The Dead Ringer: New Excerpt
The Dead Ringer by M. C. Beaton is the 29th book in the bestselling Agatha Raisin series.
The idyllic Cotswolds village of Thirk Magna is best known for the medieval church of St. Ethelred and its bells, which are the pride and glory of the whole community.
As the bell-ringers get ready for the visit of the dashing Bishop Peter Salver-Hinkley, the whole village is thrown into a frenzy. Meanwhile, Agatha convinces one of the bell-ringers, the charming lawyer Julian Brody, to hire her to investigate the mystery of the Bishop’s ex-fiancée: a local heiress, Jennifer Toynby, who went missing years ago and whose body was never found…
Meanwhile, the bodies in the village just keep on piling up: the corpse of Larry Jensen, a local policeman, is discovered in the crypt. Millicent Dupin, one of a pair of bell-ringing identical twins, is murdered near the church. And Terry Fletcher, a journalist and (briefly) Agatha’s lover, is found dead in her sitting room! Agatha widens her investigation and very soon her main suspect is the handsome Bishop himself. But could he really be behind this series of violent killings, or is it someone who wants to bring him―and his reputation―down?
The Cotswolds in the English Midlands are rated as a beauty spot. They are reckoned to be the only beauty spot made by man, the attraction lying in their gardens and thatched cottages. Busloads of tourists are taken to Stow-on-the-Wold, The Slaughters, and places like Bourtononthe-Water to look at other tourists scrambling for places in tea shops, not realising that there are a great number of pretty villages off the beaten track.
Such was the village of Thirk Magna. The residents were proud of the fact that few tourists ever sullied the quiet of their rural village, even though the pride of the village, the Norman church of St. Ethelred, boasted one of the finest sets of bells in the country.
And there were no more dedicated ringers than Mavis and Millicent Dupin. They were identical twins in their early forties. They dressed alike in twinsets, baggy tweed skirts and brogues. Both had long thin faces and long thin noses. They were very proud of the Dupin nose which they claimed had come over with William the Conqueror. The twins lived in the manor house, a square Georgian building overlooking the duck pond.
Their normally placid lives had been thrown into turmoil, for the bishop was to visit and a special peal of bells was to be rung for him.
The twins summoned the other six bell ringers to their home to decide on a special peal.
The six were normally united in their dislike of the twins and their passionate love of campanology, although some had joined the troupe for other reasons and subsequently found out that they had developed a love for bell ringing. They shuffled into the drawing room of the manor house and waited while Mavis wheeled in a trolley laden with tea and cakes and her sister, Millicent, began to hand round napkins. Helen Toms, the vicar’s wife, hated those napkins, for they were double damask and embroidered in one corner with the twins’ initials. Somehow, Helen always managed to spill a little tea on one of those precious napkins and Millicent would snatch it from her, making distressed clucking sounds, like a hen about to lay. Helen with her wings of dark hair and her clear complexion would have been attractive had she not been so edgy and nervous.
Because of inverted snobbery, Harry Bury, the sexton, considered himself a man of the people and the sisters with their private income, parasites. He had a red face and a perpetual smile and small beady eyes filled with distrust. Julian Brody was a handsome lawyer, two times divorced, though no one quite knew why because he was a relative newcomer to the village. The twins made a great fuss of him to the irritation of Colin Docherty, teacher of physics at a nearby high school, who had previously been the favourite. He had a nervous habit of cracking his knuckles and whistling through a gap in his front teeth. Joseph Merrydown, the butcher, was so red in the face, like a rare sirloin, that the others often feared he might have a stroke during practice.
Helen Toms was always surprised that the men did not chase after Gloria Buxton, a curvaceous blonde with a salon tan and collagen-enhanced lips. Gloria had been divorced from her banker husband for ten years, and, from her blonde hair to her stilettos, seemed an odd person to take up bell ringing. But as Helen’s friend, Margaret Bloxby, who was married to a vicar as well, had said, bell ringing was not a hobby, it was an obsession.
