Excerpt: Murder at the Mayfair Hotel
Book 1 : Cleopatra Fox Mysteries
Moving into a luxury hotel in the world’s most dynamic city was just the tonic I needed. If I had to live with relatives I hardly knew, what better place than The Mayfair Hotel? From the look of its magnificent façade, I wouldn’t have to worry about bumping into them at every turn.
I planted a hand on my hat and tipped my head back to take it all in. Like most old mansions, it was both elegant and imposing; a grand dame that inspired admiration and awe in equal measure. The top of the fifth level appeared to butt against the dense gray clouds, and I counted seven arches spanning the width of the ground floor.
I headed for the central arch, sheltered by a burgundy canopy printed with the hotel’s emblem of an M inside a circle. I recognized it from the stationery my aunt used for her infrequent letters.
“Miss,” said one of the two doormen. “Miss, can you hear me?”
“I’m sorry, were you speaking to me?” I asked.
The doorman regarded me down his nose. “Are you sure you’re at the right place?”
“Is this The Mayfair Hotel?”
“Then I am at the right place.” I frowned. “Why would you think I’m not?”
His gaze held mine a moment longer than necessary. He was assessing me, no doubt trying to determine how a young woman alone could afford to stay in a luxury hotel when she wore a black cloak with frayed cuffs and a hat that was at least two seasons out of fashion.
I did not look away.
“Would you like to put down your luggage? I’ll have it sent to your room with your trunk.” The doorman gave a pointed look at my battered brown leather bag, his mouth turned down in distaste.
The bag had belonged to my grandfather. Thinking about him brought tears to my eyes, but I breathed through my sorrow until they disappeared. He may have died three years ago, but I’d thought about him a lot this last month.
“Miss?” The word came out as an irritated hiss.
I clutched the bag tighter. “Thank you, but I’ll keep it with me.”
The doorman signaled to an extraordinarily tall porter dressed in a smart red jacket and a rimless hat. The porter picked up my trunk and hat box and placed them on a trolley. Another doorman opened the door for him to push it through. I adjusted my grip on my bag and hurried after the porter.
I stopped in the foyer, suddenly out of breath, not from the exertion of a few steps, but from the spectacular sight. I didn’t know where to look first; there was so much to take in, and the space was vast. A Christmas tree festooned with glass baubles, garlands and candles stood proudly in the center of the tiled floor. It reached an impressive height but still fell short of the crystal chandelier suspended above it. Three chandeliers hung in the wide foyer, all ablaze with what appeared to be electric bulbs. The bright light staved off the mid-afternoon gloom and reflected on the shiny tiled floor. Several armchairs in burgundy leather were positioned here and there. Two of them were occupied by elegantly dressed ladies chatting amiably to one another. Roses arranged in large black vases trimmed with gold added a splash of pink to the foyer’s cream, black and burgundy color scheme. Considering roses were not in season, the displays were even more impressive.
The tall porter cleared his throat. He stood with my luggage at a counter behind which another man stood, smiling patiently.
“Would miss like to check in?” he asked.
I approached the counter. “Yes. Or no. I’m not quite sure.”
“Perhaps I can assist you to make up your mind. The Mayfair Hotel is a boutique family-owned establishment of one hundred well-appointed rooms. We pride ourselves on our friendly service, family values, and modern amenities.”
The porter’s head turned to the front desk clerk and an eyebrow arched ever so slightly. The clerk kept his gaze on me and his smile didn’t waver, but I suspected he knew the porter silently challenged his spiel. I couldn’t determine which of the points made by the clerk was in question. Perhaps it was all three. From what my paternal grandparents had told me of my mother’s relatives, family values were in short supply here.
“The Mayfair offers all the comforts of home and more,” the clerk went on.
A small laugh bubbled out of me. I couldn’t help it. If he’d known my previous home was smaller than the hotel’s foyer, he would have found it amusing too. But he did not. The smile disappeared and a blush infused his cheeks. He looked to the porter, who merely blinked at me.
I pressed my lips together until my smile flattened. “I’m sorry for my outburst. I’m sure the hotel is wonderful. I am very impressed with what I’ve seen so far, and the service is excellent.”
The porter puffed out his chest and the smile returned to the clerk’s face.
“However, you don’t need to sell the hotel’s qualities to me any further. I won’t be going to one of your competitors. I have no choice but to stay here.”
A small crease connected the clerk’s dark brows. “No choice?”
“I am Miss Fox.”
The clerk glanced down at his reservation book. “Did you telephone ahead? I recall a Miss Fox…”
“Miss Cleopatra Fox,” I clarified.
He flipped the page and ran his finger down the first column. “No Miss Foxes here. Perhaps there has been a mistake. A very rare mistake, you understand. This sort of thing almost never happens.” His frown returned. “Although your name certainly rings a bell.” His gaze slipped past me and he stood straighter. “Mr. Armitage, sir, would you mind offering your assistance in the matter of Miss Fox. It seems she telephoned ahead and made a reservation, however I have no record of it.”
I turned to see a dashing figure dressed in formal black coat with tails. He was tall with dark hair brushed back off a face that an admirer would call chiseled and a detractor call sharp. I couldn’t imagine he had too many detractors, however. Certainly not of the female variety, and particularly when he gave them his full attention, as he did now to me.
“Miss Fox.” He held out his hand and I shook it. “I’m delighted to meet you. We’ve been expecting you.”
The clerk frowned down at his reservation book again, only to emit a soft “Ah”. He’d realized why my name sounded familiar yet wasn’t in the book. It seemed he’d forgotten about my arrival. Mr. Armitage had not.
“I’m Harry Armitage, the assistant manager. Welcome to The Mayfair Hotel.”
“Thank you. It seems my arrival has confused your staff. I am sorry,” I said to the clerk. “I was about to tell you that I don’t have a reservation because I’ve come to live here, but you summoned Mr. Armitage before I had the chance. I hope you forgive me.”
The clerk blushed again. “Yes, Miss Fox, you are certainly forgiven. In my defense, I’d like to point out that you’re a day early.”
“No, I wrote that I would arrive today, Christmas Eve.”
“I was told Christmas Day.” The clerk’s gaze flicked to Mr. Armitage.
Mr. Armitage signaled for a second porter to join us. “Please inform Mrs. Kettering that Miss Fox has arrived. There appears to have been a mistake and she is a day early.”
“Actually, I’m on time,” I said as the second porter disappeared into the wing of the foyer. “I wrote to my aunt that I would arrive on the twenty-fourth.”
“Your aunt?” the clerk asked. “Lady Bainbridge? Well then.”
I waited for more, but the clerk merely blushed again as Mr. Armitage turned the full force of a stern glare onto him.
“Thank you, Peter, you have a guest waiting,” Mr. Armitage said.
Peter the clerk nodded quickly then turned on his smile for the next guest. I stepped aside so he could serve the newcomer.
Mr. Armitage instructed the tall porter to take my trunk and hat box up to my room. I passed him my bag, feeling somewhat foolish now for refusing to do so outside. It wasn’t going to be stolen in a place like this. The porter headed off with my things, but not to the nearby stairs. He disappeared around the corner at the far end of the foyer. If my things were to be taken up to my room, why did the porter not take the stairs?
“May I offer my deepest condolences on the loss of your grandmother,” Mr. Armitage said.
The warmth in his eyes and voice almost undid me, then and there. I muttered my thanks and quickly looked away, determined not to cry in the middle of the hotel foyer. It helped to change the subject.
“Why did Peter not seem surprised by my aunt’s mistake about my arrival?”
The assistant manager blinked, caught unawares by my question. “I’m very sorry for the mix up. You won’t find us usually so flustered.”
“You don’t appear flustered, Mr. Armitage. You seem quite composed.”
“This is my flustered face.”
I laughed softly. His face hadn’t changed in the least. He still smiled and regarded me as if I were the most important person in the foyer. His smile widened just a little, however.
I leaned in conspiratorially. “Nice avoidance tactic.”
He tilted his head to the side, all innocence. But there was no innocence in his dark eyes. He’d deliberately tried to use his handsome face and charms to distract me from my pursuit of an answer. I suspected it worked on most women. It wouldn’t work on me.
“It’s quite all right,” I said. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t wish to. My aunt is married to your employer, and I wouldn’t want you to jeopardize your position by gossiping about her.”
He drew himself up to an even more impressive height. “My position wouldn’t be jeopardized. It’s my principles I prefer not to compromise. I don’t gossip, Miss Fox. I’m sorry if that frustrates you.”
“As I said, it’s quite all right. I’ll get to know my aunt soon enough and will be able to make my own judgements about her.”
“I’m sure you will,” he said with a sharp edge to his tone.
I sighed. This wasn’t going at all well. I wished I’d kept my mouth shut. In my defense, I wasn’t ordinarily so prickly, but it had been a long day—a long month—and part of me wanted to see Mr. Armitage’s smooth façade crack just a little.
“We’ve got off on the wrong foot,” I said. “I’m sorry. Perhaps I wrote the wrong date in my letter to my aunt. It certainly is of no consequence to me that I wasn’t expected until tomorrow, but I feel awful that your staff have been put out. I do hope Mrs. Kettering isn’t too inconvenienced. I’ll apologize to her and to Peter again too.”
My speech seemed to have achieved the desired effect of thawing the frostiness in Mr. Armitage’s gaze. “Don’t worry about Mrs. Kettering. The head of housekeeping is the most efficient woman I’ve ever met. Her maids might curse you, however—entirely under their breath, of course.” He leaned down and lowered his voice. “Mrs. Kettering is a task master, so they tell me.” He straightened. “As to Peter, it’s almost impossible to get off on the wrong foot with him. He’s the friendliest member of staff. That’s why he’s on the front desk.”
Mr. Armitage’s gaze moved past the couple checking in at the desk to another desk further afield where a staff member attended to a tall woman with a large hat trimmed with every type of trim imaginable, from lace and velvet to ribbon and feather. The long feathers fluttered as her head bobbed. The entire effect was of a hen pecking at the poor man.
Mr. Armitage emitted a small, almost imperceptible sigh.
“Is there a problem?” I asked.
“Not at all,” he said, suddenly giving me his attention again.
“It’s all right, Mr. Armitage. You don’t have to treat me like a guest. If I am to make my way here, I’d like to be treated as one of the family, as someone with a purpose. I don’t yet know what role I can do, but I ought to learn as much about hotel life as I can so that I may find that role.”
He stared at me for several moments, his lips slightly ajar as if he’d been about to say something but the words had suddenly escaped him, or he’d thought better of speaking them.
“You might as well tell me which are the difficult guests and what can be done about them,” I went on. “I assume family members are called upon from time to time to assuage them.”
“I, uh, I see. Assuaging guests is the role of myself and the manager, not the owner’s niece.”
“That’s a shame. I’m quite good with people. For some reason, they seem to trust me.”
That smile returned, but this time it wasn’t the practiced one of an assistant manager of a luxury hotel. It was more genuine, and softer. “I don’t doubt it.”
I would have asked him what he meant, but a passerby caught his attention. “Mr. Hobart, do you have a moment?”
Mr. Hobart was dressed in a tailcoat too and wore the same practiced smile the assistant manager had used to greet me. That was where the similarities between them ended. Where Mr. Armitage was tall and dark, Mr. Hobart was balding, shorter and older. I guessed him to be in his late fifties, whereas Mr. Armitage could be no older thirty, and perhaps younger. Mr. Hobart had a friendly face, with bright blue eyes that sparkled and a web of red veins across rosy cheeks.
“Allow me to introduce you to Miss Cleopatra Fox,” Mr. Armitage said.
There was no confusion in Mr. Hobart’s demeanor. He knew my name instantly. He gave a brief bow, and when he straightened, his smile was kind. “Delighted to meet you, Miss Fox. Welcome to The Mayfair Hotel. I see you’ve met Harry already.”
“Mr. Armitage has been very kind clearing up the confusion surrounding my arrival date.”
“I’m very sorry you weren’t met at the station. Sir Ronald wanted one of the porters to meet you in a hotel conveyance and assist with your luggage. He’ll be disappointed you had to make your own way here.”
“It wasn’t terribly difficult. The cab driver knew the way.”
Too late, I realized that wasn’t what the manager meant. He meant that my uncle wanted me to be met at the station because I was representing his family now, and a Bainbridge lady shouldn’t have to catch a hackney cab from the station and organize such mundane things like porters herself. She had staff to do that for her. I could practically hear my grandparents’ voices saying as much. In our household, the Bainbridge snobbery was legendary.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that was why the staff were so concerned about such a trifling matter as my early arrival. They were worried my uncle might hear that my room wasn’t ready or that I wasn’t greeted properly. I also now understood the odd look Mr. Armitage had given me when I’d mentioned finding myself a role within the hotel. It was likely my aunt and cousin Florence had no role here except a decorative one.
Even more reason for me to be of use. I needed a task, something that would not only stave off the boredom, but also take the burden of supporting me off my uncle’s shoulders. I didn’t want to owe him a thing.
“I’m sure Lady Bainbridge will be delighted to see you,” Mr. Hobart went on. “Harry, if you’d be so good as to inform her ladyship of Miss Fox’s arrival. Miss Fox, would you care to wait in the main sitting room just through there until your room is ready?” He indicated the door at one end of the foyer. “One of the waiters will be happy to serve you refreshments.”
I thanked him and went to move off but Harry did not. “I think I’d better see to Mrs. Cavendish-Dyer.” He nodded at the woman with the elaborate hat, still pecking at the young man. “You’d better speak to Lady Bainbridge, sir. She prefers you anyway.” He flashed a quick grin that seemed quite at odds with his formal smoothness. Perhaps he’d already decided to drop the façade in front of me, considering I wasn’t a guest.
The manager looked a little uncomfortable by this change in his assistant, though not cross. More awkward than anything, as if he hadn’t quite made up his mind how to act in front of me. It seemed none of us were sure where I fitted into the hotel’s community.
Mr. Armitage strode off towards Mrs. Cavendish-Dyer, and Mr. Hobart departed too, so I made my way to the sitting room. It was a large airy space, filled with comfortable chairs, sofas and tables. A three-piece ensemble played in the corner, the sound soft enough that conversations could still be had but loud enough that one group couldn’t eavesdrop on another. The décor was lighter than the foyer, with no burgundy or black vases in sight. It was mostly cream with some gold and more splashes of pink from the roses in the white marble vases. It was the epitome of elegance. Grandmama would have loved it, although she would have felt out of place. Grandpapa would have liked the two rooms off the sitting room. The door to one was labeled LIBRARY and the other labeled WRITING ROOM. My father would have liked those rooms too. My most vivid memories of him were with his nose in a book in his study.
A waiter dressed in crisp white waist apron greeted me and guided me to a spare seat in the bay window. It looked out over the side street with a bookshop opposite. My father would definitely have liked this place. My mother even more so. She would have taken the hotel’s elegant grandness in her stride. It was easy when one was born into luxury as she had been.
“May I bring you a cup of tea?” the waiter asked. “Sponge cake?”
I was about to enthusiastically agree. My stomach felt hollow after not eating anything since breakfast in Cambridge. “Just a cup of tea,” I said, however. Until I spoke to my uncle, I didn’t know what he expected me to pay for out of my allowance and what was free.
I eyed another passing waiter carrying a tray with slices of cream sponge cake and cups of tea. The cake did look delicious, but no doubt it was expensive in a hotel like this. I needed to save every bit of my allowance if I was to become independent.
The waiter brought over the tea on a tray and asked me for my room number.
“I don’t have a room yet. The housekeeper is having it made up now.” I bit the inside of my lip, considering how to proceed. I didn’t want to boast that I was the hotel owner’s niece, yet I didn’t want to cause the waiter embarrassment as I’d caused Peter.
I was saved by a pretty young woman with strawberry blonde hair and a delicate spray of freckles across her pug nose. Her blue eyes were the color of a summer sky and matched her dress.
“Is it you?” she asked in a girlish voice. “Are you my cousin Cleopatra? Mr. Hobart said I’d find her here and you are the only female sitting alone.”
“I am. You must be Florence.” I stood but was almost knocked off my feet by her enthusiastic hug.
She drew away and caught both my hands in hers. “I am so thrilled to finally meet you!”
It was a relief to receive such a warm welcome. Until this moment, I hadn’t realized how worried I’d been about seeing my relatives. If the rest of the family were as friendly as Florence, perhaps the knot in my chest would finally loosen. It might be too much to ask, however. From the way this girl’s parents had treated my mother after she married my father, I was quite sure their reception would be different.
“Do sit down and enjoy your tea, Cleopatra. Gregory, would you mind bringing me a cup too? And a slice of cake each, of course. The sponge here is the airiest in London,” she added as Gregory headed off. “Now, Cleopatra, tell me all about yourself. I want to know everything.”
“Call me Cleo,” I said. “Cleopatra is such a mouthful.”
“And you must call me Flossy.” She reached across the space and patted my knee. “We are so alike, you and I, are we not? I could see the family resemblance immediately. You have my brother’s coloring and he takes after mother, so I suspect you must take after your mother.” She suddenly gasped. “Oh dear, I forgot. My condolences on the death of your parents and grandparents. I know your parents’ deaths occurred many years ago and your grandfather was last year—”
“Three years ago, actually.”
“But your grandmother’s is very recent.” She patted my knee again. “It must still feel raw.”
I swallowed the lump threatening to clog my throat. Raw wasn’t a strong enough word to describe the overwhelming sense of loss I’d felt all month. There was a measure of trepidation mixed with the grief, too. Ever since learning I had to leave my home in Cambridge and move in with an uncle and aunt I’d met only once—and at my parents’ funerals at that—I’d been anxious. Flossy’s enthusiastic greeting and sympathetic gaze went some way to easing my mind, but it wouldn’t be completely at ease until I’d gauged my uncle and aunt’s reactions to my presence and dependency.
“Thank you, Flossy,” I said. “You’re very kind. Everyone here has been kind so far.” Except the doorman. The wicked part of me was quite looking forward to seeing his face when he learned I lived here now.
“You clearly haven’t met everyone then.” She wrinkled her nose. “The housekeeper, Mrs. Kettering, is the devil incarnate. I think even Father’s afraid of her. Obviously you met Mr. Hobart, the manager. If Father is the head of the hotel, Mr. Hobart is its heart. He’s been here from the beginning. The Mayfair couldn’t run without him at the helm. He knows everything there is to know about this place, and probably some things there aren’t to know.” She pulled a face. “That doesn’t make sense, but you know what I mean. Ah, our cake.”
Gregory handed us plates with slices of sponge and poured a cup of tea for Flossy before quietly melting away. There was no mention of room numbers.
Flossy murmured her approval of the cake as she took her first bite. “I adore the sponge here. I could eat a slice a day, but of course I mustn’t. Just on special occasions such as this.”
This was information I needed to know if I were to live here. “Is there a restriction on how often family can partake of the afternoon tea?”
She giggled into her hand. “No, silly. You can come in here and eat cake to your heart’s content. I only mean I can’t have a slice every day or I’ll get fat. You won’t have to worry, of course. You’re so slim! How do you manage such a tiny waist?”
“I don’t eat cake as good as this every day,” I said.
Flossy giggled again then finished the rest of her slice before setting the plate down and picking up her teacup. “Mr. Hobart mentioned you’d met his nephew.”
“I didn’t realize Mr. Armitage was his nephew. Neither of them mentioned it.”
“They would have eventually. They like to act professionally in the presence of guests, so they refer to each other as mister this and mister that, but all the staff know. Harry has worked here for years, not always as assistant to his uncle, though. He’s devilishly handsome, don’t you think? All the maids are in love with him.”
She set down her teacup and clasped her hands. “Isn’t this lovely? I’ve always wanted a sister; someone to share all my secrets with, go shopping together… We’re going to have so much fun, Cleo. It’s wonderful that you made it in time for Christmas. Oh, and I can’t wait to show you off at the ball.”
“Our New Year’s Eve ball.” She tilted her head to the side. “Mother didn’t tell you, did she?”
“Our correspondence has been very brief.”
“I’m sure it has.” Her ominous tone was the first sign of seriousness she’d displayed. The spark also briefly left her eyes, but it quickly returned again as she cast aside whatever bothered her. “I do hope you have something to wear to the ball. There isn’t enough time to get a proper gown made.”
“I don’t own any ball gowns,” I said with an apologetic shrug.
Her assessing gaze took in my simple dress and her nose wrinkled ever so slightly. She was probably wondering how someone so plainly clothed could have anything remotely pretty in her luggage. She would be right. I didn’t own anything as fine as the silk dress trimmed with white lace that she wore. Like all the ladies in the hotel sitting room, her clothes were in the latest style. My mourning outfit might be well made, but it was certainly not in the current fashion.
“I have several ball gowns,” she said. “You can wear one of mine. We’ll have one of the maids take it in to fit you. We’re a similar height but our figures are quite different.” She thrust out her considerable bosom, just in case I hadn’t noticed it.
“That’s kind of you, but unless it’s in black, I’ll have to decline.”
“Yes, of course, you’re in mourning.” She studied my outfit again. “I’m sure one night off from black won’t matter, will it? Ah, here’s Mr. Armitage, come to solve our dilemma.” She smiled up at the assistant manager as he approached.
“I’m happy to help in any way I can, Miss Bainbridge,” he said, using the formal politeness I thought he reserved just for guests. Despite having known one another for years, there was no casual familiarity between them.
“It’s all right for Cleo to take one night off from wearing mourning, isn’t it? Her grandmother died a month ago, and Cleo is quite young, after all. It ought to be a sin for someone so young to be in full mourning for anything longer than a week or two. You agree with me that she ought to wear something nice to the ball, don’t you?”
Mr. Armitage had a tightrope to walk. Disagreeing with Flossy would likely upset his employer’s daughter, but disagreeing with me would go against societal rules. I was rather looking forward to seeing him traverse it and gave him my full attention.
His gaze slid sideways to me before returning to Flossy. “I believe six to nine months is the usual mourning period for a woman for her grandparent, but you’re right, Miss Bainbridge. It would be unfortunate to see someone as young as Miss Fox in full black at a ball.”
Flossy beamed. “So you agree.”
“I think the decision should be left to Miss Fox.”
I felt like applauding him. He’d navigated the tightrope perfectly.
“The point is moot anyway,” I said. “I won’t be attending. It wouldn’t be right.”
“But she died a month ago!” Flossy declared.
Mr. Armitage gave the fleetest of winces.
Flossy didn’t seem to notice. Her cherry pink lips formed a pout and a crease connected her brows. “Do give it some thought, Cleo. Nobody will mind, certainly not your grandmother.”
I pressed my lips together to suppress a smile. I found it harder and harder to take Flossy seriously, although I didn’t think she was trying to be amusing. She was right in that Grandmama would have encouraged me to attend a ball, even one thrown by people she despised. She would also most likely be bellowing with laughter right now, listening to Flossy bumble her way through the conversation without realizing she was bumbling.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mr. Armitage watching me with the most curious expression on his face. I couldn’t quite make out what it meant. It certainly wasn’t a negative one. Indeed, I quite liked it when he looked at me like that, with something akin to surprise.
“Your room is ready, Miss Fox,” he said when he realized I was watching him. “I’ll show you the way.”
“I’ll take her,” Flossy said, rising. “I’m sure you have lots of other tasks on your plate.”
Mr. Armitage bowed. “As you wish, Miss Bainbridge.” He handed me a key. “Room four eleven. I hope you like it, Miss Fox. All the rooms on that side have a nice view over Green Park.”
“He’s very efficient,” Flossy said as we walked out of the sitting room behind him. We both watched as Mr. Armitage joined a gentleman near the Christmas tree who appeared to be asking him something.
Flossy stopped alongside a sliding wooden door where a woman wearing a cloak trimmed with fur also stood. She didn’t appear to notice us as she peered in Mr. Armitage’s direction. After a moment, she lifted a pair of spectacles hanging around her neck and peered through the lenses.
“How odd,” she murmured, frowning. “So very strange to see him here.”
I waited for Flossy to say something, but it seemed she didn’t know the woman. Flossy pressed a button beside the door and a distant bell rang.
“He looks so different, so much older,” the woman went on. “It has been several years. Ten at least.” She shook her head and her frown deepened. “He shouldn’t be here.”
My curiosity almost got the better of me, but I refrained from asking her why Mr. Armitage shouldn’t be here. Indeed, she might not have been referring to him at all. There were another two gentlemen in the vicinity.
The door slid open before I gave in to curiosity, revealing a short man with a pencil-thin moustache dressed in the same uniform as the porters. He stood inside a room no larger than a wardrobe. At the back was a bench seat upholstered in burgundy velvet with a large letter M inside a circle, embroidered in gold thread. Mirrors on all the walls made the tight space appear larger than it was. This was no ordinary room, I realized. This was a lift to take us up to the higher floors. I’d never been in one before and wanted to know how it worked, but I once again forced my curiosity down. I didn’t want to seem unworldly in front of my cousin.
“Good afternoon, Miss Bainbridge,” the lift operator said to Flossy. “Level four?”
“Yes please, John.” She introduced us as she ushered me into the lift.
John welcomed me with a friendly smile and rested his gloved hand on the door. “We have room for one more, madam.”
