The Droitwich Deceivers (8 page)

L
ucy looked intently at the worn brass plate that was attached to the oak door of the old black and white
three-storey
building. She was standing on the main street of Droitwich; she peered closely and eventually made out the letters Droitwich Advertiser. Confident that she had found the correct address, she pushed open the door, and gradually made her way up the dimly lit flight of creaking steps.

After knocking twice, and receiving no answer, she decided to push open the door. As she entered the room, a large marmalade coloured cat gave out a loud squawk of annoyance as it brushed quickly past her legs and out onto the landing.

‘Good day. Is anyone there?’ Lucy called as she looked at the rows of ancient ledgers that graced every wall of the room, and the piles of untidy books and papers that littered a large desk and the floor. A thin shaft of sunlight stretched across a thread-bare patterned carpet, highlighting a
brown-stained
, chipped teacup and saucer which lay on a box of typeface letters.

‘Sorry, we don’t accept advertisements on Thursdays. You are too late for this week’s issue anyway,’ said a short,
grey-haired
man entering from an inner room.

‘I have not come to place an advertisement, but to make an enquiry,’ replied Lucy hesitantly.

‘Then you will have to go to the library, that’s where all the back copies are kept,’ muttered the man turning away, and searching through one of the stacks of papers on his desk.

‘I was rather hoping you would be able to help me.’

‘Sorry, madam, cannot help you today. Paper has to be printed. Readers to be reached. Advertisers to be pleased. No time to spare. Now where did I put that article on brine,’ said the man speaking in short sharp sentences.

‘Brine?’ enquired Lucy.

‘Salt, my dear lady, salt. The fortunes of Droitwich are based on salt. No salt; no Droitwich. I really must find that article – ah, here we are,’ replied the man holding up the missing sheet of paper with a degree of triumph, before turning on his heel and making his way back into his inner sanctum.

‘If you could but spare me a moment of your precious time sir, I would be most obliged,’ called out Lucy, wondering whether her journey might have been in vain.

‘Time! Time! Time, my dear lady, is something which idle people seek to expand, whereas those of us who are fully engaged attempt to harness,’ uttered the newspaper man with a degree of indignation, as he disappeared from view.

‘It is a police matter, sir.’

A moment’s silence ensued before a face peered round the corner of the inner door. ‘Police matter, you say. Since when have the police employed gentle ladies to conduct their
business
?’

‘I am not actually a member of the police force. It is my husband—’

‘Your husband! Then why is he not here to ask the
questions
?’ demanded the other indignantly.

‘He is busy on a case at the moment. A local girl has gone missing.’

‘Really. A local girl gone missing you say!’ exclaimed the newspaper man returning quickly to the main room. ‘Why on earth did you not mention that before. A missing person indeed! And your husband is leading the enquiry. May I be so bold as to make enquiries regarding the name of your husband, ma’am?’

‘Ravenscroft. Detective Inspector Ravenscroft.’

‘Ravenscroft you say. Now where have I heard that name before? Ravenscroft? Ravenscroft? Ah yes, I have it. Worcester. Cathedral. Lost book. Missing librarian. A year or so ago. Nasty business if I recall. Well my dear lady, a missing girl you say? That changes everything. Indeed. Do please take a seat. You must tell me all about it,’ said the man
vigorously
brushing away a gathering of papers that littered the seat of an old wooden chair.

‘Thank you,’ said Lucy encouraged by the other’s interest.

‘Now if you would kindly pause a moment, Mrs Ravenscroft, whilst I secure pen and paper. The name is Shorter. Clement Shorter. Editor, reporter, printer,
advertising
manager, and proprietor of the Droitwich Advertiser at your service,’ said the newspaperman wiping an ink stained hand on his leather apron, before extending it in Lucy’s direction. ‘I am very pleased to make your
acquaintance
, ma’am.’

‘And I yours, Mister Shorter,’ replied a relieved Lucy, as her hand was vigorously shaken by the newspaperman.

‘Disappearing girl you say? In Droitwich? Surprised I have not been informed before. Local story you say? Not much happens in Droitwich of a dramatic nature. This will interest our readers greatly. If we are very quick and industrious, I am sure we could include it in this week’s issue. That gardening
item wasn’t of a particular interest anyway. It will not be missed. Never been able to understand why people are so
interested
in their gardens. If one is fully occupied, there is no time for a garden, I say. Cannot see the point in them. You have a garden, Mrs Ravenscroft? No? Very sensible. Gardens – a complete waste of time and effort. Alas, hardly a month goes by in the spring and summer when I can avoid a visit to some dreary flower show or other. I would avoid it if I could, but people expect it of one. Improves the sales of the newspaper if they purchase that week’s copy in order to see their name in print – “Mr Jones was the winner of the prize marrow catagory; Mrs Brown’s floral display exceeded all expectations”. Mundane to say the least,’ sighed Shorter returning to his desk.

‘Mr Shorter, it is not my husband’s case that has bought me here today,’ interrupted Lucy.

‘Oh my dear Mrs Ravenscroft, I hope you are not going to disappoint me? It has been such a long time since the Droitwich Advertiser has been able to report anything of great criminal interest. Ah here we are!’ exclaimed the
newspaper
man suddenly holding a pen and paper up high. ‘That which is lost has been found! The errant sheep returns to the fold, as they say.’

‘I’m afraid I cannot tell you anything about the disappearance, because I know very little about it. As I said, my husband is occupied in investigating the case, and I have come here today on an entirely different errand,’ said Lucy anxious to turn the conversation away from her husband’s activities.

‘I see. What a pity,’ muttered Shorter looking somewhat crestfallen as he fell back into his seat. ‘Another hope dashed! Another avenue closed! Such a promising expectation now demoted to the file labelled “great stories that might have been”. That is a shame, my dear Mrs Ravenscroft, a great shame.’

