Authors: Kate Kingsbury
The truth could not be buried …
“I do trust, sir, that you have a valid reason to disturb the funeral of such a respected member of our community?” Cecily asked.
The constable looked at her, and she was shocked at the expression in his eyes. “Believe me, ma’am, I would not have behaved with such disrespect without good reason.”
“And what, pray,” Phoebe demanded from behind her, “could that reason be? You have upset the Reverend Carter-Holmes most desperately, sir. I demand an explanation.”
Very slowly the constable stretched out his hand and began to lift the lid of the coffin. Madeline cried out as the flowers slid off and landed on the floor. No one took any notice of her. They were all staring at the corpse lying in the casket.
It wasn’t the body of Dr. McDuff that lay there at all. It was the body of a younger man. A stranger. And he had been stabbed cleanly through the heart.
A Pennyfoot Hotel Mystery
Service for Two
Copyright © 2012, Kate Kingsbury
The sudden snowstorm that blanketed the southeast coast of England in February of 1907 took the villagers of Badgers End by surprise. Most of them had already banished winter from their minds and were eagerly looking forward to the spring. The children were perhaps the only ones to appreciate the thick frosting that covered Putney Downs overnight.
By morning the thatched roofs of the cottages had turned completely white, and the North Sea lapped a frozen beach. On the way to school the most adventurous among the rowdy group of boys, having discovered a sheet of ice coating the murky surface of Deep Willow Pond, found the temptation irresistible.
One by one they inched their way onto the slippery playground, then joyfully, with flapping arms and shrieks of excitement, flung themselves into a series of ungraceful
sidelong skids. Feet braced, each of them shot across the pond at breakneck speed, to collapse in a heap into the soft snow on the other side. All of them except one, that is.
Not only was Bernie bigger and heavier than the rest, but he also had the disadvantage of bringing up the rear. The newly formed ice, having taken all the stress it could stand, collapsed under the weight of Bernie’s hobnailed boots, and with a howl of fear the boy disappeared through the rapidly widening hole.
After initial confusion, the rest of the boys quickly formed a human chain and began to edge onto the shifting ice. That’s when Joe Salter saw them.
The burly farmer reined in his huge cart horse and clambered down from his perch on the wagon. As he waded through the snow, heart thumping with anxiety, he could just see the boy’s head bobbing in the water above the ice. The sight of the line of young boys snaking precariously across the unstable surface was enough to give him a heart attack.
Yelling at the top of his lungs, he ordered them to get off the ice, then turned back to unhitch Bessie from the cart. He grabbed the hank of rope hanging from the rear flap and tied it to Bessie’s halter. The other end he looped around his waist.
After coaxing Bessie across the ditch, he plowed through the snow toward the pond, where a half dozen children stood shivering at the water’s edge. Joe’s heart stopped when he saw nothing but a black hole about twenty feet away. His heart began pumping again as a wet head emerged once more and emitted an earsplitting scream.
“Hang on, me boy, I’ll be with you in two shakes,” Joe roared. Quickly he shouted instructions to a couple of the boys who, much to his relief, jumped to obey. Then, sending up a silent prayer, he ventured onto the ice.
It crackled ominously, and jagged lines squiggled away from him in all directions, but it held. “Keep splashing!” Joe yelled, terrified he’d lose sight of the boy before he could reach him. Inch by inch he crept forward, his eyes on the thrashing arms of the frantic boy who tried in vain for a hold on the slippery, cold surface.
No one had ever measured the depth of Deep Willow Pond.
Some said that it had no bottom, but went right through to the other side of the earth. Joe tried not to think about that as the ice shifted and creaked beneath his feet.
He tried not to think about the thick weeds floating beneath the surface like slimy green eels just waiting to curl around an unsuspecting ankle and drag its owner down to a bottomless hell. He thought instead about the thirty-five years he’d already lived, and how much he wanted the next thirty-five.
The boy was screaming in terror, which meant he had to pull air in every two or three seconds. Joe hoped it would be enough to keep him afloat until he could reach him. Before the cold froze the boy’s limbs and he could no longer tread water.
Almost there. Joe stretched out his hands and moved forward. As he did so, he felt the groaning ice slowly give way beneath his feet. Again he yelled. “Hie, Bessie. Hie! Get her moving, lads!”
As his legs descended into the chilling bite of the icy water, he made a frantic grab and caught hold of a sopping wet jacket. “Hold still!” he howled at the struggling boy, and grimly held on as he felt the pull of the rope beneath his arms. With a superhuman effort he wrapped one muscular arm around the boy’s shoulders, then held his breath as they both descended into the blackness of the freezing water.
