Excerpt – A Merry Murder (A Special Pennyfoot Hotel Mystery)
Pausing to catch her breath at the top of the backstairs, Gertie McBride shifted the pile of linens she carried higher in her arms. From the kitchen below, she could hear the clatter of pots and pans, and Michel’s strident voice bitterly complaining in his stupid French accent that didn’t fool anyone.
The volatile chef always got frantic at Christmastime, and today was no exception. Mrs. Chubb could be heard screeching at him to shut up. Shaking her head, Gertie thanked the heavens that, for a change, she wasn’t the one on the business end of the housekeeper’s wrath.
Breakfast had been served over an hour ago, but already the midday meal was being prepared. Gertie could detect a faint whiff of onions, but the smell was overwhelmed by the fragrant aroma of pine and cedar that wafted across the hotel lobby.
In just a few days it would be Christmas Eve. She cast a glance at the grand curving staircase leading to the upper floors, where huge boughs of evergreens hung on the railings. Bright red ribbons decorated the wreaths as well as little silver bells that tinkled when Gertie’s skirts brushed against them on the way down from the guest rooms.
In the far corner, the magnificent Christmas tree glowed a welcome to the arriving visitors. Gold and silver stars covered the branches, while little white angels with silvery gowns and red and green balls sparkled in the light from the massive chandelier above. A couple of guests passed by the tree, pausing to admire the decorations before strolling on toward the staircase.
Heaving a sigh, Gertie stomped down the stairs. The sooner she got the linens down to the laundry room the better. Mrs. Baxter, or madam as everyone called her, would get testy if she saw her chief housemaid carrying dirty washing across the foyer.
The Pennyfoot’s owner was always kind and considerate to the downstairs staff, as long as they obeyed the rules and minded their manners. She could be an ogre, however, if one of them did something to upset the hotel guests.
Normally the sheets and pillowcases would be sent down the chute to the downstairs hallway, but the upstairs door was stuck again and Archie would have to mend it. Thinking about the new handyman reminded Gertie of Clive, who used to have the job.
She tried not to think about Clive these days.
She had always loved this time of year. Besides the housekeeping, Mrs. Chubb also baked, and nothing spelled “Christmas” like the enticing smell of her mince pies and plum puddings. Unless it was the sound of Phoebe Fortescue’s dance group practicing their horrible out-of-tune singing in the ballroom, or the decorations brightening the halls of the Pennyfoot, or the excitement in her own twins’ faces as they eagerly awaited the visit from Father Christmas.
This year, however, was different. It didn’t seem possible that it had been a whole year since Clive had proposed. She’d been so excited and happy. She’s accepted on the spot, and by rights she should be celebrating the season with a new husband and father to her twins.
It was only three months later when everything fell apart. Clive-the gentle, considerate man she’d fallen in love with-had turned into a domineering, selfish bugger.
When she’d told him that after she was married she still wanted to work at the Pennyfoot, he’d thrown a bleeding fit. He’d told her no wife of his would be anyone’s maid, and that her place was in the home, taking care of him and her children. He’d made it sound as if her work was too blinking beneath him to be worth anything. As if she wasn’t worth anything.
Well, that did it. Just because he’d left his job as the Pennyfoot’s handyman and bought that flipping toy shop didn’t make him bleeding royalty. He was no better than she was, and she’d wasted no time in telling him that. They’d had a good old blowup and she’d told that snot to shove off.
Reaching the floor, she closed her eyes for a moment to picture the scene, as she had done so many times since the spring. She’d missed him at first, but she’d kept reminding herself that she’d had a lucky escape. He would have dominated her whole life, and no one dominated Gertie Brown McBride. Still, the memories kept coming back to taunt her, making her wonder what might have been if she’d done what he asked.
In the next instant, she heard a grunt of pain as she smacked into something soft.
Opening her eyes, she stared into the gaunt face of Lilly Green, one of the latest maids to have been hired at the Pennyfoot. Lilly was almost as tall as Gertie, who towered over the rest of the staff with the exception of Michel. While Lilly was as skinny as a rake, however, Gertie was fighting a tendency to balloon out of her clothes.