Mavis rapped her spoon against her cup as a sign that the meeting was to begin and, not to be outdone, Millicent rapped her spoon as well.
In her high fluting voice, Millicent got in first. “It is a great honour, this forthcoming visit by the bishop. In his honour, it would be a good idea if we could aim for the longest bell ringing, the Oxford Treble Bob Major.”
Joseph Merrydown gasped. “But that took over ten hours, that did. T’would kill us, that would.”
Julian Brody googled the achievement on his phone. “Hey! That was 17, 824 changes.”
Bell ringing is like no other type of music. It is not written on a standard score. Bells start ringing down the scale, 1 2 3 4 5. But to ring changes, bells change their order each time they strike and it is all done from memory.
The butcher and the sexton were bell ringers like their parents before them, the lawyer because it amused him, the teacher because he was lonely and the vicar’s wife because her husband had insisted she do it. The divorcée because it was great exercise and she had her eye on the lawyer.
The twins held sway over the others because their father had spent his own money refurbishing the bells and had claimed the bells as his property and had left them to his twin daughters.
A clamour of protests from the others fell on the twins’ deaf ears. They were as part of the church as the damp has socks, the faulty heating, and, of course, the bells.
That was until Gloria Buxton said, “I can’t see the bishop waiting all those hours. He will stay for only a short time and bugger off.”
“He will learn of it,” said Millicent passionately. “It will be the talk of the country.”
Julian had assiduously been doing research on his phone. “That’s the bishop of Mircester you’re talking about? The Right Revered Peter Salver-Hinkley?”
“Yes, why?” demanded Millicent.
“I’ve got a picture here of him sleeping his way through Grandsire Trebles by the bell ringers of Duxtonin-the Hedges. Surely a short welcoming peal, dear ladies, and then you will have time to talk to him. If you persist in this long ring marathon, he will be long gone before you can say hullo.”
With that odd telepathy of theirs, the sisters looked at each other and then left the room.
“They in love with ’im, or what?” asked the butcher.
“I think it could be called a sort of schoolgirl crush,” said Julian.
“At their age?” said the sexton.
“They’re in their forties and still got all their hormones.” Julian gave a catlike smile. “At the moment, they are wrestling with their passion for bell ringing with their passion for the bishop.”
“Must be mad,” said Gloria Buxton. “I mean all those Anglican preachers have dead white faces, thick lips and rimless glasses.”
To break the following embarrassed silence—for the local vicar, Helen Tom’s husband looked exactly like that—Julian said, “Not this bishop. He’s sex on legs.”
“Cripes and be damned,” said the butcher, Joseph Merrydown.
“Here, take a gander at his pic,” said Julian, holding out his phone. “Beautiful, isn’t he? Like one of those old-fashioned illustrations in children’s books of one of King Arthur’s knights.”
The bishop had a white, alabaster face, thin and autocratic with a high bridged nose and thin, humorous mouth. His hair was a mass of thick black glossy curls. His eyelids were curved, giving his face the odd look of a classical statue.
“His mother, it says here,” said the sexton, breathing heavily through his nose, “was Lady Fathering, eldest daughter of the Earl of Hadshire. She adopted ’im. Well, that explains it, I means ter say, why he looks so grand.”
“You old snob,” drawled Gloria. “Did you expect him to be as droopy as the usual bish? Or would you like him to be African?”
“I’ll report you to the Race Relations board,” snarled the sexton, and that was followed by a heavy silence while everyone reflected that freedom of speech had gone out of the British Isles, sometimes to a ridiculous extent.
Colin Docherty, the schoolteacher, broke the silence. “I think you’ve put the right idea in their heads. It’ll be the sherry and nibbles welcome.”
“I’ll do that,” said Helen Toms.
