Name: J. Lawson
Title: Nooks & Crannies
Genre: Middle Grade Historical Mystery
First Five Pages:
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. The cobblestone streets of Village Wiltingshire were made eerie and muted by thick November fog, and clip-clopping carriage horses snorted up and down the road, emerging and fading within moments. Almost like ghosts, Tabitha mused. She made her solitary walk home, kept company by giddy, nervous thoughts of the delivery that had come to Miss Morrow’s classroom minutes before the final bell.
She clutched and rubbed the pretty envelope, letting one fingernail linger at the seam. The two recipients had been given strict instructions by the hand messenger not to open them, but to pass the envelopes to their parents. The glue was of a stubbornly good quality and Tabitha’s nails were of a woefully short length.
That, of course, did not keep her from an innocent scratch or two as she passed the candle shop, two newspaper sellers barking excitedly about something or other, and the sweet scent of the corner bakery.
“It’s as though they’ve sealed it 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.
Licking chapped lips, Tabitha felt a stirring inside her belly unrelated to having eaten a flimsy lunch of broken crackers and watery juice. Ludicrous or not (after all, one doesn’t find a cheerier life beneath maroon wax seals embossed with duos of swans), it was impossible to ignore the tiniest possibility that the envelope might contain… a small bit of light.
Hands shaking 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 only as a child with merit, never as an imposition.
All unlikely scenarios, but enough to resist temptation of ripping into the paper and ruining the illusions with a tooth powder advertisement. Barely, though. More helpful in distraction was the vulgar bellow behind her. A passing bicycle veered close 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 voice.
Wafting alongside the insult were the hideous scents of burned toast and rotting cinnamon. There was only one boy at St. Augustine’s who wore such pungent odors. Sure enough, Tabitha turned to see Barnaby Trundle pedaling a slow circle in the absence of traffic.
“Best to stay home, Drabby Tabby! I’ve heard the place is haunted, and the spirits are hungry for filthy, ratty girls like you.” Barnaby stuck his tongue out as far as it could go.
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. Wiping a brown streak from her face as though it were a harmless butterfly, she forced a smile. “Believe me, Barnaby, I won’t be staying home. I rather think you should, though. I’ve heard most spirits have a fondness for repulsive idiots with no manners, an excess of their father’s hair crème, and an obscene amount of aftershave. I’m afraid they’ll smell you out in a minute.”
Barnaby frowned and took one hand off the handlebars to smooth his locks before disappearing into the fog.
So, he’s opened it. Even soaked as she was, a flutter of excitement coursed through Tabitha’s body. According to 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.
What could it be? A place owned by a woman. Haunted, he’d said, though that bit was clearly rubbish. Hmm…it would be easy enough to find out.
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, dropping the note to her hip.
Tabitha Crum, she scolded herself, you are incorrigibly, incurably good. You must either learn to be sneaky or not mind being caught. 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. And next, a woman will appear, begging me to solve the mysterious disappearance of her second 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. He always did his deducing in a corner booth of his favorite pub, 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 a warm seat and fresh pastry would be awfully nice.
As though agreeing with the thought, Tabitha’s breath sent scone-shaped puffs into the air. She saw Mr. Willoughby, who was seated in his usual spot at the front window table of Puddles Confectionary. He always seemed to be somewhere along her path to school. She waved with her enveloped hand and he raised his eyebrows in concern as two passing men thoughtlessly bumped her aside.
“Two more are floating around somewhere!” one of them said. “Can you imagine? And children, of all people…”
Tabitha picked herself up, slightly rattled. Mr. Willoughby stood, as though to rush outside and help, but she shook her head and kept walking. Nodding, he returned to his biscuit, though his eyes lingered on the sidestreet for a moment.
Tabitha sighed at the dismissive bumper 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.
At precisely half past three, Tabitha found a curious sight outside her home. Her father’s briefcase, her parents’ traveling trunks, and a jewelry case crowded together. Before she could analyze what it might mean (and why none of her things were among the pile), Tabitha heard a squeaky-wheeled cab lurching down the road in her direction. Cabs were not a regular occurrence on Belcher Street. Gripping the envelope closer, she was horrified to feel only fingers rubbing together. Heart plunging all the way to her numb toes, Tabitha looked down.
The envelope was no longer there.
It must have fallen when I got knocked! Turning in haste, she bumped into a tall figure. She stared a moment, astonished, before remembering her manners.
“Oh, hello, Sir. Pardon me, but how do you know where I live?”