Beloved author M. C. Beaton has delighted readers and fans alike with her Agatha Raisin mysteries. The Quiche of Death and The Vicious Vet, the first two books in the series, are now together for the first time in one volume. . . .
The Quiche of Death
Putting all her eggs in one basket, Agatha Raisin gives up her successful PR firm, sells her London flat, and samples a taste of early retirement in the quiet village of Carsely. Bored, lonely, and used to getting her way, she enters a local baking contest. Despite the fact that Agatha has never baked a thing in her life, she is sure the pie she has secretly bought from an upper-crust London quicherie will make her the toast of the town. But her recipe for social advancement sours when the judge not only snubs her entry--but falls over dead!
The Vicious Vet
Agatha Raisin hasn't quite adjusted to the slow pace of village life, or to the failure of her overtures to her handsome neighbor, James Lacey. Since the new vet in town is young and good looking, Agatha's perfectly healthy tabby endures a nasty physical exam in the name of romance. Unfortunately, his sacrifice is all for naught when the vet is soon found dead. The police call the death a freak accident, but Agatha convinces James that playing amateur detective might be fun. Unfortunately, just as curiosity killed the cat, Agatha's inept snooping is soon a motivation for murder. . . .
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September 01, 2008
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Excerpt from Introducing Agatha Raisin by M. C. Beaton
MRS. Agatha Raisin sat behind her newly cleared desk in her office in South Molton Street in London's Mayfair. From the outer office came the hum of voices and the clink of glasses as the staff prepared to say farewell to her.
For Agatha was taking early retirement. She had built up the public-relations firm over long hard years of work. She had come a long way from her working-class background in Birmingham. She had survived an unfortunate marriage and had come out of it, divorced and battered in spirit, but determined to succeed in life. All her business efforts were to one end, the realization of a dream--a cottage in the Cotswolds.
The Cotswolds in the Midlands are surely one of the few man-made beauties in the world: quaint villages of golden stone houses, pretty gardens, winding green lanes and ancient churches. Agatha had been taken to the Cotswolds as a child for one brief magical holiday. Her parents had hated it and had said that they should have gone to Butlin's Holiday Camp as usual, but to Agatha the Cotswolds represented everything she wanted in life: beauty, tranquillity and security. So even as a child, she had become determined that one day she would live in one of those pretty cottages in a quiet peaceful village, far from the noise and smells of the city.
During all her time in London, she had, until just recently, never gone back to the Cotswolds, preferring to keep the dream intact. Now she had purchased that dream cottage in the village of Carsely. It was a pity, thought Agatha, that the village was called plain Carsely and not Chipping Campden or Aston Magna or Lower Slaughter or one of those intriguing Cotswold names, but the cottage was perfect and the village not on the tourist route, which meant freedom from craft shops, tea-rooms and daily bus parties.
Agatha was aged fifty-three, with plain brown hair and a plain square face and a stocky figure. Her accent was as Mayfair as could be except in moments of distress or excitement, when the old nasal Birmingham voice of her youth crept through. It helps in public relations to have a certain amount of charm and Agatha had none. She got results by being a sort of one-woman soft-cop/hard-cop combination; alternately bullying and wheedling on behalf of her clients. Journalists often gave space to her clients just to get rid of her. She was also an expert at emotional blackmail and anyone unwise enough to accept a present or a free lunch from Agatha was pursued shamelessly until they paid back in kind.
She was popular with her staff because they were a rather weak, frivolous lot, the kind of people who build up legends about anyone of whom they are frightened. Agatha was described as "a real character," and like all real characters who speak their mind, she did not have any real friends. Her work had been her social life as well.
As she rose to go through and join the party, a small cloud crossed the horizon of Agatha's usually uncomplicated mind. Before her lay days of nothing: no work from morning till night, no bustle or noise. How would she cope?
She shrugged the thought away and crossed the Rubicon into the outer office to say her farewells.
"Here she comes!" screeched Roy, one of her assistants. "Made some special champagne punch, Aggie. Real knickerrotter."
