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Authors: M. C. Beaton

Agatha's First Case

 

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I

Agatha Raisin had made it to Mayfair. She was twenty-six years old and for the past six months had been working as secretary to Jill Butterfrick, head of Butterfrick Personal Relations. The offices were in South Audley Street; the pay was not very good and the hours were long. But ambitious Agatha wanted to put clear water between herself and her unfortunate past, fleeing the Birmingham slum where she had been brought up, escaping her drunken parents, and walking out on a disastrous marriage to Jimmy Raisin.

She sometimes felt she should divorce Jimmy, but kept putting it off until she assumed that, like her parents, he had probably died of drink. Agatha could only afford a one-room flat in Acton. She carefully bought designer clothes in thrift shops and tried to elocute as much of her Birmingham accent out of her voice as she possibly could.

Apart from her eyes, which were small and bearlike, she presented an otherwise attractive appearance. She was slim with very long legs and shiny brown hair worn in a pageboy.

Jill was a bully and often kept Agatha late when there was no reason for it. Agatha quickly gathered that practically all the clients were “friends of Daddy,” and guessed that the inefficient Jill would otherwise probably have no clients at all. The public relations officers consisted of three languid debs who seemed to do very little.

All of the dogsbody office work was handled by Agatha. She only put up with it because she wanted to
absorb
Mayfair. Soon she would move on and, she cynically thought, have to be replaced by at least three employees.

She had previously tried to get employment with a reputable top PR agency. Agatha had thought the interview had gone well and the boss had said he would let her know. He had called in his secretary as she was leaving. Agatha paused by the secretary's desk to check her makeup and, to her horror, heard the boss say, “That one just won't do. Bit of a toughie. Not enough polish for us. Give it a couple of days and send her a rejection.” Agatha had left, her face flaming with mortification. Two Agathas warred in her soul. The quivering inside Agatha wanted to give up her ambitions but warred with another Agatha, who snarled, “One day I'll show you!”

But the life of Agatha Raisin was about to change. Jill summoned her one morning. Agatha waited politely for instructions while her inner voice said,
What, now, you nasty-faced bitch?

Jill had a long horsey face and very large teeth. Her carefully tinted blond hair hung about her face in the latest style, which seemed to involve looking as if one had just crawled out of bed.

“We have a problem,” she said. “Have you heard of the merchant banker, Sir Bryce Teller?”

“I read about him,” said Agatha. “The papers think he's going to be arrested for murdering his wife.”

“Yes, well, he's a friend of daddy's, and all that. But I have the reputation of this agency to consider. He wants us to deal with the press. Go round there—better to tell him in person—and say that in the circs, we cannot represent him. But best wishes and all that. He lives in Wigmore Street, so just trot round there. Here's the address.”

Heart beating hard, Agatha left Jill's office. On the road out, she snatched up a pile of the morning papers and took ten pounds out of the petty cash. “Is that authorised?” drawled a girl called Samantha.

“Wouldn't do it otherwise,” said Agatha, and made her escape. It was a sunny July day. Agatha found a café with a table outside and ordered a sandwich and coffee. After she had finished her sandwich, she lit a cigarette and opened the newspapers and began to read everything about the murder that she could. The facts were stark. Sir Bryce had been heard shouting at his wife. His wife had been found in the morning strangled with a cheese wire that Bertha Jones, his housekeeper, said was missing from the kitchen. Bertha Jones had been given leave to visit her aunt in Dorset and his gentleman's gentleman, Harry Bliss, had gone to the theatre, let himself in and had gone straight to bed. But a Dr. Williamson, who had a home and surgery next door, said because it was a warm night and all the windows had been opened, he had heard Sir Bryce shouting at his wife and saying he would kill her.

Sir Bryce did a lot for charity and that was where the agency had come in, publicising fund-raising balls and parties. There was a photograph of Sir Bryce and his wife, Nigella.
Trophy wife,
thought Agatha cynically. Nigella had been willowy and blond, married for the second time at the age of thirty, while Sir Bryce was fifty-nine. His first wife had died of cancer. Agatha studied his photograph. He had silver hair and a clever face.

She gave a little sigh and decided to leave the newspapers. The day was getting hotter and she did not want to carry them all the way to Wigmore Street. As Agatha strode along in her high-heeled sandals, wearing a dull green raw silk suit she had bought in a thrift shop, she suddenly wished she were not so driven by ambition. Her secretarial skills were excellent. Why not move to a more congenial office? But Agatha had held on to two dreams. One was working in Mayfair. The other was that one day she would buy a cottage in the Cotswolds. She had visited the Cotswolds as a child on a camping holiday with her parents. They had drunk themselves silly with boredom, complaining that they should have gone to a holiday camp as usual, but the young Agatha had been enchanted by the beauty and peace of the place.