The cold filled his lungs with pain, and he kicked fiercely with his feet. The boy had gone limp and was a dead weight, dragged down by the heavy boots and winter clothes. For a terrible moment Joe thought he’d had it, and then he felt the rope tug again. Once more he pumped his legs, and his head broke through the shattered ice and out into the blessed gift of frosty air.
He dragged oxygen into his lungs and heaved the boy’s lolling head onto his shoulder, keeping his face free of the greedy water. Through misted eyes he had a blurred vision of the boys on the bank dragging at Bessie’s halter, and with his last ounce of strength he yelled again. “Hie, Bessie. Hie!”
The rope tightened as the sturdy bay whinnied and started forward. The boys took up the cry, urging the horse on, and
Joe was sucked out of the hole, still hanging onto his cumbersome burden.
Together they slithered across the ice, then crashed into the edge of the bank with a jolt that rattled Joe’s teeth. Exhausted, he feebly shoved the boy into the snow, where eager hands were waiting to drag them both to safety.
“’Strewth, is he dead?” one wavering voice asked, while a thin, wailing cry came from one of his companions.
“God, I hope not,” Joe muttered, clenching his chattering teeth as he rolled onto his side for a better look.
A shout came from the lane, where two stout farmers, summoned by a quick-witted youngster, clambered across the ditch. Joe barely gave them a glance as he stretched out a numb hand and touched the dead-white face of the boy. For a moment he thought the worst; then he heard a soft moan from the blue lips.
A moment later the boy was violently sick, and Joe lay back with a shuddering sigh of relief. He was colder than he’d ever been in his life. So cold, he wondered if he’d ever have feeling in his body again. But deep inside him he felt a glow that made him forget the chill. He had saved the boy. And that was all that mattered.
Within seconds he felt warm blankets covering him and some fiery liquid forced between his lips. It burned with a wonderful heat down his throat and into his stomach, and he opened his eyes.
“Thank God,” a gruff voice muttered. “For a while there we thought you were a stiff’ un.”
“Not yet,” Joe managed to rasp, and gratefully accepted another mouthful of searing brandy. Coughing, he struggled to sit up, and as he did so, Bernie began keening in a high-pitched wail that chilled Joe’s bones even more than the icy water.
One of the farmers patted the boy’s shoulder, while the rest of the children stood staring white-faced at this new horror. Finally the words became clear as Bernie repeated them over and over.
“There’s a dead body in there. I saw him. There’s a dead body. I saw him.”
“Nay, son, you imagined it, that’s all,” one of the farmers said kindly. “You’ve had a terrible shock, that’s what. Does funny things to the mind.”
Bernie stopped wailing and fixed his terrified eyes on the farmer’s face. Though his voice was hushed, his words were clear on that cold, crisp morning. With utter conviction, he said distinctly, “I did see him, I tell you. He was dead. I saw his eyes staring at me. And I know him. I know who it is.”
“I can’t believe I’m getting bloody married on Saturday,” Gertie said, holding up the brandy glass she was polishing to inspect it in the light from the Pennyfoot Hotel’s kitchen window. “Flipping ’eck, I never thought I’d ever do it. On me life, I didn’t.”
Ethel, who like Gertie, had been a housemaid at the hotel seemingly forever, swallowed her envy and said graciously, “Ian’s a good man, Gertie. You’re a lucky woman.”
“Yeah,” Gertie murmured, sounding uncertain of that. “I s’pose I am. I was beginning to think I’d be an old maid. I’ll be eighteen this year. Cor blimey, that’s bleeding ancient.”
“That was very nice of madam to give you a wedding reception for a present.” Ethel sneezed and searched in the pocket of her apron for a handkerchief. She was older than Gertie by a good year, and didn’t care to be reminded of her diminishing chances of finding a suitable husband.
“Gawd bless you. It was, wasn’t it? I’m looking forward to that, I am.” Gertie spread out her arms and whirled around in a clumsy spin, dipping so that her long, dark blue skirt swept the spotless floor. “Just think. Me, Gertie Brown, belle of the bleeding ball. I can’t hardly believe it’s all happening.”
Ethel blew her nose loudly. “Well, you’re lucky, really, that you and Ian are getting married on the same day as the ball. If they’d had it on the Thursday, which is Valentine’s Day, instead of Saturday, you would’ve missed all that.”
Gertie stopped whirling and held onto the table to steady herself. “Gawd, I get dizzy just thinking about it. A wedding reception, and then the Valentine’s Ball right after. All me guests invited to that, too. Not that I’ll have that many.”
“What about your family in London, then? Aren’t they coming down?”
