Murder on Fleet Street

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Excerpt from Chapter 1

Mrs. Ginger Reed, also known around the city of London as Lady Gold, loved a good party. And if the official adoption of her son, Scout, wasn’t a fabulous reason to celebrate, then she couldn’t think of what was.

“Isn’t it funny how things turn out?” she said as her husband Basil swept her around the drawing room and they swirled past large portraits which were set off to perfection by the ivory and green art deco wallpaper. A three-piece band had set up in the corner of the large drawing room at Hartigan House, Ginger’s childhood home in South Kensington, and played the spirited notes of jazz.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Basil replied, smiling. His hazel eyes twinkled enough to make Ginger’s heart burst with pride. She’d chosen her rose georgette gown with the sequinned, double-scalloped skirt especially because she knew it was one of his favourites. Her long strand of beads complemented the pearly-white bead trim in the hem, and a dramatic red bow was stitched low on the hipline. She’d pinned back her red bob, newly styled in finger waves that morning, with a delicate hair clip trimmed with rhinestones.

Dancing was a favourite pastime for Ginger and Basil. They’d met officially for the first time on the dance floor of a club on the SS Rosa during a steamship journey from Boston to Liverpool. It was also there where they’d met their son, Scout, who’d worked in the belly of the ship tending the animals, including in the pet kennel where Ginger’s Boston terrier, Boss, had spent time. 

The ballroom at Hartigan House wasn’t as large as those found in some houses, but with the furniture pushed back, it was plenty big enough for a crowd this size. 

Felicia, Ginger’s youthful former sister-in-law, also lived at Hartigan House. She danced with a rather attractive constable who worked under Basil in Basil’s position as a chief inspector at Scotland Yard. Mr. Fulton, Scout’s tutor, stood on the sidelines watching wistfully. Felicia, catching the young teacher’s eye, raised a thinly plucked, deeply arched eyebrow and winked. The poor man blushed. 

Ginger clucked her tongue. What was she to do with Felicia and her bright-young-thing ways? 

Ambrosia, the matriarch of the house, was known publicly as the Dowager Lady Gold. Sitting upright in one of the green velvet wingback chairs, her grey hair was tucked under a feather-rich hat, and her bejewelled fingers clasped her walking stick. Her wrinkled face was stony, showing neither delight nor distaste, but Ginger knew her former grandmother struggled with Ginger’s decision to adopt what she called a “street urchin”.

However, Hartigan House was her home, and Ambrosia, after making her original objections known, was wise enough to keep her thoughts on the matter to herself. 

Scout played with Boss in the corner by the fireplace. He’d put on weight since joining her family and, though small for his age of nearly twelve, had grown at least four inches. Some had wondered aloud, and not so sensitively at that, why Ginger, if she must adopt, hadn’t chosen an infant? Surely, there were plenty of babies around and from better stock?

She couldn’t explain how fate had stepped in. When a heart loves, it simply loves unconditionally.

When the music ended, Ginger approached the drinks trolley manned by her butler, Pippins. Of all the people in the room, Ginger had known Clive Pippins the longest and considered the spry blue-eyed septuagenarian to be more like family than a mere employee.

His cornflower-blue eyes nearly disappeared behind folds of skin as he handed her a glass of champagne with a smile. 

“Thank you, Pips,” she said, and glancing back at Basil, added, “Darling?”

Basil stepped in behind her. “Pippins, I’ll have a gin and tonic if you would.”

“Certainly, sir.”

Basil touched Ginger’s elbow then left to join a group of men who’d congregated in one corner and were immersed in what appeared to be a rousing conversation about the stock market.

“Capital, my good fellow,” one said.

And another, “I’m making a fortune hardly lifting a finger.”

Pushing back an underlying sense of fatigue, Ginger joined Ambrosia, who seemed to be having a hard time not looking put out by their neighbour, Mrs. Schofield, who sat in the next chair.

“How serendipitous that the Adoption Act should come into effect just when your granddaughter decided to take in the stable boy.”

Ambrosia’s feathers ruffled. 

“He was Georgia’s ward. Not a stable boy.” 

Ginger’s lips twitched at the use of her birth name, which Ambrosia often used when addressing her in formal settings or with people she felt were stationed beneath her, such as their inquisitive neighbour. Mrs. Schofield, her white hair knotted on the top of her head in a Victorian-style bun, had a sparkle of mischief in her eye. Ginger was quite certain the elderly lady enjoyed tormenting her friend.

“And now he’s your grandson!”

Ambrosia’s wide blue eyes focused on Mrs. Schofield. “You know full well that Georgia was married to my grandson.”

“Very well,” Mrs. Schofield returned, barely holding on to a chuckle. “Great-grandson.”

“We’re not actually related. As you know.”

“Not by blood, but surely by circumstance?”

Ginger felt a twinge of pity for the dowager. “Champagne, Grandmother? I’ve not touched it yet.”

“Yes, please.” She held out a leathery hand. “Will you join us?” Then she lowered her voice just enough that Mrs. Schofield could still hear, “Before she talks my ear off.”

Ginger bit her lip to hold in a smile and took an empty seat.

Lord and Lady Whitmore, neighbours on Mallowan Court as well, were amongst the guests. Lord Whitmore, a distinguished-looking gentleman in his sixties, and Ginger shared a confidence—they were both involved with the British secret service, though Ginger had stepped out after the war. It was a fact they both pretended to know nothing about, and anyone in the room would likely be shocked if they knew the truth, including all the members of Ginger’s own family.