‘It is a matter of some importance concerning an
advertisement
that was placed in your paper some months ago,’ said Lucy trying to sound encouraging. ‘The advertisement was placed by a lady of the name Huddlestone, who was seeking to adopt a young infant to bring up as her own.’

‘Advertisement you say? This enquiry of yours is of a police nature?’ asked the newspaper editor, raising his eyebrows as he leaned forwards in his seat.

‘It may well turn out to be a police matter, Mr Shorter.’

‘Well you should have said earlier! Police matter you say. Perhaps one’s expectations are not dashed after all. Advertisement placed by one Huddlestone,’ said Shorter rising enthusiastically from his chair. ‘Seeking child to acquire as her own, you say. Placed a few months ago. Could you perhaps be more precise as to the date, Mrs Ravenscroft?’

‘I believe the advertisement may have been placed around October of last year.’

‘Last October you say. Let me see,’ said Shorter striding over to a nearby bookcase and energetically turning over a large pile of newspapers. ‘Yes, here we are. This file should contain last autumn’s papers. We should be able to find what you are looking for.’

‘Can I be of any assistance?’ asked Lucy.

‘Nothing to concern you, my dear lady,’ replied the editor brushing aside a pile of papers and books on his desk, before banging down the file of newspapers on to the dusty surface. ‘Advertisement in the name of Huddlestone. Now where are my glasses? Eyes not so good as they once were. Always losing them. Must be here somewhere. Confound it! Perhaps I left them in the other room?’

‘I believe your spectacles are to be found on top of your head Mr Shorter,’ said Lucy trying to sound helpful.

‘My head?’ said Shorter looking perplexed.

‘Your spectacles, on top of your head,’ repeated Lucy pointing.

‘Head? Yes of course. How silly of me. Must have placed them there earlier. Such a nuisance, but an essential nuisance I grant you. Now let me see. First week in October. Anything there?’ said the editor replacing the glasses on the end of his nose, before turning over the first few pages of the issue on top of the pile, and running his finger down one of the pages. ‘Man seeking lost dog. Women’s Christian Association Monthly Meeting, Liver Pills. Droitwich Temperance. Mundane all of it! Mundane! No, nothing there I’m afraid. Let us try the following week. I am sure we will find it there somewhere. Huddlestone you say? Ah, here we are. “Lady mourning for the sudden loss of her own infant child, offers good home and upbringing for unwanted child. Name of Huddlestone.” How very sad, very sad, and how very Christian. Therein lies a story, no doubt.’

‘Does the advertisement give an address, or any further details?’ asked Lucy rising from her seat and crossing over eagerly to where the newspaper man stood.

‘Box Number!’ pronounced Shorter.

‘Box Number. What does that mean?’

‘It means that anyone who wishes to reply to the
advertisement
should write a letter to the box number stated, care of this newspaper.’

‘And what would happen next?’

‘Well, we usually wait a few days, to see if there are a number of replies, then we forward them all on to the person who placed the advertisement, and that is the end of the matter as far as we are concerned. It is then up to the
advertiser
and those who have replied to correspond with one another, should they so wish.’

‘It seems rather a long drawn-out process,’ said Lucy. ‘Why
shouldn’t advertisers give their own addresses in the first place?’

‘Privacy. Privacy, my dear Mrs Ravenscroft. Some of our readers and advertisers wish to conduct their affairs in a discreet and personal manner. Why, to give one’s own address in the public domain, is to open one not only to social ridicule, but also to every kind of theft and skulduggery. Believe me my dear lady when I tell you that the world is full of those who are more than anxious to take advantage of another’s good intentions,’ pronounced Shorter shaking his head.

‘I see. Tell me Mr Shorter, do you still have the address of the person who placed this advertisement,’ asked Lucy
hopefully
.

‘Highly unlikely – but not impossible,’ replied Shorter peering over the top of his spectacles in Lucy’s direction.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, we usually retain advertisers’ addresses for a few weeks or so, so that we can forward the replies onto them – then I’m afraid we usually discard them, that is if we are fortunate enough to find them again.’

‘You say “we”. I was given to understand that the
enterprise
was entirely your own?’

‘Why, yes indeed. I use the term ‘we’ out of professional familiarity. It sounds so much better to suggest that there are more than one of us – but alas there is only my poor
presence
here to keep the fires of the free press in Droitwich burning brightly in this world of darkened skies of
mediocrity
and ignorance,’ replied Shorter looking downcast.

‘I am sorry for it,’ said Lucy sympathetically. ‘You must find your work arduous and lonely?’

‘At times, my dear lady, but then there are always people calling upon one with snippets of news which they consider may be of interest to our readers, people placing
advertisements
,
people like yourself making enquiries, people wanting you to attend their meetings or flower shows, people wanting to provide interviews. In fact, when I come to think of it, there is never a dull moment. There is always the paper to be produced, once every week. Time, as I said earlier my dear Mrs Ravenscroft, can be the enemy, always seeking to undermine one with its relentless march ever onwards, unless of course it can be mastered to one’s personal will. No, one is never lonely. There is always Clarence for company.’

‘Clarence?’ asked Lucy intrigued.

‘Clarence. You may well have encountered him on the stairs as you came in.’

‘Oh, yes, the cat.’

‘Clarence, such a good example of the frustrating feline fraternity – indifferent to one’s feelings one minute,
inspirational
the next. You have a cat, Mrs Ravenscroft? No I think not. Such contradictory creatures. Useful for preserving the papers from the ravages of the mice – such spiritual creatures, but Clarence can be quite unsettling at other times.’

‘Do you think it may be possible for you to find the address of the advertiser?’ asked Lucy anxious to steer the
conversation
back to the matter in hand.

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