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Dishing the Dirt
An Agatha Raising Mystery
By M. C. Beaton
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2015 M. C. Beaton
All rights reserved.
After a dismal grey winter, spring came to the village of Carsely in the Cotswolds, bringing blossoms, blue skies and warm breezes.
But somewhere, in the heart of one private detective, Agatha Raisin, storms were brewing.
When Agatha had been a member of the now defunct Ladies Society, she had got to know all the incomers to the village. But as most of her time was taken up away from the village, she did not recognise the thin woman who hailed her one Sunday when she was putting out the trash, ready for collection.
"It is Mrs. Raisin, is it not?" she called out in a reedy voice.
Agatha came to the fence of her thatched cottage. "I am Victoria Bannister," said the woman. "I do so admire you."
Victoria was somewhere in her eighties with a long face and a long thin nose and large pale eyes.
"Oh, I just do my job," said Agatha.
"But you have come such a long way from your poor beginnings," said Victoria.
"What poor beginnings?" snarled Agatha. She had been brought up in a Birmingham slum and somehow always dreaded that somewhere, someone would penetrate her lacquer of sophistication and posh accent.
"I heard you came from such a bad start with drunken parents. I do so admire you," Victoria said again, her pale eyes scrutinising Agatha's face.
"Piss off!" said Agatha furiously and went into her cottage and slammed the door.
Victoria walked off down Lilac Lane feeling happy. She enjoyed goading people.
* * *
Inside her cottage, Agatha stared bleakly at her reflection in the hall mirror. She had glossy brown hair and small bearlike eyes, a generous mouth, and although quite small in stature, had long well-shaped legs. Over the years, she had laminated herself with the right clothes, and the right accent. But deep down, she felt vulnerable. She was in her early fifties, which she reminded herself daily was now considered today's forties.
She knew her ex-husband, James Lacey, a travel writer, had just returned from abroad. He was aware of her background as was her friend, Sir Charles Fraith. Surely neither of them would have gossiped. She had challenged James before and he had denied it. But she had to be sure. That therapist, Jill Davent, who had moved to the village had somehow known of her background. James had sworn then he had never told her anything, but how else would the woman have known?
Agatha had visited Jill, prompted by jealousy because James had been seen squiring her around. She had told Jill a highly romanticised story of her youth, but Agatha had left in a fury when Jill accused her of lying.
"Any odd and sod can call themselves a therapist these days," she said to her cats. "Charlatans, the lot of them!"
* * *
She went next door to his cottage and rang the bell. James answered and smiled in welcome. "Come in, Agatha. I've got coffee ready. If you must smoke, we'll have it in the garden."
Agatha agreed to go into the garden, not because she particularly wanted to smoke, but because the inside of James's cottage with its bachelor surroundings always reminded her how little impact she had made on his life when they were married.
Blackbirds pecked at the shabby lawn. A magnolia tree at the bottom of the garden was about to burst into bloom, raising pink buds up to the pale blue sky.
James came out with two mugs of coffee and an ashtray.
"Someone's been gossiping about me," said Agatha. "It must be Jill Davent. Someone's found out about my background."
"I could never understand why you are so ashamed of your upbringing," said James. "What does it matter?"
"It matters to me," said Agatha. "The Gloucestershire middle classes are very snobby."
"Only the ones not worth knowing," said James.
"Like some of your friends? Did you tell anyone?"
"Of course not. I told you before. I do not discuss you with anyone."
But Agatha saw a little flash of uneasiness in his blue eyes. "You did say something about me and recently, too."
He ran his fingers through his thick black hair, hair that only showed a little grey at the temples. He cursed Agatha's intuition.
"I didn't say anything about your background but I took Jill out for dinner and she asked a lot of questions about you, but I only talked about your cases."
"She's counselling Gwen Simple. She knows I was on that case where I nearly ended up in one of her son's meat pies."
Agatha's last case had concerned a Sweeny Todd of a murderer over at Winter Parva. Although she suspected his mother, Gwen, of having helped in the murders, no proof was found against the woman.
"Actually, it was more or less on your behalf that I took not only Jill out for dinner, but Gwen as well."
Agatha stared at him, noticing that James with his tall, athletic body was as handsome as ever. Jill looked like a constipated otter, but there was something about Gwen Simple that made men go weak at the knees.
"So what did creepy, slimy Gwen have to say for herself?" she asked.
"Agatha! The poor woman is still very traumatised. Jill did most of the talking."
Gwen probably sat there with a mediaeval-type gown on to suit her mediaeval-type features, thought Agatha bitterly. That one doesn't even have to open her mouth. She just sits there and draws men in.
"So did Jill have anything to say about the case?" she asked. "And I thought Gwen had sold the bakery and moved."
"Jill naturally will not tell me what a client says," remarked James. "And Gwen has moved to Ancombe."
