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Where Goeth a Busy Housekeep

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No one ever woke Miss Gloaming, no matter how early they knocked. She was always up first. On this particular pre-dawn morning, she was writing a letter by candlelight to her cousin up in Yorkshire. She’d have been disturbed either way; there was no missing or mistaking the sodden bootfalls clomping up the corridor.

She opened the door after the first thumps. Mr. Hardthwicke, the head groundskeeper, glared apologetically beneath the orange-tinted lamps, a green plaid boulder with large and lovingly maintained teeth. “Your pardon for the hour, Miss Gloaming,” he growled, his mustache fluttering, “but there’s another body in the pond and you’re needed.”

Miss Gloaming, being of an uncommonly (and singularly) sensible breed of senior servant, tightened her shawl with one hand and held out her taper in the other. She glided beside Mr. Hardthwicke, unperturbed as they made their way through the labyrinth of basement quarters. “Which one was it?” she asked, keeping her kohl-lined eyes straight ahead.

He grimaced. “Mr. Shapleigh, the American actor. Word from the footmen is that he stormed off during croquet last night and no one had seen him since.”

“Is he as you found him?”

“You know I always leave ‘em for you,” he grumbled.

Indeed, by the dim light of the not-yet-risen sun, Mr. Shapleigh could be seen taking his final curtain call, sticking up spats-first and ramrod-straight among the cattails. A pair of swans lurked nearby, a white and a black one, each totally equipped by evolution to radiate nonpasteurized malevolence. Miss Gloaming studied the scene, as inscrutable as her severe and sensible hair bun.

“Well?” barked Mr. Hardthwicke at last. “Who killed him?”

She turned to him, still holding her taper. Her skirts rustled. “You know that’s not our job, Mr. Hardthwicke. We will require some rope to pull him out, though. The mud is very greedy on this side of the pond.”

After much heaving, Mr. Shapleigh eventually came out of the sludge with a great pop!, like one great final burst of applause, but by then, Miss Gloaming had moved on to other matters and he was carted off stage right.

*

The usual aerial creature, a leathery-winged, whip-tailed beast, screeched at Miss Gloaming as she made her way across the lawn. It was the only time she ever hurried, though none had ever remarked on it in her presence. Her gait resumed its usual smooth pace once she was inside the manor proper, whereupon she made her way to the dining room.

Lady Lordly and Lord Lordly were sitting at opposite ends of the grand table for their first breakfast of several. Lord Lordly had his slippers on the tabletop and was smoking a very long pipe instead of eating; Lady Lordly was picking off individual seeds from a strawberry between her stiletto-sharp fingernails. Miss Chancible, the Cornish welterweight boxing champion, was wearing yet another evening gown, her preferred means of dress no matter what the time of day.

Lady Lordly took one look at Miss Gloaming and violently tossed away the single strawberry seed she held. “Oh, damn!”

Lord Lordly dropped the newspaper he was pretending to read. “Is there another one?”

“Mr. Shapleigh, sir,” she said, and Miss Chancible squeaked, her teacup and saucer rattling in her hands.

Lord Lordly sighed. “Damn! I had a bet on that Squim fiancée.” He leaned solidly on one sailor-thick elbow. “Is word out yet?”

“The guests appear to be largely asleep still.” As she said this, she glanced at Miss Chancible, who squeaked again, with a very distinctive O! sound.

“It’s not a threat, dear,” Lady Lordly said acidly. She flicked aside another strawberry seed.

Lord Lordly made a musing face somewhere beneath his beard. “How long since the last one? What, April?”

“Not long enough.” Lady Lordly primly lifted her chin. “Miss Gloaming, I leave it in your capable hands.”

She bowed just enough. “Very good, marm.”

“O, Edward!” Miss Chancible cried, tears already dripping into her house blend black, two lumps of sugar. “He was so looking forward to his triumphant return to Boston!”

Miss Gloaming left Miss Chancible to cry into her own beaded elbow. She made her way directly to the garage, whereupon the on-duty driver took one look at her, heaved a put-upon sigh and began rendering all the guests’ vehicles mechanically immobile, until such a time as an investigation by the officials could be undertaken.

*

The instant Miss Gloaming unplugged the manor switchboard, Mrs. Barksdale appeared in the doorway as if summoned.

“Am I to understand there’s been another murder in the house?” she boomed. “Why am I just now finding out about this?”

“Respectfully, Mrs. Barksdale, you have your duties, and I have mine.” Miss Gloaming slipped the proper connecting plug into her pocket, where it would disappear until she and only she decided it could be returned.

“I’m the head housekeeper!” The keys at her hip rattled threateningly. “If one of my girls goes in to clean a study and finds a dead American all posed there without warning, it’s you I’m sending them to for comfort!”

“Mr. Shapleigh has been arranged in the chapel,” said Miss Gloaming. “No one will have reason to find him for several hours.”

