Read Murder on the Minneapolis Online

Authors: Anita Davison

Murder on the Minneapolis

BOOK: Murder on the Minneapolis
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Day One – Saturday

O
N
P
IER
39, well-wishers stood four deep beneath a sea of colourful hats wide as sailboats, waving handkerchiefs or crying into them. Beside the bottom of the gangplank, an enthusiastic conductor on a podium led a brass band in
The Washington Post March
. Porters strained behind trolleys while couples strolled the decks, issuing braying instructions for the disposition of their luggage.

‘It’s huge!’ Flora said, her foot tapping in time to the music. She had seen ocean-going steamers before, even travelled on one, yet there was something awe-inspiring about the ss
Minneapolis
, with her gleaming black hull, bright red smoke stack and taut metal winch lines draped with bunting.

‘Six hundred feet long, and 13,400 tonnes,’ Eddy read from the brochure that had been his constant companion for the past week. ‘She’s a first class only steamship, carrying a smaller than usual complement of passengers this trip.’ He swiped a hand across eyes that looked suspiciously wet as he tucked the booklet back into his pocket.

‘Eddy.’ Flora’s hand hovered above his shoulder
without making contact. ‘I’m sorry your parents didn’t stay to say goodbye. They had a train to catch.’

‘They didn’t even bother to get out of the carriage.’ Eddy sniffed, his morose glare trained on the clamour of emotional farewells on the quayside. Tall and handsome for a boy of thirteen, Edward, Viscount Trent was still very much a child.

‘You’re very important to your father, Eddy, you’re his heir, remember.’

‘I would sooner be just his son.’ He turned and pounded up the gangplank, headed for the metal companionway that led up to the promenade deck.

Flora kept her eyes on his sandy hair as it bobbed amongst the mass of passengers crowding the deck. Following, she eased through the press of bodies, murmuring repeated ‘excuse me’s’.

She tried to imagine how she would feel, if at thirteen, her parents had packed her off home while they toured the Eastern states. The question was moot, for her mother had died when she was young and, as Lord Vaughn’s head butler, her father didn’t possess the resources to send her anywhere.

Flora had resigned herself long ago to viewing the peripatetic lives of the English aristocracy from the sidelines.

When she reached the top of the companionway, her attention snagged on a woman of about her own age in a claret wool travelling coat with mutton leg sleeves beneath the deck canopy who appeared to be arguing with a man.

Her arrestingly pretty features hardened, her fists clenched at her sides in barely restrained anger. The object of her fury was older, with olive skin and thick eyebrows that met in the middle. He accepted her tirade in silence,
repeatedly easing his collar away from his throat with a finger.

Her message delivered, the lady shot him a final hard glare, swivelled on her heel and stalked away. The man raised a lit cheroot he held behind his back, inhaled deeply then shot the smoke in a straight upward stream. He turned and leaned both forearms on the rail, shoulders down and his eyes closed as if the encounter had drained him.

His yellow-stained fingers and badly cut hair made Flora wonder what he could have to say to the immaculate girl in her expensive clothes.

‘Come on, Flora,’ Eddy called, his sullenness forgotten. ‘Our suite is over here!’ His last words were drowned by the ship’s horn sounding a long, plaintive note. Flora felt a shiver of excitement at the renewed burst of cheers from the quayside, accompanied by a cacophony of horns, hooters and whistles.

They were leaving.

The boards beneath her feet vibrated, while far below, the twin screw steam engines thrummed into pulsing, whirring life as the vast ship eased away from the pier and swung into mid-river.

‘There’s the pilot boat!’ Eddy pointed when she reached him.

She followed his gaze to where a tiny vessel ran fast and straight towards the bow, disappearing out of sight beneath the hull. A flotilla of other small vessels jostled like minnows round a whale, and with an arm raised in perpetual salute, the Statue of Liberty slid by on Bedloe Island while lights blinked on in the receding city as dusk approached.

‘Goodbye, New York,’ Flora said on a sigh.

‘Goodbye, Meely,’ Eddy whispered, using his childish nickname for his favourite sister.

‘You’ll see her again one day,’ Flora said. ‘Perhaps once you have finished school, or Lady Amelia and her husband will come to England?’

‘That won’t be for ages.’ Eddy snorted.

‘I’ve had a wonderful time on this trip. I’m thrilled your parents invited me.’ Flora lightened her tone, aware another platitude would simply annoy him. ‘I would never have had the opportunity to see America otherwise.’

