Murder by Plum Pudding

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Excerpt from Chapter 1

***Note: The following excerpt has not gone through its final proofing.**

The journal remained tucked away in the bottom drawer of Mrs. Ginger Reed’s bedside table, along with a photo of her first husband, Daniel, Lord Gold. 

From under carefully folded silk scarves Ginger lifted out the items, then sat on the edge of the large four-poster bed she shared with her new husband, Chief Inspector Basil Reed. And Boss. Her pet had jumped up and stretched out at the foot of the bed. He panted a doggy smile, then closed his large brown eyes and promptly started snoring. Ginger chuckled. “Oh, Bossy. Life is so easy for you.”

She stared at the sepia and white image of the handsome soldier. Though she loved Basil with all of her heart, Daniel had been her first. His death, one of thousands during the Great War, had shattered her. The loss was tremendous, and the burden of guilt she felt was at times suffocating. 

Oh, the war! The shadows it cast were long-reaching, even seven years after it had ended. Ginger’s time in the British Secret Service would remain such—secret—and she alone would bear the weight of knowing she could have saved her husband and didn’t.

She set the photograph aside and opened the well-worn leather journal, flipping through its pages, and perhaps because it was the day before Christmas Eve, she stopped on the date of December 24th, 1912, the year before she and Daniel had wed. Her familiar though youthful script began:

It’s a tradition for the Hartigan family to volunteer at Christ Church on Salem Street to help serve Christmas dinner to the poor and underprivileged citizens of Boston—a charitable effort driven by the determination and insistence of my warm-hearted father, and resisted equally by my headstrong stepmother, Sally. 

Ginger chuckled, but she felt a twinge in her heart. 

It’d been a while now since she’d laid eyes on her flamboyant stepmother, Sally Hartigan, and her capricious half-sister, Louisa. Louisa, so full of life and energy, was easy to miss, but the sentimentality of the season had softened Ginger’s heart enough to find room there for her difficult stepmother as well. 

“The church is doing a good enough job without my having to get my gloves dirty,” Sally said as we sat around the warmth of the fire in the sitting room. “Can’t we just enjoy a quiet and carefree Christmas Eve for once, George?”

“We are blessed beyond measure,” Father said, like he does every year. “Christmas is about giving, and as members of the elite, it’s doubly important that one doesn’t forget those whose lives are a daily struggle.”

Sally wasn’t about to go down without a fight. “Think about Louisa.”

Louisa, who was playing quietly with a porcelain doll, glanced up at the mention of her name. 

Sally continued, “Would you have your own young daughter exposed to who knows what ailment? Last year a man stood right behind her and coughed.” 

I noticed that Sally specified father’s younger daughter, even though I was also in the room. Clearly, she wasn’t worried that a stranger might inadvertently spew spittle in my direction.

“I do think about Louisa, which is precisely why I insist on going.”

“I’m not sure we’re doing those people much good. They’ll just learn to depend on handouts.”

“It’s Christmas,” I said, siding with Father.

Sally’s nose jutted higher. “They’re immigrants.”

I was aghast. “We’re immigrants!”

Louisa smirked. “I’m not.”

Father was not swayed, and at five o’clock in the evening, the four of us bundled up in our fur-trimmed winter coats, muffs, and hats, and rode in our enclosed carriage as our driver directed the horses to the church hall. 

Ginger was interrupted by her young maid Lizzie, dressed in a black frock covered by a white apron, and on her head, covering a short-fringed haircut, a white servant’s cap. She curtsied slightly before speaking.

“You’ve got visitors, madam.”

“I have?” Ginger marked the journal entry with a piece of string before closing the book and setting it aside. “But who? I’m not expecting anyone until tomorrow.”

Mr. Doyle of New York and his wife were due to arrive then. He was a former associate and friend of her late father’s, though Ginger had never met the Doyles herself. He’d written several weeks ago asking if they could stay. Apparently, the man had a business idea he thought she’d be interested in. She couldn’t imagine what that might be, but she hadn’t had the heart to say no.

Lizzie’s pixie-thin face grew rosy. “They asked me not to say, madam. They want to keep it a surprise.”

Ginger raised a thinly plucked brow. She didn’t like surprises and her family and staff knew this about her. 

Lizzie added quickly, “It’s two ladies, madam.”

Ginger didn’t want to torture the girl’s conscience. With Boss at her heels, she strolled down the corridor past the bedrooms to the landing above an ornate staircase that curved down to the black and white marble entrance below. A grand chandelier hung high above the entrance, its electric lights illuminating the entrance hall. Tall windows flanked either side of a thick wooden door, and standing in front of it were the very two ladies Ginger had just been thinking of.

Louisa shouted, “Surprise!” She held out her arms, clad in burgundy velvet.  The shin-length coat had ornamental stitching, and the collar, cuffs, and entire length of the edging were trimmed with thick grey fur. Ginger recognised the quality of the tailleur de luxe item at once. 

