Authors: Kim Vogel Sawyer
Gordon came close to chortling. He’d finally managed to ruffle the man’s feathers. “Take your lunch at a different time. Cleaning those tables is more important than filling your stomach.” Folding his arms across his chest, Gordon offered a sardonic smirk. “Unless, of course, you’d rather arrange your own schedule … at some other factory.”
“I’ll get it done.” Moore turned and headed for the janitor closet.
Gordon watched him go, then shifted his gaze to the bustling factory floor. He smiled. None of the workers dawdled at their duties or huddled in groups to gossip. Even the youngest children scurried to and fro, intent on their tasks. A few of them glanced in his direction, as if seeking approval, but he offered none. No one had ever thrown him as much as a breadcrumb when he was a boy. Why should they have more than he’d been given?
Satisfied all was well, he turned toward the wooden stairway leading to his loft office. As much as he liked his office with its observation window looking out over the main work floor, he abhorred climbing those stairs. It was always hot in the factory, thanks to the constantly bubbling vats of chocolate and steam-powered generators, so mounting the stairs—eighteen of them in all—made him sweat. He hated sweating. If he desired exercise,
he’d take a meandering walk through the park at dusk with a lovely girl clinging to his elbow.
Until two weeks ago he’d used the company elevator rather than the stairs. He neared the elevator and veered clear of it without conscious thought. An image filled his mind—Bratcher’s crumpled form at the bottom of the shaft. Gordon shivered even as perspiration broke out across his forehead. The man had been a nuisance, pestering Gordon to change the factory’s entry age for workers from ten years to sixteen. On more than one occasion, Gordon had wished Bratcher would shut up and go away. But he hadn’t wished him dead.
Gordon set aside thoughts of Bratcher. He was dead and gone, his aspirations to change the entry age of workers buried with him. And now there was another undesirable commanding his focus. He’d make a list of unpalatable chores for Ollie Moore to complete, and by the end of the week, surely the arrogant worker would choose to go elsewhere. Gordon was certain Moore wouldn’t be clumsy enough to plunge down an elevator shaft.
Caroline entered the room set aside for the workers to eat their lunches. A pair of trestle tables with benches ran the length of the floor. Chattering women and children crowded around one table, their higher-pitched voices nearly masking the low-toned mumbles of the men, who lounged around the other.
The arrangement would have surprised her had she not been given a list of company rules by Ollie Moore yesterday. “No fraternization between the sexes” held the number two position with “No late arrivals” above it. On her first day she’d already come close to breaking rule number one, and she’d worried all morning about her intention to break rule number two by sharing Ollie’s lunch. But it appeared her concerns were for naught. Ollie wasn’t in the room.
Disappointment at his absence created an ache in her middle. Or perhaps only hunger nibbled at her. She’d munched an apple purchased from a street cart on her way to the factory, but she’d given her little box lunch of crackers, cheese, and tinned sardines to a beggar. She didn’t regret the decision. The ragged man
had accepted the simple food with tears in his wrinkled eyes, stinging her heart. If she hadn’t already taken a bite of the apple, she’d have handed it over, too. Ollie’s offer had seemed a reward for unselfishly sharing with someone in need, but now it appeared she’d go without lunch after all. She supposed it served her right for knowingly going against Mr. Hightower’s rules.
She squared her shoulders. Silly to fuss over a missed meal. She’d gone without hundreds of lunches in her lifetime. She would survive one more. Moving to the table of women, she located a gap and wriggled her way in. Once she sat, she couldn’t help releasing a soft sigh. How wonderful to be off her feet for a few minutes. She ached from her shoulders to her toes from carrying her load of trays back and forth, back and forth. She’d stopped counting at seventy-two trips. Such a chore. She closed her eyes, savoring the moments of relaxation. Noble owed her two weeks of leave for taking on this particular job.
Thoughts of Noble jarred her, reminding her of the reason she was in Dinsmore’s World-Famous Chocolates Factory. She had a mystery to unravel. Sitting upright, she leaned her elbows on the table and flashed a smile at the thin-faced woman seated across from her. “Hello. I’m Carrie. I’m new.”
The woman nodded. The ruffle of her mobcap fluttered. “Thought so. I’m Mildred.” She indicated those seated on her right and left. “This here’s Helena, and this is Stella. We’re all sorters.” A hint of pride entered Mildred’s tone as she stated her position. “Sittin’ over there next to you is Evangeline and Daisy. They’re mixers.”
Caroline’s nostrils filled with the sweet, fruity essence emanating from the two beside her. “You must have been mixing something with raspberry this morning.”
Daisy said, “The filling for raspberry creams.”
Caroline inhaled deeply, drawing in an aroma so rich it flavored her tongue. “It smells delightful.”
“It does ’til you’ve smelled it every day of every week for more than a year.” Daisy crinkled her nose in distaste, but teasing winked in her eyes. “Before I started working here, I welcomed a box of sweets from a fella. These days I prefer hair ribbons or flowers.”
The other women laughed, and Caroline joined them even though a little part of her heart ached. Never in her twenty-seven years had she received any kind of gift from a fellow. Except from Noble, and he didn’t count.
Caroline turned her attention to Daisy. “You’ve worked here an entire year?”
Daisy picked up her sandwich—corned beef on rye bread, if Caroline wasn’t mistaken—and took a bite. “Uh-huh. Hope to stay until me and Robby get married.”
“You’re getting married?” Caroline heard the shock in her voice, but she couldn’t squelch it. The girl looked so young—maybe seventeen. Much too young to be someone’s wife, in Caroline’s opinion.
