M.C. Beaton's Pushing Up Daisies is book #27 in the Agatha Raisin series (Available September 20, 2016).
When Agatha Raisin left behind her PR business in London, she fulfilled her dream of settling in the cozy British Cotswolds where she began a successful private detective agency. Unfortunately, the village she lives in is about to get a little less cozy. Lord Bellington, a wealthy land developer, wants to turn the community garden into a housing estate. When Agatha and her friend Sir Charles Fraith attempt to convince Lord Bellington to abandon his plans he scoffs: “Do you think I give a damn about those pesky villagers?” So when Agatha finds his obituary in the newspaper two weeks later, it’s no surprise that some in town are feeling celebratory.
The villagers are relieved to learn that Bellington’s son and heir, Damian, has no interest in continuing his father’s development plans. But the police are definitely interested in him—as suspect number one. His father’s death, it seems, was no accident. But when Damian hires Agatha to find the real killer, she finds no shortage of suspects. The good news is that a handsome retired detective named Gerald has recently moved to town. Too bad he was seen kissing another newcomer. But when she is also found murdered, Gerald is eager to help Agatha with the case. Agatha, Gerald, and her team of detectives must untangle a web of contempt in order to uncover a killer’s identity.
Agatha Raisin, private detective, resident in the Cotswold village of Carsely, should have been a contented and happy woman. Business at her agency was brisk. It was a rare fine English autumn. But the serpent of jealousy was hissing in her ear. Agatha had been jealous of women before but never in one hundred years had she expected to be jealous of her best friend, Mrs. Bloxby, the vicar’s wife.
There was a newcomer in the village, Gerald Devere, a retired New Scotland Yard detective and, of all people, Mrs. Bloxby appeared smitten. She had dyed her hair a rich brown and had taken to wearing attractive clothes instead of her usual old droopy ones.
Gerald was in his early fifties. He had a slim athletic body, a clever mobile face, fine grey eyes and odd slanting black eyebrows. Agatha was determined to ensnare him. After all, she was unmarried and Mrs. Bloxby was married to the vicar. I will only be doing her a favour, thought Agatha. She surely does not want to break up her marriage.
But Gerald had caught Agatha snooping around his house and had been furious with her.
Agatha phoned her friend, Detective sergeant Bill Wong and said, “There’s a newcomer in Carsely. Says he’s retired New Scotland Yard detective. Know anything about him?”
Yes. He was a detective inspector with an impeccable record. He could have risen higher but he decided to retire. Afraid of the competition?”
Don’t need to be,” said Agatha. “All my work is in Mircester now. Big town stuff. No village mayhem.”
It was a sunny Sunday morning. Agatha felt restless. She had thought about going to church but held back, knowing the sight of Mrs. Bloxby, all dressed up and glowing, might drive her to saying something that could end their valuable friendship.
Then she remembered that Mrs. Bloxby had asked her aid in helping the people who had allotments outside the village. Their half acres of land were under threat. The land had belonged to a trust but was now owned by Lord Bellington who wanted to sell the land to a developer for a housing estate. Allotments had started in the nineteenth century when the Victorians considered them a good way for the poor to grow their own vegetables. Gradually, over the years, their popularity declined, until they suddenly became popular again, but with a surprising number of members of the middle class.
Agatha switched on her computer and looked up Lord Bellington. He was a baron. And there’s a name to conjure with, thought Agatha. Barons in fairy stories are always wicked. His home and estates lay outside Mircester. She decided to go and talk to him and see if she could persuade him to leave the allotments alone. Agatha fought down a little frisson of fear, remembering during her last case when she had been nearly buried alive in an allotment. But the fact that Mrs. Bloxby might have asked Gerald for help, stiffened her spine. She would show him what a private detective could do.
You are amazing, Agatha,” he said over a candlelit supper. He reached forward to take her hand.
The ringing of the doorbell jerked her out of her dream. She found her friend, Sir Charles Fraith, standing on the doorstep. “I was just about to go out,” said Agatha.
He followed her in. Although Charles was wearing casual clothes – open-necked blue shirt and dark blue chinos – from his barbered fair hair to his polished shoes, he looked as impeccable as ever.
You’re all made-up and dressed up,” said Charles surveying her. “That’s your man-hunting appearance. If it’s to do with Gerald Devere, forget it. I’ve already told you not to stamp on Mrs. Bloxby’s dreams because she is a good woman and dreams are all they are going to be.”
