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Authors: Kate Kingsbury

7 Pay the Piper

BOOK: 7 Pay the Piper
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Pay the Piper

Kate Kingsbury

Copyright © 2013, Kate Kingsbury

Sincere thanks to Jita Fumich and Paige Wheeler for all the help and advice.
My great covers are the work of Rachel High. Thanks so much!

CHAPTER
1

The first three months of the year in Badgers End were fairly predictable as far as the weather was concerned. The dark, damp, dreary days seemed to limp by, one after the other, with nothing to relieve the depressing monotony of dull gray skies and empty windswept streets. Little disturbed the silence of the cold, lonely beaches, except perhaps the harsh cries of ravenous sea gulls and the frothy breakers slapping the shore.

Even the Pennyfoot Hotel, normally a splendid sight with its white walls glittering in the summer sun, seemed drab as it faced the fury of the raw east wind screaming in from the North Sea, tossing aside everything in its path that wasn’t anchored down.

Samuel Rawlins was forced to hang on to his cap as he
drove the trap into town early that morning. This was the time of year he despised. He couldn’t wait for the warmer days of spring to thaw out his bones.

For once, however, there was something to brighten the dismal days of January in that year of 1909. For the very first time, the Scots were coming to town.

In honor of Robert Burns, the celebrated poet, whose birthday fell upon 25 January, the civic leaders in Wellercombe were holding a massive celebration. Visitors, and more importantly the shillings and pence they brought with them, were scarce on the coast that early in the year. The town council hoped to lure not only the citizens of nearby London, but also those from the north where the weather was even more miserable.

Samuel was eager to discuss the upcoming events with Tom Abbittson, the local butcher. The hotel’s stable manager had been sent to pick up the chef’s meat order, and he was looking forward to chatting with Tom. He liked the butcher, a big, jovial man with a belly laugh that could always bring a smile to Samuel’s face, no matter how miserable he was feeling.

This morning in particular, Samuel needed cheering up. He loved his job at the Pennyfoot, even if it did mean taking on added duties when business was slow. Cecily Sinclair, the widowed owner of the hotel, took on extra staff for the summer months, but in the winter the regular staff took care of everything.

The problem wasn’t with his job, Samuel thought, as the chestnut clipped at a steady pace along the deserted Esplanade. His problem was with Doris, the new kitchen maid. Doris and her twin Daisy had been hired less than three months ago, and right away Samuel had taken a fancy to the shy, rosy-cheeked young girl.

They would get along together perfectly, if it wasn’t for Doris’s ambition to become a singer. Not yet fifteen, she had already made up her mind that she was going to marry a toff, and had decided that the way to meet one was to sing
in the Variety Halls. Nothing Samuel could say or do would change her mind.

Just thinking about it gave Samuel an ache in his belly. He could still feel the pain of it when he left the chestnut tied up at the curb in the High Street and walked into the butcher’s shop.

Sawdust swirled in front of his feet as the wind followed him through the door. The smell of raw meat greeted him, and he wrinkled his nose, trying vainly to rub some warmth into his frozen hands. He just wanted to get out of this cold drafty shop and back to the warmth of the stables.

Tom stood at the block, hacking at a slab of meat with a wicked-looking chopper. The muscle in his thick arm knotted above the elastic that banded the sleeve of his white shirt.

Catching sight of Samuel, he winked and called out a greeting without breaking the strong, steady rhythm of the chopper as it sliced cleanly through the bone.

A woman stood near the counter, clutching a shawl about her skinny shoulders as she waited for her order. Samuel nodded to her and lifted his cap, then called out to Tom.

“I’ve come for the Pennyfoot’s order. Michel said he dropped it off to you last night before you went down the pub.”

“Right.” Tom paused, wiping a hand down his blood-smeared, blue-striped apron. “I’ve got most of it, but he wants a side of beef. Get you downstairs, there’s a good lad, and pick one out for me, will you? I’ve got to take care of this order here for Lord Withersgill, and it’ll take me a while.”

Samuel nodded and touched his cap again at the woman before heading for the steps to the cellar.

If there was one thing he hated, he thought as he slowly descended the narrow wooden staircase, it was having to go down in that stinking cellar. He wasn’t partial to the smell of a butcher’s shop anyway, but it was a whole lot better than the stench that awaited him in the cold, dark shadows below.