The woman lowered her spectacles and, still frowning, entered the lift. “Level three.”
He closed the door and pushed the lever attached to the circular device on the wall. The room rose and my stomach lurched, more from the anxiety of the strange sensation than the speed at which we ascended. The lift was so slow I could have climbed the stairs faster.
John eased off the lever and we stopped at level three, where the woman got out, then we continued up to the fourth floor. I expelled a breath once my feet were firmly set on the corridor’s carpet.
“Thank you, John,” I said.
“My pleasure, Miss Fox. And don’t worry. Everyone finds it a bit unnerving their first time.” He winked and closed the door.
Flossy had already moved off, and I rushed to catch up to her. “This level contains the hotel’s suites rather than single rooms,” she said with the direct manner of a tour guide at a historical monument. “Each suite has a bathroom as well as a sitting room. Some have more than one bedroom, to accommodate families, and dressing rooms. The entire floor is reserved for our family and distinguished guests. We don’t have any staying at the moment, but some should arrive shortly for the ball. Father has invited several important people.” She strode down the long corridor, pointing out the door to her parents’ suite, then her brother’s, her own and finally, mine. “Here we are, room four-eleven.”
I unlocked the door and entered. Despite the open curtains it was rather gloomy until Flossy flipped a brass switch on the wall by the door.
“Electric lighting!” I squinted up at the bulb but had to quickly avert my gaze away from the brightness. “How marvelous.”
“The entire hotel has been electrified.” She frowned at the word. “Electricalled? Electrically wired? Anyway, all the rooms have a little switch like this to turn on the central bulb. We had it installed a few years ago—at enormous cost, so my father likes to remind me whenever I ask him to increase my allowance.”
It would have indeed cost a fortune to install electricity throughout the hotel. Few homes had converted from gas lighting, although many streetlamps were now electric, as well as some underground trains, public spaces and buildings. I supposed the hotel had to modernize if it was going to tout itself as a luxurious place to stay.
“So, what do you think of your room?” Flossy asked.
The suite was as elegant as I expected it to be, based on what I’d seen of the hotel so far. Not only was the bedroom three times the size of the one I’d had in Cambridge, but the sitting room was enormous too, and the bathroom was very modern with a large bath.
The rooms contained everything I’d need, from a fully stocked writing desk, sofa, armchairs, dressing table, and a bed in which three people could comfortably sleep. More pink roses cheered the rooms in white vases edged with gold. My luggage, waiting beside the wardrobe doors, looked out of place amidst all the grandeur.
I passed a hand over the warm wood of the desk and looked out the window. Mr. Armitage had been wrong. The view wasn’t simply nice; it was spectacular. I could look through the window over Green Park all day, even with its winter-bare trees.
Flossy joined me. “There’s hot and cold running water in the bathroom, but I’m afraid that’s where the modern amenities begin and end.” She glanced at the lamp. “Well, that and the electric lights. I wish we could have telephones in our rooms. Father has one in his office, of course, as does the reception and Mr. Hobart’s office, but we’re quite behind the times here compared to newer hotels. I once asked Father when the family’s suites would get telephones and he ranted and raved for a full twenty minutes about my laziness. He said if I wanted to stay in touch with friends, I ought to write or visit.” She ran her fingers along the windowsill as if checking for dust. They came away clean. “He’s so miserly and quite the bear at times. Just wait and see. You’ll meet him soon. Anyway, you have to make do with the speaking tube.” She pointed at the brass mouthpiece on the wall. “It connects to the kitchen. If you want something sent up, just ask for it. Breakfast must be ordered the night before, but if you forget, you can simply go to the dining room in the morning.”
Again I wondered what I must pay for, but I would leave those questions for my uncle. I suspected Flossy wouldn’t have a clue.
She departed with a little wave of her fingers and closed the door, leaving me alone to freshen up and change after my day of travel. Cambridge wasn’t too far by rail, but I felt exhausted. It was probably the accumulation of a month’s worth of mourning for my grandmother and everything else that needed to be done afterwards—selling what I could to pay off debts, giving away her personal things to her friends as well as packing, and finally giving back the keys to the landlord for the house we’d moved into after my grandfather’s death three years ago. While it had never quite felt like home, I had fond memories of precious time spent there with my aging grandmother. Moving into that house had signaled a change in our relationship. The previous house had been the one my grandparents moved into as newlyweds. It had been full of warmth and love at a time when I desperately needed it. They’d taken care of me in that house, and made sure I’d had a good life despite the tragedy of losing Mother and Father when I’d been just ten.
But after Grandpapa died and we realized the two of us couldn’t afford to stay there, after the full extent of his debts were revealed, we’d rented a smaller place. His death and learning of his debts had been the beginning of the end for Grandmama. It were as if part of her had died with him. Our roles reversed in a matter of weeks, and for the last three years, I’d taken care of her as her body and mind became more fragile.
When she died, my Uncle and Aunt Bainbridge had written and offered me the opportunity to live in London with them. Despite not having seen them in years, and my very strong reservations, I took the opportunity. It was the only way to free myself of the last of Grandpapa’s debts. The only way to begin anew. Besides, I’d always wanted to see London.
I only wished I didn’t have to depend upon my mother’s family. Her own parents had criticized her, severed all contact with her, and cut her out of their will when she’d married my father. Her younger sister, my aunt, had inherited a vast fortune upon their deaths, and my mother had received nothing. Not even a personal token. Aside from the single appearance of my aunt and uncle at my parents’ funeral, I’d had no contact with them until I received the letter from my aunt after Grandmama died. And now I was utterly dependent on their goodwill. A goodwill I wasn’t entirely sure they possessed. They believed in duty, apparently, or I wouldn‘t have been invited here, but if they had a caring heart between them, we would never have become estranged in the first place.
A light knock on the door shook me from my melancholy thoughts. “Sir Ronald will see you now,” said the footman.
I bristled. I didn’t like to be summoned, and I almost told him I’d be five minutes, just to make my uncle wait. But I was here thanks to his charity and couldn’t afford to stand on principles. Besides, the footman might get into trouble too.
“Is Lady Bainbridge with him?” I asked.
I grabbed my room key and locked the door. With a steadying breath, I followed the stiff-backed footman along the corridor. I wished my aunt would be present. Not because I especially cared to meet her, but because I didn’t want to be alone when I faced the man who held my immediate future in the palm of his hand.
Sir Ronald Bainbridge hadn’t changed in the thirteen years since my parents’ funeral. Aside from patches of gray amid the red-gold hair at either side of his temple, he was exactly as I remembered him—a short man with a pug nose and steely eyes that quickly took in my appearance. Whatever his assessment of me from that brief glance, his expression didn’t give it away. He greeted me with a benign smile and a handshake, as if I were a business partner.
That was how I preferred it. I didn’t want to be pecked on the cheek and fussed over. It had felt genuine from Flossy, but anything this man offered other than the simplest condolences would fall flat.
He indicated I should sit in the chair opposite and clasped his broad hands on the desk in front of him. “I was very sorry to hear about your grandmother. I expect it didn’t come as a shock to you, however.”
“No,” I said.
“I’m glad you accepted my offer to come and live here.” His offer? Not my aunt’s?
“Thank you for making it. I’m very grateful.” Despite going through this conversation dozens of times in my head, I still hesitated, unsure how to proceed.
“I expect this change in your situation is difficult for you, but I’d like to make it easier somewhat. You are family, after all.” He reached for a sheet of hotel stationery then picked up a pen and dipped it into the inkwell. “By my estimation, an extra five pounds should suffice. If you’d like to see how I reached this figure, I’d be happy to show you my calculations.”
I frowned. “Pardon?”
He opened the top drawer of his desk and pulled out a book. He opened it to a page and handed it to me. “I’ve used Florence’s expenses as a guide, and taken into consideration the amount you’re already receiving.”
I stared at the page with its neat columns of figures. Every possible item a woman of my age could need was written down with an amount beside it. Indeed, there was far more than I would need. A new hat every month and new gown every three was excessive, but if he’d used Flossy as a guide, it was clear how he’d reached the figure. I suspected economizing was a foreign notion to her.
Neither the items nor the amount was what confused me the most, however. I put down the ledger and fixed my uncle with a glare. “How do you know the amount I’m already receiving?” It wouldn’t surprise me if he’d bullied his way into my banker’s good graces and coerced the knowledge from the poor fellow. My uncle’s ruthlessness was legendary.
He tilted his head to the side. “I pay your allowance, Cleopatra.”
My jaw dropped.
“You didn’t know?”
“No,” I murmured. He paid my allowance?
“They kept that from you?” He leaned back in the chair, moving his clasped hands from the desk to the top of his stomach. He stared at me, and I suspected I stared back with the same confused expression.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “How long have you been paying my allowance?”
“Ever since you were born.”
My jaw dropped again. Any more surprises and it was in danger of unhinging altogether. “For twenty-three years! But…why did no one tell me?”
“That is a good question, but one I suspect I know the answer to. Your family didn’t like me. Or, more specifically, they didn’t like your mother’s parents. Not telling you the source of your allowance was one small way they could obliterate them—us—from your life.”
“I don’t understand,” I said again, rather stupidly. “My maternal grandparents died before I was born. They were never in my life. Why withhold information from me about the allowance? What did it matter?”
My uncle flattened his moustache with his thumb and forefinger. His shoulders heaved with his sigh as he sat forward again. “I suspect there’s much you don’t know, Cleopatra, and hearing the truth might cast some of your family in a poor light. Are you prepared to hear it?”
I gripped the chair arm to steady myself. I suddenly felt as if the chair were floating away, taking me with it. I had never shied away from the truth. Indeed, I believed the truth, however hurtful, should always be revealed. I’d witnessed my parents’ deaths; I’d heard their arguing voices moments before our gig veered off the road. Knowing that fact about the accident helped me move on.
On the reverse side, there was Grandpapa’s secret debts. Grandmama had been deeply hurt when she’d learned of them. Nothing good came of deceit.
But I wasn’t convinced that my uncle was speaking the truth. I would hear his version, however. “Go on,” I prompted.
“Do you know that your mother’s parents left their entire fortune to her sister, your Aunt Lilian, when they died?”
“Yes. They didn’t like that she married my father against their wishes, so they removed my mother from their will, and their lives.”
“That’s a fair summary. I married your Aunt Lilian shortly afterwards, and her inheritance allowed me to turn my ancestral home into this hotel.” He spread out his hands. At least he admitted that his wife’s money had led him to become the wealthy hotelier he now was. I hadn’t expected him to, and I gave him credit for it.
“Soon after our marriage, I wrote to your parents and offered them an allowance. It never felt right to me that Lilian should inherit it all. Your parents refused my offer.”
He offered no reason, thankfully. I suspected stubbornness and pride played large parts, but that didn’t mean I wanted this man to point it out.
“When you were born, I offered again,” he went on. “The granddaughter of a gentleman who’d been one of the nation’s wealthiest merchants shouldn’t be brought up in…reduced circumstances.”
I bristled. “We weren’t poor.”
He held up his hands. “My apologies. No, you weren’t poor by the average man’s standards. But you were by ours.” He indicated the walls surrounding us, with the rich wood paneling and the paintings in gilded frames. “Academia doesn’t pay well, unfortunately. Your father was a very clever man. The cleverest I’ve ever known. But sadly, our maker doesn’t distribute money along with brains. I knew there’d be little left over from his wages after the necessities had been paid for. Your parents agreed to a lesser amount than I offered—for your education and future dowry, so their letter stated. I’ve been paying that amount into a bank account in Cambridge ever since, but I am well aware that it isn’t enough for a young lady entering London society.” He tapped the ledger with a blunt finger. “Shall we agree to an extra five pounds a month?”
He was wrong, surely. It must be a lie to make himself look generous. There was an easy way to find out. “What amount was paid monthly?”
“Which bank was it paid into?”
“The National Commercial on the first day of every month unless the first was a weekend or bank holiday then it was paid on the next business day. The manager’s name at the Cambridge branch is Mr. Arnold. I never met him, so I cannot describe him to you, but he has been the manager the entire time, so is likely my age or older.”
The allowance went into my account on the first of every month and it was indeed four pounds. Prior to my grandfather’s death, I had not been allowed to access it without his signature, but after his death, I was given full access. I’d always assumed my father set up the allowance in the event of his death; an event that had unfortunately come to pass. If Uncle Ronald were to be believed, it had been paid by him and from the day I was born.
“It will be easy enough for me to check,” I told him.
“Yes, it would.” He smiled, but there was a hint of sadness tugging at the corners of his eyes. “You remind me so much of your mother. You have her spirit.” He cleared his throat and reached for the pen again. “You have your father’s practical common sense, however, so I suspect you will accept the raise to your allowance without objection.”
It wasn’t a question, yet he didn’t immediately sign the letter. Reading it upside down, it was indeed a letter addressed to Mr. Arnold at the National Commercial bank, stipulating my allowance should be raised by the amount of five pounds a month and that I would henceforth be drawing on the funds from London.
“I have already informed Mr. Arnold of my relocation to London,” I said. “I met him for the first time prior to my departure. He’s older than you, has poor eyesight, and no hair on his head but an abundance on his face in the form of long gray whiskers.”
My uncle’s smile returned. He set the paper aside. “I’ll draft another and remove that paragraph. It’ll be sent by the last post of the day.”
“No, I don’t want an additional allowance. Not from you. I mean, not from anyone,” I added quickly. “Thank you, I appreciate the offer but the four pounds I already receive will suffice.”
“But…are you sure?”
If I was to make my own way here, I couldn’t rely on his money. Not more than I already was, anyway. Discovering that he had been paying my allowance all these years made me feel somewhat sick; I couldn’t stomach it if he more than doubled it.
“I’m sure, sir.”
He picked up the letter to the bank manager and appeared to be re-reading it when he suddenly screwed it up into a ball. “Call me Uncle Ronald.” He tossed the ball into a rubbish basket. “If you change your mind about the extra allowance, just come and see me.” He indicated the photograph of a newlywed couple in the oval frame on the corner of his desk. The man was a younger version of Uncle Ronald. “I want to assure you that your Aunt Lilian and I are very happy to have you with us. We hope you’ll be a steadying influence on Florence.”
“She has been very kind to me today,” I said.
“She’s a kind-hearted girl, if a little flighty at times. But you seem sensible, steady, Cleopatra.”
“Call me Cleo. Everyone does.”
“There, you see? Sensible.”
His reasoning was lost on me, but I went along with it and nodded. “May I ask you some questions about my stay here?”
“Of course. I imagine you have several.”
I cleared my throat. “I don’t want you to think me ungrateful for the offer.” I indicated the rubbish basket. “I am very grateful. However, I need to know what things cost here. Are there menus with prices on them?”
He frowned. “You’re not expected to pay for anything. All hotel amenities are free for family.”
He couldn’t possibly understand me. “What about tea and cake in the sitting room? And breakfast and dinner?”
He smiled. “All free.”
“What?” I blurted out. “All of it?”
He chuckled, producing a fan of wrinkles from the corners of his eyes. “Even dessert. I don’t expect you to pay for food, Cleo. As your uncle, I’m supporting you.”
“So…it’s not coming out of my allowance?”
“Your allowance is yours to do with as you wish. Spend it on hats and shoes, or save it. I don’t care. As I said earlier, the inheritance ought to have been shared between your mother and your aunt upon their parents’ deaths. It never sat well with me that your mother received nothing. While I can’t afford to give you her entire half, I can give you a little every month. I think that fair, don’t you?”
I blinked hard. This conversation was not going as I expected. Ever since I could recall, my grandparents had told me that my Uncle Ronald was greedy, that he’d married my aunt for her inheritance. To be honest, they didn’t really know him. After all, they knew him about as well as I did—and that was not at all.
“Thank you.” It sounded rather weak, so I said it again, just to be sure he understood I was truly grateful. “I don’t wish to be a burden on you for long, however. I want to be useful.”
“I’d like to find a role for myself within the hotel.”
He waved off the suggestion. “You don’t have to work, Cleo. Work is for those who need the money. You don’t. Not anymore.”
“Is there nothing I can do? Some task, no matter how small? I’m good with mathematics, but I quite like people too and am happy to help the manager. Or the steward, perhaps, although I know very little about restaurants.”
He gave a stiff shake of his head. “Bainbridge women don’t work.”
I bit the inside of my cheek to stop myself from retorting that I was a Fox not a Bainbridge. My uncle’s thinking was no different to my father’s or that of most other men and many women too, and I shouldn’t let it rankle. Yet it did.
“Well then, let me assure you I won’t be a burden on you for longer than necessary,” I said. “I plan to move out of the hotel one day.”
“Of course. When you marry, you’ll want to make your own home. That’s only natural.”
“I don’t plan to marry.”
He made a scoffing sound in the back of his throat. “Of course you will, my dear. A pretty girl such as yourself will find a husband. There are many eligible bachelors coming through the hotel. You will have your pick of gentlemen, both English and foreign.”
I bit the inside of my cheek again. I was going to have quite the sore spot there soon. “Thank you, but I really don’t intend to marry.”
“I will work. If not here in the hotel, then elsewhere. I don’t yet know what I will do, but I’m sure something will crop up. Perhaps I’ll be an authoress or teacher, or a private secretary to a lady. Perhaps all three,” I added with more cheerfulness than I felt. He was looking at me as if I had grown horns so I found myself wanting to drive the point home. “I’m an independent woman, Uncle, and I plan to stay that way. As I see it, there is only one way to remain independent and that is to find work. I can’t accept your allowance forever.”
He continued to stare at me with the same look on his face that was part horrified, part fascinated.
“Of course I will honor your rules while I live here,” I went on. “I hope you won’t find me to be a burden or come to regret your decision to allow me to stay.”
He quickly got to his feet as I rose, and rounded the desk. “No, no, I don’t think I will. Indeed, I think we shall get along quite well.” He took my hand and gave it a shake and a pat, as if he couldn’t decide whether to treat me as a business associate or a niece.
“Do you know when my aunt will be available to see me?” I asked.
He glanced at the clock on the low bookshelf. “My wife suffers from headaches. I believe she is suffering from one today. If she feels better, she’ll summon you.”
I waited in my rooms for the summons, but it never came. Flossy arrived, bearing a verbal invitation to dine with the family at eight, then left to get ready even though it was only five.
I sat at the desk and wrote letters, both to Mr. Arnold the banker and a friend in Cambridge with whom I’d stored another trunk of clothes. I’d only brought black outfits with me and my underthings. The second trunk I’d left behind, assuming I wouldn’t need other clothes for some time. But Flossy’s reasoning had taken root, and there might come a day in the not too distant future when I’d want to wear colors again. I had a gray dress with white trim that looked fetching. Gray would be acceptable to wear soon. As Flossy said, young women weren’t expected to wear full black for long.
I took my letters downstairs and asked at the front desk what to do with them.
Peter the clerk pointed at a counter diagonally opposite. “The post desk appears to be unmanned at the moment. You could leave them on the counter or wait. He has probably just stepped away for a few moments.”
I decided to wait by the counter rather than leave the letters unattended. It gave me an opportunity to explore this side of the foyer. Next to the post desk was a billiard room where two gentlemen played. On the other side of the billiard room was a corridor with several doors leading off it. Some were offices, labeled for the manager, assistant manager, steward and housekeeper, while others were unlabeled. A potted plant occupied the space between the manager and assistant manager’s offices, but otherwise the corridor was clearly not meant for guests to venture down, given its utilitarian appearance. The dimmer lighting, lack of marble and other adornment meant the foyer sparkled by comparison.
I was about to return to the post desk when the door to the steward’s office opened an inch. Someone peered through the gap then the door opened wider. Mr. Armitage the assistant manager emerged.
“Good evening, Miss Fox,” he said cheerfully as he locked the door behind him and pocketed the key. “Are you lost?” His friendliness was at odds with his furtive peek through the gap.
“Merely being nosy. I wanted to see what was down here. I’m sorry, am I not supposed to be here?”
“You can go wherever you want. The entire hotel is available for family to explore.” He hesitated then checked his pocket watch. “Would you like a tour?”
“Then let’s begin here.” He pointed to each of the labeled doors. “These are the offices for the senior staff. You won’t often find us in them, however, since we’re usually attending to matters within the hotel. Beyond them is a service lift, usually used by the porters, and our private chambers.”
“You live here?”
“Only the unmarried senior staff do. That’s myself, Mr. Chapman the steward, and Mrs. Kettering the housekeeper.” He put a hand to the side of his mouth and whispered, “She’s actually Miss Kettering, but housekeepers are always called Mrs, so I’m told. Apparently it gives them the appearance of authority.”
I laughed softly. “I won’t tell anyone. And the manager?”
“Mr. Hobart lives with his wife off-site.”
I cupped the side of my mouth with a hand as he had done and lowered my voice. “You can call him Uncle in front of me. I don’t mind.”
His lips tilted with a disarming lopsided smile. “My uncle has already left for the day. My aunt likes him home for dinner.”
“So you’re in charge in the evenings?”
“Sir Ronald is in charge. I’m merely his lackey.”
“I can’t see you being anyone’s lackey.” It just slipped out without me thinking. I hardly knew Mr. Armitage, but I suspected my observation was correct.
“I admit that asking me nicely rather than ordering me does get better results. Something most people here understand.”
We left the corridor and returned to the foyer. A staff member stood behind the post desk so I gave him my letters and he promised to see they made the last collection of the day. Then Mr. Armitage continued with his tour, taking me to another sitting room, smaller than the one I’d taken tea in, as well as pointing out the luggage room, a small parlor used by staff, the vestibule leading to the dining room where diners could wait for their friends in comfortable chairs, and finally the dining room itself. Waiters wove between tables, setting places for dinner, while Mr. Chapman the steward rearranged a vase of flowers. He pinched off a rosebud and poked the stem through his buttonhole.
“That’s all the areas the guests are allowed access to, but I want to show you everything on this level and below,” Mr. Armitage said. “Do you have time?”
“An abundance of it .I’m not dining with my family until eight.”
“Including your aunt?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t she join us?”
He watched me and I watched him back, waiting for an explanation. None came. A small crease appeared between his brows, however, as if my confusion confused him in turn.
“No reason,” he said simply. “Sometimes she suffers from headaches. I assumed your aunt and uncle’s letters had informed you. Or that your cousin’s letters would. Miss Bainbridge seems like she would blurt out all sorts of secrets to her only cousin.”
“We’ve never exchanged letters,” I said.
His brows arched. “Never?”
I shook my head. “My aunt and uncle were estranged from my parents.”
“I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”
“You weren’t to know.”
“I feel as though I’ve stumbled my way through this conversation and thrust my nose in where it shouldn’t be.”
“Call it even, given I was lurking in the staff corridor.”
He laughed softly and led the way past tables to the corner of the dining room. “So you’ve come to London to live with people you don’t know?” he asked as he pushed open a door.
I nodded and almost told him more, about my grandfather’s debts, my dire financial situation, and the reason my mother fell out with her family. Part of me wanted to tell him. But it wasn’t something one blurted out to a man one hardly knew, particularly given he was an employee of the uncle supporting me.
“That’s very brave,” he said. “I hope your family are kind to you.”
What an odd thing to say. “Thank you.”
“And if they’re not, just come and see me.”
“Oh? You’ll box their ears on my behalf?”
He brushed past me to lead the way. “Are you mad?” he teased. “I’ll lose my position as assistant manager. They might demote me to porter. I was a porter in my first year here, and I swear my shoulders became more stooped with all the carrying. I’m sure they still are.”
I was quite sure they were not. His shoulders looked impressively wide within his well-made suit. “Very rounded,” I said with mock seriousness. “Such a pity. You would be at least another two inches taller if only you weren’t so stooped. It must be such a trial, being so short now.” Mr. Armitage may not have been as tall as the porter, but he wasn’t much shorter. My nose only reached the middle of his chest.
“So you agree, there will be no fisticuffs between myself and your uncle or cousin. When I said come and see me if your family are unkind, it was because I have the key to the cellar. You can drown your sorrows in fine wine.”
I laughed. “Is it all very fine?”
He grinned. “The most expensive money can buy. Apparently that makes it the best.”
The rest of our tour took in the service rooms including a still room, an enormous kitchen in the basement that we quickly left before we got in the way of the busy chefs, another service lift, the scullery, pantry, and finally the cellar, filled with rows and rows of wine bottles.
“This could drown a lot of sorrows,” I said.
“It would be a shame if it came to that.” His deeply melodic voice rumbled in the confines of the thick stone walls.
I glanced at him and caught him watching me from beneath lowered lashes. He quickly looked away.
“I’d better return to work,” he said, switching off the cellar light. “Can you make your own way from the dining room? I have to speak to the steward about Christmas luncheon.”
My aunt’s headache had not vanished by the time the rest of us sat down for dinner. We were given the best table, positioned at one end of the grand dining room. The large space looked different with people seated at the tables, although it was only half full and the tables were set well apart. When Mr. Armitage had given me the tour, the lights had blazed from the three large chandeliers hanging from the high ornate ceiling, but now the lighting was not so bright. Even so, the silver cutlery and crystal glassware sparkled. There was just enough light to read the menu. Each dish was written in French, but thankfully an English translation accompanied it.
“So what do you think of your new home?” asked my cousin Floyd.
