Agatha Raisin had only just returned to her office when her mobile phone rang. Still focussed on booting up her computer, she reached for it without checking the caller-id.
“Yes?” She answered the call, not in the friendliest of voices. Clients didn't have her mobile number, so she didn't care. She'd only just spoken to her staff, so it wouldn't be any of them calling. And any of her friends would forgive her for the gruff greeting, or wouldn't they?
Before she could mull over the thought, Sir Charles Fraith's voice reached her ear. “Say, are you on the case?”
Apparently if she didn't bother with hello, neither did he. As she clicked on her email inbox at the same time Charles spoke, she didn't mind. “Of course I'm on the case,” she replied, opening the first message and skimming it. “Why?”
Charles didn't bother to elaborate. “Good. Let's meet for lunch. At the pub in half an hour?”
Yes, she could do with both lunch and a break from her current caseload of missing teenagers, pets and – how had they even ended up taking this job – a missing goat! She glanced at the clock on the wall.
“Make it forty minutes and I'm game.”
“Perfect. Meet you there.” Charles ended the call as abruptly as it had begun.
Agatha focussed on her messages for a while longer, before it struck her that she'd have to do something about the sorry state her make-up was in after a morning of rushing about, searching for that missing goat. She'd better change into some other shoes as well. She never felt comfortable in flats, but even Agatha had relented to them for the sake of stomping around a goat farm. Better to get the muck on those unloved flats than on her beautiful heels.
By the time she was content with her appearance, she had to rush to make it to the pub on time. 'Please don't let there be any mobile speed traps out today,' she thought as she raced to the pub in record time.
Charles was waiting for her in the car park, casually leaning against his car which seemed polished to a gleam. Was that Gustav's work, Agatha absent-mindedly wondered. Charles himself was immaculate as ever. Not a hair out of place.
“Aggy!” He greeted her as he walked towards her. “How good to see you.”
“If it's so good to see me, how come I hadn't so much as heard a word from you in nearly two months?”
“Been away,” Charles replied evasively.
'Probably on holiday with his latest conquest,' Agatha mused.
“Let's go in. I'm starving,” Charles declared when she didn't speak.
They found a quiet table in a corner, placed their orders and Agatha couldn't resist the lure of an early drink after the overdose of farm life the morning had brought.
“So, tell me all about it.”
“The case of course.”
'Ah, so that's why he's here. Not really to see me, but because he's bored. Go figure.'
“Oh that. Been on it all morning.”
“Who's your client?”
“Mr. Wooller. Have you heard of him?”
Charles thought, then frowned. “I don't recall any mention of a Mr. Wooller. Who's he?”
“Goat-farmer. Someone stole his prize-goat.”
“What?!” Charles looked at her in a way that made it clear he thought Agatha was pulling his leg.
“Diana. Had to listen to him going on about how many prizes she has won for half an hour.” Well, it probably had been closer to five minutes only, but they had felt like half an hour. At least!
“You're not on the murder case then?”
“The one that's on the front page of the newspaper today.”
Agatha hadn't had a chance to so much as glance at the newspaper. Farmers were up so darn early that she'd had to hurry to get to the appointment at the farm on time. If only Simon hadn't called in sick! He had been supposed to work this case. Or if only he hadn't agreed to such an early appointment.
“I've been too busy to bother with the newspaper,” she replied defensively.
Charles spotted a newspaper someone had left behind on a neighbouring table and reached for it. Pointing at the big headline of “Milky Murder”, he handed the newspaper to Agatha who quickly skimmed through the article.
“What do you make of it?” Charles asked when she put the paper down.
“Hold on a sec.” Agatha reached for her mobile and dialled Bill Wong's number.
“Bill. What can you tell me about the girl's murder?”
Apparently Bill didn't mind telling her as she listened quietly for a while, just making the odd "mmh" sound.
All Charles could do was wait – both for Agatha and their food – so he took a sip of his drink.
Their food arrived before Agatha finished her call to Bill; he started to eat, not wanting his pie to go cold.
