There Goes the Bride
An Agatha Raisin Mystery
By M. C. Beaton
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 M. C. Beaton
All rights reserved.
ONE OF AGATHA Raisin's greatest character defects was that she was highly competitive.
Her former employee, young Toni Gilmour, had set up her own detective agency, financed by another of Agatha's ex-detectives, Harry Beam. Agatha worked around the clock, taking on every case for her own detective agency she could in order to prove that the mature could beat the young hands-down.
Then there was the awful business about her ex-husband, James Lacey, planning to marry a beautiful woman. Agatha had persuaded herself that she no longer had any feelings for James because she had fallen for a Frenchman, Sylvan Dubois, whom she had met at James's engagement party.
But stressed out and overworked, she had taken a tumble down the stairs of her cottage, cracking three ribs and severely bruising one buttock.
Urged by everyone to take a break, she decided to go to Paris after finding Sylvan's phone number through the Internet. They would stroll the boulevards together and love would blossom. But when she phoned him, he sounded distant and then she heard a young female voice call out in English, "Come back to bed, darling."
Blushing, and furious with herself, Agatha found her old obsession with James Lacey surfacing again. It was like some disease, gone for long stretches, but always recurring.
Agatha remembered that James had accused her of never having listened to him. He worked as a travel writer but had said that he planned to write a series of guidebooks to famous battlefields. Dreaming of surprising him with her knowledge of his subject, Agatha decided to visit the site of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea and so take that holiday everyone was telling her she needed badly.
She would go first to Istanbul and take it from there. She had stayed in Istanbul before, at the Pera Palace Hotel, made famous by Agatha Christie in her book Murder on the Orient Express, but settled on booking a room at a hotel on the other side of the Golden Horn in the Sultan Ahmet district, under the shadow of the Blue Mosque.
The Artifes Hotel was comfortable and the staff were friendly. Agatha, although tired after the flight, felt restless. She peered in the mirror and saw the ravages of her competitiveness clearly for the first time. She had lost weight and there were dark shadows under her eyes.
She left her suitcase unopened and wandered out of the hotel. There was an interesting café close by, the Marmara Café. She peered in. The walls were lined with carpets. At the end of the long café was a vine-covered terrace.
But the tables on the terrace seemed full. Agatha hesitated.
A man rose to his feet and said in English, "I'll be leaving shortly."
Agatha sat down opposite him with a sigh of relief. She saw to her delight that there was an ashtray on the table and pulled out her cigarettes.
"Are you English?" she asked her new companion.
"No, I am Turkish-Cypriot. My name is Erol Fehim."
Agatha assessed him. He was a small neat man wearing a good jacket. He had glasses and grey hair. He exuded an air of innocence and kindness. Agatha was immediately reminded of her friend, the vicar's wife, Mrs. Bloxby.
She introduced herself in turn and then ordered an apple tea.
"What brings you to Istanbul?" asked Erol.
Agatha explained she was stopping off at the Artifes Hotel until she worked out a way to get to Balaclava in the Crimea. "I'm staying at the same hotel," said Erol. "We could ask there."
Lonely Agatha warmed to the sound of that "we."
It transpired there was a weekend shopping cruise from the Crimea returning to Balaclava on the following day. The helpful Erol said he would go with her to the shipping office. It took them ages back on the other side of the Golden Horn to find it. Agatha was grateful for Erol's company because nobody spoke English. She booked a double cabin, not wanting to share with anyone.
Back at the hotel, the ever-obliging Erol told her he was busy that evening but he would take her along to the ship early the following afternoon and see her off.
Agatha phoned her friend Sir Charles Fraith. "Where are you?" he asked.
"Great city, Aggie, but you're supposed to be taking a rest. Wouldn't a beach holiday have been better?"
"I don't like beach holidays. I've met a nice man."
"He's really very kind. Reminds me of Mrs. Bloxby."
"Aha, what?" demanded Agatha crossly.
"He must be a very normal, decent man."
"I thought so. If he had been unattainable or mad, bad and dangerous to know, you'd have fallen for him."
"You think you know me but you don't!" snapped Agatha and rang off.
In the taxi on the road to the boat the next day, Agatha asked Erol about himself, but she barely listened as he explained he owned a small publishing company. In her mind, Agatha was already leaning on the rail of a white cruise ship while a handsome man stood beside her and looked into her eyes as the moon rose over the Black Sea.
The ship was a shock. It was a Russian rust bucket. In vain did they search for another ship; Agatha's ticket was only valid for the tramp steamer.
"It's all right," Agatha said to Erol. "It'll get me there. Thanks for all your help."
She was assisted by the crew over piles of goods. The decks were blocked with cargo. As she stumbled down to her cabin, she noticed that even the fire exits were also blocked with cargo.
