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Undercover Ladies: Book three
By Margaret Brownley
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2016 Margaret Brownley
All rights reserved.
Katie Madison tied the black satin ribbon at her neckline and frowned. The lopsided bow wouldn't do. She yanked the ribbon loose and tried again. Today she was all thumbs, and everything that could go wrong, did. Already she'd broken a shoelace, snagged a stocking, and torn the hem of her dress.
Just as she finished tying the bow for the third time the bedroom door flew open and her roommate's brunette head popped inside. "Katie! Hurry or you'll be late."
"I'm trying, I'm trying."
Mary-Lou's green eyes narrowed, and her Southern drawl grew more pronounced. "Pickens has a burr in his saddle. Said if you don't hurry he'll have your head!"
Katie's stomach knotted. She was already in trouble with the restaurant manager. "I'll be there in a minute."
"A minute might be too late." The door slammed shut, and Mary-Lou's footsteps echoed down the hall as she yelled for the other Harvey girls to make haste. "Y'all better hurry now, you hear?"
Katie whirled about for one last look in the mirror and hardly recognized the image reflected back. The black dress with its high collar, starched white apron, and black shoes and stockings made her look more like a nun than one of Pinkerton's most successful female detectives.
Even her unruly red hair had been forced to conform to Fred Harvey's strict regulations. Parted in the middle, it was pulled back in a knot and fashioned with the mandatory net. The rigid hairdo did nothing for her, appearance-wise. All it did was make her eyes look too big and her freckles stand out like brown polka dots.
Wrinkling her nose, she turned away from the mirror. It was a good thing she'd chosen to be a detective as she had neither the looks nor housekeeping skills needed for landing a husband.
Not that she was complaining; two Harvey girls had been found dead, and it was her job to find the killer. The assignment of a lifetime had landed in her lap.
Working undercover was never easy, but so far this particular disguise was proving to be the hardest one yet, even harder than last year's job as a circus performer. At least here she didn't have to hobnob with lions, and for that she was grateful. All she had to deal with now was a possibly deranged killer.
Pausing at the door, she checked that her leg holster and gun were secured beneath her skirt. The pocket seams had been ripped open for easy retrieval. Hand on the doorknob, she braced herself with a quick prayer. God knows, she needed all the help she could get.
Leaving the room, she raced along the hall and sped down the stairs. Just as she reached the bottom tread the heel of her shoe caught on the runner. Arms and legs flailing, she hit the floor facedown, and the wind whooshed out of her like juice from a squashed tomato.
Momentarily stunned, she didn't move. Not till noticing the polished black shoes planted in front of her did she gather her wits. Looking up, she groaned.
The manager, Mr. Pickens, glared down at her, hands on his waist. A large, imposing man, he looked about to pop the buttons on his overworked vest. Judging by his red face and quivering mustache, his patience was equally tested.
"Miss Madison. You're late!"
Her mouth fell open. Was that all he cared about? No concern for her welfare? No thought that she had injured herself?
"Well, are you going to lie there all night?"
"No, sir." She scrambled to her feet and smoothed her apron.
His eyebrows dipped into a V. "Shoulders straight, head back, and for the love of Henry, smile! I want to see some choppers." He spread his thin lips to demonstrate but did a better impersonation of a growling dog than a friendly waitress. "Do you hear me?"
"Yes, sir," she said. "Choppers."
"Tonight you're the drink girl. Do you think you can handle that?"
Plastering a smile on her face, she nodded. How hard could it be to pour tea?
He gave her a dubious look that did nothing for her self-confidence. "We'll soon see. Follow me."
He led her to the formal dining room where tables were already set for the supper crowd. The room was decorated in shades of brown and tan. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked the railroad tracks. Beyond, fields of tall grass and wildflowers spread a colorful counterpane beneath a copper sky.
The restaurant was shorthanded, and she had been handed a uniform the moment she stepped off the morning train. After that she'd hardly had time to catch her breath. So many rules and regulations to remember. No notepads or pencils were allowed. That meant she was expected to memorize the menu. She was also instructed to radiate good cheer to even the most difficult of patrons.
Her chances of lasting through the night didn't look promising, and that was a worry. The investigation depended on her keeping her job as a waitress. No one at the restaurant knew her legal name or real purpose for being there. As far as anyone knew, she was simply a farm girl who traveled all the way from Madison, Wisconsin, looking for adventure and a better life.
Pickens quickly pointed out the silver coffee urns and teapots. He stared at her with buttonhole eyes. "You do know the cup code, right?"
"Uh." There was a code for cups?
"Cup in the saucer means coffee." He demonstrated as he spoke. "A flipped cup against the saucer is for iced tea. A cup next to the saucer — milk. Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir, next to the saucer."
"As for hot tea," he continued, and her heart sank. "The cup will be flipped upon the saucer." He then explained how to tell if the customer wanted black, green, or orange pekoe tea by the direction of the cup handle. "Any questions?"
