Authors: Kate Kingsbury
A Pennyfoot Hotel Mystery
Copyright © 2012, Kate Kingsbury
London was not the best place to be in the summer of 1908. The prolonged heat wave took everyone by surprise, causing even husky laborers to stagger under the merciless rays of the sun.
The managers of the fashionable stores along Bond Street complained bitterly about the lack of business. Most of their wealthy patrons had followed the example of their flamboyant king, deserting the smoke-belching motorcars and fetid fumes from horse droppings to seek relief in various parts of the British Isles and Europe.
Thus it was in August of that year that the Esplanade in Badgers End had more than its usual share of visitors. Phoebe Carter-Holmes, who normally managed to appear cool and collected under the most trying of circumstances, found both the unaccustomed heat and the
bustling crowds along the seafront quite irritating to say the least.
So much so that she had stayed longer than she had intended at the Pennyfoot that afternoon. Her visit with Cecily Sinclair, the owner of the hotel, had been delightful. The arrangements for the Midsummer Ball, to be held at the end of the week, had been dealt with in a most satisfactory manner.
Phoebe was in charge of the entertainment for the event and had secured the presence of a juggler, who performed amazing feats with water jugs and chamber pots. Phoebe had been a little doubtful about the chamber pots, but Cecily had assured her that in this instance they would not be considered bad taste. Phoebe could not abide a lack of taste in any context.
She had enjoyed a light lunch of salmon and cucumber sandwiches, followed by an exquisite sherry trifle. The snack had done wonders for her frayed nerves. In fact, seated in the cool shade of the conservatory, she had almost nodded off on occasion.
Phoebe was most reluctant to face the long walk back to the vicarage. Her son, Algie, would no doubt be in the church, trying to maintain some kind of order with those dreadful choirboys.
Phoebe never understood how they could resemble such perfect angels at times and yet take so much delight in tormenting the vicar.
Even she had to admit, however, that Algie was an excellent target. Now, if it were she who was dealing with the little horrors …
She left the thought unfinished as she emerged from the cool shadows of the foyer into the blinding sunlight. The white stone steps dazzled her, and for a moment or two her vision was quite blurry.
Blinking the stinging tears from her eyes, she saw a shadow move in front of her, and her heart skipped. She
knew, even before she heard the voice, who it was who stood before her.
“Well now, if it isn’t the most beautiful lady I ever did set my eyes upon,” a rich, baritone voice declared in tones that set Phoebe’s heart fluttering like the wings of a dove.
Arthur Barrett, the Pennyfoot’s new doorman, had to be the most handsome man Phoebe had ever seen. Not that she would ever admit that, of course. A lady of her standing wouldn’t stoop to acknowledge so much as a smile from a lowly hotel employee, although Phoebe found it most difficult to think of Arthur as lowly.
As she took a quick peek at him now from under the massive brim of her hat, her breath seemed to catch in her throat. She had to look up quite a ways to see his face. And what a wonderful face it was.
His light blue eyes sparkled with warmth and laughter, and his smile could melt the coldest heart. His imposing build and thick white hair only added to his charm, but it was his voice that made Phoebe’s pulse race at a rate most unbecoming in a lady.
To listen to Arthur’s soft Irish brogue was to be swept away like a summer breeze to some exotic land, basking in the admiration that colored every wonderful word he spoke. Not only that, he could sing like an angel. In fact, had he not been employed as the hotel doorman, Phoebe would have begged him to sing at the ball.
Even the aristocrats seemed to take to him immediately—the ladies responding to his flattery, the men enjoying his jovial comments and jokes that ordinarily would have been deemed disrespectful coming from someone of lesser stature.
Phoebe found it a constant struggle to appear unaffected by Arthur’s smooth comments. For the most part she hid it under a veneer of cool indifference, with an occasional scathing glance of outrage to keep him in his place.
This afternoon, however, she found herself alone with him, in a manner of speaking, at the top of the steps leading
down from the Pennyfoot’s main doors. That was something that didn’t happen too often.
In fact, more often than not, Mrs. Chubb, Cecily’s rotund housekeeper, was hovering somewhere in the background.