Suddenly, she was in Wigmore Street and found herself wishing she could go back to the office and lie and say Sir Bryce had not been at home. The sun flashed on the brass plates of doctors and medical specialists. Agatha wondered why such a rich merchant banker would choose to live in such an area. Surely Regents Park, Hampstead, or Mayfair would be more in keeping. She arrived outside the Edwardian townhouse. The street was quiet: hard to believe it was so close to the commercial noise and bustle of Oxford Street.

Agatha rang the brass bell and waited, hoping against hope that no one would answer. But the door was open by a man in a black suit and discreet tie. He had thinning fair hair and a boxer's face. This, thought Agatha, must be Harry Bliss, the gentleman's gentleman.

“I am from the Jill Butterfrick Agency to see Sir Bryce,” said Agatha.

He stood aside to let her enter. Agatha's first impression of the town house was that it was claustrophobic. The square hall was thickly carpeted. Blinds at the long windows shut out the sunlight. Bliss led the way upstairs and into a long room with windows front and back.

“Girl from the PR agency,” announced Bliss. A man who had been sitting at a desk by the far window rose slowly to his feet and turned to face Agatha. He looked much older, more crumpled, that his photographs.

Sit down,” he ordered.

Agatha sat on the edge of an overstuffed armchair. The other chairs and sofa were equally plump and had an unused look about them. The blinds were down and the windows were framed by heavy brocade-lined curtains. There was a Victorian fireplace against one wall and above it, an Empire mirror in a gold frame. Bowls of fresh flowers decorated several side tables. The wall opposite the fireplace was lined with books.

He sat in an armchair opposite her. He was wearing a well-cut tailored suit, a white shirt, and a silk tie.

“Name?” he asked.

“Agatha Raisin.”

“And you are?”

“Secretary to Jill Butterfrick.”

“Sent to tell me that her precious agency will not represent me?”

Agatha gulped. “Well, yes.”

“Would you like coffee?”

“Yes, please.” Agatha noticed a large crystal ashtray on a table next to her. She suddenly longed for a cigarette. The pair studied each other. I could be facing a murderer, thought Agatha, but he looks so kind and normal. Then the intuition that was to serve her so well in the future sparked in her brain. For some reason, she was suddenly convinced he did not do it.

“I hate this,” she burst out. She looked at him and grinned. “You know what? This is the end. I am not under contract. I am going back there and I am going to resign. Whew!”

Sir Bryce rang the bell. When Bliss appeared, he ordered coffee and said to Agatha, “You may smoke if you wish.”

He waited until Agatha had lit a cigarette and said, “Tell me about yourself.”

Agatha was about to give him a fictitious account of her happy childhood in the Cotswolds with adoring parents, but there was something in the shrewd grey eyes surveying her that stopped her. So she told the truth, every bit of it.

“So, why were you working for Jill?” he asked.

“I wanted to learn the PR business,” said Agatha. “I could be good at it. Jill hasn't a clue. She takes me along as a dogsbody when she is entertaining journalists. I keep a private file on them all. I know their weaknesses. I know how to apply pressure.”

“You are a scary lady. Ah, here's coffee. How do you take it?”

“Black, please,” said Agatha.

When Bliss had left, he said, “So how would you go about it?”

“Jerry Rothmore of the
Sketch
is your biggest critic,” said Agatha. “I happen to know he is cheating on his wife. Jill went to powder her nose one day when we were having lunch with him. He went on as if I didn't exist. Phoning someone called Cynthia and talking sex. His wife is called Beryl. I checked. I'd start with him. I wish I were a PR. I'd soon get the vultures off your back.”

Bryce looked at the pugnacious face opposite him and suddenly smiled.

He rang the bell again and when Bliss came in, said, “Tell George to get round here as fast as possible.”

When Bliss had left, Bryce turned to Agatha. “George is my man of business. Do you know South Molton Street?”

“Yes,” said Agatha.

“I have property there I was about to sell. An office above the shops. You may set up your own PR business and represent me. I will fund you to hire staff and advertising. If you aren't any good, I will drop you. Are you prepared to meet the challenge?”

“Oh, yes!” said Agatha, although she was hardly able to believe her ears. “But there is one thing. If I am to handle you, I need your view on your wife's murder.”

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