"I would have thought she would want to get as far away from Winter Parva as possible," said Agatha. "I mean, a lot of the villagers must think she's guilty."
"On the contrary, they have been most sympathetic."
"Tcha!" said Agatha Raisin.
* * *
Agatha decided to call on her friend, Mrs. Bloxby. She suddenly wondered why on earth this therapist should have gone to such lengths as to ferret out her background. As usual, the vicar's wife was pleased to see her although, as usual, her husband was not. He slammed into his study.
As Mrs. Bloxby led the way into the garden, Agatha poured out her worries. "I'll get you a glass of sherry," said Mrs. Bloxby soothingly.
As she waited for her friend to come back, Agatha felt herself beginning to relax. Over in the churchyard, daffodils were swaying in the breeze amongst the old gravestones. In front of her, a blackbird pecked for worms on the lawn.
Mrs. Bloxby returned with a decanter of sherry and two glasses. After she had finished pouring out the drinks, she said, "I find it most odd that Miss Davent should obviously have gone to such lengths to dig up your background. She must see you as a threat. And if she sees you as a threat, what has she got to hide?"
"I should have thought of that," said Agatha. "I'm slipping. And why bring her business to Carsely? Surely she would get more clients in town."
"I think she makes clients," said the vicar's wife.
"What do you mean?"
"For example, she called on me. She said it must be awful for me not to have had any children. That, you see, is a vulnerable spot. She was trying to draw me in so that I would decide to use her services. I told her I was very busy and showed her the door. Everyone has some weakness, some frailty. I do not want to spread gossip, but she has built up quite a client base. They come from villages round about as well as here. She is a very clever woman. You have been so outraged about her finding out about your background that you did not stop to wonder why she had targeted you in this way."
* * *
On Monday morning, Agatha's small staff gathered for a briefing. There was Toni Gilmour, blond, young and beautiful; Simon Black with his jester's face; ex-policeman Patrick Mulligan; Phil Marshall, gentle and white-haired; and her secretary, Mrs. Freedman.
Agatha had decided she had given up caring about her lousy background and so she told them that somehow Jill had gone out to target her and she wondered why. "We've got other work to do," she said, "but if you have any spare time, see what you can find out about her. Anyone these days can claim to be a therapist without qualifications. I can't remember if she had any sort of certificates on her walls."
"Why don't I just visit her and ask her why she is targeting you?" said Phil. "She'll deny it, but I could have a look around."
"Good idea," said Agatha.
"I'll phone now and see if I can get an appointment for this evening," said Phil.
"You'd better take sixty pounds with you," said Agatha. "I'm sure that one will look on any visit as a consultation."
* * *
Phil made his way to Jill's cottage that evening, having secured an appointment for eight o'clock. The cottage was on the road leading out of Carsely. It had formerly been an agricultural labourer's cottage and was built of red brick, two storied, and rather dingy looking. Phil, who lived in Carsely, knew it had lain empty for some time. There was a small, unkempt garden in the front with a square of mossy grass and two laurel bushes.
The curtains were drawn but he could see that lights were on in the house. He rang the bell and waited.
Jill answered the door and looked him up and down from his mild face and white hair to his highly polished shoes.
"Come in," she said. There was a dark little hall. She opened a door to the left of it and ushered him into her consulting room. Phil looked at the walls. He noticed there were several framed diplomas. The walls were painted dark green and the floor was covered in a dark green carpet. The room had a mahogany desk which held a Victorian crystal inkwell, a phone and nothing else on its gleaming surface. There was a comfortable leather chair facing her and a standard lamp with a fringed shade in one corner, shedding a soft light.
Jill sat behind her desk and waved a hand to indicate he should take the seat opposite.
"How can I help you?" she asked. She had a deep, husky voice.
"I work for Agatha Raisin," said Phil, "and it is well known in the village that you have been spreading tales about her poor upbringing. Why?"
"Because she wasted my time. Any more questions?"
"You are supposed to help people," said Phil in his gentle voice. "You are not supposed to go around trying to wreck their reputation. Your behaviour was not that of a caring therapist."
"Get the hell out of here!" screamed Jill with sudden and startling violence.
Phil rose to his feet, clutched his heart, grabbed the desk for support, and then collapsed on the floor.
"Stupid old fart," said Jill. "Too damn old for the job. I'd better get an ambulance." She picked up the phone from her desk and left the room.
Phil got quickly to his feet, took out a miniature camera and photographed the certificates on the wall before sinking back down to the floor and closing his eyes.
She returned and stared down at him. "With any luck, you're dead," she said viciously, and then left the room again. She had not even bothered to search for a pulse or even loosen his collar.
Phil got to his feet again and moved quietly into the hall. He could hear Jill's voice in the other room, but could not make out what she was saying.