“I’d better do it,” said Gloria. “The bishop’s taste is surely a bit above a village’s 1950s idea of refreshment.”
Helen Toms blushed miserably.
“You mean he can’t serve up soggy volau-vents like yours?” jeered the teacher.
“I do not serve soggy vol-au-vent,” howled Gloria.
The door to the drawing room opened and the twins came back in. “We have decided a welcome reception after a short peal is all that is necessary. The reception will be held in our drawing room.”
“I think it should be held in the vicarage drawing room,” protested Julian.
“May I point out that the manor house drawing room is the grander of the two?”
“The vicarage one is more welcoming than this Victorian mausoleum,” said Julian. “I mean, rickety bamboo tables full of old photos. Glass cases of stuffed birds. Let’s put it to a vote. Raise hands for the vicarage.”
All except the twins and Gloria voted for the vicarage. “Look at it this way, girls,” said Julian in a conciliatory tone of voice, “the church and the vicar are what he wants to see.”
Julian walked Helen back to the vicarage. “Don’t look so worried,” he said. “I’ve got a friend coming to stay. He’s a chef in a Paris restaurant. I’ll get him to do the nibbles.”
“But I’m on a budget.”
“My contribution. Don’t protest. Just dying to put several noses out of joint.”
“You might put Peregrine’s nose out of joint. He expected any reception to be in the village hall.”
“I’d better talk to him. He’ll bully you out of it. You know he’s mean.”
“You must not criticise my husband!” yelled Helen. He looked at her sorrowfully. “When you’re all riled up and full of animation, I could kiss you.”
“Leave me alone!” Helen strode off. But then she stopped. It would be really marvellous to use this chef and surprise everyone. She turned back. “Julian!”
“Yes, my love?”
“Sorry I was so abrupt. Thank you for the offer. Most grateful.”
When she walked up the vicarage path, her husband was waiting at the door. He had been a great admirer of a former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who had a long white beard, and was trying to copy his appearance by growing one himself. But it had sprouted in tufts, and, although the hair on his head was white, the beard had grown in ginger.
“What were you shouting about?” he demanded.
“Well, by popular vote, our drawing room is to be used to receive the bishop. A French chef friend of Julian’s wants to supply all the welcoming food free. I told him to forget it.”
Helen was used to manipulating her husband. “You should have consulted me first,” complained Peregrine in his high fluting voice. “Do phone Julian and tell him to go ahead.”
With unusual courage, Helen snapped, “Phone him yourself,” and, pushing past him, went into the house.
The one phone was inconveniently placed on a hall table. Helen heard him dial and then heard him apologise for his wife’s “menopausal” behaviour. She groaned and, twisting round on the sofa, put the cushions over her ears. “I’m only thirtyeightyears old,” she muttered.
Her husband came in so she sat up. “Do you know Mrs. Bloxby over at Carsely?”
“I have met her on a few occasions,” Helen said.
“I want you to get over there and invite Mrs. Bloxby and her husband to the reception. Alf Bloxby was at Cambridge at the same time as the bishop.”
Helen knew Mrs. Bloxby to be both quiet and kind. Glad of a chance to escape, she nodded and went out to her old Ford, parked outside on the road, the one space in front of the vicarage being reserved for Peregrine’s Daimler. As it was not exactly vintage and no one wanted large gas guzzlers these days, he had bought it very cheaply.
Getting into her car, Helen headed off for Carsely.
Mrs. Bloxby looked amused when she received the invitation. “Of course, I’ll come, Helen,” she said. “My husband tells me our bishop was rated a lady killer at Cambridge.”
“But he is not married?”
“He is reported to say he could never meet a lady who could match his beauty. Joking of course, although he is reported to be quite beautiful.”
The phone rang. “Could you answer that, dear?” came the voice of Mrs. Bloxby’s husband from the study.
Mrs. Bloxby sighed and picked up the phone. “It’s for you. Helen,” she said. “Your husband.”
