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Read an Exclusive Extract from Down the Hatch . . . !

Chapter One

The scream stopped her in her tracks. It was sharp, shrill and chilling – quite the most horrendous noise that Agatha Raisin had heard since she had left her office for her lunchtime power walk. Summer was beginning to spread its rejuvenating light and verdant carpet over the Cotswolds, and Agatha was well aware that the season for strappy tops and floaty frocks was already upon her, yet she was not quite in summer trim. There were still a few stubborn pounds to lose before she could carry off the sleeveless red dress with the pinched waist, or the butterfly-print skirt, both of which she had bought a size too small as an incentive to lose her winter weight gain.

With every passing year, it seemed this was becoming an ever more challenging battle to win. The navy blue suit skirt she was wearing felt tight around her waist and a little too snug across her hips, even though she had persuaded herself when she dressed that morning that it would ease off during the course of the day.

Agatha sighed and looked over towards Mircester Park’s children’s play area. Was it from there that the scream had come? A small army of thin-limbed youngsters was swarming over climbing frames, dangling from bars, attempting to catapult each other off seesaws,
darting from swings to roundabouts and from slides to something that looked like the bridge of a pirate ship. And they were screaming. Why did children scream like that? At their age, Agatha would have had
to have a very good reason to run around screaming, or she would have been given a good reason in the shape of a clip round the ear. In a play park back then, if you fell over, you fell on concrete or tarmac. Grazed elbows and skinned knees were commonplace. The kids she was watching were careering about on some kind of rubberised, knee-and-elbow-friendly surface. Children were spoiled nowadays – cosseted, mollycoddled. Even a clip round the ear had been outlawed. Their lives were so much easier.

On the other hand, Agatha shrugged as the discussion swam around in her head, wasn’t that just how it should be? Their lives should be easier. No one should use discipline as an excuse to beat children. Every parent should want a better life for their child than they had themselves. That was progress, wasn’t it? Wasn’t that how all parents should see things? Agatha decided
that, never having had children, she wasn’t really qualified to comment, even in her own head. She had never regretted not becoming a mother. She was pretty sure she would have been a good one – or was she too focused on her own needs, too obsessed with her own success, too selfish ever to devote enough time to a child or enough energy to being a caring parent? No, she decided, she had worked hard to leave behind her early life in a Birmingham tower block; she had forged a stellar career in London; she had built up a hugely successful PR business and then she had moved to the Cotswolds and established a well-respected private detective agency. Agatha Raisin could do anything she put her mind to, and had she chosen to become a mother —

The scream came again.

This time, there was no mistaking the direction. It had come from behind the tall hedge bordering the path along which Agatha was walking. She ran towards a black wrought-iron gate set in the hedge, thankful that she had changed her fragile office high heels for more robust low wedges before taking her walk. Bursting through the gate, she found herself in an area of flat open lawn. There were three people there, dressed in white. One was a grey-bearded man lying on the grass, one was an elderly lady collapsed in some distress and the third was an old man, tending to the woman. Agatha rushed over to the woman, who was breathing heavily, clearly distressed, her eyelids fluttering.
‘What happened?’ asked Agatha, kneeling to talk to the man, who was cradling the woman in his arms.

‘My wife collapsed,’ he explained, then nodded towards the figure lying on the grass, ‘when she saw him.’

‘I’ll be fine . . .’ the woman gasped, looking up at her husband. ‘A little thirsty . . .’

Agatha reached into her handbag and handed the woman a small plastic bottle of mineral water that was to have been part of her calorie-controlled lunch. She
also grabbed her phone, calling for an ambulance while heading towards the man spread-eagled on the grass.

‘Yes, an ambulance, please. Mircester Park, at the . . .’ she glanced up at a sign above the door of a neat pavilion that overlooked the lawn, ‘Mircester Crown Green Bowling Club. One woman collapsed and one man . . .’ she looked down at the grey-bearded man on the ground, ‘looks dead.’

Agatha stooped to feel for a pulse, first on the inside of the man’s left wrist and then at his neck, just as her friend Bill Wong, a police officer, had once taught her to do. She held little hope of finding a pulse, and indeed there was none. The skin felt chilled and slightly damp, and one of her rings snagged on the beard when she lifted her fingers from his neck, causing the face to tilt in her direction. It was the face that had told her he was dead. The eyes stared up at her, cold, blue and lifeless.

