Name: J. Lawson
Title: Nooks & Crannies
Genre: Middle Grade Historical Mystery
Just past three o’clock in the afternoon, when schools across South London were releasing much-adored children by the bucketful, Tabitha Crum was let into the cold as well. She quietly dodged the usual groups that shoved and laughed their way through St. Augustine’s iron schoolgates. The cobblestone streets of Village Wiltingshire were made eerie and muted by a thick November fog, and clip-clopping carriage horses snorted up and down the street, emerging and fading within moments. Almost like ghosts, Tabitha mused. She made her solitary walk home, kept company by giddy, nervous thoughts of the unexpected delivery to Miss Morrow’s classroom.
She clutched and rubbed the pretty envelope, letting one fingernail linger at the seam. The two recipients had been given strict instructions by the messenger boy to pass the envelopes to their parents.
That, of course, did not keep her from an innocent scratch or two as she passed the village bakery, the candle shop, and a newspaper seller barking excitedly about something or other. The mysterious contents, sadly, were not inclined to be opened other than by tearing the paper.
“It’s as though they’ve sealed it together with spite,” Tabitha muttered to herself, earning an offended glance from a passing elderly lady. Whether it was the remark, her outgrown uniform, or a combination, Tabitha couldn’t be certain. Perhaps the woman was offended by children as a whole. Rather like her mum and dad.
To open it or not? If there was anything Tabitha loved, it was a mystery. But if there was anything she wanted, it was a bit of excitement. And if there was anything that she ached for, it was... a true sense of belonging. Ludicrous or not (one doesn’t find adventure or friendship or acceptance underneath maroon wax seals embossed with a duo of swans), it was impossible to ignore the miniscule possibility that the envelope might contain some remedy to both.
With a hand shaking both from chill and an unfamiliar amount of hope, she lifted the envelope to her nose and took a long sniff. It smelled faintly of flowers.
A summons from Scotland Yard to become an Inspector-In-Training.
An invitation from King Edward to attend a horse race.
Notification from a long-lost relative that actually wants me around and waxes poetically about how I will be seen as a child with merit, never as an imposition.
All unlikely scenarios, but enough to resist the temptation of tearing into the paper and ruining the illusions with an advertisement for tooth powder. Barely, though. More helpful in distraction was the vulgar bellow behind her. A passing bicycle veered close to the sidestreet and sprayed Tabitha with filthy water left by a midday storm.
“Your envelope is bound to be a mistake—there’s no way she’ll let you in!” yelled a horrid and familiar voice. “Best to stay home, Drabby Tabby! I’ve heard the place is haunted, anyway, and the spirits are hungry for filthy, ratty girls like you.” Barnaby Trundle stuck his tongue out as far as it could go before disappearing around a corner.
Tabitha flushed and thought of exactly seven things that she would like to do to her classmate, one involving a rather nasty collision with a refuse wagon.
So, he’s opened his. According the Barnaby, her envelope was a mistake. Based on the boy’s foul nature, the contents were sure to be something quite good (despite the silly mention of vengeful spirits). Well done, Detective Crum.
There was a moment, one brief moment, where the act of disobedience hung in the air like a cupcake, waiting to be fetched and gobbled up. The envelope lifted, as though on its own accord, and Tabitha saw her finger rise. Carefully, deliciously, she held her breath and began a tiny tear at the corner.
She sighed regrettably, dropping the note to her side. It would have to wait for Mr. or Mrs. Crum.
Tabitha Crum, she scolded herself, you are incorrigibly, incurably good. You must either learn to be sneaky some day or not mind being caught. Otherwise, life will remain quite as grey as this day. A second voice crept into her mind, scolding back. But they’ll never grow to love you if you can’t even obey simple rules.
Tabitha reluctantly agreed with both of the voices and peered through the mist, occasionally testing it with her free hand, pressing and flicking at whiteness that always seemed to be just a step ahead.
It’s almost like something in a Professor Pensive novel, she thought. And next, a woman will appear, begging me to solve the mysterious disappearance of her third cousin’s potting shed.
Professor Pensive always knew the answers to puzzling questions. ‘Every curious situation leaves signs of its origin, Tibbs’ he was known to say to his portly partner, Timothy Tibbs.
It would be easier to deduce the contents inside a tea shop. Or anyplace warm. Professor Pensive always did his deducing in a corner booth of his favorite pub, tucked away near the a cheerfully blazing hearth, sipping port and chewing pensively on his pocket watch chain. Tabitha had no desire to drink port and no money to buy a pocket watch, but tea and a scone would be nice.
As though agreeing with the thought, Tabitha’s breath sent scone-shaped puffs of white into the fog. She nodded at Mr. Willoughby, who was seated in his usual spot at the front window table of Puddles Confectionary, receiving a cup of tea, two biscuits, and the afternoon paper. He always seemed to be somewhere along her path to and from school. Since learning his name last year, they had exchanged pleasantries upon passing.
She waved with her enveloped hand and he raised his eyebrows in concern as two passing men thoughtlessly bumped her to the ground.
“Two more letters are floating around somewhere!” one of them said. “Can you imagine? After all this time? And children, of all people…”
Mr. Willoughby stood, as though to rush outside and help, but she smiled brightly and shook her head. He went back to his paper reading.
Tabitha picked herself up, sighing at the dismissive Bumpers and at the memory of Barnaby’s last words. She was filthy. Skinny and filthy and knobby-kneed and wearing a raggedy coat, which probably placed her in the street urchin category to the general public. Red welts, courtesy of Barnaby’s daily spitballs, were still visible on the bit of bare neck visible underneath the short, blunt-scissored haircut her mother had been giving her once a month since her eleventh birthday.
A bath would be nice, but it wasn’t a Tuesday or Friday, which meant that she would do the best she could, washing her stained knees in the bathroom sink.
Upon arriving home, Tabitha noticed her father’s briefcase in the outdoor entryway. That was rather unusual for a Thursday at 4:00 in the afternoon.
And it wasn’t just his briefcase. One of her mother’s traveling trunks, a jewelry case, and a hat box were piled together as well. Had she been in a slightly more observant mood, Tabitha might have noticed that a horse-drawn cab was lurching down the road in her direction.
And she might have noticed that the envelope was no longer in her hand.
And she might have noticed that a man had been following her down the walkway for the last five minutes.
Instead, she reached her key into the lock. Just as she twisted the door knob, she was halted by an urgent tapping on her back. She turned, staring in astonishment at the face behind her.