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. Parsnips and carrots, she thought. That’s what I’ll slip out of the stew for Pemberly. He won’t like them, of course, but hidden pets cannot be picky. Now that family supper planning was taken care of, Tabitha walked along with her personal thoughts, which were pleasant enough company considering the unexpected delivery that had come to the classroom minutes before the final bell.
In smallish steps that would delay the passage home, she clutched and pinched and rubbed the pretty envelope that had been delivered to just one other classmate, letting her fingernail scratch at the seam. The glue was of a stubbornly good quality, and Tabitha’s nails were of a woefully short length—a poor combination when hoping to surreptitiously open and reseal an object one has been ordered to leave closed.
With only twenty students in her class at St. Augustine’s, the smooth rectangles with maroon wax seals had caused a certain amount of attention. The two recipients had been given strict instructions not to open them, but to pass the envelopes to their parents. And so Tabitha, being quite an obedient child, had resisted the temptation to open it. Besides, if there was anything Tabitha loved, it was a mystery—it was best to let this one hauntingly linger before it turned out to be nothing of consequence.
And doubly besides, the beastly thing wouldn’t be opened unless by tearing the paper.
It was lovely to look at. Tabitha suddenly had an odd urge to give the paper a kiss and place it in a glass frame, where its possibilities would never be rusted or tarnished.
The cobblestone streets of Village Wiltingshire were made eerie and muted by thick fog. It had been creeping up since morning, irritating everyone but the tea shops, which thrived in such weather. Tabitha peered through it, occasionally testing 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 mused. And next, a woman will appear in the mist, begging someone to solve the mysterious haunting of her third cousin’s potting shed. And this secret note in my fingertips will contain a coded message or veiled threat upon both of us.
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 tubby partner, Timothy Tibbles. Try as Tabitha might, though, there were very few clues pointing to what might have prompted this.
The evidence thus far:
-Whatever the contents, they were only meant for two children, not all of them. This selective nature indicated that she and the other recipient held something in common.
-The quality of the paper and seal was clearly high. Tabitha doubted such nice things would be used to deliver low quality correspondence such as an advertisement for tooth powder or puppies.
-Miss Morrow had seemed pleased to give something so special to Tabitha, but seemed genuinely unaware of its meaning. The envelopes had been hand carried by a city-wide messenger service. The boy, in handing the items to her teacher, had no knowledge of the origin either.
-The wax seal was engraved with a lovely lake scene with two swans.
In short, she had very little to work with. It would be easier to think inside a tea shop. Or anyplace warm. Professor Pensive always did his thinking 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 the basic principle remained. Cold dampened the brain’s deduction abilities.
As though placing a mark of approval on the statement, Tabitha’s breath sent puffs of white into the fog. Her cheeks were developing a tart ache and matched a crisp, reddened apple in the hand of the local paper seller on the sidewalk ahead. Both cheeks and fruit were a splash of color in the otherwise grey October afternoon.
“Hello, Mrs. Barrow. Chilly day.”
The woman gave a grim look at the sky. “Something’s brewing. Hello, dear. Anything today?”
Tabitha shook her head. “Not today, thanks.”
“What have you got there?” She bobbed her head at the envelope.
“Not a clue.” Tabitha scooted around the cart. “Have a nice evening.”
“Something’s brewing,” Mrs. Barrow repeated, frowning until her face looked like a wrinkled apple doll.
“Oh, it’s just a bit of fog.”
She began gathering her wares. “You’d best get home quickly, before the path disappears from sight. I’ll be doing the same.”
Tabitha nodded and moved along, half-wishing the path would disappear so that she could open the envelope, later claiming that it could have been a map or instructions to find emergency provisions.
Scratch, scratch. Scratchity-scratch. “It’s as though they 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 and shabby coat, or a combination, Tabitha couldn’t be certain. Perhaps the woman was offended by children as a whole. Rather like her mum and dad.
Scents of lavender from a candle seller and warm bread from a baker reached out to waft sweet hellos in the pillowy air, and 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 and two biscuits. Tabitha noted that they were chocolate, which was quite in order. She’d taken note that he allowed himself biscuits no more than twice a week, and only took chocolate ones on Thursdays. He waved back.
Mr. Willoughby had been taking his tea at Puddles for years. Tabitha had no idea if the elderly man had a job or not, but he was always somewhere along her path to and from school—buying a paper or reading on a bench near the school. Last year was when she finally learned his name, and, since then, they had exchanged pleasantries whenever they passed.
Approximately one block down, a scuffle was attracting calls of attention. As Tabitha grew closer, the invisible squirmish turned into a raggedy dog squirming in a butcher’s angry arms. Bursting free, the animal bumped and dodged pedestrians, weaved in and out of street lanterns, and stopped for a moment in front of Tabitha. From his mangy jaw dangled half of a fat sausage. His tail wagged madly.
“Why, you naughty boy,” she chided in jest. “You’ve gotten yourself an early supper, haven’t you?” The dog whimpered and leaned his head near her leg, waiting to be patted and scratched on the ears.
She leaned down obligingly. “What’s your story, I wonder—are you a runaway from a cruel family? Are you taking this to a wounded friend who’s been desperately hurt by a dastardly enemy? If you were in an Inspector Pensive book, you would be a messenger pup. I ought to hold you to be punished, you know,” she whispered, seeing the charging red-faced butcher. “But I shall give you a bit of a rub and send you off quick.”
But she didn’t have time. The dog scurried off, and the Butcher turned his glare toward Tabitha.