Phoebe had the distinct impression that Altheda Chubb had more than a passing interest in the new doorman, a fact that made Phoebe appreciate all the more an opportunity to enjoy him all to herself. Even if she could never let him know of her pleasure.
So, instead of sweeping past him as was her custom, she allowed her eyelashes to flutter just a little, and whispered a trifle breathlessly, “Good afternoon.”
“It is indeed, sweet lady, if it affords me the very great pleasure of hearing your delectable voice. Would you be giving me a smile now, just to make my day complete?”
Glancing up at him, Phoebe caught the full impact of his laughing eyes. The sight so unnerved her, she quickly averted her gaze, intending to restore some sense of decorum to the situation.
As she did so, a movement high up above the street caught her attention. She momentarily forgot the seductive voice of the doorman. The sight that met her eyes shocked all coherent thought from her mind.
She blinked twice, convinced the blinding sun and oppressive heat were causing illusions. Part of her mind heard Arthur ask if she was feeling unwell. She couldn’t answer him. She was beyond speech. All she could do was shake her head in disbelief at the scene her eyes recorded.
Each suite on the upper floors of the Pennyfoot had a balcony with a wrought iron railing guarding the outer edge. At the very top, four floors above the street, Phoebe saw a man balancing on the narrow rim of the railing, one foot waving precariously in midair above the street.
She pressed her hand to her mouth to suppress a scream. The man’s arms waggled up and down while he attempted to step forward, walking the narrow edge as if it were a tightrope.
At her side Arthur uttered a muffled exclamation, followed by a yell as he dashed past her down the steps.
For once Phoebe’s attention was not on the doorman. Though every instinct she possessed urged her not to look, she could not seem to tear her horrified gaze away from the figure of the man swaying violently so high above the pavement.
As she waited, her heart thumping in terrified anticipation, the figure suddenly executed a strange little dance. The jerky movement toppled him off balance. For a moment he hung suspended in space, arms flailing and one wobbling leg apparently searching frantically for a foothold. Then, without a sound, he plunged like a wounded pheasant to the street below.
Phoebe’s stomach lurched at the dreadful thud as the man hit the ground. He landed almost at Arthur’s feet, just as the burly doorman arrived at the spot. That was the last thing Phoebe remembered as darkness swooped over her and swallowed her up.
“Baxter, I do believe you are putting on weight,” Cecily declared as she faced her manager across the library table.
Baxter stood respectfully by the door, though he immediately pulled in his stomach and lifted his chin, adding another half inch to his height.
“It is the waistcoat, madam,” he said stiffly. “I think it must have shrunk. Mrs. Chubb cleaned it for me, and it has never been the same since.”
Cecily smiled. “If you say so, Baxter. I should hate to see you acquire a belly like some of our more prominent guests. I find it most distasteful to look at.”
Baxter swiveled his eyes in her direction. “I wasn’t aware that a lady would be at all interested in viewing that particular portion of a gentleman’s anatomy.”
“One can hardly miss it on some gentlemen.” Cecily leaned back in her chair and drew on her cigar. “I wonder why most men consider a large belly an inevitable symptom
of aging. Look at Arthur, for instance. He is approaching sixty, and yet his body is as fit and trim as a man thirty years younger.”
This time she got the reaction she had expected. Baxter’s snort of disgust was most satisfying.
“If I might be permitted to say so, madam, Arthur Barrett would do well to take care of his tongue as well as he does his physique. And, I must add, I find it most uncomfortable to discuss this sensitive subject with a lady.”
Cecily blew a stream of smoke through pursed lips. “Oh, come now, Baxter. I was under the impression that you and I could discuss anything, within reason.”
“Within reason, it seems to me, would preclude the personal attributes of your employees.”
Cecily sighed. “I do hate it, Baxter, when you get so deplorably stuffy.”
She leaned forward to stub out the cigar in the silver ashtray and she looked up just in time to see the look of disapproval on Baxter’s face. He had never been able to accept her smoking habit, deeming it highly unsuitable for a woman, although he was the one who supplied her with the thin cigars that she enjoyed so much. Albeit reluctantly, and upon her insistence.