Agatha accepted a glass of punch. Her secretary, Lulu, approached and handed her a gift-wrapped parcel and then the others crowded around with their offerings. Agatha felt a lump rising in her throat. A little insistent voice was chattering in her head, "What have you done? What have you done?" There was a bottle of scent from Lulu and, predictably, a pair of crotchless panties from Roy; there was a book on gardening from one, a vase from another, and so it went on. "Speech!" cried Roy.
"Thank you all," said Agatha gruffly. "I'm not going to China, you know. You'll all be able to come and see me. Your new bosses, Pedmans, have promised not to change anything, so I suppose life will go on for all of you much the same. Thank you for my presents. I will treasure them, except for yours, Roy. I doubt if at my age I'll find any use for them."
"You never know your luck," said Roy. "Some horny farmer'll probably be chasing you through the shrubbery."
Agatha drank more punch and ate smoked-salmon sandwiches and then, with her presents packed by Lulu into two carrier bags, she made her way down the stairs of Raisin Promotions for the last time.
In Bond Street, she elbowed a thin, nervous business man aside who had just flagged down a cab, said unrepentantly, "I saw it first," and ordered the driver to take her to Paddington Station.
She caught the 15:20 train to Oxford and sank back into the corner seat of a first-class carriage. Everything was ready and waiting for her in the Cotswolds. An interior decorator had "done over" the cottage, her car was waiting for her at Moreton-in-Marsh station for the short drive to Carsely, a removal firm had taken all her belongings from her London flat, now sold. She was free. She could relax. No temperamental pop stars to handle, no prima-donnaish couture firms to launch. All she had to do from now on was to please herself.
Agatha drifted off to sleep and awoke with a start at the guard's cry of "Oxford. This is Oxford. The train terminates here."
Not for the first time, Agatha wondered about British Rail's use of the word "terminate." One expected the train to blow apart. Why not just say "stops here"? She looked up at the screen, like a dingy television set, which hung over Platform 2. It informed her that the train to Charlbury, Kingham, Moreton-in-Marsh and all further points to Hereford was on Platform 3, and lugging her carrier bags, she walked over the bridge. The day was cold and grey. The euphoria produced by freedom from work and Roy's punch was slowly beginning to evaporate.
The train moved slowly out of the station. Glimpses of barges on one side and straggly allotments on the other and then flat fields flooded from the recent rain lay gloomily in front of her increasingly jaundiced view.
This is ridiculous, thought Agatha. I've got what I always wanted. I'm tired, that's all.
The train stopped somewhere outside Charlbury, gliding to a stop and sitting there placidly in the inexplicable way that British Rail trains often do. The passengers sat stoically, listening to the rising wind whining over the bleak fields. Why are we like sheep that have gone astray? wondered Agatha. Why are the British so cowed and placid? Why does no one shout for the guard and demand to know the reason? Other, more voluble, races would not stand for it. She debated whether to go and see the guard herself. Then she remembered she was no longer in a hurry to get anywhere. She took out a copy of the Evening Standard, which she had bought at the station, and settled down to read it.
After twenty minutes the train creaked slowly into life. Another twenty minutes after Charlbury and it slid into the little station of Moreton-in-Marsh. Agatha climbed out. Her car was still where she had left it. During the last few minutes of the journey she had begun to worry that it might have been stolen.
It was market day in Moreton-in-Marsh and Agatha's spirits began to revive as she drove slowly past stalls selling everything from fish to underwear. Tuesday. Market day was Tuesday. She must remember that. Her new Saab purred out of Moreton and then up through Bourton-on-the-Hill. Nearly home. Home! Home at last.
She turned off the A-44 and then began the slow descent to the village of Carsely, which nestled in a fold of the Cotswold Hills.
It was a very pretty village, even by Cotswold standards. There were two long lines of houses interspersed with shops, some low and thatched, some warm gold brick with slate roofs. There was a pub called the Red Lion at one end and a church at the other. A few straggling streets ran off this one main road where cottages leaned together as if for support in their old age. The gardens were bright with cherry blossom, forsythia and daffodils. There was an old-fashioned haberdasher's, a post office and general store, and a butcher's, and a shop that seemed to sell nothing other than dried flowers and to be hardly ever open. Outside the village and tucked away from view by a rise was a council estate and between the council estate and the village proper was the police station, an elementary school, and a library.
