Murder At Muirfield – Episode 23

MY bones were stiff by the time we reached the market town. I struggled down from the wagon and helped Mrs Smith down, too.
She made an arrangement with the driver for when she wanted picked up. He touched his forehead politely and went off. We were left, rather awkwardly, together in the town square.
It was a large, bustling town. The square and the streets leading off it were cobbled and lined with shops. Many had brightly coloured awnings. There were horses and a couple of carriages moving on the streets. Mostly there were people walking and shopping. Street vendors shouted their wares.
“I hope you enjoy visiting your aunt,” Mrs Smith said kindly.
I’d forgotten my imaginary aunt.
“Thank you, yes, I will. I hope you enjoy your afternoon, too.”
A sudden crease of her brows suggested otherwise. Then she straightened her back, stamped her umbrella on the ground and made ready to go.
“We can meet here for the driver, Hannah. Don’t be late.”
I let her go and pretended to head in the other direction. From a corner of the street, I watched. She walked quickly and deliberately. She had a destination in mind; she wasn’t simply wandering around the shops. I’d have to move smartly or I’d lose her.
I wasn’t used to playing detective. I tried to imagine Mr Sankey doing this and laughed. He’d be hard pressed to hide his bulky body while following someone.
Could I do any better? It wasn’t easy. If Mrs Smith glanced back, she’d see me. My main worry was that she’d use more transport. How, then, would I follow?
My fears turned out to be groundless. She kept walking.
I ducked into shadows and waited by shop windows as necessary. But she didn’t turn around. She marched with purpose out to the edge of the town. Now there were fields. Where was she going?
It was much harder to stay out of sight along the country lanes. Luckily the hedgerows were high and thick. But at this time of year there were few leaves left, so I kept a good distance between us.
Around a gentle curve there appeared a large, square building. High walls surrounded it and I could only make out its upper storey and roof. But I knew what it was.
I waited behind the trunk of a tree. Mrs Smith now glanced back, but I was hidden from her sight.
The tall gates opened slightly and she was admitted. The gates shut behind her.
I stood there, thinking. At least part of the mystery was explained. Mrs Smith was visiting someone in prison.
Although she’d told Mrs Pearson she had no family, there was the possibility she’d lied. After all, it was doubtful the Dawtons would want to employ as housekeeper a woman who had a relative in prison.
What if Ellen had followed her? The more I considered that, the more I was convinced I was right.
The mystery of where Mrs Smith went on her days off would have been a lure to a girl like Ellen who had to know everything. Maybe she’d hidden behind this very tree, watching, just as I did.
The difference was, I’d never say or do anything to harm Mrs Smith. But what had Ellen done? Had she used this information against the housekeeper? I rather thought so. In which case, what might Mrs Smith have done to shut Ellen up?
I shivered in the freezing air, but it wasn’t the temperature that made the goose bumps rise on my skin. I was afraid. I wished I’d never followed her. What on earth was I playing at?
I pushed against the tree and stepped back. I stifled a scream.
A person loomed at me.

* * * *

Who are you?” I cried.
“I could ask the same thing.” The old woman gave a gap-toothed grin. She wore a dirty bonnet with greasy ribbons dangling under her chin. Her shawl was holey and her skirts an indecisive colour. She smelled of age and sourness.
“Excuse me,” I muttered, trying to pass, but she blocked my way.
“Not so fast, dear. Maybe I can help you.” “I don’t think so. I don’t need any help. Let me past, please.”
She leaned towards me and I caught a whiff of her breath. “Who you watching?”
“No-one,” I lied.
She tapped the side of her nose with a grimy finger.
“Secrets aplenty in this part of town. I’m always hungry. Have you a coin or two to spare an old lady?”
Instinctively, my fingers flew to my pocket and my money. Her rheumy eyes followed the movement. Her smile was horrid.
“It’s like this,” she said, sidling closer while I held my breath against the stink. “I know the folks what come around here. You want to know who that woman is? I’ll tell you. For a price.”
“I know who that woman is.” I held my hand to my mouth, trying not to breath in.
She cackled like an old witch.
“If you know that, then you know who she’s visiting. My brother works in there. Knows the inmates. Knows their little ways. Who gets visitors and who don’t. But that don’t interest you.”
She moved away and waited.
“You say your brother works in the prison?” I had to be certain. I didn’t have money to throw away on useless tattle.
She nodded.
“He knows all that goes on in there. If he don’t know it, it ain’t worth knowing. And he tells me it all. He likes a good gossip, does Jimmy.”
I pulled out some coins. She grabbed for them greedily. I held them aloft. “Who does she visit?” I asked.
“It’s her brother. He’s in there for stealing and hitting a copper over the head. Won’t get out any time soon, either.”

Tracey Steel

Having worked on a number of magazines over the years, Tracey has found her perfect place on The Friend as she’s obsessed with reading and never goes anywhere without a book! She reads all the PF stories with a mug of tea close by and usually a bit of strong cheese too!