“What does he want now?” said Helen crossly, but she picked up the receiver and said meekly, “Yes, dear, what is it? Yes, I will try.”
She sighed as she put down the receiver. “What a demanding bishop! Now, he wants the sleuth of the Cotswolds, Agatha Raisin.”
“Mrs. Raisin is a great friend of mine, said Mrs. Bloxby.” The doorbell rang. “In fact, that might even be her. She doesn’t work on Saturdays.”
Mrs. Bloxby answered the door and came back into the drawing room with a sophisticatedlooking woman. Agatha Raisin had never become countrified. From her Armani suit to her high heels, she looked more suited to Bond Street than a village vicarage.
After the introductions had been made, Helen said timidly, “Would you ask her, Sarah?”
“Sarah!” exclaimed Agatha. “Her name is Margaret, although I call her by her surname, a hangover from the nowdefunct Ladies Society.”
“I was christened Sarah-Margaret,” said Mrs. Bloxby. “Very confusing. I answer to both. Well, Mrs. Raisin, the bishop is visiting Thirk Magna and the right rev is anxious to meet you.”
“Why?” demanded Agatha. “I will probably be too busy.”
Mrs. Bloxby smiled. “I haven’t told you when this party is. Yes, it is a vicarage party, and yes, you need not go because you won’t be able to get near him for fawning women.”
Agatha’s small bearlike eyes focussed on her friend. “When is this party?”
“Two weeks today,” said Helen. “At six in the evening.”
Mrs. Bloxby handed round sherry and out of the corner of her eyes, watched the busy wheels of Agatha’s brain churning around. “What’s Mrs. Bish like?” Agatha asked.
“Isn’t one,” said Mrs. Bloxby.
“And why do women fawn on him? Oh, I know. He’s gay. Churchy women have a weakness for gay men. They can dream without ever having to face the sweaty reality. Just think of all the married women in this country who would rather read a book at bedtime than having to put up with him rolling over on top of them. Oh, the tyranny of the double bed. Hey! I’m sorry. I will go to the ball.” For Agatha had just noticed one large tear rolling down Helen’s cheek. “Helen, why don’t you phone your husband and say I have invited you to the pub for lunch?”
“He will demand that I return immediately to cook his lunch.”
“Give it a try.”
Helen dialled home and explained in a quavery voice that Agatha had invited her to lunch. “Then go, for Heaven’s sakes,” snarled her husband. “Just get her to that reception.”
“I can go,” said Helen, after she had rung off.
“Right, pub it is. Anyone got a pic of this bishop?” Helen opened a large handbag like a saddlebag and extracted a parish magazine. “There he is, Agatha. Front page.”
“I say. You do yourself proud. Glossy and full colour.”
“We have a village geek.”
Agatha looked at a photo of the bishop. He was laughing at something. Now, Agatha had gone to a tough school in a slum area and so she had learned to keep her dreams of knights in armour to herself. Who was it the Lady of Shallot fell for? That one who sang “Tirra lira” by the river? Sir Lancelot, surely. How she used to dream that one day he would ride into assembly and scoop her up onto his milk-white steed.
Oh, dear. What have I done? fretted Mrs. Bloxby, who had seen bad endings to Agatha’s previous obsessions.
“Will you be joining us, Margaret?” asked Helen.
“No, I’ve got a parishioner coming round for advice in half an hour. You know how it is, Helen. Our time is never our own.”
“Leave a note on the door, saying, ‘Screw you, you pathetic old bag. Either join us in the pub or go home, ” said Agatha.
“Mrs. Raisin! Off you go and stop trying to terrify Mrs. Toms.”
“I am sorry,” said Agatha, as they walked to the village pub. “Does your husband bully you?”
“I will not discuss my husband,” said Helen in a thin voice. “In fact, thank you for your kind invitation but I must get home.” With that, she turned on her heel and hurried back to her car.