Agatha's cottage stood alone at the end of one of the straggling side streets. It looked like a cottage in one of the calendars she used to treasure as a girl. It was low and thatched, new thatch, Norfolk reed, and with casement windows and built of the golden Cotswold stone. There was a small garden at the front and a long narrow one at the back. Unlike practically everyone else in the Cotswolds, the previous owner had not been a gardener. There was little else but grass and depressing bushes of the hard-wearing kind found in public parks.
Inside there was a small dark cubby-hole of a hall. To the right was the living-room; to the left, the dining-room, and the kitchen at the back was part of a recent extension and was large and square. Upstairs were two low-ceilinged bedrooms and a bathroom. All the ceilings were beamed.
Agatha had given the interior decorator a free hand. It was all as it should be and yet ... Agatha paused at the door of the living-room. Three-piece suite in covered Sanderson's linen, lamps, coffee-table with glass top, fake medieval fire-basket in the hearth, horse brasses nailed to the fireplace, pewter tankards and toby jugs hanging from the beams and bits of polished farm machinery decorating the walls, and yet it looked like a stage set. She went into the kitchen and switched on the central heating. The super-duper removal company had even put her clothes in the bedroom and her books on the shelves, so there was not much for her to do. She went through to the dining-room. Long table, shining under its heat-resistant surface, Victorian dining chairs, Edwardian painting of a small child in a frock in a bright garden, Welsh dresser with blue-and-white plates, another fireplace with a fake-log electric fire, and a drinks trolley. Upstairs, the bedrooms were pure Laura Ashley. It felt like someone else's house, the home of some characterless stranger, or an expensive holiday cottage.
Well, she had nothing for dinner and after a life of restaurants and take-aways, Agatha had planned to learn how to cook, and there were all her new cookery books in a gleaming row on a shelf in the kitchen.
She collected her handbag and made her way out. Time to investigate what few village shops there were. Many of the shops, the real estate agent had told her, had closed down and had been transformed into "des rezzes," or desirable residences. The villagers blamed the incomers, but it was the motor car which had caused the damage, the villagers themselves preferring to go to the supermarkets of Stratford or Evesham for their goods rather than buy them at a higher price in the village. Most people in the village owned some sort of car.
As Agatha approached the main street, an old man was coming the other way. He touched his cap and gave her a cheerful "arternoon." Then in the main street, everyone she passed greeted her with a few words, a casual "afternoon" or "nasty weather." Agatha brightened. After London, where she had not even known her neighbours, all this friendliness was a refreshing change.
She studied the butcher's window and then decided that cookery could wait for a few days and so passed on to the general store and bought a "very hot" Vindaloo curry to microwave and a can of rice. Again, in the store, she was met with friendliness all round. At the door of the shop was a box of second-hand books. Agatha had always read "improving" books, mostly non-fiction. There was a battered copy of Gone With the Wind and she bought it on impulse.
Back in her cottage, she found a basket of pseudo-logs by the fire, little round things made out of pressed sawdust. She piled some up in the grate and set fire to them and soon had a blaze roaring up the chimney. She removed the lace antimacassar which the decorator had cutely draped over the television screen and switched it on. There was some war going on, as there usually was, and it was getting the usual coverage; that is, the anchorman and the reporter were having a cosy talk. "Over to you, John. What is the situation now? Well, Peter ..." By the time they moved on to the inevitable "expert" in the studio, Agatha wondered why they bothered to send any reporter out to the war at all. It was like the Gulf War all over again, where most of the coverage seemed to consist of a reporter standing in front of a palm tree outside some hotel in Riyadh. What a waste of money. He never had much information and it would surely have been cheaper to place him in front of a palm tree in a studio in London.
She switched it off and picked up Gone With the Wind. She had been looking forward to a piece of intellectual slumming to celebrate her release from work, but she was amazed at how very good it was, almost indecently readable, thought Agatha, who had only read before the sort of books you read to impress people. The fire crackled and Agatha read until her rumbling stomach prompted her to put the curry in the microwave. Life was good.
