Private detective Agatha Raisin was being driven back to her Cotswold home by her young and beautiful assistant Toni Gilmour. It was an early autumn evening and the sun briefly broke through a mantle of dark clouds to cast lengthening shadows across the road. They drove without conversation, the only sound the burble of the car's engine as it echoed off the embankments, trees, and hedgerows on either side of the country lane.
Agatha stole a glance towards Toni. She really was a very pretty young thing, she mused. Blonde hair, blue eyes, and a trim figure. Clothes were a bit cheap, and that short skirt had ridden up alarmingly while she had been driving. Decent legs, a bit skinny, not like Agatha's shapely, elegant pins. She cast an eye over her own exquisite grey Chanel suit, the skirt's hemline sitting just the right height above her knee. The jacket clung to her somewhat stocky frame in all the right places. She kept her figure in check with occasional bouts of furious dieting. She knew how to make the most of her assets. She could still show these youngsters a thing or two.
Who was she kidding? Toni was more than thirty years her junior. She didn't have to try to make the most of anything. At that age, she didn't have to try much at all. She just looked great. Agatha felt a sudden pang of jealousy.
"That skirt's a bit tarty for business, isn't it?" she said.
Toni shot her a look of exasperation. "Last time I wore it, you said it looked just right!" she said. "Or was that only because you wanted me playing the dumb blonde?"
"Be careful not to typecast yourself, dear," warned Agatha.
"You're impossible sometimes!" gasped Toni, her knuckles turning white as she clenched her fingers around the steering wheel.
Is she imagining those hands around my neck? wondered Agatha. In a rare moment of self-restraint, she bit her lip, deciding not to push Toni any further. She had felt waves of animosity emanating from the young woman all day and couldn't understand why. They had had a very successful day, after all. They were returning from a meeting with an engineering company, Morrison's, who had hired Raisin Investigations to look into what they believed to be industrial espionage.
The company manufactured batteries of various types and was developing a new battery pack that it claimed would double the range of an electric car. Strangers had been seen lurking around. There had even been a mysterious fire in the research and development department one night, although no one had been in the building at the time and the fire brigade could not be certain how the blaze had started. There was certainly no evidence to suggest arson.
Albert Morrison, the company's chairman, had signed a contract with Agatha before she and Toni had left his office, promising a very generous sum of money. Agatha had assured him that they would be on the case straightaway. The downside was that it would involve a lot of grunt work.
Any spy from a rival company hoping to steal Morrison's secrets would surely need help from someone on the inside. The investigation would entail trawling through employee records and conducting interviews, checking for anything unusual. They would be looking for anyone with a criminal background or serious money worries, or maybe someone harbouring some kind of grudge against the company. All that would mean working long hours, and those hours would have to be done by Agatha and Toni. Everyone else at the agency was up to their eyes in work. Divorce, it seemed, was the height of fashion these days, and it felt like half the married women in the county needed evidence of their husbands' philandering. Men seldom approached the agency to find evidence of their wives' infidelities. Most men seemed to prefer a more direct approach—confrontation and accusation. Women, Agatha believed, were more subtle, more cunning, more devious. The female of the species, as Kipling put it, is more deadly than the male.
Agatha's best detective, former policeman Patrick Mulligan, was not working on a divorce case but was bogged down on a surveillance job at Mircester's Isis Palace hotel, where the owners suspected that their manager was lining his pockets through various scams. Hanging around the hotel posing as a business executive, drinking at the bar, and eating in the restaurant was a job Agatha would have liked to take on herself, but the hotel wasn't exactly the Savoy and the clientele gave her the creeps. The thought of sitting in the lounge fending off a series of sleazy sales reps was too tedious for words.
The only other member of staff not involved in adultery, unless he was sniffing around someone else's wife himself, was Simon Black. Agatha had sent him out prowling the streets of various villages every night, hot on the trail of the Cotswold Cat Strangler. The case was being funded by a concerned group of cat owners. She desperately wanted a result from Simon. She couldn't bear it that some nutcase was out there preying on poor innocent pets. She had never been much of an animal lover until she had acquired Hodge and Boswell, her own two cats, and she shuddered at the memory of when they had been kidnapped. Or would you say "catnapped"? No, that sounded like a nice, peaceful five-minute snooze. They had been taken when she was working on that case about those bloody bell ringers.