“I see. Thank you, Bill. Do drop in one of these days, it's been too long since we've had a chance for a real chat.” The last sentence was spoken after she had already disconnected the call. It was said solely for Charles benefit, who didn't so much as bat an eye.
“Enjoy your meal,” Agatha said, mentally shrugging off the attempt to rile Charles, and tucked into her own food.
“So, what did he say?” Charles enquired between bites.
Agatha waived her hand at her food and her mouth, then took another bite. If Charles hadn't come over for her sake, but only because he was bored, she'd make him pay for it. Not that she had much hope he'd actually pay for their lunch, but she couldn't resist making him wait.
Finally she spoke. “No big mystery. Sugar pack fiddled with, rat poison mixed into it. So when the girl tucked into her extra-sugared cornflakes at breakfast, it killed her. Boyfriends' prints all over the cabinet door and sugar pack. They arrested him, and after a night in a cell he confessed. Must have been too late for the newspapers to hear about it. Apparently he did it because he thought she was having it on with the ten-years-older neighbour. Don't know if that's true, but it doesn't matter.”
Charles seemed disappointed, which, Agatha thought, was out of place, considering they were talking about the violent and possibly painful death of a young woman barely older than Toni.
“I suppose not every case comes with a lot of twists.”
“I hope there aren't too many twists when it comes to my missing goat,” Agatha sighed. Hopefully Simon would be back tomorrow so she could hand the case back to him. Even spying on someone's spouse for evidence of an affair was better than looking for a goat!
“Is your farmer sure she didn't just run away?”
“Yes, she was tethered.”
“Properly I suppose? She didn't just pull on the leash and get away?”
“Or nibble through the rope? No, clean cut. Looks like someone used a sharp knife.”
“Have you looked into other farmers yet whose goats lost out to his Daisy?”
“Diana,” Agatha corrected. “And no, haven't had a chance to yet. I hope to get hold of the entry lists for the last events, though.”
“Might even be on the internet.”
“Haven't had a chance to check.”
Charles produced his own mobile phone and started tapping at the screen. “Here's some names for you.” He pushed his phone over to Agatha.
“Good God, those entries are from all over the country!”
“Narrows it down, doesn't it? Don't suppose someone from Scotland will come all the way down here to steal a goat?”
“No, you're right, that's unlikely. I'll focus on the fairly local listings.” She produced a notebook and a pen from her handbag and started copying the names from Charles' phone.
When Charles' excused himself to head for the gents', Agatha paid for her own food and drink, scribbled a brief excuse ('Sorry, had to dash off.') on a napkin and left. It still annoyed her that Charles had only wanted to go for lunch in the hope of an interesting murder case to solve. She'd probably not see him for another two months now, until he got bored again.
Gloomily she headed back to the office to check out the goat farmers' names she had copied from the entry list. Only three lived within a fifty mile radius of Mircester. Still, she wouldn't make it to all of them today, so instead she started googling their names.
The first name she tried had only few hits. A couple of mentions for prize shows, mostly entry lists and results. His goat always seemed to be placed in the mid-field. Not a strong competition for Mr. Wooller's Diana, which made him an unlikely culprit. Unless there was a personal feud of some kind. She made a note to ask Mr. Wooller about it.
The next name on her list seemed more promising, at least at first. While Mr. Cooper's goat Bernice had been a strong contender in several events and even a two-time winner, she found an article from a local newspaper about the farm being sold five months ago; including the prize-goat Bernice, the article pointed out. When she attempted to google the goat, she found it had not been entered in any competitions since.
The last name on her list was a local farmer called Monsted. His farm was just on the other side of Carsley. His name brought up the usual show listings, an obituary for a Margaret Monsted, who, going by her birthday, probably had been his mother, and a mention of a legal dispute concerning the boundary of his and his neighbour's land. Agatha was willing to discount him as well, after all this was someone who settled his arguments in court. But then she read the article on the dispute and found Mr. Monsted had been sued by his neighbour, not the other way around. Also, the neighbour, Mr. Carrington, had won his case. Maybe Mr. Monsted wasn't all that law-abiding after all?