“Louisa? Sally?” Their names escaped Ginger’s lips as she hurried down the stairs. “I’m astonished!” She accepted Louisa’s warm embrace, and a shorter, tenser version of a hug from her stepmother.

Ginger reined in her flustered feelings and adopted a welcoming smile. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”

“It wouldn’t have been a surprise, then, silly,” Louisa said. “I had to make Mama promise she wouldn’t send a telegram.”

Sally Hartigan was an attractive brunette with early signs of greying. She had fine lines around green, cat-like eyes, which deepened as she smirked, and Ginger could tell her stepmother rather enjoyed Ginger’s discomfiture. Though they had never been outright enemies, their mutual longing for George Hartigan’s full attention had made them more like competitors than family. Her father’s passing hadn’t changed that.

Pippins, Ginger’s devoted septuagenarian butler, having heard the commotion was soon at her side. 

“Pippins, you remember my sister, Louisa?” Louisa had spent a number of weeks as Ginger’s guest the summer before. “And this is her mother, Mrs. Hartigan.”

Sally had never been one to consider staff as anything more than a useful appliance such as an electric mixer or vacuum cleaner, and she’d rather kiss a frog, Ginger thought, than look a butler or maid in the eye. Her stepmother kept her gaze averted.

Pippins, unruffled by her slight, bowed his tall, slender form, his aged shoulders hunched slightly. His cornflower-blue eyes twinkled. “May I take your coats?” 

“Louisa wasn’t kidding when she said you lived in a mansion,” Sally said. Her lips pulled up in an approving smile but her eyes remained indifferent. Like most Londoners fighting against the grey and gloom of a damp winter, Ginger had decorated the place with an abundance of green. Holly and ivy twined along the wooden railing and banister and wreathed over the door frames. 

“It’s hardly a mansion,” Ginger said. 

“It’s twice the size of our brownstone in Boston.”

Ginger heard the hint of envy. She and Louisa shared the same father, and when George Hartigan had died, he’d left the brownstone to Louisa, to be shared with her mother, and his London home to Ginger. And rightly so, Ginger thought, since she’d been born in London and lived in Hartigan House until she was eight years old, a bleak time in her young life, when her father had carted her off to America so he could marry Sally.

To Sally she said, “Surely you’ve been here before?”

Sally wiggled well-bejewelled fingers. “It was such a long time ago.”

“Pippins, please inform the kitchen that we have guests and will take tea in the sitting room.” 

“Are you going to leave our luggage to sit in the rain?” Sally asked.

“Your luggage?”

“Yes, the taxi driver left it on the stoop,” Louisa said. “You don’t mind if we stay with you, do you? I know you have tons of room.”

Ginger held in her dismay. It was Christmas, and she could hardly turn them out into the streets. “Of course not.” To Pippins she added, “Please ask Lizzie and Grace to prepare rooms, and ask Clement to take our guests’ luggage upstairs.”

Pippins disappeared down the corridor towards the back of the house, whilst Ginger led her guests through the double doors of the sitting room, decorated in a modern style with rose and saffron straight-lined furniture angled towards a stone fireplace, a jade Persian carpet, wooden coffee tables, and a sideboard equipped with drinks and glasses. Tall windows added light.

Sally, with her twisted sense of intuition, gravitated to Ginger’s favourite chair and lowered herself with an exaggerated exhalation. “It’s a relief to spend part of the winter out of Boston, but it’s not as pleasant here as Louisa promised.”

Louisa came to her own defence. “It was summer when I was here last. Besides, it might be dreary and grey, but at least there’s no snow.”

Tea was delivered and Ginger poured for Louisa and Sally. “Milk and sugar?” she asked. Ginger waited for the nods she expected, added the extras and delivered the tea on their matching floral saucers. 

Sally stared at the Waterhouse painting of The Mermaid over the mantel. “Some things never change.”

Ginger had done a lot of redecorating on her return to London, but she had kept the classic art piece above the hearth. The mermaid, innocently naked to her waist, had long red hair that tumbled over her shoulders and delicately preserved her modesty. The mythical creature reminded Ginger of her mother, not only with the colour of her hair, but the sparkle in her eyes.

“It’s rather vulgar, don’t you think?” Sally continued. 

“I like it,” Louisa said. “It’s bold, and symbolises modern feminism. We women have more freedoms than ever before, but not nearly enough, in my estimation.”

Ginger couldn’t help but smile at her sister.

Louisa seemed unaware of Ginger’s amusement and demanded, “Where is Felicia? You haven’t sent her back to the country, have you? Have you? And her cranky grandmother too? That wouldn’t be so tragic.”

“Louisa!” Ginger scolded. “Felicia is doing some last-minute Christmas shopping and Ambrosia is resting. They will join us for an early dinner.”

