On a cold night in February, the popular Lighterman’s ball festivities are cut short when a guest of honor, Stephen Bremmer, goes into spasms and abruptly collapses. Once again Inspector Witherspoon returns to the Wrexley Hotel to investigate a murder.
The victim was considered a boorish snob who felt entitled to anything and anyone he wanted. Yet despite his Oxford education, he was barely literate, lazy, and prone to make stupid mistakes – his last mistake turned out to be crossing a killer.
The owners and management of the Wrexley Hotel clearly don’t welcome the return of Inspector Witherspoon but he has his job to do, and Mrs. Jeffries, and the rest of the household must do their best to catch a murderer who shows no signs of slowing down…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Despite his gout acting up, Stephen Bremmer was looking forward to tonight's festivities. He had big plans for all of them. It was going to be wonderful, absolutely wonderful. That stupid cow was going to pay for her veiled insults, but before that, he'd have the pleasure of skewering James Pierce and his tarted-up little soiree, the Lighterman's Ball indeed! He snorted as his hansom cab stopped opposite the hotel.
He stepped out, paid the driver, and surveyed his surroundings. Across the busy street, he could see the electric lights of the hotel over the top of an omnibus. Hansoms and carriages discharging passengers wearing traveling clothes and evening dress lined both sides of the street. The omnibus moved on and Bremmer started to cross but he stopped, almost tripping as he spotted a face he'd not seen for eight years.
He narrowed his eyes as he focused on the slim figure but he'd not been mistaken. It was definitely she. The years had been more than kind; she was even more beautiful than he'd remembered. He smiled, enjoying the fact that he could watch her without her knowing. Judging by the sparkling diamond hair pins and the elegant red velvet cloak she wore, she'd obviously done well. She stood back from the entrance and waited as a large mob of people in varying states of evening dress poured into the hotel. Then she entered. Bremmer wasn't about to miss this show, so he hurried across the road and into the hotel lobby.
He followed the crowd into what was the hotel dining room and then eased off to one side so he could see what might happen if she ran into any of their old acquaintances. He saw her hand her cloak to a maid and then she weaved her way through the throng of people, where he lost sight of her. He surveyed the huge room, hoping that the ones who'd be most upset by Elise Newcomb's sudden reappearance would catch a glimpse of her. But he didn't see any of them. Oh well, he told himself, the night was still young and he knew something wonderfully scandalous was going to happen. He'd make sure of it.
He started to the front of the ballroom, his gaze critical and looking for something amiss or out of place. But the hotel had done a proper job. The tables, draped in white linen and topped with pots of greenery, had been pushed toward the walls, creating a dance floor in the center. Along the length of the room stood a buffet table already covered with silverware, plates, serviettes, platters, and metal tray frames. Beneath patterned gold and green wallpaper, the rich, dark wood had been polished to a high gloss, and overhead, a line of crystal chandeliers sparkled with light.
A quartet of musicians dressed in black evening clothes stood tuning their instruments on a raised platform that had been installed at the far end of the room. Two large, oval tables with enormous green and white floral centerpieces were across the aisle from the musicians. He saw her then. She was standing at the table, partially hidden by a centerpiece. He frowned and increased his pace, hoping to see what she was doing, but a waiter loaded down with half a dozen heavy overcoats and shawls stumbled in front of him and he jerked back to keep from being run over. "Watch where you're going," he yelled.
Bremmer pushed past three old women dressed from head to toe in black. "You don't know nuffink about it, 'e's way too old to be carryin' on like that," one of the ladies snapped. He winced at her accent. Ye gods, these people mangled the English language worse than the colonials. Thank goodness, he was at one of the top tables and too far away to smell them. He craned his neck and saw that she'd disappeared. He scanned the crowded room and caught a glimpse of her as she moved past the buffet toward the front of the hotel. Damn, he hoped she wasn't going to leave. That wouldn't be any fun. He'd wanted to have a bit of sport with her, let her know that he remembered the old days. But once again, she'd merged into the crowd.
He reached the spot she'd vacated and bent close to read the place cards. What had she been looking for? Surely she hadn't thought she'd be sitting here? He scanned the names and saw that hers was missing. That didn't surprise him, but he was annoyed to see who was sitting next to him. He didn't want to sit between Louise Mannion and his wife; neither of those two was much fun. Well, he'd see about that. He reached for his place card.