Well, you’re wrong,” said Agatha. “I am doing Mrs. Bloxby a favour. The village allotments are under threat.”
Oh, wicked Lord Bellington.”
Do you know him, Charles?”
Met him here and there.”
I’m off to see if I can melt his heart.”
I’ll come with you,” said Charles. “He doesn’t have a heart. He has a swinging brick.”
Lord Bellington’s home, Harby Hall, lay a few miles outside Mircester. It seemed to be well guarded. First, they were challenged at the entrance lodge before they were let into the drive. Further up the drive, they were flagged down by a gamekeeper who also demanded their business. “Just visiting,” said Charles, the explanation he had given the lodge keeper.
They drove on until they came to the mansion. “It’s actually uglier than mine,” said Charles.
It was a turreted monstrosity, built by some Victorian during the craze for medieval architecture. The windows were small and diamond paned. The front was dominated by a large portico. They approached a massive oak door studded with brass.
Charles rang the bell. The door was opened by a young woman, wearing a bikini. She had a round white face and very small black eyes. Her black hair was wet. Her brief bikini displayed rolls of white fat and her legs were covered in black hairs.
What do you want?” she demanded.
We wish to speak to Lord Bellington,” said Charles
Dad’s in the pool. Does he know you?”
Yes,” said Charles.
Okay. Follow me.”
The entrance hall was very dark and lined with suits of armour. Tattered battle flags hung from the ceiling. The girl trotted in front of them, dripping water. She led the way through a door at the back of the hall, and down stone steps, along a corridor and so into a large swimming pool.
A large hairy man, absolutely naked was sitting in a chair by the pool, drying his feet with a towel.
Friends of yours, Dad,” said his daughter and plunged into the pool.
He had a pugnacious face and suspicious little eyes peering out below thick shaggy eyebrows. “Don’t know you,” he said.
I’m Charles Fraith. Met you last year at the hunt ball.”
Oh, that’s who you are. This your wife?”
No. May I introduce Agatha Raisin?”
Now he’s drying his crotch, thought Agatha. If only he would put some clothes on.
Come upstairs and we’ll have a drink.” Lord Bellington heaved himself to his feet and, to Agatha’s relief, shrugged himself into a large dressing gown.
They followed him back upstairs and through to a room on the ground floor. This is my study,” he said, opening a drinks cupboard. “What’s your poison?”
Agatha asked for a gin and tonic and Charles, whisky and soda. The room was cluttered with hunting boots, game bags and fishing rods. A large salmon in a glass case eyed them mournfully. A stuffed fox on a side table snarled as if wanted to leap forward and take a bite out of them. Thick ivy outside the window sent flutters of sunlight into the room.
Charles and Agatha sat side by side on a battered sofa that creaked alarmingly. Lord Bellington sat behind an ornately carved desk, took a large swig of some purplish drink and asked, “Why have you come?”
It’s about the allotments in Carsely,” said Agatha. “If you build those houses, it means Carsely could lose village status and become a town. There are already two people in the village who have been trying for years to build housing estates and now they will feel they can do it.”
Do you think I give a damn about what a lot of pesky villagers want?” he demanded.
Do you need the money?” asked Charles.
You should know that estates bleed money. You can tell those creeps in Carsely they haven’t a hope in hell of making me change my mind.”
Who inherits if you die?” asked Agatha.
Thinking of bumping me off? My son, Damian, inherits. Although he’s such a weakling, I’m thinking of changing my will. Now, bugger off. I want my lunch.”
And that’s that,” said Charles. “We’ll tell Mrs. Bloxby we at least tried.”
I haven’t had breakfast,” said Agatha. “What about stopping at some greasy spoon and getting the full English?”
But when they arrived at the vicarage, it was to find the drawing room full of people. “It is a meeting to discuss the allotments,” said Mrs. Bloxby. She was wearing a pink sheath dress and black patent court shoes. Her face was made up and her hair had been cut in a fashionable crop, making her look younger. Gerald Devere seemed to be in charge of the meeting.
Agatha smiled at him and then said in a loud voice, “I am afraid we have bad news. We have been to see Lord Bellington and he is not going to budge an inch.”
To her fury, Gerald said, “You should have consulted us first. Someone more diplomatic might have fared better.”