Lord Whitmore splintered away from his wife, pulled into the grouping of men by the lure of money talk. Lady Whitmore, in her constant effort to hold on to her youth, wore a fashionable turban over short hair. She caught Ginger’s eye and, with the lampshade fringe of her gown brushing her calves, eased over to join the ladies. 

“Such a lovely party,” Lady Whitmore said. “The last party I attended was Lady Roth’s birthday party. Were you there? No? Yes, well, don’t feel bad about not being invited. The occasion fell flat in the end. There certainly weren’t any newspapermen present.”

Ginger followed the direction of Lady Whitmore’s gaze and grinned at the sight of Mr. Blake Brown from the Daily News. Wearing a tweed suit over a slight stomach bulge, the wear-line of a hat now removed from thinning hair, and a camera bag strapped over his shoulder, he was rather hard to miss. Ginger had called the Daily News hoping to get a bit of coverage in the social pages. It was a stopgap effort on her part to stop tongues from wagging and to answer, once and for all, the probable awkward questions sure to arise. Though her adoption of Scout Elliot wasn’t exactly scandalous, it was most undoubtedly unorthodox and fodder for eager gossipers.

This was probably why Lord and Lady Whitmore had accepted Ginger’s invitation. The Whitmores weren’t close friends, but living in the immediate vicinity had merited consideration, and Lady Whitmore wasn’t one to miss out on social highlights. This party would give her something to jaw about to her friends for weeks.

Ginger excused herself and greeted the journalist. 

“Thank you for coming, Mr. Brown. I know it’s not your usual type of story.”

She and Mr. Brown were acquainted, and though their relationship had started on a rocky footing, Ginger now trusted him—as far as one could trust a reporter.

“Your parties aren’t usually normal parties, Mrs. Reed.”

Ginger fiddled with the long beads around her neck. The last two events Ginger had hosted, and which Mr. Brown had covered, had involved a dead body. She sincerely hoped that wouldn’t be the case tonight.

“I can assure you that I’m doing my best to make sure that everyone leaves here alive.”

Ginger, her T-strap shoes tapping along the wooden floors, gracefully made her way to the grand piano in the corner. After motioning to the band to end their set, she tickled the ivory keys. The room, subconsciously aware of the change, quieted. 

“Now that I have your attention.” Basil and Scout glanced at her, and Ginger nodded subtly for them to join her. “I’d like to make a toast. Please, everyone, get your drinks.”

Pippins took the cue and brought over two flutes of champagne, and a glass of ginger beer for Scout. 

Once everyone had a drink and faced Ginger, she began, “Thank you, everyone, for joining us as we celebrate the official adoption of our son, Scout.” Ginger placed a hand on Scout’s thin shoulder and felt a twinge of sympathy as he blushed with embarrassment. Scout had grown up on the streets of London, and survival almost always meant remaining invisible and out of sight of the average citizen—ostensibly because it was easier to rob them that way. This party was Ginger and Basil’s attempt to get the facts out before the tabloids could run amok with half-truths and falsehoods.

“We are pleased that the British government has begun to legislate in the matter of adoption, for the sake of both the parents and the children. From here on, Scout will be legally known as Master Samuel Reed and affectionately as Scout.”

Scout was, in fact, the boy’s name given by his natural mother. However, no actual documents reported his birth. Ginger only knew of Scout’s birthday because his cousin, Marvin, currently engaged with the Royal Navy, remembered the date. Samuel was a name she, Scout, and Basil had decided upon together.

As if hunching low would disguise him, minimise the pop of the flash pan, or diminish the smoke left in his wake, Mr. Brown slouched about as he snapped photographs.

Though most people in the room were dear friends or family, or at least comfortable acquaintances, there was a notable absence. Basil’s parents strongly opposed their son and daughter-in-law’s decision to adopt Scout. They found him a threat to the “bloodline” and distribution of family wealth. That was enough for them to have threatened to withhold Basil’s inheritance. When they’d learned that their son had chosen to defy them, they had gone on a trip to recover and work out what it would mean for their future. The last Ginger had heard, they were on a ship headed to South Africa.

Ginger, who’d been unable to conceive, either with her first husband, Daniel, Lord Gold, or with Basil, was just thankful to God that he’d brought Scout into their lives, and that she was now a mother, and they, a family of three. 

Basil lifted his glass. “Please join me as we celebrate our good fortune.”

A chorus of “hear, hear” resounded as glasses clinked and then were sipped from.

Scout tugged on Ginger’s arm. “Can me and Boss go to my room now? It’s awful stuffy in here.”

Boss, at Scout’s feet, wagged his stubby tail and panted with his big doggy smile as if he couldn’t agree with Scout’s sentiment more.

“It’s ‘May Boss and I’ and yes, you may.”

Ginger grinned as she watched the boy and dog dodge adult bodies and disappear out of the double doors that opened to the entrance and grand staircase. She gave her empty glass to her maid Lizzie, a young, slight lass with mousy-brown hair tucked into a white maid’s cap and a pixie-like face who cleaned up after the guests with experienced proficiency. Ginger then nodded to the band to strike up again. 

“Make it a quick one,” she said.

The introductory notes of “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” played, and Ginger grabbed Basil’s hand.

“I love a good Charleston,” she said as her heels snapped backward to the beat. Basil held her in his arms and matched her move for move. Ginger laughed heartily. Happiness like this mustn’t be taken for granted. One never knew what the next day would bring.

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Available 01.28.2019

1920s cozy mystery