When private detective Agatha Raisin comes across a severed leg in a roadside hedge, it looks like she is about to become involved in a particularly gruesome murder. Looks, however, can be deceiving, as Agatha discovers when she is employed to investigate a case of industrial espionage at a factory where nothing is quite what it seems.
The factory mystery soon turns to murder and a bad-tempered donkey turns Agatha into a national celebrity, before bringing her ridicule and shame. To add to her woes, Agatha finds herself grappling with growing feelings for her friend and occasional lover, Sir Charles Fraith. Then, as a possible solution to the factory murder unfolds, her own life is thrown into deadly peril. Will Agatha get her man at last? Or will the killer get her first?
About the Author
In 2006, M.C. was the British guest of honor at Bouchercon.
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Private detective Agatha Raisin was being driven back to her Cotswold home by her young and beautiful assistant Toni Gilmour. It was an early autumn evening and the sun briefly broke through a mantle of dark clouds to cast lengthening shadows across the road. They drove without conversation, the only sound the burble of the car's engine as it echoed off the embankments, trees, and hedgerows on either side of the country lane.
Agatha stole a glance towards Toni. She really was a very pretty young thing, she mused. Blonde hair, blue eyes, and a trim figure. Clothes were a bit cheap, and that short skirt had ridden up alarmingly while she had been driving. Decent legs, a bit skinny, not like Agatha's shapely, elegant pins. She cast an eye over her own exquisite grey Chanel suit, the skirt's hemline sitting just the right height above her knee. The jacket clung to her somewhat stocky frame in all the right places. She kept her figure in check with occasional bouts of furious dieting. She knew how to make the most of her assets. She could still show these youngsters a thing or two.
Who was she kidding? Toni was more than thirty years her junior. She didn't have to try to make the most of anything. At that age, she didn't have to try much at all. She just looked great. Agatha felt a sudden pang of jealousy.
"That skirt's a bit tarty for business, isn't it?" she said.
Toni shot her a look of exasperation. "Last time I wore it, you said it looked just right!" she said. "Or was that only because you wanted me playing the dumb blonde?"
"Be careful not to typecast yourself, dear," warned Agatha.
"You're impossible sometimes!" gasped Toni, her knuckles turning white as she clenched her fingers around the steering wheel.
Is she imagining those hands around my neck? wondered Agatha. In a rare moment of self-restraint, she bit her lip, deciding not to push Toni any further. She had felt waves of animosity emanating from the young woman all day and couldn't understand why. They had had a very successful day, after all. They were returning from a meeting with an engineering company, Morrison's, who had hired Raisin Investigations to look into what they believed to be industrial espionage.
The company manufactured batteries of various types and was developing a new battery pack that it claimed would double the range of an electric car. Strangers had been seen lurking around. There had even been a mysterious fire in the research and development department one night, although no one had been in the building at the time and the fire brigade could not be certain how the blaze had started. There was certainly no evidence to suggest arson.
Albert Morrison, the company's chairman, had signed a contract with Agatha before she and Toni had left his office, promising a very generous sum of money. Agatha had assured him that they would be on the case straightaway. The downside was that it would involve a lot of grunt work.
Any spy from a rival company hoping to steal Morrison's secrets would surely need help from someone on the inside. The investigation would entail trawling through employee records and conducting interviews, checking for anything unusual. They would be looking for anyone with a criminal background or serious money worries, or maybe someone harbouring some kind of grudge against the company. All that would mean working long hours, and those hours would have to be done by Agatha and Toni. Everyone else at the agency was up to their eyes in work. Divorce, it seemed, was the height of fashion these days, and it felt like half the married women in the county needed evidence of their husbands' philandering. Men seldom approached the agency to find evidence of their wives' infidelities. Most men seemed to prefer a more direct approach — confrontation and accusation. Women, Agatha believed, were more subtle, more cunning, more devious. The female of the species, as Kipling put it, is more deadly than the male.
Agatha's best detective, former policeman Patrick Mulligan, was not working on a divorce case but was bogged down on a surveillance job at Mircester's Isis Palace hotel, where the owners suspected that their manager was lining his pockets through various scams. Hanging around the hotel posing as a business executive, drinking at the bar, and eating in the restaurant was a job Agatha would have liked to take on herself, but the hotel wasn't exactly the Savoy and the clientele gave her the creeps. The thought of sitting in the lounge fending off a series of sleazy sales reps was too tedious for words.
The only other member of staff not involved in adultery, unless he was sniffing around someone else's wife himself, was Simon Black. Agatha had sent him out prowling the streets of various villages every night, hot on the trail of the Cotswold Cat Strangler. The case was being funded by a concerned group of cat owners. She desperately wanted a result from Simon. She couldn't bear it that some nutcase was out there preying on poor innocent pets. She had never been much of an animal lover until she had acquired Hodge and Boswell, her own two cats, and she shuddered at the memory of when they had been kidnapped. Or would you say "catnapped"? No, that sounded like a nice, peaceful five-minute snooze. They had been taken when she was working on that case about those bloody bell ringers.