She had plenty, but he didn't look in any mood to answer them, so she shook her head no.
Satisfied that she had donned the proper attitude or at least a Harvey-worthy smile, he turned. Giving three quick claps, he called the workers front and center. "All right, ladies, take your stations!"
"Don't be nervous," her roommate, Mary-Lou, said as they strode side by side to the back of the room.
Easier said than done. Katie stopped to stare at the cups on the table. She'd come face-to-face with some of the most ornery outlaws in the country, and she wasn't about to let a china cup intimidate her. On second thought, maybe just a little. Did the cup handle facing right mean green tea or pekoe?
Already her cheeks ached from smiling, but that was the least of it. Her collar itched, and the stiff starched apron felt like a plate of armor.
As if to guess her rising dismay, Mary-Lou said, "You'll like it here once you get used to it. You just have to work fast, be polite, and smile."
"Nothing to it," Katie muttered. She only hoped she had enough energy left at the end of the workday for sleuthing.
A loud gong announced the imminent arrival of the five-twenty-five. Windows rattled, and the crystals on the chandelier did a crazy dance as the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe train rumbled into the station. With a blare of the whistle, it came to a clanging stop in front of the restaurant.
Moments later, the door flew open and travelers filed into the dining room like a trail of weary ants. Only thirty minutes was allowed for meals before the train took off again. The Harvey House restaurants took pride in the fact that no one had ever been late boarding a train because of inept service.
Katie planted a smile on her face and a prayer in her heart. God, please don't let me be the one to break that record.CHAPTER 2
Sheriff Branch Whitman looked up just as the door to his office flew open. A cultured but no less commanding voice shot inside.
"Sheriff! I need a word with you!"
Branch lifted his feet off the desk and planted his well-worn boots squarely on the floor. He recognized his fastidiously dressed visitor at once, though they'd never been formally introduced.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Harvey?"
The renowned restaurateur stabbed the floor with his gold-tipped cane. He was somewhere in his midthirties, but his meticulous dark suit and Vandyke beard made him appear older.
"You dare to ask a question like that!" Harvey pushed the door shut and gazed at Branch with sharp, watchful eyes. "You know as well as I that someone is killing off Harvey girls." His British accent grew more pronounced with each word. Even his bow tie seemed to quiver with emotion. "And what, may I ask, are you doing about it?"
Branch slanted his head toward the chair in front of his desk. "Have a seat and —"
"I don't want a seat. I want to know what has been done to find the killer!"
Branch indicated the stack of files in front of him with a wave of his hand. "I can assure you that I'm doing everything in my power —"
Harvey's impatience was no worse than Branch's own. The killings had turned into one of the most puzzling crimes he'd ever worked on. Despite weeks of investigation, he still didn't have a single suspect. Given the nature of the town, that was odd.
If a youth took a fancy to a pretty girl, or a married man so much as thought about straying, the locals knew about it. Somehow folks even knew that a young one was on the way before the expectant mother. Yet two young women had been murdered, and no one saw or heard a thing.
"I can assure you," he said, "that the person or persons responsible will be brought to justice."
Before Branch took over as sheriff three years ago, Calico was, by all accounts, the roughest, toughest, and wildest place in all of Kansas, rivaled only by Dodge City. But he'd single-handedly changed all that, and it was now a right decent town — or was before the two recent murders.
Harvey's eyes glittered. "It's been six weeks since Priscilla's death." Priscilla was the first woman to die. Less than three weeks later, the girl named Ginger was found dead in an alleyway.
"These things take time."
Harvey straightened a WANTED poster on the wall with the tip of his cane. The man was as fastidious with his surroundings as he was in dress and speech. No doubt he took issue with the stack of folders and papers strewn haphazardly across Branch's desk.
"Too much time if you ask me. So what have you got so far?"
"Right now, nothing." Branch's jaw clenched. He suspected the killer was a Harvey employee, but he wasn't ready to reveal that information. Not yet. He couldn't take the chance of word getting out that the crime was an inside job.
"This is no less than what I expected from local authorities." Harvey leaned on his cane, and his eyes hardened. "That's why I hired the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Your services will no longer be needed."
Branch glared at him. Services? Harvey acted like he was firing one of his employees. "What happens in this town is my responsibility, and any outsiders —"
"Will report to me!" Harvey snapped his mouth shut and leaned over his cane as if to challenge Branch to disagree.
"Now wait just a minute."
Harvey's expression darkened. "No, you wait. We've wasted enough time and now a second girl is dead."
"And I will find her killer — both their killers." He didn't know Priscilla all that well, but Ginger was his favorite waitress. She'd often brought his evening meal to the office if she knew he was working late. Since he refused to adhere to Harvey's unreasonable regulations — particularly the no coat, no service rule in the main dining room — she did him no small favor.