He had the bulbous, thread-veined purple nose of a man who was no stranger to alcohol. There was redness and blistering around his mouth and a trail of vomit running down through his beard into a fetid pool by the side of his head. His right arm was stretched towards a bottle of rum that lay just out of reach, as though it had slipped from his hand, and where the contents of the bottle had spilled out, the grass, immaculately smooth and green across the rest of the lawn, was scorched yellow. She freed her ring from the stringy beard hair and the head clomped back down on the grass.

A handful of other white-clad figures now appeared, drifting hesitantly across the grass like ghosts come to claim one of their own. There were gasps of horror and some quiet offers of help.

‘No, stay back,’ Agatha ordered, ‘and don’t touch him. He’s been poisoned.’

She stood to take a proper look around. She was standing on the large, almost impossibly flat grass square of a bowling green. It was surrounded by a shallow ditch that in turn was surrounded by a gravel path and, on three sides, the tall hedge that separated it from the rest of the park. On the fourth side, the gravel path widened in front of the pavilion, which served as a clubhouse. It had a thatched roof, more reminiscent of Carsely, the village where Agatha lived, than the larger town of Mircester, but the thatch sat on walls of whitewashed brick rather than the mellow Cotswold stone of Agatha’s cottage. To the left of the clubhouse was a small rose garden, and beyond it a substantial tool shed.

Agatha gave a gentle nod of approval. Bathed in soft sunshine – and despite the whitewashed brick – the setting was quietly pleasant, tranquil. The current circumstances, however, were not. She turned back to the elderly couple.

‘How are you feeling?’ She crouched to talk to the old lady.

‘I’m fine,’ she breathed weakly. ‘Please help me up. Charlie, you be careful of your bad back.’

‘Don’t worry about me, sweetheart,’ said her husband.

‘You should stay where you are.’

‘Your husband’s right. You shouldn’t try to get up.’ Agatha gave her best attempt at a sympathetic smile, decided it was probably coming over more as a patronising pout and switched it off just as the sound of approaching sirens could be heard. ‘The paramedics will be here any second. Let them check you over. Did you know him?’ She nodded towards the body on the grass.
‘We knew him all right,’ the old man replied, ‘and we hated the sight of him. That’s the Admiral – at least that’s what he liked to be called – and I hope you never have the misfortune to meet such a foul, bullying loudmouth. Loved the sound of his own voice, he did.’

‘Well.’ Agatha noted the venom in the man’s voice.

‘He doesn’t have much to say for himself any more, does he?’

A young police officer was first through the gate with a paramedic hot on his heels. The medic made for the Admiral until Agatha put him right.

‘Don’t waste your time with him! He’s past any help you can give him. Get over here. This lady needs attention.’

The police officer took one look at the corpse and, to Agatha’s disdain, turned a very unattractive shade of pale green.

‘Why don’t you go and deal with those people?’ She
pointed towards the white-clad spectators. ‘Keep them back, ask them if they saw anything, that sort of thing.’

Just then, the tall, slim figure of Detective Constable Alice Peters walked purposefully across the grass.

‘Good afternoon, Mrs Raisin.’ She surveyed the scene.

‘What’s been going on here, then?’

‘I’ve really no idea, Alice,’ Agatha admitted. ‘I heard that lady scream and rushed in here to find her in a swoon and a corpse on the bowling green.’

‘Okay, I’ll take it from here.’ Alice bent over the dead man, feeling for a pulse. ‘Can you hang around for a while longer? We’ll need a statement from you.’

‘Of course.’ Agatha watched Alice check on the old lady and talk to the young constable. She moved with an easy grace, and Agatha had to admit she was a very pretty young woman. She had long legs but generally wore loose-fitting dark trousers, which, Agatha surmised,
were practical for the type of work she did but probably also helped to hide the fact that her legs were actually a bit on the skinny side. Although she wasn’t as tall as Alice, Agatha prided herself on having long legs that were also pleasingly shapely. She caught sight of herself as a distant reflection in one of the clubhouse windows, turned sideways and sucked in her stomach.

Yes, her legs were certainly her best feature, even if she didn’t have quite the same athletic figure as Alice.

She peered at the gathering throng of onlookers, held back by yet more recently arrived police officers at the gate. The spectators were craning their necks to catch a glimpse of whatever was going on. She half hoped to see Bill Wong. Bill was a detective sergeant and the first person she had befriended when she had originally moved to the Cotswolds. His Chinese surname came from the fact that his father was originally from Hong Kong, although his mother was English and Bill had lived in or near Mircester all his life. Having outgrown the slightly podgy look he’d had when they first knew each other, he was now a very handsome young man – and engaged to Alice Peters. Was she jealous of Alice? Agatha mulled the question over for a moment and decided that she was, just a little. Even though she had to admit that Bill was a bit young for her; even though she might never have seriously considered a romance with him; even though Alice and Bill looked pretty much perfect together, she was still a teensy bit jealous. That, she decided, was a robustly healthy emotion for sany woman, and it didn’t stop her from liking Alice. She was a lovely girl and she seemed to make Bill very happy, which was really all that mattered, wasn’t it?

