle buzzed against the window, looking for escape. Agatha sympathised with it, feeling trapped herself.
When all the business was finished, Agatha longed to escape and treat herself to a gin and tonic and a cigarette, but the offices had to be examined and the keys handed over. Her new kingdom was over a jeweller's shop. It consisted of five rooms. George strode through them, writing in a notebook. "You'll need desks, computers, and stationery, things like that. But leave it all to me." When he finally left, Agatha locked up and walked to South Audley Street and began collecting her file on the press and her other belongings.
"What the hell are you doing?" shouted Jill.
"I'm getting out of your slave labour camp," said Agatha.
"You didn't give me any contract," said Agatha. "You said, 'If you don't match up, I can fire you any time I like.' So, get this, horse-face, I'm firing you!"
* * *
Bryce was beginning to regret the impulse that had made him want to set up Agatha in business. But he had used his business acumen to set up other people before and had never been wrong in his judgement. The next morning, he asked to see all the newspapers. He began to smile. They had all covered the fact that he had taken sleeping pills and the surprise came in the Sketch, where Jerry had also written a fulsome report of all his charity work and stated it was time the police looked elsewhere.
* * *
Agatha Raisin walked around her new offices in South Molton Street and felt quite sick with elation. George South called again. An account had been opened for her and she had been given a credit card. George South had even employed a secretary for her, a woman called Freda Demer, middleaged, quiet, and polite.
"Put advertisements in all the newspapers for public relations officers. I need two to start, and an office boy. I have been told to pay well."
Excerpted from Agatha's First Case by M. C. Beaton. Copyright © 2015 M. C. Beaton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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