I know Bellington,” said Charles. “And nothing short of bumping him off is going to solve the problem.”
Well, I’m going to see him,” said a tall, rangy woman. Agatha recognised her as being a Miss Bunty Daventry. “I’ll talk to him man to man. Straight from the shoulder.
“I’ll come with you,” said her friend. What was her name again? Agatha suddenly remembered. Josephine Merriweather, a small restless woman with a face like an outraged ferret.
Do your best,” said Agatha, “but I assure you, it’s hopeless.”
Why don’t we let Mr. Devere be our emissary?” suggested Mrs. Bloxby. “I mean, as an ex Scotland Yard detective, he must be good at dealing with difficult people. Let’s have a vote.”
The majority voted that Gerald should go. The allotment holders were a mixture of middle class ladies and crusty old men. One of the old men, Harry Perry, said, “I won first prize two years running with me marrow. He can’t take fame like that away from me.”
Agatha hated not being in control. “Listen!” she said. “I’ll get in touch with the local newspapers and drum up support.”
Now that is a good idea,” said Gerald and smiled at Agatha for the first time. The glow on Mrs. Bloxby’s face dimmed like the shadow of a cloud passing over a field.
As the meeting started to break up, Gerald asked Charles for directions to Lord Bellington’s place. Mrs. Bloxby whispered to Agatha, “Stay behind.”
Oh, dear, thought Agatha. Is she going to talk about Gerald?
But when only Charles and Agatha were left, Mrs. Bloxby said, “I am very worried. Feeling are running high.”
I suppose that’s understandable,” said Charles. “When Bellington goes ahead with the houses, they’ll lose their plots of land.”
It’s not that,” said the vicar’s wife. “Someone has been thieving vegetables from the plots and tempers are running high. Miss Merriweather reported the thefts to the police and they refused to have anything to do with it so Miss Merriweather is going around saying if she got her hands on the thief, she would kill him.”
Could be a she,” said Agatha.
In Miss Merriweather’s opinion, women are beyond reproach,” said Mrs. Bloxby.
The vicar, Alf Bloxby, came in. “Just going over to Winter Parva,” he said. He turned to go and then swung round and surveyed his wife with a puzzled look. “Are we going anywhere special this evening because I’ve got evensong at Ancombe?”
But you’re all dressed up and your hair is different!”
Spare us, thought Agatha. He’s just noticed.
I felt like a change,” said his wife. “Do run along. You’ll be late.”
When the vicar had gone, Charles said, “You do look very well these days.”
Thank you,” said Mrs. Bloxby.
Charles sensed that Agatha was on the point of saying something that she certainly should not. “Come along,” he said. “I’m sure Mrs. Bloxby has a lot of parish duties to attend to.”
Outside Charles rounded on Agatha. “If you say one thing about her crush on Gerald, it’s an end to our friendship.”
But she’ll get hurt!”
She’s not a child and it is none of your business. You want him for yourself.”
Don’t be silly.”
I do wish you would grow up, Aggie. Always chasing after the unattainable like some spotty teenager.”
They stood glaring at each other. Then Charles laughed. “Come on. Let’s have a drink and maybe stroll down to these pesky allotments.”
You shouted at me,” said Agatha in a small voice.
Trying to get through to you. Let’s go to the pub. I hope this Indian summer lasts a bit longer. That is, if one can still call it an Indian summer, or must we now say, Native American summer?”
Who knows? Who cares?” muttered Agatha, who had not quite forgiven him.
But by the time they drove along to the allotments, Agatha had been restored to good humour and had decided to leave Gerald alone and not interfere in Mrs. Bloxby’s life. She felt quite saintly.
The allotments were situated past the council houses outside the village. “They sell their stuff in the village shop,” said Charles. “I often buy vegetables to take home.”
Agatha wondered if it were possible to cook vegetables in the microwave.
Some people were working their plots, others sat outside small sheds, basking in the sun. “What a lot there is,” marvelled Charles. “Pumpkins, leeks, beetroot, carrots and even still some tomatoes.”
One allotment was being newly worked by an attractive female turning over the earth with a rotavator. She was wearing a gingham blouse and tight blue jeans. Her long blonde hair was tied back with a gingham ribbon. She had a high cheekboned face and large grey eyes.