"Excuse me, Mr. Tibbet?" a whiny, nasal female voice said.
He turned and a tall, thin woman in a chambermaid's uniform pointed at him. "Eh, you there, Mr. Tibbet. You'd best get yerself into the office. Mr. Stargill is havin' a fit 'cause you was supposed to be 'ere at half five to check the electrics."
Surprised, he stared at her. "Were you addressing me?"
"You're the only one here, aren't ya? You're Mr. Tibbet, I saw you last week when you was 'ere. Now, get on with you. Mr. Stargill is already in a bad mood and this lot 'ere"-she jerked her chin toward the dining room-"is makin' 'im right nervous. The Wrexleys are goin' to 'ave a fit if this do doesn't go right. Ever since that incident last year, business 'asn't been very good."
"Goodness, Stephen, I wasn't aware you were an expert on electricals." Louise Mannion's blue silk dress rustled as she stepped closer. She was a blue-eyed blonde with a slim figure, porcelain skin, and perfect features. "But I'm not surprised. You seem very well informed on a number of subjects." She cocked her head to one side and gave him a dazzling smile.
"You mean you're not Mr. Tibbet?" The chambermaid squinted, stepped close, and examined his face. "Oh, sorry, my mistake. You've a bit more flesh on you than he does." She turned and hurried off toward the kitchen.
"Just a moment, now . . . ," Bremmer called after her. "How dare you accost me? What is this world coming to when a serving woman can speak to her betters in such a manner? What sort of establishment is this? I'm wearing formal evening clothes, couldn't she see that? Such behavior is totally unacceptable. I shall speak to the manager and get her sacked."
"Get who sacked?" James Pierce, a tall, well-muscled man with curly light brown hair and hazel eyes gave Louise a quick smile.
"No one, James," Louise intervened quickly. "A staff member here mistook Stephen for the fellow in charge of the lighting and he was having a little joke about her. Come on, James, let's take our seats. The toast is due in ten minutes." Laughing, she grabbed his hand and pulled him around the table to their places. "Oh good, Mr. Parr's here on time." She smiled brightly at the middle-aged man who'd taken his seat at the far end of the table. "Let's hope the others are as prompt." She glanced at Bremmer as James pulled out her chair. "Didn't Anne come with you?"
"I came in a hansom, she used the carriage tonight. She promised she'd be here on time. James did make a point today of telling us how important this evening is to Pierce and Son." He yanked out his chair. "There she is."
Bremmer sat down next to Louise and surveyed the crowded room. He almost laughed aloud when he saw her standing just inside the entry. He cast a quick look at Louise. She was talking to Pierce, but he was paying no attention to her. His attention was fixed on Elise Newcomb.
Louise poked his arm. "James, I asked you a question. Have you heard a word I've said?"
"I'm sorry," he muttered as he suddenly pushed back his chair. He banged the table so hard as he leapt up that the centerpiece swayed.
Bremmer snickered as James Pierce charged toward the front of the room, dodging around clusters of young women chatting in the aisle, ignoring the waves and well-wishes of his staff and friends until he'd reached his goal. Pierce, a huge smile on his handsome, arrogant face, grabbed Elise Newcomb's hands in his and pulled her close. Bremmer looked at Louise. But to her credit, the only sign of agitation he could see on her perfect features was a slight narrowing of her eyes. That wouldn't do at all. "Well, well, well, looks like James' first love has decided to return," he said, hoping to goad her into saying something embarrassing.
Anne Bromley Bremmer, a chubby woman with graying blonde hair, deep-set brown eyes, and a sharp nose, took her seat next to her husband. She ignored him; her attention, like everyone else's at both the two tables, was on the front of the room. "Good Lord, I thought she was dead."
Louise mumbled something.
"Sorry, I didn't catch what you said." Bremmer cocked his ear toward her.
"I said he's making a spectacle of himself," she muttered.
"She's got half the men in the room staring at her." Anne smirked at Louise.
"Indeed, my dear. Isn't it convenient that she's back. It's more than a year since James lost his wife. There won't be any gossip if he remarries now."
"He's not interested in her," Louise said softly. "He's just being nice to an old friend."
"An old friend he's bringing up here." Anne shot a malevolent glance at Louise. "I expect one of us will have to move."