Mrs. Barksdale crossed her arms. “And who’s it to be, then?” Miss Gloaming canted her head ever so slightly. Mrs. Barksdale gesticulated. “Who’s it getting pinned on?”

Miss Gloaming folded her hands at her waist. “I have a number of contingencies.”

Mrs. Barksdale’s expression did not budge, but she did step slightly away from the doorframe she filled to allow Miss Gloaming past. “As long as it’s not the orangerie again. We lost the landscaper and the young groomsman he was soft on. It’s very hard to get good help these days.”

Miss Gloaming, who had been stolen from her previous employer after an impressive showing at an Oxfordshire charity dinner, replied, “I have every respect for that.”

Mrs. Barksdale scoffed. As Miss Gloaming made her way along the hall, the head housekeeper said, “The chapel, eh?”

Miss Gloaming paused and half-turned. “Americans are very religious,” she said. “Sinners in the hands of an angry god.”

“Very clever, Miss Gloaming. I hope you didn’t get silt all over the floors dragging him in.”

“Not at all,” she said, mildly offended. “I have just as much professional pride as you, marm.”

*

Last night’s guests were thoroughly roused and milling about in the sitting room by the time Miss Gloaming returned indoors. Rather a lot of them had stayed over, though Everly Squim and his cousins had stolen a judge’s car, driven in circles over the lawn and fallen asleep at the gate, certain they had arrived home at Unthank Fosters. The five of them blinked suspiciously from under the least démodé wool blankets at hand; everyone else was smartly attired and keeping their cards close.

“Good morning,” said Miss Gloaming. She never raised her voice, knowing full well that speaking softly was a much better path to undivided attention. The manor guests eyed her, an unruffled collection of fur stoles and feathered hats and ornamental canes masquerading as an amateur pilot here, a mountain-climber there, a rich, wine-sipping widow idling near the back. “Mr. Shapleigh was found dead on the premises this morning,” she said. “Did anyone see him after croquet?”

Miss Chancible sniffled into a handkerchief embroidered with a sprig of flowering wormwood, but otherwise remained silent.

The guests too seemed to have accepted the probability of waking up to a body at the manor as the same sort of reasonable risk that accompanies any party of the right set, much like waking up to a headache and a prairie oyster. Lord Lordly passed his mid-morning pipe, nearly saxophone-sized, back and forth with Lady Lordly, unperturbed.

“Very well,” said Miss Gloaming. “Lunch will be served in the great room at 12 sharp.”

Lord Lordly leaned against his wife’s shoulder. “How long have we got before the Yard shows up, d’you think?”

Lady Lordly had no chance to respond. The aerial creature screeched and thrashed outside the window, just as a moody flash of lightning lit up the garden. Everyone jumped, not just Miss Gloaming, but she recovered quickly. She made her way to the fireplace and took up the narrow shovel hanging beside it. No one doubted or questioned her intentions as she glided away, and soon they began to pretend again that nothing had disturbed them at all.

Miss Gloaming, for her part, stalked through the topiary maze in the drizzle. For a moment, she thought perhaps she’d lost her bearings, but it was only because the headstone where she usually turned left seemed to have crumbled during the night. She paused by the pile of limestone, the carvings eroded enough that she wondered if its buyer had intended the metaphor about mutability or simply hadn’t known any better. Miss Gloaming listened for a second, more reliable means of orienting herself.

Yes, there it was: a soft and self-pitying moaning in the southeast. The lady in diaphanous blue was trespassing, of course, but she was remarkably persistent about staking out her swooning ledge. Miss Gloaming made a note to herself to have Edgewise fetch her down, once she’d finished. She couldn’t begrudge the woman her rituals — she was a nice girl, good at craps, and had rather opened up to Miss Gloaming in her seven years weeping and losing handkerchiefs about the grounds. Perhaps this time, she’d think to untie her ankles herself when she was finished, rather than wait to be carted away in the cranky cook’s assistant’s arms.

The aerial creature was nowhere to be found, and Miss Gloaming’s shovel went undented and unused.

*

The guests diverted themselves well enough in the in-between. Eglantine Whitcombe-Squim played four sets of shuttlecock with Professor Nicolescu while discussing his research on contemporary boanthropy. The Hon. Lambeth Rackham led a scavenger hunt within the confines of the library, during which participants, quite by accident, developed an entirely new branch of freemasonry. Amaltheia Trent and Miss Chancible vanished to comfort each other; several hours passed, but they at least had witnesses and alibis. Meanwhile, Miss Gloaming busied herself with every good servant’s work, which was tidying up.

She spotted the police car at the head of the long front drive in time to meet the detectives at the door. The Yard had sent Kemp, same as last time. He shook himself and his trench coat like a dog coming in from the rain. Miss Gloaming’s mouth thinned.

“Evening, miss,” he said, smirking beneath his mustache and lifting his hat. “I understand there’s been some trouble at the house.”