He was the same age as me, and Flossy had been right when she said we looked alike. Our hair was a similar shade of light brown, and we both had high cheekbones and green eyes. It was difficult to tell what his character was like yet. The dinner was subdued and quite formal so far. Even Flossy’s vibrancy had been turned down like a gas flame. I blamed their father.
Uncle Ronald had said very little to us since sitting down. He seemed pre-occupied with something and gave his children and me very little attention.
“The hotel is beautiful,” I said to Floyd. “Every room is a piece of art in itself. There is something different to admire in each. The foyer is very grand and looks wonderfully festive with the Christmas tree in the middle.”
A slow smile stretched Uncle Ronald’s moustache, proving he had been listening after all.
“Everyone has been nice to me,” I added.
“Of course they have. You’re the owner’s niece.” Floyd tempered the spiteful comment with a smile that transformed his face from handsome to mischievous.
“Hopefully they’ll be less reserved around me once they know me better,” I said.
Flossy looked appalled. “You don’t want the staff knowing you too well. They already gossip about us too much.”
My chest pinched as I recalled what I’d told Mr. Armitage about not knowing my family. But the feeling of panic dissipated just as quickly. Not only would the assistant manager be unlikely to gossip about his employer, he didn’t seem like the type to take joy in the exchange of titillating information.
Floyd leaned closer to his sister. “Perhaps Cleo wants people to like her for her character, not because she can have them dismissed.”
“Why would she want anyone dismissed? They all do such a splendid job. They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t.”
Floyd rolled his eyes. Neither his sister nor father saw it.
Our soup course arrived along with a group of carolers from the nearby boys’ home who sang Christmas carols before being led out by their teacher. When the musicians resumed their regular playing, we resumed our conversation. We chatted easily enough about Cambridge and my life there, and about the features of the hotel that I needed to know. It seemed nothing was off limits to me. I could go where I pleased.
“The staff don’t live here?” I asked. Mr. Armitage had mentioned only the senior staff lived on the ground floor. He hadn’t spoken about the rest.
“Unmarried staff were moved off-site into residence halls years ago,” Uncle Ronald told me. “They used to be accommodated on the top floor prior to that, but installing the lifts meant those rooms could be renovated and turned into guest rooms. Five flights of stairs was a little too much to ask of the guests.”
But not the staff, apparently.
Flossy pulled a face. “It used to be exhausting going up to our rooms on the fourth floor.”
“You can’t possibly remember that,” her brother said. “You were very young when the lifts were put in.”
“Old enough to remember. Anyway, the fifth floor now has some of the best rooms. Not as good as the fourth floor suites, naturally, but the guests like the view.”
“Except for Mrs. Cavendish-Dyer,” Floyd said, reaching for his wineglass again. “The old bat isn’t satisfied with anything.”
“Floyd,” Uncle Ronald bit off. “Don’t speak that way about a guest.”
“No one can hear me, and Cleo is family.” Floyd drained his glass and beckoned a waiter standing nearby to refill it.
Uncle Ronald didn’t take his hard glare off his son, but Floyd pretended not to notice. He raised his refilled glass in salute to me.
“The ball,” Flossy said suddenly and rather loudly. “You must both convince Cleo to attend and to wear something other than black. An exception to the rules of mourning should be made for balls, don’t you think?”
Her breezy chatter didn’t hide the fact that her father and brother were waging a silent battle with one another, but it did lead them to call a truce. Both men turned to me and, taking Flossy’s side, tried to convince me to attend the New Year’s Eve ball.
“Perhaps I’ll defer to my aunt on this matter,” I told them. “I’m sure she’ll be able to guide me.” As a means to shutting down the conversation, it was successful. But mention of my aunt brought a taut silence and everyone gave their desserts a great deal of attention.
Uncle Ronald went to speak to Mr. Armitage after dinner while Floyd, Flossy and I waited for the lift. Once his father was out of sight, however, Floyd broke away.
“Well then, I’m off.” He turned, blew us both a kiss as he walked backwards, beckoning one of the porters to fetch him his cloak.
Flossy clicked her tongue. “I wish he’d take me with him, but he flatly refuses.”
“Where does he go?” I asked.
“Out with his friends. I’m not sure where, but at least it’s out. Living here can be so stifling. Father never lets me go anywhere.”
I watched her retreating brother as the porter handed him his cloak and hat. He looked like a man with a world of opportunity at his fingertips. Given he was wealthy and male, he had no reason to think otherwise.
“Father doesn’t like Floyd going out all the time, but he tolerates it. Some of Floyd’s friends are the sons of very influential people, many of whom are our guests when they come to London.” Flossy pressed the Call button again and looked up. “It must be stuck. This wouldn’t happen if we installed a new one.”
I waited a few more moments then gave up. “Shall we take the stairs?”
Flossy wrinkled her little pug nose. “I’ll wait. John will have it fixed soon.”
I didn’t want to wait and headed up the stairs, only to stop on what I guessed to be the landing between the second and third floors when I heard a woman’s raised voice coming from somewhere above. I peered up the stairwell and could just make out two women talking far above.
“You should not be here,” the woman scolded.
“Sorry, Mrs. Kettering.” I had to strain to hear the younger voice. If we hadn’t been standing in a stairwell, I suspected her voice wouldn’t have carried.
“You should be on the second,” Mrs. Kettering said. “Why were you on the fifth?”
“I lost count.”
“You can’t count to two?”
“No, Mrs. Kettering. I mean, yes, I can, I just got confused.”
Silence, then, “I know your kind, Edith,” Mrs. Kettering went on, her voice a guttural snarl. “If I catch you somewhere you ought not to be again, you will be dismissed. Is that clear?”
I imagined the girl named Edith cowering beneath the housekeeper’s glare as she muttered something I couldn’t hear.
“Go and turn down the beds on level two,” Mrs. Kettering snapped. “It’s getting late.”
Blazes! They were coming my way and we would pass one another on the stairs. I stepped heavily to warn them I was there and gave a smile and a nod as I passed the maid named Edith and then Mrs. Kettering, some steps behind. One set of footsteps continued on but the second set stopped. I could feel Mrs. Kettering’s glare on my back, but I kept going. I preferred to meet her officially another time, when she wasn’t so riled and I wasn’t feeling guilty for eavesdropping.
I exited the staircase on level four. There was no sign of Flossy as I headed along the corridor. I stopped abruptly outside my door. It was ajar. Who would enter my room while I was at dinner? Indeed, who had a key, for I was quite certain I’d locked it?
I pushed the door open wider. A woman hummed, the sound coming from the bedroom. I tiptoed through the sitting room to the bedroom door and let out a pent-up breath. A maid plumped up a pillow. She stopped humming when she spotted me.
She smiled broadly. “Good evening, Miss Fox. I wasn’t sure if you wanted your bed turned down, since I haven’t received your instructions yet, so I took the liberty of doing so anyway. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Thank you, that’s very kind, but there’s no need.”
Her large black eyes blinked back at me. “Are you sure? It’s no trouble. I do all the rooms on this floor when it’s my evening. All of the family want their beds turned down.”
“Then by all means you should do mine too. Thank you…”
“Harmony.” She beamed again and continued plumping. “How has your first day at The Mayfair been?”
“Very pleasant, thank you. All the staff seem nice.”
“So you haven’t met Mrs. Kettering yet.”
I laughed and she smiled back, although looked confused by my reaction. “I overheard her scolding a maid just now in the stairwell,” I said. “She was supposed to be turning down beds on the second floor but had met Mrs. Kettering on the fifth.”
“That would be Edith on level two tonight. If she was on level five, she probably deserved a scolding.” Harmony frowned. “What was she doing all the way up there? And what was Mrs. Kettering doing, I wonder?” She smoothed down the turned edge of the bed cover then straightened. She was tall, probably about my age, with a slender figure and black hair pulled severely into an arrangement beneath her white cap. A few springy curls had escaped and brushed her forehead. From time to time, she pushed them away with the back of her hand.
I wasn’t sure what to do while Harmony went about her work of turning down the bed so I sat at the desk and pretended to write a letter. After a few minutes, the maid cleared her throat. I turned to see her standing in the doorway to the bedroom.
“Would you like me to unpack your things?” she asked.
“I’ve already unpacked.”
“Then I’ll put your bag away for you.”
“That’s all right. It needs to go up high. I’ll ask one of the men to do it.”
Instead of returning to the bedroom, she headed for the front door. “We don’t need men.”
She left the suite and returned a moment later with a step ladder. She opened the door of the floor-to-ceiling wardrobe and set the ladder in place then hefted my empty bag and hat box up to the top shelf.
“The trunk can be stored elsewhere in the hotel,” she said, stepping down. “You won’t be needing it.” She dusted off her hands and folded up the ladder. “Anything else? Do you require something to eat?”
“I just ate.”
“A cup of chocolate? Our chefs make the most delicious hot chocolate.” Her eyes half-closed in pleasure. “I’ve tried it twice when there was some left over.”
“Perhaps later. Flossy told me I can use the speaking tube and order what I want and a footman will deliver it from the kitchen.” I pointed at the brass mouthpiece.
“You can, but I thought since I’m here I might as well be useful.” She carried the ladder through to the sitting room and looked around. After a moment, she leaned the ladder against the edge of the desk and assembled the papers I’d left scattered about. She set them down in a neat stack and flipped the lid closed on the inkwell.
She turned to me and smiled. “Anything else?”
“All is in order, thank you, Harmony.”
“Do you have any mending? I’m very good with a needle and thread.”
“Would you like me to air out your clothes for the morning?”
“I’ll be wearing this again.”
Her smile slipped a little. “But it’s Christmas Day. Do you have something special to wear?”
“I’ll put some ribbons in my hair.”
“Oh. Well then, perhaps I could help you undress and put on your night clothes.”
“I can do it myself, thank you.”
“What about your hair?” She stepped closer and, thanks to her height, inspected my arrangement from above.
“I can also do my hair myself,” I assured her. “It’s not complicated.”
“I appreciate your offer, Harmony, but there’s really no need to fuss. I’m used to taking care of myself. I’ve never had a maid before.”
“You haven’t? But you’re a Bainbridge.”
“Actually, I’m a Fox. We’re the Bainbridges’ poor relations.” I attempted a laugh but it fell flat when Harmony gave me a blank look. I supposed her notion of poor and mine were quite different, and it wasn’t fair of me to call myself that when I was living in a luxury hotel where she worked.
“I just want to be of use,” she said before I could change the subject. “We don’t have many guests at the moment, and I find myself idle most evenings back at the residence hall. I like to do a little sewing or spot cleaning while we maids chat until bedtime. Some guests require my assistance of an evening, but most ladies bring their own maids. It’ll be busy closer to the ball, of course, but until then…” She shrugged and her darting gaze looked around the room again. Suddenly her face brightened. “I could fix your hair in the morning. Something a little more elaborate.”
I touched my hair. Elaborate had never really been something I could manage on my own, and my grandmother hadn’t been any help. She preferred old fashioned simple styles. Fortunately I rarely attended events that required complicated arrangements.
“Please say yes,” Harmony said. “I can come in after my early duties are accomplished and before I have to clean the rooms.”
“You work long hours.”
“I have two half days off a week, which is more than most maids at country manors. Well? Shall I do your hair each morning? Your cousin has hers done, and Lady Bainbridge too, when she leaves her room.”
“Very well. But only if you don’t have too much work to do. I don’t want to add to your burden.”
She smiled and picked up the ladder. “I’ll see you at eight tomorrow, Christmas morning. Goodnight, Miss Fox. I hope your first night in your new home won’t feel too strange.”
I smiled back. “Thank you, Harmony. I think I’m going to like it here.”
It was closer to eight-thirty when Harmony knocked on my door in the morning. She rushed in, a little out of breath, her dark eyes huge.
“I’m sorry for my lateness,” she said, a hand to her stomach.
“You look flustered. Is everything all right?”
She shook her head. “Something terrible has happened. Mrs. Warrick from room three-two-four died overnight.”
“How awful. What did she die of?”
“That’s the terrible thing. They’re saying she was murdered.”
I directed Harmony to my sitting room but she refused to sit on the sofa. “I’m all right. Just a little shaken.”
I poured her a glass of water from the jug and handed it to her. She wrapped both hands around it and drank.
“Better?” I asked when she passed the glass back.
She rose and smoothed down her apron. “Thank you, Miss Fox. Now, come and take a seat at the dressing table, and let’s do something pretty with your hair. Lord! I almost forgot! Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you too, although there’s nothing merry about it now. That poor woman.”
Harmony still looked shaken, but her hands were steady enough as she brushed out my hair. Her gaze, however, seemed unfocused. “I don’t understand, though,” she said, as if we’d been in the middle of a conversation. “Why would one of the staff want to poison her?”
“The police are questioning Danny, the footman who brought her hot chocolate last night.”
“They think he did it?”
“It seems so.”
“Does he have a motive?”
“Motive?” she echoed.
“A reason for killing Mrs. Warrick?”
She scooped my hair back with the brush, letting it cascade over her other hand. “She reported him after he spilled hot chocolate on her fur coat the night before last. He ruined it, so she said. She demanded the money to replace it be taken out of his wages.” She clicked her tongue. “It would take Danny a year to replace something so valuable. He was cross with her, and quite rightly so, but not enough to kill her.” She stopped brushing and her gaze connected with mine in the mirror. “I’m worried the police will think it is reason enough. Lord knows, men have hanged based on less evidence.”
“I’m sure the manager will vouch for Danny.”
She put down the brush and started parting my hair. “Mr. Hobart is a good man.”
“So the police are here now?”
She nodded. “They’ve inspected the room and taken the cup away for testing. They’re about to interview staff.”
“That’s promising. It means they’re keeping an open mind and don’t blame that particular footman.”
“True, but what if they come up with another suspect amongst the staff? No good will come of this for us,” she warned. “We’ll all be tainted now, from the lowliest scullery maid right up to your uncle. The bad publicity will cause all sorts of problems, particularly if the killer isn’t caught before the ball. Can you imagine if the ball is canceled? That’s our major event of the winter. If it’s canceled, the reservations will follow. It could be a disaster for the hotel.”
My uncle must be very worried. The newspapers would relish splashing details of the murder across their front pages.
Harmony placed some hair pins between her lips and spoke around them. “Sir Ronald will want the killer caught quickly to minimize scandal. I’m afraid the police won’t be thorough enough in their search for the killer, and will blame the easiest culprit.”
“Danny.” I handed her more pins as she used up the last between her lips. “Don’t worry about an elaborate arrangement this morning, Harmony. The sooner you’re done, the sooner I can find out what’s happening.”
It might not be my business, but I wanted to know more details. My uncle could railroad the police into rushing their investigation for the sake of the hotel’s reputation. And as Harmony feared, the person to suffer could very well be an innocent employee.
I found Floyd yawning in the corridor just outside his father’s office. Low voices could be heard on the other side of the door, but other than being male, I couldn’t determine who they belonged to.
“Merry Christmas,” Floyd said wryly. “By the look on your face, I suspect you’ve heard.”
“I did. How awful.”
“Father is beside himself with worry. He’s talking to the police now, but they’re refusing to make an arrest without more evidence.”
“I’m glad they’re being thorough.”
“Thorough?” He grunted. “I wish they’d just bloody get on with it. The sooner they arrest someone, the better. The hotel can’t afford for this to drag on.”
“Surely it’s only better if the right someone is arrested.”
He grunted again.
A door opened further along the corridor, and Flossy emerged, her hair down around her shoulders and a dressing gown thrown over her nightdress. “My maid just told me what happened,” she said as she rushed towards us. “Poor Mrs. Warrick. And on Christmas Day, too.”
“You knew her well?” I asked, taking the hand she stretched out to me.
“Only by sight. I’d never met her. She was the lady waiting at the lift with us yesterday.”
I remembered her. She’d talked to herself about a man she’d seen who was out of place in the hotel. She’d been looking in Mr. Armitage’s direction as she said it.
Floyd indicated his father’s office door. “Now that we’re all together, we might as well get this over with. The police want to question the three of us about our movements last night.”
“Us?” Flossy clutched her nightgown closed at her throat. “Why?”
Her brother waggled his brows at her. “Because they think one of us did it.”
She gasped, and he chuckled.
“They’re just following a process,” I assured her. “It doesn’t mean anything. They’ll probably ask all the staff what they were doing at the time of the murder.”
Flossy went pale. “Murder,” she whispered. “It’s so awful to have the hotel’s good name dragged through the mud like this, and just before the ball, too. What if our friends get wind of it and don’t come?”
I expected Floyd to tease her to make light of it, but he just muttered, “Indeed.”
He knocked and opened the door. A uniformed constable stood beside the bookshelf, a notebook in hand. A second man, dressed in a dark gray suit, sat at the desk opposite Uncle Ronald. He looked familiar, but if it weren’t for his distinctive bright blue eyes, I wouldn’t have guessed why. What was a relative of Mr. Hobart’s doing in Uncle Ronald’s office after a murder?
“Ah, the rest of the family,” he said, rising. “Come in, come in. The sooner we get these interviews over with, the sooner we can move on and enjoy Christmas festivities, although it’ll be difficult to get into the spirit, I imagine.” He extended his hand to Floyd. “Detective Inspector Hobart, Scotland Yard.”
“Hobart?” Floyd glanced at his father.
“Your manager is my brother,” the detective said.
“Delighted to meet you,” Flossy said, putting out her hand. “Please excuse my appearance.”
The detective inspector grasped her hand loosely and seemed unsure whether to shake it, kiss it, or bow over it. He let it go quickly and shook mine when I extended it to him as Floyd had done.
“You must be Florence,” he said to me. “I see the resemblance with your brother.”
“I’m Cleo Fox,” I said. “Sir Ronald’s niece. Flossy is Floyd’s sister.” I indicated my cousin.
The inspector put up his hands. “My apologies to you both.”
“Get on with it,” Uncle Ronald growled. “This is a waste of time, anyway. None of us did it.”
“Perhaps one of you saw something relevant. Telling me where you were last evening might bring important evidence to light.”
“Approximately what time did the murder take place?” I asked.
“I’d rather not speculate here and now. I’m inquiring about everyone’s movements throughout the late afternoon and evening, just to be sure.”
“Did she dine in the dining room?”
“If you wouldn’t mind detailing your movements, Miss Fox.”
I told him I’d written letters then been taken on a tour by Mr. Armitage, which produced a small smile on the detective’s lips. “I dined with my uncle and cousins at eight, then retired to my rooms. I went to bed a little before eleven. I awoke at seven-thirty this morning, but didn’t hear of the murder until just now when a maid mentioned it.”
The constable scribbled furiously in his notepad throughout my retelling. Flossy recounted her evening next, but it was as uneventful as mine. She sat with her mother after dinner then went to bed. Uncle Ronald worked in his office until midnight after having a brief discussion with Mr. Armitage at the conclusion of our dinner. Floyd said he went out.
“Where did you go?” Detective Inspector Hobart asked.
“To a gentleman’s club.”
“The name of the club?”
“You wouldn’t know it. It’s very private.”
“Nevertheless.” The detective waited, his face friendly and eyes sparkling in the pale morning light filtering through the window.
“Does it matter?” Uncle Ronald spat. “My son isn’t the murderer. He wasn’t here. None of us poisoned Mrs. Warrick.” He flicked his hand towards the door. “Do your job, Inspector, or I’ll have you replaced. I want this matter resolved today.”
“I’ll do my best, but it’s unlikely we’ll have an answer today. There are a lot of staff and guests to interview—”
“Do not talk to the guests! Is that understood? They are not to be bothered.”
The inspector pursed his lips, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. The two men entered a glaring match until the inspector departed the office. The constable followed.
Floyd flopped onto a chair. “Incompetent fool. Clearly our Hobart got all the brains in the family.”
Uncle Ronald glowered at him from beneath the deep shelf of his brow. Floyd swallowed heavily and rose. He left the office. Flossy and I followed.
While Floyd and Flossy returned to their rooms, I joined Detective Inspector Hobart and his constable at the lift.
“The stairs are faster,” I said.
“So I discovered on the way up.” The inspector smiled at me. “You’ve just arrived at the hotel, I believe.”
“What a shocking introduction to your new home, and on Christmas Day too, a day of peace and goodwill. I hope this doesn’t reflect poorly on The Mayfair in your eyes. The hotel has an exemplary reputation.”
“I didn’t think murders happened very often here, but thank you for the reassurance.”
He chuckled. “We’ll take the stairs, Constable. The lift doesn’t seem like the most efficient device.”
“May I join you?” I asked, following anyway.
The stairwell was quiet, but I knew from experience that voices echoed so I kept mine low. “Is it true you suspect the footman who delivered Mrs. Warrick’s hot chocolate last night?”
The detective’s step slowed. “I’m keeping an open mind at this juncture.”
“That is a relief because I have it on good authority that he’s not the type to commit murder just because Mrs. Warrick accused him of ruining her fur coat.”
“In my experience, people who are not the type commit murder all the time.” He softened his harsh statement with a smile. “But I don’t expect an innocent young woman such as yourself to know that.”
He quickened his pace, perhaps in the hope of leaving me behind. I picked up my skirts so as not to trip over them as I kept up.
“Was the poison definitely in her pot of hot chocolate?”
He hesitated. “The pot and cup have been taken away for testing, along with the teacup delivered by the maid who discovered the body this morning.”
That was neither confirmation nor denial. Surely if the chocolate cup held the poison, it could be smelled or a residue had been left behind.
“Have you questioned the footman who delivered it?” I asked.
“And the chef who made it?”
I waited, but he offered no more information. “I assume they both deny adding poison to the pot of chocolate.” Again, I waited, but he said nothing. “Did anyone else handle the pot in the meantime?”
“That is not yet clear.”
“I don’t understand. Was the chocolate unattended between the chef making it and the footman collecting it or was it not?”
He stopped on the top step of the next flight. By my estimation, we were somewhere between the second and first floor. “You ask a lot of questions.”
“I simply want to understand how it could have happened that a guest was poisoned and no one knows who put the poison into her cup.”
“As do I, Miss Fox. As do I.”
He continued on and I almost let him go. Almost.
“I thought of one more question,” I said.
“Only one?” he muttered. The constable snickered, but it withered when the inspector glared at him.
“I appreciate your patience in answering me, Inspector,” I said in my sweetest voice. “You’ve been most indulgent. My question is, was there any sign the door to Mrs. Warrick’s room had been forced? Was the lock broken?”
The silence was peppered with the taps of our footsteps on the stairs, and finally broken by the constable clearing his throat.
“If it were forced open,” I went on, “that means the footman didn’t do it. Mrs. Warrick would have let him in if she was expecting him.”
“Is that so?” the inspector asked. I detected a hint of humor in the idle question. I wasn’t sure if my attempt at detecting amused him or he was laughing at my lurching to conclusions. He gave no hint whether my conclusion was correct or not. I needed to find out.
“So it was forced,” I said, watching him closely.
He stepped into the foyer. “If you’ll excuse me, Miss Fox, I have staff to interview.”
Damnation. He’d given nothing away. He’d not so much as flickered an eyelash.
The inspector and constable were met by a very grave looking Mr. Hobart who directed them through to the vestibule. I followed at a distance, but Mr. Hobart closed the doors to the dining room where a number of staff waited. The manager did not join them.
“Is something the matter, Miss Fox?” he asked. “Did you have something to tell the inspector?”
“You mean your brother?”
“Ah. He told you.”
“Yes, but he didn’t have to. You’re very alike and have the same surname. Is there no one else you’re related to? The prime minister, perhaps?”
He smiled, and for the first time, it seemed genuine. “I don’t think you’ll come across more of us, unless my wife pays a call on me here. Sometimes she stops by if she’s out shopping. She likes to see Harry. He doesn’t call on us at home as much as he ought.”
“He gets fed too well here, I suspect. You know what young men are like. Once they grow up and leave home they only return for their mother’s cooking—or their aunt’s, in your instance.”
“I suspect you’re right. The food here is better than what he’d get at home.” Mr. Hobart nodded at the closed dining room door. “His parents often scold him for not visiting on his days off. I don’t think my brother has seen him yet, but I suspect he’ll receive just such a scolding when it’s his turn to be interviewed.”
“The detective inspector is Mr. Armitage’s father? But their surnames are different.”
He signaled that I should walk with him out of the vestibule to the foyer. “Harry is an orphan. He was taken in by my brother and sister-in-law at aged thirteen, but he wanted to keep his real name. He’d grown used to it, I suppose.”
It was quite a story, and I wanted to know more, but Mr. Hobart spotted a guest trying to attract his attention and excused himself.
I watched him greet the guest with a smile. Now I knew why he looked nothing like Mr. Armitage, although there was a similarity in their manner. They both had a way of putting others at ease, yet there was a quiet authority about them too. Instead of being a family trait, that manner must have been learned by Mr. Armitage as he studied at his uncle’s side all these years. Mr. Armitage would be a worthy successor to the role of hotel manager when Mr. Hobart retired.
The guest to whom Mr. Hobart spoke moved off. He looked somewhat familiar, but it took me a moment to place him. He’d been speaking to Mr. Armitage yesterday afternoon when Mrs. Warrick muttered to herself about a man who ought not to be in the hotel.
