Herald of Death
A dark spirit threatens the Pennyfoot's shiny and bright Christmas...
The Christmas Angel is a welcome sight during the winter season-but not this year. A killer is afoot in Badger's End, cutting a lock of hair from his victims and sticking a gold angel on their foreheads. Cecily Sinclair Baxter already promised her husband that she'd take a hiatus from sleuthing. But three killings have created a blizzard of bad publicity-and guests are canceling their hotel reservations. She will have to find the angel of death before he strikes again, leaving murder under the tree...
The snow started falling the week before the first Christmas guest was due to arrive at the Pennyfoot Country Club. It began with just a few flakes that drifted on the wind and eventually disappeared into the gray ocean. Soon, however, the flakes grew thicker, fell faster, and a soft white carpet blanketed the sands.
Horses struggled along the Esplanade, dragging carriages that slid from side to side, until the icy ruts had worn deep enough to prevent the wheels from wandering.
Beyond the cliffs the snow clung to the bare branches of the oaks, gently covered the grass on Putney Downs, and partially buried the lifeless body of the elderly gentleman lying on the path, leaving only a bedraggled dog to mourn his departure.
At the far end of the Esplanade, Cecily Sinclair Baxter stood at the window of her sitting room overlooking the Pennyfoot grounds. The bowling greens resembled icing on a wedding cake—smooth, shiny, and begging for that first footprint to mar the surface. The sight brought her no pleasure, however.
“This storm couldn’t have come at a worse time,” she murmured, “with so much to be done. I have to go into town tomorrow. My gown for the Welcome Ball needs some alterations, and the snow looks very deep. I do hope Samuel won’t have trouble with the carriage.”
Across the room, her husband remained silent behind the pages of the Daily Mirror.
Cecily tried again. “I sincerely hope that all this snow goes away in the next few days. Our guests are not going to enjoy the Christmas season if they are floundering about with freezing noses and toes.”
The rattle of a newspaper warned her that Baxter was deeply immersed in an article and did not wish to be disturbed. Since Cecily had never conformed to the adage that a woman should bow to her husband’s wishes at all times, she turned to face him. “Did you not hear me?”
“I heard you.”
The newspaper remained upright in front of Baxter’s face, much to Cecily’s annoyance. “Then please do me the courtesy of giving me a reply.”
Baxter’s sigh seemed to rebound off the walls. He lowered his newspaper and sent his wife a reproachful scowl. “What would you have me say?”
“That you agree that this snowstorm could be disastrous for our Christmas activities.”
Baxter pursed his lips. “In the first place, snowstorms on the southeast coast of England rarely last more than a few days. We still have a week before our guests arrive. By then it will no doubt be as balmy as a spring day.”
He held up his hand. “In the second place, in the unlikely event that the snow is still with us, it should be a simple matter to organize activities that do not require our guests to go outside.”
Cecily tossed her head. “Simple? Simple? Do you have the slightest idea what goes into planning events for the entire Christmas fortnight?”
He started to speak, but this time it was she who held up her hand. “In the first place, no, of course you do not know. You have never been involved in such matters. In the second place, I cannot imagine a Christmas without carol singers on the doorstep, or shoppers strolling down the Esplanade to gaze into the windows, or Boxing Day without the hunt, or—”
Apparently deciding that a raised hand was not going to silence his wife this time, Baxter folded his newspaper and stood. “My dear Cecily, you are borrowing trouble, as usual. As I said, it is highly unlikely the snow will still be with us in a week. Even if it should be, since you are the Pennyfoot’s resourceful and proficient manager, I have no doubt that with the help of such brilliant and creative minds as those of your associates, the inimitable Phoebe Fortescue and the equally incomparable Madeline Prestwick, not to mention your own superior talents, this year’s Christmas season will be every bit as memorable as the previous ones. If not more so.”
Cecily gazed at him in awe. Baxter was usually sparse with his comments. Such a wordy compliment was rare indeed. Even so, at his words she couldn’t help but suppress a shiver. “I sincerely hope not. I would like, for once, a Christmas without a corpse to ruin the festivities.”
Baxter grunted. “I heartily agree. Dead bodies are hardly conducive to a merry Christmas. In any case—” Whatever he was about to say was cut off by a timid tapping on the door. Frowning, he called out, “Yes? What is it?”
The door opened, and a pert face beneath a white lace cap peeked in. “Begging your pardon, m’m, Mr. Baxter, but I have a message for you.”
Cecily beckoned to the young girl. “Come in, Pansy. You are not disturbing anything.”
“Yes, m’m.” The maid ventured into the room with a wary eye on Baxter. “It’s Police Constable Northcott, m’m. He’s in the library, and he’s asked to see you.”
At the mention of the constable’s name, Baxter emitted a low growl of disgust. “That numbskull can find numerous excuses to hang around this establishment at Christmastime. No doubt he is here solely to sample Michel’s cooking and Mrs. Chubb’s baking.”