But a week passed, a week in which Agatha, in her usual headlong style, had set out to see the sights. She had been to Warwick Castle, Shakespeare's birthplace, Blenheim Palace, and had toured through the villages of the Cotswolds while the wind blew and the rain fell steadily from grey skies, returning every evening to her silent cottage with only a new-found discovery of Agatha Christie to help her through the evenings. She had tried visiting the pub, the Red Lion, a jolly low-raftered chintzy sort of place with a cheerful landlord. And the locals had talked to her as they always did with a peculiar sort of open friendliness that never went any further. Agatha could have coped with a suspicious animosity but not this cheerful welcome which somehow still held her at bay. Not that Agatha had ever known how to make friends, but there was something about the villagers, she discovered, which repelled incomers. They did not reject them. On the surface they welcomed them. But Agatha knew that her presence made not a ripple on the calm pond of village life. No one asked her to tea. No one showed any curiosity about her whatsoever. The vicar did not even call. In an Agatha Christie book the vicar would have called, not to mention some retired colonel and his wife. All conversation seemed limited to "Mawnin'," "Afternoon," or talk about the weather.
For the first time in her life, she knew loneliness, and it frightened her.
From the kitchen windows at the back of the house was a view of the Cotswold Hills, rising up to bock out the world of bustle and commerce, trapping Agatha like some baffled alien creature under the thatch of her cottage, cut off from life. The little voice that had cried, "What have I done?" became a roar.
And then she suddenly laughed. London was only an hour and a half away on the train, not thousands of miles. She would take herself up the following day, see her former staff, have lunch at the Caprice, and then perhaps raid the bookshops for some more readable material. She had missed market day in Moreton, but there was always another week.
As if to share her mood, the sun shone down on a perfect spring day. The cherry tree at the end of her back garden, the one concession to beauty that the previous owner had seen fit to make, raised heavy branches of flowers to a clear blue sky as Agatha had her usual breakfast of one cup of black coffee, instant, and two filter-tipped cigarettes.
With a feeling of holiday, she drove up the winding hill that led out of the village and then down through Bourton-on-the-Hill to Moreton-in-Marsh.
She arrived in London's Paddington Station and drew in great lungfuls of polluted air and felt herself come alive again. In the taxi to South Molton Street she realized she did not really have any amusing stories with which to regale her former staff. "Our Aggie will be queen of that village in no time at all," Roy had said. How could she explain that the formidable Agatha Raisin did not really exist as far as Carsely was concerned?
She got out of the taxi in Oxford Street and walked down South Molton Street, wondering what it would be like to see "Pedmans" written up where her own name used to be.
Agatha stopped at the foot of the stairs which led up to her former office over the Paris dress shop. There was no sign at all, only a clean square on the paintwork where "Raisin Promotions" had once been.
She walked up the stairs. All was silent as the grave. She tried the door. It was locked. Baffled, she retreated to the street and looked up. And there across one of the windows was a large board with FOR SALE in huge red letters and the name of a prestigious estate agent.
Her face grim, she took a cab over to the City, to Cheapside, to the headquarters of Pedmans, and demanded to see Mr. Wilson, the managing director. A bored receptionist with quite the longest nails Agatha had ever seen languidly picked up the phone and spoke into it. "Mr. Wilson is busy," she enunciated, picked up the woman's magazine she had been reading when Agatha had arrived and studied her horoscope.
Agatha plucked the magazine from the receptionist's hands. She leaned over the desk. "Move your scrawny butt and tell that shyster he's seeing me."
The receptionist looked up into Agatha's glaring eyes, gave a squeak, and scampered off upstairs. After some moments during which Agatha had read her horoscope--"Today could be the most important day of your life. But watch your temper"--the receptionist came tottering back on her very high heels and whispered, "Mr. Wilson will see you now. If you will come this way ..."
"I know the way," snarled Agatha. Her stocky figure marched up the stairs, her sensible low-heels shoes thumping on the treads.
Mr. Wilson rose to meet her. He was a small, very clean man with thinning hair, gold-rimmed glasses, soft hands and an unctuous smile, more like a Harley Street doctor than the head of a public-relations firm.
