IT was market day at Chester, a morning of fickle April sunshine and showers. Josh rode along Brook Street with a string of horses to trade. Tomorrow, he would speak with Alice. She might have word of Emma.
Many times he had returned, ever eager for news, only to have his hopes dashed. His trading had taken him to the most lucrative sales in the country; his money-bags were full.
He had more than enough to buy a suitable property but he needed Emma at his side to help choose it.
He rode into the familiar bustle and din of the venue, thinking of Emma as he tethered the horses. Her chaotic charm, the bright brown eyes and tumble of honey-gold hair, her irrepressible eagerness for
life . . . Emma. She had to be here, somewhere!
The day marched on.
At midday, with five of his string sold and one to go, he broke off to buy a pie and a cup of ale from a street vendor by the entrance.
He had finished his meal and was looking around for the ragged boy who earned a penny collecting in the used tin cups and plates for the vendor, when a figure caught his attention.
She saw him at once and hurried over.
“Josh! I’ve been looking for you.”
“Good day, Alice.” Hope leaped in his heart. “You’ve news?”
“Of sorts, yes. Oh, nothing of Emma. At least, not yet.”
Josh listened, his eyes never leaving her face, while she explained how she had encountered Hamilton and made her confession to him.
“I’m not proud of what I did,’’ she said in a voice that for Alice was decidedly humble. “I’m sorry if I misled you into thinking I was acting entirely within Emma’s interest.
“The truth is, Emma and I had a falling out. It was because of the way I was treating Alfie at the time. Emma took me to task over it and, oh, it’s all very involved and silly. Suffice to say I’ve acted abominably.”
Her voice faltered; she lowered her eyes. She went on to tell Josh about the Triggs’ move to enlist the services of a private investigator.
“The man is at Plymouth, but when he returns Hamilton has elected to speak with him on my behalf. Well, he’s only thinking of me.”
Alice’s confession came as no surprise to Josh. His concern was Emma.
“Plymouth? Why there?”
“The investigator – Rudge, Hamilton calls him – sniffed out a clue to her whereabouts there. Josh, Hamilton sends a message. If you should come across any information on Emma, would you please get in touch with them?”
Josh made a sharp gesture of impatience.
“I did! I was turned away, though I daresay there’s been a change of attitude since.”
“Indeed,” Alice said gravely. “Mr Rudge is very skilled. He’d followed Emma’s trail to the Swan, though he didn’t get as much information out of the innkeeper as you.”
“Understandable. Two people turning up asking questions? The man would have been on his guard. Did this Rudge find anything else? Had he checked for human remains after the snow had gone?”
“He did so. There was nothing. Josh, it means she’s still alive!”
“I never doubted it for one moment,” Josh said.
“I know you didn’t.” Alice took a step back. “Well, that’s all I have to say. Let us hope things are resolved soon.”
Josh watched her walk away and thought what a troublemaking little miss she was. How callous was the hand of fate, when the innocent were at the mercy of those people more fortunate than themselves.
“Brookfield, I’m looking for a riding nag. Hast anything that’ll suit?”
Josh came out of his reverie to find a previous customer at his side, a farmer of middle years with lands to the north of the Whitchurch turnpike.
“Good day, sir. Is it a cob you were after? I’ve one here. Eight years old, sound in wind and limb. Want to try him out?”
The deal made, Josh dropped the farmer an enquiry with regard to the bad winter and lost persons.
“Now you mention it, there was talk at the Fox just today. ’Twere a shepherd came across someone. Still breathing, they said, just.”
“Can you tell me more? Was the victim male or female?”
The man shook his head.
“I canna say. ’Twere nobbut passing gossip. Whoever it were sounded in a bad way. Chances are the poor wretch is dead and buried.”
Josh inwardly cursed with frustration. If this was Emma she could still be in the area. In which case it would do no harm to ride out there yet again and see if he could put meat on what he hoped was not purely tavern talk.