It was quite a strange comment to make, now that I thought about it. Who shouldn’t be in a hotel? Anyone could walk into the foyer.
On the other hand, not everyone would walk into the foyer of a luxury hotel. The rude greeting I’d received from the doorman upon my arrival was testament to that. Or, perhaps Mrs. Warrick was referring to a luxury hotel in London. There were so many things she could have meant. She had also mentioned he looked different and it had been years since she’d seen him.
There’d been three men in her line of sight—the guest who was now leaving the hotel clutching an umbrella, Mr. Armitage, and another man. Hopefully when I saw him again, I would recognize him. It might be important.
Or it might not. Perhaps I was seeing potential suspects where there were none. Grandmama called my imagination vivid, and my father had gently chastised me on more than one occasion for daydreaming instead of studying.
“That’s a wistful smile,” said a familiar voice. I looked up to see Mr. Armitage striding towards me. “There aren’t too many smiles around the hotel this morning, despite it being Christmas Day.”
“You’re right, it’s insensitive of me. Poor Mrs. Warrick.”
“That’s not what I meant. There’s no need for you to stop smiling. You didn’t know her.”
He looked taken aback by my earnest question. “I met her when she checked in, and again when there was an incident with one of the footmen.”
“Danny, the one who is now the prime suspect?”
“Is he?” The sudden change from friendly to steely wasn’t lost on me. “Has the detective inspector confided in you?”
Despite being disappointed with the change my questions had produced in him, I forged on. Answers were more important than flirting. “Your father confide in me? No, of course he hasn’t. But I’ve heard from one of the maids that Danny delivered the poisoned cup of hot chocolate to Mrs. Warrick and that she had a prior grievance with him.”
“That grievance was resolved before her murder, and there was no poison residue left in that cup, I believe.”
It seemed the detective had confided more to his son than he had to me. Mr. Armitage realized he’d said too much. He crossed his arms. “Leave the detecting to the police, Miss Fox.”
“I’d be glad to.”
Mr. Armitage’s gaze narrowed. “My father is very thorough.”
“I’m sure he is.”
His gaze narrowed further. “You’re agreeing with me too readily.”
“I’m sorry. Do you want me to disagree with you?”
He sucked in a breath between his teeth. It seemed to dissolve his frustration with me somewhat. His smooth smile returned again, but his eyes held none of their earlier warmth. “Enjoy your morning, Miss Fox. Please don’t hesitate to ask one of the staff if you require something.” He bowed and walked off.
I sighed. I had enjoyed seeing a more relaxed side to Mr. Armitage before our little confrontation, but it would seem my questions were not welcome. Truly, I hadn’t thought I’d been attacking his father’s reputation, but it must have come across that way. Perhaps I ought to apologize.
Then again, I wasn’t sure I had anything to apologize for. Mr. Armitage had simply read more into my responses than had been there.
“Cleo! There you are.” Flossy hurried towards me from the direction of the lift. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere. Come with me. Mother is awake and wishes to see you.”
Finally, I would meet her. I followed Flossy back into the lift and we headed up to level four. She knocked on the door to her parents’ suite and a voice inside bade us enter.
A thin woman sitting on the sofa smiled and held out a bony hand to me and another to Flossy. “You must be Cleopatra. Merry Christmas, my dear.”
She inspected me, giving me an opportunity to inspect her in turn. Instinctively, tears welled in my eyes. There was a remarkable resemblance to my mother, despite Aunt Lilian’s gaunt features and my memories of my mother being several years old. The sea-green eyes had been my mother’s most remarkable feature and were the same for my aunt. The gray streaks in her hair didn’t completely override the natural almond shade and her skin resembled the finest porcelain. Her high cheekbones would have given her a regal air if not for the hollows below. She was an older, thinner version of my mother.
“You look so much like her.” The words could have easily come from me but it was my aunt who whispered them. Her eyes shone as she patted the sofa beside her. “Come and sit with me, Cleopatra. Flossy, the gift.”
“She goes by Cleo,” Flossy said as she handed a small box to her mother.
Aunt Lilian gave it to me. “Merry Christmas.”
“Oh, I can’t accept it,” I said. “I’m afraid I didn’t get you anything.”
Aunt Lilian thrust the box into my hand. “It’s just a trinket. We were going to exchange gifts all together but your uncle informed me he’s too busy now, thanks to that poor woman’s murder. He might not even join us for luncheon.”
I opened the box to reveal a silver brooch in the shape of a butterfly, its wings made of blue enamel. I certainly wouldn’t describe it as a trinket. I pinned it to my dress. “Thank you. It’s lovely.”
She smiled. “It looks very fetching on you. Now, tell me everything about your life. I’ve missed so much of it. And you’ve missed so much of ours, too. Has Flossy been a good cousin while I’ve suffered with my headaches? Have you met Floyd? Dear Floyd, such a rascal, isn’t he, Flossy? In a good way, of course. And what do you think of the hotel?”
Flossy laid a hand on her mother’s shoulder. Going by Aunt Lilian’s wince, she squeezed it quite hard.
I tried to answer all of my aunt’s questions while she listened. There wasn’t much to say about my life, but I gave her an account of the years since my parents’ deaths. Despite being a short retelling, my aunt seemed to lose concentration. Her gaze darted about the room and it took Flossy clearing her throat to bring her focus back to me.
Despite the too-thin figure and drawn features, she was a vibrant woman with considerable energy. She found it difficult to sit still, and when I finished speaking, she suddenly rose.
“Shall we go downstairs?” she said. “Or perhaps for a walk. Would you like to shop with us, Cleo? Flossy, don’t you think Cleo would like some new things?”
“The shops are closed,” Flossy reminded her. “It’s Christmas day.”
Aunt Lilian laughed. “Of course it is. Is it time for our feast yet?”
“Almost,” Flossy said. “But I’m not sure we ought to leave our rooms. There’s a murderer about.”
“Nobody will try to murder us, dear.” Aunt Lilian flashed a smile and in that moment, I saw the famous beauty she’d supposedly been her in youth. “I would very much like to go out before luncheon. Where are my gloves? Flossy, have you seen my tan gloves?”
Flossy fetched gloves and hat for her mother, and she and I fetched our own things while her mother waited in the corridor. When I emerged from my suite, Aunt Lilian was pacing the floor near the stairs.
“We’ll walk down,” she said. “The lift is too slow.”
Outside, we walked for an hour at a brisk pace that had Flossy puffing heavily and me feeling nicely warm. All the shops were closed for Christmas Day, but Aunt Lilian pointed out their favorites, commenting on why such-and-such was the best for parasols, or so-and-so made the finest boots.
We walked through Hyde Park and returned to the hotel from the opposite direction from which we’d left. Although Aunt Lilian set the brisk pace, she seemed to deflate very quickly. By the time we reached the hotel, she claimed she had a headache and needed a rest. Without being asked, Flossy led her away. She mouthed an apology to me over her shoulder as the doorman greeted them and opened the door.
The doorman waited after they disappeared through it, staring straight ahead.
“Merry Christmas,” I said to him. “Do you remember me from yesterday?”
“Yes, Miss Fox.” His cheeks pinked, but still he did not look at me. “Merry Christmas to you too.”
The porter who’d taken my bags the day before smirked and rocked back on his heels. He was enjoying this. The doorman was not, if his increasingly reddening cheeks were anything to go by.
The doorman swallowed. “I’d like to apologize for my greeting last time we met. It was unforgiveable. Let me assure you, it won’t happen again.”
I sighed theatrically. “I will try to forgive you. That’s all I can promise at this point.”
He bowed stiffly. “You’re very generous. Very generous indeed.”
The porter made a snorting sound as he tried to cover his laugh. The doorman’s jaw hardened.
“It seems I’m at a disadvantage,” I went on.
“No, Miss Fox, I assure you there is no disadvantage intended,” the doorman said. “If there is some way I can make you feel less at a disadvantage, please allow me to perform the task.”
“There is, as it happens. You can tell me your name.”
He went quite still. “Why?” He must suspect I was going to inform the manager of his ill-mannered greeting yesterday.
“Because I didn’t catch it.”
“He’s Frank, miss,” said the porter, stepping forward. “And I’m Gilbert, but everyone calls me Goliath.”
“I can see where the moniker comes from. I’ve never seen anyone as tall as you.”
He puffed out his chest, earning an eye-roll from Frank.
“May I say something that should have been said yesterday?” Goliath asked me.
“Of course. What is it?”
“Welcome to The Mayfair.” He bowed deeply.
Frank eyed the porter as if he’d stolen money right out of his pocket.
“Thank you, Goliath.” I strode past Frank, still holding the door open. “And thank you, Frank.”
“Me?” he blurted. “Why?”
“For holding the door. You do it with such aplomb. May I offer some advice, however?”
“A smile wouldn’t go astray.”
He gave me a hard smile, revealing crooked front teeth.
“Perhaps with a little less ferocity, however.” I winked at Goliath and he chuckled. Frank continued with his forced smile as I passed him and entered the hotel.
Aunt Lilian was fully rested by the time we sat down to luncheon. Uncle Ronald managed to join us after all, and we enjoyed a feast of turkey, ham, and mince pies in the dining room, along with the hotel guests. The pop of Christmas crackers, chatter and laughter seemed out of place considering a murder had taken place overnight just upstairs.
Indeed, it was the strangest Christmas day I’d ever experienced. I hadn’t gone to church as I usually would in the morning, and my family spent much of the luncheon exchanging pleasantries with guests rather than each other. They even sought out particular guests between courses. The only times all five of us sat together was to eat, and even then their attention often diverted to one neighboring table or another as if deciding who they’d speak to next. It lacked the intimacy and warmth I was used to. I’d never missed my grandparents more, and my parents too.
I retired to my suite after luncheon and was reading a book when Harmony sought me out. I needed little convincing to go with her to the staff parlor where Danny the footman waited. Apparently she suggested he tell me everything he’d told the inspector. When I asked her why, she merely said she suspected I would put in a good word for him.
“I collected her chocolate pot and cup from the kitchen, same as every other night,” Danny said.
Like all the footmen and waiters I’d seen in the hotel, he was handsome and young. But Danny’s youthful good looks were marred by an anxious frown. He hadn’t been arrested, thankfully, but he’d been ordered not to work, and a constable stood outside the parlor door. Danny was essentially a prisoner in the hotel.
“How did you know it was Mrs. Warrick’s pot of chocolate?” I asked. “I assume there are pots of chocolate going from the kitchen up to the guests all the time of an evening.”
“From the label.”
I gave him a blank look.
“Mrs. Warrick’s hot chocolate is a regular order,” he explained. “She doesn’t have to call down to the kitchen. Regular orders get made as necessary and a footman collects them. The chef writes the guest’s name and room number on a label and leaves it with the tray. There were only three of us footman working last night, and we’re always coming and going. I saw the pot and cup when I entered the kitchen, read the label, and took it up to Mrs. Warrick.”
“And she was definitely alive when you delivered it?”
“Yes! She scolded me for being late, but I swear I wasn’t. Ugly old bat.” He all but spat the words. “I placed the tray on the table and asked her if she required anything else. She didn’t even answer me. She just kept complaining that I was late with the hot chocolate. She was alive the whole time, I swear to you.” He lowered his head and dragged a hand through already ragged hair. “The detective mustn’t believe me or he wouldn’t be asking everyone where they were before eleven, which is when I saw her. He’s even asking what everyone was doing in the late afternoon! Why? Can’t he check if she ate dinner in the dining room or in her own room?”
Harmony squeezed his shoulder. “It’s all right, Danny. We believe you, and Miss Fox is going to help the police find who really did it.”
I blinked at her. “I don’t—”
“Thank you, Miss Fox.” Danny gave me a wobbly smile. “It means a lot to me to have one of the Bainbridges on my side.”
“I’m sure they’re all on your side, Danny,” I said. “Everyone wants to find the truth. Nobody wants a murderer roaming around the hotel.” The thought chilled me. My words weren’t empty ones. I did want to find the real killer. Like Harmony, I didn’t think Danny was the type.
But as Detective Inspector Hobart said, killers did not have a type. Anyone was capable of murder, and poison was the weapon of choice for absentee murderers.
“Mr. Hobart and Mr. Armitage believe you’re innocent,” Harmony assured Danny. “Mr. Hobart told us so this morning, in the dining room, when we gathered to be interviewed by his brother the detective.”
“Thanks, Harmony.” Danny glanced at the door. “The sooner you find the killer, the sooner I can get back to work.”
“And the better we can avoid scandal.” Harmony squeezed his shoulder again.
It didn’t cheer Danny up. “Will this affect the ball?”
“It might, if we don’t find the killer soon. No one will want to stay here with a murderer roaming about, like Miss Fox said.”
We went to leave, but I paused at the door. “Did you notice anyone in or near the kitchen last night who shouldn’t have been there?”
Danny shook his head.
Harmony and I left, giving the constable smiles of thanks as we walked towards the stairs. Instead of going up, we went down.
When Mr. Armitage had taken me on a tour, we’d not stepped very far into the kitchen. Today, Harmony and I ventured beyond the door into the hot, pulsing, noisy space. Chefs dressed all in white worked at long counters or by the stoves, some shouting orders with others hurrying to carry them out. A robust man with red cheeks sang an operatic tune as he chopped potatoes, while the sweating chef next to him downed the contents of a tankard in one gulp. Shelves stacked with pots and pans ranged against the back wall and electric bulbs hung from long wires over the benches to better cast their light in the windowless basement. A short fellow with curled moustache ends strolled between the other staff, hands at his back, inspecting the work of each man and sometimes tasting the contents of a pot.
“The chef de cuisine calls it the heart of the hotel,” Harmony said with a nod at the short man, “but I think it should be called the bowels, seeing as it’s located in the basement and all the food is processed here.”
“He’s the kitchen manager?” I asked. “We should speak with him.”
She grasped my arm and held me back. “Lord, no. He’ll order us out.” She waited until he’d moved further into the kitchen, his back turned, then she beckoned to one of the other chefs. “Victor is one of the junior cooks. He’ll talk to us.”
Victor’s soft features would have given him a baby-faced appearance if not for the white scar across his cheek. He sauntered over, carrying a large knife, and greeted Harmony with a curt nod. He gave me a very thorough inspection as Harmony introduced us and I too received a nod.
“Were you working last night?” Harmony asked.
Victor tossed the knife and caught it by the handle without taking his gaze off Harmony. “Aye.”
“Miss Fox wants to ask you some questions.”
He tossed the knife in the air again, catching it deftly, before repeating the motion over and over. He didn’t once look at the knife whereas I couldn’t take my gaze off it. “Who’re you, Miss Fox?” he asked in a Cockney accent.
“Sir Ronald’s niece,” Harmony said through a clenched jaw. “Honestly, Victor, you should get out of the kitchen sometimes.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
Harmony thrust a hand on her hip. “Will you stop doing that?”
She indicated the knife as he tossed it again. “It’s very distracting.”
“No, it ain’t. It’s calming. A properly made, well balanced knife is real soothing to handle.” He threw the knife up again, but this time caught it on the back of his hand, horizontally. It didn’t so much as wobble. “Want me to show you a trick?” he asked me. “Put your hand down on the table and spread your fingers wide.”
Harmony gasped. “Do not show her that trick! Put your own fingers at risk if you want to show off.”
Victor twirled the knife with his fingers then thrust it into the knife belt slung around his hips. Now that his hands were still, I could see the burn scars on his right and the missing tip of his index finger on the left. “So what do you want to know?”
“Did you make the hot chocolate for Mrs. Warrick last night?” I asked.
“Nope, that was Jack, but I was next to him the entire time.” He indicated another man by one of the stoves. “The police have already asked me this, but I’ll tell you too, Miss Fox. No one came near the pot and Jack ain’t the type to poison someone.”
“Did anyone else go near Mrs. Warrick’s pot of chocolate after he filled it and before Danny collected it?”
“Not that I saw, but I wasn’t watching the entire time. After Jack filled it, he wrote the name and room number on a card and placed it on a tray then left the tray on this table.” He indicated the table beside the door where a tray with a covered plate on it awaited collection.
“Did you see anyone in or near the kitchen who shouldn’t have been there?” I asked.
“Nope, but it’s busy in here. Anyone can walk in and out without being noticed.”
“You! Go!” shouted someone in a French accent.
I looked up to see the chef de cuisine striding towards us. “We just needed a word with Victor about Mrs. Warrick’s hot chocolate,” I assured him.
Harmony tugged on my arm. “We should go.”
“There was no poison in the chocolate!” the chef snapped. The other chefs looked up. The operatic one fell silent. The chatter, shouts and chopping ceased. The only sound came from the bubbling pots. “My kitchen does not have poison! I tell the policeman this, now I tell you, Miss Fock.”
“Fox,” I said with as much sweetness as I could muster as the head chef bore down on us.
“She’s Sir Ronald’s niece,” Harmony added.
He withdrew a knife from his belt and charged forward, pointing the blade at me. “I do not care if she is queen of England! She does not belong here! There is no poison in my kitchen!”
Harmony and I turned and fled. We raced up the stairs and didn’t stop until we reached the warren of service rooms on the ground floor.
Harmony fell back against the wall, puffing, her hand on her stomach. “That was close.”
“He wouldn’t really have stabbed us,” I assured her.
“He wouldn’t stab you, but I’m fair game. He stabbed one of the cooks once, when the poor fellow dropped a pot of sauce on the floor. Chef later claimed it was an accident, but the other cooks weren’t convinced.” She pushed off from the wall. “Anyway, we got some answers from Victor.”
“Not really. All we learned is that he saw no one out of place in the kitchen and didn’t think Jack put poison in Mrs. Warrick’s chocolate.”
“That’s answers, isn’t it? So what shall we do next?”
“If we truly want to know if Danny is telling the truth about seeing Mrs. Warrick alive when he delivered her chocolate, we ought to find out if she was at dinner first. One of the waiters will remember her.”
“If they don’t, she would have given her name and room number. Mr. Chapman the steward will have that information in his book. We could sneak into his office—”
“Harmony! We are not sneaking about the hotel. Besides, I’m not sure we should continue. You said yourself that Mr. Hobart doesn’t believe Danny did it. I’m sure his brother, the detective, will come to the same conclusion too, if he hasn’t already.”
“You want to stop investigating?” she asked with a pout in her voice.
“I think we ought to leave the detective work to Scotland Yard. I see no reason for them not to be thorough.”
“But do you want to stop?”
I bit the inside of my cheek. Harmony’s eyes were bright, eager. She was enjoying this endeavor. As was I. “We must stop,” I said. “We don’t want to get in the way of Inspector Hobart’s investigation.”
She crossed her arms. “I thought you were like me, that you wanted answers. I thought you wanted to dosomething.”
She was referring to wanting to help Danny, but I couldn’t help thinking about my suggestion to my uncle that I hoped to be of some use within the hotel. Even so, I saw no reason to continue with our separate investigation.
“Inspector Hobart will find the killer, Harmony. Don’t worry about Danny.”
She drummed her fingers on her arm and, for a moment, I thought she’d argue with me. Then she lowered her arms. “I suppose you’re right. I better return to work anyway before Mrs. Kettering catches me.”
She headed off to the service lift while I returned to the foyer. I spotted Mr. Hobart disappearing into the corridor that housed the offices and private chambers of the senior staff. He walked with Mr. Chapman, the steward, at his side. Now was as good a time as any to ask the manager if there were some small task I could do for him.
He opened the door to Mr. Armitage’s office and entered, Mr. Chapman at his heels. Beyond them I could just make out Mr. Armitage, Mrs. Kettering and the detective inspector, all crowded into the small space. Their Christmas luncheon had been as brief as ours, and they’d already returned to the hotel, if they’d even left. I felt sorry for both Mrs. Hobarts, not getting to spend the entire day with their husbands.
I didn’t want to interrupt their interviews so I waited outside, my back to the corridor wall.
The door closed but I could still hear the inspector’s voice asking where each of the senior staff had been yesterday afternoon and evening. It seemed he still didn’t trust that Danny spoke the truth about seeing Mrs. Warrick alive at eleven.
They each answered, but it was Mr. Armitage’s response that had me pressing my ear to the door to hear better.
“I dined in my office at about eight as I looked over the day’s accounts,” he told his father. “I finished around ten, retired to my rooms where I read for an hour before falling asleep.”
“And earlier?” Inspector Hobart asked.
“I took Miss Fox for a tour of this level then spoke to Mr. Chapman in the dining room. Following that I spent some time in maintenance, assisting with the lift problem.”
“Isn’t that a maintenance issue?”
“I was idle and felt like doing something with my hands.”
“And prior to your tour with Miss Fox?”
Mr. Armitage paused. “I was in my office, going over today’s arrivals and departures. I heard a noise in the corridor and saw Miss Fox wandering about, looking lost.”
The liar! He hadn’t been in his office when he saw me. He’d been coming out of Mr. Chapman’s office. Indeed, he’d done it furtively, opening the door a mere crack and peeking through before emerging. He was checking the coast was clear first. Clear of what? Or whom? Mr. Chapman?
The detective inspector sounded as though he was about to dismiss the group so I hurried away. I didn’t want to be caught eavesdropping. I didn’t want Mr. Armitage or anyone else offering me polite smiles and innocuous conversation. I needed time to think about what I’d heard, and consider what possible reason Mr. Armitage could have for lying.
But there was only one explanation I could come up with—he was hiding something.
I ought to inform the inspector. In ordinary circumstances, I would do just that. But Mr. Armitage was the inspector’s son. If Mr. Armitage turned out to be the murderer, Hobart would cover it up. It wasn’t just the lie about his whereabouts before he met me that concerned me. There was also Mrs. Warrick’s muttered words as she stepped into the lift—she’d recognized someone. Someone who shouldn’t be in the hotel.
And she’d been staring directly at Mr. Armitage as she said it.
I climbed the stairs to retire to my room and think, but by the time I reached the fourth floor, there was only one thought in my mind and I couldn’t shake it. If Mr. Armitage was the killer, Detective Inspector Hobart would protect his son. He might even look for an innocent man to blame instead.
A hollowness settled in the pit of my stomach. I liked Mr. Armitage. I liked his uncle, Mr. Hobart, too. But both men were hotel employees and I was their employer’s niece. Of course they’d been friendly towards me. Even if I didn’t deserve their kindness, they’d bestow it upon me anyway. So if I couldn’t trust their outward manner, why should I trust them at all?
It seemed I’d been too hasty in telling Harmony that I wouldn’t conduct a separate investigation. I ought to find her and inform her of my decision to resume. She would be the only one I’d inform, however. The fewer people who knew I doubted the inspector’s impartiality, the better.
“Cleo! I’m so glad I found you.” Flossy waved at me from further along the corridor. “I’m in need of good company. Father is in a lather over the murder.” She whispered the word as if speaking it aloud made it more horrid. “Poor Floyd is taking the brunt of his anger since Mr. Hobart has been busy helping Inspector Hobart. Mother is resting and I’m in desperate need of an outing, but I can’t go shopping so we’ll have to settle for a walk.”
Now that I’d made my decision to investigate the murder, all I wanted to do was get on with it. At the top of my list was to talk to the guests who’d been near Mr. Armitage when Mrs. Warrick uttered her damning statement. Unfortunately I couldn’t think of an excuse and Flossy hustled me towards my room.
“Get a coat, hat and gloves,” she said. “I’ve already got mine.”
I did as ordered and locked the door again. “Do you know all the guests currently staying in the hotel?” I asked her as we waited for the lift.
“Good lord, Cleo, there are so many! We’re not terribly busy, admittedly, but there must be…” Her lips moved as she did calculations in her head. “Tons. Too many to know individually. Why?”
“I was curious. Do you know who would know them all?”
“Mr. Hobart and Mr. Armitage. Father once scolded Floyd for not doing as the managers did and study the reservations book each night to learn the names of the guests arriving the following day. Peter would know too, of course, but after each guest checks in.” The lift arrived, its floor perfectly level with the corridor. John opened the door and smiled. “John knows all the guests too, of course,” Flossy added.
“Only those who travel by my ascending room,” he said, patting the door as if it were a loyal pet. “Not those who take the stairs.” This last he said with a pointed look in my direction as he pushed the lever.
“I like the exercise,” I muttered.
“Was there a guest in particular you wanted to know about?” Flossy gave her hands a little clap. “Oh, I know! There’s a dashing foreign count staying on level two. You ought to know he’s married, Cleo. Not that he’s here with his wife.” She winked.
I had no idea how to interpret the wink, but John smiled. I felt as though I were being left out of a joke.
“Did either of you notice the gentlemen standing near Mr. Armitage yesterday when we got into the lift?” I didn’t want to mention Mrs. Warrick’s name in case it led either of them to suspect I was investigating her murder.
Neither could recall the gentlemen, and I decided to try Peter. Unfortunately he was busy at the main counter where four guests stood. Goliath and three other porters waited nearby with luggage, and Mr. Armitage and Mr. Hobart spoke to the guests. Peter looked worried as he accepted the key off a gentleman.
“Oh no,” Flossy muttered. “It has started.”
“What has?” I asked.
“The exodus. Father’s fears are being realized. We managed to get through luncheon before word about the murder got out, but it seems it’s out now.”