"Why have you put my office up for sale?" demanded Agatha.
He smoothed the top of his head. "Mrs. Raisin, not your office; you sold the business to us."
"But you gave me your word you would keep on my staff."
"And so we did. Most of them preferred the redundancy pay. We do not need an extra office. All the business can be done from here."
"Let me tell you, you can't do this."
"And let me tell you, Mrs. Raisin, I can do what I like. You sold us the concern, lock, stock and barrel. Now, if you don't mind, I am very busy."
Then he shrank back in his chair as Agatha Raisin told him at the top of her voice exactly what he could do to himself in graphic detail before slamming out.
Agatha stood in Cheapside, tears starting to her eyes. "Mrs. Raisin ... Aggie?"
She swung round. Roy was standing there. Instead of his usual jeans and psychedelic shirt and gold earrings, he was wearing a sober business suit.
"I'll kill that bastard Wilson," said Agatha. "I've just told him what he can do to himself."
Roy squeaked and backed off. "I shouldn't be seen talking to you, sweetie, if you're not the flavour of the month. Besides, you sold him the joint."
"She took the redundancy money and is sunning her little body on the Costa Brava."
"Working as PR for Friends Scotch. Can you imagine? Giving an alcoholic like her a job in a whisky company? She'll sink their profits down her gullet in a year."
Agatha inquired after the rest. Only Roy had been employed by Pedmans. "It's because of the Trendies," he explained, naming a pop group, one of Agatha's former clients. "Josh, the leader, has always been ever so fond of me, as you know. So Pedmans had to take me on to keep the group. Like my new image?" He pirouetted round.
"No," said Agatha gruffly. "Doesn't suit you. Anyway, why don't you come down and visit me this weekend?"
Roy looked shifty. "Love to, darling, but got lots and lots to do. Wilson is a slave-driver. Must go."
He darted off into the building, leaving Agatha standing alone on the pavement.
She tried to hail a cab but they were all full. She walked along to Bank Station but the tube trains weren't running and someone told her there was a transport strike. "How am I going to get across town?" grumbled Agatha.
"You could try a river boat," he suggested. "Pier at London Bridge."
Agatha stumped along to London Bridge, her anger fading away to be replaced with a miserable feeling of loss. At the pier at London Bridge, she came across a sort of yuppies' Dunkirk. The pier was crammed with anxious young men and women clutching briefcases while a small flotilla of pleasure boats took them off.
She joined the end of the queue, inching forward on the floating pier, feeling slightly seasick by the time she was able to board a large old pleasure steamer that had been pressed into action for the day. The bar was open. She clutched a large gin and tonic and took it up to the stern and sat down in the sunshine on one of those little gold-and-red plush ballroom chairs one finds on Thames pleasure boats.
The boat moved out and slid down the river in the sunshine, seeming to Agatha to be moving past all she had thrown away--life and London. Under the bridges cruised the boat, along past the traffic jams on the Embankment and then to Charing Cross Pier, where Agatha got off. She no longer felt like lunch or shopping or anything else but to get back to her cottage and lick her wounds and think of what to do.
She walked up to Trafalgar Square and then along the Mall, past Buckingham Palace, up Constitution Hill, down the underpass and up into Hyde Park by Deciumus Burton's Gate and the Duke of Wellington's house. She cut across the Park the direction of Bayswater and Paddington.
Before this one day, she thought, she had always forged ahead, always known what she had wanted. Although she was bright at school, her parents made her leave at fifteen, for there were good jobs to be had in the local biscuit factory. At that time, Agatha had been a thin, white-faced, sensitive girl. The crudity of the women she worked with in the factory grated on her nerves, the drunkenness of her mother and father at home disgusted her, and so she began to work overtime, squirrelling away the extra money in a savings account so that her parents might not get their hands on it, until one day she decided she had enough and simply took off for London without even saying goodbye, slipping out one night with her suitcase when her mother and father had fallen into a drunken stupor.