All her research had taken time, though, and she decided not to bother with any farm visits today. Instead, she dialled Mr. Wooller's number to ask him about the three farmers. He didn't answer his phone. 'Probably out milking the goats or something,' Agatha mused as she put the phone down again.
While Agatha still pondered how to proceed, Toni came in to tell her the good news: Another cat had been returned to its happy and grateful owners.
“You look beat,” she said after Agatha had congratulated her on another quick result. “Why don't you call it a day and go home?”
“Yes, I might do just that,” Agatha agreed. She'd been up far too early and farms and all their muck always wore her out. No matter how long she'd lived in Carsley now, farming was something she, as a city girl, just couldn't get used to.
She dropped in on Mrs Bloxby on her way home, though. The vicar's wife was always willing to listen, and Agatha felt she needed to offload her anger at Charles on someone. Her friend made all the right noises and Agatha felt better by the time she left. She was looking forward to playing with her cats and enjoying a quiet evening. She'd pamper herself with a hot bath before turning in early with a good book. And a good glass of wine.
But as is so often the case in life, Agatha's best-laid plans soon went out the window. She was in for a surprise in the form of Charles waiting for her in the kitchen. Something was simmering in a pot on her stove, one of the least-used items in her cottage. Whatever was in the pot, it smelled good.
“Thought you could do with some cheering up after all the goat-business,” Charles declared as he handed her a glass of wine.
'And I thought he'd have gone straight back home, with no murder to solve,' Agatha thought guiltily as she accepted the glass. “Thank you. That's very thoughtful of you.”
“Think nothing of it.” Charles turned up the heat of the stove a little. “Dinner in fifteen minutes.”
“You know I have perfectly acceptable food in the freezer that takes a lot less work?”
“I know the things that pass for food in your mind,” Charles retorted. “I prefer something other than a microwaved lasagne.”
Agatha watched him as he stirred whatever was in the pot. The man managed to look neat even with a dish-towel tucked into his trousers as a make-do apron.
She left her glass on the counter and headed for the door. “I'll quickly get changed. I feel like these clothes still smell of farm-muck.”
“Don't be too long,” Charles called after her.
Upstairs, Agatha peered into her guest-room and found Charles had made himself at home in there, as was his custom to do unannounced and without asking for permission.
Was his cooking just another distraction for Charles? A way to beat his boredom? Or had he really been thinking of her? Had she done him wrong?
She made an effort, put on a fresh skirt and blouse, brushed her hair to a gleam, and touched up her make-up before she went down to the kitchen.
Charles had set out plates by now and was cutting something on a chopping board. She was amazed he managed to find all these items in her kitchen as she never bothered to use them. You could buy your bread sliced, dinner usually was something she only heated in the microwave and other than that, she only needed her kitchen for making coffee and chit-chat. So she never had any use for pots or chopping boards. They must have been gathering dust in one of the cabinets.
“Sit down, dinner won't be a minute,” Charles ordered without looking up.
Agatha did as she was told and picked up her glass of wine, taking a sip.
When Charles slid a plate with steaming food in front of her not long after, she studied it curiously. “What is it?”
“Rigatoni with eggplant, mushrooms and goat cheese. Fits the occasion, doesn't it?”
Agatha had to laugh. “Goat cheese?!”
“Perfect pick-up food for detectives annoyed by looking for stolen goats. Any luck with the names, by the way?”
“Let's not talk about that now. I'd like to forget about stinking farms for a while.”
“Okay,” Charles agreed and slid onto the chair opposite her.
The food was delicious, Agatha had to admit, and Charles had managed to make her laugh for the first time that day. Maybe he wasn't here only because he was bored after all. She knew he'd vanish again just as quickly and abruptly as he had arrived, but maybe, just for this evening, she'd forget about that and enjoy his company.
“Were you planning to stay the night?” She asked.