Then Agatha realized to her horror that in her haste she had forgotten to say goodbye to Erol or get his card. She dashed back up on deck but Erol had gone.
The other few passengers were Ukrainian women, and the crew were all Russian. None spoke English. Soup was all Agatha could eat at dinner. The ship had not moved. She retired to her cabin and read herself to sleep.
When she awoke in the morning, the ship was still at the port. At last it set sail. At first it was bearable as she was able to stand on a tiny bit of the deck that was free of cargo and watch the palaces on the Bosphorus slip past, but once the boat reached the Black Sea and there was nothing but water to look at for miles, Agatha retired to her cabin, wondering whether she would survive the journey. She had booked a hotel, the Dakkar Resort Hotel in Balaclava, on the Internet before she left the hotel in Istanbul, and had asked for a taxi to meet her on arrival.
Two days later, when Agatha felt she could not bear another bowl of soup — the only thing she found edible — and shuddered at the prospect of another visit to the smelly toilets, the ship finally arrived.
As she struggled through customs with the Ukrainian women and their massive shopping — some had even bought mattresses — she saw to her relief a taxi was waiting with a driver holding her name up.
Oh, the blessings of a civilized hotel with a smiling beautiful receptionist and a well-appointed room. The receptionist said, "I was horrified when you e-mailed us about arriving on that boat. It's the Gervoisevajtopolya, famous for being awful. I didn't think you would make it here in one piece."
Agatha showered and changed. She then went down to the reception and asked the one who had welcomed her to arrange a guide and interpreter for the following day to take her to the site of the Charge of the Light Brigade.
But the next day proved to be a waste of time. In vain did she insist she wanted to see the site of the Charge, which had taken place during the Crimean War on twenty-fifth October 1854, where 118 were killed and 127 wounded. In vain did she take out her notebook and say she wanted to get to the valley between the Fedyukhar Heights and the Causeway Heights.
The pretty young translator, Svetlana, persevered with the guide, but he took Agatha to one Soviet World War II memorial after another, all in the Russian Communist style, with muscular young men pointing in all directions, while even more muscular women gazed balefully at some unseen enemy.
The sympathetic Svetlana said she would arrange for her tour bus to pick up Agatha the following morning. And so eventually Agatha found herself on the battlefield. But it was a plain covered in vineyards. No skeletons of horses, no abandoned guns, it stretched out mild and innocent under the sun, as if the most famous cavalry charge in history had never taken place.
Agatha returned wearily to the hotel. Her favourite receptionist gave her a welcoming smile. "We have two English guests who have just arrived," she said. "They might be company for you. A Mr. Lacey and a Miss Bross-Tilkington."
He'll think I'm stalking him, thought Agatha. Of all the rotten coincidences! "Get me my bill," she said. "I'm leaving now. And don't tell these English visitors about me. How the hell do I get out of here?"
"You can get a plane from Simferopol Airport."
"Call me a cab!"
James Lacey wandered over to the window of his hotel room. His fiancée, Felicity, was asleep. He was feeling some twinges of unease. What he loved about Felicity was the way she looked at him with her large eyes, appearing to drink in every word.
But on the plane journey, when he was enthusiastically describing the cavalry charge, he felt Felicity shift restlessly in her seat. For the first time, he wondered if she were listening to him. "The order to charge was given," said James, "and a spaceship landed in the valley and some little green men got out."
"Fascinating," breathed Felicity.
"You weren't listening!"
"Just tired, darling. What were you saying?"
James heard a commotion down below the hotel. He opened the window and leaned out. A woman had tripped and fallen getting into a cab. He only got a glimpse but he was suddenly sure the woman was Agatha. A familiar voice rose on the Crimean air, "Snakes and bastards!"
James ran down the stairs and out of the hotel, but the cab had gone. He took out his mobile and phoned his friend, Detective Sergeant Bill Wong, back in the Cotswolds.
"Bill," said James, "did Agatha say anything about being upset by my engagement?"
"No," said Bill. "I honestly don't think she was."
"But she was just here in Balaclava. Agatha has no interest in military history. I hope she isn't chasing after me."
Bill was also a loyal friend of Agatha's. "Just a coincidence," he said. "You must be mistaken."
James re-entered the hotel and asked the receptionist if a lady called Agatha Raisin had just checked out. The receptionist said firmly she could not give out the names of other guests.
Agatha decided on returning to Istanbul to take that much-needed holiday and forced herself to relax. She visited several of the famous sites: Ayasofya, the Blue Mosque, the Spice Market where James Bond got blown up in From Russia With Love, and the Dolmabache Palace on the Bosphorous. At the end of a week, she phoned her friend Mrs. Bloxby. After telling Agatha the village news, Mrs. Bloxby said, "James called round looking for you just after you left. He's got a contract to write a series of guidebooks on battlefields. He was just off to the Ukraine and after that, Gallipoli. How is Istanbul?"