“And your husband,” Louisa said. “You’re still married?”

“Of course I’m still married.” Ginger snorted lightly. “He’s out with Scout, getting a tree.”

“I’m still upset that I wasn’t at your wedding,” Louisa said. She scowled at Sally when she said this. Louisa had only just returned to Boston after a rebellious trip to London, and Sally hadn’t been about to let her daughter out of her sight so quickly afterwards.

“Louisa says you’ve adopted a grown street boy?” Sally asked. Her disapproval was hardly concealed behind her pretend shock.

“Yes. It’s providence, you could say,” Ginger said. 

Sally lifted her teacup to her lips, hiding, as it were, behind it. “I suppose a person might do anything to have a child they can call their own.”

“Scout is a very special boy, and my son now, Sally. I expect you, as my guest, to show him the same respect that you show me.”

Belatedly, Ginger realised she wasn’t asking much of her stepmother. 

Sally’s lips twitched in a half smile. “Certainly, Ginger. I’m only intrigued with how your life has turned out. George would be—”

“Pleased,” Ginger said, finishing for her. “Father would be very pleased. In fact, you’ll be happy to hear that I’m continuing one of his favourite traditions—feeding the poor at a local church.”

The sounds of men’s voices and a child’s laughter from the other side of the doors reached them and Ginger jumped to her feet.

“Basil and Scout are back.”

Louisa was quick to follow Ginger into the hall, whilst Sally moved more slowly, looking as if she was barely hanging on to a sliver of patience.

“Where do you want it, love?” Basil asked, when he saw her. His face was flushed with the exertion, only emphasising his handsome features. Dark hair was oiled back and to one side and trimmed around shapely ears, where it showed a hint of grey. His hazel eyes, wrinkling at the corners, sparkled as he gazed at Ginger with admiration. Married only a few months, it was easy for Ginger and Basil to forget that they weren’t alone. She smiled back with appreciation.

“Basil!” Louisa squealed. 

The shock that overtook Basil’s face was enough to make Ginger break out in laughter. 

“Louisa and Sally have surprised us, love,” she explained. “They’re here for Christmas.”

Basil removed his hat and gloves and extended a hand to Sally. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Hartigan,” he said.

Sally’s countenance brightened remarkably. Basil had that effect on the gentler sex. “Likewise. Louisa, you weren’t exaggerating when you said the chief inspector was handsome.”

Unsatisfied with a mere handshake, Louisa threw herself into Basil’s arms. “We’re sister and brother now!”

Basil chuckled, cast a questioning glance over Louisa’s shoulder at Ginger, and said, “Indeed.” He peeled his new sibling off, and used the action to remove his jacket.

“I’ll take that for you, sir,” Pippins said.

“Thank you, Pippins,” Basil returned. 

Scout had managed to hide himself behind Ginger during the exchange. Ginger took his hand and gently pulled him into view. “This is Scout. Scout, this is Mrs. Hartigan and you remember my sister, Louisa.”

“That makes me an aunt, does it not?” Louisa said, more to herself than to Scout, as if the concept had occurred to her for the first time.

“Yes,” Ginger said. “This is Aunt Louisa.”

Scout bowed respectfully.

Louisa held her hand out and Scout shook it. “All kinds of new family today,” she said. “First a brother and now a nephew.”

Sally remained quiet, her chin turned upwards.

“The tree?” Basil said.

“Oh yes, the drawing room, please,” Ginger said. The drawing room lay opposite the sitting room on the other side of the main doors along the entrance way. Basil and Scout wrestled the tree through the French doors in a manner that made Ginger bite her lip to keep from smiling too widely with the joy she felt at the sight. 

Ginger presented the drawing room to the Hartigan ladies. Art deco wallpaper, in hues of ivory, grey, and green, made the large room feel chic. A baby grand piano stood impressively in one corner while a brick fireplace took the opposite wall. A green velvet settee and matching pincushion chairs trimmed ornately with polished wood stood around a large coffee table in the centre.  On the walls were two portraits, one each of Ginger’s parents. Her mother, as the wife before Sally, was of apparent keen interest to Ginger’s stepmother, and the woman spent a noticeable amount of time staring at the image.

“She had red hair, didn’t she?” Sally said. “So unbecoming.”

Ginger’s hand automatically went to her own red bob. Being redheaded wasn’t considered an asset as far as fashion and beauty went, but Ginger hadn’t done poorly by it. She’d embraced what the good Lord had given her, and in fact, loved how it set her apart from most.

“Father found ginger hair to be a lovely thing, obviously,” Ginger said. “They were very much in love.”

That last bit was an unnecessary jab, and Ginger immediately regretted it. Sally Hartigan had been married to her father for longer than Ginger’s mother had. Her stepmother had a way of bringing out the worst in her.

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