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  • Writer's pictureAlyssa Maxwell

Excerpt: A Sinister Service

“Please, all of you, wait here.” Without another word, Mr. Tremaine hurried out of the conference room, with Percy Bateman hard on his heels. Phoebe heard the outside door opening and slamming shut. The siren’s continued wailing set her nerves on edge.

Apparently Julia agreed. “I wish they’d stop that deplorable racket.”

“I’m going to see what happened.” Fox began to trace the other two men’s footsteps.

“Fox, we were told to stay here,” Amelia admonished him. She stood behind their sister, one hand on Julia’s shoulder.

Fox hesitated. “I won’t get in the way.” Then he was off.

“I’m going, too.” Phoebe didn’t wait to be told not to, nor did she look back to see if Amelia followed her. She knew her younger sister wouldn’t leave Julia’s side, and Julia certainly wasn’t going to run across the factory’s precincts in her condition.

Upon reaching the enclosure, she was glad she hadn’t had time to shed her coat inside, as a steely cloud cover had put a bite into the wind. The bitterness of smoke and ash from the bottle kilns stung her nose. She turned several corners and came upon the first building they’d visited yesterday, where the clay was mixed, ground, and purified. An image formed in her mind of the grinding pans, like giant dough kneaders. Good heavens—but no, surely not that. She spotted Fox’s dusky blond hair among the sea of flat caps and kerchiefs the workers wore. More people were streaming out from the various buildings—mixers, throwers, painters—the siren summoned them all.

“Have you heard what happened yet,” she asked Fox when she reached his side. He glanced at her briefly and shook his head before returning his attention to the clay processing building.

After a moment, he turned back to her. “I got here just in time to see Mr. Tremaine running inside. Two workers were standing just outside that door.” He pointed. “They were distraught, Phoebe. Whatever happened in there, it’s bad.”

She wished Eva were here. The thought ran round and round her brain. Eva had managed to set both her and Amelia at ease last night, and she had said something to their sister this morning that had Julia smiling as they piled into the Rolls Royce.

The siren cut off abruptly, the resulting silence equally jarring. Little by little, voices filled the hush as workers speculated on what might have happened. Phoebe heard the word accident repeated many times, but no one seemed to know any details.

Fox startled her as he suddenly blurted out a name. “Trent! Over here!”

The boy they had met yesterday changed direction and weaved his way across the yard, dodging around workers. He stopped few feet away, kicking up dust, and heaved for breath. “Have you seen Jester? I can’t find him anywhere.”

“No,” Fox said, “but we haven’t been here long. Came to give Mr. Tremaine our order when the siren sounded. Come to think of it, your father wasn’t there to greet us. Maybe he has Jester.”

“Do you know where your father is, Trent?” Phoebe felt a deepening concern. “He wants this commission badly. It seems unlikely he’d miss this morning’s meeting.”

“I can’t say.” Trent searched the faces around them, frowning. “We were both here early today, before sunup. Jester, too. Mr. Tremaine doesn’t mind him being here, so I bring him most days. Father said he wanted to speak with the head clay mixer about a new formula he’d calculated. Something that would make an even thinner cup without sacrificing strength. I think he wants it for your grandparents’ china.”

“Well, he must be here somewhere.” Fox tapped his friend’s shoulder when Trent’s attention appeared to wander. “Let’s try and find out what’s going on. Have you heard anything at all?”

A clanging bell drowned out Trent’s reply. Moments later a motor ambulance clattered around a corner and entered the enclosure. It pulled up near the entrance to the clay processing building. The bell quieted as the doors swung open and four men in dark blue St. John’s Ambulance Brigade uniforms scrambled out. Two of them went around to the back of the vehicle, opened the rear door, and dragged out a stretcher. Then all four hurried into the building.

“Someone’s hurt. Badly,” Trent said, unnecessarily. The tension among the crowd heightened. Phoebe could all but hear their collective intake of breath as they waited to see who among them had been injured . . . and how.

Before the door to the building had fully closed, it seemed to jerk partway open again. Those nearest the door eased away as if allowing someone through, yet at first Phoebe saw no one. An instant later as Trent’s dog, Jester, emerged from between a knot of people in a streak of brown and white.

“Jester,” Trent called to him. The animal spotted him and altered his course without missing a step. Trent fell to a crouch, his arms encircling Jester as the dog crashed into his chest. “What is it, boy? What happened?”

Fox and Phoebe moved closer, and Trent turned a worried face up to them. “He’s trembling all over. I can’t imagine what he was doing in there, or how he got in.” He turned his attention back to the panting animal, who continued his desperate lean against his master.

A sickening sensation went through Phoebe. A missing dog. A missing father. An accident.

Minutes later, the ambulance crew reemerged into the enclosure, two of them carrying the stretcher. Now, instead of being a light burden between them, something clearly weighed it down. Something draped in a plain, gray sheet, unmoving but for a miniscule sliding this way or that with the motion of the stretcher. A body. Phoebe sucked in a breath. She went several paces closer and saw ruddy stains just beginning to penetrate the sheet. Trent rose and started forward, but instinct sent her hand out. She clutched his shoulder and held him back.