“Well, he’s a little early for that.” Cecily glanced at the calendar hanging over the marble mantelpiece. “Mrs. Chubb won’t be making mince pies for at least another day or so.” She smiled at Pansy, who had retreated at Baxter’s grousing. “Did the constable say why he needed to speak to me?”
“No, m’m. He did say, though, that it was a matter of the upmost importance.”
Baxter’s scornful snort sent her back another two or three paces.
Cecily frowned at her husband before addressing the maid once more. Thank you, Pansy. Please tell P.C. Northcott that I will be there in a short while.”
She waited until the door had closed behind the maid before saying, “Really, Hugh, do you have to instill the fear of death in the members of our staff?”
The only time she ever used her husband’s first name was when she was displeased with him, and he reacted at once by stiffening his back. “Is it my fault the maids have such a feeble disposition that they cringe at every word?”
“They don’t cringe when I speak to them.”
Baxter abandoned protocol and sat down. Picking up his newspaper, he shook it open with more force than necessary. “Then perhaps you should keep them out of my presence.”
Cecily hesitated for a second or two, then walked over to her husband. Gently pushing the newspaper aside, she leaned forward and planted a kiss on his lips. “Whatever happened to your Christmas spirit, my love?”
“It vanished the moment I heard Northcott’s name.” He heaved such a sigh it lifted a strand of Cecily’s hair. “I only hope he is not here on police business. For some odd reason, this time of year seems to attract bad news.”
“He’s probably here, as you say, on the off chance there’s a stray mince pie or sausage roll lying about in the kitchen.”
Baxter’s frown intensified. “You will remember your promise, I trust?”
She drew back. “How could I possibly forget? You gave up a tremendously exciting career in exchange for it.”
He held her gaze for a moment longer, then seemingly satisfied, raised his newspaper once more. “Well, I’m relieved that it is you who must deal with him and not me.”
“So is he, no doubt,” Cecily murmured, as she crossed the room to the door. “I’ll have Mrs. Chubb send up our midday meal, or would you prefer to eat in the dining room?”
“Too drafty,” Baxter muttered. “I vastly prefer eating here by the fire.” She was almost out of the door before he added, “With you.”
Smiling, she made her way to the staircase and hurried downstairs.
Her smile faded by the time she reached the library. A visit from the constabulary was always unsettling, and she couldn’t imagine what was so important as to bring P.C. Northcott to the Pennyfoot before his customary Christmas excursion to the country club’s kitchen.
She could only hope, to echo Baxter’s ominous words, that it wasn’t bad news.
Mrs. Chubb stood in the middle of the kitchen, arms folded across her ample bosom and eyebrows drawn together. Glaring at the three cowering maids in front of her, she demanded, “Whose brilliant idea was it to put clean sheets on the beds without ironing them?”
Two of the maids glanced at the third standing between them, a gangly young woman with earnest eyes and rabbit teeth. She ignored their nudges and stared, speechless and trembling, at the irate housekeeper.
Mrs. Chubb, fast losing patience, raised her voice. “All right, Lizzie. Perhaps you’d care to explain why you put wrinkled sheets on the beds in three of our guest bedrooms?”
Lizzie ran her tongue over her lips, stammered a few indistinct words, and then lapsed once more into silence.
Mrs. Chubb raised her chin. “What did you say?”
“She said she thought it would save time,” one of the other maids offered.
“Ho, indeed.” Mrs. Chubb uncrossed her arms and dug her fists into her hips. “Well, listen to me, young lady. Your time saving efforts means that the beds will have to be stripped, the sheets ironed and the beds made up again. Now tell me, is that saving time?”
Lizzie stared down at her shoe and traced a pattern with her toe on the tiled floor.
“So guess who’s going to give up her afternoon off to get those sheets ironed and back where they belong.”
Lizzie made a soft sound in the back of her throat.
“We have less than a week to get this place ready for our Christmas guests. So far we’re running behind by almost that much. I expect extra effort from all of you, and that does not mean cutting corners. The Pennyfoot has a reputation to uphold, and if it means we all give up our time off to be ready for Christmas, then that’s what we’ll do. Do I make myself abundantly clear?”
A chorus of “Yes, Mrs. Chubb,” answered her, and the housekeeper nodded. “Then be off with you.” Just before the door closed behind the last maid’s back, she called out, “Lizzie, I want to see those sheets perfectly ironed without a single crease.”
“Bloody good luck with that.”
The housekeeper swung around to face the voice that had spoken from the pantry. Leaning against the doorjamb, the sturdy young woman grinned. “Them flipping twits don’t know how to warm a bleeding iron, let alone use one.”
“Gertie Brown McBride!” Mrs. Chubb wagged a finger at her chief housemaid. “I thought we’d agreed that you’d stop swearing for Christmas. You promised me.”
Gertie shoved herself away from the doorway and tucked a thick strand of her black hair back under her cap. “It ain’t Christmas yet, is it, and besides, I said I’d try to stop swearing. Doesn’t mean I’ll be able to bloody do it, does it.”