We headed to the luggage counter to collect umbrellas. “I wouldn’t go outside, Miss Bainbridge,” said Goliath as we passed him. “The newspapermen are like hungry pigs.”
The front door was suddenly pushed open and a cacophony of voices surged through along with a figure drenched from head to toe. The door closed behind him, but not before I saw Frank the doorman trying to urge a cluster of men to move along.
The newcomer’s sharp gaze settled on Flossy and me. He strode towards us, leaving a trail of drips behind on the tiles. “Excuse me, ladies, can I have a word? What can you tell me about the murder that took place here last night? Did you know the victim?” He reached into his inside coat pocket and whipped out a pencil and notepad.
Flossy shrank away from him. “Leave me alone!”
Mr. Armitage approached, his face set hard, dark eyes flashing. “Get out or you’ll be thrown out.”
The man put his hands up in surrender. “I’m just trying to make a living, same as you.”
“You are not the same as me. Leave.”
The towering form of Goliath overshadowed us. “Want help, Mr. Armitage?”
“It’s under control, thank you, Goliath. This man was just leaving.” Mr. Armitage grabbed the lapel of the journalist’s coat and forced him towards the door.
Goliath opened it and Mr. Armitage pushed the man through. He stumbled into the other journalists.
“I think Frank could do with your help,” Mr. Armitage said to Goliath.
Goliath touched his forehead in acknowledgement and joined Frank outside. “Move along!” Frank’s voice boomed.
“Are you all right?” Mr. Armitage asked us. His gaze quickly danced over Flossy and lingered a little longer on me.
I dipped my head, suddenly feeling guilty for thinking him involved in the murder. Surely he couldn’t have done it. He seemed far too honorable. But why had he lied to his own father when he’d questioned him about his movements yesterday afternoon?
“Yes, thank you,” Flossy said with a tilt of her chin at the door. “Horrible people, journalists.”
“They’re just doing their job,” Mr. Armitage said.
Flossy seemed a little put out to have her opinion brushed off, but he didn’t notice. He watched the guests at the counter, his features still set, fists clenched at his sides. The smooth man who’d greeted me the day before was nowhere in sight.
“Are they all due to leave today?” I asked.
“They’re frightened,” I said.
Flossy shivered and rubbed her arms. “I don’t blame them.”
I put my arm around her. “We’ll be all right. The killer chose Mrs. Warrick for a reason, and now that she has been silenced, he has no reason to strike again.”
She leaned into me. “Thank you, Cleo. You’re probably right. It must be such a comfort being so sensible all the time.”
I smiled, despite myself. “Some say comforting, others say dull.” I looked up to see Mr. Armitage giving me a strange look. The tightness of his features had softened somewhat, but his eyes were still dark beneath the lowered lids.
He strode off to assist his uncle, attempting to talk the guests out of their early departure.
“I don’t feel like going for a walk now,” Flossy muttered.
“I don’t particularly want to pass those journalists either,” I admitted. “Besides, it’s raining.”
She sighed. “I have an hour before I ought to get ready.”
“Are we dining together again?” I asked, not quite sure if it was a regular event for the family.
“Oh, I am sorry, Cleo, I forgot to tell you.” She nibbled on her lower lip and frowned prettily. “I’m dining out with Mother and Father tonight. Friends of my parents came to London for Christmas and this was the only evening they had free. It was arranged ages ago, probably before we even knew you were coming. Mother and Father want me to marry their son, you see. They’ve been trying to throw me into his path for a while now, but haven’t managed it until this invitation arrived.”
“That sounds painful,” I said, smiling.
“Oh, it is. Very painful indeed. He’s so awkward and a terrible bore. I tried to get out of it by feigning a headache but mother is insisting and told me she’ll drag me along, no matter what.” She sighed. “I wish you were coming with me so I had someone amusing to talk to. The first time I met him, he spoke all evening about an archaeological dig he’d been on. He loves antiquities.”
It sounded quite interesting to me, but I suspected she didn’t want to hear that so I merely nodded sympathetically. “And Floyd?”
“You won’t see him. The moment we leave, he’ll be off too. Don’t tell Father, though. I suspect Floyd has told him he’ll be here all evening keeping an eye on things. Not that it’s necessary, with Mr. Armitage always present after his uncle leaves of an evening, but Father likes to think Floyd is in control when he’s not here. So what shall we do for an hour?” she finished.
“Read? Write letters?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Perhaps I’ll start getting ready early.”
Harmony’s face appeared around the corner near the stairs. Spying me, she signaled me to join her.
“I think I’ll see what books are in the library,” I said to Flossy.
We walked together to the lift where I left Flossy and headed to the main sitting room that contained the hotel’s library. I waited, dismissing the waiter who asked if I wanted to take a seat, and watched while Flossy got into the lift. As soon as the door closed, I retraced my steps and joined Harmony near the staircase.
“Come to the parlor,” she said. “There’s something you should know.”
“There’s something you should know too,” I said, following her. “I’ve decided to continue investigating. But don’t tell anyone.”
She didn’t break her stride as we made our way to the staff parlor. “I thought you would change your mind, but I didn’t think you’d change it until you heard what I have to tell you.”
“What do you have to tell me?”
She pushed open the door to reveal Victor the cook perched on the edge of a table, flipping his knife in the air. “Victor!” she snapped. “You’re not in the kitchen now.”
Victor slotted the knife into his belt in one continuous motion.
“You’re very skilled with it,” I told him.
He crossed his arms over his chest. “I am.”
“Did you learn to do that here?”
“Nope. Found my first knife when I was a boy and taught myself some tricks.”
“Found?” Harmony made a scoffing sound. “Stole it, more likely.”
Victor merely crossed his legs at the ankles and regarded her coolly.
She thrust out her chin. “We have terrible news, Miss Fox. Danny was arrested. They’ve put him in prison!”
“A holding cell at Scotland Yard,” Victor clarified.
“It’s the same thing.”
“No, it ain’t.”
Harmony turned her back to him. “I’m so glad you’ve decided to investigate, after all. We’ll help, of course.” She indicated Victor.
Victor patted a chair back and invited me to sit. “Want some tea while you think?” He indicated a teapot and cups on the table.
“Thank you,” I said.
Harmony poured tea into three cups and Victor handed one to me. “So, where shall you begin?” she asked.
I sipped slowly, gathering my thoughts, then lowered the cup to my lap. The door suddenly opened and Goliath entered. He paused when he saw me.
“Keep moving, you big bloody giraffe,” said someone behind him.
Goliath stepped aside to reveal Frank the doorman. He saw me and flushed.
“Sorry for my language, Miss Fox,” he muttered. “I didn’t see you there.”
I rose. “It’s all right. It’s my fault, I’m intruding. This is your space to relax for a few moments.”
“Please stay,” Harmony said. “Miss Fox is helping investigate the murder,” she informed the men.
“Then you’ve got to stay,” Goliath said. “They arrested Danny.”
“The police will find the killer,” Frank told him.
“The police will find whoever the most convenient suspect is,” Harmony said darkly. “They want this wrapped up quickly and quietly. I know all too well what the police are like, Frank.”
“Mr. Hobart won’t let his brother convict Danny. Have some faith, Harmony.”
She sniffed. “It doesn’t hurt to have another mind investigating. Miss Fox is clever. Have faith in her, Frank.”
If Mr. Armitage weren’t their immediate superior, I would have told them my suspicions about him and my doubts that his father would investigate thoroughly if he knew his son killed Mrs. Warrick. I wouldn’t tell anyone my suspicions until I was absolutely sure, however.
I sat again as Goliath poured himself a cup of tea.
Victor withdrew his knife from his belt. “Are the journalists gone? Want me to go out there and frighten them off?”
“Two constables are outside now,” Frank said. “That got rid of all but a few determined ones. Mr. Armitage said me and Goliath can take ten minutes in here while he helps defend the fort outside.”
“Looks like he and Mr. Hobart convinced those guests to stay too,” Goliath said.
“Probably by telling them the killer had been caught,” Harmony said with a glare at each man. “Mark my words, they’re going to blame Danny. I don’t want to see my friend hang for something he didn’t do. Do you?”
Frank shuffled his feet and shook his head.
Goliath puffed out his chest. “No, ma’am, I do not.”
Victor ran the blade edge along his finger. “So what do we do next, Miss Fox?”
They all stared at me. How had I become their great hope? I’d done nothing to deserve it except show an inquisitive nature. Harmony seemed to have decided that I could be trusted to find the truth, but I wasn’t sure what that decision was based upon.
It could simply be because I was a relative of the hotel owner. I could access places the staff could not, and talk to people who wouldn’t give Harmony the time of day.
“The police are at a disadvantage,” I told them. “They’re not allowed to question the guests, but I think the guests should be questioned. Some of them, at least. For one thing, someone might have seen Mrs. Warrick during the evening, or could have witnessed Danny speaking to her when he brought the hot chocolate.”
Harmony sat forward on the chair. “I did discover something that may be of use. It answers the question as to why the police are asking everyone where they were in the early evening and late afternoon. I found out that none of the waiters remembered seeing Mrs. Warrick in the dining room. Nor could Mr. Chapman find her name in his book. He notes down guest names and room numbers when they arrive,” she told me. “The cost of the meal is added to their final list of expenses to be paid when they check out.”
“No meal was delivered to her room, either,” Victor added. “I checked after I spoke to you this morning, Miss Fox.”
“Could she have dined out?” I asked.
“She didn’t leave the hotel,” Frank said.
Goliath pointed his teacup at Frank. “Maybe you were looking the other way when she passed.”
Frank’s lips pursed. “I notice everybody. Not a single soul can get past me.”
“That journalist got past you today.”
“No one can get past me unnoticed. Unless Mrs. Warrick used a disguise, she didn’t leave the hotel.”
Harmony nodded thoughtfully. “A disguise is a distinct possibility. But why employ one?”
The door opened and Peter walked in with one of the maids. I recognized her as the young woman who’d endured a scolding from Mrs. Kettering in the stairwell. She paused when she saw me and bobbed a hasty curtsy. Harmony introduced her as Edith.
“I really shouldn’t be in here,” I said, rising. “I don’t want to get in your way.”
“You ain’t in the way,” Victor said, pushing a spare chair towards Edith.
She slid onto it, her head bowed, hands in her lap.
“Miss Fox is helping solve the murder,” Harmony explained.
I winced. I wished she’d stop announcing it.
“Edith discovered Mrs. Warrick’s body this morning.”
“How awful for you,” I said. “Shouldn’t you go home and rest? You’ve endured quite a shock.”
Edith looked up, her eyes huge. They were her best feature, particularly when she blinked innocently like that. If it weren’t for her big blue-gray eyes she’d be a little plain. I’d thought her young, but now that I got a proper look at her face, I could see the telltale signs of age at the corners of her mouth and eyes. She must be near thirty.
“I’m all right, thank you, Miss Fox. I’d rather be working. So you don’t think Danny did it?”
“No,” chimed several voices as one.
“I’m so glad you’re going to help him,” she told me. “But who do you think poisoned Mrs. Warrick?”
“I’m not sure. But we need to keep this investigation between ourselves,” I told them all. “Don’t tell the senior staff, or any other staff, unless it will help us find answers. Edith, are you up to talking about the body? It’s all right if you’re not.”
“Do you think it will help free Danny?”
She drew in a fortifying breath and let it out slowly. “What do you want to know?”
“Tell me what you told the detective inspector about your movements before and after discovering Mrs. Warrick.”
“I was delivering her tea at seven this morning, as I have done ever since she arrived. She has a regular order, you see; tea delivered at seven by a maid, not a footman. She doesn’t want men seeing her in her nightgown.”
“A regular order, just like her cup of hot chocolate,” I said.
Edith nodded. “I knocked on her door, but there was no answer. I’m sure I knocked loudly enough because I awoke the gentleman in the room directly across the corridor. He came out and picked up the newspaper that had been left by his door. I knocked on Mrs. Warrick’s door again, then when there was still no answer, I used my key.”
“Is it usual for you to enter with your own key?”
“Not very, but I just thought she was in a deep sleep. I didn’t want to leave the tea at the door because I know she likes it hot. It was only in a cup with a cloth cover, not a pot and it would have gone cold very quickly.”
“Do you always carry keys to all the rooms you deliver tea to in the mornings?”
“Just for the rooms I clean.”
“Tell me what happened after you stepped into her room.”
“I put the cup down on the table beside the empty pot of chocolate, opened the curtains, and turned around to greet Mrs. Warrick. That’s when I saw her…covered in her own sick.” She shuddered and clutched her throat. “It was awful. I’ll never sleep tonight with the memory of her ghastly face in my mind.”
Harmony touched Edith’s hand, and Goliath squeezed her shoulder.
“I came straight outside and told the other guest still reading his paper that Mrs. Warrick looked dead. He went into her room to check while I ran to tell Mrs. Kettering.”
The poor girl. No wonder her hands still shook. I wasn’t sure I’d still be able to work if I’d discovered a dead body just that morning.
“You mentioned you have a key to the rooms you clean,” I said. “Who else has access to room keys?”
“Mr. Hobart and Mrs. Kettering each have a master set of keys,” Peter said. “If a guest loses their room key, I have to ask one of them to unlock the door. It doesn’t happen often.”
“Mr. Armitage doesn’t have keys?”
“He uses Mr. Hobart’s set if the need arises.”
“Who do you think could have murdered her?” Goliath asked. “She was at the hotel alone, wasn’t she?”
Peter nodded. “She checked in two days ago. I recall her saying she was looking forward to the ball and seeing old friends.”
“Had any of those old friends arrived yet?” I asked him.
“I don’t know.”
“Peter, do you recall yesterday afternoon when Mr. Armitage spoke to a gentleman beside the Christmas tree? There was another man also nearby, reading the newspaper.”
“Just after you and Miss Bainbridge came out of the sitting room?” Peter nodded. “I remember.”
“He doesn’t miss anyone,” Goliath said with a smirk at Frank.
Frank looked like he wanted to retort, but he pursed his lips and hunched his shoulders. Goliath chuckled into his teacup.
“The man Mr. Armitage spoke to is Mr. Hookly, room five-oh-five,” Peter said. “Nice fellow, cheerful, receives a lot of parcels from various shops. The one reading the newspaper was Mr. Duffield, second son of a second son of an earl, or something like that. Bit of a snob but doesn’t give us any trouble. He’s staying on the third floor.”
The same level as Mrs. Warrick. “Do you know what they’re doing in London?”
Peter shrugged. “They came for the ball, I suspect. They must have decided to come a few days early. The unmarried ones without family like to spend Christmas Day here.”
“Do you know anything about where they’re from? What they do for a living?”
“No, but I can find out their addresses. Everyone has to leave one when they check in. It’s recorded in the reservation book.”
“If you could get them for me, that would be marvelous.”
“Why?” Goliath asked. “What have these men got to do with Mrs. Warrick’s murder?”
“She recognized one of them, but I don’t know which.” I didn’t tell him that she could have been referring to Mr. Armitage. If I did, would these staff defend their superior’s honor? “It could mean nothing,” I went on. “It’s just a line of inquiry I want to follow.”
“You’re very thorough,” Harmony said, taking my empty cup and placing it on the tray.
Edith suddenly got to her feet with a gasp. “Look at the time. I’d better return to work.”
Harmony glanced at the small clock beside a stack of periodicals on the shelf. “I thought you’d finished for the day, like me.”
“Mrs. Kettering asked me to do something for her.”
“Or are you really going off to see your beau?” Goliath asked with a wink.
Edith blushed and lowered her head.
“Leave her be,” Harmony scolded.
Frank plucked the empty teacup from Goliath’s fingers. “Just because no one loves you, Goliath, there’s no need to be jealous of those of us with paramours.”
“Those of us?” Goliath snorted. “I don’t see women lining up outside the hotel to get a look at your ugly mug.”
Frank placed the teacups down with a loud clatter. “Nor yours.”
Edith opened the door to go, but I laid a hand on her arm. She jumped. “Speaking of Mrs. Kettering,” I said gently, “remember not to breathe a word of my investigation to her. Or to anyone.”
“I won’t, and certainly not to that dragon.” Edith put more spirit into the word than she had the rest of her words combined.
“That was unexpected,” Harmony said with a laugh after Edith departed.
Victor threw one of his knives in the air and caught it. “Calling someone a dragon seems normal to me. From the way Mrs. Kettering talks to you girls, I’m surprised someone hasn’t poisoned her. I’d wager you’ve dreamed about it on more than one occasion.”
“You are a strange man.” She picked up the tray and shoved it into his chest, choosing the moment between him catching the knife and tossing it again. “Take this back to the kitchen. This girl has finished for the day.”
Victor steadied the tray as Harmony marched out of the parlor. “What’d I say to deserve that?”
I spotted Mr. Hookly while I sat in one of the chairs in the foyer, pretending to read a book. He emerged from the lift and headed for the smoking room. I followed five minutes later, the book tucked under my arm.
There were only three gentlemen in the smoking room and all looked up upon my entry. The two elderly smokers held cigars while the third, Mr. Hookly, stood side-on to the fireplace, a slender cigarette dangling between his fingers. One of the cigar smokers gave me such a look of disgust that I wanted to run from the room. The second shook his head, as if my presence saddened him. Only Mr. Hookly welcomed me.
“May I try one of those?” I asked, setting my book on the mantelpiece and pointing to his cigarette.
“Of course.” He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a silver case.
I removed one of the cigarettes and held it between thumb and forefinger while he lit it for me. He watched, smiling, as I placed it between my lips.
“You’re supposed to inhale,” he said, his smile widening.
I inhaled and promptly coughed as the smoke hit the back of my throat.
Mr. Hookly poured a sherry from the decanter on the sideboard and handed the glass to me. I gratefully sipped and the coughing eased.
“First time?” he asked.
“How can you tell?”
He chuckled. “You’re either very brave or very foolish.” He glanced pointedly at the two older gentlemen mumbling around the cigars plugged into their mouths. Considering the only women who smoked were prostitutes or some of the more extreme activists for the women’s emancipation movement, it wasn’t surprising they looked upon me as an aberration. To them, my presence in their masculine domain was either an act of defiance or promiscuity.
I wondered what Mr. Hookly thought of me. From his smiles, I gathered he realized I was neither and that smoking was a new endeavor. Considering my second inhalation produced another round of coughs, it was an easy conclusion to draw.
“So which is it, Miss…?”
“Fox.” I held out my hand and he shook it, introducing himself as Mr. Hookly. “Perhaps I’m a brave fool,” I said. “Or simply adventurous.”
He acknowledged this with a shallow bow. “So now that we’ve established why you’re in the smoking room, tell me what brings you to The Mayfair. You don’t look like their typical guest.”
“Don’t I? And what does a typical guest of The Mayfair Hotel look like?”
He nodded at the gentlemen. “Older.”
“You’re not old.”
He was indeed not. I gauged him to be in his middle to late thirties going by the dashes of gray specks in his sideburns. He was also handsome, but not in an overt way. He wasn’t a man that women would gush over, but his features were pleasingly arranged and there was an air of refinement about him and in the way in which he held my gaze. This man did not lack confidence.
“Perhaps I was being unkind to my fellow guests. Not all are stuck in their ways like those two. I’ve seen some younger ones coming and going. I hear Sir Ronald’s son brings in a younger crowd.”
“Is that so? I wouldn’t know. I only arrived yesterday.”
I gave him an arched look, and he instantly apologized.
“Forgive me, the question was too personal, but innocently meant.” He offered me another bow, deeper this time. When he straightened, his smile had vanished and he did indeed seem apologetic.
I decided to be honest. If I wanted him to trust me enough to tell me about himself, I had to give something of myself in return. “I arrived alone but I live with my family on the fourth floor. Sir Ronald Bainbridge is my uncle.”
He paused, the cigarette halfway to his lips. “Does your uncle know you’ve taken up smoking today?”
I leaned in a little. “No, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell him or anyone else. I’m not sure I’ll continue with the habit. I can’t seem to get the technique right.” I inhaled and coughed again.
Mr. Hookly placed his cigarette between smiling lips. He blew out a smoke ring. “You’ll get used to it. But perhaps giving up before you properly begin is a good idea. It’s a terribly addictive habit.”
“Tell me, what brings you to London—and The Mayfair in particular?” I asked, trying to sound as though I were merely attempting to make small talk.
“I’ve newly returned to English soil from Africa.”
“Africa! How thrilling.” He did not look as though he’d just come from a hot land. He wasn’t tanned. I supposed he could have worn a wide-brimmed hat out of doors to protect his pale skin.
“Do you think so?” He seemed to like my enthusiastic response, his shoulders squaring ever so slightly.
“What were you doing there?”
“Mining. Trouble with the Boers was worsening, however, so I decided to return to England. I sold my mine just before war broke out and here I am.” He spread his hands apart. “I came directly to London after my ship docked to purchase all necessaries for a brisk English winter. I don’t recall it ever being this cold, however.”
“Are you staying for the ball?”
“I think I will, yes. Sir Ronald has asked me to and issued me an invitation personally just today, as it happens. I suspect the personal touch was in response to the murder and not because he particularly desires my company for the evening. Nasty business, isn’t it? I hope they find the killer soon.”
“They arrested one of the footmen this afternoon.”
“Good. Glad that’s resolved. I feel better knowing there are no killers wandering the halls, looking for jewels to steal.”
I didn’t bother to correct him. It seemed like a good idea to let him think that I believed theft was the motivation and that the right culprit had been arrested.
A slim man with sleek black hair and a goatee beard entered with a beautiful woman on his arm. I found myself staring at her, unable to look away from her lovely face, the exquisite beaded cream silk gown and the diamonds at her throat.
The goateed gentleman offered her a cigarette from a gold case and lit it for her. She blew out her first breath of smoke in the direction of the two elderly gentlemen who’d not stopped muttering to themselves since her entry.
They promptly got up and walked out. Her languid gaze watched them go.
“She’s striking, isn’t she?” Mr. Hookly said quietly.
Good lord, I’d been staring too long. I cleared my throat. “Tell me more about yourself. You mentioned selling your mine at an opportune time just before the war, but what happens next for you?”
“I’ll return home to Berkshire and find something to do, I suspect. I haven’t decided what yet.”
“And why did you choose The Mayfair for your stay in London?”
He flashed me a smile. “Spoken like a member of the Bainbridge family.” He tossed the butt of his cigarette into the fire and pulled out the silver case again. “The hotel was recommended to me by a friend, Lord Addlington. Do you know him?”
“Excellent chap. Regular guest here. Sir Ronald knows him well, so he told me when he read his lordship’s letter of recommendation.” He suddenly glanced up and nodded at someone.
I followed his gaze and froze. Then my insides sank beneath Mr. Armitage’s shocked stare.
He quickly recovered, however. “Good evening, Mr. Hookly, Miss Fox. May I say it’s a surprise to see you in here. I didn’t think you smoked.”
“If you saw her attempt it, you’d realize she doesn’t.” Mr. Hookly chuckled. “Armitage, any word from that fellow I asked about?”
“As far as I’m aware, he’s still coming to the ball.”
“Excellent, excellent.” Mr. Hookly threw his cigarette into the fire. “If you’ll excuse me, I must go. I’m dining out tonight with a friend at his club.”
“Enjoy your evening, sir.”
Mr. Hookly took my hand and bowed over it. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss Fox. Perhaps I’ll see you in here again tomorrow.”
Not unless I could think of more questions to ask him.
Mr. Armitage checked the levels of the decanters on the sideboard. I ought to leave too, but I wanted to speak to him again. The air between us felt a little tense after he’d quite rightly accused me of doubting his father’s ability as a detective. I was also very aware that he’d lied to his father about his whereabouts. I was considering how to discover the reason for the lie when he spoke.
“What are you doing in here, Miss Fox?” he asked idly.
“Smoking, of course.” To prove my point, I inhaled on the cigarette. The resulting cough was unladylike. A sip of sherry helped a little.
Mr. Armitage plucked the cigarette from my fingers. He tossed it into the fire.
“I was smoking that,” I said irritably.
“You were choking on it, not smoking it.”
I abandoned the idea of trying to find out why he lied to his uncle. Not only could it put me in danger, if he were the murderer and guessed my motive for asking, but I simply didn’t feel like talking to someone highhanded enough to take my cigarette and stub it out without my permission. He was not my uncle or cousin. Indeed, if Uncle Ronald or Floyd had done what Mr. Armitage had, I’d be just as vexed with them.
Unfortunately Mr. Armitage followed me out of the room. “You do realize that wasn’t Count Ivanov’s wife. She’s his mistress.”
Mistress! Good lord. What sort of man brought his mistress to a hotel like The Mayfair and treated her as if she were his wife? Russians, I supposed. Wealthy, titled Russians.
“I see I’ve shocked you,” Mr. Armitage said.
I schooled my features. “Not at all. Anyway, I don’t see that Count Ivanov’s private arrangements are any of my affair, or yours, for that matter.”
“On the contrary. As assistant manager to the hotel, the private arrangements of the guests are very much my affair. I need to know who is staying here, with whom, and why. Not that I expect Countess Ivanov to arrive from Russia out of the blue, but I must be prepared for the eventuality and act swiftly to divert a disaster.”