"I'll have something to report to you soon." He sounded more certain than he felt. Each day that passed made finding the killer that much more difficult. Trails grew cold. Clues were lost. Memories faded. Even more worrisome was the possibility that the killer would strike again.
"Not soon enough." Harvey swung his cane under one arm and pulled his watch out of his vest pocket. "I'm sure the detective has arrived by now. If not on the morning or noon train, then on the five-twenty-five." He flipped the case open with his thumb. "I trust you'll give him your full cooperation."
Branch stiffened. Over his dead body. "Now see here —" The last thing he needed was some inept detective running loose in his town. Last time the Pinkerton operatives were involved in one of his cases they let the bad guys escape and almost got him killed. And look at the mess they made with the James gang. They could deny it all they wanted, but everyone knew the Pinkertons blew up the outlaws' house, killing Frank and Jesse's young half brother. No surprise there. The Pinkertons were known for their bullying tactics and underhanded methods, none of which Branch would tolerate.
Harvey replaced his watch and tipped his bowler. "Have a good day, Sheriff." He left with less fanfare than when he arrived.
Branch pounded his fist on the desk. "Dash it all!" The town was his responsibility — no one else's. The very thought of an undercover detective sneaking around like a mole in the ground set his teeth on edge.
Came in on today's train, did he? If the Pink was like most other passengers, he'd appreciate a good meal. Was probably at the Harvey House restaurant chowing down at that very moment. That was as good a place as any to intercept him. He pulled out his watch. He'd have to hurry if he wanted to reach the restaurant before the train left the station.
Decision made, he shot to his feet and plucked his Stetson off the wall.
One thing was certain. The man better enjoy his meal because if Branch had his way, the detective would be back on that train before he could say cock robin.CHAPTER 3
The woman glared at Katie. "You gave my son hot coffee!" The notch on her front tooth pegged her as a seamstress who bit off thread rather than cutting it with scissors.
Katie looked down at the pudgy face of a two-year-old and whisked his cup away. "Oops, sorry."
"I ordered iced tea," the man Katie pegged as a banjo player groused. She guessed his profession based on the callus on the side of his right thumb. "You gave me hot tea."
"Milk? You gave me milk?" This from a gray-haired woman who stared at her cup with the same look of horror one might regard a rattler. Hands and neck dripping with jewels, she acted like a rich widow used to having servants answer her every whim.
By the time Katie straightened out the drinks, she was ready to call it a night, though none of the other girls seemed so inclined. Instead they darted around tables like lively balls in a game of bagatelle.
To outward appearances the smooth flow of dishes, which came and went with nary a spoken word, seemed like magic. In actuality, it was all part of a carefully orchestrated plan.
The train porter had taken travelers' food orders at the last stop and telegraphed the restaurant. This allowed cooks to prepare meals in advance. Supper was seventy-five cents and after each passenger paid, he or she was directed to the table where soup or salad waited.
While the diners worked on the first course, Katie followed Mary-Lou into the kitchen to refill her coffeepot.
Praying that the night would soon end, she spread her mouth in what she hoped would pass as a smile. A Harvey girl must never look dowdy, frowzy, or tired, even if her feet were killing her or her thoughts less than charitable.
On the way back to the dining room she bumped into the dark-haired waitress named Tully. "Why you ..." Tully snapped her mouth shut and threw her shoulders back in an attempt to regain a positive, upbeat appearance. She might have succeeded had it not been for the Long Island (Rhode Island?) hen on her tray drowning in coffee.
"You'll pay for this," she muttered under her breath. With a smile that was more lethal than friendly, she did a dainty pirouette and returned the drowning hen to the kitchen.
Katie stiffened at the sound of her name. She turned and found Mr. Pickens practically breathing down her throat.
"Miss Madison! A word with you. Now!"
* * *
After Pickens finished chastising her for working too slow, Katie straightened out the beverage mess and returned an empty teapot to the counter in back of the room.
The ten-minute warning for boarding the train had sounded, but time had never passed more slowly. Katie wasn't certain she could hold out for another minute, let alone ten.
Tully whispered something to her roommate. Tully was tall and willowy with skin as smooth as honey. Katie envied the woman's ability to look graceful in the rigid uniform, while she felt awkward and out of place. But then, that was how she'd always felt, even back home.
The shadow of growing up in a family of beautiful women seemed to follow her wherever she went. Her four sisters all took after their mother in looks and had landed successful and well-respected husbands. Katie had the unenviable distinction of being both the black sheep of the family and the ugly duckling.
Tully's voice brought her out of her reverie. "Why not let the new girl do it?"
"Do what?" Katie asked, keeping her tone neutral. Alienating the others would only make her investigation more difficult.
Excerpted from Calico Spy by Margaret Brownley. Copyright © 2016 Margaret Brownley. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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