In London, she had worked as a waitress seven days a week so that she could afford shorthand and typing lessons. As soon as she was qualified, she got a job as a secretary in a public-relations firm. But just when she was beginning to learn the business, Agatha had fallen in love with Jimmy Raisin, a charming young man with blue eyes and a mop of black hair. He did not seem to have any steady employment but Agatha thought that marriage was all he needed to make him settle down. After a month of married life, it was finally borne in on her that she had jumped out of the frying pan into the fire. Her husband was a drunk. Yet she had stuck by him for two whole years, being the breadwinner, putting up with his increasing bouts of drunken violence until, one morning, she had looked down at him lying snoring on the bed, dirty and unshaven, and had pinned a pile of Alcoholics Anonymous literature to his chest, packed her things and moved out.
He knew where she worked. She thought he would come in search of her if only for money, but he never did. She once went back to the squalid room in Kilburn which they had shared, but he had disappeared. Agatha had never filed for divorce. She assumed he was dead. She had never wanted to marry again. She had become harder and harder and more competent, more aggressive, until the thin shy girl that she had been slowly disappeared under layers of ambition. Her job became her life, her clothes expensive, her tastes in general those that were expected of a rising public-relations star. As long as people noticed you, as long as they envied you, that was enough for Agatha.
By the time she reached Paddington Station, she had walked herself into a more optimistic frame of mind. She had chosen her new life and she would make it work. That village was going to sit up and take notice of Agatha Raisin.
When she arrived home, it was late afternoon and she realized she had had nothing to eat. She went to Harvey's, the general store-cum-post-office, and ferreted around in the deep freeze wondering if she could face curry again when her eye was caught by a poster pinned up on the wall. "Great Quiche Competition" it announced in curly letters. It was to be held on Saturday in the school hall. There were other competitions listed in smaller letters: fruit cake, flower arrangements, and so on. The quiche competition was to be judged by a Mr. Cummings-Browne. Agatha scooped a Chicken Korma out of the deep freeze and headed for the counter. "Where does Mr. Cummings-Browne live?" she asked.
"That'll be Plumtrees Cottage, m'dear," said the woman. "Down by the church."
Agatha's mind was racing as she trotted home and shoved the Chicken Korma in the microwave. Wasn't that what mattered in these villages? Being the best at something domestic? Now if she, Agatha Raisin, won that quiche competition, they would sit up and take notice. Maybe ask her to give lectures on her art at Women's Institute meetings and things like that.
She carried the revolting mess that was her microwaved dinner into the dining-room and sat down. She frowned at the table-top. It was covered with a thin film of dust. Agatha loathed housework.
After her scrappy meal, she went into the garden at the back. The sun had set and a pale-greenish sky stretched over the hills above Carsely. There was a sound of movement from nearby and Angela looked over the hedge. A narrow path divided her garden from the garden next door.
Her neighbour was bent over a flower-bed, weeding it in the failing light.
She was an angular woman who, despite the chill of the evening, was wearing a print dress of the type beloved by civil servants' wives abroad. She had a receding chin and rather bulbous eyes and her hair was dressed in a forties style, pinned back in rolls from her face. All this Agatha was able to see as the women straightened up.
"Evening," called Agatha.
The woman turned on her heel and walked into her house and closed the door.
Agatha found this rudeness a welcome change after all the friendliness of Carsely. It was more what she was used to. She walked back through her own cottage, out the front door, up to the cottage next door, which was called New Delhi, and rapped on the brass knocker.
A curtain at a window near the door twitched but that was the only sign of life. Angela gleefully knocked again, louder this time.
The door opened a crack and one bulbous eye stared out at her.
"Good evening," said Agatha, holding out her hand. "I'm your new neighbour."
The door slowly opened. The woman in the print dress reluctantly picked up Angela's hand, as if it were a dead fish, and shook it. "I am Agatha Raisin," said Agatha, "and you are ... ?"
"Mrs. Sheila Barr," said the woman. "You must forgive me, Mrs ... . er ... Raisin, but I am very busy at the moment."
"I won't take up much of your time," said Angela. "I need a cleaning woman."
Mrs. Barr gave that infuriating kind of laugh often described as "superior." "You won't get anyone in the village. It's almost impossible to get anyone to clean. I have my Mrs. Simpson, so I'm very lucky."