This was where the carcasses hung, until Tom could get them cut up into the various joints—great huge slabs of red raw meat, swinging side by side from the racks overhead, dripping blood everywhere. It was enough to make Samuel bring up his breakfast.

As he reached the foot of the steps he could see the chickens swinging upside down with their ruffled feathers waiting to be plucked. Their beady eyes stared at him from their dead faces, which hung limply from twisted yellow necks.

The sooner he got out of there the better, Samuel told himself, trying to avoid the sticky puddles that even the sawdust and straw couldn’t disguise.

At the back of the cellar, in the darkest corner, the long rack ran across the rafters, bearing its grisly weight of raw beef. Samuel shivered in the cool, moist air. He wouldn’t be a butcher if they paid him a hundred pounds a month.

He crept forward, squinting in the dim light that filtered through the dusty window high above his head. He should have brought a lamp with him, he thought, as he spread out his hands in front of him. Though how in the heck he was supposed to know a good side of beef from a bad one, he had no idea.

The choice was easy. Take the first one he laid hands on. That was the worst part—grabbing hold of that cold, lifeless lump of flesh wrapped in its gauze stocking.

His hands touched a carcass, and he clutched at it, bracing himself to take the weight as he lifted it off the hook. The beef came off easily, and he grunted under the heavy burden as he balanced it on his shoulder. He was about to turn away when something caught his eye.

He looked. And looked again. That wasn’t a side of beef he was looking at, his mind assured him. It was a man … hanging from a hook next to the swaying beef, with his chin on his chest and his face as white as chalk, as a man only can look with every drop of blood drained out of him.

* * *

“I do believe that this will be our finest effort ever,” Phoebe Carter-Holmes declared. “I am most excited at the prospect.”

“It doesn’t take very much to excite you,” a languid voice answered.

Cecily Sinclair, seated at the head of the long, Jacobean table in the library of the Pennyfoot Hotel, viewed the other two women with the futile hope that for once they would not get into another of their spiteful spats.

Phoebe, as always, looked as if she’d stepped from the pages of the
Tatler
. A French lace ruffle at her throat peeked out from the jacket of her navy blue suit, and her hat tilted at a provocative angle under the weight of several pink silk roses.

No one would ever know, Cecily mused, that Phoebe made do with clothes that had seen far more light of day than she cared to admit. No longer enjoying the support of her dead husband, Phoebe still struggled to keep up appearances, and was a dab hand at attaching or removing whatever trimmings were fashionable at the time.

At the moment, Phoebe was glaring at Madeline Pengrath, who lounged unbecomingly on her chair, one arm flung over the velvet padded back. Madeline’s long, black silky hair flowed over her shoulders, spilling down the bodice of her mauve cotton frock, and her eyes, dark and brooding, rested on Phoebe’s outraged face.

“I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head,” Phoebe snapped. “Unless I am mistaken, we are here to discuss the plans for the Tartan Ball on Saturday, not to exchange insults with one another.”

“I agree,” Cecily said, lifting her pen from the inkwell. She shook the excess ink from the nib, then poised it over the sheet of paper on the table in front of her. “Perhaps you will begin, Phoebe? Were you successful in persuading the bagpipers to play for us?”

Phoebe beamed, smoothing out the creases in her elbow-length
gloves with a triumphant flourish. “I was indeed. How fortunate we are that the civic leaders in Wellercombe decided to hold a contest for the pipers. There must be several hundred of them in town for the event.”

“I’m not surprised,” Madeline said, hiding a yawn behind her long fingers. “There are some very lucrative prizes. I do believe the Grand Prize affords the opportunity to perform in front of the king, no less.”

“Not only that,” Phoebe said, her voice rising in excitement, “but the winner of the Grand Prize will also be invited to audition for the Sandringham pipers at the king’s retreat in Norfolk. Can you imagine what an honor that would be? Why, it could change a man’s life forever. Imagine, being part of the royal court.”

“Imagine,” Madeline murmured, her voice heavy with sarcasm.

Ignoring her, Phoebe rattled on. “There are ten pipers in all staying here at the hotel. I talked to Mr. McPherson, who appears to be their spokesman, and every one of them has agreed to band together and give us a short presentation. They were all most charming, I must say.”

“Heaven help us,” Madeline said, rolling her eyes up at the ceiling. “Even one set of those dreadful wailing pipes is enough to raise the dead. Can you imagine ten of them?”