Her ponderings were brought to an abrupt end by the sound of a grating, depressingly familiar male voice.

‘Agatha Raisin! Always in the middle of it all whenever there’s trouble.’ Detective Chief Inspector Wilkes strolled across the lawn. He was a tall man off-the-peg suit; despite his undernourished appearance, unsightly rolls of jowly fat spilled over his shirt collar when he lowered his head to talk to Agatha. ‘I wouldn’t have thought this was your sort of thing. No press, no TV cameras, no limelight for you to bask in.’

‘I wouldn’t have thought this was something for you either, Wilkes – no pens to push, no beans to count, no backhanders on offer . . .’

‘Be very careful, Mrs Raisin.’ Wilkes wagged a warning finger at her. ‘I will not tolerate you slandering me in public.’

‘You need a manicure.’ Agatha took a step back from the rag-nailed finger, raising her eyebrows when Wilkes’s nostrils flared angrily, ‘and you really should do something about that nose hair.’

‘This is all well below my pay grade,’ Wilkes seethed, ‘but I won’t have my officers wasting time here when they are needed elsewhere, so don’t try to turn this accident into one of your pathetic pantomimes!’

‘Accident?’ Agatha fixed him with her dark, bear-like eyes. ‘How do you know it was an accident?’

‘Pah!’ Wilkes waved his hand at the corpse and bent to pick up the bottle. ‘You’d have to be a fool not to see that this is just some old soak who drank himself to death.’

Agatha recoiled from the smell from the Smuggler’s Breath Dark Rum bottle, wrinkling her nose.

‘And you’d have to be a fool not to see that this man’s been poisoned. There’s more than just rum in that bottle – and why are you handling it without gloves? You’re supposed to treat every sudden death as a crime scene until you know otherwise.’

‘Don’t try to tell me my job!’

‘Well, somebody has to!’

‘May I take that, please, sir?’ Bill Wong stepped between Agatha and his boss, carefully grasping the very top of the bottle with his white-gloved fingers. ‘Forensics will want to take a look at it. Mrs Raisin, Constable Peters is ready to take a statement from you now.’

Neatly done, Bill, Agatha thought to herself, glowering at Wilkes before walking over to talk to Alice.

‘Get this mess sorted out, Sergeant,’ was the last she heard from Wilkes. ‘Don’t waste any more time here. I want you back on the Wellington Street burglaries.’

Alice was looking over at Bill when Agatha joined her. He smiled at them both before being buttonholed by Dr Charles Bunbury, the pathologist. Agatha had once believed Dr Bunbury to have the most interesting job imaginable, yet whenever she had spoken to him, he had managed to make it sound a humdrum mix of tedious procedure and interminable form-filling. Meeting him was about as interesting as finding an unopened pair of tights behind your dressing table. Although you know they’re useful, it is undoubtedly one of the least exciting things that will happen to you that day, even if it’s a particularly dull Wednesday. Agatha thought she saw a faintly forlorn look on Alice’s face, and guessed that it had nothing to do with Dr Bunbury.

‘Seems like Bill’s a busy man,’ she said.

‘He rarely gets a break,’ Alice sighed. ‘We hardly see each other at all these days.’

‘That’s not ideal, is it?’ Agatha sensed there was more that Alice wanted to say. ‘Are you two okay?’

‘Oh yes.’ Alice nodded, but then her lip trembled and tears welled in her eyes, to be quickly wiped away. ‘But he’s moved out of his flat and back in with his parents. They insisted it would help him to save money before the wedding. Once we’re married, they want me to move in too.’

‘For goodness’ sake don’t go.’ Agatha shuddered, thinking of the Wongs’ gaudily decorated house and immediately remembering the endemic smell of fried food that clung to everything in the place. ‘If you do, they may never let you out of their clutches.’

‘That’s what I’m afraid of, and . . .’ Alice gave herself a shake. ‘But this isn’t the time or place. Can you tell me how you came to find the body?’ She stood with her notebook at the ready.

Agatha rummaged in her handbag, retrieving a pen, and a business card on which she scribbled quickly before handing it over.

‘Give me a call,’ she said. ‘I put my home number on the back. I’m not much of an agony aunt, but at the very least we can have a couple of drinks and bad-mouth men together.’