She was just easing off the handbrake when there came a rapping at the car window. With a sinking heart she saw it was Agatha. Reluctantly, Helen lowered the window.
“I really am so sorry,” said Agatha who was not really sorry at all but was anxious to pick Helen’s brains for more details about this bishop. “I live down there in Lilac Lane. We can sit in the garden and have a chat. Say you forgive me.”
And poor Helen, who took her Christian duties seriously, felt she had to agree to a short visit.
Under the influence of a very strong gin and tonic combined with a comfortable chair in Agatha’s garden, Helen began to relax.
Agatha talked about things that were going on in her village of Carsely and how it looked as if it was going to be a hot summer. She was just about to start asking questions about the bishop when Sir Charles Fraith strolled into the garden and sat down in a deck chair beside them.
“I thought I had asked you to return my keys,” said Agatha after she made the introductions.
Charles gave a lazy smile. “I saved you from leaving this nice garden to answer the door.”
“Where have you been?”
“Minding my own business, beloved. New reading, Agatha?” She had taken the parish magazine with her when she left the vicarage.
Agatha felt herself growing more and more irritated with Charles. She wanted the reality of this man who sometimes shared her bed to go away and let her nourish her new dream.
And yet there he sat at his ease, barbered and tailored to perfection. Agatha thought dismally that even when Charles was naked, looked as if he was wearing a well-tailored skin.
“Mrs. Toms gave it to me,” said Agatha. “Helen here is hosting a party for the bishop.”
“To which I am sure I am invited,” said Charles, smiling at Helen.
“I will need to ask my husband,” said Helen, throwing a piteous look at Agatha.
“Really, Charles, you are pushy,” said Agatha. “Helen and I were about to have a heart-to-heart before you butted in so be a dear man and clear off.”
“No, no,” gasped Helen. “Must go.” She was beginning to find Agatha rather terrifying. “Bye.” And with that she fled.
“How did you get on?” was the first thing her husband demanded.
“She’ll come,” said Helen. “Oh, a friend of hers, Sir Charles Fraith, wanted an invitation but Agatha didn’t want him there.”
Peregrine Toms was a snob and that title acted on him like magic. “But he must come! I shall send him a card.”
“I could understand it,” Charles was saying, “if you wanted to get your lustful hands under the purple, but you want to fall in lurv, Aggie. You always do and it all ends in misery.”
“At least I don’t look at his bank balance. He’s got an interesting face, that’s all.”
Charles stifled a yawn. “Now, why do I get a frisson of doom?”
Agatha studied the photograph of that face. What would it be like to be Mrs. Bishop?
When she looked up from the magazine, she saw that Charles had fallen asleep.
What should she wear? Something classic. If the good weather held, maybe white chiffon. But one needed to be tall to wear floaty dresses and Agatha was only five feet five inches in her high heels. She went indoors and returned with a pile of fashion magazines and began to search through them.
Her mobile phone rang. Charles mumbled something but did not wake up. When Agatha answered it, she found an agitated Mrs. Bloxby at the other end of the line.
“You really mustn’t go to that party,” said Mrs. Bloxby. “I’ve found something out and I don’t like it. Peter Salver-Hinkley was dating Jennifer Toynby, a local heiress. She disappeared when? A few years ago and hasn’t been seen since. He was suspected of having had something to do with her disappearance but it never came to anything. But I think he might be dangerous. Leave him alone!”
“Oh, I think I should go,” said Agatha. “I mean, I might do a bit of detecting and find out what happened to this Jennifer.”
“Look, you’ll be there. You can stamp on my foot if you think I’m behaving badly. Bye.”
“But . . .”
Agatha hung up. A shadow fell across the magazine in front of her. She looked up at the sky. In the middle of the expanse of blue was one little round black cloud, blocking out the sun.
“And that do be a bad omen, lady,” said Charles suddenly in a stage gypsy voice.
Copyright © 2018 M. C. Beaton.