Copyright © 2007 by M. C. Beaton. All rights reserved.
Agatha Raisin was bored.
Her detective agency in the English Cotswolds was thriving, but the cases were all small, niggling and unexciting, and yet took a great deal of time to solve. She sometimes felt if she had to deal with another missing cat or dog, she would scream.
Dreams and fantasies, that cushion she usually had against the realities of life, had, to her astonished mind, disappeared entirely. She had dreamed so long about her neighbour and ex-husband, James Lacey, that she would not accept the fact that she did not love him any more. She thought of him angrily as some sort of drug that had ceased to work.
So although it was only early October, she tried to fill her mind with thoughts of Christmas. Unlike quite a number of people, Agatha had not given up on Christmas. To have the perfect Christmas had been a childhood dream whilst surviving a rough upbringing in a Birmingham slum. Holly berries glistened, snow fell gently outside, and inside, all was Dickensian jollity. And in her dreams, James Lacey kissed her under the mistletoe, and, like a middle-aged sleeping beauty, she would awake to passion once more.
Her friend, the vicar's wife, Mrs. Bloxby, had once pointed out that Christmas was to celebrate the birth of Christ, but Agatha's mind shied away from that. To her, Christmas was more Hollywood than church.
Christmas advertisements were already appearing on television, and supermarket aisles were laden with Christmas crackers, mince pies and puddings.
But something happened one crisp morning early in the month to take her mind off Christmas.
She was sitting in her office in Mircester, going through the files with her secretary, Mrs. Freedman, wondering whether to handle another dreary job herself or to turn it over to one of her two detectives, Phil Marshall and Patrick Mulligan. Her erstwhile detective, young Harry Beam, was now studying at Cambridge, and Agatha missed his hard-working energy.
"I nearly forgot," said Mrs. Freedman, "but this letter arrived for you. It's marked 'personal,' so I didn't open it."
Agatha picked it up. The handwriting on the envelope was spidery and there was no return address. She opened it. She read:
Dear Mrs. Raisin,
I have learned of your prowess as a detective through the local newspapers and I wonder if you might find time to call on me. I think a member of my family is trying to kill me. Isn't the weather warm for October?
The paper was expensive. The address in raised italic script at the top gave the address of the Manor House, Lower Tapor, Gloucestershire.
"Nuts," said Agatha. "Barking mad. How are our profits?"
"Good," said Mrs. Freedman. "It is amazing how grateful people are to get one of their pets back."
"I miss Harry," sighed Agatha. "Phil and Patrick don't mind the divorces, but they do hate searching for animals. They think it's all beneath them, and I think it's beneath me."
"Why don't you employ a young person to cope with the missing animals? A girl, perhaps. Girls are very keen on animals."
"That's a very good idea. Put an ad in the local paper and we'll see if we can get anyone. Say we want a trainee."
A week later, Agatha, after a long day of interviews, felt she would never, ever find someone suitable. It seemed as if all the dimmest girls in Mircester fancied themselves as detectives. Some had come dressed in black leather and stiletto-heeled boots, thinking that a Charlie's Angels image would be appropriate. Unfortunately, with the exception of one anorexic, the rest were overweight with great bosoms and buttocks. Weight would not have mattered,...