“By disaster, you mean the wife meeting the mistress on the arm of her husband.”
“You catch on quickly, Miss Fox.”
I narrowed my gaze. He was mocking me. He must think me terribly naïve not to have realized she was the count’s mistress. I even knew that only two types of women smoked and that lovely creature didn’t strike me as a proponent for the female cause. But she didn’t look like a prostitute, either. I’d only ever seen them slouched in tavern doorways, their clothing half-off and their faces painted. Admittedly, my experience was limited to a single accidental adventure into a Cambridge slum when I’d taken a wrong turn on my way to meet a friend after a lecture.
“Will you accept a friendly word of caution, Miss Fox?” he asked.
I didn’t expect a friendly word. I expected a scolding, but I didn’t want to get Mr. Armitage off-side. Not yet. Not until I knew whether he was involved in the murder or not. “Go on.”
“The reason I told you about Count Ivanov’s mistress is because the niece of the hotel owner shouldn’t be seen smoking in public or people will think you’re like her. If you must do it, reserve it for the privacy of your own rooms and swear your maid to secrecy. Sir Ronald would not approve of you doing it in the hotel’s smoking room where anyone could see.”
“Then perhaps you ought to put a sign on the door: women not allowed; mistresses excepting.”
He took a small step back. “You’re angry with me. I’m sorry. I was trying to help. I thought you might appreciate some advice from someone who knows what Sir Ronald is like.” He gave me a curt bow. “I apologize.”
I sighed as he stalked off. This wasn’t going at all well. I was supposed to be obtaining information from him. I hurried after him. “Mr. Armitage, thank you for your advice. It is appreciated.”
He stopped and eyed me carefully. He looked uncertain.
“I thought I would try something new,” I went on. “I’ve never smoked before and Mr. Hookly was kind enough to give me a cigarette. Now that I’ve done it, I doubt I’ll try again. I didn’t enjoy it. How do you men like it so much?”
“I don’t smoke.”
“Does Mr. Hookly smoke every evening before dinner?”
“Before and after.” He was still rather formal and stiff, and I wasn’t sure how to make him relax and encourage him to talk. At least he didn’t walk off again.
“He’s an interesting fellow,” I went on. “He recently returned from Africa.”
“Southern Africa, so he told me.”
“Where he sold a mine, yes. What do you know about the man whose letter of recommendation he carries?”
“Lord Addlington? He’s a regular guest when parliament sits. A very fine gentleman and well respected around here.” He bid me a good evening, and went to walk off, but stopped suddenly. “Your uncle would have gladly introduced you to Mr. Hookly if you’d asked.”
It was my turn to take a step back. I was about to ask him why I’d want my uncle to introduce me to Mr. Hookly when I suddenly realized that Mr. Armitage thought I was romantically interested in the African miner. Asking for an introduction would certainly have been a more respectable way to go about orchestrating an encounter instead of following him into the smoking room.
It was a rather horrifying notion that Mr. Armitage thought I was interested in Mr. Hookly and not in a way that required a respectable introduction. He must think I was hunting for a wealthy benefactor, someone who’d parade me in jewels at luxury hotels while his wife stayed home.
I watched Mr. Armitage leave, a storm of feelings brewing inside my chest. I wasn’t sure whether to feel ashamed or annoyed. After all, he’d made his mind up about me after knowing almost nothing about me.
One thing I was sure of, however. I wouldn’t get more answers out of Mr. Armitage. If he hadn’t been inclined to trust me before, he certainly wasn’t now.
It was Flossy who encouraged me to dine in the hotel dining room instead of in my suite alone. I sat with her as she prepared for her evening out. Three hours later, I could see why it took her so long to get ready. Her maid arranged Flossy’s hair in three different styles, each more elaborate than the last, before Flossy settled on the first. She changed her clothes so often that I lost count, and when she discovered a loose thread in the dress she did decide to wear, her poor maid had to sit beside a lamp and quickly mend it.
I was rather glad when one of the footman knocked on the door and announced that her parents were waiting for her. I returned to my own suite and changed outfits and fixed my hair. It smelled a little smoky, but thankfully Flossy hadn’t noticed. I sprinkled a few drops of perfume on it then slipped on my shoes.
Floyd hadn’t invited me to join him for dinner so I assumed he’d gone out, as Flossy said he would. I took the lift downstairs, chatting to John all the way, and was about to turn from the foyer into the vestibule when I spotted one of my suspects. It was the man who’d been reading the newspaper in Mrs. Warrick’s line of sight when she’d uttered words of surprised recognition.
“Excuse me,” I said, stepping alongside him. “Are you Mr. Duffield?”
It was terribly unladylike of me to speak to a strange man, but this was an extraordinary circumstance that called for desperate measures. He stopped and gave me a polite, if strained, smile. “I am.”
“I’m Miss Fox, the niece of Sir Ronald Bainbridge.”
At the mention of my uncle’s name, the strained smile vanished, replaced by a friendly one. He bowed over my extended hand. “Miss Fox! How lovely to finally meet you. I was just talking to your uncle about you. He said he wanted us to meet.”
It rang utterly false, for some reason. Perhaps it was because he was a little too enthusiastic. “Oh dear, I hope he only said good things about me.”
He laughed. “The best of things. Are you dining with him tonight?”
“He’s dining out with my aunt and cousin, unfortunately. I find myself all alone on my second evening in London.”
“Only your second! Well, we can’t have you dining alone, can we? Would you care to join me? I find myself dining alone tonight too.”
I graciously accepted and he thrust out his elbow for me to take. He gave his name and room number to Mr. Chapman the restaurant steward, but when Mr. Chapman recognized me, he made a point of closing his book without writing anything down.
“Enjoy your meal, Miss Fox, Mr. Duffield.” If Mr. Chapman thought it odd that I was dining with a guest, he didn’t show it. He was the epitome of formality as he signaled for a waiter.
I glanced over my shoulder as we followed the waiter to a table, but there was no sign of Mr. Armitage. I’d half expected to see him there, watching me with a scowl marring his too-handsome features.
Mr. Duffield pulled out the chair for me, and pushed it in as I sat, then took his own seat. He had a nice smile, which he freely bestowed on me, but that was where his good features began and ended. At first I’d thought him well over forty, but on closer inspection, he had the smoother skin of a man in his thirties. It was the lack of hair that made him seem older. Aside from the clusters just above his ears, the rest of his head was bald. He didn’t even have facial hair.
Mr. Duffield gave me his uninvited opinion of every dish on the menu and hailed a passing waiter without asking me if I was ready. He ordered a bottle of wine and our meals.
“You’ll enjoy the duck, Miss Fox,” he said as the waiter departed. “It’s delicious.”
“Fortunately I like duck,” I said tightly.
Mr. Duffield’s smile widened, pleased with my approval. “Tell me all about yourself, Miss Fox. Why have you come to live at this delightful hotel?”
I gave him the brief version, merely mentioning the recent death of my last remaining relative on my father’s side, and my uncle and aunt’s generous invitation to live with them until I married. His eyes lit up at the mention of marriage.
“And do you have a fiancé, Miss Fox?” he asked, oh-so-innocently.
“Not yet,” I said, matching his tone. “Tell me all about yourself, Mr. Duffield. Where are you from?”
“I have an estate in Lincolnshire with several tenant farms. My family has lived there for generations.”
Peter had said Mr. Duffield was the second son of a second son of an earl, so it shouldn’t surprise me to hear that he was landed gentry. Still, I was a little taken aback. When he’d offered me his arm, I’d noticed the fabric at the elbow of his dinner jacket was thin. His shoes were well worn too, molded to fit hit foot to the point where I could see the outline of his smallest toe. My grandfather had kept his dinner suit and good shoes for only the most formal occasions. They were in the same condition as Mr. Duffield’s.
It would seem Mr. Duffield wanted me to know he was landed gentry so that perhaps I’d overlook the evidence of his hardship.
“And what brings you to London and The Mayfair in particular?” I asked.
“Business matters bring me to the city. Always business.” He leaned back in the chair, puffing out his chest. “As to The Mayfair, isn’t it obvious?”
“The ball! I’m looking forward to attending. Are you going, Miss Fox?”
“I’m not sure. I’m in mourning and it doesn’t feel appropriate.”
He frowned and patted my hand. “I do hope you’ll reconsider. You would be an ornament to the evening. Your uncle would be very proud, I’m sure.”
“Oh, er, thank you.” I’d hardly heard his compliment, if that’s what it was. I was thinking about business during the quiet Christmas to New Year period. Surely the banks were closed and most men of business not in their offices. Perhaps Mr. Duffield’s business was urgent and couldn’t wait for the reopening of the banks in the new year. Or perhaps he’d come solely for the ball and lied about business.
Or perhaps there was another reason. A reason which Mrs. Warrick had confronted him about. If she knew he was too poor to afford to stay here, she could very well be surprised at seeing him. If she’d asked him about it, he might have worried that she would foil whatever plans he had.
“Awful matter, the murder, don’t you think?” I asked as our meals arrived.
“Yes. Horrible. But let’s not discuss such a thing.”
“Oh, but I want to. Had you met poor Mrs. Warrick?”
“No, I don’t think so. I might have exchanged words with her at some point, in the lift or the foyer. I don’t know. How is the duck?”
Try as I might, Mr. Duffield refused to talk more about the murder or himself, unless it was to tell me how large his estate was, how many tenant farms were on it, and his long-deceased grandfather, the earl.
I was going to have a story to rival Flossy’s for dullness by the end of the evening. I’d readily swap places with her and be forced to converse with an archaeological enthusiast over this self-important bore.
I was relieved when he excused himself after the meal. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
He left before I could tell him I had somewhere to be. A few minutes later, he returned to the dining room. I made a study of the tablecloth and silverware while he stopped to speak to Mr. Chapman. Mr. Chapman’s glance in my direction left me in no doubt that I was the subject of their conversation.
When he returned, Mr. Duffield did not sit down. “Thank you for your company tonight, Miss Fox.”
“You’re going?” I wasn’t sorry to see him leave, but I was surprised the evening was ending so suddenly. I thought he’d enjoyed talking about himself.
“I have a headache.” He touched his temple. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” I said to his retreating back.
Mr. Duffield exchanged a look with Mr. Chapman as he passed.
I followed him out, smiled at Mr. Chapman, and made my way to the foyer. It was still early, but I was tired. It had been a long day. Even so, I wanted to look for a book in the library. The library was located through the sitting room, however, and the sitting room doors were closed.
I opened one and peeked in. It was dark. If I wanted to reach the library without knocking into tables and chairs, I’d need to turn on the light, and that would probably draw the attention of a staff member. Very well, so be it. I was doing nothing wrong.
I felt beside the door for the switch, but couldn’t find it. It must be on the other side.
The lights suddenly went on. “Can I help you, Miss Fox?”
My stomach sank. Of all the ill luck, I’d caught the attention of Mr. Armitage. Going by the frostiness of his tone, he was still cross with me.
“I’m just going to the library,” I said. “Thank you for turning on the light. I couldn’t find it.”
“The switch is beside the door, as it is in all the rooms.”
I bristled. “I checked the wrong side first.” I waited but he did not leave. “I’ll turn it off when I’m finished.”
“I could be a while. I like to browse.”
“As I said, I’ll wait.” If his tone got any cooler, I’d need a coat.
“Afraid I’ll steal a teacup on my way out?” I spun around and marched off towards the library.
The room wasn’t large, but it was packed with books and periodicals of all kinds, even sensational novels. I skipped past those and scanned the non-fiction section. Very aware of the imposing figure of Mr. Armitage watching me from the sitting room, I read the spines without really taking them in, and had to read them a second time. Finally settling on two titles, I clutched them to my chest and rejoined him.
He stood with crossed arms, leaning against the doorframe. The casual pose was at odds with his usual straight-backed formality. The alert gaze was not.
“Found what you wanted?” he asked.
“Unfortunately you foiled my plan to steal the teacups, and I had to settle for books instead.” I strolled past him and did not look back.
The news of Danny’s release reached me mid-morning via Harmony. She was thrilled to report that he was back at work already.
“He’s quite the sensation among the staff,” she said as she tidied up my already tidy room. “He has some interesting tales to tell about his arrest and time in the holding cell, but he does like to embellish things, so I wouldn’t trust a word he says.”
“Did he say why the police released him?” I asked.
“Two reasons, apparently. The poison wasn’t in the pot or cup of chocolate, and the time of death was estimated by the pathologist as occurring between three and six in the morning. Danny was with someone at that time.”
I turned to face her. “He has a lover?” I wasn’t sure why I was surprised. I might have led a sheltered life, but I wasn’t so naïve to assume that people didn’t have lovers. Perhaps it was because I suspected Harmony held a tendre for him, and that was why she’d advocated for his release so vehemently.
She didn’t look upset to learn about his lover, however. She hummed a tune as she dusted a dust-free table.
“Why didn’t he mention the lover to the detective at the time of his arrest?” I asked.
“He was probably protecting him.”
“Him?” I blurted out. “Oh. I see.” I turned back to the correspondence I’d been reading on my desk, my face hot.
“Only his closest friends know. Promise not to tell a soul,” she said urgently. “Not even your family. You know what happened to Oscar Wilde, don’t you?”
The homosexual playwright had been imprisoned for gross indecency a few years ago. The law was not on the side of men like him. “Why didn’t the detective inspector arrest Danny for that once he revealed his alibi?”
She shrugged. “He must be a good man, like his brother, Mr. Hobart.”
“Mr. Hobart knows about Danny?”
“Mr. Hobart knows everything about everyone in the hotel.”
“Have the police returned this morning?” I asked.
“The detective inspector came and spoke with Sir Ronald, Mr. Hobart and Mr. Armitage first thing, then left again.”
It was a relief that Danny was no longer a suspect; however, the sense of urgency to find the killer still ate at me. My uncle must be beside himself with worry. Having someone arrested had eased the minds of the guests, both those already here and those yet to check in. But once word got out that Danny had been released, fear would lead to cancellations. All it would take would be for the newspapers to report it, and the hotel’s reputation would be in tatters.
Harmony joined me at the desk, her duster flicking back and forth over the lampshade. “Will you continue with the investigation now?”
“I feel as though I’ve come too far to stop.”
“True. And there’s always the danger that they’ll arrest another innocent staff member.”
“What makes you think they’re all innocent? Perhaps one of them is the murderer.”
She winced. “I don’t want to consider that possibility. I don’t even want Mrs. Kettering to be guilty of such a terrible crime. She’s a dragon and a bully, but she has a moral compass as straight as an arrow. If she did it, it means my judgement of character is far off course.”
I touched her hand. “You’ve proved to be an excellent judge of character so far. You were certainly right about Danny.”
Harmony and I parted ways outside my suite. I headed downstairs while she went to clean Floyd’s room. John the lift operator was in a good mood as he repeated what I already knew about Danny’s release.
As I passed Goliath in the foyer, pushing a trolley laden with trunks towards the door, he whispered, “Did you hear? Danny’s free.”
I caught Peter’s eye as he stood behind the counter, attending to a guest. He nodded and gave me a fleeting smile. The staff were certainly in a buoyant mood this morning. It didn’t seem to cross any of their minds that one of them could be arrested next.
I wasn’t sure who I hoped to find, only that I wanted to speak to someone more knowledgeable than Harmony. I’d considered talking to my uncle, but to be perfectly honest, I wished to avoid my uncle and aunt as much as possible. With him so busy, and her keeping to her room, it wouldn’t be difficult.
Or so I thought. The last person I expected to bump into was Uncle Ronald as he emerged from Mr. Hobart’s office.
“Cleo!” he said, sounding as surprised as I felt. “What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to ask Mr. Hobart something. Something about the hotel.”
“What is it? I can probably answer. I do know quite a bit about my hotel.”
“Er, yes. But this is about the ball.”
He drew in a breath. “The ball,” he muttered. “If it goes ahead, then you’re right to ask Mr. Hobart. He’s making all the arrangements.”
“Do you think it will be canceled because of the murder?”
“I’m hoping not, but it will require many telephone calls to friends and invited guests, reassuring them it’s quite safe.” He sighed heavily. “The police released the footman. While I’m pleased we haven’t hired a murderer, if the real culprit isn’t arrested soon, the ball will be in jeopardy. Perhaps even the hotel itself.”
Was the hotel so financially unstable that a shake of its reputation could bring it down?
“I’m sure the murderer will be found soon,” I assured him.
“Does your interest in the ball mean you’ll be attending if it goes ahead? Flossy will be pleased.”
“I’m still undecided,” I said. “I hoped Aunt Lilian could guide me.”
His thick moustache settled into a frown. “It’s best not to trouble your aunt today,” he muttered. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of work to do.”
He headed off through the foyer. I knocked on Mr. Hobart’s door and entered upon his word.
“I hope I’m not disturbing you,” I said.
“Not at all.” He indicated a chair opposite his desk. “How may I help you?”
There was no subtle way of getting answers to my questions so I decided to be direct. “I have a terribly curious nature,” I began. “I hoped you would satisfy my curiosity about Danny’s release.”
He removed his spectacles and folded the arms with slow, precise movements. “Murder is not the sort of subject that should interest a young lady,” he said carefully.
“I am not an ordinary young lady.”
That brought a smile to his face, one that seemed unguarded. It was the first time I’d seen a chink in his professional armor.
Still, he required more encouragement. “I’m used to having my mind engaged, you see. In Cambridge, I would attend lectures at the university, and I belonged to several societies where members would discuss the latest theories on all sorts of matters. Moving here has cut me off from all my former activities.”
“You’re bored. Is that what you’re saying, Miss Fox?”
“I suppose I am.” It wasn’t far from the truth. Since arriving in London, my days had been occupied with learning about my new home and the murder. Once it was solved, I would need something else to do.
“There are societies in London that you can join. Harry will give you a list, if you like.”
“He knows which societies accept women?”
There was that smile again. “He will find out for you.”
“That’s very kind, but I’m sure Mr. Armitage has a great deal of work at the moment, with preparing for the ball. Uncle Ronald says it’s still going ahead.”
Mr. Hobart picked up his spectacles. “We’re proceeding as if it is.”
“So, may I ask you some questions about the murder?”
“What makes you think I know anything?”
“I suspect your brother confides in you.”
“Don’t be so certain. At this point, I’m probably a suspect too.” He smiled as he put on his glasses. “Very well. Go on, Miss Fox, I’ll see if I can answer your questions. We can’t have your brain shrinking from lack of use.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hobart. All of my questions relate to poison. Since none was found in the chocolate pot or cup, does the inspector know how Mrs. Warrick ingested it? Did the police test the teacup delivered the following morning by the maid?”
“It was also negative for poison. Tests are also being undertaken on a bottle of tonic, tube of toothpaste, and a pot of face cream removed by the police from Mrs. Warrick’s room.”
“What type of poison was used?”
Mercury was commonly used in agriculture and industry, and wasn’t difficult to obtain. That was the extent of my knowledge.
“Nothing else was delivered to Mrs. Warrick’s room that night?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I checked with the staff myself. Mrs. Warrick received nothing else from the hotel kitchen between the time Danny delivered the hot chocolate and Edith brought Mrs. Warrick’s tea at seven the following morning.”
“She died between three and six, so the doctor said. Does your brother have faith that it’s an accurate estimation?”
“He claims the science for estimating the time of death is quite good. It means Danny’s delivery was too early, and Edith was too late. I admit I’m relieved it’s neither of them.”
“Does your brother suspect anyone else on the staff?”
“He hasn’t confided that to me, and nor would he. He knows I’ll advocate for them. At least, he knows now,after arresting poor Danny.”
If he advocated loudly for his staff, how loud would he be if he discovered his nephew were guilty? Then again, Mr. Armitage’s own father wouldn’t arrest him.
“So the poison must have been in the tonic, toothpaste or face cream,” I said.
“The tests will prove which.”
Someone must have added poison to the bottle, tube or pot, either when Mrs. Warrick wasn’t there or directly under her nose. If she wasn’t there, then someone must have let themselves in with a key, and that pointed to one of the staff. If Mrs. Warrick was present, but turned her back on the poisoner, then almost anyone could be guilty. They didn’t need a key. They simply needed to know her so that she would allow them into her room.
“Did Mrs. Warrick have friends at the hotel?” I asked.
He frowned as he thought. “She dined alone and sat in the sitting room by herself. I don’t recall her speaking to any of the other guests.”
So the only person she did know was the man she’d recognized in the foyer on the day of her death. That narrowed the list to three suspects.
I rose. “Thank you, Mr. Hobart. You’ve given me some things to think about.”
He put on his spectacles and peered over the top of them. “If you think of something that might be relevant, you will tell my brother, won’t you?”
“Of course. If I learn something that would be of interest to him, I most certainly will.” No doubt the inspector wouldn’t be interested in learning something that would incriminate his own son, so I wasn’t precisely lying.
“And Miss Fox? Don’t ask anyone else questions about the murder. It’s possible the killer has checked out of the hotel, but it’s equally possible he has not. Trust only Sir Ronald, myself and Harry if you have anything else to ask.”
“Thank you for your concern, Mr. Hobart. It’s very kind of you.” I closed the door behind me, and touched my tingling nose. His fatherly words had brought tears to my eyes. Clearly I was still feeling raw from Grandmama’s death.
Peter signaled for me to approach as I passed his counter. “Harmony wants to speak to you,” he said. “She’s in the parlor with some of the others.”
The “others” turned out to be Victor and Edith. Victor hadn’t yet started his shift for the day, and Edith had just finished cleaning some of her allocated rooms and was waiting for more to be vacated before she returned to work. Harmony didn’t explain her presence there. Either she was finished altogether and didn’t want Edith to feel bad, or she shouldn’t have been in the parlor at all.
“Did you discover anything further?” Harmony asked as she closed the door behind me.
I told them how the police found mercuric cyanide in Mrs. Warrick’s body. “They’ve taken away a few items from her toilette for testing. The poison must be in one of those.”
“What does mercuric cyanide taste like?” Victor asked.
“How would any of us know?” Harmony cried.
He drummed his fingers on his thigh and shrugged.
“Metallic, I imagine,” I said.
“Probably not very pleasant,” Edith added with a shudder.
Victor continued to drum his fingers, as if he needed to do something with his hands. He would probably like to be handling one of the knives housed in the belt slung around his waist, but it was likely Harmony had already scolded him for doing so before my entry. “It causes vomiting, that much we know,” he said.
“Victor,” Harmony hissed with a jerk of her head at Edith.
Edith had gone quite pale. “It was a horrible scene,” she whispered through trembling lips. “I hope never to witness the like of Mrs. Warrick’s face again.”
Harmony took her hand and clasped it between both of hers. “We’ll just have to wait for the results of the tests to know if the poison was in her personal items.”
“What else could it be in?” I asked.
“Her dinner?” Edith suggested.
I shook my head. “She ingested the poison between three and six AM.”
Harmony perched on the edge of the table and her gaze met mine. “That would imply the poison was in the tonic. Nobody puts on face cream or cleans their teeth in the early hours of the morning.”
“Unless they just returned to their room,” Victor added.
Harmony frowned. “Did Mrs. Warrick seem like the type to have a midnight rendezvous?”
“Mr. Hobart claims she knew nobody at the hotel,” I said. “All we know is she recognized someone.” I kept the information about Mr. Armitage being one of those men to myself. Until I knew if they would take his side or not, I wouldn’t tell them.
“You say the latest she could have been poisoned is six AM,” Edith said to me in her mousy voice.
“According to the medical expert, yes.”
“And I was there at seven.” She bit on her lower lip and looked down at her lap.
“What is it?” Harmony asked. “If you know something, Edith, you must tell us.”
“I… I’m not sure if it’s important.”
“Tell us anyway.”
Edith clasped her hands together in her lap. “I don’t want to get her into unnecessary trouble. But if it might be important…” She drew in a deep breath and seemed to decide that telling us was the best course. “After I came out of Mrs. Warrick’s room and spoke to the gentleman from the room opposite, I raced off to tell someone. I would have sought out Mr. Armitage, because I didn’t think Mr. Hobart would be in that early, and Mrs. Kettering frightens me. But I found her in the corridor on the third floor.”
Harmony gasped. “On Mrs. Warrick’s floor.”
Edith’s gaze connected with Harmony’s. “She usually checks the linen stock first thing in the morning.”
Harmony nodded. “You’re right. She shouldn’t have been there.”
No one said it out loud, but we were probably all thinking it. If Mrs. Kettering had poisoned Mrs. Warrick an hour beforehand, at six, she might have stayed in the vicinity to wait for the body to be discovered. It was a chilling thought, but not out of the realms of possibility. I’d read about murderers loitering near the scene of the crime to witness the response to their gruesome handiwork.
Edith shivered again, and this time I did too.
Victor checked the clock and pushed off from the wall where he’d been standing. He opened the door to see Mr. Armitage there.
“Sorry, sir,” he said. “My shift’s about to start.”
Mr. Armitage moved aside to let him pass then looked in on us. “Are you lost, Miss Fox? Or are you having another adventure?”
I indicated the teacup beside Edith. “Harmony and Edith were kind enough to ask me in for a cup of tea.”
“You do know you can get tea sent up to your room at any time. You simply have to talk into the speaking tube and someone in the kitchen will hear your order.”