“Not bleeding likely. That’s the reason I got out of the Smoke in the first place, to get away from all of them. Besides, the only one I’d want is me mum, and she’s dead.”
“What about your dad, then?”
For a moment Gertie’s face creased in pain. “Nah, he would hate all this hoity-toity stuff. Got no time for the posh people, he don’t. He’d feel like a pimple on a baby’s bum in that lot. Anyhow, I ain’t seen him in five years. Nor don’t I want to. He was always walloping me for something or other.” She shuddered, as if shaking off an invisible threat.
Ethel felt sorry for her. Coming from a loving, gentle family, it was hard for her to imagine the kind of childhood Gertie must have endured. “Well, anyway, luv,” she said, standing the polished glasses on a huge silver tray, “you’ll enjoy the ball, I’m sure.”
“Don’t s’pose I’ll see much of it. I’ll be too bleeding nervous thinking about what comes next.”
Ethel blinked. “What comes next what?”
. I never done it. I thought I had, me and Ian had … well, you know … but after I had that long talk with that doctor woman who was here, I found out there’s a bloody lot more to it than I thought.”
Ethel licked her lips. “Go on, tell me.”
She was disappointed when Gertie shook her head. “Nah, I’d feel funny talking about it. But I got this book I can lend you, what the doctor gave me. It will tell you
.” She gave the last word plenty of emphasis, drawing it out in a mysterious manner that made Ethel’s skin tingle.
Gertie nodded. “By the time you’ve read this book, Ethel, me girl, you’ll know more than Fanny Hill.”
“Oo, ’eck,” Ethel whispered.
Gertie grinned and looked out the window. “I just hope this bleeding snow melts before Saturday. I don’t want to have to stand outside the church knee-deep in that blinking stuff.”
“I wonder how they’ll go on at the funeral this afternoon,”
Ethel said soberly. “They’ll have to clean the snow around the grave to get the coffin in.”
“Yeah, shame that were. Poor old Dr. McDuff. Can’t believe he’s gorn, I can’t. All them years he took care of everyone, then he goes and catches a bleeding cold, and it kills him. Now who’s going to take care of everyone?”
“There’s going to be a new doctor,” Ethel said, pleased to be first with information for a change. “I heard Mrs. Chubb and Mrs. Carter-Holmes talking about it.”
Gertie picked up another glass, looked at it, and put it down again. “Well, all I can say is, it’s going to take a blinking long time to get used to someone new. You know how they are in Badgers End, bleeding don’t trust no one, they don’t.”
A sudden thought struck Ethel, a thought so fascinating, so exciting, it made her go all woozy. Pressing her hands to her beating heart, she whispered, “Ooh, Gertie. What if he’s young and handsome and falls madly in love with me, and sweeps me off me feet?”
Gertie’s shout of amusement destroyed the dream, like a snuffer on a candle flame. “Cor blimey, Ethel, whatcha want, a bleeding miracle? You ain’t going to get no handsome bugger burying himself down here in this blinking dump. It’ll be someone like old Dr. McDuff, you mark my words. Someone old and crabby, most likely.”
Ethel sighed. “I ain’t never going to meet my true love at this rate.”
“Too blinking right, you’re not. You need to go up to the smoke and nab one of those rich city blokes. Then you can prance around in all them fancy clothes and jewelry, like the rest of the bleeding nobs.”
Ethel smiled, carried away by the new dream. “Yeah, I’d like to wear lots of sparkly jewelry. Always fancied meself in a tiara.”
“Get one of them things on your head, you’d never take it off again. Bet you’d even wear it to bed.”
“What, even when I’m doing
The two of them exploded into raucous laughter, which was quickly stifled as a stern voice erupted from the doorway.
Mrs. Chubb, the short, stout housekeeper, had her arms crossed and the no-nonsense look on her round face that both girls knew well. They wisely decided to shut up and get back to work.
“I just hope,” Phoebe Carter-Holmes said, peering at Cecily Sinclair from under the massive brim of her hat, “that the young lady appreciates what you are doing for her. It isn’t every day a simple housemaid has such lavish preparations for her wedding bestowed upon her by her employer.”
Cecily smiled. “Gertie is more than just a simple housemaid to me, Phoebe, as are all my staff. Without their hard work and loyalty, the Pennyfoot would not enjoy the fine reputation that makes it the most sought-after hotel on the southeast coast.”
Phoebe sniffed. “Nevertheless, they are still employees. I’m not sure it is such a good idea to treat them like members of one’s own family.”
The third person seated at the long Jacobean table in the library lifted her face to stare at Phoebe. “As you sow, so shall you reap,” Madeline Pengrath murmured, narrowing her beautiful dark brown eyes.