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A SPOONFUL OF POISON (Chapter 1)
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.”
“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.”
A SPOONFUL OF POISON Copyright 2008 by M. C. Beaton.