"Great. Eating lots and reading lots."
When Agatha rang off, she took out her BlackBerry and Googled Gallipoli. The site of the disastrous Allied landings by the New Zealand and Australian and British forces in 1915 was in Turkey!
Should she go? Commonsense told her to leave it alone. Fantasy conjured up an image of dazzling James with her knowledge. He wouldn't know she had been in the Crimea. She could backdate her visit and say she had been there the year before. So, you see, James, I really am interested in military history. You never really knew me.
Agatha thought briefly of phoning up the Dakkar Resort Hotel to see if James was still there, but decided that he must be. He had a lot of research and writing to do.
Agatha managed to find a taxi driver who spoke English. The Allied landings had taken place all the way down the Gallipoli Peninsula, so she settled on ANZAC Beach, site of the Australian and New Zealand troop landings to the north of the peninsula, by the Aegean Sea. The taxi driver assured her it was only a few hours' trip from Istanbul.
The rain was drumming down by the time she reached the famous beach. She took photographs, she read the moving dedication on a monument to the fallen soldiers of both sides, and then wearily got into the cab thinking dismally that she should have stayed in Istanbul and just read up on the place.
Her taxi was just moving back out onto the main road again when a car with James at the wheel and Felicity beside him passed her. She ducked down, to the surprise of her driver.
Bill Wong got another phone call from James that evening. "I'm telling you, Bill, I saw her at Gallipoli. She's chasing me! Please find out if she's all right. I'm afraid she's taking my engagement badly."
Long afterwards, Agatha was to blame her visit to the two famous battlefields as having been caused by that fall down the stairs. She must have hit her head. How could she have been so stupid?
For back in the familiar surroundings of her cottage in the village of Carsely in the Cotswolds, back to work, Agatha's obsession with James faded away.
She comforted herself with the thought that James had surely not seen her, and besides, she had told everyone that her holiday had been spent entirely in Istanbul.
Shortly after her arrival home, on a pleasant Saturday afternoon, she decided to visit Mrs. Bloxby at the vicarage.
The vicar's wife welcomed her. "I know you probably want to smoke, Mrs. Raisin, but it's quite chilly in the garden." Both of them belonged to the Carsely Ladies' Society, where the members addressed one another by their second names, and despite their close friendship, the two women found the custom impossible to break.
"I'll live without one," sighed Agatha. "Rotten nanny state. Do you know that pubs are closing down at the rate of twenty-eight a week?"
"The Red Lion is in trouble," said Mrs. Bloxby.
"Never! Our village pub?"
"We're all trying to rally round, but an awful lot of drinkers don't want to go to a place where they can't smoke. John Fletcher didn't think it would strike so hard."
"He's got quite a big car park at the back," said Agatha. "He could put up one of those marquee things with heaters."
"He hasn't the money for that now."
"Then we'd better start raising some," said Agatha.
"If anyone can do it, you can." Agatha's past career was that of a successful public relations executive.
"Are you going to Mr. Lacey's wedding?" asked Mrs. Bloxby.
"Of course. They're being married in Felicity's home village of Downboys in Sussex. I suppose they'll arrange accommodation for us all."
"I asked about that," said Mrs. Bloxby. "We're expected to make our own bookings. There's the town of Hewes not too far away."
"Cheapskates! I hope I can still get a room."
"I think you have one. Toni Gilmour has been invited and knowing you were away and the possible shortage of rooms, she booked a double at The Jolly Farmer in Hewes."
The doorbell rang and Mrs. Bloxby went to answer it. She came back followed by Bill Wong. Bill was half Chinese and half English. He had a strong Gloucester accent and the only thing oriental about him was his rather beautiful almond-shaped eyes.
"Hullo, Agatha," said Bill. "Thought I might find you here. You've been putting the frighteners in your ex."
"I don't know what you're talking about," said Agatha, turning red. "How are your parents?"
But Bill was not to be deflected. "James phoned me from the Crimea. Told me he saw you. Then when he went to Gallipoli, there you were again. He thinks you're stalking him."
"The vanity of men never ceases to amaze me," said Agatha.
"But what on earth were you doing?" asked Bill.
"It's coincidence, that's all," said Agatha. "I was on holiday. I was James's wife, remember, so I learned a lot about military history."
"Oh, really? When was the Battle of Waterloo?"
"Mr. Wong," said Mrs. Bloxby gently. "You are surely off duty and not interrogating a suspect. Tea or coffee?"
When she had served coffee, Mrs. Bloxby broke the heavy silence between Agatha and Bill by asking Agatha how she would go about fundraising to save the village pub. (Continues...)
Excerpted from There Goes the Bride by M. C. Beaton. Copyright © 2009 M. C. Beaton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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