Read Night's Child Online

Authors: Maureen Jennings

Night's Child (6 page)

Ben was standing at the door watching him anxiously.

“Come on, lad,” said Murdoch. “Let’s get those pies.”

He put his hand lightly on the boy’s thin shoulder and led him out of the room. He was gratified the boy tolerated his touch.

 

CHAPTER
SIX

F
or the past two months, Murdoch had been shamelessly trying to buy the affections of Mrs. Enid Jones’s son, Alwyn. Every couple of weeks, he brought him a small gift, another lead soldier for his collection, a bag of his favourite toffees, a new board game. Tonight he was going to give him a sled. He thought this would serve two purposes, gain him more good feelings and, secondly, give him a chance to get the boy outside so they could spend some time together. His motives weren’t all self-seeking; he was becoming genuinely much fonder of the boy. He felt more tolerant of Alwyn’s resentment and jealousy and he was careful to include him in conversations between himself and Enid. The boy was definitely thawing, Murdoch thought. It was he who opened the door.

“Please to come in. Mamma’s upstairs.” He eyed the sled, but Enid had instilled him with good manners and he didn’t ask about it.

Murdoch didn’t tantalize him. “This is for you. One of the constables gave it to me. It used to belong to his son, but he’s outgrown it now. I know you wanted one.”

Alwyn crouched down to examine the sled. Murdoch had polished the steel runners and rubbed out some of the scratches on the maple struts. He thought it was almost as good as new, but he knew better than to demand a response from the boy until he was ready.

“How old is the other fellow?” Alwyn asked finally.

“Oh, I don’t know, eight or nine perhaps.”

“I’ll be eight next birthday.”

Murdoch stared down at the boy, trying to determine what he was getting at. Many of Alwyn’s proclamations to him came in some sort of code and he’d learned to be on the alert in order to get the real message.

“Well, I did wonder about that, whether it would be too small, but I thought we could give it a try and see.” In fact, the sled was the perfect size. Alwyn was small for his age and self-conscious about it. “Why don’t we go sledding this Sunday? We can try the riverbanks. They’ll give us a good run, I bet.”

Alwyn shook his head. “Not on Sunday. We’re not allowed to play on the Sabbath.”

Murdoch cursed to himself. Of course he knew that, and Enid’s strict observation of the Sabbath day often irked him. Papists were much more lenient. As long as the faithful went to mass that morning, they could do whatever they liked in the afternoons, especially such wholesome sports as skating and sledding. The priests themselves joined in all the time, tucking their soutanes up into their belts like peasant women.

Enid was coming down the stairs.

“What are you two doing with the door open like that? Do you want to heat the outdoors then?”

Murdoch had been standing on the threshold. “I’ll leave it on the porch,” he said to the boy. “We can decide when to go sledding later on.” He smiled at Enid. “Good evening, Mrs. Jones.”

“And a good evening to you, Mr. Murdoch.”

“He brought me a sled,” said Alwyn.

“And who might ‘he’ be you’re referring to?”

“Beg pardon. I mean, Mr. Murdoch brought me a present.”

“Did you say thank you?”

“Yes.”

In fact, the words hadn’t fallen from his lips, but Murdoch wasn’t about to ruin his chances with the boy by mentioning that now.

Enid caught her son’s hand. “My goodness, Alwyn, you’re as cold as ice. You’ll catch your death. Get on upstairs and warm yourself this minute.”

“Yes, Mamma.” The boy raced up the stairs two at a time. Enid came over to Murdoch.

“Let me take your things.”

He touched his fingers to her neck and she flinched. “You’re freezing too.”

“I’ll be warmer for a kiss.”

She gave him a quick peck on the cheek. He would have liked much more, but he knew she wouldn’t while they were in the hallway where Alwyn might see them. Nevertheless, he put his arms around her and pulled her close to him.

“Is Mrs. Barrett at home, tonight?” he whispered into her hair.

“I’m afraid she is.”

On cue, the door leading to the rear opened and the landlady poked her head through the portieres. Enid moved away immediately and hung Murdoch’s coat on the hall tree. He straightened his necktie unnecessarily.

“Good evening, Mrs. Barrett. How are you keeping tonight?”

“Not well, Mr. Murdoch, not well. This cold weather is terrible hard on us old people.”