“Thank you, the device has been explained to me. But it’s lonely drinking tea in my room by myself. I’d rather have company.”
He opened his mouth to say something but must have thought better of it. He simply nodded and walked off.
Edith rose. “I’d best return to work.”
I parted from the two maids outside the parlor and headed into the foyer, where I spotted Mr. Armitage striding towards the senior staff corridor. I raced after him, determined to have a word with him in Edith and Harmony’s favor. While I didn’t see anything wrong with having tea with them when they weren’t working, I wasn’t sure he saw it that way. He might be a stickler for societal rules and not want the staff mixing socially with the owner’s family. I didn’t want to get anyone into trouble, so if I could smooth down some ruffled feathers, I would.
I rounded the corner just as the door to one of the private chambers closed. It wasn’t his, however. I was quite sure he’d pointed it out as belonging to Mrs. Kettering when he’d taken me on the tour. Why would he go into her room? Had he overheard us talking in the parlor and thought as we did—that Mrs. Kettering shouldn’t have been on the third floor on the morning Mrs. Warrick died?
I was considering whether to wait for him to come out and confront him when Mrs. Kettering herself suddenly entered the corridor from the foyer. She walked past her office and paused upon seeing me.
“Miss Fox,” she said curtly. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m looking for you, as it happens.”
“My office is there.” She pointed behind her at the door labeled with her name.
“So it is.”
She scowled. “Is something the matter with your room?”
“May we speak in your office?” I spoke loudly enough so that someone on the other side of her bedroom door could hear. If Mrs. Kettering were the killer then it was in both Mr. Armitage’s interest and mine that he not be caught.
I followed Mrs. Kettering into her office and closed the door. She swept aside the keys and other tools of her trade attached to the chatelaine at her hip then sat.
“What is it you wanted to say to me, Miss Fox?”
I took my time. I hoped Mr. Armitage would leave immediately the coast was clear, but he might stay a few moments to look around. I scrambled to find a suitable topic to talk about.
“Miss Fox?” she barked. “Is there something wrong with your room?”
“No. It’s very nice, thank you.”
“Is Harmony doing a poor job?”
“No! Not at all. The room is very clean and tidy.”
“Does she talk too much?”
“I asked if Harmony talks too much.” She clicked her tongue. “The girl tends to prattle on uninvited. She’s too clever for her own good, that’s the problem.”
“It doesn’t sound like a problem to me.”
She regarded me down her nose. “Cleverness in a maid is a curse, Miss Fox. It gives them airs and false expectations. You wouldn’t understand.”
I stiffened. I wasn’t sure if I was more offended on Harmony’s behalf or my own. “Considering you don’t know anything about me, I don’t know how you can make that assumption.”
Her lips pinched as if she were holding in her retort.
“And I wouldn’t think that being clever would give one either airs or false expectations,” I went on. “A quick mind will make one very aware of the world and one’s situation in it, for good or ill.” I stood. If Mr. Armitage wasn’t yet out of her room then it was his problem. I wasn’t enduring Mrs. Kettering’s company another moment.
I opened the door and strode out. Insufferable woman. A brisk walk in the fresh air outside might soothe my temper. My coat and gloves were upstairs so it would be a very brief and very cold walk. I headed for the front door but was intercepted by Mr. Armitage. It would seem he’d left Mrs. Kettering’s room as soon as he could.
“A word please, Miss Fox.”
“That is an excellent idea. You have some explaining to do. I’ve just endured a conversation with Mrs. Kettering on your behalf. Now I know why the maids call her a dragon.”
He rubbed a hand over his jaw and indicated we should talk in the smoking room. It was empty, but I was very aware that someone could walk in at any moment.
“You diverted her away for me,” he said.
“She was about to walk in on you.”
“That’s a good question. Why were you in her room?”
“That’s none of your affair, and my question was why did you help me?”
I shrugged, not wanting to explain that I was investigating the murder. If he were the killer, it would alert him to the fact and put a target on my head. Indeed, if he were the killer, I ought not be alone with him.
“I have to meet my cousin,” I said, edging closer to the door.
He followed. “I suppose I owe you thanks.”
“It was nothing.” I turned to go, but he caught my arm. Instinctively, I jerked free. My heart pounded in my chest and my skin prickled as I stared up at him.
He stared back. “There’s a murderer in the hotel, Miss Fox. I suggest you be careful and not sneak about.” He opened the door and waited for me to leave.
I brushed past him, only to stop. We were mere inches apart. I was very aware of his superior height and those broad shoulders, the strong cheekbones and jaw. Despite our close proximity, I felt braver, most likely because we were now in full view of Peter, the guests and porters in the foyer.
“I wasn’t the one sneaking, Mr. Armitage. Good day.”
My dramatic exit from the smoking room lost steam when I realized Mr. Armitage didn’t follow me. My pace slowed, and I looked around the foyer for inspiration in how to proceed with the investigation. Peter stood alone at the front desk and I was about to approach him and ask if he’d learned anything about the addresses of Mr. Duffield and Mr. Hookly when an errand boy arrived carrying a rectangular box of considerable size.
“Delivery for Mr. Hookly,” he told the post desk attendant named Terence.
“Another one?” Terence said. “Mr. Hookly must be your best customer.”
“My master salivates when he sees Mr. Hookly coming through the door.”
I waited for the errand boy to leave then I approached the counter.
“Good morning, Miss Fox,” said Terence. “Have you more letters this morning?”
“Not today. I couldn’t help but overhear. Is that package for Mr. Hookly?”
“How fortuitous. I’m on my way to see him now, as it happens. May I deliver it for you?”
He looked as though he would protest but thought better of it. I suspected he didn’t want to tell me it was against hotel policy to give mail into the wrong hands. Being the owner’s niece had some advantages. “It’s very irregular, but I’m sure you can be trusted to deliver it safely.”
He passed me the box and I hurried off with it, taking the stairs rather than the lift to avoid awkward questions from John. The parcel wasn’t heavy but it was large, and by the time I reached my room, I was eager to set it down.
At my desk, I studied the return address. It was from Bentley and Sons on Saville Row. I untied the string then carefully opened the box, making sure not to damage it. Beneath the paper was a gray silk waistcoat with silver buttons and matching tie. Beneath those was a formal frock coat. The card accompanying the items stated the shirt and trousers would arrive soon, and that payment of the account was due at Mr. Hookly’s earliest convenience. The figure was a staggering amount. It must be for more than this suit. Although well made from the finest fabrics, it wouldn’t cost one tenth of the figure on the card.
I returned the items and card to the box, retied the string, and headed downstairs again. “He wasn’t in his room, after all,” I told Terence.
He gave me an uncertain look as he accepted the parcel.
I was about to return upstairs when Peter hailed me from the front desk. “I found the addresses for you, Miss Fox.”
“Excellent. Thank you, Peter.”
He handed me a piece of paper with three addresses written on it. He pointed to the first one. “This is the address Mrs. Warrick wrote in the reservation book. The next one is for Mr. Hookly. He lives in Berkshire.”
“That matches what he told me.”
“The last one is for Mr. Duffield, and look. It’s also in Lincolnshire.”
“The same as Mrs. Warrick.” They could very well know each other if they were neighbors. I didn’t know the county, however. The two addresses could be nowhere near one another. I said as much to Peter.
“That’s what I wondered too, so I took the liberty of consulting with Terry.” He nodded at Terence, sorting letters into the mail slots behind the post desk. “He has postal directories and maps from all over the country. It turns out that Mr. Duffield lives twenty-five miles from Mrs. Warrick, just outside of Grantham.”
“Thank you, Peter. You’ve been most helpful.”
“Let me know if there’s anything else I can do for you.”
“There is, as it happens. May I use your telephone?” I pointed to the brass device at the edge of the desk.
He looked uneasy. “It’s supposed to be for receiving reservations only.”
I spotted Mr. Hobart heading away from his office. “Never mind.”
I intercepted the manager and asked if I could use the telephone in his office. “My friend in Cambridge is supposed to be sending my other trunk, but it hasn’t arrived yet. I want to ask her if she dispatched it.”
“Of course,” he said. “My office door is unlocked. Help yourself.”
I’d never used a telephone but I’d seen the staff at my local post office and some shops make and receive calls. Mr. Hobart’s handsome brass candlestick shaped telephone sat on the corner of his desk. I plucked the receiver off the hook and asked the switchboard operator to connect me to the exchange in Grantham, Lincolnshire. The Grantham switchboard operator then informed me that Hambly Hall had a telephone and she proceeded to connect me.
The call was answered moments later. “I have a message for Mr. Duffield of this address,” I said.
“The Duffields no longer live at Hambly Hall,” came the voice down the line.
I moved closer to the mouthpiece. “The message is for Mr. Maurice Duffield, grandson of the earl of Hambly. I was informed that this was his address.”
“The family sold the Hall two years ago. Mr. Maurice Duffield moved into a cottage in the village.”
Mr. Duffield had lied. He no longer lived on the family estate. Indeed, the estate had been sold. It confirmed my suspicions that he was experiencing reduced circumstances. He’d not wanted the hotel to know, however.
Did Mrs. Warrick know, and that’s why she noted that he ought not be here, because he couldn’t afford the expense of The Mayfair? The more I thought about it, the more certain I was that it was him she recognized that day in the foyer. They were both members of Lincolnshire society, after all.
I ate luncheon in the dining room with Flossy, Floyd and Aunt Lilian. My aunt looked a little pale, her eyes flat, as she waited for her food to arrive. Perhaps the previous night’s dinner had taken its toll.
“He was as dull as I remembered,” Flossy said when I asked her how it went.
I eyed her mother, but Aunt Lilian made no comment, and Flossy went on unchecked.
“All he wanted to talk about was a newly discovered Egyptian tomb.” She pulled a face. “What sort of gentleman thinks mummified remains make suitable dinnertime conversation with a lady he’s supposed to be courting?”
“The cad!” Floyd declared. “Want me to call him out for you?”
Flossy gave him a withering glare. “I don’t see why I have to marry and you don’t. You’re older.”
“I’m not a girl. I have plenty of time for my ideal wife to present herself.”
Flossy sniffed. “Your ideal woman is a figment of your imagination. And if she did exist, she’d run a mile when she met you, if she knew what was good for her. Honestly, the way you behave these days, no respectable lady would want to be associated with you.”
Floyd pinched her. She winced and rubbed her arm, then they both glanced at their mother. Aunt Lilian continued to stare out of the window, her gaze unfocused.
“So you are courting?” I asked Flossy.
“No. He’s not for me.”
Aunt Lilian turned to her daughter, proving she was listening after all. “He would be a very good match for you.”
“Why? Because his family is rich?”
“Don’t be vulgar.”
“Well, we’re rich, so I don’t need to marry him.” Flossy crossed her arms.
“The hotel could always use an injection of funds,” Floyd said. “Particularly now.”
Flossy lowered her arms and leaned in. “Are things very bad?” she asked quietly.
“I don’t think it’s dire, but the bad publicity surrounding the murder won’t help.”
“If it’s not dire, then it will all work out. It always does.”
“You could help by reining in your spending,” Floyd said.
She screwed up her nose. “You first.”
His gaze slid to his mother, but she seemed to have stopped listening again.
“And anyway,” Flossy went on, “we have to look our best for the ball. Not only do we have to surpass last year’s spectacle, but it’s the last ball of the century. We can’t ring in nineteen-hundred wearing last year’s gowns or jewels. Everyone will notice, and the gossip will only lead to speculation that the hotel is in difficulty and we can’t have that. It would be humiliating.”
Floyd snorted. “Spoken like the Flossy I know.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Aunt Lilian rubbed her temples. “Stop it, both of you. You know talk about financial matters gives me a headache.”
Brother and sister called a ceasefire over luncheon, but not all discussion of the ball ended. Both Flossy and Floyd begged me to attend.
“We simply have to show off our cousin,” Flossy declared.
“My friends are all dying to meet you,” Floyd added.
I blinked at him. “You told them about me?”
“You seem surprised that my bachelor friends would be interested in hearing about my attractive cousin from Cambridge.”
I laughed, despite myself. “Can I expect my dance card to be full or did you give a balanced picture and tell them my bad traits?”
“What bad traits?” he asked in mock seriousness.
“Floyd’s friends are very shallow,” Flossy said. “As long as you’re pretty and fun, they won’t care that you’re—” She stopped dead, her lips pursed to utter the P in poor. “That you’re educated,” she said quickly.
Floyd rolled his eyes.
Flossy tossed her red-gold curls. “Anyway, you have to go to the ball, Cleo. Mother thinks so too. Mother? Don’t you think Cleo should come to the ball?”
Aunt Lilian roused and smiled at me. “Of course. You’ll be most welcome.” Her smile turned wistful. “Your mother would approve.”
The sadness in her eyes brought a lump to my throat. It was easy to forget that I’d known my mother for only ten years, yet Aunt Lilian had known her much longer. The bond between sisters was strong, I’d been told, and it was natural she’d still think about her all these years later.
But if she’d been fond of my mother, why sever the connection? Had Uncle Ronald insisted? Or did Aunt Lilian come to regret their estrangement only after my mother’s death?
“I’ll think about it,” was all I said.
“But it’s in five days!” Flossy cried. “We’ll need time to have one of my gowns adjusted.”
“Surely it’ll only take a maid an afternoon,” Floyd said.
Flossy clicked her tongue. “Oh Floyd, honestly. You’re so male.”
He appealed to me. I shrugged. “It doesn’t seem right for me to go,” I told them both.
Flossy didn’t respond as she picked up her sandwich. She studied it for some time, turning it this way and that, a small frown connecting her brows. Then she suddenly put it down again. She turned bright eyes onto her mother.
“May we go shopping this afternoon?”
“I have a headache,” Aunt Lilian said. “In fact, I think I’ll retire to my rooms for a rest.” She rose, having hardly touched her sandwiches.
Flossy didn’t seem surprised by her mother’s response, or disappointed. “May I go if Cleo comes with me?”
“Very well,” Aunt Lilian said, walking off.
Flossy clapped her hands. “We’ll have such fun, Cleo.”
Floyd watched his mother leave, both hands on the chair arms as if he would spring up at any moment if she looked as though she would fall. While her progress was slow, she wasn’t unsteady.
“It’s Hobart,” he said as the manager appeared in the doorway to the dining room. He bowed to Aunt Lilian as she passed then scanned the room.
“He looks troubled,” Flossy said.
Floyd signaled to Mr. Hobart. “Something wrong?” he asked when the manager joined us.
“I was looking for Sir Ronald,” Mr. Hobart said. “Have you seen him?”
“I believe he went out for lunch. Why the grave face? Has something happened?”
Mr. Hobart swallowed and glanced at me.
“It’s all right,” Floyd said. “Cleo is family. If it’s something that affects the hotel then you can say it in front of her.”
Mr. Hobart moved closer. “I just received a telephone call from an acquaintance at The Evening News. He wanted to warn me of an article they’re going to run about the hotel. I’m afraid it won’t be a favorable article.”
Flossy gasped. “Is it about poor Mrs. Warrick?”
“Yes, and the implications of her murder. My contact informed me that the front page article will mention the lengthy measures Sir Ronald is going to in order to ensure the ball goes ahead.”
“What measures?” Flossy asked.
“Telephone calls to invited guests begging them to come, calling in favors, that sort of thing.”
“Begging? Calling in favors?” Floyd spluttered a laugh. “Ridiculous. Father wouldn’t stoop that low. Things aren’t that desperate yet.”
Mr. Hobart stood quite still.
Floyd’s smile vanished. His face fell. “Why didn’t he tell me it was that bad?”
“I suspect he didn’t want to worry you, Mr. Bainbridge.”
Floyd rubbed a hand over his jaw and mouth, shaking his head. Mr. Hobart looked sorry for telling him now.
“Can you ask your friend at the newspaper not to run the article?” I asked the manager.
“Unfortunately he does not have enough authority to stop it.”
“Does Father have a friend with that power?” Flossy asked. “One who owes him a favor?”
Floyd looked up, hopeful. “Is that why you want to see him?”
Mr. Hobart seemed a little pained as he shook his head. “I simply came to warn him. He’ll want to know so that he can be prepared with a response. Some of our guests will read The Evening News.”
Floyd stood. “Come with me. We’ll check his schedule in his office and see where he’s having lunch.”
“Thank you, Mr. Bainbridge.”
Flossy sighed heavily as she watched them go. “This is terrible, Cleo. It’s so cruel and so unfair. Who would go to the newspapers and spread rumors about us?” She picked up a napkin only to screw it up into a ball. “I’ll wager it was one of the other hoteliers. They’re always trying to be better than us, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they’d stoop to talking to the newspapers.”
I wasn’t so sure it was a rival. Indeed, it could be worse. The information about begging invitations and calling in favors could only have come from one of the recipients of those invitations or calls—a guest.
Unless it was a senior staff member with knowledge of them.
Flossy placed a headpiece made of jet and set with several small diamonds against her hair. It was very becoming, but it wouldn’t suit her ball gown. It must also be very expensive. “I thought your gown has seed pearls sewn into it,” I said. “I don’t think the jet is quite right.”
She pursed her lips as she studied her reflection in the mirror held by the Harrods’ jewelry counter attendant. “I’m not sure. Come closer, Cleo. I need to see how it looks on someone else.”
She positioned the headpiece in my hair then stepped back and studied the effect. She smiled. “You’re right. Pearls are a better choice.”
We spent some time choosing a headpiece for her and waited as the assistant packaged it up along with a matching necklace. It would seem Flossy wasn’t going to heed her brother’s advice and curb her spending. The two pieces would have cost a fortune.
“Would you like to take the items with you now, Miss Bainbridge?” the saleswoman asked.
“Have them sent to the hotel,” Flossy said.
“Very good, Miss Bainbridge.”
The staff at every counter we’d visited in Harrods’ department store knew Flossy by name. Flossy hadn’t paid for anything yet, so I assumed an account would be sent to the hotel along with the items she purchased.
“Now, gloves,” Flossy declared, striding off.
I dutifully followed. I couldn’t have left even if I wanted to. I didn’t know which way was out. The lights were bright, the counters numerous, and there were smiling attendants dressed in black everywhere. Perhaps the intention was to trap shoppers inside for as long as possible, to encourage them to spend more.
“Are we going anywhere near Saville Row later?” I asked, stepping alongside her.
“It’s not far from the hotel. Why?”
“My grandfather used to get his suits made at a tailor there. Bentley and Sons. I want to see it for nostalgic reasons.” An idea had struck me as Flossy had gone from department to department in Harrods, sending her purchases back to the hotel. Now that we were coming to the end of our shopping expedition, it was time to act.
“Your grandfather had his suits made in London?” she asked. “I suppose Cambridge tailors aren’t as good as ours. We’ll look for gloves then head home via Saville Row.”
She didn’t buy gloves, in the end, despite trying on several pairs and having me do the same. We climbed into the hotel carriage that had waited for us outside Harrods and Flossy directed the coachman to take us to Bentley and Sons on Saville Row.
“There’s no need for you to come in,” I told her. “Stay warm and dry in here.”
I dashed into the shop as the drizzling rain came down. The tailor looked up from the counter where he was writing something down in a ledger, and arched his brows. He seemed surprised to see a woman in his shop. At the moment, there were no customers so I had his full attention.
“I work for The Mayfair Hotel and have been charged with collecting Mr. Hookly’s dinner suit. Is it ready?”
“There must be some mistake. The jacket was delivered this morning and the shirt and trousers are on the way there now.” The tailor turned his ledger around and pointed at an entry. “Has it gone astray? Dear, dear me, this is a worry.”
“Please, don’t be concerned. Perhaps Mr. Hookly hadn’t checked with the post desk when he sent me on this errand. I’m sure it’s there waiting for him.”
“Do check as soon as you return and let me know immediately if it has gone astray. I can’t have one of Mr. Hookly’s orders disappearing.”
“One of?” I echoed. “Has he ordered several items from you? Should I be searching for other parcels too?”
He pointed at several entries in the ledger. “Two coats and two cloaks, four jackets, trousers and waistcoats.” He flipped the page. “Two formal dinner suits—”
“Two formal dinner suits, seven shirts and ten ties. Could you check that Mr. Hookly received them all?”
Good lord, he had enough clothing for several men. “I suppose he requires new things for winter.” I leaned in a little, hinting at a conspiratorial alliance between shopkeeper and hotel employee. “I believe he has just come from Africa.”
“So he told me.” The tailor spun the ledger back and closed it with a thud. It would seem he wasn’t buying my attempt at friendliness.
“How odd that they don’t dine in Africa.”
I indicated the stiff shirt and formal jacket on the tailor’s mannequin in the corner. “If they have dinners in Africa, he wouldn’t need a suit, would he? He’d already have one.”
The tailor regarded me down his nose. “Perhaps he required a new one. It is neither my business nor yours as to the reasons for his purchases upon his return to home shores. I suggest you don’t gossip about your hotel’s guests, miss, particularly ones who are friends with Lord Addlington. His lordship would not approve.”
“You know him?”
“He is a great customer of mine and a gentleman of the first order. Now, if you will check with Mr. Hookly that all packages have been received, I’ll be most grateful.”
“I’ll be sure to ask him.”
He studied the ledger and I turned to go. “One more thing, miss,” he called out. “Do you know when Mr. Hookly is leaving London?”
“I’m not sure, but I believe he is staying for the ball.” I recalled Mr. Hookly asking Mr. Armitage about an invited guest he wished to see that night so he must intend on staying until then.
The tailor looked relieved. I was considering whether to probe further when a customer entered. He held the door open for me and I left. The stop at the tailor’s shop had been a waste of time. I’d learned nothing.
I loitered in the foyer again the following morning, pretending to study a tourist map of London which Peter had given me. I had coat, hat and gloves in hand, ready to follow out one of my suspects if they happened to leave the hotel.
My patience was rewarded when Mr. Duffield walked past. I hid behind the map then raced after him. He didn’t stop to collect an umbrella from the luggage desk so I didn’t either. Hopefully the rain would stay away for the duration of our walk. I tucked the map into my coat pocket then put the coat on. I was still pulling on my gloves when I exited the hotel.
“Heading out, Miss Fox?” Frank the doorman asked. “Do you require a conveyance?”
“No, thank you.”
I peered after Mr. Duffield, not wanting to lose sight of him. “I have one.”
“Would you like me to fetch you an umbrella from—”
“No, thank you,” I called out as I headed off. Poor Frank was trying very hard to make up for his initial rudeness, but today was not the day for me to indulge him.
Mr. Duffield was a fast walker with a determined step. While Mr. Hookly seemed to be quite the shopper, Mr. Duffield was not. He did not venture into any of the shops, nor did he head to any parks for a leisurely stroll.
I was curious about where he was heading, and my curiosity piqued even further when he turned into Fleet Street. A boy selling newspapers outside The Daily Telegraph building tried to sell him a copy, but Mr. Duffield ignored him. He entered the office of The Evening News, two doors down. I put my map up to cover the lower part of my face and peered through the window. Mr. Duffield spoke to the clerk at the front desk. He then waited while the clerk sent a lad into an adjoining room.
A few minutes later, a middle-aged fellow emerged. He and Mr. Duffield greeted one another in what appeared to be a cordial manner, then they exchanged envelopes. Mr. Duffield tucked his into his coat pocket, while the other man opened his and read the enclosed letter. He smiled, nodding his approval, and extended his hand to Mr. Duffield.
For a long moment I thought Mr. Duffield wouldn’t shake it. He eventually did, but not before the other man’s smile turned cynical. Then Mr. Duffield hurried out of the office, his head bowed.
I lifted the map higher and didn’t lower it until he’d passed me. Instead of following, I entered the newspaper office.
It wasn’t difficult to draw a conclusion for Mr. Duffield’s visit—he was the one passing on nasty gossip about the hotel and Uncle Ronald’s desperate attempt to secure guests for the ball. I wasn’t sure what else I could learn, but I’d regret not making inquiries.
“Good morning,” I said cheerfully to the young man on the front desk.
The clerk had been slouching against the counter but straightened upon my smile. He smiled back, revealing crooked teeth. “Can I help you, miss?”
“May I speak with the editor?”
The clerk’s smile stretched further. “Which one? We have an editor in chief, managing editor, news editor, features editor, political editor—”
“The one who was talking to Mr. Duffield a moment ago.”
His brows arched. “You know Mr. Duffield?”
“We’re acquaintances and I want to warn your editor about using him as a source for gossip.”
The clerk’s smile vanished. He sent the same errand boy off to fetch a man named Collier. “He’s the features editor,” the clerk explained. “What do you mean you want to warn him about Mr. Duffield?”
I wasn’t going to answer but changed my mind. There was as good a chance of learning information from him as from the features editor. “His information is malicious.”
The clerk shrugged. “Most of what comes through our doors is told to us by someone with an axe to grind. It doesn’t mean the information is worthless.”
Mr. Collier shoved open the adjoining door, making it swing wide. “Yes?” he barked as the errand boy slipped past him into the foyer. He arched bushy brows at me.
I abandoned my usual tactic of being cheerful and charming. Most men fell for that manner in a young woman, but I could see this man would not.
