“Cook, where are the children?” I asked as I placed sliced fruit on a tray.
The morning sun streamed through the kitchen windows, warming the room even further despite the fall chill in the air.
“Eh?” Came Cook’s muffled response. She backed out of the pantry, her arms laden with various ingredients.
“The children,” I repeated. “Where are they? Don’t they go outside to play?”
She grunted as she deposited her loot on the counter then wiped her face with a corner of her apron. “They’re around. You will only see them if they want you to. The meeting with Madam must have gone well?”
“Yes, I think so. She told Esther to schedule a meeting with Sir Cromwell.”
“Good, I knew you’d be a fit!”
I hesitated a moment before asking, “What does that mean, exactly?”
Cook turned to me, an incredulous look on her round face. “Mean? Why, girl, it means you can be a permanent employee like me or Joe there.” She gestured toward the gardens. “What did you think it meant?”
I shrugged and attempted a laugh. “I don’t know. I thought it meant I would start working upstairs.”
“Ah, no, girl. Only Beth and Esther work upstairs. But when the Cromwells host their parties, Esther hires temporary help to set up, serve, and clean. Those people are only here for a week or so. You and me, though, and the rest of the staff here now, get to live here and have security in our jobs. Here, add this to that platter.” Cook handed me a jar of olives.
“If you want to see the children, the best way is to be around the flowers and gardens,” Cook continued. “They like to hide in them.”
“I need to water the downstairs plants again today. Maybe they will come visit?” I was hopeful. There was no evidence of the mysterious children, and I wanted to see them for myself.
“Is that tray ready yet?” Beth asked as she walked into the kitchen. “Madam is becoming a bit peevish.” Wisps of curly blond hair escaped her bun, and she brushed them out of her eyes irritably.
“Yes, just finished.” I handed her the tray of fruit, cheese, and olives.
“Esther said for you to do the plants then see if Joe needs any help in the garden. Fall means harvest season, which means we all take a turn,” Beth said.
Oh, that’s perfect! More time in the garden means more chance of seeing the children, I thought.
“Go on, girl. I can handle things here.” Cook waved me off.
I gathered the watering can, a soft cloth, and the bottle of homemade plant food, then headed down the servants’ hall to the entryway. I didn’t mind the kitchen work or dusting the furniture and mopping the floors, but my favorite task was to care for the plants. I always loved growing things and found the garden and houseplants in the Cromwell House to be well-cared for and healthy. They were easy to maintain.
“Hello, my beauties,” I greeted the lilies by the front door. “Let’s shine your leaves up today, shall we?” I spoke to them the way I always did and hoped they would talk back again. I had questions.
I took the cloth and gently wiped the leaves, even though there wasn’t a spec of dust on them. “There, how does that feel?”
“How do you feel?” The soft voices of the lilies responded.
A little thrill went through me. They were talking to me again! “I’m okay, I think. Is there something I should know?”
“It is harvest season. Everyone should be watchful. Do not go outside or upstairs alone.”
“I’m not allowed upstairs without an invitation,” I replied. “But I am supposed to help in the garden today.”
“Joe is nice. He might help you.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
“Shh! Beth is coming!” The lilies seemed to sway gently.
“Oh, there you are. Are you almost finished? The plants in the dining room need attention, and Joe asked who was helping today. The green beans are extremely happy this year! There’s so many.” Beth wasn’t chatty around other staff, but as we shared a room, we’ve slowly gotten to know each other. She was a kind girl, prone to dramatic sighs over romantic novels, and loved to gossip. So far, though, the gossip was mostly from town instead of what I was most interested in.
“Beth, you just saw me in the kitchen and knew I was coming here. Did you forget?” I poured some water in each planter as I spoke.
“No, but I wanted to talk to you without Cook.” Beth looked at the lilies. “And away from other prying ears. Come on, I need to dust the mantle in the dining room.”
I followed Beth through the servant corridor and into the dining room. Here, the door from the hidden hallway opened behind a large portrait of Madam and Sir Cromwell. Hoyas, Spider Plants, and Pothos were in hanging planters by the glass double doors that led to the patio and on wooden stands next to the entryway from the drawing room. I noticed there weren’t any flowers.
As I moved to dust the leaves and give the plants a little of the food, Beth wiped the mantle, but she seemed distracted.
“Well?” I asked after a few minutes.
Beth started, then gave a nervous laugh. “I don’t know where to begin.”
“Tell me, Beth. What is it?”
She sighed then turned to face me. “It’s the harvest. The Cromwells always throw a party, and every time someone from the temporary staff ends up missing afterward.”
“What? Do you think the Cromwells are doing something to them?” I was shocked and a bit relieved. Maybe I wouldn’t be part of the harvest after all. A twinge of guilt made me frown. I knew I shouldn’t be glad someone else would be hurt instead of me, but I couldn’t help it.
“I know they are. We all know they are. The temps are almost always loners or on the outs with their families. Some of them are even runaways or people passing through, looking to make a few bucks before moving on. It’s not hard to make their disappearance look like a coincidence.”
“How long has this been going on? Can we stop them?”
“I’ve been here for three years, and Joe told me it happened before that. I was hoping you could help us stop it.”
“Beth… What do the Cromwells do with the people they take?” I wasn’t sure I wanted to know, but I had to ask. The lilies weren’t very informative on the replenishment process.
“That plant food?” Beth gestured to the jar in my hand. “The tofu-like cubes Cook uses instead of meat? That’s what they do with them.”
I stared at the dark liquid in the jar. Bile rose in my throat, and I rushed to the glass doors and outside. Beth rubbed my back as I lost my breakfast in the grass.
“I had the same reaction when I found out. I don’t think Joe will help us, but Cook might. And Esther certainly won’t.”
“Wait, are you sure Joe won’t help us?” I crouched in the lawn, waiting for the nausea to pass.
“Yes, why?” Beth asked.
“The lilies said…” I began.
Beth grabbed my arm. “The lilies lie! Emma, you can’t listen to them! Anyway, we have to be sure that all the temps have family or friends who know where they are.”
I heaved a deep breath as I straightened. “So that’s why Madam asked me about my family.”
“Yes, it’s good you see your friend fairly often.” Beth gave me a sympathetic pat on the arm before turning back to the house. “Come on, we still have work to do. But if you can talk to Cook, feel her out a bit and see where she stands, that would be great. I don’t have many chances to talk to her.”
I thought of my friend Lori and all of her connections. She was great at networking and seemed to do it without thinking. As such, she knew a lot of people. “I think I know someone else who can help,” I said.