There was simply no one else available so, dreary though it was, the Morrison's job was down to Agatha and Toni. And it was going to be a long, hard slog if Toni's mood failed to improve.
What Agatha did not know was that Toni had been dating a young medical student for some time. He had recently qualified as a doctor and was eager to get married. Toni was not in love with him, but she dearly wanted to have a stable home life. She longed to settle down and, eventually, have children. She knew Agatha would be dead set against any plan she might have that included marital bliss and a family on the horizon. She was bound to start interfering the moment she found out.
Toni knew very little about Agatha's upbringing, but she often suspected that it was not unlike her own — alcoholic parents bumbling through life in a haze of booze, barely acknowledging that they had a child, let alone caring for her. She frequently found herself looking upon Agatha as a mother figure. In turn, Agatha regularly rained on Toni's parade just like a real mother.
If Agatha found out about her young doctor, Toni was in no doubt that she would forecast that a marriage that did not start off with the newlyweds totally in love was doomed. Even those newlyweds who were utterly bursting with love didn't stand much of a chance in the long run. Suddenly everything about her boss irritated Toni, from her smoking to her whistling when she wasn't smoking. And every time they drove past thick undergrowth at the side of the road, did she always have to say "Nice place to dump a body"?
It was not as if Agatha herself set a particularly good example in the marriage stakes. Hadn't she become engaged to a man she barely knew and had met at Heathrow? And hadn't she cancelled the engagement a week later? Toni was convinced that her boss was actually in love with Sir Charles Fraith, her close friend and sometime lover. It was obvious that they were made for each other. Obvious to everyone, thought Toni, except Agatha and Sir Charles.
I'll keep my love life quiet, she vowed. But why does that decision make me feel guilty? Oh, here we go. She's looking at all that thick undergrowth on the left. The sun's just disappeared again. How can she hope to see anything in there in this gloom? Just for once, don't let her say it.
But she did.
"Nice place to dump a body."
"You always say that," snapped Toni, easing the car round a bend.
"STOP!" yelled Agatha.
Toni stamped on the brakes and the car screeched to a halt, pebbles spitting out from beneath the tyres.
"Back up," said Agatha.
Toni reversed and pulled into the side of the road. Agatha scrambled out of the car and began peering into the undergrowth. Toni was quickly by her side, squinting into the shadows.
"I don't see anything," she complained.
"There! Look there!"
She stared in the direction of Agatha's pointing finger. A thin shaft of light illuminated a foot in a sensible brogue.
"Maybe it's someone who fancied a kip," she said.
"In the middle of a thorny bush?" sneered Agatha. "I'd better look."
As Agatha moved towards the undergrowth, Toni turned her back, slipping her mobile phone out of her pocket. There was now every chance that she would be late for her date with her young doctor, and she needed to let him know.
"Aren't you coming?" demanded Agatha's voice at her elbow, making her jump. A faint flush of guilt coloured her cheeks as she crammed the phone back into her pocket.
"Lead on," she said.
"Who was that you were phoning?"
"Mind your own business, Agatha. Let's see if someone needs help in there."
Agatha pushed her way through thorny bramble bushes that tore at her tights. She grabbed at a low-hanging tree branch for balance, wobbling on high heels that were designed for traversing a cocktail lounge rather than a countryside ramble. She eased aside the higher tendrils of savage-looking vegetation to stop them from snagging on her jacket and hitched up her skirt to save it from being lacerated like her tights.
"That's really not a good look," said Toni.
"Well, you should know," Agatha replied, then froze. They were through the outer edge of the thicket, and only a few feet to their right they could see the brogue, the ankle, the lower leg, and ... that was it. There was no body, just a sawn-off leg lying amid a litter of dead leaves and twigs. The sight of the dismembered limb sent a chill down Agatha's spine.
Toni backed away, tugging at her sleeve. "Back to the road and we'll phone the police. The killer may still be around." Numbly, Agatha followed her.
After they had called the police, they sat together in the car. Suddenly Toni said, "I know that foot."
Agatha looked at her and frowned. "How can you know a foot? You can know a man. You can know a woman. You can know a person, but not a foot."
"I know whose foot it is," sighed Toni. "Saw it at Morrison's. Remember the woman who was on reception when we arrived to see the chairman? Mr. Albert, you know, the boss, he said something about seeing her in the morning. 'Secretary's afternoon off,' he said. I noticed her because she looked like a woman out of a forties dramatisation on telly. She was wearing a tweed jacket and skirt, and ribbed woollen stockings, and those brogues."
Agatha did remember the woman. She had looked strangely out of place. Morrison's was supposed to be a twenty-first-century hi-tech company, and having a relic like her to greet potential clients had struck Agatha as a mistake.
"No stocking," she said. "Maybe not her."
"Maybe whoever did it took off the stocking when they sawed the leg off."