He didn’t think she was as old as Mrs. Kitchen, his landlady, but she acted as if she were an octogenarian. According to Enid, Mrs. Barrett had been widowed for more than six years but like Queen Victoria she elected to retain her widow’s weeds. Murdoch had never seen her without the black bonnet and long veil that trailed down her back. Her gown was of dull bombazine.

“Sorry to hear that, ma’am.”

She didn’t acknowledge him further. “I want to retire early tonight, Mrs. Jones. No later than nine o’clock. Will you let me know when Mr. Murdoch leaves so I can be sure the door is bolted behind him.”

“Of course, Mrs. Barrett.”

She sniffed, cast a baleful glance at Murdoch, and backed into her den.

Murdoch followed Enid upstairs to her sitting room. There were several sombre oil paintings hung on the walls, all depicting biblical scenes in which the Jews looked remarkably like modern English gentlemen. They had all been painted by the late Mr. Barrett, a keen amateur artist.

Enid ushered him into a room warm and bright with firelight and lamps. Alwyn was crouched on the rug in front of the fire playing one of his favourite board games, The Prince’s Quest. The object of the game was to rescue the sleeping princess in her bower and Alwyn liked nothing better than to play against Murdoch.

“I just made a fresh pot of tea, Will. Would you care for a cup?”

“There’s only one thing I’d like better.”

He was treading close to the edge by such a remark, but he couldn’t help it. Alwyn piped up.

“What is that, Mr. Murdoch? What would you like better than a cup of tea?”

“Two cups of course.”

The boy laughed and so did Enid, but then she frowned at him in warning. She was right, and Murdoch felt guilty. He didn’t really want the boy to feel on the outside of a secret adult world.

While Enid poured the tea, he went over to the fire. “I was able to get quite a good sled for Alwyn. Maybe we can all go out soon and give it a try?”

“That sounds quite splendid. Do you know I have never been sledding in my life?”

“Ah. I’d be honoured to be the first to show you how.”

He wished everything he said didn’t sound as if it had some sexual connotation.

“It’s easy,” said Alwyn. “I’ve seen the boys at school. You just sit on the sled and go down the hill.”

Murdoch accepted the cup of tea.

Enid beckoned to her son. “Alwyn, come. It’s time to get ready for bed.”

“Mamma, it’s too early.”

Enid answered him in Welsh and Murdoch saw him swallow his protests. “Will you come and say goodnight to me, Mr. Murdoch?”

“I certainly will.”

The boy followed his mother out of the room. Murdoch finished the tea and put down his cup. There was notebook on the table, open at a page covered with pencil marks. Beside it a book,
Isaac Pitman’s Shorthand
. Enid made her living as a typewriter and was presently learning to be a stenographer. She seemed to have been practising, for on the first line she had written her name,
Enid Jones
, and some pencil strokes that Murdoch assumed was shorthand. She’d repeated that a few times, then
Enid Llewellyn
. That must be her maiden name; he’d never thought to ask her what it was. At the bottom of the page, she’d written
Enid Murdoch
. He straightened up in shock, certain he wasn’t supposed to see that and not at all sure what his own response was.

He sat back just in time as Enid came into the room.

“He’s actually very tired,” she said. “Will you give a good-night now?”

“Yes, of course.”

He went to the tiny box room at the end of the landing where Alwyn slept. He bent over, kissed the boy on the forehead, and said, “Nois da.” That was pretty much the extent of his Welsh, but Alwyn murmured something back to him.

Suddenly, the boy reached up and put his arms around Murdoch’s neck and kissed him heartily on the lips.

“Thank you for the present. I’d like to go sledding soon.”

“And so we shall.”

Murdoch pulled the quilt up, feeling suddenly fiercely protective. Alwyn was a highly strung boy who was shy and withdrawn much of the time. He went to the same school as Ben and Agnes Fisher and, for a moment, Murdoch considered asking if he knew them. But then Alwyn smiled and propped himself up on his elbow.

“Mr. Murdoch, Mamma says I can go to watch the typewriting competition tomorrow. Can I sit beside you?”

“The seat is yours,” Murdoch said. “Nois da.” He blew out the candle.