Deciding it was time to change the subject, she said lightly, “I haven’t seen much of Michael since he came home from Africa. I’m disappointed in him. I quite thought he would have paid us a visit before now.”
“He is most likely busy with the George and Dragon, madam. Your son took on a great deal of work when he bought the inn. From what I hear, Scroggins did not take good care of the building and allowed it to become quite dilapidated.”
“So I understand.” Cecily glanced up at the portrait of her dead husband, which hung above the marble fireplace. “I remember when James and I bought the Pennyfoot. It needed so much work, and the cost of repairs was quite
horrifying. I sometimes wonder if I shall ever get the loans paid off. I can understand how Michael must feel, particularly since business at the inn has dropped off so drastically.”
“A new owner always finds it difficult to establish a business,” Baxter said, rocking back on his heels.
Cecily regarded him with a stab of irritation. No matter what she said to him, how much she pleaded with him, he would not unbend on his stand of complying with proprieties.
Just once she would love to have a heart-to-heart discussion with him, but it was impossible when he insisted on standing at attention at the door instead of sitting with her at the long mahogany table that dominated the library.
“I think establishing a business might be even more difficult in Michael’s case,” she said carefully. “Some customers might well be uncomfortable in the presence of Michael’s wife.”
She watched Baxter’s face to gauge his reaction. So far she had avoided the subject, but she desperately needed to talk about the situation, and she couldn’t think of anyone she would rather discuss the problem with than Baxter.
Cecily needed an impartial ear, an understanding ear. She fervently hoped that Baxter would be able to provide her with one.
After a moment he said a little hesitantly, “I am quite sure, madam, that the presence of Mr. Sinclair’s wife is not the reason for the lack of customers.”
As always, Cecily found it impossible to judge his expression. Baxter had a formidable practice of hiding his feelings and emotions. “I wish I could be as certain,” she said, continuing to study his face. “I admit I was upset with Michael for not telling me he was bringing home a bride. I was very disappointed not to be present at his wedding. That is, until he described the ceremony.” She paused, feeling again her resentment. “Simani may be of African descent,” she said, “but I hardly think a primitive ceremony in the
jungle, presided over by some sort of witch doctor, constitutes a legal and binding marriage.”
Baxter raised an eyebrow but chose not to comment. Frustrated, Cecily added, “I might have felt better if I’d known about it beforehand. Springing a surprise like that on me was most inconsiderate. Particularly since Simani is not …” She hesitated, trying to find a delicate way of saying what was on her mind. “She doesn’t exactly fit in here,” she finished lamely.
Baxter’s faint look of disapproval gave her a twinge of guilt. “Not that I’m prejudiced, of course,” she added quickly. “We are all God’s children, no matter the color of one’s skin. No one should know that better than I, having spent so much time in the tropics when James was in the military. But after all, one has to think of the children of such a union, and the kind of consequences with which they might have to deal.”
Not a muscle in Baxter’s face moved. Feeling a trifle desperate, though Cecily had no idea why she should feel that way, she said with just a hint of defensiveness, “It just takes some getting used to, that’s all. And you are right, of course. I’m sure the local customers will come back, once they get used to the idea.”
She had to acknowledge the fact that Baxter was not prepared to discuss the issue. She was about to change the subject when he said abruptly, “I have a complaint to make, madam.”
She straightened her back, wondering what to expect. Baxter rarely complained, usually taking care of any untoward incidents himself.
“It’s the new doorman, madam. I must object to the liberties he takes with the guests. Why, only the other day I heard him tell the Duchess of Morden that he admired her hair. It was most fortunate her husband did not overhear, or we would have had to deal with quite a nasty scene.”
“I’m sure Arthur meant well,” Cecily said, trying not to
sound defensive. “And I have heard no complaints from the guests. Quite the contrary, I have heard some very nice things about him.”
“His familiarity with the aristocracy is deplorable,” Baxter said, his neck turning red, warning Cecily he was upset with her. “I find it unacceptable that a common doorman should take such liberties. I have spoken to him about it, but he pays no attention to me. Perhaps you should have a word with him yourself.”