"Perhaps she might do a few hours for me," suggested Agatha. The door began to close. "Oh, no," said Mrs. Barr, "I am sure she wouldn't." And then the door was closed completely.
We'll see about that, thought Agatha.
She collected her handbag and went down to the Red Lion and hitched her bottom onto a bar stool. "Evening, Mrs. Raisin," said the landlord, Joe Fletcher. "Turned nice, hasn't it? Maybe we'll be getting some good weather after all."
Screw the weather, thought Agatha, who was tired of talking about it. Aloud she said, "Do you know where Mrs. Simpson lives?"
"Council estate, I think. Would that be Bert Simpson's missus?"
"Don't know. She cleans."
"Oh, ah, that'll be Doris Simpson all right. Don't recall the number, but it's Wakefield Terrace, second along, the one with the gnomes."
Angela drank a gin and tonic and then set out for the council estate. She soon found Wakefield Terrace and the Simpsons because their garden was covered in plastic gnomes, not grouped round a pool, or placed artistically, but just spread about at random.
Mrs. Simpson answered the door herself. She looked more like an old-fashioned schoolteacher than a charwoman. She had snow-white hair scraped back in a bun, and pale-grey eyes behind spectacles.
Agatha explained her mission. Mrs. Simpson shook her head. "Don't see as how I can manage any more, and that's a fact. Do Mrs. Barr next to you on Tuesdays, then there's Mrs. Chomley on Wednesdays and Mrs. Cummings-Browne on Thursdays, and then the weekends I work in a supermarket at Evesham."
"How much does Mrs. Barr pay you?" asked Agatha.
"Three pounds an hour."
"If you work for me instead, I'll give you four pounds an hour."
"You'd best come in. Bert! Bert, turn that telly off. This here is Mrs. Raisin what's taken Budgen's cottage down Lilac Lane."
A small, spare man with thinning hair turned off the giant television set which commanded the small neat living room.
"I didn't know it was called Lilac Lane," said Agatha. "They don't seem to believe in putting up names for the roads in the village."
"Reckon that's because there's so few of them, m'dear," said Bert.
"I'll get you a cup of tea, Mrs. Raisin."
"Agatha. Do call me Agatha," said Agatha with the smile that any journalist she had dealt with would recognize. Angela Raisin was going in for the kill.
While Doris Simpson retreated to the kitchen, Agatha said, "I am trying to persuade your wife to stop working for Mrs. Barr and work for me instead. I am offering four pounds an hour, a whole day's work, and, of course, lunch supplied."
"Sounds handsome to me, but you'll have to ask Doris," said Bert. "Not but what she would be glad to see the back of that Barr woman's house."
"It's not the work," said Bert, "it's the way that woman do go on. She follows Doris around, checking everything, like."
"Is she from Carsely?"
"Naw, her's an incomer. Husband died a whiles back. Something in the Foreign Office he was. Came here about twenty year ago."
Agatha was just registering that twenty years in Carsely did not qualify one for citizenship, so to speak, when Mrs. Simpson came in with the tea-tray.
"The reason I am trying to get you away from Mrs. Barr is this," said Agatha. "I am very bad at housework. Been a career woman all my life. I think people like you, Doris, are worth their weight in gold. I pay good wages because I think cleaning is a very important job. I will also pay your wages when you are sick or on holiday."
"Now that's more than fair," cried Bert. "'Member when you had your appendix out, Doris? Her never even came nigh the nospital, let alone gave you a penny."
"True," said Doris. "But it's steady money. What if you was to leave, Agatha?"
"Oh, I'm here to stay," said Agatha.
"I'll do it," said Doris suddenly. "In fact, I'll phone her now and get it over with."
She went out to the kitchen to phone. Bert tilted his head on one side and looked at Agatha, his little eyes shrewd. "You know you'll have made an enemy there," he said.
"Pooh," said Agatha Raisin, "she'll just need to get over it."
As Agatha was fumbling for her door key a half-hour later, Mrs. Barr came out of her cottage and stood silently, glaring across at Agatha.
Agatha gave a huge smile. "Lovely evening," she called.
She felt quite like her old self.