She was built like a bloody bull to begin with, but had always managed to keep everything in proportion until this last year. No matter how little she ate now, it all seemed to end up on her blinking hips. She’d soon be as plump as Altheda Chubb. The bossy housekeeper was always complaining that her corset was pinching her.
“You smacked me in the stomach with those,” Lilly said, frowning at the linens in Gertie’s arms.
“Sorry, luv. I wasn’t looking where I was flipping going, was I.” Gertie paused for a moment, silently chiding herself. She’d promised herself so many times that she’d try to stop the curse words that seemed to explode from her lips with no way to stop them.
She’d grown up hearing that language from her dad all day long, and sometimes all night, too, and it had become so much part of her speech, she didn’t even know she was doing it until someone said something. Usually Mrs. Chubb, who was always on at her to talk like a lady. Some bleeding hope of that.
“Why weren’t you?” Lilly seemed about to cry. Then again, Lilly looked like that much of the time. She’d been working at the Pennyfoot for over a year, and she still acted like she’d wandered into a house of mirrors and couldn’t escape.
There was an air of desperation about her that Gertie simply couldn’t understand. It had taken Lilly months to get used to the work, and at times she still turned her nose up at some of the tasks, as if the whole thing was beneath her. She was finicky about everything, and went out of her way to avoid contact with the guests. Especially the men.
Gertie tried to get along with her, but was irritated by such a lack of gumption. As for herself, she would tackle anyone or anything that got in her bloody way. Besides, it irked her that Lilly always had her cap on straight and the straps of her apron sitting firmly on her shoulders. Gertie, on the other hand, rarely accomplished either. “Why wasn’t I what?”
“Looking where you were going.”
“Oh!” Gertie frowned. “I was thinking about something, that’s why. Where are you off to anyway? Aren’t you supposed to be cleaning the silver?”
Lilly raised her hand to tuck her hair more securely beneath her cap. “Mrs. Chubb sent me to tell madam that she’s baking the Christmas puddings. She wants to know how many madam wants her to make.”
“Then you’d better get on with it, hadn’t you.” Gertie stepped past her, adding over her shoulder, “You don’t want Chubby after you for loitering. She’ll have your bloody guts for garters.” Bugger it, she thought. She was swearing again.
She could hear Lilly’s black patent leather shoes clicking on the stairs as she hurried up them. Shaking her head, Gertie headed for the laundry room. If she didn’t get back to the kitchen right away, it would be her guts turning into bloody garters.
Mrs. Chubb was like a mother to her, and to the rest of the maids. Her sharp tongue, however, would give them all a lashing if they got behind in their work. Gertie grinned as she shoved the door open with her shoulder. Chubby didn’t take no nonsense from anyone. Not even madam, or Mr. Baxter. Gertie liked that. You knew where you was with her.
Stepping inside the empty room, she marched over to one of the sinks and dumped the linens into it. Three of the ironing boards were stacked against the wall, while a fourth stood a few feet from the window. One of the maids had forgotten to put it away.
Gertie was tempted to leave it there and get back to the kitchen. She had actually turned toward the door when habit, engrained by years of following the strict rules of the Pennyfoot Hotel, forced her to turn back and fold up the ironing board.
As she carried it over to its place against the wall, something caught her attention in the dark corner by the sinks. A bundle of dirty clothes. Someone must have been in a hurry, chucked them at the sink, and missed. She probably hadn’t even noticed that they’d landed on the floor. Most likely it was the same bloody twit who’d left the ironing board in the middle of the room.
Cursing under her breath, Gertie stomped across the room to pick up the bundle. As she drew closer, however, cold shock slammed into her chest. It wasn’t a bundle of clothes after all. It was a man, lying curled up on his side, his eyes open and staring blankly into space.
“Here!” Gertie demanded, backing up a step or two. “What the bloody hell are you doing in here? You’d better get out of here before I call the copper and have you thrown in the bloody clink.”
The man didn’t even twitch, and looking at the bloodless face, Gertie thought she knew why. This man wasn’t getting up again. He was bleeding dead.