Invited was a somewhat generous term, for Lady Vaughn had included Flora as a temporary lady’s maid for her bride-to-be daughter. With Lady Amelia now safely married, Flora had been charged with escorting Eddy home.

‘Why do I have to go back to rainy old England, and school?’ Eddy shoved a hand through his untidy hair.

‘School is a fact of life.’ She slipped an arm round his shoulders in a one-armed hug; the only sort he allowed these days. ‘Which suite is ours?’

He cocked his chin at the line of white doors behind them. ‘That one.’

Flora’s gaze took in a hand-written label in a brass frame attached to the nearest door, the words,
Edward
,
Viscount Trent and Miss Flora Maguire
, in cursive script, set above a brass doorbell.

In the cream and white panelled sitting room, a maid bustled between their open steamer trunks and the bedrooms, tutting good-naturedly when Eddy got in her way in his bid to try out the beds, open drawers and peer into cupboards. Two windows overlooked the covered promenade deck, while doors at either side of the room led to two compact bedrooms, each with a tiny bathroom with
polished brass taps and gleaming mirrors.

Discarding her hat onto her bed, Flora smiled as she ran a hand across the soft white coverlet with its pattern of red bud roses. This luxurious new suite was to be her home for the next eight days, when she would be at no one’s beck and call but Eddy’s.

‘Did you know there’s a wireless telegraphy room on board, Flora?’ Eddy leaned against the door frame. ‘The “Minne” class ships are among the first to have one. Do you think they’ll let me see how it works?’

‘I don’t see why not. We could ask the purser.’ Flora closed the door behind her and dropped a swift kiss on his cheek just as trumpets sounded from outside. ‘Goodness, what was that noise?’

‘Dinner!’ Eddy scrubbed at his cheek with a fist as if removing her kiss. ‘I’m starving. Good job no one dresses on the first night.’

He slicked down his hair with both hands then gave her a swift up and down look. ‘Hurry up and change, Flora, or we’ll be late.’

The creeping worry that had plagued her all day found a voice as Flora caught sight of her reflection in the mirror above the mantle. Her cinched-waist grey jacket above a matching straight skirt conveyed an image of a new century professional woman, though nothing like the lady passengers in their pastel-coloured silk moiré gowns and furs.

‘I’m not very hungry. You go along on your own.’ She hoped her stomach wouldn’t growl, making her a liar.

‘Are you sure?’ Eddy peered at the printed menu card on the mantle. ‘It’s roast lamb, and Charlotte Russe.’

‘It’s been such a busy day what with all the packing.’ She feigned a yawn. ‘I’ll ask the stewardess to bring me something here.’

‘If you’re sure.’ Eddy frowned, his hand already on the door handle. Not much kept him from a meal. ‘I’ll see you later, then.’

The door closed behind him at the same second the stewardess appeared from Eddy’s bedroom. ‘I’ve finished now, miss. Is there anything else?’

‘Might I have a tray sent in for supper?’ Flora asked. ‘Something light, perhaps?’

‘Of course, miss, I’ll arrange it straight away.’ She pronounced it ‘awee’, revealing her Celtic origins.

Left alone, Flora chastised herself. Her excuse to Eddy seemed feeble now, combined with the guilt at having left him to face a room full of strangers on his own. Not that such a prospect would bother Viscount Trent, who took social occasions in his stride. In one sense she was proud of his confidence, even took credit for it, but it only served to emphasize the differences in their worlds.

The
Minneapolis
was a first class only ship, thus Flora couldn’t simply disappear into a third class dining room like she had done on the outward voyage.

In what seemed like no time at all, the stewardess returned with a fluffy omelette on a plate, a selection of tiny biscuits, fruit and cheese together with a pot of aromatic coffee on a tray, all of which Flora demolished in half the time it took to arrive.

Anticipating a solitary stroll on deck before Eddy returned, she let herself out of the suite into the internal corridor that ran the length of the ship. At the stern end, she pushed through a glazed door into a staircase hall grand enough for a London hotel.

A crewman saluted her as she emerged onto the boat deck, the rhythmic whoosh of the ocean below the only indication the vessel was moving. Muted strains of
orchestra music came from the stern dining room. A soft glow of yellow light from the long windows reflected on the water.