When he returned to the sitting room, he noticed that the notebook had vanished. Enid was at her typewriter, the keys clacking.

“Do you want me to time you?” Murdoch asked.

“Later, perhaps.”

“There’s only one more day to go. How do you feel? Are you nervous?”

“Yes, indeed. I heard today that there’s a man come up from New York to compete. He won the state contest last year.”

“I can’t imagine anybody typing faster than you do.”

“It’s not just speed. I mustn’t make any errors.”

He came over to her and put his arms around her. “Enid, you’re worse than me when I’m preparing for a bicycle race. All you can do is your best.”

She frowned at him. “I don’t care about that. I want to win that fifty dollars and the cup. I don’t mind at all if I do my worst and win.”

He laughed. “Mrs. Jones, the next thing I know you’ll be putting sand in your rivals’ machines.”

He kissed the top of her head. Her hair smelled of the violet-scented pomade she had rubbed in it. She touched his cheek.

“I’m sorry Mrs. Barrett is at home tonight, Will.”

“So am I. Give me a kiss to comfort me.”

She turned around and he held her tightly. What would it be like to be with her all the time? To not have to leave at the dictate of a bad-tempered landlady, he wondered. The notion was oddly disturbing. Liza had been dead for more than two years now and he’d thought he was ready to court another woman. Now he wasn’t so sure.

Enid leaned back and looked into his face. “What is the matter, Will?” She touched his forehead between his eyebrows. “You’ve got your dark look on.”

“Beg pardon, madam.”

“Is it a case?”

“That’s right,” he prevaricated.

Murdoch often told her something about the case he was currently working on, but tonight he couldn’t bear to relate the story of the photograph and Agnes Fisher. It was bad enough that it existed. Enid couldn’t do anything about it and he knew she would only fret. As far as he was concerned, part of his job was to carry the burden of human wickedness. He wasn’t about to share the other personal thoughts either.

She looked as if she were going to protest, but he stopped her with a kiss. Her response was rather cool and she was the first to break away. He didn’t insist. But there was something he could tell her.

“Unfortunately, I do have work on my mind.” He rummaged in his coat pocket and took out the two sheets of paper that Brackenreid had handed to him. “Enid, I wonder if you would type a sentence for me on your machine. I want to compare something.”

It was her turn to seem disappointed, but she made no comment except, “Certainly.”

She went over to the typewriting machine.

“Will you type, ‘I feel it is my duty as a citizen.’”

She did so, almost as fast as he spoke the words.

“Let me see.”

She pulled out the paper and handed it to him. He compared it with the two pieces from Brackenreid. They looked exactly the same. He showed her the letter. “I’m trying to find out who might have written it. The type looks exactly the same as your machine, so that’s not much help. It’s not like handwriting.”

“That’s not quite so. All typewriter operators have a different touch, which is fairly consistent.” She held the letter up to the light. “The typing is very even, no strikeovers at all, and the print is clean and sharp. I would say the operator is professional and is working from a fairly new machine or at least one that is kept in good condition. I’d wager it’s a Remington machine, which is what I have now. My old Caligraph had a different look to it.”

Murdoch grinned at her in astonishment. “Well done, Mrs. Jones. Let me see.”

He looked over her shoulder, leaning his chin lightly.

“Who uses Remingtons?”

“Most offices do these days.”

“All right, madam detective, what else can you tell me about this letter?”

“The paper is copy paper. Look.”

She riffled through the tray of blank papers on her desk and picked out two sheets.

“Invariably, good paper has a letterhead. This one is from Mr. Deacon, my last client, a lawyer. I would send that one out and keep a copy for him for his records. See, it’s slightly thinner paper that has no inscription on the top. Your letter writer, I would say, therefore, is more likely to be a clerk than a private citizen who would not have much use for copy paper.”

Murdoch put his arms around her waist. “How very clever.”

She sighed. “I despise anonymous complainers. What do you think poor Sergeant Seymour has done?”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh dear, let’s hope it’s not serious. He’s your friend, isn’t he?”

“Yes, he is.”

He released her and walked over to the fireplace, standing with his back to it, his feet astride, hands behind him.

“Let’s forget police work…Mrs. Jones, will you be so good as to type a letter?”

She smiled and took up her position at the machine, fingers poised over the keyboard.

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