"No, no." Bremmer nodded toward the table next to them. "Look, he's sitting her next to his aunt. I must say, she's even more beautiful now than she was eight years ago."
"She's widowed, too." Camilla Houghton-Jones and her fianc, Montague Pettigrew, had quietly joined them. "We use the same dressmaker. She's been back in London for several weeks now and she's no longer a penniless artist. Apparently, she married when she left here. Her late husband left her very rich." Camilla was a broad-faced, thin-lipped woman in her late twenties and wore her dull brown hair pulled into a bun at the nape of her neck. Montague Pettigrew, a good five years older than his intended, had thinning black hair, a widow's peak, and pale white skin.
James returned and took his seat. "Sorry." He smiled apologetically at the others. "I wanted to make certain Elise was seated comfortably. Now we can get the festivities started. Thank you all for being here on time."
"Of course." Louise nodded at the ma”tre d', who was standing in the aisle leading to the kitchen. He stepped out and banged a gong, the signal for all to be quiet.
James stood up and waited a few moments for everyone's attention. "First of all, I want to thank all of you for coming tonight. My father would have been so pleased as he loved this annual event more than anything. I know it is usually a much smaller affair and I know some of you are missing the Morningtide Arms in Barking, where we had it for so many years, but this year I wanted it to be a genuine celebration of my father's legacy."
He paused as the crowd cheered. "As most of you know, my father started out as an apprentice lighterman and by hard work and a lot of luck he ended up owning the company. But Michael William Pierce never forgot where he came from and he never forgot that it was the hard work and honest labor of his employees which helped make us a success."
"Your father was a good man, treated his people decent," someone shouted.
James grinned. "He was indeed. Most of you know what's coming next, but as we've more guests tonight than we ever had at the Morningtide Arms, I'll explain our custom. In the past, we toasted with beer or ale, but companies grow and change so this year we're toasting with champagne. The waiters will fill your glasses and then we'll all stand. The lights will go dark for two minutes; one in honor of my father and one to honor all brave men who lost their lives this year on the sea, the river, or the canals. When the lights come back on, we'll raise a glass in their memory."
Again, Louise nodded at the ma”tre d' and a long line of waiters and bellmen carrying champagne bottles trooped out. They fanned out to the tables and began pouring.
Louise smiled at James as they sat down. "You've done your father proud. It was nice of you to be so gracious to Elise Newcomb. I'd not heard she was back in London."
"She's only been back a few weeks." James glanced at the dark-haired woman sitting between two elderly women. "She ran into my aunt Mary yesterday, and you know my aunt-she insisted Elise come tonight."
"Mary's such a thoughtful woman." Louise hated his aunt. The feeling was mutual.
The waiters finished, and as the last one retreated to the kitchen, James got to his feet and motioned for everyone to stand. The electric lights went out, and for thirty seconds, there was coughing, chairs scraping, and the muted noise from the kitchen. Then the room fell silent, and as the seconds ticked by, the clip-clop of horses and the jangle from their harnesses could clearly be heard. All of a sudden, one of the light sconces sputtered and sparks flew off in every direction. Someone yelped in surprise, gasps were heard around the room, and people shifted in their seats. The lights came back on.
James was the first to react. "That was unexpected," he exclaimed. "And I'm not sure it was a whole two minutes, but nonetheless, we honored our people. Ladies and gentlemen, raise your glasses and toast to Michael William Pierce, the founder of Pierce and Son and the Lighterman's Ball, and to all those who are no longer here with us. May they rest in peace." James hoisted his champagne flute high and then drank. Everyone else did as well.
Louise motioned to the musicians and they struck up a lively tune. The waiters returned bearing covered silver serving trays and platters of food. They put them on the buffet table and took their serving stations as the ma”tre d's staff began herding the guests to the food, table by table.
Montague started to rise. "Sit down," Camilla ordered. "We don't eat until everyone else is served."
"But that's ridiculous." He pointed to the crowd. "We're far more important than them . . ." He broke off as James fixed him with a hard stare.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Another excellent story
This is an easy series to read. It has charming characters who are loyal to each other, as well as to their beloved Inspector. I like that Wiggins and Phyllis have larger roles in this book and that we get to know a little more about their personalities. My only criticism of the book is that it ended far too quickly and kept me wishing for more adventures from this enjoyable group of friends.