The housekeeper thinned her lips. “I trust you’ll try a lot harder than this. Madam’s expecting some really important guests this year for Christmas.”
Gertie raised her eyebrows. “Like who?”
“Never you mind who. You’ll find out soon enough. Just watch your p’s and q’s, and for goodness sake, Gertie, mind your mouth. If Mr. Baxter catches you swearing he’ll throw a pink fit.”
Gertie pouted. “It’s not swearing. It’s just the way I talk.”
“Well, it sounds like swearing to me, and to everyone else who’s within earshot. So watch it.”
“I’ve been talking like this since I was a tot, and it’s blinking hard to change it now.”
Mrs. Chubb shook her head. She’d been having the same argument with Gertie for years, and she was no closer to winning it than she had been at the beginning, when a scruffy, big-boned, foul-mouthed child had shown up at the back door of the Pennyfoot begging for a job.
True, Gertie had made an effort since then, and had somewhat tempered the curses that sprinkled her conversation. There were still times, however, when she offended some of the more fastidious guests and when word of it got back to Mr. Baxter, he not only scolded Gertie, he called Mrs. Chubb to task for not controlling her rebellious housemaid.
Mrs. Chubb did not like being chastised. Especially when it was none of her fault. Gertie had to hold her tongue or Mrs. Chubb was fully prepared to wash the young woman’s mouth out with soap.
The fact that the housemaid towered over her and outweighed her by at least a stone did nothing to deter the housekeeper. Propriety had to be served at all costs. Even if it was an uphill battle with Gertie McBride.
P.C. Northcott stood with his back to the fire when Cecily entered the library. Hands behind his back, he was as close to the leaping flames as he could get without scorching his uniform. His domed helmet lay on the armchair next to him, together with a pair of worn leather gloves.
He greeted Cecily with a gruff, “Good morning, Mrs. Baxter. I trust you are well?”
Cecily eyed him with a touch of sympathy. His red nose and cheeks bore testimony to the bitter wind off the ocean. “Quite well. Thank you, Sam. And you?”
“A bit chilly, m’m. Can’t feel me toes.”
“It does look dreadfully wintery out there.” Cecily looked at the tall windows that overlooked the rose garden. “I haven’t seen this much snow in quite some time.”
“Makes it a bit ’ard to ride me bike. That it does.” The constable sniffed and drew a crumpled white handkerchief from his pocket. Burying his nose in it, he blew, producing a sound rather like that of a bad-tempered elephant.
Cecily winced. “I’ll have Mrs. Chubb send up a drop of brandy. That might help warm you.”
Northcott beamed and stuffed the handkerchief back in his pocket. “Awfully good of you, m’m, I’m sure.”
“My pleasure, Sam.” Cecily walked over to the bellpull and gave it a tug, then seated herself on a vacant armchair. “What else can I do for you today?”
Northcott sat down heavily and jumped up again just as swiftly. Tossing the helmet to one side, he muttered, “Forgot that was there.” He sat down again, much more gingerly this time. “I’m here to ask for an h’enormous favor, m’m. I wouldn’t be ’ere if I weren’t desperate, and I have to ask you to be completely discreet about all this, if you know what I mean. No one can know I asked you, especially the h’inspector.”
At the mention of Inspector Cranshaw, Cecily cringed. It was no secret to anyone that the dour police inspector would dearly love to shut down the country club.
The Pennyfoot had started out as a hotel, owned and run by Cecily, and much of its success had been due to the secret card rooms situated beneath the wine cellar.
Those rooms had entertained some of the most influential aristocrats in the country, including royalty. Patrons had enjoyed not only gambling to their hearts’ content, but also dallying with damsels in the boudoirs, secure in the knowledge that their indiscretions would be kept strictly within the walls of the Pennyfoot Hotel.
Inspector Cranshaw was aware that all was not aboveboard under Cecily’s reign, but without the proof he needed he was helpless to act upon it. He had vowed many times to close her down, and Cecily had no doubt that he waited with an eagle’s eye for an opportunity to do so.
Now that the Pennyfoot was a country club, and licensed for card games, the inspector had lost his trump card. Cecily knew, however, that he still harbored resentment for the times she had outwitted him, and would stop at nothing to extract his revenge, should the chance arise.
“You have nothing to fear in that respect,” she assured the anxious-looking constable. “I avoid contact with Inspector Cranshaw as much as possible. So, tell me, what is the favor?”
Northcott took out his handkerchief again and trumpeted into it before jamming it back in his pocket. He opened his mouth to speak, coughed, wiped his forehead as if he were now overly warm, and then cleared his throat.
Cecily watched all this with growing uneasiness. Whatever it was Sam Northcott wanted from her, it was apparently costing him a great deal to request it. What’s more, she had a nasty feeling that it was about to cost her a great deal to accommodate him.
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