Stella rolled her eyes and groaned. “Oh, don’t ask her about Robby. We’ll never hear the end of it.”
Daisy giggled. “You’d brag, too, if you had a handsome fella like Robby courting you.” She hunched her shoulders and fluttered her lashes at Caroline. “Robby’s a crater here at Dinsmore’s, but he works nights. Keeps us from frat-truh-nizin’.” She giggled again, and the others snickered behind their hands.
Caroline sent a curious glance across the women’s faces. “What’s funny?”
Mildred removed a pickle from the tin box in front of her. “We shouldn’t laugh at Mr. Hightower’s rules. He is the boss around here, after all. But it’s hard not to, considering.” She turned to look toward the door. Seemingly assured all was safe, she leaned toward Caroline. “He’s the biggest breaker of rule number two. You’ll need to watch yourself, Carrie. You’re real pretty, and you’ve got a nice figure. That man loves to sneak up on the buxom girls and pinch their bottoms. He’s cornered a couple of them and stolen kisses, too.”
Indignation roared through Caroline. “He does no such thing!”
All five women nodded emphatically, their expressions serious. Stella said, “Oh, he does. And nobody can stop him, ’cause if you complain, you lose your job.”
Caroline’s fingers itched to record the women’s statements in the little notebook she carried in her pocket. Noble would be interested in what they’d said. But she’d have to wait until she was alone. She needed these ladies to trust her, and making notes in their presence would surely arouse suspicion. “I’ll be
careful,” she said. “Is there anything else I should know? Any other”—she chose her next word carefully, not wanting to frighten them into silence—“dangers?”
Evangeline said, “What do you mean?”
Feigning nonchalance, Caroline shrugged. “Work-related hazards of which I should be aware.”
Evangeline shook her head. “Nah. The men they handle the most dangerous jobs—stoking the coal, keeping the boilers going, loading the filled crates on flats for the railroad … Our jobs are easy.”
Caroline could have argued about her job being easy. Why didn’t Mr. Hightower give men the task of toting? They seemed better suited to lifting and carrying the heavy trays. And the women hadn’t mentioned the incident involving the elevator. She pondered asking a direct question about Harmon Bratcher’s death but feared sounding too nosy on her first day. A good investigator knew when to push and when to back away. For now she’d back away. At least about Bratcher.
She shifted the focus in a personal direction. “What do the children do?”
Helena wiped a smear of jam from her mouth with a checked napkin and then pushed the stained cloth into the bottom of her empty tin. “Whatever they can. Line up empty chocolate boxes for the sorters, put paper wrappers on trays, scrub down the machinery, sweep under the tables, cart out the trash. There’s always something for them to do.”
Caroline had witnessed children in other factories performing dangerous tasks. She blew out a small breath, relieved the jobs here wouldn’t cause injury even if working did steal their opportunity for education. But injury was possible, because one man had died. She started to ask how long each of the women had worked at the Dinsmore factory, but a shrill whistle sounded. Lunch break was over.
The workers unfolded themselves from the benches and shuffled toward the door, depositing their empty buckets and boxes with a series of clanks and thuds on a table on their way out. Caroline fell in with those leaving while another group filed in. In the middle of the line entering the lunchroom, Ollie lifted his hand and caught Caroline’s attention. He mouthed, “Step aside.”
She hesitated, her feet slowing. The woman behind her bumped into her shoulder, pushing her out of the line.
Ollie leaped to her side and touched her elbow. “Do you still want that sandwich?” His pale eyes, lined with lashes far too thick to belong on such a rugged, handsome face, offered a silent apology.
Her stomach rumbled. She wanted the sandwich. But even more she wanted to know where he’d been. She hadn’t taken him to be the kind to make a promise and then break it. But there wasn’t time for either the sandwich or an explanation. “I have to get busy.” She moved sideways, inching toward her work area.
“I’ll save one for you,” he called after her. “We can meet at shift’s end.”
Oh, the temptation. And not because she wanted the sandwich. Ollie’s attention stirred something to life within her. Had she ever relished the overtures of a man before? If only she weren’t on an assignment … But she wasn’t here to be wooed. Besides, Letta would be waiting to share about her first day at school. Caroline wouldn’t abandon the girl. “I can’t. I have a commitment.”
She turned her back on him and scurried off as if a coyote nipped at her heels. Ollie Moore could easily become a distraction. She’d need to keep her distance. Forcing her tired arms to lift yet another stack of trays, she replayed the disappointment clouding his face as she’d refused his offer. For the remainder of the afternoon, the image danced in her memory, pricking her with regret. As much as she always found her position as an investigator fulfilling, on this day responsibility was a greater burden to bear than the filled trays she carried.
“Thank you again, miss … I mean, Carrie.” Letta’s shy grin split her face.
“I’ll be here tomorrow, just like I promised. You can count on it!”
Caroline watched Letta move up the sidewalk, her steps so light she almost seemed to float. Her one day as a schoolgirl seemed to have carved years from her countenance. At the beginning of their hour together, the girl had confided she felt awkward sitting among the first-year students, all much smaller and younger than she was, but when Caroline asked if she wanted to quit, her eyes had opened wide. “Oh, no, miss!” she’d exclaimed. “School’s a marvelous place! I want to stay until I’ve learned all my head can hold!” She’d then gone on to tell Caroline every detail of her day, from the opening recitation of a prayer to the teacher’s distribution of homework. Letta proudly held out her personal assignment—to write the first twelve letters of the alphabet on paper the teacher had given her and draw a picture representing the sound each letter made. Of course, she’d also requested Caroline’s assistance, and Caroline couldn’t refuse.