Flora shivered as a gust of cold air lifted the hair at her temples. Glad of her shawl, she headed for the aft deck, where land was no more than a blur on the horizon beneath the purple and navy of a darkening sky.

Apart from steamer chairs and lifeboats, the boat deck stood empty but for a square, bulky shape under canvas, fastened down with thick ropes.

Flora recalled from Eddy’s lecture that the ss
Minneapolis
was designed to carry livestock, but sailed in ballast this trip, used to keep the vessel upright and discarded when unloaded.

A few inches taller than herself, the object stood several feet wide and distinctly square, but with vague shapes protruding from the front; that it was ballast seemed unlikely.

With a swift backwards glance to ensure she was not observed, Flora eased into a gap between the swaddled shape and a stack of fenders piled into the space beneath the companionway. The oiled canvas proved heavier than she imagined, but a determined tug revealed a rubber wheel more than two inches thick beneath a curve of black-painted metal. Smaller than a cartwheel, the wooden section was also painted, in cream with thick spokes picked out in brown; some sort of wheeled cart, but much sturdier.

‘Magnificent, isn’t it?’ a male voice said at her shoulder.

 

Flora jumped back, her head colliding with the metal support that sent a sharp pain through the crown of her head. She raised her hand to the sore spot, turning
to where a young man stood, his feet splayed and both hands tucked into the pockets of a dinner suit. His tie lay undone, collar open on his throat and his fair hair in disarray from the evening breeze. Penetrating brown eyes behind a pair of rimless spectacles regarded her with unnerving intensity.

And he was laughing.

A reprimand rose to her lips, suppressed when he removed his hand from his pocket and held it out, whether to draw her from beneath the metal support, or to shake hers, she wasn’t sure.

‘I cannot tell,’ Flora snapped, taking small revenge by ignoring his hand. ‘Whatever it might be is covered by this canvas sheet.’

‘Quite right. And I shouldn’t laugh, should I? I’ve simply never seen someone look so guilty, and yet so angry at the same time.’

‘Next time,’ Flora said carefully, ‘I would appreciate some sort of warning.’

‘Next time?’ His lips twitched. ‘By that should I assume you make a habit of skulking round ships in search of treasure? Because if so, you do know that makes you a pirate?’

‘I beg your pardon?’ Flora tucked in her chin, frowning. Either her throbbing head was making her dizzy, or he was deranged.

‘I’ve never met a pirate,’ he chattered on. ‘But as I always say, life is an adventure.’ He thrust out his hand again. ‘Bunny Harrington, pleased to meet you.’

Gingerly, she accepted his hand, startled at how firm and warm his grip was in hers. Her pulse raced uncomfortably, and she snatched back her hand.

‘Actually it’s a nickname,’ he said in response to her
surprised start. ‘My real one is worse.’ He eased her from beneath the overhang with one hand, his other at her waist. ‘Do you have a particular interest in motor cars?’

‘Is that what this is? One of those horseless carriages?’ Her thoughts flowed again, though with less clarity than normal, hampered by her throbbing scalp.

‘Indeed, yes. Would you like to see her?’

Before she could answer he had hauled the canvas aside, revealing what resembled a scaled-down hansom cab, but on four wheels as opposed to two, with a fifth wheel on a pole behind a sheet of glass where the driver should be. Instead of traces for a horse, sat a rectangular metal box with rounded corners.

‘It’s, um – quite impressive.’ Flora stared, fascinated. ‘This is yours?’

‘She’s a Panhard-Levassor Landaulet. Isn’t she magnificent?’ He ran a hand gently over the fender in a caress.

‘They make these in America?’ Flora asked, no longer afraid a furious passenger was about to accost them. Following his example, she stroked the caramel paintwork, surprised to find it was smooth as glass beneath her fingers.

‘This particular masterpiece is French.’ He adjusted his glasses by a sidebar. ‘Had her shipped over in the autumn to show to the Duryea Motor Wagon Company.’

‘And it really goes all by itself?’ Flora had seen pictures in the
London Illustrated
News
of motor cars, but she had never seen one.

‘Not exactly.’ His bemused frown made him look even more attractive. ‘She’s powered by a front-mounted engine with rear wheel drive, a sliding-gear transmission—’ His mouth closed with a snap. ‘Well, never mind all that, I’m sure it’s of no interest to you.’ He pushed a hand through
his hair, revealing a well-defined brow and arched eyebrows. ‘Besides, I still don’t know your name.’

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