She saw them watching her and switched off the rotavator. “I wish I could get a gardener in to help me with this,” she said. “But the fanatics around here would accuse me of cheating. Hi. I’m Peta Currie, new to the village. You’re Agatha Raisin. I’ve seen your photo in the papers.”
I’m Charles Fraith.” Charles shook her hand.
This is heavy competition, thought Agatha. “Won’t your husband help you?” she asked.
Don’t have one. Free as the air.” She smiled at Charles who smiled back.
Which is your cottage?” asked Agatha.
That one that belonged to that murdered therapist. If you want a reasonably priced cottage in the Cotswolds, go for one that had a murdered body in it.”
Agatha felt a stab of fear. She had solved the murder of therapist, Jill Davent, only to be nearly murdered herself.
Better get back to work,” said Peta.
Charles and Agatha continued their walk amongst the plots of land. “I remember Mrs. Bloxby telling me they only pay three pounds a year for each half acre. The price was set in World War 1. I don’t know that I can be bothered finding out who is stealing vegetables,” said Agatha. “I’ve got a lot of work at the moment. And it seems there is nothing more anyone can do about Lord Bellington, may his socks rot.”
But as Agatha looked around the peaceful scene, she felt that somehow her dream of peaceful retirement in the Cotswolds had gone wrong. Perhaps she should give up the detective agency and take up gardening instead.
Charles announced he was heading home and dropped Agatha back at her cottage. She wondered how Gerald had fared with Lord Bellington. Probably wouldn’t get past the lodge if he were honest about his business, she thought. Perhaps she should call on him and ask him. But she out that idea firmly out of her mind. Charles had made her feel silly.
By evening, she began to feel lonely. Her two cats, Hodge and Boswell, were playing in the garden, seemingly oblivious to her presence. What stupid names for cats. It had all been her ex-husband, James Lacey’s idea.
She scrabbled in her deep freeze, looking for something to microwave. It all looked so unappetising. She decided to go to the pub for dinner.
Agatha regretted her decision as soon as she walked in the doors of the pub. For sitting at a corner table and deep in conversation were Gerald and Peta Currie. Agatha ordered fish and chips and said she would eat her meal in the garden.
Where had Peta come from, wondered Agatha? What was her background? She looked like a model. If Gerald had fallen for Peta, at least Mrs. Bloxby would be safe.
Wasn’t that our village sleuth?” asked Peta.
Agatha Raisin. Yes,” said Gerald.
Looks quite ferocious.”
I don’t like private detectives,” said Gerald. “Let’s talk about something else.”
He was still furious after his interview with Lord Bellington. He had been curtly told to mind his own business and not poke his nose into other people’s affairs. A long career of having been treated with respect had made this new brush with the real world infuriating.
He half listened to Peta prattling on about some film she had seen and suddenly wished he could discuss Lord Bellington with Agatha.
Lord Bellington had endured what he considered one awful day. Apart from those interfering people from Carsely, his son Damian had called. Looking more wimpish than ever and so his father had told him. His daughter, Andrea, looked like frump and he had told her to go on a diet because she looked sickening. He damned his ex-wife for having divorced him and left him with such awful children. The day before, his mistress, Jenny Coulter, had walked out on him, calling him a bully and a boor.
He ate a large dinner that evening, washed down with a bottle of sauterne. He had a weakness for sweet wine and always drank a bottle when not in company. He finished his meal with a glass of crème de menthe and decided to have an early night. He suddenly felt drunk. As he climbed into bed, his body was racked with spasms and he vomited over the bed. He bellowed for help, but his son had taken himself back off to London and his daughter had gone to a disco. His housekeeper lived on a cottage on the estate and his chauffeur in a flat above the garage. Nobody heard him and he doubled up in agony before losing consciousness.
Agatha only heard the news a few days later when his obituary was in the Times newspaper. Two weeks later, on a Sunday, she attended a meeting of the allotment users at the vicarage. They were all celebrating. Lord Bellington’s heir, his son, Damian, had said he had no intention of building houses on the allotments.
When the cheers had died down, Agatha asked, “How did he die?”
Vomiting and seizure followed by heart and kidney failure,” said Gerald who had heard the news from police contacts.
Really? Sounds like classic antifreeze poisoning,” said Agatha.
They all stared at her. Then Peta began to laugh. “Haven’t you enough to do at that agency of yours without inventing murders?”