He opened the front door and walked back down the hill. He would print the photos and e-mail them to Agatha's computer.
* * *
Later that evening, Agatha decided to walk up to the local pub for a drink. As she left, she saw James welcoming Jill and felt a sour stab of jealousy.
In a corner of the pub were three blond women the locals had dubbed "the trophy wives." They were each married to rich men and were rumoured to be third or even fourth wives. They were left in the country during the week, each looking as if she were pining for London. They were remarkably alike with their trout-pout mouths, salon tans, expensive clothes and figures maintained by strict diet and personal trainers.
Do women have trophy husbands? wondered Agatha. Perhaps, she thought ruefully, that now she had no longings for James, she wanted him to be kept single so that she could bask in his handsome company, a sort of "see what I've got" type of thing.
The pub door opened and Sir Charles Fraith strolled in, tailored and barbered, and almost catlike with his smooth blond hair and neat features. He saw Agatha, got a drink from the bar and went to join her.
"How's things?" he asked.
"Awful." Agatha told him all about Jill Davent.
"So she sees you as a threat," said Charles. "What's she got to be scared of?"
"That's what I'm trying to find out," said Agatha. "I'm furious. Phil went there this evening and got some pics of her certificates. He's sending them over."
"I bet you've been playing into her hands by raging all over the place," said Charles. "You're an old-fashioned snob, Aggie. This is an age when people who have risen from unfortunate beginnings brag about it all over the place."
"I am not a snob," howled Agatha, and the trophy wives giggled.
"Oh, don't laugh too hard," snarled Agatha. "Your Botox is cracking."
"You're a walking embarrassment," said Charles. "Let's get back to your computer and look at those pictures."
* * *
Agatha saw Charles's travel bag parked in her hall and scowled. She often resented the way he walked in and out of her life, and sometimes, on rare occasions, in and out of her bed.
They both sat in front of the computer. "Here we are," said Agatha. "Good old Phil. Let's see. An MA from the University of Maliumba. Where's that?"
"Africa. You can pay up and get a degree in anything. It was on the Internet at one time."
"A diploma in aromatherapy from Alternative Health in Bristol. A diploma in tai chi."
"Where's that from?"
"The woman's a phony, Agatha. Forget her."
"I can't, Charles. She's counselling Gwen Simple and I swear that woman helped in those murders. I'd like to see her records."
"Oh, let's forget the dratted woman," said Charles, stifling a yawn. "I'm going to bed. Coming?"
"Later. And to my own bed."
* * *
Agatha would not admit that she was sometimes lonely, but she felt a little pang when Charles announced breezily at breakfast that he was going home.
For the rest of the week, she and her staff were very busy and had to forget about Jill.
But by the week-end, what the locals called "blackthorn winter" arrived, bringing squally showers of rain and sleet.
Agatha decided to motor to Oxford and treat herself to a decent lunch. Her cats, Boswell and Hodge, twisted around her ankles, and she wished she could take them with her.
She parked in Gloucester Green car park, wincing at the steep price and began to walk up to Cornmarket. This was Oxford's main shopping street and one ignored in the Morse series, the producers correctly guessing that viewers wanted dreaming spires and colleges and not crowds of shoppers and chain stores.
Agatha had initially planned to treat herself to lunch at the Randolph Hotel, but instead she walked into McDonald's, ignoring the cry from a wild-eyed woman of, "Capitalist swine." Agatha ordered a burger, fries and a black coffee and secured a table by looming over two students and driving them away. She wished she had gone to the Randolph instead. It was all the fault of the politically correct and people like that woman who had shouted at her, she reflected. It was the sort of thing that made you want to buy a mink coat, smoke twenty a day and eat in McDonald's out of sheer bloody-mindedness.
She became aware that she was being studied by a small, grey-haired man on the other side of the restaurant. When he saw Agatha looking at him, he gave a half smile and raised a hand in greeting.
Agatha finished her meal, and, on her road out, stopped at his table. "Do I know you?" she asked.
"No, but we're in the same profession," he said. "I'm Clive Tremund. I'd like to compare notes. Would you like to get out of here and go for a drink? What about the Randolph? I could do with a bit of posh."
Along Cornmarket, he talked about how he had recently moved to Oxford from Bristol to set up his agency.
In the bar of the Randolph, Agatha, who had taken note of his cheap suit, said, "I'll get the drinks."
"I'll be able to get you on my expenses," he said.
Agatha waited until the waiter had taken their order and come back with their drinks, and asked him what he had meant. "Never tell me I am one of your cases!"
"The only reason I am breaking the confidentiality of a client," said Clive, "is because the bitch hasn't paid anything so far and it looks as if she isn't going to."
Excerpted from Dishing the Dirt by M. C. Beaton. Copyright © 2015 M. C. Beaton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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