Mr. Tremaine exited the building next, the wind blowing his silvering hair until thick tufts of it stood up nearly straight. His suit coat, too, blew out around him. He took no notice of either but kept on as if driven by an unseen hand, his gaze pinned on Trent.

“What’s going on?” Fox’s question came as a whisper, little more than an exhalation. Trent stood frozen in place, while Jester cowered against his leg and shivered, as if both boy and animal already knew the truth.

“Trent,” Mr. Tremaine said as he came to a halt in front of the boy.

Phoebe needed no more than that—no more that the weight of dread hanging on that one word. Trent.

The color leached from the boy’s face. Fox went to his side, standing shoulder to shoulder, but Trent didn’t acknowledge him. He frowned at Mr. Tremaine, and then suddenly turned about and started to walk away.

“Trent,” the pottery’s owner said. “Wait. There’s something—”

Trent took off running, Jester loping at his side. Fox and Phoebe exchanged startled glances, and then set off together in the direction the boy had taken. Phoebe wondered if he even knew where he was going. When he turned a corner and disappeared, Fox shot ahead of Phoebe in a burst of speed. She hefted her skirts higher and tried to match their pace, but she was no match in her pumps, especially on the cobbles.

She found them at the base of a bottle kiln. The doorway of the structure was sealed tight, its chimney puffing black smoke to mingle with the clouds. Ash drifted gently down. Fox had his hand on his friend’s shoulder. Jester’s large eyes glistened as he gazed up at them.

“Come back with me. Hear what Mr. Tremaine has to say.”

Trent shook his head. “I already know what he has to say. My father . . . he . . .” He pinched his lips together.

To Fox’s credit, he didn’t try to dissuade Trent of that conclusion. It had been all too obvious.

“Don’t you wish to know what happened?” Phoebe asked Trent gently. “And your mother. We’ll need to let her know.”

“My mother is dead. Over a year now.”

Stricken to have made such a mistake, she caught Fox’s eye. “Why didn’t you mention this,” she mouthed, but then realized it simply hadn’t come up. While last night they had discussed Fox’s good fortune in coming upon a friend from school, they hadn’t delved too deeply into Trent Mercer’s background. Except . . .

Except to comment on his obvious resentment at having been withdrawn from Eton to work at Crown Lily. A chill traveled Phoebe’s back, but she shook away the sensation. Trent’s education surely had nothing to do with today’s tragedy.

“I’m sorry, Trent.” She groped for something more useful to say but came up empty. A sudden gust swept the area and whistled between the bottle kilns, raising a mournful cry. Phoebe shivered in earnest now, as did the two boys. “Come. Let’s go back. We’ll go inside. Trent, you don’t have to talk to anyone if you don’t wish to.”

He appeared not to hear her, or at least he appeared disinclined to respond. He stood there several seconds, until Phoebe began to wonder what else to do. Then he nodded, turned, and started walking. Fox kept pace at his side. Phoebe followed a few steps behind them. Fox and Trent knew each other, making Fox the right person to offer comfort, whether with words or with sympathetic silence.

When they returned to the main enclosure, Phoebe let Fox and Trent join a grim-faced Mr. Tremaine. They spoke quietly with one another, and Mr. Tremaine walked with them back in the direction of the administrative building. The ambulance had gone, but there were several police sedans in its place, with constables spread out among the lingering crowd. Phoebe approached one and waited until he’d finished questioning a pair of workers, men in coveralls and aprons smeared with clay, their flat caps in their hands. Both men mirrored Mr. Tremaine’s bleak expression.

Phoebe had a quick change of heart, and instead of addressing the policeman, she waited until he’d walked away and spoke to the workers. “Excuse me, but can you tell me what me happened?” When they hesitated, eying her clothing and judging her not to be one of them, she explained, “Trent Mercer is my brother’s friend, and we’d like to be able to help him through this. His father is dead, isn’t he?”

Both men nodded, and the heavier of the two, with a short-trimmed beard and broad, round shoulders said, “It’s none too pleasant a thing, miss. I daresay you don’t want to know what happened.”

“But you’re wrong, I do. As I said, my family will want to be able to help Trent, and we can’t do that unless we know the facts. How did his father die?” Although they hadn’t confirmed it, that much Phoebe was certain of.

The other man, shorter than the other and with a protruding belly, wiped a sleeve across his brow. “Gus Abbott, he’s our head clay mixer what operates the grinding pans. He found ‘im. Found Ron Mercer when he went in to start fillin’ the pans.”

Phoebe remembered the grinding pans from yesterday, those giant vats where clay, stone, and bone ash poured in through chutes and were ground down and mixed together by rotating blades. Like Mrs. Ellison’s hand-cranked dough kneader, Fox had said. But larger. So much larger.

Large enough to crush a man’s body.

An image of just that formed in her brain and her hand flew to her mouth. “You don’t mean to say . . . he was found in one of the pans . . .”

The two workers simultaneously nodded. The bearded one said. “I told you you didn’t want to know, miss.”

“But . . . how did he get there?”

The bearded fellow shrugged. The round-bellied one murmured, “Not by accident. I can tell you that, miss. Not by accident.”

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Alyssa Maxwell

  Author of the Gilded Newport Mysteries


A Lady and Lady's Maid Mysteries

Alyssa Maxwell, Author of the Gilded Newport Mysteries
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