“My name is Miss Smith,” I said, meeting his gaze. “I was walking past when I saw you speaking to Mr. Duffield. I know him, you see, and I wanted to warn you about using his information without verifying it first.”
Mr. Collier grunted. “I always check my sources.”
Despite the glare he gave me, I felt a sense of triumph at having my suspicion confirmed by his lack of denial. It must have shown on my face because Mr. Collier’s eyebrows moved apart from where they’d drawn together to form a hedge above his eyes.
“Do you have something for me, Miss Smith?” he asked, making sure I knew that he knew the name I’d given was false.
“I don’t trade in gossip about my friends,” I shot back.
“Perhaps not your friends, but what about acquaintances?”
I supposed Sir Ronald was not Mr. Duffield’s friend. The extent of their acquaintance was limited to Mr. Duffield’s stays at the hotel.
Mr. Collier grunted again when he realized I understood his point. “If you have something of interest to me, you know where to find me. I pay better than some of the other papers.” He disappeared through the door, leaving me staring after him.
I blew out a shuddery breath. It was unnerving confronting such a gruff man. I was more familiar with meek academics.
“You all right, miss?” the clerk asked.
“Yes, thank you. Mr. Collier is very…direct.”
The clerk glanced at the door through which the editor had left then leaned his elbows on the desk. “You don’t have to come here in person.”
I gave him a blank look.
“If you have some information you want to sell to Mr. Collier, you can send it. Mr. Collier will see that you get paid. No one need know what you’re doing. I don’t know why Mr. Duffield came. He usually sends a letter. I work in the mail room sometimes, and I see them.”
“How often does Mr. Duffield send a letter containing gossip to Mr. Collier?”
“I couldn’t say, miss.”
Couldn’t or wouldn’t? “And is he paid well?”
“That’s between him and Mr. Collier. If you write to him, he’ll negotiate a fee that suits you both, so don’t fret about that.”
I wanted to tell him that I’d never betray a confidence, even for someone who was a mere acquaintance. My own financial circumstances had never been good. Indeed, I’d barely managed to keep a roof over our heads after Grandpapa died. It had never occurred to me to sell information about the people I knew. Not that a newspaper editor would be interested in the gossip I gathered. I wasn’t acquainted with high society like Mr. Duffield. As the grandson of a nobleman, he probably heard all sorts of interesting tidbits. Jealousy of their good fortune might also play a part in his motivation.
A thought occurred to me as I headed back to the hotel. If Mrs. Warrick and Mr. Duffield had mutual friends, and she learned that he sold gossip about them to the newspapers, she could have confronted him at the hotel.
And he could have killed her out of fear she’d expose him.
It served nobody to keep what I’d learned to myself. I went directly to Mr. Hobart’s office to inform him. “I think he is responsible for that article in yesterday’s edition of The Evening News. The source had to have been someone with knowledge of Sir Ronald’s desperation.”
Mr. Hobart clasped his hands on the desk in front him. Concern darkened his blue eyes. “That is a shame. Sir Ronald would be most upset to learn who it was.”
“Is he close to Mr. Duffield?”
“No. Mr. Duffield has stayed here before, but not for some time. I’d guessed his circumstances were reduced, but I hadn’t realized how far. Poor man.”
“Poor man! He has betrayed the hotel.”
“Not out of maliciousness. He was desperate and desperation can make a man do things he wouldn’t usually do.”
“Aren’t you concerned that he won’t be able to pay for his room here?” I asked.
“I’m quite sure he’ll see his account settled. He wouldn’t want his name blacklisted altogether.”
“But why stay here at all? If he must be in London at this time, why not stay somewhere more affordable?”
“I suspect he wants to attend the ball. Mr. Duffield is unmarried, you see, and the New Year’s Eve ball at The Mayfair attracts a particular caliber of guest. He could find himself a wife amongst them.”
“You mean a wealthy wife.”
He gave me a knowing smile.
That was why he accepted my impromptu invitation to dinner, and also why he abandoned me just as readily. He must have asked Mr. Chapman about me, and the steward informed him that I was a poor relation. Although I wasn’t quite sure how Mr. Chapman knew.
“May I ask why you followed Mr. Duffield into the office of The Evening News?” Mr. Hobart asked.
“I know my uncle doesn’t want the police to question the guests about the murder, and I felt that directive too limiting, so I decided to follow Mr. Duffield when I saw him leave this morning.”
His lips twitched. It would seem my attempts at investigation amused him. “If my brother thinks the guests ought to be questioned, he will do it, directive or no directive.”
“Oh. Well, that is a relief.”
“But why Mr. Duffield? Why not one of the other guests?”
“He struck me as suspicious. He wears old clothes yet he stays at a luxury hotel. I found it odd.”
“Your investigative skills are excellent,” he said. “My brother would be impressed.”
“Will you inform him of what I told you about Mr. Duffield?”
“If it becomes relevant, but I don’t see how Mr. Duffield’s tendency to gossip could be linked to Mrs. Warrick’s murder. For now, I will tell only Sir Ronald.”
“I do think you ought to tell the detective inspector. Let him decide if it’s important enough to question Mr. Duffield about the murder. Perhaps he can find a link between him and Mrs. Warrick. Perhaps she knew him.”
“Perhaps she did.” He gave me a wan smile. I suspected he was still thinking about informing my uncle of Mr. Duffield’s betrayal, and wasn’t looking forward to it.
“Would you mind if I told Uncle Ronald about the source of the information for that nasty article?” I asked. “It is my information to pass on, after all. I can’t let you have all the accolades.”
“I’ll tell him it came from you.”
I winked and he chuckled at his misunderstanding my intention. “I would be grateful if you informed him. Perhaps he won’t be so eager to berate the messenger if the message is delivered by his favorite niece.”
“Considering I’m his only niece, there is no contest. Does he have a temper?”
He hesitated and was saved from answering by the arrival of Mrs. Kettering.
I headed upstairs and knocked on my uncle’s office door. He bade me to enter, but did not look up from his desk. “What is it?” he asked.
“I wanted to tell you something that I learned about one of the guests,” I said.
“Cleo! I am sorry, I thought it was Hobart. Please, sit. Would you like some tea?” He pointed at a teapot and cups on a tray on the sideboard next to the decanter.
He looked harried, his eyes tired. A stack of newspapers made a tower on the corner of his desk. Beside the stack was a folded copy of The Evening News.
“That would be lovely,” I said. “Don’t get up. I’ll pour.” I was parched after my brisk walks to and from Fleet Street. I handed Uncle Ronald a cup and sat with my own.
“You look as though you needed that,” he said after I took a large gulp.
“I’ve been out and about.” I took another sip then put the cup on the desk. “Indeed, that’s why I wanted to talk to you. I paid a visit to the office of The Evening News.”
“Filthy rag,” he muttered into his cup.
“It bothered me greatly to learn that they’d published such awful things about the hotel.”
“So you visited their office and gave them what for?”
“Not quite. I can’t blame them for writing something that will sell the most copies. The real culprit here is the one who passed on the information about your, er, strident measures to ensure guests come to the ball. I wanted to find out who could have done such a thing.”
“Since it could only be someone with very particular knowledge.” He was about to take another sip but suddenly lowered the cup to the desk. “Do you mean to tell me you asked them point blank who it was?”
“Not quite. I watched the office from across the street and my patience was rewarded when Mr. Duffield entered the building.”
“Duffield! You know him?”
“He and I dined together the other night. It was…not an entirely pleasant experience.”
He frowned. “Why would you dine with Duffield?”
I dismissed his question with a small wave. That produced an even deeper frown, and I suspected my uncle wasn’t used to being dismissed. “I thought Mr. Duffield’s presence at the newspaper office too coincidental, so I waited until he left then went inside and spoke to the editor I’d seen him speak to. He claimed Mr. Duffield passes on gossip about people in his circle in exchange for money.”
Uncle Ronald’s moustache twitched with the movement of his mouth as he thought. “Thank you for informing me,” he said after a moment.
“What will you do about it?”
“Nothing.” He picked up his teacup.
“Duffield is a guest here. I don’t want to embarrass him by confronting him. If it got out, it would affect our reputation.”
“But what if he provides the newspaper with further gossip about the hotel?”
He smiled over the rim of the cup. “He won’t have that opportunity again. Not about The Mayfair.”
Silence was one way of solving the problem, I supposed. Indeed, it was probably the best way for the hotel. Mr. Duffield might not be wealthy, but he did have friends in society who were. I was rather glad I hadn’t confronted Mr. Duffield myself as he left the newspaper’s office.
“There’s one more thing,” I said. “It’s regarding the murder. Have the police informed you of any developments today?”
“What about the results of their tests for poison in the items they took away from Mrs. Warrick’s room?”
He shook his head. “They are keeping the results close to their chest.” He sighed heavily and looked as though he was about to tell me something, but thought better of it.
“Uncle? Is there something you wish to say? Perhaps if you share it, the burden will lighten.”
“That’s kind of you, Cleo.” He squeezed the bridge of his nose. “I’m merely concerned that one of the staff may be found guilty after all.”
“I understand. You don’t want to think that you could have hired a murderer.”
“We’re like a family here. It would be a betrayal.” He leaned back in his chair and rubbed his jaw. “I’ve never had any trouble from them, so why now?”
“It could be one of the guests.”
His gaze snapped to mine. “I don’t want you to worry, Cleo. The Mayfair Hotel is a London icon. It’ll take more than this to shake us.”
I smiled, although I hadn’t been terribly worried about the hotel’s future until now. He didn’t sound very convincing. “I’m sure the ball will be a sensation.”
His gaze softened. “Thank you, Cleo.”
I rose and headed for the door.
“And Cleo?” I turned around to see my uncle looking small and insignificant beside the stack of newspapers. “I appreciate what you did today in Fleet Street. I know I ought to tell you not to spy, but I find I can’t. You were very brave, and very loyal. Thank you.”
“I’m glad I could help. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do.” I left, feeling pleased with my efforts. Now that he’d seen what I could do, perhaps he’d consider me for a more permanent role within the hotel.
Flossy wanted to go shopping again, but I declined, claiming tiredness. I had no plans to rest, however. I wanted to think about the investigation so far, and how to proceed. While I’d learned some interesting things about my suspects, I needed to know more, particularly how they were connected to Mrs. Warrick, if at all. I would have liked to discuss it with Harmony, but one of the footmen said the maids had all finished. Some would return later to assist ladies who hadn’t brought their own maid, but he didn’t know if Harmony was one of them.
I had a good collection of notes beside both Mr. Hookly and Mr. Duffield’s names, but very little against Mr. Armitage. All I knew was that he was adopted as a teen. I considered asking Mr. Hobart about his nephew but discarded the idea. It would be too obvious.
I also considered telling Mr. Armitage about my own parents’ deaths as a way of getting him to open up about becoming an orphan, but discarded that idea just as quickly. Not only would it dredge up my painful memories, it was also a low act to use my misfortune as a tool to encourage him to trust me. I’d rather rummage through his office for clues. His bedchamber might reveal evidence of a more personal nature, but I couldn’t bring myself to break into it. Not only was it also a low act, but I’d have no excuse if I was caught. At least if I was discovered in his office I could claim I was looking for some hotel stationery.
I ventured downstairs in the hope of seeing Mr. Armitage leave his office. I was rewarded after only a few minutes. But instead of speaking to a guest or staff member as he usually did, he left the hotel altogether.
After a quick word with Frank and Goliath at the front door, he strode off along Piccadilly. I made up my mind in an instant. Despite having no coat, hat or gloves, I decided to follow. I’d been rewarded with answers when I followed Mr. Duffield; hopefully I’d have equal good fortune by following Mr. Armitage.
“Miss Fox, you have no coat!” Frank cried as I passed him.
“It’s not too cold and I won’t be gone long,” I assured him without stopping.
I kept Mr. Armitage in sight but did not get too close. He walked at a steady, unhurried pace into the chaotic throng of Piccadilly Circus. I dodged pedestrians, carts and conveyances of all shapes and sizes, and despite being almost run down, I managed to spot him heading along Shaftsbury Avenue. If he hadn’t been so tall, I might have lost him altogether.
From there he entered Dean Street and stopped outside a handsome building. He entered without knocking.
According to the bronze plaque beside the door, it was St Andrew’s Home and Club for Working Boys, and its patron was a lord. Could Mr. Armitage have lived at this institution when he was younger? Had it given him a roof over his head when he’d needed it most? If so, it could provide me with answers about my suspect.
I continued on until I reached a lamp post where I waited and watched. The walk had been brisk enough to keep me warm, but now that I’d stopped, the cold seeped through my clothing to my skin. I blew into my hands but it did little to thaw them.
I had no watch and lost track of the time. Mr. Armitage could have been inside for fifteen minutes or forty-five. I was immeasurably glad when he emerged and walked off in the other direction to me, back the way we’d come. I was also very glad to enter the building. There was no fireplace or heating grate in the hall but at least it was warmer than outside.
I’d had between fifteen and forty-five minutes to think of something to say, but even so, I found myself hesitating when a vicar greeted me. I hadn’t expected to lie to a man of God. I wasn’t sure I could go through with it.
“May I help you?” he asked.
He had a friendly face with small round spectacles that drew attention to his kind eyes. I cringed just thinking about what I was about to do.
But do it I must. A murder had been committed and Mr. Armitage was a suspect.
“I couldn’t help but notice Mr. Armitage leave here,” I said.
“You know Harry?” The wrinkles at the corners of his eyes deepened with his smile.
“I work with him at the hotel.”
“Is this where he grew up?”
The vicar’s eyes shuttered. “You’d have to ask him that.”
If Mr. Armitage hadn’t lived at the orphanage, wouldn’t the vicar have said as much? It was a flimsy clue to latch onto, but latch on I did.
“It’s just that he’s very proud and I do so want to donate to the institution that took care of my friend. My very good friend.”
The vicar’s brows rose. “A donation? Come with me, and we’ll discuss the particulars.”
He took me through to a large office with a wide desk and filing cabinets lining one wall. The cabinet drawers were labeled with letters of the alphabet. The vicar asked me to take a seat as he cleared away two teacups. Mr. Armitage had probably sat in this very room a few minutes ago and shared a cup of tea with the vicar. I wondered what they’d talked about.
Somewhere in the building a bell clanged and feet trampled over floorboards.
The vicar cringed. “My apologies, Miss…”
“My apologies for the noise, Miss Smith. The boys are moving between classes.” He extended his hand. “The Reverend Collin Belfour, at your service. I’m the vicar at St Andrew’s, and I work here most days to give the boys an ecclesiastical education. Teachers give them a more practical one, arming them with the skills they’ll need in service or industry.”
“That’s very commendable.”
He sat and I took the moment to quickly scan the contents of his desk to glean a clue as to what he and Mr. Armitage had been discussing. The desk was neat with a Bible opened to the book of Genesis. Beside it was a page of written notes. Beside that was a small pouch. The vicar picked up the pouch and dropped it into the top drawer of his desk. Coins jangled.
“Tell me about the donation,” the vicar said.
“Mr. Armitage recently did a good turn for some of the staff at the hotel and we want to thank him. He’s too proud to accept money, so we thought we could make a donation to a charity close to his heart. What could be closer than the orphanage that took care of him?”
The vicar clasped his hands and rubbed his thumbs together, frowning. Clearly he wanted the donation, but he didn’t want to break a confidence. “A donation would be very welcome,” he said. “Would you like to look around and see the good work we do here?”
“Only if Mr. Armitage was here as a boy.”
“Have you considered asking him?”
“You know how proud he is. He doesn’t like talking about his past.”
He chewed on the inside of his lip.
“Perhaps if you left the room for several minutes, I could look through the cabinet drawer labeled A, and if I happened to find Mr. Armitage’s details, I could discover what I need to know. You wouldn’t be breaking any rules yourself.”
“Miss Smith! I am shocked!”
I stumbled through an apology and rose quickly. My face heated beneath his scowl as I backed towards the door. “I feel awful for misreading the situation,” I said. I truly did feel awful, but I wasn’t sorry for making the suggestion. It had to be done while there was a slim chance that it would work.
I almost ran out of the office, however, unable to face the vicar’s scowl.
“I’ll still welcome your donation,” he called out when I reached the front door.
I fled into the street only to find it was raining. With no umbrella or coat, I got thoroughly wet as I hurried back to the hotel.
Frank gasped when he saw me. “Miss Fox! You’re half drowned.”
“It’s just a little water.”
“You really should have taken an umbrella.”
“Thank you,” I said wryly. “I’ll do so next time.”
He signaled to Goliath. The porter hurried over, frowning at me. “You went out without a coat?” He clicked his tongue.
I gave them both tight smiles. “Yes, I went out without a coat and umbrella.”
“And gloves,” Frank said.
“And hat,” Goliath added.
I glared at them. I wasn’t in the mood for their scowls and lectures. I just wanted to get inside and dry off.
“You should have a nice warm bath,” Frank said as I passed him. “Have one of the footmen bring up a cup of tea for you from the kitchen while it’s filling. There’s nothing quite as soothing as drinking tea while soaking in a warm bath.”
Goliath screwed his face up. “When’ve you done that? Our bathrooms are communal in the men’s staff quarters,” he told me. “No one’s going to bring this idiot a cup of tea while he takes a bath.”
Frank bristled. I thought it was because Goliath called him an idiot, but it turned out he was offended for other reasons. “I’ve worked places other than here. Places where I can sneak off for a long bath when the master and mistress aren’t home.”
I headed inside before I froze to death. I planned to race up the stairs before anyone saw me, but unfortunately I had to pass Mr. Armitage and he missed nothing.
He eyed me up and down.
“I left in a hurry and the rain caught me unawares,” I said before he could lecture me too. “If you’ll excuse me, I don’t want to drip on the floor any more than necessary.”
“I’m on my way to the kitchen now. Shall I send up a cup of tea and cake?”
I blinked at him. I’d expected censure or mocking not kindness. “Thank you, that’s very thoughtful.”
“And a maid to fix your hair.” He walked off.
Well! I must look bedraggled and my hair frightful, but there was no need to point it out. Just when I began to like Mr. Armitage again, he did or said something to remind me why that was a mistake.
I spent my bath time thinking about the filing cabinets in the vicar’s office at the orphanage. While I was quite sure Mr. Armitage had lived there as a youth, I wanted to know more. What had he been like? Had he shown a tendency for violence? It might point to signs of guilt if he had. All of that information would be kept in his file, and that would be kept in the cabinet. The only way I could read it was to sneak in.
Harmony helped fix my hair after my bath. She asked me how the investigation was going but I gave her little information. “It’s too early to know,” I told her. “I do need some help, however. I need to unlock a locked door without a key. Do you know how?”
She regarded me, one hand on hip. “I’m not a burglar, Miss Fox.”
“I wasn’t suggesting that you were.” I sighed. “I’m sorry, Harmony. I can see how you misconstrued my meaning.”
She lowered her hand and continued to pin my hair in place. “Ask Victor.”
I gasped. “Was he a burglar before he became a cook?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know, but he’s a suspicious character.”
“Tell him to meet me outside the hotel at midnight but don’t let the doorman see him.”
I dined alone with Flossy at eight. Floyd dined at a club, Uncle Ronald ate at his desk, and Aunt Lilian didn’t want to leave her room. Flossy was pleased to have company and we played cards after dinner until eleven.
Just before midnight, I donned coat, hat and gloves in my room, and collected an umbrella from the night porter. Frank and Goliath were not on duty, so I was able to slip away and meet Victor without anyone asking where I was going. He waited for me in the shadows, well away from the hotel’s lights.
“Harmony says you want me to unlock a door for you,” Victor said as we trudged along the pavement. “Want to tell me what building that door belongs to?”
“A home for boys on Dean Street.”
“I know it. Why there?”
“All I can tell you is that it might give us a clue about one of our suspects.”
Victor hunched into his coat, the collar flipped up to protect his neck from the icy breeze. With his hat pulled low, the light from the streetlamps didn’t reach his face and I couldn’t even make out the scar. Even so, if I’d been walking towards him at this hour alone, I would have crossed the street to avoid him.
To be fair, he didn’t exude menace. I would have crossed the street to avoid any man if I walked London’s streets alone on a winter’s night. But there was a nefariousness about Victor that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Harmony was right; he was a suspicious character.
Perhaps it was his affinity for knives. He didn’t wear them on a belt around his waist tonight. He’d changed out of his chef’s whites too. He must have been home and returned to meet me.
“How long have you worked at The Mayfair?” I asked.
“And where were you before that?”
“You ask a lot of questions.”
“I’m hearing that often lately.”
The collar hid his mouth, but the creases around his eyes drew together as if he smiled. “Be careful, Miss Fox. Some people don’t like it when you ask questions.”
“Is that a threat, Victor?”
“A warning. If I were threatening you, you wouldn’t need to ask. You’d just know.”
We passed through Piccadilly Circus, notably quieter compared to that afternoon but not altogether without life. Hackneys and private carriages still drove past, though there were no pedestrians. The shops were closed, the nearby theaters shut for the break between Christmas and New Year, and few people had a reason to be out in mid-winter at midnight.
The blurred lights of the streetlamps tried valiantly to pierce the descending fog, but it was a hopeless cause. It seemed to thicken with every step we took, and by the time we reached Dean Street, our footsteps echoed in the cold, dense air.
“Why do you trust me?” Victor suddenly asked. “It’s not usual to walk with a man you hardly know in the middle of the night.”
“Harmony trusted you enough to recommend you, and I trust Harmony.”
He made no comment, just kept up the pace until we reached the orphanage. “Cover me,” he said, crouching.
I put up my umbrella which I’d brought to use as a weapon in case we were set upon by thieves, and used it and my body to shield him. “Can you see?” I asked.
“I don’t need to see. It’s done by feel and sound.”
“How interesting. Perhaps one day you can teach me.”
He looked up at me. “I said feel and sound.”
“Sorry,” I whispered.
I watched as he inserted two long pin-like instruments into the lock.
Then he suddenly glanced up at me again. “Keep watch.”
I scanned the street, but there was no one about. After one or two minutes, Victor stood and turned the doorknob. The door opened.
I lowered my umbrella and followed him in only to bump into his back. I gave him the umbrella then pulled out a small candlestick and holder from the pack slung over my shoulder, and a box of matches. I lit the candle and tiptoed to the office door. It was also locked.
Victor crouched again and had it unlocked quickly. Inside the office, the cabinet drawer marked A was not locked. The files were sorted alphabetically by surname, as I’d expected when I’d seen the drawer labels earlier. For common surnames, like Adams, the files were then sub-sorted by first name. Each child had only a single page dedicated to them. It was somewhat sad to think that a life could be summed up by a page of notes. Indeed, many were not even a full page.
There was only one Harry Armitage. A quick calculation in my head confirmed that the date of birth written on the file matched the age I assumed Mr. Armitage to be. I folded up the piece of paper and pocketed it before returning to Victor, keeping watch at the office door.
I closed the door softly behind me, turned and froze. A boy of about twelve stood in the doorway to an adjoining room, a large piece of pie halfway to his mouth. He stood just as frozen as he stared wide-eyed back at us.
Victor put his finger to his lips to shush the lad then blew out my candle. He led the way back outside, closed the front door, then grabbed my elbow and hustled me down Dean Street.
I didn’t dare look back until we reached the corner. “No one seems to be following us,” I said. “But if that boy raises the alarm, we could still be caught.”
“He won’t,” Victor said.
“How can you be certain?”
“Thieves don’t snitch on each other.”
I was about to protest about being called a thief when I remembered the piece of paper in my pocket. “Let’s hurry back to the hotel. He might change his mind.”
“And explain why he was raiding the kitchen? Unlikely.”
Even so, we walked quickly. Once we reached the hotel, Victor remained in the shadows until I was safely within the arc cast by The Mayfair’s welcoming lights. The doorman greeted me by name and opened the door for me. I’d wager gossip about my nocturnal outing would be all over the hotel by morning, but hopefully only among the staff. I didn’t have to answer to them. I did have to answer to my uncle, however.
I raced up to my suite and flattened the piece of paper on the desk. I quickly read it then re-read it, hardly believing the words. This couldn’t be possible. The Harry Armitage I knew couldn’t be the same one as the boy in this file. My uncle would not have employed him.
Unless he didn’t know that Mr. Armitage had been arrested as a thief.
According to the file, Harry Armitage had been placed at the orphanage aged eleven when his parents died. My gut twisted in pain for that boy. It was very close to the age I’d been when my parents died, and I clearly remembered how awful it had been. I’d had loving grandparents to take care of me, however. Harry Armitage had no one. He’d gone to live with strangers.
The file noted that he was clever, particularly with numbers, and well behaved. He’d been taken aside and given a rudimentary education in bookkeeping. After a year, he was considered well-equipped for a life of work and a factory owner hired him to assist the bookkeeper at his factory.
The rest was written in a different colored ink but by the same hand. It was dated another year later. At aged thirteen, Harry Armitage had been arrested for theft and served a three-month sentence. The arresting police sergeant and his wife had subsequently taken Harry in upon his release.
My first thought was that it was a very light sentence. My second was, why? Why had the thirteen-year-old boy gone from promising bookkeeper in good employment to thief?
And if he were a thief, could he also be capable of murder, particularly if he wanted to keep that part of his life a secret?
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