“I think it will be most stirring,” Phoebe said huffily. “Why, at times the music from the pipes brings tears to my eyes.”

“I agree, the noise is enough to make a grown man cry,” Madeline murmured.

“Ladies, please!” Cecily glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece above the marble fireplace. In spite of the red glow of the coals in the grate, she felt uncommonly cold for some reason. “I have a hundred tasks to get through today. I would like to close this meeting as quickly as possible.”

“Well, perhaps if Madeline would refrain from questioning my every remark, we could conduct our business with
more expedience.” Phoebe raised her hands and gave the brim of her hat an unnecessary tug.

Cecily sent a pleading look to Madeline, who merely shrugged.

“In any case,” Phoebe went on, “I have yet to report on the second part of the entertainment. Since we are presenting the Tartan Ball in conjunction with the Scottish celebrations in Wellercombe, I thought it would be only fitting if we employed my little troupe of dancers to perform two of Scotland’s most famous dances, the Highland Fling and the Sword Dance. That’s if they can manage it without cutting off their toes.”

Cecily nodded, doing her best to look enthusiastic. “That’s a wonderful idea, Phoebe,” she said valiantly.

Madeline muttered something under her breath that was mercifully inaudible.

“Yes, I thought so.” Phoebe preened for a second or two. “In any case, Mr. McPherson kindly offered to assist me in teaching the girls the steps. He’s also offered to play the bagpipes for the rehearsals. So much better than asking Lydia to play the piano. I’m not certain she’d be able to play the Scottish tunes.”

“I’m not certain that Lydia knows how to play any tune all the way through,” Madeline said, earning a frown of reproof from Cecily.

“That is most kind of Mr. McPherson.” Cecily scribbled a few notes, then dipped the pen into the inkwell. “But will he have time to manage all that work? I understand the pipers will be rehearsing for the contest in the church hall.”

“Yes, they are.” Phoebe nodded, sending the roses on her hat trembling for their safety. “We will be rehearsing in the village hall. But Alec … Mr. McPherson has assured me he will be able to fit everything in. He told me it will be extra practice for him. He seems quite determined to win that contest.”

“Alec?”

Cecily sighed. She might have known Madeline wouldn’t
let that reference pass without comment. The slender woman leaned forward, her expressive eyes gleaming with mischief.

“Why, Phoebe dear, don’t tell me you have acquired a possible suitor? He is certainly a fast worker. On intimate terms, are we? Using Christian names already?”

Phoebe’s cheeks took on a rosy hue. “Mr. McPherson treats me with the utmost respect. I warned him that he might have taken on a formidable task in teaching my girls the steps in such a short space of time, and he suggested that we use our first names to present a united front, so to speak. There are times when my ladies are inclined to disregard my instructions.”

Madeline nodded slowly, looking pleased at the prospect of taking Phoebe down a peg or two.

Cecily closed her eyes for a brief moment. Sometimes she wondered if these meetings were really worth the time spent on them. If she didn’t know that deep down Madeline and Phoebe had a real affection for each other, she’d suggest meeting them separately.

If she did that, however, she’d no doubt offend the two of them, and hurt them dreadfully. Cecily had a feeling that the two of them actually enjoyed sparring in this inelegant manner.

“So,” Madeline was saying in her low, melodic voice, “Alec is helping you teach your young ladies to perform two of Scotland’s most famous dances. I wonder if he truly knows what he is facing.”

Phoebe sniffed. “As I said, I explained the inadequacies of my troupe. They do try, however, and that’s the important thing.”

“Well, my dear, I have only one thing to say.” Madeline yawned, stretching her arms above her head and managing to look like a beautiful, sultry cat. “If you want to keep your sanity, beware of any man who wears a skirt.”

Even Cecily had to hide a smile at that.

Phoebe straightened her back with a loud huff of breath.
“I can assure you, Madeline, that there are some men in this world to be trusted. For your information, in order to take part in the contest, every man has to have an impeccable background. They don’t allow just anybody to audition for Sandringham, you know.”

“I’m sure they don’t,” Madeline purred, looking unimpressed.

“Why, just yesterday, Alec … Mr. McPherson was kind enough to miss his second day of practice in order to give the first dancing lesson. I thought that was terribly gallant of him.”

BOOK: 7 Pay the Piper
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