I watch a lot of real life crime on television,” said Agatha huffily. “I would amaze you the number of people bumped off with antifreeze and it is always diagnosed at first as heart failure.”
But the cheerful conversation resumed. Only Gerald suddenly felt uneasy. He had made friends at Mircester police headquarters. Inspector Wilkes had been acidulous on the subject of Agatha but Detective Sergeant Bill Wong had said that at times Agatha’s intuition had been uncanny.
He quietly left the room and went home to make phone calls. As a result of his calls, Damian was asked if his father could possibly have been poisoned. Damian had shrugged and then had said airily, “He’s in the family vault. Have a look if you want.”
The following Sunday, just as Agatha was gloomily feeding a frozen curry into the microwave, her doorbell rang. She wondered if it could possibly be James Lacey or Charles but to her surprise, it was Gerald, saying, “May I come in?”
Yes,” said Agatha, wishing she weren’t wearing a cotton skirt, t-shirt and flat sandals.
She led the way into her sitting room and offered him a drink. He asked for a whisky and soda. Agatha poured him one, got herself a gin and tonic and asked, “What’s the reason for the visit?”
You were right,” said Gerald. “I’ve just heard. Lord Bellington was poisoned with antifreeze. I’m to take you in to headquarters to make a statement.”
How did you find out?”
I was worried about what you said. I made phone calls. The son said that as his father was in a stone coffin in the family vault, we could take a look if we wanted and signed the necessary papers. As both of us saw him on the last day of his life, the police want to interview us.”
I hate this,” said Agatha. “Wilkes will treat me as if I am the murderer and keep me half the night.”
Wilkes was furious with Agatha. He found it hard to believe that she could suspect antifreeze poisoning when she had not even seen the dead body. Therefore, she must have had something to do with the death. After all, she had been in his home. Agatha pointed out that Gerald Devere had been there as well and also she had been accompanied by Charles. She explained that she watched a lot of real life crime on television and was always amazed at the amount of deaths from antifreeze that went undiagnosed until some wife or husband bumped off the next spouse. At last, the long interview was over and to her fury, she heard herself being told not to leave the country.
Gerald was waiting for her when she left. “Rotten time?” he asked.
Wilkes is a fool!” raged Agatha.
He feels you made him look stupid,” said Gerald. He ran her to her cottage but refused her offer of a drink.
Which was just as well, thought Agatha sourly, when she walked into her sitting room to find Charles asleep on the sofa with the cats on his lap. She shook him awake.
Bellington was poisoned,” said Agatha, “and as I was the one who suggested it, Wilkes is determined to make me prime suspect. Why weren’t you interviewed as well?”
Have been,” said Charles lazily. “That nice detective, Alice Peterson, was sent over to my home.”
It’s enough to make anyone a Communist,” said Agatha. “Such as you gets the kid glove treatment while proles like me are dragged in and told not to leave the country.”
Sit down. Calm down. Let’s talk about it. It can’t have been the son, surely, or we would not have agreed so easily to his father’s body being taken out of the vault for another autopsy. Could be the daughter. Or do you think one of the people from the allotments went there and spiked his booze?”
Can’t be. They’ll have checked with that lodge keeper who visited him. Wait a bit,” said Agatha, shoving Charles’s legs onto the floor, and sitting down next to him, oblivious of her cats’ complaints at being disturbed. “The antifreeze must have been in something he drank. Someone could have doctored a bottle of wine and just waited. Does he have any staff?”
He has a housekeeper, gamekeeper or maybe two, the lodge keeper, a shepherd, a gardener, and a cleaning company from Mircester comes in once a week. If he has a dinner party, he uses a catering firm. He owns the small village of Harby, more of a hamlet, and recently jacked up the rents causing to end of ill will.”
How did you find out all this?”
I phoned around,” said Charles. “Let it go, Agatha. The suspects are legion.”
Copyright © 2016 M. C. BEATON.
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M. C. BEATON, who was the British guest of honor at Bouchercon 2006, has been hailed as the “Queen of Crime” (The Globe and Mail). In addition to her New York Times and USA Today bestselling Agatha Raisin novels, Beaton is the author of the Hamish Macbeth series and several Edwardian mysteries. Born in Scotland, she currently divides her time between the English Cotswolds and Paris.