"Why? And why only one leg?" demanded Agatha. "In fact, why a leg at all? I mean, you read about hands being cut off and teeth removed to stop identification, but why a leg? Oh, snakes and bastards. I am going to smoke."
"Why don't you vape?" asked Toni.
"Why don't you roll down the window or go for a walk?" snapped Agatha.
She watched Toni walk a little way away from the car before she lit up a cigarette. Then her eyes narrowed. Toni was phoning someone. She was smiling. In the growing dusk, her face looked almost luminous. She looked happy, mellow, bordering on serene. Alarm bells were ringing for Agatha. Had the silly girl gone and fallen in love? Of course, it might not be love, she thought; she might have won the lottery. I'd rather she won the lottery than fall in love with some fellow and get married. That would be disastrous. She's the only one who can run the agency when I'm away.
She heard police sirens approaching and stubbed out her cigarette. She got out of the car and joined Toni, who immediately switched off her phone. The scene on the darkening, hedge-flanked road, already sinister, took on an even more eerie appearance when the thorny foliage was frozen in the flickering blue lights of the first police car.
"Where is it?" asked the policeman who stepped out of the car.
"Over there," said Agatha. "Oh, it gets dark so quickly. You can't see it from here now. I'll show you."
He was joined by another policeman. "Name?" said the first one.
"Don't you want to look at the leg?"
"It's like this. Forensics will be along and they'll say we've trampled all over a crime scene."
"But what if a fox or something drags it away while we're waiting?" wailed Agatha.
"Now then, you've had a shock. Name and address?"
At that moment, Detective Sergeant Bill Wong arrived accompanied by Detective Alice Peterson. Bill was a long-time friend and Alice was his fiancée as well as his colleague. Agatha begged them to look at the leg.
"I was just telling this here woman," said the policeman, "that it don't do to muck up a crime scene before Forensics —"
"All right," snapped Bill. "We'll suit up."
Agatha waited impatiently while Bill and Alice struggled into their forensic suits and boots. When they pulled hoods over their heads and masks onto their faces, they became two anonymous creatures in white. As they headed into the undergrowth, there were more sirens, more blue lights, and an ambulance arrived, followed by an unmarked police car. The road was "You again," he said through clenched teeth. "I might have known."
"Shh!" hissed Agatha. "They're getting close."
Silence. Thin, cold rain began to fall. A forensic team arrived. When they too had suited up, they walked into the undergrowth and headed for the gleam of Bill's torch. An owl sailed overhead. Agatha Raisin lit a cigarette and fretted. What on earth were they doing?
Suddenly Bill erupted from the undergrowth, branches tearing at the flimsy fabric of his forensic suit.
"Agatha," he said, "this is some sort of joke. The leg is a fake."
"I thought — Ouch!" Toni exclaimed. Agatha had begun to shake and had burnt the back of Toni's hand with her cigarette.
"Sorry, dear," she said. "Nerves."
"You thought what?" demanded Bill.
"I thought I knew that foot," said Toni.
Sirens sounded in the distance. More police were arriving. "Knew that foot? How can you know a foot?" demanded the chief inspector.
"Mrs. Dinwiddy, the secretary to the chairman at Morrison's. She wore brogues like that, and wool stockings. I remember wondering about those stockings and thought she might have an allergy to synthetic fabrics."
"This is typical of your amateur theatrics," roared Wilkes, storming back to his car. "Sergeant, get this lot out of here and get this road opened again. And you two," he added, turning to Agatha and Toni, "are lucky I'm not charging you with wasting police time!"
Bill Wong looked at Agatha, sighed, and shook his head.
"You have to admit," said Agatha, "that from a distance it did look like a —"
"Just drop it, Agatha," he said, tugging at his now grubby and shredded white suit.
Agatha flopped into the passenger seat and slammed the car door. She looked down at her tights, dragged, snagged, and ruined, and brushed raindrops and hedgerow debris off her jacket and skirt. They would have to go to the dry cleaner's, or possibly the bin.
"It did look real," she said.
"It looked exactly like Mrs. Dinwiddy's," agreed Toni.
"But didn't we leave her back at Morrison's?"
"No. She left after handing over the typed contracts, remember? Her afternoon off. Said she had to go to the hospital in Mircester to see her sick sister. We stayed to sign the contracts and discuss how we would tackle the case. Then you insisted on telling Albert Morrison all about your whole long list of successful cases, and as you know, that can take forever."
"That was a bitchy remark!" said Agatha.
A rap at the car window interrupted the conversation. A police constable, his hat dripping with rainwater, motioned for her to wind the window down. They were going to have to make detailed statements.
It was to be the beginning of a long evening of questioning. Agatha's only comforting thought was that word would spread quickly, as it always did in this neck of the woods. She was also pretty sure she had seen a reporter lurking by the roadside outside the cordon. The incident was so ludicrous that it was bound to make the local press. All of that meant that Charles would soon hear about it and come running, as he had done so many times before.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Beating About the Bush"
Copyright © 2019 M. C. Beaton.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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