Upstairs in the lavish suite overlooking the bowling greens, Cecily Sinclair Baxter watched her husband settle into his comfortable armchair with the latest edition of the Illustrated London News.
It had been almost a year since a bout of pneumonia had come close to taking Baxter’s life. Every time she looked at him, she felt again the anxiety and dread that had filled her very soul when Dr. Kevin Prestwick had turned to her in that dim, candlelit room, his face grave with concern. She had lost her first husband in that same room. She could not bear to lose another.
Baxter had survived, thank the good Lord, but the illness had left him weak and depressed for months. So much so that he had officially declined the position offered to him as a director of overseas acquisitions-work that would have taken them to all four corners of the world.
Baxter had declared one evening over dinner that he had come to the conclusion he was too old to be taking on such a monumental task. “I am much more suited to managing one hotel in one place, rather than chasing all over the world taking on one headache after another,” he’d told her.
She’d pretended to be dismayed, but had fallen to her knees later that night and given thanks for this reprieve. The only reason she’d agreed to the opportunity in the first place was because Baxter had come close to being seriously hurt while aiding her in a murder investigation. She had decided they would both be on safer ground away from the Pennyfoot and her penchant for tangling with villains. The possibility of seeing her sons again, both of whom lived abroad, was also an incentive.
Even so, she’d hated the very thought of leaving her home and the staff who had become as close as family to her. She had become even more overjoyed when Baxter had surprised her later with a suggestion.
“I think we should purchase the Pennyfoot from your cousin,” he’d said, and for a long moment Cecily had stared at him, afraid to believe what she was hearing in case she was mistaken.
When she didn’t answer him, Baxter had added, “We could turn it from a country club back into a hotel. The memberships have been dwindling in the last year or so, and with a hotel we would attract a more diverse and hopefully a more abundant clientele.”
She had leapt at the idea with so much enthusiasm, Baxter had told her he wished he’d thought of the idea sooner.
So now that they were once again the owners of the Pennyfoot Hotel, Baxter seemed happy and content and, more important, healthy again. He had maintained his business in London, though he had cut back a good deal of it and now did most of the work at home.
Christmas was less than a week away, and the aroma of seasonings and spice from the kitchen, blending with the fragrance of fresh greenery from the woods, filled the halls.
It was her favorite time of the year, and Cecily was so overjoyed, she felt a strong urge to hug her husband. She had actually stretched out her arms to do just that when a sharp rap on the door halted her.
Baxter sighed and rattled his newspaper as she turned toward the door.
“Come in!” Cecily seated herself on her gold Queen Anne armchair as the door opened and Gertie edged into the room.
“I’m sorry, m’m,” she said, dropping a slight curtsey. “I got some bad news.”
Baxter groaned, and lowered his newspaper. “What now?”
Gertie’s gaze seemed to fix on Cecily’s face. “I was in the laundry room and I thought it were a bundle of clothes lying on the floor, but it weren’t.” She appeared to have something to add, but apparently had trouble getting it out.
Cecily was already getting a nasty feeling in her stomach. Every year at this time they seemed to have some kind of disaster. She called it the Christmas Curse, and for years the name had been whispered among the downstairs staff with the same dread that she felt right now.
She tried to sound calm as she gave Gertie an encouraging smile. “So, what is it, Gertie?”
Baxter, who had none of his wife’s patience and restraint, growled, “Come on, girl. Spit it out.”
Gertie swallowed, heaved air into her lungs, and announced in a voice hoarse with anxiety, “It were a dead body, m’m. Mr. Baxter. Mrs. Chubb has already sent for the police constable.”
“Oh, Lord,” Baxter muttered, folding his newspaper.
Cecily could feel her heart pumping. Not again. Not now. Just when they were beginning to see a large increase in bookings. They were already taking reservations for next year. They didn’t need another calamity to frighten off prospective guests, or the ones still due to arrive for the holidays, for that matter. “Who is it, Gertie? Is it one of the staff? A footman? Could you tell how he’d died?”