“It’s just terrible,” she replied, her own signature alloy of gravity and dryness, and gestured. “Please come in.”

He produced a pen and notepad from an interior pocket and dabbed the tip of the pen on his tongue, his eyes alight. A beam of light briefly blinded Miss Gloaming; she squinted away as the three identical detectives crept in behind Kemp, sweeping torches over every surface in sight. “Lads, lads,” said Kemp genially, and his detectives, silent and synchronized, followed him into the sitting room, where Lord and Lady Lordly were demonstrating smoking pipes of increasingly ungainly and impressive scope for their assembled guests.

Miss Gloaming watched them go, then took off her own way. As she passed the stairwell to the observatory, her ears pricked. There, echoing down the spiral staircase — a familiar, hair-raising screech.

She dashed up the stairs, pausing only to take up a cricket bat left propped up on a landing. She burst into the telescope room, weapon at the ready, only to find Miss Chancible there, perched on the observational stool, scratching the aerial creature beneath its chin.

Both women startled. The aerial creature’s wings shot out, and it screamed at her, seemingly doubled in size.

“What are you doing here?” Miss Gloaming panted.

“I heard something banging around,” Miss Chancible replied, hastily stroking the aerial creature’s neck. “It was this poor dear. I think it got trapped, through the skylight.” She eyed the cricket bat. “What is that for?”

Composing herself, Miss Gloaming lowered the bat. “I thought to take care of this pest,” she said. “It’s a great bother around the house.”

“You can’t kill it!” she cried, and clutched the aerial creature closer. It snuggled against her, though its tail still lashed to and fro.

Miss Gloaming paused, then set the cricket bat aside. “A detective is here,” she said. “To inquire about Mr. Shapleigh’s murder.”

Miss Chancible squared her jaw. “Does the detective know you’ve scrubbed the whole scene and interfered with the truth of the matter? I know someone found him in the pond, but he wasn’t there when I checked.”

The aerial creature flicked its tongue smugly. Miss Gloaming tilted her head.

“No one in this household has said anything about discovering Mr. Shapleigh in the pond,” she said slowly, “and given the rain all day, I’m not sure even a professional would discover any definitive tracks if they were to look there. However, they will certainly find mud in his lungs if they check.”

Miss Chancible’s face drained. “Now look here—”

“You are a lady of society, Miss Chancible,” Miss Gloaming said, her calm restored. “Surely this isn’t your first murder?”

“I’m a boxer!” she squeaked. “I haven’t killed anybody!” She held the aerial creature close to her, like a shield; it spread its wings slowly, keeping its eyes directly on Miss Gloaming’s. “How do you know about all this stuff anyway?” she asked, starting to panic.

“How do you think, marm?” said Miss Gloaming, who'd come to the manor with impeccable credentials. She gestured toward the door. “Let’s not keep the Yard waiting.”

Miss Chancible bit her lip. “Surely a little wait won’t hurt.”

Miss Gloaming raised one eyebrow. The aerial creature hissed, then scrambled onto Miss Chancible’s shoulder. Miss Gloaming shut the door behind her.

*

The three detectives were of one mind, given the evidence. Miss Gloaming lingered by the window long enough to watch them cart off the known occultist Judge Rackham, while Kemp monologued about the perversion of the justice system to Miss Chancible, who dabbed her eyes with her wormwood handkerchief.

Miss Gloaming slipped away from the vestibule. She glided past the library, through the kitchen and out over the great lawn, where Edgewise was already setting up for croquet. He met her eye and shook his head, his hands full of wickets. Only the wind moaned as she passed.

The groundskeeper’s lodge sat at the edge of Lordly Copse. Miss Gloaming heard the shrieking inside it even before she knocked.

“Blast and damn, yes, yes!” bellowed Mr. Hardthwicke, who glowered more sanguinely when he recognized his guest.

“Is this a bad time?” she asked, peering into the dimness behind him.

“This beast you’ve given me is a bloody handful,” he growled. The aerial creature split the air with a scream; Miss Gloaming could hear it raging against the wooden crate she and Miss Chancible had delivered it in.

“But you’ll have no trouble with it,” she said calmly.

Mr. Hardthwicke rubbed his temples with one gargantuan hand. “No more than the headache. How d’you want it mounted?”

“Rampant,” she said. “Whatever makes it most lifelike, in your view.”

He exhaled with a rumble. “Right.” He jerked his head behind him. “Cup of tea? I’ve got some whisky that’s nearly all peat that needs drinking.”

“You’re very gracious,” she said. “But I’m afraid I ought to retire for the evening. Thank you, though.”

Indeed, when Miss Gloaming at last sat at her writing desk again, taper lit and letter to her Yorkshire cousin complete, her eye fell on the empty patch of wall above the foot of her bed, and as a concession to her professional pride, she smiled.